Thursday, June 28, 2012

Bear with me.

I enjoy being foolish. I particular enjoy it when people have a good natured chuckle at my more un-testable beliefs. It was in that spirit that I was talking about the bear as my totem animal to some friends some time ago.

Why is that humorous? Well firstly because I am not sophisticated or particular. Grizzly or black or sun or even polar – though I stop short of panda or koala – will do despite their significant differences. My empathy with bears comes from pop–culture rather than careful study. In fact my favourite bear is Fozzie from the muppets, followed by Balloo from the Jungle Book. I was also a huge fan of Grizzly Adams in my youth with a well read copy of the novelized TV series a constant refuge.

For me the bear is a symbol of quiet strength – a strength that doesn’t need to prove itself. I think of bear like people as gentle giants – confidently able to decline challenges but capable of decisive action when necessary. I am not saying this is me. Instead this is something I aspire to be – something I have always tried to let inspire me. I’m more bearlike than I used to be.

The other key aspect to bears is that they are simple pleasure seekers. Bears in fiction live for honey (Winnie the Pooh), humour and friendship (Fozie Bear) and just the “bear” necessities of live (Balloo in Disney’s Jungle Book). We often represent a bears’ life as idyllic. Even Coca-cola and Bundaberg rum play on the chilled out existence of a bear in their ads. Given that bears are omnivores with no non-human predators it’s not a completely fantastic rendition. I think in our status-orientated, goal-focused and time-limited culture it’s a lifestyle we ought to celebrate more. Bears are not workaholics and they don’t do gyms.

I agree it is funny that I idolize all these bear qualities. I am playing up to an aspect of myself that both charms and infuriates some people who know me – a love of comfort and lack of career ambition. Then I am wrapping all that up in poorly understood mystical language using children’s books as references and even the Muppets as scripture. Besides all that I’m not really the body shape to be a bear, my shoulders aren’t broad enough, so there’s a physical comedy playing out too. It’s cheeky and silly and low brow in a good way. Let’s laugh away.

The second reason my totemic appreciation of the bear gets chuckles though is less cool. I think it’s because it’s identified with a group of people who get sneered at in Australia. The stereotype of non-aboriginal people into totem animals in Australia would be our working class whites – “white trash.” This class ranks only above aboriginal people and new migrants in who gets shat on by our government. When this crowd wear an airbrushed wolf t-shirt or a full-back tiger tattoo its viewed as a tacky approach to other cultures as “exotic” and “wild”; it’s read as “never traveled further than the flea markets”.

It’s true that it’s tacky to just pluck a totem animal out of a foreign ecosystem without any awareness of the cultures that have traditionally interacted with that animal. However and this is a bold claim (so I’ll bold it), it is a continuation of the dismissal of certain cultures as primitive that is behind a dismissal of animal totems rather than a desire to protect those cultures by looking down on a partial use of their symbolism and concepts. I say this because the purpose of the chuckle over totem animals is not to deepen conversation or encourage further learning but to end it. Therefore it makes more sense as an unwitting legacy of pejorative attitudes to animism than an advocacy of taking animism seriously.

We definitely don’t honour other spiritual practices by leaving them alone with a chuckle. I know people who love Tai Chi but have yet to study Daoism, same with Yoga and Hinduism, Karate and Shinto, Gospel and old time Black American Christianity. These class appropriate appropriations get a free pass however.  They don’t suffer from a general objection to ripping off other religious traditions for our spiritual benefit. If anything they are applauded as a step in the right direction towards understanding. Yet while old church furnishings are very cool at the moment totem animals are less so. Is it any surprise that this is a distinction that echoes the prejudices of our past rather than challenges them?

I don’t mind sharing the “white trash” label if having a totemic appreciation of an animal puts it upon me. Australia is a class ridden country but whether you are upper class or working class or a lumpen-proletariat is no indication of whether you have “class” in the sense I care about. Kind, humble, ambitious in love and with a hunger for knowledge is my kind of classy. I use philosophy to recognize sophisticated and academically trumpeted ideas in what people are saying who lack the jargon to express themselves in that way. What I find is that good ideas come from people who spend time thinking. People who already believe they know best seldom do such thinking, hence the truism that you have to first be a fool to become a sage.

One way the closed mind of the clever operates is to limit the list of what constitutes a spiritual question. How the universe began, where you go when you die, whether right or wrong are absolutes, are all legitimised spiritual questions. These are also very academic questions requiring proper study of serious theological and philosophical positions. Woe to anyone who thinks they can just answer such questions by taking a stroll. By contrast something like what is your favourite animal and why is considered a foolishness. They’re a child’s questions – not a scholar’s.

I, very seriously, would like to flip that distinction. One running theme of this blog is of the unimportance of the official canon of spiritual questions in particular the chief one – whether or not God exists. Answering that question tells us about our situation but not necessarily about how we should respond. In contrast a “foolish” question like what animal inspires us does actually speak to the core of all spiritual concerns; how do I live my life? Kids get this. I thank the kid in me for still getting it. Considering the bear is more relevant to me than any genesis or evolution debates.

None of this is to say that there is nothing to criticize in terms of our use of totemic animals in popular white culture. Traditional uses of totemic animals have a strong valuation of a diversity of gifts. There are no “bad” animals and nor are there ideal ones. The rabbit and the snow leopard are equals. That is important because in mirroring our totems individually we collectively mirror the ecosystem which benefits from all its members and we recognize different tools for survival which benefits our tribe. This is forgotten when this spiritual practice gets intermingled with capitalism – both its mass production and its competitive nature.

The sort of animal totemic system we end up with under capitalism is a glorification of the top of the food chain predators. Wolves, sharks, tigers and yes, the bear, all get a lot more love than other animals. Further we distort those animals to suit our own psychoses. The wolf is a pack animal who must work with their pack members to hunt successfully. A lone wolf is actually an unhealthy animal whose lack of socialization has led them to be expelled. Despite this the lone wolf is a celebrated animal archetype because it suits our alienated and hyper-masculine culture. This should be pointing us to something wrong with us.

We don’t notice the problem with a lot of people empathizing with lone wolves (or generally predators at the expense of every other kind of animal) because we aren’t adopting animal totems to guide us – to write over our lives. What we are doing is instead writing on to animal totems our own indulgences. I am guilty of that myself given how much I am celebrating a cartoon version of the bear rather than the real deal. This leads to the reverse of what animal totemisation is supposed to do. It’s supposed to temper our own excesses by giving us a companion spirit to walk with. There’s supposed to be challenges for us. It’s not a blank check to be a sociopath by saying “I’m a rabid dog.” Rabid dogs get put down is the lesson there.

One way to correct this is to deepen our relationship with real animals. I made it a mission of mine to actually see a bear in the wild. For a few minutes I was closer to a black bear than any other human at a tip in rural Canada. There were no fences in between and while it was mildly dangerous it was also one of the most cherished experiences of my life. That is out of reach for many Australians but we can all learn more about bears. We can learn about threats to their habitat and freedom as well. When I was doing work-for -the-dole I met a guy who even though he was on unemployment benefits himself donated to charities that freed bears in captivity. That’s deepening the relationship too. 

Forget bears though, there are animals all around us. My dog is at my feet at the moment and our yard is full of birds. Is it really so laughable that they might have something to teach us? Have we crawled up our collective human ass so much that allowing ourselves to be taught by an animal is foolish to us. Well, first the fool, then the sage.


Wednesday, June 20, 2012

A moral world.

This is a somewhat wacky post. People who know me will realise that feeling the need to disclaim that must mean we have a doozer of a wacky post. I hope you enjoy it.

What does an ethical realm look like?

I’ve been pondering lately the idea of morality or ethics as a language that describes an entire world in a similar way to how physical descriptions describe a physical world. Morality would describe a world composed of moral objects rather than physical objects. Moral descriptions would have certain characteristics just as physical descriptions do.  The fun of this exercise for me is that it illuminates certain assumptions I hold about morality or ethics and it raises some intriguing questions.

What are moral objects?

Physical objects are three dimensional, four if you count time. By that I don’t mean that physical objects really are four dimensional. I’m not talking about reality here. I am talking about a model or a grammar and vocabulary. A physical description of something draws on four dimensions; height, length, breadth and duration. To physically describe a table I might also describe its weight, density, the strength of its molecular bonds and so on. I wouldn’t describe the tables’ kitchness or quaintness. Those qualities lie outside the language of a physical description.  Physical objects are what you create by describing a world by its physical qualities only. In fact I’m happy to treat description and object as effectively interchangeable for this post.

Moral objects then are what we get when we describe the world by moral characteristics only. Can this include things? Can a table for example be good or bad? Can it be honest, righteous, valid, justifiable? Or for that matter can it be evil, wanton, invalid or wrong? My instinctual feeling is it can’t be. My instinctual feeling is that moral objects are acts – the act of building a table or destroying one or sitting on one can be moral – but the table itself is amoral. As an amoral object the table itself has no existence in a morally defined world in the same way that non-physical objects have no existence in a physically defined world. So the first rule of a moral world is that verbs are the new nouns – acts are objects here.

What are moral characteristics?
How do we measure or describe morality? What are its fundamental dimensions? I’m going to propose three. Just like the physical descriptors mentioned above there can be many more characteristics (weight, density, combustability even) so this isn’t the limit of our conversation.
Further its possible to just use one of these descriptors, just as its possible to describe a table by just its height. Such a description is just a poorer definition of the object but as no description is totally complete there can be no objective minimum either.

  1. Harm and beneficence.
As I mentioned in a previous blog post Harm and beneficence has to be measured against some sense of the ideal. Building a casino on the top of Ayers rock for example or chopping off my healthy leg seem obviously harmful only because we have an obvious ideal. This makes this characteristic interestingly dependant on a broader context and ideas. Also as I mentioned in another post it is necessary to have a sense of a moral person (which could be an environment as well) to establish where chains of harms and benefits end.

  1. Honesty or Sincerity and Duplicity
The notion that a person is trying to do the right thing is deeply fundamental to our conversations about moral actions. This comes up when adults try and understand their parents who in a different time may have had different ideas of right parenting. We can say that their choices were wrong (to us) but still moral given the knowledge they had. Likewise we can recognize that in our own parenting we can only try and do the right thing.
In making that attempt we can be honest with ourselves or we can try and sell ourselves a line. It can be hard to know which we are doing but I think we still want to and need to talk about it. The words we use are honesty, sincerity and integrity.

  1. Humility
It seems strange to hang humility out there on its own however I couldn’t quite describe the broader category it belongs to. It may be that it can be covered in the first two descriptors as well. For me though it does stand alone as a necessary corrective to both unfettered beneficence and sincerity.
Sincerity on its own has produced such romantic excesses as philosophers called crimes of pure reason. Those who flew into the world trade towers committed acts of absolute sincerity. Humility could have stopped them.
Likewise the worst tyrannies justify themselves on the basis of looking after others. The victims of the Chinese Cultural Revolution can attest it is a terrible thing to live in a proposed utopia. Even in smaller matters humility prevents beneficence from being something immoral. Beneficence without humility is when your mum puts holes in your condoms because you’d make a great dad.

How stable are moral objects?

We understand that physical characteristics are relative. The weight of a table is not inherent but a consequence of gravity acting on the tables mass. That’s pretty simple; on the moon the table weighs less. More confusing Einstein showed that the tables’ existence in time stretches and contracts depending on its movement relative to its surrounds. Do I know what this means? Not entirely. My guess is that it means the tables’ duration, just like its weight, is a perception that only makes sense in a context in which we too are present. When you think about it it’s not that surprising that duration (time) is basically a relationship between the table and the rest of our perception. 

The upshot of this is that our physical description of the table is not consistent for all situations. However as long as we don’t take it to the moon or launch the table at light speed we should be able to infer a particular table from the same physical description reliably and repeatedly. We can say that the words used to physically describe a table usually stay meaningful most of the time.

Subatomic particles however are much less stable physical objects. The physical characteristics of one of these tricky blighters are (so I’ve heard) “all over the shop.” Weight, speed, location and even existence change constantly. Each characteristic is highly interdependent on the rest and on the very act of observation. We are still trying out new vocabularies in order to have meaningful conversations about these objects.

It seems to me that the moral descriptors I have proposed produce moral objects that are also inherently unstable. Beneficence and harm are very situational while honesty and duplicity are subjective and evolving with our own self-awareness. Humility is the worst of all because it is interdependent with what we imagine we don’t know. That’s a floating parameter of the floatingest degree.

I’m about to cook up a piece of chicken for my lunch. Is that a moral, immoral or amoral action? How permanent is that description? It’s very likely battery hen chicken (no label either way) and purchased quite cheaply. I was intending to give it all to the dog but now intend to shallow fry a piece for myself. It’s very unhealthy and dirties a whole pan. Is this clearly a red light bad thing or does it flicker? Does it matter that I am sooo hungry and I’m finishing off something open in the fridge. Does it matter that having written this paragraph I am more aware than I would have been about my action? If a butterfly flaps its wings in an Amazon rainforest would we have to recalculate the moral weight of my action or am I just being silly?

How do moral objects relate to each other?

In physical descriptions we try to understand how one physical object impacts on another. In fact it’s worth recognizing that physical objects only make sense inside a lattice or web of forces that produce those objects. There is no table in isolation because without its current temperature and atmospheric pressure its atoms would behave differently. At least on a subatomic level there are constant exchanges between the table and the surrounding environment. Physical objects are not distinct or independent phenomenon.

Having now eaten the chicken what does my entire moral world look like? What is the impact from one moral object to another? If moral objects have the instability I mentioned earlier then it’s sensible to imagine that proximity to each other will result in shaping and reshaping of each other. If anything as I’ve described them moral objects are more interdependent and indistinct than physical ones. We can imagine a relationship between them.

The first word I think of to speak of a relationship between moral actions is karma. However karma is not a moral word itself. In fact karma is a way of talking in a particularly amoral way about moral actions. Karma isn’t “right”, it just is. Given that amoral objects are excluded from our moral world then amoral forces like karma would seem to have no place either. Karma, although it is about moral objects, belongs in a physical or metaphysical world rather than a moral one.

Particularly moral forces that tie together moral objects might include duty or obligation or debt. If an action can produce a debt which changes the morality of other actions then this is as if a moral object has affected the characteristics of another moral object.  That’s like a physics of morality. “How are debts between actions produced and cancelled?” is a fascinating question (not for this post though).
We don’t have to make the leap to assume that all debts must be cancelled. Maybe debt is the fundamental energy of a moral universe and if it gets extinguished then we obtain stasis – only an ideal state if you like it. It might be more interesting at least to pass debts on and around – to create states of high moral energy as well as low moral energy.

An artists challenge.

There are many points at which you may disagree with how I’ve pictured this ethical realm. Just like when we talk about physical objects two people can see two very different tables based on what’s important to them. You might even disagree that moral objects are only actions. Perhaps certain physical objects are for you sacred or profane in and of themselves.

An even more pivotal point of disagreement is on the usefulness of imagining an exclusively moral realm at all. I personally have enjoyed this as a thought exercise. I’m not committed to a moral realm as anything other than a way of exposing to myself my own moral language.

If you also found this a fun exercise I would love to receive links to pictures of how you see the moral world. If you want you can send me the pic itself and I’ll put it up alongside any others in this blog. I’ve been thinking lately the visuals of this site are a bit poor and I know too many talented artists for that to continue, surely.

So what do you think, can we do it? Can we picture moral objects interacting with each other and thus creating their world, a world we operate on in parallel to our physical one? Can we show each other what we see? Or has this blog finally gone off the deep end after a little too much Dr. Who? I’m not completely sure myself.


Kudos to my friend Daniel for thinking outside the box and suggesting the following representation of a moral world. Also fluffy.

Friday, June 15, 2012

God: What are we talking about?

When you say God do you mean a phenomenon or an honorific? The difference has profound implications but can go unnoticed. It’s a question for both non-theists and theists; which one you don’t believe in is as interesting a question as which one you do.

In the Book of Exodus Yahweh commands the Jewish people “You shall have no other Gods but me”.  Yahweh isn’t trying to say that there is or there aren’t other Gods. The use of God in this instance is as a title of the highest esteem, an honorific. In that meaning there are obviously other Gods – the Egyptians have some as do the Persians and so on. It’s akin to Yahweh saying his people shall have no other lover but them. That doesn’t mean other possible lovers don’t exist. Yahweh is simply saying that they alone are who the Hebrews should worship as God.

By my reckoning when theists say they believe in God they are usually referring to the phenomenon of a God. The theist is describing reality, that is a series of facts, such as the world was created by a personality not just a process, it will one day be judged by that creator and so on. The notion that the personality in question is God is automatic because God is their concept that fits those facts. The theist is not generally imagining that anyone could agree with their description of reality but not call the creator and judge in question God. Instead they assume any disagreement they might have with non-theists will be about those defining facts.

When a non-theist says that they don’t believe in God they are usually using the phenomenological definition too. Hence non-theism might mean that there is no absolute creator or sustaining personality (or personalities) for the universe. Or Non-theism might mean that nothing is omnipotent, omniscient and omnipresent. In what ever way the non-theist defines the independent reality they call God, they are saying such a reality is a fiction.

What most non-theists (at least in the west) don’t mean is that no-one should be called God. They are not trying to make a political statement like an anarchist does when they say they don’t believe in government. Most non-theists are not objecting to the honorific of God being used for the sort of thing that they don’t believe exists. To them the question is moot precisely because of such a beings non-existence. They are making a statement about reality rather than their own fidelity.

This is my observation; that most discussions about God are not using the honorific definition. This raises fascinating questions. I’d enjoy any response from non-theists or atheists; Do you have clear phenomenological criteria for what you mean by God? Are they rigid? At what point would whatever model of reality you believe in need to change before you would either begin or cease to use the word God in describing it?

Let’s imagine Raoul believes in an omniscient (all-knowing) God. If Raoul meets his God and he is told by them, “Of course I’m not all knowing. I can’t know the future because of free will,” is Raoul obliged to say that the person they are talking to is not God? Is omniscience a requirement of Raoul’s God or just a description? If the latter, why is Raoul’s God actually Raoul’s God then?

Alternatively let’s say a non-theist physicist discovers a sentience to the whole universe. One day she looks through a super microscope and the particles (in a wave in a string or whatever is down there) form the word hello. The next day the same word is written in the clouds of a distant cloud nebula. Is the physicist obliged to worship as God what they have found? Or is it possible to retain a non-theistic attitude to what meets the diagnostic criteria of God, a single consciousness spanning all space and time?

OHM, a God or not?
This is not all hypothetical either. We live in a time of all sorts of ideas in physics some of them sounding like a personality to the universe. We also live in a time when theology includes notions of a “weak” or powerless God, a god who can’t even oppose cause and effect. For that matter the idea of a God in principle, a prime mover who is now absent from the world, is part of the history of modern science. It’s almost an assumption of Newtonian physics. There are so many God-like ideas floating around some of which atheists believe in.

I sometimes wonder how we could replace the word God in our conversations with something like “the Flux”. It would require us to actually define the word a bit better, as no-one would think they already know what we mean. What if we defined it as something outside ourselves that defies objective investigation and has a positive impact on our life. We might find that a multitude of differences between non-theists and theists break down. We might find separate camps of combined theists and non-theists for the Flux or against it. We will also have disagreements on the appropriateness of reverence for the Flux. Should we submit to it or seek to control it or ignore it? Can we negotiate with it? Should we recognise any other Fluxes other than it?

All I am suggesting here is clearing up a language difficulty that no longer reflects the state of our thinking. It seems to me that it is quite possible for someone at an atheist conference to agree with the metaphysics of some theistic theologians. That is they could agree with all the statements each other make about reality, they just disagree about the use of the honorific God to describe the same thing. It’s possible to imagine a person who believes that the world is inherently indifferent and morally neutral, but who worships a broken cruciform love as a hope. The theist bestows the honorific of God on some aspect of a reality any atheist could accept. They are really a sort of theist/non-theist making a mess of these distinctions.

It is also certainly possible to imagine that the universe was created and is under some entities absolute intelligent control. You could call this a strong metaphysical theism. It is separately possible to conclude that such a force is not particularly “good” and to say on that basis they don’t deserve the honorific of God. This would mean you would have no God (using the honorific) even though you thought one existed! This would be a different type of theist/non-theist. Could such a person share a stage with someone who is a phenomenological non-theist, who straight out doesn’t believe in the existence of intelligent super beings? If not, why not? When we switch between using God as description of reality and as an honorific without noticing it, it is harder to answer these questions with any care.

Buddhism is often questioned as to whether it is atheistic or not. The original Buddha did not deny the existence of gods but said that they were not necessary for our enlightenment. This is to be non-theistic in the sense of God as an honorific but not necessarily in the sense of describing your metaphysics. The Buddha most likely believed in Gods but didn’t have one. I’m fond of that approach because it appeals to my existentialist ideals; no one can really judge you like yourself. No one else can truly give you forgiveness either. It also appeals to me for its agnostic metaphysics. I can never know for certain that God doesn’t exist but it’s not the point anyway.

However I am also often to be found sometimes sitting under the exact opposite tree. I really don’t believe in the sort of thing I would define as a God existing. I don’t believe in an uncreated omnipresent personality with a controlling moral interest in this universe. The world’s data just makes so much less sense to me with such a pilot at the helm. In that regard I am a phenomenological non-theist not just an agnostic. However I also worship and submit to something outside of myself. It is not by my criteria God but it is my god. Some days I call it the good or love or it’s just “that thing that knows that I enjoy loving and being good so I don’t have to fight it”. You know - that thing – my higher power. I can’t always find it but I know when I’m knee deep in it or miles from it. I have a god therefore in the honorific sense but not a belief in any Gods existence.

Death by Neil Gaiman, not real but a god.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

The Questions.

(An explanation/encouragement of philosophy aimed at high school students)
One way of understanding philosophy is to say that it is about properly articulating certain questions and answering them - with a sense of urgency. These questions appear to the philosopher as great cracks in the ground we walk on hence the urgency to answer them. Having just watched the Dr. Who episode where the Doctor dies in the middle of the exploding Tardis I’m thinking the cracks in space and time that lead up to that event may be an even better analogy. To a philosopher approaching these unanswered questions is very much a feeling of being unmade. The philosopher can imagine that their work is sealing the cracks and saving the multiverse, just like the good doctor.

How can we know anything? This is possibly the question of supreme importance. This is a crack right across space and time. If we don’t answer this then we can’t answer anything else either, at least not with certainty. The philosopher is the one for whom the lack of a very good answer to this question threatens their whole fabric of existence. “How can I make any choices if I don’t know anything?” they beg of a night of vanishing stars.

Unfortunately “How can we know anything?” is a paradoxical question. It can’t be answered. To explain, let’s say that we know things by intuition. Our intuition doesn’t have to be perfect. It can make mistakes. Perhaps what we thought was certain dread was only indigestion. But over time it corrects itself. Following that inner voice is therefore a long and circuitous road to truth perhaps but it’s a road heading in that direction at least.

That’s a cracking theory. There would be no problem creating a fictional character for whom that theory holds all story long. I would enjoy that story. However is it true? In the story is the character wise or mad for following their intuition? Unfortunately we can’t establish that. The source of knowing in this story is intuition but intuition can’t tell us whether intuition can be trusted, it can’t verify itself.

The same is true if we base knowing off of our senses, our logic, or a group vote of everyone with beards or no beards. The same is true if we base our knowing off of the revelations from our experience of God. Or off of a combination of these matters. None of these sources of knowledge can verify themselves. If they are undependable then their verification is undependable too.

In our example of a story it at first seems easy to prove our fictional character mad or wise because we have an objective describer of what happens. We have an author. However an author’s only power to describe is in their reader’s beliefs. Consider the story of Brave New World. It describes an entirely utilitarian culture, complete with people deliberately brain damaged in vitro in order to suit them to repetitive, uncreative work. There is less job dissatisfaction that way.  If this is dystopian to us then that dystopian assessment is a product of our beliefs rather than anything inherently in the story. We already knew that that was “bad” going in to the story or we won't know its bad when the author describes it.

That isn’t to say that story telling can’t sway us. Babe, the movie, puts the case against bacon clearly. The Bible similarly has a fairly scary ending for people who don’t follow God. But at the end of the day if we don’t share the authors’ assumptions about reality then we don’t agree. There is no escape from our question by route of an author’s authority. After all “How do we know what authority to trust?” is just a rewording of the question, “How can we know anything?”

You may be thinking that philosophers are just maladjusted individuals at this point and I think that is not a bad description. All this fretting over the fundamental grounding of our truth claims is exactly the behaviour of someone with anxiety and an inability to avoid overly concrete thinking. I think philosophy is attractive to that part of me. However before we bring out the chamomile and anti-depressants it’s worth noting that the philosopher (in us even) is merely pre-empting those moments in all our lives when the cracks in space and time loom large. Maladjustment is not always somewhere to avoid.

Consider the Pentecostal kid who finds they are dealing with same-sex attraction. The source of truth and knowledge is not an abstract question for them. It is at the heart of their immediate life. Consider the victim confronted by their traumatic feelings after being mugged. When the pills still don’t get them to sleep how do they restore their sense of safety? Should they accept they can’t?

These are moments of profound maladjustment and they should be. Sheesh, if life’s curveballs are just going to pass you by while you strike out without any re-evaluation of your swing then I’m not sure I understand you. I’m a big fan of saying that the unlived life is not worth examining. However how is life being lived either if nothing ever forces you to re-examine yourself? I’m honestly unsure how anyone could avoid “maladjustment” all life long. If they do are they lucky or to be pitied?

Still if the primary uncertainty of how anything can be known is an unsolvable paradox what good can looking at this question do? After a brief spell wandering around in a horse hair shirt with Nietzche in our back pocket won’t we eventually return to the valerian and television anyway? I think that makes the mistake of thinking that we are actually looking for a specific answer whereas what we need is just an honest way to live. The philosopher is trying to hold the universe together not aesthetically but so as to function in it.

These are a few principles I’ve gained from my own journey. That’s an ongoing journey by the way. They may not satisfy you but I think they have potential to guide me for the rest of my life. I don’t think you could call them answers, certainly not to the original question. They allow me to function.

Firstly I have accepted that we have to make a radical choice or leap of faith at our initial point. We can develop our intuition, study the data, choose to follow experienced counsel or a combination of the above but only after we have made some poorly founded choice about what is real and what is not. That choice might alienate us from our peers or even our family though it will probably connect us to other people too. That’s painful especially because we don’t have a casual basis for that very initial decision. We can't convince others to join us. We only have a projected hope.

Secondly it’s doesn’t feel like a choice. It feels more like you’re holding your guts in until you make your decision and then when you do your innards just come rolling out as if from a gaping belly wound. Gross, I know but it is gross. It’s your stink. It’s messy and it’s very mortal. There is potentially no stuffing it back in.  It’s that dualism of a conscious choice and just being yourself for the first time that is coming together here. Yet our knees ought to knock with fear that it’s the stupidest thing we’ve done too because we can get that feeling as easily as we are sentimental.

Thirdly our decision is not really about what is true but about what is important to us. We ultimately answer “How can we know?” with “Why do we want to know?”; “Do we want to be happy? Do we want to fit in? Do we want to never be frightened?” We have to get down to what is our search for knowledge for. If we want to avoid sensory harm (like the pain of a pylon in the head) then sensory input (like looking out for pylons as we drive) is likely the key. If we want pleasure, or justice or connectedness then we will need more awareness of those aspects of ourselves and life. What are our goals?

Fourthly nobody else can force our hand to touch the cracks in space and time. We have to reach forward of our own accord. Definitely no-one else can go mad and get sane for us. There’s some shared characteristics but also some unique ones when a person gets unmade. More importantly any resilience to my outcome has required taking personal responsibility for it. I would be wary of someone who says they can do it for us.

Finally though, other people are not useless to our questioning at all. Friends and family can anchor us to the mundane with love. I can’t tell each of you what will come of your embrace of the cracks but I can advise long walks in dry socks and against too much drugs. Remember the Doctor has companions. They have lives and families and gardens and shopping bills in one dimension and one town on earth. Don’t ever get so haughty in your big ideas and dangerous self exploration that you doubt their importance to you.

I'm a big Rory fan by the way.