Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Surface Reflection

Self-pity is a state that is almost impossible to maintain once you begin to suspect that someone else is worse off.

That’s probably why it can be so difficult to look the homeless in the eye. Most of us probably feel a little sorry for ourselves much of the time. We typically mask our self-pity with of sense of entitlement. A homeless person, a person with no relevant present and no hope for a future, can shake the foundations upon which self-pity—-or its costumed fa├žade, entitlement—-rests. Self-pity is a private affair, and cannot be shared or divided among others who are suffering any similar affliction. Self-pity requires careful isolation from the rest of mankind, a cultivated ignorance of the state of other people, the ability to turn a blind eye. One cannot share their self-pity, or parcel it out amongst likewise suffering comrades. That’s why people in crises, say, during war, are able to act in amazingly selfless ways. It’s because they are not able to maintain the level of self-pity required for inaction. So they throw themselves on a hand grenade or give their last drop of water to a thirsty stranger. But under more normal conditions, self-pity can be a useful tool. Like its relative, greed, it can serve as a conduit through which to channel daily activity in ways that lead to a temporary improvement in personal circumstances.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

The Mirage of Progress

We are an advanced civilization. What, exactly, does that mean? How is it that we have advanced? What is it that has advanced? Well, our technology for one thing. But what about our technology has advanced? We have more of it, and are getting more of it on a daily basis. That is, we are acquiring more and more technological applications; we are using technology in more and more ways. It is becoming, more and more, an inseparable part of our day-to-day existence. But is acquiring more the same as advancing? We can look into history and compare the technology of past times with that of the present and notice a difference. Further, we can see that the difference is accumulative; new technology builds upon--extends--the old. But does this accumulation mean that we have progressed? There is a sharp distinction to be made between accumulation and progress. The distinction is one of direction. To accumulate is merely to collect, to gather and retain, occasionally discard. Accumulation says nothing about a direction other than that associated with simple accretion: more as opposed to less. Progress implies a specific direction, an ultimate goal. Progress is toward something, whereas accumulation is of something. Are we merely accumulators, collectors, gatherers of technology or is there some final goal toward which our creation of complex tools is directed? If our technology is truly progressing, advancing toward a goal, then what is that goal?

There is an historical sense in which our technology can be said to have progressed. We can do things better now than we could in years past. We can cure diseases that used to wipe out whole populations. We can communicate and travel with speed and efficiency that would make our great-grandfathers dizzy and confused. We can peer into the outermost regions of the heavens and the innermost regions of the substance of matter itself. Through accumulative changes in our technology, we have acquired abilities and capacities that we did not have previously. But outside of this historical, backward-looking perspective, can it truly be said that we have progressed? Was the telegraph achieved in order to invent the telephone? Was radio devised on the way to creating television? Was the adding machine created with the personal computer as an end in view? Progress requires a goal. I can progress on my way to the top of a mountain. I can see that I am making some progress in paying-off my mortgage. But to where is our society’s technology progressing? What is the end-in-view such that we can look at where we are today, compare it with where we were yesterday, and say that we have made progress toward achieving this end? Maybe what we mistakenly call progress is just a drive toward ever-increasing complexity. Will the increase proceed without end? Will there be some point of no return at which the complexity exceeds our ability to control our own technology? Have we already passed that point? Is the ultimate goal a state in which we have been completely eclipsed, replaced by our technology? Perhaps it is not a drive toward complexity that lies behind technological change, but instead a particularly insidious manifestation of entropy. Perhaps the continual increase in complexity is indicative of our slow disintegration into chaos.

The idea of progress is not limited to technology. It taints our thoughts about other aspects of modern society as well. Consider, as a particularly salient example, the idea of economic growth. What does it mean to say that the economy is growing? Unlike the idea of technological progress, where there is some evidence for qualitative change, or at least a change in the direction of increased complexity, economic growth appears to be solely a matter of accumulation; a growing economy means more business, more consumption, more jobs, more money being spent, more money being made, more people getting rich. There is no end-in-view. There is only the incessant drive toward accumulating more and more and more and more. A few wise souls have come to realize that economic growth has nothing to do with progress, and further, that it cannot continue at an exponential rate indefinitely. These prophets of doom plead for a sustainable equilibrium. So far they have failed to convince anyone. They first need to find a way to undermine the irrational idea of progress and its corollary: the incoherent notion of sustainable growth.

The idea of the progress is to society what the idea of personal growth is to the individual. Both notions confuse change and an increase in complexity with progression toward some final end. Personal growth is thought to be movement toward some final realization of human potential: the achievement of self-actualization. Progress is likewise thought to be movement toward some final realization of the potential of society: utopia. Both ideas suffer from problems of teleology. Both suffer from problems of evaluative criteria. How are we to decide which changes are in the direction of utopia and which are not? Our society is becoming increasingly complex. Is utopia a condition of maximum complexity?

Human civilization is not heading for some ultimate culmination of history. Civilized society has not progressed anywhere since the first hominid shared food with his neighbor. It has changed. But this change is not change toward something. It is not change in a specific predetermined direction. It is change that has accrued though an accumulation of the effects of circumstances--political, geographical, and meteorological circumstances. Utopia, as with its parallel, self-actualization, is a mirage that keeps us staggering around in circles like a man delirious with thirst chasing the shimmering hope of an oasis that evaporates into the sand as he approaches.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Misplacing Evolution’s Role: A look at Seligman’s Authentic Happiness

I just finished reading Seligman’s Authentic Happiness, where he applies the principles of positive psychology to the pursuit of the good life. He makes several intriguing suggestions about the evolutionary basis of our emotional reactions; two that I want examine in some detail in what follows.

Positive psychology is a term that serves to highlight, by contrast, the activity of the vast majority of psychologists, historical and present. Psychology has long been a science focused on describing, understanding, and where possible, relieving psychological maladies. Seligman calls this negative psychology, because the focus is on negative human states. Positive psychology, in contrast, is a focus on understanding and encouraging positive human conditions, well-being, happiness, mental health.

Negative psychological states, such as anger, fear, depression, are in fact functional states from an evolutionary perspective. They serve as tools for orienting our behavior towards environmental circumstances. It is perhaps easiest to see the survival advantage of these states if we look at fear. It is difficult to imagine an organism of our complexity being able to navigate our social and physical landscape without fear as a potential guide. But this raises a question: why do we have positive emotional states? What survival role could they possible serve? Seligman borrows ideas from the book Non Zero to mold an explanation. Negative emotional states alert us to and help guide us through win-lose situations, situations with a zero-sum outcome: you or me, eat or be eaten. Our positive emotional states are designed to aid us in navigating win-win situations, situations that provide some mutual benefit to all parties involved. Thus our positive states play a role in group cohesiveness, friendship bonds, and cooperative activities that provide present or future benefit.

The book Non Zero, suggests that evolution has selected for organisms that could maximize the occurrence of win-win scenarios, thus leading to an increase in intellectual complexity, cultural complexity, and etc. Design without a designer, as the author calls it. It is an interesting hypothesis, and definitely warrants close consideration. But Seligman piggy-backs on this idea of design with out a designer and the evolutionary trend toward win-win, and suggests that the human race is headed toward greatness—even God-like omniscience and omnipotence as a result. That is, he sees a future end product of evolution in the bringing into existence the perfection of being, a.k.a., God.

In making this speculation, Seligman makes a very common error in thinking about natural selection. He neglects to consider the actual driver of natural selection: the environment. Win-win situations are always win-win with respect to a specific set of environmental conditions. They are always contingent conditions. A subtle change in environmental contingencies can yield a dramatic change in the requirements for a win-win outcome—or even in what counts as a “win.” Also, it is very likely that the human population is at or near the earth's carrying capacity, which means that win-win will only apply to some subset of the population, for the vast majority of the human inhabitants on an overpopulated planet, it will be win-lose. The earth is not big enough for all of us, so somebody has to go. This is win-lose all the way. Or perhaps, lose-lose. If we have already exceeded carrying capacity, then any win-win situation is really just a lose-lose situation in which the losses have been diluted, temporarily displaced, or concentrated in a marginalized or disregarded subset of the population.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Art and Life

Life is a sculpture and we are the artists giving it form.

Sometimes we start from the top down, with an image, a grand design, and we chisel away at a large hunk of stone with this image as our guide, first with a sledge hammer, but eventually with smaller and more complex tools, fleshing out fine details. And when the details start to emerge, we notice differences—sometimes dramatic differences—between the emerging structure and our original design. It’s as if the rock had a grand design of its own. How we respond to this mismatch determines the overall quality of our experience.

Other times we start from the bottom up, without a grand plan, with the empty space we call potential. And we add bits and pieces of clay a little at a time, molding each into what was added before. Eventually, with time and persistence, structure begins to emerge—unique and surprising—from the accretive mass. Sometimes what emerges is not what we would have chosen to create if we had taken a more deliberate path. It can be just as hard to change the result in this case as it would be to replace hewn pieces of stone. How we respond to the irreversibility of our situation determines the overall quality of our experience.

In the end, the quality of life does not depend on our sculpting ability, but on our ability to accept and appreciate what it is that we ultimately create.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Cognitive Conceit

Geocentrism versus heliocentrism? In an infinite universe, either interpretation is equally valid, equally meaningless.


Whether our existence has meaning or not comes to the same thing. And the question of whether meaning is divinely ordained or nothing more than an expedient of evolution makes very little sense to ask, given that the answer—if one were possible—would not graft the skin of a single incinerated Afghani child.

Hollow Goals


We are goal-directed beings. Our goals are how we define ourselves, how we sustain the illusion of meaning. In the absence of clear and present goals we lose ourselves and become easy prey to mindless distraction.


Our present culture compensates by making the search for mindless distraction a goal in itself.


The irony is that all our goals are hollow at their center. And to generate meaning through goal-directed action is to siphon coarse air into a brittle-elastic bubble. There is only one potential human goal that holds the promise of any true substance. But what person could aspire to such an end? What man could adopt the inevitable as his sole driving purpose? What kind of monster would he become—to direct each moment in earnest preparation for his own nonexistence?