Thursday, January 5, 2017

Finding freedom in eternal dependence

So I'm in Asia again, Thailand and Cambodia to be specific. From all my life experiences of flying (and living) all over the world, I'm starting to feel as if our planet is deceptively small...

I must admit that my mind has been drifting away from work these days. I haven't had a  profound musical revelation in the past few weeks. My brain has become like a leaf in the wind, unpredictable in direction and ever-changing. As frustrating as this seems, I've decided to yield to its current demands. Perhaps if I let go, I will find my center again...

Yesterday's trip to Angkor Wat kindled my thoughts. It was easy to see why this ancient temple is considered one of the seven wonders of the world. While the Western world was writhing in the Dark Ages, Khmer kings were ordering the creation of massive Hindu and Buddhist temples, hoping to ensure that their legacy will infinitely continue. I put my hand on a block of sandstone, contemplating the millennia of experience it has of the universe. Someone a thousand years ago touched this rock before me, I think to myself. Far beyond that, that sandstone probably took millions of years to form, and will take a million more years to erode into dust. What's even crazier is that even as I write these words, their scope is unfathomable to me and will always remain so for my entire lifetime, as I am but a very tiny sack of skin, blood, and bones relentlessly hurtling through space towards the inevitable void of death and atomic reincarnation. 


All of this brought to mind my recent studies of Buddha's sutras on interdependence, and the poignant observations discussed in the short film, Our Greatest Delusion. Filmmaker Derek Miller commented upon the "permanent" nature of rocks: "Rock obviously isn't permanent, but on the scale of a human life, it is, and people recognized this fact...We build great monuments out of rock because we believe they will outlast us and virtually every other material we can think of...We carve our heroes out of stone because we want them to last forever, and the way in which we want that kind of permanence for ourselves too." He goes on to suggest that this humanly desire for permanence is at our core, and the very reason we innately feel like etching our names into stone or cement, or fasten padlocks to bridges with our initials on them. It's the same impulse that drove the Angkorian kings to build these temples in honor of themselves, and the Egyptian pharaohs to keep their afterlife insured in the Great Pyramids. Miller finally comes to the very important conclusion which is also realized in the Buddha's sutras: permanence is our greatest delusion.

In our quest for permanence and preservation, we have built our whole existence around denying the fundamentally interdependent nature of the world. This is in part due to our highly evolved brains, which have tricked us into craving ultimate freedom. This freedom is a complete lie - an ever-elusive mirage that has tantalized even the best of us into wasting our short, precious time here on Earth. Think about it - if even rocks are impermanent, who are we to think we are?

Our ideas of what we call "freedom" and the truths of interdependence go hand-in-hand. In the co-dependent world we live in, every phenomenon relies on countless other phenomena to exist, and the entire universe is made of gears all turning together in a randomly organized fashion (oxymoronic, but true). This means that true freedom is a lie.

As I type this, I'm starting to feel profoundly, uncomfortably vulnerable. I realized that at this moment, the factors, people, places, and responsibilities in my life are in control of me, as without them, I technically wouldn't exist. Therefore, using deductive reasoning, can I conclude that I'm in fact a prisoner of these people, places, and responsibilities, doomed to their will? All this begs the question - is the true meaning of life not actually free will, but constant entrapment? 

Of course, this is grossly oversimplifying the issue. According to the laws of interdependence, I can't be "doomed to the will" of anything, as whatever I feel dependent on is dependent on something else. Every action is a never-ending chain. Say you're drinking a bottle of water. Ecologically, the water you're drinking used to be a cloud, before it rained down and formed a stream, lake, or river as the result of the water cycle. The water was then filtered by a corporation to make it safe for drinking, before being packaged in a factory by workers, and shipped to your local grocery store, where you paid for that bottle with money, which you likely earned from a job you work. At this point, you might think, "Fine. I'll just run off to the Himalayas and I don't have to pay my dues to corporations." But while the cycle I described applies only to those in the "developed" world that live away from nature, tribes living near fresh springs are still bound by their surroundings. Even though they don't need to pay for packaged water and feed the greed, it only takes a spell of drought to leave them all dying of thirst. And above all this: wherever you live and whatever cycle of interdependence applies to you, you still can't feasibly "make" water by sourcing hydrogen and oxygen atoms (and if you wanted to, you would again need a lab to work in, which requires you to pay more hard-earned cash and time). Furthermore, even if you could source hydrogen and oxygen atoms and create H20 on your own, you still can't make those elements yourself!

I'm now reminded of a rather corny religious joke, in which a scientist brags about human achievements to God. "We don't really need you anymore," she tells him, "These days, we can transplant organs, genetically modify plants to withstand pests, create vaccines to make ourselves immune to disease, and many other miraculous things." God then replies, "Don't need me anymore? Okay, let's test your theory. How about we have a competition to see who can make a brand new human being?" The scientist agrees, so God suggests they follow his own ancient recipe and make a human being from a handful of dirt. The scientist bends over to scoop up some dirt from the ground. "No!" God stops her sharply, "Get your own dirt."

Even as an atheist, I see that the principles of interdependence are evident in this joke, if you just switch out "God" for "Interconnected Elements of the Universe Since Time Immemorial", as there's no way a singular entity is capable of creating anything from scratch. In fact, the joke could extend into a continuum. After being told to get her own dirt, the scientist can say, "Right, I'll catalogue the chemical and biological molecules necessary to make soil, and source them to make my own earth," to which God likely replies, "Get your own molecules!". The scientist presses further, "Okay, I'll fuse individual atoms to make molecules needed for soil," to be met with the response, "Get your own atoms!". The argument descends into protons, neutrons, and electrons, before God finally tells the scientist to get her own quarks to build atom nuclei. The scientist would then get frustrated, "Well then, big guy, where did you get your quarks?". God would roll his eyes dismissively, "I made them, dumbass," to which the scientist asks "With what? And if that's true, who or what made you?" God pauses a moment in puzzlement, then strokes his chin and says, "Hmmm. Good point." before sinking into a deep existential crisis. The scientist suddenly wakes up in her bed, turns to her husband, and says, "Honey, I had the craziest dream last night!"

Thus, if we puny little humans could really create anything from scratch, we would be "gods" ourselves. But then where would we have come from? Carl Sagan once said, "In order to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first invent the universe." There's only a certain amount that a singular source is capable of. If God made the world, who made God? Or is it "Gods all the way up"? Bertrand Russell also shared his hilarious observations of the First Cause argument:

"If everything must have a cause, then God must have a cause. If there can be anything without a cause, it may just as well be the world as God, so that there cannot be any validity in that argument. It is exactly of the same nature as the Hindu's view, that the world rested upon an elephant and the elephant rested upon a tortoise; and when they said, 'How about the tortoise?' the Indian said, 'Suppose we change the subject"

Back to the initial topic of freedom, let's assume that freedom = non-dependence. Since non-dependence is clearly a lie, we'll just have to accept the fact that free will is also a lie, and that there's no way we would ever be truly independent. Furthermore, as we evolved and became "civilized", we increasingly curtailed our autonomy as a society. We're not just dependent on nature at this point, but we're also inextricably dependent on each other. No longer can we live as hunter-gatherers or nomads, finding food and water from nature and building our own shelter with tools we made ourselves. Not only did we create the concept of currency in exchange for resources, we entirely eliminated the ability to fend for ourselves. This is the reason why homeless people suffer. Not only have they been ostracized from the society we've created, they also don't have the option of living entirely off the land and not having to deal with our money-for-resources, heavily interdependent lifestyle. They can't hunt in the wilderness without getting a permit. Drinking from a stream in the park is prohibited, and likely dangerous. We have created so many rules and restrictions, mostly for safety and sometimes for ignoble causes such as eradicating the visibility of poverty, that the only option for these people to get by is to ask for money in the streets. If you think about it, homeless people are left with less dignity than wild animals. At least wild animals can fend for themselves, and only be bound by the laws of nature - not the laws of humans. 


So what have we learned so far? Not a single living thing on the planet has or can have free will. This realization can be pretty depressing. Does this mean that all our hopes, dreams, and ambitions should be effectively flushed down the toilet of apathy? I say on the contrary. In the phrase "free will", we don't realize that the word will is of more significance than the word free. When we have the will to do something, we feel free. Also, feeling free and being free are two different things. If you're doing something you truly enjoy and love, you feel "free" - no matter what rules apply in the context of that activity. If you hate that activity, though, you would feel that the same rules are keeping you imprisoned. For instance, say you have to work with a verbose, narcissistic dickmuffin of a professor at school (we all do at some point). Because of your utter lack of will to work with him, all the rules of the class would make you feel bound - such as the fact that you must take his class in order to graduate, and that you're dependent on the grade he would give you. However, when it comes to your favorite professor's class, you won't feel bound at all - even though the same rules apply. 


It's amazing how often we conflate being free with feeling free. Concerning the situation I described before, you are likely to come the wrong conclusion that you do not have the freedom to get out of the class, and all you're currently confined to do is keep your nose to the grindstone and idly imagine Mr. Dickmuffin having a brief encounter with a pack of wolves during his morning commute. But that's not entirely true. You forget that you always have options, as having to take his class is not an absolute certainty in the way the gravitational pull of the Earth is, but an instance that rests on human dependence. You can always choose to drop out and leave - even though you'll get an F in the class, it's not like you're bound by the laws of physics to be there.


This calls for understanding the Buddha's distinction between absolute truths and conventional truths. Absolute truths are the universal and cosmic laws, such as proven mathematical theorems and  scientific theories. As we live in interdependence with these truths, we can never be free from them - if we were, we would be completely detached from the natural world and wholly self-sufficient - essentially becoming "gods" as I discussed earlier. Absolute freedom is unattainable, and either striving for it or assuming its existence will inevitably lead to delusion. Conventional truths, on the other hand, mark the degree of our dependence on other humans who dictate how we live our lives and conduct ourselves. These "truths" are really not truths at all, as they differ from case to case and can be escaped. In the scenario I described before, ditching a class is not physically or cosmically impossible, but carries consequences that you have to abide by if you do choose to make that decision. These consequences are conventional "truths".


Freedom from conventional truths is wholly attainable, and in fact encompasses all the freedoms we should have as basic human rights - freedom of thought, speech, expression, body, livelihood, etc. These freedoms define who we are as people, and how we navigate the world with our individual intelligences, talents, virtues, and personalities. Unlike the restrictions on absolute freedom, which are worldwide (ex. the force of gravity is consistent all over the planet, and 2+2 always equals 4 no matter where you are), restrictions on these freedoms come in many forms, and vary from region to region, depending upon the legal system and culture of a particular place - as only humans enforce these limitations. For instance, in La Paz, Bolivia, it's illegal for a married woman to drink more than one glass of wine with dinner. But if she hops on a plane to America, she can get as hammered as she wants.


So now, we enter a brief diversion into the intricacies of governments and legal systems. If conventional freedoms are what we all have a right to have, why do we need governing bodies (read: a bunch of humans) telling us (another bunch of humans) what to do? While my dad and I were discussing this, he summed up the role of all governments pretty well: "The government's job, as a whole, is to take away freedom. Our job is to decide just how much freedom the government can take away from us by voting people into office." This is the hallmark for most societies, in which power is given to people instead of taken by force (such as in a dictatorship). As far as I see it, the best governments are those that set conventional laws in accordance with the absolute laws of science and nature. Specifically, the only laws that should be put in place should be for individual and collective safety, and for protecting the conventional freedoms of others. Murder, rape, theft, and slavery are rightfully illegal, because these acts go against the freedoms of others by making them suffer. Restrictions on words, belief, expression, and thought, however, are unnecessary at best and truly dangerous at worst, as offense is taken and not given.

Thoughts, words, and actions all rest on increasing plateaus of impact. A thought impacts only the thinker, so censoring a thought is an extreme violation of the thinker's freedom. A word does impact people besides the one who uttered it, but mostly disappears as soon as it's perceived and has no lasting effect unless the perceiving person chooses to hold it tightly or respond with emotion. Censoring words is also extremely misguided, except in cases of directed verbal abuse - which can cause lasting damage to the mind. But an action is irreversible, and greatly impacts not just the person who commits it, but also other people. Therefore, it's necessary to prohibit certain "freedoms" in order to preserve the freedoms of other people. A beautiful quote from the recent film Listening comes to mind: "The brief moment between a thought and an action is where free will lies."

I have once heard it said that freedom and equality are diametrically opposed to each other, but I don't at all find this to be true. Promoting equality is just a way to encourage everybody to live out their conventional freedoms without facing more hardship just for being who they are. When you're stopping someone from exercising their "freedom" to take discriminative actions against other people (notice the emphasis on actions, and not thoughts or words), you're not curbing their "freedom" to discriminate. True freedom can't come at the expense of others'. The only way these two ideals can be inversely proportional is if you pervert the meaning of either word. If "equality" starts to mean cultural Marxism and identity politics, in which the sentiments of a group of people are prioritized over the well-being of the individual, freedom is lost. If "freedom" starts to mean the allowance of discriminatory, bigoted policies and actions, equality is lost.


So what does all this mean for us as individuals walking on the face of the Earth? We don't have absolute freedom, and we are constantly faced with a barrage of conventional lies and truths. Even we can lead to our own undoing. Nietzsche famously proclaimed "God is dead", and in the years following his era, society has come closer and closer to qualifying his statement. In Victorian times, people looked to a higher power in the sky for nearly every aspect of life. Belief was an integral, immutable part of their existence, as not much was known about science and the mechanisms of the natural world. Nowadays, as we continue to extend the frontiers of knowledge, especially in the developed parts of the world, reliance on the supernatural as the sole arbiter of the universe is in a steady decline. This is not to say that the virus of religious dogmatism has been eradicated (far from it), but that we learned to rightfully segregate science and religion. Even the educated religious people of today understand the divide between their personal faith in a god (or gods) and natural truths. 

Nietzsche envisioned society becoming increasingly comfortable, convenient, and science-reliant, and often wondered about what will take the place of blind faith in its absence. He worried about what he called the "cult of comfort", or what I see as people becoming infinitely more concerned with being than doing. The cushier our lives have become, the more complacency and indolence we've fostered, worshiping consumerism, groupthink, and greed on the same altar God used to sit upon. For many, God and greed sit on the altar together! We have become little more than cattle, having labels slapped on us and being mindlessly coerced into making decisions not for our own interests, but for the not-so-well-intentioned interests of those who have rose to power. We even slap labels on ourselves, and curtail the very freedoms we are fundamentally entitled to.

Thus, getting rid of the idea of God and religious delusion is not the entire solution. It's a good start for sure, in order to think critically and claim your individuality, but it does not in any way erase your susceptibility to letting other entitities rule over you. What we really need to do is get rid of is this huge communal altar, on which we place a multitude of collective ideals in order to feel complete. We should each have a personal altar  instead of a public one, and place our individual faiths in doing whatever we see as a betterment of ourselves and others in our fleeting time in the universe - not being a part of a group or having a certain identity. I'm American. I'm a Democrat. I'm a Republican. I'm gay. I'm straight. I'm black. I'm white. If your identities and affiliations are the most interesting parts of yourself, you are not living up to your true potential, and are severely cutting off your own personal freedoms. That, and you're a very boring organism indeed. That is not to say that you aren't at all defined by these identities, but that you're defined by all of these at the same time and none of these at all. I recall reading about the concept of hybridity in art history class, and how British-born Nigerian artist Yinka Shonabare defined himself as not just black, not just gay, not just Nigerian, and not just British, but a combination of all of these things and none of them at the same time. Moreover, he emphasized the importance of his thoughts over his identities, showing that intellectual diversity is far more important than diversity of the outer identities, such as nationality, race, class, and gender. Hybridity is shown in the philosophical argument that Socrates with a nose job would still be Socrates, but Socrates without his brain would no longer be Socrates. 


The fact that humans are social creatures by nature, yet paradoxically capable of profound individual thought further complicates things. From birth, we are endowed with similar amounts of skill sets but an unequal amount of opportunities to hone our skills. To maintain a sense of "order" in society, we artificially created parties, subgroups, and cultures. We trampled upon those who dared to naturally think for themselves, because we viewed them as a threat.

But the time has now come to fight this system, and claim back the freedom we took from ourselves. In such a world we've both inherited and created, the only truly reliable entities are love and compassion. Not your identities and not your possessions. The key is to associate with other humans, live and laugh among them, but always make sure never to merge into the collective whole, and remember what sets you apart. Take refuge in art and the absolute truths of the universe, instead of conventional, pre-packaged lies of deluded humans. The fact that we're standing on Earth as we are is awe-inspiring in and of itself, and we have an infinite number of phenomena to thank for that. Our existence is meaningless in the cosmic sense, but it's the meaning that we find in our lives that make our time here meaningful. Even without the sugarcoated lies of permanence and non-dependence, we're all legendary, and it's time we started acting like it.