Is There a Perfect Formula for Meaning in Life?

I sometimes wonder if we humans are the only species on earth that is capable of taking pleasure in returning, after a long absence, to places we once frequented, or where we once lived.

For it seems to me that, when we do indeed take pleasure in such a thing, it is largely pleasure taken in discovery — specifically, discovery of what has changed, and what has not changed, about the place.  And so, does any other animal besides ourselves take pleasure in that sort of discovery?  The question can be interesting to ask, but how could you ever answer it.

I was reminded of that question this morning because I returned — briefly — to an internet forum that I once spent considerable time on.  As it turned out, not much seemed different from when I last frequented the forum, and so I didn’t often experience the minor excitement of, “Oh, that’s new!”  But nevertheless someone had put up a thread on the site that got me thinking — and I count it astonishing whenever someone, somehow, manages to get me thinking at any time of day, let alone the morning.

The author of the thread asked a question that I’d seen asked in one way or another many times on the site.  One of those “big” questions about the meaning of life that it has always seemed to me are at at once so simple and so ambitious they can be readily answered in three or four short sentences — but the sentences then take a book or two to properly explain. Here, now, are his precise words:

“What do you believe is required to have in your life to bring true success, fulfillment and happiness. Is there a perfect formula? Is religion necessary? A belief in god? And how does what you believe bring you that happiness?”

As I said, I’ve seen the question asked many times in many ways, and I’m a bit jaded to it.  So, it somewhat surprises me that the way he has asked it has actually got me to thinking for once.  But I suspect the main reason for my interest is this one, simple part of the larger question: “Is there a perfect formula?”

I’m sure it’s happened before that someone on that forum has asked about the meaning of life while at the same time raising the possibility that there is no one answer to his or her question, but I myself don’t recall it.  In fact, most of the time I’ve seen that questioned ask (and I find this telling) the author has at least suggested that there is only one true answer to it.  And sometimes they have even out and out stated that anyone who fails to recognize the “one true answer” is a damn fool.  An attitude that, of course, is perfectly commonplace on the net, but that, offline, usually murders the chance of someone getting invited back to the next group orgy.

As for myself, I very strongly suspect that most of our species of profoundly sophisticated, stick-poking super apes are in practice quite pragmatic about meaning(s).  That is, it seems to me that most of us do not fixate on a single, over-arching meaning for our lives.  Instead, we might dance between several meanings, often on a daily basis.  At times, the meaning that concerns us most is the work we are at the moment doing.  At other times, it’s our family.  And at still other moments, we might seek meaning in helping others, in science, in philosophy, in religion, in politics, in sex, in literature, in a hobby, and so forth.

Humans seem to have an innate need or constitutional bias — which appears to me to be rooted in the human ego — to rank things in terms of “superior” and “inferior”.  At the same time, it appears to me that we can often enough lack a genuinely profound reason for doing so — apart, of course, from when we are dealing with relatively trivial matters, such as when ranking various brands of broccoli according to their nutrition, various sports teams according to their performance, or various sticks according to their efficacy in poking other members of our noble species. But so very often, we rank things that neither need ranking, nor that it actually benefits us to rank. However, the inclination to do so appears to be reflexive.

Which seems to raise the question: Is it usually (let alone always) necessary to rank the various meanings we give life?  Perhaps the impulse to rank things is so deep rooted in us that we are uncomfortable when we don’t.  But I’ve found that feelings of discomfort are a poor guide to sound reasoning: The truth often enough makes us uncomfortable.  So that is today’s question: When (and when not) do we actually need to rank meanings?  And when we do, must we maintain forever the rank we give them at the moment?  Or are we wiser to change about their rank with changing circumstances?  For instance, if to the dire alarm of my boss, I think that having sex with my wife is more important to me at the moment than spending time on my boss’s work assignment, am I wise to always rank those things in that order?  Or, to ask a slightly more subtle question, when, and when not, do I need to think having sex with my wife is “more important” than my boss’s work assignment in order to decide to have sex with my wife?

I ask those questions because it seems to my simple mind that they in some way strike to the heart of the question posed by the author of the forum thread I read this morning.  “Is there a perfect formula?”  But enough of my own ramblings.  What do you yourself think?

“Chrisian Marriage isn’t about whether you’re in love.”

When couples come to ministers to talk about their marriage ceremonies, ministers think it’s interesting to ask if they love one another. What a stupid question! How would they know? A Christian marriage isn’t about whether you’re in love. Christian marriage is giving you the practice of fidelity over a lifetime in which you can look back upon the marriage and call it love. It is a hard discipline over many years. – Stanley Hauerwas

In 2001, Time Magazine named Stanley Hauerwas, “America’s best theologian”. I don’t know how Hauerwas felt about that, but I can imagine that being named the best theologian in America would ruin most people’s day. Being named the best theologian in this country would seem a bit like being named the best hamburger: It’s a practical admission the public will never appreciate you as much as they do the cheaper fare at McDonald’s.

Take for example that a great many Christian politicians, pundits, and preachers today appear to be concerned about “traditional Christian marriage”, but – still speaking in hamburger terms here – their notion of what constituted a traditional Christian marriage often seems to consist of more bun than meat. For one thing, few of them acknowledge, as does Hauerwas, that such traditional marriages were generally unconcerned with whether the couple was in love.

When Hauerwas dares to assert that “Christian marriage isn’t about whether you’re in love”, he seems to be asking Christians to bravely return to the good old days when in fact their marriages were not about love. But if that’s so, then it’s still a question of just how much of a return Hauerwas wants them to make?

For most of our history, marriages were usually arranged by the parents of the spouses, and they were mostly about obtaining financial stability through family alliances. As Elizabeth Abbot explains in A History of Marriage, “Because it [marriage] was a financial arrangement, it was conceived of and operated as such. It was a contract between families. For example, let’s say I’m a printer and you make paper, we might want a marriage between our children because that will improve our businesses.” I am no authority on how Hauerwas thinks, but I suspect he’s is not advocating for a return to genuinely traditional marriages.

Rather, I suspect Hauerwas is merely advocating that people make a commitment to each other which will endure even in the absence of romantic love.

Most of us in the West these days regard romantic love as, at the very least, a make or break condition for a good marriage. Many of us, perhaps even most of us, feel that couples who do not love each other are justified to divorce. But I think Hauerwas doesn’t see it that way. I’m guessing that, in his view, couples should remain together even if and when they no longer love each other.

Perhaps oddly enough, I think he has a point. But the point that I think he has might not be the same point that he himself thinks he has. For, you see, I am of the generally unsound and crazy opinion that couples today routinely expect too much of each other.

They expect themselves to mean everything to their spouse, and their spouse to mean everything to them. They want each other to be their best friend, their closest confident, their most reliable partner, the greatest love of their lives, and their only sex partner. And to top it off, they want all that to last a lifetime.

I believe those demands are generally unrealistic. Few, if any, marriages can live up to expectations like those. And it seems to my simple mind silly to place such a burden of expectations on one single person, rather than spread out those functions among a few people. I would not, for instance, expect my wife, if I had one, to necessarily be my closest confident. If she was, and if it worked out well, that would be a plus, but it would not be something that I’d expect or demand of her.

Speaking only for myself, I would not even expect my wife to be the greatest love of my life. And if I found that I had fallen out of love with her, I would not automatically bring about an end our marriage on those grounds alone. In that respect, I think Hauerwas and I might agree on something.

However, I don’t think we would agree on much else. Among other things, my ideal marriage is an open one. I also have no desire to impose one form or standard on all marriages, and Hauerwas is, for instance, opposed to gay marriage. But what business is it of mine what form my neighbor’s marriage takes?

The one thing I most admire about Hauerwas is his bravery in declaring that Christian marriage is not about love. There seem to me few Christian thinkers today who acknowledge that, traditionally, that is the truth about Christian marriage. Given the prevailing low standards for intellectual honesty in our society, he is likely to get more flak for that admission than respect. But I also see Hauerwas as something of a quaint figure.

I could be very wrong, but I suspect that, on some level, Hauerwas sees the past as holding the proper standards for the future, and sees most deviations from those standards as corruptions of them. Hence gay marriage, for instance, is not to be embraced as progress, but to be opposed as corruption or decadence.

But I see our age as an adolescent age: An age in transition, just as an adolescent is in transition between youth and adulthood. It is not certain to me that our adulthood will be better than our youth, but it is certain to me that we have within ourselves the opportunity to make it better.

Then where are we headed? I am fairly confident the expectation and demand that our spouses be everything to us will not endure forever, and yet I am even more confident that the institution of marriage will still be around in the future. But in what form(s) will it be around? Whatever the form(s) future marriages take, I do not think the form(s) will necessarily be decadent should they depart from past standards.

Is it Human Nature to Murder People for Their Opinions?

Yesterday, May 12th, another blogger was murdered in Bangladesh:

The Bangladeshi humanist blogger and author Ananta Bijoy Das has been hacked to death in Sylhet by four masked men wielding machetes and cleavers. His murder is the fourth such attack in Bangladesh in the last three years and the third in as many months. Das had been working with the International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU) to gain asylum in Europe; just last week a visa application was denied by Swedish authorities.

In 2013, Ahmed Rajib Haider was hacked to death, while Asif Mohiuddin was stabbed several times and several bloggers were arrested. More recently, in February this year, Avijit Roy was also hacked to death while his wife Bonya Ahmed was severely injured. Then in March, Washiqur Rahman was also hacked to death. And today Ananta Bijoy Das has been killed in the same way.

Attacks previous to yesterday’s have been motivated by a desire to suppress the opinions of the bloggers on the grounds that their opinions “defame Islam”. Although no one has come forward yet to explain the motive behind the most recent attack, it’s a pretty good guess that its motive is the same as that of the previous attacks.

There is a tendency to see these and other similar violent assaults as more or less peculiar to Muslims, or at least, as peculiar to religious fanatics of one faith or another. But the tendency to blame religion strikes me as a misleading one.

Religion might all too often add fuel to the fire, but the fire is already burning even before religion inflames it higher.

We humans have a very long history of irrationally suppressing opinions we find offensive both through overtly violent and through other means. Apart from murder, we also employ such means as shouting down the speaker, hounding them, ostracizing them, insulting them, or threatening them with various other repercussions if they persist in expressing their views. Such behavior is ubiquitous, and when a behavior is ubiquitous, when it is found in all places and at all times through-out history, it must be suspected of being a human trait, rather than merely a cultural, social, or individual one.

The fact – if it is indeed a fact – that the suppression of offensive opinions is grounded in human nature does not mean that the suppression is morally or ethically justified.

Human biology is not the sum of human destiny. We seem to be either unique or almost unique among animals in that we have brains capable of making decisions that run contrary to our instincts. Consequently, it cannot be truthfully said that, because suppressing opinions that offend us is human nature, doing so is either necessary or even inevitable. There is no escaping by that route the obligation to decide what is morally or ethically just.

The question thus comes down to what kinds of opinion, if any, can be morally or ethically suppressed?

Over a hundred years ago, John Stuart Mill provided what I regard as a sound answer to that question. The example he used to make his point involved the English corn merchants. They were the bankers of his day. The merchants were often reviled, especially by poor people. Poor people perceived that the merchants frequently manipulated the market to drive prices up, making corn unaffordable to many, and had much to say about the fact. In turn, the merchants took offense at the things said about them, and sought to have such speech criminalized. Mill came to the defense of free speech by arguing that no one had a right to suppress opinions on the mere basis that such opinions were offensive to them, for to be offended was not to suffer actual harm. Only if someone’s speech was an incitement to do actual harm to someone could it be morally suppressed.

I follow Mill in believing that offense is not a basis for suppressing someone’s opinions. However, the obvious counter to that position is to argue that offense is actually harmful to the offended party. And that is what the American philosopher Joel Feinberg did in the 1980’s.

Feinberg argued that a person’s opinions can cause embarrassment, shame, fear, revulsion, shock, and so forth, in other people, and that those feelings can amount to actual harm done. He therefore urged that Mill’s “harm principle” be replaced with his “offense principle”.

Feinberg’s illiberal views seem to have been picked up on mostly by the radical Left. So far as I’ve heard, on many college campuses today, the notion that opinions which cause someone offense are actually injurious to them has largely prevailed over Mill’s harm principle. And this appears to have led to all sorts of notably stupid situations. For instance, Jonathan Chait writes in New York Magazine:

Last March at University of ¬California–Santa Barbara, in, ironically, a “free-speech zone,” a 16-year-old anti-abortion protester named Thrin Short and her 21-year-old sister Joan displayed a sign arrayed with graphic images of aborted fetuses. They caught the attention of Mireille Miller-Young, a professor of feminist studies. Miller-Young, angered by the sign, demanded that they take it down. When they refused, Miller-Young snatched the sign, took it back to her office to destroy it, and shoved one of the Short sisters on the way.

Speaking to police after the altercation, Miller-Young told them that the images of the fetuses had “triggered” her and violated her “personal right to go to work and not be in harm.” A Facebook group called “UCSB Microaggressions” declared themselves “in solidarity” with Miller-Young and urged the campus “to provide as much support as possible.”

By the prevailing standards of the American criminal-justice system, Miller-Young had engaged in vandalism, battery, and robbery. By the logic of the p.c. [political correctness] movement, she was the victim of a trigger and had acted in the righteous cause of social justice. Her colleagues across the country wrote letters to the sentencing judge pleading for leniency. Jennifer Morgan, an NYU professor, blamed the anti-¬abortion protesters for instigating the confrontation through their exercise of free speech. “Miller-Young’s actions should be mitigated both by her history as an educator as well as by her conviction that the [anti-abortion] images were an assault on her students,” Morgan wrote. Again, the mere expression of opposing ideas, in the form of a poster, is presented as a threatening act.

The notion that mere images of aborted fetuses can rise to the level of “an assault” that might be justifiably defended against to even by means of vandalism, battery, and robbery is, of course, a dangerous idea. But the notion is also a logical deduction from Feinberg’s offense principle.

Once you grant that anything which offends a person does actual harm to that person, that person is logically justified to take action to prevent themselves from coming to harm. And the greater the potential harm, the more extreme the legitimate range of actions they can take. If your opinion on some matter, however trivial it might be to you, can cause me severe, lasting and permanent damage, then what prevents me from being morally justified when I resort even to violence in order to prevent that damage? What matter vandalism, battery, and robbery when done in “necessary” self-defense? Or if I feel sufficiently harmed, why should I not recruit three of my friends with whom to hack at you with machetes?

Although my example here has been an example of an assault on free speech from the American Left, such assaults are by no means confined to any one ideology, movement, or politics.

The dangerous idea that we have a right to suppress opinions or ideas that offend us is a notion that is very likely to always be with us in one form or another, for it seems to be rooted in human nature itself, rather than more simply rooted in a particular religion, ideology, or society.

And that can be a scary thought, for the implication here is that all the world’s social or ideological progress might be little more than a veneer, and that a future age of illiberal barbarism is perhaps just as much a possibility as a future age of enlightened civilization. We will always have within us the genes for that barbaric age.

The Manner in Which I Have Been Butchering the Noble Art of Painting…

Over the past three years, I’ve taken up painting portraits.  I’m by no means a prolific painter: In three years, I’ve done fewer than 30 portraits.  Yet, painting seems a bit like comfort food to me. I’ve discovered I’m never more happy than when I have a brush in my hand.  Below is one of my most recent portraits — completed within the last few weeks:

Brett Spring 2015 III-SizedBy comparison, here is one of the first portraits I did from about three years ago:

IMG_0753Although I don’t have much talent or skill as a painter, I do think I’ve made a bit of progress over the past three years.  And more importantly, it’s fun.

Just out of curiosity, what is your creative outlet or outlets for self-expression?

Rush Limbaugh — Master of Creditability

As I turned on Rush Limbaugh’s radio program today – randomly – I was met by Limbaugh saying that liberals have been openly advocating communism for two decades now and that Barack Obama wants to be re-elected so that he can install a communist regime.

Hume’s Ghost from The Daily Doubter blog.

Are there still some folks left who are naive enough to unquestioningly believe Rush?  Or has he finally reached the point that even the biggest, most gullible fool among us no longer believes him?