Saturday, May 15, 2010

The problem of Unfairness

The problem of unfairness has two parts: there’s the practical set backs to your goals, and then there’s a metaphysical part which is described by a psychologist as follows:

"Confrontations with violence challenges one's most basic assumptions about the self as invulnerable and intrinsically worthy and about the world as orderly and just. After abuse, the victim's view of self and world can never be the same again: it must be incorporate the abuse experience."

People don’t realise that their suffering comes mostly from this level. Injustice tears a hole in meaning, leading directly to meaninglessness. How can you reconstruct meaninglessness into your view of the world? I’ve written before that we act a play of meaning because that’s the admission price of life. But reality is meaningless, there’s a duality. And the greater the unfairness the more severe this paradox – it brings you face to face with an existential crisis which is always there.

Weirdly enough this means there’s no reason to give up because nothing has changed. Unfairness feels like a terrible destruction of everything we know and believe, but in fact it was produced by the same universe with the same laws as before, when you were happy. It’s a strange comfort maybe but a very solid one. You still live in the same reality.

You do however need to change where you place hope. I don’t believe in replacing one opiate with another, platitudes like ‘move on’ or ‘make lemonade out of lemons’ are only temporary shelters. Again a much more solid comfort comes from revaluating from its foundations what it means to ‘believe in meaning.’

Usually it means that we believe meaning makes up the majority of life, and that’s the way it should be. But this is totally wrong.

Meaninglessness it the norm, and meaning is the exception. Our fair and just world is a man made construct that occupies a tiny pinprick of the universe where the rocks and water, stars and planets exist with no reason, no beginning, no end, no life and no meaning.

Meaning is not the way it should be at all, it’s an anomaly. There’s a war going on, and it has been ever since life struggled to existence. Meaning is a direct assault on reality and it has to be created against the odds.

And the only reason it happens is because we have an instinctual, compulsion to find it beautiful.

‘Believing in meaning’ is a leap of faith, a commitment to aestheticism. I can’t say it’s a ‘belief’ really because you enter into it with both eyes open, you choose to value it even whilst you know it is only a creation, a fallacy almost, validated by nothing external.

We light a small fire that pushes back the darkness. We stare at that small fire so intently that we forget the darkness is all around us and all pervasive. Why be discouraged if you happen to glance up and see reality? Or realise how small the light is. Keep staring at the fire because it’s important to you, and protect and nurture it precisely because it’s small and fragile.
And then the only problem that unfairness poses is the practical one of how to work around it.

The Superfluous

"How could those who never live at the right time die at the right time? Would that they had never been born! Thus I counsel the superfluous. But even the superfluous still make a fuss about their dying; and even the hollowest nut still wants to be cracked."

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Finding a niche

At last it seems blogs have made dreams and passion valuable for the masses, and to the masses. According to Six Pixels of Separation, to leverage it to make a living you need only write about your most passionate interests, no matter how obscure. Passion, at the end of the day, is what we all crave and gathering a large following from pure passion will lead to profits by numbers. But to hit the spot you need to find a niche, a voice. After the last century of oppression by mass production, the individual is raising its head and heart again, paradoxically through the internet.

(Just look what Twitter is doing for Chinese democracy.)

So what’s my niche? Architecture, design and environment is my working beat, but philosophy is my secret love. Maybe I can combine the two. There are crossovers in how the philosophies of our built environments reflect what we think and how we make sense of ourselves in the world.

My first philosophical thought about architecture and design is this: we should build from the inside out.

New Media, New Meaning

I've been delving into new media as a way to save my dying industry – or really just my own skin. I met with a multi-media entrepreneur recently about this, a dodgy American former sports journalist. He said to me, "There are two kinds of people in the world: hunters and farmers, and I'm a hunter." I just thought that meant he is sleazy. His company seems to be staffed by beautiful women.

Still he gave me some good ideas about how the internet is the one place where you can effectively combine text, audio, and video together. It is truly multimedia. I always feel like time flies faster than an arrow, whilst I stay behind watching the sun set across the sky. I would be happier in the age of Tolstoy, where all you had was pen and paper and a steam train to transmit your ideas to the world.

But now those degrees of separation between people have gone. We're all whores in a way, inappropriately close to one another. And so this leads me to blogging in the mainstream press. I read the blogs of foreign correspondents of the big English papers, and they're really just articles – a bit shorter and at blog intervals. They're impersonal, they're political/socio-economic. But that's not what people read blogs for.

Blogs fascinate because it's the voice of an individual, not filtered through the voice of a paper, not filtered through their litigation department, nor edited and cleansed. It's about their personal journey, whether life makes them or breaks them. Anyone who wants to blog has to give up a part of themselves to cyberspace. Even when it's professional it needs to be personal. It has to extract that price. I wonder if journalists are really willing to do that, and if that's why none of their blogs are as captivating as Brazen Careerist where she shares – in between career advice - her divorce, remarriage and miscarriages.

One day I'll do that … maybe.

The first idea

I'm turning into a philosopher of unhappiness – it captures my imagination. Not the gothic, adolescent kind of unhappiness. I mean the difficult, nuanced kind about the huge task of unfolding potential, and potentials unrealised - partly because of our own limitations, and partly because each individual is the product of the whole of human progress. Meanwhile we live with making choices and their sacrifices, and inarticulate longings that echo down the ages.

What is 'potential'?

Bits and pieces of it surface in every blog, I didn't know it but all roads led to it.

The acorn always grows into an oak, but human beings - as the most sophisticated of all machines - can become anything. In nature I've noticed sophistication is measured not in strength but flexibility and versatility.

In terms of natural equipment that's the only advantage we've got – but what an advantage.

We are a blank slate, a book where everything is contained. Particular environments pull particular parts and combinations into existence. It's almost impossible to find universal values (the more multicultural my experience of the world, the more different I find cultures, and not all of them equal). But all the other possibilities are still there at the same time, shimmering like unread words in the book, like invisible ink undecoded.

Limitations of the age

We all suffer from our point in history, maybe it's one of the most insidious sufferings. Imagine if you had been born before writing was invented – you would have been and thought and done a fraction of what you could have today. Similarly a human from 3010 may look at us like worms struggling in the mud, seeing only a tiny sliver of sky.

Maybe we will have by then tools to dissect human behaviour or the brain, and human nature won't be a mystery or an art anymore.

The final thing about potential is it's inextricably linked to freedom. We have made major mistakes by not looking at freedom this way, because then we only consider 'freedom from' something, not what the 'freedom to' do something means.

Freedom to unfold potential – but who has studied what that involves? Just because you're free to compose music doesn't mean you know how. Freedom has two sides to it, one of which opens the door to fear, panic and cruelty.

Understanding the vastness of potential leads to the search for 'freedom to' – and the end of the myth that we know who we are just because the chains are removed. Maybe then we will understand those many, many who are still potentials unrealised because of the walls in their minds.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Happiness, potential

This blog seems to reflect my unfortunate personality: months of silence followed by ranting that no one understands. Even though I bang on about change, I’m really not sure anything has changed from the sad little person I was three years ago. Why did I come here? What did I achieve?

Instead I have pet theories about the most abstract things. Still I think understanding the abstract level can change the world. If you keep stepping back, eventually you’ll see the whole picture.

I’ve been thinking a lot about happiness and its discontents. Why is it the things we want the most can’t be pursued directly? Love is an example, happiness too. The ‘pursuit’ of happiness is really misleading.

Hunger for happiness in and of itself is what utopias are made of – and utopias always turn into dystopias. They are what Nietzche calls “the wretched contentment.”

Even people with the most simple dreams find, all the time, that happiness doesn’t lie at the end of their journey. The woman who has always wanted to be a housewife feels bored and dis-respected when she gets there, the person who pursues money and status eventually finds them empty. We are terrible at predicting what will make us happy.

If happiness was a solid object, which we are apt to think it is, like a gold bar, or a journey destination, we should be a lot better at predicting how to get it by now. It was the point of the whole of human progress.

But our failure so far just goes to show it’s totally wrong. What if happiness is only a byproduct of something else and has no substance of its own? Like a mist that retreats with the dawn, we can only ever experience it intermittently.

The problem is we are not really built for happiness. We have it the wrong way round. We don’t exist to experience nice emotions, emotions exist to pull us or push us towards things that help survival. They only point the way, like candy they’re awarded for good behaviour. Happiness is sweet but it’s shallow, and the time it’s in your mouth is short.

We are however built for the less glamorous task of integrating our potential. But this is really complex because the potential is completely open. If there’s one thing in common in all peoples it’s versatility and adaptability. As I said before our natures are really like Mutant of the X-Men. We are like machines with an inbuilt panel that can be re-programmed to make anything. That kind of power is on a whole different level to even the most powerful machine that only makes one thing.

Everywhere in nature, versatility has won over brute force. But it’s not obvious, it looks gentle and soft on the outside, it’s a secret weapon.

Integrating all its strands may be impossible, but the more you can include the more successful the individual, or culture, civilization. We weave our lives like a wide plait of multicoloured threads. Its patterns determine our direction. The smoother, wider, more inclusive the weaving the more comes back to us. But what this weaving means in practical terms is another post – or another 10 posts. It takes some figuring out.

Happiness is incidental to this process. It’s only a boomerang that you throw in one direction and hope it comes back from somewhere, you don’t know for sure. It’s only a possibility.

So my conclusion is: don’t pursue happiness. It sounds bleak but the message is not nihilistic. The message is that it’s natural to experience happiness only intermittently. Don’t sweat the lack of happiness, your task lies elsewhere. Your task is bigger than happiness, life would be too shallow if this candy was what we strived for.

It’s like my theory on meaninglessness. Everyone would be more relaxed if you knew it’s inevitable. The real, worthy object for your striving doesn’t lie in trying to destroy that feeling, it doesn’t lie in eliminating the lack of happiness. Instead we are meant to take the difficult path, that’s why the reward of happiness exists. And so, paradoxically, along the way happiness is likely to boomerang back to you – though that’s only a possibility.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

The rich, older man

Yes, I know I haven’t posted in months. But I’ve been busy doing things worth posting about, working on a special report you could say.

I have somehow become an accidental gold digger, and my special report concludes thus: it seems that being a gold digger isn’t easy.

The rich, older man and young woman combination is such a cliché in this city and so widespread, it was just a matter of time. Here’s how I got drawn into it.

Two months ago I was introduced to the CEO of a private equity business. Let’s call him Mr.X. Many things about him didn’t make sense: why did he have the time to take me out to lunch? Why did he make so much effort to be charming? And why did he stay in touch? In my naivety I thought he just wanted sex. He flirted a lot and talked to our mutual friend about me. All my insecurities were activated. I thought I had found a mentor of sorts.

But through all the graciousness, he had the most intense stare. His eyes fixed on me with blue-gray steel. He said he was good at reading people, but I didn’t know what he was looking for, and what he had found in me.

Now I think maybe it’s this. Female journalists are supremely placed to meet rich, older men, and, for the sake of the job, to charm them. After years of doing this two or three times a week, you also become quite good at it. Worst of all normal people doing normal things begin to bore you.

You find ways to escalate experiences, to find the extremes.

After a period of ‘courtship’ he made his real move – he introduced me to his client, Mr.Y, an even richer, older man. This man had been the real object of his courtship for an investment of US$ 3 million. He also happened to go to the same school as me in London twenty years ago, and was divorced and lonely. Given his cold and fastidious character, an ordinary whore would have been too vulgar. He needed a high class escort without the escort label: i.e. a well educated, cultured, gold digger.

Yes, I’m the perfect fit – except for the motivation. I’m motivated not by money but by what? I don’t even know. Curiosity perhaps, validation. I was a welcoming present, an object.

I went on a date with Mr.Y – where he changed the time to fit his schedule, and changed the location to his building. On these dates the man gets it all his way, they’re not really interested in you. That was how he related to the whole world: when he says jump, everyone says how high.

I found all the gatherings of this circle to be sad, surreal affairs - a mishmash of oddly matched people who had nothing to say to each other, but who were still desparate to be there. Young, beautiful local women sat in silence like they didn’t exist while the men talked shop. Young guys hanging on to their every word, the lackeys, the groupies. A friend became one of them, a young man who was changing before my eyes from a sweet hearted kid.

But crazily enough I consider continuing. Perhaps because I’m used to self abuse. Or because the story isn’t finished yet. Curiosity always has me in its grip, and I’m compelled to open the blinds.

At the same time I walk away from innocence.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Two meanings

Two meanings

I have an inconvenient tendency to look behind the curtain - it makes everyone uncomfortable. Increasingly I’ve been trying to find where biology ends and philosophy begins, and philosophy is backed into an ever shrinking corner. Maybe there is only a tiny gap that makes us human, or the concept of being a uniquely chosen, sacred species is only an illusion.

Even the search for meaning, our most profound (and profoundly vague) goal can be better understood with evolution. In fact confusion surrounds this issue because there are two meanings created over different periods of evolution, and they often conflict.

The older, stronger one is about survival. It’s nature’s way of challenging us to use and explore all our complex abilities to flourish as a species. It’s like a special exam the teacher only gives to the brightest kid in the class, a secret weapon to make him use his potential.

The newer sense of meaning comes from the conscious brain, specifically self consciousness. It reflects on the beliefs inherited from nature and spots flaws and logical incoherence – of which there are plenty in the old version of meaning.

But both have in common the definition of meaning as a process rather than the goal. The key to understanding it is the emotion of anticipation – which is a much cruder, older version of the same process.

Instinct for meaning

Our compass in the search for meaning is feelings and instincts. You can believe these are cosmic truths given to us by some cosmic force. But it’s far more likely that they evolved, like everything else in our bodies, for survival.

Emotions of pleasure and pain signals gain or loss. Anticipation and fear points the way to future gain or loss. The sense of meaning can be seen as another emotion, one that developed with our conscious brain and our ability to string together complex learning behaviour. The instinct for meaning drives us to make the most of our powerful brains, motivating us to start and persist in extremely long term, complex planning and delaying gratification.

Even in modern times, meaningfulness is very clearly associated with these things, like long term career development, learning something new and difficult, overcoming challenges, investing in a family and bringing up kids.

What are we directed to accomplish with this complex planning? Either one of two things: a) using as much of our innate abilities as possible, the ultimate example is creativity or, b) building civilization by supporting the set of conventional moralities.

a) Using our abilities is both the goal itself, and also the way we achieve the goal. Creativity therefore is its ultimate representative. New ideas are an end in itself, a pure expression of what the brain can do. But at the end of the day, even creativity has evolutionary uses in the extremely long term, it’s the ultimate long term investment. For example pure research science and philosophy.

b) Morality is associated with meaning because it allows us to organize and utilize large, complex societies. Civilization is probably the most important factor in our evolutionary success so far. Morality evolved to help us with social organization, how to balance between individual impulses and compromising for the good of the group. Search for meaning often involves building families or communities on the one hand, or fighting for causes that upholds the rights of the individual.

If that seems bleak and unromantic then stop reading, because the second type is bleaker.

The paradox of meaninglessness

Consciousness is built to search out accuracy, whereas the older brain makes whatever sense it can from whatever material is at hand. It’s one of the greatest ironies of life that consciousness will eventually find there is no meaning.

Self consciousness therefore comes to the conclusion that we are absurd.

Reality and nature is a big pool of everything mixed together, differentiated by no good or bad, or any values in between. Is one rock better or worse than another? Is the sea better or worse than the sky? Are the solar systems a good thing or a bad thing? The questions aren’t applicable, things in nature just ARE. They exist that’s all. They have no meaning. Reality is meaningless.

Then life came along, and it differentiates from the rest of nature. Life values life for itself, and assigns the value of good to alive, and bad to dead. Then it goes on to impose values on everything according to whether it helps you live or not. But it’s an imposition on reality, not reality itself.

All living things thus live in created meanings, like a story or a play. Man comes along and he is the most complex form of life, and naturally he creates the most complex form of theatre. He is an actor in a play but he doesn’t know he is acting in a play. He thinks the play is reality.

BUT the truth seeking consciousness can’t help but work out the internal incoherence of this state of affairs. Self consciousness then causes us to realize ourselves as actors in the play. But this realization conflicts with many, older and very strong instincts. Though it’s more accurate, it’s only allowed to surface from time to time.

This is why everyone has at some point felt that life is meaningless. It comes and goes. But the more self conscious you are, the harder that it will pound on your awareness. Like Neo in the Matrix.

Speaking of the Matrix, is the answer then to take the red pill? i.e. leave the matrix (the play) and go in search of the truth? The harsh answer is no because unlike the Matrix, there is no bigger story outside of the story we have woken from. Reality is meaningless - it has no stories. We have no where else to go. (And this is why the Matrix sequels are so bad, they completely lost the plot).

This is the existential crisis that’s part of the human condition. Everyone one will always have to deal with it.

The actor who realises he is acting must continue to act. The only choice is whether to embrace the acting or see it as an unsolvable trap. Only the first choice offers any chance of happiness. As a self conscious actor he can actually embrace the fundamental absurdity of life, and put all the passion he can muster into the role. He can also change his role and the play to suit his tastes.

The conscious search for meaning therefore involves creating meaning. You can choose anything and then create its meaning with the act of devotion. The more you make something important, the more value it will have. Both parts are a kind of defiance of absurdity. It’s all in the attitude.

How do the two meanings add up? Well they often conflict, especially at the existential crisis. People will be a lot happier if they knew it just exists and got comfortable with it. But choosing and creating your meaning fits in quite well with the set tasks of evolution, which was designed to draw out our creativity. Most need some of the conventional moralities to aim for, but a lot of creativity can be worked into that.

(The spanner in the wheel is modern cubical jobs in mega corporations. By being so specialized they eliminate many of the key features of meaning. Our powers of social organization have evolved faster than our emotional brains, but that’s another post.)

Since the older brain trumps the new for emotional power every time, the key is to put its requirements first. But not forget also to deal with the fallout from having our newer intelligence.

From this I can deduct a pretty clear and detailed definition of how to find meaning:

Engage in a long term project that requires complex planning and delaying gratification. It needs to be challenging enough to stretch as much of your abilities as possible.
The goal can be either stretching your abilities itself, creativity, or building society (any set of the conventional moralities).
Really devote yourself to it.
Build in as much choice and creativity as possible.
Be aware of the feelings of meaninglessness that will come up, and continue regardless.

Should I change?

The conscious mind has indirect methods to exert huge influence on the subconscious - if you know how, but since the brain works like a computer it’s a matter of technology rather than philosophy.

But I’m not interested in tools and technology. I’m interested in decisions – that tiny space in our thinking left for free will and change. At the intersection of conscious and unconscious lies change. And the crucial question with regard to change is, ‘should I change?’

It’s very hard to answer yes to this question, because it protects us from a lot of things. The pain of adopting new habits is well documented. But beyond that yawns even more abysses – a glimpse into reality without our delusions, a terrifying alien terrain of complexity and meaninglessness, and freedom.

I said before that motivation relies on a tripod of questions: Is change possible? How much can I change? And should I change?

The first two are to do with worldview, and the last with self image. To answer yes to should I change, we implicitly have to accept two scary consequences: a) that a consistent and stable self does not exist and b) we are our own creators. This brings up both a fear of death, and a fear of life.

The Buddhists have long discovered that there is no such thing as ‘I.’ If every physical cell in your body is growing, dying and being replaced at every moment, then what is a fixed, physical ‘I’ based on? Our thoughts, feelings, opinions, memories and experiences are also constantly changing – so what is this fixed concept of the self based on? It simply doesn’t exist.

But to us who have so much invested in a concept of ‘I’ any significant change holds the threat of annihilation. It’s a step towards death which is a return to nature, or reality which has no ‘I’ - it only has endless change in an indistinguishable soup of all things, all meaningless.

This is one reason there’s so much resistance to change.

The other is taking responsibility for change.

Being responsible for our own creation brings a great deal of hassle and effort – it’s like you’re constantly being reborn, and you yourself is also the midwife. It’s the end of an easy life of ignorance and dogma.

Also endless choices organized by no one else in any order again touches on unpalatable reality - an indistinguishable and meaningless soup. Having the responsibility to order this for ourselves prompts the fear of freedom, which is essentially the problem at the heart of being alive.

The word ‘should’ throughout history with its moral associations has always been a barrier of some sort – both against great fear, and against great progress.