….does what my mind tells it to do.
The section I just read from Homo Deus talks about free will. We as humans pride ourselves as unique amongst all beings on Earth because our free well, our ability to choose. Harari argues that free will is an myth, as much a fiction as any Disney fairy tail. How do we choose? How do we make any decision? It’s all based on algorithms we go through in our heads (mostly unconsciously). Things we like. Things we avoid. All of it has a reason behind it. I choose to do certain things because the story I tell myself about myself says I should do it. That story is informed by my experiences, which are decided by my previous story. Every word I’m choosing to write at the moment is based on my personal story of who I am, which was created by my past experiences, which were based on my personal story at the time, etc. etc. from the time I was born.
To further the argument Harari describes experiments currently being done on rats. Using implanted electrodes, scientists have been able to basically remote control rats to go through mazes, climb ladders etc. This may seem cruel to some, but supposedly the rats don’t experience any pain or discomfort, in fact they feel rather euphoric. They don’t feel as if someone is controlling them, rather the electrodes stimulate the brain in such ways that the rats want to do “as they’re told.” Are we as humans much different? We are encouraged to act according to our true selves. To do what feels good. Are we not just responding to electrical impulses in our brains?
All that being said, not all algorithms are not definite. Existence is not predetermined. Our “choices” have a random component to them and are partially influenced by random events outside our control. That uncertainty/ randomness is where our feelings of choice and will comes from. Perhaps humans do not have “free will” in the sense of complete autonomy. But what really is the difference between my brain telling me to do something and my self telling me to do it. If nothing else at least we can take solace in that our fates are not predestined, maybe, though of course there is no way to see one way or another with absolute certainty.
When’s all’s said and done, this is kind of a useless discussion for various reasons, but it’s interesting to think about.
I recently finished season 4 of the Amazon Prime series, The Expanse. Briefly, its about the social, political, economic, cultural, etc. tension between the people of Earth, Mars, and the Asteroid Belt far into the future (obviously). The show is interesting and draws on a lot of themes that are relevant to modern society and societies of the past. I’m not here to talk about any of that though, go watch it yourself, I highly recommended it (despite the coming comments).
While I think the story overall is captivating and interesting, some of the writing tries too hard in my lowly opinion. There is a lot unnecessary swearing and overall brutish character interactions. Sometimes it’s like, why the heck are you yelling? And it feels like they want some characters to spew expletives just for the sake of being edgy. For example, Chrisjen Avasarala (for those who have seen it) is an old lady and government official who swear like (worse) than a sailor; I get that maybe they are trying to make her seem badass and no-nonsense, but sometimes is just too much. She averages at least one F-bomb per sentence and it really takes you out of the scene sometimes. I’m not saying I prefer she didn’t swear, I’m just saying I’d believe it more if they toned it down some. There are better, more subtle, and frankly more tasteful ways to show her character’s strong personality.
Also I think the main character, James Holden, might be the dumbest guy in the universe.
Every time I pass that room
I expect to see you lying there.
Already staring at me with those eyes
That everyone thought were scary.
I always thought they were sweet.
If only they stared a little longer
And saw past the sagging red lids
To your amber eyes.
They would know how sweet and gentle you really were,
And how you hated thunder.
People always look to the past to validate present actions. We look to the Bible to tell us what’s right and what wrong. We look to the Constitution. We look to our ancestors. But just because something is old doesn’t mean it’s good. The world is ever changing and our approach to life needs to change with it.
The people who wrote the Bible had no conception of modern problems and neither did the framers of the Constitution. You could argue some things are timeless and absolute, but that to me is just plain lazy. That mindset ignores the complexities of reality.
Example: Climate change is bad. Deforestation is a big contributing factor. Therefore people who cut down trees are bad and should be condemned.
It’s easy to place blame on them and shame them for being morally deficient.
But, what if those people are cutting down trees to pay medical bills for their family? What if, because of circumstances they were born into, they have no other option if they want to survive.
The Bible says not to plant two kinds of crops together or wear blended fabrics. So chances are we’re all heathen or heretics.
Similarly ridiculous “rules” can be found in the Constitution. But the Constitution has evolved as society evolved. And so have interpretations of the Bible.
We try to find answers in ancient texts because it takes responsibility out of our hands and places it into the hands of an immaterial body. It makes sense though. That’s how things work. It’s harder to believe the opinion of a single person than it is the opinion of century/millenia-old collectives. And yes, there is a reason these ideologies are so old, it’s not completely arbitrary. But the reason many of them survived and thrived was because of their ability to adapt with a changing world not fight it. What happens when our interpretations fail to change as society changes? (much of this is a big idea from Homo Deus). From our days as hunter-gatherers to the present, the prevailing belief systems always matched the technologies and cultures of the time. Those that failed to adapt were forgotten or simply exist as memories of primitive societies.
It can be scary to be a dreamer nowadays. Apart from the doubt, the fear, the people telling you that you can’t do it, there is also the uncertainty that there will be an adequate future for you to see those dreams fulfilled. We are on the verge of ecological Armageddon, and whether or not we manage to avoid it, that future will likely look very different than the world we live in now.
But when I say “dream danger,” I’m not saying that the dreams are in danger, rather we are in danger from dreams. Our dreams are very much influenced by the avarice of our society and our culture. Many of our dreams include not just personal growth, but personal economic growth. We want big houses, nice cars, extravagant parties, and exotic vacations. These dreams fuel the very economic growth that threatens humanity and all life on this planet.
This is not meant to be a censure on dreams and aspirations, but when did personal growth become synonymous with wealth? Why do we think we need exorbitant amounts of stuff (which create exorbitant amounts of waste) to be happy ? Those aren’t the dreams of people, those are the dreams of corporations and the religion of capitalism, and we’ve fallen prey to their marketing schemes.
It’s true, economic growth and capitalism has afforded humanity countless benefits, and we would not be equipped to face our modern problems without it. But I think it is time for us to take a step back and take a critical look at the ideas and institutions that truly govern our lives in the 21st century.
Our own needs and emotions are the only ones that we are acutely aware of and that we know exist beyond a shadow of a doubt. Therefore to us, our own choices and actions are completely rational. That’s why it is so easy to find fault in others before ourselves. And then we tell ourselves stories about all those other people. That driver who cut me off is stupid. This waiter is so lazy. My S.O. is clueless and negligent.
The stories we tell ourselves about others are seldom true, and yet those are the stories we usually believe. This often leaves us bitter and angry, but also with a sense of self-righteousness that helps justify the bitterness and anger.
Those stories are more often a reflection on ourselves than the people they are supposed to be about. What if we let people tell their own stories? What if we stopped trying to tell others what they believe? What if we valued understanding and truth over being right? What if we chose to evaluate ourselves, before condemning others?
Perhaps we are afraid to look to carefully in the mirror because we are afraid of what we’ll see.
Yesterday I had a conversation with a couple friends that started out about finance and then evolved into a discussion about long-term goals/ dreams/ values. One of them said that he absolutely does not want kids. His primary goals were to be financially secure and live a long, happy, and healthy life. While my own ideas for my future are not much different, my vision for that future is very different. We are all doing the best we can and we are all trying to do what makes us happy, either in the long run, or the short run, or both.
What does it mean to be happy? Is Jeff Bezos really happier than me? I feel like I’m pretty content right now so, but if wealth is a gauge of happiness, he must be on fucking cloud 11. Obviously, there’s more to happiness than money. The Book of Joy, with the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu, outlines some guidelines for happiness (“7 Pillars of Joy”), and tends on the side of happiness defined by a lack of want and an inner peace; living with compassion, acceptance, etc. The book I’m reading now, Homo Deus, by Yuval Noah Harari, talks about happiness from a biological perspective. Happiness is a feeling produced by chemicals in our brain. The release of those chemicals can be stimulated in a variety of ways. Certain ways are conservative, others are more turbulent, and some simply unsustainable.
It seems that modes of thinking and attitudes can also influence biological happiness. Two people can respond to the exact same event with very different emotions depending on their mindsets. One may respond a shortage of spicy chicken sandwiches at fast food restaurant with anger and frustration, while another embraces the ordeal as a chance to practice patience and gratitude. But what orients us to one attitude/ mindset over another? Is it past experience? Prediction of potential future events? By what mechanism(s) do our brain cells evaluate outcomes? Is it all just pain and pleasure? Are these questions even worth thinking about? Right now I want to say it’s almost like an optimization problem with various inputs influencing each other and ultimately influencing our choices to maximize our biological happiness and minimize our biological pain/ suffering.