The Future, Purpose, and Freedom: an Enlightening Dream
July 29, 2012 by Paul McKeever
Dreams, though usually experienced in the dark, can prove most enlightening. On July 24th this year, I had such a dream, and it gave me a valuable first-hand experience that has helped me to understand the role of purpose in ones life, and its relation to the value of thinking rationally. It also gave me some insight into the methods and motives of those who see no value in rational thought, or who are hostile to it. And, perhaps most importantly, it helped me to identify a common flaw in the advocacy of freedom. I share this dream, and my thoughts about it, with you below.
In the dream I found myself in the commercial core of a city. The buildings of the city were not in decay, so much as in tatters. As in any major city, I was among countless other people who were rushing this way and that. However, nobody was rushing to work. All were in a panic.
Among us all were several independent predators. All of them were monstrous, but all were human. They had no fangs or wings or claws. All, however, were flashy. They wore gaudy costumes, as might be found in the movie “The Running Man”, or at a parade. Some bombed buildings and people, while others were busy firing needles into those they intended to infect and, thereby, to enlist or enslave.
There was screaming, and yelling, and pushing, and shoving. There was distrust and dishonesty. Everyone, everywhere, was entirely consumed with surviving; with staying alive right here, right now. Nobody had time to think about the distant future.
To survive, some ran from the predators. Few fought them. Many, to survive, thought it best to surrender to, and to serve, the predators.
I ran outward from the centre of the city core toward the less populated periphery. I reached a skyscraper and stood several floors up within it, looking outward, my back to the city core. I did not have to look through a window: the wall of the skyscraper had been shorn from the building, perhaps by a previous bomb blast. Rebar poked out from the broken edge of the floor before me. Falling to my death would have been a matter of taking a couple of steps forward.
From my perch, I saw a chain-link fence. It was tens of feet high and it ran as straight as an arrow toward the horizon. On the other side of the fence was another city. There, all was orderly. Cars stopped at red lights and signaled to turn. Pedestrians waited for the right of way at cross walks. People smiled, drank coffees, and strode to work, their heads filled with concerns about producing good things, raising good children, and experiencing love and happiness. Free from the concerns of those living in the neighbouring chaos, they had plans for their lives.
I found myself being assisted by stranger. He explained that there was a rail line that could take me out of the chaotic city and into the neighbouring, orderly city. Upon the rails I saw ran small, two-seater topless cars looking like those found on a roller coaster, rather than like those usually comprising a train. The stranger handed me phony identification and got me on the train. The train moved slowly by a kiosk, in which a man checked the identification of everyone on the train. Before I knew it, I was standing in the orderly city.
In the orderly city, I stood facing the fence. I looked on as the violence, coercion and chaotic brutality continued on the other side.
Slowly Emerging from the Dream
It was perhaps 6:00 AM as I was dreaming the above. The dream having been far more vivid and moving than anything I have the ability to impress upon you with a few paragraphs, my slowly waking self began thinking about the dream, though I continued to slip into and out of dream sequences in my semi-waking state. As is common for me while transitioning between dreams and waking, my thoughts were in no small part guided by free associations.
As I continued to look through the chain link fence toward the chaotic city, I heard the voice Marshall McLuhan saying something to the effect of: “In the information age, communications break down all the walls between culture and business” (it is from a recording that opens one of my favourite radio broadcasts). The fence, I then thought, might hold back bombers and other rogues in the chaotic city, but it could not hold back their ideas or beliefs. A physical wall could not save the orderly city.
As the dream continued, the needles fired by predators in the chaotic city came over and through the fence, infecting the inhabitants of the orderly city. All fell into chaos. The two cities became culturally indistinguishable.
My mind turned to pop culture. I saw actor Jack Black telling school children that rock ‘n roll was about “stickin’ it to the man”. It was about rebelling against order and authority. I then thought of the hip gyrating Elvis Presley and how he was feared and loathed by so many American parents in the 1950s. I wondered: were those parents worried only about their children having premarital sex, or did they also see Elvis as a man telling teens that they should reject order and authority? And I wondered: what order or authority did they fear losing? Given the nature of rock ‘n roll – given that the phrase “rock ‘n roll” means sex – it is doubtful that most parents feared their children would reject government and law. I’m reasonably confident that, for most who feared the influence of Elvis, the fear was that their children would be encouraged to reject god and his commandments, and thereby to fail to achieve an afterlife of effortless bliss in Heaven.
I started thinking about the role of religion and god. It occurred to me that believing in an after-life gives people a concern for the future rather than – or even at the expense of – the immediate term. A concern for the future gives one a reason to follow certain rules to achieve a longer-term goal, despite pressures of the here and now to do otherwise.
My mind turned to the Soviet Union. Religion was a threat to communism at least partially because those who obey god’s will to get to a future goal are more likely to remain true to god’s will – e.g., his commandments – and to cling to god’s definitions of good and evil even in the face of immediate pressures to do otherwise. By eliminating religion, the Soviets could eliminate the idea of an afterlife, and render utterly worthless and pointless the various rules for getting into Heaven. Any commandment or absolute code of morality could be swept aside as arbitrary mystic drivel. As a result, nothing done by the state – be it murder, enslavement, or expropriation – could be condemned as evil because good and evil likewise could be swept aside as arbitrary nonsense.
It was not enough to stamp out religion. Not everyone in the Soviet Union was a mystic or otherwise believed in an afterlife. Eliminating religion would not discourage the irreligious from holding long-term goals and pursuing them by thinking about the long-term consequences of the decisions they made and the actions they took. It would not prevent the irreligious from thinking one course of action to be right and another wrong for the purpose of achieving real and lasting happiness over the long term on this earth.
Whether intentionally or as the inevitable consequence of communism, leaving people at all times just days from starvation or other causes of death or suffering undoubtedly left many unable or unwilling to spend time thinking about their futures. The future one envisioned in the Soviet Union might never happen even with the best laid and executed plans. What one had today might be snatched from one tomorrow, such that long-term planning – and all of the principled thought and moral evaluation involved in it – was rendered of questionable value. By banning religion and leaving most people in a state of constant uncertainty and worry, the Soviet government eliminated the future from consideration, denying all a purpose.
Lacking a future and a purpose, there was little reason morally to evaluate anyone’s decisions or actions; little reason to consider the long-term consequences of anyone’s thoughts or actions. Having focused the populous on the task of surviving from day to day, the Soviet government had greatly reduced the probability that any of its decisions or actions would be subjected to moral condemnation. Virtually anything alleged to have been done for the survival of the people – murdering political adversaries, enslaving some, expropriating others – would be widely seen as necessary, and as the right thing to do in times of emergency. With no moral outrage, there would be little motivation to take physical action against the government. And, in fact, just as some in my dream had cozied-up to the predators in an effort to survive, many supported the Soviet government in even its most evil deeds. In short: by eliminating a man’s purpose – by cutting the tie between his future and his thoughts – the government rendered him largely unthinking, amoral and compliant and, thereby, gained power over him.
I was reminded of the words of Ayn Rand:
“The man without a purpose is a man who drifts at the mercy of random feelings or unidentified urges and is capable of any evil, because he is totally out of control of his own life. In order to be in control of your life, you have to have a purpose—a productive purpose . . . . The man who has no purpose, but has to act, acts to destroy others.” (Playboy interview, March 1964)
Still drifting in a semi dream state, my thoughts turned back to religion and belief in an afterlife. That afterlife does not exist. An afterlife is not in anyone’s future. What then is the effect of pretending that an afterlife is in ones future? Religions advise that obedience to the alleged will of an allegedly all-knowing god is ones purpose in this life, because an eternal and effortless afterlife awaits the obedient. Such obedience, by implication, tells a religious adherent that everything he knows about how to survive and achieve happiness on this earth has nothing to do with carrying-out his purpose. All of the principles he can use to achieve long-term goals on earth are of no importance because his goal is not on earth. His goal is Heaven, and he need only obey god’s will, from moment to moment, in order to earn a place in Heaven (i.e., in order to continue to exist). As with the Soviet government, apart from the will of god, there is no such thing as right and wrong, so the will of god cannot be condemned as evil and all attempts ethically to evaluate god’s whims are folly.
The conclusion was clear. The collectivists and the religious both seek to discourage people from being concerned primarily about the future of their lives on earth. Both, as a result, discourage individuals from discovering and applying the broad and abstract principles that facilitate the achievement of lasting joy on this earth, in this life, in the long run. Instead, both collectivism and religion tell individuals to make the survival of their neighbour, and the relief of his suffering, their immediate and chronic task on earth. The greater the chaos, and the more close one feels one is to the point of suffering and death, the less one will think of ones own future on earth and the less likely one will be morally to condemn anyone’s violation of life, liberty or property so long as it is done in the name surviving an allegedly temporary period of crisis.
I awoke fully from my half dream-state. I considered the implications of my dream for effective advocacy freedom.
It occurred to me that logical and demonstrably true arguments for reason, rational egoism, and capitalism often fall on deaf ears. Why is that so?
I submit to you that, at least in part, it is so because advocates of freedom are doing too little to advocate the real purpose of a human life. We are telling people how to achieve happiness on this earth, too often wrongly assuming that the people we are speaking to regard the achievement of happiness on this earth to be an individual’s highest purpose. While most peoples’ minds are focused on surviving the next few hours, days, or months, we are telling them everything anyone could want to know about achieving long-range goals that never cross their minds. We are talking to them about an earthly future that rarely enters their consciousness. As a result, we appear to them to be out of touch.
As a case in point, consider that, all too often, advocates of individual freedom make a statement that starts with the phrase: “In a free society…”. For the advocate of freedom, those four words are the death knell to everything that comes after them, such as: “In a free society, the possession of cannabis would not be a crime” or “In a free society, there would be no tax on income”. One might just as well be saying “In the Land of Oz, the possession of cannabis is not a crime”, because the obvious – perhaps even frequent – response to any such statement is: “Maybe, but we don’t live in a free society”.
That response, in my view, is an appropriate one. In point of fact, we don’t live in a free society…yet. Therefore, when we say that “In a free society…[fill in the blank]” we are in fact speaking about the future and, in all probability, about a distant future. However, our audience is not concerned with the distant future, and that too is made all too obvious at all-candidates debates, where one will hear comments to the effect of “Well, all that airy fairy talk about right and wrong and freedom etc. is fine and all, but I want to hear what you are going to do about the traffic congestion on highway 401 that makes me late for work so very often”.
We advocates of reason and freedom are few. We cannot afford to advocate reality, and thinking in principles, and individual freedom et cetera without also making the case for the purpose of a human being’s life. Unless and until our audience accepts that the pursuit of ones own happiness is ones highest purpose in life, all of the speeches and essays and videos about how to achieve happiness (and about what sort of government is needed to facilitate our rational pursuit of happiness) is likely to be largely a waste of time and effort. Until the woman you are speaking to agrees that her primary focus must be to pursue her own lasting joy, no amount of instruction about how to achieve that joy will be of any interest to her.
With the greatest of concern, I wish to stress that none of this is to suggest that, when running for political office, the proponent of reason and freedom should engage in philosophizing. When in the role of candidate for office, ones mission is not to change the philosophy of the governed, or to go into explanations of ones own philosophy. Elections, by their very nature, require the candidate to highlight his likeability and, to the extent demanded by the voter, succinctly to describe what changes he proposes to make to the law or to the conduct of governance. Elections require also that one accept that the majority of voters are not rational egoists, such that one needs votes even from people whose philosophy does not necessarily jibe with that of the candidate who is a rational egoist. What matters, for electoral purposes, is that the voter – for the voter’s own reasons – likes the candidate and likes – or at least is not put off by – the candidate’s election planks.
However, for the advocate of freedom who is not running for a political office, it is necessary, but not sufficient, to condemn a candidate’s or politician’s anti-freedom decisions/planks as wrong and contrary to the pursuit of ones own happiness (or – more importantly, when it happens – to praise planks that are morally right). While not running for political office, advocates of freedom also must make the case for the pursuit of ones own happiness as a human being’s highest purpose. We must make it clear that we want a government (as opposed to a de facto oppressive gang), and we must make it clear that when we say “government”, we are referring to an agent of force that defends every individual’s freedom to pursue his or her own happiness by rational means. We must make it clear that our vision is one in which that pursuit is recognized by government as an individual’s highest purpose.
It is important to understand that if, fearing that we will lose support for reason and capitalism, we shy away from identifying and advocating the real purpose of an individual’s life, we are really just fooling ourselves about the effectiveness of our advocacy. Arguments about how to achieve happiness in this life, on this earth, are of little interest to those who think that the purpose of life is something other than the pursuit of our own happiness so, in reality, we do not really have the supporters (of reason or capitalism) that we fear losing. In reality, we have only the supporters that we do not fear losing.
In the city of order, the power of predators from the city of chaos is founded upon the failure of his intended victims to recognize the real purpose of their lives. Those who are all too willing to abandon concern for the pursuit of their own happiness and lasting joy – who are hoping for a mythical afterlife, or who do not realize that the predator spreads fear in order to disconnect his intended victims from a concern for the future – are easy targets for the poisoned projectile needles of the predators. In contrast, those who gain an understanding of the importance of long range goals and the pursuit of lasting joy on earth are inoculated by that understanding, and by a commitment to the pursuit of their own happiness.
As advocates of reason and freedom, the task of inoculating the citizens of the orderly city lies with us. If we neglect to inoculate our neighbours with a knowledge of the purpose of life – if we fail to convince them that the pursuit of ones own happiness is ones highest purposes – we will witness our city of order fall into chaos, oppression, and misery, no matter what the extent of our efforts to spread an understanding of how to achieve happiness.
Let me close with a quotation that, I think, bears on the issue of who is to blame for our ineffectiveness should we hereafter, in the advocacy of freedom, fail to advocate the real purpose of ones life:
“When you see a man casting pearls without getting even a pork chop in return–it is not against the swine that you feel indignation. It is against the man who valued his pearls so little that he was willing to fling them into the muck and let them become the occasion for a whole concert of grunting….” (Dominique Francon in Ayn Rand’s “The Fountainhead”).