A Principle Bigger Than Us All

I’ve spent the past two years writing on this blog (often not well) hoping to find some answers and hoping that maybe others would find some truth in my truth. I’ve had some pretty crazy experiences lately that have made me realize just how contracted my life has been. In these twenty four years I’ve been given the privilege of seeing and living many different kinds of lives. I’ve been the athlete. I’ve been the jock. I’ve been the ladies man. I’ve been the rock-star. I’ve been the ‘genius’. I’ve been the inspiration. I’ve been the loser. I’ve been friendless. I’ve been despised. I’ve been stupid. I’ve been the cripple and the burden. I’ve lived with hundreds of friends, and an in-tact family, and I’ve lived with zero friends and no family.

There’s this Becket quote that I like: there’s man all over for you, blaming on his shoes the fault of his feet. We always try to look for some meaning in the madness; some purpose. It’s an inherently human thing to do. We all at one point think that there is some great purpose for us;  that we’re some integral part of this grand design. We all hop we’re that special, and that’s one of those hopes that’s truly difficult to break away from, and incredibly hard to lose.

When I think about my purpose, and how ‘important’ I must be, I think about the disabled children abandoned because their parents didn’t want them; something that’s less frequent now, but incredibly common in the past. What about the kids and adults right now starving to death. What about the people slain for no reason but to satiate some sick sadistic warlord or sociopaths desires? When I think about these people I find it very difficult to see the great meaning in their lives. And I find it even more difficult to justify my desire to find one in my own.

I don’t know exactly what the future holds for me, but like everyone else I have a fairly general idea of the direction I’m headed in. I know that I’m going to have surgery on my spine to treat my Syrinx. I know that I’m going to remain disabled. I know that things are going to remain hard. When I think of my future I am stressed, but it’s not the surgery or the disability that make me feel stressed, it’s the lack of support and connection with others. And it’s the knowledge that the family I do have left aren’t going to make the world a much better place.

Recently my brother moved out, leaving me and my dog alone in this apartment. It’s made me really feel worthless, and really question the belief I used to have that I could find purpose and meaning. It was the hope that my brother would see my world and it would make him a better person that gave me purpose (I know that if I were magically cured right now I would go on to do wonderful things; the stuff that used to stress me out and prevent me from fulfilling my potential (the insecurity, the money-stress) pales in comparison to the stress of not being able to walk, or work, or really live. And so I thought perhaps it was logical to conclude that since he’s healthy, he could take that truth and completely transform his life; he could do the good things he is capable of doing). But now I  don’t know. It’s the actions that people make and the things that people believe and do that determine if the world is just and good. People make the meaning and purpose, not fate, not the ‘gods’, and certainly not ourselves. A person may be able to will themselves to greatness, but how you define greatness and the metrics you use to measure it might reveal that the greatest thing is to be good, not rich, or envied, or feared. Take the Kennedy family. Many revere them, and are inspired by them. But many people don’t know about Rose Kennedy. They had her lobotomized, and then institutionalized for life. She was very rarely visited. She was alone, to suffer and live out her existence; a causality for the greatness of others. And for what? Did the Kennedy’s change the world forever? Or was their greatness just as fleeting as the law student who passes his Bar, or my brother who gets the raise he’s been working towards.

The things we desire so much in this world are fleeting. I wanted nothing more than a nice car and fame when I was a kid. I pictured myself loved and wealthy. I am so far removed from that future I once longed for. If you had told my 14 year old self that in ten years I’d be disabled, in chronic pain, completely abandoned and alone, with too many scars to count, you would have crippled me. But I’m glad in some weird way that this has happened to me. It’s given me the privilege of seeing what it means to truly have a meaningful life. I am able to bear being sick and disabled and having such an uncertain future. I can find the good in those things and they are experiences and lives that I can use to paint a broader narrative with. It’s the lack of social connection. The lack of love and that opportunity to make someone better than yourself that comes with being in a family that makes me feel like nothing matters and I can’t possibly move on.

If my life has some purpose perhaps it’s to share that one small truth: being good (moral and virtuous – loyal, empathetic, temperant, prudent, just) and investing your future in others is the thing we need most in this life, and the thing we cannot live without. We can survive, and often thrive, without painlessness, without mobility, and without health. We cannot survive for very long (and we cannot really, truly thrive) without the meaning and the purpose relationships and connection to and with good people provides. It sucks going through hard things alone. But it sucks infinitely more going through them needlessly. Like Rose Kennedy, I don’t have to go through this stuff. It’s not actually going through it that stings the most (like I said before, humans are incredibly resilient), it’s the reason why I have to go through it that does. And that reason is the reason why people feel like the world is a harsh place filled with meaningless suffering. For me, that reason is that my brothers don’t understand that being good and moral means being there for others. It means just supporting them and loving them; calling them when they’re ill, trying to help them, and trying to learn from them. So that they can feel better, so that I can feel better, yes, but also so that anyone could feel better. It’s the principle that matters, not my particular happiness. It’s that my brothers don’t grasp that principle that makes me feel like my life is pointless and thus that life is pointless (their lives included, especially). I want to be happy, but I want them to want me to be happy more. Not just for me, but because it’s the right thing. I want them to get that one point. That being strong means going through hard things but remaining good. That the glory we can achieve in this life and the purpose we can find in some grand picture of some complex design cannot matter if there are people who are left in our wake starving, dying, and being killed. We can’t prescribe universal rights unless everyone has access to them. The world is harsh and life is often very difficult and unforgiving, but if people are good, and get that one main principle (being moral, and virtuous and supporting and learning from others) than even the most apparently meaningless fate can be transformed into the most meaningful one.

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Fear, ‘The Unknown’, and Disability: why I think militant atheism sucks.

I’ll admit I used to be a staunch supporter of Richard Dawkins’ particular style of militant atheism. Like many people, I read the God Delusion, and the Selfish Gene, and if I’m being totally transparent, I bought every bigoted, elite word offered. After chewing on the gristle of Dawkins doctrine,  I upgraded to Sam Harris, and found the same whitewashed arguments presented with less elegance.

I would watch hours of debates featuring Hitchens or Krauss, Dawkins or Harris. But eventually (thankfully) the spell wore off and I became aware of a new troubling set of questions .

I’m not religious. I am probably an atheist (I don’t like the term, but it best describes my worldview, in respect to the divine). But I don’t think it’s justified, or logical, or defensible to say that religion is useless and everyone who believes its many forms is denying their rational mind and ultimately hurting the species (“in certain situations it’s tolerable”, but even still the subtext reads “here lies an idiot”.)

It took losing everything for me to lose that arrogance. It took losing a family that was never there for me, losing my mobility, my health, my friends, my entire world. It took extreme suffering for me to see how absolutely childish and absurd these Atheists are. They have a philosophy by the elite for the elite. They’ve never known the kind of pain that strips you down and leaves you in existential terror. I’m not trying to subtly reduce theology to ‘fear-driven fantasy-creation’. In fact, those simple, incomplete arguments are precisely what I’m trying to say is wrong.

Being disabled has afforded me some fantastic opportunities to look behind all the smoke and mirrors. But those are insights that are not rightfully guaranteed to all who suffer disability. I’ve had a unique life, and thus some unique insights presented themselves to me. What we are all (the disabled) guaranteed to experience/ learn is humility. Being disabled is a humbling experience. Imagine everyday being told by society that you’re pitiful –  if not actually outright, then through social isolation, exclusion, and non-verbal gestures and cues (which show more pity and disdain than someone screaming ‘you’re worthless’ ever could). The corollary of this is that we feel no real authority to tell you that you should believe the ideology and doctrines that we believe.

As I see it, ( as broken as I am) telling someone they can’t believe in God because doing so makes them intellectually weak and shameful is probably one of the most common and morally reprehensible things these great Atheists -‘on the vanguard of humanism‘- do. And unfortunately, their  attitude has seeded and created a culture around shaming anyone who doesn’t only accept hard science (it’s like we’ve gone back in time three hundred or so years).

Religion doesn’t shun the disabled or the sick. Fundamentally, liberation theology affirms the lives of the disadvantaged. Religion gives people hope and safety and lets them feel self-worth. These people often live the hardest lives. And it frustrates me almost as much as it saddens me that these great Atheists not only get away with hurting (in their own words, far from mine) ‘the disadvantaged’, but they feel such fundamental moral authority from start to finish – no matter how many casualties.

These Atheists, who deny the authority of art and music and philosophy because ‘hard science’ knows all. I’m a science major, as well as a philosophy major. My great-uncle revolutionized film and founded Kodak. I get the practical value and the historical legacy of science, but these Atheist scientists have created a new religion. One that tells you how to think, shames you for being different, and says anything which isn’t science is a unique curiosity at best, and a useless waste of time at worst. It isn’t the class of belief that makes them religious, it is the approach: that substantiating their method means everything else is wrong ( even things which they know little about but deny because of personal bias (like the creationist denying evolution who thinks not being able to sexually reproduce with monkeys disproves evolution). Most importantly though, they brazenly trivialize the only thing powerful enough to imbue hope and meaning in the lives of people truly suffering (often the disabled – specifically the chronically ill).

As a chronically ill, disabled person, I do not feel like the culture of science is serving my needs. I am more grateful than I can express to medicine, medical advances, and the scientists who are working to cure my disease, and many others like it. But if this new movement towards a science centered society is for the betterment of society, you would think that it should first help those people who feel most left behind. Being really sick, and suffering to an extreme degree, for a long period of time, allows you to deconstruct what you thought were ‘the truths of life’. When you lose everything that usually brings you joy, and when you are separated from culture and society long enough to lose those conventions too, you quickly learn what matters most by what fundamentally helps you the most. Religion in itself doesn’t help me personally, but the freedom to be religious, without persecution (from other religious people who may have a different take, or from atheists) does; valuing human dignity more than thought tokens and belief systems. Relationships, love, and moral duty make me feel more safe and more happy than the joys of getting drunk, partying, eating junk food or even the rigors of scientific research ever, ever could. Those things don’t help me: getting drunk, partying, eating junk food, researching and experimentation, don’t make me feel better. Knowing that everyone is equal, by virtue of our shared existence, knowing that to be smart means to be humble does make me feel better.

I have a very Nietzschean view of suffering, so I personally don’t think that being in pain is inherently bad. What I do think is intolerable wrong, if not ‘the opposite of good’ as well, is telling people what to think and why. Lawrence Krauss never studied philosophy, and yet he claims to know that Philosophy doesn’t really help anyone and isn’t all that necessary. How can someone not know something, yet know that it’s not helpful or important? How can someone so inherently ignorant, as all humans (past and present) are, with omniscience tell us that although the seas ahead are unknown, this is the direction we obviously have travel. And how can he, a man who knows relatively little about the raw experience of substantial persistent suffering, know what’s best for me without consulting people like me?

The rhetorical overtones are obvious: he can’t. But this is the way these men operate. The claim often lauded by atheists is that theism is a belief system requiring faith in place of actual evidence. Of all the unknowns, knowing what a person thinks and knows is the atomic clock to unknown. The empirical evidence, the facts science produces, are only part of what informs  what a person thinks and knows. The sweeping evidence-objection generally appears to them as though it is consistently accurate – it produces predictive results. The inaccuracies, however, are created when that data is interpreted; which is often on the fly, with limited attention, and rarely in an emotionless atmosphere. Religion is more than fear-driven fantasy-creation; the fear-driven part is only a part of its origin. Without sparking a new divergent conversation about the history of theology, it’s enough to say that the value of religion, as I see it (as an atheist), is in the expression of the values we all should stand for – and which most do. Respecting someone’s beliefs not because you agree with the evidence or theory, but because you respect a persons rights and freedoms, and you recognize the complexity of their experience as an unknown variable.

Neo-Atheists like Dawkins and Krauss are as ignorant as we all are. Yet unlike most of us, they have this overwhelming sense of power, given to them by a culture which defies science and anyone who studies it. That subjective experience of power deludes them into thinking they’re wholly qualified for leadership, and they shape the public consciousness to match their ideologies all the way to the top.

Sorry if this rant was a little disconnected. I’ve just been really struggling with making sense of these feelings for a while. And I thought perhaps my disabled compatriots would get what I’m trying to say most.

Personhood and Applied Ethics

An application of mathematical principles requires a basic understanding of the purpose of mathematics, and the function of mathematics. But more than that,across-the-universe it requires knowledge of when and where to apply mathematics – to what problems, and to what end. It also requires an almost intuitive understanding that it’s most basic principles correspond to the natural world.

Math is written into the universe; it is a natural law. The system of principles and axioms we call the Science of Mathematics, is in it’s most basic form, a reliable problem solving strategy (for most people, it’s a way to solve problems). When we engage in mathematics, we realize that we are a part of the systems we’re studying – in likeness, and more often than not, in function. Within our awareness is an innate capacity to observe and understand these mathematical truths. This capacity transcends awareness of the science of mathematics: we are able to ‘do math’ without having ever opened a text-book.

The same I believe is true of morality. I believe morality to be a natural law. Unfortunately for the sake of that statement, I cannot reliable draw parallels between morality as a natural law and math as a natural law. Math doesn’t go wrong; the constants of the universe, as we are told repeatedly by theists, are fine-tuned. Certainly there are probably theoretical cases of math going wrong, but my ignorance leads me to believe that if they exist, they are far from common – and probably the result of our own misunderstanding of the antecedent problems from which they apparently arise. Math doesn’t betray us, but morality does.

Morality isn’t written into the universe in the same way that math is; and so it might seem odd that I’m calling it a natural law. Christians believe that morality is written into the fabric of our universe, but the fall of man broke the world and everything in it; man still retains the capacity for libertarian free-will and moral reasoning, but the world doesn’t follow those moral constants in the same way that it follows mathematical ones.

But even with that admission fresh in my memory, I still have no problem saying that morality is a natural law. Morality is, in it’s most basic form, a reliable problem solving strategy. The problem morality solves for is a universal constant: the problem of suffering. We are guaranteed two things in this life: personhood, and suffering. We are aware of our own suffering, and unlike mathematics, which exists without our awareness, morality doesn’t. It may appear that I’ve contradicted myself, but give me a chance to defend my thesis – I have thought about this a great deal.

The moral precept isn’t well-being – it can’t be. Because well-being depends upon something else (functionally, and theoretically). Well-being can be evaluated biologically as flourishing (and in all the other ways, as maximizing potential within a system). Our assessment of well-being, though, requires us to match well-being with suffering. That is to say, it requires us to take an individual, posit the maximal good (flourishing) it could be likely to achieve, and compare that with where it is in the present moment. Or, (and more often than not) it requires us to look at where an individual is, and posit the maximal suffering it could experience. In either case, well-being requires suffering. Going forward then, it makes sense to use suffering as our moral precept. Not only does flourishing require an individual not to suffer, but suffering is a universal constant; the natural constants in our universe predict suffering, always.

Morality functions as a way to get us towards well-being and away from suffering. The big question has never been why, it’s been how. Well, it’s not practically functional to use well-being as the standard qualifier of moral action (that an action is moral if it increases well-being, and ammoral if it does nothing). This is because definitions of well-being can vary wildly between organisms, people, groups – you name it. Secondly, there are different areas to measure well-being. So which area do we give primacy? Is it existential well-being, physical well-being, mental well-being. Or is it all? Thirdly, who decides when well-being is being negatively affected, and when it has been achieved? It can’t be universal, because people have many different expectations of what well-being means. It can’t be left to the individual, because often people may be objectively unaware of what is ‘best for them’. Then you run into the problem of ego (telling someone you know what’s good for them), civil rights, and the potential for abuse. So what, if any, is the alternative?

Well, what if we could still utilize the moral truths given to us by brilliant men like Nietzsche, Kant and Sarte, even though the moral theories they have proposed have fallen out of fashion and haven’t proven to be practically effective – all you have to do is walk outside and talk to a few peole, or even observe, to find out that their hard-work hasn’t been applied very consistently in the lives of most people. I think we can.

So morality is born of a need to combat chance and suffering (the degree of a persons suffering as dependant on who they were born to, where they were born, how most importantly, how other people around them treat this individual person, and what type of environment they create). We combat suffering for ourselves, but the only way to do that, is to combat suffering for everyone (present and future generations; people born, and people not yet born). Suffering is a universal constant. In order to combat suffering, we have to combat all of suffering, for people. Given that you could be born to any person, in any place, you have to be guaranteed that the morality (as a method of combating suffering and chance) will apply to you equally. Luckily, the other natural constants of the universe (the ‘sciences’) work in our favour. We know that every new person can only be born in the future, or in the present. No new person can be born in the past. If they could then it’s possible our morality would fail them (and morality as defined by different means, our morality could theoretically thus be immoral). I haven’t given this a lot of thought, given that this idea just popped into my head, but if we agree that a new person can only be born in the present or the future, than it remains a very meta problem.

So, the moral theory has to apply to persons, not just to ourselves. The moral philosophy applies to person-hood, then; rather than to any individual person. Consequentialism defines moral action based upon the consequences of an action. For example, utilitarians like Mills believe that if the consequence of an action increases the general good (well-being) and provides the most amount of happiness, it is moral. But this theory doesn’t address the underlying issue of chance, because it still views individuals as separate unique entities. We feel justified in eating animals, killing bugs, and generally decreasing the well-being of the earth, because we are so separate and unique from the earth. Similarly, people believe that they are separate and unique from each-other. We are unique and separate, but in ways not determined by chance. Utilitarianism doesn’t address this huge gulf that exists between most conscious people. People think of themselves as entirely separate from other people. That’s not the case – and most rational people, given enough time and enough examples, would agree to this. But that we’re not so different doesn’t disable this thing inside most people telling them that they are. And it’s that belief in some almost metaphysical difference, that ‘I am different than you’, that causes a lot of suffering – and a lot of unethical choices. Furthermore, there’s nothing ultimately protecting you against the existential suffering you feel at the hands of meaningless suffering – the type of suffering utilitarianism allows.

An action is good if it increases well-being, and bad if it doesn’t. But if it’s bad, that really sucks for you – we’ll try and do better next time. For some people, there is no next time. The very fact that some people are born into suffering, and suffer for the duration of their lives, is unjust and re-introduces this need for a more comprehensive moral system – an applied ethics that addresses the very idea of existence, not just bad things that happen after you already exist.

If you haven’t guessed it by now, I’m proposing that we use person-hood as the unit of measurement. That what is moral is moral for all persons, and that what is moral combats against suffering and chance. That chance thing is important. Because we can decide what is moral for a specific action, and a specific situation (like stealing from someone), but doing so without also helping people who have suffering by chance, is immoral and impractical. It’s immoral because we are leaving people to suffer. And it’s impractical, because you could be anyone – you could have been anyone. Our moral theories not only apply to us, they apply to those to come. A moral system has to be consistently effective for everyone.

We are very tied in to our own existence, so it may seem counter intuitive to say something like ‘you could have been anyone’. Strictly, that’s not true, but if you view yourself as having person-hood (being a person, not just being a person), then it does.

Looking from the point of person-hood allows us to apply our moral reasoning to lives other than our own – it allows us to see other types of experiences, and introduces us to many huge problems many people face. As those problems become more familiar, and we start to reflect on what is right and wrong and just, we start to realize that those problems are our problems, and are everyone’s problems. Because if you’ve been fortunate enough not to have been born in a poor country, to incredibly horrible and abusive parents, with a disability, for example, common sense justice and ethics make sense to you. And trying to just ‘put yourself in another persons shoes’ is too difficult and ultimately ineffective – it requires you to find someone specific, talk to them, sift through their suffering with your own bias, and the number of times you can do that is limited, and whatever information you glean is limited to yourself (how can you disseminate it if the method of obtaining it is as important to the new understanding, as the understanding?).

When you separate yourself from your ego, and your well-being, or your suffering, you can see yourself as just one of a type of consciousness. You can see yourself as a person and make moral decisions that apply to person-hood, rather than a (individual, unique) person.

That’s where I stand. That’s something I see as very important to moral understanding. Other moral theories don’t work universally because they don’t take person-hood into account – or that they don’t give it primacy. They apply to groups of people, or individual people, not to the idea of people. We’re guaranteed suffering, and the degree of suffering is largely dependent on chance. You (as acting for someone, or) as someone who could be born in the future, or is being born now, have a very basic need for a way to combat this suffering, and this chance. In order to meet that need, you have to meet that need for every possible person. In order to meet that massive need, you simply have to meet the needs of the idea of a person. From there, you can make rational moral decisions for others, you can act morally in your life, and you can have a way to solve moral problems that arise in the world (whether at random by chance, or by individual people acting in ‘evil’ ways).

Genetically enhancing our genome won’t do. Guaranteeing food supplies and a safe environment for individual people won’t do. We can’t just make a world where everyone who may come into it, has an equal chance, without acting for person-hood, rather than meeting the needs of every single possible person as they come and as those needs arise.

I’m afraid I may be doing a poor job explaining, so I will come back to this again. If it doesn’t make sense, just think about it. We’ve all had intuitions, thoughts like ‘why did I have to be born to you. I don’t think that we have a soul. I just think that humans are very similar. We don’t have the gap between us that we have between other animals – not really. That gap that we see exists in our minds (as a product of religious teaching, ignorance, social and cultural factors etc…). We are capable of putting ourselves in others shoes, because we are capable of putting ourselves in all ‘shoes’. Given the right circumstances, you could find yourself in many, many unpleasant situations. And you could find yourself developing into someone you would never picture yourself as – given the right conditions. An ethical theory that serves the fortunate first, and the consequences of our actions second, ultimately serves nobody.

We see this in the world – you just have to walk outside, talk with someone, or observe. The world is broken, but we have a contingency to generally safeguard against massively immoral actions. We don’t have a contingency to safeguard against chance – or at least, to guard against meaningless suffering. The hardest part about seeing suffering isn’t  the fact that due to our biology (mirror neurons, memories etc…) we can experience others’ suffering, it’s an unconscious recognition that ‘this is how it’s always going to be’. That recognition, braids meaninglessness into life. It’s that meaninglessness, that unncessary yet somehow unavoidable suffering that produces what I believe to be the worst feeling we could possibly feel. People sometimes say that emotions are relative – citing some post-singularity sci-fi A.I. conscious logic machines as reference to living within a world of suffering unnaffected. But I don’t believe that; I don’t think it’s possible not to feel something when confronted with that thought that some suffering is meaningless. But for the first time in my life, I don’t feel that way. It’s a tragedy that people have died so unjustly – not just people, but animals, and species, and things we never could have imagined. Because there is an answer. That answer is rational, and applies always. We don’t need a God to have absolute Justice, or to defend us against the fortunate, strong, hard-evil Chance and suffering occasionally create. We just need the idea of person-hood, and people. So long as there are people, there will be morality and justice.

I was just watching the second season of House of Cards. In a moment of sincerity Francis Underwood turns to the Camera – a personification of his psychotic ego-self – and says ‘… for those of us climbing to the top of the food chain, there can be no mercy. There is but one rule: hunt or be hunted’. The message is alarmingly clear, and it’s one we hear all of the time. The fortunate elite who resist any ethic of compassion or empathy, betray themselves. The need to hunt is a product of being hunted. You hunt, because you fear being hunted. Others hunt, because they recognize you’re hunting, and fear being hunted. Which in turn, affirms the belief. What they take as sophistication and superiority, is just impractical and ineffective weakness – and immoral. They all have their emotions, their own suffering. Sustaining a sadistic self-centered ethic is impossible; what they end up effecting, is a broken shadow of the theme they marry with their story. Anything that is ‘immoral’, that hurts others, can be broken down and demonstrated as false. Replacing what is broken is the hard part – and knowledge of a replacement almost always needed before most people will even consider taking on these power structures (eat or be eating ethics and their real-life benefactors).

These power structures exist as ideas too; they are ideals and the people who follow them always fall short. It’s the ideal that keeps them afloat; the idea.

Morality is a natural law not because it’s as obvious and consistently observable as physical constants, but because it fits perfectly with the physical constants that shape our universe.

A Moral Sketch of Psychopaths

In psychopathy intention plays an integral role in the observers evaluation of the moral weight of the psychopaths actions.

So a psychopath slices and dices a person up. Is the psychopath wrong. Well, consequentialism would tell us yes, duty would tell us yes, and so would utilitarianism.

But, his motives may have been largely determined. Such that, an incapacity for moral autonomy decreases the ethical weight of motive in the context of an ethical crime.

This understanding of a psychopaths moral autonomy only serves the purpose of developing the idea of choice. That choice depends upon many different things. For psychopaths, the choice is comparatively very narrow.

Living things have certain biological needs. Humans have a biological need to eat. That need is reflected in us evolutionarily as a desire (explain complexity of that need-desire relationship). Yet we only call eating in certain contexts a ‘choice’.

A choice is presented when there are two or more options, reflected in one or more alternatives. In respect to people eating, there aren’t generally any choices (irrespective of feeding tubes, liquid diets, supplements etc…). The alternative to not-eating increasingly grows in complexity, leading up to fatality. If you choose not to eat once, the consequence is hunger. So the options are ‘don’t eat’ or ‘eat-later’, or ‘be hungry’ (without any plans to eat later). The third choice, is almost never a choice – because eating is a need, the third option represents an implicit understanding or admission that food si readily available, and so the choice to eat has still been made (eating later). If you repeatedly ‘chose’ not to eat, over time, you will suffer and eventually die. So in that sense, eating isn’t a choice, it’s a need.

Needs are reflected in people internally as a very compelling requirement – as a non-option (you have to do it). If you were to apply the same logic used above for ‘choice’ to ‘needs’, for the individual the options would be: a) fulfill need-requirement, or b) die. Needs represent vital biological requirements an individual must meet to survive. They are quantifiable in the life of an organism. If the needs aren’t met, there are consistent, and obvious biological implications. (There are social needs as well, but we don’t have to get into them for this explanation.). Needs are the function nature uses to awake awareness within an organism or individual.

It’s possible that for some people, certain things are biologically encoded as needs which do not represent a vital biological requirement, but are gross exaggerations of other needs taken to extremes. For instance, we can all agree that organisms have needs that positively increase with the organisms complexity, the communities complexity and the complexity of it’s environment. So things like ‘competition’ which isn’t a vital biological requirement to keep an organism alive in isolation, become vital needs in the context of a community. In certain environments (most, actually) competition is required for survival. Other needs will then act on that need depending on the environmental cues. If food is at stake, the need for competition increases. If a mate is at stake, the need for competition increases. Those needs then will evolve into requiring other needs. So aggression becomes a need in certain circumstances. (These needs can be represented giving increasing and decreasing primacy (primary, secondary etc…)

 

In psychopaths, it’s been consistently demonstrated that certain things distinguish them from any average representative in a given population of humans. They tend to be male, have a reduction in non-verbal communication, empathy, cortical dysfunctions (prefrontal cortex and amygdala), higher-than-normal levels of testosterone (there are other correlates as well) as well as certain personality traits (narcissism, a-social, detachment etc…). What all of these things share in common is that they express a decrease in the individual for a capacity of what we would call ‘free-choice’. To the Psychopath, killing, hurting, is a need. It comes at a cost – ‘choosing’ is as compelling as eating.

In the psycopath, choice is subjectively, as well as objectively, expressed far differently than in the general population. This effect has a noticeable effect on psychological functioning, on survival, on mental health and well-being, on happiness, and on morality. It’s grossly dysfunctional, but in the context of morality, whether or not the psychopath can be judged as similarly as a ‘normal’ average person (a morally autonomous individual) is still up for debate. This is particularly confusing giving the extreme weight of the moral violations which are so common to psychopaths. The crimes represent moral polarities, and so the need for conviction in our moral outrage is high. But I think this added complexity needs to be matched with added complexity – if we’re to establish some equilibrium. Or else we risk losing sight of our moral philosophy and the principles that cement it to our reality.

For a psychopath, the intention to do harm is not present like it would be in someone like myself. I understand the consequences of a wrong action, and so if I am motivate just to hurt someone, than I am intending to be immoral. For psychopaths, it’s much different.

How Can an Atheist Know Morality (This is a rough first edition – an active work in progress).

Much like probably everyone else last night I was watching the big Bill Nye debate. I found it very compelling, and very entertaining. I have gone to Christian schools my whole life, so I’m quite familiar with the creation worldview and quite familiar with the frustration Bill was probably feeling many times during what oddly seemed like a short few hours.

I applaud Mr. Nye for keeping his cool the whole time. He remained incredibly respectful, incredibly generous, courteous, and empathetic the entire time – even with Ken Ham frustratingly admitting (indirectly) that his beliefs are tautological (that is, that he can never be proven wrong, and that everything can be evidence that he’s right). What perplexes me is this fear that without religion you lose morality – that you lose a moral authority. Ironically, it was the Atheist  who was the most kind, compassionate, courteous and respectful – never poking jabs at his opponent, just respectfully at his theory (carefully choosing words like ‘remarkable’ rather than many other adjectives)

I have had a very complicated life. The evidence of that is all over this blog; I have a rare genetic disease, I spend almost all of my time alone (having been forgotten by most people, and abandoned by others). I am in constant pain, and my own survival is always at stake. My worth as a human is questioned on a daily basis. It frightens and worries me that a huge portion of society (almost half, according to many polls) believes that there comes a point where a human loses all value, and it is permissible to leave them to suffer alone – if not to directly terminate their existence. So I agree with Mr. Ham and his colleagues that his world does need morality. I just also agree with Mr. Nye that the Christian narrative just doesn’t seem to be true – at all. And thus that Religion cant be the source of our Moral Authority (even if that means quite uncomfortably temporarily losing sight of objective moral Universalism).

As you can imagine, my life as been spent preoccupied with this question of morality. I have spent the better part of two years studying moral philosophy and thinking about these moral problems. This idea that you cannot have morality without a God is just not true – it is based on a very incomplete understanding of moral philosophy. But where does that leave us?

Well… my worldview is based on the idea that you and I are so equal that we are as individuals fundamentally indistinguishable. It is from that understanding (that intuition we all have at one point, that ‘I could have been you and you could have been me’) of equality that we can reconcile our drive for selfishness and self-preservation with a complex (and ever growing) moral philosophy. We are always going to give primacy to our own self interest, but when you breakdown what that means philosophically, and what it means to exist, and how we differ in existence, you’ll see (I hope) that our best interest is always everyone’s best interest (and in that way, our best interest is always taken care of). There are many problems I’m going to work through below, but for those of you who don’t want to read a four and a half thousand word essay, that’s the long and short of it (It’s like a moral game-theory).

Regarding morality and ethics the prime unit of measurement has to be the individual. That’s a claim I’ve been mentally upholding for a long time – and all of the experiences I’ve had in-between have further confirmed that proposition.

What do I mean by ‘individual’? That’s an important question and an even more important distinction. Most people have some intuitions concerning what certain things are right and certain things are wrong. The standard way we generally evaluate the ethical weight of some action (or inaction) is by the effects it has on an individual or a group of individuals. For example, we know that punching a person in the face is wrong if the individual is innocent, and undeserving of vigilante justice. But the fundamental problem with viewing the individual as something other than oneself is that when you apply more complicated problems to the theory you find massive inconsistencies. For example, treating your children better than a stranger. Another example is the problem of disability and dependence.

Concerning the latter most people generally agree that if a person is absolutely dependant than they should not be left to suffer. And while that may seem logically appealing, for me the statement is lost in the nuance. What happens if your child happens to be disabled. Are you acting specifically with their best interest in mind, as an ‘individual’, or are you concerned more with your best interest as an individual? What if you have a hospital of disabled persons, wouldn’t it make more sense for the larger population if this small group were ‘put out of their misery’ (the greater good). What about problems like laziness and self-induced obesity (not caused directly by a medical condition)? Do those fall in the same category as well?

I’m not suggesting that those in charge of domestic and foreign policy will fall down that slippery slope, because many of those problems are superficial and easily remedied with many conventional ethical theories and commonsense morality. But the public, the ‘mass’, make judgements about people very day, and that public has a greater impact on the moral consciousness of a society than the few educated individuals who have spent the better part of their lives struggling to find answers to some of lifes most complicated questions.

If you come across a sign posted beside a rail system (GO transit, for example) which says ‘do not cross the tracks’, do you follow it always. You know that crossing the tracks is dangerous, not only mortally for yourself, but mentally for the engineer, and for the bystanders, and for the lawyers and the owners of the land and the station. A morally autonomous person would likely conclude that the reasons for following the ‘law’ are greater than the reasons for not following it. The reasons you wouldn’t follow being there are no visible trains in sight, you’re the only person on the platform, you’re not likely to cause anyone harm or yourself any harm. This is a difficult problem most of us are faced with on a daily basis, and a difficult decision we are also all faced with probably at one time or another (J-walking, for example).

So other than the harm you’d cause why shouldn’t you cross the tracks where a sign telling you not to do so is posted and clearly visible? Most people, in my experience, don’t really have an adequate answer to this problem. They might say that crossing isn’t really a big deal then, if no one is watching (like the ‘if you’re in the middle of the Country, do you run a red?).

There are situational requirements for violating a ‘law’ and there are direct consequences for violating a law. But these laws don’t say ‘if the go is clear, cross; otherwise, don’t). The laws appear Universal.

One of the reasons for that is that the person making the rule can’t successfully predict every possible situation in which the rule would have to apply. So the rule has to be general enough to accomplish its goal (the safety of people etc…) and be clear and easily followable. So perhaps it appears Universal because that’s the only safe way to generally ensure everyone’s safety.

Another reason is that if it weren’t Universal, who would get to interpret and choose who is allowed to break the law and who is not. IN road law, police officers have some say in determining how sever a ticket should be (in regards to speeding). Regarding a platform and a train, things are more dangerous and much more complex. For instance, say there is no train in sight on your track, but that you accidentally took the wrong set of stairs, and your train is coming on another track. The space between the two platforms is separated only by your visibly empty track, which is no more than seven feet wide. It would only take a few seconds to cross, should you cross? Well there is no immediate danger to crossing the track for you, or for the conductor or the people in the train-station-environment. What if there were two of you? What if you were a father with his two kids, or with his wife and a small child? What if you were a larger group of ten? Do those greater numbers change the complexity of the situation enough so that what would once appear to be an innocuous jump seems like it’s the wrong decision? It appears, for most, that they do.

Part of the reason these rules need to be Universal is because they must set a precedent for large groups. If one person crosses, then that means others can cross. Eventually it’s possible that crossing the tracks seems incredibly innocuous and it becomes commonplace. What if you’re feeling extra bold, and there is a rain in sight and yet you still cross. What if you twist your ankle? What if you have a heart attack? What if you drop a wallet, your keys, and your phone. You can’t predict every possible situation before you make an action so it’s generally safer to just take the time to walk around and follow the rules.

What does any of this have to do with individuals in the context of morality? Imagine you are a soldier preparing for battle. You’re young, your brothers in arms are young, you’re inexperienced and afraid. You’re forced into a life-threatening situation. IN order for you to succeed, as an individual, it seems plausible that the best chance you have is to run, or to hide and shy away from the fighting. Surely not fighting will ensure you’re chances of survival with a high degree of predictable success. But your cowardice depends open others sacrificing their lives for you, or on others courage. You’re an individual, and you don’t want to die. What if you’re a leader of a group of soldiers in the same battle. You know what’s at stake (lets say the enemy is particularly vile and must be defeated). How do you win when your soldiers are so afraid. Is there a high degree of predictability?

There’s this great scene in this old war movie where this group of soldiers is resting against an embankment waiting to attack and ambush the enemy. Every soldier has accepted the ‘life is better than death’ approach to warfare, and they all think it’s a waste of energy to try to be heroic. They are pressured by social norm not to run away (most of them), but they are none to happy about the risk. One soldier is incredibly heroic. He talks about how important it is to fight until the last breath. One of his friends looks at him and says ‘what is one man against an army’? It’s true; what can one man possibly do to an army of man-collective? It’s possible he’s some incredibly dynamic super soldier, and he may be capable of winning the battle. But in a greater sense, his critics seem to be right; eventually he will die, his life won’t mean anything. In the context of the battle, he is a hero among regular mortals.

I used to struggle with this question all of the time. IN the film, that hero doesn’t really end up doing a whole lot (I think he actually dies). I was waiting the whole time for him to transform into some herculean hero. I wanted him, as an individual, to do something great.

It was until recently that I’ve understood what the answer may be.

Instead of viewing that hero-soldier as one rare individual, why not view him as representative of the idea of a soldier; and in that way, of every soldier. Such that, if every soldier was heroic, than the burden of heroism would depreciate into almost non-existence. Sure, that heroism comes at an increased risk, but only marginally. Because unlike choosing to be a hero because you’re an individual who happens to be unique, or choosing to hide from conflict because you value your particular life, or choosing to kill off or leave behind a disabled person or someone of burden (convicts), the choice to see your own uniqueness in the light of this idea of person-hood permeates into every area of your life, and adds predictive success to every ethical decision and problem.

If you consider everyone else as different from you only on the basis of the idea of person-hood then most of these problems are solvable.

Our moral theories, among other things, solve for an uncertainty. We have a problem, we have intuitions about a viable solution, and we act in an uncertain environment. When the parameters of change increase and decrease in relation to the change in environment, for the public, our ethical theories come up short; there is always a degree of risk, and there is always a degree of chance, and most people haven’t worked through the problems enough to develop a cohesive moral philosophy.

If you choose to torture someone to save many, would you do it? Most would say yes. But why is the majority important? Simply because more lives are important? Well that’s not really a case of right and wrong, that’s a case of what will help us survive. To go back to the hero-soldier, each person is unique according just to themselves, then is the majority really any better? Does an individuals value reside in chance and luck (to be born in X time with X skills according to X genes)? Do we torture that person for children to come? (As perhaps happened to get each individual here in the first place?). If you look at the group of people as sharing this thing we call ‘humanity’ and judge their worth according to the idea of a human, rather than luck, than each individual matters as much as the other one – and in that case, the human you’re going to torture is as inherently valuable as the one’s you’re aiming to save. If you don’t see it that way, and you choose to torture him, than no one is safe (it’s logical to assume that your goal is safety, but it’s also logical to assume that if certain conditions were met you could potentially be the person-tortured. And in that way, everyone can be the person tortured and our worth hangs loosely according to chance – along with our morality.

Lets just take a moment to consider the value of a person according to the individual-model.

In this model it’s suggested that a person’s value is unique to them; and as such, everyone’s value is different. The moral weight of an action is individual to each person. This doesn’t determine morality to be totally subjectively relativistic, but rather it lends itself to a certain degree of relativism (it is possible to hold conflicting ethical theories that are still both true in particular contexts – that is, that they both effect some positive (moral) outcome with relative predictive success). But many who accepted this model of morality also belief that a person is capable of carving out their own worth according to their will and their unique control of their actions. It is in the everyday actions that moral relativism seems to reign supreme (you might say something rude to someone, which to an objective universalist would be immoral, and yet you still may be qualified in one circumstance to say that rude thing, or that you may be hurting so much that the intention to harm was never present, such that you’re less autonomous etc…). So a person’s value is dependent upon luck, and also upon their capacity for self-growth and will.

The aim of most moral theories is to establish what is right and wrong. In a less complex system, most moral theories work. But when you add complexity, that complexity requires your moral theories to be increasingly complex (such that the predictive success of your moral theory remains constant). Moral theories have to apply equally and consistently to each individual. If they don’t, then they don’t apply to anyone – they apply to the environment. (Because it’s logical to assume that it’s probable a person could by chance become one of the persons for whom the moral theory doesn’t help). Also, a moral theory can’t produce moral inconsistencies. That is, a moral theory based upon utilitarian ideals can’t be true and yet allow for a circumstance in which it’s permissible morally to harm innocent persons – to the point of severe suffering, disability, or especially death. (It’s important to note that the moral theories we have are always up for augmentation and change; and new problems which require change, force us to change the moral theory. This is another reason why people are so important – because people determine morality; and our morality has to serve all people, or else it serves only a few (or a majority) and is thus immoral (for explanation see: the ‘idea of a person’ above)

Lets take for instance the case of traumatic brain injury. This person isn’t capable of changing themselves in such a way so to give them worth; they aren’t capable of writing some grand play, volunteering and saving lives, or serving anyone by direct consequence of their will. Likewise, chance, the arbiter of value (worth), seems to be working against their favour. Is this person worth less to us? To most people, the answers appear to be an almost even split.

Under this model, lets take an incredibly attractive man, who is healthy and capable of doing great things. He works hard, earns a tremendous income (pays high taxes), starts some great company creating a product everyone needs. The consequences of his life are beneficial and consistent.

Lets say we are posed with the choice of killing the first man to save a group of people (large enough to be persuasive (a nation, perhaps). Imagine that there is no other choice. Do we kill the first person (man with the TBI), or the second person. Many would say we should kill the first person. They would probably reach this conclusion by reasoning the following ways: the first man is broken and suffering; he is largely unaware of his own existence. He is dependent, he is draining our resources, and the consequences of his life are less beneficial. The other man has done great things, he has given the world so much, and he is capable of experiencing and enjoying life – he has earned his life.

What if the second man, the man we choose, reached his position of power immorally. What if he pushed people around, he bullied others who were less fortunate than him (violation of utilitarianism and consequential, as well as deontology), he cheated, lied, underpaid his workers, and repeatedly violated human rights. He wasn’t a man concerned with the welfare of humanity, it just so happened that the welfare of humanity served him well.

Most people would reconsider. So it’s less about the direct consequences of a person’s life (the amoral aspects) than it is the moral disposition of the individual. Yet even then, the moral disposition of the first man is relatively unknown. But we assume that he is moral because he is not a threat (in-fact, he is quite vulnerable), and he has the markings of innocence. Upon first glance it appears this person has to agree with the popular moral disposition to have value, rather than the moral philosophy determine the value of a person, and ethically solve for uncertainty with a relatively high and consistent predictive success.

Lets take another example. What if we have an individual who is in all ways of a morally sound disposition; they are kind, they are loving, they give of themselves. They have proved their worth as a person. But what if we discovered that the circumstances leading up to their birth were tremendously immoral. What if say her grandparents slaughtered hundreds to steal resources to feed his family and ensure their unique survival. Her parents didn’t have to be as aggressive, but were nonetheless equally as savage in their own way. She was raised largely by teachers, tutors, friends and maids. She managed to maintain her moral outlook because she joined some religious order and became a nun.

Is she worth more to us before we learned of her origins, or less? Let’s consider an individual who does the wrong things their whole life, and is largely immoral, and yet due to some circumstances, wills them-self towards the moral life – climaxing in them sacrificing their life for the betterment of others. Is that person worthy?
You might wonder why I’m focusing in so much on the worth of a person. I’m choosing to focus on worth to highlight one of the major problems with the individual-model of morality: that it allows for a situation in which it is morally permissible to choose between sacrificing one person versus another (or sacrificing one person, for a large group of people). The choice for the public (most normal people) usually is based upon that persons worth. Often that worth is how moral they are, and (more)often it’s what they’ve achieved.

The first choice (based upon their morality) is very discursive; whether we agree if they live or die depends upon us agreeing on a moral philosophy – which we don’t. It also depends upon the person being capable of moral autonomy – which often many are not. When it’s a child under consideration, we generally don’t find it moral to kill the child. But even then, you could imagine a scenario in which it would be preferable for a child to die (say, the child versus ever general, or president, or doctor, or scientist; or the child versus destroying all reserves of cancer drugs, or pain medications). When it’s a disabled adult, we are less sympathetic and more inclined to sacrifice them. The problem here is that under this moral model no person is safe. If the aim of morality is to determine what is right and wrong, each person has to be safe, in almost all situations (obviously, it’s impossible for me as one person to think of every possible iteration and problem; which is why it’s good that morality adapts according to need).

A morality based upon an individual-model ultimately serves chance, rather than people. It’s people who determine morality, and it’s for people that we are moral. We are moral because morality ensures safety. Ensuring safety isn’t itself immoral – instead, it’s almost precisely immoral (it’s inherently selfish). Morality ensures safety for the idea of a person, rather than for an individual person – because as I’ve shown, individual persons are often the product of luck, and often the product of immorality. And because there very possible problems (That often happy every day) in which each person’s safety is determined by luck (if they are autonomous, haven’t suffered some accident, were born with the right skills etc…).

When you’re faced with choosing between killing someone and saving hundreds of thousands, or letting them live, and dooming hundreds of thousands, your mind convinces you that the greater number is somehow greater. It may be greater for survival, and it may be greater in that life is precious (a proposition overthrown by the very act of murder). Under that individual-model of morality it’s the idea of a greater number that hardens your sword-hand, but each individual is unsafe, has very little moral guidance, has a worth dependant on chance. They have the harsh reality of ‘life’ painted as protective morality to hide the few who are lucky enough to benefit.

We develop moral theories for safety because life is hard and unforgiving. Our experience as persons is what matters most to us. That experience, that consciousness and that life, is precious. It’s not precious because it’s inherently great or better than any other form of life. And it’s not precious according to each individual. It’s precious because our moral reasoning demands that we view it as precious. Not as an individual thing, but as an abstraction of individual things; as the ‘idea’ of a person.

My understanding of morality is that every single person is equally valuable. Not because of the products of their life, but because we are driven to form moral philosophies and principles by the harsh reality of chance and fate. If we allow chance and ‘fate’ to guide our moral decisions and thoughts then we will never be safe. Not only will we never be safe, but we will cause others to suffer. That’s important because that person could be us; it’s logical, that the person suffering could be you given the right conditions. We are separated from one another by the world our minds tells us exists, not by some gooey, metaphysical substance (i.e. a soul). In that sense, uniqueness and individuality is determined ultimately by chance (we have a say once our lives have begun, and we have consciousness and moral autonomy, but getting there is the product of chance (and often very immoral actions). Our individuality is an expression of that chance; but that’s where it stops and ends: chance. If we desire a respite from the harshness of life, and a complex moral theory that demonstrates consistent predictive success, we are ultimately no different from one another. One persons desire for life has to match in importance every other persons desire for life. In that way, if each persons desire for life and safety is as important as everyone’s, you solve the problems of the individual model of morality (where one persons need is more important (or one group).

Like the rule ‘do not cross the tracks’ we can’t abandon this model which takes the individual as the prime unit of measurement for morality – where the individual is any person (the idea of person-hood in the abstract, rather than a particular iteration(i.e. one person vs another). If we allow one person to cross the tracks, who is to determine who that one person is. Is it one person once. Even if it’s one person once ever four hours, that’s over a thousand persons a year. We trick ourselves into thinking that the bigger number is better (bigger number of persons saved) and that the smaller numbers are insignificant (one individual sacrificed, or one individual crossing (at a variable rate). We can overcome this mental bias by taking an honest, hard look at morality, and what I’ve written here. Humans determine morality. Life is complex, and we should embrace that complexity – but not at the expense of our morality. Because our morality is our safety, and because if morality benefits one, it must benefit everyone.

Its the idea of a person which matters – and which provides a unit of measurement for morality.

(This is a rough first edition – an active work in progress). IN a few days I hope to expand on what I mean and flesh out my examples and counter-examples more thoroughly (including gettier problems). But this is the best I can do right now given my health.

tolstoy“Why should I live, why wish for anything, or do anything?” It can also be expressed thus: “Is there any meaning in my life that the inevitable death awaiting me does not destroy?”

 My impulse is to say ‘well by asking ‘why should I live’ you are in fact insisting someone provide you an answer, which suggests that the question isn’t why should I live, but rather, how’.

 And that seemed for a long time to be an adequate response, but as I was reading that passage in Tolstoy’s confessions things suddenly became clear to me. You cannot say you really only want to know how to live, because that presupposes some sort of agency. When, was life not really forced on us? Did we have any say in our conception? The question then rightly becomes ‘what’s the point’.  We are forced to live, then forced to die. And inbetween those two harsh sanctions we are charged with finding some meaning.

For some men finding what can be considered happiness and living a happy life is quite enough. For others, life presents a more complex set of problems. Men like Tolstoy struggled with these problems. Problems that can’t be categorized as ‘existential’ or ‘metaphysical’ alone. These are collaborative problems that fundamentally ask the questions we all have, but with a twist. It’s not that their repressed consciousness is trying to find the best way to live life. Tolstoy for example only questioned his ideals when he found himself in the throes of decay. It was only after a lifetime believing in a positive trend of development, when he himself watched his aged body regress, that he saw the relationship of life and death in its most subjective form. We are all part of some greater biomass, some clave to which we owe allegiance. But we are also agents capable of willing ourselves off course. We can think about thinking. On the one hand we have this public ancestry, and on the other this private journey.  And as much as we try to group these aggregates we can’t help feeling dismayed on reflection of the perplexity of the lives we live; the duties we fulfill and the obligations we attach to others. As such it seems quite natural to ask ‘what’s the point’. But that very nature hints at the need for a point, which itself undoes all the great work we’ve done getting ourselves to a point of development in which we could ask that question.

Speculating on the existence of a point isn’t missing the point or somehow defeating it. The begrudging disconcertion a lack of knowledge inspires sets the very course by which successive generations find meaning. And although that’s a type of meaning in itself, its a mental trick of little value to the aching soul of a man convicted by his purposelessness.

Are you afraid of being afraid?

The property which causes that sudden feeling of dread when confronted with a painful or stressful situation is anticipation. We are very symbolic beings. Our neocortex alone dedicates millions upon millions of neurons to the task of recognizing patterns; and almost double that number are redundancy neurons which are tasked with recognizing patterns of patterns. When we experience a stressful or painful event, our minds work to symbolize that event, and encode context specific patterns. Any stimulus involved in that event is further associated into that symbolism. As a result, we don’t just experience one stressful and fearful event. We experience thousands of different versions of that very same event. Over time, we begin to consciously recognize this confluence: dread sets in.

We match up this event consciously with representative standards in order to solve the pressing problem stress is meant to create: can we overcome, or do we have to adapt? As a result, if the event (which is now more of a state) in question becomes a stable state of existence, and that state is grossly disproportionate to societal standards, we begin to mourn.

The initial assessment and span of time required to encode and regulate redundancies and consciously digest all the necessary information just simply must be endured. Yes it’s going to suck and it most definately will have a negative impact on your quality of life. All things being equal, I would hope that this wouldn’t happen to anyone. But all things aren’t equal, and so this stuff does happen, and it happens at an alarming rate – for some, at such an alarming rate they cannot find the ability to cope and instead take their lives. You cannot change the fact that it does happen, and you should not change the fact that you become familiar with it. Most people will catastrophize and admit defeat; they believe they are destined for a life of misery and pain. But the only way they can really ‘know’ what misery and pain entail is by matching what they’re experiencing with generic standards. They mourn based upon the difference between the two.

Let’s say it was the norm for a people of a certain society to be blind. In our world, we view blindness as a disability, but in this particular society, it is the norm. If a sighted person became blind in our society, but was informed of another society where it was the norm, is it possible his coping skills would improve? You can obviously make the claim that objectively having sight is better than not having sight, always. Healthy people living in our world with no visual disabilities are absolutely happy and content. Why? Well, because as far as they know, they are at the apex of what we call the ‘generic standards’. Lets imagine some time in the distant future we gain the ability to communicate telepathically, to see and think on a quantum level, and never die. A person living now at the height of his health is relatively satisfied. Lets further suggest even that this person knows he will probably live forever (life extension therapies are available which will ensure his foreseeable lifespan). We can all probably agree this is an ideal scenario and probably accurately guess at this persons sense of well-being. Lets take this person and place them in the future. In the future, remember, people can think telepathically, have incredibly advanced IQ’s, never die, have none of the pratfalls of human biology, and can think at a quantum level. Would that man be happy living there, and then? I doubt it. I think he would be as miserable as the man living in our world without eyesight, or the woman who cannot move anything below the waist.

What I’m playing at is an existential interpretation of illness and disability, rather than a cultural and societal one based upon norms and averages. When we are ill and afraid our minds conjure horribly unbearable emotions and force us into the darkest corners of the most depressing scenarios. The causes of these phenomena are varied and impossibly complex. But for once that complexity does not hint at a mindless fatalism. We think in averages and problem solve with patterns. We are symbolic and allegorical creatures with a knack for intuition and emotional reasoning, but we kind of stink at calculating the cold hard facts. We label realists as unemotional robots (a title I have been affably given, many times…) and praise idealists with their deep insight. The answer isn’t a ‘balance of the two’ – which seems to have become the catch-all category for people who don’t really want to think too hard about the problem. Offering a banal ying-yang response to a complex question fundamentally presupposes that the two poles in question are the only two poles… and further that they are also the correct poles. That’s not always the case, and particularly in this situation it is definitely not the case. In this situation, dealing with fear and with expectations and mourning, the answer comes in the form of a question: why is standard upon which your fears are based the only possibly and necessary situation? Is it really the only possible state of existence? Is it possible things could have evolved differently? Is it possible we could experience pain way differently than we currently do? And death? And why does the thought of death ‘objectively qualify’ feelings of absolute terror – possibly the most aversive feeling in the world. The answer is that it one hundred percent does not. Death is the zenith of symbolic thought. We have absolutely no clue, subjectively, what death entails. And so since we don’t have even a marginally accurate redundancy for death, our patterns will be based solely upon weak metaphor and general symbolism. When we think of death thoughts like darkness and night-time and space, and cold come to mind, accompanied by feelings like ‘where’s mommy’ and ‘someone save me’.

Death is further qualified by the notion that it is inherently bad. But how is it? If it weren’t for death, there would literally be no new life, or any life at all. You are hear reading this only because trillions of ‘things’ died so that you could be here, at this particular moment of terrestrial time. There’s a certain feeling of endowed responsibility and pride in that thought, isn’t there? Further, what is greater in our universe, life or non-life? Non-living things, to be sure. There are more atoms and molecules and mass collections of ‘stuff’ out there than there are complex life forms. There is also more ‘darkness’ than there is ‘light’ – which is another great example of our weak symbolism and metaphor. Darkness is not inherently scary. That being said, place the bravest man in a dark room with loud haunting, staccatto noises and he will surely experience fear.

The point is simple: you qualify your feelings of fear by searching for standards with which to compare your situation to. The problem is in the limited number of standards we can come up with and find, and the definition of standards itself. Human emotion plays us and convinces us that the proof is in the feeling. Next time you’re feeling afraid, think of how that situation may be not a bad situation, or may be a different situation. If you can think of a way in which the painful or stresful situation, in some possible thought experiment, could be good, or at least not as bad, than I assure you your fear will lose a tremendous amount of its potency.

At the end of the day, death is still bad and pain still sucks. We will all face those two things at one point in our lives or another. You do not have to give in to them and they are not the only states of existence out there. You have a choice to change the way you experience them, existentially and phenomenologically  by altering the way you go about thinking about them. Unfortunately society and religion have come together to define what good states of existence are and what negative states of existence are. To Christians, having a healthy body is good, and having an unhealthy one is bad – and usually implies some evil or past transgression. Let me tell you right now that that is fucking bull-shit. It’s a consequence of poor thought and an irrational attachment to cultural tradition. The standards society forces on us can have an unconscious  and profound effect on how you cope with just shitty situations. If you are courageous and strong, and you can bear out the initial stages, you will find a way to adapt. If you think about what I have written for a little bit each time you are faced with a shitty situation, you’ll find yourself adapting to different patterns and experiencing a higher level of peace and satisfaction.