Thursday, December 30, 2010

A Candid Reflection on Myself

Know thyself, in ancient Greek
I'm going to venture out into a little more personal territory tonight.  I'm feeling emotional, and I want to capture some thoughts.  Please bear with me.

Most people have come across the maxim "know thyself" at some point in their life.  The saying was inscribed in the pronaos (forecourt) of the Temple of Apollo at Delphi (pictured left), and it is probably one of the most important, sagely bits of information ever spelled out for humankind.  Afterall, what more helpful piece of information can there be than to understand your place in the world, how you fit, who you are, who others are in relation to you, what enlivens you to the world around you, what feeds your passions and snares your hopes; simply stated, what makes you who you are?

In the end, I cannot think of another more insightful charge than to get to know myself.  By doing so, I wonder how much of who I am would change?  I mean, part of knowing who you are is knowing who you're not, and then being brave enough to jettison those falsities.  Nevertheless -- and I'm certainly not the only one who does this -- I hold on to what I know is false about myself; I hold on to who I'm not.  And the end result of such a morbid practice is manifold: I don't get to know myself truly, others are forced to look past the veneer I unintentionally present them with, my values become blurred, and I act in ways that are disingenuous.

So why would I, and all the others who undertake to obscure themselves from themselves, do such a thing?

First, I think that it is partly unintentional.  There isn't a soul alive who isn't conditioned by their experiences along the way to adulthood.  No-one lives in a vacuum.  And because we are all influenced by the contexts under which we experience life, we are forced to endure many untruths that we unwittingly take on.  For example, a person growing up in a well-meaning family may experience a lot of sarcastic humour from their parents.  While this in itself is not intended for bad, the long-term side-effect of sarcasm may be that a person develops a pattern of self-demeaning.  That is, when he achieves something, or recognise something about himself,  he may automatically and unintentionally detract from his accomplishment by telling himself things like, "you could've done better," or "why didn't I do this sooner?" or "I've seen better."

The sarcasm of the well-meaning family helped condition a negative response in a family member who, for all intents and purposes, means to treat himself respectfully and kindly.  Nevertheless, the wholeness and intimate awareness of that person's actual selfhood is obscured by a needless and detrimental tendency to self-demean.  Such a person, while he may know himself quite well is, sadly, not in possession of his full selfhood.

Shame-based identity
Second, I think people obscure themselves from themselves because they are afraid they may end up disliking who they actually are.  That is, people are afraid of who they may actually be so they go to great lengths to hide behind preferred projections of who they'd like to be. 

I'll use myself as an example: when I was roughly 12 years old, I had enough self-awareness to understand that I constantly felt ashamed of myself.  To protect myself from the growing depression my sense of shame was engendering, I pictured myself as a strong, handsome, nigh omni-capable man bent on battling the forces of evil and preserving precious antiquities for the rest of the world.  And if you read between the lines of that last description, yes, I fancied myself a budding Indiana Jones.  I even went so far as to steal my uncle's cream-coloured leather gloves, and convince my grandmother to purchase a genuine fedora at the Stetson warehouse near where we lived.  In order to save myself from myself, I pretended to be someone else.

I didn't like me because I wasn't capable of seeing myself soberly.  What I saw when I looked into myself (usually at night when I was alone in the dark of my room) was a scared, disappointed, hurt, and lonely person.  I saw the negative remarks I heard around me, and the resulting shame I thought I should feel for being dissatisfactory to others.  I wasn't a carpenter like the rest of the men in my family, and I wasn't a regimented and orderly engineer-type like I thought my mother's family was.  I was too different to be acceptable, therefore I didn't accept myself, and that resulted in a shame-based identity.  And that shame came out in fear-based searches for an identity that modelled who I'd like to be, ideally: Indiana Jones.  I didn't like me, but I really liked Indiana Jones.

All these years later, however, I still haven't completely shed the shame-based identity of that little boy.  I still haven't been able to make a coherent picture of who I actually am.  The difference now is that I'm eager to know myself because, at bottom, I really have no other recourse than to come face-to-face with myself if I want to actually live, if I want to be a genuine person, if I want to embrace the moral complusion that "Know thyself" implies on a person to be fearlessly real.

Who I am
I am not Indiana Jones.  I am not a carpenter like the men in my family.  Being twenty-four years in advance of my 12 year-old perceptions, I have come to understand that I am not a regimented and orderly engineer-type like I thought my mother's family was, and neither are they!  Still, who I am is a little murky to me at this point.  A lot has happened in my life to muddy the waters, as it were, which makes self-reflection that much more difficult again.  But mud settles, and ripples eventually steady, and what should be left, if I am patient enough to wait and see, is a loveable, enjoyable, and whole person staring back at me; a person I can call 'me'.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

What Has Not Yet Killed Us

If you recall, I posted that Saint Cynic will be taking on an additional subject: Fitness and Nutrition.  To that end, I have been shoring up some titles of books that I will be borrowing from the local library so that I can read, learn, and inwardly digest.

My purpose behind tackling the field of fitness and nutrition is not to set myself up as any form of authority on the subject; I'm certainly not that.  However, because I was gifted with a modicum of brain-power, and a rational self-interest in my own well-being; because I'm not getting younger and I've frittered away many years of valuable time poking about in areas of interest that have done nothing to stabilize really any area of my life; because I have a swelling interest in improving the quality of my life as a whole; and because I would rather widen the margins for avoiding any possible heritable disorders in my family, I am going to journal my findings as a personal catalogue that others can (hopefully) benefit from.

If nobody besides myself benefits, so be it.  But because I will personally benefit from this new journey then that's one more person who has stepped beyond the pale of faulty "conventional wisdom" and into the light of proper self-actualization, and a more refined sense of actual autonomy.

To begin with, it is true that you are what you eat.  What you take into you, in part, logically comprises aspects of the physical self.  For example, if you habituate yourself to a diet of fast-foods, rancid vegetable oils (which are the oils found in most store-bought food products), and multitudinous forms of sugar then you'll ride out your days on unnecessary insulin spikes that overtax your liver with harmful carbohydrates and result in unhealthy weight gain.  Thus if you eat unhealthy, you will grow into a robust example of ill-health.  What you eat helps determine what you become.

We apply the same principle to how we think ("think positive and you'll be positive", etc.), so why would the same not hold true for your bodily intake?  The simple answer is that it does.  This is incontrovertibly true as borne out by evolutionary history.  And the human body, simply said, cannot adapt to those things that, in effect, weaken it, damage the gene pool, and eventually kill it off.  So, despite Neitzsche's famous quote, "That which does not kill us makes us stronger," it simply does not equal out that poor food intake, while it does not kill you quick enough to pique other's awareness, makes you any stronger, or that our present state of (un)health as a human race will make us any stronger in the future.

The facts are continuing to roll in: we are not dead, but what has not killed us is, in fact, weakening us and, sadly, fattening us up for the eventual slaughter.

With that in mind, I plan to bolster my awareness of proper fitness and nutrition, and change the trajectory of my life overall by improving my understanding of the issues that attend to our culture's declining health.  To begin with, I will be reading Gary Taubes's famous and perrenial volume Good Calories, Bad Calories.

Taubes's credentials are impressive (this blogger has noted them), and he has shaken the dietary world to its core with his ├╝ber-well-researched essay.  I am looking forward to gleaning everything I can from Taube's work, and then applying his conclusions in their proper directions.

I will offer my reflections on Taubes's work as I go, and hopefully generate some fruitful discussion for everyone involved.  So keep watching Saint Cynic for my reflections on Taubes's book and, of course, for my usual stock-and-trade articles criticising the religio-philosophical world around us.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Normal

I don't like the word 'normal.'  It's one of the most overused, thoughtless, and empty words in the English vocabulary.  Mathematics defines normal as 90°.  After that, normal gets weird, dodgy, connotative and, well, abnormal.

You see, there is no normal in philosophy -- that strange application every one of us does to varying degrees in our lives.  Science really has no normal beyond importing the mathematical definition of the word.  Social sciences harbour freakish political mindsets abstracted from reality and imposed on fledgling minds; their 'normal' is the particular partisan persuasion of the institute teaching the social sciences.  And most often that persuasion happens to be in conflict with reality.

Economics doesn't have a 'normal'.  There's no 'normal' in environmental sciences.  There's no 'normal' in music.  Really, 'normal' just doesn't exist beyond being a sentiment that reinforces the guilt we're taught we should feel if we don't quite "fit in."  Add to the injury of that guilt the insult that mainstream media chats into our ears: be an individual.  So while it is that we should be concerned about 'fitting in', so that we don't appear abnormal, we should also be individuals (just like everyone else!), which is a message to stand in stark contrast to the status quo (i.e., the normal expectations around us).

Well, having explained my bafflement with the uncouth concept of normality, I will leave off this article with Ellen Goodman's famous quotation about what constitutes 'normal'.
Normal is getting dressed in clothes that you buy for work and driving through traffic in a car that you are still paying for - in order to get to the job you need to pay for the clothes and the car, and the house you leave vacant all day so you can afford to live in it.
Yeah. There's nothing like aspiring to mediocrity. How pathetic is that?

Boxing Day and Circumcision

The two topics don't really meet up in any meaningful way, aside from the fact that I've been debating with someone about 'circumcision' today, on Boxing Day.  That being said, I will state flat-out that I think circumcision is 99.9% of the time a horrific and immoral practice. 

Yes, the Abrahamic covenant in Scripture compels those of the Judeo-Christian persuasion to consider whitling the phallus down as a godly action, one that marks a person as God's chosen.  Yes, the argument can be made that baptism replaces circumcision because circumscribing the heart (i.e., cutting one's self off from the debauchery of the world) is far nobler.  And I will agree that the metaphysic of baptism is far more laudable than the partial emasculation set out in the Old Testament as a means of currying favour with Yahweh.

Nevertheless, I am four-square against the practice of circumcision, and consider anyone who elects to have their children mutilated in such a fashion to be unthinking, inconsiderate, brutish and immoral.  Harsh words, I know.  And perhaps you may know me, and now understand what I think if you have had your child ravaged by such an invasive, and insidiously injurious barbarism (sometimes referred to vapidly as a "common surgical procedure").  I'm not concerned.  I welcome conversation.

That said, I have been debating a woman about circumcision.  Her position is essentially this: if you do it, or believe its fine, then it is.  She believes, as a Christian, that it is a matter of faith.  That is, she has faith in circumcision.  I think her position entirely ridiculous.  I responded by saying as much, but in more words.

...that you would say, "[my] faith tells me that it’s NOT a harmful or damaging thing" is really what concerns me about your thinking.  Why?  Because 'faith', definitionally, is not a content-rich position.  That is, faith is not an information-filled premise upon which to base your conclusion that circumcision is not harmful.  The basic facts bear this out quite well.

First, faith is, definitionally, a 'hope' or 'basic trust' in a proposition (in this case, God).  The Greek word for 'faith' used in NT scripture is pistis (noun, used 244 times).  It is the name/noun given to the quality of a person that can 'hope' or place a 'basic trust' in the claims of the apostles, Jesus, and scripture.

Second, because 'faith' is essentially a compulsive quality that enables a person to believe certain truth-claims, it does not follow therefore that a person can utilise faith for whatever topic, issue, or subject they fancy.  Faith is not a scapegoat that allows you to place all your reasoning on hold for the simple expedient of relaxing your responsibility to reason things out.

Third, because you are not excused from reasoning just because you have faith, you are in the position of having to consider that the first action of circumcision is to harm the male phallus by slicing off its foreskin.  This involves inordinate amounts of pain, long-term suffering, and possible pain in the future if the foreskin is cut back too far (e.g., it hurts some men to have a full errection because they were cut back too far).

The point is this: whenever the human body is somehow harmed, depleted, altered, or even augmented (e.g., deviant piercings), it is mutilated.  Plain and simple.  Therefore, circumcision, because it involves harming the male phallus in a way that disfigures it from its natural state, is abjectly immoral and wrong.  This is basic logic informed by simple observation, irrespective of a contentless position like 'faith'.

If the first action of circumcision is injurious to the male phallus, and therefore the male who undergoes it, it is undebateably harmful.  And where harm is inflicted against another's will and natural sanctity; where harm is inflicted without the utilitarian measure of doing harm to save a life; where harm is invited on a person in such a way that potentializes long-term psychological, emotional, and physical effects (which circumcision does do), it is therefore wrong, immoral, evil, and ungodly.

That some Bronze-age agrarian polytheists took a fancy to Yahweh, one of the Canaanite gods, and lopped off the dangly bit of their penis to show him contrition does not make such a stupid act respectable, healthy, or worthy of propagation.  Abraham's story is just that: a story.  It is an embellishment protracted through centuries of oral repetition, and enforced upon untold millions of people all in an effort to appease their vengeful god.  They may as well have thrown the most beautiful virgins into a volcano.  The mentality would've been the same: hurt people to please God.  It's patently irrational and not worthy of being a faith-issue.  Faith has a certain dignity that is smudged, distorted and sullied when measured against such ruthless and insipid practices as circumcision.
I'm interested in this lady's response, but since this debate has been rambling out over the coarse of the past week, and her rebuttals have been far from inspiring or persuasive, I'm not counting on much.  Perhaps her ability to reason has been circumcised by her faith.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Christo-Solstice

Christmas will be happening a little late for the Saint Cynic household; I am scheduled to work the holidays. In any case, for the rest of you who have somewhat normal lives, Merry Christmas!
And for those of you who are of a different mind concerning Christmas, I hope you have a superb Solstice Season!

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Steven Wright and A New Pope

One of my all time favourite comedians is Steven Wright. I find myself in stitches almost every time I see one of his shows, or read some of his quips. So, in an effort to push some of you readers into a fit of raucous laughter, I have embedded a wee clip of his Comic Relief appearance. Enjoy!


And since this blog really wouldn't be complete without a little stab at institutional religion, I present you with the following brilliant little mock-up called, "A New Pope".

Friday, December 17, 2010

Saint Cynic Tackles Fitness and Nutrition

This blog will be taking on a new subject, along with keeping to religio-philosophical criticism.  Saint Cynic will now also be tackling fitness and nutrition.  I have been participating in P90X and in a nutritional lifestyle called the Primal Blueprint, and I can say that both fitness models in combination have done wonderfully for me, so far.

Briefly stated, P90X proposes to "shred" fat off your body and help you build lean muscle mass within 90 days.  But to do this, a person has to follow the nutritional guide provided by Team Beachbody, the manufacturers of said program.  After leafing through their nutrition guide, my wife and I decided that it was not suitable to our physical needs.  Essentially, there is too much emphasis on carbohydrates in the P90X dietary guide, to the point where one could legitimately wonder, "isn't this the kind of diet that would be better suited to fattening up cattle?" 

Well, the argument certainly could be made that by taking on P90X's dietary advice you would have to make your whole lifestyle about working out.  Incidentally, that's also one of the criticisms about P90X in general: that it requires an overall lifestyle change such that everything you do has to revolve around working out, and finding the time to work out.  For those people who have that kind of leisure, that's fine.  However, there are those of us -- myself, for example -- who just don't have the kind of time that P90X demands.  Nor do I have any interest in eating in such a way that I'm constantly having to monitor my caloric intake, or working out to burn more calories than I take in (a poor bit of advice that I'll dispell at a later date).

So, to deal with both the nutritional end of things and the issue of time, I've taken on the Primal Blueprint for Fitness and for Nutrition.  In a nutshell, the Primal Blueprint draws attention to the harmful effects of "cereal" grains, and emphasizes the overarching importance of a fat-burning metabolism.  Thus, a person should not be eating grains, which sap the body of its mineral and vitamin stores, but should be eating whole foods, fermented vegetables, good fats, lots of protein from healthy meats, and discarding as much sugary intake as possible to avoid insulin spikes (which are correlated to an increasing rise in diabetes).

More though, Primal Blueprint speaks to fitness in a way that legitimizes an easy-going fitness routine that still maximises physical benefits.  Says Mark Sisson, the creator of Primal Blueprint:
Our exercises should make us stronger, faster, and more capable of accomplishing just about any physical feat the world throws at us. They should be enjoyable (pleasure-giving), brief (without sacrificing effectiveness), sustainable (lifelong), immediately accessible (to young, old, and untrained), and infinitely scalable (from beginners to elites). A fitness program, then, should meet these benchmarks.
So while it is that P90X will kick your ass and make you burn, ache, and sweat -- which is all very useful when getting fit -- it does not propose the fluidity of Primal Blueprint as described in the quote above.  Nevertheless, P90X can be used in conjunction with Primal Blueprint on certain days.  For example, if you're needing to "lift heavy things" (a category familiar to primal-goers), you could easily sub in one of the lift routines from P90X, or even just a portion of a lift routine.  Also, in the winter months, when it's really not easy on your body to run around outside, you could do one of the cardio routines from P90X, or, again, just a portion of one.

However you chose to approach the Primal Blueprint, P90X, if utilised appropriately, can be of great benefit.  As a stand-alone, however, I found P90X to be a little tedious and overly time-consuming.  In turn, the harsh time commitment of P90X nags a certain point: can I sustain such a rigorous routine in the face of everyday life from now until old-age?  My answer is "no".  And I suspect that may be the answer for a large number of people who would like to reap the benefits of P90X but just can't afford the time.

There is a solution, however, and it consists in making a hybrid of the Primal Blueprint for Fitness and Nutrition, and P90X.  And in my opinion, the relaxed pace of primal fitness is better adapted to the actualities of human living in the modern world where so much of our time is at a high premium, and where coping with even a minimal fitness and nutrition routine can rub us up against the demands of work, family, and other pursuits.

More to come...

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Richard Lynn: Disbelief and IQ

The Telegraph, a newspaper out of the UK, has put out an article detailing the findings of emeritus psychology professor Richard Lynn.  Lynn teaches out of Ulster University and has recently suggested that people with better than average IQs are less likely to believe in God.

Lynn's critics have labelled the findings "simplistic", and based on what I've read so far, I'd have to agree.

According to Lynn, the decline in religious affliation and belief in God dropped dramatically in the 20th century because people have become more intelligent.  A quick glance at the basic evolution of the human being, however, suggests that we may not have been as smart as our neanderthalic ancestors.  If that is true, then Lynn's findings are not only "simplistic", as his critics have charged, but inevitably wrong.

Neaderthals were highly religious (though not in an organised sense), even superstitious people, yet their overall cranial capacity suggests a larger brain, and therefore a possible better overall cerebral capability.  Mind you, as the documentary Battle of the Brains indicates, the jury's still out on whether a bigger brain means more potential capacity.  For some, smaller regions of the brain are more efficient than others who have larger regions, and visa versa.

So, while it is that neanderthals may have been smarter and people with better-than-average IQs may be less inclined to believe in God, there is no clear-cut link between belief in a set of propositions and the overall intellectual horsepower of a person's brain. 

And let's not fool ourselves into thinking that the world's major educational institutions are anything shy of nonreligious to begin with.  Hence people who flourish in academic settings are going to be much more highly influenced by the philosophical climate of the institutes they attend.  In our youth, we usually call that kind of exemplification "peer pressure", but somehow, when we peer into the upper-eschelons of academia the notion of that same "peer pressure" is overlooked, and people start exculpating themselves with unfounded excuses such as 'people are just smarter now.'  Nonsense!  People are able to access much more information now and, consequently, they are better equipped to meet the demands of reality face-on.

In any case, being better informed and having more ready access to information doesn't make a person smarter, and really doesn't show a link into disbelief.  The familiar logician's addage "correlation is not causation" is instructive here: while there may be an argument to suggest that readily available information can persuade people not to believe in God, that accessibility is not definitively the cause of a person's unbelief.  And let's not forget that there are many sincere, highly intelligent religious folk who have access to the same information that most other people do -- and they keep believing.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Arken Counter (It's a Copyright thing...)

World famous young earth creationist, Ken Ham -- of Answers In Genesis fame -- has stepped up and asked for donations of $24.5 million dollars to make an amusement park out of Noah's Ark.  Said distraction is, thus far, banally labelled, "Ark Encounter".

Yes, that's right, Mr. Ham is set to dazzle the world by recreating a big boat.  And he wants everyone else to pay for it.  Isn't that nice of him?

Well, in the spirit of charity, I decided to pop over to his blog and feed him a reflection.  However, because my response there was not immediately supportive but more probative, I have been placed in 'moderation' while others after me (because they're enthusiasts) have been permitted their breezy remarks.  Here is what I wrote:
If people are willing to donate multiple thousands of dollars to contribute a peg, plank, or beam would they also be willing to contribute the same kind of money to something more practical, like hosting a dinner for homeless people? Or, perhaps, renting an apartment for a struggling university student?

Why not do something more useful for God’s people? If the biblical stories are true, then we’ve already had an ark. Why do we need another one; especially one that’s just meant to impress viewers and serves essentially as vainglory?

And has anyone realised the contribution to deforestation this project entails?
I think my comments and questions are fair.  Why do we need what would essentially amount to a theme park attraction imaginatively abstracted from the pages of a 5000 year-old book?  And while the U.S. economy rides the waves of recession and depression, is it really essential to anchor otherwise useful funds into a boat-shaped playground?

And why build the bloody thing inland?  What kind of a stupid waste is it to have a giant, brand new boat sitting inland?  At least make the damn thing funtional!  Ooo!  I know: load on board the young earth creationists two-by-two and let them float away somewhere where we don't have to listen to their illiterate twaddle about the earth being 6000 years old. 

And on that point (about the earth being 6000 years old), I think Sam Harris summed it up best when he wrote in Letter To A Christian Nation, "This is, incidentally, about a thousand years after the Sumerians invented glue" (Vintage, paperback ed., p. x - xi).  But, if you're going to beat a dead horse, you may as well have glue as an end-goal.  Then maybe the young-earthers will have a little something-something to seal their planks and beams against the unfloods and inland breakers.

Monday, December 6, 2010

I Don't Believe In Hell

I don't believe in Hell.  I think the whole idea is contemptible nonsense.  If someone does believe in Hell, they must agree to some version of the following paradigm:
  1. God created everything, including people;
  2. People did stuff they shouldn't have and that made God upset;
  3. God set-up a place for people who make him miffed, and it is called 'Hell' (there's all sorts of unimaginably horrific torture that goes on without end in Hell);
  4. God wants to forgive everyone for not only doing irksome things themselves, but also for inheriting the irksomeness of the first people to ruffle God's feathers, as it were;
Conclusion: If you exist, you've been created sick, commanded to be well by asking forgiveness for sins you didn't commit but inherited, and if you don't ask forgiveness for those sins, then you'll suffer unmitigated torture forever and ever.  Amen.

Nope.  Sorry.  I don't buy it.  If the Christian message holds true, then Christ shouldered the burden of everyone else's sins.  That leaves everyone else standing on their own two feet, not taking on myriad generations of others misgivings.  That also means that if God created everyone sick, and demands that they be well, then there's no point in condemning them for the state he created them in.  Why bother creating anyone in the first place just to condemn them if they don't recognise their malady?

That is the message of a capricious and malevolent deity.

I think God's a little better than that.  If I can think of a more moral outcome to being a little spiritually daft, then I'm sure God must be slightly ahead of regular human morality, no?