“So long as he speaks the truth it can’t be folly—that’s what you’re going to say, isn’t it?”
Consider the irony: in an age when we have almost everything we could ever dream of, when we can own more than we possibly can use, when we can demand things now or then or whenever we please, we have quite nearly the least power imaginable.
Yes, that’s a bit of rhetorical flourish. Yes, there are worse states of being than to be middle-class in America (where America means the world), and yes, the lifestyle we partake in causes hideous social inequity which tightens the noose around the labor exploited to fund such a wanton lifestyle. But my point here, is: even with all the rents and resources extracted from other humans and from the very soil, sky, and seas, the resulting life isn’t even fit for a dog. Another irony: this is precisely the kind of life we often give to our dogs, and then wonder why they’re always so badly behaved.
Reflect upon your luxury. You have it pretty good, don’t you? You’ve got the lower tiers of Mazlowe’s hierarchy all set: roof over your head, food, water, good. You even have some luxuries besides. You can go out to eat and shop at nice places. You don’t even need a car to get there: you can just Uber yourself there. (Companies opening up new industries always get to name-brand language.) If there’s something you want, you can just order it off Amazon. You’ll get it the next day, because you have Prime. Speaking of Prime, that along with Netflix gives you all the TV to watch you could ever want. You don’t have to rely on the channels to show you anything good, you can just pick what you want to see. And if you’re not sure what you want to see, they give you recommendations. Amazon gives that for products, too. “Should I get regular Crest, or Tartar Protection?” Facebook, Reddit, and Tinder handle the rest. No need is left unfulfilled.
Well, except in how we end up so unfulfilled.
I hardly need to argue the point, here: in each of those cases, we’re selling ourselves to something which then controls us and makes use of us and which we have essentially no power over in return. It doesn’t matter what you buy from Amazon, because you’re just buying from Amazon anyway. It doesn’t matter what you watch on Netflix, because you’re just watching Netflix anyway. It’s not like things were much better in the 50s (see Alone’s writing for the logical consequence of the 50s), but at least then everyone watched the same things on TV. Getting the illusion of choice just means you segregate yourself in your subordination to the shaman-gods of Western Civilization. You don’t get the right to commiserate with others about how there’s never anything good at Mass.
So there’s a pretty simple connection, here. We worship the machine-god, wonder why our blood’s been swapped for glistening-oil, and then post about it on fourth-sphere Twitter, hashtag fatherofmachines. Yeah, that bad boy ain’t gonna save ya. “But what can we do? You can’t just not take part in society.” Hmm, really? That’s the standard argument for not avoiding <evil corporation>’s products, but I deliberately selected only optional examples, here. Sure, it’s pretty unreasonable in this day and age to opt out of owning, say, a computer, and a lot of folks don’t have great choices about how to eat. How you use Facebook, on the other hand, is entirely on you.
Disclaimer: this is not to say that all of these products are somehow inherently corrupting. There are healthy ways to use them. Most folks do not use them in healthy ways. The comparison to alcohol is appropriate.
So why do we have this problem? Why can’t we just use all these products healthily, avoid selling ourselves to the devil, and lead lives that aren’t miserable all the time? “It’s human nature. They just appeal to all our instincts for convenience and abuse them.” Wrong answer. No, not because of the fact of the matter, but because of how hard you fucked yourself with that one. “This bad thing keeps happening.” “Oh, that’s just human nature.” Great, so we have to really get in there with a scalpel to fix this fuckup. Who’s first in line for the lobotomy? What, no takers?
Here’s a better answer, which is still the wrong one: humans do react quite strongly to certain stimuli. This is as natural as leaves opening towards the sun. In fact, with stimuli that have limited availability in typical environments, there’s often time a very poor cap on the reactions to those stimuli, because the cap just isn’t needed. As we humans have gotten better at manipulating the world around us, we’ve managed to push the limits on some of those strong stimuli waaaaay back. When this happens, a lot of people go wild trying to abuse those stimuli, because their reactions are totally out of line with the limited availability (read: desirability) of those stimuli. To bring it back a little, alcohol is a great example. In the New World, before the Eurozone came knocking, there was no distilled alcohol. There were some alcoholic beverages, but they were more like the mash that you brew beer/distill spirits out of than like what we drink today. So when some of that good Scotch started showing up, none of the natives knew how to handle it in the slightest! The stereotype of the drunken Indian is around for a good reason. It was, to say the least, pretty horrible for those unfortunate few who’d survived the smallpox. Over time, things got somewhat better as the most vulnerable members of the population literally died of alcoholism before they could reproduce and the gene pool thinned, but there’s still a good deal of alcoholism left on the reservations (although probably most of it can be attributed to soul-crushing disenfranchisement and poverty, which tend to drive up the stock of plastic-bottle distilleries). So what we’re seeing right now with, say, Facebook or Twitter is the same exact process as happened to the tribes with liquor, just replacing the alcoholic euphoria with social feedback. Similar matches can be made with the other examples I gave and human desires like convenience and quick gratification. People are vulnerable to the abuse of these “drugs,” which leads to unhealthy behavior. In time, the population will adjust, and things will be sane again.
Incidentally, I believe everything I just wrote there. More importantly, can you see what’s wrong with it? I’ll wait while you work it out.
Got your answer? Good. Here’s mine: it still gives literally nothing actionable. Sure, it’s an excellent (at least in my mind) description of the issue, which gives valid comparisons to some prior events, but what do you get when you finish reading it? Let me put this another way. How do you think it was to be a spirit-addled Indian? “It tells us how dangerous these things are.” Great, do you think Mr. OG America didn’t know whiskey was bad shit?
The issue is that no matter how interesting the details of the explanation, it’s useless unless it also indicates a way to get out of the bad situation. And that, of course, brings us to mental illness.
We all know the story. Mass shooting happens, uproar begins. Consistently mentioned: “This is a mental health issue.” What does that even mean? “There was something wrong in his (important to note: always male) head. Nobody in their right mind would do that.” Correct, but what’s left fuzzy is what a right mind even is.
It goes without saying that the inspiration for mass-shootings-are-a-mental-health-issue topic is the UTexas tower gunman. That case is pretty cut-and-dry. The guy started noticing severe violent impulses, tried to get help, didn’t, and then finally broke and went on a rampage. During the autopsy, they found a brain tumor, which might not have been the only thing going on but which definitely fits the story of involuntary impulses. That whole ordeal could probably have been avoided if the guy just got treated. You know what isn’t a trend in subsequent shootings? The shooter trying to get help ahead of time for violent impulses, or brain tumors found after death. So why is this somehow the paradigm for why we get mass shootings?
Spoiler: I don’t care about the mass shootings, at least, not for the purposes of this essay. What I’m interested in is the equivocation. The UTexas guy had a literal, physical object in his head, screwing with the proper operation of his brain. This is the human equivalent of a hardware malfunction. On the other hand, while it’s beyond doubt that anyone who decides it’s a bright idea to go and put little holes in a bunch of people has some kind of messed up decision-making process, there’s no reason to think that they have a precise physical defect in the structure of their brain. The UTexas guy, on the other hand, seemed to have a pretty reasonable decision-making process: try to get help for bad desires, and when the urges build up to the point they can’t be contained, act on them. That’s what we all do. Not saying it couldn’t have been better, but it’s non-exceptional.
So what’s wrong with the rest of the shooters? Are they crazy, or aren’t they? Well, that’s the problem: we only have those two categories for mental health, even though that’s obviously discordant with reality. If someone’s crazy, then that means they need physical intervention, which is where psychiatry and drugs come in. If they’re not, they don’t need anything. And so when we get cases where there isn’t anything physically wrong with the individual, we either drug them up anyway (see: Xanax) or say that they’re sane but evil. Great idea, but that just normalizes evil.
What’s actually going on is something much closer to the computer engineering model of hardware and software. Different brains have different physical architectures, and then have different intangible qualities, like memories, thoughts, decision patterns, etc. It’s worth thinking of these as structures of brain versus structures of mind. The different architectures change how the brain functions in highly consistent and replicable ways, e.g. someone who’s talented at math will consistently be talented at math, same with sports. Generally, this isn’t worth remarking on, and gets summed up as something like “it takes all sorts,” which is a pretty healthy way of viewing the situation. Occasionally, the consistent effects of a brain’s architecture cause severe problems, such as when a consistent effect is something like “repeated and unwarranted violent impulses” or “overapplies face-recognition in vision” (a specific and common manifestation of schizophrenia). In these cases, physical intervention is needed to correct the physical problem, typically through drugs or surgery. This is completely appropriate.
However, there are also cases where someone has a reasonable brain architecture but with unreasonable intangible qualities that cause them harm in their life. A common version of this is an individual false belief, like the misinformed belief that mixing benzos and alcohol is a-okay. More pernicious is a generalized false belief, like believing that you can do dangerous thing X because it’s always been fine in the past (e.g. drunk driving), which in turn rests on a general pattern of bad logic (bad thing A didn’t happen when I did this, so it’s fine to do this), which may itself rest upon a feature of brain architecture. It almost goes without saying, but these bad structures of mind are rarely as neat and distinguished as the examples I give. Just like how good structures of mind, good theories and practices, all build on one another, so too do bad structures of mind do the same. If you read Alone’s writing, then you should already be familiar with one particular complex of bad beliefs and bad logic: narcissism.
These structures of mind, though, can’t be solved through physical intervention, because they’re not physical in nature. Trying to do so is as nonsensical as fixing a software bug by swapping in a new hard drive – even if it happens to get rid of the symptoms, the real problem is that the software is shit. There’s been some progress in figuring out what to do to address these issues, which has ended up being things like cognitive-behavioral therapy, which is literally just teaching someone about how bad structures of mind self-reinforce and giving some advice on how to break them apart. It’s great they’re doing this, but at the same time, it’s a little galling that anyone was able to forget that the solution to someone thinking and living badly is to give them good advice.
Think back to the Native Americans and hard liquor. What did that problem really consist of? Yes, on the one hand they were likely physically more vulnerable to alcohol than Europeans, which allowed for that whole bad situation to start. But there are plenty of white alcoholics, too, and some of them recover. What’s the difference between recovering and not? Well, it’s whether or not the individual can muster the self-control to just not drink, isn’t it?
Let me be clear: this isn’t a justification for the atrocities done to the Native Americans. Liquor didn’t help, but they were fucked from the outset. They were the last remaining survivors of what was probably the world’s most horrific epidemic, sitting on land that people with massively superior military technology wanted. There was no happy ending to that situation. And yet, as metaphor, they serve as a good example of how to think about our interaction with all of these shiny new toys we have but probably shouldn’t. If we fall prey to the shiny new toys, it’s not really because we’re somehow weak to the human impulses they prey on, although that is one condition. It’s because we do not fix the way we think and act such that those pretty toys don’t ruin our fucking lives.
This much is fairly straightforward. In fact, it’s so straightforward as to be confusing. If this is the big point to be made here, why couldn’t I just make it? Why go into the details of First Nations alcoholism instead of getting straight to the point?
That’s an uninteresting question. Far more interesting: if it’s so damn obvious, why don’t we all know it already? Put another way: why is it so common to give the kind of explanation that starts with “Well, the nature of things is such that…”
There’s a tendency that’s been going around for a few centuries, now, to look for root causes. It’s an admirable approach to technical problems, which is why it jives so well with the hard sciences. Unfortunately, what “root cause” ends up meaning in all these cases is “the most temporally prior event that has any reasonable relationship with the current phenomenon.” For technical problems, this works just fine, which is of course the issue.
Take any personal problem you might have. Chances are you can think of a cause for it: maybe it’s something that happened to you when you were a kid, or maybe it’s a result of your genetic physiology, or maybe it’s the fault of social structures far larger than you are. And chances are that this cause happened, in some way, prior to your own ability to really affect things. You can probably find root causes for that root cause, too, but to forestall a lengthy regression to the Big Bang, let’s stop here. You have a problem, and you have an explanation or it. “Because this thing happened, therefore I have a problem.” Now take a minute. Look that sentence over. Keep looking until you see it, or until you’ve gotten yourself thinking in circles and need to move on.
That’s a narrative.
And we know all about narratives.
Maybe I held this one a bit under the table in the earlier essay, but any kind of explanation is a narrative. That’s the big lesson of our boy in the north Davie the Hume. Critically, explanations aren’t bad things. In the hard sciences they’re fantastic, entirely because of that wacky idea of reproducible results. In physics et al, if you follow the story just right, the universe fills in the blanks. It’s a marvelous trick, and if you follow Plato’s connection of techne with a logos, that’s the way that all things technical function.
The problem comes when you take away that ability to reproduce results. We’re getting a little taste of that now in some of the more difficult technical fields (medical biochemistry being a biggie), but this is basically always going to be the case when you’re dealing with human minds. Why? Long form: humans learn from past experiences in unpredictable ways and will make choices accordingly, but only if they feel like it. Short form: humans have free will.
“Free will is just a myth! It’s some mystical nonsense invented to give us a feeling of control over our lives! Really, everything is determined by physical causality, and if there’s any chance at all that there could be variety in outcomes, it would be on the quantum level, certainly having nothing to do with our own choices.”
All right, let’s grant all that. A question: in this purely causal universe, are there entities called computers? “Yes.” When a computation is displayed by the computer, that computation ultimately comes from the design of the computer, does it not? And yet we say the computer computed it. “Yes and yes.” There are also entities called humans, and these humans indicate decisions. So even if the decisions come purely from the human’s composition and the inputs given to it, we ought still to call those decisions as being made by the human.
“But that’s entirely beside the point! People make decisions, but they don’t make them freely. That’s what’s really going on: our will isn’t free.” So does being free to do something mean you have the choice of whether to do it. “Yes, and since everything is determined, we don’t really have that choice.” So when we say someone isn’t making a decision freely, they don’t have the choice of making that decision. “Yes.” So is a choice a decision too? “What?” I mean: if we choose to do something, is that a decision? “Yes…” So if we choose to decide something, that means we’re deciding to decide. “Apparently.” But then does the decision to decide need to be decided on? I don’t see where that could end. So is it really coherent to talk about the choice of what we decide? If not, then that’s a poor criterion for free will.
“That was a mistake. Free will is about the ability to choose to do otherwise.” Other than what? “What?” For it to be a choice to do otherwise, it has to be other than something. “Other than what you’re physically determined to do, of course.” So to do other than what you’re going to do? “Yes.” But you haven’t done it yet, so whatever you decide on is going to be the same as what you’re going to do. “Exactly, and that’s because everything is physically determined.” And what if nothing was physically determined? Would it no longer be the case that what someone decided to do was the same as what they did? “If it wasn’t, then they could-“ No, they couldn’t, and if they could, it would be impossible to tell the difference. What you’re describing is a feature of linear and directional time, not causality and free will. Once event B follows event A, it has always followed event A, but before it does, the possibilities are open. The problem is that you’re trying to put yourself in the ultimate future, from which position everything is absolutely determined to have happened as it did, while your real position is in the present, from which nothing in the future is absolutely guaranteed. As such, that argument says nothing about free will whatsoever, at least, if we want to pretend that it would give us a different set of evidence in an imaginary anti-determinate world. (Look! Everything everyone does corresponds exactly with what they decide! That proves free will exists! Ever consider that one?)
“But there’s still not free will! You said it before; everything we do is based on how we’re built and what inputs we’re given. We’re just machines! That’s not free!” So freedom is freedom from something, yes? In this case, it would be freedom from physical determination, which means freedom from all things physical, yes? “Yes, that’s right.” And all things are physical, so free will is impossible. “Exactly! Now you get the point.” So what you’re demanding is something that, by your own definitions, cannot exist. Now who’s being mystical about free will?
This is a much better model of free will: what we decide to do is what we decide to do. Anything outside that is narrative. Scientific narrative is marvelous stuff, and holds up incredibly well in most cases, but as Hume so helpfully instructs, it really is just narrative. Causality, the juggernaut of fate, can be reduced to constant correlation. There’s no real way to differentiate a causal link from outstanding coincidence, except through having a good enough account (logos) to tell about it. And we tell stories all the time.
There’s an old folktale (for lack of anything better to call it) that goes something like:
For lack of a nail, the shoe was lost.
For lack of a shoe, the horse was lost.
For lack of a horse, the rider was lost.
For lack of a rider, the message was lost.
For lack of a message, the battle was lost.
For lack of a battle, the war was lost.
For lack of a war, the kingdom was lost.
And all for the lack of a nail.
The point we all tend to get from this, children or otherwise, is that little things can bubble up into massive problems. This is a good lesson, especially for children, who have something of a tendency towards laxness as far as the little things are concerned. What gets relatively little press is the question: what the hell kind of monarch gets into the position where a single messenger is deciding the fate of his or her kingdom, much less a nail? King Curly was an accident waiting to happen. If it wasn’t the nail, it would have been something else. The nail was just the first thing the world threw out. But that’s just another bit of evasion. The truth is, the nail was invented by our monarch. It has nothing to do with the world at all.
Okay, I realize that’s a perplexing statement, so here’s where I try to catch up on lost ground. The nail itself was complete accident, complete happenstance. There was nobody whose fault it was, at least in this telling. It basically equates to random noise in the sample. And yet, we know about it. Why do we know? “Because it’s the point of the story. It’s just a little fable…” Yes, yes, very adroit, but please bear with me. We know about it because the monarch went looking for it. They decided they wanted a story for why their kingdom was gone, and the one they ended up happy with was the one where it was “all for lack of a nail.” Again: that’s not necessarily the true reason. That’s the one they were happy enough with to stop looking. (That happens to also be a good working definition for truth, but that’s neither here nor there.) Now ask yourself this: why on earth would anyone ever be happy with a story where they lost an entire kingdom due to random noise?
You can probably see where this is going. What could be worse than random noise causing you great misfortune? For it to be your own damn fault. Admittedly, the random noise is pretty low on the list of preferable explanations. It’s better to blame things on tragic fate or on a malicious actor. But it’s still better than taking personal responsibility, because then you have to be wrong. There becomes such a thing as right and wrong. That, needless to say, is terrifying.
Back to our narrative. “Because this thing happened, therefore I have a problem.” What is that preferable to? The alternative, which is something like “I have not yet solved this problem, therefore I have a problem.” This is why root-cause thinking is so popular: because it’s more comfortable than trying to take ownership of your life. Instead of focusing on your own person and what you can do differently, you focus on the “real problem,” whether it be your genetics or the class you were born into or the era you were born into or the government or corporations or the patriarchy or the matriarchy or any other kind of societal structure or that one thing your mommy or daddy said to you when you were seven and now, ten or twenty years later, can apparently still not get over. And what makes this so characteristically modern isn’t the inhibition – every place and time has its helpless whiners – but that it’s now mixed with smug faux-intellectualism, the complaints have been elevated into grand theories (Darwinian, Marxist, Freudian et al) which absolutely self-deny the possibility of mind or thought or personal reason (and thus will) and in turn supplant them with endless just-so stories about how things had to turn out the way they did, perhaps for the more politically-minded in the way they expect things to go, and thus reject every effort to truly make change. Of course, the reason these theories are so popular is because people are vulnerable to the gratification of inaction – but really it’s because you didn’t decide to get moving.
“But these theories-“ Stop. I know they do, in fact, provide good explanatory models on large scales. That’s what they’re meant to do. But providing good large-scale models precludes the ability to measure on the small scale. Yes, you read that right: it not only doesn’t require similar small-scale accuracy, it outright makes that small-scale accuracy impossible.
The individual organism does not act so as to spread its own genes. It may end up doing so, but those are not its motives. Its motives are always its own. Those can be curated somewhat on a large scale via evolution, but this is not the same as being identical to gene-spreading. If a motive is tangent or opposed to genetic spread, the organism will still follow it. That’s the truth of the matter.
Most other modern theories can be herded into this bucket. The details don’t matter much. What matters is that regardless of how useful these ideas are in academia or perhaps governance, they don’t do any good for our ordinary lives. In our capacity as humans, we have nothing to do with grand theories and everything to do with our own willpower, our own will. And yet, the solution adopted by most is just to abandon themselves in favor of feeling smart, and abandon power in favor of comforting impotence.
This is why we fall prey to these modern temptations so easily. We don’t want anything really good for us, so the perceived goods are that much more alluring. It’s the same brand of desirous neuroticism you see when people desperately drink at parties: frantic activity to disguise impotence. We aren’t happy, can’t imagine happiness, so we clutch desperately at pleasure and gratification as if it’s a substitute, as if it isn’t just making our suffering worse. That’s exactly what an addict does, and it’s why putting addicts into happier lifestyles can stop the addiction.
So what’s the way out? How can we stop wanting the things which are bad for us, and start living real lives? How are we to take responsibility for our own selves and strengthen our own will? You know the answer, and hopefully are coming to understand what it means: therapy.
Alone, as per usual
Absence of MInd, by Marilynne Robinson
If you’re unfamiliar with Hume, then take a look at his Stanford Encyclopedia page
Google searches of my countless citation-free claims