“I think, therefore I am”
– Rene Descartes
People are very interesting in very many ways. One of the ways we are interesting is in the degree to which we will go to avoid a conversation. No not all conversation but certain kinds of conversation.
As human beings we have the capacity to take all the variables of a certain situation and look into the future to predict types of outcomes. Not only do we have the capacity to do this we actually enjoy doing this and have develop an entire entertainment sector around our ability to take current variables and predict outcomes – it’s called gambling and we enjoy it so much it is actually a recognized addiction among people.
We do this all of the time. Our very existence depends largely on our predictive abilities. When I am driving I need to be able to consider all variables to determine whether the car at the intersection in front of me is going to pull into traffic or wait – get it wrong and it could mean the end of my life and/or others.
This is how wired we are to predict the future.
We are also wired for survival. The two are actually intrinsically intertwined – prediction and self-preservation. So if we predict at either a conscious or unconscious level failure or even the possibility of failure we work very hard to avoid such an outcome – even placing ourselves into a kind of neutral purgatory rather than come to a conclusion.
This is all a preface to my thoughts on life.
There was a time when thinkers, philosophers, scientists and people in general spent vast amounts of time thinking about the nature of life. What is it? When does it begin? When does it end? Does it begin? Does it end? etc.
Of course such thinking has always invited risk and criticism because one does not have to go too far down such thought paths before running into cross-roads where the path can head in a direction that frightens people.
For instance there was a time when walking too far down the path of philosophizing about life actually having an end with no possibility of eternity meant scaring some people so bad that they would actually brand you a heretic and seek your death. Such an outcome was designed to limit thinking in such ways and was, unsurprisingly, fairly successful.
For years I have been frustrated by western culture’s refusal to allow conversation and investigation into the theme of life – particularly of when it begins.
I think I understand why we are not tolerant of this conversation but it still makes me unhappy and discontent.
We live in a culture rife with thought wars. Ideologies are clashing left and right at the tectonic pressure points of culture, religion, politics, and more to such a violent degree that all sorts of false dichotomies are being forged forcing people into a Yes or No, with us or against us, binary kind of mentality that betrays the complexity of even the simplest discussion.
In the case of discussing the nature of life in the western world there are all kinds of fears about the paths this conversation could lead us down – our conclusions could have significant impact one way or the other on hot button issues like the death penalty, abortion, eugenics, animal cruelty, and war to name a few.
So in the face of these things and a fear of possible conclusions (such as limiting or allowing the death penalty, abortion and war) we move into a kind of thought paralysis, content to allow only the radical fringes at both ends of the argument to battle it out because their conclusions are too mad to be taken seriously.
The problem of course is that while we may not be talking about these things we are thinking about them. In fact we are thinking about these things constantly. Unfortunately given our relational/communal wiring, problems arise in people who spend all of their time thinking and none of their time talking – a kind of interior pressure builds that threatens to blow up all of ourselves and the people around us in ways we cannot control and do an injustice to our real intent – discourse.
We are designed for dialogue…even the most introverted of us. We require other minds to bounce our ideas off of and share with so we might reform, and refine our thinking regardless of the paths it leads us down.
When we stop communicating about subjects (like the nature of life) because we are afraid of the possible paths such a conversation may go down we create a tense, pressure-filled environment that forces us into angry, combative postures when even the slightest reference to the subject arises. Then, instead of furthering our understanding about things we simply takes turns lashing out and hurting one-another in spectacular and reactive fashion – creating an environment where we never want to talk about these things.
This is the place our culture is at in so many areas right now around the world. This is the atmosphere that makes war easier to justify and turns hatemongers into heroes. It is a place of intolerance and ignorance and it is beneath the dignity of what it can mean to be human.
I have no well-thought out and complex solutions other than talking. We must, at all costs, keep the conversations going…even when they threaten to force us down paths we’d rather not go. We must be allowed to speak about things like life, death, war, privacy, culture, religion, science, climate change, etc. in the public square and we must be able to do so without fear of retaliation or punishment or excommunication or even death etc.
To be able to engage in public discourse is to preserve the sanity of our species and not simply settle for the simple existence of “I think therefore I am” but to forge into the more bountiful place of “We talk therefore we are”.