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Re: Living Life

When I first read this blog post, my initial reaction was frustration at the fact that the topic was the meaning of life. Upon rereading it, I’m finding plenty of other reasons for being frustrated. Not only is the topic of the post comically ambitious, but it is rife with non-sequiturs and logical inconsistencies. Let’s start with the very beginning. Your first assertion “Even if it [life] is truly meaningless, then to live is of little consequence,” is the first of many philosophically confused claims. You set up an if, then argument as if your claim was an obvious logical truth. On the contrary, it conflates the ideas of consequence and meaning. This is a huge mistake. Consequence is a metaphysical question, and meaning can be many different things. Not only that, but even if you concluded that there is no meaning to life, therefore living was pointless, it would be unclear what you mean (haha) by that. Are you talking about purpose, as in having a greater purpose? Being a part of a larger plan? Are you denying objective meaning? Are you denying subjective meaning? It’s hard to tell. Don’t write a blog post about the meaning of life without knowing what you mean by meaning. You take another step from that false start, in the same sentence, to argue that since living is of little consequence, then to live must be a choice. Further, that since living is a choice, then we must designate some purpose or meaning to life in order to continue living. Those two steps in your argument are non-sequiturs. It does not follow that since life is inconsequential (which it can’t be, since our very existence implies consequence. Hell, the existence of anything at all implies some sort of consequence), that living becomes a choice. An obvious counterexample is the material reductionist’s determinism. It could be that everything that happens is predetermined by the laws of physics and chemistry. If that is the case, life would be both meaningless and we would have no choice whatsoever, let alone the option to choose whether we live or die. But if we assume for a second that that was a valid logical step, we would run into the same problem. The fact that life is meaningless and living is a choice does not logically imply that we must artificially give life a purpose, point, or meaning. It is easy to imagine that people can come to grips with the fact that life is meaningless without needing to fill that void. They can choose to live without designating any contrived meaning to their choice. People can live for the sake of living, and for no other reason.

So far in your blog post, we have no clarity as to what you mean by meaning, an unwarranted conflation of ideas, and three non-sequiturs. All of this in only your first true sentence. If I was to look critically at each of your claims in this post, it would take two days and cost me my sanity. Instead, I’ll just point out some of the more egregious problems in your post.

Let’s assume that life is indeed meaningless. And let’s also assume that by meaning, you are referring to an objective meaning (which is still sort of vacuous, but allows us to talk of subjective meanings). You say that you refuse to adhere to “shallow and arbitrary meaning,” but that brings to mind the question of what alternative there is? If there is no big-M Meaning to life, then how could any other type of meaning not be shallow or arbitrary? Isn’t that all that’s left? And what gives you the authority to value one type of meaning over another when all meaning is necessarily arbitrary? Who gets to rank one person’s valuation of virtue over another’s valuation of hedonism on a scale of meaning in a meaningless world?

Another frustrating issue is that you are so intent on discovering what the purpose of life is when your foundational premise is that there is no purpose at all. This comes back to trying to rank values and contrived purposes that are completely subjective. You can’t do that. You can talk about what purpose is sufficient or inufficient for you, but you cannot speak about purpose in a general way (at least without establishing a new metaphysical/ontological framework that would allow you to).

You talk about measuring life in experience, but what does that mean? Do you just have to have experiences? Then the purpose of life would be to be alive as long as possible so you can have more experience. It doesn’t matter what those experiences are. Or do you want to say that it does matter? If so, we are coming back to subjective value judgments. Can you find a way to justify ranking them more objectively? Try it.

The most frustrating thing in this post is your refusal to accept arbitrary systems of value or meaning, yet you doggedly attempt to find the objective among the arbitrary. You say that the purpose of life “lies in the furthering of life and the bettering of ourselves, part of which is objective part of which is subjective,”. I would love some clarification on what the objective part of that is. In fact, I would love it if you could explain any way in which the term better could be used in an objective sense.

Another little nugget in this post is your out of place assertion that there is no free will or choice involved in life. What? Didn’t you say that living itself was a choice? When I first read this, I wanted to give you the benefit of the doubt and find a way in which this wouldn’t be a contradiction. Unfortunately I failed. You say “it is uncommon for a person sound of mind to question whether or not they desire to live or not,”. Whoah, man. I’m sure you meant for that statement to be pretty and philosophical sounding, but there are a lot of implications about mental health there that I bet you yourself don’t even agree with. Be careful with your words. Don’t just say shit because it sounds like something Hume or Mill would write.

You end by saying that life is a circumstance, it is inconsequential, it is insignificant, and also somehow “sufficient enough for man not to question whether or not he chooses to live.” What the fuck does that even mean? People do question whether or not life is a choice. You literally just did that in your own post. Also, how is life sufficient? Just being alive is enough? If so, why would anyone search for meaning? Why would you write a blog post in which you try to come up with the meaning of life? Why would people go to churches, mosques, or synagogues? Why would people study philosophy? Why would people try to make any money? Why would people do anything other than eating, sleeping, drinking water, and fucking when necessary? I can see that your post is an attempt to explore the tension between meaninglessness and the human yearning for meaning. This topic has been explored extensively, and if you read any Camus like I told you to, you’d know that the word you’re looking for is absurdity. That is what you are trying to say, though failing at.

And finally, remember when I said we could assume that life is indeed meaningless? Well, you might want to actually justify and/or clarify that claim if you want anyone to take any of its implications seriously. And no, saying that “the lack of priority for meaning in each moment of our lives supplies evidence for the fact that life has no meaning,” does not make any more sense than saying that a six year old’s lack of priority for Vitamin D in each moment of her life supplies evidence for the fact that there is no such thing as Vitamin D.

I know my post comes off as rude, insensitive, over-critical, and me just being a dick. You would not be wrong. But I think it is important for your own growth as a writer to be held accountable for the things you put out there. You can’t just make assertions about the meaning of life without supporting them. At least not without getting an earful about it. You need to read more philosophy before you philosophize about the ultimate question of life, the universe, and everything. Odds are, other people have already thought what you think, and odds are they did a better job at articulating it. I know you don’t believe me, but you just might have something to learn from them.

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Social Media: Paving the way to a greater social consciousness, or to mass delusion?

When you spend as much time on Facebook as I do, you start to wonder what kind of value it adds to your life. Reflecting on the nature of the content I scroll through on a daily basis, the answer is: not much. Every morning, I mindlessly scroll down my news feed passing shit-post after shit-post after shit-post. Every morning I navigate my feed saturated with the same people posting their NowThis videos letting me know what I should spend 15 seconds being alarmed about today, videos of middle school kids fighting, and a recipe for no-bake cookies that I’m never going to try. While these shit-posts (yes, that is a technical term) are annoying, they are also mostly benign. What makes me wonder about the utility of social media is when things get political.

When people post their impassioned opinion on important political or social matters on Facebook, that’s when things get interesting; because as much as I want to hate social media like Facebook and Twitter, I have to wonder whether it could actually be a really powerful tool for fostering greater social awareness. Despite how dumb most people’s opinions are, at least social media gives them a platform for discussing them. John Stuart Mill discussed the value of free and open discourse. When people publicly share their ideas in a discourse, they are opening themselves up to criticism, and that is a good thing. When people are critical of each others ideas, then they are forced to defend them. When you defend an idea, you are forced to think about it, and why you believe in it. When others poke holes in your idea, you either need to change it or find a better way to defend it. When there is a culture of free and open discourse, people will start to develop more sophisticated ideas over time. At least that’s the theory.

Beyond that, social media might also serve to make our democracy stronger. When writing on his observations of a young America in the 19th century, French political philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville noted some of his concerns with the functionality of democracy. He was a major critic of what he called individualism, which is what happens when people become primarily focused on their own lives, families, and personal affairs. He argued that individualism was the enemy of a healthy democracy, and for it to succeed people needed to go out and associate with one another, socially, politically, whatever. People just needed to live a public life and have a general concern for the well-being of others in their community. Otherwise, no one can get a sense of how how well a policy does. People are unconcerned with political life, and risk falling victim to a soft despotism.

If we look past all of the shit-posts, we might notice that Facebook is a medium for free and open discourse. People can share their opinions with one another and engage in critical dialogue. People can also read updates on others’ lives and in turn update other people on their own lives, a gesture that displays concern for the well-being of their community.

Even though it seems like social media has so much potential to improve society, I can’t shake the feeling that something more sinister is going on. Maybe I’ve read too many sci-fi novels, or maybe I’m just naturally cynical, but I have a feeling social media will never deliver on its promise. Even though we have a platform for free and open discourse, I don’t think people will develop more sophisticated, well thought out ideas. Even though we have a forum for displaying mutual concern for the public good, I don’t think our democracy will become more engaged.

Perhaps I can find a hint to what makes social media so ineffective at effecting social progress in my own behavior on it. Earlier, when I said I mindlessly scroll through my news feed, I meant mindlessly. I really don’t read much of what I see, and I watch even fewer videos. I suspect that most people’s behavior is similar to mine. In fact, one Columbia study has shown that 59% of links shared were never actually clicked by the person who shared it. This is startling. Not only do people not read others’ posts, but 59% of us don’t even read our own!

But I don’t want to get too ahead of myself and judge social media simply based on my own attitude towards it. After all, I am a pretty cynical guy. But if we think about the content that gets shared, it can give us hints as to what people really do on social media. We don’t get an actual picture of reality by listening to what people tell us; rather, we get a feel for what is actually going on by observing what people do, especially people who want things from us. Take sites like Buzzfeed and NowThis for example. Their goal is to get as many clicks and shares as they possibly can. That’s a tough thing to do online due to the sheer magnitude of content out there. So how do you get people to click? Clickbait. If you don’t know what clickbait is, it is a link or video whose title is designed to play on your curiosity just to get you to click. 13 recipes you can’t live without. What all oxygen lovers need to start doing immediately. The 9 biggest lies your parents told you growing up. You get the idea. One popular trend in clickbait headlines is to make the article a list. People seem to love lists. Why do people love lists? Because most people hate actually reading. People want the instant gratification of getting information without actually looking for it, and lists provide an excellent format where people can just skim a few words, satisfy their curiosity, and move on. If you click, the baiters win. It doesn’t matter what the article actually says, so long as you clicked the link. Same goes for video views.

Another common tactic used on social media to grab our oh so short-lived attention is putting text on videos. The media sharers of social media know that the headline and thumbnail are not enough. The video will play without you ever clicking on it, but with no sound (because that would be too invasive). Putting text on the videos in the absence of sound gives the maker of the video another chance to pique your interest and lure you into clicking on it. What these two tactics tell us is that, for the most part, people just scroll through without actually reading or watching any of the content.

It’s clear that there are plenty of websites trying to get our attention to make a buck, but that does not prove that social media doesn’t serve a noble purpose for the individual poster and sharer. It can still be an open marketplace of ideas shared by members of a social community. The problem is, that is not the case. Once again, we can examine the content. Think about your experience on social media, and then think about the diversity of topics being discussed. To what degree does it correspond with topics trending online in general? Diversity of ideas is something we would expect from a platform that allows people to publicly voice their concerns and opinions, but there is no such diversity on social media. Certain topics, like gorilla shootings for example, become blown way out of proportion online. These events are sensationalized and feed the machine that just wants you to click. When something becomes remotely popular, you can bet that NowThis will make a video about it so that you think it’s a huge deal. You can bet there will be an article on the Atlantic about it explaining the underlying reasons for why it’s so important. Most people’s original status updates, even the politically charged ones, revolve around these topics. They are not born of genuine concern, but are merely mechanisms for virtue signaling. It’s a way to show all of your friends how humanitarian, how liberal, how libertarian, how progressive you are.

It’s true that there is the occasional intelligent debate on Facebook. I indulge in them myself every once in a while. But the few of these that don’t result in angry, ad hominem attacks which would never come up in a real conversation simply end and don’t go anywhere else (like translate to offline action). They don’t result in political activism, policy change, or anything meaningful. This is just virtue signaling to an audience with a higher IQ. Even this highest form of Facebook behavior, which is as close to Mill’s ideal as it gets, is only a minuscule amount of the content on social media.

Facebook and Twitter are not places where genuine rational discourse occurs. Nor are they places where we find genuine concern for the public well-being. You can post a picture of yourself in the hospital and get 70 likes, but nobody will actually visit you. de Tocqueville said that people needed to associate in order to combat individualism. Social media allows us to pretend we have interests greater than our own, but it is a shallow facade that tricks us into believing that we are associating and engaging with our community, without requiring us to ever leave the house. We can tell ourselves we care about the world around us because we posted a status or shared an article. That way, we don’t actually have to do anything to help anyone else. We satisfy each others’ need for attention by liking a link or a status, in a practice that is nothing more than mutual ego-inflation. I don’t think social media will ever make good on its promise to lead us to a greater social awareness or a more engaged democracy. It can’t, because we are too busy deluding ourselves into thinking it already has.

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Re: Should College Education be Free?

Designated Driver and I don’t always see eye to eye when it comes to questions of government spending, but I think he raised an extremely important and (to my knowledge) under-discussed point in his take on this matter. Whether or not a college education should be free has a lot to do with the return on investment for taxpayers and students alike. After all, what is the point of throwing hard-earned tax dollars into a broken system? Flooding the higher education system is no guarantee that it will produce a more productive work force. And getting a college degree is far from a guarantee that a decent paying job will follow. When you hear complaints about the job market from both employers and graduates, you know something is wrong.

Given the premise that the system is indeed as dysfunctional as Designated Driver suggests it is, it seems even more absurd to fund free college with tax money with the end goal of increasing enrollment! Dealing with what will likely be a massive boom in student populations won’t be an easy (or cheap) task for colleges and universities. How high will faculty costs soar? How much larger will class sizes be? Is inflating class sizes more than they already have been actually going to help students out overall? Will it, as Pappa Bear says, “water it down”? Is our infrastructure prepared to handle the increase in enrollment? Will a large increase in the number of eager young Americans brandishing bachelor’s degrees affect the significance with which we regard those very degrees? The practical problems we would face if college education became free are seemingly endless.

Though it hurts my heart to discuss education as though its sole purpose is to spin the cogs of the capitalist machine, I have to be honest; despite the noblest efforts of liberal arts professors, that is what college in America is. Like it or not. Even still, when considered purely on principle, this is a straight forward question. Of course public education should be free! You would have to be an elitist prick to argue that one’s economic class should determine whether or not they should be able to access the primary means of upward mobility in this country that is the higher education system. We’ve all heard the stats about the difference in median annual income between high school and college grads. It is undeniably clear to anyone with a pulse that going to college drastically increases your odds of earning a much higher salary than you would otherwise. It’s not a matter of equality, but one of equity. Everyone should have proper access to the means of economic advancement.

Now some people might still argue that, with all of the loans and grants available, everyone actually does have access to higher education today. But let’s be real. For people working full time and struggling to stay afloat, getting a meaningful college education can require a person to shoulder superhuman responsibilities, but it is possible. You just gotta do what you gotta do. Just take out those loans. Who cares if you’re $60,000 in debt by the time you step off that stage? It’s an investment in your future and if you work hard enough, you’ll be able to pay it off when you get that high-paying job.

Oh, wait. Did I say when? I thought the system was broken. If Designated Driver is right on this, and I happen to think he is, then we have a major problem on our hands. To provide free education is to compel taxpayers to invest in failure. On the other hand, to keep the status quo is to expect some of the most marginalized, disenfranchised, and hardest working citizens of this country to risk money they don’t even have on an investment that is rapidly climbing in cost while even more rapidly declining in its promise to return.

I want to be clear, because I know at this point it might appear that I’m contradicting myself. If the system is broken and not worth investing in at all, then why am I suggesting that a college education is the primary means of upward mobility? An education can’t be both essential and worthless. Staying true to my background in philosophy, I’m going to do what all philosophers do when they find themselves in a jam: claim nuance and make distinctions.

Right now, in the real world, in America, college remains a necessary tool for the average person to earn a middle class wage. On average, this is the state of affairs that we can see today. Those dumbass graphics you see on Facebook showing all of the successful people who never went to college are the exception, not the rule. The viability of college as an investment is an entirely different beast. The riskiness of taking out loans for college is not a simple state of affairs, and cannot be averaged into simple statements that take into account all of the variable factors at play. What we can describe, though, are trends. Any Neanderthal who bothers to step out of his cave every once in a while can see that the value of a college degree just ain’t what it used to be.

My main point here is this: just because a college degree is worth less, doesn’t mean a high school diploma is worth more. It’s not crazy to suggest that a college degree is highly valuable relative to a high school diploma, but the college degree is less valuable relative to the costs of obtaining it. If that is true, then we are facing a situation in which there are no good alternatives for low income students. It only makes financial sense for the already well off to risk taking out high interest government loans with slimming hopes of easy repayment on the other side. I am not claiming any sort of causal connection between the soundness of the investment in today’s loan climate and income polarization, but the condition of higher education which I am attempting to illustrate makes a lot of sense in light of the widening income gap.

Holy shit. Have I digressed, or what? Should college education be free? I don’t know. This kind of problem requires a profoundly creative solution; one that accounts for all of the practical difficulties of funding it as well as the implications it would have on the value of education as a whole, but at its core seeks to achieve the highest standard of social justice. To come up with a solution like that, we’d need an army of highly educated individuals; ideally, ones with some personal experience of the challenges that face low income students seeking to further their education and move up in society. Hmmm….how can we get some more of those….?

 

By The Rightful Heir to all Shotgun Privileges