Truth: a matter of usefulness?

Truth will set you free, they say. And freedom is usually deemed as good vibe.

We feel OK when there is no threat hanging over our heads. Evolution tells us that we have been programmed to feel good when we get out of trouble. When we feel safe, we feel good. That’s what emotions are done for: to make us recognise whether situations help us survive or not.

As our brain developed, we started to extend our evolutionary need of pattern-recognition to give meaning to seemingly unexplainable phenomenon: why does the sun rise at morning? Why do we have two legs and two arms? Why do we die?

 

Let’s make a stupid, innocent example: if my belief in aliens will suffice at making my existential fear a little lighter – we are not alone in the universe! – that may be an evolutionary advantage: I’ll feel more confident – I’ve understood something of the world! – and better equipped for the ultrasocial human environment. I may talk about my new discovery with such boldness, that I’ll eventually become a leader (before rejecting such hypothesis, think about any politicians’ champaign promises). I’ll have a lot of women to choose from – and who doesn’t like that? That will help the credence pass on to others, and become a shared evolutionary advantage.

This image could be found at the following link: https://www.google.it/search?q=alien+abduction&espv=2&biw=1280&bih=705&source=lnms&tbm=isch&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwjK2v_E_q7OAhVqJJoKHWsDBsQQ_AUIBigB#imgrc=CYp4ZmaasMCmtM%3A

 

In such view, a belief is truthful in proportion to how useful it is, given usefulness to be the property of something to rise the likelihood of survivorship.

What’s the usefulness of believing in aliens, compared to that of those who don’t? What are the belief systems that support their claims, and what meaning do they assume under an evolutionary standpoint?

People who don’t believe in aliens are likely to be quite empiricists and skeptics, and their version of a useful belief system will probably be that of the scientific method, which has showed to be of great convenience over the last centuries: think of telephones, airplanes, and Sex and the City.

Those who believe in aliens, will probably be those who won’t look for detailed evidence for their account of the natural world. They are less likely to come up with great technological breakthroughs, but they will nevertheless share a long history of belief, which has shown to work pretty well for quite a long time – since the first Neanderthals buried their conspecifics. They may claim that belief helps to bond people, as religions have shown to be an evolutionary advantage for those communities which ended up being more close-knit. And their ultimate weapon will be the functioning of the brain itself – a rather attested belief-machine.

 

It is evident that we are facing a false problem. The issue is not whether to believe or not in general; it is undeniable that we could not make sense of the world without an ultimate, far from 100%-proven, set of theories. Belief is a slightly misleading word, as the Oxford Dictionary defines it as “An acceptance that something exists or is true, especially one without proof.” What we are talking about here is a way of making sense of the world. The hard work has to be done to account for explanations that are useful and those that are not.

Let’s simplify and draw a line between a naturalistic and a supernatural framework.

Everybody will agree upon the fact that naturalism made us look deeper into physics and chemistry and biology, and a lot of modern facilities are a mere byproduct of their advance. Not so obvious may be to consider that after Nietzsche declared the death of God, people looked away from religion to find intellectual and existential meaning, but did not give up entirely on supernatural sophisms. The quest for ESP hasn’t ceased to exist; people spend a bagillion bucks on lottery – and if God is no more a subject of their prayers, luck took His (or Her) place; not to mention the surge of astrology, the popularisation of karma and the like, and the assault of alternative medicine.

 

The point is that our society is as it is – and it has therefore proved to be evolutionary resistant, at least up to this point, as full of naturalists and skeptics as of superstitious.

Social experiments as Communism have shown how dangerous might be to blindly get rid of religious belief. We still haven’t produced a society that exclusively relies on a genuinely naturalistic approach.

Using Nassim Taleb’s vocabulary, Nature-the-Big-Stressor still has to prove that a society exclusively made by naturalists is a better one.

As a promoter of rational thinking and Bayesian reasoning, I advocate that naturalism is the direction we should take, for the amount of evidence gathered until now supports this view of the universe.

How can I pretend that naturalism is the most useful one? Well, if an asteroid is going to destroy the Earth, and our only chance of survivor will be that of intercepting it with H bombs, than naturalism may be a concrete cause for the survivor of our species.

On the other hand, if the industrial revolution is going to bring about an unbearable global-warming, naturalism and technological advance won’t be celebrated as much as they are now.

 

Which of those scenarios are the most likely? How do we weight those probabilities? Can we even base our ontologies on such a slippery concept as probability?

A bayesian approach to science establishes that 100% truth can’t be reached: in the spectrum of overall probabilities, evidence will only shift the likelihood of one view over the other as new information becomes available.

Quantum mechanics takes probability a little further. Classical mechanics claims that, given exact information, the state of any object could be determined in an exact way – being technological advancement the only obstacle to its experimental measurement. In quantum mechanics, the prediction of a state can be nothing more than a “superposition” or a wave function – a probability density function of its possible positions. Here is how Sean Carroll describes the deal:

When we say that a quantum state is a superposition, we don’t mean “it could be any one of various possibilities, we’re not sure which.” We mean “it is a weighted combination of all those possibilities at the same time.” 1)Carroll, S. (2015) The Big Picture (Dutton) p.163

If probability is so deeply ingrained in our understanding of reality, it’s not such a crazy idea to rely on it to plan our future.

 

Poetic naturalism has been put forward by Carroll in his The Big Picture, to account for a comprehensive explanation of the universe. Its main feature is to establish physics as the fundamental theory, and every other property we observe, such as life, consciousness and morality, as emergent properties of the fundamental stuff the universe is made of. In it’s poetic essence, it describes those properties as useful ways of talking about specific matter configurations, for portraying something as “red” is much more useful (to us) to make sense out of that configuration, instead of listing all of its physical, minute characteristics. The fundamental explanation would always be available – at least in principle, given that perfect knowledge of its state could be obtained – but we get along much better with a new vocabulary.

Blood-red-moon-total-lunar-eclipse-over-Namibia-Reserve

 

Interestingly, Carroll addresses the issue of believers and non-believers in the last part of the book, dedicated to the problem of morality:

The important distinction is not between theists and naturalists; it’s between people who care enough about the universe to make a good-faith effort to understand it, and those who fit it into a predetermined box or simply take it for granted. 2)Carroll, S. (2015) p. 430

He counts on caring as the main feature to define what a human being is; at that point, ontological differences of their belief systems become of second-order importance. The hint is that if we become too obsessed with the debate, we may forget to find a way of enhancing our human experience here on planet Earth. Each of these frameworks bring about certain consequences – as the physical inquiry made our lives easier through technological breakthroughs, and supernatural beliefs accounted for our evolution, and still do 3)for the role of supernatural beliefs in cooperative dynamics, see Boyd, B. (2009) On the Origin of Stories: Evolution, Cognition, and Fiction (Harvard University Press) pp.307-309 . My hope is that we would be able to get along even better, without the help of any sort of supernatural belief. Only time, though, will sort out how the story will end. If we’ll lack to develop a new kind of caring to suffice for our existence (avoiding nuclear wars and the like), the debate will simply disappear with us.

We can argue about usefulness as a proper, true way of talking about the world. Utilitarianism has its own fallacies, since quantitative moral approaches aren’t sound to everyone, and can’t therefore aspire to constitute an objective ground. However, we can’t help but framing our beliefs so that we will be able to live on, and thus experience a tomorrow.

Poetic naturalism such as previously described won’t take any stance in favor of any kind of moral theory; it will instead promote a conversational approach as fundamental, for we are those who get to decide how to meaningfully talk about this unique feature of the universe, called human being.

References   [ + ]

1. Carroll, S. (2015) The Big Picture (Dutton) p.163
2. Carroll, S. (2015) p. 430
3. for the role of supernatural beliefs in cooperative dynamics, see Boyd, B. (2009) On the Origin of Stories: Evolution, Cognition, and Fiction (Harvard University Press) pp.307-309

Fate

There are several moments which define one’s life in a way that will be somehow remembered.

Two weeks ago, I had a math exam to pass, in order to be accepted by Erasmus Rotterdam University, for the Econometrics B.S. program. I studied hard, and the test was still too difficult to me. I couldn’t pass it.

 

“When one door closes another one opens”. Sure.

 

We’re wired to make sense out of events that don’t match our expectations. Among the many ways to do that, there is the concept of fate that helps navigate the stormy weather of one’s life. I had a brief conversation with a friend, and she told me that not passing the exam would definitely reveal some brighter path in the future.

 

Sure.

 

I sat next to the river and tried to explain her why I was so skeptic about fate. This is the unpretentious, brief explanation I was able to come up:

This is why I don’t believe in fate, as a way to make sense of the most complex of systems: life.

The concept of fate suggests that there is a causal relationship between events within a complex environments, from the most complex one (life), to the “simplest” one (human relationships); I derive this statement from the following thought experiment, which shows how we try to detect such cause-effect relationship within complex systems, even though we use the word “fate” to describe them.

Let’s say some unpleasant event happens to Mr. Brown. The fate explanation calls the event as “something that was meant to be”. Such explanation already has a seed of past-future correlation, as the present is used to pronounce a sentence about the past (note the past-tense form of the sentence). I can buy the general correlation between the past and the future, it is the empirical bedrock of our human experience. We would take it too far, though, and that frequently happens, by assuming that that event, which was “meant to be”, might bring Mr. Brown a brighter future. Doing so, we are calling “fate” a bunch of opaque probabilities which define an inexplicable past event, and then infer that those same indistinguishable probabilities would make us able to identify a related, pleasurable event in the future. When that brighter experience would actually occur, Mr Brown would likely cherry-pick the “fate” event characteristics that mostly resonate with what just happened to him, and structure a new narrative accordingly, to stick past and present together.

If that mechanism is considered to be fate, then I don’t buy it.

My take is that systems we are trying to describe are so complex, that ascribing any event to a strict causal relationship and being able to translate it into the time dimension (take it into the future either into the past) is quite naive. I prefer to think of every moment as a matching of conditions; it is then upon the individual to judge for himself whether conditions are matching in a favourable way, or the other way around. But there is no objective quality inherent to the event itself; we just choose what we want – or what we need – to see.

The power of doublethink

This post is an example of thematic interconnectedness, the meta-cognitive skill of applying a specific learning to other areas. Know more about the broad applications of thematic interconnectedness in this magnificent episode of The Tim Ferriss Show with Josh Waitzkin.

 

According to Richard Wiseman in his classic 59 Seconds, the concept of doublethink was introduced by George Orwell in 1984, describing it as

the simultaneous holding of two opposing beliefs in one’s mind and yet accepting both.

Now, we know what Orwell made out of such a concept: he envisioned a totalitarian regime that could take control of anything, where rules were so weak that anyone could have turned into an enemy at anytime, and viceversa.

We shouldn’t despair, though. Being able to hold two opposite ideas at the same time has shown major cognitive benefits, as I pointed out in this article. There is not only the celebre marshmallow Stanford experiment to prove it, but also an interesting research conducted by Gabriele Oettingen at University of Pennsylvania, who assessed the effectiveness of doublethink to accomplish any goal in life, from improving a relationship to losing weight and dating.

What did she do? People were asked to fantasise about obtaining their goal, and take note of the benefits that would flow from such an achievement. They were then asked to think about the obstacles they might find along the way. Finally, the process consisted into thinking alternatively at what joys would the benefit bring into their lives, and how they would overcome the obstacle once encountered.

 

I know, it sounds much as any pro-cons, business-type, rational thinking. Scientific minds might have already discovered it a long time ago, and they probably won’t find this article much interesting. But we shouldn’t leave it for granted, and we shouldn’t forget about its principles, to be able to translate them in every area of expertise. Anyone who’s committed to know the truth about something, knows the tough process of taking every option into consideration, and to mention them to seal her final thought on the topic.

The idea is to try and give all the information to help others to judge the value of your contribution; not just the information that leads to judgement in one particular direction or another.

Richard Feynman

Science has demonstrated to be exceptionally valuable because of its principle to run experiments and gather all results, no matter how they resonate with previous hypotheses.

There is something deeply fascinating between the scientific method, which we found here applied to psychological experiments, the scientific era we are living in, the research which has been conducted on mindfulness meditation and how our beliefs shape society as a whole.

Until the scientific method didn’t takeover, we were not particularly advanced in recognizing the difference between subjective beliefs and social beliefs. Ultimate judgement was left upon the most sensible minds or the most powerful figures, and there was no statistical apparatus that gave voice to the wisdom of crowds.

Now that we are applying the scientific method to every branch of human knowledge, I wonder if there is any link with previous knowledge that has remained untouched.

I should say that I know very little about neuroscience and the development of psychology and everything else. What sounds more fascinating and promising to me, although, is the link between science – which has shown its enormous benefits to improve society and people’s happiness, as briefly shown in the Stanford marshmallow experiment and Oettingen experiment – and mindfulness meditation, a spiritual practice derived from Buddhism.

Science has some interest toward mindfulness meditation. Every discipline can claim to be backed from scientific evidence as – Ben Goldacre has brilliantly elaborated on the topic –  you’ll always find some Ph. D. supporting what you’ve got to say. In fact, we still have moderate evidence about the effectiveness of mindfulness practice for pain and stress reduction, several meta-analysis revealed. These studies underline how results may differ as experimental design would be improved, so we don’t really know what we may find about the topic in the future. When I started my journey to know more about meditation, I wanted to know more about Asian culture, what positive tricks it had to offer me and why it made its way through Western countries, to end up reaching me in the Italian Alps.

 

Buddhism is so vast, that in every of its branches you’ll find something that relates to the mindfulness practice, which was imported in the USA under the name of MBSR by dr. Kabat-Zinn: Vipassana for Theravada tradition, Dzogchen for Nyingmapa tradition, Samatha in Gelugpa tradition, and many more. If you look at single traditions, you’ll certainly find a lot of differences, and adepts would fittingly get indignant about how I dared comparing their unique practices.

My aim, though is to compare significant similarities, which would give me confidence and inspiration to develop whatever method helps me build a peaceful, efficient mind. Vipassana meditation uses body sensations as the third support for the double nature of the mind. One of its most practiced exercises is focusing on the breath. When you are caught up in sterile thinking, that trick is marvellous.

Samatha has a very similar approach, and it is considered within Gelugpa tradition as a training to improve ones concentration. Who doesn’t need to develop a stronger concentration? Please raise your hand.

Finally, Dzogchen stands for “great perfection”, the natural, innate state of the mind. You’ll find similar definitions within Advaita Vedanta, an Hindu philosophical school of thought.

I know that I’ve just thrown at you a bunch of complicated names and nebulous definitions. I might have not been able to explain anything valuable to you, yet this is not something easy to grasp, and I warmly invite you to dig deeper. Give it a try.

I dedicated much energy to discover what that “natural, innate” state of the mind means. It seemed very promising, as it was claimed to be the source of peace and joy. And it was there already, so I just had to remove stuff, and not do add anything. So I tried to follow some masters’ instructions, and finally had my unexplainable mystical experience. If that ever happened to you, you may understand a friend of mine, who famously stated:

once, during an high school lesson, I saw the infinite. I tried to explain my epiphany to the teacher, but she wasn’t as amazed as I expected.

You see, thousands of years have passed, yet some basic human experiences remain unchallenged. All the scientific research we are doing is certainly giving us a better grasp on those experiences, yet far from being ultimate and complete. I believe that until than – if any scientific truth may ever be pronounced on the topic | uh-uh, maybe not, as science is supposed to be a fluid stream of knowledge – anyone should be faithful to his personal experience.

What that mystical experience has taught me, which I find every day in my mindfulness practice, is that there is something else outside the mind we are daily used to. That gives me a lot of freedom. If we think at concepts as concrete objects, there must be a container to hold them together. I compare doublethink to black and white marbles, and mindfulness as its repository.

To be successful and live peacefully, we need to both dream and deal with worst-case scenarios. Once the framework is set, it ain’t so difficult. We have to be comfortable with our identity of containers to harness the power of doublethink. We have to be acquainted with mindfulness practice to be able to hold a fluid identity and take advantage of changing circumstances.

 

If this article has inspired you to dig just a little deeper, I consider my job done. Until next time, thanks for reading!

Best-selling details ain’t coincidences

Has any human being ever paid attention to coincidences, and bothered to give himself an explanation? Everyone has. Humanity has been playing with destiny and randomness since a very long time. And so did I while I was attending high school.

I remember walking into the local library and ask for “Synchronicity – An Acausal Connecting Principle”, a paper written by Carl Jung more than sixty years ago. The librarian took me to Jung’s collected works, and I got a little bit scared. Now I had to deal with a 600-something-pages volume; oh well, I wanted so.

 

This afternoon, I dove into Chris Brogan’s masterpiece, The Freaks Shall Inherit The Earth. He dedicates the very end of the first chapter to explain how people who couldn’t simply “fit in” can do business and make a living.

When you make it your business to find the people who are the same kind of freak as you, you’ll profit from serving that community in some form or fashion.

I put down the book, immediately thought about the freaks I’ve met in the past years, and tried to collect them in an imaginary community. At that point, it’s OK to feel a little skeptical and afraid about what the future may reserve for me from the moment I embrace my freakiness; so my mind jumped to all the struggling weirdos I’ve encountered, a desperate signal to stop me from ever considering being a square peg in a round hole anymore.

I was picturing a strange dude who rides on a violet punk trike, taking tourists and workers around the city, here in Trento; frankly, he seemed quite hopeless. I then turned the page, and read the first paragraph headline: “What make some freaks successful and other freaks strugglers?”

I could not help but think of synchronicity.

I may have wondered about how magic and mysterious the universe is, and make up a lot of guesswork. I may have linked these two close meanings and draw some conclusions about how coincidences really have a place in my life. But I’m discovering I’m too rational for that. Daniel Kahneman wouldn’t let me make such a mistake, and I am too fond of his work to disappoint him.

 

When you look for something, you know you’ll find it. As a blogger, I want to understand what makes a best-selling book a best seller. I would not say Chris Brogan hit the New York Times Best-Sellers list by chance. So I looked closer at his writing to learn something useful.

I would argue the last sentence of the first paragraph was designed to make any curious, ambitious freak think exactly of her counterparts, and wonder why some succeed and some don’t. I believe the mission of a writer is to lift people up, and I praise any story which is able to foster curiosity. When Brogan brings up the very question, engagement reaches its peak. Because, as Jim Rohn used to point out,

The goal of effective communication should be for the listener to say, “Me, too!” versus “Sowhat?

 

At that point, questions may even be left unanswered. The seed that has been planted.

 


 

Aren’t you a struggling freak yourself, and want to know the solution?

The one missing ingredient most would-be world-changing freaks lack is their ability to answer the question, “How is this a business?” In other words, what are these people offering that you can truly make an impact…and a profit?

 

Dig in.

Wanna be altruist? You oughta be effective.

Doing good is the purpose that lights up a life. How do we become better at doing good, though?

Clearly, passion is not enough. When passion is the ultimate driver, life paths could become narrower and narrower and ultimately kill us. We all had made decisions that should have lead us toward a bright future, and afterwards experienced a drift we couldn’t explain ourselves.

We need critical thinking skills to successfully get out of such complex issues. Should we prevent twenty people from suffering from AIDS or eighty people from suffering from severe arthritis? You might be surprised, but there’s an answer to that! Economists developed QALYs (quality-adjusted life year) to help prioritise public health spending.

One of the most fascinating applications of Effective Altruism is career choice. Some young people, eager to make a contribution, choose to be a doctor or social workers. Trading in quantitative hedge funds, although, might have a bigger overall impact through earning to give.

Want to get better at doing good? Don’t rely exclusively on your gut. Don’t follow only your passion. Try to keep your options as open as possible, build career capital and explore the world!