Blogging with Narcissus

It’s summer in these parts. In the last few days, I’ve heard at least five people saying they’ll have less time for blogging in the coming weeks or months, either by choice or because they’ll go places without instant internet access. I have to say I’m happy to hear there are still places like that.

Lofoten Island, 1895, by Feliksovich Lagorio [Public domain]

Lofoten Island, 1895, by Feliksovich Lagorio [Public domain]

blogging resembles flux

I’ve looked at my experiences with blogging and I’ve noticed that it perfectly resembles what the pre-Socratic Greek philosopher Heraclitus called flux: people and blogs can disappear in an instant, or engage in metamorphosis. If you read this, don’t say you never heard of Heraclitus, because I’m pretty sure that you have. He’s the one that said you cannot step into the same river twice. Or at least, that’s how Plato understood him:

Heraclitus, I believe, says that all things pass and nothing stays, and comparing existing things to the flow of a river, he says you could not step twice into the same river. (Plato Cratylus 402a = A6, quoted in the SEP)

The article in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy goes on to say that Heraclitus may have been misquoted by Plato. What he actually meant to say may have been oversimplified. Heraclitus lived in Ephesus around 500 BCE, I guess we should be happy if anything he said has survived.

“If this interpretation is right, the message of the one river fragment is not that all things are changing so that we cannot encounter them twice, but something much more subtle and profound. It is that some things stay the same only by changing. (…) On this reading, Heraclitus believes in flux, but not as destructive of constancy; rather it is, paradoxically, a necessary condition of constancy, at least in some cases (and arguably in all).”

And that’s exactly my image of blogging. It goes on changing and therefore it stays the same. It doesn’t matter if some people go on holiday or quit and others start afresh and try to build a community. It doesn’t matter, as long as we manage not to cling to what’s familiar to us. And that isn’t always easy! The people blogging form an intricate network of relations that gets renewed all the time. Like a fishnet that’s in the water during the day and that gets mended every evening. Sometimes, there are big holes in it that take much time to fill.

Heraclitus’ style of teaching philosophy is described as inductive: he used familar images from nature and let his readers make their own generalisations and draw their own conclusions. This allowed for freedom of interpretation, for using the imaginative right side of the brain, but it also meant the depth of truth depended on the quality of the reader; some subtleties may have been overlooked.

“Sound thinking is the greatest virtue and wisdom: to speak the truth and to act on the basis of an understanding of the nature of things” Heraclitus

blogging with Narcissus

Flux is all about relations. It’s the way the threads are knotted together. And this could be anything from a first, tentative ‘like’ to a comment that is longer than the original article. It might also be interesting to look at the two sides of a relationship.

The Death of Narcissus, by François-Xavier Fabre [Public domain]

The Death of Narcissus, by François-Xavier Fabre [Public domain]

“Here Narcissus, tired of hunting and the heated noon, lay down, attracted by the peaceful solitudes and by the glassy spring. There as he stooped to quench his thirst another thirst increased. While he is drinking he beholds himself reflected in the mirrored pool–and loves; loves an imagined body which contains no substance, for he deems the mirrored shade a thing of life to love. He cannot move, for so he marvels at himself, and lies with countenance unchanged, as if indeed a statue carved of Parian marble. Long, supine upon the bank, his gaze is fixed on his own eyes, twin stars; his fingers shaped as Bacchus might desire, his flowing hair as glorious as Apollo’s, and his cheeks youthful and smooth; his ivory neck, his mouth dreaming in sweetness, his complexion fair and blushing as the rose in snow-drift white. All that is lovely in himself he loves, and in his witless way he wants himself…” Ovidius, Metamorphoses

Narcissus took the relationship with himself to its extreme. He didn’t eat or drink and died by the spring, gazing at himself. Is there any relation with blogging?

Without becoming overly dramatic, I think there is. And it depends on our reasons for writing.

We all blog because we’re looking for recognition. We’re not in it to make money, and putting together a readable article takes time, so it wouldn’t be at all strange if we are looking for something in return for our effort. We adorn our articles with all the mesmerising attributes of Narcissus and then we send them out and we want them to be found. And liked. And commented on. Well, I won’t speak for others but I know I do.

The travelling companions, by Augustus Egg [Public domain]

The travelling companions, by Augustus Egg [Public domain]

However, I’ve chosen to write about Narcissus for a second reason. There’s another explanation of the word recognition and there’s a different way of looking at this ancient Greek myth.

It is said that Narkissos had a twin sister; they were exactly alike in appearance, their hair was the same, they wore similar clothes, and went hunting together. The story goes on that Narkissos fell in love with his sister, and when the girl died, would go to the spring, knowing that it was his reflection that he saw, but in spite of this knowledge finding some relief for his love in imagining that he saw, not his own reflection, but the likeness of his sister.

Pausanias, Description of Greece 9. 31. 7 – 9 (trans. Jones) (Greek travelogue C2nd A.D.) found on http://www.theoi.com

Maybe Narcissus was looking for his twin, knowing he could only find her as part of his own mirror image in the water. When blogging, we meet people with many different talents and experiences,  from all parts of the world. One of them might share our hopes and dreams and recognise us upon reading.

I think we all, at least partly, read and write to be found. If a book or an article stays in our memory it’s because we somehow see ourselves in it. Either as the person we are, or as we want to become. And before we condemn Narcissus, or call him egotistical or vain, we might want to find out what he was gazing at.

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To catch a falling tree

It’s a nice, hot summer evening and I’m sitting here, inside, looking at my computer screen. I could have gone out to catch some of the wind that just manages to move the leaves and the smallest branches on the tree outside my window, but I’m not doing that because I’m blogging. I have promised myself to post an article every three days and tomorrow is one of those days. I find I have lots of ideas but they simply haven’t matured enough. My eyes keep drifting towards the world outside until I feel like my vision is blocked by this tree that I know and love. How weird.

A Sycamore Tree, by Asher Brown Durand [Public domain]

A Sycamore Tree, by Asher Brown Durand [Public domain]

the lonely tree

Imagine a tree falling down. No one there to hear it, man or beast. Does that tree make a sound? Apparently, the question was first asked in the early 1700’s. At the time, the tree was stood in a park and this was the answer:

“If a tree falls in a park and there is no-one to hand, it is silent and invisible and nameless.” William Fossett

The tree has since acquired a page in Wikipedia, so we can’t maintain that nobody noticed it. There are people who believe this question cannot be answered, but that’s not true. It just proves that many of us find unanswerable questions easy to live with.

When I first heard this question, I soon forgot all about the tree and felt lonely. Many of the things I did during an ordinary school day lost their meaning because there was no one there to witness them. My best friend told me God was watching her every move and that changed my mind: my being alone could mean there were no rules!

However, I was still stuck with the tree. I asked a few grownups and they told me it was an annoying, pointless question. It seemed to make them uneasy.

only the mind moves

The large oak tree forest of Fontainebleau, by Théodore Rousseau [Public domain]

The large oak tree forest of Fontainebleau, by Théodore Rousseau [Public domain]

I then wondered if my observing would make any difference to the tree. I imagined the tree having already produced its seeds and provided shade for the tender green shoots that were its next generation. From an evolutionary perspective, it would be ready to die. My witnessing its fall was a one-way street: trees communicate with their environment, but humans mean nothing to them.

“What do you mean by a one-way street? Quantum physics has given us new ways to look at the observer and the tree.”

Even without quantum physics, some people would turn the problem around and say the tree only existed in my mind. It would die with me, when I forgot about it. This is a description from the Mumonkan collection of zen koans about a flag, waving in the wind.

“Two monks were arguing about the temple flag waving in the wind. One said, “The flag moves.” The other said, “The wind moves.” They argued back and forth but could not agree.The Sixth Ancestor said, “Gentlemen! It is not the wind that moves; it is not the flag that moves; it is your mind that moves.” The two monks were struck with awe.”- The Mumonkan Case 29, translation by Robert Aitken

philosophical analysis of the question

The best explanation I found shows how anyone can solve this problem. It’s not about the observer, nor is it about the tree. We should focus on the sound and analyse that part of the original question. We should look at sound as a concept.

HongKong Central Market, by FebSquare [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://ccommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)]

HongKong Central Market, by FebSquare [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://ccommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D

I found the following answer on a university website aiming to explain what philosophy is about and I’ll quote it in it’s entirety. Not because I’d expect any of my readers to not be able to answer this particular question, but because it shows how you can think about a simple problem in a rigorous way and hopefully move on to other problems. It’s brilliant that we humans have ways to think laterally, but sometimes it helps to think straight.

The answer to the question was found under the heading Philosophical Analysis

“The question to be answered is: Does the falling tree, when it hits the ground, make any sound?”

“On first take, some want to answer that obviously the tree will make a sound. After all, sound is something objectively real which shouldn’t need the presence of a perceiver to occur, even if it is true that we’ve never heard a sound that we didn’t hear. Even the sound we didn’t hear could be evidenced by (say) a tape recorder placed in the vicinity. So yes, it makes a sound, or so it seems. But, in contrast, it also seems that sound is a subjective phenomenon, something not unlike a sweet taste or the feeling of pain—things that seem to require a perceiver. And so one might well doubt whether the tree really makes any sound. What should be apparent here is that “sound” has more than one meaning. That is, there is more than one concept of sound. Indeed, consider two definitions of sound, one which we might call the physics concept, and the other the psychology concept of sound.

soundphys = vibrations in a medium (such as air)

soundpsy = a sensation; an auditory experience

Study for the landing of Columbus, by Albert Bierstadt [Public domain]

Study for the landing of Columbus, by Albert Bierstadt [Public domain]

These are both legitimate definitions. The first (physics) reflects interest in sound as a physical phenomenon. The second (psychology) reflects interest in sound as a kind of experience. Notice that these two kinds of sound, though related, are different and can occur independent of each other. Normally sound as vibrations causes sound as an experience. But they can occur independently, i.e. one without the other. For example, sound as vibrations doesn’t have to cause sound as an experience (perceivers might not be present or their ears/brains might be damaged). And sound as an experience could occur without being caused by vibrations in the air (the perceiver might be undergoing some internal hallucinogenic stimulus from chemicals in the brain). Once we see the distinction between these two concepts we can see that the original question is ambiguous; it has more than one meaning. The question (Will the tree make any sound?) is really one of two questions:

(1) Will the tree make any soundphys?

(2) Will the tree make any soundpsy?

The answer to the original question depends on the sort of sound the questioner is asking about. The answer to (1) is: Yes, there will be sound in the physics sense (soundphys i.e. vibrations). The answer to (2) is: No, there will not be sound in the psychology sense (soundpsy i.e. auditory experience). So the question, once clarified, has a definite answer.”

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The quote and the iceberg

Imagine you’re walking into town on a Saturday morning, planning to buy some things, and suddenly you’re accosted by a man wearing unfashionable clothes that look a bit dirty, no shoes and and a beard. He’s shortish and has a pot belly. His eyes seem to be quite far apart. He doesn’t want your money, but he would like to ask you a few questions on morals. How would you react?

Socrates, vu de face, by Nicolas Lagneau [public domain]

Socrates, vu de face, by Nicolas Lagneau [public domain]

Socrates was born in Athens in 469 BC. On the images that represent him, he looks like anything between Apollo and the village idiot. He practised philosophy without charging for his lessons and he never wrote any of it down. The fullest account of his philosophy comes in the works of Plato. According to Alain de Botton: “Socrates’ most curious feature was a habit of approaching Athenians of every class, age and occupation and bluntly asking them, without worrying whether they would think him eccentric or infuriating, to explain with precision why they held certain common sense beliefs and what they took to be the meaning of life.”

“The unexamined life is not worth living.” Socrates, in Plato’s Apology

I found a short comment from the Guardian that places Socrates’ famous dictum in perspective in a way that was expected to make the educated readers of this English, left-wing newspaper exactly as uncomfortable as the scruffy man who wants to talk about morals on a busy Saturday morning. It starts innocently enough, with Julian Baggini’s explanation:

“Socrates is attributed with these words after choosing death rather than exile from Athens or a commitment to silence,”

Personal or political?

You might imagine this quote to be just about Socrates’ noble life. About him choosing death rather than to stop being a philosopher. It’s an unforgettable story that has made quite an impression on me. It’s the first consolation in Alain de Botton’s “The Consolations of Philosophy” and it’s a gripping read, even if you know the story.

Socrates went to trial and was convicted by a majority vote, but he stayed true to his philosophy and was fully prepared to die for it. “The unexamined life is not worth living.” An admirable quote that would elevate almost any blogpost. I’m sure it has been used quite often.

Iceberg at Baffin Bay, by Tech. Sgt. Dan Rea US Air Force [public domain]

Iceberg at Baffin Bay, by Tech. Sgt. Dan Rea US Air Force [public domain]

But what about other people’s unexamined lives? Baggini finds himself considering the implications for the people he lovingly calls the great unwashed. 

“The ideal of the examined life is noble for precisely this reason. It sounds unobjectionable: an encouragement to be fully human, to use our highly developed faculty of thought to raise our existence above that of mere beasts. For if we don’t think, we are no more than animals, simply eating, sleeping, working and procreating.”

If we stick our heads into the cold waters and examine some of the iceberg underneath this quote, we may suddenly find we’ve drifted away from the vast territory of the politically correct. The people who always have the interests of the great unwashed in mind. That might be one of the reasons why Baggini’s comment is placed under the heading Wisdom’s folly,” in the Guardian. He certainly knows it, because he goes on to say:

“However, there would be no need to exhort us to examine our lives if we did not think that there were human beings who do not, and so have valueless, bestial lives. The noble ideal has a harsh implication: some in the herd of humankind may as well be animals, or dead.”

In Baggini’s words this quote reeks of elitism. De Botton agrees with Socrates being elitist but goes on to explain:

“It sounded elitist, and it was. Not everyone is worth listening to. Yet Socrates’ elitism had no trace of snobbery or prejudice. He might have discriminated in the views he attended to, but the discrimination operated not on the basis of class or money, nor on the basis of military record or nationality, but on the basis of reason, which was – as he stressed – a faculty accessible to all.”

I’ve recently been struggling with the concept of elitism in the context of Nietzsche’s philosophy. I’m pleased to say that I no longer close my ears and start singing “tralalala” upon hearing the word. Part of my starting to unfreeze my mind on this was to seriously entertain the thought that everyone’s opinion is worth exactly as much as anyone else’s. Let me tell you a story to illustrate this:

How to get 10 000 followers

Flock of penguins, by: Polar Cruises (Flickr:) [CC-BY-2.0 (http://cc.org/licenses/by/2.0)]

Flock of penguins, by: Polar Cruises (Flickr:) [CC-BY-2.0 (http://cc.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D

Yesterday, I saw a blog with ten thousand followers. I follow blogs that provide me with interesting viewpoints, knowledge and humour and they generally have less than 300 people subscribing, so I wanted to know what made it so special. It turns out the person writing this blog has an opinion. It’s not based on any specific knowledge or experience; all he claims is that he has given the matter some thought before writing it down. I’m inclined to doubt that, because he generally manages to post several opinions per day. So why are his readers so enthusiastic?

“They are all fearful. They hide behind customs and opinions.” Nietzsche

Let’s go back to Greece for a moment and look at Socrates’ trial in a bit more depth. The jury was made up of 500 people and 220 decided Socrates wasn’t guilty, while 280 decided that he was. People’s opinions were influenced by the speeches of the prosecutors, who had much more time to speak than the defendant. Furthermore, Socrates had recently been ‘put on stage’ in Aristophanes’ play Clouds (423 BCE). This play was an attack on Sophistic thinking, because it spread uncertainty about the meaning and purpose of the world and about the nature of moral values. Socrates was not a Sophist, but he was Athens’ most famous philosopher at the time. In “The Greek Achievement”, Freeman describes how “Athens was facing a series of profound shocks from plague and military defeat.” People must have felt insecure and they were in favour of new laws and repression. Socrates knew he didn’t stand a chance at the trial, but he was unwilling to compromise.

De Botton says that even in this case:

“What should worry us is not the number of people who oppose us, but how good their reasons are for doing so.”

And we should not be afraid to ask them questions to find out what those reasons are.

Sunset over the Negev, by Josef F. Stuefer [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://cc.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)]

Sunset over the Negev, by Josef F. Stuefer [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://cc.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D

So I asked the blogger with the ten thousand followers, who will not be named here for reasons of privacy, a question. His opinion was that the US should send troops to Syria to prevent people from being killed. I know how similar missions have failed, so I asked him which of the warring factions should be put in charge of Syria. I didn’t mention the many other countries that have an interest in this conflict, either because they support one of the parties or because the war is useful to them in other ways. I knew if I wanted to explain the complexity of the situation I’d need an essay, or a book. With hindsight, I’m glad I didn’t bother. This is the answer I got:

“Simple. Pacify then figure it out. Or let them die while we figure it out? I don’t have that answer, smarter minds than mine may, but we can stop the killing right now if we wanted.”

I had a sinking feeling when I read the first word. “Simple.” Maybe it was unfair of me to expect an answer. After all, this blogger never promised anything but opinions. And most of his ten thousand readers seem grateful to read them. Surely it would be elitist of me to disagree.

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Counting towards happiness

A while ago, I saw a woman who had decided to count every item in her house, where she lived with her boyfriend and their son. At first, she tried to make a list of her possessions. Then she bought numbered stickers to put on everything and finally she hired a warehouse to store what she’d counted so far. It was quite impressive to see what’s essential to a normal household laid out in neat rows on a concrete floor. I remember the pawns, all numbered individually. Kitchen utensils that had been bought for a second or even a third time because they kept getting lost. The fact that her two-year-old son already owned over 100 books.

What makes us happy?

I remembered seeing this because I’m reading Alain de Botton’s “The consolations of philosophy.” His consolation for not having enough money mentions Epicurus. The Greek philosopher Epicurus lived from 341 – 270 BCE and he gave some serious thought to what we need to be happy. Living a self-sufficient life in the company of friends was very high on his list.

The olive trees, Vincent van Gogh [public domain]

The olive trees, Vincent van Gogh [public domain]

Today, there are people with clipboards asking us how happy we are. Of course this information has to be quantified to compile the statistics for all the countries in the world. Then we can make comparisons and maybe derive a little happiness from the fact that our country has made it into the top ten. But in doing this we don’t address the fact that Epicurus already knew we don’t spend much time doing what makes us happy. As De Botton writes:

“He had come to some striking conclusions about what actually made life pleasurable – and fortunately for those lacking a large income, it seemed that the essential ingredients of pleasure, however elusive, were not very expensive.”

Richard Easterlin’s research of the 1970’s has shown that more income doesn’t always lead to more happiness. This is called the happiness-income paradox and it has been proved again in 2010. Even in developing countries happiness did not necessarily increase with a rise in income.

“Richard Easterlin discovered that high incomes are correlated with lots of happiness. But over the long term there’s this point at which increased income doesn’t correlate with increased happiness. This is the paradox.” Scientific American

What do we need to be happy?

“Of the desires, some are natural and necessary. Others are natural but unnecessary. And there are desires that are neither natural nor necessary.” Epicurus

Seeing the warehouse full of items made me remember how I travelled for months with just a backpack and how I felt strangely liberated when it got lost one night. The people from the airline gave me 100 dollars compensation and I didn’t need all of that to buy a toothbrush, a change of underwear, some soap and a clean T-shirt. It took me a few weeks to fill the new, small bag that I’d bought at a market somewhere.

Garten am Thuner See, August Macke (1887-1914) [public domain]

Garten am Thuner See, August Macke (1887-1914)
[public domain]

I remember Lin writing about rewarding activities that cost hardly anything and it made me think about friendship. Most of my friends would agree that we value friendship as much as Epicurus did, but if we all feel that way, why do we need to make an appointment to see each other weeks in advance?

“Good friends, good books, and a sleepy conscience: this is the ideal life.” Mark Twain

It’s quite simple: we’re busy almost every night with activities related to work, family, health, culture and further education. According to De Botton, Epicurus decided to share a house with his friends and they grew vegetables together. They chose a simple lifestyle that would allow them to live independently. That meant giving up on the trappings of city life.

“True friends do not evaluate us according to worldly criteria, it is the core self they are interested in.” De Botton

 Expensive solutions

“If expensive things cannot bring us remarkable joy, why are we so powerfully drawn to them?” De Botton asks. His answer has everything to do with us not thinking very much about what makes us happy:

“Expensive objects can feel like plausible solutions to needs we don’t understand.”

Yes, we can also blame advertising for muddling up our needs, or the idle opinions of Epicurus’ day.

Still life of grapes and a peach on a table-top. Jan van Huysum (1682-1749) [public domain]

Still life of grapes and a peach on a table-top. Jan van Huysum (1682-1749) [public domain]

A man once told me that he’d sold his car when he realised that he was working one day every week just to keep it going. Two of my friends gave up their jobs and are now running a small business from their home.

“What gave you that idea?” I asked.

“Facebook,” they answered.

They explained how they noticed that many of their friends were always writing about how they didn’t like their jobs and how much they were looking forward to the next exotic vacation. When my friends properly analysed the problem, they realised they could do all the things they would normally do on vacation if they organised their daily lives differently. Now they see more of each other, they go for long walks, eat well, listen to music and read good books on a regular basis. I guess we’ll just have to hope their business doesn’t become too successful…

With thanks to [blog since deleted; sorry] who suggested I read Alain de Botton’s book. Channel Four made a television series based on The Consolations of Philosophy that can be seen on Youtube, “Philosophy: A guide to happiness.”

Posted in sceptic | Tagged , , , , , | 27 Comments

The Squirrel and the Ant

I often ask questions as part of a blog post, but I’m not sure if they’re the right ones. My point in asking them is to invite the reader to think and, I’ll be perfectly honest about it, to inspire comments. The questions should therefore invite many different interpretations. But still, there’s no way around the fact that any question and answering process invites us mainly to think rationally. Or is there?

“Judge a man by his questions rather than by his answers.” Voltaire

It’s possible to fire off a series of unanswerable questions that tears matters wide open, but on the edge of any rational Q and A you’ll find an ocean that cannot be put into words. That would be counterproductive to my objective. A rather more subtle way to ask questions is by means of a fable. Dutch poet Toon Tellegen has written many philosophical fables in a style that looks deceptively simple and without putting in any overt morals. In addition to asking you more questions, this could be about me doing my bit to promote the yearly Poetry International Festival of Rotterdam, from June 11th to 15th.

“The biggest surprise in his work is that Tellegen takes everything literally, thus creating a wealth of meanings.” Thomas Möhlmann about Tellegen’s poetry

Officially, Tellegen’s books of fables are children’s books, but that shouldn’t stop anyone reading them. Sadly, not much of his work has been translated into English. I’ll attempt to tell you one fable about the Squirrel and the Ant, two great friends:

Grey Squirrel, by BirdPhotos.com [CC-BY-3.0 (http://cc.org/licenses/by/3.0)]

Grey Squirrel, by BirdPhotos.com [CC-BY-3.0 (http://cc.org/licenses/by/3.0)%5D

On a walk to the backside of the forest the ant and the squirrel came to a derelict house. The ant climbed on the back of the squirrel and looked inside through the broken window.

“What do you see?” the squirrel asked.

“All dust,” the ant said. “Everything is covered in dust.”

“Nobody has lived here for a long time, I guess,” the squirrel thought.

“Let’s go inside,” the ant said, jumping to the ground.

He pushed the door handle down and stepped across the threshold. It was dark inside, old and abandoned. The squirrel stepped in behind the ant and blinked.

“Who would have lived here?” he asked.

“Shush,” the ant said.

They looked around and got used to the dark. The ant took a book that had been lying on the table into his hand and blew off the dust.

“Look here,” he said.

The squirrel looked and read: “BOOK OF FORGETTING”

“What kind of book is that?” he asked.

The ant opened the book. On the first page there was a table of contents. The chapters were called: “to Unlearn, to Abandon, to Leave, to Lose, to Expire, to Dull, to Dilute, to Disappear.”

Ruin of St Michael's Church, by Evelyn Simak [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://cc.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)]

Ruin of St Michael’s Church, by Evelyn Simak [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://cc.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D

“to Disappear,” the squirrel muttered. “Show me that.”

He took the book and opened it at the last page. It looked as if that was the page that had been read the most.

The squirrel read: ” … and in the end, all will …”

There was a tear in the page as if it had been turned in great haste.

“Don’t read on!” the ant said. He pulled the book out of the hands of the squirrel, closed it and put it down in a corner, underneath the dust.

The beams creaked and the half-open window gave a slight rattle.

“The wind,” the squirrel said.

“No,” the ant said. There wasn’t the slightest breeze.

“Who might have lived here?” the squirrel asked.

“I think,” the ant answered, “that nobody ever lived here.”

The squirrel put on a solemn expression and stepped outside, behind the ant. They walked into the forest.

“Don’t look back,” the ant said.

The squirrel looked back and saw the house had disappeared. There was a rosebush in full bloom. And a small, dark cloud found its way into the squirrel’s thoughts and clung there, tenaciously.

Ant in flower, by Jens Buurgaard Nielsen, CCL 3.0 GNU wikimedia commons

Ant in flower, by Jens Buurgaard Nielsen, CCL 3.0 GNU wikimedia commons

If you’d like to hear more of these stories, don’t hesitate to comment.

PS: I couldn’t write about fables without mentioning Aesop:

“Aesop was such a strong personality that his contemporaries credited him with every fable ever before heard, and his successors with every fable ever told since.”
-Willis L. Parker

As many of you know, Aesop lived around the 6th century BCE and his life had a sad beginning, he was a slave, and an equally tragic ending when he was condemned to death for a crime he didn’t commit. His fables have been around for all these years. I’ve clicked a few links and this is the best collection I’ve found so far. It looks like and old-fashioned storybook. Enjoy!

Posted in book review, sceptic | Tagged , , , , , , | 24 Comments

Easy Atheism

Quite a few people have written about their experiences with atheism. Some reports are funny, some are angry, many are triumphant, as if becoming an atheist takes you to the next level, makes you a better person, somehow. I would like to explore if that is true.

Bridge on the Saône River at Maçon, JBC Corot 1834 [public domain]

Bridge on the Saône River at Maçon, JBC Corot 1834
[public domain]

One of my parents was a catholic, the other was a protestant. Today, it may be difficult for most people to distinguish the two, but when they met, it was a huge problem. We have a proverb that could be translated as: “Two religions on a pillow will find the devil in the middle.” They decided to get married and end the debate by not bringing their children up with any religious beliefs. Therefore I never struggled with god. I’ve read about different religions to find out what having a belief meant. Ironically, I spent lots of time among the believers; I just didn’t know it.

Do atheists know better?

What are the advantages of being an atheist, apart from having more spare time? Would losing your religion make you less superstitious?

In Nietzsche’s essay, “David Strauss the confessor and the writer”, I have blogged about it before, Nietzsche tells us that Strauss boasts of a new faith, a new religion: his view of the cosmos based on modern science. Nietzsche asks the question: “How can modern science be a religion? To call it a religion means that some of its grounding principles lie beyond the realm of modern science.” It would be a science based on faith. And that seems to be the case here: Strauss has changed his faith in God into a faith in the cosmos and he demands the same piety for his rational universe as the devout person of the old school demands for his God.

On the Pont de l'Europe, Gustave Caillebotte 1876 [public domain]

On the Pont de l’Europe, Gustave Caillebotte 1876
[public domain]

Why do so many atheists feel a need to ridicule what they used to hold dear? And at the same time, demand everyone’s respect for the ideas they have only adopted recently?

Strauss more or less admits that he doesn’t know everything, because science has not furnished him with all the answers yet:

“But one can be without a firm position and still not be lying on the ground,”

It doesn’t sound convincing.

“Someone who neither stands nor lies, must be flying, or perhaps he floats, flutters, or flaps.”

Nietzsche answers. Maybe underneath his boasting, Strauss the atheist feels like a Peewit. It flies erratically over the fields, making a lot of noise, in a feeble attempt to draw away predator’s attentions from its nest, where it feels most vulnerable.

What do atheists believe in?

In writing this, I am not trying to make myself look good. I am not claiming to be beyond atheism and I don’t have definite answers. I’m just asking if it’s possible for a person to become an atheist by exchanging one set of beliefs for another, without changing oneself at all. These are some likely candidates:

science

David Strauss looked at the cosmos as an infallible, rational machine. It was the scientific view of his day and when we read about it a hundred years later, it looks hopelessly old-fashioned. If we want to adopt science as our new faith, we have to accept that there is no stability. Our belief could be based on the ruling paradigm, on the current consensus of mainstream scientists. Or on the one dissident scientist who somehow convinced us. And that is not our only problem:

There was a young lady named Bright,
Whose speed was far faster than light;
She started one day
In a relative way,
And returned on the previous night.

A. H. Reginald Buller in Punch (Dec. 19, 1923)

Do we understand quantum mechanics? Do we feel superior to theists because we really know that everything is relative?

Severn Bridge, by Martin Edwards [CC-BY-SA-2.0]

Severn Bridge, by Martin Edwards [CC-BY-SA-2.0]

In asking these questions I am not saying that scientific achievements have no value. On the contrary: I am deeply impressed when I read about the Big Bang or brain research. All I’m asking is if science is a good candidate for an atheist faith.

morals

When I was taking a break from writing this, I saw that fellow blogger Makagutu had written a very interesting reflection on the death of god. He also thought about morals in a new light:

“I realize that some of the things I thought immoral, appeared to be so since I was looking at life using a christian filter.” Makagutu

He referred to this article in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy about Metaethics.

“Many have thought the right answers to these [moral] questions are found in an appeal to God. On their view, moral principles are the expression of God’s will — they are His commands to us — and they get their authority from their source.” SEP

The article goes on to explain why this couldn’t even be a sufficient answer to religious believers, but one thing a new atheist should probably think about is a new set of morals. The easiest option would be to find an authority figure who gives us some answers that we can adopt. If we choose that option, it shows we haven’t changed. If we don’t, we’ll find that facing insecurities and admitting we don’t have the answers is not easy.

We have to believe in something

Like I said at the very beginning of this article, I found myself among the believers wherever I went. Where I live the majority of people would admit to a belief in something. This could be any personal mixture of things like positive affirmations, reincarnation, the innate goodness of people, humanist ethics, horoscopes, Deepak Chopra or The Secret. I suspect somethingism is an answer to the threat of nihilism.

Pont d'Argenteuil, Claude Monet [Public domain]

Pont d’Argenteuil, Claude Monet [Public domain]

What if we took the discussion on morals one step further and explored the thought that there is no meaning at all?

“We’re just chemical scum on the surface of a moderately sized planet, orbiting around a very average star in the outer suburb of one among a hundred billion galaxies.” Stephen Hawking

From personal experience, I can say that I’m not a stranger to somethingism. I have at times displayed an overexcited enthusiasm about the answers science might provide, I’ve had political beliefs that were not based on reason, but on a wish that things would be so. Even today, I’m probably more of a romantic than a nihilist. I don’t think I should build a pyramid and put the new atheists at its apex and the aura readers at its base. But I’ll ask the question again: “Are we better people because we’re atheists?”

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Aimless wandering

I like to walk. I don’t like to run, to jog, to move about as part of a group, or to go on any kind of organised walking holiday. In fact, I’m quite surprised to see how people believe that for walking you need expensive shoes, special clothes in drab colours, an unlimited supply of granola bars and a sophisticated water container. The alternative: just step outside and walk whenever the mood hits you. By walking to the shops or to a dentist appointment, you might notice how you enjoy walking instead of focussing on your destination. Take a walk at night and see your familiar surroundings in a new light.

“You can dress it up any way you like, but walking remains resolutely simple, basic, analog.” Geoff Nicholson, “The lost art of walking”

You’re not adding to the pollution of your environment and walking is often the perfect way to discover new surroundings. It’s an unobtrusive way of looking around, just taking note of what’s going on in passing. I would not be surprised if, evolutionary speaking, the human brain is still best suited to thinking, talking and absorbing new information at a walking pace. Hearing what goes on around you is part of the experience. It’s best not to spoil it by bringing a smartphone or a headset.

Walking in history

Bruce Chatwin recalls being a boy reading about the Aboriginals in Australia:

“…the Wanderlust of the Australian Aboriginals. I retained the image of those ‘tame’ black people who were happily working at a cattle station one day and the next day, without notice and without any clear indication downed tools and just left. They stepped out of their working clothes and left for weeks or months or years. They would trek across half the continent, just to meet someone and then they would walk back again as if nothing had happened.”

He imagined:

“Their employer to walk outside and call them. In the blinding sun he would call them again. No sound, except for the derisive laughter of a kookaburra. He would scan the horizon. Nothing but eucalyptus trees. (…) And in front of their huts he found their undershirts and hats and their pants still sticking out of their boots.”

Even though Chatwin admits it’s impossible to write a book about wandering, he makes a credible attempt with “The Songlines”, named after the way the Aboriginals went around by singing their routes all over the continent. Their songs would invoke mythical animals, sacred places and historical events in passing. The book qualifies as classic travel writing, spiced up with lots of literary quotes and historical fragments.

Bradshaw rock paintings, by TimJN1[CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)]

Bradshaw rock paintings, by TimJN1[CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D

There seems to be a contradiction between nomads and city dwellers, as if they find themselves on opposite ends of the spectrum. Hesiod already noticed this in 750-650 BCE. In his 800-line poem Works and Days he talks about the ages of man and names them golden, silver, bronze and iron to illustrate man’s progressive unhappiness.

“First of all the deathless gods who dwell on Olympus made a golden race of mortal men who lived in the time of Cronos when he was reigning in heaven. And they lived like gods without sorrow of heart, remote and free from toil and grief: miserable age rested not on them; but with legs and arms never failing they made merry with feasting beyond the reach of all evils. When they died, it was as though they were overcome with sleep, and they had all good things; for the fruitful earth unforced bare them fruit abundantly and without stint. They dwelt in ease and peace upon their lands with many good things, rich in flocks and loved by the blessed gods.”

The image is one of wanderers, living off the land. The fifth generation is completely different:

“Thereafter, would that I were not among the men of the fifth generation, but either had died before or been born afterwards. For now truly is a race of iron, and men never rest from labour and sorrow by day, and from perishing by night; and the gods shall lay sore trouble upon them.”

Here, the people seem to have stopped walking and started working. Hesiod says they had some good mingled with their evil, but that sounds like a small consolation in their pitiful state.

City walking

Modern day big cities are often good places to walk. I like to start at first light and see the world wake up around me; often surprisingly late. You’ll have hours to yourself to look at buildings without worrying about traffic. If you’re not too conspicuous, that is:

“Four times I was honked at for having the temerity to proceed through town without the benefit of metal.” Bill Bryson

In third world countries, the status of people on foot is made clear by the way all the others on the road treat them: like dirt. People just can’t imagine that you’d choose to walk if you have money in your pocket to pay for a riksha. And if you don’t have the financial means, you obviously don’t count. It’s still interesting to walk in these places because often people’s lives are lived on the street. You get to see the things that tourist brochures and travel guides don’t mention.

Downtown Hanoi, by Maryam Laura Moazedi [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)

Downtown Hanoi, by Maryam Laura Moazedi [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)

Healthy walking

According to research, walking for about 30 minutes a day has improved the health of people suffering from depression and anxiety. But it’s a sign of the times that we need a reason to do something that should come naturally. When I googled wandering aimlessly I found some Taoist advice on how to do this. The website tells you this practice is easy and takes 30 to 45 minutes or longer if you’d like. Maybe you should do the walk and spend your time wondering when you last did anything for pleasure: that is, not to improve your health or yourself in any way and without setting a timer!

I have read Bill Bryson’s “A walk in the woods: rediscovering America on the Appalachian trail” on an airplane and I remember him starting to hike without much preparation and not suffering too much. If people aren’t overweight in a way that puts their knees and hips in acute danger, they can benefit from the fact that humans evolved to walk, even if they have forgotten:

“On average, the total walking of an American these days – that’s walking of all types: from car to office, from office to car, around the supermarket and shopping malls – adds up to 1.4 miles a week…That’s ridiculous.” Bill Bryson

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