The Movie “Spotlight”: Philosophical Reflections

Last night I watched “Spotlight,” one of the finest films I’ve seen in years.

The film follows The Boston Globes “Spotlight” team, the oldest continuously operating newspaper investigative journalist unit in the United States,[6] and its investigation into cases of widespread and systemic child sex abuse in the Boston area by numerous Roman Catholic priests. It is based on a series of stories by the “Spotlight” team that earned The Globe the 2003 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service.[7] … The film … was named one of the finest films of 2015 by various publications. Spotlight won the Academy Award for Best Picture along with Best Original Screenplay … (from Wikipedia)

I am no expert on pedophilia and there is no consensus about its causes even among experts. However, pedophilia does not appear more prevalent among Catholic clergy than among other professions. The best estimates are that about 4% of the general population are pedophiles and between 90 and 99% of these are men. This is consistent with “the best available data … [that] 4% of Catholic priests in the USA sexually victimized minors during the past half century.”

Still, we recoil when abuse is perpetrated by those who claim to be moral exemplars. Many expect the mafia or military to be violent and corrupt, but not the clergy. But it doesn’t take much life experience to learn that hypocrisy is a defining trait of human beings. If someone boasts about his moral character, it’s a good bet that he is a scoundrel. As for the subsequent cover up, churches, governments, businesses, political parties and individuals usually try to hide their misdeeds, even if others are hurt in the process. This is a  near truism of human life. 

Another thing that struck me was how costly and difficult it is to do investigative reporting. It really takes a lot of work to uncover corruption, and the supposed purveyors of decency do their best to keep their hypocrisy from being illuminated. Thus it is easy to understand attacks on the media by the rich and powerful, inasmuch as they know that a really free press is one of the only constraints on their power.

In response, a few of the most powerful have simply bought the media. Most people don’t realize that 90% of all the media  in the United States is owned by one of 6 corporations. “With the country’s widest disseminators of news, commentary, and ideas firmly entrenched among a small number of the world’s wealthiest corporations, it may not be surprising that their news and commentary is limited to an unrepresentative narrow spectrum of politics.” – (Ben Bagdikian, former dean of the School of Journalism at UC-Berkeley)

Given this state of affairs the spotlight investigative team deserves our unending praise for uncovering just a small bit of the corruption that surrounds us. I thank them for reminding me once again that a defining trait of most human beings is hypocrisy.

Skepticism and the Meaning of Life

I received a correspondence from a reader who wonders about “the triumph of judgment over spontaneity as we emerge from childhood into adulthood and the consequent obstacle it poses for living in psychic comfort.” In other words she worries about how to reconcile “a naturally felt purposefulness and zest for life against an intellectual sense of life’s essential pointlessness and its indifference to human concerns that give rise to the recognition of absurdity.” The only consolation she experiences is with her grandchildren “as they go about engaging the world with perfect unmediated wonder, boundless energy, and demands for attention.”

I too have felt this tension. When I watch the delight my young granddaughter takes in looking at every flower and insect, when I sense the innocent eyes through which she sees the world, I am saddened beyond words. Like any adult I know the ugliness of the world that waits to trample on that innocence. I clearly see the contrast between childlike wonder and the pessimistic conclusions about the nature of reality that mature reasoners often draw. Given this tension, how do we carry on without accepting some silly supernaturalism?

There are a number of strategies we might adopt here. We might follow Victor Frankl (Man’s Search for Meaning) and conclude that the problem of life is not learning to live with its absurdity—since we can’t know for sure that it is absurd—but to learn to live not being sure if life is meaningful or not. Or we might follow a philosopher like E. D. Klemke’s (Summary of E.D. Klemke’s “Living Without Appeal“) who held that we can find subjective meaning in an objectively meaningless world by responding positively to its beauty. As Klemke put it: “if I can so respond and can thereby transform an external and fatal event into a moment of conscious insight and significance, then I shall go down without hope or appeal yet passionately triumphant and with joy.”[i]

Still I agree with my reader that no amount of intellectual reflection ever fully dispels our deepest existential concerns. For the movement of time spoils even those things that make us happy and which, for the moment, give our lives purpose. This passage of time haunts us; that perpetual perishing which diminishes our joy by its intrusion into the present. This radical impermanence, and our consciousness of it, reminds us that our own demise rushes toward us as the present recedes away. The awareness of our impending doom is a constant companion capable of poisoning our momentary happiness, leading in turn to the inevitable realization that it not just we who may die, but our children, and their children, and all children, and, in the end, all of reality as well.

Reaching the limits of the intellect’s power to dissuade our existential fears, perhaps we can be comforted by an exuberant affirmation of the meaning found in life’s activities. Any serious student of philosophy is struck by the stark contrast between the somber tone of our philosophical musings, and the joy we feel through our immersion in the world of the senses. In the mountains and oceans we see, in the walks we take and the meals we eat, in the joy we find in physical play and philosophical talk, and in the warmth we feel when surrounded by those that love us and whom we love, there we don’t so much find meaning as transcend the need for it. At those times life is sufficient unto itself. When we laugh and play and love, all the misery of the world momentarily vanishes. We hardly give meaning a thought. And if thought brings existential anguish back again—perhaps we can and should think less. In short, we live deeper than we can think.

But is living with less thinking a realistic antidote? Can we live this way after reflectivity has become interwoven into our natures? Can we live constantly in motion, so that troubling thoughts do not disturb? No, we cannot suppress our most important questions indefinitely. For after laughing and playing and loving, thought returns. Why is happiness so fleeting? Why must we suffer and die? Why do we all meet tragic ends? What if all is for naught? We cannot avoid our questions for long; eventually we drop our guard and they return.

But even if we could avoid our deepest questions, should we? I don’t think so. Our questions bring forth the deep reservoir of our inner life that is often hidden from normal viewing, and our curiosity and inquisitiveness ennoble us, differentiating us from less conscious beings. Our thinking may not make us happy, but it nourishes a deep interior life. However much we love the world of body and sense, thought is our salient feature. We should not repress it. And, since we cannot and should not evade our questions, the prescription to find meaning in activity only partially satisfies. No matter what we think or do, our questions remain.

Nothing then completely silences all our doubts and soothes all our worries—not the limited meaning life offers us, not the knowledge of a purpose, not the promise of hope, not the engagement in activity. How then do we proceed? We must accept something of our present life lest resentment cause us to curse it. Yet, at the same time, we must reject the present or nothing will improve. This creative tension acknowledges the limitations of reality as a starting point while rebelling against its shortcomings. It involves working to mold, create, and increase meaning. We don’t know that reality will progress, but if we partially accept our present reality, if we dream of a future without limits and struggle to bring it about, we may increase the meaning in our lives and in the world.

Yet for now we are forced to live with uncertainty and angst, as a testimony to our intellectual honesty and emotional integrity. Unlike those who adopt blind faith, we scorn the facile resolutions of the cowardly. And if we must die, we will die as free people who did not yield to the forces that sought to destroy them from the moment of their birth. Those are the forces we seek to defeat, but which have not yet been defeated. In the meantime, we should relish the limited joy and meaning life offers, work to eliminate human limitations, and suppress negative thoughts as best we can. This is no solution, only a way to live.

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[i] Klemke, “Living Without Appeal: An Affirmative Philosophy of Life,” 194

Mike And The Mechanics: “The Living Years” – Philosophical Reflections

I recently stumbled upon a song that I’d forgotten about, “The Living Years” by Mike and the Mechanics. The group formed in 1985 as a side project of Mike Rutherford, one of the founding members of the band Genesis. The song was written by Rutherford and B. A. Robertson after both of their fathers died, and shortly before Robertson’s son was born. (Rutherford wrote about his father in this article in the Guardian.) According to Wikipedia, “The song was a chart hit around the world, topping the US Billboard Hot 100 on 25 March 1989,[2] and reaching No.1 in Canada and Australia and No.2 in the UK. It spent four weeks at No. 1 on the US Adult Contemporary chart. The music video and lyrics are below, followed by a brief commentary.

MIKE AND THE MECHANICS
“The Living Years”
Every generation

Blames the one before
And all of their frustrations
Come beating on your door

I know that I’m a prisoner
To all my Father held so dear
I know that I’m a hostage
To all his hopes and fears
I just wish I could have told him in the living years

Crumpled bits of paper
Filled with imperfect thought
Stilted conversations
I’m afraid that’s all we’ve got

You say you just don’t see it
He says its perfect sense
You just can’t get agreement
In this present tense
We all talk a different language
Talking in defence

Say it loud, say it clear
You can listen as well as you hear
It’s too late when we die
To admit we don’t see eye to eye

So we open up a quarrel
Between the present and the past
We only sacrifice the future
It’s the bitterness that lasts

So Don’t yield to the fortunes
You sometimes see as fate
It may have a new perspective
On a different day
And if you don’t give up, and don’t give in
You may just be OK.

Say it loud, say it clear
You can listen as well as you hear
It’s too late when we die
To admit we don’t see eye to eye

I wasn’t there that morning
When my Father passed away
I didn’t get to tell him
All the things I had to say

I think I caught his spirit
Later that same year
I’m sure I heard his echo
In my baby’s new-born tears
I just wish I could have told him in the living years

Say it loud, say it clear
You can listen as well as you hear
It’s too late when we die
To admit we don’t see eye to eye

Reflections – We do tend to blame those who went before us, especially our parents, for many of our problems. But children are quite similar to their parents. This realization should bring about understanding—our parents probably did the best they could, and we should appreciate that. Of course members of the older generations often assume that the new generation is “going all to hell.” The understanding needs to go both ways.

Clearly the composers of the song feel regret for not having said more to their fathers and for the misunderstandings and anger. This is the problem with bitterness—as many sages from Buddha to the present have noted—it really hurts those who are bitter. When we cease expecting perfection from our parents and our children, we will find more inner peace.

Forgiving those who hurt us doesn’t mean we approve of their actions. It means we are letting go of the past and journeying into a better future. It also means that though we were hurt and didn’t deserve it, we also hurt others even if unknowingly. It is part of human interaction to hurt and be hurt despite the best intentions. But we would live better if we could all forgive and not have lifelong anger and the regrets that follow from it. We would all do better to be less judgmental, especially if we have not walked in the other’s shoes.

What a beautiful song.

Bertrand Russell on Fearing Thought

Men fear thought as they fear nothing else on earth – more than ruin, more even than death. Thought is subversive and revolutionary, destructive and terrible; thought is merciless to privilege, established institutions, and comfortable habits; thought is anarchic and lawless, indifferent to authority, careless of the well-tried wisdom of the ages. Thought looks into the pit of hell and is not afraid. ~ Bertrand Russell

A while back I dedicated a post to this quote and titled it “We Fear Thought.” Recently I received a thoughtful comment regarding that post. The essence of the comment is this:

While common anxieties like fear of the unknown or fear of failure may play some role, I think the more likely explanation is more mundane: the vast majority of individuals lack the means, motive and/or opportunity to think critically … Each individual has a unique combination of genes, nutrition, family influences, educational opportunities and the chance encounters with the environment that all influence the ability and desire for critical thinking. But even with the highest ability and motivation, an individual might have a stifling daily life that limits the opportunity for thought.

If this is correct it leads the commenter to conclude that:

Rather than focusing on “fear” as preventing critical thinking, which is an implicit judgement on an individual’s strength of character, we need to focus on providing the environment that can enhance the ability, motivation and opportunity for an individual to critically think about today’s issues, with motivation being the most difficult to address. We need to strengthen education and foster reflective public discourse …

I agree with the commentator that critical thinking demands: 1) ability; 2) motivation; and 3) opportunity. I also agree that we should provide environments that make critical thinking possible. And I think Russell would agree with all of this too.

But for those who do possess the ability and opportunity to think critically—which is most of us in the first world—why do so many think so poorly? Why do they believe in the virgin birth of Jesus and not in biological evolution? Why do the believe President Obama was born in Kenya or that climate change isn’t real? Why do they fear immigration rather than their fellow citizens? Clearly some reject critical thinking because it’s difficult. It is just easier to accept what the blowhards say on the radio, tv,  the internet or in church than to think carefully about whether what they’re saying makes sense.

Are all the scientists who have devoted their lifetime to the study of biology or climate science really involved in a conspiracy? If Obama really wasn’t born in the US, don’t you think someone would have found that out by now? Aren’t stories of virgin births more likely to be myths than historical facts? After all, virgin births are common in pagan mythology and nobody take those stories seriously. Don’t they realize that their chances of being killed by their fellow citizens far outweigh their chances of being killed by foreigner? Clearly it is just easier for people to believe what they are told than to assess whether what they are being told is reasonable.

But another reason that people don’t think is the reason that Russell notes—they fear that thinking might disrupt their worldview. As Camus put it, “beginning to think is beginning to be undermined.” I have had many university students through the decades who saw that thinking might undermine their cherished beliefs, and in response they retreated. They did fear their worldview might come crumbling down, and with it perhaps their relationships with those who shared those worldviews. Thinking is feared because it might destroy so much of what you are. We shouldn’t be critical of those who fear thinking about new things, and perhaps they are better off never questioning their long-held beliefs. But that doesn’t change the fact that they recoil in large part because they are afraid.

Feeding Your Family is the Meaning of Life

In response to two recent post, “The Monotony of Work” and “Summary of David Foster Wallace’s Commencement Speech,” I received a perceptive comment from a reader. The commentor (C) is a well-paid software engineer who doesn’t look forward to thirty years of the same work. While thankful for gainful employment and recognizing the role that such works plays in sustaining civilization, what bothers him most is that his intellect is on loan to his employer, rather than being used in a search for truth and wisdom. And if he had a job that afforded this opportunity, he would be willing to make less money. (A better alternative would be to have a guaranteed minimum income to allow people to do what they enjoy.)

I was touched by the sorrow C feels in not being able to spend one’s life reading and learning precisely what one is most interested in and considers most important. I too felt that sorrow long ago and was fortunate enough to be able to pursue, and get modestly paid, for doing philosophy. I also relate to the pain he feels in knowing that he will never be able to know and be all that he want to be—a pain that all seekers of truth feel deeply.

C, who is about to become a father, believes that working to support his child will give more meaning to his work. He thinks that working for his child will be more moral and holy than pursuing “amor intellectualis Dei” (the intellectual love of God), for the latter is, after all, a selfish or hedonistic pursuit. Moreover, C had parents who sacrificed so that he was fed and educated. Thus he feels an obligation to do likewise for his own child. Perhaps then his own child to be able to both seek wisdom and be gainfully employed. As for C himself this probably isn’t possible, as his career demands too much of his psychic energy.

This last question particularly interests me. The philosopher Soren Kierkegaard famously agonized over whether family life or being a philosopher was his better choice. Family life would impinge on the pursuit of truth and vice versa. Kierkegaard would choose philosophy over his love Regine Olsen, but he forever regretted his choice. Many of us face similar choices. I’ve had many students ask me whether they should major in something they loved with few job prospects like philosophy, or whether they should pursue something more financially rewarding but less interesting to them like accounting.

There are no easy answers to such questions. (I have addressed this topic in depth in “Should You Do What You Love?) What I can say is that even if one is lucky enough to pursue and be paid to do what you love—in my case to write, read, teach, and think about philosophy—one will find that there are unpleasant aspects to the job. You have to deal with uninterested or hostile students, dogmatic colleagues, disagreeable deans, unhelpful staff, boring meetings and more. This recognition might lead us to be more accepting of less than perfect jobs.

However C is correct that marriage, family and other outside interests do give us less time to pursue wisdom. Surely without a family and the demands of teaching so many college classes,  nearly 250 in my career, I would have been a more productive philosopher. But would I have been a better one? Would I have gained more wisdom? I doubt it. There is a reason that Buddhist monks considers tasks like washing dishes, planting food, and other mundane tasks as opportunities for Enlightenment. We often find the deepest insights in the most simple things.

All of this reminds me of the words of one of my intellectual heroes, the historian, philosopher, and wisdom lover Will Durant. He says that we cannot definitely answer questions about the meaning of life or how we should live our lives—our minds are too small to entirely comprehend these things. Nonetheless, Durant believes we can say that:

The simplest meaning of life then is joy—the exhilaration of experience itself, of physical well-being; sheer satisfaction of muscle and sense, of palate and ear and eye. If the child is happier than the man it is because it has more body and less soul, and understands that nature comes before philosophy; it asks for no further meaning to its arms and legs than their abounding use … Even if life had no meaning except for its moments of beauty … that would be enough; this plodding thru the rain, or fighting the wind, or tramping the snow under sun, or watching the twilight turn into night, is reason a-plenty for loving life.[i]

We should be particularly thankful for our fellows; they are a primary reason for loving life.

Do not be so ungrateful about love … to the attachment of friends and mates who have gone hand in hand through much hell, some purgatory, and a little heaven, and have been soldered into unity by being burned together in the flame of life. I know such mates or comrades quarrel regularly, and get upon each other’s nerves; but there is ample recompense for that in the unconscious consciousness that someone is interested in you, depends upon you, exaggerates you, and is waiting to meet you at the station. Solitude is worse than war.[ii]

Love relates the individual to something more than itself, to some whole which gives it purpose.

I note that those who are cooperating parts of a whole do not despond; the despised “yokel” playing ball with his fellows in the lot is happier than these isolated thinkers, who stand aside from the game of life and degenerate through the separation … If we think of ourselves as part of a living … group, we shall find life a little fuller … For to give life a meaning one must have a purpose larger and more enduring than one’s self.

If … a thing has significance only through its relation as part to a larger whole, then, though we cannot give a metaphysical and universal meaning to all life in general, we can say of any life in the particular that its meaning lies in its relation to something larger than itself … ask the father of sons and daughters “What is the meaning of life?” and he will answer you very simply: “Feeding our family.”[iii]

Perhaps this is the best we can do to alleviate C’s worries. It may be a simple answer, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t a profound one.

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[i] Will Durant, On the meaning of life (New York: Ray Long & Richard R. Smith, 1932), 124-25.
[ii] Durant, On the meaning of life, 125-26.
[iii] Durant, On the meaning of life, 126-28.