On My Distaste for Poverty

Some of my younger years have been spent in a state of poverty, the others in a state of meager income. This has been by no fault of my own; I was born into this class and still being so young have not had the opportunity to squirm free of the destitution. Even now, I live in a woefully poor neighborhood and have my own income needfully subsidized by academic grants and a generous benefactor.

Despite this, I never regard myself as being poor. That is not to say that I behave as if I were well off, but I cannot remember a time in recent years when I have felt poor. It is as if affluence had less to do with resources and more to do with the content of one's character. I know this is untrue, but I am lulled into feeling this way. I have watched carefully the prejudice cement in my psyche.

How, though, can it be helped? I am surrounded by people of scarce resources, yet I am nothing like them~ They scrounge and squander irresponsibly, are solely concerned with the most trivial of things. They have no higher thoughts; they kill over verbal disputes about things that don't even exist! Hardly a single percent among them knows half of what I do about any subject! They're unaffordably gluttonous and must divide what little they have between half a dozen screaming and ignorant children. They don't have the acuity, the scope, the ambition or the time that I do. I look at them, and I look at me, and I cannot fathom how a person of my character could remain for much longer in the same bracket as them. This is why I do not feel as though I were among them. I regard my status as a temporary trick of fate; their status will likely remain with them until they die.

I feel though that my superiority has been undermined by my own recognition of it. This ironic prejudice is deep. I cannot help but feel like a pearl plunged into the muck and filth, but it is not right that I should feel this way. They are no more equipped to remove themselves from this state than I was as a child - or as I am at the moment for that matter. I shouldn't despise them as I do, because I realize, however reluctantly, that personal character has hardly a thing to do with status and security, and I realize with even more reluctance that they are cut from the same cloth as myself.

Dilemmas like these leave me all the more uncertain about the attainability of my long term ambitions. I will be Sisyphus though; I will waste myself away against the task, even if it may be futile. It is the only thing I have.

Posted at at 2:53 PM on Wednesday, May 5, 2010 by Posted by VainApocalypse | 0 comments   | Filed under: ,

Is it a pipe dream?

A classmate inquired about my major. "What is it?" she wanted to know. I responded truthfully, "Biology," as I had for other inquirers. She paused for some seconds and looked puzzled, as if she were trying place the subject into a specific field of work; I'd seen this before. There was always this puzzled pause. She asked me what I intended to do with a degree in biology. Normally I do not address that question or address it in a way not indicative of my true intent, because I do not consider it a legitimate question.

What will I do with it? Could it be that after earning it, I will possess a wealth of astounding knowledge? Is that not a worthy enough mission for these people? Why do I have to plan to "do" anything with it? Must every scrap of knowledge be subject to an immediate monetary application, such as nursing or dentistry, in order to have merit? Doesn't the degree have merit in and of itself?

I could hear the "M" forming on her lips; the next words were going to be "medical school?" Her suspicion being that I had designs on being a doctor or a nurse. To halt any blasphemous pronunciation from her, as I really am quite tired of seeing either of these two professions speculatively superimposed over my goals, I for the first time blurted out an honest and direct answer as to my intent. I intended as much to quiet her as I did to test for a reaction, as I really had no idea how someone might react to my ambitions. I articulated loudly, but allowed for some hesitation as to invite her critique.

I answered, "I want a PhD in Genetics. I want to contribute to research. I want to be a geneticist."

Now this was odd. What was her response? Was it surprise, encouragement, disdain, curiosity, or indifference!? It was none. She responded in utter silence. She abandoned eye contact and did not utter another word on the topic. How ought I to gauge this as a reaction? Did she detect how weary I was of the topic, and did that quiet her? Did she quiet herself just to privately scoff at such an achievement? Was she so surprised by this unusual answer that she was at a loss and withdrew? Perhaps she had no thoughts whatsoever, and would have responded similarly to any answer I gave. Perhaps I am futile and analyze too much.

Posted at at 9:04 PM on Saturday, April 3, 2010 by Posted by VainApocalypse | 0 comments   | Filed under: , ,

Augustine's perspective of humanity

I finished reading St.Augustine's Confessions some days ago and feel that I've gained some small extra insight into the Christian faith that I did not have before, specifically regarding the human condition as it pertains to sin and dependency upon God. I do wonder if even very many Christians have a similarly clear understanding of these two fundamental notions.

I've compiled a very short essay that extracts the central observations that Augustine makes about humanity in his Confessions, and therein are contained my new found insights. The writing that follows is a minor assignment for a class, and I have removed the citations for neatness. Writing it as served the dual purpose of saving my thoughts here and earning credit for the class.


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Augustine’s view of the human condition is comparable to the states and transitions in his own life. He regards the thirty-three years prior to his baptism as a state that was aligned with his base nature and was laden with misery, confusion and wrong doing, and it was only by his conscious decision to turn to God that he was relieved of that state. Likewise, he believes that man is innately wicked in the eyes of the Christian god, that as such man is inept and miserable in all areas of importance and that it is only by a conscious decision to submit to the will of that god that man may find fulfillment. To Augustine, sin is an indelible characteristic of humanity, which entraps us with a perverse love of things that are otherwise beautiful, and man, who is incapable of purging himself of sin without God, is tormented and ineffectual.

Augustine observes in himself and in others that disobedience to the Christian notion of divine law is inherent in human behavior. Augustine accepts on the basis of testimony that he displayed inclinations toward selfish wrath and vengeance in his infancy, and he observes this as common behavior among infants. Though he doesn’t pretend that such behavior is universal among infants, it is evidence that the sinful tendencies that he observes of himself later in life were present upon his birth. It is as he says of his later years, “So small a boy and so great a sinner." We see in Augustine’s recollective observations not only the presence of sin in infancy and childhood (ages contemporarily regarded as innocent) but the nature of sin as the prevailing feature of human behavior unless intervened upon by an outside agency, whether by the discipline of academic instructors or God. In Augustine’s depiction it seems that if man is left to his own whims and devices, he will inevitably turn to sin, so it can be said that Augustine views humanity as inherently sinful.

It is impossible to consider Augustine’s view of humanity if not in relation to sin, and to that end Augustine’s analysis of the human condition also concludes why humans sin. Augustine observes that men do not commit offenses against God’s law simply for the sake of doing so but will do so out of love for some other thing that they hope to attain, whether that thing is a person, an object, or a status among men. When the object of attraction is not obvious, Augustine deduces that it must be the love of liberty and self sufficiency, such as from God’s law, which prompts one to make the offense. Though the thing that attracts man may indeed be beautiful and possess virtuous qualities, it is a misplacement of one’s love and energy to pursue it above God, for God is what sustains it and possesses every virtue and reward that prompts man’s admiration of it. Augustine expresses this in his own words, “The soul is guilty of fornication when she turns from You and seeks from any other source what she will nowhere find pure and without taint unless she returns to You.” When man hungers for any virtue or quality, he ought to turn to God who possesses what man seeks in overabundance. When he fails to do this, he has misdirected his love, committed an affront to the virtues of God, and denied himself the only thing that could sate his hunger, and a sin has therefore been committed. Humans sin because they perversely misplace their love.

Given Augustine’s belief that all humans are sinners, and given that sinning refers to a departure from the one thing that sustains man and fulfills his longings, it follows that humanity must have a natural tendency toward despair and inability. Man cannot fulfill his needs and cannot achieve his longings except through the remission of sin and that cannot be done, by definition, except by loving God before everything. This establishes humans as inherently dependent upon the higher power of God for their happiness. Augustine echoes this in thanking God for having forced Augustine’s attentions upon God, the one cure for his ailments, “At that time my soul was in misery, and You pricked the soreness of its wound, that leaving all things it might turn to You, who are over all and without whom all would return to nothing, that it might turn to You and be healed." Humans, in Augustine’s view are ineffectual and self-defeating except when they act through a love of God. Theologian Alister McGrath, who holds a Doctor of Divinity degree, observes that “Augustine’s view of human nature is that it is frail, weak, and lost, and needs divine assistance and care if it is to be restored and renewed."

Augustine regards man as a creature marked at birth by sin, a creature that wants to possess the treasures of God without submitting to God, a creature too foolish to know where its love ought to be spent, and a creature that will inevitably ruin itself because of that fact. This perspective on humanity bears similarities with such ancient characters as Oedipus, who was destined upon his birth to commit a great folly. He was warned by the Gods that he would commit this folly, but he considered his own virtues to be sufficient enough in escaping it. In his mind, no submission to divine counsel was necessary. As long as he had his wit he thought he could avoid his fall, but he was too ignorant of his nature to have avoided it, and that ignorance transported him to it all the faster. According to Augustine, humans are as ignorant of their dependency on divine mandate as Oedipus, and that is their undoing.

Posted at at 8:49 PM on Sunday, March 21, 2010 by Posted by VainApocalypse | 0 comments   | Filed under: , ,

Dreams

It strikes me to know that not everyone experiences dreams in the same fashion that I do. For example, identity in my dream-worlds is a very fluid thing. I am not always the person through which I am acting, even if I happen to be sitting across the room from myself, and I often have no identity at all in a dream except as a passive observer. Neither is any particular character the same person from one scene to the next. Occasionally people in my dreams lack any correspondence to their real life counterparts (appearance, personality, voice) but upon awakening I feel that they were a certain person, as if the writer of the dream intended for them to be but lacked the relevant information. Environments are equally as fluid and difficult to pin down.

I'm deeply curious as to what physical exchanges in my brain do I owe these strange characteristics and what differences in our waking lives and our development constitutes the differences in how people dream.

Posted at at 11:08 AM on Saturday, March 20, 2010 by Posted by VainApocalypse | 0 comments   | Filed under:

A Puzzle: Self Continuity

There are only a few exotic questions that have puzzled me since my being acquainted with them. I'm sure I'll come to explore them all in this blog. The one I'll explore here is the problem of self continuity. I came up with the question myself but later found it to be a topic already discussed among scholars from a range of different studies.

Beginning with definitions, we'll bar defining the self as an immaterial, everlasting entity that transcends death or this "mortal coil." Lets instead presume that the self is constituted by the brain and its neural and chemical structures, all memories, precepts, concepts and sensations exist therein. These aspects of a person's mental landscape can be described in terms of a specific arrangement of energy and matter, and therefore so can an "I" be described in those terms. This is as relevant to the body as it is to the consciousness.

This poses a problem, however, to our usual way of thinking about ourselves. Between no two instances is there a continuously sustained arrangement of energy and matter. Take, for example, "myself" as an infant. What arrangement is shared between myself at present and myself twenty-one years ago? Not a single structure in my physiology has remained unchanged between then and now, so what is the basis for continuity between us? It is not in my genome, for if I'd had a twin, my twin would share the same genome but would not be myself. Likewise, any somatic cell taken from my body has a complete copy of my genome but is not said to be "me." It is merely a part of me. So what constitutes the whole, and what constitutes the continuity of the whole between any two instances?

Are those that look at a picture of their younger selves and say "that's me" mistaken?

The puzzles persists on much smaller timescales as well. We needn't look to ourselves in years prior to see the discontinuity; at no two fractions of a second do I retain the same material composition. The composition of each of my cells, each of their constituent parts, and each neurochemical thought process is in constant flux. This means that if the "I" is a specific arrangement of matter and energy, then at each indivisible instant of time, I die and someone else takes my place. Arguably, such divisions of time are arbitrary, and there is only one continuous flow. At that scale, the "I" no longer exists and experience becomes "disembodied" from it. This is how Buddhists regard things, that experience exists without an experiencer, and it is a troubling proposition to my precious egoism.

How could I value myself above all else and act upon that reverence if "I" exist too briefly to even formulate a thought or if "I" exist in no definite terms at all? Should I exist under some kind of collectivistic individualism, by which I value all of the countless persons that comprise me from one second to the next? Why would I do that? What makes the distinction between any two of them different from the distinction between any two random people, myself and a stranger for instance?

I do not know how to resolve this problem to my satisfaction. A different definition of the self may suffice. Perhaps if I were to define the self as a general pattern (compare to a specific arrangement) that changes along a gradient. Perhaps any overlap between two arrangements on the gradient would constitute continuity between two instances, but does such overlap even occur on very small time scales? I will have to think on this for some time.

Posted at at 9:50 PM on Friday, March 19, 2010 by Posted by VainApocalypse | 0 comments   | Filed under:

Buddhism

I have finished reading a comprehensive summary of Buddhism as a philosophy and way of life as presented by Steve Hagen. As such, I feel informed enough to posit a valid opinion of the philosophy as it has been presented to me. That is not to say that I lacked an understanding of it beforehand, but this book has opened me to aspects that have been crucial in forming a more concrete assessment. That said, I will expand upon what it is that I have learned and what it is that I think of the philosophy.

It is important to note that I am referring to it as a philosophy and not as a religion. For simplicity, I will define "religion" as any framework for tradition and belief that, as a symptom of its conception, demands faith as opposed to direct observation or rational deduction, which are more so bases of philosophy.

As it turns out, as is evident by the Buddha's words, Buddhism formed strictly as a philosophy with no religious elements whatsoever. I will conjecture that such elements which are associated with it today probably became so through cultural diffusion with Asia's other major worldviews. I will not discuss them here.

What Buddhism really is is a calculated response to the human condition. It makes observations that are readily apparent and draws conclusions based thereon. this is a particularly admirable aspect of Buddhism, that it intentionally places awareness and observation at the head of its priorities rather than faith or allegiance. Throughout its teachings there are many points of observation worth touching upon, but the "Four Noble Truths" are the thesis of Buddhism and are the observations made by Buddha himself. They are:

1. Life invariably involves suffering.
2. The origin of suffering is attachment.
3. The cessation of suffering is attainable.
4. The Eightfold Path is the means toward that cessation.

The Eightfold Path is an eight-point methodology for understanding, behaving and developing in manners conducive toward the cessation of pain, or Nirvana. The eight points are: Right View, Right Intention, Right Speech, Right Action, Right Livelihood, Right Effort, Right Mindfulness, Right Meditation. Buddhists have a particular way of defining and justifying each of these. Underlying them all are a wealth of wise observations and stunningly clear conclusions.

It is important to recognize that these points do not serve the function of a moral code in Buddhism. The Buddhists have no definitive moral code. As they would see it, it is not "wrong" of you to not live by these eight tenets any more than it is wrong for a sleeper to not wake up. The Buddha merely presented what he thought was an adequate remedy for the disturbances that he saw in people's lives, and whether or not someone chooses to engaged upon the path is truly a matter of choice and preference.

So what is it that disturbs people's lives? Buddhists will say that it is attachment. They will say that reality is an ever flowing stream in which no area of the flow exists in permanence or in independence from the flow. We are hurt by our attachment to the notion meaningful permanence and by our attachment to independent forms at all. Indeed, what part of a flowing rush of water has an independent form? All aspects of the flow are interconnected and inseparable. The idea is that if we were not attached to permanence and independent forms, but could recognize the continuity between all things and their temporal nature, then we could become one with the flow and nothing about it could any longer trouble us.

The problem, according to Hagen, can be described in more ways than merely attachment. It's similar to the factorization of an equation, where the product of two smaller components provide the equation. The factors of attachment are ignorance and intent. Attachment=(ignorance)(intent). This makes very fluid sense. If not for intent, we would not have the attachment to permanence. If not for ignorance, we could more readily recognize the continuity between all things and the lack of particular and indivisible forms.

Now that the problem can be reduced to the simple terms of ignorance and intent, which truly define everything that Buddhism sets out to solve, I think that I'm ready to give specific opinions on what I like and dislike about Buddhism.

What I can find nothing but praise for in the philosophy is its absolute appreciation for awareness and knowledge. It is founded on the importance of making critical firsthand observations. It is admirable for its recognition that ignorance is rife beyond measure throughout humanity and that it is the source of a great deal of corruption in our condition. While I do not agree with all of the conclusions reached by Buddhists teachers through their search for awareness and knowledge, I do respect the rationale underlying those conclusions. This mirrors an aspect of Buddhism's intellectual integrity in that the philosophy never pretends that knowledge can be handed down from an authoritative source, secret until made as a gift. Hagen is adamant throughout the book that truth is available for everyone to observe and conjecture upon equally. There's an almost Socratic love for truth within Buddhism. I suspect this is why Buddhism has adapted more readily to modern science than other religions. In making their point, Buddhists seem quite comfortable in referencing genetic biology or particle physics, because the mindset allows for such a swift assimilation of new information and new observations into old concepts.

From the outset, Buddhism observes that our wants and desires (intentions) can never truly and surely be satisfied. It observes that this insatiable longing is the source of much grief -- brief glimpses of happiness, yes, but mostly grief. It regards grief as bad, so it sets out to abolish it, and the most direct way to do that is by removing wants and desires (intentions) from our lives as to achieve a kind of complacent harmony, a nirvana -- though that itself must not be the object of intent.

The problem I have with this was from the outset the idea that we should ever expect or want to achieve a state of eternal complacency in which we've no further needs to be fulfilled. I've said before that emotional states are not ends in themselves and should not be pursued as such, so when the Buddhist seeks to remove himself from intention, I ask him "Why?" He says "To put to rest the turmoil and grief," and in my eyes he is committing a folly, because (no differently than a heroin addict) he is pursuing an emotional state rather than a change to the world around him, which should be what we do pursue. The Buddhist may counter "that change to the world around us is irrelevant, for it is a fleeting change made to things not even real in the way we perceive them." To that, I would counter "That differs in no respect from the internal change that you are seeking but instead leaves you complacent and ill equipped for this world." Perhaps this verges on why the Buddhists do not pretend that "waking up," as they call it, is a moral imperative, but merely a matter of personal preference.

All of that said, I do see a great deal of value in the ability to detach one's self from intent. It is not something that I would promote living throughout one's life, but there are individual moments where discipline over one's base desires could save one's life or spare him or her momentary grief that simply has no benefit or functional reason for being there. I value my times of joy and my lofty ambitions. If that means that I suffer on occasion, I am satisfied with that and do not expect to ever find utter fulfillment or a life without grief, but there are moments when it is in line with one's own ambitions and intentions if he or she may simply exercise the ability to let go of attachment. Learning to momentarily let go is something that Buddhism would be of immense helpfulness in.

Posted at at 11:35 PM on Friday, March 5, 2010 by Posted by VainApocalypse | 0 comments   | Filed under: ,

A possible measure of intelligence

I'm going to make a bold and potentially offensive claim regarding what I am beginning to suspect is the proper measure of intelligence.

Observe that (1) all the world is a series of physical events, that nothing known to be of our environment does not involve, at its base, simple rearrangements of energy and matter.

Observe that (2) the only way to describe and understand these events in their entirety is through a rigorous and systematic series of logical statements and that these statements describe numeric qualities (distance, time, mass, volume, energy, velocity, quantity, probability, etc.), i.e. mathematics.

Observe that (3) intelligence is a measure of one's capacity to understand and perform in one's environment.

Observe that (4) in order to understand and operate in one's environment on a conscious basis, one needs some integrated capacity to make these logical statements in estimation, and an increased systematization of these statements allows for greater precision and depth of understanding and thus for a greater range of performance.

Given these points, I will assert that the purest measure of intelligence is one's inclination toward mathematical thought and aptitude for performing mathematical calculations.

Someone countered, in opposition to this, that they can survive plainly and happily without the slightest hint of mathematical knowledge and do not need to perform mathematical calculations in order to demonstrate their intelligence. In defending against this refutation, I must stress that math is not just an exercise for those who are fully conscious that they are performing it.

We perform math on a rudimentary, non-rigorous and unsystematic basis every instant of our waking lives, mostly subconsciously and occasionally consciously. It is present in our brains as we calculate distances, assess proportion, seek out symmetry, recognize patterns, intuit probability, and perform simple counting exercises. These are all integral parts of our ability to comprehend and interact with our world and is hence the primary component of our intelligence. I would go further to assert that an even deeper and even more systematic comprehension and utilization of mathematical principles is indicative of yet higher degrees of intelligence.

Posted at at 5:19 PM on Monday, March 1, 2010 by Posted by VainApocalypse | 0 comments   | Filed under: , ,