What 40-Degree Water Taught Me About Philosophy

No matter how much you regret something in the past, or how much you fear something in the future, none of it matters three seconds after you fall into 40-degree water. When immersed in water that cold, nothing else exists. It wouldn’t matter if your mother died yesterday. Not at that moment.

The freezing water consumes your body, which then consumes your mind, as a thousand razor blades tear through the nerves of every skin cell in your body.

Your body screams, “I’m dying, get me out.”

There is nothing else.

When I was a younger man, I thought that our minds ruled over our bodies. That if I could just control what was happening in the never-ending internal narrative in my head, that I would have it all figured it. But I now understand that my mind, my thoughts – the conscious “I” that is the subject of this sentence – is the just humble subject and servant of my body. Indeed, my consciousness is just a product of my body.

And only recently, I have come to conclude that any moral philosophy – any system of beliefs about how we should live our lives – must address the physical roots of suffering or contentedness. That a disembodied philosophy is a hallow philosophy. Any meaningful discussion of how we should live our lives, must start and end with the profound implications of what it means to be physically alive and present in a physical world.

I spend most of my days doing what you might call “intellectual pursuits.” By this, I just mean reading, writing, and legal work (which is usually reading or writing or talking to people about reading or writing). This is how I spend about three-quarters of my life.

But then there is another part of me that likes run up and down mountains, to kayak down rivers. To get outside and to feel things.

I have run on this trail.

And on these trails.

And I’ve kayaked here.

What could I possibly read or write that would ever compare to the beauty of something like this?

Watching the colors change at sunrise over the rim of the Grand Canyon. Seeing the expanse when you crest timberline on a mountain trail. The joy of watching the sun set with family and friends on the beach during my wedding in Manuel Antonio, Costa Rica.

These all feel like the most important parts of my life.

But they are not intellectual pursuits.

Most philosophers don’t focus on the body much. In fact, it’s only recently that most philosophers have come to accept that the human mind is the human body: nothing more, nothing less. This discovery that our minds are just fleshy matter and electrical impulses, is what Francis Crick calls, “the astonishing hypothesis.”

Until the last 100 years or so, it wasn’t a widely accepted hypothesis. And even now, it isn’t widely accepted among the broader population.

My day will unfold very differently if I start it with a few cups of tea as opposed to a few shots of tequila. My plans should change if I am forced to take a few doses of LSD as opposed to a couple of Adderrall pills. I will focus better if I exercise and meditate in the morning. There are thousands of pharmacological nudges that attempt to correct for our various biochemical imbalances.

But, still, the body rarely finds its way into philosophical conversations. There is of course “the mind-body problem,” a 200-level philosophy course at every major academic institution. But as someone who has both taken and TA’d such a course, I can assure that the focus in such courses usually remains abstract and disembodied. The emphasis is on the minds of bats in caves and brains in vats of nutrients, not on the importance of physical sources of our mental states.

The pull of philosophy – even for those who believe in the “astonishing hypothesis” – has always been to disconnect the mind from the physical body and abstract away sensations of physical experience. To separate our mental world from the most powerful parts of what it means to be human.

I’ve been watching this movie a lot lately. If you’ve never seen it, please check it out.

It might change your life. Or, at least, it might change how you plan your next vacation.

It’s poignant, kooky, and embarrassingly beautiful.

Sadly, the creator of that video, Kyle Dempster, died a few weeks ago climbing in mountains of Pakistan. He was 33.

I’m sure that many of you might be thinking that his death was stupid. That his adventures are stupid. That the risks he took were stupid.

But damn, as short as his life was, it sure did seem amazing.

Perhaps some of you might be thinking that the Road From Karakol has nothing to do with moral philosophy. That freezing water has nothing to do with moral philosophy.

But moral philosophy troubles itself with the question of how to live the best possible life. And if the best parts of life are when you feel alive and engaged in the physical world, how can it not consider the role of our physical lives?

Normally, moral philosophers focus on questions of ethics. What we should do and what we should not do. And, often, the focus is on what you might call boundary questions. When is such-and-such behavior ethical and when is it not? Trolley problems.

Those may be fun exercises. But they are not the moral philosophical problems that are the source of our struggles.

For most of us, the primary moral philosophical problem we face is that there is a massive disconnect between the life we want to live and the life we are actually living. The real trouble with moral philosophy isn’t that we struggle to solve boundary questions in ethics, it’s that our system of beliefs and our behaviors are misaligned.

Something tells me that wasn’t a problem for Kyle Dempster.

I’ve spent most of my life studying philosophy. I first started reading Marcus Aurelius, Plato, Nietzsche, and Kant when I was 15.

The idea that we could read books, think about the best way to live, and then apply those lessons to life, that’s been a central focus of my life ever since. I have found much wisdom in my many years of studying philosophy that has shaped how I live.

But now, after 23 years of studying philosophy, I believe more than ever that abstraction is not the source of a good life.

For most of my life, I thought philosophy of life and a love for mountains were separate endeavors. But as I have grown older, my ability to appreciate life is in many ways contingent upon my ability to get outside and get physical. That understanding life is less meaningful if I am cooped up in an office or a house.

Life is an embodied experienced and without awareness of the body and its needs we are  missing the point of life. Our bodies and brains evolved to manage a series of intense physical tasks. We evolved to run and chase after our dinner. To run, hide, and climb trees to save our lives.

Our existential crises stem from the fact that we spend most of our lives in cubicles and cars and houses, going from one small box to the next, staring at screens, seeking comfort and trying to find fulfillment in intellectual pursuits and shallow entertainment. We are designed and programmed for a life that is wholly unrelated to the life we have created.

I believe that our actions should be based on reason and knowledge to the full extent we have developed it in the modern world. I consider myself a rationalist in the “Less Wrong” sense of the term (though not in the Cartesian sense of the term). But I also appreciate that living well is about maintaining a perpetual awareness of the physical states that lead to living well. That living a good life is a vigorous, visceral thing. And there’s nothing about that approach that’s anti-intellectual.

It’s a philosophy I call vigorous rationalism.

I just took a break from writing this post to do one of my favorite things. It’s free, simple, and easy to copy. Feel free to do it yourself.

I went outside to lie in the grass in my small backyard, with the sun beating down on my face. My two dogs came up next to me, to roll around in the grass and soak in the sun at my side. The simple act of having my whole body in a small patch of grass was totally reinvigorating. It’s a testament for me of how any act, however small, to connect with nature, impacts physical and mental health.

I do this every day it isn’t raining or snowing.

Whenever I feel depressed or down now, I don’t try to reason my way out of the funk. I know that doesn’t work. Instead I look for a physical source of energy – a cold shower, a patch of grass, a hug, or, best of all, a trail and a mountain.

I believe that if we plant seeds to create real, physical, embodied experiences of joy in our lives, the boundary problems take care of themselves. If we breathe and attend to the needs of our embodied selves, our greatest sources of discontent disappear. 

And lest I give the impression that my philosophy here is new or original, I’ll leave you with quote for Thoreau’s Walden.

I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practise resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms.
― Henry David ThoreauWalden: Or, Life in the Woods

RIP – Kyle Dempster