Monday, February 14, 2011

Poking at the Giant Eyes of Ancient Gods

But up to now the moral law has been supposed to stand above our own likes and dislikes: one did not want to actually impose this law upon oneself, one wanted to take it from somewhere or discover it somewhere or have it commanded to one from somewhere.

- Nietzsche

In conversation with Shanna the other day, the topic of Carl Jung's work came up. I casually mentioned that I wasn't much of a fan of his (or of his follower Joseph Campbell). Impudent as always, she wanted to know what exactly I didn't like about him. Grumbling and grousing at having my authoritative pronouncements questioned, I named a few things. But while looking for a remembered citation on Wikipedia, I saw a brief paragraph that largely encapsulated my answer for me:

Jung's work on himself and his patients convinced him that life has a spiritual purpose beyond material goals. Our main task, he believed, is to discover and fulfill our deep innate potential, much as the acorn contains the potential to become the oak, or the caterpillar to become the butterfly. Based on his study of Christianity, Hinduism, Buddhism, Gnosticism, Taoism, and other traditions, Jung perceived that this journey of transformation, which he called individuation, is at the mystical heart of all religions. It is a journey to meet the self and at the same time to meet the Divine. Unlike Sigmund Freud, Jung thought spiritual experience was essential to our well-being.

Achoo! *Sniff* Sorry, Plato's overpowering cologne always makes me sneeze.

I had an elderly neighbor once who constantly urged me to read Campbell, and when I did, I realized why she was always giving me a hard time for supposedly failing to fulfill my talent as a writer or musician. To her, I was being a petulant acorn. The Little Engine That Wouldn't. I had been given this gift, didn't I see, and I was being dishonest to myself and depriving the universal spirit of my contribution to the whole by refusing to see how much I could maximize my potential. I knew she meant well, but it was hard not to be offended by what struck me as a slightly arrogant position. Who exactly was she to tell me what I should be doing with my life? Just because she thought it was a "waste" to live a nondescript life in a small town with my girlfriend and her kid, it was now a universal edict? Did I get any say in what I wanted to make of my life and how I wanted to arrange the various components in order of importance? I didn't want to be a Hero; I just wanted to be a cipher, to live unseen and enjoy my ordinary life.

This is what I don't like about Jung, or Plato, or anybody who cares more about generalizations over particulars, composites over individuals. I don't understand this idea that the greatest thing, the ultimate achievement, is to submerge your identity in some oceanic whole. It makes me think I'm listening to moths rhapsodizing about the flame. I know that this limited perspective that we call our individual identity has no permanent, underlying essence to it, but I love it all the same.

And I don't understand this urge to shrug off the yoke of responsibility for what we do with our lives and seek to fall into some preordained pattern, some preexisting script, where we just have to show up and let destiny take care of the rest. Well, actually, I suppose I understand it, but I don't respect it. You're not in sole control of your life, of course, but you are in charge of deciding what constitutes living well, and doing your best to embody it.

There is no moral imperative here. Your life is yours to fulfill or waste as you see fit. Sometimes I think we act like we're driving cars with no brakes; we only ever stop mindlessly accelerating when we hit something. But not every dream is obligated to become a goal. Not every talent is destined to lead to riches and recognition. And abstention can be just as much evidence of wisdom and self-mastery as failure of nerve.


  1. abstention can be just as much evidence of wisdom and self-mastery
    So you are achieving your potential by stubbornly not achieving it? Did I ever tell you my sister, the doctor, actually said, "What could you have been?", when I told her that smoking pot had not affected me adversely? It took some effort to hold my tongue (it was a birthday party or something).
    "Spiritual purpose" is only meaningful if one wants it to be. I'm amused by your - what, materialism? I like being in between the cynic and the mystic. It seems like people like Campbell think that if they build a strong enough structure, it won't matter that it's on sand. I say be the sand. And so I shift my thinking when I have too, but nothing crumbles.

  2. I'm sure that somewhere I'm on record as saying that it's not necessary to strive. Thank goodness, or I might have gotten my noggin knocked by you petulant acorns. ;)

    I guess my main question is, isn't it kinda boring without an aim, a vision, a goal? I know I'm pretty type A, but what do you do with yourself?

    But I do admit is simply a paradigm, albeit the dominant one. I recently told someone that I don't have hobbies. I have sidelines. It's like I'm completely incapable of doing something without measuring it in terms of ROI. Except write letters, I suppose.

    Scribbles laughs at my assurance that one day soon I will be worshipped as a goddess, but I think of the Carnegie quote: Immense power is acquired by assuring yourself in your secret reveries that you were born to control affairs.

    Gee. I think that qualifies me for an honorary Ayn Rand merit badge :P

  3. She looks down on you for being a "mere" science teacher? Damn. Personally, I like being dismissed for not having a "respectable" job. It saves me a lot of time having to get to know people only to find out they're shallow and status-obsessed. No offense intended to your sister.

    I don't think we experience the world too differently. But it's like the comment you recently made at Shanna's:

    "Well you know I’m not afraid to tell other atheists I’m spiritual. I think it’s funny that they think they’re not: The very act of communicating with another as if we’re something more than robots gives the game away."

    Yes, we're clearly much more complex than robots or computers. But what does it mean to bridge the gap with a word like "spiritual"? I don't think there's a supernatural difference between us and machines, just a complicated naturalistic one. That's one of the angles I keep returning to in my criticisms of the SNR crowd: the word seems to mean everything in general and nothing in particular.

  4. I guess my main question is, isn't it kinda boring without an aim, a vision, a goal? I know I'm pretty type A, but what do you do with yourself?

    I have goals; I just don't pretend that I'm fulfilling some preordained mission by pursuing them. I decide how best to embody my love of music, say; I'm not a failure because I changed my mind and decided that I didn't want to pursue it as a career.

    Plus, they're more short-term. My life is very different from what I thought it would be when I was 24, so those plans were pretty much useless. As John Lennon said, life is what happens while you're busy making other plans. I'm more interested in being mindful of what develops spontaneously, when you least expect it.

    I'm surprised you don't see an obvious parallel between what I'm advocating and some of your own beliefs, actually. ;)

  5. Oh I do! I just would rather clarify the differences then emphasize where we agree. Right now, anyway. (What, specifically, are we agreeing on? I'm suddenly wary....)

    I mean, yeah, I don't go in for preordained goals. Except my incipient godhead. (besides, preordained means it HAS to happen. One morning I'll wake up to laudums from my apostles and IT will have happened)

    Shit, I have to rewrite my goals every six months or so, because I change too fast. But I can't get out of the habit of writing them, because it gives me something to work towards. Something to take me outside of the mundane. Sure, it might not be enlightenment, but it's not unconscious either

  6. Don't make me take away your tinkertoys.

    (What, specifically, are we agreeing on? I'm suddenly wary....)

    Hee hee hee. Mull it over, young grasshopper. I'll be over here, stroking my long white beard, occasionally giving you a pointed stare.

  7. I don't think there's a supernatural difference between us and machines, just a complicated naturalistic one.
    (Ha, he took the bait!)
    Don't you think there is a qualitative difference between man and machine? A complicated naturalistic difference is like the difference between a car and a computer. We act like it is obvious, yet neither scientists nor philosophers have a handle on it - it seems we can't even discuss what the difference might be. If there is not, then there is no basis for moral philosophy - mistreating a machine is unproductive, not immoral. So it seems we are in the uncomfortable position of treating something as if it is supernatural, even as we deny any such thing exists. I call the belief that there is a qualitative difference between man (self-aware beings) and machine a spiritual one. So everyone who seems to recognize that difference has at least one spiritual belief. And that would be virtually all of us.

  8. Moral debate? I'm in!

    I was just thinking about that yesterday. I'm a nice person. God knows I wasn't born that way, but I've been socialized into a lot of "go along to get along" behaviors. But recently I realized I was doing nice things because I knew in the long run the benefits would come back to me.

    On the days when I don't have at least one session booked, I look for someone to give one away to. This benefits me in so many ways: I stay in constant practice, I market at times when it doesn't take away from my business, and I make a lot of people into potential clients.

    However, none of that would have occured to me without a moment of altruism... I realized I was getting a lot without giving back.

    However, that circles around to the idea of a giant karmic social security plan, where you pay in while you can, and take out when you need to. Is that a altruistic or a selfish stance? Is it a moral stance at all?

    I don't mistreat machines either. If the cat is using the blanket, I don't whip it out from under her. I respect people and things in order to be worthy of respect, not because they are innately worthy.

    That's a qualitive statement about ME.

  9. If there is not, then there is no basis for moral philosophy - mistreating a machine is unproductive, not immoral. So it seems we are in the uncomfortable position of treating something as if it is supernatural, even as we deny any such thing exists.

    That seems like the same mistake religious believers make when they argue that atheism means a war of one against all, because without an authoritative proclamation from on high, the only type of pleasure is immediate gratification, and life is a zero-sum game where you can only provide for yourself by taking from someone else. But it's clearly not. Our sense of morality is a shared agreement rooted in experience, a work in progress. Why would it be invalidated by recognizing that there's no essential basis for it?

  10. No one has shared agreements with something they think is machine-like.

  11. I read a story (David Brin, for other sf geeks) about how humanity began to built androids. It was evident that androids were superior in every way to mere flesh, and so humanity decided that, rather that Asimov's three laws of robotics, they would humanize androids by fostering them with human families and raising them as human children. In this way, they would be socialized as human, and eventually humanity would expand to include metal based and flesh-based people as essentially human. The difference, then is simply in how we relate to them.

    That's the high road. The low road is, like the difference between porn and art; "I know it when I see it"

  12. No one has shared agreements with something they think is machine-like.

    I'm just going to keep beating you over the head with this Stephen Batchelor quote until you beg for mercy:

    "To have become a person means to have emerged contingently from a matrix of genetic, psychological, social and cultural conditions. You are neither reducible to one or all of them, nor separate from them. While a person is more than a DNA code, a psychological profile and a social and cultural background, he or she cannot be understood apart from such factors. You are unique not because you possess an essential metaphysical quality that differs from the essential metaphysical quality of everyone else, but because you have emerged from a unique and unrepeatable set of conditions."

    Yes, we all feel like there's something like a permanent soul, a cogito, a self-aware consciousness that exists independently of anything else peeking out from behind our eyes, but it's a convenient illusion of unity fostered by the different parts of the brain working together. Sever your corpus callosum, for example, and you won't even have that anymore.

  13. I said nothing about continuity, unity, uniqueness, or something existing apart from matter. I'm saying no one can explain the difference between a subject and an object. And we all certainly act like we believe there is one. This Batchelor quote, which I agree with, doesn't address the issue. What does it mean to have experiences vs. being a mass of wriggling flesh? Currently there is a lot of talk about AI, but the Turing test actually avoids the question and implies we can't answer it.

  14. What does the Turing test avoid? As soon as you can't tell the difference between the behavior of a machine and the behavior of a human, there is no difference worth drawing. Yeah, you could go into their motivations and reasoning, I suppose, but in order for AI to pass the Turing test, it has to "read" as human to human senses. Which admittedly are flawed, but still the only basis we have for measurement

  15. As soon as you can't tell the difference between the behavior of a machine and the behavior of a human, there is no difference worth drawing.
    Just because a programmer can write a program that can fool you? That isn't a meaningful standard; it's a practical one. My colleague says computers will have no motivation of their own until we can make them feel pain. But he must mean something more than just appearing to feel pain, right?
    I'm not even focused on humans. Dogs feel joy and pain. What is it about them that makes their pain and joy something more than neural patterns, experiences rather than mere events? (Baiting Scribbs again!)

  16. Pfft. You can't bait the master baiter!

    Uh, wait...

    Anyway. The Batchelor quote is to illustrate that our sense of being a subject is somehow a product of that combination of ingredients. There's no mystery ingredient that correlates with a vague term like "spiritual". Our very sense of being a thinking subject is a helpful illusion the brain cobbles together from all the various parts. Why does it happen? How does intelligence become self-reflective? I'm not sure, but my point was just that whatever answer they may find, I don't see any reason to assume that it's going to require any mystical elements.

    Valéry said about Descartes' Cogito, ergo sum that it was "not a piece of reasoning, it's a fist coming down on a table to corroborate words in the mind." In a similar way, I think the word "spiritual" is the equivalent of shrugging shoulders being passed off as something meaningful.

  17. Ha ha: I believe there may be cause to convey that title to myself.
    I think all meanings are based on questionable observations. The shrugging of shoulders is often the only available response (what is an "observer"? subject vs. object?). It's seems obvious to me that there is a "mystery ingredient", but I respect your point of view.
    Descartes showed "something that thinks exists". It is still the only thing that is certain, even if it doesn't entail much else.

  18. Descartes showed "something that thinks exists".

    He showed that thinking exists. "The lightning flashed." The lightning is the flash. There's not some essence of lightning that chooses to manifest itself as a flash. Perhaps it's what Nietzsche meant with his joke about "We have not yet got rid of God because we still believe in Grammar."

  19. Lightning can't observe itself lightninging. Lightning can't say, "I lightning, therefore I am." Self reference is important. Do you think there is no significant difference between Cogito and, say, "I blink therefore I am."? Thinking with awareness is a special activity. A thinking thing "exists" in a different way than a nonthinking thing. Your and others apparent insistence that this is not the case is just not credible. I keep thinking, "This person with whom I'm talking is claiming not to exist. What an odd position to take." I'm not saying there is a soul, or even that you are the same person from instant to instant. I'm saying there is a special kind of thing there at every instant we call a person, an observer, a subject rather than an object. How can you avoid needing to explain that?

  20. The observer, that sense of self-awareness, isn't a thing; it's a culmination of a process involving different parts of the brain working in tandem to produce a unified perspective, which has evolutionary advantage. There's no there there.

    Yes, I agree -- we're different from rocks, dolphins, and supercomputers. But if anything, I should be asking you what the difference is; I'm not really conversant enough with the latest scientific research to be able to summarize what they say about the nature of self-awareness.

  21. what they say about the nature of self-awareness
    Science has virtually nothing to say about it, except what you have explained here. Which I find interesting, probably correct, but completely unsatisfying. I have no idea how physicists can say an "observer" is required to "collapse a probability function" without a clear definition of "observer". But we all just shrug our shoulders.
    Now would you please stop pestering me about this? Jeez, it's like you just can't let it go. :)