Wednesday, August 5, 2020

What’s at the End of the Rabbit Hole?

This is the answer to all life’s questions and the meaning of life. You took the red pill and thought to yourself, maybe actors aren’t the moral arbiters or the shaman of our time. But that’s the start. What is there at the end of the rabbit hole, the very end of that long, winding, and darkened road. Let’s say at the end of everything there is a room toward the back with a wall of black static, or a well that echoes infinitely, where you will never hear your coin drop nor have its wish come true. It’s an abyss where as Frederick Nietzsche stated, if you gaze into it long enough it will gaze back into you.

You have some trepidation about approaching the void, touching it, putting on the godhead and experiencing its infinite wisdom. Is it a black hole, is it enlightenment, do you become God herself? Philosophically, it must exist... an answer.

You wondered how it all began.
“Maybe it always was.”
You ask the purpose.
“There isn’t one.”
You ask the meaning.
“But that’s a matter of perception and you are to ascribe your own.”
Is it God?
“No, nor would it matter.”
Then why?
“Why not.”
“So what should I do?” you think.

You go back to the best words ever written: “I think, therefore I am.” These are the words that define consciousness. It’s how you are aware you’re alive. It’s how you were able to contemplate your own existence. And what better way to contemplate your existence than to consider it in light of its opposite. Life is brought into contrast by its opposite of death. The only question philosophers Albert Camus and Alan Watts believed important to ask is whether one should live or not live. Or as an oversimplification of Camus puts it, the choice between suicide and having a cup of coffee. This is the ground floor of the nature of reality. Those reading this are enjoying their existential cup of coffee. If life is a good thing, you’re healthy enough to enjoy contemplating it. If it’s a bad thing, you’re deranged and distracted enough to read these words instead of a more noble pursuit like jumping off your local water tower.


So you’re alive. You currently inclined to live and to stay alive for the immediate future. Not only that, as we have established, you are conscious. Lucky you. Then the next question you might have is how to live. But what causes consciousness to operate. That relates to why you are. That brings up the question of free will. Are your actions your own or are they predetermined? Nature and nurture come to mind first. Biological nature is deterministic to some degree. If you have blue eyes, or red hair, or black skin, or you’re 5’11”. Genetic predisposition to certain behaviors have been shown to exist. You can inherit behavioral modifiers such as sleeping habits, addictive behavior, or mental illness. And maybe this makes sense. We often separate body and mind. But the mind is the brain, a physical part of the body to be formed through genetic happenings like the rest of you, and if your parents have some defect perhaps that is encoded within you through the replication involved in biological reproduction. If this is a hard sell, consider someone with a fear of heights or snakes. The nerves of those instincts are predetermined and point to a wide implication of genetic influence over behavior. The other aspect of who you become is nurture, where you are a product of your environment. So far as we know, we are born without choosing our environment, our parents or lack thereof, or our surroundings. Our experiences are very much shaped by all the people around us and the inventions and actions of people the world over. The free will question may never be answered definitively, but keeping this perspective on nature and nurture in mind, we can deduce our actions are in the least highly influenced by our environment and our genetics.

What I’m trying to say is if you were born into an Aboriginal tribe in Australia, it seems very unlikely you would end up in a life trajectory that closely resembled that of Amanda Bynes, and that’s probably a good thing. If you were raised by militants to be a child soldier from birth and taught all the world’s problems were because of a particular race of people, it seems to reason that sort of conditioning is not easily overcome. Genetics and the influence of other people hold a big part in how someone sees the world. You may see yourself as individualistic, and believe even that in same position as a child you would think for yourself, put down the gun, and reject evil. But this would assume figuring how to live wouldn’t be predicated on the foremost instinct which is survival. This comes before you can even have that cup of coffee and contemplate the validity of life at your school’s Think For Yourself workshop. You must ensure your survival, and here you are a young child soldier holding a Kalashnikov rifle and all you know are your elders were smart enough to survive thus far, taught you to apply Band-Aids, and now they’re telling you that the Jews are a huge existential threat. Now if you kept that same child in a single room from birth and only showed him Harry Potter films and told him they were documentaries, it wouldn’t be unreasonable for him to believe wizards exist. And this applies to people’s belief in gods, absurd conspiracies, or generally anything where evidence is absent. Sometimes misguided beliefs have dire consequences. This implicates it’s counterproductive and wrong to blame the wrong. This isn’t to say doing wrong should be absolved, rather understood.

“Everything people talk about with regard to magic is absolutely true, as long as you understand it is happening inside people’s minds.”
Alan Moore


The other driving force in the how people live is their basic necessities. That is simple. Food, water, sleep, and safety. The rest are conveniences. But as a conscious person, are there social and mental needs? You don’t need to reproduce to live. You don’t need socialization to exist. You don’t even need to be mentally sound to be alive if you are in safe circumstances... such as a mental asylum. From the nurture perspective, infants are said to die without physical nourishment, though I’m not sure who would conduct such an experiment. After their infancy humans are capable of being emotionally self-sufficient, although stressors of social isolation certainly have a negative impact without some proper form of stimulation. There is also the questions of how well humans could survive alone without the comforts of human invention and entertainment, as its easier to pass the time with electricity, books, and music. Safety could mean shelter or clothing to protect from the elements, what keeps your body functioning, or anything that would impede your ability to get fed. Still, it raises an important question. As a mentally sound, physically healthy, conscious person on an infinite timeline, in a safe, stresser-free environment, with limitless food, water, and sleep, what would be the motive to do anything after breakfast? After accounting for the obligations and social relations unique to your life, the only answer is boredom. That is the burden of the conscious mind. The baseline for its alleviation is thought. That is the same need for stimulation spoken of before. Maybe you wake up in the morning and you don’t yet have thirst or hunger, or maybe you do: “I am awake. I think, therefore I am. Should I kill myself or have a cup of coffee?” Boredom is the one disease there is no cure for. It is only placated and sustained in the long-term by novelty. It wants an infinite wave of things to see, sense, hear, taste, smell, consider, or otherwise experience. I believe the motivator of boredom is another key to understanding human behavior.

Sigmund Freud coined the pleasure principle which generally described people as moving toward pleasure and away from pain. It’s easy to think of counter-examples when you consider why people trek Everest or suspend their bodies from piercing hooks. But this is too can be described and dismissed by a less precise and understood pain known as psychic pain. Most people are familiar with the many types of psychic pain. There’s sadness, anger, frustration, humiliation. There’s a pain in anxiety and feelings of futility. There’s a pain of not knowing and even a pain in knowing. The person at the foot of the mountain may be driven by a lack of accomplishment. The person pierced by hooks may be driven to overcome their fear of physical pain. Boredom is the ever-present and most benign psychic pain. Again it’s alleviated only by thought, or distraction, or that other survival essential: the mystery that is sleep. A more extreme form might be the kind which drives a person to a career of physically-risky deadly stunts over a more safe but potentially more psychically distressing dead-end job.

Now that the essentials of survival have been described, what could go wrong and how they interplay needs to be examined, because those factors can influence how you live. Your need to eat can be challenged by scarcity of animals or crops. Your need to drink is predicated on access to fresh water. Both can lead to difficulties if you are competing for food or water with other people or tribes. You can guess your safety is going to be compromised, which it is already by your need for shelter and clothing to protect you from the elements. Even doing nothing can challenge your physical health by putting it into a state of entropy. You need a sound mind to navigate this to avoid injury or illness and ensure your survival. You have a lot of work cut out for you often times, depending on how you fare in the birth lottery, before you even have the privilege of the great luxury of thought that is as boredom. So imagine you are in a pre-civilized environment where food is scarce, and the locations for freshwater are rare and contested by others, with volatile elements that trade between frigid cold and smoldering heat, where the threat of death looms from other people, wild animals, and invisible infectious disease. How you behave under these conditions may be affected. In light of survival in some situations, notions of good or evil and right and wrong may become secondary or superfluous considerations. Of course in Western societies, today the equivalent might be a retail stampede on Black Friday where two people barely removed genetically from bonobos fight over a discounted coffeemaker. The reality of the scarcity is different, the survival instinct is the same.

It seems many people consider themselves distinct from cavemen and the animals they’re ancestors of. Perhaps at our best we are comparatively as gods in what we can accomplish. We have people who can create the general theory of relativity and then we have people who marry their cousins. To my point, Einstein did both. We elevate ourselves above animals for inventions like nuclear energy with the potential to aid and sustain life, while ignoring the dangerous by-products of this supposed progress like nuclear weapons that threaten to end all life. We champion modern lives of separation, relative containment, social sterility, and mental illness over the tried and tested archetypal environments of tightly-knit, self-sufficient communities. We take pride in dominion over the animal kingdom when we don’t have dominion over ourselves. We’re the only animal species so far threatening the planet’s habitability through the misuse of chemical elements or the destruction of the atmosphere. And that’s not a stance on either nuclear weaponry nor climate change, rather a critique of our meddling and experimentation in those fields when the growth in our ability to reason is far outweighed by our growth in increasingly unwieldy technology.

“The real problem of humanity is the following: we have Paleolithic emotions, medieval institutions, and god-like technology.”
Edward O. Wilson


Again under the presumption of free will, your behavior is further curtailed by social pressures and customs. Your rights end where another’s begin. This could range from personal harm to the view of a skyline from your patio window. They are cultivated by legal ramifications. What you say or do can get you fired and hence cost you the ability to provide you and your dependents with basic necessities. This is all being said in service of the idea that if free will exists, at best, it has enormous caveats. Your behavior is not wholly your own. Even the freest man is subject to circumstances beyond his control. The hobbies and interests you hold generally are born of things that came before: from cars to careers, to the language and oil paints you use to express your rugged individualism.

The most essential determining factor in how people live can be reduced to binary. What’s being alluded to is choices. You can weigh the ins-and-outs of choices indefinitely, and sometimes you are chosen for by inaction. Decisions are generally brought on by the aforementioned pleasure principle and how it relates to a personal cost-benefit analysis. Many assume morality plays a big role in the decision-making process. This sounds true enough. But there’s more to consider here. Certainly there are circumstances which would lead a person to do things immoral because of considerations out of their control. A simple example is a lack of education. If you lack an education you might connect dots and force correlations that don’t fit, as a stopgap measure may be preferable to nothing. It could be something as simple as not trusting the powerful, or as complex as believing in a god-like entity who is greater than yourself. This missing, incomplete, or completely misguided information could lead to wrong or immoral decisions.

A man who procrastinates in his choosing will inevitably have his choice made for him by circumstance.
Hunter S. Thompson

But why would someone have an inclination toward good, anyway? Perhaps your inclination is the result of living in a bubble. You were raised in a healthy society by loving parents and you found people to be generally agreeable and kind and trustworthy, so your environment caused you to respond in a way that was reciprocal and mutually rewarding. Now imagine you are the child soldier born into a war-torn country, with the menace of invisible drones raining destruction, where survival is day-to-day, and theft, deceit, animosity and violence are the generally accepted forms of social exchange. If you experience predominantly pain and despair, to you the idea of generosity and morality may seem like a foreign concept or a sick joke. This is the inverse view of the way of the cooperative world, where people of peace are weak victims ready for the taking, and anyone kind is naive, gullible, and delusional. In the societies that operate this way misbehavior is good behavior, and it is not reprimanded but rewarded.

There seems to be a misguided notion of an innate human propensity to love or do good, where in a world without scarcity of survival mechanisms there is no motive for conflict. I would argue this would still not be the case, as conflict would occur for the sake of novelty if nothing else. People get along in large part as a function of self-preservation. If you rock the boat, you yourself might get knocked overboard. Self-preservation is often conflated with some innate camaraderie among men. It is a function of survival and safety. There are certainly clear distinctions between what is moral and what is immoral and how those words are taken and examined. What is yet to be seen is whether this matters. As a person raised in a loving environment and kind society, with enough free time to contemplate the grand implications of my actions, immoral behavior is revolting. Had I been raised in a society where human life was not valued however, or brainwashed by extremists, I could see myself as the nihilistic child soldier shooting indiscriminately and dispassionately. Imagine going up to the child who has suffered the loss of family and friends, who has seen unspeakable horror and the destruction of his community, who has been taught to hate “the other” since as long as he could comprehend, where no kind of future exists, and saying, “Just do good and good things will come.” It sounds almost sadistic. Hope and good are not part of vocabulary of the dispossessed. For some who have lived a horrible reality most couldn’t imagine, physically and psychically, who’s to say rehabilitation is even possible.

Of course there’s a massive distinction between right and wrong. Right means to end wrongs. The problem occurs in defining what is right and what is wrong. One could argue, all life invariably leads to suffering, and therefore the moral and just thing to do is to end it and promote the destruction of all life by any means necessary. It’s probable humankind inevitably finds its way to another genocide, famine, or ecological ruin. Is that worth it so you can scroll YouTube comments and listen to the Taylor Swift in the interim? Possibly, but who’s to say. Maybe the right thing is to listen to those television shows we love so much and walk hand-in-hand into one final midnight. Who’s to say consciousness isn’t a needless nuisance with no inherent meaning, an interruption to the comparative slumber and guaranteed peace of nothingness. Now this is taking it dark turn, but you read the title. This is merely the product of excessive thought and an examination of life in contrast to death, and a contemplation of the potential rational conclusions. It may not be pretty to modern and sophisticated sensibilities. As Albert Camus said, “It is always easy to be logical. It is almost impossible to be logical to the bitter end.” To not acknowledge the human desire for the end of all things may be the delusional privilege of the fraction of society who dance on the platform the rest of society maintains and carries, if it exists at all.

What do you do when you’ve thought enough and you find yourself at the end of the abyss, where you find a well and wish your hopes and dreams upon it and it whispers nothing in return? You can’t avoid nature. You can’t avoid nurture. Free will as we know it is dubious at best. All the immoral people you disagree with are all products of circumstances out of their control. Yes, even Karen. Well, you should do good whatever the total sum of your upbringing and life experience have bestowed on you. My answer is more dark, or perhaps more forgiving. I believe people collectively decide. If people want war, let them have war. How can the combined total collective life experience of the earth be wrong? How could any one person have the audacity to hold another person’s life experience as invalid? But this applies to every individual and the inverse is also fair. This applies to the proportionate or disproportionate response your actions inspire. If people want peace, let there be peace. All one can do is push society not in the right direction, but in that direction your life experience has led you to believe is most acceptable to you and your personal sense of what’s just, equitable, or simply entertaining. If the moral majority is a silent and inactive majority, unwilling to act in their own interest for social, financial, or safety fears, their effective output remains inline and favorable to their opposition. Some believe their being on “the right side of history” is so self-evident, it’s self-fulfilling and does not require their skin in the game.


The people who choose coffee over suicide seem to often wonder out loud how to be about their person. They may aim to be their best selves. I’m reminded of the myth of Sisyphus, more importantly its interpretation by Camus, and the only solution sounds fatalistic. You don’t try too hard and fight the fates life bestowed upon you, and find pleasure through scorn if fate has forsaken you. The fate of Sisyphus was being sentenced to the endless repetition of pushing a boulder up a hill. It echoes of daily life, its basic, simple needs, left with the freedom of thought and freedom from boredom as we cope with our daily burden. Achieving contentment through hell is more a success than inhabiting heaven itself. To quote directly, “The higher fidelity that negates the gods and raises rocks.” Because if Elon Musk is a genius, why doesn’t he realize all things are ultimately futile and take the enlightened path of sleeping all day? If we all become capable of space travel it will be awe-inspiring, but inevitably it wouldn’t be impressive anymore, just like airplanes don’t much impress anyone now as they’ve always been around and they’re omnipresent. Once we crossed the ocean, we wanted outerspace, when we conquer outerspace, we’ll want to see outer-outerspace. Everything finds an equilibrium. Again, Camus, “One always finds one’s burden again.”

In civil societies those who gravely misbehave are put into prisons. Ideally, they’re not for punishment, rather to impede their antisocial behavior so people are safe to pursue their pleasure-seeking lives unhindered. The health of a society might be most well-judged by how it treats its criminals. People put into solitary confinement are said to lose their minds. But if you lose your mind in solitary confinement, that sounds like a mind that is working properly. You would be insane to behave normal in such a situation. This scenario seems to point out in stark contrast the situational and reflexive nature of the mind. In a sick society, the sane are sick, and in what’s broken there’s no frame of reference for what’s fixed.

“It is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society.”
Jiddu Krishnamurti

Another thing that said about prison is inmates get used to it. If change is possible, normality is malleable. As people fluctuate between states they can reach what is a “new normal.” It seems many believe some achievement can be obtained from which the rest of their life will be satisfaction. This is false. And in this sense, heaven is another prison you get used to. How many harps can you listen to before you need a second and a third, or to reinvent the harp itself? What’s the best buffet in heaven? How much ecstasy is too much? Is it still heaven if I can’t stand the color of my neighbor’s cloud? There would be no reason to think, do or feel in a permanent state of complete satisfaction. Part of what sustains joy is the endless pursuit. There’s always a new want. A new milestone. High-minded individuals at their most ambitious claim to want to explore the stars. When all the planets are inhabited and the stars explored, there will be a new far-reaching set of things to know and learn. The most truly remarkable thing we could find as the result of discovery might also be the most unfortunate, an end.

This all plays into the dynamics of social behavior. There is a pattern. Author John Gray believes Western Civilization is heavily predicated by the liberal philosophies of Socrates and Plato, that put forth a faith that progress will lead to some inevitable virtuous end. He correctly identifies the myth of progress. Perhaps he understands things don’t progress so much as they transform, and the conception of what’s “better” always has trade-offs and is subjective and opaque. Intelligence and wisdom is framed around rationality. But how do you gauge what is the intelligent action to take in a reality where rationality and its counterpart of purpose are thin? For example, even if one wholly disavows religious belief, it could still be rationally understood and justified as a meditation, a resignation to the unknowable, without the delusion of scientific progress that eventually some distinctive answer will be found.

It can’t be denied though that the interplay between what’s rational and what isn’t creates odd conviction in people. It’s understood many want what they can’t have. What you can’t have has intrigue and value. What you know you can have generally doesn’t have the satisfaction of anticipation. It speaks to the satisfaction of struggle and the potency of desire. It speaks to an indifference to destinations, where instead of means to an end, there’s more value in the means. “The pursuit of happiness” is an important phrase because it implies there is no end, and that happiness is in the pursuit. That abstract idea of happiness could be nothing more than bearing witness between feelings of hope and despair, that even an endless bout of gains itself could invariably become unsatisfactory in its grey repetition and lead to a limiting mental entropy.

In other words, opposing ideas can both be right. It certainly is apparent in irony, which when done right appears to evoke the richest response in the human spirit. Progress is a myth because it implies a singular destination we are to arrive at, because the narrative fallacy is simpler to understand, our imagined destinies and lives become a story instead of seeing the world as a system of processes. For what purpose for your life could there be, brought on by your own belief or by God, that wouldn’t be completely anti-climatic?

What to do

It always returns to existence and non-existence, coffee and suicide. Even coffee is bitter. When weighing the scales how does not one see the futility and give in to the toxic allure of pessimism and the nihilism? Some suggest that the proper way to be about the world is to find what you enjoy, become addicted, immerse yourself totally. To the extent one can shape an honest narrative to life, a healthy one might be to see it as a playground of experience. If you have a life of cynicism with a laser focus on the inevitability of loss, and the death and destruction that comes with it, this position is no less valid. It exists. Yet all true nihilists are dead. To continue to exist itself justifies life’s usefulness. The error many make is confusing a purpose to life with a great purpose to life. The latter doesn’t exist. But having a meaning to existence is as simple as knowing one person or thing that still has meaning to you.

Yet all the meaning in the world doesn’t erase the cognizance of the dichotomy between the appreciation of even the mundane aspects of life and accepting of the irrationality and ultimate futility of a continued existence. The ebb and flow between what is depressive and mania describe the polarities in bipolar disorder. Their likely isn’t a narrative or a secret to a fulfilling life. Yet if you understand the polarities you may be more likely to approach it from a place of peace. By the same token, the true use of wisdom and rationality could be a full and complete embrace of the irrational. It’s easy to call the schizophrenic shaman taking drugs in a South America jungle “crazy,” but there’s a chance he uses the same term to describe an insurance salesman in Iowa who spends 40 years of his life filing claims.

In addition to human duality, the companion piece for understanding is the arguably grotesque notion of tolerance. Good and evil, love and hate, are admittedly words with baggage and of a supernatural quality. While fair use for expression, they don’t take into account what is, if not a lack of free will, the completely impressionable nature of human beings and the permanency of their genetics. This includes an objective understanding of unwelcome behaviors, as well as the responses to them which might include incarceration or a disproportionate retaliation. People isolate those who would do evil unto them or others they care about, ideally dispassionately. This is not a suggestion, this is what humans do under government. We are tolerant of criminal behavior, in that we have made no preemptive measures to stop it and are forced to accept it. Vengeance is always an option, but that starts a tit-for-tat retribution cycle that only exacerbates, continues, and amplifies harm. It may be helpful to look at all people the same way, with tolerance, understanding their misbehavior in proper context, and meeting it with an aim of justice instead of hostility.

“If we could read the secret history of our enemies, we should find in each man’s life sorrow and suffering enough to disarm all hostility.”
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

The minds darkest recesses are illuminated by the terrifying and seldom-used willingness to question. Many go on about freedom and yet refuse to exercise it in the one place it’s possible: their own minds. Outside, it’s akin to a current, the movement convincing us our actions are useful and unique, but at most contributing to a general sway. If life can be ground to the binary of black and white, people should be understood for their decisions without ceding consequence, whether it’s considered progressive or regressive, mean or kind, whether they are victims of coffee or suicide. In death, one should agree it’s paramount the individual has final say in the sum result of their psychic and physical pain. In life, those with a perceived net-benefit, awareness involves the recognition of duality and extreme contrast, understanding this balancing act is the most fulfilling.

In meaning, whether your inclination is a religious one or not, its hard not to argue religious stories and philosophy as well as myths at the very least began in the spirit of scientific discovery, ways to understand and explain the world and our surroundings. In a world where the more progressive nations are increasingly secular, there is increased confusion and cognitive dissonance. Some would chose to disavow society’s building blocks for what they’ve gotten wrong, or how they’ve decayed, instead of the right impulse, which in most cases is to build upon and reform as needed. But this is all under the pretense that the collective wants what it says it wants. What we truly want is what we stand for with enough tenacity to make into reality, or what we accept through indifference and passivity. What we ultimately decide will be forgiven, forgotten, celebrated, or hated all the same. Although progress is myth, myths have guided us before, and it is most entertaining route thus far.

Myths are comforting, but if you can afford it, in navigating the rabbit hole, the abyss, the pit of self, the heart of darkness, there comes a visceral, renewed appreciation. Its the difference between taking comfort from a system versus knowing how a system works and how to repair it. There is peace even through terror if you understand its machinations. For those who take interest in life, they are served best riding the wave between hope and despair, the rational and irrational. Even a scientifically-inclined mind won’t have a fully crystallized picture of reality without too equal parts engagement and deference to the absurd.

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