Saturday, 18 October 2014

We are alone

In his intermittent attempts to be sceptical, Rene Descartes wrote “je pense, donc je suis” and, later, “ergo cogito sum” – or, in English, “I think, therefore I am”.  Much later, Thomas Nagel waxed lyrical on the difficulties associated with knowing what it is to be a bat.

A fusion of these two concepts may bring us to the conclusion that while we may be, precisely what we are being is not necessarily quite so clear.  Moreover, the ramification of Descartes declaration is not so much that we know that we exist because we can think, but that we cannot know that others exist, because we have no first-hand experience of their thinking – and, per Nagel, we cannot know what it is like to be another person thinking.

Therefore, I suggest, we are all of us totally, inescapably, irrevocably alone.  Inside our heads we experience no thoughts but our own.  The thoughts of others (if indeed they exist) are not, and will never be, accessible.  We most certainly can interact with other beings that appear (at least on the surface) to be similar to us and it seems reasonable to assume that these other beings have minds that are similar to our own, but we will never truly experience those minds.

If there is ever a foundational argument that firmly grounds “individualism”, then surely this is it.  Each of us, in our inescapable isolation, can only act as an individual.  We cannot act as a collective, even if our individual actions may contribute to a collective.  Any motivation to act in the best interests of others ultimately comes back to a response to our own personal considerations of the pros and cons associated with such action.  We may occasionally act in the interests of others and to the detriment of our own, but we never do so with our entire being screaming at us that we don’t want, at any level, to act in such a fashion.  (See Physical Survival and Legacy Survival.)

The argument for “individualism” has a home-team advantage as well, in that all individuals, acting and thinking as individuals, are going to have some level of native bias towards themselves, as individuals.  A universal declaration that the individual’s rights and strivings are to be held in higher regard than the rights and strivings of any collective is going to encounter far less resistance than any attempt to subsume the individual into some vague grouping.

Or does it?

Humans are social animals.  While certain individuals might survive into old age as hermits, the species relies on social groupings in which pair-bonding and child-raising take place.  Therefore, there is an adaptive tendency among humans to consider themselves as part of a social group, irrespective of whether or not they can experience, directly, the minds of others in that social group.  Each individual can, however, contribute to a mutual experience of community and feel some “ownership” of that community.

It could be argued that this need to interact with other humans is “hardwired” and there is some neurological and sociological support for this notion, for example the (human) face recognition ability that we all have and the suffering that follows from social isolation.

Little wonder, therefore, that when a society virtually turns its back on itself (as a community) and wholehearted, uncritically embraces extreme forms “individualism”, there are going to be consequences.

There are other factors, however.  The populations of the West are, without exception, ageing populations (albeit Europe is ageing far more quickly than the US) and as age increases sociability decreases.  Think for a moment, if you are fortunate to have progressed past your 20s, how socially active you and your peers were in your late teens and early 20s.  Now compare that to the social activity of the average 40 or 50 year old.

Absent the continual interactions of communities based on interdependence, the friendships of our youth fade away and our fixation on “individualism” means that new friendships, should we make them, are less close, less intimate and, ultimately, less rewarding so we may become increasingly less motivated to pursue new friendships.

Perhaps the problem that Lokee has recently highlighted is that this trend has accelerated.  People are becoming less truly social earlier in life.  Social anxiety appears to be on the rise although this may be due to an increased willingness to talk about and address the problem.  Unfortunately, when people come to understand that making friends isn’t always going to be as simple as it was when we were children, some will give up on the endeavour entirely.

Another possible factor is the wholesale change in our entertainment habits over the past century or so.  Consider the options available in 1914, although we might ignore those associated with World War 1.  Certainly there were solitary pursuits such as reading and writing, and hobbies such as gardening or model building or various collection activities – for those who had the material wealth to need entertainment.  However, much of what was available as entertainment involved interacting with other people – even if that entailed sitting next to them at a play or concert or at the village green watching some sport or another.

Fast forward to shortly after World War 2 and movie theatres have become far more commonplace.  More importantly television was beginning to appear.  At that time, however, movies were still rare enough that when a new one came out, pretty much anyone who had the economic wherewithal to attend would see it.  Televisions were rare enough, and novel enough, that family and friends would cluster around a single set and would share the experience of viewing a show.  At this time, these entertainments were still community events and the broad sharing of the experience allowed people to feel connected in some sense.

Compare that to today.  The sheer number of movies being released (many directly to digital) means that only certain “blockbusters” and the occasional “movie as social phenomena” truly qualify as community events.  And that’s only if people choose to watch these movies, given that there are so many other options available: multiple television channels (cable and free-to-air), internet cat videos, philosophical flame session on reddit and/or slothing around in a haze induced by your synthetic drug of choice (or simple alcohol for the purists among us).  This bewildering array means that the chances that you and your neighbour share a substantially common experience of life become vanishingly thin.

This in turn means that our ability to simulate, with any fidelity, what is going on in the minds of those living around us is severely diminished and we become increasingly disconnected from each other.  So, although we might share some of our loneliness on little islands of shared culture with our nearest friends and families, we are increasingly alone.

What should we do about it?  If I understand Lokee correctly, reading between the lines a little, one option is to jettison a toxic devotion to “individualism” that acts as a demotivation with respect to any attempt to reconnect with others to create some form of community.   We must remember, of course, that if we embark on such an attempt we do so as individuals and that we are completely welcome to seek a meaningful connection with others with our own best interest firmly in mind … for it is not good to be alone, neither for others nor for us.