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Danyl McLauchlan and the Meaning of Life

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Danyl McLauchlan and the Meaning of Life

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Steve Braunias interviews Danyl McLauchlan on philosophy, faith, Richard Dawkins, Plato, Moro bars, the search for meaning, and the parable of the Drowning Child

Wellington writer Danyl McLauchlan is the author of Tranquility and Ruin, a slim, brisk philosophical examination of big questions – What is consciousness? What is Being? “Why don’t I get hungry at the monastery?” – which he approaches with zest and wit throughout his narrative of four essays. Two essays are set in Buddhist monasteries, where he meditates, finds relief from his mental health problems (depression, insomnia), and thinks about the nature and purpose of existence. A third essay is set at a retreat held by the New Zealand branch of Effective Altruists, a worldwide movement which sets out to provide meaningful data that can best answer another of life’s big questions, “How do I make the world a better place?” McLauchlan thinks a great deal about why the human race thinks that in the first place. He thinks a great deal about many things and worries he eats too much and in the acknowledgements he thanks, of all people, Matthew Hooton (for introducing him to the ideas of philosopher Derek Parfit); I remember McLauchlan once wrote that Hooton ought not be referred to as a political commentator but as “a National Party operative”, and I have faithfully used that description every time I have written about Matthew Hooton, who is a  National Party operative. Tranquility and Ruin is a wonderful book of ideas. Its non-fiction narrative is immensely readable. I interviewed the author on a Thursday night, when I conducted a live email interview over three hours.

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Danyl, the first time I met you was at the McDonald’s in Manners St. We couldn’t shake hands. Your paws were wet with cheese and sauce. I want to mention in this because fast food – specifically, Happy Meals – figures prominently in Tranquility and Ruin, as a code for the terrible things we do to the world and our reluctance to do anything about it, and as a sign that that the Earth is in sticky, inevitable collapse, and also in its actual state as a food that you like to eat but wish it was otherwise. In fact you go to the ends of the New Zealand earth (a monastery in Stokes Valley, another monastery somewhere at the northern end of the Southern Alps) to get away from it and to think your way through it, not merely because Happy Meals make you fat and unhappy, but also because Happy Meals and much else in the material world are a prison, and perhaps the central quest of your book is the search for freedom and purpose without turning into a religious maniac. When did you last eat McDonald’s, and what did it make you think?

I hate to start in a contrarian mode, but I think the first time we met was at a writer’s festival in the Wairarapa. You had bought a gigantic box of mushrooms off someone, somehow and were at a loss with what to do with them. I sometimes wonder what happened to them. But yes, the next time we met I was eating a burger. It was actually one of those massive, unmanageable burgers from some gourmet burger place, which is why I had cheese and sauce in my beard and running down my arms. You never get that with the McDonald’s burgers. Say what you like about their nutritional quality, but it’s very manageable food. The last time I ate at one was Tuesday: the last day of the school holidays. Sadie and I went to Te Papa, with its exorbitant sausage rolls which I refused to buy, and then the central art gallery, where she made me very proud by working out herself that most of the art was terrible and the cafe which is nice but also rather pricey – and then McDonald’s, because we were getting tired and cranky with each other and needed to eat. It was good! The right decision. I stand by it.

That giant box of mushrooms! I wonder what happened to them too. Anyway, but when you were at McDonald’s, and I’m not seeking to shame you for that – as the author of The Man Who Ate Lincoln Road, I look on all fast food as a communal banquet, as the people’s food, as a good thing – but when you were chowing down, did you think, “Here we go again. I was at peace at the monasteries, or certainly I had glimpses of peace, and progress. But now look.” And it’s not the fact of the burger. It’s the prison of the material world – it’s the middle-class life, with our consumerism, as well as our political infatuations and our boring need to cancel people in this Age of Chastisement. Tranquility and Ruin looks to rise above that, doesn’t it?

I feel that more acutely when I eat a chocolate bar, which is almost every day, at the moment: the awareness that I’m about to buy and eat something that is basically a low grade poison, that I’m doing so because it’s been specifically designed to light up the pleasure centre in my brain, that the pleasure will fade very quickly and I’ll feel slightly worse afterwards, and that even though I’m aware of all this I’ll do it anyway because I’m just a prisoner of my biology. That does weigh on me. And the frustrating thing is that I do go through periods of life, sometimes six months or a year, when things are good I’m able to approximate the level of self-control and equanimity I get at the monastery, or on retreat. During those times I am legitimately less trapped: I don’t eat crap all the time, I lose weight, feel happier. But it isn’t sustainable. My natural equilibrium seems to be someone who is somewhat depressed and unhealthy, and who actually needs to work to keep from being very depressed. This is legitimately what runs through my head when I eat a Moro. So yes, the book does talk about how to rise above all that, but doesn’t try to pretend that I have succeeded in doing so. There are characters in it who have, at least far more so than me, but they’ve made some pretty big sacrifices to do so.

I really appreciate that answer and your honesty. There are times in your book when you do the old self-deprecating dance – a book falls on your head, that sort of thing, which lightens the mood and makes the reader think, “What an adorable chump!” All that stuff. But this is a serious book and you go way beyond mere self-deprecation to talking being depressed, being anxious, having insomnia. You alternate between medication, and meditation. Nothing seems to last. There are no easy solutions or answers in this book but that’s the point of it, in a way: you write about the need to feel uncertain about things, to have self-doubt. But we live in an age where everyone seems sure of everything and will argue about it to the death. Buddha said, “People with opinions just go around bothering each other.” Can you expand on what you mean when you write about the need for uncertainty, that uncertainty is essential for progress?

Uncertainty is a major theme in the book and it means slightly different things in different essays. One of them explores this idea that a major function of the brain is to minimise statistical uncertainty about the world, and how it works, and it wonders if depression and anxiety are malfunctions in that process.

I’m not sure how genuine that Buddha quote is, but the Buddhist philosophy that gets referenced in the book argues that our default assumptions about reality just aren’t true, and that if you practise Buddhist meditation techniques you’ll experience insights that will cause you to update your models of how the mind works, what reality is, yadda yadda yadda. And I don’t know if that’s true, but my experience is that their techniques are doing SOMETHING very strange and interesting to the mind. So again, in this different way it’s worth being uncertain about what we think we know.

The social psychologists tell us overconfidence bias causes a lot of our poor decisions in life, and that we’re more also likely to believe overconfident people, and that the more intelligent and educated we are, the harder it is for us to change our minds when we’re presented with evidence that we’re wrong, because you have access to so many persuasive arguments that you’re actually correct, despite the data. So uncertainty is something you need to go out of your way to cultivate.

Uncertainty is also a major theme with the Effective Altruists, who are the subjects of the longest essay. They want to figure out how to do the most good in the world, but they’re also very aware that the world is complex, and the human brain is easy to fool, so actually doing good is hard. And they have all these devastating examples of charities or states or philanthropists that set out to do worthy things but didn’t think things through, or triggered all these unforeseen consequences and ended up making things much worse for the very vulnerable people they were trying to help. So the Effective Altruists do things like fund deworming projects in the developing world, because they’re FAIRLY sure that’s a good thing to do. But they’re not totally certain: there are some studies that suggest it might not be that effective, they could be doing other stuff like providing anti-malarial bed nets instead. And they debate this and try and figure out if they’re wrong and whether they should change their minds and do something else.

And this was fascinating and inspiring to me because it’s all so radically different from most contemporary debates about politics or economics or morality, in which participants are hilariously overconfident about very deep, hard, long-running unsolved problems that they can’t possibly have the definitive answers to. So the default EA position is that if you’re not wondering what you’re wrong about, and checking your assumptions and changing your mind about things, you’re probably mostly wrong about a lot of important issues.

Great – you’ve introduced the Effective Altruists to our conversation, and I really want to ask you about them and their example. But first, do you remember a few years ago, I commissioned you to write about that total egg Jordan B Peterson? I headlined it, “The subtle art of not giving a fuck about Jordan B Peterson.” I mention this because the headline was an obvious play on that awful book by Mark Manson and it struck me reading Tranquility and Ruin that an alternate title could be, The Subtle Art of Truly and Effectively Giving a Fuck. The essay on the altruists doesn’t come to mock them. It comes to look at their ideas about how to make the world a better place. Many or some of them tithe – give 10% of their income to charities. Do you do that? Are you an effective altruist? Come to think of it, are you a Buddhist? Or are you merely a tourist, a wandering essayist with insomnia?

I think that Jordan Peterson review inspired me to delete my Twitter account, because my feed flooded with both Jordan Peterson fans outraged that I’d disparaged the master, and left-wing scolds furious that I hadn’t disparaged him enough. And deleting twitter definitely improved my quality of life, so thanks!

I am definitely just a tourist. Like a lot of writers I get deeply obsessed with things, write about them, then move on, maybe picking up bits and pieces as I go. So I donate to Effective Altruism charities, but don’t donate 10% of my income. I meditate, but don’t think of myself as a Buddhist, although I probably follow all of their precepts against drinking etc, purely because I’m boring and middle-aged. But I don’t have a teacher, or a community I practise with. Total tourist.

It’s funny: I wrote these essays as part of my masters in creative writing, and some people in the class HATED the Effective Altruists, and wanted the essay to eviscerate them and felt frustrated that it didn’t. That’s not an uncommon reaction to the EAs, and it’s not hard to see why. The movement is both confronting and weird. But I love the weirdness. I love the culture of that movement. I’ve spent a bit of time around our left-wing political parties, and I don’t want to write the parties off, I support them, but the culture of left-wing politics is very toxic, famously so, and the EAs have built such a great culture. I think some people will read that essay and think, “Ugh. These people are weird”, while others will read it and go “These EAs are my people and I must be with them,” and even if just a handful of readers have that reaction it’ll be worth it.

Why did some people in your class hate the EAs? I hate those classmates of yours. I found the EAs inspiring. After reading your book, I got in touch with the EAs and signed up for a free copy of their book Doing Good Better. Because I want to do better. Buddha said, “Give, even if you only have a little.” I want to save the Drowning Child. That’s a kind of thought experiment in your book: it’s an idea by Peter Singer, and it goes something like this: You walk along the street and see a drowning child. Do you save them? Of course you do, but in reality you’re not: the world is full of children whose lives depend on you, but instead of giving to charities, you squander your money on coffee, on the mortgage, a nice holiday etc. But for Drowning Child, you could also say, Climate Change. We’re not doing enough. We’re not doing anything. Your book isn’t an exhortation to do something, but don’t you honestly want to do all you can, Danyl? But instead, there you are, chanting in monasteries! What good does that do?

There is a great book by Larissa Macfarquhar called Strangers Drowning, and it’s about Singer’s thought experiment and people who try to live out the implications, which is that you give absolutely everything you possibly can to effective charities. The EAs refer to them as extreme altruists. And some people do live these very saintly lives, but man it looks hard. The EAs actually discourage people from trying to live like that because the risk of burnout is high. It’s more effective to give moderately over time than it is to overdo it and then give up. And that seems like a happy compromise to make with the drowning child argument.

Why do people hate the EAs? I think part of it is that there’s this popular idea that being a good person is having the right opinions, and consuming the right cultural and media products. Hating Trump and reading all the right books, and the Guardian, and so on. And you can be very invested in that but then the EAs come along and say ‘Actually none of that has any moral value. You have to be giving your money away to people living in absolute poverty.’ You can see why people find that annoying.

Climate change is hard. Two of the frameworks the EAs have for deciding which problems to work on are tractability and neglectedness. How easy is the problem, and how neglected is it? Climate is very hard, and lots of smart people are working on it, so it’s difficult to make a big difference because it’s not neglected. One of my oldest friends is James Shaw, who is currently the Minister of Climate Change, and once a year or so have lunch with him and pester him with questions about why hasn’t X or Y happened, and where is the government on Z, and he’s like: “Yep. Here are all the problems with X and here’s how we’re fixing them. Here’s why Y is hard. Here’s why we can’t do Z so we’re doing something else.” It’s not like he’s unaware of the urgency or scale of the problem. So one of the EA charities I donate to buys up land in rainforests and places it in trust for the indigenous people of the region, preventing it from being chopped down, and that seems more effective than just about anything I could do in New Zealand.

And I just want to clarify that I don’t spend a huge amount of time chanting in monasteries. They make you chant in that one place I stayed at, but it’s not a regular hobby.

“I don’t spend a huge amount of time chanting in monasteries,” fumes author. Now this segues very neatly to a discussion on the search for meaning in a secular world, for “non-religious morality”, as I think philosopher Derek Parfit puts it. Now this is difficult isn’t it. You write about Plato’s concept of “the noble lie”, in which for a long, long time we fooled ourselves there is a God, so that society can better flourish. Tranquility and Ruin is suspicious of faith, but you talk about Heidegger’s idea that science only goes so far in explaining the world, and that there are things “outside rationality”. And yet the search for meaning in the 20th century was so often the road to ruin – alternate faiths, like Scientology, or alternate societies, like Centrepoint. What do you think? Is there an intellectual case for religious faith?

That’s quite the sprawling question. Let me try and answer it biographically. Back in my twenties when I was studying biology the ‘new atheists’ were a big thing: Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens. And I got really invested in that and read all their books and was convinced that religious people were gullible suckers, and that religion was the cause of most of the problems in the world, and that scientific rationalism was the one true way of knowing anything. And some of that just kind of fell away as I got older. I met people who were religious and realised they were smart, and that their faith was a very meaningful part of their lives. I found out that there was a long and fascinating philosophical debate about exactly these questions, which none of the new atheists seemed to know anything about, and I now mostly feel embarrassed for them. And I’m still an atheist, but one who is way less confident about issues like faith and the infallibility of science.

Derek Parfit’s project as a philosopher is to figure out a non religious morality. Back in the 19th century Nietzsche pointed out that modern societies all had moral values based on the assumption that God, or some other supernatural entities existed and wanted us to be moral and would punish us if we weren’t. Moderns don’t believe in God anymore – at least most of us don’t – but we all kept following religious moralities, so what exactly were we doing? Parfit, who only died a few years ago, tried to work out a rational reason to be good that doesn’t involve God or an afterlife. And he never quite got there, but he made a lot of fascinating arguments along the way. And because he’s interested in building a rational morality, the Effective Altruists are super interested in him and his ideas.

Martin Heidegger is almost the antithesis to Parfit. Parfit and the EAs believe that reality is complex and rationalism is the way you understand it objectively and make good decisions. Heidegger pushes against that. He argues that reason and scientific rationalism are very artificial, very constructed ways of seeing the world, and that they contain assumptions that cannot be proved, and cannot answer the most important questions we have about existence. Science and rationalism ‘conceal as much as they reveal’, and the world they reveal is too impoverished for us to live in. For him a life in which I’m degrading the natural world to run around joylessly consuming chocolate bars and happy meals to compulsively spark little serotonin bursts in my brain is the logical consequence of the scientific worldview. So his goal is to try and build an alternate way of being in the world and knowing about the world which leads to a more profound and meaningful existence. And the fact that he joined the national socialist party and became a massive Nazi is something of a problem for the credibility of his project.

But the Buddhists have 2,500 years of a contemplative tradition that teaches that you can’t understand existence rationally, you can only undertake these practises that reveal the true nature of existence to you at an experiential level. Which seems like a Heideggerian project that doesn’t lead directly to death camps, so I thought that was an interesting connection to make. The Buddhist stuff I tend to read is a modern, secular interpretation of Buddhism but the monastery I stayed at is very much a religious institution. And, contra Dawkins et al, the monks and laypeople are definitely not gullible suckers. They just don’t like the secular world, think the way the rest of us live is absurd, and have found an alternative that they find far more meaningful. The faith functions as a way to bind the community together. It doesn’t work if they don’t have faith. So for them there’s an incredibly compelling case for faith.

I’d like to end the interview with as much existential despair as possible. You write about the selfish gene theory of Richard Dawkins, how he posits that the human race are merely “survival machines…robot vehicles”; we host genes, who drive us, and whose only function and purpose is to replicate each other. God, free will, fate and all of that are just illusions. Your book talks about readers who write to Dawkins in a state of great distress, wishing they could unread this, because it’s so profoundly upsetting. What do you think about it? Is life essentially pointless, Danyl?

It’s fashionable to dunk on Richard Dawkins, so I do want to emphasise that I think he’s a great science writer. And The Selfish Gene is a very good book. But . . . I mean he’s exactly the sort of intellectual Nietzsche was making fun of all those years ago. He’s supposed to be this super-rational super atheist, but the assumptions of his world view, that humans are exceptional, that we’re exempt from all the implications of his book because we’re rational and have agency are basically religious. It’s what people believed when they thought humans had souls and were created by a divine being who endowed us with innate dignity and free will, but if you don’t believe that, how does any of the rest of the worldview make sense?

If you don’t believe in God and you do believe in scientific rationalism you are stuck with the implication that we’re just survival vehicles for genes to keep copying themselves, and there’s no actual point to our existence. You have a couple of strategies there: you can just not worry about it, which works unless suddenly it doesn’t. You can adopt Parfit’s approach of trying to figure out a rational way of living a meaningful life, and that can take you to some challenging and weird places, as the EAs show.

Or you can listen to Heidegger, who will point out that Dawkins, and scientists in general can’t explain how consciousness evolved, or how material bodies constructed by genes possess it. They can’t explain why the material world exists or has the properties that it does. Those are pretty big gaps in the worldview. So maybe there is some point to it all in there, somewhere, and even if we spend most of our lives drifting around in a state of oblivion, eating junk food and never thinking about any of this, there’s still a space for it all to mean something.

Tranquility and Ruin by Danyl McLauchlan (Victoria University Press, $30) is available in bookstores nationwide.

Danyl McLauchlan and the Meaning of Life

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