Sociology is a Science

Month: September, 2011

A Misused Word

Why did Mencken say that, “Love is the triumph of imagination over intelligence?”

Because love is stupid? Because it’s false? Because it is an illusion?

Love is the triumph of imagination over intelligence because it is the one of the very few irrational licenses we allow ourselves.

Who loves us? Girlfriend? Parents? Wife? What does this mean?

It means we allow ourselves the fragmentary, momentary, almost mystical indulgence that at least one other person breathing on this Earth is consumed  with our welfare, is forever eager about what we have to say, and, at every pause, breathes our breath.

But girlfriends, parents and wives have concerns all their own, fighting like anyone to make sense of a life as incandescent as it is often futile. They’ll sometimes want to be alone or gone or with someone else or proud of someone else or concerned with someone else.

We should hope so. They are their own people.

And yet, what makes love important to us is that we can imagine, fleetingly, that we are at the absolute center of someone’s life. Humans have to be content with an existence flurried with questions and confusions; an existence that finds us neither at the center of the universe, nor at the peak of the peakless mountain of evolution. Nabokov: “The cradle rocks above an abyss, and common sense tells us that our existence is but a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness.”

But if the human race was not made in the image of perfection, and isn’t at the center of anything transcendent, is this the same thing as saying that love is false?

The faint thread that hangs between us, loosely tied to our collective selves, ensures that we are still at the center of something: each other. Perhaps this isn’t profound and certainly it isn’t always perfect. And perhaps it isn’t even real. Perhaps, most of the time the thread is too hard to see and too easy to untie. Perhaps the thread is a self-aggrandizing lie.

We have our own lives. We have our own concerns and, in the end, we die by ourselves, in our own minds where finally thoughts cease. But we sometimes allow ourselves the freedom to assume that, at every moment, our welfare is of utmost concern to someone and, in some sense, it is this possibly imaginary exaggeration  that proves to be an ineffable protection from the icy edge of loneliness.

So, sometimes, the thread cannot be seen. But if we assume it is therefore broken, we finally spiral from the center of each other -the center of something – into the abyss. Regardless of how low the tide gets, however abused our will, if ever something irrational was worth believing, it is that the thread is simply hiding in the daylight.

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The Most Important Question in Philosophy

I think all of philosophy (not just the impulse for it but the concepts it finds interesting) can be traced to one perennial question. Following Camus, I take the most important question to be, “Is life worth living?”

Well, is it? What does the question mean?

And what kind of person is kept up all night asking such a question? Certainly not the person who thinks life is quite obviously worth living (of COURSE it is, I have a trip planned to Tahoe next month!), but I am certainly not talking about these people. This post is meant to address those who actually think this question is worth asking, because it is a question that can be asked and because it is intrinsically interesting to curious people (people who think thinking is worth doing).

There are 9 ways of answering this question using the concepts of ontology (the nature of existence) and epistemology (the nature of knowledge). Here’s how I answer this question.

There are 3 relevant, important, and possible answers to the question of ontology.

A) God exists and has a plan for you (or will take care of you/guide you/show you the way). I am assuming a benevolent monotheistic god for the sake of simplicity. A malevolent God would, presumably, not be worth considering in this context. If God exists and hates us and wants to torture us then, I hope it is clear, life is most certainly not worth living.

B) God exists but His/Her/Its will cannot be known. God works in ‘mysterious’ ways. The mind of God cannot be known. God is too ‘special’ for us lowly humans to comprehend.

C) God does not exist. Humans have brains that structure experience. We seek patterns and purpose to our actions. We engage in post-hoc reflections when thinking about our accomplishments and failures and generally like to structure such reflections in terms of their ‘importance’ because ‘everything happens for a reason’. Humans look out on a meaningless, absurd world and desparately scramble to construct a narrative that makes sense. “God” is the easiest, most obvious narrative. This is why people believe He exists, not because He does, but because the concept of God, interwoven into everyday excitement/tragedy makes life more explicable.

There are also 3 relevant, important, and  possible answers to the question of epistemology.

D) True knowledge exists. With enough effort, one can come to understand the world in some coherent way. This can occur either by understanding ‘God’s word’ or by understanding the laws of matter as discovered by science. Humans, though built with inexact and emotionally-driven  brains, can overcome (possibly with the assistance of others) such design flaws of the human mind and begin to collect accurate, true, knowledge.

E) True knowledge does not exist. The only things we can ‘know’ are opinions and our own feelings.  Knowledge, of necessity, is relative. We each live only inside of our heads, attempting to make connections, form viable beliefs and draw conclusions and opinions out of essentially subjective experiences. I might THINK I understand the world, but this understanding is specific to my experiences and to my predilections. Institutions like science and religion, both of which claim to represent the truth in one form or another are just different forms of totalitarianism. Yes, yes, I know that science tends to recoil around discussion of ‘Absolute Truth’, whereas religion tends to insist you pull out your wallet at the sound of it. Science, we are told, is simply provisional truth, nothing more than closer approximations to an ‘ultimate truth’. Such qualifications come just because scientists are better educated, on average, about the nature of reality than religious leaders. Talk to an educated religious leader and he, too, will concede that his interpretation of the Bible/Koran/Torah  is honest and earnest, but ultimately, possibly flawed. But suppose both the scientists and religionists are wrong. No truth exists, all is opinion. This was Nietzsche’s defiant perspectivism and Foucault’s impassioned subjectivism.  Power is knowledge. The purpose of education is to force you to believe what I do, for no other reason than to have control over your mind and your will. Nothing more.

F) Nothing can be known. Knowledge of any kind is an illusion. Our emotions and our opinions are not even “ours”; all emotions and opinions are just thoughtlessly automatic, arbitrary physiological responses to stimuli. The logical structure of “I am a boy, I like to vote republican, I hate mean people” is equivalent to “jsdfnof dfoasnfodsds odfsindsfbue weiouewouwb ewouinewo”. This is consistent with emotivism or non-cognitivism: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Emotivism .

So, now we can begin to answer our question.

1) Suppose that (A,D) is true. Suppose that God exists and true knowledge exists. This position usually assumes (and generally, given the attributes of God, MUST assume) that such knowledge DERIVES directly from God. The purpose of existence is to know God and to understand why He does what He does. If this were true, and God was benevolent, then I would have to say that life was worth living. Others think the idea that a God exists and will protect us and guide us is a suffocating form of dictatorship. I am of the persuasion that such ultimate structure would do far more good than bad.

Such structure would provide answers and purpose to death, sorrow and suffering. Even if this structure is ultimately circular (bad things happen because God has a plan), the very IDEA that something beyond me and more powerful than me is overseeing all of the horrors of existence and plans to, in the end, ameliorate them is an emotionally comforting (but intellectually nonsensical) position.

Why intellectually nonsensical? Because if there was a God that was kind, loving and benevolent, children would not be born with AIDS. Period. This knock-down argument has been slaying the delusions of the faithful for generations. It still works, and there is no answer to the ‘problem of evil’. God must have had some interesting reasoning to ‘allow’ (because he IS all-knowing and all-powerful meaning he COULD have intervened) the murder of 6 million Jews in the Holocaust. Either he doesn’t give a shit or he doesn’t exist. And even if the reader is now inclined to trudge out the tired, wheezing “He gave us free will” trope, remember, this will not explain the baby born with syphilis, or with an addiction to cocaine (happens frequently) or, worse yet, the baby born only to die of starvation because she happened to be born in a war-torn country (through no fault of her own). Perhaps God is sending us a ‘message’ by torturing, every day and without exception, defenseless children, mentally retarded people and those who fall victim to crimes like rape and genocide. What is more likely, that these events are ‘messages’ from God? Or that we are all we have and that we are animals, oftentimes scared and uncertain ones, with inborn pre-dispositions for tribalism and in-group protection/intolerance, drug use, and human folly?

So, under this conception, life WOULD be worth living. But this conception is not logically possible or inductively reasonable. Not logically possible because an all-knowing God could not give us a free will (how could we choose to do whatever we want if He already knows what we’ll choose?) and not inductively reasonable because of the extreme and aimless suffering of obviously innocent people and children.

2) Suppose (A,E) is true, or (A,F) is true. God exists, but we can only understand the world as our subjective experience, or not at all. No ‘laws’ of nature can be found and no ultimate, unerring religious truth can be grasped. This is the sort of God that many educated people defend. Sure, God exists, they say (for emotional reasons), but they hesitate before insisting that their interpretation of God’s will is the absolutely right one. Thankfully, this prevents such people from standing outside of  grocery stores and insisting that you hear the ‘good word’.

But, for reasons mentioned above (and literally hundreds more, all of which I can provide), the existence of a benevolent God is not tenable or, at least, is not reasonable or likely. So this position, as well, cannot be maintained. Even if this position was coherent, since the mind of God could not be known for sure, all of existence would appear to be capricious, random or arbitrary. So, life would probably not be worth living if, like me, you would desire some explanation from an all-knowing, all-powerful God.

3) Let’s now take (B, D). Under this conception, God exists, but His nature cannot be known. On the other hand, the mechanical operations of the natural world can be known, perhaps through science. So, while we might not have answers to the biggest questions (meaning of life, purpose of existence, ultimate nature of reality), we can still glean answers to the smaller, and no less important, ones. If some sort of real knowledge is possible (but knowledge of God’s will is not), than medical advance is still possible, technological advance is possible, and explanations for things like natural disasters and economic calamities are possible. They may or may not describe the mind of God, but who cares? Such knowledge appears to describe and predict reality, so isn’t this good enough?

Then, is life worth living? It depends. In my opinion, it matters whether or not I am doing what I ought to be doing, given the kind of person I am and the sort of life that will make me happy. This, is , at its core, a concern or preoccupation with purpose. My father was a mailman his whole life. He hated it, but felt he could do no better. Presumably, there IS an answer to this question. WAS he too good for the post office? WOULD he have been happier somewhere else? WOULD I have turned out differently? WOULD he have turned out differently had he dedicated his life to something else? Would it matter? These sorts of questions are only answerable by a God, because these sorts of questions contain more variables than human beings can comprehend. If these questions matter to you, than this sort of life (B,D) is probably not worth living. Though you can understand the little questions (at what temperature does water boil? What reproductive strategies are common among mammals in resource-restricted ecologies?) the broader, more complicated questions of function, meaning and purpose, must go unanswered, though you, if you believe in God, know He has the answers. He just won’t tell you. He’s too mysterious, too special. You must content yourself with ignorance and uncertainty. This life is probably not worth living.

4)  What about (B,E) or (B,F)? This is a sort of religious nihilism. God might exist, but there is no way that you could know it. Indeed, here, the phrase ‘to know’ is ultimately empty and either arbitrary and solipsistic or, literally, meaningless. Nothing can be known; not ultimate questions of meaning/purpose nor the more ‘proximate’ questions of science. This is the worst of all possible worlds. Life, in this conception, is absurd. Life, under this conception, is not only not worth living, it is deeply cruel and torturous. This is the worse species of hell and, certiainly, not worth living through.

5) What of (C, E) and (C,F)? God does not exist and knowledge is impossible. This position is only slightly better than the position mentioned above (position 4). I’d suggest that (C,E) and (C,F) are distinctly less depressing than (B,E) or (B,F). At least, here, no God exists so, though knowledge is either arbitray or not possible, at least this is the nature of existence.  In essence, it is what it is. By contrast, following (B,E) or (B,F), if there WAS an all-knowing, all-good, all-powerful God and life was STILL inexplicable, knowledge STILL impossible, than this means either that God himself could not make meaning of existence, or simply doesn’t care enough to clearly share it with us. Regardless, (C,E) and (C,F) are only VERY, VERY slight improvements on (B,E) and (B,F). Experientially, it wouldn’t matter (we wouldn’t know, since knowledge wouldn’t be possible), but philosophically, there is a slight distinction.

At any rate, (C,E) and (C,F) are certainly not enjoyable scenarios and certainly forms of existence not worth living through.

6) What of the last available option (C,D)? This position holds that God is a fairy tale, but that true knowledge of reality (collected via our human senses through the methods of science) is still possible. The universe, for wonderful but inexplicable reasons, is intelligible to us and to the instruments we create to understand it.

Under this conception, ultimate-level questions of meaning and purpose are literally meaningless. The question, “What is the purpose of life?” or “Am I on the right life course?” or “Does my life matter?” or “Is my life important enough?” and even, “Is life worth living?” are not conducive to exact, or even satisfying, answers. Sure, they are questions we can vocalize and ask each other, but this does not necessarily mean that they make sense. I can also ask questions like “Do mountains like Jersey Shore?” or “Was ice cream offended by Reagan’s presidency?” or “Does my cat love me?”. But these questions, just because they can be asked, may not have answers. We humans have an incredible developed ability for language. We can not only represent the world through words, we can imagine different worlds (the realm of fiction), and, even, ask questions that have no answers. If no God exists, and no ultimate explanations possible, than we must content ourselves with the understanding that our evolved brains have so capably equipped us with language that we can actually drive ourselves crazy asking meaningless questions and engaging in non-sensical or ultimately unanswerable  reflection.

But, knowledge can still be gleaned. And, if this is true, perhaps the most important questions of all are answerable: how should I expect to be treated and what should others expect of me?

Understanding the human being as an animal with certain propensities and certain demonstrable expectations for treatment is no different, in principle, than the zoological understanding of ants, bees, bears or dolphins.

Doesn’t human ‘morality’ only really mean ’empirical generalizations regarding expectations for treatment and the social/political/religious ways in which these expectations can be frustrated’? Then why is there no possibility for an objective morality no different in principle than physics? The laws of physics are, as well, empirical generalizations RELATIVE to the set conditions of our universe. If Stephen Hawking is right with M-theory, there are (in principal) numerous different physical empirical generalizations that could be made in any number of possible universes.

Human morality is nothing more than the evolved tendencies (following from ecological selection pressure) of an animal. Shark morality is different than dog morality which is different than parrot morality. In principle, all have evolved expectations for treatment and all of these expectations can be frustrated by social and environmental circumstances (though sharks aren’t terribly social).
Sure, some people enjoy being tortured and enjoy raping and slaughtering people. We need not worry about these folks anymore than we worry about the shark that enjoys cuddling with humans or the dog that absolutely disdains human companionship. Certainly, both scenarios are possible but represent statistically absurd outliers – more importantly, both would make each animal distinctly UN-shark like or UN-dog like as the case may be.
– Humans enjoy autonomy, freedom of association, freedom of expression, basic health and safety, freedom from ignorance and fear etc. The degree to which our social/political/religious policies FRUSTRATE these desires, is the degree to which they are immoral. That’s it. At this point we can just operationalize moral claims in terms of interdisciplinary attempts at facts, for example, we could say that the moral claim ‘gays are gross’ is equivalent to some attempt to say, “homosexual behavior is associated with basic psychological dysfunction/crime/child molestation/natural disasters”. Once operationalized, we can test this claim. We’ll find, slowly, that this moral claim, for example, is false or unsubstantiated. Granted the operationalization of moral claims can be difficult, but it’s no easier to operationalize behemoths like “religion” or “conservative” or “happy” in the social sciences.
– And since there is no God it is up to US to find out how to live and how to treat each other. Up to US to decide which moral claims to listen to and which to ignore.

If, at the end of the day, we can understand, through science, how to treat each other and how to treat ourselves, and we can understand this ON OUR OWN, without the condescending fatherly guidance of a God that both knows more and is more important than us, then perhaps, just perhaps, life is worth living.

Certainly much of existence is suffering. Perhaps even most of existence is suffering – I’ve found moments of happiness to be vastly more fleeting than moments of extreme despair, uncertainty, or pensiveness. But if our ability to understand this suffering and ameliorate it is, in principal, possible, than what other good reason for living could there be?

Are There Eternal Enemies of Civilization?

Journalist Christopher Hitchens recently wrote an article defending eternal war. Some people, he argues , are so stupid and dangerous (or psychotic) that one must, if they desire to be free themselves, kill them.

Does civilization require endless war against those with different ‘cultural’ opinions?

Hitchens:

“Human history seems to register many more years of conflict than of tranquillity. In one sense, then, it is fatuous to whine that war is endless. We do have certain permanent enemies—the totalitarian state; the nihilist/terrorist cell—with which “peace” is neither possible nor desirable. Acknowledging this, and preparing for it, might give us some advantages in a war that seems destined to last as long as civilization is willing to defend itself.”

Read the whole article here: http://www.slate.com/id/2304120/?utm_source=twitterfeed&utm_medium=twitter

The Moral Aspects of Intellectual Elitism

It became fashionable, in the mid to late 20th century, to regard knowledge as relative.

You don’t believe in God? Well, I do and it’s real for me. So THERE. You don’t like horoscopes/psychics? Well, I do and it’s real for me. So THERE! Oh my GOD, have you read Eckhart Tolle/Deepak Chopra/ The Secret/What The Bleep Do We Know? Well I HAVE. And I learned SO much. I don’t care if you don’t like them. I do, and the truths they express are real for me! SO THERE!

Must I continue? Barbara Ehrenreich (http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=113758696) wrote an average treatment of this commercialized fetishism of happy feelings and self-help nonsense that is still worth reading (anything she writes is, by definition, worth reading – some people have this power of perception).

The deeper problem is this. If your education about reality and about yourself is derived primarily or even in part from self-help gurus, ‘positive’ psychologists (read: pseudo-scientists), constantly elated talk show hosts, ‘spiritual’ masters with ‘ancient’ (oftentimes Eastern, i.e., Buddhist/Hindu) wisdom for your everyday life, I must confess to you that a profound disservice has been visited upon your mind and thinking.

If the above describes you, you likely have no accurate conception of modern neuroscience and the likely nature of consciousness (as an emergent property of neural interactions). You may also believe that you have special powers (to ‘control’ the happiness of your life or the amount of money you make or whatever by virtue of your ‘perspective’ or how you’ve learned to ‘look at things’). You also no doubt think that if everyone just ‘thought’ the same way, if everyone in the world could just digest the timeless, unerring wisdom of DR. Phil, Dr. Oz, Deepak Chopra, Wayne Dyer, Jean Houston, don Miguel Ruiz, Oprah or any of the other know-nothing, good-feelings dispensers, then world peace would finally arrive.

That’s right, if only everyone had a couple extra dollars and access to Amazon.com’s New Age/self-help section, we’d all be mature, educated, understanding and critical thinking people. Right?

What has been forced upon you, those of you so afflicted with this mis-education, is the assumption that everything that makes you feel good or that helps you make sense of your life is worth reading.

Of course, nobody likes to hear a Debbie Downer, and certainly few people have the time to read (and learn the jargon) of the sciences. But, remember, all of these self-help hucksters know this. They have people employed by them to do demographic research. This is research done by a company or an organization to determine WHO is likely to purchase what the organization produces and WHY. This research is necessary in any competitive capitalistic system.

Problem is,such demographic research shows that  people likely to have read the books and folks mentioned above are overwhelmingly  likely to be ignorant about natural and social science generally, ignorant about academic psychology and research into self-hood and identity, utterly ignorant about physics (including ‘spooky/sexy’ quantum physics), ignorant about how society functions (in terms of class, race and gender), and, most important of all, ignorant about how the brain evolved and about the weaknesses in reasoning humans, as a result, are so prone to.

Put very, very succintly, our brains evolved to think thoughts that lowered our stress level, conformed with surrounding expectations and that were easy to understand. Our brains, evolutionary biology understands very well now, were not built by natural selection to UNDERSTAND reality as it exists, only to SURVIVE in it. This distinction between understanding the nature of something and jumping to a feel-good, seemingly reasonable evaluation  is crucial to understanding how contemporary brain sciences understand the phenomenon of thought.

Many of these self-help mystics, when pushed, will reveal their ignorance. Deepak Chopra, a favorite ally of Oprah,  for example, has repeatedly embarassed himself trying to give talks at places like the California Institute of Technology. The reason Chopra sounds so profound on Oprah, or in a book, while sounding incoherent and childlike at CalTech is largely because there are no physicists, biologists, sociologists, psychologists or philosophers in the audience of Oprah to expose him as the mis-informed sophist he and the rest of his kind are.

But that’s the point, isn’t it? If you are likely to get your knowledge about reality from self-help books and Dr. Phil, you are ALREADY in the demographic niche these people have spent their money-making lives discovering. You are in this niche because you got married too early, never finished school or didn’t go as far as you would have liked, associate with people who have a negative or disinterested view of science or because you were told that you weren’t smart enough to understand any of it in the first place.

And this is where I get angry. People that find such literary garbage to be  indispensable are succumbing to the money-making schemes of charlatans, largely because they want to make sense of a life that went, in some important sense, wrong.  Much of the audience for these hucksters are disproportionately women – easily the more oppressed side of the human sexual coin.

But regardless of tough lives and disadvantage, easily the best predictor of whether or not you’ll buy this trash is how much science you know, and how interesting you find it all. Please, for the sake of democracy and for the sake of not wasting your own money on worthless knowledge, give science a shot. Give real, testable, falsifiable, peer-reviewed knowledge a shot. Our democracy requires it.

The one requirement of a civilized society is that we have the courage to educate ourselves.

In Defense of Drug Use

I remember growing up and watching my friends get shit faced drunk. I used to ask them why they were doing it. They’d tell me: “I need to let loose!” “I’m having a good time!” “I’m enjoying myself!” “I had to relax!” Or, every once in a while, someone would say, “Because life’s tough,” and I’d sigh the kind of sigh that only emerges upon hearing a rare instance of honesty.

Regardless, humans from the beginning of history (and yes, you human-centric people, ALSO elephants and chimps and rats etc etc etc etc) have enjoyed getting fucked up. Getting high often enough, as we have come to know, can turn into addiction. But addiction is obviously not good. And its the ADDICTION part that is bad, not the DRUG part. If I like cats, I’m a normal person. If I’m ADDICTED to cats, I live alone, I’m in my late 70s and frequently sing odd combinations of the I Love Lucy intro and Won’t Go Home Without You by Maroon 5 alone, by myself, in an old foreclosing house with 15 stray neighborhood cats.

Clearly, our conception of ‘the cat lady’ is predicated on her being addicted to cats, not simply enjoying them.

So, I don’t want to talk about addiction, because not even an idiot would defend that.

I wish to defend the use of mind altering substances, at any time of the day, for whatever reason, insofar as it enhances social and individual experiences. I don’t care what the drug is. If you take the drug and get violent, fuck you. If you take the drug and get selfish and boisterous, again, a sincere and wholehearted fuck you. But if you take the drug, in a responsible and most of all, enjoyable manner, then by all means indulge and a resounding , gleaming fuck you to all those who would stop you.

So take your drugs. If you prefer them a great deal, but do not feel enslaved by them, then by all means indulge knowing the cost to your health and the cost, emotionally, to your family. But I cannot presume to do this calculation for you.

The human brain is the source of all of our experiences. Everything we’ve ever touched, tasted or smelled, every single special moment we’ve known or shared has been an image of reality constructed by our brain. We never get to see reality AS IT ACTUALLY IS (or, as Kant said, as it is in itself), but rather we only get to experience it through our brain (via the visual stimulation of cones and rods in our eyes as turned into comprehensible information by our brain’s occipital lobe).

Our brains are all we’ve got. They just sit in our head. And after 75 years, they perish with memories never to be resurrected, experiences never to be relived and romances forever unrequited. It is our duty as curious creatures, indeed, we exercise our only opportunity of ever, truly, getting ‘outside of ourselves’ when we get high on drugs  . Taking drugs allows us to probe the nuances of moment to moment experience, enhance our memory and re-experience reality in a way that is both in our control and out of our control.

A policy or a person who would tell you that drugs are off limits because of the harm THEY know YOU will do to your body needn’t be listened to anymore than the people who tell you that a man must fuck girls because to fuck another man is
degrading, humiliating and immoral. Or the people who insist that a woman’s desire to control her own reproduction is a kind of self-mutilation. A round and righteous fuck you to all who presume to lord over the autonomous experiences of everyone else.

For Those Who Would Prefer A Different Life


“When we find, as we shall, some historic free-thinkers displaying either extreme imprudence or personal indiscipline, we shall be prepared, in terms of this preliminary questioning, to realize anew that humanity has owed a great deal to some of its “unbalanced” types; and that, though discipline is nearly the last word of wisdom, indiscipline  may at times be the morbid accompaniment or excess of a certain openness of view and spontaneity of action which are much more favorable to moral and intellectual advance than a cold prudence or a safe insusceptibility…..the man who, already at odds with his fellows in the matter of his conduct, may in some phases of society feel it the easier to brave them …”

– J.M. Robertson, 1957, A Short History of Freethought

Writing Because There’s Nothing Else You Can Do

Don’t get me wrong,  I’m largely grateful for the era in which I was born. I grew up free of superstition, free of religion, free of sexual guilt, and free from the fear of authority. Granted, as an atheist, I largely avoid questions of meaning and purpose.

Yet I exist at a time when Obama’s Buffet Rule (which would let the Bush tax cuts expire and raise taxes on the wealthiest Americans in order to fund social programs and balance the national budget), is regarded by a large swath of Americans (but not a majority!) as absurd, evil and dangerously miscalculated.

I also have an uncle named Paul. I love him. He reminds me of me. He likes to read, and doesn’t generally prefer the company of other people despite being competent socially and enjoying the idea of humanity in the abstract. He is a smoker. He was a tree trimmer his whole life. He doesn’t have a retirement plan or healthcare. When the cigarettes finally make him sick, he’ll die slowly and in poverty. He is one of the smartest people I know despite never registering for a single class on a university campus.

But, for some reason, he tells me in a voice rich with sincerity that we should cut entitlements like social security and medicare. He nods approvingly when watching Ron Paul’s stuttering attempts to justify the aimless deaths of young Americans with no health care. “They should go to the churches if they need help,” Ron Paul says. He takes the words out of my uncle’s mouth even if both him (and likely Ron Paul) are, I have to assume, far too smart and honest with themselves to take seriously, in the privacy of their minds, the vacuous platitudes of the church.

No, rather, my uncle just doesn’t want healthcare. He doesn’t want social security. He doesn’t want any help. He wants to do it on his own. As someone who never got a handout, never had any help, never went to college, never had a job he really loved, my uncle Paul clings to the one thing nobody can take away from him: the illusion of his own self-sufficient happiness.

True, my uncle has survived. And he’s a good guy. And he’s magnifiicently bright. But he’s poor, and nobody will pay his medical bills if he gets sick. And nobody will help support him when his body finally tires from the manual labor that has been his livelihood.  All this despite ruefully but dutifully paying his taxes, working his whole life, breaking his back trimming trees and always, at every turn, denouncing those who complain that life isn’t fair.

My uncle is too good for the Republican Party. He’s too good for the Tea Party. He’s too good for anyone who would tell him not to demand something better. I wish he knew that the only reason he’s trimming trees and not teaching college classes is because he had a shitty childhood and because no one ever told him he could do anything.

But I don’t mean to make excuses for what is.  And neither does he. He hasn’t gone to college, but he’ll match the learnedness and thoughtfulness of just about anyone. Because he’s worked at it. Because he cares. Becauses he believes in pulling himself up by the bootstraps.

My uncle hasn’t worked any less hard than any Republican senator alive. If I could, I’d demonstrate right here that he’s likely better read and more contemplative. But it wouldn’t matter. The difference is economic, the difference is social. The republican senator goes to law school because his father went to law school, or because his family had the money, or because it was expected of him to become a professional. This is not the same as saying republicans aren’t smart or don’t work hard. They are, and they do.

I just wish my uncle knew that while he was reading in a friends basement, with pages lit only by an antiquated computer screen, the next republican nominee for president (whoever it ends up being) we can be sure, did not have to study in any basement, and certainly never faced, for any serious  length of time, the prospect of having to compose on a computer that may or may not load up on account of its age and wear.

What separates my uncle from the next Republican nominee for President is not work ethic, and it certainly isn’t introspection, concern for others or intellectual competence. What separates my uncle from the eventual Republican nominee are chances, opportunities and a whole different social world. Nevertheless, they’ll have the same politics.

And so, just as a viable chance for a better life never came, so too will a shot at health and security in my Uncle’s old age be taken away. No, given away. I just wish he knew how little the Republican Party deserved his vote of confidence and how much he deserved, for once, theirs.