What I want you to know

There’s this pressure among the sick, among those of us with cancer, to fight our illnesses as hard as we can. This pressure has a variety of sources: family members, friends, the culture at large (think cultural depictions of illness like well-known asshole Lance Armstrong), and even others afflicted with cancer. The pressure turns into a particular myth: one’s chances of survival depends on the character and personality of the one afflicted. If you are strong and if you fight and if you hope, you will survive, or at least live longer.

This myth, or a cousin of it, manifests itself among those who are not sick: “if you exercise, eat enough vegetables, meditate, think positively, pray regularly, don’t smoke, don’t drink too much, don’t eat too much red meat, etc, you won’t even get sick.” This is of course not true. Doing some of these things will reduce your chances of getting sick, but nothing reduces your chances to zero.

But for whatever reason, we have a hard time thinking in degrees. We would rather think in terms of either/or: if you did all the right things and avoided all the wrong things, then it is 100% certain you will not get cancer. So if you did get cancer, then you did not do all the right things or did not avoid all the wrong things.

(But rejecting this either/or leads some of us to make a different mistake: “if doing all the right things and avoiding all the wrong things does not prevent cancer, then there’s no point in even trying.” When you try to avoid thinking that everything is black or white, do not thereby think that everything is the same shade of gray. It’s still a good idea not to smoke.)

We know intellectually that there’s nothing that can prevent us from having cancer with a 100% degree certainty. But I suspect that you don’t really believe this. That is why I feel the pressure to tell you that I did not smoke, that I did not drink, I meditated regularly, exercised regularly, gave to charity occasionally, volunteered, etc. Not that I did all the right things. I probably ate too much meat. I probably should have given more to charity. I’m suspicious of positive thinking, and I never prayed. But those things I failed at are probably not what gave me cancer. It was a factor outside my control.

I want you to believe this, because I want you to believe that this disease is not my fault. I want you to have a good impression of who I am and who I was. But it is, I recognize, hard for you to believe that it’s not, at least in some small way, my fault. Because otherwise you would have to believe that there are factors outside your control that can affect your very existence.

In other words, if my being getting cancer was outside my control, it then means that whether you get cancer can also be outside your control – you too could be faced with a terminal illness. And vice versa, if you believe that this is something that only happens to others, then you don’t really believe that my getting cancer was a matter of chance.

I think in previous posts, I have said that I wanted everyone to believe that this can happen to them, just because it happened to me. I wanted you to believe that I am like you, because I wanted you to believe that I am sick through no fault of my own. But I didn’t realize what that means. It means that you have to be genuinely and deeply aware of the capriciousness of your own life. And that can be debilitating – anxiety-provoking. (Spouses, family members, and close friends of the terminally ill are known to suffer from death-related anxiety more acutely than friends of friends, acquaintances, and colleagues.) Facing not just the fact of your death but the fact that it might be out of your control can make living even harder than it already is.

And I don’t really want your life to be harder than it already is. So it’s okay to pretend that you’re exempt from all this. And it’s okay with me if you want to think it’s my fault I’m sick. Just keep it to yourself.

Being a philosopher

There’s an old joke that goes something like this:

The physics department at a university has just asked for more funding in order to pay for larger labs, more equipment, and more computers. The dean is aghast at the costs in the budget and replies, “Why can’t you be more like the mathematics department? All they need is pens, paper, and waste baskets! Or better yet, the philosophy department. All they need is pens and paper.”

This joke used to bother me, because it makes fun of philosophy, and I’m a philosopher. I would say, “I’ve thrown tons of things into the waste basket!”

One of the difficulties about calling yourself a philosopher, or calling yourself anything, is that by doing so, you bind yourself to what being a philosopher entails. In one of his essays, Paul Graham writes that we should try to keep our identities small, because when something becomes part of our identity, we stop having useful conversations about it. He points to religion and politics as examples. Religious and political affiliations often form core aspects of our identities, but religion and politics are the areas of discussion where we have our most violent and unproductive disagreements.

Paul Graham points to a possible exception in a footnote: that of calling oneself a scientist. A scientist isn’t committed necessarily to any particular theory, like Darwinism, in the same way that a creationist would be committed to their theory. A scientist is committed more to a methodology, to follow where the evidence leads. Since a scientist is committed to evidence more than to their privately held theories, they will be open to evidence to the contrary.

In this respect, thinking of yourself as a philosopher may even be better than thinking of yourself as a scientist, because there’s actually much less agreement among philosophers on standard philosophical questions than there is among scientists on standard scientific questions. There was a survey among professional philosophers done in 2009, and the claim that received the greatest agreement was the one stating that there is an external world. That agreement was only about 82%.

That is a remarkably low consensus. Just compare this to the fact that 97% of climate change scientists believe that humans are causing global warming. In other words, philosophers are, on the whole, much less confident that there is a real world than climate change scientists are that humans are causing global warming.

So it seems that calling yourself a philosopher doesn’t tie you to any particular belief, and unlike scientists, it is less clear that you’re even tied to any particular methodology. Forget the fact that there is huge divide between analytic and continental philosophers. Even among analytic philosophers, there is only about a 51% consensus on what even counts as logical (classical or not?), which is the closest thing to a clear standard we use to assess the validity of arguments – and note that this is just to check validity, not soundness.

But what this leads to is the problem that it seems that philosophers can say anything they want, because there is so little agreement among us. We need to find ways to constrain our thinking.

One bad way to constrain your thinking is to add to your identity. Instead of thinking of yourself just as a philosopher, you could identify as a consequentialist, a physicalist, a Kantian about ethics, a Humean about causality, a reasons internalist, etc. What is best for your professional life is probably to come up with an unusual theory, find arguments in favour of it that are not obviously invalid, publish those papers, and attach that theory to your identity. Second best is probably to find new arguments for an unpopular theory, and try to become known as the reviver of that theory. Third best is probably to become a defender of some well-tread philosophical theory or philosopher by investing your time in the scholarly work related to it or him (it’s usually a “him”).

Doing this may help you find employment, and it will probably help you get rid of the feeling that you’re just freewheeling philosophizing. It is however totally unhelpful in finding the truth. For it to be helpful at all, we have to know which theories are true before we add them to our conceptions of ourselves. Constraining ourselves is only useful if the constraints help us get at the truth. Computer scientists have clear constraints on their work. If their program doesn’t output anything or outputs error messages, their code is wrong. If something happens that they don’t expect, their code is wrong. Sometimes the output is close to what they expect but is actually wrong, so they don’t know that there’s a mistake right away. But most of the time, computer scientists can tell right away. Mathematicians have a harder time. The pieces of paper on which they write their proofs do not provide automatic feedback about whether those are good proofs or not. So they have to check and re-check, and they give their proofs to peers to check.

But philosophers have a really hard time. We can look over our arguments over and over again the way that a mathematician would over their proofs. (Which we rarely do, and rarely to the same level of rigour.) We can give our work to our peers, but the best our peers can really do is show that one of our arguments is invalid. But what is the reaction that most of us philosophers have when such a problem is found? The answer should be “Thanks for the help. I’ll try again.” But that’s not the common reaction in the circles I’ve been in.

Here, on this website, I’ve been writing about what I’ve been going through, trying to figure out what it means to face death and cancer, trying to figure out how to live. And a lot of it is probably mistaken. I wonder if nobody’s objecting to what I’ve been saying, because it simply seems too rude to criticize what a terminally-ill man is thinking.

I’m not really asking for objections or criticisms. I just don’t know if I’m getting this stuff about life and death right at all.

On thinking about death

When I think about dying, which is all the time now, I sometimes wonder why I didn’t think about all this before. And wondering about why I didn’t think about all this before is only one tiny step away from wondering why everyone else isn’t thinking about it now.

Scott Alexander once pointed out that one of the scariest things about utilitarianism is how intuitive and sensible it seems until you actually look at the real world. If you confine your world to your friends, family and neighbours, you might be willing to incur small loses for the greater benefits of others. But when you think about what the world is really like, and not just what’s within your normal world, it becomes very demanding and scary.

He offers the following fable:

Imagine a happy town full of prosperous people. Every so often they make nice utilitarian decisions like having everyone chip in a few dollars to help someone who’s fallen sick, and they feel pretty good about themselves for this.

Then one day an explorer discovers a BOTTOMLESS PIT OF ENDLESS SUFFERING on the outskirts of town. There are hundreds of people trapped inside in a state of abject misery. The Pit Gods agree to release some of their prisoners, but only for appropriately sumptuous sacrifices.

Suddenly the decision isn’t just “someone in town makes a small sacrifice to help other people in town”. Suddenly it’s about the entire town choking off its luxury and prosperity in order to rescue people they don’t even know, from this pit they didn’t even know was there a week ago. That seems kind of unfair.

So they tell the explorer to cover the lid of the pit with a big tarp that blends in with the surrounding grass, so they don’t have to see it, and then go on with their lives.

But the thing about the world – the real world, the world we have now – is that there are actual things that are very much like bottomless pits of endless suffering. They comprise the developing world, the poor, the mentally disabled, the elderly in nursing homes, prisons, psychiatric wards, most hospitals, those dying in war-torn countries, and those ravaged by disease.

And while utilitarianism would be relatively easy if there were no bottomless pits of suffering, it’s damn hard in reality where these pits exist. And we can’t just cover these pits with tarps. First, these pits are not literal holes in the ground and they don’t make tarps big enough anyway. And moreover, we have a hard time being so deliberately callous. But what we do is not much better.

I don’t know what you do when you are asked to think about all the suffering in the world. But here’s what I do: I think about it for a bit, then say, “It’s a complicated problem, and there’s not much I can do about it.” But I never put actual effort in finding out how complicated the problem is or ever try to do much about it. I just repeat the “it’s complicated” mantra to myself every time the issue comes up.

My own dying is just one of millions. My own suffering is not worse than those of millions’ others. What I’m going through is relatively easy to contemplate, but even I flinch when I think about it. Much easier before when I didn’t have to think about dying at all. Now I’ve got no choice. I have to think about it. I can only imagine how hard it is for my friends and family to try to deliberately think about dying. That may come off as snarky, but it’s also sincere. (Can you be both snarky and sincere at the same time?)

People struggle with living their ordinary lives, and ordinary lives are not easy, with mortgages, taking care of children, looking for a job or an apartment, or worrying about whether you’re going to keep your job, worrying about your relationship with your spouse — those are real problems that are really difficult. And then you have to think about the fact that this Ken Chung, your friend, brother, son, cousin or nephew, is actually dying from cancer? DYING for chrissake! Of course, I’d rather be in your shoes than mine, unless you’re also in one of those bottomless pits or in one worse than mine. But it’s still hard, because most of your life, even though it’s normal, is still really hard, and we can only handle so many hard things at a time.

So here are some thoughts on how to relate to the dying, or at least to this dying person. If you can say something to me that is not cliché and sincere and kind, that’s amazing and incredible. Truly. But don’t ever feel guilty about saying something that is cliché to me. Even things like “You’re strong”, “You seem wise about all this”, “We have to enjoy the days we have” all mean a tremendous amount to me, even if I disagree and think I’m weak, unwise, and I have no idea how to enjoy what life I have left. You should know that you cannot pull me out of the pit I am in — my disease is incurable.1 All I ask is that you not a put a tarp over me and forget about me.

But even if you did that, I can’t really fault you. After all, part of me wants desperately to reject utilitarianism just because it makes me think about things I’d rather not.

  1. Even if you wanted to try pull me out of this pit, you would have to go and study immunotherapy, gene therapy, and/or oncology, and somehow make multiple Nobel prize-worthy breakthroughs really fast.