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Sheila Panyam

Jack Whelan
Honors 394
March 9th, 2018
Final Paper: Personal Philosophical Reflection

I: Metaphysics
When I first started this class, I was a highly skeptical Hindu. The rituals and ceremonies were
more about communal bonding to me than they were about getting the favor of the gods. The
mythology was less about the gods themselves and more about the morals behind them. I
definitely would have called myself an empiricist and probably a nihilist, and I think I still might
to some extent. However, I think this class did a lot to challenge my sense of human purpose in
the grand scheme of metaphysics, and also to open my mind to a more enchanted world than I
previously deemed possible.

In the first part of the ​Metaphysics​ section, I will explore my understanding of the divine. I do
believe in the divine, but not in a traditional monotheistic sense. I definitely disagree with the
version of God that Jonathan Edwards painted in his “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God”
where he uses analogies comparing us to little earthworms on the ground that God can easily
(and almost in amusement?) crush within seconds. I don’t see the sense in spending my whole
life fearing an entity whose existence I -- and nobody else on this planet -- can prove with
empirical definity. If there are gods -- and I do think there’s ​something​ out there -- then I’d like
to think they simply coexist with us in nature, not up on an Olympus-esque mountain. Like in
Whale Rider​, where the ancestors make themselves present in the whales, I believe in this more
‘enchanted’ reality; the gods are ​there​, watching us, but not so much dictating our lives as they
are guiding us when we need help.

I think the key metaphysical issue for me is not necessarily about whether there is something
god-like out there but rather whether humans have a purpose on Earth or beyond it. For one, I
don’t think it’s about ascending to be more like a god. I think this has to do mostly with both the
polytheistic nature of Hinduism and my personal spin on it. In that way, I think my views align
mostly with Sartre’s Existentialism, which states that humans have no inherent purpose but we
do have infinite possibility. Based on what we learned in class, it seems like Sartre developed a
lot of his philosophy from Kierkegaard’s idea of the self -- and that we need to disembed
ourselves and create ourselves. However, because I find Sartre’s examples more accessible, I
will focus on him, with the understanding that he was representing and evolving the ideas of
others before him.
Sartre’s analogy is interesting for a couple of reasons. Essentially, he asserts that for the most
part, creating requires an essence before an existence. For example, an artisan needed something
sharp to cut through things and thus created the paper knife. The paper knife exists for the a
purpose: to cut. However, humans are different. According to Sartre, because he believed there is
no God, humans could not have had an essence before existence. For us and us alone, existence
precedes essence, and thus, we have no divinely-dictated purpose. This gives us what Sartre
called “radical freedom”: “man is nothing else but that which he makes himself.” According to
Sartre, because we have no purpose, there is no such thing as human nature ​at all​.

When we were talking about Existentialism in class, I was reminded of a Ted Talk by a modern
philosopher (who isn’t necessarily Existential himself), Julian Baggini. Baginni asserted that
while we are a collection of experiences, sensations and beliefs crammed into a body with a
brain, that is ​all ​we are. Instead of thinking of ourselves as things with experiences, we are
simply those experiences themselves. The example he gives, which I find quite compelling, is
chemical. We all know that water is made of two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom. What
we don’t say is that water is a molecule with two hydrogens and one oxygen ​attached ​to it. We
understand that the water itself is just a collection of atoms. Bagnini argues that people are very
much the same way. There is no self. There is no human core. Like Sartre, though, he does give
us one bit of hope: the assertion that humans are not so much a ​thing​, but a ​process​; we are an
ever-changing river, with the potential to shape ourselves into whatever we want. Again, like
Sartre, for Baggini, not having something like a self is what liberates us, not what alienates us
from each other.

I agree with both of these philosophers for a couple of reasons. As far as Sartre is concerned, I
think his paper knife analogy is quite compelling. Because of my personal disbelief in
creationism, I don’t think humans have any inherent purpose or nature besides what we derived
through evolution. I agree with Baggini’s assertion (less comfortably, though) because again,
there is nothing in my metaphysics that would explain where our sense of self came from, and if
it truly exists. But what unsettles me is that while Sartre was willing to concede each of us could
have a ​core​ -- something that is distinctly ours, because we can create ourselves, Baggini asserts
that this core itself is simply an illusion.

But at the end of the day, I do understand that these views on life are pretty bleak. The
Renaissance idea of ascension and the Great Chain of Being gives people something to look
forward to. And I think that in the 21st Century, given the atrocities that we’re forced to face on
a daily basis and the helplessness that so many people embody, we ​need​ something to look
forward to, or at least to inspire us while we are alive.
That’s why I think I find myself finding answers in Leonardo da Vinci and Martin Heidegger,
who were primarily occupied with sheer curiosity and wonder towards the world. One of my
favorite childhood films, ​The Rise of the Guardians​, describes this feeling well: “It is what I was
born with, eyes that have only seen the wonder in everything! Eyes that see lights in the trees and
magic in the air. This wonder is what I put into the world.” For Leonardo, I think this wonder is
something he conveyed through his research and art. For Heidegger, I think it was his way of
trying to remind us of our ​Being​ and pulling us away from the dry busy work of phenomenology.
And the blend of Leonardo and Heidegger is exactly what I think human destiny ought to be:
looking around at the world, wondering why any of it exists, and then finding a way to better
understand it whether it be through art, science, philosophy or any other method.

Ultimately, Schelling’s description of human purpose is (in my opinion) the most poetic and also
my favorite. He asserts that nature is an unconscious mind striving for consciousness. Thus,
humans were devised and embody nature through their consciousness; to quote​ Jurassic Park​,
“life found a way” -- and it did it through us. The only reason we are what we are is because of
chance. If rocks had been the ones who developed consciousness, then that would have been
equally acceptable. Whether there ever was a God(s) is irrelevant. I like this version of
metaphysics because it’s a more poetic version of Darwinism and evolution -- a theory I am far
more comfortable supporting than any hyper-religious model. William Wordsworth, in his
“Resolution and Independence,” portrays this idea powerfully, as explained by William Barrett
in ​Irrational Man. ​Barrett explains that according to Wordsworth, “being is a being-in before it
is the being of a thing.” Again, this assertion strengthens the idea that because we’ve come from
nature, we are a part of it before anything else, and again, I agree because it runs hand-in-hand
with Darwinism.

So do human beings have a true purpose on Earth? After taking this class, I find my belief
further reinforced that we do not. Like Sartre said, I think humans would have had to have been
created by ​someone​ to have some sort of exterior purpose, whether it be living a life of ascension
towards goodness, building up material wealth, or keeping away from sin. I believe quite firmly
that we’re just a product of evolution, or in figurative language, a voice for nature. On the other
hand, I think the freedom of not being designed to do something gives us a lot of power to use
that voice how we want.

I want to end this section with one more of Sartre and Baggini’s ideas: that of ​infinite possibility​.
We have the power to shape ourselves into whatever we want. There’s nothing holding us back
from our own potential. And, yes, maybe we don’t have anything to look forward to, but maybe
we don’t need to. I think Leonardo da Vinci and Heidegger might have agreed. There’s enough
wonder here on Earth and the best approach we can take is to enjoy it while we can. And I’m
convinced that’s a pretty hopeful idea to believe, no matter who we are and where we think we
came from.

II: Epistemology
One of my favorite quotes from ​Harry Potter​ is when Albus Dumbledore is talking to Harry in a
dream: “of course [this] is happening inside your head, Harry, but why on Earth should that
mean that it is not real?” This is definitely a point of controversy; are there standards that certain
things have to meet in order to be real? I argue that there are.

We talked about a couple different kinds of epistemological theories in class. One was Plato’s
Realm of the Forms. Truth was one of his transcendentals along with beauty and goodness, and it
existed in a realm that all humans passed through but have forgotten. Thus, whenever we find
remanments of a transcendental on Earth, we know what it is because it we start to remember
again. The reason I disagree with Plato is (and maybe I’m admitting to be more of an empiricist
than I might have liked) that there is absolutely no evidence of such a Realm existing, and
moreover, of us having passed through it. I’m inclined to agree with Kant, who accepted the
existence of a transcendent or spiritual realm with the caveat that we cannot know anything
about it. So in essence, even if such a Realm does exist, I deem it irrelevant as a source of our
truth or a place where truth can be defined at all.

Now if I was to agree with Rene Descartes that the only thing I can truly know is that I am a
thinking thing that exists, then life would become immensely problematic. As an empiricist,
Descartes believed that facts simply ​existed​ out in the world, and that we had to use reason
exclusively​ as a tool. I wouldn’t be able to trust anything that my senses were saying. This just
seems a little too impractical for me. If I have to doubt every single sense perception I have, then
I would be certain of basically nothing. I would be as well-off in the world as someone who
didn’t have their senses at all. So, even if nothing is certain about the world around me, I at least
want to pretend like I’m sure of myself and the way I interpret Earth so I can thrive as a sane
human while I’m on it.

So how can I makes sense of the world around me? Which tools are the most effective?
Personally, I think that there are two types of truths. The first is more factual, like “how many
atoms of oxygen pair with hydrogen to form water?” This type of truth-seeking relies on rational
science and reason. However, the second type of truth-seeking might ask “Is there such a thing as
a perfect human, and how do I become him or her?” This type of question-answering requires
more than reason alone. It requires an element of emotion or intuition. And unfortunately,
because we love instrumental reason so much, at least the Western world is trying to boil this
down to a science, too.
The Meyer-Briggs test is a good example of this. Lot of companies use this to hire and weed out
applicants based on what the test determines as their personality. But I think the problem is that a
test -- a scientific procedure -- isn’t enough to know something as deeply personal as what the
core​ of an individual human being is. And that’s precisely why science alone cannot answer all
of our questions, or give us all the truths we need. In order to know anything truly meaningful
about myself, I have to favor an emotionally-based analysis. I think what’s even crazier are the
online tests on social media that have flashy taglines like “Answer these five questions and we’ll
tell you what kind of learner you are!” What kind of learner ​I am​? How is it that these
test-writers, who have never met me, seen me, or spoken to me, know more about me than I do?

So if emotion can open up ways of knowing, can faith or belief do the same? I’m not as sure. In
class, we learned about how with the rise of the Protestants during the Reformation, fideism
became a big deal. Faith and reason were suddenly hostile to each other and the former became
the preference for accessing knowledge. A fideist would prefer her own religion’s creationist
story over Darwin’s theory of religion, for example. However, I think it’s dangerous to put all of
one’s trust in faith and ignore reason. A lot of highly-religious parents who don’t treat their sick
children because they believe that God will heal them are putting too much of their trust in
something they cannot prove. Going directly against the hard evidence of science and risking the
life of their child closes a lot of knowledge doors, and as far as I’m concerned is just impractical
as dealing with the world in the way Descartes does.

However, there is an aspect of faith or belief that plays a vital sense in our understanding of the
world. David Hume, in an assertion that seems to be both similar and juxtapositional to
Descartes, made this point clear. He argued that there is absolutely no mathematical way of
proving that anything in the external world exists. Therefore, I have to accept that the world
exists -- and all the elements within it exist -- on a matter of faith or belief alone. Logic will not
help me here. And I agree with Hume because as far as I’m concerned, there ​isn’t​ a way to
logically prove that the world exists -- or even that ​I​ exist. In a fashion to my dismissal of
Descartes, I just have to trust that the world exists in order to work sanely within it.

Given all of these ideas, what do I think is real? If it’s just what we sense in the world around us,
then we’re no better than Neo in ​The Matrix​. To quote Morpheus, “How do you define real? If
you're talking about what you can feel, what you can smell, what you can taste and see, then 'real'
is simply electrical signals interpreted by your brain.” But I think it’s more than that. I think our
reality and what we can think of as knowledge is constructed by our senses, our intuition, our
instrumental reason, our emotion, and finally our faith in the fact that anything around us exists
at all. Without all of these factors working in harmony, we’ve left some vital piece of ​knowing
III: Ethics
I think the phrase “Good Life” means different things depending on where you’re from. For
some people, it might mean making the most amount of money no matter what; the ends justify
the means. For others, it might be less Machiavellian and more about making the right decision
in a given circumstance. For others still, it might mean sticking to one’s values no matter what.
And for the rest of us, the “Good Life” might simply be about utility in the most mathematical
sense possible. I tend to agree with the last, and in this section, I’ll explain why.

Because of my metaphysics (specifically that there’s no divine or natural force that created a
‘human self’), I don’t think that there’s an objective moral code somewhere in the universe for us
to discover. It’s up to us, as Sartre might say, to fashion ourselves in the best way possible. So
then, how does one live up to high standards and set a good example for the rest of humanity? I
think the core problem is finding a system of ethics that leads to decisions that the most number
of people can agree with. Unless one believes that morals are completely objective, then this task
becomes near impossible. There are a ​lot ​of ethical schools of thought, but the ones that stood
out to me that were mentioned in class included utilitarianism, virtue ethics, moral relativism,
and the Romantic way of looking at things.

When I took my first philosophy class in high school, I was definitely a moral relativist. I didn’t
want to impose my own beliefs on other people nor did I want their beliefs imposed on me. In
Charles Taylor’s “Malaise of Modernity”, he describes the backlash against it as the result of
“[our] souls [being] like mirrors; not of nature but of what’s around.” While the authors that
Taylor criticizes make this assertion because they essentially believe we as students have become
lazy​ in our moral thinking, I argue that moral relativism can come from a completely different
place. After spending years and years in school learning about how the U.S. has imposed (and
continues to impose) its values on other nations, I feel guilty about telling anyone how to think.
Personally, I believe moral relativism is just overcompensation to prevent oppressing others. But
after watching the Charles Taylor lectures and taking a second look at moral relativism, I think
there are more ethical ways of living.

Coming into this class, virtue ethics also seemed like an attractive ethical system but after taking
this class, I found that my opinion changed. This system initially caught my attention because it
asserts that virtuous behavior isn’t just a series of actions but rather a habit that one can grow
into. However, when we were talking about Aristotle’s entelechy idea in class, and how it was
related to living the Aristotelian “good life”, I found myself wondering how it’s possible to
determine (objectively) what virtues are the ​right ones​. In order to believe there are virtues for
which to aspire, I have to believe that there is something to ascend to, or some form of ‘being’
that is desirable. There has to be a perfect virtuous human that we are trying to imitate. However,
based on my metaphysics -- I don’t believe humans have a purpose or design -- I don’t believe
there’s an entelechy to ascend to. I find myself rejecting virtue ethics (even though it’s still the
most initially appealing ethical theory) in favor of something that is potentially more objective or
easier to determine.

During the course of this class, I found myself sympathizing with the Romantic way of looking
at things. I think there’s something noble about sacrificing oneself for something they believe in,
no matter what that idea is. But at the same time, there are obvious problems. Marvel Comics
was lauded for an issue of ​Spider-Man​ in which Captain America gives a speech that ends with:
“when the mob and the press and the whole world tell you to move, your job is to plant yourself
like a tree beside the river of truth, and tell the whole world — ‘No, ​you ​move.’” This, I think, is
the Romantic ideal, and it’s one that I initially ​really​ want to agree with. As I mentioned in my
second diary, I ​want​ to believe that this rule applies to everyone regardless of what they believe,
but I feel uncomfortable with making that assertion.

Here’s why: If the Romantics had existed in the Ancient times, they would have seen their ideal
world-constituting ego (WCE) in Alexander the Great. For the French, Napoleon was their prime
WCE. And if these two individuals aren’t problematic already, some of the German idealists saw
their WCE in Adolf Hitler. And that’s where my inner turmoil with the Romantics lies. Are there
certain values that are just plain ​wrong​? Should there be? Should we at least pretend there are so
we can keep the world from dissolving into chaos? If so, which values would we choose? I don’t
know if there’s an answer to these questions and I doubt that there’s one that would satisfy all
humans everywhere.

After all of these potential ethical systems, I think that given my personal cosmology and the fact
that there isn’t any afterlife to be accepted into, the “Good Life” becomes the life with the most
utility. We should seek to limit pain and increase pleasure. I think the most ethical life to live is a
utilitarian life.

Regardless of the system, I think that ethics cannot be rigid. While I personally believe that
utilitarianism is the most effective way of addressing ethical issues as consistently as possible, I
sympathize greatly with the Romantic notion of sticking to my beliefs. Something that we talked
about briefly in class was phronesis, or Plato’s idea of practical wisdom. Using phronesis means
employing both reason and virtue, and making decisions spontaneously (every ethically decision
is unique and blanket frameworks cannot be applied to them). This idea resonates with me as
well, and I think that it’s a good way to deal with ethical decisions on a day-to-day basis. So how
does one live a “Good Life”? I think it involves making utilitarian decisions while employing
phronesis, and not losing too much sight of one’s personal beliefs. Clearly, this answer is not a
definitive one, but it a code that I try to live by and one that I will continue to evolve as my
philosophy does.
IV: Aesthetics
Beauty is a word that I can’t define and for which I don’t think there’s a universal definition.
There are so many things that can be deemed beautiful for different reasons. For example, a
piece of art can be beautiful simply because it uses a visually pleasing color scheme. It can also
be beautiful on a more profound level that’s a lot harder to describe or explain.

One of my most experiences of beauty was reading ​Out Stealing Horses​ by Per Petterson in high
school. What I loved about that book, more than the writing and plot (which were both fantastic)
was the theme, which I thought was beautifully explored (“you decide when it hurts”). It spoke
to me in a way that this type of fiction rarely does. So maybe for me, beauty is more about an
experience than it is an object. A book’s message is beautiful not simply because of the prose or
the plot but because of the emotions it evokes in me and how they resonate with my own life

Ugliness works the same way, I think. For example, on the surface, I think chihuahuas are ugly
dogs. I don’t ​hate​ them or think they’re inherently evil, but they’re simply not visually appealing
for me. This experience isn’t very consequential. My life isn’t drastically affected by this
repulsion. But on a deeper level, of my strongest experiences of ugliness comes from watching
politics -- especially in the last year or so. Obviously, some people aren’t necessarily physically
attractive, but I think there’s an inner ugliness that really makes itself evident when people are
running for public office or have taken power. The lower certain people sink, the harder it is to
like or respect them, until I’m left wrinkling my nose at the types of things they are doing.

How does this shape what I think to be good or bad? I’ve come to associate books and literature
with inherent goodness. They’ve become places to seek knowledge. On the other hand,
nowadays, I evaluate politicians with a great deal of scrutiny. It takes a lot of convincing for me
to actually put my support behind anyone in government regardless of party. A politician’s
words are rarely where I go seeking knowledge about a particular issue.

Plato tried to put a definition on beauty and where it came from, and he explained it through his
Theory of the Forms. For a moment, I’m tempted to agree with him. Finding little pieces of
beauty in the world around us does truly sound like we’re trying to remember some former
realm. Maybe when I read a passage from ​Out Stealing Horses​, there’s some indescribable
quality about it that reminds me of something I’ve forgotten from the Realm of the Forms.

But again, the issue with Plato’s transcendentals is that there would only be one ​form​ of beauty
just like there is one ​form​ of roundness. A square thing or a triangular thing cannot be round. If I
was to apply the same type of logic to beauty, then it would follow that certain things are
beautiful and certain things are not. However, I believe firmly that beauty is a very personal
experience, and thus, is not universal or traceable back to one objective form.

For example, my friend could read a poem and find it emotionally moving and thus beautiful to
her, but when I read the same poem, I could have a neutral or even negative reaction to it. If
Plato was right, then we both would have looked at that poem and seen beauty in the same way
that we could both look at a wheel and say it was round.

An issue that I’ve struggled with for a few year is whether something can have aesthetical value
in isolation. Or in other words, can I look at a work of art and deem it beautiful without factoring
in the painter and the context of the painting? Here’s an analogy: as a fan of the ​Pirates of the
Caribbean ​movie franchise, I’ve gotten into a few conversations with my friends who say that
the films are unacceptable because Johnny Depp, who abused his wife, is the lead actor. I’m not
suggesting this franchise is ​beautiful art​ per se, but I do think it’s at least a little meaningful. A
more historical example would be the German composer Richard Wagner, whose music and
operas are internationally recognized. At the same time, Wagner was affiliated with the Nazis
and they used his music a lot of their events. These examples beg questions like: can these works
of art still be valued? What if a bad person makes something beautiful? Can it still be beautiful?
Or does it deserve to be discredited?

Even though art is an experience, I think that one still has to isolate the artist from the art. I can
still watch ​Pirates of the Caribbean​ without feeling guilty. The same ought to apply for music
and other types of art. How do I come to terms with this? I think I agree with Barthes when he
wrote that the role of the author -- and in extension, the artist -- ought to be diminished. Artists
are no longer these heroic individuals who ought to be esteemed. They’re simply communicators
of information. As an author, I struggle with internalizing this concept, but it does make sense to
me. As far as ethical concerns go, I think I would struggle as a utilitarian. On one hand, having
access to a beautiful work of art would create more utility, but on the other other, in the long run,
it would perpetuate a society that supports the types of inappropriate behavior these individuals
have exhibited. Ultimately though, because I believe in looking at the art in isolation, the former
utilitarian argument wins out. I can enjoy ​Pirates​ while hating Johnny Depp. And, I can relax a
little because I know that listening to Wagner’s music, for example, isn’t so much about him as it
is about me.

Of all of the topics of this paper, I think that aesthetics is most influenced by the social
imaginary. Beauty standards have impacted a lot of us -- especially women. For example, having
naturally curly or wild hair is not as well-received as straightened or tamed hair here in the
United States. In this case, untamed hair is associated with badness and sleek, straightened hair
with goodness. The social imaginary uses aesthetics as a weapon to determine what is good or
bad. Breaking away from these imaginary is becoming increasingly more and more difficult
these days, and it is difficult to explain exactly why.

I think part of the reason is because of my aforementioned argument about Plato: there are no
universal beauty standards, so the narrative is can shift to favor one group of people above
another. In this case, the strength of the social imaginary can cause a lot of alienation between
people who don’t look the same and create a lot of loss of culture or tradition when groups of
marginalized people are forced to assimilate.

A final question I want to consider in this section is whether aesthetics really matters or if I
should just enjoy what I enjoy and leave it at that. I think this question becomes especially
relevant in the 21st century with the emerging creation of artificial intelligence. There was a Ted
Talk I watched once about computer poetry, where the speaker put two poems on a screen and
had the audience guess which one was by Emily Dickinson and which had been generated by a
word bank and a computer algorithm. They couldn’t do it. For them, both pieces were so similar
that they emitted the same level of profundity, or potentially beauty. I’ve always thought of
connections to the natural world or directly to humans as being a necessary condition of beauty.
But now, we’re getting to the point where robots might start painting and writing completely
independently of us and our goals.

Can something artificially generated still be beautiful? I don’t want to think so, just because my
instinct tells me that something that doesn’t come from ​us​, or from ​nature​, isn’t really beautiful.
However, if I do contest Plato’s Transcendentals, then there isn’t anything ​objectively beautiful
out there that can only be extracted from nature. Using my own logic against me, there isn’t
anything preventing computer poetry from being beautiful.

So ultimately, what is beautiful? I think it’s all about perspective. People can find beauty in
different things and associate those things with goodness or badness. It’s possible, I think, to
discover beauty (in nature, for example) or to create it (both naturally through literature or
artificially through computers).

Word count: ​5170

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Barrett, William. ​Irrational Man​. Anchor Books, 1958.

Berlin, Isaiah. ​Irrational Man​. Edited by Henry Hardy, 2nd ed., Princeton University Press,

Crichton, Michael. Jurassic Park. 1990.

Petterson, Per. Out Stealing Horses. Translated by Anne Born, 1st ed., Picador, 2008.

Rowling, J.K. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. 2007.

Sartre, Jean-Paul. "Existentialism is a Humanism." Translated by Philip Mairet, 1946.

Straczynski, Michael J. "Civil War: Amazing Spider-Man." Amazing Spider-Man, #532, Marvel
Comics, 18 Apr. 2007.

The Matrix. The Wachowski Brothers, 1999.

The Rise of the Guardians. Dreamworks, 2012.