British calendar, 1851, Metropolitan Museum of Art
There are many thoughts that pass through my mind in the course of a day or week. Many necessitate a book-length analysis to do justice to them, but that I won’t do! Instead, let me briefly mention a few of the things that I have recently pondered.
1. Does suffering eliminate the possibility of meaning? That is, even if the cosmos slowly evolves into a perfect state, does that justify all the suffering that led to such perfection? At first glance, it seems not. Dostoevsky advanced a similar argument in the Brothers Karamazov—no heaven can justify the gratuitous evil of the suffering of an innocent child. But if some cosmic plan—I doubt there is one exists—demands suffering then that’s a bad plan.
2. There are a few hypersane individuals among us but they’re probably the exception. And even so-called normal people, are often fanatics or fascists. I’m reminded of a Mark Twain quote: “Such is the human race. Often it does seem such a pity that Noah and his party did not miss the boat.”
3. Maybe humans are better than I think. Some argue they are unique among animals in the way they teach each other. Others argue that we distinguish ourselves from non-human animals by having involved fathers. In the words of Shakespeare, “What a piece of work is a man, how noble in reason, how infinite in faculty, in form and moving how express and admirable, in action how like an angel, in apprehension how like a god!” Then again, looking honestly at this world, we must wonder what Shakespeare was thinking.
4. When I think about my grandchildren I experience an overwhelming desire to shield them from the world. They are so innocent; they see no evil in the world; they have no sense of the danger that surrounds them. I now understand why Buddha’s parents wanted to keep him in the palace. I so wish they lived in a world that the could fully embrace.
5. I think humanity will probably destroy itself. For how will we master the residual selfish and violent instincts of our evolutionary past? How will we survive with a reptilian brain characterized by tribalism, territoriality, short-term thinking, cognitive bugs, etc.? How will reptiles armed with nuclear weapons avoid Armageddon? I just don’t know.
6. I was watching a video about starting a fire without matches. It’s really hard to do! Then the parallels with civilization became apparent. Think of how hard it was, how much labor and love and death went into creating a society in which I don’t have to start fires or hunt food. I turn my radiator handle and I get heat; I hunt at the grocery store. Neither requires much effort. It’s so easy to forget the horror and deprivation of the state of nature. How hard it would be to recreate it from scratch.
7. I was thinking about cults. Some say that when a few people believe something crazy it’s called a cult, and when many people believe something crazy, it’s called a religion. Others claim that a cult plus time equals religion. But let’s not single out religion. Consider the modern-day Republican/Trump party. They protect their fascist leaders like churches protect their child abusers. They are now a cult. And they excommunicate the heterodox.
8. Corruption is everywhere. I suppose the world has always been corrupt but, at least until early adulthood, I thought the world was basically alright. Now I have my doubts. I’m wondering if the problem is both in the stars and in ourselves. And if so, why is that? It seems that growing up is, in large part, leaving many of our dreams behind.
9. There is so much we don’t know about ourselves. We don’t understand our own motives, we deceive ourselves, and we overestimate our ability (Dunning-Kruger effect). All this assumes we have a self, as both Hume (bundle theory) and the Buddhists (no-self) deny. Buddhism, interestingly, may offer a way out of this paradox. I sometimes think that we are windows, vortexes, or apertures through which the universe temporarily becomes conscious. But at other times this is too mystical for me. I just don’t know who I am.
10. We have so much information and so little time to sort through or analyze it—the amount of information in the world is unmanageable. I’d love to ponder it all, but I cannot. We also have a lack of wisdom in our world. The only ultimate solution I know of is to enhance our intelligence, as I have argued many times. It also occurs to me that the denigration of expertise is especially problematic when we can’t be experts at more than a very few things.
11. Violence is declining according to Steven Pinker in The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined. Many disagree with Pinker on this point including John Gray, Will Koehrsen, and Herman and Peterson. I think the major flaw in Pinker’s thinking here is that he doesn’t sufficiently account for existential risks. Historical data tells us almost nothing about what will happen tomorrow. Climate change, environmental degradation, or nuclear war may soon obliterate both the earth and Pinker’s hypothesis. Unimaginable violence may be right around the corner. I hope I’m wrong.
Addendum – More Things To Think About
This article suggests that economic inequality is inevitable.
This article suggests that happiness isn’t a matter of relentless, competitive work.
This article suggests that I forget Plato, Aristotle, and the Stoics and embrace Epicureanism.