Saturday, July 08, 2006

Meaning, suffering and Prozac

Will technology, progress and modern medicine do away with pain, suffering and existential anxiety? And if they do, will that be a good thing? Though the first question may be a puzzler to all but the most starry-eyed technophiles, answering the second question would seem to be a slam dunk, one would think. Would anyone miss pain, suffering and existential anxiety?

One of the remarkable things about the internet is that if you surf regularly enough you will on occasion come upon examples of people or ideas that are truly as rare as the fabled unicorn. Such a person and idea is represented by this review of a book by peter Augustine Lawler titled "Aliens in America, the Strange Truth about our Souls", by Steven Menashi of the Washington Times from Sept 1st of 2002. It seems that the purpose of Lawler's book is to answer the second question above with a resounding "no".
Mr. Lawler recalls Allan Bloom's observation that human beings are defined by love and death. But, today, those human passions no longer animate the most "sophisticated" Americans. Instead, the desire for self-knowledge has been replaced by a feel-good therapy that dulls the unease that is part of being human.

One can see this attitude clearly in the march of political correctness through our educational institutions: At the end of history, the purpose of education is no longer to question or strive for justice, but to implement it. We already have final knowledge, you see, and we can spare everyone the discomfort of striving, the burden of knowledge, and the disorder of the human passions.

That, for Mr. Lawler, is what links Mr. Fukuyama's two very different accounts of social evolution: They both aim at human comfort, to make people completely at home in the world.

But to be at home in the world is to be inhuman. Mr. Lawler believes that human beings must always be aliens in this world, tormented by longings for immortality and understanding, ill at ease with a self-consciousness and a capacity for good and evil that is denied to the rest of creation. Indeed, the most distinctively human impulses — the artistic or philosophic impulse — begin in awe and apprehension at the vast incomprehensibility of the world.

Today, however, the anxious wonder that is the root of human excellence can be cured with a generous dose of Prozac. Francis Fukuyama, for one, worries "what the careers of tormented geniuses like Blaise Pascal or Nietzsche himself would have looked like had they been born to American parents and had Ritalin and Prozac been available to them at an early age."

Mr. Lawler's answer: "They would have been untormented! True, their torment was intertwined with their ability to know much of the truth about Being and human beings, and to be haunted and deepened spiritually by God's hiddenness or death. But according to evolutionary biology, human beings are not fitted by nature to know the truth, and the fanatical pursuit of truth by tormented geniuses has not been good for the species."

Thus, contends Mr. Lawler, despite Mr. Fukuyama's latest criticisms of biotechnology — his essay "Second Thoughts" and the recent "Our Posthuman Future" — his suggestion in "The Great Disruption" is that the world is better off without men like Pascal and Nietzsche, who disrupted our natural existence with their preference for truth over social comfort. Mr. Fukuyama, in Mr. Lawler's rendering, has no standpoint from which to criticize pharmacology or biotechnology, for these are just an extension of Mr. Fukuyama's project of making people at home in the world: "Those who prefer comfort to truth . . . will swallow pills and submit to operations for their obvious social and survival values."

"To be human," writes Mr. Lawler, "is to be alienated from and disconnected with one's natural existence." He fears that bioengineering might permanently extinguish human longings (which are now only suppressed by some medications), abolishing human distinctiveness. Mr. Lawler wants to make the case for the necessity of religious faith as a moral compass, so he derides the scientific standpoint of Mr. Fukuyama and others.


There are so many angles to attack this philosophy from that I'm afraid I will have to ramble a bit to make the circuit of them all. My first impression is that the religious impulse Lawler alludes to would have to be called a "worship of suffering". I'll leave it to the more religious of my readers to determine if this worship is a heresy or an idolatry of the true worship of God, but from a purely human-oriented standpoint I'd have to say that it is one of the most thoroughly inhuman philosophies one can imagine.

Suffering may very well be inevitable, but the only truly human response to that reality is to fight to avoid, escape and to ameliorate that suffering wherever it exists in one's life and in the lives of others. There is a nobility in the way that humans face suffering, but that nobility only comes from our defiance of that suffering and our determination to find happiness and meaning in spite of it. Human nobility never finds itself embracing suffering. That is the way to absurdity and madness. Yet it seems to be the way that Lawler would have us travel. Like prisoners in a sick experiment he would have us fall in love wiht our captors.

I have a personal reason to find Lawler's position offensive and absurd. I have been taking anti-depressants for about eight years, and I can tell you that his notion that I have somehow left my most human and meaningful self behind in my escape from chronic depression is hogwash beyond measuring. Lawler is putting forward a false dichotomy between soulful, introspective anguish and self-satisfied, soulless, unexamined comfort. Does he imagine that the human mind has some binary switch that toggles between these two states, and that anti-depressants somehow block all painful sensations, keeping the subject in a state of satisfied bliss?

A healthy mind will experience a range of emotional states between bliss and abject terror. But more importantly, the emotional states in a healthy mind will be in balance with its environmental stimulii. Healthy people feel joy when they should feel joy, fear when they should feel fear, anger when they should feel anger, etc. Chronic depression blankets all situations with an overlay of fear and anxiety. The link to the environment is broken. It is not anguish that lends itself to meaningful philosophizing about the nature of man or the universe. It is an absurd state, an inhuman state. Yet Lawler would have me remain so in the service of producing the next Nietzsche. To grasp how absurd this is, just think about how the public would react to the idea of withholding all medical assistance to the blind and deaf in the service of producing the next Helen Keller.

Though as I mentioned that I find Lawler's seemingly abject worship of suffering and rejection of the very human striving for happiness to be quite unique, I have to say that it reminds me of other philosophies that are on display in various religious and non/religious contexts. One that I have commented much on lately is Crunchy Conservatism, which seems to be standing athwart any manifestation of the common people's striving for material comfort and well being, yelling "stop". Another manifestation seems to be, in the political realm, the desire to keep "authentic" cultures in a kind of pristine state, untouched by western-ism, as if it is the duty of undeveloped societies to maintain themselves as theme park exhibits for the aesthetic and moral satisfaction of western elites.

What all of these philosopies have in common, I believe, is that they aestheticize human existence. Lawler's obsession with producing religious and philosophical geniuses seems to say that the purpose of a life lived is to provide an appropriate aesthetic object of worship for others. To him a happy Nietzsche would be a non-entity, a wasted life. Likewise with the Crunchy Cons. It is beside the point whether people are happy or fulfilled with their material goods purchased from WalMart. Living the consumer lifestyle makes people unappealing from an aesthetic sense. The Crunchy Con cannot romanticize the modern consumer, and so the consumer life is a life not worth living. Likewise for the aboriginal who wants to enjoy western music, clothing and consumer goods. The cosmopolitan and aesthetically sophisticated UN bureacrat cannot idealize the authentic noble savage in the New Guinea jungle if he is wearing Nikes and doing the Macarena. And so his life is diminished.

The pre-eminent speaker on matters of suffering and meaning, in my opinion, is the psychologist and Holocaust survivor Victor Frankl. In his book "Man's Search for Meaning" Frankl wrote that when confronted with unavoidable suffering, one must construct a personal meaning for enduring that suffering in order to survive it. But he also wrote that to endure suffering when the suffering can be avoided is a meaningless exercise - it is masochism.

9 Comments:

Blogger Oroborous said...

The Crunchy Con cannot romanticize the modern consumer...

Give it a hundred years, and there'll be plenty of romanticizing of the "rugged and primitive" early-21st century peoples.

Huxley, for one, made that insight part of Brave New World.

July 09, 2006 3:17 AM  
Blogger Oroborous said...

Oh, and yeah, enduring suffering as part of physical or intellectual training, or as a path to enlightenment, is all to the good; as a lifestyle, it's loony.

July 09, 2006 3:20 AM  
Blogger Oroborous said...

Also, I see that you've sold out, what with your bourgeois "Google ads".

July 09, 2006 5:19 AM  
Blogger Brit said...

Yeah, do we get a cut, now that we're working for The Man?

July 09, 2006 6:47 AM  
Blogger Harry Eagar said...

I can more easily understand wanting to enjoy the sufferings of others -- my enemies, for examples -- than I can deliberately self-inflicted suffering: scourging onesself for Jesus, Ali etc.

++++

Off somewhat at a tangent from the main point, when the UN says this:

'instituting a legal framework that makes cultural, environmental and social impact assessment studies mandatory and ensure the environmental accountability of economic, social and environmental projects that are proposed to be conducted on sacred sites and on lands, territories and waters traditionally occupied or used by indigenous peoples,' the UNois can be pleased that we Americans already do this.

This, however, then leads to the rise of false prophets who claim sacredness for areas that never were. Happens all the time where I live.

And it is not only white men who want to impose primitive quaintness on their brown brothers. The elite brown brothers are happy to impose it on their lower-income relatives.

You haven't lived until you've heard a Harvard-trained physician of pure Hawaiian blood tell his compatriots that they should aspire to stoop labor in the taro patch because 'Hawaiians are meant to be farmers.'

July 09, 2006 7:16 AM  
Blogger Duck said...

The ads are an experiment, let's see if they generate any income. i'm not pleased with the options I had for placement. I wanted something along the left side of the page, but I don't think my template is set up to allow it.

If there is any income, I was thinking of using it for prize money for one of my contests. Or I could divide it up among the staff, based on output, of course. But I'd hate to compromise our standard of quality over quantity.

I also added a site meter at the bottom. If you click on it, it will take you to a report of the site visits and page views. We are slowly making our way into the 21st century.

July 09, 2006 7:33 AM  
Blogger Oroborous said...

"Divide it up among the staff..." LOL
Now that's optimism. Still, every business Empire starts somewhere...

I don't know how relevant this is, but fifteen years ago the publisher of the Junction City Daily Union was the richest guy in Junction City, KS (not a high bar, to be sure).
At the time, there were only 19,000 residents of JC KS, and obviously not everyone took the paper.

The lesson that I took was that one need not have a large operation to make large profits - it's all in the margins.
Which is also one of the lessons of Microsoft Corp., come to think of it.

July 09, 2006 7:53 AM  
Blogger Peter Kirk said...

What's that about the unicorn being fabled? If you surf regularly enough you will find out that while it is not really all that rare! But you will also find out that "Happy Purim to one and all!" is the Jewish equivalent to "April Fool".

July 10, 2006 3:50 PM  
Blogger Hey Skipper said...

It isn't always easy to comment on reviews, because one is working at something of a remove: what the reviewer says the author said. With that caveat in mind, Mr. Lawler's argument repeatedly runs into itself before so much as tying its shoes.

But, today, those human passions no longer animate the most "sophisticated" Americans. Instead, the desire for self-knowledge has been replaced by a feel-good therapy that dulls the unease that is part of being human.

Beyond the not quite hidden sneering arrogance -- who is Mr. Lawler to say what "sophisticated" Americans feel -- he completely disregards what draws many to religious belief: dulling the unease that is part of being human, in particular the specter of mortality.

At the end of history, the purpose of education is no longer to question or strive for justice, but to implement it. We already have final knowledge, you see, and we can spare everyone the discomfort of striving, the burden of knowledge, and the disorder of the human passions.

All in all, not a bad description of Patrick Henry College.

"what the careers of tormented geniuses would have looked like had ... Ritalin and Prozac been available to them at an early age."

Mr. Lawler's answer: "They would have been untormented! True, their torment was intertwined with their ability to know much of the truth about Being and human beings, and to be haunted and deepened spiritually by God's hiddenness or death. But according to evolutionary biology, human beings are not fitted by nature to know the truth, and the fanatical pursuit of truth by tormented geniuses has not been good for the species."

What a load of argle-bargle. True, they were tormented. Not necessarily true, as in taking as true what is far from proven, is that their torment was a necessary precondition to knowing "much of the truth."

I'm not sure where evolutionary biology says human beings are not fitted by nature to know the truth. More coherently, any representation of objective reality cannot be the truth, since any representation is, by definition and abstraction of reality. It isn't that nature somehow neglected to outfit humans for truth knowing; rather, such a thing simply isn't possible.

Further, it isn't the fanatical pursuit of truth that is bad for humans; rather, it is the implementation of absolute truth, no matter which absolute truth it happens to be.

Duck wrote:

My first impression is that the religious impulse Lawler alludes to would have to be called a "worship of suffering".

Just so. But I'll bet Mr. Lawler takes full advantage of 21st century dentistry. Hypocrite.

Human nobility never finds itself embracing suffering.

Generally true, especially when the embrace of suffering is the point of the whole exercise. However, if I may quibble, some sporting events achieve their nobility (and swag) through the embrace of suffering. The Tour de France comes to mind here.

Yet Lawler would have me remain so in the service of producing the next Nietzsche.

As would Tom Cruise. That alone is plenty of brush with which to tar Mr. Lawler.

To him a happy Nietzsche would be a non-entity, a wasted life. Likewise with the Crunchy Cons. It is beside the point whether people are happy or fulfilled with their material goods purchased from WalMart.

To Mr. Lawler, any preference people might have for their own lives is also completely beside the point. While using technology to avoid the pain of dental caries, Mr. Lawler is apparently quite happy to burden others with a torment not of their own choosing. Talk about unfunded mandates.

But [Frankl] also wrote that to endure suffering when the suffering can be avoided is a meaningless exercise - it is masochism.

And to insist others suffer to satisfy your aesthetic desires is arrogance on stilts.

July 12, 2006 9:01 PM  

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