Wednesday, October 12, 2011

The Fallacy of Intelligent Design in Conspiracy Theories

It appears that good-to-do people are spreading misinformation via the accessibility of the internet, perpetuated by paranoid conspiracy theorists and others supposedly out in search of ‘the truth’, albeit one that confirms their beliefs in the best way possible.

I imagine that some of these people must have a chip in their shoulder, and feel that they are getting less than they deserve.  Such a belief might make it easier to spot corresponding theories, such as the idea that some ‘higher power’ (your parents, the police, the government, God) is pulling all the strings, and swinging things constantly out of your favour.  And when confirming your biases feels so good, all this information seems to come together to form some kind of clear image, like faces in rocks.

Just as it is easy to see intention and purpose where there is none, as in the case of intelligent design, the same mistakes in thinking may also be the basis for believing in conspiracy theories.  Instead of seeing a hand as something we simply use to pick up objects, purpose is wrongly attributed to it, and so we say (and think) that the purpose of hands is to pick up objects.  The difference may seem small, and some may see no difference at all, but it is a significant one. 

A system that results in discrimination against specific groups is very different from one that was actively designed to discriminate.  This is even more apparent when you consider that systems and organisations are inherently composed of individual parts and individuals, who are logically supposed to achieve the same ends.  A conspiracy on such a scale requires you to see an organisation as a well-defined whole, whose intended ends are malevolent.  If instead, you break a system down into its many parts, upon inspecting each individually it becomes increasingly difficult to find the intention.  The group or at least the majority of the group, must work collectively for the same purpose in order for there to be any tangible unified goal.  A few individuals out of hundreds or even thousands, who ‘conspire’ among themselves cannot be said to affect the overall purpose of the group, even though they may have considerable impact on the measurable outcomes of their collective.

In order to see a conspiracy it becomes necessary for you to view things in black and white, and to ignore or leave out any negative cases when looking for and summing up your ‘evidence’.  Instead of seeing honest people for example, as evidence that there is no conspiracy, they will be counted as rare exceptions, regardless of how many instances are found.

Scepticism is seen as belief system, like Christianity for example, whereby upon announcing your scepticism you have also unknowingly chosen a team, donned their colours, and separated yourself from the ‘opposition’. 

Being a sceptic is different from being a religious follower in that religion is mostly a system of beliefs, whereas scepticism is more the act of suspending belief.  In order to be a true sceptic you must have good reason for your disbelief, otherwise you are most likely just being contrary, and are in no better a position than someone who blindly believes.  Although there may be potential benefits to automatic contraryism, over the tendency to believe almost anything if it’s presented in a professional-style video, complete with well-chosen soundtrack and end credits.

Scepticism threatens to take the fun out of life and the mysteries people hold dear, by actually challenging those ideas, instead of worshipping them and rejoicing in the unknown.

Inevitability's Child

I don't believe in destiny or fate in the sense of there being a 'natural order' or things happening 'as they were meant to' due to some higher power for example.

What I do believe however, is that in theory everything could be predicted given sufficient prior information.  But the difficulty or possibility of obtaining this information would seem to be the primary obstacle to us performing these calculations, and as such there may be a significant amount of things we will never be in a position to predict. 

For example, the probability of tossing a coin and it landing on 'heads' is not really 50%, because if you design and build a coin-tossing machine you can have it land on the same side indefinitely, which is way beyond what you would expect when you just think of the coin as having 2 possible sides to land on – Probability is not a property of things.

Similarly, I'm not sure that 'randomness' really exists, and that events only seem unpredictable on the surface.  In my naive opinion randomness seems directly tied to lack of knowledge, therefore the more you know, the less random life should appear, and consequently you would be presented with a different kind of ‘fate’ in the form of inevitability perhaps.

Someone with a greater knowledge of mathematics and statistics could possibly point out the flaws in this idea for me though.

In terms of the evolution of thought, I imagine that if you work backwards, first to a time before modern science, the prevailing beliefs would have been largely superstitious, where people attributed the weather and other events to the gods and so forth.  Things would have seemed much more random and unpredictable to the average individual, and even to the most knowledgeable at the time.

Advancing even further back and it’s unlikely that the thought of gods, higher powers or any ‘powers’ at all crossed anyone’s mind.  The thought of being subject to a bunch of mysterious forces was just too advanced to occur anywhere.

Awareness of predictability is one of the things which have allowed man to manipulate the world around him in an increasing number of ways.  Discovery and observation of the existence of physical laws, and the ability to connect cause with effect has shaped human progress as we know it.  From the creation of basic tools to the discovery of medicines and knowledge of human anatomy, it all seems to be an awakening from the apparent randomness we were once surrounded by. 

So if you imagine a future that continues much in the same way, there would be things which at present we believe to be random that would be unveiled as being predictable at some point.  This is clearly true for scientific discovery, but also for discoveries on a personal level.  This may be one reason why knowing more can actually complicate things for people.  It’s not that knowledge of the facts has suddenly changed what the facts are, but that the knowledge has destroyed the mystery; the notion of things being random and the idea that you have no control, or that you do have control. 

Knowledge endows you with the burden of responsibility.  Once you no longer believe that smoking is healthy for example, you cannot hide in your own ignorance.  What you can do however, is formulate a nice-sounding story about why you will continue with the destructive act. 

Realisation that certain physical laws exist is what separates those who attempt to improve by blind experimentation, and those who heed these rules and use them to their advantage. 

If we weren’t to build upon the knowledge of others, or to make use of the information granted to us by science we would be living in a completely different world, where we may be reduced to animals once again.

Manipulation of the world around you through utilisation of the rules is not cheating, but may be seen as ‘unnatural’ if you suppose that advancement through technology goes against some unwritten code of conduct, or that there are limits as to how much we should use such knowledge to our advantage. There appears to be some kind of conflict that occurs inside the average human, a dilemma in which he cannot decide where to draw the line between what he believes to be his ‘natural’ (and therefore optimal and pure) self, and the many improvements he can make through modern technologies. 

Transhumanism appears to be the epitome of embracing human advancement to its fullest extent, and would seem to require individuals to give up certain beliefs that would otherwise prevent them from benefitting from such technology.

It’s almost as if a desire to remain the same is considered part of what it is to be human in the eyes of anti-technologists and the quietly superstitious.

Leaving things to ‘chance’ may seem like you have simply left room for infinite possibility, because ignorance can feel like a blank canvas, when in fact it is more akin to being blind in a picture gallery.  It doesn’t matter what you draw on your map, or if you choose to draw nothing at all; certain things are irremovably part of the landscape.  You can trade the opportunity to discover facts beforehand for a surprising outcome here or there, but you sacrifice efficiency along with your own powers as an intelligent being, and even perhaps that title itself.  This is very apparent when it comes down to health or physical well-being and the choices we make.  But even human irrationality itself is predictable.

I believe that some people deny or outright reject the predictability of things, in part because on the surface it undermines their ideas of free will and purpose in life.  As if knowing certain results beforehand, or just expecting-with-good-reason makes action redundant and takes away personal power, when in fact power is derived from these very things.

Sunday, September 25, 2011


Synecdoche is a linguistic term for when part of something is used to refer to its whole, or when the whole is used to refer to a single part.  I would therefore argue that in a sense all labelling and name-calling is synecdoche, and that it reflects the ways in which language plays a significant role in our understanding of the world around us. 

Whether you refer to your car as your ‘wheels’, or to your chassis, internal combustion engine, transmission system, exhaust and wheels etc. as your ‘car’, each label omits details that are implicit and often only vaguely understood.  You might state that your ‘car needs fixing’, when you really mean that some specific part of it is broken, or that you like jazz, when you are actually referring to just a number of pieces that belong to that genre. 
It is a case of abridging explanations, of drawing a simpler map and thus disregarding certain features of the landscape.

My name is Elliot.  This is the label I have been given to refer to myself when in time of need, and coincidentally it is the name most others recognise me by.  What’s interesting is that no two people have the same Elliot experience, yet the unique information that each person has can all be found stored in the collective Elliot section.

The problem is that once you’ve created this basic profile, the information it contains seems to be rarely updated except for superficialities, or in the case of global changes.  Instead of taking the subtleties into account, the creator of the file is free to fill in the blanks with his own ideas, steered by cognitive biases, blind to their existence and influence.

The name brings to mind a definite set of qualities which will depend largely on the relationship you have with me and the different situations you have seen me in.  ‘Elliot’ is not a universally accepted idea.

It occurred to me that it is misleading to describe yourself or anyone else as having an undersized vocabulary.  Sure there are words that we don’t use, as in the case of the ‘passive vocabulary’, but I don’t believe that lack of comprehension is our biggest barrier to bringing them into active use.

We understand more than is necessary to live our daily lives and are exposed not only to terminology that we understand and do not use, but also various other experiences that we have the potential to add to our active ‘vocabulary’. 
I feel that the situations and social groups we interact with determine the ways in which differing examples of vocabulary are expressed.  It’s not necessarily that we are so limited by what we know (although the significance of our ignorance shouldn’t be understated), but by what we are comfortable and accustomed to using, and by what we imagine is appropriate given the situation.

Think of the way you might talk to your best friend, versus how you might speak to their parents.  You will present a different version of yourself to them, but neither could rightly be described as being ‘more accurate’ than the other, although this is almost certainly not the way you friend may see it.

If you ever observe someone try something completely new for the first time, be it a change of appearance, a new language or a different hobby for example, it is generally quite an awkward affair.  A person must take the time to become familiar with the new terminology and so forth, and to become comfortable through exposure and repetition – to make it ‘their own’; to add it to their active vocabulary. 

We can imagine the kinds of things we might do or say if we were to utilise parts of our passive ‘vocabulary’, for instance we can envisage the way we might talk or carry ourselves if we were confident in a situation that currently unsettles us.  And we can imagine ourselves speaking, writing, dancing and so on, in ways that we are currently only familiar with as passive observers. 

To be uninhibited; to be willing to try each and any unfamiliar thing, and to allow ourselves the opportunity to assimilate new information, and to broaden our vocabulary in the widest sense.   As adults we seem to lose this habit of imitation as a means of learning things that interest us, perhaps it is because we don’t acknowledge that conditioning is necessary, and we irrationally expect or hope to be good at and comfortable with things we have never tried before.  We need to put our pride aside and humbly accept that we must begin at the beginning, regardless of age, other experience and competencies and the expectations they bring with them.    

How I imagine things work is something along these lines:

You have a lot of information in your brain, along with the potential to act in all manner of ways, but it is your interactions with other people and things outside of yourself that brings out or causes the activation of the different aspects of what is commonly referred to as your ‘self’. 
Conditioning will determine what information you store as well as the patterns of thought and behaviour that you are more familiar with, along with the programs that are ‘instinctually’ chosen over the others.  
What arises out of your conditioning, the limitations of the human brain, and your various interactions, is a multidimensional experience that contradicts the static representation that is generally evoked when we recall anyone by name or image.

What should be more significant is that we think of even ourselves in these simplistic and biased terms.  We suppose a list of features that describe us, and another that clearly doesn’t resemble us in any way.  But if we had an accurate memory, or at the very least a basic record of the different ways in which we have acted throughout our past, then we would see that not only could we use list two to describe ourselves, but there would also be many instances in which it would be inaccurate to use the descriptions from the first list.
There may be such a list that describes how we are on average; a ‘way’ in which we behave most commonly, but how are we able to separate those facts from all our own biases about ourselves? 

How do we keep in mind the fact that who we think we are is at least in part determined by the routines we are acting out?  Because in that sense we are reflections of things, just as a computer is always a reflection of its programming, no matter who the user is.

Perhaps a new experience of ‘self’ is possible if we make it a practice to think of ourselves as always being more than what we currently have the habit of thinking?  To retain the awareness that the possibilities for new behaviour are always there, often just out of sight.

It’s comforting to think of things in terms of what we know, understand, and expect, but it’s also necessary to categorise in such a way for the sake of communication, as in the case of labelling.  But in order to have a conversation that is perhaps a better representation of something, the subject must be understood on increasingly deeper levels.  For most things in everyday life this may be completely unnecessary, but I feel that an awareness of this idea is important.

On one level you merely have a pizza, perhaps divided into slices.  On another level the pizza has a fancy sounding Italian name and you are conscious of all the toppings.  Another level down and you are aware of all the constituent ingredients and nutritional information.  Further still and you might talk of the various chemical components that make up the ingredients and so on.
Likewise, in order to have a more precise conversation about what an individual is like it is necessary to understand his multifaceted and compartmentalised nature.  It’s simply not good enough to imagine that everything is so black and white.

When you consider that our perceptions of people are based on our own predilections, and that no characteristic is constant, it should become clear that out own minds are responsible for what we all too often mistake for concrete facts.  For example, whether or not you find someone ‘nice’ or ‘irritating’ will be dependent on how they fit or go against your preferences, which can vary from time to time.
So using your name, your job title or even your age to describe yourself is like using a chainsaw to perform keyhole surgery.  At the end of the day you must select the right tool for the job, the right language, words and details to refer to the known territory.

A pizza could be made from any flour, have any number of different toppings, it could even be sweet.  By only using the word ‘pizza’ the reader is left to fill in the blanks again, and the same happens when you describe yourself in simple terms, like by your hobbies, interests, or political leanings for example.  We each have our own ideas and associations to these things which will taint our perception.  We infer further similarities where there aren’t necessarily any, only because we share characteristics on paper.

So if you like making assumptions and drawing conclusions based on superficial details, then this blog is for you!

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Flimsy Film Critic

Life is very much like a movie.  A bad movie.  A movie we have made the effort to schedule time out for and paid money to attend.  Money we can’t be refunded just because we dislike the storyline or one of the actors.  It is an investment of sorts, one we make in expectation of it all being 'worthwhile', however we personally define or calculate it. 

The lives of others, albeit the most entertaining, dramatic or heart-warming highlights have served as the trailers, and given us an unrealistic taste of what to expect.  They project the all the best scenes, the funniest jokes and most romantic moments, and to top it all off they edit it to a fitting soundtrack to stir your emotions and help paint the picture they desire. 
Yet regardless of how many inaccurate images we view throughout our lives, we consistently revert to our hopeful selves upon seeing a new trailer, as if this time things will be different.  As if the techniques employed by the advertising department would have changed. 

Upon realising that we have wasted both time and money on such a disappointing production, instead of leaving to avoid wasting any more of our precious time, and suffering unnecessarily through such a banal and often excruciatingly cliché plot, we decide to stay.  Not just in the hope that things will get better if given the chance, but because we stubbornly want to receive our money’s worth, no matter how bad it may be.  We wish for things to improve so much as to even things out, because that’s how it’s supposed to work, right?  The movie just has to get better.

We have a curious way of remembering the past, because no matter how bad the reality was we only seem capable of recalling a dumbed-down version.  Conversely, when we think of events that were in reality more positive, or even emotionally-neutral, we may apply a positive feeling across a much greater area than it actually covered.  Read the entry on Hindsight Bias for an interesting look at the different ways in which our memories can be distorted.

We see the past less as shades of grey or even black and white, but as mostly pale.

When I finally die (as I keep having to remind myself) I don’t want people to lie about me in romantic speeches or within the privacy of their own minds.  I don’t want to be Ghandified and for people to credit me where it’s undue, simply because they’re fragile and need a suitable story to support their difficult-to-fathom emotions. 
Even the worst criminals seem to be remembered more fondly and innocently than should be warranted.

What’s the purpose of deliberately choosing a grimmer outlook over a sunny one, however more accurate the former may in fact be?  Isn’t it just better to be happier and feel good about life, than it is to acknowledge the unfortunate or less-than-desirable truth?  For me the answer is a clear ‘no’.  The reason being I don’t believe happiness, or the pursuit thereof, should be placed above all else.  Not only is happiness fleeting, but knowing that it is granted at the expense of wilful ignorance leaves me with a potent feeling of intellectual discomfort.
We like to appear clever, sensible, inquisitive and all in favour of uncovering life’s mysteries, but when faced with the task of unweaving the facts from familiar fiction, we fail at the first hurdle.  Willing to wear the uniform in order to stand up and be counted, but reluctant to do anything that might get it dirty.
The prospect of uncovering the truth in all manner of ordinary-seeming things is much more appealing than the idea of owning a delicate happiness that we must work to defend and preserve.

Often in life we make choices whilst being unaware that we are doing so.  I don’t mean to say that when we sit down of a morning to eat breakfast that we have subconsciously chosen not to assassinate the president instead, but that many choices are made by default. 
Our brains don’t have the power to process all of the things we can possibly conceive of but don’t want to do, so it makes sense that our focus is largely on what we do want. 
But knowing what we do want isn’t always as easy and straightforward as it seems, and so due to our ponderings we inevitably end up with the results of inaction and indecision.  Choosing to ‘do nothing’ or refusing to choose one way or the other is essentially deciding to leave things up to ‘fate’, but it is initially a conscious decision, however ignorant of the consequences or potential outcomes you may be.

Imagine a friend offers you a brand new, shiny 21 speed road bike for less than half of what you would expect to pay for it in the shops.  You already have a well-worn BMX sitting in your garden shed, but you know if you had a new bike you’d be out and about on it at every available opportunity.  You have enough money to make the purchase, but you were saving up to buy shares in Chicken Cottage, and you know that at this price the bike on offer won’t be around forever. 
There is much to consider and you remain divided. 
The money you saved is safely in your safe (of all places), and after a week or so your friend is arrested for handling stolen property.  Effectively you have chosen to keep your money, to change nothing as it were.  Regardless of whether the acknowledgement of this choice entered your awareness or not, it was a choice you have made.

Life is very much like the above scenario, but played out on a much bigger scale.  I don’t see people so much as choosing to live, but rather living by default as a result of being born. 

Your birth is the biggest and most significant choice you have no control over.  This is one reason at least, why I feel the decision to create life is too weighty to take lightly – perhaps we should just leave it to default?

On the other hand, suicide requires too much commitment to be a viable option for the majority of the human race.    

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Everything but The Chicken Skin

"I loved Marie with all my being. I loved her and I’ll always love her." 

What is the substance - the flesh and bones of what the word 'love' refers to?  For too long people have hidden behind and defended this infamously vague concept.
'Romance' is a synonym for idealism and the imaginary, of which 'love' is the epitome.

'Love' is a Trojan horse, or the suitcase of an unsuspecting mule. When attempting to convey strong, positive feelings you'd be wise not to fall into the trap of using such a word.  It carries with it such assumptions as 'if you love me then you would...' as well as the ever popular 'if you love me then you wouldn't...'  As if love is a magical force that causes those under its influence to behave in certain ways, while preventing others.  When in reality, someone who confesses to being infected with such a notion is no more free or inhibited than he was without love.

What has a noticeable impact are the expectations you might have of someone who told you that they loved you, or the expectations you would have of yourself if you had been unfortunate enough to have given into the pressure to utter those three fateful words.

Love is not a constant; the only stability lies in the idea that you will always love someone unconditionally, whereas there is no actual experience or reality to lend weight to the concept of everlasting love, other than the strong emotional attachments we are capable of forming that have a physical, neurological basis.  This is why 'I will always love you' can turn into 'I cringe at the mere thought of you' over a simple matter of time.

There seems to be the belief in love, and more subtly the desire to believe in it.  I actually think that the latter is the most common cause of things such as 'heartache', soppy poetry and bad breakups.  It's not the fact that one does not care about the other, but that there is no 'love' in the first place.  

We seem to have been collectively raised on such vague ideas that it is deemed counterculture to reject 'love' as a concept, and more importantly it is callous of you to do so.  People have the gut feeling that 'love' is hollow, but how to express yourself to those you care about when neither of you have ever been shown an alternative?  

Nature surrounds us on all sides, and likewise "all is full of love", but nature is parts without a whole, and 'love' is differing ideas about desire and varying degrees of emotional attachment among other things.  

When a definition fails to tie down that which it is supposed to describe, it can no longer be considered a definition at all.  

Water comes in various forms, as snow, ice, sleet, hail and rain.  All of which is H2O, which can be further reduced or separated into Hydrogen and Oxygen.  'Love' comes in countless forms, all of which could be reduced in a similar fashion to attachment, mental programming and strengthened neural pathways for example.  The difference is that it is much easier to understand one person who says 'rain', and another who says 'ice', than it is to infer the referent in question when two different people both say 'love'.

The more curious form of love is that which is believed to exist as some external, metaphysical power that permeates everything and can be tapped into at any time.  A fundamentally 'loving' universe looking over us and longing to care for humanity in our state of fragility.  
But again, there is no love, and what we find instead is the collective desire to feel the reassurance of some benevolent force outside of ourselves.  Something innately and consistently 'good' to rely on, instead of the many different, sometimes unspeakably ugly, and psychotic faces of man.  
We are effectively alone with ourselves on this planet, like a mentally disturbed character dreading the moment he is left to his thoughts and for his mind to finally run wild.  
We turn a single blind eye to the realities we wish weren't so, while our minds are kept busy, left to pick up the pieces of the overwhelming mess we have witnessed.

Love creates unsightly obligations and makes villains out of people like myself who would dare to admit frequent bouts of indifference, emotionally unimpressed one way or the other.

We have unrealistic expectations of ourselves and of everyone else we encounter, yet we appear unable to let go of these romantic ideals.  'If the universe doesn't love me, and you only sometimes feel 'close' to me, and not some reliably strong emotional bond, then I must be truly alone.  Doomed for the fact that I need love to survive.'

Perhaps these 'happy concepts' simply evolved to ensure man's continued existence, like any other adaptation.

Don't Quote Me On That

I am amazed by our collective fascination with, and hunger for other people’s words.  Whether poems, speeches, songs, or from other sources - we consume all.

When we discover that somewhere, sometime, someone else has expressed themselves in a manner we believe to be a reflection of our own opinion(s) or ideal(s) it sets off a chain reaction in our brains.  Especially so if the author, or even just the one repeating the words has greater perceived credibility than ourselves, be it due to fame or something equally as irrelevant and arbitrary.  The gears turn and the machine hums into life.
Somehow, knowing that others have shared the same idea seems to strengthen our own belief in it, as if these quotes serve as evidence to reinforce what we already think- as some form of confirmation bias.  But this is irrational, as prevalence of an idea doesn’t necessitate truth. 

Familiarity appears to have some kind of dampening effect on our ability to think clearly and analytically.  If both the author and the idea are familiar it becomes even harder to see beyond the associations we already have with the two.  So much so that we can become blinded and unable to view the words as a separate entity unto themselves, and to assess them on their own merits instead of on their packaging and method of delivery.

We often view people through a single filter, a single characteristic that rules over the way we perceive them.  Instead of someone seeming fragmented, changeable and varied, the filter acts as a shortcut, and consequently we are presented with what appears to be a fully formed and whole individual centred around a small number of significant or overriding traits.  
This is known as the ‘Halo effect’.  A crude example is believing that a person is ‘good’, intelligent, or otherwise likeable simply because they make music that you really enjoy.  For this reason it can be disappointing to meet your idols in real life.
The halo effect works for both positive and negative traits, with positive and negative associations, and as such has the potential to affect you in a wide range of instances.

A quote can be said to consist primarily of two things: the author or speaker of the words, and the words themselves.  Similarly, a kind of ‘halo effect’ may happen in the context of being presented with a quotation of any kind.  Our pre-formed beliefs about the author can act as the ‘halo’ over the words themselves, or if the author is entirely unknown and the words are where the familiarity lies, we may form ideas about the author as a whole, based on this single snippet of information.

Quotes are extremely biased and limiting, especially when you consider that they are often completely removed from their original context.  They become ambiguous poetry, open to interpretation and misinterpretation.

The use of quotes to express your own thoughts is like using a heart-shaped line to symbolize 'love' (an already ambiguous notion), or trying to write your autobiography using newspaper cuttings. 

Quotes are the shortcut to self expression that nobody need take.  As if language wasn’t already limiting enough, we resort not to recycling, but to pure regurgitation.  Random mutation through misquotes and incorrectly identified origins is always needed to stir things up a little and to put things into perspective.

Quotes are unrealistic, reading them is like looking at a sample of skin cells in order to determine a person’s height.  The sample size is simply too small.

Quotes seem to be exempt from scrutiny, as if protected by the quotation marks themselves.  Perhaps it is because we firstly process them as being 'true' by default, as a consequence of the way our brains function.  Upon being hypnotised it takes real deliberate effort to avoid automatically accepting what you read or hear.  The trouble seems to be that the work required in order to come to a more rational conclusion does not come naturally, as might be hoped or expected.

Quotes do well to reflect the idealistic and romantic notions that humans wish to believe in and propagate, as well as the more cynical and pessimistic side of things. 

Quotes serve as badges to announce group membership and simultaneously set people apart. 

Quotes appear in other forms too, as clichés and acts unconfined to words alone.

It means nothing to ‘be yourself’, but to act out your own personal set of clichés and influences, and to ‘quote’ those before you, either through conscious effort or subconscious conditioning.  There is no ‘self’ to speak of, just as there is no soul, no separate entity exerting a hidden force or manifesting itself through our thoughts, desires or actions. 

We have a complex body and a convoluted brain; all comprised of simple, basic elements that collectively serve to function in ways that are vastly different when viewed at the resulting ‘end’ levels.  The only mystery seems to lie in ignorance of this fact, as well as the underlying details of any 'mysterious' subject.

The flexibility of a bicycle chain appears analogous to the ‘personality’ or perception of ‘self’ that humans have.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Paper Friendships

Your friends aren’t worth the paper they’re written on.

If you were to be given a list of characteristics or traits that secretly described someone close to you, when asked to predict whether you would like the individual or not, I highly suspect that the results would often be contrary to the reality.  I say this because on occasion, the emotional connections between myself and another have been stripped away leaving the bare facts of the situation, devoid of disturbance and bias.  In these moments I realised that I was treating my comrades to the benefit of my double standards, distracted by the fact of friendship, cognitively blinded by their amiable familiarity.  Their words and actions all being passed through a separate filter, or group of filters reserved only for those I hold dear.

The purpose of analysing these occurrences in perhaps such a ‘cold’ manner is not to discover that your friends are equally big assholes as those you openly despise, but to bring further awareness to the manipulative methods at work in the background of your unconscious that have noticeable, and sometimes significant effects.

Unfortunately, Facebook users appear to suffer from similar effects caused by unintentional filter removal, whereby they are forced to confront the stark facts that almost 99% of their newsfeed contains utter garbage, and their friends are intolerable by equal measure.

When humans are reduced to exaggerated avatars, and stripped of all the other elements that combine to form presence, it becomes much easier to view them unempathetically.  Similarities between individuals have been shown to have a positive effect on interpersonal attraction, which seems to support the idea that uniforms have a dulling effect on our empathy when interacting with various people at work.  It's as if we must make a conscious effort to remind ourselves of our human similarities, and not to be persuaded by appearance.

In the same way that we allow our friends more leeway, those who we are unfamiliar with seem to be at a great disadvantage, as the filter appears to work in reverse.  We are much harsher in our judgments and stricter in the enforcement of our moral code.  Instead of looking for positive aspects to reinforce the ideas surrounding friendship, almost by default we are blind to them, especially if the ‘sworn enemy’ filter is in place.

All instances of a person acting in accordance with expectation will be highlighted over the negative cases, even though the former will often outweigh the latter in frequency.  This failure to take negative cases into consideration accounts for things such as the belief that dreams can predict the future, or other more subtle errors as in the example of saying that you ‘like’ or ‘dislike’ something.  When what you really mean is that on average, and to the best of your recollection, you have or haven’t had a positive experience of the person or thing in question.
By generalising you are whitewashing over the negative cases for the sake of convenience and to save on brainpower.  And sometimes we simply want to forget all the cases that do not conform to the desired or expected pattern. 

As for the predictive ability of dreams, out of the thousands we have during a lifetime we remember even less, but overall we will be more likely to recall those that are relevant to real life events, and to completely disregard the instances in which they have not ‘predicted the future’, and are otherwise deemed insignificant.  It may be more pleasing to hold onto the idea than to attribute it more realistically to coincidence and bias. 

The opportunities for coincidence to occur grow as time progresses (as sample size increases), and in the case of your irritating co-worker, the longer you spend with him, the greater the opportunity for you to confirm your biases.  Meanwhile the negative cases stack up, unacknowledged for their significance.

I have come across the mistaken belief that we only remember things which are worth remembering, and that if we forget something it is because either it was useless, or that we didn’t care (enough) about it in the first place.  This may just be a case of cognitive dissonance at work, where we feel the need to tell ourselves comforting stories to make up for the loss of important information due to our brains, and the processes we have no control over.  
Remember this next time someone tries to lay a guilt trip on you for forgetting their birthday. 

Ghost in The Machine

Man supposes that predictable processes and perfection of execution make machines, but he does so through anticipated means. ‘To err is human’ – an acknowledgement of certain faults, but also perhaps an indicator of the implicit attachment we have to our fallibility.

We distrust the seemingly mechanistic, and shun the notion that we err like clockwork.  I imagine that it prods the eternally sore spot that is our concept of free will and desire to believe in a ‘soul’.  It seems difficult to come to terms with the idea that the most complex things we know can be explained and understood by reducing them to their constituent parts and the interactions between them.  

Reductionism leaves no need for mysterious, immeasurable forces to account for any part of the process once each layer has been systematically stripped away through explanation.
The workings of an average home computer are a complete mystery to the majority of those who use them, yet most of us would not infer that there is magic at work as a result of our ignorance.  We understand that a computer is simply a complex machine, and that although its unseen process are unknown to us, they are knowable, and we have a vague understanding that all this is the case.  But we have little attachment to computers because they are merely man-made, and for that reason they are inherently soulless and without mystery, unless you are a Bagobo for instance - Bagobos, an indigenous Philippine ethnic group in Mindanao, believe that all things possess a gimokud or soul, including man-made objects.”

I think we take a great deal of comfort from the idea that we are superior to the systems we run on, that we are the users who possess ultimate control.  And since we wish to avoid any feelings of powerlessness it may come as a huge blow to be informed (and to misunderstand the ramifications) of the various ways in which we have no choice when it comes to our biology, and in particular our brains/minds.  For this reason alone it appears to make sense to insulate yourself from the facts, or anything that might cause you to arrive at the conclusion that the idea of freewill is entirely misleading.  Real powerlessness arises from a combination of ignorance and overconfidence, and from the misuse of humility.

A lack of awareness of the many ways in which we are mechanistic, both on a physical level of systems, and on a behavioural one, doesn’t result in us being immune to them.  While it may be more comforting (or at least the expectation is that it would be so) to remain ignorant, it seems that we hold the belief that our ignorance has the power to change the facts of the situation.  In a sense we think that what we don’t know can’t hurt us, when in reality it is the exact opposite.  We are hampered not only by our ignorance, but more importantly by our refusal to confront, accept and rectify it. 

I wondered what it would like to get a new brain, an updated version that didn’t distort information in the way that my current model does, to have a total memory upgrade so that I could have perfect recall of any information, even after receiving it only once.   It would be ‘inhuman’ of me to simply ‘copy’ and ‘paste’ from my brain without difficulty or error, to never make a mistake in that regard.  To have the ability to recognise and remove biases and aberrations caused by emotion, to talk in a straightforward and factually accurate way about all things, without a hint of unnecessary metaphor or poetic embellishment.
When you live through and inside your head it’s easy to forget that there is an ‘out there’ which is the initiator of your experiences, and that the words you use to communicate with are signposts to reality, but not the reality itself.

Our humanity seems to be largely attributed to our faults, our irrational behaviours, fallibility and general wrongness.  It’s no surprise then, that when our mistakes are highlighted we hold up our hands in resignation and say ‘I’m only human’.

In order for you to have any intelligent argument against transhumanism you have to take a real hard look at what it is you think that makes you, you.  How much can you take away or change, and still remain ‘yourself’?  To challenge the idea that a consistent ‘self’ even exists, and to examine what beliefs you have been unknowingly harbouring that prevent you from accepting the ideas proposed by transhumanism.  

I’m not pro- transhumanism, but I haven’t yet come across a convincing argument against it.  To suppose that ‘upgrading’ yourself would make life pointless is to suppose that life currently has a purpose, and that it would be irreversibly destroyed in the process.  Whether the purpose or goals you assign yourself change due to ‘natural’ advancement or through assistance seems irrelevant.  In winter I’ll choose the ‘thermal underwear upgrade’ every time, over wishing to be naturally equipped for unassisted survival in all conditions.

Not long ago this idea of ‘natural’ being synonymous with ‘good’ was something I greatly suffered from believing in.  But I thank God for the conditioning which grants me the willingness to change, and for the circumstances which allow me access to the means for doing so.