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Pink Floyd from a Land Down Under

February 28th, 2011 No comments

Last night I went with Oliver to see The Australian Pink Floyd perform here in Hannover. To document that experience, I’ll just post the e-mail I sent my fellow Floyd fanatic Corey about the show:

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They most definitely put on a top-knotch Pink Floyd show that leaves absolutely nothing to be desired. It was almost PULSE-quality in terms of music and visuals, the only difference being different band members. They had a Mr. Screen showing Floyd-esque productions (not the exact same videos as PULSE but reminiscent of them, like two kids running through a cornfield during the opening to Shine On), three fantastic backgrounds singers, smoke and lasers and all the works. The music was nice and LOUD and sounded utterly fantastic.

The only problem I had were the seats. We were in the second row of the back area, not the very front, and the people right in front of us were the biggest, tallest motherfuckers in the whole theater. And because ours was just the second row, the seats weren’t raised at all, nor were they staggered so you were sitting between them. This guy’s giant balding head was towering over me throughout the entire show, directly in view of the screen, and the only way I could see it was to lean right into Oliver and crick my neck a bit. Most of the time I just had to resign myself to only seeing the left and right side of the stage while the center was blocked by a giant head. It didn’t ruin the show but it definitely sucked a great deal of potential enjoyment out of it, with my mind frequently wandering away from the music and just thinking about how I wanted to chop this guy’s motherfucking head off because he insisted on sitting as straight and upright as possible throughout almost the whole show.

The crowd in general wasn’t too great. Most people weren’t that into it, although there was a woman sitting a few rows ahead of us who must have been drunk or high or something because she was dancing in her seat like crazy the whole time, even throwing her hands up in the air and pointing at the stage and all kinds of gestures that indicated she was on a whole trip of her own. Definitely appreciated her presence. The fucking guy in front of me didn’t seem to get into any of it except for "Learning to Fly".

So here’s the set-list:

  1. Shine on You Crazy Diamond
  2. Welcome to the Machine
  3. Coming Back to Life
  4. Arnold Layne
  5. Sorrow
  6. Learning to Fly
  7. Dogs
  8. Breathe
  9. On the Run
  10. Time
  11. Great Gig in the Sky
  12. What Do You Want From Me?
  13. Careful With That Axe, Eugene
  14. Money
  15. Another Brick in the Wall
  16. Wish You Were Here
  17. One of These Days
  18. Comfortably Numb
  19. Run Like Hell

A few songs I could have done without, but a lot of really pleasant surprises, especially "Sorrow" which was just utterly fan-fucking-fricking-fracking unbelievable to see live, especially with the exact same laser projection you see in PULSE at the very beginning and end of the song. I was also really happy to hear Dogs, although I wish I’d appreciated it more while it was happening.

The highlight for me was Great Gig in the Sky, which I really hadn’t been expecting but was overjoyed when I heard those opening chords. Luckily I had a clear enough view of the singer so I could focus on her the whole time and she was AMAZING. That was one of only two points in the show that I felt like I was on the verge of tears, the other being Comfortably Numb.

They did an incredibly kick-ass version of Careful With That Axe, Eugene which was probably the best version I’ve ever heard because of the sound quality. That and One of These Days were very pleasant surprises.

There were a few disappointments like their selections from The Division Bell. It was cool to hear Coming Back to Life but the lead vocals weren’t too wonderful so it wasn’t the same without Dave’s voice. And I could have easily done without What Do You Want From Me? and would have much rather heard High Hopes, but what can you do? Also I don’t really give a crap about Learning to Fly and would have much rather heard On the Turning Away, but again what can you do? Also I think Arnold Layne is overrated and would have liked to have heard any of the other early singles like Apples and Oranges or Point Me at the Sky or even See Emily Play, but what can you do?

But I mentioned vocals, which they divided up among the band members. They had one guy just to sing, and he wasn’t all that great, but the guitarists would sing on some numbers and the guy who sang on Sorrow and Dogs sounded almost exactly like David Gilmour so that was a really nice touch. If you closed your eyes you could really believe it was him.

For Another Brick in the Wall, they had what felt like an extremely extended jam with every instrument getting its part, so that was really enjoyable. They also had a pretty good animation on Mr. Screen which was like a computer-animated version of what you see in the film, with the teacher getting flogged by his wife and the kids all being sent down the assembly-line to be crushed into worms. They gave you glasses in the beginning and most of the second-half animations were 3-D so that was pretty cool as well, except that I had to lean so far into Oliver just to get a clear view (which even then wasn’t always perfectly clear).

I really wished it was open-air and that we didn’t have assigned seats so we could have found a better spot and been breathing somewhat fresh air the whole time. It was pretty stuffy in there which sucked a lot of the enjoyment out as well. I kept thinking about how you described seeing The Wall, and that’s how I felt about this. The music sounded incredible, but I was in this stuffy room with a thousand Germans who mostly weren’t all that into it and while I did allow myself to dance subtly in my seat I just couldn’t get as into it as I would be able to at home alone in the dark. Add to that the fact that my soul isn’t really on fire at this point in my life, I’ve got nothing of any real emotional significance to latch onto during the more emotional moments, and the whole thing was just a lot more underwhelming than I’d imagined.

But when Comfortably Numb came around I just kept my eyes closed for most of the solo and was able to get to that place where I’m everywhere I’ve ever heard the song before for a few moments, the solo nice and extended and the sound just absolutely mind-blowing. I was mostly cycling between Live 8 and the second Roger show with you. When it was over the entire crowd leapt to their feet, apparently having finally been moved. So that was nice, to know that song has that kind of power over not just me and you but that nobody who hears it live can possibly not be blown away by it.

Then everyone remained on their feet as they clapped for an encore, which was of course Run Like Hell. People remained standing for that, which was nice except that the guys in front of us kept standing as well. Run Like Hell isn’t my favorite anyway so it was more like just a little cooling-off number to accept that the show was over and I’d better enjoy what little was left while I could.

So that was the show. Definitely worthwhile, but sadly kind of a let-down in some respects, though those respects had almost nothing to do with the band or the music and everything to do with the crowd and venue situation, along with my own mind having drifted perhaps a little too far from how it was in high school back when the music really affected me. I turned to look, but it was gone. I cannot put my finger on it now. The child has grown, the dream is gone.

Categories: Personal Tags: , , ,

Politically Unmotivated

February 23rd, 2011 No comments

Lately I just haven’t been able to summon the will to write about politics. I know there’s important stuff going on but I just don’t have much to say about any of it and I’m all-too-conscious of the fact that nobody really cares about my opinion anyway.

The revolutionary movements taking hold throughout the Middle East are a great thing in my opinion, but not knowing much about each individual country there’s not much more I can say that I haven’t already said in my posts about Tunisia and Egypt.

The protests taking place now in Wisconsin over the governor’s union-busting proposal are also a very positive development (the establishment is finally being reminded that conservatives aren’t the only Americans willing to take to the streets) and could potentially be a landmark event in American history, but there’s nothing I have to say about it that isn’t already being said, and I honestly don’t know enough about the inner workings of labor unions to say anything particularly intelligent about it anyway.

As for Barack Obama, he’s doing the same “look at how centrist I am” dance that he’s been doing since he took office, and I’ve said all I have to say about it a million times over. It also seems that every time I write a post critical of Obama I lose a few readers :)

The Republicans are engaging in their typical hypocritical behavior, talking about creating jobs but focusing mostly on making it harder for women to get abortions.

And all but a select few in the media are letting both parties get away with talking about spending cuts without ever suggesting that maybe the deficit wouldn’t be such a huge problem if they didn’t just give out $800 billion worth of tax-cuts, mostly to the richest 2%. The entire Washington establishment and corporate media seem to be engaging in some kind of cooperative selective amnesia. The poor and middle class have to make sacrifices because the government just doesn’t have enough money, but nobody dares to point out that we wouldn’t have to cut so deeply if the rich were to just pay their fair share.

Last but not least, the main source of the information that led us to war in Iraq has admitted to lying, and even though the Bush administration had every reason in the world not to trust him back then they still went to war anyway and this story is getting almost no attention at all. The conventional wisdom is that “we have to look forward, not backward” especially when behind us lies one of the most egregious crimes in history—a government deliberately deceiving its own people and the rest of the world in order to start a war that would result in the loss of tens and possibly hundreds of thousands of lives, the vast majority of them innocent Iraqis. At least all those kids died for a good cause—to make our military contractors richer.

I’m hearing almost no outrage about this, but I don’t have the energy to express it to the extent it warrants. My voice won’t make a lick of difference anyway, as my past two years of blogging have made clear to me.

In the past I might have been able to fully research and write out a lengthy post about all of these topics but now I just don’t feel like it. Presumably I’m just in a temporary slump right now and I’ll get back in the swing of things after a little while, but for now I’d rather devote most of my mental energy to learning Japanese—a much more practical use of my time seeing as how I’m moving to Japan in August. [Incidentally, learning Japanese is surprisingly fun. I only began last weekend and I can already read hiragana (ひらがな) and katakana (カタカナ) at about a 1st-grade level, and I’ve got about fifty of the most useful words and phrases firmly memorized.]

So for the handful of you who actually do appreciate my political posts, I just wanted to explain my relative absence from the blogosphere at this point in time. As with this post, I still intend to write something every now and then but not with as much frequency as before.

Meanwhile, Revolution Earth remains open for business and virtually devoid of participation (for which I mostly blame my own lack of motivation). I sincerely thank everyone who has been posting there, and anyone still interested in joining that little operation is always welcome. It doesn’t cost too much to maintain, so it won’t be going anywhere anytime soon.

Until next time, sayounara (さようなら).

Congratulations, Egypt, and Thank You

February 12th, 2011 No comments

eg010

After weeks of resolute defiance, the Egyptian people have finally succeeded in forcing their corrupt leader Hosni Mubarak to step down, thus paving the way for an entirely new and hopefully more democratic government. Regardless of what happens next, this can only be seen as an overwhelmingly positive development on the world stage. I’m feeling more hopeful for humanity today than I have in a very long while, and there are a few words I’d like to direct towards the Egyptian people.

You did it. You decided that your collective lot in life was unacceptable and you banded together to do what was necessary to change it.

You didn’t wait around for your brutal dictator to die, just hoping that his son might be a slight improvement. You didn’t wait for any external force to come along and change things for you. You took matters into your own hands.

You refused to waver when your dictator unleashed his minions on you. While they rode in on their camels and slashed at you with their machetes, you held your ground. Let those who lost their lives to these last gasps of a desperate despot be remembered with honor. Take comfort in knowing that their lives were not lost in vain.

When your dictator tried to politically maneuver himself out of the corner you forced him into—first by firing those below him and then by promising not to run for re-election months from now—you refused to take the bait. You did not compromise your vision of victory by letting one despot merely pass the baton to another, and instead held fast to your demand for total surrender.

You did all of this on your own, with no need for any encouragement from the world’s other superpowers, including the United States. While Barack Obama seemed to waver on the ideals he so eloquently expressed in your capitol city two years ago, you held fast to them.

You proved to the world that democracy is not the exclusive property of one nation to bestow or withhold from others, but that it is available to anyone willing to fight for it.

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I sincerely congratulate you on your historic victory, and thank you for what you’ve done. Whatever happens next, even if life gets worse in the short-term, nothing can erase what you’ve accomplished already. Let it be a spark of hope that ripples across the world and shows all people in all countries from the West to the Far East that real change is possible.

When history looks back on this event, let’s hope that it does so with reverence. Let’s hope that your revolution will be remembered as just one among many. What began in Tunisia was given an incredible surge of momentum by what you’ve accomplished, and let’s hope that momentum does not slow down.

Let’s hope that the 21st century will one day be known as “the century of revolution”.

Incomprehensible Horror

February 9th, 2011 No comments

I can’t take it anymore. Every time I hear one of these stories it lodges itself in my brain and refuses to let go. Whenever my mind isn’t otherwise occupied it goes straight to the image of the horrific scene as though searching in vain for some kind of new perspective that will alleviate the sick feeling it gives me for reasons I don’t quite understand. What’s it to me anyway? Why does the story of a horrible thing happening to a girl on the other side of the world—a girl I’ve never met and know nothing about—affect me so much? Is there something wrong me? Am I insane, or is the culture that allows such things to happen insane?

It must be insane. How else to describe a culture that puts rape victims to torture? This is something I just don’t understand. I can’t wrap my head around it. I just can’t comprehend how any culture, any human being can tolerate this, let alone think it’s right.

Before going any further I just want to note that this is not a typical blog entry for me. I’m writing this purely out of psychological necessity, to get the thoughts and feelings I’ve been wrestling with for the past two days out of my head and into words, just as I did when writing about Aisha late last year. My only purpose in writing this is to put these feelings into words and post them online so they’re not spinning around in my mind alone. Just knowing that a handful of others might read this will serve greatly to lighten the load.

This past Sunday I stopped by the office of the language school I work for to use the internet there because it’s currently down where I live. I was scanning the headlines at the Huffington Post and one near the bottom caught my eye. It said “Bangladeshi Girl Lashed To Death After Being Raped By Cousin”.

I immediately closed the web browser and left the office, not wanting to hear any of the details, hoping that I could just shut it out of my mind and go about the rest of my day without thinking about it, but the damage was done. For reasons I’ll get to in a moment, this kind of thing disturbs me more deeply than any other thing that happens in the world. From that point on, whenever my mind was not occupied with something else it would immediately go back to that headline, wondering about that girl and the circumstances surrounding her death. What was her name? Who gave her that terrible sentence? Is there any chance whatsoever that he and the man who raped her will ever be put to justice?

Yesterday I gave up trying not to think about it and searched for the story when I was back at the office. It was a link to an article from a newspaper called The Daily Star, and unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately for me) it gave very few details about the incident itself.

The girl’s name was Hena, and she was 14 years old.  After being raped by a 40-year-old relative of hers named Mahbub there was a “fatwa” issued against her at a village arbitration. The local authorities sentenced her to 100 lashes, and she fell unconscious after 80. She was rushed to the hospital but succumbed to her injuries and she died.

Sickening.

The article focused mostly on an order issued by the High Court to the local authorities to explain why they didn’t protect her. Apparently such kinds of “extrajudicial punishment” are illegal in Bangladesh. Confused, I looked up Bangladesh on Wikipedia and was surprised to find that it’s actually a fairly secular, modernized society. This isn’t Somalia or Afghanistan—this kind of thing isn’t supposed to happen there. Yet somehow, some villages still insist on imposing the most brutal interpretation of Shariah law on women.

Hopefully these local officials and the rapist himself will be put to some kind of justice, but no matter what punishment they receive it won’t be nearly harsh enough in my mind. They should all be raped and lashed to death themselves—and even then they would still not have experienced the kind of unimaginable pain and horror that only a young girl would.

This profoundly disturbs me on two levels, and the first is just the idea of the incident itself. Imagining what must have been going through Hena’s mind as she underwent eighty consecutive lashes. Eighty. It’s a wonder and a tragedy that she remained conscious for that long. As I wrote in my Aisha post, whenever I hear about things like this I always try to find an “at least” in the situation. When terrible tragedies befall adults I can think “at least they were old enough to endure it” but there’s usually no “at least” when it comes to children. The only “at least” in this situation is the fact that Hena was not actually sentenced to death (this was supposedly an unintended consequence of the sentence) so she presumably did not have to endure the unspeakable terror of the certainty of impending death. But what else was in her mind at the time? Did she feel that what was happening to her was wrong, or was she also so imbued in the culture of fundamentalist Islam that she actually felt shame—that she deserved this?

That’s the other, deeper level this disturbs me on, and it’s one of the main reasons that stories of so-called “honor killings” upset me more than anything else in the world. I get deeply upset whenever I hear about bad things happening to young girls, probably because growing up I was the kind of boy who was far more comfortable in the company of girls. With only one exception, every best friend I ever had before college was a girl and I remain deeply fond of young girls to this day. I want them all to be safe and happy and loved, and I can’t understand anyone who doesn’t share those feelings. I can understand why others might not feel the same level of compassion towards them as I do, but it just makes no sense at all to me how some people in some cultures can feel no compassion at all.

Isn’t compassion a basic element of human nature? Unless someone suffers from the kind of mental illness that prevents them from experiencing empathy, doesn’t everyone feel a sense of pain when confronted with the pain of others? When we see a suffering child, doesn’t every mentally healthy human being suffer a little at the sight?

So unless these local officials are all sociopaths, I just don’t understand how after hearing about this poor girl getting raped by her 40-year-old cousin they would decide that the girl must be punished. Why don’t their hearts go out to her the same way that mine and those of most other people on the planet do? How twisted does one’s sense of morality have to be to punish the victim, and to order a punishment as unbelievably brutal as 100 lashes?

Seriously—if anyone can offer any insight into the mind-set of these people I’d really like to hear it. Perhaps if I understood it better I’d have an easier time coping with it.

Do they really think it’s the girl’s fault? Do they think that she deliberately tempted her cousin out of some evil desire to be raped by him? Was the 40-year-old cousin just so overwhelmed by the desire she instilled in him that he couldn’t possibly have resisted his urge? If that’s really the case, then these kinds of Muslims must think that all men are incredibly weak and helpless. What about the rest of us who somehow, some way, actually do manage to resist our desires when they are directed towards someone they shouldn’t be? Are we all super-human?

What kind of monster looks at a rape victim and decides that justice can only be served by putting that victim to torture? What kind of twisted creature looks at the rapist and says, “I’m so sorry you had to endure that. She should never have tempted you into taking an action that could taint your soul that way. Don’t worry, we’ll make her suffer until your honor is restored.”

The answer may be clear—the only kind of monster who could do such a thing is one convinced of the infallibility of his religion—but that almost feels too simple. Most religious people, including Muslims, do not think that justice is served by punishing the victim and most feel the same kind of moral outrage I do. But there’s very little doubt that no atheist would draw such a backwards ethical conclusion. Divorced from religious doctrine, an action is usually considered moral insofar as it increases happiness and decreases suffering, and an action is immoral insofar as it causes suffering. The rapist is clearly, obviously the morally condemnable party. It’s so obvious that I can hardly believe I’m spelling it out like this, but apparently there are people in the world (far too many people) who don’t think that way. They abandon all semblance of basic rationality in favor of whatever twisted moral code they were indoctrinated with by their parents or religious leaders.

And in the end, I suppose that’s what troubles me most of all. The fact that natural human compassion can be so easily overridden by religious conviction, and the fact that it is just so horribly common. Did those officials—or any other judges who pass such sentences throughout the Muslim word—feel any sympathy for the girl whatsoever, or were their minds so twisted by religious fervor that they really only looked at her as a wicked sinner deserving of punishment? Did the man who cracked the whip against her back eighty consecutive times even wince as she cried out in pain? Did the people watching feel any compassion at all, or were they so convinced of the rightness of their beliefs that it all seemed entirely appropriate to them?

This kind of thing has got to stop, but I don’t know how to stop it. It’s been going on for centuries and it’s spread throughout the world. There is no clear solution. And in the past I might have even believed that it’s not our place to fix it. After all, it’s not our culture so what right do we have to interfere?

But moral relativism is bullshit in these cases. Certain aspects of certain cultures are just plain wrong, and while we may not share a common nationality or ethnicity, we are all human beings and we have a right to try and change the way our brothers and sisters look at things when it’s clear that they’re looking at them in a severely distorted way that causes unspeakable suffering.

For the longest time I believed that it really wasn’t my place to try and do anything about this. I’m not Muslim. I’m not even female. But if I’m this strongly affected by this issue then perhaps it is my place to try and get involved.

I like to think of humanity as one great collective consciousness, a macrocosm of an individual human mind. Some individuals represent humanity’s conscience with regard to certain issues. Just as one individual might struggle with the morality of eating meat, vegetarians and vegans represent the guilt of humanity as a whole with regard to our treatment of animals. And if my mind harbors some of humanity’s conscience with regard to the problem of honor killings, whatever the psychological reason may be, then perhaps it’s appropriate for me to act on that feeling.

On the other hand, I may actually be too sensitive to this stuff. After searching online for some organizations that fight to stop honor killings I quickly realized that I could never actually join one of them. I’d constantly receive newsletters with the same kind of horrifying headline that provoked this severely negative emotional response in me this week. I can’t just file these stories away in the corner of my mind and not let them affect me. I can’t be happy when I’m constantly thinking about murdered girls. To join one of these groups would be to doom myself to a state of near-permanent depression and despair.

At the very least, I can make donations from time to time. I just gave some money to the International Campaign Against Honor Killings. If anyone who reads this feels even half as strongly about this as I do, hopefully they’ll do the same, and this blog entry will have served a much greater purpose than just making me feel better.

If I could have, I would have gladly traded places with Hena or Aisha or any of the thousands of other girls who are put to death each year for things that are no fault of their own. But from where I am now, this is the best I can do. If writing about this issue inspires anyone to donate to ICAHK or any other anti-honor killing organization and if just one girl’s life is saved as a result, I’ll be able to rest a little easier.

Twenty-Seven

February 6th, 2011 No comments

The events of my birthday this past Wednesday just barely qualify as noteworthy, and I’ve been debating all week about whether or not to document them. So for the sake of my future self who might one day wonder what he did on his twenty-seventh birthday, here’s the gist:

Shortly after 6:00, Oliver and Lena arrived at your flat and you each had a beer or two while chatting for awhile. Amanda came by shortly afterwards and you got to see her for the first time in months, which was quite nice. After an hour or so you all went across the street to the Pfannkuchen Haus where you all ordered a delicious Pfannkuchen. You ate the “China Town” Pfannkuchen which of the three you’ve ever eaten there was easily the best.

Over the course of dinner the conversation drifted from topic to topic, and naturally there was much joking around and laughing thanks to Amanda’s presence. You also made sure to mention that you recently got a tax refund back from having submitted your 2009 tax-return (about a year late) in the amount of about €2,000. Between that and the money you presumed you would get from doing your 2010 tax-return, you can now afford to go to the one European city you’ve always wanted to go to but had thus far not been able: Rome. You asked any of them if they wanted to join you, and while Oliver and Lena expressed some interest it seemed quite clear that they won’t be joining you. You also asked Lena again to help set you up with a meeting with some of her communist friends to talk to them about possibly contributing to Revolution Earth, which you’re making an attempt to promote through a “Topic of the Month” which is currently “the ideal form of government” and which you believed would be perfect to get some communist contributions. She said she definitely would do that but you remained unsure.

At one point you went to the back room for a cigarette with Amanda and joked around about Japanese women. Amanda agreed that they would probably be perfect for you, as she already knew the kind of qualities that you find attractive. It was nice to joke around about that bullshit with someone who doesn’t judge [at least not to your face].

When the meal was finished Amanda got the waitress to bring everyone a free shot of Schnapps because it was your birthday, although the waitress seemed to have brought the cheapest stuff. It was a nice gesture anyway.

After that, everyone came back up to your flat for one last beer. Amanda left when she finished hers and after at least a solid hour and a half of enjoying their company, Oliver and Lena left as well. All in all it was a really enjoyable evening and you felt very good afterwards.

Of course the next morning you woke up at 5:30 and couldn’t get back to sleep thanks to your upstairs neighbors, so you forced yourself out of bed at 7:00 and underwent an entire day of lessons which went by with much more difficulty than usual. But you made it through and before you knew it, it was the weekend.

You probably remembered all of that, didn’t you? So this was completely unnecessary…

But in any case I wanted to write a journal entry today if only to let people know that I have once again been cut off from internet access. If I do get to post this today it’ll be from the Planeo office. I don’t know what the problem is. Maybe I missed another bill. Maybe I’ve been downloading too much and the Polizei are going to come and arrest me today. Maybe it’s just a temporary interruption of service and it’ll be back in a few hours. I don’t know. It’s Sunday and there’s nothing I can do about it today.

So if anyone other than my future self at a future date is reading this, just know that I might not have regular access to the internet for awhile. This comes at a perfect time, naturally, as Revolution Earth is just starting to finally generate some activity again and I just started advertising the site on Facebook yesterday. Naturally, now is the perfect time to prevent me from tending to it.

I don’t know why but I’m in a stupid mood. Life just feels stupid right now. I know that all things considered my life is actually pretty great. I’ve got plenty of money, plans to go to Japan and even Rome before that, a small but loyal group of friends spread across the world and a family that loves me, but man I don’t know…sometimes it all just seems rather pointless. At least I’m 27 now and not 17. I’m much closer to death—and when I get there maybe someone will finally tell me what the point was.

Does Everything Happen for a Reason?

February 5th, 2011 No comments

predestination

It’s one of the oldest philosophical questions in the book, and it’s constantly staring us in the face whether we’re atheists or believers. Is everything that happens the result of a combination of blind chance and free will, or do events unfold according to some predetermined formula written in the laws of nature or in the mind of God? The answer would profoundly affect the way we live in this world, as it touches upon fundamental issues such as whether people are morally responsible for their actions and whether tragic circumstances are unavoidable or if there is a good reason for every bad thing that happens.

A recent piece on the concept karma at the Huffington Post got me thinking about this subject again, and because it’s been awhile since I’ve written a good philosophical musing I thought I’d delve more deeply into the issue. My hope is that I’ll offer some ideas to those who read this that they haven’t considered before, and that I’ll draw in some comments expressing ideas I’ve never thought about either.

As I see it, the idea of predestination can be either religious or scientific. Scientific predestination is a consequence of metaphysical materialism, or the belief that the universe consists solely of forces and particles that operate according to a rigid set of immutable laws. If this is true, then there is no such thing as a free agent because every movement of every atom in the cosmos follows a specific path along a chain of causes and effects from the beginning of time to infinity. You might think that you’re freely choosing to read these words, but in actuality you had no choice. Every neuron that is firing in your brain is a result of previous neural activity stretching all the way back to your birth. Your genetic makeup—itself a product of billions of years of evolution unfolding according to a strict set of chemical laws—combined with the experiences imprinted on your brain throughout your lifetime filled with events that could have only unfolded exactly as they did, all led you to this exact moment in which your eyes are scanning the words on the computer screen in front of you. You had no choice but to read this blog post, just as I had no choice but to write it.

Those with a religious worldview can’t escape this possibility either, whether their beliefs are more closely aligned with Eastern or Western philosophy. The Judeo-Christian religions posit a singular creator of everything, with a divine plan and the property of omniscience. If God is all-knowing it follows that God knows everything that is going to happen to every molecule in the universe from the beginning of time to the end, which brings us right back to strict determinism. The Eastern religions such as Buddhism and Hinduism often incorporate the concept of karma, the idea that the universe must always be in balance and that all events serve to maintain that balance. While there is a bit more room for free will in such a scheme (you are free to tilt the universe out of balance and can take as long as you want to tilt it back) there is still a strong element of predestination, particularly when it comes to the luck of your birth. The cards you are dealt at the beginning of your life are a result of how you’ve lived your previous lives.

This kind of soft determinism is actually what most Christians believe as well. Very few people, religious or otherwise, accept strong determinism because to do so would call so much of what we take for granted into question. We all judge other people for their actions, but such judgments become meaningless if we believe that people have no actual choice but to do the things they do. If the universe is set up in such a way that events can only occur exactly as God or the laws of nature have determined them, then the rapist can’t truly be held accountable for his crime because the rape was bound to happen—it was inevitable from the moment of the Big Bang, or from the instant the universe was created.

Unfortunately there is no logical way to disprove strict determinism. The best we can do is make arguments as to why such a scheme of things is improbable. Scientifically, we can base those arguments on the properties of nature’s most basic elements. In particle physics, the locations of things like electrons with respect to the nuclei of atoms can’t be measured with any certainty but can only be expressed in terms of probability, which opens the door for chance to play a major role in the unfolding events of the universe. Furthermore, quantum mechanics seems to indicate that particles behave differently depending on whether or not they are being observed—they exist as particles only when they are being observed and exist merely as waves of probability otherwise—which paves the way for the free will of conscious beings to serve as agents of causality. However, our knowledge of the subatomic world is still severely limited, and it is theoretically possible that with sufficient technology every movement of every particle could one day be predicted with 100% accuracy.

As for the Christian doctrine of pre-destination or the Eastern idea of karma, it is purely by intuition that we tend to accept the softer versions of these forms of determinism. If God created intelligent beings, a Christian could argue, it would be nonsensical of Him not to endow them with free will or their lives would have no value. He may know what each and every one of them is going to choose at every moment, but it is still they who make these choices (whether or not such a proposition is internally inconsistent is a question that has generated endless debate all on its own). But at least when it comes to karma, soft-determinism is practically a given. In a universe where everyone’s lot in life is a result of their decisions in previous lives, it stands to reason that those decisions were made freely. However, we still run into problems when we consider the bad things that happen to people through no fault of their own: if someone says “it was her karma to be raped” that implies that the rapist had no choice in the matter either.

I’d like to turn now from the question of whether everything happens for a reason to the question of whether we ought to believe that everything happens for a reason, and in doing so I will put scientific determinism to the side and focus only on religious interpretations. What separates science from religion is that all propositions are inherently assumed to be fallible. If we accept a strictly scientific worldview we don’t really have to wrestle with the question of free will and determinism, as we must simply accept that our current technology is insufficient to perform the kinds of experiments that answering this question would require. We could conceivably know the answer in the future, but for now the best we can do is assume we are free agents while acknowledging the possibility that we aren’t.

When it comes to religion there is not as much of a willingness to accept “we don’t know” as an answer. The whole appeal of religious systems, in my mind, is precisely to avoid the existential angst of not knowing why we’re here or how we’re supposed to live. The question of whether or not everything happens for a predetermined reason is an absolutely essential element of the question of the meaning of life. How much of what occurs is attributable to God or karma and how much of what happens is a result of our own decisions makes an incredibly significant difference with regard to the meaning of our lives. Are we responsible for almost everything we do, for nothing we do, or merely for how we deal with the situations that God or karma puts us in?

It is helpful to think in terms of concrete examples, and one of the questions to which spiritual determinism has the utmost significance is that of abortion. Most people, whether pro-choice or pro-life, see abortion as a moral evil. The most vociferous opponents of abortion’s legality are motivated by a completely understandable revulsion at the idea of innocent life being terminated without it having any say in the matter. For whatever reason, the idea of terminating a fetus in the early stages of development does not horrify me to the same degree and as such I am staunchly pro-choice, but I do feel just as powerful a revulsion at the idea of the death of children who are old enough to understand and fear death but too young to make peace with it. But whether it’s an unborn baby or a child, we have a case in which the person dying can not be said to have any responsibility in the matter. The same cannot be said for the mother who chooses to abort, or the vile creature who murders a child.

Under strong determinism, neither the mother nor the aborted child has any responsibility for the termination of that life. That life was simply not meant to be and therefore could never have been. I often wonder at the fundamentalist Christians who believe in a divine plan yet speak out so strongly against a woman’s right to choose an abortion. If God is in control of everything, isn’t He responsible for the woman’s choice? She’s not preventing a life that would have otherwise existed from existing—it would have never existed in the first place. Indeed, under strict determinism I could not even condemn a child’s murderer for committing that crime.

It is clearly best for humanity to reject the belief in strong determinism. We must be able to hold people accountable for their actions and punish those who commit wrongdoing, and we must be able to believe that doing so makes a difference. Otherwise we would all just throw up our hands and accept all of the evils of the world, whether they be horrifying crimes or merely the unjust scheme of things in the world whereby the few have so much and the masses have so little. If we accept that this is the only way it can be we must also accept that this is the way it should be, and there are some things we must be able to say should not be.

But is soft determinism any better? If we believe in karma, we may believe that the aborted baby or the murdered child actually deserve that fate due to actions committed in previous lives. If we believe in the Judeo-Christian God we may believe that these individuals were deemed unworthy of living out their lives in full. If we believe in karma we may believe that the privileged few who live lives of luxury at the expense of the poverty-stricken masses have earned this success and that the masses should accept their fate because their souls are not yet worthy of anything better. If we believe in the Judeo-Christian God we may believe that there is an unknowable but just reason for inequality in the world and that any attempts to bridge the divide between ultra-rich and ultra-poor are both unnecessary and futile.

I must admit that there is a strong appeal to the idea of spiritual determinism. If all is as it should be then we are absolved from any responsibility to change it. Nor must we feel moral horror at any terrible action. The pro-life people need not sweat the aborted babies because those babies were supposed to be aborted, and I need not lose sleep over the murdered children because those children were supposed to die. The universe unfolds exactly it must unfold and in no other way, and we are under no obligation to do anything to change it. We can slip into a state of spiritual detachment and live out our entire lives as though merely going along for a ride.

However, it’s easy to see how it would be disastrous if everyone were to think this way. If I want my government to stop dropping bombs on foreign countries and killing children, I have to be able to believe that those children do not deserve to die, that they could have lived if my country had acted otherwise. This greatly increases the feeling of tragedy regarding such events—just as it horrifies the pro-life people to think that all of those babies could have lived rich and fulfilling lives—but it also serves to push us in the direction of putting a stop to them. If we believe that things like war and poverty are not inevitable and that a future of peace and higher standards of living for everyone is possible, it makes the last few millennia more tragic to think these things could have been avoided but drives us that much harder to work towards that future in which they no longer plague us.

We may never know whether events are predetermined from the beginning of time, if we’re responsible for everything we do, or if it’s some combination of both, but in our ignorance we must choose to live our lives under one of these assumptions. I firmly believe that the assumption most likely to take our species in a better direction for all of us is to assume that everything does not happen for a predetermined reason and that we must face the responsibility for everything that happens in the future. It’s a huge responsibility—downright terrifying even—but rather than retreat into lives of spiritual detachment and acceptance of the way things are, I believe we must refuse to accept the current scheme of things and do everything within our power to change it.

 

[If you agree, please consider joining Revolution Earth. Philosophical musings like this are just one of many types of contributions you can make, or you can join the discussion on the current topic of the month: ideal government.]

Revolution Earth: Ideal Government

February 1st, 2011 No comments

Belief

What is the ideal form of government? What are some qualities that an ideal government should have? If humanity ever manages to come together and overthrow the existing purely-profit-driven global power structure to replace it with a brand new system, what should that system look like?

This is the first Topic of the Month at Revolution Earth, an effort to draw people in and get some discussion going in the hopes of starting to build an online community of people dedicated to fostering the kind of global communication necessary to bring about a better and more sustainable life on this planet for all people.

When I started this website last summer there was a decent amount of enthusiasm at the very beginning which has since dried up almost completely. Anyone visiting the site right now will be turned away by the fact that I’m the only one who has posted anything in weeks. What’s the point of posting anything there if it will only generate a response from a single person? Unless a few more people start contributing and commenting on each others’ posts, the site will remain stuck in the ditch it’s currently in. I’d hate to see this thing fail, not just because I’ve already put so much time and effort (and money) into it, but because every single person I’ve told about it has liked the idea. It’s just that nobody participates, either because the format doesn’t appeal to them, they don’t have the time, or they just don’t know what to post.

My hope is that introducing this topic of the month will remedy the last two problems. Anyone who has any interest in the topic of ideal government has the whole month to think about it and post their thoughts on this specific issue. Hopefully others will take a look and be confronted with some ideas they hadn’t considered before, and those who contribute will get comments with ideas they hadn’t considered before either.

Whether you have an entire scheme for an ideal government worked out in your mind or just a few ideas as to what the ideal government should look like, I hope you’ll share. I’ll promote each new post on the Revolution Earth Facebook page which you can share with all of your friends and hopefully generate some new interest that way. If this does succeed in bringing some activity to the site I’ll open up my wallet even further and start paying to promote the site which should draw even more people in. But for now, the best way to go about this is a personal plea to anyone who takes a moment to read this.

As for the site’s other deficiencies, those can be worked out with time. I’ve tried dozens of different WordPress themes and they all suffer from one or more major flaws, so I’ve settled on the one that is closest to what I have in mind. But if more people do take an interest we might eventually get people on board who can program a website far more conducive to the lofty goals of the site.

The internet is changing the world. We’re seeing the potential for revolutionary change right now in countries like Tunisia and Egypt. Whatever the new governments of these countries look like, it’s a given that they will fall short of perfection. Perfection will probably never be reached, but at least we can give some thought to what it might look like. These revolutions can be followed by subsequent revolutions, and hopefully as the century progresses we’ll start to see some political movements that cross international boundaries. The corporations that currently determine the course of human events have power that stretches across many countries, and there is no way to effectively counter them unless the people of various countries stand together as well. The internet is the only way this can happen. A site like Revolution Earth, I hope, is at the very least a step in that direction.

Thank you for reading this and for considering helping me in my efforts. Any comments, suggestions or feedback will be greatly appreciated.