Category Archives: Advice

A Defense of Hope

Hope is a state of mind, not of the world. Hope is not prognostication. It is an orientation of the spirit, and orientation of the heart; it transcends the world that is immediately experienced, and is anchored somewhere beyond its horizons. Hope … is not the same as joy that things are going well … but rather an ability to work for something because it is good.                                                                                     ~  Vaclav Havel

Optimism As an Expectation About the Future

I begin by considering optimism, a closely related concept of hope. The American Heritage Dictionary defines optimism as: “A tendency to expect the best possible outcome …” Optimists believe that things will improve, while pessimists believe that things will get worse. So optimism is a dispositional attitude which reflects an expectation that future conditions will work out for the best. I reject such optimism because I don’t expect good outcomes, or believe that things will get better in the future.

Optimism As an Attitude in the Present Moment

The Merriam-Webster dictionary offers another meaning of optimism: “an inclination to put the most favorable construction upon actions and events …” So optimism in this sense refers, not to expectations about the future, but to an attitude that we have in the present. This is the kind of optimism that sees the glass as half-full rather than half-empty, or looks on the bright side of life. Optimism as a positive attitude is generally beneficial—you tend to be happier seeing your glass half full—while expectations for the future set us up for disappointment. I recommend this attitudinal optimism, as long as it excludes expectations.

Hope As an Expectation About the Future

The American Heritage Dictionary also includes this definition of hope: “To wish for something with expectation of its fulfillment. To look forward to with confidence or expectation.” Here again is the emphasis on future expectations. And I reject such hope because I don’t expect or anticipate that my wishes will come true. 

Hope As an Attitude in the Present Moment That Motivates Action

But hope can also refer to an attitude we have in the present; a kind of hope illuminated by contrasting it with its opposite—despair. When I despair I no longer care; I just give up. When I despair, I give up because my actions feel like they don’t matter. Why take the test if I’m sure I’m going to fail? Why play the match if I’m sure I’m going to lose? Why fight for truth and justice if they can’t be realized?

But hope is the opposite. Hope entails caring, acting, and striving. To hope is to reject despair—to care although it might not matter; to act in the face of the unknown; to express fidelity to our comrades; and to not give up. I don’t know if my actions will improve my life or better the world, but I can choose to hope, care, act, and strive without expecting success. So this hope isn’t about future expectations; it’s an attitude which informs my present. And it’s not about resignation or acceptance. Instead, hope is the wellspring for the cares and concerns which manifest themselves in action.

Attitudinal hope is also non-specific. We don’t hope that x, we simply hope and then act. This hope rejects the current situation as final, but it doesn’t anticipate a specific result that will deliver us from our plight. It transcends anticipating a specific form of our deliverance—it is a vague hoping.

Hope Is an Attitude That Makes My Life Better

But what is the point of all this hoping, caring, acting, and striving if we don’t know if we will succeed? One answer is that an attitude of hoping and caring that leads to action is inherently good. Consider the joy we take in playing games, solving puzzles, or writing blog posts, even if such actions may be objectively pointless. Such actions are a form of playing. And we often do these things, not for any future rewards, but because we want to, as we find doing them fulfilling.

But devoid of hope, in the grip of despair, we wouldn’t even try to play the game or solve the puzzle or write the blog, and we would miss the inherent joy such actions might bring. Moreover, if I despair, I won’t enjoy my life as much as if I had adopted a hopeful attitude. So there is also a pragmatic reason for adopting a hopeful attitude—it makes my life go better; it helps me live well; it makes me happier.

Attitudinal hopefulness rejects despair and leads to caring and acting. I adopt attitudinal hopefulness because it spurs action and makes my life better. I recommend such hope. 

Hope As Wishing Without Expectations

Yet hope is more than simply an attitude we adopt in the present; hope also entails having certain desires, dreams, wants, or wishes for the future. Now I have already rejected such hopes if they include the idea of expectations. But I can have hopes, desires, dreams, wishes, or wants without any sense that they will be fulfilled. And in that sense, there is nothing intellectually objectionable about having hopes and dreams—so long as there is a realistic possibility that they can be fulfilled. However, this hopeful wishing is not faith. I don’t believe or expect that my wishes will come true, although I imagine that they could.

Hope As Wishing Leads to Action

Attitudinal hope in the present moment rejects despair, makes our lives better, and spurs action. But so too can hope—as wishing without expectation—motivate action. Wishful hoping provides the impetus for acting to fulfill those hopes, which in turn makes the fulfillment of those hopes more likely.

This connection between hopeful wishing and action is easy to see. For example, suppose I hope to be a lawyer. If for some reason this is impossible, then it is counter-productive to have this false hope. But if nothing prevents me from becoming a lawyer, then the desire to be one motivates me to act toward that end. So hoping like this is not a false hope, as long as my hopes are realistic. In short, my hopes and dreams give me reasons to act.

Wishful hopefulness also rejects despair and motivates action. I recommend this hope. 

What Do I Hope For?

I can only answer this for myself. I hope, want, wish, desire, and dream that my life and universal life are meaningful, that truth, goodness, and beauty matter, that justice ultimately prevails, and that the world can be made better. In short, I hope that somehow it all makes sense, even though philosophical nihilism constantly beckons.

What Is the Source of This Hope?

I don’t know the sources of these hopes, but I feel them with an ineffable fervency. To best explain, I must wax poetically. Perhaps the source of these hopes is some cosmic longing within me, or perhaps what I call me is just misnomer for the longing of some cosmic consciousness. Perhaps, as the French existentialist Gabriel Marcel put it, “Hope consists in asserting that there is at the heart of being, beyond all data, beyond all inventories and all calculations, a mysterious principle which is in connivance with me.”1

These poetic descriptions are a bit metaphysically speculative for my tastes. I’d say this hoping emanates from biological and cultural sources. Our biological drives to survive and reproduce, combined with the emergence of consciousness and culture, steer us toward hoping and acting. Having hope benefitted our ancestors, made their lives go better, and aided their survival. Marcel’s mysterious principle probably corresponds to the scientific idea that order emerges out of chaos, as organisms dissipate their disorder into the external environment. And this means that our species may become more hopeful.

Losing Hope

Still, any of us can lose our hopeful attitude; we can give in to despair. And that’s because hope and despair exist in a dialectical relationship. We can respond to despair with hope, and within hope there is always the possibility of despair. To despair is to say there is nothing worthwhile in the world; to hope is to affirm that your concerns, your actions, your love, and your life, all matter.

Still it is easy from the safety of my study, with an adequate supply of life’s necessities, to opine about the value of hope. No doubt some people are in hopeless situations. Perhaps they are starving, or in endless pain, or in solitary confinement. For them hope is no salve, and their lives possibly pointless. These hopeless situations should make us all weep.

But notice what hope recommends, at least for those of us lucky enough to have our basic needs met. We are called upon to forgo acceptance and resignation, and to try to improve the world. Be sympathetic, but also act! We may not succeed, but we can try. For hope is better than despair. And even if we all ultimately face the abyss, we can meet it no better.

Conclusion

Hope is an attitude of caring, of concern, of acting, of trying, of striving. We adopt attitudinal hopefulness because it is part of our nature, it spurs action, and it makes our lives better. Wishful hopefulness, wishing without expectations, also emanates from our nature, rejecting despair and motivating action.

I chose to adopt a hopeful attitude and maintain my hopeful dreams because it makes my life go better, and might help the world as well. I don’t know if life is meaningful, or if truth, beauty, goodness or justice matter. I don’t know if there is any recompense for my efforts or the suffering that surrounds me. I don’t know if anything matters at all. I’m neither an optimist or a pessimist. But I see no value in giving into despair, at least in my current situation. Thus I still have hope.

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1. The Philosophy of Existentialism. Translated by Manya Harari. New York: Carol Publishing Group, 1995) 28.

How to Cope with Today’s Presidential Inauguration

(This post is dedicated with love to a dedicated reader)

The American Political World Is Bad And Getting Worse 

At the request of a reader depressed by today’s American presidential inauguration, I’m quickly writing a post. (This is a disclaimer as to its quality and completeness.) My own views—in more complete form—about the tragedy and danger of electing someone so manifestly unqualified, so psychologically, morally and intellectually unfit, (“An amygdala with a twitter account,” as my son puts it,) have been expressed over and over in previous posts. (For more scroll down on “politics” at the right, top corner of the page.)

My readers’ pain about our current state of affairs results from being more educated than most about the issues, political climate, new president, recent history, and the corruption, shenanigans, lies, and bs that surround us. Perhaps ignorance is bliss. And, as we have seen in a previous post, less education, even accounting for all other factors, was the biggest predictor of Trump support. It also evokes sadness to think of all the people who will suffer and die if some of the promises of the Republicans come true—the loss of health care for millions, increased economic inequality, etc. And this says nothing of people around the world who might die in wars resulting from a more unstable world.

Plato told us more than 2,000 years ago that you can’t have a good life without a good government, and you can’t have a good government without morally and intellectually virtuous leaders. He told us that democracy is one of the worst kinds of government—it’s the blind leading the blind—and that it inevitably leads to tyranny where power joins with vice. Trump in charge of nuclear codes; Perry in charge of nuclear energy; Tillerson and Exxon in charge of diplomacy; Sessions in charge of the law; Devos in charge of education—it would be hard for a dystopian novel to invent all this. Its 2017, but we live in 1984. The ministry of truth tells lie; the ministry of peace fights war; and no lie is too bold.

If only the masses truly understood what they did. They thought their TV was broke so they decided to try something new. Call knowledgeable people? No! Instead they banged on their TV with a hammer. Might work. Probably will make things worse.

And let me add—a society that has no respect for truth will make bad decisions. Replacing the rule of law and the pre-eminence of reason with the rule of the passions is a prescription for tyranny and anarchy as Aristotle told us long ago. 

Sure one can wonder how we got from Nixon’s southern strategy, to Reagan saying government was the problem, to Delay’s and Gingrich’s moral corruption, to Republican obstructionism and disdain for truth, to the Tea Party, to the freedom caucus, to nearly one-party fascist rule. But this is the job of historians and political scientists to unpack. The past is closed, and we must move forward.

How To Cope 

My reader doesn’t want more gloom and doom or historical analysis—she wants advice about coping. Lacking any special insights, I’ll just try to think the problem out as I write.

It seems there are at least two things you’re coping with today if you are relatively conscious of what’s going on politically. First, the bad things that have already happened, and second, the bad things that might happen as a result of this past.

As for what has already happened, you can’t do anything about it, so it is pointless to waste time thinking about it—to worry is an exercise in mindlessness. As for what might happen, we must remember that we don’t know the future. Many things we worry about never happen, so it is ineffective to worry about the merely possible. I know this is easier said than done, but realizing the pointlessness of worry is a start.

What is not pointless is doing something to make the dystopian future less likely. This may include writing, marching, creating beauty, getting politically active, or it may simply imply helping those few that you can help. It might mean being a good parent, so that we less psychologically damaged individuals run the government; it might mean learning more about marital conflict resolution; it might mean meditating to achieve greater mind control; it might be all of these things and more. But it definitely means doing something as opposed to ruminating about all the bad things that are happening.

Yet here we must also remember the sage advice of the Stoics, Buddhists, and Hindus. As they long ago discovered, you can’t control the world, you can only influence it. You shouldn’t be indifferent, passive, or apathetic; rather, you should discharge your duties to help the world. But remember that you can’t control the outcome of your efforts. Thus, as long as you do what you can, you shouldn’t feel shame or guilt.

This advice may seem trite, but I don’t know what else to say. Change what you can; ignore what you can’t change, and recognize the difference between the two, to paraphrase Niebuhr’s serenity prayer.  Reflecting on this, it isn’t surprising that we can’t say much more than has been said in the 10,000 years of human culture. It isn’t likely that we would discover something that all the sages and seers missed. Perhaps then trite isn’t the right word for our advice. Our advice may lack originality, but that doesn’t make it worthless.

In short my advice is: 1) learn to control the mental disturbance caused by obsession over a past that you can’t change, or a future that may not come to be; and 2) act now to better the world and ourselves based on the best knowledge available, with the recognition that you can’t control the outcome of your efforts. We are suggesting a middle way between the helplessness and impotence that accompanies worry, and the hubris of thinking we can perfect the world, and our responsible that perfection.

These Two Pieces of Advice in World Literature 

The most profound statement of these points—that we try to control our minds and fight to better the world—that I’m aware of come from French mathematician and philosopher Rene Descartes, who wrote about the peace that accompanies the stoical mind, and the Greek novelist and essayist Nikos Kazantzakis, who wrote deeper than anyone I’ve ever encountered about fighting the battle of life, and taking pride in our efforts.

Here is Descartes:

My third maxim was to endeavour always to conquer myself rather than fortune, and change my desires rather than the order of the world, and in general, accustom myself to the persuasion that, except our own thoughts, there is nothing absolutely in our power; so that when we have done our best in respect of things external to us, all wherein we fail of success is to be held, as regards us, absolutely impossible: and this single principle seemed to me sufficient to prevent me from desiring for the future anything which I could not obtain, and thus render me contented; for since our will naturally seeks those objects alone which the understanding represents as in some way possible of attainment, it is plain, that if we consider all external goods as equally beyond our power, we shall no more regret the absence of such goods as seem due to our birth, when deprived of them without any fault of ours, than our not possessing the kingdoms of China or Mexico; and thus making, so to speak, a virtue of necessity, we shall no more desire health in disease, or freedom in imprisonment, than we now do bodies incorruptible as diamonds, or the wings of birds to fly with. But I confess there is need of prolonged discipline and frequently repeated meditation to accustom the mind to view all objects in this light; and I believe that in this chiefly consisted the secret of the power of such philosophers as in former times were enabled to rise superior to the influence of fortune, and amid suffering and poverty, enjoy a happiness which their gods might have envied. For, occupied incessantly with the consideration of the limits prescribed to their power by nature, they became so entirely convinced that nothing was at their disposal except their own thoughts, that this conviction was of itself sufficient to prevent their entertaining any desire of other objects; and over their thoughts they acquired a sway so absolute, that they had some ground on this account for esteeming themselves more rich and more powerful, more free and more happy, than other men who, whatever be the favours heaped on them by nature and fortune, if destitute of this philosophy, can never command the realization of all their desires.

And here is Kazantzakis (with my commentary):

Kazantzakis believed that the meaning of our lives is to find our place in a chain that links us to the more subtle and advanced forms of life that will, hopefully, arise in the future.

We all ascend together, swept up by a mysterious and invisible urge. Where are we going? No one knows. Don’t ask, mount higher! Perhaps we are going nowhere, perhaps there is no one to pay us the rewarding wages of our lives. So much the better! For thus may we conquer the last, the greatest of all temptations—that of Hope.[i]

I remember being devastated the first time I read those lines. I had rejected my religious upbringing, but why couldn’t I at least hope that life was meaningful? Why was Kazantzakis taking that from me too? His point was that the honest and brave struggle without hope or expectation that they will ever arrive, ever be anchored, ever be at home. Like Ulysses, the only home Kazantzakis found was in the search itself. The meaning of life, he thought, is found in the search and the struggle, not in any hope of success.

In the prologue of his autobiography, Report to Greco, Kazantzakis claims that we need to go beyond both hope and despair. Both expectation of paradise and fear of hell prevent us from focusing on what is in front of us, our heart’s true homeland … the search for meaning itself. We ought to be warriors struggling bravely to create meaning without expecting anything in return. Unafraid of the abyss, we should face it courageously and run toward it. Ultimately we find joy by taking full responsibility for our lives—joyous in the face of tragedy. Life is essentially struggle, and if in the end it judges us we should bravely reply, like Kazantzakis did:

General, the battle draws to a close and I make my report. This is where and how I fought. I fell wounded, lost heart, but did not desert. Though my teeth clattered from fear, I bound my forehead tightly with a red handkerchief to hide the blood, and ran to the assault.”[ii]

Surely that is as courageous a sentiment in response to the ordeal of human life as has been offered in world literature. It is a bold rejoinder to the awareness of the inevitable decline of our minds and bodies, as well as to the existential agonies that permeate life. It finds the meaning of life in our actions, our struggles, our battles, our roaming, our wandering, and our journeying. It appeals to nothing other than what we know and experience—and yet finds meaning and contentment there.

Just outside the city walls of Heraklion Crete one can visit Kazantzakis’ gravesite, located there as the Orthodox Church denied his being buried in a Christian cemetery. On the jagged, cracked, unpolished Cretan marble you will find no name to designate who lies there, no dates of birth or death, only an epitaph in Greek carved in the stone. It translates: “I hope for nothing. I fear nothing. I am free.”

The gravesite of Kazantzakis.

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[i] James Christian, Philosophy: An Introduction to the Art of Wondering, 11th ed. (Belmont CA.: Wadsworth, 2012), 656.
[ii] Nikos Kazantzakis, Report to Greco (New York: Touchstone, 1975), 23

Play is Good For You

My June 10, 2015 post marked the 193rd consecutive day I had written a post. And then 3 days without a post. What’s up with that? Well to tell the truth I wanted a break.  Moreover, I had just finished my book, Who Are We?: Religious, Philosophical, Scientific and Transhumanist Theories Of Human Nature, so I decided to take a few days off.

So playing—hiking, golfing, urban trekking and babysitting my granddaughter—have taken center stage in the last few weeks. When the weather is beautiful I just get the urge to be outside. And by the way, play is good for you; it is part of a meaningful life. A life without the joy of play is a diminished life. So here’s to just playing.

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 accept the familiar 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, who I’ve written about  many times in this blog, famously thought that boredom was the essence to the human condition, which we experience when life is devoid of its usual distractions. We keep busy so as not to experience this essential boredom. 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 is not inevitable, nor is it essential. 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 does it say something about these activities? Perhaps I bore easily, or perhaps these activities were not sufficiently stimulating. I know that stimulating persons need stimulation. Without it minds will atrophy just like inactive bodies do.

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 classes 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. They are like ships that sail in the ocean rather than being stuck in dry dock. 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 for such partners are too high, you are bound to be disappointed; if your expectations are too low, if you settle for a bad partner, you are bound to be discontent or even traumatized.

Here’s my advice. If you are almost always 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, activities and projects were best. But we can’t walk two paths at the same time. We must choose. (Thus confirming Sartre’s dictate that we are “condemned to be free.”)

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 with certainty the answer to these questions either, 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. So ask those you trust, those who care about you, and ask yourself too. Then listen.

Unfortunately this is not a complete answer, since we can never know  for certain which road to travel. In the end, we don’t know which life is best, either for ourselves or others. Perhaps this is what Victor Frankl had in mind when he said that the key is not learning to live with the absurdity of life, but rather learning to live with uncertainty.

So I’ll leave my readers with some advice I received long ago from Walt Whitman:

I tramp a perpetual journey, (come listen all!)
My signs are a rain-proof coat, good shoes, and a staff cut from the woods,
No friend of mine takes his ease in my chair,
I have no chair, no church, no philosophy,
I lead no man to a dinner-table, library, exchange,
But each man and each woman of you I lead upon a knoll,
My left hand hooking you round the waist,
My right hand pointing to landscapes of continents and the public road.
Not I, not any one else can travel that road for you,
You must travel it for yourself.

How Should We Spend Our Time?

1

(This article was reprinted in Humanity+ Magazine, September 17, 2014)

[I have promised posts on the topic of “truth and justice” and “cognitive bias.” I will deliver in the next few days on the former topic, but I won’t have time for the latter. For those interested, two sites about cognitive bias are: Overcoming Bias, the blog of Professor Robin Hanson of George Mason University,  and Less Wrong, the brainchild of Eliezer Yudkowsky, a researcher at Machine Intelligence Research Institute.]

Speaking of a lack of time, today, as I was reading multiple threads on multiple topics by members of the research group with whom I’m affiliated, (Evolution, Complexity and Cognition Group in Belgium) I was struck by the importance of deciding what one will read, think, and do in one’s lifetime. Why? Because there is too much material to read and think about for any one person to be acquainted with, much less master. It would be a full-time job just to digest all the material on my email threads. Moreover, at the moment there are at least 20 topics in my blog post que, and ten books waiting to be read. It is overwhelming. One must pick and choose, so that one doesn’t waste their precious time on triviality. Life is short. But according to what criteria do we pick and choose?

My main criterion is to pursue, as far as possible, timeless topics like the meaning of life and love, the importance of truth and justice, the advancing science and technology, and the course of cosmic evolution. Obviously these topics are themselves much too broad–one is going to have to specialize further to make much progress. Still I remember reading Isaac Asimov’s advice that we eschew specialization so that we can be polymaths. I think there is much to this. If our focus is too narrow, we miss the proverbial forest for the trees. Nonetheless no advice is truly adequate here. There is an almost infinite amount of existing knowledge which increases daily, and our minds are finite.  As I’ve said many times our best hope for synthesis of this knowledge is to increase our mental capacities. Until then I would advise thinking about as many timeless things as possible while maintaining physical vigor and mental health.

In addition to intellectual life, there are also obligations to family, to making a living, to bettering the world, and more. Here too we must make choices—there are more things to do than we can do. But we should do what we generally enjoy, with the caveat that we are bad at predicting our own happiness. Still life is too short to make ourselves and others miserable by pursuing some supposed, but despised, duty.

In the end we must strike a balance. This idea was well captured in the opening pages of An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding. There, David Hume penned this remarkable paragraph:

Man is a reasonable being; and as such, receives from science his proper food and nourishment: But so narrow are the bounds of human understanding, that little satisfaction can be hoped for in this particular, either from the extent of security or his acquisitions. Man is a sociable, no less than a reasonable being: but neither can he always enjoy company agreeable and amusing, or preserve the proper relish for them. Man is also an active being; and from that disposition, as well as from the various necessities of human life, must submit to business and occupation: but the mind requires some relaxation, and cannot always support its bent to care and industry. It seems, then, that nature has pointed out a mixed kind of life as most suitable to the human race, and secretly admonished them to allow none of these biases to draw too much, so as to incapacitate them for other occupations and entertainments. Indulge your passion for science, says she, but let your science be human, and such as may have a direct reference to action and society. Abstruse thought and profound researches I prohibit, and will severely punish, by the pensive melancholy which they introduce, by the endless uncertainty in which they involve you, and by the cold reception which your pretended discoveries shall meet with, when communicated. Be a philosopher; but, amidst all your philosophy, be still a man.