26 September 2009

A collection of rants, being the First of several

Here, dear reader, are reproduced for your amusement (and, dare I hope, your edification) a selection of mini-essays penned in my early youth upon the delightfully tactile rough cream paper of handmade notebooks. In those days my zeal burned hotter, undiluted by a cool, objective distance from my subject matter. It was a time when I mistook repetitiveness for assertiveness, hectoring for arguing, moralism for morality. The somewhat screeching tone of these essays does embarrass me now, though many of the principles held forth still retain my loyalty and devotion. Those were impetuous days when I was more likely to be scratching out early drafts with a pen rather than tapping them out straight-to-keyboard as I currently do (my romantic pretensions evaporated long ago). I would like to think that I have mellowed since then. Old age does that to you.

This first collection of essays was presumably written in early/mid 2007. I didn’t start dating my essays until late 2007, when I decided that it would be useful to have a record of the progress and evolution of both my writing style/technique and my ideas. The essays are presented in chronological order – that is, in the order of when I wrote them in my notebooks.

* * *

The philosopher David Hume’s argument that we can only ever know anything through the senses and that even abstract thoughts/ideas are simply sensations transformed supports my belief that nothing original is created in our dreams. Every single image in our dreams has come from our sense-experiences, whether consciously or unconsciously stored away in our brains. This is comparable to a massive playlist that is on ‘shuffle’ or ‘random play’ except that instead of music, it is a playlist of images, sensations, emotions.

There is nothing new that is spontaneously invented in dreams, unless by ‘new’ we mean a random combination of pre-existing images in our mental database, our playlist. As Hume elaborates, complex ideas of things that do not physically exist (like unicorns) can be conceived only because simpler ideas (like horses and horned animals) are combined in our minds, thus producing an idea or concept with no actual material existence.

This explains the stranger elements in our dreams, like Dali-esque melting clocks. We have the idea of a clock and the idea of a melting object in our ‘playlist’ and so the two are combined in the example given above. If a person – say a primitive inhabitant of an undiscovered village deep in the Amazon jungle – has never seen or experienced a clock, he will not dream of melting clocks. He could dream of melting trees but his mind is incapable of creating the idea of a clock – one recognisable to us moderns – because there has never been a sensory input of a clock. You only get out what you put in.

* * *

The rational principles:
  1. Do not generalise, even for the sake of convenience. Always bear in mind that exceptions to the rule exist. Stereotypes, blanket judgments, flippant categorisation and convenient pigeon-holing contradict reality.
  2. Do not indulge in mysticism, superstition, wild claims unsubstantiated by objective facts, propaganda and spin, half-truths (a ridiculous contradiction, like ‘half-pregnant’), any ideology or declaration built on shaky foundations compromised by unreason and irrationality.
  3. Do not sacrifice a higher value for a lower one or a non-value, based on your hierarchy of values. Beware self-deception with its seductive call to compromise on your reasonable, rational principles.
  4. Act in your own interest with your genuine happiness and flourishing as your goal.
  5. Recognise the inherent irrationality in relying on your physical appearance as an indicator of your moral, human worth. In matters of sexual attraction, to want someone to like you for who you are as a person by using your appearance as the bait is a failure in logic. Focus instead on cultivating an attractive mind, i.e. character/personality.
  6. Reality consists of all the information, knowledge and sensory experiences available to you in this present moment, right now. The past and the future exist only in your mind, the former in the form of memories and the latter in the form of imaginary projections and expectations. The real, the concrete, the tangible, are only ever accessible to you in the Now, this present moment.
  7. Subjectivity and relativism practised uncritically are poor grounds for a standard of morality and ethics. These values support an ‘anything goes’ morality which does not promote those principles that nourish a healthy, happy society, such as justice, personal responsibility, autonomy, respectful and rational relations between people.

    By allowing any belief or cultural practice as valid expressions of subjective values, we allow people to commit irrational, unreasonable acts that result in everything from violence and death to oppression of others and the slow diminishing of the value of life itself.

    We must call Irrationality and Unreason by their names if immoral acts are perpetrated because of them and condemn such acts and their actors accordingly.
  8. Quantity does not equal truth. Though the majority refuse to exercise their distinctively human faculty of reason, their irrational, stupid values do not gain validity simply through sheer weight of numbers. Reason is the determinant of true values, not the number of a value’s proponents.
  9. Beware the effect that fictions via popular media can have on your level of connection and engagement with the real world in its totality of successes and failures, joys and sorrows, good and evil. Too easily fictions – in literature, film, pop culture – serve only to distract us from using our consciousness to the fullest of our personal capability.

    We abdicate our human responsibility to grow and further develop our moral character when we seek to be entertained more than to be informed, to be distracted from the acquisition of knowledge and objective truth rather than being encouraged to pursue them. Fictions do play an essential role in our experience of life, but their influence should not be disproportionately greater than the influence of the real.
  10. If you claim to value life, you must condemn those who destroy life. Otherwise you contradict your supposed principle and are thus a hypocrite. To condemn is not to annihilate but rather to criticise with sufficient conviction and force backed by the application of reason and facts. In matters of morality and ethics we must judge and be prepared to be judged, not blindly follow that popular maxim ‘judge not lest ye be judged’.

    We must call to account those guilty of destroying or diminishing the value of life through their irrationality and lack of reasonable grounds for their actions and beliefs. To avoid doing so is to be complicit in the suffering and death caused by such fools.
  11. To be human is to think
    To think is to have choice
    To have choice is to be a moral agent
    To be a moral agent is to have values
    To have the right values conducive to one’s happiness and flourishing is to use one’s reason
    To reason well is to live well
  12. To discover objective truths requires effort and a focused consciousness using reason as its lens. We abdicate our intellectual, philosophical and moral responsibility as rational beings when we either solely or predominantly rely on ‘revealed’ truths from a mystical source, a higher authority (there can be no higher authority than your own powers of reason) or biased information from a source that has something to gain from peddling lies and spin.

    Direct the lens of Reason onto all information and knowledge that you absorb and thus reveal what is fact and what is a lie. This is practising the Sanskrit word ‘satyagraha’ – holding on to truth.

* * *

So long as we inhabit a world that is far from being a peaceful utopia, nations have the right to maintain a military as a defence and deterrent against unprovoked attack. Yet the military’s integrity is severely compromised when barbaric practices, like violent initiation rituals involving bullying, domination and humiliation of new recruits, are permitted or casually trivialised as harmless rites-of-passage or tradition.

What kind of a soldier do we create when we beat, abuse, ridicule, even torture them as an introduction to a career – a calling – that requires them to defend worthy values like freedom, the rule of law, mutual respect and the sovereign dignity of the individual? Should we be surprised when soldiers proceed to commit terrible acts of brutality against innocents in the midst of war, when any shred of nobility has been driven, beaten, out of them during their indoctrination in the methods and principles of the warrior?

Unless the systemic bullying and brutalising of recruits is condemned and stopped, there will remain a dark, evil seed waiting to germinate in the institution that should rightfully keep safe and secure the people and noble values it was created to protect and uphold.

* * *

Why do the masses idolise paper cut-out ‘heroes’ of pop culture when there are exemplary individuals like Socrates and Anna Politkovskaya – who died defending truth and freedom of thought – serving as far worthier personalities to admire and emulate? Such ‘mahatmas’ abound in our turbulent history, stars flickering even during the darkest, clouded night of Unreason’s reign, and yet we pander to the bottomless egos of the vapid, vacuous and vain while burying their intellectual and moral betters under a torrent of corporate propaganda masquerading as cultural news.

A certain amount of osmosis of trash values becomes inevitable, especially given the juggernaut of gossip, images, stories and miscellaneous information that assaults the mind daily. And just as plant cells absorb the colour of dyed water, osmosis of idiocy occurs when the absorbent mind is swimming in a sea of idiotic values.

We have a chance of hitting only the target that we aim for. So far as a person is blind to the right target, he would not even consider aiming for it, much less hitting it. Ignorance of those traits evident in the character of ‘great souls’ past and present and of the values they cherished enough to risk their lives for is an intellectual, moral and social tragedy. So long as a person persistently aims only at those targets that do nothing but gratify his lust for the magic dust of celebrity, he will remain an intellectual and moral dwarf next to the giants who built the house of Freedom, Knowledge and Progress in which he now takes comfortable shelter, oblivious to the courageous efforts of his benefactors.

* * *

At last, a clarification: God does exist. It is pointless to deny this; simply observe the multitude of religious icons, structures and rituals, and the fervent conviction of millions of believers when they speak of their God and what He means to them on a deep, personal level. To insist that God does not exist is like insisting that bigotry, or corruption, or environmental degradation does not exist. All these things, including God, are certainly not to be callously discounted.

This clarification is provided by the German philosopher and anthropologist Ludwig Andreas Feuerbach; it isn’t that God does not exist, but more pertinently, what kind of God is this that does exist? Another philosopher provides an answer. Simply put, this God is “a fabrication, a creation by men, a fiction that obeys particular laws – in this case projection and hypostasis. Men create God in their own inverted image.” (Michel Onfray, The Atheist Manifesto, 2005)

God exists in the same sense that Santa Claus, Mickey Mouse and the Tooth Fairy exist. They are all out there, manifested in the world and in the consciousness of millions of people, yet ultimately not real.

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