Author's Posts

Lately, I’ve been thinking of love (yet again). 

More precisely, I’ve been pondering an idea that has, frankly, confused me for quite some time: unconditional love.

Honestly, this concept can be such a mystery…

***

Now, growing up, there are many things one hears said about love.

Some of them, such as the concept of a love at first sight, quickly meet their death at the hands of the harsh reality of human interactions. People don’t just look at each other and fall in love. Certainly not if love is to mean anything more than pure lust, anyway.

However, other things one hears, such as talk of unconditional love, can be more difficult to grapple with.

That is why, personally, I have always felt a bit ambivalent touching on that particular subject. Partly it’s because love itself is hard to experience deeply, but mostly it’s because the requirement of unconditionality goes against many of my usual intuitions. Continue reading Speaking of Love, Could it ever really be Unconditional?

Read more

We live in interesting times for academia.

Traditionally, even though society at large has never particularly played a cheerleader  role for the universities, funding has always been available for all sorts of research. Moreover, academics have consistently been held in high regard as intelligent, hard working and useful to society.

In the recent years, however, the English-speaking world has gradually witnessed a mass revulsion from academia. And even more strikingly, some of that revulsion has been championed by precisely the sort of people who have traditionally fit the academic mould, i.e. curious types unafraid to ask questions and think critically for themselves.

While at Oxford, I myself underwent a similar process.

In the abstract, science is great and academia represents as much of a free-thinking heaven on Earth as there could be. Or at the very least, those were my expectations going in.

Going out, however, all I could think was: if this is the best we could do in terms of institutionalized curiosity, then God help us. Academia felt more like a hell than a heaven.

It is no secret to anyone who’s recently been on a university campus that the place has turned primarily into a political battleground (as opposed to an intellectual one). Many students seem more interested in activism than in hearing out differing opinions. Argumentation has mostly given way to idea imposition and political correctness. The academic orthodoxy enshrined at universities feels distinctly cult-like and frankly little better than the closed-mindedness academia supposedly stands in opposition to.

Consequently, there are two possibilities for the dissenting voices in academia. One is to shut up and do your work in hope that things might get better or that they won’t ever interfere with your life. The other is to judge the whole enterprise flawed as it currently stands and leave. In truth, there is a third possibility, namely to speak up. But it is fast becoming a career suicide for faculty and a social hell for students. In practice, the people who speak up are donors and those who no longer have anything at stake, i.e. those on the way out.

Today, it feels like academia has forgotten a very simple historic lesson: don’t moralize too much or people will begin to resent you. And if this lesson holds true in basically every domain, it holds twice as much in academia. For academia, at least in theory, has committed itself to the accumulation of knowledge and the assimilation of different perspectives. And that means being as impassionate, or at least as charitable, as possible to differing points of view — a sentiment hard to square with a top-down censorship of opinion or an embrace of student intolerance.

Yet, though I still have hope, I don’t expect much to change. The university system has shrugged off many other complaints before.

That such attitude only makes a mockery of the plea for feedback one receives after leaving; that the millions spent to entice children into science are then offset by millions spent to put them off their scientific ideals; that academia is turning more and more into an obstacle to learning; that the intolerant attitude is causing deep societal divison… all that doesn’t seem to matter.

All the above is why many of those who were willing to give the academic system the benefit of the doubt in the first place are ultimately leaving.

But there is another group in society — those who never got to university in the first place. Those are the people who academia tries to reach and inform, at least if you believe the public statements. Alas, those are also the people who oftentimes dissent only to be met with accusations of bigotry or willful ignorance. 

Just like Jesus, who said he came to save the sinners, academics claim they came to save the masses from their ignorance. But unlike Jesus, who embraced sinners and preached non-judgement, academics are fast to argue and quick to judge. For many academics, the perfect lay person is not the one who is curious and asks questions, regardless of how ignorant they might sound. No, the perfect lay person is the one whom you can keep at distance, but who buys your book and learns submissively from you, the academic master.

(This dynamic has always irritated me immensely. As soon as one actually engages with academia, the peer review system and its appeal to criticize seem to function more as a be-an-sshole system with an appeal to demean.)

In any case, the truth is this: academia is given the prestige and the tax-payer funding it enjoys only because it works. No matter what one thinks about the philosophical foundations of science, at the end of the day, science makes life better. The humanities too have much to contribute to a great life. Or at least they used to.

Nowadays, for every good paper in the humanities, there seem to another three full of non-sense. The humanities no longer work. The former contract — the public funds academia, academia does its thing and helps the public back — has been broken. And broken not only by making the humanities irrelevant (for then maybe no one would have noticed and consequently cared?); no, it’s been broken to an extent where the humanities are pushing a distinct ideology that makes life actively worse for many. I don’t believe much in Europe on that front, but at least in the US, self-censorship by a majority of the population should never be a thing…

In conclusion, the reality is that most people are pragmatists. They might support things they don’t understand, but they won’t support things that don’t work. And frankly speaking, there is no real reason why they should.

Mine is a delicate position to be in — both loving the ideas behind academia and hating the thing it has become today. 

Thankfully, it is finally becoming clear that being against the institutions of academia is not the same thing as an ignorant preference to stay in the dark.

If I could describe my position with a word, it would be academic patriotism — an attitude that can honestly see the flaws in modern academia without mistaking them as fundamental; an attitude that is not willing to give up on something so dear despite its current sickness…


Here are some prominent people (among many others) who are working to change academia for the better and who have influenced my thinking on the subject:

  1. Jordan Peterson
  2. Eric Weinstein
  3. Bret Weinstein
  4. Gad Saad
  5. Jonathan Haidt (especially this lecture)
  6. Hunter Maats
Read more

At a first glance, the idea of reason as mankind’s savior seems wholly justified. After all, the Enlightenment, along with its deep belief in science and logic, has brought many improvements to our lives and knowledge of the world.

Consequently, the last few centuries have seen an explosion of ideologies — political, philosophical and other — all claiming reason as their cornerstone and ultimate starting point. 

However, a problem gradually started to emerge. Conclusions, albeit all nominally derived through the very same faculty —  reason, weren’t matching up. 

Politics is rife with this examples of left-wing and right-wing self-proclaimed followers of reason who could never sit down and agree even if their life depended on it. 

The idea of reason as applied in maths might seem a foolproof way to reach the Truth. Yet, in human affairs the results have only occasionally lived up to the original high expectations.

As a result, I have been questioning the wisdom of putting reason on such a high pedestal that reasonable has become synonymous with right. This post represents an attempt at explaining why.

***

I have been thinking about this post for quite some time, but I first wanted to collect my thoughts before writing anything down. In the past few weeks, however, I have been exposed to some interesting ideas on the topic which finally nudged me into sharing.

Let’s start at the place discussed in the last section, namely ideologies and cults of reason. 

Starting with Plato’s philosopher kings and culminating with modern technocrats, organizing society according to reason is not a new idea. And a priori, it seems promising indeed — the real world, as everything in the universe, should conform to the laws of logic and thus we can use them safely in perfecting our earthly experience.

So, how are we to reconcile the apparent conflicts of contradicting philosophies such as, to take one example among many, central planning socialists and reason-committed capitalists

Of course, one answer is the preferred one of both sides, namely: the other side are wrong and unreasonable. A priori, that could well be true. But there are times when the differences persist even after all evidence has been presented. Sometimes, it’s the starting assumptions, values and preferences that determine the final destination rather than a reasoned critique of the various possibilities.

Already, that’s a problem. If two reason-loving and logic-respecting parties can reach opposing conclusions just by virtue of difference in taste or preference, then we are forced to admit that oftentimes reason leads us to a place long ago predetermined by a-rational factors and nothing more.

Of course, one can start delving deeper into tastes and preferences, deconstructing and criticizing them. But one cannot bootstrap this whole process by reason alone. There have to be some fundamental values which serve to enable any rational criticism of all other values. 

In the end, it seems that it is not reason one meets at the beginning of reasoning. Rather, it is something like emotions, faith, will or chance — all of which carry hardly the same logical credibility.

But, going back to the initial example, there are other possibilities. Maybe both central planners and rabid capitalists are right about some things and wrong about others. Maybe each side rightly sees a part of reality and then hastily generalizes its conclusions to the whole of reality.

In some sense, pointing out the fallings on humans is not in itself an attack on reason. At least not reason in the abstract. Yet, we, humans, are not gods and we can never practice anything but our own human form of reason — the form so exalted ever since the Enlightenment began. (perfect reason, even if it works, will forever stay inaccessible to us)

Put differently, when talking of reason, we must accept our biases, shortfalls and imperfections. We must be willing to admit that we are not omniscient and our generalizations might turn out wrong. And we must recognize that nature doesn’t always promise us to be regular or easy to comprehend.

Let’s unpack this last paragraph.

Firstly, let’s take the topic of imperfect knowledge. Now, clearly each man and each woman are only ever present at one place at a time and thus only ever see a small slice of the world’s events. (and see it imperfectly) This fact does not necessarily have to be a severe limitation as long as nature is good to us and repeats itself along regular patterns. But that is not always so…

The result is therefore a mix of observation, hidden regularity hypotheses, and generalizations which then hopefully obeys the laws of logic. And it’s not like we could always and explicitly state our assumptions, let alone reasonably justify them. In fact, the best we can do is usually along the lines “well, it works”.

This line of reasoning can be extended further. Even if we started enumerating assumption after assumption, meticulously putting nature into language, we have no guarantee that we would ultimately achieve a true description of reality. 

For one, the world might well require infinite assumptions. For another, some of these assumptions might well be beyond our cognitive ability to state and comprehend. And finally, it’s unclear (at least to me) whether words are not too fuzzy and thus useless for the task of drawing any meaningful distinctions. (and conversely, whether a rigid logic would be expressive enough to describe the world as it is)

In short, the world might defy our rationalistic optimism. It might be that at high resolution, the world is full of incomprehensible complexity as opposed to the humanly preferable and graspable simplicity.

***

I recently began reading Chesterton’s Orthodoxy.

It’s an impressive book full of densely packed philosophical ideas. But for the purposes of this post, I only need to talk about the introduction. And I need to do it mostly because, coincidentally, Chesterton too makes a great case against a blind reliance on reason.

Firstly, Chesterton explains well how reason makes one susceptible to oversimplifying the world for the sake of an ideology. He gives many examples which can conveniently be described, in the language of Popper, as unfalsifiable hypotheses. In other words, ideas which cannot reasonably be escaped or disproved.

In the book, Chesterton discusses the example of solipsism, i.e. the belief that the external world is really a fragment of one’s imagination. He also talks about materialistic determinism, no doubt because of the influence Marxist thought had at the time. But one can easily think of other philosophies and worldviews too, including any good old conspiracy theory.

The unifying point of all such beliefs is that they stand compatible with everything one can do to try and disprove them. One cannot really reason him/herself out of a conspiracy theory just like one cannot prove free will to the committed determinist.

It is in this very phenomenon that Chesterton sees many of the dangers of reason. Reason can trap us in a system of thought which is impossible to reasonably escape. (and which at the same time carries high authority and propels us to act in the world)

The way out, per Chesterton, is to basically appeal to the complexity of the world. In other words, the real world is too complicated to fit nicely within the bounds of a simple idea, a conspiracy theory or an ideology.

Ultimately, we must adopt richer rather than simpler and blander explanations. One can fancy believing that their spouse and everything else is imaginary, but one is better off believing the conceptually much richer explanation of an objective world existing independently of any one’s imagination.

(note that the usual way of resolving similar disputes, a la Occam’s razor, proceeds in a similar vein by opting for the simplest of explanations to the exclusion of all others; in both cases, it is worth asking why simplicity or complexity should have anything to do with the final truth about the world)

Overall, Chesterton argues that over reliance on reason easily dooms one to the fate of the solipsist — having rational reasons for a belief while being able to explain away any possible counterargument. Perhaps that is why there is so much disagreement in politics, philosophy and even in science. (e.g. entertaining exposition of a major disagreement in economics)

***

Recently, I also discovered a great podcast called “Mixed Mental Arts”.

To my great pleasure, I found that the question of rationality is one of the central topics of discussion. 

Now, I already mentioned that human reason, and not reason in the abstract, is all we have access to; that the Enlightenment’s belief in reason was ultimately one in the  human ability to reason.

In some sense, this is the starting point for one of the most important modern discussions about rationality. Namely, do we even have it in the first place.

Now, it might seem absurd to ask such a question in the face of science. However, it is precisely science which has cast doubt on our ability to reason.

As the MMA podcast is quick to remind us, there is a good reason to believe that our thinking is mostly made up of rationalizations for various a-rational biases. In other words, we choose based on emotions and only later make up a story why (interested?). If that sounds like a strange idea, consider how often people actually change their beliefs after facing a knockdown argument to their position. Precisely…

Thanks to the podcast I was introduced to a great example in support of the above position, known for short as intuitionism. The example is the case of Elliot from Antonio Damasio’s book “Descartes’ Error: Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain”

So, what is so special about Elliot? Well, for one thing he has suffered brain damage to a part of the brain called the ventromedial prefrontal cortex. As a result, Elliot’s ability to link emotion and reason has been severely inhibited.

Perfect, right? No more stupid emotional biases to get in the way. Elliot’s life must have improved, no doubt!

Well, no.

(incidentally, this whole series of reasoning could well have passed as absolutely rational if told in a different context as long as one buys the common idea of the separation of reason and emotion!)

In reality, what happened was that Elliot’s ability to make wise decisions was severely hampered. Without access to emotional data, Elliot was forced to make even the most mundane decisions on rational grounds. Imagine choosing an ice-cream flavor to share with your date completely based on reason alone, without the slightest appeal to your tastes! 

Needless to say, Elliot’s life got worse as a result of his brain injury. It turns out that a measured hack to the head is not the secret to hyper rationality. Albeit being phrased in a religious language, Mark 10:9 seems apt:

What therefore God hath joined together, let not man put asunder.

Phrased more directly, putting reason and emotion asunder does not improve our ability to reason. Human reason depends crucially on emotional inputs.

But if emotions play such a huge role in our rationality, a scary question arises: do we merely rationalize our emotions whenever we try to construct an argument? Is motivate reasoning all there is to human reasoning at all? Is it merely by emotion that we end up choosing one assumption over another on which to ground our belief system?

***

In conclusion, I would like to go back to Chesterton and introduce him to the MMA podcast. Not just for the sake of amusement, but also to explore a serious point on the important question of human rationality, namely:

If reason is significantly influenced and driven by emotion and if it often ends up oversimplifying the world, then are we justified in trusting it blindly when looking for the truth?

Now, reason might well be a good tool to have under our belt (for why would we have evolved it otherwise?), but it’s far from the godlike ability that it is often presented as. One shouldn’t forget that propaganda is only propaganda because one knows  and prefers the opposing facts better.

So, having a reason is not automatically a good reason to do something; and having no reason is not automatically a reason not to. Sometimes, the relevant facts about the world can be hard to put into words. This is why we can resist adopting a well-reasoned view until we finally discover somebody else articulating a good counter-argument and feeling relieved that our position has finally become “justified” at last. (when, in truth, it has always been; it was human reason, not reality, that was at fault)

In the end, this is probably the take home message. Reasons, even the best of them, are not  and probably should not be calls to actions. It might be awkward to refuse to do something without a reason, but sometimes it’s simply the wise thing to do. 

As Chesterton suggests, reason is dangerous precisely because it convinces us that the reasons we have in our head justify all sorts of actions. In the name of fitting the world into the bounds of a well-reasoned ideology, we feel emboldened and justified to act.

And that’s precisely the problem. We are rightly skeptical of emotional outbursts and impulsive decisions because we know the disasters that then follow. 

But if the reasons we use to justify our actions are little more than a word-veil for our emotions, why do we never doubt reason itself?

After all, in the hands of emotion-driven intelligent people, motivated and unchecked reason can lead the whole world astray. (and that is why many today are rightly losing faith in academia; there might not be a strong and coherent verbal reason why yet; but that matters little — humans are surprisingly wise!)

***

In brief, the conclusion is this:

It’s not like reason can do no right.

But it’s also not like it can do no wrong.

Read more

During our lifetimes we start multiple internal conversations with ourselves. We get excited about an idea, a place or a person and we then pursue them with a great passion for a while.

However, oftentimes these conversations gradually fade away into obscurity. Even the most fundamental of questions can take a backseat to attending to pressing life events or experiences. And sometimes it just so happens that these events and experiences nudge us into dropping the old philosophies and worldview we held and adopting new ones instead.

That is why it can be quite a fun experience coming back to your old way of seeing things and comparing it to your current one. One can learn a lot by simply combining the many and varied lessons one has accumulated over the years..

Now, it should be noted here that I’m not talking about the normal ways our views evolve, i.e. the slow accumulation of knowledge and the consequent nuanced understanding that results.

Rather, I’m talking about the times when we completely shift paradigms and enter into what is practically a whole new world.

Years ago, during my teens, I was a practicing Christian for a few years. Then my faith waned (a year long process culminated in Carl Sagan’s A Demon Haunted World). Suddenly, I had to make sense of the world through a different lens and from different starting points.

Looking for a good way to prioritize my interests in the way ahead, I had to first examine which high ideals had guided me previously. And that more or less meant defining what God used to meant for me.

In this process, two main categories of things stood out to me.

One was what I named truth. It was my personal catch all term for the importance of curiosity, skepticism, a scientific mindset, an active mind. In other words, truth stood for the acquisition of knowledge, that was its ultimate goal.

The other I named love. It covered the domains of morality, relationships and every other form of interaction between me and other living beings. Love was about being good.

The more I thought about these two categories, the more it became clear to me that I had to regard them both as equally important. Prioritize truth and you risk ending up as a malevolent scientist wrecking havoc upon the earth. Prioritize love and you risk ending up powerless before evil thanks to your ignorance (or worse yet, do evil when you mistakenly believe you’re doing good!).

***

A few years passed and I went to university.  Continue reading When is Truth too Much? How to Find Meaning in a Meaningless Universe

Read more

Air

A year and a half ago I read an incredibly touching book called “The Last Lecture”. It told the story of an extremely intelligent academic, Randy Pausch, who was diagnosed with an extremely lethal pancreatic cancer.

It was an incredibly emotional book and one which resonated deeply with me as both I and author shared a burning curiosity for the world’s wonders.

Since then, I have recognized that “The Last Lecture” was sadly not a singular book.

Many amazing people still die of various types of cancer and reading their stories can be truly heartbreaking. Yet, reading such stories is also a great way to reflect on life and its meaning. After all, it’d be foolish to leave dying for our last days only to discover we had focused on the wrong goals all along.

Ultimately, this is how I came to “When Breath Becomes Air” (an allusion to the last moments of life where the breath once more turns into air to never repeat again) by the neurosurgeon Paul Kalanithi.

The book itself is divided into two parts — Paul’s early life before cancer and his life after and despite it.

The most unfortunate thing about this type of books is that they always present you to an exceptionally great person, only to end up delivering the final tragic news of their death. There is never a happy ending and everything seems to go to worse.

So it was in Paul’s case.

Yet, as Paul reflect on numerous occasions in the book, isn’t this unhappy ending something we all share after all?

***

Of our many childhood mysteries, chief among them was not why our father decided to bring his family to the desert town of Kingman, Arizona, which we grew to cherish, but how he ever convinced my mother to join him there.

The beginning of Paul’s story is really one shaped by his mom. As the quote above suggests, she was an unlikely resident of any desert town, but the reason stays unclear.

Eventually, however, we learn that Paul’s mom’s source of worry was the level of education her son would receive in the secluded desert parts of Arizona.

So, as any mom would do, she took in on herself to create an Ivy league-worthy reading list for her child.

In Paul’s words:

„Endless books and authors followed, as we worked our way methodically down the list: The Count of Monte Cristo, Edgar Allan Poe, Robinson Crusoe, Ivanhoe, Gogol, The Last of the Mohicans, Dickens, Twain, Austen, Billy Budd…By the time I was twelve, I was picking them out myself, and my brother Suman was sending me the books he had read in college: The Prince, Don Quixote, Candide, Le Morte D’Arthur, Beowulf, Thoreau, Sartre, Camus. Some left more of a mark than others. Brave New World founded my nascent moral philosophy and became the subject of my college admissions essay, in which I argued that happiness was not the point of life. Hamlet bore me a thousand times through the usual adolescent crises“

This approach worked beautifully. Paul ended up touring some of the world’s best campuses.

But something else is worth pointing out here, namely the power one driven individual has to completely change a whole culture and many of the lives affected by it.

Paul’s mom might have been driven by love for her child, but she ended up transforming the entire city for the better. It’s extremely inspirational. 

Just look at the following quote:

„Senior year, my close friend Leo, our salutatorian and the poorest kid I knew, was advised by the school guidance counselor, “You’re smart—you should join the army.”

He told me about it afterward. “Fuck that,” he said. “If you’re going to Harvard, or Yale, or Stanford, then I am, too.“

I don’t know if I was happier when I got into Stanford or when Leo got into Yale.

***

As all curious young adults, Paul seemed to always be reading and learning.

Yet, youth offers more than just books as Paul was well aware. Having to choose between a summer of academic work and a summer camp that, as Paul says, promised “the best summer in your life”, Paul chose the latter.

„After delaying for as long as possible, I finally chose the camp. Afterward, I dropped by my biology adviser’s office to inform him of my decision. When I walked in, he was sitting at his desk, head in a journal, as usual. He was a quiet, amiable man with heavy-lidded eyes, but as I told him my plans, he became a different person entirely: his eyes shot open, and his face flushed red, flecks of spit spraying.

“What?” he said. “When you grow up, are you going to be a scientist or a…chef?”

Eventually the term ended and I was on the windy mountain road to camp, still slightly worried that I’d made a wrong turn in life. My doubt, however, was short-lived. The camp delivered on its promise, concentrating all the idylls of youth: beauty manifest in lakes, mountains, people; richness in experience, conversation, friendships. Nights during a full moon, the light flooded the wilderness, so it was possible to hike without a headlamp. We would hit the trail at two A.M., summiting the nearest peak, Mount Tallac, just before sunrise, the clear, starry night reflected in the flat, still lakes spread below us“

For me, this passage reflects the fact that truth is not everything we as people care about. Beauty matters too. And a sense of purpose can never be ignored. 

***

Nevertheless, Paul’s main dedication remained his conquest for truth. In particular, that about the meaning of life (and death), in particular.

„Lucy and I attended the Yale School of Medicine when Shep Nuland still lectured there, but I knew him only in my capacity as a reader. Nuland was a renowned surgeon-philosopher whose seminal book about mortality, How We Die, had come out when I was in high school but made it into my hands only in medical school. Few books I had read so directly and wholly addressed that fundamental fact of existence: all organisms, whether goldfish or grandchild, die“

The search for answers eventually led Paul to medical school and ultimately to the role of a neurosurgeon. 

(a role which, by the way, seemed almost inhumane in its demands — 36-hour work days, constant stress and responsibility for other people’s lives; as Paul recalls a general surgeon friend of his saying: „Well, I guess I learned one thing: if I’m ever feeling down about my work, I can always talk to a neurosurgeon to cheer myself up.“)

It has always been interesting to me to read about those who meet death on a regular basis. How do they deal with it? Do they still experience it as a tragedy or do they become numb to it?

There is certainly a mental struggle one has to contend with before choosing a similar profession. After all, the stakes are high, both for the patient and for the doctor himself. After a colleague of Paul’s took his own life, Paul commented on exactly this struggle:

„Jeff and I had trained for years to actively engage with death, to grapple with it, like Jacob with the angel, and, in so doing, to confront the meaning of a life. We had assumed an onerous yoke, that of mortal responsibility. Our patients’ lives and identities may be in our hands, yet death always wins. Even if you are perfect, the world isn’t. The secret is to know that the deck is stacked, that you will lose, that your hands or judgment will slip, and yet still struggle to win for your patients. You can’t ever reach perfection, but you can believe in an asymptote toward which you are ceaselessly striving.“

***

And then cancer happened…

„I began to realize that coming in such close contact with my own mortality had changed both nothing and everything. Before my cancer was diagnosed, I knew that someday I would die, but I didn’t know when. After the diagnosis, I knew that someday I would die, but I didn’t know when. But now I knew it acutely. The problem wasn’t really a scientific one. The fact of death is unsettling. Yet there is no other way to live.“

Somewhere between all the work and studying, Paul had managed to get married. Needless to say, the terminal diagnosis took its toll on the marriage as well.

Consequently, Paul and his wife decided to visit a therapist in hope of coping with the newly found stress.

„Well, you two are coping with this better than any couple I’ve seen,” the therapist said at the end of our first session. “I’m not sure I have any advice for you.”

I laughed as we walked out—at least I was excelling at something again. The years of ministering to terminally ill patients had borne some fruit! I turned to Lucy, expecting to see a smile; instead, she was shaking her head.

“Don’t you get it?” she said, taking my hand in hers. “If we’re the best at this, that means it doesn’t get better than this.”

If the weight of mortality does not grow lighter, does it at least get more familiar“

The lesson to take home here is to never automatically assume that if only you were coping as well as somebody else, things would feel better. Because, ultimately, maybe they won’t…

***

We all know that a terminal illness cannot help but change one’s priorities fundamentally. However, something that seems a bit overlooked is that it also changes one’s identity too.

„I began to look forward to my meetings with Emma (note: his oncologist). In her office, I felt like myself, like a self. Outside her office, I no longer knew who I was. Because I wasn’t working, I didn’t feel like myself, a neurosurgeon, a scientist—a young man, relatively speaking, with a bright future spread before him. Debilitated, at home, I feared I wasn’t much of a husband for Lucy. I had passed from the subject to the direct object of every sentence of my life. In fourteenth-century philosophy, the word patient simply meant “the object of an action,” and I felt like one“

The lessons here apply to any illness or distress whereby one starts feeling like just another object in the world. Here is Paul’s way of dealing with the problem:

„I began reading literature again: Solzhenitsyn’s Cancer Ward, B. S. Johnson’s The Unfortunates, Tolstoy’s Ivan Ilyich, Nagel’s Mind and Cosmos, Woolf, Kafka, Montaigne, Frost, Greville, memoirs of cancer patients—anything by anyone who had ever written about mortality“

„And so it was literature that brought me back to life during this time. The monolithic uncertainty of my future was deadening; everywhere I turned, the shadow of death obscured the meaning of any action. I remember the moment when my overwhelming unease yielded, when that seemingly impassable sea of uncertainty parted. I woke up in pain, facing another day—no project beyond breakfast seemed tenable. I can’t go on, I thought, and immediately, its antiphon responded, completing Samuel Beckett’s seven words, words I had learned long ago as an undergraduate: I’ll go on. I got out of bed and took a step forward, repeating the phrase over and over: “I can’t go on. I’ll go on.“

„If I no longer sought to fly on the highest trajectory of neurosurgeon and neuroscientist, what did I want?

To be a father?

To be a neurosurgeon?

To teach?

I didn’t know. But if I did not know what I wanted, I had learned something, something not found in Hippocrates, Maimonides, or Osler: the physician’s duty is not to stave off death or return patients to their old lives, but to take into our arms a patient and family whose lives have disintegrated and work until they can stand back up and face, and make sense of, their own existence.“

„Verb conjugation has become muddled, as well. Which is correct: “I am a neurosurgeon,” “I was a neurosurgeon,” or “I had been a neurosurgeon before and will be again”? Graham Greene once said that life was lived in the first twenty years and the remainder was just reflection. So what tense am I living in now? Have I proceeded beyond the present tense and into the past perfect“

***

Of course, the question of God is bound to make an appearance when talking about death.

„I began to do a little bargaining—or not exactly bargaining. More like: “God, I have read Job, and I don’t understand it, but if this is a test of faith, you now realize my faith is fairly weak, and probably leaving the spicy mustard off the pastrami sandwich would have also tested it? You didn’t have to go nuclear on me, you know…” Then, after the bargaining, came flashes of anger: “I work my whole life to get to this point, and then you give me cancer?“

Nonetheless, Paul gave off the impression of having found some meaning to religion, whether he ultimately believed in it as true or not.

„During my sojourn in ironclad atheism, the primary arsenal leveled against Christianity had been its failure on empirical grounds. Surely enlightened reason offered a more coherent cosmos. Surely Occam’s razor cut the faithful free from blind faith. There is no proof of God; therefore, it is unreasonable to believe in God.

Although I had been raised in a devout Christian family, where prayer and Scripture readings were a nightly ritual, I, like most scientific types, came to believe in the possibility of a material conception of reality, an ultimately scientific worldview that would grant a complete metaphysics, minus outmoded concepts like souls, God, and bearded white men in robes. I spent a good chunk of my twenties trying to build a frame for such an endeavor. The problem, however, eventually became evident: to make science the arbiter of metaphysics is to banish not only God from the world but also love, hate, meaning—to consider a world that is self-evidently not the world we live in.“

„Between these core passions and scientific theory, there will always be a gap. No system of thought can contain the fullness of human experience. The realm of metaphysics remains the province of revelation (this, not atheism, is what Occam argued, after all). And atheism can be justified only on these grounds. The prototypical atheist, then, is Graham Greene’s commandant from The Power and the Glory, whose atheism comes from a revelation of the absence of God. The only real atheism must be grounded in a world-making vision. The favorite quote of many an atheist, from the Nobel Prize–winning French biologist Jacques Monod, belies this revelatory aspect: “The ancient covenant is in pieces; man at last knows that he is alone in the unfeeling immensity of the universe, out of which he emerged only by chance.”

Yet I returned to the central values of Christianity—sacrifice, redemption, forgiveness—because I found them so compelling. There is a tension in the Bible between justice and mercy, between the Old Testament and the New Testament. And the New Testament says you can never be good enough: goodness is the thing, and you can never live up to it.

„About God I could say nothing definitive, of course, but the basic reality of human life stands compellingly against blind determinism. Moreover, no one, myself included, credits revelation with any epistemic authority. We are all reasonable people—revelation is not good enough. Even if God spoke to us, we’d discount it as delusional.

So what, I wonder, is the aspiring metaphysician to do?

Give up?

Almost.“

***

As I wrote in a previous post about cancer, there is one thing which consistently remains valuable in the face of death: human relationships.

In Paul’s case, it was his family and his wife’s support. But it was also his daughter, conceived after the news of cancer was already well-known. I don’t know what it must feel like to name a child you will never grow up with, but it must certainly hurt immensely.

In any case, Paul seemed to enjoy the cosmic dance of life and death which his cancer and daughter-to-be revealed before his eyes. This is why his final words in the book are addressed precisely towards the girl that carries his genes, yet he would never come to know:

„When you come to one of the many moments in life where you must give an account of yourself, provide a ledger of what you have been, and done, and meant to the world, do not, I pray, discount that you filled a dying man’s days with a sated joy, a joy unknown to me in all my prior years, a joy that does not hunger for more and more but rests, satisfied. In this time, right now, that is an enormous thing.“

Read more

Kids playing

Last time, I talked about education and spontaneity from the point of view of “Impro: Improvisation and the Theatre”. The general sentiment the book expresses on that topic is well-summarized by the following quote:

Many teachers think of children as immature adults. It might lead to better and more ‘respectful’ teaching, if we thought of adults as atrophied children. Many ‘well adjusted’ adults are bitter, uncreative frightened, unimaginative, and rather hostile people. Instead of assuming they were born that way, or that that’s what being an adult entails, we might consider them as people damaged by their education and upbringing. 

In Johnstone’s view, one that I also share, a childlike curiosity, spontaneity and creativity are the foundation of any joyful life.

But Impro has more to teach us about finding joy. All that’s needed is to penetrate through the language of theater and see that the lessons are in fact lessons about life as a whole.

For example, take the following quote:

An important change of thinking is involved here. When the actor concentrates on making the thing he gives interesting, each actor seems in competition, and feels it. When they concentrate on making the gift they receive interesting, then they generate warmth between them. We have strong resistances to being overwhelmed by gifts, even when tney’re just being mimed. You have to get the class enthusiastic enough to go over the ‘hump’. Then suddenly great joy and energy are released. Playing in gibberish helps. 

For whatever reason, the above quote resonated with me. Maybe because it reminds me of the lesson we all learn at some point that focusing on accepting the world as it is (“the gift we receive”) works out better for us (“great joy and energy are released”) when compared to times at which we stay focused on changing ourselves to suit our surroundings (“the gift we give”). It’s quite a pleasant experience to see such a deep life lesson hidden in the seeming technicalities of theater.

In fact, what follows next is a continuation of the same underlying theme. Continue reading Reading “Impro: Improvisation and the Theater”: Action, Purpose, Joy and Freedom

Read more

Girl leading boy into the unknown

“I can’t. I don’t know you well enough yet.”

There can be no discussion about sex without at some point wrestling with this phrase.

As I talked about in a previous post, ever since the decline of organized religion began, the role of sex in the west has slowly been getting less and less clear. Nobody knows anymore whether we should continue holding sex as sacred and if so, why?

Finding itself at the intersection between the divine commandments of the past and the natural human sexual instincts, the west has thoroughly confused itself on the topic of sex.

The result? 

Incoherent messages stemming from a mixture of highly conservative and radically liberal ideas. As those who read my first post on the topic know, quite a few of these ideas draw out the implications of seeing sex as a form of communication. 

The conservative case has always been one of caution. Yes, sex is great at building intimacy and communicating a deeper part of you to your lover. Yes, sex creates strong bonds. But that’s precisely why sex should best be exercised with caution, within a relationship or, if possible, marriage.

On the other hand, the liberal case takes the bonding power of sex and embraces it firmly. After all, If sex bonds us all so well, let’s have more of it. It’s fun. It harms no one. And it makes life that much more enjoyable.

On the surface, it seems that both sides agree that sex is a form of communication. But look deeper and you begin to see the nuances and the implications of each position. Continue reading Sex with the Unknown: Why I hate “I can’t. I don’t know you well enough yet”

Read more

Woman kissing a naked body

It’s hard to write about youth and freedom while staying silent on the topic of sexuality…

Now, everyone sees sexuality in their own particular ways. Some might try to ignore it or keep it secured away from others. Others, however, as is clear from the media, perceive of their sexuality as a key ingredient to freedom.

Indeed, judging from the newspapers and the TV shows around us, one could imagine that sexuality would also be a key ingredient to our day to day conversations too.

Yet, the opposite has always seemed true to me. The topic of sexuality is still in the high-trust zone of sacred ideas we only ever dare talk through with a few select others. That the topic is in the media might only demonstrate the bottled up demand for a conversation that is otherwise too difficult to have. Continue reading Sex and the West: An awkward symbiosis

Read more

Wow! What a surprisingly fresh and useful book!

On the surface, Keith Johnstone’s  “Impro: Improvisation and the Theatre” is a book clearly dedicated to theater and improvisation. And indeed, the book delves into many relevant topics such as theater masks, improvisation, writing and directing. Moreover, Impro frequently goes into details and tells the stories of actors and actresses learning and practicing their craft.

To be honest, I have never acted in my life. I enjoy theater, but unfortunately I have only ever been to a few performances. So, why did I read Impro?

For one, I read it because I was looking for great books on creativity. Or at the very least that’s why I started reading…

Why I kept reading and ultimately finished Impro was because I realized it wasn’t just a theater book. Instead, it contained wisdom for all walks of life. (which might not be so surprising in the end, given the common comparison of life to a staged play with us as the actors)

The following few posts document some of my thoughts and the lessons I learned from the book. Enjoy.

Education and Spontaneity

Right from the beginning the book opens up with a frank and critical commentary on modern education. Johnstone sees in education a force suppressive and destructive of our innate spontaneity. He laments the fact that schools require obedience and punish creativity by design. He might ostensibly be writing a book on theater, but really he’s writing about much more.

For example, talking about why the world seems dull to adults and incredible to children, Johnstone says:

It was as if I’d learned to redesign everything, to reshape it so that I saw what ought to be there, which of course is much inferior to what is there. The dullness was not an inevitable consequence of age, but of education. 

In other words, education gives us a framework to understand the world and we desperately and forever cling to it. Even if the framework turns out to be wrong, we do not dispose of it. An educated person almost never does…

In a normal education everything is designed to suppress spontaneity, but I wanted to develop it.

At about the age of nine I decided never to believe anything because it was convenient. I began reversing every statement to see if the opposite was also true. This is so much a habit with me that I hardly notice I’m doing it any more. As soon as you put a ‘not’ into an assertion, a whole range of other possibilities opens out — especially in drama, where everything is supposition anyway. When I began teaching, it was very natural for me to reverse everything my own teachers had done.

As the end of this last quote suggests, Johnstone has something to say about the role of teachers:

People think of good and bad teachers as engaged in the same activity, as if education was a substance, and that bad teachers supply a little of the substance, and good teachers supply a lot. This makes it difficult to understand that education can be a destructive process, and that bad teachers are wrecking talent, and that good and bad teachers are engaged in opposite activities.

In this way, Johnstone advises us to proceed with caution when praising unconditionally the merits of “education”, both academic and cultural. In fact, one of the reasons why I wrote about spontaneity (and why I loved that part of Impro) is precisely because of certain cultural lessons which I have found destructive (e.g. always planning meetings and activities, never doing things without a reason, etc.)

***

But far from pronouncing all teachers as destructive, Johnstone tells us the story of a great teacher that knew how to nurture creativity and spontaneity in his students. As Johnstone own words attest, just one teacher like that is able to shine a critical light on the whole of the modern educational system where a teacher is seen as always good (albeit to varying degrees) and never bad.

The context of the story is a drawing class in which the students, among which is Johnstone, are asked to draw a pattern.

We couldn’t seem to start. There were about ten of us, all strangers to each other, and in the hands of this madman. ‘We don’t know what to do.’ ‘Surely it’s easy to think of patterns.’ We wanted to get it right. ‘What sort of patterns do you want?’ ‘It’s up to you.’ He had to explain patiently to us that it really was our choice. I remember him asking us to think of our shapes as fields seen from the air if that helped, which it didn’t……….It was the final confirmation that my education had been a destructive process. 

In a characteristic rational fashion, the students are looking for precision. A pattern of what? To what end? (Often, when I ask people to hang out, I receive “What are we going to do?” or “Why” — basically the same response as the student group gave..)

***

Long before the concept of “flow” existed in the self-help vernacular, Taoism knew and talked about the happiness hidden in spontaneously losing yourself in an activity. All of us have witnessed the radiance of kids who are allowed to be spontaneous and do things just because they felt like it. 

Just think of a kid who goes out and runs because he/she felt like running. Imagine the kid then changing his/her mind and starting to play with a cat only until a bird flock steals the kid’s attention for the skies.

Johnstone says of Stirling, the drawing teacher:

Stirling recommended that we read the Tao Te Ching. It seems to me now that he was practically using it as his teaching manual. Here are some extracts: ‘ … The sage keeps to the deed that consists in taking no action and practises the teaching that uses no words …. When his task is accomplished and his work done the people all say, “It happened to us naturally”

When one stops looking for a reason and embraces spontaneity, things begin to feel right and happen naturally.

***

Naturally, Ketihstone touches on the effect bad teachers have on students. We normally think of failing students as unintelligent or lazy, but Johnstone shares with us a contrary experience. He tells us about the time his grades slipped down and he found himself in the company of the “failing” students. Of this experience, he says:

One astounding thing was the way cowed and dead-looking children would suddenly brighten up and look intelligent when they weren’t being asked to learn. When they were cleaning out the fish tank, they looked fine. When writing a sentence, they looked numb and defeated.

Over the years my work gradually improved, but I never fulfilled my promise. When I liked a particular teacher and won a prize, the head would say: ‘Johnstone is taking this prize away from the boys who deserve it!’ If you’ve been bottom of the class for years it gives you a different perspective: I was friends with boys who were failures, and nothing would induce me to write them off as ‘useless’ or ‘ineducable’. My ‘failure’ was a survival tactic, and without it I would probably never have worked my way out of the trap that my education had set for me

If failure was young Johnstone’s survival tactic agains the trap of education, one must ask the question “a trap of what?”. And the answer is really summarized in everything above: the loss of spontaneity, the empty reproduction of received wisdom, the blind obedience to authority, the external push away from authenticity and toward conformity.

***

Everybody who’s been schooled knows intuitively that one of worst sides of formal education can be the severance of a connection between direct experience and textbook lessons.

Put differently, students don’t always know why things they are being taught are ultimately true. In science, this phenomenon might be down to insufficient experimentation that kids are allowed to perform. In the humanities, however, the problem is more one of needless crystallization of interpretation and opinion.

Johnstone comments:

Obviously, I felt I ought to study my craft, but the more I understood how things ought to be done, the more boring my productions were. Then as now, when I’m inspired, everything is fine, but when I try to get things right it’s a disaster. In a way I was successful-I ended up as an Associate Director of the theatre -but once again my talent had left me. 

Of course, the way things “ought” to be done is often nothing but the preferred interpretation or philosophy of the textbook’s author or the teacher of the class. Sometimes, the more education one gets, the less creative one becomes simply because one gradually acquires the impression that only few select ideals are worthy of appraisal. One’s own creativity and spontaneity are then doomed to always stay lacking. And no wonder — trying to imitate a foreign ideal, i.e. trying to be somebody else, is ultimately futile; one can only be oneself and create as oneself.

***

So, what does a spontaneous life look like?

Johnstone suggests as much:

My bias against discussion is something I’ve learned to see as very English. I’ve known political theatre groups in Europe which would readily cancel a rehearsal, but never a discussion. 

Indeed, a bias against discussion and one for action is what ultimately defines the spontaneous life. If you feel like doing something, do it. Don’t discuss reasons. Don’t make plans. Don’t be afraid to just do.

***

In the end, being in the business of improvisation, Johnstone rightly praises spontaneity.

Indeed, if everything had to first thought about and discussed instead of immediately acted out, improvisation would be impossible.

Ultimately, however, the lessons of Impro go beyond theater. Life might not be a theater play, but we all ultimately improvise it to one degree or another. Because it speaks directly to this reality, Impro certainly is a book worth reading.

Part two 🙂

Read more

Being curious is a great quality to have, but it can lead to all sorts of headaches.

For one, being curious about the “wrong” ideas or people can be a fast and reliable way to get in trouble. As unfortunate as that sounds, it is a sad reality of the world today. In any case, this is not what this post is going to be about…

Instead, this post is about the other main way curiosity can hurt. The one that is internal and not imposed from the outside.

More precisely, this post is about the discomfortable feeling of cognitive dissonance and how wrestling with contradictory ideas can produce much confusion and anxiety. Continue reading How I made peace with Religion, Self-Help, Science, Ideology and other Non-sense

Read more