5 Philosophical Questions Life Forces You to Answer

Like it or not, life makes philosophers of us all. You may hate philosophy, but you can’t escape it. You can — as many people do — outsource how you answer these questions, but that still requires a decision.

5.) How do I know a thing is true?  Sometimes the answer is self-evident, but, more often then people acknowledge, it’s not. This is exacerbated by the confusion of subjective truth (a personal “truth”) with objective truth (the universally true.)

Some people relinquish decision to an authority — be it a teacher, a scripture, or the scientific consensus. Some people only believe what said person’s personal experience tells them.

There is a related question of how tightly should one hold onto whatever beliefs one acts as if are true. The scientific approach suggests one should be ready to abandon something one believes is true in light of new information (assuming the new information is sound and can be validated.) Religions tend to prefer that the truths that have been handed down should be grasped firmly no matter what one sees, hears, or learns. One’s philosophical stance may take either approach, or one in between.

4.) [Who] am I?  As the brackets suggest, this is actually two questions. The full question, “Who am I?” presumes that there is a self (an I.) Some philosophies, e.g. Buddhism, reject this presumption, hence the more fundamental question of “Is there an I?”

3.) What constitutes a virtuous or moral life? Of course, some philosophies would reject the ingrained presumption that one should care, but that’s a fringe position. Maybe the more general question of “What constitutes a good life?” is a better one.

2.) What does it mean for something to be real? Some will say, “Come on. I know what’s real. I don’t need to philosophize about that?” Really? Because the best minds in the world are constantly debating this and have reached no consensus on the subject. It’s certainly possible to get through life behaving as though reality is “x,” whether or not “x” turns out to be true. But that’s very different from knowing what is true.

1.) Is there free will, and — if so — in what sense?  It feels like we have complete free will, but there are a couple of grounds on which this has been questioned. For the religious, reconciling an omnipotent god and free will takes some mental gymnastics. (If one can act completely freely, how can a god also?)

But more recently, free will has been challenged by science as well. Benjamin Libet’s work showed that “decisions” take place before people become conscious of them, and — therefore — aren’t decisions in the sense we usually understand that word (i.e. the product of conscious deliberation.) Of course, while some have argued that the repeated validation of Libet’s work shows free will is purely an illusion, there remain many who argue there are still possible ways in which some form of free will exists. (Including, apparently, Libet who believed we at least have “free won’t” even if we don’t have free will — i.e. we can consciously veto deterministic “decisions.”)

Best of luck picking — or building — your own life philosophy.

5 Bizarre Moral Dilemmas for Your Kids to Worry Over

5.) Can “innocent until proven guilty” survive the next generation of predictive models?

I started thinking about this post as I was reading Dean Haycock’s book Murderous Minds, which is a book about the neuroscience of psychopathy. In that book, the author evokes The Minority Report, a Philip K. Dick story turned into a Tom Cruise movie about a police agency that uses three individuals who can see the future in order to prevent violent crimes before they happen. Haycock isn’t suggesting that precognition will ever be a tool to predict crime, but what if a combination of genetics, epigenetics, brain imaging, and other technology reached the point where the tendency toward violent psychopathy (not redundant, most psychopaths function fine in society and don’t commit crimes) could be predicted with a high degree of accuracy. [Note: unlike the Tom Cruise movie, no one is suggesting all violent crime could be anticipated because a lot of it is committed by people with no risk factors whatsoever.] One is likely to first go to the old refrain (Blackstone’s Formulation) that it’s better that 10 guilty men escape justice than one innocent man be punished. Now, imagine a loved one was killed by a person who was known to have a 99% likelihood of committing a violent crime?

Of course, one doesn’t have to lock the high-risk individuals away in prison. What about laws forcing one to take either non-invasive or invasive actions (from meditation retreats to genetic editing) to reduce one’s risk factors? That’s still a presumption of guilt based on a model that  — given the vagaries of the human condition — could never be perfectly accurate.

 

4.) What does “trusted news source” mean in a world in which media outlets tailor their messages to support confirmation bias and avoid ugly cognitive dissonance? (i.e. to give viewers the warm-fuzzy [re: superior] feeling that keeps them watching rather than the messy, uneasy feelings that makes them prefer to bury their heads in sand and ignore any realities that conflict with their beliefs.) Arguably, this isn’t so much a problem for the next generation as for the present one. The aforementioned sci-fi legend, Philip K. Dick, addressed the idea of media manipulation in his stories as far back as the 1950’s. However, it’s a problem that could get much worse as computers get more sophisticated at targeting individuals with messages tailored to their personal beliefs and past experiences. What about if it goes past tweaking the message to encourage readership to manipulating the reader for more nefarious ends? I started to think about this when I got the i-Phone news feed which is full of provocative headlines designed to make one click, and — if one doesn’t click — one will probably come away with a completely false understanding of the realities of the story. As an example, I recently saw a headline to the effect of “AI can predict your death with 95% accuracy.” It turns out that it can only make this prediction after one has shown up in an emergency room and had one’s vital statistics taken and recorded. [Not to mention “95% accuracy” being completely meaningless — e.g. in what time frame — minute of death, day, year, decade? I can come up with the century of death with 95% accuracy, myself, given a large enough group.]

 

3.) When is it acceptable to shut down a self-aware Artificial Intelligence (AI), and — more importantly — will it let you?  This is the most obvious and straightforward of the issues in this post. When is something that not only thinks but is aware of its thoughts considered equivalent to a human being for moral purposes, if ever?

 

2.) When is invisible surveillance acceptable / preferable? This idea came from a talk I heard by a Department of Homeland Security employee, back when I worked for Georgia Tech. He told us that the goal is eventually to get rid of the security screening checkpoints at the airport and have technology that would screen one as one walked down a corridor toward one’s gate. At first this sounds cool and awesome. No taking belts and shoes off. No running bags through metal detectors. No having to pitch your water bottle. No lines. No dropping your laptop because you’re precariously balancing multiple plastic bins and your carry-on luggage. [I don’t know if they would tackle one to the ground for having a toenail clipper in one’s bag or not, but — on the whole — this scheme seems awesome.] But then you realize that you’re being scanned to the most minute detail without your awareness.

One also has to consider the apathy effect. If one can make an activity painless, people stop being cognizant of it. Consider the realm of taxation. If you’re pulling a well-defined chunk of pay out of people’s income, they keep their eye on how much you’re taking. If you can bury that tax — e.g. in the price of goods or services, then people become far less likely to recognize rate changes or the like.

 

1.) If society can reduce pedophilic sexual abuse by allowing the production and dissemination of virtual reality child pornography (computer generated imagery only, no live models used, think computer games), should we? This idea is discussed in Jesse Bering’s book, Perv. It’s not a completely hypothetical question. There is some scholarly evidence that such computer-made pornography can assuage some pedophiles’ urges. However, the gut reaction of many [probably, most] people is “hell no!” It’s a prime example of emotion trumping reason. If you can reduce the amount of abuse by even a marginal amount, shouldn’t you do so given a lack of real costs / cons (i.e. presuming the cost of the material would be paid by the viewer, the only real cost to the public would be the icky feeling of knowing that such material exists in the world?)

Even imaginary monsters get bigger if you feed them

Public domain image sourced from Wikipedia

Public domain image of Epictetus, sourced from Wikipedia

There’s a story about Epictetus infuriating a member of the Roman gentry by asking, “Are you free?”

 

(Background for those not into Greek and Roman philosophy. Epictetus was a Roman slave who gained his freedom to become one of the preeminent teachers of stoicism. Stoicism is a philosophy that tells us that it’s worthless to get tied up in emotional knots over what will, won’t, or has happened in life. For Stoics, there are two kinds of events. Those one can do something about and those that one can’t. If an event is of the former variety, one should put all of one’s energy into doing what one can to achieve a preferable (and virtuous) outcome. If an event is of the latter variety, it’s still a waste of energy to get caught up in emotional turbulence. Take what comes and accept the fact that you had no ability to make events happen otherwise.)

 

To the man insulted by Epictetus, his freedom was self-evident. He owned land. He could cast a vote. He gave orders to slaves and laborers, and not the other way around. What more could one offer as proof of one’s freedom? Of course, he missed Epictetus’s point. The question wasn’t whether the man was free from external oppressors, but whether he was free from his own fears? Was he locked into behavior because he didn’t have the courage to do otherwise?

 

I recently picked up a book on dream yoga by a Tibetan Lama, Tenzin Wangyal Rinpoche. Lucid dreaming has been one of my goals as of late. I wasn’t expecting to learn anything new about practices to facilitate lucid dreaming because I’ve been reading quite a bit about the science, recently. I just thought that it would be interesting to see how the Tibetan approach to lucid dreaming maps to that of modern-day psychology. Tibetan Buddhists are–after all–the acknowledged masters of dream yoga, and have a long history of it. Furthermore, I’ve been doing research about the science behind “old school” approaches to mind-body development, lately. At any rate, it turns out that there were several new preparatory practices that I picked up and have begun to experiment with, and one of them is relevant to this discussion.

 

This will sound a little new-agey at first, but when you think it out it makes sense. The exercise is to acknowledge the dream-like quality of one’s emotionally charged thoughts during waking life. Consider an example: You’re driving to an important meeting. You hit a couple long red lights. You begin to think about how, if you keep hitting only red lights, you’re going to be late and it’s going to look bad to your boss or client. As you think about this you begin to get anxious.  But there is no more reality in the source of your fear than there is when you see a monster in your dreams. There’s a potentiality, not a reality. Both the inevitability of being late and the monster are projections of your mind, and yet tangible physiological responses are triggered (i.e. heart rate up, digestion interfered with, etc.) It should be noted the anxiety isn’t without purpose. It’s designed to kick you into planning mode, to plan for the worst-case scenario. Cumulatively, one can get caught up in a web of stress that has a negative impact on one’s health and quality of life.  For most people, when they arrive on time, they forget all about their anxiety and their bodily systems will return to the status quo, until the next time (which might be almost immediately.) Some few will obsess about the “close call” and how they should have planned better, going full-tilt into a stress spiral.

 

Mind states have consequences, whether or not they’re based in reality. I’ve always been befuddled by something I read about Ernest Hemingway. He’d won a Nobel Prize for Literature and was universally regarded as one of the masters of American literature, but he committed suicide because he feared he’d never be able to produce works on the level that he’d written as a younger man. There seems to be more to it than that. Many others managed to comfortably rest on their laurels when writing became hard[er]–including writers with much less distinguished careers.  The monster may be imaginary, but if you feed it, it still gets bigger.

 

As you go about your day, try to notice your day-dreams, mental wanderings, and the emotional states they suggest. You might be surprised to find how many of them have little basis in reality. They are waking dreams.

Reflections on Vietnam

IMG_0122I was five when Saigon fell. So I can’t say that I remember the war as breaking news. However, by the time I was coming into adulthood, Vietnam remained front and center in the American psyche. Many of the most prominent movies on the war came out when I was in high school or shortly thereafter (e.g. Platoon (1986), Full Metal Jacket (1987), Bat 21 (1988), Casualties of War (1989), and Born on the Fourth of July (1989).) Even films that weren’t explicitly or solely about the war often featured characters transformed by its crucible (e.g. Lt. Dan from Forrest Gump.)

 

It wasn’t just cinema. While many of the most prominent books on the war came out in the 70’s and early 80’s, bestsellers were still coming out during my early adult life (e.g. The Things They Carried (1990) and We Were Soldiers Once… and Young (1992).) Even once the war wasn’t news anymore, discussion of the aftershocks continued to grace news and talk shows. I do remember my father watching an episode of 60 Minutes  which showed footage of helicopters being pushed off of aircraft carriers into the sea as American forces steamed back home. I have no idea what that story was about (perhaps the ecological and environmental effects of the war,) I just thought it was too bad that they were destroying perfectly good whirly-gigs.

 

Terms like “the fall of Saigon” were etched into my consciousness before I had any capacity to understand them. It fell from what? To what? I didn’t know. It’s a city, right? How can a city fall? Balls fall. People fall. Dinner plates, unfortunately, fall. Of course, I’d eventually be taught what it meant, and would mistakenly think I knew what it meant for many years. I thought it meant the defeat of those forces that would keep Vietnam from becoming a totalitarian dystopia akin to the Soviet Union or, even more apropos, Kim dynasty North Korea. Sure enough, one side–the side that America had supported–had been defeated, but otherwise this “fall” was false.

 

IMG_0411As one walks around Saigon today, passing a few Starbucks, a Carl’s Jr, and innumerable Circle-Ks, it’s difficult to imagine how a victory by the other side would have resulted in a more entrepreneurial or vibrant Vietnam. The college kids at the dinner, largely ignoring the friends around them in favor of texting someone else on their iPhones, seem strikingly like their counterparts in Bangalore and Atlanta. They seem mirthful and exuberant. A tour guide lets fly little criticisms about the bureaucracy, and nobody sweeps in and throws a black hood over his head. People just don’t seem scared, brainwashed, or crazy, and–believe me–everybody who survives in North Korea fits one of those criteria. (While I’ve been impressed by cool, gregarious, and well-spoken North Korean diplomats; they’re always accompanied by a sinewy, mirthless “assistant” who I’m pretty sure has a syringe of strychnine in his pocket to silence the diplomat if he goes off script.)

 

I’m aware that it’s difficult to see the dysfunctions of a nation as a traveler or tourist. I also realize that–to twist Tolstoy– “All happy nations are alike; each unhappy nation is unhappy in its own way.” However, what Tolstoy’s quote doesn’t convey is that all families are unhappy in some measure–and the same is true of nations. However, it’s easy enough to see extremes of dysfunction. That’s why the Kims mostly keep foreigners out of the DPRK and carefully select and manage the experience of those they do let in. It’s difficult to imagine a degree to which things could be better in Vietnam that would have made the cost of that war worth it.

 

I also know that hindsight is 20/20, but where fear runs rampant foresight is 20/100 with a nasty astigmatism. In my International Affairs graduate program, I specialized in asymmetric warfare, writing a thesis entitled, “Playing a Poor Hand Well.” While my thesis didn’t focus on Vietnam, one can’t study asymmetric warfare without learning a thing or two about the Vietnam war. One learns that the mathematical, attrition rate-based formulas that analysts love are worthless in deciding a victor when one side is fighting in their backyard and the other is fighting in a place of marginal importance to a population who mostly couldn’t point said country out on a map. Will matters. What made America take on such a burden on the other side of the world?  Many feared a domino effect. If Vietnam was lost to the forces of communism, soon we’d be surrounded by tyrannical totalitarian states blaring “one of us, one of us…” through loudspeakers until we relented–or something like that. In retrospect, it seems like an astounding lack of faith in the appeal of democracy and rule of law, but that’s what happens when one stews in one’s fears.

 

What worries me is that I still see a desire to make mountainous threats out of mere ant hills.

 

 

 

 

10 Easy Pieces of Wisdom: and, Why “Secret Wisdom” is Bullshit

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Having lived in India–land of sages–for over a year now, one may wonder whether enlightenment has taken hold. Let me share some of the nuggets I’ve gleaned. This isn’t what I found chiseled on walls in Sanskrit. It’s what living and thinking in the modern world have wrought.

 

1.) Anger is just fear in a red dress.

It’s all just frustration / unease / discontent with one’s limited domain of control.

On a related note, I read a relevant quote from Irmgard Schloegl recently: “Look at getting mad from this perspective. If you had but five more minutes to live, and it would still be worth getting mad over, then by all means do so.”

 

2.) Secret paths to wisdom are bullshit–the theory is simple the practice is arduous.

It all boils down to living in the moment more, being aware of your mind, and exercising your will.

First, you start becoming aware that you were recently a jackass.

Next, you begin to realize you’re in the process of being a jackass.

Then realize that you’re about to be a jackass–but you can’t help yourself and end up with jackass’s remorse.

Finally, you begin to preempt your inner jackass.

The latter is wisdom, and it’s not for lazy people who like shortcuts.

 

3.) There’s no ratchet effect on wisdom–no one-way trip to enlightenment or nirvana.

Either you accept that life is a glorious lifelong struggle to be the best version of yourself, or you wallow in a sty of mediocrity.

 

4.) The words “just a…”–as Catholic nuns say of masturbation–result in immediate blindness.

There’s nothing that will blind you to the deepest beauty of a person, place, or animal faster than saying it’s “just a…”

 

5.) Stop thinking of the body as an “empty vessel.”

It results in your treating it like a rental car. You aren’t a bar of gold being hauled around in a manure spreader. You were endowed with a Rolls Royce with on-board access to a Cray super-computer, and you risk turning into a Yugo with an abacus when you fail to keep it tuned and quietly revel in its magnificence.

 

6.) If a teacher is happy that his students  almost reach his level, he’s part of a dying tradition.

In a growth tradition, some students will surpass their teachers, and that’s only likely if the teacher wants it to be that way.

 

7.)  Be a scalable hero.

Human beings are terrified by their smallness, impermanence, and ultimate insignificance. In geologic time, everybody is an inconsequential blip. You can’t get around this, but you can pick a scale of time and space in which you matter. That space is here, and that time is now. In the here and now, you can be a giant–figuratively, of course. Here and now you can’t be everybody’s hero, but you can be somebody’s.

 

8.) Start your pursuit of virtue by doing no harm.

Begin being virtuous by capturing the advantage in those quiet moments that need nothing but a lack of interference or insinuation. Then go on to active expressions of virtue.

 

9.) Vicarious living ain’t living.

Don’t sit around watching others live life.

 

10.) Don’t count yourself free if your impulses overwhelm your conscious mind.

People worry a lot about the control that external forces and authorities exercise over their ability to act, but often spend far too little time on whether they’re working towards liberating themselves from raw impulse, habit, and reactionary living. Epictetus used to piss high society types off by asking them whether they thought they were truly free.

If you’ve been following the science of free will, you’ll know that the current prevailing thought lands against the notion of free will. This is because brain imaging has made it possible to see how decisions are biochemically made before the mind consciously ruminates and “makes a decision.” However, the verdict is still out. The question isn’t whether we ever fail to exercise conscious free will. Of course, there are many times we fail to, maybe even most times. The whole point of emotions is to help us make decisions without adequate information to make rationally optimized decision. However, the question is whether we can learn to exercise free will. Scientist long ago verified that some yogis and monks can exercise conscious control over autonomic bodily functions (e.g. controlling heart rate from a static position.)

 

There it is: wisdom for the modern age stuffed in a nutshell of bullet points.

 

 

 

TODAY’S RANDOM THOUGHT: “That” Doesn’t Make You So Mad

Source: Avengers Movie

Source: Avengers movie

“That makes me so mad!” One hears it all the time. It has to be among the most commonly uttered phrases in the realm of emotional experience. And, of course, it’s completely and utterly wrong. Your anger is a wholly contained neurochemical response. To credit something external with your anger is to grant that person or thing power over you–to enslave yourself. (Stoic philosopher, and former slave, Epictetus was known to piss off gentlemen citizens by asking them if they were “really free.”)

 

This isn’t to say there isn’t just anger.  However, think about what emotions are. Our emotions are a system evolutionarily evolved to allow us to make decisions with limited or no information. Without emotions our species, if we ever came to be, would have likely become extinct by way of “paralysis by analysis.” We know that happens to people who have neurological damage that keeps them from experiencing emotion. You might think they would become cold and rational Mr. Spocks, but the defining characteristic of such people is that they become paralyzed by indecision. It turns out that we make a lot of decisions with limited information or from an inability to determine a clear winner by way of facts and reason. Emotion plays and important role in those cases.

 

Chances are that if your immediate gut reaction to something is anger, you probably haven’t worked out a rational argument for your preference. If one has a clear line of reasoning rooted in fact, anger isn’t necessary to justify a position or decision. If your gut reaction to something is emotional, see whether you can  noodle out a rational reason before you swing into too rash an action…. unless the crosstown bus is careening at you.

 

 

 

TODAY’S RANDOM THOUGHT: Narrow Escapes

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Every living soul exists by virtue of an ancestor who narrowly escaped death. Someone in your family tree refused to quit during an onslaught by predators, as war raged on ceaselessly, or while clinging to the side of a cliff.

That potential now remains dormant.

TODAY’S RANDOM THOUGHT: Blind Dog

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This dog followed us around during our tea plantation walk in Munnar. It was a fine-looking dog with a warm disposition. It seemed quite healthy, except for the fact that it was missing its left eye.

This made me think. If you take in a blind dog, does that make you its seeing eye human?

TODAY’S RANDOM THOUGHT: Be the Change

IMG_1501Gandhi is credited with saying, “Be the change you wish to see in the world.”

That’s powerful phrasing. It’s much more effective than, say: “Nag your friends until they’re the change you desire.” It’s also far more potent than: “Write your legislator to draft a new bill so that we all have to be the change you wish to see.”

It’s powerful because it acknowledges that–whatever else you do–you have to set a good example by doing what you think is right. Even if that”s painful and lonely. It’s powerful because it’s bold.

That’s why it sticks in the mind. I once read an entire book by a well-known billionaire who made his fortune in foreign currency arbitrage. I was underwhelmed by the book and the character of the author, and don’t even remember the title because I remember thinking the title should have been: “Why It Should Be Illegal to do What I Did.” This individual came to believe it was morally repugnant to upset the economies of entire nations to make a quick buck, but the lure of making that buck was too great for him to stop without the threat that someone would put him in jail for it. In other words, instead of living by the motto of “be the change,” he lived  by the motto of “If I don’t do it, someone else will.”

TODAY’S RANDOM THOUGHT: Smart TV Still Leads to Stupid

smartTVI learned the terms “hot media” and “cool media” during my weekend reading. These terms were coined by Marshall McLuhan, and don’t seem to have caught on outside of academia.

 

Hot media are information sources that are packed with data (often simultaneously transmitted to multiple sensory organs at once), and that require little or no interpretation or analysis on the part of the recipient. Television and movies are prime examples.

 

Cool media are those information sources that offer relatively little data, but which require the receiver to interpret, interpolate, analyse, and draw conclusions about the information they receive.  Books are the prime example of cool media.

 

There are people who proudly say, “I don’t have the time to read, but I only watch the Discovery Channel and Public Broadcasting.” If you think you’re getting smarter just like readers, you’re not. You’re still mainlining information, and the parts of your brain that have to exercise when you read (or otherwise take in information in an abstract form) are shut down.

 

 

I’m not suggesting one shouldn’t watch television, or that you can’t learn something from it. I’m just saying that if you don’t read, but try to educate yourself via TV, you are the intellectual version of this guy…

 

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