Friday, April 18, 2014

2b. Positive Nihilism

2b. Positive Nihilism  
        
         The human brain seeks meaning.  Our minds hunger to see patterns in the chaos that inundates us from the moment we are born.  Our ability to represent the world as abstract images and connect these images into a meaningful whole have brought us very far indeed.  But mankind mistakes what is merely a tool for survival as a vehicle for discovering absolute truths about the universe; truths about the ultimate meaning of life, of death, and beyond. 
            It may seem incongruous for a book that sites scientific studies to suggest that absolute meaning is a delusional goal at best. But then again, who says that the job of science is about absolute truths.  One can argue that science challenges its own previous theories as much as proposing new ones.  The limits of science results from the limits of rational thought itself.  Can a mind limited by its own filter of perceptions ever be absolutely sure about any truth outside of itself?  As far back as ancient Greece, Plato compared our human experience to watching shadows from a fire in a cave wall.  According to him, the reality is always somewhere outside the cave, and we merely glimpse its shadows inside our minds.
            Take what we believe to be the simplest of perceptual truths, and even those would be hard to pin down as absolutes.  Let’s just take our perception of the color red for example. Simple enough? Not really.  How can we ever prove that anyone’s perception of red is similar to anyone else’s.  Let’s say there exists a person, and due to the way their neural circuits are arranged, experiences the color blue whenever they see a fire truck, stop sign, or santa suit – but has learned from society that the name of that experience is “red”.  There would be no way of ever determining which one amongst us sees the world this way. For every time you ask this person to describe “red”, they will relate it to the hot embers of a fire and the brilliance of a setting sun.
            Anyone who believes that mathematics and logical reasoning can lead to absolute truths hasn’t heard about Kurt Godel’s Incompleteness Theorem. Godel showed that there fails to exist a mathematical system in which all of its axioms are provable.  Secondly, he showed that these mathematical systems cannot prove its consistency within its own set of axioms. And why does this failing in mathematics matter in the bigger scheme of things?  Well because, all rational thought – especially science-  is based on the syllogisms and logical systems based on mathematics.
              A simple way often used to illustrate Godel’s theorem is to ask whether the following statement is true or false: “ This sentence is False”.  In order for any system of thought to be consistent, an axiom must be either be true or false.  In this statement, we see that this is not possible
              Surely architects and engineers would protest that a simple concept such as a straight line must actually exist in an absolute sense.  If a surveyor draws a straight line on the ground, it seems evident that a building would be built with a line which is the shortest distance between two points.   However, we know that this cannot be possible if we remember that earth itself is round and that any line drawn on the ground by definition must have the slightest of imperceptible curves. The detractor would still propose that a line drawn not on the ground, but say on an architect’s drawing board can be absolutely straight. However, Einstein’s special theory of relativity has proved that space itself is curved due to gravity.
            Einstein revolutionized the concept of time as well – proving that the speed at which time flows, is relative to gravity and the speeds of the relative frames of reference.  The famous twin thought experiment illustrates this unusual aspect of our universe.  One twin stays on earth while another takes a journey at the speed of light to a nearby galaxy.  The travelling twin experiences only a year pass, while 10 years have passed for the earthbound twin.  This unusual aspect of time has been proven using two molecular clocks, one on a jet plane and the other on the ground – albeit with nanosecond differences noted due to the relative slow speed of jets compared to light.  Essentially, Einstein displaced both the notions that time is absolute and that we can determine the simultaneity of any two events.   
            But even the great Albert Einstein could not discover a theory of everything - to explain  all the energy and forces we observe in the universe into a cohesive theory.  He certainly tried his best towards the latter half of his astounding career.  The forces of quantum mechanics vs. the theory of relativity formed a stumbling block of contradictions that he simply could not account for.  The forces affecting the very small molecules seemed at odds with the ones that regulated the motions of planets and stars.   Many people are unaware that for decades after his momentous work  on Relativity, Einstein was basically shunned  by the vast majority of physicists – as  he obstinately tried to justify a model of the universe where there were no contradictions or imbalances.  Thus, the man who had once challenged the establishment with revolutionary concepts became himself the old reactive establishment.
            Scientist’s are no closer today to a unified theory that would explain all the big and small forces in the universe.  The problem may again be one of limitations.  We may be limited by our own 4 dimensional universe. Many of the equations in the latest unifying string theories predict other universes that contain up to 18 dimensions.  There is also some unseen Dark Matter that is hurling our universe apart.  One theory called Multiverse states that our universe is just one tiny expanding bubble within an infinite “bread loaf” of other universes - matter that will forever be hidden from our view – because the light from these other universes never reaches us. 
            The biggest problem with these astounding theories is the impossibility of obtaining evidence to support them.  No one can ever experiment or test the validity of these theorems.  Sounds like a familiar pattern doesn’t it?  So, anyone who declares science to be the answer to our ultimate questions, doesn’t really understand science.  Science at best estimates what is most likely to occur on average given a fairly large number of occurrences in a relative reference point.  For example, all that science and math can say is that there is a 50 % chance that a flipped coin will land heads.  But that only is valid when a coin is flipped a large number of times.  There is very little it can say about prediction of any three flips back to back.  Flip a coin three times, and you can easily have it land heads 100% of the time. 
            When mankind becomes disillusioned with the promises of human rationalism, their only hope rest in the absolutes promised in their religions.  I must first preface that I am not an atheist, but rather, an agnostic.  However, when I say that 99% of all religions must be man’s creations, most all of the religious people in the world would agree –for every religious person believes theirs is the one and true religion.
            Man could not live with a void in meaning and an unknowable future.  This is where religions come in. In religions we find ready-made absolutes that provide meanings for everything from the birth of the universe, to the reason for existing, and our fate after death.   But this came with a big caveat.  Happiness here required a suppression of our rational side.  Whereas the zealots of rationalism may overreach in its search for ultimate truths, the zealots of religion do away with rationalism altogether.  For those who are lucky enough to be able to suppress the rationalism that we in our modern age have been acculturated, more power to you.  Religion will then provide all the answers you seek.
             For the rest of us, who have already bitten the apple from the tree of knowledge, the rational brain becomes the stumbling block to faith.  The logical mind like a roadblock, prevents one from accessing wholeheartedly religion’s tenets.   I have mentioned that I’m an agnostic.  It is not that my rational mind cannot conceive of say, a Christian god existing.  It is that my rational mind cannot allow me to love such an entity.  Fear…possibly, but not love.    But let us leave religion as a topic for another chapter, for the religious longing of mankind deserves more thorough attention.  Suffice it to say, that the positive pessimist will find it difficult to go down the path that many religions offer towards meaning.   
            So far we have seen the difficulty in establishing the absolute quality of facts and observations as we perceive them.  If we now complicate matters by talking about the meaning of such facts – like the absolute meaning of life itself– we can see why this is almost an impossible task.  Yet, here we are, saddled with a brain designed to find meaning and patterns in an attempt to navigate our way through this phenomenon called life.  It is no wonder that countless people throughout time have been stymied in this search for absolutes with rationalism, which temptingly seems so accessible, like a word at the tip of our tongues.
            It may seem clear that rationalism alone will not reveal any absolute path to  happiness and inner peace all of us so desperately seek.  So someone may ask, why then is this book filled with logical arguments and scientific studies?  Despite all the limitations stated above, rational thought  is the most powerful evolutionary trait the earth has ever witnessed – for good or for bad.  We have put robots on mars and battled thousands of previously crippling diseases.  We have also made the killing of other humans a much more efficient process farther removed from the gory hand to hand combat of old. And yes, although the human mind has created such revolutionary ideas as justice and human rights, it has kept apace with such defense mechanisms that the killing and enslavement of others for our benefit continues.  Concepts such as free markets, libertarianism, and objectivism become tools that hand the guns and bombs to other’s hands far unseen.
            The obstacles to personal happiness are bulwarked with the so-called self evident conclusions of rationalism that disguise themselves as positivist.  Such assumptions as free will, good and evil, and the various meanings for life that society has prepackaged for consumption.  If these  assumptions are reinforced with the tools of rationalism, then they must first be tackled with the same tool of its creation.  Fighting fire with fire seems the appropriate phrase.  So although rationalism may not bring us to the very heights of truth we seek, it is invaluable in uncovering the pitfalls that riddle the path towards it.  Like all powerful tools, its use depends on its wielder.  The fact that tools are limited in scope does not diminish their importance. 
            So here is our first opportunity to take a seemingly depressing thought – that in fact – our lives lack absolute meaning, into a source of inspiration instead of despair.  If meaning is not determined, there must lie also in its shores a certain liberation and freeing up of possibilities for personal meaning.  Who is to say that personal and subjective meaning carries any less relevance than the absolute.  By definition, is not the absolute cast upon us like some dictator’s decrees – life is...,love  is…,beauty is..., and so forth?
           How much fresher did the world look to us when we were young.  Our dreams of the possible seemed much wider.  But as the years passed, the experiences in the world became much more defined and narrow in meaning – becoming repetitive and mundane.  We rest our eyes upon the images before us that melt into one another into tiresome familiarity.   The so called realities of human society and the universe ricochet in our minds as reminders of our confinement to these immutable laws. 
            History has shown that before any momentous change in mankind’s perspective, the previous thoughts, once thought unshakable and absolute were challenged and nullified - the heliocentric universe, spontaneous generation, the divine right of kings, the flat earth – all were replaced.  We only need a change in perspective to replace the limitation with a vision of endless possibilities.
            I would argue that those ideals that have been the most loudly lauded as absolute have caused considerable pain and unhappiness – the ideology of money, the defense of the ego, societal status, materialism, selfishness, exploitation, possessiveness, and greed.  How many times have you heard others rationalize even the most heinous of human acts by pleading to the “reality” of the world as is?  Society hides behind dictators and corrupt governments and excuses their own every day complicity, whether it is nothing more than the silence of bystanders.  The reason is given – if we didn’t exploit, someone else would, or – they would have done it to us.  The Lamarckian arguments of social Darwinism or the Neo Conservative rants of Ayn Rand followers who declare that nature has set the meanings that humans need only follow. 
            I argue that it is not the lack of meaning that makes our world tragically absurd, but the abundance of these so called good and positive meanings in abundance before us that rings hollow and superficial.  The very language and images set before us riddled with such ugly stereotypes and division that allow us too easily to view our fellow humans as less.  We live in these fearful tiny clusters of boxed familial units, losing any connection but the most superficial to anyone beyond its walls. 
         Seen in this light, rendering much of our present world meaningless may be a good beginning.  The world is in need of new creators of meaning.  As we have seen, if we do not create them, they will be created for us – and against us.  If we shed the concept that no person has the sole rights to absolute meaning, we can create new meanings that make more sense, that share the earth with other people and species, without leaving a trail of destruction, that will ultimately lead to our own self-destruction.
  

Sunday, December 8, 2013

7. In God, we trust?

7. In God, we trust?
            Spirituality and organized religion have slightly different functions although they both  tap into the human desire for connection to something beyond ourselves.  If one were to guess spirituality’s origin, the most obvious one is our relationship to our parents. As children, we view our parents initially as all powerful, all knowing, and even all good. As we grow older, we are sadly disappointed that this is not the case.  So we are essentially left with a void.  So can it be that as adults, we have invented Gods that pretty much take over that parental role. 
            But I believe spirituality has its roots in something broader than just one’s family dynamics.  The extra-ordinarily complex nature of human society requires that our minds yearn for a connection to a community outside of ourselves.  This yearning manifests itself in our affinity not only for family, but our friends, villages, and nations. Extending beyond this point would be in the realm of spirituality. We can see this especially in indigenous cultures where nature and earth itself is viewed as manifestations of god.
                        Some studies have shown that there may be regions of our brain that specifically control a sense of a connectedness to a higher being.  When subjects were electrically stimulated at these regions in the right parietal lobe, they each described a sense of well being and a presence of a protective figure.  Many cases have been documented where those afflicted with seizures have experienced similar sensations just preceding their grand mals.  A famous example is Fyodor Dostoyevski, who often wrote of his transcendent religious experiences.  There are some cases where patients have become permanently enraptured by a blissful state of spirituality following head trauma. So it very well may be that some of us have underactive “God” regions of our brains and no amount of prayer or sermons can turn it on. 
            But this again begs the question of why humans have this region of the brain to begin with.  There must be some evolutionary adaptation for this area being such a universal development in the average human brain -  since all cultures have religions in one form or another.  Perhaps focusing on what these beliefs have in common may lead us to an answer.  It is striking that almost every religion rewards its dutiful followers with everlasting life.  It may be interesting to see whether religions may lose its popularity if this one aspect was removed from all the various scriptures. 
            Humans are undoubtedly burdened with extra fears not suffered by other living creatures – especially the worries about our own demise.  Perhaps some would disagree and propose that animals may be capable of pondering future realities, but surely, the extent and degree to human capabilities in this area are immense by comparison.  To a large extent, the ability of forethought is one of the key factors, besides problem solving, creativity and language that have allowed Homo sapiens to thrive.  The human capability to plan for future calamities, natural and otherwise, have helped societies combat many a challenge.
            It is however, a double edged sword.  Our imaginations can torture us with thousands of dreamt up disappointments, pains, and even horrors.  And one fear that maybe be universally greatest among the vast majority of people is the fear of death.  It frightens many to imagine the possibility of non-existence, or worse yet, punishment in hell.  Our consciousness evolved to survive , like all other sentient beings, and coupled that with an immense imagination, we peer into the void that is beyond our understanding.
            Perhaps the human brain evolved the spiritual part of the brain to counteract this terrifying awareness of our mortality.  It must not be a mere coincidence that societies in every corner of the world had invented gods – even those that became isolated from other cultures. Why would our brains have this need, were it not some evolutionary adaptation?
            Organized religion on the other hand has a slightly different function than satiating our spiritual desires.  Spirituality may be experienced on a personal and individual basis, but religious activities involve society.  Religion takes this desire of spirituality and constructs it into a system of social stratification.  Hence, we see religion’s role in reinforcing the social class structure among people in a given society. In most religions, there is a codification of the ranking of humans according to God’s view.  There is always a chosen few – and they are the ones who deem which classes the others belong to.  It is not surprising then, that kings and royalty have often used religion to justify their rule, as in the Eqyptian pharaohs, Aztec kings, and European Monarchs of old.
            In Buddhism, the monks pray all day and are fed by the common populace who must work strenuously to eek out a living in harsh mountainous terrain. In Hinduism, there lies the tradition of the caste system.  In Christianity and Islam – according to text and practice – men are held as the upper classes over women.  The fall of mankind is even blamed on womankind.  In many faiths still today, women are not allowed to become priests or imams, as if the souls of women are not deemed as pure as men. The latest controversy  involved the gay community seeking acceptance in various religious denominations.
                        For those who are religious, faith in God can solve a lot of problems.  Not only does faith offer hope for an afterlife and solace in desperate times, but their lives are automatically imbued with a prepackaged meaning.  Religion also served utilitarian needs such as written codes of societal behavior before the advent of civil laws.  It has also been an inspiration to help others in need as well as spur societal struggles against injustice.
            However, we also know about the dark uses humanity has had with religion.  For all the positive contributions listed above, we can list as many negative effects it has had on society.  Although the medieval monks preserved classical texts during the Dark Ages, there is a long history of religion impeding almost every great scientific revelation – from Galileo, Copernicus, Darwin, advent of human dissection, Stem Cell Research, etc.  For every person inspired by religious fervor to help others in need, we see that same ideology drive inquisitions, crusades, and persecution of those not of their faith. 
            For all that can be said about religion’s unifying  influence on community, we can see how they divide and alienate people from other communities.  The sheer number of denominations in the Christian religion alone – Mormons, Jehovah Witnesses, Seven Day Adventists,  Baptists, Presbyterians, Puritans, Catholics, Shakers, Anglicans, Lutherans, Methodist, Christian Scientists, etc. -   should tell us something about this phenomenon.
            The reader at this point may presume that I am an atheist from the mention of evolution.  However, that is not the case.  An intellectually honest person, religious or not, must admit that there is no evidence either way for the proof or disproof of God. This is the Agnostic’s stance.  This logical requirement escapes many of those on either extremes on the debate as to the existence of god. 
            The problem is one of literalist interpretations on both sides.  When religious scriptures are viewed in any other lens than an allegorical one, logic and faith seem hopelessly and mutually exclusive.  I use the Christian examples below because that is my upbringing in attending catholic school as a child.  However, these arguments apply to most theistic religions where God is considered all good, all knowing, and all powerful.  There are forms of religions such as Buddhism that do not fit exactly into this analysis – but even among these – the challenges between logic and faith rears its head.
            The main problem lies in the limitations of our human language and perception.  What does it mean to associate God with words like good, fatherly, loving, merciful, and patient – when humans can only understand those words in relation to human experience.  Let us take the description “loving” as an example.  In what human context can we say that the killing of millions of people can ever be rationalized as a loving act.  Yet, when God unleases a 40 day flood and does exactly this – human vocabulary seems rather inadequate to explain such an act.  For the words that do exist are excluded by a requirement for God being loving – “genocidal”, “vengeful”, “proud”, “dictatorial”, “narcissistic”, “murderous”.  This is because these words only apply to the actions of men, not Gods. Yet this exclusion is not applied to words like “loving”.
            Religious literalists may try to get around this dilemma by viewing the harshness of God’s actions as moral tests of free will.  The logical problem with this interpretation comes about when confronted with two other traits of God that most theists will not relinquish. One is that God is all knowing of the future.  Second is the notion God is all powerful.  To accept that God is limited in either of these traits, would mean that there are laws of the universe that God did not create – a force above God that is even higher and precedes God.  This is a condition that most theists do not allow for.
            Humans again are limited by our language and experience.  Although we certainly understand the concept of a test, we also know an unfair test when we see one.    These two attributes, all powerful and all knowing together are not only inconsistent with the possibility of human free will, and hence, culpability in sinning against God’s wishes, but also to the possibility of a benevolent god.
         Let's look at the fall of man in the book of Genesis as a case in point.  God wants to test Adam and Eve so he places the tree of knowledge in the Garden of Eden.  He threatens them with the dire consequences of death and suffering if they disobey.  With Satan’s goading, they eventually bite the apple – which is the explanation for why human history is forever riddled with disease, wars, famine, and all varieties of human suffering. Makes sense doesn’t it? Not really, unless one suspends all logic and throws out all of our associations to the meaning of words.
            If God knows the future, then he knows that Adam and Eve will fail the test.  He in fact knows this as soon as he created Adam.  If God is all powerful, then he could have made a perfect Adam – one without the ego to disobey God.  If God was all good and indeed forgiving – he would have forgiven Adam and Eve by the time they had died, because according to the bible, they lead a reverent life after the banishment from Eden.  This illogic not only applies to Adam and Eve but to every single one of us- their descendents.  God knows every souls destiny – whether one will accept God or curses him. 
            So not only does the concept of a test lose all meaning but also that of free will. If there is a God that knows the outcome of all our decisions, it is impossible for one to defy God’s predictions.  God is all powerful and perfect according to theists – so our decisions can not contradict God’s prophesies. This leads to yet another conundrum.  Why does God become incensed at  his creations’ missteps when he knew of them the moment of their creation.  Why put the tree of knowledge in the Garden in the first place. 
            What’s most troubling of all is the degree to which God punishes millions of future born descendents of Adam and Eve.  Disease, war, famine, natural disasters, and slavery await the future of mankind, all to pay for disobedience.  Christians often point to the New Testament as an answer to this harshness apparent in the Old Testament.  The sacrifice of God’s son, Jesus, apparently offers conciliation and entrance again into heaven for our previously cast out souls.
            Aside from the fact that this completely makes no sense – why the son of God being killed by god’s creations somehow appeases god’s anger towards the creations is beyond reason.  But even if we agree that the sacrifice makes sense, the circumstances have not changed on earth even after this sacrifice.  The same punishment on earth continues to kill 45,000 children a day around the world.  The very meaning of forgiveness loses meaning as a result.
            It can even be said that a select group of people in human history have shown more courage and self sacrifice than Jesus.  Whereas Jesus knew that he would ultimately return to his throne next to his father, there have been those rare humans who have sacrificed for others without any assurance of  reward nor afterlife.  Albert Camus  and Jean-Paul Sartre risked their lives against the Natzis as part of the French resistance, without the belief in a God to fortify them.  Mothers have willingly sacrificed for their children without the requirement of conditional love and praise. 
             But perhaps we can find some common ground where both the atheist and theist may agree.  In that middle ground lay the roots to which both sides struggle to overcome – the unknown future.  How does man rationalize the whims of fate that tosses us like dolls in a hurricane?  The God of the Christian Bible has the same unyielding characteristics of mother nature – powerful, cold, and beyond human coaxing.  But even against mother nature, we have tried our best to fortify our lives – be it technologically, intellectually, and spiritually. We have built dikes and set up international tsunami alerts.  We have sacrificed animals for the rains to come.  We have attempted to placate the volcanoes and the mountains with our own children.  Perhaps all that philosophy, science, and religion ends up being – at the end of the day – is an attempt to delude ourselves that we are in control of what happens to us.  The stalwart atheism of the scientist and the faithful reverence of a theist shake in the awesome power of the universe and their own miniscule helplessness within it.
            The religious talk about God working in mysterious ways.  The scientists talk about the limitations of the human senses in observations. But both delude themselves that somehow, we can manipulate the Universe or God , into being something that conforms to what we want of it – sense, order, and absolute meaning. As the religious strive for the mind of God, the scientist strives for the theory of everything – when in the final scale of things, we are just ants mesmerized by our little hill.
     This desire…. or curiosity…. or evolutionary adaption ….or tragic flaw is ultimately – uniquely human.  In this regard I don’t claim to be any different.  And although I can’t agree with the steadfast conviction of the theist, I am awed and humbled by the immensity of the unknown we.  In that immensity I seek a meaning -which I suspect even the most religious find hard to sustain.  And perhaps, one secret to achieving happiness in an unknowable world, is to accept that there is meaning in the very questioning itself, and not in the attainment of answers.  

Saturday, April 6, 2013

3. Fear of death


3.The fear of death.

 

           



            It’s a topic most people avoid, and for good reason. Every single organism avoids it as much as their instincts and biology allows.  Even the smallest of insects will scamper away at the first sign of danger.  Microscopic protists will wiggle their tiny cilia to swim as fast as they can from  their predators.  But humans are the only species that can imagine their return to non-existence over and over again in their heads.  This additional mental fear is solely unique to our incredibly creative mind.  I wonder if my beloved cat has ever questioned “to meow or  not to meow”?  So what is to be done for such a poor creature as us? 

            A majority of us decide not to ponder too much about  it - stay on the bright side of the road.  I know a friend who refuses to see any movies that are not comedies or life affirming dramas. No films with violence or tragedy need apply.  He always attempts to fill the day with laughter and glee -  to focus on the aesthetically beautiful arts and attune the senses to the glorious offerings that nature has to offer. 

 

Fears, however, have a unique ability to grow in strength the more one tries to hide them.  Oliver Burkeman writes about the Ironic Process Theory.  Try to not think about a white bear for the next minute.  It’s almost an impossible task.  No matter how hard one tries, inevitably, the white bear pops up.  This is what also occurs with our attempts to put all negative thoughts deep into our subconscious.  There is another drawback to avoidance, besides it’s ineffectiveness.   When the universe, as it often does, sends tragedy our way, we are left defenseless and ill prepared to incorporate such dark events into our lives. It’s as if we were children once again, being introduced to an adult world full of scary adult challenges. The tragedy may come in the form of disease, personal loss, or death – but nevertheless, ones which shatter our protective shield of beauty and pleasure like it would a soap bubble.

            In the rest of the book, I’ll tackle the myriad of ways that the fear of death manifests itself in our lives.  For now however, let us tackle death  head on, with all its scientific, spiritual, moral, and emotional implications.  Perhaps, if we lay out all the facts about death, it will be like a vaccine that strengthens, rather than debilitates.

            The first method of overcoming the fear of death is to tackle it with the part of our brain meant for rational thought – the frontal cortex – rather than our ancestral lizard brain – the emotionally turbulent limbic system.  When we logically analyze any fear, we realize that we dread the  negative effects  of an event.   From this perspective, I will argue that the labeling death as purely a “bad” event is irrational.

            Death in fact gives positive meaning to our lives.  Imagine we were immortal and have lived for as long as we could remember.  When one has an eternity at one’s disposal, the motivation to experience or do anything at the present moment loses all meaning.  Why do it today if one has forever to do it in?  Besides this, after an eternity, one eventually does try everything – several million times.  All actions, plans, achievements, and experiences loses its intrinsic motivation for existing rather than not.  The very concept of existing makes sense if the polar opposite, nonexistence – uhmm – exists.

            The believers of a heaven may say, that after death, the  human psyche is relieved of ever being satiated or bored.  Perhaps we may just sit on a cloud and become infused with an euphoric trance and  sit in awe of the universe.  Of course there are some existential protestations that can be brought up to criticize this scenario, but nevertheless, religion at least offers those who are capable of faith a remedy for a fear of death (unless one expects to go to hell).  But for those of us who are at best agnostic towards the belief in a supreme being, immortality has an unsolvable problem of meaninglessness and boredom. But more on the topic of religion in another chapter. 

            Even if we accept the premise that death is necessary to have meaning in our lives, we still may anguish over the limited amount of experiences we are allotted in this short period of  time.  Perhaps one regrets never seeing the pyramids, the polar ice caps, or hear the festivities at Carnivale, run with the bulls in Spain, etc, etc.

            Again, Burkeman beautifully retorts to this lament by asking why we don’t feel the same way about the seemingly endless eons that passed before we came into this world.  We have already missed out on several billion years’ worth of experiences already by the time we were born.  We missed our chance to view Michaelangelo at work,   to live in the reign of Queen Elizabeth, to see the discovery of the new world, and so on.  We shall never see dinosaurs roaming the land.  If we have been living so far, without anguishing the unseen past, then it is irrational to also anguish the unseen future as well.

            The other daunting reality is that death puts a stop to the achievement of all our unrealized goals.  Perhaps you wanted to create that masterpiece, or make a name for yourself in a career, or raise a family.  Many fear that death will come all too quickly, before their lifelong dream has been accomplished. 

            This argument is a circuitous one.  When we question why we want to achieve these goals in the first place, we realize it’s a delusional way to achieving an illusionary immortality.  We believe that if we leave some remarkable achievement behind, we will cheat death in a certain sense.  Our self would live on and somehow appease the fact of our bodily death.  It should be clear by now, that motivations spurred on by a fear of death, is not the path towards happiness.

            I always pondered about how so little we know about famous figures we have learned about in our history books.  How truly scant is the public’s awareness of the full humanity of that person.  Names become mere answers to test questions in school or trivia games.  There is no real sense of the totality of that person as they lived.  Like the myriad of tombstones inscribed with names, even the most famous among us are remembered with just a few lines in most of our minds.  This immortality seems not worth the effort to obtain. Thank you, Mr. Edison for inventing the moving pictures.

            Finally, death allows us the greatest example of how thoughts deemed negative, can be a source of connectedness and transcendence.  Humanists have always attempted to break down barriers among people by pointing to every man’s right to pursue happiness.  That all men are created equal.  But the reality is that we are not all created nor live in equal circumstances.  We find ourselves in different social classes and gender classifications.  Some are fortunate to grow up in beautiful neighborhoods with great schools.  Some have immense talent; while others – have you ever heard of Alexander the Great’s Son – Alexaner the Mediocre? Others may be weighed down by poverty or dysfunctional family circumstances.  Add to this the ethnic and cultural differences that seem to divide many of us, and we can see how the humanist’s challenge is a herculean one. 

            Death, however, has been aptly described as the great equalizer.  In its finality, the king and the pauper will finally share the same fate.  The most gorgeous actress in the world with the elephant man; the billionaire and the homeless living beneath the subways; all of us must face that inevitability that confounds us all.  This is what connects us toour humanity – that we must face this with our conscious selves and the fears they illicit.  It humbles us.  So the next time you feel alienated by all the differences in the people around you….think about death – and feel connected.  

           


 

 

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

6. Love and Marriage


6. Love and Marriage:

            There is nothing as exhilarating as romantic love. Well, maybe crack, but I have yet to try that.  They both have something in common in their ability to bring as much joy as sorrow in its wake.  For all its pitfalls it preoccupies a large chunk of our social consciousness.  This idea of having a deep emotional bond of love with one’s spouse is, however, a recent phenomenon.  Even up to the 19th century, most marriages in western societies were arranged based on financial or political gains for the families involved. In fact, most societies throughout history have been polygamous rather than monogamous.  But through these changes, one thing that has remained constant in most societies, that the males have been writing the rules and setting the societal norms on this subject for a very long time.

But before we delve into romantic love, we have to discuss how it differs from love in general – the type between mother and child, family members, and close friends.  The one difference that complicates romantic love versus all others is the question of fidelity, and more to the point, the lineage of the offspring.  The strategy of each sex in maximizing the chances of passing on one’s genes run counter to other.  Men have to two major challenges in terms of leaving behind their genes.  One is clearly access to women.  The other is to guarantee that the children they are investing their resources to, are indeed their lineage, and not a result of infidelity.  Infidelity becomes an important issue, because cheating can benefit both sexes greatly.    

On the woman’s side, pregnancy is a dangerous proposition indeed.  Any decision to mate can mean a heavy investment of her health and time.  Because of this, women have to choose their mates very wisely.  Since women only have a limited number of eggs (one released a month) compared to the sex cells of a man (millions produced daily), each coupling must be considered carefully.  Not only must women make sure a man will stick around and share his resources for her children – they must also consider how high ranking their child may be in status and sexual attractiveness.  The more successful their offspring are in propogation, the more assured their genes survive and pass on.  But whereas men’s strategy values quantity, for a woman’s evolutionary gain – stability seems more of a benefit.

            We now can guess why romantic love is so tenuous.  If you ask women, most would put the blame on men’s inability to remain faithful.  The reason I wouldn’t even bother asking men is because men set up the rules in the first place.  That’s right - men invented the “institution” of both romantic love and monogamist marriage. This seems contrary to our gut instincts – so let’s take a closer look.  

            Humans have oxytocin neurotransmitters flooding the brain to help us deeply connect with another being.  When a mother’s eyes stare into the eyes of her newborn, it is this chemical that seals the bond.  We can see the reasons why evolution set up this powerful tool.  For a relatively slow moving species with no remarkable physical characteristic for defense, cooperation and mutual support is indispensable. The reasons we Homo sapiens ran over the Neanderthals was due to the immense size of our villages, compared to groups of five Neanderthals scattered among caves.  We can see how the love of one’s tribe or nation is just an extended manifestation of that bond we have formed in our immediate families.  And yes, the life of a nation too, outlasts many a romance.  So when humans really want to, relationships and bonds can last.  But when it comes to romantic love, stability is not always the best strategy for winning the game of genetic competition. 

            If we accept the premise that until the later half of the 20th century, men have dominated the legal and societal discourse in the vast majority of societies, then the idea doesn’t seem far fetched that the rules of romance have been developed to benefit men.  It is no wonder that so many more women then men have stories of heartbreak endured at the opposite sex’s hands.  Ironically though, women are the biggest stalwarts and defenders for the romantic visions of love encapsulated in fairy tales and romance novels.  It seems counter-intuitive that a concept seemingly desired by most women should be something that harms them, but this is not a rare phenomenon as we shall see.

            Let’s look at the unfortunate practice of female circumcision, which still occurs in some remote villages in Africa.  In this practice, mothers and grandmothers insist that it is better for a little girl to have her clitoris cut out – and it is the women who perform this act.  Clearly, however, this procedure benefits men.  The intention of the procedure is to control a woman’s sexual desires, so as to minimize the chances of losing one’s virginity, and later on, one’s faithfulness to a husband.  The greatest threat to men in the evolutionary race is mistakenly providing  resources to a child that is not his.  An unsafe procedure for girls with its risks of infection and possibly death has only upsides for men. 

            Female circumcision is an extreme example – but drives home the point that a fervent belief  defended by one group may have been created for the benefit of another.  Perhaps this is more common than we think.  If we analyze our own views on love and marriage within this perspective, we may be surprised how similar, if not in extremity, but in kind, our society is from those we judge as primitive.   Could it be then, that romantic love is the ultimate invisible chastity belt ever created?  Through the use of the double standard, women who have sex only for love are esteemed, and those who indulge solely for its pleasures – harlots.  While men cheat and play loose with their fidelity, they can be more assured that they have a faithful wife waiting at home who would refuse casual sex without the ties of love.

          Most people assume that monogamy is a far more equitable arrangement then polygamy.  Polygamy is viewed as a remnant of a bygone era where women are mere property to be hoarded by the few powerful men.  But monogamy’s actual benefit to women may be illusionary ones that don’t exactly pan out for women. 

              In Robert Wright’s the Moral Animal, he argues that women lost an evolutionary advantage when society transitioned from polygamy to monogamy.  He compares how men of various ranking  (say 1 to 1000 ) based on wealth of resources would mate with similarly ranked women in both types of societies.   Based on the historic inequalities between the sexes, the rankings would be determined for men based on power and those for women based on beauty. 

            Suppose polygamy was still the norm.  In that society, a man with a number one ranking (imagine Bill Gates) would have access to many women ranked in the upper echelon  ( say # 1 to 40 : the Victoria Secrets models – according to the superficial way men have traditionally ranked women).   But more importantly, from a woman’s perspective, the 40th ranked female and her children have access to the resources of the #1 ranked man.  Granted that the attentions of the husband must be shared with 39 other women – there are benefits in sister wives when it comes to help in raising and caring for their young. 

            Now let’s see how the rankings work out in a monogamist society.  Theoretically, the highest ranked man will seek out the highest ranked female  ( #1 male with # 1 female : let’s think of a power couple like Brad and Angelina), and so on.  But a curious thing happens to every woman not ranked number 1 – they all get access to a lower ranked male then they would have had under polygamy.  Furthermore, the burden of raising the children and managing the expected duties of a female in their society all falls solely on the wife. 

            If the transition to monogamy did not benefit women, we have to ask how it benefitted men.  It seems odd to think that access to only one woman would ever be codified into law by a society run by men.    Isn’t it a clichĂ©, the image of the man with cold feet – the commitment-phobe?  How often have we seen men look with longing at Hugh Heffner’s life and complain about being married?  According to Robert Wright, this seeming contradiction makes perfect sense.  Polygamy is great, but only for the top ranked men, the rest get screwed – or rather don’t.  If the most powerful men take all the available women, this leaves a majority of men with no access to reproduction – a drive so powerful, that its denial produces instability and violence in society.   This dangerous state of unrest is what brought about the compromise towards monogamy. 

            Evidence can seen today of how violence could ensue when reproduction is thwarted.  In China, seemingly random acts of violence perpetrated by men have spiked over the past several years.  In one instance, a man savagely attacked scores of children in a school yard with a knife, killing several and critically wounding others.  Such acts have of course been noted in many countries, but the sudden rise in incidence have raised some theories as to the cause.  The interesting combination of medical technology and China’s one child rule has had the curious effect of couples being able to choose a son over a daughter.  There are too few women, and too many men. 

            A curious fact about suicide bombers in the Iraq also illuminates this connection.  It is very difficult, even among extremist groups to find volunteers for suicide missions .  Apparently there is a certain North African town where a vast of the majority of recruits were found.  In this town, polygamy is very much well and alive, and many men find themselves without the resources to obtain a wife.  No wonder these potential weapons are promised with eternal heaven with scores of virgins to choose from. 

The best argument that monogamy may be a male centered institution could be found in societies where women hold a higher status than men.  There are very few societies throughout history where women actually hold the highest status in society, but the Mosuo people of the mountainous region in China is one.  Due to its very limited resources, women and their reproductive potential are much more valuable than men in this harsh agricultural landscape.  In this culture, the maternal matriarch holds the highest position in the family.  None of the males in the family are ever allowed to marry and leave the household.  Their job is to stay home and help rear the children of their sister’s offspring.  The men would actually be insulted if the child’s biological father would even try to take part in the child’s upbringing.

Only at night, are the Mosuo men allowed to leave their household to spend the night in a lover’s bed.  In the morning, however, the men must return to their own households.  The sight of men walking home in the morning dawn has given this practice the name of “walking marriage”.  Both men and women are allowed multiple lovers.  At a communal dance in the center of town, a woman can secretly invite a man to her bed that night by tickling the underside of his palm while hands are clasped during the dance.   

So the picture is far different it seems when women call the shots.  Perhaps this suggests that women are far better off challenging long established notions of what marriage and relationships mean.  Interestingly enough, women have been doing this more and more over the past few decades.  In the United States, the percentage of women who have decided not to marry have steadily increased.  Sweden leads all other countries in the number of single moms.   Even in Asian countries like Korea and Thailand– whose nuclear families have long had a stable and traditional influence on society, more women are opting out of marriage.  The multiple pressures of being a career woman, caretaker, wife, and the burden of caring for their aging parents have resulted in more women from declining marriage and children. 

Now a  bit about the poor plight of men in nature’s sexual strategizing.  One would think that since men had the luxury of running the ship for the past eons that all would be happiness and sunshine where marriage was concerned.   However, let us remember that what is prudent and beneficial for human adaptation often does not have happiness as its goal.  Although women fair far worse in this regard, men are miserable enough.   This is mainly due to two powerful drives that vie for the man’s mind, and depending on the day, each takes turns winning over the other.

One powerful drive is common to both sexes – the need for human connection.  Humans are emphatically social beings.  In fact, our brains are especially adapted to live in complex and large societies.  But modern society has removed the individual farther away from a connection to the public square and community.  To make matters worse, men have innate deficits in the ability to communicate deep feelings – which all humans need to share.  Men will talk plenty with their male friends, but mostly about sports, politics, shared hobbies – but it is mainly with their spouses that they let their guards down. I know that some women must be rolling on the floor laughing hysterically at this,”What!! That beer guzzling guy watching football for hours on end opens up to me?” Consider the statistic that married men live longer than single men.  Also consider that after divorce, it is men who in the majority of times, remarrires first.  

If it was indeed true that men are happier being single, then why is it that most men do commit, either in marriage or an exclusive relationship (or at least attempt  being exclusive)? 

            If this were the only drive in men when it comes to romance, women would be a lot happier – in fact, so would men.  Unfortunately for both - there exists in men that all too familiar drive to mate with as many different women as possible.   We have seen all too many examples of famous men who have lost both fortune and prominence due to wandering lust – from presidents to pastors. 

Even amongst single men, this tendency shows itself in the practice of serial monogamy – where men go from one relationship to the next.  This is probably why women came to view men as commitment phobes who keep delaying that walk down the aisle.  I do not envy women who desperately want to marry and wonder if their investment of years in dating  would lead to matrimony.  I don’t believe that most men intentionally seek to confound women by lying – although there are men who do.  It would be more accurate to say that the male mind lies to itself.  Nature has set up an arms race of lies and its detections. The guessing game between the sex’s on intent has become ever more subtle and complex. It is no wonder then, that the best liar is one who believes his own lie.  A man may indeed believe he is in love with a particular woman, but how easily it often fades in time.  I speculate, that more times than not, the reason for the breakup is not due to a drastic change in personality of the partner.  It is more likely the case, that the sexual attraction, which helped a man overlook other incompatibilities at first, decreases as time passes.  All of a sudden, the way the other chews their food and communicates becomes a point of contention.  People call this “falling” out of love. 

How sad it seems, that couples that have been together for decades, fall out of love and become strangers.  There is a problem when the criteria for romantic relationships do not change much from our teen years to middle age.  It is all too common that a couple, after years of joyful union abandon it all after a revelation of infidelity.  Two souls may be so compatible in interest, personality, and mutual fondness, but if the man or woman were to sleep with another, all of it becomes nullified. 

Of course, the solution to charting one’s course through the minefield that is love and marriage is not easy nor universal. Everyone has their unique point of view with their own moral and emotional boundaries.  The solutions may neither be simple or trouble free.  But as men and women adapt to constantly changing societies, perhaps happiness would be more realistic if we questioned age old assumptions of what romantic love truly means.  A great movie that illustrates the all too possessive nature of societal views on love can be see in the move, the Enlgish Patient.  Often times art can best open our minds to new discourse.  It is a beautiful movie that illustrates both the transformative and destructive nature of this all too human desire. 

4. Fate vs. Free will


4. Fate vs. Free Will

            To most of us the idea that we make our decisions freely seems obvious.  When we go through the decision making process, like what to eat for lunch, our brain is aware of the conflicting emotions and thoughts stirring within. When we finally decide, our brains then tell our bodies to take a left on main street towards the pizza shop instead of a right.  Most of us assume that the decision could easily have been a pastrami sandwich, or in fact, a thousand other choices of food at that moment.  We would all be surprised if there existed a book written thousands of years ago that foretold of your exact decision for pizza that day.  

 

But Humans have been questioning the notion of free will since ancient times.  The Greek playwright, Aeschylus, wondered how much of our decisions were pre-determined by outside forces.  In his play, “Oedipus”, the fates have foretold of a man who would one day kill his father, marry his mother, and become king.  Throughout the play, we as the audience hear the chorus (the fates) both understanding and scorning his destructive pride that leads to these acts. 

            Most societies today have embraced the concept of free will.  It is mentioned in the constitutions, the scriptures of religious text, and the law books of judicial systems.  Even in our everyday interactions, we make endless judgments about the actions of those around us.  We reward, love, hate, ridicule, and praise the acts of others based on the notion of individual merit and free choice.  We blame ourselves for the wrong choices we make.  We fill with exuberance when our choices lead to fortuitous ends.

Experiments in modern neuroscience, however,  have tipped the scales in favor of fate (determinism) in this ancient debate. Experiments have shown that our decisions must start from the unconscious part of our brain instead of the frontal cortex – the site of conscious thought.  Electric sensors were placed on both the frontal cortex and the nerves inside the forearms of human subjects.  They were instructed to move an object on a table whenever they chose.  The conclusions were unexpected.  The arm nerves charged up a split second before the nerves in the frontal cortex even made the decision. Apparently, our conscious brain was only made aware after the unconscious part of our brain had already made the decision. 

Although these results have been publicized in newspapers and magazines, the world hasn’t exactly run wild on the streets crying over the loss of free will.  Such a notion that we are nothing more than complicated robots is both unbelievable and threatening to many of us.  It’s one of those twilight zone scenarios where we suddenly find wiring behind our skin and a bar code beneath our scalp.  Many would wonder if the very fabric of our society would fall apart - where crime and greed could be rationalized.  Let me rephrase (since these rationalizations alread exist in a “free will” dominated world); we may fear a stark rise in selfish behavior.  The logic goes as such: why control our darkest desires since we can’t stop it anyway?

There are no signs that this new discovery registered anything more than a blip in our collective consciousness.  I will argue though, that the world would be a far more peaceful and happy place if determinism was embraced instead of the notions of free will.  It has been the belief in free will which has in fact rationalized many of humanity’s heinous atrocities throughout history.  Is not the basis of the fall of man in Christianity, the willful disobedience to God?   Human suffering exists as a punishment for choosing knowledge over God (although I don’t see how a few missing apples factor into it). 

          There were innumerable horrors carried out in the name of saving our fellow humans from choosing the devil’s path, not the least of which, a thorough burning at the stake.  The monarchs of old and many of today’s wealthy class have often expressed disdain for the lower classes for reasons similar to that debunked Lamarkian view of evolution –  that the rabble have chosen to be sloths and deserve no programs to improve their lot.    The privileged on the other hand, have picked themselves up by their own boot straps; and to the willful victor goes the spoils.

I would argue that tolerance and mutual understanding are more likely the result of a belief in determinism rather than free will.  By viewing the deficiencies and shortcomings of our fellow travelers as determined by circumstances beyond their control, I believe that we would be less judgmental of their failings.  We would understand that their lot may very well have been ours, had the universe been so inclined.  Social programs to alter the circumstances of future generations would be better funded.  Those of us, who are privileged, either in riches or talent, would not view our standing with such superiority as to devalue the humanity of others who are less fortunate.  Although our paths may differ greatly, the realization that our lives are determined by the same forces must have a unifying effect rather than not.  We may be on different ships, but we are all tossed about in the same seas.

Neuroscience is not the only argument for supporting a deterministic explanation of human decisions.  Several important concepts in physics have added to this debate – Newtonian physics and Quantum Mechanics. The former, with the help of Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity, explains almost every motion we see at the macro level – the precise movement of oceans, planets, stars, humans and everything in between.  Quantum Mechanics, on the other hand, describes the subatomic world of particles inside of an atom, which we will discuss, brings an aspect of uncertainty into the universe of matter.  Although these two laws may seem contrary to one another (at least for now, since scientists are scrambling for the theory of everything that would integrate these seemingly opposing laws), they both undermine the arguments for free will in their own way.

Take Newtonian physics.  In it is described the actions and reactions of everyday motions – gravity, friction, you name it.  It is a world governed by determinism, in which every event has a causative event that preceded it.  Time always seems to go foreword and never backward.  The coffee mug shattered because I pushed it off the table.  In other words, there could only be one outcome for a specific set of circumstances at a specific moment in time.

       Every decision we make – whether it’s deciding to eat a celery stick or a calorie filled brownie – is based on a past event (according to classical physics).  So right now, I’m typing this sentence at my favorite bookstore.  Let’s analyze how my decision to write this chapter today was a consequence of a string of cause and effects.  First off, some brilliant person came up with the idea of putting cafĂ©’s in book stores with convenient little tables and chairs. Also thank goodness someone thought up the idea of a laptop. Since my penmanship is terrible, I would never have had the patience to write a book using paper and pen.  I’m glad I was born a human because claws are downright impractical for a keyboard.

I could go on and on – possibly to the first amino acids that came together billions of years ago to form protein chains that would ultimately create the first cell. You get the point.  Every decision is like a falling domino in a series of falling dominos: A causes B, which causes C, etc.  But here is the mistake that most humans make – we forget that the earliest domino pieces lacked even our slightest input.  Imagine how different our lives would have turned out if just one of these early events were otherwise:  your family, your sex, your genes (had it been another sperm or egg that united, your sister or brother would have been born – not you), your country, the century born into, and your species (thank the fates you were not born a dinosaur).

 If we did not choose event A, then why do we believe we freely chose Z today.  Is this not the same reason we don’t assign free will to our computer programs?

 A computer program called Big Blue defeated the then greatest chess player, Kasparov – and yet few would credit the program as having made its decisions freely. Why?  Dominos - that’s why.  We won’t give that program credit because it was created with a set of instructions.  Last time I checked, we were born with a set of instructions too – a code if you will: DNA.

                        Now let’s talk about quantum theory – which is a field of physics advanced by the works of Maxwell Planck, and yet again, Albert Einstein.  The most puzzling aspect of this theory is the question of why subatomic particles behave both like particles and waves at the same time.  Take light for example.  We know that light is made up of streams of energized photon particles.  But if light were merely particles, they would behave only like tennis balls thrown on the floor with a path predicted by Newtonian physics.  But any inquisitive child seeing a rainbow must wonder if there are red photon particles and blue photon particles that somehow turn into green photon particles when they mix.  Scientists realized light waves interfere with each other – imagine two waves in the water combining or cancelling each other out.  But how can something be both a single particle and a diffuse wave?

            In a famous double slit experiment, this phenomenon was clearly illustrated.  When one photon of light passed through 2 slits on a screen, an unusual pattern of alternating light and dark bands appeared on the far wall across the room. If light behaved only as particles, we would only see two narrow slits of light on the wall.  The many bands are a result of the tops and bottoms of many waves emanating from each slit interfering with each other - some constructively (bright bands) and some destructively (dark bands). 

           The matter was complicated by Heisenberg’s principal of uncertainty which said that momentum and position of any subatomic particle atom could never be known simultaneously.  When scientists determined the position of an electron, its momentum could never be accurately calculated.  When scientists calculated the momentum of the electron, the exact position was impossible to calculate.  To make matters worse, this meant that we could only know the probability of an electron particle in an atom being at a particular position at any moment.  For example, there is a 90 % chance that electron A can be at position 1, but a 10% chance it could be at a totally different place at position 2.

            So why all the talk about electrons?  Our thoughts depend on electrons.  It just so happens that our brain cells rely on the electrical differences created by electrons to send electrical impulses controlling thoughts, emotions, senses, and voluntary movment.  This electrical potential is achieved by the electron configurations in salt ions: Na+, K+, Ca+, and Cl-.  There is a reason why we have a taste for salt, it is essential for survival (at least in small amounts).

The supporters of free will have argued that uncertainty is an argument against determinism.  If electrons are needed to trigger human thoughts, and electrons are unpredictable, then our thoughts must be unpredictable. There are free will supporters who use this unpredictability to say – aha, this proves that cause and effect is humbug – free will wins.   The problem with this argument is that it merely reassigns the falling dominos to an earlier set of events that we still have no control over.  The beginning domino A is now the random instability of an electron.  What made these electrons unstable?  Who knows – cosmic rays…our souls?  And if it is our souls- the “ghost in the machine” – then who assigned this soul as opposed to that other guy who chose hot dogs over pizza.  Sheesh, it’s endless. 

Another problem with uncertainty is that it reduces the definition of free will to such a low standard that it is no longer distinguishable from determinism.  If I start walking to work, and all of a sudden I have the urge to jump in front of a train with no warning whatsoever, is that the definition of free will we are okay with given the uncertainty principle?  Let’s see, there is a 90 percent chance I’ll bring wine to your dinner party, and a 10 % chance I’ll bring a ticking bomb.  What’s the difference whether  the fates or misplaced electrons  made Oedipus kill his father?  In either case, it was out of his control. 

This random firing of electrons does in fact occur occasionally in computers.  I found this the hard way when a 30 page paper I was writing in college suddenly disappeared without a trace in my diskette (I know, diskettes, how old am I?) and in the computer’s hard-drive at 3 am the day my history paper was due.  Luckily, my brain’s electrons fired uncontrollable fits of laughter instead of homicidal thoughts.  Computers have random firings of circuits, which often result in our screens freezing or programs shutting down with apologies. 

Although our brains neural networks are not exactly the same as computer circuits, there are similarities.  Random firings of neurons happen a lot more in our brains than inside computers.  Our brains have a 30 % error rate compared to the less than 1 % error rate needed in computers to function properly.  That said, computers currently have nowhere near the complexity and processing power of the human brain.  Our brains just ignore the vast majority of these misfiring – that’s why we don’t see an object in front of us when there is none. Well, that is, if you don’t have schizophrenia or hallucinogens in your blood stream.

If one day, we are able to construct computers as complex as the wiring in the human brain, an interesting question will arise.  Will computers become conscious?  If they do, another dilemma will face humans which we will find hard to ignore.  What would it say about our notion of free will?  But still some will say, “Fine, maybe a program could make simple decisions, but surely, humans make immensely more complex ones. We live in such intricate societies, that only free will could lead to such things as cooperation and even deception.” 

Interestingly enough, robots with only 8 lines of program developed these very human-like abilities in an experiment simulating evolution.  A hundred four-wheeled robots the size of toy cars were fitted with solar cells to search for lights emanating from a floor as its food source.   The robots themselves could both emit and detect light. A computer randomly assigned each robot a set of 8 programs (genes).  Depending on these set of programs, a robot could react in several ways.  For example, after detecting light, some robots raced towards it, away from it, or had no reaction at all.  Also, some robots could flash their own headlights or not. The environment was a darkened room with a limited number of food stations. 

            The first trial represented the first generation.  Many robots just didn’t have the evolutionary lotto ticket and soon ran out of energy.  The minority few who fed and survived were allowed to “reproduce” with one another.  Since robots can’t mate on their own, the experimenters simulated reproduction by copying these winning programs and placing them into the other robots who didn’t survive.  To factor in variation – or genetic changes – a computer randomly changed one of the 8 genes in each of the robots in the second generation. 

            The experiment was run for many generations, each time letting only the successful genes pass into the next generation.  A curious behavior evolved among several groups of robots.  Some actually learned to cooperate with one another.  When one robot saw a food source, it flashed its blinkers to others – who then came to share the food.  By cooperating, these individuals were successful in this game of survival of the fittest.  But another fascinating behavior arose. 

Other robots became successful by doing the exact opposite of cooperation. These  robots falsely alerted others to a spot that had no food source.  While the others rushed to that dark void, the cheating robot would sneak towards the real food source.  Amazingly these simple 8 lined programs evolved the ability to deceive as well.  We can imagine how fine tuned these strategies would have gotten if the robots contained more than 8 lines of program.  Cooperating robots may evolve special signals and codes of blinking to recognize fellow friends.  The lying robots could in turn learn to replicate these signals.   This arms race of deception vs. detection would become ever more nuanced.

 So the difference between simple robots and humans may be one of degrees.  When we confront new people entering our lives, we have a bunch of incoming stimuli (behaviors, facial expressions, intonation, words) that we have to analyze to determine if we should trust them or not.  Much of this drama can be observed between men and women in the rituals of dating – but let’s leave that for another chapter.  To make matters more difficult, humans also have a myriad of responses to “choose” from when deciding how to act. 

The next obvious question is– why the self delusion?  Why did evolution even bother making a conscious part and make us believe we are making decisions there?  Many theorists have speculated that the extreme social complexity of human life required a mind that was partitioned into conscious and unconscious parts.  Lying to others and to oneself seems to be a skill humans specialize in.  This is why Tony Soprano has such a hard time revealing his motives to his therapist.  The best liar may indeed be the person who actually believes their own lie.  Rationalizations for discomforting desires and deeds can only happen if the unconscious withholds information from the self aware parts of the brain.  So you may smile and make small talk with the higher ups in the office, but in reality, the unconscious mind is left to do all the unsavory conniving it wants. 

In a society as large as humans, where tribes can develop into a city of millions, the concept of self-identity is essential in keeping order.  Man must always be aware of the relative status of their own identity versus the rest of society’s.  Although every person would love to be king, we can see how chaos would ensue if everyone thought that way.  The Romans hated the endless civil wars that erupted whenever there was a power vacuum, and were more than willing to hand Julius Caesar the title of Emperor.  In our lives – at work, in relationships, with our families, we constantly keep track of where we stand in relation to others.  This could only happen if our self identity was somewhat consistent and continuous.  If self identity changed as often as the wind, no society could function. There would be too much discord and a lack of cooperation.   It would be a world filled with people with multiple personalities disorders.

But we must not confuse self awareness with free will.  This is the confusion that most people can not get over.  We can be aware of our brain having thoughts without having any control over the thoughts themselves.   Feelings are a great example of this.  How great would it be if we could choose to feel whatever emotion we wanted, whenever we wanted?  Unfortunately, we wake up one morning and we are cranky as heck.  Another day we feel depressed and we can’t seem to shake it.  Sometimes we feel so happy, and we don’t know why.  So it is possible for us to be self aware and yet have no control.  Now I know some will point out that it can work in reverse too – thoughts can illicit feelings as well.  This is the whole concept behind Cognitive Therapy.  To that I’ll say….see above arguments concerning falling domino’s.

Even though free will may turn out to be only an illusion, we still experience life as if we had free will.  Should one buy the gas guzzling muscle car or the slow running hybrid?   Should one leave their spouse or continue on with the unfulfilling marriage?  Even if everything is determined, the conscious regions of our brain still carries the weight of our potential decisions – and that will never change. The key is to figure out how to use determinism in ways that helps us lead a healthier and happier life.