Wednesday, 29 August 2007

So what's in a name?

So, I'm back from my petite holidayette and I am trying to get my brain back in gear. All those deep philosophical thoughts I was having before I went have been overwhelmed by the sights and sounds of new places and, I'll admit it, by relaxing and being happy. There's a thought - does one only have deep philosophical thoughts when one is unhappy? Nah - don't think so for a minute; I've had some of my best ideas sitting in sunshiney bliss surrounded by flowers and buzzy bees.

So anyway, any truth I laid claim to knowing on the topic of existentialism, optimistic nihilism et al I appear to have forgotten. Or perhaps it's having difficult questions posed by you fellow-bloggers out there... whatever, I don't know now whether I belong to a philosophical ism and if I don't, whether it matters. "Me" suggested in a comment that if Sartre and Camus had never lived that I couldn't have called myself an existentialist - I think I'm stating his comment correctly. I've been thinking about this and I don't think I agree, at least not completely. I call myself an existentialist because Camus describes in his writings exactly how I feel about life (haven't read any Sartre so can't say if I agree with him.) But Camus didn't invent these feelings or this state of mind or this attitude to life, he just described it better, more elegantly and more humanely than anyone else I've read. So when I call myself an existentialist it is, I suppose, shorthand for saying "Camus speaks for me." Perhaps I should call myself a Camusian.

By way of a present from my holiday, here's a jolly (and sustaining) quote from the bear of very little brain:

"When you wake up in the morning, Pooh," said Piglet at last, "what's the first thing you say to yourself?"
"What's for breakfast? said Pooh. "What do you say, Piglet?"
"I say, I wonder what's going to happen exciting today?" said Piglet.
Pooh nodded thoughtfully."It's the same thing," he said.

Hope you all had a good summer - here comes winter...

Monday, 27 August 2007

Catching up...

I haven't posted here for a week as I was away on a short holiday - my first as a solo traveller. Quite an interesting experience and not totally hideous - I even enjoyed it at times. I came back with a tower of books to get through - so many books, so little time...

As I wrote about in a previous post I discovered a kindred spirit in Henry Thoreau while browsing the internet. Inspired by the quote that I found from him I had been searching for a copy of Walden without luck here at the pond. I was delighted, therefore, to find a copy on my hols.

Being busy visiting gardens and shopping and trying not to look conspicuous eating dinner by myself, I haven't read much of it yet but here are a couple of extracts that appealed to me:

"Why should we live with such hurry and waste of life? We are determined to be starved before we are hungry. Men say that a stitch in time saves nine so they take a thousand stitches today to save nine tomorrow. As for work, we haven't any of consequence. We have the St Vitus' dance and cannot possibly keep our heads still...Hardly a man takes a half hour's nap after dinner, but when he wakes he holds up his head and asks 'What's the news?' as if the rest of mankind had stood his sentinels. Some give directions to be waked every half hour, doubtless for no other purpose; and then, to pay for it, they tell what they have dreamed. After a night's sleep, the news is as indispensable as the breakfast. 'Pray tell me what has happened to a man anywhere on this globe' - and he reads it over his coffee and rolls, that a man has had his eyes gouged out this morning on the Wachito River; never dreaming the while that he lives in the dark unfathomed mammoth cave of this world and has but the rudiment of an eye himself."

I can scarcely believe that Thoreau was writing 150 years ago. Plus ca change... What would he have made of 24 hour news and reality television?

Here's another...I really love this man!
"Men think that it is essential that the Nation have commerce, and export ice, and talk through a telegraph, and ride thirty miles an hour, without a doubt, whether they do or not; but whether we should live like baboons or like men, is a little uncertain. If we do not get out sleepers and forge rails, and devote days and nights to the work, but go to tinkering upon our lives to improve them, who will build the railroads? And if railroads are not built, how shall we get to heaven in season? But if we stay at home and mind our business, who will want railroads? We do not ride on the railroad; it rides upon us." Wonderful stuff!

Sunday, 19 August 2007

Philosophical Quote of the Day

"Most species do their own evolving, making it up as they go along, which is the way Nature intended. And this is all very natural and organic and in tune with mysterious cycles of the cosmos, which believes that there’s nothing like millions of years of really frustrating trial and error to give a species moral fibre and, in some cases, backbone.”

Terry Pratchett

(with a nod to where I found this gem from Terry)

Saturday, 18 August 2007

Becoming an atheist

I became an atheist almost overnight. I had tried for years to make religion work. I was not a church-goer but I was a nice, conventional, well-behaved girl and nice, conventional, well-behaved girls believed in God and heaven and all that stuff. As a reasonably intelligent person, I tried to make sense of the Bible and the many anomalies in it; the gulf between the Old and New Testaments, the Virgin birth etc and how there could be parallel religions, each believing in their own unique god and their own unique salvation. I also found real difficulties in the so-called morality attached to Christianity - it didn't feel very moral to me.

Like many other people, the older I got, the harder I found it to swallow what religion was requiring me to believe but neither had I found a good enough reason to reject it.

Then I studied a philosophy course with the Open University. Brilliant course - find it here . I felt my brain expand as I began to get to grips with the course and began to learn the technique of requiring more from an argument; I began to see the difference between an assertion and an argument, whether it came from a politician, a newspaper or a religion. Then, in the penultimate section on human nature after Darwin, I suddenly discovered evolution. I was blown away by it. I had thought I was a reasonably well-read, intelligent person; I thought I knew what evolution was but I knew nothing. I had reached the age of forty without knowing more than the vague notion that we were descended from monkeys. The theory of evolution, I discovered, had a hundred years of increasing validation; it was a robust and detailed explanation of how humanity and every other lifeform, could have come to be on the planet.

I was simultaneously exhilirated and furious. Why was this not being taught in schools? Why had I learned about magnetism and gravity and geology but not evolution. I was, and am, absolutely convinced that if evolution was taught in schools the world would be a very different place.

Within a few days of reading and absorbing this material, I became an atheist. Up until that point, a supernatural being had been the only explanation I had been given for the astounding variety of nature on the planet. Now I had another, better explanation and there was no need for a god any more.

Humanity has always been curious. We have always tried to find out how things work. We have always asked why and how things are the way they are. Primitive man came up with a special person, a Creator, to explain the variety, the wonder and the cruelty of life on earth - that was his best scientific answer to the question, how did I get here? As our scientific knowledge improved, the religions and superstitions that built up round these Creators should have died away. But they had become too powerful and, as we see even now, in the 21st century, vested interests are trying to keep humanity in ignorance about another, better, more consistent explanation of how the earth and the universe got to be the way they are.

I would not deny anyone the right to believe in the god of their choice but I am angry that young people are not given the facts and allowed to make up their own minds. When I started this post I didn't expect to get angry. I'm a pretty laid-back sort of puddock. I truly believe that everyone is on their own individual journey and that you should not force people to your own view just because you've discovered it. But if I hadn't studied that course in my own time at the age of forty, I would still be in the dark about a discovery that has as much valid evidence as gravity or geology. And that means that there are millions of people out there who do not know what a robust theory evolution is. And that does make me angry!

Tuesday, 14 August 2007

No atheist blog would be complete without...

I can't go on any longer without mentioning Richard Dawkins. He is tireless in his championing of the intellect, of reason over superstition, and thus of the redundancy of religion. His latest TV series - The Enemies of Reason - began its run here in the UK last night.

It is well worth a look, if you can cope with the feelings of depression it will promote in any person who thinks for themselves. It is scary to see the gusto with which people throw off centuries of hard-won knowledge and run back to the cave of superstition. He did an interview with Richard & Judy, which you can see here:

It's an interesting interview, because Judy clearly so desperately wants to believe in astrology et al that she seems to be in almost physical discomfort at the thought that there might be no truth in them. It was a clear demonstration of how deep the desire for this kind of comfort goes in an individual and how reluctant they are to give up the fantasy, even when they can see the strings, as when Derren Brown did the "psychic" reading. We seem to be as far away as ever from becoming a race of rational beings, free from medieval superstitions.

You can find his main site here:

Existence is futile?

I've been pondering on the fact that I call myself an atheist and an existentialist, all the while admitting that I am not altogether certain exactly what constitutes existentialism, and wondering if there is any difference between them. Am I, for example, an atheist existentialist or an existentialist atheist? There is a difference.

Well, after a bit of thought and comparison with other people out there, I think I know which I am - I am an atheist existentialist. Why, I hear you ask...

It's kinda complicated and I am by no means an expert in philosophy. But this is how it looks from where I'm standing. Feel free to disagree!

I am an atheist because I see no need for God as an explanation of how we got here; evolution does the trick perfectly well on its own. But atheism is not a philosophy in itself, it is a reaction to theism. So atheism describes that part of me; the part that has rejected religion - a fundamental, very important and hard-won part but still only one aspect of how I see the world.

Existentialism, on the other hand, is a way of looking at the world, a way of living one's life, a way indeed of dealing with the fallout from becoming an atheist. Life can be pretty scary once you have given up the fantasy of an afterlife and all that stuff. Existentialism says - okay, so now you know that life's a bitch and then you die. What are you going to do about it?

I don't want in any way to diminish atheism. I think the rejection of religion is absolutely vital to humanity's future and I admire those who are brave enough to take the battle out into the public arena. But simply rejecting religion is not sufficient; as long as we define our philosophy in terms that even mention religion, if only to say that we are against it, we are still in the trap. By calling myself an atheist existentialist - an existentialist who has no belief in God - I am refusing to give religion that dominance.

Friday, 10 August 2007

Death and the Puddock

It's been a quiet week here in the pond, with little to disturb the water. That's how I like it. One of the good things about living alone, as I do now, is that I can do pretty much what I want, when I want.

If I want to blog all night, there is no-one to disturb. If I want to work on the great novel instead of eating dinner, I can. If I want to sit at the bottom of the pond and talk to the newts, I do. I find for the first time in many years, I can focus all my attention on a project until I tire of it, instead of having that concentration broken by my loved ones. This is one of the hard lessons of widowhood but you have to embrace it: that some aspects of your life actually can improve in the absence of your spouse - there, I've said it.

I have found that bereavement splits into two segments, both of which are necessary. There is the loss of your partner, with all the pain that that entails - the life plans destroyed, the trauma of the death, the overwhelming sadness for the years of life that your loved one has lost. I always (well, almost always) felt that however sorry I felt for myself, it was as nothing compared to the sorrow I felt for my husband, who had lost his future. I still had my life, diminished but still with possibilities; his was over. So that's the first half of the grief.

The second, equally important part is the carving of a new persona for yourself and this part is probably not much different from that which a divorced person has to do. It is a case of accepting that you are no longer half of a couple; that you are, in my case for the first time in my life, single. I'd never been single before, having been with my husband since teenage years. Part of this process is extremely scary but part of it is exhilirating as you realise that you are totally free, that you no longer have to compromise. Marriage is one long compromise - it has to be. I no longer need to compromise - hence the midnight blogging and the conversations with the amphibians.

I am getting used to being single. I still hate the shops on a Saturday with all those bloody couples looking smug and couple-y. I still sometimes have to look the other way if I am stuck behind a pair of tourists walking hand in hand and the absence of the Golfer hits me afresh. But I'm an atheist and an existentialist and I am determined to pack as much living as I can into my life so I focus on the moment. I found this quote by Henry Thoreau this week on a very interesting philosophy site and it describes very well how I feel about my life - always have, but particularly now:

"I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practice resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms, and, if it proved to be mean, why then to get the whole and genuine meanness of it, and publish its meanness to the world; or if it were sublime, to know it by experience, and be able to give a true account of it in my next excursion."

Here, in my woods I find I am doing what Thoreau did (apart from the Spartan living; no need to go that far!). I find that my experiences leave me less and less inclined to be out there in the crazy modern world. I still love shopping and talking to friends and the technology that allows me to be here, blogging but I find the greatest peace in the woods and by my pond, alone. And I am finding that I understand more about what it means to be human in the quiet of these woods than in the bustle of the town.

Tuesday, 7 August 2007

Happiness is...being an existentialist?

I was browsing the internet, as you do on a cold August afternoon, and came across this definition and quote on a t-shirt:
"Existentialist: optimistic nihilist - just because we're all doomed, doesn't mean we can't have a good time." See it here at the Cafepress site -

I reckon that's as good a definition of the kind of atheist/existentialist/nihilist I feel myself to be. Once you've realised that life stinks:
you only have two choices (well, three if you count killing yourself) - spend the rest of your miserable life complaining about how miserable it is or laugh in the face of this absurd existence and determine to enjoy yourself to the max. I chose the latter and now I call myself, if anyone asks, a happy atheist. But optimistic nihilist is perhaps even better.

Monday, 6 August 2007

Philosophy Quote of the Day

The art of living is more like wrestling than dancing

Marcus Aurelius

Friday, 3 August 2007

Be Jackson Pollock

By the way, can I recommend the little widget to the left - Create Your Own Jackson Pollock Painting. I found it at and it is brilliant. It's therapeutic, it's creative (you really do produce Pollock-esque images) and it even feels rather existential as you do it.

If you want to know more about Pollock and his work, find it here -

Life as a football match

I've been reading another brilliant little book, packed with intelligence: Atheism - A Very Short Introduction by Julian Baggini. See his blog at -

One of the big issues for me as an atheist is the (sometimes bitter) thought that when you're dead you're dead (WYDYD). I've tried to be brave about it. I've tried to laugh it off. But it is still a hell of a thought that one day you will no longer exist. Everything that you were will be gone. Very depressing. Wouldn't it be lovely to live for ever? But you have to resist that one because that's the kind of wishful thinking that led humanity down the slippery path to religion. So I have been desperately trying to find meaning in a time-limited life. Cue Julian Baggini...

He has a wonderful analogy in his book which cheered me up tremendously... Think of a football match. It "gains its purpose only because it finishes after 90 minutes and there is a result. An endless football match would be as meaningless as a kick around the park." He goes on to say that "this line of thought can make us wonder whether life would actually be less meaningful if it were eternal. What would be the point of doing anything if we had an eternity to live?"

I found this a very useful idea and I am still examining it from all angles to see if I can find any holes in it - haven't found any yet.

Thursday, 2 August 2007

Am I an Existentialist? YES!

Still getting the hang of this blog. Not sure yet exactly what I want to achieve with it. Mind you, I don't think anyone is reading it (apart from docMike - thanks Mike!) so I am probably agonising unnecessarily!

So many things to say. So many things I don't know yet. Like, I know I'm an atheist and I am pretty sure I qualify as an existentialist but I haven't read any Kierkegaard and precious little Sartre so can I still call myself one?

Clearly, I think the answer is yes and in fact I had that certainty confirmed in a book I'm reading at the moment - What Do Existentialists Believe? by Richard Appignanesi (published by Granta - ) and he stresses the fact that existentialism is not one coherent, uniform movement.

He calls it "the dissident oddity without a figurehead or idea to authorize it but only the common situation of 'existence'." He goes on to say "What matters is not the name but the quest which motivates all existentialists. Existentialists ask us to linger meditatively on the sense of that word being. What does it mean to be?"

Existentialists are not looking for answers to the meaning of life because they know that there isn't one. We are what we do. Existence is all. The trick is in finding some way of coming to terms with that. And that is what existentialists, in my opinion, do.

Wednesday, 1 August 2007

Death, disbelief and spiders

I became an atheist almost overnight, about two thirds of the way through an Open University philosophy course, but I'll save that story for another time. What I wanted to write about today is the effect that all the deaths around me had on my thinking.

I live in the countryside - well, the wilderness really; well, it's wilderness compared to what I was used to. We moved to Puddock Acres as townies nearly a decade ago and seemed to spend the first eighteen months watching things die - well, being ignored by the neighbours and watching things die, actually, but that's another rant. In town, unless you are very unlucky, you simply do not see death at all. In the countryside, the cats kill the voles, the dogs worry the sheep, the farmers kill the dogs; every time you walk round the garden you risk tripping over the lifeless corpse of some innocent animal. It is hard to take all that death when you are not used to it. And so you either move back to town or you find some way to come to terms with it.

As I type here at dusk, the huge, muscular spider appears at her usual place at the centre of a web just outside my window. She sleeps during the day, unless something particularly juicy flies into her web, but at about this time every night for weeks, she has taken up her position and waited for anything to disturb the strands of her web. I have watched in admiration as she mends and sometimes completely rebuilds her web; I have watched in horror as she wraps up some prey in silky threads to keep for later (just like Frodo in the Lord of the Rings - yuk!) Every night I see creatures die and be eaten two feet away. Yes, when you live in the country death is everywhere.

Most of my family are dead. I've watched almost everyone close to me decline and die, or just die, and that gives you plenty to think about, too. You wonder what is the point of a successful life if you live a few years past your prime and nobody mourns you. You wonder if it is better to die young and loved. You wonder if it is better to go quickly but not have the chance to make your peace or to have some warning and be able to prepare but then have the discomfort of the decline. I've seen all the variations.

Of course, we don't get to choose. That's what makes life so tantalising - and precious. But, if you can accept that life is totally random; that you have no right to seventy or eighty years, no guarantee; that better people than you died years younger than you are now, you learn to take the knowledge lightly. I think that's part of being an existentialist. Sisyphus, in Albert Camus' mind, could be happy even though he was condemned to an eternity of torment - . Camus called him the ultimate absurd hero, because he took an intolerable situation, laughed at the absurdity of it and thus conquered it. I think that human life itself for the existentialist and the atheist requires a similar attitude: acknowledge that this whole fabulous world can be taken away from you at any moment, laugh at the absurdity of the situation and thus conquer it.