20 July 2024 07:21:09 GMT

The Third Rock Forum - Society

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Existential Dysphoria
Paul G
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Submitted : 12-01-2024 11:43
Amended : 16-01-2024 11:47
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The times are out of joint.

The world is facing challenges that it seems ill-equipped to meet.  In addition to the routine scourges of war and famine, we have to deal with global warming which is an existential threat to life on earth.

This essay is not, however, about these practical, real world problems.  Rather it is about what appears to be a collective mental breakdown which is afflicting mankind, a kind of mental dysphoria in which profoundly idiotic ideas are gaining traction, sweeping aside fact, science and reason, and precluding any critical thought.

In short, there appears to be a drive, at least in the Western intellectual world, to deconstruct everything. Of course sometimes it is necessary to undermine or at least redefine established ideas but this is worthwhile only if the iconoclast has something better to put in its place. Today's deconstructionists seem to offer nothing but self-obession, a perverse determination to assert the rights of minority groups at the expense of the majority, contempt for reason, science and freedom of speech and an authoritarian instinct that makes Stalin look liberal.

So we find ourselves in a sea of mental perturbations which is typified by doubt about or destruction of long-held, and many believe, fundamental truths about the human condition.

We can cite as examples of this existential dysphoria:

  • loss of faith in God
  • opposition to moral judgements/uncertainty in the judicial process
  • weakening of property rights
  • contempt for science and reason
  • the sex/gender muddle

In every case, previous 'certainties' have been challenged and, in varying degrees, overthrown.

1. Loss of faith in God

This is not about whether or not God exists. Here the point is that a powerful concept, underpinning many people's understanding of the human predicament, has been swept away.

Since the 19th century, Western societies have tended to move away from faith in God towards a more agnostic or atheistic position.  This is largely the result of advances in science and, in particular, the theory of evolution.

Science has provided an explanation of our universe which to the rational mind is generally more persuasive than the various explanations offered by religions. We now know that the world was not created in six days, rather it took billions of years. We know that it took 10 billion years from the start of the universe for life to emerge on earth. We know that man has been around for only a very few million years. The simplicity and clarity of the world's creation stories have been replaced by a scientific version which, ironically, is beyond belief and certainly beyond the comprehension of most people. Instead of a Creator, creating man in his own image, we have an unexplained instant of creation 13.5 billion years ago, producing an infinite universe of predominantly hydrogen and helium which, simply by random combinations of atoms, has culminated in recent times in the minds of Shakespeare, Beethoven, Mozart and Einstein - and of course in we lesser mortals who nonetheless have brains capable of extraordinary things. Were it not for the fact of our existence, the statistical probability of such an account has to be zero - or very, very close to it.

Of course there is no necessary dichotomy between faith in God and science.  Many scientists are believers and the more science explores the origins of the universe and the emergence of life, the more most people feel awe and sense of wonder that can certainly accommodate faith in the existence of a 'higher power' or, at the very least, a sense of direction. Nevertheless, the unquestioning faith in an all-powerful God - who  knows us, judges us and loves us – which sustained hundreds of generations of our forbears has dwindled in today’s predominantly secular society.

Human beings are meaning-seeking animals. Belief in God gives life meaning. In Christianity and many other faiths this life is simply a preparation for the hereafter. We are to be judged according to the extent that we have fulfilled God's will in this life. Why God created us is not fully explained. Nor is it entirely clear why we are to be judged on the extent to which we have fulfilled His will. But setting aside such questions for the moment, we can understand that faith in God gives man purpose to his life. It is a purpose ordained for us by a Superior Being, a Being so superior that He could create the universe and all within it, so superior that our modest intellectual capacity cannot hope fully to grasp His essence or his intentions, except to the extent that He is, as the prophets tell us, generally benign, albeit somewhat obsessed with obedience.  Of course, you could ask what is the point of the afterlife but this is a question all such religions tell us is either entirely beyond our comprehension or utterly inappropriate, or both.

So leaving aside such existential conundrums, let us agree that the religions based on faith in the God of Abraham, Jesus and Muhammed give man a sense of purpose in life and meaning to his existence.

Alongside decline in faith in the existence of God is a dwindling of the belief that there is an afterlife. This has a crucial impact on understanding man's predicament. If there is no afterlife, any meaning for life must be found within our transient existence here and now. Just as there is no Superior Being whose rules we should obey, there is no afterlife in which the extent to which we fulfilled our purpose here can be assessed and our destiny fulfilled.  Any judgement, if there is any, must take place within this world and within the span of our lifetime. Our destiny must be sought within this life because, for each individual, this is the only existence we will have.

This inevitably leads to some degree of mental unease.  

First, life is unfair.  Religions promise to put things right in some way.  If there is no religion and no afterlife, the unfairness  is not resolved.

Secondly, if the unfairness is not resolved, we really do have to make the best of what we have here in this life. This realisation encourages selfishness. After all, each of us has only one life and we should make the most of it.

Thirdly, if there is no afterlife and no judgement, we can do what we like in this life, limited only by the laws and constraints that society imposes on us.  For those with only a modest or vestigial moral sense, a "do what you want so long as you don't get caught" attitude seems sensible.

So, in place of faith in God, an afterlife and a sense of purpose, we have dissatisfaction with the unfairness of life, a tendency to self obsession and selfishness, and a serious decline in moral sense.  Not a wholly benign outcome!

2. Opposition to moral judgement/ uncertainty in the judicial process

Civilisation depends, in large measure, on law.

As noted above, the Abrahamic religions inform us that the Creator is an enthusiast for the law and will, at the end of time, judge us all.

In addition to the promise or threat of divine judgement, society has in the past imposed its own set of rules on those who wish to be members. So our behaviour was inhibited by God and the law.

Until relatively recently, people’s lives were governed by a morality, underpinned by an unambiguous penal system. From Hammurabi and his famous Code, through the Ten Commandments of the Old Testament to the judicial and penal systems of most governments, moral judgements were defined in law and accepted by rulers and the ruled.

It was only in the 20th century that relativism really took hold in society and in the mind of the average person.  Gradually the simplicity and clarity of:

Q. Are you guilty of breaking the law?
A. Yes.
Q. Then you will face the prescribed punishment.

was replaced by:

Q. Are you guilty of breaking the law?
A. It depends what you mean by guilty?
Q. Did you do the deed?
A. Yes but there are extenuating circumstances which make the meaning of ‘guilty’ problematic.
Q. In what way problematic?
A. My background (deprivation as a child; abusive parents, dyslexia, OCD, ADS, etc)
    must be taken into account.     There is also the added complication that as we understand more and more about the brain - its structure,        its chemistry, its electrical circuitry - we have to ask whether humans have free will in any sense that justifies the passing of moral                judgements on human behaviour. 
    What's more, what is judged good and what is bad are largely social constructs that vary from culture to culture, as indeed does the law. So, in addition to asking you what you mean by guilty, I have to ask you precisely what you mean by law.
Q. Oh dear! I don't know what to say

Alongside growing scepticism about the judicial process, there are serious breaches in the system of evidence-based judgements. One of England's most powerful contributions to protection of the citizen is, or should I say was, the dictum that a person is innocent until proved guilty. Today, the police and the media are complicit in the overthrow of this safeguard against malicious accusations and incompetent investigations. Frequently, those in the public eye are accused and condemned in short order by public opinion. The fact that there is, as yet, no evidence, no judicial process, counts for nought. The accused becomes the condemned. Even when the judicial process has been undertaken and the accused has been found innocent, the stigma of having been accused is often sufficient to blight a career and a life.

In place of a law-based system that protected the rights of every individual, we have a breakdown of the principles on which such a law-based-system depends, an undermining of the requirement for evidence, and formal judgement replaced by the emotion-driven opinion of the media and the masses.

Ironically, at the same time as we have removed reason and consistency from the judicial process, a movement to impose today's rather shaky, flakey morality on the past has taken hold. Anyone whose forbears had even a tenuous connection with slavery finds the sins of the fathers shall be visited on the children and is promptly accused of irredeemable immorality and racism. Given the firm conviction of the  accusers that morality is relative and variable according to custom, you would think that they would recognise a degree of inconsistency in their outright condemnation of the conduct of people who lived respectable within the law of very different times. They might also ask themselves whether it makes any sense to hold their descendants guilty by genetic association.. But they do not.  Protected by their repudiation of reason, their  obvious inconsistency doesn't even give them a momentary pause for thought.

3. Weakening of property rights

Property rights define the theoretical and legal ownership of resources and how they can be used. These resources can be both tangible or intangible and can be owned by individuals, businesses, and governments. (Source:  Investopedia)

If moral codes are weakened and the judicial process becomes undermined and overcomplicated, it is inevitable that all rights and responsibilities would be re-examined and, often, challenged.

Property rights have been the foundation of trade and commerce, and all economic systems.  It appears to be a given for humans that anything material of worth has to be owned.

But precisely 'who owns what' is dependent on ideology.  In Communist states, resources are owned by the state.  "On behalf of the people" is often added, but it is a vacuous qualification, in that all the power over the resources rests with the state.

Personal property rights are the bedrock of capitalism. Under capitalism, resources are shared between the state, businesses and the people.  The state taxes businesses and the people in order to govern the country.  The businesses and the people pay their taxes, willingly or unwillingly, to finance the Government. The source of these taxes is the resources of the country, the labour of its people (e.g.income tax and VAT) and the assets owned by the people (e.g. capital gains tax, inheritance tax).

You could argue that any taxes are a breach of the right to own property but, if applied proportionately, the income and assets of an individual in a Capitalist society can be sequestered (i.e. taxed) by the state.  This is seen as a wholly legitimate infringement of property rights on the ground that individuals need to live in a well-ordered and planned society and so they willingly concede part of their wealth to finance an organised and law-abiding environment in which they can survive and thrive.

That said, there should be a limit to the legitimacy of taxation.  If the burden of tax becomes oppressive, it is arguable that the state is abusing the "money for social stability" contract between the governors and the governed.  When the state commandeers half a nation's GDP, many may feel that limit has been exceeded.

A more obvious, direct attack on property rights, is the right to roam.  Increasingly, pressure groups are demanding that whole tracts of land, owned and managed by an individual, should be open to the general public. The UK Government states:

You can access some land across England without having to use paths - this land is known as ‘open access land’ or ‘access land’.
Access land includes mountains, moors, heaths and downs that are privately owned. It also includes common land registered with the local council and some land around the England Coast Path.
Your right to access this land is called the ‘right to roam’, or ‘freedom to roam’.
You can use access land for walking, running, watching wildlife and climbing but not for:
- horse-riding
- cycling
- camping
- taking animals other than dogs on to the land
- driving a vehicle (except mobility scooters and powered wheelchairs)
- water sports
unless you have the landowners permission or there are specific exceptions

The right to roam has a long history but there are those who wish to extend the right to roam as a direct challenge to property rights:

"Ours is a wild and a beautiful island. But the vast majority of it is unknown to us because, by law of trespass, we are banned from setting foot on it. We are excluded from hundreds of thousands of acres of open space - of woodland, meadows, rivers and their banks - simply because ancient laws of ownership fail to recognise the importance of nature to the public." (Source: righttoroam.org.uk)

Thus, according to the English Right to Roam organisation, "the importance of nature to the public" trumps property rights.  

It is understandable that the 21st century 'man on the Clapham bus' should feel somewhat aggrieved at the uneven distribution of wealth in the UK (especially in the form of land ownership)  and the compromise solution of infringing the land-owners property rights to assuage his grief is understandable. It is entirely consistent with the English genius for employing muddle to solve difficult problems. Nevertheless, the right to roam conflicts with the essential principle of property ownership (that the owner determines how his/her property should be used).

Given the dubious intellectual foundation on which this particular weakening of property rights is based (i.e. the importance of nature to the public), it poses at least a potential threat to the concept of property rights across the board.  Could the public demand access to large privately-owned gardens on the same grounds (sic)? Could the importance of mobility to young people be used to justify the  "borrowing" of a car from a car collector? or even the car of a multi-car family? Could the importance of money to the public be used to challenge the right of the wealthy to the control of their post-tax income?

There are those who believe that the ownership of property is the root of all evil. They favour the abolition of the rights of an individual to own property and advocate collectivisation: i.e. state ownership of all property. This, it is argued, will lead to a classless, cooperative society in which all the social problems associated with greed and ruthless competition are eradicated. Ironically, it resonates in several respects with the teachings of Christ, ironically because, when collectivisation is adopted, the outcome tends to be a repressive, anti-democratic totalitarian state, which is certainly not what Jesus had in mind.

Collectivisation also tends to create massive, sclerotic, self-serving bureaucracies and, by effectively discouraging competition, economies that lack dynamism and innovation.

The  biggest problem with attempts to abolish property rights is quite simply that it ignores human nature.  Socialists and Marxists tend to believe that humans beings are born with a blank human nature (a tabula rasa) and that the blank is filled exclusively by the environment and by daily experience. If you accept the tabula rasa view of human nature, then it is possible to mould human nature to fit with whatever ideology society chooses to promote.

On the other hand, there is evidence that humans are not born with an entirely unwritten nature. There are genetic factors which certainly seem to have a bearing on how our nature turns out to be.  Differences in brain structure and composition may play a part.  Most people would agree that personality differences are, at least to some extent, "born in you".

Perhaps more important is the fact that, throughout almost all human history, the ownership of property has been an aspiration of almost all people. Many have not been able to fulfil that aspiration but, as soon as they are given the chance, they seek to own. This is may well be a psychological need that ensues from the existential predicament in which all human beings find themselves. Each of us finds ourselves in a body, a body that is us and differentiates us from the whole of the rest of existence ("the other").  It is understandable and probably inevitable that this isolated intelligence, locked in a single body but surrounded by and entirely dependent on "the other" (everything else), should feel the need to establish a relationships with "the other". We seek to form relationships with other people (through friendship and love) and with things (through acquisition).  Through relationships with people, we ameliorate the existential isolation of our individuality; and, through ownership of things, we extend our domain from the vulnerable, transient body in which we are encased into the more solid and enduring reality of the world of things.

If this is so, it is not by chance that most societies have accommodated private ownership of property.

Most societies, but not all. There is no limit to the imagination of man and we should not be surprised if there are exceptions to the rule. There has always been indignation, if not outrage, amongst some about the unequal distribution of wealth, an inequality which has typified most human societies. All modern societies attempt to address the injustice of vast income and wealth disparities through progressive taxation. But it was not until Karl Marx that this disquiet about social inequalities found its full expression and coherence in a new ideology, Communism.

Communism is one of those ideologies which, at a theoretical level, has much to recommend it.  Its abolition of individual property rights is more than justified by the promise of a fairer, more humane society in which each contributes according to their ability and takes according to their needs.

Except, of course, that the ideology completely ignores human nature and, because it ignores human nature, when it is realised in the real world (as in the Soviet Union) it emerges as a hideous caricature of its theoretically ideal world.  Stalin is thought to have been responsible for 20,000,000 deaths of his own citizens. Mao's version of communism in China resulted in an even greater death toll, topping 40,000,000.

So the evidence suggests that property rights form the economic basis for a free society and those who choose to erode them tend to do more harm than good to the individual's freedom and well-being.  Yet this appears to be the direction of travel favoured by the deconstructionists.

4. Contempt for science and reason

Here are three questions.

How many of us are capable of reasoning? Can we spot inconsistencies in our or others' moral or political positions? If we do spot them, do we feel the need to resolve them?

How many of us have at least some understanding of the most recent advances in the sciences; in astronomy, in astrophysics, in biology, in chemistry, in information technology and in physics?

How many of us have observed and studied human nature in an attempt to discern those qualities and characteristics which determine human motivations

I don't have a precise answer to the three questions posed above but, from my own extensive research, it is not so many. And yet, however few they may be, we all might agree that they alone have the prerequisites (intelligence and knowledge) to have any chance of addressing and solving humanity's problems in the 21st century.  We live now in a more complex age, more difficult to comprehend and manage than ever before so we are in desperate need of those with intelligence and knowledge.  Do we set a high premium on such qualities and ensure our leaders posses them? No. Instead we have embarked on a collective dumbing down. We have told everyone they are really very important, that however stupid, irrational or ignorant they are, their views and feelings must be respected; that they have no need to defer to those who are wiser, more inventive, more competent than them;  that what they wish to be is more important than what they are. The result, in my opinion, is a very real threat to civilisation. 

The masses are liberated from the constraints of reason and fact and have been told to believe that what they think is just as important as what anyone else thinks. Most, not much given to introspection, continue to live there lives much as before - but minority groups, outliers from the consensus of opinion and the norms of human behaviour, are now emboldened to demand attention, influence and power, even when their demands conflict with the rights of the majority.  

Under the guise of entirely benign concepts (e.g. equity, equality and inclusiveness), pernicious and destructive processes are introduced. Diversity is not about people of all kinds living together, rather it is about the application of quotas to engineer the composition of groups based on the favoured mix of those enforcing them.  Equity is not about treating all people fairly; it is about disregarding merit, effort and integrity and replacing it with preferences for selected groups based on race, gender, sexual orientation, etc.  Inclusion is not about ensuring that all are welcome; rather it is about excluding all who fail to subscribe to the new orthodoxy. While claiming to be a wholly positive moral philosophy, it is in fact dictatorial and divisive, with racism and  sexism at is core.

Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) has become embedded in our universities, corporations and other major institutions. With Critical Race Theory and Gender Identity politics, it is taught in our schools so that generations of our children are being indoctrinated with a perverse and socially divisive ideology, an ideology which abhors free speech, which closes down debate, which cancels or excludes any who oppose it, - in short, which exhibits all the features normally associated in the past with ruthless totalitarian regimes.

Only in a society which has abandoned reason and science could such a pernicious ideology flourish.  

Our great universities brag about their intake of black and other minority ethnics students which is two or three times higher than the numerical representation of these groups in the community.  Unless these groups are more intelligent than whites, clearly mental acuity is no longer the main criterion for entrance to these prestigious institutions.

Historical figures are being excoriated for having any association with slavery, despite the fact that they lived in a period (i.e. most of mankind's history) when slavery was a normal part of the structure of societies. England is singled out for particular criticism for involvement in slavery when in fact it was the leading power in its abolition.

People are having their careers ended and their lives blighted, simply for stating the objective fact that a man cannot become a women, that sex is binary. Teachers have lost their jobs for refusing to use the female pronoun when addressing a boy who says he wants to be a girl.  (More on this issue below.)

In the guise of a new enlightenment, these ultra-liberal, deconstructionist thinkers are taking us back into the Dark Ages.  How on earth has such an idiosyncratic, half-baked, irrational philosophy gained any traction, let alone become the contemporary orthodoxy.

5. The sex/gender muddle

In the end it was inevitable. 

Inspired by their success in undermining so many intellectual constructs, the deconstructionists took on the ultimate challenge. They turned their attention to sex.
Here was an indisputable reality; i.e that there are two sexes, mail and female. It is a biological fact on which the survival of the species depends. If they could deconstruct this particular classificatory dichotomy, there would be no limit to their destructive powers.

So they took the word gender, used primarily in grammar to denote the quirk in some languages of ascribing a sexual identity to words, and arbitrarily created an entirely hypothetical world of many genders. They then declared, without any evidence, that everyone has a gender, distinct from their sexuality, and that everyone is entitled to decide which of a multitude of genders they feel themselves to be.  Inevitably, given the human propensity for some people to deviate from the norm, some decided that their gender didn't match their biological sex: i.e. they had been born in the wrong body. 

The simplest way to dispose of this way of thinking is to point out that there is no evidence that anyone has a gender, distinct from their biological sex  Some people may feel they should have been born into a body with the alternative biological sex, but that doesn't mean there is a real mismatch between their body and the one they would have preferred, any more than my feeling I should have been born with the body of a great athlete, or indeed the body of a gorilla, means that I've been born in the wrong body.

Obviously, anyone who feels they don't have a body in which they feel at home should be given sympathy and help. But this is a mental rather than a physical problem and should be regarded as such. There are serious adverse consequences if we go along with their misconception and except that their chosen "gender" is real.  If they persist and we connive in this unreality, they face a lifetime of pretence and frustration, not to mention, if they follow through, surgical, chemical and hormonal abuse.  At the end, even if they undergo every imaginable procedure, they will still not have what they want. They still won't have changed sex.  Every cell of their body will still remain stoically faithful to its biological sexual identity.

Nevertheless, the deconstructionists can claim success. In order to appease a tiny minority suffering from what is essentially a mental problem, they have been able to undermine a reality embedded in reason and science and then alter the law to the detriment of half the population.  If the deconstructionists could do this to the reality of sex, they will surely feel they can destroy any of the mental constructs that we use to impose order on the universe and our lives within it..

How have we come to this?.  Some governments have even legislated to compel us to accept that if a man declares himself to be a woman, we must immediately accept him as a woman, even though he is obviously still a man, even though he still has all the reproductive equipment of a man, and even though it is biologically and genetically impossible for a man to become a woman, or a woman a man.

Many will say that if someone really wants to change sex, why don't we just accept it. It's a reasonable question, although we don't usually approach mental problems by re-enforcing the problem. But there is another objection which is of paramount importance. If this minority group of trans women are able to achieve legal recognition as real women, their rights will conflict with a much larger group, real women. The risks of allowing trans women (especially those still intact with male genitalia) access to women only spaces is beginning to be realised.  The absurdity of allowing trans women to compete against actual women in athletics involving physical strength is now widely accepted. 


So there we are.  Faced by the existential horror of an inexplicable, finite, transient existence, with no apparent point or purpose, it is perhaps not surprising that the mental health of humanity is on a steeply downward path. The meaning-seeking naked ape has lost his purpose.  Nothing is clear; nothing is certain; there is no point.   
As a result, there are no limits, no constraints.  There are no rules that cannot be dismissed as arbitrary social constructs.  There are no criteria for excellence in any field that cannot be dismissed as unjustified cultural arrogance. The cult of the celebrity replaces fame based on real achievement.  Truth becomes a matter of opinion, based on emotion. Rational discourse is displaced by subjective, emotional effusions. What people feel or want takes precedence over reason and reality.

But, if this is so, why would governments and institutions embrace the new nihilistic anarchism?  Why are they prepared to endorse blatantly silly ideas and enforce rules that deny people the right to freedom of speech and thought.  

The answer seems to be that those who run governments and other institutions have been  infected by the same intellectual anarchy that has wrought havoc in academe and amongst the  intelligentsia. Perhaps overwhelmed by the real world tasks of dealing with the existential threats facing humanity, the political class have simply suffered a mental breakdown. Yes,  I am offering the hypothesis that the Western civilisation is infected by a serious and potentially fatal mental disease brought on by fear and frustration, a generalised existential dysphoria. 

It is time for all those as yet unaffected by this malaise to take the wheel. Cometh the hour, cometh someone.  For God's sake, let's hope so!