Life….. Isn’t everyone for it?

1 08 2014

 

life

So, ok, we all see the world through a construct, or series of constructs that make sense of the world. Our brains need to do this essentially to save memory space, allow you to get on with life and, perhaps, avoid paranoia  as much as humanly possible. So, for example, when you walk into your bedroom, which you may have done thousands of times, instead of your brain storing every single image you’ve ever seen at different times of the day with different clothes, clean or otherwise strewn around (or, for my loyal OCD readers, quilts, pillow cases, throw pillows, cushions and this week’s curtains in complementary shades of Rosemary), your brain essentially ‘overlaps’ the information, storing differences. Even then, we largely stuff them away in the neurological equivalent of those archive boxes you forget how to fold every time you use them but never bother to remember how to fold them because, hey, how often do you ever use them, right??

Now, what is fascinating to me is that people I talk to often hold contrary or conflicting points of view very strongly and yet have little cause to question them. Psychologists call this ‘cognitive dissonance’ and describes values held which may contain contradictory notions. An example of this that harks back to those heady days of suburban medicine in the early ’80s was my local GP. The guy was always relaxed. He’d lean back laconically in his 1950’s creaking typist’s chair, its bottle green PVC cover long spewing chunks of foam through its gaping cracks and his rattly old electric fan was constantly on, regardless of season. More curious to me, as one visiting the one man I enstrusted my health to as a very young man, was that he’d light up a cigarette, almost every visit and type relevant notes on my, usually insignificant, health issues onto 8″ x 4″ index cards through a (now shared) pall of blue-grey smoke. Yep, a smoking doctor. Cognitive dissonance, ladies and gentlemen, exhibit A.

Of course there was also the well-meaning, though perhaps undereducated pseudo-vegetarian I once knew years ago. Quite proud of her newly acquired and apparently ‘secret’ knowledge about the treatment of domesticated animals bred for food production (in an era, of course, before the ‘Interweb’ was surgically attached to our brains) she boasted to all and sundry about her epiphany. Until one day I saw said ‘vegetarian’ shovelling tuna onto her salad and remarked on this curiously. Firstly, because it occurred to me that this was animal meat, secondly that a substantial number of dolphins were caught, killed and tossed away each year from Tuna nets and finally, that Tuna stocks worldwide were plummeting. Her response was equally curious. Faced with an irritating git pointing out the perhaps obvious cognitive dissonance concerning this behaviour given her love of animals, rather than acknowledging this the reply came, ‘Look, you can criticise all you like, but at least I am doing my bit! Just like that guy who threw all those starfish in the ocean or whatever!’. Beef Cattle : 1, Tuna: 0, Dolphins: 0, Capacity for Values Evaluation: 0.

So it is with many issues we face. In 2008 Nicole Kidman infamously played a didgeridoo on a German morning news show. Now, as the indigenous Australians who perfected the art of playing this wonderful instrument were quick to point out in Australia, this instrument is traditionally only played by men and it is offensive to them to see a woman playing the instrument. The news article died a quiet death, however, because many politically left progressives, though motivated on the issue faced a conundrum; What is a more important held value, the equality of women in our society or the nobility of indigenous culture? This dissonance was simply met with deafening silence.

Likewise, we find proponents worldwide, usually left of centre politically who tend to support a Palestinian Free State and generally rail against (or, in extreme cases, like Lee Rhiannon, Federal Senator for the Greens who lives in Sydney, strongly support sanctions against) Israel. This is the same arm that claims the high ground morally for championing women’s rights, including affirmative action in the workforce and the right to free and legalised abortions. However, in doing so, they support not only known terrorists but the most extreme forms of Islam, whose societies violate the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights for women and endorse female circumcision, justify rapes, kill women caught in adultery, marry children and routinely treat women as property.

Sometimes, those holding alternate views are disparagingly called ‘Flat Earthers’, ‘Xenophobes’, ‘Wowsers’, ‘Prudes’ and ‘out of touch with modern society’ though I would perhaps ask a little indulgence here for those who might otherwise consider changing their ‘old, out of touch views’ from those who see themselves as sexily progressive. You see, I wonder if such people, common in nations where English is the mother tongue, have spared a thought for the coherence and integrity of apparently progressive views. It might be likely that more conservative people would consider them if they weren’t so rationally flawed. One core principle of Judaeo-Christian folk is the sanctity of life, all life. It is as simple as it is profound. Generally, it also seems to be a cognitive framework that makes for a more compassionate society. Allow me to explain.

 

Injured Palestinians taken to hospital after Israeli airstrikes

 

Here is a Palestinian baby, injured during the current conflict in Gaza. Anyone reading this, though perhaps parents especially, would agree that these are the innocent and tragic victims of this stubborn conflict between adults. So is this:

 

Jewish baby

An Israeli baby in critical condition after the Palestinian bombing of a residential shopping centre in Kiryat Malachi, Israel. I don’t think that there is a person reading this article that would disagree with the notion that the geography of a baby should determine how much we care about injury and death meted out to the young. Surely ALL babies deserve protection from violence and death regardless of their location on our planet, right? Now hold that thought and watch your response to this:

 

 

aborted-baby-in-bucket

 

This baby was found in a womb of a mother that ‘wasn’t ready for kids just yet’. Like about 38% of mothers in the UK, USA and Australia typically cited as the primary reason for a ‘termination’ (or ‘abortion’, depending on your ideological stance). Now, consider your emotional reaction to this, seriously. Was it sadness at the sight? Was it immediate anger at ‘Pro-life Propaganda’ or was it anger directed at those who do this? Confusion maybe? Some might have even felt physically sick (as I do now having to type this with these images before me).

 

My point is simple. We all experience cognitive dissonance from time to time. Actually having to look carefully at the various values we hold and perhaps realising inherent contradictions, which have the potential to help us see why others perhaps don’t share your value set. In this example, most readers were in agreement about the injustice of babies being injured in the first two environments but baulk at the third, as perhaps some macabre trick or ‘intention to shock’, rather than considering the coherence of belief that Judaeo-Christians (among other religions and belief systems) that all life is sacred.

 

Christians hold that unwanted babies, the elderly, the disabled, humans of every skin colour of human being on the planet and the lives of animals and plants on this planet are precious and worth protecting. It drives and informs Christians and Jews who ‘take their book seriously’ and, if a lifestyle is carried out according to the instructions, pleas, admonitions and commands in their ‘Book’, creates societies which are largely harmonious, ecologically sustainable, gracious and respectful of all life. They seek not to take life because it is old and in pain (and feels like suicide today but may not next month). They seek to protect babies in the womb (acknowledging the statistics that between 0.1-1% of all pregnancies are the result of heinous rapes, incest and abominable human behaviour but that more than 90% are the result of careless adults in unprotected sex). They seek to protect wildlife but are not prepared to endanger the lives of people to do it. For this such views, at least in the ‘Western World’ are considered out of touch and outdated. Can anyone from alternative viewpoints see that such people might simply hold to very simple and very old world views which see value in all life?

 

Such readers may also tend to forget that most major advancements in Human Rights over the last 300 years were championed by people of Judaeo-Christian faith, not atheists, not Muslims, not those of a gamut of other world religions or belief systems. Consider:

  • William Wilberforce and other English Christians who fought for the abolition of slavery 1807
  • John Newton, the captain of a slave trading ship, after his conversion could not reconcile his occupation and eventually became a leader in the abolitionist movement to free slaves (and, of course, also penned that most famous hymn, ‘Amazing Grace’)
  • Wilberforce also established the very first Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals in 1824
  • Reverend Martin Luther King in the USA finally galvanised the support of the majority white population in the USA to pave the way for racial equality in the largest English-speaking country

Martin Luther King

It should come as no surprise for someone who understands what the pervasive underlying motivation of both Judaism and Christianity is. It is what the Greeks call ‘Agape’ love, an unconditional love. Does this mean that Jews and Christians compromise their morality to make peace with those not of the faith? Well, no more than the parents of a drug-addicted son change their attitude to drugs. Yet it is possible to love someone from a different belief system, worldview or lifestyle whilst maintaining a moral centre which is unswerving. Jesus did it all the time.

When progressives ridicule and vilify the beliefs of conservative Christians and Jews, mocking them as ‘God botherers’, ‘homophobes’, ‘narrow-minded bigots’ and so forth, they betray their lack of tolerance and acceptance for those with opposing views. If the views held had consistency and not the ambiguity that causes the cognitive dissonance discussed here, then they would stand alone on their own merit and internal validity as a philosophy on the nature of life. Unfortunately, the inescapable fact for those who support militant muslim terrorist organisations, those who defend abortion and even those who champion animal rights is that for all such causes, some life is more important than other life.

There are some who quietly, defiantly and, some would argue, justifiably, reject this notion.

 

 

 

Advertisements




Towards a theory of everything.. absolutely everything.

7 01 2013

Image

Humanity is drawn to several pervasive elements. Circles (also incorporating oscillations, rhythms, recurring sequences, cycles and vibrations), Unity (oneness, harmony, cooperation, categorisation) and Control (dominion, security, unequal relationships). There might possibly be more but these are very evident in human behaviour, history and societies which flow out of them.

Thus, it must come as no surprise to us that we as conscious, self-aware beings (in contrast to most evidence from other organisms), from time to time crave a unifying theory; one which makes intrinsic sense of the world around us.

It is, in my profoundly humble opinion, likely that we will find such a theory because we, as people need one. Being resourceful is one of the key traits of human beings. Given enough time, we always seem to find what we need, whether that be money, materials, solutions to problems, understanding about the world around us or devising more cruel and unusual ways to satisfy our third pervasion: to create and maintain unequal relationships sometimes by finding more effective ways to kill each other.

So is a theory of everything necessarily linked to the human experience and its pervasions? Perhaps not, though man has rarely eschewed anthropomorphism in developing an understanding of the world. Our ‘rainbow’ is based on the colours visible to the human eye (fair enough), the emotions of animals opined to be analogous to ours, based on their facial expressions (not fair enough, dogs, for example are not ‘laughing’ when they pant, they are removing excess body heat through evaporative cooling).

However, for the sake of the exercise, let’s assume that a theory of the nature of the energy, matter and, perhaps, otherwise, in the universe does intersect with human tendencies to make sense of the world. On what basis do we have a unifying theory?

Image

It occurred to me in 2002, walking along Statue Square in Hong Kong with a mate of mine, James Milner-Smith in a related conversation that in the beginning was oscillation and coded communication. ‘Life, the universe and everything’ was really, as was becoming apparent, about circles and communication to those who could understand the codes produced.

You see modern Chemistry, of which I am reasonably familiar, was profoundly altered by the consecutive discoveries of the periodic table (Mendeleev), the existence of the electron (John Joseph Thomson), neutron (Rutherford), proton (Chadwick) and the nature of energy and the movement of electrons in the atom ( Planck, Bohr, Schroedinger et alia). This knowledge revealed both cycles/repeating patterns and unity, the concept that the (unique) whole is made of interconnected but fundamentally similar building blocks.

Image

Likewise, in Biology, it was some time after Darwinian theory that the tidal wave of knowledge on genetics and inheritance erupted. What was found? Uniqueness was the result of repetitive patterns of only four base nucleotides broken by other such patterns to transcribe the complete diversity of millions of organisms on our planet.

Image

Finally, in Physics, we now realise that the components at the fundamental level that make up the matter and energy in the universe are intrinsically related. Einstein’s most famous of contributions eloquently described one facet of this: Linking, in a profoundly simple manner, the concepts of matter and energy as they appear mathematically to relate to each other.

Contemporary ‘string’ theory, all five of them, describe quite well the nature of the building blocks of matter, as they relate to the (relatively) small set of fundamental forces which exist in the universe we experience. Ironically, as with the genetic code, there are four fundamental, generally agreed upon forces (Electromagnetic, Strong Nuclear, Weak Nuclear and Gravity).

Again, at the most fundamental level, we see that ‘strings’ are oscillations with structure. Energetic stuff you make make other stuff from, basically. Do we understand them? No, not really, not yet. Will we ever? Probably, because, as previously stated, we are intrigued by understanding it, we want to understand it and therefore we either will understand it or have a system of thought that very much appears that we do. I hope that makes sense.

Image

If it follows other areas of human investigation then we will probably add uncoding to the oscillating patterns that the fundamental particles of the universe are showing us and then we will ‘get’ that just like we do the reason what elements are different or why you have blue eyes and no one else in your family does (or consequently perhaps, why your mum and dad got divorced!).

If you found that last comment funny or interesting, that brings me to the next point about approaching a theory of absolutely everything. Edward De Bono is a prodigious and ground-breaking thinker and he knows it. He also suggested, some decades ago, that understanding the nature of the brain may not be as necessarily complex as we first thought (or, more correctly, as we thought in the middle of the 20th Century). Indeed, he suggests that the brain is more or less a self-organising system where billions of nerve cells are linked to each other in an immense network. 

Not only are many cells linked, but the way we think is very cyclic. We return on familar paths linked to other parts of the brain. Once stimulated, those nerve cells (or neurones) remain more sensitised to further stimulation, thus less stimulus is required thereafter to produce the same ‘action potential’ or likelihood for another response initiated by those same nerves. To put it simply, if you are already scared, most tiny ‘abnormalities’ in your environment will set you off again. Or in a ‘laughing fit’ you will laugh at things that in another setting would not be funny at all. Social pressure or known constructs can even make this reaction worse (like giggling fits by actors in movie ‘takes’ or being lost in the wilderness and needing to stay calm to stay alive more easily to avoid injury).

The very reason why a joke is funny is that your brain tries to predict the ending, the likely thread of the joke and, when jarred by good linguistic skill, timing and non-verbal communication, the outcome is at odds. The brain finds this rewarding and releases L-dopamine (the ‘reward’ drug) and serotonin (the ‘happy’ drug) and the event is likely to be laid down in more permanent memory, possibly even producing the same (or even greater) emotional reaction when recalled, shared or retold.

Herein lies the paradox, however. Our brains seem to crave new stimulation and engagement (well-established in the literature for healthy brain development in infants) however, it tends to self-organise into recognisable patterns, unifying and overlapping new information until it can be assimilated without drawing attention to it all the time.

We seem to struggle when we can’t ‘package up and store away’ thoughts. We have a need to unify or harmonise experience with that we already have, so that they may become quickly unconscious (completely oblivious to us on a regular basis) or subconscious (deep enough to not affect ordinary Cerebral Cortex stimulation on a level that the individual is aware of).

So where does this lead us with our ‘theory of absolutely everything’? The brain desires ‘order’ (unity), but is stimulated by oscillation (thought processes which connect at neurones where activity was orginally stimulated). In fact, it is the disruption of predictable cycles that can cause neuronal interest, the probability that permanent memories will be laid down and even the growth of new neurones, neuroplasticity.

Image

Finally, our brains desire control. The world must make sense or the brain can not function properly on day to day tasks. You can see the clear implication for psychological impairment and illness here. If the brain is fixated on meaningless detail that leads to superstitious or ritualistic thought/behaviour then obsessions/compulsions arise. If thoughts lead to irrational fears, that can’t be reconciled with the Cerebral Cortex with the commensurate level of physiological sensitisation then neurosis and phobias are likely. If cognition is fractured and unable to be determined as coming from within the brain or outside the brain, then schizoid disorders are possible. Similarly for mood disorders, when the cognition affects the release, inhibition or reuptake of hormones which will consequently affect emotion (and, cyclicly, the cognition) then mood disorders like Depression are implicated.

So the human mind is concerned with the maintenance of reliable cycles, keeping ideas and experience unified and, above all, under control. Can we, however, extrapolate this to society?

It is perhaps a cheap starting point to suggest that ‘history repeats’ nevertheless to some degree this is the case. What makes certain periods of history exceptional however is usually of two types:

a) Where History has demonstrably shown the very same fundamental problem, error or action that has led to similar consequences in the future. The idea of humanity, for example to build physical walls to separate people at tremendous expense, labour and time only to find them inadequate for the purpose intended. (examples include the Great Wall, Berlin Wall, most prison walls eventually).

b) Where thinking, behaviour or emotion has been so absolutely contrary to what might be expected in the circumstance. For example, Hannibal using Elephants in battle or Christopher Columbus using his knowledge of both eclipses and local Jamaican superstition to continue the provisioning of his crew under threat of ‘blotting out the sun’.

In such cases, there is a certain logical circularity, even a sense of irony. One in the incredible resilience of the cycle, despite opportunities to learn from such experiences. In the other, the incredible departure from the norm.

It was in precisely this way that many ground-breaking discoveries have been made. By refusing to be contrained by apparent patterns in atomic behaviour, Dmitri Mendeleev, the famous Ukrainian Chemist was able to not only map elements in a cohesive (unified) manner but uncover as yet undiscovered elements (to complete the many cycles that exist in the table) and allow mankind to dominate through this knowledge (control).

In politics, we find the same principles at play. Voters swing, we use pendula to represent the behaviour of voters. When there is a dramatic change, we are interested, history is laid down. When the sense of control over our lives is too low, or too high, we feel uncomfortable as citizens, regardless of the system of government.

In economics, we often describe the cycles that occur and theories abound to attempt to unify and make sense of the behaviour of people buying and selling. There is a very real sense that the Holy Grail of economics to find a unifying model or theory which could enable one to take advantage of the market or enable control over it for financial, political or social advantage (the tendency to create or maintain unequal relationships).

Image

This is a long (typical) and not-remotely-funny post (hopefully atypical!) on this blog. However, I trust that readers might see at least a seed of cohesion about not only the universe but a universe with human thought, mood and behaviour in it and how it might operate. In addition, we can see that the three pervasions that I opened with (again, another oscillation!) are perhaps worked through many fields of human endeavour, society and the universe itself.

We could almost go as far as to say that as the universe grows through cycles, disruption of those cycles, of unity and the disruption of that unity and through periods of control and disruption of that control. Could it be the case that the impact of human beings on their world, each other and even in their own minds follows a similar set of pervasions and disruptions?

Is it possible that matter and energy dances rhythmically and with unpredictable disruption to such patterns? If we learn to read this ‘dance’ to what degree would it change anything? Could Unity, Oscillation and Control be quantified to explain how things happen both at the fundamental scale with matter and energy and in human, global terms?

What role does understanding therefore play? Eventually we work out how to read such pervasions. In doing so it does not make us ‘God’ (after all, we did not initiate such coded communication), it does not ensure permanent enlightenment (we struggle with wisdom possibly more that anything else) and it does not ensure that by manipulating this understanding that we can make any part of the world or universe necessarily better.

What it does do, however is make just a bit more of this universe we experience make a bit more sense. It feels good enough to stash into the subconscious and stop bugging us for a while.

🙂

I trust you enjoyed this, either for the read or the induction of sleep!





Star Wars Theory 101: Droid value fluctuations

16 05 2009

With all the froth and bubble about the Australian Federal Budget this week in the media, it seemed that the public would take anything, even (yet) another NRL animal saga to distract our attention from a budget which was, almost in equal measure, as bland as it was terrifying.

Given my wish to avoid polluting this fledgling blog with any discussion of NRL (and boycotting even the temptation to grace it with a tag) I think we should deal with a far more relevant and interesting issue of interest. Namely, the economics and politics of “Star Wars”, since this has a very real effect on more of our population, here in Australia than either NRL or Federal Politics (mind you, the “Life cycle of newts” may well rank better than these!).

The most intriguing dilemma I have with the economy of Star Wars concerns the true value of droids. How much are they worth??

starwars

Some have suggested that droids (even old models like dear old C3PO and R2D2) must be of considerable value. Evidence for this viewpoint includes the fact that Luke Skywalker, Han Solo and Leia routinely waste valuable seconds waiting for these tardy droids in close escapes. Memorable examples include waiting for R2 on the flight deck on Bespin (in the Empire Strikes Back), recovering this same clumsy droid from the menacing jaws of the Saarlac in Return of the Jedi (is the Saarlac perhaps Iron deficient, one might wonder?) and Chewbacca carrying bits of  C3PO around Bespin with one arm, fending off Stormtroopers with the other and nothing more than a preened coat of fuzz as armour.

Added to this fine logic we have supporters who argue that R2, far from being a flip-top bin on wheels, is actually a powerful lock picker. Perhaps the makers of the amazing high-tech architecture often present should have invested more in security than doors than go “Phwwizzzt”. Nevertheless, if I were confronted by trained imperial thugs with blasters I would kiss that droid all over his bald Titanium head if he could zip me through a steel door instead. Heck, I might even shout him a cask of sump oil if we managed to get out of there alive!

Of course, on the other side of this debate we have what is, in classic Star Wars Economic Theory, known as the “Tatooine dilemma”.

On Tatooine, predominantly in Star Wars: A New Hope, though importantly also in Star Wars: Return of the Jedi, we see what can only be described as a debasement of the Droid Market.

Luke’s Uncle Owen is so sand poor (excuse the pun) that he is barely managing to eke out an existence as a water farmer on this desolate planet. The twin sun system, no doubt responsible for the increased evaporation, or perhaps the  reason is global warming induced by pod racers running on fossil fuels. In any case, they are by no means affluent given the clothes they are forced to wear (which we see from Star Wars: The Phantom Menace were in vogue over 40 years previous).

Nevertheless, when the local Jawa Carboot sale rolls into town on serious Caterpillar tread, we see Luke and his Uncle buy not one but TWO droids while still having to feed the family on Rancor Vomit soup. Of course, having often had to struggle up sand dunes in a wheelchair (OK, I haven’t but this is not to say that the day might one day come!) I have to query the utility of R2 and his obviously urban locomotion in that kind of terrain (personally, I’d have gone for the diesel R5D4 with Sunraysia tyres). 

In Star Wars: Return of the Jedi, Princess Leia, disguised as bounty hunter Boushh, eschews the more traditional home-baked  lasagne or bottle of Margaret River Merlot as a polite gift for Jabba for our slighty worn R2D2. In return, his expression is more one of an indifferent (or possibly constipated) slug far more than one who has just won the lottery. It seems that R2 is worth squat diddly on Tatooine.

Now there is further evidence that these droids are neither expensive nor complicated to construct. In Phantom Menace, a 9 year old Anakin Skywalker manages, rather coincidentally (given the sheer number of droids presumably available in the known universe) to have constructed the very same droid that his son would buy in the same place second hand many decades later. Saving his hard earned allowance, possibly earned raking the sand traps on the ninth hole, Anakin buys enough bits from the Tatooine equivalent of Dick Smith’s Electronics to make his very own working droid! And it speaks over six million languages!!

Now one has to ask the question why the droid market became so depressed in Tatooine, when elsewhere in the galaxy, rebel alliance freedom fighters would risk their lives to save them?

I would suggest the lack of bike paths might be a serious issue for a droid like R2. Which raises serious doubts about the intelligence of Uncle Owen and even Luke himself given their local topography. By extrapolation, even Anakin himself must not be too bright genetically, being the source of at least half Luke’s genes. This is further evidenced by the appalling acting by Anakin as he grows up in Star Wars: Attack of the Clones and Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith. So any thick Tatooine hick can knock a droid together!

A protocol droid like C3PO would be similarly anachronistic on Tatooine, being a rough trading port full of bounty hunters, weird creatures with anger management issues and has-been lounge bands. Who really needs to hear a constant stream of expletives in six million languages? With the amount of foul goop spewing from the mouths of some of these vile creatures as they speak, the last thing you need is to understand the even viler intent of their strident communication. Ignorance in this case not so much as bliss as accepting the lesser of two evils.

So we have an unanswered question on the true value of these metal misfits. Han Solo, attempting to relieve himself of his debt to Jabba the Hut, perhaps would have done far better to fill the Millenium Falcon full of junk droids, have his faithful Wookie fix ’em up and flog ’em all off to Rebels getting X-wings ready for attack on the Death Star! If only Han hadn’t dropped out of his business degree to join the Texas Hold ’em circuit!!