PhiloMadrid - Pub Philosophy Meetings in Madrid

Sunday, February 26, 2006

Living the moment

living the moment

There is an element of fatalism or determinism implied in this imperative. What we usually mean by this is that we should enjoy life now and not to be too preoccupied with the future. Sometimes also interpreted as, “take life as it comes”. In other words, the future will take care of itself, in the meantime, make the most of the present.

If we have a quick look around us we will notice that there are two main groups in society who are in a good position to take life as it comes and live the moment. The first group are the very seriously rich, who can afford not to think about the morrow; and the second group are the very poor who cannot afford to think about anything. The rest of society has bought big into the future, so they have an invested interest in the future. But more about the future later.

The way we use this imperative usually goes something like this. We find ourselves in a difficult situation, maybe a bad job situation, a love affair that never was or one that never got anywhere. Sometimes is it is more serious than these things, maybe a broken family, a serious violation of one’s rights or the worst of them all, a health problem. Whatever the problem, we find ourselves having to cope with life. Living the moment or usually, live the moment, is the advice we are given as a means to stop worrying about the future and maybe be a bit happier than of late.

With this background we can immediately see that what looks like a strategy for a philosophy of life ( i.e. some form of guiding principle, but not connected with philosophical analysis), is in reality a form of coping with a particular form of pain. Worrying about the future or being concerned about the past is a form of pain which we cannot just take a pill to make it go away. Let us say that we are not happy in our job, this, by default, causes stress, anxiety and maybe even depression. In other words, we are exposed to a form of psychological pain which, as I say, is not cured by simply taking a pill or a drug. Although it is pain, it is the sort of pain related to life and not disease. Maybe we can stretch our imagination a bit and think of this imperative as a sort of linguistic pain killer.

A very curious thing about this is that we recognize that some pain can be managed by the way we perceive the world. In fact, not only how we passively perceive the world, but how we intentionally want the world to be seen. Some might say that this is evidence to suggest that not all pain is physical pain. After all, if we can manage this pain without taking some chemical, be it paracetamol, alcohol or whatever, then it must be something other than physical pain. After all, this kind of pain is nothing like a bad toothache. Of course, today we know enough to realise that both the body and the brain are capable of activating certain pain feelings and produce chemicals or create chemical reactions to manage certain pains or other physiological stimulations. So just because it does not look physical it does not mean it isn’t.

In fact, this is the interesting and curious aspect of this imperative. The possibility, and in some cases the ability, to initiate a physical reaction in our brain by using language. We try to convince someone to live the moment; maybe by not thinking too much about the future or the past, maybe to take things easy, maybe to show them and explain to them the importance of enjoying the simple things life and so on and so forth. What we are hoping is that our words, or the information we are conveying with our words, will bring about the desired physical and mental changes in the people we are concerned about. Maybe they might start feeling happy, smile more, be more cheerful with friends, feel less sad, whatever. But this has been happening since the dawn of time: religions, friends, gurus, psychologists, self help authors, parents, grandparents and many more people have been there to help others cope with life type of problems. All these people use words to try to convince us to change our behaviour or at least our thinking. The essence of this is that information in the form of language can cause physical reactions in the form of changed behaviours or feelings.

Of course, in real life we expect to be told to live the moment, by friends or partners. Others might not use this exact language, but this is what they mean. A member of the clergy might tell us to trust in God about the future; a psychologist might try to put in perspective past events in our life. Whatever the words might be, the aim is the same: survive the present. People use language to help us change our ways that might help us solve or maybe cope with our problems.

It is of course a serious drawback that it is us who have to apply the imperative of living the moment. Nobody can apply the imperative for us in the same way they can apply heart surgery to fix a problematic heart. The second serious drawback is that, although we might change our outlook in life, it does not mean our problems have vanished. A nasty boss is still a nasty boss, a broken love affair is still a broken love affair, a serious disease is still a serious disease. How we see the world does not change how the world is. However, how we see the world can determine how we interpret the world.

At some point in the history of hominoids, our ancestors stopped being hunter gatherers and started cultivating the land and domesticate animals. We might say that human beings stopped being professional tourists and finally decided to settle down and take up gainful employment. There are still some of us, even today, who might have this roaming gene in them. Some might spend years roaming the continents then one day something happens to our gene an we settle down in some interesting and comfortable place; usually settling down as English teachers or radical artists. Of course, the idea of settling down and establishing fixed roots is not new in nature and living creatures. Trees do it literally, ants are well organised into colonies and of course, bacteria live happily for years in our stomach. Although in nature we find this idea of settling down, it is not exactly the most common strategy for living creatures.

What is important for us is that at some point in time, our ancestors decided to change from hunter gatherers to cultivators. Of course, when I say, 'decided' I don’t mean that one day someone was contemplating the Milky Way in the middle of the night and suddenly said to themselves, “yesterday was the last time I chased that buffalo for miles; next time I catch myself a buffalo, I’m going to enclose it in a pen and make sure it stays there until the next family barbecue.” On the other hand, this idea is not as strange as it sounds. How, many times has someone got up in the middle of the night an decided there and then to change jobs?

Although we are not concerned with the technical details on the ground it does matter how the change was done. If our ancestors relied on the “brilliant idea in the middle of the night” way of doing things, then surely they would have been prone to haphazard development. This is not to say that some events do not give us the impression of happening out of the blue, but how many brilliant ideas can one have in a night? Secondly, even brilliant ideas have to be connected in some way to what happened in the past. It is more likely, though, that things evolved and developed over time from a hunter gather role to cultivator role. The move to cultivator must have seemed like a natural course of action. But surely that change must have been brought about by need and experience, not to mention opportunity?

The importance of this is that our ancestors adapted their progress to solve problems. It is not that they evolved to be better hunter gatherers, like most other animals, but evolved from hunter gatherers to something completely different. Conceptually different, which is why this is all very relevant to philosophy.

The reason why cultivation is conceptually different from hunting or gathering is that one's source of food is available when one wants to eat it and not when one manages to catch food. What this means is that we have changed the environment to meet our needs and not use our environment to meet our needs. Sure, the change from hunting to cultivating might have been the result of environmental pressures, but we’re interested with conceptual change and evolution. To use some old terminology from philosophy of science, what our ancestors did was to have a complete paradigm shift.

But this change also had an effect in the way we see our selves and our self consciousness. The first effect this change had on us is that, as I say, we think of changing the environment to meet our needs and not the other way round. So when we develop and progress we improve our selves to change the environment and not to change ourselves to fit better in the environment. One might object that when we train in a particular skill or add to our qualifications we are in deed developing ourselves and changing ourselves to fit better in our environment. I disagree.

When we train or retrain we are really improving our selves to change our environment. If one is a book keeper or even a physician one does not try to get more qualifications to be a better booker or a better physician for one's employer. One trains more so that one can advance in the finance department or move to a better hospital; i.e. change one's environment. So when we wake up in the middle of the night, we’re not saying we want to be better at what I do, but I want to be in a better environment. I want to change the environment around me, and not be better in the environment I’m in. Of course, we might not go through this exact mental process, but that is what we are doing. Compare our approach to that of say lions. They might have evolved to run faster, or to survive with irregular supply of food, but they didn’t go into dairy farming. They are now just better runners, that’s all.

Furthermore, the change also implied that our ancestors saw time in a different way. We don't see time in terms of some biological clock or diary, but as a trigger to activate plans and planning. We no longer think in terms of, if it’s September we must be flying south, but if it is September we must start working on our marketing plans for next year. What we do today is usually the consequence of what we planned in the past, and not because we fit in some big wheel. I writing this essay because last Sunday we agreed to discuss in a week’s time the imperative, living the moment, and not because I woke us this morning and felt the urge to write something about living the moment. Preparation and planning is something that is basic to cultivation. This is an important difference we have from hunter gatherers. They might devise a strategy to kill the next mammoth, but they did not plan the rearing of mammoths.

We also seem to give experience and learning a great deal of importance. We learn and use experience as individuals and as a group. And we use these qualities to solve problems in a better way and to plan better. I submit that a direct consequence of this is that sometimes we find completely new solutions to old problems and of course discover new ways of satisfying needs which did not exist in the past. A fundamental philosophical feature of experience and learning is that through them we link the past with the present and the future. Our learning and our experience, furthermore, put time and our environment in a context. And of course, the consequences of experience and learning is that we have developed technology and science to help us solve some of the problems we face in life.

This transition, however, did not solve all the problems. The first of these problems is risk. Life is no less riskier now than say ten thousand years ago, nor less riskier to us than to other primates. The type of risk might be different and the consequences might be different, but nevertheless risky. Maybe twenty thousand years ago the risk might have been being killed by a tiger, today the risk might be being killed in a traffic pile up. An aspect of risk is that with hunting one is dependant on finding pray, stalking it and then consume it before it deteriorates or gets stolen. With husbandry, one faces the risk of theft, conflict for land, disease and natural disaster due to local conditions. And then their is the inherent risk with investment. One's investment might turn out to be a dud. The most we can do with risk is to understand it and manage it; maybe this is an other reason why we are ahead of other living creatures.

Furthermore, neither hunting nor cultivation do away with hierarchy. Under both systems we depend on leaders and authority. The purpose for these is more or less the same, to act coherently in our common pursuit and of course to protect the group from others who might want to harm the group. Of course, we cannot compare systems, especially since we have stopped one system and the new one has advanced a great deal. Unfortunately, the same hierarchy and authority that was developed to mange the new cultivator system also gave us such systems as slavery, dictatorships and class culture.

In a way, the individual is more dependent on the group under the new system then before. As hunters, the individual could leave one's hunting group, the same way some animals do, and become self-sufficient. But under the cultivation system one needs to belong to a group either because of the dependence on division of labour, collective obligations that arise from personal investment in the project, or simply scarcity of means of survival. In anyway, nature itself made sure that the individual does not stay too independent and away from a group. Reproduction requires the concept of a group to survive; even if it is just for a few days as in the case of some birds or animals.

Another thing we have to take into account is that cultivation is more tool intensive and needs a whole new infrastructure to support the group. For the new project our ancestors needed, pens for animals, houses, shelters, roads, transport for heavy materials, management of water, axes to cut wood, knives, sickles and so on. The positive side is that we need to develop our thinking prowess more than our muscle power. Eventually, brawn will become less important and brain dominating everything. One of the most advanced tool we have developed as a consequence is of course language. Without a sophisticated communications process we cannot exchange complex ideas. And if our ancestors couldn’t share complex ideas the new cultivation project would have failed.

I want to argue that “living the moment” is more than just an act of empathy between friends and partners. It is even more than just a strategy to deal with the morrow. It is probably an instinct that has stayed with us from the origin of the species. Look at it this way. Living the moment was the guiding force when our ancestors where hunter gatherers. They had to no choice but to think and follow the imperative “live the moment”. However, for whatever reason, be it the lack of enemies or the change in circumstances, they had to change their strategy to survive. If anything, though, the new strategy became, “live for the future” instead of “living the moment.” In fact, live for the future has become such an important guiding force that it is the basis of religions, governments, corporations, families and us individuals.

Could it be that “living the moment,” is therefore an appeal to some primeval instinct that has survived the test of time, but whose function and origin has been lost in the mist of time? After all, if we live the moment we are intentionally blocking everything about the future. Something which hunter gatherers probably had to do on a daily basis. Incidentally, when we travel as tourists we also tend to forget the future. Maybe, after all, we can teach modern homo sapien some old tricks.

Take care,


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