I believe that the best source of factual knowledge is sensory experience, interpreted by critical reason. I wouldn’t quite characterize this as an axiom, since I’m open to the possibility that sensory experience, interpreted by critical reason, could establish that there’s some better way to discover facts: I would at first be skeptical if someone showed me an announcement written in our DNA or in the stars that we should henceforth get our facts from Dianetics: The Modern Science of Mental Health, but if other explanations could persuasively be excluded I’m prepared to believe whatever my critically-analyzed senses tell me, even if that means abandoning future reliance on that source of information. As it happens, I’ve never personally encountered any such evidence, and while I’m aware that others have made analogous claims their reports do not persuade my critical reason. While perhaps not quite axiomatic, I acknowledge that my belief in sensory experience and critical reason is foundational. I’m prepared to argue that the results of applying it are consistent with its truth, but I acknowledge that this isn’t sufficient to prove it true, and that nothing can convince someone who starts with some other source of truth.

I believe that the natural world follows physical laws. This belief is empirical, not axiomatic. But I’ve found it to be consistent with my experience and with information from other sources that I judge persuasive. I don’t have any logical problems with the idea of gods or spirits or souls; I just don’t see any persuasive evidence that they exist. And I find the idea of a natural world more consistent with the available evidence. This belief could be disconfirmed at any time — in fact I’d find it rather charming and interesting if it were — but it hasn’t so far and I don’t expect it ever will. Of course I acknowledge that any particular scientific experiment may be flawed or mistaken, and that error could lead to incorrect ideas about physical laws. I believe that the scientific method is a good way to seek factual truth, not in the truth of any particular result. I suppose that physical laws may be subject to change over time or in different places. I acknowledge that our current scientific paradigm could be replaced by another which more completely or elegantly explains observed phenomena. While many physical laws are deterministic, the laws of quantum dynamics are probabilistic; following physical laws doesn’t mean following a predetermined path.

I believe that we are a part of the natural world, and that our thoughts, perceptions and feelings are aspects of that natural world. We are animals; we arose through natural selection; our mental processes are part of the natural world, not something different or outside it. These aren’t axioms, they are the ideas that I find most consistent with sense experience, interpreted by critical reason. But I acknowledge that conscious experiences are different in kind from the dance of elementary particles that is described by physical science. I see no paradox, however: what looks cold and mechanistic from the outside feels vivid and intense from the inside, when you are the complex system that gives rise to consciousness. Whatever are the physical correlates of our sensations, feelings, thoughts and memory, they are not two different things, one flowing from the other, but two aspects of a single natural process.

It plausibly follows that if my conscious experiences are an aspect of the brain and body of a human that other humans have similar conscious experiences. It also follows that other similarly complex systems could have comparable versions of consciousness, mutatis mutandis. The great apes perhaps aren’t contemplating their own mortality or doing higher mathematics but it strains credibility to suggest that they don’t have perceptions, feelings and basic thoughts. The same must be true, to a lesser degree depending on their sophistication, for other animals. The possibility of sentient aliens is obvious, and nothing excludes some sort of consciousness for mechanical devices (though nothing I know demands this either).

Since we are part of the natural world our experiences and behaviors must follow physical laws. Those laws largely embody cause and effect, yet composed of elements which themselves follow probabilistic physical laws. We have no freedom if that implies the action of something outside the natural world, or our ability to somehow transcend its laws. But neither is any process that follows probabilistic laws classically determined. Any system, including a human being, includes a probabilistic aspect which makes its behavior to some extent indeterminate. To that limited extent each system pursues its own incompletely predictable course, “free” of deterministic laws. In this very narrow sense I think humans have an element of “free will,” but I also acknowledge that our choices are to a very large extent — a much larger extent than seems intuitive — causally determined by physical laws.

I don’t believe that moral principles can be derived from the natural world, but I do think some moral ideas are implied by human nature and human societies. God may be dead but that doesn’t mean everything is permitted. The existence of psychopaths and Ayn Rand fans and religious fanatics doesn’t negate the fact that most people prefer to live peaceful lives that are not completely driven by selfishness. People naturally form families, which they love and nurture. Yes, people also naturally form tribes, which tend to fight with rival tribes; yet it’s also natural for at least some of them to aspire to rise above these rivalries. Killing emerges naturally from human nature, acknowledge, yet all societies try to limit and moderate it. Despite their manifold hypocrisies, essentially all religions at least give lip service to compassion for others, and have some variant of the Golden Rule. I don’t claim to be able to derive universal moral principles apart from the context of my own culture, nor do I claim that such principles exist. But I do feel comfortable drawing some general moral ideas, that work to make me feel good about myself, from my own feelings and cultural context. I don’t feel entitled to impose these ideas on anyone else, but I am willing to argue their merits if anyone is interested.

Among the aspirational moral principles I personally believe in are:

  • Avoiding causing unnecessary harm to others. I’m not a saint, and I don’t believe in sacrificing myself or my loved ones for strangers, but I also prefer to live in a way that does as little harm as I can to anyone.
  • Caring strongly for yourself and the people close to you, and also caring, if not so strongly, for people at greater removes. I think it’s natural to look after one’s own interests and one’s biological or intentional family. You can’t care as strongly for people who aren’t so close or are on the other side of the world. But nobody should be depersonalized and treated as undeserving of your care.
  • Being generous, but also strategic in seeking the greatest impact for your generosity. In general, I believe in the Humanist goal of fostering human flourishing.

I don’t believe that progress is inevitable. That would be lovely! But when I look at history I see bubbles of knowledge and tolerance and cosmopolitanism that form from time to time, can grow and flourish for generations or centuries, but then regress and collapse. Something is usually saved from the wreckage, and can serve as the nucleus for another bubble after generations or centuries. But the pattern is one of advance and decline, not one of steady progress. I now see the Enlightenment not as something that has happened and cannot be undone, but as a set of ideas that is continually under attack, and always vulnerable to being swamped by ignorance and anger and stupidity and selfishness. The fact that I don’t believe in the inevitability of progress takes nothing away from the importance of fighting for it! I happen to live in a simply marvelous progressive bubble that I will fight to preserve and enlarge. But I do this understanding that my bubble is as fragile and ultimately mortal as all the bubbles that have gone before.

I would be interested in your comments on my Credo, and in a summary of your own beliefs.


Who’s the Star?

Who’s the star of your story? Probably — though not certainly — you! Perhaps you share the limelight with a co-star? Perhaps not. Just possibly you see yourself as a supporting actor in someone else’s story. Or you might consider yourself a character actor in an ensemble performance.

Whatever your answer, do the other people in your life see it the same way, or differently? I suspect that many interpersonal conflicts and misunderstandings arise from different perspectives about who the star is. And the happiest friendships and relationships may be based on a shared concept of roles.

Egotists always see themselves as the central person in the story of their lives. People they interact with need to accept subordinate roles, or there will be trouble. There can be only one prima donna! But there’s room for lots of supporting actors, so long as they know their places.

And if you are the star, keep this important thought in mind:

Life is too short to spend time with toxic people who don’t realize that you’re the star; or, even worse, who think they’re the star!

Art and Time

Each art form has a distinct relationship to time, both intrinsically and as experienced by the viewer (or hearer). Much of this discussion may seem obvious, but a few interesting perspectives emerged when I considered the question systematically.

Static visual arts, such as painting, drawing, photography and sculpture, also architecture, are intrinsically timeless, even though they are subject, like everything, to sudden damage and gradual decay. One’s experience of a static work nevertheless takes time. As one examines a work one may perceive deeper meanings and resonances. One can focus on a detail, or step back to view the work as a whole. This is especially true of three-dimensional works such as sculpture and architecture, where the viewer has to move around or through the work to appreciate it properly. Only after viewing it from many perspectives and vantage points can one claim to have fully experienced it. One’s ideas and feelings about a work can also develop through memory, comparison with other works, or repeated viewings over a lifetime.

The dissonance between a static depiction and a moving subject underlies this lyric from All the Rowboats by Regina Spektor:

First there’s lights out, then there’s lock up
Masterpieces serving maximum sentences
It’s their own fault for being timeless
There’s a price to pay and a consequence
All the galleries, the museums
They will stay there forever and a day

All the rowboats in oil paintings
They keep trying to row away, row away

Installations can create an immersive experience as the viewer explores an imagined space.

Some static works are designed to create a specific aesthetic experience when the viewer moves in a particular way. This can be jokey, but also profound.

Op art can create the impression of movement through clever stimulation of our optical processes (although in this case the work actually moves as well).

Mobile works of visual art are intended to change through time. In addition to all the ways in which a static work can affect us over time, a mobile work calls for viewing over time as it changes form. The work may have a regular cycle that can be fully appreciated, or it may change kaleidoscopically in apparently unlimited variety, in which case one watches long enough to appreciate the work while never being sure one has seen everything it has to offer.

This work appears at first glance to be static but rewards the patient viewer with a surprising change.

The moving finger in this work creates a wavy line, which the remorseless level destroys.

In sharp contrast with static art forms, the performing arts — music, dance and theater — can only be experienced through time. Cinema, including a recorded performance, is by definition preserved in a static medium, but likewise is only experienced over time. In both cases the creators control what the viewer or hearer perceives, from what perspective, when and how long. This is unlike the experience of a static work, which a viewer can move around or through. A live performance is unique, and takes place in “real time,” while a movie or recorded performance reproduces a frozen interval of time. You can replay something recorded but you can never return to the actual experience of a live performance.

Literature, like cinema, is preserved in static form, but is experienced through time. Unlike cinema a reader decides how to interact with the work: how fast to read, whether to go back over a difficult or interesting passage, whether to skip ahead.

Art can please and thrill without necessarily telling a story. This is often the case with the static arts of painting and sculpture, and the performance arts of music and dance. Poetry, similarly, may simply capture an idea or momentary perception. This can also be true of experimental theater or cinema, but more often a play or movie, like a novel or short story, does tell a story that itself moves through time. Opera always tells a story, and so can any other art form.

A story can proceed linearly, moment by moment. It can employ flashbacks. It can jump around in time, or even go backward (like the movie Memento and the Pinter play Betrayal). Each scene of a story, however, proceeds moment by moment, as we experience time ourselves. A suspenseful story grips us through the unfolding of time’s mystery.

The impetus for this post, in fact, was The Sparsholt Affair, the latest novel by Alan Hollinghurst. Like his previous book, The Stranger’s Child, this novel is composed of several parts, each of which jumps forward years or decades from the previous one. This format enables Hollinghurst to tell epic stories, covering generations and lifetimes, without epic length. By skipping great periods of time he leaves us to puzzle out, from clues in each part, what has happened in the meantime. These great books are imbued not only with the mystery and ultimate unknowability of the future, but also with the mystery and ultimate unknowability of the past.

The War

It’s an enormous struggle, with millions of combatants on each side. A fight to the death: Either we will destroy the enemy or they will kill us, including me.

I’m not particularly worried, however. My troops have fought many similar wars, and always won handily. One day our luck will run out, but not, I think, today.

I call them “my troops,” and I like to imagine that they are fighting for me. But in fact they fight because it’s what they do, they and their forbears stretching back to the dawn of time. They don’t take direction from me. They don’t even know that I exist! Yet they lay down their own lives without hesitation, so that I may live.

I support the fight in important ways. An army travels on its stomach, so I ensure that my troops are well supplied. I reduce unnecessary stressors and avoid extraneous distractions. Sometimes I even try to tip the balance in our favor with chemical warfare! But ultimately our success depends on my fighters winning their individual battles; without this we will fail.

We have many enemies. Even in peacetime there are constant skirmishes, which I rarely even notice. But war I notice. When the fighting is at its peak nothing else is important: winning is the only thing.