Archive for the ‘Philosophy’ Category


Clifford’s Law

June 27, 2013
"Leucocephalus" Phil Hansten

“Leucocephalus” Phil Hansten

Some people find Clifford’s Law disturbing and counterintuitive. Its inventor, William Clifford, doesn’t care what you think. Clifford’s Law, for example, leads to the startling conclusion that the 2003 invasion of Iraq would have been a terrible decision even if we had found huge stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction, fully functional and ready for use. This sounds like nonsense, but is it?

Of course, William K. Clifford (1845-1879) weighs in on the issue from the safety of the nineteenth century, but his argument is, in my opinion, impeccable (I’ll explain in a minute). William Clifford was a gifted British mathematician who is perhaps better known today for a philosophical essay he published in 1877 entitled “The Ethics of Belief” (available on the Internet) in which he explored the conditions under which beliefs are justified, and when it is necessary to act on those beliefs.

In his essay, Clifford proposes a thought experiment in which a ship owner has a vessel that is about to embark across the ocean with a group of emigrants. The ship owner knows that—given the questionable condition of the ship—it should probably be inspected and repaired before sailing. But this would be expensive and time-consuming, so the ship owner gradually stifles his doubts, and convinces himself that the ship is seaworthy. So he orders the ship to sail, and as Clifford remarks, “…he got his insurance money when she went down in mid-ocean and told no tales.”

At this point Clifford asks the easy question of whether the ship owner acted ethically, to which only sociopaths and hedge-fund managers would answer in the affirmative. But then Clifford asks us a much thornier question: What if the ship had safely crossed the ocean, not only this time but many more times as well. Would that let the ship owner off the hook? “Not one jot” says Clifford. “When an action is once done, it is right or wrong for ever; no accidental failure of its good or evil fruits can possibly alter that.” This is “Clifford’s Law” (a term I made up, by the way).

Clifford recognized that we humans are results-oriented, and we are more interested in how something turns out than on how the decision was made. But bad decisions can turn out well, and good decisions can turn out poorly. For Clifford, the way to assess a decision is to consider the care with which the decision was made. Namely, did the decider use the best available evidence, and did he or she consider that evidence rationally and objectively? These factors are what make the decision “right or wrong forever.” What happens after that is irrelevant in determining whether or not it was an ethical decision.

So, just like the ship owner, the people in power made the decision to invade Iraq based on what they wanted to be the case rather than what the evidence actually showed. So even if by some strange combination of unlikely and unforeseen events the invasion of Iraq had turned out well—hard to imagine but not impossible—the invasion still would have been wrong. So Clifford is saying (or would say if he were still alive) that if they had found weapons of mass destruction, the invasion would have still been a bad decision, because the best evidence clearly suggested otherwise. The decision was “wrong forever” on the day it was made, no matter what the outcome.

Occasionally, one of my students complains about Clifford’s Law. Since they are studying drug interactions, it means that even though a particular drug interaction may only cause serious harm in roughly 5% of the patients who receive the combination, if they ignore that interaction in dozens of people they are just as wrong in the many people who are not affected as they are for the person who has a serious reaction. “No harm, no foul” is legally exculpatory, but does not let you off the ethical hook.

Clifford’s Law applies to almost any decision, large or small, provided that the decision affects other people. With climate change, for example, there is overwhelming evidence that we need to act decisively and promptly. If we do nothing about climate change, but through an “accidental failure of evil fruits” there are no serious consequences, we are no less wrong than we would be if our inaction resulted in a worldwide catastrophe. The outcome is irrelevant. We long ago reached the threshold for decisive action, and our failure to act is “wrong forever” no matter how it turns out in the long run. So we don’t have to wait decades to find out who is right or wrong… we know already, and it is the climate change deniers.

Some powerful people have exercised their predatory self-interest to prevented substantive action on climate change. If they continue to succeed and no catastrophe occurs—not likely but possible—the victorious bleating of the deniers will, of course, be unbearable. But given the stakes for humanity, the cacophony would be music to my ears because it would mean that we avoided disaster. A more likely outcome, unfortunately, is continued lack of action followed by worldwide tragedy. Unlike the tragedies of old, however, there will be no deus ex machina to save us… we will be on our own.


Soulnerd: The Third Spiritual Option

August 28, 2012

TDF Guest Jeremy Sherman

“Life is like getting on a boat that is about to sink.”

-D.T. Suzuki

“The idea of death, the fear of it, haunts the human animal like nothing else; it is a mainspring of human activity–designed largely to avoid the fatality of death, to overcome it by denying in some way that it is the final destiny of man.”

-Ernest Becker

We are mirror mortals, the first known species with the capacity to imagine the full arc of life and to know in definitive detail that we die.  We get on the boat; we row with great enthusiasm knowing that no matter our destiny, our real destiny is the inky deep.  We invest in our journey, conscious that we must eventually divest.

And it isn’t just the one death.  Getting on a boat that is about to sink is a fractal experience played out in the arc of minutes, hours, years, eras, epochs and millennia. Every day something dies.  You lose your glasses, your friend snubs you, you realize that the thing that thrilled you yesterday isn’t great after all.  Over the months, too, the people and joys come and go.  Then each of us dies.  Our families die.  Our civilizations fall.  Our species.  The universe itself is terminal. Everything we embrace as exciting and new comes with its time-release aging, decay, and breakdown.  When you buy a pet dog you buy a pet dog’s death.

None of this would matter if we never got on the boat.  But here we are. We care. When we fall in love, investing, it’s like a taste of heaven—joy eternal. When we break up, divesting of each other, it’s a little taste of hell—dissolution eternal. The deeper you go in the more it hurts to come out. Whether we choose to divest or divestment is thrust upon us, there it is, the inevitable, looming no matter where we go.

This view of life fits with disconcerting snugness.  Because we throw our lot in with the garden, we grieve when we’re cast out of it.  Because we accelerate into what enthuses us, our brakes squeal and our wheels shudder when we are forced to stop.  Union is sweet, disunion is sour.  Yes, no one gets out alive, but also no one gets out without great grief and loss, and here we are, knowing we’ll be evicted eventually. And what can we do about it?

I’ve had a hard time with the word “Spiritual.”  Powerful but ill-defined words make me wary.  Since I can’t find much consensus about what it means, I feel at liberty to offer my own definition.  Spirituality is one’s overall strategy for coping with the challenge of investing, knowing that one must eventually divest.  Spirituality is a kind of preparation, a pre-grieving. Defined this way, I see three main spiritual paths, each with myriad variations, but still ultimately just three:

1.     Make One Eternal Investment: Build a pillar of belief to hold onto, one thing from which one never divests for all eternity, something that can’t be credibly challenged or tested and proved wanting, something that explains why people leave and people die and why there has to be so much pain and disappointment and letting go, a belief perhaps that explains how it will all make sense by and by or will be made equitable in the world beyond, a belief that makes the world beyond—the eternal realm–one’s primary focus, aiming us toward its purpose ever after and toward the happily ever after that we expect to come from serving its purpose ever after.

2.     Let Go Into Thin slices: Since letting go is the hard part, make a practice of divesting.  Practice divesting by being present in every instant. Excise memory (of what’s lost) or projection (to what’s in store). Be here now, quieting the hungry ghosts of intellect and conception.  Become one with nature which doesn’t think, theorize, speculate or foresee, but just is.  Return to animal simplicity. In pain, simply say “ouch.” In pleasure simply say “ah.”  Don’t generalize or theorize about implications. Know the arc but live in the moment, the cross sections, one slice of life at a time.

3.     Make a study of the arc: Put one’s grief in context of the patterns structures and trends of human and natural affairs. Study that larger context with heart and head full open, feeling waves of sorrow and joy and thinking about and analyzing the waves, using your intellect and capacity for conception, giving voice to hungry ghosts, the desire to understand, and to manage, to minimize grief but also to face it squarely.  Study it through the many disciplines, culture’s long arguments, quests, debates and accounts, the peculiarly stubborn attempts to see clearly that constitute intellectual culture.  Cut a path through big time, the “long and wide now” by absorbing evolutionary biology, intellectual history, philosophy, anthropology, and above all, literature. Become worldly so that you can say of whatever life deals you, “Yes, this too life has in its vast and intricate creative capacities.”

Every once in a while people ask me if I’m spiritual or have a spiritual practice.  By their definition I think they’re asking about the first two kinds, in which case my answer is an obvious no. But I balk a little because though the third kind is in some ways an anathema to the first two, it feels like my spiritual path, so I haven’t known exactly what to say.

My deepest spiritual experience came by reading a novel about a normal couple divorcing.  It was during my first mid-life crisis (I’ve had two and am expecting one more).  My wife was in love with someone very spiritual. My marriage and my career were both falling apart. My eldest son was showing signs of severe chemical imbalance. My expectations of success as a man felt snuffed.  I was terribly uncomfortable in my skin, crying every day, an embarrassment to my wife and children, an endless font of anxiety imposed on my friends.

I had to get away and decided to spend a month in rural Guatemala where I had worked in my early 20’s.  En route I stopped off to see my brother, an English Professor living in Chicago. He asked me what I brought to read on my journey.  I showed him my books, all Buddhist tracts. “These are all so aspirational,” he said. “Why not read some fiction?” He gave me a book of short stories by John Updike spanning the arc of an ordinary marriage. It captured people just as we are. It laid us wide open in precise non-judgmental detail, including all our shocking neediness and coldness and yet free from authorial scorn.  It was  people just seen.

On a bus from Guatemala City to Livingston, a long drive that flew by I was thoroughly absorbed, feeling as one with us, but not in some platitudinously abstract “we are all one” kind of way.  Rather, intimate with the details, and generalizing intellectually with my heart wide open experiencing the full catastrophe of being one of us, fearful in our embraces, haunted by the pairing of investment and divestment. It was grace, forgiveness from the universe, but grace in the fine details set in the context of the real predicament, not in God’s sweeping and peculiar forgiveness for His making us wrong on purpose.

On my spiritual path, Updike is a master, as are so many practitioners of fiction.  Though I now work among theorists and scientists, philosophers and psychologists, I contend that no theoretical or scientific or spiritual work is anywhere near as capable of representing what this is, this life of ours, than good fiction. Literature is a yoga, a soulnerd’s intellectual-spiritual practice of contour-fitting what we know to what is so.

[Cross-posted from Jeremy Sherman’s Mind Readers Dictionary]


Choosing our illusions without care

June 14, 2012

“Svaardvaard” Bill Bornschein

It is poetic justice that the Ernest Becker Foundation’s home base, Seattle, also provides us with the leitmotif of our age, expressed in the final lyrics of Nirvana’s song Smells Like Teen Spirit: “the denial, the denial, the denial, the denial, the denial.” We are indeed a culture of denial and the EBF Fall Conference dealt with climate change denial and the reluctance of many to accept the findings of science. This denial certainly comports with what Becker says about the unwillingness to challenge the cultural systems through which people experience an ersatz immortality. There has recently been a whole spate of books dealing with this denial. I’m thinking here of Benjamin Barber’s book Consumed and Chris Hedges’ Empire of Illusion. One recent addition has really caught my eye, James Kunstler’s Too Much Magic. Author of The Long Emergency, Kunstler  is a leading analyst of peak oil and its repercussions for a society premised  on constant growth and expansion. Subtitled “Wishful Thinking About Technology And The Fate Of The Nation,” Too Much Magic examines the irrational faith that we moderns have in Technology to save the day. The appeal of such a belief is that it doesn’t require any real change on our part. “They will come up with something” has become the background mantra for a culture unwilling to face the death of a particular lifestyle, which Kunstler refers to as “happy motoring.” Fantasies of flying cars of the future, algae-based energy and the like are systematically chronicled and refuted. The political implications of our cultural reset are analyzed as well. The overall picture is not pretty. Insightfully, Kunstler also connects our denial to the generational cycles described by historians Bill Strauss and Neil Howe in their book The Fourth Turning. Our culture of denial is reflective of a “third turning” wherein systems become sclerotic and more and more effort has to be put into maintaining them. The banking bailout is a prime example of this.


The aspect of Too Much Magic that really caught my attention was the way it demonstrates our Janus-like relationship to technology and how it can be a form of death denial. On the one hand, some deny science because it is a threat to their immortality ideology. On the other hand, many of the same people have a childlike faith that technology will save us. Ken Wilber has a wonderful image for this contradiction, people happily sawing off the tree limb on which they sit. Nowhere is this seen more clearly than in Kunstler’s description of Disney World. Born in the gee-whiz era of scientific miracles following WWII,  the Disney experience simultaneously trades on our nostalgia for a simpler, bygone America of the small town. Listen to Kuntler’s description. “I was amused to discover some years ago, on a visit to Disney’s Magic Kingdom in Orlando, how much of the overarching metaphor in old Walt’s kinetic semiology of thrill rides and wish fulfillment galleries revolved around the invocation of death.”  Later he writes, “From Main Street, the Disney World visitor moves on to the many rides featuring brushes with death, haunted houses, animatronic corpses, holographic ghosts, screaming mummies, ghouls, skeletons, coffins, graveyards and all the other stock trappings of our national bent for necromancy. The place is drenched with signifiers of mortality.” Wow!  I wonder if Kunstler has read The Denial of Death. He certainly seems to be barking up the same tree. There are some dots to be connected here, namely our techno-utopianism, our cultural paralysis, and our death denial. Kunstler’s new book is an important contribution to the conversation.


Not to laugh, not to lament, not to curse, but to understand

May 17, 2012

“The Single Hound” Bruce Floyd

I read today some comments by a doctor who has spent a lot of time with dying cancer patients. He says he has noticed two methods the dying use to allay their fears of death, two delusions, if you will. One is the belief in one’s specialness, the notion that one is somehow invulnerable, beyond the stain that soils others, beyond the cold hand of death. At some point in life, though, most of us will face a crisis, a major crisis, one which leads on to say, “I never thought it would happen to me.”  Well, why not?

The second method the dying use to deny death is to put their faith in a rescuer. No matter how bad things are, we suspect some thing or some person is watching over us, that we will, ah, always find reprieve, always pulling the game out in the bottom of the ninth. I think right until the end a friend of mine, who had it all at one time, thought that once again he, because of who he was, would beat the odds. Until death glared in his eye, bearded him, the sick man could not believe a virulent and unappeasable cancer had chosen him upon whom to batten. He was a man who always won: the game, the prettiest girl, the most money. When he finally knew the truth, though, knew beyond all doubt, knew in his gut, that he had only a few weeks to live, when at long last, after a valiant battle, he understood he was going to die, he took to his bed, turned his face to the wall, and, retreating into silence, there he died.

Events in my life have taught me that he worst can, and often does, happen. And even though we joke about gaining another reprieve, we are not foolish enough to think cruel words and ugly prognosis are somehow forbidden ever to fall upon our ears. When Oedipus cries, “It has all come true,” I want to say, “Yes, it always does.” Queens have died young and fair, and dust hath closed Helen’s eyes.

I am not sure–perhaps some existential sage could tell me–but I’d hazard that knowing a few truths about life contribute to the living of it, and these truths are dark ones; for example, all those we love and we ourselves are going to die. Another truth, I’d think, is that each of us is on his own. Each of us is what each of us is, which means we have such a thing as will. A concatenation of decisions brought us to where we are today. We make choices in life. Sartre says that each of us is condemned to be free. I’d say, too–might as well go whole hog–that we have to understand that not only are we not special but that the universe has no obvious meaning and that life has, perhaps, no purpose beyond the living of it–or no purpose beyond what we attribute to it. I think Hardy meant what he said when he wrote: “If a way to the Better there be, it exacts a look at the worse.” A “look,” not a prolonged studying and brooding, a quick look, an understanding, and then the moving on with life. Perhaps when one determines that the purpose of life is incomprehensible, the whole damn thing inscrutable, that we come and we go, going probably into oblivion, yes, perhaps knowing these things is liberating to one. It could be, too, that not accepting the dark truth about human existence can lead to a stunting of life, an embrace of illusions. I have no idea which path a person should take. I wouldn’t presume to advise anyone.

I read what I have written, think that I don’t know jack squat about anything, assuring myself, of course, that nobody else does either. We all “see through a glass darkly.” I spend half my time lying to myself and the other half trying to unravel the lies. It is hard to turn one’s back on the heroics culture provides. I’d never mock the need we all have to belong, to fit into a group where we feel warm and cozy. It’s the goddamndest thing when a fellow figures out he’s been booted out the club, not so much by the other club members but by himself, when he determines that he can tolerate his loneliness easier than he can the sensibilities of the club members. It’s all a mystery to me where these different sensibilities come from. It’s a hard lesson when a man finds he no longer fits in. He’s never sure how the rupture happened. All he knows is that it happened, and it’s irremediable. He’d be a fool to brag about his situation.


Our Culture of Illusion

February 7, 2012

"Svaardvaard" Bill Bornschein

In my theology class we are studying the classic spiritual journey, a widespread archetypal pattern. The pattern is similar to the Hero’s Journey as described by mythologist Joseph Campbell and the spiritual journey explored by poet Robert Bly. In all three of these examples the focus is on the individual and a personal quest. With this blog post, I’d like to extend the insights to our broader society. First, here is a quick overview of the individual quest and then the application to the broader culture.

The individual journey begins with an Apollonian ascent, the first thirty years of life characterized by rising power, idealism, and egocentrism. From film, the “I’m king of the world” scene in Titanic comes to mind, as does the invincible, “it’s only a flesh wound” Black Knight from Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Eventually the ascent of youth is tempered by the realization of limits. At this point, the journey can go in one of three directions. The first is the attempt to maintain the ascent, reject the reality of limits, and continued reliance on heroic virtues that no longer work. This path produces the Old Fool who just doesn’t get it. The second path is the embittering journey of the individual who recognizes the existence of limits but rejects them and searches for someone to blame. This path produces the negative and cynical individual. The final option is the wisdom journey, which involves a descent, a dark night of the soul grounded in the acceptance of limits. It produces the Holy Fool. It is the Abrahamic journey into the unknown and results in what Alan Watts characterized as the wisdom of insecurity. Here we find the Socratic ideal of the person who knows he doesn’t know and can make his peace with that. This is the person who can, in the words of Becker, “fashion something—an object or ourselves—and drop it into the confusion, make an offering, so to speak, to the life force.”

Turning to our society, where do we stand?  I maintain we are very much in the crisis of limits, limits born of scarcity of resources and also a scarcity of new vision. Coming out of World War II the American Century was characterized not only by expansion, but pedal to the metal expansion. More, faster, and better became the watch words for a western culture bent on ever higher material standards. Now we are realizing the truth of Edward Abbey’s famous quote: “Growth for the sake of growth is the ideology of the cancer cell.” Our Apollonian ascent is melting our Icarian wings. Will we continue our attempt to ascend and tumble into the sea or attempt a controlled glide downward?

Surveying the political landscape does not engender much hope for the latter. Both political parties talk the talk of returning to business as usual, growing the economy and expanding infinitely. Writ large, this is the Old Fool who just doesn’t get it. The second option, the embittering journey characterized by cynicism and blaming others, is much in evidence. The polarization on almost every issue requires a demonizing of the other and, as Becker has shown, results in violence. The third option, the wisdom journey that embraces limits, is not yet part of the official discourse that you hear from public officials and their media outlets.

And yet, there are perhaps reasons for optimism and hope that we may still “get it.” There appears to be a growing movement toward localization of life processes, community gardens, and farmer’s markets for example. The general disillusionment with both political parties, all three branches of government, and Wall Street portend a potential for a new vision. New voices are emerging that give lie to the culture of illusion. Two of these voices that I’ve been following recently are journalist Chris Hedges, whose columns can be found at, and psychologist Brad Peters at Modern Psychologist

One final trait of the wisdom journey of the Holy Fool resonates with Ernest Becker’s analysis. For Becker, our crucial dilemma is that we are both godly and creaturely, blessed with an almost infinite spirit and intellect housed in a finite body. In the words of author Terry Pratchett, “Humans are the place where the falling angel meets the rising ape.” The Holy Fool, having ridden the Apollonian rocket skyward and returned to earth safely is at home with paradox, the central human condition.


Glossing the Gilding on Guilt

January 27, 2012

"Blak Lantern" Henry Richards

A conversation on the Becker LinkedIn Discussion Group centered on guilt (thanks to Liz), and I would like to offer some observations about guilt here in The Denial File.

Right off the bat there’s the problem of definition. How does guilt differ from shame, from sadness? To what extent is guilt a derivative of anxiety?

There is recent scientific evidence on the former question.  A team of European scientists have mapped guilt-specific processing in the prefrontal cortex. (Wagner, N’Diaye, Ethofer, & Vuilleumier, in Cerebral Cortex, November 2011)  The methodology involved having subjects relive, while undergoing functional MRI scanning, recent personal experiences of guilt, shame, sadness, and emotionally neutral events. The brain regions involved in each emotion were then combined across subjects and the brain regions activated by each emotion were compared to each other and to knowledge about localization of other experiences and operations, such as–of particular importance here—the mental operation of focusing on oneself, or focusing on others. The researchers found that the brain regions that were most active for guilt experiences were different from those related to shame. The shame areas were active simultaneously with self-focus areas. In contrast, the guilt-specific areas were coactive with other-focus areas, and especially areas whose activation is triggered by the coordination of goals and interactions with another person, such as in a competitive game. All the emotions investigated (sadness, guilt, and shame) rely on brain areas that are functionally impaired in psychopaths and other antisocial disorders. The bottom line for this study is that (in terms of brain functioning) guilt subsumes shame (all areas involved in shame are active during guilt) but not vice versa, and that guilt is closer to sadness than to shame. Guilt is an other-focused experience and shame is a self-focused experience. From other contrasts, the researchers concluded that guilt is evoked when a social norm is violated, whereas shame predominates when there is a violation of personal values. This suggests that guilt has evolved to maintain one’s relationship with others, and shame has evolved to maintain the values undergirding the self.  [Unfortunately all the subjects in this study were female, leaving open the possibility (based on the widely held theory that men have no conscience) that the study might not be replicated with male subjects.]

As to my first question (Is guilt a derivative of anxiety?) my knowledge extends only to psychoanalytic theory, in which guilt is a topically defined anxiety experienced by the ego in reference to the superego. Guilt is the self feeling anxious about its relationship to the internalized parent, a relationship which has been jeopardized by some action or wish. Of course, psychoanalysis presumes that most guilt is unconscious, heavily defended against, and unfounded in reality, i.e., neurotic. In seeing guilt as related to an internalized other, psychoanalytic theory comports with the neuro-scientific findings cited above. Psychoanalysis also (like the summarized study) views shame as a self-focused emotion (with an anal and urethral in libidinal cathexis). Shame is anxiety about a shortcoming in the self. It could be said that it is anxiety about the capacity and adequacy of the self. Shame says in effect “I do not want to be seen.” The desire to hide. [As a result, it often defends against exhibitionism and unacknowledged ambition].

With that all above taken into account (which is easily said but not so easily done)  guilt and shame are used somewhat differently on the offerings [atonements, sacrifices for putting the reader through all this] that will follow in my next post.

Pop Quiz: Did Adam and Eve experience guilt or shame when they violated God’s instructions? Since Adam was in charge (in their male dominated, two-person world) did the two experience the same emotion?


Becker and Hobbes

January 17, 2012

"The Single Hound" Bruce Floyd

This weekend I found myself reading a little about Thomas Hobbes, who, or so it seems to me, anticipates Becker somewhat in that Hobbes believed that the chief horror of a person’s living in nature is the person’s fear of death, especially sudden and violent death. Using the example of Prometheus having his liver eaten each day and repaired each night (imagine the anxiety), Hobbes says “to that man which looks too far before him, in the care of future time, hath his heart all the day long gnawed on by fear of death, poverty, or other calamity, and has no repose, nor pause of his anxiety, but in sleep.”

Hobbes had little use for clever but meaningless phrases. We should, I suppose, do our best to live in the Now, as contrasted with the past and the future, and those who keep saying this are no doubt right, but, sadly, living in just the Now is impossible for a self-conscious creature. It takes a better and wiser man than I to comprehend this living in the Now. The few withered leaves on the trees outside my study window are, surely, in the Now, but, ah, they remind me of what it to come. The resplendent beauty of autumn is fading now, the leaves bare, the brightly colored leaves sodden. Winter looms ahead. I can prate all I want about the wonder of the moment, but in my imagination I am always standing beside the newly-dug grave when the gravedigger heaves up the jawless skull of Yorick, and all I can say is, “That skull had a tongue in it once and could sing.” What “Now” can erase that tune from my memory?

Hobbes wanted to know what was the answer to this awful problem. Hobbes chose not to consider religion, since he finds is “not a safeguard against fear, but a parasite on it.” No, the answer Hobbes provides is secular. To avoid and to escape the consequences of his impotence, his mortality, his tenuous existence, his self-consciousness which fills him with anxiety, mankind must construct “an authority . . . whose opinions are truth, whose orders are justice.” Becker would say, of course, that Hobbes is talking about “cultural heroics.” The culture absorbs the anxiety, “takes over” the life of the citizen, enables him to live a truncated but comfortable life, one in which he knows his place. Men are, as Hobbes knew, eager to give up their freedom, to abdicate from responsibility for their own lives. They are sheep who want to be led, to be taken care of, to be protected.

What happens, though, when one of the sheep understands that the shepherd knows no more than the sheep?


To What End?

January 10, 2012

"Svaardvaard" Bill Bornschein

An aspect of Ernest Becker’s work that has always intrigued me is his treatment of anality. In The Denial of Death he characterizes it as follows: “ … it reflects the dualism of man’s condition—his self and his body. The anus and its incomprehensible repulsive product represents not only physical determinism and boundness, but the fate as well of all that is physical: decay and death.” Later he states, “To say someone is ‘anal’  means someone is trying extra-hard to protect himself against the accidents of life and danger of death, trying to use the symbols of culture as a sure means of triumph over natural mystery, trying to pass himself off as anything but an animal.”

In reflecting on the symbols of culture it occurred to me that it might be instructive to examine the symbols associated with that most important of consumer products, toilet paper. Regarding our dual nature and death anxiety, toilet paper is where the rubber meets the road, so to speak. When we do an internet image search of toilet paper, what do we find? My search uncovered a variety of symbols but they seem to cluster in a few groups. Babies are popular, as are a variety of cartoon animals, bear cubs and bunnies, butterflies and puppies. The famous big bear who does his business in the woods is conspicuously absent. Why are these images chosen? Newborns represent the opposite end of the temporal spectrum from death. They reflect life itself, specifically new life and regeneration, a transcendence of death. Denial is accomplished through counter symbolism. Psychologically it is similar to the tagline for my mother’s assisted living retirement community: A Sunrise Community. The bears and bunnies are not depicted realistically but rather as a form of unreality, colored pink or blue and sporting  a big ole smile. Denial or repression is accomplished through fantasy. What are we to make of this? I’m not sure, but perhaps a little more time roughing it in the woods would be a good thing. An unexpected and interesting result of my search was the discovery of toilet paper used  to smear political opponents, i.e. Bush, Obama, Osama bin Laden. Here, the connection between death anxiety and the annihilation of enemies is clear.

Finally, regarding the topic of anality and death denial I would like to recommend a short film that I use in my classes. It is only ten minutes long and readily available online. The title is Our Time Is Up and it tells the story of an anal psychotherapist whose imminent death changes his perspective. While the film plays fast and loose with therapeutic techniques, it nevertheless clearly shows the effects of death denial and the benefits of working through that denial. You can view it below.


The Plot of Mind Is Death, But Its Telling Is The Adornment Of Time.

December 30, 2011

"Blak Lantern" Henry Richards

What do we make of Hemingway’s observation that every story, if we take it far enough, ends in a death? I attribute this observation to Hemingway to give the idea a beginning, to start a narrative. Of course this convention of attributing ideas to named persons, is another means of fighting off death, of keeping the accounts of immortality in order, of enforcing the rule that this idea should not go in the coffers of an animal with the symbolic label “Henry Richards” but to the symbolic being, “Ernest Hemingway” who now is no longer an animal, has no bones a molderin’ in the grave. That bone pile in Ketchum Ohio belonged to the biggest game animal that Hemingway ever shot, although he authored no story about the hunt or the kill. He slew, of course, his animal self.

This essay starts by assigning a starting point to the idea the essay itself addresses, but you, dear reader, are anticipating the essay’s end, its wrapping up, at best its coda containing a codex (and it already contains a death). Hemingway is much like the idea I am treating here: the idea that all stories end in death if taken far enough. It is not a coda or codex that Hemingway “comes to”. Hemingway never arrives but carries, as in arithmetic you carry values higher than the “place” will hold,  a sum of purposes, influence, a thematic force that dips in and out of time, lifts the lid on the tenses that hold the pending additions we call life, like dry parsnips dangling from the root cellar.

In writing these sentences, I stumble over pronouns: he, his, I, my, you, your, we, those other holding places, temporary marks [Latin temporārius, from tempus, tempor-, time.] in pencil that we use to carry over the official columns of identity. Pronouns are more oblique than the usage we could adapt to hold time and identity in abeyance. We could stick to the passive voice, or refer to “one”, or in a heroic tale “the One” or referring to someone within in earshot “that one”. (One recalls the symbolic stripping McCain gave Obama during a televised debate. Suddenly it was–in McCain’s mind at least, it seems–a private conversation between McCain and millions of white listeners together considering “that one”, no longer a you or he (an addressable subject) but an object, an objection, an obstacle. The tone was a bit conspiratorial, but supported by a fine old convention carried over from slavery, Jim Crow, and the cold war of the Civil Rights era. But one believes one knows the end of that story.) Or one may leave off quotation marks altogether. Say everything fresh.

This may all seem trivial, but it all relates to the end, because with human flesh (and it is not so with any of our animal relatives), if we fall upon the blades called pronouns, we bleed. The shield of ‘you’ does not save us from the sword of ‘I’, from the pronoun’s relentless rowing through time toward death. It is only for nonliving things and non- symbolic animals (including any-man-not-thinking) that this renaming is “pro” noun, an enhancement of the nomen and favorable toward it. Or to squeeze another drop of symbolic juice, this renaming is to the symbolic animal  “pro-noun”, as venomous as Eve’s interlocutor, pushing the person back into thingship to be a named and not a namer, out of the garden of the godly pro-subject. (I exhort you, dear reader, to speak a language that is pro-subject, that dances over the shoddy illusion of self, stomp-dances, taps, on the ego, crushes those scratched contact lenses that we try to make a unitary, but are no more singular than eyes, deer, water, an air, soil, earth, destiny, death, and like these contain a million transitory worlds dissipating back into clouds of stardust.)

Dear reader, we are more than halfway through our journey. Isn’t it always that way, Dante turning on his heels, (that beatific gaze from eyes long since rotted in their sockets) before he realizes there is nowhere to go but forward, where hope must be abandoned and retrieved, no place in nature except the mocking stairwell of time to go winding through, which is for us (and no other creature) an earthly purgatory of perils, until heaven or hell gives refuge, breaks our doubleness and give us single vision? For the symbolic man, time dances like this: moves to rhythms heard or unheard of, or to symbols coherent and inaudible. Time darts like a hummingbird sucking meaning from the tenses, those linguistic petals, hanging above us like purple orchids on green or rotting boughs, whose monumental trunks (broader than the hummingbird’s perception, tasteless to wanderlust tongue craving fruit) those druid’s rockets, roots bark blasting, and pulp, sap, and mapled blood against the infinite gravity of nothingness.

The hummingbird’s story (the mini-series of time on the boob tube of nature) started there in the last paragraph. Will the end be abrupt, from a net or a storm, an owl’s last chance for a meal before cloaking from the sun? Does winter carry the humming bird along–arboreal romance suspended for this episode-until the snow heavy winds engulf the story, like the white page engulfs the sentence never written, but is never permanently absent or fully present (our hummingbird, a sentence, time)? The clouds could be clearing, the blizzard buzzing from an avalanche of wings shedding the morning dew, the seasons themselves coming out of hibernation? The year yawns, the plot thickening toward death like sap to amber, a maple wound to cloying syrup?

The author may choose to start here as well. Yes, even this close to the end. The hummingbird makes no choice, but then the hummingbird has no character, no soul, does not stand on the occasion of a proper noun, raises no memorials, except a nest with eggs as bright with potential and ever moving as your own eyeballs, each of which could be a coda, the sign so much like null and also evoking the infinite crosshairs of life and death, the sign that directs the music and the dance to the tail of the tale, the mortifying cacophony of silence. But as St. Paul says, we must redeem the time because the days are evil. So I leave Hemmingway graveless, immortal in symbolic being, and you and I in our imperishable sarcophagi of pronouns and tenses.


Libertarianism?? No thank you!!

November 18, 2011

"Normal Dan" Dan Liechty

The nice folks at the Cato Institute have a new website for us promoting their libertarian ideology ( Oy… Well, like many others, I also went through a libertarian phase back in early days of moral development, so I remain at least interested enough to view the introductory lecture that leads off this website. There, the lecturer summarizes libertarian philosophy as “Each person has the right to live his (sic!) life in any way he (sic!) chooses, so long as he (sic!) respects the equal rights of others.”

It made me smile to remember those heady days of youthful enthusiasm, then that would have been so convincing and full of wisdom to me. Now, however, I see that there are at least two major hidden assumptions in it that are clearly, demonstrably wrong, and fatal to the philosophy itself.

The first hidden assumption is that each individual has approximately the same amount of power in society, that is, the ability to executive his/her choices. If that were true, this philosophy would make sense. If that were not true, however, then this philosophy quickly reduces to the statement that those who have more power and ability to execute their choices are morally justified in doing so. Furthermore, it implies that less powerful people, pooling the power they do have (which is basically the power of numbers) so as to collectively counterbalance the power of those who wield superior power individually, are not morally justified in doing so. They are acting “tyrannically,” to employ a favorite term of libertarians.

I take it for granted that empirical investigation would lead all thinking people quickly to the conclusion that there is not anything even approaching an equal distribution of power among individuals in our society (or any other, as far as that goes, not even small voluntary associations.)

The second hidden assumption is that each individual functions within a sort of atomistic sphere of “personal space” in which his/her actions have no impact on others. Thus, the implied social contract of mutual respect offered by libertarianism is, “you stay in your bubble and I’ll stay in mine.”

This is a highly ideologically constructed view of reality, to say the least. In the social sciences, we mostly adhere to a very opposite view, a view that is usually called an “eco-systems” perspective. Even in the hermetically sealed social science, that is, economics, there is increasing dissatisfaction with this view any time one of its practitioners tries to be interdisciplinary (for example, the behavioral economists), though preference for the autistic view remains strong because it yields the kind of “clean data” economists love, whether or not that data has any relevance to actually existing conditions of life.

In the eco-systems view, there are no isolated spheres of action. Any and all actions are understood to have effects and repercussions throughout the entire system. The effects may be large or small, but this has mostly to do with what one decides to measure and the tools employed to do so (and most effects and repercussions are unknown entirely because they aren’t even on the radar screen of our attention at the moment – we only recognize them retrospectively, sometimes decades later, and wish we had acted differently back then.)

One might argue that the eco-systems perspective is also a highly ideologically constructed view, and I would agree. But I would also argue that it corresponds much more closely than the libertarian alternative to the current understanding of our environment found in the natural and life sciences, and is also much more compatible with a religious/sacred/spiritual worldview than its libertarian opposite.

Obviously, if you conceive of the world we live in as one of constant interaction with effects, repercussions and consequences reverberating through the entire ecosystem for perhaps decades to come, you quickly arrive at a very different understanding of private property rights than outlined in current libertarianism. It’s no small point to notice that, in a world of now seven billion people, it is exactly the area of property-use-promoting-personal-gain as opposed to property-use-promoting-general-welfare that quickly takes front-and-center focus in any libertarian definition of “freedom.”

I would only invite to ask which view (libertarian or eco-systems) corresponds more closely with a scientifically-honed sense of empirical reality. The answer is obvious. Libertarian philosophy is valuable, at best, only as an adolescent phase through which one passes on the way to incorporation into a more well-rounded political adulthood.