Monday, December 31, 2012

Thinking and Doing

I can still picture myself, 2nd or 3rd grade me, still afraid of the dark and picking my nose, sitting near the back of the class in that tiny desk  with the menacingly deep storage compartment, tentatively wrapping my hand around the lip of the faux-wood desk and imagining it bending like modeling clay in my hands, conforming to my will.

It seemed like such a simple thing: one could simply be incredibly strong. It was just a desk, nothing complicated about it to me. If only I would try or concentrate hard enough, it would simply move. The act, the idea of the act of exerting a muscle seemed like such a straightforward and powerful action that it should be capable of anything.

But maybe that's because I spent more time thinking than actually exerting muscle. That's much simpler really. I hadn't grasped at that point how pitiful muscular contractions were without some kind of powerful emotion or other biological instinct putting some power behind it.

I wasn't ever made fun of a lot, at least at that age, and there was no one at home who hurt me or anything else so heartbreakingly cliche. I didn't feel the need to overcome some kind of great obstacle. Frankly I would have had little to no practical use for this Hulk-like strength had I actually discovered it latent within myself.

One could speculate about the influence of superheroes on TV or the roving band of bigger siblings who were in the habit of knocking out any tooth of mine brave enough to let its roots lose ground, or the incessant habits of the parents of my generation to endlessly expound upon the extensive nature of each child's unique and special personhood, but that particular cultural trope, that 21st century ideological grounding of sorts has already been covered by all sorts of contemporary and "witty" young writers who fancy themselves to be edgy and hip. But then what's been left? What material has not yet been blanketed by the neon-colored tarp of expansive media saturation? What ideas are there left to dry and bake and photosynthesize in the heat of the light of day?

But that's tangential.

My lesson that day was two-fold. First of all, I came to realize that pretty much all life consists of is being, and being is pretty simple. It's being something else that's a little more complicated. That's when I learned that the power of choice isn't all it's cracked up to be.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Family v. Community: Two overlapping yet concentric circles of intersubjective relation

Family is for giving you faith in yourself, while community is for giving you faith in everyone else.  Obviously this is a simplification, but it gets at a fundamental difference in identification between family and external community. Just as an individual can feel distinct and excluded from generalizations about the rest of the world (everyone else is irrational or selfish in some sense, but I am different) so too can family be easily separated conceptually from the rest of the greater community of which it is a part.

People are stupid and obedient, but I know what's going on, and my family--they're smart too. This is also why praise means different things coming from family and outsiders. The immediate family, in the western societal context, is usually perceived in this way as some sort of extension of the self. The family members have established roles and spaces they occupy in and around your life that you have become accustomed to. Outsiders don't usually have these clearly defined parts to play, especially when first beginning interaction. This can make it both more volatile and meaningful in a way. You are accustomed to praise from the individuals fulfilling parental roles in your life and sometimes from the other familial satellites orbiting your personal existence, but this praise never means as much as praise coming from people outside of this familial space. 

Your personal conception of these others  from outside your family is thus much more flexible. This certain amount of distance that makes interaction with them different than interaction with your family -- and even with your close friends -- makes them represent something much different. They can come to fill a border space between the close and familiar place of your family and the distant and immaterial place of the numerous other people of the world.

Your family helps to give you your conception of yourself, but is limited in giving you real confidence and self-faith beyond a certain point. It is even more limited in giving you other-faith -- faith in those people you don't know.

Trust or lack thereof appears very differently with varying degrees of familiarity. From trusting your kin to keep your best interests in mind to trusting your neighbor or friendly acquaintance to respect your wishes to trusting the "unwashed masses" to make rational decisions.

Trust comes out of identification--empathy--with these groups or subsections thereof. Just as you may come to see your immediate family as an extension of yourself, (which is a dynamic that was much more prevalent before the rabid individualism of the modern era) you trust others beyond that when you identify with them.

If you don't have any people around you that you can really respect, how likely are you to respect anything else in the world?  Your family and the community that surrounds you as a child serve as the only representation of the entire world that you have as a child.  However they behave, however they act and react with you, is the only way you can imagine the rest of the world acting and reacting. Without any other means of experiencing the rest of the individuals in the world, you have no reason to expect any different of them. 

If the best people you know aren't really worthy of respect, or if they never show respect toward you,
 you'll expect the same from the rest of the world.

Another way to look at this extension of identification and other-faith (I've presented a couple of randomly different ones already) is the way you perceive people to be like or unlike you. Your family is close to you, not just in that your relative social roles are procedures for interaction are clearly defined yet flexible, but in that they often look and talk a lot like you. If your family and your surrounding community are too uniform, they won't be seen as reliably representative of many other unfamiliar communities.

If you never see anyone substantially different than you who you can also say is a "good person," you might not have much hope for others. (In fact, it might even alter your demographic conceptions so far as to give you a fair share of bigotry.)

 I've contradicted myself a fair amount and drifted between a few different contextual vocabularies and perspectives, but hopefully thoughts are clear.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Obsessive Compulsive Experience Preservation Disorder

I have notebooks upon notebooks, purportedly for class notes, which have margins and even entire pages filled with random thoughts. Thoughts about life, about reality, about politics, about what I should do over the weekend, about what I should do in the future, about who I should remember to talk to more often, and a billion other things.

I regularly text myself paragraphs of rants, rambles, and carefully explicated rationales for complicated ethical phenomena.

I never throw away a single piece of paper without scouring it for remnants or pieces of terms or phrases that I might've scribbled down in a frenzy.

I've started copying all these sources into googledocs whenever I think to, because the internet seems a lot more reliable than any other solid or electronic text container I can get my hands on.

You might say I'm a little crazy about remembering things. I freak out and pull out my phone to text myself when I get a random interesting insight in the middle of a conversation or Disney movie. I urgently race to transcribe anything and everything that is on my mind at that point, scared to death that it's going to disappear and run away forever.

After I write things or explain ideas too,  I get incredibly anxious about losing the capacity to do anything like that ever again.

Is this irrational though? In a sense, well, obviously. One could predict based on the previous activity of my brain and fingers that I will indeed have more thoughts in the same vein and will write things of a similar style and/or quality.

But in another sense, it's not so unreasonable. Now, if you'll just bear with me as I justify my ridiculous anxiety...

Practically, I could look at my anxious practice as simply a means of keeping me in a writerly state. It keeps me thinking about things creatively and critically, and it means that whenever I finally get motivated to write something I'll have zero excuse for having no ideas from which to start. And who knows what cool thoughts I'll preserve?

But to look at it more... existentially? cynically? Whatever.  At every moment I am a victim of my physiology. The exact mental and emotional and cognitive conditions that I'm inhabiting at this very moment will very likely never coincide again, and thus the subjective experience of the moment is absolutely unique. Finite. This is a bold statement, and it may very well be an exaggeration (*never* coincide?) or a fundamental misrepresentation of the nature of the universe (finite? *absolutely* unique?) but I think (perhaps irrationally) that the thought at the core of the statement is sound.  I can't know if I will ever come to these specific thoughts again, and I know that I will never again have this exact experience in and with the physical world that I'm having at this very moment in time, and thus I should do my best to remember it, if it seems to be objectively memorable.

(Of course "objectively memorable" isn't a real thing, and I'm judging memorability off of probably clearly established societal criteria. sigh.)

And obviously this point extends beyond the urge to preserve random philosophical meanderings or phenomenological puzzlings, encompassing all of experience, for this is part of my anxiety about memory that I've referenced already.

I look back at experiences, at entire years of my life, and only so much is left in my long-term memory. Entire years fade into quickly past, barely differentiated clumps of thoughts and faces. Often I'm left with impressions rather than full-fledged narratival memories, and anecdotes from the past come up unbidden by myself, prompted by external stimuli in the present.  If I tried right now to list as many stories as possible from my childhood that I remember, I could only force myself to recall so many. But a great many more arise occasionally in my memory naturally, and it would be tragic if I let all of those drift away. Anyway these unbidden ones are the ones that often come bringing new significance and give me new ways of looking at myself or the world, which is rad.

Is it weird that I'm often urged to devote hours to simply poring through my memory and painstakingly committing years of memories, from childhood to college life, all to paper, or even better, googledocs?

But if I do step aside and attempt to focus on recalling memories, nothing bright or vivid or imminently describable comes to mind, and I end up with only flat and rushed descriptions of outlines of a few prominent past events in my mind. It is only in the unbidden moment of recall or novel cognition that the luminance and the full significance of the thought or memory is impressed in my mind, and it is then that I must write.

Or text. Or scribble. Depends whats available.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Self-Interest: What's so Interesting about a Sense of Self?

"Everyone is self-interested."

I put that in quotes because it's not necessarily me saying it, but I'm sure I've said it before. It's become a sort of quasi-intellectual quasi-meme that's sort of common knowledge nowadays, almost like the theory of evolution or the water cycle; it's been widely accepted at at least some level and has generally found a place in people's conceptions of humanity. (At least for those people who ever really think about such things.)

This makes sense too, because it's predicated on evolutionary biology, or at least the version of it that's entered the popular consciousness. But what exactly is self-interest, and what does it mean?

Another thing I've heard many people say is that "everyone is selfish." Now at first glance this may sound like a simple and logical, albeit somewhat harder-to-swallow, corollary to the statement about self-interest, buttttttt that doesn't seem quite right to me.

Obviously people, being people, are interested in themselves and what becomes of them. Thus the statement about self-interest is fairly self-evident; if it's debatable then we can debate it later.

The second statement, however, comes across a bit stronger.  Everyone is selfish, which is to say that they are interested in themselves to the exclusion of others. Here self-interest becomes the primary goal and orientation, and altruism becomes a myth. Self-interested is no longer a condition that can be measured in degrees; it is simply something that you are or are not. And the presumptive conclusion is that you are.

For the moment, let's take this idiom to be fact and give it the benefit of the doubt; time to give the ol' confirmation bias a chance to shine.

Everything everyone does is done out of self-interest; it is simply impossible to act against your own self-interest. But what is this *interest* that you have in yourself?  You have an interest in your own survival, so deeply ingrained that you don't even need to consciously think about it to act on it; you have an instinct named after it. You also have an interest in reproducing and continuing your genetic line.

Already, however, things are complicated. The interest in preserving your own body may come into direct conflict with the interest in preserving your offspring. History has seen people give precedence to each of these at different times; one does not always supersede the other. Beyond this too, the dynamic becomes even more complex and even less absolute. Let us do our best to rationalize human activity according to our foregone conclusion..

People donate money to charities that don't do anything in return for them.
--Well obviously they care a lot about what people think of them; generosity and goodwill have become requirements for living in a human society. If you want to receive benefits yourself, then you have to give of yourself; giving to charity is simply good business.

What about when people donate money anonymously? What of the people who give their lives to save others with whom they have no genetic links?

You could get sociological here and postulate that it has to do with people's obsession with how they are perceived or their need to play out the societal roles that have been given to them and charity makes them feel good about themselves if nobody knows it was them, but that only serves to illustrate the point that the survival instinct and the genetic preservation instinct are not always dominant. And what is self-interest if it is not these two things?

Even if extraordinarily creative evolutionary biologists are able to rationalize all of these actions according to these basic instincts, the fact is that some people do these things, and some do not.

If everyone is absolutely self-interested, then why isn't there a uniform rule that can be used to perfectly predict what people will or won't do for themselves or others? I'm not going to say that self-interest can be measured by degrees in a linear fashion, but I will say that different people are differently self-interested. It's clearly apparent that different people have different conceptions of what is "in their own interest."

But at this point does this abstraction still have any sort of significance? "Everyone is self-interested but to different degrees" is clearly logical, but what does it really mean now? "Everyone is self-interested, but some people hoard all their money for themselves while others die in poverty doing dirty mission work in AIDS-ridden countries in Africa." It's like saying that "everyone is blind, but some people have 20/20 vision and can spot birds on mountains miles away while others can't see their hands in front of their face." Enormous amounts of rationalization and over-analyzing is required to continue validating the now incredibly complicated and somewhat unintuitive "people are selfish" statement.

But that's only considering "interest" and what that entails; we haven't spent much time on the "self."  So let's expand self-interest a bit and try to wrap our collective metaphysical head around the differences we've seen in self-interest. Our goal at this point in time is to reduce self-interest from a meaninglessly all-inclusive label to something that once again applies equally to all people, yet also stays true to evolutionary biology as something that reigns supreme over our other interests.

To be self-interested is to act in (what you perceive to be) the interest of (what you perceive to be) your self. These are equally fluid variable concepts. If you see yourself only as your body and your genes, then you will act only when your actions will directly benefit your own well-being or that of a direct descendant. If you see your family as connected to you genetically, you might see them as just as much a representation of yourself as your direct descendants are. You can see kinship bonds in general as extensions of yourself. If you look beyond genes (or if you happen to zoom farther out in examining the collective human gene pool) you may see communal bonds as familial bonds too, and then an individual might end up viewing an entire community, large or small, as part of himself.

This might again be a meaningless rationalization of the "all people are self-interested and selfish" hypothesis, but it is the only one that controls for the difference in behavior among self-interested individuals. It all depends on what is identified as "self." (Also on what is identified as being in the interest of the self; humans aren't always good at figuring that one out)

I had solid ideas for how to cohesively organize this post, but then I didn't.


Assuming all previous conclusions have been valid: altruism does not exist except as a word to describe those who are generous and unrestrained with their self-identification. Which is about the same as saying that yes, it does exist, but solely as a product of empathy.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Holden Caulfield and Idealism

So I read The Catcher in the Rye near the end of the summer, and I liked it. The attitude and the rambliness of the writing style briefly put me off, and Holden did whine an incredible amount, but in the end I think those just contributed to the novel as a whole.

 I spent a couple of weeks just thinking and reflecting on it whenever I had a moment away from the crazy campers and their antics. I would just take a moment or two to dwell on it at the dinner table every night while the kids chugged their Texas Pete and continued their epic games of cheese football. (And the Swiss defense crumbles--TOUCHDOWN AMERICAN!)

Back at home on a weekend, I decided to look up reviews of The Catcher in the Rye and see if popular opinion was in line with my own views of the book. What I found alarmed me.

I read that the story is often characterized as a tale about growing up; a coming-of-age story of sorts.

If what Holden is doing is growing up, then I think I'd rather be a kid forever.

Now this characterization of the novel does make sense, but it's the implications that bother me.

This "coming-of-age" label implies that what Holden is going through is something everyone goes through as they grow up; that it is normal; a phase; that there is no problem with it. Saying that he is "growing up" adopts a superior and almost dismissive attitude towards the issues that Holden struggles with.

What some call Holden's "alienation," I would call "clarity." 

In my opinion, Catcher in the Rye is about a person trying to come to grips with the unbelievable amount of hypocrisy and unprovoked evil in the world. Holden is trying to find a way to live in the world without compromising and inadvertently becoming part of what he hates.

If this struggle with hypocrisy and lies is just part of growing up, then does that mean people eventually find ways to live as a part of the world despite the hypocrisy, or do they lose this clarity and inevitably become part of the machine (ooh political undertones)? Does everyone go through this struggle? If they do, then why does so much falsehood and unrationalized selfishness exist in the world?

As this explanation leads to only more contradictions and confusion, this interpretation must be getting at something else. Is Holden justified in his feelings of anxiety and alienation? Examining the facts of Holden's life and comparing this to the real world around me, I would say yes. It appears some interpreters of the book would say no. They appear to categorically dismiss Holden's legitimate qualms about society as naive: a symptom of his youth and inexperience.

Let's propose another word for naivete: idealism. A characteristic often attributed to young people who find more problems with the world than their elders would like to fix, idealism is sometimes used almost pejoratively, paired with or sometimes traded for naivete. The crotchety old grouchy veteran implies that the youth's idealism will fade in time, to be replaced with a more realistic sense of the world and its limits (read: people and their limits). He calls this "maturity."

But what is idealism? Why is there this naive, negative connotation? Why is it transitory or at least perceived as such, and what does this transitory quality actually mean for how we should think about it?

Google defines idealism as "the practice of forming or pursuing ideals." Identifying what is good and desirable and striving for it. I see ideals as very similar to values (values in a moral or virtuous sense). The difference being that an ideal is something you posit and then reach towards, while a value is something you hold onto, something you can describe concretely because it is already yours.

You describe your values with your words, but you describe your ideals with your actions.

A value is something that you view as important; literally something that you ascribe value to. So why are values free from this negative sense, this 'devaluation' that has occurred with idealism? The only difference between the two is that one implies, even requires, action. Values suggest action at best, and veil hypocrisy at worst.

So far we see nothing wrong with idealism; it appears to be something to be admired and encouraged rather than denigrated.

The idea that bridges the conceptual gap between idealism and naivete, however, is delusion. These ideals are believed to be inherently unrealistic and elusive. But what's the point of an ideal to strive for if it is easily attainable? An achieved ideal is now merely a value, an accomplishment to be listed.

The crotchety old veteran stock broker or entrepreneur or insurance salesman we have imagined so far would say that the idealistic youth is destined for failure. He will eventually become disillusioned with his righteous and unrealistically high standards and separate himself from his ideals, becoming just like the veteran.

But what is going through the veteran capitalist's head? (The cultural context and observations made in this commentary are firmly entrenched in a capitalist society; it'd be fascinating to try to look at it outside of that paradigm.)

Is this veteran's reaction simply a selfish instinct? If the old banker used to be just as idealistic as the youth, could it be that he doesn't want the youth to succeed where he could not? Maybe the banker never really tried but he doesn't want the youth to feel superior, he'd rather pull him down to his level? We could suppose a more virtuous point of view for the banker: maybe he wants to protect the youth from the supposedly inevitable disillusionment and subsequent fall away from the ideals.

But even if the youth is doomed to failure, shouldn't the observers be rooting for him, hoping against hope, rather than feeling condescending and superior and contributing to his fall? Is the veteran conscious of the fact that he has become just another part of the viciously hypocritical world that the idealistic youth fights against? Maybe the veteran's strongest motivation for opposing the youth has nothing to do with any concern for the youth or the supposedly inevitable fall and thus meaningless nature of his ideals, but the threat that the youth poses against the status quo itself? Is this intimidation the origin of the modern connotation of "idealism"?

Let's drop the analogy before I confuse myself even more.

Whether or not idealism is unrealistic in regards to human capabilities, I believe that there is no reason that it should be thought about in the way it is. It should be praised and welcomed in any situation. It should not be thought of as "naive" or "inexperienced." Instead, the "mature" and "experienced" should be seen as "battered" and "weary" and "(morally?) eroded  by years of torrential hypocrisy."

Whether or not human nature allows people to maintain these ideals and this attitude is irrelevant. If you tell a child that his legs are broken he will not even attempt to get out of bed.

And let's not start thinking about the potential connection between this repressed idealism and capitalism or I'll get all sad.

I'm going to briefly zoom back out (in? turn around? flip the page?) to Holden Caulfield and The Catcher in the Rye.

We should not be looking at Holden just as a young inexperienced boy, only now beginning to perceive the vile nature of the world. He is not naive; he does not bear unrealistically high expectations for the world; he is not just "going through a phase" of alienation. He is a man who sees what is wrong with the world and is deathly afraid of unwittingly becoming a part of it. He may run away from it, but he learns that it is unavoidable and that he must find a way to preserve his identity and his ideals without isolating himself from everyone and everything. We should admire his clarity and the fortitude of his ideals. Even if his constant whining does get a little bothersome.

(This post came out of a rambling scribble about Idealism in the back of my English notebook and a summer of stewing over J.D. Salinger.)

I think the world would be in a lot better condition if we had more ideals and less values. People put everything on display when they reach for an ideal; Values are only good for hiding behind.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Hypothetical Dichotomous World-View

Suppose with me for a moment. Let's pretend we can break humanity down in a relatively simplistic manner.

There are two types of people in the world.

There are those who can't really trust others, and those who can't really trust themselves.

First of all, this comes off as pretty cynical. Not a single person on Earth trusts both themselves and other people? And there's not a single person who really just trusts nobody?

Well obviously there's a qualification here.  The people who can't trust themselves don't just blindly trust everyone around them.  You're always going to have people in your life whom you can't trust, no matter who you are.

The people who can't trust themselves trust *easier*.  They don't find it hard to let go and rely on other people.

The people who don't trust others tend to do a little more shunning and pushing away of others.  Then they end up facing their problems alone; the problems that led them to push others away. 

The people who don't trust themselves  don't have the same problem. They don't doubt that there are people there to catch them if they fall back; their problem is that they don't trust themselves to handle things on their own.

Now here's something I have written down in my notebook; I'm going to try to rationalize it:

Those who appear outwardly confident are usually one of the latter (those who can't trust themselves).

If you trust others easily and don't worry about what people around you do, that lets you be a little more confident and certain about how things are going to go when you're out and about.  That's because your real crises are not out and about; your crises are internal.  On the inside is where you're struggling and pushing, so you spend your time outside with other people.

If you trust yourself but not others, then your real conflicts will manifest themselves more often externally.  Your crises will appear in your relationships with the people around you.  You spend more time on the inside, because it's nice there.  Of course you've still got internal problems to work out, but it's better than being outside where you're struggling and pushing against the people around you.

Naturally, as with any attempt at dividing and defining humanity, more holes are going to appear the more you describe and detail.  So I will re-abstract and make a tentative conclusion:

Truly trusting and truly self-confident are mutually exclusive qualities.

Happy moment: I got to say dichotomous!

(This post came out of a hastily scribbled paragraph in the notebook I used for just such things this last summer. I think the thought itself appeared on a late night weekend drive between Agape and Raleigh; Probability suggests that Vampire Weekend was playing loudly in the background.)

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Introductory Post; Huzzah!

Why do I try to make everything ridiculously over-philosophical?  I feel like every time someone says something remotely random or off-kilter I grab onto it and try to make it a blandly prophetic statement about life or religion.  Sometimes I come up with some pretty profound stuff, but I do it almost obsessively. 

Am I trying to impress people? 

Do I honestly just enjoy it?  

Whenever I’m not trying to make things deep and poetic and resonant, I’m trying to make them funny.  I try to make everything into a joke, with differing levels of success.  If I’m feeling creative and enthusiastic, it’ll work out great and I’ll come up with a lot hilarious stuff.  If I’m not, then I spend hours looking at a sentence trying to come up with the perfect weird phrase that would make it comedic gold.  Then it looks bland and it’s obvious I’m trying too hard.  

But where is the line?  

Am I always trying to impress people, but I happen to enjoy it too?  It could be that I only do it well when I’m enjoying it and it flows, and that I only struggle and try too hard when I’m trying to make myself look good.  

But aren’t I always trying to make myself look good? 

I evaluate how well I’m doing by the reactions of the people around me, so doesn’t that mean the entire thing is just a deeply arrogant, ego-inflating exercise?  Maybe I enjoy it solely because of the attention?  

That’s depressing. 

But isn’t that what art is about?  

You try to make something beautiful, but beauty exists only as a product of people’s perceptions.  You want people to perceive it, to find the beauty and make it real.  Some artists may not care if the people recognize the creator behind the art, but aren’t they still looking for the reaction of the observer?  Is there really such a thing as art for the sake of art?  Isn’t there always an audience, even if it’s nowhere else but in the mind of the artist? 

 Here’s another thought:  maybe I’m just deflecting.  I don’t really have anything significant to say about anything really real, so I say funny and deep things.  Maybe I don’t really know myself well enough to say anything really significant about myself or what I think.  Maybe I know myself but I’m afraid to talk about myself so I philosophize and joke around in a detached way about unnecessary things, hoping that little bits of “me” will get filtered in there and find their way to a real person in spite of all the bullshit.

Whoops – there I go again.

That said, I'm going to be using this space to do some random unnecessary philosophizing.  Then we will look back on it and reflect and see if anything especially interesting or insightful happened.  Then I shall expound upon it. Lather. Rinse. Repeat. Ad nauseam.

Huh. Apparently Google doesn't recognize Latin.  Let us scoff pretentiously together at Google.

*scoff scoff scoff*

(This post came out of a Creative Writing exercise involving asking questions about myself and the world around me)