Monday, April 28, 2014

I hate days like this

I hate days like this.

You know how a song can get stuck in your head? That's what this is like: negative, depressive thoughts going round and round in my head. Sometimes I can find a distraction, something that makes them abate, at least temporarily. Sometimes I can't. 

On days like this, it can be like I'm barely here at all. Like I'm on autopilot. It's days like this that I'm reminded I still have depression, no matter how well I sometimes appear to be doing.

I fucking hate days like this.

Sunday, April 27, 2014

Thinking out loud on the question of identity

What makes me "me"? What makes a person who they are? If you cause a truly significant change in someone, have you in some sense killed one person to create another?

Lately I've been remembering the works of one Jack L. Chalker, an author from a couple decades back who wrote a great deal of science fiction and fantasy that tended to involve people being transformed. Sometimes physically, such that they weren't even the same species anymore. Sometimes mentally, from some extreme brainwashing. And it has me wondering what it is that makes someone who they are.

Let me give you an example. In Chalker's Dancing Gods series, one of the main characters is a man named Joe. Joe was a truck driver whisked away to a fantasy world by a powerful wizard who needed a hero (wow, it sounds utterly ridiculous when I put it that way-- I swear it's a good series. Not great, but good.). Once in this fantasy world, the first thing that happens to Joe is the wizard calls in a favor from a demon to give Joe his dream body, which apparently was 6'6", with incredible muscles. He became the epitome of the barbarian warrior image.

Throughout the series (though I haven't been able to track down the last book), Joe gets temporarily turned into a cow (but retains his consciousness), then temporarily into a wood nymph (where he gradually loses his consciousness), then regains his original body, but at the age of 20, and eventually back to the wood nymph, but retaining his consciousness this time. He wasn't too happy about that.

And Chalker is hardly the only person to write such things (though he wrote about transformation a lot!). The popular Doctor Who series on the BBC is another example that deals with the issue of transformation, and identity. If you're not familiar with that series, the main character is an alien called The Doctor. He travels through time and space having adventures and saving people, and picking up strays along the way. When he is about to die, he can instead choose to regenerate, which completely changes his appearance, and his personality. That latter part is key. Is the Doctor who walks away from these regenerations the same as the one who went into them? Is he still the same person?

Many personality traits are still there, and seem to be key components to the Doctor's personality. Curiosity, a sense of adventure, a desire to help. One version said that there were two words he could never ignore: "help me." That trait seems common throughout, at least in the modern version of the series (which is a continuation of a series from a few decades back). But some versions have been more fun loving, or dorky, or angry, or dark. In other words, different in mind as well as body. As a result, when number 10 (David Tennant was the actor) knew that his time was coming to an end, he stated to a friend of his "I can still die. If I'm killed before regeneration, then I'm dead. Even then, even if I change, it feels like dying. Everything I am dies. Some new man goes sauntering away... and I'm dead."

So what makes a person. . . them? How much change can we undergo before we are no longer the same, and could say that the previous person is dead? In the past, when I was what? 12? I don't recall exactly, but I was young, and I realized that the person I was then, at that moment, would someday not exist. He would change, into I didn't know what, and had no way of accurately predicting or controlling. This terrified me on an existential level. I think, trying to look back at it, that I felt like I would die in some way so that someone new could live. Kinda like the Doctor, now that I think about it.

And yet, I don't feel that way now. I look back on very significant changes that I've undergone in my life, but I can still find certain consistent threads running through my life. A love of logic or reason, an interest in right and wrong, a love of reading, an interest in science. There's also been the depression as a persistent thread, at least since puberty, shaping my experience of life, even as I've come to see my depression not as me, but rather just as an illness. Are these consistent threads enough to claim a persistent identity of "Nathan"? Enough to say that all previous versions of me are still me, fundamentally?

I'm not entirely sure. I think so. But I haven't worked out why, and could be wrong.

There is an idea (which I first encountered in a post by Dan Fincke, but can't find the link now) that we are the complete, sum-total of all of our experiences, minor or major, and including our unique biological circumstances as well. So we aren't just memories, but also bodies, and everything involved in that. Under such a view, it really doesn't make sense to consider who we would have been had something different happened, because that person would then not be us at all. Similar, but not us. One consequence of this would seem to be that maybe we are constantly dying, only to be reborn in the same instant.

At this stage, I have no firm conclusions. Right now, I don't see these questions as having a great deal of immediate impact to our lives. But who knows? Maybe the technology to fundamentally alter personality or body is right around the corner, in which case these questions will have an impact.

Saturday, April 26, 2014

Why I find philosophy valuable

I was nineteen when I first discovered "formal" philosophy, in the form of Plato's Dialogues. I'd been talking to a woman online (had a bit of a fling of sorts), and she mentioned that she could rave for hours about Plato. I got curious, and went to the library. I started reading some Plato, and fell in love. The style that Plato wrote in was that of dialogues, discussions between various people on matters they found important in the realm of philosophy (usually between Socrates and one or more compatriots), and I just loved it. But more than the style, I loved the questions of ethics that were being dealt with. Issues of justice, friendship, duty, etc.

These were questions that I had thought about in my own, undisciplined, way for years. What does it mean to be ethical or moral? What does it mean to live a good life? It seemed to me then, and it seems to me now, that in the realm of human interaction, there is no more important question than these.

Many people seem to think that the answers to these questions are easy, simple. I have never found them such. I suspect that one major reason people think them to be easy questions is that religious traditions purport to provide the answers, packaged neat and tidy and ready to go. Got a question? Check with your clergy, no thinking required. Tradition has the answer.

But tradition is often wrong. Take women's rights. For most of human history since the development of agriculture, women have been under the heel of one patriarchal society or another, a position reinforced by tradition and custom, as well as the law. Now, through the hard work of philosophy, most of us (at least in America and other western countries; the Middle East has a ways to go yet) recognize that those traditions were mistaken and wrong. True, there are people fighting to retain what's left of those oppressive traditions, but those of us who have concluded those traditions are wrong have come a long way in lifting women up from under that heel (with a long way yet to go, unfortunately). Tradition can be a positive thing, but not when it's allowed to cause or contribute to stagnation.

And yes, I meant it when I said philosophy is what got us to where we are, on this, and other political battles. Before any political fight to remove oppression and grant rights can get started, one must first engage the question of whether those rights should be granted in the first place. Are women the equal of men? Should a woman's place be in the home, having and raising children, or does she have the right to choose another life? Is "separate but equal" a meaningful phrase, or is it a contradiction? These are all philosophical, ethical questions of right and wrong.

But perhaps it would help if I brought it closer to home. Is it ok to lie to my wife when she asks if I like her new dress (assuming I don't)? Which is more important: soothing potentially hurt feelings, or telling the truth? You cannot tell me that this and similar questions have not crossed the minds of many a husband/wife throughout history. The question of white lies is something that even children end up facing at some point. And it's a philosophical question of ethics, regarding the value of truth, and when, if ever, it's ok to lie.

Some people consider philosophy to be "mental masturbation," something undertaken only for the pleasure of the philosopher, with no greater purpose to it. And the philosopher, of course, is some out of touch with the real world old white man sitting in his ivory tower, writing dense crap that no one reads or cares about. And I can see how some people could have that impression. However, I see philosophy all around us.

Is gut instinct or intuition a good reason to believe something? How about faith? Or should we only believe things that we have evidence for? These are questions of epistemology, or philosophy of knowledge, and what constitutes knowledge. They're questions that should be important to anyone who considers, for example, the question of whether a God exists to be important. They're questions that should be considered important to anyone who's ever served or will serve on a jury (for example, you have a gut instinct that a witness is lying, but no other evidence to back it up: what role can or should that instinct play in your deliberations?).

Does life have a meaning? If so, where does that meaning come from? What does it even mean for life to have meaning? If life has no meaning, is it worth living for other reasons? Can there be meaning in a universe as vast and ancient as ours, where we are but specks of carbon dust in the long run? These sorts of existential questions may be unimportant to some, but for others they can be matters of life or death. Many a suicidal person has struggled with these very questions when seeking to decide if they're going to live, or going to die.

In recent years we've seen many arguments about the role of government in health care. Should it have a role at all, and if so, what kind of role, and how big of a role? This is not just a political question. It's also a philosophical question about whether society in general should or should not provide for the health care of it's members, or whether individuals are responsible for procuring health care on their own. Frankly, politics and philosophy have a lot of overlap in my opinion. People talk about government not legislating morality, yet then turn around and demand certain rights from the government. When talking about rights, we are talking about morality. It then becomes not if the government should legislate on moral matters, but rather to what extent. And morality is one of the various realms that philosophy deals with. Indeed, society as we know it would not exist without the philosophy of politics and law.

At some point in our life, unless we die extremely young, we will all be faced with philosophical questions. We can't help it. Now, we can always just take whatever answer first pops into our mind when confronted with such questions, but many, many questions simply aren't that easy, and deserve us actually giving the questions time and effort to think them through. Not everyone needs to be a philosophy Ph.D. by any means. Even if that could somehow be practical, it's not strictly necessary. But we should take the time to listen to and consider the things that philosophy Ph.D's, who have spent years studying and considering these everyday philosophical concerns, are saying to us, just as we listen to and consider the things that our medical Ph.D's, i.e., doctors, are telling us. It doesn't matter if you always agree with them, but do take the time to think.

And if a philosophy Ph.D. isn't available, you can still think for yourself, and take the time to question. Frankly, I'd be surprised if it doesn't enrich your life.

Philosophy is everywhere. Accept it.

Friday, April 11, 2014

A few thoughts on impending fatherhood

If you're friends with me on Facebook, you may have recently noticed a post by me stating that my wife is pregnant. I'm going to be a father for the first time. And it still hasn't sunk in yet, not completely anyway. Part of me doesn't entirely believe it. Another part of me thinks it's crazy. Me? A father? Preposterous. But it's true. Barring some horrible mishap, I will be a father by early November of this year.

What can this mean for me? For the life I have with my wife and her other S.O. (significant other)? I'm sure if you're a parent you already have some idea of what this will mean for us. At least, I hope you do! But I have to figure out what it means for us, and me, specifically, beyond just the usual generalizations that can apply to any new potential parents. Here's a few thoughts I've had, in no particular order.

-- I'm going to have to give up sleeping pills, at least for a while. I can't be having myself unable to respond to a 3am crying baby because I'm drugged up for sleep. This is an unfortunate truth, as getting proper sleep has been a big part of dealing with my current episode of depression. It's amazing what benefit there is to not being constantly tired. Somehow, I'll have to adjust. The meditation I've started doing might actually help here.

-- I should probably start paying more attention to politics at a local level than I currently do, especially as it relates to education. I still don't know for sure if I want to pursue home schooling, or if I simply want to supplement the schooling that public school would give. Part of this will depend, I think, on the state of education here in Rochester, MN when that time actually arrives. I do know that I intend to support and teach our child about things like critical thinking, healthy skepticism, respect for others, importance of bodily autonomy, philosophy, and other values that I have. My goal in all of that is to teach our child how to think, not necessarily what to think. I may hope that any child of mine turns out to be a secular humanist, but I'm not going to try and force it.

-- We intend to test for any genetic disorders that can be tested for. I honestly don't know what I'll do, or want to do, if they come back positive. But I know for sure that I'd like time to process it first, rather than being shocked by it when the child is born. I know that I hope there's nothing, that our child is healthy, and won't have to deal with the hassles that come from having developmental disabilities.

-- The other day I had a horrible thought. I realized that someday our child will die. This nearly made me sick, having this hit me, and the child isn't even here yet. I don't recall what I was thinking about before that thought came to me, but I do know it was somehow related to death. At any rate, this may be the hardest thing that I will have to deal with: the knowledge that they will die. I already have trouble dealing with the idea of death.

-- Given that both I and my wife have had to deal with depression, it's an unfortunate likelihood that any child of ours will end up having to deal with depression as well. I intend to try and teach them strategies and thought patterns that will hopefully minimize the effects of depression, but let's face it: that hasn't made me immune to it, and won't make the child immune.

These are just a few of the thoughts that have crossed my mind. I'm sure there will be others over time. I find myself happy and scared at the same time as I attempt to process the idea that I will be a father relatively soon. Here's hoping it all turns out well.

Monday, April 7, 2014

On slowly applying empowerment ethics to my life

Recently I came to provisionally accept that Dan Fincke's system of empowerment ethics is the way to go for living a good, ethical life. I say provisionally because it's still possible that I could find a system that holds together even better than empowerment ethics, that maybe finds a weakness in the argument for empowerment ethics, and so I would have to reconsider my acceptance. But for now, I've been unable to spot a weakness in empowerment ethics, and it seems to hold together really well. So in this post I'm going to examine what attempts I'm making to apply this to my own life, and ways that I could probably stand to apply it that I'm not yet doing.

First off though, let me point out two issues that make it more difficult for me than it needs to be for me to apply empowerment ethics to my life. To start, there's the depression. Though I've made great strides in dealing with my current bout of depression, it's still an issue. It isn't gone, and I don't know if it ever will be gone. In some form or another, I will probably have to deal with depression for the rest of my life. And depression is a motivation sapper.

Second, I'm lazy. Motivating myself to do something that looks like work or effort (unless it's something I really enjoy) is difficult. Sometimes it seems impossible (and depression, for me, makes it worse). I've been this way my entire life, but I think I'm finally motivated to do something about it (too bad it's not as easy as saying "I don't want to be lazy anymore"). So to start, I'm working on improving my helping around the house. For example, I'm the guy in this house who's supposed to scoop the cat litter, and in the past I'd just let it go for far longer than I should have, and by the time I got to it, I just needed to dump out the litter and start over. Well, I've been turning it into a habit now to scoop it either when I get home from work, or, if I don't work, when I feed the cats in the evening. How?

A lovely little app for Android called "Habit Streak Plan." I didn't mention this to anyone before because I wanted to be sure that it would work for me. And it has. How it works is that I set up habits in the app that I want to develop, along with a question to be asked each day that I answer either yes I did it the previous day, or not (it always asks about the previous day). So for the litter scooping, the title is "Cat Litter," and the question is "Did you scoop the cat litter?" Simple.

I went with this app because it provides a daily reminder about the habits I'm trying to develop, and in the past I've found that habits, once formed, are very powerful in keeping me doing things. Unfortunately, laziness is partly a habit, and I don't know an easy trick for breaking it. The cat litter isn't the only habit I'm using the app to help develop. I'm also working on doing physical therapy stretches for my back, using flash cards via the program Mnemosyne to study the feats for the Pathfinder roleplaying game (if I find something else I want to study that flash cards would be helpful with, I'll add it, but for now it's just Pathfinder), and writing. I enjoy writing, and the thought processes it forces me into, but I wasn't being very good about keeping it up, so this app has been very helpful in making me write at least a little every day.

So far, it's just those four items in my habit developing app. But it's a start. It's a way for me to combat one of my biggest character flaws (in my opinion), something that has consistently kept me from being the best that I can be. Anyone with other suggestions for beating laziness, let me know!

For the most part, all of that is just battling with a weakness. I'm still working on ideas for actually improving in areas that I'm strong in. The writing does that, sure. Unfortunately, some of my ideas for improving, for empowering myself and others, are currently unfeasible. For example, I really think that if I could go back to school, I could improve my thinking, and my writing, and probably other areas as well. On the thinking aspect, I've thought of taking online courses with Dan Fincke (a man I greatly respect, obviously) which are cheaper than college, and would speak straight to my interests in philosophy. Sadly, at this time I simply can't afford them (even at discounted rates).

So, I have to look to other ways (open to suggestions here). One thing I haven't started yet, but that I'm seriously considering, is beginning a secular mindfulness meditation practice. This is a form of meditation that actually has scientific data backing up it's benefits, and I can see lots of ways that learning to be mindful, focused, and more self-aware would be beneficial. Anything that helps my depression is of course great, and there's evidence it can do that. But simply being able to concentrate better would be of massive benefit in damn near anything I do.

I'm also considering getting back into the gym to work out. Work will reimburse me for my gym membership, so I can afford it, and I don't think I need to reiterate the benefits of a fit(ter) body. I may not be willing to go full bore on eating healthy (it's more expensive, and frankly, I hate cooking and find all the healthy eating I've been taught about to be very boring sounding), but there are still things that could be done.

So far, I'm only talking about things that directly impact me. But empowerment ethics recognizes that we can't be truly powerful without empowering others. So how the hell can I work on that? Well, at first glance, it should be easy. I work with developmentally disabled adults as a career, and a huge part of what my company strives to do is empower our clients! Which is great. Unfortunately, I'm burnt out on some major aspects of my work, and simply have no idea how to deal with that. It's the only job I've ever had where I didn't feel like I was just there to make a buck for the higher ups, but it's also a high stress job. I used to have the energy and motivation for it, but lately . . . well. If I can get that back somehow, maybe I can really find ways to empower my clients. I'd like to.

I'd like to think that I could use my writing to empower some of you, my dear readers, but I'm not quite arrogant enough to think that's something I can consistently, and deliberately, do at my current level of ability. Maybe someday, as my skill grows through practice, and I find things to say that could be empowering.

Still, I've noticed something, something surprising. Since provisionally accepting the argument for empowerment ethics, I've been more motivated. I've been motivated to improve, and be better than I have been. I've even noticed that lately when I envy someone's skill, instead of being a discouragement, it's acting as additional motivation. That's kinda weird, but good. And for that productive desire to be better, that motivation to be better, not just for myself but also those around me, I'm grateful.

This process may be slow, but I'm glad I'm undertaking it.

Saturday, April 5, 2014

Thinking out loud about the ethics of suicide

Having recently had a scare related to suicide, I find myself wondering about the ethics and morality of suicide. Is it wrong always, some of the time, or never? Is it ever the right thing to do?

Some religious theologies make the claim that one's life actually belongs to God, and therefore to take one's life is to steal from God (in essence). But I'm an atheist. That idea holds no water with me, so I need to approach this idea of suicide from a different angle, or angles.

There seems to be various issues that are wrapped up in this issue. Value of one's life, for example, and whether there are limits to one's right to do as one wishes with one's own body and life. There's also the issue of flourishing in our powers (at least if, like me, you lean toward empowerment ethics), which suicide would seem to contradict. Let's take a look at some of these things.

Value of individual life.

In "Schindler's List" there is a quote given "Whoever saves one life, saves the world entire," which apparently comes from the Talmud. I think there is truth to this idea, metaphorically speaking. Each of us has within ourselves an entire view, a model, of the world, which we construct day by day, moment by moment. It is not a literal world. I do not believe that all of physicality is illusion constructed by mind itself, or anything like that. But the model of the world that each of us creates is nonetheless unique, and powerful. It's powerful because that model shapes, and is in turn shaped by, the way we think, feel, and act. It has very real effects on the world as a result. The world outside of ourselves responds in some way to those effects, which changes (sometimes in the smallest of ways, and sometimes in very large ways) the model of the world that we have in our minds. No model is going to be a perfectly accurate model of the world, but every model will be unique.

Every person is unique in this. No two world models are the same, nor could they be. Similar, yes. The same, never. No two people ever have the same, exact down to the tiniest detail, experience of life. Thus I think there is a very real, metaphorical truth that every human life is a world onto itself.

So, when a human life is lost, a world is lost. What value is there to an entire world? It's priceless, and priceless things should not be destroyed without very good reason.

Right to life or death.

Does this then place a limit of some sort on what each of us can do with our own life, our own world? If it can be said that someone owns a person, it can only be that the person owns themselves. A person may choose to give certain privileges to another, but those privileges are not rights, and in no way confer ownership on the person receiving privileges. For example, my wife may choose to give me the privilege of having sex with her, and I may choose to give her the privilege of sex with me, but in neither case is a right conferred, and most certainly there is no transfer of ownership. If one owns oneself, then it would seem that the only person with any right to decide such things as what to do with one's life falls only to oneself. No one else has a right to take your life from you.

But does having a right to life, give you the right to die?

Maybe if I start by considering what seems to be the easier case: euthanasia, or assisted suicide. Generally speaking, when we are looking at cases of assisted suicide, it's in a situation in which someone is suffering a great deal, with no prospect of reprieve, and potentially a guaranteed death sentence. The prospect of dying in order to escape such suffering is an attractive option. This is when quality of life enters the picture. If we continue with the metaphor that a single life is like an entire world, then in such cases it can be said that a world is suffering, and a world may be dying. It doesn't seem a difficult thing to say that when such is the case, it is kinder to allow the suffering to cease through death. We are willing to give this mercy to our pets, so why not to ourselves?

But what of times when it is not the case that there is no prospect of reprieve?


I think when it comes down to it, I'm left with looking at what it means to live, which will hopefully lead to what it means to die.

We exist, in a crucial sense, as our powers (or abilities). To live an ethical life means to become better, more effective, in our power, or effectiveness. When we speak of being good, we're speaking of being effective: good at chess=effective at chess; good person, morally speaking= effective at being a moral person. If we're flourishing, then we're being effective as our individual powers (intellectual, physical, artistic, sexual, etc). Our meaning in life comes from our personal flourishing, and how it impacts and empowers others to flourish.

When we're flourishing, we're striving. We're striving to become better in our strengths, and striving to shore up our weaknesses. We're doing this not just in ourselves, but in others as well, which increases our own power as it's expressed and spread through others. And other's powers are expressed through us, as they help us flourish and become more empowered. An intricate, complex web is formed through these connections with others. Even with deep introspection we may not be able to see the totality of that web (it's probably not even possible).

When we live, we impact others. We can't help it, nor should we want to. If we are indeed flourishing as our powers, then it's likely that we are helping others to flourish as well (or so one hopes). So when we die, we stop helping. We lose the ability to empower others to flourish more. We break that web. We can no longer save worlds, or help build worlds. If we do this deliberately, then that loss, that incalculable loss, is on us. So from this, it would appear that suicide is not ethical.

But now I need to reexamine the case for assisted suicide. As I said, cases of assisted suicide happen when there is tremendous suffering without hope of reprieve, and most frequently when there's a clear case of guaranteed death anyway. At times like these, it is easy to see that flourishing may very well be out the window. Things may get to a point where all someone has the strength to do is manage symptoms. Striving to empower oneself and others is out the window. I think then that making the choice to end it all is not only rational, but ethical. That decision, however, must rest with the one who's life is on the line, and no one else.

There is more to examine in this issue I think (I'm not entirely confident in my construction of the individual life equaling an entire world, for instance), but for now, this is where my thinking has led me. So, what do you think?