Friday, May 31, 2013


     Speculative philosophy is the term I've used throughout this blog to describe my own philosophical approach, which I believe is the best one to follow.  It assumes that no one knows what ultimate reality is or even whether an "ultimate reality" exists.  It starts from all the planetary, galactic, and cosmic experience and knowledge human beings have collectively gathered and tries to infer/extrapolate/induce from it what may or may not lie outside that experience and knowledge.  It never claims to know anything ultimately or absolutely and in this sense reflects a radically agnostic,  tentative mindset.  All it can do is make a case for this or that worldview on the basis of the best available evidence.
     Though I've already explained and defended speculative philosophy in a number of previous posts, I want to return to it here because of a book I've just read by Roland Omnes titled Quantum Philosophy (Princeton, 1999).  Omnes, a nuclear physicist, argues that quantum theory was teased out of nature not by the intuitive empiricism of traditional philosophy and science but instead by a mathematical logic so arcane and difficult that few human beings understand it.  He says the formalism of this math has revealed an alien reality beneath the apparent reality of daily life.  From now on, philosophy must start from this baffling microworld of subatomic particles and work its way backward to the macroworld of planets, stars, and galaxies that humanity instinctively intuits.
     The key disjunct between the two worlds, Omnes says, is the unpredictability of microphysics versus the predictability of macrophysics.  You can't simultaneously measure the position and momentum of subatomic particles because such particles are governed by wave phase functions that produce both wave and particle effects.  Though electrons, for example, have mass, they occupy slots around atomic nuclei according to wave phase laws and hence only move in so-called quantum leaps among energy levels.  The consequence is that the mathematical relationship between cause and effect on the micro level is overwhelmingly probabilistic, on the macro overwhelmingly deterministic.
     In other words, the abstract formalism of modern math has uncovered a stunning and unsuspected truth about physical nature that, absent the formalism, would have remained unknown to science and philosophy.  Omnes further argues that we must find in quantum indeterminacy our philosophical justification for the intuitive, common-sense grasp of the more predictable macro reality we're born into.  We must base our philosophy of empirical reality on a more fundamental quantum reality.  He does this by invoking a physical process he calls decoherence.
     Decoherence occurs whenever all the wave phases of the innumerable subatomic particles comprising a macro object like a speck of dust "decohere" because of their tiny size and huge numbers, thereby giving the dust speck as a whole, unlike their own indeterminateness, a clearly definable position in spacetime.  Dust, cats, and houses can't simultaneously be in different places like the electrons they're made of because the wave phases of all those electrons only function subatomically and in effect lose their wave phase ambiguities by decohering outside the atom.
     All this sounds reasonable to me.  But other aspects of Omnes' argument are flawed.  First of all, he claims that mathematical truths like 2 plus 2 equals 4 or e equals mc squared are independent of nature and exist in some kind of transcendent realm of pure logic.  The claim is routinely denied by most mathematicians, largely because it wraps math in mysterious, unworldly clothing unlike that of other practical human enterprises like science or technology.
     Second, though justified in stressing math's abstract logicalness, Omnes goes awry, I think, in arguing that the discovery through modern math of a quantum-level reality unsuspected by scientists and philosophers before 1900 demands a redefinition of philosophy itself.  From its origins in ancient Greece, speculative philosophy of the kind I champion has always tried to make the best sense it can of the mysterious realities human beings find themselves in the middle of.  The classical materialists, who in my view were on the right track (and were the earliest Western philosophers), speculated that ultimate reality consisted of randomly colliding particles they called atoms.  They were challenged by the Platonists, who speculated instead that ultimate reality was a transcendental power of pure thought that realized itself only disappointingly in physical matter.
     These two great early hunches have dominated Western philosophy ever since.  They're termed monistic because they assume that ultimate reality consists of a single basic component, either absolute matter or absolute idea.  Dualism, the compromise between them introduced by Aristotle and subsequently adopted by Christian philosophers, speculates that the essence of God is an infinitely superior, immaterial, and creative power to think that brought the infinitely inferior reality of material nature into being and is absolutely unlike it.  These two kinds of reality, divine thought and physical matter, will remain diametrical opposites until God chooses to change them in some way.
     Both monistic philosophies, and the dualistic compromise between them, are completely speculative in my sense of the term.  They use the best reasoning and evidence they can muster to support their hunches concerning ultimate reality.  Materialism has an advantage here in welcoming all scientific and technological proof into its worldview without hesitation.  Idealism, on the other hand, has always been hamstrung by its refusal to credit the empiricism underlying science and technology.  Its doctrine of transcendental ideation, for instance, was based on the assumption that human cognition was explicable only as a supernatural gift.  Natural process, the idealists assumed, could not account for it.  But we now know that brains are no more supernatural than fungi.
     Christian dualism has weathered such questioning better, mainly because its worldview makes room for science.  As long as you confine yourself to empirical evidence, you can investigate every natural process to your heart's content.  Where you must stop is with divine truth, defined in all mainstream Christian sects, more or less, as biblical revelation.  In this realm, traditionally known as Faith as opposed to Reason, you don't speculate or ask questions.  You bow your head and believe.
     Initially, I suspect, this religious impulse may have been akin to speculative philosophy.  Many prehistoric religions tracked the movements of the sun, moon, and stars closely.  Back then, the hunch that celestial objects were divine may have been fundamentally speculative.  Those things in the sky, so real yet so mysterious, were explicable as products of some kind of unearthly power.  From their own ability to make tools and shelters, primitive men and women may have inferred/induced/extrapolated a corresponding ability in superhuman beings to make stars and planets.  The available evidence, that is, may have seemed to them to justify such a speculation.
     But religion quickly lost whatever original speculativeness it may have had to dogmatism and zeal.  Reasonable inferences about what ultimate reality might be gave way to blind faith in what it infallibly was.  In Christian culture, speculative philosophy gradually shriveled into the linguistic nitpicking that today dominates academic philosophy, where ultimate reality is considered both irrelevant in itself and harmful to career advancement.  Even thoughtful and well-informed scientists like Omnes have been conditioned to think they're philosophizing non-speculatively when in fact they are not.
     In the thirteenth of Quantum Philosophy's sixteen chapters, Omnes announces he's a Christian.  Though he does this in a careful, non-polemical, science-friendly way, he also insists on the need for belief in what he calls the "sacred," which, he says, "is everywhere in the universe and nothing is completely profane."  He follows this fairly transparent dualism up with the crystal-clear dualism of the final four pages of his book.
     There he sets up an extraordinary parallel between "Reality" and "Science" on the one hand and "Logos" and "Mathematics and Logic" on the other.  Just as "Reality," or physical nature, caused "Science" to emerge, he argues, so "Logos," or divine order, caused "Mathematics and Logic" to emerge.  The speculative dualism of all this is obvious in his conclusion that "everything becomes clear if Logos is a consistent entity independent of Reality" -- if, that is, divine thought is assumed to be absolutely different from and superior to physical nature, which is the key speculative assumption philosophical dualists have always made.
     Omnes doesn't seem to understand that, far from discovering some great new philosophical truth at the heart of things, he has simply done what I and all speculative philosophers have always done: -- extrapolate, infer, and induce from what we do know tentative explanations of what we do not and probably cannot know.  Quantum Philosophy is a fine effort to update speculative dualism, but its claim to do more than that is hollow.  Philosophy at its best is always speculative.

Saturday, April 27, 2013


     Always a favorite hobby, poker has become something more to me now that I'm in my late seventies.  It's the one competitive activity I can still do with men and women a third my age.  Can't do it in sports -- in golf, the only sport I can still play without tearing myself apart, I have to use the senior tees.  Can't do it professionally -- I'm retired from all that.  Only in poker can I still sit down with 20-, 30-, 40-, 50-, and 60-year-olds and match wits for hours in a contest whose criterion for success or failure is wonderfully clear:  when I get up from the table, have I won their money, or have they won mine?  All serious poker players know this is what finally counts.
     But they also know they'll often lose.  So much of the game depends on luck (I'd say about eighty percent) that everyone who regularly plays accepts losing as an unavoidable fact of poker life.  For me, the key to managing loss is limiting how much I let myself lose in a single day -- two hundred bucks.  This past weekend I was careless.  On Friday, at the newly-opened poker room in Perryville, Maryland, I won $200, then came back Sunday and lost that $200 plus $200 more.  I've kicked myself ever since for not quitting when that first $200 went missing.
     On the other hand, if your cards are good you ought to take advantage of them as long as the run lasts and stop only when you're sure it's over.  Two weeks ago during Easter weekend I played on Good Friday at the Delaware Park poker room, had an exceptional run, and quit when my winnings throttled back from over $700 to $600.  Two days later, Easter Sunday, I played again, this time at Perryville, and by following the same plan came away with $400 more.  The Perryville win doubtless helped me lose there this past weekend, encouraging me to overplay several hands I normally fold and to drop that Sunday $400.  Winning can make you do that until losing clears your head and sobers you up.  The only comfort I take from the Sunday loss is that it suggests my Easter win the weekend before was probably not the result of divine intervention.
     Until the 1980s, when casino gambling was legalized in Atlantic City, I played only home-game poker.  But Atlantic City gradually taught me to prefer casino poker, mainly because casino poker never leads to the wrangling, bullying, and other frictions home games sometimes do, especially when considerable money's at stake.  At the casinos, play is overseen by expert referees, and quarrels over rules or etiquette are quickly settled.  Of course playing with strangers carries its own risks, but on the whole I've found casino poker at least as friendly and pleasant as home poker.
     It's different from almost all other kinds of casino gambling in that it pits the players at the table against each other rather than against the house.  Unlike slot machines and table games like blackjack, craps, or roulette, a casino's only profit from poker come from a percentage skimmed from each pot, usually ten percent up to a maximum of $4, called the "rake."  Since poker pots often amount to hundreds of dollars, this rake is regarded by all knowledgeable players as trivial.  Over time it provides the house with a steady, risk-free income, but everyone knows that poker is a casino's least profitable form of gambling. No one begrudges the house its poker rake.
     I play only cash games, as opposed to tournaments, because I find tournament poker too macho, feisty, and undisciplined, with way too much bluffing.  In cash games, your chips have exactly the dollar value you pay for them.  In effect, you're playing with real money rather than the funny-money used in tournaments, where your chips have little relation to what you pay to enter or what you get if you win.  Nowadays, both tournament and cash-game poker is overwhelmingly played in the form of no-limit Texas holdem.
     The rules of no-limit Texas holdem are simple.  Each player's dealt two cards face down that determine a first round of betting.  Then the dealer turns up three common cards in the middle of table called the "flop," followed by a second round of betting.  A fourth common card, the "turn," and a third betting round follow, then a fifth common card, or "river," and a final betting round.  Any player can at any point go "all in," meaning he or she can bet all the chips in front of them on the table, usually anywhere from a few dollars to hundreds.  The so-called big and little "blinds," or antes, precede the dealer's button around the table, insuring that a different player begins the betting every hand and each pot contains some money.
     For oldsters like me, an important side-benefit of casino no-limit poker is the mental and emotional self-control it demands.  You have to calculate the fresh risks and variables you face with every new hand.  Most of the players at a typical ten-player table are in their thirties or forties, and their mental sangfroid and quickness makes someone in his late seventies like me really sit up and take notice if he wants to keep his shirt.  Since I'm prone to overplaying my cards, I have to fight the impulse to call or raise large bets with good but beatable hands.  Risk lurks everywhere.
     On the other hand, age has its advantages.  Older players generally do fairly well, mainly because they tend to be more patient, risk-averse, and non-combative than their younger rivals.  A surprisingly large number of septuagenarians and even octogenarians play casino poker almost every day, doubtless in part because they have the time, and many play well enough to make it modestly worth their while.  I put myself in that category so long as I can resist the urge, for example, to overbet kings in the hole against an ace on the board.
     Poker was for me an amusing and exciting recreation long before I thought my way through to philosophical materialism.  It still is.  But now it also squares well with the naturalistic, non-religious worldview I settled on when I became a materialist and an atheist thirty years ago.
     At a deeply speculative level, I see poker's ordered randomness as mimicking the ordered randomness of material reality itself, which of course for a materialist is the only reality there is.  A new deck of cards contains fifty-two spades, hearts, diamonds, and clubs identically sequenced from one-or-fourteen value aces to thirteen-value kings.  In poker this deck is mixed and shuffled before play begins, and certain cards are "burned" (removed from play) during every deal to assure the game remains as random as possible.
     The material reality of our cosmos resembles a mixed and shuffled poker deck.  It too has intrinsic, arbitray patternings like a card deck's thirteen-card sequences of four suits.  But at the quantum level the patternings of material reality manifest themselves as randomly as the cards dealt from a shuffled deck.  They're probabilistic rather than deterministic.  For example, a holdem player with an ace and king of spades as his hole cards knows that, after a flop with a six and eight of spakes and an ace of diamonds, he has nine "outs," or chances, that a spade will come up on the turn and give him an all but unbeatable "nut" (i.e., ace-high) flush.  He also has two more outs to get a third ace and three outs to get another king.  In other words, with fourteen of fifty-two chances to improve an already strong hand, probability justifies his betting aggressively.
     Atomic decay, wave-particle indeterminacy, and a host of other quantum-level phenomena exhibit the same random probability and are "bet" by nuclear scientists in a somewhat analogous way, although their deck of cards -- the sum total of all the subatomic particles in the cosmos -- is so much larger and more mathematically predictable than a deck of cards that quantum oddsmaking has proven to be the most successful in the history of science.  Quantum mechanics is the surest scientific bet there is.
     Yet like poker it too rests squarely on probabilistic chance.  Furthermore, quantum indeterminacy suggests that some kind of material flux or chaos is the essence of ultimate Being, or what I term the All.  If so, human thought and feeling should be seen as aberrations in an essentially inhuman material order.  They appear to have randomly evolved out of the All's infinity of possiblilities, none of which is basically human.  In other words, humanness is not a fundamental characteristic of ultimate reality and in no way survives the resubmersion in inorganic nature that we call death, even though human beings, like all other percipient organisms on earth, have an instinctive hatred and fear of death built into their viscera by evolution.  With luck, our aversion to dying will help us survive long enough to reproduce.  Without luck, we're apt to die at any moment.
     Such chanciness is the stuff of human existence and of poker.  Mortality resembles losing at poker because both seem so arbitrary and unfair to those who experience them.  On the other hand, the joy of being alive or of winning an all-in pot can make the losses and frustrationsof life and of poker seem very worthwhile, at least temporarily.

Thursday, March 28, 2013


     My last two posts, on the Newtown massacre and the movie "Amour," have gotten me thinking about mortality and my close contact with it every two weeks at the hospice hospital where I volunteer.  The "Wilderness Rejoined" subtitle above is a follow-up to my earlier Consolation Four, "The Wilderness," posted May 19, 2011, in which I define wilderness as every natural object, event, and evolution that has or will come to pass in post-Big Bang, cosmic spacetime.  There I also define mortality as a rejoining of the atoms and molecules that comprise every percipient being after it dies with this cosmic wilderness and further argue further that the human species, like all other species, randomly evolved from inorganic matter and merges back into it at death.
     Now that I'm approaching my seventy-seventh birthday, I feel like giving mortality more attention than I have in the past and hence in future will probably write occasional posts like this one that focus on it.  While I realize that relatively few people choose to ponder their own extinction much, I hope that those who do and who happen to read this blog will be joined by others interested in seeing an aging materialist like me wrestle with the subject.  So until I'm either too depressed to write about dying any more or have said all I have to say about it, I'm afraid my readers will have to put up with posts like this from time to time.
     Every two weeks I spend Wednesday mornings at the hospice hospital sitting with actively dying patients.  Patients who are "actively dying" have been so classified by the medical staff because they're within minutes, hours, or at most a day or two of the end.  Though normally comatose and unresponsive, these patients often show signs of restlessness or discomfort.  Sometimes their sounds or gestures are nothing but neurological cycles repeating themselves over and over and needing no help.
     But occasionally they're distress signals.  In that case, I call the nurse to come and decide if additional help or medicine is called for.  Of course I'm also there simply to keep the patient company, as has been customary in many cultures for millennia.  None of my patients have relatives or friends with them when I arrive, and I move on to unattended patients if anyone like that shows up.  Either in alleviating pain or by just being in the room, I find the work satisfying, despite its lack of communicativeness and sociability.  Helping dying people through their final ordeal gives me a greater sense of fellowship with them than anything else I can imagine doing, especially since, as has so far always been the case, they're total strangers to me.  Having now sat with more than a hundred such patients, half a dozen of whom have died in my presence, I'm convinced that, given proper medical care, no one needs to fear death.  It can be, and in my experience as a witness has been, an easy process, like a cup of water cooling or a spark burning out.
     That said, I'm also sure it's never easy nor anything but cataclysmic for the person going through it.  Death is no fun to look forward to or experience.  Everything evolution has built into our brains and bodies fights it.  We're hardwired as infants to assume we'll live forever, and even after lifetimes of watching plants and other animals die, we have a hard time applying such evidence to ourselves.  Most people in fact choose to  believe they'll personally survive death in some way.  It's hard not to hate and fear the impending annihilation of all we are and all we feel, sense, and know as conscious organisms, even if we find comfort, as I do, in the fact that the material elements we're made of survive us.
     My mornings at the hospital are part of my own effort to understand and accept my own annihilation.  Seeing death up close and personal or a regular basis helps me appreciate how mundane, unspectacular, and unavoidable it is.  It's also absolutely impartial.  Wealth or fame exempts no one from it.  When we die, we pass through the same portal from consciousness to oblivion that every other brain-equipped animal in the planet's history has already passed through.  We human beings are in this sense indistinguishable from countless other terrestrial organisms that have died and will continue doing so as long as life on earth exists.
     Death's impartiality and even-handedness was driven home especially clearly during my hospital shift this week.  When I arrived and checked the status board in the staff room, I found only four of the thirty-odd patients in the building marked as "actively dying" by a green dot or yellow triangle next to their names.  Since I prefer sitting with the same patient as long as possible, I followed my usual routine of arbitrarily picking a green-dot or yellow-triangle room from the status board and going there first to see if friends or relatives were present.  What I found was a large, well-built black man in his early forties alone, breathing oxygen through a nose tube.  He was slack-jawed and profoundly unconscious.  No cards, flowers, or other mementoes indicated he'd had any visitors.  The ceiling fan was on high, and I turned it off to warm up the room.
     After an hour, two aides came in to clean and reposition him, and I followed protocol by leaving.  Back in fifteen minutes, I found the aides had laid damp cloths on his forehead and arms and restarted the fan.  I located them a few rooms away and asked them why, and they told me he was running a fever.  I also learned  later from the duty nurse that he'd suffered some kind of brain damage, but exactly what kind and how she didn't yet know because she'd just begun her shift and hadn't had a chance to check the charts that came with him to the hospital twenty-four hours earlier.  All she knew was that his temperature was above a hundred and three.
     I'd never seen a patient like him before.  Much younger than most, he looked physically fit and free of external signs of disease or injury.  Though his breathing was slightly convulsive, sometimes restarting with a gasp after stopping a while, and his arm, leg, and face muscles never moved, he seemed quite healthy.  But like all comatose patients, he looked so helpless and vulnerable that he was more like a sleeping child than a grown man.  I wanted to help him, but I knew there wasn't much I could do but watch his breathing.
     As usual, I sat next to his bed and read a book, glancing up now and then to see how he was doing.  The hospice doctor dropped by, said hello, and asked me if I'd noticed anything unusual.  I said not during my shift, now going on three hours.  He nodded, checked the patient with a stethoscope, examined his hands and feet for mottling, thanked me, and started to leave.
     I stood up and said I had a question.  As is customary, we stepped out of the room, and, to my query what had brought the patient here, the doctor said he'd suffered massive brain in a fall at the Baltimore city jail, where he was an inmate.
     I paused.  "The city jail?  What kind of fall?"
     "I'm not sure," he said.  "Some kind of fall."  He added that he'd been taken from the jail to a nearby hospital, then, when judged to be terminal, transferred here.  I didn't think I was getting the whole story, but I didn't press it further.
     I thanked him, he thanked me, and he left.  Alone again with the patient, I studied him with new interest.  Never having had personal contact with a prison inmate before, I was doubly struck by how innocent and childlike he looked.  Except for his youthfulness, he was no different from any of the scores of other comatose patients I'd sat with.  He was no more menacing or menaced, troubling or troubled, unworthy or worthy than any of them.
     Was he a hardened criminal?  Rather than a fall, had some kind of fight or attack at the jail landed him here?  While probably relevant to his former life, whatever it had  been, such questions now struck me as meaningless.  Lying there clinging to an existence he was no longer aware of, he seemed archetypically human, a modern Everyman accidentally born from the wilderness and destined to rejoin it soon.  Nothing else about him was significant -- whether he'd  been likeable or unlikeable, lucky or unlucky, fairly or unfairly judged.  All that mattered now was that he was dying, and I was with him.  He died next day without regaining consciousness.

Monday, February 25, 2013


     Since posting Consolation Twenty-Five on the Newtown massacre, I've seen the French movie "Amour" (winner of this year's Oscar for Best Foreign Film) by filmmaker Michael Haneke and decided to review it as Consolation Twenty-Six.  All the reviews I've seen agree the film is first-rate.  They find it a complex, non-judgmental, Rohrshach-test-like handling of harsh material  -- the murder of the female octogenarian in a long and happy marriage by her husband after she's crippled by a stroke.  I agree that interpreting the film depends, like a Rorhshach test, on what the viewer brings to it and that in it Haneke does not make a single, simple statement.
     Yet intentionally or not, he's created in "Amour" what for someone like me, an atheistic materialist myself approaching eighty and an experienced hospice volunteer, must be seen as a devastating cautionary tale on how not to prepare for old age and death.  First of all, the couple has no advance plans for dealing with what happens:  all they do is improvise within the framework of an unrealistic self-sufficiency that their highly civilized lifestyle has accustomed them to.  Second, they disastrously overestimate their ability to cope with what happens:  both are mentally and physically unequal to the task.  Finally, their response to what happens turns into a horror show of geriatric ignorance, derangement, and unintended cruelty:  from their cocoon of wealth and refinement they metamorphose into perpetrators of needless suffering.
     My discussion of these three themes will follow a brief plot summary.  "Amour" opens with the discovery by authorities of a decomposing corpse on a bed sprinkled with flowers and sealed with tape in an upscale Paris apartment.  The corpse is Anne's, the film's main female character, who's then introduced months earlier at a piano recital where she and her husband Georges hear a former student of her play.
     Home from the recital, they find their apartment burglarized, and some time later Georges discovers Anne sitting next to him in bed staring blankly into space.  At breakfast she again stares, and her inability to pour coffee shows she's had a stroke.  This leads to unsuccessful carotid-artery surgery that leaves her paralyzed on her right side but initially able to think and speak clearly.  Always afraid of doctors, she makes Georges promise never to institutionalize her again.
     Her condition worsens.  When the former student drops by, she pretends to be fine, but soon after that she has to get an invalid scooter, then falls out of bed, and eventually begins wetting herself.  Georges' efforts to rehabilitate her -- bending her legs, walking her around, and so on -- are well-meant but futile.  He has a nightmare of answering their doorbell and, finding no one, wandering out into their now-ruined and flooded front hall and being grabbed from behind by a hand that seals off his mouth and nose.  He wakes up screaming but in several visits from Eva, their daughter, refuses to admit how badly things have deteriorated.  Eva discovers it for herself when she tries talking to her mother, who can barely speak.
     Shocked, Eva tries with her American husband Geoff, also a pianist, to intervene, but Georges insists he and Anne can do better in their apartment than in a nursing home or hospice.  He does agree to hire nurses to help now and then and is shown trying to make Anne eat as she brokenly talks about her long-dead mother at a concert.  She's now in constant pain and cries out when moved or touched, for which Georges fires one of the nurses, who retorts she's done a good job and that he's a mean and pitiable old prick.  Shaken, Georges retreats to the salon and for the first time smokes there.
     This erosion of standards is underscored when he slaps Anne for spitting out water he begs her to drink, a harshness juxtaposed ironically against shots of their romantic landscape paintings.  Georges locks Eva out of Anne's bedroom on her next visit, denies they're in trouble, and makes Eva cry by finally letting her see Anne.  The downward spiral ends with Georges suffocating Anne, laying her on the bed in a dress, sprinkling her with flowers, sealing the room with tape, and hallucinating that they leave the apartment together.  Eva's finally shown in the apartment alone after Anne's body's been removed.  Georges' fate is left unexplained.
     The first theme mentioned earlier -- how disastrously unprepared the couple is for Anne's stroke and how ineptly they improvise responses to it -- appears in the opening scene when Georges' tape is ripped off the bedroom door and the windows are thrown open to air out the stench of Anne's corpse.  The tape and the flowers Georges sprinkles on Anne are part of his hasty and unhinged effort at once to hide and memorialize her death.  Throughout "Amour," both he and she are unrealistic.  They both insist on staying in the apartment, she maintaining she's fine, he they're coping well.  The tape is one of the film's many images of masking reality under futile coverings.
     Their tendency to hide facts both from themselves and others is linked to the art they perform and collect.  We first see them as members of a large, well-dressed audience facing the camera in mathematical rows and reacting with puppet-like conventionality to the recital they're hearing.  The sea of faces (at first viewing we've no idea which are theirs) listens and applauds in unison.  This ritualistic response to an artistic presentation helps define them and their values.  As performing artists and teachers and parents of artists, Anne and Georges are solid citizens of this cultural community, and their mutual civility and wittiness throughout demonstrates their commitment to its values.
     Its worldview emerges from "Amour" as strenuously polite, artful, and non-ideological.  Anne and Georges never discuss philosophy or religion, nor does anyone else.  The film focusses entirely on their re-creation (they're performers rather than composers) of music and on their consumption of other kinds of high art.  Their life together has itself become a kind of art work, with enough income to provide them everything they think they need to grow old and die together gracefully.
     "Amour" in no way argues that their artistic worldview causes the catastrophe.  It only suggests, gently, that art helps devotees like Anne and George evade and deny mortality.  It encourages them to believe, as Anne and Georges seem to, that the sensitivity and self-confidence that made them successful artists will make them die well.
In this they resemble the affluent and successful people around them in the recital audience.  Representing the core values of people like Georges and Anne, the sea of semi-identical faces suggests that their view of death -- it must never intrude on polite society, must be ignored, and must finally be met with the ease and self-assurance of successful people like Anne and Georges -- underlies their kind of civilization.
     This leads in the middle part of the film to the second theme -- Georges' and Anne's heartrending inability to cope with her breakdown.  At her homecoming from the hospital, he can barely move her from the wheelchair into her living room chair.  Then when he tells her he's sorry about what's happened, she says "me too" and makes him promise never to move her out of the apartment.  Her fear of such a move equals her incredulity at what's happened.  Often she interprets his efforts to help her as misplaced pity.  At one point he finds her helpless on the hall floor and at another on the bedroom floor because she won't accept her debility.
     She doesn't want outsiders like her son-in-law Geoff to see her, and when her former student from the recital drops by, she dresses up and then scolds him for what she interprets as his dismay at how she looks.  Meanwhile, Georges has the nightmare echoing his own fears and self-doubts despite his insistence to Eva and others that he and Anne are doing well.  After she wets herself, Anne angrily wheels her new motor scooter around the front hall and strands herself in a corner, exposing how scared and upset she too is.
     In the next scene, she's in bed barely able to speak and brokenly warns Eva, who's visiting, against selling the house.  When Eva asks what house, Anne answers dementedly "grandmother's."  Eva at once brings Geoff to help intervene, but Georges will have none of it.  When Geoff asks about a nursing home or hospice, Georges retorts that he and Anne will do fine in the apartment.  Eva's questioning of their home-care setup does lead in the next scene to a new nurse showing Georges how to change Anne's diapers.  He needs far more help than that.
     I found this to be a key section of "Amour."  It shows that Anne, having fallen off a neurological cliff, is no longer in control of herself, though indirectly, of course, she still controls Georges.  His refusal to move her from the apartment fulfills his earlier promise: he knows how much she hates medical reality, and while he's having second thoughts about their situation, as shown by his hiring the new nurse, he nonetheless rejects what's plainly needed.  I found his paralysis in face of his snowballing problems heartbreaking.
     Worse, he doesn't seem to know that dying people lose their need for food and water as their bodily systems shut down.  At one point, feeding Anne till she turns away, he wrongly interprets her refusal as a rejection of him and the will to live.  Later he slaps her for spitting out water, again mistakenly interpreting it as a spiteful act of will.
     Furthermore, neither he nor the nurses seem to realize Anne's reached a state where her body is painfully sensitive to physical contact.  When a nurse brushes her hair, she cries "mal" ("hurts"), and at other times she's clearly in pain even when not touched.  Another nurse dismisses her cries as senile "mama"s or as babble.  Their inexpertise or callousness is underscored by the fact they never give her pain medicine.
     In fact, so inept and unskillful does most of Anne's care seem that I question the quality of the medical staff she and Georges are using.  The nurses are very much a mixed bag, and behind them looms a physician whose surgery on Anne failed when 95% of such operations succeed.  While not proof of incompetence, when seen in light of his regular visits to Anne yet failure to intervene, the statistic suggests he's hardly top-notch.  Moreover, having such a staff is another sign of the insouciance and carelessness with which Georges and Anne have approached old age.  They've anticipated neither the negatives of what might hit them medically nor the positives of their access as French citizens to one of the best medical systems in the world.  Their wealth alone guarantees them medical care of the highest quality.  Yet they seem clueless about how to get such care, which Anne has preemptively rejected anyway.
     They pay a high price for their fecklessness.  The horror show of geriatric ignorance, derangement, and cruelty that is the film's third and most important theme reaches its stunning climax when Georges suddenly smothers Anne with a pillow after telling her an unhappy story of his own boyhood.  He tells the story gently and lovingly, stroking her hands, and she stops crying "mal" and is calm and trusting by the time he finishes.  To kill her so abruptly and brutally, at such a tender moment, was for me conclusive evidence of how crazy he's become.  Whether his act is premeditated or a sudden impulse is unclear, but everything to this point suggests he wants Anne to live, a fact that magnifies the grotesquerie of his murderous attack.
     It is above all a grotesque parody of sexual intercourse.  Pinning her down as if maddened by lust, Georges relentlessly rides Anne's thrusts and struggles with thrusts and struggles of his own and finally collapses on her in post-orgasmic-like exhaustion as her legs also shudder with pseudo-orgasmic death convulsions.  Yet this is not the connubial, sexual amour they've always shared.  It may be a mercy-killing amour through which Georges hopes to free Anne, like the pigeons he frees from the apartment, or it may be a self-amour with which to rid himself of Anne.
     However interpreted, the harsh fact of the murder, apparently unsought by its victim, is haunting.  That the film is complex, ambiguous, and many-layered is undeniable.  But equally undeniable is the insanity, needlessness, and irony of Georges' final act of "caregiving."  For Anne's and his own good, he should have put her in a well-run nursing home or hospice where he could have stayed with or often visited her and where she'd have gotten expert care.  Instead, he mires himself in a morass of hit-or-miss amateurism that destroys them both.
     Anne's dementia is more obvious than his, but by the end they're both deranged.  After she first wets herself, he hallucinates that she's playing their piano, and when he's killed her and sprinkled her with flowers he hallucinates that they leave the apartment together.  He's also shown writing a coldly witty letter (suicide note?) after the murder.  Unshaven, he lies in bed surrounded by litter and cigarette butts.  Their world of high culture has collapsed in madness.
     Haneke's stance is not religious.  There's no religiosity in "Amour" whatsoever.  Instead, there's a complex, questioning awareness of the human repugnance to death and the consequences of that repugnance for two privileged and successful representatives of modern European civilization.  Anne's and Georges' tragedy is the tragedy we will all suffer, that of our mortality.  The couple's failure to anticipate and prepare intelligently for it is, I think, the major focus of "Amour."

Sunday, January 20, 2013


     On the morning of Friday, December 14, 2012, a twenty-year-old caucasian named Adam Lanza shot and killed his mother with a Bushmaster assault rifle in their upscale Newtown, Connecticut home.  He then went to Newtown's Sandy Hook Elementary School and with the Bushmaster killed six staff members and twenty first-grade pupils.  The first 911 call from Sandy Hook reached authorities at 9:35 a.m., and as police approached the school Lanza killed himself with one of two handguns he was also carrying.
     Among the flood of consolatory responses to the massacre, most have been religious.  In his speech from Newtown, President Obama said, "God has called [the victims] home."  Religious services worldwide have made essentially the same point, affirming that the souls of the slain have survived their physical deaths and exist somewhere beyond nature.  A Christmas editorial on Newtown in the Washington Post described the religious response well: "For many people, there is no consolation and little comfort to be had, other than through some conception of God, however named or delineated.  Religious faith...remains astonishingly resilient, as does the need to perceive some order and justice and source of consolation in the world that is beyond the wisdom of judges, therapists, or grief counselors."  The Christmas rituals of church-going, carol-singing, decorating, and homecoming helped many people, including some of the victims' families, face the catastrophe.
     A less frequent consolatory response has been agnostic psychotherapy.  Here the comforters offer practical, non-religious advice on now to cope with a Newtown-like event.  Though dubious as to how much consolation survivors actually get from temporary outbursts of anonymous gift-giving and sympathy like the one that overwhelmed Newtown, the agnostics believe that such anonymous generosity, plus media hubbub, helps distract some survivors briefly.
     But soon the hubbub stops, the agnostics say, leaving the mourners alone with their losses.  The violent, senseless death of one's own child is fundamentally inconsolable.  Most parents never find closure for it and are offended if told they should.  The best they can do is find a way to live with their grief and make it bearable.  Every survivor must find his or her own therapy, among which the following sometimes work.
     Distract yourself by working towards some kind of activist goal.  For the Newtown massacre, it might be gun control, mental health, school security, or victim outreach.  Survivors can set up organizations honoring the slain and helping other survivors.  They can also volunteer to serve or help lead the kind of foundation established to memorialize virtually every U.S. mass killing in recent years.
     Accept that your life will never be the same but also that with time incurable wounds do partially heal.  Parents with children as young as those who died at Newtown may bear or already have other children, who to an extent replace -- and rechannel their love for -- their lost sons or daughters.  The changeableness of everyday life will create new and unexpected distractions: other family members or relatives may die, the survivors may divorce, remarry, and start new families, new conditions of all kinds will arise.
     The survivors can also try getting as far away from Newtown as possible.  Some agnostic comforters hold that a few survivors benefit from leaving a massacre site, like the father who left Columbine after the shooting there and lived a while alone on a mountaintop.  But most agnostics maintain that staying put and resuming activities enjoyed before the disaster, along with returning to accustomed eating, sleeping, socializing, and working patterns, tends to be more therapeutic.  For some non-religious survivors, imagining a loved one's presence in everyday things like rainbows or butterflies can be comforting.
     One interesting agnostic response to the Newtown massacre has been the heroization of the school staff members who died either confronting Lanza directly or trying to protect their pupils.  Some of the first policemen, firemen, and medics to reach Sandy Hook agreed with a colleague from a nearby city who said, "The first responders were the teachers and the students.  Their actions clearly saved lives.... They weren't equipped to deal with this at all.  They're the true heroes."  Similar tributes have been in the media often enough to suggest that millions of people outside Newtown found them consoling too.
     If consolatory responses to Newtown from agnostics have appeared less often than from religionists, still less numerous are those from atheists.  This is not because atheists were any less appalled by the massacre but because they're fewer in number worldwide and less sought after for an opinion.  Yet despite their small numbers and relative unpopularity with the press, atheists have been heard from.
     Predictably, they've been asked most about how they presented the massacre to their own children.  One atheist mother said she told hers that "some people believe God is waiting for them, but I don't believe that.  I believe when you die you live on in the memory of people you love and who love you.... I can't offer [my children] the comfort of a better place.  Despite all the evils and problems in the world, this is the heaven -- we're living in the heaven, and it's the one we work to make.  It's not a paradise."
     Other atheists, who observe rituals like Christmas, Hanukkah, mealtime grace, and even prayer in order to give their children a sense of cultural tradition, strip these rituals of religious content, arguing that familiarity with them helps their children separate the wheat from the chaff in religious responses to events like Newtown.  Other, less traditional atheists prefer a scientific approach.  "We are a science-based family," said one.  "When we don't know the answer, we say, 'We don't know.'  We don't say 'Jesus did it.'"
     Some atheists talk openly with their children about death.  One told hers that when "people die, it's just like before they were ever born.  They're not scared, they're not hungry, they're not cold.  But the people left behind miss them."  One father said his children were too young to comprehend Newtown, but if they'd asked him about it he would have told them that "the shootings were done by a young person who was mentally unstable."  Believing morality is man-made, he also would have said, "You don't have to have religion to know right from wrong."
     I found all the religious, agnostic, and atheist responses to Newtown admirable in one key way.  They all helped the survivors and the millions who empathized with them deal emotionally with their sudden shock, grief, and horror.  As a hospice volunteer, I welcome anything that helps human beings endure the ordeal of their own deaths or the deaths of those they love.  At Newtown, only survivors can be so helped, because all the victims themselves were murdered before anyone could help them.  If religion, agnosticism, or atheism helps any survivor there emotionally, I'm for it.
     That said, as a materialist I not only prefer the agnostic and atheist responses philosophically but also believe that materialism offers consolations none of the others do.  Since I've seen no other materialist comment on the massacre, I offer what follows as possible comfort.
     I prefer the agnostic and atheist approaches to Newtown because they more fully accept what I see as the three fundamental facts of human existence.  Fact Number One is that all human beings die.  Fact Number Two is that no credible evidence has ever shown a) that any human being or other living organism survives its own death other than as material residues or b) that any god, deity, divinity, or other supernatural being exists or in any way influences reality.  Fact Number Three is that the human species came into existence solely through natural processes of cosmic and terrestrial evolution.  More atheists than agnostics embrace all three facts, many agnostics claiming uncertainty as to whether gods exist, all atheists insisting they don't.
     Materialists, of course, not only take the three facts for granted but induce from them and scientific knowledge as a whole that the natural order is the only reality there is and is infinitely unified and self-sustaining.  In other words, material nature is all that exists, all the way down, and is radically non-human.  Human sentience, percipience, cognition, and rationality are freaks of insentient, impercipient, non-cognitive, and irrational forces whose ultimate substance is now and may forever be unknown.  All we can do is extrapolate from the facts of our own own cosmic history what this substance may be and how it may work.  To me, such reasoned speculation is the heart and soul of philosophy.
     So what, then, are materialism's unique consolations for a horror like the Newtown massacre?  As the preceding paragraphs indicate, materialism is not a warm and fuzzy worldview.  It sees human life as an irrelevance and aberration in an unfeeling, unthinking, and inhuman All.  It sees death, which people instinctively reject and deny, as an indifferent and inexorable fact dragging humanity back into the natural chaos it came from.  It sees life and death as insoluble existential contradictions and assumes neither is more meaningful or valuable than the other.  How then can materialism console anyone for Newtown?
     I'll begin an answer by stressing that all materialists, like most agnostics and atheists, believe that death leads to absolute peace and rest.  However much pain and fright the Sandy Hook victims may have felt during the massacre, they no longer do.  They're having the best and deepest sleep imaginable, one all of us will eventually share with them.
     But unlike agnosticism and atheism, materialism assumes further that the natural ingredients human beings are made of -- the elementary particles comprising their molecules -- are somehow connected to the All's material essence and are as valuable and important expressions of it as any ever were, are, or will be.  Human beings are bound to one another and the All by the essential stuff from which we and everything else in the cosmos is made.  How, where, and in what form this stuff existed before our own Big Bang is a mystery, but that it did and that it unifies all existence is axiomatic in materialist philosophy.
     What the axiom implies is that all the material objects, including human beings, in our cosmos are inextricably interwoven.  We share the same hundred-odd atomic elements and their underlying particles with the most distant galaxies.  The hydrogen atoms fusing at the sun's core are identical to those in the water we drink, despite the vastly processes they're undergoing.  The carbon, nitrate, and other residues of the Newtown victims are reintegrating with nature in whatever form their families chose, a reintegration that awes and comforts me.
     Its inhumanness awes me.  Nothing in the reabsorption of the victims' remains into the natural order has a shred of knowing, thinking, or feeling in it.  Like all inorganic matter, the victims are now forever locked in material oblivion.  Yet the very grandeur and serenity of their insensibility comforts me.  Why does it have to be humanly cognized?  I'm virtually certain that intelligent life did or will evolve either elsewhere in this cosmos or in countless other cosmos-like manifestations of the All.  Maybe in some of these it's not bound by our mortality or dimensionality, though I haven't a clue as to how or why that could be.
     I'm comforted that the Newtown victims live on in the minds and hearts of those who knew, loved, and, most poignantly, mothered and fathered them.  But they also quite literally exist in the air we breathe and the earth we trod.  I'm soothed by knowing my own cremains will someday be scattered in the Desolation Wilderness of California, where I had a near-fatal heart attack in 1995, because I like to picture them slowly blending with that magnificent landscape.  I'll then join the Newtown victims -- and their assassin -- in the peace that frees us from tragedy and madness, reunites us with the essence of being, and passes all understanding.
     Yet while the prospect consoles me, it also reminds me that the riddle of human existence has no answer.  We were born with an instinctive love of life and hatred of death because evolution blindly burdened us with it, even as it just as blindly condemned us to die.  The clash between life and death and the inhumanness of the mortal cycle as a whole was, is, and always will be incomprehensible in human terms.  Other than with humanly-contrived consolations like those I've already mentioned, there's no way to soften or rationalize Newtown.
     But not every issue raised by Newtown is so intractable.  Two kinds of pathological behavior primarily caused it, and both are remediable.  The first is psychological and will require identifying, restraining, and treating potential mass murderers like Lanza before they strike.  The second is social and will require delegitimizing the current gun culture of America.
     According to experts, the psychopathy of mass murderers like Lanza is hard to spot ahead of time.  One violence-predicting program that incorporated 106 risk factors in an interview for patients leaving mental hospitals found that 90% of the program's low-risk patients committed no violence during the next six months, while half the high-risk patients did.  But almost all such research is about people already known to be mentally ill, to be drug abusers, or to have been arrested, which is not the case with some mass shooters like Lanza.
     Yet experts agree more efforts must be made to flag potential killers, particularly those like the Virginia Tech and Aurora students who'd already alarmed campus mental health professionals.  Besides making such screenings more accessible to law and health officers so as, for example, to force potentially violent patients to take their psychiatric medicines, proposals for beefing up mental health counseling in schools at all levels are in the works.  But stopping mass murders in this way will be a long, hard, uncertain slog.
     More straightforward and effective would be a frontal assault on the constitutional guarantee to bear arms and form militias.  No other civilized nation in the world has so absurd and ridiculous a provision in its fundamental laws, one that not only condones but encourages the kind of pathological social behavior seen ever since the Newtown massacre -- thousands of U.S. citizens flocking to gun shows and stores to buy military assault rifles and oversized ammo clips of the kind Lanza used for fear they'll be outlawed.  The very idea of arming one's self against one's own government in a democracy as solid as ours is so crazy that reverberations from it like the Newtown massacre seem sane by comparison.
     The weapons needed to fight the U.S. military shouldn't be limited to assault rifles.  They should include planes, missiles, tanks, cannons, and optimally, chemical and nuclear devices.  Granted, assault rifles are more lethal than the single-shot muzzle-loaders standard back when the Second Amendment was ratified, but all they can do is kill unarmed and unsuspecting men, women, and children.  What's needed for a war with the U.S. government is every killing machine available worldwide.
     Short of curing ourselves of our Second Amendment lunacy, we should at the very least support and put in practice the tighter gun controls now being proposed all across America.  Among these are mandatory background checks for all gun buyers, banning assault weapons and oversized ammo magazines, registering all weapons and tracking them in a national database, strengthening mental health oversight, putting proven and potentially violent criminals under closer watch, and increasing penalties for carrying guns near or in schools.
     The National Rifle Association's notion of mandating armed guards in every U.S. school is even more preposterous than the Second Amendment itself.  Hendrick Hertzberg points out in the 7 January 2013 New Yorker that finding "a presentable advocate for the view that the No. 1 cause of gun violence is a shortage of guns" has been impossible since Newtown.  But the NRA and its most fanatical supporters are advocating precisely that view.  Arm all teachers, they say.  Encourage all  American citizens to carry concealed weapons.  Get rid of gun controls wherever possible.  Target all congressmen who support gun control and vote them out of office.
     This is a social sickness we can cure.

Friday, December 28, 2012


     Consolation Twenty-Three argued that solitude is both a harsh and a consoling fact of human existence.  Further, it speculated that the primordial components of the All, whatever they are, are absolutely material, self-contained, and indistinguishable and that their symmetry probably prevents any exchange among them.  Their primal state of absolute flux or chaos ends when they somehow lose or break their symmetries and randomly produce asymmetrical, disordered kinds of order like that of our cosmic spacetime.
     Do sleeping dreams support a similarly materialistic explanation of the world or not?  Premodern answers have favored the opposite, non-materialistic option.   A famous example is the story of Joseph in the biblical Book of Genesis.  Joseph is introduced in Chapter 37 as a "dreamer" who offends his brothers by telling them two of his dreams in which they bow down to him as their master.  The brothers plot to kill him but end up selling him into slavery in Egypt, where Potiphar's wife has him thrown in jail for spurning her sexually.  There, in Chapter 40, he interprets the dreams of a butler and baker Pharoah has jailed, telling the butler his dream means he'll be saved in three days and the baker he'll be hanged in three days.
     The interpretations come true.  The butler, restored to Pharoah's service recommends Joseph as an interpreter for two of Pharoah's own dreams, one of seven fat cows eaten by seven starving cows,  the other of seven healthy grains eaten by seven blighted grains.  Joseph accepts the challenge but tells Pharoah (Chapter 41), "It is not in me; God will give Pharoah an answer."  His interpretation is that seven years of plenty will be followed by seven of famine, to which Pharoah responds, "Inasmuch as God has shown you all this, there is no one as discerning and wise as you" and puts him in charge of Egypt's food supply on the spot.  Seven lean years do in fact follow seven fat years.  Joseph's brothers unwittingly confirm his dreaming prowess by journeying to Egypt for food during the famine and, not recognizing their brother, bowing down to him as their master.
     To the so-called J-writer of Genesis, who called God "Jahweh" rather than "Elohim," dreams were infallible channels of communication between God and humanity, and most pre-modern writers shared his opinion.  But in classical Greece and Rome an opposing, materialistic view also had eloquent backers.  Best known is Lucretius, who shortly before the Christian era began laid out a thoroughly naturalistic explanation of dreaming in The Nature of Things.
     The fourth of the six books comprising Lucretius' great poem lays out his materialistic theory of human psychology.  The general foundations of his argument are set in Book I, expanded in Book II to corollary doctrines like void, motion, swerve, aggregation, and chance, and focussed in Book III on the physics of percipience.  Book III argues that the human soul is material, consisting of atoms small and sensitive enough to respond to the equally small and sensitive atoms constantly peeling off everything in nature and bombarding sensing atoms in the eyes, ears, nose, tongue, and skin with images of the outside world.  Book III ends with Lucretius' famous denial of immortality and his insistence that the human personality is annihilated in death.
     Book IV then argues that when we're sleepy the constant bombardment of foreign, stripped-off atoms against our body disorients our soul-atoms, making them lose contact with our sensing atoms.  The ensuing sleep is deepened if we eat just before bedtime because the digesting of food displaces and disturbs our soul-atoms even more.  Likewise, many dreams are prompted by our interests or worries: lawyers dream of court trials, generals dream of war, Lucretius dreams of his poem.  Dreams make people speak or cry out, wake up with pounding hearts, even urinate or have orgasms.  Lucretius believes animals dream too.  Twitching and convulsing in their sleep, horses often seem to be running or dogs to be hunting.
     Aside from some of its quirkier and more primitive psycho-physical notions, Lucretius' assumption that sleeping dreams are natural, self-generated phenomena in sentient organisms has become the norm worldwide since the Renaissance.  Although many people doubtless still believe in the kind of divine intervention propagated by the J-writer of Genesis -- that is, dreams are imprinted on human souls supernaturally -- informed people today agree with Lucretius.
     They follow him and other ancient Greek and Roman poets, playwrights, and philosophers whose ideas came to prominence during the European Renaissance after having been suppressed by Christianity for a millennium.  Chief among these post-Renaissance thinkers were writers like Shakespeare, who never, to my knowledge, created a character with a prophetic, Joseph-like ability to foretell the future on the basis of dreams.  Reverse evidence that Shakespeare's London audiences no longer believed that dreams were supernatural is the fact they still did believe in ghosts, as the famous ghost scene in Hamlet proves.  There, several people see and hear Hamlet's father, proving Hamlet himself does not dream the ghost up.
     In other words, the fact that Shakespeare still used "corroborated" ghosts for dramatic effect but not divinely-inspired dreams strikes me as a fair measure of how far European urbanites had moved away from the J-writer's assumptions.  No longer were dreams considered conduits of divine inspiration.  They were now, as Lucretius had argued, seen as natural products of human animals.  This is apparent in Shakespearean characters like Lady Macbeth, whose guilty conscience makes her try to wash blood from her hands as she sleepwalks, or Richard II, whose victims torment his dreams the night before his final battle.  Shakespeare uses their dreaming to make the orthodox moral point that Lady Macbeth and Richard II deserve to die for their heinous crimes.  But their dreams, and those of the rest of Shakespeare's characters, are always self-generated and self-reflexive.  No deity sends them from heaven.
     Furthermore, the hallucinatory, delusory quality of sleeping dreams began appearing in stories about people whose waking lives were more dream than reality.  Cervantes' Don Quixote chronicles the adventures of a poor old knight whose sanity's been undermined by medieval romances -- too many giants, abducted ladies, and heroic knights.  The Don transforms the real world of Spanish windmills, peasant girls, and itinerant barbers into a constant waking dream of knightly adventure.  Cervantes' satire depends on the reader's seeing Don Quixote's waking life as in effect a sleeping dream.  His assumption is that the sleeping human brain works more or less as Lucretius had argued.
     In tales like The Scarlet Letter and Young Goodman Brown, Nathaniel Hawthorne is similarly averse to giving dreaming supernatural credence.  Though some of his stories, like these two about puritan New England, create symbolic resonances that suggest the supernatural, they never require us to see putatively supernatural events as anything more than products of a character's imagination, especially if he or she might be asleep.  This is true of the famous twelfth chapter of The Scarlet Letter, in which Dimmesdale, the town minister and unconfessed father of Hester Prynne's daughter Pearl, climbs the public scaffold at midnight to ease his guilt.  Hester and Pearl happen by and join him on the scaffold, a comet shaped like an A illuminates the scene like lightning, and Chillingsworth, Hester's former husband and sworn discoverer of Pearl's paternity, appears nearby in the flash.  This dramatic scene, literally in the novel's center, hints of supernatural overtones, but Hawthorne elaborately points out that Dimmesdale probably dreamed it.
     So too Young Goodman Brown.  Here Hawthorne portrays another troubled New Englander, this one anxious about his "Faith" -- literally his wife and metaphorically his religion.  Brown goes at night into the forest to find his Faith, discovers and joins her and the rest of the village in lurid devil-worship, and wakes up next morning alone in the woods.  Again Hawthorne makes the dream option explicit, concluding this time that, dream or no, the experience changed Goodman Brown from an optimist to a pessimist. For Hawthorne and many other Euro-American writers of the Romantic era, the importance of dreaming lay in the kind of psychological self-revelation these two New England stories dramatize.
     The heyday of dreaming as psychological self-revelation arrived in the early 1900s with Jungian and Freudian dream theory.  Jung held that dreams are expressions of a collective unconscious evolved and transmitted over countless generations.  Their primordial images of fear, pleasure, success, and failure have been passed along through biological reproduction and lodged deep in the human brain as archetypal memories.  Arguing that dreams of water or reptiles, for instance, did not reflect simply the dreamer's own experiences but also archetypes buried in his or her collective unconscious, Jung denied immaterialism.  Everything we are and dream, he held, is a product of natural evolution.
     Freud's theory was even more materialistic.  It assumed human beings are driven more by libidinal urge than self-preservation, because reproduction counts more than personal survival towards species success.  That's why Freud's id, or primal sexual instinct, is the hot lava on which the ego, or primal survival instinct, floats.  The ego in turn supports the super-ego, or consciously reasoning, socializing, and moralizing self.  Dreams are products of these conscious and unconscious drives and are vitally important in treating psychiatric disorder in general and sexual psychosis in particular.  They are natural, physical events without a shred of supernatural content.
     Freud's view of human civilization as a thin veneer over volcanoes of human amorality, irrationality, and selfishness was widely shared by Euro-Americans of his day and helps explain his profound influence on them and us.  His dream theories represent the apex of a psychological realism friendly to Lucretian materialism and hostile to J-writer supernaturalism.
     If, then, dreams consist of nothing but electro-chemical neuronal firings in the brain when we sleep, how are they caused?  No one yet knows.  We do know that when we're awake our brains constantly re-image and re-create the external world with the help of the body's sensing mechanisms, subject it to countless kinds of measurement and judgment, and interact with it in ways so "experiential" and "intentional," to borrow some  existentialist terms, that we not only imagine put can pretty well prove we're alive.  This feeling of being alive -- of perceiving, intuiting, imagining, and gloriously existing -- is caused by countless neuronal and synaptic events in our brains that, individually, are no more capable of thinking or feeling than is a campfire spark.
     Collectively, though, they can do wonders like landing human beings on the moon, writing and playing Corelli concertos, and finding the Higgs boson.  Of course they can also massacre schoolchildren, pollute and overheat the planet, and become addicted to heroin or reality TV, but I'll defer negatives like these to future posts.  The point here is that, given the fantastic complexities and capabilities of the human brain, dreaming isn't one of its more remarkable accomplishments.
     Although how and why we dream is currently no better scientifically understood than most other brain processes, dreams themselves often seem fairly easy to comprehend in terms of proximate causes.  When I'm sleeping and need to urinate, I often dream of being in or near water, and when I badly need to urinate I may find myself in a house where all the toilets are occupied or clogged or where I'm wandering naked among strangers.  Usually the unpleasantness and embarassment I feel corresponds to my urinary needs.
     Or I may have been sleeping in one position too long and developed arthritis pain in a shoulder, hip, or knee.  Here the dreams vary widely.  I may be lost in a city I vaguely recognize but can't remember my way around in.  Or I may be driving a car that keeps stalling or falling apart.  Or I may be a student taking a test in a class I've never attended or done any work for.  Or I'm a teacher teaching a class whose subject matter I don't know.  The list goes on and on, but what matters is that the moment I wake up I know the dream was mostly a reaction to the pain in one of my joints.  The same is true of some dreams I have of snow or skiing.  Waking up, I realize the blanket's fallen off or the bedroom's cold.
     Academic dreams of the kind just mentioned often recur.  They stem, I suppose, from some kind of post-traumatic stress syndrome I developed during my sixty years in academia as student and teacher.  Often nightmarish, they're sometimes pleasant, even euphoric, and I suspect these nicer dreams indicate how much I enjoyed some aspects of academia despite my dislike of many others.
     Not all my recurring dreams have any links I'm aware of to my waking life.  One dream takes place in a landscape that begins in a valley containing a village-like cluster of houses and rises to a bluff where elegant governmental or commercial buildings block the way and force me to find a route through.  Doing this isn't hard, and beyond them rise attractive hills from which I can look back and admire the architecture of the buildings I've passed and the village cluster beyond.  Sometimes I'm going from village to hill and sometimes the other way, but I always find an easy path through the mid-buildings.
     I have no idea what the dream means, nor do I know why I sometimes dream I'm renting the front, left, second-floor room of a run-down, almost furnitureless house somewhere in a seedy, semi-rural area.  The first dream's more agreeable than the second, yet in both I seem to recognize where I am and feel at home despite never having seen either place in my entire waking life.
     But this lack of connection between my recurring dreams and my waking life may be more significant than all the links I make between my dreams on the one hand and my worries, bodily functions, and bedroom conditions on the other.  In the final analysis, I'm convinced the brain-body is too complex a material system to explain in simple cause and effect terms.  Even when sleeping, the brain bubbles with tremendous energy, superfluity, and redundancy.  If its network of neurons and synapses can re-image and re-process the empirical world so well that we know we exist, it can easily manufacture dreams full of things and events we've never seen or known.  In fact, most dreams are probably nothing but aimless, random doodlings of the brain's circuitry.


Thursday, November 29, 2012


     My last five posts have had self-reliance, self-sufficiency, and going-it-alone at their core.  Number eighteen described my forty-year suppression of a UFO sighting in the 1970s for lack of personally convincing evidence.  Nineteen argued for self-education over formal, purchased education.  Twenty, twenty-one, and twenty-two chronicled my private war with academia, religion, and the military at the University of Rochester and the U.S Naval Academy during the 1960s.
     Today I'll explain the philosophical basis of my belief in the solitariness of human existence, a belief underlying my point of view in the past five posts and throughout these Consolations.  I see human solitude both as a tragic fact of life and as one of life's major consolations.
     I start from the assumption that human life is a random accident in a basically non-human All, "All" being my term for the material order whose essence is absolute Being and from which all subsidiary being like that of our own cosmos has emerged.  In our cosmos, this process of emergence is now so well understood that everyone who accepts modern science knows how it happened.  Some thirteen billion years ago, an unexplained, probably random burst of infinite heat and density broke the symmetries among time, space, and the four fundamental forces of whatever material state preceded it and, in a fraction of a nanosecond, swelled and cooled into the physical realities that produced the cosmos and us.
     At the instant of the Big Bang, everything that was to become the cosmos existed in chaotic relationship to everything else.  Time, space, gravity, electromagnetism, and the strong and weak nuclear forces were in some unfathomable way symmetrical.  They did not interact.  Their imperviousness to reciprocity -- their resistance to exchanging, blending, or sharing with each other in any way -- was, in its perfect symmetricality, also of course perfectly chaotic.  It was a state of absolute mutual isolation, in which everything was absolutely cut off from everything else.  From this initial state of cosmic symmetry, I infer that the All as a whole is is some ultimate way similarly symmetrical and chaotic.  Further, I infer from the fact that our cosmos is materially unified that the All is also materially unified.
     Though how everything can be at once both chaotic and unified is an impenetrable mystery, it's a mystery everywhere manifested in the natural order surrounding us.  In physical nature, for example, photons and quarks are both waves and particles.  Particles randomly decay into other particles.  Gravity bends space and time.  Order everywhere produces disorder and vice versa: galaxies coalesce and collide, gravity crushes protons into neutrons that then, given sufficient mass, explode into supernovas; stars and human beings are born and die as much through probablistic chance as deterministic cause and effect.  From observing, experiencing, and learning  facts like these, I've deduced that ultimate matter is similarly chaotic and unified.  That is, from the cosmic materiality I see everywhere around and within me, I extrapolate an absolute metacosmic materiality.  All of this is speculative, of course, but it rests on proven science rather than hope, faith, or charity.
     Further, it's led me to think that the All's state of absolute Being must also be a state of absolute solitude.  The ultimate, material components of the All, whatever they may be and do, do not, I believe, interact.  Infinitely separate, they comprise a featureless, oblivious ocean of material Being whose individual drops, or parts, are absolutely unique, identical, and symmetrical.  Radically separate from each other, theirs is the solitude of chaotic flux, which, as in the Big Bamg, inexplicably and randomly breaks its essential symmetries and somehow effuses itself into the disorderly order of subsidiary, asymmetrical existence like that of our cosmos.
     If so, human solitude may not be just next to but the same thing as godliness.  Sensing your aloneness among the galaxies may be analogous to being one of those drops of featureless, identical matter in the All's primal flux.  Imagining myself as such a drop actually consoles me:  I share in the All's fundamental materialness and at the same time in the infinite separateness and uniqueness of each of its ultimate parts, whatever they may be: -- infinitely dimensional or non-dimensional "objects"?  metacosmic "energy fields"?  vibrating "strings"?  "membranes"?  quantum vacuum "ripples"?  infinitessimal "uncertainties"?  I'm also consoled to think I'll be nearer that absolute state of Being after I die than I am now.
     In other words, my conception of ultimate reality -- that is, as a state of complete disconnection and non-interaction among bits? traces? waves? loops? of material stuff whose symmetry is so perfect that nothing but their featureless sameness, paradoxically enough, binds them -- raises solitude to the level of a primal absolute.  As one of a handful of such absolutes (others are infinity and eternity), solitude seems alien to humanness only if humanness is defined as somehow immaterial, as containing some kind of supernatural ingredient or essence.
     Philosophical materialism rejects any such definition.  Existence is just as material, natural, irrational, and chaotic beyond our cosmos as within it.  Nature here shares some kind of insentient essence with everything else in the All.  Sentient life is rare, accidental, and aberrant everywhere it appears.  No supernatural planner or designer creates it.  It evolves randomly from the flux.
     Obviously I set great philosophical weight on solitude.  But I value it in mundane, human terms too.  For one thing, it often helps me understand and accept death in general and my own death in particular.  Walking alone through forests, deserts, or mountains, or contemplating bodies of fresh or salt water by myself, leads me sooner or later to the problem of dying.  While birds and animals may notice me at such times, usually to keep as far away as possible, the rest of the wilderness ignores me.  Leaves flutter, clouds hang and drift, rain or snow falls, the sun moves overhead, all without reciprocating a single thought or feeling I may have about them.
     They're as unaware of and indifferent to me as I'll be to them when I rejoin them as part of inorganic nature.  Though their masses and energies will continue interacting with the masses and energies of my corpse, as they do now with my living body, I'll know and feel nothing of it.  In becoming as unconscious as they, I'll in one sense have become vastly more like them than I am now.  But in another sense I'll have radically distanced myself from them by entering the solitude that's a primal attribute of every material object.
     It won't be a disagreeable solitude.  There, ignorance really is bliss.  The lack of self-awareness all inanimate things have is an existential condition most human beings long for in one way or another.  Addicts try to achieve it through alcohol and other narcotics.  Many people crave it as a way of overcoming shyness and loneliness.  If only I could forget myself, they hope, I'd be more confident, likeable, and popular.  Many want to get away from self-consciousness for other reasons -- they think they're too fat, too thin, too tall,, too short, too dumb, too smart, too garrulous, too quiet, too glib, too serious, too good, too bad.  Some mystics try to transcend selfhood to states of depersonalized being.  And almost everyone at one time or another gets tired of making a living, coping with illness and other mundane problems, or simply being alive.
     Above all, the solitude of death will be restful.  Having already, at age seventy-six, lived an active and reasonably happy life, I look forward to leaving the clamor of human existence.  I long to escape the dissatisfactions of daily life, its pain, frustration, disappointment, and unhappiness.  To me, one of materialism's greatest comforts is on the one hand its denial of personal immortality and on the other its insistence that sentience and cognition are permanently extinguished at death .  There is no heaven, hell, or afterlife, merely the natural peace that passes all understanding.
      Countless other thoughts also occur to me when I'm alone.  Hiking by myself, I've often found myself admiring the splendors of nature itself.  Few of the places I've been to in the world have failed to show me how magnificent our planet is.  Coastal and mountain California, the Rockies and the Tetons, the Mississippi basin, the Louisiana and Florida swamps, tidewater Maryland and Virginia, Appalachian New York and New England, and the maritime provinces of Canada have all revealed breathtaking landscapes, waterscapes, and seascapes to me.
     The territories of western Europe, especially Germany, Austria, Switzerland, France, Italy, and Greece, have impressed me too.  There, however, nature has been more often modified and enhanced by conscious human effort than in North America.  Awesome as the Swiss Alps are as a wilderness filling horizons with rows of jagged peaks, they're also unforgettable as a human habitat.  Massifs of rock and snow tower over valleys softened at lower altitudes by evergreen forests and fields and farms that have been worked into them with immense human effort.  I find this combination of inhuman, invulnerable wildnerness and human, vulnerable agriculture moving.
     Another stunning mixture of humanness and wildness is the ancient Greeks' building of gorgeous structures on spectacular natural sites.  Everyone's seen photographs of the Parthenon in Athens, but fully to appreciate it you must see it live.  So too the amphitheater at Delphi and the stadium at Olympia.  Best of all, for me, is the temple of Poseidon near Athens at Cape Sunion, which has stood for more than two thousand years in the splendid isolation of its seaside promontory.
     This habit of preserving and enhancing nature is evident everywhere in European town zoning and especially in Germany.  Villages and cities there follow much stricter rules about what can be built where than in the U.S.  Almost all German villages are marvels of compactness.  Residential, commercial, and agricultural buildings are tightly bunched on central streets, while surrounding fields and forests lay unbroken on all sides.  Cities and industrial zones are less tightly controlled, but even there cows graze next to factories and forests are within walking distance of downtown centers.  A major reason for Europe's heavy subsidization of agriculture is that Europeans are willing to pay to keep their living space green.
     Besides recharging my love of both wild and humanized nature, getting away from people and being alone consoles me in yet another way.  It helps free me for a time from the bedlam and mayhem of humanity's greed, stupidity, selfishness, and cruelty and get over the anger, frustration, and depression they often cause me.  Like many earlier materialists, I do not adore much of what I see in myself and the rest of my species.  The surviving writings of Epicurus, the earliest materialist documents that exist, recommend friendship mainly as a safeguard against human viciousness.  Lucretius, whose Nature of Things was the only full exposition of classical materialism to survive the first millennium and a half of Christianity, ignores Epicurus' doctrine of friendship and instead recommends science and reason as the best defense against the "howling rage" of the religious masses.  And d'Holbach's 1770 System of Nature, the first great materialist treatise after Lucretius' poem, concludes that atheistic materialism isn't "suitable to the great mass of mankind."
     By disposition and circumstance, I too have always been a loner.  Though probably reinforced by my being orphaned at thirteen, my lonerism stems mainly, I think, from my having gotten used to living alone with my mother during my Vermont boyhood and, after she died, from having pretty much made my own way through high school, college, and graduate school into college teaching.  Yet I've also always needed close or intimate relationships with at least one other person.  I always had at least one close male or female friend before I met my wife in graduate school, after which she was my best friend till our separation twenty-three years ago.  Our children remain two of my best friends, and she and I maintain contact.  I met my current best friend, my partner, six months after the separation, and she and I have been virtually married ever since.
     So despite my somewhat hermit-like avoidance of cocktail and dinner parties and holiday gatherings like Thanksgiving, Christmas, and the Fourth of July and, more importantly, of humanity in general, I still manage to amuse myself with communal activities like golf and poker that require contact, however superficial, with others.  I find I enjoy such contact in limited doses.  I much prefer it to the virtual socializing that more and more pervades the internet and other kinds of social media.  However anti-social and misanthropic my kind of lonerism may seem to others, it strikes me, at least, as a lot more friendly than communicating via Twitter, Facebook, and the like.  Yet I do like writing and sharing this blog with others.
     And despite my philosophical and personal bias in favor of isolation, separateness, solitude, and aloneness, I'm finally and powerfully aware of how comforting and consoling it has been to me to be able, however briefly, to reciprocate love and affection with other human beings in a universe that seems to be primordially incapable of such feelings.  Though humanness is evidently inessential and accidental to the All, it has as much validity and reason for being as anything else.  Material existence, which is the only kind there is and can never not exist, is also infinitely self-justifying and valuable no matter what form it takes.  I'm delighted I've had the extremely rare and improbable chance to live, know, think, and feel with human clarity and passion.  I look forward to the calmness, serenity, and solitude awaiting me when I die, and I look back just as contentedly to the interactions I've had with everyone and everything here on earth.  The view strikes me as sublimely mysterious in both directions.