“A living man can be enslaved and reduced to the historic condition of an object. But if he dies in refusing to be enslaved, he reaffirms the existence of another kind of human nature which refuses to be classified as an object.”
– Albert Camus
All words are simplifications of the thing they describe. This is why it’s always possible to say “ah, but it’s more complicated than that” at the end of almost any observation. Such a statement almost goes without saying and is always irritating. Feel free to pop it into the comments section of any online article in the sure knowledge that you are correct.
On the flip side of this is the phrase “it’s just”. Pop this at the bottom of an article only if you wish to be in the sure knowledge that you are wrong. Almost without exception the phrase “it’s just” feeds a lie to both the speaker and the spoken to. Words are symbols which by necessity are less than that which they describe so it stands logically that whatever “it” is that you are speaking about, “it” is not limited to being “just…” anything at all. Whatever “it” is you’re talking about is highly likely to be far more complex than you’ll pretend with this deceptive phrase.
Simplifications often sell human experiences tragically short:
Love – “it’s just chemicals in your brain”.
God – “it’s just another mode of control”.
Art – “it’s just pretty pictures”.
If you find the above answers entirely satisfactory this is not the article for you. You’re unlikely to be the sort of person who often wants to use the phrase “more than words can say”, or knows the definition of the word “ineffable”. You’ve allowed words to narrow and control your experience of life itself, the only thing this short piece is going to do is annoy you. If I were writing it to reach you I’d use different tactics.
However, if you’re following me so far, lets go into an area where most of are happy with a deep level of complexity: you. What exactly is it that you are?
A rationalist attempting to answer this question will first ask where “you” begin and end. They will likely then measure “you” according to those limits. This process reveals an answer that goes something like this: you are an object which has been grown in a particular time and place, acting as a machine by responding to and interacting with stimuli. They will then describe that object and its consequences on the environment. However, for many, this process reveals a picture which once complete implies the phrase, “it’s just”. In other words it’s not uncommon to feel there is something missing between this picture of you and the person you know yourself to be.
The word rational is derived from “ratio” and means to measure or quantify. It allows us to set limits on an object and predict more accurately how it will interact with its environment. There are some who feel that a strictly “rational” analysis of the world leaves something out, they just can’t measure or describe with words exactly what that is.
Perhaps the most hotly debated aspect of rational analysis regarding humans generally is the eternal debate between nature and nurture. This divides advocates into two territories, most of us living close to the middle, seeing merit in both points of view, but favouring one over the other overall.
NURTURE, THE ‘LEFT WING’ and THE TYRANNY OF THE MIND
On the “nurture” side you have those who believe your destiny will be written upon you as a result of the environment you’re born into. Here we are as blank sheets of paper or “tabula rasa” with our characters and lives dictated to us by events beyond our control.
NATURE, THE ‘RIGHT WING’ and THE EUGENICISTS
Over on the “nature” side there are those who believe you’re born with natural instincts already written within you that will determine who you’ll become. In the past this was seen as your intended “destiny” or destination. Nowadays those who side with this belief system tend to focus upon genetics.
The above points are important because they provide a lens through which a number of recent debates can be understood. For example, if you think we’re all blank sheets of paper, censoring the internet can be made to sound like good sense as it means you can stop “bad” ideas and thoughts being spread around and written recklessly upon helpless hearts of your citizens.
In my opinion the UK establishment’s lip service to the “nurture” argument speaks only to the fact they’re trying to lead. In fact, they appear to support the “nature” argument, with our hereditary Monarchy making perfect sense in that context.
Personally speaking I find both points of view, even when combined, to be unsatisfactory and incomplete. Unfortunately, as I’ve tried to show, I cannot use a ‘rational argument’ to articulate why this is. It’s just a niggling feeling my human brain gets when seeing its kind reduced to the role of a machine either purpose built or programmed by others.
There is something about people which I feel cannot be rationed. Perhaps I only think this because I am one but if that is the case to deny this ineffable quality is to betray my current human identity.
“Man is a machine, but a very peculiar machine. He is a machine which, in right circumstances, and with right treatment, can know that he is a machine, and having fully realized this, he may find the ways to cease to be a machine.”
– P.D. Ouspensky
We are more than machines, it’s just that we cannot say exactly what it is we are.
Nick Margerrison (my twitter here)