Alchemist Shop, Prague
Final part of a fictionalized account of my first trip to Prague and discussions there around some themes from the End of Belief.The next day I showed up at M's shop with the same odd, unidentifiable feeling of the previous day. Had I any New-Age-Woo-Woo bones in my body, I'd be tempted to say that place had strange energy. Instead I wondered which scene from which Hollywood movie classic my brain was randomly processing through an already punch drunk limbic system. The only thing I was pretty sure of was that it was a scene that didn't end very well for the protagonist.
As soon as M saw me, she grabbed her bag, the shop keys and my arm in a single seamless motion that lead us wordlessly out the door. Her anxiousness was palpable and I already started to fear the worst - without having the faintest clue about what the worst would even be. The hard click of the shop's lock was still ringing in my head when she turned to me, gathered herself and solemnly spoke four of the most beautiful words in the English language: I need a beer. It took a superhuman effort not to kiss her on the spot.
M ordered řezané pivo, a popular mixture of light and dark beer. That also seemed to be the mix of moods in her expression, and for that matter, a good metaphor for the third Tetralemma position (both yes and no). I kept the metaphors to myself, though, and just ordered dark beer. Somehow that better fit my own mood. Well, no, not really - I just love dark beer.
She had had a fight that morning with her fiance, she said before half-emptying her glass in one sustained gulp. No details offered, and none asked. I just figured I had better not fall behind for whatever was coming next, so half-emptied mine as well. Does happiness always have to be this elusive? she finally huffed in the direction of the window.
Yes. Na zdraví. I said and clinked my glass to hers. You mean happiness is always something you have to work for... she said with a groan and roll of her eyes.No, not at all, I shook my head and finished my glass.
I started to explain myself, but had to first stop to savor the mixture of expressions that now danced across her face: intrigued; analyzing; radiant; playful; inviting. It was a kaleidoscope of so much that is wonderful about the human mind. When I finally recovered and opened my mouth again, though, she suddenly reached across the table to place two fingers over my lips. Her eyes locked onto mine, and I could feel and smell the beer on her fingers. My superhuman-effort-reserves were running critically low. Mercifully, M broke the tension by ordering us two more of the same before leaning back in her chair. Not taking her eyes off mine, she nodded that I could now explain what I meant. With some effort I recovered my train of thought but was sure I had left my wits far behind me. The pursuit of happiness as such is actually relatively new on the scene of human history, I finally began. It seems to be an invention of the Iron Age - or more precisely, the Axial Age. Interestingly, it's the same age that gave us all of our current religious, spiritual and scientific belief structures. All that mediating on mountain tops I suppose. After 0.5 liter of strong dark beer in two gulps I was on more of a roll than I needed to be. M, as far as I could tell, was impressively unfazed so I resolved to slow my ramblings down. Did she know that in every Indo-European language, the word for 'happiness' derives from the word for 'luck'? I asked. Your random universe again, she smiled. Hhmm... yes, interesting... in Czech it's actually exactly the same word: štěstí. So what are you saying? Everything is just lottery?
Huh... I like that metaphor! I beamed. Yeah... we all certainly play the lottery. You know... buy our tickets, choose our numbers as best we can, and then hope. And lose. Then play again. Maybe win a little now and then. And we just keep playing.
... Until we run out of time to play... she sighed and wordlessly paid the bill as our beers came. Ah... so she's now pressed for time after all, I thought. That's OK, this is her show, I nodded to myself.
My point is, I said - still wanting to get one last point in before the second round made my incoherence manifest - that we shouldn't focus on playing the lottery. We do the best we can in life. But in the end, chasing happiness is a fool's errand. Trying to help other's chase their happiness is a fool's errand. If we have any biological mandate, it's not for happiness. It's to create meaning in our lives. Happiness is just the damn carrot the brain holds out to us - it really wants meaning in the end. That's what the grey goo in our skulls is computationally designed for; nothing else. Same reason it makes us miserable at times. That's the stick it beats us with to make us go out and create meaning. I was rambling again and thought I had lost her when she started drinking her second beer as fast as the first. Suddenly she set her glass down and leaned in toward me.So tell me how I am supposed to know which meaning. She deadpanned. How I am supposed to know what it means that we met? Or do you want to say because there is no meaning from the universe, I can freely choose my own meaning? Or is that also just lottery?No, no I didn't mean it like that. I said and had to grin at just how convoluted my meaning actually was. But don't get me started on free-will, or we'll be drinking all night! I continued. It's just that I mean there is no forward-looking meaning to anything. Meaning is only given in hindsight... that's how we can change it over time. Beats the hell out of me how that helps, I shrugged, except in one respect. If we know that little fact, we can always have hope, no matter how awful life seems to be at the time...
My dear, you are physicist, not priest! And a half-drunk one! She half-laughed and half-sighed in exasperation as she got up to leave. Can't you just give me a damn quantum machine - so that I can have all meanings? That I can both marry and not marry tomorrow?
Tomorrow? I thought she had three days left to figure it out... I murmured to myself and followed her out.
That's what the fight this morning was about, she said softly as we walked outside into the street. He said either I am sure about marrying or I am not. If I am sure, then tomorrow is a good day to marry. So... so... I will marry. Tomorrow.
I didn't ask if she was really that sure. Life usually forces binary decisions from us, regardless. Or at least we believe that they're forced on us. For such exquisitely sophisticated and complex creatures, we are still driven by a remarkably simple flight or fight mechanism. We then tell ourselves heroic stories about making courageous right-or-left decisions.... really just to make ourselves feel good about the fact that we're obeying the brain architecture of a lizard. But what is a decision anyway? It's only a state of mind; just another part of the Cloud. A simple thought experiment shows this quite easily: imagine everything happening in the world just as it does now. People doing what they do. Now take away the label 'decision' from people's actions; let them simply act as they act. Is anything really missing other than the label?
The context of our thinking and feeling is everything. If our context is too narrow, we think we have no alternatives. But as Star Trek's Spock was fond of saying: there are always alternatives. And although he didn't say it, as a good Vulcan scientist I'm sure he knew: that is the power offered to us by a random universe - as long as we know how to pay attention to context. In that metaphorical sense of having endless possibilities, then, we all carry the quantum machines within us that M wished for. But I didn't tell her that; didn't share any of these convoluted points with her. In the state I was in I had lost track of them myself actually. Instead I just stood silently, and waited. Then I watched as she approached me, looked down and slowly took my hands into hers.
When her large azure eyes finally met mine they were shimmering in moisture. In that moment I caught a glimpse of the vast deep blue ocean in front of me, and realized I was only standing on the shoreline. She then leaned forward and carefully molded her lips to the left half of my mouth. And I wondered if this very moment might not be the best possible time to die. For some weird reason, though, I lived, and we parted without a word between us. As I watched her disappear into the Metro, I realized instead this was actually the best possible time to get gloriously drunk.
It's just as well I don't remember much between that moment and the next day when the late morning sun came crashing into my room. But Černé pivo - black beer - had clearly been my metaphorically appropriate companion. Several beer coasters from Fleků, Kocoura and a few other places were strewn between me and the crumpled bed covers. I rolled over to the night stand, clicked my phone to check the time and saw that I had a handful of emails, texts and two missed calls. When I tapped to have a look, the low battery warning showed. That's OK I thought; I was hardly up for squinting at a bright screen anyway. After wishing dearly for several minutes that I had not just moved my head, I finally fumbled for the charger, plugged the phone in and managed a half-crawl to the shower. That helped, but not as much as it needed to. A different black drink in large quantities was needed as soon as possible. The hotel breakfast bar was already closed but the kitchen took pity on me with a cup to go. I wandered across the street towards the river.
With several caffeinated pit stops along the way, I eventually made it all the way across the Charles Bridge and up the hill to Prague Castle. No idea how my legs managed to carry me that far in my state; apparently they just weren't in the mood for sitting still. For the second time that week I circled the castle grounds, looking in vain for the famous window where the Thirty Years War began in 1618. Wikipedia says it's at the castle; two locals I asked insisted it's across the river in the old town hall. I had planned on asking a tour guide there if I hadn't found it by then, but my mood at the moment wasn't really up for conversation. So I wandered the castle grounds again, wondering if being thrown from a window is really as bad as it sounds. Finally I gave up, leaned over the perimeter stone wall and took in the city and river view below. I don't know how long I stayed.
It was early evening when I made it back to my hotel. I had put off being back in my room for as long as possible, but by now was too exhausted to do anything but crash. For sheer distraction I picked my phone off the nightstand and checked for messages. A few emails and Whatsapps from scattered friends; calendar reminders from the previous day.
A missed call at 7:24 am that morning. From M. No voice message. A text at 7:25 am. From M. Please call me!
Another missed call at 7:52 am, followed by text at 7:54 am Sean please call me!!
It was now 6:15 pm. Her voice mail came on immediately. I had no clue what to say and hung up. I took a deep breath, called again, mumbled something incoherent and hung up. I texted her: Just got your message! Can't reach you, call me anytime, have phone with me! Calling two more times then holding my phone the whole night didn't change anything. The next morning I texted her as I was leaving from the main train station. Live well, be happy. I knew I wouldn't hear from her again.
Since my dreamy teenage years I had wanted to see Prague at least once in my life. The first city that understood Mozart must be a wise and magical place, I knew. Now, only a week after my first trip there, I was driving back there on the E50, my books, devices and guitar loaded in the back. I felt energized, curious, but also perplexed and humble. I felt strangely between the cracks of an old life and a new one. Then I remembered an old physics buddy of mine used to say that all the interesting stuff in life happens between the cracks. That was his shorthand for what Isaac Asimov once wrote in longer form: that real revolutions begin not with a Eureka-like cry of self-assurance and certainty - but with a perplexed, humble and curious murmur; with a strange feeling. I think they both meant that the end of our believing, the end of certainty, the moment it dawns on us that things are profoundly different than we thought, is when our real stories begin.
Estates Theater, Prague
Continuing Part I of a fictionalized account of my first trip to Prague and discussions there on some themes in the End of Belief.
The Buddhists try hard to live by their Eightfold Path
, I reminded her. Living by the right
intentions, etc. as opposed to the wrong
ones is a huge deal in their doctrine. So when it comes down to it, Buddhists cling to binary choices as much as anyone else.
Well of course! She grinned. How else will they keep their Karma accounts in balance? She stiffened her back and primly ran her hands down the white tablecloth as if going down a bookkeeping ledger. When she got to the end she stopped for dramatic pause and leaned forward with playful sternness. I don't think you will make them very happy if you tell them the universe doesn't really care, she said.
Oh, I wouldn't worry about them, I smiled. They're quite happy with their fixed system of 'revealed truth'... not plagued with doubt like the two of us, I said and clinked my glass to hers. That seemed to strike more of a nerve in her than I intended. She looked down and swallowed, then looked up at me, as if searching. Anyway... I continued, hoping to gloss over the moment... it's not so much whether the universe cares or not. What's funny is they actually preach the Tetralemma; they just don't want to practice it. Which for them is a double paradox: if you believe everything is an illusion anyway, you pretty much have to admit the whole concept of binary right and wrong is an illusion too, don't you?
So, yes, well... she said, gathering herself. I agree that reality we see… I mean believe
we see… is just ah… ah… what’s the word… She was obviously looking for a different word than 'illusion', helped by an unexpected and delightfully goofy gesture of puckering her lips while trying to pull the word out of her mouth like a strand of toffee. While I half suppressed a chuckle, she sank her chin into her hand and huffed in frustration. Seemingly defeated, she then suddenly perked up and began outlining semi-circles in the air with her upheld palms.
… cloud? I guessed, prompted by the airy elegance of her motion.
Yes cloud. She said, not missing a beat. We think we see reality, but actually it is just Cloud. We have to see what is real behind
Cloud if we want truth. She paused and seemed to shrink an inch. Looking behind the Cloud is what I have
to do in next three days… she sighed and finished the rest of her coffee in a huge gulp. As she crossed her arms and huffed more frustration, I thought hard about what would help her.
M… what if there’s nothing behind the Cloud? I finally asked her emphatically. What if it’s all just
Then it's even worse! she laughed ironically. Escaping Cloud was my last hope... As she drooped her head and sank even further, I thought... Yup... I really knocked that one out of the park... We sat in silence for a moment, then worked our way through two more rounds of booze - sorry, I mean coffee - and I've somehow forgotten what else we said. Eventually she gave a somber, deliberate nod that told me she had to leave. And I felt I had failed her. Walking outside together, I assumed it would be the last I would ever see her. I took a long, calm breath and looked up at the night sky. In the dim light of the narrow cobblestone street I could see the Pleiades cluster. Bronze Age Europeans at these latitudes used them as a sign for planting seeds, I remembered from an earlier museum visit to the Nebra Sky Disk. At such poignant moments in life I do the present-moment thing very well... it's actually quite easy when you have no clue what's coming next... Before I could look down and wish her a happy life, she had leaped the gap between us and locked her arms around my neck. There was surprising strength in her slender arms and she seemed in no hurry to let go. After a while of standing motionless together - and me wondering what my response, if any, should be - it dawned on me she was making a statement. But no... as much as my old ego would liked to have imagined otherwise, it wasn't a romantic statement. At least not the conventional kind. She was simply welcoming me into her life. No matter what she would finally decide to do, no matter what path in life I would take, we were now joined by the higher designs of fate and so the universe was a good place - in spite of her momentary difficulties. When she asked if I would I come by the shop the same time tomorrow, I just nodded, feeling equal parts enlightened and
stupefied. After seeing her off to the Metro station, I wandered the rest of the night along the river, trying keep things in perspective. Well, as much perspective as possible after three Irish coffees. If there were ever a sublime illustration of the exquisite random whims of the universe, I knew, this day was it. Of course randomness is always an unpopular interpretation. We seek the warmth and glow and beauty of higher purpose everywhere in life, and feel that to admit randomness would be like stabbing the meaning of life in the heart with an ice pick. But I think that's only based on a profound misreading of what randomness really is. And a worse misreading of what 'meaning' is. 'Everything happens for a reason', we learn since childhood, and reinforce that view in one form or another throughout life by our spiritual, religious and or scientific beliefs. Hollywood movies do their part too, of course. And we assign meaning according to what reason we imagine is behind it all. M had been primed by her beliefs (in her case, astrology) to think of our chance meeting as pre-ordained fate - that's why it meant so much to her. A traditionally religious person would have seen it, like everything else that happens, as part of God's plan. Finally, a traditionally scientific person would have seen the mathematical laws of nature gracefully turning their wheels, as they must in a lawful and causal universe. Here, the laws of nature are the scientific meaning of existence. But in each case, we believe in our metaphysical heart of hearts that a greater, forward-looking plan - call it The Plan - must be in place, everywhere and at all times. After all, our brains evolved over the eons as prediction machines; our existence is tethered to the unshakable conviction that The Plan - and hence, true meaning - not only exists, but that we can at least partly decode it. How could we possibly believe otherwise?
Except that The Plan is a figment of our imagination; part of the Cloud that M mentioned. Quantum mechanics already teaches that, at the most fundamental level throughout the universe, randomness rules. And this randomness is not, as some people like to imagine, one of human ignorance, limitation or misunderstanding. This randomness is the very essence of existence. It's as if the universe is saying to us: 'You might like to think
I need a Plan for what I do, but, seriously, guys... I don't.' And we should be thankful for that. Only a truly random universe holds all possibilities - if we know how to pay attention.
And as if to close the last escape hatch for our dogged misconceptions; the incompleteness theorems of Kurt Goedel and Gregory Chaitin show that even some mathematical statements are just true or false randomly. To bring that home with a small example: there are an infinite number of profound facts about the number 2 which are true for absolutely no reason. (Chaitin has put it quite pithily
"God not only plays dice in physics, but even in pure mathematics, in logic, in the world of pure reason.") Before you talk yourself into believing those are just bizarre, borderline situations that have nothing to do with 'the real world' you live in, it may help to remember that John Lennon knew better. I sometimes call it Lennon's Lemma: Life is what happens while you're making other plans.
But there is also a deeper point to understand. The Plan actually cannot
exist outside the Cloud of our imagination. To pretend otherwise is conceptually incoherent. To pretend that meaning
comes from anywhere but the same Cloud is just as incoherent. Things have the meanings we give them and no other. And we can change those meanings. That's not depressing, not frustrating, not an ice pick stab at life. On the contrary, that's actually where our true chances in life lie. Again, if we know how to pay attention. But that was for the next evening.To be continued
Charles Bridge, Prague
The city of Prague has always been a place of my favorite passions: contrarian thinking, beautiful music and epic beer. This is a composite, fictionalized account of my first ever journey and discussions there about the End of Belief. Anyone who knows me understands how much poetic license I generally take!
I have no idea what made me walk into the little shop. It was almost hidden under a brown stone archway, and in the grey afternoon light of Prague, seemed barely a shadow. Medieval architecture and cozy brew pubs are generally my siren call when traveling in Europe, not curiosity shops on the corner. Still I crossed the broad cobblestone square to get to it, feeling a strange sense of puzzlement of no known origin. There was no sound of the door when I entered, or if there was, I didn’t hear it. And in my mind there seemed no theme to the collection of stuff lying around on shelves and haphazard table settings. To be honest, I now can’t recall even a single item that was there, even though I lingered and held a few in my hand. It just seemed like a place of stuff. Lots of stuff.
Unless I’m in a music store, when a shopkeeper notices me is generally the time I try to leave. I had no reason for lingering there, couldn’t remember the phrase in Czech for “No, thank you”, and anyway, I wanted beer. But when she turned from the counter to smile at me I stood standing, looking back, frozen like an idiot. In that one instant her large, azure eyes, set into solid, elegant features had made her face seem like a single radiant gemstone. My eyes then followed the way her thick dark hair joined with her sweater to make the gem’s black velvet setting. I felt the flush of utter stupor and then stupidity course through me, so turned away in embarrassment - and started fumbling with more stuff. I should leave, I should leave, I kept thinking, but didn’t. A minute or two went on like this until I realized she was repeatedly looking toward me - seemingly nervous and worried. Great, I sighed. I had finally become the creepy psycho women were always being warned about. As I hurried to exit she called to me something in Czech which I knew meant she was calling the cops. Halfway out the door, though, I heard an emphatic “Wait… Can I help you?”
I don’t remember the first sentences we spoke to each other (and especially thankful I don’t remember what I said), but I’ll never forget when she suddenly stopped after a few minutes of small talk, collected herself and then stared into me like she was bracing for impact “There’s something I have to tell you… you will absolutely not believe. You will think it is so crazy, you will not believe what I have to tell you.” Before I could say anything, a customer walked in. She greeted him briefly and turned back to me with a worried but excited smile “Will you have a coffee with me when I close the shop in ten minutes?”
Her name was M___ (even though this is fictional, it’s still better not to use her real name). The shop was part time; her real calling was psychotherapy and spiritual research. OK, today is a good day for an open mind, I thought as our coffees came. Fortunately, Irish coffee; somehow I knew I was going to need it. She was getting married, she said… that is, supposed to be getting married… in three days. Uh, OK. I took a big gulp that half scalded my lips, but still congratulated her without missing a beat. I decided to settle in for whatever was coming next.
She had been having doubts about the wedding. For complicated reasons. She paused, thought for a second, then waved her hand dismissively. The point was: last week an astrologer told her that, just before her wedding, a stranger – a foreigner - would walk into her life, and change it forever. Someone with eyes just like mine, she said with a nervous glow. I was tempted to ask how she could even see my eyes past all the folds and wrinkles, but just took another gulp of coffee instead. She suddenly giggled and pointed out the wad of whipped cream on my nose.
Then out of nowhere M told me her whole life story. An impressive, dizzying mess from beginning to end that I - sorry - had to pledge to keep to myself. But really, I was deeply impressed at her creative life, not to mention her multi-tasking coping skills, and told her so. Sensing now a true comrade at arms, but wanting not to be outdone, I said I’d trump her mess with my life story, a true iconic catastrophe of the first rank. In the context of our discussion, there was actually a certain pride in saying that. M listened intently, and at times her eyes appeared to well up with a caring and compassion seemingly impossible from a stranger. At one point her hand reached out to hold mine. But when I was finished, she only smiled lightly, knowingly, as if to say my story was not so astonishing after all. Huh. My shoulders shrank slightly. Don’t take it personally I thought. After all, I’m in the presence of a true Bohemian Master. Suddenly it was all delightful and we started to laugh ourselves silly.
Did she know what she would do about her wedding, I asked, shifting into my concerned- friend mode. Complete stranger though she still was, the shift felt still natural and effortless. As I pondered that surprising fact, M just sighed and looked out the window. There was no point in following up with what might seem normal questions: did she love him; were they happy together, that sort of thing. She would have run through those questions a gazillion times without my prompting, and if those were not the right questions, she’d know herself why. Instead I asked if she had ever run across the Tetralemma method in psychology, seeing that psychotherapy was her interest. Her quizzical frown and searching eyes signaled she was ready to hear anything new that might be helpful, even from a babbling, goofy American that randomly wandered into her shop.
I explained that classical, Aristotelian logic allows only two truth values to things – True or False. The notion of ‘dilemma’, which M was obviously confronted with, comes from seeing only two alternatives – true/false; right/wrong; good/bad, this-way/that-way, etc. We humans seem lost without these types of binary choices. Maybe it’s all just part of the neural wiring for our fight or flight instinct, who knows, I shrugged. Anyway, a much older system from Bronze Age India was brilliant enough to allow multiple values. In this multi-valued logic, things might be true; or false; or something of both; or nothing of both. Buddhist philosophy, which you said you liked, is actually big on this idea too. Only sounds hopelessly impractical, I continued: Court judges of that period would sometimes use this system in a rigorous way to decide murky legal disputes that needed more than just a good guy/bad guy decision. I paused and waited for her eyes to start rolling but instead they stayed fixed on mine, quizzical and patient. I decided not to push her patience by mentioning that multi-valued logics were not only a lively area of mathematics research, but some artificial intelligence programs and integrated circuit designs also used them.
I think what you’re talking about is just how real life is, she laughed.
Maybe... I said - realizing how hard it was to faze her - but we real humans sure don’t seem to understand that in thinking about our real lives. Like I said, maybe it's hard wired into our brains. Everybody pretends to live by the binary choice code... or at least pretends we have to... or pretends we want to. Even your much more free-thinking Buddhists - who of all people should know better! - fall back into that binary trap.
Yes, I like Buddhism... she said with a slight hint of a frown. What trap you mean?
To be continued
Continuing from the ending question of Part I: what makes us all really tick?
Let's start by internalizing how important the brain is to us human-folk: a whopping 60% of the body's glucose goes to the brain. Gram for gram the brain eats ten times more calories than does the body as a whole (20-25% consumption for only 2% of body mass) For an organism that evolved not knowing when or where it's next meal was coming, that big eater had better be good for something. Aristotle, who my history teacher thought was just the smartest man in history, blithely asserted that the brain must be a cooling engine for the body. (I like to kid Aristotle for just pulling stuff out of his ass like that. Bertrand Russel had some good zingers on him too. But I digress) Anyway, consensus neuroscience opinion these days is a little bit different. It seems to be the brain has basically two jobs (which we'll see in a sec is really the same job): 1) control motor function 2) predict the future.
Controlling motor function is almost obvious as soon as you think about it: really it's the only way the organism can affect its environment. One prime exhibit often cited for the rule "brain = locomotion" is the sea squirt, which will actually eats its own brain once it settles down to a sedentary life on a coral reef. But like John Lennon might have said, life is what happens while biologists make other theories: note the humble jelly fish and even slime molds seem to purposefully navigate their surroundings quite well without any central nervous system thank you very much. Sorry, digressing again. Either way, it's clear that at least our brain controls motor function.
But think about what a gargantuan task that is. First of all, just counting the 650 skeletal muscles in the human body (ignoring cardiac and smooth muscle tissue) presents the brain with 2 to the 650th power, or roughly 5 followed by 195 zeros(!), different possible motion states to control.* How can the brain possibly choose the few right needles among that astronomical haystack? Essentially via task 2) - predicting the future. The idea here is that the brain is constantly running internal simulations of its future possible muscle moves. Those simulations are believed to come from self-models of movement the brain creates and modifies over its lifetime. Comparing what the self-models say - i.e. what is internally predicted to happen milliseconds in the future - with the sensory feedback from the actual current motion is the basis for an extremely sophisticated control system. It's such a great system, that nature apparently said "hell, yes, let's do that!" at least as early as the Cambrian, about 500 million years ago.
Of course, those predictions will only be helpful if they contain not only the organism's own movements, but also the surrounding environment. It doesn't do an animal much good to successfully predict and then execute a move two steps to the left if that move takes it into the jaws of a predator. So predicting the future in general - like guessing what that predator is up to as well - is another equivalent way to describe the brain's job.
But now the brain really has a job on its hands. Try multiplying 5 followed 195 zeros times some even more ridiculously large number that represents all possible future states of your surrounding environment. Needless to say, brains don't do that. What they do though, is create and store internal models of the outside world as well. These models are kind of like look-up tables, or heuristics, built out of neural circuitry of course. So instead of actually calculating de novo what will happen next, just like in the case of motion, the brain activates a model appropriate to the sensory data; i.e. a model that will hopefully just tell it what in the world will happen next. Like is that roaring lion about to jump at me or the impala? Does she really like me or just the rabbit carcass I stole from the baby leopards? You get the idea.
But here's the funny thing: just how does your brain know there's a 'lion out there' in the first place? I mean your brain's hopefully tucked safely away inside your skull. The only thing it has access to is blood, chemical soup and electrical signals. Obviously then, it has to make its own model of a lion, because models are all it's ever going to see. "A lion chasing you up the tree" really means to your brain a model of "a lion chasing you up the tree". So the funny implication of all this is: the brain's not really predicting THE FUTURE. It's just predicting its own future; i.e. predicting the behavior of the models it creates. The brain is a self-prediction, self-modeling machine.
Rather than John Locke's blank slate, though, we're born with at least the rough drafts of many of our models. A good and quick read on this principle is Steven Pinker's classic The Blank Slate. Newborns a few hours old seem able to recognize faces, for example, and at four months visually process those faces at almost an adult level. Toddlers less than a year old already have some sense of cause and effect of object motion, and so on. However much we're born with these models or develop them later, they're continuously shaped and modified throughout life by the brain reward system. The cookie in this system is the neurotransmitter dopamine.
During learning to, say, play guitar (i.e. learning a model
of you playing guitar), you're on a pay-as-you-go system. A cluster of specialized neurons in the mid-brain called the Ventral Tegmental Area, or VTA, releases dopamine only when the right notes are struck in the right way. Most of that dopamine lands in a nearby section called the nucleus accumbens, which also goes by the more technical name 'pleasure center'. This strengthens the neural circuits in your current model to reinforce the emergent, guitar-hero model of you. Once you get really good, though, the VTA figures your credit history is good and starts paying you up front. That is, the VTA releases the dopamine just before you hit the note - i.e. on the cue that makes your model say "OK, now gimme an F-sharp". Assuming you hit that F-sharp on time, the whole thing reinforces the predictive aspect of your model. If you're predictions keep missing the mark, though, the VTA will eventually not only revoke your credit, but stop dopamine payments altogether. That's when life can really suck, as any victim of withdrawal will tell you. The whole system is much more complicated, of course, with feedback loops and braking mechanisms through other brain regions like the frontal cortex (that more deliberative part of the brain that Vulcans especially like). But the point is here that your models - you - chase dopamine like investment banks chase money. The metaphor with banks is on purpose: they- and you - will even chase it to their own destruction. That's what Peter Milner and James Olds found in the 1950s when they accidentally discovered the brain reward system in mice. The accident part came when they misplaced electrodes into another mid-brain region called the medial forebrain bundle. Zapping this region with a small voltage does essentially the same job as the VTA to nucleus accumbens mentioned above.
In other words, the mice felt reealll good when the juice was on. Olds and Milner then let the mice zap themselves by connecting the voltage to a small lever they could press. Needless to say, the lever became very popular with the mice. So popular that even food, water and sex were ignored when there was lever to be pressed.
Guess the mice had never heard of Maslow's pyramid either.
Next: Part III of III - how our models make us do stuff
*With the horrible oversimplification that each muscle is independently controlled to be either contracting or non-contracting.
My cousin Ian and I were still impressionable pre-teens when my Dad took us to the Gettysburg Civil War battlefield. I vaguely remember passing various granite markers and spoke-wheeled canon as we strolled the uneven hills. More vivid in my memory is a tour guide explaining how General So-and-So got his head blown off by a cannon ball where I was standing. That got my attention and not in the most comfortable sort of way. It must have set the stage for me to ruminate long and hard when we got to the Cyclorama
- a huge 360 degree mural painting of the battle. In particular of Pickett's Charge
I stared at the mural and for the life of me, couldn't get my head around Pickett's Charge. As all Americans learn in school, the field the Confederate infantry had to cross that day was flat, open and long. It was basically a slow, methodical walk into a meat-grinder, and I couldn't get over the sheer stupidity of it. I wasn't thinking of Lee and Pickett so much. Commanders have to gamble, I knew, and if the thing had worked they'd
only be remembered as brilliant and daring. But whether they could collectively take Cemetery Ridge or not: what on earth made those fool infantrymen line up to be artillery target practice for almost a mile? (General Trimble's estimate
) At twelve, I was confident I would have shown General Pickett my middle finger or worse. Nowadays, of course, I know differently and am just thankful to be too old to take part in such nonsense.
I'm only picking on poor Pickett (who in fairness, was opposed the charge) because it's the earliest memory I have of what used to be a great mystery to me: what on earth makes us humans tick in the first place? What really motivates us to do stuff at all? I thought the whole evolution game was about survival and having babies - where does deliberately getting your head blown off by a cannonball fit in?
If you've ever hung around marketing or psychology people, you'll have heard of Maslow's hierarchy of needs
. It's a triangular shaped mini-bible with the supposed laundry list of our priorities. In reality, though, it's a list only a Vulcan from Star Trek
could love, because it's so apparently rational
1) survive and have babies 2) gather food, shelter, safety 3) love and be loved 4) feel good about yourself 5) realize your dreams. Sounds so utterly reasonable until you realize it's meant to apply to real-life human beings.
I think it's deeply ironic that Abraham Maslow published his work "A Theory of Human Motivation" in the middle of World War II, just when millions were motivated to kill and die for anything BUT the first three items on his list. In fact, if Maslow's pyramid were really true, almost nothing about human history would make any sense. Maybe Stone Age humans killed and died for sheer survival and procreation, but since then it's been pretty much abstract ideas
that have driven people to that kind of behavior. During the Bronze and Iron Ages, one side was usually fighting for glory, the other for freedom. Nowadays of course, moral standards have changed, so everybody says they're fighting for only the latter. Either way, they're only fourth or fifth
on Maslow's list.
So much for survival. What about the having babies part of our supposed Number One priority? Hhmm. I guess that's why millions live and have lived in monasteries and nunneries throughout the centuries. Or why birthrates are constantly declining in the developed world.
A lot of other not-that-uncommon behavior shouldn't even exist under the Maslow scheme. Substance abuse, anorexia, suicide - in fact any
behavioral disorder that becomes debilitating enough to short-circuit items 1) - 3) on the list shouldn't be possible. But here again, in real life, 4) and 5) very often dominate. Honestly, in the face of such obvious and overwhelming counter-evidence, I severely don't get how the pyramid meme ever propagated beyond Maslow's desk.
We've known for some time that humans are not Star Trek
Vulcans carefully weighing their decisions under classic rules of rationality (say, by weighing expected cost vs. benefit). The psychologists Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman worked out that kinda-shoulda-been-obvious fact in the context of economic behavior. Or maybe it wasn't that obvious - Kahneman got the 2002 Nobel in Economics for the work. (Tversky sadly died before the prize was awarded). But really, folks: it only takes a smidgen of self-awareness to know that all of our individual decisions are emotionally weighted in all kinds of directions, just not in the direction First Officer Spock would approve of. In fact, without emotional affect, decisions would be impossible at all, as the neuroscientist Antonio Damasio discussed at length in his book Descartes Error. After all, how else does the brain know what few bits of data out of gazillions to pay attention to? But as always, the ancient Greeks of the Axial Age were already there. Aristotle is far from my favorite Greek philosopher, but he did manage to get the point right when he wrote "There can be no knowledge without emotion". But it's not as simple as our animal instincts overriding our higher intellect either. On this I have to politely disagree with a guy who is one of my favorites, David Hume, when he wrote "Reason... is the slave of the passions." No, it's not that we're in a state of constant Pon Farr, as Spock might say. Our inner drives are vastly more complex and opaque. We should be clear that it's not about a lack of data, or even knowledge, experience or expertise that makes us so seemingly irrational (If you doubt that, I refer you to the last US Presidential election and the losing side's astonishment at the result)So let's ditch the whole pretense that we even know what 'rational' is and whether we are even any good at it. We'll start from scratch with the original question: just what does make humans tick?
Part II to follow.
Reality is merely an illusion, albeit a very persistent one.
A. EinsteinReality is frequently inaccurate.
Douglas Adams, The Restaurant at the End of the Universe
If I'm lucky, you're already convinced, as a general principle, that what we call the 'physical world' is a complete fabrication of your mind (Quantum fans: here I still mean that independently of of quantum mechanics)
If so, then yippee! You can skip to the section below on where I think quantum mechanics actually does fit in with this picture. That's the point of this post anyway.
If you're not convinced, then dang, I know I have my work cut our for me and will punt to a future posting. The philosophical perspective of idealism
cuts so hard against the grain of our visceral intuition that it seems ridiculous, foolish and/or pointless to almost everyone at first. Grown men have been known to kick rocks in reaction to the notion, as the irascible Samuel Johnson did when he said of Bishop Berkeley's arguments "I refute him thus!"
Dr. Johnson's foot notwithstanding, idealism has a long and illustrious tradition that goes back to - you guessed it - at least as far as the Axial Age. The pre-socratic Anaxagoras (5th century BC) was the first Westerner we know of to tag his name to the notion (literally: he was known as nous -
'mind' because he taught that all comes from the mind). And of course if you're familiar at all with some Eastern philosophies like, say, Buddhism, you know many live and breathe idealism like a canary takes to song. Tons of big-wig philosophers and scientists - too many to name, really - have been strong proponents of some form of idealism. And really: at least some form of idealism clearly has to be true
, if for no other reason than you're not an omniscient deity, but a brain-toting creature who has to make do with the limited data your neurons are serving up to your consciousness. But I think idealism can be broadened out and solidly defended much more than this - in a future post.
For now let me just be clear on what I'm not
claiming. I'm not claiming this all could be some kind of dream and we'd never know the difference, like, say the movie Inception
, or The Matrix
. Some do argue in a scholarly context that we probably are living in a computer simulation
. Personally, I think that particular argument fails because it just nonchalantly equates consciousness with computation, but that's for another post too. I'm not even going to argue that there is some
kind of physical world out there, but we just have imperfect perception of it (e.g. Plato's cave or Kant's thing-in-itself
What I claim (and, again, will argue for in a separate post) only sounds extreme, but once you get used to it, really isn't. I'm going assert that claiming any kind
of 'real, physical world out there' independent of your mind is not only pointless, but actually meaningless. Meaningless like gibberish; like saying the square root of Tuesday is Jabberwocky. It might make you feel better to assert that it is so - and feel free to kick all the rocks you want - but really, it's a pretty incoherent claim.
So now let's say, or at least pretend, you're on board; i.e. you buy that to conceive of a reality beyond our mind's conceptual abilities is just mental mush (If not, well hell... the following still basically works, but has somewhat different implications). Then below is what I actually want to address. Um... doesn't quantum mechanics already imply a type of idealism?
Quantum mechanics - at least in the version that bothered Einstein to his dying day - superficially makes a similar sounding
claim. And even some physicists, I think, go a little overboard on this point. But in fact this particular ontological stance of quantum mechanics is of a different sort than what is generally considered 'philosophical idealism'. You may know the famous story of Einstein on a moonlight stroll with the physicist Abraham Pais. They were debating the meaning of the wave function collapse, and whether it meant that physical observables like position and momentum only existed by virtue of their measurement. Niels Bohr of course lead the majority answering in the affirmative. Einstein instead thought that most of his colleagues were nuts. At one point in the conversation, the great relativist turned in exasperation to his friend and asked him "Do you really believe the Moon is not there when you're not looking at it
What bugged Einstein was this: quantum theory in its no-frills form claims that Schroedinger's wave function alone contains all the information there is about a physical system. That's 'ALL' in capital letters. That's obviously a boatload of information about, say, an electron. But for all that information, the wave function is amazingly silent on things that make up our everyday conceptual apparatus, like: where the electron actually is at any given time. Or the where the Moon is for that matter. It only gives different probabilities for where an electron (or, again, the Moon) might be found if an observer bothers to ask the question. Again, that's all one gets with the wave function: weighted rolls of a dice, if
one asks the question. Take all that at face value and it means the electron and the Moon have no position
until an observer locates them somewhere. Einstein's position was: are you kidding me?
But we now know that nature is, in fact, not kidding. In still a later posting I'll get in to the weeds of what I think is maybe the greatest story in science - the discovery that our most basic intuition about reality, (the sense we are actually born with, as psychology experiments with newborns
seem to show) is just plain wrong. Here I'll just recommend a classic and very accessible account of the whole story by David Mermin: Is the moon there when nobody looks? With that I'll just state the straightforward, intuitive interpretation of the last few decades of exquisitely delicate quantum experiments: if no one hears the tree falling in the woods, it don't make no sound(*).
But that's nevertheless different than saying that things don't exist at all
until they are looked at or thought of by somebody. For that matter, quantum mechanics as a physical theory is happy to assume physical things
exist independently of us thinking about them. It's just that some properties
of things don't exist until we try to measure them. In principle, that doesn't have to be any more mysterious than saying an accused criminal at trial is neither innocent nor guilty until determined to be one or the other by a jury. To me, that situation is pretty straightforward to grasp if we start with a basic materialistic view of the world; i.e. if we assume that at least there are such things as real, flesh and blood accused criminals. And of course the real Moon.
Where it gets puzzling, to me at least, is when one already has the stance of idealism = nothing
exists until someone thinks about it. If that's so, isn't it just a trivial corollary that some properties don't exist until they are measured?
Clearly not - at least not in the quantum mechanical sense. Quantum theory doesn't claim everything
is nonexistent until it's measured. It makes a clear distinction between some properties, like position which needs someone to measure it, and others, like electric charge, which aren't so encumbered. So what's going on? Why the one and not the other?
Suppose we ask the obverse question: if the world is a creation of my mind, in what way could it still make sense to at least pretend it exists independently of me? How could I consistently maintain the fiction to myself that some things are not a mental creation? I think there is only one answer. And I think it is precisely the gymnastics our minds constantly do. The secret sauce, I believe, is mathematical predictability.
Our brains evolved as prediction machines - or equivalently, data compression machines. That's their job, day in, day out. (In this narrative it doesn't matter whether you think brains are 'physical' or not, the argument is the same) Even infants are good at making predictions and compressing order out of their sensory deluged world. Object permanence is probably the earliest data compression tasks our brains make about the world. Babies 1-4 months will already track moving objects in their visual field, and at 4-8 months they know that a ball covered by a blanket hasn't magically disappeared.
The reason the notion of object permanence works at all is, of course, that we can make successful mathematical predictions about our sensory data. When an infant tracks a moving object, it's brain is making a successful prediction about it's visual field. Those successful predictions get rewarded with a shot of dopamine, and -
shebang - the prediction circuitry is reinforced. Eventually the prediction circuits get so strong that they carry emotional valence. We viscerally insist that the ball is still under the blanket. Or that the Moon is there. That's why a good magician is always so compelling to watch, even when we know it's just trickery. The point is, with object permanence embedded in our minds, we don't have to see the ball to 'know' it's there - we feel confident in predicting that if we look for it, we'll find it.
Mathematical predictability, then, is the coin of our ontological realm if no direct sensory data is available to us. Makes sense, right? After all, if you can't trust math, what can you trust?
So now let's get back to the quantum world, where, say, an electron's position is not mathematically predictable
. It's not that we just don't have the right tools, or the right prediction software in our minds. It is just absolutely plain flat out not predictable. This is a special kind of unpredictability, or randomness that is different than, say the randomness of the weather, or a roulette wheel, or the stock market. Weather, roulette and stocks have, in theory, some level of predictability. In principle, a computer big enough could eventually crack at least some of the code for what makes those things tick. They're not truly random, but pseudo-random.
Quantum events are, at least as far as the theory and experiments tell us, are truly, truly random. No computer algorithm could have anything on these guys. That means no mathematical rules of any kind are violated if the electron turns up here... or over there...or way over here... or wayyyyy over there... it makes no difference. The only possible conclusion is: the electron just aint anywhere in particular until you find it somewhere. And in conclusion...
Let me try to tie this together into a really very cool conclusion about quantum mechanics and idealism. It's usually said that quantum mechanics has two weird things about it. Randomness and Unrealness. Einstein is often quoted as saying "God doesn't play dice with the universe." But what bugged him more than the randomness was the unrealness part. What I have just argued for is that, in the end, they are two sides of the same coin. True randomness implies unrealness. Unrealness requires randomness. That basic point holds, I believe, whether one is a philosophical idealist or not. But it seems a much better fit the context of idealism. If I were instead a materialist, I would be really bothered, like Einstein was, about how in the hell all that random/'immaterial stuff' got into an predictable/material world in the first place?
(*) I only said this is the straightforward interpretation. I'll address other interpretations in future posts.
One thing they don't tell you 'bout the blues when you got 'emYou keep on fallin', 'cause there ain't no bottom
Emmylou Harris in Red Dirt Girl
Of course the trajectory of any life criss crosses the lands of happy, unhappy and everything-in-between. But did you ever notice that experiences of pure happiness are always limited in both magnitude and duration, but abject misery seems to know no such bounds? (Kind of reminiscent of Einstein's famous remark that, while the universe may be finite, human stupidity has no such limits.) Notice it's also a lot easier to go from
unhappiness than the other way around. And like Emmylou says in her song Red Dirt Girl
, once you're on that path, gravity alone will keep you on that straight and narrow. So if life were a thermodynamics quiz, you'd be forgiven for suspecting that happiness is the low entropy state, and unhappiness the high entropy state. And in fact, I think there's a good case to be made that there are many more unhappy brain configurations than happy ones, for reasons I'll get into. But for now, just note that this asymmetrical dynamic itself is really odd if the brain were actually equipped for sustained happiness.
In spite of common sense evidence to the contrary, though, the "Yes, dammit! I can choose to be happy" meme of the Axial Age (see previous post) is probably about as robust as human memes get. Of course, resilience of an idea contrary to facts is in itself not unusual. Nowadays it goes by the name of cognitive bias, and we humans downright excel at it. (If you need any hints, check out the last U.S. presidential election cycle). Two and a half millennia after its first appearance, and two and a half centuries after its inscription in the U.S. Declaration of Independence, the pursuit of happiness meme thrives all over the world as never before. Interestingly, it also cuts across all traditional belief systems and comes in all variations: religious salvation, spiritual awakening, or just a stiff upper lip frame of mind. The fact that the self-help mantra is
by far the largest segment in book publishing, and the entire industry in the US alone is something like $12 billion ought to bring images of an exhausted dog chasing its tail. And in fact I think most people - certainly most of the ones I ask - know deep down it's all mostly just so much snake oil. There are exceptions of course(there always are) but for most us, the high of having some new fantastic guru-charged insight that will now finally make your life happy seems to last only slightly longer than it takes for a pizza to get stale.
So for all the happiness-gurus out there, here's some sobering news that shouldn't even be news. The bare-bones biological fact of life is that our brains adapted first and foremost to help us survive and procreate. Natural selection had no inherent interest in keeping us happy along the way. In fact, too much happiness would have been an obvious significant selective disadvantage. It would have kept us lazy, static and unwilling to explore difficult terrain; unable to learn hard lessons and adapt further. I believe this shows up in our basic mental architecture, and more to the point - if we’re objectively honest about it - in most of our lives most of the time.
Here I'll quote my grandmother, the venerable Evelyn Lee, who pulled a family through the dirt of the Great Depression and was able to once say with loving sincerity "Hell! We ain't here to be happy!" I've come to believe that on this particular point, she is more connected to the reality of our existence than were the keenly optimistic minds of Parsva and Epicurus.(see the last post) And in an extra tip of the hat the grandmothers, it seems nature might have had a special role for them in our evolution
The tool natural selection did give us to keep going was the constant yearning
we experience. Yearning, wanting, desiring something else than what we have as an emotional state obviously goes back to before the Stone Age; otherwise, well, we'd still be in it. But is it really happiness we yearn for, or something else? Think about it. The ‘feeling of happiness’ is only part of the brain’s dopamine reward system – it’s dished out at the end when the brain concludes it should reinforce certain pathways. So the feeling of happiness is really like a cookie. The brain constantly holds that cookie out to us, trying to motivate us in certain directions. Sure, once in a while we’re allowed a bite of the cookie, but just enough to keep us motivated and yearning for more. The problem for us post-Axial Agers is, I think, we've come to naively fixate on the happiness cookie and think that’s what life is all about. But the brain, and life in general, is not really interested in cookies – it wants something more nutritious, if I can stretch the metaphor.
What the mind really wants, and what it’s designed for at all levels, is to constantly engage in pattern recognition. Pattern recognition, aka data compression, is really the only way we can survive and navigate the world. It happens from the lowest levels of sensory input and muscle control all the way up to seeing faces in clouds and concocting theories of quantum gravity. We know and feel all that dot-connecting within us more simply as finding meaning
. Whether it’s reading animal tracks in the woods,or Tennyson by the fireplace; the feeling touch of a loved one or the grip of an enemy; finding the right life partner or the right pizza parlor: fulfilling our evolutionary mandate in a complex world requires constantly connecting the scattered dots of life into ever higher meanings
. If the game of life had to have a name, it could only be the search for meaning.
Why do we seek love - to be happy? If the goal of love were to be happy, the brain would be a pretty stupid organ. Deep down we know better. Love is for most people, most of the time, mostly painful. Of course there are great, even long moments of high joy – the excited glow of being ‘in love’, the calm warmth of a hug from a loved one, or reflecting on the love shared with someone. All that great stuff. But the inner sensations of all of that great stuff is, again, just the cookie. Small bites from it may keep us seeking and yearning in spite of all that heartbreak, disappointment, fear, loss, emptiness, suffering... should I go on? ... along the way. But what the mind really needs and finds in love, I think is meaning
. Yup, meaning. I could throw in a hundred quotes on love and meaning here, but since I'm no poet and this really isn't that kind of blog, I'll refrain. But even without me explaining further, I'm pretty sure you get what I mean.
It’s the same story with our jobs and professional careers. There are a few lucky people who do exactly what they love, love all that they do and feel happy every minute on the job. At least I have heard of such people – personally, I’ve never met one. For most people, even a beloved career is mostly hard and difficult work - a daily grind of frustration and fear; sometimes doubt and often despair. That isn’t what happiness looks like – but it’s exactly what the search for meaning
Why are religion and spirituality so important to most of us? Yes, it is a source of joy and hope for many. But in difficult times when we need it the most, do we really feel actual happiness
from it? And by the way, do we really enjoy the idea of our sins being judged before a heavenly tribunal? Or coming back as a frog? Probably not so much. But we obviously crave the sense of higher meaning they give us.
Which goes to why happiness requires a decrease in entropy, if you will. Data compression, pattern recognition, is precisely that. It's throwing out a truck load of data that you don't know what to do with so you can have your nice picture, of say, the Virgin Mary on cheese toast, or why your loved one has the most beautiful eyes you've ever seen. And once your brain has locked on to a pattern, there are many more data configurations that don't fit that picture than do. Hence, the miserable brain states tend to outweigh the happy ones that do fit the picture.
But hang on a second, you might say. Even if the brain doesn't care if we’re happy, does it have to make us so abjectly miserable at times? I think this is other half of the brain’s cookie and stick system. (OK, the English metaphor is 'carrot and stick' but nobody eats carrots these days)
Physical pain is our brain’s way of signaling to us that something’s wrong and needs immediate attention: take your hand out of the fire; don’t walk on that leg. Mental suffering is the mind’s way of signaling too. The mind suffers for only one reason, but in endless variations: again, I believe it yearns for meaning
. When we suffer from a loss, it is, in one form or another - in ways we may or may not consciously understand - a perceived loss of meaning
that the mind is bemoaning. If no deeper meaning seems immediately at hand that will satisfy the void, your brain will pull out its misery stick and beat you senseless until you go out and find it.
But still, even if that's all true – can’t we just try
to be happy? Sure and sometimes we actually are. It's just that the fixation on the cookies is what's counterproductive. Personally I wish I could stuff my face all day with the damn things. But really, our brain has all the computational and neurochemical resources it needs to make us happy 24/7 if that were the real goal. Instead, under our conscious radar a completely different program is being run- and it would be overwhelmingly in our interest to understand that.
Yes it kinda sucks. OK it does suck. But on the upside - and this is the best consolation I can find - how many great human journeys really started with the sentence “Gee… I just want to be happy” anyway?
Or maybe the working-man's hero Richard Feynman put it best When I found out Santa Claus wasn’t real, I wasn’t upset. Rather I was relieved that there was a much simpler phenomenon...
What if this is as good as it gets? Jack Nicholson in As Good as it GetsNo one dies a virgin. Life f***s us all
Kurt CobainLet me start with a short history of happiness before I trash it. My hope is to illustrate clues along the way to what may sound like a radical idea, but is, I think, actually pretty straightforward. As far as I can tell, the 'pursuit of happiness' as a riddle of life to be solved seems to be another Iron Age invention. (Bronze Age scholars: feel free to slap me silly with counterexamples, but I couldn't find any) Apparently, earlier times tended to consider happiness as something that either came your way or it didn't, and there generally wasn't much you could do about it. The word 'happiness' itself, in all Indo-European languages, derives from ancient words for luck. In modern German, it's actually still the same word, which turns out not to be as confusing as you would think. Anyway, I'll call that clue no. 1
But while happiness per se
may not have always gotten our attention, misery and suffering in all shapes and forms clearly did. The earliest surviving works of literature, for example - the hymns of the Sumerian priestess Enheduanna - contain a sad tale of banishment from the temple and sexual harassment from a brother-in-law
. The themes that come out starkly in the oldest human writings are conflict, suffering and yearning. Sure, what else do you expect from literature, my first English Lit professor loved to emphasize. But what's telling is that, even back then, so much of that isn't directly related to what you would naively expect - our evolutionary mandates for survival and procreation. Enheduanna seems mostly upset by her loss of status. The Lament for Ur
goes on mostly about destroyed buildings and temples. Gilgamesh's journey through the wilderness is the search for wisdom,
not a cold drink of water.
And so on. So Bronze Age people were clearly searching and yearning for meaning beyond their daily bread. Yet with all that yearning, it still didn't seem to occur to anyone for thousands of years to express the meme that Thomas Jefferson told us was self-evident: "I just want to be happy". Call that clue no. 2In any case, that all changed with the Iron Age, or more specifically, the Axial Age. The earliest historical figure of a new 'find-your-inner-peace' movement was a sage from the Ganges Valley, Parsva, who started meditating his way to Nirvana three centuries before the Buddha. The meditative traditions spread slowly, but they did spread. Meditation is hard work, after all, especially for novices like me. But for however long you can do it, the benefits to your peace of mind are pretty quick and manifest. Unfortunately, they also go away if you stop. Maybe this is why the meditative traditions have a solid but still niche adherence of less than 10% of the global population. That fact that meditation feels so good but is still so hard is clue no.3An even quicker benefit was offered by the pre-Socratic Epicurus. He figured that avoiding pain and seeking pleasure was a seriously not-bad strategy towards happiness. Really, it should have been a damn easy sell as a life philosophy. But in truth, Epicurus had relatively few takers.
(It's a shame that the word 'Epicurean' somehow got corrupted into the first two of the seven deadly sins
, since Epicurus really taught modest, thoughtful, simple living as the highest pleasure. But there you go.) Anyway: for me that's clue no. 4
In principle, the monotheistic religions -
Zoroastrianism, Judaism, then later Christianity and Islam - should have been the toughest sell of all. On the one hand they do promise happiness to the faithful... just... well... not
in this life. The primary aim of this life is obedience to God no matter what the suffering is, as a fellow named Job would readily confirm. So if your life still sucks, suck it up and wait for the afterlife, buddy. The surprising fact that these belief systems, and not Epicureanism, or even Buddhism, are dominant on the planet is, I believe, a really, really important clue no. 5 to what our brains are really after.
Part II to follow.
Continuing from the last post to the subject nearest to my heart: science
And I'll start out by saying this will rankle many of my science friends, and in fact it would have rankled me some years ago. My point is that even science needs to find a way to move beyond its historical boundaries. At least if it's going to address the big issues coming in the 21st century - issues that ultimately, science itself will create. But before you start to worry, science people: this is not about the gooey-headed notion, often repeated, that science can't teach us about feelings, or morality, or the meaning of life. In fact I believe just the opposite - science has an enormous
amount to teach us about these issues. I'd even go so far to say that what science has to say here may one day be the only thing that saves us from ourselves. That is, if we find the intellectual and emotional courage to absorb those lessons. Usually we don't do that kind of courage well, but in fairness, it's a very hard thing for our naturally selected brains to do. OK, that
issue is also for a later posting.
At this point I should probably explain why - as much as I love art and music - I think science is the greatest thing the human mind puts out. Yes, science weaves breathtakingly beautifully narratives about nature - that's easy to love. But science is also the only human enterprise courageous enough to thrive on not knowing
. It's the courage of curiosity
that makes science both deeply humble and incredibly bold. It's why the story of science is the triumph of honest, transparent reason over naive intuition and wishful thinking. Again, something that is really, really hard for brains to do. Even when individual scientists may not be, science as a whole is open, dynamic, adaptable, and sure as hell never starts a meaningful line of inquiry with "Newton's sacred Principia
But where I believe science, at least as it currently practiced and understood, hits a wall is in dealing with us
. Us, as in the originators of science itself. It is, after all, a human activity whose outputs are the product of human minds. And it depends on finite, objective human language to formulate and communicate its content. That arrangement has worked wonders, of course, and spectacularly so since the Scientific Revolution of the 17th century. We can now sequence the human genome for $1000, and even have satellites that correct for the curvature of space-time just to help us find our friends at the nearest pizza place. And did I mention the robots on Mars? They're actually not quite as 'smart' as the iPhone4
But even one of the founding figures of the revolution, Renee Descartes, knew there was a problem at the core of the whole thing. A real hard problem
, as it's now sometimes formally called. How could any objective language description of the world, Descartes asked, possible account for our subjective experience of consciousness? The job of science is to account for observed phenomena, and there ain't nothing more observable than the fact of our own subjective experience. Strictly speaking, it's the only thing we ever observe. Except that subjective experience is not even a 'thing' - and if you think it is, just try describing it to a piece of computer software. And the more you try to imagine how something that is not even a describable 'thing' could even in principle show up as a 'thing' in any scientific language description, the more frustrating it gets.
It's a hotly disputed question today, and learned opinion is all over the map. Some, like Daniel Dennett
, claim subjective experience is just a 'user illusion' of self-referential information processing. Others like David Chalmers
think subjectivity could be a sort of fundamental property of matter, like, say an electron's spin and charge. Descartes himself thought subjective experience really was a different kind of 'thing' that's somehow attached to the normal 'things' in the world via the pineal gland in the brain. (OK, let's give Descartes a break here - it was the 17th century, folks.) Getting into the weeds of these and many other opinions worth mentioning will be several future postings, and I certainly have my own two cents to put in. The only point I want to make here, though, is that science and philosophy are looong
way from any kind of consensus. In particular we really have no bloody clue about when and why another entity is subjectively conscious. So far, science is not really helping us, and I think there are structural reasons for that. More future postings to come.
The thing for now is, though, we are not
that far from being confronted with exactly this question in everyday life. OK, we may never have a cranky hologram-doctor who sings opera like in Star Trek: Voyager
. Or an empathic Bicentennial Man
android who makes wood carvings and falls in love. But artificial systems are clearly getting better at simulating human-like behavior. In limited contexts, software agents have already passed the Turing Test
. Given that you and I only think each other is conscious only through our behavior, how many more decades will it be until our adapted empathy mechanisms cringe at the thought of turning off our computers at night? Sure, it's all still science fiction stuff. But it's also unavoidably what this century will have to deal with. And if that still seem too futuristic, then think about the recent findings in animal intelligence. Never mind great apes that we share 98% of our DNA with anyway. Watch some videos of parrots
and then tell me you don't see someone seriously at home. If you're a vegetarian: bless your intentions, but for perspective, you may want to watch a little plant intelligence in action
. Now tell me there's no cause for all of us
to wonder if we should look at our food sources differently. The problem of consciousness is moving into prime-time a lot faster than we're ready to deal with.
Other conceptual issues with Iron Age science that have to do with us
are different objective problems of self-reference. Here's a bullet point version of some controversial claims I'm making:
- I'm a big believer that quantum mechanics is a much bigger deal than is generally appreciated. Feynman of course famously said that nobody understands quantum mechanics. Maybe he was more right than he realized. Personally, I'm not bothered by randomness or even entanglement - and that somehow things don't 'exist' until they're measured. I'm cool with all that for reasons that, yup, will be in future postings. What really bugs me is: what the hell is a measurement? Yes, it's a question as old as quantum theory itself. I just think we've made zero progress on it. Well, maybe not zero - there are some modern theories which keep Schroedinger's equation valid forever with no collapse. Many-worlds and decoherence are solid, plausible ideas, I think. My problem with those versions, though, is that they imply that the universe as a whole is ultimately linear and deterministic. Ultimately that may turn out to be the case, but a) there seems to be experimental hints that quantum randomness is real and not just appearances, and b) more importantly (to me), I have other philosophical reasons (read: prejudices ;-) for thinking otherwise. In fact, I think the schizophrenic structure of quantum mechanics (nice linear wave function until suddenly - oops - it ain't anymore) is somehow trying to tell us something about us. I have no clue what that the secret message is, and I'm not yet willing to believe in a connection between consciousness and quantum mechanics. I also worry that Wheeler's participatory universe is more poetry than science. On the other hand, hell, maybe it doesn't go far enough. In any case, I do believe that if we really understood quantum mechanics, it would completely, utterly, totally reorder the way we look at science, ourselves and the universe. Just sayin'.
- Another self-reference problem I have is kind of Goedelian: Iron Age science imagines 'laws of nature out there' that account for everything. In as much as human minds 'discover' those laws, those same laws have to account for their own discovery by humans. So a complete Theory of Everything has to have the information content to contain itself among everything else it's accounting for. From an information-theoretic standpoint that may not work out too well, folks, unless the theory has infinite algorithmic complexity. Of course in that case, it's not discoverable anyway. None of that needs to be a strict logical paradox, but at the least it does make a conceptual mess. Again, just sayin'.
- On the subject of conceptual messes: the more we learn about our brains, the more we learn how many and how deep our cognitive biases are. We can label our thinking 'logical' and 'objective' all day long if we want. Truth is, our brains keep us alive by cherry-picking the data it takes in from the world (and from ourselves). We then generate selective interpretations of the selected data for all kinds of weird, opaque 'reasons' of convoluted neural circuitry that would humble us to our bones if we knew how arbitrary the whole thing is. None of this is terribly new. But think of the irony in the context of science. Science is, again, a product of the human mind. So science itself is teaching us not to trust science too much. That's pretty cool and exactly why I love science. But it also leaves me with an odd feeling that if I really took that message to heart, I would wind up with a totally different view of the whole thing.
It's in our nature to believe stuff; we just can't help ourselves. As science writer Michael Shermer likes to put it, we are all 'belief engines'
- and not just about religion, UFOs and the supernatural, but also science, politics, culture and everything else that makes up our mental universes. But what's so surprising to me - given how hungry our neural circuits always are for novelty
- is how static and conserved our beliefs actually are. And here I mean all of humanity for the last 2.5 thousand years.
It seems just short of astonishing that even in the 21st century, essentially all of the world's belief traditions come from a single time in history - the Axial Age
, from about 800-200 BC. That's roughly the Middle Iron Age for most of Eurasia and North Africa. That's not only a while back, but also a pretty short time span - roughly between Homer and Hannibal. Or a single Chinese dynasty (Zhou). That may sound like overblown hyperbole - something like Alfred North Whitehead's oft-quoted claim that all of Western philosophy is a footnote to Plato. But when you go down the list of what came from the Axial Age
, the basic foundations for how we see the world today are essentially all there.
And it's not just that all our religion, spirituality, and moral belief in the Golden Rule originated here. It's also all the pieces we think of as belonging to secular modernity - humanism, rationality, materialism, even democracy and market economies. The Renaissance was in fact, very aptly named - it was rebirth, not new discovery. It's the same with the Enlightenment and the Scientific Revolution, at least when you're talking about the fundamental precepts. It's not that enormous progress hasn't been made of course; obviously we're no longer using sundials and bleeding sick people. And by the way, we send robots to Mars. But you could also make the case that Democritus, Epicurus and friends might smile today at a lecture on string theory and rightly say "You didn't build that". Our current scientific conception of ultimate reality is, as it was for them, tiny units of matter obeying strict mathematical rules written, somehow, by 'nature'.
That's not only surprising, but I think a big problem that will only get more pressing over time. All of our belief traditions - including even, yes, the scientific ones - are overdue for a serious makeover. In short, it's really time for us to move beyond the Iron Age. Here's just the roughest outline of why I think so.
On religion, my basic points have been said as well or better elsewhere. If I just list religious war, denial of science, misogyny and sexual abuse scandals, and say I don't think those would really be the ideal cultural contributions to carry into the future, I think you know what I mean. It's not that any religion explicitly supports any of these, of course, but honestly, they're pretty much an unavoidable side effect when real-life, all-too-human people take ancient Iron Age texts too literally. Unless you're a fundamentalist/orthodox believer, I assume you agree with the point already. And if you are, then almost by definition there isn't much I can write here that will persuade you. Of course if you're an atheist, you're just shaking your head at the whole thing anyway.
I'll also only touch briefly here on Buddhism, the fourth largest religious/spiritual segment after Hinduism. Forget for the moment, all the legacy stuff from Hinduism (e.g., reincarnation, Karma, etc) and just focus on its basic philosophical insights. Technically, they're called the Four Great Truths, part of which is the Eightfold Path, of which my layman's summary is: we suffer because we cling to stuff. (Or rather, our illusions of stuff) The way to stop clinging is to live a good, moral life, practice mindfulness, and meditate. Everything else is, to me at least, a lot of bells and whistles. Sam Harris has a great article
on this point that the Buddha himself might have largely agreed with. Even reduced to that, though, Buddhism is still a system of 'revealed truth' - i.e. it just makes various claims and then passes those on as faithfully and conservatively as possible. Buddhism of course has several different branches, but these are all add-ons; none of them contradict the basic doctrines themselves. It's all the more ironic that the Buddha explicitly admonished his followers to question all of his teachings, when in fact the tradition has no mechanism for doing so. Query a Buddhist about specific points in their doctrine, and the answer usually starts with "The Sutras say that..." or "Master So-And-So teaches that..." In another posting I'll get into where I think meditative traditions like Buddhism can do better on this point. Specifically, where I think some of the basic doctrines can and should be adapted.
So much for spiritual metaphysics, at least for now. The very delightful author Karen Armstrong makes the point
that many big sages of the Axial Age - like Parshva, the Buddha, Zoroaster, Confucius and Socrates - were actually more interested in how to live a moral life than in metaphysics anyway. In a way, maybe the Golden Rule was the greatest innovation of the Axial Age. If we could keep only one thing from the age, my vote would be for that. It sure beats the prevailing eye-for-an-eye thing from the Bronze Age. But here's where I think Iron Age moral thinking will get us into trouble; and in fact, where it already does. First, a warning: I'm going to write something incredibly controversial here, and compound it by being too brief here to defend it
adequately. But here goes: We're taught throughout our lives to think in terms of individual responsibility. We're the captains of our soul, masters of our destiny. We can choose, say, to go with God or against him; make good Karma or bad; meditate or not. It's all on us. We're free to choose. If you're among the overwhelming majority who are convinced we do, in fact, have something we can meaningfully call free will, there's not much I can write in such a format to convince you otherwise. (Though I would invite you at some point to nevertheless have a look at Sam Harris' talk on the subject.) I will claim here, though, that someday, maybe in this century, whether we like it or not, 'free-willers' will be in the minority. It's not that the philosophical arguments will become more forceful - at least to me they are as clear as ever, anyway. But the neuroscience of the mind will become so ubiquitous in its accounts, so pervasive and encompassing, that the arguments will take on a visceral meaning even in everyday life. It's inevitable - whatever room you think is left for arguing the case for free will, it is shrinking just as fast as neuroscience makes progress. And t
hat's when the trouble will begin; we have yet to adapt our system of laws, social interactions or psychology to such a seismic shift in the way we look and treat each other and ourselves. But we will have to. Again, that's a controversial claim - even many neuroscientists would dispute it. But then again, many 19th century biologists also disputed the theory of evolution. Many physicists including Einstein disputed quantum mechanics. Ancient habits of thought die hard, and the belief in free will holds on for dear life like nothing else in the human mind. I think the reason we cling to the idea so resolutely, and are willing to accept so many cognitive dissonances within us to hold on to it, is that we think we need it to survive. The idea that we don't have any such thing as free will is, I think, literally terrifying to most. It seems we would give up everything about us if we give up on free will. Life would become a meaningless pit of
despair, with no reason to do anything, no reason to even live at all. Let me be the first to say I feel your pain; I know what you mean. I've been there. But let me also give hope: if absorbed properly, the realization that free will - like Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny - is just figment of your imagination, is actually one of the most liberating and healing perspectives possible. Finally, it may sound paradoxical, but I think we would actually have a better society for it. More on that in future posts.
Next topic: getting science itself out of the Iron Age.