Transcendence, Disenchantment and Unbelief

Talking about transcendence within a society that tends to see the universe as disenchanted and purposeless may seem odd, as anything transcendent seems to have little place in such a universe, but yet many of us have experiences that are best described as transcendent. Consequently, it seems to me that even those, like myself, who lack religious belief may require the concept of transcendence to understand their own experiences, so it is not a concept we can do without. I will examine two types of experience that I have had that I can only understand as transcendent to try to clarify why I think this.

The first experience is that of coming into contact with nature while one is alone. When I hike through a quiet trail alone somewhere in the Rocky Mountains, nature does not appear as merely a collection of matter arranged in a particular way, rather it is as if there is something behind the appearances of the landscape that I am connected with. This other thing that I feel connected with is not something that I can easily describe, but it appears to me as I hear the rustling of the leaves and the howling of the wind, and feel the uneven ground under my feet as I walk through this quiet path; it is at once something that is ever present through these walks, but yet indescribable in particular terms. In this context I do not feel like an ordinary self with ordinary human purposes, rather I feel connected with something beyond ordinary experience .The cause of this experience is not something that I understand, but the experience does seem to be best described as transcendent, as the experience is not simply beautiful, purifying or pleasant; it is all of these things, but it is more as it involves a sense of connection with something beyond the ordinary.

The other transcendent experience I wish to discuss involves creative musical inspiration. As a struggling musician I often find myself trying to force certain musical ideas which tends to only lead to frustration, but once in a while I will be playing my instrument and something will take over me, as if I were captured by something other than myself. In the moments of the creation of the composition I am not a self in the ordinary sense of a being that can disengage and reflect, but rather I am connected with something beyond myself which takes me out of my ordinary selfhood and drives me to create something wonderful and beautiful. It is hard to find an adjective to describe this kind of experience, but I do think transcendence fits, because in this kind of experience it as if something beyond our ordinary understanding peers in and grabs us and reveals what it is that we wanted to create, but could not describe before we had created it. Once again, the actual underlying cause of this experience is not clear to me, but the experience seems to not be one of ordinary immanent existence, but something transcendent.

So, it seems to me that transcendent is a category that is necessary to make sense of our experiences, as I would hazard a guess that many others have similar experiences and have an equally difficult time describing them in other terms. What is responsible for this sense of connection with something beyond the ordinary that we experience in creative musical inspiration, or quiet walks through nature, or other experiences, is not clear to me, but the category of the transcendent is still required to make sense of these experience and so even though we may believe in a disenchanted, purposeless universe, this does not mean that we have no use for the concept of the transcendent.

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Brave New World, Cruelty and Liberalism

Judith Shklar argued that the foundation of liberalism ought not to be seen in a metaphysical concept of human dignity, but in the sense that cruelty is the worst thing that humans do to one another. She called this reading of liberalism the “Liberalism of Fear.” On this reading of liberalism we allow each individual as much freedom as is compatible with like freedom for others due to the fact that this is the best way to avoid cruelty. Furthermore, there are others who have picked up this reading of liberalism such as Richard Rorty. This reading of liberalism is particularly attractiveness because it seems to lays liberalism on a seemingly uncontroversial foundation, rather than speculative metaphysical abstractions. This uncontroversial notion is that cruelty is one kind of evil that we cannot accept. Surely, any person who did not accept this notion would seem to be deeply confused. But, Huxley’s Brave New World gives us reason doubt Shklar’s attempt to rest liberalism on the foundation of the prevention and avoidance of cruelty, as cruelty has been abolished in the futuristic society presented in Brave New World, and yet for many liberal people, like myself, the society presented in Brave New World is deeply disturbing.

The society presented in Brave New World is a non-democratic one in which humans no longer reproduce naturally, but rather are developed in test tubes by a central governmental body. This body creates a variety of types of humans (Alphas, Betas, Deltas, Gammas, Epsilons) to perform different tasks within the social body. The differing varieties of humans are produced through technological means such as conditioning, and chemical treatment. For example, the lower castes, such as the Gammas, Deltas and Epsilons, are made to be physically, and mentally less than Alphas and Betas through chemical treatments that are deployed early in the development of the embryo. Similarly, this governmental body conditions members of each caste to enjoy living as a part of their caste within this society. This conditioning process is presented as broadly effective with a few minor exceptions. So, people are generally very happy with their place within society and with the work they perform.

Similarly, people’s free time is easygoing, effortless and pleasant. Sex has been completely detached from reproduction such that within this society it is viewed as moral to enjoy sex with others, and a wide variety of others at that. Developing a singular passion for only one other person would tend to lead to unhappiness for when people care deeply for a single other, the loss of that other can destroy them, but if sex is just as impersonal as the transaction between me and the grocer, then the loss of that other has little effect on me. People merely enjoy the momentary sensations of sex, but without any real attachment to the person they are having sex with. In fact, the society has the motto “everyone belongs to everyone else.”

Furthermore, the happiness of this society is enhanced by a drug called “Soma.” The use of this drug is encouraged as it allows people to take a momentary holiday, but without any of the ill effects of alcohol. If anyone begins to feel a genuine emotion of sadness, anger, anxiety or longing they merely take a few grams of Soma to escape from these feelings.

The society that is presented in Brave New World seems to be contemptible for its superficiality, inequality, and easy going hedonism, but it would be hard to say that this society is cruel. On the typical understanding of cruelty, cruelty involves the infliction of pain or suffering (whether physical or emotional) on another person or sentient being, and yet if anything the society presented within Brave New World is less cruel than the one that we members of liberal democratic societies live in. In fact the entire society of Brave New World is set up so as to discourage the possibility of people being cruel to one another. So the Liberalism of Fear has little recourse to a critique of the seemingly troubled and problematic society of Brave New World, as this society has done a fine job of preventing cruelty even though this society is illiberal in many ways. Thus, the Liberalism of Fear does not seem to provide us with a set of theoretical resources that enables us to critique every society that we find disturbing and contemptible, and consequently we have reason to doubt this reading of liberalism.

Given the preceding what reasons do liberals have to find the society presented in Brave New World problematic? There are a couple of different sets of reasons within the liberal tradition that come to mind as resources for criticism of the society of Brave New World. The first is the notion that persons ought to be respected because they have some inherent dignity. While we do socialize children to have particular values, it seems very disrespectful, of the future adult that a child will become, to manufacture a child such that they will grow up to be an adult of a certain kind with particular likes and dislikes. Respecting human beings requires us to treat children in a way that allows them to become free, autonomous human beings, rather than treating children in a way that will determine that they will become a plumber, or an engineer. Similarly, another set of reasons suggests that humans have a certain set of capacities and repressing these capacities is wrong, because humans are fully developed when these capacities are actualized, and stunted when these capacities are repressed. The issue with the society in Brave New World is that it actively represses some capacities of humans that are necessary for full development such as the capacity for self-restraint, autonomy, and meaningful romantic love. Unlike, the liberalism of fear both sets of reasons offer grounds for criticism of the society of Brave New World. Furthermore, while these reasons may seem more dubious because they appeal to abstract metaphysical notions that may give rise to controversy and skepticism it seems necessary to speak in these terms in order to critique everything that we find deeply disturbing, such as the society of Brave New World.

It should be noted that the analysis posited above does not suggest that the Liberalism of Fear is not without insight. It is clear that any decent liberal society will be committed to preventing cruelty, and thus the Liberalism of Fear is surely right to think that cruelty is terrible, but what consideration of Brave New World teaches us is that cruelty is not the only evil that liberals ought to be concerned with.

Melancholy, Angst and Music

I, like many others, am very attracted to angst ridden, melancholic music. But what is it that draws me and others to this kind of music? It would seem that this music would be unattractive as it seems to glorify suffering, loss and pain, and it seems bizarre that a seemingly normal person would be drawn to an art form that is devoted to displays of misery. Furthermore, why would anybody want to listen to such a form of music, as how could such an art form be anything but depressing? In answer to the preceding questions I can think of two sources of the attraction that many have to melancholic, angst ridden music. For the sake of brevity I will refer to music that is either angst ridden, melancholic or depressive as “dark music”. The first source is the more obvious fact that dark music can help people who are dealing with certain feelings to recognize that they are not alone in having these feelings, and in so doing help them to deal with those emotions. The less obvious source of the attraction of dark music is the sense that dark music discloses a significant truth about human life that is ignored by society and most other forms of art. It should be noted that I am not arguing that these are the only two sources of the attraction of dark music; rather the argument is being made that these sources contribute to our attraction to dark music.

When a person is melancholic or angst ridden their melancholy or angst is not some additional feeling added on top of their regular feelings and way of operating in the world. Rather, both angst and melancholy shift our entire way of seeing the world. For example, angst makes us see life and the world as void of meaning. For the angst ridden nothing seems worth doing, but when angst ridden people are confronted by music that objectifies their angst this has the therapeutic quality of making that angst ridden person realize that there are others who see the difficulty of seeing anything as worth doing, and this can help people deal with their angst. Recognizing that others deal with angst shows us that there is nothing peculiar about feeling this way, and thus allows us to recognize that angst is a typical human feeling, and one that we need to deal with. Similarly, in the case of melancholy, any person who has been mourning a loss and then listens to a captivating song that represents this loss in an interesting way will know that through listening to this piece of music one will feel that one’s melancholia has been alleviated to some extent, such that it is easier to continue living one’s life. Consequently, it seems that the first source of the attraction of dark music lies in its ability to perform the therapeutic function of helping us to deal with our angst, melancholia or depression. In a way, this is simply a restatement of conventional wisdom, but that fact should not prevent us from recognizing it as a source, as it seems to fit with our experience.

The second source is not recognized as commonly as the first. This source is the fact that dark music reveals some truth that most of art and most of society does not want to speak about or acknowledge. There are many unpleasant truths that are revealed through dark music. They range from the truth that the only thing we can be certain of is death and that we are born and die alone, to the less melodramatic idea that the cosmos is utterly meaningless. Whether these “truths” are actually true is an open question, but for many who are attracted to dark music, one of its most attractive qualities is that it confronts these truths head on rather than trying to avoid speaking about them. Put slightly differently, dark music does not try to comfort its audience by telling them pleasant stories about life, rather it says to them “as much as you do not want to hear this, life is miserable in many regards.” Music with this sort of meaning is attractive because it is not deceptive; instead, it is deeply authentic as it will not shy away from saying things that are horrifying, unsettling or upsetting. People are attracted to this authenticity as it means that the music that they listen to is more than a commodity, because even though the music is a commodity it is also something more in that it speaks honestly about the world.

There are surely other sources of the attraction that many have to dark music, but the two sources elucidated above surely help explain why so many seemingly normal people find themselves drawn to music that seems committed to glorifying loss, misery, pain and dread.

On Attachment: Cognitive? Or Noncognitive?

The things that humans care about range from abstract concepts to concrete persons and things, but why do we care about the particular things that we care about? Is caring a response to the value of something, or is something else responsible for our caring about particular things? For the sake of simplicity I will refer to the question of what we care about, as the question of attachment, as caring signifies that one has some attachment to that thing. I will outline two different ways of thinking about the question of what grounds our attachments. Furthermore, it seems to me that both approaches are flawed, but there is a way of thinking about this issue that better understands the issue of what grounds our attachments.

The first approach to the question of attachment sees attachment as a brute fact. On this interpretation what we care about is just a matter of chance and does not represent anything about the value of the object of our attachments. For example, according to this approach the fact that I have come to be friends with Lilith, and value romantic literature is not an indication of the value of Lilith as a friend, or the value of romantic literature. Rather it is simply a fact about me at this point in my time that I am attached to these things. Of course there are causal reasons for why I have come to have these attachments, but these causal factors do not imply anything about the nature of the object of attachment. In this sense attachment is not a signification of the value of particular objects.

What gives this approach a certain intuitive plausibility is that often we find that we are attached to persons or things, but cannot explain why in terms of any particular attribute of the thing. I may deeply care for my friend Lillith while not being able to explain my attachment to myself in terms of the value of Lillith as a friend. Lillith may be kind, considerate, and funny, but so are many people I know so why I am attached to Lillith and not those others? Likewise my commitment to becoming a musician may not be explicable in terms of the value of the activities typical of a musician, rather it may seem that this attachment is just a part of me like the colour of my hair, rather than a response to the value of these activities.

The second approach posits that attachment is a response to value in the world. We become attached to persons, things and ideas when we see recognize that they are valuable. Contrarily to approach one, approach two sees my attachment to romantic literature as a response to the beauty and literary excellence displayed in this genre. What give this approach its plausibility is that when we reflect we will often try to revise our attachments, in light of consideration about the value of persons, objects and ideas. We say to ourselves I should not care so much about what strangers think because it is really of very little importance, which implies that our attachments are, in some sense, responses to what is valuable in the world. So this approach has the virtue of fitting with certain experiences we have involving reflection on value and attachment.

The problem with approach one is that it has to say that our experience of revising our attachments does not really represent making our attachments correspond better with the valuable elements of the world, but rather merely signifies that certain causal factors have led to a change in one’s attachments. This is problematic because it means saying that an important element of ethical consciousness, reflection and revision of attachments, is not what it seems to be, and this seems quite hard to swallow, and implausible. This is of course not a knock-out punch for approach one, but it does make it seem that this approach is not able to capture certain elements of our intuitions.

Approach two also has a significant flaw. The trouble is that we sometimes find ourselves attached to people or things that do not seem to have value. A person who is trying to quit smoking, might still have a strong attachment to smoking even if he or she sees the activity as without value. Similarly, we may find ourselves in a friendship or romantic relationship with someone who we see as deeply contemptible, but yet nonetheless we may find ourselves deeply drawn and attached to them. So, it seems that even our experience of attachment attests to the fact that we can find ourselves attached to things or persons that do not seem to be valuable, consequently attachment cannot simply be seen as a response to value in the world. Thus, approach two seems to have a significant flaw.

The simplest way to overcome the flaws in both approaches is to recognize that attachment may not be a single thing, with a single underlying rationale. There may be attachments that we have that are just brute facts that do not signify a response to value in the world, while there may be attachments that we have that are responses to value in the world. The most obvious candidate for attachments that are brute facts are attachments that seem, to the person who has them, to be unchangeable facts about ourselves, rather than response to value in the world. In this case the person who has these attachments cannot explain why they have these attachments; they just happen to have these attachments. For example, the person who needs their house to be immaculate is attached to the idea of an immaculately clean house, but this person may not be able to explain why it is valuable to have an immaculately clean house, nor may they have some background understanding of value that requires them to keep their home immaculately clean. In such a case the person’s attachment does not seem to be a rational response to fact, it just seems to be a brute fact about that person, at that time in their lives. On the other hand, there seem to be attachments that we have that signify a response to a particular value in the world. An activist’s commitment to a particular cause is not seen by them as merely a brute fact about themselves, but rather as a response to a call to pursue some valuable cause that will improve the lives of others. In such a case the agent can either explain why their attachment is a response to value, or they have a background conception of the good which, while inarticulate, makes it plausible to see their activity as a response to value in the world. Thus, the commitment seems to be a response to value in the world. Consequently, there seem to be at least two forms of attachment. One is a noncognitive form of attachment in which our attachment is inexplicable in terms of the value of particular things, persons or activities, and the other is a cognitive form of attachment in which the attachment is best understood as a response to value in the world. We do not have to choose whether we want to be noncognitivist or cognitivists about attachments, because there are numerous varieties of attachments and some of them are cognitive while others are noncognitive. This may lead to a more complex picture than either approach elucidated above spells out, but while simplicity may be desirable in principle, in any explanation, complexity is sometimes necessary to do justice to the diversity of phenomena under consideration, and in this case the complexity seems to be necessary.

Loneliness in Post-Industrial Society

It is quite common to hear that there is an epidemic of loneliness within post-industrial societies. Yet, this seems odd as inhabitants of post-industrial societies seem to have a great deal of contact with others. However, on reflection this is not odd, because loneliness is a form of alienation that results from an unsatisfied general human desire, and a large amount and variety of social contact does not satiate this desire. Furthermore, while loneliness may be a problem for post-industrial societies, it is unclear if it has been a problem for other societies, such that loneliness may be a part of the human condition, rather than a historical contingency.

Post-industrial societies are overwhelmingly urban and thus it seems odd that people would be lonely as inhabitants of these societies typically are surrounded by other people. Unlike the subsistence farmer who would often only have contact with his family, the typical city dweller within a post-industrial society will have contact with neighbours, clients, colleagues, vendors, family, and friends on a regular basis. Furthermore, the development of technologies has made it far easier to contact others. The fact that nearly everyone has a cell phone and is on social media means that we can easily stay in contact with other people even if they live on the other side of the world. So, it seems that our loneliness is not an effect of not being in contact with others or not being able to easily contact others, as post-industrial societies far surpass other societies both in terms of the amount of contact that people have with one another, and the ease with which we can contact one another.

Loneliness is a species of alienation. The lonely, like the alienated, feel displaced; the particular variety of alienation that the lonely person encounters is that they feel isolated from those they should be connected with. This does not mean that the lonely know who in particular they should be connected with, but rather that they have a sense that they are not connected to the right people or connected to people in a proper way. What lies behind loneliness is a general human desire to connect with something beyond oneself in a substantial, meaningful way. This is not a desire for any particular social relationship, but rather to be engaged with something other than ourselves in a substantial way. This is why a vast network of social contact does not protect against loneliness, as the desire to connect meaningfully with something beyond oneself is not satiated by the fact that one has a large amount of social contact. Some might question the existence of such a desire, but if the desire did not exist then the sense of loneliness we feel would likely be nonexistent, but yet we feel or typically know someone who feels this sense of loneliness. Furthermore, it seems plausible to construe this desire as a general feature of humanity rather than something particular to post-industrial society, as many cultures that have developed independently seem to speak to the presence of this desire. The notion of connecting meaningfully with something beyond oneself is vague, but it is purposefully so, as this desire is meant to cover both our desire to develop friendships and find romantic love, as well as our desire to connect with something like God. I construed the desire in this way as I think loneliness can result both because of a sense of disconnection from God, and from a sense of lack of meaningful connections with other people. The believer who feels disconnected from God would surely feel lonely, as they have found themselves in a situation where they are disconnected from a being that deeply matters in their life.

I have assumed throughout this entry that loneliness is a problem for post-industrial societies and I have no intention of arguing against this thesis, as it fits with my own anecdotal experience, although I recognize that this thesis may be discredit by empirical evidence. But simply saying that loneliness is a problem for post-industrial society raises the question of whether loneliness has been a problem for other societies. The answer to this question is not something that I can answer as I do not have the historical knowledge to speak to it conclusively, but we do have reasons to think that loneliness was a problem in other societies. In the Symposium Plato has Aristophanes say that erotic desire is rooted in the general human desire to find the other half of their true nature, and this is surely related to the desire that underlies loneliness that has been elucidated above. There are surely other examples like this, so while loneliness may be a problem for post-industrial societies this may also have been an issue within other societies as well. So, in the case that it turns out that loneliness is a problem for other societies we may need to accept that loneliness is a central aspect of the human condition, rather than a historical contingency.

Sports, Rule Breaking, and the Dishonourable

Typically, within the culture of a sport, there are some acts that are against the rules of the game that are not viewed as dishonourable, while other acts that are against the rules are viewed as dishonourable. For example, in hockey, fighting is against the rules, but is not viewed as a dishonourable form of activity. Rather, according to most, it is part of the game. Contrastingly, kicking is viewed as an extremely dishonourable activity; in hockey the player who kicks is a pariah, while the person who fights is merely tough. This can also be seen in soccer with the recent events with Luis Suarez. A dirty slide tackle, or a pull of the jersey is not viewed as dishonourable, even though it is against the rules of the game, whereas biting is viewed as a very dishonourable act. What this shows is that in sport the distinction between acting honourably and dishonourably does not line up with the rules of a particular game; one can act honourably while breaking the rules of a sport.

The language of honour may sound antiquated as it may bring to mind an image of the Roman citizen, or the medieval aristocrat, but the term captures something important about ethical action. For example, to act honourably is to act appropriately, or to act in an elevated or dignified manner. Whereas to act dishonorably is to act shamefully; it is not just that dishonorable acts are wrong per se, but rather that engaging in them sullies one’s character and consequently one ought to regret them and be ashamed of them. To put this slightly differently, part of the nature of honour, is that one can legitimately have pride in acting honorably, and if one acts dishonorably one ought to be ashamed of acting in such a way.

The fact that in sports certain kind of rule breaking acts are viewed as dishonorable, while other types are not raises an interesting question. That is, does our sense that certain rule breaking acts within a game, like kicking in hockey, are dishonorable, while other rule breaking acts are not dishonourable signify that the purported dishonourable action is in fact dishonourable? Or is our sense just based on a norm that has developed in the sport that does not signify anything about the nature of the action itself? In this entry I will give an answer to these two questions. To put my answer briefly it seems that what makes an act dishonourable within the context of a sport is that it is not in accords with the norms of the game, and thus engaging in it violates the spirit of fairness.

It is quite clear that acts that are viewed as dishonorable within a sport, are not necessarily dishonorable without qualification. In the context of hockey kicking may be dishonorable, but if I get in an altercation with someone on the street there seems to be nothing dishonourable about kicking them. Thus, it seems that we cannot understand what makes an act that is deemed to be dishonourable within a sport, dishonorable, by examining the action outside of the context of that sport, as there are many actions that would be deemed to be dishonourable in a particular sport, but are not viewed as dishonorable in other contexts.

One possible way of making sense of what makes acts that are deemed to be dishonourable within a particular sport dishonourable is to look at how these acts fit into the sport. If an act is viewed as dishonourable in a sport typically very few players will perform that action. Consequently, it seems that acts that are deemed to be dishonourable within a sport are acts that others who play the game do not expect an opponent or teammate to engage in, both because they are deemed to be dishonourable and because players rarely engage in them. Thus, it seems fair to say that such acts are not in line with the norms of the sport. So, what might make an act that is deemed to be dishonourable in a sport dishonourable is that such an act violates the spirit of fairness that is central to all sports, as acts that are deemed to be dishonorable are not in line with the norms of the game so by engaging them one is saying that one does not have to conform to the norms of the game. This violates the spirit of fairness as part of what fairness means is that norms ought to apply equally to all, and when you violate the norms of the game you are saying that the norms of the game do not apply to you. In such a case one has acted dishonourably because the spirit of fair play is central to all sports and thus there is something particularly shameful about violating something central to all sports while engaging in a sport. Of course certain kinds of acts that are deemed to be dishonourable may be inherently cruel, and dangerous, such as a sucker punch, but generally what makes acts that are deemed to be dishonourable in a sport dishonourable is that they violate the spirit of fairness that is central to the game.

It might be said that if what makes acts that are deemed to be dishonourable, dishonourable is that they violate the spirit of fairness, how are these acts different from acts that break the rules, like fighting in hockey, that are not deemed to be dishonourable? If a violation of the spirit of fairness is at issue then shouldn’t all acts that break the rules be deemed to be dishonourable?

However, this thought fails to understand one thing about many sports, and that is that the rules of the game do not exhaust the norms of the game. I will continue to speak about hockey, because it is a sport I played growing up, I follow today, and I know quite well. In hockey, the rules of the game do not completely determine the norms of the game, as it is understood that fights, slashing, roughing, and charging are all infractions, but they are a part of the game even though the player who engages in such acts are penalized for them. Engaging in these infractions is commanded by norms of the game like “stand up for yourself and your teammates by fighting bullies on the other team.“ Hockey would not be the same game if the infractions noted above were not a part of it and commanded by particular norms within the culture of hockey. In this sense, when one gets in a fight in hockey one violates a formal rule of the game, and the norm that one should not break the rules of the game, but does not violate the norms of the game in general, as one is still acting on norms that are central to the game, such as the norm noted above. So, it seems that rule breaking in a sport in itself does not violate the spirit of fair play, and thus just because an act breaks the rules of a sport does not make that act dishonourable.

It should be noted that some norms within particular sports are deeply problematic, and thus the fact that someone is acting on a norm within a sport does not mean their action is entirely unproblematic. Surely, the norm of `targeting the head, ` which was not against the rules in hockey until recently, was deeply problematic as it put the health of players at risk. Thus, the fact that someone is acting on a norm of the game does not legitimate their action, but this does not change the fact that anyone acting on a norm within a game cannot be said to be violating the spirit of fairness of the game.