Winning essays bronze (4)

  • Viktor Braaten Guldbrandsen, Bjørnholt vgs, Norway
  • Patrik Björkvist, Tikkurilan lukio, Finland
  • Matija Kuprešanin, Ninth Belgrade High School, Serbia
  • Oscar Grimstad, Foss vgs, Norway

 

VIKTOR BRAATEN GULDBRANDSEN, BJØRNHOLT VGS, NORWAY 

“The experience that we have of our lives from within, the story we tell ourselves about ourselves in order to account for what we are doing, is fundamentally a lie—the truth lies outside, in what we do”

Slavoj Žižek, Violence: six sideways, 2008, p. 47

 

In modern society, at least in my view of modern society, we like to believe in our inner and personal identity. We like to think of ourselves as, through the choices we make as individuals and as identities, impacting the world around us. After all the world does seem to act as though agency is real: the free-market economy and the notion of inalienable human rights within the politics and juridical realm seem to be based upon this notion. And through this every day, we feel as though this condition—this condition of an isolated subject, is justified. We feel as though we have a self—I think therefore I am, we say to ourselves.

Yet, what Zizek is doing with his statement here is criticising this notion of the isolated subject. He claims that the experience of the internal is fundamentally illusory. And that we can only know ourselves through that which is external, that which is not part of the inner identity. We can only know ourselves through what we manifest. But, is not the observation of our manifestations wholly dependent on the subject? Although Zizek’s statement is the opposite of what I deem as the contemporary view of identity, they’re both arguing within a certain premise. The premise is that there is a duality between the external and the internal. There is duality—there is me, and the world. It is not the internality of the self, which is illusory, it is not even the externality of self which is illusory—it is the duality between them which is illusory. I wish to critique the presupposition of duality, of mind and body, through the concepts of internalization and externalization.

Some might say that this philosophical condition of duality started with Descartes and his mind-body problem, others might say that it is inherited from the religious ideas of a soul. This dualism has been critiqued by thinkers and scientists. One particularly powerful critique is the psychological fact of internalization. In Foucault’s discussion of the Panopticon: a prison system designed in such a way where the prison always would be subjected to the gaze of the guard—he eloquently and indirectly critiques dualism. He describes that after the internalization of the suppressor, the power structure, the prisoner won’t misbehave even though it could. The supressing structure has now been taken from the external and into the internal. The prisoners psyche now has a guard inside of him telling him what to do and not to do, and he thinks it is his own demands. This is the proof of the fact of internalization. But, if water can flow down the river, can it not also then theoretically flow up the river?

Through Foucault we have seen how what we deem as external deeply influence the internal.

But what about externalization? We could say that our everyday actions are proof of how the internal influence the external—yet this does not suffice. For, all these things; our biology which we act through, our thought-patterns, our moral could all be a product of the external. They could all be learnt, not an intricate part of the self. This is the demon of the external, this is the demon which Descartes was so afraid of. But, if we do as Descartes—and strip away everything which could be subjected to the manipulation of the externality, we are left with our subjectivity. As we saw earlier, our thought-patterns can be subjected to manipulation, but pure subjectivity cannot. The pure subjectivity which is that which perceives thoughts and sensory experience. The holding space in which through you and I can exist, the observance which gives rise to all perception. If this is the closest we can come to the internal, abiding to Foucault’s critique. Could this observance, this radical indifferent subjectivity, act outwards, as the river flowing the opposite direction? It seems does seem so in the observations of quantum physics—specifically in the double slit experiment. In physics, there is this notion of wave-particle duality, where matter either acts as a wave or a particle. In the double slit experiment, they projected electrons through slits and looked at the pattern which the electrons formed after passing the slits. If they were waves, they would’ve formed an interference pattern by the waves bouncing off each other. When there was an observer present the electrons would act as particles. But, when only the results, the pattern which they formed, where being observed—the electrons would act as waves. In physics, this is called the observer effect. The very act of observance, not doing anything, changes the external in such a fundamental way.

So, what then happens with the river when it flows upwards and downwards at the same time? Could we then say that there is no flowing—no momentum? By observing the world, we change it. But, by being in the world, it changes us. There is no within, and there is no without. There is no relation. Maybe this duality snuck into our minds though the nature of language, where words only mean something in relation to other words. Maybe this duality crept into us for us to be consumers—for why would anyone buy things if there were no self? I see this dualism, which sneakily invade our discussions on identity, as deeply fallacious.

 

PATRIK BJÖRKVIST, TIKKURILAN LUKIO, FINLAND

“The experience that we have of our lives from within, the story we tell ourselves about ourselves in order to account for what we are doing, is fundamentally a lie—the truth lies outside, in what we do”

Slavoj Žižek, Violence: six sideways, 2008, p. 47

 

The quote by Slavoj Zizék in his work Violence: six sideways (2008) questions our fundamental will to reassure and justify ourselves about the choices, actions and ideas we aim to pursue. Zizék maintains that “our lives from within” are primarily lies that we tell ourselves. This position correlates with the existentialist ethos put forward by Jean-Paul Sartre and his belief in radical freedom. He proposes that the “truth lies outside” in the actions we pursue, which intricately correlates with the radical choices one must perform. However, Zizek’s claim underlies a two-folded proposition, since the nature of reality proposed by existentialism may be overturned by the existence of a deterministic worldview. Through causal necessitation, Zizék’s position may be interpreted to promote an empirical viewpoint, where the “truth lies outside” since internally there is no truth that one may possess as there is no free will. Therefore, this essay will highlight how Zizek’s position may be justified through existentialism and through a belief in causal determinism.

Our society is fundamentally based on beliefs that we hold true. Money, religion and nations are all aspects of our life that we maintain as cornerstones of society. However, complying with these norms fundamentally contradicts the ethos put forward by the contemporary movement of existentialism. Prominent existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre argued that one is committing bad faith when complying beliefs that remove the necessity for making a decision. He proposes that it is rudimentary to one’s human nature to be able to execute radical choices concerning on decisions that one has to make in the absurd world with no predetermined meaning or essence since man is “condemned to be free”. Therefore, the implication of committing bad faith presumes that one is avoiding the human condition to question and act on one’s own values and principles. Moreover, Sartre underlied that the primary objective one should have should be to accept this absurd world and live with self-understanding. This assertion highlights that in order to live honestly and truly to one’s own principles, the conductance of dignity and responsibility is imperative. Henceforth, Sartre maintains that one should avoid all-encompassing theories that aim to divert one’s duty to execute their radical freedom. Subsequently, these all-encompassing theories parallel with the internal lies that Zizék accentuates in his statement since they both deflect away from the intrinsic obligation to live authentically. Hence, “the story we tell ourselves about ourselves” and the principles we see ourselves upholding are only truly vindicated if we commit to make radical choices. 

Contrary to the existentialist claim put forward by Sartre, the statement by Zizék can further be interpreted to advocate a consequential outlook on our actions and the outcomes that pursue. If the “truth lies outside, in what we do”, then the outcome of our actions are evaluated and examined as the basis for one’s true intentions. For example, the utilitarian position advocated by Jeremy Bentham’s act utilitarianism aims to propose that the best action is the action that results in the most amount of good to the greatest amount of people. If the truth would rely on what we do, then the actions we do could be examined by the outcomes they have. Bentham himself proposed the utility calculus where he would calculate an action through the use of dolors and hedons. However, this consequential evaluation of Zizék fundamentally disregards the aspect of truth. To imply that one is true to oneself when one does the best possible action has no firm nexus. Rather one could advocate that the outcome of an action and the extrinsic truth it has are completely contrasting ideas, since the consequences of a decision are evaluated on the moral outcome it has. To live truthfully, one must consider the means for the action itself. Peter Singer supports the idea of preference utilitarianism, where he proposes that the moral consideration of an action should include the preference of the subject itself. Therefore, the truth one should follow, despite relying on the actions we do, should simultaneously incorporate the values we hold to be true. This highlights the interconnectedness with the existentialist position, where “existence precedes essence”. This quote underlies how one may construct a meaning for one’s life by living authentically since there is no predetermined function (essence) that God or anyone else has described upon oneself. Therefore, existentialism maintains that the outcome is secondary to the radical choice that the free agent has to make. 

To live authentically seems to accurately portray how telling stories “about ourselves in order to account for what we are doing, is fundamentally a lie” since receiving advice from stories, ethical theories or experts goes against the principle of Sartre’s radical freedom. However, living a life entirely based on the decision we make excludes the moral cognitivist view that life possesses universal laws and norms that are unequivocally true. Thus, the belief in God as the architect of our moral code, promoted by the divine command theory, is disregarded as it maintains a universal law for how to live one’s life. Moreover, rational intuitionism is dismissed as it proposes a universal law founded on reason. Thus, Zizék’s claim directly implies a non-cognitivism view of reality. 

However, the whole argument of existentialism and truth is dismissed if life is determined. A determined reality with causal necessitation would eradicate the premise that truth lies in what we do. Moreover, truth, as a concept itself must be evaluated. The causal premise of the “outside”, which is brought up in the quote may only contain truths that are empirically relevant, but which do not form from within. This could however be what Zizék was aiming to conceive, since he directly dismisses the truths that lies within, as does science. Thus, a materialistic view of reality is formed which contests with the non-cognitivist view described earlier, since a naturalistic view of the world does impose a form of universal law or truth. Therefore, the claim can advocate for physicalism and the idea that reality is composed of matter and physical realities that strictly follow a determined path. Hence, the deterministic assertion put forth contrasts with the view that one has a free will to act and decide oneself, which is vital for the assertion that the “experience” that Zizék mentions is actually just an illusion and therefore a lie. Subsequently, his parallel between the illusion of free will and the premise of us lying to ourselves is my emphasis. This position could be challenged by the arguments put forth by compatibilists like George Henrik von Wright who proposes that action is based on reason that originates within an agent. His argument in In the Shadow of Descartes entails that psycho-physical parallelism exists between the mind and the causally determined world. Similarly, a naturalist argument is proposed by Daniel Dennet in Freedom Evolves where he argues that evolution has granted relative freedom for individuals. 

In conclusion, Zizék’s quote may be examined through various intricate perspectives. The existentialist ethos described by Sartre satisfies the account that truths fundamentally do not persist in ourselves, but through the radical choices we are condemned to perform. Furthermore, existentialism allows Zizék to maintain that external influences on our own mind lead us to act in a manner that does not portray our true values and principles. Thus, ethical theories like utilitarianism, which aim to evaluate our actions, are dismissed as they aim to avoid one’s radical freedom. Moreover, Zizék seems to disregard universal laws and norms that persist in the belief in God and reason. However, everything overturned as the question of determinism is presented. This theory similarly satisfies Zizék’s position and justifies why Zizék maintains that the “truth lies outside” rather than in the stories we tell ourselves. In this context, the story we tell ourselves can be the illusion of free will that we keep to hold upon. Hence, Zizek’s claim can be justified through two distinct, but secure theories that depend on the nature of reality; whether life is determined or not.

 

MATIJA KUPREŠANIN, NINTH BELGRADE HIGH SCHOOL, SERBIA

Justice is the first virtue of social institutions, as truth of system of thought. A theory however elegant and economical must be rejected or revised if it is untrue; likewise laws and institutions no matter how efficient and well-arranged must be reformed or abolished if they are unjust.

John Rawls, A Theory of Justice, p. 1

 

Justice seems to be the term whose meaning we most often fail to agree on, however beneficial to our situation the said agreement might have been. This is, perhaps, the very reason every human society seeks to adopt a universal definition of justice, which is to be enforced upon the majority. That is most often understood as law, which is the most important (and perhaps defining) aspect of any state. Having this in mind, one can safely conclude that justice is, however we choose to define it, something that most, if not all, members of our society have an idea of, and that they utilize that idea during decision-making processes. Whether we embrace the idea of justice as a universal truth or guideline, or we completely reject the very concept of it as something that is unnecessary or unwanted, it is not reasonable to neglect the meaning that this term has in our society.

Rawls places justice on top of the social-economic hierarachy. If a discrepancy is found between a certain entity and the estabilished system of justice, that entity is to be rejected, until it manages to comply to said justice standard. Many would argue that this approach is not without merit; it ensures that those living in a social system are more likely to believe in it and those who conduct it, because a system that is just behaves predictably for everyone familiar with the justice standard it is built upon. Thus, people will be less likely to rebel against the state, which will enable it to fulfill its duties without fear and therefore, more efficiently.

While this may sound convincing, some would argue that humans are not inherently just and that a just state is not possible if it is ruled by humans. If a certain system is good in theory, but not practically accomplishable, can it be considered valid? Many would argue that the aforementioned system fails to adress the issue of humans being imperfect. This argument could further be strengthened by making a comparison of Rawls’ society with a communist one. Upon closer inspection, we notice they both depend on how just those who rule the state are. Most historians and sociologists agree that communism failed because the ruling parties of communist states didn’t behave justly, but greedily, and thus ruined the economical well-being of their states, even though the system itself was economically sound. If we agree that the analogy holds, we can conclude that Rawls’ society would necessarily cease to function and finally crumble.

Another argument against his thesis directly challenges its main premise. Rawls makes an analogy between a system of thought and a social system, claiming that we should discard laws and institutions that are unjust similarily to how we discard theories that are untrue. It could be argued that this analogy doesn’t necessarily hold true; systems of thought exist only in thought and are not bound by natural laws. They are valid as long as they contain no contradictions, and have premises which are unambiguous. When determining whether a law or an institution is unjust, much can go wrong, for we lack a formal definition of justice. One can not make a valid conclusion if the premises are unknown, and similarily, desirable changes cannot be ensured if we do not unambiguously agree on what we consider desirable. Those agreements are, as stated before, laws, and entities that conduct or utilize these laws, directly or indirectly, are institutions. These are the only things that give form and meaning to justice, and as such, cannot contradict it, as that would, in a way, mean they are contradicting themselves, which is impossible according to most understandings of logic.

My stance is very much against Rawls’ understanding of society. I believe that using terms that are not well-defined (such as justice) when dealing with important matters, such as organizing a society, is not reasonable, because any definitions that stem from an ill-defined term are ill-defined themselves and cannot lead to valid conclusions. Putting laws on top of the hierarchy is more beneficial, as laws are usually well-defined and as such can rarely lead to unexpected situations the society isn’t ready for.

 

OSCAR GRIMSTAD, FOSS VGS, NORWAY

Our true nature

“The experience that we have of our lives from within, the story we tell ourselves about ourselves in order to account for what we are doing, is fundamentally a lie—the truth lies outside, in what we do”

Slavoj Žižek, Violence: six sideways, 2008, p. 47

 

The main principle in the citation is that human beings will go to great extents to sustain an image, one that they are either entitled to or not, of a glorious “self”. “The most difficult is not to deceive yourself”, as Wittgenstein so eloquently said. We invent stories in order to account for our actions, to fulfil this ideal of a good man, perhaps even a great man. We do this because the alternative is terrifying; the bitterest realization is the one where the illusion of a greater “self” shatters, to live with the idea of yourself as inferior to most humans can be unbearable. It takes great courage to admit one’s incompetence, or worse, one’s profound immorality.  We are therefore willing to lie and “manipulate” ourselves in our attempt to justify and rationalize our actions that are regarded as immoral or controversial, while we also overestimate our ethical standards and virtuous actions. The quote raises this important question: What is our true “self”? 

Is the true nature of ourselves, the one we witness from within? Or are others in a better, less biased position to condemn or praise our actions and thereby understand our true nature? The actions perceived by the world, by other people, bear witness of the true nature of one’s “self”, claims Slavoj Žižek. What we do, is the truth. Thought is irrelevant, only actions can present our purpose and ideas in full and honest transparency. Žižek could potentially be influenced by Socrates, who claimed that “once we know what is good, we will commit good deeds”. Therefore, our actions are the world’s way of truthfully understanding us. “The truth lies outside, in what we do”, as the philosopher states.

Žižek’s citation brings connotations to the quote of Goethe in Faust: “In the beginning was action.” Thought and rationality evolved later in history and brought along the possibility of self-delusion. Žižek claims that this is true as it is pure behaviour perceived by other people, and perhaps even by yourself without the lies and “self-propaganda”. Mere action is honesty; it is our true nature.

A question that arises a reaction to Žižek ‘s conclusion, is this: Do other people not have an agenda themselves, as they wish to condemn other’s actions in order to feel good about themselves in comparison? How can they possibly perceive you more truthful than yourself? And what about “phony” people, with their actions designed to impress others? As Jon Elster said: “Nothing is as unimpressive as behaviour designed to impress.” Also, one could perhaps add that nothing is as dishonest and untrue as behaviour designed to impress. This is incompatible with Žižek’s idea; are our actions projections of our true self, which we justify to ourselves in order to respect and praise ourselves, or are actions a “phony” way of persuading others that we are virtuous and decent men? And if the latter is true, what is then our true self?

What is completely true, one could argue, is the behaviour that bears no consequences, like what a completely apathic person may experience. No witnesses to impress, no ideal of one’s self. Or, drunkenness, when defence mechanisms are down, and social filters dissolved. Or, more interesting perhaps, the intuitive behaviour, as in the case of the family of four on vacation in Switzerland: They are relaxing at a cabin in the mountains, when they all observe a brutal avalanche approaching with fierce speed. The father completely ignores the screaming of his family, puts on his skis and run downhill. The family stays behind in the cabin, the children crying, clinging to their mother. The avalanche never reaches the cabin, and the scenery is quite a farce, really, but it portrays the father’s actions as product of pure intuition (or instinct, perhaps), and the genuine agency of saving himself is displayed in his actions. It may be what is called his true nature; cowardice.

Human beings tend to forget the obvious fact that we all perceive the world somewhat differently. We may not share the same perceptions of colours; what looks “green” for one, may another person call “red”, although they both refer to it as blue. Some people resemble more than others, we range from fundamentally to slightly different in ways of thinking. The colours is a very specific example, but it is convertible to many other aspects of life – metaphysics, ethics, quality, religion, language, thought, etc. These are all fields of live that are applicable in our culture. Our different perceptions of reality make us compromise our personality when living in a society, as it is necessary to reduce the different perceptions to a minimum to function as a whole. Yes, society may be the one that has formed us, but we also have a vital ability to cultivate our personality and our “self” through rationality and will. A society with tight bonds and extensive social norms will limit this ability, this way of self-realization.
The boundaries of social conformity are an obstacle in the discovery of our true self.

It is an existential right to be able to define your own “self”. Through rationality you should, theoretically, be able to cultivate your own ego and identity. Actions are not the whole truth, because actions are devised and committed in relation to others, which can be argued is less relevant for the idea of your own “self”.  How are we, if we were to follow Žižek’s reasoning, able to grasp the truth of ourselves? Through others? How can we be certain they are not biased, or completely wrong, with their fairly different perception of reality. Anyhow, it is certainly an existentially problematic process if we were to thrust others with the truth of ourselves.

Slavoj Žižek presents an interesting argument for the self-delusional justification of our immoral actions, but the statement cannot be understood solely as an argument that other people may grasp the truth of who you are, whilst you yourself are unable to. Perhaps his citation can be interpreted as if saying that there is no way to understand the truth of ourselves because our mind and self-image is biased, but so is other people, with different perceptions of reality and agendas of their own. Perhaps the only solution is to read philosophy like the one of Žižek’s in order to be aware of our own lies.

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