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.