30 September 2008

Constant stars to navigate by

We are ships tossed about in turbulent seas of forces beyond our control – Necessity, Causality, Chance. But the ship has a captain at the wheel, Choice. And this is why the analogy of a ship is used, and not a leaf or some unpiloted object which would imply determinism and absence of personal responsibility. It is this very responsibility that divides people into two kinds: those who agonise over it, and those who embrace it. Which camp one falls into will to a great extent determine one’s attitude towards life; it will be a series of burdens for the agonisers, and of opportunities for the embracers.

To be the creator of one’s own meaning, values and purpose is to reject both fatalism (which places these things in the hands of an external ‘power’) and nihilism (which rejects all values and insists on the meaninglessness of existence). The defining characteristics of the free, brave individual are her self-affirmation (“I am capable of creating my own meaning”) and self-cultivation (“I live and practise my meaning”). She does not give unwarranted deference to an outside authority, whether temporal or divine. Any social law or custom that she chooses to follow is one that she deems justified and worthy of recognition. She cannot be coerced, that is although she may be physically forced to act against her will, she will not surrender that independent principle of self-creation, of self-choosing.

For the free and brave individual, her guiding principle is rational, enlightened, long-sighted self-interest. The laws of existence are the only laws she obeys without reservation; they are the constant stars blazing in the firmament by which she navigates her earthly vessel.


24 September 2008

Mechanistic Man

Advances in neurobiological, psychological, computational and cognitive sciences are providing a growing body of evidence in support of the ‘mechanistic man’ idea. Our humanity is increasingly being explained in purely physical and biological terms. Is this a cause for fear or despair? Or is acceptance of the facts the key to our emancipation from centuries of suffering inflicted upon ourselves and others due to ignorance and misinformation? There is a transformative power in the affirmation that we are simply valuation machines of immense biological sophistication. When we surrender our misplaced dependence on transcendent meaning and embrace the implications of mechanistic meaning – influenced by our evolutionary biology and its imperatives – then Necessity, that implacable goddess, loses her power to terrify. Necessity, of the biological, physical and chemical kind, is accepted as the meaning we need.

10 September 2008

Timeless values, now at a chain-store near you!

At the heart of every Romantic is the conviction that all human progress isn’t invariably an improvement on what has come before. They lament the fact that in certain areas of our civilization we have actually devolved, degraded, whether in the values, principles or tastes we hold. And the Romantic, or anyone with a sense of nostalgia, is sensitive to this sullying. This sensitivity tends to be parodied as a quixotic idealism blind – or at least indifferent – to the contemporary glories of the arts and sciences. But the cocky bullies making fun of the dreamers are idealists themselves. For them, culture and technology in their latest forms are necessarily superior to any predecessors.

A declaration for the free individual

The free individual may live in society, but not under it; that is, he refuses to submit to the banal dictates of the people. He does not recognise their sovereignty. Since they cannot die his death for him, therefore he will not live his life for them.

The contract of each person's existence has them as its sole signatory. The free individual is the one who sets his own contractual terms within its non-negotiable limits. His terms will allow none to hold hostage his freedom and happiness; not friends, not lovers, not family, not colleagues, not strangers. And if any of them should do so, it would only be by his consent, admitted or not.

The individual is responsible for keeping his own inner freedom. He surrenders it by choice, always, regardless of his rationalisations. His unhappiness and anger at those he perceives to be his emotional jailers stems from his own unacknowledged regret for giving up his liberty in exchange for trivialities.

Society fashions a steel chain it calls ‘sacrifice’ and ennobles it with a lick of gold. And so a symbol of slavery is transformed into a mark of pride. The person who sacrifices his freedom and happiness for the sake of others is hailed a hero. But when he requests that same sacrifice from others for his sake, thinking it only fair, he is taken aback by their hostility, their contempt! Hypocrisy is a one way street.

The free individual will not let himself be so chained. He rejects any sacrifice that is not consonant with the terms of his existential contract. Society has no claim on his life, not when it cannot die his death for him. Or live his life for him, with everything this implies.


"We're in the stupidity delivery business."

The very impartiality of market forces with regards to the intellectual quality of goods and services is a serious flaw with dire consequences. Letting the bottom line ultimately decide what is best for people leaves us all vulnerable to the psychologically toxic effects of mental trash peddled as harmless fun. We grossly underestimate the influence that market culture has on public tastes. If public preferences leaned towards intelligent, complex and (gasp!) challenging products for the mind, we wouldn’t have celebrity tabloids outselling newspapers, news weeklies and serious magazines, or reality TV outrating educational documentaries and incisive current affairs programs.