Thursday, July 29, 2010

Free to choose?

As we touched on in our last post, the concept of free will is fraught with difficulties, perhaps most significantly the fact that it seems clearly inconsistent with our central premise that all is physical. However, for some reason this insight is nigh impossible to incorporate into our daily lives. As we said to Inigo the other day: "It's just the logical extension of everything we've been saying (everything is physical), but it feels like a whole new level of strangeness to say the brain decides something before 'we' realize it..."

Thus, we were fascinated to come across this interview with philosopher Galen Strawson where he discusses this exact issue. We highly recommend reading the whole piece, but here is a preview:

"There is an undeniable human tendency to see ourselves as free and morally responsible beings. But there’s a problem. We also believe—most of us anyhow—that our environment and our heredity entirely shape our characters (what else could?). But we aren’t responsible for our environment, and we aren’t responsible for our heredity. So we aren’t responsible for our characters. But then how can we be responsible for acts that arise from our characters?

There’s a simple but extremely unpopular answer to this question: We aren’t. We are not and cannot be ultimately responsible for our behavior. According to this argument, while it may be of great pragmatic value to hold people responsible for their actions, and to employ systems of reward and punishment, no one is really deserving of blame or praise for anything. This answer has been around for more than two thousand years; it is backed by solid arguments with premises that are consistent with how most of us view the world. Yet few today give this position the serious consideration it deserves. The view that free will is a fiction is called counterintuitive, absurd, pessimistic, pernicious and, most commonly, “unacceptable,” even by those who recognize the force of the arguments behind it. Philosophers who reject God, an immaterial soul, and even absolute morality, cannot bring themselves to do the same for the dubious concept of free will—not just in their day-to-day lives, but in books, and articles and extraordinarily complex theories."

Monday, July 26, 2010

Bemelmans visits San Simeon

Ludwig Bemelmans (1898-1962) is one of our favorite writers. There is a joie de vivre about him mixed with a certain acceptance of things as they are that appeals to our absurdist sensibilities. On a recent plane trip we read To the One I Love the Best. In this book, there is a chapter called San Simeon. It reaches some fairly absurd conclusions and includes a cheerful insight into the pursuit of happiness.

Bemelmans once visited William Randolph Hearst at San Simeon sometime in the 1950s. Hearst’s home in San Simeon is known today as Hearst Castle. Back then Hearst called it the Enchanted Hill.

As Bemelmans describes it:

“It is a mixture of a cathedral and a Spanish hilltop city with a piece of California suburb placed at its feet… It has all the characteristics of monuments built by man to the glory of himself and God.”

Bemelmans spends some days there amidst all this grandeur. There is a living room half the size of Grand Central Station with a grand fireplace that reaches the sixty-foot ceilings. There are statues of marble, intricate woodwork, drapery and art work. In short, the place is spectacular and seems to have everything one could want.

However, after spending several days there, our correspondent has a revelation on his drive home. He finds Hearst’s world mostly sealed off from the rest of the world. He finds Hearst has shut himself off from genuine human contact and with life more broadly by building himself this bubble. As Bemelmans writes:

“During the long drive in the blue haze of morning I came upon a truth, which, like all revelations, is simple as stone and as heavy. I had met in Hearst the most lonesome man I have ever known, a man of vast intelligence, of ceaseless effort, and all he had done was to make of himself a scaffold in which a metronome ticked time away… The revelation is that you cannot protect yourself, you must take a chance on being hurt…”

It is easy to fall into a cliché here and say that the rich are miserable and, therefore, find some consolation in one’s relative poverty. That’s not what this is about. Bemelmans saw a man who invested his persona in things. Apparently, Hearst never sold any of his art or antiques or other things. He clung to them as if they gave him life. And indeed he may have thought so. Hearst was always building, adding to the castle. At one point, Bemelmans quotes an aid as saying: “As long as he builds, he thinks he won’t die.”

Bemelmans describes another encounter:

“I walked with Mr. Hearst and the architect along a two-mile stretch of trellised columns, fruit trees, and grape arbors. At one point Mr. Hearst stopped. “I want a terrace here,” he said.

It was a tough terrain, it would take a lot of underpinning and work, the architect explained, and he made the mistake of asking the King why he wanted a terrace there.

Mr. Hearst pointed to a scrubby tangerine tree growing across from where he stood and said in his high voice: “I might want to pick one of those tangerines.”

“I’ll never ask him again why he wants to do anything,” the architect said later.

In the end, Bemelmans finds the Hearst Castle an unhappy place. It’s a place where people do things to please Mr. Hearst, who seems cannot be pleased. He seems a hollowed-out human being, worn from the years, unsure what to do with his money, unsure of what makes him happy. A life of pursuit, of fruitless pursuit…

Bemelmans concludes, ending with a wonderful little bit of poetry that smacks of absurdity and the futility of the chase:

“The egotist loses everything. You cannot live for yourself. The pursuit of pleasure does not bring it [happiness]. But all this has been said, and better – for example, by Bert Brecht in the Three-penny Opera:

Ja, renn nur nach dem Gluck,
Da rennst Du nicht allein,
Sie renne alle nach dem Gluck,
Das Gluck rennt hinten drein.

[You, go – run after happiness!
You’re not alone, you’ll find.
They all run after happiness –
Which runs along behind.]"

Friday, July 23, 2010

Our endless, pointless, futile, and ultimately destructive quest to define ourselves

Yes, that's a long title. But it's something we find ourselves coming back to lately, this relentless human urge to define oneself. Why? Why the need to believe that we are anything more than this conglomeration of atoms stuck together at this particular moment?

We were having a conversation with our wife the other day that turned to an old acquaintance - in fact, a mutual acquaintance who first introduced us. Thus, without this individual's involvement, we would both be leading separate, and perhaps dramatically different, lives. We have been pondering this, as it gets to the root of this whole chimera of identity with which we are all so obsessed.

There is a branch of physics that holds there are a virtually infinite number of universes (the multiverse), with a new one created each time anything could go one of two ways. Thus, the universe in which we find ourselves, rather than representing "reality," might simply be one among a countless number of other realities. Whether or not this is true (and even among those who believe this, there is resignation it could never be proved), it introduces an interesting way of looking at things. In short, perhaps we are free to choose which of these universes we inhabit merely by adjusting our future choices.

On the other hand, perhaps the whole concept of being free to choose is itself an illusion. We came across a fascinating piece the other day by John Derbyshire, in which he recounted a conference on consciousness:

"The disciplines most prominently on display at Tucson were neuroscience and philosophy. These two fields had collided quite sensationally in 1985, when Benjamin Libet published his discovery that the subjective experience of willing an act is preceded by the brain activities required to initiate the act. The measured gap between unconscious initiation and conscious decision-making was less than a second in Libet's experiments, but later researchers have since pushed it back to seven seconds.

Seven seconds! Your brain starts up the neural processes necessary for you to push a button. Seven seconds later you experience the wish to push that button. You then push the button. Where is free will? Where Schopenhauer left it, perhaps. Loosely translated: "We can do what we want, but we can't want what we want."

Well. This is truly bizarre stuff. If this is to be believed, then our "desire" to write this post occurred after some sort of neural event in our brain that created the desire.

Interestingly, while these views seem like polar opposites at first glance, they in fact lead one to the same conclusion with regard to identity--namely, that it is an illusion. In the first case, the concept that there are a countless number of "ourselves" coexisting in parallel universes is a pretty clear refutation that there is any reality to what we consider the self, while the second suggests that even our arguments against the self are mere physical manifestations of underlying neural processes - in other words, we don't actually "decide" to do things, but instead react to firings in our brain. (To clarify, we're not sure what to think about the first, and think the second seems pretty logical. But we don't spend much time dwelling on it...)

So where does this leave us? Living in the moment, laughing at our human foibles, and trying to be compassionate to others. Was all that decided by some chemical event in our brain seven seconds ago? Maybe so. But at least we didn't try to unravel the even more bizarre mystery of non-locality...

Thursday, July 15, 2010

You'll Get Nothing And Like It...

It is the great myth of humanity that one can be both pleasure seeking and content. Notice that this is different than saying pleasure will not lead to contentment; this is also true, but we are making a stronger statement. We are saying the act of seeking pleasure is inconsistent with living a content life; not only does pleasure not bring contentment, but the two are, in fact, mutually exclusive.

We admit, it took us some time to appreciate the distinction here. And don't misunderstand us--we still "enjoy" things like good food and wine. But (and this is the critical distinction) we don't expect anything from them.

Let us explain.

One of the most common objections we hear to the absurd is from people who simply refuse to believe their family does not matter. While they have sympathy for the concept in general, the concept that their wife and kids are no more important than dust mites is simply a leap too far. So let's unpack this a bit.

First, it is of course true (as we have argued many times) that the reason we believe family is important is purely biological--as gene replication machines, our primary "objective," as it were, is to protect and promote our own genetic code. It really is that simple. (As an aside, we have an absurd friend who has a great line about why his kids "matter"--"They're just so cute!")

However, we are concerned with something else here--the issue of dependence and its corrosive effect on contentedness. Consider the following situation--you have a fight with your spouse that is not quickly resolved. This results in a terrible feeling in the pit of your stomach that you simply cannot shake. Now we should one best handle this situation?

Well, let's break it into its components. Why, you must ask, does it bother you that your spouse is upset. One popular answer is that you care about her, and do not want her to be unhappy. Hmm...This sounds awfully good; who can argue with such a selfless, egalitarian concern?

Horseshit! Not only is such a position untenable, but it is doubly corrosive for attempting to fob off our own unhappiness (or non-contentedness, if you will) on another. What does it mean that you "care" for your wife? That you want her to be happy? All right...why? Because her being happy makes you happy.

Think on that for a minute...

All right, here's the nub of the issue. When we rely on external things--be they people, events, or objects--for our happiness, we abandon any pretext of living a content life. This is no less true with family than with anything else--the self-proscribed "family man" may be looked on more favorably by society than a rock collector, but both rely on external forces to complete their quixotic quest for internal peace.

The difference with family is it is easier to hide our true motivations. We want our children to be happy, we tell ourselves (and others) for their own good. No! We want them to be happy because it makes us feel good. If not, then why do we care more for their happiness than another child down the street? What about starving children in Uganda? Our "concern" for our family is nothing more than a socially-acceptable trick that allows us to mask pure biological self-interest (gene replication) with compassion and selflessness.

Consider again the words of Epictetus:

"As on a voyage when the vessel has reached a port, if you go out to get water, it is an amusement by the way to pick up a shell-fish or some bulb, but your thoughts ought to be directed to the ship, and you ought to be constantly watching if the captain should call, and then you must throw away all those things, that you may not be bound and pitched into the ship like sheep: so in life also, if there be given to you instead of a little bulb and a shell a wife and child, there will be nothing to prevent you from taking them. But if the captain should call, run to the ship, and leave all those things without regard to them. But if you are old, do not even go far from the ship, lest when you are called you make default. Seek not that the things which happen should happen as you wish; but wish the things which happen to be as they are, and you will have a tranquil flow of life."

Expect nothing. It's the only way to get what you want.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Throw your stuff away!

It’s amazing how a simple task can suddenly illicit absurd thoughts.

We were cleaning out our home office the other day. We go through probably 50-60 books a year – both for work and pleasure – that span all kinds of topics and disciplines. And so if we don’t go through our bookshelves every once in awhile, we’d be buried by them.

So, as we usually do, we went through them and pulled out books we thought we’d never look at again, or that weren’t all that good to begin with, etc., etc… We put them in a box, which we then donate to the library or sell at the local used book shop. We usually have no problem filling a box with thirty or so books.

We always have a good feeling after we do this. Usually, we also clean out our files, too – we are old school and still maintain actual newspaper clippings and the like – filling up a wastebasket with paper. We feel somehow rejuvenated and clean, like stepping out of a shower. It feels good to get rid of stuff.

And then we had the sudden urge to throw all of our books out… Really, we wondered, what does it matter that we keep any of this stuff?

It doesn’t matter – and it shouldn’t matter, to the absurd man.

We didn’t do it, but we were tempted. There are practical reasons to keep them, we told ourselves (perhaps in lame justification). We make our living here and ours is a working library for the most part, though there are books here whose mere spines gazing back at us, inspire.

But we thought to ourselves if we lost it all, we could and would get on just fine. And so it brings us to an important absurd point – to shun attachments, and not just material things either. It could be ideas or a sense of personal meaning.

“Our attachments are our diseases,” Henry Miller said. And he was right. It is these things that need care and feeding. They require our attention. We wrap our sense of self and surrender our equanimity when we invest in things, physical or otherwise.

This is quite a challenge for most people.

Thoreau warned long ago when he wrote it would be better if men never inherited houses and barns and land. For these things become chains. It is hard to live merrily and without care when you have these things that demand time and money and management.

Or as Tim Krieder humorously puts it, many of us fall victim to “the usual tragedies: careers, marriage, mortgages, children.” Not that the absurd man can’t do or have any of things… it’s just his mental attitude toward them is different. There is a sense of detachment.

We like what Picasso once said, “I want to live like a poor man with lots of money.” This is to say, he wanted to be relatively care-free with his money and he didn’t want to fall for the trap of having lots of things make demands on him that he would otherwise not entertain.

Tom Hodgkinson, the editor of Idler, writes approvingly of this idea: “This unmaterialistic attitude can be achieved on any income. What we need is not to care. How I love people who don’t care, those free souls, the bright of eye...”

And, we add, those absurd men…

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

But...but...last time I did not receive a piece of cake...

We have not posted in a while, partly because we felt the debate regarding the existence (or lack thereof) of personal meaning had grown a bit stale. Indeed, one of the interesting parts about this blog has been that, while there are seemingly endless topics that relate to the absurd, in many ways the stories are all the same. However, one interesting divide we think worth exploring is the issue of what is "real" versus the best way to live a contented life.

Now, we have argued ad nauseum that the self is an illusion, and the only way to logically believe in such an entity is to also believe in some "other" aspect to the world beyond the physical. This, to us, is not debatable. However, it is also the case that we cannot dismiss the notion of this "other" world out of hand. In fact, given that all experience is filtered through our human senses, we cannot ever know if we are simply brains in a vat (akin to The Matrix), or if "reality" is the work of a single consciousness (ie, solipsism).

So...we are not so interested in "truth," per se. Do we believe the self to be an illusion? Yes. But we cannot (now or ever) prove this to be the case, much as we can never prove God to be non-existent. Absence of evidence, as the saying goes, is not evidence of absence.

Thus, we are left with pursuing the best way to live a contented life. And it is here that we find the recent debate over personal meaning to be most revealing. As the defenders of personal meaning argue, the absence of universal meaning is irrelevant to their conception of individual meaning, in which they find joy and significance in their own lives. Family, comfort, good food and wine...these are some examples of things one can find personally meaningful, even if one accepts the futility of existence.

Well, as Lee Corso might say, "Not so fast, my friend!" We recently read David Foster Wallace's famed "cruise ship essay," and for those who have not read it we cannot recommend it highly enough. The nub of the piece is that the cruise ship industry is selling something tremendously alluring but ultimately undeliverable--the promise to satisfy all our desires. As he puts it:

"For this-the promise to sate the part of me that always and only WANTS-is the central fantasy the [cruise ship] brochure is selling. The thing to notice is that the real fantasy here isn't that this promise will be kept but that such a promise is keepable at all. This is a big one, this lie. (It might well be The Big One, come to think of it.) And of course I want to believe it; I want to believe that maybe this ultimate fantasy vacation will be enough pampering, that this time the luxury and pleasure will be so completely and faultlessly administered that my infantile part will be sated at last. But the infantile part of me is, by its very nature and essence, insatiable. In fact, its whole raison consists of its insatiability. In response to any environment of extraordinary gratification
and pampering, the insatiable-infant part of me will simply adjust its desires upward until it once again levels out at its homeostasis of terrible dissatisfaction."

This--the insatiability of human appetites--is the problem with personal meaning. Personal meaning, by definition, is wanting certain things over others; preferring certain states of affairs; imposing some arbitrary notion of meaning based purely on our animal instincts and prior experiences. It is the root of human unhappiness, and the source of all conflict. To want is to be unhappy; to desire is to try to control things one cannot control; to impose a hierarchical structure on things and experiences is to set oneself on a never-ending treadmill that leads only to despair.

Let us also say, to head off one obvious objection, that we of course feel such things. However, we recognize such feelings for what we believe them to be (manifestations of our physical nature), rather than seeking to imbue them with meaning. We get frustrated, angry, hungry, aroused...but we don't dwell on it. Instead, we move from moment to moment, free of the self-imposed yoke of worry and regret.

None of this is new, of course, and we close with a quote from Epictetus' 2000-year-old Enchiridion, which we also highly recommend:

"Of things some are in our power and others are not. In our power are opinion, desire (movement towards a thing), aversion (turning from a thing); and in a word, whatever are our own acts. Not in our power are the body, property, reputation, offices (magisterial power); and in a word, whatever are not our own acts. And the things in our power are by nature free, not subject to restraint or hindrance. But the things not in our power are weak, slavish, subject to restraint, in the power of others.

Remember then that if you think the things which are by nature slavish to be free, and the things which are in the power of others to be your own, you will be hindered, you will lament, you will be disturbed, you will blame both gods and men. But if you think that only which is your own to be your own, and if you think that what is another's, as it really is, belongs to another, no man will ever compel you, no man will hinder you, you will never blame any man, you will accuse no man, you will do nothing involuntarily, no man will harm you, you will have no enemy, for you will not suffer any harm.

If then you desire (aim at) such great things, remember that you must not (attempt to) lay hold of them with small effort. You must also leave alone some things entirely, and postpone others for the present. But if you wish for these things also (great things), and power (office), and wealth, perhaps you will not gain even these very things (power and wealth) because you aim also at these former things (great things)... But certainly, you will fail in those things through which alone happiness and freedom are secured.

Straightaway then practice saying to every harsh appearance: You are an appearance, and in no manner what you appear to be. Then examine it by the rules which you possess, and by this first and chiefly, whether it relates to the things which are in our power or to things which are not in our power: and if it relates to any thing which is not in our power, be ready to say that it does not concern you"

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Death - again...

“No man can be ignorant that he must die, nor be sure that he may not this very day.”

- Cicero: De senectute, c. 78 B.C.

“We pass away out of the world as grasshoppers.”

- II Esdras IV, 24, c. 100

Well, our grandfather died after a four-month long bout with cancer. The experience and conversations we’ve had around this event inspire many absurd thoughts.

For instance, death, we know, is a natural thing. It is a door that we all must walk through. We expect it. We write about it here often. Awareness of the inevitable end is a core part of the absurd. And yet, it is not something one can experience nor is it something we see much of.

Albert Camus wrote eloquently on this point. “What is blue, and how do we think “blue”? The same difficulty occurs with death,” he writes. “I tell myself: I am going to die, but this means nothing since I cannot manage to believe it and can only experience other people’s death.”

We think Camus is on to something. We have been expecting our grandfather’s death, yet when it happened, it felt… strange.

Or our mother put it, “It’s surreal… It’s like one day he is here and then, he isn’t anymore.” The sentiment begs all sorts of absurd questions – such as who was he exactly? What was he? The self, we’ve contended often, is a powerful illusion. In death, the illusion shatters like a crystal vase dropped on a hardwood floor. There is no “self,” only a body. And soon even that will disappear.

Our grandfather in his semi-absurd ways, wanted no funeral or service. He wanted to be cremated and his ashes tossed into the ocean. No headstone. Nothing. This does not sit so well with our mother. But as she says, “He was not a religious man. He believed when you died, you were dead and that’s that. He never understood why families spend so much money and time on things like a casket and a funeral.” This sounded rational to us, we thought.

There are things he left behind, of course; evidence of a life, of choices made – a closet full of clothes, old shoes and personal knickknacks of all kinds. But these are just things. The true ephemeral nature of life is starkly clear.

As Bomstein said over wheat beers and brats at Absurd HQ the other day, people are defined by their connections to other people. Our grandfather now exists as a memory only among those who knew him. Thinking of this reminds us of our own fragile existence.

His death also brings other absurd feelings more to the surface. For example, our mother gave him a watch for his birthday. It needed adjustment. Our grandfather took it to the jeweler where our mother bought the watch. They wanted to charge him something for the service unless he had the receipt. So he goes home and asks our mother for the receipt. She sends it in the mail. In the interim, he falls ill. The watch is never adjusted.

It is but a small example of one of life’s small tasks left undone. In view of his death, the triviality of the task is absolutely clear. It really does not matter now… but did it matter even before? The absurd has us answer definitively that it never mattered.

It makes us think… Think of all the things in a life that would remain undone if you were to disappear tomorrow. The garbage would not go out. The lawn would go without mowing. And that coupon you meant to use would expire.

Death casts all such things in a ridiculous light. This is not a bad light, necessarily. This is one area where people misconstrue the absurd. We are not saying the absurd man never mows the lawn or performs the day-by-day tasks of everyman. The absurd man simply knows in his mind how meaningless it all is – not just the day-to-day tasks and concerns, but the whole enchilada of life.

This doesn’t prevent him from enjoying himself. Quite the contrary, as we’ve said many times before. The absurd man finds comfort in this knowledge that all is temporary and nothing matters. He finds it freeing. It gives his life a sense of lightness and air.

This is the power of the absurd in our view. As Camus put it: “What is happiness except the simple harmony between a man and the life he leads? And what more legitimate harmony can unite a man with life than the dual consciousness of his longing to endure and his awareness of death? At least he learns to count on nothing and to see the present as the only truth given to us…”