April 20, 2013
I’m sorry for sounding like a stuck record, but I’m going to share more thoughts on free will. I was thinking more about love, and whether I’m controlling what I say, what I do, and all of that sort of thing.
If you’re saying “I” am free, that means somehow I’m controlling what’s going on inside my brain. To move my body, to control my thoughts, to control the words I’m speaking, I must be controlling all those complicated processes within my body and brain — all those atoms, all the chemical bonding, all those electrical pulses — I’m somehow directing it all.
Just watch this next video and look at a single synapse for a single neural connection. In an everyday moment, such as me waving at you in the hallway, I had to control and direct billions of these neurons and connections. Just look at it.
“I” did all of that? What is this “I” you’re referring to? If “I” am anything, “I” am those neurons firing. Those neural processes are what constitute my thinking, my emotions, my memories. They direct my moral reasoning, my desires, my perception of the world. Somehow that insane process (and it is insane) builds up my subjective experience of being alive.
Do I feel that I’m sitting in my study, typing up this post? Sure. Do I feel hungry at the moment? Sure. Do I feel that I can control where I move my body, whether to walk to the kitchen and grab something to eat? Sure. But am “I” in control of this? Just think about it.
When I study quantum physics and chemistry, atoms aren’t free to just do whatever they want. Electricity follows physical laws. Those atoms, when they come together and move about, they’re following electrical processes of repulsion and attraction, and when they get close together, the electrons are shared between the different positive nuclei and you get these overlapping clouds. There’s a probability function which describes that it’s almost certain that the electron is within that cloud, within a certain region of space.
Now when you tell me “I” am making this reality unfold, that “I” am thinking my life into existence, that “I” am in control, you’re telling me that “I” (whatever that is) am collapsing all those electron clouds and other quantum processes into different configurations, which cascades into this super complicated firing of neurons, which then moves my arm, directs my thoughts, or controls my speech.
Forgive me for being a bit skeptical. I’m not saying you’re wrong. If that is what’s happening, I simply want to you to realize how much power this “free will” has. But think about it some more. You’re saying that “I” made all of those complicated things happen, yet I wasn’t even aware that most of these things were even going on for the vast majority of my life. I never “felt” all those different options present themselves to me consciously, asking me each planck-length of time, “Will you move this atom here? This other atom here? This electron here? This electrical pulse here?” Imagine how slow and boring life would be if you did have to do all that! It’s obvious that we’re not the ones making all those small events happen, so when a large scale event happens (which is simply the sum of all the small events), such as a movement, a thought, or something else, we somehow believe that “we” made it happen? Why? How much of this process are “we” responsible for? How much of it can be automated before we say “we” did something?
And another question. If I’m controlling “me”, as in this body and this brain, then why can’t I also control your body and your brain? Why do I only have control of myself and not you as well? You’re made of the same stuff. Why am I confined to this brain alone? To this body? To this personal perspective in this place and time?
This problem drives me to insanity sometimes. Why am I experiencing this? What’s going on? What is all of this? Am I even taking part in this, or am I just watching? What am I? Where are we? Is there something greater going on?
As I said before in my post ‘Why I’m Not Married’, part of me thinks that maybe some sort of divine being is making all those wave functions collapse and is reaching out to me, “I love you Jason. I want to be with you. To experience you and what you are.” I’m totally taken back. Of course I want to return the feeling. To reach out, to connect with all of you. This divine being (I’m talking about all of you) is using this universe as a medium, stretching out to me, communicating with me. The other half of me thinks that it’s all just randomness popping out of nothing, full of pointless suffering mixed in with random spurts of joy. Freedom? Give me a break.
Half of the time, I just turn my mind off and say, “Hey, let’s play some Mario on the Wii.” I hop on turtles as I dive through green pipes as a little red plumber and think sure, why not. I enjoy it. Then, after goofing off for a while, I find myself back in a serious mood, I go out for a walk and all these thoughts plague me again. I think about this all the time, but I never make any progress.
April 17, 2013
With all these recent posts on love and relationships, I probably should just admit that this cartoon describes me all too well.
Or maybe I could just find this next girl? Her heart’s in the right place, but I worry she’s going to wear herself out.
April 12, 2013
After getting out of a physics class, my father let me know that my grandpa is in the emergency room and may have had a heart attack. Deeply concerned, I rush to get there and spend the rest of the morning with him. His pains were severe but he seemed to be fine for the time being. I was there with my grandmother, father, and great aunt. Eventually we’d been there all morning and were all getting hungry. Nothing much was going on and grandpa assured us that it’d be fine to go grab a bite to eat, so we went downstairs to the cafeteria. We got our food and sat down next to a table of younger nurses, roughly between the ages 25 to 35. This is where things get interesting.
Sitting just a few feet from them, I could overhear their entire conversation. My father was talking with my great aunt and grandmother, but I wasn’t very involved so I instead focused in on what these young women were discussing. Apparently two or three of them were single and looking for love. So, for roughly an hour I listened to these women discuss their preferences in men, their frustrations, and other things of that nature.
Everything they desire in a man can be summarized as follows:
1) Is he cute?
This seemed to be the primary factor in their selection process. So and so was so “hot”. ”He is really good looking”. And “He was so hot”. Yeah, they said that a lot.
2) Does he have a job? Does he make a lot of money?
This was the second thing I heard stressed, over and over. Some men were sexy but they didn’t have good jobs. Others less so, but they were more reliable and brought home the dough.
There was a lot of talk about guys and their incomes with intermittent bursts of randomness stating their food preferences, television shows they like, and people they’ve met who are “weird”. Also, the younger women were assured by the older women at the table that if they wait to get married, their prospects would greatly diminish and they’d be left dating a lot of “weird” guys.
I silently stared at my grandma as I pretended to pay attention, all the while pondering this insider perspective into what the average woman my age is like. All I could think about was how I spend my days studying philosophy, thinking about the deep questions of life. I think about the sciences, the nature of consciousness, and the universe. Internally I struggle with issues of free will and whether or not a man and woman can truly love one another. Is any human love genuine or is the universe just going on its own? I think about vasopressin receptors, serotonin, and oxytocin. I struggle to define love, whether it is an act of will, a passion, or something else. How does that tie to the love of God? I think about unconditional love. What is beauty? And my mind goes on and on each night, pondering and thinking.
And then… it dawned on me… This… This is what 95% of women are like. They want a sexy man, with dark hair, and a muscular or athletic build. He needs to be adept at inane conversation regarding a wide myriad of useless things which are pretty much random in nature. And most of all, he has to earn money — the more the better. That is what most women want.
It’s like I was run over by a big truck. This is the world I live in. I’m superficially judged as a sexual object and then these selfishish creatures come at me. Before long I’m inside their minds and I can feel their thoughts. ”C’mon ladies, maybe I won’t have to work anymore! Wish me luck! He’s kinda cute too!” That must be their line of thought.
Then I almost started laughing to myself. ”Oh, you think the guys you’ve met working around here in the hospital are weird? Just wait until you spend an evening with me, talking about parallel universes, the nature of the self, quantum physics, and neuroscience. Baby, I got all kinds of weirdness that will put them to shame!”
But I shouldn’t have even played with the thought. The universe quickly responded and the situation got tense. These ladies’ conversation drifted to guys in the room and then eventually to me. They were interested, they discussed approaching me, and estimated my age to be 25. I was judged “cute”, or something to that effect. Oh nooo. How was I going to get out of this one? No. Geez. No, they are NOT talking to me. No. No way.
What do I do? Time to engage conversation with my great aunt. What do you talk about with an eighty year old woman? I don’t know, but it was time to talk, and about anything! It didn’t matter. My mouth needed to be moving, fast. Somehow we got to talking about her children, how her son has a PhD in chemistry and teaches at a university near here. Then she invited me to go fishing at her place where they have a lot of land and a big pond. She went on and on about all the fish and I thought, “Yes, keep going! Bass, cropie, blue-gill… Uh huh. REALLY! That’s great. I may have to stop by some time.” “Oh your grandsons fish there all the time? Must be nice out there!” Blah blah blah.
Was it working? Sort of. The other women had to go back to their shifts, but the interested parties were actually waiting behind. On no. No… Noooooo. There they were and I could see them from the corner of my eye. They were waiting, like jackals, hoping to make eye contact. They were even cute. Most men would’ve been all over that, but not me. I wanted out of there.
Then a miracle happened. Grandma finished eating and I needed to help her into her wheelchair. And who was the designated wheel-chair pusher? Me! I’m FREEEEEEEeeeeeeee! Silent cheers erupted as I slowly wheeled Grandma Ruth into the hallway and back to Papa upstairs in ER. Surrounded by a protective cloud of my great aunt and father, I narrowly escaped. Thank goodness!
You know, things could’ve went differently had they just had real love in them. I waited to hear a woman in their group say, “I’ve always wanted real love. You know, find someone to grow old with. We see so much death here in the hospital. Life is fragile.” Another could have joined in saying, “I’m so typical… I’ve always wanted to find prince charming. Come sweep me off my feet!” Then the older women could tease them, tell them fairy tales don’t exist but then encourage them, “Well, it’s something worth striving for, isn’t it? Keep at it. There’s someone out there.” I was waiting to hear respect and appreciation, both for themselves and the men, but I never heard any real affection of any kind.
I was waiting to hear one of the older women say, “Things weren’t perfect when me and Jared got together. We were both young and we didn’t have everything set in order. But stick with it! Work with one another. Don’t let minor set backs tear you apart. You’ll get through them. It gets better with time.” Stuff like that. It never happened.
I would’ve actually stayed and talked with them. Who knows, something could’ve happened between us. But as they were? No way. They came across to me as money grubbing, selfish twits.
April 11, 2013
Most all of my friend and family members these days are married. I’m sort of the lone wolf in the pack and I have family members asking me, “So when are you going to get married? Are you not interested in love?” Others will tell me, “Oh you’ll meet yourself a nice girl soon!” The thing is, my family doesn’t understand me at all. I’d like to talk about love and relationships as they exist in my rather neurotic mind. This may sound like a vast intellectualization, but I assure you it’s not. This is way too complicated to explain to a family member during a Christmas dinner, but if I take some time this morning, I suppose I could give a brief outline of what goes on in my head.
I easily understand love and relationships in other people’s lives. I understand people in general. I’ve read a lot of psychology, neuroscience, cognitive science. I see through people. I really do. But my own mind is something strange. There’s all these intellectual tangles and the only way I can think to describe it is to ask you to imagine a large rock with thousands of ropes and hooks attached to it. Then at random times different forces are pulling on the different ropes in different directions. In the end, the rock (me) jiggles in place but never really moves. But what are these ropes pulling me, conflicting with one another?
On the one hand I’ve studied a lot of evolutionary psychology and I oftentimes look at the human race in the same way I would an animal. I think of the reasons people are attracted to one another and I have a really really hard time respecting human love. We have all this evolutionary baggage and most of the things driving attraction between people is based on ridiculous things. I read all kinds of psychology journals and look at the statistics of how people behave and why we do what we do. I stare at it all and think, “Do I really want to get involved in this mess?”
On the other hand, I hold these almost deeply religious beliefs. Underneath that mechanical meat-bag is this personal subjective consciousness. There’s this great mystery when I look at another human being and think, “That person is like me. She sees me with her eyes. She feels the pains and joys of this world. She’s alive. Sentient. Aware. Conscious.” I think about protecting that person from the pains of this world and trying to make them happy. I reflect on things from that perspective and then love becomes the most important thing in the world. To find someone. To build your world together. To share what you can. To grow together.
One side is pulling on my right arm, the other on my left arm and I don’t move at all. They both seem equally true to me.
I think a lot about whether love is a passion or an act of will. I’m always thinking about whether free will exists or not. Think of it this way. If I put a drug in your drink at the bar which made you fall in love with me, what would you think? It’s no different when I study the human brain and see through what makes us attracted to one another. I see all kinds of irrational influences at work and it no longer feels real to me. It’s not genuine, pure, beautiful. On the other hand, I wonder if free will does exist, and I think of this almost divine being in this world coming up to me and offering to spend our short lives together. I’m taken back, almost at a loss of words. Me? Really? ME? Why me? Of all the people in this world, you’re really choosing me? I’m not anybody special. I’m totally honored and in awe.
So you may say to me, “Jason, quit thinking so much about it. It’s about friendship.” Is it? Then we can just be friends. I’m not in need of anything. I don’t need anyone to support me. I don’t even really need much helping getting through this life. We’ll get together every now and again, hang out, and we’ll leave it at that.
How about sex? Women are beautiful, but with me there has to be genuine love or I’m not making love to you. A real relationship. A real friendship. To feel comfortable, to feel we belong together. All of that. So, all of this other stuff needs to be sorted.
My head’s full of contradictions. I want a place where I’ll always belong, but then again, I want to be self sufficient. I want to be a source of life in and of myself, yet sometimes I wonder if I should accommodate a love interest in there.
In a lot of ways relationships scare me. This is where I get a little embarrassed. I think of being with a woman who goes crazy spending all my money and my eyes pop out of my head. I come home and there’s this expensive car in the driveway, or I see all my money being wasted on expensive handbags and shoes. If it’s her own money, fine. If it’s my money, that’s fine up to a point, but there’s a fine line. If she ever went too far I’d be quick to say, “You work and buy your own things, or get out.” Freedom is very important to me, and if all my money was blown, I’m forced to work more and more. I’m not typically fond of most forms of work, and I’m not working two jobs to support someone else’s stupidity.
I wonder if I’d ever make a good husband. I think about whether I want people in my life if they drink a lot of alcohol or have other bad habits. Do I have the strength to help support them? I’m not really into most “romantic” things. I try to imagine myself cuddling on the couch with someone and realize how much I don’t want to waste my night doing that. I’m not a family man either. I imagine having to visit in-laws and aren’t thrilled with the prospect. I have friends and I always hear about arguments, jealousy, psychological abuse, and other things they’re enduring. All in all, I find myself wondering how much of that I’d tolerate.
The older I get, the more successful I’m becoming. I grow more wealthy and I have the things I want. I’m pursuing the mysteries of the cosmos. I have exciting career prospects. Everything gets better and better. More and more is competing for my time and attention and most women seem far less appealing than they once did.
Women my age oftentimes have little children running around from a previous marriage. Do I want to raise someone else’s little rugrat? What if the child will grow up and not respect me as the father figure and authority of the household? I could have peace and quiet out in my cabin studying what I love, or deal with a screaming, ungrateful brat which I have to drive to soccer practice each afternoon. So should I spend my time studying the universe, working on interesting technology and what I love, or should I choose to deal with all of that? The choice is not very hard for me.
I have this vision where I’m in my cabin trying to research quantum field theory and these little kids are running in and out, in and out. They’re screaming and the dog’s chasing them. They knock over my things. The dog urinates on my bookshelf. My wife’s yelling back at them, trying to get them to watch television, play games, or go outside. I’m just there, trying to plug my ears and escape it all. I have absolutely no desire whatever for that life. I’m the type of person who would never come home. I’d spend all my time at work, and then go out with my coworkers that night. I never want children. At all. Ever. I don’t think I could be a loving parent. A loving husband, yes. A loving parent, never. The desire is not there and never will be.
The most important thing in a relationship is probably to have a common purpose. Common goals and interests. Deep friendships and bonds. The more I learn and the smarter I become, the more I desire to be around people who have invested the same amount of time and energy into their education as well. The prospects of finding someone of that quality goes down with time, as does my incentive to find them in the huge haystack. I feel like it’s less and less likely that I’ll find someone who shares my love of economics, philosophy, history, physics, and other sciences. Someone who I really feel gets me, and I get them.
Sometimes when I think of romantic love, I see it as a very high risk, low return investment. It asks a lot out of me, but I don’t feel it pays well. Then again, I do sometimes get lonely when I’m out for my long walks. I do wish someone was there walking with me. Someone who’s always there, who understands things, understands me. Respects me. Appreciates me. If a woman treated me like that, and loved me, I’d always be good to her. Even if things went sour, if she’d been there for me in the past, I’d work things through with her.
But I just don’t know. I have all these conflicting ideas to sort out in my head. It’s work to sort it out, and I have other things to do. I oftentimes tell my best friends that I’ll never marry. I’m almost sure of it. That’s not because I’m uninterested, but because I don’t think there will ever be a time where I’ll want to put the effort into making it happen. Things may change, but I’m already climbing up in years. I’m no young chicken.
April 10, 2013
If you spend much time on the internet reading articles and posts, you’ll find there’s a lot of hostility toward religion. You’ll leave with this general impression.
Lately I’ve been sharing information from the famous physicist Freeman Dyson, who is an enlightened religious man. I’ve been reading his book Infinite In All Directions, and I’d like to share a quote from the text.
“I recently listened to a talk by a famous biologist. He spoke about two philosophical viewpoints which he called scientific materialism and religious transcendentalism. He said, “At bedrock they are incompatible and mutually exclusive.” This seems to be a widely accepted view, both among biologists and among Christian fundamentalists. I do not share it. I do not know what the word “materialism” means. Speaking as a physicist, I judge matter to be an imprecise and rather old-fashioned concept. Roughly speaking, matter is the way particles behave when a large number of them are lumped together. When we examine matter in the finest detail in the experiments of particle physics, we see it behaving as an active agent rather than as an inert substance. Its actions are in the strict sense unpredictable. It makes what appear to be arbitrary choices between alternative possibilities. Between matter as we observe it in the laboratory and mind as we observe it in our own consciousness, there seems to be only a difference in degree but not in kind. If God exists and is accessible to us, then his mind and ours may likewise differ from each other only in degree and not in kind. We stand, in a manner of speaking, midway between the unpredictability of matter and the unpredictability of God. Our minds may receive inputs equally from matter and from God. This view of our place in the cosmos may not be true, but it is at least logically consistent and compatible with the active nature of matter as revealed in the experiments of modern physics. Therefore, I say, speaking as a physicist, scientific materialism and religious transcendentalism are neither incompatible nor mutually exclusive. We have learned that matter is weird stuff. It is weird enough, so that it does not limit God’s freedom to make it do what he pleases.”
- Freeman Dyson, Infinite In All Directions
I’ve always wondered how free will could be in operation. My brain is made of the same substance as the world, which seems to follow these laws of nature. We perform experiments in neuroscience and can predict what a person is going to do up to ten seconds before they were aware of even having made the decision. They hadn’t even become consciously aware that they wanted to do that, but we look at the neural activity in their brain and know, with certainty, what they’re going to do. Then again, that is only in rather basic human activities, like pushing a button. We can also look into patients with various brain lesions, and split brain patients, and it becomes apparent that the brain makes its decisions and then another area of the brain tries to figure out “why” you (your brain) made that decision. If it can’t figure out, it justifies and rationalizes the situation.
We’ve all been in the situation where we did something ridiculous and then later wondered, “Why in the world did I do that?” So you sit there, wondering and wondering. Your brain is always playing catch up. It does its thing and then you try to rationalize it all later.
But, maybe there is some freedom in there? Maybe we are shaping the world, in some capacity. I don’t have the slightest clue why brain activity would create in me a sense of subjective existence. When I was younger, I used to think about virtual reality. When we play video games today, we have to use gamepads, mice, and keyboards to control the game and characters. However, I used to wonder how I would receive input if the player was fully immersed in virtual reality. Since their entire body would be “in” the game, there’d be no joystick buttons for them to press. How would I know what they wanted to do?
Many years later when I studied neuroscience, I learned some rather bizarre things. Our brains create our sense of existence. To read what you wanted to do, I’d have to either have implants within your cortical homunculus, or maybe have some sort of really sensitive headgear over your skull to read the magnetic fields. There’s these two “slices” within the brain which are where motor signals come from.
Going down those “slices” of your brain, I could read what you are wanting to do with your body. If you are wanting to move your hand, your tongue, your eyes, whatever. Each side controls one half of your body. However, all of this just begs more questions. If you can “create” signals within those brain areas, making your body move at will, then why couldn’t you do the same thing to a gamepad or mouse? Why can’t you just create electrical signals within your keyboard and no longer have to type? It’s not like the brain is made of some magical substance. Is there something special about neurons put into a special configuration which then allows this “consciousness” to give inputs into the world?
When I look at this problem, I think that if you’re going to believe free will exists, you’re going to have to go broader and beyond just the brain. Somehow your free will is manifesting itself in all aspects of what you perceive as reality, if it exists at all. The observer and the observed have to be combined. So, maybe Dyson is on to something? Maybe everything around me is somehow the mind of God? Maybe it’s all responding to me and what I do? Those “random” happenings at the atomic quantum level may not be random at all. They may be God actively engaging with us, molding and creating the world based on what we’re choosing and doing? I don’t know.
On a lighter note, when I was younger I used to wonder to myself, “What’s the big deal about kissing? Why kiss? Why not rub arms, or scratch each other behinds, or rub knees?” Sounds ridiculous, but you have to remember you’re talking to an introverted virgin scientist who rarely leaves his home outside of going for long walks in the middle of nowhere down country roads. I have no experience in these things. I don’t learn about life the way most people do. But I did eventually find the answer, in the usual manner — through reading technical books. A great deal of the somatosensory cortex is dedicated to the face, hands, and genitals. There’s more “depth” to those areas of your body than say your arms or legs. Way more brain tissue is dedicated to sensing it and feeling it. If we look at how the “body” looks as our brain senses it, it’d look something like this.
There’s a ton of sensory input from the hands, tongue, and lips. So there’s the answer. The even more interesting question is why? We evolved from organisms that basically lived by shoving things in their mouths, chewing them up, absorbing the nutrients, and then exuding the waste as excrement. Unlike plants, we can’t produce our own energy. We have to eat other things. We’re basically tubes which constantly shove things in our mouths, extract energy, and then flush it back out the other end. Our shovels and the seal to our “tube” is very sensitive. However, we’re not constructed very well and fall apart very quickly. Therefore we need to make copies of ourselves before we stop functioning, so that our copies (children) can go on shoving things in their mouths and exude the waste. Such is life for us, the ever-evolving electric meat-bags.
I was listening to Alan Watts the other day while I was out for a walk. He made a comment that the job of a philosopher is to look into an everyday event and burst into laughter at the absurdity of it all. Oftentimes when I see people kissing, I see that homunculuar man and those huge lips, rubbing against a similar looking woman. Then the man takes his hand and pinches the girl on her little skinny behind. The woman doesn’t feel much, but the man, he feels that round rear end in detail with those big hands! The meat-bags are making love. Stimulate my senses baby! I’ll be turning back to dust soon so give me your lovin’!
If we’re all aspects of the divine who chose to descend down into this world, we’re some crazy characters. ”I want to be a water tube with a bone skeleton.” ”What? No way! Me too!” ”Let’s go down to Earth and rub our faces together.” ”Sounds good!”