Late Night Rambling


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The Fundament

It’s been nearly a year since I last posted here, and today saw an event that in earlier times would have carried great religious significance, so why not drop some vaguely spiritual ideas into the yawning e-byss? I’ve been tweaking the following words for the last couple of years, and they’re not getting any better, so I’ll force them on your eyes. 

The Fundament
Ultimate question of the human condition:

– Is being human essentially finite or infinite?

    – Is being human essentially divided or united?

    – Is being human essentially meaningless or meaningful?

    Consciousness in humanity is divided into finite individuals. Yet consciousness in essence is infinite and undivided. How can this contradiction be reconciled?

    Religious stance: being human/consciousness is essentially infinite/limitless/eternal, united/in communion and full of meaning/purpose. The appearance of being human/consciousness as finite/temporary/mortal, divided/separate/individual and lacking meaning/purpose is illusory/superficial. 

    As a result: the ego (which is finite and separate) is also illusory/superficial. Consciousness essentially transcends and lasts beyond the ego, insofar as it has meaning/purpose. 

    The essential nature of being human that is infinite and united, transcending and lasting beyond the ego, is divinity. 

    Infinite, undivided consciousness is divinity (thought thinking thought) (inherent/in-itself meaning/purpose)

    Being human/human consciousness is divinity trapped in the finitude and separation of the ego.

    Important distinction: divinity is transcendent consciousness/infinite human communion; deity is the attribution of divinity to an entity. 

    Really, you’re still voting for Trump?!?!

    At this point in the marathon election year-plus, as we rapidly approach Election Day, it’s starting to look like we’re about to join dozens and dozens of other countries and finally elect a female head of state (about damn time!). But for one reason or another, many Americans are still planning on voting for Donald Trump, even as his campaign implodes and he splits with the rest of the GOP. So what I’m trying to fathom is, why?!?! Why are people still voting for him? (perhaps, why was anyone voting for him in the first place? But that’s another story).

    Earlier in the election cycle, I could see why rational people supported Trump, in spite of the raging bigotry. He is very anti-establishment, at a moment when the vast majority of Americans, myself included, are suspicious (to say the least) of the establishment. Since he is mostly self-funded, it might be reasonable to think he wouldn’t be beholden to special interests. And I admit, sometimes his lack of polish (or lack of filter) is refreshing, when it’s not vitriol or hate speech emerging from his face-hole.

    But, by this time it should be abundantly clear that this man is woefully unqualified and unprepared for public office, to say nothing of the highest public office in this country. Here is just a small smattering of reasons why the White House should never be emblazoned with a giant, tacky TRUMP logo:

    • His incoherent policy: his foreign and domestic policy “proposals” (which is a generous term) are a bizarre mishmash of craven isolationism (the infamous wall, barriers to trade, gleeful disdain for strategic alliances), frightening authoritarianism (anti-media liberty, stop-and-frisk, partnering with dictators, putting civil rights on the backburner), and tired conservative boilerplate (taxes are too high! the liberals are coming for our guns! Islam is scary!). There’s little semblance of a connection between these disparate areas, or really even serious thought about integrating them (much less whether they would be good long-term solutions to complex problems).
    • His rhetoric, which veers from stream-of-consciousness and run-on sentences to bombastic hyperbole (can that man go one minute without a superlative?) and dull epithets (“little” Marco? “Crooked” Hillary? A third-grader could’ve come up with these!). And, while it’s exciting during a campaign to see what shocking statement he’ll say next, that’s a terrible trait for a world leader. Conversely, he’s a snoozefest with the teleprompter, which goes against his showman instincts. And all these words merely skim the surface of the complicated reality of leading a superpower of 300 million; specifics and warranted reasoning are always scarce in Trump’s speech.
    • His inability to play politics: granted, one of the biggest appeals of Trump as a candidate is his outsider status. He’s an un politician and proud of it. Governing a diverse and divided country, however, is a cooperative task, one that requires compromise and tolerance of opponents; Trump is either unwilling or unable. We in America are blessed (for the most part) with a divided government, and a president has to play ball with Congress and the courts (not to mention the Pentagon, the Federal Reserve, yadda yadda yadda). For a person whose negotiating skills are vaunted, he does not seem to be great at mollifying enemies, of which he’s made many.
    • Oh yeah, and the racism, misogyny, xenophobia, and various other bigotry that infest his campaign. Even if he himself is not a bigot, many of his followers are (just read the comments section! No, wait–don’t read it). And the naked praise of power, money, and “winning”–again, not a desideratum for an office that brings with it moral force as well as legal.

    So then, why the hell is anyone still supporting this guy? I can only think of three reasons:

    1. You’re a social conservative, and the political composition of the Supreme Court is your foremost concern. Which is weird, because SCOTUS doesn’t really have more of a say than congress or the executive in the domestic and especially economic agenda, and considerably less clout on foreign policy. But if abortion and gays are what rile you up, who am I to argue?
    2. You REALLY REALLY hate Hillary Clinton (and most likely Bill as well). Granted, the majority of Americans are skeptical about her trustworthiness, or whether she’ll put political allies and lobbyists ahead of the common good. But is Trump really a better choice? He’s certainly a different choice than Clinton, but then so are Gary Johnson and Jill Stein.
    3. Black lives just don’t matter to you. Or refugee lives. Or undocumented worker lives. Or Middle eastern civilian lives. Basically, if you like being a straight white cis male and you want your kind to stay on top, then of course vote for Trump. Just don’t be surprised if the rest of us don’t roll over for you.

    Aspect and the Bachelor(ette)

    I thought I’d change things up a bit and not post about religion or politics. Instead, I’ll talk a little (hopefully just a little) about two of my interests: Aspect (a fancy linguisticky term for the temporal structure of a situation) and the Bachelor/Bachelorette (a not-so-guilty pleasure of mine). This should be partly fun, partly edifying.

    Let’s start with the Aspect part, specifically with Aktionsart, also called Situation Aspect, is a description of how a verbal predicate (typically an action or state) is structured in terms of how it happens or unfolds in time, or at least how we encode this in language. To make this less abstract, let’s take a few predicates (verb phrases, for those of you who know the jargon) and look at their Aktionsart. For example, while “bake a cake” and “eat a cake” may seem like very different actions, they both involve two similar parts: a process that a person begins that leads up to a final state. To bake a cake (at least in the linguistic sense), you would go through a process of cake-baking, and end up with a cake that has been baked. This cake is the goal (‘telos’ if you’re fancy) of the process. To eat a cake is similar: you go through the process of eating more and more till you arrive at the goal or end result of no cake. We can schematize these both in the same way:

    Process                 Goal     (Result State)

    ———————O——————

    ‘cake-baking’     ->   ‘cake is baked’ = ‘there is a cake’

    ‘cake-eating’     ->    ‘cake is eaten’ = ‘there is no more cake’

    The three parts of these actions (or the verbal predicates that we use to talk about them) are the process, the goal, and the result state. It is often, though not always, useful to distinguish the goal, or point at which the process ends and the result state begins, from the result state itself. In a predicate like “smash a cake”, there is no process, at least not in the linguistic encoding (though surely the actual smashing takes time). If you “smash a cake”, you do it in an instant, and right after you’ve done it, you’ve got the result state: a smashed cake. The goal itself is the action (or the action is the goal): in other words, the action is instantaneous, and achieves its goal as soon as it happens.

    Goal       Result State

    O——————

    ‘cake-smashing’  ->  ‘cake is smashed’

    Other verbs are just processes or just states. These include “run around” (say, on a mad sugar rush) and “sleep”: there is no particular goal of running around or sleeping. Rather, you just do it until you stop doing it; there’s no final state or product of the process or sleep. Linguistically it’s useful to distinguish dynamic processes, in which the subject is conceptualized as active, from states, in which the subject is conceptualized as passive (I’m using all the terms here pre-theoretically, by the way, so don’t throw unaccusatives at me).

    Process or State

    ———————

    ‘running-around’

    ‘sleeping’

    There’s another facet of Aspect, called Viewpoint Aspect, where a speaker focus on either the action as a whole or just the middle of it. I won’t go into much detail about this, but I will compare the “-ing” form (often called ‘progressive’ or ‘continuous’) and the “-ed” simple past form of a few of these predicates. The “-ing” form looks only at the middle part of the process or state: if you say “I was baking a cake”, you’re focusing on the action of getting to the cake to the final state of being baked. The “-ed” simple past form looks at the whole action, and thus includes the result state (if there is one): if you say “I baked a cake”, you’re showing the whole, completed action, and highlighting the final state, the baked cake. With predicates that are instantaneous, that is, the action and the goal are identical (“smash the cake”), the “-ing” form sort of undoes the instantaneous bit, stretching it out to provide a middle to look at. If you say “I was smashing the cake”, you’re hitting the linguistic slo-mo button, and you’re treating the instantaneous action-goal as a drawn-out process. Because of this, you’re not saying anything about the result state.

    So what on earth does this have to do with a reality dating show? Well, if you’ve watched as much of the Bachelor(ette) as I have, you know that there are two really important things that the guys/girls can say to the Bachelor(ette) or vice-versa:

    “I’m falling in love with you”

    “I’m in love with you”

    The first phrase is said all the time, from the third week or so right up toward the end. It’s basically something you have to say by week five or six if you’re not the Bachelor(ette), and if you are the Bachelor(ette), if you’re not saying it to someone by week six or seven, you’re probably not giving them a rose. The second phrase is rare, valuable, and dangerous: say it too soon, or not have it said back to you, and–DRAMA!!! Last season, Bachelor Ben make the unconscionable mistake of saying he was “in love” with two girls–that SCOUNDREL! that CAD! Poor JoJo took that to mean that she was getting a ring, but instead she gets 26-and-rapidly-dwindling guys with ridiculous bods (and occasional roid rage).

    What’s the big difference between these two phrases? You guessed it–aspect. To “fall in love” is to change in an instant into a final state of love. It has an instantaneous action-goal with the result state of being in love.

    Goal     (Result State)

    O——————

    ‘falling-in-love’ -> ‘being in love’

    To “be in love” is just the state: there’s no goal or action.

    State

    —————-

    ‘being in love’

    So when someone says, “I’m in love with you”, they’re telling you that they do in fact love you. BUT! if someone says “I’m falling in love with you”, they’re telling you that they don’t love you YET. The “-ing” ending takes the instantaneous action-goal and draws it out so we’re looking at it as if it were the middle of a process. So if you’re “falling in love”, you’re in the midst of an action that ends with “being in love”–except since you’re only talking about the middle, you haven’t gotten to the actual state of love yet. You are, however, implying that you will be once the action is complete–which it may never be, since you might not give or get a rose! So, in effect, you’re telling the person that you might probably be in love with them soon, but you aren’t yet–the perfect way to stay in the game!

    That was fun, right?

    Amending our Wounds

    Okay, so I’m REALLY going to try to keep this short. Short posts = less stressful to post = much more frequent posts.

    So, I was talking politics on Facebook a million years ago (“politics” being our actual political apparatus, not the tempest-in-a-teapot that remains the cultural wars), and I made what I guess amounts to a boast: most of the United States’ political problems could be solved in about five amendments to the constitution. Of course on the one hand this is utter hooey, but on the other hand it might be a useful way to think seriously about political reform in this country, or at least to begin to think seriously about it. In this spirit of beginning, let me take a wild stab in the dark at some possible amendments that might ameliorate our troubles. Note that the language is inherently rather vague and generic; this makes the general point more understandable, leaving the all-important details to discussion (or to the Supreme Court).

    I’m going to post one amendment at a time. I think it’ll be easier to write and to discuss this way.

    1. No geographical districts for elections; Representative elections must be statewide.

    This amendment eliminates representative districts: instead, (like senatorial elections), every state gets to send a proportional number of representatives directly to the lower Chamber of the House. The obvious problem this solves is gerrymandering, including the intensely problematic majority-minority districts. The less obvious problem this starts chipping away at is the two-party dominance that, while not necessarily always insidious, is currently stifling independent and creative political action. To illustrate, let’s take California, the state whose politics I know best. IIRC (too lazy to look this up), we have 53 representatives from the Golden State in the House. Under our current geographical district system, at any given election we will have about 30-35 Democrats, 20-25 Republicans, and crucially, 0 independent or third-party candidates. The reason for this is that each representative is elected in a winner-take-all format; only one candidate can win any given district, and this candidate will very likely be of one of the two dominant parties. But if Californians instead got to elect 53 representatives statewide, you’d see a different picture: possibly something along the lines of:

    • 20-25 Democrats
    • 15-20 Republicans
    • 5-7 Greens
    • 3-5 Libertarians
    • 3-5 other Independents

    This is a sandpaper-rough approximation, but I think it’s safe to say that about a quarter of the representatives from California might be third-party under statewide elections. My reasoning here is that if about a quarter of voters are willing to vote outside the two major parties (a reasonable guess), there is now no penalty for doing so: you don’t have to worry about handing a district to the party you really don’t like (opposed to the other one that you tolerate in a pinch), and you also don’t have to worry about your vote not counting: if two percent of Californians statewide vote for a Green candidate, that candidate would be elected.

    In effect, eliminating districts gets rid of both the Perot problem and the Nader problem at the same time. Ross Perot averaged about 20% of the vote per state in 1992, but since he never won a plurality in any state, he got 0% of the electoral votes. In a proportional as opposed to a winner-take-all system, Perot would have gotten the full 20%, which doesn’t help much if there can only be one President, but does if there are 53 representatives: that translates to about 11 Perotista representatives. On the other side of the political spectrum, many progressives blamed Ralph Nader for taking crucial percentage points away from the Father of the Intarwebs, Al Gore, and thus bringing us eight years of George Dubya. Again, this is only a problem in a winner-take-all, district-based system; in a proportional, statewide system, the Greens would get their one representative, and not prevent the Democrats from getting all the representatives their votes entitled them to. Since district elections are basically like tiny presidential elections in that only one candidate can win, eliminating districts also eliminates the same problems seen in presidential elections vis-a-vis third party candidates.

    One obvious immediate difficulty is in how to implement statewide voting for representatives. I’ve been assuming proportional representation, which could be worked out by having voters vote for a party instead of a candidate. Of course, it would then be up to the party to appoint people to fill up the representative slots it earned. This seems like it could rather easily be corrupted; perhaps instead a voter could choose up to a certain number of representatives, maybe with ranked choices. The single transferable vote could also be an option here. Regardless, this is a technical issue whose details could be worked out in practice. 

    Ok, that’s plenty for a post. Thoughts? Critiques? Crickets? Tomatoes?

    Faith, or “that thing we never understand in sophomore seminar”

    So I really suck at blogging, because I suck at finishing long posts and at keeping posts short. Here’s an attempt at a short post. Apologies if you don’t get the title, it’s a St. John’s inside joke (actually, all of St. John’s is an inside joke). 

    So in the whole “militant-atheist-vs-militant-theist” debate, one of the key terms is ‘faith’. As a (non-militant) theist, I have faith, or at least struggle to. But what that ‘faith’ I have is doesn’t seem like the caricature that militant atheists pillory, or the facsimile of the caricature that many militant theists angrily tote. This ‘faith’ that I don’t have is typically defined as (at least in intention) “believing in the truth of a proposition without/in the face of empirical or logical evidence.” I don’t really care much for this ‘faith’, and I agree with militant atheists that it is both a dangerous phenomenon and one unlikely to survive much longer in the future (assuming we do). Yet like the militant theists, I know I have ‘faith’ that bears some resemblance to the above definition, and that the faith I have, I consider both beneficial and relevant to the future. 

    So (apparently that’s the word I use to start all paragraph), what might be a good working definition for the ‘faith’ I have? I’m going with “living as if a proposition were true, the truth or falsehood of which proposition being empirically and logically unverifiable.” This is superficially similar to, but in fact radically different from the above definition. For one thing, this faith is not an unshakeable belief in a proposition’s truth, but a working assumption that the proposition ought to be true, or that the world we live in should be one where the proposition holds. For another, this faith is not in contrast to truths supported by empirical or logical means; rather, this faith inhabits the spaces where empirical and logical investigation cannot tread, at least not yet–once a proposition falls under the domain of such investigation, faith in it is no longer necessary. This faith is not dogma; it is a means to cope with the fact that there are things that we can’t know that are nevertheless important to us. 

    So (gah, can’t not do it) what are examples of propositions whose veracity is impossible to divine? The first things that pops into mind are Kant’s antinomies (sp.?) of reason: these are matters which cannot be proved true or false, or rather can be proved both true and false, but cannot be both. If memory serves, these matters include a first beginning of the universe, the divisibility of matter, and other propositions that involve infinite vs. finite. In some guise, I suspect that matters of the (in)finite will remain beyond our grasp, though many shards will be chipped away by scientific progress. Other, more spiritually-toned propositions may include whether consciousness is essentially one, or whether some part of the human experience lasts beyond death. I have faith in both these propositions: I live as if we all share the same consciousness, at least at some super deep level, and that something of our humanity exists even when we die as individuals. However, I don’t assert tha these propositions are true in the same way that I assert the truth of my having eaten cereal for dinner, or of the earth being round. These latter propositions are knowable via our senses and our intelligence, while the former are not. And in the unlikely event that the former propositions become knowable, I will cease having faith in them and instead investigate them, or read another person’s investigations, and draw an informed conclusion. 

    So does this definition of faith exclude atheism, or rather non-faith, as a possibility? To the contrary; many friends of mine who are atheists consider unknowable propositions irrelevant or uninteresting. This is a position I can respect, if not fully understand; there are many knowable propositions that are very relevant and interesting, but as the person I am, I can’t shy away from considering the unknowable ones. Infinitites, eternities and transcendences call to me in sleepless nights, in fears and wonders and loves; I must needs have faith!

    Ok, next installment(s) will deal with the content of my faith on this definition: what propositions I live as if they were true, what propositions I live as if they were false, what propositions are irrelevant, and what propositions I can’t have faith in because they are knowable. 

    The Format

    [NB: this post is originally from when I started this here blog last August]   

    Here’s a brief note: I’ll probably keep future posts pretty short, not just to avoid rambling, but more importantly to actually produce a post more than twice a year. The target length is more than a Facebook status but less than a TL;DR Facebook status. Basically that sweet spot where I can share a quick thought or puzzlement or curiosity without rambling or getting bogged down in the details.