Between the wake of living and the insensibility of death: the experience of now

It’s an old and familiar trope; as a young man, it would enrage me.

Picture it: an old person, who is tired of living, decides that they are ready to die. Then, they close their eyes and die, as if the matter was decided in that moment — probably after some important milestone had passed and some important wisdom had been imparted.

The decision itself to die is not, I think, the key issue. Death as the ultimate sacrifice, in the name of some higher principle or for the benefit of some other person, has always tickled my adolescent fancy. Likewise, for as long as I can remember, I have always thought suicide to be an appropriate response to a cruel and terminal illness, even if it isn’t the choice I would make for myself.

I think the trope enraged me because it eulogized a decision to acquiesce to death’s inevitable and final ushering for no other reason than the old person’s indifference to life. The old person could live longer; they simply choose not to because they don’t much see the point in living any longer. It seemed to me to be the ultimate betrayal of the very idea of life, in all of its stubborn glory. Death is not an undiscovered country; it is an insensibility to be resisted at all costs until the very moment of consumption and consummation.

However, now that I have made it to middle age, I have found that the trope no longer enrages me. The decision to acquiesce to death, however unpalatable such acquiescence  may be to me, even seems to make sense, once the nature of lived experience is rightly understood.

When I was younger, lived experience seemed much more concrete and enduring, even after it had already been lost under the wake of living, because the amount of lived experience I could remember seemed to be much more than the experience I had forgotten. Sure, I couldn’t remember every detail of waking life but, on the whole, it felt like my experiences lived on with me in my memories.

At forty-five, however, the ledger of memories and lived experience is not at all balanced. I have undeniably forgotten much more of my life than I can now remember. I can no longer pretend otherwise: experience is gone forever once it is lived and our very fallible and fleeting memories can’t preserve or resurrect it. In terms of the experience of lived experience, the only difference between living and death is that the now of living is experienced and the now of death is not. The past is as unknowable as the future, whatever the fantasy of memory might otherwise try to tell us.

Now that this insight has taken root, it has become much easier for me to imagine a time when I will be able to look forward into death and look back onto life and not really see that much difference in terms of the experience of lived experience. As a young person, the experience of now was a supernova that illuminated all horizons; today, it is a star bright enough for me to look back with fondness and forward with anticipation, despite the shadows growing all around me; looking out towards 80 or 90 (and, hopefully, 100 or 120), it is very easy to imagine that the experience of now might feel like a pale dim light in a universe of nothing stretching in all directions. If that is the case, persistence for the sake of persistence might not seem to really add or subtract from the final ledger; and acquiescence to an insensible future might not seem so different from an attachment to the insensible past. Maybe, just maybe, I will also be ready to close my eyes and slip away quietly.

But, let me say this now! If some future Sterling starts nattering on about going gently into that good night, he is a rogue and a fraud! Here me now and believe me later: attach every machine, do all the surgeries, and give me every drug; do whatever it takes to keep my faint ember of consciousness aglow, no matter the suffering I may endure. I expect future Sterling will feel the same; however, because younger Sterling would probably be enraged at my defence of the enraging trope, I shall err on the side of caution: let my will today bind his then. If future Sterling ever loses sight of the faint ember of his experience in the engulfing insensibility of past and future, give him a stiff rum or two and send him to bed. I’m sure he will be fine in the morning. He’s probably just had a bad day. Plus, if he has got to go, he will probably want to go quietly in his own bed, enveloped in  a nice light glow.

My answer to the ultimate question of life, the universe, and everything: four four through it all

If the mystery of the human condition can be characterized as a kind of puzzle or riddle, the answer and/or punchline can be aphorized, I think, through four banal facts and four mollifying delusions.

I can’t say that anyone will necessarily gain anything by knowing and understanding these facts; nor can I say that they will gain anything by ridding themselves of the delusions.

If anything, I am pretty sure the delusions persist precisely because they are useful to most people most of the time. Whether or not they become more or less useful will be settled by evolution eventually — and not by you or I.

Four banal facts:

  1. Almost all human behaviour is perfectly predictable. Some human behaviour may be random or the result of chance.
  2. Human behaviour and all the products of human behaviour are expressions of the human disposition to allocate resources according to status.
  3. Human society and its organization requires the exercise of power. The risk of abuse is omnipresent. Some will guard against it; some won’t.
  4. We die and will be forgotten.

Four mollifying delusions:

  1. Humans have free will and are masters of their own destiny.
  2. The truth will set you free.
  3. Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others.
  4. Immortality is possible.

That’s it; that’s all. If you like my solution or enjoy talking about the puzzle, let’s start a club. You bring the (alcoholic) punch. I will bring the (vegan) pie.

The spade has turned: from weltschmerz to mono no aware and back again.

mono no aware After many years of digging, I am pretty sure I have hit bedrock.

The spade has turned.

Human behaviour and all the products of human behaviour are best understood as expressions of the human tendency to allocate resources according to status.

Practically-speaking, a person’s survival depends on their membership in a group and their status in it. Additionally, success — however it is defined over and beyond survival and reproduction — also depends on and is defined by an individual’s membership in a group and their status in it.

There is nothing — absolutely nothing — that trumps, circumvents or transcends the ceaseless churn of seeking, gaining, maintaining and losing the approval of others.

And so it goes. Fine weather, isn’t it?

My own private iconoclasm: making the word flesh once and for all

After many many years of reading, writing and thinking, I have arrived at the rather unremarkable conclusion that reading, writing and thinking are neither important nor unimportant in and of themselves.

They are human activities like any other and, as such, their value is ultimately determined by other humans. They can influence others — if they influence at all — only because of the values and valuings of families, peers, and communities. They can’t convince, compel, or convert on their own. They do not have quasi-divine and human-independent power to influence humans and their affairs.

I mention this only because I suspect that I may have implicitly believed all these years that reading, writing and thinking did have quasi-divine powers, even I can’t recall ever explicitly thinking to myself, “if I read, write and think just so, people will have no choice but to understand and agree.” Why else would I spend so much time reading and rereading, writing and rewriting, thinking and rethinking? Of course, I enjoyed it, but there are many other enjoyable activities I might have pursued instead. The intensity of my dedication seems to imply that I was hoping for something more.

School, university and academia probably helped to engender this implicit hope for the quasi-divine power of reading, writing and thinking. From the earliest days of school until the very end of academia, I was taught that the correct reading, writing and thinking would produce and, perhaps, even compel the appropriate mark, degree, or publication. It was as if there was a kind of magic at work — a magic that inevitably produced success when it was invoked correctly.

The implicit hope for the quasi-divine power of reading, writing and thinking was also stoked in the early days of social media. Time-and-again, it was (and is) claimed that there is a uniquely correct way to succeed at social media. Do it correctly, we were (are) told, and the followers, likes, pageviews and advertising dollars will inevitably flow. In the end, we have learned that there isn’t anything entirely unique about social media. Like any other human activity, there are many familiar but not entirely certain paths to success and failure.

I suppose William Carlos Williams also contributed to my implicit hope. As a young man, I was entranced by the idea that he remained a doctor, lived in Paterson, New Jersey, and, nevertheless, became a towering literary figure. According to the official hagiography, he opted out of the lifestyle of a poet but, nevertheless, became one of the greatest. I assumed, at the time, that it was the power of his words and talent that helped him overcome the geography of his choices. I see now that I overlooked the true power of the relationships he maintained.

I am tempted to be troubled by the non-divine nature of reading, writing and thinking, to characterize it as a problem, and to draw some profound conclusion, but I’ve been down that path too many times before to make the same mistake again. The absence of God only seems troubling if you characterize it as an absence, but to do so is a mistake. That which never existed can’t be absent because it was never present to begin with, no matter how it might have otherwise felt.   

The only real consequence of this realization is that I must give up on an ancient and essentially childish dream. Neither the bug-eating mystic in the desert, nor the stone-throwing philosopher on the mountain, nor the house-call-making poet in New Jersey can, by the shear force of reading, writing and thinking, legislate on behalf of the world. Read, write, and think if you enjoy it, but don’t expect or pretend that it will have any more influence on humans and their affairs than counting blades of grass, memorizing all the digits of pi, or surfing off the coast of Maui. To influence human affairs, one must be a part of them. There is no escaping that fact of human existence.

Thus spoke Zarathustra.

The alpha and omega of our humanity: an all-too-familiar trope

It is a standard narrative trope. We’ve encountered and enjoyed it millions of times: life is not as it seems. Our hero is not what she appears to be. Behind the veil of illusion, there is a different and more profound reality to discover.

If I have previously reflected on the ubiquity of this trope, I probably concluded that it is so commonplace only because it is a very easy idea to hang a story around.

I am now wondering if there is something much more fundamental to the trope. I am wondering if an ability and willingness to treat direct experience as an illusion behind which a more fundamental reality exists is the ultimate source of our humanness.

Take, for example, religion and science.

On the one hand, religion tells us that the savage and unpredictable storm is really an angry god. On the other hand, science tells us the storm is really an atmospheric disturbance created by the interplay of fundamental laws. The explanations are different, but they both rely on the idea that the truth of the matter is very different from what we directly experience. For them both, direct experience is an illusion behind which a more fundamental reality exists.

With these examples in mind, take a closer look at learning, creativity, language, consciousness, hermeneutics, the human reproductive cycle — really, just about anything fundamental to understanding humans as humans — and the trope turns up time and again. It seems to be as ubiquitous in reality as it is in our stories. If that is correct, perhaps, the trope appears in our stories so often only because we are fundamentally the kinds of beings that make sense of the world from that perspective. Perhaps, our stories mirror and reinforce an innate way of looking at the world.

Now, if this is true, here is a curious thing.

True happiness, the sages often tell us, is found only when we learn to appreciate the here and now, our given circumstances, the moment. Unhappiness, we are told time and again, is rooted in an inability or an unwillingness to appreciate the inherent value of direct experience. We suffer unnecessarily only when we grasp for superfluous wants beyond the here and now.

If the sages and I are both correct, it looks like our ability and willingness to treat direct experience as an illusion behind which a more fundamental reality exists is not only what makes us fundamentally human but it is also the root cause of our unhappiness. We are our most human, it seems, when we treat the given as something to be looked through and dismissed. We are also our most unhappy when we fail to appreciate what we are experiencing in the moment.

My highly speculative and totally-talking-out-of-my-ass theory to make sense of this apparent conflict is that the species is coping with a recent adaptation. Our brains, at some point in our recent evolutionary history, developed an ability to treat direct experience as an illusion behind which a more fundamental reality exists. From this adaptation, many of our most distinctively human traits have sprung. We are, nevertheless, mammals fundamentally and, for most of our evolution, we were animals that took direct experience as a given and succeeded because of it. We carry both traits in us now because they both helped us to succeed over the course of our existence.

The big worry for me, however, is that the ability to treat direct experience as an illusion behind which a more fundamental reality exists might actually be a maladaptive trait. Because of it, we dominate and control the environment like no other species and are reproducing at a frenetic rate. On first impression, this seems like the very definition of an evolutionary win. However, if our species gets wiped out in the next century or two because of our domination of the environment and frenetic population growth, that will be a undisputable lose. Our “success” might be so fleeting in geological terms that in a few thousand years no trace of us will remain beyond a curious spike in carbon emissions. If that is the case, as a species, we would have been much better off never developing the traits that allowed us to dominate nature and reproduce so frenetically.

There, of course, remains an outside chance that enough people will recognize the reality of what is coming and act together to make the dramatic changes necessary to avert the species’ oblivion. Perhaps, our day-to-day existence will become so difficult that we will have no choice but to change our ways before it is too late. There is even the faint hope of some kind of technological fix. And while the colonization of other planets is also feasible, abandoning the ship does not really seem like much of a solution or a victory, when we were the ones who scuttled it.

It seems we have painted ourselves into the corner of a familiar story. A catastrophic outcome is inevitable and only a miracle will save us. Is there a plucky band of misfits assembling now who will save us, thanks to their courage and conviction? Perhaps, a higher power or powers has already picked the chosen one and will reveal his or her true destiny shortly. Perhaps, that flickering light is not a star but a starship racing towards us, laden with the technology and know-how we will need to survive and flourish. One can only hope that there is some reality in these well-worn fantasies, but that in itself is an all-too-familiar story.

One more exorcism: there is no force in reason

We like to think that reasoning, logic and argument can compel a change of belief and force others to agree with us. This presumption is so deeply and widely accepted that we too easily overlook the spooky magic at the core of the standard characterization of reasoning, logic, argument, and, ultimately, thinking itself. Our beliefs certainly do change but there is no reason to believe that reasoning, logic or argument forces us to do it.

In the standard account of a well-reasoned and logical argument, someone makes their case by articulating premises that are probably true. Then, they illustrate how a conclusion is a natural consequence of those premises. Finally, they assert that the conclusion must also be true because the premises are true.

At this point, the other person involved in the argument must accept that the conclusion is true. If they are not so inclined to make this concession, they must demonstrate that the premises aren’t true or that the conclusion is not a natural consequence of those premises. However, in the end, if the premises are determined to be true and it is agreed that the conclusion follows from the premises, in the standard account, the conclusion must also be true and must be accepted as true. At this point, everyone who previously thought the conclusion to be false promptly accepts that it is true and realigns their other beliefs accordingly.

Now, if you have ever been in argument with anyone about anything, you know that arguments rarely if ever play out in this fashion. Even when the people involved in the argument agree in principle with the standard model of argumentation that I’ve just outlined, they will rarely change their minds in this way, especially if anything of any value or importance is at stake in the argument. At best, they may concede that the opposing argument is sound or plausible but they will almost always insist that there is something wrong with it that, for the moment, they are overlooking.

Logicians, philosophers and know-it-alls of every ilk generally characterize this as a consequence of the inherent fallibility of humans. For them, we humans know the ideal form of reasoning, logic and argument but, like fallen angels everywhere, we simply can’t measure up to it. A few gods amongst can, perhaps, but most mere mortals can’t.

This, of course, is absurd. If there really is some kind of force at work in reasoning, logic, and argument, it should consistently work in predictable ways and not only in trivial or paradigm cases.

Today, we now know enough about brains to predict with some certainty that the fundamental mechanism of belief change will almost certainly be neurological. If that is the case, the notion that reasoning, logic, and well-formed arguments have any role to play in belief change looks even more dubious. Are we too imagine that some neurons are especially attuned to the sweet harmonies of reasoning, logic and well-formed arguments? Of course not.

Instead and much more plausibly, because we know that the connections between brain cells strengthen when the same cells frequently communicate with each other, it seems much more likely that our beliefs change in response to stimuli that make the very same neurons communicate with each other in new ways over and over again. We may already see this mechanism in action today, thanks to cable news and the echo chamber of social media. It certainly seems like people change their beliefs simply because they hear a statement, claim or talking point repeated over and over again.

Because we are primates and the most important stimuli in our environment are other humans, I suspect, the experience of belief change will always feel sociological to us, even if it really is neurological. The people you associate with, listen to, and identify with will ultimately determine what counts for you as reasonable premises, sound reasoning, and appropriate evidence. If people in your tribe repeat a claim over and over again, I suspect you will also eventually believe it too, with or without argument. This isn’t something that only happens to those whackos who watch Fox news. It happens to all humans everywhere — including you and me. It isn’t an aberration or a moral failing . It is just the way humans create, reinforce, and change their beliefs.

My last word on political philosophy (hopefully): chase no more

The fundamental question of politics concerns power: is power an end unto itself?

If it is, politics is fundamentally about managing power. It involves creating and managing social practices that determine who wields power and the extent to which they wield it. In principle, power could be exercised with an eye to true, good or best outcomes, but, so long as power is seen as an end unto itself, gaining, maintaining and exercising power will always trump the true, the good, or the best. Inevitably, this kind of politics is or will become authoritarian because any balance of power will always eventually be upset in favour of someone or some group.

If power is not an end unto itself, politics is fundamentally a form of inquiry. It involves creating social practices that have the best chance of identifying true, good, or best outcomes. It is unlikely that any set of social practices will always identify true, good, or best outcomes, but the shared commitment to social practices that aim for these kinds of outcomes can, nevertheless, justify abiding by outcomes even when we or others disagree with them. This kind of politics relies on both the expertise of the individual and the wisdom of the crowd.

In principle, we could empirically determine which of these two approaches to politics works best for human flourishing. In practice, however, people who think power is an end unto itself are little interested in empirical justification. For them, the experience of power is the most important consideration. It trumps all other considerations, including empirical evidence.

The human propensity to treat power as an end unto itself is, I think, the essential challenge of all politics. The authoritarian urge seems to be primordial, in an infantile sort of way, and can manifest itself in anyone and everyone, wherever they happen to fall on the conventional political spectrum. It also seems highly unlikely that there is any particular set of social practices that will exorcise the authoritarian urge from human existence. Instead, we must constantly work to correct, inhibit and contain it whenever and wherever it might emerge.

We must also accept that people who treat power as an end unto itself are not interested in facts, figures, argument or reason unless these are used to buttress their own power. Accordingly, it is appropriate, I think, to use power to contain or dispose of those who treat power as an end unto itself. However, if we are successful, we must be careful to remember that it does not prove that we are right and they are wrong. It only shows that we are sufficiently powerful to contain or dispose of those who would use power to contain or dispose of us, whatever the merits of our beliefs and values may be. A successful exercise of power proves nothing about the truth, value or merit of anyone’s beliefs. Might does not make right, even if it is our right that it serves.

*

At some point in their growth and development, all things being equal, most humans will be able to make effective judgments about most matters that relate to them. No person will always be right but no person will always be wrong either. Furthermore, between right and wrong, there will always be many different judgments a person can reach that, all things being equal, are reasonable even if they are not wholly correct or wholly wrong.

Similarly, when a majority of people who are effective judges independently reach the same conclusion about some state of affairs, all things being equal, the fact of that independently shared judgement is the best evidence we have that the conclusion is correct. We can’t say with absolute certainty that the conclusion is correct but, in most cases and as a general rule, we should tentatively accept that the conclusion is probably correct even if we or others disagree with it. At the same time, we should also accept that we may learn in the future that the conclusion is incorrect. That is simply the nature of inquiry, political or otherwise.

It is the interplay between the effective judgments of individuals and the wisdom of the crowd that drives and shapes any politics conceived as a form of inquiry. The ultimate aim is to develop social practices that make the most of both. Practically-speaking, this means we should expect our social practices to evolve and change over time. We must always be ready to propose and test new ideas, mechanisms, and institutions and we must give up on the idea that any one person or any one group of people can, could have or will ever identify the one and only true form of government for all time. To do otherwise is to simply give up on the hope that our understanding of the world and each other grows and evolves over time.

*

Politics does not only happen at the ballet box or when parliament is in session or between the commercials of the nightly news. It happens wherever we live, work and play. It happens whenever we decide together how we are going to live, work, and play. It happens wherever and whenever we answer in word and deed the question: is power an end unto itself?

Our answers shape our lives, our communities, our society.

*

It takes only a moment of reflection to realize that we live most of our lives in authoritarian communities, organizations and institutions.

We are born into families that are authoritarian. We are educated in institutions that are authoritarian. We work at jobs that are authoritarian. Our political system is run, administered and governed by authoritarian individuals, groups and institutions. Our economy too.

The habits and practices of politics are like any other. We learn from doing and, if authoritarianism is all we do, then, our politics are also authoritarian, whatever we might think of the ribbons and bows of periodic elections. Elections are also an instrument of authoritarianism.

*

I want to tell a noble lie. I want to claim that we need only conceive of politics as a form of inquiry to ensure everything will always work out well for everyone. Unfortunately, inquiry doesn’t work that way. We can make better or worse judgements based on the evidence, but there is nothing in and of itself that can definitively point the way to the best outcomes for all people for all time. There are no guarantees.

We also can’t avoid the use of power and there is always — always — a risk that we will abuse it, even when we use it judiciously and cautiously. Nothing can absolve us of the responsibility of the wrongs we may do even when we intend to do right. There are better and worse ways to avoid the abuse of power, but there is nothing in and of itself that will prevent all people for all time from abusing power. Again, there are no guarantees.

And, perhaps, after all these years, that is all political philosophy I need.

I suspect now that I may have wanted much more than that only because I also wanted there to be some kind of secular magic that would guarantee the best outcomes for all people for all time and that would also absolve me of any responsibility to attend to the unintended consequences of my well-intentioned actions. I suspect I also wanted to avoid the messy and uncertain business of winning friends, influencing people, and fighting enemies. I hoped also, I think, that I might bequeath to the world some magical words that would help solve all problems everywhere. I would then be free to enjoy the beauty of the day safe in the comfort that I had done all that I could to do to make the world a better place without ever breaking an egg, pulling a trigger or currying favour. I see now that I was chasing a chimera, a wild goose, and a dragon all in one.

*

I am suddenly reminded that my very first essay in political philosophy was written in grade eleven or, perhaps, grade twelve. It was a short paper that attempted to explain what Marx had meant by the notion that religion is “the opiate of the masses.” I don’t remember if I wrote anything noteworthy, but I do remember struggling to write the paper. I also remember enjoying very much the struggle to write it. I also received a good mark. It’s easy to imagine that the struggle and the reward made me feel important — perhaps, even special. It probably provided a heady rush of meaning, purpose, and distinction at a time of lonely adolescence. Like opiates everywhere, it soothed and it distracted and, like junkies everywhere, I remember that first fix with a mix of fondness, regret, and understanding.

It has been said before and it will be said again: “In my beginning is my end.”