Tag Archives: Personal Journey

Late Night Philosophical Musings

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When I was a kid there was a philosophical quandary that would keep me up late at night.  I spent an inordinate amount of time contemplating whether things tasted the same to everyone or if everyone tasted things differently.  For instance, when someone described something as salty and I would taste it and agree that it was salty did it mean that we perceived saltiness the same way?  This really bothered me.  It seemed that while a piece of food might contain the same amount of saltiness, we all either perceived saltiness in a different way or else there must be some inherent quality within us that determined whether or not we liked saltiness.  After all, it was blatantly we obvious to my young self that we didn’t all like the same food.  My mom would assure me that tastes change as one gets older and that I might one day discover that I liked something I did not currently like.  So one’s perception of taste did not even remain constant throughout one’s life.  This of course introduced a fair amount of skepticism into my young brain.  Long before I ever considered whether or not self doubt might be a tragic consequence of sexism or read about the philosophy of David Hume, I was skeptical that our senses could provide us with an accurate picture of reality.  The fact that taste was always the sense that I fixated on probably meant that I was always obsessed with food. 

The taste question continued to bug me throughout my life.  Even when I learned that there were taste buds and that how you tasted things might have something to do with how many of those buds you had in particular parts of your mouth, this didn’t solve the problem for me.  Sure, some people might perceive a stronger sense of saltiness than others and therefore because they had more taste buds on the salty side of their tongue not like as much salt.  It made sense in the same sense that some people are colorblind or deaf in certain frequencies.  But this did not really answer the burning philosophical question that always played in my head.  When we talked about the taste of salt, how could we be sure that we perceived it the same way?  Even if two people had the exact same number of taste buds, it could not be deduced that salty was the exact same sensation to each of them.  How I perceive salty could still be entirely different than how another person perceived it.  Therefore when we described salty, we would not be in essence talking about the same sensation, even though we were describing the same experience.  And even if we add in the complexities of brain chemistry, we are still just adding more layers to the same basic question: do we have the ability to accurately perceive objects as they are? 

I would always come to the conclusion that we could not.  We could have several different people taste the soup pot and come to the conclusion that it was too salty or that it needed salt and we could then enjoy the soup.  But we couldn’t conclude that we all perceived saltiness in the exact same way.  This did not mean that there was no relationship between the reality that our words described and the external reality of saltiness.  There had to be some relationship between what people meant when they said “salty” and what we tasted.  There could even be a fairly common consensus on how much salt tasted good and what things tasted good with the salt.  We could just never be sure that the essence of each person’s experience with salt was the same.  We could experience salt, but we could not actually know the reality of salt.  This did not even mean that there was not an absolute quality of saltiness.  My young brain would conclude that objects had actual qualities, but that human beings could not accurately perceive those qualities or ever be certain that we were.

I was fascinated by the concept of sensory doubt in general.  In high school, I conjured an alien character for a story whose favorite colors were beltekan and uzop – colors he could see that the human eye could not.  I wrote a science fiction story in which the entire Earth was destroyed by Venusians because the Venusians concluded there was no life on Earth since they did not have the same senses we did.  They communicated by a complex language of chemical emissions and because their ecosystem was vastly different, they concluded that Earth was incapable of supporting life.  

When people would say that they had encounters with the demonic I was always curious.  I was both terribly skeptical because I had no such encounters, but always open to the possibility that they could exist and that I just did not have whatever sense perceived them.  When a friend told me she could see auras, my attitude was much the same.  Maybe she could, but I still wasn’t sure I believed in auras.  And when it came to believing in God, it was because I could never imagine away the presence I felt to be God.  Of course it occurred to me that it might be that all the chemicals in my brain are the product of evolution because it was advantageous to believe in God.  I mean, it’s a natural question when you’ve lived your whole life doubting all senses that belong to everyone while simultaneously wondering if there are entire dimensions we can’t perceive.  Yet trying to imagine away God was like trying to ignore the salt in the soup.

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The Voice that Can’t be Silenced

I confess that I have this dream that is probably fairly common for most writers: to have that bestselling work that everyone talks about.  I also confess that I often fantasize that my brilliance will be discovered posthumously.  Two hundred years in the future, a tour group will traipse through the carefully preserved cracker box house with the overgrown lawn in South Austin saying, “This is where Holly Swift wrote her greatest work.  She was far ahead of her time and no one understood her genius back then.  Like Earnest Hemingway’s estate, her house has been turned into a cat preserve.  Of course, it was always a cat preserve when she lived there.”  This is because ever since I was in elementary school I have known that “far ahead of one’s time,” was probably the greatest compliment that anyone could ever have.  It meant that you were brilliant and that you had insights into the human condition that no one else had.  It also meant that you were destined to be misunderstood and either hated or ignored by most of your contemporaries. 

As I get older, I muse upon the philosophical assumptions on which this dream relies.  First of all the fact that I have always believed that “far ahead of her time,” was how I wanted to be remembered means that I have always been a future oriented thinker.  I have always known that the world was less than it should be and had hopes that the future could be much brighter.  I have also always known that I wanted to go down in history as someone who shaped that bright future.  It meant I didn’t believe that progress was inevitable without conscious action and it meant that I didn’t believe we were doomed to die in an apocalypse.  Also crucial to that basic assumption has always been that I should be remembered for my ideas. 

I found a journal I wrote ten years ago.  I said, “I want the whole world talking about what I write.”  I wrote about wanting to walk in a whole of different people’s shoes to see what it was like and concluding that I would come up with even more questions if I knew them better.  Sadly, I was even more cynical at twenty-six than I am at thirty-six because I wrote, “I once defined my ideal job as being one in which I helped people become better people.  But now I don’t think that’s the case, it’s too overly idealistic, even for me.”  I wrote about wanting to question every single foundation in the world, of being arrogant and ambitious, and of not letting popes and presidents off the hook.  I wrote about having no fear of the power of a writer to shake everything with a few well placed words.  I wrote, “I want to speak up for the world.  I want to try everyone’s shoes on.  I want to be the voice that can’t be silenced.” 

But then I came upon this sobering bit in the middle of it all.  “I want to tell you about an unspoken sexism that exists in this world.  I can’t quite place my finger on it, but I think it’s something like this.  If you’re a girl, you’re supposed to settle.  You’re not supposed to want the world and above all, you’re not supposed to expect to go to the top.  And you’re not supposed to believe in yourself.  You’re supposed to make other people happy.  Your self worth is defined in how well you live up to others’ expectations.  You make good grades because it makes your parents happy.  You go school where it makes people happy.  You never tell people they’re wrong.  It’s the unspoken rule – the one no one ever tells you, but you quietly learn.  You ask your questions to someone else, someone insignificant, someone who might just listen, but not the someone who could actually do anything.  I think the unspoken sexism in the world is that no one takes you seriously.  I get the feeling that girls aren’t supposed to have inner voices or deep convictions.  Girls can want to be famous for ice skating, singing, acting, writing romance novels, and even making scientific discoveries.  But girls aren’t supposed to be famous for their ideas or what they think.”  And then I wrote about how women’s dreams were supposed to be just doing what everyone else wants.  

The tragedy in all of this was that I was behind the times.  I thought that my observations on sexism and unspoken rules were deep, insightful, and original.  Perhaps they were deep and insightful, but they were hardly original.  I was merely waking up to the things that the other feminists already know.  The even deeper tragedy is that while I named “it” in that journal, that horrific thing that held me back and kept me from taking risks or actually putting pen to paper, I still continued to listen to it.  The wound is that sometimes I still do. 

Let’s be honest – if my writing is discovered after I die then I can avoid the pain of being called a heretic and told I’m going to hell by people who love me.  I don’t have to read a scathing New York Times book review that shatters my self esteem.  Really, being discovered after I die means that I can remain dysfunctional and safely avoid any situations that remotely resemble conflict.  Except that is not how you change the world.  What is that quote about well behaved women and making history again?  If I could go back in time and say something to myself at twenty-six or younger, I would offer this advice: Risk big and risk everything.  Don’t let people limit your dreams because you’re a girl or because they have been burned by the world and became too cynical.  You may lose everything and you may very well get burned.  But scars from risks not taken hurt far longer than the flames of burning fires.

 

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What is Your Existential Crisis?

I write this post because of a story that a convert to Islam told my World Religions class when we visited his mosque.  Our professor always asked people how they came to pick their religion – whether it was because they grew up in it or converted.  This man had been an Evangelical Sunday school teacher and had read a book by Josh McDowell called Evidence that Demands a Verdict in hopes of being a better teacher.  He then decided that there was not enough evidence for him to accept the same verdict as Mr. McDowell.  Thus, he could no longer be a Christian because he didn’t think the resurrection really happened.  However, when he turned forty, he thought he should find the right religion because he didn’t want to be on the wrong side on judgment day.  I wondered if this man’s occupation might have something to do with computers (and as it turns out he was a senior engineer for IBM) since his thinking seemed to be very much based on evidence and fairly black and white.  However, more than that, I learned that day that the existential crisis that drives one person is not the same as the one that drives someone else.  This probably should not have come as a surprise, but it did. 

My existential crisis of faith when I was a young college student also came about by reading a book.  It was Let the Nations Be Glad by John Piper, which was assigned for an Introduction to Missions class at Oklahoma Baptist University.  It was one of the few non-required religion classes I could take that didn’t feel hostile to women.  But suffice to say that I started a class being enthusiastic about sharing my faith and feeling called by God to do something that left me feeling ashamed of my faith and not sure I wanted to be a Christian.  I had never thought of God as a narcissistic monster who delighted in torture before I read Piper.  I took that class because I loved to worship God and wanted to serve God.  I left that class not really liking God. 

My existential crisis had primarily to do with hope.  I remember scrawling in my notebook of deep thoughts that philosophically, I thought that love and justice might in fact be the same thing rather than opposites – and learned in seminary that Paul Tillich thought so too.  But at the tender age of twenty-one, I thought my only choices were Evangelical Christianity or agnosticism/atheism or some other religion like Buddhism or something.  So it seemed to me that if you were an atheist and a woman, you could be an equal citizen rather than a second class one.  If you were an atheist, you might be dedicated to do something about the real world because you would realize this life was precious.  Maybe in the future, there could be an ideal society where people actually loved each other and cared about each other and we learned not to fight wars and had cured most diseases.  Maybe we could actually solve some of our problems and we wouldn’t have to have poverty and hunger anymore.  Maybe we could even travel to other planets and make contact with extraterrestrials.  And my crisis was that if the only choices out there are Star Trek or John Piper, then there wasn’t even a contest.  

So do we each have our own existential crisis that drives us?  In asking this question, am I making certain assumptions about the nature of reality based on my own experience?  The primary reason that I did not become an atheist was because I could not imagine away what I felt to be the presence of God.  It was simply beyond the limits of my imagination to not conceive that God was up there somewhere and that God was aware of everything including all my thoughts and questions (as well as everyone else’s).  It was personal experience that I have difficulty putting into words or naming with language.  No doubt most atheists would think it was really all in my head.  And maybe I have a psychological need to believe in God because I find the idea of a random, chaotic universe unbearable.  It is possible that could be the case.  Fundamentalists would also say that I’m wrong because if I can’t see things in black and white and in terms of evidence, then I’m just reading what I want to see into reality.  Of course, I don’t expect many of them to have read past a title like, “What is your existential crisis?” 

However, that’s the point.  We all perceive things differently.  Maybe the people who say they’d like to believe in God, but can’t, really don’t have that sense that I couldn’t imagine away.  It’s easy for me to say, “Well you just think that your only choices are Star Trek or John Piper, but let me enlighten you with liberal mainline Protestantism.”  However, I don’t think I would have lost or gained my faith with a book like Evidence that Demands a Verdict.  My questions would have had to do with the nature of justice and the desire for a better world.  I would still ask what the resurrection means and why it matters.  That is not to say that if someone proved beyond a doubt that it didn’t happen, that I wouldn’t have to accept the evidence.  But as long as there is space to believe in the resurrection, I will.  I think if you are inclined to think the resurrection didn’t happen because people who are dead have a habit of staying that way, then that completely misses the point.  The point (at least to me) is that if even death can be overcome, then why not every other injustice and hurt in the world?  Why are we limited to only what we see as being possible?  But then my existential crisis was a crisis of hope. 

 

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