Sunday, October 11, 2015

Meaning, happiness and the good life

Let's say you are a successful novelist. In fact, Wikipedia describes you as the author of an entire genre: the Philosopical Bodice Ripper, steamy romances that explore philosophical ideas with surprising depth and subtlety. It is a form you have entirely mastered, and it is earning you a tidy living. You have a devoted readership and you take real satisfaction in exposing the fans of romantic fiction to philosophy. Still, there is a part of you that wants more.

>>>Fast forward >>>

For the last five grueling years you have been working on the great American philosophical novel: The Rigid Designation. You care more intensely about this project than all of your previous work combined. But it is undeniably a source of enormous frustration and anxiety. You are working at the absolute limit of your creative potential and experiencing disappointment far more often and more intensely than success. You do not know if you can finish; and even if you do, you have no idea how it will be received.

One night, over a bottle of Glenlivet, you are waxing nostalgic about your previous life to your good friend Piotr, who has heard it all one too many times: Just toss that damned manuscript into the fire, delete the file, and go back to doing what what you do best!

And, perhaps surprisingly, you agree. You really would be a happier person if you were to do exactly as Piotr advised. Perhaps not immediately afterwards, but soon. You still feel that way the next morning as you log into your computer.

What do you do?


What do we want from life?

Well, lots of stuff, of course. But at a basic level, I say there are only two things: happiness and meaning.

What is happiness? Easy. Your life is happy to the extent that you are feeling good, both in it and about it. There are lots of different ways of feeling good: joy, hope, gratitude, contentment, elation, inspiration, affection, a panoply of sensual pleasures. They all count. Somehow.

What is meaning? Easy again. Your life has meaning to the extent that you are doing things you care about. Generally speaking, you care when you have a sense of purpose, commitment to personal goals, the wellbeing of family and friends, to discovery, to creation, to work, to serving a higher cause, like God or country.

Ok, clear enough so far, but not too interesting. Nobody denies that meaning and happiness are fine things, and we all agree that anyone with plenty of both is very lucky indeed.

But I said that meaning and happiness are basic. By this I mean that they are distinct ends. We desire them both, but we do not seek one simply as a means to achieving the other.

This is more interesting because it contradicts conventional wisdom, which is based on a strong and widely felt intuition that happiness is, almost by definition, the summum bonum of every self-interested person. According to this view, whatever we want in life (power, freedom, safety, love, respect, and meaning) we want because we believe it will contribute to our happiness.

Put differently, it is to deny the quite plausible view that the only reason we would ever want a more meaningful life is that we think we will be happier as a result. It is to assert that someone may rationally opt for a more meaningful life knowing full well that it will come at the expense of her personal happiness.

Now, in fact, many others disagree with the conventional view, but they typically need to play a wild card to say why. For example, one common way of arguing against it is to point to altruism: people willingly sacrifice their own happiness for the benefit of others. The problem with that gambit is that many of those we are trying to convince think of altruistic behavior either as an illusion, or as fundamentally irrational. I don’t, but I also don't want to get mired in the debate. So what I say here I mean to be understood strictly within the framework of rational self-interest.

Consider a related but slightly different implication of the conventional view:

No rational person would refuse to do something that would reduce the meaning in her life if she were convinced that doing so would result in greater personal happiness.

This is not really a strict implication of the view, as you might always have other options. But you get the gist; I won't complicate the thought with a bunch of qualifications.

This, I think, is more easily shown to be false. To see why, let's return to you.


Did you delete the file?

I don't know, but that is enough to make my point.

You might have. In this case, you would indeed be exchanging a more meaningful life for a happier one. That does not seem irrational and it is obviously consistent with the conventional view.

But, then again, you might not. You might have decided to keep toiling away in all your unhappiness and frustration, not in hope of some greater happiness to be achieved later, but simply because it is a more meaningful activity to you now. In this case you have expressed, contrary to the conventional view, a reflective preference for a less happy, but more meaningful life.

The Happiness Fundamentalist rejoins:

1. But if you decide to stay at it, it can only be because the thought of quitting makes you unhappy.

No. The thought of quitting does make you unhappy, but it is not an adequate explanation of your decision either way. For you sincerely believe this unhappiness would dissipate were you to return to your old life.

2. Well, then deciding to keep at it may be understandable, but it is surely irrational.

Maybe. But we'll need an argument. And we won't be listening if yours just stipulates that happiness is the only thing that truly matters. Because we think we just proved that it ain't.

G. Randolph Mayes
Department of Philosophy
Sacramento State

Sunday, October 4, 2015

She ain’t no Rosa Parks

Conservative Christians would have us believe that Rowan County, KY, Clerk Kim Davis is the new Rosa Parks – the Rosa Parks for this century’s fight against the oppression of the faithful. Not only is she no Rosa Parks, she’s got much more in common with those Rosa Parks resisted. In both word and deed, but for the beard, Davis is more ayatollah than freedom rider.

Rosa Parks, for those who forgot, was an African American woman arrested for failing to give up her seat on a public transit bus to a white person. Second class citizen, pays her fare, must sit at the back, and sometimes give up her seat, standing with groceries, on tired feet, in case a white person wanted to sit. Not optional. Not “please give these seats to the disabled and elderly,” where any able young person who doesn’t is rightly judged a jerk. Rosa Parks – as a matter of law –suffered nowhere near ‘separate but equal’ service in the presence of whites. She defied the law which commanded her thus. She resisted the power of state officials to deny her equality. She rejected their abuse of authority to deny her a right equal to the whites to whom she had to yield. 

Kim Davis is no Rosa Parks. Davis is a public official, vested with the power of government to carry out vital functions for the people of Rowan County. Not for some of the people – ALL of the people. She is vested with authority to uphold county, state, and federal laws. Not some laws, at her discretion, which correspond with her personal convictions – ALL those laws. She is free to believe what she likes about gays and lesbians and homosexual marriage. The First Amendment enshrines this freedom for her as for every private citizen, as a matter of personal conscience. The First Amendment burdens government to ensure individuals are protected in the enjoyment of their civil liberties regardless of their faith or lack of it. It protects her and the people of Rowan County in the enjoyment of that same freedom. Among those civil liberties is the liberty to marry. Heterosexual residents of Rowan County have enjoyed that right for a while now. Homosexual residents of Rowan County are now able to enjoy that same civil liberty. Except for Kim Davis.

By denying same sex couples the issuance of marriage licenses, she uses the power of her office to deny them that liberty. The power to issue marriage licenses is a governmental power, not a personal power. It is an authority vested in the office, not in her person. It is a power subject to the county, state, and federal law. It is not her personal power to decide the nature of the law or the constitution. Her personal convictions are not the measure of the law. Her conduct as an official, vested with the authority of the government, is to ensure that the residents of Rowan County enjoy their civil liberties free from religious burden. Her use of this authority to enforce her personal convictions – religious or otherwise – should be rejected as resoundingly as was that of those who denied Rosa Parks.

Enter the new ayatollahs. America deeply identifies as a Christian country. Most of the citizenry identify as Christian. This leads some people – many in positions of governmental power – to believe that their faith should guide their actions, should be a basis for law and policy, and should be the basis for their discretionary use of their authority. Their faith. Creating and applying law accordingly. We must live according to their faith. Our enjoyment of our liberties, according to their faith. These are the new ayatollahs, American-style. They come professing individual rights, citing the constitution, claiming liberty for all, according to their faith. Their Jesus tells them that homosexuality is an abomination. But there’s another Jesus, who eats with the lepers and washes their dead, unafraid that his faith will be tainted by those whom he aids. That Jesus does not deny fish and bread to the hungry even as they are sinners. That Jesus bakes a wedding cake for a gay couple, unafraid that their choices define his own.

The founding constitutionalists were deeply religious. But they were near enough to the corrosive conjoining of religion with political power to recognize individual personal liberty required a strict separation of religious conviction from government authority. They crafted a nation in which it mattered not whether one had faith. Theirs was a vision wherein individuals enjoy equally the freedom to determine their own lives according to their private convictions. If it’s a Christian country, it’s also among the remarkably few to demand that religious conviction remain a matter of private conscience, not a directive of public policy. It matters not whether the entire citizenry enjoys the same faith. It matters only that county clerks, as with all public officials enacting governmental authority, not demand the rest of the citizenry conform to their conscience.

Some say Davis has a right not to be made to violate her faith. True. But she does not have a right to do it in her official capacity as county clerk. No one has a right to be a county clerk. She can adhere to and worship as she believes. In her official capacity as county clerk, it is her responsibility – yes, I said her RESPONSIBILITY – to ensure that the residents of Rowan County are not denied their civil liberties because of someone else’s – including her own – personal convictions to the contrary.

Issue the marriage licenses. That is her responsibility. And, if she cannot reconcile her conscience with her official duty, perhaps she should follow the example of Apostle Matthew who could no longer render unto Caesar, could no longer reconcile his duty as tax collector with his faith. The burden of his faith was his to bear, not his co-workers, not his fellow citizens, not the government to accommodate his public office to his private conscience.

Christina Bellon
Department of Philosophy
Sacramento State

Monday, September 28, 2015

When the science of happiness meets public policy, can freedom increase?

When the science of happiness meets public policy, two things tend to happen. First, some people in the room get excited about the opportunity for our policy goals to extend beyond traditional economic indicators (e.g., income, employment), and better capture elements of the good life that cannot be explained in dollar terms (e.g., social trust, individual happiness). Second (but probably simultaneously), other people in the room begin to worry that the whole point of government policy and of the reasonable limits on what governments can legislate appear to have been forgotten (freedom anyone?). How should this scenario pan out? 

Some elements deserve more explanation before the story continues, and I conclude that, contrary to the main worries, the science of happiness can be successfully incorporated into policies in a way that increases freedom.

The science of happiness can be described as the amalgamation of the current scientific knowledge related to happiness. Happiness science is not just about measuring levels of happiness, and happiness-like concepts; it’s also in the business of explaining and predicting levels of those concepts in various contexts.

Several academics have suggested that, since we now know how to measure these aspects of the good life, and they are generally held to be important, then we should include the most accepted of them (e.g. satisfaction with life) among the explicit goals of public policy (see a review here). In some ways, this suggestion is exciting, because traditional economic indicators are often acknowledged as inadequate for guiding public policy; they are far from useless, but they don’t capture everything that is important to us. The deficiencies of focusing on only traditional economic indicators were eloquently discussed by Robert F. Kennedy in his speech at the University of Kansas in 1968:

Too much and for too long, we seemed to have surrendered personal excellence and community values in the mere accumulation of material things. Our Gross National Product, now, is over $800 billion dollars a year, but that Gross National Product—if we judge the United States of America by that—that Gross National Product counts air pollution and cigarette advertising and ambulances to clear our highways of carnage. … It counts napalm and counts nuclear warheads and armored cars for the police to fight the riots in our cities. … Yet the gross national product does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education or the joy of their play. … It measures neither our wit nor our courage, … ; it measures everything, in short, except that which makes life worthwhile. (Kennedy, 1968).

GNP was never intended to be a measure of the success of a nation, it was intended to be a measure of national production (England, 1998). Nevertheless, measures like GNP became the goals of many policy advisors. But, the people want to measure more. In a 2005 BBC opinion poll, 1001 participants were asked whether the government's main objective should be the "greatest happiness" or the "greatest wealth", and 81% replied, “happiness” (Easton, 2006).

Measuring is one thing, but implementing specific policies in order to increase people’s happiness is another. Many of us don’t have a lot of faith in government institutions (Stevenson & Wolfers, 2011). So, it’s no surprise some people don’t want the government “making them happy”. Shouldn’t the government just do its best to stay out of the way, and let us pursue our own vision of the good life (as long as we don’t harm others)?

For Friedrich Hayek (1960) the point of government policies is to increase freedom. We all have different interests and views of the good life. So, the government should provide us with freedom to pursue those different ends, rather than create interventionist policies that privilege (if not enforce) specific versions of the good life. Surely there is wisdom here. Policies aimed at happiness, or any other specific view of the good life, should not be coercive because some will not share the relevant view of the good life, and assuming the dominant view of the good life is correct opens the door for widespread abuses, or at least the oppression of minorities.

So, how can we use the science of happiness to inform policies that are not coercive, that do not reduce freedom, but increase it? I think policies that implement “nudges” focused on helping people overcome episodes of depression can do all this.

I’d need the following premises:
1. When a set of options exists, a policy that changes how those options are presented is not prima facie coercive. (Unless, e.g., some options are completely hidden). 
2. Policies that cost a lot of taxpayer dollars to implement are coercive unless the vast majority of those who stand to gain AND those who do not stand to gain from the policy consent to it. 
3. People with depression sometimes experience difficulty doing the things that they know they should do in order to achieve their own version of the good life. So, depressives might suffer from a temporary loss of subjective freedom during a bout of depression. 
4. Decreasing depressive symptoms, or helping people overcome a bout of depression, increases depressives’ happiness and freedom. 
5. A cheap and widely supported policy that brings about a better presentation of helpful options to people with depression would be non-coercive and would increase happiness and freedom.

And an example:

What about online adverts on relevant websites (e.g.) that take the person to a portal hosted by an AI chat bot that “listens” to them and encourages them to use helpful resources, e.g., “here is the number you need to call: …”). The initial outlay could be crowdsourced, or taxpayer funded on the understanding that depression costs “the economy” more than $210b per year (which no longer “trickles down” to the masses). There is no coercion, just better presentation of the options. We might even save enough, as a nation, to build a huge wall (if we really want to do that!).


Easton, M. (2006). Britain’s happiness in decline, BBC News, 2 May 2006. Retrieved October 9, 2013, from:

England, R. W. (1998). Alternatives to Gross Domestic Product: A critical survey. In F. Ackerman, D. Kiron, N. Goodwin, J. Harris & K. P. Gallagher (Eds.), Human wellbeing and economic goals (vol. 3) (pp. 373–402). Washington, DC: Island Press.

Hayek, F. A. (1960). The constitution of liberty. Chicago: University of Chicago

Kennedy, R. F. (1968). Speech at University of Kansas, March 18. Transcript available from:

Stevenson, B., & Wolfers, J. (2011). Trust in public institutions over the business cycle (No. w16891). National Bureau of Economic Research.

Weijers, Dan & Jarden, Aaron (2013). The Science of Happiness for Policymakers: An Overview, Journal of Social Research and Policy, 4(2). The free official version

Dan Weijers
Department of Philosophy
Sacramento State

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Of course being gay is (not) a choice

At 12:01 AM, at a quiet downtown pub, three friends meet up again, as they do this time each night, for a bit of quiet, and space, and rest.
Piotr: Hey.
Marie: Howdy.
Pablo: Hola.
Piotr: So…have you come out yet?
Marie: Heck no.
Piotr: I’m telling you, you should.
Marie: And I'm telling you to mind your own business
Piotr: Trust me, I’m your friend.
Marie: So?
Piotr: So, “it gets better.”
Marie: Easy for you to say.
Piotr: Meaning what?
Marie: Meaning, you have never walked a mile in my shoes.
Piotr: And?
Marie: Or even stood in my shoes.
Piotr: And?
Marie: And you are not me.
Piotr: Yeah, but I’m your friend.
Marie: Yeah, but not my only one.
Pablo: I’m one too, just quiet.
Marie: Thanks, Pablo. It’s not you I’m worried about.
Piotr: But I’m your friend who knows stuff. That’s why I’m not quiet.
Marie: If you know stuff, then you know what my other friends would think.
Piotr: So?
Marie: And my parents.
Piotr: So?
Marie: And my other family.
Piotr: So?
Marie: And my religious community.
Piotr: So?
Marie: Well, those folks are my people too.
Piotr: And?
Marie: And I care about them.
Piotr: And they care about you, right?
Marie: Sure.
Piotr: Then they’ll understand.
Marie: That just shows how much you know.
Piotr: They will. Just you see.
Marie: And if they don’t?
Piotr: Then they don’t.
Marie: Easy for you to say.
Piotr: Look, you can do this.
Marie: No, I can’t.
Piotr: Yes, you can.
Marie: It’s not that simple.
Piotr: Yes, it is. It’s up to you. It takes courage. But you have that. I know you do. I’ve seen it. Now just let others see it too.
Marie: I’m still saying it’s not that simple.
Piotr: Why not?
Marie: Because I still have myself to deal with.
Piotr: Yourself?
Marie: Yeah, myself. My self. It’s not just my religion, or my family, or whoever, or whatever. It’s me.
Piotr: How so?
Marie: If you know so much, then you know I’m still of two minds on this whole thing myself.
Piotr: Fine. Start with you. Look in the mirror. Listen to your thoughts.
Marie: And then what?
Piotr: You know how you feel right now? The way you feel when you take a long hard look inside?
Marie: Yes?
Piotr: That right there is who you are.
Marie: Just what makes you so sure of that?
Piotr: Like I said, I know stuff.
Marie: Ah.
Piotr: I know stuff when I hear it. I listen. I learn.
Marie: Yeah, yeah.
Piotr: What have you done with how you feel right now?
Marie: Like what?
Piotr: Have you acted on it?
Marie: We’re having this talk, aren’t we?
Piotr: Um, that’s not what I mean.
Marie: Oh.
Piotr: And I think you know what I mean.
Marie: Oh. Right. Well, in that case, no.
Piotr: Ah, I see.
Marie: What?
Piotr: Nothing.
Marie: Not nothing. “Ah, I see” is not nothing.
Piotr: No, there’s nothing to see. You haven’t acted on it.
Marie: So what? Have you acted on something?
Piotr: Well, no. I’m just like you on that.
Marie: Ah, I see.
Piotr: So it sounds like we are just the same on not having acted. But, you know, you could act on how you feel.
Marie: Sure I could.
Piotr: And maybe you should.
Marie: I do not see why.
Piotr: Look. I know that how I feel, that is just who I am.
Marie: So?
Piotr: So it’s just the same for you. How you feel is who you are. We just do not feel the same.
Marie: I thought who I am is the difference I make in the world. “Be the change you hope to see,” and all that. But I can’t change how I feel.
Piotr: Nor can I. That’s why I have to own it. That’s why you have to own it.
Marie: “Own” it? The folks I know won’t buy that line.
Piotr: But it’s true.
Marie: I don’t know I buy that line.
Piotr: But it’s right. Look. You do not have a choice in this. It’s not a choice at all
Pablo: Hmm…
Piotr: What are you humming about?
Piotr: Are you going to stay silent all night?
Pablo: That silence is the sound of me thinking. I listen. I learn.
Piotr: Ah. And what did you learn?
Pablo: That what you just said is not so.
Piotr: Oh? Which part?
Pablo: You just said Marie has no choice in this. But up till then you said she did.
Piotr: How so?
Pablo: You said she could come out. You said she could show courage. You said she could act on this. You said she could own this. If those are not choices, what are?
Piotr: So you think she should not own this, or act on this, or show courage, or come out?
Pablo: I did not say that. I just said they sound like choices. You may think them good ones. But they are choices either way.
Marie: Do you think the same about being straight?
Pablo: And about being shy. And smart. And single. And celibate. And much else. Parts of them are out of our control, and parts of them are not.
Marie: If I use “X” to pick out just those parts of some thing that are out of my control, then of course being X is not a choice.
Pablo: And if I use “X” to pick out just those parts that are not, then of course being X is.
Piotr: I got this.

At 12:51 AM, as light rain falls, three friends scatter again, as they do this time each morning, for a bit more life apart until they meet again.

Russell DiSilvestro
Department of Philosophy
Sacramento State

Monday, September 14, 2015

Future Philosophers

Editor's note: Vadim Keyser was first up this semester for our Future Philosopher's series, currently at Rio Americano High School. He offers these reflections on the experience.

Parking is surprisingly simple at Rio Americano. There are plenty of spaces and the cars have a healthy layer of dust. It’s the first indicator of the time put in by the good folks at this place. While you’re walking from the lot you’ll see: a couple of pals kicking a soccer ball, adjacent to the gym; some classmates holding a long string, an old ruler that’s too short, and throwing some paper plates, quickly running to replicate the results of the experiment; everything else is empty. There’s a giant mural on the music building. The “Abbey Road” cover is included. The shading is well placed. 

While signing in at the front office you may develop an uneasy feeling. The classical conditioning associations are still strong. You’re not in trouble, though, but you are out of place (in a good way). While walking to class, the bell rings and the students burst forth, following the laws of fluid mechanics. There is a lot of energy. It’s Friday morning, and no one’s tired. You have a name tag on, and that doesn’t matter to anyone. You find room A6. The windows are blocked by posters. Walking in, everything is very small. There’s no Smartroom setup. There’s a small projector, and a matted screen. Around the room you see artifacts from the ancient world, historical and cultural posters covered in a decade of photon exposure, calls for voter responsibility, white boards heavily structured with exact future material, no podium, and Linda Reed—greeting you with the exact smile you needed to see when you were a kid, trying to think about your thinking. 

Welcome to Linda Reed’s classroom. I guarantee you've never been to a place like this.

Linda Reed structures her class by setting a framework for process. Her focus is on student autonomy. They are expected to participate, but not in the sense that we think when we hear “participation”. Students explore, structure, and thoroughly defend worldviews in the intellectual space of philosophy. They know science, international relations, and seminar-level specifics from Descartes’s argument. You are presenting for a very different kind of youth than you had inferred from the generalized results in pop-tech-science studies. They’re not distracted, they treat technology like mayonnaise—in fair servings, they don’t talk about the world unless their words are careful, and they have a strong sense of classroom order without Linda saying a word. I emphasize this point: They know their facts. If you drop a science study reference, they will know it. It’s inspirational. But be warned, these smart, gentle folks are information-grapplers. And, if you don’t come warmed up, they’ll get ahold of that ankle. More on that in a bit.

I can’t give you a complete impression of teaching in that classroom. So, instead here are some tangible things that I appreciate about Linda’s educational space. My intention here is to get you to want to open the door to A6.

1. Note-taking: When a powerpoint slide goes up, the students don’t speed through, writing every word. In fact they will only take notes on peripheral, interesting points. But they will navigate through your argument with care. They will pause you for clarification, rewind, and then internalize. I attribute it to Linda building a strong foundation for cognitive maps. The students understand how to structure information without cues from the slides. This also means that the students will look directly at you, which brings me to the second point. 
2. Critical Engagement: You will know within the first 10 seconds of the class and every second thereafter if you have lost their attention. And if you do, there is no academic need for the information that is being presented. They are not writing it down for a test. They are internalizing it precisely because it is intrinsically or relationally interesting. Think of it as presenting philosophy to appreciators of philosophy. If you’re not absorbed in the topic or if you come in with glazed attention and highly saturated slides, they will let you know. But if you bring it, they will give you large-hadron energy. The room will buzz. 
 3. Stories: One of the things I had convinced myself is that students are losing an appreciation for storytelling. In the university classroom, students enjoy the story for its entertainment. But the implicit question is always, “What’s that supposed to show us?” So, you prep a slide with the point of the story. Here, it’s a bit different. Storytelling prompts more storytelling. The students don’t yet have this pseudo-distinction between facts and figments of the imagination, where the former is more important in understanding something. They’re glad to use the figments as tools to point to some aspect of reality. I attribute this to the classroom ethic of exploring the material rather than hoarding facts/theories, which is sometimes the unfortunate trend produced by mis-calibrated accountability measures. 
4.  Handshakes: The students will stick around after, shake your hand, and will share a perspective with you. It’s beautiful. 
This is a solid collaborative group, composed of individuals who are really sharp. It’s a good thing to see firsthand. It’s a good measurement apparatus for your adaptive engagement. It’s a strong experience. 

Come on over to A6, y’all.

Vadim Keyser
Department of Philosophy 
Sacramento State

Monday, September 7, 2015

What eats at you?

Russell DiSilvestro
What eats at me is me. Here I deliberately echo a (possibly apocryphal)
story about G. K. Chesterton, in which he replied to a newspaper’s question
"What's wrong with the world today?" with the terse assertion "I am." So,
then, in my own case, while lots of things (people, puzzles, principalities
and powers) eat at me 'from the outside,' what really nibbles me numb
comes from within the fort. My own inability to live as I know I ought
to—not only morally, but also intellectually and aesthetically—gnaws at me
roughly as follows: my own internal program for detecting the good, the
true, and the beautiful says: “aim right there.” But then, like a lazy,
distracted archer, by the time the arrow is set to the string and flies, it’s not
just wide of the mark a little (like missing the bulls-eye by a millimeter), but
far of the entire target (often way short, but sometimes long or left or
right). Of course the arrow lands somewhere, at which point another
internal program kicks in: quick, start drawing concentric circles around
wherever it might have landed. If only the Texas sharpshooter’s fallacy was
limited to Texans. And if only I was typing this post earlier than normal for
reasons other than procrastinating on what I know I should be working on
right now…

Dan Weijers
What eats at me is mosquitoes. As if trying to get to sleep on a hot summer night isn’t difficult enough, it’s nearly impossible when I hear the high-pitched drone of those blood-sucking pests. Holidaying in the Netherlands during a heatwave this summer, those vicious vampires were out in force. I tried covering up. Too hot; it’s hard to sleep while swimming in sweat. I tried imbibing heavily to poison my blood. Turns out mosquitoes like a drink too. In the middle of the night on the final night of the holiday, I lost it. It didn’t worry me that everyone had to get in at 4am to get to the airport in time. I was enraged and focused on just one thing: revenge. Flip-flop in hand, I leaped around the upstairs bedroom splattering those airborne a**holes against the white walls of our cabin. Needless to say, everyone else woke up and blamed me for the interruption to their much-needed sleep. It also eats at me when heroes are misunderstood and vilified. Worst of all though, after hopping back into bed, chuffed with myself for creating a grotesque mural out of eight of those suckers, I couldn’t sleep. Another high-pitched drone told me that there was still one left.

Jonathan Chen
What eats at me are slow-walking pedestrians, people that loiter in the middle of a busy side-walk or busy steps, people who spell "a lot" as "alot," potato chips that are folded rather than flat, Arrowhead Mountain Spring Water, consuming the bottom half of a Lucky Charms cereal box (which has significantly more toasted oats than marshmallows...), warm pillows, and going to Subway® and getting a very stingy sandwich maker and leaving with a feeble Subway® sandwich. These things eat away at my soul and tear away the very fabric of my character.

Kyle Swan

What eats at me is politics. As I write this, I'm vaguely aware that a stage full of plutocratic 1-percenters are ostensibly debating the future direction of the country we live in. I understand that in October plutocratic 1-percenters on the Democratic side of the aisle will be presenting a similar show. Many think that the highest forms of civic virtue are found in political participation. I think someone coaching a community girls’ softball team exhibits more civic virtue. Most political action causes harm to some people; community softball games are at worst boring. At best what we’re witnessing are privileged elites attempting to convince others of the policies they think are best for people, but who will, regardless of whether they are successful in this attempt, then go on to attempt to implement those policies by force. (I say "at best" because it’s unlikely that they think those policies really are best for people.)

G. Randolph Mayes

What eats at me is how your faith in God or humanity can be suddenly shaken when it's you who gets the shaft; the way you developed profound sympathy for those who suffer from evil X simply because you now suffer from  evil X too; how you became an insufferable evangelist for that (very dubious) solution to said evil just because it figured so large in your own life.
My reaction is always the same: Why does the fact that you are the one under the wheel suddenly make this evil so profoundly significant? You knew this was happening all along to other people. Was it all part of a tolerable plan just as long as it wasn't happening to you? 
Of course I get that these questions make me a self-righteous jerk. We have little ability to care intensely about things that do not affect us personally. And our puny selves are just incapable of sincerely attending to more than a tiny fraction of the evil we know about. Nor do we seem have the ability to objectify our own experiences, to consider them as if they were the experiences of people we do not love. This is a version of what psychologists call the fundamental attribution error. The evil that befalls others is likely their own fault; the evil that befalls us is usually someone else’s.

Scott Merlino
Right up there with complainypants blog posts such as this one, I specifically detest selfies. I mean those casual, unprofessional photos that people take of themselves and post online. Too many of these clutter social media and I just can’t appreciate them, perhaps due to latent misanthropy or my own lack of photogenicity. Why do people take these? What good reasons could there be for them? Some people want to share a cute picture of a friend or pet, maybe they want to show you a beautiful panorama or funny scene. I get it, but wouldn’t the picture show us more with your distracting mug out of the way? If you really think the photo wouldn’t be better without you posing in it, then you need to ask yourself if you are posting it for others or to satisfy a selfish craving for attention. But I am being unfair, perhaps selfies function as evidence for your having been somewhere or with someone. But such photos can’t count as good evidence of anything, because photo-editing applications exist. Photos don’t lie but people do. Selfies can’t be evidence of how good we look, since what we post is carefully filtered through the lens of our own narcissism. Those of you taking selfies in public spaces, in full view of innocent bystanders: Do you realize how silly and self-absorbed you look? Ask someone else to take a picture with you in it for a proper perspective. Keep your selfies to yourself, please.

Vadim Keyer
What eats at me is people not taking perspective: A conversation is a navigation of conceptual space. It should take place between more than one person, but when it does, we're usually forcing another to navigate our conceptual space without setting sail anywhere else. The old saying, "put yourself in someone else's shoes" rarely applies. The implication is simple: When we converse we don't take someone's perspective. Sometimes we might give someone our perspective to take as theirs. But there isn't much exploration of new territories. It's confusing because this seems like the most efficient way to have a conversation. Individuals could take turns navigating each other's spaces. And, even if they don't agree, they've explored something.

Monday, August 10, 2015

A meta is just a meta

There’s a Zen saying, “Before I became aware of Zen, the mountain was just a mountain. When I became aware of Zen, the mountain became more than just a mountain. After enlightenment, the mountain is just a mountain.”

Does self awareness add something of value or take it away? Consider some examples:

In philosophy, Harry Frankfurt gives an account of personhood that necessitates a multi-tiered awareness of desires. A person not only has desires, but also has desires about those desires. Your homeostatic existence, its torture or its ease, depends on a constant tussle between levels of desires.

The artist can become hyper-aware, such as Vermeer painting himself painting.

Characters can be hyper-aware, too. In the spirit of the times, Deadpool is the metacritic of his own modern story.

I think we’re a bit like that, too. Our life trajectories aren’t always accompanied by smooth echoing storylines. Rather, they’re collaged out of floating fragments of hashtags and selfie-referential photographs. In the future, the digi-dated content of our abandoned social media profiles will baffle alien anthropologists. And if we could see that future moment, our initial reaction might be, “Voyniched the sh*t out of that.”

There are flavors of awareness. One that’s had a curious taste for me is meta. Simply put, content that is self-referential and multiplying to no end. I’m not sure what the taste is like. My hunch is it moved from zesty to acerbic to lysergic. Let's explore that taste and try to figure out why, at certain times, we just don't like it.

In "E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction" David Foster Wallace presents the authentic but outdated rebel:

The next real literary “rebels” in this country might well emerge as some weird bunch of anti-rebels, born oglers who dare somehow to back away from ironic watching, who have the childish gall actually to endorse and instantiate single-entendre principles. Who treat of plain old untrendy human troubles and emotions in U.S. life with reverence and conviction. Who eschew self-consciousness and hip fatigue. These anti-rebels would be outdated, of course, before they even started. 

Maybe Wallace gets at the feeling by pointing to something direct, human. Shake a hand, lock ocular nerves, reminisce for a while. That’s direct. We’ve seen that.

It’s either too contrived and superfluous, or as Wallace predicts, it’ll die before it picks up because it’s too banal.

Or maybe he hits a nerve: We’re tired of stacking entendre’s, one-upping, and potpourri-ing our inner lives with out-of-context historical quotes. We’re digesting too much meta content too often and at some point it’s time to upchuck. For example, take one consequence of meta culture, hyper-irony. Let’s look at how the self-referential layers multiply at an unbearable pace.

Situational irony is when an expectation is met with the opposite outcome. A meteorologist plans a vacation right in the eye of the storm. Modern day Don Juan never gets swiped the right way on Tinder. Your anti-meta culture quote is souped-up into a meta humor meme about your meta humor so that you can laugh at yourself laughing at others laughing about their laughing.

Dramatic irony adds another dimension: audience vs. character perspective. On stage and in film, dramatic irony works effectively by contrasting what the audience knows with what the character believes, so it’s not just the expectation, it’s whose expectation that is important. Romeo thinks Juliet is dead, Schrader isn’t aware that Heisenberg is his brother-in-law, Luke doesn’t know Darth Vader is his father; but the audience knows. The audience waits for the moment when the character replaces his falsehood with the truth, already seen by the audience. An effective irony structure for comedy is that the characters are clueless about their absurdity, even within moments of reflection. Harry and Lloyd are too stupid to know they’re stupid (Dunning-Kruger Effect). Lloyd sells the van for a scooter and, in a moment of reflection, Harry says, “…just when I think you couldn’t possibly be any dumber…you go and do something like this, and…totally redeem yourself!” The audience expects the characters to figure out their stupidity, but they never do.

Perspective in comedy evolves and shifts. In Groundhog Day, Bill Murray’s character and the audience are aware of the eternal recurrence of the day, but no one else is. The next natural, experimental step is hyper-irony: The characters are aware of the irony and will sometimes direct the audience to it. This can be done in Annie Hall fashion where Woody talks into the camera.

The characters can also become aware of the absurdity of the situation. An absurdity occurs, the characters are aware of it, but just to reaffirm, one character responds with any of these shudder-producing words: ‘Really’,‘yikes’, ‘awkward’.

Key & Peele call it out best:

Maybe meta is tiring because it’s ineffectively hyper-ironic. Maybe it’s something else. I asked a friend about this: “Why is it annoying when people try to be meta?” “Because people don’t know sh*t.” Perhaps it’s that each layer is just flimsy, and the bottom layer is just hot air. Behind the commentary about the commentary, there’s no complete idea—just BS. Harry Frankfurt characterizes ‘bullsh*t’ by the non-commitment to truth or falsity. Bullsh*t roams in a vast indefinite space. That makes it wasteful for knowledge. But it makes it a bit of fun. Maybe that’s a function of meta, too. It’s not for anything deep, anything actually meta, but just for fun. That’s why we get tired of and annoyed at meta content. We expect it to be more than what it is. Instead, we can accept it and soup up our bullsh*t. 

If you like the rebellion and resignation route, sometimes the Zen line is best: “The mountain is just a mountain.” Or, “When you eat, eat, when you sleep, sleep.” Maybe Deadpool said it better.

Vadim Keyser
Department of Philosophy
Sacramento State