Wayne’s Wager

Pascal’s wager famously states that one might as well believe in God because if he exists the possible reward is far greater than the minor inconvenience of belief. That might come as a surprise to all the faithful who have adapted odd moral codes and dietary habits to please their particular deity, or to the martyrs who have died in defense of their ideals. Yet this wager remains very much alive in social discussions.

My wager is a little different. In contrast to Descartes “I think therefore I am,” and all the current floundering about “is anything really real,” I propose a new formulation: “Everything is exactly what it seems to be.”

You might as well believe that reality is as our senses and science indicate, and that other people are just like us, because doing so costs you nothing and will help you in daily life. And it will not harm you at all if everything outside your own mind is truly an illusion. 

This is not easy. Much more comfortable to believe I am special, that there are hidden levers controlling external things. There are – just as you sense them. Making “sense is the core of reality” an absolute guide to life is a difficult concept. It implies that mind hardly counts as powerful in the “real” world. And that is frightening.

But, again, it is simply a bet. If all is illusion then no big deal to treat it as reality. But if all is really real, treating it as illusion will get you in big trouble.

Age Dependent

A 7-year-old knows as much about what makes him or her happy as a 47-year-old. Sometimes more. But few of the guidelines are the same. We change as we age, as we should. At 77 I am different than I was at 17. Not better or worse, necessarily, but different.

Aged people are usually the avatars of philosophy – white beards and all (men are the dominant avatar.) All old people are happy to tell younger folks about their wisdom – often at odds with that of other elders who ignore each other’s advice.

Unlike science, philosophy seems conditional: “don’t kill anyone _ unless she is in another unholy tribe.” Anyone who seeks fixed, firm, and absolute guidelines to life and rules of conduct is doomed to failure. What is ethical, unfortunately, is like figuring out what is hot _ it depends.

And one of the situational conditions we cannot ignore is age. The right action for a young person is not the same as that for an old geezer. Ambitious at 25 is a good thing, Ambitious at 75 is pitiful. 

Too many of our moral codes ignore that fact. They continue to treat each human as an identical commodity. With that attitude, nothing can go right in determining what is right.

Goldenrod

My writing trails by months to age a little, photos less so _ mid October here

September tomorrow. I’ve just returned from wandering fields at The Nature Conservancy Preserve in Cold Spring harbor. Goldenrod bursting into bloom, accented by purple thistle. Butterflies and dragonflies and cicadas _ all less than in olden days because of a dry summer and cumulative calamities. A flock of goldfinches flitting southward.

Grounded. That’s when philosophy begins. Where is our firm ground that lets us evaluate decisions and act? Surely it is in nature, from which we came but of which we also remain a part. Nature is a far surer and more useful guide than poets or thinkers or demagogues. And it always brings us to our senses, where true sense resides.

At all times when I worked, even in urban Industrial areas, I would leave my computer screen at lunch. Walked for a while under open skies. Admired weeds if nothing else was available. Came back a better person and certainly more productive.

Our progenitors could see flowers before they could walk, walked before they had nimble hands, had hands before a big brain, and a big brain before they had a conscious mind. Surely it is appropriate to often recapitulate that journey in daily life.

Goldenrod is probably more of a survivor than most butterflies, possibly it will remain when humans are gone. But while we are here together it is a part of nature which should always evoke a sense of wonder. And we should seek such reminders. .

Simple

Late October quiet

The simple answer is “keep it simple.” The shortest true philosophy is “don’t worry, be happy.” After all, we get up every morning, eat, go about our business, experience joy, fear, hope, achievement. And we mostly just make it through the day.

Our problem is leisure. One rarely encounters a peasant or slave philosophy, except how to endure or escape. When we have free time and energy, we tend to spend a lot of it on what we ought to do and why.

The simple answers are true, but unsatisfactory. And they rarely serve as adequate guides to conduct. It is all very well to be happy , But how does one go about achieving that in a world often full of strife and sorrow? How do we balance now with the future? The short answers are empty. Even “carpe diem” has immense flaws _ how exactly should we seize the day, and to what end?

Then it all comes apart. The closer we look, the less we know. The future, being largely unknown, is largely irrational. And philosophy thinks of itself as logic incarnate. Yet philosophy is also considered a tool with which to handle the present to prepare for the future. 

And so we are stuck. Dreamlike, we envision a crystal-clear simple guide to living. but find it disintegrating into smoke every time we try to use it.

Art

Not much, but fun

There is time enough for many of us to do – if not all things, at least a near Infinity of them. That has been especially true in cultures of abundance. But exactly what should we choose with so many ways to fill our sometimes infinite-seeming moments?

I tend to pity those specialists who can only consider diving more deeply into what they know. The universe abounds in rich choice and ignoring it all seems a shame. But the specialists claim they are happy, and who am I to judge?

I have always preferred something a little different, if not too extreme. In my case, for a while, that was painting. It seemed to give me a little bounce, an alternate path to enchantment, and a small escape from daily routine boredom.

Smart folks, I suspect, all have such escapes, varying according to means and circumstance. Sometimes it is just a vacation. For others, a hobby with a bit more depth – art, cooking, running, and so forth. Makes us aware of a world beyond our usual concerns.

Those of us who can are fortunate to be in an era when such exploratory freedoms are possible. Balancing all this also must be one of the goals of a philosophic attitude toward life.

Death Watch

Montauk Daisies brighten first chill

The gods, or god, or the universe, or whatever, is a constant and ruthless killer. Homicide, femicide, infanticide are just part of its murderous repertoire. It is ruthless in especially seeking out the weak and the old, but it varies its methods to deal unsuspected and surprising blows. Always effective. 

A religion or philosophy that ignores these facts is itself dead on arrival. Not only why must we die, not only what does it mean that we die, but most importantly what does a consideration of certain death mean for how we live each of our moments.

This is obviously a topic that I must return to again and again. But I know some things for certain:

  • There is no escaping death. 
  • The death of people whom we never knew nor knew about does not much affect us. 
  • Properly aroused, any one of us can become an agent of death. 
  • And society too often resorts to it as a tool for control.

And the elephant in the room is that we are constantly immersed in death, not only in our own replicating cells, but also in our daily meals and habits. Of course in such cases we do not kill people, but the end of life remains.

Thus I open a discussion as I, like others, try to understand what is the proper way to feel – as I do – that I am an immortal while simultaneously knowing I am not.

Doing Nothing

Leaves for butterflies, seeds for birds, almost gone from this area

One of the vast and Inseparable differences between life and non-life is what each is doing when it is “doing nothing.”

Nothing in the universe really does nothing, of course. An inert asteroid is still moving rapidly, turning. A rock on the ground is a seething froth of molecules and energy fields, absorbing or radiating energy, possibly undergoing radioactive change, affected by chemical or physical processes.

But life is nothing but doing something. Always chemical reactions as busy little proteins, RNA, DNA go about their business, as protoplasm sloshes here and there, as molecules are built or deconstructed. All in a moment, infinite and instant, uncountable millions and trillions of changes on and on. All that to mostly survive and continue and replicate.  That is what life is.

So when I sit and do nothing all afternoon I am actually doing quite a lot. Ah, you say, but that doesn’t count because you haven’t willed any of it.

I get your point, but even there I’m not sure I agree. An inaction is really a type of action in a constantly fermenting cosmos. If I do not chop down a tree, for example, that has consequences just as if I killed it for firewood.

Enchantment

Woodland fall delights

Enchantment separates us from the beasts and everything else in the universe. Enchantment is a state of being in which one is carried beyond the bounds of merely living. It may be best distilled in the common experiences of being in love, the religious impulse, or an overwhelming sense of wonder.

It is barely possible to imagine a cat or elephant being enchanted. It is impossible to consider anything else, including the machines we have labeled artificial intelligence, being so. Without enchantment, we are empty and depressed.

Enchantment can be evoked by strong emotions. Or by beautiful environment. Or by a lovely network of logical ideas. Or by stories, or poetry, or science, or other people…. 

Enchantment can also blind us, turn us Inward and obsessive, usually in a good way but sometimes towards evil. Our saving grace is that any given focus of enchantment is fractal and fragile, easily lost, easily fixated on something else. But still the most important attribute our mind possesses.

I try to cultivate it all the time, and should I find it dimming, I usually stop and pause to let the wonder of the universe once more saturate my soul.

Short and Bittersweet

Early Autumn begins to turn colorful

What is the right length to communicate a thought? Depends on the circumstances. A vote is simple yes or no, a lecture can go on for hours.

An aphorism must embody seeds of contradiction and complexity, or it is a vapid slogan. An entertainment can go on for a long time with only a simple goal to engage an audience with laughter, tears, or forgetfulness. Traditionally an essay has been useful at least for the last half millennium or so.

I am limiting my attempts here to one handwritten page of lined paper. That means no long, involved chains of logic. But also, like essays and aphorisms, self-contained. Something I would hope to inspire thought, rather than settle provocative issues.

This is an era when written and spoken communication is far cheaper on a mass scale than it ever was. Sure, in the old days, a bar room conversation or argument could continue for weeks, but it remained local. Now via electronics the transitory and internal are commingled and impossible to separate. So it shall be with these small attempts to help myself understand what I may believe this moment.

Not always profound, nor happy, nor desperate. Just more words and thoughts cast out to the void, imagined for the fun of it.

Transition

Goldenrod fills fall meadows

Joan and I went out to eat with her cousins in Port Jefferson. I remember it from decades ago as a fairly dowdy place, a little run down. Today it is all sparkling, upbeat, and bustling with crowds on a late August weekday afternoon.

As an elder boomer I do believe I misread the signs of the times. It’s traditional for old people to lament the times. Nostalgia makes the past seem much more lovely than ever it was. Yes, bread was cheap and we left our doors unlocked _ but nobody accepted checks, there were no credit cards, banks were closed on weekends and every day by 3:00, and nobody had all that much money anyway.

“But, well, we were happy,” we say.  But well, to all appearances, so are a lot of young folks today. It is just a lot different.

Transition times are hard on the aged. It is so easy to focus on the awful.  Sometimes I just want to return to those thrilling days of yesteryear.