Friday, November 6, 2009

Organ Donor

xkcd hits it hard, again.

Awhile back I had a friendly online debate about the important parts of human experience that are difficult to rationalize. At one point I said:

"I guess what I really believe is that "shoulds" are real, and that internal experience (unreliable as it is) is all we have to work with if we want to get to the "shoulds". I realize that many people won't see it this way, and I realize how many pitfalls there are on the path I've chosen (there's a long history of murder and evil justified by "shoulds"), but it's the best I can do. I'm willing to hear arguments for another way, but it will be hard for me to accept anything as sterile as: Just do what's in your own best interest, everything else is nonesense."

To be perfectly honest, that discussion and some since then has eroded my faith in the 'shoulds', and even made me question the belief most central to my philosophy of life - that humans possess divine identity. (Please don't understand that too quickly. Just because I said 'divine', it doesn't necessarily follow that I'm talking about a relationship with God, Christian or otherwise.) This is demoralizing to me. I don't want it to be true that people disappear when they die.

The poet said, "We live as dream - alone."


  1. Oh, great. You're going to read Atlas Shrugged next, aren't you?

    I'd like you to explain more. When the 'shoulds' go away, what takes their place? For most people it seems to be emptiness. What's your experience?

  2. Robert, I appreciate your open-mindedness. This question and the reaction to it remind me a lot of the experience I went through and then watched my students go through when learning about large-scale structure in the Universe and basic (modern, western) cosmology. There's this feeling of, "Oh, no. I am so insignificant."

    For me, that evolved pretty quickly into something that I also tried to impart to my students. Where I go with it is: "So what you see, what you experience in your life here on Earth, is what you've got - the people, relationships, nature, music, Treasure it. Make the most of every moment, because it's rare and precious." I have no idea how many of my students ever made that leap.

    I feel similarly about "shoulds." I also think that part of our attraction to "shoulds" is that they relieve us of the responsibility to be active, flexible participants in moment-to-moment decisionmaking. It's much simpler if we're given, say, 10 rules to live by. But I think life is richer than that. We have not only the freedom but the responsibility to look deep within ourselves to determine what our personal "should" is in every moment.

    How do we do that? By loving. We have to be in touch enough with our emotions, with how and where we feel love/compassion in any situation and ask ourselves what action we "should" take to be true to that feeling. Sure, it means we can't fall asleep at the switch, but I think that's a good thing. We're not robots; we have amazing tools to navigate this amazing world. I vote for acknowledging, embracing, and developing those tools.

    Jenn, to me, that's anything but empty, and I think this approach promotes a positive (whatever that means), active involvement in a life that is dynamic and meaningful in a very deep and genuine way.

  3. Jenn,

    I don't know. I don't read a lot of fiction, as you know.

    What takes their place? Well, I guess I'm not really ready to throw them off yet, so I don't know. Maybe I really haven't crossed over into any new way of understanding the world just yet.

  4. Bob,

    That sounds about right. Just to clarify, by 'shoulds' I don't mean anything that someone else has told me is a should. I just mean that even from inside my own head I don't know how to use a purely rationalist, scientific approach to the world that to find 'shoulds'.

  5. But Robert, this is one of my key questions. Why would you even want to use pure reason to explain your values? Even more than I feel like it's not possible (because I don't think that's where they originate), I don't see how or why it would be desirable.

    For me, it's all tied into the self-love thing: Love, embrace, and trust your non-rational (not necessarily "irrational") self to inform your rational side of what really matters to you. That (to me) is genuine and authentic.

  6. Oh, and what I'm saying is much more along the lines of Jonathan Livingston Seagull than Atlas Shrugged.

  7. Bob,

    I'm with you on that. I guess I feel the need to explain to people that I don't intend to rationalize my feelings for them, nor do I intend to disregard them.