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

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

Consciousness: What is all the Fuss About?

Today I listened to a podcast from the show Waking up with Sam Harris. The topic of the podcast was consciousness and the self the guest was a Anil K. Seth. I haven’t finished the podcast yet (it is over three hours long) but even in the beginning I couldn’t stop wondering why it would be necessary to make such a big deal about the concept of consciousness.

Sam Harris said that consciousness was the most important thing in the universe since everything we perceive we perceive through the lens of consciousness. I think that is an odd way of thinking about it. Sure, for us individually, that is true; but objectively it is most likely well of the mark. The universe is such a gigantic place, filled with wonders we know of, and even more of whom we don’t. That we have any importance at all, apart from being a small piece in something large and beautiful, seems very unlikely to me. In effect, our consciousness also does’t matter much, since we don’t matter much.

I do agree that there is a need for us to find a source of spiritual wealth; to have something we believe in which is above and beyond cold, hard natural laws. However, I think it is misguided to search for this in our consciousness; to see something magical in it with significant spiritual value. I think there is a very easy explanation for the existence of consciousness; that it is something which enabled the long line of our ancestors to find better solutions to the problems the environment presented them. In all likelihood, it exists in all our relatives in the animal kingdom in a modified form; just as our brains, legs and heart.

Philosophers often make a big deal about that we would never be able to ‘know’ what it was to be like a pig, for instance. But I think we do know. Since our brain in many ways is very similar to a pig’s brain it is very likely we have the same feelings and insights. We know when a pig is afraid, we know when a pig is joyous; and we know so only because the pig is a mirror of ourselves in so many ways.

Consciousness is simply a model of the world; an abstraction. Like any abstraction it is more than the physical world but it is grounded in it. It is a wonder beyond comprehension that nature could result in such a mechanism and that our brains are capable of supporting this model. It is however undoubtedly very insufficient for the tasks we set it towards in our modern world (like trying to define consciousness); it was simply not designed for this.

We can marvel at the existence of our consciousness but we must also acknowledge that there is nothing special about it; even that it is lacking in many ways. Thus exploring our consciousness is not a path which leads to truth. Our collective insights, enabled and advanced by technology and robust methodologies, are far more valuable and a better guide for us to build a better self and a better life.

Image Credit: johnhain

Anger

We all know how it feels to be angry. We can be angry in the small, maybe about something we forgot and for which only we ourselves are to blame. We can be angry in the big, as a people who feel that others are taking advantage of us.

It is unfortunately true that to be human, means to be angry. Anger seems to be one of the emotions which emerge with higher intelligence. It is hard to imagine a mouse or lizard being angry; but a pig, parrot, dolphin or ape, they all make the appearance as if they know very well how to be angry.

It often feels as if anger brings about only bad for us and others. Many religions prescribe that we should control and overcome anger, especially Buddhism and Christianity. Other emotions such as compassion or forgiveness, in contrast, are portrayed as something we should seek and nourish within ourselves.

And it is true that anger is a dangerous emotion. Anger can lead to violence and violence rarely brings about good. However, to say that anger only brings about bad goes too far. Anger is the key emotion which drives us to fight injustice, and there is always injustice.

Anger should not be suppressed; instead anger should be seen as an energy source. If we feel anger, we can acknowledge it, we can try to understand its root and use its emotional power to propel us towards more sophisticated emotions and bring about positive change.

I tend to get angry when I feel that I am taken advantage of. I also tend to get angry when I feel that my life is constrained in a way which is not good for me. Thinking about it, this anger is more often than not unjustified. But realising that my anger was misguided often brightens and empowers feelings of love and gratitude.

I am also angry about the state of the world. That we have so much, yet use it so poorly. We don’t use our economic and technological power to make our planet better; we use it to make it worse. We don’t use it to make people happier; we use it to make them more miserable and stressed. Will being angry about this change anything? Most certainly not. But this anger is fuel for my thoughts and actions; some of which will maybe make a very small difference to bring about positive change.

Anger is like a raw ingredient out of which we can fashion our emotional world. By itself it is bitter and spoils our lives; but used with proper care it can enrich our lives and others.

Image credit: Liberty Leading the People

Mind, Body and Soul

When we think of the mind, we often first think about our thoughts, feelings, beliefs and decisions. When our mind wanders, our thoughts jump from one topic to another. When we change our mind, we have decided to think of something in a different way than we used to or decided to do things in a different way.

The mind is usually seen as being not of the body and to be a different concept than the soul. Our body is the physical machine which keeps us alive; our organs, bones, blood vessels. This body, specifically our brain, enables our mind. Our mind, in turn, enables our soul; the soul which I define as the part of us which is of spiritual value, whereby spiritual denotes the dimension in which higher level thinking and our most pure and wholesome emotions fuse.

Rather than seeing mind, body and soul as separate things, we should see them as interwoven. Without our body, there can be no mind; without our mind, there can be no soul. (I am not aware of any evidence that we possess something like a soul disconnected from our body and it altogether seems to make little sense; so much of what we are, what we feel, what we think is deeply rooted within our brain, and measurably so; so how should a version of us exist without our brain?)

Notwithstanding this hierarchy, from body to mind to soul, we shouldn’t think of the body as being inferior to the mind, and the mind being inferior to the soul. Each is a wonder on its own, and in combination they are a wonder beyond comprehension.

It should be no secret to any of us that our mind is a big mess. Our thoughts, emotions, decisions and believes are not static, clearly structured or well organised. They are fluid and difficult to formalise. Thus we often ‘cannot make up our mind’. To complicate matters, we are designed to feel the illusion of control over our mind. We feel like we are making conscious decisions using thoughtful considerations; when in reality most of our decisions are made in the ‘subconscious’, a mysterious space which bridges our body and mind.

The subconscious may encompass the vast majority of our brain activity. It controls our body to keep us alive; by keeping the heart beating, filling our lungs with air, and by controlling a million different other things happening in our body. It also has been theorised that it is in the subconscious where our greatest capacity for creativity and many other higher functions of our brain lies.

As with many things in the biological and even more so in the psychological world there are no clear boundaries between the body, subconscious and mind. Take breathing for example: usually the subconscious and body take care of this routine activity. But we have the capability to take over with our conscious mind and control our rate and depth of breathing (to a degree). Many things we learn and master, like driving a bicycle or the grammar of a foreign language, will first occupy our conscious mind while slowly drifting into our subconscious as we gain mastery of the task.

“I think, therefore I am.” is an untrue statement. You are far more than the sum of our thoughts. However, you may say: “I think, therefore my mind is.” This, I think, is the closest we can come to a definition of our mind; it is our conscious thinking and those aspects of our memories and feelings which we can grasp with our conscious thinking. The mind is enabled by the body and the bridge between body and soul, the subconscious. Our mind is free of value; it just is the way it is made. Our soul is the potential or the realisation of our potential to become more than our body and mind would naturally become; to adopt good and wholesome values and follow through on them with our thoughts, words and actions.

Picture credit: ivanovgood