Sunday, April 5, 2009

On matters of life and death

This is a repost of something I wrote on IGI, the forum I'm spending a lot of my "conversations on the web" time on. It's a little long, but it encapsulates my philosophy on life fairly well, so I thought it was worth reposting. It's a response to a guy in his 20's who is facing for the first time the idea that yes, he really is going to die some day, and struggling with the idea that when that happens, he will no longer exist, and everything his life was will fade to nothing. When he was a kid, he was religious, and so death was a non-issue because he believed in the afterlife, but having lost that belief, he now wanted the advice of the forum, and specifically sent me a message asking for mine. This is what I said:


And long after i am forgotten it will be as if i never walked the earth.

Now, this is just my opinion, but I think that's wrong.

As long as the universe itself exists, what you did with your life will still be around. Now, you won't be remembered, there will be nothing that says "Trevor was here". But the consequences of your actions will still be there. Part of the background noise that shapes all future generations.

I think about my parents, and I wonder... what made them the way they are? And it was the people they lived around, the conditions of their lives. And what made those people the way they are? And it's the people that they lived around. And you can go back, generation after generation, and when you think about it, what each and every one of those people did, matters to the world I live in today. But of course, what other forms of life did matters too. And the happenstances of weather, and gravity and all kinds of forces beyond our control... all of these things made the world the way it is. In fact, the sum total of all human endeavors pales in comparison to the huge effect of time and the universe acting on itself, when it comes to the making of the world we live in today. And I am one of 6 billion living people today, and multi-multi trillion living organisms, on an infinitesimal part of the universe. So the amount of effect I can have even within my own life, on the people directly around me, is very, very, very, very, very small. But here's the kicker: It's not 0. And even though the recognition that I'll get for my contribution, whatever it may be, will be small, and will fade to 0, the consequences of my actions won't fade to 0. In fact, they might very well grow over time, not shrink. People I treat well, and help out, will help others, or hurt others less, and those people in turn will do the same, and over time the effects of my actions, good or bad, will multiply. So although there's a lot in life we can't control, or even fully understand, and who we were and that we lived may fade from memory, I think it is a deep mistake to think that after we die, it will eventually be as if we never lived. I think the consequences of our actions are as eternal as anything is.

Also, I think you should focus on what you can control. Because the brutal fact is, you have one shot. No do-overs. You screw up and miss out on something you could have had or done, maybe you'll learn from it, and a few years later you'll get in another similar situation, and do better. And that's all well and good, but that shot you had originally is gone, and you can't get it back. So decide what you want from life, and go after it. Death will come, inevitably, but... your one shot at life comes first.

This absolutely terrifies me. I dont want to die. but i am totally powerless to do anything about this.

That's right, you are (almost) completely powerless to do anything about... well, really most of the things that happen to you in life. The weather. The number of hours in a day, and how many of them have to be spent doing housework or other tasks that are going to have to be done again next week, and the week after that. The people you meet, and in large part whether or not they like you. The opportunities that come your way. Whether you're going to cross the street tomorrow and get hit by a bus. But of course, you do have some control. You can look both ways, and eat healthy, and be nice and smile. So it's a mistake to think that because there's so much you can't do anything about, you're powerless. The truth is, like with how much of a difference you can make in the world, your power to control things in your own life is very, very, very limited, but non-zero. And, you have a choice how you can spend your limited ability to control your life. You can spend your time being terrified of things over which you have absolutely no control whatsoever, or you can focus on the things you can do something about. Pour your energy into understanding what motivates you, what you're good at, what you want from life, and how you can have a good one. Treat the things you can't do anything about as fixed barriers you have to understand and work around, rather than throwing yourself against them. And find a way that when you look back on your life, you're happy about how you lived it. Again, death will come, but it's a (fairly) fixed barrier. Don't run from thinking about it, just remember - you have one shot, focus on making it count. Think about death only inasmuch as it helps you to be more effective at using the life-time that you have well. For me, that's pretty much daily, but it's not to be scared of it, it's just to say: don't forget - you get no second chances. And to continually evaluate whether I'm doing what I can to make my life count.

How do you do that?

Well, it's different for every person. Find the things you're good at, and understand the things that are important to you, is the first thing, I think. And then, continually take time to think about how your life is going, how you want it to go, what you can control and what you can't...

The list of things you could think about, and how carefully you could potentially think things through, means you could spend all of your time thinking, and none of it doing, though. Which is why, the key is balance. All of the possibilities of things you could do with your life, and all of the information that would allow you to make the best possible decisions, won't fit in your head. Time is limited, your perception of the world and your understanding of things is limited, so... you're never going to be able to make A+ perfect decisions, and have an absolutely ideal life, no matter how many times you think "only one shot". Your limitations are just another thing you're stuck with, though, and can't control. So, do your best, and accept that it's never going to be as good as it could have been if only you could have known what you learned this year five years ago.

Take all of this and synthesize it, and what kind of life do you get? Well, what happens is, you have peace because you've stopped worrying about things you can't do anything about. You have purpose because you've focused on figuring out what you want, at least enough to start acting on it. You have peer recognition because your'e doing things that use whatever strengths and talents you have, which means generally you're going to be better at whatever it is that you're spending your time at than the average person who is attempting that activity. And you wish there were 36 hours in a day, or you didn't have to spend 8 hours of the day sleeping (what a waste!). There's too much to do in life, too much to think about to figure out how to do the best job you can of controlling the few things you can control, for you to worry about death, or really anything else other than "am I doing my best?".

I live my life the best way I can, and if I die and find out there was a God and he's disappointed in me... well, OK. If someone says to me many years from now "hey, you've wasted a bunch of time, you should have been doing X with your life"... well, OK. Can't be helped. I'm an incredibly stupid, limited sort of creature, and there's only so much I can manage, so if I get it wrong, I get it wrong. I just spend my time trying the best I can to get it right. That absorbs all of my time, and all of my energy, and although I wish I was better, overall I'm pretty happy with the results. It's an approach I'd recommend to anyone. Another thing I'd recommend: Learn from people who are smarter than you, those who have spent their lives doing different things than you (because they're going to be smarter than you in the things they know about, and you're going to be smarter than them in the things you know about, so it works well for both of you) or have spent more time thinking about whatever it is you're thinking about. It's quite possible that something that would take you a year to figure out on your own could be learned from someone else in an hour.

Sorry this is so long, and I'm sure it doesn't give you all the answers you might be looking for. But the thing is, nobody has all of the answers. Luckily, everyone has some of them. Good luck (-:

Sunday, March 8, 2009

What I've been up to, and a thought

Hi all!

So, I've spent several months over on a discussion forum, called Is God Imaginary instead of here blogging. I find the quality of the posters there is amazing, and, ya know, there are more of them than there are regular readers of this blog.

Anyway, I've done well enough with that that the powers that be on that forum have decided to make me an admin. Which means I (along with another guy) take care of the database, and can suggest and implement changes to the software and structure of the forum. It's open-source, so there are ongoing tweaks so that we can give structural/institutionalized support to positive discussion practices, and discourage things we don't like. Give everyone enough space so that there's a community, some private spaces where sub-groups can connect, and some public spaces where everyone can mingle and learn about each other.

Why is that interesting to you, my five or so readers? Because that's where my focus is going to be, and it's actually a pretty cool place. There are people there from all over the world, from all kinds of different backgrounds and beliefs (from Quakers to Catholics to young earth creationist calvinists, atheists, agnostics, pacifists and Republicans). It can be a volatile mix, but the strong emphasis the admins have on running it in a way that is transparent, and their genuine hope to build a place where respectful discussion takes place, means I find it unique and really interesting to participate in. So, if you've liked what you've seen on this blog, and you want more of the same, IGI is the place to be. And, if you take a look and think something there could be changed (particularly to make it a more welcoming environment for new members, because they're still in a growth phase) your suggestions would be welcome.

Since I'm doing my thinking over there now, mainly, what I might do is cross post some things I wrote there. For example, here's a discussion I started yesterday, titled "God: the stone in the stone soup of life?"


I remember when I was a kid, there was this story my parents read to me, called Stone Soup.

Details are here:

Basically, guy has stone + pot full of water, and describes how amazing stone soup tastes, and convinces everyone around to chip in a little. And everyone does, and in the end, they all had an amazing meal. Soup, from a stone.

This made me think of religion. So far, I haven't seen reliable evidence of God. But I have seen evidence of the power of the idea of God. Kind of like the power of the idea that stone soup tastes great. And in the end, it does.

So, what do you think? Is God like the stone in the stone soup of life? And if so, if you take the stone away, what replaces it? In a godless society, what stone will we coalesce around to promote charity and communal behaviours? There is evidence that religious people give more generously to charity (I think some is on Unkle E's site). So, is the lack of a stone for our stone soup a problem?

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Why we think we have free will

Simple answer: Because we can't completely model our own mind. Interesting conclusion that flows from that: We as individuals will always think we have free will, but to something that comes along that's smarter than us, which can completely model our minds, we will appear to be nothing more than fancy robots. Automatons.

Think about the things we say are "deterministic" or "don't have a choice". We say this because we know what the inputs and outputs will be. When you push a button, you know a computer is going to do a certain thing, consistently. Or... well, sometimes when you push a button, the computer crashes. Sometimes it crashes for no readily apparent reason at all, without you doing anything, and you get angry at Microsoft. But you do this because you assume someone, somewhere, made it so there's a reason this computer should crash, and that someone is an idiot because they just caused you to lose your spreadsheet. So since you think there's an understandable reason for everything a computer does, it doesn't have free will.

The systems we attribute choice to are the ones where the inputs and outputs are beyond our understanding. It used to be that a lot of the inputs and outputs to nature, and how they were processed, were very confusing to us. We didn't even have enough information to attempt to model them. So we said that God brought the seasons, and God made the sun come up and go down, and God, with His free will, decided who would live and who would die, who would get the black plague or be destroyed by earthquakes or volcanoes.

Now we're starting to understand a lot more about these systems, and build systems we know are deterministic in how they operate, but they seem to magically do things and we don't understand how. So it becomes a lot more plausible that the natural world has no "free will". That there are no free moral agents intervening in nature on our behalf. That there is no God, or that God is a deist God who doesn't fool around down here. But us? We're still free. Ask me why someone did something, and I can't give you a complete answer, but that's not a big deal because I can make assumptions and they are reasonably accurate. Except... those assumptions are never enough, people keep doing things that are so friggin' unexpected, that don't fit within my simplified model of how people think. Every time we try to explain human thinking in a deterministic manner, we fail, so there must be free will involved. Right? Right?

I think expecting us to be able to model ourselves, to fully understand the inputs and outputs to our own mind, is a logical impossibility. A model is a simplification. We can hold in our head a picture or an explanation of why we do what we do, but in order to encompass ALL of the inputs and outputs in our model, in order to fully explain ourselves, we would have to have a brain that holds everything in our brain and then some, which can't happen.

Since our model of ourselves (the one in our own head, anyway) will always be incomplete, it will always appear (to us) that we have a certain degree of freedom. But there will come a point where our model of ourselves in a book is close enough to complete that it will be most plausible to say we don't have free will. Because we'll be able to say "Ok, these were the starting circumstances, and this was the end result. Was that what our model expected?" And we look it up in a book, and the answer is always yes. Or we get two or more psychologists together, who together have the mental capacity to encompass the full model, and they can give us an answer as to why we did what we did, because together they have all of the pieces. Or a computer model, without our limitations of memory and processing speed, gives us consistent answers. This is the slightly scary one to me, because whoever owns that model will be able to make people do whatever they want, within the limitations of the things they can control, and the people will not have the capacity to understand how it's done. And away goes the idea of free will. The corporation that owns that model will know how to make you buy whatever it wants you to buy (or will know it can't make you buy it, at which point it will not bother trying to sell it to you). We're already seeing marketing approaches that have more knowledge of human psychology than most humans do, that know which "buttons" to "push" to make people buy despite their intentions not to... and those models will only get better. Our decisions will become less and less a matter of our free choices, and more and more a matter of influences deliberately imposed upon us by people (or computer models under the control of people) who understand how we work.

Does anyone have a reason why this can't happen, other than that you believe by faith in a book that says it can't? In other words, can you point out a flaw in my reasoning about why we think some things have free will and others don't, and why we think we have free will at this time, and the direction in which this debate is heading?