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Some early-morning thoughts on how we should feel about Bin Laden’s death.

Every time I’ve gotten on Facebook over the past few days I’ve read people’s reactions to the death of Osama Bin Laden. Most of these statements regarding OBL’s death haven’t been about the man himself, the life he lived, or the way he died; they’ve mostly been reactions to others’ celebration of his death. Most of these reactions have been negative; they object to the celebration of the death of a fellow human being, no matter how vile he may have been. Here’s an especially good one I read just before writing this:

“I am sure [Osama Bin Laden] celebrated all of the deaths of his enemies… I thought that was why he was the bad guy, though?” 

I feel the sentiment too. There’s something in me that writhes about when I see others, or myself, smiling or laughing or cheering about the fact that there’s one more bullet-riddled, lifeless body in the world.

But I think the sentiment that being glad at, or even celebrating, the death of another human being is wrong – isn’t always right. I think that the feeling that it’s always wrong to be glad someone has died or been killed is based on the beautiful, but false, belief that no one lives in such a way that their death is a victory for good. People do live this way, and Osama Bin Laden was one of them. I don’t think that you should ignore that part of yourself that  cringes when you see someone smiling over his death, but I do think you should consider exactly what you should be cringing over. I don’t think that you should cringe over his death, per se. I think you should feel saddened and grieved not that a man was killed, but rather that a man – a fellow human – lived in such a way that he put his other fellow humans in such a painful predicament, where they were forced to either willfully live with the danger that, at any moment, innocence and beauty could be snuffed out by this man, or willfully eliminate the threat to innocents by taking another’s life. In this way, by living the life he did, Osama Bin Laden victimized humanity on multiple levels. He played an active, conscious role in taking the lives of thousands of people – thousands of boyfriends and girlfriends, children, fiancees, parents, siblings and friends. He helped traumatize thousands of other lives forever. And he promised to do this as long as he lived. He thereby placed the world of innocents between the horns of a dilemma: live in fear and danger, or eliminate a life. And in this instance, the second option is the moral one. Weighing the value of the lives of thousands of innocents against the value of a moral monster who threatens those lives makes the right choice clear. To not do everything possible to preserve the lives of innocents in this case would have been wrong. Bin Laden forced other humans into the position where, in order to do the right thing, they had to kill someone. That’s not their fault. It’s his.

But why should we be happy he’s dead? Sure, killing him wasn’t the wrong thing to do, you might say, but is celebrating another’s death, no matter how evil they are, ever right? Isn’t celebrating the death of another human sadistic and cruel? I think it is, normally. But I don’t think it’s always sadistic, cruel, or mean-spirited to celebrate another’s death. Consider the following scenarios.

The Roman Emperor, Nero, was a sadistic tyrant. Stories illustrating his cruelty abound. He, according to some accounts, used to light the city of Rome at night by hanging Christians, alive, by their limbs throughout the city and setting them on fire. Perhaps those stories are true, perhaps not. It doesn’t really matter. There certainly could have been such a ruler. And there certainly have been sick, terrifying tyrants. Perhaps Nero did light the city with live, screaming humans. Perhaps he taxed people so severely that many starved to death while he sat on a mountain of money. And perhaps he skinned alive all who dared to look in his face. Imagine this is how Nero was. All his subjects would live in constant fear of his next whimsical bout of sadism. They would struggle under the financial burdens he placed on them. Many would watch their children starve to death under his unjust rule.

Now imagine, having ruled in this way, Nero suddenly dies, and his throne passes to another – a just and kind man. He was stabbed to death by a guard; or perhaps he died of a sudden stroke, or bone cancer, and with his death so dies his tyrannical rule. How would you, a pitiful, starving subject of his, living in constant fear of torture or taxation, feel? You’d rejoice! The tyrant is dead! You’d take the money you have, knowing it will no longer go to the Monster King, and prepare a feast for your family! And would you be evil for it? For laughing and dancing and crying for joy with your husband or wife? Of course not! This man’s death is not a tragedy; it’s a blessing to the world, for it has made us safer; it has removed from our lives injustice, terror, pain, death, and hatred. That is a cause for celebration. If we mourn at all it should come last, and we should not mourn over the man’s death, but over his life. We should be sorry not that he died, but that he lived in the way he did.

This is how we should feel about Osama Bin Laden’s death. We didn’t all live in the same terror that those under my (probably fictitious) Nero did. But many of our fellow humans did. Many have lived for ten years with the suffering and loss he helped inflict on them, and a hatred for the man who chose to hurt them so badly. His death has given some sense of closure and real justice to their pain. There are people today who, had Bin Laden been allowed to live out his natural life, would have surely died at his hands. They don’t know who they are, but there are such people. And we should be glad that they won’t die in this unjust way now. We should, also, be glad for all the people who  have lived with a constant, phobic anxiety at the fact that Bin Laden is out there, trying to find some way to drop another plane on their city. They can rest a bit easier, I think, knowing that that monster isn’t out there now.

So, I think that celebration is absolutely appropriate, if it is done with the right facts in mind. We should be happy that the world is a bit safer, that there’s one less monster out there, and that there are likely lives that would have ended unjustly, but have now been saved. That is worth celebrating. But most who celebrate don’t do so with these facts in mind. They celebrate the death of Bin Laden as a victory for the ‘home team’. It’s ‘us’ versus ‘them’ and we just scored a touchdown. This sort of stupid, machismo, fanboy exuberance is shameful and totally out of place. It embodies, albiet to a much smaller degree, the very same divisive, inhumane prejudices that make real atrocities, such as terrorism, possible in the first place. It ought to be snuffed out too. But, that said, I think that you, the reader, should feel entitled to a real sense of satisfaction at the fact that, in the death of a monster, the world has been bettered.



What do I need to add to my list of ‘books to read’? (list below)

Books I Want To Read


1984 – Orwell
A Clockwork Orange – Anthony Burgess
Alas, Babylon – Pat Frank
Animal Farm – George Orwell
At the Mountains of Madness – Lovecraft
The Bell Jar – Sylvia Plath
The Brothers Karamazov – Dostoyevsky
Contact – Carl Sagan
The Crucible – Arthur Miller
The Death of Ivan Ilyich – Tolstoy
Dhalgren –  Samuel Delany
The Divine Comedy – Dante
Don Quixote – Miguel de Cervantes
Dune – Frank Herbert
The Engines of God – Jack McDevitt
Faust – Goethe
Fear and Trembling – Kierkegaard
Frankenstein – Mary Shelly
Galapagos – Kurt Vonnegut
Gateway – Frederik Pohl
A Good Man Is Hard to Find – Flannery O’Connor
Great Expectations – Dickens
Hamlet – Shakespeare
Infinite Jest – David Foster Wallace
King Lear – Shakespeare
Leaves of Grass – Walt Whitman
Light in August – Faulkner
Lolita – Nabakov
The Luzhin Defense – Nabakov
The Man in the High Castle – Philip K. Dick
The Master and Margarita – Bulgakov
Les Miserables – Victor Hugo
Moby Dick – Melville
The Name of the Rose – Umberto Eco
Nausea – Sartre
The Odyssey – Homer
The Old Man and the Sea – Hemingway
One Day in the LIfe of Ivan Denisovich – Solzhenitsyn
Pale Fire – Nabakov
Paradise Lost – Milton
The Pillars of the Earth – Ken Follett
The Plague – Camus
The Portrait of a Lady – Henry James
Pride and Prejudice – Jane Austen
Rainbow’s End – Vernor Vinge
Ubik – Philip K. Dick
The Rama Series – Arthur C. Clarke
The Road – McCarthy
The Sirens of Titan – Vonnegut
Slaughterhouse-Five – Vonnegut
Song of Kali – Dan SImmons
The Sorrows of Young Werther – Goethe
The Sparrow – Mary Doria Russell
Thus Spoke Zarathustra – Nietzsche
The Stranger – Camus
Stranger In A Strange Land – Heinlein
A Tale of Two Cities – Charles Dickens
To Kill a Mockingbird – Harper Lee
The Trial – Kafka
The Turn of the Screw – Henry James
Watership Down – Richard Adams
Wizard – John Varley

[“(VSI)” indicates that the book is part of Oxford Press’ “Very Short Introduction” series.]

After Religion – Vattimo
After Theory – Terry Eagleton
Authentic Happiness – Seligman
Beyond Good and Evil – Nietzsche
Beyond the Pleasure Principle – Freud
The Birth of Tragedy – Nietzsche
Blink – Malcolm Gladwell
The Brain (VSI)
A Brave New World – Aldous Huxley
A Brief History of Time – Stephen Hawking
A Brief History of Western Philosophy – Robert Solomon
Christ – Jack Miles
Christian Spirituality – Alilster McGrath
Civilization and its Discontents – Freud
Confessions – St. Augustine
Consciousness Explained – Dennett
Critique of Religion and Philosophy – Walter Kaufmann
De Anima – Aristotle
The Death of God and the Meaning of Life – Julian Young
Desire – William B. Irvine
The Ego and the Id – Freud
Either/Or – Kierkegaard
The Elements of Style – Strunk and White
Enchiridion – Epictetus
Existentialism, from Dostoyevsky to Sartre – Kaufmann
Existentialism is a Humanism – Sartre
Finite and Infinite Games – James P. Carse
Flow – Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
Freedom Evolves – Dennett
Freud and Beyond, a history of psychoanalysis – Mitchell and Black
God – Etienne Gilson
God, a biography – Jack Miles
The God We Never Knew – Marcus Borg
Godel Escher Bach – Hofstader
The Good Life – William B. Irvine
Greek Mythology – Edith Hamilton
Hegel – (Solomon or Kaufmann or Singer)
A History of Christian Thought – Paul Tillich
A History of Christianity – Paul Johnson
A History of Western Philosophy – Bertrand Russell
I Am A Strange Loop – Douglas Hofstader
I and Thou – Martin Buber
Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis – Freud
Jesus, a biography – Paul Johnson
Jesus Through Middle-Eastern Eyes – Bailey
The Koran
Man and His Symbols – Carl Jung
Man’s Search for Meaning – Victor Frankl
The Many Faces of Realism – Putnam
Mathematics (VSI)
Meditations – Marcus Aurelius
Metaphysics and the Idea of God – Pannenberg
Modern Philosophy – Roger Scruton
Modernism – Christopher Butler
Naming and Necessity – Kripke
A New History of Western Philosophy – Anthony Kenny
New Seeds of Contemplation – Thomas Merton
On Belief – Zizek
On Writing – Stephen King
Paul – N.T. Wright
A People’s History of the World
Philosophical Investigations – Wittgenstein
Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature – Rorty
The Philosophy of Science (VSI)
Postmodern Theory – Best and Kellner
Pragmatism – William James
The Pragmatism Reader – Talisse and Aikin
Principles of Mathematical Philosophy – Russell
Psychology (VSI)
Quantum Physics (VSI)
Rapt – Gallagher
Reading the Bible Again for the First Time – Marcus Borg
The Resurrection of the Son of God – N.T. Wright
The Right to Write − Cameron
The Secular Age – Charles Taylor
The Singularity Is Near – Ray Kurzweil
Sources of Self – Taylor
Spirituality for Skeptics – Robert Solomon
The Story of Christian Theology – Roger E. Olson
The Story of Thought – Bryan Magee
The Structure of Scientific Revolutions – Thomas Kuhn
Stumbling on Happiness – Daniel Goldman
The Symbolism of Evil – Paul Ricoeur
Tao Te Ching – Lao Tsu
Truth and Method – Gadamer
The Unity of Knowledge – E. O. Wilson
Varieties of Religious Experience – William James
The View from Nowhere – Nagel
Walden – Thoreau
The World as Will and Representation – Schopenhauer
Your Memory – Kenneth Higbee


Some Thoughts on Time Management

I struggle constantly with time management. So the other day, whilst procrastinating from researching, I wrote down some of the thoughts that have been helpful to me lately on using my time (i.e., my life) wisely. They’re basically little pieces of advice written to myself, so if any of them comes off preachy, it’s not you I think needs preaching to. Here’s the first two. More to follow.

One and Two:

1. The central goal of time management is to get out of your stream of moments something that is worthwhile. “Worthwhile” is unclear, and entirely subjective though. Thus, hidden in the question of how to manage your time is the deeper question of what is worth doing. The best way to answer this question is to do so from an envisioned retrospective view. That is, envision yourself looking back on your usage of time and ask how you would have liked for it to have gone. This is a more helpful viewpoint than viewing time from the present, because at any particular moment there are lots of different drives, desires, impulses, and tendencies that, if acted upon, won’t in the end lead you to view that usage of time as a worthwhile one. The very fact that there is the practice of time management proves this point, for if acting out of whatever immediate drive strikes you ended up in a worthwhile usage of time, there’d be no need to consciously manage your time. It would automatically just work out well. But it doesn’t.

2. One might feel that the practice of time management is by nature restrictive of personal choice, or repressive of one’s natural self, or makes one’s life artificial in some sense. This is not so, or not necessarily so. While one could of course lead a restricted, repressed, artificial life, and while the act of leading this life would probably require a sort of “management” of one’s way of living, the central notion of time management is being conscious and intentional about, and in control of, how you live your life. This, as it turns out, is the very opposite of what one might fear. And, as it also turns out, failing to practice time management in this simple sense leads exactly to what one fears: a life directed totally by what it outside of your control – your impulses, moods, and present drives. The only way to be truly in control of your life, the only way to live a free life, is to live intentionally and consciously. And this is nothing more than “managing” what you’re doing, which necessarily takes place within time.


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An evolutionary explanation for why women are wimps

My girlfriend was running the other day. And daydreaming. So she fell and scraped up her elbow and hands. She bragged to me that she didn’t cry, but, to a twenty-five year old male, that doesn’t strike me as too impressive. As I’ve heard over the past few days how painful her scrapes are, I’ve reflected on just why women seem to be such wimps about physical pain. Here’s my probably false, but fairly plausible evolutionary explanation.

There is a biological basis for women’s wimpery. The part of their brains that process emotions are more intimately connected to the parts of their brains that process physical pain. This keeps them from being able to psychologically “distance” themselves from their pain – from putting it out of their minds in the way men commonly do. The reason for this neurological fact about women provides them with an evolutionary advantage: empathy. One’s ability to empathize with the needs and feelings of others is often fostered by reflecting on one’s own feelings. The more pain you feel then, the more likely you are to reflect on it, and the more you reflect on it, the more you understand what it’s like when you see others in similar discomforts, and so the more likely you are to care when you see their pain. This might at first seem like an evolutionary disadvantage, but it’s not. While empathizing may lead you to put yourself in a hazardous situation – say, to help save the life of another – it is also quite helpful in the evolutionary game of pass-on-the-genes. Here’s why. Imagine a cro-magnon mother who has no empathy for others. She would certainly be self-sufficient, and wouldn’t find herself in those hazardous situations that empathy might lead into. But she won’t be very good at passing on her genes. This is because, in order for your genes to make their way successfully into future generations, you have to mate, and your children have to live. A lack of empathy would hinder both – especially the second. If you can’t empathize, you won’t be very caring, as I said. If you’re not very caring though, you’ll probably make a poor mother, especially if you live in a hostile environment where infant mortality is high. The unsympathetic cro-magnon mother has a much higher chance of losing her child to malnutrition, mishandling, or general neglect because she just doesn’t care enough. If her child dies, so do her genes. In this way, females with more empathic brain structures are selected for by evolution. Which leaves us, after thousands of generations, with the empathic brain structures that make girls such wimps.

But I’m sure that’s all bs.


Is this story right? – Why we work so damn much

I’ve unintentionally assembled this story in my head. Someone with some american history knowledge tell me if I’ve got it.

Why our lives are sucked dry of meaning and pleasure by a 40-hour work week:

1. America is formed in reaction to what is seen as excessive government interference into economic, religious, and private life.
2. America is built in a land of plenty, where the threat of starvation or homelessness is absolutely minima.
3 America structures itself to minimize government interference in these areas, giving it the role of referee – making sure that everyone plays by fair rules (e.g. no monopolies, etc.)
4. With the life of the economy securely in the hands of the population, the possibility of prosperity is seemingly available to anyone with a good idea and a will to work hard. This is the American Dream.
5. Under the American Dream, since most people find themselves in the middle or lower-class, the psychology goes: I don’t have a whole lot, but I could have a whole lot if I worked really hard, so I will work as much as I can.
6. With the economy structured and maintained purely by people with this philosophy, the amount of work performed is extended far beyond what is required to meet the basic needs of life because, with the combination of plentiful resources and the dream of prosperity, work is no longer about meeting one’s needs, but rather is about climbing an economic ladder.
7. The average American, now, is in the historically bizarre situation of having plenty of food and reliable shelter, but still working as if faced with the threat of starvation. Most citizens never realize this – that the average person through history has not seen any need to work far more than what is required to meet their physical needs.
8. This bizarre situation is self perpetuating. For example, consider: in a free (i.e. non-government-run) market, pharmaceutical companies exist, as all other companies, in order to make money for their investors (in other economies, pharmaceuticals are developed, tested, and distributed by a government agency with little strong financial interest). In a society where the threat of death by disease is extremely low, and life expectancy is very high (ours) pharmaceutical companies need a way of generating revenue other than actual need for its products, where, in a society where pharmaceuticals were developed and distributed by the government, that agency would simply have its funding cut, so that the funds could be redirected. Instead, in America, the companies are given the freedom to promote their products commercially, by sending the message that citizens are constantly in danger of infection, disease, etc. This acts as an atom in the carrot hung in front of the worker’s face, giving a (very thin) motivation to continue working when needs are met.
9. So, the cycle continues: though there’s no need to work so much, the sense of need is constantly kept alive by a free market, that thrives not on the basis of its ability to meet real human needs, but to manufacture the perpetual sense of need, and offer a never-ending stream of items that simultaneously generate and meet these needs.
10. The result: Americans spend the majority of their waking hours (that is, most of their conscious lives) working, even though they could get by on far less, and spend more time playing, simply at the cost of giving up many of the items they don’t really want or need.

2 Facts:

– If you work a forty-hour week, you get, on average, about three hours of free time a day. That’s three hours, only 1/8 of your time, to spend on the things you enjoy and the people you love.

– Studies have confirmed and reconfirmed that, once a person makes enough money to meet their basic needs and have just a little (a few thousand dollars a year) left over, their happiness levels out. One’s happiness, then, does not increase with wealth, but rather ceases to increase, regardless of affluence, once one has enough to eat, clothe themselves, have shelter, etc.

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So I’m on Twitter. I set up an account a while ago but never really used it, partly because I had trouble getting the phone to behave nicely with the twitter app I had. That’s fixed now, so I’m back ok. I feel a sort of instant repulsion to twitter. It seems though, that, for better or worse, this is the direction the world is moving – toward instant social expression –  and that it’s not a trend. So, I’m going to try to get in on it too – at least for a while (there’s really a lot to be said for peer pressure, if you’d never consider being a hermit). So, if you’re on, let me know and I’ll check you out.

Have you found Twitter to be worthwhile?

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Painfully funny…

I’m currently in the yellow. The tiny yellow, that is.