4/06/2009

What happened to me?

It occurs to me that I should try to explain to people the course that events have taken in my life, now that I think I have finally understood them.

For a brief period--beginning at the end of January and ending only a few weeks ago--I interpreted my experiences superstitiously. I made claims to the effect that I could be a prophet or even God. There's no point in hiding the fact that I made these statements, because there's no point in hiding that I believed them at the time. I no longer believe them now, but once I explain to you what has happened, you might see why I did get so superstitious for a while.

For as long as I can remember--prior to 2009--I had been unhappy. Occasionally, I would have good periods, sometimes lasting for several months. Even when I was happy, though, I was still deeply conflicted with myself. I didn't know what I wanted, although the one thing that I was able to sustain an interest in, eventually led me to grow.

The last 10 years or so of my life have been devoted to studying Western philosophy. The approach I generally take is to be as charitable and sympathetic to an author as I possibly can be. I've assumed that since these books have lasted the test of time--since smart people in every generation seem to find them valuable--then they must be worth studying. I also thought that, to the extent that I failed to understand them, I was at fault, rather than the author.

After many years of intense study, I started reading philosophy in this way consistently. It occurred to me that philosophers are just individuals gifted with the means and opportunity to systematize and articulate their worldviews. But everyone has a worldview, even if they don't have the luxury of being able to detail and defend it.

I had been reading Leibniz, Spinoza, and Descartes for a paper I was working on, along with Hume for a seminar I was sitting in on. All of a sudden, something clicked, and I think I was more perfectly able to see things from each perspective. My ideas of Leibniz, Spinoza, Descartes, Hume and other philosophers I have studied, were more closely able to match the ideas that these thinkers themselves had, because I was able to put myself in their perspectives.

It took me a while to realize it, but I didn't need to limit myself to doing this to dead philosophers or to the small number of people I hung out with primarily because they also revered this particular group of deceased European dudes. I realized I could do the same thing for other living, breathing human beings.

Once I started to understand the world from other perspectives, I began to see how everything (so long as it is balanced and healthy) ultimately works towards its own good and to the good of those things around it. Some parts of the world, however, are a threat to other parts of the world and ultimately to themselves. We need to isolate and correct these problems, but to do so in as nonviolent and noncoercive a fashion as possible.

In any case, it's difficult to include all the various ideas that ran through my head, but the important and noticeable thing is that my temperament radically changed. I went from being a pessimistic, misanthropic, nihilistic atheist into an optimistic, philanthropic believer who now sees great beauty and significance in almost every part of the world. (I'm still learning to appreciate some parts of it.)

I saw the intimate connection between my previous worldview (that the universe was composed simply of unintelligent forces that happened to have produced complexity through evolution, but in a really haphazard way) and my state of mind (depression and anxiety). The problem was, though, that I had to satisfy two things in order for me to take a more optimistic view of the world: my reason and my experience.

In a sense, these were the only two parts of myself that I really paid attention to, for the better part of a decade. My reason was of course primary, as one would expect with an aspiring philosopher. However, I was fortunate, because my dissatisfaction with my experience led me in the directions I now realize that I needed to go in. I happened into the study of the emotions, and even though I tended to think of my own emotions as arbitrary and irrational, I now see how they were designed to motivate me to do certain things.

I believe now that the world has an intelligent designer, a perfect designer, "God" if you want to call it that. Because I believe this now, I have learned to trust my judgment. If God is perfect, then I am perfect too. Not simply as I am now, but as I was and as I will become.

The question for me was, how could this world possibly be perfect? Especially now, what with global warming, seemingly insoluble ethnic and religious conflict, and the recent economic crisis? (And, for those more astronomically-inclined, what about entropy?) This set of concerns is often grouped under the heading "the problem of evil".

I thought about it in the following way: If God is perfect (i.e., all-knowing, all-powerful, and all-good), then God would only create the best of all possible worlds. (This is something I take from Leibniz, of course.) God would be able to see which world is best, and then choose that world. I did not believe this to be the best of all possible worlds--not by a long shot--and so while I allowed for the possibility of an intelligent creator, I did not allow for the possibility of a "perfect" one, one that would actually be worthy of worship. In fact, it occurred to me, a perfect creator would not make unnecessary divisions in its creation, that all apparent evils would ultimately turn out to be goods.

I started to see evolution and intelligent design as two perspectives on the same thing. Now, if evolution were purely a product of unintelligent forces, it would be unlikely to produce anything remarkable. It may produce beings like us--that is now believable, the result of the natural processes of biological evolution--but if it produces something more than just unlikely (because given enough time and space, all sorts of unlikely things occur) but so utterly improbable that it would be ridiculous to believe it the product of chance alone.

For me, the improbable event was my elevation into sustained happiness. I used to hate life (only slightly less than I hated the prospect of death), but now I am in love with it. I used to care only about myself; now I find that my greatest happiness comes in making other people happy.

I might be wrong about God--I'll be the first to admit that, even though I no longer have the doubts I once did. But the absence of subjective doubt is not equivalent to certain truth. We should all recognize this. I will try to convince you, but I recognize that I may fail.

I am going to try to write a book. In it, I will try to share this secret I have stumbled upon. I'm going to title it "Omnilibertarianism". I have to write my dissertation first, but I may adapt the whole thing, or parts of it to expedite the publishing process. I anticipate that this book will be published by the beginning of 2012, give or take a year.

My only desire right now is to make the world a better place, and to do so only by using the following tools: my empathy for others and my persuasive abilities. If I convince you, and you decide that you want the same thing I want, then I'll also want your help in trying to make the world happier and more free. But I will never ask someone to do something unless they willingly and knowingly consent to it.

It will be harder to change the world this way, but I think we all know deep down that it's the right way to proceed. We need to start respecting the free will or free choice of other persons, and not try to use violence or deception to influence their behavior. I will try to be as transparent as possible, but I will let you know that I may not always reveal everything that I believe. (There's no point in telling somebody something if there's no chance that they'll believe it.)

Thus, I am going to try to be rhetorically persuasive. But I will be open to answering any objections or counterarguments that are made in good faith, as soon as time permits. I recognize that to the extent that I have failed to persuade someone, my argument is inadequate. It's probably impossible to convince everyone, but I'll convince as many as I'm able.

Another reason I choose honesty and non-violence as operating principles is this: While these kinds of methods are less effective in the short-term, they are more effective in the long run. I am convinced that enlightened self-interest and altruism are one and the same. I adopt these principles because I judge them to be both morally right and to be the only genuinely effective means for changing the world.

Anytime you try to force the world to change in a way it's not amenable to, it will fight back. This is what happens when we use violence to impose our will, or deception, or any other means that does not respect that part of the world for what it is. Each part of the world is different, and each has its proper place; the trick is finding the proper place for each thing, the ideal conditions under which it can flourish and grow.

Right now, humanity is a huge danger to itself. We now have the power to destroy ourselves completely, and it seems like only good fortune has prevented us from doing so already. I would love to see a world in which there were no weapons, but I recognize also that they do have some necessary functions. Weapons of mass destruction, however, seem to me to have no purpose but to destroy human lives, or to influence people's behavior by the threat of destruction. There are far better ways to influence people than by threat of destruction, so I think that nuclear weapons and other WMDs should have no place in this world. They should all be safely disassembled. The knowledge of how to make them will remain, but it will be harder for a person or group to make one if they have to do it from scratch.

I want humanity to stop playing zero-sum games that turn the world's people into winners and losers. Democracy is supposed to be premised on equality and freedom, and this is ultimately at odds with the market and the other competitive institutions that currently govern much of human conduct. Markets are useful tools, as is currency, and other tools that come with capitalism. However, to the extent that capitalism does not actually produce fair and just outcomes, it fails us.

Let's leave markets in place, but regulate them so that their short-term self-interest is compatible with long-term common goods. To allow greed to be, unchecked, the operating principle of our society is to invite catastrophe. All things function well in their own sphere, but want to extend beyond it to places where they may not function so well. Capitalism has gotten out of control. It is destroying us, so we need to modify it, to regulate it properly.

***

So, to summarize: I had something analogous to a series of religious experiences, and now I think I have found a way to achieve, at least for myself but also possibly for others, sustainable human happiness. (This is so remarkable an event, that you might see why I gave it a religious interpretation.) I want to use my life now to persuade people of this, but never to resort to violence or deception. I'm happy to accept help from any other people who have judged for themselves that this is the right thing to do. I have no intention of becoming a cult leader, so I desire no blind devotion. I expect to be held to the same standards as anyone else when I make my arguments.

(A final note: I have not yet read Eckart Tolle's work, but I know a similar experience happened to him. In fact, I think it has happened to many people throughout history, but it happens more and more as history progresses, if for no other reason than the fact that there are more people around today then there were thousands of years ago.)

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