Fear and Fatalism

By Jin-yeong Yi

“Expose yourself to your deepest fear; after that, fear has no power, and the fear of freedom shrinks and vanishes. You are free.”

—Jim Morrison

“I was not; I have been; I am not; I do not care.”

—Epicurus

About a month ago, I found myself aboard a starship. It was eerily quiet. All of the crew members were long dead. Pools of blood and stiff bodies marked my path as I walked around in circles, searching for weapons and any clues that would help me to escape to safety.

Every now and then, I would look outside of a window and be met with the vast, starry abyss of space, wholly indifferent to my predicament.

Since my brain was equipped with functional amygdalae, I was naturally apprehensive. What was lurking in the shadows? Will I have time to react? Will I end up like the others?[1]

Then something occurred to me: Why this obsession with survival? Death can only be delayed, not stopped. The Grim Reaper will come for all, whether at eighty years or eight minutes.

Why should I be afraid? Because I want to live. Why should I fear what is inevitable? Because, because—

Notes

[1] In case you haven’t guessed, I was speaking of System Shock 2.

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Nihilism and the Emotion Machine

By Jin-yeong Yi

Manga emotions

“Surely it is an excellent plan, when you are seated before delicacies and choice foods, to impress upon your imagination that this is the dead body of a fish, that the dead body of a bird or pig; and again, that the Falernian wine is grape juice and that robe of purple a lamb’s fleece dipped in shellfish’s blood; and in matters of sex intercourse, that it is attrition of an entrail and a convulsive expulsion of mere mucus. Surely these are excellent imaginations, going to the heart of actual facts and penetrating them so as to see the kind of things they really are. You should adopt this practice all through your life, and where things make an impression which is very plausible, uncover their nakedness, see into their cheapness, strip off the profession on which they vaunt themselves.”

—Marcus Aurelius, Meditations

“The Humean predicament is the human predicament.”

—W. V. Quine

In c. 1935, analytic philosopher A. J. Ayer wrote:

“[T]he fundamental ethical concepts are unanalysable, inasmuch as there is no criterion by which one can test the validity of the judgements in which they occur. So far we are in agreement with the absolutists. But, unlike the absolutists, we are able to give an explanation of this fact about ethical concepts. We say that the reason why they are unanalysable is that they are mere pseudo-concepts. The presence of an ethical symbol in a proposition adds nothing to its factual content. Thus if I say to someone, ‘You acted wrongly in stealing that money,’ I am not stating anything more than if I had simply said, ‘You stole that money.’ In adding that this action is wrong I am not making any further statement about it. I am simply evincing my moral disapproval of it. It is as if I had said, ‘You stole that money,’ in a peculiar tone of horror, or written it with the addition of some special exclamation marks. The tone, or the exclamation marks, adds nothing to the literal meaning of the sentence. It merely serves to show that the expression of it is attended by certain feelings in the speaker.”[1]

About 76 years later, literary critic S. T. Joshi echoed this analysis in his critique of Sam Harris’s updated scientific approach to morality:

All ethical judgments are expressions of a preference. They may be based on facts (or falsehoods), but they are not in themselves facts (or falsehoods).”[2] 

He also effectively explains how having preferences (i.e., not being indifferent to outcomes arising from cause and effect) is consistent with not believing in moral absolutes:

“D’Souza, in What’s So Great about Christianity, maintains absurdly that I would have no reason to object if D’Souza punched me in the face, because I would simply have to maintain that he and I share different moral standards based on our education, upbringing, etc. But my objection would stem from my preference that people not be punched in the face without reason; it violates my moral code even if that code is not itself a fact but a preference. I happen to like my preferences and, in certain circumstances, will go pretty far in defending them. 

Having accepted that there are no intrinsic “ought”s, that there is no inherent reason to favor one outcome over another, one eventually arrives at an unsettling and uncomfortable conclusion: the emotions that drive us are not absolute. While there are natural ways to feel about some things, there is no correct way to feel about anything. We don’t need to feel proud when we overcome an obstacle or achieve something. We don’t need to feel guilty about lying, cheating, or stealing. We don’t need to feel indignant when someone slanders us. We don’t need to feel jealous when a lover or spouse cheats on us. We don’t need to feel envious when a friend wins the lottery. We don’t need to feel horrified when we hear of a murder, rape, or genocide. We don’t need to feel afraid when we are told that civilization will self-destruct tomorrow or next week. Indeed, we don’t need to feel uncomfortable about this conclusion in the first place. It is natural to have these feelings, and it is certainly not “wrong” to have them, but there’s no inherent necessity, no obligation, no reason why we “ought” to have them.

Three years after the end of the Second World War, philosophers Frederick Copleston and Bertrand Russell debated the existence of God on BBC Radio. At one point, the Jesuit priest drove the atheist humanist into a corner:

R: You see, I feel that some things are good and that other things are bad. I love the things that are good, that I think are good, and I hate the things that I think are bad. I don’t say that these things are good because they participate in the Divine goodness.

C: Yes, but what’s your justification for distinguishing between good and bad or how do you view the distinction between them?

R: I don’t have any justification any more than I have when I distinguish between blue and yellow. What is my justification for distinguishing between blue and yellow? I can see they are different.

C: Well, that is an excellent justification, I agree. You distinguish blue and yellow by seeing them, so you distinguish good and bad by what faculty?

R: By my feelings.

C: By your feelings. Well, that’s what I was asking. You think that good and evil have reference simply to feeling?

R: Well, why does one type of object look yellow and another look blue? I can more or less give an answer to that thanks to the physicists, and as to why I think one sort of thing good and another evil, probably there is an answer of the same sort, but it hasn’t been gone into in the same way and I couldn’t give it [to] you.

In the end, the absence of objective morality does not change the fact that we are driven by our strongest motives. We act on them and make choices not so much because we are somehow “obligated” to do so, but simply because—we do. Because we are emotion machines. To have reason and nothing but reason is to be a computer. To have reason and emotions is to be human.

Somewhere between the 17th and 18th centuries, the French Catholic priest and closet atheist Jean Meslier penned these words to conclude his antireligious manifesto:

“After this, let people think, judge, say, and do whatever they want in the world; I do not really care.
Let men adapt themselves and be governed as they want, let them be wise or crazy, let them be good or vicious, let them say or even do with me whatever they want after my death: I really do not care in the least.
I already take almost no part in what is done in the world. The dead, whom I am about to join, no longer worry about anything, they no longer take part in anything, and they no longer care about anything.
So, I will finish this with nothing.
I am hardly more than nothing and soon I will be nothing.”

To be indifferent is to be dead. To care is to be alive.

“It is obvious, that when we have the prospect of pain or pleasure from any object, we feel a consequent emotion of aversion or propensity, and are carried to avoid or embrace what will give us this uneasiness or satisfaction. It is also obvious, that this emotion rests not here, but making us cast our view on every side, comprehends whatever objects are connected with its original one by the relation of cause and effect. Here then reasoning takes place to discover this relation; and according as our reasoning varies, our actions receive a subsequent variation. But it is evident in this case that the impulse arises not from reason, but is only directed by it. It is from the prospect of pain or pleasure that the aversion or propensity arises towards any object: And these emotions extend themselves to the causes and effects of that object, as they are pointed out to us by reason and experience. It can never in the least concern us to know, that such objects are causes, and such others effects, if both the causes and effects be indifferent to us. Where the objects themselves do not affect us, their connexion can never give them any influence; and it is plain, that as reason is nothing but the discovery of this connexion, it cannot be by its means that the objects are able to affect us.

Since reason alone can never produce any action, or give rise to volition, I infer, that the same faculty is as incapable of preventing volition, or of disputing the preference with any passion or emotion. This consequence is necessary. It is impossible reason could have the latter effect of preventing volition, but by giving an impulse in a contrary direction to our passion; and that impulse, had it operated alone, would have been able to produce volition. Nothing can oppose or retard the impulse of passion, but a contrary impulse; and if this contrary impulse ever arises from reason, that latter faculty must have an original influence on the will, and must be able to cause, as well as hinder any act of volition. But if reason has no original influence, it is impossible it can withstand any principle, which has such an efficacy, or ever keep the mind in suspense a moment. Thus it appears, that the principle, which opposes our passion, cannot be the same with reason, and is only called so in an improper sense. We speak not strictly and philosophically when we talk of the combat of passion and of reason. Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them.”

—David Hume, A Treatise of Human Nature

Notes

[1] Language, Truth and Logic by Alfred Jules Ayer

[2] The Unbelievers: The Evolution of Modern Atheism by S. T. Joshi

Atheism, Autism, and the Abstract Mind

By Jin-yeong Yi

Richard Feynman

From my notebooks:

Vox Day once wrote that atheism would be harmless if limited to an “abstract-minded elite.”[1] (He also claims that there is a correlation between atheism and autism[2], but I won’t go into that here.) I find this statement interesting, because it seems to imply that abstract-minded people tend to be atheists, or at least that there are many abstract-minded people who are atheists.

Indeed, a cursory survey of many great abstract-minded intellectuals throughout history appears to confirm this notion, or, rather, something close to it. I suspect that the most brilliant mathematical minds either believed in an impersonal God or no God at all. Descartes was a deist, or was at least accused of being one by Pascal[3]. Spinoza was a pantheist. Gauss was a deist. Leibniz was a theist, but apparently not far from deism (as he did not believe in miracles). One suspects the same of Newton. Pierre-Simon Laplace was an agnostic. Max Planck was a deist. Henri Poincaré, Alfred Tarski, Bertrand Russell, and W. V. Quine were atheists. Richard Feynman[4] was also an atheist, apparently a positive atheist at that. William James Sidis was supposedly an atheist from the age of 6. Albert Einstein has been called just about everything from an agnostic to a deist to a pantheist to an agnostic theist, but whatever he believed in, I think it’s probable that it was something without personhood. Stephen Hawking is an atheist, as is John Forbes Nash, Jr., Marvin Minsky, Noam Chomsky, and Steven Pinker. I’m sure many more examples can be named, such as Isaac Asimov (atheist), Mario Bunge (atheist), Ted Kaczynski (atheist), Daniel C. Dennett (atheist), and Christopher Langan (deist).

Even if it were false that the most brilliant mathematical minds were nontheists, the prevalence of this viewpoint seems significant enough to suggest a possible correlation between it and this type of intellectual makeup.

Notes

[1] See “The illogically optimistic atheist.”

[2] See “The socially autistic atheist.”

[3] From Pensées: “I cannot forgive [René] Descartes; in all his philosophy, Descartes did his best to dispense with God. But Descartes could not avoid prodding God to set the world in motion with a snap of his lordly fingers; after that, he had no more use for God.”

[4] From the divorce complaint of Feynman’s second wife: “He begins working calculus problems in his head as soon as he awakens. He did calculus while driving in his car, while sitting in the living room, and while lying in bed at night.”

How Does One Overcome Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder?

By Jin-yeong Yi

From my notebooks (c. 2010):

What does it mean to overcome OCD? Basically, it means to overcome the chronic paralysis that is induced by the tormenting thoughts and the futile, repetitive behaviors that they encourage. Performing a compulsion is the opposite of living in the moment, that is to say, using the present to accomplish things and grow as a human being, as an individual. A person who takes full advantage of the present is likely to have a long list of activities and accomplishments by the end of his life. Though this is not unattainable for a person with OCD, it is clear that his condition, if not overcome, will rob him of a great deal of his potential and will do much to keep him from living a fulfilling life.

How, then, can a person with OCD overcome his illness? There is no trick here: the only way to overcome OCD is to live in the present, and the only way to live in the present is to just do it. Live in the present, and don’t take your eyes off of it. Focus on the things you have to do or want to do, and do them, constantly moving from one activity to the next, taking short breaks in between if necessary. Work. Complete your tasks and finish your chores. Exercise. Eat and drink. Read, watch a movie, or listen to some music. Study. Learn. Practice a musical instrument. Think. Create. Write essays or stories, compose music or draw. Do these things, and do them with gusto. At any given moment, you have a choice between a million actions that are meaningful (productive activities) and a million that are meaningless (compulsions and other diversions). Take your pick.

When the inevitable obsessions surface, respond by immediately refocusing on what you are doing at the moment. Sometimes doing this can be extremely painful, as all too often does it feel as if your entire future depends on whether or not you can resolve the “issues” that the obsessions bring forth. However, if you are living in the moment, you can always take consolation in the fact that you are not powerless, that you have control over yourself, that you are not a slave to fear, that you are getting something done, and that you are moving forward, regardless of how distressing the obsessions are, and this gives you a reason to smile and be hopeful for the future. Remember, you have two options: be free and suffer, or be a slave and suffer. Though the suffering will never go away, you can choose to not be a slave to it. The important thing is to keep moving.

Time is always flowing, regardless of whether we are moving or standing still. We can choose to flow with time or just stand by and watch it flow past us. If we choose to just stand still, we will descend into inertia and paralysis and eventually be more dead than alive. Only by flowing with time can we ascend to greater heights of achievement and growth.

If Conflict Did Not Exist, It Would Be Necessary to Invent It

By Jin-yeong Yi

“Contradiction in nature is the root of all motion and of all life.”

—Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel

“Be happy, but never satisfied.”

—Bruce Lee

“Actual happiness looks pretty squalid in comparison with the overcompensations for misery. And, of course, stability isn’t nearly so spectacular as instability. And being contented has none of the glamor of a good fight against misfortune, none of the picturesqueness of a struggle with temptation, or a fatal overthrow by passion or doubt. Happiness is never grand.”

—Aldous Huxley

Conflict, it seems to me, is one of the key ingredients of life.  I am not speaking of petty, trivial, soul-killing, and never-ending “conflict” such as financial problems or familial dysfunction; but something I find much more meaningful: the kind of conflict found in stories in which the risks of life-threatening danger are balanced by the thrill of adventure and opportunities for heroism and glory–the stuff of myths and legends. The kind of conflict found in a struggle against misfortune and tragedy–the stuff of poetry. If conflict did not exist, it would be necessary to invent it. It hardly needs to be pointed out that conflict is one of the pillars of narrative structure, and that a story could not exist without it. That’s probably why many fairy tales traditionally end with something along the lines of “And they lived happily ever after,” because once all problems are resolved there is little left to talk about. No conflict, no story.

It seems to me that we seek conflict all the time. Real adventures with real perils (and prizes) are out of the question for most of us, so we settle for the virtual and the vicarious: novels, movies, plays, soap operas, video games, professional sports. We turn to these to satisfy our natural craving for adventure, thrills, and glory, or simply the juxtaposition between different colors.

Many of us tend not to seek conflict within our own lives not only because it’s inconvenient, but also because we know that, unlike a video game, life is unforgiving. Injuries heal slowly, what is lost is regained with difficulty (if regained at all), and if we get a Game Over, that’s that. No wonder we tend to aim for cushy lives of convenience and comfort.

Nevertheless, the desire for conflict never fades because it is, arguably, in the midst of conflict that we feel most alive. And for some of us, feeling alive is more important than feeling happy.

The Magic of Fiction

By Jin-yeong Yi

“A true story, or one taken as true, doesn’t need embellishment and it doesn’t need artistic interpretation. Its truth gives it an intrinsic interest, and that’s enough.
Fiction, on the other hand, is offered as an invention—a lie. The fiction writer’s task is not to tell the literal truth, but to lie artfully—to lie so well that the reader’s interest is engaged as if he were reading the truth.”

—Damon Knight, Creating Short Fiction

“Art is precisely the means by which man makes sense of, and transcends, his own limitations and flaws. Without art—or the arts—there is only flux.”

—Theodore Dalrymple, Our Culture, What’s Left Of It

“Science may set limits to knowledge, but should not set limits to imagination.”

—Bertrand Russell

“‘What is there?’ It can be answered, moreover, in a word—‘Everything’—and everyone will accept this answer as true.”

—W. V. Quine

The power of fiction continues to amaze me. While I’m aware of the brain’s propensity for misinterpreting data and generating illusions[1], I still can’t help but find it remarkable how one can have real emotions about imaginary people and events while being fully aware that they are not real. A fictional story is essentially one big lie from start to finish, and yet we often have no trouble swallowing one whole. Yes, there is a difference between facts and truths, and fiction can illustrate truths, but that’s beside the point. Again, what I find astonishing is that we treat imaginary people as if they are real, even when we know that they are not real. We can react to them in any number of ways. We can get angry with them. We can get annoyed by them. We can share their disappointments and elations, their joys and sorrows. We can fall in love with them. We can even envy them (yes, envy people who don’t exist!). And surely most of us can think of at least one fictional person that our world would be poorer without.

We treat the worlds of novels and movies as if they were parallel universes that actually exist. Of course, imaginary people can “exist” independently of novels and movies; they don’t need a world of their own in order for us to perceive them as “real.” (That’s why virtual pop singer Hatsune Miku has fans from around the world who go to her concerts when they get the chance.)

Also, I find that fiction makes the most sense when I view it as a dream. From this perspective, plotholes, as well as realism and plausibility in general, aren’t exactly of earth-shattering importance. It’s imaginative fiction. It’s a dream, not a documentary. Dreams are often logically inconsistent and are not infrequently downright absurd, but that doesn’t mean that they can’t be enjoyable or edifying, or even enlightening and life-changing. Why must fantasy be brought down to the level of reality? Is not the fundamental goal of fiction to convey an experience, which is something that can be appreciated with or without the element of realism?

When it comes to objective reality, probabilities trump possibilities. But when it comes to subjective fantasy, possibilities far and away trump probabilities.

Notes

[1] See You Are Not So Smart: Why You Have Too Many Friends on Facebook, Why Your Memory is Mostly Fiction, and 46 Other Ways You’re Deluding Yourself by David McRaney and Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman