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Momentary Dust in a Vast Multiverse

Posted on June 16, 2019 — 18 Minutes Read

A mentor and a friend once gifted me a book which is of a kind of self-help genre that I would not usually invest money or time in. It is titled The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck, written by an American writer, Mark Manson. While it did not add much to what a journey in philosophy has enlightened me, that living is a series of enacting possibilities while forgoing the others, and is as much about the challenges as the sense of accomplishment and pride arising from being able to overcome them, that it is living with an orientation towards death that bestows life a meaning, and at the same time this finitude of life attests to the truth that we are nothing but momentary dust in a vast multiverse, to my delight however, its entertaining and close-to-life writing style, and its personal sharing and remarks induced me to reflect and consolidate on what I have learnt in my journey thus far, and perhaps reconfigure them in a way that I would not have without the reading.

One thing that would make the book even more enjoyable though is if it included references to the researches cited. Credits should be given where they are due and citation allows for a closer look at these researches for as we all know studies in the social sciences are WEIRD, if not impossible to be replicated at all, and that every reasoning adjourns with premises and presuppositions that may be concealed, or that they may not have been justified and examined to the fullest degree.

Perspectives of Problems

The entire book centres around the notion of perspectivism, that there is always a side of problems and pain with every kind of happiness – be it of the pain of the stressful long hours and sleepless nights behind every successful entrepreneurship, or of the pain of one day losing that particular someone that one holds most dear of in every deep and meaningful relationship. Some are often overwhelmed with one side of the perspective to the lost of a vision of the other. By the marvellousness and the malleability of the human mind however, one may be enlightened of that which is hidden in plain sight and gain a perspective that would allow for a transformative growth and a lasting fulfilment. One crucial way for accomplishing this is to grasp in their entirety some fundamental elements of life, by a number of conceptual distinctions that are propounded throughout the book.

Chief among all, and to which the book is evidently dedicated, is to distinct the fact that caring-less is not being careless, which is introduced in chapter one ‘Don’t Try’ and is referenced to throughout the book. Hardly would anyone disagree that in the limited time that one has, committing to everything is in essence committing to nothing. It is then again one of the things that one often forgets in an age where success is celebrated and the problems and pain associated with it are often discarded and overlooked. This is the result of one of the many destructive cognitive biases of the human mind, commonly known as the availability heuristic, that only if one visits the graveyard once in a while, one would see that behind every success, there lies resting in peace a thousand or maybe more eager minds that are of as much talent and invest as much time as the one that prevails.

Another often misunderstood concept is the notion of problem, that takes the central stage of the second chapter ‘Happiness Is A Problem’. Most avoid problem for its downside which is understandably human. It is however crucial to recognise that, like everything else in life, problem is not itself a downside – it merely has a downside. This means that there is another side to it that is often neglected and overlooked, which is the side that would in another perspective allow for transformative growth and improvement, that brings lasting fulfilment and happiness. It is not an easy task to attain this perspective though, and one way of doing so is propounded in the two subsequent chapters.

Responsible For and Responsible To

The two chapters that follow titled ‘You Are Not Special’ and ‘The Value of Suffering’ are dedicated to providing a perspective that are not often embraced by those of the modern age. One reason for the neglect of this perspective is, once again to the marvellousness and malleability of the human mind, that the modern time instills people of the misconception that everyone is special in some way. One with command of rudimentary logic would be inclined to question its intelligibility, for given that being special means being different and in some way superior than everyone else, if everyone is special then hardly anyone is. Simple reasoning of this kind nonetheless escapes most for they misconceive being special as being unique. A conceptual distinction here is crucial then that while an argument may be made, that everyone is of a character unique, no one is special in the way of their experience, achievements or problems that demand to be treated superiorly or differently. There is another side to every problem and suffering and it is the perspective that instills it a constructive meaning.

Building on the view that allows one to see the other side of the coin and that instills constructive meaning to whatever dismay that one may encounter in life, comes yet another the conceptual distinction in chapter five ‘You Are Always Choosing’. It is denoted as the Responsibility/Fault Fallacy on ground that the one being responsible for reacting to the demise may not be the one who is at fault for the demise. The reason for this distinction is evidently to persuade people to act on their problems even if they may not be the one causing them. A more elucidative conception of this fallacy would perhaps be to distinguish the two kinds of responsibility that are most often mistaken as one – that being responsible for responding to the demise is not being responsible for the demise. The former is to encourage action with a directedness to the future whereas the latter is an attachment to the time past. This conceptual distinction of the two kinds of responsibility reveals the same faulty reasoning, as in the Responsibility/Fault Fallacy coined in the book, while providing an explanation to the common misconception and the mistaking of the two, for they are both a kind of responsibility with a different orientation on the temporal dimension.

Truth as Unconcealment

Here in chapter six ‘You’re Wrong About Everything (But So Am I)’, a conception of truth is touched on that is reminiscent of, without the depth and breath however, the phenomenological notion of truth as being historically and culturally situated, that is to be unveiled in a journey of unconcealment, by way of phenomenological interpretation and hermeneutic circulation, that one of the most influential philosophers, Martin Heidegger, of the 20th century unveils in his magnum opus, Being and Time. One is most aware of truth in the propositional nature in form of ’the sky is blue’ and ‘one does not make two’, that is the prominent notion of truth ever since Aristotle noted substance apart from predicate, and affirmed the subjectity of the former. There is another notion of truth that is equally embedded and significant in life, that one is equally familiar with, yet its concealedness renders it of a philosophical distance. Take the statue of David by Michelangelo for example. It is without doubt a block of marble, it is at the same time an attestation to the artistic advancement of the High Renaissance and to the historical Christian influence in the Western culture. These facts are truth of the statue of David and are historically and culturally situated, yet they are not truth in the propositional sense. Truth in this notion resides in the journey in which the meaning of the statue of David is unveiled by ways of phenomenological interpretation and hermeneutic circulation in the time to come.

Growth from Failing Fast and Early

Right and wrong under this conception of truth do not have intelligibility as in the propositional notion. There is nothing wrong as such with being wrong, which again seeing that there is another side to everything, while being wrong has a downside, it is not itself a downside. The other side of being wrong is that it allows for the opportunity for transformative growth. It must be noted though that Aristotle never seems to have written that ‘it is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it’ as the book suggests, the closest that Aristotle wrote is that ‘it is the mark of an educated man to look for precision in each class of things just so far as the nature of the subject admits’ (Nicomachean Ethics I.3, 1094b23-26) by the translation of Sir William David Ross. Then again the other side of have quoted wrong in a published book is that others upon reading and learning the misquote will hopefully not make the same mistake in their works.

Education plays evidently a part in this pandemic of wrong-phobia and no writing or speech captures this more charismatically than the TED Talk titled Do Schools Kill Creativity?’ by Sir Ken Robinson, in which he notes that ‘we stigmatise mistakes, and we’re now running national education systems where mistakes are the worst thing you can make − and the result is that we are educating people out of their creative capacities.’ It is often the failure and the mistakes that enlighten one of the areas for growth and that instills one with new perspective. Notwithstanding the dispute of what transpired, Steve Jobs probably wouldn’t be able to lead Apple to the success it was at his days, if he hadn’t been fired from it back when Steve still had much to learn.

The Nobel Prize laureate, and one of the greatest physicists of all time, Albert Einstein once said that ‘a person who never made a mistake never tried anything new’. Another way of reading this is that one who keeps trying something new to the aim of improvement is poised to make mistakes. Some of the most successful technology companies today understand this well and often embrace a philosophy of failing fast and early for the improvements and iterations that follow instead of aiming for bullseye every time which is a moving target in the world of business. The most dangerous one can be in this sense is being right all the time, for no one ever is, the notion is as such nothing other than failing to recognise one’s mistakes, which is easy as cake for our psychological mechanism rationalises our actions however distasteful they may be, in a notion denoted as cognitive dissonance, and that we place an undue emphasis on our internal characteristics for our behaviour in a given situation rather than considering external factors that is often referred as the fundamental attribution error. It is also well identified that we have a tendency to search for, interpret and focus on information that confirms our beliefs that is unwittingly named as confirmation bias, that we rely on information that comes easily to mind which is denoted as availability heuristics, and that we are, unbeknownst to ourselves, driven by emotions rather than reason, as the 18-century Scottish philosopher, David Hume, puts it, ‘reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions.’

In recognition of all of our cognitive biases and vulnerabilities, the one quick question I often ask myself when I find myself in support of a view, is that if I were to support instead the opposing view in an alternate universe, what reason and argument would I have in support of it. If I could formulate a valid argument for the opposing view, unsound may it be, I know I have not fallen prey to some of the most destructive cognitive biases and vulnerabilities that are the downsides of years of evolution that privileges the Homo sapiens to be the king of the jungle past and present. If I however could not even provide a valid argument for the opposing view, I know I an in need of a reexamination for my view may be nothing more than a superstition.

Motivation from Focused Action

Advancing the perspective that reveals the other side of failure is chapter seven ‘Failure Is The Way Forward’. One way to remove the roadblock that prevents those who are lacking the motivation from acting is to reexamine the relation between the two and to distinguish correlation from causation. Conventional yet unexamined wisdom would have one believe that it is motivation and will that drive action and as such the lack of any action is a result of a lack of motivation and will. This is one example of mistaking correlation for causation and of mistaking the tail for the dog. Action and motivation function instead in a feedback loop that reinforces and is reinforced by one another in a circulation. At times a will manifests and drives the subsequent action which reinforces the will thus fuelling the circulation. In other times one needs a bit of a jumpstart in form of some small deeds. It is conceived as the ‘Do Something’ Principle. It does help jumpstarting the circulation, a more concrete way of accomplishing this would however be to break down a grand task into a series of manageable milestones, and to act with a miniature goal to accomplish one milestone at a time.

Inquired in chapter eight ‘The Importance Of Saying No’ is the other side of choice. One knows well that at times when facing mutually exclusive alternatives, a choice of one is a forgoing of the other. Living as a journey of choices in this sense is a series of enacting selected possibilities while forgoing the others. Clinging onto the notion of keeping all doors open by inaction does not allow one to experience all. Rather it is a denying of everything that one may choose and enact. Again this is well understood by some of the most successful technology enterprises today, Steve Jobs on his return to Apple in 1997, responded to a question of whether Apple should develop support for OpenDoc in the Worldwide Developers Conference, that while developing support for OpenDoc was of value no doubt, Apple would not do so along with a thousands other things, for Apple in his vision ought to be committing to that which brings the most value and that focusing is about saying no. Years have past since then and no one would argue that this way of focusing by denying the less relevant did not work out for them.

Paradox of Human Subjectivity and Sein-zum-Tode (Being-toward-Death)

Ending the book is chapter nine ‘...And Then You Die’ which, while the rest of the book screams philosophy especially of that of phenomenology and existentialism to the initiated, nothing quite attests to this than the conception of death in this chapter. The departure of Josh was heartbreaking, yet again seeing that there is another side to everything it was because of their enduring and meaningful friendship that rendered the loss of Josh such an agonising tragedy, and it was precisely because of this deep and affectionate friendship that the death of Josh could have been an enlightenment to Mark of his inevitable demise.

The notion of death has always been a central issue in philosophy. Socrate for one fears not death for he proclaims that ‘the unexamined life is not worth living’ and would rather die than to stop philosophising. Another ancient Greek philosopher, Epicurus, in a Letter to Menoeceus, once wrote on the senselessness of fearing death that ‘while you are alive, you don’t have to deal with being dead, but when you are dead you don’t have to deal with it either, because you aren’t there to deal with it.’ One of the most influential philosophers of the 20th century, Ludwig Wittgenstein, left a similar remark in his book, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, that ‘death is not an event in life: we do not live to experience death.’ None of these philosophers however quite captures the peculiar notion of death until the writing of again Martin Heidegger in Being and Time, whose influence is evident in the writing of Ernest Becker in The Denial of Death.

One thing that almost all philosophers of the time past and preset agree on, which counts only so many, is the marvellousness of the human mind, and chief among all of its spectacular abilities is its being aware of itself and its being able to reflect on this awareness of self. This magnificent ability gives rise to a notion of self-aware and self-reflective consciousness, in distinction of the bodily self, which René Descartes, the 17th-century French philosopher who embarked modern Western philosophy, and whose lasting influence is attested to by the fact that hundreds of years after his death, his work is still referenced to today for inspiration and refutation, reasoned as that where selfhood resides. This notion of selfhood residing in the human consciousness, together with the fondness for reflective contemplation which is arguably one of the few common traits of those who engage in thinking as a profession, after hundreds of years of development, results in an understanding of the self as a causa sui (self-causing), free-willing and meaning-bestowing eternal subject for other determinate objects in the world, while at the same time being a bodily object, standing in regulation of causal relation to the other objects in the empirical world that like everything else gradually decays. Edmund Husserl, a principle founder of phenomenology and one of the most influential philosophers of the 20th century, capture these two peculiar and irreconcilable descriptions of the self in his posthumous work, The Crisis of European Sciences and Transcendental Phenomenology as ’the paradox of human subjectivity: being a subject for the world and at the same time being an object in the world’.

Martin Heidegger, in light of the metaphysics of the self of the time past, and in response to the paradox of the human subjectivity, conceives in Being and Time instead a notion of the self as a way of Being among the others denoted in German as Dasein, in the literal sense of there-being that attests to the plurality of the human possibilities, and a notion of non-reflective and non-contemplative engagement of discoveredness with the world, that reveals signfication as a referential totality and a meaningful whole, in reference to Dasein. This dissolves the paradox of human subjectivity facing and troubling Edmund Husserl and paves way for a reinterpretation of the self as a way of Being as Sein-zum-Tode (Being-toward-Death). Instead of seeing death as an event that is outside life, Heidegger recognises the peculiarities of death with respect to its being one’s ownmost, nonrelational, and not-to-be-outstripped possibility of impossibility. It is death that completes life and it is living with an orientation towards death that bestows life a meaning. For one experiences only the death of the others and never one’s own, Heidegger reasons one in the way of Being as Sein-zum-Tode is in a journey onward as dying.

The first note of Mark’s read of The Denial of Death by Ernest Becker recounts the human astonishment of the self-aware and self-reflective consciousness, and the second note attests to the paradox of the human subjectivity. It is however not a premise out of the blue as Mark or Becker would have believed, rather it is the result of hundreds of years of philosophical development that has, as the American social reformer, Henry Ward Beecher once said that ‘philosophy of one century is the common sense of the next’, become the common understanding of the modern time. Becker was right that these two irreconcilable descriptions of the self are problematic, and he believed that they are the roots of the various forms of human sufferings, to the risk of being guilty of a blunt reductionism that is fatal to any philosophical enterprise. It is by being at peace with one’s mortality and orienting one’s life towards death as a journey onward as dying, one may be enlightened of the truth. Truth that is not the kind in the propositional sense, it is rather the truth of life and of death that is to be unveiled in a journey of unconcealment, by way of phenomenological interpretation and hermeneutic circulation, that after all we are nothing but momentary dust in a vast multiverse.

Now this has me thinking. For what reason would the mentor and the friend gift me this book?