This article is a tour of the topics of my website, which are my main interests in life. This website is a repository for my projects, and my projects encompass most of my life. So a tour of the site is also a tour of my life. Now why would I think you'd be interested in such a thing? ... So I'm writing this tour to give you a handle on the seemingly random sprawl of my site and to provide you some entry points for beginning to read. It might also give you new ways of thinking about your own life. But I'm also writing it to do the same things for myself, because my life is complicated even for me, and writing is how I make sense of things.
- 1 Goals
- 2 Projects
- 2.1 Religion
- 2.2 Philosophy
- 2.3 Social science
- 2.4 The arts
- 2.5 STEM
- 2.6 Weirdness
- 2.7 Life maintenance
- 2.8 People
- 3 Footnotes
I like to think of life as a journey, so a tour of my website is a description of my journey. What are the destinations of my life's journey? This question can mean "Where will I end up?" or "Where am I trying to go?" I don't know where I'll end up, so I'll follow the second meaning.
Unfortunately, my goals in life are kind of murky, but the ones I can see form a sort of hierarchy. I quibble with myself over the details, but it looks something like this:
- Live a satisfying life.
- Be good.
- Figure out the right things to do.
- Get myself to do them.
- Fix myself.
- Love God.
- Love people.
- Enjoy life.
- Live comfortably.
- Fix myself.
- Gather resources.
- Avoid or cope with trouble.
- Learn things.
- Make things.
- Consume things.
- Live comfortably.
- Be good.
Some of these goals might need some explanation. One thing to notice is that some of them are cross-cutting, applying to more than one of the others. Namely these are learning things ("Learn things" and "Figure out ..."), fixing myself, and connecting with people ("Love people" and "Socialize"). I'll explore these interconnections as I explain the goals in more detail.
I tie everything together with the idea of being satisfied. People sometimes assert that everyone is fundamentally looking for happiness, and I basically agree, but the claim is a little too simple. Sometimes what you're looking for isn't euphoria or even contentment, since people are sometimes drawn to the act of hurting themselves. I think satisfaction is what they're after, the settledness that comes, for example, with feeling that justice has been served or with a sense of control. Satisfaction isn't our only pursuit, since people also want stronger forms of pleasure, which you could summarize as happiness, but I think satisfaction is our minimum pursuit and underlies happiness. So really my ultimate goal is to be at least satisfied or maybe to be as satisfied as possible, which would encompass the pleasant emotions you might describe as happiness.
Enjoying life, another goal in my hierarchy, sounds the same as pursuing happiness or satisfaction, but here I have in mind the more typical idea of happiness as a fairly pure experience of enjoyment that comes from pleasant activities or surroundings. Being good can often be painful. Enjoying life is mostly just nice.
The first step in being good is figuring out what it entails. I don't even necessarily care what that is; I just want to aim for it. Goodness as a general value is what I care about.
"Getting myself" to do the things I find out are right means I know I'm a divided person. I don't necessarily want to do them at first, but I want to want to; or I might feel conflicted about doing them; or I intend to do them but have poor follow through. "Getting myself" points to the first item under it, fixing myself. Somehow I need to be transformed from a divided person to a unified one.
Some Christians would take exception to the idea of fixing myself because they see humans as incapable of spiritual self-repair. God has to do it. My statement of that goal is partly just shorthand for getting fixed, in whatever way that happens. But it also points to the active part of getting fixed, since even in Christian theology people have some responsibility in their transformation. I would also argue that even passive states, such as waiting, count as actions, unless they happen involuntarily, such as being rendered unconscious. Since this is a list of goals, active phrasing is appropriate.
Next I make some assumptions about what I'll find when I arrive at an understanding of goodness: loving God and loving people. These might change as I learn more, but for now as a Christian, it seems safe to adopt Jesus' top two commands.
Living comfortably is mostly about the prerequisites to enjoying life. Fixing myself is about eliminating the ways I sabotage my own happiness, in addition to the ways I block my own goodness. Gathering resources covers money but also other resources such as time and health. The trouble I have in mind in the third goal is mostly external, circumstantial trouble, as opposed to the psychological trouble I might encounter within myself, which fall under the goal of fixing myself.
The remaining goals are the activities I enjoy, and the "things" in each case is fairly broad. Learning isn't just the way I fix problems; it's something I do for fun. So yes, I'm a big nerd. This means the topics I want to learn about go beyond what I need to know. Consuming things includes food and media, so I combined meanings of the word consume there. And finally, even though I'm very introverted, I still like hanging out with people sometimes, and I even like listening to their problems and encouraging them if I can. It's fortunate that I can simply enjoy doing good sometimes rather than seeing it all as a chore.
When I need to get serious about reaching a goal, I make a project out of it. I can't expect to make progress without one, because if it stays in the back of my mind, I'm usually not motivated or prepared enough to work toward it in the nooks and crannies of my time. I have to bring the goal front and center, make concrete plans, and set aside time and attention to work on it.
So since my goals and interests are so many, I end up with a lot of projects, or at least a lot of project ideas. Over time I've gotten better at carrying them out, but I'm not always great at choosing which ones to pursue, and placing them in the context of my overall goals should help me prioritize them. So in addition to guiding my readers, that's the other purpose of this overview.
Organizing a discussion of my projects is a little tricky. One option is to try to match them to my goals and follow the outline I gave for those. But some projects might address more than one goal. Another option is to group them by subject area. Some projects span more than one subject, so that's not a simple solution either. But since that's how I typically think about my projects, I'll follow that route until it becomes too unwieldy. My aim is to draw out the connections between topics, projects, and goals clearly enough that I could fairly easily reorganize the discussion along different lines.
Some of my projects apply to several or all of my goals, such as "how to think" and "how to pursue goals." Some subject areas cross-cut others, such as politics (philosophy, social science) and food (arts, life maintenance). The area of weirdness is a collection of topics gathered from the other areas but with a weird spin on them, such as pseudoscience and conspiracy theories. Conspiracy theories are usually a weird take on history, but they also tend to leak into most of the other weird topics--if I believe something weird and the experts don't, they're conspiring against the public to keep it a secret! I feel that these connections among topics and goals are important and that my map would be incomplete without them.
My projects have different levels of generality. Some are specific questions. Some are just topics I want to learn about. I know they're important or at least interesting to me, but I don't know enough about them to narrow down my questions.
There are some general patterns to my subgoals. One is a learning-doing pattern: Figure out how to accomplish the goal, and then do it. There's often a problem-solving element: Solve, avoid, or accept problems that arise in myself or my environment. So I might revise my general goal outline to leave these out so we can just infer them and make the list more compact.
Related to the pattern observation, my goals and projects are characterized by different types of actions. Some are more about learning, some about making, social interaction, and so on.
One topic can apply to multiple goals or action types. For example, I both make and consume music.
For some of my project ideas, a specific purpose hasn't emerged. I want to do them based on a strong feeling that they're important. In these cases I assume the feeling comes from some connection with my concerns that my subconscious has made that I haven't uncovered yet. If the project is a general one to study a topic, multiple applications might emerge.
Some projects are more relevant to my website than others. For example, I'll be writing about a lot of the topics I research. I won't be writing about all the socializing I do or posting a diet log.
Some projects are prerequisites to others. For example, philosophical topics tend to form the conceptual basis for topics in other areas or even for other philosophical topics. And math is involved in a lot of other topics.
Some projects are much more important to me than others. The important ones come to mind a lot, or they apply more directly to my purposes, or they're prerequisites to other important projects or to many projects.
I have so many project ideas it's hard to remember them all, so it's hard to list them, especially when they can be organized in different ways. To help me collect them, at least the important ones, I'll make several lists based on the factors I've observed in this discussion. Some factors will bring a project to mind easier than others, and projects will often naturally fall into particular categories.
My choices of projects are shaped by my history, circumstances, beliefs, interests, and abilities, so as I discuss the nature and purpose of each project, I'll include those factors where they seem significant.
If any religion is true, it's the most important thing in life. It encompasses enormous issues. Following it faithfully orients one's ethics during life, empowers one's pursuit of faithful behavior, and determines the quality of one's life after death, which in most religions lasts forever, even if preceded by a few more iterations of earthly life. Religious beliefs can greatly encourage people when they face hardship, and consistent ethical behavior can be a tremendous force for positive change in the world. On top of all this, most religions are concerned with the relationship between the Ultimate and the world, and the truth of any of these religions would carry with it a sense of gravity about honoring this relationship and getting its performance right. And for my own purposes, the true religion would directly and majorly impact my goal to be good and might have a bearing on enjoying life.
Obviously I'm speaking in general and idealistic terms in that paragraph. Some skeptics would raise some strong objections to my glowing review of religion, and students of comparative religion would probably note that my description is influenced by my Christian vantage point. But I think what I've said is true enough to support my main contention, that a true religion would be highly important.
This claim of religion's importance brings with it a host of questions that are worth investigating: (1) Which religion, if any, is true? (2) What does it teach? (3) How do we follow its teachings? (4) How do we promote it? (5) How do we find out these answers? (6) If no religion is true, how does that affect the concerns religion addresses?
I want to cast my investigative net broadly, but for a while most of my projects will revolve around Christianity and naturalism, for the following reasons: (1) By far Christianity is the religion I've spent the most time on, and I've made decent headway into answering these questions in relation to it. (2) I'm still a follower of Christianity, so these answers are important to me. (3) In the modern world of scientific progress, naturalism is Christianity's main philosophical challenger and competitor, and it's the one that most tempts me away. The main religious competitor for me is Buddhism, since it's highly compatible with atheism, so that'll probably be the next one I tackle.
Questions: What is true about the spiritual realm or ultimate reality? How much of a particular religion is true? How do we know?
Purposes: Determine if a belief system is worth following.
Assumptions: A belief system is worth following if and only if it's true. A religion's truth can be determined on the basis of evaluating its common or basic tenets.
Since I already adhere to Christianity, why would I ask these questions rather than simply asserting Christianity's truth and getting on with things? To answer that I have to give you a little personal history lesson.
I grew up as a Christian, specifically a conservative evangelical. I committed my life to Christ at age 7, and a few years later my faith somehow went from a background fact of my life to being its most important feature. The shift showed up mainly as an enthusiasm for Contemporary Christian Music, Christian talk radio, and evangelism. This was one-on-one evangelism with friends rather than traveling door-to-door or speaking to crowds.
Why evangelism? I attribute it to certain helping instincts. As someone who grew up in the church and had little contact with families in other religions, I took Christianity for granted, and I viewed Christian faith as a part of human development. As a child you started out ignorant and rebellious, but your proper destiny was eternal life in God's kingdom, and so giving your life to Christ was the stage of growth that put you on that path. Some people needed extra help to reach that stage, and that was the role of evangelism. I wanted to be part of it.
More than simply doing evangelism, my researcher and educator tendencies were in full force even back in junior high, because my free time was taken up with the project of assembling a book on how to do evangelism. I say assembling because it mostly consisted of quotes from other evangelism books.
I was very methodical about my evangelism research, progressing through the issues involved in a specific order. Part of learning evangelism is learning the kinds of responses you'll get from people and how to deal with them. Some of the toughest are responses from people who are firmly entrenched in other belief systems. In my research I decided to start with the one I saw as the opposite of Christianity, the worldview that believed nothing Christianity taught--naturalism.
So I set about trying to prove God's existence. To build the strongest case I could, I decided the best strategy would be to build the strongest case I could for atheism and then refute it. This began a long investigation into apologetics, which is a defense of some position, in this case Christianity. It lasted till the middle of high school, when my attention was drawn away to psychology and spirituality.
I didn't end up studying apologetics as thoroughly as I'd planned, but I came to the tentative conclusion that most traditional arguments for God either didn't work (moral, ontological) or didn't prove very much (cosmological). I still held out hope for the fine-tuning argument. I'd barely touched the arguments for the Bible and for Jesus, but I'd targeted Jesus' resurrection as the most important of those issues.
Through my college years I kept an eye on apologetics, mostly in the antics of Internet skeptics and their debates with Internet apologists. Then came graduate school for biblical exegesis, where I learned about how both conservative evangelical and critical scholars study the Bible. This was related to apologetics in that while these two groups went about interpreting the Bible, they were also debating the veracity of its contents.
From all this higher education I came to another conclusion, that there are at least two levels of skeptics: (1) the ignorant ones who are prejudiced against Christianity in a simple-minded way and (2) the professionals who know the issues involved and are more measured and nuanced in their criticism. The second of these groups I could respect, and while evangelical scholars were no slouches, I began to wonder if the critical scholars had a point. And maybe some atheist philosophers too.
All of that is to say that my investigations into Christian apologetics transformed from an attempt to defend Christianity in high school to an attempt to evaluate it after grad school. But my research hasn't reached the level of seriousness I had at the beginning, partly because I have so many more interests to pursue now, so my questions have mostly been on hold. Hence, I still have them as questions, and apologetics remains as a project.
Questions: For a religion with authoritative texts, how do we properly interpret them?
Purposes: Establish a method for settling the meaning of the text as a basis for deriving theology from it.
Assumptions: Texts are the only or primary source of theology for the religion. Theology is the type of concept that can be derived like a scientific theory or mathematical theorem.
Questions: What does this religion teach? How are these teachings derived? What sects are there within the religion? How do we decide between them?
Purposes: Determine what to believe. Form a basis for practicing the religion.
Assumptions: The religion teaches that it's important to hold certain beliefs. The religion's practices are based on certain truths about the spiritual world or ultimate reality.
Questions: How are we to relate to ultimate reality? What are the goals of spirituality? How do we reach them?
Purposes: Derive benefits from spiritual practice. Access experiential evidence for the belief system.
Assumptions: Humans somehow relate to ultimate reality. Practice is an important part of the belief system. Proper practice is possible to some degree. Practicing the religion is beneficial.
Questions: Should we try to propagate this religion? What are the best ways to do that?
Purposes: Fulfill one of the duties of the belief system. Improve individuals' lives by introducing them to the belief system's benefits. Improve the world's condition by spreading the benefits of following the belief system.
Assumptions: Spreading the religion is one of its duties. Practicing the religion is beneficial.
Questions: What is truth? How do we find it? How do we know when we've reached it?
Purposes: Form the basis for methods of finding truth and evaluating claims. Find truth so decisions can be based on it.
Assumptions: Decisions should be based on truth. These questions are answerable by reasoning.
Questions: What is the nature of the fundamental features of the world (being, time, mind, etc.)?
Purposes: Form a basis for ethics. Form a basis for epistemology. Feel more at home in the universe by understanding it.
Assumptions: Ethics and epistemology should be based on metaphysics. These questions can be answered by reasoning. Understanding the universe will improve our state of mind.
Questions: How can ethics be derived? What ethical truths are there?
Purposes: Form a basis for proper actions.
Assumptions: These questions can be answered by reasoning. Proper action is, can be, or should be based on ethical theory.
Questions: What are the best ways to organize and operate a society?
Purposes: On a governmental level, increase the well-being of whole societies. On a citizen level, decide on beneficial political action.
Assumptions: Societies can and should be organized and operated.
Questions: What are the ideal aims of the arts? What is the nature of these aims?
Purposes: Form a basis for creating, appreciating, and evaluating art.
Assumptions: These questions can be answered by reasoning. Art has aims.
Questions: How do people think? How do they make decisions? How do they learn? How do they achieve goals?
Purposes: Inform cognitive science.
Questions: What patterns of thought and behavior do people display? What categories, if any, can people be grouped into on that basis?
Purposes: Make sense of people's behavior and differences. Improve communication and cooperation.
Questions: What's wrong with people? How can people be helped to overcome their problems and develop psychologically?
Questions: How does neuroscience inform our understanding of mental processes?
Purposes: Inform cognitive science. Inform psychotherapy.
Questions: What does class conflict look like in the 21st century? What are its causes? What works to resolve it?
Purposes: Inform the study of religion. Inform the philosophy of ethics, epistemology, and metaphysics.
Questions: How did certain things get the way they are? What historical parallels help us deal with current situations? How can history be taught clearly and compellingly?
Purposes: Make better decisions.
Questions: What are the best ways for a group of people to organize and operate to achieve their aims?
Questions: How can a message be communicated persuasively to a large audience?
- When describing a journey, you have a few possible starting points (since a tour is also a journey). Let's focus on three, the vehicle, the departure point, and the destinations. The vehicle is an appealing starting point because then you get the sense that you know your means of getting anywhere at all. The departure point is also a logical place to start, since that's where you are first. But while it can sometimes spark the imagination, a vehicle can feel purposeless if you don't know your motivation for choosing it. A departure point also needs a context if you're going to feel its description has a point. A few different contexts could give it some interest, such as comparing it to someone else's circumstances or highlighting the factors I'm trying to move away from, which would tell you why I'm traveling in the first place. But a destination is a nice nexus of both answers and questions (where am I headed, and why there?), so I like to start by at least glancing at my destinations and the terrain between here and there. Then I'll also know what my vehicle will need to handle.