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To live and think in this time is to see humanity as a vast screw-up; to think a little further is to realize that there is more than enough good to go around in the world, but that it is disorganized, based upon a few wrong turns not in history but in our collective beliefs as a modern, global society (by "good" it is meant all the good things in life, and not some absolute moral abstraction, a neat category into which we can divide things as having one source or another according to an ironclad, absolute law that applies equally to us all). In other words, while we can point to any number of symptoms and carriers of our bad ideas, which are essentially vectors for justifying erroneous thought, it is that erroneous thought itself that is the root of our problem.
(This essay is written for those developed enough in their thinking to realize that, no matter how much we might think we live in separate, absolute worlds, we live in the same world and the same laws of nature apply to us all, and there is no escaping them; in this realization we see two absolutes, the first being the mistake of thinking there is one categorical way of life that can apply equally to each of us, and the second being the mistake that we each exist in an untouchable category of our own, separated from reality. About the only equality in life is the status of these errors. For this reason, "erroneous thought" can be translated as "unrealistic thought," "illusion," "lies," "delusion" or any synonym of your choice.)
At our first pass, it seems likely that our thought went wrong with some tangible entity; money, or the Church, or corporations, or "patriarchy," or the gods of the sandal-wearers. This answer is unsatisfying in that first, the beginnings of the decline predate these things, and second, waging war against these things on a test basis - in smaller communities or ourselves - hasn't stopped the pervasive nature of problems on that level. Thus we are left unfulfilled, and go on to our next level of thought, at which point our conclusions resemble the sappy lines from get well cards and bad short stories. If we only knew that love is all we need -- if we only took time to care about the downtrodden, to realize their humanity is equal to ours and their suffering is real -- if we only cared more, if we only took more walks on the beach at dawn, if everyone just got stoned and started thinking about how fascinating life is... the cynic in us asks, "So how did it work for you?" and the answer, universally, is that it worked for a few things, but the practical problems of how to conduct life remained, after all the new age-y, starry-eyed bullshit was over.
So: at this point, most give up and fall into what is called "nihilism" but makes more sense when referred to as "fatalism," namely the belief that nothing means anything, that nothing can be done, that no value can be found, that nothing can reverse the decline. "Fatalism" is thus a fancy word for giving up on giving a damn, and settling down to a life of self-pity and what medical professionals call "symptomatic treatment," or giving the patient care to release suffering from symptoms, having assumed that the cause of the disease cannot be stopped; the extreme of this is "palliative care," in which scenario the disease is fatal and the only thing that can be done is to dope up the patient and wait for death's swift kick to the rickety door of the soul. In our time, this is the most common philosophy, this palliative fatalism, and it explains in part why "conservatives" have fundamentalist, positivist religion and "liberals" have marijuana and wine - lots of wine - and everyone else has money, and/or cheap and effective street drugs.
Another aspect of it is pity, or the feeling that if you have the ability to give someone less fortunate something, it makes you feel good, in no small part for having the status of being higher than them and having the ability to give a gift. You're not doing it for them; you're doing it for yourself, and because of this, what you're doing is rarely what they actually need, but some form of condescension. Hand the poor bibles and temporary food relief, but don't cart them off to work or, if they're mentally deranged, to a desolate and lonely patch of freezing ground for a quick and relatively painless death. To others who suffer, give little encouragements of the theme "you're allright," even though what they might need to hear is that they have to make changes or they'll keep suffering. This feelgood condescension is the antithesis of "tough love," which is a reality-embracing wake-up call to all who are suffering needlessly, and doesn't gently suggest change but spells out clearly that they either change or die. Another aspect of "tough love" is taking lame horses, mutant livestock, and fatally diseased animals out behind the barn and applying a .30-06 to the skull. When you have no pity, you kill that which is having no hope, but unlike palliative medication, you actually end the pain and give space to new life by removing that which has failed.
And what exists beyond this fatalism? Surely the author of this piece believes that something might...? Otherwise, it would be pointless to even communicate, whether exhorting or preaching or cajoling, and it would be most sensible instead to find some way to swindle you into buying some product so the author could apply palliative medicine more effectively to himself. Does some aspect of that thought depress you - those who lead the blind, becoming blind, such that they might profit? Maybe you recognize it as a common occurrence and in fact, the motivation behind most advice you'll get that isn't outright pity, making the giver feel smarter for having a solution the pitied have not yet seen. You were warned this is a fatalistic time, but it was some paragraphs ago, so you're forgiven for forgetting it - on a standardized test, your options would be clearer. But what everyone says about standardized tests is that they're not close enough to reality, and test you more on your ability to fool a test than on knowledge of reality, or knowledge of how to summarize knowledge. Communication in this time makes even bridging this subject difficult, much less communicating how to surpass it.
We'll start with the basics. There may not be an answer for you; you may literally be condemned, by character or ability, to live thrashing about in ignorance with no hope. Sorry - have some marijuana, or have you tasted the Mogen David? Well. However, if you've made it this far in reading this document, and still haven't started skimming for swear words or sexual references, it's likely you can process the information at hand (if this were a postmodern piece of writing, the author would try to communicate exclusively through sexual references and swear words but, alas, we're not that clever, and far too pragmatic for it). Philosophers like to talk about sensitive but warlike souls (Mr. Nietzsche? your car is ready--) who by combining these attributes have a selective aspect to their aggression; indeed, such a description merits the Indo-European people in healthier days, in that unlike the more passive populations to the east, and the unrelentingly aggressive populations to the south, they became selective; contemplative; philosophical. In shorthand, this means that you must not declare the cause lost or won, but return with a critical eye to the task we explored in the past four paragraphs; however, you must also do it with a determination to not find a solution but make a solution, and do it with both warlike discipline and the playful joy that characterizes most healthy primate behaviors.
By way of backward analysis, if we debug our own thoughts to this stage, we have a powerful clue about where "we" as a species went wrong: we were not active enough, and were too passive, and therefore when selecting future roles as "active" and "passive," we could not see a middle path between the two; we either opt to be 100% warlike ("conservative") or 100% passive ("liberal") and in both cases, fail to find working solutions because life does not operate in absolute categorical terms, but requires any ideal of an absolute categorical nature be applied in the language of life itself, which is far more flexible. As the English say in musky oyster bars and discoteqs, "Quite." It's important to take a brief detour here, which is represented by the appearance of a Buddhist monk in saffron robes - saffron cloth was originally used to bury the dead, and was selected for that reason as the icon of Buddhism, which like most modern religions is a death religion: it spends so much effort explaining away personal death that soon conversation on death dominates all discourse, and the result is that no matter how many delightful things Buddhism or Christianity have, in practice they remain obsessed with death, and thus stop short from making positive changes; theirs, too, is a palliative medicine.
If we had a Buddhist monk here, one of those tidy and dispassionately friendly little guys who seem to exist without unnecessary memory or inefficient action, he or she would probably politely point out that the West, like the East millennia before it, has become obsessed with the ego, or conception of self as individual. Good point; back to your rice and pickled vegetables, now, while those who think toward sculpting a future discuss the real issue. The ego is with us - or rather, the socialized self-image is with us, too much, in that what we have for our egos is displaced into the absolute and generic perception of other people: the assumption that there is some standard by which all people will view us, and that this represents more of "us" than our inner attributes, such as our character and our spirit and our preferences and values. What is important is not the person, but the person as demonstrated, or shown off in public. It is no longer an individual, but a series of boundaries, as agreed upon by every person in the observing audience, like a character in a movie. It doesn't matter that she loves animals and will, if she gets out of this absurdly symbolic drama, run off gratefully to veterinary school and spend the rest of her life tending to them; what matters is that she has chosen the Dark Path, because her character is summed up in a certain way, say a preference for power over emotion, and thus she - like every good chesspice of symbolic intent in art - gets quickly shuffled offstage and goes to the fate that, as you saw earlier in the movie, she merits by her actions. This is not religious; it is not political; it is not social; -- it is all three, unified by something more basic than a symbolic division of thought into discipline can symbolize.
Yet it seems that this self-image/ego problem is with us, in that the major cause of our world's decline is people doing not what is right by all things, but what enriches them most in the short term, whether through money, or power, or social status. Is this directly a cause of self-image/ego, or is there something that underlies both errors? The lack of collective goals points toward a deficiency which existed before the egomania of the current era, so our philosophical inquiries should probably target whatever created the void into which me-first-ism fell. This task is complicated by the nature of selfishness, which although it works through the individual, produces a revengeful crowd; the individual dislikes anything that threatens its boundaries, and thus will work with others to tear down those who have higher goals that individual enrichment and comfort. Although this seems a paradoxical proposition, history bears witness to the downfall of the West as a form of mass revolt by the less distinguished against the part of their population that traditionally bore the responsibility of leadership. If this is not envy in action, it would be hard to place a finger on what it is. Those who could not be leaders, wanting what leaders had, destroyed the principle of leadership through crowd rebellion, and thus created a void in which their egomania was unopposed.
For this to happen, however, there has to be some failure in leadership that allows such an unbalance, where the majority of the population are so clueless that they are undisciplined and destructive. It may be this failure was as simple as the leadership minority becoming so small it was overwhelmed. Yet -- using what we have observed from day to day life, balancing probability against probability, this seems unlikely. Experience dictates that such an overthrowing could not have happened without some fragmentation, or lack of consensus, among the leadership population first, followed by its increasing irrelevance and thus weakness. We could claim that what afflicted the leaders was what later deranged the bulk of the population, namely, a nutty desire for personal power and wealth. This, at least, is common when a society has no great task before it, such as growth, or warfare, or struggle with a natural threat. It makes sense to keep going, however, because our analysis has not found a common thread basic enough to reveal this widespread falling apart. We have found plenty of clues.
Such a common thread would have to be so universal it functioned as a bedrock not of government, or society, or culture, but of perception itself, which is influenced by the attitudes around it and can thus re-program humans to see the world in a different way; the smarter ones might find their way out of a logical trap, but the most subtle and prevailing logical traps are the ones that take lifetimes of experience to decode. These are the errors that cut to the core of our existential outlook, meaning how we value life itself, and what we find as meaningful goals within it to pursue. They shape what we expect out of life, and what for which we strive, and by those, what we're willing to endure. This is a form of managing both joy and fear, and thus motivating the individual to work in concert with civilization and nature to live the best life possible. And, to cut to the chase, that leads us to the question of experience, through the question of what happens when fear eclipses joy, and out of fear we enshrine our doubts as holy, and deny our joy -- remembering, of course, that great success in civilization is a form of joy, as is heroism. To give of oneself, and to make something better than what existed before -- can there be a greater joy, a greater triumph?
Experience is what happens when we make contact with the world, gaining knowledge which shapes our internal "map" of the world, or the impression of it and its operations we store in our heads. When we think of an action, we plot it according to what we know will occur according to the world as we have observed it. A thrown ball will travel in a balance between its momentum and gravity, and at some point will fall to earth as gravity overwhelms what is left of its momentum. We understand our world by this mapping of it we have in our head: its geography, its natural laws, its cycles. While we have some knowledge of it via intuition, as our brains are shaped by years of genetic adaptation to the world and are as products of its mechanics prone to operate in a similar method to its laws, our basic method for adapting the world in our heads to the outside world is experience. Some refer to this process as part of the "inner war": gaining awareness of the world, and the discipline to act on it as is right for what is healthy (the "outer war" is applying this discipline in physical reality). Experience can bring great joy, and also great doubt, and from doubt comes a kind of fear that is different from fear of physical pain or loss; from doubt comes the fear that our lives are not worth the price of death.
This doubt could be characterized as "existential" doubt, meaning that we no longer live secure lives in our inner world when we have it; we wonder if our lives are misspent, if we could be doing something better, if the self and the self-image are not rewarded enough. After all, no matter how much we spin the process of death as a transition to another world, we never know for sure if it will be the case, so we focus on how we live and what those lives mean. And there we enter a new dimension of questioning, because to have something that is self-evident, such as survival, "mean" something introduces another layer of assessment. Thus we question our own lives and choices, and think about making different ones for the sake of having more "meaning" in our lives, even if we don't phrase the question that way. Existential doubt afflicts us more passionately when we are trying to overcome doubt, and make the most meaningful decisions. At this point, we hover in a grey area where much error or much greatness could be decided.
Doubt denies experience, as when one doubts, one would rather grasp something predetermined and uphold it as an absolute. Each time we venture out of our inner worlds and look to the larger world outside, we face possible rebuke, in the form of our preconceptions of what might happen not turning out how we'd expect. The most extreme case of this is death, where something fails so badly we are physically destroyed. Much as in religion, if one devotes all of one's time to explaining death away, death becomes a god, when one devotes all of life to explaining reality away, anti-reality (our inner worlds, sealed off from any kind of feedback loop with reality which could point out where illusion exists) becomes our new god, and it insidiously does not have allegiance to any named philosophy or entity within society. Instead, it is pervasive, and no matter what ideal we take on, because we have this preconceived method of parsing the world around us into internal tokens, we literally have blinded ourselves to the significance of our world, and have relapsed into internal symbolism. We are prisoners in our own minds, and we cannot escape until we address the construction of our prison, which is under our control, unlike the larger social and political apparatus around us.
The walls that confine us are made of our own fear of experience. It is easier to trust in an absolute truth than to experience the world; indeed, most people need to, as their own facilities and time resources do not allow for a study of philosophy. However, our entire society has at this point been infected by such a delusion. We would like to believe in predetermined outcomes, such that if we simply follow a sign or a path, we can arrive at the successes we see others as having. We fear taking the risk ourselves, however, and when we see no one else undertaking that difficult passage, we assume it is unnecessary. In doing so, however, we cut ourselves out of the equation of life, and see only the starting point and the product. Witness the average equation:
x ( random mathematical stuff here ) = y
We look merely at Y, seeing X as our current circumstance (or, our selves and self-images), and seek to skip the middle part of the equation. We don't want to take the risk, the chance, and the chance of failure, that comes with the unpredictable middle part. We'd like a nice clean path: press button A (not button B!) and you will be rewarded with success. There may be some ups and downs, but basically, you'll be OK, and death will be something that comes in the way distant future - you will not risk death in combat, or in struggle, or even in play. Keep it safe. Don't rock the boat. (This delusion can also occur in a spiritualist sense, where one finds oneself saying, "I didn't win the game, or get the girl, and I'm still starving and miserable, but at least, I did what was right!" It is for this reason that some philosophers, namely Nietzsche and Schopenhauer, rail against the idea of absolute Christian morality, all while upholding the values of that morality as sacred. They're saying that if the method of reaching a goal corrupts our minds, we will never have truly reached that goal; this is the "inner war" common to every Indo-European religion and personal mythology.)
From this fear of the middle comes passivity; from passivity comes absolutism, and from that baffling and unreal worlds patterned after our inner minds that cause us to relapse into our personal versions of reality, ignoring the obvious by ignoring the whole. When we look at reality, we see a single "thing" because all of its elements are connected; sky to earth, earth to water, water to fire - individual acting on world, and individual adapting to (being shaped by) world. Our fear of reality has made us prisoners in our own heads. This enables us to deny experience, and look only at a certain type of outcome, known as the final state - and to keep things safe, we measure this in material terms. We want our world to be exactly like our inner world, and we exclude everything else, as it is threatening. Whether we do this with money, with morality, or with politics is irrelevant, as the outcome (in the whole, not in the tangible part left over) is the same.
Experience also marks us. Like it or not, for every act we undergo, we strap wiring into our brain. Our minds are entirely physical, and the way we retain our programming is by building components of the brain, akin to those little squiggles on circuit boards, for each experience we undergo. This includes our decisions within it, which explains how learning occurs: based on past decisions, we have the ability to take on more refined tasks for present decisions, and thus all learning is cumulative. If you do not make the decisions required to get to a certain point, you cannot make decisions after that point. This is why traditional morality emphasizes selectivity in experience. If you have wiring in your brain for every sexual partner you've had, they are literally a part of you; if you screw around too much, you soon have only generic wiring, and don't even notice with whom you're sleeping. Focus on outcomes, not on experience, is revealed there. Similarly obsession with money and power denies the rite of passage one undergoes to get such things, a travail which in a healthy society would involve proving one's character and inner strength as well as the mechanical ability needed to reach an outcome.
We fear the risk of that undertaking, so we focus on the mechanical ability, and since that is accessible to everyone, we cheer ourselves for upholding "equality." This is philosophical error, and while it seems to function now, really we're living off the fat of what our ancestors achieved, and the piper awaits payment in the distant but closer-now future. Uh oh. Does it mean that our inner worlds will someday be compromised? Wait and see - the answer is one you can create for yourself. Other aspects of experience that terrify us include natural selection, or the idea that we might be insufficient to a task and just like the slow mouse under wings of eagles, be slaughtered and thus end our lives. Death-fear comes to rule us, doesn't it? Natural experience occurs both outside and inside our brains. If we opt for the easier, less obvious choice in all cases, when the time comes for us to face a significant choice, we are unfit for the task; we have selected ourselves out.
A potent metaphor for this realization comes from computer science. There are no random numbers in computers; how do you think up something without precedent? Instead, computers create "random" numbers by sampling random data, either atmospheric noise or user input or time data. Similarly, humans cannot think of a random number, as they are basing their choice on what they know, even if they decide to invert the choice - "I'd guess a seven, but I want something that is not obvious, so I'll pick something crazy, like a 13." An astute reader might note that novelty - that which is new and exciting in form, but perhaps of the same content as previous art - is created the same way. Pick what is rational, and then invert the idea, and thus come up with something "new" and "unique" and exciting. We are our experience. Make rotten decisions, and you program yourself to be rotten; make good decisions, and soon you will encounter new levels on which to prove yourself, and slowly better yourself.
When we speak of experience, most people confuse that term with sensuality, or the idea that the substance of life can provide a form of feedback that is interesting for its own sake. But really, how fascinating is it? Is that there much difference between orgasms, forms of intoxication, and sensation? Or do our senses point us toward something which is of much greater importance, namely the structure of life - that an orgasm is most significant when shared with someone truly adored, that intoxication is meaningful when it leads us to realizations or lubricates a social situation, and that sensations when assembled by the brain give us a picture of the external world? Experience ultimately teaches us how intangible the tangible is, in a form of paradox only something as brilliant as our universe (substitute "God" if you wish - it really makes no difference) could concoct. What matters is not the sensation, but what it signifies. This gets us closer to wishing for outcomes as seen as error above, but not on the same level. Where outcomes are absolutes without experience, ideals - "what it signifies" - are products of experience, and are re-calculated each time we undergo an experience. There are no absolutes, sensation included, only an ongoing process of evolution of idea.
You can hold onto nothing. Your body will decay, those you know will die, and eventually even your civilization's romantic ruins will collapse into dust, and the planet Earth be swallowed by the sun. What might outlast it is a higher grade of human, one not as developed in external character as self-image or technology would afford, but fully developed in internal character, in values and heroic attitudes and greater subtlety of thought and self-discipline. This sort of creature would be organized enough to escape the pitfalls in which we now exist, and to use technology for something thoughtful, like establishing new worlds and continuing the evolution of the species. Is this Nietzsche's superman? Is this the state of being a god and not a mortal? Is this Nirvana? Possibly, all three: it is a state toward which we evolve, where we are not distracted by substance or outcomes, but focus on experience as a way of programming ourselves to a higher state.
Nature operates via a simple principle: create a proliferation of designs, and select the best from among them by knocking out the least stable, and then build on that design base for the next generation. Even when starting with a simple design, this process rapidly creates a sturdy and enduring design in its place, and advances the state of knowledge radically. We as humans do not escape this process, physically or mentally. When we choose to degenerate out of fear, as in the current era, we devolve to the point of having no vision other than our own immediate gratification, and thus create doom for ourselves (such as childlishly fighting over resources by expanding our factions until we have consumed all resources, then becoming dependent on a machine-society, and thus fighting internally until we destroy that and, having nowhere to go, collapse with it). And what is the origin of this devolution? A fear of experience, and of experience shaping us, leading to us relying on absolutes - God told me to, The customers like it, We have orders from above - passively, instead of asserting what is right for the whole and acting on it, regardless of consequences. All of our downfall - mass revolt leading to dumbing down, industry that eats our planet, democracy and morality and bad breeding including racial mixture - comes from this core realization. This core realization comes from doubt as to the meaning of our existences.
The West - and now the world - has for too long been grasped by this existential doubt. Although we have done well so far, our success has been mixed, in that for all of our genius, and all of our inventions and successes, we are still plagued by this internal failure, and our illusions of reality have caused us to push ourselves onto a path to sure collapse. It would be nice, surely, to find something internal to this system of thought that we could eliminate, and thus move forward with only the good parts, but the plain truth of it seems to be that our basic philosophy restrains us. We could have all that we have, and more, if we were able to organize our energies toward positive ends, and not condemn ourselves with neurosis. Yet that neurosis comes with our basic worldview, and explains why for every good thing we've done, we've also brought doom upon ourselves in the subtlest of fashions, that of a long-term imminent collapse. With this slow death lurking in the wings, naturally neurosis worsens, and the hysterical paranoia that results divides us further and only hastens the collapse.
Since there are no obvious enemies, nor any allies without the enemy within, the only solution is to dissect the illusion and to begin cultivation of a healthy philosophy that can unite us in the future. Not everyone has to understand this; in any society, there is a small minority of leaders who understand things, and many others who form the support infrastructure for the ideas of those few. This minority needs to come together on a belief system, as currently it is so divided that its members no longer care about doing what is right, so long as the ideas and symbols that represent their faction achieve a relative victory (even if that means smoking marijuana and drinking wine in the ruins, having outsurvived the others by a small margin). When we look toward this future philosophy, it makes little sense to rearrange the tokens we now use, but good sense to attack its origins, in which is ensconced our attitude toward existence.
The symptoms of our error, at the lowest level, are an obsession with self-image, including a selfish self-interest which denies the obvious reality in favor of what benefits us immediately, and a passivity which has us herdlike following symbols and images while remaining blind to the truth. The most primitive diagnosis suggests that, simply, we are disconnected from reality, and that this passivity and self-image obsession is the result of us having no direct interaction with the world as whole, thus having no idea what are the consequences of our actions. Like most errors, this begins with a few, and then as the rest struggle to compete, spreads to the society as a whole; most people today do not act in pure blindness, but out of a need to keep earning a living and surviving in a world that has gone blind. If someone stood up and clearly pointed out the error, and enough leaders agreed that it was so, these people would be liberated from the system of competing against others for the privilege of error. For this reason, finding consensus in a diagnosis would liberate us from illusion and allow for a commonality of philosophy which would disintegrate the illusion from within as individuals no longer found themselves compelled to act on illusion in order to survive.
We can reverse this process. Passivity would have us looking for a single leader, a symbol, or other absolute truth riding out of the mist, to which we could cling and say, save us - save us from ourselves. But no one is coming to break down our prison, to shatter the demons that haunt our dreams, and to lift us up into a pure world where none of this potential for error exists; we have to do it for ourselves, and escape our prison by discovering what it is and then replacing it with something else. Don't bother with deconstruction. It's an excuse for wasting time. Once you have diagnosed the nature of the prison, simply replace it. This author suggests two things: (1) realism and (2) heroic idealism. The first is a recognition that our physical reality is all we need, and that mystical concerns come after here-and-now action. The second is an awareness that, much as in evolution, we are fighting for a better design, not greater comfort of substance or even individual survival. The survival of the whole, including our planet and its ecosystems, is the highest goal, and there is no sacrifice too great toward this end. Even if we die, even as we pass away into grey ash and dust, the process of experience is marching on, and if we believe in the good things in life we have had so far, we realize this process of experience is life - an intangible thing - and that to value life is to uphold it, and even die for it.
Dedicated to Antti Boman
April 12, 2005