Paul P. Mealing

Check out my book, ELVENE. Available as e-book and as paperback (print on demand, POD). 2 Reviews: here. Also this promotional Q&A on-line.

Sunday, 21 October 2007

Existentialism: the unconscious philosophy

My contention is that existentialism is the unconscious philosophy of secular Western society, and the following dissertation is my attempt to support that contention. If you tell people that you’re an existentialist they make a number of assumptions. The first assumption is that you are a follower of Jean Paul Sartre, and the second assumption is that you’re an atheist. (Personally, I was more influenced by Camus). But existential ‘themes’ can be found in the strangest of places: the stoic philosophy of ancient Greece and Rome; Confucian commentary in the I Ching; and the ruminations of humanist psychologists like Carl Rogers. Many philosophers have also commented on similarities between some aspects of Buddhism and existentialism.

So what do I mean by existentialism? Perhaps we should start with Sartre. Essentially, existentialism argues that you are personally responsible for who you are: morally, socially, politically and religiously; you create your own identity. Sartre put it differently, but the message is the same: you ‘create your own essence’ and you make your life a ‘project’. By essence, he was almost certainly referring to Descartes, who talked about ‘essence’ as something intrinsic; what some would call the soul. (I provide a different, one might say, existentialist, concept of ‘soul’ in my first posting on Self.)

Sartre himself acknowledges that ‘Existentialism is a Humanism’, the title of one of his most famous essays, and, by so doing, identifies himself with the earlier humanists in Western Philosophy. These were heretics of their time, who dared to posit that ‘man’ is responsible for his own destiny: materialistically, morally and spiritually. Sartre famously stated in that essay that ‘man is condemned to be free’, meaning, in essence, that we have to take responsibility for whom we become.

It’s only in the 20th Century, and only in Western society, that we have come to accept that almost anyone can achieve their dreams and ambitions. Previously, and in many other cultures (though not all), one’s ambitions and aspirations were limited by birth and demography, not to mention sex. To some extent this is still true, and certainly true in a global sense, but at least people are aware of inequality and the long term harm it causes. An existential philosophy acknowledges that everyone should ‘ideally’ be able to create their own persona. But Sartre’s specific contribution was to emphasise that individuals are responsible for their own moral actions, and have no recourse to religion, cultural or metaphysical origins. This was a direct response to what happened in WWII, and I discuss this specifically elsewhere in my posting on Evil (Oct.07). But returning to the topic at hand, Sartre argued, significantly, that one can’t offload one’s responsibility, or society’s collective responsibility, to a religious entity such as God or the Devil.

I think this had direct consequences for the post war generation. There was a worldwide cultural revolution in 1960s Western society, that effectively questioned the role of the Church, the role of God and the relationship between the individual and the State. To many people, conservatives in particular, this created a rupture in society that we are still paying for. To quote Cardinal George Pell (Archbishop of Sydney), quoted in turn by journalist, Christopher Pearson (as recently as January this year) ‘Times have changed and many are troubled by the consequences of the revolutions of the 1960s.’ Reading between the lines, I conclude that Pell resents the rise of feminism, the introduction of the contraceptive pill, the loss of the virtue called virginity, and the recognition that homosexuals and lesbians deserve the right of respect in all avenues of society. Personally, I see all these as positives. Not surprisingly, all of these are sexually related, and the Church, historically, had thought it fit to govern all our sexual activities through the application of guilt, fear and the wrath of God.

Existentialism changed all that, in that we became unconscious existentialists: we came to the realisation that, through education, we could make our own moral decisions and become the person we were meant to be rather than the one dictated by the mores of a religious dominated society.

Pell and his supporters, would point out the negative consequences of this revolution: the rise in drug abuse, the breakdown of marriages, the pursuit of material gain over spiritual solace. And I would agree that these are not issues to be ignored, but the positive consequences are that we live our lives more honestly, and are encouraged not to live a lie, which was the most damaging aspect of the pre-existentialist revolution. People living in marriages that destroyed their souls, transsexuals unable to live with the identity they were born with, young women forced to carry through pregnancies that could have been avoided. These led to neuroses on a large scale. I'm not saying that all neuroses inherent in our society have been eliminated, but I see no advantage in turning back the clock with the inevitable consequence of creating neuroses for the future.

Does this make me irreligious or an atheist? No, it doesn’t, but that’s another discussion for another time. Most people don’t know what existentialism is, yet most people, living a secular life in a Western society, follow an existential philosophy whether they are theists or atheists. I call it the unconscious philosophy because most people believe they create their own destiny, their own identity and their own morality, and, in principle, that indicates a psychologically healthy state of mind.

The corollary to this is that self-deception is our greatest weakness, which, in extremis, can lead to avoiding responsibility for who one really is. As Hugh Mackay points out in his excellent book on moral philosophy, Right & Wrong (subtitled, how to decide for yourself), 'The most damaging lies are those we tell ourselves'. In fact, he devotes an entire section to this topic, with that quote as his heading.

Postscript: the consequences of self-deception are elaborated upon in a later post, Human Nature (Nov.07), and again in a post on Trust (April 08).

You may also want to read my views on God, theism, atheism (Aug.07)

Sunday, 14 October 2007

Does the Universe have a Purpose?

Like, almost all of my postings so far, this was triggered by something I read. American Scientist (Sep-Oct 07) published some excerpts from a series of essays written by 12 ‘leading scientists and scholars’ for the John Templeton Foundation. The essays can all be read at www.templeton.org/purpose and they are not lengthy.

Altogether, they highlighted something I’ve said before: science and religion can’t answer each other’s questions (refer my posting on Intelligent Design). Even amongst the scientists, as well as the theologians, it is obvious that the point of view expressed by each of them is totally subjective, and they use the science they know to support that point of view.

It would appear that they were all asked to answer the question with a one word answer, followed by a short treatise, though a few used more than one word: Very Likely, I Hope So and Not Sure. But the one word answers varied widely from Yes, Certainly, Indeed to Unlikely and No. Paul Davies, whom I’ve read widely, said: Perhaps. Being familiar with his philosophical dissertations, I thought he would have said something stronger, but, when examining my own response, I can understand his apparent reticence. If I was asked to answer in one word I would most likely say: Possibly. 'Probably' was also a brief contender, but not an honest one. ‘Possibly’ expresses both my subjective uncertainty and the objective reality. Perhaps that is why Paul Davies said ‘Perhaps’.

A couple of the scholars spoke as if the only theological perspective could be a Judea-Christian one, whereas I feel that there are many theological perspectives. Karen Armstrong’s response would have been worth soliciting, but I think she would have seen these particular responses as pertaining to their specific myths, which encapsulate their cultural perspectives. And the same applies to me (see below). I thought all the essays had merit, including the ones that verged on the dismissive.

Personally, I thought the negative responses were just as edifying as the positive ones, because they revealed that ‘science’ is effectively noncommittal. The positive responses were obviously based on a personal philosophy, which only underlines ‘science’s’ neutrality in my view. Yes, many talked about the ‘fine-tuned’ nature of the universe for intelligent life, especially the role of the carbon atom, but at least one also pointed out that in terms of universal time and space, our existence is miniscule to the point of insignificance. None of them mentioned, by the way, the peculiar property of hydrogen bonding in water that stops oceans from being mostly frozen. So science supports both the sceptic and the optimist. I use the term, optimist, because I think that believing in a purpose is a symptom of optimism, though sceptics would call it a symptom of delusion.

I found the most interesting response was from Christian De Duve, a biochemist and 1974 Nobel Prize winner. His one word response was No, yet his argument was far from dismissive. I won’t expound on his essay, but I liked his conclusion. After extolling the virtues of human creativity in arts, music, literature, philosophy and all that it encompasses, he said: ‘Why not have the universe itself uncreated, an actual manifestation of Ultimate Reality, rather than the work of an uncreated creator?’ This also leads to the possibility, not proposed by any of the essayists, that God is the end result of this process we call a universe, rather than its progenitor.

What about my response? Well I think one can only answer it honestly by asking another question: do you believe you have a purpose? And the best answer I’ve come across lies in the I Ching: ‘If in truth you have a kind heart, ask not. If kindness be considered your virtue, you have attained your purpose completely.’ What I like about this aphorism is that it encapsulates a complete philosophy of spiritual meaning, with no reference to a God or Heaven; though it doesn’t rule them out, just makes them a contextual non sequitur.

We only consider the universe having a purpose in the context that we have a purpose, and science assigns us no special purpose, despite everything that nature has achieved in making our existence possible. Jane Goodall makes the point, rather eloquently, that a Universe without meaning seems pointless: ‘…it is impossible to imagine "nothingness"’. When I was a young child I tried to imagine a world without consciousness and it was like trying to imagine the unimaginable. It still is. But this doesn’t answer the question; it just puts into perspective the reality that the universe only exists for me while I’m in it. So ‘purpose’, for most people, implies a life beyond death, and that is the rub. We don’t know, and we are not meant to know. As far as I am concerned, the best I can say is that my life does have a purpose, but only in relation to others I meet and form relationships with, and beyond that, I don’t know, and, arguably, I don’t need to know.

In December 1988, LIFE published a series of responses (49 in total) to the question: ‘What is The Meaning of Life?’ My favourite was by Confucian scholar, Tu Wei-Ming: ‘…the globe is the centre of our universe and the only home for us, and we are the guardians of the good earth, the trustees of the mandate of heaven.. We are here because embedded in our human nature is the secret code for heaven’s self-realisation… It needs our active participation to realise its own truth. We are heaven’s partners, indeed co-creators… Since we help heaven to realise itself through our self-discovery and self-understanding in day-to-day living, the ultimate meaning of life is found in our ordinary, human existence.’

What I liked about this response is that it implies that we are not passive participants, yet we play a part just by living our lives. My position is: if there is a (transcendental) purpose then we best fulfil it, not by knowing it, but simply living it.

See also my posting on The Meaning of Life.
There are similar themes touched on in a letter I wrote to Phillip Adams in 2005 (see God, theism, atheism).

On a related topic, I would recommend the book, GOD The Interview, by ABC broadcaster, Terry Lane. Whilst some may see it as satire, I see it as a commendable philosophical treatise.

Wednesday, 3 October 2007

Evil

It seems that a lot of my blogs are the result of a response to someone else’s opinion or something they’ve written. This posting is no exception: in 2003 I read a book by Lance Morrow called Evil, An Investigation. Lance Morrow was an essayist for TIME magazine in the 1980s and 90s, and may still be for all I know, as I no longer subscribe. But this is how philosophy works: someone expresses a point of view supported by arguments and someone else challenges it, and that includes my arguments as well.

His book was a collection of essays, almost anecdotes, from which he derived a philosophical point of view on the subject of evil. I had serious problems with both his premise and his conclusions, so I wrote a lengthy letter to him explaining my disagreement and my position. Not surprisingly, he didn’t reply. My fundamental disagreement was with his apparent premise that evil is the result of a personality disorder, whereas history demonstrates that the worst of evil happens on a large scale involving a large number of people, most of whom would be considered normal under other circumstances. In effect, evil is almost a cultural disease that seems capable of affecting anyone given the fertile circumstances that allow it to develop unchecked.

His book and my response were written well before the incidents at Abu Ghraib, which perfectly demonstrate how evil can arise irrespective of cultural background. Morrow, being American, also seemed to fall into the cultural trap of believing that morality needed theism to ground it. To quote from my own correspondence: “There is an impression one gets from America that atheism is considered synonymous with amorality. Your own rhetoric supports this impression, when you claim that ‘atheism suffers a gag reflex’ on the word evil, and you dismiss philosophy as ‘theology in mufti’. History reveals that there is very little correlation between religion and morality and some may even argue that the converse is true.” Morrow seemed to think that anyone who is not Christian, or without Biblical influence, must believe in moral relativism, where anything goes. He never actually said this, and, in fact, he was careful not to reveal his own religious beliefs, but many Americans purport this point of view (atheism equates to moral relativism), and his own attack on atheism would suggest that he believes something similar.

My thesis is almost the opposite to his, where I believe that anyone, including myself, could perform acts of evil given the right circumstances. I provided 2 sources of evidence: incidents of atrocities performed throughout the 20th century by a diverse array of cultures; and psychological experiments demonstrating the ease with which people can become the perpetrators of culpable acts. Anyone who has studied psychology is familiar with Milgram’s famous study in obedience conducted at Yale University in the 1960’s, in which participants were asked to deliver electric shocks to an unseen person in another room when they gave wrong answers to simple questions. Amazingly, 65% of participants continued to give shocks at the extreme end of the scale (over 400 Volts) to people who had stopped responding. What is not so well known, is that this experiment was performed in many countries, revealing cultural differences in how ‘disciplined’ people were in obeying authority figures. America was not the highest scorer in this regard, with Spain and Holland scoring over 90% and Italy, Germany and Austria scoring over 80%. Australia, which has a long history of disobeying or questioning authority, was the lowest with 40% for men and 16% for women (Introduction to Social Psychology by Vaughan and Hogg, 1998, Prentice Hall). I don’t believe Australians are more compassionate than the other cultures tested, but I think, at the time these experiments were done, Australians had a lesser regard for authority figures than their contemporaries in other Western countries. This experiment or test is not so much about personal morality but about unquestioning trust in authority figures, which is the real reason that the figures varied.

The other famous, or infamous, experiment was the Stanford prison experiment conducted by Zimbardo in 1972. College students were divided arbitrarily into prison officers and prisoners, and, as is well known, the experiment had to be terminated after 6 days, instead of the planned 2 week period because it had pathologically gone out of control. Many commentators, including Zimbardo himself, have made the comparison between this experiment and the conditions that arose at Abu Ghraib.

But it was a documentary of a real prison, for orphaned boys in Romania, that gave me the most sobering insight into human nature at its most base. A psychologist filmed and interviewed adolescents in this prison, where the prison authorities allowed the inmates to create their own society and effectively run the prison autonomously. What happened is that a two-tiered culture developed comprising the bullies and the bullied. The bullies ran the prison and handed out punishments, which the authorities condoned. The psychologist interviewed one of the head bullies, who explained, quite matter-of-factly, that any new inmate, who didn’t have the requisite physical and mental toughness to become a bully, was soon buggered and lived at the bottom of the social heap. I have seen similar behaviour in a school playground, but, at least in that environment, teachers could intervene, and the children could still escape when they went home. In a prison it would become a living hell.

But I think this adolescent, who was interviewed, is the template for all the despots we have witnessed throughout history, who have such a narcissistic and egotistic view of themselves, that they believe an entire country’s population should bend to their will. It is a combination of supreme egotism with a Darwinian belief in total domination. It’s not dissimilar to the behaviour of the herd leader who defeats all the young bucks so that he can have mating rights with all the females. In fact, the worst of evil that we witness arises from the simple fact that we are tribal by nature – it’s part of our evolutionary heritage.

Nature has evolved mechanisms for population control so that resources are not eaten out. In the case of predators the mechanism is usually one of controlling territory, and this includes the human species. We are very territorial and we are very sensitive to others encroaching, invading, entering, immigrating and partaking of resources that we believe are our birthright. If you live in a country where you believe you are well off, then you not only consider visitors as being less well off, but, by corollary, they must also be envious of you. I was surprised to learn, when I visited the US, that almost everyone I met, not only assumed I would want to live there, but that that was my intention – after all, who wouldn’t? This tribalism, and its inherent territorialism, is part of our evolutionary heritage and it is the root cause of most of the evil we witness in the world.

The creation of in-group out-group categorisation happens at many levels: political, business, religious, cultural, national; and this leads to another social category: identity. But before I discuss identity, there is another famous psychological experiment in the US which is worth reviewing. A camp of teenage boys were divided into two teams, and quickly the division escalated where the boys ridiculed members of the other team, even though, beforehand, they may have been friends. I have observed this behaviour many times amongst adults, and no where is it more apparent than in politics, where people will support an idea if it’s proposed by their political party but reject it if it’s proposed by the opposition. In business situations, I have seen one team always critical of their opposing team as if all its members are incompetent whereas their own members are all exemplary. I believe this behaviour is universal. In the case of the camp experiment, described above, the supervisors overcame the division when they created a critical situation (blocked the water supply) that forced both of the teams to combine their efforts to find a solution. No one expects this behaviour to lead to evil, yet it does so on a regular basis, although it usually requires another attribute I alluded to earlier: identity.

How does this come about? What do I mean by identity? Identity is what links our past to our future. It is what we grew up with and what links us to our group, and, most significantly, what we pass onto the next generation. It is something we feel so strongly about, that when we feel it is threatened, we believe it is worth dying for, and therefore, worth killing for. Identity can be to country, to family, to culture, to religion or to race.

It is when people feel that their identity is threatened that they become particularly virulent in their defensiveness, which can lead to demonisation of the out-group, and, consequently, the ability to treat people as non-human. This is the evil that shocks us yet almost any of us could succumb to. You don’t believe me, but history reveals that it is the truly exceptional person who can resist this rather than the exceptional person who doesn’t. In countries like Rwanda and former Yugoslavia, cultural groups that lived alongside each other became politicised to the extent that they committed genocide. When this happens you are either against them or for them; there is no middle ground. Where do you think you would stand?

Even in our own society, we find politicians and ordinary people willing to demonise outsiders, otherwise known as ‘boat people’ because we feel threatened by them. These are people forced to flee the world’s most oppressive regimes so they have nothing to lose and everything to win. It is their very desperation which makes us so fearful of them, so we incarcerate them, in the middle of the desert or off-shore, where they cannot be seen or heard, or given the opportunity to express their case. We already believe that they don’t deserve so-called ‘Christian’ charity, or any of the rights that we do – they are lesser people, less deserving than us. We rationalise our judgements by calling them ‘queue-jumpers’ and ‘opportunists’, yet our real motives stem from our long ago evolutionary heritage of wanting to maintain our territory and preserve our resources. We are not so far removed from the animal kingdom as we like to think. It is because we have the ability to think, judge and rationalise our actions that makes the things we do, evil. Evil is always a perversion because we are able to justify it – we are the only animal that can do that, and that is what makes us different.