Philosophical recourse – An autobiographical essay

[This is a short autobiographical essay that I began writing some time ago. It remains rough and unedited, separated into breaks. As a whole, it offers a general chronicle of some years of my childhood and some of the places, people, and ideas that have so far shaped different moments in my life. It also touches on different periods of work in my early to semi-mature adulthood]. 

R.C. Smith

To this day, Richard Feynman’s Messenger Lecture Series is played at least once a week in my house. All seven lectures in wonderfully restored audio. It is one of a list of things, along with being surrounded by my books, that brings me a measure of calmness and assuredness.

Today I spend my days studying physics, and I am working on the long road to a PhD in theoretical particle physics. But in arriving at this point I’ve also had to overcome many challenges.

Growing up through moments of poverty and abuse, my childhood and formative adolescent years were incredibly difficult. It would be impossible to offer any sort of complete summation of events. From winter months without heat and periods of poverty, my childhood years were characterised by abuse, violence and neglect. For a number of years, it was filled with many other horrible things that one might only read about or watch in a television drama: from what has already been described to things like the witnessed suicide attempt by my biological father, periods of homelessness, and more. Like anyone who grew up in such conditions, it is difficult to encapsulate the characteristics of hardship and the generally dire state of circumstances that one experienced and witnessed. Having Asperger’s, it is likely that I survived as I did by being naturally focused on my own projects.

In that the environment was dysfunctional and hostile, and many times very scary, life for me also had its unique internal challenges. Having been diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome, this brings its own unique struggle. But it is also the case that in growing up as a youth in such incredibly difficult conditions, I have come to recognise that I owe a lot to my development disorder and my sense of personality. My Asperger’s enabled me to survive the incomprehensible by maintaining a presence of mind. I learned to cope with and understand life through my studies. Not only did my books come to provide a welcomed and flourishing space, they offered explanation and detailed insight into all that I had observed: psychologically, sociologically, economically and so on.  One way that it is described is that, for some people with Asperger’s, they learn to manage their present experience by thinking of their past experiences as reference points; for me, it is described how I use books. On the side of my beloved physics, I have studied everything: from the whole of psychology and human behaviour to our best current theories on social structures and relations, history, anthropology, economics, philosophy, and thus right across the social and natural sciences.

The way it has been described to me is that I am fortunate, with my Asperger’s, to have these as my special interests. Maths, and especially physics, are my main passion. From teaching myself calculus through to things like string theory, today I understand myself as being incredibly fortunate to have the right support around me and the privilege to work at university. Studying is, really, all I know: maths and physics are all that make sense to me.

As a child, when times were especially difficult, I remember sneaking away to the far and unvisited corner of a local park. Lying there, on the opposite side of the hill that faced away from everything and everyone, I would stare at the clouds and contemplate existence. Particles, birds, planets and stars. I was no more than 11 or 12, and this was site of one of my first philosophical and scientific ideas. An autobiographical essay would therefore be incomplete without emphasising the role in which science and academics has played in my life. It has become a natural extension of myself as a person with Asperger’s who only really understands how to exist in accordance with one’s studies. I learn about human relations and behaviour through their empirical study just as I learn about quantum fields through my maths. As I discuss in my essay on living with Asperger’s, I struggle to relate with others and I primarily only understand the world through textbooks. As child, it has been described to me how I relied on a certain perceptiveness and practical studiousness of general human behaviour to aid my own understanding of some form of functioning. Often you will read about people with Asperger’s as learning to mimic the behaviour of others, and in that I have learned that I approach the world in a very analytical and theoretical way, I have learned that this also aided me a great deal in coping with my early environments. In adulthood, I also learned to build from these strengths – with the support of many people – to support an academic career as a theoretical physicist.

I can also say to whatever extent that I live with some understanding that it is a central requirement that I must live with someone who can manage many of the responsibilities common to day to day living. Absent a stable and functional family environment, I understand that I was lucky to have had people offer me their homes at different times when growing up. I have been fortunate to have been supported by these individuals and families, who intervened to fill the gap and take on the responsibilities abandoned by my biological parents. I have read many stories where others were not so fortunate.

Today, I am fortunate to have a loving and caring wife, Beth, and the daily support of several people, including support workers. With the appropriate support, I have been able to establish myself at university and learn, slowly, how to function. I spend my days studying and working in physics, and ensconced in my books. I couldn’t be happier.

***

Without evoking too much cliché, I can say that my experience so far has been the archetypal philosophical adventure. It has consisted of as many practical and theoretical victories as crushing defeats. I don’t just mean that in terms of person life experience, such as with my struggles with Asperger’s or the early years of my childhood. I also mean this as a physicist! The one thing I also say about mathematics – and physics, for that matter – is that to be good you have to learn to fail! Developing mathematical knowledge comes through failing and then from learning from those mistakes. It therefore also comes with many victories and successes, leading my mantra: ‘if you’re unsure mathematically, then just trying something. Don’t be paralysed by fear of the unknown. Just something, experiment, and if you fail, mathematically, you learn from the mistake’. I credit this to my strengths in algebra, always being willing to try something to see if the answer would ‘pop out’.

In terms of life experience, the statement also holds with great philosophical meaning. It has been bloody and gruesome and filled with struggle, and at other times it has been luxurious and peaceful and rewarding.  I have lived to see violence and poverty as well as luxury and the privileges of study, and all before the age of 28. From an unstable home and inexplicable hardships to the hopes of university and of spending one’s days studying physics – it is a story perhaps not uncommon to many others, written as an existential classic of bread and freedom, politics and survival, and finally, if one is lucky, self-determination and latitude.

In fact, it is quite possible that the very first philosophical essay I had written and completed with the intent of formal publication, consisted of that very existential classic, playing on one of the more celebrated pieces by Albert Camus.

I have been described as a humanist and a rationalist. In many ways, this would seem to represent the roots of my early experiences in this world. When I was young I developed the theory that meaning – that is, the pursuit of one’s existential projects – is afforded only to those with the luxury to self-actualise in a meaningful way. In psychology, one will read of this argument in much the same way that some of the great works in contemporary sociology build from the structural premise of subject development. But in simpler terms, it can be summarised as the idea of a hierarchy of needs. There are certainly issues with Maslow’s hierarchy; but in my experience, it serves as an important descriptive power. It’s the idea, in a practical sense, that the individual parameters of basic self-actualising processes with respect to a human being’s development depends a great deal on the conditions in which they exist.

From a socioeconomic perspective, much of these thoughts were not only aided by books but also from what I observed growing up in the parts of town where every other kid seemed to lack stable footing. It served as ground zero for the development of a particular sociological awareness that would fuel later years of study. From broken homes to drugs and general family dysfunction, not to mention the grind of hard labour impressed on the soul of the parents, there was a common thread that could be observed. And, in looking back, it is clear how each individual handled it differently. Some were in and out of jail. Others deep into drugs. While another set seemed determined to make something of themselves, in whatever way and by any means necessary. There was violence and the threat of violence. There was crime, and the hope of money. There were stones thrown through factory windows as acts of poetry, and to each there seemed some individual sense of rebellious promise.

I can speak of this now as a result of my studies in psychology, but, philosophically, there were moments when I think the environment I witnessed gave new meaning to a modern reading of Prometheus: “I felt the Gods were lacking as long as there was nothing to oppose them”. Some say that poverty, abuse, becomes a mentality. It is also the case, I think, that the concept of meaning also becomes psychologically limited. In coming from dysfunctional and unstable environments, it is recognisable that one often cannot look to the future due to the weight of every day existence. In my observation of people, life seems to pass from one day to the next out of pressure to survive. This daily routine begins as the sort of pragmatism one will find when first being introduced to living on the bread line. But after some time, it becomes habit. The weight of daily life bends one’s posture. Comfort and ideas, they represent unobtainable luxuries in this world. And over the course of months and then years, the psychology becomes very simple: all one can do is persevere a little bit more, and then a little bit more, with some vague idea that they have power and promise to alter their fate. This is what keeps hope alive, I think.

In the name of earning a living, it would seem universally true that in the best-case people use the skills they have and exploit them to the best that their circumstance allows. In general, almost everyone is socialized to some capacity to survive economically. Some have business smarts, and they use them legitimately or on crafty trades in the black market. Others enjoy the fruits of physical labour and work on building sites, or despise physical labour and still find themselves on building sites. Others accept an instrumentalised version of themselves, putting aside dreams and aspirations to work retail or pursue whatever opportunity that may arise, just for the short-term which then extends to a lifetime. While others rely on academic skills or rebellion or whatever. Walk through any major city, and in the waves of people you pass by, each will have a story not unlike the above. It often seems a privilege that one might choose what they will dedicate their life to. And this leads to an idea that I continue to find philosophically intriguing: perhaps for some people more than others, life can take very different paths. There is opportunity and choices and then also the wider context of one’s life and the forces and pressures that come with it.

This was one of my first ever philosophical notes, which I scribbled on a torn piece of paper that I had stolen from an office. The meaning of its reflection is something I still contemplate. But, in no uncertain terms, the ideas refer to childhood observations of an environment that can be described in overly stereotypical socioeconomic detail, where refuge seems imperceptible and disenfranchisement is the only true reality. From within this context, I once wrote, anything is possible with the caveat that what is possible remains essentially limited to some idea of survival. Or, at least that is my documentation of it.

***

As a young adult, it was around my 20th birthday that I realised that my only pathway was to unwaveringly dedicate myself to the intellectual profession, both in science and in philosophy. All other pathways pointed to the incomprehensible. I have been known to refuse to work at anything except that which occupies me. And dedicating myself to study was and continues to be the only thing that ultimately make sense, as a constant, over the long term. Many other people with Asperger’s will often say the same thing: ‘you must recognise your strengths, those things you excel at, and utilize them’.  Thus, in a very pragmatic sense, I recognised I have a natural ability to excel intellectually, whether at mathematics or physics or generally. I quickly learned that I was a systematic and scholarly reader. I learned that I could absorb a new language in the span of a month, or a new mathematical concept with only one self-lesson, and that I could read at a pace well beyond that of my peers. In addition to being able to memorise the most minute details, these skills aided my deeper interest and drive to understand the world (social and natural).

For personal reasons touched on throughout, I had to leave school early on several occasions. By the time I was 14 or 15, without the right support I could barely cope and function. Circumstances also unfortunately rarely permitted the pursuit of one’s interests and intellectual passions. Growing up was, as described, a time largely of survival. For years I also struggled with depression and anxiety disorder, and with simply trying to cope with everything going on around me. Debilitation is one descriptive. I was more than capable of achieving top grades in school, as some of my teachers would often point out. But the energy to concentrate was often lacking.

In this time of great difficulty and hardship which defined so much of my early years, there was the exception – the odd moment which, whether inspired by a teacher or a guidance counsellor or a handful of Professors I was fortunate enough to befriend, my curiosity about the world and drive to understand it could be fully realised. It was sometimes small lessons or notes of guidance, such as when I observed a fly, caught between curtains and a window, moving back and forth, tired, smashing its body against the glass until collapsing, only to repeat the process. In class, I would keep jars of flies, feeding them, observing them. My teacher at the time would spare moments to instead talk insect physiology and relevant chemistry. Moments like these were energy, and they remain so. Another example involves my first science teacher who supported me in my research and studies on aerodynamics at age 13; or different counsellors, individuals and families who offered me a safe place throughout the years; or people who encouraged me to continue to pursue my interests in physics and in my broader course of studies.

It follows that I had an early interest and curiosity in science. But my particular interest in physics was strengthened the moment I observed as a young child the image of a professor, covered in chalk, etching masterful lines of equations. It remained in my mind for years. Through young eyes it was though there was something magical about the sight of even the most basic calculus. It seemed like an entirely new language describing an entirely new world. At the time, I was too young to understand the maths; but I could fully embrace the concepts. Blackholes, gravity – rocket science – combined with vague introductions to a mixture of odds and ends: satellite orbits, blackholes and galaxies in addition to the usual lessons on electrons, atoms, and the world of particles. I also found inspiration in such stories as that of the rocket boys, or in the stories of the Apollo missions.

I still carry many of my notes with me from when I was a teenager and especially from my more concentrated efforts in my early twenties, when I was outside formal education. But it was not just science that I dedicated my youngers years to understanding. From the natural sciences to psychology, cognitive science, linguistics, epistemology and everything in-between – when outside or away from formal education, I would spend my days ensconced at the public and university libraries, hidden in south-east corner of the 5th floor, or sitting at the back of university lecture halls that I had snuck into, carrying with me each day only my notes and some pocket change. I remained driven, teaching myself calculus and eventually self-studying toward higher maths. Learning calculus from first principles and expanding toward more higher mathematical uses remains one of my favourite personal moments and experiences. I produced a video series on my Youtube channel that explores some of my earlier intuitions, building from knowledge about linear graphs. But as a whole, it remains to be said that much in my development is owed to this stretch of time, where, thanks to the kindheartedness of a few individuals, I was given a place to sleep or even in certain periods a basic allowance to live on (Maslow’s hierarchy), where I could spend my days at the library, working late nights on my notes in other people’s studios, or sneaking into university classes.

When it comes to my studies, some of my first published writings were in the area of philosophy. In terms of a general philosophical career, I started when I was younger with a mixture of the enlightenment philosophes (such as Descartes), the analytic traditions and also the existential (beginning with Nietzsche). It laid a foundation and offered an introduction. From there I devoured everything that I possibly could, also finding inspiration in existential humanism, continental philosophy, further anglo-American philosophy and finally also the normative foundations of critical theory. I spent a few years in my early twenties laying out everything that I had read, developing a research programme that concerned the pursuit of first principles in understanding the fundamental intersections of human society, human behaviour, subjectivity, theories of knowledge, and ethical practice.

One of my longstanding fascinations or special interests, aside from epistemology, is the broad and general study of the human social world. It would seem that this is largely driven by my lack of understanding and comprehension, due to my having Asperger’s. There is a story about when I was a child, between the ages of 2 and 5, where instead of watching cartoons on the weekends like other children, I would spend the morning hours watching and obsessing about international aid infomercials and various programmes by non-governmental organisations on things like poverty and international development (that would usually air at these times).

Another early experience of similar young age (maybe 6 or 7) was more theological: in observing the world around me, the people and daily activities of modern civilisation, I found terror in the idea of heaven and hell. I obsessed over it for days, and it was one particularly formative philosophical moment, as I scoured the pages of an unused pocket bible that I had found in my house.

Everything from social structures, dynamics and norms to history and the development of societies, this interest has remained with me for much of my life. And so, with science as my background, my principle focus over early adulthood was pursuing a number of interdisciplinary philosophical questions related particularly to social development, subjectivity and epistemology, the relation between science and society, and issues of social irrationality including the notion of the “deficit of reason” in contemporary society. Eventually expanding outward, I also studied and wrote on issues across geography, anthropology and sociology, as well as on many intersecting topics ranging from linguistics to philosophy of psychology, cognitive science, philosophy of mind, theories of knowledge and philosophy of history (to name a few).

These studies eventually led more formally to the development and practice of a comprehensive cross-disciplinary and cross-field research program spanning the many intersections of natural science, social science, humanities and history that eventually also inspired the formal organization of an independent research institute and press. I was also fortunate in early adulthood to have received the support of various Professors. In recognition of my research I was eventually offered various opportunities to lecture university, and was awarded the position of Teaching-Scholar at the Co-operative Institute for Transnational Studies in the field of philosophy of science. My early studies also led to the development of core social research documents such as one on ‘methodological innovation’, as well as the publication of over 100 articles and several books ranging diversely in subject matter, culminating finally in Society and Social Pathology: A Framework for Progress (Palgrave, 2017). This book represents my final publication in interdisciplinary social research, summarizing the project I started thinking about as a youth.

A lot of my very early work was driven by experience. It was more in the Nietzschean order of philosophy than formal scientific commentary.

When it comes to science, I researched everything in these early periods. Physics was always (and remains) front and centre, inspiring me to teach myself things like calculus and higher maths. But this eventually led to teaching myself things like general relativity, quantum theory and the Standard Model, before formally entering into university. I also enjoyed drawing Feynman diagrams and studying things like wave-particle duality, the de Broglie relation, the quantum measurement problem and Schrodinger’s atom. In my spare time, away from physics, I would research anything I could get my hands on: from chemistry, biology, ecology, environmental studies and geography to particular points of focus in terms of established theories of evolution or even the entire history of mathematics and modern science.

And now, in the present, several or more years free of what seems another lifetime, I have learned to move on. I am thoroughly enjoying my return to formal education, and a horizon of new possibilities.

My focus is entirely on my formal pursuit of a PhD in physics; but I continue to maintain a side interest in advanced scholarship in a number of areas and specialisms throughout the sciences. I also continue to study and write in many other disciplines in my spare time. This includes an ongoing interest in epistemology and in philosophy of science, which aims to explore the foundations, methods, and implications of science, as well as a number of core theses concerning the relation between science and society. Other intersecting issues include theories of knowledge, reason and subjectivity as well as philosophy of history, ethics and social philosophy / development. Another deep interest that currently occupies whatever free time I have is scholarship on the history of science and mathematics. From Euclid’s Elements to Newton’s Principia, Einstein’s papers and the development of quantum theory – I am enjoying learning the why of mathematics and modern physics in the context of a broader evolution of thinking. One idea is that, in the future, I may turn all of my notes into a book.

Most importantly, though, I am simply excited to be a formal student again.

***

Ultimately, this brief chronicle offers a very short account of a young life and how it has become intertwined in science and philosophy. It offers a glimpse into that from which I originally became inspired to concern myself with the key issues of contemporary life, and the vastness of normative enquiry into history, metaphysics, knowledge, social development and ethics.

But recourse to the world of ideas means more to me philosophically than its representation as a purely academic operation. Having Asperger’s, I have discovered that the course of a studious life offers structure and a sense of direction that might otherwise not be conceivable, in addition to helping me understand the world (and my experiences within it) that so often appears foreign and incomprehensible. To quote Proust, one must not look to “receive wisdom; we must discover it for ourselves after a journey that no one can take for us or spare us”.