Whether you are a Sam Harris fan or not, I truly recommend listening to the interview Sam Harris did live with Yuval Noah Harari (the interview itself is about an hour with an hour of Q&A afterwards. The first hour is most valuable). Harari is a brilliant man, and somebody who I think we should be listening to. I transcribed this passage from the interview.
“…however complicated the humanity entity is, we are now reaching a point when somebody out there can really hack it. It can never be done perfectly. We are so complicated, I am under no illusion that any corporation or government or organization can completely understand me. This is impossible. But the yardstick or the critical threshold is not perfect understanding, the threshold is just better than me. Then the key inflection point in the history of humanity is the moment when an external system can reliably, on a large scale, understand people better than they understand themselves. This is not an impossible mission, because so many people don’t really understand themselves very well. With the whole idea of shifting authority from humans to algorithms, so I trust the algorithm to recommend TV shows for me, and I trust the algorithm to tell me how to drive from mountain view to this place this evening, and then I trust the algorithm to tell me what to study and where to work, whom to date and whom to marry, and who to vote for. People say, no, no, no, no, no…that won’t happen, because they will say there will be all these mistakes and glitches and bugs, and the algorithm won’t know everything, and it can’t do it. And if the yardstick is to trust the algorithm (or) to give authority to the algorithm it must make perfect decisions than yes it will never happen. But that’s not the yardstick…the algorithm just needs to make better decisions than me.”
There are many ways I think one can know one’s self better, and I don’t think we spend enough time doing that. Moreover he argues that this is even more critical today because the technologies out there are far more capable of hacking us than ever before. Victoria over at Victoria Neuronotes often talk about the importance of understanding cognitive science and neuroscience, and how the brain works…this needs to be a regular part of our education systems, because awareness is key. But knowing one’s self should also come from meditation, introspection, and taking time to just unplug and think about who you are and what you want to be. Find yourself.
It’s been awhile since I did a blog post, but I would say it’s safe to say I’m officially back, and before I launch into other more interesting topics I thought I would start with a little update on where I’m at in life, and how I’ve been feeling since leaving Facebook.
I am not sure how many of you know but I teach at a university where we are literally under a 9 month contract and so I do have the summer’s off. Now that I am department chair it is not quite true, but summer is still a time where I tend to shut down from communication in general. This summer it is a confluence of factors that have led me to disappear for awhile. The respite, I feel, has overall been a benefit.
I guess I’ll start with my leaving Facebook. I said a lot of things about how I thought it would benefit me. An important piece of wisdom that I’ve gained later in life is that it is important to change things up, to get out of habits as best as possible. Habitual behavior tends to be what makes time go by more quickly and also I think has diminishing returns for things that even initially made you feel good. So I’ll start by saying that I certainly don’t regret leaving Facebook one bit if not simply for the sake of just seeing how life would change. And there is no question in my mind that it was in fact a habit, and that there were some signs of addiction.
When I left Facebook I deleted the app from my phone, and I was shocked to find out how many times I would pick up my phone to get on Facebook, only to stare blankly at my phone at an app that wasn’t there, and it took me a couple of seconds to remember that I wasn’t on Facebook anymore. Despite consciously knowing that I left, my unconscious movements to reach for my phone and look really gave me some insight as to how much time I spent checking Facebook. This made me happier that I left, but there was still this feeling of frustration that I assume to be akin to withdrawal symptoms. Fortunately, after a month or so this diminished. I’m in a place now where I spend very little time on my phone. Sometimes now I forget to look at it for entire half days. I also find that I spend much more time looking for my phone (which is annoying) but I think this is because I am not always looking at it. It’s hard to lose something you are checking frequently and always have near you. I don’t like wasting time looking for my phone, but overall I’d say it’s not a bad thing that I am away from it enough to misplace it.
One thing I expected, that didn’t happen, was having extra time. I think this can largely explained by having another child. We’ve had a lot of family visiting as well, so things have been a little hectic at times over the summer. I guess I do feel like I have had more time, but that time has been filled and so I woudn’t say that I have had more time to relax. I will say that overall, I feel a better sense of fulfillment with what I spend my time doing, even if it isn’t always fun. There is a solidity to life now that I have a hard time explaining clearly, but overall I like it.
I think it was pretty clear that when I left Facebook that I was experiencing some depression. I didn’t think that Facebook was necessarily the cause of it, but I didn’t feel like it was helping me overcome it either, and if anything exacerbating it. Having left Facebook I have to say there are still times that I feel depressed about where our society, particularly in America, is going and I’m not sure how to make that go away. I mean I could simply choose to be more optimistic and focus on that, but I somehow worry that this will make me less vigilant. I feel this is a time for vigilance. You can of course be so depressed to the point of apathy, but I think you can also be to cheerful and optimistic to the point of ignorance. Neither of those are where I want to be. Trying to find a state of mind that makes me feel strong without depression but without some sort of drug-like optimism is challenging. Overall though I would say that leaving Facebook has helped me compartmentalize better, has allowed me to say, “Alright right now I have to focus on this…” and I am able to do so. There are times that I spend worrying as well, but I don’t think I do it as much, and sometimes I feel like I am able to filter out the noise much better and really think about, even some of the bad things, in a meaningful and deeper way. This is something that I hoped for leaving Facebook. The biggest thing for me is how noisy life felt and that I really couldn’t think deeply about things very well. So maybe I’m not free completely from the state of mind I was in before, but I feel like I am progressing, and that is something. Facebook seemed like a fairly endless stream of bad news, and people fighting, and being free from that, as often as I was on it, has been restful…peaceful…and given me more moments of contentedness.
There were many people who felt like was bashing Facebook when I left (there are reasons to be concerned of course about Facebook’s ethics) but my leaving was more a reflection of my personal relationship to it. It wasn’t healthy for me, and I still maintain that can be used beneficially. I know many people who aren’t on Facebook who are still as confused about facts from the media they consume, and so I certainly don’t see it as a soul source of how we can be misled in our society. There is a larger problem with all sorts of media which has been discussed by ethicists like Tristan Harris on the “attention economy“. This is something we all have to be mindful of, and getting off Facebook is no solution there. The important thing to recognize also is that we are all being unconsciously influenced by the media we consume, and it’s important to be aware of that and be aware of how that’s affecting your life. Think seriously about it all, weigh the pros and cons, and ask yourself are you as happy, courageous, and effective as you can be being plugged in all the time. In a podcast I listened to recently a doctor was saying how boring the message of moderation is, and yet it’s probably the one we should be hearing the most.
My world has certainly gotten smaller, but I think there is just as much value at making the 10 mile radius around you a better place as trying to make the world a better place. Moving the world requires a much greater force, and as an individual I constantly feel like I am inadequate to the task, and Facebook was a constant reminder of that fact, just as it was also a constant reminder of all the things that we need to make better in this world. It’s important to know all of that, but it’s also important to recognize your limits.
There is much that I miss too, I knew this would be the case. I wonder how a lot of the good people I got to know on Facebook, and think of them often. But I have gotten to interact with more friends and people in my community than before. There are a lot of people in my city who probably have quite different political views from me, but I haven’t talked politics with them, but I am getting to know them, and I haven’t met a bad person yet. Maybe they voted for Trump, or maybe they are very religious, or maybe they have no problem with guns…I don’t know, but I think it’s important that we really get to know people first before judge the entirety of their being based on who they voted for, or what they believe. There’s much more humanity there that I think we miss on social media. There’s value in understanding where people are really coming from and recognizing their common humanity. There may come a day when the truth of our political views comes out, but maybe then it will be a better conversation, maybe then there own beliefs will be as challenged as mine our and maybe even if we can’t be friends we walk away being better people than we were. I don’t think this is possible on Facebook as we just tend to get to know the people who agree with us, and fight with the ones we don’t.
Well this is already a bit long, but I just want to say that, at best I can say that I am spending more time with my children and more time just enjoying a breath of fresh air. I think that I will one day be able to return to Facebook and use it in a better way, but I don’t think I’m there yet. I am thankful for all the good people I know and have known in this world even if there isn’t enough time to stay in touch as frequently as I’d like. I wish all the best.
I had this idea in my early 20s that there was an equation that could define what it mean to live a fulfilling life. I had reasoned this based on what I had observed that seemed common to the well being of all people. People would generally laugh at me when I’d say something like this just as you may be doing now. To be sure when I said equation I was describing nothing so trite as x+y=3, or anything like that. This equation was look and full of many variables. Some of those variables might be simple, like having oxygen and water. Other variables could not be settled so easily and they would not have the exact same value for each person. In fact the same could be true of oxygen and water, but there were certainly variables in that equation which might be more broad and whose details might on the surface look quite different for different people. An example might be something like art. Art is important. For some it’s the doing of art, for others it’s the appreciation and enjoyment of it, for some it’s both. For some people it’s painting, for some it’s writing, for some it could be making floral arrangements. I think it’s true to say that I didn’t even have the equation worked out myself and I still don’t but it seems obvious to me that there is common ground when it comes to these variables that can be used for this equation to come up with a solution for a productive and meaningful life.
I was listening to a podcast recently where writer Andrew Sullivan was arguing with Sam Harris that reason could not form a basis for happiness. This idea was reinforced in another podcast where Russell Brand was trying to make the point on his podcast that this secular world that is edging out religion is also edging out spirituality and thus making our world bereft of meaning in some way. I would first say that I am not altogether sure that this is even true in that there is a lot of evidence to demonstrate that our world has a lot less suffering (as a percentage of the population) than we had even a 100 years ago. But let’s say that Russell Brand’s assertion is true in his more deist outlook, and I know many other theists who share similar concerns. As I look at the person I am now, I am someone who leans strongly in the direction and importance of reason. More specifically scientific reasoning. And I reflected on this claim by Sullivan. Are things like love and spirituality eroded by reason? If I hold reason, logic, empiricism, and all that stuff as guiding principles in my quest for truth, am I going to miss out on important meaning that could be present in my life? The anecdote I started with here came to my mind, an idea that came to me from beauty I saw in mathematics, but also the reasoning I had done in observance of the human condition. So I decided to write a post why I think reason is wonderful, in my humble opinion.
I will start by saying reasoning can be flawed, but not all reasoning. Saying reason has no value because reasoning can be flawed is flawed reasoning.
Reason tells us that spirituality is important to humans. Reason has shown us that you don’t need to believe in the divine to have spiritual experiences. It’s reasonable to seek spiritual experiences. When I reflect on why a certain experience was spiritual for me this helps me understand what factors might lead to more of these experiences.
Reason tells us that love is important to humans. Feelings of intense love can be spiritual, and like spiritual experiences enjoying the emotion and not thinking to much about it the moments is a good idea. Reason tells us that love is a lot like a drug, and makes act irrationally. I don’t mind this fact actually. Being aware of that though can help us think twice making a decision based solely on love, which also isn’t a bad thing. Just as one might claim that life is more than just reason, life is also more than just love. And even if love often defies reasons, we know there are reasons why humans love. When I reflect on the reasons why I love, I understand myself better and this can lead to me having more experiences where I get to have those wonderful feelings of love run through me.
Reason informs me that humans must have meaning or purpose – things that drive us to more, to live another day just for the possibility of fulfilling that purpose or experiencing that meaning. These things vary wildly among people as there are many ways to find meaning. Too many perhaps because some seem to not know what direction to go in. When I use my reasoning skills to evaluate meaning and purpose I feel like I understand how to make life more fulfilling.
Reason tells us that sometimes you have to do things for no reason at all. Perhaps a better way of putting this is that it’s reasonable to do something that you’ve never done before, even if it makes you feel uncomfortable. It means taking a risk. Fail or succeed you grow, and spending a lot of time reasoning about the possible outcomes can ruin the value you might get from taking the risk. Without risk we don’t grow. Reason tells us that when we stagnate we become apathetic and life loses meaning and purpose. Time seems to fly by as it becomes routine and this precious existence is over before we know it. So I’ve reasoned that I need to keep challenging myself, and sometimes it’s made life harder, but never dull.
Reason informs me that we all reason and by being clearer about our own reasons we can better communicate them. Conversation can help expose us to different lines of reasoning, and help evaluate what lines or reasoning are better, worse, or just different. Reason tells us that there is no right answer to the best flavor of ice cream, but there is a right answer to how to jump the battery in your car. And this may be the reason why you have to sit and have an ice cream while you wait for AAA to come and tow your car to the mechanic.
Reason informs me that there are better and worse ways of thinking about problems and that there are rules to reasoning. Reason has shown how prone to cognitive biases and delusion we are. Reason tells me that it is hard to overcome these problems and it takes being conscious of it, and takes perseverance to continue to learn and to be reflective. When we aren’t aware of how our reasoning can be flawed that’s when conversation can breakdown. And once we can no longer have conversations through shared norms of sound reasoning, when conversation fails to resolve our differences, reason tells us that violence becomes a much more likely option in resolving differences.
Reason tells me that even though emotion can often guide my reasoning, I serve my compassion better when I detach emotion from reasoning because life also isn’t all about how I feel about it. Reason tells me sometimes I have to step outside of myself so I can be more sure that reasoning isn’t flawed by my emotions.
Reason tells me that ignorance might be more blissful, but that there is nothing about life that says it is supposed to be one happy moment after another. Sometimes reasoning will make us sad, anxious or scared. But we can use that to drive us to make the world a better place and not let ourselves be paralyzed by it. If more people used this type of reasoning, reasoning would lead to less experiences of sadness, anxiety and fear.
It’s reasonable to assume that you might not agree with my reasoning, but it was important for me to demonstrate that reason doesn’t have to be the antithesis to meaning and that it can actually enhance it. It also may be that my reasoning is flawed. There is a reason why I write a blog to have conversations. There is also a reason that I keep trying to learn more, because good reasoning sometimes just requires more information. There is a reason why I love reason, and hopefully you love it a little more after reading this.
The last in this series, comes late for several reasons. For one, I am Poland, and have been enjoying my vacation. But largely it is because this last quality has needed many if not all of the things I am going to talk about under this heading. The time change has left me less than well rested and it has taken about a week to really feel like myself again. It has taken also some time for me to find enough time to myself, in which I haven’t needed to take care of my son, and haven’t been surrounded by family. My in-laws live in a small apartment and it has felt uncomfortable for me to spend a lot of time writing around others. Finally it has taken a lot of thought, deep thinking, introspection and perhaps a little creativity to nail down what I wanted for this last quality. It also took some humility as I had to bounce this creation off my wife because I was rather unsure if I had a cogent post here or whether I might need to make a 9th quality. What I thought was going to be my 8th quality changed as I realized there were other things that I wanted to write about that I felt were linked together but unsure how. And there may be some debate as to whether or not I was successful here putting all of these under the same umbrella. In the end I’ve decided the number of qualities isn’t as important as saying what I wanted to say. My wife also told me that I was quite clever in my solution to the final quality being solitude. She almost never tells me I’m clever even when I think I’m being clever so that has me feeling really positive about this post. 🙂 With that said, let’s delve into solitude.
I am going to break this down in a more organized way, but let’s talk about some general things first. You might first think that, “Hey aren’t we humans social animals? You’ve been going on a lot in this series about how we can all better get along and have empathy, so why should solitude be so important?” If you’ve raised a child you of course have seen the changes from a baby still thinking it’s in the womb and not knowing it is separate from the mother, to a slow buildup of a sense of self. From then on as parents we try to help the child along to develop a sense of independence. To sleep alone, to be able to do simple physical tasks and to enjoy playing on their own as they gain more and more self-sufficiently. And as a child I remember not only being proud as I could do more things on my own, but actually growing to appreciate and like having time to myself, free from responsibilities to anyone. It seems to me that everybody, no matter how social they might be, to be healthy, need some alone time. Healthy relationships often aren’t ones where both people spend every single moment together, but where each have some hobbies and things that they like to do on their own. Everybody needs their space. What we do in this solitude varies and I am going to talk about 3 different facets of solitude that I think are all important, and I do think have a common thread. So let’s begin:
It takes a little more humility to mention that I owe this important aspect of solitude to my wife. I am not an overly creative person, but when she mentioned the importance of solitude to the creative process I realized she was right. While artists and musicians certainly collaborate, the initiation of that creative process is usually done alone and then ideas are bounced back and forth with those that are collaborating. Walk into any museum and count how many pieces in that museum have more than one artist listed there. You won’t find many. How many of your favorite novels have multiple authors on the front cover? How many of your favorite poems are written by more than one person? We may be inspired by others when we create, but ultimately what we create is done I solitude. I also don’t want to arbitrarily separate the arts and sciences, it is just generally more easily seen in the arts. Collaboration and feedback is a very important part of the scientific process, but often the vision and inspiration that starts a new idea is formed through thinking in solitude. Scientific history is littered with important scientists whose vision and inspiration excited the scientific community and progressed their respective fields forward. My blog posts are often inspired by conversations, articles or books. However it often takes some solitude to think about what I want to say and write. Even if during that process I talk it over with others as I have done with this blog post, in the end solitude has played an important part in the creative process.
Regardless of the seemingly infinite things we can think of to do, we are sadly quite finite creatures. Our time and energy have limits and many of us are constantly trying to get the most amount out of our day and not getting enough down time. I’ve already discussed the importance of play, and certainly this is important in reducing stress and giving us more strength face to the challenges of life, but there is also the simple act of rest. Resting your muscles and resting your mind. One of the ways we do this of course is simply through sleep. I know few people who don’t love a good night’s rest, and more and more I hear many people wishing they could have more (including myself). According to the National Sleep Foundation, we aren’t getting enough, and this leads to all sorts of problems such as increased weight gain, loss of focus, anxiety, and overall being less efficient as we could be. Whether you are sleeping with someone or not, sleeping is an activity that is done in solitude. It is your time to be unconscious and recharging your “energy cells” and freshening the mind. Getting better sleep may give you less waking hours in the day, but chances are you will be more focused and efficient during those hours such that time will not be lost and may actually be gained.
Sleep, however, is not the only way in which we can rest and recharge. One of the other ways in which we can gain energy is through meditation. Now meditation can be defined in a number of different ways, but all of them have benefits and I will talk a little bit about them throughout this post, but for now when many people think of meditation they think of some bald headed person in a robe sitting down in a lotus position and saying ‘om’ a lot, and I admit I used to be from this camp too at one point. And that type of meditation is beneficial, as it clears the mind and rests the body. By focusing on sound, or your own breathing you can rest and recharge. Recent studies have shown meditation to actually change the brain in a positive way. Daily meditations may also simply involve sitting on your patio drinking a cup of tea while you look at your garden, going on a walk as you take in the sights and sounds of the moment, and it can also involve repetitive activities such as exercise. Repetitive actions keep you focused on the task at hand keeping you in the moment. Exercise is one of the better ways to do this of course because you must focus on the movements and muscles needed to perform the task and this is actually restful to the mind as much of the clutter and stresses of our everyday life can fade away. The well-known “runner’s high” is a good example of this. Of course when you first start to exercise this may be difficult as your body adjust itself to the activity as you may actually experience a lot of pain and/or be uncomfortable and this can be distracting. But this is why meditative activities require regular practice. You aren’t going to be good at it right away and the health benefits take time to come to fruition. I feel that one of the hardest things for people who begin to exercise is they never push through the phase in which it is painful, and tiring as they find they have less energy. But it does get better, and I’ve seen it happen for myself and for others.
If you exercise at a busy gym, or listen to music while exercise this may actually diminish some of the meditative aspects of the exercise as you may start to focus on other things and become distracted. I’ve seen many people pause their treadmill just to text somebody and so I doubt they are getting much of the meditative benefits of exercise, but exercise is still good of course. Being physically healthy gives you more energy and helps you recharge more effectively. Being physically tired is also an aid in getting better sleep which is important as mentioned above. Silence is also a helpful part of the meditative process. Of course complete silence is difficult, but relative quiet may help you pay attention to sounds you don’t often notice like the sound of your own breathing, the babbling of a brook, or the twitter of birds. In previous posts I have talked a lot about the importance of being in the present and this is the one the great advantages of meditation. We can’t always be serene and peaceful, but taking time out of our day to quiet the noise of our everyday lives is important and is something we do in solitude.
The dictionary also defines meditation as continued or extended thought, reflection and contemplation. This is the sort of meditation I do a lot. For better or worse I suppose as I am frequently lost in thought unaware of what’s going on, which is bad for activities like driving, or paying attention to your spouse when she is talking to you. This type of meditation is our natural scientist at work. Whether we are reflecting on our own actions, searching through the past for understanding, issues of the day, or just things that we’re learning, thinking deeply about things is a positive activity. It is our way of helping us see how we can do things better in our lives (humility), what changes we like to make about ourselves (courage), what questions we still have and thus areas we need to understand better (curiosity), trying to understand the actions of others (love/empathy), or setting aside our worries and stresses about future events (faith). In the scientific method it is the final stage that allows us to make adjustments to our original hypothesis and form new ones. Thus our introspection, outrospection, and contemplation ensures that we continue to grow and change in an ever changing world. We may even may take time to plan activities that are both fun, and those that help us better have time to ourselves (play and solitude). And meditation like this and what I described above is something we should try to do every day (vigilance/perseverance).
These meditative activities are all performed in solitude. Even if we don’t get much alone time during the day, 15-30 minutes of meditation can be an important part of good health and if needed, keep the creative juices flowing. If you are constantly surrounded by people your only time for this might just be a nice long shower, or a satisfying crap on the toilet, but in all likelihood you appreciate that time to be alone with your thoughts. Mix that all in with a good night’s sleep and conquering the day may not be seem so daunting, even if it isn’t easy. The amount of solitude that everyone needs for a good sense of well-being I’m sure varies, but I think it’s important that we try to give ourselves that time if possible. In doing so we can gain increased feelings of serenity, understanding, and peace which will help us fight battles in the present instead of the impossible task of winning future ones. The dark side of solitude in the extreme is known, I’m sure, to all. We are a social species and whether you want just a few good friends, or be the life of a party we shine the most in the company of others. Few of us could live the life of a hermit. We do best when we are cooperating, collaborating, and helping. Too much solitude can make us feel lonely, often worse is that feeling of solitude when surrounded by others. Like the other qualities the down side of solitude comes to fruition when we don’t practice the other 7 qualities in this series in some balanced way. And it is possible that what makes solitude good is some security in knowing that solitude isn’t our only option. That we have other treasured people in our life that we can depend on when we no longer wish to be alone.
This series has been long and if you’ve taken the time to read all of it, I do thank you, but I cannot sum it all up in just a sentence or two so I will have one more post in which I will try to take a more holistic view of them all, and take a critical look at how this intellectual exercise of mine doesn’t always mesh well with reality.