The game of life: there is no way around it.

Once upon a time (but, really, not that long ago), I think I believed I could, if I worked hard enough at it, write a poem, a story, an idea so high and wild that I would never need to write another. To put it less allegorically and less plagiaristically, I think I believed I could craft a text that could compel others to action and, if not action, at least, maybe, it might compel others to like and admire it.

I say, “I think I believed” because I don’t recall ever explicitly thinking, “If I get this sentence just so, then, people will understand, act, and admire.” But, looking back on all of it, it certainly seems like this belief was implicit in my dogged pursuit of an aesthetic and conceptual perfection that was forever just beyond my reach and entirely unseen by everyone else (my Harvey, I suppose). It is as if, it seems to me now, I worked so hard because I thought perfection would give my words and ideas super powers. Otherwise, why bother?

Once articulated, it seems like a rather childish and somewhat spooky hope for a well-read and well-travelled atheist such as myself, but you don’t have to look very far to find this hope in others. For example, the rhetoric of debate is built around the notion that arguments are expected to compel belief by the sheer force of their logic. People’s heads explode online and around the dinner table precisely because they expect others to change their beliefs in the face of arguments that are so obviously correct that any idiot should be able to see it. In fact, and to put too fine point on it, as I so often do, it could be claimed — and, heck, I am going to go right ahead and make the claim — that the hope at the heart of the Reformation, the Enlightenment, Modernism and the entire Western liberal tradition — is the hope that truth, whether accessed through faith or reason, can compel people to change their beliefs and behaviours to align with it.

And that hope, in case you didn’t know, is almost certainly wrong.

There is no property independent of people that can compel people to believe or act any one way or the other. And while there is still much to be learned about brains, beliefs and behaviours, I feel pretty confident in asserting that the key consideration, when it comes to belief formation, is going to be the people with which one identifies. Moreover, the evaluation of beliefs and behaviours will always be done by people. So, even if it turns out that we can sometimes come up with a new idea completely on our own (p.s. it won’t, but let’s pretend), the value of the idea will always be determined by people and is not intrinsic to the idea itself.

So, I suppose this is a very long and unnecessarily elaborate way of saying (as per the uzhe) what most teenagers have probably figured out — that fitting-in, ingratiating oneself to a group (ideally, one that is wealthy, powerful and beautiful) is the only path to success. If you want to be a successful anything (writer, plumber, banker), you need to ingratiate yourself to the people who determine who is or is not x, y, or z and who also determine whether or not people are a success at it. There is no way around it.

A postcard from journey’s end: twenty-five years in the making

You probably didn’t notice it, but, in my last post, I finally figured it out. After about twenty-five years of figuring, I found the answer I was looking for.

Physicists, I have heard, hope to explain the whole universe with one or, perhaps, a few equations.

Darwin, in fact, explained biological diversity with a few simple premises that can be articulated in one sentence.

It turns out that I was trying to do something very similar. After considerable research and reflection, I have explained the very many different meanings of human existence with one sentence.

I’m reluctant to claim that my sentence explains the “meaning of life” because that expression is too often and too easily conflated with the notion that life has a specific purpose. I think my sentence concerns only the more mundane notion of meaning.

Maybe an analogy will help. If physics is concerned with the hardware and biology is concerned with the software, my sentence explains how the hardware and software interact to create content.

I will also happily admit that my sentence is probably only of use to me. I haven’t offered anything like an argument, so I’m not expecting or even trying to convince anyone of anything. I share the sentence in the same way I might share a postcard, and, like postcards everywhere, the sharing is probably more important than the card itself.

Pace Douglas Adams, I doubt knowing the question my sentence answers will make much difference to your appreciation of it. It may even confuse matters. And, truthfully, the journey started because of an experience — not a question. I have asked myself many questions over the years because of that experience, but my sentence doesn’t really answer any of them. Instead, it explains how any answer to any question comes to be accepted as an answer to the question. And, for me anyway, that answer ends the journey.

Unlike Casaubon, I have finished my masterwork, with plenty of time to spare. I suppose that isn’t too too impressive when the masterwork is shorter than a tweet.

The narrative of life: desire, conflict, and its resolution.

Humans desire.

Humans desire both the tangible and the intangible.

Humans evaluate and order desires. For example, one desire can be given up to satisfy another desire. The evaluation and ordering of desires is valuing. Valuing is unavoidable because desires come into conflict with other desires.

A human can value for any number of a variety of reasons, but there is no one property which in itself compels all humans to value. Valuing is something humans do. Value, thought of as an unique and independent property, is a chimera.

Other non-human animals value, but none of them, as far as we can tell, value quite like us.

Humans desire and value independently. In almost every case, however, desiring and valuing does not happen in isolation and the very many different ways of desiring and valuing affect each other.

Humans are hierarchical and tribal. They value some persons and some groups more than others and give more consideration to the ways of valuing of some persons and some groups.

Power exists when a person or group can compel other persons or groups to do, desire, or value differently than they otherwise would. Persons and groups are often blind to their power, the power of others, and the role power plays in the shaping of their lives. There is no way to influence, change or otherwise affect people and groups that is not an exercise of power.

When humans exchange resources, the most powerful persons and groups who have an interest in that exchange determine how those resources will be exchanged.

Right and wrong, good and evil, excellence and inferiority, originality and banality, success and failure and other terms like these, they all name different ways of valuing. The most powerful persons and groups determine the meaning of these terms and the meanings will reflect their ways of valuing.

Human society is complex. A person can belong to more than one group and even many different groups, and will have more or less power within each group. Each of these groups can value differently and will have more or less power with respect to other groups. Because persons and groups are hierarchically nested, a person or group can affect other persons and groups with which they rarely or never interact. A person or a group’s power is neither constant nor immutable. Power is always in flux.

The power of particular persons and particular groups can in some circumstances and at some times be equal. These moments of equality are likely to be isolated, temporary, and the result of an exercise of power. The equality will also only exist for one narrow range of the very many different ways persons and groups exercise power. Perfect equality between all people and all groups for all time is impossible.

Personal, social and political conflict is rooted in the very many and different ways humans desire and value. Conflict is always resolved though power. It’s resolution is determined by the most powerful person, persons or groups whose power is brought to bear in any particular conflict and the resolution will reflect their ways of valuing.

A resolution of a conflict can be described as right or wrong, good or bad, just or unjust. These descriptions, however, are themselves another exercise of power and whether or not they are accepted by others will be determined by the most powerful persons and groups whose power is brought to bear to decide the matter.

There is no market so perfect, no political system so just, no ideology so pure that conflict, power and inequality will wither away. It does not follow from this that conflict, power, and inequality should be cherished or vilified. They are simply conditions of our existence. Our response to these conditions shape our lives individually and collectively.

The narrative of human existence is written by desire, conflict, and its resolution.

Wonder upon wonder: the I in the absence of history

Histories are an afterthought. They are written after the experiences they describe. They are normally written by the victors.

I wonder:

Is it only with the benefit of hindsight that we understand that we lived through history, or is it possible to experience something as history — in the making, as it is so often said.

*

I recently finished reading Dr. Zhivago. While reading it, it felt like I was reading a story about people who were experiencing history. It also felt like I might have developed a better understanding of my own experience of the Russian Revolution had I lived through it and then read the book. Although the characters in the story do not — I am guessing — represent all the experiences of the revolution, it also felt like those who were omitted from the story would feel included precisely because they were absent from a story of which they knew they were an essential part. I can imagine an old peasant nodding to himself over vodka and muttering, “Ah, yes, that was Pasternak’s take on things, but he saw it that way only because, like so many of his generation, he didn’t see it as I saw it. Let me tell you about the truth of the revolution.”  

I wonder:

Is it Pasternak’s skill as an author that makes me feel like his story is inclusively exclusive or is it the all-encompassing nature of the revolution that he was trying to document that makes me feel that way?

*

I have lived through a number of events, which, by any standard or measure, should count as history in the making: the fall of the Berlin Wall and, eventually, the Soviet Union, the rise of the American corporate kleptocracy, globalization, the dawn of the digital age, and the uneven march of social justice. However, it does not feel to me like anyone could write a history of those events, individually or collectively, that would be encompassing and inclusive in the same way that Pasternak’s seems to be. I cannot imagine a history that would help me better understand my own experience of those events.    

I wonder:

Have we lost an ability to write and read all-encompassing histories like Pasternak’s or are the kinds of events that histories are normally written about no longer unavoidable as they once were? Today, can we opt out of the very stuff of history in a way that was previously impossible?

*

The capitalist kleptocrats, by any objective measure, are the victors in the western industrialized and colonial world. Their history, history has shown, is our history.

I wonder:

Is the seeming absence of an all-encompassing history of our times by design or is its absence an indication that the battle has been won but the war not lost? Is history the greatest spoil of war or its final battle? 

*

My initial thoughts:

The Russian Revolution probably was all-encompassing in a way that the Capitalist Kleptocrat Revolution is not, but the difference lies not in the magnitude or significance of the revolutions, but in the self-understanding of the people who lived through them. Society today is so fractured and atomistic that there seems to be little appetite for experiences or histories that speak to and for all of us. This, I think, is both a symptom of and a crucial tactic in the Capitalist Kleptocrat Revolution. We have all been affected by this revolution, and it has, in winning the moment, convinced all of us that we have have not been individually affected by it. In the absence of a history, it is difficult to even see that a revolution has taken place.

I wonder:    

Grand all-encompassing histories have rightly, I think, undergone a sustained and withering critique in recent decades. These kinds of history have been instruments of oppression — excluding, silencing, and marginalizing — but must a history that aspires to be universal always be oppressive? Even stronger: do we need these kinds of histories to better understand our place in society, even if it is only to see that we are at the margins? And finally: when we give up on history, do we also concede the war?

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).

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.

At the confluence of colonialism and a “Big Two-Hearted River”: a congruent path to recovery

Ernest HemingwayIn “Big Two-Hearted River”, a story by Ernest Hemingway, Nick Adams hikes to a remote and isolated river and fishes it. The hike, the work to set up his camp, and the time spent fishing the river seems to restore him. The story ends on a positive note. There is work to be done on his path to recovery, but Adams seems to think he will manage it.

I recently reread Hemingway’s first forty-nine short stories and his novel Farewell to Arms. I was struck by the utter bleakness of these stories, a bleakness that was foreign to my memory of them.

I was also similarly struck by the shattered nature of his characters. These are men and women broken by their experience of war and, perhaps, the experience of modernity itself. Their stories are fragments of fragmented lives, and a hopeless resignation imbues all of them. Life, living, and its few pleasures are fragile, fleeting, and sure to end in desolation.

The notable exception to all of this is Adams in “Big Two-Hearted River.” By returning to the land, by reconnecting with nature, Adams seems to find a path to healing. The story also seems to imply that he faces no obstacle to a full recovery so long as he is living close to the land.  

Gerald Taiaiake Alfred, a Kanien’kehaka Professor of Indigenous Governance and Political Science at the University of Victoria, proposes for the indigenous peoples of Turtle Island a path to recovery that is strikingly similar to Adam’s fictional experience. Because Alfred thinks colonialism is fundamentally about the dispossession and disconnection of indigenous peoples from their land, he thinks the path to recovery for them is to reconnect with the land and to develop a relationship with it that is spiritually, culturally, and economically sustainable. It seems to me that Adams, in his own way, is doing exactly what Alfred recommends.

The congruence of Adams’ fictional experience and Alfred’s well-considered recommendation, of course, may be coincidental. The notion that a person or community can be healed by returning to the land is hardly novel. It may be as old as urbanity itself.

The congruence might also have its roots in overlapping personal histories. It is evident from the Nick Adams stories that Hemingway spent an important part of his formative years living in close association with indigenous peoples. Perhaps, Hemingway is drawing from the same cultural well as Alfred when he proposes that a renewed relationship with the land is the key to indigenous renewal.

Or, as I want to suggest, the congruence might be an indications that settlers and the indigenous peoples of Turtle Island have a congruent path to recovery. It is easy to forget, thanks to our colonial histories, that the vast majority of peoples used to displace and dispossess the indigenous peoples of Turtle Island were themselves displaced and dispossessed of their own lands. This fact does not excuse them of their culpability in the colonization of these lands, but it may explain why they too easily embraced genocide as a means to material well being. Displaced and dispossessed peoples all too often retreat into hopeless and destructive behaviour.

Settlers will, of course, need to develop their own relationships with the land, distinct from the relationships pursued by indigenous peoples. They also have a duty to honour the treaties their ancestors signed on their behalf. In fact, it is probably true that settlers will only be able to honour those treaties, if and when they develop a relationship with the land that is, in its own way, spiritually, culturally, and economically sustainable. The settler relationship to the land need not be identical to those developed by indigenous peoples, but it must be congruent, if a just coexistence based on honesty, peace and friendship is going to be possible.

What am I suggesting here is that dispossession and disconnection from the land is an ailment we all share, thanks to colonialism, capitalism, and the will to domination at the root of both. It may also explain why, despite living off the fat of other peoples’ lands for centuries, settler society is empty, shattered, and on the edge of ecological disaster. To honour their historical obligations and to survive, settlers will need to rethink and renew their relationship to the land. It won’t be easy, but it can be done.

Just ask Nick Adams.