The Luck of Interest

If you write a book, you have to be that book. Your time must become the time of the book. If you engage in public discussion on social media, the world (the others) will always be a step ahead of you. Only the latest analysis and verdict are worth mentioning – everything else is irrelevant, a mere object of the ongoing public debate that relentlessly pushes forward.

With a nod to Albert Camus, the mere act of halting the frenzy of evaluations in order to formulate your own narrative is an act of rebellion. If you are utterly unafraid of being ‘irrelevant’ tomorrow, it means that you have found a genuine interest.

In a world where social media companies are designed to optimize both advertising income and data extraction, their algorithms make sure that we spend as much time online as possible. And since cat photos are unlikely to engage a user’s soul, they reward controversy and political outrage.

 

What the bleep do we want?

Subjected to a deluge of information, knowing what you are really interested in is more important than ever. It depends not only on education, but on luck. If you were lucky enough to find out in your childhood what you are really interested in, you will find it much easier in later life to focus on that subject and avoid distraction. This has always been the case, from the Wright brothers’ fascination with flying to Thomas Aquinas’ fascination with harmonizing the Bible with Aristotle to Claude Monet’s fascination with color. Is it any different in the age of distraction? Should we be more thankful if a genuine interest has befallen us in a time when nearly everybody is wearing a distraction apparatus in his or her pocket? Are people less likely to develop an undiluted interest for something under the new predicament?

A genuine interest is the attempt of our subconscious mind to experience this directedness without an intermediary.

We don’t consciously pick or choose our genuine interest, because, in the language of philosophy, it is logically older than our agency. The I is always-already directed towards the world before it becomes conscious of the fact. Genuine interest is the attempt of our subconscious mind to experience this directedness without an intermediary. When we evaluate potential areas of interest in order to find our true calling, we are rationalizing. We try to find unassailable reasons that will convince ourselves that such and such must be our true interest, or even our calling, to use that unfashionable term.

 

How to not find your calling

This is how, at eighteen, I went about finding my calling. I visited a number of universities in the Low Countries and compiled precise reasons for studies like chemistry, architecture or molecular biology. The ones for computer science were the most compelling to my young and inexperienced mind. I would be able to employ my full creativity while making something useful and without the dependency on lengthy, boring, material processes. Obviously, the reason I had fabricated was bad propaganda and I fell out of love with IT soon after. With apologies for the hackneyed phrase, you don’t find an interest, it finds you. If it is a genuine interest, not pursuing it ought to be almost unbearable. This, at least, is what many artists, scholars and scientists alike have always attested.

Back then, in 1998, there were some distractions (notably the television), but nothing like what we have today. It must have been enough to shut down the voice of my subconscious announcing what “I” (what was in the process of becoming that I) ‘really’ wanted.

Here is what I am worried about. If young children are bombarded with information, how can they choose? How can they develop a strong interest for one thing if, as soon as learning about it presents the slightest challenge, a plethora of other things is literally at their fingertips? How can they really learn how to concentrate on something, if distraction is more profitable for the advertisement machine that orchestrates the flow of information they can access?

Children need strong key experiences that are not fragments on a social media timeline they glint at in passing, scanning if it is something their in-group thinks they must know. Experiences that make an impression on their souls because they can’t be scrolled down or swiped out of sight. Experiences that have a sense of inevitability, that don’t have alternatives, command our full attention and seem to give us a glimpse at the true nature of reality.

In the digital era, such strong experiences seem to be as scarce as the simulacra or fake experiences you can purchase online. Because distraction has become the norm, it is more important than ever to realize how lucky we are if we find our real interest.

 

The Luck of Interest was originally published on Meandering home

The Fear to End all Fears

They are coming for me. To them, I will be bare matter, perhaps with the first signs of attempted self-organization. These signs are altogether boring and trivial because my mind – the official word for such attempted self-organization – is far inferior to them. To the purview of their intelligence, I am entirely predictable. There is no hiding in the innermost chamber of my mind. They are forever ahead of me and even my most intense and refined thoughts bores them to death.

The expansion of my Universe, that I had likened to boisterous, universal laughter, is a painful yawn.

I force myself to learn so that I can, for a little while, look more like the more intelligent beings that will supplant me. I must study data science, support vector machines, Fourier transformations, convoluted neural networks, microchip architecture, nuclear physics, advanced astronomy, deep learning algorithms, quantum computing. I have no interest in these things, I am just afraid.

I am afraid to be irrelevant. To whom? To whom? To society? To my parents? To my child? To myself? I don’t know. Is it the fear of death, the ultimate irrelevance of not-being? To death, everything is irrelevant, because he is the only persona in our comedy that doesn’t expire.

The perishability of all we love, including and especially those who strive to be the second-most fearsome authority after the Reaper himself, is a place to start. The secondary authorities that threaten us with irrelevance are so powerful because our own mind craves such intermediary forms – anything that can perturb our consciousness of death.

If we become aware of the fragility of all such authorities except the ultimate one, our fear becomes pure. All finite things become comic things. If we can reverse the mechanism of our fearful mind, the theoretical object of our fear becomes the uncontaminated, ultimate abstraction of not-being. Such fear, we argue against Heidegger, cannot be experienced. Anxiety (Angst) appears to lead us to our ‘true self’ because our mind constructs some finite authority and identifies with it (in the moment of anxiety, it is all there is) because it must experience something. We must understand that this is a false identification. The authority our mind constructs in a tour de force to ward off the specter of death is not who we are. I think it is a collage of all the fragments of authority we experienced earlier in life.

When we become aware of the strategy our mind strangely plays to avoid experiencing that which cannot be experienced, we may better understand our fear. Such insight cannot shut fear down, there always remains something Heidegger would call anxiety, but we don’t misunderstand it as the deepest revelation of our innermost being. We call it out for the complex trick of our very own mind that it is. We make are fear ‘pure’ by realizing that it never-yet (our answer to Heidegger’s always-already) actually is fearing the ultimate abstraction – death.

With no such supercilious – German – fear to ground the existentialist movement to overcome it, we don’t need to fear its most gruesome corollary, Nazism. Correcting Heidegger at this point liberates us from the undignified anthropology that tells us we can possess our ‘authentic selves’ with which we then ever so subtly must disqualify the Other.

What remains is the fear to end all fears. We experience it as a reflective fear: it knows it is not authentic. It is perhaps the epochè of the abstract foundational fear. It can at any moment burst out in boisterous, self-less, laughter. It is the inspired divination that our universe is entirely comical.

So we conclude our meditation on fear. We understand the mechanism of authority and why we must feel inferior. We understand the phenomenology of the fear to end all fears, and how it coincides with the last laugh.

 

 

 

The Fear to End all Fears was originally published on Meandering home

Professor Trompsky #3

Professor Trompsky, what do you think of the intellectual climate of today?

There is a worrying decline of what I call the culture of wisdom. More often than not, people engaging in debates are more concerned with cementing their own argumentation, making their own narrative waterproof as it were. Instead of trying to integrate the stories of their opponents in their own Grand Narrative, they readily dismiss them as fundamentally flawed. I miss the eagerness to achieve such inclusivity, the wonder of how an other thinking mind can draw sometimes totally different conclusions. This presuposses, I am well aware, a fundamental respect and we shall call it a belief in the intellectual capabilities of their opponents. Rather than treating them like an annoyance they want to get rid of, I miss the intellectual attitude that wishes to celebrate disagreement in order to proceed to a higher truth. Recently I wrote about this and produced the following formula. We should attempt to reduce a strange narrative we encounter to our own.

Don’t you think this is the faux nostalgia that comes with age? Was it not the case that intellectuals in the cold war era, dismissed each other for chosing the wrong side?

[chuckles] No, I can give you a concrete example. Take the political debate. If we talk about Venezuela, our initial response almost always reveals our political core belief. Media outlets who, under the influence of market pressure, tell you what you want to hear rather than what you need to know, amplify this phenomenon.

Professor Trompsky #3 was originally published on Meandering home

Meditation on Art

We want to breathe the art of wit when we sit for our meditations. Art, from the Art of Altamira to the the Art of the Deal, is, we don’t shun this bold statement, first and foremost a celebration. We imagine anthropological researchers digging up objects with no evident usefulness. What to do with them? There are many younger accounts (we are still talking about the first hominids, not about the Neolithic revolution) that establish the connection between them and superstitions. But older than our need to understand the world and fill in our perceived gaps in the fabric of causality with the supernatural, is our need to celebrate.

Celebration is play organized around a common purpose, and fosters a strong bond in tribes. Since this is a meditation, we are allowed to think this here without providing footnotes or references. Celebration is as old as tribal cooperation itself, we submit. Let’s not forget to breathe.

So, art began as act and celebration. Dance and music were the first art forms (they leave no fossil traces so that’s not a falsifiable hypothesis). This communal dancing and singing wasn’t always the most efficient way to bond, especially in times of hardships. As our symbolical minds became more powerful, we began to create artefacts. A visual artwork is the shadow of a celebration.

We breathe calmly and feel the rest of our body. We now define an artwork as a human-made object that celebrates its own existence. We quickly check if this is true from daguerrotypes to Duchamp to David. Of course, an object cannot celebrate anything. That is ‘just’ our interpretation. We are always allowed to rephrase this within Kantian “apostrophes”: an artwork is a human-made object that its observer is able to see as celebrating its own existence. I like this definition that feels Nietzschean.

Yes, there is a nature of the artwork. We can trace it back through archeology of the mind, following our proclivity to celebrate.

Meditation on Art was originally published on Meandering home

Meditation on the sacred

May we think about the sacred without informing ourselves as thoroughly as possible about our species’ rich religious traditions? Isn’t our meditation predestined to be a desecration, a profanity, no matter what we might arrive at? Philosophical contemplation of the sacred seems to be implicitly critical of the religious authority that decrees what is sacred and what not (or: whatnot). We take a breath and smile.

We confront authority if we must. But first we remember the concept of homo sacer, taken from Roman Law and brought to our attention by Giorgio Agamben’s 1998 eponymous book. The political category of the sacred or the ‘bare life’ means those we can be killed without punishment, but cannot be sacrificed in a religious ritual. His idea was that this is becoming paradigmatic in our era. The definition of the sovereign is that which produces the bare life. Think about refugees. We breathe again, somewhat heavily.

The sacred is not simply the supernatural. It is that which not belongs in our narrative, that which would stain our rituals, so it is to be ignored at all cost. This idea of endangering the narrative we can generalize. Perhaps we should explore how the sacred emerged in human tribes, when they were in the verge of mastering language as ‘that which cannot be mentioned without negating it’. This is a vague description of an alleged human instinct that co-evolved with the language instinct. Can we think of some examples? Tacit agreements based on mutual respect and goodwill cannot be spelled out without negating their voluntary and friendly character. A gentleman’s agreement is a promise, not a formal contract. Keeping a promise can be experienced as a sacred obligation.

I wildly claim that the instinct that allows us to make arrangements for sex on a second date without ever mentioning the word, lies at the heart of the religious experience as well. When more literate peoples emerged in the greater Levant area, this had to be made explicit. God began his evolution as ‘He who cannot be named’. We imagine sex and God as experiences that go beyond language, and hence beyond the community (while still in the service of community). The dimension of the sacred is the imagination of the unspeakable. We want to think about this more, but for now we take a few breaths and consider them sacred.

Meditation on the sacred was originally published on Meandering home

Meditation on freedom

Breathe in and think about a beginning. How to start a meditation on freedom? Do we have an entry point, a route that we can follow? Let’s clear our head of all that has been said about freedom. Smile. We are going to choose freely what we mean by freedom here. We are gaming ourselves. It is an existential.

So we are aware of Libet’s experiments. We raise our arm first, and the neurons that are associated with our decision to do so fire some milliseconds later. Our body decides, our consciousness follows and creates an evolutionarily useful internal theatre of the free will. It seems there is nothing more to say about the subject. What we call freedom is a certain fysiological dance of axons and dentrites.

Lo and behold! We have begun to find freedom ‘boring’. Can we still wonder about the ‘privateness’ of a phenomenon? We have been here a million times, we can accept that freedom is a ‘dance’ of the elements. Some philosophers have insisted that such dance needs to be indeterministic because that is how we experience our freedom. Something inside us must be god-like, they seem to think, for we are the creators of our inner worlds. Perhaps the quantum indecidibility is what makes freedom possible on an ontological level. The thought that whatever I will decide next was already ‘written in the stars’ contradicts our experience of freedom, and the latter certainly should count as a genuine source of knowledge?

Let’s breathe a bit more. Thinking is praxis. And so is a meditation on freedom! A deterministic view that we can hold about freedom can lead us to discard the concept of responsibility and punishment. This is of course simplistic and lacks the elegance of philosophical reasoning. The decision to get rid of punishment and the concept of responsibility itself is ‘inevitable’ or ‘automatic’ in this story. But if we decide nót to get rid of responsibility some causal chain must have lead to it and in this story we accept causal chains. What we are saying (intentionally in a vague way) is that such conclusions from the alleged absense of freedom require some sort of ‘loyalty’ to a perceived truth. But loyalty is a concept of the same category these thinkers want to get rid of!

We close our eyes. Breathe again. We defend, against all too quick naturalists, the enigma of our freedom. When we say it is a ‘necessary illusion’ we don’t mean this lightly. Can intelligent machines experience freedom? Imagine a robot that has passed the Turing test. I think we can never tell, just like our human freedom must remain an enigma for each other. This humanist consideration would be an argument in favor of some legal status of machines that can interact like humans. I find this a hard discussion.

It is time to get up. Feel our living bodies again. Practise awareness. The freedom that we mean is the experience, not of an abstract moment in which we can or can not lift our hand, but the experience of a fulfilled life.

Meditation on freedom was originally published on Meandering home

The be-who-thy-be new age bullshit

I watched a well-intended speech today for fifteen year old level A students. The gist was that life happens according to your own internal clock, not according to the timetable imposed on us by society. It’s okay not to be married at 30 or graduating after 25 or getting your first job at 27. Did you know that JK Rowling first got published at the ripe old age of 32 and that Morgan Freeman got his big break at 52? Applause. Just be who you are, follow your dreams and eventually you will succeed.

That is the message. Eventually. No pressure, believe me more than you can believe yourself: you too will eventually make it big. Your story will be a success story. It has to be that way because if you believe hard enough, the universe will conspire to make it happen.

It is precisely this message that puts more pressure on people. Concrete goals such as graduating college at 22 or having 2 kids by age 33 are replaced by you-know-best-yourself goals. This absence of a yardstick to measure your own achievements against can backfire terribly. Insecure people will get more insecure and now they don’t have a way to prove themselves wrong. In the decadent be-who-thy-be philosophy, they cannot be wrong.

Guidance is replaced by slogans that smack of wisdom and the tragedy is that they are irrefutable from the perspective of the be-who-we-tell-you-to-be. The 15 year olds can not be expected to be critical, but from the educators who purvey this type of happy-go-lucky doublespeak peptalk we can demand that they study Kafka and Orwell and make their Good News less intimidating.

We want to educate critical minds not neurotic narcissists. Young people should not be seduced to manufacture only their unique success story in the face of a society that won’t reward them, I think. But do I have a solution? No. The best advice I can offer is to skip this soft of commencement talks whenever possible.

The be-who-thy-be new age bullshit was originally published on Meandering home