Monday, January 4, 2016

The Great Mystery

Okay, so once upon a time our ancestors attributed everything to god:

Equivalently, they considered "god" to be the cause of everything:

Today we're smarter than that. We know that things happen for a reason:

Wait, but how does the electromagnetic force work? As the inimitable Richard Feynman explains, we can't really explain it in terms of anything simpler:

This applies to basically everything:

For any statement, you can ask the question "why?", and there are only two possible outcomes:

1. Why?
 a. Because X.
   ii. Why X?
      => Goto 1!
 b. We don't know!

In graphic form:

In other words, ALL the leaf nodes of any "why?" diagram must be "???", because for any other node, we can keep asking "why?" until we cannot get an answer. It is the only base case in this recursion.

Even if we discover a new fundamental force, the situation is the same:

But we can of course invert the diagram as before:

Now, you might object to this inversion: the details of "???" may not be the same in all cases, so why are we treating it as if they were?

Well, we're not saying that the same unnamed thing is responsible for everything we see in the world. We're saying that existence is, at its root, mysterious. No matter how many boxes and arrows we draw, we can always trace them back to the place where we simply don't know

Often this sense of mystery is hand-waved away, by explaining that as science makes progress, we'll figure each of these things out. But this misses the point: as each of those things is figured out, they just create more arrows back to "???", not fewer! Far from "closing in on the answer", we're ever-expanding the scope of the great mystery.

“There are only two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle.” 
"If you try and penetrate with your limited means the secrets of nature, you will find that, behind all the discernible concatenations, there remains something subtle, intangible and inexplicable. Veneration for this force beyond anything that we can comprehend is my religion. To that extent I am, in point of fact, religious." 
-- Einstein 

‘The first gulp from the glass of natural sciences will turn you into an atheist, but at the bottom of the glass God is waiting for you.’ -- Werner Heisenberg
"The bad news is you're falling through the air, nothing to hang on to, no parachute.The good news is there's no ground." -- Chogyam Trungpa (Buddhist master)

If you don't like the word "God," feel free to substitute "???" or "the great mystery." It may not explain anything, but if it tickles your sense of profound awe, it has served a great purpose.

(Relatedly: awe is the emotion most directly linked to compassion.)

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

TPJ and empathy

Already known:

  • The amount to which a person can understand others' intents and beliefs is correlated with how altruistic they are.
  • Activity in the temporoparietal junction (TPJ) is correlated with the ability to understand others' perspectives.

The size and activation in the TPJ correlate with altruistic behavior.

If you ARE outraged, you're not paying enough attention

Have you seen this bumper sticker before?

Not only do they get it wrong, they get it completely and utterly wrong. Let's look at the definition of outrage:

Definition of OUTRAGE

: an act of violence or brutality
a : injury, insult  outrages on silly women or poor passengers — Shakespeare>b : an act that violates accepted standards of behavior or taste  outrage alike against decency and dignity — John Buchan>
: the anger and resentment aroused by injury or insult
Even assuming they mean definition 3, it's just plain wrong. Resentment? That's never a healthy emotion. There seems to be a popular sense that the only way to make a positive change is to have a fiercely negative emotion driving it.

I've written before about why that's just not true. Here I want to add that the assumption that it is true is probably the cause of many of the problems than the sticker is trying to get us to pay attention to.

Solutions that are arrived at from a place of resentment are inferior to those that come from a desire to improve the world. A true desire to improve the world, not the half-assed kind we kid ourselves into thinking we have when it suits us.

Saturday, July 7, 2012

A crazy thought

When we unskillfully try to reduce our own suffering, we turn to entertainment, diversions, distractions. When we do it skillfully we seek our own liberation.

When we unskillfully try to manifest compassion -- to reduce the suffering of others -- we apply bandaids that solve the proximal causes of suffering. Hunger, pain, etc. When we do so skillfully, we try to point others toward their own liberation.

We do require diversions until we are "strong" (or lucid) enough. And helping others in conventional ways is a fantastic and important thing to do.

But perhaps, just perhaps, suffering and compassion are actually blessings in disguise, to help us restore ourselves to our true nature.

This really belongs on my other blog,, because of the pontificating. But I'm putting it here because (1) it's an (unconventional) answer to the question "why empathy?", and (2) trying to hide my crazy ideas is just another form of ego clinging. Might as well out myself while I have the courage to do so.

(And, of course, I think this is a useful post, which is the bar I use to decide whether or not to post on either blog.)

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Depression: Just Get Over It?

Came across this nice advert (look at me trying to sound all British and fancy) at JFK yesterday:

I think it has a good message, but makes a shaky comparison. At the bottom, it asks "So why do some say that about depression?"

Clearly, one can not just "get over" depression. It's a devastating illness, and it's silly and counterproductive to blame someone for being depressed, or to pretend there's a magic button they can press to turn it off.

On the other hand, there is an important difference between cancer and depression: there exist purely mental (e.g., mindfulness-based) therapies that have a large impact on the latter, but the mind seems to have almost no ability to affect the former (other than with acceptance).

The argument that "the mind is just the brain" (i.e., just a physical device made of neurons and neurotransmitters) doesn't help even if it turns out to be true, because our whole model of moral responsibility is based on the idea that we still have some say in the matter (even if the "we" is physical).

So the message to not blame those with mental disorders is a great one. But it's important not to swing the other way and suggest that we have little or no mental power over own recovery. That can be disempowering in a subtle but powerful way.

(For a stronger argument, just see studies where manipulating a subject's belief in the existence of free will affects how hard they try to accomplish the given task. This should be something even reductive materialists can sink their teeth into.)

Monday, June 11, 2012

Stages of patriotism?

After reading this piece by Jonathan Haidt (whose work I admire), I must say I disagree with his conclusion about patriotism being clearly positive. Here's my stab at progressively increasing views on it:

1) The Curmudgeon: doesn't take pride in being American, but that's because he hates everyone else. Displays an American flag: no.

2) The Patriot: doesn't particularly dislike non-Americans, per se... but okay with them losing out a bit, particularly if it means more of the pie for us. Displays an American flag: hell yes.

3) The Budding But Misguided Empath: feels that preferring fellow Americans necessarily demotes others. Decides that this is not the way to true empathy. Displays an American flag: no.

4) The True Empath: does not prefer the wellbeing of any one person or group over another, but recognizes that displays of camaraderie can be healthy for communities -- and can be a net positive even if it does foster the unhealthy some-more-equal-than-other mindset of The Patriot. Displays an American flag: depends on the environment.

Perhaps most people who love their country also love all other countries and their citizens just as much, but that sounds a tad optimistic.

How empathy?

Why does meditation enhance empathy? A few reasons:

  • You notice that much of your "bad behavior" (e.g., snapping at people when you're hungry and irritable) happens when you're subject to anxieties / insecurities / a generally turmoiled mind. Settling the mind reduces the occurrence and potency of those states (your hunger is less likely to manifest as irritability, and you're more able to de-identify with the irritable part of your mind).
    • You also note that this turmoil and bad behavior (both being irritable and snapping) doesn't feel good for you.
  • You suspect that everyone else is going through the same thing, i.e.
    • Their turbulent minds are the most immediate cause of their "bad behavior", and
    • Their "bad behavior" is typically causing them as much pain as they're inflicting (this also softens the black-and-white victim-perpetrator divide; see below for more).
  • One of the common effects of meditation is to help you respond instead of react, by giving you space to observe your emotions before acting.
    • In immediate situations (e.g., being cut off while driving), you can give people the benefit of the doubt (which prevents the startle from evolving into road rage).
    • In larger contexts (e.g., considering how to solve the problems of the world), it helps you broaden your focus beyond the immediate and obvious causes. When we're told that person A harmed person B, a common instinct is to blame person A, and direct malice his way (and sometimes mock everyone else as "tree-hugging liberal hippies" or similar), and forget to consider a whole host of causes and conditions that were involved.
      • When you're told that Andrea Yates drowned her 5 little kids, your first instinct may be to feel some rather nasty things about her, and forget to ask yourself if there's more to the story (there is).
In short, a calm and introspective mind is naturally imbued with more empathic qualities (and of course meditation assists with generating a calm, introspective mind).