Philosophy is to be studied, not for the sake of any definite answers to its questions, since no definite answers can, as a rule, be known to be true, but rather for the sake of the questions themselves; because these questions enlarge our conception of what is possible, enrich our intellectual imagination and diminish the dogmatic assurance which closes the mind against speculation; but above all because, through the greatness of the universe which philosophy contemplates, the mind also is rendered great, and becomes capable of that union with the universe which constitutes its highest good. ~Bertrand Russell
I posted recently about some thoughts I experienced on a cold desert night on a recent outing. Although not explicitly mentioned, these were not welcome thoughts, having emerged out of a tired, sleepless night. I am no stranger to sleepless nights, but when out in the desert I don’t experience them as often as I do in other places, unless by choice. When out in the welcoming peace and silence of the wild I generally sleep better than in the human hives. In my case, “better” means that I still wake up every couple of hours. But upon realizing where I am, I am comforted and drift back into sleep. This time was different. I felt anxious, and was in the desert hoping to find some solace in solitude. It didn’t work.
I found myself caught in the defeating cycle of a creative block. For some days prior, I wished to write (at times this happens when I wish to photograph, too), but found myself unable to come up with useful ideas. When ideas did come, they did not lend themselves to a narrative, and at the end of an unproductive day I was filled with frustration. The block made me anxious, and the anxiety piled more blocks on top of the first block, and the pile of blocks made me more anxious, and the greater anxiety poured a truckload of concrete on top of the pile of blocks, which gave anxiety something to climb up on where it could shout louder and further, and summon more truckloads of blocks and concrete and heavy machinery hauling cargo ships loaded with containers filled with yet more blocks… Deep breath.
Which brings me to this post. I am writing these words to break the feedback loop of anxiety and lack of inspiration, to sabotage the engine of discontent. Knowing how such mechanisms feed off themselves also reveals the way to defeat them: it is not enough to wait, to hope that the evil machine will malfunction or consume itself like the mythical ouroboros. That would be like looking at a bulldozer heading toward your house and hoping it will run out of gas. Certainly this will happen at some point, but is it worth the cost of waiting? No, when considering the potential damage, a more radical solution is in order: shoot the driver; throw a monkey wrench into the spinning gears; pour epoxy into the oil reservoir; steer the blasted thing off a cliff, then load it up with dynamite, light the fuse and walk away laughing maniacally. Make sure it not only stops, but cannot be restarted again. Not only dead, but dismembered beyond recognition and reconstruction. There, I feel better already.
When I’m blocked, I write streams of consciousness. I purge my brain. I let thoughts flow and mix into random concoctions. I don’t expect any of it to be good in itself, I just want it out of my mind. It’s no different than expelling any other undesired substances from my being—whether physical or intellectual (with no offense intended to non-dualists; you are not entirely wrong, just oversimplifying things to the extreme).
If you are short on time, the rest may not be of much use to you. Bear with me if you wish. This will be more entertainment than substance.
Why don’t we have a proven solution to creative blocks? A pill? A ritual? A treatment? Because creativity is one of the great mysteries of the human brain (and there are many). We don’t know what we are and how we function, and likely are unable to know much of it.
The human brain is the most complex structure we know of in the universe. Yes, that universe—the one that stretches nearly a hundred billion light years across (that’s a hundred billion times 5,878,499,810,000 miles), home to a couple of trillion galaxies spreading out faster than the speed of light… and still accelerating. For scale, if you tried to travel from one edge of our fairly ordinary galaxy—the Milky Way—to the other edge, going at the speed of light (roughly 186,000 miles per second), it would take you about 100,000 years. More precisely, someone waiting for you on planet Earth will have to wait 100,000 years for you to finish that journey. As far as you’re concerned, you will—literally–make the trip in no time at all. Because to an entity traveling at the speed of light, there is no such thing as time. Everything happens at once. Don’t try to wrap your brain around that. You can’t. If you want to get close to understanding it, learn math.
Consider that there are (as far as we know) a couple of trillion galaxies like (or unlike) our Milky Way out there, most comprising of hundreds of billions of stars each, which in turn are each often encircled by a few planets, and you get an idea of how much “stuff” is out there. Now consider that all that “stuff” makes up about 4% of the measurable mass in the universe. The other 96%? Umm… we have no idea. But all of it is arranged in beautiful self-similar fractal patterns, because… well, we have no idea; held together by gravity, which is… hmm, no idea there, either. We’re pretty sure that all of it emerges out of random fluctuations in “fields” (no, we don’t know what these are, actually, why they have the laws and values that they do, whether they are finite or infinite, or why it all lends itself so perfectly to mathematical representation). But I digress.
To my original point, to compare something with what we “know of in the universe” really implies a continuation of that sentence, which is this: we really don’t know much about the universe, and we know that much of the “much” is not only unknown, but very likely unknowable—placed by the very laws of physics out of reach of the limited intellects emerging out of self-perpetuating clumps of particles arranged, for some minute period of time, as tiny ape critters.
Where was I? Oh yes, we have no idea how our brains do certain things, creativity being one of them, which is why we don’t know how to “cure” creative blocks.
Despite overwhelming opposition and violent defense of ignorance and superstition perpetrated by the majority of our species, some humans actually do manage to stubbornly eke out knowledge about the brain’s working, about the universe and about the nature of existence. As it turns out, the more we uncover about the true nature of things, the more we realize how little resemblance exists between reality and what we believe or assume it to be. We also find ourselves on a relentless trajectory toward an understanding of our utter unimportance in any objective sense. With every new discovery in cosmology we become more minute in the vastness of space and time; with every advancement in neuroscience, evolutionary biology and psychology we are faced with how limited, distorted and irrational our knowledge and choices are, how wrong most of our perceptions are and (to the chagrin of many) that even our celebrated consciousness—including its most elevated dimensions: virtue and compassion and love—likely amounts to little more than chemical processes evolved to maximize biological fitness.
Bit by bit we learn the enormity of our delusions and denial. Thank… well, existence, that we also possess the ability to philosophize—to place all our knowledge and intuitions, perceptions and superstitions—into a framework that transcends them all and that suggests a context where they may all coexist, where there is at least the possibility—however remote—of an explanation to link them all consistently and coherently. And the more we fill in the pieces in philosophy—the greatest puzzle of all—it appears that the only attitude toward life that remains defensible in the face of what we know and what we don’t know and what we know to be unknowable, is this: the quality of our living experience has nothing to do with us being divinely endowed benevolent beings (in fact, there is overwhelming evidence to the contrary) but rather that whatever meaning we may find in our existence is entirely subjective; that any notion of what is “meaningful” can only exist within arbitrary boundaries of time and space—objectively speaking, a very short amount of time and a very tiny amount of space.
Our quality of life ultimately is measurable only by one currency—one that has no fixed system of measure, no absolute baseline, no quantifiable units or denominations, and no universal notation. And the quality is this: the value we take from experiences encountered in the course of conscious living. And although there is no system of measure for quality of experience, we know it behaves as some measurable things do: more is better. And if we set aside the stochastic elements, there does remain one thing that is positively correlated with quality of experience, and that is measurable, at least within the boundaries of our practical existence on this planet: time. And not just time in the abstract, but time used according to our subjective preference (no, this is not the same as “free” time). Which points to what I consider humanity’s most grotesque manifestations of cognitive dissonance: the thoughtless way in which we squander our most valuable of assets—the allotment of conscious moments of living we are each given. How many activities would you guess will be stopped dead in their tracks if one was to consider: is this the absolute best use of my living moments? the most rewarding and (subjectively) meaningful option available to me right now?
Consider this: what if you were diagnosed with an incurable terminal condition and knew you will be dead within some unspecified number of years. How would that change your attitude and your priorities? Will you be scared? Will you steer yourself differently? Will you think the same way about people, about your career, about where you live, about how much time you spent on those activities you find most meaningful?
I regret to tell you that you actually have been diagnosed with such a condition. No, this is not a joke or a metaphor. I am not being sarcastic or vague or a smartass. I am completely serious. You really are afflicted with a terminal condition with a 100% mortality rate. You really will die within a number of years. You are afflicted (gifted/blessed/endowed—pick your word, it’s all semantics) with life. I dare you to make good on your answers to the questions in the previous paragraph.
I steer clear of discussing faith. I’m a philosopher with a strong penchant for logic. I have yet to meet a single person whose most deeply held beliefs I could not shake profoundly (and this has nothing to do with whether such a person is, by any definition, “religious”). Are you a humanist? an environmentalist? a scientist? a materialist? an idealist? Don’t get too comfortable, I can reduce those to indefensible paradoxes, too. In time I learned that people do not respond well to their life philosophies being challenged, unless they initiate such challenges themselves, intending and willing to accept the consequences of their inquiry. I also learned that there is little to be gained form doing so. It’s not that difficult, really; we are all deeply delusional and hypocritical. And so I will leave alone whatever you choose to believe about the prospects of a life beyond this one. I will say this, however: an afterlife is a terrifying concept. To know that death is final is the most comforting of thoughts. It implies that things cannot get worse. It is also the most liberating of thoughts. It implies that striving to maximize the quality of experience in this life is the only attitude that is logically defensible, and therefore is the most justified way to live.
And if there is an afterlife, and knowing what little we know of the immensity of the universe, why would anyone wish to return to this clump of dust? to this short-lived and intellectually challenged species? In fact, given the astounding scale of the universe, even if there is an afterlife, statistics alone suggest that it is unlikely to the extreme that anyone will “come back” as anything remotely resembling a human. And so, the consequences of such belief is the same as believing there is no afterlife: in this life, maximizing the value of subjective experience remains the only justified and defensible attitude.
And what if we are all part of a greater consciousness? and what if we are not? and what if we live in a simulation? and what if we really don’t have free will? (all plausible theories postulated, very convincingly, by philosophers). Those, too, lead to the same inevitable conclusion: without actual knowledge to the contrary, the most logical and defensible attitude remains the pursuit of meaningful life experiences.
There. I wrote 2,000 words. Goodbye, block.