Thursday, August 7, 2008

Pop Music Ponderings vol. 1: Nine Inch Nails

The early work of Nine Inch Nails is pervaded with atheism, and explicit rejection of traditional morality. The interlude into Job last week was because "Terrible Lie" is a condensed version of Job's lament:
Hey, God
Why are you doing this to me?
Am I not living up to what I'm supposed to be?
Why am I seething with this animosity?
Hey, God
I think you owe me a great big apology.
The parallel is a fairly close one: "I have done nothing wrong. So why does everything suck so much?" But the difference is that instead of waiting for an answer, Trent Reznor just abandons God, and goes off in search of something else redeeming.

For the most part, that something else is sex. In "Sanctified" he says, "If she says give it all I'll give everything to her / I am justified, I am purified, I am sanctified inside you." In the well-known "Closer" he says, "I want to fuck you like an animal... you get me closer to God."

The most elaborate statement, though, is in "Suck":
She makes it sweeter than the sun
I get too tight I come undone
I bow my head to confess
The temple walls are made of flesh
Runs up my arms 'til I'm on track
Itches my skin right off of my back
I'll heal your wounds, I'll set you free
I'm Jesus Christ on Ecstacy
There are not many other examples, because honestly, the metaphor can only go so far, and be used so many times. But it's just enough to form a kind of ideological statement: "As far as I can tell, everything I have been told about God is bullshit. The only thing that makes me feel the way I'm told God should make me feel... is sex. So I am going to replace religion with sex."

To get slightly pretentious for a moment, this is the postmodern problem of religion: our culture is heavily influenced by Western Christianity, and pervaded with its symbolism. If you don't believe in God, then there are these great structures of symbolism that point to nothing. So... what if you think of something else for them to point to? You don't have to make it point to something... but boy, don't you want to?

Thursday, July 31, 2008

Bible Talk: the Book of Job

Some of you know the basic story of Job: he was prosperous, then lost everything he had, but he persisted in honoring God. For his perseverance, God repaid him double what he lost.

That was, at least, the story I was told when I was growing up. There is more to it, of course. As the asshole says, "It's a little bit more complicated than that." (The tl;dr version of this post is at the bottom, after the dashes.)

It starts with "the adversary" (the first appearance in the Bible of the word "Satan") saying to God that Job is only pious because he is prosperous. If he were no longer prosperous, he would curse God to His face. So, Job goes from having thousands of livestock, hundreds of slaves, and ten prosperous children, to having nothing at all but his wife. Then he gets sores all over his body. (Maybe it's leprosy. I dunno. Back then, every skin disease was leprosy.)

Three of his friend show up, to try to comfort him. They do a terrible job of it. They provide a shining example of the worst way to comfort a friend who has just lost everything and now looks like something out of a zombie movie. The dialogue is kind of like this:

Job: "Fuck this shit. I wish I had never been born. I wish I were dead. Compared to this, being dead would be awesome."
Friends: "Well, God disciplines those who have done wrong. You probably did something wrong, and he's teaching you a lesson."
Job: "No, I didn't. Some friend you are."
Friends: "We mean it. Why would God be unjust? Your children probably did something that made them deserve to die. If you were totally blameless, this wouldn't happen to you."
Job: "I didn't do anything, though. Seriously. And how can you defend yourself before God? He's, you know... God."
Friends: "Yeah, he probably knows more than you do about what you've done wrong. God kills wicked people all the time. He wouldn't do this if you hadn't done something wrong."
Job: "Okay, you know what? You guys are full of shit. Bad people prosper all the time, and good people die too soon. Also, you are terrible at this. Worst. Comforters. Ever."
Friends: "But..."
Job: "No. Look. I will name for you a dozen things I could have done wrong, and I swear that I did not do any of them. Now, I want to know why God did this to me."

So then God shows up, and he is sassy as all get-out. Nowhere in the Bible is he this sassy.
"Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding. Who determined its measurements--surely you know! ... Where is the way to the dwelling of light, and where is the place of darkness, that you may take it to its territory and that you may discern the paths to its home? Surely you know, for you were born then, and the number of your days is great!"
Oh, snap!

Job doesn't respond with much more than, "Okay, I'm just going to shut up now. I thought I knew what was up, but I don't."

God finishes by turning to Job's friends and saying, "And you guys! You're even more wrong than Job is! What the hell is wrong with you?" And then he gives to Job double what he had lost. And they all lived happily ever after.


The story that many people take away from this is that God will pay you back when he takes things away from you. In my opinion, though, these people are not paying a lot of attention to the rest of the story. What I take away from it is this: "Sometimes bad things happen to good people, and it's nobody's fault. If you're asking, 'What did I do to deserve this?' then you are asking the wrong question, because God does not work the way that you think he does."

Now, I hope you can see how this might be vaguely related to philosophy. Even if you don't, it is relevant to some of the things I will be writing about in the coming weeks.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Adventures in Ethical Relativism

Let's get one thing out of the way right now: if you ask me, T-Rex is subscribing here more to egoism than ethical relativism. I'm not going to talk about egoism right now, but one of its biggest problems is that it is in a separate volume from ethical relativism in my Encyclopedia of Philosophy. They weight, like, five pounds each. It's kind of a hassle.

Moving on. Ethical relativism comes in many flavors, and they all taste bad. Let us start with T-Rex's flavor, that if A thinks it is right (or wrong) to do X, then it is right (or wrong) for that person to do X. If you believe this is true, then it is right for me to punch you in the face in order to convince you that it is false.*

The comic later gets into a different flavor of ethical relativism: there is considerable uniformity to moral standards across cultures, such as condemnation of homicide and cruelty. Granted, in some cultures, there are some circumstances where you are obligated to kill someone (e.g., vendettas and honor killings), but to kill a person without justification is always a no-no.

The issue becomes a little confused at the end of the comic, where T-Rex says that there are people out there who are okay with just about any atrocity you can name. If he wants to continue believing in his brand of ethical relativism, he will have to accept that there are people out there who think it is right to do things he thinks are wrong, and that he cannot judge them for this. I do not think this will last long, because when one gets down to it, one finds that there are people in this world who think it is right to do things that are unequivocally wrong.

For more on ethical relativism, I refer you to this excellent discussion.

* - Or is it? I leave this as an exercise for the reader.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Pi Approximation Day

Today is 22/7 in international dating, which is Pi Approximation Day, a day to celebrate failure approximations of success. Because failure is just success rounded down.

On the surface, it sounds like a silly idea, but it actually contains some nuggets of wisdom: some people have a lot of things that they want to do, but they never try, because they are afraid of failing. Eventually, you have to realize that when you start doing something, you are going to suck at it, but you also have to go through those first stages if you ever want to get good at it. In the meantime, you have more experience than those people who have never tried.

The most obvious example here is in athletics. Suppose that you are not a very athletic person, and never have been, but you want to join your school's cross-country team. You show up to every practice and every meet, you try your hardest... and you're just not very good. Perhaps you are the worst on the team, the one they give the "Most Improved" trophy to at the end of the season. Now, if you really want to become good and win some races, you could continue running every day for the next year, and compete with next year's cross-country team. But even if that doesn't interest you, you are still a better runner than you were before, and you are probably in better physical condition than you were before.

Ze Frank has an excellent video on this subject. He calls these ideas we never use "brain crack," because they provide us with some kind of comfort when things get rough. He goes on:

"Some people get addicted to that brain crack. And the longer they wait, the more they convince themselves of how perfectly that idea should be executed. And they imagine it on a beautiful platter with glitter and rose petals. And everyone's clapping for them. But the bummer is most ideas kinda suck when you do 'em. And no matter how much you plan you still have to do something for the first time. And you're almost guaranteed the first time you do something it'll blow. But somebody who does something bad three times still has three times the experience of that other person who's still dreaming of all the applause. When I get an idea, even a bad one, I try to get it out into the world as fast as possible, 'cause I certainly don't want to be addicted to brain crack."

So, today, I suggest you do at least one thing from the following list:
  1. Think of the things you have done in your life that you failed at and/or weren't very good at, but that you are better for having tried.
  2. Go and do something that you have thought of doing for a while, and get that brain crack out of your brain. (This blog happens to be my own attempt to rid myself of the brain crack.)
  3. Approximately eat pie (perhaps by smearing it all over your face), or eating an approximate pie, such as a tart or a quiche.

Thursday, July 17, 2008


You may have noticed (okay, you probably didn't) that I have not updated in two months. When I started this blog, at the time, I thought that I had enough spare time in my life to update this once a week. It turns out that I didn't. But I do now!

So, my current goal is to update twice a week: I will post something from Dinosaur Comics, and then I will post about something else vaguely philosophical from popular culture. I am currently looking at postmodern attitudes toward religion as expressed in popular music from artists such as Tori Amos and Trent Reznor. However, I reserve the right to post about things that don't have to do with philosophy, but I will try to be sure that it is interesting. (Or else, why would I post it here?)

After about a month of this, I will be convinced that I can maintain this schedule, and then I will start advertising and stuff, and saying, "Tell your friends!" For now, though, I am like, "There isn't much to see here. Though I appreciate that you enjoy what is here."

So. Stay tuned.

Friday, May 2, 2008

Adventures with nihilism

First, what exactly is nihilism? I don't think we can pin down "exactly" what it is, so let's go with "roughly." Because you know I like it rough.

Nihilism was originally a kind of intellectual anarchism: all ideas should be held up to rational scrutiny, and what doesn't hold up should be discarded. The upshot of this tended to be atheism and moral skepticism, which was fairly shocking to many thinkers of the time. Mind you, this was the late 19th century, and many people still clung to the belief that ethics can only come from a divine lawgiver. (cf. Euthyphro: "Well then, what is dear to the gods is pious, what is not is impious.")

One of the best formulations of nihilism came from Nietzsche: "One interpretation of existence has been overthrown, but since it was held to be the interpretation, it seems as though there were no meaning in existence at all, as though everything were in vain." (Encyclopedia of Philosophy, vols. 5-6, p. 515)

The term "nihilist" has been watered down quite a bit in the past hundred years, partly because the word is used most often by religious people who want to use it as an epithet, like with "atheist" and "witch." And it's used quite often by dumb teenagers who have just started reading Nietzsche, not realizing that Nietzsche was actually opposed to nihilism.

Anyway. History lesson over. Down to brass tacks.

T-Rex is touching on a lot of different ideas here.
1) Values are baseless, and reasoning is impotent.
2) Nothing can be known or communicated.
3) Destruction is the natural response to this metaphysical collapse.
4) Life is absurd, and it is futile to do one's best in an absurd world.

Whether any of this counts as nihilism is not important; the term "nihilism" has always been a little vague, and these ideas seem a little more in line with existentialism (says the man who has studied the latter, but not the former...)

1) There is some truth to the statement that moral values are logically baseless. One of the things that has fascinated me in my study of ethics is that I am convinced ethics exist, but cannot pin down where or how, or how one might go about determining what they are. The best I have come up with is "it has something do with one's common society," which is not an answer that will satisfy anybody.

2) It doesn't happen to follow from what T-Rex says that nothing can be known or communicated. If he means nothing can be known infallibly, or communicated infallibly, then he is certainly right. But he is probably asking too much from the world if he expects infallibility, like expecting the milkman to also bring you bread, eggs, whiskey, and all of your other groceries, in addition to the milk. It is clear, though, that we do know things, and that we do communicate with each other.

3) ... this totally doesn't follow. Unless you want to talk about metaphysical destruction, in which case, this does not cover destruction of the log cabin.

4) Life may be absurd in the sense that its values are groundless and radically contingent, but it is up to each individual to decide on how to react to this. The key for the existentialists (and don't quote me on this) is that in a world where meanings are not inherent, we must attach our own meaning to things. Some people do their best at learning the natural sciences, while some people do their best at keeping up to date on the latest television shows.

Yeah, that's right. I said it. It is important to me to be up to date on American Idol and Family Guy. DON'T TRY TO FORCE YOUR VALUES ON ME!

Friday, April 25, 2008

Contemplation vs. Destruction

A preliminary word: for the most part, I am starting at the beginning of Dinosaur Comics, and working my way forward. The advantage to this is that most of them are so old that you have probably forgotten about them. The comic I'm writing about today? More than FIVE YEARS OLD! From time to time, though, I might "mix it it up," and comment on a comic that is only a few days old.


This comic seems to set up a dichotomy between living one's life to its full potential, and living a life of contemplation. The two things, in fact, go hand in hand: one's life can only reach its full potential by including some amount of contemplation and reflection.

More appropriately, Utahraptor's question is about whether T-Rex is better off contemplating than he is destroying. Under most ethical systems, the answer is, "Yes, you are better off contemplating than destroying." You can spell this out in any number of ways. Questions in ethics usually center around when it is okay to do something that seems to be bad. Usually, it has to be for a good cause, and the more immediate that cause, the better. Killing someone who is right in the middle of killing other people? Go for it. Killing thousands of people as part of your plan for a utopia? Not so much. An end does not justify its means; the means have to be able to justify themselves.

Now, if you ask someone like an egoist (think only about yourself) or an Objectivist (do what's in your self interest), they will tell you different. But nobody asks them much anyway, because they're usually assholes.

There is a third thing going on here: T-Rex is "living life to the max" by being more conscious of the experiences of his day, and consequently having a greater appreciation for them. The sentiment of this is understandable, but it takes far more concentration and brain power. It is said, though, that this is what Buddhist enlightenment is like, a constant experience of the now.

As to whether dinosaurs have souls... I'm not going there.

Friday, April 18, 2008

Inaugural post: on the philosophical necessity of dinosaurs being awesome

(My goal with this blog is to talk about the philosophical subjects that are explored in Dinosaur Comics. Today, though, I am going to be talking about something tangential.)

It is a widely accepted fact that dinosaurs are awesome, both in the objective sense of "inspiring awe", and in the colloquial sense of being "hella wicked, dude" (or whatever the slang du jour happens to be). If you ever need to know what to buy a young child, be it male or female, you cannot go wrong with something dinosaur-related.

Thinking about this the other day, it occurred to me that it is necessary that dinosaurs are awesome (i.e., in all possible worlds, dinosaurs are awesome). As I explored the subject, complications set in at every turn. Would I have to backpedal into something tautologous, like, "Dinosaurs are awesome in every possible world in which they are awesome"? Let us then consider the reasons that dinosaurs are awesome.

The first is that most of them are really big, far larger than any living creature we have seen. The apatosaurus was 75 feet long, the largest known land animal to have ever existed, and most other dinosaurs people can name are larger than any other animal alive today.

The second is that dinosaurs have qualities we do not see in other animals alive today. Many of them, such as stegosaurus and triceratops, look like something out of a mad scientist's laboratory. And nodosaurus? COVERED IN SPIKES! They all have this fantastic quality about them, with the added virtue that, unlike fantasy creatures, they once existed.

Reason number "two and a half" here is that dinosaurs evolved into birds. I say "half" here because it is a crapshoot whether any given person will find this to be interesting. It is not quite as important as the above two reasons, so I won't consider it further.

So, now that we have established why dinosaurs are awesome, it stands to reason that dinosaurs would not be awesome just in case reasons 1 and 2 above were not true, or were unimpressive.

Reason 1 could not fail to be impressive, because of the sheer size of some of the largest dinosaurs. Even if humans were twice as big as they are today, they would still be dwarfed in comparison to the brachiosaurs. So, dinosaurs might not be awesome if they happened to be not incredibly* huge.

But this wouldn't matter if reason 2 were still true, and still impressive. If a triceratops were roughly the size of a komodo dragon... it would still be pretty awesome. So the fantastic features of dinosaurs would have to pale in comparison to the other things around, perhaps in comparison to some Lovecraftian horror. This leads us into further questions of biology, about whether it would be possible for dinosaurs to evolve into something even more awesome. The point is fairly moot, so I will put it outside of consideration.

Practically speaking, then, reasons 1 and 2 cannot fail to be impressive by themselves, and become more impressive when combined with each other. This means that dinosaurs are awesome in all possible worlds in which they are quantitatively similar to the way they are in this world. Now, dinosaurs are natural kinds, so if natural kinds are rigid designators (and this is a contentious point), then it is necessary that dinosaurs are awesome. Q.E.D.

* - This word can be taken in the classical sense of "unable to be believed," since it describes most people's initial reactions to the largest dinosaurs. "I don't believe it!" "Well, we have here a vertebra that is 1.3 m in length." "No wai!"