Monday, August 16, 2010

Existentialism and advancing years


On Tues, Aug 10, 2010 at 10:01:58
Wesley asked this question:

Has anyone written on the concept of a Post-Existential life?

I have entered the final years of my life. The life I am living now can be changed only fractionally by decisions and actions I make now. That is, it is as if all my previous decisions have painted me into this corner of this room in this house, here.

If authentic acts/ decisions are those in accordance with one's freedom, my Authenticism is absolutely limited by the limits of my freedom to act/ decide, which have become limited by all previous decisions and by Existence itself. My actions have brought me to where I am. I have decided on a course of moral and social Being. I have made decisions that now limit my health. All these limit my Freedoms and thus my Choices. I can no longer act in such ways that bring further Freedoms of Decision. All my existential life has led to this painted corner.

Granted, I have the wide freedom limited by health and financial circumstances to act in opposition to all prior decisions, 'Out of Valid Character' so to speak. To be wicked, criminal, to defile what I have held dear, to do the opposite of what I have chosen as the correct response in previous choices presented by my Freedom. But to do so seems Inauthentic in the extreme. And even so, my opportunity to act Out of Character is highly limited.

Thus, my life could be said to be Inauthentic in that I have little freedom to act, but can this be? Does one live an Authentic Life only to face death necessarily in Inauthenticity?

Rather, I see this as Authenticity leading to infinitely smaller and smaller Freedoms of Action the closer I approach and enter death. Thus, Authenticism leads to lesser and lesser, fading, then extinguished Freedom of Action. Neither Authenticism nor Inauthenticism. But even this seems unacceptable.

I would appreciate comments. Thank you.


I understand, Wesley, where this is coming from. However, I will argue that if you accept the truth in existentialism, then there can be no such thing as a 'post-existential' life.

One needs to draw a distinction, however, between 'being an existentialist' (which as it happens I am not) and 'accepting the truth in existentialism' (which I do). You'll see the reason for this distinction in a minute.

Last week, as an exercise, I gave myself a mock interview. If one is being po-faced about this, one could say that it was part of an ongoing project of seeking to 'know thyself' as Socrates advocated. The serious point is that this is knowledge which one is perpetually on the way towards and never finally achieves. Indeed, to think you had achieved it, and that there was nothing more to know would be an act of bad faith.

Of course, the whole thing was rigged. This was intended for an audience. Even so, it was surprising to me, some of the answers that slipped out. (Maybe it had something with playing Hendrix's Electric Ladyland album in the background as I was writing — which has a way, as great works of art do, of getting under the skin, loosening and unravelling the congealed layers of the psyche. Hendrix once said he wanted to write music that had the power to heal; he came closer to this than most of his generation.)

One question which I posed myself is whether or not I am a stoic. I said, somewhat cagily, 'I wouldn't describe myself' as a stoic. What I meant was, I'm not of the breed of Epictetus or Marcus Aurelius, or those who follow in their footsteps. I don't believe that all that suffices for a life of ethical virtue is 'knowledge of the Good' or some such Platonic notion.

And yet, on reflection, I realize that I accept the truth in stoicism. That is to say, I believe that there is something to know, which provides an objective basis or rationale for ethical conduct; only that 'something' falls short of what Socrates or Plato aimed for. (One of my ex-students reminded me that I once actually told him I was a stoic, which is interesting as I have no recollection of saying this.)

Iris Murdoch in her brilliant short monograph Sovereignty of Good (1970) makes a big play of the shortcomings of existentialist ethics, and the need to rediscover a Platonic notion of an objectively existing Good. I have no quarrel with that. What I'm saying is that fully responsible or 'authentic' action requires that we accept the heavy burden of responsibility for the values we choose to live by. You cannot distil those values from knowledge of the Good. There is nothing to know other than what we can discover through patient, factual investigation (here I am with Hume and the early Wittgenstein). But to be willing to conduct such an investigation — when faced with bewildering ethical choices and dilemmas — is a responsibility, and to a large extent an ethical responsibility.

'If it doesn't impact on me then why should I care,' is the ultimate question posed to ethics. A true existentialist would say that I choose to care and take responsibility for that choice. I don't think, realistically, that this is a choice. (Hence, I am not an existentialist.) It is about being a person, or being human: to look at the face of the other and never be moved, or successfully resist any temptation to be moved, is to put oneself outside human life altogether. I won't try to give a metaphysical spin on this. I am stating this as if it were a plain fact.

Now to the question: what happens to this 'burden of responsibility for the values we choose to live by' as one approaches death? All the big choices have been made, and one has accepted, taken responsibility, for those choices. I sometimes wonder what my life would have been like if I had not 'chosen relationship'. But I did, and I live with the consequences of that choice. I do sometimes feel, as Wesley does, a keen sense of being 'painted into a corner'. As a widower, with three daughters who still need a parent's practical and moral support, I don't have the range of choices I would have otherwise have had.

But this picture is completely wrong, if one interprets it as implying that there are no 'big' choices left, only little or insignificant ones. Of course, one can just walk over the wet paint and make a mess of things. I fully appreciate why Wesley would not consider that as a valid option. However, to stay in one's narrow corner is an existential choice. Maybe you've made some bad decisions in your life and now you're living with the painful consequences. You can to stay and face the music, or flee. And you have chosen to stay.

But I am going to assume that this is not the case for you. By and large, you are reasonably happy about the decisions that you have made.

The first point to make is a purely practical one: we don't know, for sure, what lies ahead for us. Not everyone gets to enjoy a tranquil old age. Tragedies and disasters have a way of disrupting one's cosy retirement plans. I won't enumerate all the ways in which this can happen. Imagine that this is 1936 and you are a Jew living in Vienna. Or it is 1945 and you and your family live in the vicinity of Hiroshima.

Or let's move things on a bit and take an extreme case. You are close to death. Physically, you are incapable of any movement apart from blinking in response to questions put to you. And someone asks, 'Do you forgive X for what they did?' And let's suppose, for the sake of this example, that what X did was really unforgivable, monstrous. But you still have that choice. Is it a small choice, or is it possibly one of the biggest choices you have ever made?

Or to strike an even more sombre note: Camus in The Myth of Sisyphus (1942) poses, as a philosophical question, what reasons are there to not commit suicide. There is no time in the length of a human life where that option no longer exists as a potential life choice.

One of the points I make early on in the Pathways Moral Philosophy program is that most of us, most of the time, never face really big ethical decisions. Our courage, for example, may never be fully tested. You might well ask whether one can be an existentialist when you live a life of comfort and ease — regardless of your age — where there are no scary or momentous choices, only pleasant ones.

In H.G. Wells' brilliant parable The Time Machine, the Eloi live like this. We can only see the Eloi as irresponsible children, unwilling to face the grim reality of their situation — easy meat for the Molochs. But how many persons do, in fact, live such a life of irresponsibility? That is, after all, the point about the self-satisfied bourgeoisie. 'You've never had it so good,' as Prime Minister Macmillan said. — But that was to a generation who had lived through the Second World War.

The biggest challenge for existentialists, or for those who 'see the truth' in existentialism is how to live when no important ethical choices ever seem to intrude on one's happy existence. I'm not saying that it's necessarily a bad thing that one is happy and contented. Ultimately, we can't choose the external circumstances in which we find ourselves, the events which intrude on our lives. This lack of momentous choices is a problem at any age, not just in old age.

Yet at the same time there is a part of me which wants to rebel in fury at the idea that anyone has the right to be contented. I don't just mean that the world is in a mess, in so many ways, and that you should be striving to the utmost and to the end of your days to do something about it. That's just one way. Equally strenuous and demanding would be the decision go back to college, study philosophy, say. Or, for someone in my situation, to look for another life partner. But to be a bit cynical about this — aren't these just so many strategies against boredom? Why this great effort? what difference does it make? You're going to die, anyway. — That's the question Camus asks.

Which brings me back to the one thing which I cannot get past. The one indubitable nugget of metaphysical fact: my existence. This is what existentialism is ultimately about. I am not 'some' person. I do not do what 'one' does. The choice — and there is always a choice — is here for me, now. That is what it means to say that 'I exist', in the sense in which this is an active verb rather than a merely tautological statement.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Eliminating the masses


On Wed, Aug 4, 2010 at 09:21:20
Derrick asked this question:

With the rapid implementation of advanced automation, robotics and soon nanotechnologies will there still be a place for the human masses?

We have long since passed the point of sustainability, we pollute our ever shrinking supply of fresh water, deforest at accelerating rates and erode our agricultural land and every human disaster is serviced by emergency aid and the result is further breeding to add to the rescue mission next time.

For how long will the have continue to support the have not, will there still be a place for humanity's masses in the coming ages or are we in the process of eliminating ourselves?


It's unusual for me to be answering another question so quickly after posting a tentative answer (on human test tubes), but Ronny's question on Monday has put me in a mood which I'm having some difficulty shaking off.

In my answer to Ronny I said that I 'rather like looking into the abyss'. That is such a gob-smacking thing to say let alone mean. Did I mean it? Or was I just showing off? I feel as if I meant it. My mood is — quite buoyant.

How much can I do without? Work is piling up on my desk today, but I don't sense any strong ethical impulse to be getting on with it. Diogenes' question — remember Diogenes, the dog philosopher who lived in tub? — that question haunts me. I don't need any of this.

I've never had much money, but I could get by on a lot less than what I have. I don't own a car, don't go on holidays, keep one pair of shoes (whoever heard of a car, even the most expensive car, needing more than one set of tyres?). Computers would be more difficult to give up, but that wouldn't be too hard once I'd given up all that I need computers for.

Probably the hardest thing would be chocolate biscuits to have with my coffee. Or coffee — whoah, that's a thought!

OK, that's enough about me. What about the human race? What do we need? How much can we do without? Why do we need the masses?

Obviously, the world economy still requires a plentiful resource cheap labour but (as Marx allegedly foresaw) advances in technology will eventually make manual labour redundant. Imagine workforce of obedient robots who need nothing apart from a few drops of oil and a regular recharge. Well, that's pretty obvious.

Who are the 'masses'? Jose Ortega Y Gasset gives a pretty potent definition in his book Revolt of the Masses (1929). The main point to note is that one shouldn't make the mistake of identifying the masses with the 'have nots'. Ortega's typical 'mass man' is the self-satisfied bourgeois.

Get rid of them all, is the answer. Get rid of the have nots, for sure. But also get rid of the bourgeoisie. Who else? Anyone with an IQ under (hmm...) 135. That's a bit generous, I know; not enough to get into Mensa, but that's OK because we're eliminating Mensa members anyway (too smug and self-satisfied by half).

To be serious for one moment (as I'm trying to be, because it's a serious question): Here's a useful thought experiment. Imagine that human beings are the only intelligent life in the universe. I know that we're repeatedly told that the probability of alien intelligence is overwhelming — despite the complete lack of any concrete evidence — but it isn't a fact, it isn't something we know.

So, imagine we're all alone. Does that make you feel more important? Does it make you any less willing to let a few billions die? Not me. What about the survival of the human race. Surely, one would care about that. But why? Survive, for what purpose?

I don't know. That's the honest truth. I just don't know.

I can't think in such general terms. When I try, I lose all my bearings. There are persons whose survival, and happiness, I very much care about apart from my own survival and well being. Instead of starting at the 'big end' (the entire human race) and eliminating the ones whose survival doesn't seem to matter, maybe the thing to do is start at the other end, the small end, by writing a list of all those I do care about, all those who I would allow into the Ark, so to speak.

As each human being comes into focus, looks me in the eye, I feel as if I would have no choice but to let them in.

The solution to 'the world's problems' has been a topic of debate for a long while, certainly since Malthus wrote his Essay on the Principle of Population. Undoubtedly, technology must play an important part. But, as Derrick has so clearly seen, if we rely only on science and technology then there may very well come a time when human beings, or at any rate a large proportion of the human race, become simply redundant.

This isn't the place for a mealy-mouthed lecture on ethics. I parade my moral virtue for no man. So I will just say this. A heap of sand is made of individual grains. The masses are made of individual persons, and each person has a face. Whatever your ethical or political views may be, that is one fact which you should not allow yourself to forget.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Human test tubes


On Wed, Jul 28, 2010 at 16:56:12
Ronny asked this question:

Human Test Tubes?

If this website is anything to go by depression appears to influence a lot of people into looking to philosophy to provide some answers to their issues with life. It appears I am one of those people although I am not naive enough to expect a definitive answer to any of my questions. I simply feel the need to express a thought that has dogged me since being offered medication for my depression.

My depression was explained to me, when initially diagnosed, as being due to low levels of certain chemicals within my body and medication would go some way to help correct this imbalance. Coming from a medical background up to graduate level, I was well aware of the complexities of human physiology. However, having had depression explained to me in such a manner I began to question whether everything we are as human beings is not a result of a series of complex chemical reactions? Light passes into my eye where a chemical reaction converts this to a signal passed to my brain where further chemical reactions occur and I am present with an image. Sometimes the images we perceive can produce what we describe as an 'emotion'. Could emotions therefore be seen as the end point of a chemical cascade? Are 'feelings' also end points of chemical processes? I hear a sound which is converted, via a mechanism within the ear, to a chemical reaction to produce electrical signals within the brain. Further chemical reactions branch away from this and the end point can be a stimulation of further physiology and a 'feeling' is produced. Does repetition reinforce a certain chemical pathway so that we develop the same 'feeling' or 'emotion' to the same stimulus? Is that how we come to 'like' or 'dislike' something?

These questions made me wonder whether it is ever truly possible to therefore control 'feelings' or 'emotions'? Once that chemical cascade starts can we influence it? Then again, while writing this I am having 'thoughts' that I feel I am controlling and if I expand my premise to the process of 'thinking' as being a chemical process occurring within the brain, am I not influencing these chemical reactions?

Once again, I don't feel naive enough to think I am the only person ever to have considered whether the body is not one large test tube full of complex chemical reactions with mind numbing interactions that will never be truly understood.

However, what do we become if we view ourselves in this way? Is our feeling of self or the belief that we make our own decisions in the way we interact with the world the result of a series of chemical processes?


The first thing I want to say to Roy is that I take the idea that depression and philosophy go together very seriously indeed.

I remember being told, many years ago, that if I continued with philosophy I would end up 'looking for the shortest rope'. That was by my uncle Jack. At the time, I thought Jack was probably wise enough to know that his own mental constitution wasn't suited to pondering the meaning of life. I can see his worried face even now. But I was different. I could handle it. I'd peeked into the abyss and it hadn't fazed me.

Then I recall that two of the lecturers who taught me when I was an undergraduate subsequently committed suicide. Maybe they thought they could handle seeing into the abyss, but they were wrong. — But that's just idle speculation, innit?

Actually, I rather like looking into the abyss. When I cast my eyes around this dingy world, the tawdry sideshows that human beings call 'culture', the abyss is the only thing with any real depth. Anxiety is the only real human emotion. (I think Freud said that.) But philosophy isn't just about plumbing the dizzy depths. It's about remembering and focusing. About being present. It can sometimes be a pleasurable activity (especially if you have a taste for Schadenfreude) but it's not something you do for pleasure.

So is Ronny right, that 'depression appears to influence a lot of people into looking to philosophy to provide some answers to their issues with life'? or did my Uncle Jack see deeper into the truth about these things? — And what the hell has any of this got to do with taking pills?

My chemical of choice is alcohol. Problem is, for medical reasons (chronic sarcoidosis, or maybe Sjogren's syndrome — the doctors don't seem to know which) I can't drink a single drop. I get a super-hangover that lasts for days. You know that feeling, when you just need a drink? I'm talking about someone who isn't in any way addicted to alcohol. I'd settle for one bottle of beer a week. I can't even have that without causing myself a lot more pain than pleasure.

At least I still have my coffee. I've been told it's bad for my condition, but I'm not aware of any particularly adverse effects. It helps me concentrate. (What do they know, anyway?)

They also say you shouldn't drink alcohol if you have a tendency towards depression. At any rate, you shouldn't drink alone. But social drinking is the best cure I can think of. If alcohol had never existed, the history of Western Philosophy would have been entirely different. Or maybe it wouldn't have happened at all. Read Plato's Symposium, if you don't believe me.

Getting back to pills. Ever since the first 'magic bullet' (Salversan, Dr Ehrlich's 'miraculous' cure for syphilis), an increasingly part of the chemicals industry has been dedicated to discovering new ever more potent formulations to add to the human test tube (nice image). Psychiatric disorders are exactly on a par with physical illnesses and disorders from the empirical standpoint. If it works with sufficiently benign side effects, that's all you want to know.

From this perspective, it's really a red herring to consider whether depressive people are that way because of a chemical imbalance. Even if their depression wasn't caused by a chemical imbalance (we'll get to what 'cause' means in a minute) a chemical cure can still work just as well. To repeat: we're only concerned with 'what works'.

I'm a good materialist, that is to say, I accept the minimal commitment for being a materialist, that mental events are supervenient on physical events. Anything else is up for grabs (a huge topic in the philosophy of mind which I don't what to get into now). Any thought, any feeling, any emotion is reflected in chemical or electro-chemical changes in my body. The direction of causation is the hard bit to figure out, but Ronny has half-seen this ('if I expand my premise to the process of 'thinking' as being a chemical process occurring within the brain, am I not influencing these chemical reactions?').

The bottom line is that you can interact with someone as a person, that means communicating, one person to another (Freud's 'talking cure'); or you can interact with them as a test tube. And that works too, sometimes. Some would argue, it works a lot better, certainly a lot faster.

This is all very circuitous (I'm sorry for that) but you'll see where this is going in a minute.

The other week, one of my old Mac laptops (a Powerbook 1400) died. Instead of starting up in the normal way with the 'happy Mac' logo, I got a picture of a floppy disk with a flashing question mark, then a black screen. I knew the hard drive was ancient and had probably had it. But I wasn't giving up. So I gave the laptop a sharp slap just to the left of the touchpad, where the hard drive is located. This time, the laptop started up, and has been working fine ever since.

We do this with people too. Sometimes, a sharp slap is just what a person needs. But doctors aren't allowed to do this, so they give a chemical slap instead.

What I'm working up to say is that this whole way of thinking about people and their mental trials and tribulations is totally wrong. To see that it is wrong, you have to get away from boneheaded empiricism and the idea that all that matters is that you 'feel OK' again. Freud understood. He saw his aim as transforming distressing psychological illness into 'generalized unhappiness'. When you do that, you have become free, your actions are your own rather than merely effects of your neurosis.

Freud said that in order to write, he needed to be in a mood of mild depression. The fact is, all genuinely creative work is painful. Gaiety and joy are wonderful things, but they're not ultimately real. At best, they are refreshing interludes that help strengthen our resolve, and they come as gifts. There's nothing more shallow or annoying than permanently joyful people.

So get away from the idea that all you need is to 'feel better'. There are other things you need, perhaps need more. (Perhaps philosophy is one of those things; or maybe psychotherapy — at least you'd have one real human relationship.) Accept the pain, adapt yourself to it, work with it. If you can find some depth in your life, whether from philosophy or some other activity, that is of far greater value.