The Value of Evidence

The Value of Evidence

“A fire-breathing dragon lives in my garage”

“Show me,” you say.

I lead you to my garage. You look inside and see a ladder, empty paint cans, an old tricycle–but no dragon.

“Where’s the dragon?” you ask.

“Oh, she’s right here,” I reply, waving vaguely. “I neglected to mention that she’s an invisible dragon.”

You propose spreading flour on the floor of the garage to capture the dragon’s footprints.

“Good idea,” I say, “but this dragon floats in the air.”

Then you’ll use an infrared sensor to detect the invisible fire.

“Good idea, but the invisible fire is also heatless.”

You’ll spray-paint the dragon and make her visible.

“Good idea, but she’s an incorporeal dragon and the paint won’t stick.”

And so on…

I counter every physical test you propose with a special explanation of why it won’t work.

~

The above is an excerpt from the late Carl Sagan’s book; “A demon haunted world: Science as a Candle in the dark”. The question that must be asked in this instance, what precisely is the difference between an invisible, floating, heatless, intangible dragon and just the empty air of someone’s garage? There isn’t one. Is there a mystical, undetectable fairy sitting on your shoulder right now? It makes absolutely no difference.

There are good reasons and bad reasons to believe a proposition. Although it is not possible to prove or disprove anything to absolute certainty1, it is undoubtable that certain descriptions of the world seem more likely to be true than others. Evidence is that which points to the likelihood of a possible state of the world. Imagine you were lying down in your bed, contemplating what to wear for the day. You hear a familiar pitter, patter sound coming from the direction of your window. Without even getting out of bed, you can infer that it is raining. Evidence is the admission that there are patterns to the events that dictate our lives. When x strikes, y tends to follow.

No one made this up. This is merely the natural way we think. When all the signs point toward something being true, we tend to believe it. There are patterns in the universe and we developed over one to two hundred thousand years of hominid evolution to be pattern seeking beings. Some of these patterns are real and some are false, but the dividing line is evidence. Will x reliably lead to y?

To be a functional human being, we have no choice but to be compelled by the forces of reason and evidence2. If one day you notice your house is on fire, you are impelled to believe it. You have no say in the matter. The idea that we choose what we believe is absurd, do we choose what reality is?

Ultimately reason and evidence are values, albeit values that we all tend to hold. If you did not value evidence, what evidence could I provide you to value it? If you did not value reason, what reasons could I provide for you to value it? It is not possible to make someone value reason and evidence, but it is possible to make them realise they already value them. Certain people may claim they they do not share these values, but if you ask them why not and they give you an intelligible answer it proves that they indeed do.

“But Sashin, everything you are saying in this post is obvious?”

A few years ago I had a conversation with one of my friends. It went something like this:

“Certain things are true and certain things are false. If a person was outside and it started raining it would be irrational to think otherwise.”

“Whether or not it is raining is just a point of view”

Now imagine if this person was thrown into an icy lake.

“What do you think you are doing? I’m freezing!”

“That’s just your point of view.”

~

There is a certain attitude that seems to have poisoned our discourse and that attitude sounds something like this:

“Everyone is right in their own way. Every opinion is valid. No one is really wrong.”

Here the serpent devours its own tail. Is the above sentiment right? Or is it just another point of view? And if it is just another point of view, does that mean it is just as valid as “some things are right and some are wrong”?

If a person claims it is 30oC outside and another claims it is -100oC, is one of these claims closer to reality? Or are they both equally true and worthy of respect?

If a person says the Earth is round and another says the Earth is flat, is one of them really more right than the other or are these two equally valid ways of looking at the world?

If a person believes the universe is 13.7 billion years old and another believes it is six thousand years old, is one of them more accurate than the other or are these just two alternative points of view?

Please, think about these things.

Notes

1.
How do you know that you are indeed a person looking at a screen right now? How do you know that you aren’t actually a brain in a vat? How do you know that your identity and your past is real? How do you know that the universe didn’t spontaneously come into existence a few seconds ago (along with your memories) and it is going to fade away in a few seconds more? We can’t know things to an absolute certainty, but we can know things to a functional certainty.
2.
This isn’t to say every single belief a person holds needs to be held on good evidence for them to be functional. We are capable of compartmentalising our beliefs. A person could function as an effective engineer while holding privately absurd beliefs about the origin of the cosmos. Their beliefs about engineering however would have to be accountable to the laws of physics.

Don’t Stress

stress

In life we come across a whole myriad of different kinds of situations, each requiring us to respond in different ways. Not knowing how to address the different vicissitudes of life is a cause for much of the difficulty in life. There isn’t a single clear cut solution to all your problems but there are guidelines that can help. One such guideline is to simply not react to a situation by panicking or getting stressed (if you can help it).

A certain study1 has shown that 85% of the things people worried about simply do not happen. Furthermore, of the 15% of events that do come to pass, 79% of subjects found that they either were able to handle the situation better than expected or that they learned a valuable lesson from it. This makes 97% of all fears and worries essentially invalid.

This is not to say that when you have a problem, you should simply ignore it. By all means solve your problems and take steps to mitigate them. But how stressed out do you have to feel to do this? I believe the answer to this is not at all.

When a problem arises, you will find yourself in two possible situations:

  1. 1. There are things you can do to address the problem
  2. 2. There is nothing obvious you can do to address the problem
  3. If you can identify things you can do to help address the problem, then there is no need to stress or panic. Simply do what you need to do step by step.

    If there is nothing you can do to address a problem, then stressing about it or panicking about it won’t help either. In fact, being in a stressed mindset will make it likely you will make it worse.

    Therefore:

    There is no right time to be stressed.

    Notes

    1.
    I originally heard this quote at a meditation retreat, it was quoted by the tibetan lama Sogyal Rinpoche. I have since tried to track down the source of the study it was taken from and it seems to be from a book called “The Worry Cure” by Robert L. Leahy.

The Absolute Truth

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This blog post is available in podcast form. To listen to it, click below.

“When I met my Guru, he told me: ‘You are not what you take yourself to be. Find out what you are.’ ” ~ Nisargadatta Maharaj

~

The following are true stories.

1.
Venkataraman was a seemingly ordinary sixteen year old. One day he found himself suddenly paralysed with a fear of death. He laid down on the floor of his uncle’s study convinced he was about to die. Instead of remaining terrified he asked himself “Who was it that was about to die?” What was it that was about to disappear?”. At once he became liberated.

2.
Sam Harris once had a dream. The monk gazed into his eyes and pointed his finger directly at Sam. “Who are you?” Sam told the monk his name. This was not the answer the monk was looking for. Once more the monk pointed his finger directly at Sam and his voice echoed “Who are you?”. He once again tried to explain who he was, but to no avail. This time the monk’s gaze shifted and he pointed over Sam’s shoulder “Who are you?”. This time Sam turned his head to see who the monk was talking to. No one was there. Sam woke up.

3.
The boy played with his friends in the valley. An old woman recognised him among his friends and approached them. “What are you doing wasting your time here? You should be studying meditation and the Buddhist scriptures!”
The boy asked the old woman back “What are you talking about? What is meditation?”.
“Ha! You don’t know what meditation is?”
The boy shrugged.
“It’s like you turn your eyes inwards to the back of your head and look at your mind”
So the boy turned his attention inwards as if looking to the back of his head.
He realised the nature of his mind.

~

Have you ever wondered who or what it is that you are? We take for granted that we are a “self” or a “person”, but what do these words actually mean? What do you refer to as “I”? You are not your body, your thoughts or your feelings. Your body is but an object that you see and feel. You experience the body much like you experience the outside world. It is another part of the world, it is not you. Your thoughts are like a line drawn on the surface of water, as they appear they disappear. Feelings linger longer but still ultimately arise and fade away. How can such transient appearances be what you are? Most, if not all suffering in this world is enabled by individuals mistaking themselves to be their body, thoughts or feelings. If you want to bring an end to all your suffering, find the answer to the question “who are you?” and discover your true face.

Nothing that you can perceive can be you. You are that which perceives. You are aware of sights. You are aware of sounds. You are aware of sensations. You are aware of thoughts. You are aware of feelings. All of these things are changing but what is the one common element of your experience? It is the fact that you are aware.

You are awareness itself

All the change in your life happens against a changeless background. Behind the ever changing experience of your life is the ever present awareness of that experience. This pure awareness is the real you. It always was and always will be. Understanding what you really are is key to bringing an end to your suffering. It is only by mistaking yourself to be your thoughts or feelings that it is possible to suffer. Thoughts and feelings are simply experiences, they arise in awareness and then disappear without a trace. You are not your thoughts and feelings but rather that which is aware of them. That which is aware of sadness is not itself sad, that which is aware of anger is not itself angry. You are the ever present witness of your thoughts and emotions, you are not them.

When watching a movie we can get really absorbed in the events on the screen, but it always is possible to step back and realise they are not real. Similarly we get absorbed in the events of our lives, in our thoughts and emotions, but it is always possible to step back and realise we are not them. We watch our lives go by much like we watch a movie. In the film of our lives we mistake ourselves as being the main character but in actual fact we are the screen.

In Buddhism, it is said that awareness is like a mirror. A mirror simply reflects and is unchanged by its reflections. A beautiful image does not improve a mirror and an ugly image does not damage it in any way. Awareness is the same. It is not improved or tarnished by positive or negative experiences. The empty awareness of experience is perfect as it is.

The Thousand Finger Garland

A broken branch

Note: The following is my rendition of an ancient tale. This is not the original story. I did not create the events in it.

There once lived a miserable man. He was profoundly dissatisfied with everything in his life. Nothing he tried to do, ever seemed to go right. No one ever seemed to like him. It always felt like the world was against him. His once childlike eyes that looked forward to the future had been clouded. His life had long since ceased to be an adventure and had devolved into a pointless struggle. His head felt perpetually heavy. He hated the world around him and everyone in it. The pain that had become synonymous with his existence grew deeper and deeper. After being filled to the brim with misery, it started overflowing spilling in every direction. His suffering was so immense that it could no longer be contained to one person. Intense flames of hatred and rage towards the world that had forsaken him, coursed through his very being. In his anger he made a vow to himself to take vengeance upon the very world itself.

“I will kill a thousand people.”

He was a man of many flaws. A lack of motivation was not one of them. Neither was discrimination. He mercilessly slaughtered every man, woman and child he came across. In the midst of his fury, he noticed that he needed a way to count the number of fresh corpses he left in his wake. To solve this dilemma, he committed to severing the finger of each of his slain victims and keeping them on a garland that he would wear around his neck. He traversed the continent on his hell bent rampage, sparing no one. The powers of the land began to view him as a threat and took action. Soldiers, mercenaries and bounty hunters were all sent to kill him in droves. Every one of them perished. No matter what their reputation or how many fought him at once, they were all no match for him. He was a monster unlike the world had ever seen. Word of his atrocities began to spread all throughout the land of ancient India. A terrible legend was born, giving rise to panic and fear at a scale never before witnessed. The legend of Angulimala – he who wears the garland of a thousand fingers.

With the passage of time, death is inevitable but with Angulimala roaming freely, it became widespread. The death count only grew as the weeks went by. Fresh fingers were constantly added to his garland, as old ones began to rot. As his reputation grew it became increasingly difficult to find new victims. Mere rumour of his approach would drive entire villages into hiding. The nature of the his encounters changed as a natural consequence. Brave yet foolish warriors vying to make their names known, money hungry mercenaries chasing after his bounty and naive travellers unfamiliar with him, all met their end at his hands. Tragedy after tragedy, there eventually came a time when his goal was in sight, when he would finally live up to his name. He had killed nine hundred and ninety nine people, and was looking for his last.

They say opposites attract. In a twist of fate, his search for his one thousandth head had resulted in a collision with another legend. A man whose influence would echo through the ages and alter the lives of people to this very day. A former prince named Siddhartha Gautama. Also known as the Buddha.

“What do you want from me, Angulimala?”

The mystic spoke calmly and confidently. The eyes of the killer stared at him with murderous intent, only to be met with a calm gaze. After repeated encounters with victims riven with fear or rage, this was a jarring experience. He raised his sword and threatened to kill him, but to no avail. His failure to incite fear in this man was a deep source of irritation and intrigue. What was the world like from his perspective?

Not a single concern for his own safety or well-being dwelled within the mind of the Buddha. To him, his own life was a means rather than an end. A means to help those less fortunate, and there were very few less fortunate than the broken man before him. He was well aware of the dark path Angulimala walked upon, and yet he found only love and compassion for him. He gazed into the eyes of the terrible legend and peered upon the core of his very being. His fury towards the world and his drive to cut down his fellow human being were all at some level a kind of confusion. Underneath the horrors of his psyche, he was just a man trying to be happy in this world.

The real truth was it was neither coincidence nor twist of fate that led to this encounter. The Buddha had heard of the legend of Angulimala and had intentionally appeared before the monster. He was determined to save him from the
terrors of his own mind.

He began to speak, he asked his would be killer to break off a branch from a nearby tree. Finding him interesting, Angulimala entertained what he believed to be a final request.

“Now can you put the branch back on?”

It suddenly came to him. The realisation of how precious life was. That moment was a turning point that would alter his way of being for the rest of his biological life. The former killer helplessly fell to his knees as regret flavoured tears cascaded down his cheeks. What was he doing all this time?

He dropped his sword into the ground beneath him, never to be used again. Acknowledging the wisdom of the man before him and not knowing what to do, he sought guidance from the Buddha. They had a long deep discussion about what was really important and what was the right way to seek happiness in this world. By day’s end, he had cut his long hair and beard and abandoned everything he had to become a monk. Once a symbol of his pride, the infamous garland now represented his deepest remorse. He left it, along with his old life behind.

The Buddha introduced him to his nomadic friends. These people were unlike anything he had witnessed. Every single person treated him kindly and respectfully despite being fully aware of his past. They showed neither fear nor resentment towards him. Everything about them ran directly in the face of what he believed people were like.

He was taught the techniques of introspection and meditation that the Buddha had developed. He looked inwards into his mind and for the first time started to forge a real understanding of the kind of person he was. His misery drove him to harm others, harming others made him more hateful, this was a greater form of misery. Being propelled through life through this dark spiral, he failed to realise there were other ways of being. For once instead of reacting to his impulses he had a means of calmly observing them until they inevitably faded away.

Day in, day out he worked hard at observing the contents of his own mind. These days turned into weeks, then months then years. The hatred towards the world which still dwelled in the corner of his mind dissipated over time. Even his incredible sense of shame would vanish without a trace. He had the full understanding that this sense of shame was entirely self absorbed and that his suffering helped no one. The energy a person uses to feel terrible guilt could have instead been invested in doing real good in this world.

There came a day when he became completely and utterly liberated from all his suffering. In the channels of his mind where animosity once thrived now only flowed love and compassion. He decided to set out on a journey worlds different to the journey he had once embarked upon. His new mission in life was to help those less fortunate and teach others what had been taught to him. Just like he was once miserable, there were many miserable people throughout the land and he had the answer to their sorrows.

One morning as he was begging for the day’s food (as monks do), he was recognised by some passers by as the murderer he once was. Worse still, these were people whose precious loved ones had been torn away from them by his former blade. Even with his simple robes and clean shaven head, he was the same Angulimala to them. They could not contain their rage and felt justified at hurling stones at the monk. Blood streamed down his face but not a trace of anger or hatred accompanied it. Neither did guilt for his past actions. His mind was saturated purely with love for his enemies. He told them that he was once miserable as they are. He told them, he knew a way for them to be free.

~

I wrote this story because I believe it effectively communicates important truths as to what people are really like. I will elaborate on this in a future blog post.

What is Morality?

Morality Blog Banner

Where exactly do we draw the line between what we call good and what we call bad? What is it we hope to accomplish by walking a straight path in life? The purpose in this piece is to make the case, that morality is concerned with safeguarding the well being of people and animals (and all else in the universe that is conscious). How are you feeling right now? The end goal of the enterprise of trying to lead a moral life, is to one day find ourselves in a world, where the response we all give this question is something along the lines of “wonderful” (and we actually mean it). When we make the claim that it is right to act ethically, we are making the claim that if everyone behaved in a certain way we would all be better off. The only meaningful conception of ethics and morality is necessarily one focused on the consequences of our actions.

The Meaning of Morals

The Definition of Morals: Motivation based on ideas of right and wrong

Morality is concerned with the ideas of right and wrong. The implication behind this, is that certain behaviours, intentions and values are in some sense “better” than others. But what is it that makes it so? When we say one act is good and another is evil, how exactly do we make this distinction? To hold a moral compass is to believe there are right and wrong paths to take on the journey of living a good life. The question that remains is; what is the difference between the two?

There is no consensus to the answers of these questions, yet how we answer them is major part of what determines how we live our lives (after all our beliefs drive our behaviour). Throughout history there have been many different frameworks of morality and ethics. Since time immemorial we have argued with one another over questions of right and wrong. As ancient as the concept of the battle between good and evil, is the battle over what “good” and “evil” actually mean. Are there actual answers to these questions waiting to be found? Or are we doomed to be debating ethics until the end of time?

A “natural” phenomenon

In reality, what we call nature is arbitrary. Humans formed alongside all else in the universe in the 13.7 billion years since the beginning of time. There is no reason to consider human activity as fundamentally distinct from the rest of the events that occur in the universe, as was discussed in a previous blog post. Nonetheless, it is interesting to consider how the phenomenon we call morality arises. Is it hammered into us from a young age through what we call culture? Or has it been drummed into our very essence (our genes) over the course of our evolution? Perhaps certain specific moral precepts or traditions are expressions of culture, but morality itself is undoubtedly more fundamental than that. The sheer fact that a sense of morality has independently arisen in every human society in the world should attest to this truth. Actions such as killing, lying, stealing and cheating are seen as unethical actions all across the world. The convergence of moral truths across cultures (despite differences), should demonstrate that there is a deeper principle at work.

Consider that moral intuition can be found in children. In a certain study, an experiment was conducted to determine differences in children at risk for psychopathy1. The sample was divided into two groups those at risk, and those that were not. Respondents were asked sets of 2 questions, one of which resembled a convention the other of which resembled a moral intuition:

  1. 1. Is it okay to drink soft drink in class if a teacher says it is?
  2. 2. Is it okay to hit another student if a teacher says it is?

The action of drinking soft drink feels very different from actually hitting someone. There is a difference between a convention set by an authority and a moral obligation. Being able to recognise this distinction is the line between individuals suffering psychopathy and those that do not. Children not at risk for psychopathy were able to see a clear difference between drinking coke in class with permission and hitting another student. Children at risk for psychopathy found it much more difficult to distinguish the two2.

The widespread ability of children to differentiate between a moral problem and a mere convention strongly suggests that morality is an innate trait within them that transcends culture. It is not only humans that exhibit moral attitudes and behaviour though, there exist a wide range of studies attesting to this in a range of other animals including chimpanzees, elephants, dolphins, dogs and more. A particular study detailed an experiment that was able to demonstrate the existence of an aspect of morality – a sense of fairness – in Capuchin monkeys.

Two Capuchin Monkeys

The experiment was set up as follows. Two Capuchin monkeys were placed in separate cages adjacent to one another. They are trained to exchange “tokens” for food. Usually the monkeys are happy to receive a piece of cucumber for this task, but in this experiment one of the monkeys was rewarded with a grape instead (they much, much prefer grapes over cucumber). In other words these monkeys were exposed to pay inequality. Different pay for the same labour – does this pose a problem to monkeys in the same way it does for people? The answer is unequivocally yes, in fact you should watch the experiment in the video below. It is hilarious (and only three minutes3).

The first piece of cucumber the monkey received completely satisfied it. It only became a problem when it saw its neighbour receive a grape instead. This experiment was later repeated with a range of different animals, including chimpanzees. When this experiment was performed on chimpanzees, even deeper moral behaviour was demonstrated. The chimpanzees that were given grapes often refused to accept anything unless its partner also received them. This is the equivalent of workers refusing to work unless their colleagues receive equal pay – the very foundation of a worker’s union. Moral behaviour exists in the animal kingdom beyond the borders of our species, therefore morality cannot be described as a human trait. Nor can it be described as being in any sense “invented” by us.

What we really want, what we really mean

With everything we consciously strive to accomplish, there is an underlying value. We often choose to eat certain kinds of food over others because we value the experience of consuming them or perhaps we value their impact on our physical health. We may choose to study and learn new things because we value knowledge. We engage in interesting activities such as reading or watching films because we value the emotions they tend to bring about. When we decide to live a moral life, what is it that we value? What are we trying to accomplish in our attempts to be good people? What do we promote in our efforts to do good? What are we trying to protect in our efforts to avoid doing evil? Understanding what we are trying to achieve in our efforts to be moral, is the key to understanding what we mean by morality. Despite there being no widely accepted foundations as to what makes an action right or wrong, there persists a convergence in ethical values across society as a whole. By examining behaviours that virtually everyone considers right or wrong, we can gain insight into what ‘rightness’ and ‘wrongness’ entail.

Killing. Lying. Cheating. Stealing.

These are some examples of actions considered wrong in every society on earth4. There may be disagreement as to when the inevitable exceptions to these rules apply5, but the same guidelines tend to be found everywhere. What is it these kinds of things have in common? What is it we are trying to do in avoiding these behaviours and encouraging those around us to as well? Imagine a world in which everyone killed as much as they could, actively tried to deceive one another, stole from one another and cheated whenever possible. It would resemble some kind of dystopia. As many problems this world currently faces, it is trivial to imagine a world many magnitudes worse. In the same sense imagine a world in which everyone was extraordinarily considerate of one another’s feelings, so much so that there was no “my happiness” or “your happiness” but rather each one of us striving for the happiness of all beings. Imagine a world in which the word “murder” was only used in history class, where a person lying to you would be a noteworthy thing (as it seldom happens) where the concept of property did not even exist (everything was free, and not one single person deliberately abused this). If a morally bad behaviours, beliefs or values bring us closer to a dystopia, then a morally good behaviour moves us at least a little closer to a utopia. This might seem like a simple question, but what exactly is the difference between these two? A dystopia is an environment that maximises to the suffering of conscious creatures like us, while a utopia is an environment that maximised their flourishing6. Conscious creatures include animals like ourselves and all else in the universe with the capacity to experience. Actions have consequences on the experience of conscious creatures, and whether it promotes or hinders their well being is the dividing line of all that is good and bad.

A paradise that really exists, you just have to be able to see it

In some of our ancient spiritual traditions, a key reason for living a moral life is to find oneself in heaven as opposed to hell. I see no reason to believe these are actual places awaiting us beyond the realm of our present lives, however they serve as an apt analogy for why it is important we strive to be the best versions of ourselves. Depending on how we play our cards, we can make the inner worlds of ourselves and one another resemble less and less of a hell and more and more of a heaven. This process may already be happening right now. I have absolutely no doubt that there are people all around the world trying their very best to help one another and to make this world a better place. Not only is this true it has been true for a long time. The world of today is rife with a whole host of problems causing millions to suffer needlessly and even problems that threaten our very existence. Despite this, we live in the most peaceful time that we know of. Due to the actions of people of the past as well as the work of those existing now, the world is a far better place now than it was a long time ago7. Therefore our actions today matter, what we do really does have the power to to make the world of today and tomorrow a better place to be.

Notes

1.
This study (referenced here in UTS Harvard Style): Aharoni, Antonenko, Kiehl 2011, ‘Disparities in the moral intuitions of criminal offenders: The role of psychopathy’, Journal of Research in Personality, vol 35
2.
This is not their fault. They are victims of their own biology and environmental influences. If you or I were to have the requisite genetic make-up and external conditions, we would be identical. Therefore, psychopaths are just as worthy of our compassion as anyone else.
3.
This video is an excerpt from a TED Talk by Frans De Waal on moral behaviour in animals. Check it out if you are interested in watching the whole talk in context.
4.
I am not making the claim that these four behaviours are the only actions that are considered wrong independent on culture. They are only bad as far as their consequences on the well being on conscious creatures (including animals such as us). These examples simply came to mind quickest.
5.
There seems to necessarily be exceptions to these rules. If rightness or wrongness of an action is derived from its consequences (where else could it be?), then in instances in which performing a usually wrong action will prevent consequences far greater (eg; killing a person who you could be reasonably sure was about to kill everyone in the room) it would not be. As such, to say “lying” is wrong, or “killing” is wrong is to say that these actions almost always lead to bad consequences. In fact, so much so that it may just be more practical to never do them than think in every situation. It is at least plausible you or I have been in a situation in which killing someone would have benefited everyone. Such a situation strikes me as being so profoundly unlikely however, that it is not worth it to constantly analysing your life in the present moment and asking the question “would it be good to kill someone?”. It would simply be more practical to adopt the shortcut “never kill anyone”. Although it is less intuitive, I think the shortcut “never lie” also does wonders. For more on that, please read “Lying” by Sam Harris. It’s a really short read and it is amazing (reading it changed my life).
6.
Please keep in mind that the environment and the individual cannot truly be separated. Your beliefs, attitudes and intentions are in fact a part of the environment of the people around you. What you think impacts on what you do, what you do impacts on how other people think, how they think impacts on what they do, what they do impacts on what you think and what other people think etcetera (its almost as if cause and effect works as a fractal. I also think this might explain why technology seems to be advancing exponentially in such a way that is directly against our intuitions). We are not truly separate from each other and the rest of the universe. There is only one universe and consciousness and all subjective phenomena seems to arise from it somehow. I honestly have no idea how though.
7.
Check out this awesome TED Talk by Stephen Pinker, if you are interested in how the world has been changing over time.

Truths about Beliefs

Beliefs driver cognition, like gears and cogs drive a machine.

Two people feel the exact same sensation in their heads. One of them had just been eating ice cream really quickly, the other has just been diagnosed with a tumour. One of them registers the sensation as a mild brainfreeze and the other experiences incredible anguish. There is a lot more to how we feel than merely our physical sensations. It is the stories we tell ourselves about them that dictate the quality of our moment to moment experience. This is the power of belief.

“A belief is not merely an idea that the mind possesses. It is an idea that possesses the mind.” ~ Robert Oxton Bolton

Beliefs matter. What we believe at any moment in time determines to a great extent how we are feeling and what we will do next. To illustrate this, imagine you receive a phone call right now and you find out that someone close to you was in grave danger, and only you could ensure their safety. Should you give this call credence, the quality of your life for the next twenty four hours, the decisions you make and the actions you take will be radically different. People tend to imagine that happiness is sensory, that it’s about witnessing beautiful sights, listening to great music or eating delicious food. The truth is, however, the difference between a paradise and a living nightmare can be as simple as a single thought.

Despite playing such an important role in our experience of the world, most of us walk around living our lives failing to understand how beliefs work. The word belief doesn’t mean just anything, it refers to a specific kind of thought that forms in our minds. They don’t arise spontaneously as if out of thin air, but in response to what we are experiencing. We don’t walk around randomly forming different beliefs left and right, there is a rhythm and a rhyme to the apparent madness. Furthermore, there are good reasons why there are some beliefs that we all seem to find consensus on, such as the sky being blue, the earth being round, or that killing people is a bad thing to do. Beliefs, like most everything else in nature, seem to follow patterns and rules, and it is in the interests of everyone to try and understand them.

This blog post aims to explore how beliefs operate and in particular demonstrate the following:

1.  Our beliefs necessarily prevent or enable us to get what we value out of life
2.  We do not in fact choose our beliefs
3.  Beliefs are unworthy of respect

Before delving into the nature of beliefs, it is important to look at its definition:

A belief is the acceptance that a statement is true or that something exists.

A belief is a proposition held to be true. A perceived truth about the world around us. A statement which is thought to accurately describe our actual state of affairs. If these sentences don’t resonate with you, or if you operate with a radically different definition of the word belief, then I don’t know what you are talking about (and the rest of this blog post is not for you).

Our beliefs prevent or enable us to get what we value out of life

Just like gears and cogs drive the actions of a machine, beliefs drive the engine of thoughts, emotions and behaviour in individuals. We are helpless but to act in accordance with what we believe is true in the world. Our beliefs that do in fact align with reality help us achieve what we want, while our false beliefs prevent us from doing so.

If you want good grades, but believe not taking your exam is the best way to go about this, you will be helpless but to ensure that you fail.

If you value your health but happen to believe that cigarettes are really good for you (as was once believed), you will be doomed to fuel the destruction of your lungs despite all of your intentions to do otherwise.

If you want to be rich, but happened to believe the most efficient way to get there was to spend all your money on lottery tickets, you are virtually guaranteed to end up poorer.

We have no choice but to act according to how we believe the world operates, what else could we possibly do? They necessarily prevent or enable us to achieve what we want in life. If they are true, they help us and if they are false they hinder us. There are two apparent exceptions to this rule:

1. Beliefs that don’t impact our behaviour at all.

For example: What if a person believed that a playstation 2 controller was in orbit around Neptune?

What behaviour would this drive? What consequences could this bring forth? Seemingly none. Whatever is going on around Neptune, simple does not alter the course of our day to day lives. A doctor, lawyer, engineer, farmer or sales person would be totally capable of performing their day to day activities despite holding this belief.

Despite this, merely being able to hold such a belief does have detriments. If a person is able to really believe that the moon is made from cheese, they are much more likely to also able to believe other absurdities that do have tangible consequences. How we form our beliefs, really does matter.

2. False beliefs that seem to have benefits

For example: What if a person thought that not doing their homework would lead to an eternity of suffering after death?

Beliefs have multiple consequences. What is the chance that a false belief has positive and only positive effects? Not one worth taking. Sure, it would be easy to think that a person adopting such a belief would be more likely to do their homework but, at what cost? You know those times when you’ve left an assignment until the last minute and you are forced to deal with a night of intense stress and procrastination? Imagine feeling something like that, but with a thousand times the pressure.

Is it really worth it for a person to go through such anguish, when a belief like “if you don’t do your homework, you’ll be less likely to learn the content” would have sufficed? Although, please note that, if not doing your homework really did have such dire consequences it would be in your interest to know (if it were true, you would be going through stress that prevented more stress later on, if it weren’t true it would just be pointless suffering).

If a belief is true, then believing it results in being as best informed as possible in how to navigate life. A false belief results in a myriad of consequences, which can be difficult to predict and range from relatively benign to really serious. What is the chance that any given false belief will result soley positive effects? Not one worth taking. Especially considering that if there really are benefits, they could also be attained with beliefs that are true. After all, that performing an action will produce a positive effect is a belief all on its own.

We do not choose our beliefs

A belief is a proposition about something, held to be true. You don’t choose what happens to be true or false in the world, no more do you choose your beliefs. It is not possible, to witness something, to be right there when it happens and not believe it. If it starts raining, any remotely sane person walking outside is rendered incapable of believing otherwise.

Similarly, simply being exposed to good reasons and argument should render any individual being helpless but to alter their views. If a person boils water in front of you and demonstrates that it becomes steam at 100 degrees Celsius, “I don’t choose to view evaporation in that way” is not a valid response. Beliefs represent reality. We don’t control reality. Therefore we don’t really choose our beliefs. We can’t.

Beliefs are unworthy of respect

Beliefs flow into us from the world around us and shape our actions and moment to moment experience. They are like a map of the world we draw with our minds and later rely upon when navigating our lives. Without an accurate map, a person is more or less bound to get lost.

That being said, it is in all of our interests to believe in what is actually true and it is in our collective interests that as many people as possible do so. No one wants to believe in something that is untrue, or at least no one should want to. A belief is a what a person thinks is true, therefore it is impossible to knowingly believe in things that are untrue. It is, however, possible to knowingly profess a belief in the false (or in other words, lie).

One of the greatest barriers to people understanding and acting upon the truth, is the idea that beliefs should be respected. That is, if an individual believes or claims to believe a proposition that is untrue, the right response is to not question or criticise them and allow them to continue to believe it. If two people disagree with each other, an opportunity arises. Either one is wrong and the other is right, or they are both wrong and at least the opportunity to realise something and even improve their lives or the lives of the people around them in doing so. We would be living in a much better world if we only ceased to respect beliefs as beliefs and cared more deeply about whether what ourselves and the people around believed was true.

Instead, we have a world in which this has happened to our conversations:

“You’re wrong, because of x.” “No, I’m not, because of y” “Respect my beliefs!”

Maybe the first person was right, maybe the second person was, but now both of them will leave none the wiser, without learning a thing. There is no value in respecting each other’s beliefs, rather we should evaluate their reasons and freely criticise and question them. Society appears to hold sacred the unquestionable right to be wrong, and is suffering immensely for it.

Beliefs matter a great deal, they determine how people feel, how they behave and what they are able to accomplish. They should be choiceless observations drilled into us by what we witness in the world around us and should not be influenced by what we think should be true. As it is in each of our interests to have our beliefs align with reality, we should freely question the beliefs of others as well as be okay with having our own beliefs questioned. Beliefs are not worthy of respect.

The Overrated nature of “nature”

Nature: Not the grand panacea of all the world's ills.

Nature. What comes in to mind when you read this word? Distinctly green imagery? Trees, leaves, ferns or forests? Perhaps shades of blue, the sea, or the sky with its clouds? Animals perhaps? Birds, lizards, blue whales? I suspect few people -if any- imagine things along the lines meteor showers, bush fires, tsunamis, malaria or hatred. Yet, I don’t think it’s particularly difficult to realise that these things are just as natural as any other. Even less, would be inclined to instinctively associate the word with things like digital watches, jet engines, cappuccinos or the awesome network of networks of computers that we have come to know as the internet.

“But Sashin, those things aren’t even remotely natural by anyone’s standards of what the word ‘nature’ seems to entail.”

You would be right to hold the above sentiment, but the problem is that what people mean by nature either doesn’t seem to make much sense, or is a very strange concept indeed. As such, I have decided to write up this blog to demonstrate the following propositions:

  •                    → There is no clear distinction between what we call “natural” and “artificial”
  •                    → Mother nature isn’t a particularly considerate parent

What is Nature?

Nature: The existing system of things

When people use the word “nature” what they usually mean seems to be “things that happen without people doing things”. Notice something? Like how arbitrary it is. Why would things we do be of any particular importance? Why do we so quick to separate humans and nature as if they were two entirely separable things? Why are we so special? Not only is the concept of nature really arbitrary, it also seems to prove to be rather anthropocentric. We build towers, railroads and integrated graphics cards and call these “artificial”. Birds make nests, beavers create dams, and termites build complex air conditioning systems for their colonies (check this out) and we call it “natural”. We create cultures, social circles and superstitious beliefs about the world around us and call these “artificial”, animals such as bonobos, dolphins and pigeons do all of these things – yet now they are natural.

So basically, we can take all the events in the universe and we can divide them into two flavours:

  •                    →Artificial: Events caused by this one species of primate, on a small blue speck orbiting a fairly ordinary star.
  •                    →Natural: Everything else.

(The reason I italicised “caused” is because, although it may seem that we’re the cause, our minds are natural products and hence any product of our minds could aptly be described as natural)

Whatever nature is, it clearly isn’t sacred. Or at least, it’s a very bizarre thing to hold as sacred. The natural order seems to translate to people not doing things. Real sacred, real profound, real significant, right? Whenever you try to make a point, or argue what people should or should not do, never, ever say anything about how it’s “against nature” or “unnatural”.

The indifference of nature

Some people seem to believe, whether tacitly or explicitly, that nature is in some sense intrinsically good. This simply is not the case. Here’s some low hanging fruit: cyclones, heat waves, greed, a life span of less than thirty, most people dying at childbirth and most of the rest being being killed by each other, or animals. You know, that sort of natural thing. The world in its natural state, just isn’t such a wonderful thing. To put it mildly, nature does not care about us. A picture of a world guided by what we refer to as nature, I think can be summed up in the following quote from Richard Dawkins’ “River out of Eden”:

“The total amount of suffering per year in the natural world is beyond all decent contemplation. During the minute that it takes me to compose this sentence, thousands of animals are being eaten alive, others are running for their lives, whimpering with fear, others are being slowly devoured from within by rasping parasites, thousands of all kinds are dying of starvation, thirst and disease.”

I don’t think I need to need to elaborate any more.

“But Sashin, no one was saying that everything that happened to be natural is good!”

(That awkward moment, when your straw man is complaining about you attacking other straw men)

Well first of all you’re right, virtually no one would defend all those things and demand that we return to some kind of primitive era (well no one that’s worth taking seriously), however people seem to tacitly equate “naturalness” with good, and “unnaturalness” or “artificialness” or even “human activity” with bad. Every time someone tries to make a case something on the basis that it’s natural, this is what they have done (also equating “human activity” with bad, is kind of saying we should never do anything ever).

We are one with nature

“Every atom in your body came from a star that exploded. And, the atoms in your left hand probably came from a different star than your right hand. You are all stardust.” ~ Lawrence Krauss

Where is it that nature ends and we begin? Like rainbows, lightning, snowstorms, planets, nebulae and black holes, humans are just another natural phenomenon that occur from time to time under the right conditions. Just like every other species of life on earth, we formed naturally over the past four billion years. Everything about us, our thoughts, feelings, intentions, memories and experience are expressions of the laws of nature. These things in our minds, in turn give rise to our actions, through which we create everything we could possibly consider artificial including the dichotomy between “natural” and “artificial” itself.