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.

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.