The Extent Of Human Love

October 13, 2013

In a recent post, I claimed that problems arise in the world when there is a lack of love.  This applies equally to personal relationships and nations as a whole.  So the next question to ask ourselves is why there is any love at all, and second, why do our love relationships break down?

I’ll begin with a personal observation.  As many of you know, the United States is currently in a bit of a budget crisis.  I was visiting with my parents and my mother made a comment, “Why are we sending aid to foreign countries when we can’t even pay our own bills?”  Now, I’m going to ask you all to shut off your “political” brain.  Don’t think of the statement in terms of policy analysis, such whether or not we truly have funds to help poorer nations (for example, if we cut military spending, etc), but instead let’s analyze it as a psychological statement.

Why does my mom think an American life is more important than the life of a foreigner?  Why aren’t all people loved equally?  Why are there these invisible lines in the sand, making some groups of people more important to us than others?

This brings us to a talk I recently listened to on one of my favorite websites, edge.org.  Dr. Joshua Greene of Harvard University was promoting a book he recently finished called, Moral Tribes:  Emotion, Reason, and the Gap Between Us and Them.  In the talk he discusses how “us” vs “them” dynamics are formed.  He begins by noting that we evolved in small tribal groups.  There was “our” group in which we  hunted and lived with, and then there were “other” groups which were almost always the enemy.  The emotional systems within our brain are pre-wired for “us” vs “them” behavior.  Let’s take a few examples.

In an experiment done a while back, everyday people were asked whether or not they were obligated to help out after a natural disaster.  People’s responses depended on where the disaster took place.  If it happened in the area in which they lived, the vast majority of people felt it was appropriate for everyone to chip in and help out.  If it didn’t happen in “their” area though, things were different.  Say their friend was visiting a distant country and the same disaster has taken place.  He sends them pictures of the rubble, the starving children, and all the homeless victims.  He then asks for money.  The number of people who say it’s a moral duty to send aid plummets.

Why is this?  Well, we have hard-wired emotional systems that work in terms of “us” and “them”.  In mom’s case, there’s America (us), and there’s other countries (them).  When it comes down to it, our survival is more important than other people’s, just as it was in our hunter gatherer days.  The problem with this is that nations grow and there’s only so much land here on Earth.  As countries grow and expand, they naturally bump into each other and fight for resources.  Both groups think in terms of “us” and exclude the “other” groups, and we get a nasty form of conflict.   This is because we haven’t learned to love the “other”, and for that reason we have wars, violence, and greed.

But that’s not to say we’re in a hopeless situation.  Dr. Greene compares our moral instincts to a camera.  Most new digital cameras these days have pre-set “point and shoot” settings that will give you a good picture in most common situations, but not always.  When the pre-sets won’t do, you need to fine-tune the settings by hand, and then take your picture.   Our brains are the same way.  Our emotions are pre-sets which we’re born with and they work pretty good in a lot of situations, but they have their limits.  There are times when emotion is limited, and that’s why we have reason.  But reason is complicated and there are lots of settings.  You have to spend a lot of time studying your “camera” to know how everything works.  With time and patience, you can manually tune your “camera” and get better results than the pre-sets.  That’s what moral and spiritual instruction does.  You can go beyond your pre-sets.

Tribes form around religions, cultures, political ideologies, and many other things.  If you can’t accept people who have a different culture, a different belief system, or different ways of life, you have to go into your head and change your brain’s settings to be more inclusive.  More tolerant.  More accepting.  But that’s not easy, especially if you disagree with them, or feel that doing so would put your way of life in danger.  It’s a tricky business.  If you accept just anything, then you stand for nothing, but if you’re too rigid, there will be conflict.  To get things going, it’s important to understand your brain’s “camera” and know that it has these settings.  From there, we can debate what to do.

Now I’d like to discuss relationships among individuals within those tribes, particularly between men and women.  There are also emotional pre-sets to that process as well, and it’s worth discussing them.

As I mentioned, we are creatures which have evolved here on planet Earth, struggling for survival.  For most of our existence, we have lived short, difficult lives.  Human romantic love is rooted in these ancient instincts.

Not to over-generalize, but men’s brains evolved to be polyamourous.  You have to remember that we’re gene-replication machines.  Think of what strategy would be best for a man’s genes to be passed on to the next generation?  The more women he impregnates with his children, the more likely his genes will survive.  So throughout all the animal kingdom, males fight for power and resources so that they can support large families of females and their offspring.

Women’s emotions are wired differently.  They look for messages which signal commitment, fitness, and resources.  They want healthy children who will be cared for and will have access to the food, clothing, and other resources which they will need while raising the child.  Their best interests are to avoid men who will not commit or leave them with a child to support on their own.

So there are complicated mating rituals in human love ultimately rooted in that basis.  It manifests itself in many ways.  I’ll give you an example.  Since we were discussing my mother earlier, let’s give another example with her.  I was hanging out with Mom one time and she was watching television.  The Wendy Williams show was on, which is basically a women’s daytime comedy program which gossips about celebrities.   Maybe I can find a clip?

So what’s a typical show like?  Well, she may begin with pictures of “man-candy”, attractive men, dressed nicely, showing off their sculpted muscles.  What is this rooted in?  In times past, men were hunters.  A good hunter has to be strong and swift so that he can help provide.  So women’s brains are attracted to muscular, fit men.

Next Wendy Williams begins to gossip, mostly about male celebrities and their relationships.  The focus is on children, such whether or not these men take care of their children, custody battles, how well the men provide, etc., but they also gossip about how well these men treat their wives, etc.  Why does this take place?

We evolved in a much smaller world.  Women in the tribe evolved to gossip, primarily about the men in the tribe, but also other women in the tribe.  If the men were not faithful to their wives, the women acted as little broadcasters to warn all the other women what kind of man he was.  Considering they may end up pregnant and he’ll run off, it’s good for other women to know in advance.  They also gossiped about other women so they could compare mothering strategies.  As for women gossiping to men about other women, well, that’s mainly to convince the men that she’s a slut, and if he has sex with her, he can’t be sure that the child will be his.  That’s the primary basis for why women are always “slut shaming” each other.  It has to do with telling men, “Stay away from here!  Get with me instead!”

Wendy Williams gossiping about a handful of celebrity men with whom these normal women will never meet is completely useless.  But, if you look at the audience, it’s all women.  There’s not a single man out there.  This is a left-over vestige of our evolutionary past, sort of like our appendix is to our digestive track.

To get back on topic, when I said the world has problems when we don’t love each other, I mostly mean that we leave ourselves to these emotional systems which evolved in world in which we no longer live, and they’re not fully up to the task.  A lot of the moral and emotional instincts we have within us don’t make much sense anymore.  We have to fine-tune our settings through education and rational discourse to be more inclusive.

I’d like to end this post with a few thoughts on love.  When I look at human love, and what it’s rooted in, I find it comes up short.  I wish the attraction process between men and women was deeper than money, good looks, and access to society’s resources.  Unfortunately, for the most part, it’s not.  I also wish people’s in-groups were far more inclusive.  If you want to leave out Neo-Nazis, the Westboro Baptist Church, and other hate groups, I can understand.  Even so, the type of love I wish existed in the world is like that found in mystics and saints — an unfailing, pure love, like the type God is supposed to have for us.

Personal human love is rarely God-like.  It normally has limits and is dependent on many factors.  It’s more of a cost benefit analysis masked in rationalized emotion.  You’ll attend a wedding and hear all sorts of vows, but they’re rarely meant.  The real test comes as their relationship goes on and each partner weighs the benefits and costs of being in the relationship, day by day.  Benefits include things like finances, does he or she make me laugh, how is the sex, affection, intellectual companionship, and so on.  Downsides may include alcohol or drug use, embarrassing or humiliating experiences, private or public, lack of a sex life, lack of affection, bad relationships with children, avoiding domestic responsibilities, lies, deceit, arguments, threats, violence, jealousy, lack of intellect and education, heck, even bad driving habits.  Once you’ve been weighed on random, rather arbitrary scales which change all the time and vary from person to person, you may or may not be loved.  It all depends.

Most of what goes for “love” in our world is more or less rooted in survival.  Does it benefit me?  Is this person good for me?  Does this person make me happy?  Will a relationship with this person help me get where I want to go?  Does being this person’s friend benefit causes I care about?  And so on.  But I personally like the type of love I grew up in church hearing about — the type of love Jesus gave.  It didn’t ask for anything in return.  I don’t see much of that in the world.

I actually had a discussion about love and relationships with a woman not too long ago.  She found me rather strange.  I told her that I would stay with a woman, even if I didn’t love her, as long as she needed me and was fine with me.  She told me, “That’s kind of sad.”  I’ll agree, it’s not ideal, but I grew up as a pastor’s son and I remember we would help troubled families get through hard times.  Maybe I’ll tell the story?

There was a married couple in the church and things weren’t as romantic between them as they once were.  Another woman in the church started messing around with the husband and they ran off together, leaving the former wife in abject poverty.  She lost everything.  She was a homemaker, older, and didn’t have any career.  She mainly relied on her husband for income.

He traded her in for a better model, I suppose, and maybe he was happier with the new woman.  Who knows.  But I remember it was the middle of winter, and me and other people from the church had to help this poor women move her furniture (what she got from the divorce) into this tiny ratty trailer.  It was so cold and that trailer wasn’t even insulated.  It was more like a freezer.  I could see my breathe indoors.  She had no money.  I turned on the water faucet to rinse off my hands and brown, disgusting water came out.  I let it run for a while and it was brown and never cleared up.

I heard water running outside when the faucet was on so I looked under the trailer and sure enough, the pipe just ran a short ways to the hill outside.  There was no sewage system.  I went to the bathroom and my foot went through the rusted floor of the trailer and hit the mud underneath the trailer.

Quite an ordeal, huh?   To top it off, human emotion is fickle and can come and go.  They soon tired of one another and went their separate ways, but the damage was done.  Look at what this process of seeking happiness does to people.  When people can’t find peace and happiness from within, they search for it in the world outside of them, oftentimes leaving a path of destruction behind.

The same applies to ambitions, goals, and dreams.  If you can’t be happy unless you achieve whatever it is you think needs to happen in your life, and if you think your personal happiness is all that matters in the world, you’ll step on everyone around you, chasing something that doesn’t even exist.  If you can’t be happy now, you won’t be happy later either.  If you can’t live and be happy in the present, you’re not going to be able to set goals to be happy in the future either.  You have nothing to go off of.

We live in a world where external things are supposed to fulfill you.  Achieving some goal (dreams), meeting some dream spouse (love), or owning some home (things), all of these things are what happiness supposedly is.  But it’s a lie we’re told to fuel the economy which needs people in perpetual want.   After all, the human race has to progress!  We need new gadgets.  Bigger homes.  Faster cars.  We need more!

quote-i-consider-it-extremely-doubtful-whether-the-happiness-of-the-human-race-has-been-enhanced-by-the-erwin-schrodinger-265333

Entertain me.  Please me.  Scratch my back.  Did you guys hear about the Playstation 4 video game console?  Chinese university students are forced to work in electronics factories putting together Playstations and iPhones or they cannot graduate.  It’s part of their curriculum.

People can’t wait.  Fast food, fast love, fast entertainment.  I want it NOW!  I don’t care what it does to Chinese workers or what their working conditions are.  I want my new console NOW!

If American workers were the ones forced to make Playstations under those conditions, we’d be furious.  But the Chinese are the “other”.

I spoke of how we need spiritual instruction more than anything else.  Jesus once said, “Seek first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things will be added unto you.”   And what does it mean to seek God?  God is love.  God’s kingdom is one in which we’re all brothers and sisters in a loving family.  We don’t take advantage of family.  Once we learn that lesson, and no longer think of outsiders as the “other”, a new form of prosperity and wealth will naturally come to us.  Why?  We’re not fighting one another, we’re cooperating.  Peace brings prosperity.

This world that we live in is a product of all of our actions.  If you’re able to find peace and love within yourself, if you can find that inner stillness deep inside you, coming to a place where you are no longer chasing or fearing things, finding a sense of contentment from within, then you’re able to give love, and that’s what the world needs more than anything.  You can’t give from deficiency, from an emptiness.  You have to give love from a well which springs within you.  That’s the adjustment your inner camera needs.

Topics: Philosophy, Psychology | 3 Comments »

What Is Obamacare?

October 4, 2013

There is a lot of confusion about Obamacare, so I’m going to take a short moment to explain what the bill actually contains.  If you go to Wikipedia and type in “Obamacare”, the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act comes right up.  It has eight main provisions which I will explain one by one.

1.  Guaranteed issue prohibits insurers from denying coverage to individuals due to pre-existing conditions, and a partial community rating requires insurers to offer the same premium price to all applicants of the same age and geographical location without regard to gender or most pre-existing conditions (excluding tobacco use).

So, for example, if you are a young person with diabetes and fall off your parent’s insurance plan, you cannot be denied health insurance coverage and you will pay the same rate as another young healthy adult.  If you have any health problems, insurance companies have to take you in anyways, and you will have the same low rate as anybody else.  The only exception to this is if you smoke.

2.  Minimum standards for health insurance policies are established.

3.  An individual mandate requires all individuals not covered by an employer sponsored health plan, Medicaid, Medicare or other public insurance programs (such as Tricare) to secure an approved private-insurance policy or pay a penalty, unless the applicable individual has a financial hardship or is a member of a recognized religious sect exempted by the Internal Revenue Service. The law includes subsidies to help people with low incomes comply with the mandate.

If you do not have health insurance, you will be required to purchase it.  But what if you can’t afford it?  After all, if you don’t have health insurance, chances are, that’s because you can’t afford it.  So how will this work?  Well, you go onto the new healthcare.gov website and sign up.  You’ll be asked about your finances, and depending on your situation, if you cannot afford it, the federal government is going to help you pay for it.

As for those who can afford health insurance but are not on a health plan, you will be fined by the IRS on your tax returns.  They’re going to make everyone get insured one way or the other.

4.  Health insurance exchanges will commence operation in every state. Each exchange will serve as an online marketplace where individuals and small businesses can compare policies and buy insurance (with a government subsidy if eligible). In the first year of operation, open enrollment on the exchanges runs from October 1, 2013 to March 31, 2014, and insurance plans purchased by December 15, 2013 will begin coverage on January 1, 2014. In subsequent years, open enrollment will start on October 15 and end on December 7.

Despite what you may have been hearing, President Obama’s healthcare policy is not a government take over of healthcare.  Obamacare sets up a healthcare exchange where private insurance companies compete for your business.  It’s a free market solution.  If you read the history of bill, Republicans actually endorsed this plan and have proposed similar plans over the past twenty-five to thirty years.  Why they’re being so obstinate now is beyond me.  For example, in 1993 Senator John Chaffee (Republican) proposed the Health Equity and Access Reform Today Act, a similar sort of plan which had individual mandates, penalties for non-compliance, “universal coverage”, as well as subsidies for those who cannot afford it.   In 1994 Senator Don Nickles (another Republican) proposed the Consumer Choice Health Security Act, which also had an individual mandate and penalties if you didn’t comply.  Republicans proposed these sorts of plans under George H.W. Bush in the early to mid-nineties, so it’s strange that constitutional issues are being raised.

A nearly identical plan is currently being used in Massachusetts where Mitt Romney was governor.  They implemented this policy in 2006 or something like that.  He was the Republican Presidential candidate who ran against President Obama for crying out loud!  To quote him directly, “I’m proud of what we’ve done. If Massachusetts succeeds in implementing it, then that will be the model for the nation.”

So where did Obamacare come from?  They saw this plan working really well in Massachusetts, with a Republican governor, so they said, “Hey, this plan is getting bipartisan support in Massachusetts, and it’s working out really well.  The poor are taken care of.  Everybody’s insured.  It’s not breaking the budget.  Let’s roll this plan out on a larger scale.”    And so, that’s what we’re trying to set up across the nation.   If you read the history of Obamacare in the Wikipedia article, it was specifically modeled on the healthcare plan devised by Governor Romney, a Republican businessman.  President Obama and most Democrats would prefer a single payer healthcare plan but they reached across the isle and said, “Ok, this plan ain’t bad either.”

5.  Low-income individuals and families whose incomes are between 100% and 400% of the federal poverty level will receive federal subsidies on a sliding scale if they purchase insurance via an exchange. Those from 133% to 150% of the poverty level will be subsidized such that their premium costs will be 3% to 4% of income. In 2013, the subsidy would apply for incomes up to $45,960 for an individual or $94,200 for a family of four; consumers can choose to receive their tax credits in advance, and the exchange will send the money directly to the insurer every month. Small businesses will also be eligible for subsidies.

As I mentioned, if you don’t have money, they’re going to to help you pay for your health insurance.  Sign up on the website and depending on your income, you will receive the appropriate level of help.

6.  Medicaid eligibility is expanded to include individuals and families with incomes up to 133% of the federal poverty level, including adults without disabilities and without dependent children. The law also provides for a 5% “income disregard”, making the effective income eligibility limit for Medicaid 138% of the poverty level. Furthermore, the State Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) enrollment process is simplified. However, in National Federation of Independent Business v. Sebelius, the Supreme Court ruled that states may opt out of the Medicaid expansion, and several have done so.

If you and your family are in poverty, Obamacare originally intended to pay for your healthcare in its entirety.  If you fell below 133% of the federal poverty income levels, you would be put on Medicaid and all your healthcare expenses would be completely insured.

How is poverty defined?  Well, it depends on the number of members in your household and your total household income.  Here’s a small table to help you get an idea.  If your family’s total income is less than 133% of these amounts, and your state is expanding Medicaid coverage, you will soon have full healthcare coverage under Medicaid.

federal poverty income levels

However, things didn’t go as planned.   There was a provision in the bill where states could opt out and not fund the program, and that’s what happened in the states with the largest number of poor citizens, unfortunately.  I’ll include a map so you can see which states funded the program and which did not.

ACA_Medicaid_expansion_by_state

 

The dark green states have expanded Medicaid coverage and will take care of all poor people in their states.  Light green states are still deciding what to do, and light gray states (uncolored) will not be expanding Medicaid coverage to the poor.  My state of Missouri is being the most obstinate of all.   Missouri will not even be involved in the health insurance marketplace nor will they expand Medicaid to these poor individuals.  Our governor and politicians are actively running campaigns to discourage enrollment or any compliance with these programs.  So, it’s a mess.

Take a look at this map of poverty within the United States.  The states with the poorest citizens are also those most obstinate against getting coverage.  I find it strange to see people in need, crossing their arms, telling you that if you help them get coverage, somehow you’re contributing to the ruin of our nation.   What can you do?

percent_in_poverty US POVERTY MAP

The Republican party is so against this idea of helping the poor, they have literally forced a government shutdown because they absolutely and resolutely refuse to help poor people pay for healthcare.   They won’t do it.   As for the rest of Obamacare, it’s a free market solution, created by a Republican businessman, so they really have no excuse to fight against it.

7.  Reforms to the Medicare payment system are meant to promote greater efficiency in the healthcare delivery system by restructuring Medicare reimbursements from fee-for-service to bundled payments. Under the new payment system, a single payment is paid to a hospital and a physician group for a defined episode of care (such as a hip replacement) rather than individual payments to individual service providers. In addition, the Medicare Part D coverage gap (commonly called the “donut hole”) will shrink and be completely closed by January 1, 2020.

8.  Businesses who employ 50 or more people but do not offer health insurance to their full-time employees will pay a tax penalty if the government has subsidized a full-time employee’s healthcare through tax deductions or other means. This is commonly known as the employer mandate.

Bigger, more successful companies have to offer healthcare coverage to all their full-time employees.  Unfortunately, I think this is going to lead a lot of companies to cut people’s hours so they don’t have to provide benefits, but it’s nice to see the government trying to force these big corporations to take care of their employees.  They’re all earning record profits.  Big companies like Wal-Mart used to give their employees benefits.  We’re just dealing with an unprecedented level of greed.

Topics: Politics | 3 Comments »

The World In Our Heads

October 3, 2013

If I wasn’t doing research as a physicist, the next best thing would be to build machines able perceive space and time.  Few of us think about what our brains are actually doing moment by moment, but if you inspect the activity carefully, you’ll find that over 50% of our cortex is dedicated to visual processing alone.  This includes creating a sense of space, identifying objects, seeing faces, analyzing emotional expressions,  creating a sense of motion from moving objects, and many other things.  It’s very involved.  To quote from a book of mine,

“… the parts of the brain that we know have something to do with vision are shown in colour.  Two points can be noted.  First, someone had to do a lot of colouring — over 50% of the cortex is involved in visual processing.  Recently we have begun to be able to chart what areas of the human brain might be involved in visual processing.  You might imagine that it would be far less — after all, we humans presumably need lots of brain for doing the things we think we do so well: reasoning, playing chess, doing hard sums, and so on.  However, it appears that the amount of cortex we devote to vision is just as large as in this monkey — over half of your cortex is devoted to merely seeing.  If we do some very rough sums and generously give hearing 10% of the cortex, all your other senses another 10%, and probably should allow 10-20% for moving all the bits of your body, you can see that there is hardly anything left over for doing the hard bits like chess, cross-words, and perception assignments.  But that is exactly the point.  Vision is easy because we have lots of brain devoted to it; chess is hard because we don’t have lots of brain devoted to it.  If the situation were reversed and over 50% of your cortex were devoted to chess you would, no doubt, be able to take on the most sophisticated computer in the world and beat it.  However, computers can now beat the most brilliant of humans when it comes to chess, but no computer in the world can put up the slightest of challenges when it comes to vision.  Indeed, we would happily back a humble housefly against the most sophisticated computer in ‘vision Olympics’.”

Basic Vision, An Introduction To Visual Perception

 

visual cortex

I oftentimes reflect on this fact when I’m doing theoretical physics and find the calculations difficult.  Most of my brain is sitting there idle while a small portion of my cortex deals with symbol manipulation and logic, working tirelessly to follow all these tedious rules I’ve learned over years of schooling.  If I deeply understand what the equations mean (which is difficult), I can try to visualize situations with my visual system and that gives me a much deeper understanding of what’s going on.  However, you have to realize that these visual areas have evolved here on Earth to avoid predators and find food, so they have a certain way of processing visual information and a very primitive model of space and time.  These systems are only accurate for medium sized systems moving at moderate speeds.  Matter at the atomic level does not behave in a way our brains easily understand, nor does the cosmos at large.  The thought of space and time bending around a black hole or subatomic particles being in two positions at once is almost nonsensical.

We’re just now coming to a level of technology where we can emulate the brain’s ability to perceive 3D space from a stream of images. I doubt the brain creates our sense of space in the exact same way, but I don’t know for sure.  As for artificial intelligence, the algorithm is called structure from motion and it’s one of the most amazing things we’ve ever done.

We have two eyeballs which are constantly zig-zagging this way and that way, sending our brain a stream of images from different perspectives.  Then nearly three fourths of your brain fires up, over thirty different processing centers, each doing their own task, analyzing corners, finding statistical patterns within the images, finding human faces, identifying objects, sorting them into positions within a spatial environment, calculating your bodily motions to move you across the kitchen, and all that good stuff.

Take motion for instance.  We have cells in our brain (the MT area of visual cortex) which are all tuned to motion in different directions.  They analyze that stream of images and compare the before and after.  If a certain pattern moves from here to there, they fire.  If a pattern moves up, another set of cells fire.  If it moves to the right, a different set of cells fire.  All of these little motion detectors combined give us a sense of moving objects in space.  But this system isn’t perfect and you can create weird visual illusions in yourself.  Take this Youtube video.  Just watch the swirls for around a minute.  This will highly stimulate your motion sensors in all different directions.  Then the movie cuts to a still image of a cloudy sky yet it will be swirling back and forth for a bit.  That’s because your motion sensors are still firing and haven’t settled down yet.

I keep a small library of medical neuroscience textbooks here in my study mainly for my studies in consciousness, space, and time.  All of these different processing centers we’ve mentioned can be damaged or injured in a stroke.  There are people unable to perceive motion.  The medical term is akinetopsia.  The world appears as a frozen, unmoving unity.  Even stranger, these people can still perceive the world.  They have a sense of being in space, there are objects in the room, and they can identify them.  It’s just nothing moves.  Those motion sensors aren’t working.  I’m interested in this phenomenon because I entertain the idea that our experience of time is an illusion.

Other people have brain damage in the areas which are doing things like structure from motion and they don’t have any sense of space.  Up, down, forward, backward, left, right, they don’t understand.  Some have a sense of space from other senses, such as that of touch, but some don’t even have that.   They often can’t grasp objects well either.  Their mind can’t do the calculations to orient their hands, arms, and other limbs in the right positions to make certain outcomes happen.

Even still, they can identify things.  You can hold a gallon of milk in front of them and they’ll say, “Oh, that’s a gallon of milk.”  They just don’t know where that object is in space.

Our brains create a model of the world but this model is very rough and limited.  A lot of what we perceive about the world is what we expect to perceive.  We focus on what’s most relevant to the task at hand and ignore most sensory data unless we have a good reason to pay attention to it.  Take this experiment.  If there’s even a momentary distraction, you can switch out entire people, change their gender, their looks, basically everything, and roughly half of people won’t even notice.

And even if you’re paying close attention, there has to be a certain intensity to the change for us to notice it.  If change happens very slowly and gradually, we don’t notice it.  This is interesting to me because it has to do with our sense of time and the experience of change.  It’s weird that in this next video things will be changing, but so slowly your brain won’t notice it.  It’ll appear to be a static image, but it’s not.

There is a sharp disconnect between the real world and how we actually experience things in our head.  We don’t perceive the real world.  We perceive a representation of it, a re-presentation, a second presentation of  it, based on a rough inaccurate model with extremely limited information.

You may think the solution to this dilemma is to create better and better brains which can perceive the world with ever greater accuracy, but there’s a problem.  If we do that, more and more of the world’s atoms have to be allocated to your brain and its processes.  You have to ignore less and less sensory information and need more and more hardware to process and store it all.  In the extreme limit, all of the atoms of the universe would go into making your brain and nothing would be left over for the external universe or other people.  You and the universe would become one and the same thing, with no external world to be a part of.

If we’re to have an external world where conscious, sentient beings interact and communicate with one another, our awareness of the external reality in which we’re all a part must be limited.  There’s no way around it.

Topics: Psychology | No Comments »

Time And The Indivisible World

September 29, 2013

I’d like to take a bit to share some thoughts on time.  This isn’t a strong opinion, but I lean in favor of a view where time doesn’t exist as a thing in and of itself.  Instead, maybe “we” bring it into existence as our consciousness navigates this eternal unity, which is the universe.  In reality, there is just an eternal now.

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I’d like to a take few quotations from Erwin Schrodinger.

It is not possible that this unity of knowledge, feeling and choice which you call your own should have sprung into being from nothingness at a given moment not so long ago; rather this knowledge, feeling, and choice are essentially eternal and unchangeable and numerically one in all men, nay in all sensitive beings. But not in this sense — that you are a part, a piece, of an eternal, infinite being, an aspect or modification of it… For we should then have the same baffling question: which part, which aspect are you? what, objectively, differentiates it from the others?

No, but, inconceiveable as it seems to ordinary reason, you — and all other conscious beings as such — are all in all. Hence, this life of yours which you are living is not merely a piece of this entire existence, but in a certain sense the whole; only this whole is not so constituted that it can be surveyed in one single glance.  This, as we know, is what the Brahmins express in that sacred, mystic formula… ‘Tat tvam asi’ — this is you. Or, again, in such words as ‘I am in the east and in the west, I am below and above, I am this whole world.’

Thus you can throw yourself flat on the ground, stretched out upon Mother Earth, with certain conviction that you are one with her and she with you … For eternally and always there is only now, one and the same now; the present is the only thing that has no end.

– Erwin Schrodinger, My View Of The World (1961)

Schrodinger strongly felt we are beings beyond space and time, a spirit if you will.

We do not belong to this material world that science constructs for us. We are not in it; we are outside. We are only spectators. The reason why we believe that we are in it, that we belong to the picture, is that our bodies are in the picture. Our bodies belong to it. Not only my own body, but those of my friends, also of my dog and cat and horse, and of all the other people and animals. And this is my only means of communicating with them.

– Erwin Schrodinger, Mind And Matter (1958)

Schrodinger was a very spiritual man, more akin to a mystic.

Vedanta teaches that consciousness is singular, all happenings are played out in one universal consciousness and there is no multiplicity of selves.

– Erwin Schrodinger, My View Of The World (1961)

Albert Einstein once wrote a letter to Schrodinger, referring to his famous cat in a box thought experiment.  Einstein said it “refuted most elegantly” the idea that there is an objective reality different from our own subjective experience of time.

You are the only contemporary physicist, besides Laue, who sees that one cannot get around the assumption of reality — if only one is honest. Most of them simply do not see what sort of risky game they are playing with reality — reality as something independent of what is experimentally established. Their interpretation is, however, refuted most elegantly by your system of radioactive atom + amplifier + charge of gun powder + cat in a box, in which the psi-function of the system contains both the cat alive and blown to bits. Nobody really doubts that the presence or absence of the cat is something independent of the act of observation.

– Albert Einstein, in a personal letter to Erwin Schrodinger

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I’d like to quote again from David Bohm’s textbook Quantum Theory.

The Indivisible Unity Of The World

We now come to the third important modification in our fundamental concepts brought about by the quantum theory; namely, that the world cannot be analyzed correctly into distinct parts; instead, it must be regarded as an indivisible unit in which separate parts appear as valid approximations only in the classical limit.  This conclusion is based on the same ideas that lead to the principle of complementarity; namely, that the properties of matter are incompletely defined and opposing potentialities that can be fully realized only in interactions with other systems.  Thus at the quantum level of accuracy, an object does not have any “intrinsic” properties (for instance, wave or particle) belonging to itself alone; instead, it shares all its properties mutually and indivisibly with the systems with which it interacts.  Moreover, because a given object, such as an electron, interacts at different times with different systems that bring out different potentialities, it undergoes (as we have seen in Sec 14) continual transformation between the various forms (for instance, wave or particle form) in which it can manifest itself.

The Indivisible Unity of Quantum Systems

…it can be seen that as we try to improve the level of accuracy of description, the classical program of analysis into parts eventually becomes infeasible.  The program of synthesis according to causal laws also becomes infeasible, since there are no exact causal laws.  We are led, instead, to a new point of view, based on the idea that the quanta connecting object and environment constitute irreducible links that belong, at all times, as much to one part as to the other.  Since the behavior of each part depends as much on these quanta as on its “own” properties, it is clear that no part of the system can be thought of as separate.

If, in a classical experiment, we discovered the presence of irreducible “links” between objects, we should then postulate a third object, the link, and thus re-establish the old type of description, this time in terms of three parts to the system.  In quantum theory, however, these quanta do not constitute separate objects, but are only a way of talking about indivisible transitions of the objects already in existence.  The fact that quanta are unpredictable and uncontrollable would, in any case, prevent their introduction as a third object from being of any use, since we could not in any definite way ascribe observed effects to them.

The Need for a Nonmechanical Description

The fact that quantum systems cannot be regarded as made up of separate parts working together according to causal laws means that we are now led to a fundamental change in our general methods of description of nature.  Only in the classical limit, where the effects of individual quanta are negligible and where their combined effects can be approximated by a causal description, is it possible to separate the world into distinct parts.  Even in the classical limit, we recognize that the separation between object and environment is an abstraction.  But because each part interacts with the other according to causal laws, we can still give a correct description in this way. In a system whose behavior depends critically on the transfers of a few quanta, however, the separation of the world into parts is a non-permissible abstraction because the very nature of the parts (for instance, wave or particle) depends on factors that cannot be ascribed uniquely to either part, and are not even subject to complete control or prediction.

Thus, by investigating the applicability of the usual classical criteria for analyzing a system into distinct parts, we have been led to the same conclusion as that obtained directly in Chap. 6, Sec. 13: The entire universe must, on a very accurate level, be regarded as a single indivisible unit in which separate parts appear as idealizations permissible only on a classical level of accuracy of description.  This means that the view of the world as being analogous to a huge machine, the predominant view from the sixteenth to nineteenth centuries, is now shown to be only approximately correct.  The underlying structure of matter, however, is not mechanical.

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Thought And The Uncertainty Principle

September 28, 2013

The past few weeks I’ve been reading a textbook written by David Bohm called Quantum Theory, an advanced undergraduate textbook he developed for his students at Princeton in the 1950s.  If you don’t know about David Bohm, he was a theoretical physicist who taught at Princeton and the University of London.  As a colleague and good friend of Albert Einstein, they worked together in developing quantum physics.

What I particularly enjoy is its philosophical speculations and ideas, such as this passage on how quantum mechanics relates to thought.  He believed that quantum effects within the brain were directly related to consciousness.   It seems that Niels Bohr entertained similar ideas as the textbook mentions discussions they had together.  Bohm argues that there are strong similarities between our thought processes and how matter behaves at small scales, tying together these ideas with the uncertainty principle.

There are wide ranges of experiences in which occur phenomena possessing striking resemblances to quantum phenomena.  These analogies will now be discussed, since they clarify the results of the quantum theory.  Some interesting speculations on the underlying reasons for the existence of such analogies will also be introduced.

The Uncertainty Principle and Certain Aspects Of Our Thought Processes

If a person tries to observe what he is thinking about at the very moment that he is reflecting on a particular subject, it is generally agreed that he introduces unpredictable and uncontrollable changes in the way his thoughts proceed thereafter.  Why this happens is not definitely known at present, but some plausible explanations will be suggested later.  If we compare (1) the instantaneous state of a thought with the position of a particle and (2) the general direction of change of that thought with the particle’s momentum, we have a strong analogy.

We must remember, however, that a person can always describe approximately what he is thinking about without introducing significant disturbances to his train of thought.  But as he tries to make the description precise, he discovers that either the subject of his thoughts, or their trend, or sometimes both become very different from what they were before he tried to observe them.  Thus, the actions involved in making any single aspect of the thought process definite appear to introduce unpredictable and uncontrollable changes in other equally significant aspects.

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A further development of this analogy is that the significance of thought processes appears to have indivisibility of a sort.  Thus, if a person attempts to apply his thinking more and more precisely defined elements, he eventually reaches a stage where further analysis cannot even be given a meaning.  Part of the significance of each element of a thought process appears, therefore, to originate in its indivisible and incompletely controllable connections with other elements.  Similarly, some of the characteristic properties of a quantum system (for instance, wave or particle nature) depend on indivisible and incompletely controllable quantum connections with surrounding objects.  Thus, thought processes and quantum systems are analogous in that they cannot be analyzed too much in terms of distinct elements, because the “intrinsic” nature of each element is not a property existing separately from and independently of other elements but is, instead, a property that arises partially from its relation with other elements.  In both cases, an analysis into distinct elements is correct only if it is so approximate that no significant alteration of the various indivisible connected parts would result from it.

There is also a similarity between the thought process and the classical limit of the quantum theory.  The logical process corresponds to the most general type of thought process as the classical limit corresponds to the most general quantum process.  In the logical process, we deal with classifications.  These classifications are conceived as being completely separate but related by the rules of logic, which may be regarded as the analogue of the causal laws of classical physics.  In any thought process, the component ideas are not separate but flow steadily and indivisibly.  An attempt to analyze them into separate parts destroys or changes their meanings.  Yet there are certain types of concepts, among which are those involving the classification of objects, in which we can, without producing any essential changes, neglect the indivisible and incompletely controllable connection with other ideas.  Instead, the connection can be regarded as causal and following the rules of logic.

Logically definable concepts play the same fundamental role in abstract and precise thinking as do separable objects and phenomena in our customary description of the world.  Without the development of logical thinking, we would have no clear way to express the results of our thinking, and no way to check its validity.  Thus, just as life as we know it would be impossible if quantum theory did not have its present classical limit, thought as we know it would be impossible unless we could express its results in logical terms.  For instance, many people have noted that a new idea often comes suddenly, after a long and unsuccessful search and without any apparent direct cause.  We suggest that if the intermediate indivisible nonlogical steps occurring in an actual thought process are ignored, and if we restrict ourselves to a logical terminology, then the production of new ideas presents a strong analogy to a quantum jump.  In a similar way, the actual concept of a quantum jump seems necessary in our procedure of describing a quantum system that is actually an indivisible whole in terms of words and concepts implying that it can be analyzed into distinct parts.

Possible Reason for Analogies between Thought and Quantum Processes

We may now ask whether the close analogy between quantum processes and our inner experiences and thought processes is more than a coincidence.  Here we are on speculative ground; at present very little is known about the relation between our thought processes and emotions and the details of the brain’s structure and operation.  Bohr suggests that thought involves such small amounts of energy that quantum-theoretical limitations play an essential role in determining its character.  There is no question that observations show that the presence of an enormous amount of mechanism in the brain, and that much of this mechanism must probably be regarded as operating on a classically describable level.  In fact, the nerve connections found thus far suggest combinations of telephone exchanges and calculating machines for complexity that has probably never been dreamed of before.  In addition to such a classically describable mechanism that seems to act like a general system of communications, Bohr’s suggestion involves the idea that certain key points controlling this mechanism (which are, in turn, affected by the actions of this mechanism) are so sensitive and delicately balanced that they must be described in an essentially quantum-mechanical way.  (We might, for example, imagine that such key points exist at certain types of nerve junctions.)  It cannot be stated too strongly that we are now on exceedingly speculative grounds.

Bohr’s hypothesis is not, however, in disagreement with anything that is now known.  And the remarkable point-by-point analogy between the thought processes and quantum processes would suggest that a hypothesis relating these two may well turn out to be fruitful.  If such a hypothesis could ever be verified, it would explain in a natural way a great many features of our thinking.

Even if this hypothesis should be wrong, and even if we could describe the brain’s functions in terms of classical theory alone, the analogy between thought and quantum processes would still have important consequences: we would have what amounts to a classical system that provides a good analogy to quantum-theory.  At the least, this would be very instructive.  It might, for example, give us a means for describing effects like those of the quantum theory in terms of hidden variables.  (It would not, however prove that such hidden variables exist.)

In the absence of any experimental data on this question, the analogy between thought and quantum processes can still be helpful in giving us a better “feeling” for quantum theory.  For instance, suppose that we ask for a detailed description of how an electron is moving in a hydrogen atom when it is in a definite energy level.  We can say that this is analogous to asking for a detailed description of what we are thinking about while we are reflecting on some definite subject.  As soon as we begin to give this detailed description, we are no longer thinking about the subject in question, but are instead thinking about giving a detailed description.  In a similar way, when the electron is moving with a definite trajectory, it simply can no longer be an electron that has a definite energy.

If it should be true that the thought processes depend critically on quantum-mechanical elements in the brain, then we could say that thought processes provide the same kind of direct experience of effects of quantum theory that muscular forces provide for classical theory.  Thus, for example, the pre-Galilean concepts of force, obtained from immediate experience with muscular forces, were correct, in general.  But these concepts were wrong, in detail, because they suggested that the velocity, rather than the acceleration, was proportional to the force. (This idea is substantially correct, when there is a great detail of friction, as is usually the case in common experience.)  We suggest that, similarly, the behavior of our thought processes may perhaps reflect in an indirect way some of the quantum-mechanical aspects of the matter of which we are composed.

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