Late Night Thoughts: Love, Realism, Talents, Happiness, and More.

(About 7 minutes to read) 

Terri, who occasionally comments on this blog, pointed out the other day in a discussion about compassion that some feelings or emotions are as strikingly beautiful as anything physical.  Of course, that is true not only of compassion, but also of love.  And to me, one of the most beautiful things about love is how it so often creates in us both a desire to improve the lives of our beloved, and a sensitivity to ways that might genuinely improve their lives.

When I composed the following poem, I had in mind more the desire to improve, than the sensitivity to know what would improve.  Still, I think the poem works in its own way.

Love is an ancient thing
That travels back before gravity was born
And forward beyond the last gods.
I have wanted to sip your breast
In between the lights of night and day
And tell you how I’ve taken sides
Against a mammoth
To bring you his tusks
So that you, my woman, my love,
Will be happy now
For all the worlds
You have given to me.

Should love — any kind of love — really be thought of as a single emotion?  Is romantic love just one emotion?  Erotic love?  Mature or deeply attached love?

Perhaps erotic love is but a single emotion, lust, but how can you make the same case for the others?  Romantic, mature, and other kinds of love do seem to have many characteristics, rather than just one.  For instance, in addition to making us desire to improve someone’s life, don’t both romantic and mature love also make us feel greater tolerance for the differences that might exist between us and our beloved?

It’s a tricky question, I think, because perhaps they only make us overlook the differences, rather than actually make us willing to tolerate the differences.  Or are those the same thing?

Most people, I believe, stubbornly accept reality just as conscientiously as they accept their religion.  That is, only when it is convenient to do so, but then conscientiously.  Realism is not our main strength as a species.

Have you noticed that humans so seldom are what they want to be?  Yet so much of our happiness, I think, comes from accepting ourselves as we are.

All that striving to be what we are not seems to produce more unhappiness than anything else, because — while we can change ourselves around the edges — we have much greater difficulty changing our core nature.

But then, what is our core nature?

I don’t think I have the complete answer to that question, but surely part of the answer is that our core nature includes our talents.  By “talents” I do not mean our skills, but rather our raw predispositions to such things as athletics, mathematics, music, drawing, writing, dance, mechanics, etc.

A good way to tell if you have a talent for something is to ask yourself two questions.  First, “Do I like doing this?”  We usually like doing what we have a talent for doing.   Second, “Does it come comparatively easy to me?”  I think the key word here is “comparatively”.   If you don’t have a talent for, say, mathematics, but do have a talent for music, you will usually find that music comes a whole lot easier to you than math.   Answer those questions honestly, without wishful thinking, and you will most likely gain a pretty good idea of where your talents lie.  At least that’s been my experience.

In my view, pursuing one’s talents in life by working to turn them into actual skills is — all else being equal — not only conducive to happiness, but perhaps more important, conducive to a sense of meaning.

Now, all of this might seem commonsense, and so obvious it’s hardly worth mentioning, but I have met far too many people who were more or less clueless about their talents for myself think “it’s just commonsense to know your talents”.

Why have so many people been ignorant of their own talents, though?

I think the single most important reason is that, in this matter, most of us listen way too much to the advice of others.  They usually mean well, but they don’t know you nearly as well as you yourself could — if you took a dispassionate look at yourself — know you.  Most often, other people of good will want what’s best for you, but their idea of what’s best for you is very heavily colored by what they know about what’s best for them.

The worst evil that you can do, psychologically, is to laugh at yourself. That means spitting in your own face.  — Ayn Rand

The main reason I think of Rand in something less than an entirely negative light is because several of my female friends have told me over the years that Rand helped them psychologically liberate themselves from the oppressive expectations and indoctrinations of the religious cults they grew up in.

While I think there are better — much better — authors than Rand for helping with that, I’m glad she did indeed help my friends realize just how greatly they had been lied to about their worth and potential as women.

Having said that, my overall impression of her is that she is squarely in the buffoon class of philosophers and social critics.  Indeed, I even think it was pretentious of her to have called herself a “philosopher” at all.  She did very little to push the envelope of rational thought, such as the great philosophers have done.  But that’s a minor peeve of mine.  A greater reason for calling her a buffoon is that she could not laugh at herself.  Have you ever known a buffoon who genuinely could?

I am of the view that humor, in general, evolved as an adaptive mechanism.  To put it somewhat superficially here, it seems to me that humor greatly facilitates logical reasoning and attention to empirical evidence.   More specifically, it can play a key role in helping us to overcome our innate cognitive biases, egotistical attachments to our beliefs, and general intellectual inertia, in order to change our minds when we are wrong about something.  And changing our minds when we are wrong about something can have obvious benefits to our survival, albeit it is quite often extraordinarily difficult for us to do — and nearly impossible for those who lack any appreciable sense of humor at all.

In that regard, self-deprecatory humor is no different than humor in general.  So far as I can recall, I’ve not yet in my sixty years met a man or woman who “took themselves too seriously” and who greatly understood themselves.

There used to be a saying among fire fighters that, for all I know, might still be current.  “Never fight fire from ego”.  Both myself and the men I worked with in the few years that I fought fires profoundly distrusted anyone who “fought fire from ego”.  We knew they could too easily get themselves killed — or far worse, someone else killed.

Today, forty or so years later, I still haven’t found anyone — whose ego has such a firm grip on them that they can’t laugh at themselves — that I would trust at my side in even a moderately demanding situation, let alone where my life might be on the line.  Yes, I know, I’m only thinking of myself here, but so be it.

Of course, you might want to make up your own mind about all that, rather than simply swallow what I say.  I have, after all, been certified as crazy by a group of scientists.  Personally, I don’t think the space alien scientists who have contacted me through my microwave know what they’re talking about, but it might still be reasonable of you to take my words — or anyone’s words, for that matter — with a bit of reflective thought, rather than reflexively.

Late Night Thoughts: Friday, March 17, 2017

I turned 60 a couple months ago. One of the things I’ve enjoyed about getting older has been that I don’t worry as much about my mistakes as I used to when I was younger.

I still make as many — or even more — mistakes as I ever did, but I just don’t worry about them as much. Instead, I let the victims of my mistakes do the worrying, for part of my getting older has been my learning how to properly delegate responsibility.

I recently got involved in a discussion of nudity.  Someone said that nudity was against Christian principles for women.  That is, women should be modest in their apparel.

Then someone else pointed out there wasn’t much that was more modest than nudity.  “Hard to put on airs when you ain’t got nothing else on.”

Do you suppose American women, by and large, have similar handwriting?

At least, it’s my impression that a woman’s handwriting usually resembles other women’s handwriting to a greater degree than a man’s handwriting is apt to resemble other men’s handwriting.  Put differently, it seems more difficult to tell women apart than it seems it is to tell men apart.

If that is indeed the case, then why is it the case?

And if it is true of American women, is it true of women elsewhere?

I’ve heard people say we can never know for certain what it feels like to be someone else.  But is that really true? Is it never possible to know for certain what it feels like to be someone else?

Yesterday, I was with my friend Don for a late lunch. Don and I go back a long ways and we know each other pretty well.

At one point during our lunch, he said something that was so profound it went completely over my head and I couldn’t even begin to fathom what he meant.  I felt lost and stupid.

Then I suddenly realized: “Surely, this is what it feels like to be a politician!”

Who am I?

If you ask most of us who we are, we will answer you by naming one or another relationship. We are, for instance, a husband.  Or a golfer.  Or a businessman.  But to say we are a husband, or a golfer, or a businessman, is each case to define our self in terms of the relationship we have to something.

In contrast, we tend not to define our self in terms of what is happening with us at any given moment.  I do not think of myself as someone whose shoulder is itching. Or as someone who happens to be looking at a computer monitor.  Or as someone who is wishing it was dawn.  All of those are transient things — too transient for me to think of them as “me”.

Yet, being a husband, a golfer, or a businessman are also transient.  That is, if you really think about it, you are not simply “a husband”.  You are only sometimes a husband.  Just as your shoulder only sometimes itches.  And it is only a convention of thought that you imagine yourself to always — or continuously — be a husband.

The Cosmic Dancer, declares Nietzsche, does not rest heavily in a single spot, but gaily, lightly, turns and leaps from one position to another. It is possible to speak from only one point at a time, but that does not invalidate the insights of the rest. – Joseph Campbell, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1968, p. 229.

While it might be true Nietzsche never wrote what Campbell attributes to him, Campbell’s “paraphrase” of Nietzsche’s views ranks as a sharp insight in itself.

We humans sometimes wish to construct systems of thought — worldviews — that are consistent throughout and encompass everything.  Yet, such “views” are simply beyond us, and might even be logically impossible.

So, perhaps the best we can do is to become Cosmic Dancers.  That is, folks who are capable of looking at things from many angles and perspectives, who are capable of dancing between views, but who do not settle dogmatically on any one point of view.

The mane is thought to keep the neck warm, and possibly to help water run off the neck if the animal cannot obtain shelter from the rain. It also provides some fly protection to the front of the horse, although the tail is usually the first defense against flies.

Wikipedia

I’m not buying it.  I find it implausible that manes would evolve because horses with manes had warmer necks, and that their warmer necks proved to be significant to their reproductive success.  There must be some other reason manes evolved.

But what would that be?

I was thinking sexual selection.  That is, I was thinking manes are like the male peacock’s tail.  It provides no survival advantage, but the female peacock’s like it. So the females pick the males with the best tails to mate with.  That’s what I was thinking.

But then I remembered that both male and female horses have manes. So now I’m thinking sexual selection probably isn’t the reason horses evolved manes.

But what is the reason?

For the sake of discussion, let us assume there’s an able god.  By “able”, I mean that god is capable of doing anything that does not violate the rules of logic.  For instance, it can create the universe, but it cannot create a square circle because a square circle is logically impossible.

Next, let us assume that god unconditionally loves all of creation, including each one of us.

Is that scenario logically possible?

Well, I think it is possible. I would not account it very probable. It’s not something I’d bank on.  But possible?  Yes.

Now, let us assume the same two conditions — an able god and that god’s unconditional love — plus a third condition.

The third condition is there exists a hell that is a part of creation and to which people are sent after their death if they disobey the god.

Is the new scenario logically possible?

I do not think so.  Instead,. I think the new scenario involves a logical contradiction and consequently cannot exist.  That is, it cannot be real.  But what is that contradiction?

Well, how can you logically have an able god that loves you unconditionally and also causes you to go to hell if you disobey that god?

So far as I can see, you cannot.  An unconditionally loving god would neither impose a condition upon it’s love ( i.e. if you do not obey me, I will not love you) nor would an unconditionally loving god, if it were able to prevent it, allow it’s beloved to come to harm (i.e. if you do not obey me, I will cause or allow you to go to hell).

But what do you think?  Is it an amusing logic puzzle?  Or have I just had too much caffeine again?

Four Quotes From Voltaire:

Les habiles tyrans ne sont jamais punis.

— Clever tyrants are never punished.

C’est une des superstitions de l’esprit humain d’avoir imaginé que la virginité pouvait être une vertu.

It is one of the superstitions of the human mind to have imagined that virginity could be a virtue.

Nous cherchons tous le bonheur, mais sans savoir où, comme les ivrognes qui cherchent leur maison, sachant confusément qu’ils en ont une.

We all look for happiness, but without knowing where to find it: like drunkards who look for their house, knowing dimly that they have one.

Il y a eu des gens qui ont dit autrefois: Vous croyez des choses incompréhensibles, contradictoires, impossibles, parce que nous vous l’avons ordonné; faites donc des choses injustes parce que nous vous l’ordonnons. Ces gens-là raisonnaient à merveille. Certainement qui est en droit de vous rendre absurde est en droit de vous rendre injuste. Si vous n’opposez point aux ordres de croire l’impossible l’intelligence que Dieu a mise dans votre esprit, vous ne devez point opposer aux ordres de malfaire la justice que Dieu a mise dans votre coeur. Une faculté de votre âme étant une fois tyrannisée, toutes les autres facultés doivent l’être également. Et c’est là ce qui a produit tous les crimes religieux dont la terre a été inondée.

Formerly there were those who said: You believe things that are incomprehensible, inconsistent, impossible because we have commanded you to believe them; go then and do what is unjust because we command it. Such people show admirable reasoning. Truly, whoever is able to make you absurd is able to make you unjust. If the God-given understanding of your mind does not resist a demand to believe what is impossible, then you will not resist a demand to do wrong to that God-given sense of justice in your heart. As soon as one faculty of your soul has been dominated, other faculties will follow as well. And from this derives all those crimes of religion which have overrun the world.

(Source)

A while back, I was sitting in a coffee shop when I noticed — just beyond the window — a girl of about 14 or 16 dressed in a highly sexualized manner.  That is, her clothing was flamboyantly sexual even for an adolescent.  Moverover, she was flirting with a boy, who appeared a bit older than her, and she very soon straddled his lap in order to grind against him.  I couldn’t recall when I had last seen in public such an overt display of sexuality — outside of an erotic dance club.

Now, the girl was not physically attractive by American conventions. For one thing, she was much too fat to be fashionable.  For another thing, she had a rather plain face thickly coated with cosmetics.  And, though her clothing was notable for being revealing, it did not seem that she had put much thought into the combination she’d chosen.

So, it wasn’t long before I began to wonder whether the poor girl might be suffering from low self-esteem.  That is, it seemed possible that she thought of herself as not having much to offer the boys besides sex.

I was thinking along those sad lines when I heard a male voice at the table behind me say, “God! Look at that slut!”

Of course, I don’t know whether he was talking about the girl, or about someone else.  I didn’t ask.  Yet, I assumed he was indeed talking about the girl — and that made me feel old.  Old and tired.

You see, the one attractive thing I had noticed about the girl in the few minutes I’d been watching her was that she seemed so full of life.  Even if her dress and mannerisms were motivated by low self-esteem — and I didn’t know that for certain — she appeared at the moment happy.  She was, if only for a while, the queen of her universe.  It wearied me to think anyone would simply dismiss her as a slut.

What Are the Politics of Human Instincts?

I recall in the 1960s and 70s, it was popular in many circles to insist that human nature was uniquely malleable.  It was frequently said that, while other animals had many instincts,  human instincts were few and far between.

Instead of instincts,  human behavior was governed solely by learning.  We lacked any instinct to have sex and had to learn to have it.    Again, we lacked any instinct for defending a territory and had to learn both the concept of a territory and to defend ours.  And so forth…

Learning and instinct were seen as oil and water:  They didn’t mix.  An animal’s behavior was either instinctual or it was learned.  If it was instinctual, then it was unvarying and reflexive.  If it was learned, then it was almost infinitely variable and far from reflexive.   The most widely used definitions of instinct at the time precluded just about any other interpretation.  Konrad Lorenz was around, but his pioneering work on instinctual behavior was not nearly so well understood and accepted as the work on learning of, say, B. F. Skinner.

My impression is that people believed humans had so few instincts because they wanted to think of our species as improvable.  The 60s and 70s were in many ways an optimistic time when folks thought humanity could fundamentally change for the better.  And, of course, if that was true, then it made sense to think that human behavior was limited only by what humans could learn.

There might also have been a bit of Christian theology underlying the expectations of scientists.  In Christianity, man occupies an unique place in nature.  He is the only animal who has a soul, and perhaps the only animal with free will.  I suspect the scientists of the 60s and 70s were unconsciously influenced by those beliefs.  Hence, they expected to find a human quite unlike the other animals.  A human whose behavior was uniquely malleable if not through free will, then through learning.

I only know a small handful of people today — mostly sociologists — who still deny that humans have any significant instincts.  Instincts are not always called “instincts” today.  Sometimes, they are called “predispositions”, “behavorial tendencies”, “predilections”, or other terms.  But regardless of what name they use, you everywhere run across people talking about instinctual behavior.   Or, at least I do.

Some of the behaviors that one or another person has conceived of as instinctual to our species include tribalism, territorialism, war, rape,  reciprocity,  language, certain morals, and a belief in spirits and other supernatural entities.  Those and many other things have been thought of as  either instinctual or having a strong instinctual component.

There is much more to the history of human instincts than I have the space for here, but I think you can now get an approximate idea of the change in thinking about instincts that’s taken place over the past few decades.

In my own view, instincts and learning are not oil and water.  Instead, they mix.  Moreover, the instinct is not an unvarying reflex, but rather more like a predisposition towards a certain behavior.   If humans have an instinct for sex, that does not mean that humans will necessarily have sex every chance they get.   It does not mean that humans are like automatons who cannot vary their behavior in order to adapt to circumstances.   Instead, an instinct for sex means, among other things, that humans have a pronounced tendency towards having sex.

Politically, the notion of instinctual behavior in humans is potentially dangerous to liberty.  My guess it is only a matter of time before some inbred fool comes along to claim that his or her inherent instincts are superior to everyone else’s inherent instincts, giving his or her family a right to rule the rest of us for the next ten generations.  Minimum.   And of course, if that wannabe aristocrat has enough money, he or she will have many supporters.   In other words, the recognition that human behavior is not determined by learning — and learning alone — can seem to be an implicit recognition that some of us might be born better people to govern than others of us.

On the other hand, it seems to me that liberty for everyone is justified on many grounds.  Thus, one does not need to prove that all people are born equal — or born with equal potential, as it were — to justify everyone possessing the same political liberties.

But what do you think?

Can We Deserve to Have Friends?

I recently overheard someone remark that they “had gone years without even one real friend”, and that they felt “severely lonely”.  She then went on to say that she “deserved friends”.

Her remarks left me with several thoughts.  In the first place, you wish you could do something about someone’s “severe loneliness”.  That is, it seems safe to say we’ve all been there at one or another point in our lives, and most of us probably have some empathy for people who feel lonely.

But beyond that, I was struck by her notion that she “deserved” friends.  Did she mean that friends were her just due in life?  That she could earn friends the way we, say, earn money?

If that’s what she meant, then I find myself in disagreement with her.

It simply does not seem possible to me to deserve someone’s friendship.  Instead, it seems to me friendship is a gift that people sometimes give to us.  But it is not that we can demand of it others because we deserve it.   “I have done x and y for you — therefore you must be my friend.”  That just doesn’t sit well with me.

But what do you think?  Can we deserve friends?  Can we earn them by way of what we do for them, or by means of what kind of person we are?

The Challenge of Uncertainty

I think to varying degrees, many of us have been taught the challenge is to arrive at a firm opinion or belief.  And, of course, it helps if that’s also a true belief.

At times, it seems as if we think the human mind somehow finds it difficult to harbor a conviction.  Yet, after seven or eight years of reading debates and discussions posted on popular internet forums,  I suspect most of us might be too certain of our beliefs and opinions.

That is, it does not seem we humans have as much of a problem being certain as we have a problem being uncertain.

At the root of this problem I think is the human desire for permanence.  That desire manifests itself in many ways, but one way seems to be how it manifests itself as a fetish for convictions.  I think the sense is, if our beliefs last, so do we.

It might be that the real challenge is — not to have a firm opinion or belief — but to be open to learning something new.

“For All Have Sinned”

Have you noticed some people seem to think their god has the morals of an abusive spouse?

I ran into one of those folks last night.  Let’s call him, “Jeff”.   Jeff was saying how according to his standards — which are not really his, but the standards of his god — he is not a good person.  That’s because he has done at least one wrong thing in his life.

In other words, Jeff was arguing the same as, “According to my god, you are no good at math unless you have never, even once, made a mistake at math.”  Or, “You are no good as a painter if your work has ever failed to move someone.”   Or, “You are no good as a blogger if even a single person has been left in full possession of their senses after reading one of your posts.”

Of course, in the real world, the most likely persons to set such high standards are abusers, for such standards are traps.  You cannot live up to them, and so your abuser will have plenty of excuses for criticizing you when you don’t.  Is that how Jeff sees his god?  As an abuser?

Apparently.  While I doubt Jeff would use the word “abuser” in reference to his god, he does seem to think his god behaves like one.  That is, first he sets impossibly high moral standards.  Then he eternally damns you to hell when you fall short of them.

Yet, according to Jeff, his god is a loving god.  He’s a loving god because he has created an escape from the trap he’s set for you.

I can think of a hundred things that show more love for you than:

  • Setting impossible to achieve standards for you,
  • Damning you when you fail to achieve them,
  • And excusing your failure if you maintain a psychological and emotional dependency on me.

I can also think of interpretations of the story of Jesus that do not spin the story in a way that parallels the behavior of an abusive parent or spouse.  So I’ve been wondering what the point is of Jeff’s approach?  How does it make sense?  And is his approach in any way mainstream?

Why Did Humans Invent the Gods?

I think I’m headed in the direction of becoming a very disagreeable old man.  I think that might happen to me because I have a number of pet peeves.  Peeves that are meaningful only to me — but which I increasingly lack the wisdom to keep to myself.  And one of those pet peeves became inflamed tonight.

I have for years held the opinion — rabidly held the opinion — that E. B. Tylor was mistaken. Tylor, who was born in 1832, was the anthropologist who coined the notion the gods were invented to explain things.

I don’t think Tylor had any real evidence for his notion the gods were invented to explain things.  I agree with those folks who say he was speculating.  Yet, his notion can seem plausible.  And I suppose that’s why his notion has caught on.  So far as I can see, Tylor’s notion is the single most popular explanation for the invention of deities.

Basically, his notion goes like this:  Primitive humans did not have the science to know what caused thunder, so they invented a god that caused thunder.  In that way, their natural curiosity was satisfied.  Again, primitive humans did not know what caused love, so they invented a god that caused love.  And so forth.

Tylor’s views spawned the notion the gods would sooner or later go away because science would sooner or later replace them as an explanation for things.  Of course that hasn’t happened.

A number of scientists have come up with much more interesting theories about the origins of deity than Tylor came up with.  But those theories haven’t had the time to catch on as widely as Tylor’s. Nevertheless, the gist of the current thinking is that our brains are somewhat predisposed to belief in supernatural things — from ghosts to gods.  I have posted about those new notions here and here, but for a more comprehensive look at the new notions, see the recommended readings at the end of this post.

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Recommended Readings:

Andrew Newberg and Eugene D’Aquili, Why God Won’t Go Away: Brain Science and the Biology of Belief.

Scott Atran, In Gods We Trust: The Evolutionary Landscape of Religion.