Monday, May 27, 2013

The meaning of the present

A time difference of thousand human lives

Of late I read in the science section of a newspaper about the recent discovery that already 25 million years ago apes and monkeys were different species. This means that these creatures have become separated much earlier than thought before. One can wonder then when man became a separate species. I am a layman in paleoanthropology, but one who reads books and articles about it with much interest and I know that at least eight million years ago a kind of “man” existed and, who knows, maybe “man” existed already at least 25 million years ago. This would imply that “we” are already quite a long time present on this earth in some form or another, although it’s nothing in view of the fact that some 200 million years before the first dinosaurs appeared in this world and that planet earth as such is about three billion (three thousand million) years old. If we take a shorter time perspective, I could mention that the homo sapiens, so modern man, came into being some 200,000 years ago, and that modern abstract types of thinking (if one can see the cave paintings as an expression of it) are maybe some 50.000 years old.
Looking to the future, it’s not possible to say much about how this earth and mankind will develop, besides that within x billions of years this planet will be swallowed up by the sun; that within three or four billion years the earth will be so hot that only the most primitive micro-organisms can survive; and that already long before this will happen mankind and its civilization literally will have been scorched. But first, many, many generations will live yet on earth, many wars will be fought, including several world wars – unless the trend seen by Steven Pinker that the world is becoming more and more peaceful will go on – and civilizations will come and go (including my own Western civilization).
These thoughts came up in me when I read that little article on the origin of apes. It made me down, for what is then the worth of a human life in the perspective of eternity? A man or a woman becomes, say, 80 years old and then s/he dies. Some people become older, but 20 or 30 years older at most. Many don’t even reach these 80 years. In the poorest countries of the world the average life expectancy is only 40+. So, roughly speaking, a man or a woman becomes 40 or 80 years old and that’s it. In the perspective of eternity it’s nothing. If we are lucky, we’ll live on for some time after our physical death through the influence we had on other people, through our deeds, and through our children, but soon this influence will fade away with the exception maybe for some “happy” few, whose impact will stay a bit longer. But what then is the meaning of our lives, if nothing remains? Seen that way, I think it can only be in one thing: in the present, in the now. Only the present can count for a human being, for his or her life will be lost in the light of the future, and also in the light of what has been. The upshot is: Live now and enjoy it as it is.

Monday, May 20, 2013

On quality

The French musician Paul Dukas (1865-1935) was not only a talented composer, but also a critic, scholar and teacher, who wrote more than 400 articles. When I listened to the radio programme “Composer of the week” on the Dutch Radio 4, which presented the life and music of Dukas, I heard the following quotation from an article that he had written in the 1920s (the quote was in Dutch, which I have translated here into English):

“Every day the blasé public is surrounded by the sound of telephones and cars that transport them at top speed from one art manifestation to another. They hog the conversation but they don’t want to waste a minute. When this operation has been finished and has already been forgotten again, they do not ventilate an impression but an opinion; especially one that is elegant and that has been provided with a superior smile for the occasion in the midst of all these tortures.”

Dukas went on with some remarks in which he wondered whether music (and art in general) has to be adapted to this rising superficiality and whether society still has a need for a kind of art that follows its own fundamental principles.

When I heard this quotation, I wondered whether much has changed since Dukas wrote these words ninety years ago. Even more, hasn’t the situation become more marked in these days of the Internet, Facebook, Twitter and so on, where everyone has the opportunity and is in the position to express an opinion on who knows what – not only on art – on any moment and to the whole world? Or is this quote simply the thought of a frustrated critic who is himself blasé by thinking that there is some kind of “high culture” that is not reserved for everybody and that has to be admired with awe? For isn’t such a criticism as passed by Dukas of all times? I think it’s double: The quote contains the unreal feeling of a paradise lost but isn’t it so that we need standards of quality and aren’t they always threatened by superficiality and laziness, not only in art but everywhere in life? But what then is quality and who tells us what it is?

Thursday, May 09, 2013

Will and world

In his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus Wittgenstein wrote: “The world is independent of my will.” (6.373) And he explains it by saying: “Even if everything we wished were to happen, this would only be, so to speak, a favour of fate, for there is no logical connexion between will and world, which would guarantee this, and the assumed physical connexion itself we could not again will.” (6.374) But if this were true, what then is the relation between my will and the world? Is my will then outside the world and is it no part of this world? But this would mean that there is a second world, which contains my will (for my will must exist somewhere). And what is this second world then and what is the relation of my will to it?
Moreover, we can apply Wittgenstein’s reasoning to anything else: the existence of bikes, trees, rocks, and so on. (note the wording, for Wittgenstein says: “The world is everything that is the case. The world is the totality of facts, not of things.” 1.1.1) But what do we mean then when we ask whether there is a free will? What does it mean then that some say that experiments show that we first start to act and only then develop a will to perform the action concerned? (Libet and Wegner, for instance) Reasoning in Wittgenstein’s way, life would not be a part of the world, or at least not of the “primary world” he talks of. And, whether we have a free will or whether we haven’t (but I think we have, at least in some sense), what does acting then involve if it doesn’t mean performing something in the world? There is only one world, and will and willing are a part of it, as does everything there is.