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An Introduction to World Peace-ism

 

Ever wondered what it might take to rid the world of conflict and live in happiness forever? Well, the journey to world peace begins here, and ends with 1000 episodes of the SRSLY WRONG podcast.

Audio taken from SRSLY WRONG Episode 10 – ‘World Peace’, and Episode 12 – ‘Hating The Good For The Love of The Perfect':

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How Migraines Feel

Usually, the first thing I notice is this fog that starts to roll in; they call it the ‘aura’. Thinking is difficult and muddy, and my visual field looks distorted, almost like the heat waves rising from summer pavement, but more splattered and less linear. A indescribable film that muddles my vision, just slightly. Or, it might start with a twinge near my temple. A pulse. It’s kind of like electricity — painful electricity, but not too painful. Not yet, anyway.

Sometimes I try to ignore it and it goes away. I’m always grateful when it does.

If I can’t ignore it, I try to head it off with deep breaths, drinking lots of water, cold showers, yoga, or painkillers. Sometimes these help. Sometimes the clouds part before the storm even begins.

I’m learning not to clench. Not to contract the muscles in my face or tense my head in pain when the pulses twinge, or the fog builds and begins to pressurize into storm clouds. When I relax my face, my head, my mind, and allow the fog and painful sparks to be as they are, sometimes that helps, but it’s not easy.

The storm will start to get dense and completely invade the top half of my face — behind my eyes, temples, and above my forehead, it feels like the nerves are tangled in tight knots. It concentrates behind one of my temples. My head feels heavy. The clouds start to throb. A slow, irregular heartbeat of deep, dull pain. Rising and falling like a tide. The electrical pulses haven’t stopped either. They strike like lightning bolts through the twisty knotted nerves.

A head is a small place for a thunderstorm.

My eyes water and I try to act normal. Saying “I have a migraine”, if I have something I need to do, is usually pointless — nobody can help, even if they want to — and I can’t always quit life for the day.

I tend to squint a lot, and my eyes water. Light doesn’t hurt — not exactly — but it is unpleasant. It’s like the clouds feed on it. Direct sunlight or a bright flash can trigger a lightning bolt.  Sharp, loud, or high noises also feed the thunderstorm and tighten the knots. Especially when abrupt or unexpected. They call it ‘sensitivity’ to light and sound. I can actually deal with either pretty well — as long as it’s not sudden — but when I find some quite darkness, the relief is palpable. I lay in bed a lot. I try to keep something comfortable and cool against my forehead. Rotating pillows and shifting the blankets works well. The softness on my skin is especially soothing.

The only problem with a dark, quite, soft bedroom is that even in the absence of any painful stimuli, the storm still rages. Only now there are no distractions.

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Photo: Migraine by makelessnoise
License: Creative Commons

Sometimes, I’ll remember again to release the tension in my head and in my body, and consciously relax, and it’s a relief. And then the knotty nerves throb or a lightning bolt strikes and I forget about anything but the pain. I want to cry, and often do. Time for a pity party! Why me!?? What did I do to deserve this??!?

If I can fall asleep, I am grateful. If not, I have to get up and distract myself because lying there awake becomes its own torture.

By this time, it’s been maybe four to seven hours since the fog first started rolling in. I haven’t eaten much because my stomach is tight and nauseous and frankly, the prospect disgusts me. Sometimes making myself eat something helps with the pain. I’ll try the cold shower, the yoga, an orgasm, or the painkillers again. Sometimes these work.

Eventually, it happens. The lightning gets a little less intense. The rhythmic tide gets a little more distant. My mind is slightly clearer. I get really stoked.

Sometimes, the storm takes pity and breaks apart rapidly, but usually it’s a slow process. The fog lazily clears out and the nerves untie themselves. The lightning bolts weaken back into static pulses. This can take an hour, or six hours. I never really know.

Once the clouds have fully parted my head feels open and light. I’m incredibly happy but incredibly tired. Even if I just laid around in bed all day, I’m fucking drained. I feel like I just spent the day hiking in the sun.

These storms take a lot out of me.

I always promise myself to never take this painless state for granted again. It’s such a gift.

 

*Note, I’m still working on the follow-up to Humanity – We Have a Problem! It’s a big article and is taking some time to complete, but it is on the way!

The Art of Healing by Hartwig HKD
License: Creative COmmons

Humanity – We Have a Problem!

Part 1 – Symptoms

We have a problem, but it’s not that we’re killing the earth.

We couldn’t ‘kill the earth’ if we tried. We’d be shaken off like dead lice before we could make much of a dent with our pitiful nuclear weapons, factory smokestacks, and logging companies.

'Kill Our Planet' - Photo by TruthOut.org License: Creative Commons

‘Kill Our Planet’ – Photo by TruthOut
License: Creative Commons

Life on this planet has been through (and survived) far worse than we can throw at it. We could kill a lot of the species — probably most of them — but not life.

Even after a nuclear holocaust, life would churn away, in hidden corners, cracks, and crevices, until the radiation was dissipated (or eaten by Radiotrophic fungi). Then it would flourish again, and evolve new and diverse forms. Species have always come and gone. It is only our somewhat narrow lens of ‘conservation’ that seeks to freeze the state of nature and biodiversity as they were when we came onto the scene.

The planet’s environment is in flux, as it always is. We are most definitely having our effect on it, but it cannot be ‘destroyed’. Not by us.

Now before you accuse me of being a bit dense, I want to assure you that I understand what people mean when they say we’re killing the planet. They mean that we are making it uninhabitable, for us.

It is us, and many other species, that we are hurting. Not ‘the environment’. Not ‘the earth’. Us. Our habitat. Our ecosystem. Obviously, I don’t think this is a good thing, but it’s not ‘the problem’. It’s a symptom.

You know what else isn’t the problem? Our governments. Dogmatic religious organizations. Corporations. They aren’t doing much to provide solutions, but they aren’t ‘the problem’. Institutions and ideologies aren’t things that can do things. They definitely aren’t things that can cause problems. They are symptoms of the problem, and they can only manifest when people embody them. They are beliefs, ideas, and ways of being. They are infectious patterns of thought that exist within and between people, and they spread because people spread them.

“You and I have created it, not a capitalist nor a communist nor a fascist society, but you and I have created it in our relationship with each other. What you are within has been projected without, on to the world; what you are, what you think and what you feel, what you do in your everyday existence, is projected outwardly, and that constitutes the world.”
-Jiddhu Krishnamurti

That’s right. People choose to spread them. The problem has to do with people, but the problem isn’t people. It’s not human nature. I’m not a misanthrope.

These infectious ideologies spring up and are sustained not because people are inherently bad or evil, not because we carry some genetic defect or are the embodiment of original sin, but because of a glitch. A glitch in something which is much more fundamental, yet luckily much more malleable than an institution or ideology.

Photo and art by Atibens
License: Creative Commons

Why You Have to Clean Your Mess to Fulfill Your Dreams

Photo and art by Atibens License: Creative Commons

Photo and art by Atibens
License: Creative Commons

A while back I started watching a Standford University lecture series by Robert Sapolsky on human behavioral biology (I even made it through about half of ’em!). Really interesting stuff, and there’s this moment, right at the beginning of the first lecture, where he asks his class: ‘How many of you believe in free will?’ You can’t see the class, only Sapolsky’s face as he surveys the raised hands, nods, and says ‘that’s gonna change’.

He then proceeds to explain, in great detail, all of the non-me factors that cause me to act the way I act. Evolution. Social conditioning. Genetics. Epigenetics. Neuroscience. The space for something called a ‘free will’ seems to close up rather rapidly as deterministic factors mount, and brain scans fail to find a little man in our heads who pulls the levers.

I personally believe this physical determinism sweeps consciousness under the rug in a way that isn’t rational or justified, and that free will is an open question.

Nevertheless, that is how many people see the world, and it begs a question which I actually find much more interesting — the question of moral responsibility, and it’s implications for personal empowerment. Both of these operate from the same basic premise — that we can, and should (or shouldn’t), do or achieve something. This article will focus moreso on responsibility, but only because, as I will hope to demonstrate, responsibility is the necessary basis for empowerment.

What Responsibility?

Let’s assume for the moment that determinism is the case, and our thoughts and actions are all caused by things that aren’t us. As Sam Harris points out, this challenges many traditional perspectives on responsibility:

“Most of us naturally feel that men like Hayes and Komisarjevsky [multiple murderers] should be held morally responsible for their actions[…] Of course, if we learned that both these men had been suffering from brain tumors that explained their violent behavior, our moral intuitions would shift dramatically. But a neurological disorder appears to be just a special case of physical events giving rise to thoughts and actions. Understanding the neurophysiology of the brain, therefore, would seem to be as exculpatory as finding a tumor in it.”

Ultimately, in the deterministic view, the big bang (or whatever antecedent causes came before it) is the reason and the culprit behind everything that has happened or will ever happen in this universe.

Would this mean, however, that the entire concept of moral responsibility is moot? Often, both determinists and free will advocates believe that it would, that free will is necessary for any kind of responsibility at all.

I don’t think so, and Harris agrees:

“If we cannot assign blame to the workings of the universe, how can evil people be held responsible for their actions? In the deepest sense, it seems, they can’t be. But in a practical sense, they must be. I see no contradiction in this.”

I think we still have (and should actually want) responsibility, for ourselves and for others — but perhaps a different kind of responsibility from how many typically conceive of it. More on that difference later.

Responsibility is a pragmatic necessity for a functioning society, and for an actualized, empowered individual. In our lives and in our communities, there are things that need to be done, and so we must ask ‘who is (or was) rightfully expected to do it?’ and ‘who must take care of the consequences?’

Who should take care of a newborn baby? Who is expected to make sure that airplanes run on time? Who is responsible for fulfilling my dreams for the future?

Without responsibility, without some construct to help us to determine the answer to these questions, the answers “Bill Clinton”, “my parents”, “Lady Gaga”, “any random Bangladeshi worker”, and “me” work equally well for all of them.

Jimmy and The Spilled Milk

To demonstrate the practical necessity of responsibility, allow me to use an example:

Don't Cry Over Spilled Milk - Photo by LimeGreen License: Creative Commons

Don’t Cry Over Spilled Milk – Photo by LimeGreen
License: Creative Commons

Jimmy is rushing to attend his first high school basketball game. After jumping out of the shower, he decides to grab a glass of milk. However, in his excitement, he drops and spills the entire jug across the floor.

Now, like any good determinist, we could trace the causative factors of this event in nearly endless directions. Male sports hysteria contributed to his excessive excitement about a basketball game, as did evolution and his drive to reproduce (there’s a particular cheerleader Jimmy really likes). Jimmy’s ride was waiting outside for him, honking, making the moment all the more urgent. His mother has a habit of being careless when in a rush, that he’s inherited. The milk jug could have been designed so that it was easier to grip, though his hands were still moist from the shower, making his grip less secure.

We can name a near-infinite amount of not-Jimmy factors that, regardless of what free will enthusiasts may think, caused this event to happen, partially or totally.

But the fact remains: there is milk on the floor.

If Jimmy were to say that because of these outside factors, he was exonerated from the responsibility of cleaning his mess, we would view him (rightly so) as kind of an asshole. If we agreed with him, if we don’t hold him responsible, we would reinforce his belief structure that he can expect others to solve his problems for him. This could have crippling effects on his success in other areas of his life.

Regardless of free will, responsibility can’t vanish into thin air. Somebody has to clean up the milk. If not Jimmy, then who? Human evolutionary history? Society? Jimmy’s mother? The cheerleader? His friend waiting outside? The water on his hands? A Chinese sweatshop worker?

Jimmy has the responsibility to wipe up his spill. Even if his understanding sister offers to do it, so he can be on his way, she is choosing to take that responsibility from him, where it naturally lies.

This is a practical justification for responsibility, but it is not based only on arbitrary signifiers, such as local custom or subjective social biases. It would not be equally valid to have a different society where Jimmy’s third cousin is held responsible for his actions. There are real determinable factors that can be used to assess responsibility.

Intention, Volition, and The Falling Brick

Responsibility need not be tied to free will, but it is tied to certain capacities that people inarguably have – intention, volition,1 and ability.

Intention is a specific state of mind (and brain), and it, or the lack of it, has everything to do with responsibility and empowerment. Determinism or not, intentions are important, because they precipitate actions. Things which cannot hold intentions cannot have responsibility, and cannot be empowered.

We are responsible, usually, for the intentions we have (or fail to have). Had Jimmy set a clear intention to be careful when he grabbed the jug of milk, he would not have spilled it. Had he not set an intention to practice everyday, he would not have been empowered to make the basketball team.

Volition is important because we cannot hold people responsible if their intentions are being controlled by another, or forced through some impossible situation. Volition requires choice.2

Ability is also important, because responsibilities we incur yet cannot fulfill will ultimately fall to others who may be affected.

For clarity, let’s use another example:

If a loose brick happens to fall from a building and smashes my shoulder, dislocating it, I might be upset at the situation, or at my bad luck, but I would not say that the brick, or the wall, must be held responsible. I wouldn’t demand it pay my medical bills, or question its intentions, because bricks don’t intend things (or neglect to intend things). The incident was simply the result of unconscious forces coalescing unfavorably.3

If, instead, a man had purposefully dropped the brick, that fundamentally changes the situation. Why? Because there was intention involved. If he had dropped the brick accidentally, we might still hold him responsible, like Jimmy, for his carelessness and negligence (failure to hold positive intentions), but we would rightly assign him less responsibility.

Finally, if we were to learn that the man who dropped the brick had done so because a second man had a gun to his head, we would absolve him of all responsibility, and shift it to the man with the gun. Even though he intentionally dropped the brick, he was coerced at gunpoint. His intentions were essentially not his own, they were superimposed by those of another.

This is the briefest, simplest possible overview of these principles. I could write long discussions on the caveats and grey areas involved, as there are many, but I hope what I’ve written here should suffice.

There is one caveat, however, that I must discuss.

The Responsibility of Responsibility

Let’s say that the man with the gun was brutally beaten with bricks by his father as a child — which is a good bet, as most violent people have histories of abuse.

We can help explain the gunholder’s actions by examining his past, and perhaps find sympathy for him, but this cannot release him from moral responsibility. Just as Jimmy’s past does not mean he doesn’t have to clean up the milk, this man’s past cannot mean he isn’t to be held accountable for his actions. He was physically capable of not taking them; he took them as a result of his intentions.

But he was damaged as a child. He is likely unable, due to that damage, to properly psychologically respond to the requirements of living in a functioning society (like, not dropping bricks on heads). This changes the tenor, though not the presence of responsibility. This is an example of having responsibility, but being unable to meet it. Someone who can’t live up to the responsibility of being a non-violent member of society is dangerous, and must be confined until they can live up to it.

Whose responsibility is it to confine this dangerous man? If Jimmy were a quadriplegic, unable to clean his mess, to whom would the responsibility fall?

Some responsibilities are not easily pinned down, as causation is vague, intentions are unclear (or absent), consciousness is questionable, or ability to respond is absent. These are legitimate grey areas that need special attention and consideration. While there may not be a single, clear answer, that only underscores the need for some agreed upon way to determine responsibility.

There are different ways grey areas can be handled, and the people who are affected by the situation must make those decisions. If Jimmy can’t clean up the milk, then his family, friends, or roommates must work out who will help him. If nobody does, they will all experience the negative side effects. The same holds true for the community where the gun-toting brick-dropper lives; if nobody takes responsibility for confining him, they all suffer potential consequences.

If we think back to the original brick scenario, where it simply happened to fall from the building, very much the same principal applies. In this case, the difference is that intention (rather than ability to respond) is absent. So nobody can be held responsible for causing the problem; but the problem still exists, and it is those whom it affects — in this case me, with the dislocated shoulder — who will have to accept that responsibility.

Accepting responsibility for a task, whether you caused it or are affected by it, is a statement to yourself and to others that you are capable of fulfilling that task. This element of belief in one’s own ability is the essence of empowerment.

Responsibility vs. Blame

When many people talk about responsibility, they are actually talking about two separate concepts, using one word, and failing to realize it. The first concept I described above: who is expected to take care of a task, and deal with the consequences of an action or inaction. This type of responsibility cannot be eliminated from any practical philosophy.

The second concept is what I will define as ‘blame’. I believe this was the ‘deepest sense of responsibility’ that Harris was referring to, that determinists rightly denounce,4 and that most certainly can be eliminated from our worldview.

Jimmy is responsible for cleaning up the milk, but can we really blame him for dropping it? He had so much on his mind! The gunman who instigated the brick drop, just the same, had previous factors that contributed to his behavior. Healthy, emotionally well-adjusted people simply don’t do such things. There are reasons why he did it. Many (or all) of which were beyond his control. We can’t blame him, but he is still responsible. Nobody else held that gun to the mans head.

Responsibility contains no judgement about the person. That is blame. Blame says that Jimmy IS careless for spilling the milk, while responsibility points out that he acted carelessly.

Responsibility is a clear and pragmatic assessment of facts, that may call for amends or rehabilitation, but never punitive retribution. That is blame, which is vindictive. Responsibility suggests that one should clean up their own mess, while blame would like to punish them for making it.

To make any sense, blame requires that people be the ultimate and only causes of their actions. This level of free will is a logical impossibility given he knowledge we have of psychology and human behavior.  If free will exists, it is a capacity that can be limited (or completely destroyed) by the environment of a person. A feral child cannot ‘choose’ to learn language as easily as a child raised by humans. A person subjected to extreme torture and brainwashing techniques has not ‘chosen’ their beliefs in any meaningful sense. People do not make decisions in a vacuum, and thus the impulse to blame and judge people rather than actions should be tempered with understanding and reason.

Stating that a person ‘is evil’ or ‘is a murderer’ makes assumptions that are pragmatically useless. How can a person who is a murderer ever not be a murderer? How can one not be what they are? On the flip side, a person who takes responsibility for a bad action, has taken the first step towards empowering themselves not to do it again.

Framed but not Ashamed! Photo by Samantha Olivieri  License: Creative Commons

Framed but not Ashamed! Photo by Samantha Olivieri
License: Creative Commons

Blame is an excuse to avoid the responsibility of learning about the kinds of circumstances under which people take negative actions, and then working to eliminate them. It is an excuse to avoid looking at the killer as a person with the potential to be healed and redeemed. He will always be somebody who killed another, but he need not always be a murderer.

Responsibility is proactive empowerment to find solutions to behavioral problems that blame may shunt off as ‘just the way that person is.’

In Defense of Guilt (and Pride)

You may be wondering why, if responsibility contains no judgement, do I call it ‘moral’ responsibility. Is not morality essentially concerned with judgement between ‘rightness’ and ‘wrongness’?

We return to the distinction between judging a person and judging their actions. Holding a gun to someone’s head and forcing them to throw bricks at people from tall buildings could end lives. It’s wrong. By any sane moral system, it is an evil thing to do.

And people who do evil things should feel guilty.

Guilt, embarrassment, and shame are the natural emotional reactions to feeling responsible for a wrong action. Pride, fulfillment, and satisfaction are the emotional components of feeling responsible for a good action.

When calibrated properly5 these feelings are extremely useful. They are all essential emotions for ‘course correction’ in the experience of being human.

If the gun-toting brick-dropper was unable to feel guilt, that would be a sign of damage, and of an inability to accept responsibility. Moral responsibility involves not only the acceptance of the reality that our actions affect others, but the experience of the corresponding emotional reaction to that knowledge.

We have a name for people who cannot feel these emotions – sociopaths.

One of the most important functions of moral responsibility is the ability to rightly feel or assign emotions such as guilt and pride. Determinists who believe these emotions should be tossed aside along with blame, punishment, and vindictiveness are missing the point.

I am glad that I feel guilty when I act carelessly. It helps motivate me not to do it again.

The recognition of outside causative influences — the acceptance of responsibility rather than blame — should temper, but not remove these emotions. The way we experience guilt based on blame is different than guilt based on unfulfilled responsibility. Guilt based on blame often spirals into intense, disempowering self-judgement, which can reinforce the negative behavior rather than help to correct it.

Guilt should be a motivation to initiate change, not to self-attack. Successfully changing one’s behavior based on shame is satisfying. Fulfillment at achieving a goal we set out to do is one of the most empowering experiences possible.

Responsibility is Empowerment

I believe I’ve made the case that not only do we need responsibility, we should want it.

Determinism or not, accepting responsibility — saying to yourself, ‘I can, and will, do this’ — empowers you psychologically, helping you to be more effective at manifesting your intentions and achieving your goals.  It is a powerful first step towards any achievement. Accepting that an outcome is in your hands, and not someone else’s, is a winning attitude.

When we ‘take responsibility’ for a project, we are accepting the task of working on or completing that project. By taking moral responsibility for our bad actions, we are accepting both the possibility and the necessity of working to prevent future occurrences of that action. By disavowing responsibility, we are negating (to ourselves and others) our ability to prevent future mistakes or achieve future greatness.

I am responsible for my writing career. I know that if I want to write for a living, I have to write, constantly, so that my skills improve. I also have to put my writing out there in places where people will see it. Nobody else will do that for me. I may get some help, but ultimately it’s my responsibility.

Taking responsibility for your own life and your own personal fulfillment fosters a sense of potency, autonomy, and self-directedness that is both vital and vitalizing. The belief that you, and only you, can possibly hold ultimate responsibility for your life and your choices means that the power to make positive changes in your life lies with you.

But doesn’t the conditional admission of determinism negate that? How can one have power when their choices (even if they are responsible for them) are ultimately caused from outside?

An acceptance of responsibility can be part of the deterministic system that is your brain. If your brain holds this acceptance, and understands the strategic benefit, it will be far more likely to set positive intentions and believe itself capable of achieving them.

If these words deterministically influence you to accept my vision of responsibility, you will be more likely to deterministically achieve your goals.

On the flip side, if you believe that you do have some ability to initiate causation of your own actions. If you believe there is some essential you-ness that can make shit happen, well, then, make it so! Don’t accept blame or let it bog you down, my dear free will believer!

While most people tend to automatically see free will as the more empowering view, a free will that engenders blame can often be as destructive towards empowerment as fatalistic determinism. If I ‘am bad’ for doing a bad thing, what hope have I of doing good things in the future? I am bad. This isn’t actually that much different from fatalistic determinism — if the future is set, why try to do anything? If I am set, why try to do anything differently?

Responsibility is empowerment, and blame is disempowerment, regardless of how free you think your will might be.

So take responsibility. Do something awesome. Be great, and have a nice day!

  1. If it pleases you, read this in an entirely deterministic way, to denote whether or not an action was voluntarily undertaken, as opposed to it being a response to duress or force.   (back)
  2. Again, if you are sensitive, choice here can be interpreted entirely deterministically, to denote multiple possible courses of action available to a person in a situation, and not whether they ultimately cause which choice is chosen.
    //hemming and hawing  (back)
  3. It’s been pointed out to me that this is an imperfect example, as somebody was likely responsible for maintaining the building in good condition. I accept that point, and just ask that you suspend disbelief in order to grasp the further point being made. Maybe, instead, imagine that a bird dropped the brick. Somehow.  (back)
  4. Though, incidentally, you don’t have to be a determinist to recognize the destructive nature of blame.  (back)
  5. ie: Based on sound moral reasoning. Like any emotions, these can be misplaced. Sometimes, due to ignorance or emotional damage, one may feel guilt when it isn’t necessary, or pride at doing something destructive, etc.  (back)
Cartoon published in the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) journal Solidarity on June 30, 1917.  License: Public Domain

The Collective IS Individuals: Bridging The Ideological Divide

The divide between individualist and collectivist ideologies is so deep, and often treacherous, that some might consider bridge building to be a fool’s errand. It’s a divide that cuts into some of the most important questions we have about how we should act, and how society should be structured. In our economic and moral considerations, it asks, should we place individual considerations ahead of social ones, or vice-versa?

I believe that properly conceived, this ideological divide need not be so large after all. The premise it depends on, which I believe to be flawed, is this: what benefits the individual, more often than not, is at odds with what might benefit society. If this is not true, then no fundamental quarrel exists between the goals of these ostensibly embattled ideological frameworks.

Demonstrator offers a flower to military police during anti-Vietnam demonstration.  License: Public Domain

Demonstrator offers a flower to military police during anti-Vietnam demonstration.
License: Public Domain

It may be presumptuous to imagine I will provide some vital synthesis in this article. Nevertheless, I don’t mind shooting big… I might just end up saying something worth saying.1

Voluntarism

Ask almost any serious individualist free market advocate what the core tenet of their philosophy is. Chances are, most of them are going say ‘Voluntarism’.2 Many of them cut right to the chase, and instead of calling themselves ‘Capitalists’ or ‘Free Market Advocates’, they simply go for ‘Voluntarist’.

Voluntarism is the position that no person has a right to force any other to do anything against their will, and that all interactions involving multiple people must involve the uncoerced consent of all involved. This is closely tied to ‘the non-aggression principal’, a moral axiom which states that no person may ever initiate the use of force against another person. Self-defense is permissible, as the force was initiated, in that case, by the other.

Hard to argue with, right? Don’t attack, don’t steal, don’t rape, don’t kill. This covers much of the basic rule-set we need for a functioning community to operate, but when applied consistently, it actually calls into question some of the most fundamental institutions on which we base our society.

Like taxes — well, actually, the whole government, but lets talk specifically about taxes. If we are not allowed to take things from people that they don’t want taken (stealing), how can we justify a compulsory system of taxation? Taxes are not voluntary, uncoerced payments for services rendered. We cannot opt out, for example, of having our tax dollars go to pay for the military, or for schools we believe are being run badly. If we do not want to pay them, the government will take our money anyway, or, eventually, they will throw us in jail.3

Voluntarists point out that whether tax money is used for good or for ill is irrelevant, as it was acquired through force, and is therefore illegitimate. We don’t say that stealing a sofa is okay because afterwards the owner decided they were better off getting a new one.

Some see this position as akin to a belligerent child, refusing to share his toys, stomping his foot and screaming ‘It’s mine!’. And maybe it is, but that has no bearing on whether or not the child has a point. Both the voluntarist and the child could be forced to share; the former at the point of a gun; the latter with the threat of a parent’s wrath; but what can this force possibly foster besides resentment, a sense of injustice, and less intrinsic desire to share?

Solidarity

If you spent much time at all at the leftist-dominated ‘Occupy’ protests, you likely heard the word ‘solidarity’ thrown around quite a bit. The most concise way I can think to define solidarity is as ‘mutual support within a group’. That group is often thought of as humanity as a whole, though sometimes as only a particular nation, class, or community.

Solidarity is the position that we need to stick together and take care of one another. That individuals have a responsibility to help the members of their community in times of need; to be generous in times of abundance. This ensures that those same individuals will, in turn, have something to rely on in times of lack, in the case of some unfortunate situation.

For most of our evolutionary history, solidarity occurred within small bands or tribes of hunter-gatherers. Losing the support of your tribe meant near-certain death, and so the need for solidarity is, in a very real sense, hard-wired into us. We experience intense anxiety and often display aggressive, or even violent, behavior when we feel socially ostracized, or that nobody has our back. Today, that same death anxiety has become tied with a lack of financial security. Access to money fills the same survival ensurance role that social cohesion once played.

Biologically, and logically, we cannot feel (or be) safe in a world that constantly stimulates this death anxiety through widespread financial and social insecurity. The unfortunate or unable, because no one has their back, live with chronic survival anxiety. The fortunate and the able live in fear of losing what they have, either to thieves, beggars, governmental policy, or to shifts in the tides of the market.

Modern collectivism, in a very real sense, is grasping at a way to recreate or reinterpret that tribal bond for our present-day world, and wishes to reinstate the security it implies.

Solidarity is also closely tied with empathy. We feel each other’s pain and suffering very similarly to how we feel our own. Those who do not care for (or about) one another are generally thought of as sick, mentally disturbed, or psychopathic.

Collectivists seek to set community standards and practices that ensure the integrity of the community members. Making sure that the hungry are fed, and that all have access to livable accommodations and adequate health care, I think, we can all agree are noble goals.

Individualists will not agree, however, that solidarity can in any way be required. It might seem ‘nice’, but a ‘requirement’ will require enforcement, and you can’t force people to share, or to do anything, without violating the non-aggression principal.

Cartoon published in the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) journal Solidarity on June 30, 1917.  License: Public Domain

Cartoon published in the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) journal Solidarity on June 30, 1917.
License: Public Domain

Tyrannical Collectivism

Individualists tend to think that people should responsible for solving their own problems. They often contrast themselves, very broadly, with ‘statists’ — people who wish to have ‘the state’ (ie: the government; ie: men with guns who force people to do stuff) solve their problems for them.

Much modern socialist and collectivist practice has involved the use of state violence as a cheap surrogate for the tribal bond.

Some of the most hideous, murderous, totalitarian states in living memory have branded themselves as pinnacles of collectivism (such as, The Communist Party of The USSR, The National Socialists (Nazi’s) in Germany), as acting for ‘the social good’. If we are to believe that these groups ever had the noble intention of helping their countrymen, their method of authoritarian top-down enforcement was ineffective, to put it mildly. To put it not so mildly, it was evil, murderous, and brutal.

Even modern, progressive socialist governments run into the sketchy morality of compulsory taxation and top down enforcement. The tyranny here is softer and harder to discern, but the state apparatus is a poor replacement for tribal affinity, as it places our survival (both as recipients and contributors into the system) at the precarious whims of a government bureaucracy. Always and forever backed by the unspoken threat of a gun and a cage.

“People have the notion of saving the world by shifting things around, changing the rules, and who’s on top, and so forth. No, no! […] We’re not on our journey to save the world, but to save ourselves.
– Joseph Campbell

This kind of rhetoric may not sit well with some. We should really just be aiming to ‘save ourselves’? It may sound a little bit too much like the selfishness praising mantras of Ayn Rand and the Objectivists. But keep in mind that to ‘save yourself’ might not mean that you should put your immediate self-interest ahead of all other concerns.

Sometimes in order to save yourself, you may have to do the opposite.

Edward Snowden, for example, sacrificed an apparently comfortable life in order to save himself from the guilt of knowingly participating in one of the greatest, most criminal, Orwellian police state operations in history.

“[…] We’re not on our journey to save the world, but to save ourselves. But in doing that, you save the world. The influence of a vital person vitalizes.”
– Joseph Campbell

Voluntarists don’t often invoke solidarity, but they do want to make the world a better place for everyone. Their passion to facilitate a society which ensures autonomy, and inspires a sense of potency and self-sufficiency makes this quite obvious. Their ultimate goal is freedom for all.

Freedom. Now that’s a highly charged (and often misused) word — but the inner fire it stokes within us is a recognizable spark of something essential that we should not lose sight of. People don’t do well in cages, either literal or regulatory.

Compulsory solidarity is not solidarity at all, but a form of tyranny. True solidarity requires voluntary generosity, both of matter and of spirit.

These are pretty hard to achieve when one doesn’t even have enough for themselves, but how can we ensure that people have enough, without requiring or enforcing it? How else can we ensure the provision of food, shelter, education, and health care for all, without governments? Without taxes? Without forcing people to share?

First, we must realize that those methods do not work, and even if they did, that wouldn’t make them okay.

Next, we have to ask ourselves: what does work?

Destructive Self-Interest

In absolute terms, it is impossible to be a rugged, self-sustaining individualist in a universe where we depend on each other for our needs — nobody is an island unto themselves. We depend on each other to keep our planet habitable, for social interaction, and to cooperate on projects which are too big for just one person. Pollutants migrate. Solitary confinement is one of the worst punishments we can lob at someone; humans don’t often do well without social contact. Any kind of industrial or post-industrial production requires large-scale cooperation between people of diverse talents.

Photo by Sash Kimel License: Creative Commons

Photo by Sash Kimel
License: Creative Commons (CC BY-ND 2.0)

It is clear that we must cooperate and depend on each other to live, and yet the notion that each person must ‘look out for themselves first’ is a logical and biological reality. Is this a conflict? Can working for your own self-betterment, personal enjoyment, and profit actually make the world a better place for everyone?

I think that it can.

But with a (major) caveat.

Clearly the way many businessmen, industrialists, and corporate owners operate today do not make the world a better place for everyone, despite the fact that they are very self-interested and making huge profits.

Take the BP executives who made money from the company in the time leading up to the oil spill. The environmental destruction they caused was incalculable, but the cost to their company wasn’t. Today’s world is a graveyard of the corpses caused by blind profit-seeking run amok.4

Wars fought for oil profits. Food poisoned for agricultural profits. Unsafe medications sold for pharmaceutical profits. The track record of destructive self-interest is not much better than tyrannical collectivism, and just like it, usually uses state violence as a method of enforcement.

Destructive self-interest is narrowly focused, and is blind to the interconnected nature of life on this planet, both socially and ecologically. It is destructive not only on a large-scale, but usually to the individual who ‘benefited’ as well.

Those BP executives, and their descendents, will still have to live on the planet that they served to pollute. There are innumerable ways that the blowback and feedback looping effects from this environmental disaster will directly affect them. This is a stark example of an inability to take long-term, or broad range, personal self-interest into account. The inability to delay gratification and think synergistically is a hallmark of destructive self-interest.

So when I say that maybe the idea of working for your own profit and self-interest can make the world a better place for everyone — and to back up my initial assertion that what is best for the individual is not most often at odds with what is best for society — I have to define what I mean by self-interest. I’d like to introduce you to a refinement on the entire concept, called:

Enlightened self-interest

Enlightened may seem like a grandiose word to use, but it is really the most apt, meaning here ‘having or showing a rational, modern, and well-informed outlook.’ What Edward Snowden did was an example of enlightened self-interest.

In most cases, people will not voluntarily participate in something that is not in their own best interest — at least not for any extended length of time — so it’s important to have a full grasp on what actually is in our own best, most enlightened, self-interest.

Self-Interested Solidarity and ‘The Social Good’

Individualists usually eschew any notion of such a thing as ‘the social good’. They very wisely point out that a group or a collective is not a distinct entity that has ‘well-being’– except in terms of that of its constituents.5 Collective well-being can only be conceived of, if it can be conceived of or determined at all, in reference to individuals.

Individual well-being, of course, requires means to access food, shelter, water, education, a clean environment, etc — the things collectivists maintain should be basic rights for all — but it also requires that we exist in an environment that allows for, encourages, and nurtures autonomy, self-mastery, personal growth and empowerment, and some sense of self-sufficiency.

The best way for a society to go about ‘taking care’ of its members is to empower them to take care of themselves, whenever possible. But — and here’s the almost paradoxical catch-22 — in order to take care of ourselves, we need to look out for each other. This is the crucial element that ‘enlightens’ self-interest.

However, to flip the script one more time, it’s important to note that often, the best thing we can do for others is to take care of ourselves first. Nobody else knows what we need better than we do. By taking responsibility for our own survival, we take that burden away from others who might opt to shoulder it. Once we have more than enough strength and resources to take care of ourselves, we can truly be of help to others, and in doing so, will be all the better for it.

“When you take time to replenish your spirit, it allows you to serve others from the overflow. You cannot serve from an empty vessel.”
– Eleanor Brown

If we live in a world filled with inept, starving, crippled individuals, they are going to steal from us and attack us. Our safety and sanity, in a very simple, causal way, is tied to that of every other individual who makes up our community. This is why fostering individual productivity and self-mastery is so important, so that there is enough excess wealth to allow for the compassion, and kinship, to help take care of those who can’t.

Which also needs to happen, not as a top down requirement, but as a natural outgrowth of our humanity and compassion, and a recognition of the benefit of living in a place where people help each other out.

Codex_Magliabechiano

Aztec ritual human sacrifice portrayed in the page 141 of the Codex Magliabechiano.
License: Public Domain

Solidarity is, in this sense, synonymous with self-interest. Solidarity could never mean that individual interests are sacrificed to those of the group. The group is made of individuals. The group’s interests consist of those of its individual constituents.

To lose sight of the fact that each of us has integrity only to the extent of that of the other individuals around us is the blindness of some individualists.

The blindness of some collectivists is to minimize the importance of the individual. To see each as only a pawn which may be sacrificed for the purpose of serving some higher goal, to be arrived at by committee or by consensus. If any individuals are but pawns to be sacrificed, the integrity of the entire group is compromised. Life isn’t a game of chess. Individuals are not expendable.

“Always recognize that human individuals are ends, and do not use them as means to your end.”
– Immanuel Kant

So should we be on a mission to save ourselves? I think we should. Dreams of changing ‘the social order’ without at least starting with yourself are bound to fail.

There is no such thing as a social order or operating system that is distinct from the interactions of the individuals inside that system. Changing ourselves and changing our relationships may not seem like much, but individual change has the power for exponential expansion, if approached properly — especially in today’s age of internet enabled communication amplification.

Conclusion

What creates a strong community, if not for autonomous, caring, empathetic, and free individuals? What supports the existence of these individuals if not a strong and caring community?

This is the very real, often overlooked convergence between individualism and collectivism. It should lead to the somewhat counter-intuitive coupling of realizations that often, the best thing one can do for themselves is to make their own immediate needs secondary,6 but that just as often, the best thing one can do for society is to act in their own best interest, to take care of themself first.

This is not to say that there are no genuine conflicts between collectivists and individualists. I don’t intend to whitewash over these differences, but merely to point out the spheres in which I think some major overlap should be considered and acknowledged.

The devil, as always, is in the details. Even if this essay successfully argues that the goals of individualism and collectivism are mutual and interdependent, the strategies employed by these two groups are often wildly different.

It is beyond the scope of this article, but I may, in the future, attempt to delve into some of these more specific topics7 and will attempt to apply this synthesis to them, based on the premise that voluntarism and solidarity are two mutually necessary and inter-supportive principles.

By adhering to both of these principles simultaneously, I think we can realize the closest approximation of the ever elusive ‘free’, ‘sane’, or ‘happy’ society.

  1. While fully recognizing, given my relative dearth of in-depth knowledge of the history of political, specifically libertarian and socialist philosophy, that whatever I say has probably been said before, better, by smarter people. This is my amateur analysis of these ideologies as I see them play out today in the modern (mostly online) debate.  (back)
  2. Or, ‘Freedom’!  (back)
  3. Just ask Wesley Snipes!  (back)
  4. Free market purists point out that this is because government protections shield corporate owners from having to bear the true costs of what they do, and this is certainly true enough. In a stateless free market, they argue, the costs of BP putting the proper safety precautions in place would have been far less than the cost of the oil spill – so under that framework, in order to maximize profit, there would be no oil spill.

    A profit system calibrated to take into account, as monetary cost, all of what are now considered ‘externalities’, then profit, by definition, would only be a force that made the world a better place for everyone. The recognition that there are factors that our current profit structure doesn’t take into account is an important one.  (back)

  5. Never mind, for the moment, that much the same could be argued for a human and his or her parts.  (back)
  6. re: Edward Snowden, BP Oil Execs  (back)
  7. Suggestions would be helpful! Currently, I’m thinking of tackling the issue of  ‘social safety nets’/’entitlements’ and maybe ‘property rights’/’ownership of the means of production’  (back)
Image: Vision of Transformation by Hartwig HKD 
License: Creative Commons (CC BY-ND 2.0)

The Calm Center and The Unlikely Teacher

“The soul raised over passion beholds identity and eternal causation, perceives the self-existence of Truth and Right, and calms itself with knowing that all things go well[…] This which I think and feel underlay every former state of life and circumstances, as it does underlie my present, and what is called life, and what is called death.”
– Ralph Waldo Emerson

When I first moved out of my parents house, I had (and still have) a small Buddha statue whose head was broken off. The house that my friends and I moved into had an old enclave that looked like it had once been a fireplace. The statue fit inside perfectly, and right above it, right on the wall, in felt marker, my cousin (and roommate) wrote ‘everything is ok’.

Everything is okay.

In a very real sense, it’s completely untrue. If you’re looking for it, the world is full of tragedy, strife, and evil. Hell, even if you aren’t looking for it, drama usually manages to sneak its way in around the edges, and mishaps and catastrophes are pretty much inevitable. So everything isn’t okay. Not really.

Not when you look at it like that. Not if everything actually needs to be okay for everything to be okay.

But what if it doesn’t?

What if, however complicated, messy, and hard to bear life becomes, you can find and maintain a calm center within yourself — a still certainty that whatever happens, everything really is okay — from which to draw strength and serenity? Then, in some sense, it becomes true. Everything really is okay, even if it isn’t, because you can choose to make it so.

What seemed like a mocking platitude became an extremely valuable teaching.

Image: Vision of Transformation by Hartwig HKD  License: Creative Commons (CC BY-ND 2.0)

Image: Vision of Transformation by Hartwig HKD
License: Creative Commons (CC BY-ND 2.0)

I immediately loved that this was written on our living room wall. It struck a chord with me, because I realized both the wisdom and delicious irony of the statement, which at all times is both true and false simultaneously.

I wanted that calm center. I’d sensed it in others. I’d seen it written about. I knew I couldn’t stop the churning mess of the world around me, or immediately will myself to alter the unfortunate situation I was in emotionally, but I grasped at the faint understanding that all of that mess was actually okay, just as it was, it was perfect.

And we’ll keep working on the problem we know we’ll never solve, of love’s uneven remainders — our lives are fractions of a whole.
But if the world could remain within a frame like a painting on a wall, then I think we would see the beauty, then
We would stand staring in awe, at our still lives posed, like a bowl of oranges. Like a story told by the fault lines and the soil.
– Bright Eyes (Lyrics from ‘Bowl Of Oranges’)

However, recognizing the wisdom here was not enough to give me that calm center. I had absolutely no idea how it felt to experience such a tranquil acceptance of the mundane treacheries of everyday life, until a very important teacher gave me that experience.

This teacher touched my tongue, and almost instantly, I knew peace. The problems in my life that moments before had seemed unendurable were now exceedingly manageable. My worry melted; which is not to say that I lost all care and concern for my problems. Far from it, I was serenely aware of them and felt capable of handling them. Worry is concern plus anxiety, while serenity can contain a hopeful, peaceful kind of concern.

In just about half an hour, this teacher had allowed me to experience on a very deep level, the wisdom of the serenity prayer:

Grant me the serenity
to accept the things I cannot change;
courage to change the things I can;
and wisdom to know the difference.

This teacher is well known, but, in many circles, has fallen into disrepute. Far worse, those who work with this teacher often abuse it, and then charge it with having initiated the abuse. Its name is Valium, and it is a member of the benzodiazepine family of pharmacological drugs. It is prescribed for anxiety disorders, and given to people having seizures, among other things.

Not too many people think of it as a teacher, but I do.

The term ‘plant teacher’ is sometimes used in reference to psychedelic medicines like psilocybin and ayahuasca, but I’ve never heard it applied to man-made pharmaceuticals. This language often comes from an earnest belief that ‘mother ayahuasca’ is a very real and palpable spirit, but is also used by the less certain, who simply appreciate the helpful implication that these psychoactive plants have lessons to impart.

I suggest we accept this framework, and widen it. The implications for how we use psychiatric medications would be profound.

Valium is a potent chemical carrier, and teacher, of the lesson that everything is okay, that serenity is a valuable and achievable approach to life’s concerns. SSRI’s can give valuable perspective on the depths of depression. Ritalin, amphetamines, and other stimulants drugs and ADD medications show us the pleasureful potentials of focus and productivity. Even alcohol, I believe, teaches a lesson: That what we hide inside of ourselves is not exterminated. For those who conceal deep anger, alcohol brings it forth; for those who deny their own courage, alcohol will summon it;  to those who carry deep sadness, alcohol brings tears. Marijuana is a versatile teacher, but it has helped me connect to my more creative and intuitive potentials.

These are all great and noble teachers of beautiful truths, but they can also be bastards, liars, and cheats — if we mistake the teachers for the lesson.

People take a Valium and think that the serenity is in the pill. That the courage is in the alcohol. The creativity is in the joint.

It’s not.

They try to tell us. They slowly pull away, and it takes more and more of the drug to give us what we want. It’s as if they scream: ‘No! You’re missing the message! — It was never inside of us! It was inside of you! We just showed you where to look.’

But some people don’t listen. They chase the teacher around, day after day, wanting the results without incorporating the lesson.

These drugs need to be approached as if they are merely vessels of a teaching, which must be discarded as the lesson is learned. The current medical model treats them as nutrients. Anxious people, they theorize, have a Valium deficiency. This, of course, is nonsense.

I prefer the conception of teachers — or perhaps crutches. They are something to lean on in times of great need, but you must slowly put more and more weight on your own abilities — by taking the drugs less and less, by using other tools such as therapy, meditation, and self-discovery — until one day, you don’t need the crutches anymore. You can walk by yourself.

You are now the calm center at the eye of the hurricane.

The calm center inside of Hurricane Isabel License: Public Domain (NASA Photograph)

The calm center inside of Hurricane Isabel
License: Public Domain (NASA Photograph)

You are a master.

I’m definitely not a master, but I don’t need Valium to find my calm center anymore. I can’t always find it when I want it, but I can now more than I ever could before.

And I don’t know that without Valium, I ever would have found it.

Universe in a Magic Drop -- Photo by Hartwig HKD
License:

The Most Important Thing in The Universe

Writing this article has been a struggle. It’s on a topic that is difficult to talk about clearly, on which I have no solid answers to give. What I want to do is inspire others in the same way I have been inspired, with a question. The subject of the question is one of the trickiest I’ve tackled yet.

Consciousness.

'Toward Digital Consciousness' -- Image by agsandrew License: Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0)

Toward Digital Consciousness‘ — Image by agsandrew
License: Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0)

What is it? What is ‘The Hard Problem’?

Thomas Nagel said that a thing is conscious when there is ‘something that it is like’ to be that thing. For example, we don’t generally think there is ‘something that it is like’ to be a sofa, but we do think there is ‘something that it is like’ to be a dog. Hence dogs, to some degree or another, are conscious. Sofas are not. Mosquitoes? Mollusks? Maybe somewhere in between.

But here’s the kicker of a question: Why is it ‘like something’ to be anything?

You may have to read that sentence a few times, but it does make sense, and it’s a terribly important question. It’s called the ‘hard problem of consciousness’. Put another way, the hard problem asks this: How does unconscious matter (like the molecules that make up our brain) generate conscious experience? Why are we not philosophical zombies, walking around, reacting to stimuli, but having no internal experience?

The task of explaining this is not a trivial one. As Sam Harris points out:

“The problem[…] is that no evidence for consciousness exists in the physical world. Physical events are simply mute as to whether it is ‘like something’ to be what they are[…] Absolutely nothing about a brain, when surveyed as a physical system, suggests that it is a locus of experience. Were we not already brimming with consciousness ourselves, we would find no evidence of it in the physical universe — nor would we have any notion of the many experiential states that it gives rise to.”1

When talking about consciousness and questions surrounding the nature of its existence, an evidential (ie: objective) account is simply not forthcoming. One of the juiciest, most delicious morsels of epistemological quirkiness in the universe is that there is no way — by definition — to fully account for subjective experience through objective means — because subjectivity is precisely what objectivity is not. It would almost be like attempting to account for the qualities of dryness by pouring water over something.

The existence of pain, for example, can only be established through subjective reports. We can learn what kinds of brain patterns are associated with pain, and infer its presence based on them, but that association must be constructed by relying on the same subjective reports. What we mean when we say ‘pain’ is something that only exists as a subjective experience, and should be given separate consideration from its physical correlates (brain waves, bleeding, bruising, nerve impulses, saying ‘ouch’, avoidance reflexes, etc).

If one is devoid of the ability to have certain kinds of experiences, there are no objective facts that can impart those experiences to them. For example, for a person who can’t see color, no amount of explanation about the qualitative difference between a green and blue mug will allow that person to know what it is like to see green and blue, because green and blue (and pain) are experiences.

They are what we call ‘qualia‘.

The hard problem asks: how and why do qualia arise in a universe that — objectively — appears to be nothing but swarms of interacting particles and forces?

'Molecule' - Illustration by Caroline Davis License: Creative Commons (CC BY 2.0)

Molecule‘ – Illustration by Caroline Davis
License: Creative Commons (CC BY 2.0)

Physicist James Trefil points out that the hard problem “is the only major question in the sciences that we don’t even know how to ask.”2

Okay. Got it? Good. Here’s why it matters.

David Chalmers, who is credited with formulating ‘the hard problem’, said: “I think that consciousness has always been the most important topic in the philosophy of mind, and one of the most important topics in cognitive science as a whole.”3

I find it hard to disagree with him. Consciousness is just another word for our experience. What could we possibly care about more than our own moment to moment experience? It’s all we can know directly.

Well, there is altruism — an action or ideal which values the experience of others above our own — and there is planning for the future, but both of these are still all about consciousness. Most, if not all, discussions of social organization, ideologies, and rights (including animal rights) ultimately come down to questions about the experience of conscious creatures and its quality.

Consciousness is the most important thing in the universe. It’s all we could ever really care about. It’s all that could ever do the caring.

The ‘hard problem’ however, at first glance, may seem like a really esoteric and piddling concern — but it actually cuts down to some of the deepest questions people have about how the universe works. I know that personally, the moment I understood ‘the hard problem’, I never thought about the universe the same way again.

No big deal. You gotta have faith!

Despite all of this, some very respectable people maintain that consciousness is not so special. Dan Dennett refers to it as an “illusion” and “a bunch of tricks”.4 No big deal.

Dan Dennet is a materialist; he holds the view that everything which exists, including consciousness, is fundamentally the product of matter — and the forces and energies causing interactions between matter. If all that exists is objective reality, subjectivity must be ‘a bunch of tricks’.

Most materialists believe that consciousness emerges from complex interactions of (completely unconscious) matter. In order to do this, it is thought, these interactions must conform to specific brain-like patterns of information processing. These patterns generate (or are synonymous with) consciousness. So, much time and effort is put into tracking these patterns with ever increasing efficiency and detail, and mapping the findings onto the reported or presumed experiences of the subject.

While this sort of work is extremely useful for helping to categorize the things consciousnesses tend to do, discovering their physical correlates, and providing valuable insights and perspectives on experience, they don’t touch the hard problem. They couldn’t. This type of stuff is sometimes referred to as ‘the easy problems of consciousness’.

It’s actually hard to find materialists who admit that the hard problem is even a question worth asking. The worldview almost prevents it from being one. Sam Harris, however, does admit it. He’s called the idea of emergence from unconscious matter “incomprehensible” and “impossible to properly conceive”,5 but one wonders how else a materialist could possibly conceive of it. Harris gives no alternatives.

Ray Kurzweil holds this view of consciousness as an emergent property, and in his latest book How to Build a Mind he acknowledges that “these questions can never be fully resolved through science[…] Where consciousness is concerned, the guiding principle is ‘you gotta have faith’ […] My own leap of faith is this: Once machines do succeed in being convincing when they speak of their qualia and conscious experiences, they will indeed constitute conscious persons.”

Materialists often contrast their worldview with Cartesian dualism. Like materialism, dualism is a thoroughly western idea. It posits that matter and objective reality exist exactly as the materialists say, but that consciousness is something extra special that sits on top of matter in some vague and indiscernible way — the proverbial ‘ghost in the machine’.

Most scientists and pop-skeptics today thoroughly reject dualism, and accept materialism. Often, they treat the discussion as if these were the only two options available6 — but that isn’t the case.

What else is there?

Well, panpsychism is the view that consciousness and matter are equally fundamental aspects of reality. It agrees with materialism and dualism that we inhabit some kind of objective spatio-temporal universe, but proposes that all matter is, in some primordial sense, conscious. It doesn’t ‘arise from complexity’ and it isn’t a ghost in the machine, consciousness is a quality that all matter just has.

To be a panpsychist one must believe that, however dimly, there is ‘something that it is like’ to be an electron, or a rock. This also leaves open the possibility that there is ‘something that it is like’ to be a planet. Or a universe. This, of course, is fertile ground for spiritual ideas to flourish, as we hear echoes of Gaia, Mother Earth, and the Universal Mind of God.

Panpsychism solves the hard problem by imbuing all matter with consciousness, by making them coexistent and equally elemental in nature.

Universe in a Magic Drop -- Photo by Hartwig HKD License:

Universe in a Magic Drop — Photo by Hartwig HKD
License: Creative Commons (CC BY-ND 2.0)

Now, while my categorizations here are far from exhaustive — there are almost as many variations on these themes as there are thinkers who’ve seriously tackled them — there is just one final model I want to discuss. It is associated with eastern mystical and religious traditions, but is not limited to them.

‘Idealism’.

Max Planck, the founder of quantum mechanics, states this alternate view succinctly: “I regard consciousness as fundamental. I regard matter as derivative from consciousness. We cannot get behind consciousness. Everything that we talk about, everything that we regard as existing, postulates consciousness.”7

As Sam Harris says, we cannot deny that consciousness exists.8 It is the only thing we cannot deny exists. Descartes recognized this fundamental truth when he began his epistemological explorations with the truism ‘I think, therefore, I am.’ Idealism does not postulate that anything beyond consciousness (like external material worlds) actually exists. Bernardo Kastrup argues that because idealism makes the fewest assumptions, it is therefore supported by Occam’s razor.

However, it’s not so simple. If this is true, we must believe that matter (and our spatio-temporal universe), rather than consciousness, turns out to be ‘a bunch of tricks’ — a dream; a hallucination. Kastrup’s view sees each of our individual consciousnesses like whirlpools in the vast, oceanic consciousness that is the universe; that again, in eastern traditions, might be called God.

In other words, that we are one consciousness, dreaming the dream that we are many. Allow me to quote at length the great philosopher Alan Watts, because I can’t, and wouldn’t ever try, to say it better:

“I wonder, I wonder, what you would do if you had the power to dream, at night, any dream you wanted to dream — and you would of course be able to alter your time sense, and slip, say 75 years of subjective time into 8 hours of sleep.

You would, I suppose, start out by fulfilling all your wishes. You could design for yourself what would be the most ecstatic life — love affairs, banquets, dancing girls, wonderful journeys, gardens, music beyond belief. And then after a couple of months of this sort of thing, 75 years a night, you’d be getting a little taste for something different, and you would move over to an adventurous dimension, where there were sudden dangers involved, and the thrill of dealing with dangers, and you could rescue princesses from dragons, and go on dangerous journeys. Make wonderful explosions and blow them up. Eventually get into contests with enemies.

And after you’ve done that for some time, you’d think up a new wrinkle. To forget that you were dreaming. So you’d think it was all for real, and be anxious about it. Because it’d be so great when you woke up, and then you’d say — well, like children who dare each other on things — how far out could you get? What could you take? What dimension of being lost, of abandonment of your power, what dimension of that could you stand? You could ask yourself this ‘cos you know you’d eventually wake up.

And after you’ve gone on doing this, you see, for some time, you’d suddenly find yourself sitting around in this room — with all your personal involvements, problems, etc, talking with me. How do you know that’s not what you’re doing? Could be. Because after all, what would you do if you were God?”9

So what do I think?

First and foremost, I’ll say this: I don’t know. I delight in not knowing. It’s a fun game.

However, I do have my biases and intuitions, and I hope that in my exposition above, I haven’t hid them too well. I don’t think I have. But let me be more clear:

I reject dualism. My understanding is that Descartes designed it as a way to appease both enlightenment scientific thinkers and the church, by placing issues of spirit and substance into two distinctly separate realms. Perhaps I do a disservice by rejecting panpsychism (because I can’t, for the life of me, imagine what ‘it is like’ to be a coke can), but in my mind, the two most interesting, vital models of the universe are materialism and idealism.

Idealism, because it imbues existence with meaning and reality with intelligence. It solves the hard problem by removing any claims of something called ‘unconscious matter’ from existence. Materialism, because one must gape in wonder at a blind, mechanistic universe that created this, our world and our selves. There’s something intensely beautiful there. The blind watchmaker. A clock that builds itself. Materialism is beautiful.

In my experience, intensely rational, objective, reductionist, and anti-religious thinking tends to produce materialists, while ecstatic, peak, introspective experiences tend to push people into the realm of idealism. Or, at least, away from materialism.10 The issue we face surrounding beliefs that are based on these powerful subjective experiences, however, is that they mean almost nothing to those who haven’t had them, and often almost everything to those who have.

I am in the somewhat (though not really that) unique position of once having been a dedicated materialist. However, my experiences with psychedelic drugs have given me access to the kinds of peak experiences that are extremely hard to deny, unless you’ve never had them.11

My experiences were that of a diminished sense of my individual ego and a connection to something bigger: A unitive, loving, all-encompassing consciousness. They were also an experience of outer reality as a mirror of my own thoughts, feelings, and intentions — an experience that to some small extent has trickled over into my daily life.

To say, as materialists might, that the understandings about the nature of the universe I came away with, which so closely match the understandings of others who’ve had such peak experiences, were ‘just a hallucination’ is a difficult pill for me to swallow. Not impossible, but difficult.

Once again, we run into the ontological quirkiness that objective information cannot transmit subjective experience. Furthermore, these peak experiences are as varied as are the people who have them, and so their interpretation, from an entirely objective viewpoint, is ineffectual and often useless. Of course, this is what we might expect, if what they do is expose the dream-like nature of reality.

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Reality As a Dream — Photo ‘Dematerialization‘ by Hartwig HKD
License: Creative Commons (CC BY-ND 2.0)

If there is some transcendent, ineffable truth that these experiences point to, it seems to evade linguistic description. Words melt on approach, and their meanings buckle and soften. Ideologies can encircle but never encompass it. Like the fable of a group of blind men, all touching and describing different parts of an elephant, not realizing they are speaking of the same thing. This is why all religions fail at their goal of codifying and imparting the divine experience, because it is just that; an experience. It is subjective. It is precisely what objectivity and codification is not.

For these (and other) reasons, the ‘consciousness is fundamental’ crowd tends to attract a lot of fuzzy-thinkers and funny ideas, but it does do one thing that the ‘bunch of tricks’ materialist model cannot — it gives us a reason why it is ‘like something’ to be us.

I have to admit, I find myself seriously entertaining the notion that reality itself is the ‘hallucination’.

That is the power of these experiences.

Maybe this sounds crazy, but…

If you are a staunch, skeptical, philosophical materialist, it may seem as though I’ve triumphantly entered the loony bin. Sorry. Another one bites the dust, I guess. I hope we can still be friends.

For those who are still with me, I want to clarify. It would be too simplistic to say it was these experiences alone that altered my worldview. They were essential, because no words or objective facts could have imparted the understandings I currently consider possible, but words and objective facts did help push me in that direction.

Before having my experiences, simply understanding the hard problem put cracks in my certainty about materialism. It is the only worldview to which the existence of consciousness, our basic experience, seems incomprehensible or illusory.

At that time, I was also diving headfirst into the bizarre and curious world of serious scientific research (yes, it does exist) into stuff like telepathy, remote viewing, mediumship, and near death experiences– and realizing that there is actually some very interesting data there, which, while maybe not conclusive, as I’ve argued before, should be taken more seriously than it currently is.

In the time between, and even after my initial experiences, I was still a materialist for quite some time, but the door had been nudged open. I was examining alternatives. The more I began to entertain viewing the world through through these different perspectives, the more sense it started to make. The more possible and real it started to seem to me. I started to see and hear what Terence McKenna called ‘The Cosmic Giggle’, tittering around the edges of reality.12

Despite these leanings, though, I’m not really sure. I’ve become far less certain of anything, and I’m definitely not making any formal claims about the nature of reality. I fully accept the possibility, though find it hard to believe, that this perception of a universe imbued with intelligence, meaning, and synchronicity is merely a product of wishful thinking and confirmation bias.

So maybe I’m not completely nuts, but I’m enjoying the flirtation.

I’ve become a fascinated fence sitter, and an enthusiastic indulger in what many skeptics would term ‘fuzzy thinking’. But I can’t lie. My intuitions (and dare I indulge to say my hopes) lie with the view that all is consciousness, playing a trick on itself. Creating a drama for fun.

“I will participate in the game. It is a wonderful, wonderful opera – except that it hurts.” – Joseph Campbell 13

So what do YOU think?

I don’t know that this debate will ever come to an end. Not because one side or the other is ‘too stubborn’ to see the truth, but because the answer is inaccessible by design (at least, objectively). Both Idealism and Materialism can be modeled effectively in accordance with our scientific knowledge, and in some sense or another, both can be squared with our subjective experience.

We just have to decide, which do we think is the ‘illusion’? Consciousness or the material world?14

  1. The Mystery of Consciousness – Sam Harris  (back)
  2. One hundred and one things you don’t know about science and no one else does either. – James Trefil  (back)
  3. Interview in Philosophy now magazine — here  (back)
  4. Illusion — here; A bunch of tricks — here  (back)
  5. Ibid  (back)
  6. An interesting example of this came up when I was grabbing the wiki link for ‘Philosophical Zombies’ above. I came across the RationalWiki page on p-zombies. They state: “There are philosophers who actually take this notion seriously and consider that the p-zombie thought experiment is sufficient to prove dualism.[1]” That reference number leads to a footnote which states: “Or disprove materialism. Expect hair-splitting.” I think this is a really great example of the bias towards these western models displayed by pop-skeptics (whose worst kinds of qualities reach a fevered pitch on RationalWiki) today. As if the difference between dualism and every other non-materialistic worldview is just ‘hair-splitting’. David Chalmers, the current philosopher who most often refers to the p-zombie issue is actually sympathetic towards panpsychism.  (back)
  7. Quoted in ‘The Observer’, Jan 25, 1931 — article reprinted here  (back)
  8. Ibid  (back)
  9. Hear audio here  (back)
  10. Note: These are generalizations about billions of people, and as such, there will likely be millions to whom they don’t apply. There are materialists who’ve had peak experiences, and believe them congruent with that framework. There are idealists who’ve arrived at that position based on logic, reason, and evidence. I am speaking here of general trends and not of absolute categorical distinctions.  (back)
  11. You can see my earliest attempt to express this changing worldview in this mock conversation with myself I created at my old blog, addressing statements I had made three years prior, and how my positions had changed.  (back)
  12. If you are unfamiliar with the concept, first watch this one minute video, then click to view this text: “The ‘Cosmic Giggle’ is a randomly roving zone of synchronicity and statistical anomaly. Should you be caught up in it, it will turn reality on its head. It is objective and subjective, simultaneously ‘really there’ and yet somehow is sustained by imagination and expectation; the umbilicus of our ontology, the place where we see that the world came from something very different from what it now appears to be.” – Terence McKenna and then if you are completely confused by that word salad, you need to take more acid or meditate or something. I’m kidding. Kinda. No words can impart the experience. No words would have convinced me of the experience before I had it.  (back)
  13. The Power of Myth – Joseph Campbell  (back)
  14. Or, of course, you can entirely reject my framing of this issue and come to some other, completely novel conclusion. :)   (back)
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License: Creative Commons

What It Feels Like to Come Out in Your Twenties

Whenever I bring it up, people say to me: ‘Wow, that must have been a huge relief!’, and it was; but the truth is, that ain’t the half of it. Not even a quarter.

It’s hard for people who’ve never had to hide their sexuality to imagine the magnitude of what it’s like. I was constantly monitoring my behavior, my words, my tone of voice — even my thoughts — for anything that might be ‘too’ gay. Anything that might give me away.

I did that for an entire decade — half of my life at that point — and I did it well. I didn’t ‘act gay’ (and still don’t — I’ve been consistently reassured), so nobody suspected my girlfriendlessness was anything more than a result of shyness or anxiety.

Even to my partner, who also had to come out of the closet, the experience of coming out in your twenties doesn’t translate. He did it when he was 14. He kept the secret for only a few years.

My partner lived in Los Angeles and went to a school with a GSA (Gay-Straight Alliance), and therefore a visible gay presence and support system. I lived in a small city and went to one of these weird, blended Catholic-public schools that, for some reason, exist here in Canada. It seemed like there were no gay people. Anywhere. None who were out, at least.

Needless to say, I didn’t have any GSA. Any community support. My teachers at school mentioned a couple of times that while Catholicism didn’t that believe being gay was a sin, having gay sex was. Thankfully, I questioned Catholicism rather than demonize my sexuality.

But coming out young didn’t seem like a viable option for me.

My tactic, in that less than hospitable school environment, was just to ‘wait it out’. ‘Deal with it when this is over’.

I suppose I’m lucky that I never encountered much overt hate; just casual bigotry — usage of words like ‘fag’ and ‘gay’ as synonyms for ‘loser’ and ‘stupid’. I was depressed as all hell, but unlike many gay youth, I never considered suicide. I saw a light at the end of the tunnel.

After high school I left town with some friends to be in a band. We moved to a bigger city that actually had some gay people in it, and I began to psych myself up for what I knew I needed to do — while self-medicating with Valium I bought from Pakistani pharmacies online. I’d been suppressing one of the most important aspect of my life since I was 11, and so I was an anxious, depressed mess. It took another couple of years for me to finally bite the bullet.

But one day, I finally did it. I was 21, going on 22. My band and I were all sharing a house, but we had one other roommate living with us whom I’d become close with. One day, home on my lunch break, I told him “I have something really important I need to tell you after work” — and then I ran away and ignored his texts asking me to ‘just tell him now.’

This was a game I played to trap myself. I knew I didn’t have the guts to just say it outright.

The work day ended. I came home, and I knocked on his door. He was napping. I said ‘I’ll come back later!’, but he shot out of bed and said through sleepy eyes: ‘No!’ Tell me what it is!?’

I don’t quite remember the words but they were something like, ‘well, that, um, I guess, the thing is, actually, that I’m gay, I guess.’

The first thing he did was give me a hug. The second thing was express relief. He had been worried that I was angry with him for some reason. He then proceeded to tell me how happy he was, because he had always wanted a gay friend, so this was perfect, for him. He had questions to ask me about what it was like to be gay, about how much of exactly what I’d done with guys in the bedroom. What that was like.

His immediate acceptance, and genuine interest in me as a person, in my experience and in who I really was, meant the world to me. It sealed our friendship as one of the most important of my life.

After we chatted for about half an hour, I excused myself. I needed to be alone.

And this brings me back to the start of the article. As I closed the door behind me, I felt an intense rush of feeling. There was relief, for sure, but not just that. Not even close.

I felt intense and overwhelming sadness. I felt the weight of all the time I’d wasted hiding myself  — from my accepting, loving friend, no less (and other friends who would turn out to be just as accepting). Years of worry, the self-doubt, self-hate, depression, anxiety… I knew that they had taken their toll, and I mourned for what I had lost.

I also felt insanely proud — of my courage. I’d done what I’d feared most for literally half of my life — likely to be one of the hardest things I’d ever have to do.. I felt powerful. Unstoppable. I’d scaled my own personal mount Everest.

I felt shame and guilt and loss that the courage hadn’t come sooner.

I felt anticipation, for all the possibilities the future held. Boyfriends. Sex. Romance. Not pretending. Not self-monitoring. Was there actually a possible future where I could be comfortable in my own skin? Where I could cuddle up with a guy I loved on the sofa and watch tv?

I was pissed — at society, at the town I’d grown up in and the casual bigotry that pervaded it, at the schools I’d attended, and at myself — for robbing me of precious years not lived authentically. That something as harmless and beautiful as my sexuality and capacity for love was made shameful and disgusting by fear mongering maniacs.

And of course, while it’s tough to quantify, I’d have to say that most of all I felt joy. I’d never been so happy. I was finally peeking out the other end of the tunnel, and the world looked bright and green. And big and kinda scary.

Try feeling all of that at the same time. It was so much.

I didn’t really understand how it was possible to laugh and cry at the same time, but let me assure you — it is. I did both while also wanting to punch rage holes in my walls.

To say it was a relief, is a bit of an understatement.

And to be honest, I had it easy; compared to those who had to wait longer, whose families rejected them, whose cultures were even less accepting, my journey has been a walk in the park. I can only imagine theirs.

Rainbow Flag License: Creative Commons

Rainbow Flag by Ludovic Bertron
License: Creative Commons (CC-BY-2.0)

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Ever Had Your House Raided by Foreign Soldiers?

Have you ever had your house raided in the middle of the night by foreign soldiers — whom your family is cooperating with — and had five members of your family, including two pregnant women, killed? Didn’t think so. But this is precisely what happened in Khataba, a small village in Afganistan, in a night raid conducted by the American Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) — the covert team that would later be credited with killing Osama bin Laden.

Thanks to this film, the fact that stuff like this happens is not just ‘something I know’. It’s something that however distantly, however far removed, however by proxy, I’ve felt. I’ve looked into the faces of the people it has happened to. I’ve seen them recount, and relive, their pain.

There was a period a few years back when I couldn’t stop watching documentaries. The Internet was becoming a flourishing platform for online media, and it seemed to offer an endless amount of interesting, thoughtful, real life exposés into what is really going on in the world today.

Slowly though, I started to become numb to it all. More corruption. More evil. America is an imperialist monster. The bankers are out of control. We’re destroying the environment. Yawn. What’s on next?? It’s awful to say, but the problems our world faces have started to bore me.

It’s maddening. It sometimes feels like watching a snarling, stupid dog running full tilt into a glass door over and over and over again.

I’ve had to create some balance, between my general desire to be informed on world geopolitical issues, and the very real fact that me knowing about every single horrific thing that is happening isn’t going to help much. I’m ready to start building a better world now. I’m always happy to see new documentaries out there, though, of course — for someone they might be the worldview shifting experiences that documentaries like Fahrenheit 9/11, The Corporation, and Zeitgeist: Addendum were for me — but I don’t watch a lot of them.

I’m really that glad I made an exception for ‘Dirty Wars’.1 The Oscar nominated — yet sadly not Oscar winning — documentary produced by in-the-trenches war reporter Jeremy Scahill, who’s book ‘Blackwater’ was the first to expose America’s use of that paramilitary mercenary force.

The murderous raid at Khataba is only the first of a series of focal points Scahill chooses throughout the film, which highlights the new way America is going about its wartime operations: not by marching armies into offending nations, but covertly, under cover of darkness and shrouds of secrecy. Unofficial operations; many of which take place in countries where the US government has declared no war, and even against citizens of the USA itself.

We see very directly the kinds of collateral damage and unintended side effects that this strategy has resulted in.

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Dirty Wars Poster

What makes Scahill’s documentary outstanding is not just the injustice it reveals, though it does plenty of that — it is the emotional content, obtained by right of the fearless work of the filmmaker. More than once, Scahill puts his life on the line in order to bring these stories home, and the least we can do is pay some attention.

Some have criticized the film for focusing too much on the filmmaker, but I think Scahill’s personal journey is as important as the information it uncovered. After you feel a little like you’ve spent some time with him on the ground in Afganistan, and spent time with the victims of the Khataba raid, to see the way the American media machine chews up both the story and Scahill himself — spitting them out into bite-sized, emotionally devoid chunks of info-tainment — is horrifying.

I don’t want to give away too much of what the film exposes, because it almost plays like a thriller, as we watch new pieces of the puzzle begin to fall into place, but I will say this:

This is an important film for everyone to watch. It’s not just for those who are blind or in denial about the terroristic nature of western imperialism, but for those of us who are in the know and have lost that necessary emotional connection to the tragedies which happen each and every day.

This film made me think twice about all the atrocities I’d allowed myself to become numb to, to ignore, and most of all, about all the ones that have passed without comment — that nobody will ever be able to know about.

  1. The reason I decided to give it a watch is after reading The Pleasure Of Changing My Mind, a thought provoking little blog post by author Sam Harris (whose views on foreign policy often make me cringe), that is also worth checking out.  (back)