War, Climate Change, Viruses……. a Piece of Cake
Human Beings are known to use biases and heuristics (conscious and unconscious) to make decision-making quicker and more efficient. After all, we live in a complex world with a great deal of information to process and a few short-cuts to help navigate and reduce complexity is great right? Well, the answer as most of you will have experienced is yes and no.
A recent example of this is the Ukraine War and my experience of seeing Availability and Home Bias both personally and also depending on the geography and International Relationships of the country I was in.
For example, in most democratic countries the reporting is a negative framing of the war and Putin. Countries allied with Russia spin a popular narrative that it is a war to liberate oppressed Russians and that the effort is a peacekeeping mission in Ukraine. Another popular quoted point is that of the 248 armed conflicts between 1945 to 2001, 81% were initiated by the USA. As for countries remaining neutral, e.g. India and Africa cite economic, security and education ties with countries involved in the conflict. On the ground, people were concerned with issues such as The Third World War and expressed concepts from International Relations works such as the Thucydides Peloponnesian War and Leviathan by Thomas Hobbes .
I came across differences in reporting (especially ‘Framing’), frequency of reporting and the general view of the public depending on the country I visited in the last couple of months. The availability and quality of information, and the country’s position on the war made the narrative very different. It laid bare that we are a biased (and lazy) lot when it comes to accessing, disseminating and forming opinions.
So what is the point and relation to the ‘real crisis’ we face?
I am always humbled when I consider life on a cosmological scale, e.g. looking at the projected life of the Universe shown above and remember Nietzsche's Quote:
“In some remote corner of the universe, poured out and glittering in innumerable solar systems, there once was a star on which clever animals invented knowledge. That was the haughtiest and most mendacious minute of “world history”- yet only a minute. After nature had drawn a few breaths, the star grew cold, and the clever animals had to die.” -Friedrich Nietzsche
What the above quote and image highlight is that our current problems, dreams and achievements are insignificant when considering the time the Universe lives out its life. Our Sun will destroy our solar system in between 5 and 7 Billion years. Even the lifetime of our Sun and Solar System is dwarfed by the end of the Universe which is said to be over a Googolplex or 10¹⁰⁰ which is the highest value with an officially recognized name!
So what has this got to do with the ‘Real Crisis’ we face? The Crisis we face is an Existential one. It has to do with the fact, deep down, you need to feel a sense of importance in order to avoid the Uncomfortable Truth, to avoid the incomprehensibility of your existence, to avoid being crushed by the weight of your own material insignificance. It is about the hope you feel for causes, goals, and things that by the very existence of ‘hope’ suggests ‘hopelessness’ in your reality. Because for hope to exist something has to seem hopeless. These could be ideas sold to you by media, peers, influencers and educators on what you should do with your life, causes to fight for, what material possessions you should acquire to demonstrate success and on and on. It could be hope sold to you by yourself in the avoidance of feeling a sense of hopelessness.
If this all sounds nihilistic, please, don’t get the wrong idea. This piece is not an argument for nihilism. It is one against nihilism. Both the nihilism within us and the growing sense of nihilism that seems to emerge with the modern world.
If everything is hopeless then what is your point, Avi? Thank you for asking! I will let Nietzsche and Immanuel Kant explain….
Nietzsche is seen as the epitome of bleakness and the Father of Nihilism. However, I see a great deal of positivity in his work, with an encouragement to live a meaningful life in the time we have. The term “Amor Fati” which translates to “Love of One’s Fate”, although discussed without referring to the Latin phrase by philosophers such as Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius, was made explicit by Nietzsche in his book “The Gay Science”. He says “That one wants nothing to be different, not forward, not backwards, not in all eternity. Not merely bear what is necessary, still less conceal it….but love it.”
Amor Fati asks us to put our energies and emotions and exertions only where they will have a real impact. It also meant the unconditional acceptance of all life and experience: the highs and the lows, the meaning and the meaninglessness. It meant loving one’s pain, and embracing one’s suffering. It meant closing the separation between one’s desires and reality not by striving for more desires, but by simply desiring reality. It meant hope for nothing. Hope for what already is because hope is ultimately empty. Nietzsche is asking us to act without hope. To not hope for better. But to be better.
This is further explored in the thoughts of Immanuel Kant. Kant, an intellectual powerhouse and considered the single most influential thinker in world history who overthrew ideas that had been the basis of Western civilisation since Aristotle, is someone we can safely say knows what he is talking about.
Kant started with a simple observation. In all the universe, there is only one thing that, from what we can tell, is completely scarce and unique: consciousness. To Kant, the only thing that distinguishes us from the rest of the matter in the universe is our ability to reason. We are able to take the world around us and, through reasoning and will, improve upon it. This, to him, was special, exceedingly special, a miracle, almost because for everything in the infinite span of existence, we are the only thing (that we know of) that can actually direct existence. In the known cosmos, we are the only sources of ingenuity and creativity. We are the only ones who can direct our own fate. We are the only ones who are self-aware. And for all we know, we are the only shot the universe has at intelligent self-organisation.
Therefore, Kant cleverly deduced that, logically, the supreme value in the universe is the thing that conceives of value itself. The only true meaning in existence is the ability to form meaning. The only importance is the thing that decides importance.
Furthermore, this ability to mean, and to imagine importance, to invent purpose, is the only force in the known universe that can propagate itself, that can spread its intelligence and generate greater and greater levels of organization throughout the cosmos. Kant believed that without rationality, the universe would be a waste, in vain, and without purpose. Without intelligence, and the freedom to exercise that intelligence, we might as well all be a bunch of rocks. Rocks don’t change. They don’t conceive of values, systems, or organisations. They don’t alter, improve, or create. They just exist.
But consciousness can reorganise the universe, and that reorganisation can add upon itself exponentially. Consciousness is able to take a problem, a system of a certain amount of complexity, and conceive and generate greater complexity. As a species, we emerged from hiding in caves to designing entire digital realms connecting the minds of billions. In another thousand, we could easily be among the stars, reshaping the planets and space/time itself. Each individual action may not matter in the grand scheme of things, but the preservation and promotion of rational consciousness overall matter more than anything.
Kant argued that the most fundamental moral duty is the preservation and growth of consciousness, both in ourselves and in others. He called this principle of always putting consciousness first “the Formula of Humanity.” It explains our basic moral intuitions. It explains the classic concept of virtue. It explains how to act in our day-to-day lives without relying on some imagined vision of hope. And, as if that weren’t enough, it explains all of it in a single sentence. The Formula of Humanity states, “Act that you use humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, always at the same time as an end, never merely as a means.”
The Formula of Humanity is the single principle that asks people to stop treating others as a means to an end.
This links us to the previously discussed topic of hope. The problem with hope is that it is fundamentally transactional, it is a bargain between one’s current actions for some imagined, pleasant future. Don’t do this, and you’ll go to heaven. Don’t steal, or you’ll get in trouble. Work hard and save your money, because that will make you happy.
To transcend the transactional realm of hope, one must act unconditionally. You must love someone without expecting anything in return. Anything else is not truly loving. You must respect someone without expecting anything in return. Otherwise, you don’t truly respect him/her. You must speak honestly without expecting praise or validation. Otherwise you aren’t truly being honest. Kant summed up these unconditional acts with one simple principle: you must treat humanity never merely as a means, but always as an end itself.
How does this look in reality? Say you are hungry and fancy a burger. You get into your car, stop at a fast-food restaurant and buy a burger. You eat the burger and are satisfied. In this scenario eating the burger is the ‘end’ goal. Driving, stopping for fuel, waiting at a fast-food restaurant, all the things you do to get a burger are the ‘means’. I.e., the things you have to do to achieve your ‘end’ goal. Means are done conditionally to achieve the end. On the other hand, if your kids wanted a burger and you went through the process to make them happy, then you are no longer pursuing your end. You are using the means to achieve a greater end- make your kid’s happy. If you did it to keep your kids quiet so you could watch TV in peace, then that is the end.
This is what Kant is talking about. His Formula of Humanity states that treating any human being (or any consciousness) as a means to some other end is the basis of all wrong behaviour. So, treating a burger as a means to your kids end is fine. But if it is a means to the end of keeping your kids quiet so you can watch Love Island, then you are now treating them merely as a means. This Kant would argue is wrong. He simply asks: will you act conditionally or unconditionally? Will you treat others as mere means or as ends? Will you pursue adult virtue or childish narcissism? Hope doesn’t even have to enter into the equation. Kant as Nietzsche suggests that you don’t hope for a better life. Simply be a better life.
I must admit I am hopeful about hopelessness!
We are blessed to stand on the shoulders of Giants and their words provide medicine to heal one’s Existential Dread. We must acknowledge we are flawed, and use biases and mental shortcuts which can elicit the wrong outcome or lead us to form opinions that may just be one part of a wider reality. The key takeaway is that by realising this, we can pursue ways to reduce our Existential Dread and reduce the vicious cycle of hope and anxiety. Through exploring thought leaders’ works we can start to explore how best to live our lives without a sense of hopelessness.
We are currently facing wars, have faced wars and will face wars. We have come through a Pandemic with a Unified Global Effort. We will die, the solar system will die and the universe as we know it will die a death which no conscious or unconscious being can survive.
But that is ok. Amor Fati and a Stoic outlook, the very fact that our consciousness may allow us to explore the stars, explore reality, colonise planets, then neighbouring star systems, the Milky Way Galaxy and then onwards. The fact that we are conscious will allow us to leave our mark on a beautiful reality. The option that we can consciously choose is not to hope for better, but to be better. Better in the way we live, treat each other, simply be better. Because, if we are the only consciousness in this universe, and that is ok, the way we choose to view reality and choose to be is the best recipe for solving the only Real Crisis we face and build the ‘better’ we all equally deserve.
Thank you for reading my thoughts.
Peace and Joy…..