Tuesday, March 29, 2011

ANTHEM: The flaws of Ego and Self for Moral Utopia

Written as the diary of Equality 7-2521, a young man living in a future in which people have lost all knowledge of individualism, to the point of not even knowing words like 'I' or 'mine.' Everyone lives and works in collective groups, with all aspects of daily life dictated by councils -- the Council of Vocations, the Council of Scholars, etc. When he is assigned to a menial job cleaning the streets, Equality 7-2521 rebels against collectivism by conducting secret scientific research, which eventually leads him to re-create electric light. When he presents his discovery to the Council of Scholars, they condemn him for daring to act as an individual and threaten to destroy his creation.  (nobelsoul.com)

If I were to describe the novella that acts as the Objectivist manifesto in one word, it'd be "ironic." Not Alanis Morissette "ironic", I mean ironic, ironic. Considering that I am talking about Ayn Rand, I feel that mentioning Alanis is fitting. The singer-songwriter famous for her angry, pissed off complaints, or songs if you'd rather call them that, is a fair comparison to the quasi-philosopher who stopped at nothing to warn about the dangers of Communism/Socialism (they're the same thing anyway), even if it meant to never try and find out what they are. Just like how Alanis never cared to open up a dictionary to learn how to properly use the word "ironic."

Ayn Rand was born in Russia to a bourgeois (rich) family. After the revolution she saw the disasters of Russian Communism. When first coming to America to visit family, she saw the Manhattan skyline and wept tears of joy, deciding she must never leave America. Thus becoming one of the biggest supporters of American Capitalism, ever. Being brought up in the Soviet Union, she thought that the Communist state of Russia is what Communism actually was because of how it was executed in Russia. When in reality a leader (Stalin) used Marx's ideas differently than how Marx intended them to form a type of Communism in which he and his followers would benefit from, being the few that oppressed the many. Just like how many leaders (Corporations) have taken advantage of lassiez-faire Capitalism to become the few that oppress many. As was said by a Russian contractor who spoke with my family (paraphrase), "America feels like the Soviet Union, just a little different."

In Anthem, Rand paints a picture of dystopia. Councils that control all decisions in a society where people don't even have proper names. They have identification numbers (e.g. Equality 7-2521), and are told what job to fulfill. They breed once a year to create offspring that they never meet. Each person is born into a class and has no hope of escaping it. If I didn't know better, this is modern day America. But, I do know better, and Rand was trying to paint a picture of Communism/Socialism. This is of course the ironic part of her novella. Maybe it was just a lack of foresight or understanding of economic/governmental systems, but she shows the great similarities in what tragedies can happen when one takes advantage of another out of their own selfish desire. But of course, according to her that's perfectly ethical. 

At the end of the novel when Equality 7-2521 learns the word "I", and discovers the self, he realizes the importance of such concepts. That there is nothing but shame in the word "we", it means weakness. The only thing that is important is one's own fulfillment of their happiness, no matter what it means for others. This is called Ethical Egoism. Which isn't Rand's idea, at all. 

It is likely that Rand studied the ideas of Thomas Hobbes, who held a position called Psychological Egoism. Which is that man is naturally focused on their own self-interest. Hobbes also states that because of this, man is incapable of performing a truly altruistic action. Therefore, we have Ethical Egoism, which is that since man can only be selfish he ought to act on the desire of the self in order to be ethical. Another philosopher points out the problem with this. 

John Locke notices that to say we ought to do something means that we can do that thing; ought implies can. For example, if I told my friend Adam that he ought to solve world hunger by tomorrow, he might be put into a difficult place. There is no way Adam can solve world hunger by tomorrow, so he therefore isn't ought to do it, since he can't. Similarly, if I told Adam he ought to do his laundry tomorrow, then since it's something he can do, he might ought to. But, he also can decide not do it. Which means ought implies both the ability to do and not to do something. So, if man ought to act selfishly to be moral, he can act altruistically. But Hobbes holds that man cannot be altruistic and therefore should act selfishly! 

Because of these arguments, it might not be a bad assumption that Rand had as much understanding of Egoism as she did of Communism/Socialism. Nonetheless, Rand's own theory, Objectivism, is a moral theory of selfishness and that the only moral system to uphold this goal is Capitalism. If only she would have looked into Totalitarian states versus Democratic states. 

It seems to me that what Rand has a problem with is Totalitarianism. She dislikes the idea of someone being in control of her pursuit of happiness. She also probably is much more of a hedonist than an egoist.  I say this because of the emphasis she puts at the ending of Anthem on one's own happiness. Which I do think is essential, partly because one must be well in order to help others be well. 

This is where the biggest flaw of the novella comes out. Much like Rand, the protagonist of the novel goes from one extreme to the other extreme. He goes from having no identity to only having the self.  His life has been chosen for him and when he discovers something new, electricity, he tries to share it with the others, but they're outraged. They hold the position that if something is not agreed upon by everyone than it must be false/wrong. So, facing punishment, he leaps out a window and heads to the Uncharted Forest. He travels and finds fulfillment and pleasure in hunting and cooking his own food instead of it being prepared for him. He sees himself for the first time in a reflection of water. Finally, he learns the word "I". (Throughout the entire novella he annoyingly referred to himself as "we", which I originally thought was some sophomoric style choice). Moving from the extreme of being in nothing but a interdependent community to being completely independent. Though he is followed by a woman whom he has been lusting after, he is now dependent on no one. He does all for himself and teaches her to do the same. 

Though he does mention that he may choose friends, and that he decides when to see them and when not to, I still feel that people are so built into their families and social circles that this extreme would frighten them more than being interdependent. If we are to look at the natural world, we see a large amount of examples of successful species who mirror this interdependence. The problem is the extremes. When put into an extreme the same things are likely to happen. 

Russian Communism was an extreme where the state owned most of the wealth and all the power and oppressed the many to keep said power. If we move to the other extreme, corporate entities can take advantage of workers and gain most of the wealth (e.g. the top 1% make up most of America's wealth) and all the power, oppressing the man to keep said power. Similarly, in Anthem, we have the extreme of a council controlled society where they have all the power. When the protagonist escapes he finds a house and tells the woman who follows him all that he has learned, telling her this is the way it is because he has decided so. Though Rand probably didn't intend this, but he now, at any moment, can take advantage of her and have all power. She becomes subservient to him. If she does not act as he has decided to act, she is wrong. No longer is someone wrong because everyone does not agree, but now someone is wrong because they do not agree with him. 

At the beginning, I called Rand a quasi-philosopher. She resembles something like a philosopher, but her poor use of logic and argumentative form leaves her short of such a distinction. Also, she fails to see the flaw in her ethical pursuit. I would argue that Stalin acted incredibly selfish, which lead the to system she abhors more than anything else. But, according to Rand, isn't that exactly what he ought to have done? She does not recognize the possibility that in one's pursuit of the self they can take away the possibility of other's to do the same.

She also detested any form of the public sector in government, basically condemning such services as Social Security and Medicare as immoral. It only follows that such services go against her moral outlook. Yet, she cashed Social Security checks and took from Medicare when she was suffering from lung cancer. A very selfish act indeed, but it tears down the idea of selfishness being moral. Her actions implicate that immoral systems are O.K. when acted upon from a moral place. If this is true, than an immoral system such as the eating of unwanted babies is O.K. when coming from the moral place of solving hunger. 

Extremes bring about corruption and unequal distribution of power and wealth. To act solely for the self in an egoistic way is a harmful extreme. It is in no way moral and must be avoided, at all costs. 

Saturday, March 26, 2011

THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST: God is not an American.

The carpenter Jesus of Nazareth, tormented by the temptations of demons, the guilt of making crosses for the Romans, pity for men and the world, and the constant call of God, sets out to find what God wills for him. But as his mission nears fulfillment, he must face the greatest temptation: the normal life of a good man. Based, not on the Gospels, but on Nikos Kazantzakis' novel of the same name. (summary by Nick Lopez <ntlopez@fas.harvard.edu>)
"You think God belongs only to you? He doesn't. God is an immortal spirit who belongs to everybody, to the whole world. You think you're special? God is not an Israelite!" - Jesus.
In the film The Last Temptation of Christ, Jesus is going to the temple to pray and finds something disturbing. A market place filled with buying and selling, transferring of wages, and a monumental statue of Caesar. The pharisees speak out to him, questioning him, challenging him. He shouts out the statement above, "You think you're special? God is not an Israelite!" 

This film by Martin Scorsese is famously controversial for it's fictional outlook on the life and struggles of Jesus. For many Christians, who I doubt have viewed the film, they find the fact that Jesus goes to Mary Magdalene in her brothel (though he does not sleep with her) disturbing and wrong; that Jesus is shown completely naked on the cross (though his genitalia is not in view) sacrilegious; and that the very concept that Jesus would want a normal life with a wife and children, evil. 

Yet there are those who disagree. Roger Ebert, the famous film critic, states that Scorsese and screenwriter Paul Schrader "paid Christ the compliment of taking him and his message seriously, and they have made a film that does not turn him into a garish, emasculated image from a religious postcard. Here he is flesh and blood, struggling, questioning, asking himself and his father which is the right way, and finally, after great suffering, earning the right to say, on the cross, 'It is accomplished.'" Ebert, is absolutely correct. For Christians, if Jesus did not struggle with temptations, both the ones of grandeur that the devil brought about in the desert, and normal bodily ones such as lust for women, fear, and violence; how hard would it be for him to sacrifice life? If Jesus had no struggle with everyday life than he could not be man and God, just simply God. We are defined by the pain and suffering that all humans endure. If Jesus did not suffer along with us, than his sacrifice means next to nothing. 

Now, as an a nonbeliever there is more to delve into here. We must remember that though Jesus is the center piece of Christianity, he was also a practicing Jew, a Muslim Prophet, as well as looked at historically as a social revolutionary against the Roman Empire. You think Jesus belongs to you? He doesn't. He belongs to everybody, to the whole world. 

Dr. Cornel West, a philosopher and Christian, often calls us to look at Jesus' life, not his death. To see how he acting in the oppression of Imperial Rome. How did he lead the suffering people against the Romans in his Imperial Age, and how can that be an example for us to live in our Imperial Age? We must be highly critical of our empire, to focus on the oppression that the workers suffer on the underbelly of the American Empire, just as Jesus was critical of the Jews who suffered on the underbelly of the Roman Empire. The parallels between all empires are uncountable, yet many of the people who do not do anything have the greatest example of an anti-imperial revolutionary living with them in their hearts. 

The Last Temptation... also deals with Jesus struggle with using love as our guide, that we must save through loving and using the axe. "Any tree that fails to provide good fruit will be cut down and thrown on the fire", will Jesus continue practicing love? Or will he take up the axe and cut down the tree? Is it possible to do both? These questions continually face us today. 

In Libya a tyrannous dictator is oppressing his people. They're dying of lack of resources or brute violent force. How are we to help? Can we help? Do we take up the axe, or leave that for the people of Libya? Can the people of Libya do anything?  How must we love them in this situation?

In the film, as well as in the Bible, Jesus puts forth, what I feel, is his most important idea. The Roman guards are taking him away, and Peter draws his sword, slicing off a guard's ear. "Put down your sword, Peter!" says Jesus, "those who live by the sword, die by the sword!" With this strong pacifistic statement, overwhelming full of truth, how do we then look at Libya? Should we start another war (or pre-emptive war strike) with a country, making the spreading of our troops thinner than now, risking more American lives to only recognize that the same actions will eventually bring us down? Or are we the violent effect that will justly strike down Gaddafi for his violent deeds? 

Jesus also said to turn the other cheek, no longer to view justice as an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. With that in mind, based on his teachings, are we really in the place to make the right call? As a pacifist, I have a hard time accepting more violent action coming from this country onto the rest of the world. But at the same time I have a hard time accepting that Gaddafi is literally insane and can be allowed to kill more people because he won't accept that his time has come. Should we take an Utilitarian outlook? Is the killing of some lives acceptable so that we can stop a man from killing millions? 

I can't answer these questions, as usual there are too many variables. But one thing is for certain, we as Americans, can not call God ours. We are not chosen people. The concepts, ideas, teachings, and life of Jesus is not ours to own, because we, as a nation don't live up to those standards. But, does any nation? 

President Bush was able to gain a large amount of supporters for the Iraqi war (or pre-emptive war strike) because of (one) the fear people had after September Eleventh, and (two) because he said he was doing what God told him to do. Many Americans seem to have a sinful fixation on God, rather than a pursuit to follow Christian ethics and teachings. Many like to claim God for America. God isn't for our possession though. For the sake of progress we must admit that God is an immortal spirit, an idea, a concept, who belongs to everyone, to the world.

Do we think we're special? God is not an American. 

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

36 Arguments For The Existence Of God: A Work Of Fiction

After Cass Seltzer's book becomes a surprise best seller, he's dubbed "the atheist with a soul" and becomes a celebrity. He wins over the stunning Lucinda Mandelbaum, "the goddess of game theory," and loses himself in a spiritually expansive infatuation. A former girlfriend appears: an anthropologist who invites him to join in her quest for immortality through biochemistry. And he is haunted by reminders of the two people who ignited his passion to understand religion: his mentor and professor--a renowned literary scholar with a suspicious obsession with messianism--and an angelic six-year old mathematical genius who is heir to the leadership of a Hasidic sect. Each encounter reinforces Cass's theory that the religious impulse spills over into life at large. 

I first heard about Rebecca Goldstein (author) from my Philosophy in Literature professor who recommended us The Mind-Body Problem. On a trip to Powells I looked for said book but instead found 36 Arguments..., and could not resist the title alone. I feel like it is safe to say that, that was one of the best decisions I've made when purchasing something.

The story's protagonist, Cass, is a great narrator and is nicely surrounded by a cast of characters with their own quirks and humour. Whether it is his new girlfriend and famous scientist, Lucinda; his ex-wife, a french poet who grew up playing with the future mathematicians of the world on a jungle gym; Roz, the exuberant anthropologist and ex-girlfriend; Azarya the young math genius and future Rebbe of all New Walden; Dr. Jonas Elijah Klapper, the odd genius and mentor to Cass; or Gideon, the grad student who followed Klapper for far more years than it should to earn a doctorate. Goldstein crafts these characters and gives insights into their point of views clearly without removing the narration from Cass. I will admit that after finishing the novel I missed them all very much.

One of the greatest aspects of the book, which also proves to be it's weakness at times, is that Cass does not censor the long drawn out ramblings of his mentor, because of this we are privileged to a lot of random information about many esoteric topics from different sects of orthodox judaism, to the dangers of scientism. Though at the core it still is focusing on the social philosophical aspect about if God really does exist.

Each chapter is titled "The Argument from...", mentioning the topic at hand that the chapter will focus on. Showing that the issue of God is a more personal one and experiential one than those of us who stick to straight forward, sequential, organized arguments. Cass's book that launches him into fame is called "The Varieties of Religious Illusion", which in it carries an appendix with the 36 most common arguments for God and the reasons why each don't work (something Goldstein added as an appendix to her book). Though this has been the more popular part of the book, Cass wanted to focus on how people experience God and spirituality, further showing that the actual belief in God is not necessary to have these experiences, while at the same time not down talking to anyone who carries said experiences. Thus being dubbed, "the atheist with a soul."

Early in Goldstein's book, Cass comes across a beautiful sight of ice that has been carved naturally into three perfect arches by a river that looks like a mighty cathedral. It is from this experience that he has while walking in the middle of the night that he comes up with the 37th argument for the existence of God. Though he struggles forming and bringing it into a type of premise-conclusion form, he finally does it, only to forget it.

This is what Goldstein tries to bring about in her novel, the personal arguments for the existence of God, and why it is that way. That since religion is better explained as an experiential existence than a belief, we must look at the arguments from that perspective. Even though I think I can create a near full proof argument for why no one should waste time believing in God or following religious practices, I still respect my friends who do because I understand that they aren't believing in God because of an argument (unlike C.S. Lewis I might add). But because there is something real about God that they experience, and any argument presented to them would not necessarily be reason for them to quit, only reason for them to carry animosity towards me.

Goldstein uses the life of her character, Cass, to show the life of an atheist with a soul. To show the "faith struggles" he has, and ultimately to make a personal argument for the existence of something more than us here on earth. This is brought out through the constant inner thinking that Cass does. He finds himself throughout the novel feeling like his life has brought him to a foreign place that he can't quite understand. Grappling with the question, where does an atheist turn to for meaning, purpose, and comfort? Goldstein knows that one can't explore this question, as well as the conflict between faith and reason, by argumentation alone. This novel is her way of exploring the personal aspects of this conflict, division, and all questions that follow from it. She does so in a charming and respectful way that is both entertainingly fulfilling for both believers and nonbelievers alike.

Through all the doubts he has about his skepticism, Cass, goes back and forth in his memories to try and piece together his life while dealing with the decision to become a professor at Harvard. The story climaxes when he has a debate with a neo-con economist over the existence of God. This materialization of a debate between the two sides shows only what has been talked about the entire novel. Is God real?

To find out the conclusion that Goldstein has come to, you must read the novel yourself.