Friday, July 12, 2024

PSYCH 406 (Psychopathology) - Trauma and Pathologizing the Norm

Abstract

This essay discusses the observation of Western culture’s fascination with trauma, along with the history of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and how that diagnosis has expanded its scope. It also notes that most humans are resilient in adversity and trauma. For those who suffer long-lasting effects of trauma and exhibit PTSD symptoms, they should seek professional help and support.

Introduction

For many movie-goers, the summer is a great time to head to the silver screen and watch action, drama, and intriguing stories play out in spectacular visuals and chest-thumping sounds. This year, audiences are anticipating the third installment of the Deadpool series. For the uninitiated, Deadpool is an antihero known for his sharp sarcasm and dark humor. For example, in a scene from the first Deadpool movie (Miller, 2016), when he meets his girlfriend, Vanessa, the two enter a back-and-forth banter about the trauma and rough childhood they’ve endured. While this essay won’t recall the entire repartee, one of the less dark and non-sexual exchanges gives a good sense of the dialogue. At one point, Deadpool quips his bedroom was a hall closet, to which Vanessa volleys back she had to sleep in a dishwasher box, to which Deadpool replies, “you had a dishwasher?” (Miller, 2016). While dark and humorous, this represents the zeitgeist of modern culture’s romanticization of trauma .

In a recent Psychology Today article (2022, January 4), Robin Stern wrote regarding her observations of many examples of how society, particularly Western society, has become enamored with stories of trauma. From a conversation she had with her trainee about how she couldn’t get enough details of her clients’ trauma, to books by Bessel von der Kelk and Paul Conti  on bestsellers lists and to a documentary by Gabor Maté, all are examples of how the topic of trauma is having a significant cultural moment. However, Stern and others have wondered if there is a misunderstanding of what trauma is. Are people truly experiencing trauma, or are they simply experiencing stress, grief, or big life events ? Maddux and Winstead (2016, p. 162) in the chapter on trauma and stressor disorders note that there is “larger debate [regarding the] pathologizing of normal human suffering and the overdiagnosis of disorders .”

This essay will discuss the phenomenon of society’s romance with trauma and the issue of pathologizing normal behaviors (Harrist & Richardson, 2014). It will then pivot to a discussion on what constitutes real, clinical trauma and two psychosocial models of the etiology of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) (Maddux & Winstead, 2016). Lastly, the essay will contend that many people suffer significant stress and emotional events, however, most are resilient and will recover (Bonanno, 2021). For those who truly suffer trauma, they too will largely recover, but for those who meet the criteria of PTSD, they should seek professional help.

Pathologizing Normal Behavior

Harrist and Richardson (2014) discuss many ways in which seemingly normal behavior has been pathologized in Western culture. They note how melancholy and despair may actually be perfectly normal responses to the instable world in which we live, yet modern science attempts to solve these responses with pharmaceuticals . They further wonder why hoarding is considered a mental disorder when people fill their house to the roof with junk but people who “amass billions of dollars while other people starve” are not pathologized (Harrist & Richardson, 2014, p. 202). But more importantly, they discuss the roots and genesis of the PTSD diagnosis.

They cite an article published in the British Medical Journal of how the old diagnoses of battle fatigue and war neurosis were replaced by PTSD. The early supporters of the PTSD diagnosis were also part of the anti-war movement during the Vietnam War. Under the new diagnosis of PTSD, war veterans could receive unique medical care. But more importantly, PTSD fundamentally changed the way soldiers were viewed and treated. Instead of the focus being on the unique history of the soldier and his psyche, PTSD “legitimized their victimhood” and the PTSD diagnosis was perhaps more of a statement against the nature of war than anything else (Harrist & Richardson, 2014, p. 203). This change was a pivotal moment as the diagnosis expanded in scope for the next several decades to explain not only battle trauma, but also “symptoms of distress following disturbing events, even ones relatively commonplace or just witnessed, not directly experienced, by individuals” (Harrist & Richardson, 2014, p. 203).

Returning to Stern (Psychology Today Contributors, 2022, January 4), she describes why PTSD and related disorders have seemingly expanded their scope. The experiences people share of  trauma are often remarkable and fascinating and “have a strong emotional charge” especially when compared to more normal experiences of people from overprotected and isolated lives. There is an aura about traumatic stories and people who live through those experiences are imbued with a type of fame and fascination. Others wish to share their own stressful experiences to gain traumatic credibility. But as Harrist and Richardson (2014) warn, while people may indeed experience big emotional events, the trauma of soldiers, war victims, and victims of sexual violence, to name a few, should not be “trivialized.” Definitions matter and delineation must be made clear between normal behavior in response to a significant event, and clinical trauma that people suffer from living through horrific events.

Clinical Trauma and Psychosocial Etiology Models of PTSD

While there have been changes to the PTSD entry between the DSM-4 and the DSM-5, such as moving it from an anxiety disorder to the newly created category of trauma- and stressor-related disorders, the key features of PTSD remain relatively the same (Maddux & Winstead, 2016, p. 165). The traumatic experiences must be related to death, the threat of death, significant bodily injury, or sexual violence. Victims may either experience these events directly or they may indirectly experience them such as when a close family member directly experiences it and then conveys the details of the horrific event to the victim. Stemming from one or more of these experiences, the victim should demonstrate intrusive memories, dreams, or psychological and even physiological effects from reminders of the traumatic event. They will avoid any reminders of the event and may begin to have cognitive distortions, memory loss, emotional distress, and  even detachment. From there, they will develop and exhibit strong response arousal, careless behavior, hypervigilance, or experience problems with concentration or sleep. The victim must suffer many of the above symptoms for more than one month after the event. Underlying all these symptoms is the victim’s inability to process or integrate the traumatic experiences into their life. In turn, they are left with less than adequate coping mechanisms.

Based on a sample of people in the United States, it is estimated that over 60% of men and 51% of women experience trauma (Maddux & Winstead, 2016, p. 163). The majority of those adapt and do not experience long-term maladaptive coping mechanisms. As for why some people might cope well and adapt to a traumatic experience while others do not, there are many etiological theories that explain why some suffer PTSD. This essay will only touch on two: cognitive and emotional processing .

The cognitive etiological model theorizes that the individual’s beliefs and knowledge about himself, the world, and other people are maladaptive and weak, and when the individual experiences a traumatic event, their beliefs and conception of safety, are crushed (Maddux & Winstead, 2016, p. 169). They are unable to process the events and make meaning out of the experience. In fact, Harrist and Richardson (2014, p. 207) note that in a highly individualistic culture, many people don’t experience “shared meanings and coping strategies” and are thus left to their own devices to cope with trauma. In turn, they become overwhelmed and experience PTSD.

The emotional processing etiological model is based on the theory that the individual creates fear structures to deal with dangers in their environment. However, when these fear structures build excessive responses, the individual becomes inflexible in learning how to modify their responses (Maddux & Winstead, 2016, pp. 170-171). For example, a person with PTSD will demonstrate avoidance behavior, which in turn prevents them from tapping into and updating  their fear structure in a way that would enable them to successfully adapt to an event. 

As briefly noted, most people who suffer a traumatic event are able to make meaning out of the experience, adapt, and recover from the stress of trauma. In all this discussion on trauma and PTSD, it has been broadly observed that humans are quite adaptable, even when confronted with the worst of trauma.

The Resilient Human

Maddux and Winstead (2016, p. 163) produce a chart that visually demonstrates that even with the traumatic events of sexual and non-sexual assaults, people are able to recover and adapt well after the event. For sexual assault victims, 70% report PTSD symptoms one month after the event. That percentage continues to drop over time, going as low as 30% one year after the event. For non-sexual assault victims, 40% report PTSD symptoms one month after the event with a declining trend over time, going to 10% at the one-year mark. Overall, the data suggest there is a “natural recovery curve” (2016, p. 162), in which most victims can make a strong recovery. Only a small minority of victims experience PTSD .

All of this data supports the claim that perhaps by pathologizing and stigmatizing many big, emotional, stressful events, as a whole, society may be undercutting the process of recovery . To lend greater support and care for a victim, pathologies are created, and focus is placed on the symptoms, rather than successful and creative coping mechanisms. There is also a significant individualization and rights-based view of modern pathologies. Harrist and Richardson (2014, p. 204) note this paradigm “underestimates and tends to undermine the creative capacity of people to cope with, and even at times find meaning in, suffering and traumatic experiences.”

Harrist and Richarson (2014, p. 204) continue their discussion with examples of two non-Western cultures that do not pathologize not only big, emotional, stressful events, but not even trauma. Researchers and counselors went to Sri Lanka after the 2004 tsunami and worn-torn Afghanistan and realized people exhibited symptoms not on the PTSD list and when they tried to provide individualized grief counseling, the isolation “actually [exacerbated] fears of loss or disturbance of one’s role in the community.”

Returning to Stern (Psychology Today Contributors, 2022, January 4), she contends our judgment becomes impaired when we become captivated by stories of trauma . By immersing ourselves in our own emotions, we may overlook the needs of the person telling his or her traumatic story. Most importantly, we underestimate our resilience and fail to recognize our true strength. She goes on to discuss some broad observations from one researcher who has studied this topic for many years. She quotes George Bonanno who says, “Most people are resilient …some people are traumatized; some people recover. There are different trajectories.” In fact, in one of Bonanno’s more recent articles entitled The Resilience Paradox (2021, p. 2), he and other researchers reviewed 67 studies to better understand “outcome trajectories” of people who endure a potentially traumatic event (PTE). He writes, “two thirds of the participants showed the resilience trajectory. Thus, not only is resilience to PTEs common, it is consistently the majority outcome.”

In sum, many studies and researchers have noted that the human is resilient in the face of big, emotional, stressful events and even traumatic events. While trying to determine the root cause of why some suffer PTSD and others do not, researchers are finding that PTSD is fairly rare. For those who do suffer many of the symptoms of PTSD for months after the traumatic event, they should continue to seek support from clinicians, counselors, and a support structure.

Conclusion

In conclusion, this essay examined the phenomenon of society’s romance with trauma and the issue of pathologizing normal behaviors. Western culture seems to be experiencing a cultural moment with its fascination of hearing others’ traumatic experiences. While many people do experience big, emotional, stressful events, they are most likely not suffering clinical PTSD. PTSD is reserved for people who experience events related to death, the threat of death, significant bodily injury, or sexual violence. Furthermore, they develop long-lasting, maladaptive coping mechanisms. There are many theories of the etiology of PTSD, of which two are emotional processing and cognitive. Ultimately, many people suffer significant stress and emotional events, however, most are resilient and will recover. Even for those who truly suffer trauma related to death, bodily and sexual violence, they too will largely recover, but those who meet the criteria of PTSD and who have lasting effects, they should seek professional help and support from their family, friends, and social networks . 

References

Bonanno, G. A. (2021). The resilience paradox. European Journal of Psychotraumatology, 12(1), 1942642–1942642. https://doi.org/10.1080/20008198.2021.1942642 

Harrist, R. S., & Richardson, F. C. (2014). Pathologizing the Normal, Individualism, and Virtue Ethics. Journal of Contemporary Psychotherapy, 44(3), 201-211. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10879-013-9255-7

Maddux, J. E., & Winstead, B. A. (2016). Psychopathology : Foundations For A Contemporary Understanding (4th ed.). Routledge/Taylor & Francis Group.

Miller, T. (Director). (2016, February 8). Deadpool. 20th Century Fox.

Psychology Today Contributors. (2022, January 4). 5 Big New Trends | Psychology Today. Www.psychologytoday.com. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/articles/202201/5-big-new-trends  


Saturday, June 22, 2024

PSYCH 406 (Psychopathology) - TikTok and Diagnosis

 Abstract

This essay discusses the trend of self-diagnosis for mental disorders by people consuming social media, such as TikTok videos. It then examines the complexity of proper diagnosis while discussing the challenges the DSM-5 faces in providing clear guidance on diagnosis. Lastly, it addresses the risks of self-diagnosis and steps people can take to not succumb to those risks.

Introduction

In the summer of 2022, my family was about to enjoy a much-needed vacation. But before we began the 1500-mile drive, we were slightly concerned about a noise from the family van. The van was dropped off at the local mechanic who regularly changes the oil in all our vehicles. Later in the afternoon, the mechanic called back and said the van would need a $7000 repair and even suggested buying a new car might be cheaper. Shocked by this diagnosis, we took the van to another mechanic we knew from buying a used car. After a day, this other mechanic said he had seen this problem in vans many times before and it would cost less than $500 to repair. Of course, we went with the second mechanic and the van is still working great to this day.

The risks and dangers of misdiagnoses can be significant, even for a mechanical car that is relatively less complicated than the human brain. In the case of our van, the misdiagnosis would have cost us significantly and the problem would still not have been fixed. However, for humans, the risks and dangers of misdiagnosing a mental condition can be even more substantial. 

With the widespread availability of information online and the broad reach of social media, the practice of self-diagnosis and sharing one’s story online has presented new challenges to the mental health community. The framework for diagnoses, including the use of the DSM-5, is intended to facilitate common understanding and nomenclature for psychologists and psychiatrists, as well as aid in predictions and information sharing and even guide therapeutic practices (Maddux & Winstead, 2016; David & Deeley, 2024). But despite significant research and debate, the DSM-5 is not perfect, which fact underscores the complexity of diagnosis. Even so, many unqualified and untrained people self-diagnose because of ease of access to the DSM-5 and because they hear others discussing their symptoms of disorders on social media. This practice has led to problems such as definition dilution and perceived absolution of responsibility for one’s actions (Cassata, 2024; David & Deeley, 2024). While self-diagnosis may have its place, individuals who choose this route should always seek professional assistance and remain open to the possibility that their self-diagnosis could be incorrect.

Self-diagnosis of Mental Disorders Via TikTok

Juliana Dodds (The Project, 2022) did not feel understood. In a search for answers, she turned to watching content on social media, including TikTok. When she heard others’ stories, she felt they could fully explain her perspective. Many people, like Juliana, are looking for answers as to why they act the way they do. For some people, the discovery of social media influencers explaining their symptoms becomes a launching point of self-discovery, which leads to a conversation with their psychologist and may confirm the diagnosis. However, not all cases are as straightforward as watching a video, talking to a therapist, and receiving confirmation of a diagnosis. Others may feel validated after watching social media, but when discussing the issue with a psychologist, and after being tested multiple times, the self-diagnosis is incorrect. Some patients become convinced they have a specific mental disorder despite what the psychologist says. Juliana falls in the latter category, and although her doctor diagnosed her with complex post-traumatic stress disorder, she is convinced she has attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder.

The trend of self-diagnosis stemming from social media has become so pervasive, that a recent study was conducted to understand how accurate or inaccurate these influencers are. Cassata (2024) reviewed the study conducted by Drexel University’s A.J. Drexel Autism Institute and found that less than a third of the most popular autism-related content included correct information and that over 40% of those videos “were completely inaccurate.” The study further noted the extent of the misinformation, stating that many egregiously inaccurate videos had been viewed close to 150 million times. While the power and reach of social media grants millions of people access to potentially valuable information, which may kick-start them on the path to recovery, it nevertheless remains vitally important that proper diagnosis is applied. Often the diagnosis process takes time and can be very complex.

DSM-5 and Complexity of Diagnosis

The DSM-5-TR (American Psychological Association, 2022) contains over 1,000 pages of text, criteria, definitions, tables, and statistics. Countless hours of research and debate underlies the wide-ranging scope of mental diagnoses enumerated in the manual. In the section entitled “Use of the Manual” the authors both describe the extensive assessment that should be performed, as well as warn readers of the dangers of “simply [checking] off the symptoms” (p. 21, 2022). Indeed, case formulation should include a detailed clinical history and a succinct summary of the social, psychological, and biological factors that may have contributed to the development of a particular mental disorder. Even after all factors have been considered, ultimately, clinical judgment is critical in determining the relative severity and significance of an individual's signs, symptoms, and diagnosis.

Despite the numerous hours of research and effort poured into the DSM-5, a review of its history proves that this resource is not perfect. While great strides have been made to make it the valuable resource it is today, forthcoming editions and revisions will face difficulty in basing future additions on empirical support as well as managing the shift from a categorial model to a dimensional model (see Maddux & Winstead, p. 100, 2016).

With many research questions left unanswered, some take the approach of advocating for the addition of a disorder to garner attention so that empirical data could be collected on the disorder, as was the case with “severe irritability in youth” (p. 101, 2016). While perhaps a worthy cause, this practice has the risk of defining a disorder that does not truly exist. As to the shift in classification, more are beginning to recognize the consistent failures of the categorical model, and therefore the DSM-5 has begun the shift toward a dimensional model. Shifting to a dimensional model will allow for a continuum of mental disorders based on severity, frequency, or intensity, and will allow clinicians to provide a richer diagnosis as well as improved pathways to treatment.

In sum, the numerous considerations that should go into a diagnosis are guided by years of clinical training, as well as countless hours of research and debate to produce the DSM-5. Even with the critiques the DSM-5 faces, this situation further underscores the importance of a proper diagnosis by trained and qualified clinicians, and self-diagnosis from watching a TikTok video is fraught with peril.

Risks and Proper Use of Self-diagnosis

Virtually anyone can access the DSM-5. While obtaining this resource is easy, its use in diagnosing a disorder requires hours of training and practice. Many people will read the DSM-5 and begin to draw conclusions that they exhibit the hallmarks of a particular disorder. They may even take the added step of sharing their story on social media. Others follow proper channels and seek an expert to determine if the disorder warrants an official diagnosis. Two major risks of self-diagnosing are definition dilution (Cassata, 2024) and perceived absolution of responsibility for one’s actions (David & Deeley, 2024). While self-diagnosis, whether through reading the DSM-5 or watching a video on social media, may be the catalyst for the individual to get the help they need, they must not stop there. They ought to consult an expert and seek professional help.

One major risk of self-diagnosis is definition dilution. This means as more untrained people improperly explain a diagnosis on social media, the viewers of those misinformed videos also jump to inaccurate conclusions. The viewers, in turn, spread the misinformation, as well as become convinced they have a particular disorder. When a viewer visits a trained clinician and hears they may have a different disorder, the patient may become upset and even believe they are being gaslit (Cassata, 2024).

Another major risk of self-diagnosis is the perception that the patient is absolved of the responsibility for seeking a cure because fundamentally the self-diagnosing patient believes the symptoms they exhibit are normal and do not constitute a disorder. David and Deeley (2024) observed that self-diagnosis stems from “grass roots movements” such as the neurodiversity movement, which seek to “[reframe] several diagnostic categories as (mere) variations of normality” and even propose that these are not disorders (p. 1057, 2024). Once this concept (that a disorder is normal) is accepted (either individually or socially), the individual could assume an attitude that “the world needs to accommodate him and ‘his autism’” and he need not search for a cure or alter his behavior in any way (p. 1058, 2024).

There is room for allowing the potential for self-diagnosis, with several caveats. If a person has sought professional help and if in the course of exploring all possibilities, the patient discovers information on social media, and most importantly, if they discuss what they’ve learned with their trained mental health provider, then perhaps social media has a place in the diagnosis process. The Internet has connected billions of people. For some who may have limited resources and time, perhaps social media content might fast-track the diagnosis process. But the importance of not succumbing to naïveté cannot be emphasized enough. The patient should always keep an open mind when consuming social media and should generally be willing to trust trained experts. Cassata (2024) interviewed a trained clinician who wisely stated, “Social media, in and of itself, is not the enemy … the real threat seems to be our unquestioning, naïve relationship to social media and our belief that diagnoses can be self-made without consulting a professional.”

Conclusion

In conclusion, with the widespread availability of online information and the broad reach of social media, self-diagnosis and sharing personal stories online have posed new challenges to clinicians, psychologists, and therapists. The diagnostic framework, including the DSM-5, is designed to create a common understanding and lexicon for psychologists and psychiatrists. It also aids in making predictions, facilitating information sharing, and guiding therapeutic practices. However, despite extensive research and debate, the DSM-5 is not perfect, which further highlights the complexity of diagnosis. Nonetheless, many unqualified and untrained individuals self-diagnose due to the ease of access to information and exposure to stories influencers share on social media. This practice has led to issues such as the dilution of diagnostic definitions and the perceived absolution of responsibility for one's actions. While there may be a space for self-diagnosis, those who go down this path should always consult professional help and always keep an open mind that the self-diagnosis may be wrong. 

References

American Psychiatric Association. (2022). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders, text revision (5th ed.). American Psychiatric Association.

Cassata, C. (2024, April 11). Autism: TikTok Leading People to Inaccurate Self-Diagnosis (J. Peeples & J. Seladi-Schulman, Eds.). Healthline. https://www.healthline.com/health-news/autism-self-diagnosis-tiktok

David, A. S., & Deeley, Q. (2024). Dangers of self-diagnosis in neuropsychiatry. Psychological Medicine, 54(6), 1057-1060. https://doi.org/10.1017/S0033291724000308 

Maddux, J. E., & Winstead, B. A. (2016). Psychopathology : Foundations For A Contemporary Understanding (4th ed.). Routledge/Taylor & Francis Group.

The Project. (2022, December 6). Dr TikTok: People Using TikTok To Self-Diagnose Neurodivergent Conditions Such As ADHD Or Autism. Www.youtube.com. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qhx7PnHZ7cY&ab_channel=TheProject 


Monday, June 3, 2024

From Shipwreck to Fire

Remembering Heraclitus: Themes


If the dry, fiery soul is the wise, “enlightened individual” (Sweet, p. 59, 2007), then the damp, wet, or even drenched soul needs genuine, philosophical insight. And how curious to encounter this footnote in Remembering Heraclitus: “Ortega y Gasset in his Loss of Self in Art suggests that the philosophic impulse arises from ‘feeling shipwrecked upon things’” (Geldard, p. 96, 2001). The image is striking: a sopping-wet captain and his crew attempting to flee their ship that has crashed on craggy rocks! How far from being dry are those souls and in that sinking moment, when lives and fortunes are ruined, they are left wondering what has become of them. What twisted turn of events in navigation, reading bearings, and accounting of weather did they go afoul? They have become shipwrecked and now the process of recovery and the path to dryness and even fire begins – their first impulse to philosophy commences.

Perhaps the analogy can be further considered. Will the shipwrecked crew try again? Will they take the lessons they learned to heart to avoid a future shipwreck, or even despite their best efforts to avoid misfortune, will they nonetheless run aground unforeseen shallow rock? Is this never-ending cycle of flux their fate? Do their daimons lead them down this looping path to the point that their fate defines their character? And lastly, if they are to tread the endless path of flux, do they ever stop and wonder what their purpose is – what their telos is? Perhaps, like Zeno of Citium, a shipwreck offers transcendence and brings deep and fundamental discernment to the unfortunate soul, thus revealing their telos, and they never return to their former endeavor (see Long, p. 109, 1986). Is misfortune truly fortune? This essay will ruminate on these questions using Richard Geldard’s Remembering Heraclitus (2001) as the backdrop for the discussion.

Your Character is your Daimon

Fragment 119 is translated in various ways. Geldard (2001) notes that most translators translate it as “character is fate.” Sweet’s (2007) translation is “one’s character is one’s divine fortune” while Robinson’s (1991) is “a person’s character is his fate (divinity). As for Geldard (2001), he translates it as, “for human beings, character is the divine force.” There is a spectrum of interpretations for how one may grasp the meaning of this fragment. We may suppose our fate is entirely out of our hands and we seemingly resign ourselves to the fates the gods have doled out to us. Or we may interpret this fragment as a declaration of our freedom in which we get to control our attitude, narrative, and volition – we are the authors of our character. Geldard reviews various analyses of this fragment, one of which represents both ends of the spectrum as one and the same.

We have no say in the matter of which life we are thrown into. We don’t get to weave our DNA and choose our parents, nor even choose the best traits and aspects of our parents. In fact, we may even be chained with generational baggage, emotions, and “debt” if you take an Eastern philosophical view of the matter (see Geldard, p. 89, 2001). From this perspective of the fragment, our daimon is exerting destiny and fate upon us the moment our cells begin to replicate. But that is only one side of the coin, to reference the analogy Geldard uses. The other side of the coin represents the “so what?”

The character Andy Dufresne from Shawshank Redemption (Darabont, 1994) faced stacked odds against him, but how he responded to his fate (his daimon) ultimately defined his character. Indeed, our fate or perhaps our daimon, as our guardian spirit, senses the required obstacles we must face which act as catalysts for us to either succumb to defeat or to achieve a defining moment. From this side of the coin, then, we should not moan or gripe in the face of impediments, but rather we should thank the gods for showing us the way to finding our true character. As the well-known Marcus Aurelius passage teaches, regarding other people, the elements, and even wild animals, these are “hindrance[s]” and “obstacles” that indicate the “path” on which we can advance (Meditations 5, 20). In sum, our fate and impediments point the way to our character.

However, in a cosmos that never rests from change, we must be cognizant of the unending myriad of obstacles. We may think our character has been refined through the process of managing an impediment, but the reality is that the constant state of flux will demand we confront barriers endlessly.

Constant Flux

Fractals are intriguing mathematical constructs that exhibit self-similarity at different scales yet are vastly complex and ever-evolving. In other words, they are shapes that look similar or even identical depending on the focus and scale of the perspective. They're often intricate and detailed, yet they are built on simple repeating patterns or processes. Fractals can be found in nature, such as in the branching patterns of trees, the distribution of galaxies, the structure of coastlines, and even in the shape of clouds. Perhaps fractals are an apt metaphor for reality and existence as a whole: infinite, ever-changing, ever-evolving. Once set in motion, the math behind the fractal iterates and expands endlessly.

One of the major themes of Heraclitus is the nature of flux and the cause of it. According to Heraclitus, part of the process of acquiring wisdom is to be awake and conscious to comprehend “the thought that directs all things through all things” (Geldard, p. 46, 2001). Geldard then makes an interesting connection by quoting Anaxagoras who noted, “mind is infinite and self-sustaining, is unmixed, alone, and by itself …. [and] drives the whole revolution, so that it revolved initially, first in a small area and now more widely, and eventually more widely still” (p. 46, 2001). Could this description be applied to a fractal? Perhaps. And if this is the true nature of the Cosmos and as humans are intricately entwined in the details of the Cosmos, we must accept the idea that our own minds are tiny fractals in a larger fractal both of which are constantly changing and evolving and part of a massive chain which is infinite. Consider Fragment 45: “One would never discover the limits of soul, should one traverse every road - so deep a measure does it possess” (Robinson, 1991). Succinctly stated, change causes change and never ceases.

However, what does flux mean to the individual? First, the individual must heed the wisdom Heraclitus states. We must accept that change is constant and never-ending. To wail at the passing of every dead skin cell or formation of a wrinkle or to be overjoyed at the birth of a kitten or bloom of a rose is not wisdom. Implied in these overextensions of emotion is a desire for something to remain the same. A better reaction to change is to accept it and even embrace it.

Secondly, the individual must look both deeper into and take a wider perspective of the fractal. Upon further reflection of flux, and the more one becomes familiar with change, he will begin to note that there is a cyclical nature to existence. Seasons change; families shrink and grow; history seems both different, yet the same. If one becomes discerning enough, he will realize that feeling sadness or anxiety about change is folly, especially since he may have a chance to experience something anew. Spring flowers are never lost. Embracing a loved one on their death bed may seem to be final, yet sometimes we may feel we love the same soul in another person, such as the way a grandmother may have cooked a particular dinner is revealed again in the way a grandchild mimics the meal.

Lastly, for the individual facing endless change, perhaps the most important lesson for them to embrace is this: given the constant change and given the fact that the more change happens, the more we see similarity, then perhaps the long-term response to all flux and cycles is to live in harmony with the Cosmos – to live according to Nature as the Stoics would propose. One could argue that the individual should assume a long-term perspective and attitude about life. If change is constant and if we encounter repeat obstacles, then we ought to seek the choice that most aligns with the nature of existence. While an entire paper can be spent on this topic, instead of reading that essay, the reader may wish to watch and ponder two videos regarding the well-known economics game theory model called The Prisoner’s Dilemma. Video one (Agar, 2014) explains the prisoner’s dilemma, while video two explains the fascinating strategies employed while playing the game repeatedly (Agar, 2016). One, brief commentary on these videos is that the successful, long-term strategies used in iterative prisoner dilemma games are not unlike living a moral, virtuous life based on Stoic ethics.

Recurrence, to what end?

While applied ethics may be one reason to assume a long-term perspective, a related idea worth discussing would be the topic of ultimate ends for the individual. Geldard (2001) dedicates an entire chapter on telos and what we can learn from Heraclitus on this topic. This essay began by discussing philosophical and actual shipwrecks and how they are catalysts for change. The literal shipwreck must have been caused by one or many variables. Was the cause a faulty rudder, an incompetent navigator, or a lackadaisical captain, or were the elements – Nature – the sole causes of the ship crashing upon waves and rock? Were the captain and the crew completely helpless and only had God to blame for the crash? Once recovered on dry land or perhaps while drowning in the deep sea, they may have wondered: who’s in charge of all this or is it all chaos? What’s the purpose behind all this? Geldard contends that in Heraclitus’ perspective, there is “someone or something at the helm, which in turn implies a vessel with a rudder going somewhere” (p. 109, 2001). And with that implication, an aim for the individual could be found.

While Heraclitus does observe natural cycles and emphasizes constant change, he does not explicitly formulate a doctrine of recurrence or eternal return in the same way that later philosophers, like the Stoics and Nietzsche, do. However, there are a couple of gems found in Robinson (1991) and Sweet (2007) that indicate recurrence is a theme of Heraclitus and that with it, there is a heading to be found for the individual. Robinson quotes Aetius who wrote, “Heraclitus held that the recurrent fire is everlasting, and that destiny is a logos which fashions existent things through the contrariety of the directions in which they tend to run” (p. 173, 1991). Sweet, in his commentary on the themes of life, death, and the soul, discusses the dry and wet soul analogies of Heraclitus. He notes that Heraclitus proposes the soul gains power through wisdom and “becomes a dry soul” and “to the extent that it is identified with the universal fire” (p. 67, 2007). Furthermore, the truly wise person can attain such a degree of wisdom that their soul is unified with the universal fire and achieves a type of immortality. However, upon death, the wet or unwise soul turns to water and then earth and is merged into nature. While Sweet is not explicit, it could be assumed that the unwise person is reincarnated to try again, as it were.

Therefore, if it were assumed that flux is endless and recurrent and that individuals are tossed into the mix over and over again until they get it right and only when they become wise do they find an exit through unity with the universal fire, is this our answer to what our telos or aim in life is? One perspective Geldard brings into the analysis is that of Fowles. In this endless flux (what Fowles calls “The Situation”), “the only telos possible is an existential one” (p. 112, 2001). He quotes Fowles who writes, “To accept one’s limited freedom, to accept one’s isolation, to accept this responsibility, to learn one’s particular powers, and then with them to humanize the whole: that is the best … for this situation” (p. 112, 2001). In brief, one perspective is to simply accept existence as is. However, if this may seem distasteful, perhaps a more transcendental attitude of existence might invigorate life. Geldard offers the aim of unity with the Cosmos, or to be more precise, metaxy.

Fragment 10 focuses on the unity with the whole. “Seizures – wholes and non-wholes, being combined and differentiated, in accord and dissonant: unity is from everything and from everything is unity” (Sweet, 2007). Fragment 30 similarly notes, “this cosmos [the unity of all that is] was not made by immortal or mortal beings, but always was, is and will be an eternal fire, arising and subsiding in measure” (Geldard, p. 129, 2001). Geldard proposes that “the unity is the telos” of the human and that many texts from the same period of Heraclitus reflect this desire for transcendence away from the human existence Fowles describes and towards a metaxy or “in-betweenness” – a place between human existence and the Logos (p. 113-114, 2001). Geldard then reviews similarities between the teachings of the Old Testament prophet Jeremiah, the Buddha, and Lao Tse and the fragments of Heraclitus, all of which offer ideas for achieving unity.

Practice Again and Again

Since the individual finds himself in an endless flux that recurs, and his telos is to transcend into metaxy, what key lessons must he practice repeatedly to achieve his telos? Geldard notes similarities between Heraclitus and his peers of the time. The first is Jeremiah who calls the people, like a shepherd to his sheep, to “feed [on] knowledge and discretion” (p. 116, 2001). Geldard notes that this call to knowledge and discretion invokes a greater individual responsibility for people to come to God’s terms and perspective. In a similar vein, Heraclitus teaches that “to God all things are beautiful, good and just” (p. 116, 2001) and humans irresponsibly assume a narrow, closed-minded perspective. If we are to achieve our telos, we must practice abandoning our restricted point of view and practice embracing the perspective of the Cosmos.

Related to the practice of assuming a Cosmic attitude is the work of letting go of the ego and its related attachments and embracing the will of the Universe. Geldard references the Buddha’s doctrine of separating the selfish ego of one’s identity and in its place, assuming an identity equal to that of Divinity. When we cease being fearful of losing ourselves and cease the longing for fame and ego, we begin to break “the bonds of attachment” (p. 118, 2001). Heraclitus similarly admonishes in Fragment 2 that we must “obey the universal” and not be like common people who cling to their own “private understanding” (p. 119, 2001). To achieve our telos, we must practice relinquishing our selfish egos every day. Every flinch or snap judgment towards grasping at some portion of fame, or power or status should be met with practicing a desire to flow with Nature and being unified with the Nature of things.

Lastly, Lao Tse noted the tension of justice in the Universe by observing that tautness is needed for a bow to succeed. If there is no tension because the string is too long, then the string must be shortened and if there is not enough string, then it must be lengthened (see p. 120, 2001). A sage practices and demonstrates his knowledge rather than simply retaining it. True, divine understanding and judgment is not simple learning, but rather, being truly awake and aware and acting accordingly. To this end, Heraclitus teaches us to not heed him, but the Logos (Fragment 50) and that common humans do not have good judgment, but only divine judgment is good judgment (Fragment 78). Therefore, to achieve our telos, we must avoid the common and instead practice observing true wisdom. It will take skill to know when to apply a virtue and how much or how little for the right amount of tension.

Conclusion

The idea of a philosophical life beginning from a shipwreck is not novel. Many observers through the years have found the analogy quite compelling. Vidauskytė (2017) notes that not only is a shipwreck a metaphor for the initiation of a philosophical life, but that seafaring also signifies the human discontent with staying on land and the desire to transcend the human domain of land and venture out to the beyond. She rightly observes Diogenes Laertius commentary on Zeno of Citium, who survived a shipwreck and traded his lost cargo of purple dye for living a philosophical life on dry land. But not everyone’s fate is a shipwreck. Our character is defined by our fate, through the endless flux of impediments and obstacles. And sometimes, the monotony and recurring nature of existence forces us to wonder what our ultimate aim is. Perhaps after enough voyages and challenges, we arrive at true wisdom and begin to see the Cosmos as it really is – we lose our common ego and pivot to a desire to be at one with Nature. With enough practice of taking the Cosmic perspective, laying aside our ego, perhaps we achieve transcendence, return to land, and dry our soul by a flaming, wise fire.

References

Agar, J. (2014, October 4). The Prisoner’s Dilemma. Www.youtube.com. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t9Lo2fgxWHw&ab_channel=ThisPlace

Agar, J. (2016, July 2). The Iterated Prisoner’s Dilemma and The Evolution of Cooperation. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BOvAbjfJ0x0&ab_channel=ThisPlace 

Aurelius, M. (2014). Meditations (M. Hammond, Trans.). Penguin Classics, An Imprint Of Penguin Books.

Darabont, F. (Director). (1994, September 10). The Shawshank Redemption. Columbia Pictures.

Geldard, R. G. (2001). Remembering Heraclitus. Lindisfarne Books.

Long, A. A. (1986). Hellenistic philosophy : Stoics, Epicureans, Sceptics. University Of California Press.

Robinson, T. M. (1991). Heraclitus : Fragments. University Toronto P.

Sweet, D. (2007). Heraclitus : Translation and Analysis. University Press of America.

Vidauskytė, L. (2017). Metaphor of Existence: Seafaring and Shipwreck. [Egzistencijos metafora: kelionė jūra ir laivo nuskendimas] Filosifija Sociologija., 28(1), 11-19.


Monday, January 15, 2024

Phil 417 - Personal Identity

 Questions on Personal Identity

In our modern society, many transactions are based on an individual’s identity. To apply for a car loan, one must provide a social security number, date of birth, mailing address, and other bits of data, all to indicate the identity of a person. Unfortunately, a person’s identity could be stolen and while the actual person would not open a credit line at the local Best Buy, someone else with that data actually could and could commit theft. As frustrating as this can be to a person, other people suffer from a different identity crisis in the form of dissociative identity disorder (DID), which is defined as a person whose identity is disrupted by “two or more distinct personality states” (American Psychiatric Association, 2022, p. 330). One of the most vivid examples of someone who experienced DID was Chris Sizemore, who possessed over twenty different personalities throughout her life (Costner Sizemore & Huber, 1988). These personalities were so fundamentally different from each other that they had differing IQs, tastes, mannerisms, memories, and even religions. After resolving these personalities into a unified self, in a question-and-answer session she said of herself, “On an intellectual level, I am fully aware that I am all of these personalities and that they are me, but on an emotional level, it is as though 22 women used my body for a period of 40 years” (p 59).

What are we to make of these examples of identity? When each of us is asked the question, “Who are you?” how are we to respond? On what basis can we answer such a seemingly basic question, when we are confronted with bewildering examples of people who suffer from mental disorders such as DID? Is our identity related to our body, our memories, our experiences, our survival, or other things? While there are many theories on personal identity, this paper will only review a handful: physical persistence, psychological continuity, and what ultimately matters (Olsen, 2002). After reviewing a few theories, I’ll discuss my opinions on the subject and conclude that there may not be a problem or definition of personal identity, but rather the idea of a personal identity does not exist, or at the very least, there is no simple, straight-forward essence of personal identity.

Physical Persistence

Perhaps the simplest theory of personal identity is to plainly state a person is their body. Certainly, a person is conceived, grouped as cells into an organism, is born and continues to grow and evolve, and then dies. As long as the body is viable, the person’s identity is tied to that body until death, upon which the identity ceases to exist as well. A. J. Ayer asserts this point in his book Language, Truth and Logic (2001), by contending a person may survive a loss of memory or even experience a change in character and survive as the same person, but if he were to lose his body to death, it would be a contradiction to state he survived his death. In sum, Ayer and others who hold to the physical persistence theory of personal identity would state that the defining, consistent feature of a person’s identity is the body. Ayer would state that Chris Sizemore is not multiple identities, but one.

However, while Ayer states that surviving one’s death is contradictory, there is some evidence supporting the claim that an identity does survive a bodily death. Since many have discounted the idea of reincarnation, one doctor decided to apply strict scientific methods to determine the validity of claims of an identity surviving death. Through the course of his lifetime and career, Dr. Ian Stevenson racked up roughly 3000 detailed cases of people who possessed evidence that they had lived a previous life and thus survived death (Bering, 2013). His most detailed work is captured in his book describing cases and analyses of children who make claims of living a previous life (Stevenson, 2016). The common theme in many of these cases is that an identity of a person indeed survives death and lives on in another body. While there is no explanation for how this is possible, there is evidence it does occur.

Psychological Continuity

Another theory of personal identity relates to a person’s ability to retain a memory from moment to moment. As a person is born, grows and experiences life, assuming they have a working memory, they collect sensual and mental states of mind. And while a person’s environment and circumstances and judgements change from moment to moment, there is a causal link between their mental states, such that they are able to have a continuous psychological identity (Olsen, 2002).

To make this theory even clearer, Sydney Shoemaker (2004) proposed a thought experiment in which two people, named Brown and Robinson, underwent operations for brain tumor removals, in which the entire brain of each patient had to be removed from the skull. However, when the time came to re-insert the patients’ brains, by a procedural error, Brown’s brain was placed in Robinson’s skull. The resulting person was dubbed Brownson and retained all of Brown’s memories and mental, psychological states. Upon waking from the surgery, Brown would continue to be Brown. As long as there remains a causal link from one moment to the next, the personal identity of an individual is retained.

Olsen (2002) wonders if personal identity is retained if this thought experiment were slightly changed. Instead of moving the physical brain plus its contents from one skull to another, what if only the mental contents of person 1 were copied, like bits of data, into the brain of person 2 and the original mental contents of person 2 were erased - would this retain the qualifications of psychological continuity? The neural links and aspects of the physical brain would be the same from one moment to the next, but only the mental contents would be different. Interestingly, Olsen notes that some psychological continuity theorists say yes, while others say no. This gray area in the psychological continuity theory leads to a related concern for personal identity: personal survival.

What Matters

One dissertation took a deeper dive into personal identity by reviewing Derek Parfit’s work on this topic. Gromak (2015) summarizes Parfit’s theory by stating identity is not what truly matters, but rather what the individual deeply and ultimately cares about is what matters. More specifically, while Parfit’s theory states that identity does matter to some extent, what genuinely matters for an individual is psychological continuity and connectedness (p. 100). In other words, an individual’s ultimate concern is to simply persist and continue in some form or fashion.

Gromak covers many variations of thought experiments in his paper, but there is one that seems to grasp the subtle nuance of the matter regarding a choice an individual could make about remaining a specific identity or persisting in some form or fashion. A person steps into a machine, pushes a button, after which the machine scans him and creates a replica. During the process, the original person’s heart is damaged and will die in a few days, while the replica version lives. Gromak further elaborates on this thought experiment by changing one factor: the original person will live for 10 years, while the replica version will live for 11 years. In this case, Gromak contends the rational choice is to not push the button and remain as that identity, but Parfit would contend the rational choice is to push the button, die after 10 years, and persist in the replica for an additional year, thus placing emphasis on what truly matters: survival.

Discussion on Personal Identity

Besides those reviewed in this essay, there are many other questions and possible answers surrounding personal identity. As such, I do not think personal identity can be reduced to one or a few factors such as physical persistence or some aspect of psychological continuity. It seems as if every attempt to define personal identity is met with some challenge and therefore perhaps personal identity is undefinable, or perhaps “there are no philosophical problems about identity” (Noonan & Curtis, 2004). An individual person is not an island. He is born into a network, community and social structure. Most people live in an interconnected society and complex ecosystem. To attempt to define the essence of a personal identity is to ignore hundreds, if not thousands of other variables which could define who a person is. While not in the analytical philosophical realm, Buddhism goes so far as to state there is no self and no identity (see section on Non-Self in Siderits, 2011).

If I were to attempt some definition of personal identity, I would argue that every human being is unique and connected with others and his environment at the same time. The thousands of variables that constitute an identity of a person would not be the same from one identity to another. For example, the physical persistence and/or a causal link of psychological continuity of a person could apply and be one or two of the variables in defining personal identity, or not. I would even contend there could be overlapping factors of identities which could account for multiple personalities and reincarnation, which further underscores that personal identity is difficult to reduce to one or two factors.

In sum, while the physical persistence and psychological continuity explanations have merit, I don’t think either one adequately explains any essence of personal identity. I tend to lean towards the concept of a person simply being a part of a whole, not dissimilar to how an aspen tree is a part of a grove; and even that analogy is somewhat inadequate.

Conclusion

In conclusion, this essay briefly reviewed three considerations regarding personal identity: physical persistence, psychological continuity, and the idea that what truly matters is not personal identity, but that a person persists in some form or fashion. While I find these ideas useful in exploring the topic, I lean towards the idea that there is no philosophical problem to solve with personal identity, and if there could be an answer, no definitive, single essence of personal identity could be denoted. 


References

American Psychiatric Association. (2022). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders, text revision DSM-5-TR. (5th ed.). American Psychiatric Association

Ayer, A. J. (2001). Language, Truth And Logic. (eBook). Penguin Books. (Original work published 1936)

Bering, J. (2013, November 2). Ian Stevenson’s Case for the Afterlife: Are We “Skeptics” Really Just Cynics? Scientific American Blog Network. https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/bering-in-mind/ian-stevensone28099s-case-for-the-afterlife-are-we-e28098skepticse28099-really-just-cynics/ 

Costner Sizemore, C., & Huber, R. J. (1988). The Twenty-Two Faces of Eve. Individual Psychology, 44(1), 53-.

Gromak, J. A. (2015). Personal identity, survival and what matters. ProQuest Dissertations Publishing.

Olson, E. T. (2002, August 20). Personal Identity (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy). Stanford.edu. https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/identity-personal/

Noonan, H., & Curtis, B. (2004, December 15). Identity (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy). Stanford.edu. https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/identity/  

Shoemaker, S. (2004). Brown-Brownson Revisited. The Monist, 87(4), 573–593. https://doi.org/10.5840/monist200487429

Siderits, M. (2011). Buddha (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy). Stanford.edu. https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/buddha/ 

Stevenson, I. (2016). Children Who Remember Previous Lives. McFarland.


Monday, January 1, 2024

Phil 417 - The Metaphysics of Time

Questions on the Ontology of Time

Henry Molaison suffered seizures from his youth until his twenties. In an attempt to cure him of the worsening seizures, his parents took him to numerous doctors, including a neurosurgeon named William Scoville. At the age of 27, Henry underwent an experimental operation to remove parts of his brain. His seizures significantly decreased in temperament and frequency, but at a high cost – he lost the ability to recall and would be stuck in the present moment for the rest of his life (Corkin, 2013). To ponder what it must be like to have no ability to recall would be to ponder what life might be like if one had no concept of time. While Henry would physically change, to him, his life experience would be perpetually stuck in the present moment. For the average person, however, the ability to remember allows her to seemingly experience time and with it the perception that it flows and passes.

Philosophical conversation on time has existed as long as the dialogue of philosophy itself. Some have argued that time flows, while others argue it is a static structure and is not real. Questions relating to the ontology of time are: does it flow, or does it follow some other construct? Do things exist only in the present or can they exist in the future and past? Many philosophers have pondered these questions and have advanced theories to explain time. This paper will review and explain the earliest debates on these questions between Heraclitus and Parmenides to show the long-standing nature of this examination (Bardon & Dyke (Eds.), 2013).  It will then review modern perceptions of time concerning A-Theory and B-Theory as explained by J.M.E McTaggart and how these ideas relate to the ideas of Presentism, Growing Block Theory and Moving Spotlight Theory (A-Theories) and Eternalism (B-Theory) (Markosian, 2002 and Bardon & Dyke (Eds.), 2013).

Ancient Discussions on Time

Heraclitus

Flux is a Heraclitan idea. One of his fragments claims all existence is in a constant state of change and that a person cannot step in the same river twice (Graham, 2019). At first glance, the idea of not being able to step into the same river twice is confusing. When a person steps into a stream of water in the morning while on a hike, and then crosses that same stream again, in his mind, he is stepping into the same thing. However, Heraclitus is being more specific in saying that the creek and the water molecules and the way the water flows and the minerals the water molecules have acquired (Bardon & Dyke (Eds.), 2013) – all of those features of the creek have changed between the first time the hiker stepped in it and the second time he crossed it. Precisely speaking, the creek is not the same from one moment to the next.

With this focus on flux and constant change, Heraclitus further noticed that despite the perpetual variation, things seemingly remained constant through cycles. However, he is unambiguous in noting that things do change from one moment to the next and this marking of change denotes time passed. Stated differently, Heraclitus noted the flux of everything both is and is not. This flux of things, if observed long enough, turns out to be opposites: day and night, winter and summer, war and peace, and satiety and hunger (2013, p. 13). In brief, Heraclitus would claim what was past existed and was real, and it changes to the present which also exists and is real and eventually things change again and still be real.

Parmenides

Parmenides took a different tact regarding the explanation of reality and refused to embrace the idea of flux – that existence both is and is not. Rather, he believed that everything just is. He explained this by way of a poem, in which a mortal meets a goddess, and she explains to the mortal the way of truth. She explains that there is one route called “it is” and there is another route called “it is not” and there is even a third route called “it is, and it is not” (2013, p. 17). The second and third routes are dead ends, and there is only one route: it is. This reality of existence does not change, for change is simply the mortal’s perspective. Furthermore, how can something which exists, not exist? This is contradictory and mortals are “deaf and blind at once” (Palmer, 2016) for not admitting and comprehending this contradiction. Parmenides simply concludes there is no flux, but everything simply exists and is the One. To Parmenides, Heraclitus would have been on the second route and his ideas would be contradictory. And since flux does not exist, the passage of time also does not exist and therefore time does not exist – it is simply human misunderstanding.

The philosophical discourse between Heraclitus and Parmenides continues to this day. The manner of looking at reality and time splits into differing factions of thought.

Modern Discussions on Time

Many theories regarding the metaphysics of time fall under two camps: A-Theory and B-Theory. These two theories stem from the philosopher J.M.E. McTaggart who noted two types of series in time and then argued that time does not exist (McDaniel, 2009). In one series, events can be ordered earlier than or later than one event in relation to another; he called these B-series. He also described a second series of events in which one event is noted as the present moment, and this event changes, first by being future, then being present, then being past, as it moves position in a series; he called these events the A-series.

From these two types of series emerge notions of A-Theory and B-Theory. In brief, A-Theory ideas contend time is real, especially the present moment, and that all time is viewed as either past, present, or future. (Bardon & Dyke (Eds.), 2013). However, B-Theory ideas argue that time is not real and that events simply have relations that are either earlier-than or later-than (2013). In a review of the theories of time, one podcaster explained the key difference between the two theories as being the determination of the present either being real (A-Theory) or the present not being real (B-Theory) (Macherla). Also, while A-Theory is committed to the idea of time being linear or growing, B-Theory contends there is simply existence and things only occupy a particular space-time coordinate.

A-Theories: Presentism, Growing Block, and Moving Spotlight

Most peoples’ paradigm of time aligns with A-Theory ideas. Three of these theories are Presentism, Growing Block, and Moving Spotlight. Before describing each one, it may be helpful to frame the idea of time as a block of cheese, and the present moment is represented as a slice of cheese from the block.

In the theory of Presentism, the only thing that is real is the present, viewed as a slice of cheese. Whatever exists now is real, but nothing in the past or future is considered real and therefore, the past and the future do not exist (Markosian, 2002). A comprehensive list of things that exist in the present moment could be produced, but nothing from the past, such as dinosaurs, or nothing from the future, such as a time machine, would be on that list of things in the present, therefore dinosaurs and time machines do not exist and are not real.

In the Growing Block theory, only the past and the present are real, but the future does not exist (2002). An observer might strongly contend that things in the past were just as real as the present. Therefore, time is like a growing block of cheese, where the present moment is the slice of cheese that grows and acts as the edge of time. The future, however, is beyond the block and does not exist.

Lastly is the Moving Spotlight theory, named by C.D. Broad (2002), contends that all past, present, and future are real, but differs from the B-Theory in contending that time exists, and the present is not only real, but also unique since there is a metaphorical light on the present moment. This light constantly moves and illuminates the present, hence there is a sense of flow. All time is laid out, but light only shines on the present moment.

B-Theory: Eternalism

Continuing with the block of cheese example for explaining time, the B-Theory of Eternalism contends that all moments in time equally exist and that the past, present, and future are not real (2002), and all that exists is the block of cheese. The universe simply exists in all time and space, and things only occupy some space-time coordinate. Indeed, things may serially exist before another thing much like page 7 exists at a space-time coordinate which simply precedes page 8 which exists at an adjacent space-time coordinate, but all pages equally exist – there is nothing unique about page 7.

Discussion on Time

While I find the practical nature of time useful, such as being prompt to a meeting or having the ability to recall the anniversary date of my marriage, nevertheless, it is odd that we spend a lot of thought on this subject. By way of relation, I wonder why we don’t spend as much effort on discussing the nature of a kilometer, meter, or centimeter. After all, isn’t time simply an attempt at keeping the score on a change?

After having the opportunity to research and write this essay, I realize I fall in the B-Theory camp and align my views with those of Spinoza. In reviewing Spinoza’s ideas on the metaphysics of time, Waller (2012) offers a clear analogy to explain why the B-Theory makes better sense. Suppose Bob completes the paperwork for a loan at 10:30am and then signs the loan at 10:31am and shakes the hand of the loan officer. However, at 10:35am when Bob receives the loan check, he claims he is not the same Bob who signed the form – that Bob is past Bob, while this Bob is present Bob. This way of thinking is incoherent!  Bob is Bob whether in the past, present, or future. To return to the block of cheese analogy, indeed slices do exist (Bob being a different slice at different times), but a clearer way of comprehending the entirety of the idea is to admit all the slices are the same cheese.

Conclusion

In conclusion, the age-old philosophical discourse on time centers around whether it flows or is static. From Heraclitus and Parmenides to moderns such as McTaggart and Broad, this debate continues today under A-Theory and B-Theory ideas. A-Theory ideas claim time is real to varying degrees, but B-Theory ideas claim time is not real and that there is only existence.


References

Bardon, A., & Dyke, H. (Eds.). (2013). A companion to the philosophy of time. John Wiley & Sons, Incorporated.

Corkin, S. (2013). Permanent present tense: The unforgettable life of the amnesic patient, h. m.. Basic Books.

Graham, D. W. (2019, September 3). Heraclitus (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy). Stanford.edu. https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/heraclitus/ 

Markosian, N. (2002, November 25). Time (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy). Stanford.edu. https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/time/

Macherla, R. (2021, March 21). Philosophy of Time. In The Human Condition. Spotify for Podcasters. https://podcasters.spotify.com/pod/show/the-human-condition0/episodes/Philosophy-of-Time-e1cm8qr/a-a77506j

McDaniel, K. (2009). John M. E. McTaggart (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy). Stanford.edu. https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/mctaggart/ 

Palmer, J. (2016). Parmenides (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy). Stanford.edu. https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/parmenides/ 

Waller, J. (2012). Persistence through time in Spinoza. Lexington Books/Fortress Academic.

Saturday, December 9, 2023

Io, Saturnalia! (And the Contemplation of the Eternal Return and the Wisdom Therein)

Saturn with a scythe
Round and round we go. We watch the pendulum swing, back and forth. Sometimes the swing is swift and sometimes the interval takes longer, but always and everywhere it (events, history, life, death, growth, regress, etc.) repeats.

The Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius noted this a few times in his Meditations (2014).

"a man of forty with any understanding whatsoever has in a sense seen all the past and all the future" (11.1).

This same translation of Meditations makes a note and commentary on Book 2.14, which is related to this thought. 

"see the same things: The eternal sameness of things is another frequent theme in the Meditations, taking two widely disparate forms. One (as here) derives from the belief of orthodox Stoicism, evidently accepted by Marcus, that from eternity to eternity the world goes through an endless succession of identical cycles (so that all that happens has happened before, and will happen again): see especially 9.28, and also 5.13 (and note), 5.32, 6.37, 8-6, 9.35, 10.7.2, 11.1.2, 12.26. For the doctrine of everlasting recurrence see LS, 52; Sandbach, pp. 78-9. The other is the expression of a world-weary and often dismissive view that 'there is no new thing under the sun' (Ecclesiastes 1:9) in human life, behaviour, and depravity: with a few years' experience (in 7.49 and 11.1.2 Marcus puts it at forty) you have 'seen it all'. See also 4.32, 4.44, 6.46, 7.1, 8.25, 9.14, 9.33, 10.2.7, 12.24 ('monotony and transience')" (2014).

This time of year (December to early January) usually prompts a lot of introspection for me. I reflect on the year, I try to indulge in the festivities, I recall Christmases past and I plan for the future - revisiting and revising plans, taking account of the current situation in life and evaluating options for the future, and then making course corrections as needed.

This year, as part of this introspection, I decided to research and learn a bit more about the Roman festival known as Saturnalia. While I've always known something about it, I searched for meatier content about what it was like and from whence it was formed. For this, the book entitled The Christmas Encyclopedia provides a very adequate explanation and summary.
A pre-Christian harvest and winter solstice celebration held throughout the Roman Empire in honor of Saturn or Saturnus (from the Latin satus, “to sow”), god of agriculture, who reigned during the so-called Golden Age of Rome, a time of peace and prosperity. Originally celebrated for one day on December 17, the festival under the Caesars extended through December 24, in which the spirit of gaiety and frolic prevailed, recalling that Golden Age. All work, businesses, schools, and matters of court were suspended, criminals received reprieves from punishment, war was not waged, and no humans were sacrificed to Saturn; the lighting of numerous candles in his temple symbolized such mercies.

Instead, festivities began with the sacrifice of a young pig in the temple. Each community selected a Magister Ludi (Master of the Games) or a Saturnalicus Princeps (Chief of the Saturnalia), a mock king, who supervised the feasting, revelry, singing, and dancing. He was chosen by lots, sometimes as the one who found the coin hidden in servings of pudding. Masters and slaves traded places, with masters serving their slaves, who could bid the former to perform any task and could exact ludicrous punishments should they fail to execute them. Class distinctions were suspended as well, as a spirit of humanity seized everyone to do good unto his neighbor, including dispensing money to the poor. Transvestism was common and, in keeping with the tradition of masquerades, in northern provinces, Germanic tribes often donned masks in the likenesses of horned beasts and hideous creatures, symbolic of spirits which were believed to inhabit the winter darkness.

Statues of Saturn, as well as homes, were decorated with holly, sacred to this god; with evergreen wreaths, symbolic of the sun; and with evergreen garlands, symbolic of the renewal of life at the approaching winter solstice, December 25 on the Roman or Julian calendar. (In the Christian era, these evergreens would come to symbolize eternal life through Christ.)

At the conclusion of the festival came the exchanging of gifts: signillaria (clay dolls) for the children and strenae (olive branches honoring the woodland goddess Strenia) or cerei (wax tapers or candles) for the adults.

The festivities were essentially repeated for three days at the January Calends, beginning on the first day of the new year (January 1). This was especially the time when the populace presented the emperor with votae(gifts).

Although the Saturnalia was not the sole winter solstice festival of the Roman Empire (among other festivals, a feast on December 15 honored Consus, god of the storeroom; one on December 17 honored his consort, Ops, a mother goddess), it was by far the most important in terms of its traditions and symbols, many of which the early Christian Church adopted into the Christmas season. The lighting of candles, decorating with holly and evergreens, giving of gifts (the Wise Men that visited the manger had no monopoly on gift-giving), holiday charity, and the unrestrained merrymaking all were most recently derived from the Saturnalia.

The basis for these traditions actually originated some 4,000 years before the birth of Christ in the land of Mesopotamia, which included Sumer, later corresponding to Babylonia; through northern and western routes, the customs reached Greece, Rome, and other parts of Europe. The equivalent Sumerian and Babylonian celebrations, respectively, were the Zagmuk (“Beginning of the Year”) and Akitu (“New Year's Festival”). The Sumerian festival was semiannual, held in the fall (month of Tishri) and in the spring (month of Nisan), commemorating the two principal solar points of the year (winter and summer). Akitu, however, occurred only at the first new moon after the spring equinox.

The mythology surrounding Akitu held that as the year drew to a close, the world, created by the supreme Babylonian god Marduk, lay dying. During the festival, it was traditional for the king to perform rituals to atone for any sins of man against Marduk and to assist him in battling the monsters of chaos in the underworld, acts that would restore the world of the living for another year. To begin the rituals, the king entered the temple of Marduk. There, he suffered humiliation as the high priest stripped him of his regal vestments and beat him; then the king swore annual allegiance to Marduk, after which he was reinstated as king. It is likely that the king then symbolically “sacrificed” himself by appointing a mock king in his stead from the ranks of criminals (his mock counterpart is seen in the Master of the Games of the Saturnalia and Archbishop of Fools of the Feast of Fools). This criminal was then arrayed in regal raiment and sacrificed sometime during a 12-day celebration, which consisted of feasting, socializing, and gift-giving (a parallel is seen in the 12 days of Christmas). Wooden images depicting the monsters of chaos were burned to assist Marduk in his battle for life, and such images are believed to be the earliest precursors of the Yule log.

These, then were some of the world's earliest known plans for year-end festivals, which most modern civilizations have since adapted to their own cultures. (Crump, 2013 emphasis added).
Reading the above, I am struck by the switching of roles and parts in those ancient cultures. What must it have been like to be the master of the estate, and then for the better part of a month, turn the reigns and authority over to the servants? One day you're sitting at the top, and the next you're being told what to do by the lowliest of the classes. Would our current overlords (e.g. Prime Ministers, Presidents, Senators, CEOs, business owners, Principals, Mayors, etc.) ever be willing to do the same in today's day and age? It makes for a fascinating thought experiment.  Yet, this is what the ancients did!

While it seems impractical to put this ancient ritual into practice today, there are some aspects about this ritual worth contemplating in the vein of premeditatio malorum. Those in power and those who possessed fortune had those preferred indifferents taken from them during Saturnalia. While they thought they enjoyed sound footing and an unassailable point of advantage, it was taken from them. Do we think we possess a similar position in our lives in 2023? Could the home in which I live, and the job at which I work and the salary I am paid, and the health I enjoy - could one or all of those be taken on a whim? Absolutely. All of it could be taken upon death, or some of it could be taken due to circumstances and events beyond my control.

In fact, returning to what Marcus Aurelius wrote about a man of forty seeing it all, at the age of 47, I too have seen and heard many of these events in the course of my life. I have contemplated what it must have been like for my father's father to watch his entire ranch burn down, forcing the family to practically to start all over. I've read the account of my father's mother holding her young baby, while the doctor listened to his heart slowly stop beating, saying, "now, now, now" indicating when the baby's heart stopped.

I've contemplated the tens of thousands of young men, at the young age of 20 take one step off a boat to storm a beach in some distant land and die in a split second to a bullet to the head. I've wondered what it must have been like for my father who was about to be deployed to the Pacific in 1945, but then to not have to serve because the war ended after two atomic bombs were dropped on Japan. I've wondered about the details of the story of my father's mother pleading with the officer in the army to discharge my father to help on the ranch, thus saving him from serving in the Korean War.

I've contemplated a man named Rich O'Conner, who worked for a major corporation for over 30 years, who interviewed me at the beginning of my career, and who just a few weeks before retirement, pulled into his driveway, suffered a major heart attack and died - who never fully enjoyed the fruits of his labor.

I've lived through a global pandemic and watched millions of people both die and suffer from the effects of COVID-19 as well as the effects of the vaccines administered to cure and prevent the virus. I've watched the world and culture fundamentally change in a matter of months and years due to the global lockdown from the pandemic.

I've contemplated my sister-in-law and her husband and how they lost their baby a few months after she was born, and then all the angst and anxiety they had to endure through two more pregnancies and births, wondering if the same fate would happen to those babies. I've contemplated the life of my father-in-law, who retired wealthy, but suffered from bankruptcy due to the housing crisis and great recession of 2008, and then less than a decade later, unexpectedly die at the age of 66. I've contemplated the death of my brother-in-law at the age of 49 - he was at the cusp of greatness in his career as a college professor and researcher, and a loving husband and father of four children.

I've contemplated the religion in which I grew up (Mormonism) and the debris and chaos left in its wake - the abuse they have facilitated and the lack of morals and failure in responsibility to help those women and children who suffered under the church's patriarchy. I've contemplated the unethical nature of the church's leadership in softly and harshly lying about its past and its dogmas. I've contemplated and stand in awe at an organization who preaches the gospel of Jesus regarding mankind cannot love God and Mammon both, yet it has amassed an ungodly amount of capital and assets and cash to the tune of close to $200 billion. I stand all amazed at the selfishness, corruption, egotistical and hypocritical nature of such an organization.

Perhaps I have not seen all of it, but I have seen quite a bit of it. And what do I learn from it? I learn, what I think Saturnalia is attempting to teach: that it repeats and it can happen to anyone including me. One day I could be on the up-and-up, getting ahead in my career, and the next I could be assessed down and earning less. One day I could feel safe and secure in my home, the next I could be robbed and many of my possessions taken.  One day I could be playing basketball quite healthily, the next I could be injured and forced to never play again. One day I could be fast asleep in my bed, the next I could be waking up in the middle of the night receiving a call from the police about an accident or incident my child was involved in.

Saturnalia teaches us our lots can change on a dime. However, what is 'up to us' is our attitude and reaction to said change. Could we lose status, wealth, health, loved ones and still retain our equanimity? Could we still find a way to demonstrate a good moral character despite the "losses?" To me, this seems to be a worthy challenge. We need not be stuck in mourning our losses. Grieve we may and in some cases, we must, but to remain in in such a state does not demonstrate a good moral character. The challenge is to prove to yourself you can take the misfortunes and fortunes of life and retain your equanimity. Saturnalia gave the people a chance to practice this very virtue.

And regardless of misfortune or fortune, there are opportunities to practice a good moral character. Seneca notes this of Socrates, who survived and lived under the Thirty Tyrants. In his essay On Tranquility he wrote,
Can you find any city more wretched in any way than the Athenians’ city when the thirty tyrants tore it apart? They had killed thirteen hundred citizens, all the best men, but did not make an end of it; but their sheer savagery stimulated itself. In a city which held the Areopagus, that most scrupulous of courts, in which there was a senate and a people similar to the senate, the grim college of executioners met each day, and the unhappy senate house was crammed with tyrants: could that state repose in which there were as many tyrants as there were henchmen? Their minds could not even entertain any hope of recovering their freedom, and no scope for a cure appeared against such a powerful force of evils; for how could the poor city find so many Harmodii? Yet Socrates was openly out in public life and comforted the mourning fathers and exhorted men despairing of the state, and reproached wealthy men fearing the consequences of their riches because they came too late to regret the dangers brought on by their greed; he bore himself as a mighty example for those willing to imitate him, walking as a free man among the thirty masters. But Athens herself killed him in jail, and liberty did not tolerate the liberty of the man who had safely provoked the horde of tyrants; you learn from this that even in an oppressed state there is a chance for the wise man to put himself forward, and that in a flourishing and happy state envy and a thousand other evils dominate (2014, p. 191)
Therefore, regardless of any circumstance or event or fortune or misfortune, there are ways and opportunities to practice and live with a high, good moral character (virtue) - one can exercise one's volition to demonstrate excellence.

This is it - this is life. Once you realize this is the ultimate fate we face, Saturnalia can teach you the greater lesson of recurrence. Just as this festival has been around thousands of years in some form or fashion, perhaps we have lived this same life thousands of time before or perhaps we have lived some existence in a different state or status thousands of times before. Just as roles were swapped (status, gender, form, etc.) during Saturnalia, perhaps we have lived thousands (millions?) of different roles or forms previously. And if that is the case, would you act differently with others today?  If one day you were the master of the estate, and the next day during Saturnalia, your servants were master of the estate, would that change the way you act as the master?

Another lesson recurrence and Saturnalia can teach us is the reflex of retreat to sound ground. The moment we are born, we began to die. Through the course of life, we erect layers of knowledge around us, bank accounts, homes, walls, gates, savings, 401Ks; we build our reputations and deposit good acts into our account so we can withdraw from it in times when we face ill repute. However, try as we might, we must give ground. Life advances, misfortune strikes and if our reputation and wealth do not suffer first, then our mind and body will eventually succumb to disease, age and death. Will we anxiously cling to every scrap life takes from us, or will we learn the wisdom of accepting our fate, and retreating to solid ground - the sound logic that informs us the only thing we truly possess and control is our moral character; our virtue.  All else matters not. Anyway, why cling? Saturnalia and recurrence teaches us our fate will change and if we don't like it, soon enough things return to the way they used to be. So, in the meantime - in the present moment - act with justice, wisdom, discipline and courage.

To conclude, Marcus Aurelius eloquently sums these lessons - important ideas to contemplate during this season of Saturnalia.
Even if you were destined to live three thousand years, or ten times that long, nevertheless remember that no one loses any life other than the one he lives, or lives any life other than the one he loses. It follows that the longest and the shortest lives are brought to the same state. The present moment is equal for all; so what is passing is equal also; the loss therefore turns out to be the merest fragment of time. No one can lose either the past or the future - how could anyone be deprived of what he does not possess?
So always remember these two things. First, that all things have been of the same kind from everlasting, coming round and round again, and it makes no difference whether one will see the same things for a hundred years, or two hundred years, or for an infinity of time. Second, that both the longest-lived and the earliest to die suffer the same loss. It is only the present moment of which either stands to be deprived: and if indeed this is all he has, he cannot lose what he does not have (2.14).

References

Aurelius, M. (2014). Meditations (M. Hammond, Trans.). Penguin Classics, An Imprint Of Penguin Books.

Crump, W. D. (2013). The Christmas Encyclopedia. Mcfarland & Company, Inc., Publishers.

Lucius Annaeus Seneca. (2014). Hardship and Happiness (E. Fantham, H. M. Hine, J. Ker, & G. D. Williams, Trans.). University of Chicago Press.

Monday, July 31, 2023

Rel 411 - Time and Existentialist Creation

Time and Existentialist Creation

On a Thursday in Bangalore India, I sat in a conference room of an engineering firm, listening to a small cadre of managers talk in detail about their manufacturing prowess, when I experienced an epiphanic moment. For a handful of minutes, a vision of sorts flashed in my mind, where I was a therapist sitting in a chair in a quiet room and across from me was a patient. I asked the patient to contemplate the most precious commodity humans possess: time. I told this client that they needed to feel the anxiety of time and to deliberate long and deeply about how they were going to spend the remainder of their time in life. I then turned to an hourglass sitting on a table, turned it over and asked the patient to feel the grains of sand fall from the top and pile at the bottom.

While I have been a student of existentialist philsophy for a number of years, I gained a deeper appreciation for it in this course. In this essay, I’ll focus on three lessons I learned from this class. The first is the pressing urgency of time in the context of living authentically. After having learned of the importance of existence preceding essence, I feel more keenly the need to use my time toward my own “meaning-giving project” (Crowell). Did my boredom in India lead to that epiphany which caused me to consider my own grains of sand? The second lesson I learned from this course was about the need for choice and action on finishing my life project. While the project is en media res, I nonetheless have had a re-kindling of effort to work towards making that creative project into a reality. From Sartre I learned the concept of “bad faith” regarding how being the perpetual dreamer does nothing but whittle away the grains of sand in return for nothing. While dreaming of transcendence is needed, so too is action. The third lesson I learned from this course, via Camus’s Myth of Sisyphus, was that I must always create with no expectation of fame, immortality or any type of reward. As Camus writes, “to work and create ‘for nothing’ … this is the difficult wisdom that the absurd thought sanctions” (Camus 103). The protagonist of the film The Shawshank Redemption fittingly summarizes these three lessons when he said, “get busy living, or get busy dying.”

Did I experience profound boredom in that conference room in India? Possibly. My enlightenment might have been what Heidegger called Augenblick or “a moment of vision” in which I was experiencing such unadulterated dullness that I achieved an awareness of what I am missing in life (Gibbs 602). Indeed, Camus seems to confirm that such moments of brilliant boredom cause one to snap back into existential reality. He writes in Myth of Sisyphus, “Rising, tram, four hours in the office or factory, meal, tram, four hours of work, meal, sleep and one day, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday, according to the same rhythm - this path is easily followed most of the time. But one day the 'why' arises and everything begins in that weariness tinged with amazement” (Camus 19). One scholar has noted the worth of boredom in that “it has specific value in awakening our ability to experience meaningfulness, often through its negation; when bored, we may question meaning or, more precisely, lack of meaning by indifference” (Gibbs 603). For me, in that awakening moment in India, a contrasting vision came to me, in which I found myself “taking a stance on being” and I felt the urgency to make progress on what is meaningful to me (607).

The second pivotal lesson I learned from this course is related to action and making progress on my life project. From Sartre, I learned of the concept of bad faith and more specifically, the bad faith of not acknowledging my facticity and only focusing on my pure transcendence – in other words, only wishing for some possibility but never acting (Flynn 74). Like the woman on a date, in Sartre’s example, to not commit to a choice and action in order to become something (i.e. the woman refusing to admit that she is a body who can enjoy the touch of a man and postponing commitment) is living in bad faith (Anderson 6:07). To live in good faith is to admit to myself that my facticity as a human requires making a choice towards transcendence via focused and diligent work in order to change and make dreams into a reality. Good faith requires choice and action.

The third lesson I learned was more of a reminder of a brutal truth. All too often, our life projects aim at more than existence. We strive for lasting fame, status, power or abundant wealth – to overcome and become more than our circumstances. Indeed, Nietzsche wrote much of this with his concept of will to power. I discussed this idea in one of my essays when I quoted Nietzsche, “What is good?—All that heightens the feeling of power, the will to power, power itself in man. What is bad?—All that proceeds from weakness.  What is happiness?—The feeling that power increases—that a resistance is overcome” (Wilkerson). However, Camus importantly clarifies that we ought not expect anything in return for our efforts. While the notion of the will to power may spur us to action, we must never forget that ultimately our creative project will be buried by space and time.

In a moving passage from The Myth of Sisyphus, Camus explores the challenging question of whether a person can persistently create with no expectations – to create for no reason other than to create. The point demands the full quote be mentioned.

I want to know whether, accepting a life without appeal, one can also agree to work and create without appeal and what is the way leading to these liberties. I want to liberate my universe of its phantoms and to people it solely with flesh and blood truths whose presence I cannot deny. I can perform absurd work, choose the creative attitude rather than another. But an absurd attitude, if it is to remain so, must remain aware of its gratuitousness (Camus 93).

Taking this absurdist attitude is a revolt against our condition. Too many times, people, including myself, feel the utter despair of casting maximum effort into a project or presentation, only to have it briefly acknowledged and then forgotten about. It is tempting, for me, to assume an attitude of: better to have never loved than to have a broken heart. The “higher fidelity” Camus and Sisyphus teaches us is to not only recognize our absurd condition but to also rebel and create projects despite our strange state of being (111). A scene from the film A River Runs Through It captures this attitude nicely.

The father of the protagonist was also the schoolteacher for his sons. The older son (the main character named Norman) was taught how to write well by his father. In the film, Norman muses, “while my friends spent their days at Missoula Elementary, I stayed home and learned to write the American language.” In the scene, Norman writes an essay and then hands the paper to his father. The father reads it, turns to his son and says, “half as long.” Norman returns to the project, labors over the paper and then walks back to his father to have it graded. The father reads it, pauses and says, “Again, half as long.” Norman drags his feet back to his desk and makes additional edits. Again, he appears before his father, who reads the essay. This time, the father judges the essay acceptable and says, “Good, now throw it away.” Normal wads the paper – representing his work, effort and time – and throws it in the trash bin and runs off to go fishing. We must have that same perspective for our projects – work diligently on them but be perfectly willing to let them go when the next adventure calls. This is to create gratuitously.

In conclusion, I’ve gleaned three lessons from this course. The first is the rekindling of pressing urgency with regards to the use of my time toward my own “meaning-giving project” (Crowell). It would seem boredom has played a role in this rekindling. The second lesson I learned was to be aware of “bad faith” on my part, and to choose and act with good faith towards making my creative project into a reality. Lastly, Camus reminded me that the existential absurdist must always create “for nothing” – I must embrace this perspective and brutal truth, knowing full well the benefit is in the creative process, not the enduring creation (Camus 103). Perhaps Nietzsche captures the spirit of urgency, action and the notion of creating for nothing, when he wrote,

the secret of the greatest fruitfulness and the greatest enjoyment of existence is: to live dangerously! Build your cities under Vesuvius! Send your ships into uncharted seas! Live at war with your peers and yourselves! Be robbers and conquerors, as long as you cannot be rulers and owners, you lovers of knowledge! Soon the age will be past when you could be satisfied to live like shy deer, hidden in the woods! (Kaufmann 106)

Works Cited

A River Runs through It. Directed by Robert Redford, Columbia Pictures, 1992.

Anderson, Ellie. “Sartre’s Theory of Bad Faith.” Www.youtube.com, 29 Apr. 2022, youtu.be/UUXXmHkI-Ug?t=367. Accessed 25 July 2023.

Camus, Albert. The Myth of Sisyphus. 1955. Translated by Justin O’Brien, Penguin Books, 1979.

Crowell, Steven. “Existentialism (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy).” Stanford.edu, 9 June 2020, plato.stanford.edu/entries/existentialism/.

Flynn, Thomas R. Existentialism : A Very Short Introduction. Oxford University Press, 2006.

Gibbs, Paul. "The Concept of Profound Boredom: Learning from Moments of Vision." Studies in Philosophy and Education, vol. 30, no. 6, 2011, pp. 601-613. ProQuest, http://ezproxy.apus.edu/login?qurl=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.proquest.com%2Fscholarly-journals%2Fconcept-profound-boredom-learning-moments-vision%2Fdocview%2F899187218%2Fse-2%3Faccountid%3D8289, doi:https://doi.org/10.1007/s11217-011-9256-5.

Kaufmann, Walter Arnold. Existentialism from Dostoevsky to Sartre. 1956. New York, Meridian Books, 1960.

The Shawshank Redemption. Directed by Frank Darabont, Columbia Pictures, 1994.

Wilkerson, Dale. “Nietzsche, Friedrich | Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy.” Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, iep.utm.edu/nietzsch/.