Tag Archives: Philosophy

of rogues, jedi and growing up

lukeAt four years old, I saw Star Wars in the theater – I can still remember the opening scene – the massive Star Destroyer chasing Leia’s ship.  I can trace nearly all my love for space to that moment.  When it was revealed in “Empire” that Vader was Luke’s father, I was so devastated I tried to wish it away.  Luke was my hero – the hero. All through my childhood and teen years, it was an established fact – bordering on a right of passage – that Luke was the dominant hero figure.  I still remember being so disappointed that Leia told Han “I love you”.  And then – to make matters worse – finding out that Leia was Luke’s sister!  Wasn’t the hero supposed to get the girl, too?

Then something happened.  I grew up.  The safe & insulated world of my teens disappeared amidst the emotional tsunamis of divorce, college & moving away.  The endless optimism and hope I had for the future began to be tempered by real experience.  Luke started to sound a little whiny.  I found myself more sympathetic to Han.  Sure, he was rough around the edges, but likable.  He flew a fast ship, knew how to come through in a pinch, understood loyalty, took care of his own and I could appreciate that.

Then something else happened.  I experienced deep heartache over someone I dated in college.  I graduated, toured regionally with some bands and scraped by on peanut butter sandwiches and the free employee lunch at Macaroni Grill.  I discovered I hated always playing other people’s music and never having time for my own.  I decided to switch careers.  As a melancholy artistic type suddenly thrust into the heart of corporate America, I was unprepared for the backstabbers.  The white collar backstabbers weren’t anything like the blue collar backstabbers of my warehouse college jobs – they were a vicious breed apart.  I had to grow a thicker skin, think on my feet, learn how to get cussed out in front of others while staying calm – all the while trying to better my skills so that finding a new job would be a reality and not just a wish.  I was married.  I had kids.  Things like self-defense turned into home and family defense.  I had to ask myself – in the unlikely event of someone breaking in or attacking my family – would I be willing to use deadly force.  I was surprised not only at the answer, but the depths from which it resounded a loud “YES.  I WOULD NOT HESITATE.”  Images of Mel Gibson from the Patriot come to mind.

hanI wasn’t just sympathizing with Han, now.  Here’s a guy that improvised everything.  Even the ‘fast ship’ of his – without which he would never have met Ben and Luke, gotten connected to the Rebellion and ultimately redeemed himself – had been won in a game with best “frenemy” Lando.  Simple chance.  And let’s not kid ourselves – he wasn’t just rough around the edges.  He could take cold, calculated risks to get out of danger.  Don’t believe your eyes on the re-released versions of Star Wars.  In the original, Greedo never got a shot off.  Han shot him cold, all the while trying to look relaxed and stall for time as he unsnapped his holster to take the shot.

I would have taken that shot, too, and I find that unsettling.  Life is wonderful and full of so many incredible gifts – but it can also be darker than the darkest dark.  No human being emerges from the dark unchanged.  Archetypes like Han Solo, and Maximus Decimus Meridius from “Gladiator” resonate with men because we often have so much in common with them.  Improvising, and trying to look calm while we’re wondering if the hyper drive is actually going to work the next time we fire it up.  We have an emotional depth we don’t always know how to communicate, so we’re left telling the woman who just said “I love you” a simple “I know.”  In the case of Maximus, we feel betrayed by existing power structures and we overwhelmingly react with passion to the moment of his greatest discovery – who he truly is.

“My name is Maximus Decimus Meridius, commander of the Armies of the North, General of the Felix Legions, loyal servant to the true emperor, Marcus Aurelius. Father to a murdered son, husband to a murdered wife. And I will have my vengeance, in this life or the next.”

This was an identity forged & discovered through tremendous hardship & loss.  Are there any other truer revealers of who we are?

There’s something about anti-hero redemption as well.  As much as I loved “Back to the Future” as a kid, I sheepishly admit that most of my childhood was spent feeling like this guy at this moment:

mcfly

George has no idea he can knock Biff out.  He acted more out of courage and principle than he ever had up to that moment.  He goes from “peeping Tom” to true rescuer, and his timeline is forever altered for the better.  Han learns there are better things to fight and live for – and goes as far as being willing to die for them.  Joseph Donnelly reaches the moment of his dream and shouts “This land is mine!  Mine by destiny!” and all the hardship that passed before pales in comparison. 

That’s what these anti-heros’ redemptions really offer – hope that you don’t have to let the darkness turn you into a cynical has-been.

Edward F. Mooney writes, “Job gets the wonder of a world returned, but he does not learn why he suffered.”  That can seem unfair, but the answer is a good one: “The reception of a life beyond dust and ashes throws the need for an answer aside”.  I don’t want to stop at just not being a cynical has-been.  I want move on to the reception of a life beyond dust and ashes…

Being and Becoming

Parmenides Most of us, at one point or another, have stopped to consider who we are today, and compared ourselves to who we desire to be one day.  This is a great example of the philosophical tension between “being” and “becoming”.  In one sense, I’m not the man I was 10 years ago, nevertheless, I am the same man.  I survey my past and find many instances where I cringe at things I have done.  I’m not that man anymore.  I look ahead to the future and know that both joy and heartache await but I’m not yet the man I will be when I face those things – then I again, I am.  Confusing, isn’t it?!

Two of the earliest philosophers to wrestle with this question were Heraclitus and Parmenides.  Heraclitus is famous for the phrase “You never step into the same river twice”.  He argued that between “steps” into a river, both the river and you have changed.  In the the time it takes to place your left foot into the water, and then your right, the river’s composition changes, however slightly.  You are, at the very least, seconds older.  Heraclitus argued that everything is in a state of flux. “Whatever is, is changing”, he would say.

Makes sense, so far, right?  But this begged deeper questioning.  How can someone say I’m not real, because I’m changing?  It flies in the face of both common sense and experience.  Of course I’m real….right?  Another philosopher, Parmenides, made the claim that “Whatever is, is.”   R.C. Sproul summarized Parmenides’ argument by saying “Reality…to be real, cannot be changing.  Because that which is changing, never truly is.”  Let that tweak your brain for a while!  This dilemma – wrestling with the idea that if we, and the world around us, are constantly changing then we are never truly real – spawned entire schools of thought that believed the physical world is ultimately an illusion.  Striking a stark contrast, though, is the way in which God defines Himself to ancient Israel: “I AM” (not “I am becoming”).  To borrow terms from Aristotle, God is complete and full actuality.  Simply put, he is real and because He is real, he doesn’t change.  He has no need to grow to become more perfect in any area, since He is infinite, and infinitely perfect.  We, of course, are not infinite and we live as creatures ‘inhabiting time’ – so we are “beings” who are “becoming”.

This tension between ‘being’ and ‘becoming’ – and the ultimate question of ‘what is real’ took an interesting path for me recently as I was reading about John Henry Newman – an Anglican-turned-Catholic thinker, writer & priest (ultimately a cardinal) in the 19th century.  The memorial tablet at Newman’s death (in 1890) was inscribed with the words “Ex umbrus et imaginibus in veritatem” – "Out of unreality into Reality.”  While I’m honestly in no hurry, I do, though, often think about that “Reality” – and the deepest parts of me long to be as real one day as Newman is now.

The Myth of Neutrality, Part 2

In part 1 of this series, I posed the question: is it really possible to be neutral on subjects like religion, politics & belief?  In that post, I briefly discussed the odd paradox that we endure daily as a result of the influence that relativism and logical positivism have had on our culture.  All belief is rendered equally true or equally meaningless by the ‘absolute’ of "’no absolutes” in relativism.  Yet, at the same time, claiming the backing of science is still one of the ultimate trump cards that can be played in any metaphysical, philosophical or political debate.

I think special attention needs to be paid to the desire we have to appear ‘objective by being neutral’ on contentious issues.  There is an underlying fear: if we admit to having any sort of bias or opinion, that somehow undermines our credibility and brings any contribution we make to the debate under suspicion.  The flipside is that we are expected to trust “neutral” voices without question.  Questioning those who claim to be neutral is more often met by name-calling (or some sort of political categorizing) as opposed to honest answers.  How did we arrive at a place where having an opinion and belief on a given topic disqualifies you from participating in a debate on that topic?  If neutrality were truly possible, how could two parties debate an issue on which neither of them held convictions?  There’s no real answer to either question – because neutrality in these contexts is a myth.

Today’s “notion” of neutrality is an outgrowth of the Enlightenment’s idea of the “state of nature” – the concept of what humanity was before (and would be like outside of) the existence of the state.  Many philosophers during that time period (like Jean-Jacques Rousseau) believed that man was neither good nor bad in this state, but that civilization causes humanity’s ills and vices.  The modernized version of this is that religion (or partisanship, or intolerance…{or insert belief system here}) has caused innumerable deaths through war and persecution, and that its influence should be marginalized continually until it’s altogether eliminated.  So, the postmodern ‘idyllic neutrality’ is a person devoid of religious conviction, since such convictions would make “objective” thought impossible.  This logic, however appealing to our post-modern minds, is flawed.

All action is driven by belief.  That belief may be in science, God, yourself or your political party leader.  You may believe something because someone told you, or because you examined the evidence firsthand.  You may believe that belief doesn’t matter – nonetheless it’s still a belief.  As my friend Steve Betz recently said, “There is a great line in the book (and film) "Contact" in which the religious counselor to the President asks Ellie the scientist "Did you father love you?" "Of course" she answers. "Prove it" — and she is left speechless.”

What about the arguments we hear around us today?  Evolution vs. Intelligent Design, for example.  The idea that the universe can be explained apart from the existence of some force or entity that exists outside of it is a philosophical stance (naturalism), not a scientific one.  Because of this, evolution finds itself as rooted in philosophical belief as many other worldviews.  This reality should be taken into account as we seek to understand the viability of either theory – since both make claims outside the realm of empirical measurability.  Take political “hot potatoes”, for example.  The shrill shouting match over issues like abortion and gay marriage are often tinged with phrases like “you ought not to push your morality on others”.  To which I have one question in response, “Why not?  You just did.”  If you feel that way, then your beliefs and your morality have compelled you to oppose anyone promoting a moral system that does not match your own.  How, then, are you any more objective, tolerant or neutral than the opposition? (And, no, I am not advocating the idea of me or anyone like me “forcing” my beliefs down anyone’s throat.)  Legislative action on either side of these kinds of debates is inherently biased by nature – because an action based on moral belief is being carried out.

I think part of why we esteem neutrality stems from our desire to keep the peace in culture where so many conflicting belief systems interact – we desire to be (and to encourage others to be) tolerant.  In my next post in this series, we’ll look at how the idea and meaning of ‘tolerance’ has changed significantly in the last few decades…

 

The Myth of Neutrality, Part 1

Is it really possible to be neutral?  When it comes to belief, science, religion, politics – does neutral ground really exist?  Our culture holds up the idea of neutrality as a paragon of virtue.  We indulge the idea so much, that we wish against hope that our politicians are telling us the truth when they proclaim that they are post-partisan.  Notice that it’s no longer enough to claim that we’re “non-partisan”; instead, in true Chomsky fashion, we tweak the language to say we’re post-partisan.

What’s at the root of our fascination with neutrality?  I believe that we want to be, and be seen as, reasonable.  Think about politics.  We’re bombarded with the 24/7-news-cycle-red-vs.-blue-shrill-argument-insanity daily.  The one who shouts the loudest, or coins the best slam – that neatly fits into a 15-second sound bite – “wins”.  Or so it seems.  More realistically, I think the “talking heads” are like actors who don’t realize the audience has long ago left them to applaud themselves.  The more polarized the argument becomes, the more most of us simply want to be the emotional baking soda to diffuse the acid of banal “gotcha politics”.  What about religion?  We see men fly planes into buildings, detonate themselves on buses, gun down abortion doctors, preach a ‘prosperity gospel’ that only enriches themselves – the litany could go on and on.  Our culture no longer remembers religion as the chief source of the values that led to our Republic’s unique version of freedom that had never been seen before in all of human history.  If we think of ‘devout believers’ today, a few ‘frightening’ stereotypes are bound to be in the top 10.  Who wants to trust systems of belief that seem to produce, at best, sycophants, and, at worst, murdering psychopaths?  Who wants to be dismissed from being taken seriously by association with such controversial ideas?  The one institution we’ve elevated to be the sole arbiter of truth – science – has proven to be as corrupted and driven by ideology as the others.  One only has to look at the continuing fallout from the “climate-gate” email scandal for a recent example.

It’s an odd paradox in the postmodern West that we simultaneously labor to be seen as “moderate” & “objective” while also adhering to an idea that truth has no absolutes.  Is it possible to be objective if there are no anchors in truth to pull against?  If there’s no standard to which we can compare our ideas?  In fact we often labor against giving truth any sort of finality, unless the ‘truth’ is claimed to be scientific.  Why this one caveat?

Logical Positivism.  A philosophy that found its roots in empiricism, Logical Positivism has had far greater influence on how the average person today views ‘truth’ than many people realize.  The central idea to Logical Positivism is that no proposition is meaningful unless it can be empirically verified.  That is at the heart of why, to this day, we elevate “scientific” truth above all else.  It doesn’t matter that subsequent philosophers have since debunked the central premise:  how can you empirically verify that the only meaningful propositions are ones that can be empirically verified?  Problem is, you can’t.  Regardless, the idea was incredibly popular in a modern-heading-into-postmodern society, and it took deep root.

The resulting cultural schizophrenia is an odd combination of relativism and logical positivism.  In ideological arguments, the person who can successfully portray themselves as “above the fray” and “open-minded” has won the moral high ground, and is, as a result, objective and neutral.  The ultimate trump card is to claim the backing of science.  “Belief” and “fact” are separated from each other, and this becomes the great non-sequitur of our day: that we can exist, first, in a ‘neutral space’, with only facts, and no beliefs.  I will show, in my next post, that the very notion that such a ‘neutral space’ exists, is loaded with belief.