Category Archives: meaning of life

Using Technology to Modify Desires

I recently ran into this article from Noahpinion, an economics blog with a penchant for science fiction that I highly recommend. He spoke about something he called D-Mod or “desire-modification technology.” He argued in his article that D-Mods would be a lot more disruptive than any other technological advancement, including the ability to cure any illness or to upload a brain into a computer. I tend to agree.

D-Mod is something that I always took for granted when I imagined a transhuman world. By “transhuman world” I mean a world where humans have learned to harness technology in order to modify go beyond their current limitations. For exam

ple, we could have an army of nanobots constantly repairing our bodies and making sure we stayed young and healthy; or we could live as uploads in a computer and enjoy a virtual paradise. The whole idea is that, once we learn to control our biology and do whatever we want with it, this control will naturally extend to our emotional states. That is, we will be able to live in a state of eternal, pure bliss.

When I explain this most people react by saying: “we would get bored of so much happiness.” This amounts to not understanding what controlling our emotions means. Boredom is a state of mind and thus can also be controlled. If we know how to hack our hormones and brains to feel bliss, we can also modify them in order to never feel bored of that bliss. That is, we could have a 3,000 year-long orgasm and never get tired of it.

T2i - Desire is the very Essence of Man

T2i – Desire is the very Essence of Man (Photo credit: @Doug88888)

If we were constantly in a state of pure bliss we would likely never eat or sleep, but that shouldn’t be a problem as long as we had machines to take care of us. If we are living as uploads, the matter takes care of itself. If we’re living as flesh-and-bone humans, it is a bit more complicated to solve, but probably not too hard if our technology is already that advanced.

Of course, living in a state of pure bliss may render us completely inactive, therefore stopping all technological progress. But this doesn’t have to be the case. We could choose to feel pleasure while doing or learning something. Or we could just have the machines do the research and simply sit back and watch while gathering all the knowledge they create for us. Being able to modify our emotional states will allow us to find pleasure in whatever activity we choose. So, as Noahpinion puts it, our focus would be on meta-desires: what to want? What to want to want? And so on.

Noahpinion also makes the great point that a desire-modifying drug (or technology) would destroy the capitalist economy. The whole system is based on some dissatisfaction that needs to be taken care of: we are hungry, we buy food; we are bored, we go to the movies. If everyone is completely satisfied all the time, there will be no need for economic activity. In this sense, a desire-modifying technology would render all of our system instantly obsolete.

Is such a technology desirable? I guess it depends on what we choose to do with it. Will we choose to desire more knowledge? Will we choose to desire nothing at all? If we are uploaded beings, we may even choose to split ourselves into many copies, each pursuing a different desire; after a while, we could augment our memory-storage capacity and download all the different experiences (a bit like Naruto’s kagebunshin) literally pursuing every imaginable dream.

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What Is Your Purpose?

Many people believe they have a purpose. “What is the meaning of life?” They’ll ask. “It is finding your true purpose. The reason you exist. This all has to be for something. Everything happens for a reason.”

I find it interesting that many humans, myself included, find the need to see themselves as tools. If your life has a purpose it means that it is not a goal in itself, but that it happens for some ulterior motive. Your life, then, is a means to an end. And this makes you a tool.

The idea of purpose is of course very human. There is probably an evolutionary incentive to think in terms of purpose. Good things are those conductive to survival and propagation of one’s genes; bad things are the opposite. Things can then be seen as conductive to either. It makes sense, then, to attach a purpose to each object or act one encounters: things will either help to achieve gene propagation or they won’t. The fact that we use this label for ourselves and our own lives can, then, only be seen as an unintended consequence of this otherwise very helpful drive to classify things as useful or useless.

This image makes my point completely.

This image makes my point completely.

Finding the meaning of life through purpose seems to miss the mark, then. First, it uses a human concept which has nothing to do with the way the universe works. Second, it assumes some other entity for which we have a purpose: the purpose of that other entity is left undetermined, thus begging the question. Finally, it takes value from our life and puts it somewhere else, in the future. Why we would bother to go through our whole, value-less life to reach that future state, when that entity could have just created the final state directly, is unclear.

The obvious reaction to this is to take purpose out of the quest for meaning and return the value to the present moment, to the individual’s life. If life has a value on its own, it is its own meaning. There is no need for a purpose: life should be lived for its own sake. Every moment is as good as any other and placing our hopes in the future seems like a futile, life-denying exercise.

Speaking of futile exercises, what I am going to attempt now will probably end up in disaster, so I apologize in advance. See the end for more details.

Once one realizes the pointlessness of purpose and the importance of the present moment, there are two different, extreme routes one can take. Nietzsche would call them “life-affirming” and “life-denying.” Since that terminology is loaded, I will use instead “self-affirming” and “self-denying.”

I know, not very intellectual. I just had to add it. I just had to.

I know, not very intellectual. I just had to add it. I just had to.

The self-denying route would go like this. First, one must realize most experiences in life involve suffering of some kind. Even happy moments are filled with fear: the fear which stems from attachment to that happiness and the possibility of losing it. Humans constantly strive for pleasure and run away from pain and thus are never content. The only way to place value in the moment is to stop the strife: to stop chasing the good and fleeing the bad. We can do this by training ourselves to observe our feelings without judging them: to observe them and watch their course without getting involved. This way, feelings lose their meaning, becoming just sensations, perceptions, which in themselves are meaningless. When the strife ends, we can just concentrate on the present moment, free from desire and free of suffering.

Even though the self-affirming and self-denying routes share the same starting point, the self-affirming route takes the opposite path. Instead of advocating distance, it advocates the opposite: taking a full dive on those emotions, embracing both the good and the bad ones, taking life in without discriminating, saying “yes” to experience. This may look similar to the self-denying route: after all, aren’t we accepting both pain and pleasure too? However, the similarity is only superficial. Whereas the self-denying view advocates distancing oneself from these emotions and watching them as one watches something external, the self-affirming view does exactly the opposite. If we watch our emotions from afar, we take the meaning away from them. When they stop being “good” or “bad” and start being a collection of events, their emotional content is lost. But living is precisely that emotional content: denying that is denying life. And life, argues the self-affirming view, is the ultimate value.

Now, the self-denying may not agree. Life is not the ultimate value. The concept of “value” itself holds no water. The only worthwhile struggle is being free from pain. Also, one may argue that what the self-affirming people are suggesting is impossible: if you embrace the good and the bad, you take the meaning away from them. The bad is precisely that which you run away from: if you stop running away from it, it stops being bad. In this sense, the self-affirming view is self-contradictory. To that, the self-affirmers may reply that, likewise, the self-denying philosophy is contradictory: a complete annihilation of the self would lead to the ceasing of all desire, which in turn would irremediable lead to the death of the individual. Both goals are unachievable, but seen as worth striving for.

Hamlet with Yorick's skull

Hamlet with Yorick’s skull (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Another key difference between these views is their attitude towards the world. In the self-affirming view, the individual has one drive: to impose their will on the world, which includes both their external and internal reality. It is this struggle between self and world which defines the individual and makes it grow. In the self-denying view, happiness is achieved when the struggle ceases. And, when it does, there ceases to be a difference between individual and world: those are then in total harmony and are thus indisti

nguishable. That is why I call this view self-denying: its goal is to erase the self. Once the self is erased, the will disappears; once the will is erased, the self disappears. The struggle against the world and the self are one and the same thing: the cause of our suffering.

Of course, the self-affirming would then claim that there are simpler methods for erasing the self, such as putting a bullet in your brain. If one is alive, one should embrace life and not run away from it, aiming to become like a stone. Why live, while trying to be like something that’s not alive? Why try to remove the borders between the self and the world, when it is precisely those borders which define the self? Why try to get rid of the self, if it is precisely the self who creates value? Remove the self and remove all value; remove all value and remove all meaning; remove all meaning and remove all life.

This was an attempt to summarize my doubts about both the Buddhist and the Nietzschean approach to life. For obvious space and talent reasons, I haven’t done justice to either point of view. In fact, I believe there are two bloggers who would do a much better job than I, each in their own niche: bloggingisaresponsibility and Tongue Sandwich. Since I’m still waiting to see a good discussion between them on this topic (I think I would honestly pay a substantial amount of money just to be able to read that exchange) I did the next best thing and started the ball rolling.

I am still trying to make up my mind (or even build a middle way, though honestly I wouldn’t know where to start) so any further thoughts will be greatly appreciated.

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Monkeys, Ideas and Social Status

I’ve been recently analyzing my reaction to disagreements in my blog and I don’t like what I’ve seen. Now, my answers are usually quite measured and level-headed, even when I strongly disagree with the person. Does this mean I am a measured, level-headed man? Quite the opposite, in fact.

Some (though not all) criticisms cause in me something that can only be described as aggression. It is not a conscious reaction, but an instinctive, animalistic one. Whenever my ideas are challenged, especially when I hold them dear (and especially when the commenter uses a confrontational style), my body reacts with adrenaline and a metaphorical thirst for blood. I can almost feel the monkey inside, seething, wanting to beat up the stranger who has come to challenge my right to the territory.

It is not a pleasant feeling; it is also not a feeling I’m proud of.

But I don’t want to get into a morality play in which I digress about how evil we are all inside. I want to analyze what it is about disagreements that makes me (anyone else?) react as if there was a physical challenge happening from a rival male.

Here’s my theory, which I just made up five minutes ago, so it’s likely to be wrong. It’s also likely to be wrong because it only applies to males, but I’ve seen similar urges in women, so it can’t be the whole story. Any way, even if it’s only for your amusement, here it goes.

Common chimpanzee in the Leipzig Zoo.

Me, surveying my territory. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Back in the day, primates fought for territory. More territory meant more females, which in turn meant more offspring. Thus, males who were obsessed about protecting their territory and could use aggression to do so were more likely to have offspring, which would in turn be similarly inclined to protect and expand their land.

This drive for territory soon became more complex and turned into what we would now call “the drive for social status.”  Higher social status usually means attracting more females and the rest follows as before. That having social status attracts more females has been researched for a while (see here and here). And yes, I am perfectly aware that this is just a statistical result that does not imply that all women are attracted to social status. In fact, I’d never date one that was.

Social status is a hard thing to measure. Nowadays we can probably do it with money: the more money, the more status. However, that is not completely accurate. There are a lot of intangibles: influence, reputation. Bono may not have as much money as Bill Gates, but he’s probably more successful with the opposite sex. One could say that social status is related to image and that this image is tied to a number of intangibles, thus making status quite hard to define.

Bono and fans

Bono. He haz status. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This influence is of coursed measured, partly, by how much sway our opinions have over the rest of the world. As such, then, opinions are part of our “virtual territory”: just like our net worth (by the way, am I the only person who’s appalled by calling how much money a person has their “worth”?). And, just like it, we feel a need to protect it from intruders: opinions are our domains and, when a stranger comes and tries to take them down, we react just as if someone was trying to enter our house and burn it.

That is why changing your mind is so hard: in a way, it’s like letting the other person violate you. It’s admitting they have won; like giving them part of your territory. It’s not a question of ideas but a battle with winners or losers. Just like a war fought over a piece of land, each argument is a confrontation over a piece of mental landscape, over a piece of influence.

It takes a lot of self-control to override this instinct. In fact, most people are not capable of such feats and thus seem unable to change their minds, no matter how much evidence piles up against their views. It is remarkable, then, that a whole branch of human knowledge – science – has been built precisely on the willingness to be proven wrong. This speaks volumes of scientists, who must overcome these urges every day in the service of a greater goal, which is knowledge. It is also not surprising that some of them will succumb to their instincts and try to cover up results, disregard evidence or purposely misunderstand their colleagues’ research in order to keep their ideas intact.

Summarizing, behind the civilized appearance of my replies, there is a beast that just want to tear the commenters apart and let out a cry of victory. Thankfully for all of us, I (and most, if not all of the people who interact with me) am able to look at my instincts from above and see them for what they are: a vestige from a more animalistic past.

That said, I do think it would be fun if the next philosophical debate was settled with the philosophers just fighting for it.

It would not be fair if I didn’t finish this article by mentioning this one by bloggingisaresponsibility, which tackles a similar topic and offers a different answer that, I believe, is complementary to this one.

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Universes and Minds

Today I want to argue that our primary impressions (color, smell) are as real as primary physical quantities such as electric charge. That is, our minds can be seen as miniature universes and are as real as any physical quantity.

If you’re read this blog for a while you may be familiar with the simulation argument. Just in case, I will repeat it here. It goes like this: how can you be sure you’re not living in a perfect simulation?

Now, before I go on, I must give some clarification. This does not mean you are real and connected to a Matrix-like simulation: this means you are a simulated being inside a perfect simulation. That is, you are made of (virtual) protons and electron that interact according to some (virtual) laws of physics. Every single detail, down to the smallest particle, is taken into account. Every experiment gives the same result. Everything is exactly the same: that’s why the simulation is perfect. You are surrounded by other (virtual) people who are also made of (virtual) atoms.

Abstract Colorful Universe Wallpaper - TTdesign

Abstract Colorful Universe Wallpaper – TTdesign (Photo credit: tomt6788)

So, can you tell whether you’re living in such a simulation? The obvious answer is you can’t. The only way would be to find some kind of glitch but, since the simulation is perfect, there can be no glitches. Therefore, your life in a perfect simulation would be identical to your life now. That is: a perfect simulation is indistinguishable from reality. But what is a simulation made of?

A simulation can be thought of as a series of abstract operations performed by a Turing machine, which is some kind of idealized computer with infinite resources. Turing machines do not depend on the substrate: I can make them with cheese, chickpeas, cars or people. Their output will be the same, as long as they follow the same abstract rules. That is, a simulation is a series of abstract operations that are background-independent. For all we care, there is no physical substrate, since any substrate will do the trick.

Since our reality is exactly equivalent to a bunch of abstract operations with no physical substrate, the next logical step is to assume that reality is nothing but a bunch of abstract operation with no physical substrate.

Turing machine 2

Turing machine 2 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Now to the mind. Again, the same question: how can you tell your mind is not a perfect simulation of a mind? And, again, you can’t. Therefore and by virtue of the above argument, your mind is nothing but a bunch of abstract operations without a physical substrate. But here’s the catch: the existence of the mind does not imply the existence of a parent universe.

Imagine this situation: there’s a universe where, instead of protons and electrons, we have something called “blobs” which interact in a bizarre manner. Now, these blobs are arranged in such a way that they give rise to the set of abstract operations that defines your mind. In this case, you would still have the perception of living in a universe with protons and electrons, even though your mind would be simulated in a completely different environment.

Another way to see this is by realizing that our mind’s operations are more high-level than our universe’s. That is, we don’t need all the complexity of our universe to create our mind. Our mind’s abstract processes can be greatly summarized into a set of rules that is completely different from that of our universe. Any reality that implements this set of rules will give rise to your mind. Our minds are a set of abstract rules without a substrate and these rules are different from those of their containing universe. They are emergent, in the sense that they can be derived from the lower-level rules but, once they are, they can be implemented on their own.

This means our minds are somehow disconnected from reality, in the sense that we cannot know in which reality they are b

English: Snapshot from a simulation of large s...

English: Snapshot from a simulation of large scale structure formation in a ΛCDM universe. The size of the box is (50 h -1 Mpc) 3 . Run using GADGET (GPL software) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

eing implemented. For all we know, our minds could be a universe in themselves: just as we assume the laws of physics are all there is and not part of a bigger reality that gives rise to them, we could assume our minds are similarly self-contained. Just like a miniature universe (and in fact probably bigger, since the complexity needed to specify a mind is probably greater than that needed to state the laws of physics) our impressions could just be the fundamental constituents of our universe. The color “blue,” then, would be as real as the electric charge. It is no wonder, then, that we cannot express the impression of “blue” through the equations of physics. “Blue” is part of a different, emergent set of rules and is a fundamental (irreducible) object of those.

This idea actually helps me. Before, I would listen to a melody and think its beauty wasn’t real, since it was just a bunch of pressure differentials in the air surrounding me. Now I can interpret a melody as a set of sounds, which are fundamental constituents of my reality. The melody and the sounds are real. The pleasure is real. This makes things more meaningful for me.

Funnily, this goes in exactly the opposite direction as all of the self-denying articles I’ve written before. So what do I believe? I’ll say this much: what I believe is irrelevant. I only have faith in doubt.

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The Most Important Question

“The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it.” Karl Marx

“What to do?”

It could be argued that this is the only question that matters. We are left in this world without any guidance and told to do our best. But we don’t know what our best is, because we don’t know what is good or what is bad. And so we inquire, thinking that, with the next piece of information, things will finally fall into place, only to find that, no matter how long we search, we are just as far from answering the question: “what to do?”

But we have to do something. Time does not care about our doubt and we are forced to act, day after day, making the best of the information we have and hoping we won’t wake up one day, eighty years from now, and discover we went at it the wrong way.

This question, what to do, is the driving force behind most people’s lives. Some cling to an answer and embrace it, despite all evidence against it. This is understandable. Nobody wants to find out too late they were wrong. Some people decide to keep looking and make do with what they have. Some people stick to a philosophy, some make their own; some change every three months. At the end, even if we don’t know what to do, we all do something.

Karl Marx

Karl Marx

Wanting to know what to do is what drove me to study physics in the first place. “If I am to know what to do,” I thought, “I first need to know which kind of world I live in.”  When I know the what, I can start thinking about the why. I even suspected the why would be somehow included in the what, if I went deep enough. That was the plan, anyway.

Of course, I never found out the what or the why and even the truths I was most sure of crumbled under my feet. But that’s a different story for a different day.

The question “what to do” seems ill-posed. What to do in order to achieve what? “What to do” implies a sense of cosmic order, of good and evil. If we reject the existence of those, the question has to be refined. “What to do if I want to be happy?” “What to do if I want to be rich?” “What to do if I want to rule the world?” Those are answerable questions that possibly don’t require all the knowledge in the universe. Of course, a new question arises: “what to want?” Should I strive for world domination? For happiness? For a family and a job? Should I strive to change the political system in my country? But, again, “what to want” implies some wants are better than others. Better than others for what?

And here’s another possibility: the question is moot. Our choices are either determined or random: either way, we don’t have much choice. We will do what we will do, no matter what. Fretting over what to do implies we have some say on what it is we will actually do. But we don’t. If you’re worried that your actions will somehow go against the cosmic order, making the universe a worse place, don’t worry: by definition, they can’t.

And, either way, the universe doesn’t care.

This post is dedicated to my father, to whom I owe the first quote.

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Compassion, Intelligence and Evolution

Today’s article will be highly speculative. Please don’t take it more seriously than it deserves.

I want to speak about compassion. By compassion I mean the ability to feel some other being’s pain. I say being, and not human being, because I want to venture a hypothesis that correlates compassion and intelligence. To do that, I have to look at compassion in animals.

There are different degrees of compassion. Most human beings feel compassion towards their children. A smaller subset feels compassion towards their parents. In decreasing order of frequency, human beings feel compassion towards their family, friends, reduced social group, extended social group, nation, continent and humanity as a whole.

Compassion is a fairly recent invention. For example, bacteria don’t feel compassion. They don’t feel much, in fact. Worms, fish and cephalopods also don’t seem to have much compassion either, not even towards their children. Reptiles in general don’t take care of their young: they lay their eggs and leave their offspring to fend for themselves. One may say they couldn’t care less.

Compassion personified: a statue at the Epcot ...

Compassion personified: a statue at the Epcot center in Florida (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Only mammals and birds seem to feel some sort of compassion, though it is mostly confined to the family unit. Mammals and birds also have the biggest brain sizes in the animal kingdom. It is probably not a coincidence: feeling compassion requires the capacity to make simulations of another living thing. But let me elaborate, because I believe the simulation point to be important.

Most living beings are capable of making some type of simulation of their environment. That’s how we make decisions: we simulate possible outcomes based on our different courses of action and we choose the one that leads to the most pleasure and the least pain. At least, that’s the basic framework. Bacteria don’t have to simulate much: when their food detectors fire, they move towards the food. That’s pretty much it. But, as the complexity in situations increases, so does the need for more accurate simulations.

Any software engineer will tell you that simulating something inorganic is millions of times easier than simulating something organic. A rock’s trajectory is easy to calculate; a sparrow’s, not so much. The capability for simulating other living things, then, requires significant processing power. Since this capability is needed for compassion, it is not surprising that only animals with highly developed brains have developed it. In fact, one may even see compassion as a by-product: as animals learned to simulate others (in order to eat them, for example) they also learned to simulate their peers, which lead to some kind of understanding that these peers also feel pain. Mirror neurons, to which this post is an excellent introduction, may also have evolved in this context.

Monkey surprise

Monkey surprise (Photo credit: @Doug88888)

Monkeys are capable of compassion. Unlike other mammals, theirs extends a little further from their family and into their social group. If a chimpanzee is beat up in a fight, it is common to see another one trying to comfort it by putting its arm around it, something which may look spookily familiar. However, chimpanzees are only capable of compassion within their socia

l group. They couldn’t care less about what happens to individuals outside it.

This is the way it works in humans, most of the time. Every time there’s a plane accident, the first we ask is “were there any people from my country?” We don’t care what happened to all of those foreigners. We want to know that our people are safe. The same thing happened recently with the Boston bombings: even though much more horrid acts take place daily in Iraq or Syria, we shrug them off without much thought, while being struck with grief with the ones that hit close to home.

However, that’s only part of the story. Some humans do feel empathy towards other people that are not in their social group. According to primatologist Frans de Waal, this kind of compassion is “a fragile experiment” being conducted by our species. That is, we are the first species to feel universal empathy. And I think this is significant, because it signals a trend from less compassion to more: from not caring about any other individual to caring about your children to caring about your family, to your social group, to every single member of your species.

Can this trend continue? As we get smarter, be it with technology or evolution, will we become even more compassionate? Is caring for the welfare of animals the next step, which is already taking place? As we get smarter, will we be able to simulate other living beings better? Will that increase our compassion? Where does this lead?

People usually see evolution (rightly) as this really cruel, blind process where the strong step on the weak. However, I find it encouraging that, even so, it seems to have led to the emergence of increasingly compassionate species. This outcome was far from obvious, given the way natural selection works. I like the idea of evolution being a blind, cruel, horrid process that somehow gives birth to a species that stops being blind and cruel. Evolution as a process that can put a stop to itself and become something better, gentler, more nurturing, more creative.

Who knows, maybe there’s still hope for us all.

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The Case for an Innate Morality

We have all felt it: the urge to act in a way that, objectively, makes no sense but that somehow feels right. After we do it, we find rational justifications, because that’s what humans do: we construct narratives that explain our behavior, even if those narratives have absolutely nothing to do with what actually happened, as split-brain patient experiments have shown again and again.

It almost seems like magic. Where does that sense of morality come from? Is it written in the heavens? In the fabric of the universe? Is it the result of our subconscious thought? Is it the product of empathy? It turns out science has a lot to say about why we make choices. That’s what I want to cover in this article.

You may be familiar with something called the “trolley problems.” If you are, feel free to skip the next two paragraphs. The trolley problems are a series of dilemmas where a person needs to decide a course of action which will have some negative consequences, regardless of their decision.

The first trolley problem.

The first trolley problem.

The first trolley problem is called the switch dilemma: in it, a trolley is racing towards five children who are playing on the track, unaware of what’s coming. You can save those people by pressing a switch that will divert the trolley to a different set of tracks, where there is only one person. So you have a moral choice before you: will you kill one to save five?

The second trolley problem.

The second trolley problem.

The next scenario is known as the footbridge dilemma: in it, the same trolley is racing towards the same five children, but you’re standing on a footbridge over the rails. Right next to you there is a fat man: if you throw him off the bridge and on the track, the trolley will stop and the five people will be saved. Will you throw him off the bridge to save the children?

Research shows that 90% of people will choose to press the switch in the first case, whereas only 10% will throw the person off the footbridge in the second, even though the outcome is exactly the same (one dies, five are saved). Furthermore, the 10% who choose the utilitarian approach in the second case usually have psychopathic tendencies.

Researchers have been studying this problem for some time by using fMRI machines. They have found that, in the first case, the area associated with rational, conscious thought is activated. However, in the second case, the emotional areas light up, as well as a region associated with conflict resolution. And they’ve gone further than that: they have actually used Trans-Cranial Magnetic Stimulation to inhibit the emotional parts of the brain, getting the participants to choose the utilitarian approach in both cases. That is, we can actually program people to be utilitarian by inhibiting certain areas of the brain.

Read more about this here, here and here.

High resolution fMRI of the Human brain.

High resolution fMRI of the Human brain. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This shows that our morality is something far more complex (or primitive) than moral philosophy would have us think. No matter how good a moral theory is, if it conflicts with the emotional centers of the brain, it will be superseded except through a great amount of will-power. Some people argue that our instinctive morality was not invented for this day and age and that, because it is wired as an adaptation to a world that is no more, it is not a good source for making good decisions: that we should be extremely suspicious of what feels right and do instead what makes sense, whether it feels right or not. They have a point: evolution works by making hacks: it doesn’t devise foolproof solutions to a problem, but temporary fixes that produce reasonable results, quickly. In this sense, it is not surprising that what our instincts tell us is sometimes far from what would report the most benefit to our fellow humans and ourselves.

There is much more to be said about morality and science: I am speaking about morality in animals and the fact that our sense of fairness will often lead us to make irrational decisions that benefit nobody. But I think the point above is enough food for thought: more on morality coming soon.

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Where I Argue Against Morality and Then Change My Mind

You’ve probably heard this sentence before: “if there is no God, everything’s permitted.” One of the brothers Karamazov says it in the famous Dostoyevski novel (which, religious apologetics or not, is one of the best books I’ve ever read).

But what does this sentence even mean? The most straightforward interpretation is we can do whatever we want. But this is true, with or without God. According to Christians, we have free will: we can do evil and we do, all the time. Evil is permitted. So how does there being a God change anything? Without a God, everything is permitted. With a God, we are in exactly the same situation.

The obvious answer is punishment. The existence of a God adds punishment to the equation, so that you will do no evil, in fear of being condemned to eternal damnation. To me, this is not morality at all: it is just a reward system, similar to training a dog. God tells you what to do and defines that to be “right” or “good.” If you don’t do what he says, you get punished. If you do, you get a reward.

How is this any different from a society with laws?

Dostoyevsky's notes for Chapter 5 of The Broth...

Dostoyevsky’s notes for Chapter 5 of The Brothers Karamazov (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In a society with laws, if you do evil deeds (things that go against the law) you are punished: you pay a fine or go to jail. If you live in America or China, you may even be put to death. Now, one could say: “without laws, everything is permitted.” The morality argument for God is exactly equivalent to the morality argument for Law.

To most people, the idea of a morality based on a reward system is repulsive. We shouldn’t do good because we’ll get in trouble if we don’t: we should do good because it’s the right thing to do. But what is the right thing to do? There are many possible answers. Some people will say: “look inside your heart and do whatever feels right.” It’s a line of argumentation that does wonders with sadists and psychopaths. Some will tell you what’s moral is what some philosophy says is moral. At the end, however, “right” and “wrong” have to be based on something. If they weren’t they would be completely random. Therefore, “right” and “wrong” are, to some extent, necessarily utilitarian, even in the case of religion. Dostoyevski’s point is moot: everything is permitted, no matter what. Whatever we decide to do or not to do, we do because of some reason. Those reasons have usually nothing to do with good and evil, though they are sometimes disguised as such.

To me, morality is something we need in order to keep people without empathy under control. I don’t need a morality and neither do most of the people on this Earth. I can feel other people’s pain, which is why I try not to hurt them. I don’t do it because it’s right: I do it because of how it makes me feel. As long as we have the ability to put ourselves in somebody else’s position, we don’t need a set of rules to tell us what to do. We can decide at each moment. Morality is a useful lie: we tell some people there’s something “right” and “wrong” because we can’t make them understand that other people besides them are also capable of suffering. So we put these ideas in their heads in the hopes that they will reign in the monster and stay their hand. When they don’t, we resort to state-administered violence in the form of prison or death.

However, my beautiful theory about empathy does not explain what I did this morning.

Sometimes I go to school by subway. The subway stop is a 30-minute walk away from the school: fortunately, the school provides a shuttle service. Today I left home too early and I got to the bus stop way ahead of time, so I decided to take a taxi instead. This way, I’d have 20 extra minutes to get all my stuff ready.

As I got out of the metro a taxi driver approached me. Now, I know the trip to my school costs 10 RMB, but I asked him anyway: “how much to the school?” To my dismay, he didn’t say “10 RMB.” He said 15. And that pissed me off. So I said: “forget it.” And I left. The man started to chase me and said “OK, 10!” But it was too late. I didn’t get on the taxi, even though it would have saved me 20 minutes of waiting for a bus in the cold.

Why, if it was exactly what I was willing to pay? Well, because it wasn’t right. I didn’t want the guy to think he could get away with trying to cheat people: I wanted him to know that, sometimes, being dishonest has consequences. If I had gotten on his taxi, I’d have been endorsing his behavior. And I couldn’t do that.

Doing this didn’t make me feel any better and probably won’t change this person’s behavior in the future. It was futile, absurd. But I just couldn’t get on the taxi. I couldn’t.

It wouldn’t have been right.

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Genius or Moronic? The Enlightenment Machine

Last day I was reading this post by bloggingisaresponsibility and I had a crazy idea. I am so excited about it that I decided to write an article to gauge people’s opinions. It’s one of those things which is either genius or completely stupid. I’m still not sure which one.

Bloggingisaresponsibility’s post talked about a psychological approach to enlightenment. The idea is that enlightenment is a mental state that can be brought about by eliminating certain tendencies in the brain. By telling people to focus on a certain object, we override some of these tendencies and create a different experience: enlightenment.

What are these tendencies that get in the way? You may be familiar with the main culprit: it’s you. The belief in a self is precisely what precludes us from experiencing a unity between us and the rest of the world. Once we perceive this unity and the self evaporates, we instantly become less selfish (“selfish” without “self” is just “ish,” after all) and our worries fade away, since we don’t have a self attached to them.

Seen in this light, enlightenment can be seen as an impairment: the removal of a certain subroutine from our brain, in this case, the self. Why aren’t people born enlightened? Well, probably because going around without a self is not the best strategy for survival. The self or the illusion of one is crucial in self-preservation. The opposite would be not-self-preservation which sounds a lot like death. So when we practice meditation we are in fact training ourselves to cripple our brains: to avoid using certain functionality that came pre-installed. We are trying to get used of all this programming that, while successful for reproduction and survival, is not effective when trying to reach happiness.


Nirvana (Photo credit: Dunechaser)

Now, there are several ways of getting rid of this programming. Continuing with the computer software analogy, I’ll say we can either do it the “hardware” way or the “software” way. Changing the software is called “meditation”: it consists of training our neural net to react to stimuli differently, avoiding the circuitry of the self. It is a lengthy process requiring years of practice, but it is relatively safe. The “hardware” way is much more straightforward: remove the undesired areas. Done.

Of course, nobody likes having a piece of brain removed. Well, nobody I know. So surgery is probably not an option. But we have a next best thing: Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (TMS.) TMS is routinely used by neurologists to produce virtual lesions on patients. The way it works is the machine sends a magnetic pulse to a certain brain region, which becomes temporarily deactivated. This allows researchers to find out what happens if you remove certain parts of the brain, without having to actually wait for people to get injured. This is also how we recently found out that there’s a part of the brain associated with morality which, when deactivated, makes people utilitarians. Oh, and the risk involved with using TMS is very low: it can at most produce seizures in patients with some previous condition.

So I did some research and found out that researchers have already found candidate areas for where the self is located. We have a map. Therefore, all we have to do is configure our TMS to deactivate those areas and there you go! No self. Enlightenment with a button.

Transcranial magnetic stimulation uses magneti...

Transcranial magnetic stimulation uses magnetism to safely stimulate or inhibit parts of the brain. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A unit costs around 25,000 dollars. I’m seriously tempted to buy one.

So why would this be so awesome? Well, for one, you’d be able to reach enlightenment without years of mediation. That’s something. Also, you wouldn’t have to take anyone’s word for it. For example, one of the things that keeps me from fully pursuing meditation is a lack of conviction. Yes, people keep telling you that you’ll reach Nirvana. But these people have spent their whole lives trying: of course they won’t tell you that it’s not worth the trouble! Can you imagine? “Spent my whole life doing eight hours of meditation per day. Reached Nirvana. Wasn’t as great as I thought.” Maybe some monks tell themselves they’ve reached Nirvana without having done so.

Buddhists always emphasize their religion is “experimental” because you can go and see for yourself. The catch is, you need to spend years training your mind before you can. After you spent so many years, you’re probably quite invested in the idea of enlightenment or you wouldn’t have done it in the first place. So, when deciding whether to start, I have to take their word for it. And I don’t like taking people’s word for stuff.

But this way, I wouldn’t have to! It’s the perfect shortcut. It fits perfectly with my scientifically-minded persona. Build a machine. Test it. Test it again. Tweak it. Test it. Reach enlightenment. There.

And then, all I need to do is sell it or rent it or give it away and the whole world can become enlightened. Can you imagine? A world of selfless, generous people? A world of happy people? A world of people full of empathy?

So, should I launch a Kickstarter campaign and start building the monster?

Or should I get myself checked?

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The Art of Spacing Out

I often space out. In fact, I daresay I spend half of my day in a semi-conscious state, my mind drifting through the landscape of possibility. While spacing out I think about a number of things, some of them elevated, some of them mundane. I will remember yesterday’s breakfast or wonder about why my stomach keeps aching. I will plan a blog post or consider the unfathomable mysteries of the universe. I will produce a piece of music or play somebody else’s tune in my head.

So I’m hardly ever “in the moment.” That is, I’m hardly ever paying attention to whatever is going around me right there and then, preferring instead to let my mind wonder through my the labyrinth of my thoughts.

I’ve read in many places that’s a bad thing. That I should try to “stay in the moment.” That, by ignoring the moment, we ignore the most important part of our experience. Therefore, if I’m doing the laundry, I should be focusing on it, not thinking about the doughnut I’m planning to eat when I’m done. If I’m standing in a crowded bus, I should just acknowledge that I’m on a bus and be aware of the experience instead of shutting it out.

I wish to – partially – challenge that view.


A spaced-out squirrel (Photo credit: Russ Allison Loar)

The first point I want to make is that, for me, spacing out is an extremely pleasurable experience. I’ll be on my bike riding home and I’ll get lost in thought, realizing 20 minutes later I’m almost there. In the meanwhile, I’ve normally had one idea or two or, at least, I’ve had some fun pondering the imponderable. Why should I focus on the riding – safety issues aside – when I find the thinking a lot more rewarding? Why should I focus on the fact that I am in a crowded bus, full of people who smell and keep rubbing themselves against me, instead of planning my new blog post in my head, getting no short amount of elation from it? If I enjoy it, why shouldn’t I do it?

The second point that I want to make is that spacing out is good for humanity. I’ll go even further and say that most great achievements in modern society have happened thanks to someone spacing out. You don’t believe me? Well, here are some examples: General Relativity, the light bulb, the telephone, the steam engine, quantum mechanics, dynamic systems theory, information theory, computers, transistors. Shall I go on?

All of these great ideas happened because somebody was obsessed enough with them to spend every waking hour playing with them in their heads. They didn’t come from being in the moment, but from the opposite: from thinking in the abstract while walking, talking or washing the dishes. Einstein spent half his life walking around, lost in thought. Spacing out. Thanks to this, now we have the two theories of relativity, GPS and photoelectric receptors.

So I’ll continue spacing out. You’re welcome, world.

Space Elevator GEO Station

When the space elevator comes, we can all “space out.” (Photo credit: FlyingSinger)

Now, this doesn’t mean spacing out is always good or that being in the moment is always a bad idea. In fact, there are many unhealthy ways of spacing out. Worrying about the future when you can’t do anything about it is probably one. If you’re doing the dishes but are so focused on the result (“I want the dishes done!”) that it keeps you from enjoying the task, that adds nothing to your personal growth, produces no enjoyment and is generally detrimental.

I think they key question here is what you’re spacing out for. Are you spacing out to focus on your absurd goals, getting no enjoyment from it? Are you obsessing over things that have no real importance? Or are you spacing out because you like floating in the mist of your own ideas? Are you spacing out on purpose or against your will?

Maybe we should think a bit more loosely about “being in the moment.” Maybe “being in the moment” should mean we’re enjoying whatever we’re doing now, even if that is spacing out. After all, everything happens in our heads. The experience of washing the dishes is a mental phenomenon, just like thinking about Schopenhauer. Why should we privilege one above the other?

So, from now on, I won’t keep myself from being in the moment because I’m supposed to “be in the moment.” I will remorselessly space out. I won’t bring my mind back to reality, whatever that means.

Heck, maybe I’ll reach Nirvana that way.

Weirder things have happened.

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