Seven Big Questions

I’m a philosopher.  It doesn’t pay well – it doesn’t pay at all – but, for me anyway, it’s a very satisfying pursuit.  If you’ve ever been curious about “the big questions,” have a look at these.  I guarantee that, if nothing else, you’ll know within thirty seconds of starting a conversation with any of these questions whether people admire or despise you – there will be NO in between …

Why is there something rather than nothing?  Ordinarily we take our everyday existence for granted — but every once in a while we’re jostled out of that into a profound state of existential awareness.  Why is there all this stuff in the universe, and why is it governed by such exquisitely precise laws?  Why should anything exist at all?

Is the universe real?  Alternative:  how do we know that what we see around us is real, and not the grand illusion of an unseen force?  (Think of Descartes’s dream and evil demon arguments.)

Do we have free will?  Are our actions controlled by a causal chain of preceding events (a.k.a. determinism), or do we make free choices that make differences in the world?

Does God exist?  From a purely logical / definitional point of view, whether you’re a believer or an atheist, you’re wrong.  The agnostic, who maintains the question is unanswerable in principle, gets it.

Is there life after death?  There’s more than a few of us who are psychologically comforted by the notion that life need not end with death.  Unfortunately, we don’t have any concrete evidence to support this claim – and we’re left wondering what happens next.

Can you really experience anything objectively?  Is there ever any real sense in which we can know things independently how we experience them?  As embodied minds, we connect with the world by way of sensation and thought.

What is morality?  What makes an action “right” or “wrong”?  Isn’t life just too complicated for there to be anything like a universal morality or an absolutist ethics?  History is strewn with answers to this question.

Potential, Possibility, and “the Annihilation of the Future”

If you’re able to buy food, clothing, shelter, and other basic life necessities, and can take care of yourself and your family, you know that motivation by itself is not enough for economic security.  Not everyone thinks this way; some people think the biggest (or even only) reason anyone in this country of wealth and opportunity is poor is because they choose to be poor; hard work, determination, and a little bit of luck are all one needs to overcome poverty.

But this misunderstands the causal connection between motivation and poverty.  Lack of motivation does not cause poverty – poverty causes lack of motivation.

“[W]hen you are approaching poverty … [you discover] the fact that it [poverty] annihilates the future” [emphasis added].  The quote is from the end of the third chapter of Down and Out in Paris and London, George Orwell’s first book.  Published in January 1933, Down and Out draws upon Orwell’s own experiences of poverty and unemployment some seven to eight years before its publication.

I was struck by this quotation’s direct implications for the ideas of potential and possibility in our lives.  Without an implicit belief about the potential we can bring into being, that the dreams we dream are part of what we need to do to make those dreams real, both potency and possibility “die on the vine.”  When you’re poor, the immediacy of your poverty crowds all of your mental space; there are no thoughts (and there cannot be any thoughts) of what might be – since survival is all that matters.

Hence Orwell’s “annihilation of the future.”  Think of the vast volumes of human ingenuity, imagination and creativity that go unrealized because so many of us have to scramble just to make ends meet.  The “side hustle,” in addition to one’s regular job, is touted as just part of the new normal in America – a tacit admission that no one gets by on a single paycheck anymore.

Do NOT accept this “new normal.”  Despite what we want to believe, whatever good fortune we enjoy has only a little to do with us; our economic security is rarely in direct proportion to our efforts, or what we think we deserve.  At a minimum all of us deserve life’s basic necessities (e.g., food, health, and shelter).  Without these, there is no future – for any of us.

In Memoriam

Memorial Day (also known as Decoration Day) is a federal holiday in the United States for remembering the people who died while serving in the country’s armed forces.

Memorial Day has been observed on the last Monday of May since 1971; before then the holiday was held on May 30 from 1868 to 1970.

It wasn’t until after World War I that Memorial Day was expanded to honor all veterans who died in any American war.

Memorial Day marks the unofficial start of the summer vacation season (Labor Day, the first Monday of September, marks its end).

Memorial Day is slightly more likely to fall on May 25th, 28th or 30th than on May 26th, 27th, 29th or 31st.

Many people visit cemeteries and memorials, particularly to honor those who have died in military service.  Many volunteers place an American flag on each grave in national cemeteries.

Memorial Day is not the same as Veterans Day (November 11), the day America celebrates the service of all U.S. military veterans.

Memorial Day 1946 fell on a Thursday.  My parents married each other on that Thursday, about a year after Victory in Europe (VE) Day, celebrated on May 8, 1945.

My dad served in World War II with United States Army as a radio operator stationed in the Philippines.

I think all Americans recognize that we owe a huge debt of gratitude and appreciation to the families of the men and women of our military services, especially to those whose sons and daughters, fathers and mothers made the ultimate sacrifice defending and protecting this great country.

I am very grateful for the men and women who serve in our armed forces.  I had the honor of having a young man as a student in my World Religions class back in the fall of 2010; he had just completed a two-year Army hitch in Afghanistan.  One time after class, we rode the same bus home to our respective apartments.  He talked about some of the atrocities he witnessed while serving there – not in any great detail, mind you, but enough to let me know that the experience left him with a sadness that obliterated every last vestige of innocence.

In memory of all those brave men and women who made the ultimate sacrifice, whether you’re conservative or liberal, Democrat or Republican, of any religion or of no religion, I ask you take a moment today to remember the families of those who sacrificed everything for us.  Thank you.

What Is Your Intention?

When I meditate, I’m asked to notice sensation (“what is your body telling you right now?”), emotion (“what feelings are you experiencing right now?”), and intention (“why are you doing this?”)

The “intention” question strikes at the heart of my Catholic-upbringing, seminary-reinforced idea of meditation.  Within that context, meditation is solely a spiritual exercise, a practice one develops to recognize the larger world oozing and overflowing with God’s joy, love and happiness.

Since then I’ve re-imagined meditation in more exclusively “secular” or “humanistic” ways.  Spiritual meditation is a whole lot like secular “meditation,” although the latter is probably better cast under the term “reflection.”

Reflection, I believe, is a common arena shared by this world and the more-than-this world, where the immanent and the transcendent picnic together, get to know one another.  My move from seminary to philosophy shifted my attention from what it must be like for the other-world picnickers to what it’s like for the picnickers here and now.

But the reflection involved in critical analysis aims to be a purely cognitive activity; noncognitive elements such as joy, pain, suffering, passion, and love are impurities that contaminate thinking.  You could recognize them as variables, but only as other phenomena or experience to bracket, to set aside, so that the horse of reason has full throttle of your investigations.

Daily meditations have allowed me to accept these other aspects of my experience, to value them as much as thinking.  One of meditation’s key assumptions is that the mind tends to be so agitated, so intent on ignoring the emotional AND the physical, that we lose contact with these other core parts of being human.

The person leading the meditations said, “Keep in mind the others in your life; your intention will help you that much more when you want to do this not only for yourself but also for them.”  But not in another “self” way, as if you’re there for a bunch of selves.  What you’re there for is to become more aware of the connections between those selves, between you and your friend, between that friend and her husband, between that husband and his job, between … again and again and again.

The aim to be more mindful of these connections (rather than who or what they connect) for me proved to be a huge help in coping with, dealing with, managing my existence just a little better.

The other caveat I picked up from meditation is that, in becoming more mindful of these connections, it helps to not see yourself at the center of this vast network of connections.  Think of the solar system in relation to the Milky Way galaxy – it’s not at the center of things:  it’s a tiny dot among billions of tiny dots of a starfish swirling around a center defined by the collection of the dots.

That’s what I visualize when I’m asked, “what is your intention?”  My intention, I tell myself, is to become more mindful of the connections that make up this huge galaxy of awareness, human and more than human, me a dot among billions and billions of dots that make the swirling starfish possible in the first place.

NOT a “Binary Proposition”

My corporate masters recently promoted me (after only ten years since my last promotion) from “analyst” to “manager.”  The money is better than before, of course – not quite as much as I had been hoping for, and still not enough to cover what I lost from part-time teaching.  But at least I am back to working forty (instead of fifty) hours a week to make ends meet, freeing up those ten extra hours for other satisfying non-financial pursuits, e.g., art, music, reading and writing.

The company regularly holds “new leader” manager orientations, for both the new and others looking to improve their managerial skills.  I attended one last week, a two-day session that ran the gamut from reviewing the company’s “leadership model” to role-playing sessions of how to work with those you manage to engage them and make them feel they are a valued member of the team.  It was all good information, even for someone who’s never been particularly fond of authority figures, and who doesn’t relish the idea of being an authority figure now.  See what I do for money?

On the morning of the second day we considered the company’s five “leadership model” metrics, with a view towards gaining a means of evaluating our charges’ performance with respect to those metrics.  Of particular concern to one individual, who made up in bravado what he lacked in humility, was how to evaluate his employee’s performance with respect to the company’s ethics metric, expressed by the phrase “[we] Live Our Values.”  He understood how things like business results, innovation, etc. admit of degrees.  When it came to living values, though, he remarked, “How do you evaluate whether someone is ‘living rightly’?  You either are living that way or you aren’t – it’s a binary proposition!”  To which 21 of the other 22 “new leaders” in the room laughed in (what I thought was) agreement.

This both annoyed and angered me – annoyed insofar as living well is NOT a binary proposition and angered because it didn’t seem to me that anyone in the room recognized what the implications are of believing this either/or claim.

Regarding “living well” (living “morally” or “rightly” or “righteously,” and not necessarily “prosperously”) as an either/or matter implies there is some threshold that one either does or doesn’t meet.  It further implies there is no such thing as the possibility of improving one’s own moral character – one either is a good person or one isn’t.  It also suggests a certain timelessness about that moral character – if one is a good person today how can one not be a good person tomorrow?

An “either/or” approach to the idea of living well is both a symptom and a cause of deficient intellectual imagination.  A complicated, messy world cannot begin to be managed with any degree of satisfaction with a simple thumb up or down.  I found it disconcerting that those who strive day after day to improve the company’s financial well-being would not see the same necessity for doing likewise with the intrinsic value of living well.

See what we do for money.  What do we do for each other, for our greater good, for love?