On kin selection and traditional justice

Today I’ll present a quick thought on people killing their own children and kin selection. It occurred to me while reading an Economist article on Pakistani jirgas; traditional justice systems prone to violent punishments especially when it comes to young women in love. Now, as pointed out in the article above, that is probably a crude misrepresentation of the reality in Pakistan, and that cases of brutal punishments pertaining to marriage or sex arise from distant regions with little education. However, my interest today is that very thing, however of little importance it may be in the big picture.

 

Note: I am not an expert in jirgas, Pakistani culture or evolutionary psychology. Feel free to correct any and all mistakes I make in this text.

 

I understand evolutionary psychology relatively poorly, but I’m nevertheless fascinated by the idea that our behavior (and especially our decisions concerning life and death of ourselves, people related to us and other people) is decided by algorithmic and calculating processes which try to estimate the course of action by which the greatest percentage of familiar genes will survive. As genes rarely survive by themselves – viruses and bacterial DNA being the borderline cases – this means the survival of a vector for the genes. That is, somebody closely enough related to us.

 

I wonder how proponents of evolutionary psychology and especially kin selection explain things such as Pakistani jirgas operating as they are. Kin selection is the idea that organisms might neglect their own survival in order for their relatives to survive. Jirgas, on the other hand, are a mixture of old Islamistic justice, tribal customs and whatever arbitrary ideas its participants might have. There are numerous cases of people sentencing their own children to death due to violating the local laws and customs and thereby damaging the family’s honor. An example of this is the execution of a young couple who attempted to elope to escape arranged marriages. It seems to me that kin selection has trouble with explaining how people could decide to sacrifice their own descendants – that is, the ones they are traditionally thought to sacrifice themselves for – in order to protect an abstract idea of ‘honor’ or ‘face’.

 

I can think of a couple of ways to think of this. First is that possibly the people in question think that in order for their bloodline to survive at all, they need to sacrifice a disobedient child – a remarkable sacrifice but a necessary one, if the survival of the child meant, for them, the eradication of their whole family under the surrounding pressures. However, seeing as I also am able to learn of these things taking place, I find it hard to believe that this could be it. The people in question must be aware that there exists a surrounding world, where there are places with more permissive attitudes towards young people marrying each other for love. I do believe it is possible, though, that the people in question possess a worldview in which succumbing to the corrupted forces of the outside is a fate far more destructive than death.

 

And that leads me to another possibility. Could it be that as intelligent organisms people are subject first and foremost to their worldview, whatever it may be, not necessarily competing with their biological impulses, but possibly so? In the end, if we think of people as information processing machines, it is the rules which we infer and which are taught to us, which matter when we are making decisions. That is not to say that culture undoes biology as a way to explain behavior. In my eyes it is obvious that most cultural traditions reinforce biological needs and mechanisms of survival; all the way from individual problem-solving attitudes to education to altruistic philosophy. However, I think it is possible that cultural memes have the capacity to hijack our decision making hardware to produce an outcome apparently at odds with theories explaining the survival of organisms from purely a biological point of view.

 

Since our hardware, that is, our brain, is the product of evolutionary pressures to survive, I believe it is wont to conclude that the survival of the individual and their relatives is of utmost importance. That is nothing more but a very basic evolutionary psychological axiom in action: we want to survive. Combining this with the idea of ourselves as information processors, we get a machine which processes information and makes decisions so that those decisions probably increase the odds of survival.

 

The key word there is probably. It could be that what’s happening in the jirgas in question is, from an evolutionary psychological point of view, chaotic noise with little evolutionary function. It is decision making not really enhancing the survival of one’s genes (although as pointed out, it might), but enhancing the coherence of the worldview of the people in question, most likely combined with a variety of group psychological factors.

 

By the way, the article I mentioned at the beginning of this text is actually about how jirgas are now being integrated into the formal justice system of Pakistan. It will be interesting to see how that sorts out, especially since there is prominent opposition towards adopting a juricidial system at odds with the Pakistani constitution. There are reasons to think it’s not all bad, though, since the Pakistani justice system suffers from serious flaws in its current form. But for readers interested in that, I recommend to read the article.

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On paranoia as an attitude

Slate Star Codex has published a wonderful text on paranoia / hostility and trusting / prosociality as personality traits which vary among people like any other attribute; at the ends of the distribution there are people suffering from paranoid personality disorder or paranoid schizophrenia and at the other end people with Williams’ syndrome, incapable of not trusting everyone.

 

Obviously such a way of thinking ignores a lot mechanisms that bring about the phenomena in question – such as that paranoia may be a healthy person’s reaction to a hostile environment, whereas in schizophrenia it is most likely a symptom of dysfunctional cognitive networks misjudging harmless external events as particularly scary. In the first case, some psychodynamic or cognitive behavioural therapy might do the trick, in the latter probably not. But although regarding a multitude of neurological and psychological phenomena as a normal distribution over a trait is most likely oversimplifying it, I believe that sometimes that’s exactly what we need to do to make sense of things. That’s why Newton’s mechanics work as long as we don’t take into account the possibility of going really fast or becoming really small.

 

So I think in the text Scott Alexander presents a great idea and actually even hints at the possibility that such an idea might even explain some phenomena which baffle many; careful as he is, Scott doesn’t go into length explaining why his idea might be able to do it – a reason for me to admire him, to be frank. Sometimes it is, again, better to merely point at the general direction of an idea, say that this might be something worth looking into, and leave it there until the idea has evolved further. To use such a method of discussion to argue for a political agenda would be blasphemy insofar as good manners and honesty are concerned, but as long as the purpose is merely to think about possible explanations for things, it’s a wonderful way of thinking.

 

Now, to make things personal: I myself am instinctively somewhat suspicious of other people, and there have been instances where I’ve been sort of standoffish myself, for reasons I failed to understand until I reached something resembling adulthood physically, psychologically and economically. Being on the autistic spectrum, I faced remarkable difficulties in social situations as a child and as a teenager. This lead to a multitude of conclusions, some of which were bad; I am sorry to say that juvenile people have little patience for someone who fails to cope with something they perceive as easy and natural – a phenomenon evident during gym classes for some people. Long story short, I never got it really bad, but I was bullied pretty much throughout my elementary school years, which left me with something of a hostile attitude towards other people.

 

The thing is, I have always had friends who treat me nicely and are actually worthy of trust. Their morals vary widely – I’m certain some of them would have much trouble standing one another were they to meet and discuss – but they are all people I would without hesitation describe as good people. But deep down underneath that attitude, I recognize myself thinking that people in general are sort of selfish, opportunistic and capable of insane brutality and evil. And you know what – I’m most likely right to an extent. Anyone familiar with history understands that whatever blissful environment we as a rich, successful society have managed to create for many, the fact is that throughout history people have been sort of awful to each other. Just think about the general atmosphere during Vlad Dracula’s regime, any conquest of a foreign nation including mindless slaughter and rape or the events that took place under the totalitarian regimes of the early and mid-1900s. Those weren’t some exceptions produced by extremely troubled individuals – they were extreme actions of normal people under conditions which we have put a lot of effort into avoiding.

 

And that leads me thinking all the way back: if people are sort of bad and mean, never mind my friends who are obviously good people, why would anyone put any effort in avoiding war? Why do we have a jurisdiction condemning violence and coercion? Why do I read from history books about the horrors of Nazi concentration camps, if people didn’t think they were horrible?

 

So it seems I wasn’t exactly wrong there, but I sure wasn’t right either. There are plenty of people besides me who are appalled by the seemingly impossible brutality, greed and lack of empathy towards human or other life performed by some members of our species now or during some other time in history. I’m not alone there, and I’m actually incapable of accurately estimating how many in fact share those core values with me which lead me believing it’s not good to murder – or even be mean to others. But if I may guess, I would probably be happily surprised were I to know.

 

Having realized that somewhere along the line I seem to have slipped a bit too far along the distribution towards the paranoid and hostile, I understand that there is a lot of work to be done. It is not simple or straightforward fixing one’s cynical or misplaced attitudes, especially when they are accurate depending on where one looks. But seeing as being a Man, with his flaws, is something to be overcome, I might as well start here. In my earlier post Looking under the rug I gave something of a rant concerning the issues underlying our techno-capitalist society and its sustainability. Looking back at it I realize that text is a prime example of me assuming that such issues are the result of people in general willingly looking away where bad things happen in order to keep the party going. Now, that might even be somewhat true, but I doubt it’s the whole truth.

 

In the end, one of the best stories we like to tell ourselves is one where the evil in the world is the result of people willingly making bad choices, summoning a shitstorm upon others. But that there is also at the core of the psychology enabling conspiracy theories – that the fact that bad things sometimes happen is not merely unfortunate but also intentional.

 

And hey, for all I know, it could be. However, if I look sincerely at my own, semi-suspicious attitudes towards humanity and the way I end up interpreting social, political and environmental issues as a result of people being not nice and greedy, it kind of looks like I’m letting my emotions get the best of me.

 

How Internet helps undermine a free society

Links: Wikipedia, Scout

 

Sometimes I think about the Internet and what it has done and will do to our perceptions of information and knowledge. There exists a load of literature on the potential risks and negative consequences of the Internet on our societies; the dangers vary from individual alienation and net bullying to filter bubbles creating tribes incapable of discussion to Big Brother-esque surveillance depriving us of individual liberty to gain societal security, and more subtle risks such as that of the effects of text necks on our well-being or that of losing touch with more primitive ways of communication.

 

In this post, I’ll address one kind of a risk associated with the growing influence the Internet has on our lives, and that is the risk of losing whatever capability of individual decision-making we have ever had.

 

As during the 2000s the Internet has been made more user-friendly and no longer requires technical savviness to use to look for information, it has gone through mass adoption and has become the most widely used source of knowledge on anything. There are very few areas of human knowledge untouched by the Net, and it seems that pretty much all new information and all old information perceived as relevant to understanding today finds its way there. These days it’s not that we use the Internet mainly for work or for fun and entertainment; we have become dependent on it. It is the preferred medium of communication for most people, as SMS messaging and phone calls don’t quite compare to Facebook’s stickers, Skype calls or WhatsApp instant messaging. It is our source of news. When we wonder how to find out a piece of knowledge, we google it; and if nothing shows up after a few tries, we conclude that there is no information on the subject available quickly enough to be of interest to us.

 

I find this troubling for a couple of reasons.

 

Even though we trust more and more intimate and private information and data to our service providers, we haven’t really implemented proper safeguards in case those service providers decide to do something we didn’t want them to with that data or in case someone cracks the safeguards already in place and steals that data. I hope I need not explain why it might be troublesome that our health data from hospitals our sexual preferences carefully sewn together from years of watching internet porn – however little – could some day be a common thing a potential employer would take a look at before deciding whether to hire us. And even that’s relatively innocent.

 

More pertubing I find the fact that we are not merely trusting our service providers – Facebook, Google, Wikipedia, and others – not to abuse all the intimate information we provide them with, but we trust them to think in our stead. The tools of reasonable decision-making carefully cultivated throughout the slow intellectual development over the last few millenia are being systematically thrown away to be replaced with search engine algorithms, customized advertising, social media filter bubbles and naïvely postmodern ideas of reality being something waiting to be created through our social interactions, not something to be investigated, studied and respected to be possibly beyond comprehension.

 

Granted, almost none of the things mentioned above are something endemic to a population using the Internet, save for search engines. Throughout history people have been vulnerable to groupthink, propaganda and misinformation. So what’s special about today?

 

I believe the best example of the quite unique risks the widespread uses and purposes of the Internet poses is what Cambridge Analytica has achieved. It was only a few months back I read an article on the dangers of weaponizing the data defined by our activities on the Net. If you’re not familiar with Cambridge Analytica and its influence on the US presidential elections, Brexit and some less famous cases where polls failed to predict the future, I recommend you read up on it a bit. As tin foil -esque as that may sound, it might save you from becoming a zombie, to an extent. This Scout article is a good place to start.

 

A writer with more talent and patience than me might now set on a poetical journey to carefully paint a picture of the invisible machinery of artificial intelligence tools studying our psychological profiles, brought to them by a painstaking, patient, years-long process of buying and selling information legally and illegally, fusing corporations and changing their privacy policies, creating questionnaires and developing technology to track our online activity and finally to influence our behaviour in a way so subtle that we’re forever left with the illusion of us being independent thinkers, whereas in reality we’re nothing but puppets in the hands of something much more complicated and powerful than we could ever imagine. Seeing, however, as I’m not a big fan of tellings stories to make an argument (a habit of a good demagogue, but not necessarily one of an honest person), I’m going to be blunt about it.

 

The developments that have lead to Cambridge Analytica successfully influencing voters to create slight yet concrete differences in voting behaviour and which are at the core of online marketing based on tracking online activity are just the beginning of an era dominated by those who control information. The potential effects of this are so humongous I can’t even begin to describe them in a way that doesn’t sound absolutely insane in light of the relatively modest successes even the best AI software and propaganda machineries of today are capable of. It is worth noting, however, that information technology progresses very quickly, and the information we have leaked of ourselves to the depths of the Net never disappears.

 

What happens when tools so powerful are created that one might check what we were up to on the Net precisely ten years ago? What will happen to decision-making when artificial intelligences are so damn good at what they do that we can no longer tell the difference between a text created by a human journalist and a piece of propaganda shat out of an AI implemented to change the way we think? What will happen when those pieces of pseudo-information outnumber every actual fact on the Net a million times to one? How are we going to trust anything we see on the Net, seeing as 15 years from now it will probably be possible to create completely fabricated yet completely authentic video material combined with a fabricated piece of news about something going on in a place we don’t have a physical access to?

 

And there we have the issue I’m concerned with. It is not just that we are trusting the Internet with the most rudimentary tasks of information processing, nor that we are creating tools capable of processing information much more quickly than any human ever could. It is pretty much those two combined with the fact that both of them will very likely be controlled by centralized power structures both wealthy and powerful enough to prevent an individual from doing much anything about it. The vision which really frightens me is not one where we are controlled by violence and Big Brother constantly screening for potential thoughtcrimes (though that’s pretty bad, too). What I’m scared of is the possibility of slipping into a reality defined from head to toes by something I can’t even remotely understand for reasons that will forever remain a mystery to me – a reality constructed by intelligent artificial journalists, scientists and institutions solely for my IP address, telling me things that my psychological profile promises will elicit the most powerful emotional responses in the direction which will produce the behaviour wanted of me. To create fear where tighter military and police control is needed. To create joy and optimism where I’m needed to remain calm, keep consuming and stay happily ignorant. To create greed and fear of missing out where I’m required to work my ass off.

 

The dangers of giving up everything about ourselves is that we leave ourselves completely vulnerable to psychological and emotional manipulation by machineries created for that very purpose. As we trust the Internet to do our thinking for us and to decide which pieces of information are useful to us, we give up the very thing that we believe makes us human – our ability to make relatively independent decisions, and our ability to question that.

 

What frightens me about that vision is that I can’t think of a way to fight such developments. Going offline is the obvious solution, but am I really going to be able to do it? In a world where my job contracts are sent to me by email?

Practice reasoning and be less wrong

I was delighted to see that Less Wrong 2.0 has been launched, with a brand new version of Rationality A-Z, one of my favourite books.

 

The book is remarkable as it doesn’t make the tribal mistake of teaching people what to think but instead teaches how to think; and that aim is built upon sincerity, critical thinking and logic. Many seemingly righteous, smart or innocent ideologies, critiques of other ideologies and moral guidelines are coated with words to make us feel good and analogies to support arguments that cannot hold themselves up. Rationality A-Z does none of this but instead bases its case on sound reasoning. I can sincerely say that this book has shaken the foundations of my thinking, and I will read it again.

 

On a side note; if somebody builds their idea excessively upon analogies, wordplay and thought experiments, it is worth questioning whether their actual arguments and ideas hold up to scrutiny, and perhaps even whether the thinking guiding the arguments is honest. Recently I stumbled upon a relatively well-known blogger who does this a lot, but as I try to avoid open conflict, I’ll just remark that it’s a bad habit and that one should always beware analogies, especially compelling ones. The same thing goes for clever, verbally cutting retorts. Cleverness is entertaining but it should never make the case. That being said, I’m afraid that often it does, especially in meatspace.

 

For the rationally oriented reader I also recommend the Critical Thinking page, which has some good introductions on critical thinking skills. I read both the Rationality A-Z and some Critical Thinking posts around the same time last year, and found them helpful in correcting my own fallacious thinking habits.

 

Thinking, learning, remembering and problem solving are all skills worth practicing and honing throughout one’s lifetime. There is a measure of natural talent involved, but far too often I have witnessed quick-witted and creative people fall victim to logically fallacious argumentation, intellectual hubris and sloth. Never should one be content with the position one already has on a question that requires thinking, unless one constantly checks the case both for and against their position. We love to tell ourselves stories; one of the most common ones includes the righteous, misunderstood position we somehow have discovered but which a good part of the rest of the population cannot seem to grasp.

 

How exactly did that happen? How exactly did we come to be right about if not everything, then at least about everything that matters? That would be a remarkable achievement, were it true. Is it, really?

Coping with mortality

In this text I will talk about death, dying and the realities which lead to dying; mostly disease, and ageing, which leads to disease. I’ll also argue that the only way to understand death is to understand life, and that the only reasonable way to cope with death is to embrace life.

 

1.

 

Though I’m still relatively young, I have grown old enough to understand the fragility of my condition as a human being. There is a chronology to its progression:

 

  • As a child, I was granted a certain set of genetic and environmental attributes which contributed to my life expectancy in various ways.
  • As an adult, I am able to fix my habits and attitudes to an extent, but I won’t likely become any healthier without a significant effort concerning my diet, exercise habits and mental well-being.
  • Sooner or later I will suffer from a range of diseases, some of which will carry on throughout the rest of my life.
  • One or several of these diseases will kill me.

 

Hopeless as that may seem, that progression is inevitable as long as the compound intellect of human generations has not overcome the limits to life set by ageing and illness. I have little faith that such a milestone would be reached within my lifespan and moderately little faith that it should ever happen.

 

For the time being, I’ll simply disagree with Ray Kurtzweil and Aubrey de Gray and state that any hope of eradicating illness or death of old age in the near future is not merely wrong, but delusional. It ignores the vast, unexplored complexities which lead to illness on the molecular level and which eventually kill us. It ignores the fact that severe psychosocial and economic issues all over the globe prevent people from living as long as they theoretically should even if we didn’t have nanobots or a technological singularity. That is not to underestimate the effort to cure illness and end death, or the results that effort has already brought. It is to admit that we still have a relatively poor understanding of how exactly we become ill and how our bodies fall apart over the decades of an individual lifespan, and an even poorer understanding on potential ways to alleviate these issues, not to mention fixing them altogether.

 

As astounding as our technological evolution has been for the last few centuries, it will not prevent me from facing the carnal realities of the human condition; most of which were taken for granted merely decades ago. It is only the illusion of inevitable progress, which I have partly tackled on an earlier post, that lets us dream of immortality. I shall talk about this shortly.

 

 

2.

 

First, it is not self-evident to a layperson that technological progress and especially progress in medicine is not at all an unstoppable force, which, once discovered, will power on and on, guiding our species towards the infinite brilliance of immortality, ensuring our place in heaven on earth and eventually in the heavens above. In fact, most people who live in developed countries seem to take for granted that eventually such a development will occur, and that it is merely a matter of time when this should happen.

 

There are nontheless reasons to be highly skeptical towards this kind of thinking. Most of scientific research, medicine included, has been powered by access to cheap fossil fuels and materials. Especially troublesome is the assumption that information technology and novel automatized machinery in the form of human-healing nanobots or our cyborgization are going to be central in ending illness and death, since it is based on the premise that the energy sources and materials required by the aforementioned technologies are abundant in the near and far future.

 

That is not at all the case, although predicting the exact opposite would also most likely be wrong. Fact is, as a dysfunctional global civilization we are facing growing difficulties even in providing food, clean water and shelter in some parts of the world. Extreme poverty has decreased dramatically and we have reason to expect this to continue, but the ongoing climate change and increasing costs to gain access to fossil fuels cast doubt on whether we can keep up with both providing for a growing population, and developing new technologies to improve people’s lives – technologies which very much depend on an access to cheap energy and materials.

 

That is to say; we should expect some things to get better over time. It is not certain, however, that illness and death are among those things.

 

It is true that medicine has changed over time in ways independent of cheap energy. For example, germ theory was a major breakthrough as it gave doctors an incentive to wash their hands in between rummaging corpses and helping women give birth. It also influenced greatly on the way we think about hygiene in general, producing a dramatic improvement in public health.

 

Also important were the ways in which doctors’ ways of thinking of illness and diagnosing the patient changed over the last centuries. Superstitious belief systems were replaced by an analytical approach towards human physiology and pathology through a painstaking process of hard work and some strokes of luck.

 

What is essential to those aspects of improving and reducing illness, however, is the fact that they only lenghten the human lifespan insofar as it is possible without interfering with ageing, a general pathway to disease. One might argue that with a perfect diet and lifestyle people could life on indefinitely, but that sure has not happened yet (and it also doesn’t take into account telomeres, mistakes in DNA replication leading to cancer and various other things). We should conclude that eventual sickness and dying in particular cannot be avoided simply by improving health by conventional means.

 

So if we’re stuck with disease and death without crazy-ass inventions regarding nanotechnology and multiple breakthroughs in molecular biology, and if even those are somewhat unreliable saviors at least in the foreseeable future, we are left with the very concrete possibility that we will, as everybody before us, get sick and die.

 

 

3.

 

If death and sickness are inevitable, how to deal with it? In my opinion there are two ways to approach the subject: one is to realistically and sincerely look at the human condition and perceive that sickness and death are ubiquitous. Another is to take that into account and look for meaning in things other than eternal life.

 

One key thing in coping with the fragility of our existence is understanding the fact that our bodies are not in fact that healthy before we are diagnosed with a chronic illness, say, atherosclerosis, diabetes, Alzheimer’s disease or lung cancer.

 

All of the aforementioned diseases are in fact highly complicated and progressive processes, which manifest themselves over long periods of time. There is a long and gradual, yet continuous and logical path from munching on Big Macs and smoking two packs a day to being diagnosed by a physician and to being buried in the ground. Most diseases don’t happen overnight; instead they are the nasty result of countless micro-processes present each and every second throughout our lives.

 

This doesn’t, of course, apply to dying in an accident or being killed by another human or other animal. My focus is nevertheless sickness, since most people seem to avoid the thought of dying before their time simply by avoiding dying in an accident or otherwise suddenly. What a wonderful way to pretend immortality! I’ll just avoid all ways of dying and it’ll be alright.

 

There is a clear distinction in being diagnosed with an illness and being healthy. That distinction is so lucid that when we start feeling that something is not right, we immediately become a little bit afraid of what it might be. Some people postpone going to a doctor for that particular reason; having it being told to you makes it more real. But we know for a fact it that it is real all the time, and delaying a doctor’s appointment or starting treatment usually only make things worse.

 

That distinction right there is only illusory and there to serve the delusion of not dying, ever. But that delusion is another great way to pretend immortality; I’ll just avoid getting sick by leading a healthy life and tehreby avoid death! Nu-uh. There’s no way to avoid sickness. Even the healthiest of us merely achieve a few extra years without the burdening knowledge that their bodies are in fact falling apart. What people do by living healthily is decrease the odds of getting sick and passing away before their due date. And it’s a wonderful goal; those extra years are immeasurably valuable. That due date, however, is still there. We don’t really know how it is defined and what it might be, but a good estimation is probably somewhere around 120 years at the latest.

 

The state of affairs still is that we get sick, and to understand and appreciate that fact, we need to rid ourselves of the faulty distinction between health and sickness, where the doctor, that devil, is the bringer of bad news, the line that separates the lucky from the unlucky, the alive from the dead. One moment where this happened for me was during a lecture on sudden death, where the professor casually mentioned that some young men present in the lecture hall most likely already had some fat plaques accumulated in their coronary arteries. There was a stir in the audience, from which one could hear that it was mostly men mumbling and murmuring, rattled by the sudden revelation that they already had the preparations of a deadly disease going on inside them.

 

After the lecture I mentioned this to a fellow male student, asking if he noticed the stir too. He said immediately, slightly amused, that in no way did he want to know anything about the fact that he might end up with coronary artery disease. Why the heck would he want that? He was healthy and doing well in his life. I concluded that the stir was in fact real and not merely my imagination playing tricks on me.

 

For me, that was a key moment where I realized that I, in fact, was not going to eventually get sick; I was already, insofar as anybody was. I have a multitude of reasons to believe my genes aren’t in fact that well wired to avoid heart disease, but the exact details on how my sickness will manifest aren’t important. What I understood was that whatever it was – lung cancer, cardiovascular disease, neurological degeneration, whatever – I probably already had the makings of a dead man. The tiny molecular processes were well underway, be it any of the diseases which kill people. It could of course be that the details were yet to be determined, but the probabilities were most likely already there.

 

All the distinctions fell away in their apparent meaninglessness. What distinction there was left to make was between a man capable of acting on his own and a man in need of help to the simplest of tasks, after the long, perpetual work of a chronic disease. For the time being, I was well enough to care for myself, but my time would surely come, just as it does for everybody else.

 

That, or sudden death.

 

 

4

 

Seeing as I’m already a dead man walking, things get relatively simple. All I need to do is take my mortality and eventual dying into account with what I do, and suddenly I have a range of values and questions to consider.

 

The fact that I have a limited time to spend on this Earth riding this human vehicle – that one’s for believers in a soul – makes my time here very special. It’s a fact repeated in so many motivational quotes with a sunset background that it’s bound to sound lame, but as I really don’t have that much time, I’d better make that time count. I’m not sure what that says as to what I am going to do with that time, but I know some things it says I’m not going to do. I’ll never practice ski jumping seriously. I’ll never do stand up comedy. I’ll never set up a company selling people things they don’t need just to make money for myself. It’s not that nobody should do those things, but that I’ve already invested too much into other things to make those, among others, worthwhile anymore. I could ski jump for fun a couple of times, but there’s no point in trying to become great at it. As to selling useless things, I just think it’s stupid. With infinite time I could do a bunch of stupid things and not feel a thing, but as I’ve already spent quite a big part of my very finite youth doing things even dumber than that, I’ve become jealous of what time I’ve got left.

 

So everything I do has to be imbued with meaning sufficient to be worth of the time I spend on it. That doesn’t mean I should only aspire to do great things; if smelling flowers and practicing chess are what make me happy and if what makes me happy is my core value, I probably should do those. So what I’m faced with is the question of what my core values are. Without answering that, there’s nothing I can do without questioning whether or not what I’m doing is worthwhile. A way to define meaning is by sense of fulfilment, which stems from embracing our core values.

 

As I find out my core values, I’ll naturally gravitate towards something worth doing, as defined by myself. The things I do may not be the most effective ones – most likely they won’t. They will, however, be closer to serving my ultimate truth than any amount of effectiveness in some direction away from that. That should be good enough – that must be good enough. If it isn’t, I’m again trapped in a loop of self-defeating skepticism: “What if I’m not doing the best possible things to produce the best possible outcome?” There’s really no way around that, unless you’re an ethicist or working for 80,000 Hours. So yeah, what I’m doing is bound to be sub-obtimal and most likely sub-par even in that, but at least I’m focusing on something that counts.

 

Another thing to consider is that my position is in most ways not unique. Granted, my specific interactions with this particular environment are bound to this specific amount of time and therefore possibly unreplicable and unique. There is all the same a huge similarity to my experience and that of other people, and more generally that of other animals. My core values include survival, but not indefinitely or irrespective to that of others. I may have to sacrifice something I might otherwise achieve to advance the well-being of others. That is, as you see, dependent on the fact that my core values include appreciating the experience of others, but I point out that only a child or a narcissist only advances solely their own self-interest, disregarding everything else. Most of us accept the fact that the experience of others is of value to us, at least as long as we aren’t forced to live like rats in a concentration camp. That is a thing worth remembering. Many people lament their own past selfishess and vanity; perhaps there is something to be learned from that.

 

Whatever it is that guides the decisions I make throughout my life, the most important thing to keep in mind is that everything I do changes the world around and inside me in a subtle yet permanent way. What are the changes I perceive as good? What is good enough for me to spend the rest of my life trying to bring to life? That is the most important question we must ask ourselves. Is this worth it? I’m going to die, is this worth it? It has to be repeated. It has to be forged into our consciousness so that with everything we do, we intuitively realize it should at least aspire to be the best thing we can think of doing, so that when we eventually die, we will have nothing to regret having done that. That does not mean we shouldn’t relax or do things people usually think of as useless. Considering that we will eventually die, I think it’s really not bad to take it easy every now and then. Being useless from time to time is wonderful and brings me joy.

 

Now, looking back at our earlier thoughts on sickness and death, we may view them with more optimism. The fact that we are mortal doesn’t take the meaning away from our beliefs and actions, it imbues them with meaning. Eternal life is a source of ultimate nihilism, whereas mortality forces us to weigh our values. And that is the most remarkable thing I can think of death: I can’t think of it in and as of itself. Death seems insane. It’s the end of me, of everything for me. But if I take a step back, I realize that death, that awful singularity in itself, suddenly becomes alive in relation to my life. Its presence imbues my whole life with meaning. It recreates everything I do in the form of the question is this worth it. It smashes apart my belief systems and gives birth to new ones. By itself, death is the definition of horror. But tangled with life as it is, it becomes something brilliant: a source of clarity, a way to understand life and therefore, roundabout as that may sound, a way to understand death itself.

Why changing bad behavior requires long-term thinking

Links: Wait but Why, Google

 

Today I’ll make a simple argument against ignoring a healthy lifestyle in favor of short-term gratification in the form of relatively bad habits. I’ll approach the question from the viewpoint of broader contexts which affect our short-term behavior though we may not feel that’s what actually happens. The main problem is that as people we have difficulties in relating short-term and long-term contexts to one another and understanding that they reflect each other in very immediate ways.

 

Bad behavior or habits are seldom present by themselves, without an accompanying context. Most of us have habits or tendencies we would rather live without; binge eating, staying up late though we need to be awake and alert early the following morning; consuming enough alcohol to make us feel bad the next day; spending money on clothes or entertainment though we really promised ourselves to save more money, and so on.

 

We also scold ourselves for breaking the rules we agree on with ourselves. We’ve negotiated a specific day of the week or month when we’re allowed to go munchies, or a budget for monthly spending, and are of course disappointed if we fail to meet those goals. One obvious question is whether our goals are realistic in the first place, but another is that whether our goals are realistic depends on other contexts that have to do with our lives. Such contexts include our moods, developments in our social circles or health, our financial well-being etc.

 

Thing is, it takes a very patient approach to understand that the developments of those higher-level contexts may affect directly our motivation to say, keep up with a diet or a budget. The minute we feel too burdened with our everyday challenges we risk turning to instant gratification, which may lead to cycles of self-defeating behavior.

 

All of this is in fact extremely simple. It doesn’t take a genius to realize that sleep deprivation affects our judgment badly or that working too much may lead to issues with substance use or relationships. However, it seems to be that we are still relatively short-sighted in controlling our long-term behavioral models even though on an abstract level we understand its relationship to our immediate well-being. A prime example of this is that the modern US is a federation of sleep-deprived people.

 

It is also noteworthy that often skipping sleep or workouts is itself a result of short-term thinking and seeking of instant gratification; that is, a natural consequence of a self-defeating cycle in action.

 

But if we take this concept and apply it to our everyday choices we might stand a chance fighting it. We shouldn’t think that eating too much or being grumpy to our loved ones is the issue by itself, but that skipping sleep and not taking enough time to relax is exactly as bad as those things; in fact, it is the same thing, seeing as they lead to this bad behavior most of the time. It is harder to think that not paying attention to our diet or to our budget equals to being mean to others or to making bad decisions overall, but if we combine our short-term and long-term perspectives, it makes perfect sense. This is indeed one of  the cases where intuition is a remarkably bad tool and reason surpasses it in every way. Binge eating doesn’t reduce our stress, but is a symptom of stress.

 

Another thing to pay attention to is whether these events in our life are cyclic. Those affected by seasonal affective disorder, for instance, should be extra careful with their lifestyle during winter, while students should take control of their eating, sleeping and exercising habits during the time they tend to think of them the least: when the exams are coming. I’m certain that failing to do this will often lead to bad behavior and eventually to self-defeating cycles, overcoming which will be a multiple of the original effort to simply keep up with a healthy lifestyle.

On free will

Here I’m going to present two ideas on free will. The first is that commonplace discussion on free will lacks a proper definition of free will and is therefore based on muddled thinking, and the second is that free will cannot exist without limitations to define its possibilities.

 

For the reader unfamiliar with the discussion, I shall provide an introduction on the subject. Those familiar with it may jump right ahead to the point, which starts in part 2. They will note that the ideas presented are quite basic in the compatibilist school of thought, but as I arrived to the conclusions by myself, I would like to walk the reader through my thought process nevertheless. I also do not identify as a compatibilist, but merely endeavor to show the obvious issue in just talking about free will without properly defining it beforehand – which does take the entertaining edge off the fiery debate. My second aim is to offer a solution not as to whether or not free will exists but as to how to possibly approach the extent to which it exists and what this means in practice.

 

 

1

 

Free will was already debated in the ancient Greece. Seeing as the subject has attracted the attention of philosophers such as Descartes, Schopenhauer, Hobbes and Spinoza, a dilettante such as myself can hardly hope to bring anything new to the discussion. However, seeing as the subject is of interest to people regardless of their education, I dare say that philosophy as a way of thinking is not a privilege solely reserved for the brilliant and the educated. Indeed, the very essence of philosophy requires that people create and produce philosophy on their own, and that the ideas become further cultivated through discussion.

 

So to paraphrase one of the greatest, Ludwig Wittgenstein: “As I’m also not interested in whether someone has said or written some of these thoughts before I did, I shall not cite any sources.” (Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, which I also haven’t finished despite the years it has spent on my bookshelf)

 

To begin with, there exists a wide range of philosophical positions regarding free will. Free will is usually defined in a lax way as the ability to choose one’s action unimpeded (Wikipedia). Proponents of free will usually take it as given and use it as a premise to defend notions of guilt and responsibility; ideas upon which much of our criminal jurisdiction and socioeconomic systems (laws and unwritten rules governing wages, criminal responsibility, the extent to which public healthcare is obliged to help an individual, etc.) are based upon.

 

This is an important part of the discussion; much of the argumentation behind the existence of freedom of choice is in a sense consequentialist – that if we do not accept the notion of free will, we would have to revise some very essential practices both individually and collectively. It is also intuitive to human beings to perceive themselves as free agents, which unfortunately has more to do with our tendency to rationalize our actions than with our freedom per se. All this shifts the focus of discussion, however, to ethics and psychology, instead of metaphysics. As my focus in this post is the latter, I shall not go further into the implications of our ideology.

 

On the opposite side of the discussion are usually determinists; people who take for granted that there are certain laws – physical or spiritual – which govern everything in universe both outside and inside ourselves, and which leave no room for individual freedom. Since everything that has happened or will happen is both eventual and necessary, there is not much sense to say that we were free to choose our actions all the same; we just always end up doing the exact things that were bound to happen either way. That sort of freedom would be illusory at best.

 

It is also worthwhile to ponder the implications of physics on free will. Many determinists will say that laws of physics – and, eventually, the neurochemical processes which are based on physical laws – undermine the idea of free will. Recently quantum physics has seemingly offered a refuge for those in favor of free will; as a certain degree of uncertainty seems to be not merely a result of measuring things but an intrinsic property of matter and space, there is a possibility that this uncertainty represents individual freedom. It is, however, extremely unlikely that this sort of quantum uncertainty has anything to do with freedom of choice. The problem is scale: neural interactions happen at a scale orders of magnitude larger than that where quantum effects become meaningful, so whereas quantum uncertainty might undermine determinism as a property of the universe as a whole, it probably doesn’t undermine determinism on the more macroscopic scale of things; that is, where actions of deciding take place. This is not the only issue, and I shall comment more on it later. It would seem that physical laws weigh in favor of the determinists, but as we shall see, things are not that simple.

 

What I have described above is something called an incompatibilist view on free will; the idea that free will and determinism are mutually exclusive.* There are, however, many who will say that this is not necessarily so. A philosophical tradition called compatibilism states, in essence, that free will is not an absolute, and that it should be taken as a measure of external pressures which direct the decisions we make. Bluntly: a child threatened with physical abuse cannot be said to possess the same amount of freedom to do as she pleases as does a powerful CEO on his day off. That is to say: there is no freedom in an absolute sense, but everything we are free to do manifests as relative to the things which restrict our actions. So we may be free to decide on which side of the bed we’ll sleep tonight, but we are less free to decide whether or not we’ll go to work today. We might decide not to go to work, but the external pressures which would probably make our lives more difficult at least in the short term make this path hard to take. Most of us would and will go to work even if we didn’t want to.

 

(*there is also the claim that not only is free will incompatible with determinism but that it is also incompatible with the lack of if; so that no matter what, there can be no free will. There are many ways to come to this conclusion, called hard incompatibilism, as are with the other points of view.)

 

So according to compatibilists, it doesn’t matter that much whether or not there exists an all-encompassing physical determinism which governs our every decision, but the point of interest is how much that determinism restricts our actions. The question is not whether we are free, but how free we are. Those who are heavily in favor of determinism will note that this still does not undo the fact that no matter how much apparent freedom an individual has, if everything has been decided beforehand, the rich and powerful individual is no more free to change their behavior than is the poor and powerless one. According to them, the compatibilist idea of degree of freedom is merely illusory.

 

 

2

 

Now, having been acquainted with the subject, one might already find themselves defending one position over the other. It is worth remembering that above the opposing positions over the existence of free will have been presented as caricatures, whereas in the literature it is often the subtleties over which philosophers disagree. Apparently opposing views may be complementary instead of exclusive and seemingly similar ideas may be quite far from another. However, as presented, I believe I have captured the essence of most of the everyday discussion over the existence of free will, as most people interested in the subject never have the time or the interest to read the thousands and thousands of pages of literature written. I belong among them, happily. However, that puts a great emphasis on others pointing out mistakes in their thinking, as they are not likely to entertain the thoughts so much as to find them out themselves. I will attempt to do my part of that here.

 

To the proponents of free will and to those opposing its existence in favor of determinism alike, I would like to present a question: of what exactly is the will to be free?

 

Is it classical determinism, that is to say, cause and effect? That would imply that somewhere in the human brain, laws of physics would become relative instead of absolute, but that doesn’t make any sense at all. Why should it be human brain, in particular, where we would observe this discrepancy, instead of, say, a tree or a rock? There are no different physical laws for different elements, so that cannot be it. Also, as presented above, quantum mechanical phenomena are much too quick, tiny and delicate to have much to do with deciding (Max Tegmark has actually calculated this regarding a certain theory of consciousness), and even if they did, the laws governing quantum mechanics would still imprison our minds, so that’s not it either. This is obviously begging the question.

 

Maybe it means to be free from external influences, but this is even worse. Not only does it imply that external things would have no effect on the human brain – something which can be proven wrong simply by noticing that we receive sensory information all the time – but also that internal influences are somehow ours to decide. That is not true in any way, as we are not free to choose our genetics or our elementary building blocks. From the moments of our conception, our fate as to how we will think and feel have in part been decided, and this effect is true throughout pregnancy, our infancy and in subtler ways through our entire lives. It also presumes an arbitrary border between an individual and their surroundings, which also, again, seems only to be looking for further questions.

 

Maybe it is to be relatively free from external influences in the compatibilist sense, where the will is defined as the will of a human being and the external influences as whatever it is that restricts their behavior in a way that makes sense from our human point of view. This, however, suffers from the issues already mentioned: it in no way takes into account the fact that we still have no idea how much we as sentient beings have control over our internal environments, it doesn’t define “the will of a human being” properly (*), it draws an arbitrary line between a human and its environment and worst of all, it doesn’t define the difference between being free from external influences and not interacting with environment at all. Our environment influences us every second, but we disagree over which parts of that influence are things restraining our free will. We might say that breathing low-quality air has less of an effect on our freedom than does someone telling us not to do something, but how do we know that? We have no consensus over how our environment affects our behavior, but a growing body of research implies that it does so in unintuitive ways.

 

(* is it the brain that is free? Is it the simulatory experience generated by the brain? How do we account for the effects of the other organs and musculature on the experiencing agent? If it means the whole of the human body, how do we define a leg or a spleen willing to do anything?)

 

There are, I am sure, various other ways to define the things of which a free will should be free, and I will gladly discuss whatever definition you have in mind – just leave a comment and I shall reply. I believe most of them still fall under the three categories I have treated above at least partly, as the logical issues underlying all of them are alike.

 

These problems are not unique to any single philosophical school of thought; indeed, it seems that various philosophers have different opinions over which of the aforementioned problems should even be considered relevant to the subject. I believe they all are, since there is not much point to talk about freedom in the abstract unless it is properly defined. Practically, of course, things are usually simpler; we accept some notion of intrinsic freedom and become upset when freedom is taken away from us – when talking about society, most people become compatibilists. When discussing metaphysics, however, we’ll pretend there’s no such thing as practice and admit that defining free will is problematic no matter how you look at it. And indeed, most of the time the commonplace debate eventually reduces to a disagreement over how free will should be defined.

 

 

3

 

If, then, we have no satisfying definition of free will in contrast to anything, it comes to mind whether we should abandon the concept completely. That is not to say that we should conclude that free will doesn’t exist, which would mean taking a stance against its existence; it is to say that there is absolutely no point in talking about the existence of something we cannot even properly define. There are, however, counterarguments to that. One is the perception that accepting some level of free will seems both intuitive to us and necessary to the juridical system; so there is practical value. Secondly it occurs to me that we rarely have proper, encapsulating and thorough definitions for much anything we talk about, say, what it is to love someone, what it is to be tired of something, what it means to want something and so on, yet we often talk about those things effortlessly, without much confusion. From that point of view free will is a description of an experience; however illusory, the feeling that I’m deciding to do this is there. In that case, there’s not much to discuss.

 

There are also other difficult, complicated questions such as the essence of a physical structure, what the basic substance of the universe is, what a number is, and so on. According to some people, these questions also lack proper definitions, but that is far from saying that we should abandon the concepts entirely; it just means we understand them too poorly to have yet defined them in a way that isn’t roundabout and self-referential. The assumption of free will might as well be one of those things.

 

Since it would be useful to have some kind of a definition of free will, I tried to think of one myself. Seeing as the main issue to me is the question of the essence of the limitations, I thought of an agent free of all kinds of limitations, encapsulating an infinite amount of possibilities, completely unrestricted. There’s no way to actually picture that, but what occurred to me was that this would be something that has no defining characteristics whatsoever; an entity made entirely of the possibility of everything yet the manifestation of nothing. Since it would reduce the amount of possibilities in other directions to manifest as something in actuality, such a being would ironically be deprived of the possibility of ever actually being anything; it would be unrestricted chaotic noise of would-have-beens, forever ineffable. So even in the absence of absolutely anything to limit it the freedom breaks down; there’s nothing to grab as the agent is literally all over the place in every possible meaning of the expression.

 

But what if we restrict this agent in some way? Say, we picture a dimension over which we restrict its movement. The dimension need not be physical, but it helps if we picture it like that; say, there exists a point in an infinite space and the being exists in some way relative to the point. These are all abstractions, so the space imagined may as well be n-dimensional – in my head, I picture a three-dimensional space. So there is the space, the point and the being (never mind that the being should also encapsulate the possibility of the space and the point being something different, as I shall return on that), somehow in relation to the point. The being might encapsulate the point. It might be located on a certain distance from it, or several distances, on different angles.

 

What is essential here is that now we have something concrete to talk about. We can picture the being to be free to take on any kind of a position relative to the point. We can picture it ripping the point apart (which, mathematically, would make no sense, but hey, this is a being made of infinite possibilities and all) and swallowing it. We can picture the being taking an infinite distance relative to the point – whatever comes to mind, but the point here is that the point – the degree limiting the agent’s freedom – is of utmost importance. Without it, all of this would again be impossible as the limitation would limit the possibility of there being no limitations at all.*

 

(*that may be the most redundant thing I have ever written)

 

So to talk about any meaningful degree of freedom seems to presume some limitations to that freedom. This is remarkable. We are not talking about limitations to freedom as a contrast to it – that would be excluding all the things we imagined before, another limitation to the agent – but as parallel to it, something along which the agent may now glide to do whatever it pleases. The limitation offers a surface to operate upon, along which to manifest all the infinite possibilities that still remain. Were we to take this limitation away, we would again force the poor entity into the impossible-to-define realm of possibilities where nothing manifests and everything is intertwined in a web of woulds and coulds. In this line of thought, limiting the agent’s freedom actually increases the amount to which it may manifest itself; the degree of concrete freedom.

 

Now, one might make the counterargument that actually the limitation increases nothing in the sense of freedom, and that my point that the possibilities manifesting would limit other possibilities just shows limitations of my imagination. What about the possibilities containing multitudes which contradict themselves like Walt Whitman does in his famous quote? Fine, let them contradict themselves without restricting the possibilities of them not contradicting; this agent is large and contains multitudes; it can contradict itself without contradicting itself. It seems that my idea of the agent being trapped in the possibility-space falls apart.

 

That, however, is of little importance insofar as we are talking about a meaningful way to define freedom of choice. It may very well be that a being encapsulating all possibilities must also encapsulate the possibilities which contradict one another and be also able to manifest them, as that also is a possibility. It may also encapsulate the possibility of not encapsulating anything at all, of not existing. All of this may be true at the same time, however illogical that is. We are not talking about a logical agent but an unrestricted agent. All the same, this tells us nothing at all  about the freedom of the being, no matter how much we’d like it to. There’s a saying in physics that a theory that predicts everything predicts nothing at all, and this is much like that situation. We may say that the thought experiment’s being is free to qquahhilubong and feel smart about ourselves, but we have done remarkably little in defining freedom of choice.

 

All of that changes when we add even a single limitation; we have something we can actually visualize. We can talk about the agent in reference to the limitation, and suddenly the being becomes alive out of the infinite oceans of gladly-self-contradicting Babel’s library, it falls along the limitation and flies up beside it; dances on its surface and paints it with all the remaining possibilities written into it. The possibilities themselves are sterile to us; it is the limitations which breathe life into the agent and permit us to talk about what the agent is free to do.

 

So it is by a thought process such as this how I arrived at the conclusion that it is not the degree of freedom we want to look at when defining freedom of choice, but the degree of limitations present; but that alone is not enough, as we are wont to think of them as a contrast to the freedom. We need to understand that freedom is empty of any meaning whatsoever so long as it is not limited; absolute freedom permits nothing and steals the beauty of freedom as we understand it. Freedom of choice only has meaning in parallel to its restrictions, and that is the foundation of the logic we should pursue when talking about whether or not free will exists.

 

 

4

 

But have I actually said anything of value? It seems that I have merely been bouncing the perceptions of freedom and its limitations back and forth, criticizing other definitions of free will for a lack of concreteness and then offering a definition which is so abstract that it doesn’t even say anything about the nature of the agent itself.

 

I must point out that my objective was never to offer a thorough definition of free will. I restrain myself from participating in the debate about its existence for that very reason. What I have tried to do is to offer a method to define free will, not the definition itself. So the question is not what we should say about freedom of choice but how we should say it. “Agent X is free to do this or that” is an easy to understand statement and may be possible to prove right or wrong. “Agent X is free of external pressures” is a much more convoluted claim, which presumes several definitions and borders which I have already talked about.

 

As to whether I have offered anything practical for approaching the freedom of choice, I ask the reader to observe whether the freedoms mentioned are ever actually materialized. “He is free to travel abroad and change jobs anytime!” But does he ever do that; does he ever glide along his limitations to realize that? Do we actually have evidence that people in his position or with similar genetic makeup have the ability to materialize that possibility? If the person in question only ever glides in the same job and in the same country, we should be very careful in inferring possibilities which we have not yet proven to be there. That is to say: as there already are countless apparent limitations to our free will, it is not inconceivable that there are more under the surface and between the lines. It is, however, impossible, that we are absolutely free. Anyone thinking like that is free to try to exist and not exist at the same time.