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Life Isn’t About Anything In Particular

August 17, 2011

There has been a thought stream plaguing my mind for some time now, and it won’t leave my head.  I don’t even know how to frame the subject, or introduce it.  There’s two ways you can spin the same idea.  You could say life has near infinite possibilities.  Another would be to say that life doesn’t seem to be about, or limited to anything in particular.

When I was younger, I used to study a lot of philosophy and I always wondered about the ideal human.  How could I become this ideal creature?  What would I be like?  What would I think about?  How would I spend my time?  As I wondered about this, I thought of all the ways people define themselves.  I wanted to weigh all the different ways of life on a scale, and think out the consequences to each way of thinking, eventually determining an “ideal” way of life.  Maybe you define your life in terms of personal relationships.  Maybe you define your life in terms of your career, love life, friends, family, hobbies, interests, religion, political positions, or anything.  But is life about any of those things?  Does it have to be?  The deeper you probe into that question, the more puzzling it becomes.

The first point is this:  You don’t really care about anything.  This fact is the hardest for me to swallow.  You can take any person, myself included, and give me ecstasy, or a dose of heroin, or cocaine, and I’m not going to care about anything else while under the influence.  I’m not going to care how I look, what I say, what I do, my relationships with others, my career, my family, friends, interests, or anything else.  I’ll lose all my interests in the world.  If I keep that up, my brain will reprogram itself to want nothing other than that drug because it will release my brain’s reward chemicals and make me feel happy.  That’s it.  Your entire life is a struggle and hope that your brain releases reward chemicals leaving you feeling happy.  If you artificially release those chemicals with drugs, you lose interest in EVERYTHING else.

Does that bother you?  It does me.  I don’t like it at all.

Have you ever read about experiments neuroscientists do with rats?  They’ll hook the rat up to a device which injects it with cocaine if they press a lever.  What happens next is quite instructive.  It eventually discovers it can get high by pressing the lever, and it soon loses interest in food, sex, water, or anything else.  It just sits there, pressing that lever until it gets so weak that it can’t even stand to push the lever down.  I’m sad to say this, but human beings, and all the elaborate actions we perform, are just like that rat and lever.  We just have to work harder to get our next hit.

This underlying structure of life is so utterly bizarre.  The situations by which our brain is hard-wired to release reward chemicals were programmed by natural selection over millions of years.  It’s the ultimate basis for the psychological yin and yang of life.  Nothing in this world is ugly or beautiful.  Nothing in this world has value in and of itself.  Nothing in this world is right or wrong.  It’s commonly believed that we give life value.  While I somewhat agree with that, I also think it’s misleading.  It’s not like we have a choice in what we value or find beautiful.  Think for a moment and ask how those things got their value?  How does our brain decide which things are valuable and which are not?  Reward chemicals.

What do you find beautiful?  What do you find tasty?  What environments do you find most peaceful and appealing?  And most of all, how were those preferences chosen?  When you look deeply into our psyche, they were chosen by evolution during our development on the African plains.  Certain situations are wired into us to release reward chemicals, and these spurts of happiness are what drive us to do the things we do.

Take the other day.  I was feeling really depressed.  I don’t normally get so depressed but that day I was really feeling out of it.  I didn’t feel like doing anything.  The most beautiful woman in the world could have approached me and asked me to dinner and I would’ve just shrugged and walked off.  I felt terrible.  I didn’t care about myself.  I didn’t care about the world.  I didn’t care about anything.  I went home, stared at the wall, and then said, “Why do I feel so terrible today?”  Then I took a nap, and when I woke up I felt fine.

After feeling much better, I went walking around outdoors and felt rejuvenated.  I had went out for a walk when I was depressed, but I had no interest in anything.  Now it was different.  I was looking around me, attentive to the breeze, watching the tall grass sway in the wind, and staring up at the poofy clouds.  My mind was reflecting on science, and I was once again curious about the mysteries of the universe.  It’s reward chemicals.

We’re driven on like cattle, coerced into doing whatever gives us pleasure in our heads.  We’re thrown into this world, clueless, and we have to find the things in this world which make us feel fulfilled, happy, and joyful.  That’s not an easy job, and many people seem to give up on the quest altogether.  They try to content themselves with whatever state they find themselves in.  But all in all, our brains are stingy with the rewards.  They egg us on for continual improvement, new novel experiences, and change.

When I look at all the suffering and misery in the world, I wonder about the point of this exercise.  I look at our origins, starting from the big bang and working your way to the formation of our solar system, the Earth, and the evolution of life.  Then I just lay in bed wondering, “Why?  This isn’t a very good way of doing things.”

Recently I was reading a book by Howard Bloom.  It might’ve been Genius of the Beast.  Anyways, he made a really interesting point.  He noted how the human body has a shut-down mechanism when it doesn’t integrate with the world around it.  If you don’t feel like you fit in, and don’t feel like you have any purpose for living, and are not important to a cause, social group, family unit, etc., your body goes into this chemical shutdown mode.  You fall into depression, which releases chemicals like cortisol, which start destroying your arteries, brain cells, and heart tissue.  You go into a resource conservation mode, which includes wanting to just lie in bed, you stop eating, and withdraw from all social contact.  Basically you just want to crawl into a hole and die.

This goes against what a lot of evolutionary biologists tell you.  They say we’re self-replicating machines, primarily concerned with our selves, and spreading our genes.  But how does depression and the release of cortisol help spread our genes?  Bloom argues that we’re part of a social organism and that is what’s really growing and evolving.  You have to see the whole.  We’re social organisms and if you disconnect us from the pack, and remove purpose from our lives, we go into shutdown mode.  I think he’s right.

People want more than material comfort.  As I searched for the ideal man, when I was young and naive, my first conclusions were that ideally you’d want a big comfortable home, nice things, and plenty to do with yourself.  But no, the human brain isn’t that rational.  Your brain compares your life to others, and it also constantly asks if you’re contributing toward some advancement of your species, and your group.  If not, no amount of material possessions is going to make you feel happy.  Your life needs purpose!  But what is purpose?

I don’t know if this is a perfect conception of purpose, but generally, you have to find something you believe in.  It doesn’t matter what it is.  You may join some alien conspiracy group who believes little grey men are going to come pick you up ten years from now, and your purpose in life is to spread the word that our future saviors are on the way.  If you believe that, truly, deeply, you can live a happy and fulfilled life taking part in that group’s activities and advancing your cause.

And here’s what’s so stupid.  You can be the most brilliant human being on the planet.  You may understand technology and science beyond any other of your time.  You may be a master of philosophy and government, and be literate in all the classics.  You’re the very pinnacle of refinement.  If aliens were to truly visit the planet, they would search the land and say, “This human is the finest of them all!”  You may have used your intelligence to control vast resources from coast to coast all across the planet.  But still, if you don’t feel you have purpose, yet that loon from the alien conspiracy group does, THEY will be happy and you will not!  The loons are just wasting time and energy, not doing anything constructive or worthwhile.  But still, they’re happy and you’re not.  What a stupid system!  But such is life.

What’s so ironic about this madness is that the same knowledge which aids you in your survival, such as understanding the world, your true origins, etc., also makes you feel depressed.  It’s just how we’re emotionally wired.  It’s much more emotionally fulfilling to delude yourself that we were created by some spirit being who floated over the deep, and that the purpose of our lives is to serve this father figure who loves you unconditionally than to understand what’s really going on.

Those who are religious and superstitious often ascribe everything to some divine plan and purpose.  When a person falls ill with some sickness, they don’t say, “What is the cause and how can we avert this in the future?”  They instead say, “All things happen for a reason, and God has a plan for this, and God’s ways are higher than our ways!”  In reality the disease is caused by a bacterial infection and bacteria are mindless creatures who know nothing but, “Replicate, replicate, must replicate.  Must make more copies of myself.  Destroy and eat any material around me that I can digest to make more copies.  Replicate, replicate, must replicate.”  Yet they ascribe the sickness to some sort of divine justice, sin, and so forth, and even feel emotionally fulfilled and righteous as they bring down condemnation on innocent people.  When you’re intelligent, you look at how the body evolved, see that it’s a poorly constructed nano-machine, and then say, “Well, it’s starting to break down on you” or “your body’s immune system is malfunctioning”, and so forth.  You see random viruses attacking the body’s cells and think, “This is just random and stupid!  These viruses don’t even have a mind.  They just destroy and make copies of themselves!”  Oh, but the misery and suffering people endure sure is real!

I can imagine brilliant biologists, geneticists, physicians, and biophysicists working on cures for diseases and reflecting on the grand scheme of things, thinking to themselves, “This is all rather depressing.  Our bodies evolved through a violent, brutal struggle for survival.  A lot of the body’s designs aren’t even good, and here we are, with no choice but to work our butts off to fix everything nature did poorly.”  Yet in the same hospital is some simple minded religious man running around, praying for the sick, feeling as if he’s changing the world.  The people really advancing mankind often feel depressed and empty, while the religious man feels euphoric, like he’s saving people’s souls and sending them to paradise.  He even feels he’s infusing them with some magical spiritual energy which will cure the problem.  It’s all very ridiculous.

That’s a very short primer on how these reward chemicals are released in ways that aren’t even advantageous to our survival.  I could go on and on about that, but let’s move on.

Let’s get back to material abundance and how that in itself won’t make us happy.  I’ve written about future technologies here on my blog, and have painted a bright future for them.  In fact, I do think they have the potential to make our lives much better than today.  But even if we have nanotechnology, advanced AI systems, super-computers, and material abundance beyond our wildest dreams, that in itself is no guarantee for happiness.  Why?  What will be our purpose?  Without purpose we feel worthless.

What gives most people’s lives meaning?  Cooking food for your spouse and loved ones?  Taking care of the children?  Running a company?  Doing research and learning new things?  Advancing humanity in some way?  Serving your community by helping those less fortunate?  I think we all want to contribute something worthwhile to the world, and be important to our loved ones, and our community.  But as we’re designing our new technology, have we taken this into account?  Is that the direction we’re moving toward?  More involvement?  More purpose?  More meaning?  No, not at all.  We’re moving rapidly toward automation.

Nanofactories will produce our food and any product humans (or computers) have ever designed. Robots will be around to help us with any task we desire, and they will be better than us at just about everything.  Advanced machine intelligence will do thinking for us and leave us in the dark.  Automation will exist everywhere, and our technology will completely displace us and any purpose we currently have.  Considering that meaning and purpose are what we most desire from this life, we’re leaving out something very critical here.  The actions we’re doing, assuming we don’t destroy ourselves with our technology, rationally are the right direction to go.  Having technology that can cure our bodies of disease, keep us well feed, secure from disaster, and so forth, are the obvious route we need to go.  But still, we’re going to struggle to find happiness and purpose in the coming era, absent us modifying our brains.

The fact of the matter is this:  we want luxury and security, but we’re not smart enough, nor talented enough to bring that world into existence.  Our world is filled with conflict and poverty, and if you ask me, it’s because we’re not intelligent enough to organize ourselves properly.  Our technology is also too primitive.  To even bring about a modicum of material abundance, we have to destroy and pollute our environment.  Most of the human race is deficient in high level intelligence and lacks the understanding necessary to bring about a technological utopia.  Eventually our society and its technology is going to get too difficult for anyone but the most brilliant among us to understand.  The rest of us will be useless.  Most of us struggle with even elementary mathematics, much less designing 3D molecular quantum computer processors.  Our future machine intelligence systems will be able to handle this heavy thinking, but it will make our personal handiwork look like a joke.  We’ll become a bunch of stupid primates surrounded by super-intelligent machines, and their thoughts will be too far away for us to comprehend.  So what do we want, security, or purpose?

I think about virtual reality, how we’ll eventually be able to change ourselves genetically, and the potential of integrating with the machines, and think that maybe we’ll be ok.  Maybe we’ll change our brains and desires, or something.  But honestly, I don’t know.  I have no idea what to think about the future and the purpose of our technology.   I remember once seeing a Twilight Zone episode where a man received anything he asked or wished for without any effort.  Soon he found himself going insane and wanted out.  He wanted to wake up from the nightmare.  An angel appeared before him and said, “Oh?  You thought this was heaven?  Oh no my friend, this is hell!”

I’ve written past posts on here, wondering about things that may go wrong during this transition.  Nanomachines may replicate and destroy the biosphere.  Intelligent machines may grow too powerful for us to control, and act unpredictable, possibly wiping us off the face of the planet.  We may end up all dying in a nuclear war, or we may pollute the planet to such an extent that it’s no longer inhabitable.  The list of doomsday scenarios grows each and every day.  And when I look at how difficult this transition is going to be, and how uninformed people are, I just wonder.  The outlook is pretty bleak.

Today I was watching a video where the renowned quantum physicist David Bohm was talking with Jiddu Krishnamurti.  They began by reflecting on what to say to the youth, as their future appears so bleak and grim.  Throughout the discussion they attribute our problems to thinking incorrectly about a wide range of things, such as not thinking in terms of the whole, and mistaking various fragments as wholes when they’re not.  I found it interesting.

I got to thinking about science fiction shows like Star Trek.  You’ll notice that even though the year is like 2300, and by then we’ll have computers with trillions and trillions of times more computational power, and machines capable of thinking millions of times faster than human beings, far exceeding us in knowledge, intelligence, and every aspect of life, still they have humans in charge.  Why?  How exciting would it be to watch each episode when the humans play no significant role.  The computer chooses their next destination.  The computer researches the alien lifeforms they find.  The computer fights each battle.  The humans just basically tag along, sitting around in the ship’s lobby, bored, with nothing to do.  They goof around in the holodeck, have wild sexual orgies, and stare out the window.

But you can also take another look at this same issue.  Think about our ancestors.  Think about their lives chasing herds of animals, and working their days in the fields.  What life would your prefer?  Their lives were monotonous, brutal, and boring.   Technology created new opportunities for people, allowing them to spend their time doing new things, instead of just struggling to survive.

I personally love technology.  I spend way too much time on my computer, watching lectures from all over the world.  I have so many books stored on my computer that I’ve lost count.  When I was a child, I was bored all the time.  Now I’m never bored.  I wish I never aged and never had to work.  I’ll just list a bunch of things I would do with myself if I had the time.

I would learn to paint, particularly landscapes.  I think it’s amazing that you can take what’s in your imagination and make it a reality there on your canvas.  That’s also what has always drew me to computer graphics and simulations.  You can create any world you can imagine inside the computer.  Video games today are so beautiful.  There are entire worlds in there.  You can play a game like Final Fantasy XIV and walk through huge forests, deserts, and castles.  It looks real.  In fact, it looks better than the real world.  The lighting is perfect, the colors are bright, and everyone is dressed fashionably and having a good time.   You even get to listen to beautiful orchestrated music while you explore!  Can’t beat that.

I would learn to compose music, first starting with the keyboard and later learning other instruments as well.  The keyboard seems to have the most potential to me because in conjunction with the computer, it can emulate most other instruments as well.

I’d build vehicles, particularly custom motorcycles, and ride all around the world.  I’d study architecture, and help design the most beautiful cities and structures imaginable.  I’d build exotic flying machines, such as luxurious airships, and I’d soar through the atmosphere with my legs hanging off the side.

I’d research mathematics, such as number theory.  I’d master every aspect of physics.  I’d build probes and send them out into space.  I’d build huge telescopes and observe every aspect of the heavens.  I’d build huge lighted fountains which turned on at night creating a euphoric waltz, following you as you made your way down the park walkway.  I’d design holographic creatures which would dance across the water like tiny ballerinas, and lighted butterfly creatures would fill the sky like lightning bugs.

I’d design my own creatures in the lab, some robotic, some biological.  I’d build huge amusement parks, such as giant water slides, and roller coasters which zoom you through glass tunnels underneath the ocean, filled with creatures and glowing fish of all sorts.

I don’t want to die, at least not for a long long time.  The more I learn about the possibilities of this world, the longer I want to stay here.  I’d love to build all those things.  I’m only limited by time and access to resources.  But the question for all of us is whether the joy comes from having these things to experience, or building them ourselves.  If we just want to have these things, then building technology like advanced AI intelligence systems is the way to go.  They can help design all of this for us very rapidly with us guiding the process.  They would work out all the technical details.  But if we want to do it ourselves, then we should stop what we’re doing.

Does life consist in cooking meals for our spouse?  In raising children?  In acquiring a suburban home?  In sitting through lectures in classrooms?  In working jobs?  In being important?  I don’t think so.  I don’t mind nanoassemblers creating food for me.  I don’t want children and I wouldn’t mind them being grown in a lab.  It’d be nice to never have to go to work, and I’d prefer to be an unnamed citizen of the techno-utopia than the richest baron in this current world.   But the thing is, how will I feel if everyone can build these things?  If everyone has equal access to the “mother-brain” computer, which can help us build and design anything, either in reality, or in virtual reality?  I don’t know.  Maybe I’d have to experience it for myself to see if I cared?

But one question even plagues me more than all of this:  I don’t necessarily “care” about anything.  If I were to rewire my brain, I could be perfectly content in the world as it is right now.  My brain creates the dissatisfaction.  Heroin addicts are fine with nodding off in a corner someplace.  The things I listed are the things I would want to do now if I had the capability.  But those desires are determined by my current physical make-up.  If I can change that, then I can change my desires.  Nothing is set in stone.  And if I integrate with the machines, and my intelligence is billions of times what it is now, what would I do with myself then?  What an intriguing thought.  My motorcycle would probably turn into a space-cycle which can zoom across the surface of stars or something crazy.  I’d put on some heat/anti-gravity suit and zoom through the solar flares screaming, “Wooohooooo”.  Who knows what I’d do but it all sounds exciting.

One strangely rational route would be to get rid of any conditions for happiness.  What if we put our brains in vats, filled them with drugs keeping us in pure ecstasy, and then had the nanorobots repair the damage the drugs do to us, keeping us indefinitely stoned.  We could have unconscious machines keep us going, fed, and so forth.  If all we care about is happiness, why risk ever being unhappy, displeased, or bored?  Why go through all the trouble of toiling to exist just to hope you may become happy?  This sounds pathetic, but isn’t there a line of sound reasoning behind this?  The conclusion is kind of a dark one:  what’s the point of living?  Isn’t life basically continually working in hopes of having happy experiences?  What’s the point of love when there’s such a high chance of getting hurt?  The point of careers and struggling to understand the world?  The point of toiling under the sun?  Is there a purpose to any of it?  I don’t know, and that’s my problem.  As I’ve said, our brains don’t inherently value experiences for the experiences themselves.  When I was depressed, I didn’t value anything.  But once those reward chemicals were flowing, just like a friend on drugs, I became fascinated with everything and everyone.  Think of your stoner friend who picks up some simple object and exclaims, “This is AWESOME!  WHOOOOOAAAAAAA!  I never knew a pencil was like this.  Have you ever felt a pencil on your fingers?  WHOOOAAAAAA!”

This is my life.  When I suffer from depression, it’s not normally tied to events which happen to me.  My life is generally uneventful.  My autobiography would be really boring to read.  I don’t have relationships with women, or have fights with my family, nobody is ever angry with me, I don’t have fallouts with my teachers, or coworkers.  But when I’m down, it’s when I wonder about the point of this exercise we call life.  Currently I’m thinking that saying, “Reward chemicals are all there is to it” is too simple.  The reward chemicals make the brain conduct electricity in a slightly different way, which induces a different conscious state.  Understanding that is the next step for me.  How and why these states of consciousness are created.  How does that all work?  There may well be a lot of subtleties I’m missing.  I’m quite sure of it actually.

I’ve became much more interested in art, architecture, and music than I used to be.  In the past, I was mostly concerned with the nature of intelligence and understanding the universe’s core laws.  But now I’m learning the detailed workings of intelligence (such as models of the neocortex), and I’ve been mastering the universe’s core laws of physics, and as I’ve done so, I’ve been coming to appreciate the emotional aspects of life as well.  I think it’s because I’ve been letting go of a reductionist worldview, and have been looking more into emergent processes. For example, I got to thinking that understanding the laws of physics is too simple, because it’s oftentimes complicated to apply those simple laws to real world processes.  And when you do so, you find complex, unpredictable behaviors which you’d never have anticipated from the simple laws themselves.  Just think of the three body problem, for example.

I’m starting to focus on a principle that the whole is oftentimes more than the sum of its parts, and when applied to our lives, my thoughts seem to move toward love, compassion, joy, and the experiences and consequences of those dynamics, which is what makes life really worth living.  In the past I’ve focused on things like sensory organs, electrical currents pulsing through our nerves, and so on.  That all is important, but a new phenomenon emerges when all of those things come together in a brain, and we call it our lives.  I see that I’ve been blind to a great deal of the world around me.   Just as Bohm and Krishnamurti were discussing, the whole is often overlooked, and we get stuck in fragmented worldviews.  We mistake fragments for wholes, when really those fragments are not self-sufficient wholes which can exist in isolation.  I think this new line of thinking, if I work on it for a while, will shed a lot of light on this reward chemicals problem I’m working on.  Neurons are not wholes, they are fragments, and if you don’t look at them in the entirety of the entire brain, and that brain within an organism, and that organism within and environment, you can’t understand what’s going on.

But, before I leave this topic, I must also say that I find this all very difficult because the idea that everything influences everything else is anathema to a scientist.  Scientists learn about the world by identifying relevant forces and dynamics, and focusing their thoughts on those things.  If everything influences everything else, then you can’t isolate causes, and there is no science.  You can’t make predictions or perform tests.  So reconciling these ideas may take me some time.  I’m going to have to continue looking into intelligence, seeing what those neural algorithms are actually doing, and think about their limitations in understand the world as it really is.

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