Nowadays our culture obsessed with happiness. But there are other states of being to consider, ones that are, in my opinion, more worthy of seeking out.
Flow is the state of being fully immersed in what you are doing. The sense of yourself performing the activity becomes simply the performance of the activity, and self-consciousness disappears. All attention is devoted to the task at hand. The concept of flow was first proposed by Hungarian psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi in the 1970′s, and is similar in many ways to Tai Chi’s wei wu wei (doing without doing) and other meditative states. This sense of engagement is quite rewarding, and Csíkszentmihályi sees it as the ultimate state to achieve in life – or at least a better one than mere happiness. In his book, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, he describes the people who experience flow on a regular basis as the most fulfilled, based on his surveys and studies on the subject.
Getting into a flow state can be a bit tricky. The activity we engage in has to hit a sweet spot between being too simple and too difficult – err too far on one side and you get bored, on the other, frustrated. Furthermore, as your skill level increases, so too does the sweet spot. It’s a moving target. The environment needs to be conducive to concentration, too. Flow has been studied especially in the tech industry, where open floor plans, ringing phones, chatty neighbors, and intercoms interrupt this delicate state in which programmers are most effective. Imagine artists or writers trying to work in a busy office instead of retreating to tranquil environments where they can concentrate for long hours. Likewise, the whole business of multi-tasking prevents you from achieving flow by splitting your attention into many small fragments, which may explain why trying to do several things at once makes you do all of them much worse.
I suppose you wouldn’t want to be in flow constantly – unless that is what Nirvana is meant to be – but it seems to be a vital component of a satisfying life. It has understandable parameters, but it is not achievable in a mechanistic way. And it affects how you relate to yourself and the world around you in a generally positive manner.
The topic of my graduate thesis strikes me as similar in these same ways. Wonder, as I define it, is a state of surprise and delighted confusion experienced when you encounter something extraordinary – something that flies in the face of our commonplace experience of the world. As with flow, the parameters are definable but highly subjective. Much depends on exactly what is commonplace for a particular individual to experience, their mental model of the mundane. Only rarely does something require a sudden and radical shift in this perspective – by definition, since the model simply adapts to anything that happens frequently or with regularity.
Encountering things of an entirely different scale than you’re used to, like a sudden view of a mountain, or things that behave completely differently from everyday objects, like rainbows or singing sand dunes, generally inspire wonder. There is a dark side though: things that make you entirely doubt the basic understandability of the universe inspire terror instead. This is the source of much existential horror, and the line between wonder and horror is the line expertly walked in the best works of H. P. Lovecraft or Clark Ashton Smith. But usually there is some hint to the puzzle of the unexpected – obviously a mountain or a rainbow or an explosion of fall color isn’t entirely unreasonable, even if it is momentarily disorienting to be in the presence of its utter grandeur. If this is enough for curiosity to drive you to explore these strange occurrences with your mind, senses, or body, then you have wonder on your hands.
Studies have found wonder to cause a more open-minded and altruistic attitude. It is often cited as the driving force behind most scientific exploration. So, like flow, it is a not-common-enough state of being that can improve our wellbeing and our work in small but meaningful ways. And though at first glance it seems to be entirely dependent on external forces, I have found myself in a state of wonder far more frequently when I take active notice of my surroundings. ‘Notice new things,’ as someone once described transcendental meditation.
Even small things can be wondrous when you’re actively engaged in experiencing them: the smell of the first autumn rainfall, a hawk in a roadside tree, the neon pink clouds of a sunrise. My landscape architecture thesis was about creating landscapes that spring wonder on unsuspecting commuters, but it is really a collaboration between a conducive environment (in this case, one rich in detail and diversity) and a willing participant. Just like flow.
Getting to and being in a state of wonder feels a lot like being in a state of flow. They both create a seamless connection between you and the thing in front of you, without the conceit of your ego getting in the way. It’s all flattened – there’s no meta-level thoughts. And though they may not bring serotonin-dripping hits of joy, I find them to be ready cures for existential angst.
It’s time to tackle the Prime Directive again, everyone. Because I just finished Just and Unjust Wars by Michael Walzer, and in a short while you will see why it sheds some new light on the morality of intervening in another planet’s – or another country’s – affairs.
Walzer makes the case for there being justified reasons to start a war, and justified ways to wage it, as opposed to simply categorizing all warfare as equally immoral. That latter position he refers to as the ‘war is hell’ doctrine. If we were always to fight as if victory should be won absolutely and by any means necessary, even if we claimed to avoid conflict in the first place, the whole world would become hell. In fighting Nazis in World War II, Walzer’s limiting case, even hastening the defeat of an evil aggressor does not entirely justify fire-bombing German cities and targeting civilians – exactly what we condemn the Nazis for doing during the Blitz. And as for the atomic bombs, well:
‘Now, what great evil, what supreme emergency, justified the incendiary attacks on Japanese cities? … The Japanese case is sufficiently different from the German so that unconditional surrender should never have been asked. Japan’s rulers were engaged in a more ordinary sort of military expansion, and all that was morally required was that they be defeated, not that they be conquered and totally overthrown.’ (p. 267)
Frightening as it is to think of Japan’s conquests as ‘more ordinary,’ the big distinction Walzer makes is between violence towards soldiers and violence towards civilians – where soldiers are pretty much the only legitimate targets of war because their purpose is to fight a war, to cause violence, at least insofar as they are soldiers. (That soldiers may be conscripted or predominantly made up of the poor means you cannot hope for consensual warfare even in the best of cases, but it does make mercenaries look pretty good.)
The book mostly covers conventional military operations, and comes conventional judgements of them for the most part. But it does touch on guerilla warfare and revolutions, and the right of outsiders to help liberate a group of people from an oppressive regime: ‘[Mills] doesn’t believe that intervention fails more often than not to serve the purposes of liberty; he believes that, given what liberty is, it necessarily fails. The (internal) freedom of a political community can be won only by the members of that community.’ (p. 88)
Gavin argues that it is about the right of a community for self-determination and self-governance, which is easily infringed upon by even well-intentioned intervention. The easy trap to fall into is to say a community deserves their oppressive government because they are too lazy or ignorant for organized rebellion. But this is not the case; it would always be just to fight for another’s independence if only it weren’t incredibly difficult to do so without impinging on their right or ability to realize that independence. Saying ‘war is hell’ is to dismiss all distinctions within war, making it impossible to differentiate between more and less ethical forms of warfare and thus giving the most unethical forms a free pass when conflict does break out – similarly, having a Prime Directive that forbids all interference hinders our ability to make nuanced judgements about particular situations.
Without a clear understanding of another community’s situation, perspective, history, and culture – not to mention that these are actually pluralities, emerging from multiple individuals – the moral calculus is almost never going to add up to breaking said Prime Directive, but it is worth doing the math anyway. On the other hand, Walzer does say that if a rebellion (guerilla warfare) is in progress with the support of the majority of the civilian population, and if those rebels ask for help from outside forces, then intervention is perfectly justified – though at that point it’s more like forming an alliance with a state undergoing a war of aggression, where the aggressor is the tyrannical group claiming (falsely, apparently) to be that state’s government.
‘There is, however, a moral argument to be made if this point is reached: the anti-guerrilla war can then no longer be fought – and not just because, from a strategic point of view, it can no longer be won. It cannot be fought because it is no longer an anti-guerrilla but an anti-social war, a war against an entire people, in which no distinctions would be possible in the actual fighting.’ (p. 187)
But all this may be moot if you consider that it rests on shared conceptions of morality; of what constitutes guilt and innocence, how far we trace the chain of cause and effect to pin blame, which situations count as ‘supreme emergencies’ worth bending or breaking the rules, and what classes or collections of beings count as moral agents in the first place. It is complicated enough to do this with humans, who share so much in common. To do the moral calculus with creatures alien to our understanding – like my imaginary super-intelligent cephalopods with no localized sense of self – is a task that might put our own rules for violence in perspective, even if it is usually carried out in science fiction.
Chomsky, Chomsky, Chomsky. How I have despised your iron hold over American linguistics! With the convoluted contortions of generative grammar and that ridiculous Universal Grammar theory and the pretentious way you write your papers… and yet, I never knew much about your political science career. You know, the one you are famous for amongst everyone who is not a linguist.
And so, when my Reed alum book group decided to read Understanding Power: The Indispensable Chomsky (or ‘Chompsky’ as we like to pronounce it – the title of this post is in honor of Gavin and Thuy’s silliness), I was pleasantly surprised by the conversational tone and the seeming lack of intellectual elitism. He just strings together facts into logical sequences, so that he appears to have no political theory or agenda at all, beyond revealing the truths that power seeks to hide. I admire his encyclopedic memory, but the straightforward presentation obscures his own biases, conscious or unconscious. What facts he relates and what facts he leaves out are an editorial decision that craft a neat story that suits his purposes. He often attributes intention where they might only be accident, and active malevolence where they might be simple apathy or a complex of shifting, interacting interests. No surprise, then, that I found him the most engaging and enjoyable when he is talking theory and opinion instead of hiding behind some false sense of objectivity.
‘”Libertarian” has a special meaning in the United States… What’s called “libertarianism” here is unbridled capitalism… And if you just read the world that they describe, it’s a world so full of hate that no human being would want to live in it. This is a world where you don’t have roads because you don’t see any reason why you should cooperate in building a road that you’re not going to use… If you don’t like the pollution from somebody’s automobile, you take them to court and you litigate it. Who would want to live in a world like that? It’s a world built on hatred.’ (200)
This reminds me of the Daily Show sketch of the correspondent from the libertarian alternate universe, where everything is made of guns (including cell phones!) and everything is on fire. But it also seems to me that the (American) libertarian line is at face value the same as the anarchist, namely that certain kinds of institutions are unjust and should be replaced by the right kind of institutions. Libertarians want government replaced with corporations, anarchists want corporations replaced with populist organizations – but either way, they ultimately want to put power into the hands of people. Then again, the definitions of ‘people’ differ fundamentally: libertarian humans are autonomous self-interested individuals, and anarchist humans are social creatures with interests beyond themselves. But the idea that new institutions would be better seems to ignore the tendency for institutions to get kludgy and uncaring as they grow. If institutions ran on different incentive systems, would they get better? Or would they forever be mutating into ultimately self-serving entities that transcend the human beings they’re composed of? It’s worth a try, but I have to agree with Chomsky that the only way to figure out what works is to experiment at smaller scales and longer time-frames – evolution instead of revolution.
‘Since we’re dealing with complex systems which nobody understands very much, the sensible move I think is to make changes and see what happens – and if they work, make further changes.’ (201)
And now for a quick lesson in using incentive systems (learned from game design!) to encourage our congressional representatives to make choices in the Everyman’s interest:
But I’m reminded of the difficulty in balancing even a simple board game. Human society is levels of magnitude more complicated. Either because it wants to be – that is, social structures tend to emerge out of human interactions with a given level of complexity – or because humans want a certain level of complexity in their lives and therefore complicate the social structure until it provides a satisfying level of challenge to work out. I kind of love the idea that we create social systems as a puzzle to keep from getting bored:
‘It reminds me in some ways of things that you find in non-literate or non-technological cultures… where for example, you get extremely elaborate kinship systems… And when you look at the structure of them, they seem like a kind of mathematics. It’s as though people want to work out mathematical problems, and if they don’t have calculus and arithmetic, they work them out with other structures… Or another thing you sometimes find in non-literate cultures is developments of the most extraordinary linguistic systems… And what all these things look like is that people just want to use their intelligence somehow, and if you don’t have a lot of technology and so on, you do other things.’ (99)
‘Classical liberalism (which remember is pre-capitalist, and is in fact, anti-capitalist) focused on the right of people to control their own work, and the need for free creative work under your own control – for human freedom and creativity. So to a classical liberal, wage labor under capitalism would have been considered totally immoral, because it frustrates the fundamental need of people to control their own work: you’re a slave to someone else.’ (216)
‘For classical liberals in the eighteenth century, there was a certain conception of just what human beings are like – namely, that what kind of creatures they are depends on the kind of work they do, and the kind of control they have over it, and their ability to act creatively and according to their own decisions and choices… Alexis de Tocqueville pointed out that you can have systems in which “the art advances and the artisan recedes,” but that’s inhuman – because what you’re really interested in is the artisan, you’re interested in people, and for people to have the opportunity to live full and rewarding lives they have to be in control of what they do, even if that happens to be economically less efficient.’ (222)
Classical liberalism resonates with me. Not to say that I think its ideas are correct, because it just smacks of those idealistic young Romantics who never had to do any actual hard labor… then again, I am basically one of them. (My fake best friend is Mary Shelley!) I don’t know, maybe you could have a society composed entirely of artisans. But as Chomsky points out, it would mean sacrificing technological progress. And isn’t the direction of human society since the dawn of agriculture prioritizing the creation of stronger and more stable power structures over individual and community wellbeing, all through the miracles of better stuff?
And finally, some of my favorite quotes, removed from their context for your enjoyment and thought-provocation:
‘The terminology we use is heavily ideologically laden, always. Pick your term: if it’s a term that has any significance whatsoever… it typically has two meanings, a dictionary meaning and a meaning that’s used for ideological warfare.’ (37)
‘There’s something really hopeless about contemporary life that’s new, I think.’ (47)
‘So what in fact happened is these two huge waves of immigrants were just herded into concentration camps, which we happen to call “cities.”‘ (48)
‘It’s been known since the Great Depression that anything like free-market capitalism is a total disaster: it can’t work. Therefore every country in the world that has a successful economy is somewhere close to fascism – that is, with massive government intervention in the economy to coordinate it and protect it from hostile forces such as too much competition.’ (72)
‘Overwhelmingly international terrorism comes out of Washington and Miami.’ (77)
‘Anybody who wants to become your leader, you should say, “I don’t want to follow.” That’s like a rule of thumb which almost never fails.’ (138)
‘Awareness is only the beginning, because people can be aware and still not do anything – for instance, maybe they’re afraid they’ll lose their jobs. And obviously you can’t criticize people for worrying about that; they’ve got kids, they’ve got to live. That’s fair enough. It’s hard to struggle for your rights – you usually suffer.’ (187)
The article ‘Collaborative games: Lessons learned from board games’ by Zagal, Rick, and Hsi analyzes the particular issues of collaborative game design. They differentiate competitive games, where the players’ interests are opposed, from cooperative games, where the players have interests that may or may not align, from collaborative games, where the players have to work together to win. They are fighting together against a common enemy. It not only sounds more virtuous, it might be more fun if you’re someone like me who gets stressed out by competition – though many collaborative board games, like Betrayal At House on the Hill or [Arkham Horror], can be quite a bit more frustrating and nerve-wracking than say, a game of Settlers of Catan where all the players are making good-natured trades or a session of Dominion without attack cards and everyone can pursue their awesome strategies in peace. The goal is a collective feeling of success, where no one is losing to someone else at the table.
Strange, though, that over thousands of years of human history, humans apparently have only created competitive board games. Chess, mancala, go, pachisi, nine men’s morris – all pitched battles, invitations to no-holds-barred antagonism within the boundaries of the board. Why do collaborative games only appear in the more complex modern board games with their billions of tokens, cards, and rules?
One of the biggest challenges of collaborative games is preventing the most competent player from directing all the other players and transforming it effectively into a solitaire game. Players stand the best chance of winning if they share all the information and resources they have, creating complete transparency – which means that unless the players are perfectly evenly matched and already a great team, the so-called teamwork will mostly consist of acting out the strategies proposed by the one or two players with the keenest eye, the most experience, or the silverest tongue. Far from creating a sense of camaraderie, this recreates hierarchy.
The only way to prevent this for individual players to have an interest in not sharing everything they have with everyone else. The Resistance, some Betrayal At House on the Hill hauntings, and the Battlestar Galactica board game achieve this by making some players double-agents – while everyone else still has to work together to win the game, you cannot trust the person handing out tactics to be acting in your interests. They could well be a traitor! Or you could be the traitor! Though this type of game sounds a bit like cheating from the standpoint of solving the Director Dilemma – not everyone is on the same team in the end.
Another idea is for individual survival to be a big component – you can use your resources to further the team’s success only by jeopardizing your own ability to continue playing the game. This sounds harsh, but the penalty has to hurt enough to give the player a real reason not to put all her cards on the table, literally. The rules can’t simply require everyone to play with closed-hands when there is no incentive to do so. Counter-intuitively, only by reducing cooperative can truly collaborative play be achieved.
I think this increased need for balance is why classic games are overwhelmingly competitive. To create a virtual, non-player challenge, made only out of rules and playing pieces, one that is appropriate to a variety of skill levels and fun for any ol’ group of friends to confront and overcome without too much ease or frustration, is an inherently complicated thing to do.
Of course, if anyone knows of a truly good collaborative game with the elegant simplicity of a classic board game, please send it my way – I know I won’t give up on trying to design one myself, despite the apparent difficulties.
UPDATE: The Collectionary has linked to my post from their Facebook page! Welcome, new readers.
Welcome to amateur historian hour! I’ve been reflecting on what will soon be two eight-year sets of two very different US presidential administrations. Perhaps it is only because this time period will make up the bulk of my politically-aware life, but it seems that the world has changed substantially in ways most of us don’t fully understand yet. The internet has transformed into the Cloud, and online social networking has become so pervasive that life, online or off, has myriad new modes for communication, entertainment, economics, marketing, and surveillance. In a way this is all old hat, tapping into our desire to gain and share knowledge, but at a scale and speed unimaginable even in the ‘old days’ of the web. I doubt we are anywhere close to settling into the final forms for these new add-ons of humanity, but if they ever do settle down into a stable set of customs, I doubt they’ll be predictable or recognizable – while at the same time, I would bet that humans themselves will stay very much the same precocious apes we are today.
But while Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, Kickstarter, and all the rest (all soon to be superseded, I’m sure) may be the medium for contemporary life, they also provide a convenient way to gather information on us. It’s funny that when I learned of Snowden’s revelations of US government spying on its citizens, I was not particularly surprised. I think I’d always assumed they were watching and reading. And while we probably should be upset, the issues of privacy and security are not clear cut. For one, there is always the balance of security and liberty to consider. But even before that, there is the muddled idea of what we’re protecting in the first place.
On my sixteenth birthday, I went to school and played mini-golf with my family and friends in the afternoon. But the whole time I had one eye and at least half my attention glued to the television screen: the Twin Towers were falling endlessly on loop, and the once-comedic George W. Bush was giving serious and determined speeches. It was all too big and too far away to take in. At first there was a bout of patriotism, but soon the Neo-Conservative administration was swinging its weight (and its scary amounts of money) around, leading to increasingly violent foreign conflicts and a crack-down at home. All actions were justified with the rhetoric of protecting and spreading Democracy. But what the heck did that mean if Muslims, immigrants, and advocacy groups were targeted for persecution, illegal domestic surveillance was being conducted on a wide scale, suspected terrorists were being thrown in jail without trial, and any impediment to expedient government action was being removed? The threat of America becoming a warmongering police state got many Americans worried – my parents talked about, and eventually did, move abroad (for a brief stint, anyway).
My friend Emily pointed out that terrorists were probably not a real threat to the structure of the American government or two American lives and infrastructure. Which may be why the idea of Weapons of Mass Destruction was invented, to make Al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein seem like viable enemies worth risking American lives to take down. But what they actually threatened was a set of ideas about American identity – they threatened our totem, the emblem of American solidarity, supremacy, and righteousness. The administration could remove individuals’ liberties, even threaten individuals’ wellbeing, all while acting in the name of security. The trick was that the thing they were trying to ensure the safety of was not people or even an institutional structure, but an abstract idea system.
It backfired, of course. They tried to strike fear into the citizenry in order to gain power and control, the way the government was able to do in the Cold War, but after the Weapons of Mass Destruction turned out not to exist in the first place, after the amped-up airport security was revealed to be merely security theater, and after more Americans, Afghanis, and Iraqis were killed than we could stomach in the name of protecting something that didn’t seem to need much protecting anymore, the myth of America the Great and Powerful soured anyway. Too many lies and too much death that in the end to protect no one’s safety.
The liberal and the progressive and the war-weary peaked out of our apathy bunkers when Obama came along, though, promising transparency and realism in place of misplaced idealism. I’m not sure what I expected, but what we’ve gotten is better than I feared and worse than I hoped. I’m still psyched about Obamacare, thank you very much, and the imminent threat of a new American imperialism has been slinking into a corner. Instead… we have a near-future-science-fictional world of mass surveillance operations and drone warfare.
It is probably too late to apply old notions of security and privacy in this vastly interconnected, online age. Convenience drives the sharing of this information, and people who had no say in whether the TSA was going to invade airports and take away your toothpaste have much more control over the inconvenient safeguards of the Cloud. Which is to say, there won’t be many. To secure your information, you have to give up the freedom of sharing it.
The government has simply taken advantage of the innately open nature of lives lived in the Cloud to get the information it really wants to do its job. I doubt there’s any twirling of mustaches involved – we’ve all rooted for the fictional cop breaking the rules to catch the perpetrator. We watch and read about characters who we know are on the side good perform an illegal wiretap or break into a building without a warrant. Red tape only slows our heroes down. But when we do not know the character doing the snooping, and especially when we’re being snooped ourselves, such vigilantism suddenly takes a sinister turn. It’s invasion of our privacy. And what you rarely see in fictional media is the number of false starts and fallacies that lead to innocent people getting investigated, arrested, and killed. More information can be helpful to create a more accurate picture, perhaps mitigating for our imperfect judgements, but it can also lead to more criminalization. To prevent real crimes, why stop things at thought crimes?
I’ve been riveted to the show Person of Interest. Now in its third season, it is positively prescient of the level of domestic spying being done by the NSA. Of course, unlike in the show, we don’t have a nearly sentient AI watching our every move nor a kindly team of vigilantes saving regular civilians and only aiming for kneecaps – but the show is careful to portray even the government’s interest in mass surveillance in a nuanced light. The intention is always good, it just manifests in warped ways. The government has a habit of setting priorities in such a way that it is willing to sacrifice the welfare of individuals for the good of the country. At least in the current Obama administration, it looks like what is being secured is supposed to be people rather than an ethically irrelevant totem.
The negotiation about security continues – the safety of individuals as balanced against the solidity of the government, the good of the few against the good of the many, the flesh-and-blood humans against the myths that define the nation-state. It’s been going on since the birth of this country, and much earlier besides. But so often the rhetoric forgets to define who and what is being protected when we talk about security. When no one bothers to make this explicit, we end up working at cross-purposes: the Bush administration jailed and killed innocent civilians along with dangerous criminals in order to fend off threats to its image and its power. Sacrifices to the God of America, to whom we should owe fealty. Now the rhetoric is more personal, more about individual safety and wellbeing: healthcare for all, drones and missiles that allow us to target enemies without risking our own troops (and theoretically minimizing the deaths of other civilians), and even the NSA’s spying. American Express recently put out ads vaunting its own benevolent surveillance AI. It’s meant as a personal protection service.
‘Are you too comfortable?’ What is this, dystopian fiction? It sounds like a government PSA from 1984!
Even benevolent protection can go awry. Police have shot many an innocent black man holding a can of soda, all because they were looking for patterns of threatening behavior. As a society, we have decide which entities need protecting, and how much convenience and freedom we are willing to sacrifice to that security. If a principle like civil rights gets high priority, then perhaps individuals should be disallowed from protecting themselves with guns. If the secrecy of our private information and communications is paramount, we may need to handicap our digital social networks and live with the fact that national security organizations will be working with certain blinders on. How and where we martial our forces of protection is not a matter of right or wrong, good or bad – it is a matter of compromise and politics. It is a conversation taking place at dramatic scales and involving the lives of millions. That is, I think, what has enlivened the soon-to-be-past sixteen of history. And why the world will continue to be unsettled, as new subjects, objects, and means of security unfurl in rapid succession, asking new questions before we’ve had a chance to fully consider the old ones.
Three reasons why I love Charles Sanders Peirce: semiotics (see also, my Reed thesis), map projections*, and inspiring theoretical physicist Lee Smolin to develop a theory of cosmological natural selection. The idea is that black holes – singularities – give birth to new universes with variations in their laws of physics (namely, the constants of the Standard Model). Over time, universes that are tuned in such a way as to produce more black holes will dominate the population of universes. And apparently parameters that are friendly to the development of black holes are also friendly to the development of life forms, meaning that our universe is, statistically speaking, one of the most common types – one selected for high black hole production.
It sounds fun and wacky at first, but this theory is testable by (among other ways) checking to see if our cosmological constants are in fact maximally black-hole-producing. Are there any neutron stars larger than the minimum possible mass for creating a black hole in any possible tuning of the Standard Model? If we find one, it means there are fewer black holes than the theory predicts, and just like that it’s falsified.
We haven’t yet, though. As Smolin points out, the ability of the theory to be falsified makes it a good one. Especially compared to the untestable, unfalsifiable theories out there based on the anthropic principle – the idea that our universe has laws hospitable to life simply because we wouldn’t be around to observe them in a universe without such laws. How convenient! I have no qualms about the anthropic principle, but it does make for a scientific dead end because it doesn’t explain anything. And perhaps we never will be able to explain why our universe has the laws it has, but that’s not a good reason to give up or resort to a belief that fundamentals are tested by their mathematical elegance. Even symmetries are only approximations, Smolin says: ‘Symmetries are common in all the physical theories we know… Yet if Leibniz’s principles [namely the principle of sufficient reason] are right, they must not be fundamental. Symmetries arise from the act of treating a subsystem of the universe as if it were the only thing that existed.’ (Time Reborn, p. 117)
Having grown up immersed in modern theoretical physics, this came as a bit of a shock. Sure, the inability to test string theory always made it seem rather like a house of cards, and Feynman’s writings taught me not to expect the mathematics of quantum electrodynamics to lead to an understanding of it. But Smolin stresses that all laws and models are only approximations. Mostly they take some part of the universe, put it in a box, and pretend nothing else interacts with it. All subsystems that we treat as isolated systems are actually open and interconnected, except for the universe (or multiverse) as a whole. Any model that describes a part of the universe incapable of explaining the whole thing, especially when models assume an external clock or observer. If you assumed things external to the universe, you’d just get fallacy turtles all the way down.
‘Experiments up to now have probed fundamental physics only down to a certain length scale… This means that the Standard Model of Particle Physics, which agrees with all known experiments so far, must be considered an approximation (besides the fact that is has nothing to say about gravity). It ignores currently unknown phenomena that might appear were we able to probe to shorter distances… The missing phenomena could include not only new kinds of elementary particles but also heretofore unknown forces.’ (p. 111) How exciting!
Basically such so-called effective theories are simple and elegant precisely because they are approximations. Like quantum electrodynamics, they are tools for describing and experimenting more than they are a window into an ideal, Platonic plane of pure mathematics undergirding our universe. Such a notion is untestable, yet I get the impression that it is a widely held belief amongst theoretical physicists (and heck, I’ve absorbed the assumption myself). This is a bit weird, actually, when you consider that quantum physics itself is founded on probabilities and statistics, things we usually associate with sociology, economics, and other fields that are governed by emergent laws rather than fundamental laws. Are particles fuzzy by nature, or is it only our current understanding of them that is nebulous, in an electron-cloud sort of way?
Now I’m getting in way over my head in a topic I’m nowhere near an expert in. I trust that Smolin, who keeps company with the likes of Hawking, Wheeler, and DeWitt, knows what he’s talking about. And anyway, his main purpose of this particular book I’m reading is not to detail the wonderfully imaginative theory of cosmological natural selection but to argue for the existence of time. Like the anthropic principle, the “fact” that time was another dimension just like the three spatial ones was something I’d come to terms with long ago. Of course time only seems to progress linearly in a particular direction because of some peculiarity of biology or psychology. So Smolin is unconvincing at the beginning of the book when he tries to appeal to my intuition that time must be real. Fortunately he quickly gets into the mechanics of his argument, first laying out the conventional ‘block universe’ model with its timeless spacetime and the arguments for doing away with a fundamental, universal notion of time. Then he introduces reasons why such a model doesn’t suffice.
Paraphrasing his paraphrase of Roberto Unger’s reasoning, timeless laws – laws of physics as we think of them, without beginning or end – make it impossible to explain why these laws and not others rule the universe, breaking Leibniz’s principle of sufficient reason again. Without time, the laws of physics exist outside of the relational universe (where everything is interconnected and anything that acts is itself acted upon) and therefore ‘outside the realm of rational explanation.’ To construct a cosmological theory – a theory that explains the universe without recourse to external clocks, observers, or arbitrarily-chosen mathematics – it must allow for the laws of physics to change. In other words, time.
I’m still not sure what the apparently-popular timeless model does with entropy, nor why an evolutionary model can’t use spatialized time. In fact, I am now totally confused about what time is and what the distinction is between the real time Smolin is advocating for and the timeless time he’s arguing against. Happily the many other ideas in the book make it engrossing nonetheless, besides which, I’m only halfway through.
Using AutoCAD is a little like playing Zork. Think old-fashioned text-adventure games and interactive fiction that require you to type your actions: “pick up key,” “enter east door,” “examine mysterious artifact,” etc. This made a lot of sense when computers were text-based terminals without much in the way of graphics capabilities. AutoCAD, a piece of top-of-the-line drawing software used by architects, civil engineers, surveyors, and landscape architects, still looks like the 1980′s in all its 8-colors-against-a-black-background glory. And you have a handy command line through which you interact with it:
I’m sorry, I don’t understand MVOE.
Okay, you want to MOVE. What do you want to MOVE?
– Click some lines.
You can’t do that with those objects.
– Click some other lines.
Okay. Select origin point.
– “0, 0″ (I could click somewhere, but this is more in the spirit of things.)
Okay. Select destination point.
– Move mouse a bit to the right… easy does it… and type “5 FT”
You are in a maze of twisty little passages, all alike.
– What!? “XYZZY”
You get eaten by a gru.
– That’s it, I’m getting out the trace paper and drafting dots.
I have heard it argued that text-driven interfaces can actually be more efficient. After all, language is an integral part of the human brain. Relying entirely on mouse clicks and icons can be inefficient, inaccurate, and unintuitive – the bandwidth is much higher with the entire keyboard at your command, and it doesn’t take much more time than pointing and clicking. Less time, in fact. But there is still something clunky about drafting, which is a visual and graphical enterprise, using words.
I think one of the problems is that AutoCAD has a lot of cruft from its long history. Each command is like a UNIX command-line program, with its own set of options and sometimes its own idiosyncratic way of inputing information. At least in the 2009 version I use at work, breaking a line into two parts requires you to select the line after typing the command (BREAK then click), whereas most commands will act on what you already had selected before typing in the command (click then JOIN). There are hundreds of commands at your disposal, and hundreds more if you want to program your own macros in LISP, so from this perspective typing is a good way to hone in on exactly what you want to do. Except that most of the time I’m using only a small handful of these many possibilities.
“MOVE” “MOVE” “COPY” “MVOE” “MOEV” ARGH WHY CAN’T I SPELL!?
I like text-base interfaces, don’t get me wrong. Playing interactive fiction, even those with slightly-less-interactive clickable hyperlinks, quickly immerse you in the imagery that words convey. With the mind filling in the gaps, these worlds are infinitely rich. Graphical adventure games have their own charm – animations! funny voices! – but because thousands of pixels rather than dozens of words are used to convey the world around you, and define that world in more absolute terms, you often feel the need to click everything in a scene lest you miss something important. (I often feel this way in CAD when I want to grab many pieces of a complex object that I have neglected to put on its own separate layer. Curses.) But either way, text or graphical, game or tool, the best moments occur when the interface disappears and I am no longer directing it the computer to act for me – I am simply acting.
The jarring part is transitioning between the two modes of graphics and text. I usually type blindly, knowing by heart the sequence of information I need to enter, allowing me to focus my eyes exclusively on the visual content… until the inevitable mistype or more complex command that requires me to read the text at the bottom of the screen and engage in CAD’s inane dialogue. Sadly there are no hidden passages to discover or puzzles to solve on the textual side of things. It is simply a brief detour between mouse clicks.
Though sometimes the arcane oddness of the interface and my growing mastery of it culminate in the sense that drafting is somewhat punk. Like I am programming scenarios in WarGames or directing neon Tron warriors inside my computer to shift walls and multiply shrubberies and create the intricate, precise patterns of light that represent entire worlds. Worlds that may be less interactive, but also less fictional, than Zork.
The Ego Trick is a book that digs into what the self is, what personhood is. First the author, Julian Baggini, overviews various ‘pearl’ theories of the self: ideas of the self as a real, in-the-world entity, located in a specific part of the brain, or the soul, or even an individual body. But what these all have in common is their essentialism. We feel ourselves to be individuals with strong identities, an inner core that dictates who we truly are, from which our actions and personalities emerge.
Baggini says nuts to all that. He prescribes to something called ‘bundle theory’, which is the notion that the self is itself emergent from a combination of environment, experience, and human nature. We may debate in casual conversation whether or not ‘people change’, but we usually mean that our core selves are doing the changing. Bundle theory (and actually there are a whole bunch of related theories, a bundle of bundle theories) suggests that there is nothing there to undergo change. It’s not that there is no self at all – it’s that the self is a pattern of behaviors instead of a thing.
First, there is no thing or part of you which contains your essence. Your body, your brain and your memories are all very important for who you are, but none of these is the pearl of self in which your identity resides. Second, you have no immaterial soul. Whatever stuff you are made from, it is the same kind of stuff that everything else is made of, be it plankton, cabbages or orang-utans [or stars or apple pie]. Third, given that the pearl view is to be rejected, this means that your sense of self must in some way be a construction. If there is no single thing which makes you the person you are, then you must be the result of several parts or things working together. Fourth, the unity which enables you to think of yourself as the same person over time is in some ways fragile, and in other ways robust. So although we may not be unified in the simple, strong way the pearl view suggests, that does not mean that we go wrong when we think of ourselves as integrated individuals. (114-115)
Or, as he puts more succinctly later in the book, ‘You and I are what our bodies and brains do. There is no pearl sitting at the core of our selves, we are rather bundles of psychosomatic activity, albeit highly organized and remarkable stable ones. We are not illusions but we are not what we most obviously appear to be either.’ (215)
The obvious and overused analogy is a river: it’s not the same matter inhabiting it from minute to minute, yet the overall structure remains coherent; the river may meander over time, shift its location, rise and fall, but the continuity from state to another allows us to see it as a real, singular, nameable entity in the world – in one sense if not in all of them.
If this sounds vaguely Buddhist, well then, Baggini wouldn’t disagree. He actually introduces a Buddhist atheist (heck yeah!) named Stephen Batchelor, who explains the Buddhist concept of anatta (no-self) as a rejection of Hinduism’s counterintuitive concept of self, atman. Basically, atman is the bit of soul (part of the big soul-y sea of brahman) that gets whirled from lifetime to lifetime accumulating karma, but it has nothing to do with personality and ego – those are as illusory as the material world. ‘If atman succeeds in becoming fully reintegrated with brahman, personhood is destroyed… so when [the Buddha] says anatta, he is rejecting the idea that there is an atman, that there is a brahman, and focusing attention therefore on the phenomenal world.’ (147) And because a person is not born with a karmically-determined self, their self is what they create themselves throughout their life.
And this is, to me, the most empowering part of moving away from a pearl view of the self. We do not have to resign ourselves to who we were, or even to who we are now. This gets to be a bit a sticky situation when one also throws in the lack of free will that bundle theory implies, but let me get there. First of all, we do have personality traits and characteristic ways of acting and interacting. But what we might label a person depends on context. In one environment, a person might seem generous – but only because most of the situations they are confronted with in their life are those situations in which they behave generously. But throw them in a different environment, like jail or a stressful job or the lap of luxury, and now the situations in which they tend to be mean predominate. Are they a generous person or a mean person? Trick question! As the Stanford Prison Experiment and Milgram’s Obedience Experiments have dramatically demonstrated, personality is heavily influenced by social standing, role, and environment.
I wonder if improv and roleplaying games (especially live-action ones) can (if they don’t take themselves too seriously) help us become more aware of the impact of external stimuli on our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors, and even overcome them when we’re pressured to act against our values. Baggini actually brings up virtue ethics – haven’t heard of that since Aristotle, now have we? – and suggests that the few people who resisted authority in Milgram’s experiments (and in real life) have developed exactly that sort of strong devotion to their values. They have, in other words, moral character. ‘The evidence is that unless you try to cultivate traits, whether you display them will depend more on circumstances than on you. So consistency in character is something to be created; it does not arise organically.’ (166)
I am on board with this, especially if it helps us become aware of privilege and work actively towards anti-racism and a more just society. Systems of privilege and oppression are invisible and embedded so deeply in our culture that what ‘arise[s] organically’ is often sexist, racist, or classist even if we do not want to be and claim not to be that kind of person. But if being ‘good’ is a matter of how we behave in a situation and not some essential core identity, then being called out on sexist or racist behavior is not an attack on one’s self. Relief! Without defensiveness, then, we are free to practice building up new traits that actually make us more consistently good people. Not that this is easy: ‘Being of good character requires self-monitoring and sensitivity to context, no just relying on automatic behaviors. We can strive to be certain types of person but we should not expect to automatically behave according to whatever regulative ideal we set for ourselves.’ (167)
Ah! But how can we choose to become better people if there is no ego to do the choosing? ‘Who’s having this free will’ anyway? (222) Susan Blackmore puts it this way: ‘It’s not that I have free will. It’s that this body here is a decision-making instrument and it will make decisions, given its necessity to do so and its ability to do so.’ (223) It’s like a wave function collapsing from a series of super-imposed states into a single, most stable, one. The desire to change arises from the interactions of memories and relationships and emotions – and, of course, reason and logic and ethics, because we’re still thinking, of course, even if those thoughts aren’t being directed by single control center. Quoting Antonio Damasio, Baggini makes the case for the inseparability of reason and emotion, anyway: ‘”Well-targeted and well-deployed emotion seems to be a support system without which the edifice of reason cannot operate properly.” What’s more, emotions are not produced simply in the brain. Rather, “the body is the main stage for emotions, either directly or via its representation in somatosensory structures of the brain.” This is because “feelings are largely a reflection of body-state changes.”‘ So, free will is – according to bundle theory – an illusion based upon the complex and distributed calculation of decisions based on sensory inputs and internal psychological processes. Just as I suspected!
But ‘free will’ means more than the ability for a little person inside our heads to defy the constraints of reason and emotion in order to do whatever the heck it wants (otherwise being random and absurd would be more free), so Baggini offers up compatibilist free will as an alternative. ‘In simplest terms, the compatibilist position is that freedom is not the ability to do other than what you actually do, but simply the ability to do whatever it is you choose to do,’ without coercion. ‘Whether these choices are simply the products of brains and bodies following the laws of nature or not is beside the point. Indeed, it could be asked, what else could these choices be the products of?’ (224) Anecdote time: in high school, one of my classmates astutely observed that he ‘didn’t have free will because he couldn’t turn this computer into a banana’. Truly, a definition of free will that considers the laws of physics themselves to be coercion is a useless one – under the compatibilist definition, that was never a choice to begin with. Though I have to wonder: if culture influences and constrains our choices, often defining what choices have value, can we consider people to be free and autonomous within a culture that restricts their choices to ones that are bad for them? Even if those people never feel themselves to be acting ‘under duress or coercion’?
Now, the words ‘illusion’ and ‘trick’ come up quite a few times. Like in the name of the book, for instance. We tend to think of these things as equivalents of lies, but there are also used to refer to short-hands and short-cuts. The example in the book is a computer’s graphical user interface, which brings together information from all over the computer (and the internet) and packages it up with some intuitive metaphor, like a desktop. There is no physical desk, of course, but it helps you get stuff done and enables more powerful interactions. Similarly, the strong impression most of us have of being a stable, singular entity – an ego – driving all our thoughts and actions, rather than being derived from them, is apparently helpful for interacting with the world and other people.
I have long thought this to be the case with personalities. Babies seem to be able to change moods at the drop of a hat, bawling one minute and giggling the next. This behavior would be unsettling in an adult. Somewhere along the line, we learn to smooth out our moods and habits so that they become intelligible and predictable – which is kind of a necessary thing to happen for successful social interaction if you think about it. If we could not count on others having individual identities, we could not have relationships as we know them. Our brains would be woefully underpowered for the task of sorting out the interactions between such non-discreet entities. (Side note: If octopuses indeed have distributed intelligence, as their individually-intelligent limbs might suggest, and are not capable of or simply never develop a sense of self, I wonder what the implications are for the development of a cephalopod society or the ethics of dealings between an ego-tricked species and an species without an ego trick?)
A non-essentialist view of the self allows us to move away from viewing an entire person (and ourselves) as ‘good’ or ‘bad’, ‘introverted’ or ‘extroverted’, unable to change, or the same in all contexts. Because we’re not. Our personality traits lie in multidimensional spaces that change fluidly over time in reaction to the environment, experience, and our own choices. I very much like The Ego Trick, not least of all because it presents philosophy as relevant to how I think about myself and how I live my life on a daily basis. And Baggini makes many complex philosophical ideas comprehensible, and will hopefully spark some good discussions when I convince my friends to read it, too.