Mavalanche!

I appear to have been linked to from the Maverick Philosopher, which has caused a mavalanche.  This is very good news for me!  Even if it had not happened that there was a mavalanche, I’d be pretty pleased – I’ve been reading his site for a long time and it’s partly his fault I decided it was ok to major in philosophy (so I have someone to blame if it all goes horribly, horribly wrong)!

Thanks.

Advertisements

Why I Was, and No Longer Am, A Vegetarian

I spent six years as a lacto-ovo vegetarian, which is quite a bit of time, by my reckoning – at the time I went back to omnivory, I had been a vegetarian for just over a quarter of my then-current time on this planet.  So while that may seem a laughable amount of time to some, I certainly did better than most of those who explore vegetarianism for a month or two before finally giving in to their cravings for a cheeseburger (or bacon – it seems most people I’ve spoken with caved-in for one of those two).  My motivations for taking the vegetarian path were mixed, as I imagine most people’s are – although I wish I could say that they were entirely selfless and pure, it simply wasn’t the case.

Let’s start with the ‘selfless’ reasons first.  My vegetarianism was in part born of my newfound appreciation for the fact that animals are conscious entities that feel pain, fear, and the rest of these negative emotions, and that killing them in order to eat them really does cause them harm.  I actually had a moment at work one day when, for no discernible reason, without an environmental trigger, I suddenly ‘experienced’ myself as a pig having its throat slit.  Needless to say, this was a bit of a distressing experience and I went cold-turkey on meat after that (for six years I never ate a single piece of meat) – I no longer wanted to participate in that.

But then there were the ‘selfish’ reasons.  First and most important among these was my own fear of death.  In no small way, my vegetarianism was an attempt to strike a bargain with the universe to the effect that if I did not kill things in order to live, then maybe I would not have to die.  Of course this was futile and, if asked, I would certainly have disavowed this aim, but it was a big part of what was going on, only just beneath the surface.  Second, there were the health benefits that I encountered at the beginning (though they would give way to health problems).  I felt lighter and I had more energy, and no longer felt gross after meals.  Third, it gave me a massive sense of moral superiority over those who did eat meat (this is extremely common among vegetarians).  While I don’t believe that I ever got too sanctimonious (at least, I hope I didn’t), for the first four years I was definitely sure that virtually everyone around me had this basic issue totally wrong.

In time, however, I wound up going back to meat – I broke my flesh-fast with Salmon, one of my favourite foods prior to abandoning meat – for several other reasons.

First, my health was deteriorating.  [1]  Each year that went by, I was putting on more and more weight, and it wasn’t the under-the-skin, jiggly type of fat – rather, it was the hard-packing-around-the-organs type of fat, the sort that is associated with shorter life-spans and heart-disease.  And this while I was exercising more than I’ve ever done in my life (I was running approximately 40km/week at the time).  I was tired all the time, and I was really cranky when I hadn’t eaten recently – near the end I needed to eat about every three hours or I could no longer think.  In fact, I think I was in a pre-diabetes stage.  Also, my sex drive was so low it was in the basement (and I won’t say anything more about that).  My brain knew what it wanted though, ideology be damned (thank goodness for that too) – every time I had a meal I was dissatisfied because I wanted chewy, bloody steak.  I once saw a deer running around at work (I worked in a quarry at the time) and actually caught myself thinking “dinner!”

Second, I consciously realized that I was bargaining with death and that it wouldn’t work in any case.  Obviously, there is the fact that one cannot escape death.  But there was also the matter of the end of my ignorance about just what the dairy and egg industries implied (remember, I was lacto-ovo).  Essentially, you are still participating in a system that requires the death of animals if you are going to consume dairy or eggs.  Dairy cows would normally only produce milk for their offspring (obviously), so they had to be kept pregnant in order to produce milk for human consumption.  The sex-ratio of cows, however, is much like any other mammalian species: approximately 50/50.  What this means is that for every daughter a dairy-cow had, she would also (statistically speaking) have a son.  Daughters, of course, would grow up to give their own milk, but the sons could not.  Dairy farms not being animal sanctuaries (farmers have bills to pay, afterall), the males would have only one destination – the plate.  So all the males would be culled one way or another (veal or steak).  Much the same story can be told for egg operations.  When my ignorance about the process was lifted, I realized that in order to survive (I do not believe long-term veganism is appropriate for human flourishing – I think that’s an ideologically driven fantasy), I still required the death of intelligent beings.  If these animals were going to die so that I could have cheesy-omelettes, then I might as well eat meat too.  I was certainly no longer any more ethically pure than meat-eaters and refusing to eat meat because I didn’t like the killing would just have been prissiness on my part.

All this led me to a reevaluation of what morality demanded of me as regards meat and meat-eating.  I no longer believed in the healthfulness of long-term vegetarianism, especially veganism, but I knew that the only morally consistent vegetarianism is veganism.  But it occurred to me that perhaps I had this all wrong – certainly, eating meat is not a ‘nice’ thing to do, but maybe that didn’t mean that it shouldn’t be done at all.  I thought about the wolf: a natural carnivore, it needs flesh-food in order to survive and to flourish.  I thought about how we don’t think the wolf to be doing something morally wrong when it does what it has to do to survive and flourish.  We don’t blame the wolf or insist that it ought to be something other than it is because some transcendent moral principle demands it – we recognize that such criticisms just don’t apply.  If humans are not simply omnivores, but are obligate omnivores, then it is an error to ask us to avoid animal foods entirely.  I don’t believe that a morality that demands gross contortions of our given nature can actually be a morality worth adhering to.

So I have gone back to meat, but I eat meat with a vegetarian’s conscience.

Endnotes:

[1] Now, self-assured vegetarians will at this juncture tell me that I was obviously doing it wrong, else I would have been able to keep going longer.  Maybe: but I don’t think so.  I read all the books, took all the supplements for B, D, and my Omega-3’s, combined my proteins, and so on.  I think that it genuinely wasn’t working for me.  I make no strong commitments on whether it can work for other people, but in honesty I have my doubts – humans are able to talk themselves out of believing their lying eyes about a lot of things, vegetarianism being no exception.

Meditation: Why?

People often have interesting views of what meditation is about and what it entails.  They imagine that meditation is some spaced-out, totally groovy thing – that one closes the eyes and it’s like an instant hit of acid.  Others think that when we sit down we can just stop thinking and move into incredible trance states, just like that.  All these people are wrong – no instant trances (unless you’re Ron Swanson) and it’s definitely not much like an acid trip.  Meditation is rather more like this:

Let’s just say it: that seems pretty boring and pointless.  There are so many things that one could be doing with the day instead of sitting there silently, doing nothing while our minds whirl with stupid thoughts.  Boring and pointless it certainly can seem, but then so does jogging when we apply the same criteria.  Like jogging, however, meditation is done because it is good for you in the end (and also like jogging, if you keep up with it long enough, you actually start to like it).

So what besides ‘enlightenment’ (maybe you don’t believe in that) are the benefits of meditation?  First, meditation makes you more aware of what is going on in the mind, a skill that is of immense use when confronted with the world (e.g. by helping to prevent you from acting inappropriately or getting angry about things that just aren’t worth it).  Second, it makes concentrating more ‘natural’ for the meditator, which is of great use in many aspects of one’s life.  Third, it starts to feel an awful lot like a hygienic practice, like brushing the teeth for the brain, and you miss it when you haven’t done it that day, just like those mornings when you forget to brush your teeth.  Fourth, it eventually becomes sort of fun (if you can believe it) to observe the mind and try to pay attention, sort of like playing Tetris.

It’s a practice worth engaging in, if you don’t already.

In Lieu of Actual Content…

I was at their show last night (they got us on the guest list, which was great) so I feel like I should plug their video.  If you like it or know someone who does, pass it along:

Evy Jane – “Say So”

Memory and Symbolic Thought

I followed some links on Sabio’s blog and found my way over to this page of beliefs that people once had, but no longer do.  Pretty interesting reading.  What caught my attention most was the change of belief by Joseph LeDoux, a neuroscientist, who went from thinking that memories are once-stored and ever retrieved things to being things that are repeatedly generated when called for.  I have heard this elsewhere, but it reminds me of something else that I have thought about (or read/been told about, but cannot remember where).

Hardly anyone remembers anything from before about the age of four years.  What is also interesting is that this is also right around the time that language skills are coming into their own (if there are any developmental psychologists out there, please feel free to correct me/supplement this).  I have a suspicion that it is actually our ability to use language (symbolic thought) that gives us the ability to ‘remember’ so much as we do.  So while non-linguistic animals might have an experience and need to store reams of data about the particular qualities of that experience, we are able to store symbolic instructions that may be used later to reconstruct the event for us out of a much smaller set of stored sensory modalities.  I find this a fascinating notion (and the implications are neat).

Just a thought.

Essay: On the Impression of Time

David Hume

What you will find below is one of the short papers written for the Hume seminar I took last year.  I think it safe to finally start posting essays without danger of being kicked out of school.  So without further comment:

 On the Impression of Time

In this paper I shall investigate the explanation Hume gives in A Treatise of Human Nature of how the human mind comes to perceive, in the changing series of its perception, a flowing of time, as discussed in “Of the other qualities of our ideas of space and time” (1.2.3.6 – 1.2.3.10).  I will provide reasons for believing that this view is untenable as it stands.  I will also argue that his account of time cannot be rescued, for the best available means of doing so would have significant knock-on effects on his general understanding of perception, effects which are contrary to experience.  Interestingly, revision to his account of the perception of time will also have effects upon his understanding of perception.

For Hume, “[t]he idea of time, [is]… deriv’d from the succession of our perceptions of every kind, ideas as well as impressions,” and that without this “succession of ideas and impressions… [it would not be] possible for time alone ever to make its appearance” (1.2.3.6 – 1.2.3.7).  There are several reasons to suppose this plausible.  Firstly, Hume points out that for a man who is asleep there is no experience of time, nor is there for one who is “strongly occpy’d with one thought,” though in this latter case he actually means that “according as his perceptions succeed each other the greater or less rapidity, the same duration appears longer or shorter to his imagination…”  Further, Hume illustrates with an example of how when we spin a burning coal, we are able only to perceive a ring of fire as a static object and perceive no change in it and therefore no ‘time’ (1.2.3.7).

Hume hastens to point out, however, that “[t]he idea of time is not deriv’d from a particular impression mix’d up with the others, and plainly distinguishable from them; but arises altogether from the manner, in which impressions appear to the mind, without making one of the number (1.2.3.10).  Our experience of time is not something over and above our experience of the impressions (and ideas of these impressions) themselves, but is rather the collection of these that furnish the experience of time.  He illustrates this by using the example of five notes played in succession on a flute; the notes are played and they are perceived (as impressions and ideas) and there is no sixth idea or impression of reflection that constitutes the experience of time.  The only thing of importance here is, as Hume emphasizes, the manner in which they arise: “here it only takes note of the manner [emphasis original], in which the different sounds make their appearance…” (1.2.3.10).

Is this a satisfactory account of how we come to have the impression (and idea) of time?  In its broadest outlines this account certainly seems to accord with how humans experience the world: I have never known a feeling of time while in a deep (i.e. dreamless) sleep and everyone has experienced the ‘timelessness’ of a wandering mind.  But any explanation of human temporal perception must account for these common observations, and to do so is a low hurdle to overcome, while there are difficulties for Hume in the technical aspects of his theory.  Since Hume is building upon the account of perception that he provided at the beginning of the Treatise, the perception of time must be consonant with that account.  So first I shall grant his claim that without a continually changing series of perceptions, whether of impressions or ideas, there could be no experience of time, since this seems a plausible point.

The objection is as follows.  Hume is insistent that there is no idea or impression over and above the series of perceptions that may be identified as a separate impression of time.  If this point holds then, when hearing the five notes of the flute, I can only perceive a particular impression of a note (or the idea of that impression) at any given instant.  If this is true, then would it not appear to my perceptual faculty that, at any given instant, whatever it is that is being perceived would appear to be an unchanging object?  A reason to think this might be the case is that while perceiving that impression I am denied, by Hume’s account, any impression of reflection combining the ideas of a previously heard note with the idea of the present one.  If this is the case, I can have no recollection or knowledge of any previous impression(s) or idea(s) to indicate that the current impression has not always been.  Without such an impression of reflection it seems to me that change could not be perceived; that in the next instant there would be the perception of a different idea or impression does not resolve the matter, since that too would have the appearance of an unchanging object for the same reasons as given above.  And since, for Hume, the perception of time is a function of the perception of change, then without any change being perceptible, time must also be unable to appear to us.

If anyone should wish to rescue Hume’s account from this difficulty, she would necessarily be confined to the use of our original ideas and impressions of the notes, since the impressions of reflection have been ruled out due to their derivation from our ideas (1.1.2).  How might such a defense me made?  A possible solution might be to allow a ‘piling-up’ of our impressions and ideas, such that their durations overlap and are perceived simultaneously, so that there would be awareness of change without requiring any impressions of reflection.  Although Hume does not address the issue of whether our perceptions have the characteristic of persisting for durations or whether they may be so layered, it is plain that if this attempt to save his account of temporal perception is successful, it will be so by virtue of how it emends his account of basic perception.  If the manoeuvre fails, then it will be precisely because humans are not in actuality such inveterate multi-taskers.

While some would no doubt disagree, upon careful self-reflection, I cannot find any evidence that I am capable of simultaneous perception – it appears to me that I can only perceive one thing at a time (although what is perceived changes extremely quickly).  Since it seems that I am not actually able to perceive more than one idea or impression at a time, I must conclude that this method of layering perceptions cannot be a valid means of rescuing Hume’s position.  Consequently, I believe that his account requires revision.

It would be a simple matter to make his theory of the perception of time consonant with his general theory of perception and our lived experience, but it requires the affirmation of just that which he denies – that is, that the perception of time is a species of impression of reflection.  On this view, it is the case that the perception of time is a complex idea that compares current impressions with the ideas of previous impressions and notes the relative vivacity of each and their progressive diminishment in vivacity as new impressions arise.  Thus, the perception of time does not arise simply from an experience of the manner in which perceptions arise, without remainder.  Happily, this hypothesis actually helps explain how it is that one who is lost in thought experiences time more slowly than otherwise – the sustained focus upon the thought reduces the number of other impressions crowding upon the mind, meaning the vivacity of the idea of the thought competes with fewer other ideas and therefore appears stronger than it otherwise would.  Therefore, it would appear to change more slowly and consequently time would appear slower as well.  Unhappily, however, even this view would have impacts upon Hume’s basic understanding of perception.  Specifically, since it does appear that we only perceive the impressions of the flute notes and their ideas, our perceptual apparatus must operate much more quickly than we typically take for granted!

Although it is presumptuous in the extreme, I have here outlined Hume’s account of how we come to perceive time and the reasons why I find it untenable.  An exploration of possible resolutions to it were explored and I found in favour of the revision of the account he gave to one that classifies the perception of time as an impression of reflection.  I did so because to believe otherwise would require the acceptance of a state of affairs about human perception (namely, simultaneity) that I do not believe obtains.  Consequently, I asserted that the impression of time must be an impression of reflection, contrary to Hume’s position.

Desire: Curse or Blessing?

As mentioned in one of my previous posts, both Buddhism and Epicureanism view desire as somehow central to the ‘problem’ (if it is a problem) of human existence.  Most (but certainly not all) Buddhisms see desire as universally problematic, while for Epicureanism it is only the preponderance of our desires that are so.  But these two philosophies are, of course, not the only ones that pay attention to the phenomenon – indeed, any life-philosophy worth its salt deals with desire in its own way, whether that be the Taoist harmonization of desire to gel with ‘the Way’, or the Christian realignment of desire to accord with the eternal and unseen order established by God.  What is of interest, of course, and what is almost so fundamental as to escape notice, is that all of the life-philosophies mentioned above view desire as something that is broken, or bad, or a burden, as something that must be overcome, subdued, abandoned, or redirected.  The analysis tends to be that, with the abandonment of desire (whether this is total or restricted to specific desires depends upon the particular theoretical framework) life will become easier and freer.

There is no small degree of wisdom in this general approach.  After all, humans have innumerable desires for innumerable ends and, since it is not possible for all our desires to be fulfilled, we will very often be dissatisfied by the gap between what we want and what the world is willing to provide.  Desire probably should be treated with much more suspicion than is currently en vogue among the West’s cultural and business elites[1] and, hearteningly, there are indeed some indications of a growing interest in minimalism.  But these approaches (particularly the stronger ones, like various strains of ascetic Buddhism) ignore something vital and valuable about desire, something that modern Western culture recognizes and responds to (even though, arguably, this response is disproportionate and overly indulgent).

What the modern West generally recognizes about desire is that desire is what gives life its flavour and its vividness.  It is from the satisfaction of desire that we derive our greatest pleasure and joy.  It is our desires that motivate us to do valuable and important things, like getting an education, and it is our desires that motivate us to do things that need doing but which we would otherwise avoid, like maintaining sewage treatment infrastructure.  Desire is what gives us something to act upon, something to look forward to, and something to hope for.  The West knows that to eliminate desire entirely would leave us without any grounds for action or judgement, and leave life a bland affair.

It isn’t obvious, then, that desire is necessarily a bad thing or that we should seek to uproot it entirely (should it even be possible to do so).  We need to find a middle-way between absolute renunciation and absolute indulgence.  More on this later.

Endnotes:

[1] Though by no means am I possessed of socialistic tendencies, I do tend to agree with most critics of consumer capitalism insofar as they are arguing against the insipid, ugly, and crass nature of the phenomenon.  But that is a discussion for another time.