Constructio Ad Absurdum

How is a love of the absurd possible?

Is it because actuality, regardless of rationality, is a precondition for valuability?

Is it because a love of the absurd is a precondition for love of the intrinsically good?

Is it because the overall consequences of any of our actions inevitably escape our cognitive grasp?

Is it because meaning itself is the mutual conditioning of values and facts, utterly meaningless considered apart from each other?

Is it because engagement in an absurd world is at the heart of philosophies both Christian and Nietzschean in their intent?

Is it because the love of wisdom itself requires a love of the absurd?

No.

It simply is.

A love of the absurd is possible, because it’s simply the coolest thing in the world.

Without a love of the absurd, you can’t truly love anything, since love itself is absurd.

Love is unconditional, without reasons, irrational.

As ultimately is every lover and every beloved.

This is why C.S. Lewis (in The Four Loves) privileged charity, love without reason, as divine.

It’s the foundation on which all the other loves depend.

However, this isn’t a reason to love the absurd.  There is no reason to love the absurd.  It’s just given.

Love is made true not in the fulfillment of conditions, but rather in their abolition.

And this is the unity of the loves: that love without conditions does not discriminate.

To make up reasons for an absurd love of the absurd–this was the ultimate absurdity.

Comments and opinions expressed on this blog are my personal view only and do not reflect the official stance of FEMA or Americorps.

 

Affirmation of Analysis

In the past few blog posts, I’ve dealt with the fact that different ideas can each be seen as fulfillments of each other’s own internal contradictions–in particular, the ideas of Judaism, Christianity, and Nietzschean egoism (which have all significantly contributed to my own view of the world).  In one sense, Christianity as a historical movement grew out of Jewish culture, only to be itself surpassed by a postmodern individualism with Nietzschean affirmation of selfishness scattered throughout.  However, the mere positions in time or space of these ideologies are not enough to determine whether one is more coherent or more true than the others.  Although they appeared in determinate temporal order, considered apart from that history it can still be shown (in reverse order of their historical appearances) how Christian love is a fulfillment of amor fati, and is itself fulfilled in a Jewish tradition of reparative action in the world.  Considered historically/geographically, one leads to another; considered intellectually in their own terms, each leads to the other.  Such is the difference between physical and conceptual space.

These belief systems, like any symbolic entities, can be studied in either of two perspectives: sensible or intelligible.  That language is the conjunction of sensible and intelligible, I believe should be uncontroversial.  One might argue that the sensible can be reduced to the intelligible, or vice versa, but that’s irrelevant here; it seems inherent to the idea of language itself that it is (somehow) the pairing of sensible entities–visual patterns, audio patterns, hand patterns, and the like–with intelligible meanings: “thinkables” which may be considered true or false.  Given a symbol, one can consider its sensible aspect–the sounds coming out of a person’s mouth when they say “The roof is on fire”–or the intelligible aspect, i.e., the idea that the roof is on fire.

Sensible context will determine the intelligible meaning of a symbol (e.g., whether “the roof is on fire” is a vital warning or a celebration of a bumpin’ party).  In fact, historical and geographical (i.e., sensible) circumstances seem to be the only source of customary (common sense) definitions, by way of which a statement can mean anything at all.  Sensible conditions (local customs of word usage, constitutive of a language itself) determine common sense, which must be taken as belief before any knowledge of intelligible logical relations between ideas can become possible (nothing is logically proven from nothing).  However, this dependence does not mean there is no distinction between the sensible and intelligible aspects of language.  Denying the distinction is equivalent to denying that language obtains at all; thus, in discussing language here I will take it as a given.

Common sense definitions are determined by historical and geographical circumstance, yet they are necessary for logical derivations.  Truth in language, then, must have two aspects: a spatial-temporally determined component of “common sense” beliefs, and a component of philosophical knowledge logically derived from those beliefs.  Common sense beliefs, then, are the foundation of philosophical knowledge; the philosopher locates the contradictions in common sense, simultaneously anticipating and creating its evolution in resolving them.  This practice can be engaged in differing ways by two major philosophical traditions.

In one of these traditions, philosophies are studied in a “sensible” perspective, as the evolution of beliefs and the transformation of “common sense” as a physical phenomenon throughout all of known history and geography.  The philosopher can then anticipate/create the next moment of common sense through synthesis of new concepts (as Deleuze might suggest), new definitions, new beliefs with inevitably political and/or religious significance.  Alternatively, the other type of philosopher takes a more thematic approach, watching the clarification of highly localized common sense unfold in conceptual space, indifferent to the arrow of time.  Conclusions can then be integrated into common sense as scientific clarification of what is already contained within it.  This “analytic” philosopher finds wisdom in its intelligible aspect, as knowledge logically derived from common sense beliefs; the “synthetic” philosopher deals with wisdom in its sensible aspect, as the geographically and historically posited beliefs from which knowledge might be derived with logical precision.  If philosophies were objects moving through conceptual space, one might say that the analytic philosopher measures their positions relative to each other–whether they are contained in each other or contradict each other in various ways.  The synthetic philosopher, on the other hand, measures their velocity, i.e., the change in those logical relations as symbols and their meanings evolve (as common sense) through space and time.

Position and velocity are something that I had to measure often in my freshman physics classes at Gordon College, which I attended before transferring to UMASS Amherst.  We did this often with the “photogate“, a simple measuring device which, when plugged into a computer, could record the times at which an object passed between its two photosentitive arms.  An experiment would often entail the measurement of a projectile’s movement through two photogates and the calculation thereafter of the projectile’s average velocity or position as it passed between the two gates.  However, the accuracy of a position measurement increased the closer the gates were to a single point in the projectile’s journey; the margin of error in a position measurement shrank with the space between measurements of the moving object, because it had less room to vary in position between the two data points produced.  On the other hand, in measuring average velocity, the accuracy increased the farther apart the photogates were; more distance would make for more accuracy in such an ‘overall’ statistic.  The ideal measurement of an object’s average velocity would take measurements with the greatest distance between each other, providing the least accuracy as to the projectile’s position.  The ideal measurement of a projectile’s position, however, would be taken instantaneously, at a single time and place, but say nothing about where the object was before the measurement or will be after it.  One could know the position of an object with high precision, or the velocity of an object with high precision, or both with low precision.  It can not be had both ways.

The parallel here with philosophy is that the two approaches to philosophy–the synthetic approach of it as a sensible phenomenon and the analytic dissection of it as an intelligible collection of thoughts–are each incomplete without, yet irreconcilable with the other.  One can measure the varying sway of philosophies relative to each other in time and physical space, or one can measure their (in)compatibility with each other in conceptual space, but one cannot measure both and still preserve the quality of both approaches.  The very nature of logical analysis demands that some uncontroversial material is given to analyze in the first place; this frame of reference must be fixed in order for truths derived from it to have any meaning.  History loses its honesty when relative physical power (or sway) of ideas is presented as proof of their validity; logical argument loses its honesty when it pretends that its “uncontroversial” assumptions are uncontroversial in all places and times.  Thus, from the analytic frame of reference, synthetic philosophy is absurd; there is nothing in it reminiscent of the knowledge that analytic philosophers seek.  Likewise, from the synthetic point of view, analytic philosophy is itself doomed to absurdity, for its fixation on “common sense” assumptions which are themselves products of historical and geographical environment.  One can and must travel back and forth between these two realms, but it seems impossible to reconcile them both in one overarching approach.  In this way, the duality of traditions in philosophy is not something to be overcome, but rather affirmed.

Comments and opinions expressed on this blog are my personal view only and do not reflect the official stance of FEMA or Americorps.

God’s Not Death

Like its predecessor parables of professorial pugilism (shared via many an electronic chain letter), God’s Not Dead has spread like wildfire within the evangelical Christian community, with its now-common narrative of the conservative Christian’s triumph over an antitheistic Philosophy professor.  Indeed, the success met by God’s Not Dead is enough to show that, were Nietzsche to utter his famous phrase (“God is Dead”) today, he would be mistaken–after all, he did not mean that ‘God never existed’ (as antagonist Professor Radisson suggests), but rather that the concept of “God” is simply insignificant for the modern individual (which apparently is not the case, at least for many moviegoers).  So, while the story in God’s Not Dead portrays an attempted refutation of Radisson’s Nietzsche, who was concerned with God’s existence or non-existence in reality, its box office success brings doubts to the actual Nietzsche’s contention that God is no longer a significant object of interest for the modern thinker.  However, Nietzsche’s writings do not merely express facts about modern attitudes toward the divine; they express an evaluation that God ought to be dead, that is, a negative evaluation of religion in general and Christianity in particular, regardless of factual accuracy (or lack thereof!).  Josh Wheaton, the protagonist of God’s Not Dead, seems to focus his apologetic argumentation entirely on whether we should believe that God exists as a matter of fact; the most interesting aspect of this film, however, is the way in which it shows that the Christian God is worth believing in, as a guide to moral practice.

Nietzsche, for example, saw Christians as simply believing what is popular among ‘the herd’, rather than seeking out truth for themselves.  The character of Josh Wheaton, on the other hand, reminds the audience that authentic Christianity can and should enable the freedom of thought required for philosophical inquiry.  Josh’s friends and family want him to simply comply with Professor Radisson’s petty commands by publicly renouncing his belief in God; it is in spite of the people around him, rather than because of their social pressure, that Josh stands up for his beliefs.  Josh Wheaton does not back down, displaying the righteous indifference to worldly power so crucial to a full appreciation of Jesus of Nazareth.  Nominal Christianity can be comfortable, but we must never forget the status of the Cross as a transformed symbol of state torture.

But isn’t the Cross an example of Christianity as denial of life?  This was another critique from atheistic existentialists like Nietzsche: Christianity appears to be entirely focused on the other-worldly, resulting in ignorance and under-appreciation of the here and now.  This idea is also flipped on its head in the character of Josh Wheaton: when warned about Radisson’s hostility towards Christians, Mr. Wheaton does not try to flee Philosophy 150, but takes it and Radisson’s challenge head-on, in front of his classmates and in Radisson’s own area of expertise.  Rather than seek an escape from reality, Josh affirms it as the only context in which he can act meaningfully, even given the opportunity to withdraw into the safety of his comfort zone.

In the movie, Josh presents faith as a fork: “Believe, or don’t believe”.  However, I think that the more important choice is, as a popular Christian saying suggests, to “live in the world, but not of it”.  In the story, Josh’s true opposite is not Professor Radisson, but rather Mark, the ruthlessly greedy brother of Radisson’s significant other.  Whereas Josh engages himself with the world in defense of the truth as he sees it, Mark detaches himself from the experience of those he ‘loves’ as soon as that truth becomes inconvenient in his insatiable hunger for power and status.  It is Mark who tries to please the herd, and Mark who is ultimately denying life and reality in wilful ignorance of the suffering he causes.  In other words, the character of Mark lives of the world, but not in it–the reversal and alternative to Josh’s way of life.

There is a whole dimension of God’s Not Dead which suggests that it might better be called God’s Not Death; the Christian way of life is not the death of the individual in an obsession with the yet-to-come (life of the world, but not in it), but rather an engagement in reality with characteristic indifference to worldly power (life in the world, but not of it).  Unsurprisingly, the movie itself neglects the real diversity of Atheists, Muslims, progressives, and even vegetarians in its flat and stereotyped characters, and this denial appears to be little more than a cheap attempt at gaining popularity among a specific audience.  Regardless, given the character of Josh Wheaton, the popularity of God’s Not Dead may actually signal a surge of Christian curiosity and courage.

Comments and opinions expressed on this blog are my personal view only and do not reflect the official stance of FEMA or Americorps.

Welcome to Reality

So far, this blog has explored why it makes sense to love the ideal (ethical roots such as a dedication to the pursuit of well-being for all) as well as the real (that which is given, the only state of affairs which one can truly value, since all others are mere nothings behind a fanciful mirage in the imagination).  But how can one value the world as it is if one’s ideals lead to love of it merely as it could be?  How can one value both the real and the ideal, if each is different from the other?

The second three-month round of my AmeriCorps experience has reached its end; stationed in Denton, Texas, we have had little work to do in terms of direct service to survivors.  Indeed, I imagined my ten-month stint to constitute a flurry of labor in disaster areas, moving supplies back and forth between FEMA stores and disaster survivors attempting to piece their lives back together.  On the contrary, the past three months have been spent in a government office building in Denton, Texas, with minimal meaningful labor or interaction with disaster survivors and affected communities.  FEMA Corps as an ideal has been revealed as incongruous with FEMA Corps as something real.  My concept of what is good, previously thought to be in tune with the world as it is, has been broken by this revelation into mutually contradictory fragments.  How can I make sense of the world with such conflict between my reality and my ideal, and thus between my notions of what is good?

One response to a rift between real and ideal is the decision to ‘stick to principles’, regardless of one’s situation.  What meaning is there, though, in an altogether futile life dedicated to denying the necessary and demanding the impossible?  Another response would be to live ‘according to nature’, neglecting attempts at growth out of a current situation in order to affirm the status quo.  But what meaning is there in a life with no  further goal, no direction, no end?  Both of these approaches, taken on their own, are missing something: in order to be meaningful, one’s ultimate concept of what is valuable must take the real and the ideal both into account, despite their tendency to conflict.

This reconciliation is possible because the real and the ideal conflict, not only with each other, but also with themselves.  As is evident from the nature of the moral seascape, good intentions can lead to bad consequences, and vice versa, no matter how well thought-out those intentions may be.  Likewise, an undesirable state of affairs may lead to a more desirable one; indeed, if nothing else, it must lead to a different one, one among multiple possibilities which might be pursued by any given moral agent(s).  Additionally, one may adjust one’s ideals in light of new information regarding the world as it really is, without giving up on those ideals entirely; in order to be saved from futile aimlessness, they must line up with a possible trajectory of the world’s unfolding, which is itself enabled partially by one’s own actions.  Ideals seem meaningless to the extent of their impracticability in reality, whereas reality only seems meaningful insofar as it enables one to act on ideals; they must be brought together, in constant mutual conditioning, in order to produce a dynamic concept of the Good, and thus a foundation for rationality itself, that makes any sense.

But if the real is made meaningful by its status as the means to an ideal end, are not then real people reduced to mere means as well?  No, because to treat other people as mere means to an end is to deny the reality of their personhood in the first place.  Any ideal which does not take into account the reality of other minds is as worthless and incoherent as an ideal which fails to take into account the laws of physics or logic.  The treatment of people as objects is the mark of irrational idealism–the desire to bring about an ideal in ignorance of the real conditions from which it must unfold as a starting point.  As a popular Christian saying advises, we ought to “Live in the world, not of it”; our ideals, according to which we act in the world, must not be predicated on wilfully ignoring the suffering of anyone (that is, living of the world but not in it).  Anything that ignores the reality of other minds is a flight from reality and ultimately a denial of life.

Thus, we can come back to the Nietzschean language of affirmation and denial of life.  Nietzsche’s philosophy may be seen as the result of Christianity’s highest values de-valuing themselves (to refer to his explanation of nihilism in Will to Power), but it appears that the Christian ethical ideal of love for one’s neighbor is, in fact, the self-negating fulfillment of Nietzsche’s unconditional affirmation of both irrational fate and immoral ego (that is, the dual affirmation I refer to as a love of the absurd).  But Christian love as an ideal is only made meaningful by action in the real world; in this way, Christianity is fulfilled in Judaism, with its relative focus on living the Law and traditional injunction to “repair the world“.

I truly would like to act on my Judeo-Christian ideals in repairing the world, but it seems FEMA Corps is the best way for me to do this, given my current situation.  Thus, in an attempt to follow right reason, I adjust my ideals, detaching myself from previous expectations in order to fully engage once again in the world as it really is.  In doing so, my work becomes meaningful once again.

Comments and opinions expressed on this blog are my personal view only and do not reflect the official stance of FEMA or AmeriCorps.

The Moral Seascape

In his 2010 book The Moral Landscape, Sam Harris explains why he believes, as the book’s subtitle suggests, that “science can determine human values”, “science” here referring to rational inquiry in general.  In much the same way that science has narrowed down our theoretical models of how the world works (bringing it from an indeterminate multitude of mythical animisms to a more determinate handful of formulae applicable in their respective fields), Harris believes that it can determine, or narrow down the possibilities, of how we ought to act.  He begins by positing consequent “well-being of conscious creatures” as the proper goal of any moral action; like any concept, that of “well-being” will admit of ambiguity, but a pursuit of it may yet succeed in differentiating between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ practices independent of any appeal to the cultural norms associated with the practice’s historical or geographical surroundings.  Since “well-being” and its antithesis, suffering, are ultimately mental states, and mental states are ultimately physical brain states, Harris hopes that the goal of well-being might be pursued through a (more or less) unified “science of morality” in the same way that the goal of health (ultimately, a physical state) has been pursued through a (more or less) unified science of medicine.

In the same way that the concept of health functions as a fixed standard by which one might evaluate the quality of medicinal practices throughout history and geography, a concept of “well-being”, on Harris’ view, functions as a fixed standard by which one might evaluate the quality of moral practices throughout history and geography; for my own purposes here, this will be accepted (despite any risk of naturalistic fallacy) as the determination of an objective relation between fact and value.  One might illustrate this relation on a mountainous three-dimensional graph, with each point on the horizontal xy-plane representing a possible moral practice, and the vertical z-axis representing a continuum ranging from maximal consequent well-being (a peak on the graph) to maximal consequent suffering (a valley); this is what Harris seems to be referring to as the “Moral Landscape”.  The value of a practice is directly proportional to its consequent increase in the well-being of conscious creatures in general; scientifically tested theories are our best means of predicting consequences given certain occurrences, so it would seem that they are also what we should use to determine the consequent increase in well-being, and thus the value, of moral and medicinal practices alike.

However, Harris’ vision of a moral landscape, wherein every practice has a determinate corresponding degree of consequent well-being, is ruined by the general nature of morally relevant consequences, as opposed to the specific nature of consequences in a strictly medical context.  My point hinges on the fact that the totality of existing brain states, and thus the totality of mental states, and thus the net consequential well-being caused by some practice or another, vary with respect to time.  In medicine, the set of relevant consequences of a practice are as finite as the lifespan of the patient; in Harris’s conception of morality, relevant consequences are not limited by the interests of any one creature, group, or timespan in particular.  Regardless of their chosen standard of evaluation, nobody can predict the ‘overall effects’ of a moral practice, not only because it is impossible in practice, but because it is impossible in principle; a practice may have an aggregate effect of E between its moment of occurrence m and some later time t, but its ‘overall effects’ in their totality will always extend past this, into t+1 and beyond, including additional fluctuations left unaccounted for in the aggregate effect on general well-being between m and t.  Thus, E will never truly be the ‘overall effects’ of the moral action or practice in question.  Time as a dimension seems necessary to make any sense of cause and effect whatsoever, but its infinite nature makes the question of ‘overall effects’ nonsensical–a question without a determinable answer.

In his book, Harris mentions Daniel Dennett’s problem of the “Three Mile Island Effect” as an example of moral paradox:  “At first glance, [the Three Mile Island nuclear incident] surely seems bad, but it might have also put us on a path toward greater nuclear safety, thereby saving many lives”.  In other words, the Three Mile Island incident may have had a negative aggregate effect (a valley on the moral landscape, due to immediate radioactive pollution) between its moment of occurrence m and one week later at time t, but also have had a positive aggregate effect (a peak on the moral landscape, due to added safety measures preventing an even worse accident) between times t and t+20 (20 years after the incident), for example.  These two aggregates can be combined into a single determinate aggregate of consequent well-being between m and t+20, but this will still not be the incident’s ‘overall effects’, as those will inevitably stretch further than t+20 and into the infinity of space and time.  It then becomes clear that a moral practice or action does not have only a single amount of consequent well-being as its ‘overall result’, but rather that the aggregate consequent well-being caused by a given practice may vary, in direction and intensity, with time; the “moral landscape” becomes a wave pool, making it impossible to pin down a definite height (i.e., the overall value or totality of consequent well-being) of any point on its surface (i.e., any given moral practice), even in principle.

In response to a multitude of moral paradoxes, including Dennett’s Three Mile Island problem, Sam Harris maintains that “such puzzles merely suggest that certain moral questions could be difficult or impossible to answer in practice; they do not suggest that morality depends upon something other than the consequences of our actions and intentions.”  However, the indeterminacy of “the consequences of our actions and intentions” in general suggests that, if morality is to make sense at all, it must be different from the way Harris imagines it.

Choose Your Roots

People often seek a sense of purpose by participating in institutions more spatially or temporally extensive (i.e., ‘bigger’) than themselves; they feel that their lives can gain meaning or value from playing a part in religious revivals, political movements, scientific progress, and the like.  Some might even find greater meaning in serving with AmeriCorps, it being a program with a history and a large number of (past & present) participants unified under common principles of service.  At the end of training (thus, at the beginning of Round 1) for FEMA Corps, an event was held at my campus wherein the various teams were congratulated for finishing training and wished well on the upcoming projects; one of the ideas shared at this event was that we Corps Members are now part of something ‘bigger’, something with twenty years of history bestowing honor upon all who wear the AmeriCorps logo.  Our lives seemed to be imbued with value by the institution in which we were taking part, until a blasphemous thought entered my mind: what if my class was not deriving value from the program, but rather the program as an institution was more so gaining value from the participation of myself and my class of Corps Members?

Of course, if the institution and its members are viewed as a single entity, one can simply affirm the value of that composite whole and not worry about the primacy of one over the other; the question only arises when one component is said to give the other some value, some meaning, some purpose, some reason.  This is due to the paradoxical way in which, as Kierkegaard puts it, “to defend something is always to discredit it”; to justify something’s actuality (that is, to defend it as honorable or valuable) by appealing to an institution or external purpose is to deny the sufficiency of its own properties for justification in the first place.  Rather than a mere perk or bonus, a real reason for something’s actuality is a precondition of its justification; either this reason is external to it, and the thing is not valuable in itself, or the thing functions as its own justification, which is really to say that it needs no justification.  That which is intrinsically valuable (that is, valuable in itself, regardless of its relations to other things) needs, and thus has, no “reason”; its value is ultimately irrational.

This does not entail that the principle of sufficient reason (basically, the idea that there will always be an answer to the question “why”) has no place in the philosophy of value; not all of ethics is ultimately irrational, but only the roots of intrinsic value (the subject matter of “normative ethics”), from which the value of concrete actions “in context” (the subject matter of “applied ethics”) is derived.  Actions can be justified by reference to that which is good in itself, but that which is good in itself is not justified by reference to anything.  Moral progress is also possible, insofar as we can bring our actions more in line with root foundational principles given the state of the world as it is; what in one state of affairs may be justified by reference to an intrinsic good may not be so justified in another.  Nevertheless, in order for reasons to justify things as valuable, they must ultimately refer back to a standard of value which must be chosen as such, rather than logically derived itself.

If the principle of sufficient reason is never applied to itself–if we ask, “why?” and demand reasons for every action, without asking when we ought to ask “why” in the first place–then every possible standard of value is assumed to be merely extrinsically valuable (that is, valuable only because of its relation to something else); in the same way that the principle of sufficient reason (in the sense of a scientific quest for answers) is necessary for discovering a root order of nature, the principle’s suspension is necessary for affirming root standards of value.  Somebody thinks that their life derives value from participation in national service; from what then does national service derive its worth?  Why is their life not valuable enough in itself?  One can only properly value that which is good in itself by choosing it without reason, and by affirming that very act of irrational choice over and over again.  It appears that a sustainable love of the intrinsically good requires, as a precondition, a love of the absurd.

Comments and opinions expressed on this blog are my personal view only and do not reflect the official stance of FEMA or Americorps.

Embrace the Suck

My last few weeks have been spent in the town of Vinton, Iowa, where training experience in NCCC North Central Region has shown us how Americorps NCCC FEMA Corps functions, as well as how we team members relate to each other.  I have also noticed that in a program such as this, schedules are subject to change–an administrative adaptation apparently necessary to constitute a sufficient response to the problems caused by natural disasters which most certainly will not bow to the schedule of any human government.  In order to address unpredictable disasters in the desired manner, the organization must be unpredictable itself.

At first glance, it may seem difficult to evaluate the unpredictability of nature; unpredictability may be a good or a bad thing, even a source at once of evil and of perfection.  One night out here in IA, for example, I decided to go out for a walk.  What I expected to be a mere breathe of fresh air revealed a heat-lightning storm to me unlike anything I have ever seen before.  No rain was present, but an entire face of the heavens was illuminated almost continuously by a flurry of lightning bolts, dancing across what must have been miles of skyscape.  After bringing some of my teammates out to share this phenomenon, we sat out watching the lightning for a good twenty minutes before a few drops of rain indicated that it was time to head back inside.  I could never have dreamed of seeing such a show actually light up the sky in that way, but the world releases such pleasant surprises without warning.

On the other hand, there are unexpected surprises which are less than pleasant, as well.  Obviously, disasters are such an example, but my experience in this department lately has been of the less significant problem of unexpected responsibilities and schedule changes.  I got Monday off on Labor Day, for example, but Saturday we had to work, and various instances of paperwork have taken chunks out of Sunday (our day off before starting on a regular schedule again on Monday).  In light of this, we have been learning to “embrace the suck”, as they say in the military.  But how is this absurd act of “embracing the suck”, embracing the un-embraceable, possible?  I find assistance in a realization stemming from a certain argument in the philosophy of religion.

This is the traditional “Ontological Argument” for the existence of God, popularized by Anselm of Canterbury.  The argument is an attempt at an a priori proof of the existence of God through a reductio ad absurdum against “The Fool”, who “says in his heart, ‘There is no God'” (Psalm 14:1 NIV); Anselm tries to show that the Fool’s premises are incompatible and thus reducible to the absurdity of contradiction.  In Gareth B. Matthews’s and Lynne R. Baker’s paper “The Ontological Argument Simplified”, the Fool’s stance is presented in terms of “mediated” and “unmediated” causal powers; Anselm believes that God has “unmediated” causal powers and thus is “actual”, whereas the Fool believes that God has merely “mediated” causal powers (since, according to the Fool, God is merely possible, and only causally potent insofar as actual agents believe in God’s existence and act on those beliefs).  According to Anselm, the Fool’s beliefs are incompatible with the definition of God as “that than which none greater can be conceived”, for the Fool must think that than which none greater can be conceived to have merely mediated causal powers, as a figment of the imagination; since this being could be conceived as actual (i.e., with unmediated causal powers), and since being actual makes something greater than being merely possible, the ‘actual’ being referred to by the theist is greater than the merely possible one referred to by the Fool, and thus the Fool is mistaken when he talks of something nonexistent (that is, merely possible rather than actual) as the greatest conceivable being.  In other words, that than which none greater can be conceived must be actual by definition.

How does this relate to “embracing the suck”?  While the ontological argument is usually employed as an argument for the actuality of a certain pre-conceived “great” state of affairs (i.e., the existence of God), I find it to fit better as an argument for the greatness of whatever state of affairs–rationally governed or otherwise–happens to be actual; why not determine valuability in terms of actuality, rather than actuality in terms of our conceptions of valuability?  Going further than Anselm’s idea that actuality is a condition for maximal valuability (or ‘maximal conceivable greatness’), I contend that actuality is a condition for valuability in general; in order for something to be valuable at all, it must be actual.  Thus, the real Fool is the one who thinks that the merely possible–regardless of its appeal to our evaluative intuitions–is greater than the actual, despite its apparent absurdity.  The only alternative to “embracing the suck” of actuality is embracing the phantasmatic dreams of non-existence; I’ll take the former any day.

Comments and opinions expressed on this blog are my personal view only and do not reflect the official stance of FEMA or AmeriCorps.