Philosophy of Fear by Theo Moore

Philosophy of Fear by Theo Moore

Here is a guest entry from Sheffield-based philosopher and climber Theo Moore. Thanks Theo!


It’s hot. Unseasonably hot for Easter in Northumberland. The sky’s clear blue and the pale sandstone feels warm to the touch. I’m slapping up again and again trying to get some purchase on the greasy slopers, lurching upwards towards the imminent top-out but never gaining any height. I watch in vein as my hands slither back down the rock.  I can’t see my feet anymore and now I can feel the rope behind my legs. Shit. I’m scared. I can’t keep going - I’m coming off. Where’s the gear? What’s going to… ? Before I know it I’m not on the slopers anymore. I’m upside down in a tangle of ropes, cuts, bruises and ego.

Climbing can be stressful, there’s no doubt about it. In Northumberland I was trying and trying but wasn’t getting anywhere. Thoughts of failure started creeping in, I panicked when I couldn’t see my feet and could feel the rope behind my legs and that was it: fear took over, I stopped fighting and fell off.
Once I got scared I gave up. But what is fear? There are multiple aspects to being scared, such as the causes and symptoms of fear. In my case, the rope behind my leg caused me to be scared and the symptom of my fear was giving up.
There are some things which commonly cause climbers to be scared such as exposure, loose rock and the uncertainty of what’s to come. There are also some common symptoms: sweaty palms; shaking legs; loss of the will to carry on (commonly expressed as “take!”); over-gripping. The list goes on. This list of symptoms could also be read as a list of things not to do whilst climbing. Do these things and at best you’re not climbing your hardest, and at worst you’re about to take a whipper.

That said, fear is a natural reaction to situations which we perceive as dangerous. Sometimes it’s a good thing to be scared: it helps us to avoid danger and keeps us alive. However, sometimes fear can hold us back unnecessarily when we’re climbing: if we are scared in a situation which is not actually dangerous, such as when we’re lead climbing above solid protection with a clean fall, then being scared can hold us back from achieving our potential. If we can learn to manage our fear appropriately then we can improve our climbing and enjoy it more.
Perhaps if we can better understand fear, what its causes and symptoms are, and how fear affects us, we can begin to manage our fear and climb better as a result. This is taking a very rational approach to something which seems to be inherently emotional, so to see if such an approach is feasible, it’s worth asking the question:
What’s it actually like to be scared?
There are physical aspects to fear such as sweaty palms, an adrenaline rush, and your synapses firing, but it seems that there is more to fear than this. There is a feeling – an experience – to fear which these things just can’t express. To find out what this is, a quick thought experiment is useful:
Could your cat or your car feel fear? Can you? It certainly seems that you and I can feel fear, and it seems like a cat can too (ever seen a cat get sprayed with water?) but it’s difficult to believe that your car can feel fear. Like cats and humans, cars are capable of complex physical processes, so there must be something more to fear than these processes. What’s the relevant difference that means cats and humans are able feel fear while cars are not? Cats and humans both have something that cars do not: minds – they are conscious beings. Perhaps consciousness is necessary for feeling fear. Like being happy, sad, or excited, it seems that fear is an experience that take places in your mind – a ‘mental state’.  When we’re scared there’s a distinct feeling, something in addition to the physical processes which accompany fear; there’s something it’s like to be scared. This is the qualitative aspect of fear, and all mental states, like happiness and sadness, have a qualitative aspect.

For fear to have a qualitative aspect, for there to be something it’s like to scared, there must be a subject who experiences this qualitative aspect. So when you’re experiencing fear, who is the subject of the experience? It’s you! Is the ‘you’ that experiences fear when climbing the same person who eats, sleeps and goes to work? The obvious answer to this question is ‘yes’, as we are each only one person. However, we can each be perceived in a multitude of way – by others and by ourselves. Perhaps how we perceive ourselves can affect our mental states whilst climbing. 
To better understand how we perceive ourselves let’s first look at how we perceive other people. Imagine you’re a teenager on your first day at high-school. You meet Tom. Tom wears aviators and ripped jeans. He seems like a cool guy, the kind of guy that plays in a band and who everybody wants to be friends with. Because Tom’s such a cool guy you’re happy to lend him some money for lunch, and want to hang out with him. However, in reality, Tom’s actually really insecure and wears aviators and ripped jeans to try and fit in. Because of your perception of Tom as a cool guy, you act towards him in a certain way. You have created a mental representation of Tom which is determined by your perceptions of him, and this representation influences how you act towards Tom. This representation can be called Tom’s ‘second self’, and in fact Tom’s second self is inconsistent with the real Tom, the insecure person who’s out to impress.

We can think of more examples of how we perceive other people and create ‘second selves’ for them, but do we create our own second selves based on how we perceive ourselves?

The idea certainly seems plausible. We hold certain preconceptions of ourselves as, for example, a loyal friend or a skilled driver, based on our perceptions of our own actions and interactions. It seems we also do this with climbing: because I’ve climbed some routes I found scary I think of myself as a bold climber, and because I often fall off crack climbs I think of myself as a poor crack climber. These preconceptions come together to constitute my own second self.

These preconceptions can change based on my actions: I might climb indoors, get scared when climbing above a bolt, and think of myself as timid. As a result, my second self changes. So, when I go out to the crag and start climbing, I notice that I’m above my last piece of gear, think of myself as ‘the kind of person who gets scared climbing above protection’, and as a result get scared and fail to climb the route. My preconception of myself as timid has caused me to experience fear and this in turn has affected my climbing performance.

This scenario shows how the way we perceive ourselves can affect whether or not we experience fear whilst climbing. If we can learn how to manage our second selves, then we can begin to manage our fear whilst climbing. Our second selves are determined by the way we perceive our own actions and interactions and so we can affect our second selves by acting and interacting in different ways, or by affecting the relationships between our perceptions and our actions.

To help manage our fear then, we could try to act in ways that facilitate a positive second self. We could, for example, try to always climb with good technique, to double check knots and make good belays, and to remain calm when we don’t succeed. This way, we will have positive perceptions of ourselves and so when we’re next in a stressful climbing situation we will perceive ourselves as technically good, safe, calm climbers and, as a result of this positive second self, be less likely to become scared.

Alternatively, we could try to manage the relationship between our actions and our perceptions. For example, if I climb above a bolt and get scared, rather than immediately perceiving myself as a timid climber, I could take the time to consider my action in the wider context of my past actions and arrive at a different self-perception. I could, for example, realise that I have climbed above bolts many times in the past, and taken falls without thinking about it, and so realise that this one episode of fear above a bolt does not mean that I am a timid climber. By managing the way I perceive my own actions, my second self can be constituted of positive perceptions, rather than unnecessary, inaccurate negative perceptions which may lead to me getting scared.

These are two ways of affecting our second selves so that when we go we are less likely to get scared. However, what about a third option for managing our fear? We could try to alter the relationship between our mental states and our second selves so that our second selves do not contribute to us feeling fear, regardless whether they are positive or negative.

If we believe that we are identical with our second selves, then we allow our second selves to determine our experiences. For example, if my second self is a timid climber and I consider myself identical with my second self, then when I go climbing I will act in a timid manner and become scared. However, if we recognise that we are not identical with our second selves, and recognise that these second selves are simply a collection of our, often inaccurate perceptions, then we can prevent them determining our experiences.

When I was climbing in my above example, rather than thinking “I get scared when I climb above my protection, I’m above my protection, I’m scared and can’t keep climbing” I could observe the preconception of myself as timid in conjunction with my thought that I am now above my protection, and realise that my preconception of timidity is only a preconception, and is not necessarily the way I am, or should be. By taking a step back from our second selves and adopting this stoic approach to the way we perceive ourselves can help to change the relationship between our preconceptions and our experiences. This stoicism can help us to alter the relationship between our second selves and our experiences and thus help us to manage fear whilst climbing.

In summary, the way we think of ourselves – our second selves – can affect how we feel whilst climbing. If we think of ourselves as timid or inept climbers, then we are more likely to become scared in stressful climbing situations. To manage this fear, it can be helpful to try and influence the way we think of ourselves by considering why we think that way, and by altering our actions so that we have more positive self-perceptions. In addition to this, we can also realise that the way we think of ourselves is not always correct, take a step back from our thoughts and prevent these thoughts from controlling how we feel whilst climbing. By considering our actions, self-perceptions and their relations, we can start to manage our fear, and as a result become better, happier climbers.



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