Monday, July 30, 2012

In Summer's light

I only steal when it's nice out.

I'm running out of money, but drink is a priority and thus I always make sure that I can afford something. My tastes, which gravitate towards aged whiskey and wines at the pricier end of what I once deemed "affordable", have been jettisoned in favour of quantity. This practice is common among alcoholics. Money devoted to quality or palatability is money not directed towards the alcoholic's ultimate shopping objective; procuring as much alcohol as possible. Drinks which possess the best alcohol to cost ratio are an alcoholic's most treasured friend as they can be bought in the greatest quantity and thus can get the alcoholic more drunk, and for longer, than would otherwise be possible. I usually buy own brand whiskey or vodka from large supermarkets. Whiskey is usually slightly more expensive than vodka, but in practice it works out cheaper because I developed an ability to consume this particular drink neat during my years of drinking much higher quality brands, so no mixers are required, while in the case of vodka I always have to pick up a carton of orange or apple juice to mask the flavour.

These drinks have become my staples over the course of my alcoholism, but they are not the object of my thievery. There are two reasons why this is the case: firstly, as I shall explain later, I only steal from convenience stores, which usually don't allow direct customer access to such items, and secondly, even if they are accessible, these bottles are deemed valuable enough by the owners to be adorned with security tags. My thievery is restricted to two drinks which I rarely otherwise consume: cider and beer. In fact the only other occasions when I drink either is at a party or social gathering where nothing else is available. The reasons for the idiosyncrasies of my petty crimes shall become clear in reading the following anecdote, which is an account of a typical theft. While it is a fictional representation of events, the details are derived directly from my experiences.

I awake to Dublin in the sun. Even at the height of summer this can be a rarity. Soon my thoughts turn towards alcohol, and as I look at the shadowed edges of the trees and hedges of the garden I realise where I'm going to get it. A coffee and the end of a bottle of whiskey and then I'm in town. There are four shops that I can count on and, failing that, three others that I have stolen from which are a bit more treacherous; the security guards a little too sharp, the cameras a little too abundant and worst of all, the floor space too broad to allow the camouflage of crowds. All of these problems are multiplied tenfold when it comes to supermarkets. In my wilder moments I have thought about venturing into a wines and spirits section on a Saturday afternoon with a small pliers stored in the sleeve of my overcoat, ready to snip the security tag from a bottle of whiskey, but that is a much more complicated and daring effort and all in all, it's not worth the risk when more vulnerable targets exist. 

Just like the city itself, each shop will be crowded beyond anything one would expect for a typical dull or rainy day. After some brief reconnaissance from the other side of the bustling street I make my approach. I remind myself that my pinstriped blazer, pink shirt and dark sunglasses are as much my friend as my foe as the security guard clocks me with his dull, bulbous eyes. I pass him without turning my head even a degree. 

Inside I quickly assess the scene. The fridges, the newspaper stands, the fruit stalls, the counter, the entrance and exit, all are surrounded by a crowd at least two people deep. Particularly well populated is the area of my interest: the alcohol shelves. Perfect. In my limited experience of convenience stores I have noticed that they all seem to use the same pungent cleaning agent. Due to the fact that I rarely enter these stores for any purpose other than theft, the mere smell of this chemical is enough to heighten my senses as memories of past endeavours momentarily thrill me.

Keeping in my peripheral vision the second, equally dull looking security guard positioned at the centre of the shop floor, I reach for a bottle of water from the fridge next to the alcohol section. I apologise as I intentionally bump into a young woman beside me, and move to my right to make way for her. I am now standing opposite my target. As I expected, none of the more potent drinks I would otherwise choose are in this fridge. I suppose people like me are too common for such a risk. They are shelved behind the counter, tantalisingly free of security tags but unreachable all the same. I step closer to the fridge, wedged in a gap in the crowd. The people to my left and right move closer, almost completely obscuring me from the security guards and the cashiers. I move into position and glance once over both shoulders. My only hard and fast rule in the whole process is that the second I find myself unobserved I take what I want, no hesitation, no waiting for a better opportunity that may never come. I know the brands which I desire, those which would provide the best alcohol to expense ratio if I were paying, but often the pragmatism of proximity overrules these ambitions. It is of little significance anyway, only a matter of marginal variations in the degree of the resultant drunkenness. My briefcase, which wasn't purchased for this purpose but happens to be very well suited, is already open. I pull the flap aside and slip two rows of cans, eight in total, into the centre pocket. It's open for no longer than five seconds before it's closed again, this time the buckles fastened. As always I can always count on the assumption that even if those around me noticed my actions they are either too busy, too timid or simply too apathetic to intervene. I ease my way out of the thick of the crowd and join the queue at the counter. The deed is done, all else is a formality. I leave the shop, sipping from my bought and paid for bottle of water. The eyes of the security at the front door slip over me once more. That may be my favourite part.

The fruits of my labours are taken to a nearby park. I find a shadowed corner where I can sit and sip my spoils. I don't consider myself an immoral or bad person. In fact I don't even consider myself a shoplifter, despite the obvious absurdity of this opinion. Criminals are both demonised and worshipped by Western society. They are either the subject of newspaper reports which bemoan their actions or film and literature which glamourises them. I, like the majority of people, don't consider myself to be a hero or a demon. I am quite normal and average by my assessment, therefore when I am faced with the question of my own criminality I feel myself wrestling with contrary labels, neither of which I can accept with any sense of reality. In my mind criminals are other people, not me. The can fizzes as I crack it open, spraying white foam on my thumbnail. I sit there on the grass in the rare Dublin sunshine, watching the people pass and feeling the sanctuary of drunkenness approach. I meld into the flowing, pulsating river of humainity, and all of my sins are absolved. 

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

La Tristesse

I sit in silence on a wooden park bench. A sky of pale yellow stands above me, before me, reaching down from infinite heights to the treetops and buildings far below. There is no distinct point of illumination, instead the entire ethereal vastitude seems to emit a vapid glow which fills the city with a feint light. The leafless branches of a blackened old oak sway occasionally in an imperceptible breeze, like the involuntary movements of somnolent limbs. Nothing else stirs but the people who walk briskly along the paths of grey asphalt which twist across ashen lawns of neatly cut grass. Behind me the canopy of trees and tangled branches creates a recess in the luminance which elsewhere pervades. To my left and right pallid shadows merge seamlessly into light. The colours of all before me seem faded, attenuated, as if washed away by the soft rain which fell last night. I stand and walk.

The sound of the city is distant and muted despite its proximity. Little more than a indistinct hum, punctuated by louder noises, reaches my ears. The air is heavy and moist. It is neither warm nor cold, yet its presence is palpable. I walk slowly as I gaze aloft at the convergence of the branches which hang black and limp against the sky. In front of me the path curves out of sight as it follows the perimeter of the park. With each step I take the obscured distance retreats beyond my view.

I leave the park and walk the city streets. It is darker here, the toppling shadows of the buildings dampening the mild light. People pass me left and right. I continue, but without a destination to walk is to stand still. On a bridge over the river I stop and peer into the dark green waters below. All around me is hushed, somehow absent. This present is just as its past, and its future. Time, movement, direction, all become one in stasis. I look from one end of the bridge to the other. Maybe I will walk far from here, to where the concrete slopes into the foaming sea.

Saturday, April 30, 2011

The race to today

Due to the relative brevity of our existence, human beings often find it difficult to comprehend spans of time as implausibly long as those which apply to the formation of the universe, our planet and indeed, our species. In order to understand time from the point of view of the universe we need to shake off the frames of reference which we ordinarily use to comprehend its passage.

Imagine the course of a modern marathon. However, instead of the grey roads and pathways which one would usually associate with the event, this marathon will be run over a timeline of the universe, with the big bang at the start line and the present day right at the finish. Over the course of the 42.125 kilometre race every three kilometres completed equates to the passage of one billion years on the universe's time line. As time and distance progress, the timeline will illustrate the changes taking place in the structure of our universe, our galaxy and our planet.  

And so the starter's flag falls. After covering the imperceptibly tiny distance of just a few femtometres, our athletes have already passed some of the most significant events in our universe's history. The big bang itself was quickly followed by the formation of the first basic elements: mostly hydrogen and helium gas, as well as a tiny amount of lithium. These developments were seen inside the first three seconds of our universe's existence, so there's still 13.7 billion years of timeline to come, covering the remaining 42 and a bit kilometres of our cosmic marathon. Once they have completed a kilometre or so, our athletes will be around 300 million years into the universe's lifetime. By now they may be sweating a bit, and that seems appropriate, because appearing on the timeline are the first stars and galaxies. Within these vast celestial furnaces, nuclear fusion occurred. Through this process, the simple elements began to synthesize, and new elements were formed. After burning in the void of space for billions of years these first stars eventually reach the end of their life cycle and die, resulting in enormous explosions called supernovae. It is within the debris of these explosions that the products of nuclear fusion are found: the heavy elements. This debris was hurled into the surrounding space, burning and fizzing as it progressed into the darkness, where it would eventually become the building blocks to a great many things, such as your skeleton.

Gravity is the weakest of the four forces of the universe, but it has had a profound effect on its formation due to its ability to act over enormous distances, as described by Newton's inverse square law. Drawn together by their mutual gravitational attraction, the clumps of elements which burst forth from their fiery birth were brought together to form even greater clumps. It is by this slow process of accretion that the planets were formed. By now our athletes are around 27 kilometres into the race. Beneath their feet are many tiny specks, dwarfed to the point of absurdity by their neighbouring stars: the first planets. One such planet, orbiting a relatively small star somewhere in the Orion-Cygnus arm of the Milky way, is earth. However, at this point, 9.5 billion years after the big bang, its is unlikely that it would be easily recognised. Rather than the familiar blue and green orb we see in photos like those taken by Apollo 17 on its way to the moon, the early Earth would have appeared more like a burning ball of fire and magma, dancing through space to the tune of angular momentum. A day on Earth during the Hadean period (the period was named after Hades, the ancient Greek underworld, due to its ferocious temperatures and molten conditions) was far shorter than it is now, perhaps as brief as four hours, because the planet was spinning much more quickly. Of course, there was nothing on the planet that could witness this.

Our athletes are now almost 30 kilometres through their race, and over 10 billion years of the universe's timeline is behind them. Our planet has now cooled significantly, and a rise in pH towards a more neutral value has also occurred. Due to its position within its solar system, not too close to its star, but also not too distant, a particular chemical substance can exist on the surface of Earth in a liquid form: dihydrogen monoxide, more commonly referred to as water. Within the vastitude of the universe, the presence or absence of a particular chemical substance in a liquid phase on the surface of a planet in a far flung solar system appears to be a fact of preposterous insignificance. However, when it occurs alongside a number of other conditions, the presence of liquid water can be the catalyst for a process which is, among all the billions that occur in our universe, one of the most extraordinary: the organisation of inanimate matter into animate entities, the emergence of life.

Although the process by which life came about is not yet known, scientists suspect that in order for it to occur, the existence of six particular elements is required: carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen, phosphorus and sulfur. These constitute the building blocks of nucleic acids, proteins and lipids, the primary constituents of life. Perhaps there are lifeforms which came to be in an environment devoid of these materials, but in order for life as it appears on earth to exist, they are vital. Whether or not life exists throughout the universe, or only on our planet, is not clear, and indeed, estimating the likelihood of life emerging elsewhere is difficult, given our lack of knowledge regarding the processes associated with its earthly genesis. What we do understand, however, is that once the quantum leap from inanimate to animate occurred, the process of natural selection began. It is an astonishing thought to consider that from those first basic elements, all planets, stars and living things were formed. However the journey, of both life and the universe, is far from at its end.

With about 12 kilometres left in race, a tiny portion of the matter on our planet has made the leap from non-living to living. 10 billions years after the big bang, with the temperatures on the planet's slowly forming land masses still high, it was in the depths of the Earth's great oceans that first life dwelled. Just as the planets and solar systems were derived from the simplicity of hydrogen, all of the complexity and diversity of life on Earth can trace its origins to the most simple form of life: a single cell. Although they lacked the ability to recognise it, a very powerful force was acting upon these first living beings. It was a force which was built into the environment they inhabited as well as the beings themselves. That force is selective pressure. These basic organisms reproduced by a process called binary fission, which involves the replication of the cell's single chromosome, followed by cytokineisis, the splitting of the single cell into two distinct and individual cells. This process is a fundamental part of natural selection. If all of the cells which this reproductive mechanism produced were perfectly identical, none would be better adapted to the environment than any others. However perfection is something which has not yet been encountered in this universe. Mutations occurred during chromosomal replication, resulting in subtle variations in some cells. Some of those variations were of no advantage in, or were possibly even deleterious to, the fight for survival, but some resulted in a slight advantage. A hypothetical example of a beneficial mutation could be a slightly stronger or larger flagellum. The flagellum is a tail like projection which protrudes from a the cell body, and acts as a means of propulsion. A stronger flagellum would render an organism better suited to its aquatic environment than a similar cell which possess a smaller, weaker flagellum, because the former could propel itself towards food sources more quickly, thus improving its chances of procuring the nutrition necessary to ensure its survival. Those cells which possess smaller flagella are less suited to their environment than their better endowed rivals, and therefore their survival is less likely. Without survival future reproduction is not possible, and therefore the gene which results in smaller flagella eventually dies out: it is not selected. Those organisms which possess the genes which code for the advantageous phenotype are more likely to survive and produce progeny, all of whom possess the same advantageous genetic code, and thus it is propagated.

For a long time, the planet's land masses remained a fantastically inhospitable environment due to hurricane winds, high temperatures and the greater proximity of the Moon, which resulted in enormous tides. Also, the ozone layer had not yet formed, meaning that the bleak and empty continents of Earth were constantly barraged by ultraviolet light. In the oceans, however, life was thriving. The ability to derive energy directly from sunlight through the process of photosynthesis became an important survival tool for many organisms. For over 2 billion years, all of the planet's life took the form of various single celled organisms. The eventual emergence of sexual reproduction as a means of passing on genetic information resulted in a greater degree of variation among the population, as genotypes were combined rather than simply replicating. This increase in variation within the population resulted in an enhanced rate of evolution. Soon multi-cellular organisms emerged. However, it would be a billion years, or about three kilometres along the timeline for our athletes, before the first animals emerged. At this point in the race the finish line is in sight, just metres away in fact, and yet human beings are still a very distant prospect. The formation of the ozone layer coincided with widespread emergence of land dwelling organisms. On the land, natural selection continued unabated, driven by competition for nutrition, mates and territory. The enormous variety in the potential methods of garnering the resources required for survival and reproduction resulted in great variation in organisms, as those who possessed traits which were more suited to the exploitation of any means of nutrition than their rivals were naturally selected. The complexity of the environment meant that a wide range of ecological niches were available, so a wide range of adaptions were viable. Diversification increased as species evolved based on the demands of their particular environments. Many species were formed and died out, the journey from extant to extinct occurring in what is nothing more than a couple of centimeters on our timeline. However, one particular group of organisms had a little bit more evolutionary stamina than most. The reign of the dinosaurs lasted 160 million years. With huge variation in body types allowing a wide range of ecological niches, the Earth was the uncontested stomping ground of these beasts until roughly 65 million years ago, when something, perhaps a large meteorite, changed the environment drastically. This meant that the adaptions which they, and many other organisms, possessed were not longer suitable, and so the dinosaurs were selected against. With the elimination of the vast majority of apex predators, other species could now take advantage of the available resources which the dinosaurs had once dominated. The fight to fill the gap in the ecosystem eventually resulted in the emergence of a huge number of new organisms, but it was the mammals, a class of organism which survived the Cretaceous-Tertiary extinction, who came to prominence. The following period saw a huge degree of diversification within the class, but it took over 60 million years for the genus Homo to emerge. Variation within this genus saw species such as the cannibalistic Homo antecessor, the bipedal Homo erectus and Homo ergaster, whose cervical vertebrae seem to indicated that ergaster had the ability to speak in a manner very similar to modern humans. It wasn't until roughly 13,699,800,000 years after the big bang, or less than ten centimeters from the end of our athletes' race, that human beings emerged. Imagine that for one moment next time your see marathon runners trudging along the streets of London or New York on your television screens. If you were to place match box just before the finish line, it would more than equal the proportion of the course which the existence of our species takes up on a universal scale 42.125 kilometres long. The entirety of human history, from the scavengers of the lower Palaeolithic to the skyscrapers and cities of the present day, all of it could be completely subsumed by a single footfall.

The race to today is over, but that only brings us so far. Time's steady advance comes to dwarf all things. Even the mightiest stars are mere flickers when set against the swelling temporal tide. Just like all things, humanity will also yield to time's passage. The difference in our case is that we are conscious entities. While other things merely exist, human beings can learn, think and know. The magnitude of this fact cannot be overstated. Its significance is in every particle, every galaxy and every mind. We are the universe made sentient. Our very thoughts are the thoughts of the cosmos.

A sense of egoism is an expedient attribute from an evolutionary point of view. It would be a decidedly inviable species whose members are not, to a large extent, fundamentally concerned with ensuring that they survive. This survival requires an implicit and yet wholehearted devotion to the task of propagating one's genetic code. While our more advance cognitive abilities have allowed us, as a species, to tame the evolutionarily derived characteristics which we recognise as undesirable in our civilised setting, human beings are still a product of the same process which produced all other organisms, and therefore, we still bear its hallmarks. An evolutionary heritage is one of game theoretical co-operation, as well as vigorous competition. It is one which scarcely had room for a grander perspective, a perspective which could include such things as contemplation and reflection. Survival was our work, our sport, our recreation and our religion. Securing the necessities for survival (and the evolutionary purpose of survival: reproduction) was of absolute importance. Until that had been achieved, all else had to wait. But unlike other species, homo sapiens had the ability to rationalise their position. This allowed us to derive means of survival which didn't require the constant pursuit and struggle of the hunter gatherer. We could settle and stockpile resources. We could also plan our existence in a fashion which allowed us to distance ourselves from direct and bloody competition. As this distance grew, we became alienated from the circular simplicity which was evolutionarily programmed into our former lives: survive to reproduce, reproduce to survive. Our cognitive abilities had allowed our species to reach a position where individual survival was relatively easy to secure. This had the effect of emancipating our minds from purely contemporaneous concerns, allowing the consciousness an unprecedented degree of freedom. We began to explore the mysteries around us. Before long we would have in our hands the strength to move mountains and in our eyes the focus to see the birth of stars. But no matter what heights we scale, we cannot be free from that part of ourselves which still dwells in the world of the struggle, the world of survival. That is why, while our space probes speed to the outer reaches of our galaxy and our very own genome is mapped in its entirety, we continue to kill, steal, rape and destroy.

Violence and corruption are predicates of egoism. For some, the desire to achieve personal power is more important than the rules which allow the peace and stability on which society and progression depend. But we can take a wider perspective, a perspective which encompasses not only our own origin, but that of all which is around us, and its future too. It is a remarkable fact that, over 13,699,800,000 years, the hydrogen and helium of our universe's origin eventually became conscious, and we are that consciousness. Our egoism directs us towards lives which pursue the urges of biology and the pleasures evolution selected to incentivise them, but if we use our intellects we can examine the extraordinary mysteries which surround us, and in doing so, we allow this universe to contemplate itself.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Excerpt from The Secret Diary of Edward Washington Blair

If I ignore the death of my writing, and my efforts at that now encompass most of my existence, I could argue that the things in my life from which I now derive pleasure are no different than before. I used to attend the symphony every Friday night, alone. The musical experience was the purpose of the endeavour, but there were so many subtle pleasures on either side of it that they, taken as a whole, all but eclipsed the pleasure of even the finest performance. During the winter the black of the night sky thrilled me as I walked the streets, insulated from the cold by my thick coat. I walked with a pace that had a destination as its intention, but not a pressing one. The precise clip clop of my leather shoes against the clean, cold pavement was a sweet sound which divided the night's silence into neat portions. The brim of my hat and the edge of my scarf obscured all but a sliver of my pale white skin which shone in the dark windows of closed shops as I walked by. I loved how I looked on a cold winter's night. Inside the gates of the concert hall stood tall oaks. The tangled darkness of leafless branches was distinguishable from their background only for the gentle suggestion of silver moonlight. As I approached the building the path below me would glow with the light pouring from within. Soon I would be enveloped by it, and by the warmth too. The gnarled path was replaced by smooth white marble which felt infinitely thick under my shoes. I always arrived at least a half an hour before the every performance so I could flit through the lobby and take a seat in the empty silence of the hall. The tall walls on either side of the hall were topped by a line of square windows through which small sights of the world outside could be seen. I remember that clear night when my eye was first caught by a small shimmering star which could be seen through a window towards the back of the hall. Each time I glanced up to see it shining like purple mercury my eyes would well up at the thought that such a thing could exist. If one could describe one tenth of its beauty in a thousand volumes they would be the richest texts ever devised by the mind of man. After some time, the hall would begin to fill, and soon the performance began. I would breath it in, let it take to where it wished. A fine interpretation thrilled me. Like a drop of blood to a crisp white cloth, the sensation would diffuse through me. The sweetness of the melody, the arching sounds of the piano's music, it would stay with me for days. However, a weak performance passed me by before it ended. The chief insults were the occasional flickers of merit in a morass of mediocrity. For a moment I would feel my spirit rise, only to collapse again into boredom. But the boredom was now flavoured with spite. I wouldn't clap before I left the hall briskly and without any hesitation. Although I don't wish to draw such a tawdry analogy, I can't help but compare my life, as it is now, to one of those many evenings of boredom. When I cast my mind back to the lethargy and frustration with which I was imbued by a flaccid meander through La Campenella, it matches my disposition almost exactly. The momentary instances of remembered beauty are just like the occasional flickers of talent in the fingers of an average pianist, and are accompanied by the same refreshed frustration. That same ineffable yet pervasive sense of emptiness is a constant. It was many years ago that I first made this comparison. It grated on me then just as it does now, but I couldn't help but smother myself in it. Like a child drawn to the illicit, I bent to its simplicity and abject artlessness. I found new ways to support it, and new levels at which it could be applied, however tenuously. It was somewhere in this labyrinthian mine of ignobility that I struck a vein of truth. All through every one of those evenings I spent sitting in that seat in that hall, looking at the ceiling and wishing I could be elsewhere, never once did I get up and leave. Never once did I cut the experience short, despite my awareness that doing so would be the sweetest of releases. Although I knew very little of those who sat around me (another excruciating comparison with my current existence which is almost enough to set me fidgeting as I sit here) I couldn't bear to think that they would consider me impudent. It isn't that I considered their opinions to be especially important, but the notion that I could provide them with a reason to think less of me was enough to keep me routed to my seat no matter what cacophony emanated from the orchestra. My heart sinks as I scrawl these words, for I know what comes next. Outside my window the night's rain is falling as a haze, illuminated by the dolorous light of the street's lamps. Reader, I live, though I want to die, because I will not allow the world to look down on me. There is no nobility in this purpose, there is no moral strength or wisdom. Its nature is constructed from fibres of base emotions, nothing more. If my feint impression on this world were filled in, the name Edward Washington Blair would be considered briefly, along with some photographs of me and that smile, before being set aside, forever. Newspapers would sum up my being, my work, my fame and its slow demise for those who cared to read. The manner of my death would colour every inch of the life which preceded it, as well as the work it bore. For those people whom my work truly touched, death at my own hand would be an intrusion into old memories best left untouched, like ornaments behind the dusted glass of an old house. I would be summed up as easily as anything else: the mysteries of my existence solved by the final knowledge of how it ended. Nietzsche said that he who has a why to live for can withstand almost any how. I believe that my existence stretches his words to their very breaking point, but I have not yet proved them wrong.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Death, libraries and playlists

Technology often takes that which was once unthinkable and makes it so commonplace that we are almost unable to comprehend how astounding it actually is. The enormous capacity of many MP3 players means that we can store our entire music collection on a device which takes up less space than a wallet. All over the world people go about their days with every song they have ever loved literally at their fingertips. The prevalence of the internet means that we experience little difficulty in finding the music we enjoy, regardless of how strange our tastes may be.

Appreciation of music is inherently personal. A piece of music can illustrate anything: a subtle emotion, a portrait of a fleeting moment in life or a description of a complex state of mind. It can thrill us temporarily or remain a companion for years. The music that really touches us often mirrors the lives we lead. It expresses that which we feel but cannot verbalise, or renders our innermost thoughts with a purity that mere language erodes. For this very reason, our tastes are an expression of ourselves. Sometimes people are eager to impress the nature of their tastes on others. This is usually an effort to link oneself to the culture with which the music is associated. Music is often attached to a zeitgeist, a perspective or attitude. There are few more effective ways of publicly associating oneself with a social group than playing its favoured music loudly and conspicuously. This has been seen again and again throughout history, for example in 1960s America the hippie movement was strongly connected with psychedelic rock. Playing that genre of music was seen as another way of expressing the movement's ideology. However, as with any statement of personal identity, associating oneself with a particular type of music can be a source of anxiety. The subjective nature of musical appreciation means that a piece which thrills one person can bore another. It can be an unpleasant experience to find that music which you believe to be unutterably beautiful is bland or boring according to a friend. Aware of this, we are sometimes reluctant to express our enjoyment for a piece, or even a genre, of music for fear of having it denigrated. Perhaps more often, we simply don't wish to have something so personal exposed.

I myself have made efforts to hide my enjoyment of certain music from others. When socialising with friends it is often the case that an iPod is requested to be connected to a speaker. When this situation arises I rarely if ever offer mine, usually for the simple reason that a lot of the music I enjoy is not well suited to this type of situation. However it would be dishonest to deny that there isn't an element of my reluctance which is based on a desire to avoid a public expression of my taste. When I do offer my iPod, usually due to a lack of alternatives, I invariable choose a playlist of music which I know others will enjoy, rather than selecting the option of randomly shuffling my entire library. It is clear why I do this: I can control exactly what I express, and anything which I am uncomfortable about revealing can remain hidden. All the subtlety and emotion which is spread throughout the albums and songs which touched me deepest is set aside, and nobody knows better. The playlists I choose are comprised of music which I know others will enjoy, and by making this choice I am implicitly strengthening my connection with the group with whom I am socialising. If I were to play the music which I enjoy (and the group doesn't) it would have the opposite effect. In addition to this, I also evade the potential embarrassment or disappointment which could arise from hearing my friends express distaste for that which I enjoy.

The minor action of selecting a playlist, instead of opening up the entire library for all, is indicative of a trend which runs throughout human society. The vast majority of people claim membership of many groups, be they societies, social circles, sports clubs or teams. If we see something valuable in a group and wish to gain or maintain its membership, we are likely to tailor ourselves to what we perceive its desires to be. Instead of allowing access to the entire library of our emotions and thoughts, we create mental playlists, modes of conduct which eliminate that which may not be approved, or that which we are uncomfortable with allowing others to know. By doing this we create an impression of ourselves which is perhaps favourable to a group, but just like the playlists on my iPod, it doesn't give a clear indication of the true nature of the library from which it was derived.

Few people are fortunate enough to have never known somebody whose death came at an early age. It is a deeply unnerving experience to lose a close friend at any age, but it is particularly difficult early in life. The possibility of their death, or yours, rarely entered consideration before that moment when you find out that they are gone, never to return. Over the past ten years many people connected to my school or college have died. Without exception, each one of these people was heralded as an especially good or kind person after they had died. There was a time when I believe that this was borne out of reverence for deceased's grief stricken friends and family, and I still acknowledge that there are instances when this is probably the case. However, what I noticed when I learned more about these people who lost their lives at such an early age was that they were special people. I realised that, in a way, the good really do die young. If any one of the hundreds of people who attended my school had been plucked from this earth in their early teens, a depth of tentative joy, creativity, kindness and fear would have been revealed. It was the misfortune of those few that their lives were the ones which were illuminated by the light which death casts on life lost. Their deaths brought their lives into a perspective which I had never seen before. All of their efforts were summed up, all of the challenges they were undertaking, of which I knew nothing, were suddenly known to all. One had represented my country at a sport I didn't even know he played. Another was a talented actress. But more than this, I heard stories about them, about the people they really were. My vague impressions of their personalities were cast aside, replaced with accounts of their fears, their struggles, their hopes and wishes, their plans for the years they will never live. These things which they never revealed me, or to most of those around them, were suddenly known to all who listened. For once, instead of hearing the playlist, we were listening to the entire library of their life.

We all live our lives hiding and revealing ourselves. Sometimes we are exposed by our circumstances, and sometimes they cause us to hide deeper still. It is easy to progress through this life without really seeing the people around us, or without being seen by them, and that is inevitable to a certain extent. Most of us are not comfortable revealing our fears and joys to everybody, and this will probably always be the case. However, the death of people close to me, and the revelations which ensued, forced me to look closer. I realised that although I may only be privy to a carefully selected playlist of emotions and thoughts, behind each person there is an entire library of which I know very little. We are all filled with darkness and light, fears and joys. The reality is that we will never know much more about a lot of people in our lives beyond that which they choose to reveal, but we should always be aware that behind whatever playlist we hear, there is an entire library wherein the truth resides.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Morality, pragmatism and killing

It is often the case that when a seemingly axiomatic principle is examined under the light of reason, an unexpected degree of depth and complexity reveals itself. Descartes and his meditations illustrate this as well as anything. The apparently unmistakeable proposition that I am now sitting at my desk before a computer becomes a unfounded assumption when scrutinised via the process of methodic doubt. Even the claim that I exist is not taken for granted, and requires as support an argument which is perhaps the most famous in all of philosophy: I think, therefore I am.

Why is killing wrong? This question, like many in philosophy, applies to a belief which is commonly held, and yet despite this, the answer is quite elusive. Attempts to come to a conclusive response follow diverse paths. Some are derived from religious texts or commandments, while others centre on people's innate right to life. My understanding of the issue starts with the question itself. To ask why killing is wrong conflates a variety of actions so wide that they include the bombing of enemy positions on a battlefield and the administration of a lethal dose of poison to a willing recipient. It is clear that all societies draw great distinctions between different forms of killing, as is the case with groups within those societies. The bases for these distinctions are an important element in my understanding of the moral issues surrounding the act of ending the life of another human being.

The killing of an innocent person is considered by many to be the most serious of all transgressions. It is regarded as unjustifiable under any circumstances, and is unsurpassed by any crime in terms of legal penalties and moral objections. Most people have a powerful and innate aversion to the concept of killing in general, and the most intense aspect of this aversion is reserved for the specific act of killing the innocent. When examined from an evolutionary perspective, this aversion is quite understandable. The individual is more limited than the group due to the fact that the pooled skills, resources and numbers which benefit a society far outweigh the strengths of even the most powerful individual. Therefore it stands to reason that those individuals who were suited to life within a group were more likely to be survive and pass on their genes. A major element in the question of one's suitability to life in a group setting is how one interacts with other members within their group. It is easy to see that individuals who had an aversion to killing would be less likely to disrupt the order of a group by killing other members. The benefits of the group over the individual would mean that the genetically predicated psychological elements to this aversion, a key aspect of group membership, would be very likely to be perpetuated.  There may well have existed many individuals who lacked this trait, and who didn't feel disinclined to kill people whom they encountered, but their lack of an aversion to killing (or at least an inability to match the behaviour of others in this regard) would not appear to be one which would be favoured by natural selection. It is quite clear that a disregard for the lives of others would be deleterious to one's chances of passing on one's genes in any situation where membership of a group is a key element in improving one's chances of survival. Conversely, a strong aversion to killing other members of one's group or species would be highly advantageous in these circumstances. The moral questions we now associate with killing appear to be secondary to the simple pragmatism of the evolutionary process, at least in the incipience of human society. In a modern context, Homo Sapiens don't find themselves in such a grave state of existential jeopardy as that which marks the early stages of any species' development. The killing of one innocent member of a society no longer results in a drastic reduction in the other members' chances of surviving, but at the same time it represents an assault, however small, on one of the core principles of our society and our existence. The simple pragmatism enforced by natural selection has been moved from its former prominence by the stability of modern society, and in its place moral principles have grown.

The question of justifiable killing is a controversial one. Western society appears to be moving away from capital punishment, while many countries within its structure continue to wage wars which have as their consequence the deaths of many people. The moral principles which replaced evolutionary pragmatism have much to say about the subject of the death penalty, but first I shall examine the situation which may have been antecedent to these considerations. While the killing of innocent members of a society was a potentially destructive act within our early societies, the killing of a guilty individual could well have been advantageous. One who transgresses against the principles of survival is not beneficial to group's overall chances of enduring, so the elimination of this individual effectively constitutes the removal of a factor which impedes survival. In a situation where the survival of one's species is fragile, this equation is all the consideration that can be afforded. However, as Homo Sapiens became a well established species, and, as mentioned above, morals began to take the place of evolutionary pragmatism, the killing of those who transgress became a more complicated issue. Those who seek to punish the transgressor are members of the society against which the crime was committed. Therefore, as members of a society, they, in all likelihood, posses the trait of having an innate aversion to killing. In times past the simple expediency which the evolutionary process enforced meant the aversion was set aside, but when morals replaced the binary advantageous/disadvantageous judgement, the natural aversion to killing could assert itself, even if it was being applied to one who assaulted society. In order to avoiding killing, we introduced alternative punishments: prison sentences, exile and other sub lethal penalties. Whether or not the killing of transgressors is justifiable in a setting where it is not entirely necessary is a question which has been born out of the emergent existential security of our species, and therefore is largely based on the level of one's subjective aversion to killing. Given the fact that, in a modern setting, the power to kill those who attack society has been placed in the hands of representatives (governments, sovereigns etc), there will always be opposition to capital punishment. The natural aversion to killing, which is sure to exist within many members of a population, will cause people to rise against the actions of a representative who decides that the killing of transgressors is an appropriate punishment, as the actions of a representative reflect on the society whom they govern.

If the killing of innocent people is at one end of the spectrum of public acceptance (i.e it is almost universally regarded as unacceptable in any circumstances), then the killing of enemy soldiers in warfare is at the other. However, the question of whether or not the war is considered just is of great importance when it comes to its public acceptance. Fundamentally, it is a question which reaches past the sanitised comforts of modernity and back into the violent origins of our species. For a war to be considered just, and therefore for the killing of other human beings in its context to be acceptable, the circumstances of the conflict must be such that they push our society back into a state of existential jeopardy. When our survival, or the survival of our society, is threatened, the killing of those who are creating this threat is morally unambiguous. In fact, moral considerations once again become secondary in importance, and the simple pragmatism of survival rises to its former state of prominence. World War Two is often held as an example of a just war. The spread of Nazi tyranny constituted a very real threat to the lives and societies of those who fought to stop it: the killing of Nazi soldiers did not produce a moral outcry. It is difficult to consider a war just if the existence of a society and its members has not been threatened. The absence of this threat means that the pragmatism of survival doesn't enter the equation. Instead, the moral codes which exist in a stable, safe society are applied to the prospect of killing in these circumstances, and the innate aversion to killing which most of the population possess wins out. For example, a war waged in order to secure extraneous resources would be seen as unacceptable to the public, and a moral outcry would result.

Because of its importance to structure of society and the innate and conditioned proclivities which this importance has and does imbue us with, not killing has reached a position of great significance within most human populations. It is seen by some as a absolute. It has been applied not only to human beings but to animals too. These considerations are all products of the stability of our modern societies. We can get by without killing and eating animals today, so it is a moral rather than pragmatic question. A criminal who killed other human beings is dangerous, but he is not a threat to the structure of society as a whole, so he does not place us in a position of existential jeopardy, and therefore our moral codes are applicable. The situation would be different if that criminal were attack you or your children, and if it were available lethal force would be used in most cases. The further we get from the violent world of survival, the more comfortable our existence becomes. More and more we can afford to eschew that which we are predisposed or have grown to dislike, and stability takes the place of tumult. However, as long as we exist there is the possibility that our existence could be threatened, and in the most ancient recesses of our minds the simple rules which govern the world of basic survival lie waiting for the the moment when that threat emerges.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Reductionism and beauty

Thoughts of the universe, thoughts of this planet and of one of its many species, Homo Sapiens, are never far from my mind. Sometimes they are induced by a topic which I am studying, a text I am reading or a news story. These thoughts are usually rational and inquisitive, the product of an interest in the new knowledge which have attained. Other times they seem to spring into my consciousness spontaneously. When I am alone and undisturbed, I feel drawn to these thoughts, as if they are the lyrics to some mental song, always in the background but only audible in moments of solitude. I can be walking the city streets, sitting alone on a bus or lying in the darkness awaiting sleep when they slowly creep from whatever part of my brain in which they reside and demand attention. Their nature is much different than the scientific curiosity which reading induces. Instead of wonder, it is fear. The enormity of the universe, the absurdity of human existence, the limitations of our species in the cosmic realm, the deep implausibility of the infinite, all of the things which I usually endeavour meet head on with considered argumentation become ghosts, demons and monsters. Their reality strikes me with a clarity which shakes the foundations of my feeble human mind like an ontological earthquake.

I am sure we have all felt that fear. The pragmatic requirements of the day to day activities of our lives often have the effect of pushing questions of such scale aside, but the natural curiosity of human beings means that they can't remain in the mind's wilderness forever: every once in while they must be addressed. One could speculate a great deal about the consequences of these thoughts, as I have done. Is work, religion, science, sport, socialising, all of human activity just a subconscious effort to find something with which we can busy ourselves in order to shield our minds from questions of this magnitude, and their possible answers? To conclude this is perhaps a step too far, but it seems that there are instances when thoughts of great depth, and perhaps the fear they engender, mould our beliefs and our actions.

Human beings have at their core a profound desire to feel valuable and valued. It is despite our nature that we make scientific progress using tools such as logic which are far removed from the intuitive moods of thinking towards which we naturally gravitate. Much of our lives are spent in pursuit of greater self-regard as well as greater regard in the opinion of others. Across all of the many iterations of human society there have existed means to better one's position and status in the eyes of others. This reflects the innately purpose directed proclivity of the human mind: without value, progress, purpose or meaning, what is the point? We crave a sense that we are in some way important, and on a terrestrial scale that is an achievable goal. People can rise to positions of esteem within their community, or even on a global scale, they can become experts or champions. Before Copernicus and Galileo (and regrettably, in some circles, for much time afterwards) mankind placed itself at the centre of all things. Before we had encountered evidence to the contrary, mankind assumed that our planet was in the centre of the universe with all other things existing, at best, as ancillaries. Our innate drive toward self-regard remained unchallenged on a cosmic scale. However, when one looks beyond our planet and finds that it is a mere speck in a unfathomably large ocean of darkness, the importance we built for ourselves on this earth could seem somewhat paltry. Human nature being what it is, we seek some way in which we can maintain our original and comfortable beliefs despite the existence of evidence which seems to contradict them. Yes, the universe appears to be a massive place utterly indifferent to our welfare, but instead some chose to believe that it is directed by a benevolent creator who is utterly almighty, with every inch of the vast expanse under his command, and yet this creator directs every element of his being towards our tiny planet and our tiny species (those who believed this, unsurprisingly, found their egos quite intact on the cosmic scale).

Science seeks to understand and explain. As it progresses it often upturns old beliefs which were based on early attempts at explaining the mysterious aspects of our environment. Before objective data had been acquired and examined in a scientific manner, man could choose to explain that which surrounded him in any way he desired. This inevitably leads to a desirable explanation, and often one which places mankind on some kind of pedestal. For example, in Norse mythology the rising and setting of the sun was explained as the progress of the goddess Sol through the sky in her chariot. This explanation places the almighty gods at the service of mankind. The mightier the god, the greater are those whom he serves. The scientific explanation appears to denigrate mankind in the eyes of those who hold contrary views because, instead of proposing whatever explanation that is most comforting or supportive to the ego, it puts forward the observed data, and that is quite indifferent to mankind's existence.

Any way in which the universe can be construed as being sympathetic to the existence of mankind is grasped at by those who wish to impose themselves on the cosmic arena. The fact that conditions on earth appear to have been tailored to mankind's desires is sometimes used as evidence that the universe is more than indifferent to our presence. How could we have been so lucky to have come into existence in a place where the sun rises each morning, the tides come in and out and the food we need to live is so plentiful? The fallacy in this argument resides in a lack of understanding regarding the process of evolution. Natural selection is a process by which genes whose phenotypes are well suited to the environment are perpetuated, while those which aren't suited to the environment are not. Therefore it follows naturally that if any organism evolves based on its suitability for an environment, it will inevitably find the environment remarkably well suited to its needs. If the organism happens to have sufficiently advanced mental faculties to allow it to reflect on the suitability of its environment, it may consider this evidence that the universe is shaped to its requirements, rather than other way around.

The beauty of our world and our universe is everything to me. It is the the fragrance which perfumes my moments of joy and the solace which guides me from the depths of my despair. There is no doubt that the extraordinary natural beauty which exists all around us can evoke the most profound sense of awe and joy in those who behold it. Thus it is no surprise that it is often seen as evidence that the universe has something benevolent at its core. Those who subscribe to that view have often bemoaned the progress of science, arguing that its objective and clinical instruments denigrate the beauty of that which they measure. It is my belief that science does no such thing. When one witnesses the rainbow (a phenomenon which is often involved in the debate surrounding reductionism and beauty, going all the way back to John Keats' 1819 poem “Lamia") or a sunrise, none of the beauty is removed by an understanding of the mechanisms at work. If anything, the knowledge of the heliocentric model, or an understanding of how the refraction of light through water vapour results in the splitting of white light into its component colours, adds another level to the awe one experiences. Those who wish to leave the the mechanisms behind this beauty unexplained do it no service, and in many ways they enslave it as a means to prop up their own cosmic vanity. If the source of the rainbow remained a mystery, people could go on believing that its beauty was put in place by a benevolent force. The tremendous power of the rising sun could remain the universe's daily worship of our existence. Instead this exquisite beauty is the product of blind forces which act without any cognisance of us or anything else, and they would continue to operate as they do even if there were no Homo Sapiens to marvel at them. That, for me at least, is quite sufficient.