Misplaced Nostalgia

One of the cliches that seems to be prevalent, at least in the sphere of “Western” thought, is the notion that childhood is somehow a time of purity and bliss. In that often-entertained stereotype, there’s an aura of nostalgic longing that many people seem to assume should be the default way of thinking about one’s earliest years. (Setting aside the issue that this stereotype is of very limited applicability to begin with) While I don’t doubt that some people’s childhoods were genuinely blissful in the sense that there was a lot of simple enjoyment involved, I think that longing for childhood and idealizing the period is a way to deceive oneself.

First of all, the obvious realization should be that childhood is not really a period of such purity as people would like to think. Children are generally uncritical of both their moral and hygienic principles, which makes them metaphorically and literally likely to have dirt under their fingernails. Children can and do bully each other from an early age, as well as hurt animals out of sheer curiosity. And when not all of them grow out of such behaviour, we see and label the adult as deviant, cruel and wicked – pretending that it’s something that only adults take part in.

But one could also think that childhood is a blissful period simply because it’s a time before one gets to taste the full complexity of life. If your life was similar to the optimistic childhood stereotype, then, as a child, you didn’t have to worry about taxes, jobs, corruption in politics, mortgages, war or any other adult topic. You were completely unaware of the notion of cheating in a relationship, and the biggest dilemma might have been which television show to watch. Compare this to your life as an adult, and it seems clear as a day that your childhood was better – no worries, no debts, just playing and resting. Then, teenage years came along and destroyed everything and made you miserable.

This sort of explanation is as alluring as it is shallow. Childhood was better because there were more things that you liked than there are now. What it doesn’t say is why exactly life is that way, and why do people think they had more of the things they liked in childhood. I think the reason the analysis stops here is that most people don’t really like to admit that their childhood doesn’t only feel more free, it genuinely was more free. And not only in the simplistic sense that a parent would pay for something you wanted, but in the deeper sense that what you wanted was closer to how you felt. As children, before we are introduced into the wider world, and before we are acquainted with notions such as fashion, expectations, grades and other problems created by other people, we have no reason to not pursue our genuine interests. We might have no clue, but we surely have conviction. If the process of “growing up” amounts mostly to getting used to the idea that other people are going to force you to do things the way they want – whether they are schoolmates who would ostracize you for not liking what they like, or your boss who will fire you for working too slowly – then it’s no wonder that what came before seems idyllic.

Therefore, I think that people who feel nostalgic towards their early youth are in reality just feeling a misplaced sense of loss. The passing of childhood symbolized replacement of their values with those constructed by other people and a loss of self-direction. Their unwillingness to either stand up to or get used to the situation they are in now is recast as a mythical loss of purity.

Nostalgia about your early years is therefore more like indulging a fantastic vision – it wasn’t like that, but what you do is substitute reflection on your current state with wishful thoughts about the past. It’s not your childhood that is blessed, it’s your life right now that is miserable.

Wishes and Wishers

“We wish you a …”, “wish me luck”, “wish you were here” – so much of what we say is encoded in phrases, and the phrases themselves encode remnant thoughts from the past. It’s interesting to think how and why we’ve come to be this way. Over the ages various traditions have come and go, but the one prevailing institution is that of wishing. It shows how we think about the relation between the world and the word. What lies beneath the familiar expressions?

On a superficial level, wishing simply means that we’ve mastered the skill of blending in through repeating what others are saying. People won’t feel as weird about you if you speak like they do. On a deeper level, the need to hear and say wishes reveals something about our past – our trust in the power of words to change events. Wishes, prayers and curses are all evidence to the power of imagination we have, and the deeply held conviction that by saying so we’ll be making it so. And though we might no longer believe in magic, we still feel the need to uphold the tradition.

This doesn’t mean we should get rid of wishes or any other greetings because of their past. It won’t do us much good to simply mechanically omit them in our desire to optimize language either. We’ve already done enough optimizing to our lives. Wishes, from a purely functional perspective, are there to act as an emotional glue holding society together. They are simply too convenient. But it’s not really the expressions that are of importance here, but the attitudes towards the expressions. And the attitude is that of an unconscious conviction that there is yet something special to wishing – the belief that, even though magic isn’t real, there’s just something about your own feeling towards a subject that will influence it. We can deny this, but the phenomenon is really well known – it’s called “wishful thinking”. What is interesting is that, with all the wishful thinking we can do, most of us should know deep down that actions are what brings about change.

Naturally, one can argue that it’s the feelings that push us to do what we do – and this is true. The emotions we attach to changes might motivate or demotivate us – but they can’t do much more than that. If one wants to stop being fooled, an important step would be to let go of the belief in wishing.

Yet, beliefs are not so easy to give up, especially if they are ingrained. The repeating of a made-up mantra before a test, the swearing at a malfunctioning car, the suspicion that a person who didn’t send us wishes might in fact wish ill upon us – we simply want to be convinced that magic works. We like the feeling that we have more control than we do. And thus we set ourselves up for a disappointment by becoming invested in the idea before it has come to fruition. It’s really an old but relevant observation, going back to Buddhism, that attachment is a set-up for misery.

All it comes down to is attitude. If you keep the wishes, can you give up on wishing? Can you accept the fact that you don’t have magic at your disposal? Like with all old habits, it might be hard to kick – and to stop kicking yourself over – but in the end, isn’t it worth it?

The Curious Conflict between Secularism and Spiritualism

On the modern attitude towards reason and beliefs.

The return of spirituality is a curious phenomenon. In the modern age – more than any other before it based on the progress of science – people are still determined to attach themselves to the idea of something beyond the observable. In the face of the modern, spiritual worldview, trust in rationality and science seems to be unsatisfactory, if not passe. Yet, with all the talk of well-being as a result of spirituality, it is important that for our own sake we do not substitute belief in the supernatural for logical reasoning and evidence. How should we approach this conflict?

It is a historical fact that science has given us almost all the comforts of the modern life. One would not be able to read an e-book about yoga without an e-book reader. Science and technology clearly win when it comes to providing measurable advantages to our everyday existence. At the same time, the calculated, measured approach of the scientist leaves people wanting when it comes to feelings. The secular approach appears cold, uncaring – just like the Universe it describes. What good is living in an air-conditioned apartment with clean water and ample food if we feel as though there is a meaning-shaped hole in said life?

It is not by accident that we still want to believe in “something more” – whatever it may be. Religion might have been a tool of social control in the past, but it’s the ideas that it offered that attracted people before the control was in place. And thus, as people turn away from religion, we also observe a turn towards spirituality. We might not care so much for the hierarchy, but it seems we still feel the need for the unexplainable or unmeasurable.

Those who argue against religion or any mysticism often point out that the subjective need to “feel good” should not overcome the lack of evidential support. Such arguments often miss the point that the turn to mysticism often takes place precisely in the moments when the capacity for rational thinking is diminished – deadly illness, surviving an accident, or losing a loved one. Those who argue for spirituality sometimes respond that there are measurable advantages to being spiritual, even though the evidence sometimes points in the other direction when it comes to being religious. There is a mass of overlapping concepts and multiple points of contention. We presumably do not want to feel miserable, yet we don’t like being deceived either.


 

Perhaps to solve, or at least understand, this problem, we first have to look closely at the framing of the situation. What is this “spirituality”? For a concept which is thrown around so often, people rarely care to define it. And the name itself seems to be a bit of a misnomer, too. While many spiritual people might profess their belief in supernatural entities, is any such thing necessary? Is it possible to formulate a definition that wouldn’t clash with the scientific world view? Perhaps the best approach would be to call spirituality an appreciation of subjectivity in the pursuit of mental well-being. Thus, it doesn’t necessarily invoke any personal deities, cannot be easily measured with weights, lasers and spectroscopes, yet doesn’t necessarily clash with science.

Let us consider now how we think about the problem itself. The very title names a conflict – an antagonism to be resolved in a clear victory by one of the sides. Yet, when we consider spirituality as simply the psychological aspect of our life, without any required supernatural parts, the conflict seems to disappear. I think this shows how the Western way of thinking shapes our perception of the world. For if we think about this for a while, it seems as though both groups – the proponents of scientism and mysticism – have really not been telling the entire story. The antagonism was manufactured by presumptions of cold amorality on one side and superstitious naivety on the other. The way in which the two sides sat down to talk forces them on this path and makes them talk past each other.

What then, if there is no conflict? What if science is the best way to describe the observable Universe while some spiritual practice can play a role in well-being, as the data suggests? Why does one need to fight the other, if both are meant to serve the same people?

We cannot organize our life around pure hope – superstition masked by appeal to old texts and rituals. It provably doesn’t work and it can hurt us. We also won’t get far if we start to deny that the way we feel affects the way we live, and claim that just by producing more discoveries and newer technologies, we will quench our thirst for meaning. We have the psychological aspect to take care of.

The two can coexist. They can augment each other in building a saner population. We need no deities, but we need to be well, just like we need water, if society is to thrive. The view that spirituality should replace rationality is as mistaken as the view that with enough scientific progress we will no longer need any feelings. The sense of community does not necessitate any shared delusions. Spirituality needs no spirit. Meditation does not need religion. Our greatest mistake, it seems, is that we want to see a conflict where there need be none.

The Importance of Philosophy

(Originally published on Medium.com)

In the age of international commerce, nanotechnologies and the ever-persistent economic troubles, philosophy sounds like a frivolous endeavour. A pass-time for the lazy and the unemployable, denounced by the likes of Stephen Hawking, seemingly obscene in its premise of ignoring practical productivity for the sake of probing the way we construct our thoughts. Yet, these are precisely the times when philosophy is needed.

Never before have we depended so much on concepts and words. Ideas spreading at almost the speed of light means that what someone thinks in the morning in Japan can become a conversation topic for everyone in the United States by noon. It also means that the topics will fade in and out of the collective consciousness, possibly by the evening of the day they appear. The constant pressure of ever-incoming information urges our brains to respond, yet the fastest mean of response is not deep contemplation, but a knee-jerk type reaction. If this is what we want to change, the question isn’t just “how do we change”, but more importantly “how did we get here?” How should ideas influence the way we change?

On another front, science is advancing at an ever-increasing pace. New discoveries in every discipline are made every year, yet only those which are deemed publicity-worthy by the media have a chance of wider exposure. At the same time, the public’s comprehension of science doesn’t match the needs for full understanding of the consequences of these discoveries – not so much because of a failure of an educational system, but rather because the amount of research is too vast to keep up with. (An estimated 1.8 million articles in the year 2011 in English alone.) What do we mean then, when we talk about “science”? Is it the same thing the scientists do?

And when it comes to the issues of ethics, in the world of cloning, mass surveillance and never-ending warfare, what can the average person say? What time, let alone information or skills, does an average person have when deciding on complex issues that just keep on piling up? It’s simply much easier to just give up and let others decide, but – if asked – would we ever say we genuinely want this?

And when it comes to our own lives, when we are searching for the elusive “meaning” and “purpose”, how do we do it? Do we try to fit as best as we can into the scheme fashioned by our predecessors? Or maybe – in a bout of late rebellion – we try to radically change our lifestyles, or subscribe to new religious beliefs? At the end of the process, in between the self-help books, the expensive courses and the urge to get ahead – whether in finance or general “well-being”, do we actually find that meaning?

Even talking about philosophy itself, we might wish to ask what it is, how we should do it and for what purpose.

All of these issues are current and all of them will have an impact – if not on us directly, then indirectly on our environment and other people. We can keep on arguing the for and against, but that is not the point. We can also keep on applying the same method, hoping that science, with enough information, can guide us out of this chaos. That is a misguided assumption, however, because the issues are not those of knowledge, but of actions and principles. Science can – as far as we know – give us the answers “how”, but we will be running in circles unless we can answer the other question:

Why?

That is the question which requires conscious and careful regard that we cannot substitute with anything else. It is not the question of an individual’s motivation at a given moment – it has a deeper meaning. When asked about why we do what we do, why should anyone do what they do, the answer will determine everything else. So why – in the end – do we do all these things? The matter is far from trivial, and pondering the question is far from frivolous. It is the stuff of direction. It is the stuff of reasons.

It (and much more) is the stuff of philosophy.