Fear is a funny thing. We live in a time so possessed  by worry, so ridden with anxiety, where our modern society have given us the ability, whether a gift or a curse, to worry in comfort.

However, it is inarguable that some problem are definitely more worrisome than others. Edge magazine took on this idea, asking top experts in their field “What Should We Be Worried About?” They received a large array of responses, quite as long as one might expect from such people, which were then cut down and summarized by Brian Merchant of Motherboard magazine. The following are not my words, but excerpts from here, though the full responses can be found here. These are a few of my favorites:

“It is possible that we are rare, fleeting specks of awareness in an unfeeling cosmic desert, the only witnesses to its wonder. It is also possible that we are living in a universal sea of sentience, surrounded by ecstasy and strife that is open to our influence. Sensible beings that we are, both possibilities should worry us.” Timo Hannay, publisher

Exploding stars, the eventual collapse of the Sun, and the problems with the human id that prevent us from dealing with them. — John Tooby, founder of the field of evolutionary psychology

That the internet is ruining writing. – David Gelernter, Yale computer scientist

That search engines will become arbiters of truth. –W. Daniel Hillis, physicist

That we will continue to uphold taboos on bad words. –Benhamin Bergen, Associate Professor of Cognitive Science, UCS

Not much. I ride motorcycles without a helmet. –J. Craig Venter, genomic scientist

That digital technologies are sapping our patience and changing our perception of time. –Nicholas G. Carr, author

“I worry that as the problem-solving power of our technologies increases, our ability to distinguish between important and trivial or even non-existent problems diminishes.” –Evgeny Morozov, contributing editor, Foreign Policy

“I’ve given up asking questions. l merely float on a tsunami of acceptance of anything life throws at me… and marvel stupidly.” (complete answer)–Terry Gilliam

That there are an infinity of universes out there, but that we are only able to study the one we live in. –Lawrence M. Krauss, physicist/cosmologist

The rise of anti-intellectualism and the end of progress. “We’ve now, for the first time, got a single global civilization. If it fails, we all fail together.” –Tim O’Reilly, CEO and founder of O’Reilly Media

Humanity’s unmitigated arrogance. –Jessica L. Tracy, professor of psychology

That we will become like rats stuck in a blue marble trap. –Gregory Benford, prof of physics and astronomy

“As someone fairly committed to the death of our solar system and ultimately the entropy of the universe, I think the question of what we should worry about is irrelevant in the end.” –Bruce Hood, mondo-bummer

That Idiocracy is looming. –Douglas T. Kenrick, psychology professor

“What I worry most about is that we are more and more losing the formal and informal bridges between different intellectual, mental and humanistic approaches to seeing the world.” — Anton Zeilinger, physicist

Not population growth, but prosperity growth—the prospect of the entire world consuming resources like Americans and Westerners do. –Laurence C. Smith, geography professor

That authorities and companies will soon be able to read people’s brains. –Stanislas Dehaene, neuroscientist

“There are known knowns and known unknowns, but what we should be worried about most is the unknown unknowns.” –Gary Marcus, cognitive scientist

Stupidity. –Roger Schank, psychologist

And perhaps the most chilling to me…

That we will stop dying. –Kate Jeffery, professor of behavioural neuroscience

 

Sources:

Brockman, John, ed. “2013: What *Should* We Be Worried About?” Edge 2013: Web. <http://www.edge.org/responses/q2013>.

Merchant, Brian. “The 150 Things the World’s Smartest People Are Afraid Of.” Web log post. Motherboard., Jan. 2013. Web. <http://motherboard.vice.com/blog/what-150-of-the-worlds-smartest-scientists-are-worried-about>.

You don’t need real friends! Just imagine them up.

I believe in the power of the human mind, and one idea I have come across which has reinforced this has emerged throughout the world in several organized religions as well as, more recently, in popular culture: a tulpa.

A tulpa is a being that is manifested in reality purely through mental discipline. Basically, with enough believe that an imaginary being is real, it will become so. Another name for these are thoughtforms, and they, in theory, can be created either through individual meditation or mass collaboration.

On an individual level, the person may or may not know that they are creating this tulpa. Some actively seek this, following guides and devoting time and effort to the concept. If this idea were real, however, I think that most of the tulpas would be completely unconscious. Take, for instance, a person that fully believes that bad things will happen to them, devoting their thoughts and feelings towards this belief, they may manifest this energy in their lives.

I think this concept is especially interesting in the case of mass collaboration. Some of the first thoughts I had after learning about this idea was to apply it to the concept of “God” and organized religion. All of these people group together, on a physical and spiritual level, all actively and wholeheartedly believing in something that may or may not be real in the typical sense of the word. If you then apply this concept to it you could say that they are creating this god for themselves simply by believing so completely in it.

This isn’t to say I necessarily believe this concept is completely factual or real. But I do think it is an interesting idea with which to explore the power of the human mind. And, from my perspective, it does, on some level, make sense with certain aspects of the world that I see, and my own personal philosophy.

Our Peculiar Knack for Distorting Reality

Sometimes, I find myself confronted with stretches of time in which I have no demanding obligations, and few appealing options of which to utilize my time. One such time, while I was pondering what I might be able to fill my time with in the rapidly approaching future, the social outlet that I had been channeling my time and energy towards had to fulfill her own obligations, and offered that I accompany her to class, the draw being that it was a philosophy class. I agreed, both having no other plans and being one to enjoy some good philosophical discussion. During this time, I was introduced to an idea that has influenced my own personal philosophy: Sir Francis Bacon’s “The Four Idols.”
 
In this work, he defines the “idols” which he feels distorts humans perceptions of reality. He names these “Idols of the Tribe,” “Idols of the Cave,” “Idols of the Marketplace,” and “Idols of the Theatre.” In this post, I will focus only on the first three. However, a link to the work can be found at the bottom of this post, which explains these concepts far more fully.
 
Perhaps it is partially the wording of Bacon that caused this idea to strike me so thoroughly. And so, I feel it necessary to quote him directly, than to try to fumble with my own inaccurate words. He writes, “The Idols of the Tribe have their foundation in human nature itself, and in the tribe or race of men. For it is a false assertion that the sense of man is the measure of things. On the contrary, all perceptions as well of the sense as of the mind are according to the measure of the individual and not according to the measure of the universe. And the human understanding is like a false mirror, which, receiving rays irregularly, distorts and discolours the nature of things by mingling its own nature with it.” He identifies distortions caused by simply being human, and how man is not seeing reality, he is seeing his own perception of it, which is flawed. I particularly like the comparison to a mirror which “distorts and discolours,” as I often find myself comparing perception to a lens.
 
“The Idols of the Cave are the idols of the individual man. For every one (besides the errors common to human nature in general) has a cave or den of his own, which refracts and discolours the light of nature; owing either to his own proper and peculiar nature; or to his education and conversation with others; or to the reading of books, and the authority of those whom he esteems and admires; or to the differences of impressions, accordingly as they take place in a mind preoccupied and predisposed or in a mind indifferent and settled; or the like…” In this, Bacon explains that there are distortions caused by our own personal history, unique to each person based on upon what they’ve been exposed to, including people, media, etc.
 
Next, he touches on the way language plays a role in this distortion, stating, “There are also Idols formed by the intercourse and association of men with each other, which I call Idols of the Market-place, on account of the commerce and consort of men there. For it is by discourse that men associate, and words are imposed according to the apprehension of the vulgar. And therefore the ill and unfit choice of words wonderfully obstructs the understanding. Nor do the definitions or explanations wherewith in some things learned men are wont to guard and defend themselves, by any means set the matter right. But words plainly force and overrule the understanding, and throw all into confusion, and lead men away into numberless empty controversies and idle fancies.” The imprecise and confusing nature of language is a factor, according to Bacon, that leads to personal confusion of reality. When communicating through language, we must translate what we mean into the words that we’ve been taught, and there will always be bits that are lost in translation, or distorted because of an individual’s personal connotations.
 
Attempting to free ourselves from these delusions will, according to Bacon, bring us closer to the truth, to reality, rather than our own flawed perception of it. However, he says that these delusions are innate, that they are engrained with human nature itself, or bestowed upon us by the culture we are exposed to and are perhaps inescapable. However, being aware of these distortions is beneficial, in my opinion, to understanding ones own perception and how it might bend the light in its own way.

 

Source:

Bacon, Francis. The Four Idols. PDF. <http://www.olearyweb.com/classes/philosophyS2/readings/bacon/Idols.pdf>

The Extra Ingredient

Theories are fascinating creatures: they open up the mind to the possibility of an idea, even if this idea is impossible to prove (or disprove) at this point in time. It is the possibility that gets me, this possibility gives you the ability to look around you with a different lens, to see something from a new angle by introducing that idea into your head.  This idea of “what if” is, I believe, healthy for a mind to be exposed to and utilize, whether is a spawned by someone else’s ideas that one has been exposed to or theories of ones own design.
I have often come across such theories of the former category, which often lead me to seeing things in a new way, or to formulating ideas of my own. One such theory’s that startled me when I was exposed to it is purely hypothetically, and will probably never be possible to prove or disprove. Really, it is an idea that is used to explore the nature of other concepts, most notably consciousness and physicalism.
“Philosophical zombies,” are, to put it simply, humans who look and act just like us, but are void of consciousness. They walk, eat, converse, and go about their lives as any human would, but lack that special something, which some might call a soul.
This idea can be used to examine such concepts as physicalism, which “…is the thesis that everything is physical, or as contemporary philosophers sometimes put it, that everything supervenes on, or is necessitated by, the physical.” If these “zombies” were proven to exist, it would essentially fully disprove the idea of physicalism because even though these humans are physically identical to us, they lack that extra ingredients that is nonphysical. It helps us in questioning whether our own consciousness is defined by some physical means, or by some non material spark. It raises questions about the existence of a “soul,” and if we believe in such, whether everyone processes one of these.
Since it is so difficult to prove, it also raises questions about conceivability versus possibility. While many would agree that the idea is conceivable, they would not agree that these zombies actually exist. However, if something is conceivable, it could be argued that it is possible, however not everyone who believes these zombies to be conceivable believes them to be real or even possible. See how this possibility, this “what if,” causes a cascade of differing ideas all inspired by this one concept?
Quite honestly, as absurd as this idea may seem, it does not seem too out of the question to me. I cannot help but see consciousness as a scale: some people burn brighter than others. If it is possible to achieve a higher level of such (which I have to believe it is), than it would also be possible to sink to a lower level as well, so perhaps it would be possible for a person’s light to go out completely, or to never have been lit in the first place. I don’t know, I really don’t, but again, it’s that “what if” that this idea sparks inside me that sends my brain on a tangent. Even if I don’t necessarily believe this concept to be true (or untrue), it does stimulate my brain to think about the world around me in a new way, and to ponder ideas I may never have before.
Sources:
Kirk, Robert, “Zombies”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2012 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/sum2012/entries/zombies/>.
Stoljar, Daniel, “Physicalism”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2009 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/fall2009/entries/physicalism/>.

We Are But Dreaming Meat

Normality is strange concept to me. The idea that anything at all could be considered “normal” in a place as complex and dynamic as our universe is strikes me as ridiculous. And yet, it is a term we have created to define this concept, as we are conditioned as humans to understand the patterns in the world around us and make sense of them. When a pattern is particularly expected, it is deemed “normal.”

But when you look at it from a new perspective, try to see whatever you are witnessing with new eyes, turn it upside down and backwards and just look at the thing itself, without any preconceived notions a whole new bizarre understanding becomes apparent.

Take clapping for example. At the end of a performance, the audience often claps to show their appreciation, as I’m sure most of you have done. However, if you look at this from the perspective of someone completely unfamiliar with Earth customs, they would witness a group of people repeatedly smacking their fleshy appendages together to create the same sound, and would probably find it quite peculiar.

This perspective can be applied to any given situation, and I find it quite amusing to view the world in this way. One of my favorite short stories articulates this point exquisitely well, in my opinion; it takes something so seemingly normal we may not even consider it at all, then illustrates it from a new perspective.

THEY’RE MADE OUT OF MEAT
By Terry Bisson

“They’re made out of meat.”

“Meat?”

“Meat. They’re made out of meat.”

“Meat?”

“There’s no doubt about it. We picked up several from different parts of the planet, took them aboard our recon vessels, and probed them all the way through. They’re completely meat.”

“That’s impossible. What about the radio signals? The messages to the stars?”

“They use the radio waves to talk, but the signals don’t come from them. The signals come from machines.”

“So who made the machines? That’s who we want to contact.”

“They made the machines. That’s what I’m trying to tell you. Meat made the machines.”

“That’s ridiculous. How can meat make a machine? You’re asking me to believe in sentient meat.”

“I’m not asking you, I’m telling you. These creatures are the only sentient race in that sector and they’re made out of meat.”

“Maybe they’re like the orfolei. You know, a carbon-based intelligence that goes through a meat stage.”

“Nope. They’re born meat and they die meat. We studied them for several of their life spans, which didn’t take long. Do you have any idea what’s the life span of meat?”

“Spare me. Okay, maybe they’re only part meat. You know, like the weddilei. A meat head with an electron plasma brain inside.”

“Nope. We thought of that, since they do have meat heads, like the weddilei. But I told you, we probed them. They’re meat all the way through.”

“No brain?”

“Oh, there’s a brain all right. It’s just that the brain is made out of meat! That’s what I’ve been trying to tell you.”

“So … what does the thinking?”

“You’re not understanding, are you? You’re refusing to deal with what I’m telling you. The brain does the thinking. The meat.”

“Thinking meat! You’re asking me to believe in thinking meat!”

“Yes, thinking meat! Conscious meat! Loving meat. Dreaming meat. The meat is the whole deal! Are you beginning to get the picture or do I have to start all over?”

“Omigod. You’re serious then. They’re made out of meat.”

“Thank you. Finally. Yes. They are indeed made out of meat. And they’ve been trying to get in touch with us for almost a hundred of their years.”

“Omigod. So what does this meat have in mind?”

“First it wants to talk to us. Then I imagine it wants to explore the Universe, contact other sentiences, swap ideas and information. The usual.”

“We’re supposed to talk to meat.”

“That’s the idea. That’s the message they’re sending out by radio. ‘Hello. Anyone out there. Anybody home.’ That sort of thing.”

“They actually do talk, then. They use words, ideas, concepts?”
“Oh, yes. Except they do it with meat.”

“I thought you just told me they used radio.”

“They do, but what do you think is on the radio? Meat sounds. You know how when you slap or flap meat, it makes a noise? They talk by flapping their meat at each other. They can even sing by squirting air through their meat.”

“Omigod. Singing meat. This is altogether too much. So what do you advise?”

“Officially or unofficially?”

“Both.”

“Officially, we are required to contact, welcome and log in any and all sentient races or multibeings in this quadrant of the Universe, without prejudice, fear or favor. Unofficially, I advise that we erase the records and forget the whole thing.”

“I was hoping you would say that.”

“It seems harsh, but there is a limit. Do we really want to make contact with meat?”

“I agree one hundred percent. What’s there to say? ‘Hello, meat. How’s it going?’ But will this work? How many planets are we dealing with here?”

“Just one. They can travel to other planets in special meat containers, but they can’t live on them. And being meat, they can only travel through C space. Which limits them to the speed of light and makes the possibility of their ever making contact pretty slim. Infinitesimal, in fact.”

“So we just pretend there’s no one home in the Universe.”

“That’s it.”

“Cruel. But you said it yourself, who wants to meet meat? And the ones who have been aboard our vessels, the ones you probed? You’re sure they won’t remember?”

“They’ll be considered crackpots if they do. We went into their heads and smoothed out their meat so that we’re just a dream to them.”

“A dream to meat! How strangely appropriate, that we should be meat’s dream.”

“And we marked the entire sector unoccupied.”

“Good. Agreed, officially and unofficially. Case closed. Any others? Anyone interesting on that side of the galaxy?”

“Yes, a rather shy but sweet hydrogen core cluster intelligence in a class nine star in G445 zone. Was in contact two galactic rotations ago, wants to be friendly again.”

“They always come around.”

“And why not? Imagine how unbearably, how unutterably cold the Universe would be if one were all alone …”

 

Source:

Bisson, Terry. “They’re Made Out of Meat.” TERRY BISSON of the UNIVERSE. Web. 29 Oct. 2013. <http://www.terrybisson.com/page6/page6.html>.

“The Revolution will be complete when the language is perfect.”

The dystopia that George Orwell creates in his novel 1984 is depicted in such a way to raise questions in one’s mind, encouraging the reader to think more deeply about concepts of our own reality which parallel or resemble those of the book. Although many different concepts are detailed in this book, one of those which has struck me the most was demonstrated through the idea of “Newspeak.” Newspeak is a language being created by the antagonist force, Big Brother, and it’s aim is to remove all variation in meaning of words so that communication is extremely precise and vehemently structured. This idea is introduced more fully in chapter five, when Winston, the protagonist, speaks to a philologist, Syme, who works for Big Brother and specializes in Newspeak.

Syme explains the concepts of Newspeak, saying, “‘It’s a beautiful thing, the destruction of words… It isn’t only the synonyms; there are also the antonyms. After all, what justification is there for a word which is simply the opposite of some other word… Take “good”, for instance. If you have a word like “good”, what need is there for a word like “bad”? “Ungood” will do just as well — better, because it’s an exact opposite, which the other is not. Or again, if you want a stronger version of “good”, what sense is there in having a whole string of vague useless words like “excellent” and “splendid” and all the rest of them? “Plusgood” covers the meaning, or “doubleplusgood” if you want something stronger still.'” This describes the idea of removing all words deemed unnecessary, and how that would make communication very straight forward, but also remove all of the beauty and poetry out of speaking by forcing it to be incredibly structured. While this idea, to me at the very least, is a frightening one, Orwell illustrates this deeply disturbing concept further, and the ramifications of such a concept become more apparent.

What most adequately demonstrates the incredible power of language to me is the idea that Syme bring up next. He says, “‘Don’t you see that the whole aim of Newspeak is to narrow the range of thought? In the end we shall make thoughtcrime* literally impossible, because there will be no words in which to express it. Every concept that can ever be needed, will be expressed by exactly one word, with its meaning rigidly defined and all its subsidiary meanings rubbed out and forgotten. Every year fewer and fewer words, and the range of consciousness always a little smaller.'” By taking something as vital to our understanding of this world as language is, and manipulating it in such a way as to completely control the minds of people, individual thought and free will is effectively destroyed. This is one of the most terrifying ideas I have ever stumbled upon. It is essentially the elimination of individual thought and artistic expression by destroying the means we use to create those ideas: words.

This demonstrates the power of language in an incredibly potent way to me, and I commend George Orwell on his ability to fine tune his portrayal of the ideas that he is trying to bring the audience’s attention towards. It reminds me that we must use this tool in a meaningful way, and celebrate our ability to do so.

 

* If you have not read 1984 I recommend you do so. However, if this is the case you will need to know that “thoughtcrime” is a concept in the book that basically entails thoughts that doubt, question, and especially oppose the governmental force Big Brother, which are illegal and brutally punished.

Source:
Orwell, George. 1984. New York, NY: Published by Signet Classic, 1977. Print.

To Those Who Keep Their Mind Ajar and Their Eyes Wide Open:

All too often, we walk around with our hands pressed over our ears, our eyes squeezed tightly shut. We blind ourselves to the wonder of everyday, the improbability of our own existence. Sometimes, we become deaf to the music all around us, drowned out by the static of the seemingly mundane everyday. But when we listen, when we begin finding patterns in the static, it becomes something so much greater: a cacophony of brilliant noise as the universe conducts its symphony. It makes you realize, even just for an instant, how vast and impossible and lovely this place really is. With all of the knowledge that the digital age has put at our fingertips, we stumble upon strange and wonderful ideas. As adults, I think we often look past these, categorize them somewhere in the recesses of our minds and give them little thought. Children view the world with wide-eyed wonder, but that too is often lost as we grow up. If we could gain back this childlike awe, I think we would see the universe in a much more realistic light. But we keep our heads down, eyes averted. What I ask of you is to recall an idea that makes you think “wow,” share it, and I will do the same. What I ask of you is to look up.