Why is death bad? Not for the same reason life is–that it contains bad experiences; it contains no experiences. The badness of death consists in the removal of all intentionality, not its suffusion by bad intentional objects. This has the implication that a consciousness without intentionality, as may be supposed for the early fetus, has no value. It isn’t sentience as such that confers value but sentience combined with (determinate) intentionality. A kind of super-Alzheimer’s that subtracted all intentionality from the subject would be tantamount to death, so far as value in concerned. On reflection, that sounds right.
Is anyone else as irritated as I am by the constant description of Barack Obama as “black”? He has a white mother and a black father, which by my calculations makes him half white and half black. So it’s just as true to describe him a white man as a black man. I can’t help sensing a racist presupposition: just to be a bit black is already to be demoted, as if white purity has been somehow tainted. Of course, it’s a good thing that a partially black man can be within a hair of achieving the White House, and it’s worth pointing this out in descriptions of him; but in a post-racist society it would be misleading to describe him simply as “black”. I really don’t see him as one or the other, just as a combination–preciselly as white as he is black. So let’s look forward to the next president of the USA as a “blite” man or a “whack” man.
I went to see Bill Maher’s documentary last night, on a balmy Miami night. Afterwards the rains came down in Biblical proportions, thus announcing God’s displeasure at the film and my attendance (I thwarted His wrath under a convenient restaurant umbrella). It’s an enjoyable and instructive film, especially if you enjoy groaning at people’s amazing credulity and nastiness, not the mention the silly outfits. What the film conveys better than any book is the sheer nuttiness of it all: the weird fantastical beliefs, the mental contortions, the verbal slipperiness, the flickering wild eyes. Each religion seems determined to outdo the others for sheer bizarreness—the less credible the better. The Mormon religion took the grand prize for me, with God relaxing on his nearby planet and Missouri the site of the Second Coming. But there was plenty to root for in the realms of the Higher Charlatanry, e.g. the portly Hispanic guy who fancies he is Jesus Christ (and thousands agree with him). My question afterwards was who was the most repulsive of the religious fanatics on display: Christians, Moslems and orthodox Jews had their strong contenders. This was equal-opportunity religion-bashing; except that Maher didn’t do much bashing, leaving that to the proponents of the various sects themselves. What a gallery of pious rogues! A book almost inevitably takes its subject seriously, but a film like this can simply let the camera record the gaudy tapestry of human delusion and manipulation. What they all had in common was that when testing questions were raised so were their hackles–and the whiff of violence was suddenly in the air. We knew all this before, of course, but seeing and hearing so much of it brought the whole terrible farce home.
I also learned something interesting: the remarkable parallels between the lives of Horus the mythical Egyptian falcon-god and our very own Jesus Christ—virgin birth, desert test, crucifixion, water-walking, dead-raising, light-giving, resurrected, three wise men, the whole shebang. I just looked this up on the internet and found a long list of strikingly exact parallels (I suggest you do the same). But when you think about it, this isn’t all that surprising: the gospels were penned long after Jesus’ death and the writers had to get their narrative from somewhere, especially for the early bits about his birth, childhood and so on—before he’d made his mark as a 30 year old. So they just copied the old story of Horus, evidently—which makes you wonder how much of the story of Jesus’ life in the Bible is really true. Perhaps hardly anything; maybe nothing. I used to think it must have some basis in historical fact, but the Horus-Jesus coincidence rather undermines that assumption.
My only serious objection to Maher is his insistence that we just don’t know the answers to the Big Questions, such as whether a god exists or where we go when we die. This is far too concessive. We certainly do know that Santa Klaus does not exist, or goblins, or three-legged giants who live in the fridge; it would be daft to be “agnostic” about such questions—and even dafter to remain “open-minded” about them. And we have every reason to believe that death is the end of the self, since we know that the mind depends on the brain. If you get brain damage a part of your mind goes out of existence; it would be absurd to think that it slides into an immortal limbo, waiting for the rest of your mind to join it when your brain goes totally kaput. Saying that such questions do not admit of rational answers simply invites the kind of superstitious nonsense Maher rightly ridicules. We indeed don’t know everything, but some things we know quite well—and the complete falsity of religious doctrine is one of them.
I’m thinking seriously about play and games in preparation for my forthcoming seminar on sports and philosophy (which will include actual physical activity). I’ve just read three books related to this. First is Mark Rowlands’ new book The Philosopher and the Wolf, a stunningly good narrative about the author’s relationship with his “pet” wolf. Among many wonderful and poignant moments, the book talks about the wolf’s style of play and its style of life. This reinforced my view that play connects us with our animal heritage, which is a good (not a bad!) thing. Then there is Johan Huizinga’s old (1938) Homo Ludens, a learned anthropological treatise on the role of play in shaping civilisation, in which game-playing comes to seem the dominant feature of human life. Finally, Bernard Suits’ The Grasshopper, a minor masterpiece, strangely neglected by mainstream philosophy, in which the author defines the notion of a game with great insight and sophistication–the main point being that a game always proceeds by erecting obstacles to achieving its goal, instead of adopting the most direct means possible. This book also puts play at the centre of human (and animal) life, declaring games the highest form of human activity. All in all, we need to get serious about our game-playing and stop thinking it’s peripheral or somehow inferior to “work”. My own recent book, Sport, argues much the same, but I’m glad to have found three such ringing ensdorsements of this ludic point of view.
People don’t just believe that there exists a god; they also believe that there is only one. Disbelievers understandably focus on the existence claim, but the uniqueness claim can also be subjected to critical scrutiny. Why are believers so convinced there is only one God? What reason is there to make this assumption? Polytheism was the common opinion for much of human history–what with all the conflicting forces that seem to exist in the world. Now uniqueness is the dogma, with little or no supporting argument. Creationism certainly doesn’t require monotheism. In fact, of course, the uniqueness dogma is traditionally somewhat wavering, because of the doctrine of the trinity and the angels and whatnot–various godlike entities distinct from the Head Honcho. I really don’t know why theists cleave to the one-god hypothesis, unless to rule out rival gods from alien peoples. Is it just psychologically more comfortable? Is it because you only have one dad? And what are the identity conditions for gods anyway? When do you have one or many? How are gods to be individuated?
The writers and editors at the New York Times evidently need to feel a lot more linguistic insecurity than they do. On the editorial page of today’s paper (August 30th) I was appalled to read the following, in a discussion of McCain’s choice of Palin as his VP: “That really is the only criteria for judging a candidate for vice president.” Don’t they know that “criteria” is the plural and “criterion” the singular? It should (of course) be “that…criterion”; it can only be “those…criteria”. You hear the mistake in conversation fairly often–but on the editorial page of the NY Times! Deplorable. Pathetic. Contemptible. And obviously it’s not just one person who doesn’t get it; a lot of people must have let that pass. Some serious knuckle-rapping needs to be done there–or firing. And while I’m on the subject, people have to stop saying “phenomena” when they mean “phenomenon”–using the plural when they mean the singular. But I bet there won’t even be any embarrassment in the editorial offices of the Times over this “criteria” fuck-up–as if only the most pedantic of pedants would even notice it. I threw the paper across the room when I read it.
Speech carries various anxieties. Fear of asserting what is false should count as the most serious–inadvertent falsehood, as opposed to plain lying. The philosophical skeptic taps into this fear, making assertion seem perilous. In the 20th century fear of meaningless utterance became acute: it was all too easy to confuse the grammatical with the meaningful and end up spouting nonsense (the positivists tapped into this fear). This is more disturbing than the skeptical insinuation, because while truth is not transparent we feel that meaningfulness should be. Another linguistic fear, though, is the fear of cliche, of saying the hackneyed and over-used. I’ve always had a dread of this form of linguistic calamity and will go to almost any verbal lengths to avoid cliche–and yet the fear of it still dogs me. How can anyone still permit themselves to utter the phrases “emotional roller-coaster”, “voracious reader”, “like a deer caught in the headlights”, etc? I wouldn’t be caught dead with that stuff coming out of my mouth. What other linguistic fears are there? It would be interesting to compile a list and then impose a taxonomy. Speech is always an arena of anxiety, is it not?
The other day I was on the tennis court alone, practicing my serve. From nowhere I heard a sudden loud noise, like an explosive. I couldn’t make out the source but then I noticed a flattened can on the other side of the court, about fifteen feet way. I went over to investigate and found a squashed can of corn beef hash, full, heavy. It had evidently been dropped from above the court, at least twenty floors up (the building has 44 floors and faces the tennis court). The act of dropping it had clearly been intentional and the purpose was presumably to scare me. If it had hit me on the head, it would certainly have killed me, such was the power of the impact. Reflecting on the incident later, it occurred to me that this was a minor act of terrorism: the purpose was to infuse an ordinary, peaceful activity–playing tennis–with fear and anxiety. And it worked: since that day I am always looking up and the calm of my tennis has been replaced with a kind of dread. Terrorists have made even the quotidian and tranquil into a zone of fear. Boy, would I like catch the person who did it. There is something nauseatingly sinister about the terrorist intention: to remove peace of mind.