I had a few bits and pieces left over from various note-taking and thought-scribing sessions, so I collected them together into this final piece. Thanks for reading – I hoped you enjoyed the series. Keep your eyes peeled for more pieces to come on a variety of different philosophical themes.
Thoughts on god
I’m not so sure there is a god. As a young child, I’d been conditioned to assume there was – we sang hymns at school and I even attended Sunday school for a brief time. In fact, pretty much the entirety of my schooling was punctuated by visits to church for various reasons. I really loved the Christmas services and still do. And I’ll always do my best to belt out a hymn or two at a wedding or Christening. I also appreciate the springtime harvest period and the general feeling of fraternity, familial vibes and togetherness that you come across in a lot of churches in England (at least the rural ones I’ve been to). I think it’s important to respect the beliefs of others – even if you don’t share them. And even if you have a problem with religion itself. A lot of bad things have been done under the auspices of religious bodies, but lots of wonderful things have also resulted from them, and it’s important to remember that.
By the time I was in middle school, I’d no doubt have been sceptical about god. By the time I reached university and studied philosophy in cultural studies (and everyone was reading Nietzsche or Dawkins or whatever), I’d have been convinced there wasn’t. But now I’m older, wiser (maybe) and more intellectually rounded, I am of the opinion that anything is possible. I think it’s unlikely that when we die we all go up to the gates of heaven, have a quick chat with Saint Peter on the way in and then head to one of the kick-ass celestial bars to shoot pool with Hendrix and Cobain. I doubt we’ll be retiring to our mansions in the clouds where every single one of our family members from each lineage is waiting with open, loving arms (what about the early man Shackleys – would they be invited? I’m not sure there’s room at the dinner table for another brutish Neanderthal with no manners – what with my sisters and all…)
And yet, none of us actually knows what happens after we die. So therefore anything is possible. I am open to any possibilities. Some are more likely than others. But there has to be more than just a fear of the unknown and a fear of the consequences of our actions on this earth (and a potential ticket to eternal paradise for good behaviour in the mortal realm) that drives goodness in our actions. Love, kindness and Niceness cannot just be explained reciprocally, as a means to gain such virtues in return. Are people nice solely for the reason that it might help them get to heaven? Sure, they might do certain nice things in line with their faith and in the belief that they will help their case with Saint Peter, but would it not represent too much of a concerted effort for anyone to seek goodness purely for personal future gains? And isn’t that kind of a contradiction anyway?
Sorry state of affairs
Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, and many great minds before them and subsequent to them, believed in a deity/deities. Are they just infantile dreamers of a forgotten age of innocence, pre-enlightenment and embryonic ideas? Or have we lost our way with a new veneration of false idols (film stars, pop stars, YouTubers – celebs, basically)? It’s only in recent history (universally speaking) that the notion of a creator has been refuted – mainly due to those with ill intentions exploiting the belief of followers for their own benefits. In this way, surely it was the church and State which really killed god – by abusing his or her (more likely its) name and significance to better their own personal circumstances. Either way, whether the idea of faith in this respect is to be commended, considered a bit crazy or somewhere in between doesn’t matter to me – as long as you’re nice, kind, loving and respectful of others, what you choose to believe in is your decision.
It’s when those beliefs are manipulated to cause injury to others that problems arise. It’s what Nietzsche wrote about in his slave ethics – people bowing to the will of god and doing what good god-fearing subjects should do to guarantee their ticket to a better life. Thus the slave chooses to refuse an assumption of their freedom, or neglects to rebel against their oppressors, because they believe that one day, by following the way of god, they’ll be booking their passage to a better afterlife anyway. You certainly can’t blame people in awful circumstances going down that path – hope is a mighty ally in grave conditions.
But this lack of action also means that terrible injustices are allowed to be carried out – sometimes we all need a little Sartre in our corner ready to fight the good fight for the little guy, for the meek, for the passive, for the oppressed, for the subjugated, for the believers in uncertain futures. And even if there is a glorious afterlife laying in wait for the believers, that doesn’t for one second mean it’s acceptable for them to live in serfdom, in chains, in pain, and in fear, in this lifetime. If there is to be a heaven after this existence, then we should do all we can to practise our own heavenly virtues in this dress rehearsal.
Let’s assume for a second that the various schools of thought and religions which prescribe to a belief in reincarnation are actually correct. It’s no more fanciful than any other posthumous anticipation of what might occur. I wonder how that might work. It’s difficult to imagine passing from this life into another – closing your eyes on your deathbed as a human being and then opening them as, say, a hedgehog, or a shark, or a lion, or a sparrow, or an earthworm. I guess that if you retain no memories and form only the consciousness expected of such inferior tech (much smaller brains), then it wouldn’t matter anyway. But just imagine you were reincarnated with a complete set of memories of your previous life. Even that is difficult to imagine – because the longer we live, the more memories we create, and thus lose, over time. But let’s just suggest for now that we all come back as some kind of animal in our next life which relates to the human life we lived previously.
Let’s assume that the criteria for the next stage is based on how virtuously we behaved – both in terms of the things we did and what we thought about things. And let’s assume that the animals are structured into a hierarchy based on general arbitrary advantages of their being – perhaps a better description would be, based on the nature of the life such an animal would usually lead. And let’s add in that you have as good a memory as you have now (reading this post) of what happened in your life. Let’s also state that your memories trickle back bit by bit from your animalistic infancy up to the point of animal adolescence – if you’re lucky to survive that long in the harsh animal kingdom.
A shit Quantum Leap
Imagine suddenly awakening from your deathly slumber in the form of a giant tortoise – and after some years slowly traversing the volcanic terrain of the Galápagos Islands, you begin to recall your last existence. You remember your parents, siblings, childhood, teenage years, early work experiences, various romantic partners. You remember your wife, husband – you remember your kids.
It’s kind of like a shit version of Quantum Leap – only there isn’t a right to be put wrong. Just a potentially miserable, lonely existence in which you heartachingly pine for a reunion with your lost loved ones. And the most ridiculous thing about all that I’ve just written is that’s it’s entirely plausible – incredibly unlikely, yes. But no one knows what happens. There’s both an immense fear and thrill to such a realisation.
I must add here I appreciate that if we came back as an animal with an (eventual) full consciousness, surely we would just communicate our feelings to human beings using the systems of language and understanding that we form our thoughts with. And so for this thought experiment, you’d just have to accept that some kind of barrier prevents the non-humans from articulating anything other than their most basic thoughts to the human beings living among them; basically, nothing beyond the most sophisticated interactions we have with the smartest animals on the planet right now. And, let’s face it, even if it includes monkeys who’ve piloted spacecraft, I know for a fact they couldn’t explain to me why you should always get an extra garlic and herb dip when you order a Dominos.
What would you most like to return as if this was to happen to you? Please let me know in the comment section below. I think I’d like to come back as some kind of bird; preferably one big enough to fend off most predators but ideally not a meat-eater (I love meat but I think relying on it as a bird must be well annoying). I reckon that having to deal with the creeping realisation that your consciousness and memories have returned in another form would be unbearable. It would be impossibly hard for anyone to deal with, and yet – if that’s the way your life is, then you either deal with it or end it.
So I guess I’d initially struggle without the loneliness, longing and general emotional torment. Then, having failed to find and reconnect with any of my previous family members or friends (you can’t communicate with ANY other being on more than a basic level, so you’ll never find them unfortunately), I would attempt resolve my woe by exploring the world from my bird’s eye view. At least there would thus still be some beauty, tranquility and wonder to appreciate about existence even if the best stuff (love, family, Genuinity) were no longer accessible.
Staying in touch
We get so lost in our own thoughts – since the beginning of the Cartesian model of Western philosophy and Descartes’ mind-body dualism onwards – that we forget the significance of our senses. Is truth in intellect and knowledge (breaking down atoms further and further) or is it simply in what we see, touch, taste, heat and smell? For Nietzsche, there was no good to come from knowledge for the sake of knowledge.
The smarter and more informed we think we become, the further we are from our instinctive roots. Similar to the Tao – we continue to lose our synchronicity with nature. Are relentless investigations of scientific discovery like quantum mechanics just digging deeper and deeper into the abyss? Can we ever really know how the universe works? Is this rabbit hole actually never-ending? Are we wasting time looking for answers to the big questions when we could simply be spending more time, effort and energy making our world the best possible place for all living beings to co-exist?
I would expect by now, in this series of physics blog posts, that it has become apparent just how fascinating I think quantum theory is. The way the great theoretical physicist Richard Feynman explains probabilities using those little arrows along with the turning of the clock dial makes something so complicated become so digestible. And that’s just it – it’s all about probabilities. Life is all about probability. And randomness. And contingency. If one can take anything from quantum theory, it’s that nothing is truly certain. No matter how good the mathematics is. And no matter how small something seems to be, there’s always something smaller still within it (to a point anyway – it also teaches us that everything is finite to a point, even the universe!) Everything has to be made out of something.
What, then, is Genuinity made out of? What are our thoughts? Just synapses firing off electrical impulses in our brains? What is a soul – if it is indeed anything at all? Some things are just impossible to define, explain or to truly understand. And that’s okay – because not only do I not think we have the capacity to understand everything, I don’t think we need to. I agree with Nietzsche, and I follow The Tao. Sure, it can be exciting to inquire. It can be enthralling to investigate – learning is fun. But the real power of Niceness, of happiness, of contentedness, is simply knowing what we need to know to be happy; to appreciate what we have and to tap into our Genuinity.
Obituaries and Niceness
What are the first things people say and hear regularly when loved ones, friends or people of significance die? He was a good soul, she was a caring individual. He always had time for people, she was warm and funny. He was always looking out for other people, she shared a lot of love and kindness. It’s the same thing with work – when any of my colleagues interview a celebrity or famous footballer, what’s the first question I always ask? It’s this – were they nice?
Perhaps that’s just me. But I see it all the time – we treasure kindness; we give goodness exalted status. You can admire someone for what they’ve achieved, for having extraordinary talents or skills; for being special in many different ways. But what makes us all human, what puts us all on the same standing, the same pedestal (as it something we can all aspire to and achieve) is Niceness. We all (almost all, anyway) want to be nice – we want to believe that others are nice. And if people we respect for reasons beyond their sense of kindness do turn out to be nice, it lifts their status to a higher plane.
This status that we give to Niceness is evidence of its significance – the power of Niceness. The beautiful thing about the power of Niceness is that it promotes Genuinity and there are no flaws to being nice. There are things that act counter to it, and people can exploit it. But considering Niceness, kindness and goodness to be an exalted thing – beyond any other traits – is worthy of power. Because love is the greatest power. It gives us life and it brings us everything that is good about living.
I hope that one day someone writes an obituary for me, and that the first thing they say is, ‘Joe Shackley was a nice man; a kind man; a loving creature.’ Those are those most important things to me and, while I don’t always get it right in terms of being nice and kind all the time, I do try to aim for those virtues as a behavioural benchmark. Which three words would you most like to see in your obituary? Let me know in the comments section below or on my Twitter page @being_niceness