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.
After my previous post about faith, which led to a fruitful discussion, I’ve been thinking more about the importance of faith to humans and how it might be framed in a more useful way. A couple summers ago I presented a series of posts about 8 virtues or qualities that make a good human, and faith was the last one I discussed. I think that if I were to do that series again today I might change the word faith to “prediction”.
In the discussion we had on my most recent post about faith, we talked about the difference between religious faith, and the sort of everyday way we might use the word faith. One of the things that I talked about as a difference between how a scientist might use faith, and what a religious person might call faith are two different things. The most important difference being that a scientist would be willing to change what he has faith in, based on evidence. I have always argue that while faith is important we should be willing to change what we have faith as we learn. The other thing that I argued was that faith is built on evidence and there is a very big difference in having faith that the sun will rise tomorrow, and faith that there is a supernatural divine being. The difference there being the weight of evidence, and the quality of evidence used in building those two types of“faith”.
But I started to think about it at a deeper level and it seems to me that at the heart of faith is really something else when I started to ask, “Why do we have faith at all?” Faith is a representation of our desire to predict an uncertain future. When I had my son, I wrote a post called Love and the Future, about how when we love we start painting pictures of the future in our mind. It happens in romantic relationships too. According to a friend of mine who is a counselor, one of the hardest parts of counseling someone after a difficult breakup is for them to let go of those “future plans”. I have also written a post before about “expectations”. In the post, I talked about the benefits of expectations in that we rise to meet them. By having a future goal in mind, we make better progress than none at all. Of course, there are many who would say you shouldn’t have expectations, because they will only lead to disappointment, but I am not sure it’s possible to live a life without any expectations. It’s natural that we’d have some, but I think that it’s true we might have limits into how many failed expectations we can shoulder. Either way it seems to me that expectations are also a type of “faith”. A desire to place some certainty in the future based on our desires and wants. It is something we expect to come true, even if it doesn’t.
For the past few months I have been practicing mindfulness meditation, and it has been an enjoyable experience. I’ve been using an app called Headspace. It avoids a lot of the new age type stuff and really focuses on the philosophy of meditation and I highly recommend it to anybody who is interested in getting into it. The goal is to be more focused on the present, to be mindful of what we are doing in the moment. A thought struck me yesterday when I was practicing it, as that one of the things they tell you in the guided meditation is that you want to think about “what are your goals with the meditation” and after it’s over they suggest you think about what is going to the very next thing you do. So even in something that is supposed to be about the present, we cannot help but look forward at least a little bit in our thinking.
I have come to the conclusion that it is natural in humans to be forward thinkers. I have had the thought before that one of the things that makes humans more intelligent is our ability to project further into the future than other species. Now one could argue that we are also still pretty awful at it, but the fact that we try is actually impressive. We look for patterns in the universe and we try to project those patterns into the future so that we can be less uncertain and fearful about it. While Farmer’s almanacs would like us to believe that squirrels can predict months in advance about the severity of the winter, it is clear in an evolutionary sense life on average are poor forward thinkers. If they were good at it, I’m not sure extinctions would happen as often as they do. For instance, an animal can only assume a winter will lie between certain climatic norms. Some portion of the population will develop mutations better equipped for let’s say surviving a larger range of conditions, but when change becomes to extreme large proportions of a population if not all, cannot adapt and die out. Humans are better at it, unfortunately we are also deeply conceited and that leads to problems. So given this human propensity to want to predict, the best thing we can do is to build value systems that allow us to be successful more often.
When we say we have faith in our partner, our ourselves, we are making a statement that there is an expectation that based on existing evidence that we will continue to handle some future situation in the same way we have before. Making a statement like, “I have faith I will do well on my exams”. Presumably you have taken enough exams to presume a similar outcome. More than that, to make sure it isn’t blind faith, you have examined the patterns to your success through various study methods, getting a certain amount sleep, etc to make sure your faith is not misplaced. Your faith is a type of prediction. A value system that aids in this faith is your ability to be introspective and also perhaps learn from others as to how they study and learn what are good and bad practices.
So where does religious faith fit into all of this? Hopefully by now it is pretty clear, but let’s look a little closer. I have read several atheist and agnostic scholars speak about religion as a type of model. This is how religion has always made the most sense to me. What is the purpose of models? In science models are things that model scientific processes that give us more predictive capabilities. The better we understand a process, on average, the more predictive we will be. This is why a scientist’s ‘faith’ might be quite different than a religious person’s faith because the success of a scientific theory is its predictive capability. The poorer it is at prediction the less certain we are about our understanding. In my field of meteorology one of the main reasons we try to model atmospheric processes is to become better at prediction. It is helpful to be more aware of what weather and climatic patterns are coming in the future.
Religious faith, at its root, is a kind model. One constructed a long time ago, built largely on false patternicity errors, but given how little we understood about the universe its weak predictive capabilities (in line with empirical evidence) is hardly surprising. Nevertheless it is an attempt to know the future. It’s full of prophet predictions, it speaks of what happens to you when you die, how the world will end, what consequences your actions might have. People pray or plead for diving intervention for their future endeavors. ‘Please get me this job, please make it rain so our crops come in, please don’t let my mother die of cancer.’ These are all attempts to give us certainty in an ever changing universe in which are predictive capabilities, especially at an individual level, are extremely limited. The statement “God has a plan for you” is a prime example of how religion has the course of your life worked out already. There is no need to worry about it. Just have faith. People find it soothing to pray, people find it peaceful to know the purpose of the universe, to know what will happen to them when they die. In fact, on the whole, religion gives far more certainty than science, which is why I expect it is much more popular. Science rarely claims 100% predictive capability, but religion does, and to this end religion can be easily used to exploit people. It is a panacea to all the uncertainty in the world. Religion pushes people to have more and more faith in times of doubt and confusion. What they are really saying is “Be more and more certain that (religious claim x) is the truth.” And if you’re successful, not surprisingly, you feel better. With mental effort we can convince ourselves to be more certain of things whose outcome is uncertain. Human history is rife with such examples. There is no doubt in my mind that we have better models for how humans can live their lives now. Nevertheless, we have maintained these old models, trying to ignore the worst bits of them, and developed an entire field of apologetics whose main purpose is to try to convince people that these old models still not only have value, but that they are actually superior to other models out there.
Now just because prediction is something humans do, doesn’t mean it’s necessarily a virtue. I guess I see it as a raw instinct that needs to be tamed, which is how I have approached all beneficial human qualities. I think it’s clear that while much happiness can be found in getting lost in the moment, we need some sort of value system that gives us a direction. We might get there and find we have to go somewhere else, but it seems beneficial to always have some sort of idea of where we might go next. In my life it seems that the people I have admired most are the ones who can take pleasure in the moment, but also keep their eyes ahead of them as well. It’s dangerous to get lost in times that have not occurred, just as it is unhealthy to dwell in the past. So if I were to choose this 8th value that makes a good human, perhaps the word “prediction” doesn’t quite do it justice, but until I come up with a better word it will have to do. There is, however, no question in my mind that a defining quality for our species is our ability think about the future. It encapsulates our dreams for a better future and if there is any escape from the fate of extinction that most life on this planet has faced, it will be through our ability to predict, if we can remember to be humble enough to remember we aren’t perfect.
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.