November 29, 2013
A lot of us have time off for Thanksgiving. Everything’s closed and we’re stuffed full of turkey and dressing. That leaves us with a problem — what are we going to do with ourselves? We need something to do!
You know what you need? A good sci-fi. I’ll recommend the 1972 classic Solaris. I watched the original in Russian, with English captions.
So what’s it about? In the distant future, the human race is exploring the cosmos and we come across a strange planet that seems to have evolved into a giant brain. Hovering over the surface in a space station, a team of scientists are sent in to investigate the electromagnetic swirling oceans, trying to determine what this massive mind is thinking, what it wants, and the general nature of this alien entity.
Initially eighty scientists were stationed there to investigate, but over time all but two of them have committed suicide or have gone insane. What in the world’s going on? A psychologist is sent there to investigate, and that’s the set up.
Spoilers from here on out, so you may not want to read on.
It turns out the entity is so intelligent and so foreign, it’s beyond human comprehension, though it kind of communicates. It doesn’t need words. Its communications are far more intense. Initially it did nothing, but as the scientist probed it more and more, it began to respond. It seems to create things from the scientist’s minds, mostly their repressed fears and anxieties, and it drives them all insane. It might be some form of experiment the mind is performing on them, but it’s impossible to tell.
The psychologist lands at the station and finds the place nearly empty, trashed, and the two scientists who remain are obviously mentally deranged. He goes to his quarters and then starts seeing things himself. He thinks he’s hallucinating, but he’s not. The giant brain creates a sort of copy of his dead wife based on his memories of her. He freaks out, but no matter what recourse he attempts, he can’t get rid of her.
The alien entity created a physical being just like his wife, sometimes seeming to put thoughts in her head, but otherwise she’s an independent woman. She doesn’t know what’s going on either. Where did she come from? What is she? What is he, her husband?
At first she thinks the entity is messing with both of them, and he agrees, but neither know what to do. She attempts to commit suicide by drinking liquid oxygen, but she’s made out of a different type of substance than an ordinary human, and her body seems to repair itself shortly after being damaged. They shoot her out of a rocket out into space, but she just “teleports” back. Or they may have just created another copy of his wife. I’m not sure.
She can’t live with the fact that she’s a copy of a woman who committed suicide due to her own unhappiness. As the movie goes on, the psychologist wonders if in some inexplicable way, that “thing” really is his wife. At the very least, he begins to treat her as he would anyone else. After all, what is consciousness? How does it work with the body? Why wouldn’t this woman be conscious and alive as well? She’s not just a “thing”.
Either way, he’s filled with guilt when it comes to this woman. Their last encounter together on Earth was an argument, and he threatened to leave her. He knew she couldn’t live without him, but he stormed out anyway. She thought he was gone for good and killed herself. He returns to find her dead in the hallway. Is this weird entity giving him a second chance, or just messing with him? Or maybe it’s amoral and just making him think about death and life?
You can see how the entity makes you go insane. Is his wife really dead, or is death an illusion? Is she there with him, or is that really some other woman, a sort of weird puppet?
Eventually the psychologist decides to leave the station and go home. Once he gets back to “Earth”, he’s cutting a cucumber and slices his finger. He’s totally shocked. He’s made out of the same strange substance as his “wife”. His wound instantaneously heals itself. He runs out of his log cabin, in total shock. He’s still well within the clutches of the alien mind.
But wait, what happened to his original physical body? When did they transfer his consciousness into this different body? Or did they? His “wife” is there and she tells him, “Does it matter? We’re together now.”
He doesn’t know who or what he is. It’s as if the alien mind is asking him why he thinks the Earth is some familiar place he understands? He doesn’t know what the Earth is, what matter is, what mind and consciousness are. He doesn’t understand anything anymore. Is it all a vast illusion the mind is putting on for him, or are the other people there he’s experiencing real like him? What is real? Maybe he’s always been immersed within this mind? How could he ever possibly escape this? What does it even mean to escape it?
He has to step back like Descartes and think, “What can I know for certain?” All he knows is “he” is having experiences of different sorts. Their origin, ultimate mechanism, and nature is completely unknown to him. The encounter with the alien mind is beyond anything he ever asked for.
November 25, 2013
If you’ve been keeping up with the news, left-leaning organizations have been attacking Wal-mart over the low wages they pay their employees. They’re earning billions of dollars ($15~16 billion this year) in profits, yet even their full-time workers are on food stamps and other government assistance.
I read a story where Walmart workers were preparing food baskets for other employees so that they could have a Thanksgiving dinner of their own. Not a very happy picture.
But you know, things are going to get worse. I don’t think those workers will even have jobs for much longer. While I admire anyone fighting for the underdog, progressives are fighting a lost cause. Another ten to fifteen years, robots will be doing those things.
Robotics researchers at Cornell are already programming their robots to work the check-out at a grocery store. Check out what Baxter can do in just a few minutes of training.
Walmart has already completely automated their distribution centers. My cousin used to work at one, and the pay was pretty good. Now it’s all done by machines and robots. Warehouses all over the world are that way. They’ll soon be stocking the shelves and checking you out as well. And if you’re following things like Google’s automated car, I’m sure AI will be driving the produce and delivery trucks really soon. Production and distribution of all our daily goods will be run and managed completely by machines within our lifetimes.
There will be an entire class of workers who will be displaced and there’s not going to be any unskilled work for them left to do. Society’s going to have to change.
November 23, 2013
Have any of you read Aldous Huxley’s novel Brave New World? I want to spend a little time and reflect on some of the themes in the book.
It takes place in the year 2540, far in the future. We’re introduced to a strange society that has went to great lengths to eliminate every form of human suffering, but in ways which would leave many of us uncomfortable.
They have advanced machines which can do pretty much anything, leaving the people with few important roles to play. However, they do have several castes within their society and everybody is genetically grown and conditioned from birth to do their function, whatever that may be. They never age, though they do die, but that’s because they chose to. They simply lie down in a special bed when they reach age 60 or so, and they’re given massive doses of drug called soma. Then they just peacefully leave this world in a state of bliss.
Soma was developed as a drug to put a person in a conscious state of bliss without impairing their cognitive abilities or side effects.
What little forms of tedious work are left, specific types of humans (Episolons) are bred and grown specifically to do those jobs. They’re engineered to be mentally deficient. They’re just smart enough to do their little job and that’s it. They’re also given soma to leave them in a state of bliss as they do their boring tasks.
Soma is used any time a person is feeling lonely, stressed, or down. They never experience discomfort of any kind. They instantly snap out of it, feeling joyful, connected, and in love with everyone and everything. They also have machines of all kinds which massage, amuse, and comfort them in every possible way.
Their culture stresses very different values from our own. Since genetics technology exists to grow children, none of them have families in the traditional sense. Everybody belongs to everyone. Taking soma, they all feel connected and one with one another. Women and men are encouraged to have as many sexual partners as possible, sharing one another’s bodies. Their social values encourage them to sleep with a different person each night, if possible.
Romantic relationships are discouraged because it isolates the two people from the others. There’s no competition either in the workplace or for sexual partners. Each person is specifically bred in their caste to do their function, and their minds are molded to only want to be what they are. They’re completely content.
Death is not a problem. Nobody ever gets sick or old. They die gracefully and of their own volition. They have no family which they leave behind, and their society goes on.
When I spent today thinking about this society, though it seems shallow in a way, I also have to admit it’s far superior to our own world. I don’t know if this life has any real purpose to it, but I do know it’s filled with lots of suffering and I’ve never been able to justify it. People fight to command resources. They look at the world around them and are discontent, wanting more beautiful homes, cities, and things. They fight for lovers. They struggle to find purpose and meaning. They fall in love and are rejected. They get sick. They get bored. They feel alone. The list goes on and on. What if you could live a life that never had any of that?
They’ve managed to create a world without conditional happiness. In this world we live in, we have to make decisions every day with little clue where any of it will lead to. We choose to have friendships, romantic relationships, and careers, but things rarely go as planned. We silently cross our fingers hoping that everything will work out in the end, but we never know for sure.
The vast majority of us spend our lives trying to fill an emptiness inside of us, hoping to feel alive. We want excitement, joy, curiosity, wonder, and love. It’s a real struggle to find that place of peace and contentment, where you’re just glad to be alive. Where you love your work. Where you love the people you’re around.
I found myself thinking that if I had the choice, I can’t think of any rational reason why I shouldn’t want Huxley’s future world. I imagine feeling total peace and bliss at all times, feeling loved by everybody and a part of a larger social order which adores and values me. Being totally safe and secure. Never hungry, sick, or in pain or any discomfort. Pleasures of every kind. Every woman would look beautiful to me, and they’d all love me and be receptive. I’d love myself. I’d love others. I’d laugh and play and relax. I’d eat and goof off.
You’d live in a sort of beatific dream. A temporary paradise. From birth to the grave, everything around you is, “You’re loved, you’re wonderful, enjoy all these nice things!” Then you’d peacefully lay down and die in a soma stupor of total bliss, not even the least bit afraid or anxious.
Even still, something deep down within me, in some inexplicable way, screams out, “NO!” It’s almost as if a deep essence within me knows there’s greater things in store.
I wonder if there is some greater good in the things we suffer? It reminds me of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. They ate from the tree of knowledge of good and evil and then were dispelled from paradise. As I was talking about the other day, the Western tradition values knowledge, to seek the truth. If that’s our goal, to understand the universe, to grow greater and more powerful, then this sort of society has to be rejected. In Huxley’s world, we’re all soma addicts, living in a drug induced stupor.
Every time I’ve grown and became a deeper, more thoughtful person, I’ve had to venture off into the darkness and experience things which I was terribly uncomfortable with at the time. I was confronted with obstacles and people I did not understand, but I learned and grew from the experiences. I think the unknown darkness is where your greatest growth will take place, if you’ll venture there.
If you’re religious, you have let go and read those books which everyone’s been telling you are written by servants of the devil. If every relationship you’ve ever been in has went up in flames, it’s time to date men and women who are totally different from who you’ve been with in the past, even if that leaves you very uncomfortable. If every ambition you’re pursued has failed and left you flat on your face, you have to try something you’ve never done before, even things you may be deeply prejudiced against.
You’re bound to fail, be heartbroken, and feel hopeless. There’s going to be fear, anxiety, and anger. You’ll become disillusioned in the things and people you loved most. You’ll feel lost and find yourself spinning. You’re going to see things which you don’t want to see again. There will be scrapes, bruises, and scars. There’s no avoiding this process.
The spirit of our age is that if you’re happy, you’re in some sense more successful than someone who isn’t. I was with a friend a while back and he was telling me about some simple man he met while on a vacation, and he just gushed about him. He told me how he was smiling and enjoying life. I don’t think I would admire him like my friend.
Is life really that simple? I think about a doctor working in the emergency room, saving what lives he can, having to watch people die and suffer, on the verge of death each day. That has to be depressing, especially when many of the people you treat are addicts who over-dosed on drugs. You see the young man’s mother rush in just as the patient flat-lines and watch her burst into tears.
I think about those who take care of the mentally ill, the helpless, and those in poverty. They say social workers suffer from depression more than any other occupation. But is that surprising? Every day they have to sit and listen to people tell them how they were raped, locked in closets and beaten by uncaring parents, and abandoned by a society which doesn’t seem to care.
Or what about political leaders who fight for important reforms, dealing with entrenched special interests, protecting the people. All the lies, the propaganda, and misinformation. Who really wants to spend their life saving the world from greedy low-lives?
It’s not all fun and games. I have nothing against that simple man’s happiness, but I won’t be lifting him to any pedestal unless he’s seriously helping to alleviate human suffering and improve our society.
There’s a large portion of the population who just hope they can ride off of others work and contributions. When things get ugly, they hope someone will show up and save the day, then they can get back to their little world. Someone else can study hard to learn how things work. Someone else can work hard to fix things. Someone else can stand out in the rain and fight for important social changes. But not them. It’s easy not to care.
I suppose I reject Huxley’s utopia out of a blind faith in our potential for more. Then again, I’m a romantic. I don’t completely reject sadness from the human experience. It comes down to whether or not we allow a world of conditional happiness. If we’re to explore the unknown and grow, we have to allow it, because we have to experience new things. That growth comes at a huge cost. We can always live in a delusional paradise filled with happiness pills, superstition, and false joy, never asking why we live the way we do, or do the things we do, protected by advanced technology left to us by former generations who greatly suffered. We’ll one day have the power to artificially put the world back into an age of innocence, but I say we move forward.
November 20, 2013
I’m about to mix philosophy, romance, and love into one post. Brace yourselves.
I’ll begin by contrasting two different schools of thought which underlie everyone’s views on love these days. Most people are some blend of the Romantic school of thought and the typical Enlightenment, empirical Western tradition. That’s very academic sounding, but I’ll explain it all now.
Romanticism focuses around the indomitable will. It’s about heroic individuals untamed by nature. You create you own values, your own goals, your own ends. What matters is your own vision of the universe, similar to how an artist creates a work of art from a blank canvas. It comes out of nothing. Imagination, creativity, belief and faith. You pull your creations out of the void. There is no copying. No adaptation. No learning the rules. There’s no external track or structure which you must conform to or stay within. That’s the first basis.
This is in direct confrontation with the Western tradition of thought which believes that virtue is knowledge. If you acquire the right knowledge, it will tell you what to do and how to fit and live within reality. It believes there is a “nature” to things, and if you know this nature, and know your own nature relative to it, then your goals and what you have to do will become clear to you. You’ll know how to fulfill yourself and be happy. There are facts to which you must submit. There’s a way it is. Science is ultimately guided by this process. It’s a form of submission. You must learn and be guided by the nature of things.
In many contradictory ways, both schools of thought run parallel in my mind and oftentimes conflict, as they do in most people. I want to illustrate these two schools of thought by discussing love. They apply to a much broader range of of thought, but love is just interesting, so that’s what I’ll discuss.
In my mind, the idea of creating things from nothing is very appealing. Have you ever sat and just thought about the origin of creativity and imagination? It’s strange. The love of God which is universal really grabs me. Always has.
Though I don’t think it’s this simple, emotionally I’m drawn to the idea that I’m a rough log, and you’re another strangely shaped log, and we’re both artists with mallets and sharp pointy carving tools, and as we interact with one another, we wack away at one another and both take on new form. We both grow by expanding one another’s horizons. You don’t have to be a physicist, or like anything that I do. You just take my hand and take me anywhere. We’ll go off dancing someplace, and I’ll just let it flow. You don’t have to be like me. That’s how a romantic views love.
Percy Shelley, the famous poet, had romantic thoughts like this. The idea of pure love. How does it play out in practice? Well, he married this young tavern girl, Harriet, who was a suicidal mess. He swooped in to save her with pure love, so this is a particularly interesting event to study. She wasn’t anywhere near his intellectual caliber, so he had a platonic, emotional affair with an unmarried school teacher for quite some time. All of it ends very tragically. Percy eventually abandons Harriet for yet another woman he meets, the much more intelligent and educated Mary Shelley, who would eventually author the novel Frankenstein. They ran off together, reading Rousseau, Shakespeare, and other great works.
So what happened to Harriet? She was pregnant when she was abandoned, and that’s pretty rough on a young woman just a tad over 18. She went into a state of shock, and then put heavy rocks in her pockets and drown herself in the river.
What’s the moral of the story? Love is a selfish business.
The other day on the Huffington Post, I read a feature article posted by an ex-military man, talking about love. He says love isn’t about your own happiness, it’s about what you can give. Like most things, take any idea too far and you’ll have trouble. I can see it now. I love you because you’re such a trainwreck and somebody’s got to love you! Who would possibly want something as disgusting as you? But don’t worry, you’re in luck. I’ll tolerate it through discipline and endurance because I have the love of God in me! In extreme cases it will lead your partner to commit suicide, so keep that in mind.
Let’s look at things from the other extreme. Whereas the Romantic school believes you must struggle to shape and mold the world as you will with passion, the Western school is more cautious and submissive, relying on cold logic and reason. It tells us we all have a nature, which you might lay out in some personality survey, like the Myers-Briggs personality test for example. I’ve taken the test and they say I’m an INTJ. The goal is to figure out your nature, and then find people who are scientifically compatible with you. So, you fill out long questionnaires, lots of data is gathered, and after intense statistical computation, a series of compatible people pop out suited to you. The choices are made scientifically.
I’m a bit skeptical of this way of doing things, though it’s not all bad. I find it limited and I personally don’t have a lot of faith in the social sciences. People aren’t as simple as atoms and other simple things we study in, say, physics. We don’t follow simple rules. It’s hard to model people with equations and logic.
Also, the belief that you have a fixed nature leaves you with this feeling that there’s an ideal, “right” person for you. People change. You can change. We all change. The human brain isn’t set in stone. It’s a very pliable thing. If you believe you have this fixed nature, you may become overly be concerned with knowing yourself, because, after all, if you don’t understand you own nature, nothing is going to work. You come to view growth as learning about yourself, but I’d argue that there is a proactive aspect to growth. There has to be a courage to venture into the unknown and unfamiliar.
I’m always wary of believing “this is who I am”. You can easily end up living a life of self-fulfilling prophecies from then on out. I look at my own life and I’m always changing. I’m a totally different person from who I was just ten years ago. It’s good to venture off and experience new horizons. Many aspects of the Western tradition place too much faith in reason. Just because ideas and emotions are flowing through your mind, that doesn’t necessarily bear any reality to your potential or who you could be if you decided to try something different. Education, new friends, new environment. You can become a new person. It doesn’t happen instantly, but it’s never impossible.
My problem isn’t so much with logic and the scientific method, but more so our own limitations. Human thought, while being a form of knowledge, is just as often a form of ignorance. We tend to believe things about ourselves and others which aren’t really true in reality. Think of a child’s drawing of a home. They draw a little square and put a triangle on top, then color it a solid shade of brown. That’s what your ideas about yourself look like in the grand scheme of things. Real homes are much more interesting. So are all of you.
In most practical affairs of life, we have to be some mix of both schools of thought.
November 12, 2013
Just a few days ago I was in the Missouri S&T Physics building looking at fliers on the walls. The U.S. Department of Defense offers these spectacular scholarship programs for the best scientists and engineers which will pay you a $30,000-$40,000 a stipend per year, all room and board covered, plus all tuition costs paid. The catch? You have to work for them the same number of years they support you.
It got me thinking about how expensive college is. Most students have to bury themselves in $100,000 in debt to get a degree which might not even find them a job afterwards. But, if you’re willing to create weapons of war, you can sell your soul to the devil and graduate with loads of money in the bank, debt free. That is, if you’re willing to build machines which do this to people.
That’s a young boy in London, 1945. His parents were probably blown up and he found himself wandering the streets of rubble, holding onto a stuffed animal, trying to stay warm. Somebody built those bomber planes used by the Nazis. Chemists, physicists, and engineers designed the bombs. Why build things like that?