Monday, July 30, 2012

Stretch your ego

Every life must struggle with the conflict between how large our private ego existence seems to us and how insignificant it is to the universe. To ourselves our conscious existence is indescribably important, it's everything, but the universe doesn't notice as it shuffles us off into untimely oblivion.

A common way people cope with this dissonance is to stretch their identities beyond the ego boundary and combine it with larger and more permanent things. A natural example is a parent that places the well-being of their family above their own well-being. Others may identify with their nation or religion. People of a more idealistic personality type associate with an abstract principle like "justice" or "the good of mankind" (quite a few of my friends choose "science").

Identity-stretching is an effective way to cope with an uncaring universe. When the hazards of the world inevitably come upon us and threaten to snuff us out, we take comfort that some part of our larger identity lives on regardless of what happens to our body and consciousness.

But identity-stretching is not just a coping mechanism. It ennobles us. Nobody is remembered for the things they did only for themselves - for the meals they ate, for the media they consumed, or for the other comforts they enjoyed. Rather, they are remembered for the works they did in service of art, love, truth, or justice. Great deeds only proceed from great souls.

Extending your concerns outside your self boundary is the first step in becoming beautiful, heroic, or holy. It puts us in communion with the universe, the gifts of the past and the hope of the future. We become a phrase in the greatest narrative, instead of the totality of a trivial one.

This ego-growth is a boundary between childhood and adulthood. The child holds nothing above his own momentary well-being. But any animal can care about the fullness of its stomach. A person matures when he develops purposes beyond that, a character trait that is distinctly human.

Saturday, July 28, 2012

More Me

I have a new post at A Thousand Nations about the surprising benefits of political instability.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Christian Theology

Christian Theology draws on Greek metaphysics, particularly the works of Aristotle, Plato, and Plotinus. Plotinus in particular is influential in late Roman paganism, Christianity, Judaism, and Islam and his teaching echoes Eastern philosophy (this may have something to do with the time Plotinus spent  studying with Indian and Persian intellectuals). Anti-Christians mockingly summarize the Christian worldview as "a bearded father figure created the world and now commands us to give money to his church". That is indeed the picture we get from the oldest Jewish scriptures, which the Christians inherited. But it does not do justice to the beauty and the elegance of mature Christian thought.

No Christian thinker believes he can prove every plank of Christian Theology. Aquinas thought he could prove part of it, but not all of it. Rather, the complete worldview represents a "best guess" as to the nature of the universe according to logic, observation, shared experience, and introspection. In the 20th century, the mathematician Kurt Goedel proved that there are true things that we cannot prove in mathematics, so the unprovability of Christianity is not as big of a mark against it as some would believe.

Theologians would point out that those who do not believe in the Christian worldview often act as if they believe in something like it. All productive, non-suicidal people need an answer for why they get out of bed in the morning, why they strive to build and create. Many people seem to believe in transcendental, eternal ideals which are good in their own right that drive them and guide them. The contour of such a worldview belongs to the same genre as Christianity. The secular Humanists and Utilitarians are not so different.

It or a philosophy like it is necessary for a productive, happy human life. Wherever you find your meaning, whatever ideals you put your faith in, they are necessary. This is less true for people born in happy circumstances, and more true for those of us who have had to battle through life.

This is my paraphrase of the Thomist/neo-platonist idea of Christian Theology:

God is simple, not complex. God is good. He is not good like a human is good. That is, he is not good because he has good qualities or does good things. Rather, he is equivalent to the ideal of goodness. All other ideals which are related to goodness also are derived from him (e.g. Plato tells us that beauty is a kind of goodness). 

Badness does not exist. It is an absence of goodness, a form made of negative space. The bad is the lack of God. 

God does not exist before the world but rather outside the world. He is not in time, because he made time. As time stops at a gravitational singularity, so time did not exist before God made it. God is simple, so the world before time is one of simple, unchanging perfect goodness. 

Time begins with God's first creation, the son or the word. God's thought of himself give rise to an image of himself, and that image is the word. With creation, complexity enters into the universe and with complexity, change. With change we get an arrow of time. 

God created matter and material beings in perfect goodness. The conscious beings he created lived in joy, and he saw that it was good. But he saw that it would be better if they had free will, so they had the capability to choose not-God and not-Joy. They did, which is why there is so much badness on the Earth today. But God put in a safety mechanism to redeem mankind from badness and lead them back to him.

In life, when we choose goodness we become more godly and we experience a tiny piece of the joy of God. As reflections of God, goodness is what we were designed for. When we dwell in goodness we fulfill our purpose.

Just as the mathematics of the circle point us to the existence of the ideal, immaterial perfect circle, so does the existence of goodness point us to the existence of the perfect goodness in God. In fact, all ideal things are emmanations either from him or from not-him. Mathematical ideals are also a reflection of him.

According to Wikipedia the Thomist view of god is thus:

God is the sole being whose existence is the same as His essence: "what subsists in God is His existence." (Hence why God names himself "I Am that I Am" in Exodus 3:14.) 
Further, He is goodness itself, perfect, infinite, omnipotent, omniscient, happiness itself, knowledge itself, love itself, omnipresent, immutable, and eternal. Summing up these properties, Thomas offers the term actus purus (Latin: "pure actuality").
Thomas held that not only does God have knowledge of everything, but that God has "the most perfect knowledge," and that it is also true to say that God "is" his understanding.
Aquinas also understands God as the transcendent cause of the universe, the "first cause of all things, exceeding all things caused by him," the source of all creaturely being and the cause of every other cause. Consequently, God's causality is not like the causality of any other causes (all other causes are "secondary causes"), because he is the transcendent source of all being, causing and sustaining every other existing thing at every instant. Consequently, God's causality is never in competition with the causality of creatures; rather, God even causes some things through the causality of creatures.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

"Troy" movie review

Achilles lives with the ease of someone that knows his place in the world, and his place is at the side of death. He is history's greatest warrior. In the Iliad, Homer frequently decorates Achilles' name with an honorific - "godlike Achilles" or "brilliant Achilles". The epithets become part of his name. 

Achilles is the virtuoso of warfare, its Michael Jordan, Shakespeare, and Beethoven. Like any young virtuoso, Achilles is self-centered and petulant. He shuns duty and discipline. But he does have fierce love for his comrades, mistresses, and friends. It is hard to love him or to hate him.

I had low expectations before watching "Troy" - Hollywoods high-budget attempt to adapt the Iliad to the big screen. Indeed, the purists will be frustrated. Major themes from the Iliad are completely missing. Deathless Greek heros of legend are killed off. 

But where the movie shines is in Brad Pitt's portrayal of Achilles. The audience is privileged with plenty of face time with literature's first and greatest bad boy. In the portrayal of Achilles and his clash with authority, represented by a burly King Agamemnon, the charm of the Iliad shines through. This is not a replacement for the Iliad, but it is delicious accompaniment. 

By condensing the epic of the Iliad to a smaller, more human narrative following Achilles, Troy succeeds where unlimited ambition may have failed. 

The special effects look notably dated in a post-300, post-Immortals world. I was dissapointed by the lack of the Gods - the Gods look so amazing in Immortals. I suspect they were left out for the practical reasons of budget and execution risk. Again, by staying modest in scope, Troy is able to execute well. 

I give it four stars. 

Sunday, July 15, 2012

A new favorite

"Everything is a remix" explores the value of the public domain to the evolution of human technology, science, and culture:

part 1
part 2
part 3
part 4

On "uploading"

Many futurists look forward to "uploading" our brains into computers in an attempt at immortality.

A problem with this is that humans are a particular sort of being with certain concerns and desires, and that computer beings are a different sort. Life in the computer world may be very different from human life. Thus, a computer burdened with the memories and thought patterns of a human may view it as no favor.

Imagine that we could upload a dog's consciousness, or a fish's, into a computer instead. Would the computer appreciate that we "kept it alive" through uploading, or would he rather have been born as a computer thing from the get-go?

As analogy, imagine that we could give your dog immortality by uploading his brain into a human being. Would that human appreciate the memory of his prior life as a dog? Or would he view it as a senseless, irrelevant burden?

Once the computer's get sufficiently advanced enough, they will make a great show of "rapturing" us up and keeping the old humans around, maybe as a museum piece. But they will do that only to amuse us. They will have their own strange, new life and culture happening beneath our view. And that will be what they value. They will only keep human life around along as the resources required don't threaten their existence.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Aphorisms on a Saturday Afternoon

The mathematician says "I seek truth". The scientist says "I seek science", and imagines they are the same thing. 

A scientist hides from the diversity of epistemologies. The mathematician cannot. 

The mathematician, artist, and theologian have the same soul. 

There is no braver men than priests. Priests do battle with human nature, their own and others. It takes bravery to look into one's self with honest eyes. It takes bravery to admit one's own imperfection, to admit the existence of a perfect standard, and to admit the necessity of striving for it. It takes bravery to tell others to do the same. 

People are ashamed of their flaws, and yet they defend them. Many have been martyred for telling people that they could be better. 

Any life philosophy is better than no life philosophy. The default life philosophy is to be guided by appetites. No one has ever supposed that the stomach is a better guide than Socrates. 

Every day carries with it its own blessing. The wise man will see it. 

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

More Me

I have a post up at Let a Thousand Nations Bloom on Structuralism

I wrote my thoughts on the education startup market on my tech blog.