How to Die: Plastic Surgery

Plastic surgery has become commonplace. I have several acquaintances who have had operations, and we jokingly refer to the cougars at the local hot spots as “50/50 ladies” (50 years old and 50 percent plastic). It’s no longer just the older people; one of my colleagues died from complications of plastic surgery at the age of 23, and it seems like the girls in China and Korea are now competing to see who can get the most plastic at the youngest age.

I don’t have a problem with orthodontics or other mainstream cosmetic treatments, so I might be accused of hypocrisy for having a problem with plastic surgery. But I fear there is something terribly wrong in this obsession with youth. Life shouldn’t be about clinging to youth as long as possible — life is about growing old and dying gracefully.

Around age 12, one of my favorite poems was Yeats “When You are Old”:

WHEN you are old and gray and full of sleep
And nodding by the fire, take down this book,
And slowly read, and dream of the soft look
Your eyes had once, and of their shadows deep;

How many loved your moments of glad grace,
And loved your beauty with love false or true;
But one man loved the pilgrim soul in you,
And loved the sorrows of your changing face.

And bending down beside the glowing bars,
Murmur, a little sadly, how love fled
And paced upon the mountains overhead,
And hid his face amid a crowd of stars.

What kind of person would trade Yeats’ vision of graceful aging for plastic? Yeats had advice for those who rejoice in youthful beauty in “To a Young Beauty”:

DEAR fellow-artist, why so free
With every sort of company,
With every Jack and Jill?
Choose your companions from the best;
Who draws a bucket with the rest
Soon topples down the hill.

You may, that mirror for a school,
Be passionate, not bountiful
As common beauties may,
Who were not born to keep in trim
With old Ezekiel’s cherubim
But those of Beaujolet.

I know what wages beauty gives,
How hard a life her servant lives,
Yet praise the winters gone;

There is not a fool can call me friend,
And I may dine at journey’s end
With Landor and with Donne.

Around 200 BC, a Greek sculptor created a statue of a “Dying Gaul“, which has ever since been a symbol of how to die. Upon seeing the statue of the dying Gaul, still a dead ringer for Yeats’ countrymen, Lord Byron was inspired to write:

I see before me the gladiator lie
He leans upon his hand—his manly brow
Consents to death, but conquers agony,
And his drooped head sinks gradually low—
And through his side the last drops, ebbing slow
From the red gash, fall heavy, one by one..

Rather than being a celebration of youth, the dying Gaul shows the wisdom of Montaigne’s advice:

If you don’t know how to die, don’t worry; Nature will tell you what to do on the spot, fully and adequately. She will do this job perfectly for you; don’t bother your head about it.

He doesn’t try to prolong his youth any longer than is given to him. Montaigne examines this topic in his essay 17, “To Study Philosophy is to Learn to Die“, as well as a few other essays.

I recently read through “How to Live: Or A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer“, in which the author collects Montaigne’s thoughts on life, death, and much between. It’s not fantastic, but not bad, and I’m convinced that Montaigne would share my same misgivings about plastic surgery.

Outsider Test for Philosophy

Here is Thomas Crisp’s new “Evolutionary Objection to the Argument from Evil” [via ex-apologist]. It’s a clever argument, and has persuaded at least one of ex-apologist’s readers that the Problem of Evil (PoE) is not a good reason to be an atheist.

The objection goes roughly like this:

P1) PoE depends on the premise that there are probably no good reasons for the observed evil in the natural world
P2) Determining whether there are good reasons for natural evil is a “recondite”, extremely difficult, philosophical problem.
P3) If our intellectual capabilities evolved, they evolved to track mundane matters of reality that are necessary for survival.
P4) There is no obvious reason that evolution would select for ability to reliably solve recondite philosophical problems
C1) Therefore, given evolution, there is no reason to trust our philosophical musings about observed evil
C2) Given that we can’t trust the key premise of PoE, then PoE is not a good reason to be an atheist

There are some obvious ways to attack Crisp’s argument. For example, we could deny that the key premise of PoE is recondite. Or we could argue that generally evolved truth-tracking mechanisms actually do apply to recondite philosophical problems (Crisp acknowledges that we could have developed such an ability as a “spandrel”, and I think there are plausible arguments for this, but I think an even stronger argument could be made for our ability to tackle recondite problems).

Crisp seems to sense this weakness in his argument, and he tries to strengthen his claim that judgments on recondite matters are unreliable. I laughed out loud at this part:

I don’t experience any emotion of ridicule when I entertain the possibility that my cognitive faculties are unreliable with respect to abstruse philosophical matters far removed from the everyday concerns of life. That possibility doesn’t strike me as crazy or ridiculous. I don’t notice any powerful seeming or seeing to be true when I consider the proposition that my philosophical faculties are reliable; it doesn’t strike me as just obvious that they are. In fact, when I consider the multitude of crazy views philosophers have defended over the centuries and the rampant disagreement among philosophers over almost of everything of substance, I find it wholly unobvious that we humans, myself included, have reliable philosophical faculties.

This is like the “Outsider Test for Philosophy”. It’s like saying, “When you realize why you reject all of the other contentious philosophical positions, you’ll understand why I reject yours”. IOW, the fact that there are multiple competing positions is taken as evidence that nobody really knows — that everyone is just mistaken or making things up.

This is shockingly sloppy thinking, whether it’s done by a Christian philosopher at Biola or by an atheist shyster like John Loftus. In this case, though, it’s especially funny. Winning a philosophy argument by claiming that philosophy is unreliable, is quite bold. Well played, Mr. Crisp! Well played!

You’ll Understand When You’re Older

This is a post about how I do exegesis. When I was three or four, I would often ask my mother “Why” questions. Often they were questions about math, but sometimes about other topics. Her stock answer was, “You’re too young to understand. You’ll understand when you are older”.

Much later, I realized that she was just blowing me off, and simply didn’t want to say “I don’t know”. I asked her about this after I was 30, and she confirmed. But I now realize that her dismissal tactic was genius; whether intentional or not.

When you’re three or four, you believe everything your mother says. So when she said, “You’ll understand when you’re older”, I believed it. For the problems that I really cared about, I would sometimes demand that she tell me what age I would be when I understood. Sometimes she would say 10; sometimes she would say 12. I vividly remember a number of occasions where I panicked upon hearing this, thinking, “What if I forget to answer the question on my tenth birthday?!?” I would repeat the question to myself every single day, multiple times, so that I would be guaranteed to remember the question. I eagerly anticipated my 10th birthday, where I envisioned myself repeating all of the questions to myself and having the answers magically appear in my mind.

Of course, I never asked the questions on my tenth birthday, and I forgot some of the questions. Answers came when they came, and my childlike credulity was quickly replaced by the skepticism of an accomplished liar. But those early experiences shaped the person I became:

  1. I learned very early to train my long-term memory. I was desperate to know the answer, and the only way to know the answer was to remember the question until I was “old enough”. If my mother had given me some glib bullshit answer, I might’ve believed it and not even bothered remembering. If she had said, “I don’t know”, I might’ve decided that it was OK to stop caring.
  2. It’s worthwhile to believe that there is an answer, and that you will one day understand. Many times, I solved problems that others failed to solve, for no other reason than that I was certain “There is an answer, and it will feel good to discover it.” Throughout my life, I watched as people gave up and failed to see things that were right in front of their faces, because they convinced themselves that there might not be an answer, or that they would never be able to figure it out. In my experience, this is how the vast majority of people think, and it’s absolutely tragic. Nobody should think that way. If you don’t understand something, it’s only because you’re not old enough, and it’s that simple. If you have unanswered questions, you have something to look forward to. Of course, if you prove conclusively that some specific question is impossible to answer, that just means that you understand it, and that’s great! Until you’ve proven that there is no answer, you have no business saying that you will never know.
  3. Remembering the problem and being able to recognize when the answer is available is more important than stubbornly trying to brute force an answer. Things will happen when the time is right.
  4. Half of the answer is in formulating the problem. To remember the questions, I had to repeat the question subvocally over and over again. Some of the questions I had, I couldn’t even properly articulate in words, and therefore I couldn’t remember them by rote repetition. These problems vexed me greatly, because I could see the problem clearly at the moment, but I knew I would lose it. I still encounter problems like this, and they are motivation to get better at defining and articulating problems.
  5. Even if you have an answer that’s perfectly valid, you never have the answer. There were times when I thought I understood an answer, but I wasn’t yet 10, so I wasn’t sure if I had the full answer. There were other times when I gained a new understanding that replaced an old (albeit, useful) understanding, confirming my suspicion that I hadn’t fully understood. This means that there is always something to look forward to.


I’ve read a few child psychologists who say that attention-starved children ask “Why?”, because they’ve learned that this is the question that receives the most verbose answers. And when a parent has finished answering, the child can just say, “But, why?”, and trigger another long interaction. If you believe this theory, you should respond to every “why” question with long bullshit answers that make your children feel like you’re paying attention.

In my experience, though, the theory is wrong. Kids actually want to understand things, and you should encourage that desire. On the other hand, I’m not convinced that you should tell your kids, “You’ll understand when you’re older”. I suspect that technique is a total crap-shoot.