Monday, March 30, 2015

Struggling with the Big Dilemmas. . . .

Just before Christmas I stopped painting and have not really been able to go back to it. Perhaps it is something like a midlife crisis, I don't know, but over the past few months I have struggled to do anything productive. In the face of what seems like a existential crisis, I began to write again. I haven't written much since I finished the draft for my book on Mary Mitford which is now in the hands of my daughter as she attempts to complete it to a finished version. I started writing about art and aesthetics but that slowly turned to directly personal issues concerning the various artistic, political, and philosophical dilemmas that have haunted me all my life. I have psychologically relived the strange events that led to my commitment to largely disengage from most of the traditional aspirations of life. I won't go into the specifics of this philosophical decision because, for one, I am writing about them, and for another, they are too troubling and off colour for this blog. But the struggle itself can be expressed this way - Imagine that you are in some past society/empire. Let's say for the sake of argument you find yourself in the Aztec empire in Mexico at the height of its power in the 1400s. But unlike most of those around you, you reject pretty much all the cornerstones of your society. You don't believe in Sun worship, you don't believe in the aristocratic structure, you reject their slavery and their militarism, and you don't believe in the gender relations. What does one do in this situation? This is what I more or less have experienced in my own society. I don't believe in the major religions of our society, I reject capitalism, I don't believe in competition or organized sports, I reject the hierarchy of the education system, I reject much of the institutional structures of modern science and the technical-rational ideology that motivates it, I totally reject the militarism of our society, and I reject the gender inequalities that I see around me and to which my daughters will be subjected. In the face of all of this, I have spent much of my life disengaged from the ambitions and desires of those around me. I did a master's degree but I couldn't bring myself to stay in academia because I didn't believe in the hierarchy of the university system. As a white male, I rejected a great deal of career notions because I don't want to be another white male seeking worldly success when the gender inequalities demand that men step back from many ambitions so that we don't just perpetuate these inequalities. This is the reason that when I was in university I eventually began to consciously stay quite in many situations. As a white male, I had been trained from youth to speak up in almost any situation, and I eventually began to realize that women and racialized people had been more or less trained to be more reticent. I didn't want to perpetuate those relations. (I admit that I wasn't always successful in this effort, but I tried and continue to try). The upshot of all of this is that, right or wrong, I have lived outside of much of the traditional efforts of society. I have stood up for things that I believe are right and have sometimes been an activists, but I admit that in the light of the forces gathered against different beliefs, I have often hidden myself away from a society from which I feel so alienated. I might be indicted for not doing enough to change a society that I so thoroughly rejected. Perhaps, as the English would say, 'It's a fair cop.' But this has been my survival mechanism. Now that I have turned 50, I feel disheartened and troubled by my life-choices but feel that I have made the only choices that I could. Other dilemmas have also been part of my explorations, such as my conflicting philosophical beliefs. When I was still young I studied buddhism and meditation at the Naropa Institute (Now Naropa University). And even here I have always been conflicted. I understand the goals of Buddhism's core beliefs of peacefulness of mind, but I have also felt that passion, and sometimes anger can play a central role in creativity. Buddhism looks for a transcendence from suffering, but I think pain and suffering can be a central part of life and an essential part of experience. I have studied philosophy (Buddhist and Western as well) but have found no way out of these dilemmas.

My conflicts continue. Perhaps by writing about them I will find some answers. I don't know. I guess everyone has to find their own way through such dilemmas in life.


doconnor said...

Back in the old days people like you where burned at the stake or given a Hemlock dessert. You should be happy we live in relatively enlightened times.

Many of the problems you see are caused by aspects of human nature. To degree to which we have overcome them since the Stone Age is a testament to how good we actually are.

You must learn accept humans for how they actually are and you that they won't always meet your standards.

Kirby Evans said...

1.I am certainly aware that modern times offer more leeway to be "different" than most past times did.

2. I don't believe in "human nature." It is just a shifting construct that has no real meaning. In this I agree with modern philosophers like Foucault.

3. My rejection of most of society's ideologies does not mean I don't "accept" people as they are. I certainly have been a flawed human being and accept many differences and failures in myself and others. In fact, my close relations have been the saving grace in life in the face of a rejection of much of society.

Pamela Mac Neil said...

I can understand Kirby what you're going through. I disagree with doconnor. I don't believe we are living in enlightened times. Yes we have made amazing advances in the physical sciences, which definitely contribute to a better and longer life, but in the humanities particularly philosophy, which mainly defines our culture we are living in a wasteland. For those who take ideas seriously and you are one who does, it is impossible to connect with the culture at large, a non-thinking culture that views life through unquestioning religious beliefs. It's not an accident culturally that fundamental religious beliefs are on the rise. Ideas and the knowledge that ideas evolve from is sought by the minority. I think Kirby you are one of those minority.The noblest and bravest thing a human being can do is be true to their own knowledge. Sounds easy, I think it's one the hardest things in life to do. You're not so much rejecting societies ideologies as never accepting any system of thought that does not pass your own intellectual scrutiny and you're not prepared to just go along to fit in.Your own independent thought seems to be a very high value. A rarity indeed! The emotional mediocrity that a person of genuine intelligence sometimes goes through can be mind numbing and soulfully painful.I am sorry that you are struggling with big dilemmas, but I'm glad you have been so open in expressing them on this blog, because there are a number of very independent thinking caring people here, I'm sure, who can identify and emphasize with what you're saying and I thinks these people share much of the things you care about.

Kirby Evans said...

@ Pamela
Thank you for the kind words.

doconnor said...

While fundamentalist religion may be rising among a minority, overall the influence of religion is collapsing as churches empty out and are converted into retail. As an atheist I think I would notice the influence of religion on culture and I almost never do.

You're claim that human nature doesn't exists isn't supported by evidence. Our brains are initialized by DNA which virtually the same for all humans. The science isn't easy, but we are making progress pinning it down.

lungta said...

i think you have the curse of a compassionate heart and a brilliant mind
i am pretty astounded how close our life paths are as are our attitudes and inclinations.
every one is at some stage of development and that is where you meet them. from a post grad perspective the scuffles and scrapes of the kindergarten school yard can be seen as stupid and unkind. what i think you are missing is an adult body doesn't mean any other intelligence or maturity (i just referred to our development commission via editorial as elevated beyond their abilities....virtually every politician is)
you may have to accept the mantle of wisdom and adjust your expectations of others on all levels
the Buddhist principle i ascribe to now is authentic presence...being who i am more and no less...the straight goods no variation to all people at all times. your heart will make it kind and your intelligence will make it right. relax friend...let them grow as they have made it.

Kirby Evans said...

@lungta Thank you.

@doconnor - Once again, you are attempting to apply a paradigm to something that does not respond to the concepts you are hoping to use. Human nature, like the concepts of friendship or love, is a social construct and therefore can only be understood normatively. Gerald Monsman pointed this out in relation to another social construct: Romanticism. "Defining 'Romanticism,' Monsman writes, "which has included a passion for moonlight and for red waistcoats, is only a little less challenging that defining 'nature' or 'God.'" The same goes for the concept of 'human nature.' The more narrowly you attempt to define it, the more you will have to account for exceptions until the concept becomes so broad that it loses all meaning or usefulness. Instead, notions of human nature all turn out to ideological not factual. What is this "human nature" you are hoping to define? Humans are wrathful . . .oh, but humans are peaceful. Humans are full of jealousy . . . oh, but humans are remarkably trusting. Humans are frenetic . . . oh, but humans are placid. Humans are inquisitive . . . oh, but humans are apathetic and inattentive. There are countless types of human behaviour and they are, to use philosophical parlance, over-determined. Any attempt to find the 'core' or the essential 'nature' of all of these behaviours is simply illusory. You can't use deduction because when you look for general principles from which to account to individual acts, the general principles elude you because they are too numerous and unclear. You can't use induction because, though you will find plenty of specific observations, any general principles you hope to conclude will be contradicted by countless other possible paths of induction. By all means attempt to account for individual acts, this is something we all do even when they are over-determined. But attempting to construct general principles from those acts immediately turns into an normative and ideological exercise. There is not ONE human nature, there are six billion.

Pamela Mac Neil said...

@doconnor, I agree that the fundamentalist are rising among a minority. The problem is the infiltration of fundamental religious beliefs into politics. Just listen to most American politicians. Never before have politicians spouted fundamentalist rhetoric as they do now. We now have a fundamentalist evangelical PM and government. Even though they try to keep their beliefs under wraps it still guides some of their decisions. This has never happened in Canada. Even though they are a minority, because they are so infused politically, they are the ones in charge and that is what is so disturbing.

doconnor said...

Human nature are the elements of our behaviour that is the result of our genetics, rather then society. One day we will understand our genes enough to be able to measure exactly what that is. Because of genetic variation that is a certain amount of variability, but this can be measured as well and it also forms part of human nature. I guess this would be deduction. While our genes definitely can be called numerous and unclear, this problem can be overcome with time and technology. Besides, just because we can't define it right now doesn't mean it doesn't exist and we can start using more conventional behaviour studies to try and learn more about it.

As for religion in politics it certainly is a problem in US Republican circles, but in Cannada, not so much.

Kirby Evans said...

Sorry doconnor, your comment is so simplistic that it verges on incoherent. It is a pure fantasy of pseudo science and lacks any sense of conceptual depth or human understanding.

thwap said...


Take heart comrade. You CHOSE to avoid material "success" and now, at 50, you wonder if that was the correct choice.

I'm 49 and while I didn't CHOOSE to be a failure, here I am.

You aren't going to resolve the shortcomings of Buddhism. The Buddha was just a man. A very wise man. But the dogged pursuit of not wanting anything is a contradiction.

I personally embrace the philosophy of Schopenhauer, which is very influenced by Buddhism (as you probably know), that we are all slaves of some sort to a blind, uncaring, inchoate "Will."

But I'm Schopenhauer without the slender hope he had of our occasionally being able to elude the "Will" and its urgings.

I wouldn't be so hard on doconner. Just because we're able to confuse ourselves with post-structuralism, it doesn't mean that it's right and good to abandon the best way we have to make sense of the world.

Critique science, surely, but it's really just an extension of the concept of a sighted person reaching into a certain area of space-time in order to pick up their coffee mug.

Anyway, ... FWIW, I went to a relatively intimate talk (around 40 or 50 people) with Noam Chomsky several years ago at McMaster University. I noted, and mentioned online at the time, how two young women (early-20's) asked him a question, that turned into a mini-discussion that included one of them (of Korean background) interrupting him as if she were an obnoxious white male like you or I.

I noticed Chomsky was neither irritated, nor exhibiting smug condescension and forbearance.

(I mention that because of some of the things you said in your post.)

doconnor said...

Talking about Chomsky, he was completely floored by Foucault's claim that human nature doesn't exist.

Kirby Evans said...

Thank you for your thoughts thwap. I have also had an interest in Schopenhauer, but he is a difficult philosopher.

I don't, of course, reject science. Rather, I simply believe that it doesn't function the way most people believe it does. There are pre-rational, normative structures that, in fact, guide all scientific processes. I don't claim that there is NO possibility of what most people understand as objectivity. However, the more complex and multi-causal phenomena become the more the people's normative (and essentially pre-rational) life-world belief play a part. And thus ultimately science, like everything else, becomes an ideology. And I don't believe that you need 'post-structural' (although I think in this case 'post-modern' is more accurately descriptive) philosophers to demonstrate this. You can use fairly traditional thinkers like Montaigne to make this case.

As for Chomsky, I actually had personal interactions with him back in the early 90s and as much as I respect many aspects of his work, I think he personifies the very problems I find so difficult. He seems almost entirely incapable of seeing beyond his paradigm and (not unlike Marx) he creates very simple gaps in his rational thought. (Of course, this may not be a paradigmatic problem but may be a result of his position as a thinker who has been constantly assailed by people who oppose his politics and has therefore just created sort of blinding intellectual defence mechanisms). But you are right about his ability to appear unirritated and not overly smug.

Anyway, thank you thwap. Solidarity.

Kirby Evans said...

The conversation between Chomsky and Foucault was not very fruitful. Foucault is a difficult philosopher who often obfuscates in what seem like unnecessary ways. I actually believe that in the proper forum one can demonstrate why "human nature" is a social construct, using fairly traditional discourse without having to resort to complex continental thought. However, Foucault is certainly not the one to do this. On the other hand to demonstrate this point requires an open minded outlook concerning normative processes. This is something that very few traditional positives (for want of a better word) have. And I must say that from my interactions with Chomsky he certainly is incapable of looking beyond certain a priori beliefs. The vast majority of people are so radically attached to the prevailing paradigm of thought that talking to them about another paradigm is like talking a foreign language. It obviously has little to do with traditional intelligence as no on questions Chomsky's intelligence. St. Augstine was indescribably brilliant but was completely incapable of seeing beyond his particular paradigm. I think perhaps Richard Rorty is the most effective modern philosopher in this regard because his pragmatism is less offensive to those who hold onto the their modern scientism (to use Kant's word) paradigm.

doconnor said...

"However, the more complex and multi-causal phenomena become the more the people's normative (and essentially pre-rational) life-world belief play a part."

I think you find that how things work in quantum physics, cosmology and the like are so detached from how people's lives work and their preexisting ideologies the chance that it distorts their thinking decreases as complexity increases.

Also science is self correcting. If an idea is wrong because of ideology or any other reason sooner or later experiments will fail to produce the expected results and the idea will be corrected.

Kirby Evans said...

@ doconnor - you really have seen science with rose-colored glasses - one might even say through a veil of ideology. Science only "corrects" itself when normative standards have changed in such a way as to allow the correction. Thomas Kuhn demonstrated that very well.

Here's the thing - science can talk about the 'nature' of, say, oxygen or water because a) they are molecularly simple, b) because they act in universally predictable ways and c) they have no will. Human beings fit none of these requirements. However, let's say for the sake of argument, that you isolate a gene that makes people more susceptible to addiction or eating disorders. Now some people with the gene will become addicts or get anorexia and some will not. People will argue into infinity why some people with the gene do not fit the model. Some will say it is a matter of will some will say it is a matter of environment, some will say it is a combination of the two. Either way we run into various problems. The first is the biggie - there is not only no actual evidence that the gene created the behaviour, but we have no way of actually conceptualizing what the evidence might be. (The only evidence is correlative not causal) Another problem is that no matter how you see it, as soon as will is in the equation there appears to be no such thing as universal predictability. And without universal predictability, you have no way of claiming such a notion as a fixed nature. Now, even if one were to concede a large part of the point and say - 'ok, if you had enough information about conditions, then you could always predict behaviours,' (in other words even if you were to claim complete determinism, which is what you would have to claim in order to have universal predictability) you are still stuck with seemingly insurmountable problems. One problem is that, even if one admits determinism, it could only be a posteriori relevant since there is no way to conceive of acquiring such a glut of information before the fact. Thus, universal predictability would really not have been achieved because after the fact predictability is meaningless. Another problem is this - even if some alien power were to arrive that could compile such a glut of information as to make a priori predictability an option, in the end they will have discovered behaviours so broad as to render the notion of "nature" meaningless. In other words to say something's nature is to act in a million different ways or something's nature is to act in seemingly unpredictable ways, is not really to point to a nature as almost anyone would refer to the term. In other words human behaviours are so broad that even determinism renders the notion of 'human nature' a largely useless concept.

Kirby Evans said...

Continued -

However, most of this is moot anyway, since I have never seen any kind of convincing evidence that genes or anything else actually cause behaviours. Under certain conditions, certain people appear to act in vaguely predictable ways but this doesn't constitute a 'nature.' People have wills and the will makes universal predictability impossible. And of course it will not conceptually help to attempt to claim that wilfulness is human nature since again behaviour would not be predictable and would be too broad to be conceptually meaningful.

Instead what we know actually happens is that people continually use claims about human nature to justify all sorts of ideologically problematic behaviour. Thus I would say that the notion of human nature is at best useless and at worst dangerous. (Because, for example, even if someone could "prove" that, say, one ethnicity was intellectually superior to all others, the dangers that this information would represent would be much larger than its possible usefulness)

It would make a lot more sense (in the traditionally rational, as well as pragmatic sense) to say people display all sorts of behaviours but we have no way of ultimately knowing if these behaviours are ultimately determined or not. People appear to have wills that allow them to decide how to act but they seem to see their options for action as limited by their conditions (or, more appropriately, by actions that make basic sense given their experience). And given the dangers clearly represented by claims of biological determinism, for example, it would be more appropriate and pragmatic to treat people as wilful and autonomous beings rather than beings with a fixed "nature."

This is obviously a significantly truncated argument but it at least points in the direction of the point that I am trying to make.

doconnor said...

Kahn didn't say that science corrects itself when society changes, but when there is an accumulation of evidence that the existing ideas are flawed, like I said. Since his books was published scientists have become more open to paradigm changes.

The predictability that understanding a gene would provide is not saying Pat will become addicted gambling at 11:45PM on Aug 4, 2009. It is saying that people with this gene will be 40% more likely to become addicted over their lifetime. That would be universal predictability without predicting individual actions.

This is useful for what we talked about in the beginning: society. It may be virtually impossible to trace any particular action to the gene that causes people to follow authoritarians, but among a society the effect can be seen. (Just as you can't trace a particular weather event to global warming, but we know on average many a caused or intensified by global warming).

"I have never seen any kind of convincing evidence that genes or anything else actually cause behaviours."

Don't you think that genes caused you to love your daughter just as surely as genes caused you to have ten toes, or was it just societal pressure?

Kirby Evans said...

FIrst of all doconnor, you need to reread Kuhn.

Second, I find it amazing that you think you are the advocate of science here but you continually use sloppy thinking and try to elicit emotion rather than fact.

You ask don't I "THINK" that a gene causes me to love my daughter. But you are the one who keeps saying what we "think" doesn't matter, but only facts! Give me an actual example of where a gene forces people to act a specific way in a specific situation. Facts.

And, no I don't think that genes make me love my daughter. I am free to love who I want to love, I am sad if you are too weak willed to do the same. More importantly, if you have even a vague knowledge of history, society, and just plain people, then you know that lots of people don't even vaguely love their children, and during many times and places they have routinely sold them into slavery and done much worse.

Come on, doconnor, if you want to advocate science and reason, use it yourself.

Kirby Evans said...

BTW doconnor, simple physical reflexes will not work here. I will gladly concede certain physical reflexes such as responses to surprise or pain (though even these are relatively easy to overcome with training and if they can be overcome then their status as universally predictable is problematic). But these will not add to your case since what is in question here relates to complex behaviours in which acts of will make the question of "nature" problematic.

I will also concede that there may come a time when the proof that is now lacking becomes available, but at the moment that is speculation. For now I reside squarely in the camp of free will with Bergson and I have seen nothing to convince me otherwise. Put simply, acts of free will make the very notion of "human nature" either too broad to be meaningful or just plain wrong. And an addendum to that is that I would add the weight of Hume's restriction of ought from is, and say that there is always a deep danger of creating proscriptive programs from supposed biological imperatives.