The Embrace Of Sadness And The Deepening Of The Self

At the core of my being is a profound sadness. I would say that my predominant life-emotion is sadness; melancholy representing it in its most beautiful and poetic form, and clinical depression (from which I suffer intermittently) representing it in its most explicitly bleak form.

I’m not sad person in the sense that I’m outwardly and obviously sad all the time, but it’s always just below the surface; bubbling. My eyes well up with tears on a near daily basis, and have my entire adult life. Anything can provoke it, from a random lyric in a song, to a news story, to mere moments of silence. I view life as fundamentally tragic. And it is.

Our lives are fleeting, fragile, largely meaningless, and marked by violent injustice and personal loss. In our personal lives, we are forced to watch as everyone we love grows old, gets sick, and eventually dies. The older we get, the more funerals we attend. Life is a waiting room where, one by one, we watch everyone we care about march into their graves while we wait for our turn; a macabre conveyer belt of death. Zooming out and looking at civilization as a whole, we realize that we live in a society which elevates the shallowest aspects of our nature to the level of what we blindly call “culture”: from endless, vacuous consumerism, to soul-crushing and time-stealing wage labor, to the obsessive and ubiquitous focus on hyper-individualism, selfishness, and competition, which destroys any semblance of community and leaves us feeling isolated, alienated, and perpetually dissatisfied. Add to that the constant barrage of natural disasters, mass shootings, war, and disease, and life, both personally and generally, is often overwhelming in its wretchedness.

To open your eyes to the world is to open them up to abysses of despair and mountains of triviality.

For sensitive, intellectual people our world is a monstrosity, punctuated only far too rarely by brief moments of elation and happiness. Moments which fade quickly, and serve only to remind of us of their oppressive infrequency.

My personal transition from adolescence to adulthood was defined by a long period of clinical depression. The naiveté and sense of joy that had marked my childhood crumbled into dust when I first had to get a shitty job and I realized that this was what the rest of my life, and all of our lives, consisted of: going to work, coming home, paying bills, and going back to work. That revelation was so disorienting and dark that I fell into the worst depression of my life, and stayed there until I had to be hospitalized for it. I was admitted into a psych-ward for a week, while a team of psychiatrists and doctors tried to figure out how to treat me. There solution of medication worked long enough for me to get out of the hospital, but soon failed miserably. The sadness I had, while partially neuro-chemical, was fundamentally existential, and there is no treatment for that. When the disease is life itself, what pill could I swallow to make it better? The answer was then as it is now: none.

I do not want to sound hyperbolically bleak. All things considered, I am a very blessed man. I have a nice apartment, two wonderful, healthy kids who I love more than I could put into words, a fiancé, and a great set of family and friends who love me deeply. I am not in desperate poverty. I do not have any serious health problems. And my job, while utterly meaningless and morally unfulfilling, grants me a surplus of downtime in which I can read and write (and get paid for it!).

I do not walk around life with my head down in a state of indefinite emotional despair. In fact, most of my adult life has been a project of learning how to live in the midst of this tragedy. Without recoiling into medication or therapy, I’ve been able to cobble together some basic strategies for living with my head above water, appreciating the small things in life, and keeping my sanity. In my personal life, I’m extremely lighthearted and often humorous. No one who interacts with me on a daily basis would use the term “sad” to describe me. But that is not because I hide it from people, its because, all things considered, I am fairly well-adjusted and have been able to put together an assortment of mechanisms by which I can live. Humor, parenthood, and a handful of hobbies are primary ways that I cope with life.

But the sadness is always there. The darkness is always there.

But accepting this, and even embracing it, has allowed me room to exist. In fact, I would argue that there is beauty, and the promise of growth, in the embrace of one’s own sadness. Sadness, when not violently catapulted into clinical depression, is actually a very gentle, often sublime emotion. When we stop resisting it, or trying to escape it, we can allow it to operate within us and therefore to deepen us.  Sadness, once embraced, can function like a rain that, over time, erodes away the hardness of our internal lives and carves out room for empathy, gentleness, and even love. It can soften us, and through that softening, it can make us better, more connected, more authentic human beings. When we come face to face with the tragedy of our own life, we can see the tragedy in everyone’s life. Our sadness is the sadness of being human, and by extending that realization outward, we foster compassion and love for other human beings. And that, perhaps, is the foundation on which a better world can be built…

Anarchism In The Context Of Today’s World

Being an anarchist, for me, does not mean that I think we can have, or even should have, a stateless society overnight, or in the near future. That wont happen.

What being an anarchist REALLY means for me is to be constantly surveying the political, social and economic landscape in search of all forms of hierarchy, power, authority, and injustice, and then systematically analyzing and critiquing those structures; forcing them to justify said hierarchy/power/authority, or be opposed in every way possible.

Those systems of hierarchy, authority, and power can be obvious, like in the case of governments or corporations, but they can also be more subtle, albeit just as dangerous, like in the case of patriarchy, institutional racism, homophobia/transphobia, etc. An anarchist opposes them all, and knows *exactly why* she/he opposes them.

Additionally, its our social duty, to whatever extent possible, to self-govern. This means making a concerted, daily effort to behave as morally as possible; to plant, in you own little sphere of influence, the seeds of a better world. A world of cooperation, solidarity, social responsibility, and love.

If you call yourself an anarchist, you better be trying everyday to do these things or what’s the point? Anarchism is not just wanting to “smash the state”; its much, much more than that. Its about developing yourself and your community, its about caring for your fellow human beings, its about opposing injustice anywhere and everywhere that it appears.

Ultimately, its about believing that a better world, a more just world, is possible, and then taking on the responsibility of trying to help build that world…

Musings on the Emotions

Emotions are the background context in which our subjective experiences take place. They paint, and possibly distort, virtually every moment of our existence. Can we say that we ever have an emotion-less moment? Emotions are not always characterized by their excesses or their extreme states, which is how we often think of them. For example, anger, sadness, jealousy, joy, etc., are emotions with distinct names, because they are distinct emotions; separated from the other, more nuanced emotions, by their very vividity and starkness.  If one introspects upon their emotions enough, they begin to discover these other, more nuanced, blurry, and inexact emotions that are constantly at play. The mark of a healthy mind is the stability of those emotions which are more or less positive or neutral, and are also, to a greater or lesser extent, resistant to negative external pressure. If we take all of this into account, it seems less likely that an “emotionless” state is possible. I would be open to arguments or evidence to the contrary, of course. Either way, its safe to say that emotions play a much bigger role in our existential experience then we generally acknowledge.

I have also come to notice that some of the aforementioned “distinct” emotions for which we have clear definitions and meanings are not emotions unto themselves, but composed of a constituency of other emotions. Jealousy, for example, is a perfect example of an emotion that we generally think to be entirely distinct from others (and Love, Anger or Hate are perfect examples of emotions that can be said to exist in their own right, irreducible to other more basic emotions.) In reality, I think it can be said that jealousy is actually an emergent property that presents itself when a few different, and possibly contradictory, emotions bubble up simultaneously. Surely both love and hate, or at least some aspect of those emotions, are at play in jealousy. These are contradictory emotions (love and hate), giving us that odd, perplexing and unsavory feeling in our gut that we get when we become victims of jealousy. In addition to love and hate, a pinch of bitterness or envy are present as well, along with a dash of anger and a sprinkling (sometimes more than a sprinkling) of possessiveness (which can be seen both as a trait and an emotion, in my opinion. Surely we have felt a unique emotion associated with the possession of certain dearly valued object that is not really love, but a certain other sort of desire or longing). This emotion is often felt in relation to humans instead of to objects, when we feel a certain entitlement to another person. In romantic relationships especially, this emotion of possessiveness is ever-present and can get out of control rather easily. It’s a curious effect of the human mind that we direct an emotion reserved for the possession of inanimate objects towards a human being, but it is not surprising. This need to possess, and its contingent emotional baggage, probably has its roots in the human desire to control the chaos of reality. We exercise this need for control in a myriad of ways, but our affection towards certain objects is one of the more peculiar manifestations of this need for control, in my opinion.  Objects don’t die, they tend to stay around, and if we can possess something that does not get old and die, in contrast to ourselves, we can have a subconscious calming.  We can attach our transient selves to a not-so-transient object , and thus get an illusory, albeit sedating, sense of control over our own inevitable fate. We invest our very selves into objects such that our most prized possessions are not just possessions, but externalizations of our own selves. It is not a surprise, when viewed from this perspective, that we should do the same to our lovers and friends. Our selves are intimately tied up in “the other”, and this can lead to a certain sense of entitlement to, or possessiveness over, that person, because in them we view a part of our selves, and what do we own in this world if not our own selves?

Emotions of the sort we have been discussing, as well as emotions generally, are absolutely vital for the way we interact socially.  We like to fancy ourselves as rational agents, more or less reasonable creatures with a very potent intellect.  We emphasize the rational over the emotional because the rational is what sets us apart of the animal world.  Emotions seem more base, more instinctual, and thus more animalistic, and so we downplay their importance to our intellectual lives.  However, all reason exists in an emotional context.  Emotions play a very significant role in our decision-making, our reasoning, and our thinking generally.  To be rational without any emotion would be a very different sort of “rational” than we assume.  It would be cold, distant and calculating because it would not have the emotional under-current to give it direction, morality, and “heart”.  Therefore, as much as we try, we cannot separate our rational selves from our emotional selves, they are inexorably interconnected, and that is actually a very good thing.

This dominance of the emotions is what makes human relationships so god damn hard.  Especially romantic relationships.  It is hard enough for most of us to deal with our own emotional ups and downs and keep the mental ship steady, let alone doing that laborious work for another person as well.  The human emotional complex is a complicated beast; its messy, difficult to understand let alone navigate, and so strong at times as to make us chemical puppets to our emotional surges for a period of time.  One day we are passionate, engaged, motivated and excited with life and the next we wax cynical, retreat from the world, and experience a sort of mental apathy.  Such is the plight of the emotional ape.

Pleasure and Pain as Relational States

At first, the claim is an obvious one. Pleasure and pain are two sides of the same coin. We would not have the word “pleasure” unless there was some degree of displeasure, or at least a threat of displeasure, to compare it to. In the same way that we would not have a word for day, if there were no night. They are relational states. If everything were pleasurable, all of the time, we would not call it pleasure, it would be the “neutral” state of normalcy. It is only by means of our pain, displeasure and suffering that we can possibly value pleasure, whether bestial or intellectual, in any coherent way.
The implication of this is stark, and possibly obvious; pain and suffering is necessary in life. Although much of our personal and collective energy is dedicated to the utopian goal of eventually eradicating pain and suffering in the world, I would argue that not only is that impossible (death alone provides enough suffering and pain, and that will never be eradicated. We may prolong life indefinitely, but the universe will eventually die, according to modern physics, and thus death can never be eternally avoided) but it is also undesirable.
Leibniz, the famous philosopher and mathematician who co-discovered calculus with Newton and believed in a theistic God, made a famous statement in philosophy when he asserted that “this is the best of all possible worlds”. Voltaire, the French intellectual and polemic of the 18th century, blasted Leibniz in his short philosophical novella Candide. After all, with all of the suffering and depravity in the world, how could one utter such a phrase? But I do not think Voltaire gave Leibniz’s utterance the respect it deserved. Leibniz felt the truth of pleasure and pain as relational states, and he may very well have been correct in his analysis.
When contemplating these concepts, one cannot help but ponder the classical notion of theistic heaven. The claims made on heaven’s behalf, are that it is a place where no pain or suffering exist, it is eternal bliss. God has managed to pry one side of the coin off completely and left only a one sided coin; an oxymoron and a paradox, to be sure, but if anyone can manage such a feat, it would be the big guy himself. But what is the value in such a place? Without pleasures contrasting element, we run into the problem of pleasure being the neutral state, and thus losing its essential and elevated position. However, a clever theist could strike back with an interesting point. The point the theist could assert is this: the memory of the pain we suffered during life will be sufficient for maintaining the eternal state of bilss that heaven offers. We could remember our bygone pain, and thus the eternal pleasures of heaven would never lose their sweetness and sublimity. But surely as the eons go on, and memories fade, we will come to a point when those memories do not hold the acuity they once did. The obvious retort is that in heaven, the memory and time itself are structured differently, so we would not experience time in a linear fashion, and even if we did, God could maintain our memories for the purpose of stabilizing the integrity of the pleasure we feel in heaven. Fair enough say I!
There is another interesting point about God, that may contrast with my own agnostic atheism, but I am nothing if I am not fair. A main critique wielded by atheists since Epicurus came up with the formal problem of evil, is that if an all-loving God does exist, why is there so much suffering in the world? Well, if pleasure and pain are relational states as I have argued, then in order for life to be beautiful, deep, pleasurable, and awe-inspiring, there has to be cancer, rape, genocide, depression and death. Also, if heaven exists, an all loving, rational God might very well create an imperfect world with the knowledge that eternal bliss in heaven will be consolation enough for any imaginable pain inflicted on our terrestrial, corporeal selves. This is an argument I never hear from theist, but they may be wise to pack this conceptual/rhetorical tool in their arsenal for debates with the heathens, such as myself. Without doubt, this is no knock-down argument, but it could be interesting to throw into a debate.
Of course, nothing ground breaking and deeply insightful has been said in this post, but it an interesting concept to ponder, and I wanted to flesh out some of these ideas on a blog. To fulfill one’s appetite is surely a pleasure, and in that vein, consider this food for thought!

Mary’s Room and Non-Reductive Materialism

              The Mary’s Room thought experiment is one that was presented by Frank Jackson in his paper “Epiphenomenal Qualia” in 1982 as an argument against physicalism.  Briefly, it postulated a super-scientist named Mary who was carefully sheltered from all experiences of color except black and white (and presumably some shades of grey[i]) in a room for her entire life[ii].  She has access to every possible physical fact about color vision, and after decades of intense study, and with every possible fact about color vision firmly resting in her intellect, she is allowed outside of the room and gets the chance to view color.  Is she surprised by the qualitative experience of seeing the color red, or does she shrug her shoulders and make a statement akin to: “obviously! This is exactly what I had expected red would look like”?  The conclusion that Jackson asserts, siding with the former of the two possible reactions, is that seeing red is not a physical fact, and thus physicalism is false.  This conclusion is of massive interest to philosophy of mind, but also to neuroscience and psychology[iii], because it throws into question the widely held position of philosophers and scientists who tend to adhere to some form of materialism or physicalism.  But is this merely a clever trick conceived by Jackson to give pause to the prevailing winds in philosophy and science, or does it deal a death blow to physicalism?  I will see if I can shed some light on the issue by dissecting Jackson’s core argument and analyzing its constituent parts.

Mary knows all the physical facts.

Mary doesn’t know what it is like to see red.

Ergo, what it is like to see red is not a physical fact.

First, it is necessary that we define the term physical facts.  There are a couple of ways we could define this phrase, but I would like to postulate my own definition that I believe meets the conceptual criteria that Jackson is trying to assert.  I define physical facts as objectively true statements about the world that are available to everyone, regardless of subjective beliefs, desires, dispositions or worldviews[iv].  Of course, I am sure some would choose to quarrel with my definition, but I think it gets to the point rather clearly, and in any event provides a good enough definition to allow us to proceed.

The first premise of this formal argument, “Mary knows all the physical facts”, can be subject to attack from someone who would claim that it is simply an impossibility to be privy to all the physical facts, for this would not only include the facts about color vision specifically, but would require knowledge of all the laws of physics as well.  It may very well be the case that the human mind has definite limits to its conceptual and intellectual capacities.  However, the obvious retort would be to assert that this is a philosophical thought experiment, and as long as it is possible in principle (meaning it is not logically incoherent to assume the possibility of being able to know all the physical facts) than the thought experiment may proceed unhindered by the hypothetical limits of our intellectual capacities.  I would argue, in fact, that it is principally possible to have knowledge of all the physical facts of color vision, although we have not gotten there yet.  Setting aside the above mentioned critique, the first premise, as it stands, is not very susceptible to death-blow refutations.

The second premise, on its face, seems permissible right away, but upon further investigation it actually poses a deeper problem than the critiques of the first premise.  Some would argue that Mary, being equipped with all the relevant physical facts, can indeed see red with her mind’s eye.  After assembling the seemingly indefinite amount of physical facts into a coherent intellectual constellation within her mind, which the thought experiment presumes, it could be argued that the seeing of red simply pops into her intellect.  Something akin to releasing an inflated balloon from the bottom of a lake, it simply rises to the top and presents itself.  I find this extremely difficult to believe.  In what other area of the mind does this occur?  For instance, I could read every book, every sentence, every word ever written about war; I could understand the history of war, I could understand the strategies of war, I could understand the human cost of war, ad inifinitum.  But it seems absolutely absurd to than present me with a war medal, does it not?  The actual experience of being on the battle ground with my life hanging by the most fickle of threads is something no amount of intellectual understanding could equip me with.  In the same way, I feel that no amount of intellectual understanding on the part of our heroine could equip her with the actual subjective experience of seeing red.

The conclusion presented by Jackson puts me in an uncomfortable position as a thinker, and more specifically as a materialist.  I consider myself a non-reductionist materialist, in the sense that I do not think qualia can be reduced to its physical properties in the brain without losing some essential fact or value of a given experience.  However, I am still a materialist who denies dualism in all of its forms.  How can I make the fact that I believe Jackson’s argument, is basically a valid one mutually compatible with my fundamental belief in materialism?  I believe the answer lies in the details of non-reductive materialism.  My position requires that I agree with the two premises of Jackson’s argument whilst disagreeing with his conclusion.  Therefore I posit the following idea, which I did not invent, but which I am strongly sympathetic to, which is the idea of having, fundamentally, two sides to any event which includes a conscious creature.  There is the physical, reductive, objective explanation on the one hand, and the qualitative, qualia-laden, subjective experience on the other.  The tendency is to tear these apart and pick a side, however I think that is a mistake.  In the case of color vision, there is the physical explanation of how color vision works and there is the corresponding subjective experience of that color, but both are essentially two sides of the same (physical) coin.  It would be a mistake to try and reduce one to the other; it is like trying to reduce day to night or to reduce love to hate[v].  However, and this is vital, both sides of the coin are rooted in material.  A brain can exist without consciousness, but consciousness cannot exist without a brain[vi]

So, I do not believe that the conclusion of this argument follows from the two premises, which I believe are valid in their own right.  What does follow from the premises, in my opinion, is that you cannot reduce experience to physical facts without losing something essential along the way; that essentialness being the “other side of the coin”, or subjective experience.  It is not physicalism or materialism that is false then, it is hardcore reductionist physicalism or materialism that is false.  

So when Mary steps out of her dark room into the vivid and sublime world of color, she is taken aback in amazement and has, I believe, a new sort of knowledge that she did not possess previously, namely the knowledge of subjective experience.

[i] Perhaps 50 or so. (sorry, bad joke, I couldn’t resist)

[ii] Although, it is arguably true that black, white and grey are not actually colors.

[iii] I have personally come across this thought experiment in neuroscience and psychology classes as well as philosophy classes.

[iv] Of course, it could be argued that some people, fueled by dogmatic religion for example, could not accept facts as such, but in the wise words of astrophysicist Neil DeGrasse Tyson, “The good thing about science is that it’s true whether or not you believe in it.”   

[v] Therefore, it is possible to have only one side of the coin accessible to you for various reasons.  With Mary, she has the physical side available, but not the subjective, experiential side, and cavemen, for example, have the subjective, experiential side available to them, but not the physical, factual, explanatory side.  The full breadth of knowledge and experience would be in combining both sides of “the coin”, if you will.

[vi] I am NOT saying that this applies to Mary’s knowledge in this exact way, I am merely making a larger point about the mind/body problem.  It would be absurd to assert that the physical facts can exist with conscious experience, but that conscious experience cannot exist with physical facts.