Notes on Personal Agency

“Suffering is the experience of the impossibility to escape oneself–an inescapable passivity.”

Are you truly free? Are you aware of your actions, why you do them, and are you actively choosing them?

You must have self-awareness in order to be free. This freedom is a kind of maturation of selfhood, which in turn increases your responsibility.  I refer to selfhood because I define the self as being a reflecting, self-aware individual, who is not entirely defined by its past experiences and environment. The self is necessarily an effectless cause, such that the part of it that is a true self is not an effect and has the ability to cause with the force of will. He who is not self-aware at all has little responsibility. With true freedom comes great responsibility, but can we say that if you have the ability to choose otherwise, you are automatically free?

This self-awareness or knowledge of oneself is not a step toward freedom; it is a condition for freedom. It doesn’t “push” you towards freedom. Self-awareness is not an action in itself; it is a precursor. It participates, but it does not drive a person to act. So if it doesn’t, then what does?

But you can never exist independently of your own habits. They influence our judgment of them and any change we can will to take place must always define itself in relation to the habits from which it emerges.

So then, our freedom, if we are to achieve it, seems to be always bounded.

Let us examine the case the we have sufficient motivation to do otherwise. An agoraphobic person who cannot bring himself to leave his house finds his house has caught on fire. Driven by the instinctual motivation to survive, he finds sufficient motivation to leave his house. Some psychologists say that because this motivation that exists to do otherwise, this person is not entirely pathological. They think their is an openness to their psychology from which a will can be built open to act otherwise. I do not think this necessarily follows, as the ability to act otherwise is a result of a motivation that is just as unchosen as the compulsion in question.

So then, are we still always compelled but by other, conflicting motivations?

Freedom must be the ability to do otherwise and consciously deciding in a directed manner. If desire underlies all motivation, to what extent can we force ourselves desire otherwise?

I am inclined to think that a person is free insofar as they can act without motivation. So where exactly is the “opening” where free will exists if motivation is a requirement to change? That motivation comes from somewhere, unless it is a spontaneous impulse, but that isn’t a choice either. I can only conclude that it is necessary for us to create our own motivation, being born entirely of our own reasoning, and choosing values that guide us by careful, independent reflection.

The ability to interject requires a sense of empowerment in the individual, and this largely comes from the ability to reinterpret your own story and embrace and account for your own narrative. True freedom is only attainable if you are not compelled by anything that has not been chosen consciously. We all have the capability to be free, as human beings with minds capable of distancing ourselves from desire. I suppose then, in order to be free, we must create sufficient motivation to be free. I do think that such motivation can be born entirely out of the self. It is the self’s own drive to further manifest itself.

 

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For Those Who are Lost in Life

The problem I have often found people to have is that they don’t know what their purpose in life should be or what their passion is. They are looking outside of themselves for something to be born in them that they believe is otherwise absent.

I think these people are asking the wrong questions. Each of us is already an individual. If you don’t already know who it is you are, then you haven’t exposed yourself enough to the world. But I think this is rarely the case. What are the things you are already drawn to, naturally? What are your preferences and desires? What qualities attract people to you? In what areas in life do you find yourself already excelling? And then once you can answer these questions, ask yourself, how can I be more of that?

If deep down you feel anxious or dissatisfied with your life, or even a vague melancholy that seems to follow you like a shadow, that you often distract yourself from until quiet moments where you find it there waiting for you, then this means something. It means there is something missing and that in order to be who you are, to express yourself more fully, then you must fill that space.

I suspect that many people, though they aren’t likely to admit it, know exactly who they are. Deep down, they know what it is they are drawn to and what areas in life they excel at naturally. I suspect that fundamentally, it’s not passion that these people lack, because a mind that feels anxious for deeper meaning is one that is already passionate. I suspect that these people are afraid. They lack the confidence to build their lives around who they really are. That requires a degree of boldness and comfort in yourself, to trust that your own self is a sufficient source of skill and meaning.

Don’t think that you should find a mold that suits you. We have only one life to live, so why not customize your life and your path to fit exactly who you are and who you feel compelled to become?

Don’t let an unwillingness to embrace yourself define you and your life. Trust that the answers are already within you and that you have a unique power that your mind is pressuring you to manifest, with all the signs it’s giving you.

 

 

 

On Rationality

When it comes to our behavior, we have a tendency to rationalize, finding order and justification for our actions. When we maintain a contradictory belief and behavior, often times we naturally change one or the other. We are driven to do so by our cognitive dissonance.

The same is often the case in rational thought alone. We adapt our reasoning to logically follow from certain axioms and assumptions of which need not accurately apply to the world. Believing that there is an inherent openness to all starting points in our reasoning is a deep skepticism. This could lead to a compulsive predilection for denying all claims, asserting that the stronger it is the stronger its unfoundedness must be.

As philosopher Pierre-Daniel Huet wrote, “let any one be convinced that man is an animal so formed by nature, that what appears to him to be true, is false; all you shall propose against this opinion will appear to him to be false or true; if false, he will justly reject it; if true, believing himself to be so made he will still be obliged to reject it as false. Thus it will be easy for him to subvert all reasons that can be objected against his opinion: and we cannot invent one, which will not fall under this general law, that what appears to a man to be of must truth, is most false.”

I do not think this approach would inherently lead to such a regression. I think it is possible for someone to accept assumptions as such and the possibility that one is wrong in whatever subject, be it what you should do in a given situation, politics, or the nature of the universe, and to consider some theories as being still superior to others in their measure of certainty. Yet we must still be skeptical of what it is that is influencing this judgment. Rationality can be preserved at the same time skepticism is maintained; it produces no dissonance.

You have to always acknowledge the assumptions you are making, as a matter of principle, or you are allowing yourself to be blinded. Holding steady to this principle, you will find uncertainty in most everything, and yet much clarity is still be had once the assumptions are accepted. You must have them if you are to have any ideas at all, and to accept them consciously allows for even greater clarity. Clarity is possible in the face of uncertainty. That we should be so certain when we are not even aware of or actively ignoring our assumptions is irrational. To be aware of all assumptions and biases all the time is impossible, but to at the least allow for their existence and search for them is critical if your highest aim is truth.

The Joy of Every Art Form

The following describes my own personal experience and opinions and I do not mean to make general statements claiming to be objectively accurate.

 

 

I LOVE art, art of most every form. I love making art–music, drawing, painting, writing and dancing. In the past I have learned to play the guitar, drums, piano, and I even took cello lessons for a while. I am currently actively pursuing painting and ballet. With painting, I am experimenting with acrylic, watercolor, and oil. With dancing, I am trained primarily in ballet, but also considerably in jazz, contemporary, modern, and hip hop. I took 2 years of tap and a few sporadic years of ballroom, including salsa, samba, and even of bit of waltz, swing, and tango. I also love writing and literature. I have a minor in creative writing and I love a good book. I am a huge fan of Russian literature, the dark existential stuff.

I’m also a huge fan of classical music concerts, opera, and theater. I love Bach, Chopin, Strauss, and Tchaikovsky. Thais is currently my favorite opera. I took an intensive Shakespeare class in college and spent a week in Ashland, Oregon at the annual regional Shakespeare festival. I even helped write and act in a short play. I loved it. I loved acting. I was the lead role in a play in middle school and I remember really enjoying that. Someday even if it’s just for increasing my confidence I’d love to take acting lessons.

Art speaks to me in a very deep sense.

After reading this, you are probably thinking, my god, this girl is spreading herself way too thin. It’s absurd. And yes, to an extent it is a bit absurd. But art isn’t a career for me with clear goals. It’s a lifestyle; an emotional outlet; a realm of various possible experiments and experiential journeys.

I’ve gone “all in” for every art form I’ve tried, and each offers a unique corresponding beauty.

It’s like different types of music that you connect with emotionally–there is a uniquely pleasurable experience associated with the different types. There are differently sublime experiences.

When I was very serious about the piano, and I was good enough to play intermediate pieces by Chopin and Tchaikovsky, I lost myself and I was swept away by something deeply resonating and immediate. Perhaps my appreciation of classical music stems from my 12+ years experience of ballet. Not every piece speaks to me but it’s always very obvious when it does. I never wonder what I feel about a piece of music. When I play the piano and when I passively listen to it, these are very different experiences and pleasurable in different ways. Each way of experiencing art offers a different way of losing yourself and connecting deeply.

When I paint, it’s silent. There is an entirely different sense at work reaching for something aesthetically pleasing. There is a similar critical voice inside of me loathing failures to harmonize and a similar satisfaction in finally creating something harmonious. The piano is immediate and powerful, like a gust of wind that carries me away. Painting, however, is slow and not so obvious. It’s isn’t as logical as music in the sense that there are chords and harmonics that I could describe mathematically, as if the aesthetics are somehow objectively discoverable. Painting is more deeply subjective and intuitive. I can say that I connect to this and no one could dispute this. If someone just randomly banged their hand on a keyboard, sure, someone could call it post-post-modernist avant garde, but they would most likely be a narcissistic, tone-deaf fool. I also lose myself when I paint, but I’m abstractly connecting to concepts and visual imagery. When I am really in the zone and flowing, I am experiencing a certain kind of sublime.

Dancing always was, is, and always will be my favorite art form to execute. It combines three senses: vision, sound, and touch. By touch, I mean raw ‘physical’ sense, the sense of physicality. This includes the sense of ones physical presence and movement. Because the instrument is ones body, and I must be able to achieve exact visual elements, an incredible amount of strength, flexibility, and technical control is required. Most other art forms utilize only a couple of these characteristics. For example, painting combines visual aesthetics with technical control. Different types of dancing offer different emotional experiences.

 

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When you look at me, maybe you wouldn’t expect that I would be into hip hop dancing, but I have been known to start dance offs at clubs :). I grew up in pretty ghetto areas, so this is a part of my identity that will forever linger. Hip hop is predominantly about empowerment. The feeling I get when I appreciate hip hop music and dancing is a combination of empowerment, strength, and the showcasing of one’s social ‘smoothness’ or coolness, which is very prideful. It’s the most fun type of dance to perform with groups of people and it connects you directly with them between your mutual egos. You’re psychologically more present while you’re dancing–like here I am, I’m dancing, watch this. Ballet is quite the opposite. It’s more dignified, disciplined, traditional, and regimented. It has a very different history and the music it’s paired with is obviously quite different from hip hop. Dancing ballet is much more of an internal struggle and it’s classicality is less ego driven and directed more toward something beyond oneself.

One of my favorite types of music and dance go together and meet at the intersection of classical and modern. It’s the combination hip hop and classical music. When they meet, something truly extraordinary happens. The best of both worlds joins and givens birth to something that is in my opinion greater than the sum of its parts. The movie Save the Last Dance comes to mind. Search on YouTube Hip Hop Violin. The hip hop provides energy and a vivacity that is otherwise lacking in classical music. The classical music provides structure, sophisticated sounds, and sublime elevation otherwise lacking in hip hop. When both are combined in dance, a kind of complex personality forms. The language is more robust; the range of what the dancer is able to express greatly widens. The experience of it is therefore similarly more robust.

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Obviously everyone is unique and appreciates different music to different extents. Someone could listen to one particular song and experience the sublime while for me it could just sound like a collection of sounds completely devoid of emotion.

But every type of art offers a unique possible sublime experience. This is why I have involved myself in so many different kinds of art. They all make me feel things that the others can’t. There is a type of joy that each art form and type is responsible for, and I love to discover and experience as many types as I can.

Many people think you have to be good at art to do it, and to a certain extent I think the pleasure I am speaking about it only attainable with a certain amount of skill. But art is subjective and it is personal, and there are no standards that you must measure yourself against if you are wanting to connect emotionally and create and experience something beautiful. If you haven’t discovered a joy in art I encourage you to explore and discover something inside yourself that only art can draw out of you. The ability to connect and draw pleasure from something that feels beyond oneself is unique to the human condition and it balances the ugly, the mundane, and the painful. This is what it means to be human–to find love and joy that make life meaningful and the suffering we experience worth it.

 

 

 

Is Human Behavior Unchangeably Hardwired?

Instincts are so powerful that we lose ourselves in them–they compel us, control us, and drive our desires without the requirement for any modicum of conscious awareness. They make us feel most alive, most “right”; in many ways, they make up the foundations upon which our identities are built, the center to which our personalities are relative.

Instincts are coded in our genes; they originate from past behaviors that guaranteed the preservation of those genes by driving us to survive and procreate.

Behavior in practice has changed over time, insofar as genes have continued to evolve due to sexual selective pressures as well as the effects of changes in our cultures. Cultural evolution is very similar to genetic evolution, with its analogous ‘meme’ behavior, a term coined by Richard Dawkins, representing cultural analogues to genes in that they self-replicate, mutate, and respond to selective pressures.

Research in the fields of genetics, neuropsychology, and paleobiology yields evidence that, despite drastic changes in our environments, cultures, technology, knowledge, and general realities, our deepest, instinctual genes have remained largely unchanged from the emergence of homo sapiens 200,000 years ago. People today still behave in ways that aided our survival during the Stone Age.

You can take the person out of the Stone Age, evolutionary psychologists contend, but you can’t take the Stone Age out of the person.[1]

Sexual selection is the only genetic selection left in the modern world, as selective pressures for survival are no longer relevant in our society. Intelligence, physical attractiveness, and economic advantage still effect our sexual choices, although in the first world it is a growing trend that the more educated people are having fewer children and the least educated are having more, but that is beside the point.

What culture and social conditioning tend to do is not change instincts and emotions, but redirect, suppress, channel, and otherwise control the expression of them.

A good example of this is found in human sexuality. Sex is one of the most deeply ingrained instincts we have, short of our basic instinct to stay alive. But the impact that culture and individual psychology have on sexuality is quite extensive. I am not speaking of sexual orientation, but the ways in which sexuality gets channeled, directed, and expressed.

One theory for sexual ‘deviancy’, or abnormal sexual preferences and fantasies is that instincts, as strong and powerful as they are, must be channeled and compartmentalized to preserve the integrity of one’s social conditioning as well as one’s own ego and personal identity. A team of researchers in Canada recently found that, interestingly, nearly half of people surveyed were found to have at least one type of sexual perversion. [2] Perversion may just be a way instincts get channeled and expressed in a way that can be compartmentalized as a ‘game’, where behavior is reserved for certain roles that are kept at a distance from the participants’ primary identities.

In short, it seems instincts, at the core, are impossible to change.

To continue on the example of sexuality, in the Victorian era, there was widespread sexual repression, which is what likely caused the boom in the “hysteria” diagnosis, which doctors treated with handjobs, leading them to invent the first vibrators to save their hands from fatigue. [3] 

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[Cadence Theatre Company]

 

Japan is seeing an unprecedented decline in sexual activity, coined the “celibacy syndrome”. [4] It is an open question whether sexuality is getting channeled and expressed in other ways, in a Freudian sense within Japanese careers or online in Japan’s ever-growing online and virtual reality communities. And if it is not found elsewhere, it could manifest in the negative sense: as loneliness, despair, and feelings of alienation. However, if that is not the case, it is also possible that, after Japan’s economic and natural disaster history and its increasing urban development and cultural futurism, Japanese people could be seeing a decline in the sexual instinct itself.

Japanese people could be seeing a decline in the sexual instinct itself.

 

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Tokyo

 

What is interesting to note is that we have already seen a drastic change in human behavior. It happened during the development of the first cities. For hundreds of thousands of years, humans engaged in incessant tribal warfare until the development of the first cities, which was necessary for the development of civilizations. Cities allowed for more specialized activities to develop, but they required strangers to get along. People had to learn to extend courtesy and empathy to people that weren’t a part of their inner circle; they had to project their group mentality onto a much larger circle, which required humans to suppress their hostile natures.

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Artist’s impression of two tribes at war

 

It seems that humans can change their instincts. It takes a very, very long time, and it requires significant social and circumstantial pressures–significant enough to override the very behaviors that allowed us to stay alive until this point.

This is good news, because human nature is horrible in many ways. We still exhibit tribal mentalities to the extent that war and racism are still very much alive. It is the hope of many of us that future generations will live in a world one day without destructive hatred, inspired by instincts no longer appropriate to the world we live in.

 

 


 

 

 

 

 

[1] https://hbr.org/1998/07/how-hardwired-is-human-behavior

[2] http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-3484266/Are-pervert-Study-suggests-half-deviant-sexual-acts.html

[3] https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/all-about-sex/201303/hysteria-and-the-strange-history-vibrators

[4] http://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/oct/20/young-people-japan-stopped-having-sex