To Be Human, To Be Animal

It is obvious that there are a number of fundamental differences between humans and  other animals on this planet. Humans have a language whose complexity goes far beyond ways in which animals communicate. We have writing. We use very sophisticated tools. We live in large groups made out of individuals with very different personalities.

It fills me with wonder to contemplate how it came to be that humans exist. It just feels so improbable that we came to be at all. It is so wonderful that we are made in a way which allows us to appreciate beauty and to transcend selfish desire.

However we also need to remind ourselves that we are, for the largest part, animals and beings with aspirations beyond animal desires only to a small degree.

If you ask people what is most important in their life, many will answer that it is family. The concept of family springs from nature; elephants, dolphins, wolves, they all have family just as we do.

If you we think about what drives many of us, it is desire to accumulate power; may it be in the form of money, respect from others, or control over those close to us. This quest for power is yet again of Nature; chimpanzees seek it, wolves seek it, even chicken seek it.

If we ask ourselves how many of us are truly driven by factors which originate from the part of our mind which is not equal to anything else found in Nature, I think we will find that they are few.

And this is very understandable. Most parts of our brain are shared with all mammals. What drives a goat to want to procreate? Chances are similar brain structures are involved in this than are used by Nature to guide our behaviour. And there is nothing wrong with that! We (as of yet) cannot change what we are. We cannot re-engineer our brains and take out all the lowly animal parts – and even if we could, after we would have done this, we would not be ourselves anymore.

What we must do, though, is to acknowledge what we are. We cannot close our eyes to the fact that there is a mountain of instinct within us with only a small temple of reflective self upon it.

If we do not acknowledge this, our animal self will, without our knowledge, always be the driving force of our behaviour, most likely without us even noticing. But if we do acknowledge it, we gain the opportunity to truly love ourselves, encompassing all aspects which make us who we are; and we also gain the opportunity to gently guide ourselves towards more nobler goals.

Imagine you are a young man and you and your friends are having a talk about women. You talk about the various aesthetic features of the female gender you have witnessed in women you know or don’t know. One of your friends is boasting with how many women he has slept just this year. Maybe you feel inadequate, since maybe you weren’t nearly as successful as your friend in that respect. If you have understanding of yourself, you will see that your feelings spring from your animal mind; it is a reflection of Nature’s good intention to assure that your genes are passed to the next generation; ideally in a vehicle which will provide for their best possible fitness (those features of the female gender that make you and your friends rave but which would leave any extraterrestrial creature surely unimpressed). Don’t judge yourself and don’t judge your friends; this is just the way you are made. Just don’t fool yourself that you are engaged in a noble and spiritually worthwhile quest. If you are looking for true meaning in your life, then think about starting to look somewhere else.

There are many facets to our animal nature; starting with the very obvious, such as our desire to breathe and the constant beating of our heart, and ending with the devious, where our base desires for power of procreation disguise themselves as noble goals. Unfortunately our current culture is very un-reflective of how our animal selves influence our behaviour; in fact, it is something which is often seen as something good rather than bad; especially if you are looking at commercials. Do commercials for perfume and deodorant appeal to our innate ability to appreciate the complex wonders of the world, or our base animal desire to be as attractive as possible to potential mates?  Moreover, our current culture it is taboo to even consider some aspects of how our nature influences who we are; for instance the question of whether our gender may influence our actions (with some exceptions, it’s okay to say young men are more likely to be criminals and kill themselves in stupid ways, both of which are undoubtedly statistically evident).

Thus I think now more than ever it is important to remind ourselves what we are and to acknowledge what is the strongest force in our being; to embrace ourselves as the wonder we are while also enabling ourselves to understand the limitations of ourselves; to become the best version of who we can be with what has been given to us.

Image credit: Santa3

The Survival of Humankind: Should We Be Working Towards It?

Given that there does not appear to be a way open to us to determine what the purpose of life is, and therefore no way to know what is ultimately good and bad, it is only natural that there is some disagreement among us what it means to live a virtuous life.

However, there seem to be a few obvious choices for what we could all (or almost all) agree on as being good. One of these is the survival of humankind. Only this survival will put us into a position to one day, hopefully, discover and understand deeper truths about our universe.

Now, mind you, I am of the opinion that humankind is a bit overrated; it seems we are capable of narcissism not only as individuals but as a species as well. However, notwithstanding that, I still believe that it is worthwhile to attempt to save humankind; if only to see where the future will lead us.

Although the survival of humankind seems like such an obvious goal to pursue, we are doing a very poor job ensuring its accomplishment. The root cause of this is that the survival of humankind is a global and intellectually obvious goal but our thinking often tends to be tribal and driven by base emotions. This is understandable since that is the way Nature made us but it is not excusable since we have the capacity to be better than that.

Let us begin with a very obvious threat to the survival of humankind: nuclear weapons. The arsenals of intercontinental rockets and other weapons that the nuclear powers have assembled, around 10,000 by the last count, is more than sufficient to devastate our planet and destroy the foundation for our survival. There is absolutely no current global reason that we must possess any nuclear weapons; the reasons are all local; assuring the superiority or balance of power between individual nations and groups of nations.

Another potential calamity which might end our comfortable life is the explosion of a super-volcano or the impact of a large asteroid. Thankfully the probability of these events is not very high; but the stakes involved are high indeed. If you had 10 million dollars, would you invest them in a place where there was a 1 in 10,000 chance that all your money would be lost? The resources we allocate to predict these events and to build up resilience in case they occur are minuscule; there are certainly far, far smaller than the resources allocated to building BMWs. Lets imagine we would allocate five percent of our economic output to try to help us survive these events; I think we would be able to achieve tremendous progress very quickly.

A final threat for our survival is that our use and transformation of land and the waste we release into the environment (including waste in gaseous form) leads to permanent damage to the planet we depend on for our survival. One prominent idea to model this threat is the idea of planetary boundaries (original research from 2009; update from 2015). The theory is that in various dimensions (such as climate change, biodiversity, land use, etc) there is a safe level of human interference which will assure the continuation of nature on planet Earth as we know it. Crossing the boundary set by this safe level puts us and our planet in danger of being permanently harmed. The scientists involved in the creation of this model have defined nine boundaries. As of 2015 they state that four of the boundaries have been crossed. I think Nature is very resilient and has survived greater threats than humankind; however, we require Nature to be in a very specific state which enables our survival. We do not fully understand what enables this state. I think there is very little reason not to try to limit our harmful effects on the environment.

However, while it will come at little costs to us to abandon nuclear weapons or to prepare for catastrophic one-time events, to assure the health of our environment will probably require great efforts and sacrifices. We already have access to many technologies which can be used to limit our harmful effects on the planet, such as solar power and recycling. However, implementing these across the globe will require tremendous economic effort. Moreover, our current technology limits our ability to reduce the negative impact each of us has. For every human that lives, we require a certain amount of farmland, fresh water, energy and space. To life on this planet sustainability we might have to consider strategies to limit population growth to levels in alignment with our current technological abilities.

The fear that the world will end in a catastrophic event is deeply rooted within us, and is reflected in ancient religious texts and contemporary scientific studies alike. To predict the future is always a tricky proposition and we can never know for sure what will happen. Experience often shows that, more often than not, our worst fears are not realised and that the world goes on. However, how big of a bet do we want to make that we will be fine, that humankind will survive and that unlikely (super-volcano) or likely (collapse of our biosphere) events will not occur? I personally vote for as small a bet as possible. I couldn’t think of a single, grander goal than working on the survival of humankind; I think we should put our wealth and ability towards this goal, no matter the costs.

I think the key reason why we don’t work towards this goal with sensible intensity is that we do not have strong global institutions and powerful global political organisations which could orchestrate these efforts. Political leaders with real power are given this power from the people of nations; and thus they focus on the welfare of nations rather than the welfare of humankind. Without a change to our political systems, we are poorly equipped to raise to global challenges.

To make matters worse, if we like it or not, the United States of America are the country people around the world look for guidance on solving global problems. Unfortunately, recent years have shown that this exceptional nation is not interested in or willing to work towards creating a better future for all of humankind; instead American people seem to be focussed on their self-interest, and first of all, the four letter word in importance only second to God in politics: jobs. I hope that not only American people but people around the world come to realise that there are things more important than ourselves and those we share a language and culture with; that we will all be more well off if we truely work together on worthwhile goals.

Picture Credit: Theo_Q

Habit Tracking August: A Complete Failure

I have previously posted about a new system I have adopted for tracking my habits. In the month of July, I think I did reasonably well in sticking to the habits I have set out to adopt. My system is designed to make it easy to enter data (simply use a marker pen) and to provide an immediate visual overview of how well things are going.

For July, it is easy to see that there is a lot more green than there is red or yellow. I didn’t do perfectly but I managed to exercise, mediate and learn quite regularly as can be seen in the below image.

Alas in the last month, things seemed to have gone horribly wrong:

  • I only managed to exercise four times in the entire month
  • I didn’t manage to wake up at my desired time (5:30 am) even once
  • I only meditated five times and not at all in the second half of the months
  • I didn’t follow through with my learning (a small touch typing exercise) in the last 1.5 weeks of the months.

I think the success in sticking to my habits is a good reflection of how well I felt in the past month. I was struggling with a cold for most of the month and for the past week my wife and I went to New Zealand for business travel which complicated realising my habits.

I think it is very interesting that my ability to stick to habits correlates with my well-being. I wonder what is the cause and effect relationship here; I would assume that it would go both ways; that I am better at sticking to my habits when I am feeling well but also that sticking to the particular habits I choose makes me feel better.

I think I especially need to find a better way for struggling with a cold; maybe do some very light exercise rather than none at all. But I am also conscious that, when feeling unwell, one of the best things to do is to rest and not to stress out about all the things we ought to do.

Interestingly I think I also gained some weight in the past month. I weighed myself at the gym of the hotel were we were staying and I weighed 76 kg, which is I think a few kilograms more than I usually weigh. I am thinking if I should start tracking my weight as well as an additional metric to track how well I am doing overall.

Image credit: The Digital Artist

Corruption: How Robert Moses Turned from Idealist to ‘Power Broker’

I think it is usually better to focus on positive things, on how good things could be, instead of how bad they are or how bad they may turn out. But, notwithstanding this preference, I also think it is necessary to discuss a few key properties of nature and human nature, which are of potential great detriment to our common good.

One such property is the tendency of any social system to develop corrupt elements. If we think of corruption, the first thing we tend to think about is money. A politician getting paid to cast a certain vote; a policeman getting paid for looking the other way. But money is only a vehicle – a very important one in our current world, but a vehicle nonetheless. What corruption is really about is power. It is the use of power for the increase of power of one individual or a select, small group of individuals rather than using power to foster the common good.

I am currently reading the book The Power Broker by Robert Caro. It is a biography of Robert Moses who shaped New York with the construction of parks, roads and bridges. Robert Moses famously did not abuse his power to make himself a rich man. But corrupt he was nonetheless. He built a network of political influence which enabled him to realise public work projects in alignment with his vision about how the city and state of New York should be. The resulting concentration of power lead to many voices not being heard when it was decided where bridges, tunnels, parks and roads should be build. This undermines the core of democracy; which is all about the messy process to find the solution which provides the best compromise for all parties affected by a decision.

However, there is another, interesting side to the story of Robert Moses, and that is how he got where he ended up. Robert Moses started his career in public service as a dedicated idealist; who would not compromise his honour or his dedication to public service to any outside influence. His resistance to follow the ‘way things were’ came with great personal costs to him. Later in his life, he learned the trade of how power needs to be orchestrated to ‘get things done’. He failed at being an idealist; he excelled at being a master manipulator. What resulted was a twisted creature; crushed between his desire to realise public work projects for the public good, and the necessities of political realities.

I think this teaches a very important lesson about corruption. Corruption prospers in a corrupt environment. If Robert Moses would have entered public service in a different city, a different country, where public discourse and rational considerations have a stronger influence on the actions of government, he might have been enabled to put his genius to work for the public good. He might have learned to listen to the voices of the disadvantaged but plenty rather than the voices of the powerful but few.

Now what is one to do when confronted with a corrupt environment, an environment where power feeds upon itself rather than being shared for public good? This is a question for which I am thus far not able to provide a reasonable answer to. Robert Moses chose to adapt to the system, work within its rules to realise his dreams. In the process, he lost sight of what these dreams initially were; in result, he sowed more bad than good.

Michael Gorbachev, the last leader of the USSR, was confronted with a similar problem than Robert Moses. He started an idealist but was faced with an extremely corrupt economical and political system. However, in contrast to Moses, Gorbachev never lost sight of his ideals; of his desire to bring goodness to the people rather than himself. In the end, I think he brought more good into the world than bad – though plenty of Russian nationalist won’t share this sentiment, of course.

Interestingly, both Gorbachev and Moses were considered to be part of the ‘reformers’ within a corrupt system at the beginning of their careers. In the USSR, more and more politicians came to realise that things just could not go on as they used to; they were ready to accept change. Likewise in New York, there was an influential group of public spirited individuals who were very passionate about rooting out corruption in the city government. Neither Gorbachev nor Moses had to walk their way alone. But both betrayed their supporters: Gorbachev by being more liberal and innovative than he ought to be and Moses by betraying the ideals everyone thought he stood for.

I think it takes a truly exceptional individual to play by the rules of a system in order to change the system from the inside. Social systems exists because they manage to induce certain ways of thinking into a group of individuals; you might just be one of them. Thus, I think it is generally best to try to stay away from those systems which are corrupt. Only if you are certain you have an exceptionally strong mind and clear sight of your goals, should you attempt to change a system from within. Otherwise, keep yourself pure and stick to your ideals in every action; try to find those which are of one mind with you; there will always be plenty.

What Makes Me Happy?

I am currently reading the book ‘Happiness’ by Matthieu Ricard and a small exercise is presented at the end of the first chapter. The exercise is to think about what gives us pleasure and happiness. This question got me contemplating for quite a while. It appears I am not thinking very often about whether I am happy or not, let alone the causes of my happiness. I usually live with the assumption that my life is quite a happy one, unless there is something specific happening that upsets me.

However contemplating this question might not be the worst of ideas, since, as Ricard argues, being happy and content is a skill that can be learned like anything else and understanding what makes us happy seems like a very important step in getting better at happiness. Some of the things that I could come up with that make me happy are the following:

  • My wife: how I can bring good things into her life, and how she brings good things into mine, such as a wonderful smile when I am coming home from work.
  • Work and mastery: being engaged in a task in a field, software development, that interests and challenges me.
  • Beauty: encountering beauty in the natural world or of the mind.
  • Being helpful: bringing goodness into other’s lives.
  • Creativity: the ability to think and create.

I think what also contributes to my happiness is the absence of certain things:

  • Anger: at someone or something I think has wronged me.
  • Jealousy: thinking that someone has something I deserve more than they do.
  • Feeling of being treated unfairly: thinking that someone has taken advantage of me, not paid me back in kind.
  • Tiredness: feeling of having no energy to do something.
  • Sickness: feeling of not being able to do something because I have a sickness or afraid of catching one.

Thankfully I do not encounter these feelings all that often; but if I do, they certainly impact my level of happiness. Ricard calls these ‘mental toxins’.

A subquestion of the question posed is whether the things that bring us happiness could easily be taken from us. I think that is probably the case with what I have identified as contributing to my happiness. However I am not so sure if that should worry me.

I think some things, they make us happy, but they can also be taken away from us; but the happiness they bring outweigh the dangers of loosing them. I think it is thus still wise to embrace them – and ready ourselves for the possibility of loss.

Ultimately, of course, it is most important to find a deep, lasting and unassailable happiness. This I think can be achieved by finding a deeper purpose that provides us with a foundation for happiness. I think that I am still in the process of identifying this purpose for myself; sometimes I feel like that I have found it; and sometimes it seems to slip away from me.

I think it is very easy to live our modern day lives and loose sight of the question of the deeper meaning of existence. We are so busy with other things; so occupied with readily available distractions; and I am susceptible to this admittedly.

I feel like that my deeper purpose is to bring good into this world; to give back some of the blessing of the miracle of my existence. However, I am still unsure how I should go about this and also about what exactly good entails.

Thus I think I still have a long way to go on a road to deep and unassailable happiness. The question that Ricard poses is I think a very good one. I believe thinking about it has been valuable for me and I will try to make sure that I will keep it in my mind and in the process hopefully get better at happiness.

Picture credit: kikatani

Why Does Anything Exist

I’ve recently completed the book Why Does the World Exist?: An Existential Detective Story by Jim Holt. It was quite an entertaining read but also quite unsatisfactory, since I feel it didn’t even come close to giving an answer to the question posed. At most, it provided some interesting examples of philosophical gymnastics such as discussions around if existence might be created by a rule that proves itself.

I think that one of the ways in which the discussions in Why Does the World Exist? were unproductive is that they were looking for a cause of known existence. But it is unclear how cause and effect work, if there is no time. Physics seems to indicate that, before the Big Bang, there was no time; so I think assuming we need to search for a cause might be a fruitless endeavour.

More recently, I came across the article Is There a God? Stephen Hawking Gives the Definitive Answer to the Eternal Question on the popular blog Brain Pickings. In here, I found a few quotes from Stephen Hawking which I find are potentially more enlightening ways to explore the question why anything exists at all:

I think the universe was spontaneously created out of nothing, according to the laws of science.

The moment something was created from nothing would be the Big Bang. An explosion of enormous energy.

The great mystery at the heart of the Big Bang is to explain how an entire, fantastically enormous universe of space and energy can materialise out of nothing. The secret lies in one of the strangest facts about our cosmos. The laws of physics demand the existence of something called "negative energy".

When the Big Bang produced a massive amount of positive energy, it simultaneously produced the same amount of negative energy. In this way, the positive and the negative add up to zero, always. It’s another law of nature.

So where is all this negative energy today? […]: it’s in space. This may sound odd, but according to the laws of nature concerning gravity and motion — laws that are among the oldest in science — space itself is a vast store of negative energy. Enough to ensure that everything adds up to zero.

I like to think of this using a simple equation from Why Does the World Exist:

+1 + -1 = 0

This equation shows that we can create two ‘somethings’ out of nothing, as long as the two somethings balance each other out. One might of course still question: but where did the laws originate from that enable such a creation, specifically the laws of nature. As mentioned above, I think this might be the wrong question to ponder, since there can be no cause and effect without time, and we probably lack understanding (and abilities of imagination) to ponder a state of existence without time.

Picture Credit: geralt

Memory and Character

I have long been interested in finding ways to improve my memory. I think I generally have quite a poor memory, especially for names, numbers and other ‘details’. Our current technologies are not exactly helping as is discussed in the aptly titled “World Without Mind: The Existential Threat of Big Tech” by Franklin Foer. I have always had a feeling that this is undesirable.

If there is more information which we can immediately draw upon when working on something, I think it should allow us to be more effective at whatever we put our mind towards. For instance, when writing, we can use information we have memorised to enrich our prose with facts, figures and names.

However, I recently came across the article Secrets of a Mind-Gamer which gives another dimension to the benefits of memory; one which is very important indeed. This quote comes from an article which portrays memory artists – men and women able to memorise vast amounts of seemingly random information. It is further discussed in the article that the art of memorising originates from antique times and that generally the ability to memorise was appreciated more in times past. The following quote from the article illustrates this:

Today we have books, photographs, computers and an entire superstructure of external devices to help us store our memories outside our brains, but it wasn’t so long ago that culture depended on individual memories. A trained memory was not just a handy tool but also a fundamental facet of any worldly mind. It was considered a form of character-building, a way of developing the cardinal virtue of prudence and, by extension, ethics. Only through memorizing, the thinking went, could ideas be incorporated into your psyche and their values absorbed.

What really struck me here was the idea that the ability to memorise can be understood as a way to build character. This was never really something that I have thought about but I think it makes some degree of sense. Our character is undoubtedly shaped by our genes and what has happened to us; but the latter here is modulated by how we perceive what has happened to us. We can attenuate some experiences and emphasise others; with the hope that those we emphasise will leave a more lasting impression on our character.

I always had a strict aversion against rote-learning. In school, we had to learn poems by heart and I found this a particularity dull exercise. However, I’ve come to the realisation that I might have been mistaken. Of course, memorising something without reflection and understanding is not very useful (apart from training our general cognitive abilities). But if what we memorise what we can comprehend, then it surely should provide some additional use for us; especially if it is content which helps us to become better, stronger and more enlightened beings.

Picture credit: Comfreak