The Human Mind Is Not So Simple

I just recently finished watching a really interesting set of documentaries called The Trap, made by the BBC.  The series explores the concept and definition of freedom, but from a very interesting perspective, specifically, “how a simplistic model of human beings as self-seeking, almost robotic creatures led to today’s idea of freedom.”

They begin by going back to the Cold War and examining the origins of Game Theory, which attempts to model human behavior into these strategy “games” where players try to outwit each other using probability theory.  Back then, the United States and the Soviet Union had nuclear missiles aimed at each other at all times.  There were planes and submarines moving all over the place, ready to fire off warheads if either side tried anything at all.  You read about this in history books and think to yourself, “My gosh, how did we even survive?  I can’t believe we’re still here.  The slightest provocation could have sent the world spiraling into a nuclear holocaust.”  What were our leaders thinking?

Well, they were using Game Theory!  The mathematical models they applied were literally created by a paranoid schizophrenic named John Nash who was admitted to a mental institution a few years later.  Nash was hearing voices in his head, feeling as if he could hear other people’s thoughts.  He was firmly convinced that all his colleagues were trying to steal his work and the very basis his mathematical models was that nobody can be trusted, and that the rational choice in every situation is to betray your opponent without even considering cooperation.  That absolutely insane line of thinking became the very basis of U.S. and Soviet nuclear weapons policy throughout the Cold War!

As you watch the series, you sit in your chair thinking, “Man!  This is nuts!”  and these terrible ideas embedded in Game Theory just propagate their way through academia and government.   For example, we’re introduced to a famous psychologist named R.D. Laing who was really big in the 1960s.  He applied these same mathematical Game Theory models to the family and came to absolutely absurd conclusions.  For example, true love was an illusion and really there was always a constant power struggle going on within the home.  Husbands and wives were in a constant battle, vying for command of the home’s resources, lying to children, trying to get the better of one another, and so on.  Then he applied the ideas to society at large, and mental illness was pronounced a tool of the state to silence dissent and all of psychiatry was a fraud.

A brilliant young psychologist named Rosenhan attended one of his lectures and devised a rather ingenious experiment to confirm whether or not psychiatry really was a sham.  He asked normal everyday folks to approach mental hospitals and tell the staff there, “I hear a faint, unclear voice uttering ‘thud’.”  Other than that, they were to act perfectly normal and never mention the voices again.  All of them were pronounced schizophrenic and mentally ill, and many of them were unable to leave the mental hospital without taking powerful psychotropic medications and pretending to get better.  Once the results of these studies were released, the psychology profession was thrown into disarray.  They needed a new way to diagnose mental illness which was objective and scientific.

This led a psychologist (I can’t remember his name now) to create a series of tests which could diagnose mental illness without the need for a psychiatrist.  The problem was these new tests had no way of taking into account a person’s individual life and circumstances, because all of that would be too complicated.  So we instead end up with a very superficial, shallow model of mental illness and the human mind.  Countless mental “disorders” are created, and normal human suffering is treated as a disorder.  Drug companies have a heyday with this and create pills for everything.  Normal people trying to cope with the issues of everyday life feel there’s something wrong with them and start visiting psychologists to “fix” them.

All of this is rooted in shallow, superficial models of human beings and our minds.  We’re very complicated creatures and we don’t fit into a math equation very easily.  You have to remember, none of Nash’s models work if people decide to cooperate and love each other.  His models always assume people are all out for themselves because if people love one another, and help one another without reason, and work together out of spirit of brotherly love, the models get way too complicated and he can’t put it all into equations.  So, in order to get things to work out, he had to simplify the human mind to something it’s not.  And strangely, the only solution he was able to work out, the so called Nash equilibrium, had to assume people were all out for themselves, and therefore the rational decision each and every time was to betray everyone else around you.  He proved that there was a stable system which would emerge if everyone pursued their own interests at all times.

Free market economists took this as proof that if everyone just pursued their own self-interest without regard for anyone else, a stable society would emerge.  Because these ideas were cloaked in mathematical equations and models, everything seemed scientific, so over time they were applied to the economic sphere and became embedded in our financial institutions and even our government.

All that I just mentioned was just the first episode.  The second episode goes into how attempts to put these ideas into our governmental institutions were a disaster and led to a very strange form of freedom.  A pseudo “market” was imposed on our social institutions, filled with quotas, targets, and plans.  People then cheated the system and the numbers themselves became unreliable.  To counteract this, new oversight agencies had to be established to verify that the numbers were being reported reliably and the whole system became very authoritarian.  A noble attempt to give social workers freedom to achieve goals any way they want ultimately led to a huge system of control.

For example, politicians tried to impose crime targets on police officers.  Every year the police had to find a way to lower such and such a crime rate, but what actually ended up happening is police officers reported severe crimes as if something of much less gravity happened in order to get their numbers down.  Rapes were reported as minor domestic disputes, and so on.  After all, if they didn’t bring that rate down, they didn’t get their raise, and in some cases lost their job entirely.  So, we then needed federal agencies to always watch the police officers, and you can see how this would soon spiral out of control.

The third episode deals with the Bush administration and how it was overrun by neoconservatives who wanted to bring democracy and freedom to the world by force.  That’s such a bizarre idea.  And strangely, as we’ve tried to free the world, we’ve ended up enslaving ourselves.  As we invaded all these countries which have done nothing to us, we’ve incited all kinds of hatred.  Now we have terrorists seeking revenge, their numbers all over the world are on the rise, and in order to protect ourselves from them we need to beef up our surveillance.  This brought us the Patriot Act and all the stories you’ve been hearing about lately, such as the recent NSA scandal.  Civil liberties are being taken away from us left and right, and our right to privacy is a thing of the past.  See the contradiction?

I would highly recommend watching the series.  It’s all on Youtube.  I’ll post the first episode.

Posted in Philosophy, Politics, Psychology | Leave a comment

Sweet Dreams

The past month or so, I’ve found myself thinking on freedom.  I’ve had all sorts of thoughts on the topic, and after weeks of churning on the ideas, I ended up having the strangest dreams.  I’ll tell you all about two of them, but there have been others which I don’t remember as well.

In the first dream, I was in a classroom with some old friends of mine from the basketball team in high school.  We were sitting in a math class and we were at the far side of the room.  None of us were paying attention and I remember telling them, “I already know this stuff.  Why am I in here?  This is such a waste.”  The teacher was handing back exams, and I showed them that I got 100%.  My friends laughed and eventually the bell rang and we were released.

The three of us got up out of our seats and headed out of the building into the parking lot.  This is where things get strange.  I turn around and notice a jock in a letter jacket and his girlfriend walking out the school doors, and then I turn back and notice my friends who were about to get into their car.  That’s when this strange feeling comes over me like some invisible presence entered the dream and handed me some sort of key.  I was given full control of the dream world and entered a fully immersive lucid experience.  And you want to know the strangest thing?  Most people will tell you how wonderful lucid dreams are, but it was the total opposite for me.  I immediately was angry!  Why?

Well, I grabbed that football player with my “mind” and drew him toward me, like those Star Wars Jedis do with the force.  The strange thing is, the football player didn’t even get nervous or even change his facial expression.  He remained in the same bodily position, staring off toward his girlfriend.  As he came toward me under my mind’s influence, I remember thinking of him as a sort of computer rendering.  I write a lot of 3D simulators, and at that point he was not unlike a complex static 3D model, not moving, no emotion, lifeless.  I then put him back and found that everything had stopped.  Everything stood absolutely still.  If something else was to happen from that moment onward, I had to make it happen.  I had to specify what was going to happen, think it out, and consciously use my little pea brain to direct the workings of everything, and I mean everything.  If the wind was to blow, I had to tell it how hard, the direction, everything.  Will the wind rustle the leaves, or will it just be a feeling on my cheek?  Will it make any sound in my ears?  Every movement, every sound, every spoken word, I had to direct it.  Everybody was just mindless puppets and the world was lifeless, without any spark or even wonder.

I immediately exclaimed to that invisible presence, “I’m not qualified for a job like this!”  Then I levitated myself a few feet off the pavement (I was in the parking lot) and went into a lotus position, just floating floated around this world that had suddenly stopped.  I thought to myself, over and over, “I don’t like this.  I don’t like this one bit.”  I looked over to my friends who were just about to get in their car and exclaimed to that presence, “What are they?  Puppets?  They’re my friends!  Move!”  But they wouldn’t move, not on their own at least.  Like I said, I was given complete control.

There was no love in that world.  No friendship.  No bonding.  It was just a thing.  A super complicated thing which was waiting on me to direct it, but I didn’t want that sort of control.

Disgusted, I ended up levitating my way to this sign in the parking lot and noticed some strange words in an unknown language.  They were written in normal English letters (Latin script) though, sort of like how you can see Japanese words written in the Latin script (Romanji).  I stared at the sign for quite a while.  It was a wooden sign, with the words painted in blue, and there were green trees painted as well.  It was very nice.  After memorizing what the sign said, I yelled out, “I want out of here!”  Then I woke up and found myself in my bed. That’s a recurrent theme among all these dreams I’ve been having.  I’m given some sort of control but then get angry, disgusted, or disappointed, and then say, “I don’t want this…” and wake up and end up back in this world, the real world.

The whole dream had me puzzled, so I turned on my computer and wondered what the words on that sign meant.  I expected it to be garbage, meaning nothing.  Random letters strung together. I googled the text and after doing a little digging, I found a translation, which freaked me out.  The words, which I had written down after waking up, not having any idea what they meant, translated to, “A playground for God’s friend.”  They were Hebrew.  They were real.  And even stranger, I don’t know Hebrew.  I’ve never studied Hebrew.  I know nothing at all about Hebrew.  I paced up and down the hallway, up and down, up and down.  I’ve never been exposed to Hebrew.  Why are Hebrew words showing up in my dreams?  Maybe I had learned a little Hebrew at some point but just don’t remember it?  I just kept exclaiming to myself, “This can’t be!  I don’t know Hebrew, at all!”  It was an experience which left a strong impression on me.

But as I mentioned, that wasn’t the only strange dream I had.

A few nights later I found myself in another dream world.  I was a bit older than I am now, and I was in this beautiful wooden home, in a secluded forest.  There was also someone living with me and it wasn’t a woman, to my surprise.  It was a crippled old man who couldn’t move.  I knew him and we were friends, but he was completely paralyzed and wasn’t even able to speak.  He couldn’t move at all.  So, I would sit there in this secluded home, talking to him.  I then told him, “You know the problem with this place?  Friends and family are what make a place home.  It’s too lonely out here, just you and I.”

That’s when I quickly learned that my disabled friend had great powers.  Tremendous powers!  Without moving he just thought of “change” in his head and all of the sudden all of my family, and all of my friends throughout my entire life were packed into this woodland home.  Everyone was laughing, eating snacks, and having a great time, but I still felt lonely.

I walked around this beautiful home, and though everyone was smiling, partying, and in utter delight, none of it felt right.  It felt empty.  It felt forced, if that makes any sense.  I knew, deep down, in some way I couldn’t explain, that I wasn’t in the right place.  I then told the disabled man, “This is the past.  This is all old.  This isn’t right.”

Nobody seemed to notice my disappointment, and they all went on their way.  It was a party at my house, but it didn’t feel like “my” party.  It felt like a bunch of other people just getting together in my house and I wasn’t integral to any of it.  I then found my disabled friend off in the corner, all by himself.  Expressionless, emotionless, lifeless.  He sat there paralyzed, unable to move.  I sat beside him and said, “This is no party.”   He then “thought” again and we were again alone.  Everyone but us disappeared and we were left alone in the log home.

Realizing this man’s powers, I thought, “You can make any life I ask you to…  This is the home I’ve been dreaming of for years and you made it for me, didn’t you?”  But he sat there, not moving at all.  He couldn’t even control where he looked and he was locked into some stare at the corner of my room.  Then I sat down in a chair beside him, frustrated.  “But this isn’t right.  This is no good.  No good at all.”  Words then sprang out of me, “My life right now, as I’m living it, is more interesting than this.”   Then I woke up in my bedroom again.

That dream also had a profound impact on me.  After all, who was the man in the wheelchair?  It took me some time to realize it, but eventually I figured it out — it was God.  Instead of letting the great powers of the universe write my life’s story, I instead wanted to, and I found myself woefully inadequate for the task.  The great power of the universe was bound to following my wishes, and I had no idea what I even wanted to experience.

As I’ve often mentioned, I’ve grown up in a deeply religious home.  Obviously you can see religious themes in my thought and even dreams.  But you know, I used to think that faith was believing you could achieve something you set out to do.  After thinking deeply about freedom and having dreams like this, I’m realizing that faith is a sort of blind commitment, an openness to the world, letting the old man (the world) fill in all the complicated details of your story, even if you don’t know what’s going to happen or fully understand what’s going on.  If the world had a voice, it’s a willingness to listen and let it reveal itself to you.  That’s how you let the old man out of the wheelchair.  He (It?) can write a much better story than you ever could, but only if you let it loose.

Posted in Personal, Philosophy | 2 Comments

NSA Wiretapping Strategy

Are you fed up with the continual erosion of our privacy and civil liberties?  Are you outraged that the NSA is spying on each and every one of us?  Are you looking for a way to help?

The solution is simple:  Learn to talk like a terrorist and make it a part of your everyday vernacular.  It’s brilliant.  Why didn’t I think of that?

Posted in Politics | 2 Comments

100 Billion Galaxies

I know I haven’t written a substantive post on my site for a while.  I apologize for that.  I’ve been busy working in the lab and doing my own research on various things!  I do have plans to write a good post here soon.

Besides studying solid state physics, I’ve been researching international relations and political theory.  I’ll be writing up some posts on those things, I think.  In the meantime, I found a great video which goes along well with the photograph I posted just the other night.

“Those worlds in space are as countless as all the grains of sand on all the beaches of the Earth.  Each of those worlds is as real as ours, in every one of them there is a succession of incidents, events, occurrences which influence its future.  Countless worlds.  Numberless moments.  An immensity of space and time.”

– Carl Sagan

“There are in fact 100 billion galaxies, each of which contain something like a 100 billion stars. Think of how many stars, and planets, and kinds of life there may be in this vast and awesome universe.” “We find that we live on an insignificant planet, of a humdrum star, lost in a galaxy, tucked away in some forgotten corner of a universe, in which there are far more galaxies than people.”

– Carl Sagan

Posted in Physics | Leave a comment

Let’s Walk Together Under The Stars

If you’re up late some night, unable to sleep, and find your thoughts wandering, as mine often do, I’ll ask you to close your eyes and imagine yourself on a walk with me on a rural Missouri country road.  We’ll talk about our lives, look up at the stars, and reflect on the big questions of the universe.

1DX_4922-Edit-1-smallAnd just if you’re wondering, that really is me walking down a moonlit road not far from where I live.  While the world sleeps, I do my best thinking under the stars.  Special thanks to my friend Greg for taking the picture.

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