Organic, Free-Range, All-Natural, Human Beings

Walking down the isle at the local grocery store I took note of the newer marketing ploys meant to entice potential customers. The once popular “no-msg” is accompanied by “low calorie” or “no high fructose corn syrup,” enriched foods are being replaced by whole grain foods (of which we are told to accept no imitations), and that dreadful concoction they call Splenda lurks within damn-near every “sugar free” food. All of these product lines draw our attentions and intentions back to matters of body—the so-called obesity pandemic of our times. When will we shed those no-longer unwanted but down right deadly pounds of fat? When will we be able to showcase our oddly-nourished but all-”natural” bodies and defy the Hostess franchise?

Let’s switch gears. I once had a dog—a spaniel named Cody—who fell into a violent fit of epilepsy. Once every hour he would quake. The late night veterinarian asked my mother and I what Cody had (or could have) eaten. “There is this fertilizer that he might have eaten—but it says that it is all-natural,” mother replied. Being a covert smart-ass, I kept my initial reactions to myself and hoped the vet would speak on my behalf; after all, the vet held post-graduate credentials and I hadn’t even finished high school. Fortunate enough for me, the vet came through with a calm but pointed remark: “just because it’s natural does not mean it won’t hurt you.”

There is a line drawn between man and his environment, and this line is flimsy. Drawing attention to this line sells deadly fertilizers, (morally) justifies the actions of predatory creatures, and (to return to the original topic) makes us feel dirty for eating Flaming Hot Cheetoes. Today I ask a question that should occupy the thoughts amongst the hoi polloi (yes, that means you and I): are we not part of the natural world?

When I look at the New York City skyline, I can marvel at it and wonder how men can come to build magnificent things. When I look at a mile long series of beaver dams, it would not be out of the ordinary to consider the works of beavers one of many works of “nature.” Birds nests, grassy fields, coral reefs; all of these things are considered natural in that they are untouched by humans. Perhaps the lowly beaver considers the skyscraper a marvelous work of nature, in that a skyscraper is untouched by beaver hands … paws.

I, for one, happen to consider human beings a full part of the natural process; and, sure, “natural” will become a useless category in the aftermath. Of what use is it to separate what is naturally attained from what is humanly attained anyway? Human hands, at this point, are required for the use of anything outside of ourselves. Wheat must be processed and packaged, cleaned of bugs and seasoned for flavor. Even berries must be picked and used for something other than nourishing the seeds contained within. Everything we have dubbed natural has lost it’s link to nature; we devise each step in the process, and each step is one away from “nature” (if there was such a distinct thing to begin with). Is high fructose corn syrup any less natural than a simpler sugar? If you think so, then you must have an elaborate definition of nature. Yes, you may be in for a sweet surprise.

It was no surprise for me to find that seaweed extract has a high concentration of MSG in it—this happened long before the term mono-sodium glutamate came around. Scientific language is part of the problem here. No scientist is afraid of dihydrogen monoxide, but many have fell prey to shame when they figured it out: they were the butt of a joke. The fear of the unnatural has the average person afraid of drinking water!

We are part of this world whether or not we like to admit it and regardless of our theoretical baggage. Some of our actions will kill us, others will kill us slowly but contribute to our mental well-being (recreational drugs, anyone?), and much of what the others will tell us about these acts will be—excuse the obscenities—utter bullshit.

Think about it next time you pick up the groceries.

Pick On Someone Your Own Size

Like most things on my mind these days, I must begin this entry in an academic way. A professor—who I will allow to remain anonymous—expressed his concern over Stanley Cavell’s early written works in the Winter of `08. He explained that Cavell was picking on the more insignificant critics of his work, and that he might have better spent his time addressing “greater minds.” What a troubling notion for me: I spend much of my time discussing philosopy with laymen (comparatively speaking), whether they realize it or not. Cavell may have wasted his time, but I am not sure of this. I am almost certain that I am wasting my own. After all, much of what I have to say is lost upon many, and personal victory has been reduced to the successful teaching of some esotetic concept. Perhaps it isn’t the best use of my time, if my aim is to make some sort of progress.

I do not mean to sound melancholy, nor do I mean to condemn those with no plans to read Nietzsche. I only seek to express doubt, uncertainty, and caution. It becomes less clear what is academically relevant, what methods are acceptable to your peers (especially if it your thoughts are inarticulable in any other fashion or if your peers aren’t accustomed to those methodologies), and who should be addressed. If I talk the language of modal logic in an argument with my mother (she is no philosophy professor), it will look as though I am bullying her—bludgeoning her with some specific and (from her perspective) useless knowledge. She (and most people I’ve come to know) would rather I not speak to her that way at all. But what else am I supposed to do when a friend says, “I have a philosophical question for you.” We have to use a gentle hand, but does that mean forgetting our education entirely?—as if that were possible (for me) without heavy drugs.

I like to believe that Stan Cavell was trying to ground his work in the “real world,” or in things he felt were more relevant than mere shop-talk. I like to believe that I am trying to figure out how knowledge can be more accessible for those who do not want to waste their years figuring out what Kant means by “transcendental.” These beliefs, however, may turn out to be convenient (or inconvenient, if you’re the lazy sort) fictions.

Throwing Stones and Lifting Swords.

Why are there so many holy wars on the Internet? It seems that whenever there is a choice to be made, people will defend their choice with more fervor than necessary. We’ve got Tabs Vs. Spaces, Vim vs. Emacs, Mac vs. PC (a classic)—the list seems endless.

Whenever I formulate this question, people respond by pointing out: “It’s the Internet,” as if it were some sort of tautology. Isn’t there a reason for this? Is the human race doomed to bicker over insignificant matters until they become zealous battles? In my city, people die because of a disagreement over the neighborhood they live in.

This not “just the internet,” and this is a serious matter.

That’s not to say that people are dying over web browsers and computer brands. I only mean to suggest that perhaps these disagreements are futile in most ways: there as so many problems in the world, and so many solutions. There are so many important things in the world, but we dedicate hours to laying out the comparative merits of tabs and spaces.

I feel foolish, dirty, and dissatisfied.

If a person is making art, then their art-making is important to them, right? If my art is making websites, why should my art hinge on whether or not I use Arial or Helvetica? Or—rather—why is the choice to use Arial treated like a crime? Would a community of painters oust a member for using house paint?

You might be saying to yourself right now, “But Key! Arial is just a knock-off of a better font—people only use it because it comes with Windows.” If you believe your stake in the politics of the past should be the sole dictator of every typographic (artistic) decision, then you’re part of the problem. It is as if you were to say: “You shouldn’t use burgundy because it is dark brown masquerading as red.” Is one color better than another?—what does this even mean?

(Besides, perhaps Arial would be the best choice for me because everyone can read it, and I want people to read my work without problems. Wouldn’t Arial be a reasonable choice for that purpose?)

Again, I feel ridiculous, filthy, and unfulfilled. It is as if I’m screaming from a mountain top at the top of my lungs, but—alas—the world is sleeping. Maybe I am sleeping?

A professor once told me it was important to test theories by applying them to the theory itself—doing so would show you how solid (or flimsy) the theory is. So today I’m setting up my own battle: the war against holy wars. See how ridiculous that sounds? It shows that the world is more complicated than picking a side and drawing a sword, and so I beg of you to lay your swords down.

Religulous, or “Bill Maher’s Excellent Adventure.”

Today I want to look at Bill Maher’s aggressive atheistic (or agnostic, I am not sure which) manifesto Religulous. In it, Maher starts and ends standing upon the prophesied site of apocalypse: Megiddo, in Israel. He, standing at the end of the world, informs the audience that religion is a dangerous force. Maher urges the under-represented minority of atheists and agnostics to make themselves heard, to “grow up or die.”

As I watched Maher’s trek across the world and his odd (but common) method of arguing with devout theists, I couldn’t help but think, “There is something else going on in this film. Something strange.”

Is this film Bill Maher’s soapbox? Of course it is—ever since ABC canceled Politically Incorrect, Bill Maher has used most of his media pull to exercise his first amendment rights. This movie, however, does something special. It turns Bill Maher into the object of debate. In Religulous, William Maher Jr. is not presented as the tenacious, impenetrable, and witty television icon we all know and love (or, perhaps, love to hate). Instead we are confronted with a Bill Maher who out-talks his opponents, never relents, and receives flack for obvious reasons.

Andrew O’hehir explains: …I gently tried to suggest to Maher [that] his scattershot and ad hominem attacks against many different forms of religious hypocrisy don’t add up to a coherent critique, and he’s not qualified to provide one. Any serious theologian from the mainstream Christian or Jewish traditions would have eaten his lunch for him, and that’s why we don’t see anybody like that in this film for more than a second or two. It would seem Maher used the Religulous project as an opportunity to reduce the religious world into a sideshow attraction and poke fun at them.

It is odd that most of the interviewees were left pleading “no, no, no” and trying to get a word in. In Religulous, the interviewer sees the most airtime—his subjects often take a back seat. If Religulous is a documentary, then what is it a documentary of? As Roger Ebert explains, This review is going to depend on one of my own deeply held beliefs: It’s not what the movie is about, it’s how it’s about it. This movie is about Bill Maher’s opinion of religion. Often the film looks as if it were lifted directly from Maher’s brain—thoughts of Charlton Heston in The Ten Commandments included.

The camera work often grabs Bill Maher in a documentary fashion for short periods of time only to cut to a shot that includes the boom and another camera. This self-aware style only draws more attention to the true subject of the documentary: it documents Bill Maher’s documentary, if that makes sense. It is as if someone were to film a full-length behind the scenes documentary of Spinal Tap. Religulous is a meta-documentary, to word it in the most ridiculous way possible.

To look at the reactions, Bill Maher “plays to his base” of non-believers, pisses off the religious, and irks anyone with formal training in the Philosophy of Religion. The film, then, documents just how he has pleased us, his manner of pissing us off, and the process of irking us. I enjoyed it for these reasons, but if I were to take Maher’s arguments seriously (as seriously as the phrase “Grow up or die” implies) I would have hated it.

The World Is a Knee-Jerk

I am sure that I am not alone when I say that I feel in the dark. Not only does the future of the United States seem murky, but what ability I possess to trust my fellow man seems to be crumbling more than it ever has in the last eight years. No doubt this is because of our economic situation, but I am more concerned with the portrayal of “truth” and our ability to recognize it. I know it sounds crazy to think about the abstract when brick and mortar are on the line, and we all face unemployment. We must remember that we live in a time where we can trust neither Lehman nor AIG, McCain and Obama dig into one another on the World’s stage, and a home loan can drive a person to suicide—the truth is just as important as ever. We must ask ourselves: can we trust our “superiors?” How can we select people to trust? How can we recognize the truth at all?

Take the Presidential Campaign as an example. Both sides seem to take for granted that the majority of voters are ignorant and uncritical. The McCain campaign has called Senator Obama “dishonorable,” “dangerous,” and “risky.” Thirty-five seconds is too short a time to get at the truth—to prove that Obama is dishonorable. If John McCain himself flew to my home just to tell me, “my advertisements are meant to inform the voters about the issues,” I would laugh a hearty laugh and slam the door in his face. The McCain camp, then, is only trying to push my buttons. Then again, is there anything more to language than pushing another person’s buttons?

If the American people demand facts, politicians present things in a fact-like way. The problem is that many things are complex enough that they can look false from one perspective and true from another; truth doesn’t look like a fixed thing. To expect real “facts” is a tall order. Who is going to verify these facts? How can we trust the fact checkers? Can we say anything that is impervious to doubt? What would the undeniable truth look like anyway?

If a potential voter demands empathy on the issues, the candidate tries to “show empathy”. How do we know that the candidate really cares about Darfur? Even if he (she) does, he still has the enormous burden of making people believe it! Trust, faith, and beauty are the case here. How could a presidential candidate inspire trust? They could do it with images; they could do it with what strikes the viewer as beautiful, or what simply “looks right.”

All we have left are our impressions of things.

CNN has taken the focus group in an peculiar direction with their reaction meter that looks somewhere between a biometric meter and a seismograph. Both images (of bio-metrics and seismographs) make sense here. During each debate so far, CNN-selected Ohio voters keep their fingers on a dial and record their reactions (negative or positive) as they happen.

This sends a strong message: not only do the words of each candidate need attention but we ought to keep a close eye on the opinions of our “peers.” Are we expected to gauge our reactions by using CNN’s added bio-meter? Or are we supposed to formulate our opinions based on all of the information combined?

Indeed: our impulses, our feelings, our impressions of people, our initial thoughts are what the politicians play like fiddles. This isn’t news. Perhaps you’ve experienced empathy and admiration for Senator McCain when he claimed to have postponed his campaign to help on Wall-Street; this emotion could stick to your ribs and remind you of just how much you love John McCain. Just how long this feeling will last has something to do with: (1) McCain’s word choice, (2) the opinions of political pundits, (3) the opinions of friends and family, and (4) where you place yourself within that mess. We end up reacting—for better or worse—just as we all have in the past.

The world is a knee-jerk. Our partially-involuntary reactions to the world outside drive the stock market down, cause riot in the streets, and keep pollsters employed indefinitely. What we must do, then, is try to figure out what truth could even mean in this world of ours.

A Market For Philosophy?

Now that school is over, I have been attached to Ludwig Wittgenstein and his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. As many students have warned in the past, it is a difficult read and confusing at times. I have never come across an “easy philosopher” (the phrase sounds a bit naughty to begin with), so the difficulty isn’t a problem. I enjoy a challenge, and I know a few kind professors willing to defend old Ludwig if I so desired. In the end, an understanding of representation in language is worth the sweat-droplets that are sure to accumulate on each page.

What, however, is the pay-off for the average joe—or what W.V.O. Quine calls “the man in the street?” Enlightenment? An understanding of dead Greece, Rome, Germany? A sense of what sort of life they should live? Strength of character? I cannot commit to any number of these answers. One pattern to found in philosophy is in the saying, “nothing is sacred.” Other students would strike pre-emptively in philosophy class, sinking their teeth into the current philosopher of note and looking to draw blood. I tend to sit back and wait for Kant to do the dirty-work for me—his tooth is still sharper than mine, especially against David Hume.

After watching each philosopher dig into the next (last), I wonder what point there would be to pressing onward with Philosophy. Better yet, I wonder what would be the gain from approaching Philosophy while outside of the classroom. Imagine that. A friend—named James for convenience’s sake—turns to me for advice, “I’ve lost my faith in God, love, myself. It’s hard to get out of bed, and I think of dying every morning. It is as if God wants me to suffer. Why does God want me to feel this way?” It might sound absurd to reply, “Let us turn to the defense of God’s existence put forth by Alvin Plantinga, so that you can be assured that evil and God are consistent with one another.” In fact, I think it would be absolutely absurd. How can you comfort someone with a proof? It just doesn’t seem to fit.

Every now and again I see an article in the New York Times or two discussing Philosophy and it’s prospects. Popularizing Philosophy in the United States seems, on the face of it, a tall order. What would you rather watch: American Idol or Plato’s Greatest Hits? I doubt Plato’s Meno on Broadway will draw the crowds that Radiohead’s last tour has.

Philosophy doesn’t appear to have relevance, but it I know it to have more actual relevance than it ever has before. Moral dilemmas crop up every day as our brand of technology becomes more viable and more real. We live in what is called an “Information Age.” It may be useful for the average person to be familiar with how justified beliefs might work.

There must be a way and, hopefully, we can figure it out together.

Arguing for the Truth

Anything can be said in the heat of argument—even more important, anything can be said and be taken seriously. The point, however, of arguing with anyone does not seem so clear, considering our methods. When I squint my eyes hard enough, most arguments seem more like contact sport than quest for truth. Today I consider what it means to argue, and I’ll do this from from an off-the-record perspective. That means I will not quote Wittgenstein just yet, but remember, this is only the beginning. (Some of you are thinking “Damn—I wanted some Wittgenstein.” You’ll get your chance soon enough.)

Let us make up a couple of characters for the sake of argument (about arguments): Daniel and Jennifer, husband and wife. Dan just tied the knot with Jen, and they’ve moved in with one another. They, unfortunately enough, have never lived together. Hell, neither of them have lived with anyone other than their own families. And oh, what a surprise—they’re arguing over chores.

”…that’s because you never wash the dishes,” an exasperated Jennifer exclaims.

Dan’s eyes widen—redden. She has plucked a chord. “You must be blind then,” he says.

”When I wake up, everyday, I see the same dishes sitting there. You never wash them!”

”That’s because I eat every day, damn it. I eat, I wash, I eat, I wash.”

Jennifer appeals to evidence of an empirical nature. ”You’re lying. I never see you do anything but sit on your ass,” she asserts.

”How could you? You’re not around when I wash them,” Dan retorts with an attempt to invalidate her evidence.

Most of us have heard this sort of argument many times before. It would be a lie to say that I have not participated in such an argument before (I’ll let you guess which side I’m on). I, then, put myself on the line when I ask: both sides think they’re correct, but do Jen or Daniel care about the truth at all?

My question sounds peculiar. It would be easy to say that Jennifer knows the truth, and she refuses to be lied to. Many would sympathize with her (in long telephone conversations where Jen chooses to vent her frustrations). We could say the same for Daniel: he knows the truth. Both Jen and Dan “know the truth,” so their argument is not meant to discover the truth but to convince the other of it. Truth looks like it is just the hammer used to strike the enemy.

How would such an argument be resolved? If he admitted defeat, what would he do? I suppose he could wash more dishes, but recall that Dan claims Jennifer is never around to see him wash the dishes. If he’s correct, Jennifer would still be discontent no matter what the outcome of the argument, since she would never believe that he has ever washed a single dish. Winning—for either side—the argument might change matters very little, but in the short term victory feels substantial.

In conflicts between husband and wife, father and son, friends, we believe a conflict will be resolved by our efforts. This rarely ever occurs. What could a person do to resolve it but back down and admit defeat?—this is not an option for most of us. The truth, which we claim to know so intimately, is not on the line. What is on the line is our dignity, the thrill of battle, and the sweet elation “that’s right, I sure told her what is what.”

This isn’t to say that both Dan and Jen wouldn’t be better of examining their lives to see what the truth of the matter is; I only claim here that “truth finding” may be something altogether different, something that is difficult to do in an argument—where “facts” are used as weapons. Philosophy, in light of this, might have no winners and only losers. It is, before all else, the pursuit of endless and painful debate. What is going on here, I wonder? Am I imagining things?