To know thyself

I don’t post much and I think that has to do with an idea that gnaws at me, the idea being that there is no such thing as an original thought. I think that maybe the only real originality or creativity is in the realm of art, but in those cases it more often than not borders on the meaningless, at least in my experience. 

Everyone believes they think for themselves, whatever that means. I would counter that you are far more influenced by external factors; things like peer pressure, advertisements, your culture, social & news media, your upbringing or some poem or story you read somewhere that you can’t even place, all these things affect us and push us in one way or another. I think in essence creation emerges out of context, a confluence of factors that we are unaware of.

This is why I think the aphorism of “know thyself” is more than a little naive, as if someone saying it believes they are saying something profound when it is anything but. To know thyself would entail being able to fully account for who you are, why you do the things you do, why you think, feel, and believe the things you hold dear. I think there is a trap here, where the collective “we” confabulates a story to account for ourselves.

If I had to guess confabulation makes sense, we make up narratives in our head because we all like to think linearly and we believe in simple causation as it makes for a nice tiny bow. I think a part of it as well, is how we like to believe we are in control of our lives and the sense of who we are. However the reality of it, of you, and the society you live in is so much richer and more vast that I have a hard time believing anyone can come up with some grand story or explanation that satisfies completely. 

So to sum up I would say that philosophy or logic fails if we are to know ourselves, and by implication to be “masters of our own domain.” I would even go so far as to even question the validity of freewill, however I am not versed well enough in that topic to really delve into such a thing, but I have doubts.

The only things we can know, are the things that move us, the things that inspire. Perhaps we can never know ourselves all the way down to the core, but maybe we don’t have to, maybe conviction and following your own path based on that conviction is enough. Rather than knowledge what is needed is a “correct” opinion to guide us, some rules, even if they aren’t universally true. 

I don’t advocate relativism, I still believe that we should be able to account (or defend) our beliefs and convictions to others if we have to. I used to believe in Platonic truths, that there were objective facts out there, but I have come around and now it seems meaning has become more important to me. Perhaps we find meaning in carving out a path for ourselves, while others carve out a path based on traditional expectations; get an education, have a career, get married and have a family. I suppose for some that is enough meaning to satisify, however for people like myself I want more than that. I want to self transcend and contribute something to society, not just focus on my own needs…

Path dependence

I used to believe in the rational nature of human beings. That is, I believed that if they put their mind and will towards it, they could (and would) make the best decisions in all circumstances. That belief has been consequently broken from recent readings on cognitive bias and evolutionary psychology. The long and short of it; we are slaves to our emotions.

I imagine most people, if they are like me (and I assume that is the case), make snap decisions and are not likely to think through most everyday thoughts slowly and methodically. We just ‘know,’ without knowing how we arrived at the decision, or in other words we act on intuition or gut feelings. There are a few relevant problems that arise because of this in our day and age.

The first problem is that we segregate our society into hierarchies and systems, where the people on top are assumed to be the brightest and best and therefore making all the best decisions that benefit the rest of us. However one only has to take a cursory inventory of not just fallacies, but cognitive biases or ‘heuristics’ if you will, to see that when it comes to cognition we are systemically at fault and we lean in that direction most of the time. We are largely terrible at calculating risk and probability as well on every level, from the microcosm (the individual) to the macrocosm (our institutions), this doesn’t bode well for decision making for the individual or for the executive decision makers in our institutions.

Even the most potent solution out of all this (which is science, and careful analysis) was used, the truths arrived at would not likely be some “Platonic” everlasting truth. How are we to know that hundreds of years from now people will not be laughing at our current beliefs, so called truths, and ways of thought? You only need to look at the history of science to see this may be the case. I don’t think most people will accept this notion, we like to think we live in the best of times; we like to believe that we cannot be at fault and that we can solve any problem.

I used to believe that perhaps we live in the best of all possible worlds, that we are lucky to be alive in this era, this time. I suspect that this is the case for most people, and not just the everyday man and woman but the intellectual as well. We can see this with Francis Fukuyama’s “The End of History.” This belief that we are progressing towards some sort of end seems to permeate into (or from?) other fields (like religion) and extend into the past. It would be only conjecture at this point, but the roots of this belief of linear progress may lay in the thoughts of St. Augustine. His ideas can be paraphrases as follows: that our times on Earth and all the suffering people endure is meant to purify us towards an “end” where we are perfect and we then live in the City of God rather than the City of Man.

I think we are seeing in postmodernity that these “Grand Narratives,” or that Millenialialism or end time prophecy is all nonsense. We are seeing that as a collective and as individuals, we are responsible for where we end up. Of course the full implications of this is too “scary” for most people to rationally or emotionally deal with.

If I had to summarize in general an easy way to understand and tie all this together is inertia, social and historical inertia. We tend to stick with what has worked in the past, and what has pushed us forward, to what has given us hope and meaning. This holds true even if our beliefs and institutions are in fact outmoded and irrelevant.

Perhaps it is the cynic in me, but from what I have read, such as the lifetime of myth’s in our collective conscience (it can be decades) I have little hope that we will achieve any sort of utopia based on objective truths such as our fallibility any time soon. I believe however that  the wool over our eyes is starting to fall, and the theatre is failing to amuse, and the man behind the curtain is failing to impress.

I guess this is why there seems to be a crisis in meaning. We used to find it in authority figures, specifically our parents, our grandparents and our ancestors; we used to look to our heritage. Some people look for it in their work, some try to find it in sex, some try to find it in books or in magazines or television or even food. I believe mostly we now look for it through our peers and media, we can see this pretty easily when we look towards our youth.

Ultimately, none of this is necessarily a bad thing. It shows us that the way things could and can be is malleable. We have the power to shape and reshape ourselves, our lives, and our societies. We can already see this through social movements across the globe. What prevents the reshaping is mostly fear mixed with a corrupt sense of self-interest. For example there are those who believe that life is a zero-sum game, that for some to win, others must lose. I would like to believe that cooperative action, solidarity and the synergy of groups is and always will be more effective and powerful than any one individual or privileged group! Time will tell I guess.

The Folly of Green Consumerism

A Facebook acquaintance of mine was all excited about his new hybrid vehicle that he had just purchased, because apparently he was “walking the talk” of being an environmentalist. I don’t usually do this, but I laughed out loud as soon as I saw his post.

In a world with a growing population, and with the third-world trying to emulate the first-world “green-consumerism” is the last thing we should be thinking of in terms of a solution to our ecological conundrums. It has been said that if everyone on the planet consumed as much as we do, here in North America, we would need three Earths. Consumption and standards of life that the West has set is not sustainable no matter how efficient our technology becomes. This should be poignantly obvious by the fact that we have finite resources coupled with an economy obsessed with growth, and that growth is pushed by buying and producing more and more stuff. It’s not just consumerism in general, but several factors all meeting at the nexus that is our culture.

Material possessions beyond what covers our basic needs, for most people signify identity, status, and also supposedly brings happiness. For anyone who lives long enough they quickly learn how meaningless consumerism is in terms of their lives. I have been reading on all the connected issues in this area, and for the purpose of keeping this more focused I won’t go into all the details here. Suffice to say that buying more things is not going to solve any of our long term problems.

The other main issue with my friend’s post is the car dominated culture in general, or maybe I should just say car-culture. People feel like cars enable them to be “free” and other things that they have been lead to believe by advertisement and their peers. They also believe in the convenience of a personal automobile. However considering the time spent at your job just to pay for your car, not to mention the upkeep, gas, insurance, and all the other miscellaneous fees it seems the consumer is the one getting stiffed. Also take into consideration the time spent sitting in traffic, and the fact that sitting for so many hours of your life is not helping your health. This is just a small, small tip of the iceberg as there has been books written about the subject. Here are a few other related topics in the study of car-culture: urban sprawl, the splitting of habitat by roads, water & chemical runoff from those roads which lead into our water supply, and so on.

Why do people like driving, are they escaping from something? Does it reflect a deeper problem, not just in their personal life, but in their community? If I had a say, our towns and cities would allow for maximum mobility for all it’s citizens, not just the auto-mobile owner. Looks at in a certain way, you can say it is exclusionary and by it’s nature elitist. Children and the elderly should have the security and freedom to move from one part of a city to the next without the need for a personal vehicle.

Green consumerism is an oxymoron, the funniest example is the Tesla electric car which comes with touchscreen controls on it’s dash. Most touch screen manufacturing uses rare earth minerals, and the aluminium used in the car is usually obtained by massive open pit mines which don’t do the environment any favours either. This doesn’t even take into account all the other resources that need to be gathered or manufactured to create a car.

I think in our current economic paradigm, capitalism has co-opted our desires to be environmentally friendly and sold it back to us. This only serves to perpetuate the status quo and does not affect real change. To me this is so obvious that is deafening, and also frustrating. I cannot say my hands are clean of this however, I have been lured in by the idea that we can buy our way out of this mess, for example most of my clothing is made from hemp or organic cotton. However that is the nature of the beast when you are subsumed in an overarching system that doesn’t allow for much alternatives.

If we are to work our way out of this, I think a small part of the solution will be a focus on consuming less, not more. We need to find out a way to make ourselves and others happy, to infuse meaning without using materialism. Honestly I believe one of the strongest methods for doing this will be a refocus on community, and the commonwealth that belongs to us all and should be protected from over-exploitation. It means “transition-towns”, dialogue between neighbours, “relocalization” of our business community, better regulations and laws in our local and ultimately federal government. I think it should start where you stand, and grow outwards. For that is how movements are created and sustained.

My rock, my foundation

I have not written in awhile, I believe it is partially because I have been living each day without plans or so called “purpose.” The corollary to that is that I have not been reflecting much if at all, and thus not writing since the act of writing is an act grounded in the past. Meaning the content reflects something that has happened, instead of what is now.

I decided that I should –or perhaps need– to write again, but this time on something a little more personal; for why would one bother to write if it is something they don’t care deeply about? I wish to speak a little on my partner, my love, my rock. Her name is Diana.

First of all though, I will need to speak of my past in regard to relationships. More accurately the lack of said relationships. I have been alone most of my life, it is part and parcel of being an introverted person. This introversion may not be inborn, but may have resulted from my childhood experiences.

I grew up in a small community, the town of Innisfree of Alberta Canada where the cows very likely outnumber it’s inhabitants. There were not many children to socialize with outside of school, which is clear as I could count them on one hand. As a result I never really learned how to make friends or go out of my way to do so. Instead I learned how to entertain myself and be comfortable in my own skin. Contrary to what someone may think, I am thankful that I had such an upbringing. I am thankful because the experiences have made me a “thoughtful” person.

For now I will skip over any theories of the mechanisms of why exactly I have never been in a relationship before, instead I want to focus on the present. Diana serves as my rock, I can lean on her for safety and comfort. It is funny because I don’t see myself ever being with another person. I will admit though that sometimes I imagine what it would be like to be with someone else, except that is something that I feel will only remain as conjecture. I feel that Diana may be the closest thing to a soul-mate I could need or want. We have been together for a few years and we have never fought and perhaps only once has a voice ever been raised. We agree on so many matters that we routinely joke that we are in fact the same person. We can spend time together in silence just holding one another and be content. Our plans for the future coincide with each other’s. If this is not what love is, or not “enough” I don’t know what is or would be.

People sometimes imply by word or action that they are not comfortable with us because there is an age difference of 20 years. However in my personal experience all “girls” of or near my age are just that, girls. It is rare to find an actual women of intellectual and mature character that matches my own, and that is something I demand and require (and which she fills quiet nicely).

Here’s hoping for at least ten times the amount of time we spent with each other, for she may be what I have been waiting for my whole life.

Zeitgeist

I once took a course on classical rhetoric, which I am sure is a boring topic for many. However I found myself strangely beholden. At first I believed it was the material itself, but on reflection I realized it was the presentation style of my professor. He understood something that he didn’t teach explicitly, as the class was really one of composition and of writing style. It was his body language: his gestures, his movement, and his pauses when speaking.

There were three modes of persuasion that we were taught: ethos, pathos and logos. In other words the emotional appeal, appeal to the imagination or credibility of the author, and the logical consistency of the argument. I used to think I could influence opinions by the third option alone, but I’ve come to understand that people don’t have time for detailed, logical, arguments.

We live in an information rich era where brevity and amusement is valued above analysis and insight. The fastest and most powerful mode of persuasion is when it hits an emotional nerve. Emotion in this context could mean something that makes the audience sad, happy, angry or just plain amused. Frankly (and sadly) I have little skill in going that route, in my own writing or my speech.

If I am to be honest with myself, I need to reconsider that people are fickle, and fallible. To get the most out of life clear and effective communication is needed. This entails I must give into this zeitgeist and adapt, I need to change my paradigm, the frame I see the world through.

While I would love to reflect on lofty ideas and to reflect on deeper matters, the return on investment is lower than I would like. Which reminds me of a great influence on my life and thought, Stephen Covey, the author of Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. If I was to take one core idea out of that book to heart, it would be the idea of the return on investment. This means devoting attention to the things that will bring the greatest personal good in the long run, AND the short run.

The stepping stone is the self, the character. I need to develop my character, but not just with the goal being self development out of a sense of self fulfilment, but in order to integrate into this world! I wish to become useful to someone, I want to be more than self-sufficient. I wish to serve and to be respected someday.

Culture of make believe

There was a point in time that I had a distaste for artifice, i.e. fakeness, untruths, lies, deception or whatever synonyms that float into the mind. However, as I have aged my previous rejection of these things has softened. To be more accurate I have come to embrace the noble lie as was espoused by Plato.

I have always felt an unease at things like internet memes, and subcultures such as hipsters. These always felt like cultural dead-ends to me; these don’t contribute to the larger culture. These “signs” don’t point to or signify any deeper meanings, instead they point to themselves as a self affirming phenomenon. The implication here is that these “signs” or ideas (or spectacles if you wish) are inherently meaningless. I guess though that this argument presupposes that truths are only truths if they are tied to something concrete. I failed to see that socially constructed truths are valid in their domain, which to be clear is the social and not the universal.

A fun example of this at work are people who dress up as fictional characters at conventions, specifically anime, fantasy and sci-fi ones. It goes like this: dress up as a character you identify with, consequently by association, become identified with that character or a trait of that character. This in a nutshell is a reification of identity, and the convention allows room for the negotiation of that identity.

To dress up and play pretend is a sort of play where they try to sell an “image” to others, I guess you could almost see it as a commodification of identity. In this case however the exchange is not financial, but is an exchange between amusement and pride. The onlookers become amused or even admire the cosplayer, and the cosplayer receives the admiration and becomes proud. This isn’t a bad thing, rather I believe this to be a neat conjuring of meaning going on.

This is what I mean by a culture of make believe, we conjure up meaning, that is we create meaning out of the social fabric as if by magic. This is something one of my professors would have called affectation, and it works in several everyday situations. We affect meaning, especially in social situations, by putting forth an image in order to convince others of something. A clear example would be the businessman or politician, they wear a suit that evokes a sense of authority and power (even if they don’t have any).

While a younger me would have seen all this pretense as something to be despised, it instead possesses something that evokes a kind of wonder. This same thing holds true for norms and social contracts, I have come to understand and more importantly, appreciate, the need for conformity and social harmony.

I don’t know if this is indeed me just “growing up,” or if it’s a surrender and abandonment of my younger and perhaps naive self? I am undecided on this point.

The examined life

For philosophers one of the fundamental questions is how one should live their life. I think I have come to a tentative answer to my own personal mode of life. “Dare to know,” is the loose translation of sapere aude and I am appropriating it as a personal maxim.

Considering all the possible ways of life, and the malleability of the human character it seems there is only one substantive answer in how I should live. There is so much differing views on what one ought to do, so much debate it becomes a glut of information; I become paralysed by indecision. That is why I am going to exercise some courage and choose for myself the course of my future actions.

Dare to know seems fitting because it reflects my own personal inquisitiveness, which is accommodating to both my secular, sceptical attitude and my belief in Enlightenment values. For some skeptics I have known, they come to embrace solipsism or nihilism. I reject both, and I choose to hold the belief that people are free agents whom are able to shape outcomes (at least in some regard); I don’t believe in fatalism.

I believe in utilitarianism and personal axioms of ethics, I don’t need religion to tell me what I should or should not do. I think sapere aude is a good symbolic reflection on this, so much so I am considering getting it tattooed someday.

In the historical context the term is generally associated with Immanuel Kant, a famous German philosopher. The reason I mention him is he described what enlightenment is, which is a definition I feel aligns with my personal sensibility. Enlightenment in a nutshell is taking responsibility once you come to learn something. The problem generally is what does it mean to take responsibility? In my case it entails obligation or at the very least, integrity and character based on congruence with a set of beliefs and one’s actions.

I have decided to start living with this intention: my actions will have meaning or purpose; I will use my effort to remain aware of the present moment and my actions; I will act according to a set of personal principles.

For me these principles will derive from the eight-fold path of Buddhism, as it is something I have some knowledge of already. Specifically the Zen variety, as it is the “middle-path” without all the bells and whistles. In other words Zen Buddhism is a “religious” practise without the ritual (outside of meditation).

What I see in the value of Buddhist thought will have to be put on hold for another post, as much can be said in its defence. Hopefully I am successful in carrying through…