Sunday, April 18, 2010

Aphorisms on Intellect

Animals are driven. Man asks: "Why?" This is both man's distinction, as well as the reason for his eventual alienation.

Relentless questioning soon faces an axiom, a belief or a convention. The pioneers are those who do not stop there.

It is a pleasant activity to not be driven by an unexamined belief-system, but beware of going too far, and you may be left with no activity at all.

Socrates said, "An unexamined life is not worth living." Mark Twain said, "The unexamined life may not be worth living, but the life too closely examined may not be lived at all." And I say, "A life too widely examined may not leave anything to live for."

Consider the analogy of a small lake, having a dam on its downhill slope. The flow from north is just enough to maintain its level, given the opening on the dam. Close the dam, and it will overflow. Open the dam more, and the level will deplete.

The lake is one's mind. The flow from upstream is the events and questions. The dam is made up of beliefs and axioms and morals. Events engage our mind, and after coming to a decision, we act. Open the dam too much, and there is no possibility of engagement, the events/questions do not move us since there is no underlying passion or belief or morality. Open the dam too little (too much of constriction in one's acts) and we feel overwhelmed by life's events.

To find the correct closure of the dam for an individual, for him to feel engaged and alive, is not an unworthy task.

Atheists find a reasonably happy man with a certain dam level, and revel in trying to move the boulder of his belief in God. Unless he is given another boulder, the believer stares meaninglessness in the face, and therefore he hates the atheists.

Found this quote here: "God is an expression of our belief that life has meaning." (Chris Hedges). This does not say that God exists. (This is actually Wittgenstein talking, more later)

Voltaire said, "Si Dieu n'existait pas, il faudrait l'inventer." ("If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him")

The question is: What is your God? Why are you living? Be very careful to even attempt to answer this question. I am not responsible for the consequences.

It is of course possible to unravel any meaning as a castle of sand, any belief as essentially hollow, it is easy to find any passionate response as an over-reaction, it is obviously intellectually pleasant to break open a vault which other people regard as sacred and mystical, but intellect is a means, and if it tampers with ends, what are you left with?

This is the age of the intellect, and that is the reason for the individual misery and the neurotic mayhem despite all the increase in prosperity. More intellect can solve the piecemeal problems of traffic congestion, urban pollution, energy production, but it cannot, by its very nature, introduce a meaning in people's lives. It is a scythe, not a seed.

Wittengstein was perhaps the only pure intellectual of all philosophers, in that he did not concern himself with the propositional answering of any question, but with the unraveling of it. He pointed out that the traditional answers make sense in a context, and are meaningless outside that context.

He said, "The meaning of life, i.e. the meaning of the world, we can call God. ... To pray is to think about the meaning of life. ... To believe in a God means to understand the question about the meaning of life. To believe in a God means to see that the facts of the world are not the end of the matter. To believe in God means to see that life has a meaning." (Journal entry, 1916)

The modern intellect is Godless, and of course it is left in a void of meaninglessness.

Serving others is merely a way to remain busy if you do not know what a man should live for, if you do not know what you are living for. You may be helping others. But helping others achieve what? You don't have to answer this.

Is it important to not think in certain situations and just "go with the flow"? Is it possible that some things are better left unexamined? The joy of making love, for example, can be killed quite easily by being aware of and talking objectively about each others' bodies. Making love is not to observe and learn, but to have the intellect go fishing while one floats in an ocean of sensuality.

"Why" about an activity is the incantation to invite tedium.

At the end of all questioning, what is the feeling that one is left with? Is it depression, or wonderment?

Wonderment is the feeling that one gets while looking at the stars, and when one is aware of the unfathomable mystery that an aware pair of eyes is watching the infinite expanse of the universe. It is not wonderment at any visual, that too, but the deepest wonder is at the fact of consciousness. It is to feel like a child of the universe.

Depression is the feeling of having nothing to live for, to have no motivation to do anything. To not see any inherent value in any activity, to lack an anchor. It is to be locked up in a 6x6 cell.

Depression feels "bad", and wonderment feels "good". But that's just the chemicals talking.

Intellect can provide for the body, but it can only take away from the "soul". When people remark that India is a more soulful country, they are right. Others say that India is a hypocritical country. They are right, too. Essentially, India has an underdeveloped intellect. Vast masses in India have still to question their ancient beliefs, and they are not astute enough to observe their own contradictions. Both are failures of intellect.

Intellect needs prosperity and literacy and leisure to develop, but once there, it cannot tolerate leisure. It brings with itself a more abstract kind of suffering which gets accentuated in idleness. That suffering, alienation, emptiness, whatever you call it, can be lulled by entertainment, but the intellect soon pierces through an entertainment and finds it silly. Hence, more and more brazen and even more stimulating distractions, with no place for thought, have to be presented.

Despite all the gadgets, the modern intellect has no leisure. The older generation derides it, but it is a sign of progress, and I'm not being sarcastic. Busyness is not a perversion, it is a need of an alienated mind, and that alienation is due to having no archaic beliefs, of rebelling against conventions. The gadgets are to fill time, not to save it. If the intellect had time to itself, it would explode in horror. People do not want leisure. They only want more control over what distractions they can have.

(to be continued)

16 comments:

Modern Man said...

Harman,

One of the most important rules of Hollywood screenwriting is that the protagonist should always be active. He should have a goal, something to accomplish. This desire propels the film forward, and engages the audience. Without this, there would be no story, no film.

Reading between the lines, Hollywood has given movie-goers a safe philosophy for life. The ultimate cliche.

-MM

itsme said...

harman

I enjoyed reading this and the questions raised by you. A few things that I want to say:

1. I would question the statement that beleiving in God has something to do with the meaning of life.
I think these two are unrelated. A vast majority of beleivers are unaware of the meaning of thier life and what they are living for. Being an atheist and having known others without that belief in God, i have known that there is still a lot of meaning in one's life which is highly contextualized.
Let's talk about what people live for in a layman's language. For example, meaning of life for a small businessman may be his vision of growth of his business. For a homely woman it could be the dream to see her children prosperous and happy. For an intellectual, it could be publishing his books on philosophy etc.
So I see the God and meaning of life independent of each other.

2. Having said that, i guess the larger question that you raised is that in this age of intellect where people (like you!) are examining and questioning life and its meaning, is that examination yielding hollowness and negativety about life?
Look at it this way. Children are curious in nature. they question things and thats how they learn and grow. Similarly, human minds are curious. They question things, challenge beleifs and invent new things to replace the old. Thats how human minds grow over the years. So if today, some intellectuals are quetioning very basic things about life, it may take the human mind to next level of growth. Maybe the conclusion will be to let go of conventional beleifs and conventional ways of entertainment etc, but thats not where the examination will end, eventually there will be invention or discovery, to replace what is not fulfilling by what is fulfilling for the intellectual mind. That invention may not be new gadgets, but may be a discovery of another way of life.

Wat say?

Harmanjit Singh said...

@itsme

I would question the statement that beleiving in God has something to do with the meaning of life.

"God" is that overarching meaning of life that is beyond the grasp of intellect. Contextual meanings, in the examples you provide, can sustain you if you don't question them. In the end, I am suggesting, faith in Something (it need not be God (tm)) may be what holds a person's life together. If there is no overarching context, then a contextual misfortune such as divorce, loss of a loved one, loss of house/job, can make one bereft of a reason to live and hence suicidal.

That invention may not be new gadgets, but may be a discovery of another way of life.

Short of a 2001-esque journey to the stars which reveals our cosmic purpose in a grand way (which is a fantasy), I don't see much hope of that. What is the cosmic purpose of ants on an anthill? I believe Zapffe is not far off the mark when he says that an overdeveloped intellect is like the counterproductive antlers of a deer, which can lead to little else but extinction as a species.

Somebody suggests that I should play Golf. I.e., to invent a goal.

I recommend to you paras 39 and 40 of the Unabomber's manifesto ( http://cyber.eserver.org/unabom.txt ). He rails against technology, and suggests burning of books, but he doesn't realize technology is the application of intellect, what can be done about the intellect? It will reinvent the wheel and the spaceship and then wonder "why?"

itsme said...

"I am suggesting, faith in Something (it need not be God (tm)) may be what holds a person's life together. If there is no overarching context, then a contextual misfortune such as divorce, loss of a loved one, loss of house/job, can make one bereft of a reason to live and hence suicidal"

Agree with this part.
What are your thoughts on the purpose of life based on attachment to the loved ones and the relationships keeping a man occupied (if not satisfied) so there is some meaning in life to solve the mysteries of bonds as well along with the mysteries of the whole universe.

"but he doesn't realize technology is the application of intellect, what can be done about the intellect? It will reinvent the wheel and the spaceship and then wonder "why?"

Agree with this as well and feel that the intellectual mind will stay busy in wondering and reinventing. But at the same time, only intellect will not drive the need to live, emotions also play a part and the intellect and emotions go hand in hand and make life meaningful. An intellectual mind will exhaust itself if it doesn't let it flow on and off in the sea of normal human emotions/drives. (The love-making example that you have provided makes sense here). Relationships are more basic and real-life experiences than playing golf for example.
Similarly a person will go mad if only letting himself flow in emotions and not allowing himself to challenge his brain or use his intellect.
So when there is that balance, life may 'seem' to be meaningful even without an overarching faith in something.
But these are my thoughts and I am relatively a simple human being (one out of the vast majority) and dont know how well they apply to intellectuals :-)!

Harmanjit Singh said...

What are your thoughts on the purpose of life based on attachment to the loved ones and the relationships keeping a man occupied (if not satisfied) so there is some meaning in life to solve the mysteries of bonds as well along with the mysteries of the whole universe.

If you have understood the article, you wouldn't be asking this question. To be asking the question whether one's meaning of life is valid is an invitation to alienation. :-)

Regarding the "balance" between intellect and emotions, that is precisely the balance between revolution and tradition.

I may also suggest to you the first part of "Man's search for meaning" by Victor Frankl. It contains the rather insightful quote by Nietzsche: "He who has a why to live can bear with almost any how."

Modern Man said...

Harman,

I'm really enjoying your recent output. I'm looking forward to your follow-up on this one.

You wrote: "Despite all the gadgets, the modern intellect has no leisure. The older generation derides it, but it is a sign of progress..."

How do you define progress here? It seems to me that the techno-addicted younger generation are merely using modern tools available for, what Zapffe would call, distraction. How is this technology-obsessed busyness progressive over any other form of busyness that mankind has used throughout the centuries to subdue the horrors of conscienceness? Repeating history is hardly progressive, don't you think?

-MM

itsme said...

"I may also suggest to you the first part of "Man's search for meaning" by Victor Frankl. It contains the rather insightful quote by Nietzsche: "He who has a why to live can bear with almost any how."


'Man's search for meaning' is a great reading. And it only supports my belief (meaning if you may call it) that the attitude and the basic human emotions add more meaning to our lives than other things. We need food for our brain (intellectual examination) but the food for body and food for mind are equally important.


"To be asking the question whether one's meaning of life is valid is an invitation to alienation. :-)"

It is not a question to validate one's meaning of life but to sense whether 'others' see any meaning in 'their' lives on similar lines.

But seems that you do agree with me in a style that looks more like disagreement :-)

Harmanjit Singh said...

How do you define progress here? It seems to me that the techno-addicted younger generation are merely using modern tools available for, what Zapffe would call, distraction. How is this technology-obsessed busyness progressive over any other form of busyness that mankind has used throughout the centuries to subdue the horrors of conscienceness? Repeating history is hardly progressive, don't you think?

Modernity is the progression of our life and pleasures to be more autonomous than communal. In that sense, it is indeed progress to not depend on anybody and play with one's gadgets to fill up one's time and to thereby feel pleasantly distracted. I am not saying that I like this kind of progress (progress here is not a value judgment, but a historical trajectory of the intellect), but that today's generation is the most autonomous and bereft of tradition. They don't /believe/ in anything.

The further progress will be to not need gadgets as well but to pipe the distraction and pleasures right into the brain.

Now you may say that that is an unhealthy state, and I will agree with you.

What else is technology for, except to make us more autonomous and less dependent on others? To give us more choice and power and control?

Pankaj said...

You seem to have have gone from a philosophy of absolute bliss to absolute despair. Maybe in the end it boils down to the seemingly naive statement "life is about balance".

Harmanjit Singh said...

Maybe in the end it boils down to the seemingly naive statement "life is about balance".

I wholly agree, but what enables that balance? What is the push and pull that keeps one being too blissful and too depressed to disregard the world?

That is ... not surprisingly ... the human condition. :-)

The philosophies of bliss are denials of the human condition. But of course.

Harmanjit Singh said...

@MM:

From the Zapffe essay:

"A very popular mode of protection is distraction. One limits attention to the critical bounds by constantly enthralling it with impressions. This is typical even in childhood; without distraction, the child is also insufferable to itself. "Mom, what am I to do." A little English girl visiting her Norwegian aunts came inside from her room, saying: "What happens now?" The nurses attain virtuosity: Look, a doggie! Watch, they are painting the palace! The phenomenon is too familiar to require any further demonstration. Distraction is, for example, the 'high society's' tactic for living. It can be likened to a flying machine- made of heavy material, but embodying a principle that keeps it airborne whenever applying. It must always be in motion, as air only carries it fleetingly. The pilot may grow drowsy and comfortable out of habit, but the crisis is acute as soon as the engine flunks."

People are becoming more and more self-sufficient (in that they don't /want/ human company, but only a reflection of themselves in the virtual world). This is indeed what we wanted and we got it. The question is not whether we are "happy now?" but whether this is what we wanted.

And I am saying: we did want this. And we got it. The iphone carrying bored adolescent is the Have, the temple-praying one or the one sitting by the river playing with a stick is the Have-not.

You may say you want be be the latter, but what does the vast majority want?

Modern Man said...

Harman,

Thanks for the clarification. Indeed, I was mistaking your historical observation of modern progress as a value judgment on man's current condition. Modernity simply makes it easier for distraction, or, using Zapffe's metaphor, for the "flying machine" to stay airborne for longer and longer periods of time.

We did, indeed, want this. The question I find to be of the utmost importance, however, is: was it inevitable? The answer to this question will have serious ramifications in regards to one's ethics.

-MM

ElDuderno said...

How about this viewpoint, that death is zero, the absence of all affective states. If you can beat this then life is worth living, can you make at least every moment affect neutral and some affectively positive, if so life is better than death.

Harmanjit Singh said...

@Elduderno

You make me smile. :-)

If you can beat this

That's what people are trying to do. :-) To be happy and distracted so that they can forget about the absurdity of it all.

The base state, when you let things be, of a modern human being is ennui and boredom. It requires one to do something rather meaningless (like golf) to feel fulfilled and happy. That is the essence of the tragedy.

Of course I can also distract myself, but what a comical situation. :-) It almost makes me laugh aloud.

Elduderno said...

Of course I can also distract myself, but what a comical situation. :-) It almost makes me laugh aloud.

#Hey but think about it, life is nothing more than a fragile chemical system. On top of it an individual does not exist for almost all or eternity (past and future) except for a small blip.

Could the distinguishing feature of this blip i.e. cognition be made this one blip could be better than the infinite death and unconsciousness which is our true nature.

Anonymous said...

Socrates said, "An unexamined life is not worth living." Mark Twain said, "The unexamined life may not be worth living, but the life too closely examined may not be lived at all." And I say, "A life too widely examined may not leave anything to live for."

And I say, "A life too widely examined may not leave anything to die for." :)