The Nihilistic Art

By Jin-yeong Yi

In discussing the marketability of nihilism, philosopher Vijay Prozak wrote, “In theory, nihilism could even be used to sell products, but only of the entertainment type. ‘This is the most nihilistic vacuum cleaner on the market!’ somehow fails a basic test of credibility.”[1]

Some weeks ago, it was my turn to clean one of the restrooms at the company I work at. Armed with a can of Scrubbing Bubbles, a mop doused in watered-down Lysol, and a ream of paper towels, I set to work, clearing the filth that had been accumulating on the sink, floor, and toilet.

As my rubber glove protected hands moved back and forth, carefully scraping away the dust, dirt, and dried urine, at some point it occurred to me that cleaning was not only an art, but also the most nihilistic of arts. In the same way that nihilism is about stripping away that which is unreal, cleaning is about stripping away that which is unnecessary. A cleaning tool, whether it be a broom, a mop, or a vacuum cleaner, is the artistic equivalent of a philosophical hammer. Ultimately, nothing is added to the thing that is cleaned–it’s all about subtracting, eradicating, erasing the unessential. Whereas most arts entail putting a picture on a canvas, cleaning entails removing superfluous and undesirable bits from an already-completed picture. To clean something means to restore it to its original state, nothing more.

In conclusion, I daresay that, pace Mr. Prozak, “This is the most nihilistic vacuum cleaner on the market!” can not only be a credible promo, but also a most fitting one.

Notes

[1] “Reality is Nihilism”

The Dream Called Reality: Some Scattered (and Unoriginal) Musings on Metaphysics and Hope

By Jin-yeong Yi

“I am not a human. This is only a dream, and soon I will awake. It was too cold and the blood froze all the time”

—Per Yngve Ohlin

“What were those deathly creatures that flew out of the golden box? They were the ills that beset mankind: the spites, disease in its thousand shapes, old age, famine, insanity, and all their foul kin. After they flew out of the box they scattered–flew into every home, and swung from the rafters–waiting. And when their time comes they fly and sting–and bring pain and sorrow and death.

“At that, things could have been much worse. For the creature that Pandora shut into the box was the most dangerous of all. It was foreboding, the final spite. If it had flown free, everyone in the world would have been told exactly what misfortune was to happen every day of his life. No hope would have been possible. And so there would have been an end to man. For, though he can bear endless trouble, he cannot live with no hope at all.”

—Evslin, Evslin, and Hoopes, The Greek Gods 

Some months ago, I had a rather interesting experience. It wasn’t supernatural, but it was rather surreal. Early in the morning, at around 5:15 AM or so, I started walking downstairs for breakfast before I heard a noise. It was the sound of someone walking into the kitchen and switching on the light. Figuring it was probably my sister or her husband, I thought of returning to my room, since I preferred to eat by myself (I generally don’t like to talk during meals unless the subject matter interests me). But I decided to wait just in case the person downstairs was just going for a quick refrigerator raid before heading back to their room.

So I stood there in the middle of the staircase, and waited. You might say that it felt as if my life had temporarily stopped. The whole thing felt mysterious somehow. A collocation of atoms that had coincidentally come into being, the collocation of atoms that was me, was standing still in the darkness at a particular time and place, waiting for another collocation of atoms to exit a particular location. And this collocation of atoms was asking itself whether meaning really existed in a meaningless universe! I felt strange as I observed what was otherwise a very ordinary and mundane event.

If memory serves, at this point my thought process went something like this: is my life and this universe truly meaningless? They appear to be meaningless, objectively, but what if that meaninglessness was actually part of a massive illusion? What if the world in front of my eyes, as well as the events that occur around me, were products of God’s dream, as the Advaitins claimed? Gazing at the walls around me and the ceiling above me, I wondered if I really was existing inside the mental emanation of a Grand Architect.

Depending on how you look at it, imagination is either a blessing or a curse, or both. Imagination enables us to peer beyond the world we have, but it also prevents us from being content with the world we have. Imagination is the reason why life is such a tease. With the mind’s eye, we can look at anything we desire, but rarely are our deepest desires granted. Immortality may not exist, but we can imagine being immortal. True freedom certainly does not exist, but we can imagine being free. We may not be Gods, but we can imagine ourselves as Gods.

The ability to dream, along with skepticism, is the reason why I am able to cling onto sanity and hope in the prison of the real. Reality may be absolute, but my perception of it isn’t, because there is no way for me to know for sure whether or not it’s accurate (as far as I can tell). It may look like this world is real and that my life in it is real, but I am basing that on my own empirical observations; if everything around me were an illusion being fed into my mind, my observations would be rendered moot.

The word “dream” not infrequently enters daily speech. “This is like a dream,” “This is a dream come true,” and “The man/woman of my dreams” are some of the most common examples. It is often used to describe a superlative experience, like a joyous marriage or winning a championship. It’s as if we instinctively know that things usually don’t go our way in the real world, and that it is almost like a miracle when a cherished wish comes true.

Which leads me to the following question: Which is more real, our lives in the waking world or our lives in the dream world? Are dreams a parody of waking life, or is it the other way around? I’m using the word “real” in two senses here: real as in being a part of reality, and real as in being the opposite of counterfeit.

Most of us have had nightmares. Many of us know what it’s like to fall off a cliff or to run away from a shadowy entity, only to end up rooted to the spot.

Sometimes we wake up in our dreams. We notice that something is off, and that leads to the realization that we’re not in reality. If only there was a way to wake up from reality! For reality is a nightmare, a nightmare with moments of calm and sweetness, but a nightmare nonetheless. Depending on who we are and where the currents of causality take us, the nightmare takes on different forms. For some, it may take the form of something overt, like domestic violence or war. For others, it might take the form of something subtle, like a soul-killing job or a decaying marriage.

Apocalypse, that is, an ascent into heaven or a descent into hell (metaphorical or literal), is, needless to say, a ubiquitous theme in not only religion, but also in philosophy and the arts. There is no shortage of dramatic structure that describes an absolute beginning, middle, and end.

On one side, this view is challenged by those who take a cyclical view of history, represented by the likes of Oswald Spengler and Arnold J. Toynbee, on one side, and those who take a Darwinian view of history, represented by the likes of Alexander Rosenberg.

Even if we are to assume that these thinkers are right about there being no straight narrative to history as a whole, it seems to me that the concept of there being such a “narrative” to individuals lives, remains unshaken. If there is no reincarnation, then birth, life, and death comprise not so much a cycle as a sequence. Each and every individual undergoes his or her own Apocalypse.

A possibility that possesses me is the possibility that life is an actual story, with a real plot. A story written by whom, you might ask? Maybe a cosmic playwright, or each individual’s “higher Self.” With this possibility in mind, I can continue to have hope in the face of the darkness I see–for the simple reason that the darkness is followed by dawn.

As far as I know, no one better represented this outlook than Per Yngve Ohlin, to the extent that he could be seen as a symbol for it. I suspect that he saw his whole life as a nightmare; that would explain why he surrounded himself with ugliness, decay, and pain, routinely mutilating and starving himself, using paint and soil to make himself look like a corpse. Perhaps he did such things so that he would never lapse into a dull acceptance of the nightmare as being all there is.  

Which leads me to the next question, which is a question that has probably been asked the day humankind discovered philosophy: What lies on the other side of life?

According to the worldview that I hold, the answer is quite simply–nothing. For if atheism is true, nihilism is true, evolution by natural selection is true, the mind is a function of the brain, etc., I have no reason to believe that my existence will somehow continue after the cessation of the electro-chemical activity in my brain.

The rub lies at the level of assumptions. As a skeptic, I recognize that all of the positions I hold are provisional and tentative. For all I know, I can be a brain in a vat–or, better yet, a spirit tricked into thinking he is a body, much in the same way that one might be fooled into thinking that one is a dog/cat/hamster/etc. during a particularly peculiar dream.

So that is the trillion dollar question: is this–all of this I see in front of me–real? I do not think this question can be brushed aside lightly, because the metaphysical question is the fundamental question, which must be answered accurately before proceeding any further. Unfortunately, I doubt that the means to do so are accessible to us. The metaphysical question is a complex and confusing mathematics problem with no answer key. As far as I can see, we are stuck with what seems and not what is. But that can be encouraging, because it is ignorance, not knowledge, in which room for hope lies.

Albert Einstein and Advaita Vedanta

By Jin-yeong Yi

In “Atheism, Autism, and the Abstract Mind,” I mentioned Einstein and the ambiguity of his viewpoint on metaphysics. He has been called an atheist, an agnostic, an agnostic theist, a deist, a pantheist, and a panentheist. Given the persisting controversy, it could well be that his views were simply too nebulous to determine.

I have wondered about Einstein’s beliefs for a while now, though my research has not gotten any further than reading some quotations on the Internet. But I think my studies in general have finally yielded the beginnings of a possible and plausible answer to the mystery. It is this: that Einstein was an Advaitin.

I will use Einstein’s remarks on the Bhagavad Gita as a starting point for this brief, bullet-point style discussion:

“When I read the Bhagavad-Gita and reflect about how God created this universe everything else seems so superfluous.”[1]

Traditional Advaita denies that we have free will. Einstein took the same position, being a hardcore determinist. Citing Schopenhauer (who was heavily influenced by both Hinduism and Buddhism), he repeatedly expressed the view that all events were directed by a rigorous chain of cause and effect.

“[The] knowledge of the non-freedom of the will protects me from losing my good humor and taking much too seriously myself and my fellow humans as acting and judging individuals.”

*

“Everything is determined, the beginning as well as the end, by forces over which we have no control. It is determined for the insect as well as the star. Human beings, vegetables, or cosmic dust, we all dance to a mysterious tune, intoned in the distance by an invisible piper.”

*

“If the moon, in the act of completing its eternal way around the earth, were gifted with self-consciousness, it would feel thoroughly convinced that it was traveling its way of its own accord….So would a Being, endowed with higher insight and more perfect intelligence, watching man and his doings, smile about man’s illusion that he was acting according to his own free will.”

The quintessence of Advaita is nonduality, the notion that everything is fundamentally and ultimately a single, unified whole, and that only ignorance and illusion, trapping us in delusions of egoism and individualism, prevents us from perceiving this.

“I feel myself so much a part of everything living that I am not the least concerned with the beginning or ending of the concrete existence of any one person in this eternal flow.”

The following quote fits in quite nicely with Karma Yoga:

“Strange is our situation here on Earth. Each of us comes for a short visit, not knowing why, yet sometimes seeming to divine a purpose. From the standpoint of daily life, however, there is one thing we do know: that man is here for the sake of other men—above all for those upon whose smiles and well-being our own happiness depends.”

Here he comes close to echoing Swami Vivekananda, who believed in serving humankind as one’s “larger Self.”

Perhaps the most suggestive pronouncement of all is the following:

“I’m not an atheist and I don’t think I can call myself a pantheist. We are in the position of a little child entering a huge library filled with books in many different languages. The child knows someone must have written those books. It does not know how. It does not understand the languages in which they are written. The child dimly suspects a mysterious order in the arrangement of the books but doesn’t know what it is. That, it seems to me, is the attitude of even the most intelligent human being toward God. We see a universe marvelously arranged and obeying certain laws, but only dimly understand these laws. Our limited minds cannot grasp the mysterious force that moves the constellations.”

Here, Einstein appears to be one with the Advaitin philosophers in that he implies that the existence of order in the universe suggests the existence of an intelligent, creative force (though not necessarily a personal one–Einstein made it quite clear that he did not believe in the traditional theistic concepts of deity), i.e., God/Brahman, and that he proclaims the unknowability of this entity/force.

Supposing that Einstein really was an Advaitin, was he himself aware of the fact? It seems unlikely that he was ignorant of Advaita, because he was arguably as much of a philosopher as he was a scientist. But since he never actually used the label “Advaitin” or “Hindu” to describe his beliefs, it seems reasonable to infer that his thinking just happened to culminate in that Weltanschauung.

These are really only sketchy speculations, and are not intended to be taken too seriously. Hopefully a scholar who is equally familiar with Albert Einstein and Advaita Vedanta will give us his or her own opinion on the subject.

Notes

[1] http://hinduism.about.com/od/thegita/a/famousquotes.htm

Further Reading

Arthur Schopenhauer – Essay on the Freedom of the Will 

Dennis Waite – Back to the Truth: 5000 Years of Advaita

The Quiet Genocide

By Jin-yeong Yi

Eastern Orthodox hieromonk Damascene Christensen once wrote:

“Suicide takes the lives of 6,000 of the young generation in the U.S. each year. This phenomenon is something unheard of in the history of the world. Why should this be, if the world is truly becoming a better place? Suicide is the last Genocide.”[1]

In Japan alone, there have been over 30,000 suicides each year for the past 14 years.[2] That’s over 420,000 deaths. 420,000 individuals who died not because they were murdered, or because they succumbed to cancer, or because they got into a fatal accident or a natural disaster–but because, for one reason or another, they decided that they would be better off dead than alive. 420,000 dead and counting. And that’s just in one country.

Mass suicide may not be the last genocide, but it doesn’t seem to get as much attention as mass murder. If, say, a terrorist group captured 10,000-30,000 people (or even just 10% or less thereof) and announced that they would execute them all within the year, there would likely be a great deal of outcry around the world.

Of course, such a scenario is very different from mass suicide. Suicides are often isolated incidents; even with suicide pacts, the deaths are spread out and, what’s more, they are frequently unpredictable. When the murderer and the victim are the same person, it’s not exactly easy to protect one from the other.

But the point still stands. Hundreds upon hundreds of thousands of people are dying by their own hand year after year.[3] Some of them may cause a scene by throwing themselves off buildings or in front of oncoming trains or cars, but others fade away quietly. We have a bestselling suicide instruction manual in Japan and assisted suicide organizations in all over the world that attract not only the terminally ill but also the suicidally depressed.[4] The body count climbs, and the problem remains unsolved. By the time I finish composing this sentence, another person will take their life, and millions if not tens of millions of others are at this very moment seriously contemplating doing the same. And it does not seem that a whole lot is being done about it.

Is there a solution? It’s likely, seeing that suicide epidemics of such proportions seem to be a relatively recent phenomenon. But whatever the solution is, obviously it will have to penetrate much deeper than any token government program. It doesn’t take a physician to see that combating the symptoms of a disease is not the same as neutralizing the actual cause. And if suicide is a problem, then the present society is very diseased indeed. Restoring the will to live may demand nothing less than a radical transmutation of society from the ground up. While it is most improbable that we can turn the Earth into Heaven, moving it in the direction of Heaven and away from Hell is surely always an option.

In the meantime, there appears to be little that can be done, except on an individual level. Life is a losing battle from the start, and ultimately it is every man for himself. As Andy Dufresne in The Shawshank Redemption says, “it comes down to a simple choice, really: get busy livin’, or get busy dyin’.”

Notes

[1] http://www.stinnocent.com/seraphim/dtw/dtw4/suicide.htm

[2] http://www.tokyotimes.com/2012/suicide-in-japan-exceeds-30000-for-14th-year/

[3] http://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/234219.php

[4] Although the services of such organizations are available to only terminally ill clients; unqualified, suicidally depressed people have been known to forge medical documents in order to gain eligibility.

Letting Sleepy Dogs Lie

By Jin-yeong Yi

I am neither for nor against suicide. I like to think of it as a decision that each individual is to make for him or herself after much consideration and soul-searching. However, I find I hold a rather favorable view of assisted suicide–including assisted suicide for those who are neither physically disabled nor terminally ill. This is for one major reason, which is that assisted suicide does not consist in advocating or encouraging, let alone forcing, people to commit suicide, but in helping them follow through with an act that they intend to carry out with or without assistance.

Pro-life activists argue that suicidal people should be given help in living, not dying. While this line of argument sounds reasonable enough, it doesn’t fully take into account the question of why people seek assisted suicide organizations in the first place. It’s not like none of them considered–or, for that matter, tried–psychotherapy, and it’s not like there’s a shortage of psychotherapists. Is it impossible that they’ve already weighed all of their options and have concluded that they need an emergency exit?

I also find it not a little ironic that the same powers that be who allow people–including military veterans–to languish on the streets deny them access to the most effective means to liberate themselves from the misery that they do little to alleviate. (Even the magistrates of ancient Athens were considerate enough to supply citizens with hemlock, in case life became too unbearable for them.)[1]

Needless to say, keeping assisted suicide illegal leaves suicidal people to take matters into their own hands. Dying a voluntary death is, in fact, harder than it looks. Many “amateur” attempts at suicide fail, not infrequently leaving the victim with serious and permanent injuries–in other words, in a state that they might find worse than death. As the Swiss assisted suicide organization Dignitas points out:

[I]n up to 49 out of 50 cases, trying to end one’s life without expert knowledge leads to failure; often with severe consequences for the individual’s health and with high risks, also for third parties, resulting in a lot of suffering and a serious impact for society…[2]

If it is hard to die at all, it is even harder to die a clean death that will result in the minimum amount of inconvenience and danger to others. Methods such as vehicular impact and suicide by cop leave blood on the hands of unwitting individuals, and methods like gassing, drowning, and jumping may yield results that are, to say the least, inconvenient for people in the vicinity.

It may help to see this life for what it is: a brief stop between birth and death. This world is a vast airport terminal: people come and go; no one stays. You might say that life is a preparation for death.

This is not to say that I don’t have any reservations about an early death. What I lack in moral objections is compensated for by emotional ones. If there is someone you know who wants to die, and you care about that person, you don’t want them to go away; you want them to stay and exist happily, or at least comfortably. But if they are completely set on going away and there is nothing that you or anyone else can do about it, then at the very least you want them to go–to travel–in the best way possible. You want them to fly first class. You want them to be sitting on the best seat in the plane; to be attended upon by warm, friendly, and courteous stewardesses; to be served nice food.

The bottom line is this: if an individual has resolved to depart this world ahead of schedule, and no amount of drugs or rhetoric can persuade them otherwise, then they might as well leave parsimoniously, painlessly, and peacefully.

Notes

[1] http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2010/03/death-becomes-him/307916/

[2] http://www.dignitas.ch/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=11&lang=en

Recommended Reading 

http://idontwanttohang.wordpress.com/2013/04/26/a-mothers-perspective/

http://idontwanttohang.wordpress.com/2013/04/30/a-fathers-perspective/

Reflections on the Riddle of the Universe

By Jin-yeong Yi

Black hole

“I know nothing except the fact of my ignorance.”

—Socrates

What I know can fill a book. What I don’t know can fill entire universes. And what I am not certain of fills all of reality itself.

Upon realizing just how difficult—if not impossible—it is to ascertain anything in this world, one despairs of ever forming a solidly grounded opinion on things. Why should we even try?

No one, living or dead, genius or idiot, monotheist or polytheist or pantheist or deist or agnostic or atheist, can convince me that they have the answer to the riddle of the universe. That is perhaps why I have so much sympathy for the Skeptics of ancient Greece and Rome, while rejecting their doctrine of ataraxia.

The riddle of knowledge is the Riddle of riddles. How can one know what is real, what is true? It seems impossible to even imagine what the answer might look like. Maybe every red pill is just another blue pill in disguise. How can one truly know whether one knows something or not? This riddle may be unsolvable.

But we’ll continue to try, because our minds demand answers. Whether we are humble cracker-barrel philosophers or eminent department chairs of elite universities, we will continue our pursuit of that elusive thing we call truth.

Will the answer to the riddle of the universe ever be revealed? If it is, I imagine that it would be a target that no one in history has ever hit, and that it would be far greater than all of our speculations combined.

The (Non)Preciousness of Life

By Jin-yeong Yi

“No gods, no life after death, no ultimate foundation for ethics, no ultimate meaning in life, and no human free will – are all deeply connected to an evolutionary perspective. You’re here today and you’re gone tomorrow, and that’s all there is to it.”

—William B. Provine

I remember the first few times I watched this video. I am no vegetarian or vegan (tried the former in high school but gave up within several weeks), but as someone who had kept hamsters as pets during childhood (not very successfully, I am sad to say), I found myself deeply moved. Here was a tiny and fragile creature that had faced a future of either being fed to reptiles in infancy or being preyed upon as adult, and perishing in less than half a decade in any case. But here it was, safe and sound, being raised with such tender care. As I watched it resting contentedly in its owner’s palm, I couldn’t help but think: if even a mouse can be loved so dearly in an indifferent universe, what possibilities does that suggest for us?

Life is cheap, and that may well be precisely why I value it.