Band of Brothers

Last year when my mom kicked me out I frantically convinced my older brother to move in with me. In October of 2013 we leased an apartment near Ancaster, Ontario. For the first few months, things were great. We got along, I finally had someone to talk to. I was, before moving in with him, very excited at the whole idea of it. For so long I had been miserable and alone and I thought perhaps this was an opportunity to make some headway in that respect. Well, as so often happens, my hopes were misplaced.

This past week my brother informed me that he is taking a job at Lafarge, and will be moving to Windsor in two weeks. At first I didn’t know how to feel about it. I was indifferent and hurt all at once. I didn’t realize then how much it would affect me, and exactly how it would affect me. I’m so used to being abandoned and alone that I sometimes forget how normal certain reactions are to, well, loss and abandonment. I feel betrayed, lost, alone. I feel hopeless and I really feel like killing myself.

The title of this post is brothers, not just brother, so I think it might be appropriate now to talk about two of my other brothers. The brother directly below me (lets call him Will) is little better than my older brother (the one I had been living with). But, much in the same way that I placed inordinate amounts of hope in Gord, I also place inordinate amounts of foolish hope on my brother Will. The thing is, I’m starting to really realize that they’re never going to change. I thought for so long that if I just made myself a little more attractive, a little more inspiring and a little more optimistic then perhaps they’d change the way they treat me. But no amount of positivity in my personality will change their personalities; I know that now.

The incredibly frustrating thing about Will is the disconnect between how he likes to present himself to the world (and ultimately how he views himself) with how he actually is, and how he treats those whom he has a personal relationship with. The only time he talks with me is when I initiate a conversation; when I go out of my way, and make myself vulnerable – knowing full well that I’m just going to be rejected. I want to again address the suspicion that likely follows this admission that no one in my family wants me. I get how easy it must be to conclude that the problem does not lie with them, but it in fact lies with me. That would be true, if I was the one doing the rejecting. If they had consistently tried to reach out to me, tried to help me (hang out with me, ask me how I’m doing, generally empathize with me) and I dismissed their efforts then I would absolutely agree that the problem lies with me. But that’s just not the case. Like I said above, I’m constantly trying to think of ways to make myself appear more attractive to them; like a safe bet, almost. I have tried every approach to get their attention and their love.

You see, these brothers of mine, they lack so many of the basic and necessary qualities that a brother or a son or a family member should have. They have an incredibly difficult time personally reflecting on their experiences and incorporating their in-built conclusions (I don’t like this pain; I don’t like being alone; I don’t like being rejected; I don’t like feeling abandoned) into how they treat other people and generally view the world. They just all become the things they hate. They’re aloof, dismissive, unempathetic, immoral assholes. It’s a harsh thing to say about one’s own brothers, but things have gone past the line of pleasant exchange.

I never get a phone call, or a message, or a text. I’m never asked, by anyone, ever, how I’m doing, what I”m going through, or what it’s like being sick. No one tries to gather any information about me and my life. No one tries to get a handle on how I’m doing, or what I need. And absolutely no one tries to help me. No one goes out of their way for me. And only rarely agree to help if I beg and plead.

Will presents himself to the world as this great moral man. This stolid figure of virtue. His girlfriend fancies him a god among men, and his friends all think he’s this amazing young man. But how can that be true if he treats his own brothers this way? I’ve got to think it’s healthy and normal to have a deep dialogue with your family members. It is all so confusing and so terribly unfortunate.

When I see someone or something in pain, I instinctively try to help. I feel overwhelmingly bad (compassionate, empathetic) when I see someone or something in pain. I want to help. I want to help because I want them to be okay. I want to help because it makes me feel very good to help; it fulfills some basic need to do good in me. I want to help because I want them to succeed and I want them to perhaps reciprocate (not solely to me, but to other people; friends, strangers, future children). And ultimately, I want to help because it’s right. I do not have this apprehension that they have, or this cold indifference.

Then there’s my youngest brother, James. James is only 13. I am fairly certain that he inherited the faulty EDS causing gene that I share. He has depression. He has a hard life. When I look at him, all of those hardships and all of that pain, and all of the problems and the solutions are immediately available to me. I schedule skype calls every night. I help him develop study skills and social skills. I help guide and teach him how to think for himself; I try to cultivate confidence and independence in him (with little things like getting him to go off and collect certain items when we’re at the grocery store, or taking the bus and having him pay for himself; little stuff that seems trivial to everyone but someone who has lacked any form of instruction or guidance). When my brothers look at him, they see none of those things; and they do nothing. I can’t even remember how many times I’ve begged my brothers to step up to the plate and help him; Will in particular. I have asked him so many times. Each time he trivilizes it with ‘oh of course; absolutely. Yeah man, no worries’. But never does anything. And I don’t know why. I’m sure in his mind he doesn’t feel like it’s his responsiblity, or that he just doesn’t see that there is any resonsibility. I odn’t know. All I konw is that if he were in the same spot (which he was once upon a time), he would feel just as horribly, and his needs would be abundantly clear to him. He’s been through very similar things that James is going through. He’s felt the same things, he’s been frustrated at the things he lacks and he’s felt the sting of injustice that comes when you’re not getting things you need and deserve (things every human being needs and deseves).

Perhaps they’ve abandoned and neglected me because they think people like me are our own worst enemies. Or maybe they think we’re not worth it (although, I give them more credit than this). Of the many, many things they do not understand, it’s why morality is practically important. I’ve written about this idea many times. But basically the idea is that moral action is not just ideal, it’s always practically beneficial. It might not appear to be so immediately, but upon further reflection it’s always going to have a practical value. There are those who view morality as relative, and who think moral actions are only true if they’re sacrificial. The problem is that no moral action is truly sacrificial. There’s always an aspect of enlightened self interest. There are some who shy away from that. But they shouldn’t. It’s good that morality makes you feel good; that a moral action benefits everyone. If you’re a person who abandons a brother suffering so acutely, and doom him to loneliness and isolation, ignoring both his cries for help, and his subtle, constantly evolving attempts to foster a proper relationship, then you can’t ever fulfill you’re moral responsibility. Some people shy away from the idea of moral responsibility; and I can see why. Unless you really understand moral philosophy, ethics and metaethics all you have to go on are roughly drawn sketches of what certain terms refer to. When it comes to moral responsibility the thing most immediately think of is religious sanctity; something cold, something distant, and something terribly uninviting. People want freedom; to do what they want and when they want, within a loose structure. It’s not until a person is personally affected by their own actions that they begin to question themselves. But again, that’s also no guarantee that they’ll change (take my brothers). I’m getting a little tangential (I could talk about this stuff all day). What I’m trying to drive at is this idea that those who suffer the most are the most valuable. We can’t expect to have all of the experiences necessary to defend against the suffering life will surely throw at us. We can’t expect to have the moral maturity to treat others as the deserve to be treated, and help those who desperately need help. Thus, we can’t expect to just somehow, by osmosis, fulfill our moral responsibility. We need information to do that. So where do the disadvantaged souls like myself come into play? Well, we have a value in our ability to inform morally, to provide moral context and personal experience with injustice and suffering. We are wells of information and insight. We deserve to be treated well because proportionately it’s ethically required. We suffer more than most, and so proportionately we deserve more than what you might give to some rich suburban mother. But it’s not just about what we ‘deserve’; because you can quickly get lost in that entitlement and lose sight of the real goal. It’s what we need. We need help. So, let’s break that down quickly. Why is that important? (important enough to persuade people to give more to those whom are difficult and sad and who make us feel things we’d rather not feel). Well, we need help because it’s moral. We also need help because if we’re left alone we won’t be able to fully actualize our capacities. We are wells of insight and information. We are tremendously valuable in that respect. However, our value is often lost and unseen from our suffering. We also need and deserve love and attention and empathy and to see moral action because you all need those same things. Like my example above about my brother who can’t be moral if he treats me and others the way that he does, we can’t actualize our moral capacities if we just let those suffering the most fade and rot. Why is that important? To reach our moral potential. Well, it’s important for the exact same reasons why it’s important to not leave the disadvantaged. Because if we don’t reach our moral potential, we won’t be able to fully fulfill our moral responsibility, and as a consequence others will be stunted in their moral development (not to mention they will suffer and feel pain and existential decay). sacrifice always has a component of enlightened selfishness. And this is no exception. You can’t help yourself unless you help others (that’s trite). What I mean is more complicated. Morality has practical benefits. Morality safeguards against the harsh realities of life. Morality also helps to shade us from others who are in varying stages of their moral development. It’s very discouraging to suffer by someone else when you’re trying to be good. They’re in a different stage of development than you, and there are a lot of people. The effect these discrepancies have are readily available to us; it’s why I’m left behind, and why people like me are. It’s why Will and Gord are the way they are. Morality fuels the most human part of our pshyches when all else fails. When we’re alone and suffering and broken, moral actions and thoughts are the only thing which can quell the pain. If you know that you’ve helped a tremendous amount of people, and if you know that the world is a good place, filled with god people who are moral and kind and who help everyone. If you know that safety isn’t just a product of luck, and is actively enforced by everyone. Then any pain or suffering will be made tremendously tolerable. I have personal experience in this method of integrating moral thought. The only thing that has kept me going is the promise of these truths.

Suffering is hard, but suffering needlessly is infinitely harder. Needless suffering is suffering that either has no purpose or meaning, or suffering that occurs in a world (or life) without purpose or meaning. That purpose and meaning cannot be a vocation, or an income, or even personal, romantic love. Because those things are products of chance. NO one wants to admit that the products of their work (their success) is largely determined by luck (being born a certain gender, in a certain time, in a certain country, with health, wits, love, and without tremendous hardship; and all relative gradations). But it’s true. That means that vocation and income and personal romantic love are unstable and easily ablated. Even if you suffer long and die well before you see those things disappear, the fear that they might will still always remain the center of your focus. But ethics and justice and ‘morality’ if proper don’t fade.

Another reason why people like myself deserve better is a reflection of the human experience. No one likes to suffer. People suffer when they get a bad grade, and worry when they buy something too expensive. And they don’t like these feelings; they actively try to treat them. But yet they turn a blind eye to the loss of life, the loss of mobility, of health, of love, of basic rights – if not actively contribute to it.

We are all going to die. Because we spend our lives trying to deny this one important truth, we give so much value to concepts like ‘strength’. A strong person is a wealthy, confident person. This diametric opposition then forces those suffering much lower; and creates the absolute worst type of suffering: the pointless meaningless world without any hope of justice. So that they can’t even feel peace knowing that others won’t have to experience the same thing that they did. They not only die in tremendous pain, suffering, never living a good life (a decent one all humans basically deserve), but they die knowing that there is no justice, and that this will continue to happen to other people. Strength isn’t going through things and simply ‘surviving’. Maybe that’s strength in the context of a battle, but not life. Because in a battle the goal is to win; that’s the diametric opposition: win/lose. So strength is permissibly appropriate. But in life we know we’re going to die. So how could that term offer us anything ultimately valuable? It can’t.

In life, strength is suffering, and going through horrible things, and yet remaining a good person. If you’re immoral, and selfish, and mean, and cruel, you won’t ‘survive’. Socially, if you’re that way around others, you won’t ‘survive’. You’ll just suffer more for it. History has taught us this time and time again (which is a tragic irony, seeing history repeat itself… ad infinitum). A cruel selfish, mean, immoral and unjust leader may experience bliss temporarily, but his or her philosophy is incredibly myopic. Morality helps you personally; it makes you feel good to do good. It fosters growth and is absolutely necessary for moral development (which in turn makes you feel good, and preserves those good feelings, as well as makes you strong in the social context. And defends against those horrible fates where you’re forced to suffer tremendous loss, by allowing you the peace knowing the world is just; suffering in a meaningful way, in a meaningful, important world (and life). Take the governor from the walking dead. I’m sure there were many years where he appeared very strong. But ultimately he failed. His group fomented insurrection, his enemies saw his corrupt nature and banded together against him. If you’re moral and kind and just and inspire safety and virtue and goodness in others, you will be stronger because people will gravitate towards you. They will feel good, they will feel safe, their fear of pain and death will be dramatically less, you’ll ensure that your goals are maintained long after you’re gone.

I could continue fleshing this out and analyzing these ideas for days, but I’m afraid no one would end u reading that; plus it’s quite early in the morning and I have not yet slept.

Morality benefits everyone. Leaving people such as myself to suffer alone, is a horrible injustice, immoral action and sin (I’m not religious). Everyone looses out on the moral insight collected through years of suffering, everyone loses a part of themselves. Development is broad and emotions and empathy and compassion are as important as sureheadedness and prudence. If you let someone suffer, not only are you contributing and creating a scenario where that suffering and injustice is maintained, making others vulnerable, but you make yourself vulnerable too; you could find yourself one day ‘unlucky’ and in the mess you helped to maintain and create. If you let the truly disadvantaged suffer you deny yourself the most truly powerful meaning of life. Not to mention making the world a messy place for your children and grand children – not to mention the rest of humanity.

I don’t understand why my brothers don’t get this. I don’t understand why I’m the only one. But mostly, I don’t understand why they won’t even listen. Everyone is at a different stage in their moral development, but the only way to bridge that gap is to open yourself to opinions other than your own; to communication with everyone and anyone. Morality connects people; it brings everyone together. It creates a safe world for everyone; a happy one.

I think people take a laissez fair attitude to suffering because they think the problem is too big for anyone to handle. They think it’s unjust that they should have to carry that suffering, pointlessly. I hope the irony there is not lost on you all. The thing is though, the truth is the exact opposite. If everyone did a little, the weight would be displaced to such a degree that only the benefits would be consciously experienced. Within a very short time it would become self-sustaining.

I don’t know how much longer I can keep going like this alone. I’m currently just a day or two away from certain suicide. This is why we matter.

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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.

The Increasing Importance of Philosophy

Philosophy is important because it forces the atheist to think about the most important qualities of existence in the way religion does for Christians – although, quite poorly. The philosopher asks why something is right or wrong, why and how something is true, and what is the meaning of life. Science and philosophy don’t have to work separate, but it’s important to understand they have differences in quantification.

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.

Language:

I’m an Atheist, but I go to a Christian University (for reasons I won’t go into here). In a few intro Psych courses my professors, believing language to be unique to humans, used language as a vehicle to explain the existence of God – and thus the denial of Atheism, and ‘macro’ evolution.

Language isn’t just spoken or written words. Language in its most basic form is simply communication of some information across a medium (of intention and necessity). Christianity must change its definition of language.

A gesture is a good example of language across a non-traditional medium. When we think about language we think about spoken language (words, syllables, phonemes etc.), and we translate that association into our loose definitions of communication. In theory, many define communication by spoken or written language. Yet in practice almost everyone behaves in ways that directly contradict that proposition.

When a friend dies, we send their family flowers. Sending someone flowers is an example of a gesture. That gesture involves the physical action of moving the flowers, as well as the meaning in the language of flowers. Upon receiving the flowers the bereaved widow will reflect what a nice gesture that was.

This is important because central to understanding language is understanding its origins; how it evolved. Christians believe that language was a gift from God, (generally) that evolution is not true, and that everything that is was intended to be. As such, Christians often cite language as evidence for the existence of a creative force in their apology. Yet their very actions betray them and they are none the wiser.

Dogs communicate, they just do so in ways foreign to sentient beings such as ourselves. We are capable of thinking about thinking, and thus we are able to encrypt meaning into anything if everyone involved understands the protocols and conventions. We give someone flowers when they’re ill, or mourning, or happy, or to show love and affection (romantic, familial, pious or platonic); and everyone who is familiar with the norms for each situation can easily translate the meaning. The flowers and flower arrangements given to someone mourning the loss of a loved one versus the birth of a child differ wildly – and are readily apparent. But if you were to give a mourning widow or an elated mother a stick of butter, they’d think you’re crazy – and rightly so. Because they are unfamiliar with the protocols and conventions and so it appears like nonsense. The world is full of situations like these; communication is happening all around us; the valence electrons in the water molecules within the cup on my desk are constantly forming bonds; communication is happening. The mid-night symphony outside my window right now is composed of layers and layers of different organisms communicating, and objects communicating – and yet that cacophony which I cannot even hope to translate, is familiar and tells me that outside it is indeed night-time.

When I look at the mystery of language in the world about me I realize that I’m just a third party unable to immediately understand the hidden messages nature has written (like the elated mother looking confusedly at the stick of butter she was just given).

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.

A Big Fat Lie

Functionally, a lie has no inherent power; as if the mere utterance of a falsehood were capable of shaking the very foundations upon which we build our lives. No, quite the opposite. A lie has power only insofar as we engage it; we play into the lie, become a part of it.

The same is true of the many qualia of existence. Take fear, for example. What is fear? Does it exists in-and-of itself, inherently? No. Surely, though, there do exist object complements related to the active presence of metaphorically ‘fear-filled’ things. The words we use to describe things are only semantic place-holders. They are visual and auditory representations of phenomena in this world, used to aid understanding and communication. Is it not probable, or at least possible, that the object and subject complements we have adopted to modify written and spoken language has embellished the true nature of these fear-causing things; of fear itself?

‘Tanner was punched’ by itself, is not too frightening. It doesn’t teem with the qualities of a sadistic machination, or of unbridled passion. Tanner could have been punched in the leg, or in the arm. He could have been punched by his girlfriend, in a playful manner. ‘Tanner was punched hard’ is slightly more disconcerting. You get my point.

The descriptive, oftentimes florid language used to recount events does not necessarily match up 1:1 with actual phenomenological entities and states of existence in reality. A ‘hard’ punch is easily distinguishable from a soft playful one, existentially. But is that fact a fact of necessity? That is, is that just the way our universe is? Is it possible things could have come about in another way? Or even just a slightly different way; change in degree, not type. If that is the case, than our understanding of the various phenomena in our lives as intractable truths is more a matter of opinion than of universal objectiveness.

Fear is, in many ways, a lie. A lie is not some completely foreign concept or idea; it’s just an inaccuracy. Either representing something which could be, but isn’t, and representing an impossibility of some sort. Fear quite often is like the first lie; informing us of something which could happen, but doesn’t. We are the active party there. Fear can often become so distorted that it represents an impossibility.

What I’m getting at can be summed up in a quick procession of statements concerning the nature of… well, reality (at least a small branch of reality). Firstly, fear does not exist inherently. If one day all the consequences of feeling fear were ablated, fear would disappear. Secondly, and proceeding from, fear (much like a lie) only gains power if we engage it. Much like we cannot remove all the liars and all of the lies in our lives, we cannot remove all the fear, and all the fear-causing-stimuli. All we can do is refrain from engaging them, thereby taking away their power. We will hear a liar, and hear the lies (and it will be a test of our wisdom to determine when a lie is being told), but we do not have to become part of the lie. Likewise, we will feel fear, and observe and understand fear (and it will be a test of our wisdom to determine when we should listen to fear, and when we should tune fear out), but we do not have to become a part of the fear.

Life at present seems to be a war fought between people and fear. All the psychological and emotional maladies which plague our conscious minds in some way stem from fear. And they all stem from the ultimate fear: the fear of death. We can learn to live happy lives coping with that fear; however, it’s my hope this modality is on its way out. I share the  same conviction as many great thinkers (Ray Kurzweil, Dawkins, Feynman, Goertzel, Krauss etc…) that one day in the not too distant future (maybe only a century or two from now), humans will be rid of this conventional model of existence. Instead, we will trade this mortal life in for an immortal form of existence. A life where the words ‘human’ and ‘computer’ are functionally indistinguishable. Where by reverse engineering and wide-spread cross-disciplinary collaboration we are able to overcome our limitations. We will seem to be, in many, many ways, like gods; but to an earthworm, doesn’t a chimpanzee seem a god? When we merge with machine, will we finally understand the difference between ‘feeling’ a punch to the arm, experiencing it, and simply thinking about the sentence ‘a punch to the arm’, and  imagining it? Is fear just one big lie?