Thursday, 24 December 2015

Point A to Point B

And so we reach the eve of Christmas (or the first day of Christmas in some countries such as Germany where I used to live) and my last blog of this Advent. At times I've found it hard to write another blog and there was a wobble in the middle of that time where I thought I might run out of things to say. But I got through that and the topics kept suggesting themselves and then inevitably feeding into new ones. I only say something about things that I have something to say about. Where something holds no interest for me I leave it alone as not worth commenting on. Life is short and time is in limited supply, a supply that is always running out, so use it wisely is my thinking. Twenty four blogs in a row is quite a task to set oneself but I have enjoyed the challenge which took up quite a bit of my time. I took to the task seriously and when I write I always try to get what I want to say just right and to check that any facts I might relate at least have a source. My blogs may come across as just someone's thoughts but they are usually produced in interaction with other things, especially books.

My subject in this final blog of this series is intended to be a bit of a "what have I learned?" type of thing given that I have written twenty three blogs before this one. As I sit here now, writing, I wonder if anyone does learn anything from what I have written. This is not a vanity thing. As I've grown older I've become much happier to be in the background, which I kind of always was in life anyway. Popularity or even being known I treat very warily. Better a few dedicated readers than hundreds or thousands of false friends. My ego would, of course, loved to be stroked by the notion that some people have had an insight or two from things I have written. Why would anyone share their thoughts with others or in public unless they hoped to communicate something to someone else? We are social beings and that social element is always within us as a potentiality even if we become private people.

The over-riding idea that sticks with me from the series of blogs I am now completing with this one is the idea of a human existence as a matter of something that goes from Point A, birth, to Point B, death. Writing things down and having to explain them, as I have been doing, can often clarify things in a person's mind and such has been the case here with me and this idea. I have found it interesting to muse, as I've written the various blogs that interacted directly with this idea, how people's views might change depending on where they are along that continuum - or where they perceive themselves to be. Of course, the two might not necessarily marry up since we never know how near to Point B we actually are until its too late. And then, in my mind, we don't know anything at else anymore. For me this points up yet another factor regarding being beings in time, as we are. It is that your perception of time, and your perception of your place in it, affects your views on many things, not least, in the context of these blogs of mine, of yourself, your life and your existence.

It is a truism that many people have what are commonly called "death bed conversions" to some religious faith or other. As they see the doorway out of life opening and the fabled tunnel of light before them suddenly all that has gone before takes on a new context. This, to me at least, is very understandable and, indeed, practical as a general approach. I very much think that we should assess things from our current point of view taking into account our assessment of our current circumstances. For me, there is no necessary consistency in or through life and most of the consistencies we seek or value are usually faked in any case. Life is a very false business. Even the very idea of a consistent character or personality or identity is merely a convenient idea we dignify with our assent, a fiction we believe for its utility alone. I am who I am but every attempt to say what I am is a falsehood for the truth is I am everything you say I am and everything you don't say I am. Maybe it is better to say I am a collection of possibilities and opportunities?

Point A to Point B is, of course, a brief description of the road we are all given to travel, a way to describe how we come from nowhere and go back to it again, briefly passing through a world of sense and sensibility, struggle, chance and change where, suddenly, everything seems so important to us. But is it? Really? The challenges of things like the absurdity or nihilism of the existences we briefly have possession of (if it is true to say we have possession of them at all) produce, at times, a very real sense in me that life is just a performance without any real stakes. To some this will seem an immoral thought because they will be so wrapped up in the imagined seriousness and consequence of life. But I ask myself constantly if anything real is ever really at stake in life. We come, we go. Stuff happens in the middle, but so what? And this "So what?" has real force to me. You do need to explain to me why what you think matters actually does. The world is full of pain, injustice and struggle. Real people do hurt. People die. But every being that has a Point A gets to Point B. And at Point B what went before is rendered irrelevant. All pain ends. All suffering ceases. All punishments stop. You can be sure this thought has comforted many suffering people.

So, for me, I come around to a view that some before me have seen. For Martin Heidegger, a serious German thinker of great depth and detail, it was our "Being-toward-death" that sets the stage for our whole lives. We are beings who know from the formation of our first thoughts that we are finite. We are immediately and definitively set within a terminal boundary. And that cannot but change everything for us. Even though we can think and dream of various forms of eternity and, sometimes, in ecstatic moments, feel as if we can almost touch them (as I have looking at a clear blue sky on a sunny day), it is a dream forever out of reach. And yet (this is the paradox) we are and were always part of the story of that eternity for it is all around us and flows through us. That eternity is a void of nothingness, the on-going history of the energy that makes up the universe (thought of as physical not spiritual energy). The universe is a story that no one will ever tell for no being will ever be bigger than the universe to tell it. But it is a story we are a tiny part of. Our problem is that we want to hold eternity in our hands and we cannot.  

We are reaching that point of the year where most of us experience that feeling of an end and a new beginning. This is always an emotional time for me as I get caught up in the collective thought. As I get older its increasingly a recognition that, even though whilst young we think so, we are not immortals. And I don't think we should be immortals. We are physical beings and the physical things must pass away. As Nietzsche highlights, decay is as much a part of the physical world as growth. Birth and death are both alike physically natural processes. I am skeptical of those who want human beings to "technologize" their way out of life's physical downsides. This is not because I think people should suffer or die in pain. Its because physicality is a foundation of the human. Humans are those who suffer, who struggle, who need to make sense of it all in a universe that doesn't allow them to. To some, this will sound perverse, an inappropriate masochism. But I think the Transhumanists and Futurists with their shiny, trouble-free futures are the ones who need to re-examine what it is to be human and ask if what it is they are trying to create is not a new being entirely. Humans are born, humans suffer and struggle, and humans die. Change too many of the conditions of their existence and what you've got isn't human anymore. And humans are, fundamentally, mortal, vulnerable.

Professor Richard Rorty, now much missed after his death in 2007, had a saying that the agenda of the technologists, it seems to me, is very much following. It is, as Rorty said, just "another human project aiming to escape the time and chance" to which human beings, supremely, are fated. This doesn't mean we shouldn't try to relieve suffering or stop pain or cure disease. We should do all these things because to be somewhere between Point A and Point B is not to be at Point B where things cease to have consequences. And those perspectives can be very different. But I think a focus on this, a focus on escaping our fate, is to focus on trying to not be human anymore as opposed to understanding what is at the heart of humanity itself: we are not gods. Of course, we want to be. As I said above, we want to hold eternity in our hands. But consider the rest of our fellow inhabitants on this tiny rock in space, the animals. They suffer and die as we do but they do not have the consciousness and mental abilities that we do. You may say that we have evolved an extra burden but, in many respects, we are as they are. And they are, in their ignorance, happy simply to live and die, to have been. I think that we should be too. Its the old adage about it being the journey and not the destination back again.

For what is at the heart of this human struggle to live and die? It is that everything essential we have has been fated. We chose nothing about the fact that we exist. We were, as some say, "thrown" into existence and are then expected to make the best of it. An essential aspect of the human experience is that so much of it was (and still is!) out of our hands and I think that is something to come to terms with. The trouble is that we are, in so many ways, determined to either narcotize ourselves against these disturbing facts in a "go with the flow" life of bad faith or, in a show of hubris, to imagine that we can engineer our way out of them. (As I write now my song Existenzkrise - "Existential Crisis" plays. I chuckle.) Things will of course change in our future. But we are still humans and its my view that we have barely begun to understand what that even means yet. I have spent all year on this subject (quite by accident) and yet even though I have thought and written much it seems that I'm still in the starting blocks.

I guess that the struggle to be human and to understand what that means is a journey we all take that one day just gets snuffed out, a process to which we are fated that comes from the void and goes back with us to it.

C'est La Vie!

PS: Of course, it does not escape me either that all this trying to escape our fate is very human too. In that case, perhaps the primary human trait is that we are fated to futility. What better example of The Absurd do we need? Nevertheless...

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