theendlessknot

putting thoughts into words regarding the entangled state of mind which is my existence


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Notre temps a terminé

Les jours sont comme années
Quand je ne suis pas avec toi
Comme les oiseaux chaque matin qui ce parleraient
Quand je ne suis pas avec toi

J’étais s’asseoir dehors et j’écoutais du vent
Qui chantait une triste chanson qui n’a pas un fin ou une commencement
Je te pense et mon esprit souffre beaucoup
“Comment tu m’es quitté?” “Je suis maintenant seul à cause de tu.“

Ma cœur ne comprend pas quoi j’ai dit ou quoi j’ai fait
Je n’ai jamais voulu te blesser
Peut-être c’est me destin qui me roucoule
“Vous serez repoussés, jusqu’à vous êtes practiquement nul.”

Tout nous avons eu, c’a diminué
Quand je te vois, je ne peux pas m’exprimer
C’est difficile croire que c’est fini maintenant
Tellement rapide et c’a terminé, notre temps

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The Paradox of Believing

I’ve been thinking a lot about completeness when it comes to our beliefs. I guess my biggest stumbling point is over the following question: Can the beliefs that govern a self’s attitudes be simultaneously informed by both faith and reason, and not have there be cause for concern over a broken self? It would seem that what faith has to say is almost always opposed to what reason would have us do. And so I’m thinking that in order to be the most complete person that one can be, it makes sense to side with one side or the other. Because if one’s fundamental attitude toward truth is derived from one’s faith, then reason need not apply; one believes the things which, to reason, are inconceivable, yet nevertheless true. Similarly, if one believes that truth is in the domain of reason, then it’s apparent that any claims that lead to contradictions must be discarded, given that the faithful person would be mistakenly ‘leap’ -ing right into falsity, rather than over the metaphoric chasm that divides the supernatural from the natural.

But now it would seem to be problematic to take the middle route. What I mean is that, from the standpoint of reason, one who admits any degree of faith into one’s beliefs is committing intellectual dishonesty by an inevitable appeal to faith to fill in the gaps of one’s ignorance. But supposing that faith is the foundation for truth and knowledge, then it would be irrelevant to worry about inexplicable contradiction in one’s choosing faith – these must be wholeheartedly embraced. This brings us to the familiar paradox of the torn and divided self, who is made this way because of a nature which he attributes to the seemingly incompatible components of reason and faith, although he is still an agent with an ability to produce unified beliefs. To be more clear, the paradox is contained in the idea of ‘beliefs,’ since these take root from opposing ‘resources’ of faith and reason, which would intuitively wish to push one in different directions; though, they allow one to have an ability to have beliefs about the world.

We have to assume, of course, that the self whose beliefs are in question is informed by both faith and reason in his search, as hopefully most of would concede is true about ourselves. Neither faith nor reason gets us anywhere alone. We discover the limitations in reason and strive to ‘understand,’ through faith, the barriers of infinity which are imposed on a finite mind. And we look to reason to ground our faith from what could be possibly disagreeable, overly superstitious consequences (i.e. the Salem Witch Trials).

But back to the problem. If we analyze the question in terms of reason, then of course we see, in faith, inconsistency. This is a notion of logic that must apply itself when faced with contradiction. For example, when Jesus is described in the Bible as a human incarnation of God, many would doubt the validity of such a description, given that ascribed to Jesus, then, are contradictory properties – mortality and immortality. But if we look at the same problem through the lens of faith, then we are plausibly left without an intelligible (reasonable) way of communicating this truth at all, and so cannot rely on anyone else to teach us this; it is only through our prayer and the following revelation that we receive that lets us believe. Reason falls short here, because no amount of explanation can do it for us, though that is exactly the work that we, or the minister, perform(s) in reading the Bible verses relevant to the issue. Our brain necessarily interprets what we read or hear. So even without this, praying about something which we have had no prior experience with would seem to be lacking something, given that we couldn’t even submit a deity a question to be answered.

If both faith and reason are necessary, then, it seems that they antagonize each other. They want to negate what the other is saying, just as an angry teenager wants to disagree with everything her mother says just for the sake of disagreeing. But how can we believe anything then, at all? If we reevaluate the assumption that faith and reason are direct opposites and suggest that they belong to different domains, and thus, cannot be compared, this wouldn’t help us along. We would just be left to shake our heads in confusion. Similarly, if we thought that what we call beliefs are really not as structurally unified as they seem to be in practice, then what use would there be in testing our kids at school? This isn’t the kind of skepticism that we should be comfortable falling back on. Aren’t we taking it for granted that our beliefs do tend to teach us something true, at least in the sense of explaining a valuable idea or concept, that most of us tend to agree leads to a point in the network of knowledge which makes up an understanding of an academic discipline?

We seem to need another, independent resource that informs belief. But how do we step outside our intrinsically human device of logic to recognize it? Or, even worse, how could we explain it, through faith, even if we’ve found the supposed answer? It seems natural enough to think that there is a definite pattern that governs human beliefs – though everyone doesn’t go around claiming to have revelations all of the time.

Are we really the broken selves that I had said at the outset? Is this why the question of human nature is so dense and perturbing? I don’t have an answer to this one yet. I’m agnostic here. But I hope not. It’s maybe the closest thing to a true paradox that I’ve been hit with. Maybe I’ll just have to accept it as that. But before giving up on it completely, I’ll be back soon to give it another thought and try to write up some kind of answer, explaining it the best I can.

If that’s even a possible task to fulfill :S.

Paul van Dyk – Nothing But You (Super8 & Tab Remix)

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“Jeg har ingenting, men jeg har alt når jeg har deg.”

Norwegian for: “I have nothing, but I have everything when I have you.”

Okay, so it’s hard to put an original spin on the question which has been asked so many times before. We all know what this is. It’s being transmuted from Hollywood to your living room every time you put in a home movie, or being perpetuated indirectly through your favorite science-fiction writer’s mind into the protagonist’s devotion and endearing commitment to his/her beloved significant other. And now, through the blissful music of the Trance God, himself, we get another installment. The message of love is phrased, appropriately enough, in what many of us would think to be a paradox; meaning, simply, that love cannot or should not be understood when we’re trying to make sense of how we fit into this puzzle.

And you might think that this is odd for me to say, seeing as I’m standing over it, as if it were a material issue, ready to analytically dissect it. I think that there is something to be said about how we can try to unravel the thread that seems to be knotting up around the entangled concepts of ‘nothing’ and ‘everything’. Of course, this may seem to already be a metaphysical triviality, which is empty of any coherence. But let me try to convince you otherwise.

The paradox in the song is reflecting on how love is able to make one, who otherwise feels empty, feel complete. Something is just cool about hearing that sung in Norwegian, if you ask me! I guess that’s the only way I could think of to try and express a flavor of this concept which is so universal and true, yet so beaten-to-death by our media, in the freshest possible way. But one way to look at the paradox is just to suggest that someone who falls in love with another is just transitioning from a state of inner psychological turmoil to a state of focused resolve and stability in being one’s partner. The nothingness that one feels, prior to falling in love, is not – as the cliche would have it – a product of being an incomplete self which seeks love to “conquer” the emptiness, but it is because of this imprecision with respect to one’s desires. To say that, after falling in love, one feels as though one has been “perfected” – or made everything – in relation to one’s significant other is just this: One’s desires take on a definite shape or form, because of there strangely being something independent of one’s own desiring which expresses a mutual feeling. This interrelating between independent sets of desires is the function of love. And it is surely profound, as it fastens these into a fixed position, justifying their existence and making a connection possible through this relationship which can foster their growth.

This is not to say that love should merely be thought of in terms of desire. I definitely would say that there is much more to be said, of course, and this ethical component is what I’d argue makes love the meaningful concept which it is. But my point is that the tension that makes for the paradox in the song, the disjunctive “one-way-or-the-otherness” of love when framed in the language of nothing or everything, is relaxed when thinking about a common thread of desire. The property which desire has, regarding its object, is identified and made concrete through what we call love. Of course there’s probably a general quote for this, too, that I could probably paraphrase and encapsulate all of this within; something like “love makes everything right.”

Yeah, I guess that works. I wasn’t intending to be original, just to speak to what I found to be an interesting paradox that we commonly gloss over, due to our culture’s habitual treatment of the idea of love.

Did I get it right? Or did I tie myself up a knot somewhere else that you think deserves its own explanation? Comment away!

I wish I knew more Norwegian, though. Beautiful language, I can’t even begin to describe it.

Kierkegaard and Dread

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I got today’s inspiration from another blog post I read in the NY Times. Check out this link. Kierkegaard has been probably one of my favorite authors for some time now. He was one of the best at wrapping up life’s little mysteries into bite-sized pieces, readily giving his readers food for thought when trying to digest his conflicting pseudonyms’ stances on some of life’s most interesting paradoxes.

The book that the blog makes reference to is the Concept of Dread. In it, Kierkegaard conducts a psychological analysis of dread, by first starting with the presupposition of the dogma of Original Sin.. Okay, so I won’t venture too far into religious considerations. The point, however, that Kierkegaard – or should I say, Vigilius Haufniensis – makes is that visualizing and interpreting the problem of dread through the lens of a Christian worldview is useful in making sense of the consequent notion of freedom in dread. This is the paradox which I will be getting at shortly.

Haufniensis initially argues that there is a sense of ambiguity in the nature of the self, given its metaphysical make-up. He thinks that our selves are constituted out of various opposing syntheses, or relations, which we struggle with to relate to ourselves in a way that makes for a definite perspective on life. The key syntheses that he refers to is the temporal vs. eternal and freedom vs. necessity. Haufniensis wants to suggest that dread is posited in us once we accept that there is such a thing as sin in the world, and that we accept that Adam’s first sin was presupposed in that Adam’s sin was brought about by sin, and that every subsequent sin which we commit is due to Adam’s sin. Only after this is accepted, Haufniensis thinks, can we really understand dread.

Haufniensis then describes the phenomenon of dread in several ways, but the way that I always thought was most interesting was that of an even more ambiguous middle term which sits somewhere between two terms: the guilt of sin and the freedom from sin. Haufniensis is careful to point out that there is no focused object of our dread. In fact, it is precisely this: Nothing. This is due to the ambiguous position which dread takes when thought of in terms of sin. To be clear, one who is in dread would feel the guilt of sinning without ever having sinned, because, our nature has already been determined to be that of sinners who always fall short of God’s commandments. But at the same time, we are inclined to feel free from sin, since we haven’t actually done anything wrong in the first place that would be considered a sin. Haufniensis thinks these two opposing forces which would simultaneously want to pull us either in or out of sin is what best explains the concept of dread.

Now comes the fun part. If we just admit for the sake of argument that sin exists out in the world, how do we make sense of our freedom? Kierkegaard, as a Christian himself, speaks of the “dizziness of freedom,” and how this is a major component of dread. We realize our absolute freedom in the overwhelmingly vast number of possibilities which we could choose to realize for our selves, and this leaves us feeling a very real sensation of psychological vertigo. But now, if all of this is true, don’t we stumble across a paradox of being responsible for exercising an unfree freedom? Don’t we, in our dread, feel powerless to the push-pull struggle which we experience as sinners, or, in the other case, feel unable to ground ourselves in pursuing a single path, given the boundless number of possibilities. Wouldn’t either of these work to hamper our supposed freedom?

Here’s my thought on how to make this paradox come apart. There’s no way easy way to break free from sin once it’s there, but this doesn’t mean that we are enslaved or made unfree by it. To be sure, our free will allows us to choose to sin on our own, but even after this choice is made there is a way out. Namely, that is to revise our sets of beliefs and corresponding intentions so that we keep ourselves from making the same mistakes again. Although we may be subject to making mistakes, we are still free from sin when we have the best intentions for ourselves and everyone around us. Kierkegaard might disagree with this, insofar as sin is an all-or-nothing description of acting in a way which is against God. He might suggest that it has nothing to do with our intention, or attitude, toward our actions. But I’d reply to say that if we’re really careful to narrow the scope of the argument into the psychological frame of analysis which he sets out to study the problem in, then having the best intentions does allow us to understand that we are capable of exercising a degree of control despite sin – or what would seem to be an uncontrollable consequence of the human condition. On the surface, then, we can say that we are, in our dread, still free; though this freedom, under this description, doesn’t really consist of anything, since it is a freedom from sin.

To make freedom more substantive, we have to analyze it under the second example of vertigo. Here, I would argue that we are free in having the acute awareness of infinite possibility, because we are always in a situation in which we have to make a choice. There’s no not choosing. When the man on the ledge realizes that he is absolutely free, he not only comes to realize that his freedom can go one of many (morbid) ways, but that it also demands him to decide to live or to die. So to put this back into perspective, the fact that the man is living literally on the edge makes it so that he is confronted with his freedom. In other words, the situation or context one finds one’s self in is what imposes the limits to possibility, in a way that allows possibility to collapse into a particular choice so we can best focus on a particular task. So in short, the abyss of possibility does not drop down as far as we would initially think. Only after we realize that we are living in the present and knocked back down to earth from our tower can we truly see the impact of our choices; choices which are biconditional on our freedom. We only get one opportunity to make life count, and knowing this is what drives me to direct my energies toward becoming the particular future self who I would like to be.

So Kierkegaard was on to something with his analysis of dread. It made it clear for me that freedom would be the essential paradox to consider. Even if you are someone who is daunted by having to enter into religious speculations, I still think that something meaningful and worthwhile can be taken away in trying to pick this guy’s mind(s)! There is always more paradoxes for us to dismantle within Kierkegaard’s world – a world full of such irony and wit. I think that even if you disagree with something that he says, you’ll always be surprised to hear that, somewhere else, he’ll be nodding his head in agreement with you. And this is why we still don’t understand him.

But that’s okay, because the point which he – and now I – am making is that some things just don’t need to be completely understood. As he put it himself: “Life can only be understood backwards, but it must be lived forwards.”

A paradox, as a true paradox, is one such thing which defies comprehension. But it’s funny because even this brute fact won’t stop me from freely living it out.

Wait, that’s a contradiction. I guess he was right: Life apparently is unreasonable.


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Happiness

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The question that’s been on my mind today is whether or not people always are motivated to act based on what’s best for them.

Let me give some background first. Aristotle is the one who many would say initially poses this question to his readers in his Nichomachean Ethics. His argument can basically be summed up as saying that humans always act for the purpose of, or with their end aimed towards the ‘good.’ That is, we always desire the things which we think are best for us, and form our intentions accordingly.

The first clarification that needs to be made is obviously this: What is the good, anyway? Aristotle tries to give further definition to this point by stating that it is something with intrinsic value which should be sought after for its own sake. He believes that anything which merely serves as a mean to an end therefore is not a plausible definition, since it is only instrumentally good. The somewhat trite object of goodness that Aristotle gives us is happiness. However, this doesn’t automatically push him into the hedonist camp. This is because he goes further in claiming that this universally applicable good is achieved in a particular way – by the expression (or functioning) of the human soul’s capacity of reasoning. Aristotle wouldn’t say that reason’s end is not of some sort of pleasure, but rather of a sense of a high ethical standard of virtue. This is what is entailed from the definition of happiness which he is considering. My interpretation of Aristotle here is that what we as humans do is simply reason to a practical conclusion whose end goals is to make ourselves, and everyone else, happy. This is the mission of politics as he’d put it. It is our duty to ensure that we first deliberate on our own morals to the point where we can generate a general truth which can be applied in crafting the foundational laws which our society can follow, so as to maximize the amount of social well-being which we can achieve as a society.

But my point isn’t dealing with this. Instead, I hope by now that you see that there is a stumbling point in Aristotle’s ethics. All I’m saying is that Aristotle may be overlooking the fact that reason may not be the best method to follow if one’s end is happiness. There are plenty of counterexamples to the claim. Of course, beyond anything else, everyone has an idea of the mad genius; someone who has followed reason to the limit and then some. Constant rumination over potentially logical inconsistencies in one’s set of beliefs is, frankly, unhealthy, as evidenced by historical figures such as Beethoven or Newton. They were masters of their craft, but with their revolutionary ideas and accomplishments came a price tag. To put it as sympathetically as I possibly can, I’d say they went a little bit over the edge. So It can be seen that the purest application of reason may tend to lead one into a state of mental instability, rather than the desired end of mental tranquility which is characteristic of being happy or content.

So now the paradox which we are faced with is this: If it is true that we desire happiness for its own sake, why is it that often become unhappy in this search? That is, why does an earnest desire to pursue happiness, which supposedly is the ultimate good toward which we aim at, usually lead us to being, in a practical sense, unhappy?

We can think of this paradox in many ways, but let’s keep this in line with Aristotle’s suggestion of using reason as a means to an end. The issue that I have with him is that there is a breakdown in our understanding of the problem when we attempt to resolve it by filling in the gap between us and our happiness with our faculty of reason. Namely, this is the case when we say that we desire what’s good, or that which will ultimately make us happy. I think that the problem lies in misrepresenting, or oversimplifying, how humans desire things. Obviously, humans are often led by their emotions, which also often inform their desires. So it is simply not true that we construct our desires out of concrete, rational building-blocks, but instead are swayed by feathery, visceral considerations. I would say that happiness depends on one’s awareness and dedication to one’s own investment into the world around him/her, and therefore cannot be comprised of something so unstable. In short, happiness would seem to be intuitively more than the sum of our feelings toward the world and our place in it.

But even still, reason does not offer us give us a higher success rate. This is because reason needs something which can ground it, or relate it to tangible issues and people for which one hopes to attain happiness by successfully involving him/herself with. Reason, on its own, is seemingly indifferent to anything other than its own cold, forlorn disinterestedness. It must be integrated more thoroughly into a broader frame of reference in order for us to make sense of it and apply it to something which can benefit us. That is what disciplines, such as sociology, psychology, ethics or any of the other humanities, are for!

So to try to resolve this paradox, I think that what we have to do is to understand that it’s not necessarily true that we’re becoming unhappy by seeking happiness, but rather that we are being mislead in thinking that happiness falls under an either/or dichotomy. It would be therefore fallacious to argue that our desiring of the good, in-itself, is what gives rise to our dreadful experience of unhappiness, because this act of desiring, rather than its object, is ultimately what’s to blame. To explain further, it’s this notion of desire which constitutes the paradox. I would argue that we don’t actually, in the strictest sense, desire happiness, because we either want it too little or too much. This is justified by example in the cases which I brought up earlier – the madman wants happiness too permanently, while the sensitive person wants it too temporarily. The point is that, when we see that acquiring happiness is essentially treading a temperate middle-ground, we actually become happy. When this is realized, we can develop the kind of virtue which Aristotle was so fond of, while also being able to ease ourselves into a mental balancing act on the narrow beam which we call life.

The common paradox which I gave above is, in the end, only reduced to a common misinterpretation. When we are skilled at controlling ourselves and our desires, happiness no longer seems to be such a distant vacation home which only is bought through great expense. If Aristotle was right in saying that happiness is the ultimate good which we desire, then I think that there is something to say about this good. It is that happiness is, more than anything else, a virtue which is not always a given, but rather something which requires a lot of patience and self-adjusting for us to finally grab hold of and walk firmly and evenly toward.


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river

“Change is the Only Constant.”

-Heraclitus

I love this one. It is an appropriate maxim by which twenty-somethings who are busy being lost at sea can repeat to themselves, to keep themselves preoccupied with their painstakingly difficult search for the docks of their future. It goes without saying that Heraclitus, one of the more notable ancient Greek philosophers to precede Plato, was on to something. He held that the ultimate reality of the universe was fire. We are born from it and will be consumed by it in the end. It can be viewed as something which always changes, because as long as something is on fire, there is an ongoing process of combustion, or degradation of complex carbon-containing compounds given a supply of oxygen. What’s important is the following inference which can be made: Heraclitus’ symbol of fire is used to characterize existence as an ongoing process, or pattern of continuous change. Now these former two words, continuous change, give rise to an interesting paradox, because anything which is continuous can be taken as having a steady metaphysical state. But, of course, we’re saying that this continuity is met with opposition as it actually changes. This is a paradox which I now will try to resolve!

At first, you might think that the example of the fire is incomplete in that it is disanalogous to the human situation. How can we really compare? Aren’t there people out there who seem to never change, always being content with the same day-to-day routine, or who, to the worst extreme, don’t even do anything with themselves? I think Heraclitus might say here that, in these situations, an ineffable part of our nature will cause us to seek some sort of opposition; some new experiences which will make those lives described above which seemed devoid of life all the more full. Just as even the fire may appear to stagnate as it dwindles down to a collection of sparks, so do the lives of those who become accustomed to a mode of live which is devoid of any real living, until a surprising turn of events throws them back into the arena. All it takes is one such experience. And anyone would say that life, indeed, throws us these curveballs from time to time.

But back to the point, I think that Heraclitus was wrong to think that there is a sense in which this ongoing change is the kind of change that we commonly think of as real change. Let’s use another one of his examples, a river, to make this clearer. To paraphrase, he famously said that one cannot step into the same river twice. Now the simplest way we would define a river is just a body of water with a current. The fact is that, in this definition, we have ascribed a static state to the term, river, despite the fact that analytic to this term is a non-static notion of motion. The easiest way around the glaring contradiction that one would rightly come away with from buying into this analysis would be to suggest that the river does not actually change, since we can deny its having a current as a property that necessarily belongs to the physical entity which we name a ‘river,’ and instead write it off as a relational property which is namely related to the behavior of the causal anchor of the system, that includes the river, and the way it affects its individual constituents. In other words, the river’s current doesn’t have any independent ontological status which can be derived outside of there being a river, though it can, at the same time, be explained by appealing to something external to it – and that is the system at large. It is similar to saying that there is a physical process of flowing of liquids, which can be measured, but this is brought about by a certain set-up; i.e. someone applying a force and/or setting its trajectory in a downward angle, in which case gravity, itself, acts upon the liquid to cause it to move. In fact, the geographers or environmental biologist who study rivers would likely accept my conclusion as an element in their more sophisticated explanation for the mechanics of rivers. So all I’m saying is that it’s by convention that we associate rivers with their currents, but when studied further, this association is made in order to simplify the task of explaining the role that a common cause – gravity, in this case – which is the constant which allows for the relation that seemed so obvious and intuitive. And gravity is, without question, a constant, an empirically verified fact of science – 9.81… m/s^2. So contrary to Heraclitus, I’d say that there’s a sense in which I know that I’m stepping into the exact same river, time and time again. I think I’ll make it a habit to go for a swim!

So am I being trivial with this objection? A little. Too oversensitive by introducing a healthy dose of skepticism? Again, maybe. But my point is that the way in which we even understand change, the perspective that we take when addressing the question, is crucial. And so what’s apparent is that you can usually find a hidden organization in the things which seem to be in flux all around you. The paradox is only as paradoxical as you make it.

And if you’re like me, you’re never satisfied until that spark of curiosity, that scorching flame of captivation for the puzzles which comprise our lives are all but extinguished. There’s no reason to be alarmed, because beneath the chaos that we observe out there, there has to be something – some faculty or device –  which can assemble it into something orderly. And that, my friends, is a worldview for you! You can relax once that fire’s gone.

Or, at least, until another one pops up elsewhere. Paradoxically, our work may never be finished. New goals are made everyday. Passions are discovered, a new life is chosen.

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