Why it is not only your fault

On nullifying inapplicable thoughts and avoiding hubris

A.: I am being overwhelmed by a mixture of guilt and regret. The missed opportunities, the alternative timelines… they trouble me greatly. What if I acted differently in that moment? What if I was not as gullible to believe in a fleeting dream? What if I wasn’t the person I was?

B.: What do you think would be the outcome if those scenaria were to be realised?

A.: Things would have transpired differently. I would be better-off.

B.: Would you be here then? Meaning “you” as the person who experienced those events as they happened?

A.: No. I would have been another person.

B.: And what makes you think that this other person would not be beset on all sides by persistent doubts? Why wouldn’t that alternative “you” be unsatisfied with the prevailing conditions, with their lack of foresight, the absence of wisdom, and so on?

A.: I see what you mean. It is hard to tell what would have happened and be certain about it. Maybe it is wishful thinking on my side. I am focused on the present and compare it to some idealised other world. I just think that my problems today date back to specific turning points in my life. A tweak here and there and I would be free from my current suffering.

B.: It is true that the present is contingent on the past. What you did, what you have been through, informs who you are. There is no rewriting the past: it is a given. What is dubious is your conclusion that an alternative timeline would necessarily involve no suffering. Perhaps it would not be the same one you feel now, though it could still be a form of pain.

A.: But it would be another pain, perhaps not an excruciating one! At least such is my hope.

B.: There are no guarantees for that. What we do know, is what happened. Based on the available information, we may then wonder what causes the pain. If we can get an answer then we might be able to come up with something akin to a therapy. So I must ask: is your suffering the direct result of those experiences or the ideas and emotions associated with them?

A.: I am not confident I understand the nuance. Care to elaborate?

B.: Suppose you injured your foot and missed the unique opportunity to become a professional athlete. You replay in your mind the moments prior to the injury, trying to delineate the horizon of possibilities that was applicable then. That loop of replaying the events and thinking about their alternative timelines keeps you preoccupied. It is an obsession. Couched in those terms, I wonder: does what hurts you today come from (i) the injured foot or (ii) the troubled mind that continues to cling on to the events that surround the once-injured foot and insists on entertaining the concomitant expectations of an injury-free body?

A.: Now I understand the original question: pain coming from an experience differs from pain that derives from the memory of an experience.

B.: Not just the memory. Better say the wider narrative that you have developed. The memory is a part of it and might not even be the most important one.

A.: In that case it is not the foot that continues to hurt, but the narrative. The “what if” about the whole story.

B.: Your “what if” has a normative aspect to it. It is not simply an alternative timeline, but a preferable one. You think that you would have been a better person as a result, however it is you define the meaning of “better” in this context.

A.: Indeed! I put a positive spin on it.

B.: How can ideas make us feel pain? Can I hit you with an idea the way I do if a hurl stone at you?

[ Read: On materiality and emergence (2020-12-20) ]

A.: No, you can’t throw an idea at me. They hurt differently though, as they remind us of traumatic experiences we have been through or are otherwise afraid of.

B.: Fine. Yet there are ideas that do us harm without invoking past experiences or bringing up some imagery we outright dread. For example, you are past the typical age of marriage, let’s say 30 plus, and have no plans to get married or, anyway, it is not likely going to happen for a number of reasons. You are nonchalant about it, though your family and peers keep nagging you about rectifying the perceived error of your ways. After a lot of pressure and without being able to conform with those demands, you start feeling unsettled because everyone else has seemingly succeeded where you continue to fail. You might start wondering whether there is something seriously wrong with you. It is not some past event that haunts you nor fear of marriage nor even fear of being considered unsuccessful on some inane social metric. You are saddened by your present predicament as a marginalised fellow: the fact that your social environment enforces a certain normativity as a precondition of treating you as a normal person. Your sadness springs from the impression that you might really be a human manqué, yet you have no notion of what that entails, what the actual flaws are. It is just an annoyance, if you prefer.

A.: Sure, that is another possibility.

B.: In both cases there is a constant: ideas can make us feel sad, disillusioned, desperate… My question is how is that even possible? Why do we experience such emotions in reaction to persistent thoughts?

A.: It is curious. You explained it cannot be just past events or obvious phobias. I wonder where you are going with this.

B.: What is true for ideas applies to all stimuli: they trigger a reaction. When that is inconsistent with our actuality, there is friction, so to speak. Our mind wants to go one way, but our underlying condition keeps us on another path. There is a push and pull in opposite directions. It does not physically tear us apart, though it does upset our inner balance, the local optimum in each of the subsystems that comprise us, and thus causes chain reactions which are impressed on our conscious self as pain, sadness, et cetera.

A.: Give me an example of this push and pull.

B.: You wish, for whatever reason, to become a basketball player. You have fully bought into the idea that you will make it and put all your hopes in a successful career. No matter how hard you try, you lack the natural athleticism to compete in this sport. You are not as tall, as strong, as technical. In short, there is no chance that you can become a basketball player because your reality is not conducive to such an outcome. Your potential may lie in the arts: you have a vivid imagination, a capacity to weave together lyrics into compelling poetry, and so on. Instead of accepting what your nature renders possible, you pursue an unrealisable target. But your entire being does not draw satisfaction out of playing basketball: it wants to commit to artistic expression and find fulfilment through it. The more you disregard yourself, the greater the sense of uneasiness will be. You might not be self-conscious enough to recognise it immediately, though it is there. The pressure is building up and will one day explode, resulting in a state of dissatisfaction.

A.: That is an example that applies to many cases. Such as a morally dubious job that you keeping doing out of necessity, trying to mimic your peers in their behavioural patterns just so that you may fit in and not be lonely, impossible infatuations… Everything that makes you feel dead inside.

B.: In other words, not being yourself.

A.: Why does that cause pain though?

B.: I am of the view that there is no substantive distinction between the mind or soul and the body. These are analytical constructs, meaning that we abstract them from their actuality to make sense of them in idealised situations; to study them in vitro. Whereas the in vivo condition is one where those constructs are part of the same presence. They are subsystems of a greater system, which we understand as the human organism. Each subsystem consists of subsystems of its own. Every system has its own local rules while conforming with those of its immediate supersystem. And from each system comes an emergent reality that is identifiable only in the interplay of its factors—at the level of the system as such—not in each factor in isolation, to the effect that the order of systems, from the sub- to the super- system, reflects the stratification of emergence. Each stratum has its own scope of application, which we can again abstract for the purposes of analytics, such as to study the eye in its own right, its shape, colours, etc., though not its subsystems. The point is that you cannot separate the mind from the body in vivo, for they both represent systems of systems which in their interplay create a supersystem: the human organism. So I repeat that the mind and body are analytical constructs. We use them in everyday language to make sense of things and be succinct. As such, the state of our body influences the state of our mind, and vice versa. Remember that I consider ideas stimuli, which trigger reactions. In turn, reactions cause a cascade of further reactions. Just like how the idea of your dog makes you happy and puts you in a good mood for the rest of the day: some underlying biochemical processes are at play. Let scientists do their part while we do ours. The point is that what troubles your mind ultimately affects your body; what influences the body conditions the mind.

A.: That makes sense. Another case where this dynamic can be identified is when someone is ill: you cannot expect them to meditate intensely or philosophise at length while barely being able to get out of bed. Based on this, can I just undo or unthink my obsession and heal myself in an instant?

B.: That depends on the specifics of the case, the degree of the problem, and so on. In principle though, to unthink is to rethink, and to rethink is to initiate a process of recalibrating your inner balance. Whether you bring it closer to its natural equilibrium or to a sub-optimal one is a matter of what the rethinking involves, whether it is benign for your being or detrimental to it. To re-use my last example of being misguided into pursuing a career in basketball instead of heeding your inner call: are you trying to express yourself through art and thus accommodate your inclinations—accept who you are—or did you find some new, yet still unrelated, passion that keeps you hostage?

A.: How do you start that process of recalibration?

B.: By trying to identify the factors that constitute your particular case. You said you feel guilt and regret for something you did. Ask yourself whether you would act differently today. If the answer is affirmative, then you already know that one factor of the case in present time differs profoundly from its counterpart in that past time where the trouble begins. Then inquire upon the prevailing conditions: what led you to commit that past act and do those incentives, motives, or triggers hold true today? In other words, would you be compelled to repeat that act? If no, then you have another clear indication that the case you are immersed in is not the same as the past one.

A.: By knowing how things stand I can have a better sense of what is going on. How does that help me?

B.: I have explained before that agency is a function of structure. This might sound too abstract and cryptic, but I will unpack it for you here.

[ Read: On walking (away) (2021-07-19) ]

A.: Thanks!

B.: Agency generally means the entity that acts; the entity that has the capacity of initiative; the power impulse that brings about a change in the state of affairs. Structure refers to the milieu within which the agency is made manifest. The structure is not the one which acts, but the environment in which the action unfolds. Understand that these are analytical constructs as well. We identify them by abstracting a case from the totality of all there is.

A.: Give me an example, please.

B.: You are working for a company. There exists a certain corporate culture you have to respect and internalise as a worker. Your agency qua employee is conditioned by the rules of your contract and, more broadly, by what is meant to be employed in that context. If, for instance, the company has a policy against ecological initiatives and you voice your support for one such cause, then you will get fired: the agency cannot escape the constraints of the structure.

A.: And this agency and structure dynamic is generalisable?

B.: Yes, consider what I said before about my belief that there is no such thing as a soul as distinct from the body. Why do I claim as much? Because the soul is traditionally considered to have a standalone presence. I doubt this is the case, for there must be an environment within which the soul is possible and within which it is made manifest. The soul cannot come from nothing, but from something, for if it were nothing then what caused it? And don’t tell me “God”, because that still counts as “something”. Moreover, the soul cannot be in nothing, as then how would it move into a body, given that motion or generally this incarnation must take place somewhere? So it does not have a standalone presence. Furthermore, it is said that the soul is the true version of “you”, the one which is not degraded or otherwise led astray by the frailties of the body, which contradicts the idea of an immutable, true “you”, for if the body can affect the soul then why can’t some other factor in its environment do the same? And how do we even know that the bodyless soul is the true “you”, or indeed has any other property, if it is supposed to be in nothing? If it is not in nothing, it is in something, hence an environment, hence a structure that conditions it. Same principle for the related idea of “free will” where again it is thought that each person has a standalone presence, when it is abundantly clear that we are exposed to a broad range of natural and social-cultural factors that influence us and delimit the scope of our choices and our value judgements at each point.

[ Read: Notes on Rules (2020-07-01) ]

A.: These are tricky issues… Do you have a simpler example?

B.: Think about your character in a video game. The agency here is the character and the structure is what the game, or rather its underlying programming code, renders possible. If, say, the game solely involves precision jumping from one platform to another in a two-dimensional third-person view, you cannot have that same agency do something radically different, such as farming in a three-dimensional space from a first-person perspective.

[ Read: Why you are not important (2021-08-28) ]

A.: Okay, so there always is something that sets boundaries on what we do…

B.: And on what can ever be done within the scope of the agency. Hence the formulation that agency is a function of structure. Now things get more complicated once we consider complex networks, such as human society. From the perspective of a person, other people are part of the structure insofar as their presence frames, informs, or otherwise influences that person’s agency. Yet those people are agents in their own right, meaning that the structure is neither static nor exogenous to the case. And so I must stress that these are analytical constructs. We can find cases where they collapse into themselves or otherwise have a context-dependant set of peculiarities.

[ Read: On role and actuality (2021-04-15) ]

A.: Understood. Now I must know how this relates to the point of coping with feelings of regret and guilt.

B.: I said that you need to identify the constitution of the particular case you are in. By knowing that agency is a function of structure you can now understand that your past self was the product of its time, of the prevailing conditions there and then. Today the structure may be different and so is the agency. In practical terms, I do not agree with the notion that what we do is necessarily eternal, that some sin must always persist independent of the case, not least because I dismiss the concept of a permanent, true “you” in the form of the soul. I do not believe in any decontextualised presence and, consequently, cannot accept a system of values predicated on such figments of thought.

A.: Oh, now I am connecting the dots! My past self no longer exists. The conditions that made that person may not apply any more. So, your argument goes, it might be that the thoughts that trouble me can have no real power over me because they too should belong to a case that is not applicable any more.

B.: Correct. That is how you nullify a persistent thought. More generally though, we have to be aware of this concept of ideas as stimuli, because by maintaining this attitude of finding the truth in the constitution of the case, by being dubitative and inquisitive, we prepare the mind to fend off such incursions or, if you prefer, to not be bothered by them. Here is the thing: your condition becomes dependent on stimuli, in the same way one gets addicted to coffee and thinks that they can no longer wake up or be productive without it. The mind believes it, the body yearns it. And so the stimulus takes hold over you and ensnares you, so to speak, by engendering chain reactions which condition you to seek it again and again.

A.: Could it be that I am addicted to those troubling thoughts?

B.: It could be, in the sense that you keep summoning “ghosts of the past”, if I may describe them thus, to accompany you. You have befriended them, as it were. Whereas by nullifying their potency, by exposing their falsity and inapplicability in the constitution of your case, you have made yourself immune to them. Whenever they re-appear you are prepared to dismiss them as irrelevant because you have understood that they cannot possibly apply to you anymore. They become powerless.

A.: Then you are saying that through knowledge we break free from those pernicious thoughts. Is there another way? Why can’t I just ignore them, such as by getting drunk to the point where I no longer think about them?

B.: Getting drunk, or generally losing control, just so that you can ignore something temporarily is no real solution. At best, it postpones the day of reckoning. You are piling one problem on top of another in exchange for some ephemeral comfort. As for ignoring it, that still does not address the root cause of the uneasiness. The thoughts, these “ghosts of the past”, still wield power over you. They appear as stimuli and immediately trigger a reaction in which you are now supposed to work laboriously just so that you can claim to not feel any pain. Is that not the same as lying to yourself? You have done nothing to address the underlying reason why you harbour those negative emotions as a reaction to the appearance of said stimuli. You have not managed to overcome those troubling thoughts because you have not subjected them to close scrutiny and ultimately dismissed them as inapplicable.

A.: Can you simply do that? It requires mental fortitude and I am weak.

B.: The primary source of strength is technique. You know it from your experience with football. How powerful a shot is depends on the impact of your foot on the ball and the spin you put on it. A good kick involves a swing of the whole body. It is not the raw power that your feet may generate but the manner in which the ball is launched.

A.: Fair enough.

B.: The gist is that if you are doing it wrongly, it does not matter how much effort you put into it. Instead of recognising that your shortcomings are due to an inappropriate method—a bad technique—you rationalise your condition as you being a weakling. That’s nonsense! It brings us back to the point of studying how things stand. Start from scratch and take each factor one-by-one. Determine its actuality and be honest about what its significance is.

A.: What you already said about the fact that I have changed and so has the situation…

B.: Don’t worry about your ideas just like you should not bother with the random thoughts of others. Think about it this way, suppose that someone suggests you consume junk food as it will do you good. You have quit such bad habits for more than a decade, as you maintain an unflinching commitment to a healthy lifestyle. You unequivocally reject junk food from a position of knowledge. Such false claim from someone cannot bother you, for it has no material implications on your being. It is an idea that does not apply to the constitution of the particular case which you know well.

A.: In this example, if I did not know about junk food I would have reacted to the opinion differently. I would most likely double-check for myself, ask others for feedbak… In general, that opinion would have had a profound effect on me. It would be exercising control over me.

B.: Do you see now how futile it is to get drunk or pretend that the problem isn’t there? Those methods do not provide you with any insights, they do not address the root cause of the friction.

A.: I do. Then there is no easy way out…

B.: There isn’t. You need to be patient and take things slowly. There can be no immediate results, no magic solutions. What matters is the disposition of acknowledging that at every point it is not just about you; it never is just about you.

[ Read: Why it is not just about you (2021-08-03) ]

A.: Thanks! Patience is key. Plus there is the fact that the mind and the body are not separate, as you mentioned. A rebalancing requires a lot more work.

B.: True. Ignore the cliché of “just go for it”. I prefer to liken the process to how a turtle ventures on its destination: slow and steady on its path, one decisive step at a time.

A.: Fine!

B.: We have established a common basis on how to reach and maintain a state of ataraxia or non-disturbance through the attitude of seeking knowledge, though I feel there is more to be accounted for. Let me press on with this problématique by means of a question: have you ever considered what the act of forgiveness does?

A.: You tell someone that you longer hold their past deeds against them.

B.: This can be a part of it. The essence, however, is that you break the spell of the thought related to the event. You liberate yourself from it. You learn to let go by admitting that you are no longer controlled by those notions; that you have assessed the case and you consider them null and void from a position of knowledge. In a similar fashion, to forgive yourself is another way of identifying the constitution of the case, stating that the agent of yore is a function of the applicable structure and recognising that your actuality today differs from its past one.

A.: All clear! I just need to be a bit less self-critical then.

B.: Self-criticism is fine, when done in moderation, else when it is commensurate with the particularities of the case. Recall that agency is a function of structure, meaning that your contribution in the concatenation of events is not the sole factor involved. In your introspective critique you may have assigned a weight of 99% for your involvement and left the 1% for everything else. What if such is a misreading of the circumstances? What if your part was the 1% and the rest belongs to factors outside your control? Why insist on remorseless self-criticism, or the mental equivalent of beating yourself into submission, when it is not clear that your assessment is correct? Why be dogmatic about a certain view and why not try to validate it first? Again, you need to examine the specifics and maintain a sense of perspective, not least because free will, just like the soul, is not absolute and decontextualised in the way conventional wisdom teaches us.

A.: It is difficult to avoid criticising my past self.

B.: There is no need to stop doing that. Learn to conduct yourself in moderation. I have already told you about the meaning of “hubris”: the notion that by going to extremes we inflict potentially irreparable damage on ourselves.

A.: Yes, I remember.

B.: And you also told me you are fascinated by ancient Greek polytheism.

A.: Correct.

B.: I suppose you already know about the two maxims inscribed at the entrance to the temple of Apollo in Delphi: (i) nothing in excess (ΜΗΔΕΝ ΑΓΑΝ), and (ii) know yourself (ΓΝΩΘΙ ΣΕΑΥΤΟΝ). Do you think it is a coincidence that those two complementary statements were written there?

A.: No, it can’t be some random choice of words. Speak your mind!

B.: To avoid excesses you have to know what your limits are. Each person is unique; unique not only at once but also over time, as having gone through an individualised set of experiences. What the sages tell us is that to avoid committing hubris, we must figure out how things stand. I would add to this that the self does not have a standalone presence. We can only discover it in some milieu, framed by a social-cultural whole, as well as a natural environment. Again, we encounter this pattern of the structure and of the agent being a function of it. There is no selfhood without structure; no “you” without the conditions that made it possible, that substantiated it. You learn about who you are by juxtaposing it with an understanding of others, with insights on who you are not. But you can never be sure. The self is neither static nor immutable. It is a work-in-progress that remains exposed to evolving states of affairs. To know yourself, therefore, is to remain open to the possibility of knowing, to be dubitative and inquisitive, to not commit the grave error of assuming a role that you mistake for your true self.

A.: I must be more Apollonian then? To find the meter in life, the balance?

B.: I think the ancient sages have the answer for you: be Apollonian as well. Why do you think there are multiple gods in that tradition which you admire? These are archetypes that symbolise different facets of life. Think about humanity: we are not perfectly rational agents, or purely emotional, or some ethereal spirit, etc. We are fully fledged beings with a rational as well as an irrational side, emotions, carnal needs and desires, a mystical disposition through which we connect with the world that envelops us… Our very makeup makes it impossible to be just Apollonian, or strictly Dionysian, and so on. We must strike a balance and be a bit of everything, always without disturbing our natural inner equilibrium. Be human and make no pretences about what the human kind is. Be human to its fullest potential, not as a fraction of it.

A.: Aren’t some parts of humanity kind of undesirable though? Like if you spend all day eating?

B.: Is eating undesirable or the fact that you spend all day doing it, thus committing hubris in the process?

A.: Ah yes, we ought to adopt a balanced approach.

B.: Exactly. The balancing act involves knowledge of the case’ constitution: know yourself, thus inquire upon the structure that informs your agency.

A.: “Agency is a function of structure.” Got it!

B.: Those who aspire to become a fraction of human commit what I consider to be a not-so-obvious error, unless they are mere hypocrites: they start off with an analytical conception of what the human is, then add to it a normative value to the effect of what the “good human” must be, and then they conflate this ideal with the actual human being. Based on that conflation, they derive a system of values which informs their conduct. This is due to a general propensity of idolisation, which I think is inherent to humanity. To idolise is to replace the actual with its idealised counterpart and then forget about the process of substitution you have performed. The idol thus takes the stead of the actual: it is the only one being considered. Consider an icon representing a Christian saint, or a statue symbolising Zeus—whatever works for you: if you think that the pictorial features of the icon or the carved stone as such hold the saint/god then you are idolising it, you ignore the actual artefact and in its place you only see the saint/god embodied. To our point, the purely rational human, the perfectly spiritual human, and such concepts, are idols and those who faithfully believe in them idolaters.

A.: Interesting! How does that relate to our topic?

B.: When you self-criticise without acknowledging the constitution of the case, you are committing the hubris of idolisation. Either you idealise your surroundings or your self or something in-between to the point where you ignore what the actual state of those analytical constructs is. You insist that it is your fault because you have set up an idol that you as a fallible mortal can never live up to.

A.: So idolisation is another way of violating the tandem of maxims “nothing in excess” and “know yourself”. It fits together with everything else you elaborated on. Let me ask you this: is there any justification for blaming yourself for something for as long as you live?

B.: There might be, if the structure which informed that agent has not undergone change or if that agent somehow remains unaltered. How likely that is over a sufficiently long period of time? Probably not much. In practice, there is always a chance that things have been refashioned and that a careful inquiry into the constitution of the person’s particular case will yield the finding that the “ghosts of the past”, those persistent thoughts, have no power over the present. Sometimes it is not your fault or not only your fault. Take it easy and seek knowledge, just as the ancient sages have taught us.