The Philosophical Question of Sin

One of the things that I wonder about when I read Socrates is the origin of his robust conscience. In the Phaedo and the Gorgias he seems to have such a sense of assurance in his own goodness. This of course is different from what we see in the Analects of Confucius, who admits that he is not yet benevolent and that he has defects.

One of the things that the ancient philosophers did not do very often is ponder the nature of the evil that resides in the human heart. Plato does so more than Aristotle, but neither of them do so as much as the modern philosophers. Does this mean the moderns are superior to the ancients in this respect? Not necessarily, since the moderns are not pondering the metaphysical significance of the soul’s corruption, something that leads many contemporary philosophers to ultimately dismiss the reality of good and evil altogether (at least theoretically), in order to explain all human acts in terms of a non-metaphysical psychology or neuroscience.

But if we are to live the life of self examination, we must raise the metaphysical question of our good and evil acts. It seems that many people – dare I say the majority of human beings – view good and evil as if it had a metaphysical dimension, as if there really were objective good and evil. But of course the scientific method cannot tell us whether there is such a thing as good or evil. It can only describe and measure causes and effects of the material world. So we have a choice when it comes to our inability to transcend the framework of good and evil. We can either theoretically admit that we are mistaken to think in terms of good and evil. Or we must say that the scientific method is deficient when it comes to being the sole way of seeking knowledge. Indeed, if good and evil are inaccessible to the scientific method, then it stands to follow that the scientific method is not only deficient, but severely deficient, given that it cannot access such a fundamental feature of human life.

But if indeed good and evil are objective qualities, then we must raise the question of our guilt. And this requires us to patiently and honestly examine ourselves, just as a philosopher would patiently examine other aspects of reality. Did Socrates do this type of self-examination? He seems to be confident in his own justice. But how could he be? Did he not ponder whether his participation in the Peloponnesian War might have in some way scarred his soul? Did he stick a spear into another man’s chest, or did he assist others in doing so? How then could he have not secretly pondered on his bed at night whether he was indeed a scarred man? Either he did and we do not know it, or his self-examination was far too limited. Indeed, philosophy can ironically become a tool to take our minds off of self-examination. How easy it is to apply our minds to the nature of meaning, to the ontology of perception, and to other such problems, all the while refusing to turn our focus inward, to ask about ourselves, to inquire about the nature of our own misdeeds and defects.

The origins of philosophy begin in wonder. Why am I here? When I raise my hand am I doing so because I have a free will? But another of these questions is this: have I been bad? And if so, how can I make amends? The problem with answering such a question is that every bad deed or thought is so interconnected with a multiplex of other things, making it impossible to undo bad completely. What this means is that we are stuck in a world that lies under the scourge of evil, under a network of evil causes and effects.

The notion of “sin” that is described in the Bible and Qu’ran is a very apt concept.

Why Did Walter White Get So Focused when He Cut the Crust off His Peanut Butter and Jelly Sandwiches?

It is not a spoiler to say that Walter White “broke bad.” One of the things that accompanied his downward spiral into evil was his chronic OCD. We do not know whether he had OCD prior to his turn to the drug underworld. But it does seem that the OCD was a unique way of coping with the reality of his evil.

It seems to me that a truly evil person cannot be happy. The further we go down the road of injustice the more we do harm to our souls. How does one burn away the pain that accompanies the self-inflicted wounds of evil? There are a number of tactics that can be taken, but all of them seem to have one thing in common: they require us to derail our rationality. Drugs and alcohol are a case in point. If you drink a lot of wine or beer or scotch or whatever, then you can numb the pain of evil at the expense of sacrificing your rationality. That of course was the route that Jesse Pinkman (Walt’s partner) took to ease the pain of his evil actions, though he preferred drugs to alcohol.

But Walt seemed to give himself over to OCD-like behavior, like a manic obsession with doing repair work in his house, or trying to swat a fly for an entire day, or meticulously cutting off the crusts of his peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. By focusing on atomized and mundane tasks, he was able to take his mind off of his evil soul. He was doing a preemptive strike against the possibility that he might use his mind for self-examination.

By taking a turn to evil we might find ourselves gaining a momentary buzz of rebellion and freedom – the free fall of descending into the shadows. But each step moves us closer to lifelong unhappiness, the type that requires us to keep on going into evil in order to not let the misery catch up to us, the type that requires us to lose our rationality by substances or by channeling our thoughts away from self-examination. The punishment for living an unjust life is living an unjust life, which is the most unhappy and irrational form of life.

What Can We Expect from our Friends?

What can we hope for in our friends? Of all of those who have written on friendship the most famous descriptions seem to come from Aristotle, who claimed that the perfect form of friendship – the friendship that was complete and whole – was found among people of like virtue. But it seems that friendships are often a source of pain and frustration, a river of disappointment and multiplier of our miseries. And hence we are forced to raise the questions: what can we expect of our friends, and in turn what should we want them to expect of us?

It seems to me that all human beings are biased toward their own interests, at varying levels and with divergent areas. Some are biased in a manifestly selfish manner, like little children who always take the largest portion and cannot tolerate any breach of their comfort. Others are biased in a more sociological way. They are nice and kind people, but they still have an interpretive bias in favor of some party or group. Virtuous people seem to be selfish in both ways, though much less so in the first way - the way of the selfish child who always cries “mine.”

Because of these biases, it makes us wonder about the strength of the bond of friendship, even between virtuous people. At times perhaps we are tempted to lower our expectations so as to protect ourselves from the pain that accompanies broken expectations. This seems to bear some similarities to the Buddhist teaching of non-attachment or to Kant’s duty based morality, both of which see the investment of friendship to be devoid of an expectation of reciprocity.

If we study our lives with some measure of honesty, it seems that very few of us have not let our friends down from time to time. And it appears to us that they have let us down as well, even those that we would deem to be virtuous people. Because of this, it seems we must be willing to embrace the pains of friendship if we would desire to have any good friends. It is in some degree less painful to invest in friendships than to do the opposite, namely to protect ourselves from the pain of having friends. Nevertheless, it is understandable why some people hold others at arms length and allow no one to get very close. This world is a carousel of miseries, few of which can sting like the friend who disappoints us.  But few things can comfort us in such a world like the friend who is truly benevolent.

On Candy Crush and the Problems of Philosophy

Though I still get about five offers a day to play Candy Crush, I can honestly say I have no clue what that is, and I plan to go my entire life ignoring requests to play it, day in and day out, until I die old and grey in my bed having come to the same conclusion about Candy Crush as I have the problems of philosophy: I do not know.


Note: This post was originally a facebook post.

Shankara and the Relationship of Karma to Epistemology

What is the relationship between living a good or bad life finding the truth? This is a question I have been pondering for a while now. And it is not easy to answer, specifically because it is not clear how attaining knowledge requires us to be good. That said, there are some good reasons to think that living a good life is indeed the best pathway to attaining the truth. Aristotle’s doctrine of prudence comes to mind as a good example, as well as the Socratic conception of philosophical eros. But the Indian philosopher Shankara (8th century C.E.) really put his finger on something that has been on my mind a lot, and that is the relationship between our past actions (karma) and our present search for wisdom.

The Indian philosophers were typically believers in the doctrine for karma, in some form or another. And it was common for them to think that right action combined with knowledge of Brahman (i.e. pure-existence) was the doorway to liberation (most philosophers believe that we are in need of some form of liberation, particularly liberation from ignorance). But Shankara thought that action and knowledge related to each other in a different way.  He held that right action had an effect upon the mind, a type of purification from desires that enabled it to apprehend knowledge of Brahman. (Btw, what is the distinction between the Indian concept of Brahman and the Thomistic concept of God? The key differences tend to be the things revealed rather than the things apprehended by reason, since for Thomas, reason can come to know (by its own natural powers) that God is Being-itself).

This seems to ring true. Living a bad life has an effect upon us. It messes with our desires in some way or another, usually it seems by putting a scar upon our consciences, a scar which makes it difficult to give oneself over to the quest for wisdom. Each of our bad deeds and thoughts is a step toward a vested interest –  commitment of ourselves to badness, a commitment that must be maintained in order to distract us from our guilt and pain. Think of Walter White who “Broke Bad,” after which he developed an OCD like coping mechanism to block out the guilt and pain of his bad deeds. He meticulously cut the crust off of his peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. Why? Because he had to occupy his mind lest he contemplate his bad deeds and bad soul. He had a vested interest in his OCD distractions, a desire to forget the truth of his existence, and ad conseqentiam, to forget the truth of Pure-existence (i.e. Brahman).

The best thing we can do for ourselves if we want wisdom is to start living a good life right now. (I should mention that religious conversions seem to be a way of freeing the mind from the haunting presence of guilt and past wrongs, a phenomenon that I will explore in another article.) We should control our thoughts and actions and restrain them, and conversely we should do good deeds. Such things (if I understand Shankara rightly) will massage the anxiety out of our minds, enabling them to receive with an open hand the truth of existence, namely Pure-Existence, a.k.a. Brahman. Even if we already have a constricting ring of scar tissue around our memories, we should not want to completely encase ourselves in this scar tissue, lest we completely block ourselves from the knowledge of Pure-Existence, and hence from the liberation that comes from embracing it.

We cannot live bad lives, snap our fingers, and then, poof, expect to have the right disposition for seeking wisdom. I am speaking about more than the difficulty of breaking our bad habits. Our bad deeds and thoughts will haunt our minds, even after we have renounced them and broken the habit. They will produce in us all sorts of desires that will act like painful shackles on our souls. We will desire to rationalize our actions, to find escapes from the pain, and other such movements of the will that prevent us from the openness to finding the Pure-Existence, what the Indian philosophers often called Brahman.


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Who am I? Who are You?

We all seem to have desires for who we want to be, or as Heidegger called it, a care which drives us to self-interpretation. We sit here right now and feel our feet on the ground, we sense the chair pressed against us, and the air going in and out of our lungs. We have cares that fill our hearts and storms that we are weathering. This is the human condition, and in rare moments the light dawns on us that we are faced with a choice: what will we do here and now, or perhaps even more accurately: who will we be?

Two great problems with deciding these questions are as follows: we do not know what the consequences of our choices will be, nor do we feel that we are able to make them due to the many constraints placed upon us. Under the yoke of such limitations, what does it mean to live well? How do we not squander what’s left of our lives, and can we find an angle to perceive some order and trajectory in the jumble of our past?

Should we take the risk of hell and eternal torment, uttering our “so be it” in the face of potential damnation? Should we rent our clothes and crawl on our knees up the metaphorical steps of penance? Shall we shave our heads and make pilgrimages to the homes of the lawgivers? Perhaps we should cloak ourselves in our own style and make hazardous treks of truth-seeking: to strange and forbidden places, so that we might try things out until we have found our own way, to wrestle and wrestle until our hearts rest in ourselves. Should we stretch out our arms and receive the garment? How shall we know whether we will be cloaked with a garment of salvation or with a straightjacket?

Behold, two voices cry out in the wilderness, one from the desert floor and the other from the snow-capped mountain. One of them prepares the way of a savior, while the other calls us to possess ourselves. (Get ready: mixed metaphors are about to abound!) Our eyes strain to see whether one is poison and the other medicine? But which one? We are in a crevice peering up over a cliff, but we cannot see the other side. We are unsure what will harm or help us. Perhaps the scalpel that looks so menacing will save our lives, and perhaps the green pastures on the other side of the fence are filled with asps and vipers. Perhaps owning ourselves is simply a self-deceived route to greater bondage, while the freedom comes from submission. The scrupulous man is of course in the worst of all possible worlds, since there is no decision that can be made with finality on either side, and the lack of decision is in some ironic way a state-of-affairs with potentially damning consequences.

Both Nietzsche and Plato had the boldness to stand in self-ownership before the brooding gods. Even if the gods exist and have their own laws, it was philosophy, for Plato, which must raise questions about their laws, and it is philosophy which will determine whether or not they are to be obeyed. In short, Plato placed allegiance of truth-seeking above allegiance to the gods. And Nietzsche was willing to risk the fate of eternal damnation for the opportunity to own himself. It was a price he was willing to pay. But the scrupulous man is not able to live like Plato or Nietzsche. Unfortunately he cannot be a saint either, since he knows nothing of the serene faith which does not dare to raise the question: what if I am wrong? In short, the scrupulous man can never escape his limitations either through habituation or though an eruption of the imagination. And he feels deep in his chest not only the epistemological risks but also the theological risks.

How Islam can Benefit the Philosopher

I am fascinated by the Islamic tradition of wisdom. And I try to consult it as I ponder ethical questions. Most of the great Islamic jurists were not philosophers in the Greek sense of the term, but they were nevertheless people of great wisdom. I very much look forward to learning more about Maliki Fiqh, which is one of the most important schools of Islamic interpretation. Even if one does not follow the Shariah – which of course one cannot do in the full sense without being a Muslim – one can still learn a great deal from the dignified wisdom of the Islamic tradition. One of the great scandals of our time is that the Muslims who get the most attention are those who have thrown away the great Islamic traditions, exchanging the bright lamp of Malik and Shafi for the paper match of those who pretend to be wise.

The Practice of Regarding: A Common Thread of All the Great Sages

Very rarely, it seems, do we encounter people who are truly wise, or even those who are on their way to wisdom. By this I do not refer to people who are smart or people with degrees. Such things, it seems, cannot make one wise, or else this country would be overflowing with wise people. But as it is, the opposite is the case. We currently seem to live under a prolonged drought of wise people. When we examine our memories, it is not hard for us to remember our moments of ignorance. Few if any of us do not carry with us a set of scars on our memories. Because of this, all of us in some measure long for wisdom, like a patient who desires a remedy for her ailment.

All of the great traditions of the world have prized wisdom. Although none of the traditions agree with each other in all respects, and even though they quite often have vital disagreements, we still must wonder whether there is some unifying thread of wisdom that is common to them all. What might constitute the thread(s) of unity?

Since the practice of seeking wisdom proceeds from the assumption that we are not completely wise,  the wise person, whatever her tradition, will not think that she has fully grasped all of wisdom. This is not the same as being a skeptic. Indeed, the wise person cannot be without any convictions whatsoever, or else she would have no reason to seek wisdom at all. This means that the wise person should be able to rightly distinguish what she knows and does not know. But even what she knows will not be understood completely, as if she has no further wisdom left to grasp on a certain issue. So to have wisdom means that we are open to a better understanding of those things that we know, those things that we hold with conviction and confidence.

When we survey the great traditions of the world, they all seem to value a quality that I will call “regarding.” They all seem to think that the wise person will regard the opinions and advice of others, even if she disagrees with them. “Regarding” is a disposition of the soul, an openness to receive a nugget of wisdom from anywhere, even from those who are not interested in wisdom. This is not the same thing as being open to every viewpoint that one comes across. No wise person truly opens himself to every worldview, and that is because there are some that are so reviling and ugly, so perverse, that it would be a mark of ignorance to open oneself up to them. But regarding is a different thing. We can regard even those who have gone astray on the path of wisdom, who have given themselves over to a self-mutilating worldview. And we regard them by learning from their descent into ignorance, by taking note, lest we also fall into the same traps, traps from which we might never escape.

A tie that binds the great sages together, therefore, seems to be they have regard for thoughts of other people, a regard that is rooted in the knowledge that they are not completely wise, and that they can be wiser by regarding the thoughts of other people. Regarding is an activity that we see in all the great masters of wisdom, an activity that they practice with a noble consistency, though perhaps never perfection. It seems that we too might profit from rekindling this regard for the thoughts of others.

Laozi and Namming the Tao

The first chapter of the Tao Te Ching is quite simply an ocean in a thimble. I think one could spend one’s entire life pondering the first chapter alone. And when I say chapter, I am speaking of only about nine lines of text. Like I said: an ocean in a thimble.

A very fascinating question emerges from the first two lines: “The Tao that can be spoken is not the eternal Tao. The name that can be named is not the eternal name.” For those of us with a bit of exposure to Western philosophy, we can see right away that Laozi is addressing some fundamental philosophical problems that have occupied Western philosophers, which is one more hint to suggest that the common opposition of Eastern and Western philosophy is simplistic and insulting to the spirit and universality of the task of philosophy. As Confucius said, “the superior man is universal, and not partisan.”

One of the problems Laozi takes up is the relationship between human knowledge and the things in themselves. It was Kant who claimed that we cannot know the things in themselves, only the way that they appear to us. This in contrast to Plato who thought that we couldn’t look directly at the things in themselves, but we could perhaps come to know them through some other way, namely through the ladder of dialogue (i.e. dia/through-logos).

It seems to me however – and this is just an initial impression – that Laozi has something in mind like analogical knowledge, that is, we cannot speak univocally about the Tao, but (contra Kant) we can still speak about the Tao in some real sense, though in an analogical sense. This means that our ways of describing the Tao can never be taken to be an exact description of the Tao. If this is an accurate description of Laozi’s meaning, then this would put Laozi and Thomas together as similar thinkers when it comes to predication, particularly when it comes to predication of the highest things.

But of course once one introduces a distinction between the Eternal Tao and the Tao as we come to describe it, then this raises the important question about the relationship between the Eternal Tao and the non-Eternal Tao. One might call this a distinction between the Immanent Tao and the Economic Tao. It might be that Laozi thinks that the Immanent Tao can be known (or communed with) even if it cannot be named. This seems to be confirmed a few lines later in the same chapter: “constantly, without desire, one observes its essence. Constantly with desire, one observes its manifestations.” Therefore, one would seem to truly “see” the eternal Tao, specifically through the path of non-desire (a mode of reception that I need to explore in greater detail).

One of the questions I will have to ponder is the nature of seeing that Laozi speaks about. Clearly this seeing is something that goes beyond the mere manifestations of the Tao, and once it is seen it cannot be named. Is this some sort of mystical insight into the true nature of reality, something that actually appears as an idea (eidos) in the mind, or is the seeing of the Eternal Tao itself not an idea. Of course to know the answer to that question would first require an understanding about the nature of ideas, whether they are mental pictures (i.e. Wittgenstein’s picture theory of language), or something else. Clearly there is at least some expression of it that is apprehended by some human beings, since Laozi says “one observes its essence.”

Are Philosophers Perceived as Immoral?

It seems to me (and this is not an original thought of mine) that the philosopher is generally viewed as immoral. The reason for this is because he raises questions about the moral ideals of whatever community to which he becomes attached, whether that community is religious or irreligious. In raising these questions, he threatens their sense of right and wrong, as well as undermining the narrative structure of their mythologies.

Perhaps worst of all, philosophers tend to claim to be unwise (i.e. to love wisdom but not yet possess it). Philosophers like Confucius even go so far as to claim that they have not attained virtue either. In other words, philosophers tend to regard as opinions what most people regard as knowledge. That said, the philosopher has to be open to the possibility that he is immoral, that indeed he has chosen what Van Til calls autonomy over theonomy.


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