posted here as well, Meaning in the face of Annihilation


A few days ago, I was showing houses to an old friend who is now a client. It was raining and we had passed by a smaller duplex. The pictures on the MLS aren't the same as seeing the context of the property with your own eyes. After seeing it, he decided he didn't want to go in and disturb the people in there. There are better deals around. We were talking about life in general -- catching up as it were -- since we hadn't really talked in a long time. In showing houses, you inevitably turn towards the topic of the future. Let's call this future-talk.

Future-talk is odd, it's not often grounded in the present even though we talk about the future by way of the things we do during the present. But sometimes it is, and you can see that doesn't just contain hopes and dreams that people have for the future. The future often also contains a justification of the present (current actions, current statuses &c). The present then, acts like a bridge that links the past and the future... even though it's really disjunct (the present belongs to neither past nor future). And yet, looking for a home does this past-present-future connection quite well. People who want to buy a home, who have money are serious. It's not chump change to drop close to half a million... It's something to want a place to call your own, to START A FAMILY

What people want in a home is about as important as who they are, and what their priorities are. Buying a house, even as an investment, represents a whole-lotta-commitment, (in a Led Zeppelin kind of way) and as old friends we were genuinely interested in what the other was doing. This is the best kind of relationship building anyway, and the best sales people do it well. They are interested and understand their client -- at least they can appear to be to the client. And that's what's important, to orient yourself. Not just what the inside of the house looks like (which is where most of us see the house anyway)... but also the outside, the kind of neighborhood, the people, the schools, the local businesses, if we can see our parents coming over (or not), or friends... in American Literature, the home is a very important character. It's kind of like the over-shadow, even if the home is also the town... where someone runs from, or runs to... And in that way it acts much like how God acts for people's lives. It orients them, it becomes an attractor (or repellent)...

So fast forward a bunch of particulars, when we got back into my car, he asked me if I believed in God.

Now I don't know what he thinks, and I didn't ask -- but I told him, yes I believe I do. Although if most people ask me if I do, I usually say No because if I say Yes, then I appear to be very misleading. The fact is, what I am thinking of in my head probably in no way resembles what they are thinking of when they mention God..

This needs elaboration so I said very directly, I don't really believe in the supremacy of a particular entity, per se, at least not one that is separate or dis-contiguous from everything else. I also don't believe that I am (or that human beings are) central to the workings of the universe or that my actions (or that human actions) have any centrality to what's actually going on. The universe is indifferent.

My friend then said, Yes, that's really not in agreement with most people.

I also added I don't believe that the meaning in my head has any bearing whatsoever on the universe at all. Meaning makes no difference to anyone except myself and vis versa.

A good short article on the uncentrality of Das Sein can be read by Paul Graham. He wrote an essay called See Randomness. I realize now, after I've put it in here, that the article itself exists in a vacuum much unlike future-talk and houses but very much like the present. In other words, this article does not attempt to bridge any kind of relationship with a point of view that we are in fact central to the universe, or that the meaning we take for granted is inscripted in the very core of the universe. Rather Graham argues for consideration of alternate understandings of events. He grounds his appeal for personal distance on an evolutionary foundation -- that our 'identity' of a cohesive, rational self is an indeterminate fiction -- that we should not take central our own needs and desires when orienting the 'meaning' of the things that happen around us. He would agree with me then, that meaning is the way each of us navigates what would otherwise be 'randomness'. This meaning is not a universal principle in which our suffering or joy has any bearing in the cogs of the cosmic machine. Our suffering or joy is, rather neutral, much like how chemical reactions are neutral.

Gilles Deleuze in Practical Philosophy wrote very elegantly on this topic. I read his book twice to understand how he dismantles notions of ontology and instead recombines (and yet includes them) from a ground floor up so that they retain their parts, their sums, essences, attributions and conjugations. The first reading only served to confuse me, as the orientation wasn't around a metaphyics of presence even while he preserves 'essence' as a central mode of anchoring meaning. The difference lies in the supposition that essence is constructed as "a relation of reciprocity" even while "Essence -- Necessarily constitutes the essence of a thing ..., a thing can neither be nor be conceived without, and vise versa, what can neither be conceived without the thing" (64). See how Deleuze has his cake and eats it too? Essence is the thing and the thing, essence. Likewise, what overrides the interactions of what we would understand both in a physical and a mental way is abstracted as a neturality of the interplay of relations -- the exposition of Spinozan Ethics -- without consciousness as being at all primary. In fact, it's closer to epiphenomenalism if anything, although what Deleuze does does not push a metaphysics of presence of anything, nor does it sustain that heavy mutuality of dualism...

When a body 'encounters' another body, or an idea another idea, it happens that the two relations sometimes combine to form a more powerful whole, and sometimes one decomposes the other, destroying the cohesion of its parts. This is what is prodigious in the body and the mind alike, these sets of living parts that enter into composition with and decompose one another according to complex laws. The order of causes is therefore an order of composition and decomposition of relations, which infinitely affects all of nature. But as conscious beings, we ever apprehend anything but the effects of these compositions and decompositions: we experience joy when a body encounters ours and enters into composition with it, and sadness when, on the contrary, a body or an idea threaten our own coherence. [. . .] In short, the conditions under which we know things and are conscious of ourselves condemn us to have only inadequate ideas, ideas that are confused and mutilated, effects separated from their real causes. That is why it is scarcely possible to think that little children are happy, or that the first man was perfect: ignorant of causes and natures, reduced to the consciousness of events, condemned to undergo effects, they are slaves of everything, anxious and unhappy, in proportion to their imperfection. (19)

I believe that to most people who would orient themselves (or at least humanity) in the universe, and understand that there is an intrinsic place for them, for an I to wait and stand in luxury, as the children of the universe -- either in this life or the next. I suspect that many of us feel (even if we know otherwise) that we are some how important -- or that we are somehow deserving of all good things. So many of us, after Deleuze's reading may feel that this point of view is horrible burden. Without that grounding of I or even God, there is no reason for anyone to behave or be good. Without God, many would insist that we get ultimate freedom but you also get ultimate responsibility. The universe won't take care to preserve you, or transmogrify you based on karma... It is as though, without a direct core to the center of the universe, we should all eat each other and be terrified that others can do to us as they will.

Many thinkers and writers have written that exposure to the Scared Other, Big Other, the Eagle are all terrifying experiences that would destroy small others like ourselves. To experience God, as it were, is to become annihilated. I don't believe this to be the case though. Yitz Jacob who ponders the mystic musings in the Jewish tradition has a particularly applicable story here about one's relation with the Sacred Other on Heaven and on Earth. The point of the story then, I think, has to do with being able to relate to HaShem, which is easy in Heaven but not so much on Earth. While being stifled on a "Heaven that sees all" makes much sense to me, the radical view that our essentiality is not at all cohesive (that we disintegrate) when faced with the Cohesion of the Almighty jumps too far. Now, Jacob does not claim we disintegrate in his blog post, but he does note that when in Heaven, everything is visible -- by this, I took it to mean that HaShem is visible too. And if God is apparent then it also becomes very apparent what we should do. This doesn't necessarily mean we don't exist in Heaven, but it does mean that we lose our free will.

I am not so sure that is the case. After all, should not the Cohesion of the Almighty must in fact include the cohesion of all our little partial essentialities as well? So it's not so much that without God we get everything. Rather, it's with God that everything is allowed.

Sergi Dostoevsky in The Brothers Karamazov explores this topic through Ivan Karamazov -- this is related to Ivan's struggle. The brunt of it is that only with God can we have anything -- only with God is everything allowed. The naked weight is that God is necessary -- He does define for us what is allowed, but only because without God we would be an indistinguishable mass from everything else. Ivan, ever so rational, insists on the sheer the perversity of human beings that the Devil is made from Man's image even though a God may or may not exist. I don't know who Dostoevsky found inspirational enough to create a character like Ivan from, but I do feel that Ivan is under-developed. Ivan's main source of torture is that he isn't sure if there is a God or not -- he seems to think there isn't actually a God because of the vast cruelties that people play on one another -- because bad people get away with so much! Ivan is getting two things confused though. Ivan continues to serve in a religious institution, so not believing in God is a terrible burden for him. Nonetheless Ivan sees the reasoning for expressing a belief in God -- unity and singularity in the physical sense, not withstanding, but also for human society. People need God. People need to be put into their place -- his poem 'The Grand Inquisitor' uses the tools of the Devil to do the work of God. And it's through the Devil that the goodness of God can become apparent... that we then can see that we do have a choice. God becomes then, a field that anchors it all, Devil, God, everything. This field contains everything actual and anything possible -- while containing an inscripted navigation as to what is good and right for people.

So to go back to Deleuze, what is right and good for people as a society is what mutually increases their power -- what allows them to coexist in harmony. It is of no small coincidence then, that this relationship is much like the Cohesion of the Almighty. On the one hand, the big picture is necessary -- for us to be one, but to ride upon the Law and live it to its fullest extent would force us to lose our ability to have freedom. To use Jacob's parable, the Earth is curved so we can't tell what's all around us -- so we can do what we like, in a limited scope -- even if it is to make mistakes. It's only in the firmament where we can see all around, and experience the full blunt of it. Keeping the big picture in mind is difficult -- as material creatures we are made to get what we can now, enjoy ourselves and satisfy immediate urges. Why wait? We don't know what will happen to us next! So we end up with conflicting behavior that satisfies one aspect of our person but no... or we short ourselves in the long run for short term gain... and where does meaning fit into this?

Meaning fits into everything as the justifications, explanations, short-circuits in our daily lives that smoothen over the otherwise random assortment of information that would bombard us, distract us, vex us or otherwise provoke perhaps too much uncertainty in our lives. If we were terribly uncertain, it's doubtful we would ever have children, or ever buy a house, or ever do anything. If we didn't think we could finish what we wanted to do then most of us would probably never do it. I believe meaning is the tactical moves that assure us coherency in our personal internal lives.

In other words, meaning isn't the inner workings of physics or math, or biology. The knowledge of science explores actual relations, insofar as we can test them. But that's not meaningful. Rocks are not meaningful. Plants are not meaningful. Being alive is not meaningful. Being alive is biological. Evolution is not meaningful. The movie A Serious Man, one of my favorite movies, explores this issue. Larry Gopnik understands the math that he teaches in his class but he does not understand the story behind Schrödinger's cat. He is always caught up in a series of diversions, wondering what the 'truth' behind any event is. Knowing or not knowing the truth is not important -- the Coen brothers continually sink us into ambiguity, delay our reception of what anyone actually means or the actual intent of any character's action. Gopnik then gets caught up in how that 'truth' of anything is both hidden and not at all meaningful. He can't ever decide what he wants because he thinks he needs to know 'what the intent of everything' must be before he can figure out what he should want. It drives him to the brink, where he comes speechless, and only stares ahead.

This is very much the serious philosopher's problem is. We think that the universe should somehow have a place for us, that what we want should somehow be apparent to us, written for us in the stars, in our surroundings, in life. We may come some day to understand how life works, how to stop death, how to create beauty and art -- these things may become possible through science. But that kind of knowledge isn't meaningful because it won't tell us how to live or deal with all things personal.

This means then, that meaning is not universal. Meaningfulness is for US... each of us... independent of one another. It makes sense then, that our mental worlds are coexistent but also incompossible -- that a gull of incommensurable, indefinite and indeterminate difference separates one mind from another ... and that we aren't privy to one another's minds... even if we are all 'made the same way'. We aren't made to read each other's minds. It would be bad for us if everyone else could read our mind... because we would be manipulated and abused. Our individual survival would be uncertain... yet ironically, as humans we are incredibly social and we DO need each other. Together we are strong. Under an Almighty, we are all the more Mighty. As a society, we do need those 'universal' inscriptions that having a God would define for us. It's just that, while there is always a Big Other in any human culture who judges each of us small others (even if it is a reciprocity such as the Asian notion of 'face') only the Judeo-Christian-Islam traditions so directly gave Him a Voice, or should I say, the Word. And it seems that traditions in this tradition, such as Protestants, so individuated this Word so that it wasn't a complex system like Confucianism or the Hindi-castes, but rather it was tied to a single soul, for each of us, waiting for us to become ripe, to gain awareness of it.

And that's where I can't follow. Personally, that's too much like a road written in the firmament (although to some it isn't...). To project such a path seems to me to prompt a kind of Lacanian hysteria -- much like Star Trek -- we would zip around the universe looking for something but not knowing what. On the one hand then, Protestants, especially Puritans, have a very dour outlook. They are serious. And now, we get to the most deadly of future-talks. After all, everything, all responsibility for their own relationship with God rests on their shoulders. What about their past? Their present? Their future? It's all written in the sky. Without that relationship with God, there can only be nothing. But now that I wrote this, I don't think that responsibility rests only with Puritans... In any group, understanding how responsibility is divided is important; be it on an individual, a family or a collective of some sort, any group needs its members to be responsive in a way that is coherent. I suppose though, by separating any kind of Word from meaning means I am writing this entry as a philosophical dead-end. There is neither impetus nor universal appeal because this kind of meaning is too individual. (It is, after all, one philosopher can hardly talk to another!) Nonetheless, what I have put here works for me (at least now)... although it is written mostly as a universal statement about human kind.

Perhaps ironically, as such a 'universal' statement, it must encapsulate an unnavigable void and include other minds... even though this statement most likely, is not meaningful for you.

Yet at the same time, it becomes a very special thing, when a home speaks to you about your future.

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Comment by Alexander Lee on March 4, 2011 at 6:43am



Thanks for the recommendation.  Ill check it out.

Comment by John McCreery on March 2, 2011 at 6:27am

Alexander, there is so much here, so many ways in which it could be taken. That is one of the dangers of writing so richly. Leaves readers stunned, not knowing how to respond. For the moment, let me suggest a look at Stanley Cavell (1988). Conditions Handsome and Unhandsome: The Constitution of Emersonian Perfectionism: The Carus Lectures, 1988.


Like you, Cavell is interested in movies and literature and the intersections of popular culture with philosophical questions. He comes to mind here because in one of the three lectures that became this book he distinguishes Platonic from Emersonian perfectionism, using a metaphor that I find compelling. Platonic perfectionism epitomizes all sorts of philosophical systems in which  there is assumed to be one Good that sits, in effect, at the top of a mountain. There may be several paths up the mountain, but they all converge at the same peak and those following any particular path are all higher or lower than each other. Those higher on the path are closer to the Good and thus empowered to impose what  they know on those below them—yes, we are talking about teachers in classrooms as well as the controllers of mass media who are closer to the peaks of political power than  the masses to whom they talk down. 


In Emersonian perfectionism there is no mountain, no single peak. There are individuals traveling across a great plain, all with their own destinations. All are dissatisfied; all want to be better than who they already are. This perpetual dissatisfaction keeps them moving across the plain. Because, however, all are on the same level, no one is empowered to talk down. Instead, when paths cross, they meet as equals who are free to offer themselves and their ideas of the better self or society they pursue as models that the other might choose to follow. But this is a conversation in which there is no compulsion. Those who see themselves as teachers may seduce or persuade. They have no way to impose their views on those with whom they interact.


There are, of course, objections to be made. What of parents and children, especially infants and toddlers? Don't parents need to speak authoritatively? What of captains on sinking ships, or leaders in other urgent situations? What if there is no time for calm discussion and exchange of views? Hierarchy  may not be so easily evaded as this image—plainly derived from pioneers moving West in search of self-sufficiency and greater individual freedom—suggests. 


Still, this contrast between Platonic and Emmersonian models of our strivings for perfection seems to me a useful way to frame all sorts of issues.

You may find it useful.



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