Standing on Higher Ground

 

I was having a discussion the other day with Victoria over at VictoriaNeuronotes about heroes. And how we idolize people and then seem almost shocked when they turn out to be human and with flaws. Sometimes they are deep and serious ones (i.e. Bill Cosby). Maybe it’s not too surprising that we do this since most of us grow up thinking our parents are heroes and only over time become aware of the fact that they too have flaws and so maybe it’s a natural tendency in humans. I’ve wrote about hero worship before, so that’s not what this post is about. But I started to think about what a hero actually is and how odd of a concept it really is.

When we think of heroes we tend to think of someone standing alone, overcoming all odds, a man or woman against the world that is solely focused on tearing them down. But isn’t it odd that we should idolize such a figure, given that it never, ever happens that way. Okay maybe not “never”, certainly every once in awhile you have someone walking along who sees someone calling for help from a burning building and is saved, but these heroes are heroes of circumstance. In the right place and the right time, and maybe not heroes at all, just doing what every creature of conscience would do in the same circumstance. For most people we idolize they never really stand alone. Whether it be military, firefighter or police who benefits from the experience of those who trained them, and the coordination and cooperation of their fellow soldiers, fighters, or cops. Maybe it’s Martin Luther King Jr., Ronald Reagan, or Gandhi? Such men while perhaps great could not have accomplished any of the things they did alone. Maybe we could argue that heroes inspire, but when it comes to actually accomplishing what they wanted in life they needed support. And certainly their ability to inspire may also have been because of those who inspired them.

Liam Neesons!!

I then began to think about our fascination with heroes in movies and in television. Whether it is superheroes with unique powers saving the world, a cop singlehandedly defeating scores of bad guys, shooting the down one bullet a time, or a vigilante seeking revenge on those that wronged him many are drawn to the lone figure who stands above it all. Is it our fascination that has driven the stories, or the stories that drive us? Probably the former, but either way it is a positive feedback which may not be overall all that healthy. Pop culture here in the U.S. idolizes the individual to a very high level.  As I’ve argued before while there is value in individuality, but ultimately we don’t get a sense of self without looking at ourselves in relation to others.   We are also an evolved species who survive best when we cooperate and practice reciprocal altruism.  We are a social species, and one that has depended on others for our survival and roamed this Earth in groups.  The lone person defeating foe after foe is an illusion. Real victories are at the cost and hard work of many, whether they be through physical battle, social change, or intellectual progress. One person may start an avalanche, but it is the avalanche that does that damage.

I wonder where this fascination comes from?  Is it deeply psychological, is it only cultural?  Most of us face adversity in which it seems there is nothing that can be done, so perhaps the lone hero satisfies our own desire to overcome the obstacles in our own life.  Is it a function of an over populated world in which we struggle to stand out from the multitudes?  So we love our heroes because of how they stand out from the rest?  And yet this is still an illusion and more often than not, when we raise up a hero we tend to cast other people down.  Such heroes in movies and TV are usually facing less than complex bad guys, and throngs of incompetent henchmen who are nameless and faceless and easily defeated.  Does loving the hero oversimplify their character and cause us to judge people by unrealistic standards, which over time we come to realize that even the hero we’ve elevated cannot meet them?  Does our love of that lone hero breed the Dylann Roofs and James Holmes who believe they alone must triumph over the demons in their lives?

I don’t want to imply that there are no heroes at all in this world.  I am quite certain that there are, but we can certainly change our attitude on how we view them.  Heroes are not perfection.  Nobody is.  I am also quite certain there are those who face incredible adversity on their own without help from anybody.  A single mother who works long hours every day to provide for her children is perhaps just as much a hero as Martin Luther King Jr,, Superman, or any military or police officer.  What seems clear is that in reality none of us do everything completely on our own.  There is no successful company that doesn’t depend on the hard work of all the employees.  There is no rich person who has got to where he or she is all on their own.  While I think it’s perfectly healthy to admire and appreciate the virtues of others when we idealize those people we do them a disservice and ourselves.  The great people of past and present are likely just as flawed as the rest of us.  Maybe all we should be worried about is striving to make the world a better place and maybe that’s all a hero really is.

I’d be interested in hearing others people’s thoughts about heroes.

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How Our Will Is Not So Free – Part II

In Part I, I hoped to get you into a relaxed frame of mind as you consider the possibility about the existence of free will.  That perhaps our subscribing to free will is more trouble than it’s worth and that life can be no less wonderful without it.  So here is the way that I like to look at our ability to make choices.

In a previous blog post I talked about the fortunes of life perhaps depending on the choice between Pepsi and Coke, so let’s stick with soda (or pop if you

from http://createmeaning.com

prefer) to start our little thought experiment.  Let’s say you live in a world in which there is only one beverage you know about, and that beverage is Coke.  When you are thirsty and you need something to drink, there is no decision to make it is going to be Coke.  Free will does not enter into the decision.

Now this is not particularly realistic.  So let’s add a choice like Pepsi into the mix.  They taste different, but both can quench your thirst.  Which one do you choose?  Well let’s see what might go into making a decision.  You are at the store that sells the only two beverages that are available and which one do you choose?  Likely your choice will come down to statistical probability.  If you absolutely had no preference, your decision would simply be random.  Over the course of your life you would probably have picked Coke 50% of the time and Pepsi 50% of the time, provided you had a choice.  Nothing in your life that you have learned has caused you to lean one way or another, there are only two choices, and thus your choice is limited and can be simply equated to flipping a coin.

You might say at this point, wait, I can choose to pick Coke or Pepsi more often.  Okay then, but why would you?  What particular reason would you have for choosing one over the other?  This question is particularly devilish so I’ll get back to it later.  As for now, you have no reason to choose one more than another, and so quite simply you wouldn’t; it’s a flip of the coin, which isn’t free will.  Generally people don’t do anything without a reason.

Now let’s throw in a reason.  Your mother who you revere and think is wonderful always brought you a special souvenir coke when she’d go away somewhere, and so drinking Coke sometimes reminds of that warm feeling.  This is an influence that impacts your decision making. All of a sudden your preference for Coke perhaps goes to 60% (40% Pepsi) because when you’re thinking about your mom you’re in a mood for Coke, taking away from it always being a completely random decision.   Now since Coke is a little less sweet, perhaps your blood doesn’t react well to too much sugar, a genetic trait running in your family, and you can’t tolerate Pepsi as often and all of a sudden you’re at 75% Coke, 25% Pepsi.  Then you find that the makers of Coke are a little more efficient at running their business and are able to have more sales on their product.  As someone who is money conscious all of sudden you are buying Coke 85% of the time, Pepsi 15%. A really hot girl or guy is in the Coke commercial – 90%/10%.  Finally your Dad is a mean person who beat you as a child and he always drank Pepsi.  All of a sudden you are only drinking Coke again.  Your choices are a function of the things that influence you.

For every answer there is a question.  You’re money conscious, but where does that come from? Perhaps your father despite being abusive was very disciplined with money and so you gained that skill from him.   What if you decide that you aren’t going to let your father’s action impact your decisions and

From http://crenshawcomm.com

get a Pepsi out of spite.  Great, but what would cause you to be so defiant and rebellious.  Perhaps your mother showed that trait.  Perhaps you were inspired by Martin Luther King, Jr. that you learned about in school.  Perhaps you were inspired by the movie Braveheart.  There may be many possible influences, the point is that you believe that defiance is a positive way of dealing with such childhood trauma and that idea had to come from somewhere.  Many people do not have such boldness.  Perhaps that is not a weakness, perhaps they just feel the best way to cope is for them to completely dissociate themselves with their Pepsi drinking dad as way of staying stress free and peaceful.  They learned this from a self-help book that they read on letting go of the past.

Now going back to an earlier question, what prevents you from just preferring one drink over another for no reason?  People seem to do things for no reason all the time, and I would have to agree.  But doing something for the hell of it is also a trait.  There are people who will never be like that all their lives.  Some people say, I’m just going to be a Coke drinker even though I like both of them well enough, because hey why not, I’m a wild and crazy guy, and I just want to be on team Coke.  Where does this spontaneous side come from?  An aunt you love and revere whose always taking chances and is a thrill seeker?  A friend you went to college with who just loved to be spontaneous?  But if your spontaneous next year you might just be on Team Pepsi.

The reasons for our decisions are so varied and complex that such a breakdown for why we make the decision we do is not always clear, but it is clear that we are conditioned by multiple influences over different scales of time to reach those decisions.  Your choice of beverage might really be something like this:

Coke 70% – Tastes better, grew up with it, family drank Coke

Trying something new 10% – Your mom always encouraged you to try new things and that variety is important so you aren’t afraid to take a chance when something catches your eye

Dr. Pepper 10% – You also like the taste and it reminds you of your years in grad school when you and your friends used to always take a break from studies and get a Dr. Pepper

RC Cola 5% – They were out of Coke, you wanted a cola and you hate Pepsi

Tolerable Beverages 5% – when your favorite choices aren’t available you can tolerate maybe an Orange Crush, Fanta, or Root Beer because it’s better than any of the other choices you’ve been given.

And then finally you might have a special category of beverage you’d hate and never choose unless you had been in the desert a real long time and had no other choice.

In our minds we think about all the things we have drank and see them all as choices and feel like we are consciously making the choice with our free will, but the truth is that we are conditioned into those choices and if we really thought about it, we usually do get a Coke, and the other beverages are choices but low probability ones.

Can our lives really be predicted so easily?  Our decisions already pre-determined? The answer, of course, is “no”, because life is full of unexpected events.  Even if everything that occurs is deterministic you are an incredibly small part of everything and cannot follow the chain of events. And perhaps your penchant for trying new things leads you to a beverage you love more than Coke.  Perhaps you fall in love with a girl who loves Dr. Pepper and that becomes your preferred drink since you both like it and it’s something you can share.

From http://dilbert.com

Life is full of events that we don’t know are coming and it is those intersections that throw us out of our comfort zones and give us new experiences that shift the probabilities and possibilities of choices we can make in any given situation.  Whether you are open or closed to new situations also depends on the various things that can influence us as human beings.  We are animals born with a unique mixture of genes, in a part of the world we had no choice in, raised by people who we had no choice over, while our senses feed us information every day we exist to a brain that has been conditioned over millions of years to process all that information amazingly well and do its best to help us survive.  Yet most things we will never know or understand fully, closing off an entire range of possibilities that we might choose from.  And so what if we are not consciously making our choices?  We are a complex mixture of nature and nurture and in such a symphony who wants to pick out a single note from a single instrument.  Just sit back and enjoy the music.

How Our Will Is Not So Free – Part I

For any of you who are foolish enough to read my blog you are used to a lot of rambling.  I can’t promise this will be too different, but I would like to be a little formal and have an actual thesis for this post.  I have posted my thoughts about free will in respect to religion, but even if one is not religious the idea

From http://www.brandonragle.com

that we have free will is extremely pervasive and I think it is ultimately a not necessarily helpful concept to believe in.  The choices that we think people have are an illusion and we tend to instead judge others because people do not make choices that we would make.  It prevents us from really helping those who are violent, disturbed, hurting, depressed, etc.  It has us believe that there are people who are inherently evil allowing us to dehumanize them and cast them aside, when instead they might simply have brain abnormalities, be traumatized, influenced by people as messed up as they are, or simply lost and confused in a world that is beyond them and behave desperately.  I think it also acts to separate us from nature and is a great source of human conceit.  Free will is not something we ascribe to plants or animals and thus also gives us the illusion that we lie in a place above all else.  Whether you believe that the supernatural has imparted us this blessing of greatness or you think that evolution is a pyramid in which humans rest on top, both these notions are ultimately dangerous because they allow us to justify great atrocities against nature as we continue to satisfy our own self-importance.

In the first 8 months of watching my son grow it is clear that free will is not something he was born with.  He started out simply crying when he was hurting, uncomfortable or hungry, and sleeping when he was sleepy.  Not a lot of free will going on there.  As I watch him change, I see him simply become aware of more things.  When he first could see our cats, not surprisingly he was curious and wanted to touch them.  Now that he’s been outside he asks to go outside (well not in words).  Now that he realizes the comfort of being held he asks to be held.  He also mimics.  He sees us eating something and he wants to eat it.  He sees us using a remote, our phones, computers, and he desperately wants to use those too (or rather put them in his mouth).

Before I formally begin my argument for the absence of free will I want to put an excellent quote from an article I read some time ago from the New Yorker which has had a large influence on my thoughts in trying to understand why we are the way we are and where this sense of self comes from that I blogged about some time ago.

I believe we inherit a great river of knowledge, a flow of patterns coming from many sources. The information that comes from deep in the evolutionary past we call genetics. The information passed along from hundreds of years ago we call culture. The information passed along from decades ago we call family, and the information offered months ago we call education. But it is all information that flows through us. The brain is adapted to the river of knowledge and exists only as a creature in that river. Our thoughts are profoundly molded by this long historic flow, and none of us exists, self-made, in isolation from it.”

From http://www.eugenecascadescoast.org

The reason I want you to keep this in mind, because not only does it support the argument I am going to make (doesn’t of course make the statement true), but most importantly I want to reveal to you that just because I don’t think we have free will, doesn’t mean that I don’t find life absolutely amazing.  The idea expressed in this passage speaks to me in a way I cannot fully express, but I find this idea beautiful.  It tells me that we are product of processes that function over many different scales of time.  From what we learn each day, to what nature has molded us into over millions of years.  We can extend even further and look at the billions of years of evolution which has produced us , and we can go back further to old stars dying and being the seeds for our own sun and solar system which allowed one fortunate planet to even allow life to evolve.  So the fact I may not be quite as in control of the process is hardly depressing.  In fact it removes a lot of the pressure if anything.  I can simply marvel at all that has taken place for me to sit here and write these thoughts out today back to the beginning of time.  It is humbling, inspiring, and magnificent.

I shall now let you pause a bit before going on to the next blog post, because going back to the beginning of time is something that requires some deep reflection. 🙂

The Perfect Blog Post

From http://www.allposters.com

A concept that has fascinated me for some time is that of perfection.  People will say something is perfect, but what does that really mean?  If we look at the dictionary definition we see that perfect means having no mistakes and flaws or completely correct and accurate.  But all of these words have some subjectivity to them.  Few people agree on what a mistake or flaw is.  And is anything completely correct and accurate?  If something can be, we often find that there is disagreement here also.

It seems to me that perfection is ultimately an ideal that everybody holds, but that nobody really agrees on.  In this way I find it very similar to the concept of God.  And many people say God is perfect and so the analogy is even stronger in that respect.  Nobody can really agree on the nature of God and everybody holds a slightly different view of what God wants and how He/She behaves.    In addition to the fact that I believe it is not up to the atheist to disprove the existence of God (but up to the theist to prove the existence of God), it seems also a fruitless task to disprove something which is not clearly defined.  Perfection seems to me exactly like this.  If perfection is an ideal and what is ideal is subjective to the person holding the ideal then perfection as a concept maybe limited in value to all but the individual.  Which means just like you shouldn’t be trying to enforce your vision of God on anybody else, perhaps we should also not be so adamant that others share our view of perfection.

Can we truly experience a shared value of perfection?  Many have tried to define a perfect system of government, a perfect society or

From http://dancearchives.net

civilization, a perfect self, but it is unclear that everybody agrees with those ideals, and many times they seem so implausible to reach that it seems that they will simply be rejected because some feel they are not rooted in reality.  But I think those that try to come up with these “universal” ideas of perfection do believe they are obtainable, at least in some distant future.  I hold similar ideals as I am sure all you do as well.  It seems to me though that we define this conceptual perfection beyond the present, but feel that the goal of perfection is not so far away that we can eventually reach it.  Science might give us some better clues as to what some perfect state might be, but to do so we would have to be sure we knew absolutely all the variables.  And we are far, far away from that and it seems likely we will never be at a state in which we know everything about the universe.

The next question then is, well what if we really do reach some state of perfection?  I wonder if we can simply be content and happy in the long term, before we are really start thinking about how things could be even better.  This seems true at an individual level or even if we do have some shared value of what perfection is.  Unless we knew everything (highly unlikely) it seems like we would always be searching for more and that perfection is not possible.

Finally I think then it is worth asking the question, are such ideals like perfection a good thing?  If it is a goal we can never reach does it prevent us from being content and happy in life?  The answer is maybe.  I think if you accept that perfection is some point on the horizon that you can move towards but never reach (or at least not reach easily or quickly) then you might instead to learn to appreciate the journey you take to get there.  If on the other hand you believe the perfect state is actually reachable in a tangible way and you don’t get there, then this can leave one frustrated, disappointed and unhappy.

While I ponder about perfection frequently, the most recent inspiration was looking at my son.  He seems perfect.  He has no mistakes or IMG_7532flaws.  He will make mistakes and he will have flaws however.  Thus I began to wonder if maybe, even as a concept, perfection doesn’t exist.  It’s just something we believe in but have no evidence of.  Because he is who he is, and while we will try to nurture him positively into the world, everything about his life will be different than mine and who he ends up as will be who he is supposed to be.  He is supposed to make mistakes and have flaws.  Thus he is in accordance with his nature.  As we all are.  Our nature is to change, to grow, and be imperfect.  In the end perhaps we are all according to our nature, and maybe that is what perfection really is.  The good news is, nobody is saying you have to like it.

I think it is very important, however, that we have these lofty concepts, and that we continue to dream of better ways to live life, because it could be that in our imaginings we do end up moving towards some better future.  I think as long as we remain humble about our dreams of perfection and be willing to modify and change our ideals when life presents us with new information then the concept of perfection can have meaningful purpose.

 

 

 

 

Join Together With the Band

Whether self is an illusion or not the end result is the same.  We try to set ourselves apart.  Even with respect to those we are closest with.  It can be a simple thing such as the way we style or hair or the clothes we like to wear.  But more often we set ourselves apart from people through bigger traits, such as intelligence, style, athleticism, friendliness, openness, leadership, etc.  To do this often we must make judgments.  Sometimes those judgments are through evidence, but many times they are not.  Our sense of self not only wants us to be unique but often more special as well.

This is all clearly one side of the coin, because on the other side is the part of us that wants to be part of a collective.  Here we find a

From http://www.oakland.edu

strong desire for community, a need to fit in, a want to be surrounded by those that are like us.  It seems that most people exist on a spectrum between pure individualism and pure collectivism.  Some people need community more than others.  Some people value their individualism more than others.  Many people I know who are religious, while they may talk firmly about their religious convictions, when they talk about what they enjoy most about their faith, it is being with groups of people who share the same beliefs.  The sense of community is often strong with them; whether it is fond memories of big family gatherings surrounding religious holidays, or socializing with members from their church.  I know at a lot of Sikh temples, the women get dressed to the nines to go to church because it is much more of a social gathering than a simple practice of faith.

What really interests me about a group or a collective are the mechanisms in which they work.  Besides the psychological comfort of being surrounded by like-minded people, there is also safety and protection with in a group.  A group, singular in purpose, will often be more successful and have higher productivity than an individual.  Sometimes that purpose can be positive such as a group of volunteers cleaning up a neighborhood or park.  Other times large groups can become a mob and be damaging and irrational.

From webteachertools.com

What I think is fascinating is that despite how singular the purpose the group may have, it seems that the most successful groups are the ones in which there is diversity and a good deal of individualism.  A sports team may have an overall purpose of winning a game, but a football team will never win if everybody is only good at throwing the ball.  Each player must have their specialty and those individual efforts must be coordinated in achieving a purpose.    Most things that require a group of people require diversity as well; whether that is diversity in skills, talents and ideas.  Diversity generally benefits the entire group.  All people have a chance to grow as they learn from others and appreciate others for the special skills that they bring to the collective.

I am a big fan of the rock band Queen.  I remember watching an interview once with Freddie Mercury or Brian May.  I can’t quite remember who said the words, but the words themselves have always stuck with me.  It was something along the lines of “We are

From http://s.cdon.com

all very different people and studio sessions are exhausting as all 4 of us fight to get a little of what we want on each album or track.  But because of all that fighting we are able to produce something better than what any of us could produce individually”.    Dealing with diversity is exhausting.  It would be much easier if everybody thought exactly the same way and things didn’t have to turn into arguments, and that you didn’t have to compromise.  When the value of diversity is not appreciated that is when groups fall apart.  This is true whether it’s a leader who doesn’t listen to others, or a team member who forgets that it is teamwork that wins in the end and not solely an individual effort.

Our desire for individualism and being part of a group or community is a fundamental part of humanity.  People say that the U.S. is a very individualistic society and that we are built on a strong sense of individualism. Yet the first words of the Constitution are “We the people…”.   I do think our desire for both does often lead to struggle though.  If self is a product of knowing others than the group even becomes more important as we try to define ourselves as individuals.   As the world gets connected more globally, it is easy to feel more lost and unsure of who we are as individuals and how we can contribute to this large community.    Maybe that’s why I’ve always valued learning and education.  The more I know about the world, the more I learn about myself.

Are we ourselves?

Psychology has become a fascination for me in recent years, particularly trying to understand how the mind works.  A class I sat in last year about love which focuses a lot on our relationship to others had me also asking the question “What about the

From Illinois.edu

love we have for ourselves?”  In talking to my colleague who teaches the class, she said to her knowledge, while many have done intensive studies both through surveys and neuroanalyses of the brain in relation to the love we feel towards others, she wasn’t aware of any studies that really studies our brain when we think about our own self.  For instance I wonder, what areas of the brain activate when we start talking about ourselves?  Is it the same area that activates when we talk about our mother?  A frightening thought indeed. Like many questions it began to lead me down a whole other path of thinking as well about how we develop identity and about individualism.  How do we become the people that we are?  How do we know ourselves?  Is our sense of self just an illusion?

From http://www.studentaffairs.pitt.edu

In the first month or so it is clear that newborns don’t have a sense of self, and numerous studies have shown that they still see themselves as extensions of their mother.  Essentially still in the womb, although the womb conditions have clearly gone through some big changes.  🙂  For the past few weeks I can clearly start to see changes in my son as he begins to engage in the world and starts realizing that he is an individual separate from others.  Although filled with a lot of terminology I am less familiar with my colleague sent me a link to a paper that talks about the development of self (as well as other things).  I found it interesting to learn that the sense of self is initial learned by imitating and watching the behavior of others.  As social animals only through learning about others do we begin to get a sense of self.  I found this to be a fascinating dichotomy.  Because on one hand we think of ourselves as unique, which is at the heart of our individualism, but this uniqueness appears to come from the observations of others.

Now I am not suggesting that we don’t have some genetic uniqueness as well.  Many parents report their children having a personality from very young ages that appears to be different from their own or their siblings.  I have no doubt that this is true.  But it could be that the children are picking up on personality traits that we don’t recognize (or admit) in ourselves or it could be that genetic differences influence how we perceive the actions of others and thus each child interprets behaviors and intentions slightly differently.

It seems to me that even if this would not be the case we would still all be quite unique because our lives are sum of a unique set of experiences.  No person meets the exact same people, goes to the exact same places, and experiences the exact same education.  We are all dynamic and constantly changing individuals such that even children of the same parents will experience their parents and different times in their lives when they have more or less experience, different skill sets, etc.

So it’s not that self is so much an illusion but rather that the concept of self perhaps has no value without the context of others, especially for a social species.  We are constantly comparing ourselves to others, judging others, labeling and categorizing others, and while I can see the harm that this can sometimes, it seems that it is something we have been doing all our lives.  Without doing that can we understand who we are as individuals without comparing and contrasting ourselves to

From http://www.chameleion-web.co.uk

others?  People tell you not to care what others think of you, but this seems like somewhat unrealistic advice.  No matter how much a person protests that they don’t care, there is no question we all do care.  What we really want to do is shrug off the people who think we suck and believe hook, line, and sinker in the people who think we are awesome.  It seems to me that this is really hard thing to do given how much of our life we spend defining ourselves through our relationships with other people and so we must often take the good with the bad and then reflect on the interpretation that others seem to gather of our behaviors and actions.

I would love to hear the thoughts others have about this, and would love to get academic about it as well is you have any expertise to share.  This I would like to be just one in a 3 part series as I am also fascinated, as an extension of individualism, by collectivism.  After that I’d like to look at the somewhat more ethereal topic of duality.