The condition of my humanity: arrogant humility

It would be fair to say that I have spent most of my life thinking about the human condition.

The catalyst for this lifelong reflection was the profound realization, at the age of nineteen, that God does not exist. At the time, it seemed that the fact of God’s non-existence was a big deal. I also thought that a full and proper understanding of this fact would have profound consequences for the way I, you, all of us should live. I expected profound consequences because we live in ways that have been built on and around the idea that God exists. Remove the keystone of God’s existence, I thought, and the structure of everything would fall away, and we could rebuild everything anew. I read, I argued, I taught and, in the end, I realized that God’s existence or non-existence is pretty much irrelevant to deciding how we should live.

Then, it occurred to me that capital-T truth does not exist. It seemed to me that this was the fundamentally important fact, for more or less the same reasons that I thought God’s non-existence was so important. Again, I hoped that if I thought long and hard enough about it that I would identify some profound implications for the way I, you, all of us should live. I read, I argued, I taught and, in the end, I realized that the existence or non-existence of capital-T truth is as irrelevant to how we live as the existence or non-existence of God, for more or less the same reasons. Whatever you or I may believe about the nature of truth, it doesn’t really matter when it comes to deciding how we should live.

Then, it occurred to me that a fully naturalized and evolutionary understanding of consciousness was the key. Because culture and society begins and ends with humans, it seemed reasonable to conclude that a better understanding of the human nervous system would lead to profound implications for the way I, you, all of us should live. Moreover, for the first time in human history we had tools that allowed us to exorcise the quasi-divine conception of self we had inherited from our ancestors. The moon may have already been conquered by others but we are the first humans to tread on the very stuff of the human condition. And while it remains theoretically possible that there may be some unimaginable discovery yet to be made that will falsify the conclusion that I am about to share with you and that you should really be able to anticipate by now; but, after reading, arguing, and teaching, I have reached the conclusion that we will never be able to draw unassailable and universally compelling conclusions about how we should live based on a fully naturalized and evolutionary understanding of consciousness either.

The crucial words here are “unassailable” and “universally compelling”. With the benefit of hindsight, I see now that I was hoping to find a conclusion, a claim, an idea, something that would win in every argument and always compel all others to action. I was doing what prophets and priests and philosophers and warlords have been doing since time immemorial. I was trying to derive an “ought” from an “is” and hoping that the “ought” would be so magical and powerful that everyone would be swayed by it. The subtle and not terribly sophisticated difference is that I was trying to derive an unyielding “ought” from a “not is” instead of an “is.” Rather than saying, “x, therefore you must do y”, I was saying (or hoping for), “not x, therefore you must do y.” For example, instead of “God is love, therefore, we should do good,” I was hoping for “there is no God, therefore, we should do good.” And while it remains intuitively plausible to me even now that there is some special significance in the fact that things like God and capital-T truth don’t exist, I know that it is as nonsensical to draw unconditional moral claims based on what is not as it is to draw unconditional moral claims based on what is.

And, as important as that conclusion may be, the far more important insight, I think, is that the very idea of an unassailable and universally compelling argument is a coercive fantasy. It is essentially the hope that might and right are identical and that rightness can in and of itself compel others to believe and act. It is also an idea that leads, I think, either to passivity or to oppression because, if right and might are one in the same, either unpopular beliefs are not quite right or there is something not quite right with everyone who fails to accept and act on beliefs we think are right. If a belief, idea or way of life fails to compel acceptance and motivate action, we either think less of that which was  not compelling or think less of the people who failed to be compelled. So, either we end up believing and doing nothing because the burden of proof is impossibly high or we do whatever we want because disagreement is proof that those who disagree with us are somehow broken or not fully human and, for this reason, don’t deserve our consideration and can be compelled to do anything we want.

It’s also crucial, I think, to realize that might comes in many forms, is expressed in many ways, and is never in itself a measure of rightness whatever its form or expression. Most people, for example, would probably now accept the notion that the strength of a person’s muscles has no bearing on the validity of their beliefs, and yet many today still believe that the strength of a country’s military or its economy is a measure of the rightness of its moral and political values. Vote-getting, profit-making, and fundraising are often thought to be legitimate measures of rightness but they really only indicate what can attract votes, profits, and charity at any given point in time. An argument, a speech or an essay may be persuasive, but this in itself is proof only of its persuasiveness. Charm may be non-violent, but there is no reason to think that a consensus built on it is any more true than a consensus built on fear. Might comes in many forms, and it never makes right — even when it is expressed in a way we admire or by people we like.

I should, nevertheless, be explicit on this point: coercion is an inescapable fact of social and political life. We must sometimes coerce people to do things they would rather not do (remember: forcing people not to interfere in the lives of others is a form of coercion too). However, we should always coerce cautiously and from a place of humility, respect and empathy, recognizing that there will be times when we will also be coerced to do something we would rather not do. Most importantly, we must never conclude that our ability to force a person to do something that they would rather not do proves anything about the merits of our beliefs, our way of life or our worldview. Coercion becomes oppression, I think, precisely when we start to believe that our might — whether it be physical, intellectual, emotional, financial, electoral, anything — is proof that we are right. It is one thing to force people to comply with, say, a political or legal decision with which they do not fully agree, while at the same time recognizing that the decision may be imperfect. It is something altogether different to force compliance and, at the same time, insist that coercion would be unnecessary if only those who were being coerced were more rational, compassionate, or open-minded — or whatever term we might use to signal that they are to blame for not seeing it our way. We must, I think, always remain mindful of the fact that anyone of us — and not just those people who we think are the bad guys — can walk the path of good intentions from coercion to oppression.

With that important caveat in mind, we must, nevertheless, carry on living and, in my own case, I have come to embrace an attitude of, what might be called, arrogant humility. I’m arrogant enough to think I have a pretty good shot at making pretty good judgments about what is or is not the best course of action in most situations, when I do the work to gather and consider enough of the relevant evidence. I am also humble enough to accept that I often get it wrong, that I have blind spots, and that some of my most cherished beliefs and well-considered beliefs might be totally wrong. In short, I’ve come to trust my judgement, while at the same time accepting its limitations and failings. I am no longer looking for something — or a not-something — to validate my beliefs, decisions and failings.

I will not, however, claim that all people should necessarily adopt this attitude. I can’t ignore the fact that much good has come from people who have put their faith in God, who pursue the Truth, or stand their ground in the name of moral facts that they consider to be self-evident. I am also well aware that much evil has been done in the name of God, Truth, and indubitable moral facts written into the bones of nature, however, when I consider the evidence available, I am not convinced that these attitudes necessarily lead to good or evil. Whether a person has faith in God or in their own judgement, they must consider the evidence and make judgments based on it. They and I may sometimes disagree over what counts as admissible evidence, but a shared commitment to the fact that might does not make right and right does not make might seems to me to be much more important than a shared opinion about the nature of God.

And once I set aside aside worries about the existence or non-existence of God, Truth, and Human Nature, it was much easier for me to see that there is both too little and too much to say about the human condition. From one perspective, we are simple, fleeting and trivial creatures who, like all the other quirks and quarks in a cold, vast and indifferent universe, are, in principle, perfectly predictable. From another perspective, the human condition is an unimaginably rich and cacophonous kaleidoscope of boundless possibility and each human life is unique, beautiful, and precious. The human condition is a lot like the weather, I think. Seen from on high, it is simple and perfectly predictable, but, closer to the ground, it is complex, varied and difficult to predict, and, at the eye of the storm, no two storms are ever quite the same for those who experience it — no matter what the experts, instruments, and equations may say.

And that’s all I have to say about that (I think).

Disco Polo Music: a reminder from Warsaw

I’m in Warsaw, Poland. A world apart. One more world apart. One of many.

I have discovered Disco Polo Music. I am entranced by its congenial, hyper-sexualized tribalism. It evades banality because it is paradigmatic, pure, and distilled.

A minority linguistic community created and championed this style of music because it mirrored and championed the minority linguistic community.

I am reminded: it is Disco Polo Music all the way day.

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On the train from Berlin, I passed through lives and worlds and histories. Hundreds, thousands, hundreds of thousands, millions: full, complete and unencumbered by my existence.

As I watched the vast flat fields and imagined the millions of men and women who have marched east west, west east, and back again, I felt and knew and saw the futility of living a life in the hope of being a story in future histories.

I am reminded: writing is hubris — but so what? From the perspective of history, living is too.

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Some time ago, I diligently journaled every day for a year. It was stream-of-conscious, pure and distilled.

Some time after, I reread it, hoping for insight. Instead, it was mundane, banal, repetitive.

At the time, I was disappointed. It amounted to so little. Now, I understand that it had provided an important insight.

Without the discipline of an audience, real or imagined, my thoughts, my mind, my identity, they are mundane, banal, repetitive.

I am reminded: there is no value without valuers and fame is its prophet.

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I sometimes think that my conversion to atheism was the ultimate career-limiting move.

There is nothing I have written or thought or done that couldn’t have been dressed up in the clothing of theology — and, in so doing, groomed it for a vast community eager for meaning.

Even now, I could dress up my words, thoughts and ideas in the comforting clothes of theology. My actual beliefs are irrelevant to the meaning that others draw from my words. Writing in the name of God would be no more false or untrue than the plausible deniability of fiction and the implausible truth of non-fiction. It would be a lie no worse and no better than the lie at the heart of everything.

I am reminded: I am that I am.

Turn on, tune in, and wonder at it all: self-awareness is pretty damned special

I was reflecting on the utter and incomprehensible oblivion of non-existence (as I often do).

It occurred to me: every single experience, every single moment of self-awareness, however banal, tedious or mundane, is irreplaceably precious.

The simple fact of a self-aware existence is in itself so remarkable and so fleeting that almost any moment of it can be cherished for its own sake.

I’m very fortunate. I don’t suffer. I doubt that I have ever truly suffered, whatever my adolescent heart might have felt sometimes, so I can’t say if experiences of suffering can be cherished in this way. Truthfully, I doubt it. I also hope that I never have enough direct evidence to make a strong claim one way or the other.

Notwithstanding that important caveat, by recognizing and appreciating the exquisite and ephemeral impossibility of a self-aware existence, any moment — on the bus, waiting in line, showering — can be remade into a moment of wonder and delight.

All that is required is an awareness attuned to the fact that self-awareness is pretty damned special.

An utterly mundane conclusion

After many years of reflection and the careful examination of very many blind alleys, I have arrived at the utterly mundane conclusion that we are animals who exchange resources.

Some resources are bequeathed to us through the lottery of our birth. Some are acquired or created with the help of the resources bequeathed to us. Resources are tangible like water, food, shelter, and clothing. They are also intangible, like myth, religion, ideas, and debt. Some resources, like family, community and the internet, are both tangible and intangible.

Resources are exchanged cooperatively, competitively, and/or coercively.

Paradoxically, the intangible resources are very often valued far more than the tangible resources — even those which are essential to life. The apparent paradox might best be explained by the fact that intangible resources are very often a highly effective means to acquire tangible resources. This explanation, however, is inadequate because the pursuit of intangible resources very often requires giving up or even destroying tangible resources. Ultimately, there may be no paradox. Perhaps, we are simply the kinds of beings that exchange tangible resources for intangible resources — for better and for worse.

Life is lived inescapably in the present. The future and the past is an intangible resource invented by the experiencing brain to use in the ever-present game of resource-exchange. We make appeals to an imagined future and/or to an imagined past because such appeals can affect the exchange of resources in the here and now.

The influencing effects of intangible resources like God, truth, history, the rule of law and debt originate in the cooperative and coercive habits of humans. We act as if intangible resources can in themselves compel action but we are not compelled by these resources. We are compelled by other humans and/or ourselves.

Intangible resources are expressions of nervous systems. They do not exist independently of those systems.

The certainty of experience is an unreliable means to an understanding of existences independent of human experience.

The species has developed social practices (i.e. “science”) that provide us with some understanding of existences independent of our experience. These practices, nevertheless, are also experiences. They are fallible too. Understanding that our experiences — however certain they may feel to us — are fallible is, perhaps, the most important idea bequeathed to us from the progenitors of science. Unfortunately, stubborn certainty is very often the surest means to acquire resources in the here and now.

The experience of free will is indubitable. It is as indubitable as the experience that the Earth is solid, flat, and unmoving. Our experience of free will is, in all likelihood, wrong. Not much turns on this conclusion, however, because we are beings who experience the indubitability of free will. We will be these kinds of beings until we are not. How we respond to this conclusion — which may be wrong — is not something we freely choose.

Mea culpa: a confession from one of last year’s men

In principle, the weather is perfectly predictable.

The weather seems unpredictable only because there are so many variables at play. It is impossible to account for all of them. One day, supercomputers may be able to do it, but, for the time being, the weather will remain unpredictable and seemingly mysterious.

In principle, we humans are also perfectly predictable.

We seem unpredictable only because there are so many variables at play. It is impossible to account for all of them. One day, supercomputers may be able to do it, but, for the time being, we humans will remain unpredictable and seemingly mysterious.

Once upon a time, we imagined that the perfectly predictable weather had agency. In the future, we will say “once upon a time” about the agency we imagine in ourselves today.

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History is one of the spoils of war. It is well known that the victors write history in their own image.

Our memories are also a spoil of a kind of war.

Whoever we have now become remembers the past in its own image. Memory, like history, is an invention of the present moment and not a window into a time beyond now.

We share memories like we share other delusions. We tell and retell plausible fictions until they align and our memories seem to be the same. We do it because we are a we.

Our past is a portrait of now. Memory is another kind of forgetting.

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Everything we experience and think and know and believe is created by a three pound lump of flesh that never directly encounters the world it renders.

Everything we experience and think and know and believe would count as a lie, if there were anything outside of everything we experience and think and know and believe by which to assess it.

Then, the universe goes bump in the night.

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Ideas have always mattered to me, for as long as I can remember. They have, at times, mattered to me more than people.

I hoped — I think — that I would find an idea so high and wild I would never need to find another.

Lead would turn to gold. Women would swoon. Men would follow.

I was wrong.

People matter more than ideas. People are the warp and the woof of living, history and progress.

Ideas are not irrelevant, of course. They can unite people and bridge communities. They can be the catalyst for social units larger than the tribal communities of our ancestors.

Ideas are imperial. Philosophers have always longed to be king. Truth is a bondsman’s means to lordship.

One more cock thrusting into the night.

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There are thirty million people living in Uzbekistan — thirty million people that my life will not affect in any meaningful way, thirty million people I will never encounter, know or understand, thirty million people whose very existence is essentially non-existent to me.

There are almost fourteen million people in Ontario. There are about a million people in Ottawa. I have six hundred friends on Facebook.

Like most humans, the greatest number of individuals with whom I can a maintain a stable relationship is between 100 and 231. Of them, there are probably only a handful of people I encounter often enough to affect meaningfully. I can’t even be sure that I truly know or understand them.

The people of Uzbekistan are everywhere.

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I still sometimes catch myself writing an acceptance speech for the world’s greatest person award. I always start by naming and thanking the teachers who have influenced me the most. I doubt any of them truly knew or understood me.

This longing for global recognition seems almost impossible to extinguish, especially when the world is falsely imagined to be a village and the longing for recognition is clothed in the lambskin rhetoric of progress.

It is attachment to this longing — and not desire itself — that is the source of all suffering.

We already live in the kingdom of heaven. We don’t know it only because we look for it beyond the local horizon of now.

All lives are local, a life is for living, living happens now, and, once experienced, it can’t be recovered. Happiness is — and always has been — here, now, and a verb.

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I’m thankful I am introvert. Like a beast with its horn, I have torn every idea that has reached out for me.

Go home, Philosophy. Evolution has got this.

Blue and BrutalI have no memory of a time when I didn’t believe in evolution.

Of course, that can’t actually be the case.

I was raised, at first, in a bland non-denominational Christianity. Then, after my parents separated, I was immersed whole hog into Catholicism. It seems likely, at some point, I believed in some version of Creationism. Even so, if I had a conversion moment — not on the road to Damascus, as it were — I don’t remember it.

I do, however, remember when I first started to understand the full implications of the theory. It was when I taught this essay by John Dewey, as part of an introductory course on human nature. I had, of course, read and studied the essay before I taught it, but it was only when I taught it that its message really hit home.

The message is simple, if you are ready to hear it.

Evolution elegantly explains the variety of species. It is also an explanation that offers no guarantees. Broadly-speaking, any outcome for any species is possible. The only condition is that the outcome is always going to be the result of a reproductive advantage.

That’s it.  

That conclusion may seem pretty innocuous these days. We live, after all, in the worldview that was shaped by evolution’s discovery. It is, nevertheless, a pretty earth-shattering conclusion for a vain little species like us.

Evolution tells us we aren’t special. We weren’t preordained. We weren’t a necessary outcome. We aren’t the best or even the fittest. The only claim that we can make is that our ancestors reproduced more successfully than their competitors. Who knows? Maybe some prettier, smarter, and stronger version of us decided having kids wasn’t worth the effort.

And, having thought about the implications of evolution for many years, I am also now inclined to think evolution answers – in broad terms – almost all the fundamental questions of philosophy. What are we? Why are we here? What is morality? Why are we moral? What is thinking? Why do we think? What is knowledge? What is beauty? Essentially, any question that can be transmogrified to the question, “why are we the way we are,” is best explained by evolution.

Of course, that means the only questions evolution can’t directly answer are metaphysical – but even now I’m wondering if an evolutionary lens might be usefully focused on these kinds of questions. Evolution, nevertheless, has an indirect answer to metaphysical questions. We ask metaphysical questions because we evolved to think about and understand the universe in these ways. Conceivably, we might never have evolved to ask and answer these kinds of questions. The planet is filled, after all, with very many successful species that aren’t particularly smart, reflective, or concerned about the nature of the universe.  

There are, of course, many smaller, more focused questions worth asking and pursuing, but, as far as the big “why, oh, why?” questions, it seems to me evolution will be the ultimate and fundamental explanation for all those kinds of questions about us. Physics and cosmology will, of course, take care of all the metaphysical questions.

Which is to say, I suppose, that Hawking is essentially right. Philosophy, as a discipline, is dead. Philosophy, thought of as an outlook or way of thinking, should and, of course, will continue. It should, however, be a kind of thinking done within an empirically grounded discipline rather than being a discipline onto itself. The notion that philosophy is a distinct discipline should go quietly into that good night. 

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As Insignificant As A Star: The Brief Light of Consciousness

Pale Blue Dot“We’re made of star stuff,” Carl Sagan famously quipped.

Sagan makes this claim, in part, because of what we are made of. We humans, like all other animals and most of the matter on Earth, are made of carbon, nitrogen, and oxygen. These elements, we know, were created in stars long ago.

Sagan also makes this claim because he wants to make us feel special. He adds, in a curiously Hegelian turn of phrase, “We are a way for the cosmos to know itself.”

In this way, Sagan adds his voice to a chorus of opinion about the nature of human consciousness. Like Sagan, many other people want to characterize the fact of our consciousness as something profoundly special. They want human consciousness to be much more than one more mere phenomenon of the universe. Sagan wants us to feel special because we are conscious of the universe and can come to know it.

Sagan’s claim about the specialness of humans, however, like all such claims, does not make much sense.

Yes, we are made of matter that originated in stars. That matter, however, has existed in one form or another for billions of years. It will exist for billions more. The amount of time it will be animated by our consciousness is imperceptibly short. From this perspective, consciousness and whatever it might come to know is of no more or less significance than anything else.

Consciousness, nevertheless, is precious to us. From our perspective, it should be. Its temporality, its finitude, its ephemeralness, its very nature shouldn’t diminish its preciousness to us. It only seems less precious, I think, when we fantasize, like Sagan, about its special significance.

We humans seem to have a desperate need to make ourselves out to be much more than we are. Even a cosmologist like Sagan, who is all too aware of the vastness and scale of the universe, succumbs to this desperation. It is this desperation to be more than we are, I think, that leads either to hubristic fantasy or pointless nihilism.

Instead, we should accept and embrace our indifferent and fleeting place in the vastness of the universe. It is, after all, the most plausible account of our place in the universe. It may also be the key to truly enjoying our brief time as conscious and experiencing matter here on our pale blue dot of a planet.

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