Personal Reflections at the end of 2019

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.

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13 thoughts on “Personal Reflections at the end of 2019

  1. Dear John,

    Ordinarily I don’t single out typos for comment, but in the context of our “broken world” I notice your reference to Hamlet, who exulted “how infinite in faculty,” not, as you quoted, “how infinite in faculties.” I make typos all the time, and as I reflect this evening they seem to me somehow definitively symptomatic of our broken world, in which just arriving at our next instant is a significant challenge. Recollection of the past is shaky, and the path into the future is obscure. I wonder if anyone has connected Marcel’s idea of ruptured life with the very nature of sanity, our longed-for wholeness as persons. Perhaps the nature of our shattered existence should be revisited as the closer we look the less we see.

    I wouldn’t mind a brief correspondence. Best wishes for the Holidays.

    David Gontar

  2. Thanks for pointing out the typo. I’m guessing many people have connected Marcel’s thought with current psychological troubles but I’m not aware of that work. JGM

  3. I have some reactions to your points, some of which are tongue-in-cheek.

    1. Why must there be meaning? Why can’t things just be?
    2. Me, I’m not just hypersane, I’m insanely sane.
    3. Think of humanity in terms of a bell curve. At one end of the bell curve is astonishing beauty. At the other end is mind-boggling evil. In the middle is (literally) mediocrity.
    4. I found a better solution to that problem: vasectomy.
    5. “Reptiles armed with nuclear weapons”–I like that phrase!
    6. Yes, the development of all this technology allows more and more people to misunderstand the Greek philosophers.
    7. Humans are joiners. The only real solution is to be like Erasmus and refuse to be part of any group. But, as Erasmus learned, that has costs.
    8. Corruption is like rats: it flourishes in the nooks and crannies of our society. More nooks allows more rats. More openness and sunlight means fewer rats.
    9. I’m an animal, living by the genetic heritage of my species. Interestingly, that genetic heritage, combined with my upbringing, have created an ethereal existence that is “I”. Sometimes “I” look in a mirror and wonder what this petty creature is. I know that “I” am not the Homo Sapiens in the mirror. “I” am a concoction, a fantasy of a primitive creature, but “I” is a good and noble fantasy. It’s so much better to live as “I” than as a Homo Sapiens.
    10. I just read a lot of books, books about everything. It’s all too much for me to take–but it sure is fun!
    11. Take a look at the Sepkoski Curve, a little ways down on this page:
    It shows that the complexity of life steadily increases through time but always reaches a point of overcomplexity that makes it vulnerable to some perturbation. We tend to think of these perturbations as cosmic catastrophes: asteroids hitting, huge volcanic eruptions, etc. However, the Sepkovsky Curve shows that there’s something else at work. When the complexity of the biosphere climbs too rapidly (as manifested in the number of genera), the system becomes fragile. The interconnections between all the species are just too specialized. We see this with economies that undergo recessions and depressions. We see it with civilizations that collapse under their own weight. We’ll see it with the global civilization sometime this century. But, hey, no big deal. The biosphere as a whole will recover. There won’t be any more civilizations like what we have for a few hundred million years–we’ve harvested all the low-hanging resource fruit. But in a few hundred million years, the earth will have built enough fossil fuels and moved more minerals to the surface to make a big civilization possible again. A new civilization will arise. Maybe they’ll do a better job than we did. But it’s all part of the cycle of life, which I have learned to respect.

  4. Faculties could mean teaching faculties– after all, faculty members at universities are well-nigh infinite 😉

    “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.”

    Progress is corruption and corruption is progress. The hedonistic imperative makes such valid. Not good, mind you, but ‘necessary’. Pragmatic. For example, in Europe pre-industrial revolution life was nasty short brutish– but frequently pious. Also, if we’d never industrialized, humanity might have died out, yet the biosphere would have lived on.

    Today All life is threatened. The problem in the stars is that the cosmos is a cold (absolute zero) place; the problem in ourselves is, as you know, selfish genes. Not hopeless but quite discouraging, as we now how have a selfish geneplex sitting in the Oval Office, busily setting up a dynasty of selfish genes.. Thus,

    “…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?”

    With great difficulty.
    But it can be done. We saw how things got a little better each year when Obama was president. It can be done again if we do not become overconfident, as we did circa 2016– then came a rude awakening on November 8th of that year. We have a 51 percent chance; let’s stretch it out to 52 percent, afterwards 53…

    “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…”

    Sometimes knowing ourselves is not a good idea. Often a psychologist is there to lie to a patient: a Dr. Jekyl patient getting in touch with their inner Mr. Hyde might not be a positive outcome. A priest’s role is in fact to lie to the flock; to tell them they will go to Heaven when they might well end up in some Hellishly painful condition before they die.

    “4. When I think about my grandchildren I experience an overwhelming desire to shield them from the world.”

    If they are with ‘bots instead of people, they can be shielded. Human companionship is overrated– necessary but still overrated. Otherwise, John, your grandchildren may eventually gravitate to religion for solace in a violently changing world, and that is not what you want, is it?

    “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.”

    Which is why infinite faculties are so important.

  5. Most of the eleven things the author writes about reflect a fundamentally negative view of humanity. If a young adult wrote this essay, we would be concerned that the young adult is suffering from depression and we would intervene out of that concern. Why should it be any different for an older individual such as the author? It is neither healthy nor productive to excessively dwell on the negative aspects of life. Writing negative essays over and over only exacerbates the problem. I would encourage the author to talk to family members, trusted friends, physicians, etc. about the possibility of depression and what interventions can be done as he progresses into old age.

  6. He’s not depressed. He’s insufferable. 😀

    If you only read this one post in isolation and universalize it to be a good representation of everything the author believes and furthermore is unreasonable in updating their beliefs based on new knowledge then you’d have a more compelling case. However, knowing the author, this is likely just a snapshot in time of a coincidentally pessimistic train of thought that happened to be passing before his mind. Wait 5 minutes and he’s laughing about how Las Vegas Larry was so paranoid of his mob connection that he lived surrounded by 30 guard dogs.

    I’m sure the concern was genuine and appreciate it but I do think that you should require more information / examples that are clear evidence of clinical depression before proclaiming that someone needs to “see a doctor”. It’s dismissive of the arguments and raises the epistemic value of your opinion to a level unjustified by the evidence you cite.

  7. Since we are tossing about quotes in such a lavish fashion, I would like to offer one from Hunter S. Thompson from the Rum Diaries, I recall it as “humans are the only species to believe in a supreme being, yet act as though one doesn’t exist”. Please forgive my bastardization of a beautiful sentiment, I’m only regurgitating it from my mangled memory.
    Response: 1. No argument there. That’s the ole’ omniscient, omnipotent, benevolent, all-powerful, all-knowing, all-good, and yet children die of (fill-in-the-blank affliction) argument. The only rebuttal is God is mysterious, and I proudly opine, “he’s as asshole undeserved of praise and if I had my druthers, he would be stoned and perish, liken to the innocent children he choose to murder”.
    Response: 2. Considering his world (I’ve been to his birthplace) a man who had that level of intuition, desire to know more, and an uncanny ability to decipher bullshit, will forever hold a place in my heart.
    Response: 3. Of course we are better than we think, as soon as we acquired the ability to capture history via the written word, then vanity and our escapades were to be recoded without fail.
    Response: 4. Agreed, as a father and a one-day aspiring grandfather, I too wish to shelter them from the storm (forgive me, I’m a huge Bob Dylan fan). I spent a year in a Buddhist temple studying with the abbot and his fellow monks and learned a lot—to the point I wrote an ethnography. And one principle that I can attest to is that exposure to life is not to be deterred from, but indulgence in lunacy (my words and have no bearing on Buddhist principles) are to be avoided.
    Response: 5. Duh, of course it will. We live in a world where technology grows exponentially while we are still a bunch off australopithecines who are mathematically adept, can record past accounts, and recognize ourselves in a mirror.
    Response: 6. We record history and are the purveyors to the next generation. I suspect this will transpire until technology renders our given skillset useless (or futile). I, for one, having been reared in country living have spent a lifetime hunting and fishing, and able to provide for my family. Or I can just run down to the HEB and grab a pork loin or some salmon and utilize considerably less resources. But hey, fishing is fun, an absolute luxury, and time well spent in nature with family. And it’s cheaper than therapy.
    Response: 7. I am an ordained minister from the Universal Life Church of Modesto, California. And I, in accordance with the law of the great State of Texas, am legally allowed to marry people, the same as a Baptist, Catholic, or whatever minister. I performed a ceremony that bound the couple for seven years, exceeding that of most religious weddings. As for my nuptials, my wife and I were bound by the Justice of the Peace, at Greenbrier Arkansas Middle School, eighteen years and 354 days ago, just a few minutes before first bell (0700). And I wouldn’t change a thing. Oh yeah, I’m an atheist.
    Response: 8. I have a theory, farmers ruined the world. I suspect the conservation of resources produced the earliest form of greed and desire. Envision your crops failing and seeing your neighbor with a bounty that exceeds your imagination. Steal it; kill him; take his wife for your own; and own his land. Why not? Is that not the basis for Capitalist thought? However, today, I can take what I want, since you are at the mercy of regulation from a system designed to offer you crumbs and you devour them with a smile on your face and call it success.
    Response: 9. Buddhism offers no answers nor resolve. I find the faith to be detestably resolute—bitter – sweet at best. I admire their unwavering ability to turn a blind eye, however, I’m also a fan of Huey P. Newtown. Humanity (white northern-Europeans) NEVER makes peace. We take whatever the hell we want and perceive the collateral damages as the “cost of doing business”. Fact check me. Forgive me if I cannot accept my Buddhist brethren principles as doctrine for others than myself, but I am a student of history and will always keep one eye peeled for some Nordic aggressor ready to thrust a knife in my back.
    Response: 10. Yeah buddy! Artificial Intelligence (AI) will soon defeat our millions of years of evolution (perhaps in a matter of minutes). If you get a chance, check out some of Sam Harris’s Ted Talks. It is sobering to the point that one would either find themselves atop a bell tower with a high-powered rifle or hurdled in their basement sucking their thumb. It was just couple months ago I was watching Crazy Rich Asians , and said the word “opulent”. The next morning it was on my Yahoo News. I am by no means a Conservative Republican conspiracy theorist, but that was freaky. “They” are listening, and developing algorithms that can guess your next thought before “you” do. If there is money in it, it will happen—mark my word.
    Response: 11. I can’t cite the quote, but it’s my understanding that as soon as our militaries become completely mechanized, destruction of civilization is inevitable. I believe this to be true; it saddens me, but I suspect it a truth. There is always collateral damage and total mechanization will expose the ugliness of the concept and sadly, we will not accept it as a truth until much damage is done. As a former serviceman, I can say that as soon as any young man/woman is forced to accept a weapon and deliver a round to an “opposing” party then diplomatic efforts have failed (or other issues are at play). Shame on our governments if we force the innocent to do our bidding. History will record this, but sadly those armed will be positioned to compensate for our inadequate ability to negotiate and bring resolve to the matters at hand. Shame on us; shame on us. Period.

  8. Jason – thanks much for your comments. I think you put more time and thought you put into this than I did.

  9. I wonder if the dark, despairing tone of this blog post doesn’t provide a sort of explanation for the prevalence of the optimistic “noble lies” of religion and political and economic ideology, and also a rational justification for promoting and indulging in those noble lies. In using the phrase “noble lies,” I am harkening back to Plato’s use of that phrase in his book The Republic. I mean this: If the world is going to end anyway, isn’t it better for most people to not know that, and to not be aware of all the dangers, deceptions and injustices in life, and to not be aware of the inevitable annihilation coming to every person, to the human race in its entirely, to the planet earth, and so on? If the end of the world is going to come no matter what we do, why not enjoy whatever time we have left? Why spoil the time that’s left with all this harsh and explicit telling of truth-and-reality? What do you call a person who spoils life for others when such spoiling was not necessary? A spoiler? A sadist? A misanthrope? A “corrupter of youth” (one of the crimes that Socrates was put to death for)? I pray this comment will be taken in the spirit of friendly dialogue between philosophers. Best wishes.

  10. There is a lot to be said for Plato’s noble lies. And I have often argued that the chief benefit of religion is the consolation it gives, despite its claims being, for the most part, self-evidently absurd.

  11. I thought that the philosopher and host of this blog, Dr. John Messerly, and others, might find it interesting to know how I discovered this blog.
    I found this blog in the first page of search results from this Bing search engine search: “meaning for nonbelievers.”
    Once I began looking around this blog, I was very happy to find significant and appreciative attention given to Bertrand Russell and Will Durant, two philosophers whose writings and life stories I enjoy, appreciate, admire, and find useful and inspiring.
    I was also pleased to see that this blog gives a lot of attention to the epoch-changing ideas of Charles Darwin.
    I began studying philosophy because I wanted to know what was really real, necessary, and possible in human political and social life. The ancient philosophers viewed philosophy as a means to gaining knowledge about reality.
    But now, in the age of modern science, it seems that it is pretty well that established that science is the only means we have for discovering and verifying knowledge about reality. As Bertrand Russell wrote: “Science is what you know, philosophy is what you don’t know.” Bertrand Russell also wrote this: “as soon as definite knowledge concerning any subject becomes possible, this subject ceases to be called philosophy, and becomes a separate science.” Will Durant wrote some similar things.
    As I see it, the role of philosophers in this modern age is to serve as explainers and interpreters of modern science (especially physics, astrophysics, biology, genetics, biological evolution) to the political leaders and to the general citizenry, and to advocate for value systems that are viewed as being optimally practical for the current state of science and technology. As I see it, all value systems are roughly the same thing as what Plato calls “noble lies.” I.e., value systems are not knowledge about reality, but rather are tools that have been evolved or devised, and are believed to be useful for survival, prosperity, freedom, etc. (for some human groups, at least).
    But, contrary to all this, Christian philosophers think their value system is knowledge about reality, and Marxist philosophers of the old Soviet Dialectical Materialist variety likewise think their value system is knowledge about reality.
    But I think the wise ones today know better.
    And so, a great deal of what philosophers do is arguing in favor of one package of noble lies (myths) and arguing against one or more opposing package of noble lies (myths). Human beings (all or nearly all of us) find meaning and purpose in life not in science, mathematics, accurate historical knowledge, or rational philosophical propositions, principles, or syllogisms, but in myths (noble lies). Thus, I think Plato was wise to propose that his Philosopher Kings should rule by means of noble lies.
    I lot of what I think is true (real) about human life is expressed or hinted at in the 1968 film “Planet of the Apes,” particularly in the dialogue spoken by Dr. Zaius.
    I appreciate this blog, for its riches of insightful and provocative ideas. Thank you.

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