Category Archives: Philosophy

How not Why

We are often compelled to ask why? Why this and why that? Usually our why questions are directed towards everyday occurrences, and we ask them out of curiosity. For example, why is there thunder and lightning? Why is the sky blue? Why are there high and low tides? As far as the tides go, high and low tides are caused by a combination of gravitational effects, which are exerted by the moon, the sun and the rotation of the earth. That being said, I have not provided an answer for why there are high and low tides. I have explained in simple terms, how high and low tides occur. On these relatively simple questions we ask why, although I think we really mean how. What we are looking for is the reasons or the causes behind the observed reality. We are not searching for a hidden meaning or purpose for the tides. But rather for how high and low tides occur, the causes for the tides, or the thunder and lightning, or the blue sky.

Having said that, other “why” questions are of a more profound nature, and they generally come in two categories. One type of question relates to the deeper mysteries of life. For example, why are we here? Why is life the way it is? And why is there a universe in the first place? Although we may ponder these or other similar questions from time to time, we can usually put them aside without too much trouble. There is some value in just asking the questions, even though there may be no complete resolution.

A second category of questions, which are more disturbing, arises primarily when an event impacts us in a negative way. That is when we tend to ask: why do bad things happen? As opposed to the simpler questions, like the ocean tides, when it comes to the bigger questions, we ask why—and we really mean why. We are looking for a meaning or purpose behind an event that has transpired—an underlying order behind the apparent chaos of our present situation. Conversely, when something happens that we perceive as positive, we seldom ask why it came about. I have yet to hear someone question why their day went so well.

It is very common for people that are faced with a tragedy to ask why. It could be the death of a loved one, or an illness that compels us to ask why. The trouble with this line of questioning is that it very rarely leads to a satisfactory answer. It may be comforting to believe that “everything happens for a reason,” as the well-known phrase goes, however, there may be no why (at least no why that the human mind can comprehend). The random element in life alone, if not for countless other factors, makes it inevitable that bad things will happen. Instead of saying that “everything happens for a reason,” we could easily reverse the phrase and say that “there are reasons (causes) for everything that happens.” We may be able to find the cause (the how) for an event, but trying to find why something happened will leave us scratching our heads.

This reminds me of a conversation I had with a couple of friends while watching the evening news. The newscast was reporting on a tragic motor vehicle accident that resulted in several young people losing their lives. There had been a snowstorm the night of the accident and the safety of the vehicle involved was in question, namely the condition of the tires. One of my friends commented, “I can’t understand why young people, with so much life ahead of them, had to die in this way.” The other friend responded by stating the obvious, “It’s just tires and ice.” The accident was caused by icy road conditions, and worn out tires. Although it may have sounded cold and unsympathetic, perhaps he was right. In most cases, the only answer available to us is how.

In fact, all investigations focus on “how” questions. For example, when an airline crashes, which usually results in casualties, investigators will focus their attention on determining how the plane crashed. The obvious reason is to prevent a future accident, but also to provide the grieving family members with an explanation. The people that are closely connected to the tragedy may also seek comfort by asking why the plane had to crash, and why those people had to die. Once again, the only attainable answer will be in determining how the plane crashed. As for the passengers, regrettably, they were simply at the wrong place at the wrong time.

The strange thing about the randomness in life is that when we are not personally or emotionally involved, we have no problem with it. I doubt that anyone would question why a coin toss turns up head or tails. We all accept without hesitation, the random nature of a coin toss. Keep in mind that the same natural laws that determine the outcome of a coin toss, also apply to the rest of our lives. The random element in life will also lead to inequalities, which may be slight or seem grossly unfair. This may lead someone to ask: “Why is life so unfair?” In some ways life is a numbers game, much like a lottery. Sometimes your number comes up, and sometimes it does not. Look at it this way, if I had 100 dollars to give away, and I chose to give it away by lottery, would anyone say it was unfair?

Aside from our efforts to either prevent or alleviate bad things from happening, it may be that bad things happen for the simplest of reasons. There is no apparent mechanism to prevent it. Another point worth noting is that good and bad are sometimes subjective. Even a single event can be perceived as good by some people and bad by others. This is usually based on how an event personally impacts each individual. Aside from our egocentric viewpoint, there is no reason to believe that the universe will favor one individual above anyone else or anything else—there is no empirical evidence to support it.

For many years, I have asked why, especially when my life was not going as I wanted. Even after considerable reflection, I have found no suitable answer to any of my why questions. There may or may not be an ultimate reason for life’s unfolding. But if there is a why, it lies beyond human comprehension. And for me, when I started asking how, I was able to make some progress on the bigger questions. How did we get here? How is life the way it is? How did the universe come to be? And of course, how do bad things happen? So from now on when I am inclined to ask why, I try to catch myself, and ask how.


 

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Seeing the Forest for the Trees

It is human nature to have goals, dreams, and expectations. Our ability to project into the future, to plan, imagine and create is a unique quality that separates us from other animals. That being said, it can also be a double-edged sword. On the one hand, in order to accomplish a goal we need to project how we will get from here to there. On the other hand, in spite of our best efforts, there is no guarantee we will ever get there. In fact, there are often numerous obstacles to overcome from the moment we conceive a goal. Contrary to some peoples’ belief, the universe is not conspiring in our behalf. We are but one moving part in a multitude of moving parts. There are many factors that help us, but there are many others that do not.

The odds of reaching a goal increase when many people work towards a common objective. Many of mankind’s great accomplishments have come with contributions from many people. The advances in technology and medicine, and the development of democracy and civil societies are prime examples. Unfortunately, many people have also worked together for destructive aims, which has led to horrific results. The human cost of war immediately comes to my mind. It is difficult to quantify how our individual efforts impact the grand scheme of things. Life unfolds as a result of all its variables.

The modern way of life can obscure our ability to see that we are part of a natural system, and subjected to the same laws. The way our life unfolds is not all that different from how a tree grows in a forest. The analogy is not perfect; however, I think it is helpful in making my point. The genetic information contained within a seed could be compared to a plan, as all the information necessary to construct a tree is present. From the beginning there are many factors outside of this plan that will affect its eventual growth. Will the seed fall on fertile soil? Will the weather conditions be favorable? What will its immediate environment be like? And if the seed sprouts, will it be destroyed by animals, insects, or diseases?

Even if the tree takes root, and grows to a substantial height, it is still susceptible to the conditions of its environment. There are many events surrounding the tree that are random.  Nevertheless, all living things in the forests have a plan of their own (their genetic information), and a drive towards their fulfillment. The state of the forests is determined by the interactions of every life form, as well as the inanimate substances in its environment. There is no plan for the forest as a whole, but the blending of countless plans, which creates a whole.

What the tree needs to grow and prosper is always present in the forest: energy from the sun, nourishment from soil and water, necessary processes from microbes, and protection provided by nearby trees. The environment of the forests will determine which seed (or tree) will grow, and which will not. The same can be said for every living thing in the forest.

Long before we begin to make plans for our lives, many things are already in place. It is our genes that first determine the potential for our lives. Even before birth the traits that we have acquired are set. Beyond these genetic traits the events in our lives are mostly random. For example: we don’t choose who we are, where we are born, and the time period. We also don’t choose our parents, family, and our community. The people we come in contact with and world events also have an impact. Our lives are formed by the environment that we are exposed to. Prosperity, poverty, peace, or warfare, whatever the case may be, is mainly beyond our control. Nothing in nature is in complete control and neither are we. Even our own body is primarily beyond our control, as it is maintained by subconscious processes. We are mostly unaware of the internal functions of our body, and we pay little attention to them until something goes wrong. And just as vital to our existence is the outside world. The air we breathe, the energy from the sun, and the food supply are but a few of many outside factors that are essential for life.

The comparison of the tree in the forest can make us aware that we are not all that different or separate from nature. But with humans, there is a difference in the sense that people have a degree of free will. Some would argue that what we perceive as free will is nothing more than an illusion, but let’s just say that we have, at best, a degree of free will. We have the ability to respond creatively to our environment. We can make choices, learn from the past, and make plans for the future. Our imagination has no bounds, therefore we can dream up any number of possibilities for our lives. That being said, there is a risk that what we imagine or dream of may not always be realistic. I can certainly relate to that way of thinking. When I was younger, I had a tendency to believe that events in my life would unfold as I had planned. As I age, I now realize that life is much bigger than I, and the world is not concerned with my plans. I found that when my primary focus was on my expectations, I would often end up disappointed. Things rarely work out as I had envisioned. What I was doing was focusing on life’s results rather than life’s process.

I now view goals and dreams as potential destinations. They are necessary in the sense that they give us direction. It is obvious that random and directionless processes do not lead to anything constructive. Therefore, we do need to make plans despite the uncertainty of going forward. What we are really choosing are paths, but we cannot know where they will eventually lead. No matter how much we plan, there are always numerous factors outside of our control that will influence our plan. Think of it this way: with all the plans of other people and their actions, as well as natural events, what are the odds that the outside world will fit the plan we have devised in our minds? And if, at a given time everything did come together just right, how long would we be able to sustain it?

The plans that we make for our lives are presumably forms of order that we envision. The more in depth the extent of the planning is, the more variables will come into play. It’s quite simple, the more factors involved, the more difficult it becomes to predict or direct the outcome. In order to move ahead with confidence, it is important to have an open perspective on goals. Life’s unpredictability and uncertainty is the cause for much anxiety and worry, however, it is intensified by our expectations. For me, my expectations have probably caused more anxiety than any other reason I can think of. Although it is difficult to pull off, I find that when I live with no expectations, I am more at peace and more productive in general.

Let me clarify that last statement. I did not say low expectations; I said no expectations. The pitfall with expectations is twofold. One is that you might aim too high, the other, aim too low. This means that instead of focusing on one particular outcome, which can be very limiting, I try to be open to a number of future outcomes. When I am moving in a path that I am pleased with, and actively engaged in life, my life seems to flow freely. I am open to receive the blessings that may come my way, as they usually come unplanned or unexpected. I am also able to place my full attention to the present task at hand, unencumbered by future expectations. Or perhaps the biggest gain is in letting go of the fear of not meeting those expectations; not only my expectations, but also the expectations of others as I perceive them.

Seeing the forest for the trees is recognizing that our life is a minor contribution to an immensely larger system. We are like individual trees in a large forest. Although the forest needs trees, no one tree is absolutely necessary. The forest does not differentiate or favor one tree from another. The sun shines on all; the clouds rain on all. We are not directors of our lives, and the only real control we have is in our ability to respond to events as they arise. Regrettably we can’t make life into what we want it to be. It is a harsh reality that one unfortunate incident can drastically change our lives, or even end it, no matter what we have going for us. There is no certainty beyond the present moment, and the only thing we can expect from life is the unexpected.

The best we can do is to accept life on its own terms, and try to respond appropriately. We can achieve this by being actively engaged in life’s present realities, and moving in a desirable direction. This should at least allow us to move forward, regardless of the uncertainty that lies ahead. We may or may not get to where we want to go. We use different words to define that place: goals, dreams, success, happiness, peace and fulfillment. However, in time we may realize that these final destinations do not matter absolutely. We may also realize that the fullness of life can only be found in the journey and not in the final destinations.


 

Addressing the Big Questions

There are some fundamental questions that humans have been grappling with since we have developed the ability to reason. These questions deal with the nature of our existence. For instance: Where do we come from? Why are we here? Does the universe have a creator? What is our place in the universe? Is there life after death? What is the nature of reality?

These and other related questions have often been called the big questions. And they have been addressed in various ways, from the dawn of civilization, throughout the ages to modern times. Religions, myths, rituals, celebrations, and even architecture have been built as a response to these questions. Some fields of science have also responded to the big questions. In order to form a view of reality, one will usually have to contemplate some of these questions. Therefore, our answers to these questions play a major role in determining how we see the world.

Although many people may not be consciously aware of their picture of reality, at least not on a daily basis, I believe that the majority of people have some form of picture in the back of their minds. We accept things as facts without regularly thinking about it. For example, we know that gravity keeps us from flying off the earth, and an object thrown in the air will fall down. We know it to the extent that we don’t even think about it. This is a simple example; however, I believe we respond in similar ways on the more complex questions. At different points in our lives we arrive at conclusions to some of these questions, and consequently, it forms our view of reality.

Our view is usually composed of things we know as facts, things we believe by faith, and things we accept as unknown or unknowable. The degree to which each aspect is present varies with the individual. This view of reality is determined over a long period of time, and in segments, eventually creating a whole. It is internalized and we go on with our lives. Some seldom question their view, while others are aware that their view is subject to change. If we were to question and examine our view of reality, would it stand up to reason? Would it form a cohesive whole? Would one part contradict another? Would we have properly separated the knowable from the unknowable? And how would faith factor into the equation?

There are many factors that contribute to establishing our picture. We are influenced by family, friends, society, religion, and life experiences. Genetics also likely plays a role. However, it ultimately comes down to how we interpret the world that we observe and experience. In our modern world we can draw a great deal of insight from science. It is an advantage that no other civilization in history would have had, at least not to the extent we have today.

In ancient times, people were limited to the observable world, lacking the knowledge of modern science. They would have observed the world around them, and drawn conclusions based on their observations. They were actually using a simplified form of the scientific method; however, it was significantly more primitive. The ancients must have intuitively understood the world in which they were living. Although they would not have been able to calculate precisely how things worked, they must have known what they needed to survive. Their understanding of the world would have been deeply rooted in nature. They would have felt a deep connection with their environment. The soil and the plants, the rivers and the oceans, and the sun and the stars may well have been recognized and celebrated as their life source.

The ancient civilizations were in tune with the natural cycles, and much of their lives were governed by these cycles. Archaeologists have found clear evidence at a number of sites that support this claim. For instance, Stonehenge and the Pyramids at Giza (which includes the Great Sphinx) are precisely positioned in accordance with solar alignments at specific times of the year. We could question the ancient interpretation of the natural world without science to guide them, but their devotion to nature was evident.

In our modern industrialized world, many people have lost this profound relationship with nature—an unintended consequence of modernization. The daily life of many individuals in the developed world has little direct contact with nature. The population is densely congregated to large cities, where one finds predominantly concrete streets and buildings, instead of green pastures, forests and wildlife. Even for those that live in rural areas, lifestyles are somewhat similar. We travel mostly in vehicles, and move from building to building. We purchase our food at grocery stores, and purchase other material items at department stores. As far as where the goods come from, we don’t have to give it a second thought. Although industrialization and technology have eased many of life’s burdens, improved quality of life and increased longevity, it has come with a cost. The obvious environmental costs are evident, but the more subtle effects of the disconnection that humans have with nature are just as profound.

In order to properly understand and internalize reality, we need to incorporate nature, and find a balance between experience and knowledge. Both the methods of modern science and the ancients are available for us today. The fields of science give us a factual or logical understanding of reality, but the meaning would be diminished without the experience. In some situations, the information from our sensory perceptions aligns directly with empirical scientific knowledge. The example of gravity, which I provided earlier, demonstrates this point. One can understand the laws of gravity, and also experience its effects in a personal way, such as observing the trajectory of a ball that is thrown in the air.

In other situations, where the facts contradict our direct experience, it becomes a little more problematic. The experience of day and night is a prime example of this. It appears to us that the earth is stationary, and that the sun is moving from the eastern to the western horizon, however, the scientific explanation is very different. Science explains that the earth rotates once in twenty-four hours, thus causing day and night; the sun doesn’t move across the sky. Nevertheless, when it is explained to us from a scientific perspective, we can easily make sense of the experience. We can integrate both a logical and intuitive understanding of the reality of day and night. Similarly, many other natural rhythms can be interpreted by experience, or explained by scientific reasoning.

It becomes a little more difficult when we are dealing with phenomena that lie mostly beyond the scope of our senses, such as the very large structures of the universe or the microscopic realm. We are then left to choose between science and our sensory perceptions. But if we choose to trust the science, we can somewhat imagine what the experience would be like.

Science is addressing the big questions, though somewhat indirectly, in ways that previous generations could not have imagined. In the last century, scientific discoveries have completely changed the picture of the cosmos. Human sense of place in the universe is being reevaluated. The big questions can no longer be dealt with solely by ancient methods. Although it is vital that we retain some of the ancient wisdoms, science can lead the modern search for truth. The universe, which was once thought to be beyond human understanding, is being revealed by modern science. Albert Einstein clearly realized this. He is quoted by Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow in The Grand Design: “The most incomprehensible thing about the universe is that it is comprehensible.”

Although there are few absolute proofs, or unquestionable truths regarding the big questions, the universe has left many clues that point to its nature. As a human race we are getting closer to understanding the nature of our existence. We have the opportunity to create a picture of reality that is in line with the natural world, and ultimately the universe. I believe that collectively and individually it is one of our most important challenges. Since our view of reality forms the foundation for our lives, the challenge is well worth taking. On this note, I have to agree with the Greek philosopher Socrates when he said, “The unexamined life is not worth living.”

References: Stephen W. Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow, The Grand Design (New York: Bantam Books, 2010), 87.


 

Horizons Out of Reach

Imagine you are walking on a terrain of rolling hills; in the distance you can see the horizon. Beyond that point you don’t know what you’ll find. When you arrive at the crest of a hill a whole new landscape appears with its own horizon. This is a common metaphor used to show how knowledge is usually acquired. Each horizon reached often presents another horizon (or question) in the distance.

The story of science is one of impressive discoveries. Many horizons have been reached, but many more are yet to be encountered. No one knows how far we can go and what we will find. I hesitate to limit what might be possible, because science has surprised us time and time again. If the human race survives long enough, is there anything we can’t find out? I would think that there are some questions we will not be able to answer, but which ones? One should think long and hard before ruling anything out, which I have done. For what it’s worth, I am left with two questions which appear out of reach. I’ll get back to this later but first a little context.

Horizons Reached

At present the knowledge base is immense, but it had to be acquired. Imagine going back 100, 500 or 1,000 years and contemplating the future. It’s possible that some future discoveries could have been predicted. However, there are other findings that few saw coming. It is practically impossible to provide a full account of impressive scientific discoveries. However, there are some that immediately stand out. What follows has been mentioned in prior blogs of mine; think of it as a short list of scientific highlights:

  1. The Idea of Natural laws: At around 500 BC the ancient Greeks documented the concept of natural laws. They suggested that patterns in nature could be recognized and attributed to natural laws. This was a major breakthrough in scientific thought.
  2. The Copernican Revolution: In 1543 Nicolaus Copernicus published his theory of the heliocentric model of the universe. He removed the Earth from the center of the known universe and replaced it with the Sun. This was a significant reality check, which would influence human philosophy for years to come.
  3.   Newton’s Laws: In 1687 Isaac Newton disclosed his law of universal gravitation and his three laws of motion. Newton laid the foundation for what later became known as classical physics. Now over 300 years later, Newton’s equations still apply (except for extreme circumstances).
  4. Einstein’s Relativity: With special relativity (in 1905) and general relativity (in 1915), Albert Einstein filed in the gaps in Newton’s laws. Einstein accounted for those extreme circumstances. His contribution led to a greater understanding of the large-scale universe.
  5. Darwin’s Theory of Evolution: Charles Darwin provided an explanation for how all life evolves with his famous publication in 1859. This one basically speaks for itself; few if any discovery is more impressive.
  6. Revealing the Atomic and Subatomic Realm: Beginning in the early 1900s, several people worked on theories such as quantum mechanics and the standard model of partial physics. A realm previously inaccessible was shown to be real and would unwittingly have a significant impact on human affairs.
  7. The Big Bang: In the 1931 George Lemaitre suggested that the universe began in a single geometric point. He arrived at this by applying general relativity to the observations of William Hubble. Lemaitre`s idea would eventually provide us with a truly universal origin story. 
  8. DNA: In 1962 James Watson, Francis Crick and Maurice Wilkins won a Nobel Prize in medicine for the discovery of the structure of DNA. This opened up a whole new science, which will undoubtedly impact us for generations.

Of course the list above could be significantly longer and still fall short. However, I present it just to give you a feel for how knowledge, particularly scientific knowledge, alters our perception of the world. It is debatable how many past discoveries could have been foreseen; nonetheless one can imagine some horizons in the distance which may be attainable. For example: figuring out how life on Earth got started, or the discovery of life elsewhere in the universe. Closer to home, perhaps finding a cure for cancer (or most cancers), and maybe even weather forecasting weeks or months in advance. No one knows for sure which findings are coming, but I feel fairly certain that at least two questions will remain unanswered.

Contemplating the Unanswerable

The two questions I am referring to are as follows: 1) Why is there a universe in the first place?  2) Why is the universe the way it is and not some other way? Another question which I feel I must address before moving on to question 1, is this: Why is there something rather than nothing? You’ve probably heard this one before, and it is similar to question 1. However, I find this to be a peculiar question and here’s why. First let’s define what is meant by nothing. If by nothing, one assumes the absence of everything, then nothing is a non-entity. In other words, how can nothing be a reality if by definition nothing has no existence. The question gives us two options, something or nothing and it seems to me that something is real and nothing is not. By this logic one could conclude that there has to be something, but why a universe?

For some, the existence of the universe doesn’t seem to be a big problem to solve. The standard answer is that God created the universe and that’s it. However, I can’t help but ask two simple follow-up questions: a) Why is there a God in the first place? b) Why is God the way he (she, it) is and not some other way? Do you see how this works, by inserting God as the explanation for the universe we’ve circled back to where we started. In essence the questions are identical. We have merely moved the starting point from the universe to God.

Another approach is to examine the possibility of a multiverse. There are scientific reasons that suggest that other universes may exist, but that is as far as it goes.  Although the multiverse is theoretical, it may shed light on question 2. Why is the universe the way it is and not some other way? If multiple universes actually exist, it could be that all possible universes exist, therefore it is not surprising that at least one universe is like ours. Although the multiverse idea is somewhat satisfying on the surface, it has its problems. For starters, it does not address question 1. Why is there a universe in the first place? It says nothing on why there would be a multiverse in the first place.

There is also the problem of testing the multiverse idea scientifically. How can we ever verify something outside the boundaries of our vast universe? Hypothetically, even if our science advanced to a point where universes outside our own could be detected, how could we know the full-scale of a multiverse? We would likely be unable to determine how many universes exist in total. Ultimately that’s where I think the multiverse idea falls short in terms of answering question 2. Why is the universe the way it is and not some other way? If we can’t know how many universes exist in total, we can’t explain why our universe is the way it is and not some other way. All possible universes have to exist in order for the multiverse to the job. Or at the very least, it would take an extremely high number of universes.

Why is there a universe in the first place and why is the universe the way it is and not some other way? I have thought about these two questions philosophically, religiously and scientifically and have made little progress. Each approach gains momentum only to fall short. There are undoubtedly still many horizons within our reach and it will be interesting to see what lies ahead. That being said, I have to conclude that there are at least two horizons that seem to be hopelessly out of reach.

References:http://www.bbc.co.uk/schools/gcsebitesize/science/add_edexcel/cells/dnarev3.shtml

https://www.quora.com/What-is-the-relationship-between-the-Standard-model-and-Quantum-field-theory


 

Why Religion?

Why is religion so pervasive in human societies? Organized religion has been with us since the dawn of civilization. In fact, religion is so common that few societies have existed without it. As far as ideas surviving in human brains (memes) religions are among the most successful. That’s right religions are memes, but they are usually referred to as traditions. They stay in existence because they are ideas that are passed on from person to person and on to the next generation.

In The beginning

How and why did religion begin? For something like religion to arise it requires a highly evolved being. One would assume it requires a large enough brain to formulate abstract ideas and ask complex questions. That pretty much rules out every other species except humans. It is my contention that as soon as a being is able to pose a question it can’t answer, the raw materials for a religion are present. Although, it does not necessarily mean religion had to come about. The fact that it did is indeed complex. However, I will try to break it down by proposing a lengthy list of possibilities.

  • Fear and Uncertainty – Without a workable understanding of the natural world, imagine what kind of questions our distant ancestors   must have had. Why are we subjected to thunder and lightning? What is behind the force of a hurricane? Why does the Sun set in the horizon? There is perhaps no greater fear than the unknown and the ancients were pretty much left in the dark by their lot in history. Natural occurrences that are now clearly understood were often (and perhaps logically) attributed to the will of gods by our ancestors.
  • Agriculture – At around 9000 BC the rise of agriculture made it possible for civilizations to develop. As humans went from living in small groups of hunter gathers to farming villages, it may have set the stage for organized religion. Farming made humans increasingly vulnerable to the whims of nature. The idea of praying to gods for blessings in a ritualistic setting (such as a good harvest) may well have originated with agriculture. In addition, with large groups of people living in close proximity, it may have been wise to have everyone on the same page.
  • Solidarity – We are social beings at heart and there is something to be said for unity. Unlike today in the developed world, in ancient times survival was at the forefront. It likely would have been a survival advantage for a society to share common goals and ideas. A fractured community would have been at a disadvantage in fighting off enemies and acquiring resources. Religion may have been vital for strengthening social bonds and getting people to work for a common cause.
  • Order and Ritual – Life was then and is now a mix of unforeseeable and anticipated events; both can create anxiety and worry. For many people, the belief in something behind the ebb and flow of life provides order for their lives. This sense of order, even though life does not necessarily reflect it, is often reinforced in people’s mind through religious traditions and rituals.  
  • Perseverance – If you think life is hard now (and it is at times) imagine what it must have been like thousands of years ago. Without modern conveniences, the ancients had to work much harder for sustenance. They had no theory of disease, limited medical care and a shorter life expectancy. With a difficult life and the awareness of eventual death, would humans have been able to persevere without religion? Religion may have been a survival advantage, not directly but perhaps indirectly over the long haul.
  • Hope for an Afterlife – The awareness of death is a by-product of a highly evolved brain. We are aware that we will lose everyone we love, unless death overtakes us first; this is a sobering realization. Central to most religions, is the prospect for an afterlife. This idea alone helps religions remain viable for long periods of time. It is very hard to come to terms with the idea that someday we will no longer be. 
  • Agency – We go through everyday life with desires and intentions. We are also aware that other living beings possess them as well. If every animated being we are in contact with (human or non-human) has intentions, we could say they are intentional agents. Nature is also animated, with wind, rain, rivers, vegetation, celestial bodies and much more. In a pre-modern world, was it such a stretch to extend the principle of agency to nature? Even today nature is still personified as Mother Nature. And if animals and nature were thought to have intentions, it was just one more step to attribute agency to gods.
  •   Power and Control- Small groups of people have a way of regulating themselves. If someone is taking advantage of others they can usually be dealt with. However, when small groups grow to become villages, cities and empires, things change. An ugly side of religion is that it has been used (or misused) for controlling people. This is how it works in a nut shell: When populations become too large for self-control, we end up with government and laws. If we break the laws then we are punished. But it is impossible for any regime to police everyone. Religion steps in as an all-encompassing secondary force. If you think you got away with something, then there is an eye in the sky that sees all and in the end you will be held accountable. This is a very powerful force and difficult to eliminate.
  •  Morality- Some people tend to view religion as the de facto origin of morality. However, it is hard to imagine how humans could have evolved to the point of organized religion, without first adherence to social norms. As a matter of fact, other primates exhibit social norms as well. Religions have been successful at converting established social norms into moral codes. As a consequence, religions have mostly presented themselves as moral authorities. The moral dimension of religion, in part accounts for their staying power.
  •   Explanation- Many of the existential questions, which puzzled humankind for centuries, have in large part been address by the scientific enterprise. At present we have access to a beautifully   coherent explanation for how the universe works and how we got here. However, all this knowledge came to us much like a dripping faucet. As information was being collected the business of living was at the forefront. For generations religions provided an explanation in the form of origin stories which could be shared with the masses.
  • Meaning- Humans are meaning making beings; we tend to look for meaning in life situations. I suspect that the ancients did not differ in that regard. The religious stories have and still provide meaning for large sections of the population. Today things have changed a bit, in the sense that we now have the scientific story to factor in, as opposed to the largely unchallenged voice of religion. That said, I must admit that the meaning value of the scientific story is incomplete.

Going Forward

One would think that our religions provided some survival advantages along the path of human development, how else can we explain their universality. To be clear, they are ubiquitous in their presence although not necessarily in their message. Some of what I touched upon earlier could very well fall under evolutionary gains, such as solidarity, perseverance, order, and perhaps even meaning. It appears that religions have contributed to civilization in a significant way, but will they continue to do so going forward? Or will something else step in to take its place?

Religion may have been our first attempt at understanding the world and ourselves. One might even say that religion was our first attempt at philosophy, morality, and perhaps science. However, much has changed in the world since religion was in its infancy. For the most part they don’t have the same hold on people as they once did, also we can now look at religion with a wider perspective. We tend to think of religions as being ever-present but they do have life spans. We are all aware of ancient religions and gods that are no longer taken seriously. However, normally religions easily out live their followers.

With the advantage of a lengthy history behind us it is easy to see that religions are universal in their presence but regional and cultural in their message. A look at the demographics for the various world religions points this out; numbers very slightly from different sources but not enough to matter for my purpose here. Also, I have rounded off the numbers for simplicity. This is how they rank globally in percentage of followers:    

  • Christianity 30 %
  • Islam 20 %
  • unaffiliated 16%
  • Hinduism 15%
  • Buddhism 7%
  • others 12%

These figures indicate that in a best case scenario (if you’re a Christian) 70 % of all the people in the world will disagree with you on this matter. And let’s not forget that there is much disagreement amongst numerous Christian denominations. If one falls in any of the other five categories, the disagreement is even greater. Hypothetically, from a visiting alien’s point of view, any given religion would be indistinguishable from the others. In other words, with no cultural bias, it would be difficult to favor one religion over any other.

I suspect that in ancient times, it was far easier to buy into the religion of the day, but perhaps the golden age of religion has past. Not that today’s religions don’t have influence in many pockets of the world; they just aren’t as universal in their appeal. We are not as isolated geographical and far more aware of numerous past dead religions and a variety of current active ones. The religious stories continually change over time and across cultures. Religions stay alive for varying lengths of time in a sort of natural selection of ideas. It may be comforting for believers to think that today’s religions are here to stay, but if history is any indication, the future of religion is not set in stone.

 

References: Dr Michael Shermer | God does NOT exist, OxfordUnion, Published on Dec 21, 2012. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0pOI2YvVuuE

Religion – when, why and how did it begin? http://www.garvandwane.com/religion/religion1.html

World Religions – populations pie chart statistics list. http://www.age-of-the-sage.org/mysticism/world_religions_populations.html


 

The Puzzle of Consciousness

consciousnessOur conscious experience is so commonplace that we seldom think about how remarkable it is. How does the mind integrate all the sensory information into one coherent picture? How does it seamlessly update the information from moment to moment? How does the perception of the self emerge? The brain is one of the last frontiers of the scientific endeavor. Much research has been done in identifying different parts of the brain and their functions. Although a large amount of progress has been made in connecting behaviors with specific brain activity, consciousness remains elusive. There is still no well-established scientific theory of consciousness.

What is Consciousness?

On the surface consciousness seems simple enough; it is our subjective and individual experience. My consciousness is different than yours and every person has experiences that are uniquely theirs. Clearly the individual brain is fundamental to consciousness, but when we look into the causes or location of consciousness it becomes ambiguous. Philosophers and scientists alike have tried to explain consciousness and tried to explain why they can’t explain it. Philosopher Dan Dennett calls consciousness “An illusion.” Philosopher and cognitive scientist David Chalmers calls it “The hard problem,” as opposed to “The easy problem,” of explaining behavior.

david-eaglemam

Neuroscientist David Eagleman provides an interesting angle to the puzzle of the mind. Rather than focusing solely on an orderly brain map with clear correlations of cause and effect, he views the brain from a holistic perspective. In an excerpt from This Explains Everything, Eagleman writes:

“It [the brain] possesses multiple, overlapping ways of dealing with the world… It is a representative democracy that functions by competition among parties who all believe they know the right way to solve the problem.”

Eagleman is referring to mental functions, yet the concept can also be applied to consciousness. If I had to make a general comment on consciousness, I would say that, “Consciousness emerges from or is the result of multiple processes of the mind and body.” Still it goes further than that.

Some would say that a part of consciousness resides outside the brain, something like a soul. I would partly agree as we have to account for the world beyond ourselves. Consciousness is an emergent property (greater than the sum of its parts), which also includes the outside world (something to be aware of). In a way, consciousness is non-local, as it is the integration of the brain with the outside world. That being said, I am not going to attempt to explain consciousness. However, I hope I can shed some light by analyzing it further.

Observations, Possibilities and Questions 

  • Can consciousness be explained by physical and chemical means? Some people support a purely material view; what we feel as non-physical is solely the result of physical processes. States of consciousness can easily be altered with the use of drugs, brain injury and deterioration, a clear correlation between physical causes and non-physical experiences. A material explanation only provides a starting point. There is still a lot of work ahead to identify the specific mechanisms that give rise to consciousness.
  •  Does consciousness develop? We can’t assume that consciousness is the same for everyone. For instance, an infant can’t have the same awareness as an adult. And at what point does a newborn become conscious? Does it happen at birth or at some time before in the womb? The fact that a person has no memories before the age of 2 or 3 makes me wonder if an infant is even conscious (at least not fully conscious). Does he/she respond only by instinct? It is well-known that the brain is not fully developed at birth, and maybe consciousness also develops over time (a gradual awakening similar to waking up in the morning).
  •  Life has varying degrees of consciousness. How aware are bacteria or worms, fish or birds, cats or dogs? Life does not necessarily equate to advanced consciousness. You would be hard pressed to find someone who thinks trees and flowers are conscious. There is clearly a progression of consciousness in life. And like anything else consciousness had to evolve, which means primitive life was barely conscious, if conscious at all. As life branched out over long periods of time varying degrees on consciousness emerged.
  • How do thinking, imagination, memory and dreams fit in? These mental functions are different than typical sensory perceptions. But how can we deny their role in consciousness? The mind can think of concepts, imagine pictures, have clear memories and vivid dreams. There are often feelings associated with these mental states. We could call this the abstract mind and it is more mysterious than the perceiving mind. Nonetheless, the abstract mind is a piece of the puzzle of consciousness, and clearly affects our experience.
  • Different parts of the mind compete for your attention. We can’t be fully aware of all the potential conscious aspects of the brain at the same time. If I divide the brain in two parts, the thinking brain and the perceiving brain (for the purpose of explaining), we can see how this works. When we focus on our stream of thoughts, our surrounding environment becomes numbed. By comparison, when we focus our senses on perceiving our environment, thinking subsides. The mind blocks out what it does not focus on; consciousness continuously shifts from one state to another. You can’t think about work, taste your coffee, watch a video and hear background noises all at the same time.
  • Does consciousness do anything? We could imagine a world where all human behavior is automatic, completely controlled by the laws of physics. Those that believe in a deterministic universe (with no room for freewill) should have no problem with this. If determinism is real, our subjective consciousness may just be observing the world. We could be like the actors and audience in a play, experiencing events with no power to affect the outcome.
  • The subconscious does more. Who is driving the car when we are thinking of something else? Of course the subconscious takes over to perform previously learned tasks. This is just a simple example of the multitude of actions our subconscious mind and body do every day. Most of our bodily functions are automatically controlled. It is easy to forget that we are also subconscious beings (more so than conscious beings).
  • Consciousness may be our greatest gift. We often here about the gift of life, but consciousness may be our most valuable gift. Of course we need life to have consciousness, but I suspect that the fear of death (losing one’s life) is really the fear of losing consciousness.  Life without consciousness would have no meaning; we wouldn’t know that anything exists. There is also a downside to consciousness. Just as it allows for feelings of pleasure, it also allows for feelings of pain. I guess that is the price to pay for experiencing the fullness of life. Everything that is worth living for would not be possible without consciousness.

 

References: Edge Foundation, Inc., This Explains Everything (New York: HarerCollins Publishers, 2013), 91.

Waking Up with Sam Harris – The Light of the Mind: A Conversation with David Chalmers, Sam Harris, Published on Apr 18, 2016. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qi2ok47fFcY

Dan Dennett: The illusion of consciousness, TED, Uploaded on May 3, 2007. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fjbWr3ODbAo


 

Is Anything Possible?

You’ve heard it before: ‘anything is possible.’ I have also, but how much truth is there in this statement? On the surface it sounds OK; it’s usually used in a positive tone (but not always) and it’s open to seemingly unlimited possibilities. What could be wrong with that? Hold on just a minute until we look a little deeper.

highway-at-nightIs anything really possible? And can we determine when something becomes impossible? If a person losses a hand, it won’t grow back. A conventional air plane will not fly without wings. Pure water will not freeze if the temperature is above 0 degrees Celsius. So there you have it, anything is not possible. I don’t think this is a big revelation. People who say that ‘anything is possible’ know that it isn’t true. So why do they say it? We all go through life with insufficient knowledge, it’s just part of being human. I believe what people are really thinking is: many things are possible, or they don’t know what’s possible.

Nature’s Regularities

‘I don’t know what’s possible’ doesn’t sound quite as positive as ‘anything is possible.’ So maybe that’s why the word anything is so often used. Despite our limited knowledge, there lies one fundamental truth which determines what is possible and what isn’t. This truth is related to the following question: What does the loss of a hand, an airplane not being able to fly and water not freezing have in common? On the surface they seem totally unrelated; however, they share a subtle and profound relationship. I’ll get back to this later but first a little back ground.

There are reasons why some things are possible and others impossible and they are fundamentally the same reasons. It has to do with the way the world works (in fact the entire universe). There exist regularities in nature, both seen and unseen. Some of these regularities would have been known in ancient times simply by observing nature. For example, the ancients were aware of the conditions needed to make fire and how to put it out. They learned how to grow food by observing how crops responded to the seasons and so on. Early humans had a rudimentary understanding of what might be possible. They achieved this with varying degrees of success by observing nature’s regularities. However, they lacked an appreciation of what was behind the observed regularities. A deeper understanding would come about later.

The Scientific Revolution of the 15th and 16th hundreds is the unofficial line of demarcation of modern science. This is when scientists began deciphering the laws that govern nature. The laws of nature are fundamental to the regularities we observe. For the first time nature could be explained by a series of scientific laws rather than superstition, conjecture or a few rules of thumb. For instance, seen phenomena such as the motion of objects were explained by Newton’s laws of motion. Perhaps even more ground breaking is that eventually parts of the unseen world could also be explained by scientific laws. For Example, quantum laws of the early 19th hundreds, of which several scientists were involved, explained the workings of atomic and sub-atomic particles.

Out of the Ordinary

In everyday experience people often use the ‘anything is possible’ line as a positive projection into the future. They are usually thinking about the trajectory of one’s life and the numerous untapped possibilities. In this context they are referring to ordinary events in human affairs. Ordinary in the sense that one doesn’t had to believe in anything outside the established laws of nature to account for what might unfold.

ghostSome people consider other ideas, which fall into a totally different category. These ideas are sometimes called paranormal or supernatural, but personally I dislike both those terms. The reason being, that some of these concepts diminish the established laws of nature. The simplest way I can convey what kind of ideas I mean is to begin with a list. The following is just from the top of my head and much more could apply: alien visitations, ghost stories, miraculous healings, near-death experiences, psychic readings and so on. With this list, one should ask: how do the laws of nature fit in these schemes?

Let’s look into one of the possibilities listed above. With alien visitations for instance, one has to consider such things as a life-sustaining planet and the distance the aliens would have to travel. A little understanding of the laws of nature can give us clues as to how seriously we should consider a claim. We know that other than Earth, there is no complex life in our Solar System. So our star system is out.

The nearest star system is a three star system call Alpha Centauri, of which Proxima is the closest (about 4.24 light years away). On the surface this doesn’t sound all that far away. However, if we consider present technologies, it would take anywhere from 19,000 to 76,000 years to make the trip. The wide range in estimates has to do with which technologies would ultimately prove viable for such a trip. We should also consider the possibility that the proposed aliens would have to come from much farther away.

rocketIn short, in an absolute best case scenario, there would have to exist a life-sustaining planet where intelligent life evolved and its inhabitants developed far superior technology. Not an impossibility, but a long shot. The determining factor is the limits imposed by the laws of physics. The limits in this case are distance and how fast a spaceship can travel. Keep in mind that no matter how advanced a technology may be it cannot overcome the laws of physics. Considering the distances involved, it seems unlikely that we have been visited by aliens.

Pure and Simple

Now back to my earlier question: about the loss of a hand, an airplane unable to fly and water not freezing. All three are determined by the laws of nature; specifically, the limits of biology, physics and chemistry. And that’s not only true for these three scenarios but for any proposed idea. That’s right, any proposed idea. That being said, it needs to be mentioned that our understanding of the laws of nature are likely incomplete and currently serve as our best representation of reality. Nevertheless, whether we are talking about everyday experience or the fantastic, the laws of nature run the show. Whether the answer lies within the scope of our knowledge or not; it all boils down to one simple truth: anything which is in principle allowed by the laws of nature is possible and anything which is not allowed by the laws of nature is impossible!

 

References: Universe Today, How Long Would it Take to Travel to the Nearest Star?, Sept 6, 2016 by Matt Williams. http://www.universetoday.com/15403/how-long-would-it-take-to-travel-to-the-nearest-star/


 

Evaluating Ideas

 

good ideaHow can we tell if an idea is a good one, or if a claim is true or false? When should we take a theory seriously or discard it? In an information age it is not always easy to separate the wheat from the chaff. One can find conformation on-line for just about any idea. When we are growing up, we tend to believe just about anything. For the most part, we accept what adults and authorities are telling us. We are also less likely to question what we read, what’s on television or the internet. However, at some point we have to grow up, and part of growing up is evaluating the validity of ideas.

How Can We Know What’s True?

scale 2Unfortunately there is no fail safe method that will always give us the right answer. That being said, there are modes of thinking that are more likely to get at the truth, or something close to it. A scientist would almost certainly evoke the scientific method as the best course of action. The empirical approach has proven effective at getting to the bottom of things. However, for the general public the scientific method is not always applicable. In everyday experience we are often faced with making assessments on the fly, or even if we have plenty of time to contemplate an idea, we are still left to our own devices. We don’t necessarily have access to the tools of science. It needs to be said nonetheless, that in some cases we can use established scientific knowledge as part of the evaluating process.

Idea Evaluation Checklist

ideas check listLife situations often demands that we buy in or reject certain ideas or claims. In everyday experience we need a way of moving forward, even though in most cases we can’t apply the scientific method. For what it’s worth, I present to you my idea evaluation check list. This list can be applied to a variety of ideas, claims or theories. It consists of 10 questions one might consider:

  1. Where does the preponderance of the evidence point to? This is a pros and cons way of looking at a situation. In other words, the evidence for vs. the evidence against.
  2. Is there a plausible explanation for how a proposed idea works? Here I am not suggesting that we need prof, but a sound explanation that makes sense on the surface. Such an explanation gives us some degree of confidence in an idea.
  3. Can this in principle be a shared experience? Can the idea proposed be tested or experienced by others?
  4. How reliable is the source? It is impossible for an individual to test or challenge everything. By necessity we must accept information from outside sources. Therefore, reliability of the source becomes important.
  5.  Do I want this to be true? If you want something to be true; a red flag should immediately be raised. In these cases one must be extra vigilant, not to let wishful thinking get in the way of sound judgement.
  6. Is the strength of the idea threatened by new information? If an idea can’t absorb new information, then it is substantially weaken. The knowledge base is constantly evolving. For that reason, some ideas need to be re-evaluated or even discarded as we learn more about the world.
  7. Can the idea be defended if challenged? Plain and simple, if you can’t defend your idea, why hold on to it?
  8. Is this how the world normally works? Does the idea comply with your understanding of the world? Or does your thinking need to be compartmentalized in order to make room for the idea?
  9. Are you confusing coincidence with causation? Just because two events happen in sequence, it does not automatically mean that one caused the other. A clear link between cause and effect needs to be established (beyond just A happened before B). Many false claims gain momentum because of this confusion.
  10. Does it ring true? On its own this is not enough, but if you need to tip the scale one way or the other, resort to what your gut is telling you.

So there you have it, my check list. Of course it is arbitrary; one could alter it and still come up with something as good or better. Nonetheless, I think that an exercise such as this one encourages critical thinking. Our world view is largely arrived at by what kind of ideas we accept or reject. What follows is: what we believe, what we don’t believe, and how we live our lives.

 

References: Michael Shermer: Baloney Detection Kit, Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason & Science, Published on June 5, 2014.  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aNSHZG9blQQ


 

The Anthropic Principle

the astronomerWhy are we here? This is perhaps the most fundamental philosophical question. One can imagine contemplating this question at any time in human history. Many stories have been inspired by this question, usually taking the form of myths, or religious and spiritual traditions. Today, ‘why are we here’ is also a scientific question. The anthropic principle arose as a response to the question of human existence. The idea was first proposed in 1973 by theoretical astrophysicist Brandon Carter. Since then it has been expanded and stated in several forms.

What is the Anthropic Principle?

The word anthropic is defined by the Merriam-Webster online dictionary as: “Of or relating to human beings or the period of their existence on Earth.” That’s a start. For simplicity I will stick close to Brandon Carter’s original formulation, which he expressed as two variants. I will paraphrase based on the description from a few sources:

  1. The Weak Anthropic Principle refers to our special location in the universe (both in time and space), which is conducive to our existence. The fact that we can observe the universe means that planet Earth must have the conditions necessary for our existence.
  2. The Strong Anthropic Principle refers to the fundamental laws of physics, which are precisely set for our existence. The strong principle takes into account the properties of the universe as a whole.

The Burden of Proof

habitable zoneIn a vast universe it is not surprising that a planet, like the Earth, has a special location (usually called a habitable zone or a Goldilocks zone). The specific laws of the universe needed for human life are more difficult to explain (usually called fine tuning). Using a legal metaphor, the strong anthropic principle has a greater burden of proof than the weak anthropic principle. In this case, burden of proof is a figure of speech, because the anthropic principle is as much a philosophical idea as a scientific one. 

In The Grand Design, Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow describe the weak anthropic principle as an environmental factor. They write:

“Environmental coincidences are easy to understand because ours is only one cosmic habitat among many that exist in the universe, and we obviously must exist in a habitat that supports life”

The strong anthropic principle is all-encompassing and generally more controversial. Hawkings and Mlodinow go on:

“The strong anthropic principle suggests that the fact that we exist imposes constraints not just on our environment but on the possible form and content of the laws of nature themselves”

Stating the Obvious or a Profound Insight

Is the anthropic principle a satisfying explanation? On the surface, it seems like an obvious statement that explains very little. But as I reflect on the idea, I am not so sure. Maybe it is suggesting something profound. Perhaps the answer to why we are here is simple: it could not be otherwise.

Lawrence KraussFor example, Lawrence Krauss provides an anthropic interpretation to one of the universe’s properties. In the book, A Universe from Nothing, he examines the relationship between the energy density of matter and the energy density of empty space. Yes, space has energy and it can be measured. The density of matter in the universe can also be measured. It turns out that now is the only time in cosmic history that both values are comparable. That’s a curious result.

The universe has been expanding since the big bang, and as it expands the density of matter decreases. Matter gets diluted as galaxies get farther apart from each other. Meanwhile the energy in empty space remains constant (there is nothing to dilute or increase in empty space). Therefore at the time galaxies formed the density of matter was greater than the energy in empty space. That’s a good thing, because the gravitational effect of matter was dominant, which allowed matter to come together.

However, if the values for matter and energy had been comparable at the epoch of galaxy formation, galaxies would not have formed. Empty space exerts a repulsive force, which would have canceled out normal attractive gravity. Matter would not have clumped together. Krauss writes in A Universe from Nothing:

“But if galaxies hadn’t formed, then stars wouldn’t have formed. And if stars hadn’t formed, planets wouldn’t have formed. And if planets hadn’t formed, then astronomers wouldn’t have formed!”

It seems highly coincidental that the energy values for matter and space are roughly equal now, but they could not have equalized too much earlier. Otherwise, no one would be here to observe it. Similarly, if one of a number of physical properties were slightly different, we would also not be here. That’s when anthropic reasoning steps in: An observer must observe the conditions of the universe that allows the observer to exist.

astronomersMaybe a change of perspective is needed: Instead of focusing on our present circumstances and looking back, we can look at the evolution of the universe. Life is a latecomer to the process, of which an incalculable series of events occurred. Our existence is the result of all that came before. Although it does appear that the universe was made for us, it is in fact, the universe that made us. We were formed from the conditions that were set long before conscious beings could observe any of it.

Is Physics an Environmental Science?

The traditional approach of physics is to discover and understand the universe we live in. The fundamental laws and the values for the constants of nature are consistent throughout the observable universe. The physical laws discovered on Earth can be applied to the universe as a whole. But there can only be one exact set of laws and history that allow for our existence. That’s unless our universe is not the only one.

For some, recent scientific evidence is suggesting that there are many universes (a multiverse). Others point out that inferring a multiverse is not science; because by definition other universes cannot be observed directly (they would exist outside our observable universe). If we apply the strong anthropic principle to the multiverse theme, it does partly explain the exact parameters of our universe.

If the cosmos is populated with many universes, possibly infinite universes, then the laws of physics could be purely random. They would simply emerge as an environmental consequence. Some physicists have compared the multiverse to a foam of bubbles (each bubble representing a universe). The laws could be different in every bubble of an endless cosmic foam. Some bubble universes could be similar to ours, others vastly different.

Of course, this is a hypothetical argument. Nevertheless, if we could observe every universe in a multiverse, every single one would be finely tuned for its own existence. Anthropic reasoning would state that there is nothing special about our universe. In all the non-life generating universes there is no one to observe them, in ours there is. It’s that simple. Obviously, the anthropic principle (inferring a multiverse or not) is not a proven argument, but it’s one of many possible answers to the question: Why are we here?

 

References: Stephen W. Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow, The Grand Design (New York: Bantam Books, 2010), 155.

Lawrence M. Krauss, A Universe from Nothing (New York: Free Press, 2012).


 

Free Will: A Great Paradox

In the modern world we are faced with an almost unlimited amount of choices. We all make numerous decisions each day, whether we are aware of it or not. Many of our choices are relatively insignificant, such as: What will we wear today? What will we eat for breakfast? Will we stop at a coffee shop on our way to work? Then there are more important decisions we might tackle at work, depending on our occupation and position. Outside of work leisure time opens up another series of choices.

fork in the roadThen there are the big decisions, which can alter the course of one’s life. Good or bad outcomes often follow based on the decisions we take. For example: The partner we choose, the career we pursue and unforeseen events that will force us to choose the next path. As the saying goes: “When you reach a fork in the road, take it.”

An Introduction to So-Called Decision-Making 

Can we account for the decisions we make? Of course it is easy to rationalize why we do what we do, but what’s behind a decision? Most of us feel that our decisions are ours alone. But is that true? First let us look at different types of decisions (or perceived decisions).

  • Instinctual: There are actions we take that could be perceived as decisions but in reality aren’t. They are actions that are basically reactions to the outside world. For instance, if we cross the street and a car is racing at us, we will get out-of-the-way. Or if a ball is thrown at our face we will try to catch it with our hand.
  • Appetites: My favorite pie is pumpkin pie. As a dinner guest I am sometimes offered a choice of pies. If pumpkin is on the list, I will always choose it. I may have a gene that makes pumpkin pie taste better to me than other pies. Therefore, is my choice of pie actually a decision or a mere consequence of my genes?
  • Desires: Much of our life journey is a response to desires we can’t account for. These include career choices, sexual attraction, hobbies, leisure activities and more. We simply do not know why we are interested, or pushed in the directions we are. Our desires are a complex mix of genetics and cultural conditioning.
  • Contemplative: This is the slow pros and cons type of decision-making, when we take the time to weigh our options before we choose. For example, let’s say we are shopping for a new car. We will look at different models and probably tests drive a few vehicles. Weighing quality and cost we come to a final decision on a new car.

Of the four examples above, the last listed (contemplative) looks and feels most like a true decision. The other three fall more in a grey area where one can’t be sure how much decision-making is involved. As you will see later, even the contemplative type may not be what it appears to be at first glance. That brings to the table the idea of free will.

Free Will

free willWhat do we mean when we say free will? Free will is the idea that we have the ability to make decisions independent of our genetics and conditioning. Another way to think about free will is the belief that we could have done differently than we did in a given circumstance. And likely, the only way we could have done differently, is if we were different at the time. That is, if our genetics and conditioning were different.

We are who we are due to a long series of events not of our choosing. To account for the actions we take, one has to consider evolutionary history. The human brain (presumably key to decision-making) is a product of evolution and each unique brain is genetically based. Also parenting and social conditioning have a significant effect on human development and behavior. One could even conclude that in order to have free will the universe would have to be different.

The Universe on a Pool Table

Let’s do a simple thought experiment. A pool table is used as a model for the universe. In this experiment only one shot is considered (the break). The table represents all of space and the fundamental forces. The billiard balls act as the particles (atoms, sub-atomic particles and so on). The cue stick is the force behind the big bang. At the break, the cue ball is struck and from that point on everything else follows.

pool ballsAs an observer one has to wait and see how the balls will collide and bounce around, but it can only turn out one way. It was all determined by the brake and the way the table was setup. The movement of the billiard balls are a consequence of the characteristics of the balls, the break and the nature of the table. One could say that it is a closed system; after the initial conditions nothing can intervene in the process.

Now let’s look at the actual universe. The big bang created spacetime, the fundamental forces and particles. All the particles behave as a consequence of the conditions at the big bang (the break) and the acting forces. Can anything after the initial conditions intervene in how the universe unfolds? The universe is also a closed system, it just happens to be unimaginably larger that a pool table. We should be mindful not to confuse our ignorance of the future with the prospect of altering it.

A Game of Dice

What I just described is a deterministic picture of the universe. It is sometimes referred to as the Newtonian view or classical physics. Here the universe unfolds like clockwork. If the present conditions are known, then the laws of physics can be applied either forward or backwards in time with great accuracy. Nevertheless, it needs to be mentioned that another set of physical laws described by quantum mechanics seems to contradict the classical picture.

At the scale of the atom randomness is introduced and outcomes can only be predicted in terms of probabilities. There is no sure way to determine what a single sub-atomic particle will do. Only if a sufficient number of identical experiments are run, will the aggregate of outcomes reflect the assigned probabilities. So what we are left with is a deterministic framework at the large-scale and a probabilistic understanding for the small-scale.

Some people believe that quantum mechanics seems to erode determinism and opens the door for free will. However, I would argue that randomness and probabilities doesn’t get us any closer to free will. If the universe is essentially deterministic, or on occasion tosses a dice, how does any of this grant us free will? Whether classical or quantum laws apply, the universe is presumably still subject to those laws, and so are we.

The Great Paradox

 Does something change when consciousness arises?  Conscious beings are made of the same kind of particles that permeate the universe. There is no reason to think that brains are any different. If our thinking faculties are caused by natural forces acting on particles in our brain, how can we conclude that our decisions are ours alone?

To examine this question let’s do another thought experiment. Let’s say you are asked to name the first city that comes to your mind. After a few seconds of reflection you say Rome. Can you account for why you did not think of Paris, or any one of hundreds of other possible cities? Even if you were given a little more time and asked to choose a city, you would still be limited to a list that your mind could produce. It would appear to me that we fundamentally do not choose our thoughts, they simply arise. How can we get to free will if we don’t choose our thoughts? I suppose one could make the argument that from a collection of thoughts that do arise, we can then choose and that constitutes free will. However, that would mean that our decisions are influenced by a stream of thoughts that our conscious mind does not produce.

Scientifically and Philosophically, the idea that we have free will makes little sense. Some people realize this, but if we adopted this principle on mass, it could be the collapse of society as we know it. The idea of free will touches everything we do. Without free will (or we could call it personal responsibility) everything about our society would change. We would have to rethink our justice system, religions, morality and relationships. Nevertheless, if we all agreed that decisions are caused rather than made, it would undoubtedly lead to a more compassionate world. We would probably still have to hold people accountable for their behavior, but we would be less inclined to be judgmental, angry or resentful.

From a personal decision-making stand point, without free will, we would also be easier on ourselves for perceived bad decisions that often lead to regret. This we can do right now, regardless of how society at large thinks about free will. Nevertheless, going forward we are confronted with an unavoidable paradox. How can we possibly go through the normal decision-making process without the feeling that we are in control? And there lies the great paradox. Even if one accepts that free will is an illusion, I don’t see any other reasonable choice (a choice that is fundamentally not ours) than to live as if we have it.

 

References: Sam Harris on “Free Will”, Published on March 27, 2012https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pCofmZlC72g.

Free Will — What Sam Harris Gets Right and Wrong, Published on April 10, 2013, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8pJXt3LclcY