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Archive for the month “April, 2013”

Spinoza and the Elephant in the Room: Thinking in Jewish XXVII

Men would never be superstitious, if they could govern all their circumstances by set rules, or if they were always favored by fortune: but being frequently driven into straits where rules are useless and being often kept fluctuating pitiably between hope and fear by the uncertainty of fortune’s greedily coveted favors, they are consequently, for the most part, very prone to credulity.
Baruch Spinoza, A Theologico-Political Treatise

Spinoza and the Elephant in the Room: Thinking in Jewish XXVII

Spinoza and the Elephant in the Room: Thinking in Jewish XXVII

Underlying Spinoza’s critique of religion is the simple truth that where human beings do not have clear answers for what appears to be mysterious their first response is to turn to mystical answers, hence the credulity of belief. It is far easier to explain the unexplainable by fantasy, stories that explain without evidence or basis in fact, than it is to seek rational explanations for that which appears to be unexplainable. Notice that I place emphasis on the word appears. I do so because appearances are deceiving. What yesterday was clearly outside the realm of understanding is today understood rationally. This fact cannot be overlooked as one faces the world as it appears to be.

Appearances are also hampered by existential time, that infinitely brief moment in which each separate, isolated individual encounters one’s very existence. Once the moment arrives it is always already gone, leaving behind a trace, a memory engram that is unreliable as time appears to pass on. In this sense, we always live our entire existence in the present moment, in this very moment, the moment that cannot be recognized as it is always already replaced by the next moment. The appearance of historical time, of temporality, is dependent on the trace left behind subject to recall; the remembrance of which is always already tempered by the human tendency to smooth over the rough spots and recall things as better than they were.

We now have two factors to consider. First, the rationality which exists in linear or temporal time and the existential moment of time in which lives are separately led. They merge in an accumulation of knowledge that is archived and made readily available for us to study in the form of books, papers, and documents left behind by both the living and the dead. A vast library of historical artifacts that have frozen ideas in time, that are available for reference, for learning from, for building upon is available to any who wish to take advantage of them. Through a rich and rewarding search of these records one may learn how ideas about the world are altered by rational thought applied to experimental exploration of phenomena found in the existential moment; how, in short, discovery alters the very appearance of the world in which we live.

When one denies this natural progression of knowledge, a progression based on curiosity and  what Feinman called “The Joy of Finding Things Out,” one is liable to be duped by the fanaticisms of those with with ancient stories that hardly pass the giggle test when placed against the reasoned and rational discoveries of science. Spinoza, writing in the mid 1600’s CE, at the very beginning of the Enlightenment, began his quest into the credulity of religion and religious thought with the understanding that mankind seeks answers, even answers that defy reason, where no other answers seem to be available. Spinoza favors rationality over irrational fear and the fickle nature of fortune. It seems that, even in the face of advances in scientific knowledge over the past 400 years, Spinoza’s critique still is a force to be reckoned with.

 

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The Very Idea of Giving a Gift is Impossible?

If there is a gift, the given of the gift (that which one gives, that which is given, the gift as given thing or as act of donation) must not come back to the giving (let us not already say to the subject, to the donor). It must not circulate, it must not be exchanged, it must not in any case be exhausted, as a gift, by the process of exchange, by the movement of circulation of the circle in the form of return to the point of departure.
Jacques Derrida, Given Time: I. Counterfeit Money (emphasis in original)

The Very Idea of Giving a Gift is Impossible?

The Very Idea of Giving a Gift is Impossible?

Giving of gifts is one of those taken-for-granteds that most of us never think about the implications or consequences of gifting. What if, however, giving of gifts were an expression of ethical behavior? What if gifting were a selfless act of response-ability? Ethical response-ability requires one to become available, to announce one’s presence, one’s availability to be of service to the other. Furthermore, it requires one to become available without any expectation of reciprocation on the part of the other. Ethical response-ability is a one-way street, it is the giving of the self for the welfare of the other after announcing availability and waiting for the cry of the other. Ethical response-ability is initiated by the self but only so far as to announce availability. There it stops, waiting in proximate space for the cry of the other to interrupt the proximate space, tearing the fabric of complacency by requiring a response. Then and only then must the proximate self act for the welfare of the other. Ethical response-ability is not in the business of offering assistance when or where it is not wanted. It only responds it does not initiate.

When I give a gift, when I am the giver, what are my expectations? Do I give the gift freely without expectations of reciprocation or does my gift signal the fact that I expect something in return? If I am giving in order to get, if, in other words, I have clear expectations of reciprocation, then it is difficult to classify my gift as a gift; it is more akin to a bribe, inducement or incentive. When a gift is given in order to secure cooperation on the other end, clearly the gift initiates a circle of giving and receiving that can only be classified as self-serving. While one may call this gifting, because it requires action by the other in order to complete the circle, it may better be classified as a quasi-contract spilling out into the realm of economics rather than ethics. Think about how many times you have looked at a holiday list of giving and decided not to send a gift to someone because they didn’t send you a gift last year or the year before. This kind of gifting, I’ll send you a gift if you’ll send me one of equal or greater value, fails the test of ethical behavior. Think about how many times you have given a gift to someone with the thought, “If I give this gift I’ll surely get back far more in return?”

If, on the other hand, my expectations are such that I have none, that I have given a gift without any expectation of reciprocation, then my gift may fall into the category of ethical response-ability. It is rare that one can give a gift without any expectations. If I give a donation to my local symphony orchestra they will give me a set of gifts in return. This gift, while altruistic, comes with reciprocation built into the contract. Even if I give this gift anonymously, so that my name is not listed in the program giving the impression that I want nothing in return, not even recognition, the gift came with baggage that can only be classed as reciprocation and is, therefore, not a gift but a contract; I’ll give you this and you’ll give me that in return.

Random acts of kindness, acts that require no reciprocation, such as holding the door open for a stranger, come close to the true sense of a gift but often fail when there is an inner (or outer) set of doors and the stranger then holds the door open for you. No, the only true gift is the one that announces “Here I AM!” and then waits for the cry of the other so that one can act response-ably for the benefit of the other. The very idea of giving a gift is impossible except when one selflessly makes oneself available to be of service to another in need.

Paying Attention to Language: Thinking in Jewish XXVI

Moses received the Torah at Sinai and handed it down to Joshua; Joshua to the elders; the elders to the prophets; and the prophets handed it down to the men of the Great Assembly. The latter said three things: Be patient in administration of justice; develop many students; and make a fence for the Torah.
Ethics of the Fathers, Chapter 1, Mishnah 1

Paying Attention to Language: Thinking in Jewish XXVI

Paying Attention to Language: Thinking in Jewish XXVI

The Jewish world was fundamentally altered during the late stages of the Second Temple period, the Roman occupation of Palestine and the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE. During the last phases of the Second Temple there were several competing Judaisms, including the Pharisees, the Essenes and any number of mystical, messianic cults that were an integral part of the Jewish World. The destruction of the Temple was, however, a death blow to the Temple sacrificial cult where the blood of animals afforded the giver of the sacrifice absolution from his or her sins. In the days following the destruction of the Temple, the various Judaisms began to form more permanent structural and theological attitudes. Christianity went in one direction while the birth of Rabbinic Judaism took a completely different turn. While both of these Judaisms used specific language to make their case, I wish to concentrate on the language of Rabbinic Judaism most clearly revealed in the Mishnah quoted above.

One of the problems the Rabbis had to deal with was the issue of continuity, how were they in a direct and unbroken lineage from Moses to the present day. Moreover, they had to wrestle with the problem of how their writings fit into the lineage of the revelation at Sinai. To help explain the latter problem, the Rabbis of the Mishnah, Tosefta, and the two Talmuds engaged in the fantasy of the two Torahs; the written one and the oral one. But what gave the oral Torah authority? The answer devised was simple; it too was revealed to Moses at Sinai. That brings us to the issue of proving lineage from Moses to the present day to which the Rabbis answered that the Torah was revealed to Moses by God himself (both oral and written) and passed on in a direct lineage to us making us the recipients of the revelation. Implied here is that so long as the Torah is passed down, studied and understood by following generations, the lineage remains intact. The language used is self-serving in the sense that it supports the contention of the Sages that they are the true and only recipients of the Torah because they are a part of that succession. The problem with self-serving language, however, is that it simply doesn’t stand up to that which is now understood about the historical development of the Jewish people. It fits into a neat package, almost a marketing package, that solipsistically turns in on itself to prove its very existence but this vision fails when subjected to a deeper understanding of the times.

The second half of the Mishnah raises other kinds of questions. Much of the Mishnah, the redaction of Jewish Laws attributed to Judah ha’Nasi (Judah the Prince) deals with the underlying structure of solving legal problems that arise from time to time. It is much like a casebook in law. The first instruction, to be patient in the administration of justice implies that the “oral” Torah is a work in progress, not a fixed document revealed to Moses at Sinai and passed on as described in the first part of this Mishnah. The implied flexibility in the application of the law suggests that the law as “oral” Torah was not revealed at all but hammered out by human beings to meet the needs of the day.

The instruction to make a fence for the Torah is also related to the very idea that where a vague commandment is made in the written Torah, it is the job of the oral Torah to both describe how one complies with the commandment but also that this description must take on a more or less conservative modality in the sense that anything that appears to be like the commandment is also either forbidden or required in order to be sure that the commandment itself is fulfilled. The fence could not have been revealed at Sinai because only through the discourse of debate among learned Sages could the fence be built. Another reason to reject the very notion of the two Torah fantasy. The language reveals a deep discord between that which is and that which is to be accepted as a fundamental belief without questioning the validity of the claim.

The instruction to develop many students is a practical one. The more students one develops, the more likely it is that the message will be preserved. Interestingly, some modern day research suggests that these Sages, the Rabbis of the Mishnah and other documents, had only a handful of students, perhaps no more that 15 to 20 at any given time, perhaps even fewer. In this context the 12 disciples of Jesus actually makes some sense. The idea that one develop students is one that preserves the message while providing for the possibility of new interpretations as new problems are faced. This language is practical; it also implies that the “oral” Torah was not a revelation but, rather, a growing body of literature redacted to compliment the written Torah itself.

The language of the Sages, the Rabbis writing the core documents of Judaism outside of the Torah and the Tanakh, is contradictory. On one hand it suggests a direct revelation from Moses to the present day while on the other it seems to support the idea that the authors recognize their own role as interpreters, authors, and commentators making the written Torah come to life. I do not find this unusual. These kinds of contradictions are found in all religions because they otherwise their beliefs could not be explained. Stories are created to respond to that which we don’t know but I find in far more interesting to uncover the fundamental truths contained in the stories while not being concerned about who or what put them out for public consumption.

Henri Bergson on Change and Evolution

Is it then right to say that what we do depends on what we are; but it is necessary to add also that we are, to a certain extent, what we do, and that we are creating ourselves.
Henri Bergson, Creative Evolution, p. 5

Henri Bergson on Change and Evolution

Henri Bergson on Change and Evolution

The idea that Bergson is trying to get across is that human beings evolve during the course of a lifetime by the self creating the self. Here he seems to be making a significant error by equating psychological development with biological adaptation. He sees the two as inseparable, joined at the hip so to speak, but they are, in fact, two distinct processes serving two distinct and unrelated outcomes. The development of the psychological self is, as Bergson points out, the cauldron of both rational and lived experience, each of which contributes to the re-creation of ourselves by ourselves. On this point, Bergson is most likely correct. His phenomenological approach to the lived experience almost requires one to conclude that change is inevitable because every action and every thought contributes to the constant purpose of perpetual change. But this change is contained within a single lived experience. It does not impact future generations, make for much more than a measure of maturation in a single individual lived experience.

Evolutionary change, on the other hand, serves a completely different purpose. Evolution suggests that a species adopts random changes when one of those changes is deemed to be necessary for species survival. Evolution is an adaptive process rather than a process driven by activity. It is often a sexual process with females choosing mates displaying the much desirable random changes, In this way the desired change is passed on to and by future generations. Evolutionary change is not a result of phenomenological change but, rather, a result of adaptive responses to a changing environment. It is not driven by thoughtful interventions (the exception is managed changes in breeding dogs, horses, cows and pigs by human intervention) rather by mutations of genes that are then selected as desirable and, therefore, kept and passed on.

Evolutionary change is not connected in any way to psychological development, changes in psyche that make each unique individual what they are. To Bergson’s defense, he is writing a mere three decades after Darwin’s groundbreaking theory of natural selection was published. He was also likely influenced by the writings of Herbert Spencer and his regressive ideas about social darwinism (it was Spencer, not Darwin, who coined the phrase, ‘survival of the fittest’) as social change. Spencer’s view of change was far more developmental than adaptive concentrating of the development of the superior castes while dismissing the development of the lower castes in society. Given the lack of a complete understanding of Darwin and the poorly constructed social schema envisioned by Spencer, Bergson’s attempt to join evolutionary change with human development is understandable, just wrong.

When Bergson writes, “The truth is that we change without ceasing, and that the state itself is nothing but change,” he is describing a process of human development across linear time; change which can be understood as a regular and quite normal progression of life itself. This change may be understood in the context of stages of development which, in turn, may be described, normalized and studied. It is an action of psychological study and not one of random changes across several generations which would be more attuned to evolutionary change. Even as a metaphor, Bergson falls short of his mark.

Henri Bergson and the Phenomenological Nature of Time

The more we study the nature of time, the more we shall comprehend that duration means invention, the creation of forms, the continual elaboration of the absolutely new.
Henri Bergson, Creative Evolution p. 7

Henri Bergson and the Phenomenological Nature of Time

Henri Bergson and the Phenomenological Nature of Time

Is Bergson on to something here? What exactly does “duration means invention” mean? What does the creation of forms have to do with the perception of time? Finally, what can Bergson imply when he speaks of the “continual elaboration of the absolutely new?” If one also understands Bergson’s earlier comment that “duration [of time] coincides with my impatience” and that the consideration of time is “no longer something thought, it is something lived, then we may be able to make some sense of this phenomenological approach to time in a rational sense.

The idea that the measure of time, the duration of any given event in linear time is directly related to the impatience of the observer is a profound insight. How many times have you been in a situation in which you kept looking at your watch, time seemingly creeping along at a snail’s pace while other times things seem to fly by so fast that time itself is no longer an issue and you find no need to take a peek at your watch. Engaged behavior occurs in the absolute now while disengaged behavior, while still taking place in the now, occurs in the relative now because the end is elusive. It is here where the invention of duration is activated. When fully engaged, when concentration is at its peak, actions are deeply embedded in the now; time seems to stop and duration is not an issue. There is a Talmudic story about several sages at B’nai B’rak who spent all night discussing the Exodus from Egypt until one of their students interrupted reminding them that it was time for Morning Prayers. Here the passage of time made no difference and a reminder of an obligation had to be issued to close the productive discussion. Those times when time stands still, however, when things move so slowly that the clock never seems to advance, that is a wholly different story. Here one’s impatience dictates the speed of advancement of the clock, the duration of the activity, the scope of the project. In the former, time is a lived-experience while in the latter it is something thought and not lived.

When Bergson references the idea of the “continual elaboration of the absolutely new” he is, I think, arguing that the absolute duration of time is not only infinitely brief but that it is something never to be repeated in the experience of the individual. Furthermore, every unique individual experiences the same relative duration of time in his or her own unique manner. In short, each moment is unique for each being to be experienced in one’s own way as something new. This view of time is not unlike the post-modern view that the only experience that qualifies as existence is this very moment, the moment which is always already gone, never to be recovered except as an incomplete trace. And so we come to the idea of the “creation of forms.”

It is possible to understand Bergson’s notion of the “creation of forms” as being similar to the idea of laying down of traces serving as memory engrams, recalled nostalgically to create a past and even to project a future (although the idea of projecting goals is similar to the trace of memory it is likely to be mechanically different). As we invent duration, live our experiences, our absolutely new and unique experiences, we are creating traces or forms that allow us to understand time as linear and history as ‘real’ because we can recall a part of what occurred. Our recall, however, isn’t as focused as the experience itself, rather it is idealized to conform to the underlying story predicted by the prior laying down of traces, reminders of our lived-experience.

While Bergson seems to apply a teleological foundation to his ideas about time, the ideas are more attuned to a randomly constructed universe with no particular purpose in mind. These ideas work just as well, in fact even better, when teleology is removed from the equation. What is important to note, however, is that Bergson’s ideas are flexible enough to provide a base for understanding a non-teleological ethics based on responsibility for the other and embracing the absolute uniqueness of the other.

Saying Goodbye to my PICC Line and More

Saying Goodbye to my PICC Line and More

Saying Goodbye to my PICC Line and More

In addition to the reversal of rolls in my household in which I became the caregiver and my wife is the patient, I had my last infusion of the antibiotic erdapentem yesterday. Once the infusion was completed the PICC line (peripherally inserted central catheter) was removed, painlessly I might add. While I hated to say goodbye to this port allowing for fourteen infusions without ever being stuck while inserting an IV line, I was happy when it was gone. The worst part of the whole last two weeks was that I couldn’t get the PICC wet so my left arm could not get washed. This morning I intend to take a nice long shower exposing my left arm to the pounding of hot water until I turn into a prune.

It does seem as though the infection that caused this whole thing is gone. I feel much better than I did two weeks ago but, because no test was done to confirm the bacteria is gone, I have a small lingering concern that maybe some of the bacteria wasn’t killed. Only time will tell if that is the case but for now I can only believe that a cure was accomplished. The infectious disease doc assures me that so long as I am symptom free no testing is warranted, that the treatment worked and there is no longer a need for concern. So I will trust in that assessment even though I have a lingering doubt that wants to hang around just to play with me.

On another note, now that holidays are over I want to rant a bit. As readers know, I am Jewishish, an atheist Jew. Culturally Jewish, a reader of Jewish thought and religious texts (I hesitate to call it scholarship) and a citizen of the United States, I have yet to find a proper response to someone uttering words, as sincere as they might be, like Happy Easter or Merry Christmas. I don’t know how to answer them. I could say, “Look, buddy, I don’t know what to say to you. It isn’t my holiday.” But that would be rude. On the other hand, I find it offensive when someone assumes I am a member of their particular mythological cult without knowledge of whatever mythological cult I call my own so why not be rude. The fact is that rudeness never solves a thing. It merely heightens underlying tensions that we know exist between competing groups.

I could, on the other hand, be quite passive and say, “Same to you.” But that response would be hypocritical. Because I don’t understand the hoopla behind either Christmas or Easter (sure I know the mythological foundations for them I simply don’t understand why people believe them) my response would be one of acquiescence to the fundamental ideas of these particular myths. This hypocrisy would also be rude, albeit, not an overt charge of rudeness rather a rather covert mocking of the sincerity of the original utterance.

Another response would be to simply nod my head in the direction of the well-wisher. This silent mocking is less offensive than the mocking response of, “Same to you,” but the intent is similar. While acknowledging the well-wisher’s utterance it silently evades a direct confrontation with the well wisher but doesn’t acknowledge the well-wisher’s words.

The problem lies in the hegemony of the well-wisher’s understanding of the world without considering the alterity of the other. The fact is that each human being is unique. Sure we belong to social, cultural, political, religious and linguistic groups (tribes) but even within each group and across groups our uniqueness, our alterity, is a principal part of who we are. To mash alterity into something one may consider as normal or normative and apply that norm to all is a reduction of the self (as unique) into the same (as defined only by the normative experience). The well-wisher reduces everything into a mush of normalcy thereby reducing everything to the same without regard for the uniqueness of the other. Hegemonic thinking, the reduction of everything into the same, amounts to a cauldron of roiling hate and distrust of the other, the non-compliant.

I would never wish anyone a Happy Passover unless I knew that the other was Jewish. Why would a Christian assume I am the same as she is without knowledge of my core beliefs or disbeliefs? It is offensive to me when someone chooses to lump me into their sameness without even a little bit of knowledge about who I am.

The solution to all this is simple. If you are certain you are talking to someone who shares your mythological stories, go ahead and include them in your wish list for happiness. If you aren’t just wish them a Happy Holiday; surely this will not offend anyone. Remember that all cultures celebrate rites of spring and the depths of winter in some form or another, even when those forms have taken on a life of their own divorced from their origins. So I wish most people a Happy Holiday and save the specifics for those with whom I share mythological foundations whether I believe them to be true or not.

Turning Tables: Waiting in Proximate Space

Turning Tables: Waiting in Proximate Space

Turning Tables: Waiting in Proximate Space

I am writing this while sitting in the waiting room of the Valley Ambulatory Surgery Center while my wife undergoes a surgical procedure on her right knee. What is unusual about this is that I am on the other end of the surgery, the person who waits. My own medical history contains many surgical procedures, almost all related to arthritis, where I was the patient and she was relegated to waiting for the results. This particular moment, therefore, is quite different for me and I can only imagine how it is for her.

Waiting, in this sense, is the core of the ethical in the sense that I am now making myself available as I await the call of the other, in this case, the call of my wife as she awakens from her drug induced slumber. Here I am, in proximate space, having made myself available, assuming the response-ability to be of service in her time of need.

As I wait for the call I am reduced to an observer, a singular point from which I wait. This reduction, however, does not make me into the same, into that which becomes normative. Waiting in proximate space is a unique, albeit, selfish space in which I have clear choices. On the one hand, I could dwell on what is taking so long, why isn’t this thing done, or, on the other hand, I can sit in this very moment letting the flow of time wash over me like a flowing river. I choose the latter. I choose to write rather than dwell on the negative aspects of time. Negativity helps no one, to the contrary, it freezes one in a cube of stress.

The very act of writing propels me to interiority, a space that is private yet made public by the very fact that I post this writing for the public to read. The interiority of writing is where I begin to see what I think, to build on an idea and to test its limits. It is the place where knowledge is constructed. It is the place of proximity, a productive waiting for the call of the other to pierce the fabric of the ethical, to tear apart the difference between the self and the other while preparing to bind the self to the other in service to the cry of the other. Writing prepares one for the existential experience of an ethical life.

So here I sit, waiting for the call, waiting for the surgeon to tell me what a grand job he did, waiting for the nurse to allow me to ease into the twilight of Susan’s recovery.

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