To Each their own Struggle

This is a continuation of the post on willpower.

Something that has in the past annoyed me to no end is when someone belittles a struggle that I am having by telling me that they have endured far worse.  I would be lying though if I said I hadn’t done the same myself, or at least though the same myself.  I imagine that most of my readers have had similar experiences.  What I want to examine here is the legitimacy of critiquing the struggles of others based on an objective standard.

I find myself torn between two lines of argument on this problem.  On the one hand, I’m strongly inclined to say that certain struggles are objectively more difficult then others.  A Holocaust survivor would legitimately have undergone significantly worse then someone who just has a crappy job.  There are two pieces that stand opposed to this argument however.  First, the experience of struggle is subjective – just as the out of shape person struggles more in exercise, our experience of struggles in general are subjectively based.  I am an introverted person currently working in the public service industry, and I’m fairly confident that I find it considerably more stressful then many of my co-workers.  Second, struggles do not necessarily negate each other – that I have struggled in the past, maybe even faced fairly objectively greater struggle then you, does not seem to make your struggle evaporate.

The last point may make it seem that I’m inclined to say that perhaps we can not legitimately  criticize others for how they act in their struggles.  If we were merely talking about the inner experience then I would be willing to endorse this statement – I do not think we should criticize people for merely having different experiences.  It is the way that we react to our struggles which is important however – it is the measure of the matter.  Adversity can strengthen us, or it can break us down.  In being broken down, we can become burdensome to those around us.  We can become obnoxious, pitiful, dreary.  We can even become resentful, mistreating those around us in our own misery.  It runs counter to my intuitions that it is right that we should endlessly turn the other cheek.

My inclination is to say that we should try not criticize others in their struggles, though only in so far as that criticism is only about how we feel that we could do better.  I think it is quite legitimate to let someone know if they are being self-destructive in their struggle (such as if they’re drinking excessively or suchlike).  As far as we can bear them as a burden, being supportive in a time when they are impaired, we are doing them a service.  I do not advocate taking on this struggle though past our breaking point, as soon as it begins to harm you, I think it is completely acceptable (indeed, I think it is the right choice), to shut out someone who is doing you harm in their own internal struggle.

Thank you for reading, let me know what you think,

Ryan Workman

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The Willpower Puzzle

One of my early classes in university was a course on neuroscience.  I thought the course was brilliant, I found the teacher funny and the assignments intellectually stimulating.  There was one point in the course though that gave me a moment’s pause.  I think it was the last day, and the professor was talking about what he wanted us to take away with us.  One of the points that he made was an example about drug addiction.  He said something along the lines of ‘I want you to realize that people who are addicted aren’t weak willed, that addiction is a powerful chemical compulsion.’  I remember saying to a friend later, “but what else could we mean by weak will, except for this very kind of biological inclination?”

Here’s the puzzle then – do people have different degrees of willpower?  Initially I think most people would be inclined to say yes – it is trivially true that different people can ‘resist’ or ‘endure’ better then others.  What I wonder though is whether we can truly say that one individual who exhibits more ‘willpower’ can truly be said to be having the same phenomenal experience as someone who exhibits less ‘willpower’.  Lets take the example of someone running.  Willpower cannot be quantified by the speed or the distance that the person is capable of running, because I think it is fair to say that the amount of willpower required is inversely related to fitness.  That is to say, a fit man needs less willpower to run a particular speed or distance then an unfit person.  If we left it at this though then I won’t have undermined the idea of variable willpower, I’ll have just pointed out that its difficult to quantify (no great observation).

All feats of will have a unifying feature – a contest of an agents agency against worldly compulsions.  A runner wants to run but his body wants to stop.  A drug addict wants to go clean but craves the drug.  I want to be clear here that I do not think that an agents agency needs to be in opposition to the compulsions of the world.  A runner may feel tired and decide to stop so as to not harm himself, for example.  The other side of the coin is that our agency and our conscious mind are not the same thing – I’m sure we’ve all had moments where we’ve been resisting something, and then we start thinking its actually a good idea, and then after giving in we regret our decision.  Worldly compulsions can co-opt our conscious experience.

What I’m curious about is the phenomenal variation of our breaking points.  When the Olympic runner cannot continue, does he have a similar feelingas the amateur?  When a child screams over a minor scrape, is their phenomenal experience exaggerated by their lack of experience with injury?  Is ‘willpower’ actually variable between individuals, or are we instead pointing out a difference in phenomenal experience?  To take this idea further, when I’m running I sometimes keep myself going by calculating what percentage of my run I’ve completed.  In doing so I’m trying to distract myself from the phenomenal experience of exhaustion.  That I run longer then is not me displaying greater ‘resistance’ to the phenomenal experience, but is instead a demonstration of my ability to ‘manipulate’ that experience.

I have left out of this examination another aspect of willpower.  I have only talked about ‘short-term’ willpower, but I would say that the ability to methodically and consistently manage the world’s affect on oneself is as important a concept, if not more so.  Another day, another post.

Let me know what you think,

Ryan Workman

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Information poverty, information overload

In many of my previous posts I have talked about the importance of critically analyzing our actions (this, I say, is the only way to progress towards good).  Today I am going to instead look at the circumstance in which we find ourselves when it comes to actually processing our environment.

We are actually amazingly good at predicting the kind of effect that our actions will have, at least on a small scale.  We can often tell how individuals, small groups, even large groups will act and react.  We have a fairly good understanding of how things will move, of natural forces, and many other ways in which the world changes.  However, as much as we try to exert control on the world, much of its behaviours are beyond us.

Its a toss up for me whether our circumstance should be described as informational overload or informational poverty.  We are completely surrounded by information.  There is almost no end to the supply of sensory data available to us.  Most of it, however, we cannot use in a meaningful way.  Our raw experience uses enormous amounts of processing power.  We naturally compress our experiences into usable information.  We transform enormously complex experiences into bits such as ‘I need to be at work by 10:00’, or ‘its probably going to rain today.’  In compressing information like this we lose a great deal of it.  We do not really have another option, because we simply do not have the resources to process our raw sensory experience.  The activity of science is, stripped down, the activity of compressing information into comprehensible pieces that can actually be understood, while losing as little information in the process as possible.

What I believe this implies is that we should be cautious of thinking that we have more control over the environment then we do.  In a lot of circumstances we have only the roughest of models available to predict how our actions are actually going to impact our environment.  I would tie this in to my overarching theory of humility by saying that there is always more work to be done in finding better ways to process the immense world of information available to us.

Let me know what you think, thank you for reading,

Ryan Workman

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Arguable Evil

I believe that good things are rationally good.  I think that if something is good then we can explain its goodness, and that the only method that we have to discern what things (states/actions) are good is rational thought.  What we analyze with rational thought is experience, so feelings are an important component – they are a part of the experiential data that we must factor into our rational reflection.

One of the counter-arguments that has been posed to me on this topic is ‘what if there are rational arguments for why we should do bad things?’  The example that was given to me was ‘what if a white supremacist, pointing out statistically lower education levels of immigrants, were to argue that white people should be favored for higher level management positions.’  Now, there are of course flaws with this argument (not to reflect poorly on my conversation partner, since it was just an illustrative example made up on the spot), but I am committed to saying that if someone could present a strong argument that it would be good (in some sense) to bar immigrants from upper management then the correct course of action would be to seriously consider their proposal.  It may also not be an entirely satisfactory answer if I say that since I think all good things are rational that if it is the best argument then we should probably consider it as good.  Torture is probably a better illustrative example.  There are some good arguments for torture, but there are many people who believe that torture is always wrong.

The best response that I have is that this attitude seems to me to be a dogmatic attitude.  As such it becomes like all the other dogmatic arguments: arbitrary and unable to progress.  I am committed to the belief that I should never discount an argument on general principles.

Thank you for reading, let me know what you think,

Ryan Workman

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The Good Prosper

We have a deeply seated inclination to think that people deserve what they get.  Specifically, we are inclined to think that the bad things that happen to other people are their responsibility, while good things that happen to other people are circumstance.  We are also inclined to reverse the axis of responsibility in the case of ourselves – we think we are the engineers of our fortune and that circumstance is what causes our misfortunes.  I don’t know what current evolutionary psychology theory is on the subject, but I can think of several reasons why these inclinations would serve us well.  What I want to talk about here though is how these ideas are important for how we interpret ‘good’.

This post ties into many of my previous ones.  It ties to the ones in which I have talked about how our morale concepts are often tied to Christian preconceptions, it ties to my posts on how good is about ‘what we should do’, and it ties to my many posts on freedom.

I think that we intuitively tie the goodness of individuals to their circumstance.  We think that people in bad circumstance did something to deserve that circumstance (I.e. they are the cause of their misfortune in a moral way.)  However, we are unwilling drink this bitter drought in the case of our own self.  We can see this kind of mentality reflected in the Christian idea of heaven, or in the Indian concept of Karma.  The good and bad are believed to get their recompense in the end.

This idea ties into my previous posts about freedom because it actually turns out that our self-concept closely mirrors my proposition of freedom.  The difference is that I think being free means doing what we shoulddo, while what we intuitively think is that we are responsible (I.e. do freely) for our circumstance, as opposed to our actions.  I do not think that the beneficial outcome of our actions (the quality of our circumstance), is necessarily correlated with the freedom of our actions.

Good is not about being in good circumstance in a material sense, I think.  Though trying to be good in our actions can have positive outcomes, there is no necessary relation.  Being good, or appearing to be good, often leads to being respected in one’s community.  However, it is quite a different thing to act for respect in a community and to act towards doing the right thing.  I do think acting towards good is to seize one’s own freedom, and I think that being free can be quite beneficial.  However, the benefit is not really that much in an individual’s visible circumstance, at least not in any immediate sense.

Let me know what you think,

Ryan Workman

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Rationality and Good

There was conversation that I had a while back.  My conversation partner was arguing that ‘good’ is distinct from rationality.  To him, good was not a matter of knowledge, and to put knowledge first was an arbitrary action.  He said that I was dogmatically asserting the value of knowledge, just as he was dogmatically asserting his good.  At the time I did not respond to my own satisfaction – I wasn’t quite sure how to respond.  I’ve reflected further on the issue though, and I am ready to present a counter-thesis: good only makes sense in a rational world and therefore good is a matter of knowledge.

Good, I have argued and will argue again, is a matter of should.  Good is found in action, because good only makes sense in a world that can be made otherwise.  There are two different aspects to good (and bad) – the status of the world and the status of our actions.  The latter reflects the former; our actions are good in as much as bring good into the world.  This perhaps sound more utilitarian then I intended.  A better phrasing might be that actions are good in as much as they should be expected to bring good into the world (I’m a fan of good intentions).

Why does good only make sense in a rational world?  My answer is that good only makes sense in a world with agency.  It could be argued that good and evil exist without agents, but I would say they would not exist in a meaningful way.  Good and evil only become relevant to the world when agents contemplate ways in which they would like to change the world.

Referring back to the conversation, my opponents thesis was that he was better able to enact the good in which he believed by believing in it dogmatically (or, in other (my) words, abandoning the rational component).  Why, he asked, could I assert that the good was better served by rationality?  I’ve decided that what I was trying to argue was that without rationality we do not know how the good is being served.  I think that he was acting off a rational premise in embracing dogmatism however – he was asserting in a rational way that dogmatic people are less hesitant in their actions.  I’m fairly willing to concede this point; my rebuttal is essentially that it is an act of some arrogance to think that yourdogmatism is going to bring good into the world, despite dogmatism’s unfortunate inclination to easily go off track.  I doubt that this would persuade my conversation partner, but this answer at least momentarily persuades me.

As always, thank you for reading,

Ryan Workman

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Expressing the inexpressable

You know you’ve gotten pretty deep into philosophy when you decide that you are trying to describe something that you think may be inherently impossible to describe.  In one of my recent posts I talked about Hegel’s project, which I believe to be an attempt to capture humanity as a continuous entity.  We pick up the torch where our parent’s generation left off, and we in turn hand it over to our children’s generation, and this flow of humanity is the world spirit.  As I said before, in my undergraduate thesis I try to express a similar notion about knowledge.  A problem that I have had difficulty surmounting however is that what I’m trying to say is that all human thought is transitory – a statement which seems to contradict itself.  If I have grasped something meaningful, then the very idea I have grasped cannot be abovethe process of knowledge, but is merely a temporary expression.  To put it another way, I feel that what I have said is true – not necessarily the way I have said it but somehow in the spirit of what I have expressed.  However, this feeling cannot be demonstrated in a non-transitory way (if it is a true feeling), for any expression of it will disappear as surely as any dogmatism.

This is in large part what inspired my previous post about feeling.  It seems to me that in a way the feeling is the enduring reality, while the expressions of it are merely temporary ideas.  I don’t mean that others necessarily have the exact same feeling, but that it is in the feeling that I have gotten hold of reality.  The only way to share the feeling however is to try to express it as an idea, but what I really want to share is the feeling.  That being said, I do not want to downplay the value that I see in the expression of this idea and ideas in general.  The whole continuous process that I am trying to express is the continuous development and exploration of ideas: we should not be settled in our feelings but should instead develop and express them.  At the same time I think all of these ideas shall inevitably fade away – not in a futile sense but as necessary predecessors to new ideas and expressions.  The purpose of the activity is not to get anywhere though; the purpose is nothing more or less than the ideas themselves.

The pursuit of knowledge is subordinate to humanity, I would concede to Hegel.  Human existence however is of essentially the same nature – its purpose is nothing more or less then developing itself in all its instances.

Let me know what you think, and thank you for reading,

Ryan Workman

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