Windowless I

“Which is better – to be born stupid into an intelligent society or intelligent into an insane one?” (Aldous Huxley, Island).

Philosophers are full of shit and always have been. For centuries, they have drooled and tripped all over themselves trying to identify (solely in their minds) the basic building-blocks of reality. These ‘substances’, as they called them, are supposed to be whatever remains once you have ‘stripped away’ (in your mind) all the properties from a thing. A person is still a person, for example, whether black or blonde hair, dark or light skin, 4’6” or 6’10”, twelve or seventy-eight years old, male or female, sick or healthy. Such properties are temporary and incidental to the ‘being’ or ‘substance’ of a person, whatever that happens to be.

Leibniz’s hair is entirely its own entity, distinct from all else. Image soure: Wikipedia.

In the late 17th century, German philosopher Gottfried Leibniz postulated that the world consists of an indefinite number of such substances. He called these ‘monads’. Each of these monads, he thought, can only affect itself. On this view, each thing in the world is truly distinct from all others and cannot, therefore, interact with anything else. Instead, things only appear to interact with each other. Their actions have been programmed in advance by god to harmonize with the actions of other things.

A result of this view is that cause and effect are not real. Let’s say I throw this philosophy book. The book hits the wall. A dent appears in the wall. The book’s pages tear. Leibniz would deny that I caused the book to fly through the air. He would argue that the book did not in fact cause the dent in the wall any more than the wall caused the pages to rip. Rather, the book was preprogrammed by god to take off through the air at the precise moment I opened my moving hand. A certain portion of the wall, in turn, was preprogrammed to crumble at the precise moment the book came into contact with it, just as god had put it into the nature of the book’s pages to rip, entirely by themselves, immediately after the book had hit the wall.

The point to all this is that there is no direct causal or perceptual relationship between one substance and any of the others. You can’t, as it were, ‘see’ into substances and you cannot ‘see’ out of them. They are ‘windowless’. They exist and do what they do entirely on their own without being caused to act and without acting upon anything else. It may seem that things interact with each other in the world, or at least have the power to do so, but they do not. This, you see, is simply god’s ‘pre-established harmony’.

Now this is mostly bullshit, of course. But it does offer a great model for viewing the self (minus the divinely pre-established harmony junk). The lyrics of “Windowless I” (see “Lyrics” menu) build on this perspective. They are also inspired by the writings of various other authors, such as Aldous Huxley, Herman Hesse, Timothy Leary, and Carl Jung.

“Lies. They all lie.” In Herman Hesse’s Siddhartha, after the protagonist withdraws from society, he begins to realize that “everything lied, stank of lies,” as he walked through town, scornfully glancing at pretty women, well-dressed people, business men and traders, princes and prostitutes, priests, lovers and mourners.

“Everybody lies” – House M.D.

“Windowless I” begins in the realization that society is comprised of lies – incessant efforts to conceal, embellish, spin, ignore, mislead, and appropriate words to twist their meanings. People have grown so accustomed to it that they neither notice nor care. They expect lies and would feel empty and awkward without them in social contexts. Lying is the business of politicians, advertisers, and corporations, as well as the mainstream media, priests, professors, and scientists. All of it to maintain status, to save face and deflect from hypocrisy, to subtly impose one’s will on the masses, to mark oneself off as a member of some tribe.

The media bias is especially obvious. Yet people only pretend to care. They like it that way. The use of catchwords, slogans, and symbols rather than critical thought is especially prevalent here — all to instill conditioned reflexes in voters, to keep them distracted and prevent the sort of rational thought that would topple their empire of false imagery.

The tools used to perpetuate lies are symbols. Symbols are public. But what happens inside each person is private. Think of the so-called ‘cross’. Only one person can understand the sense of spiritual ecstasy, awe, personal helplessness, guilt, and/or feelings of cosmic significance that ground his or her own choice to identify with the cross as some sort of personal symbol. These experiences are as private as an individual’s particular sensation of pleasure or pain. There is no way of passing such experiences on to another person. The only possibility of communication is indirectly through symbols. So one symbol, in this case, the cross, stands for millions of private experiences.

The problem is that symbols seriously over-simplify reality. They replace thought with mere reaction, which is only surface-deep. Trusting a pair of blue jeans because it has the right sort of label, believing a person with a cop uniform and badge, and embracing someone who wears cross-jewelry is like accepting or rejecting a Christmas present based solely on the wrapping paper.

Symbols are meant to limit experience and constrain thought. Stimulus in — preprogrammed response out. The previous post on “Servitude” compared them to “the crack of the whip that a master uses to rouse a slave into action without question.” Symbols are the bonds whereby the powers-that-be control the masses. Media and advertisers, politicians and priests: They speak your language but have no idea what you want or need. Nor do they care. In reality, there is no such thing as ‘Democrat’ or ‘Republican’ — only two supposedly opposing tribes consisting of individuals who identify with each other solely on the superficial basis of slogans and clichés.

Hairstyles, clothing, catchphrases, gestures, body art, piercings, cranial accessories, shoes and the like: None of this is truly significant as expressions of the self. They are as lifeless as a photo of a beautiful woman when compared to her presence in motion. Such symbolic behaviors serve merely to indicate membership in a tribe. Think of those supposedly ‘badass’ motorcycle packs, which tend to employ deafening sonic symbols to mark their territory. If Harleys made no noise at all but were just as powerful and ‘cool’ looking, would anyone want to ride them? Far fewer, for sure. That is because society values the container over the content.

“The F Word,” South Park, 2009

I am reminded of a scene in Monty Python’s “Life of Brian.” Brian, the mistaken messiah, abandons his sandal in flight. Meanwhile his followers stop pursuing him and passionately debate whether “the shoe is the sign.” They then go on to contemplate whether the shoe is a shoe or a sandal, and if it is a sign, what it means and how they should react, and if it is not a sign, what other things that happen to be around them might be signs of the messiah. Following this obsessive display of symbol-worship, the crowd runs off to continue their search for the messiah himself.

This scene nicely depicts the eagerness of people to follow and prioritize empty symbols to the exclusion of what they are supposed to symbolize. It shows the human tendency to see symbols everywhere, even where they are not or cannot be; and if they are present, to misinterpret them, giving them far more favorable significance than they are worth. I mean, the crowd got so caught up in symbolism that they forgot about the guy they thought was their savior!

Living a life predominately dictated by symbols reveals a mind that has been conditioned to respond, follow, and obey rather than to think. It is a mind stuffed with arbitrary categories that filter and censor the vastly more complicated flow of reality.

One might choose to escape this tribalistic freak show by seeking alternative forms of enlightenment, e.g., through drug use (as in the 1960s LSD phenomenon), spiritual quests, meditation, holistic lifestyles, etc. — all of which supposedly lead to feelings of intensity, epiphany, and of touching something universal and eternal. These experiences have been said to involve sensing the boundaries between oneself and the world vanish. They supposedly allow feelings of hope and the sense that the universe has deeper meaning. They provide, it is said, a harmonious connection with others, the whole earth, with life in general — a feeling of being united in mind and body and of relating to everything as a part of a greater whole.

But this is tribalism come full circle. What is the satisfaction of feeling that you are a mere pawn and part of some grand design? Why the need for such connection? The universe is absurd and ultimately unknowable. Can’t one find satisfaction and meaning in accepting that? The search for, trust in, and mass appeal to symbols comes from the need to feel significant. But so does seeking a transcendental connection to the universe. Ultimately, admitting insignificance and lack of connection is the only true significance. Labels don’t stick.

In the end, if there really is some grand design of which I am part, then isn’t my sense of separation part of that? Who is society to judge my separation or to eschew values centered on the individual and emphasize disconnection? What of the atheist, the skeptic, the misanthrope, the cynic, the egoist, the nihilist, and the solipsist? Why the stigmas against such individuals when such lives are truer to the flow of reality than that of the superficial, tribalistic symbol-worshiper? If everything really happens according to a plan, then wouldn’t their abandonment of religion and/or society be part of that plan?

In the end, it doesn’t matter. True belonging and participation are as impossible as experiencing another person’s feelings or understanding their thoughts. Any claim to be part of god’s plan or some cosmic scheme is simply human arrogance and on a par with finding patterns that resemble human beings and their artifacts in the chaos of billions of stars in the night sky.

Who am I? I might apply endless labels: ‘American’, ‘man’, ‘middle class’, ‘white’, ‘musician’, ‘teacher’, ‘writer’, ‘editor’, ‘citizen’, ’40 year-old’, ‘progressive rock fan’, ‘libertarian’, ‘drummer’, ‘philosopher’, ‘atheist’, ‘skeptic’ — all ultimately as meaningless as a mask, badge, or uniform. Several of these, in fact, can be used by social forces to categorize and control a person. Impermanent marks of tribalistic identity are helpful in a superficial society. But are they truthful? In the end, the only true identity is ‘I am I’.

© Joshua J. Reynolds 2015. All rights reserved.

Ritual: Observing a servile culture

“Whether we turn to the declarations of the past, or to the professions of the present, the conduct of the nation seems equally hideous and revolting. America is false to the past, false to the present, and solemnly binds herself to be false to the future.” — Frederick Douglass (“The Hypocrisy of American Slavery”)

I once visited a strange foreign land. I was shocked to witness its people habitually engaged in activities that seemed exceedingly irrational. It was amusing to observe how progressive and free they presumed to be culturally and as individuals. For, unknown to them, a deep-rooted tribalism of the most servile sort dictated most of aspects of their lives.

For instance, certain tribes would drill holes into their members’ flesh, highlighting the openings with pebbles of various shapes and sizes. Many of these members would also allow certain people to carve obscure sketches and symbols into their skin in exchange for goods and services. At first, those receiving such modifications would express discomfort, which led me to believe that the process was punitive. But upon completion, the subject would leap up with an expression of deep pride, quickly gaining admiration and praise from peers.

Oddly, the individuals involved in this rite seemed to assume that it provided them a means of self-expression and individuality. But nothing could have been further from the truth; for, the presence and style of the markings was always determined according to the expectations of the group. Indeed, the point of allowing oneself to be marked in such ways was to display the etchings as a sort of public announcement of belonging and boasting. Rarely, if ever, did those tags remain concealed and personal.

In addition to self-mutilation, loud barbaric noises were common as a method of proving one’s tribal identity, status, and supposed worth. One group, for instance, would move about public spaces while creating deafening roars with devices they had affixed to the flashy carriages on which they traveled. They would also wear flamboyant clothing, often stamped with the emblems of the tribe that assembled those carriages, thus marking their perceived territory both visually and sonically.

Many females of this land were perplexing. They would vigorously protest and make all sorts of noise whenever a male or members of some other tribe attempted to exercise control over their bodies. One almost got the impression that they were attempting to defend some sense of personal freedom. But that impression faded quickly, as the women would then proceed, out of shame and peer pressure, to decorate and dye their bodies in the ways that their own tribe (esp. the male members) expected of them. Hair, eyes, lips, nails, skin, artificial body parts, stilts to increase height — not a single aspect of their appearance could be considered free or personal. The males, in their own ways, also decorated their bodies according to the tribe’s expectations. But many also applyed such cosmetic modifications to their material possessions in an odd attempt to announce virility and prowess.

The raised pick up truck = the male equivalent of high heels.

Whenever an infant was born in this culture, the adults would not fully accept it unless a local shaman had taken a sharp rock and sliced away portions of its tiny genitalia, thus marking tribal membership in yet another bloody manner. Similar tribes would shun their newborns until a man who dressed differently from the rest had doused the helpless infant in water over which he had waved his hands. During these senseless rites, the infant would usually scream in pain or fear. But the parents and adult witnesses did not seem to care. After all, the pride that followed upon this fresh sense of belonging far outweighed, in their savage minds, the physical pain and distress they were inflicting on the child.

Stop mutilating me, sadistic morons!!

The selection of leaders in this culture was equally bizarre. Whenever the stars had returned to a certain position in the sky, certain loud individuals who happened to have more possessions (and thus power and status) than the others would stand before crowds of people while uttering certain sounds and performing certain gestures over and over, just as other such individuals had done so many times before.

This political ritual, I believe, was some sort of collective form of role-play in which tribe members would act as if they had power over their lives, much as a rain dancer attempts in his actions to recreate, and thus control the rain. The two most notable contenders in this game would pretend to oppose one another and behave as if they represented not only one tribe or the other, but also the entire population and its descendants. But the contenders themselves clearly had little in common with the people and rarely any clue or concern about what was really best for the community. The crowd would then divide into two halves, each side shouting at the other, often in mockery, though they were usually expressing the same ideas.

Following the shouting performance, members of each tribe would raise their hands to select one of two most notable individuals, while a group of chieftains from each tribe would pretend to tally the raised hands. For some reason, these exceedingly odd people believed that the best policy was always the one that the majority — no matter how slight — believed was best, as if there was some sort of mystical authority in larger numbers but not lesser ones.

When the ritual was complete, the new leaders would cease making those inspiring noises and gestures, often even proceeding to make opposite ones. They would then continue to preoccupy themselves with amassing possessions, power, and status, all at the common people’s expense — both those who did and those who did not select them to lead.

The two previously opposed tribes, however, would no longer care about the noises and gestures to which they had once reacted so passionately. Instead they would return to their daily routines, drudging through lives that this silly little ritual hadn’t improved much at all, and living right alongside members of the tribe they had not long before been conditioned to hate vehemently.

The single most perplexing aspect of this primitive society was its members’ apparent admiration for something they called ‘free-dum’. They appeared to believe that this idea was inherently important and necessary to their society — that is, if one can say that any idea at all lay behind what was largely inarticulate grunting. In fact, whenever the tribes selected their leaders, they would show most interest in those individuals who promised to protect the ‘free-dum’ of all tribes. The reality, however, was that the tribes were selecting leaders to restrict, suppress, remove, and trample ‘free-dum’ little by little. After all, the existence of this thing, which the leaders pretended to value so highly, in truth scared them and threatened their status.

Upon leaving this land, I was pleased to return to the rationality of my own world, where freedom and individuality would never succumb to socio-political pressure and tribalism. In retrospect, I concluded that the primitive obsession with social control I had witnessed was a defense mechanism. The fear of change and death was so strong among these tribes that they would do and believe anything to convince themselves that ritual gave them some sort of purchase on immortality. The bonds of unquestioned tradition — as these folks believed on a subconscious level — would always outlast the individuals forced to engage in it. Freedom, therefore, in their cave-dweller minds, was the equivalent of death and oblivion.

© Joshua J. Reynolds 2014. All rights reserved.

Our Father

“Most people are bothered by those passages of Scripture they do not understand, but the passages that bother me are those I do understand.” — Mark Twain

The lyrics to “Our Father” (under the Lyrics menu on this site) are straightforward. They are comprised mostly of a variety of descriptions of the atrociously violent acts ordered, approved, or committed by the Jewish / Christian god in the so-called ‘Bible’. Along with the lyrics above, I have included hyperlinks to the relevant passages as they have been reprinted in over 100 different translations at BibleGateway.com.

Aside from “the Good Book” itself (New Oxford Annotated edition), I used as my secondary sources The Skeptics Annotated Bible and Dwindling in Unbelief. Both are excellent websites that I highly recommend for reliable information and humorous criticism.

I have to give credit to the author of these sites, Steve Wells, for having the stomach to rummage through the Bible to compile (and comment upon) the relevant stories. For my part, Judeo-Christian mythology is not something I exactly enjoy reading. In fact, I would rank the experience alongside the nauseous feeling I get when encountering any other racist propaganda or fascist desperation.

Equally distasteful is the fact that the Bible is in origin nothing more than one tribe’s attempt to divinely sanction and glorify its own existence to the (violent) exclusion of all others. Sure, other ancient cultures had similar myths. But compared to, say, the ancient Greeks’ Iliad and Odyssey, the Judeo-Christian form of self-explanation — with all its irrelevant pedantry, hypocrisy, verbal and narrative simplicity, barbarism, and absurdity — seems no more than the product of scared children and superstitious savages.

One thing I enjoy even less than reading the Bible is debating devout believers. Not a single rational argument is ever likely to convince such people of the absurdity of their beliefs because those beliefs are grounded in faith and authority, neither of which proceeds through anything even remotely close to reason, logic, evidence, clear fact, or common-sense.

For this reason, I don’t attempt to make a case here for why people should suspend their belief in the Bible. I desire to do this about as much as I want to explain to a bratty, snot-nosed little kid sitting on Santa’s lap at the mall why there’s no such thing as Santa Claus. Instead, I am happy simply to offer these general reflections and, more importantly, to provide the convenient links to the various passages I reference in the lyrics.

“The best minds will tell you that when a man has begotten a child he is morally bound to tenderly care for it, protect it from hurt, shield it from disease, clothe it, feed it, bear with its waywardness, lay no hand upon it save in kindness and for its own good, and never in any case inflict upon it a wanton cruelty. God’s treatment of his earthly children, every day and every night, is the exact opposite of all that, yet those best minds warmly justify these crimes, condone them, excuse them, and indignantly refuse to regard them as crimes at all, when he commits them.” — Mark Twain

© Joshua J. Reynolds 2015. All rights reserved.