"I have realized that I seek out bitter-sweet feelings... in myself, in others, in music, literature, and art; the dreamer in me thrives on them... and what is more bitter-sweet than a longing for what you can never have?"
"I'm glad to see you out in the open. Believe me, I am. To see you speak with your own voice, and make your presence felt, it gives me a certain pride. You weren't always like that. There was a time when you could only whisper, and I was lucky that you entrusted your whispers to me. I gave you my voice, and in turn you took my mind to new heights. I miss that. I miss that connection. I do not long for it to come back, I do not long for things to be the way they were, I am not foolish or selfish. But by God, I do miss that."
I have come to the realization that the central theme of most of my dreams is failure in the face of an over-whelming obstacle. In various scenarios and manners,in one dream after another, I am trapped without escape, fleeing only to be caught, or struggling with a task in vain.
"The abstract intelligence produces a fatigue that’s the worst of all fatigues. It doesn’t weigh on us like bodily fatigue, nor disconcert like the fatigue of emotional experience. It’s the weight of our consciousness of the world, a shortness of breath in our soul. Then, as if they were wind-blown clouds, all of the ideas in which we’ve felt life and all the ambitions and plans on which we’ve based our hopes for the future tear apart and scatter like ashes of fog, tatters of what wasn’t nor could ever be. And behind this disastrous rout, the black and implacable solitude of the desolate starry sky appears. The mystery of life distresses and frightens us in many ways. Sometimes it comes upon us like a formless phantom, and the soul trembles with the worst of fears – that of the monstrous incarnation of non-being. At other times it’s behind us, visible only as long as we don’t turn around to look at it, and it’s the truth in its profound horror of our never being able to know it. But the horror that’s destroying me today is less noble and more corrosive. It’s a longing to be free of wanting to have thoughts, a desire to never have been anything, a conscious despair in every cell of my body and soul. It’s the sudden feeling of being imprisoned in an infinite cell. Where can one think of fleeing, if the cell is everything? And then I feel an overwhelming, absurd desire for a kind of Satanism before Satan, a desire that one day – a day without time or substance – an escape leading outside of God will be discovered, and our deepest selves will somehow cease participating in being and non-being."
"Buddhism is a deeply psychological tradition and the Buddha's pleasure palace is a striking image of the mind in denial. We naturally want to hold suffering at bay and it is tempting to protect ourselves in a carapace of heartlessness. But our own and other people's pain will always penetrate our defences and break our hearts. Only then, the myth tells us, can our spiritual quest begin."
Given that serious harm in life is practically inevitable, is it better to have lived than not to have existed at all? David Benatar makes a strong case in favor of non-existence, particularly when it comes to the issue of procreation. He believes that the morally responsible thing to do is not to procreate, because "the only way to prevent harm altogether is to desist from bringing children into existence". Here is a summary of Benatar's position in his own words.
As anticipated by Benatar, my immediate impulse is to argue that there is significant good in life that justifies existence even if it doesn't outweigh the harms, but on reflection I recognize that to believe (baring exceptions) that it is better to be alive than not is essentially a value-judgement, and it is a value-judgement that springs not from pure rational considerations but rather from the brute, biological will to live.
There is another way to frame this question aside from the context of procreation. The ability to create life puts us in a miniature God-like position. Now imagine God pondering over the decision to create this universe (more specifically, the decision to create sentient beings capable of subjective experience). The same considerations of harm vs good in existence present themselves but on a much grander scale, applying to the whole of creation. Is it better to bring into existence beings who would experience the excruciating horrors of this world, even though at times they would have their share of bliss as well? If God did create this universe, then God made the value-judgement of preferring life over non-existence. From Benatar's perspective, this decision was morally irresponsible on God's part. He should've let non-existence be.
This is not a mere philosophical problem of no consequence. The decision to have or not have kids is a decision that the vast majority of humanity has to make at some point during their lives. Most of us decide either thoughtlessly or selfishly, but few pause to wonder what is the better outcome for our potential children. Are they better off alive or notional? We don't know, and we have no way of knowing, and yet we have to take that decision anyway.
Often times psychotic patients make statements that sound poetically meaningful when taken in isolation, but can become nonsensical when considered in context. For example, the above statement (which strikes me as quite profound) was immediately followed by "And the second worst sin is cancer".
Looks like posting patient quotes is becoming a common thing on the blog. So, there is a tag for it now. Enjoy!
The declassification of homosexuality as a mental disorder by American Psychiatric Association in 1973 remains a significant moment in the history of psychiatry, not simply from the perspective of human rights but also because it forced psychiatrists to confront the complex and deep-seated conceptual issue of what it means to say that a condition is a 'mental disorder'. It was following this debate that DSM under Robert Spitzer, for the first time, attempted to provide a definition of mental disorder. Also, what is less apparent to many is how politically-driven APA's decision was. What is seemingly a scientific question, the pathology or non-pathology of homosexuality, was eventually settled by a democratic vote, a referendum of the full APA membership, following a bitter controversy.
Homosexuality and American Psychiatry: The Politics of Diagnosis by Ronald Bayer is a political analysis of this historic event. It recounts in details the socio-political background and the events which led to this decision, and the fierce debates within the discipline which all but fractured the psychiatric community. For anyone interested in the topic, it is a highly recommended book.
Ronald Bayer explains in the introduction why he chose a primarily political vantage point for this analysis:
"To assume that there is an answer to this question that is not ultimately political is to assume that it is possible to determine, with the appropriate scientific methodology, whether homosexuality is a disease given in nature. I do not accept that assumption, seeing in it a mistaken view of the problem. The status of homosexuality is a political question.... It requires a political analysis."
The philosophical significance of the debate is explained by Bayer as well. Again, I quote:
"For psychiatrists engaged in clinical work, the extent to which normative considerations inform contemporary definitions of mental health and illness remain largely an unexamined matter.... Only when their conventional orientations have been challenged by extraordinary occurences have therapists been forced to assume a more self-reflective posture. The dispute over the status of homosexuality as a psychiatric disorder did just that, compelling many clinicians to confront the extent to which social values frame the most basic elements of their professional work."
For this reason the case of homosexuality is an excellent case study to investigate the ways in which medical diagnoses are shaped by social and political considerations.
Recently Cambridge students were asked in an exam to write about a poem consisting only of punctuation, Tipp-Ex-Sonate by the South African writer Koos Kombuis. Jon Kelly discusses how to make sense of such a poem. Apart from the general discussion of interpreting such poetry as anti-art or typographic trickery, the article mentions something specific about the poem:
'In fact, according to Kombuis, a long-standing anti-apartheid activist, Tipp-Ex-Sonate was a protest against censorship laws imposed during white minority rule. "If you know about the historical and political context you could make sense of it as an inability to use a language that's tainted by apartheid," says Ford. But assuming undergraduates did not have access to an internet connection, it would be difficult for them to work out the poem's intended meaning, he adds.'
This reinforces an opinion that I have expressed on this blog several times: a proper understanding and interpretation of art, especially modern art, requires a certain awareness of the social-political-philosophical-religious context, and a knowledge of the author's intention. From my perspective, an understanding of Tipp-Ex-Sonate remains incomplete as long as the reader is unaware that the poem was a protest against censorship; we remain deprived of the 'objective meaning' of the poem. (By objective meaning I refer to what an author attempts to convey to the reader via a work of art.) Yet, modern art and poetry continue to be presented to the public in anthologies, magazines and museums without the necessary context that is required for proper appreciation. Modern art is in this sense paradoxical: it implicitly or explicitly insists that a work of art be taken on its own terms and be interpreted utilizing the internal clues it has to offer, while at the same time the work of art is more often than not produced to serve a certain purpose or convey a certain message, such as protest against authority or rebuking of tradition, which cannot be discerned wholly from the internal clues.
'The point is, unless the poet himself reveals what the poem is about, the reader is free to judge the poem as belonging to any category he thinks appropriate. When a poem is published in isolation, the objective meaning of the poem is lost, and the poem becomes a matter of complete subjective interpretation, capable of being fit in any category the reader believes it to belong to. The poet abandons a poem to subjectivity by withholding the objective meaning. Of course, people can and do argue that this very subjectivity is what makes poetry what it is. If that is so, well, then that is so. The question of "What does it mean?" becomes irrelevant, because the answer to that is "It means whatever you want it to mean."'
* By 'modern' I refer loosely to both modern and post-modern.
"I submit that the unifying core, the essence of jerkitude in the moral sense, is this: the jerk culpably fails to appreciate the perspectives of others around him, treating them as tools to be manipulated or idiots to be dealt with rather than as moral and epistemic peers. This failure has both an intellectual dimension and an emotional dimension, and it has these two dimensions on both sides of the relationship. The jerk himself is both intellectually and emotionally defective, and what he defectively fails to appreciate is both the intellectual and emotional perspectives of the people around him. He can’t appreciate how he might be wrong and others right about some matter of fact; and what other people want or value doesn’t register as of interest to him, except derivatively upon his own interests. The bumpkin ignorance captured in the earlier use of ‘jerk’ has changed into a type of moral ignorance."
"The primary error of the crush lies in overlooking a central fact about people in general, not merely this or that example, but the species as a whole: that everyone has something very substantially wrong with them once their characters are fully known, something so wrong as to make an eventual mockery of the unlimited rapture unleashed by the crush. We can’t yet know what the problems will be, but we can and should be certain that they are there, lurking somewhere behind the facade, waiting for time to unfurl them.
How can one be so sure? Because the facts of life have deformed all of our natures. No one among us has come through unscathed. There is too much to fear: mortality, loss, dependency, abandonment, ruin, humiliation, subjection. We are, all of us, desperately fragile, ill-equipped to meet with the challenges to our mental integrity: we lack courage, preparation, confidence, intelligence. We don’t have the right role models, we were (necessarily) imperfectly parented, we fight rather than explain, we nag rather than teach, we fret instead of analysing our worries, we have a precarious sense of security, we can’t understand either ourselves or others well enough, we don’t have an appetite for the truth and suffer a fatal weakness for flattering denials. The chances of a perfectly good human emerging from the perilous facts of life are non-existent. Our fears and our frailties play themselves out in a thousand ways, they can make us defensive or aggressive, grandiose or hesitant, clingy or avoidant – but we can be sure that they will make everyone much less than perfect and at moments, extremely hard to live with."
There is a narrow social space within which Pakistani women are expected to navigate their lives. With every milestone of their lives (marriage, motherhood, etc), they become more and more trapped. Those who deviate are threatened with dishonor and destruction, are emotionally blackmailed and infected with moral guilt. In such circumstances, the ones who thrive are either those who happily play along with the social roles they are offered or the ones who are fortuitous enough to have found a family that values the ideals of personal freedom and growth. There is no honor in the burden of "honor" that the society places on the shoulders of female sex the moment one is born. Our social moral values are built on centuries of systematic oppression of women; what good is an edifice of virtue whose foundations are rotten with vice? Set it on fire, let it burn, let it crumble! In many cases the oppressed sex does not even possess a language with which to vocalize her un-freedom. The most subtle oppression is one which cannot even be expressed. (P.S. It's not like men in Pakistan have a lot of freedom either, but what they experience is far less compared to what women experience.)
"One cannot be much of a philosopher without a good measure of detachment, even alienation. To see the Cave as Cave one must be in it, but not of it. One who dwells comfortably in the human-all-too-human may make brilliant contributions to logic and linguistics, say, but will never get the length of an Augustine or Spinoza. A philosopher is one who is haunted by Transcendence, whether in the form of the really real, authentic existence, or genuine knowledge."
William Vallicella, Starting with Nothing. From the book Falling in Love with Wisdom: American Philosophers Talk about Their Calling
Gary Gutting: "I agree that no theistic arguments are compelling, but I don’t agree that they all are logically invalid or have obviously false premises. I think the best arguments (especially, sophisticated versions of the cosmological argument) are dubious only in the sense that they use premises (e.g., any contingent thing requires a cause) that are not obviously true but that a rational person might properly believe."
Gutting succinctly states what I have myself believed for the last few years with regards to the philosophical arguments for God's existence, a (sane) position which I feel has been largely ignored in the debates surrounding New Atheism. There is no logical necessity to believe (or disbelieve) in God, but given certain premises (which are not unreasonable) there are logically valid arguments for God's existence. I do not accept the either extreme position endorsed in popular debates according to which a rational person ought, or ought not, to believe in God at the pain of irrationality. You can rationally believe or disbelieve in God without maintaining that there is a logical necessity to do so, and without maintaining that anyone who disagrees is a fool.
Of course, that is aside from the fact that invalid arguments (or invalid versions of valid arguments) exist in abundance in popular debates on both sides. I am also talking just about the philosophical concept of God, and not a particular portrayal of God in this or that religion.
Maverick Philosopher describes his approach to philosophy as radically aporetic. That is, he holds that the central problems of philosophy, although genuine, are insoluble. I asked him whether this applies to the applied problems of ethics as well. Here is his response.
I have seen Munch's Death and Life several times before but I never knew until just now that what is depicted on the left is a stream of sperms. (See here, click on Details.) This is a difficulty I experience repeatedly in my pursuit of appreciating art properly... how can one ever know such things about a work by just looking at the image, when, once known, it is apparent that such facts are crucial to a proper appreciation of the painting? Appreciating art, it seems, entails more than just looking at the painting; it also requires reading and researching about it.
Me: With passing years I am realizing I'm making peace with life's absurdity. I don't fight or struggle with it philosophically like before. Nor am I plagued with existential anguish as a result. It's a resignation of sorts, or perhaps an exhaustion. I realize my life will probably never amount to much in a historically significant way, but I live on, often happy and satisfied. The thought would've been excruciating for the adolescent me.... Life has tamed us.
"These stories, I realized, were lost. Nobody was going to know that part of the city but as a place where a bomb went off. The bomb was going to become the story of this city. That's how we lose the city - that's how our knowledge of what the world is is taken away from us - when what we know is blasted into rubble and what is created in its place bears no resemblance to what there was and we are left strangers in a place we knew, in a place we ought to have known."
Morality, it appears to me, springs fundamentally from emotions - moral emotions, such as compassion, sympathy, empathy etc - and not from reason, although reason definitely plays an vital role in its development. Much of philosophical discussion of morality, on the other hand, seems to be centered on the rational agent. We ponder and ponder over how a rational agent ought to behave in so and so circumstances, but is a rational agent equivalent to a moral agent? I suspect the hope of reducing morality down to reason is doomed to failure. What is left of morality if you take out compassion and empathy out of it? Individuals in a population of rational agents driven only by individual self-interest may act in ways that appear to be moral, but I am inclined to think that such behavior only mimics morality.
At the same time, there is little doubt in my mind that much of moral development of humanity has been the result of increase in rationality rather than increase in moral emotions. Reason allows us to recognize and resolve the inconsistencies in our emotions and resulting behavior. It is reason that breaks through the limitations that we have placed on our moral emotions by excluding certain groups from it, such as individuals of other gender, race, sexuality and even species.
"The result is that much reading robs the mind of all elasticity, as the continual pressure of a weight does a spring, and that the surest way of never having any thoughts of your own is to pick up a book every time you have a free moment."
Arthur Schopenhauer, Essays and Aphorisms
(Translated from Parerga and Paralipomena by R. J. Hollingdale)
"It did not seem to Plato any insult to philosophy that it should be transformed into literature, realized as drama, and beautified with style; nor any derogation to its dignity that it should apply itself, even intelligibly, to living problems of morality and the state."