Monday, March 24, 2008

Sharing our life experience

Today is Easter Sunday, the most important religious feast in Christendom. As a reflection, this can also be a good day to think about secular humanist principles. In the human history, another major secular system in human civilization is the Confucianism. Confucius answered the question of the purpose of life and the responsibility of life by placing each individual in a huge hieratical social network. Thus, the purpose and responsibility of life is to play your role, and play your role well for your position. As I said, the purpose of life in our secular humanist view is to pursue happiness, to live a happy life. This can be called the principle number one of secular humanism. Here, I propose the principle number two of the secular humanism, that is: “the responsibility of life is to experience your life fully and positively, and share your life experience with other fellow human being, and contribute your life experience to the human experience as a whole”. Now, let me explain why we need this principle number two.

If the principle number one is focused on our individual right, our own personal pursue of happiness, then principle number two is more concerned about our role in this society, thus our responsibility of life. In this sense, it resembles the principle of Confucianism. It puts us in the network of a society. Why we need to emphasize our social role? The final goal is to make our individual selves happy.

As we said before, one way to avoid the empty feeling toward death is to merge ourselves into the society, and to share our experience with others, and feel other people’s experience as part of our own, and to consider ourselves as part of the whole human being. The essence of our existence is our experience in this life. The sum and interaction of our individual experiences is the whole human experience. By considering our individual experience as part of the whole, we can anchor our small existence to a bigger one. As a result, we can sense a continuation of life. I know, after I die, the world will still exist, and the whole human experience, in which I am part of it, will still exist. This is much the same as I go to sleep, I know today’s me will disappear, but tomorrow’s me will be there. I thus go to bed with a comforting assurance. By the same token, if we really feel other people’s existence/experience is part of our own, then knowing other people will still be there after we die will make comfort to our heart. This is why we like to make a focus on our connection to the society at large, and to place ourselves in a bigger perspective.

Secondly, we use the word responsibility, instead of individual right (as in the principle number one). This responsibility is much like the responsibility of Confucianism, to play your role well. Why responsibility? This is to fit into our human psychic. Perhaps, as a result of our evolution, we like some kind of clear cut responsibility and task. In practice, that means, if I finished my task, then I am done, and I don’t need to worry about it any more. That gives us a sense of “ought”, and give us a guidance of what to do in life. It also provides a moral basis for what is right, what is wrong. Fulfilling our responsibility is thus “right”, which makes us feel good, certain, solid and sound. Responsibility is defined in relation with other people. It has a social meaning. The principle number one “to pursue happiness” is purely regarding to our private and individual behaviors, while the principle number two “to contribute to the human experience as a whole” deals with our relationship to the society. Again, this is much like Confucianism deals with our individual existence to the society’s existence. Deep in our heart, if we only deal with our own existence and happiness, and if we also know our individual existence is finite (and actually very short), we will have an unsettled feeling. To get rid of such unsettled feeling and to keep absolute individualism, Christian has invented the ever lasting life, and a direct relationship between me and the God. So, even there, I am not alone, there is also a God. Besides, I will exist forever. Thus, if we get rid of these facts (no God, no eternal life), what we should do to settle our uneasy feeling toward our death and finite existence? The answer is to anchor ourselves to the society. This is done in Confucianism. However, we also like to combine this relationship (and responsibility) with our pursue of happiness, thus this relationship becomes: contribute to our individual experience to the whole experience. In order to contribute it in a good way, we should first have a positive and happy experience of our own individual life.

One problem of Confucianism is the over emphasize of a fixed role, and at the end, it becomes a way to suppress individualism and our personal happiness. In many cases, it becomes a conflict (opposition) between our individual happiness and the interest of the whole society. To avoid that, here we emphasize that, the relationship between the individual and the society is a contribution of our individual to the society. The things we contribute is nothing else, but our own life experience. So, in order to have a good contribution, we first need to live a happy life, to satisfy our own individual needs and desires. The only additional task besides the principle number one, is to share our experience with our fellow human being (in that way, you have contributed to the society as a whole). There is no fixed role as in Confucianism. There are many ways to share and contribute. Publishing a book is sharing, talking to other people is sharing, having an intimate relationship with the person you love is also sharing. The only requirement is to open yourself up, to other people, to the society. Don’t be afraid of close relationship with others. This sharing and contribution can be done in an individually pleasant way. In a sense, this desire to share is probably also built in our human nature through evolution. As a society, we should encourage more flexible and intimate relationships, to facilitate this sharing.
Our responsibility is to live well and share that with other people. Living well is relative, based on our individual conditions. As long as we make the best of our situations, that should qualify as living well. Doesn’t matter how long we lived, and whether we are extraordinary during our life, as long as we have lived fully during our finite life, that should be enough. Thus, everyone, regardless of their conditions, can live well, can fulfill their life responsibility, and thus can die peacefully, and happily.

The essence of our existence is our experience, and the experience occurs at this moment, at now. As long as we live well now, and share that with other people, then not only we are worthy of ourselves, we are also worthy of the whole society. We can die peacefully, because our experience has been shared by other people, and they are part of us, and we are part of them.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

The components of love

This is a light topic. I often hear people (especially women) said: now I love that person, or I don’t love him any more. This sounds like to love, or not love is an on or off event, it is a clear cut emotional status. You either love her, or not love her. Our culture also imposes such proposition onto us. But to me, love or not love is a spectrum, with a wide emotional range. To analyze such spectrum will be an interesting endeavor, because it is such an important issue in our everyday life.

My approach is to break down the love into its components. Here, by love I mean the love between man and woman. Why break into components? Well, that is just the standard way of western civilization, analysis means breaking down into components, and study the dynamics of each components. It is much easier to study each individual component than to study the whole. Well, I have not objection to the holistic view of eastern culture. But as the Taosim said: “The Tao is the way, but it cannot be said”. If it really cannot be said, then it is definitely not my business to write about it.

After some careful inspection, it is not difficult to arrive at the following conclusion: the love between man and woman can be broken down into the following three components: (1) the emotional attachment; (2) the emotional affection; (3) sexual attraction. Now, let’s explain and discuss these three components separately.

Emotional attachment means emotionally you depend on someone. You feel safe and calm when you are close to her (or him, from now on, let’s just use her). On the other hand, you feel nervous and lost when she is not around. Basically, she is your care taker. When you are attached to someone, and when you are with this person, your brain releases some hormone to make you feel calm. We learn such emotional attachment when we were young. We were emotionally attached to our mother (or father, grand parents, who ever is your primary care taker). A child might play happily as long as he knows his mother is nearby. But as soon as he realized that her mother is no longer there, he will start to cry. During our evolutionary history, such emotional attachment makes a lot of sense. To survive the wild, you better be close to your mother. It is also what the most of the animal do. However, after we reach juvenile, there will be a painful period of rebellion. The purpose is to break away from your parents, so you can find new emotional attachment from your mate. It will be unlikely that if you still have strong emotional attachment to your parents, you can devote yourself full heartly to your lover. So, it is likely that you will need only one, or can only have one person to be emotionally attached to. If a child is attached to his mother, he is unlikely that he is also very attached to his father, or grand parents. Vise versa. Although the person you feel attached to can change with time, but usually within a given period, that person is fixed. Such feature of attachment will have some implication to the love relationship we discuss here. To be madly in love, you need this emotional attachment. This need for attachment is one of your basic emotional needs. A strong loving relationship should already satisfy this need. As a result, it is difficult to be simultaneously in love with more than one person, as you cannot be attached to more than one person.

As a spectrum, the opposite of emotional attachment is emotional estrange, distance and even hatred.

Affection is just the other side of the emotional attachment. If A is attached to B, then B has the emotional affection (fondness) to A. We feel this emotional affection towards children. We are their care taker, we defend them, do whatever we can for their well being. Children are cute for a reason. In evolution, they become cute just to win our affection, and to win our care. A forever ugly child is probably in big trouble. Affection is what we feel toward other people, is a reaching out action. We like her, want to hold her, and kiss her on the cheek. Unlike the emotional attachment, where only one care taker is enough, here we can be fond of many children, and many people. We are certainly able to like many people, and find them all very cute, and lovely. Since we usually have more than one child, this ability is essential. As a result, we can also “love” more than one person in this sense. Feel fond of each other is the essential first step towards a sexual love between a man and a woman. We feel fond of someone mostly because of physical appearance, or some innocent (“lovely”) behavior, much like a parent towards a child, which makes you feel you can help her, and she is worthy of your help. The affection is often related to cute, or beauty. The beauty is an indicator of a person’s health and intelligence. An average face (very important scoring point in a person’s attractiveness) indicates there is nothing wrong with her gene. A smooth skin indicates she doesn’t carry any disease and the related bacteria. Sharp and clear eyes indicate she is smart. All these beautiful features tell you that (through biological hard wire via evolution) she is worthy of your love. Your loving investment will not be wasted.

The opposite of affection and fondness is disgust. If you feel disgust towards one person, then forget about any loving relationship.

Now, sexual attraction is of course the central part of a man/woman love relationship. Evolutionally, sexual relationship is for the reproduction. We feel someone is sexually attractive, because all the “attractive” features indicate she is very productive. For a woman, the relative small waist, the large hip, and the round breasts, all show that she is biologically productive, a potentially good mate. In a sense, sexual attraction doesn’t even need to be beautiful. The smell of the body scent, the blink of a seductive eye, the moaning of sexual climax, the imaginary of sexual intimacy, all these have more to do with the sexual attraction than an innocent but a beautiful face. In some sense, just to the opposite of emotional attachment and affection, sometime sexual attraction even needs a little bit of strangeness in the feeling. For the male, a bit sense of conquest can be helpful. For the female, a sense of successful seduction can be a component. All these are because, in the ancient time, stealing other people’s mate (“extramarital” sexual relationship) is an important strategy for reproduction, and to be successful in evolutionary competition. Thus, strangeness is a plus, as long as she is productive (meaning attractive). Because of these reasons, a male can certainly have sexual relationship with multiple female, and can also have sex with an attractive stranger. A female can also have multiple sexual relationships. But certainly she is more choosy since she can only bear a child in one year, and it involve a lot of investment. Thus, instead of having many partners, she will be more interested in finding the best one. But overall, a sexual attraction and a sexual relationship doesn’t need to be one by one. This is especially true for man. Also, a component of freshness/strangeness might be necessary in order to have strong sexual attraction. That is why, many studies indicate that the strong sexual attraction wanes down after about one year between partners living together. Biologically that also makes sense. It doesn’t need that much hard work to produce one child, why bother. Besides, after one year, your job is probably done.

Thus, in my opinion, love involves the above three components. Each component has a range. Mathematically, this means love can be described by a vector of length 3. So, it is difficult to say, when exactly you are in love, when you are not in love. It is a gradual process, and the reality can be more complicated than what a simple statement of love or not love can describe (which is a single binary!). For example, the attachment can have some exclusion principle (e.g., you only feel attached to one person), but for the affection and sexual attraction you can feel from multiple objects. Some time, you might loose the sexual attraction to some one (maybe too familiar, so lose the freshness/strangeness component), but you are still emotionally attached to her/him. Or, more strangely, you might not like that person any more, but you can still have occasional good sex. Your mind can turn on from one stage to another, depending on the action.

In the above discussion, I have mainly focused on the biological and evolutional parts. Our culture has certainly made the equation more complicated. For example, a woman might find herself attracted to (which means both attached and with affection to) a man because of his social status and achievement. With time and hard work on her mind, such feeling can even be channeled into sexual attraction. We also make conscious decision to love or not love someone due to social considerations. Such conscious decision can influence our feeling. But still, I believe our biological natures are the strongest factors and all the social factors work only through those biological factors. Our biology and human nature are the hard wires, they are the results of million year evolution, which cannot be changed easily, not even by our culture.

Monday, March 3, 2008

Thinking about death

Death is a forever puzzle and fascinating topic in philosophy, religion and spiritual discussions. It might not be an exaggeration to say that religion is created to answer the question of death. Then what is the question of death? Strictly speaking, it is not even a question, it is just an unsettled feeling. The traditional questions include: What happen after we die? Will the soul linger on after my body decayed? Without my watchful eyes and conscious, will the world still exist? Will everything become an infinite darkness? Where I will be without me? From a secular, natural, and materialistic view, all these questions are nonsense. Without me, there will be no “I”, and we should not even ask: “Where I will be, and What will happen”. Nothing will happen, the world will continue go around without me. I just no longer exist. Our existence is finite, and limited, not just in time, also in space. I didn’t exist before I was born, and I will not exist after I die. Similarly, at this moment, I only exist in the place I sit, in the place I stand, but not in the place at the other side of the planet, actually in 99.99999…% of the planet and the universe. If we don’t worry about my nonexistence in all the other aspects, why should I worry about the time span after I die? So, logically, there is nothing special for the time after I die. But unfortunately, a logical answer like this rarely satisfies the majority of the people. For most people, the question of death, and the fear of after-death is not a logical question, it is an emotional question, it is the fear, it is the sadness. If we want to provide an answer as powerful as the religions answer, then we have to satisfy the emotional needs, to fill the unsettled feeling when people think about death. Our answer, however should be a truthful one, not the traditional religions ones which are based on false hopes and lies.

We have an unsettled feeling about death, because we view this world mostly from our own eyes and perspective, thus, we don’t know how to think about the world without ourselves. In another word, we don’t know how to think about our own nonexistence. We have an unsettled feeling about death, because we longing for infinity, ever lasting, eternalness. . I bet none other animal worry about the death, although they do avoid dangerous death-leading behaviors, but they don’t worry about it for its long term perspective, and then turn to worship something “holy” just to mitigate this worry. Only specie like our human, who can think, does that. This is a by-product of our thinking ability. From the evolution point of view, we are the only specie who developed this capability to worry about our future. This worry, built on our ability to think, allows us for long term planning, which brings us a big edge in terms of survival in specie competition, and in the development of our civilization. But unfortunately, like most philosophical paradox, we extend concepts and vocabularies beyond their applicable ranges. Besides asking what I will do tomorrow, we start to ask what I will do after I die. This of course is wrong. We forget the fact that this long term planning for ourselves should stop at some point. However, even if we know this logically, emotionally we are so use to think about tomorrow, we cannot emotionally grasp the fact that there will be no tomorrow for ourselves, that thought drives us crazy.

Then, what is the answer? (1) Since this is a problem created by our capability to think, we should find an answer by our new thought; (2) Since this is an emotional question, we have to shift our value systems, our longing to adjust our emotional orientation; (3) Since this is a problem originated from only using our personal angle to view and feel this world, (thus we don’t know how to think about this world if we imagine that this personal angle and view disappear someday), we have to change the way to view and feel this world.

Regarding to new thought, and logic thinking, we already pointed out that there is nothing beyond our death. Logically, there is no point to talk about me after my death. That is the end of story. Our nonexistence at other place and other time only emphasizes the importance of our existence at the current place and current time. What we can do is to focus on our current existence, and to live the life to its fullest. As long as we do the things we want to do at this moment, and as long as such things do not inflame harm to other people or our limited future (before we die), then we should do it with our full zest. As long as we embark on such busy activities, and preoccupy ourselves to make ourselves happy, then the sad feeling about death will disappear. One thing worth to be noticed is that the whole point of our effort (or the effort of any religions teaching) is not really to make life good after our death (there is no life after death). Instead, it is just to make us feel good when we think about our death, and the time after our death. So, the whole point is to make us happy at this moment. The focus is now, not after our death. Since we are still alive now, then from the secular and naturalist view, there is hope to solve the death problem, i.e., solve it by finding a way of thinking to make us feel good while we are still alive.

Regarding to the emotional orientation and our value system, the first question we can ask is: why should we long for infinity, for eternal existence. Why that is better than our limited and transient existence? Why we like to be forever? Nothing is forever, nothing is static. Everything is changing, and our death is just part of that changing process, feel happy about it! From the big side, our Cosmo is not static. The whole universe is created from a big bang, and it is keep expanding. In some scenario (maybe not in our universe), the whole universe can go through an expansion and shrinking cycle, from big bang to big crunch. In the small side, we can never step in a same river twice, things change around us. Many insects live for only one day or so, and most bacteria live only for hours or even minutes. So, why resist the change, and why value the infinite? We should value change, we should value transient thing, and we should value present. Good should not be measured by quantity, instead should be measured by quality. As long as we live our life fully, happily, and enthusiastically for every hours, then we have a good life, regardless whether we lived for 20 years or 80 years, or forever.

You might ask, if we value our current life, our current moment of existence, and think and feel it is good, should we want more for the good thing. It is natural to ask for more for the good thing. So, it is natural for longing for more of our good life. Well, to rebut such argument, think about some bad thing in life. Although we strive for happiness in this life, but life is not always 100% happy. There are always sadness, tragedy, and sorrow. Without these negative sides in life, the positive side (the happiness) will not exist. Happiness exists as a measure to drive us to the positive side, to guide our behavior to survive in the life competition. Happiness and sadness, they are the two sides in their dialectical relationship. The religions promise of ever happy life in heaven after your death is an empty promise. There could not be only happiness, without the sadness to support it. If there is one thing which makes you happy, you do it, and do it every moment of your life, then it will quickly cease to be happy. In all the religions teaching, I haven’t seen anything they promised which will really make me happy forever. Honey and Milk? Too much of that might be bad for your health (well maybe after the death, we don’t care about health, then without our body to taste, why honey and milk is any good). 72 angels? That sounds nice. But only because I am lacking of such service in this earthly life. If I have such service in heaven every day, I am sure I will be tired of it very soon. Besides, without body, I cannot enjoy that much. So, thinking this way, life is not just for the good part, life is a struggle, life is a transient experience. Sure, you can be a never tiring fighter, want to fight through life, repeat the process again and again, but would it be nice to lay down, to end the process, and to let the other people, the young and energetic, to fight their own battle? Once a person told me: it is the most terrible and dreadful idea if life is really forever, never an end. As we grow older, less energetic, we really want to have an end.

Lastly, regarding the way to view this world, to experience our life, we can change our concept and practice, so we have a larger perspective, and can connect our experience to other people’s experience. Then, letting other people to fight their life battle, is as good as to let you to fight your life battle again. In a sense, their experience is also your experience. In our current culture, we put a lot of emphasize on individualism. The trouble is, we seem to only have individualism, nothing else. We view the world only from our own individual experience. As a result, if we imagine to lose ourselves (death), then we can no longer find another angle to view this world anymore. That contribute to a puzzle feeling when we think about the death, and a sense of complete lose (which cause sadness and fear). What we can do to avoid such feeling is to find another angle to view and experience this world, to use that as a back up to our own angle. So, in our imagination (thinking process), even if we remove our own angle (imagine we are dead), we can view this world from the other angle. To find this other angle, we need to connect our own feeling to the feeling of other people, to view ourselves as an integrated part of the life experience of the whole humanity (or community). As we have the ability to think and worry about the future (which cause our problem regarding to death), we also have the unique capability for sympathy. We can use this capability to experience other people’s feeling, and to eventually regard other people’s feeling as part of your own feeling, and to treat your own experience (and existence) as part of a larger experience (existence). If we can reach that emotional stage, then although our individual existence will disappear, but the larger existence of the human being (or just your friends) will be there for a much longer time. We will not worry that much about our own death, because we know from the bottom of our heart (emotionally), that the other feeling will continue to be there, and the world will continue to move around.
When we think about tomorrow, and knowing that tomorrow we will still be alive, all we have is a thought, is an assurance that tomorrow I will be there to live and to feel the world. For me, the “current me”, that is just an imagination in my mind (because tomorrow has not come yet). But that is enough to make me feel good and settled at this moment. As we discussed before, the feeling at this moment is what important. Now, if we think about death, the thought that there will be no more me in the future makes me feel not so good at this moment. Now, if we can think about our friend, the persons closest to us, they will still be there after we die, and they will continue to feel the world, and we also know their feeling (almost as much as we know our own), then what is the worry. To the current me, the “me” at this moment, whether tomorrow is me or them to exist doesn’t make that difference. Because they (tomorrow’s me, or your friends) both can only exist in the imagination of the current me, so as long as I can imagine other people’s feeling as well as I can imagine the feeling of tomorrow’s me, then there is no difference, because life’s continuation is guaranteed. So I should care other people as much as I care tomorrow’s me. Here, I am not advocate to abandon individualism and to embrace collectivism or communism. Individualism is still important, as it still fit most naturally to our human nature. However, besides individualism, we should share each other’s feeling, and share them in some deep and even intimate sense. Only that, we can feel that our existence is an integrate part of a larger existence. As a result, our death is not the end of the life experience of the whole. Other people’s life experience is as important, as lovely, as our own life experience. So, to care about other people, to share other people’s feeling, at the end is to the benefit of ourselves, to solve the problem of death, to make the current me happy. In that sense, we can live forever, because we can live through other people’s life. Notice that, other people, and tomorrow’s me, they are both secondary to the current me. They only exist in the mind of the current me. So, the current me is still primary. We first need to care about the current me. Then we can care about tomorrow’s me, then other people. So, this is still individualism, and we still care about ourselves first. We just added the other people’s feeling to the list for things to care and share. So, even if tomorrow’s me die, we still have other people as a continuation, as a back up. Sharing other people’s feeling also expand our life experience, thus there is also a direct benefit to the me at this moment.

To reach such emotional status of caring and sharing other people’s feeling, we need love. Love in its deep sense is care. We might need to live in a more intimate way with our friends, and not be afraid of sharing the intimate moments with our closest friends. This might require a change of our life style, of the way of life. In our current culture, most individual lives in an emotional island. In order for us to feel be the part of the whole, we need to be more intimately connected, to share our emotion. One natural way to share other people’s feeling and care for other is for our kids. The knowledge that our children will live on after we passed away can indeed calm us down. Another possible way to connect to other people’s feeling is to use our natural intimate tendency between man and woman to build such connection. But this might require some fundamental changes in our moral standard. This is interesting, from the topic of death, we have derived some required changes in our way of life.