If you try hard at something but fail, you experience disappointment. And the harder you try, the greater the disappointment.

This is a lesson we learn when we’re young, but we spend the rest of our lives wrestling with its implications. How can we motivate ourselves to work really hard, when we know that we might fail? And the harder we work, the more bitter the failure?

Here are some ways that I have found to be promsing:

  • Try to maximize the amount of work that you enjoy doing for its own sake, and minimize the work you do only because of its results.
  • Try to find a way to love the process over the outcome.
  • Try to accept the fact that success depends on factors outside our control, and try to allow only what is within our control — for instance, the efforts we make — to affect our state of mind.
  • Try to see that we’re playing with odds here, and that even though we know that the harder we work, the greater the disappointment, greater too is the likelihood of success.

But despite all this, for me to do the hard work, I have to know that there is, at the very least, the possibility of success. It is hard to endure a struggle without at least the possibility of something good resulting from my efforts. To quote from Galatians: “And let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up.”

Here’s the thing about having terminal cancer. You will struggle but then you will die; there is no reward. There is nothing that I will reap in the end for all the efforts I make in dealing with this illness. It was always going to kill me. There is no great payoff in the end for fighting cancer bravely or with apparent wisdom. I will be dead. I will no longer exist to enjoy whatever gains there were to be had.

There is no rest either. We are fond of saying “rest in peace,” of imagining that people who die are finally allowed to rest their weary souls. We are fond of saying this even if we are atheists and believe that death is the end, that there is no person who persists after it. But how can something that does not exist rest? Do the flames rest when the fire is out?

So this is a struggle without a reward. Is this why I find it so fucking hard?

I know, though, that the struggle itself is not all dark. It’s still up to me to make an extra effort to enjoy what I can — to take an extra second to enjoy my coffee, to taste the sweet freshness in the fruits I can still eat, to cherish the warmth of friends and family, to write a word here and there.

Cancer, you will take everything from me eventually. But not yet, you fucking asshole.



Is dying a transformative experience?

When you hear that someone has been diagnosed with terminal cancer, it isn’t too hard to be philosophical about it:

  • “That’s awful. But such is life.”
  • “Misfortune can befall any of us, can’t it?”
  • “We never know when our time is up. We must do what we can to live the life we’ve got and appreciate it as we go.”

But when you hear that you have terminal cancer, you think: “Fuck, fuck, fuck. Why is life so fucking unfair?”

In 1974, the philosopher Thomas Nagel wrote a famous paper called “What is it like to be bat?”1 In it, he made the observation that a bat experiences the world probably quite differently from the way we experience the world. And he argued that, in fact, a bat’s experience is so different that we, being human, cannot in principle know what it’s like to be a bat. We can imagine ourselves hanging upside down, eating bugs, using sonar to navigate, and so on. But we’re doing just that: imagining ourselves doing the things bats do. What we’re not doing is imagining what it’s like to be a bat.

This difficulty, of imagining what it’s like to be another creature, is not just there between a human and a bat; it’s there between any two creatures, even when they’re members of the same species. I can imagine, if I try hard enough, what it’s like for me to be in your shoes. But can I imagine what it’s like for me to be you in your shoes? I can imagine myself living your kind of life, but I can’t really imagine what it’s like for you to live your kind of life.

We relate to each other because we have something in common. That’s why it is hard to a relate to a bat, or people who are very different from us. I think this is why small talk exists. If you and I can talk about the weather, then there’s something we can agree on. Now that we’ve established that we have something in common, we can relate to each other.

Deeper connections between two people, though, need more than small talk. They need ground that is not only common but important to both of them. Think of those who share a common struggle: players on a sports team, soldiers in a platoon, students in graduate school. Many of these relationships do not last when the individuals no longer share the same goal, for example, when a player gets traded or when a student drops out of school. Some friendships do last, long after the shared purpose has ended — when the war is over, for example. But the friendships between soldiers persist largely because the history they share matters to who they are now. Few veterans leave that consequential aspect of their lives out of their self-conception.

And those who have been friends for a long time often choose to talk about the past rather than the present. It’s the past we still have in common. And it’s the past we rely on, even when everything in our lives seem to change. We change beyond recognition, and yet, when we get together, we talk about that time we fit all eight of us in the car and Sam, god bless him, volunteered to ride in the trunk.

There’s a gap between us that we don’t want to shed light on. Some things stay the same, but many things do not. What we have in common becomes increasingly diluted by the new important things in our lives: our marriages, our children, our divorces, our new careers, our recent struggles. We think if we put in enough effort, we can imagine what our friends go through. We can imagine what it’s like to have children (or we can remember what it’s like not to have children) and if we try hard to enough to imagine (or to remember), our friendships can still grow.

But here’s where Nagel’s bat swoops in. I don’t know if I can imagine what it’s like to have children. And I don’t know if you can imagine what it’s like to have terminal cancer.

The philosopher L.A. Paul has recently argued that becoming a parent is what she calls a transformative experience.2 This may sound like some purple poetic expression, but it’s a technical term and she means something specific by it. For an experience to count as transformative, (1) you have to learn something you could not have learned without having had that experience, and (2) after having had that experience, you think of yourself differently, or orient your life according to different values. This means that you cannot imagine what it’s like to have a transformative experience, because otherwise it wouldn’t be transformative: the experience tranforms you so much that you are now a different person and you could not have known how you would be different beforehand.

I don’t know if becoming a parent is really, truly a transformative experience, but it probably comes as close as anything. My wife and I tried to have children, but luck again wasn’t on our side. So I will never know what it’s like to have children. I do not know how it would have changed me and what I care about. If you think I’m trying to make this sound sad, I should let you know that Paul is clear in saying that transformative experiences are not inherently positive or, for that matter, inherently negative. It isn’t necessarily good or bad to have them. Precisely because they change you, you cannot know if they are good or bad: if we have not had a transformative experience, we cannot say that it would be good or bad to have it, since we do not know what it’s like; and if an experience changes us fundamentally, we cannot say that it was good or bad for us since we cannot compare it with how things were before since we no longer see things the way we used to.

I don’t know if having a terminal illness is a transformative experience either. Other than hearing the words “it’s incurable” or “your prognosis is months”, being as sick as I am bears no unique phenomenological experiences. There is no sensation to dying (at least not yet). There’s pain, to be sure, and the pain feels different and I feel it in strange new places. But the pain doesn’t tell you it’s dying pain. There’s fatigue also, but we’ve all been tired before. And now, just because it lasts longer and persists despite the usual remedies, the tiredness doesn’t tell you that you’re dying. There are also side effects in treating the illness, but none of those tell you that you are dying either. After all, the same treatment with the same side effects is given to those for whom the disease is still curable. All this probably explains why so many of us do not accept our fates — having one’s illness be terminal doesn’t feel like anything special at all.

There’s only this to the experience: the recurring and constant pain, the fatigue that lasts for days on end, over and over again, the nausea and the headaches, and the ever increasing portion of your time spent inside pharmacies and hospitals, going to them, coming back from them, with doctors and nurses and other people there to help you, with tubes and needles, putting fluids inside you while extracting others. My illness has become my life, or at least a large part of it. But those who have terrible but curable illnesses also live this kind of life.

So what tells me I’m dying? There’s no gut feeling — no gut knowledge that I only have so much time. There’s just my doctors’ words buttressed by data that only they can intelligibly interpret. (One might take all this as reason for me to distrust my doctor and hew my own way. But what it really shows is my unavoidable dependence on experts and how there’s only so much epistemological value to my feelings.) But there is something to knowing that you have a disease that’s going to kill you soon. If you accept that fact, and acknowledge it deep down and in all the things you do, I think it does transform you.

The young prefer spending their time meeting new people over spending it with those they already know well. They are preoccupied by questions such as, “what will I do next?”, “will I become successful?”, “what should I do to become successful?”, “will I find my soulmate?” But the elderly, it seems, are different: they prefer to spend their time with family rather than strangers, and with old friends rather than trying to make new ones. And because they know their time is limited, they want to spend it on everyday pleasures and the people they know they already love.3

When I was young, my family and I would make a yearly visit to New Jersey where my great aunt and her family lived. We would stay there for a week or so and play around their large house, as my mom’s extended family would dote on us. But whenever it was time for us to go, to begin our journey back home to Montreal, my mom’s aunt would cry. She was always a little frail, and I had wondered then, as I wonder now, if she was preparing herself to say goodbye for the very last time.

I do that too now. Friends visit from far away, and I wonder if it’s the last time I will ever see them. Friends talk about visiting me in four or five months, and I wonder if I’ll be around to receive them. I went to McDonalds a few weeks ago — I have a small but special fondness for the place — and I wondered if it was the last time I’d ever eat there. Epictetus counselled that we do that on purpose: we should try to imagine each meeting with a loved one, each experiencing of an ordinary pleasure, as possibly our last, even when we’re not terminally ill, so that we may learn to appreciate what we have and not dwell too much on what we don’t. He thought it would change us for the better. I have tried to follow his advice for many years, long before I was sick. But it was hard to do in any real capacity. Now it has become part of my everyday. I’m no longer sure if Epictetus is right about whether this practice changes us for the better. But I do think it changes us.

So what this means is that there is this gap between me, who is dying, and you, who are not. If you are young, you still want to do things that can shape the rest of your life. If you are older or if you are sick like me, you might not care so much to shape the rest of your life as much as to live it and appreciate what you can. These differences between us are unavoidable and understandable. But it means that no matter how much some of you are there for me, I still feel alone. You do not know what it’s like to be dying, and you probably can’t know, until it happens to you.

I suppose this is why support groups exist. Only other people who are living with cancer knows what it’s like to live with cancer. Only others facing a terminal illness really know what it’s like to face a terminal illness. And when I go to these support groups, I do feel less alone. But only for a short while. Not everyone at a support group is dying, and not every dying person accepts that they’re dying. But more to the point, these people are not my friends or my family, and, being short on time, I’m not interested in making new friends.

I’m not the only one this illness has transformed. It has turned my wife into someone whose husband is dying. And it will eventually turn my wife into a widow. I do not and cannot know what it’s like to watch your husband or wife suffer through this illness, and I will not know and cannot know what it’s like to lose the love of my life. I can only imagine what it’s like for her now and what it will be like for her then, and she can only imagine what it’s like for me – and we both know that such imaginings can only give us the barest outline of what our experiences are like. There are two of us transformed by this illness, but in different ways. My wife and I are both left a little alone by this illness, left incompletely understood, even by each other.

But despite that, we are here for each other. And even if none of my friends and family really understand what it’s like to be dying or what it’s like to have a husband who’s dying, they are here for us — unwavering and stalwart. Now that life seems so fragile and short to me, all this seems like a wonder.

  1. Here’s a link to Nagel’s article. ↩︎
  2. See Paul’s “What You Can’t Expect When You’re Expecting” and “Précis of Transformative Experience both available on her website. ↩︎
  3. See Chapter 4 of Being Mortal by Atul Gawande. ↩︎

On being calm about death

Near the end of the original Star Wars movie, Obi-Wan Kenobi, the wise Jedi elder, smiles just before closing his eyes and allowing himself to be struck down by the evil Darth Vader. His face reveals a moment of calmness and acceptance at the moment of death.

Something similar happens at the end of Batman Begins. Ra’s Al Ghul, Batman’s evil but wise mentor, closes his eyes and meditates when his death becomes unavoidable.

The lesson seems to be that the wise are calm at the moment of death. This is not a new idea created and perpetuated by cool Hollywood movies. It is actually rather old.

In the Apology, Plato describes Socrates as accepting his punishment upon death by willingly drinking the poisonous hemlock he is given. And it’s not just in his willingness to die that Socrates is calm, but also in the process of dying. According to Plato, Socrates is aware of how his body dies moment by moment: his limbs go numb first, followed by his torso, and last of all his voice, from which his wise words emanate.

But this description of his death is probably a lie. Hemlock does not make one go numb. Instead it makes one vomit and tremble, among other symptoms, resulting in a painful death. Now one philosopher has gone to great lengths to argue that Plato’s description was, in fact, accurate. But what is interesting to me is why this is an important matter at all, why is calmly dying so important to our image of wisdom?

Let us compare our reaction to Plato’s account of Socrates’ death to our reaction to someone losing their mental and voluntary faculties long before they die. We notice a difference. The first situation inspires awe and respect, and the second, sadness and pity.

I think we should be sceptical of these images of wisdom. Dementia is real and common among the elderly as are serious changes in one’s personality. Someone who was wise and calm in life may turn into a raving and incoherent lunatic before they die. And because one is inextricably subject to the caprices of one’s physical body (including the brain), the moments of one’s death may conceal and obscure rather than reveal who one really was.

But Socrates’ calmness regarding death goes beyond just the physical manifestations during his last minute. It’s present in what he says about death:

since no one knows whether death, which they in their fear apprehend to be the greatest evil, may not be the greatest good….. I will never fear or avoid a possible good rather than a certain evil.

This is the logic of his thinking, one couched in terms of hope. The idea seems to be that if we do not know for certain that X will be bad, then there is a possibility that X is good, and thus we should not fear X. And to think that we can know for certain that X is bad is to think we know more than we actually do, which is the hallmark characteristic of a lack of wisdom. Thus, being wise means not fearing death.

This argument is flawed. For one, it is too strong. If we believe that certainty in most knowledge is impossible, as many of us do, it means that we should never be afraid of anything at all, even if it means falling into a pit of lava. We may be fairly confident that it will be very painful, but we cannot know that for certain, for random miraculous things can happen during our descent into the pit.

And we can also question the very premise of this argument — that we should hope when there is a possibility of a good outcome and only fear when there is a certainty of a bad outcome. But why? Why not fear when there is a possibility of a bad outcome, and only hope when there is a certainty of a good outcome?

But more importantly, Socrates’s way of thinking is entirely unBayesian. In particular, it’s far too binary and too extreme. According to Socrates, we should hope when there is even the smallest possibility of a good outcome, and we should fear only when there is certainty of a bad outcome. But this precludes the possibility of having mixtures of fear and hope. Can I not say that I hope 30% that this will be good, but 70% fear that this will be bad? Maybe this doesn’t make sense of our psychology, for it does not describe how we actually think — maybe we cannot have both emotions of fear and hope simultaneously. But there is no logical error in thinking that A is 30% likely, and not-A is 70% likely. In fact, it is more nuanced and precise than simply saying that something is “possible” or “a good chance”. And when we think this way, in terms of assigning likelihoods, how do we conceive of hope and fear? I’m not sure, but we have to abandon Socrates’s approach.

The point of all this is really to ask why we should be calm at the moment of death. For Socrates, it made sense to be hopeful, because one doesn’t know what will happen and what happen might be good. That argument, as I’ve tried to show, is rather ineffective.

There is at least one other reason for Socrates’s calmness. For instance, he didn’t just believe that we did not know that death would be bad, but he believed that the death of the body did not mean the death of the person. In short, he believed in the immortality of the soul. And so did Obi-Wan Kenobi, from Star Wars. I’m not sure about Ra’s Al Ghul, but most depictions of mystical wise men portray a faith in the afterlife, and this faith grounds their calmness. I’m not going to argue for this, but I don’t think an afterlife is likely.

So are there any other reasons to be calm at death? One reason might be that it is somehow inherent in wisdom to be calm. But this is a terrible answer. If there are good reasons to be calm, then it is wise to be calm. And if there are no good reasons to be calm, then it is not wise to be calm. Wisdom is not something that exists apart from being able to have and act for good reasons. In other words, to say that one reason to be calm at death is that it is wise to be so is to say very little.

I can only think of one good reason to be calm at death, but the reason is not so strong that if you fail to be calm at death you would somehow lose the title of being wise. The one good reason I can think of is this: it’s generally more pleasant to be calm than to be agitated, and so this is probably true at the moment of dying too. That’s it. It’s a pretty weak claim.

So it’s a good idea to be calm at death, but it’s no big deal if you’re not.


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.