Archive for category thought experiments
Every time I’ve gotten on Facebook over the past few days I’ve read people’s reactions to the death of Osama Bin Laden. Most of these statements regarding OBL’s death haven’t been about the man himself, the life he lived, or the way he died; they’ve mostly been reactions to others’ celebration of his death. Most of these reactions have been negative; they object to the celebration of the death of a fellow human being, no matter how vile he may have been. Here’s an especially good one I read just before writing this:
“I am sure [Osama Bin Laden] celebrated all of the deaths of his enemies… I thought that was why he was the bad guy, though?”
I feel the sentiment too. There’s something in me that writhes about when I see others, or myself, smiling or laughing or cheering about the fact that there’s one more bullet-riddled, lifeless body in the world.
But I think the sentiment that being glad at, or even celebrating, the death of another human being is wrong – isn’t always right. I think that the feeling that it’s always wrong to be glad someone has died or been killed is based on the beautiful, but false, belief that no one lives in such a way that their death is a victory for good. People do live this way, and Osama Bin Laden was one of them. I don’t think that you should ignore that part of yourself that cringes when you see someone smiling over his death, but I do think you should consider exactly what you should be cringing over. I don’t think that you should cringe over his death, per se. I think you should feel saddened and grieved not that a man was killed, but rather that a man – a fellow human – lived in such a way that he put his other fellow humans in such a painful predicament, where they were forced to either willfully live with the danger that, at any moment, innocence and beauty could be snuffed out by this man, or willfully eliminate the threat to innocents by taking another’s life. In this way, by living the life he did, Osama Bin Laden victimized humanity on multiple levels. He played an active, conscious role in taking the lives of thousands of people – thousands of boyfriends and girlfriends, children, fiancees, parents, siblings and friends. He helped traumatize thousands of other lives forever. And he promised to do this as long as he lived. He thereby placed the world of innocents between the horns of a dilemma: live in fear and danger, or eliminate a life. And in this instance, the second option is the moral one. Weighing the value of the lives of thousands of innocents against the value of a moral monster who threatens those lives makes the right choice clear. To not do everything possible to preserve the lives of innocents in this case would have been wrong. Bin Laden forced other humans into the position where, in order to do the right thing, they had to kill someone. That’s not their fault. It’s his.
But why should we be happy he’s dead? Sure, killing him wasn’t the wrong thing to do, you might say, but is celebrating another’s death, no matter how evil they are, ever right? Isn’t celebrating the death of another human sadistic and cruel? I think it is, normally. But I don’t think it’s always sadistic, cruel, or mean-spirited to celebrate another’s death. Consider the following scenarios.
The Roman Emperor, Nero, was a sadistic tyrant. Stories illustrating his cruelty abound. He, according to some accounts, used to light the city of Rome at night by hanging Christians, alive, by their limbs throughout the city and setting them on fire. Perhaps those stories are true, perhaps not. It doesn’t really matter. There certainly could have been such a ruler. And there certainly have been sick, terrifying tyrants. Perhaps Nero did light the city with live, screaming humans. Perhaps he taxed people so severely that many starved to death while he sat on a mountain of money. And perhaps he skinned alive all who dared to look in his face. Imagine this is how Nero was. All his subjects would live in constant fear of his next whimsical bout of sadism. They would struggle under the financial burdens he placed on them. Many would watch their children starve to death under his unjust rule.
Now imagine, having ruled in this way, Nero suddenly dies, and his throne passes to another – a just and kind man. He was stabbed to death by a guard; or perhaps he died of a sudden stroke, or bone cancer, and with his death so dies his tyrannical rule. How would you, a pitiful, starving subject of his, living in constant fear of torture or taxation, feel? You’d rejoice! The tyrant is dead! You’d take the money you have, knowing it will no longer go to the Monster King, and prepare a feast for your family! And would you be evil for it? For laughing and dancing and crying for joy with your husband or wife? Of course not! This man’s death is not a tragedy; it’s a blessing to the world, for it has made us safer; it has removed from our lives injustice, terror, pain, death, and hatred. That is a cause for celebration. If we mourn at all it should come last, and we should not mourn over the man’s death, but over his life. We should be sorry not that he died, but that he lived in the way he did.
This is how we should feel about Osama Bin Laden’s death. We didn’t all live in the same terror that those under my (probably fictitious) Nero did. But many of our fellow humans did. Many have lived for ten years with the suffering and loss he helped inflict on them, and a hatred for the man who chose to hurt them so badly. His death has given some sense of closure and real justice to their pain. There are people today who, had Bin Laden been allowed to live out his natural life, would have surely died at his hands. They don’t know who they are, but there are such people. And we should be glad that they won’t die in this unjust way now. We should, also, be glad for all the people who have lived with a constant, phobic anxiety at the fact that Bin Laden is out there, trying to find some way to drop another plane on their city. They can rest a bit easier, I think, knowing that that monster isn’t out there now.
So, I think that celebration is absolutely appropriate, if it is done with the right facts in mind. We should be happy that the world is a bit safer, that there’s one less monster out there, and that there are likely lives that would have ended unjustly, but have now been saved. That is worth celebrating. But most who celebrate don’t do so with these facts in mind. They celebrate the death of Bin Laden as a victory for the ‘home team’. It’s ‘us’ versus ‘them’ and we just scored a touchdown. This sort of stupid, machismo, fanboy exuberance is shameful and totally out of place. It embodies, albiet to a much smaller degree, the very same divisive, inhumane prejudices that make real atrocities, such as terrorism, possible in the first place. It ought to be snuffed out too. But, that said, I think that you, the reader, should feel entitled to a real sense of satisfaction at the fact that, in the death of a monster, the world has been bettered.
Here’s a question that might help:
Imagine that a new planet has been discovered in a remote corner of the galaxy. Not only is it very far away, it is also surrounded by a massive, but nearly invisible, radioactive cloud emanating from the planet’s core. There is, then, no hope that we will ever be able to visit this planet. No one will, and no life exists there.
We can tell, though, from the refractions of the atmosphere that this planet is even more beautiful than it is inaccessible. We can tell (though we can’t see the planet ourselves) from the light bouncing off its atmosphere, that, because of its odd location, the landscape must be marked by waterfalls, canyons, planes of ice, and diamond, and mountains that make any of earths features pale by comparison. We can tell, with certainty, that this world is one of the most beautiful places imaginable. But, we will never see it. We can only imagine it from the energy it radiates. And no one else will ever see it either.
As it happens though, because of its odd physical makeup, if we were to fire a high-energy lazer into its atmosphere, it would heat the atmosphere along with the odd elements in the planets core to the point that it would explode into a gigantic glowing nebula. This nebula would be so volatile and energetic that it would appear to us as a constant, evolving cloud of brilliant colors in the nights sky for thousands of years, like a huge, silent undulating show of fireworks. Since this planet is in such a remote, lifeless area of the galaxy, no one would ever be harmed by it, and because the light in our sky would be softer than the full moon, it would have no effect on our planet other than providing us with new, exquisite beauty. But this, at the cost of destroying a planet that is even more beautiful, but which will never be seen.
You alone have been given the choice to destroy the planet, and thus provide the world with great (though lesser) beauty, or to not fire, and allow a place of perfect, but invisible, beauty to persist.
What would you choose?
Imagine another world different from this one. There are all the same familiar objects there – people, trees, houses, airplanes, etc. – but there are fewer ‘rules’ governing how things work. Gravity works on things sometimes, but sometimes not, so occasionally people find themselves flying. Objects can morph into one another for no apparent reason, so sometimes someone will be talking with their friend, and then the friend will turn into a pirate ship, or maybe their mother. Also, objects and characters that we consider fictitious or remote are much more likely to pop up in this world, so Abe Lincoln or Dracula might just drop by from time to time. Other than that, things go along pretty well though. People live out their lives, engaged in strings of constantly morphing events that vary in the degree of their sensibility and coherence. Some days are totally senseless, others make perfect sense. They’re used to it though, and so react to these oddities as if they were perfectly normal, and apart from their world being prone to chaos, the people are fairly normal, conscious beings like us, with just two exceptions: 1. they sleep a lot more – like sixteen hours a day, and 2. whereas our minds, when dreaming, unleash themselves from the rules of order, coherence, and normalcy, these peoples minds impose coherence, order, and rules so that their dream states are simple, orderly, and often boring in their plots – they make coffee and read the paper, clean house, or work a boring day job in them.
By now it might have sunk in. The above world is just a description of our own experience of the world from a different perspective – our dreams. In the above world, our dreams are taken to be the “reality” and our reality the dreamd. Corny no? But here are the questions that I think make it interesting : 1. What sort of evidence could you possibly have to verify which of these two worlds you live in? 2. Is there any actual difference between this imaginary world and ours? Or does the difference between them lie merely in the description of them – that is, are they different only in the language we use to talk about them? 3. Think: if you met someone and they started describing their lives in terms of the above world, how would you react to them? Imagine someone telling you they’re dreaming now, and expect to wake up in several hours to live briefly in reality, where who knows what might happen. Are they insane? Foucault talks about insanity being a socially constructed category that’s often used to exert power over and marginalize people. With little evidence for one of these worlds being the ‘real’ world, are we justified in exerting any sort of force over this person (say to force him into therapy or something) via this label, insanity?
I had this conversation last night with two friends at what I have long considered to be the world’s worst Taco Bell, before going to watch Australia (which I probably can’t praise enough, and which totally made up for the long wait at TB, and the outrageously insufficient amount of baja sauce on my gordita). The conversation was over this question. It probably won’t strike anyone as immediately profound, and might even seem banal or trite, but I think that perception is deceptively false, because I doubt one in a thousand people have actually tried to sit down and answer it for themselves.
The question is this: what conditions would need to be met, what would need to be the case in your life in order for your to be really, deeply, seriously happy? I don’t mean just that you would be smiley or laughy. I mean what would life need to be like for you to be deeply satisfied such that you don’t feel any of those bad feelings that we all think of as opposed to happiness (anxiety, worry, dread, fear, insecurity, painful want, etc.)? I think that we could all get pretty far into a list and, upon comparing them all, we’d find that most lists are pretty similar (an experiment I hope we can do here). But, if that’s the case, why do so many lives look so different? If the underlying drive for satisfaction is a fairly constant, singular thing in all of us, why do our actions, which must be guided at some level by that desire, branch out so much? Do all of these branches lead to the summit of happiness, just through different routes? Are some (or all?) of us confused about what really will make us happy, so that we’re going down dead ends? Or do some of us strive for something other than satisfaction (I’m not sure that could be the case though)? I think that writing out, and reflecting on a list like this might help a person see themselves more clearly in an important way. Perhaps we’re greedy and don’t even know it, wanting far more than we should ever expect from the world. Maybe we’re wasting a lot of our time doing things that don’t relate at all to what we want out of the world. Maybe we’ll see that we’re really bad people who want childish, foolish, or wicked things. Who knows?
Either way, if for nothing other than a fun thought exercise (though I imagine for a lot more), here is some of my list, (which I’m sure will grow in my mind immediately after I click ‘publish’). Feel free to post your own.
In order to be truly happy, I think I would require at least the following:
1. The company of good friends who know and love me, and are committed to my well being and good living, and to making me happy in the ways friends do.
2. One of the friends in 1 to be an attractive, affectionate, assertive woman who wants to be, and is my wife, and is faithful to me, shares at least some of my deep interests, and has other important interests of her own, and with whom I have regular moments of deep romance.
3. No serious absence of bodily pleasure such as good food, sleep, sex, etc.
4. An honest sense of satisfaction with and admiration of myself.
5. The amiration of those whom I admire.
6. Regular, challenging, non-trivial intellectual stimulation through conversation and reading.
7. The honest belief that I am characteristically making a positive contribution to humanity.
8. Triumph over my enemies.
9. The ability to engage in leisure without guilt (something I struggle with a lot).
10. The general happiness of those whom I love.
A. Financial stability such that my needs were provided for, I could afford reasonable luxuries when I wanted them, and could provide for those whom I love when their needs arose.
B. To live in a community where the needs of all were met, and reasonable luxuries were available to all.
12. Regular time in nature.
13. Regular interaction with my friends in leisure, work, and learning.
14. The sense of living in a generally safe society.
15. The sense that I live in a truly free society.
16. The reasonable, justified sense that I am not ignorant of some great thing that would undo my happiness.
17. The sense that my happiness is is not rightly the cause of another person’s undeserved unhappiness.
That’s all I’ve got so far. Anyone want to give it a go?
This is the second strand of thought I had right after I woke up twenty-two minutes ago. I thought it was a pretty sweet question, so I thought I’d post it up here in the form of one of WordPress’ nifty polls to see what you guys thought. So, somehow, from beginning with the question “do I have to pee?”, I arrived at this (though I’ve filled in particulars to make it make sense):
Imagine you’re standing in front of a gigantic slot machine. (You know, one of those things in vegas where you pull the handle and it starts to roll around pictures of cherries and sevens and whatnot.) This one is massive though. It’s so wide you can’t see the other end of the thing when you’re standing by the handle on one side. This is because, while the easiest slots have three rollers, the medium have like seven, and so on, this slot machine has a million rollers. You wonder, what would the pay out be on such an odd slot machine? Well, this machine is just as odd in that way as in its construction. The gamble on it is this: on each of the million round rollers is painted nine cherries and one skull. If you pull the handle, setting the rollers spinning, and they land on anything other than all skulls, you win one hundred years of unlimited material wealth and health, which may be spent only on you and your immediate family and friends. On the other hand, if the rollers all land on skulls (the chances of which are one in one hundred million million), you will be cast into an eternity of unrelenting torment.
(Just fyi, I can only see statistical results of polls, not what each individual person voted.)
Imagine this. You’re taking a solitary walk on the beach one day, completely immersed in the world of your own thoughts as you wonder how humanity should respond, should the bears decide to rise up against us. Just about the moment you conclude that Al Gore would be a perfect ambassador to the bear people, your little wiggly toes strike against something hard in the sand. You guessed it. A lamp. You pick the thing up and do what any responsible adult would – you rub it like it’s the tummy of a basset hound. And, just as you expected, a purple-skinned man in a turban pops out, sans shirt. You don’t waste a second on introductions, immediately informing him that, for your first wish, you’re going to need him to take away the constant itching. That, though, is where your expectations begin to fail you.
“That’s not how this works.” He calmly informs you. You don’t get three wishes, he explains, or even one. Instead, he has a very serious offer to make you, which you can either accept or reject. That’s the deal. The offer, he tells you, is a sort of enlightenment. There are many deep, cavernous truths of the world – of existence – about which you are totally ignorant. You are in a sort of darkness about things. He will turn the lights on for you, showing you the world as it is, and so empowering you to live your life in line with truth, knowing good from bad, right from wrong, fantasy from reality, and beautiful from ugly. But there’s a catch, he says. The opening of your eyes that he offers will cause you great pain. These truths will, largely, be greatly distubring to you; they will hurt you to know. He doesn’t mean that he’ll show you every suffering baby in the world, but that he’ll expose to you the truest nature of things, which he says will at times scare you, destroy some of your cherished loves in life, and possibly throw you into depression.
It is not all so bleak though, he tells you. From this low, existentially depressed state you can work toward a new life, with new happinesses in line with your right view, but that will take time and you will forever live with a slight sense of melancholy which, though it won’t keep you from experiencing real, deep happiness, will cast a sort of solemnity on most things, and you will not be able, in this new life, to take joy in many of the things you do now, for they will seem fraudulent and thin.
So, here’s the question (poll):
*Answers will be revealed after a few days – once there are enough votes to be a decent sample, so send friends if you care to know how our people generally decide.