Saturday, November 10, 2007

Virtuous Selfishness and Individualism

I was recently treated to sit through a wonderful biography of Ayn Rand entitled Ayn Rand: A Sense of Life. It quite succinctly summarized her philosophy of Objectivism, and it's most prominent ideas of the virtue of selfishness and individualism.

When Ayn Rand speaks of selfishness and individualism she is speaking of non-altruism and non-collectivism. Altruism refers to self-sacrifice for the benefit of others. This is an important idea, as the concept of self-sacrifice is an extremely slippery slope that leads to self-sacrifice for the benefit of the collective, or the state. People in such circumstances have invariably been conditioned to identify their "selves" with the state. And this collectivistic philosophy is obviously problematic, as it can effortlessly enlist the support of the people en masse to advance the ambitions of the state (or rather, those in control of the state).

Individualism is the antithesis of collectivism, inoculating the minds of human beings thereby preventing blocs of people from sacrificing themselves to the ambitions of the state. Such people cannot be controlled by the state or any other group.

It is interesting to compare how this relates to the Buddhist philosophy of anatta (no-self), which may superficially appear to contradict the ideas of virtuous selfishness and individualism. In this philosophy what is asserted is the idea that a separate enduring "self" does not actually exist. But that doesn't mean that the collective exists. Even the idea of the collective is an abstract construct of the mind. In essence nothing truly exists in and of itself. All is change, and so there is no enduring entity that we can say has "selfhood," whether it be the individual, collective, state, or some other entity.

But, and this is an attempt at reconciliation, individualism as a temporary philosophy of life is very useful until such time that one can leave even this abstract concept behind. So it seems then that one must cultivate the ideas behind a strong sense of individualism, that is, independence, self-determination, self-worth, personal power, material prosperity, etc. before one can let go of identification with even these ideas. Perhaps because the process of entering into total freedom requires a certain independence, strength and flexibility of character to endure the very tumultous psycho-spiritual process, as described by Carl Jung in his work on individuation. And without independence, strength and flexibility of character, one may not survive the ordeal.

Monday, January 29, 2007

Meaning vs. Logic

Focault's Pendulum is an extraordinary book that forces the reader to question the nature of meaning and logic. What I found most fascinating about the book is the clever method employed to contrast highly logical explanations of a given phenomenon, in this case Ingolf's text. One explanation is infused with elaborate and obscure knowledge of conspiracies of secret societies, originating in the 14th century, while another explanation reveals a rather mundane shorthand description of a 17th century merchant's laundry list. How could such contradictory, yet highly logically consistent explanations exist? Incidentally, Umberto Eco alludes to how this notion of finding meaning is plagued with the same basic problems embracing numerology, that we find what we wish to find, that we are only limited by our creative capacity in forming connections between things.

The implication here is that a logically consistent system of thought does not imply truth. Even further, that a logically consistent system of thought says nothing about reasons or causes. Aristotle speaks of many types of causes: material causes, formal causes, efficient causes, and final causes. In other words, there are many levels of reasons for a thing, and the truth depends on what level we are dealing with. To be a complete (highest?) truth, a truth must involve all levels, otherwise it falls into the domain of relative truth, i.e., from a given perspective. And in the realm of language, can we ever have anything other than relative truth? Can language ever really catch the essence of a thing, conveying it totally and completely? And what does it mean to have the complete truth of a thing? It seems one would need to consciously become and fully experience the thing itself.

Slight digression. Although, I am me, I haven't the slightest idea of who, or what me is. But that's because I'm not really conscious of me, or rather, the full experience of me, except at a superficial level. And so I don't really know me, and therefore am not able to possess the complete truth of me. Somehow I've become unconscious of the experience of me. It seems peculiar to have become me and not know what that is.

Anyway, even our conceptions of simple words such as tree, rock, house, and cloud, differ greatly. It's a small wonder that we are able to communicate at all. Our communications then, it seems, are based on similarities in conceptions—a small subset—the intersection of our pooled conceptions of a thing, which in turn may be partly based in personal experience, and partly in collective or apprehended experience á la Jung.

So we see what we unconsciously wish to see—and we often attribute this to intuition. But true intuition can only operate when desire does not. In other words, we must be open to all possibilities. If we make any assumptions, those assumptions will become the lenses through which we see whatever follows. In making those assumptions, we have already pruned a large space of the tree of possibility. The state of mind we bring to any endeavour is all-important, and unconsciousness of our underlying motivations is literally blinding.