"The success of Homo sapiens as a species is built on our inability to tell the difference between a fiction and a reality."
~ Yuval Noah Harari
Grant Health and Fitness Center, January 28, 2014
by Daron Larson
An imaginary woman—
a voice that communicates
the impression of female
—invites me to enter my digits
She remains inordinately polite
in word choice and tone
regardless of my ability
to fulfill her desire for my data
I didn't quite get that
I sense the presence
of a sophisticated algorithm
calculating the odds of my legitimacy
I am at her mercy
Please try again
But she can't know
I'm assessing her for fraud
even as I'm being monitored
for virtual trespasses against her
Please stay on the line
Your call is important to us
There is much talk on screens these days
about computer programs evolving
Some predict its inevitability
based on laws governing exponential increase
We forget how difficult it remains
for us to accurately convey
the direct experience of loneliness
given the constraints of language
This is not limited to storage bandwidth or process speed
but speaks of the capacity for embodying the ineffable
You're important to me
I'm so sorry
I'm not afraid of the machines
we create in our own image
I fear our shared tendency
to overlook the intangible
sparks that signal our humanity
Exceprts from "Teilhard de Chardin's 'Planetary Mind' and Our Spiritual Evolution," On Being, Jan. 23, 2014:
In these confused and restless zones in which present blends with future in a world of upheaval, we stand face to face with all the grandeur, the unprecedented grandeur, of the phenomenon of man. What has made us so different from our forebears, so ambitious too, and so worried, is not merely that we have discovered and mastered other forces of nature. It is that we have become conscious of the movement which is carrying us along. Let us look carefully and try to understand. And to do so, let us probe beneath the surface and try to decipher the particular form of mind which is coming to birth in the womb of the earth today.
The milieu in the French sense is the center, but we also use milieu in terms of the environment. Something comes together, like in a diamond...but then it radiates throughout the entire. God is everywhere, in a sense, hidden, not visible, but somehow reachable.
The Divine Milieu is a wonderful phrase. I think he has this dynamic awareness from his evolutionary approach. One could call his spirituality also an evolutionary spirituality, as some people do. And he feels that we are today at a very, very important threshold of immerging into a new phase of humanization, of becoming human, in a different way from the way our forebears were.
They pull from the future and towards the future. And he's less and less interested in the past and more and more interested in where are we going, what are we doing with the potential we have, with the imagination, the creativity, the consciousness, the complexification of people thinking together and acting together. What is all this aiming for?
Teilhard de Chardin thought of Christianity primarily as Christian love and as the leading edge of a belief system that was capable of uniting people from all walks of life based upon love. I don't think we're any more spiritually advanced today than during Teilhard's time. I think in some ways we've gone backwards. And when we think of what it means for spirituality to be the leading edge of evolution, we need to understand what spirituality means, what words such as spirit and soul actually mean and why we're impelled to use them in everyday life. And when we do that, I think we can come up with a very satisfying meaning for them, which need not require a belief in supernatural agents.
We can speak frankly about having a soul and even our groups having a soul, our cities having a soul, and even the planet having a soul. That actually can have a straightforward meaning...
Evolution only sees action. Whatever goes on in the head is invisible to evolution unless it is manifested in terms of what people do. So if what's inside your head, if your meaning system does not cause you to act in the right way, then it is not very good as a meaning system.
We want a meaning system that causes us to be highly motivated to act and, of course, do the right thing. And in modern life, that needs to be highly respectful of the facts of the world. And then we also need to have values that we're more aware of than ever before and we must then use those values to consult those facts in order to plan our actions basically in a world that's increasingly complex and which requires management at a planetary scale.
I share his optimism overall. I think our potential for good as a species has always dominated the potential for bad in the end and this just amplifies those same tendencies. None of the issues that we face on the internet are unique to the internet. They're all part of who we are. In a crowded room, the loudest, angriest people, whatever their ideology, tend to get the most airtime. So one thing I try to do on my blog is try to build tools to foster some input from the quieter people.
Another metaphor that comes to mind is it's as if we've been plunked at the wheel of a speeding car, but we haven't taken driver's training and there isn't even a driver's manual for the car. We're rounding a corner and the weather is foggy and we're accelerating [laugh]. So in a moment like that, you can either be hopeful or woeful, but it almost doesn't matter in the end.
You know, we're test-driving a new system here. Turbulence is normal, experiments in communication will fail as much or more than they will succeed, but I think our overall nature, to my mind — and it's an act of faith on my part as it was on his part.
People get turned off mathematics in various ways. If you teach it as sort of just stuff you need to know to balance your checkbook — which is nonsense because none of us balance our checkbooks; computers do that for us. On the other hand, because language is so important to us as living creatures, everyone is interested in language one way or another, be we language mavens or just interested in listening to the radio or reading or novels. You know, language is a fundamental part of what we ask.
In fact, in a book I wrote in 2000, called The Math Gene, I actually made a case based on sort of rational reconstruction of human evolutionary development, that mathematics and language are actually two sides of the same coin in terms of evolutionary development. Human beings, when we developed the capacity for language — and nobody knows when that was; it might be as recent as 50,000 years ago — but when our ancestors developed language capacity, at that moment they developed the capacity for mathematics. It's the same capacity. It just plays out in different ways.
A lot of the problem in mathematics is that an awful lot of what goes on in the school system is basically trying to train the mind to do what a $10 calculator can do: follow rules and algorithms and procedures. And one thing that we do know is, that the human brain does not find that natural. The human brain is analogical, not logical. And so, when we try to force it to be procedural and exact, the brain simply doesn't like it.
It was important for many thousands of years to be able to do computation and calculation because that was the basis of commerce and trade and buying and selling. And you had to do it in your head or with an abacus board or something. So for hundreds of years, it was actually important to train the mind to follow rules to do computations and get the right answer. Well, now we've automated that. And we carry around devices in our pockets that can do that. Which means that we can spend more time letting the brain do things that the brain is really well suited for that computers can't do very well: making value judgments, making analogical leaps.
"Nothingness itself—instead of being empty space—is alive with possibility. In metaphysical terms, wabi-sabi suggests that the universe is in constant motion toward or away from potential."
~ Leonard Kohen
I do not see that the Palestinian has qualities that somehow differentiate him or her from being an Israeli or an Egyptian or anything else. Pluralistic by nature — to go back to my own upbringing and the openness of my being both a Muslim and having Christianity right in the middle of my own house at more than one level, my having been brought up in a Christian school, a missionary school that my parents who are Muslims — very Muslim — would send me to, was a reflection of a kind of openness of society that does no longer exist, I'm afraid, at the moment.
I think healing is important. I'm not sure how long it will take. I still feel that hope — not feel — I have a gut sort of faith in the fact that things will somehow right themselves, will eventually come back together. I'm not sure that we will be able to replicate what we had, but I think that with awareness, alertness, to the good things that we lost and the bad things that we've acquired and the ability to distinguish between the good and the bad, eventually we'll be able to create a new future with better, you know, with more things that are good, not necessarily the same.
I think we'd have to find a way to resolve the politics. You know, resolving the politics is something that's not impossible. And I think it's something that's happening anyway. It's not necessarily happening in the way that people assume it is happening. It's not happening in the sense of reading the headlines, that there's a solution and it's been signed by the two parties, but it's happening. It seems to me it's unfolding slowly in the sense that people on both sides are more and more aware of the fact that living in conflict is intolerable and that there is a way that can be found which would allow the two sides to live together.
Now, what way is not clear in my mind. For some time, it was two states. Perhaps in the future, it could be a federation of regions or city-states. I'm not sure how it will look, but I think, in general, people are slowly maturing, if you like, to the need to put life and the values of life as human beings above — not in place of — but above perhaps the more limiting aspects of self-identity and identification of themselves as being Jewish or Christian or Muslim or Arab or from this town or from that and so on and so forth.
In general, if you sort of compare between the attitudes of Israelis and Palestinians towards each other, fifty years ago, say, and today, you'll find we've gone through a sea change. Now, it's not been perceptible on a day-by-day basis, but if you make the comparison between those two periods, you realize that we've covered a long, long, long distance.
And if you ask people on the whole today, for instance, about two-state solution — I think even my mother would tell you — they're happy with a two-state solution, but it would have to be one to which also the other side would agree to. This is my mother's condition. And I think it's the condition that's probably put by most Israelis and most Palestinians. They're happy to come to solution on the condition that the other side is also willing to come to that particular solution.
And I think this attitude is new. I mean, it's open. It's basically saying we are prepared to live at peace. We do not wish to continue living at war, and that's, I think, what's most important.
Excerpt from “The Science of Why We Don’t Believe Science,” by Chris Mooney, Mother Jones, April 18, 2011:
The theory of motivated reasoning builds on a key insight of modern neuroscience. Reasoning is actually suffused with emotion (or what researchers often call "affect"). Not only are the two inseparable, but our positive or negative feelings about people, things, and ideas arise much more rapidly than our conscious thoughts, in a matter of milliseconds—fast enough to detect with an EEG device, but long before we're aware of it. That shouldn't be surprising: Evolution required us to react very quickly to stimuli in our environment. It's a "basic human survival skill," explains political scientist Arthur Lupia of the University of Michigan. We push threatening information away; we pull friendly information close. We apply fight-or-flight reflexes not only to predators, but to data itself.
We're not driven only by emotions, of course—we also reason, deliberate. But reasoning comes later, works slower—and even then, it doesn't take place in an emotional vacuum. Rather, our quick-fire emotions can set us on a course of thinking that's highly biased, especially on topics we care a great deal about.
Consider a person who has heard about a scientific discovery that deeply challenges her belief in divine creation—a new hominid, say, that confirms our evolutionary origins. What happens next, explains political scientist Charles Taber of Stony Brook University, is a subconscious negative response to the new information—and that response, in turn, guides the type of memories and associations formed in the conscious mind. "They retrieve thoughts that are consistent with their previous beliefs," says Taber, "and that will lead them to build an argument and challenge what they're hearing."
In other words, when we think we're reasoning, we may instead be rationalizing. Or to use an analogy offered by University of Virginia psychologist Jonathan Haidt: We may think we're being scientists, but we're actually being lawyers. Our "reasoning" is a means to a predetermined end—winning our "case"—and is shot through with biases. They include "confirmation bias," in which we give greater heed to evidence and arguments that bolster our beliefs, and "disconfirmation bias," in which we expend disproportionate energy trying to debunk or refute views and arguments that we find uncongenial.
That's a lot of jargon, but we all understand these mechanisms when it comes to interpersonal relationships. If I don't want to believe that my spouse is being unfaithful, or that my child is a bully, I can go to great lengths to explain away behavior that seems obvious to everybody else—everybody who isn't too emotionally invested to accept it, anyway. That's not to suggest that we aren't also motivated to perceive the world accurately—we are. Or that we never change our minds—we do. It's just that we have other important goals besides accuracy—including identity affirmation and protecting one's sense of self—and often those make us highly resistant to changing our beliefs when the facts say we should.
"Steve Grand, in his book, Creation: Life and How to Make It, is positively scathing about our preoccupation with matter itself. We have this tendency to think that only solid, material things are really things at all. Waves of electromagnetic fluctuation in a vacuum seem unreal. Victorians thought the waves had to be waves in some material medium -- the ether. But we find real matter comforting only because we've evolved to survive in Middle World, where matter is a useful fiction. A whirlpool, for Steve Grand, is a thing with just as much reality as a rock.
In a desert plain in Tanzania, in the shadow of the volcano Ol Donyo Lengai, there's a dune made of volcanic ash. The beautiful thing is that it moves bodily. It's what's technically known as a barchan, and the entire dune walks across the desert in a westerly direction at a speed of about 17 meters per year. It retains its crescent shape and moves in the direction of the horns. What happens is that the wind blows the sand up the shallow slope on the other side, and then, as each sand grain hits the top of the ridge, it cascades down on the inside of the crescent, and so the whole horn-shaped dune moves.
Steve Grand points out that you and I are, ourselves, more like a wave than a permanent thing. He invites us, the reader, to "think of an experience from your childhood -- something you remember clearly, something you can see, feel, maybe even smell, as if you were really there. After all, you really were there at the time, weren't you? How else would you remember it? But here is the bombshell: You weren't there. Not a single atom that is in your body today was there when that event took place. Matter flows from place to place and momentarily comes together to be you. Whatever you are, therefore, you are not the stuff of which you are made. If that doesn't make the hair stand up on the back of your neck, read it again until it does, because it is important."
From “Mass Animal Deaths: An Environmental Whodunit,” by James Gorman, New York Times, Jan. 9, 2011:
Michael Shermer, the founding publisher of Skeptic magazine and a Scientific American columnist …uses a common scenario to explain why we believe in things that may not be there — hominids on the savannah hearing a rustling in the tall grass. The one who thinks, “It’s a lion!” and escapes quickly survives to propagate her genes, thus fostering a kind of protective alarmism in her descendants. Another might think, “There’s always some kind of rustling in the tall grass, it’s probably the wind,” and keep on grooming. If he guesses wrong, the downside is being eaten by the lion. Thus, no offspring and no propagation of the “don’t worry, be happy” genes.
Of course, people have both modes of thought, perhaps because rustling is usually caused by the wind, and the hominid who is too alarmist is always running away from nothing and probably too exhausted and too anxiety-ridden to mate. So there’s room for both the wind and the lion in human minds.
I’m not big on utopias, and I think one thing that any candid appraisal of technology would have to acknowledge is that every new technology is creating nearly as many problems as it is solving. And most of the problems in our lives today are technogenic, they’ve been generated by previous technologies. It suggests very clearly that most of the problems in the future will be technogenic, created by technologies that we’ve made today. For that reason alone, it’s not utopia, and where we’re headed is not a place where there are no problems or technology solves, mends everything so that we kind of live in this state of bliss. Or, it’s not even to suggest that there’s some endpoint in evolution, or some Omega Point where we’re all headed and everything is fixed and works perfectly, or it’s, in some ways, culminated in perfection. First of all, there is no endpoint in evolution–in fact the point of it is that there is no endpoint, that it’s an open-ended process of continual flux and change and more importantly that the nature of the change itself is changing. So in that way there’s no utopia, but also part of that internal flux is the fact that problems are constantly being invented as well as solutions.
However, saying that I do think there’s a moral dimension to technology and that comes in the fact that while it’s true that newly affected technology will create as many, rarely as many problems as solutions, it’s not neutral. I wouldn’t say that life is neutral although obviously life cannot go on without death. Death is sort of part of those two cycles. But even though for every animal that’s born there’s an animal that dies, we don’t think of life as neutral. No, we say life is good. Overall, the net effect of life is good.
More life is better, even though everything born dies, and so you say “Why isn’t that neutral?” That’s because the same thing happens in technology, when something is invented–let’s say you have a hammer. You could use that hammer to kill someone or you could use it to build something, and there is a sense that that’s just neutral. They’re just tools. You can use them for harm or good.
But in fact, the invention of that hammer actually introduces a brand new choice that we’ve never had before, and that choice, I think, tips the balance. That new choice that did not exist before, tips the balance slightly in favor of the good because there is a new choice for good or harm that had never existed before. That new choice itself is good. Even if we choose the harm in it, we have a choice we did not have before.
So, I think, it turns out that you don’t need very much more good over time to get progress. That if you use technology to create 1% more than you destroy a year, that 1% compounded over time is what we call progress.
See also: What Does Technology Want? (Radiolab, Nov. 16, 2010)
“The next time you pass by a jewelry shop window displaying a beautifully cut, teardrop-shaped stone, don’t be so sure it’s just your culture telling you that that sparkling jewel is beautiful. Your distant ancestors loved that shape and found beauty in the skill needed to make it—even before they could put their love into words.”
In Immanuel Kant’s view, the main mistake philosophers before him had made when considering how humans could have accurate knowledge of the world was to forget the necessary difference between our knowledge and the actual subject of that knowledge. At first glance, this may not seem like a very easy thing to forget; for example, what our eyes tell us about a rainbow and what that rainbow actually is are quite different things. Kant argued that our failure to grasp this difference was further reaching and had greater consequences than anyone could have thought.
Taking again the example of the rainbow, Kant would argue that while most people would grant the difference between the range of colors our eyes perceive and the refraction of light that causes this optical phenomenon, they would still maintain that more careful observation could indeed bring one to know the rainbow as it is in itself, apart from its sensible manifestation. This commonplace understanding, he argued, was at the root of our tendency to fall profoundly into error, not only about the nature of the world, but about what we were justified in believing about ourselves, God, and our duty to others.
The problem was that while our senses can only ever bring us verifiable knowledge about how the world appears in time and space, our reason always strives to know more than appearances can show it. This tendency of reason to always know more is and was a good thing. It is why human kind is always curious, always progressing to greater and greater knowledge and accomplishments. But if not tempered by a respect for its limits and an understanding of its innate tendencies to overreach, reason can lead us into error and fanaticism…
As much as we owe the nature of our current existence to the evolutionary forces Darwin first discovered, or to the cultures we grow up in, or to the chemical states affecting our brain processes at any given moment, none of this impacts on our freedom. I am free because neither science nor religion can ever tell me, with certainty, what my future will be and what I should do about it. The dictum from Sartre…gets it exactly right: I am condemned to freedom. I am not free because I can make choices, but because I must make them, all the time, even when I think I have no choice to make.
I dare say belief in mind-body duality may not be “accidental” in the least.
In the wider world, there are two sorts of “illusion”—accidental and contrived. There are cases where we get things wrong as the result of bad luck, and cases where we are the victims of deliberate trickery. When, for example, we see a stick in water as being bent, or when we think we are moving as the train beside us pulls away, it is a matter of bad luck. We are applying rules of inference in situations where our information is inaccurate or incomplete. But no one is trying to delude us.
When, however, we see a stage magician bending a metal spoon without touching it, or when we feel the table at a spiritualist seance lifting off the ground, it is a matter of intentional trickery. We may, again, be applying rules of inference in situations where our information is inaccurate or incomplete. But this time there is an illusionist who wants us to get it wrong.
Now, with belief in mind-body duality, which kind of illusion is it? The general view among materialist philosophers has always been that it is an illusion of the first kind, an honest—if regrettable—error. But how about if it is an illusion of the second kind, a deliberate trick!
Could it be? Only of course if there were to be an active agency behind it, playing the role of the illusionist. But who or what could possibly be doing this? And what interest could they have in encouraging individual humans to believe in a non-physical world?
The immediate, but unhelpful answer, might be that, since it is a case of self-delusion, the illusionist must lie within the subject’s own brain. The more interesting answer might be that, insofar as the brain is designed by genes, the illusionist is the subject’s own genes. But in that case, the ultimate answer must surely be that the illusionist is Nature herself, working through natural selection.