Archive for February, 2009

Aporia: Emotions

by Jason Stotts

Can a person be “in love” and yet feel nothing for the person he is supposedly in love with? Can he, on the other hand, feel as though he is in love with someone without thinking he is in love with her? Alternatively, can he feel hatred for a person he thinks that he should love?

What is the connection between “emotional experience” (the feeling part) and “emotional beliefs” (the conviction part)?

What does it mean that they can be in conflict with each other?

Should we consider instances where a person has only the “emotional experience” or the “emotional belief” to be true instances of the emotion?

It seems strange to say that I hate someone, when I feel nothing. Perhaps only strong emotions require the combination of both EE and EB, while less strong emotions suffice with either EE or EB.

Is there a difference between “hot” emotions (like rage) and “cold” emotions (like admiration)?

I’ve been thinking a lot about emotions recently, as I’m working on that chapter in my book now, and there are a number of problems I’m trying to work out.

Expect an essay on the nature of emotions sometime in the next month or so.

Feel free to leave comments.

Shattered Illusions

by Jason Stotts

There is no god.

There is no “after life.”

We will all die.

Once one comes to accept each of these truths, to accept them as absolutely true and internalize them as completely real, a curious situation arises. The problem can best be called the “existential crisis” – but really, it’s only a crisis of shattered illusions.

In our society, there are many absurd beliefs that flit about like truth. Among these are the ideas of a god and of an “after life” where the soul goes after the death of the body to have “eternal life”. These are at first glance the result of christian influence in society. However, these illusions are much older and predate the christians. Indeed, the oldest pagan societies we have on record, those of ancient Greece, Egypt, Africa, etc, all have a god or gods and some even have a developed idea of an after life. There seems to be a deep seated psychological need that the ideas of a god(s) and an after life seem to satisfy, thus their ubiquity.

The idea of an immortal soul and an “after life” have their origins in the human need for psychological continuity – the need to understand that all actions I take in the past and in the present are my actions, that me in the past and me in the future is still the same person, no matter the differences. Indeed, imagine the psychological damage that would result from someone seriously thinking that person they are could abruptly change and that they could suddenly be another person without even realizing it. The colloquial idea of schizophrenia, where it is thought that multiple people inhabit the same body and vie for control of it, would be but the tip of the iceberg of problems. (For a philosophical example of this insanity, see Derek Parfit.)

The idea of an immortal soul and after life gives us a way to extend psychological continuity ad infinitum: I exist now, therefore I will always exist. The mistake is easy to make as well. Whenever I sleep, I remain conscious of myself and I know that I will always wake (or at least have done so successfully so far). Thus, a person has no frame of reference from which to think about their own nonexistence. The problem is, though, that we are mortal: we will die and who we are will cease to be. Death is the one certainty of life. Focussing on an after life leads real life to be devalued in favor of the illusory “eternal life after death.”

The idea of a god traditionally does a lot of philosophical work: indeed, god is the great punt when a philosopher cannot find another explanation. However, I think that the idea of a god stems primarily from the human need for meaning in life. Before I perform an action, I want to know whether it is good or evil. I want there to be some real meaning to my actions, I want there to be an objective good and evil. I want there to be a point, an end for my action. The need for meaning is important in life, no one could keep acting if they seriously thought that their actions were capricious or meaningless; that at the end of their days the sum of their actions would be a gigantic zero.

For this reason, a god is posited at the final answer, as the end of the chain of why. Why should I be moral? Why should I accept this as the good? How am I to know that my good actions will be rewarded? Thus came the answer: god. If god exists, we don’t need to worry about the foundation of values. If god exists, we don’t need to worry about whether good will prevail and evil will be punished. If god exists, we don’t need to worry about ultimate ends. But, since god does not exist, it becomes nothing more than a thin salve to try to cover real problems and real needs, which go unanswered. The need for meaning is one of the most important in life and, tragically, the supposed relief which we are to find in the idea of a god actually destroys the possibility of real meaning in life.

The problem is, though, that for those for whom these illusory beliefs are ingrained, their loss gives rise to a crisis of shattered illusions. This is because rejecting irrational beliefs is only the first step. These beliefs have persisted throughout time because they served to fulfill real psychological needs and, even though they are irrational, simply rejecting them outright is dangerous as it creates a psychological void.

Not only are psychological voids dangerous, but the human mind implicitly recognizes this. If one does not act to fill the void consciously, then the process will be completed subconsciously with whatever random platitudes are culturally present. This typically takes the form of nebulous, or even vacuous, sets of beliefs. While one can consciously resist this, and stymie the subconscious process designed to fill this void, one cannot actually stop the process. This causes the subconscious process to collapse in on itself, resulting in nihilism, depression, or even suicide.

The obvious alternative is to fill these voids consciously. The first step is to recognize that we simply do not know the answers to some problems and this is okay. By admitting that we do not know, we give ourselves a place to begin to gather knowledge and attempt to provide a real answer, instead of a flimsy rationalization. By dispensing with god as the answer for the objectivity of values, we can discover real values rooted in the facts of reality. By dispensing with the idea of the immortality of the soul, we can come to face the inevitability of our own death and thereby find meaning in life. Dispensing with easy answers is like leaving childhood for the real world of being an adult: the answers are not always as simple, but they are the real answers.

Having dispensed with the illusory beliefs and recognized that we must look outward to the world as it is, and not just as we wish it were, we can begin to try to fulfill our psychological needs in healthy ways.

The extension of psychological continuity beyond death is motivated by the fear of death. For many, the idea that one day their life will end, and that they will no longer exist, is absolutely terrifying. They cannot conceive of the utter cessation of who they are. Yet, it is not that hard to imagine: we all understand that there were times before we were born in which we did not yet exist. It is only a small step from this to understand that there will also be times in the future when we will not exist.

However, death itself is not something to be feared, as Epicurus argued millennia ago, as after death we cannot be hurt or harmed. The fear, then, centers on the issue of nonexistence, or the discontinuation of personhood. But why is the fact that someday there will be no more “me” something to be afraid of? The fear arises because it is a common cultural belief (from Plato) that permanence is necessary for value: that only eternal things can be valuable. Through this, we can see what the true underlying fear is: if I am mortal, values are not possible, therefore if I can die, my life will be meaningless.

In order to fulfill our need for psychological continuity, we must recognize that death is an inevitable part of a human life. Indeed, one might even draw an analogy to a story: a story cannot be complete without an end. Further, just because life ends, this does not mean that life is, therefore, without value. As Aristotle says: “What is white for many days is no whiter than that which is white for a single day; so the good will not be more good by being eternal.” The ephemerality of life does not subvert value, rather it is what makes values possible and even necessary.

Furthermore, life can provide us with the objective grounding of values that the god illusion sought to create. Values can only exist in relation to an end: to say that “X is valuable” is to say that “X is valuable for Y end.” To say that something is valuable in itself with no reference to an end is nonsense. Life gives us the end that value seeks to achieve and human nature sets the conditions on which it can be considered to be successfully achieved. Thus, through life, we can have objectivity of values: that which furthers a human life is valuable.

Now that we have seen how to shatter an illusion and how to replace the void it leaves, fulfilling the psychological need that necessitated it in the first place, let us take a further step: let us define steps for how to shatter further illusions.

The first step for the shattering of illusions is to clearly identify your target. Illusions are not simply irrational beliefs, they are a special class of irrational belief that involve fundamental psychological needs. It is important to make sure that your target is indeed an illusion and not simply an irrational belief.

The second step for the shattering of illusions is to understand what role the illusion plays in the belief system of the person. This step will further help guarantee that your target is indeed an illusion. To identify what role the illusions plays, you must identify what ends the belief is designed to achieve. This can be quite complicated and is usually hidden under many layers of irrationality. For an example, most people today believe that without a god, there could be no possibility of goodness in the world and they would resist letting go of their god because they do not want to let go of the idea of goodness and value. So while a vacuous concept like “god” can be used to justify many things, in this instance the end that this belief attempts is to ground good and evil.

The third step is to identify the foundation of the illusion. This is best done by first identifying the end that the illusions attempts to achieve, since once you know what ends it is intended to achieve, you can identify the foundations. The foundation will be a real human psychological need, something that one needs in order to function and live a full human life. To continue our example, if the belief in god is intended to justify objectivity in values, then the foundations of this belief will be focussed on values and we can center our search for the foundations of the belief here. As we saw above, humans have a psychological need for real values: people can not function arbitrarily and need to know that real meaning is possible. Thus, the foundation of the god illusion here is objectivity in values.

The fourth step is to sever the illusion from its foundations. Cut off from their foundations, illusions wither and lose much of their force. To sever an illusion from its base, you must show how and why the illusion fails to successfully achieve the foundational need. In the case of god, we saw that the god illusion fails to achieve the need for objectivity in values as it predicated value on the subjective will of a non-existent being.

The fifth step is to attack and destroy the weakened illusion. Cut off from its primary motivation, attacking and destroying an illusion is typically an easy job. However, it is important to note that an illusion can play multiple roles and that in order to completely destroy it, you need to sever all of its bases. This is especially pertinent in the case of the god illusion where the idea of a god plays many different roles in the lives of the “faithful”. To completely destroy an illusion you must sever it from all its bases and then show how the belief itself is irrational. It is important that it be done in this order as to show a belief to be irrational is not the same as destroying it if you have not severed it from its bases first: the person would merely point out that the belief works to fulfill its need, that it works. However, once the illusion has been severed from its bases and is weakened, it is a fairly easy task to then destroy the belief by pointing out its irrationality and self-contradictions, since at this point the person has no psychological motivation for maintaining the belief.

The sixth, and last, step is to replace the resulting void with rational beliefs. This is perhaps the hardest step to achieve as it is far easier for most people to destroy than it is to create; however, this is the most important step. Since psychological voids are untenable, all the preceding steps will be in vain if we do not replace the resulting void with rational beliefs. As we saw above, rational beliefs come from looking at the world as it is, and not merely as we wish it were. To finish our example: if we locate the source of values in life, and set the requirements for its achievement in human nature, then we have the objectivity of value that we need. Further, by situation values in the context of human nature, we make achieving values both possible and practical.

These steps for the destruction of illusions are supposed to serve as guideposts in the process. There may be times when you can immediately identify your target and attack and destroy it without consciously running through the intervening steps. However, following these steps will raise your likelihood of success and help to guarantee that your attempt is not thwarted by simply being over ambitious and moving too quickly.

Now that we know how to shatter illusions and we have seen the process in action, let us take up philosophizing with a hammer! Woe be to the remaining illusions when the hammer of reason swings home!

My Life

by Jason Stotts

I love my life.
I only have one,
and I will make the best of it.

I will never lose sight of my values
And the reasons for why I choose to fight,
To create a world in which I want to live.

I will never disregard,
Each unique and irreplaceable moment,
That comprises my life.

I will never let hate fill me,
To the exclusion of all else,
To the detriment of love.

I will firmly fix in mind the value of my life
and the joy of existing, of being able
to determine my own destiny.

I will mercilessly judge all,
Denouncing evil,
And celebrating good.

I accept the responsibility,
To make my life as it might,
And ought to be.

I will never cease to have awe,
For the majesty of life,
And the beauty of existence

Above all,
I will rise up,
and live my life to its fullest.

I will be happy.