Does Everything Get Boring?

Do we get bored with everything? Do friends and lovers, work and play, and even life itself eventually become dull and tedious? Does dissatisfaction with people and projects always set in? If so, should we quit what we are tired of and try something else? Or should we persist because we know that the new slowly becomes boring too, or because we think it’s our duty to carry on?

The philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer famously thought that boredom was essential to the human condition. But are we bored because life is boring or because we are bores? Some are bored by everything, others find simple things fascinating. So boredom in general is not inevitable. Schopenhauer was wrong.

Do particular activities that were once fascinating become boring over time? Yes. As a teenager I played competitive table tennis; after a few years I was bored with table tennis. Later I played high-stakes poker; within a short time I was bored with poker. Later I learned to play golf; once I played reasonably well I found golf boring. Does my boredom say something about me or these activities? Perhaps I bore easily, or perhaps these activities were not sufficiently stimulating. I know that stimulating minds need stimulation. Without it minds will atrophy like inactive bodies.

Fortunately some activities are more stimulating than others. I have never ceased to find the pursuit of knowledge interesting. Yes, I grew bored teaching an introductory college ethics class for the one hundredth time, but if you have mastered philosophical ethics to your satisfaction, then find another topic.  Dont worry. There are plenty of things to do and learn. Might we eventually know everything and get bored? I don’t know. If I become omniscient I’ll let you know.

How about people? I have known people who have few thoughts and others who have shallow thoughts. Such people have few questions. And they already have their answers—usually the first ones they were exposed to. I find such people boring. By contrast people on a journey are interesting, they are evolving. With them you never encounter the same person, they are as petals unfolding. How can you tire of their constant surprise?

Still you may find yourself disappointed with someone you previously respected, or you may discover that someone is not as good as you thought they were. What should you do? This is a difficult question and relates to a previous post about “settling,” especially for intimate partners. If your expectations are too high, you are bound to be disappointed; if your expectations are too low, you are bound to be discontent or even traumatized.

Here’s my advice. If you are often bored and you find your friends or lovers boring, it’s probably your problem. If you are usually interested in people and you find your friends or lovers boring, you should probably find more stimulating friends and lovers. If we could live multiple lives simultaneously we could discover which friends, lovers and activities were best. But we can’t walk two paths at the same time. We must choose.

Another problem is that it is impossible for us to really know ourselves. We are too close to ourselves. We don’t know if we deserve better friends or lovers or jobs, or if we are lucky to have our current ones. Thus the best thing we can do is ask others who know and love us what they think. Should I try something or someone else, do I deserve better? Or should I be satisfied with what I have? Those who love us can’t know the answer to these questions for sure, but they can be more objective about us than we can—for they stand outside of our subjectivity. In some ways they know us better than we know ourselves. Ask those you trust, those who care about you. Ask yourself. Then listen.

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Monogamy

Charlie Allnut (Humphrey Bogart): A man takes a drop too much once in a while, it’s only human nature.
Rose Sayer (Katherine Hepburn): Nature, Mr. Allnut, is what we are put in this world to rise above. ~ The African Queen (1951)

Which is more natural for human beings, monogamy1 or polygamy? If one is more natural, does that make it preferable?

Most documented human societies, about 85%, have been polygamous. This almost always involves polygyny, men having multiple wives. Polyandry, wives having multiple husbands and polyamory, having more than one consensual, intimate relationship at the same time, are far less common. Even in so-called monogamous cultures people have affairs, and they often engage in serial monogamy, the custom of having multiple, consecutive sexual relationships but not more than one at a time. Perhaps humans are naturally polygamous.

Yet there are examples in nature of mostly monogamous relationships: lar gibbons, mute swans, malagasy giant rats, waved albatrosses, california mouses, black vultures, shingleback skinks, sandhill cranes, prairie voles, convict chiclids, some African antelopes, and … humans. Humans are capable of long-term, happy, monogamous relationships, just as they are capable of having polygamous ones.

So it is hard to say whether monogamy or polygamy is more natural. It might be like asking whether it is more natural to speak English or German. Humans are wired to learn language just as they naturally crave contact with others, but culture largely determines the language they learn and the forms of their relationships.  Nature doesn’t determine which language or relationship is best. And even if one is more natural than the other that doesn’t make it better. Some natural things are good, but some are bad—like smallpox!

Moreover humans have both long-term and short-term mating strategies. We associate long-term mating strategies with monogamy. These strategies value commitment, gene quality, economic prospects and parenting skills. We associate short-term mating strategies with polygamy. These strategies value physical attractiveness, sex appeal and sexual experience. But nature doesn’t decree which types of relationships are morally or biologically better.

Regarding the origins of monogamy the situation is straightforward:

The genetic evidence for the evolution of monogamy in humans is more complex but much more straightforward. While female effective population size (the number of individuals successfully producing offspring thus contributing to the gene pool), as indicated by mitochondrial-DNA evidence, increased around the time of human (not hominid) expansion out of Africa about 80,000–100,000 years ago, male effective population size, as indicated by Y-chromosome evidence, did not increase until the advent of agriculture 18,000 years ago. This means that before 18 000 years ago, many females would be reproducing with the same few males.[36]

This strongly suggests that monogamy is a cultural imperative not a biological one. And the modern world favors monogamy—polygamy is illegal in the entire developed world.  Why the transition from polygamy to monogamy? The main reason is that polygyny is detrimental to society. It creates an incentive for men to take many wives, leaving other men without wives—and men without mates cause problems. In polygynous societies levels of crime, violence, poverty and gender inequality are greater than in monogamous ones as a recent study at the University of British Columbia confirmed:

… monogamy’s main cultural evolutionary advantage over polygyny is the more egalitarian distribution of women, which reduces male competition and social problems. By shifting male efforts from seeking wives to paternal investment, institutionalized monogamy increases long-term planning, economic productivity, savings and child investment …

Monogamous marriage also results in significant improvements in child welfare, including lower rates of child neglect, abuse, accidental death, homicide and intra-household conflict, the study finds. These benefits result from greater levels of parental investment, smaller households and increased direct “blood relatedness” in monogamous family households …

… By decreasing competition for younger and younger brides, monogamous marriage increases the age of first marriage for females, decreases the spousal age gap and elevates female influence in household decisions which decreases total fertility and increases gender equality.

It seems that we should favor the wisdom of culture over our genetic lease. Still you might object. “Even if it’s in society’s interests to have stable monogamous unions that doesn’t mean it’s in mine. I like polygamous or polyandrous relationships.” It is hard to give a knockdown argument against this. If all involved parties are happier in such relationships, and the effects on society are limited, then so be it.

I can only speak for myself by echoing the words of that great freethinker Voltaire:

As I had now seen all that was beautiful on earth, I resolved for the future to see nothing but my own home; I took a wife, and soon suspected that she deceived me; but notwithstanding this doubt, I still found that of all conditions of life this was much the happiest.2

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1. I am referring to marital monogamy, marriages of two people only, and social monogamy, two partners living together, having sex together, and cooperating in acquiring basic resources.

2. Voltaire, The Travels of Scarmentado.

Why Do People Fear Immortality?

Anyone who reads this blog knows that I think death should be optional. Yet I always encounter resistance when introducing this idea to others. Why is that? There are many reasons. For some the idea that we should choose whether to live or die contradicts religious beliefs or seems impossible. For others death is thought to be natural or what gives life meaning. And fiction influences others by often portraying immortality as bad because:

1) You will be bored.
2) You will be unable to die.
3) You will hurt others to attain it.
4) You will lose your humanity.
5) You will turn into a monster
6) You will destroy the environment.

My guess is that negative views of the future are more exciting, selling more books and movie tickets than descriptions of utopias. But think of it this way. About ten generations ago the average life expectancy in most of the world was about thirty years. If someone told you then that they could triple that lifespan, would you voice the above concerns? I doubt it. Some people will be bad or bored or destructive because they live longer, Some are like that now. But for others with age comes more kindness and wisdom. Yes there are bored, horrific people in the world, but that is not connected with how long they live. Some people are just horrible.

Now suppose we tripled the lifespan again? Say an average healthy lifespan becomes 250 years. What would change? I can’t say for sure but I see no reason to think life would necessarily get worse. In fact knowing our lives would be longer might force us to better cooperate with others and preserve the environment. If we are going to be alive when the ecosystem is ruined, we might be more likely to care for it.

Of course if we had the option to live forever that would be different. That would create different problems some of which I’ve tried to answer previously. So let’s continue to increase our lifespans and see what happens.

Torture and the Ticking Time Bomb

 (This article was reprinted in the online magazine of the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies, December 16, 2014.)

Why do people torture others? Why do they march others into gas chambers? Because some are psychopaths or sadists or power hungry. Depravity is in their DNA.

Some are not inherently depraved but believe the situation demands torture. If others are evil and we are good, then we should kill and torture them with impunity. Such ideas result from the demonization of others, from a simplistic worldview in which good battles evil. If others torture, they are war criminals; if we torture are motives are pure. But the world is more nuanced than this. There is good and evil within us all.

The apologists for torture say they are protecting you. They may believe this but that doesn’t make it true. It may be in their interest to wage war, construct secret torture facilities or incarcerate millions in their home country, but it is probably not in yours. You or your children might be doing the fighting or the torturing, you might suffer the reprisals from the policies of the rich and powerful. Dick Cheney will get another deferment.

Moreover the torture advocates can easily turn you into instruments of their perversion, unlocking the perversion within you, as the Stanford Prison Experiment shows. If the best government jobs  program hires mercenaries, then some sign up. But be warned. Those who were caught and photographed at Abu Ghraib were sentenced to prison—scapegoats for those who authorized the policies. Donald Rumsfeld received a book contract.

So do you really feel safer knowing that your corporate-owned government wages continual warfare and tortures around the world? That they incarcerate millions of their own citizens in high-tech dungeons? That thousands languish in solitary confinement for years, some since they were children? That police often kill without repercussions? You may suffer no blowback. Perhaps your nationality, race or socio-economic class will shield you. But the depravity sown may also be reaped. If you are not among the rich and the powerful, the judge will not be lenient. If you are captured in a foreign land, being an American is not a plus.

Now I can construct thought experiments to justify torture or almost anything else. Should I imprison, torture or kill one to save a hundred? A utilitarian calculation says yes, one is less than a hundred. Torture’s defenders invoke such stories. They especially like the ticking time bomb scenario. It goes like this.

There is a ticking time bomb ready to blow up an American city. (If you’ve been to many inner cities in America, you’ll find little left for a bomb to destroy.) The bomb will soon detonate and the man who planted it is in custody. Surely we shouldn’t be squeamish about torturing him to save thousands of lives. Supreme Court justice Antonin Scalia, a horrific human being,  recently defended this argument. Scalia is a Catholic in good standing. So was the Grand Inquisitor.

The ticking time bomb story reminds me of Wittgenstein’s insight that we can be bewitched by a picture, seduced by simplistic examples that misrepresent the world. Think about the problems with this hypothetical story. You may kill this man before getting any relevant information, he may know nothing of the plan, there may be no such plan or he may lie to stop the torture. In such cases your torturing was for naught, it did nothing but corrupt you. The image cheats because it assumes there is a ticking bomb and you have the man who planted or knows of it. In real life it never works that way.

In real life it works like this. There might be a bomb or an attack planned, and you may or may not have people in custody who knows something relevant. Now how long and how severely should you torture these people? If they don’t talk is that a sign that they don’t know anything or that you should up the torture? If you have twenty prisoners and are sure that one of them knows something important but you don’t know which one, do you torture all twenty? Should you torture suspects’ children to see if that induces them to give you the information you want? Remember you don’t know if that will work until you torture their children. (The CIA of the United States used this tactic.) How many children do you torture before you stop? In such cases was your torture justified? Was it moral? Or did it engender hatred? Was it counter-productive?

If you are worried about enemies foreign and domestic why not just torture everyone who is a potential threat—college professors, torture opponents, ACLU members, Buddhist monks, grandmothers and bloggers who don’t like torture. Perhaps the enemies are among us like we thought they were during the McCarthy era. Maybe your colleague in torture is a spy. Should you torture him? Should he torture you?

The picture of the ticking time bomb bewitches because it’s a fabrication. In the real world the choice isn’t one person’s pain versus the suffering of thousands, it is the moral affront of torture and its repercussions versus the possibility of finding something useful. Remember too that the story portrays the decision as a one-time emergency choice, while in the real world decisions are made in the context of procedures and policies. That’s why the following questions need to be asked to. Should we have professional torturers who, like medieval executioners, are schooled in their practices? Maybe a torture major in college? Trade conventions showing the latest high-tech torture devices? These are not idle questions; they need to be addressed if we are to proceed.

So I ask. Do you really want to set a precedent of using barbaric practices that appeal to our worst instincts? Do we want to bring forth from human nature that which lies just below the surface of civility? Do you really want to create a torture culture and the people who inhabit it? Do you really want torturers walking among us? I think not.

More on Writing Well

 A recent post mentioned the two writing books that most influenced my writing.  But there is another one, William Zinsser’s Writing To Learn. I pulled it down from my bookshelf recently and found it marked up throughout. On the inside cover I found the inscription “Read, April 2000.” Somehow I had forgotten about it. Below are a few highlighted passages from the book.

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“Writing is thinking on paper. Anyone who thinks clearly should be able to write clearly … ”

“Writing is learned by imitation. I learned to write mainly by reading writers who were doing the kind of writing I wanted to do and by trying to figure out how they did it.”

” … the essence of writing is rewriting.”

“Writing is how we think our way into a subject and make it our own.”

“Putting an idea into written words is like defrosting a windshield: The idea, so vague out there in the murk, slowly begins to gather into a sensible shape.”

“… I draw on two sources of energy that I commend to anyone trying to survive in this vulnerable craft: confidence and ego.”

” … I learned at an early age what has been an important principle to me ever since—that what we want to do we will do well.”

” What finally impels them [writers] is not the work they achieve, but the work of achieving it.”

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Why do I care about writing well? Because language is our most advanced form of communication. With it ideas move between minds. This movement opens our minds, and changing minds change the world.

I’ll do my best to take the passion and enthusiasm within and give it artistic form. I cannot say success will follow, but I will try my best. – JGM