Thursday, September 17, 2015

Coping with Crises

It has taken me several years to get to this point, perhaps the process was slowed down by not writing, reading or thinking about any of this much, but I have finally reached the point where I understand why thinkers like Nietzsche and Camus viewed Nihilism as a problem to overcome, as a disease of the mind. Up until this year I had only experienced two existential crises, the first was when I lost my faith in religion, the second when I lost my faith in meaning and purpose. Both of these were fairly short lived and gave me a renewed sense of self-determining power over my life's course. This year however I have experienced more than a few crises, not triggered by anything in my own introspection, but rather from external influences out of my control. Some have been by the actions of others affecting me, and some by events in society at large, but having a somewhat nihilistic worldview seems to predispose me to these crises, despite not having any tendencies towards depression that I am aware of.

It may not be possible to avoid a crisis when the causes are external, but there are many ways to deal with the immediate effects. First and foremost for me is to realise that it is not a unique experience, that it is actually quite common.  Secondly, I just distract myself with media, and spend time with friends.

I recently rediscovered an album (Woods 5 - by Woods of Ypres) that I had listened to quite a bit after I was attacked in a motel in the middle of the night away on a work trip (motel room door pictured). At the time it simply calmed my understandably shaken nerves. However, recently I started paying closer attention to the lyrics. Many of the tracks on the album touch on existentialist themes.

The chorus lines of the song 'Keeper of the Ledger' read as follows:
Return to the earth, pay the price for your existence
Into the hand of earth's domain
For there is balance to be maintained
 Combined with lines like this from the same song:
We create our myths of purpose,
To fill our lives with hope and wonder
But to the keeper of the ledger for the cult of nature
Your body is just... a number
To me, these lyrics lay out the existentialist (or nihilistic, if you wish) framework for understanding another song 'Travelling Alone' on the album that is about travelling to another country where the local people believe in a God. David Gold wrote:
Would I try to take away their hope?
Replace it with reality
Exchange their joy with my bleak view
And leave them miserable like me?
This cuts right to the core of what has driven me to crisis this year. In some sense I yearn for purpose, or even a hope for the future that I could realistically put my faith in, but there is nothing there. As I wrote about earlier this year about how 'God is Simply Incomprehensible to Me', I also cannot trick myself into believing in any kind of purpose or ultimate hope for the future. I'd like to think that  could be changed by evidence or argument, but until then, pessimism prevails. I wouldn't consider myself miserable like the lyric says, but I realise that my outlook is very bleak.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Where does Purpose come from?

What is the purpose of my life?

A good place to start with these questions would be to ask what is meant by purpose, and furthermore to clarify what the frame of reference is of the life. I find the question to be slightly strange when applied to a living organism. If we take the same question and apply it to a tree, a few possible answers can arise. Firstly, from an evolutionary perspective the purpose of the tree is to reproduce its genetic material. If the tree was planted by a person, we could perhaps say that the purpose of the tree is to grow and provide shelter or shade. This brings us to another relevant question, can purpose be derived independent of minds?

Do reproducing biological entities have a purpose imbued on them by simply being? Or are they deterministically following the laws of nature? I tend to find explanations of the latter kind more convincing. If purpose is defined as the 'reason for which something is done or created or for which something exists' then I cannot see how it can be applied to life or the universe as I currently understand it. If each part of the components of the definition is broken apart this becomes apparent.

What is the reason for which a tree reproduces (reproduction being the only ultimately relevant action of an organism)? A tree reproduces because its genetic material is expressed phenotypically in such a way that the tree reproduces. This then becomes circular, and it can be extrapolated backwards all the way to the origin of life. The other two components of the definition do not seem to apply, as no purpose is imbued on a given tree from its parent (the only applicable instance of 'creation' in the life cycle of a tree), which is only mindlessly following its biologically determined 'imperative' to reproduce. The final component of the definition can perhaps be applied in the instance mentioned earlier, if it was planted by a mind for a desired purpose. However this purpose is also spurious in my mind, as it could only accurately applied to the reason why the tree is in that location, or pruned in such a way, and not applied to the life of the tree itself. Even if the tree is only being kept alive by conscious effort from a mind, I do not see how purpose can be assigned to anything other than the reason for the tree's continued existence as a living organism, still not to its life as a whole.

Most of this can be applied to any other living thing on this planet, including us. Is the purpose of a human whatever its parent(s) decide for it? I doubt I would find many people to agree with that. Is it the purpose of humanity to simply reproduce, as an evolutionary imperative, like every other species out there? Again, I doubt many would agree with that. What then gives us purpose? To me, the answer is clear, nothing. Outside of our own desires there is nothing to really build a strong case for some kind of objective purpose to anything, not that a subjective preference-driven purpose is solid, far from it, but it seems to be all we really have.

God is Simply Incomprehensible to Me

Some time ago I reached a point where the idea of god isn't just something I find implausible or incorrect, but the concept is simply incomprehensible to me. I can no longer relate to the impulse or desire that other people have to believe in a supernatural being. I think I can understand why some people might believe, but the concept is so alien to me now that when people talk about their belief in a god my internal reaction is "really? how? what? why?". It is not my intention to be condescending to people that do believe and I apologise if that is the way it sounds, but this is how I feel, and I have no choice in the matter.

There is no way that I could possibly choose to believe. It would take a miracle inside my brain at this stage to even cause me to comprehend the existence of a supernatural being, let alone believe one exists. Some non-theistic people might be able to relate to these feelings I have, and perhaps theists or deists could relate to the converse, where they couldn't comprehend a universe without the existence of gods, but to bring this back to the topic of this blog, these feelings are the same feelings I have towards notions of meaning to life, purposefulness in the universe and objective value.

Curiously enough, because all of these feelings are essentially intuition, I feel like I can relate somewhat to people who hold demonstrably false beliefs. When belief (or lack of) is inculcated in one's mind so strongly, it becomes incredibly difficult to see the world through different lenses. So while belief in things like Creationism, Homeopathy and Astrology among others seem patently absurd to my mind, these things shape the way others see the world. These cognitive biases and flaws in human belief only further reinforce my unwilling lack of faith in the future of humanity. I want to believe that human progress (not technological progress) is possible, but these seemingly inherent flaws in the way our human brain functions prevent me.

This rambling train of thought was brought on by watching the following video: 'The Norden - Religion'

Saturday, March 14, 2015

Living with Nihilism

It has been well over a year since I last posted, and while I have not spent a lot of time pondering the depths of nihilistic thought, I have lived it. I've had to try to reconcile my practiced values with what I feel is the cold reality of an ultimately meaningless existence. In those terms it sounds depressing, even to me, but I haven't let this affect me. In some respects it has even been helpful. When something in life irritates me, the lack of ultimate meaning helps to deal with this by being a kind of reality-check. I make a conscious choice to not apply this same reality-check to any personal goals and accomplishments, although the thought is always in the back of my mind.

Yesterday I had a brief exchange with a friend that I wish I had elaborated more on at the time. The context was a brief conversation about limiting our own environmental impacts through conserving power usage. I simply said "meh", and they asked me if I didn't care about the environment. My response was simply that I do and I don't care. Truly, I do care, I would much prefer that we look after this planet that we live on to a much greater extent than we currently do collectively. My apathetic response was driven by two main thoughts, the first being that at some point our sun will explode and wipe out any trace of human civilization, if anything is left of it by that stage. The second thought being that our problem with consumption and environmental degradation is that it is systemic, and I have little faith that personal change, unless it comes on a grand scale will have any effect on the course we're collectively traveling on.

These kinds of thoughts are what I mean when I talk about living with nihilism. The constant need to reconcile lived values with a meaningless existence. I'm certain that people who don't subscribe to a nihilistic worldview also struggle with these exact same kinds thoughts though, so perhaps we are not so different after all

Monday, October 28, 2013

Hostility Towards Nihilists

Initially upon realising and admitting that I do not believe in ultimate value I only experienced a small amount of blow-back, and it was mostly from people that seemed to misunderstand the position. Strangely enough, the most support I received at the time was from theists. Perhaps they saw it as somewhat of a validation of their own beliefs, that without a god nihilism is the only honest conclusion a person could arrive at. However in a fairly short period of time I've encountered several instances of people expressing utter contempt for nihilism. "Nihilists don't deserve to live", or insinuating that the only honest nihilists are those that commit suicide, and other such similar statements.

What is the reason behind for such apparent hatred for nihilistic beliefs? Perhaps it stems from a sense that widespread nihilism would be threatening the stability of society? Such a sense is understandable. When I first left my religious beliefs behind years ago, I received many questions from believers asking why I don't just go around killing people without God. I never really understood such questions. I was raised in the same culture as they were, and the same (or similar) values were inculcated into me as a young child. The idea of murdering someone is incomprehensible to me. I have a strong sense of empathy, and you could say a rational fear of death, at least insofar as I enjoy living and would like to continue doing so. I still hold the core of those 'Christian values' that I was raised to believe in. Some of the details have changed considerably, and for the sake of brevity I will not go into them here, but things like the golden rule have been engrained on my conscience. All that has changed is that I now believe that those values do not have any meaningful grounding. They are to me simply pragmatic ideas that inevitably seek only to perpetuate the existence of the societies that teach them.

Perhaps however, the hostility towards nihilism is not out of a fear of what nihilistic beliefs could do to society as a whole, but instead is drawn from a fear of the ramifications for the values that the critics hold? Without armchair psycho-analysing my friends and acquaintances too much, I think this may at least contribute a bit to the level of hostility I've seen. Perhaps they fear that if there are no ultimate values, that there is no intrinsic meaning or overarching teleology their own cherished values would be without foundation. Those fears are once again completely understandable, as they would be correct in my opinion. There is no solid foundation to any value as far as I'm concerned and I'm okay with that.

To return to the idea that without ultimate values society would not be able to peacefully exist, I think I might agree at least a little bit. So while I have no intention at this stage in my life of having children, my advice to anyone who does is to indoctrinate them, euphemistically known as teaching them. If the continued existence of humankind is something that you personally value, inculcate in your children values that teach respect for others, the golden rule and other such ideals that contribute to the reproduction and continuation of society. Don't tell them that these values are without a foundation, let them figure that out for themselves later, if they ever do.

So there you have it, I hold a belief that I would not pass on to any children I might ever have. Call it self-defeating if you like. Call it elitist even, that I wouldn't trust humanity to free-float in valueless space, but am content to live peacefully in it myself. In that sense you could also call it anti-humanistic and I wouldn't necessarily disagree with you. I have very little faith in humanity to hold to the values that many believe are 'written on our hearts' by a deity, or are 'natural law', or self-evident, to quote Tim Minchin: "We're just fucking monkeys in shoes." As a product of evolution, it would be disingenuous and childish to believe that there is some kind of goodness in the collective human spirit unless you hold a teleological worldview that is, in which case it would be justifiable. Existential nihilism is the logical conclusion of any non-teleological world-view, though I'm open to critique on that. For me, this conclusion is still just a starting point. Where we go from there and how we create meaning and purpose out of meaningless and purposelessness, are the interesting questions that deserve continued open-minded consideration.

Friday, October 25, 2013

Electoral Democracy - The West's Sacred Cow

As you're probably aware, just recently the comedian Russell Brand has created some waves in suggesting that people shouldn't vote. In his interview with Jeremy Paxman, he argued that the current electoral system only serves the power elite and corporations. I don't disagree with him. However it seems many are jumping on a bandwagon, criticising him for being a wrecker. They see him as only providing negativity, wanting to tear down the established system and replace it with '???'. Russell Brand isn't claiming to have all the answers, he is simply pointing out that our system is failing us. It is failing the environment, it is failing the poor, the dispossessed, and primarily serves entrenched political and economic powers.

I have seen people say that Russell Brand's suggestion to stop voting is "dumb" and "dangerous". Why might this be? Is voting for selected candidates of the political class the only legitimate form of political expression? Are we as a society unable to accommodate alternative forms of political expression, or are people just terrified that a non-voting mass movement may de-stabilise the status-quo? I see no problems with encouraging people to not vote when they have no representation in the political establishment. After all, electoral politics is only a small part of democratic engagement, though seeing the reaction to this suggestion you would assume it was the be all and end all.

We, in the West have deified electoral democracy. It is the god of our political system. Those that criticise its efficacy at providing the best outcomes like Russell Brand become pariahs to those that seek to maintain the current political establishment. Nothing should be beyond reproach in our discourse, all assumptions should be questioned, including electoral democracy. Brand is right in pointing out that we are destroying the environment, and electoral politics is not solving it, and no solutions are brewing on the horizon. Every international meeting to try and stop catastrophic global climate change has failed, often by design, our system is not providing us with the answers. Electoral democracy is a false god.

I stand with Brand.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

The Poverty of Economics

What is the purpose of economics? To explain and describe the production and distribution of goods & services? Perhaps it is simply that. Though what good is an understanding of how trade, production and currencies work if it is divorced from an understanding of the underlying goal of the system? The study of economics has and always will be an utterly value-laden discipline, though unfortunately it seems like it is often portrayed as a disinterested 'science', only concerned with the ways things are. In reality, economic analyses always bring with them unstated assumptions. Much of modern economic policy, disguised in the language of efficiency and individual freedom (see my post on Economic Nihilism) serves to benefit those who already wield vast economic power. To adopt the language of the occupy movement, who are economies built and maintained by and for? The 99% or the 1%?

These value-laden assumptions that underlie all of economics need to be brought out into the open and laid bare. I cannot take the discipline of economics seriously unless something of a dialectical approach is brought to the fore of the public discourse. Ethical justifications that take into consideration the real world implications of economic policy and the associated patterns of distribution need to be taken into account. Economics isn't simply about impersonal forces, it isn't physics—though some pretend it is— it's about people, and so often this seems to be ignored. What good is economic growth if large portions of the population are struggling to get by?

In a discussion I was involved in on a message board this week about living wages and government funding for education, a laissez-faire capitalist argued that tertiary education should be entirely user-pays. What was his justification for this? Simply that subsidised education is a "market distortion". No other justification was given initially. This extremely value-laden justification was simply offered as an a-priori truth. "Market distortions are bad." Understandably, as this discussion was taking place in a forum where some kind of evidence is considered necessary for claims he was asked to explain why market distortion was bad. His response was that it removes the education market from its optima.

The laissez-faire capitalist mentioned in the last post was no dunce either. He's well educated and certainly has reasons for why he believes what he does (what I think of those reasons is another matter entirely), but simply offering a-priori justifications for economic beliefs as if they are based on something other than value judgements seems standard faire in modern political economic discourse. As you probably gather, I reject this paradigm entirely. The neoliberal quagmire of so-called efficiency our discourse has become trapped in needs to be abolished in favour of a much more humanistic and ethically focussed one.

Admittedly I do not devote much of my spare time to studying mainstream economics, so while these ideas seem somewhat original to me, I realise that they may have been said many times before by people much more in touch with economics than I.