Sunday, 20 October 2013

The Question of Free Will - Part I - Why It Matters

Is it true, as the pragmatists say, that we do not solve philosophical problems, only get over them?

What a strange idea.

Suppose we treated other problems like this.  What if our ancient precursors had deliberately ceased to wonder just what that mysterious light is which is born and dies each day, sailing across the sky, which we call the sun?  Would our world be a richer place if we had simply dismissed Zeno's paradox of motion, and Newton had never developed his calculus?  If hitherto unsolvable problems don't matter, then why is there a million dollar prize on offer to the person who solves certain long-standing problems in mathematics?

To be sure, problems which seem to have no solution have been with us since time immemorial.  And yet, we do not ignore them, brush them aside and pretend like we have "got over" these problems.  Or if we do, we do so at the risk of our own intellectual impoverishment.  In fact, there is a very good argument to be made, that our degree of abstract thinking and our ability to make conceptual leaps beyond the present, are the very factors which make human beings unique in the animal kingdom.

Now, in a way I agree with the pragmatists, in that philosophical problems which have no significant consequence should be ignored.  But the truly ageless philosophical problems persist for a reason, and the reason is that they are of the utmost practical importance.

The question of free will crops up in different forms and under various guises in ages as far back as we have record of.  The Greeks certainly wondered about it, as did the Hindus.  Even the ancient Egyptians wrestled with this question, as implicit in their code of Maat and lurking as it does not far below the surface in their many stories, for example that of Sinuhe.  Philosophy is not free from the vagaries of fashion, and problems in this discipline go in and out of vogue like bad hairstyles, but the problem of free will has remained at the heart of philosophy since the time of the Pre-Socratics at least.  It is ever-present outside of philosophy as well, from antiquity down to modern times, both in the popular consciousness and deeply enmeshed within religious thinking as far back as one cares to look.

The very fact that the question of free will persists, is enough to suggest that it is far from irrelevant.  But why is this?  Why is the question of free will important and why has it not been resolved?  My aim in this treatment of the problem is to answer these questions, the first of which will be dealt with presently.

When we find our modern selves faced with a problem which, for all intents and purposes, will not yield an answer, what do we turn to?  We turn to science.  We live in the scientific age, where we have a method which, in principle at least, appears to be able to investigate just about anything, and to deliver better results than just about any other method at our disposal.  But there is a cornerstone of empirical science for which the problem of free will has grave implications, and that is the concept of falsifiability.  Falsifiability, simply put, is a property of a statement or theory that makes it possible to hypothetically show that it is false by the observation of some fact.  It is a way of distinguishing sensible, empirically justifiable theories from nonsensical ones.

The problem is, no answer to the problem of free will is falsifiable.

So we have a dilemma in which one must choose either an answer to the free will question, or falsifiability, but not both.  Just exactly why this is the case will become clear as I explain what the problems are with each proposed answer to the free will question.  I offer this brief mention of it as a provocative suggestion for the reader to consider, though for now I will concern myself first with outlining the problem of free will and why it is important.

So, deep philosophical questions are not irrelevant, least of all that of free will.  Easy to say, but where's the proof?  Well, perhaps we should briefly sketch out the problem of free will first, before moving on to why it matters on a down-to-earth, practical level.  The problem of free will, in a nutshell is this:  It makes no sense given our daily, commonsense notion of causality, for us to be free, but at the same time, it makes no sense, given our daily, commonsense notion of personal autonomy, to be anything except free.  We have an apparent paradox here, and a very difficult one at that.  Neither one of these metaphysical positions (free or predetermined), seems logically acceptable, and neither of them squares with the facts as they are given to us.  One of our commonsense notions will have to be thrown over and rejected.  Or is there some compromise?  Could we be both free and determined at the same time?

Before I get to weighing the assets and liabilities of these positions, I want to first consider the question of why the notion of free will is important.  Can't we go through our day-to-day lives without ever thinking about these things?  Can't we just ignore the question and believe that, whatever the answer is, it doesn't matter if I know it or not?  Why should I care?  Isn't this the type of problem that only the chronically unemployed have the luxury of worrying about?

I certainly hope not.  You should care about the problem of free will, because where you come down on this problem makes a colossal difference in your life, as it does for society as a whole.

Let's start with society, and work our way back to the individual.  The problem of free will is relevant to all forms of ethics, from the most complex theological and meta-ethical systems right down to the simplest forms of morality that a 2-year-old can understand.  This problem is relevant, because to even have a moral code or a notion of ethics in the first place, means to take a particular position on this question, i.e. that in some way, we are free to act, and have alternatives before us.  To take a page from the Taoist sage Chuang Tzu, nobody curses the empty boat for crashing in to their own boat.  The empty boat has no volition, no agency, no blame, just like a river flowing over a cliff cannot be blamed for falling.  The empty boat has no choice in the matter, because it is entirely determined in its actions by conditions prior to itself.  The hard determinist, who suggests that there is no such thing as free will, cannot argue that we are morally responsible for our actions, and consistently maintain their position.  Does this seem like a mark against determinism and a point for free will?  Not necessarily, if you consider that some of our other commonsense notions have been overthrown by recent scientific discoveries.

So, nearly all of us believe, or at least behave as though we believe, that we are morally responsible for our actions.  But it doesn't stop at personal responsibility.  This responsibility is the foundational principle which underlies all legal systems.  "Guilt" in the legal sense is the state of being responsible for the commission of an offence, and that responsibility can only be borne by an agent who has the power to choose one action over another.  Again, the empty boat will never be seen in court, defending itself against charges levelled against it for some impropriety.  The empty boat has no alternative but to do whatever prior conditions necessitate it will do.  It cannot even be said to "act", but rather is only acted upon by external forces.

Given that any legal system is fully dependent upon a metaphysical position on the question of free will, this means that different solutions are appropriate given different positions.  To take the position that we do possess free will, means that, to use broad terminology, "corrective" solutions are appropriate.  This can take a variety of forms.  For example, sending an offender to counselling, a corrections facility or even prison might make sense, considering that they are in principle capable of being reformed.  If we do not possess free will, this course of action would make no sense at all, since the person whose conscious behaviour is to be "corrected" is about as capable of having this behaviour corrected as the empty boat, which has no conscious behaviour to speak of.  If we accept free will, then punitive measures may also make sense.  Killing or confining a heinous offender and making a public example of them acts as a deterrent for others who might be inclined toward the aberrant behaviour we wish to prevent, since they can as mentioned before, in principle have their behaviour corrected.  This is largely what we have in our modern, Western society.  If, on the other hand, we take the position that there is no such thing as free will, then our legal system would look very different indeed.  Only "eliminative" solutions are appropriate according to this view, since there is no purposeful agent to be reformed.  The empty boat will have to be moored or anchored so as to prevent it from crashing in to other boats, since it lacks any personal agency or responsibility which would enable it to change its course.  Offenders would need to be quarantined or perhaps eliminated so as to prevent them from offending, since their unchangeable nature is what led them inevitably toward their offence.  The concept of guilt would disappear and in its place something like "fitness to associate" would be put in its stead.  Of course, if there is truly no such thing as free will, then it would make no sense to speak of what "should" be done or even what legal system is "appropriate", because in a deterministic universe, there is only what is inevitable and what can never be.

These are the ethical implications of whether or not free will exists, and they run deep.  However in my view, this is not the most important reason why the problem of free will is worth your attention.  Another, perhaps more important reason is that, by all reasonable accounts, this question should not be controversial.  I mean really, do you doubt that you actually even had any choice in whether to begin reading this essay?  If you do doubt that (and let me just say if you answered "yes", I share your doubt), then you really need to check your claims to any significant level of certainty on other matters.

It might seem like I'm contradicting myself here, saying at once that we should care about whether we are free, and that the question should not be controversial.  This is no contradiction.  The fact is, this question is controversial, it is paradoxical, it is a mystery.  And that is very unsettling.  Free will is so deeply embedded in our consciousness, such a fundamental given in our conduct, that if we suddenly found ourselves unable to maintain our belief in its existence, then this would call in to question other "certainties" which appear to be self-evidently true.  This is what I was alluding to when I stated near the beginning of this essay that perennial philosophical problems persist for a reason - namely that they are of the utmost practical importance.  If you can't trust your most basic commonsense notions, what can you trust?

No wonder this question is unsettling, and no wonder it tends to get swept under the rug in favour of more "practical", more "important" problems.  Well, what could be more important?

Like other questions such as "do my senses deceive me?" or "is there really a world outside of myself?" if the answer to the question "am I free?" is "I don't know" then this really should change the way we comport ourselves, namely with a substantial degree of skepticism, which I hope to impart to the reader in the next few essays.

Free will is important because whether it exists or not, makes a difference.  And I am fairly certain that by the time I am done elucidating the problem, you will have some considerable doubt as to whether it does.  But many have argued, among them well-respected philosophers, scientists and thinkers, that whether we are free or not, it makes no difference at all.  Embracing the concept of either free will or determinism or both does not change the facts of the world, and makes no difference to how we act in it.  If so, then they must know something I don't.

If it is true that our metaphysical position on free will doesn't change reality or our perception thereof, then it is equally true of all statements about reality.  Evolution, the big bang, God, Newtonian mechanics, all of these must be grouped under the heading "irrelevant".  I can scarcely imagine a more cognitively dissonant viewpoint.  It seems to reduce "irrelevance" to an utterly meaningless term.  Of course these things make a difference to our understanding of reality, and this is equally true of the concepts of free will or determinism.  Indeed, how can you even conceive of Newtonian mechanics without the fundamental underlying metaphysical framework of determinism?  To say that "it doesn't matter if we are determined" and in the same breath that "Newton's physics is a paradigm shift for the human understanding" is like saying that mathematics doesn't matter but calculus does.  It is madness, pure and simple.

No, the problem matters alright.

If you embrace free will, then you can act with the full conviction that you are responsible, and not just in the sense of ethics.  You are also responsible for your victories.  But this does not mean you can be complacent in your freedom.  As the existentialists have rightly pointed out, freedom may not necessarily be the parade of self-congratulation that it seems, it may in fact be something much more distressing.  You may be, as Sartre puts it, "condemned to be free".  Yes, your successes are yours, but your failures also belong to you, and you alone.  If you are free, you are responsible, and that in itself, is disquieting.  At the least if you find that you are unquestionably, self-evidently free, then there is one sense in which you can rest easy - you know that at least one assault on your commonsense, intuitive, experiential grasp on reality has been laid aside, and that you can trust your immediate experience once again.

If you reject free will, then, well, there is no you can, only you will.  Like freedom, this prospect itself is very disconcerting.  However in rejecting free will, one all of a sudden recognizes the many misapprehensions that one has laboured under, and can begin to strip the layers of illusion away from what is in fact only a perceived reality.  You will have an understanding that to worry about responsibility is futile, and that what we perceive on this commonsense, intuitive, experiential level does not always have a direct bearing on what has genuine ontological standing.  In so possessing this understanding, you will no longer be subject to the errors and prejudices of the great majority of people, who cannot be blamed, because they do not know any better.

Our position on free will underscores our philosophy on many things, it cuts across all the major branches of philosophy: metaphysics, epistemology, ethics and even politics.  To suggest that the free will debate is irrelevant can only be done from a non-philosophical, and furthermore, a mistaken perspective.

"Fair enough," you might say.  "The question of free will matters.  But hasn't it been resolved?  Aren't I obviously free?"

The short answer is no.

As I mentioned at the outset, this is one of the most fundamental of all philosophical problems.  Now, I would be the last one to tell you to take someone else's word, but let's have a look at what the experts can tell us.  Philosophers certainly disagree on this and always have, in fact a 2009 survey of philosophers by Bourget and Chalmers suggested that about 3 in 5 believe that we are both free and determined simultaneously, with only about 1 in 7 believing that we are entirely free to choose between alternative courses of action.  But let's ask the scientists.  While there has been nothing approaching definitive evidence for or against the existence of free will, it would seem based on anecdotal evidence that scientists generally also do not believe that we are free to choose between alternatives, even more strongly than philosophers.  Amazingly, the only survey which I was able to find that asked professional scientists was a 2003 survey by Graffin and Provine which showed that about 4 in 5 scientists do believe in free will.

It seems there is more to this question than idle musing.

The jury is not in on the problem of free will, either in the modern age or in earlier times.  The reality or unreality of volition, agency, or free will is one of the, if not the most fundamental of philosophical problems.  This is philosophy 101, and like other questions like "what is real?" it does not get answered by way of a reductive method any more than by popular opinion.  In the next entries I will explain exactly what is involved with asserting free will or determinism, or both, and hopefully show that, although the question is a sensible one, none of these proposed solutions is satisfactory.

Saturday, 27 July 2013

Why Take Religion Seriously in the 21st Century?

I was recently involved in a discussion with someone who asked me to convince them why they should take religious thought seriously in this, our most confident 21st century CE.  Essentially this question was asked in the spirit of "as opposed to scientific thought", which the questioner had judged as incomparably superior in every imaginable way.  Fair enough, that will be the division around which the discussion turns.  What follows is a slightly expanded version of my response to this challenge, and to the follow-up objections made by my interlocutor.


This is a difficult question, the question of "science or religion?"  It is far from a foregone conclusion, and I urge the reader to set aside whatever bias they may have as far as possible, and keep an open mind.  Nothing undermines debate so much as the unswerving orthodoxy of the convinced.

By way of introduction, perhaps I should briefly say something about my own experience with this question.  As it is with most people who have not grown up in a religious environment, in my early years I was a rather rabid atheist.  However, I figured I could strengthen my own case by knowing something of the other side of the argument; as Sun Tzu says:

If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat.

Thus I began my study of the religious literature of the West, with an eye to subjecting it to merciless criticism.  Even in my skepticism toward religion, I found that in reading the Bible, Koran, Pentateuch etc. I gained deep insights in to the unconscious motivations of those around me in general, regardless of whether they believed in God.  Religion is so deeply embedded in our thinking, even in secular society, that to not understand it is to be wilfully ignorant in a large degree to what makes people tick.  This alone is reason enough to familiarize oneself with the basic teachings of world religions, whatever one may think about the truth or untruth contained within them.

Around the same time, I was introduced to a person of extremely wide learning in both the sciences and religion, of whose type I have never encountered before or since.  Believing unambiguously in God, he seemed quite able to defend his own peculiar theistic views against any of what I was forced to conclude were my own hopelessly over-simplified objections.  In time I began to re-assess my views.  The process is still on-going.

I am not religious, but have a deep respect for most religions and the role they play in our world, yet like technology I see religion as having been misused, abused and leaned upon as a crutch for far too long.  A hammer can be used to build a house, or to kill.  Yet, the hammer is not to be praised or blamed.  So like any tool or piece of technology, the question is, of what value is it?  Allow me to answer this question, contrasting it where possible with science.

When religion is contrasted with science, all-too-often one is compared with the other in the terms defined by one, to the universal detriment of the other.  In other words, a person arguing a pro-science thesis will often evaluate religion according to how well it achieves the agenda set out by science, according to science's methodology, and with the truth-criteria of science in view.  This is equally true vice versa.

There is something very, very wrong with this.

When addressing this question, a specific religion needs to be contrasted with the well-defined practice of scientific discovery.  The idea that "religion" as such can be defined meaningfully enough to contrast with anything except other vague terms such as "good", "morality", "existence" etc. is the source of a lot of confusion and fruitless debate.  As such, the question of "why take religion seriously in the 21st century?" is already too vague, though something may be said through use of an example, which I will offer.

Where "religion" can be taken to have a specific enough meaning, it and science do share something: they both pursue the truth.  Allow me to take a particular religion, in this case the Brahmanism of India and apply a philosophical question to it and to science.  If one wishes to answer the philosophical question par excellence, namely, "what is real?", then both Brahmanism and science are quite capable of shedding some light on the subject from varying angles.  Here is an interpretation of what they both have to say on this, a most important question:

Science:  What is real is a confluence of matter and form. The ultimate constituents of reality are at bottom material (I take it that "matter" is understood per se and needs no further definition), but are presented to us in such a way as to take on a certain formal, expressible structure.  Example: if you ask what water is, the answer is that on a certain level, it is two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom, arranged in such a way that the hydrogen atoms are bonded to the oxygen atom but not to each other.  To offer a lower-level account than that, water is composed of a specific arrangement of protons, neutrons and electrons.  One can keep going, reducing the account to ever more microscopic levels, but the answer will always ultimately be that water or anything else is a certain formally expressible structure of material elements.  So what is real, is ultimately matter and form, which is the sole reality.

Brahmanism:  What is real is Brahman.  This bears some explanation to Westerners.  Atman is most closely translated as "the self", and is an individuated expression of Brahman, which is the ultimate reality, of which Atman is the most easily cognizable constituent or element.  Example: if you ask what water is, the answer is that water is the thing that I sense as being wet, which when it falls from the sky is called "rain".  The only way in which I can even be cognizant of water in the first place is through my senses.  My senses are ultimately an outgrowth of myself, so that when I am experiencing water whether conceptually or physically, I am experiencing myself and myself alone.  Extrapolating this point, it must necessarily follow that this is true for all other sensible beings.  If so, then this self that is being experienced by all conscious beings is the same thing, if there are other beings at all in this reality.  All beings are experiencing the same thing, and that thing is "the self", but universalized.  So what is ultimately real is the universal self or Brahman, which is the sole reality.

Two very different approaches to the same question. The answer to the question "why take religion seriously?" is, it depends what you're after.

I have frequently heard that practical reasons need not enter in to the debate when asking why someone would take any particular religion seriously.  It is often said that "religion" like any other truth-candidate must stand on its own, and not be simply useful or contingent, if it be in fact truthful.  It must be self-evidently true, and not a matter of faith.  Shouldn't it?

As has been rightly pointed out by many others, when you get down to one's own ground-floor axioms upon which evaluations are based, science itself requires faith.  Now, this faith may well be in "self-evident" principles such as reason and evidence, but ultimately you cannot point to anything that would impel you to accept these principles, apart from the fact that they are useful.  Science is only of any value whatsoever to the extent that it serves our highest interests.

It may then be argued that science is unquestionably religion's superior in terms of usefulness or practicality.  However to argue such a point is to fall back in to the trap I mentioned already.  As I've said, it depends what you're after.  If one compares religion to science in terms of the physical description of the universe or the applied sciences then religion is going to fail miserably 100 times out of 100.  There is a common misconception that religion in general is a sort of "immature science", that religions are basically flawed, intermediate steps toward our modern empirical understanding of the world, that they are the mental product of a sort of primitive rusticity.  Nothing could be further from the truth. 

True, certain individual religions have made cosmological claims that are wildly out of step with the facts as we take them today, the most widely cited of these claims being the 6000-year cosmology of book of Genesis.  There is no denying that this flies in the face of what these days we take to be sufficient evidence to the contrary.  However I will shortly call in to question whether, wrong though this 6000-year claim may be, that error is of much relevance to what concerns us most.  I would further point out that Brahmanism has a much more accurate estimate in terms of the cosmological time-scale to what modern physics would have us believe, to again be-labour the point that it is much more productive to compare a specific religion with the rather more unambiguous practice of experimental science.  Lastly for anyone who judges the committing of fallacies to be in any way revealing about an argument, it is transparently ad hominem to suggest that "you were wrong about X (e.g cosmology), therefore you must be wrong about Y" (e.g ethics).

Then, as I have just alluded to, there is the question of morality.  The relative failure of religious doctrine in describing the history of the physical universe has, warranted or otherwise, cast serious doubt upon its authority in this domain as well.  However, no one would seriously argue against the idea that all religions have something to say on the matter of morality, and how one can live an ethical life.  Religion may or may not be the best means of addressing questions of morality, but not even the most ignorant would deny that it does address them, is at least engaging in an ethical dialogue, irrespective of what one thinks of their conclusions.  What of science in this regard?

Science has, as far as this observer can tell, exactly nothing whatsoever to say about morality, at least within the proper sphere of scientific enterprise (which is strictly empirical).  You cannot derive an "ought" from an "is", to paraphrase David Hume.  In this, science is woefully limited compared to religion, insofar as it puts forth no thesis whatever, and rightly so.  Science does not and cannot tell us how we should treat other people, how we should live our lives, or what constitutes the highest good, if it is to remain science.  Though it may help to provide supplementary knowledge when the question of morality does occasionally draw from the domain of the physical world, on questions of human valuation, science properly remains mute.  To borrow a phrase from Wittgenstein, "whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must remain silent".

So that's it?  This question of "science or religion" can never be answered?  The two speak a different language and never the twain shall meet?

Not quite.

Practical considerations may rightly be invoked to evaluate this question, and in order to do so, one must evaluate the practical necessity of the domains of knowledge which they respectively inhabit.  So, what pressing issues are humanity facing today?

Are we most likely to be destroyed by the daily operations of nature, the palpable, physical pressures which we feel from living in a world of limited means?  In other words, is the problem one which science is equipped to address?  Or are we most likely to wipe ourselves off the face of the earth due strictly to an inability to live with one another, to die needlessly, hubristically, at the very height of material prosperity?  In other words, is the problem one which ethical modes of thinking are equipped to address?

I leave it to the reader to decide.

Saturday, 8 June 2013

Ten Perfect Compositions

Prediction:  Nobuo Uematsu will be studied in serious music circles within a century.

Aesthetics is one of those subjects which admits of very little sensible discussion.  While it can hardly be denied that all experience is rooted in subjectivity, somehow the discussion of art seems still that much more subjective.  Still, now and then, something of importance can be said about art, so it would seem that writing about music is not always, as Frank Zappa so wryly put it, "like dancing about architecture".

"Less is more".  This truth is so often repeated that it is almost banal now to say it; one of many penetrating observations whose value has been debased through inflation by way of over-use.  For any Taoist, this is recognizable as a Western formulation of the familiar concept of Wu-Wei, which I have briefly touched on previously.  Allow me to flesh out this concept... but not too much.  Most often translated as "non-doing" or "action without action", it refers to the fact that sometimes, it is best to do only what is absolutely necessary.  What it does not refer to is lethargy, idleness or apathy.  Indeed, Wu-Wei is a fundamental concept in Taoism, since, among other things, Taoism is essentially a protest against exaggerated organization and artifice.  For many reasons, this foremost among them, this idea is sorely needed in our modern world as a countermeasure to the excesses of social pressure, manic ideologies, and the monolithic and all-encompassing state.

This concept of less being more is closely allied to what I offhandedly referred to as the "punk rock" approach to creative expression in a prior essay.  The idea is that, in order to communicate something of universal value and original power, one does not need a highly complex mode of expression, furnished with excessive ornamentation and embellished bewilderingly with detail.  Whether it be ideas, melodies, images or turns of phrase, the simplest ones are the most immediate and impactful, though they need not necessarily be primitive, and have the greatest staying power.

This is where Uematsu comes in.

For those who are not familiar, Nobuo Uematsu is a video game sound designer, whose claim to fame is as the composer of the soundtracks for the vast majority of the Final Fantasy series.  Working on the NES console and starting with the inaugural title in the series in 1987, he has created some of the most sublime and emotionally resonant music I have ever heard.

The NES console's technical capabilities were unimaginably archaic in comparison with today's technology.  The Ricoh 2A03 sound chip was limited to three simultaneous voices (AKA "notes"), with the possibility of a fourth which was ordinarily allotted to sound effects, but when idle could also be used for musical purposes.  This sound chip was capable of producing only the most basic waveforms, such as square, sawtooth and triangle waves, as well as white noise.

With such a limited palette, most composers could scarcely come up with more than a parade of tiresome clichés in the form of irritating bleeps and bloops.  Yet in the hands of a consummate master such as Uematsu, the arrangement of these primitive waveforms is elevated to the level of true art and takes on a transcendent quality, communicating a range of emotions which would ordinarily require the help of a 200-piece symphony orchestra.  But it is not enough to simply point out his thoroughgoing mastery and inimitable style, what I wish to suggest to the reader is that the very medium itself, with all its limitations, is an inseparable part of what makes this music so great; both as a matter of Uematsu's inspiration and the result.

As to inspiration, working within severe constraints is what separates the men from the boys, to use another all-too-common phrase.  Rigorous discipline is required to mine such perfect gems under such harsh conditions, and these arid, austere conditions can themselves be a source of creativity.  It is a challenge; a challenge at which one must either succeed wildly or fail utterly.  This is why in my previous essay about how to unleash the creative impulses I suggested the punk rock approach; it is an approach which can bring out incredible results by taxing one's creative powers through the merciless stripping away of possibilities.  In a way, there is an interesting comparison to be made between early Uemastu and the conscious and extreme self-restriction one finds in another, more respected but no less obscure master of musical form, namely Anton Webern.

As to the actual result, though square waves and white noise may not be everyone's cup of tea, the medium through which these superb melodies are conveyed also has something to do with their enduring appeal.  When listening to these pieces repeatedly through the course of truly epic stories (not enough can be said of the quality of these games, both for their time and for all time), the listener takes to filling in the blanks.  No longer is it a mere sawtooth waveform, but a string section, and though there may be but a handful of voices sounding at a time, one can extrapolate them and imagine a full orchestra giving life to these by turns uplifting, foreboding and downright bizarre compositions.  As I alluded to before digressing with my heaping of wild and unstinting praise on Uematsu, sometimes less is more, and as any horror movie fan will tell you, the most salient moments are those which leave something to the imagination.

So, as promised in the title, I will now give a brief and woefully imcomplete musical analysis of ten perfect compositions by Nobuo Uematsu.  As the reader may guess from my gushing appreciation for this music, it was near impossible to narrow it down to ten, out of a field of nearly 100 on the NES system alone.

1)  Final Fantasy I - The Prelude

A simple, 2-voiced arpeggio which the listener is introduced to at the outset of the game.  The arpeggio itself is nothing particularly unprecedented, consisting mainly of the root, 3rd and 5th (occasionally the 7th) of a chord progression, which is mostly diatonic but does deviate somewhat in the latter portion.  Though the theme is used and expanded upon in subsequent titles, even adding a melody as early as Final Fantasy IV, there is something about the spareness of this version that makes it my personal favourite, and thus, a perfect composition.

2)  Final Fantasy I - The Prologue

I transcribed this theme for classical guitar many years ago, and friends would constantly request to hear it, as testament to its universal appeal.  Based on a descending bass line which will sound familiar to fans of baroque music, this stately and majestic theme is highly reminiscent of Elgar's "Pomp and Circumstance"; to this day when I think of graduation music or any formal gathering of nobility, I immediately call to mind Uematsu's perfect Prologue theme.

3)  Final Fantasy I - Menu Waltz

This is the theme (apart from the battle theme, or perhaps the overworld theme) that the listener will hear the most over the course of the game... and Uematsu delivers as only he can.  Again based on a descending chord progression, though quite different from the Prologue, this waltz has a rather medieval/renaissance flavour to it.  The bass line and melody seem quite unrelated (this theme has been a major challenge to arrange for solo guitar), yet they work together immaculately.  The listener is hesitant when calling up the menu screen to even move the cursor, for fear of interrupting this masterpiece.  NES games feature very few musical themes, and each of them of very limited duration before repeating, so they can get irritating quite quickly.  Not so with the Menu Waltz; though short even by NES standards, its perfection can be enjoyed ad infinitum.

4)  Final Fantasy I - Matoya's Cave

Themes in Final Fantasy I are re-used heavily throughout the game for different locations, and Matoya's Cave theme is one that always brings a smile to the listener's face.  The "A" section is based on four chords in the key of D major and presents a very interesting inversion of the order of those chords over the course of this section.  The final section of the song is one of the most uplifting of all musical movements I've heard, and will never lose its emotional impact.  This theme also contains one of Uematsu's greatest-ever melodies, and he is a composer with an uncanny knack for melody.  In this perfect theme, he sends us flying over mountains, exploring far-away vistas, and travelling down the road which leads forever on.

5)  Final Fantasy II - Rebel Theme

Another stately and noble theme, when this theme is introduced, the listener knows that Final Fantasy II has truly begun, and will undoubtedly share the stoic resolve of the rebel army.  For all its brevity, this composition is rather tonally complex, moving through both diatonic and non-diatonic moments in short order.  Always present when the Final Fantasy Distant Worlds orchestration comes to town and always a highlight, this theme is one of the true perfect gems of the Final Fantasy series, with its stirring emotion and patrician character.

6)  Final Fantasy II - Magician's Tower

At once complex and deceptively simple, yet unforgettable, the Magician's Tower is as formidable a location in the game as the Magician's Tower is a formidable composition.  Conjuring a mysterious atmosphere with a straightforward two chord progression during the "A" section alongside yet another truly striking melody, this theme alone is worth spending the time playing through Final Fantasy II just to hear it.  All the malignancy and demonic arts of the evil wizard are on display here, perfectly encapsulated in that haunted descending melody.

7)  Final Fantasy II - The Old Castle

There is something ruinous and intangible about this theme, that evokes in the listener a sense of the inevitability of time, of a sunset in the late afternoon of humanity; yet vestiges of former glory remain.  One of my favourite themes in the whole series, the progression takes a few unexpected turns and yet still manages to communicate a message of bygone days, with its dignified air still perfectly able to display a sense of things falling apart.

8)  Final Fantasy III - Altar Cave

This, the Altar Cave theme... when you hear it you know that you are in for an epic journey, in the truest sense of the word.  Utilizing a chord progression that will be familiar to Pink Floyd aficionados as being from "Is There Anybody Out There?", and a distinct and memorable melody involving a fast pedal point, if you hear it even once you can call it up in your memory at will... and that's just the "A" section, to say nothing of the freewheeling arpeggio underlying the "B" section.  This composition is a perfect tour de force of melody and composition, with its tense atmosphere, yet also a sense of optimism in the face of uncertainty.

9)  Final Fantasy III - Beneath the Horizon

One of the more mysterious and bizarre Uematsu compositions, it uses some exceedingly bent compositional techniques to achieve the unsettled air one encounters when descending beneath the horizon in to labyrinths and parts unknown.  One of many Uematsu themes to use the whole-tone scale to achieve that atmosphere of the alien and utterly unfamiliar, yet it does so not at the expense of a hummable tune that reverberates in the mind for hours after listening.  And it must be mentioned that this theme contains a truly bombastic bass run leading in to the "B" section, which calls to mind a host of expressive Uematsu bass lines, a hallmark of the soundtracks throughout the Final Fantasy series.  Yes, this perfect composition is one of the exemplars of just how much can be said, with so little.

10)  Final Fantasy III - This is the Last Battle

This composition would be perfect with the simple and yet hauntingly eerie opening arpeggio alone, but the listener is subsequently treated to a battle theme which leaves them breathless and exhausted after a clash with a colossal evil.  The Final Fantasy series is famous for its dramatic battle themes, and this one is as good a specimen as any.  Moving through diatonic and non-diatonic sections with dynamic arpeggios and pulsing bass lines, to say nothing of drum fills (certainly among the first for the NES), this perfect example of the battle theme just is excitement instantiated.


Until very recently, video game composers have been thought of as purveyors of light and unimportant background fare, hardly up to the standard of even elevator music, serving up naive themes meant not to distract too much from what is ultimately seen as just a trivial pastime.  Yet video games are legitimate works of art, and Uematsu stands tall, casting a long shadow over not only game composers, but all subsequent composers, with his prowess in communicating timeless emotion, be it with an orchestra or a handful of square waves.  If there is any justice, future ages will look back on his legacy as an unsung hero with a knowing amusement at our philistinism.

Monday, 13 May 2013

Metaphysics: They're Great!

For centuries now, philosophers in an effort to find fresher and more novel perspectives have attempted to do away with a central branch of philosophy, namely metaphysics.  Few other words have had such a dubious etymological history and few have changed their meaning as much, or borne the brunt of quite so much derision.  But no inquiry is off limits to the philosopher, no matter how trivial or how profound, so one must wonder why so much scorn has been heaped on this field of study.  I hope to contribute some small illumination on this subject and provide some context for the war of words that has yielded the current state of professional, academic philosophy.

As the title of this essay may indicate, my position is rather far from that of say David Hume whose oft-repeated condemnation of metaphysics as "nothing but sophistry and illusion" is commonly held by most professional philosophers today.  No, far from it in fact, I submit that metaphysics is in actuality all that philosophy is, and moreover, all that Hume engaged in when he was not busy being a historian.  However my definition of the word and his definition would likely have been quite different.

So what is metaphysics?

Let us start with what this term has come to mean in the popular imagination (if indeed metaphysics can lay any sort of claim whatsoever to "popularity"), which is much closer to what it meant to Hume.  When someone describes something as "metaphysical", they are referring to something invisible, imaginary, immaterial, something outside the realm of normal experience.  Hume rightly concluded that there was nothing outside the realm of experience, at least nothing nameable, and so metaphysical discourse to him represents an intellectual distraction, a sort of word game in which no real, substantial meaning could possibly be communicated.

Now, some historical perspective.  There is a well-known anecdote in Aristotelian scholarship about his work "The Metaphysics", which is a seminal work on this subject.  When Western scholars of the 1st century CE categorized his work posthumously, they assigned to it the title of "meta ta fysika" which translates literally to "the writings after the Physics".  The presumed name of this work was a reference strictly to the order in which Aristotle is held to have written, or at any rate, presented it.  So why all this confusion?  The reason is to be found in the etymology of the word itself - meta meaning "beyond" and physics meaning "the operations of the material world".  If you didn't know any better, then this word should refer to a branch of knowledge which purports to give information about "what lies beyond", which is obviously exactly what Hume and so many others after him, have striven to deflate.

However, our question still remains unanswered.  A good departure point for understanding the nature of this furtive beast is to look at Aristotle's treatise on the matter, which is by no means the first, but certainly one of the most characteristic.  In this work, Aristotle provides insight about the nature of existence, which was in the ancient Greek world generally called "Being".  Essentially, metaphysics both for Aristotle, and for the present author asks one fundamental question:

What is REAL?

This is no idle question about phantoms or chimera flying incorporeally above the realm of human experience.  This is the philosophical question, if ever there were such a question.  What can you say for sure?  Is there anything that can be truly said to BE?  Certainly discussing the nature of existence is fraught with problems and presents at least as many questions as answers.  But if one pursues the truth, then one must follow the path wherever it leads.

Now, it may rightly be objected that words' meanings change over time and to defend a word on the basis of a meaning that has changed is pointless.  Such an objection would be difficult indeed to overcome.  However it must be recognized that this divorcing of philosophy from metaphysics has come at some cost; when you do not understand the foundation on which your terms and concepts rest, you can scarcely expect to have any thorough-going grasp of what they tell you.  Philosophers' rejection of metaphysics does not simply reject what it has come to mean, but the original meaning as well, if only subconsciously.

Philosophy since the end of the 19th century has, by and large, been a woefully inept enterprise.  A sort of hyper-professionalized, academic busywork, and the philosopher's reputation, which has certainly never been one of universal acclaim, has reached its lowest ebb since perhaps the twilight years of the Roman empire.

And is it any wonder why?  The philosopher has rendered himself obsolete!

He is an amateur scientist, a sort of tottering old grandfatherly figure who presides over the board of directors in the intellectual pursuits in name only, while his subordinates make the real decisions much to his bewilderment.  No longer does he discuss subjects of vital importance, rending asunder the very axiomatic framework of unsustainable systems, reminding people of what they only think they know, and never once flinching at the sight of a truth which forces him to change his mind.  Instead, he assumes a position and entrenches himself, defending it to the death, with an intellectual dishonesty that could only be sustained in the glass bowl of academia, where he suckles the sweet milk of tenure.

Metaphysics, again, is all that philosophy IS.  Every other philosophical subject proceeds from it necessarily.  It is the study of reality, what can be said to be.  If you get rid of metaphysics as many have tried imprudently to do, you get rid of philosophy.  And that is where we find ourselves in the dawn of the new millennium, 2500 years after the first great wave of Western intellectual thought; having nearly escaped philosophy altogether.  This is one of the key reasons why philosophy is so impoverished today, why the philosopher is no longer the one who makes you think about what is crucially important - he is the one who thinks about and discourses on what doesn't matter, what is not real.  At the same time he does this, that is, disparages metaphysics, he is engaged exclusively in the study of metaphysics.  This is the great fallacy that he has fallen prey to.

When Descartes makes the pronouncement of his cogito ergo sum, he is engaged in metaphysics.  When Hume levels a devastating critique of metaphysics, he is engaged in metaphysics.  When Kant attempts to finish metaphysics for good, he ends up providing yet another basis for metaphysics.  Hegel's system of logic is metaphysical through and through.  When Heidegger tries to discuss Being in a novel and unprecedented way, he has reverted to that old Parmenidean metaphysics.  Wittgenstein's Tractatus begins and ends with purely metaphysical statements, and makes no other sort in between.

Where there is real, legitimate, important philosophy, there is a profound understanding (or sometimes misunderstanding) of metaphysics.  The rest superficially dismiss it.  But philosophers no longer wonder about metaphysics any more, as a general rule.  They are quite certain of its having been eliminated by that metaphysical razor of Occam.

Philosophy begins in wonder, and ends in certainty.

Wednesday, 1 May 2013

The Muses

Where does inspiration come from?  The answer to this question will vary from person to person, and in the end, it cannot be answered in any satisfactory manner.  That's why art is so powerful and transfixing, because its source is shrouded in mystery - it springs from the unknown.

Rather than attempting to describe this hidden abode of creative power, I will instead share the few things I've learned over many years, on the subject of how to tap in to what creative potential you possess; in effect how to overcome writer's block.  Like anything else with art there is no magical formula, and since it is entirely personal and subjective, I may end up simply waxing philosophic in a vacuum and making sense to no one.  However I think some words can be said on this subject which the reader may find useful.

For many years I have struggled with various periods of creative inactivity.  I had played the guitar for about a decade before I first wrote a song, and it was still years after that until I wrote a song that I felt was worth "committing to tape".  However once that initial barrier was overcome, the floodgates were opened.  That's not to say that the songs began spilling out uncontrollably, but something changed, and I have been able to create original works ever since.

Recently and in a similar fashion, I have gotten over the creative block of being unable to write lyrics.  Strange that I would have an issue with that, since I can write prose quite easily.  It seems to me that the reason why I have gone through these extreme creative droughts was in part due to the fact that I know what I like.  That may not make sense at first, but allow me to explain.

When you know what you like, when you really take a look in the mirror of your personal taste and examine what you see, you become consciously aware of your own influences, sometimes to the extent that they are inescapable.  Everything is seen through the lens of those influences, and all too often, you find that any idea you invoke turns out to be a transparent re-hashing of someone else's idea.  When you know what you like, you are sensitively in touch with a certain minimum standard of allowable quality.  A double-edged sword, this can make it rather difficult to create, especially if you compare yourself with the masters whose art inspires you.  As deeply as you may appreciate the beauty of form, your first sculpture is not going to be on a par with Michaelangelo.

Both of these aspects of the self-knowledge that is "knowing what you like", can be taken too far.  Being a talented artist is about merciless self-criticism, but that is a difficult path.  Creativity is a form of self-honesty, but too much honesty can be exhausting.

So, as per usual in my circuitous route to the point, I have not yet given any practical advice.  Well, let me explain how I specifically overcame being unable to write lyrics.  I did just a few quite simple things, really.

I stopped striving for perfection.

I stopped caring what other people would think of the result.

I stopped trying to force it to happen.

You may notice that I did not so much "do something" as "cease doing something".

There is a Taoist concept called "Te" which is very much in line with what I'm getting at.  Te means something like "virtue", often called the "virtue of the small".  Sometimes it is rendered as "power", which helps to divest it of the connotation of "upstanding, righteous, moral virtue" which I do not take it to mean.  Imagine this type of virtue as when you state "she was able to do it by virtue of her unique ability".  This type of virtue is like an inherent quality, and it is the quality of the small, the yielding, the low, the receptive.  There truly is a great power to be found here.

Taoism is often characterized as "going with the flow", and in light of the related concept of Wu-Wei is sometimes misunderstood as a sort of slack, dispassionate inertia.  I have not found it to be this at all, and coming back to my main point, applying the concept of Te to your work can help un-block those creative forces latent within.  Often we are our own worst enemy when it comes to creative expression, getting in our own way more often than anything else by far.  Making things complicated, over-thinking, becoming far too self-conscious.

When one lowers oneself, one can become a sort of vessel through which creative ideas flow.  Is this too mystical?  I will give a very concrete example of how I have managed to become such a vessel.  Often I find that in that very peculiar mental state of "half-asleep/half-awake" I have a song or some sort of melody running through my mind.  This has been going on for a long time now, and occasionally the song will even come ready-made with lyrics.  Within the last few years, I have managed to transcribe some of these "songs from the unconscious" in waking reality.  Whenever I hear such a song and find myself conscious enough to realize that it is a dream, I will hustle myself out of bed and run over to my guitar and work out the melody and chords (usually I receive both) before they disappear forever.  It is usually a matter of seconds before they do.  The uncanny thing about these songs is that almost invariably they are among the best work I could ever hope to do.  I have some theory about why this is, but will pass over that for the time being.  Even other people tend to appreciate the dream-songs better than the others.  It feels like I am playing someone else's music, but all this sprung from my own (sub) consciousness.

I have never been able to understand the anecdote that goes something like this:  In an intervew the Beatles were asked "how do you write a song?" and the reply was something like "we just sit down and then write a song."  This could be taken as having several meanings.  Do they mean that they can sit down and create something worthwhile at any given moment?  If so, that is not a facility I have ever had and probably never will.  Do they mean that they just sit down and it either happens or doesn't and when it does happen, "it" does so of "its" own accord?  That is closer to my own experience.

Again, I feel the need to clarify that I am not saying "sit idly by and the ideas will flow."  That is a way to achieve nothing.  However, chance plays a crucial role.  I received some fatherly advice once, back when I played hockey, and was told that you "create your own chances".  The same approach I am suggesting to the artist is the same one that a great hockey player might use:

Stir the pot.

Here is a brief list of what you might consider doing to effect such a "stirring":

- Throw something out there.  Try an idea you never would have considered, just to get things moving.  Start with whatever comes to mind immediately, as often a train of thought can pass through many stages before leading to something worth keeping.

- Change your situation.  Put yourself in a different setting.  Change your routine.  Start a new project.  I used to listen to music everywhere I went, but I found that I never had a single idea for a song while doing so.  So I stopped that practice and lo and behold, musical ideas started happening while in transit.

- Take a new approach.  One thing that has helped me recently is to try different approaches to songwriting.  For example, try describing the song before you write it.  Or writing a title first, and composing the song from that.  I have found it to be crucial to have a certain set of constraints within you work as an artist.  Some things will be allowed inside your canon, some things will not.  Try changing these constraints.  Allow something you wouldn't normally - the progressive rock approach.  Disallow something that you ordinarily would deem "necessary" - the punk rock approach.

- Invoke a degree of accident.  Try for example, using the I Ching as a form of divination to gain direction for your creative endeavour.  Just try it.

- Get moving.  One thing I have noticed is that I create better when I am engaged in some menial activity that occupies just enough of my mind to get my consciousness out of the way.  The simple act of going for a walk makes an enormous difference to my clarity of thinking.

- ALWAYS... be on the lookout.  You never know where or when inspiration will visit you.  It could happen right now.  When else would it?

- Stop.  Don't waste your effort if you aren't getting anywhere.  Take a breather and think about something else.

- Be patient.  Sometimes it happens, sometimes it doesn't.  For me, the best creativity happens in short bursts with relatively long periods of inactivity.  Don't get discouraged, just keep your eyes and ears open.

With all this talk of "stepping out of the way", "being patient", "lowering oneself", the reader may have got nothing out of this whatsoever.  But I can speak only of my own experience.  Some people can sit down and write a song at will.  For me, writing a song or poetry or writing an essay is about unblocking my will and channeling what's beneath it.  The unconscious is the fertile soil out of which all great creativity shoots forth.  Creating is a lot like gardening; you can do so much, and the rest is out of your hands.

Monday, 15 April 2013

To Be or Not To Be

That is the question, is it not?

This entry may appear as something of a detour from previous ones, though in reality most future articles will follow the direction set out herein, as less inclined toward quasi-political ramblings and more inclined toward purely philosophical topics.  A prelude to more detailed expositions of the philosophical position which I call "Transcendental Egotism".  Thus I will make a very rough sketch of the framework within which that philosophy will operate, and call attention to the wellspring from which it emerges.

Many great thinkers have observed philosophy as a rather futile undertaking, and no other enterprise which continues to this day has had a track record of failure so complete.  In 2500 years (at the least), this practice has provided few satisfactory answers to fundamental questions of existence, and has yielded virtually no consensus even when a decent answer presents itself.  This has happened for reasons, and as time goes on I will point the way to them, though the reader must fill in some of the blanks.

Much of the philosophical enterprise concerns itself with what we might call "Being".  Does this sound abstract to the point of absurdity?  Does it sound mystical?  Divine?

No.  In reality, we concern ourselves with the utmost practicality.  Something very down to earth.

What IS?  What AIN'T?  These two fundamental questions underlie all others.  When you ask any question whatsoever, whether the sun revolves around the earth or otherwise, how you can feel sure that you know this, and what does it matter anyway, you ask a question about the existence of something.  Even the most mundane or banal of inquiries follow this pattern.

Yet, existence itself presents us with a great mystery.  Have you ever tried to define what that word even means?  I would recommend attempting to do so as a very instructive exercise.  For the moment, I will simply point out the synonymity of  "existence" and "being".

- Be
- Is
- Was
- Are
- Am
- Exist

All these words point to the same concept.  I will not go so far as to give dictionary definitions, but I will take it as evident that to "be" and to "exist" mean essentially the same thing.

One of the most powerful and most modern of all philosophies we call "Existentialism".  I will not attempt to disentangle this term from the connotation of "cynicism" or "nihilism" that has grown up around it, but rather will use Existentialism in the sense of a philosophy begun in the 19th century by disparate figures such as Kierkegaard and Nietzsche.  As the term suggests, this philosophy takes "existence" as foundational, axiomatic and properly, unworthy of debate, though some have tried rather unsuccessfully to plumb the depths of this great abyss.

Summed up in three words, Existentialism states the following:

"Existence precedes essence."

This may bear some brief explanation.  In general, it means that nothing has an essential nature outside of its particular existence.  In other words, don't make the mistake of pre-defining yourself as a person as "this" or "that" with an unchangeable, immutable nature.  The freedom to choose one's self comes before any question of identity.  You make your identity through your choices.  In a sense, this provides a powerful counter to Plato's theory of eternal forms, while still assuming as foundational the concept of "Being" (in the form of existence).  Nothing can have an "essence" before it has an "existence".

Philosophy at least since the time of the ancient Greeks has concerned itself with the question of Being.  The question of "what is Being?", famously asked by Heidegger in the 20th century CE, and famously answered by Thales of Miletus in the 6th century BCE as "Water".  What truly IS?  Formulated in Existential terms, "what is the essence of existence?"  Here we have our most fundamental question imaginable.

But hold on.  The Existentialist has already posited that existence comes before essence, so asking about the essence of existence would seem a non-sensical question.  The only legitimate answer to that question:

Nothing.  It is what it is.

At this time I will make a wild digression and point out something very interesting about the Hebrew Bible.  The highest Sephirah we call the Crown or Keter, which most Qabalistic traditions associate with Ehieh, the name of God spoken by He to Moses out of the burning bush.  Translated in to English this name goes something like "I AM THAT I AM."

So, in a subtle maneuvre, Existentialism has placed ontology (the study of what truly exists) outside of the limits of the question-able.  Just as the axiomatic statement A = A can admit of no further elucidation, so Existentialism at its most profound, has rendered ontology as the ultimate mystery, supplanting God with "Being".  The ultimate and absolute presupposition, whose fundamental nature lies outside of human comprehension and discourse.

More wisdom than at first seems evident may lurk behind this placement of Being as beyond discussion.  "Being" or "existence" as a ground for inquiry has led to many of the most intractable problems of philosophy, to say nothing of the problems we as a species face in the modern era.  This error extends at least as far back as the pre-Socratic philosophers in the West, and in a future work I hope to spell out the root of this error and to start along the path to unravelling it.

With no shroud of secrecy, for centuries philosophy has sought to eliminate metaphysics from discourse.  Why?  At least as far back as Hume, philosophers have viewed it with scorn, as merely the line of inquiry concerned with chimerical phantoms, with the misleading of thinkers its only end.  Perhaps, like Existentialism, we should investigate this problem as latent within the term itself.  The categorization of one of Aristotle's works which gave the name to that particular branch of discussion has turned out as one of the most unfortunate accidents in the history of intellectual thought, which has given rise to more illusion than metaphysics itself.  It has taken on a connotation of the ethereal, unreal, and supernatural that persists to this day, with a truly malignant effect.

Why has this attempt at annihilation not succeeded?  Why does metaphysics endure through all attempts to destroy it?  One simple fact:  Metaphysics, among other things, underlies the ability to talk with clarity about anything at all.  As long as discourse continues, so too will metaphysics, though perhaps under different names as the treadmill of euphemism marches on through yet more turns.  Declared dead many times over, this branch of inquiry does not cease, but rather like the hydra, as one head falls, several more crop up in its place.  Such things as logic, empiricism, the scientific method, the philosophy of Kant, the entire branch of analytical philosophy, but to name a few, stand as monuments to the penetration of this supposed aberration throughout the intellectual world.

To come full circle regarding Existentialism, that particular philosophy does not ask "what is?"  Instead, at its best, it asks more poignantly "what are you going to do about it?"  In so doing, as a philosophy invariably grounded in Being, it has within it the germ of Becoming.  This paradox provides the source of its power, embracing the contradictory yet identical - like the Ouroborous, the snake's mouth draws ever nearer to its tail.  Existentialism, which takes Being as foundational, contains within itself the seed of its own demise.

When learning French, the student generally first learns the verb "Être", or the verb "to be".  Why, you ask?  Because the bedrock of any and all discussion; the nethermost, primary root of any communicable action, consists of the act "to be".  Can we escape the act of "Being" in our dialogue?  How far can you go without it?

I take Existentialism a step further.  Can we live without the verb "to be", in all its forms?  You'll notice that in this essay, none of the verbal forms of "Being" enumerated near the beginning have I used, except to illustrate, to name Being as such.  Might this get us closer to the truth, if indeed as the Existentialists have uncovered, that Being resists all discussion?

As hinted at earlier, near Eastern religious traditions had a deep understanding, far in advance of our modern wisdom, that as elemental to discussion, of some things we simply must not speak.  However we must travel further East to witness the fullest expression of this awareness.  Anyone familiar with oriental philosophy will have no doubt as to the acquaintance that the ancient Taoist master had with the idea that the fundament of things lies entirely outside the realm of the nameable.  One need only read as far as the first page of the Tao Te Ching to recognize that Taoism of any philosophy most fully embraces this concept.  I have no way of doing justice to the depth of understanding latent within this text, except to give it my highest recommendation as a book worth your time.  Chapter 1 took a very long time for me to unravel, and my thousand-mile journey has likely not even progressed beyond step one.  Without further ado, I give you the text, which says it better than I ever could:

Tao can be talked about, but not the Eternal Tao.
Names can be named, but not the Eternal Name.

As the origin of heaven-and-earth, it is nameless:
As "the Mother" of all things, it is nameable.

So, as ever hidden, we should look at its inner essence:
As always manifest, we should look at its outer aspects.

These two flow from the same source, though differently named;
And both are called mysteries.

The Mystery of mysteries is the Door of all essence.

The Tao: that which resists discussion, the origin of all things - heaven and earth, nameless, hidden, inner, meaningless and self-effacing when used to refer to itself, quite straightforwardly a mystery.

The Tao: that which discussion yields, the Mother of all things, manifest, outer, necessary in order to name anything, yet still a mystery, subtly and esoterically.  Whence does it come?  Used in a definitional sense (this is what "x" IS), though definitions tend to run away and cycle back on themselves, as mere constructs and relations of words.  Nameable, yet having no bottom, no foundation.

How can these two seemingly irreconcilable elements have any shared identity?  They both receive the name mysteries, as they arise mutually and co-dependently.  Like light and dark, up and down, to and fro, they only make sense with reference to each other.  Their very "existence" depends on the other.

The mystery of mysteries, the very highest and most inscrutable mystery imaginable, we call the door of all essence.  That which leads to the essence of things.

And as you know, existence precedes essence.