Where Is My Mind?

 

As scientific research exponentially expands and progresses its reach and grasp, the role of the philosopher has become somewhat marginalized.  In ancient times, it seemed almost a prerequisite for scientists to also take part in philosophy, hence the greats like Aristotle and Pythagoras.  But now, as science becomes much more complicated and all-enveloping, the scientists of today hardly have time to sit back and process the information they are discovering.  As the scientists spend long nights crunching numbers, it has become the role of the philosopher to put the information that science discovers into context for the laymans, those of us unwilling or unable to do the number-crunching.

One long-standing problem of philosophy is that of consciousness.  Since the dawn of philosophy, thinkers have tried to find the right place to put consciousness in our logical picture of the world, and have had nothing but trouble doing so.  The majority of our logical reasoning is about the material world, which appears to behave more or less by logical principles.  But when it comes to placing consciousness, philosophers have more often than not steered away from materialism and placed consciousness in the realm of the metaphysical.  But as logical people have continuously done away with the metaphysical, we have tried harder and harder to pull our consciousnesses out of that realm and into our logical picture of the world, but still to no avail.  The philosopher most often cited when it comes to these matters is DesCartes, who championed the concept of dualism.  Cartesian dualism asserts that the only thing we can know exists is our own consciousness, yet that consciousness cannot be said to exist in the physical world.  So we are left with both the empirical view that nothing but our consciousness exists, and the materialist view that our consciousness doesn’t exist.  But dualism is a hard pill to swallow for many.  It flies in the face of our need for everything to fit into a logical picture.  This has caused many people to dismiss consciousness as a by-product of brain function, the end result of data analysis.

Enter neuroscience: a complex and quickly-growing branch of biochemistry that attempts to map the events that occur in our brain under certain circumstances.  The more we map out the processes of the brain, the more advocates of a metaphysical mind have had to strip down the definition of consciousness.  Things like memories, emotions, and even some abstract thinking have now fallen under the category of what can be explained through materialistic neuroscience, causing advocates of the physical consciousness to theorize that one day all of consciousness will be defined by physical processes of the brain.  This becomes the fulcrum of the debate, the materialists claiming that just because we haven’t found a physical explanation for consciousness yet, doesn’t mean that one doesn’t exist, and the metaphysicalists(?) stating that the true definition of consciousness evades physical science.

One contemporary philosopher who has championed this debate is David Chalmers.  Chalmers has done a fantastic job of defining where we can draw the line between the physical and metaphysical consciousness.  He has dubbed these two categories as the ‘easy problem’ and the ‘hard problem’ of consciousness.  According to Chalmers, the easy problem of consciousness describes the entire process of data analysis, while the hard problem has to do with subjective experience.  While materialists claim that subjective experience is the end result of data analysis, Chalmers believes there is a fundamental difference.  This difference is something he calls ‘qualia.’  Qualia is the subjective experience of sense-data.  For example, as your eyes take in a certain wavelength of light, your brain processes that wavelength (perhaps incorrectly as discussed in the Limits of Language post) as the color red.  But the physical data of the wavelength has no correlation to your definition of ‘red’ in your mind.  One simple thought experiment to better grasp this concept is to imagine a person whose color spectrum is somehow switched.  This person would see red as violet, and vice versa, and, similar to the negative of a photograph, all the other colors would follow suit.  Now this person would grow up learning to call what we define as red ‘violet’ and so on.  There would be no way to tell that this person’s color spectrum is switched, because there is no way to observe his subjective experience.

While Chalmers has given us a terrific vocabulary to discuss this debate, I think there is an easier method to understanding the difference between our brains and our minds, and that is the struggle between the two.  We humans have always and eternally waged a battle with our brains.  We know full well that our brain can play tricks on us.  Our data analysis processes can lead us to false information, yet we can be fully aware of it.  For example, when we watch a magician or look at an optical illusion, we are willingly participating in a presentation of the fallacy of our minds.  We are fully conscious of the fact that our data analysis is feeding us false information.  We’ve entered into a reciprocal process of data analysis where we let our sense-data deceive us, yet use the knowledge of the deception of our sense-data to put the illusion into its proper context, so that we don’t think the magician is some kind of demon.  This knowledge of the fallacies of our brain functions permeates the rest of our lives as well.  As psychological theories have entered the common vocabulary, the contemporary person may be well aware of his or her own psychological idiosyncrasies, and behave accordingly.  The common phrase, ‘the first step to recovery is admitting you have a problem,’ is a perfect example.  The knowledge of a fallacy of the mind, and the definition of it as such, allows our consciousness to take that knowledge into account when making a decision, and choose whether or not to act on that fallacy, or rise above it.  For example, if we recognize the times we let our emotions govern our decisions, then the next time it happens we can choose to ignore our emotions and govern ourselves according to our reasoning.

Now none of this unequivocally proves the metaphysical mind, but it is a rather interesting notion that we can be ‘conscious’ of the fallacies of our data-analysis processes.  The question begged here is whether or not this is simply another level of data analysis, or if the knowledge of these fallacies is evidence of a transcendent consciousness.

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Shalim: The Lost God of Peace

At a hangout sesh, late in my high school career, someone left the get-together with the common colloquial valediction, “Peace.”  A friend of mine, in his sage inebriated insight, took notice of this and made the observation, “Isn’t it cool that we use the word ‘peace’ to say good-bye now?”  What followed was another in a long line pointless speculative discussions that took place that night, this one about the origins of this cultural phenomenon.  Maybe the only actually interesting point that someone made was that the Hebrew greeting/valediction combo ‘shalom’ is translated as meaning ‘peace.’

For some reason this tidbit of trivia stuck in my mind, and I began to notice variations of this word in other languages.  The Arabic word for peace is ‘salaam,’ and is also used in greetings, such as ‘As-salam alaykum’ meaning ‘Peace be upon you,’ a universal greeting for Muslims, which also seems be a variation of the word.  The commonality of the word and its synonymy with peace led me to do a bit of research, which turned up the Proto-Semitic triconsonantal root S-L-M.  To explain what this means, Semitic languages (Hebrew, Arabic, Aramaic, etc.) are based on consonants.  The Arabic and Hebrew alphabets contain only consonants, with vowels denoted by dots or lines surrounding those consonants, except for the letter aleph, which serves as a vowel place holder.  So to find the root of any Semitic word, you have to trace it through its main consonants.  For example, the place holder aleph paired with the consonant L gives us the root of Allah, Elohim, and the suffix/prefix –el, which all have divine implications.  This is also where we get the European pronouns and definite articles (le, la, el, etc.).  All of these can be traced back to the Canaanite father-god known simply as El.  Most scholars contend that the Canaanite religion was the basis for Yahwism and by extension Judaism, and it is from this same pantheon that we get the root of the S-L-M words.

Shalim was the god of dusk, twin brother of Shahar, the god of dawn, both attributed to the planet Venus, the morning and evening star (seems they hadn’t yet discovered that these were the same celestial body).  Since Shalim represented the completion of the day, his name become synonymous with completion, wholeness, rest, and of course peace.  This also associated him with death and the netherworld, giving us a glimpse into the attitude the Canaanites had regarding death: a peaceful completion of life.  Tragically the entire Canaanite religion was all but lost to history, only partially preserved in the clay tablets found at Ugarit, but its gods are preserved in the Semitic languages still used today.  Shalim’s legacy, however, lives on in another still relevant context today.

Jerusalem, the ancient holy city of three of the world’s most followed religions, and the center of global controversy, is widely believed to have been originally established as a city for Shalim.  The name of the city, when analyzed from a Semitic standpoint, is literally translated as ‘the settlement of Shalim.’  It is known through Egyptian records, and even in Genesis, that Canaanites inhabited the city before it was conquered by the Israelites, so this is almost undoubtedly the case.  Unfortunately for Shalim, his city has not known his peace for quite some time, but followers of the Abrahamic religions might do well to realize that their holy city was established as the foundation of peace for their ancestors.

So if you are a lover of peace, consider saying a prayer to Shalim.  Tell him that, though he may be forgotten, his legacy lives on through his name, and ask that he return to his earthly temple, so that it may know his peace once more.

U.S. Healthcare is NOT a free market

“…the U.S. health care system doesn’t operate according to the standards of competition that govern other industries.”

If we Americans believe in the free market, why do we continuously let industries like healthcare and finance go unchecked by free market economics. Freedom in any form must be fought for, or did we forget that at some point?  It’s time to overthrow these economic tyrants and free these industries from authoritarianism.

More Modern Myths

In my latest post about History Channel’s Ancient Aliens, and the ancient alien theory in general, I posited that the correlation between aliens and gods presented in the show is only proof that the two myths serve the same mythological function in two vastly separate time periods.  As a follow up, I wanted to present a few more modernizations of mythological figures that I’ve noticed.  Some are specific characters/figures, while some are broader archetypes that have changed throughout history.  I’ll start off with some fun easy ones, then get into the deeper stuff, so enjoy!

G-men as Angels/Demons

 

I briefly mentioned this mythological figure in the previous post, but I thought it warranted some elaboration.  The G-Man is interesting because these people actually exist, as we all know they do, yet they are shrouded in mystery.  And for the most part, we allow them to be.  This may be in part because we know they are working for our own security, or maybe we simply accept that there isn’t much we can do about it.  Nonetheless, the figure has taken on a mythic function in fiction and society.  The ‘Men In Black,’ (not the movie, as they are the protagonists and thus serve a entirely different function) represent agents of a higher power whose influence is as expansive as its purpose is mysterious.  They have no will or identity of their own.  Much like the the demons or angels of ancient tales, they are seen as extensions of the agency they represent, be it Heaven or Hell, good or evil, or just order and chaos.  They appear on the scene, serve their function, and disappear just as quickly.  Now certain angels and demons have, throughout their literary history, taken on other identities, personalities, and other functions of their own.  There is certainly a difference between the representation of a demon in possession or exorcism stories and the function of the G-men, though you could correlate ‘hypnotized’ or ‘brainwashed’ victims of these agencies to the possessed, but that correlation is a bit murkier.  For our purposes, we are focusing on the initial role of these figures in early myths.

The Spaceship as The Ark

     

This is a pretty obvious one.  If you’ve seen movies like Wall-E or Titan A.E., you’ve probably made the connection yourself, and the producers make no attempt to hide the correlation.  It is interesting, however, due to the universality of the deluge myth, both in ancient times and today.  Of course, today, you’d have a hard time selling that the entire earth would flood, and that we could survive and continue our race on a giant boat.  But change boat to spaceship and  flood to meteor or some other global disaster, and voila! another retelling of probably one of the most widely-told stories in history.  The most important aspect of the myth, though, is the one that has not changed.  The idea that after a global disaster, mankind must have a way to continue itself.  Another interesting aspect of this morphing myth is the span of time between the two tellings.  The deluge myths from ancient times were mostly said to have happened in ancient times to the audience then, meaning the story would be doubly ancient to us.  Antiquity’s antiquity.  And these new retellings of the myth take place in a future vastly beyond our own.  Much like the ancient alien theory, this is evidence of our strange self-reflexive time in history, where our most ancient stories are morphing into our most futuristic ones.

A.I. as the Golem (or Frankenstein)

  

The golem is a far lesser known figure than the others mentioned here, but you may recognize his successor, Frankenstein’s monster.  I chose the golem over Frankenstein because of his folktale roots, though he is also much more recent than the other figures in this article as well.  If you haven’t heard of the golem, he is a creature from Jewish folklore who is created by someone close to God (traditionally a rabbi), and in their pursuit to be like God, attempts to mimic His creation of man with the creation of a golem.  Because man does not have the same powers as God, the golem comes out a little less human than we’d prefer.  He has no soul, no free will, and no sense of morality.  In the most famous story of the golem, from Medieval Prague, the rabbi creates the golem to protect the city, but the golem, basically blazing the trail for Frankenstein’s monster, instead goes on a murderous rampage and has to be destroyed.  It’s a simple cautionary tale about the dangers of man’s reach exceeding his grasp, a theme that you could link back to the much older biblical story of the Tower of Babel, though it was God who destroyed the tower, so it doesn’t have that self-destructive element that we all love.

If you haven’t made the connection by now, let me spell it out for you.  The most recent incarnation of the golem story, which most people only go so far back as Frankenstein for its roots, is the figure of the A.I. computer or robot.  Whether it’s the HAL 9000 computer from Arthur C Clarke and Stanley Kubrick’s masterpiece 2001: A Space Odyssey, or the machines from the popular Terminator or The Matrix franchises, these self-aware or simply malfunctioning gizmos have become a staple of sci-fi plots.  And while they may seem new to the scene, and one might assume that they are unique to our time period because of the advent of computers, the basic idea behind them goes back to the golem: creating an intelligent being that ends up destroying us.

So now we’re getting into the deeper stuff.  Not only because of the subject matter of these new ‘mythological figures,’ but because of the broader and more abstract archetypes that they now fill.  Keep in mind here that I am referring to how these characters fit into our mythos.  I do not intend to make any political or sociological comments on these acts or their perpetrators, so I hope that no one takes them that way.

Serial Killer as Chthonic Beast

    

If you don’t know the term ‘chthonic,’ or can’t pronounce it, it refers to something tied to the earth, usually in a negative way.  The connotation in mythology and psychology refers to the chaotic primal nature of people or creatures.  The term ‘chthonic beast’ in mythology refers to any of a multitude of creatures from ancient stories who are usually defeated by a culture hero, signifying man’s conquering of nature to give way to civilization.  This concept has seen somewhat of a reversal in recent history, reflected in the transcendental and existential movements, which propose a return to the values of nature to correct the injustices of modern society.  What these thinkers overlook is that this peaceful, tranquil return to nature is only possible because of our past conquering of it, but that’s another topic for another time.  Some chthonic beasts include the Sphinx conquered by Oedipus, the Minotaur conquered by Theseus, and Leviathan conquered by God, as mentioned in the Old Testament.  While these figures still appear as beasts today, as can be seen with movies like Jaws or Jurassic Park (Spielberg was into chthonics apparently) and still serve the same function, I believe a new chthonic beast has appeared on the scene and is unique to our time.

Serial killers have fascinated the populace for a couple centuries now.  Not that there weren’t serial killers before, it’s just they were usually called Kings or Emperors.  But ever since Jack the Ripper, we’ve been at once terrified and excited by serial killers.  It’s impossible for us sane and decent human beings to imagine the mind of a person who could commit these acts, so we label them psychopaths, humans born without the capacity for empathy or moral decency.  And it is the chthonic nature of a psychopath to kill.  This is what terrifies us about them.  The chthonic beast is meant to remind us that our idea of civilization is an illusion that we all buy into.  That at any time that illusion can be shattered by the will of one person, and the serial killer is that person.  Their depiction in film is a testament to this.  The ‘slasher’ film always seems to start with a tranquil neighborhood, or a peaceful weekend getaway, or some other representation of the safety of modern society.  Yet as soon as the killer arrives on the scene, the society turns into a chaotic playground where it’s every man or screaming teenage girl for him-or-her-self.  In this new world, the chthonic beast is king.

Terrorist as Trickster

   

The trickster is another mythological archetype that spans all cultures and civilizations.  From the Norse god Loki to the Native American raven, the trickster is a character who doesn’t play by the rules.  He sets his own moral compass, or simply lacks one, and tends to give the finger to anyone making any laws or setting themselves on a pedestal.  The trickster is usually morally ambiguous, not an agent for good, but not wholly evil.  If he doesn’t have his own interests in mind, he does what he does simply to piss people off.  Yet the trickster is not just good for fucking shit up.  In most stories of fire being given to man, a symbol of the advent of technology, it is the trickster who steals it from the gods or just somewhere he wasn’t supposed to be.  He didn’t do what he did for the betterment of man, but man benefitted from his act nonetheless.  He is an indifferent mover and shaker with his middle finger in the air smoking a cigarette as he blazes through your town in his Camaro with the muffler removed.  But he takes another form in our modern society: that of the terrorist.

Terrorism is a serious issue for most of the world right now, so it’s not unusual that terrorists would take a place in our mythos.  You might think that the terrorist would hold a similar place as the serial killer, being a force of chaos that disrupts our idea of civilization, but the terrorist is more like the trickster in that he usually has a motive behind his acts, even if it is just to cause a fuss.  For the purposes of this post, I am not simply talking about senseless acts of violence, but the broader spectrum of terrorism, especially including cyber-terrorism.  The way in which the terrorist reflects the trickster is that mankind can sometimes benefit from terrorism as well.  The ‘cyber-terrorist’ group known as ‘anonymous’ has made this connection themselves, choosing the character ‘V’ from V for Vendetta as the face of their anonymity.  By doing so, they are associating themselves with terrorism for the benefit of mankind, just as V executed in his graphic novels and film.  Cyber-terrorist Julian Assange is another example of this, and even Ted Kaczynski, better known as the Unabomber, believed he was committing his acts for the betterment of man as well.

*Special Case: The Joker*

  

In the most recent Batman franchise, the character of the Joker made a glorious comeback into the modern mythos.  Heath Ledger’s legendary performance inspired a new vision of the Joker that is possibly more terrifying than the last.  In the movie, in true Jonathan Nolan style, the character explains his entire purpose within the context of the story.  He states that he is an ‘agent of chaos’ whose only motivation is to upset the established order.  With his speech, he teeters on the fine line between the chthonic beast and the trickster character, but seems to weigh heavy on the chthonic side.  This revamp of the character inspired many critics to equate him to the shark in Jaws and other monstrous villains, since he lacks a back-story necessary of a human character.  However, it seems obvious that the original intention of the Joker was meant to be a modern version of the trickster character.  The name ‘The Joker’ even seems to be a play on the term ‘The Trickster.’  The original version of the character had a back-story, and often set innocent victims up to play cruel and maniacal games for their lives or the lives of others.  Though it would be tough to argue that anything the character does benefits mankind, it is easily seen that he does have a motive, and therefore is better equated to the trickster.

So there you have it!  Granted there are probably many more modernizations of ancient myths and mythological figures, but I don’t have the time or attention span to get into all of them.  If you can think of any, please feel free to share them below!

Ancient Aliens (and a defense of mythology)

Even if you don’t watch the History Channel, you’ve probably heard of the show Ancient Aliens from this popular internet meme.  If you haven’t seen the show, you can probably assume what it’s about.  A bunch of crackpot ‘scientists’ pore through historical artifacts and ancient myths looking for evidence of alien encounters with ancient peoples.  After only a few viewings of the show, you begin to notice that there is a core group of about three ‘historians’ who assert these theories.  Other experts are brought in to talk about the evidence, but it usually takes cutting back to crazy-hair-and-crazier-name up there to come around to the punchline of the show, ‘Aliens’ – although he usually uses the term ‘extra-terrestrials’ with a lisp that’s as embarrassing as his hair.  Now despite my chastising of these loons, I actually really enjoy watching the show.  It presents a lot of history and ancient cultures that you wouldn’t usually hear about otherwise.  And if you have any sense in your head, you can usually figure out a better explanation for these historical mysteries than aliens, but at that point you’re too busy laughing at dude’s hair, which seems to get more out of control with every episode.

The ‘ancient alien’ or ‘ancient astronaut’ theory is not a new one by any means.  The alien explanation has been a recurring joke of archaeology since someone looked at the pyramids and said “How the hell did they do that?”  It’s the archaeologist’s way of saying, “Beats me.”  But ‘ancient alien theorists,’ which the show asserts is a real profession, take the explanation way more seriously.  Any piece of archaeological evidence that has even the slightest ambiguity in its origin, becomes evidence not only of aliens, but that aliens have been interacting with humans since we weren’t humans.  The theory only gets crazier from there, claiming that aliens had a direct influence on our evolution, and that we may be descendants of aliens fucking monkeys or something crazy like that.

The most common evidence they use for their theories, however, is not physical.  The ‘theorists’ claim that ancient myths of ‘gods,’ ‘angels,’ and other heavenly beings coming down from the sky, are misinterpretations of ancient alien encounters.  While some of these stories do bear striking resemblances to modern accounts of alien encounters, the theorists are entirely missing what that infers.  What these people fail to realize is that aliens are a modern myth.  Their claim that ancient myths merely ‘misinterpreted’ alien encounters, asserts that aliens are a proven fact.  The truth is we still know as little about these encounters as the ancients did.  We think that because we are more advanced technologically, that we have a better idea of what’s going on in these encounters, but we do not.  Any theory about aliens necessitates technology that does not exist, and has not been proven to be possible.  We are simply doing the same thing the ancients did, and putting these stories into a context that we understand.  The entire notion of aliens, abductions, alien testing on humans, is all a modern myth generated by sparse accounts of loosely similar experiences, just as the ancient myths were.  Yet these ‘theorists’ are quick to denounce the ancient interpretations as myth, and assert the modern interpretation as true.  This leads me to a more general, and much more destructive, misinterpretation: that of myth.

In modern connotation, the word ‘myth’ has become synonymous with ‘lie.’  It’s a way of dismissing something that isn’t true as irrelevant.  We apply the term ‘mythology’ to any religion or other set of stories that we want to do away with.  This is one way the modern religions dismissed paganism and other older religions.  We think of mythology as archaic and primitive, without realizing that we still participate in mythology.  The defining characteristic of a myth is not whether or not it is true, it is what function it serves in our collective psyche and our society.  Mythologists often use the example of superheros as the quintessential ‘modern myth.’  These characters transcend the individual stories they are in and become major influences on our culture despite being fictional.  A person who may have never read a Batman comic or seen a movie, knows who Batman is.  And the same can be said for Superman, V, Luke Skywalker, you name it.  But myths aren’t always based on fictional characters.  Some, like aliens, are based on actual experiences, and could be true.  One modern mythological figure that is completely true, is that of the G-man.  ‘G-men’ or ‘Men In Black’ (not the movie) are based on real people in our societies, yet their characters transcend the actuality of their origins.  They serve the same function as some demons of ancient myths.  They are mysterious and faceless creatures that have vast control over our lives and are typically indifferent or malevolent towards humans and our values.

So the correlation between ancient myths of ‘gods’ and ‘angels’ and the modern myths of aliens is no coincidence.  They serve the same mythological function: advanced beings from a realm beyond the earth that interfere or assist in human development.  Sometimes they are benevolent, sometimes malicious, but most of the time indifferent.  Often they can control events and physical forces that are beyond our control, such as time, weather, etc.  They sometimes give prophetic messages, or whisk unsuspecting humans off into the unknown and reveal to them mysteries of the universe.  The one interpretation does not validate the other or vice versa.  The ancients did not misinterpret aliens as gods.  We and the ancients have misinterpreted something that we don’t understand as something that we can understand, as we have done throughout history.  The commonalities are what’s important.  The fact that we need some type of figure or character to serve that function tells us something about our own psyche.  We yearn for the existence of a race of beings that lives beyond the trials and sorrows of human life.  The question is not, ‘are gods actually aliens?’; the question is, ‘why do we want to believe that such beings exist?’

Literally

 

I’ve always been chuffed at the apparently catholic use of the word ‘literally.’  I was always the first to protest the egregious use of ‘literally’ to emphasize a figurative statement.  I attempted to stint this redundant custom for years.  I desperately cleaved to the original meaning of the word, and verbally sanctioned my peers when they used it incorrectly.  However, I’ve recently had to resign my campaign and yield to what I thought was the raveling of the meaning of the word, when I learned that my point was moot.  I was nonplussed to come across this article, and learn of my oversight of the literary phenomenon known as auto-antonyms.

Ok I’m done speaking in auto-antonyms.  The point here is that language, like everything else, is in a constant state of change.  Words and phrases adopt new meanings and connotations throughout their usage.  The ultimate purpose behind language is to convey meaning, and if you need to flip the meaning of a word on its end to do so, go for it!  The most influential linguists in history did not get that way by following the rules.  From Shakespeare to Mark Twain (an offender of the ‘literally’ misuse) writers have invented new words, gave phrases new meanings, and generally turned language against itself in order to get their message across.

So we should literally rejoice when that annoying girl in the laundromat uses ‘literally’ for every other word, because she’s following in the footsteps of some of the greats!  Well… maybe not, but you get the point.