Saturday, December 08, 2007

My Philosophy

First, let's clear up terms. When I say my philosophy I mean that spectrum of beliefs that constitute my vision of the good life rather than my political beliefs about the ordering of society, although there is almost certainly some interaction between the two. Political philosophy is important but I'll use the generic 'philosophy' for more internal thought for now. It'll make things easier.

I rarely write about my philosophy and only discuss it in earnest occasionally. By contrast, it is both my job, which I love, and my hobby to expound my political beliefs. I think this might partly be because my political views are well within the conservative mainstream whereas my philosophy is, as far as I know, absolutely unique. I follow Chris Dillow's advice and hold my most radical beliefs most lightly. There's more to it than that though. I think that if more people held my political beliefs the world would be a better place. I'm not so sure about my philosophy. What do you think?


I'd rather not know. I don't see much evidence for a God but I also don't see much evidence that there is no God. Dawkins' spaghetti monster analogy is misleading. In the absence of evidence to settle a question - whether it is the question of the existence of a spaghetti monster or a God - we resort to Occam's Razor and atheism is the result of Dawkins' answer to the question "what is the simplest explanation of the world around us". However, it is far from the only plausible answer. I don't feel the existence of a deity so don't consider myself to believe in God but I wouldn't rule it out as an atheist should.

However, I'm not quite an agnostic. I don't just not know whether there is a God. I don't want to know. In my present state of ignorance I can see two possibilities:

1) There is a God, but he wants me to think for myself. If God really wanted me to follow received wisdom then I really think he would have left a more thorough guide than a single - now rather opaque - book and a lot of often deeply flawed preachers. The Bible is an impressive work of literature but if you compare the work He has clearly put into that with the real marvel - the human brain and mind - it pales.

The human brain is the most complex arrangement of matter in the known universe and the mind an unparalled inspiration. As such, I think that if there is a God he hasn't given me my own moral judgement as some kind of afterthought or as a challenge to be overcome in order to follow true, received wisdom. I think God would want me to think for myself rather than follow a proscribed set of Commandments. I cannot imagine a God who was truly great, worth following who wanted me to do the right thing for fear of Hell or in the hope of being rewarded with Heaven.

If I knew that He existed I might be tempted to do the right or wrong thing in order to please him. Now, suppose he is wrong? Should I do the right thing because I'm afraid of Hell? Cowardice. Should I do the right thing in order to get into Heaven? I'm not opposed to the profit motive but I'm not going to trade my fundamental beliefs.

I think I'm best off not knowing.

2) There isn't a God. I'm left with the same question. How should I construct my moral code? The question of God's existence doesn't seem morally important.

How should I construct my moral code?

In this situation the important question is whether you wish to believe in nothing and either try to construct a rational belief system - unfortunately these can too often be a house of cards - give up on meaning, seek comfort and risk the sad fate of the last man or choose, for yourself, your beliefs without the crutch of deity or logic. I think the final one of those three options is the best. Rationality requires premises to work from and a life without meaning is a sad one.

"If we have our own why in life, we shall get along with almost any how"
- Friedrich Nietzsche, Twilight of the Idols

I need to work out what I value, my why.

What do I value?

The human mind. Mine and others'. Its creativity, ability to question, learn and relate. The mind is truly amazing. Exploring such potential, and creating a space for others to do the same, is great and requires no external justification.

If I have lived a life where I have seen where my mind can take me; had a full experience of the minds of others - high creativity from afar or good conversation up close; and defended a society in which the free expression and development of the product of the mind is not just permitted but encouraged that seems eminently worthwhile. I don't need more meaning than that.

The Stoics

"You desire to LIVE "according to Nature"? Oh, you noble Stoics, what fraud of words! Imagine to yourselves a being like Nature, boundlessly extravagant, boundlessly indifferent, without purpose or consideration, without pity or justice, at once fruitful and barren and uncertain: imagine to yourselves INDIFFERENCE as a power--how COULD you live in accordance with such indifference? To live--is not that just endeavouring to be otherwise than this Nature? Is not living valuing, preferring, being unjust, being limited, endeavouring to be different?"
- Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil

Nietzsche wasn't terribly enamoured of the Stoics. For good reason: His philosophy is all purpose and drive; will. Theirs is a reconciling to nature, indifference. However, just as in political philosophy where liberalism and conservatism's alliance on the Right allows both to escape their weaknesses I see a similar, necessary, combination that makes both Stoicism and Nietzsche's philosophy functional.

I take from Nietzsche the essential challenge of the good life - to compose and live by a system of values that are my own and I can reconcile myself to (eternal recurrence is one test). However, how one lives up to that challenge is a question left largely unanswered by Nietzsche. How can a person resist the temptations of an easy, rather than good, life? How can you fight off the temptation to obsess about the qualities or opinions of others?

I can’t think of better guides than the Stoics. Here are a few samples, all from one – quite short – book:

"At dawn, when you are having trouble getting out of bed, tell yourself: "I have to go to work - as a human being. What do I have to complain of, if I'm going to do what I was born for - the things I was brought into the world to do? Or is this what I was created for? To huddle under the blankets and stay warm?

- But it's nicer here...

So you were born to feel "nice"? Instead of doing things and experiencing them?"

“When you run up against someone else’s shamelessness, ask yourself this: Is a world without shamelessness possible?

No. Then don’t ask the impossible. There have to be shameless people in the world. This is one of them.

The same for someone vicious or untrustworthy, or with any other defect. Remembering that the whole class has to exist will make you more tolerant of its members.”

“Remember: you shouldn’t be surprised when a fig tree produces figs, nor the world what it produces. A good doctor isn’t surprised when his patients have fevers, or a helmsman when the wind blows against him.”

“Remember that to change your mind and to accept correction are free acts too. The action is yours, based on your own will, your own decision – and your own mind.”

"If you do the job in a principled way, with diligence, energy and patience, if you keep yourself free of distractions, and keep the spirit inside you undamaged, as if you might have to give it back at any moment -

If you can embrace this without fear or expectation - can find fulfilment in what you're doing now, as Nature intended, and in superhuman truthfulness (every word, every utterance) - then your life will be happy.

No one can prevent that."
– Marcus Aurelius, Meditations

In my own way I have come to Nietzsche’s challenge – to build my own system of values from premises I am aware of and happy with. The teachings of the Stoics have not taught me indifference in general but, rather, indifference to those aspects of life that are – in the end – trivial but are always easy to obsess over.

Of course, all this is a vision – life is imperfect and I am no saint – but it matters nonetheless.


Anonymous said...

The whole question about "God" seems to me to be a dumbing-down of any real intellectual attempt to understand the universe.

A far more relevant question is 'What is Time?'

Very very very few people have grasped the implications of recent experiments in "Time Travel", whereby a laser was sent a fraction of a second into the past.

This is concrete proof that we can travel to the past. But stop there: No, I'm not talking about Time Machines and such Sci-Fi trivia, think rather of what that scientific fact tells us

It tells us that our perception of the past as being something that existed is false. Rather, the past is something that exists

As I write this comment it is going on for a quarter to four o'clock. By the time you read it both our conscious perceptions, due to their linear nature in relation to Time, will have moved on. Yet I will always be writing this comment at a quarter to Four on Saturday the 8th of December 2007. In effect we exist in a multitude of "whens", even though our conscious perception can only occupy one "where"

Of course, there is also the question of whether Time & Space (and our own "When & Wheres") can survive the end of the Universe, but nobody's really sure about what the Universe is or what shape it is or where it is going yet, so that one has to be put on hold for the time being

But this in itself should give us far more productive things to mull over regarding our existence than "Is there a God", in my opinion.

Matt M said...

Any links to information on this experiment?

Anonymous said...

Not handy, no. Unfortunately googling for it comes up with a vast amount of other stuff.

purplepangolin said...

This article references the experiment I think you are refering to. Did a google search for "laser time travel one second past" without the quotes.

purplepangolin said...

better link here .

Anonymous said...

These comments are surely in reply to a different kind of question than that being asked by Matt. The question of existence of God, at least in so far as Matt approached it, seems driven by a desire not so much to understand the world, as to understand one's place in it ; or to phrase that in another way, was seeking not so much to establish what to expect of the world, but what ought to be expected of himself.

Matt, I've expressed with you before my near correlation with your perspective on now wanting to know what God's thinking, and being free to act appropriately, as you believe you ought. Nonetheless, the existence of God wouldn't lead to the conclusion that you ought to seek to please Him or in the alternative evade his punishment and act in fear, driven by cowardice ; rather it would be entirely possible to remain free, and independent in thought and action, and still choose to act in a particular manner out of Love, driven by your belief and your spontaneous intention to enter into a relationship with Him.

As such, and as I read it, your logic only extends so far as not knowing how God would reconcile fundamental questions, such as to allow people to follow His code in a self - seeking manner. It is not entirely contradictory to follow a personal code, while holding true, and even as fundamental, the existence of God.

Regardless of whether you personally accept or reject the existence of God, surely what is more significant is that whichever conclusion is reached it doesn't warp one's rational conclusion as to what is the right and moral path to follow.