The extent to which we have control over our lives is somewhat more limited than what we might perhaps first assume: Where, when and how we are born, how we are brought up, who our parents are, how our childhood pans out. All of these are clearly beyond our control, yet it would appear that the same non-existence of control holds for ourselves- Do we have free will? Do I have any control whatsoever over anything? Is talk of ‘I’ meaningless?
A hard materialist would say that free will is an illusion which we experience when conscious, perhaps because this illusion is in fact incredibly pragmatic-it enables us to feel in control of our lives, gives us a sense of responsibility, and allows us to hold others accountable for their actions. Nevertheless, an illusion is all it may be. First, if we are free, this must mean that there is some part of us which is not bound by the natural world, which can separate itself from the scientific laws and rise above them-something non-physical. There is no hard evidence for such a faculty (because of its nature). Second, the talk of ‘I’ is ambiguous. One might argue that ‘I’ can choose freely without being controlled by external factors, such as one’s environment, one’s memory, one’s state of mind (e.g. homicidal), yet what is the ‘I’, if anything at all, but the amalgamation of all these and more?
It could perhaps be said that free will is an illusion if the brain is responsible for our mental states (which evidence suggests it is), but that it is an illusion that we cannot do any with. A sense of morality would collapse, and society could no longer justifiably punish anyone because they were guilty. Freedom may be an illusion, but a necessary one.
Some people believe that the realization that nothing matters necessarily means falling into despair, laziness, and apathy. Believing that nothing matters means nothing without consequent action, and it is up to each individual to determine how they react to this realization. Again, the belief that life is meaningless comes, at times, as a complaint against the world and against existence itself. Some people say that nothing matters and then throw everything in the air, as if this belief suddenly makes everything uncontrollably arbitrary, yet this is not the case. You exist, therefore some action must be taken, and this action will either enforce your belief that your existence is useless or whether you are doing something with your time that you think is worthwhile. Refusing to do something that is potentially worthwhile is not the right thing to do. It is an act which is portrayed as intellectual superiority, yet is in fact a result of cowardice. Nietzsche said that suffering, and only suffering, has created ‘all enhancements of man so far’.
Experience is wholly unique. Your experience of life is hugely different from mine, and the same goes for each person. We can only experience life through our own body, our own person and self (if such a thing exists). There is no way of completely escaping subjectivity while conscious. Many things ‘take us out of ourselves’, such as music and sport, yet they do not relinquish subjectivity as a whole. In this sense, our subjective experience is always with us while conscious, and complete objective experience is not possible. This circumstance can be interpreted in different ways: it can appear to be wonderful, as our consciousness allows a unique way of life to be experienced, yet it can, contrastingly, appear to be troublesome and undesirable-sometimes we may feel a need to exit our own experience of life, maybe because we are not in a sound state of mind, or because loneliness has taken over and we wish to be able to experience something with another conscious being fully. Both of these, however, are mere interpretations, and the self can be seen in different lights. Yet it is clear that our conscious experience has limitations-we cannot experience the past again, nor can we experience what the future holds, and it is this which we do not like to accept-we feel somewhat powerless because we cannot change what we did yesterday and we cannot know what will happen tomorrow. Likewise, it is difficult, at times, to accept that only we can experience what we are experiencing right now, and that others’ experiences are, ultimately, inaccessible to us in their utmost being. This is not, however, something to be distraught about, but is rather something that must be accepted. The self is inescapable, but it does not follow that this is necessarily a problem. At times it may even feel like a blessing.
New year expectations always seem to be somewhat unrealistic. We seem to want to change ourselves so much over such a short period of time that when we realise that our hopes and expectations are not becoming a reality in the time we wished, everything collapses and we fall back into the old habits we so desperately wished to remove or replace. Heraclitus, one of the most notorious pre-Socratic philosophers, wrote that everything is in a state of change except change itself. We ourselves will change, whether we will it or not, and so it is not whether we change, but how we change. You can never become the person you once were, yet what is possible is that you begin to become the person you want to be, yet to do this it is necessary to start directing change in a positive direction at a pace that is realistic and attainable-‘once you’re over the hill you begin to pick up speed’ Schopenhauer. A sprint will not get you to the top, but a steady jog will, and once you reach the summit, things will become easier and easier.
Change is inevitable. As long as time exists, change will exist too. We will, as people and as beings existent in the universe, change constantly. We must determine not that we change but how we change, for good or for bad. As the New Year draws near, change is at the forefront of many people’s minds. Change can involve planning, hard work and sacrifice, yet it can also involve laziness, impulsivity and apathy. Change can be active or passive-we can let ourselves be changed, or we can change ourselves.
It is not enough to plan positive change-it must be actively pursued and ascertained. Perhaps one of the greatest aids to positive change is that of the goal (the telos, the end, the purpose). A goal provides a ‘why’ for what you are planning, and therefore gives reason and purpose to your actions, so when asked ‘why are you doing X?’ you can reply ‘because Y’. Without knowing why you are doing what you are doing it seems almost inevitable that change will become passive.
‘Every human activity is a tack for killing time.’ Thomas Ligotti
Time passes inevitably. Change occurs whether we like it or not. That is what time is-a measure of change. The way we use and manipulate time determines how our lives turn out. Time, then, is the greatest resource for a human life.
Ligotti’s idea is one of existential nihilism, that everything is essentially useless, and that human activity leads to nothing. Objectively this may be to some extent true: time does pass and eventually all human endeavours will come to nothing. But that is not all. While the human race exists, our endeavours are still meaningful. They still affect ourselves and the people around him-what happens now and the effects that current events and actions have, must not be overlooked. Everything becomes redundant at some point, but human activities still have meaning while they are around to be experienced. Life is not merely killing time, it is using time which is passing and perishing in the best way you think.
Tribal warfare seems ingrained in nature. Humans, like other animals, divide into packs in the form of nations. The two world wars are a clear example of the potency and destruction of tribal warfare. It seems that in today’s world, war has been replaced with sport, and that sport is a less violent form of war. Perhaps sport is a form of war. Anyhow, the way in which groups of fans collide in city streets and pubs is hugely reminiscent of the battlefields in war, though considerably less brutal or destructive. It is not to say that sport is anything like much war in its consequences, but that sport, particularly the fan-bases of sports, may reveal that violence is something innate in humans, or at least division and tribal separation are present. One could argue that sport has replaced war. Like war, groups of people may fight other groups simply because they support a different team to their own-very much like the nation divide which causes this and that person to fight on different sides of the trenches. Sport seems to have replaced war, certainly for the better, yet the conflict in sport may tell us something about the nature of the human being.
Can we know whether anybody else exists? Are we the only conscious being that exists? Is everything else a projection? Some say so. Solipsism is the belief that everything external to our mind is unsure, and that it is impossible to know whether anything outside ourselves is real.
Gorgias the Sophist was the first philosopher to entertain solipsism and scepticism, and Descartes, in his meditations, wrote that we can only know that we ourselves exist. Solipsism can lead to depersonalization disorders and indifference to the world-if it doesn’t exist, why care for it? However, a solipsistic world view is bound to crumble when surrounded with other people, otherwise permanent detachment, and maybe even madness, will ensue.
The rise of human consciousness can be interpreted in different ways. Some hold that human consciousness is a huge development in evolution and is greatly beneficial, being a fundamentally good thing, but others hold that consciousness causes suffering and that we would be better off without it.
Thomas Ligotti, like Arthur Schopenhauer, believes that consciousness is a dangerous and pain-inducing part of human existence. Consciousness causes us to be aware of what we are-creatures that are slowly dying, born for nothing, and destined to die, ultimately, for nothing. He says that ‘most people learn to save themselves by artificially limiting the content of consciousness’, and this is rather obvious today-the phone is the most common way of achieving a state of non-thinking, and people are straight on them as soon as they are awake, throughout the day until before they go to sleep, every day. The phone allows us to limit our consciousness, since a phone user ceases to think. One of the biggest reasons why phones and technology are so widely used is because they are a means which can be used to stop thinking.
Consciousness no doubt has its benefits as well as its flaws, yet perhaps the greatest use of consciousness is to create comedy. Comedy is the use of our reason to create absurdity, and comedy allows us to use our consciousness to laugh at the very thing we are using. Again Ligotti speaks:
‘To my mind, a well-developed sense of humour is the surest indication of a person’s humanity, no matter how black and bitter that humour may be.’
What is art for? Is it to reflect reality or to create something different from it? Is art a way of appreciating what exists, or is it a means of escape, a way out from the real world?
Nietzsche was hugely appreciative of art, particularly music, being a composer himself, and said that without music, ‘life would be nothing’. This idea of the power and importance of art comes from Schopenhauer, and stems originally from Kant, although Kant thought music was a low form of art, opposing Nietzsche who held music in high esteem. It is not clear why we make art, though it seems a necessary part of life, something that most people cannot avoid doing. In some ways it is a form of self-expression. Yet what has occurred to me is that art portrays one thing: a desire for liberation. In this it seems that art is frequently used as a way of escaping reality and taking oneself elsewhere, not as a distraction as such, but more as a will to be someplace else which is, ultimately, purer. Music offers at least a moment of some kind of perfection, even if that perfection is temporary and man-made. And how, then, does one go about the creation of art? Again, Nietzsche must be quoted:
‘For art to exist, for any sort of aesthetic activity to exist, a certain physiological precondition is indispensable: intoxication.’