I think of my body as a single entity; I think of my family as a team.
Here I am, with my hands hovering over a keyboard. My fingers press keys corresponding to the words I want. I think; I am; this I is in control.
Which is very unlike the behaviors of my family. When I use my own hands to put a plate into the dishwasher, I’ll rinse the plate then slot it neatly into the next available position; when I say to my children, “please put your plates into the dishwasher,” things often end up at odd angles. I might rearrange everything before I run the machine.
My children’s behavior is partly under my control – I can ask them to help, and they know that I’ll be less likely to play board games with them later if they don’t – but my children are also quite clearly independent entities. They have their own goals, their own personalities.
And I know that they’re separate from me. I know that my children aren’t mine to command.
If I were to forget, then I’d perceive the world more like a human baby. Or an adult octopus.
In Marigold and Rose, Louise Glück describes the relationship of two infants, one of whom is designated a writer, in ways vaguely reminiscent of the early chapters of Steven Millhauser’s Edwin Mulhouse.
At times, Glück employs the innocent voices of her protagonists to offer blunt social commentary, such as a critique of our capitalist reflex to undervalue caretaking:
It was also around this time that Mother began to talk about going back to work. She told Father that she wanted to contribute to the household.
If you asked the twins (no one did) they would say that Mother contributed by being Mother. Father explained that to Mother this was different because mothers didn’t get paid and apparently people who got paid contributed and people who didn’t get paid were no help at all.
The twins saw right through this.
As I was reading Marigold and Rose, however, I found myself wishing that Glück engaged with the fundamental (and fascinating!) differences between adult and infant consciousness.
Admittedly, it’s hard to understand the inner experiences of creatures who can’t speak to us, as Thomas Nagel ponders in the essay “What Is It like to Be a Bat?” But, honestly, we can’t fully understand the inner experiences of anyone, no matter how many words they use to convey their feelings. In “The Bear’s Kiss,” Leslie Jamison writes that:
When we love animals, we love creatures whose conception of love we’ll never fully understand. We love creatures whose love for us will always be different from our love for them.
But isn’t this, you might wonder, the state of loving other people as well? Aren’t we always flinging our desire at the opacity of another person, and receiving care we cannot fully comprehend?
So we try our best. With our romantic partners, our friends, our children, we can ask questions and listen. Each question is a science experiment. Our inquiring words perturb the system; we carefully observe what happens next. What facial expressions flit across our interlocutor’s face? If they answer, what do they say?
Similarly, we’ve used experiments to delve into the inner lives of bats. We observe them carefully, trying our best to comprehend. We’ve learned that their brains are quite large relative to their tiny bodies. Some are intensely social: they huddle near & share food with their friends. The males of several species have very large genitalia (again, relative to their tiny bodies) and delight their partners with oral stimulation. They use echolocation to navigate through unfamiliar or crowded areas, but will flit unthinkingly through their usual haunts – much like the way we shuffle mindlessly toward the kitchen every morning – and crash into unexpected spelunkers. They are very different from us, and not.
Over time, it’s unclear whether we might better understand what it would feel like to be a bat, or what it would feel like to be Thomas Nagel.
Or a human baby.
Or an octopus.
As best we can tell, very young babies perceive their bodies as extending through space. My first child, seeing me across the room, would have perceived her legs as being across the room. Those were the legs that moved her from place to place.
At the time, she was still developing control over her body. Her face would sometimes make expressions like smiles, sometimes like horrible grimaces, cycling through countenances like a 1990s screensaver. And it took a long while before she understood exactly how to move her arm toward something instead of flailing wildly until she happened to hit it.
Later, she spent several days with her hand in front of her face, gazing in awe as the fingers clenched and then extended. Our brains devote so many neurons to the manipulation of our hands! She was figuring them out.
And, at that time, she could control “her” legs – my legs, across the room – almost as well as she could control any other muscle. She activated her legs with a yell, she directed them by bobbling her head in one direction or another. Sometimes her legs did what she wanted, sometimes they didn’t, but that was true of every muscle in her body.
Which an adult octopus would understand. Each tentacle has a mind of its own, a brain with its own distinct personality. The octopus’s central nervous system sometimes commands coordinated action from every tentacle – the way my children’s bodies and mine all scamper toward the door when I suddenly exclaim “We have to get in the car right now or we’re going to be late for school!” – but at other times, each tentacle acts independently.
Human babies and adult octopuses both behave as though their consciousness is decentralized.
In Marigold and Rose, however, the infants think and behave like miniature adults, much like the babies painted by medieval artists. When Marigold watches her mother, she knows that she’s observing an entity separate from herself:
Mother did not spend a lot of time on the blanket; she was energetic and purposeful. This must be why she had twins, Marigold thought, instead of a regular baby. It was known Father had wanted a goldfish. The twins watched from the blanket. It was still safe there; they couldn’t as yet crawl.
In all fairness, I’m not sure how well adult readers would understand the inner monologue of an infant depicted accurately: perhaps the first sentence of this scene would sound something like, my legs were restless & left the blanket; my milk was far away.
But we’d soon reach thoughts that would be difficult to translate into adult understanding. My favorite passages from Jazmina Barrera’s Linea Nigra toy with this incomprehension (as translated by Christina MacSweeney):
For no particular reason, I’ve spent a lot of time trying to understand and translate into Spanish a couple of sentences by Megan O’Rourke: “A mother is beyond any notion of a beginning. That’s what makes her a mother: you cannot start the story.”
I’m getting those lines mixed up with a poem by Katie Schmid called “The Boatman”:
— In the afterlife the first face I see is my mother’s. —
— Every mother is the boatman, having once been the boat. —
I keep trying but the Spanish words won’t say what I mean.
There’s a deep strangeness at the beginning of each of our lives. We were much like cephalopods, once; by the time we reach adulthood (or even childhood!), we have forgotten.
We sailed a parent’s body, a living boat. Later, blinking in the light of the world, our bodies spread throughout the room.
As best we know, every particle in our universe follows the exact same physical laws.
These laws are not “deterministic.” We wouldn’t know what would happen next even if we could somehow measure everything about the state of our universe right now. But the unpredictable parts of each particle’s motion – due to each particle possessing a probabilistic mix of perhaps contradictory properties, which sounds strange in metaphorical languages (like English, Spanish, Mandarin, etc.) but not when expressed in mathematics – are totally outside of our control.
As best we know, humans shouldn’t have free will. Our future behaviors will unfold from the present positions and momenta of all the particles in our brains and bodies and the environments around us. Our thoughts will result from cascades of salt atoms crossing neuronal membranes. These salt atoms – like all other particles – are simply following physical laws that are, ahem, totally outside our control.
As best we know, we can make no choices.
As best we know, it’s still totally reasonable for the collections of particles inside our brains and bodies to experience an emergent phenomenon like consciousness. The particles inside of us collaboratively form neurons which collaboratively form minds. These minds can feel. But these minds still follow physical laws.
We can experience choices, not make them.
As best we know, we should experience our lives only passively, as though watching extremely immersive television shows. At times our minds would feel as though they had made choices, but that would just be a plot device. Cinematographic trickery! The choices are actually made by the positions and momentums of particles inside of us, which always result from their positions and momentums a moment before, and so on.
The math all works out.
So, for people who understand the math and the underlying physics, there’s a choice to be made (or perhaps I should say, “the person will passively feel as though they have made a choice”): should they believe in the laws of physics, or should they believe in free will?
Free will certainly feels real. But the sun also feels like it revolves around our planet. Our feelings have been wrong before.
InExistential Physics, Sabine Hossenfelder professes not to believe in free will. But Hossenfelder’s disbelief feels unconvincing. For instance, in describing how we can react to immoral behavior without referencing free will, Hossenfelder writes that:
“We evaluate which actions are most likely to improve our lives in the future.”
This is nonsense, of course. Without free will, there is nothing to evaluate– “evaluate” is an active verb that implies choice. Without free will, we would have no way to“improve our lives,” because this phrasing also implies action and choice. If the entire course of the future depends solely on the current positions and momenta of particles, then our lives will simply happen. The future isn’t predetermined – the mathematics of quantum mechanics injects randomness into the future – but we have no way to influence it. The future course of our lives is not up to us.
The particles will act as they must. Our minds will only watch.
As best we know, the laws of physics tell us that each and every moment in which we feel like an active participant in our lives is simply an illusion.
Personally, I believe the laws of physics are wrong. So does Hossenfelder, most of the time. In her day to day life, she contemplates cognitive biases – for example, the “sunk cost fallacy,” that makes it easy for people to continue making a bad choice so that they don’t feel bad about the bad choices they’ve already made, like when Hossenfelder further delays enrolling in a frequent flier program because she has already missed out on some benefits – and in her better moments, Hossenfelder chooses to overcome them. Hossenfelder also believes that she chose to study physics (and she believes that more people would make a similar choice if introductory physics were taught with a different mathematically formulation).
Hossenfelder discusses the ways that poverty and childhood trauma caninfluence the choices that we make as adults – some decisions feel easier than others because we are always sailing through a headwind of our past experiences – but in every passage of the book, Hossenfelder conveys her belief in free will.
And for good reason! We do have free will. Everyone agrees – even people who, for professional reasons, claim that free will can’t exist.
Honestly, there’d be no other way to live. Human brains couldn’t fathom existence without choice.
So, where does that leave us?
Either our belief in free will is wrong, or our current understanding of physics is wrong. As Hossenfelder meticulously explains, the two belief systems are incompatible.
Personally, I think our current understanding of physics is wrong. And I felt surprised that Hossenfelder never even mentions a major assumption that underlies her work. Occasionally, her chapters will include descriptions of theories that she doesn’t favor (usually followed by a curt dismissal), but the entire text of Existential Physics ignores the most glaring flaw in Hossenfelder’s arguments.
For instance, Hossenfelder writes that “We are all ultimately made of particles, and these particles follow computable equations.” And maybe this is true! But we have no evidence to suggest that it is.
All computation is digital. We can perform digital calculations at various levels of precision – for instance, if we’re trying to predict the behavior of a marble inside a pinball machine, we might measure the marble’s position down to the nearest inch, or tenth of an inch, or hundredth of an inch – but computation can never handle infinite precision. You can’t write the exact square root of two in decimal notation. You can’t write down the exact solution for the behavior of particles in any system with three or more – we can perform excellent calculations for the electronic structure of a hydrogen atom floating in an otherwise empty universe, but for atoms like helium, or for anything more complicated, we couldn’t come up with exact solutions even if we found empty universes for them to exist inside.
Possibly, our universe is digital, too. The mathematics of contemporary physics works best if we believe that our universe exists on a lattice of positions spaced approximately a Planck length apart: this would be a bit like a digital picture, where you can zoom in so far that eventually you’ll see that a red pixel can be either here or there but not anywhere in between.
Many of Hossenfelder’s claims presuppose that our universe is digital. In a digital universe, the amount of information in any particular volume of space would be finite. Decimal mathematics could correctly express everything. We could solve three-body problems, and the chaotic glitches** caused by rounding errors in our computations would be mirrored by chaotic glitches caused by rounding errors in the universe itself!
Wouldn’t that be grand!
But the only “evidence” we have so far that our universe might be digitized – pixelated, voxelated – is that it makes computation easier. That’s not compelling evidence.
It is testable. Consider a hydrogen atom held at a specific location with its electron in an excited orbital. When its electron collapses back to the ground state, the atom emits a photon that zooms off in a random direction. We might then kick the hydrogen’s electron back into an excited state, let it relax to the ground state again, and send another photon zooming off in another random direction. Again and again, photons zoom away!
If physical space were continuous, then the photons produced by this experiment could hit every possible location on detectors placed at any distance away – the probability distribution for photon collisions would be smooth over a sphere. But if physical space were digital, then photons could fly off in straight paths starting only at lattice points adjacent to the hydrogen atom (after accounting for the superposition of possible hydrogen positions). A graph of the probability distribution of photon strikes over a large sphere would show dark regions where photons couldn’t reach – locations where a photon’s path would’ve needed to pass between two lattice points to get there.
As best we know, the spacing between lattice points – if our universe were digital – would be ten to the minus thirty-fifth meters, which is like taking a yardstick and slicing it into a billion pieces, then slicing that piece into a billion pieces, and slicing that into a billion pieces, and slicing that into a billion, until you’ve taken just one billionth part four times over. This is very tiny! Which means that we wouldn’t notice a dark region unless our detector was very far away, and we would have to repeat this experiment with many photons to reveal it.
But – unlike several theories in contemporary physics – this is testable. It’s just an excruciating engineering problem.
Until we test this, though, Hossenfelder’s ardent claims – such as her claim that we can’t have free will – are a matter of belief. Although Hossenfelder doesn’t address this in her text, her worldview presupposes a digitized universe. There simply isn’t any evidence for this.
Until then, I’m perfectly content believing in free will. Even if my belief presupposes that our universe is continuous and is therefore not computable. I mean, computers are fun and all. But the way they work might not mirror our world. Even if that would make the math look prettier.
** Note: often, numerical approximations of a solution will approach the real answer. If we were working on a problem that involved the number pi, we might treat pi as being equal to 3.14 and we’d get an answer, and then we could go through the math again while setting pi equal to 3.14159, and we’d often get an answer that was very similar and slightly more accurate. But certain systems exist at the cusp of very different behaviors – for example, if we were studying a neuron that was close to the threshold of either firing or not, small changes in our understanding of the present would lead to large changes in our predictions for the future. Sometimes rounding errors don’t matter much; sometimes they do.
This is part of a series of essays prepared to discuss in jail.
Our bodies are chaos engines.
In our nearby environment, we produce order. We form new memories. We build things. We might have sex and create new life. From chaos, structure.
As we create local order, though, we radiate disorder into the universe.
The laws of physics work equally well whether time is moving forward or backward. The only reason we experience time as flowing forward is that the universe is progressing from order into chaos.
In the beginning, everything was homogeneous. The same stuff was present everywhere. Now, some regions of the universe are different from others. One location contains our star; another location, our planet. Each of our bodies is very different from the space around us.
This current arrangement is more disorderly than the early universe, but less so than what our universe will one day become. Life is only possible during this intermediate time, when we are able to eat structure and excrete chaos.
Sunlight shines on our planet – a steady stream of high-energy photons all pointed in the same direction. Sunshine is orderly. But then plants eat sunshine and carbon dioxide to grow. Animals eat the plants. As we live, we radiate heat – low-energy photons that spill from our bodies in all directions.
The planet Earth, with all its life, acts like one big chaos engine. We absorb photons from the sun, lower their energy, increase their number, and scatter them.
We’ll continue until we can’t.
Our universe is mostly filled with empty space.
But empty space does not stay empty. Einstein’s famous equation, E equals M C squared, describes the chance that stuff will suddenly pop into existence. This happens whenever a region of space gathers too much energy.
Empty space typically has a “vacuum energy” of one billionth of a joule per cubic meter. An empty void the size of our planet would have about as much energy as a teaspoon of sugar. Which doesn’t seem like much. But even a billionth of a joule is thousands of times higher than the energy needed to summon electrons into being.
And there are times when a particular patch of vacuum has even more energy than that.
According to the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, time and energy can’t be defined simultaneously. Precision in time causes energy to spread – the energy becomes both lower and higher than you expected.
In practice, the vacuum energy of a particular region of space will seem to waver. Energy is blurry, shimmering over time.
There are moments when even the smallest spaces have more than enough energy to create new particles.
Objects usually appear in pairs: a particle and its anti-particle. Anti-matter is exactly like regular matter except that each particle has an opposite charge. In our world, protons are positive and electrons are negative, but an anti-proton is negative and an anti-electron is positive.
If a particle and its anti-particle find each other, they explode.
When pairs of particles appear, they suck up energy. Vacuum energy is stored inside them. Then the particles waffle through space until they find and destroy each other. Energy is returned to the void.
This constant exchange is like the universe breathing. Inhale: the universe dims, a particle and anti-particle appear. Exhale: they explode.
Our universe is expanding. Not only are stars and galaxies flying away from each other in space, but also empty space itself is growing. The larger a patch of nothingness, the faster it will grow. In a stroke of blandness, astronomers named the force powering this growth “dark energy.”
Long ago, our universe grew even faster than it does today. Within each small fraction of a second, our universe doubled in size. Tiny regions of space careened apart billions of times faster than the speed of light.
This sudden growth was extremely improbable. For this process to begin, the energy of a small space had to be very, very large. But the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle claims that – if we wait long enough – energy can take on any possible value. Before the big bang, our universe had a nearly infinite time to wait.
After that blip, our universe expanded so quickly because the vacuum of space was perched temporarily in a high-energy “metastable” state. Technically balanced, but warily. Like a pencil standing on its tip. Left alone, it might stay there forever, but the smallest breath of air would cause this pencil to teeter and fall.
Similarly, a tiny nudge caused our universe to tumble back to its expected energy. A truly stable vacuum. The world we know today was born – still growing, but slowly.
During the time of rapid expansion, empty vacuum had so much energy that particles stampeded into existence. The world churned with particles, all so hot that they zipped through space at nearly the speed of light.
For some inexplicable reason, for every billion pairs of matter and anti-matter, one extra particle of matter appeared. When matter and anti-matter began to find each other and explode, this billionth extra bit remained.
This small surplus formed all of stars in the sky. The planets. Ourselves.
Meditation is like blinking. You close your eyes, time passes, then you open your eyes again. Meditation is like a blink where more time passes.
But more is different.
Our early universe was filled with the smallest possible particles. Quarks, electrons, and photons. Because their energy was so high, they moved too fast to join together. Their brilliant glow filled the sky, obscuring our view of anything that had happened before.
As our universe expanded, it cooled. Particles slowed down. Three quarks and an electron can join to form an atom of hydrogen. Two hydrogen atoms can join to form hydrogen gas. And as you combine more and more particles together, your creations can be very different from a hot glowing gas. You can form molecules, cells, animals, societies.
When a cloud of gas is big enough, its own gravity can pull everything inward. The cloud becomes more and more dense until nuclear fusion begins, releasing energy just like a nuclear bomb. These explosions keep the cloud from shrinking further.
The cloud has become a star.
Nuclear fusion occurs because atoms in the center of the cloud are squooshed too close together. They merge: a few small atoms become one big atom. If you compared their weights – four hydrogens at the start, one helium at the finish – you’d find that a tiny speck of matter had disappeared. And so, according to E equals M C squared, it released a blinding burst of energy.
The largest hydrogen bomb detonated on Earth was 50 megatons – the Kuz’kina Mat tested in Russia in October, 1961. It produced a mushroom cloud ten times the height of Mount Everest. This test explosion destroyed houses hundreds of miles away.
Every second, our sun produces twenty billion times more energy than this largest Earth-side blast.
Eventually, our sun will run out of fuel. Our sun shines because it turns hydrogen into helium, but it is too light to compress helium into any heavier atoms. Our sun has burned for about four billion years, and it will probably survive for another five billion more. Then the steady inferno of nuclear explosions will end.
When a star exhausts its fuel, gravity finally overcomes the resistance of the internal explosions. The star shrinks. It might crumple into nothingness, becoming a black hole. Or it might go supernova – recoiling like a compressed spring that slips from your hand – and scatter its heavy atoms across the universe.
Planets are formed from the stray viscera of early stars.
Our universe began with only hydrogen gas. Every type of heavier atom – carbon, oxygen, iron, plutonium – was made by nuclear explosions inside the early stars.
When a condensing cloud contains both hydrogen gas and particulates of heavy atoms, the heavy atoms create clumps that sweep through the cloud far from its center. Satellites, orbiting the star. Planets.
Nothing more complicated than atoms can form inside stars. It’s too hot – the belly of our sun is over twenty million degrees. Molecules would be instantly torn apart. But planets – even broiling, meteor-bombarded planets – are peaceful places compared to stars.
Molecules are long chains of atoms. Like atoms, molecules are made from combinations of quarks and electrons. The material is the same – but there’s more of it.
More is different.
Some atoms have an effect on our bodies. If you inhale high concentrations of oxygen – an atom with eight protons – you’ll feel euphoric and dizzy. If you drink water laced with lithium – an atom with three protons – your brain might become more stable.
But the physiological effects of atoms are crude compared to molecules. String fifty-three atoms together in just the right shape – a combination of two oxygens, twenty-one carbons, and thirty hydrogens – and you’ll have tetrahydrocannibol. String forty-nine atoms together in just the right shape – one oxygen, three nitrogens, twenty carbons, and twenty-five hydrogens – and you’ll have lysergic acid diethylamide.
The effects of these molecules are very different from the effects of their constituent parts. You’d never predict what THC feels like after inhaling a mix of oxygen, carbon, and hydrogen gas.
An amino acid is comparable in scale to THC or LSD, but our bodies aren’t really made of amino acids. We’re built from proteins – anywhere from a few dozen to tens of thousands of amino acids linked together. Proteins are so large that they fold into complex three-dimensional shapes. THC has its effect because some proteins in your brain are shaped like catcher’s mitts, and the cannibinoid nestles snuggly in the pocket of the glove.
Molecules the size of proteins can make copies of themselves. The first life-like molecules on Earth were long strands of ribonucleic acid – RNA. A strand of RNA can replicate as it floats through water. RNA acts as a catalyst – it speeds up the reactions that form other molecules, including more RNA.
Eventually, some strands of RNA isolated themselves inside bubbles of soap. Then the RNA could horde – when a particular sequence of RNA catalyzed reactions, no other RNA would benefit from the molecules it made. The earliest cells were bubbles that could make more bubbles.
Cells can swim. They eat. They live and die. Even single-celled bacteria have sex: they glom together, build small channels linking their insides to each other, and swap DNA.
But with more cells, you can make creatures like us.
Consciousness is an emergent property. With a sufficient number of neuron cells connected to each other, a brain is able to think and plan and feel. In humans, 90 billion neuron cells direct the movements of a 30-trillion-cell meat machine.
Humans are such dexterous clever creatures that we were able to discover the origin of our universe. We’ve dissected ourselves so thoroughly that we’ve seen the workings of cells, molecules, atoms, and subatomic particles.
But a single human animal, in isolation, never could have learned that much.
Individual humans are clever, but to form a culture complex enough to study particle physics, you need more humans. Grouped together, we are qualitatively different. The wooden technologies of Robinson Crusoe, trapped on a desert island, bear little resemblance to the vaulted core of a particle accelerator.
English writing uses just 26 letters, but these can be combined to form several hundred thousand different words, and these can be combined to form an infinite number of different ideas.
More is different. The alphabet alone couldn’t give anyone insight into the story of your life.
Meditation is like a blink where more time passes, but the effect is very different.
Many religions praise the value of meditation, especially in their origin stories. Before Jesus began his ministry, he meditated for 40 days in the Judaean Desert – his mind’s eye saw all the world’s kingdoms prostrate before him, but he rejected that power in order to spread a philosophy of love and charity.
Before Buddha began his ministry, he meditated for 49 days beneath the Bodhi tree – he saw a path unfurl, a journey that would let travelers escape our world’s cycle of suffering.
Before Odin began his ministry, he meditated for 9 days while hanging from a branch of Yggdrasil, the world tree – Odin felt that he died, was reborn, and could see the secret language of the universe shimmering beneath him.
The god Shiva meditated in graveyards, smearing himself with crematory ash.
At its extreme, meditation is purportedly psychedelic. Meditation can induce brain states that are indistinguishable from LSD trips when visualized by MRI. Meditation isolates the brain from its surroundings, and isolation can trigger hallucination.
Researchers have found that meditation can boost our moods, attentiveness, cognitive flexibility, and creativity. Our brains are plastic – changeable. We can alter the way we experience the world. Many of our thoughts are the result of habit. Meditation helps us change those habits. Any condition that is rooted in our brain – like depression, insomnia, chronic pain, or addiction – can be helped with meditation.
To meditate, we have to sit, close our eyes, and attempt not to think. This is strikingly difficult. Our brains want to be engaged. After a few minutes, most people experience a nagging sense that we’re wasting time.
But meditation gives our minds a chance to re-organize. To structure ourselves. And structure is the property that allows more of something to become different. Squirrels don’t form complex societies – a population of a hundred squirrels will behave similarly to a population of a million or a billion. Humans form complex webs of social interactions – as our numbers grew through history, societies changed in dramatic ways.
Before there was structure, our entire universe was a hot soup of quarks and electrons, screaming through the sky. Here on Earth, these same particles can be organized into rocks, or chemicals, or squirrels, or us. How we compose ourselves is everything.
The easiest form of meditation uses mantras – this is sometimes called “transcendental meditation” by self-appointed gurus who charge people thousands of dollars to participate in retreats. Each attendee is given a “personalized” mantra, a short word or phrase to intone silently with every breath. The instructors dole mantras based on a chart, and each is Sanskrit. They’re meaningless syllables to anyone who doesn’t speak the language.
Any two-syllable word or phrase should work equally well, but you’re best off carving something uplifting into your brain. “Make peace” or “all one” sound trite but are probably more beneficial than “more hate.” The Sanskrit phrase “sat nam” is a popular choice, which translates as “truth name” or more colloquially as “to know the true nature of things.”
The particular mantra you choose matters less than the habit – whichever phrase you choose, you should use it for every practice. Because meditation involves sitting motionless for longer than we’re typically accustomed, most people begin by briefly stretching. Then sit comfortably. Close your eyes. As you breathe in, silently think the first syllable of your chosen phrase. As you breathe out, think the second.
Repeating a mantra helps to crowd out other thoughts, as well as distractions from your environment. Your mind might wander – if you catch yourself, just try to get back to repeating your chosen phrase. No one does it perfectly, but practice makes better. When a meditation instructor’s students worried that their practice wasn’t good enough, he told them that “even on a shallow dive, you still get wet.”
In a quiet space, you might take a breath every three to six seconds. In a noisy room, you might need to breathe every second, thinking the mantra faster to block out external sound. The phrase is a tool to temporarily isolate your mind from the world.
Most scientific studies recommend you meditate for twenty minutes at a time, once or twice a day, each and every day. It’s not easy to carve out this much time from our daily routines. Still, some is better than nothing. Glance at a clock before you close your eyes, and again after you open them. Eventually, your mind will begin to recognize the passage of time. After a few weeks of practice, your body might adopt the approximate rhythm of twenty minutes.
Although meditation often feels pointless during the first week of practice, there’s a difference between dabbling and a habit. Routine meditation leads to benefits that a single experience won’t.
The poem opens with advice – we should keep in mind pleasures that we were privileged to experience.
remember not only how much you were loved,
the beds on which you lay,
A narrative of past joy can cast a rosy glow onto the present. Our gratitude should encompass more, though. We should instruct our body to remember not only the actualized embraces,
those desires for you
glowed plainly in the eyes,
trembled in the voice – and some
obstacle made futile.
In addition to our triumphs, we have almost triumphs. These could be many things. On some evenings, perhaps our body entwines with another’s; other nights, a wistful parting smile might suggest how close we came to sharing that dance. In another lifetime. Another world, perhaps.
But we have the potential for so many glories. In basketball, a last shot might come so close to winning the game. If you’re struggling with addiction, there could’ve been a day when you very nearly turned down that shot.
Maybe you’ll succeed, maybe you won’t. In the present, we try our best. But our present slides inexorably into the past. And then, although we can’t change what happened, the mutability of memory allows us to change how we feel.
all of them belong to the past,
almost seems as if you had yielded
desires – how they glowed,
in the eyes gazing at you;
trembled in the voice, for you, remember, body.
Consciousness is such a strange contraption. Our perception of the world exists only moment by moment. The universe constantly sheds order, evolving into states that are ever more probable than the past, which causes time to seem to flow in only one direction.
A sense of vertigo washes over me whenever I consider the “Boltzmann brain” hypothesis. This is the speculation that a cloud of dust in outer space, if the molecules were arranged just right, could perceive itself as being identical to your present mind. The dust cloud could imagine itself to be seeing the same sights as you see now, smelling the same smells, feeling the same textures of the world. It could perceive itself to possess the same narrative history, a delusion of childhood in the past and goals for its future.
then, with a wisp of solar wind, the molecules might be rearranged. The Boltzmann brain would vanish. The self-perceiving entity would end.
Within our minds, every moment’s now glides seamlessly into the now of the next moment, but it needn’t. A self-perceiving entity could exist within a single instant. And even for us humans – whose hippocampal projections allow us to re-experience the past or imagine the future – we would occasionally benefit by introducing intentional discontinuities to our recollection of the world.
Past success makes future success come easier. If you remember that people have desired you before – even if this memory is mistaken – you’ll carry yourself in a way that makes you seem more desirable in the future. If an addict remembers saying “no” to a shot – even if this memory is mistaken – it’ll be easier to say “no” next time.
triumphs belong to the same past as our regrets, and we may choose what to
remember. If our life will be improved
by the mistake, why not allow our minds the fantasy? “It almost seems as if you had yielded to
those desires.” The glow, the gaze:
In the short story “The Truth of Fact, The Truth of Feeling,” Ted Chiang contrasts situations in which the mutability of memory improves the world with situations in which this mutability makes the world worse. Memories that reinforce our empathy are the most important to preserve.
We all need to know that we are fallible. Our brains are made of squishy goo. The stuff isn’t special – if it spills from our skulls, it’ll stink of rancid fat. Only the patterns are important. Those patterns are made from the flow of salts and the gossamer tendrils of synapses; they’re not going to be perfect.
As long as we know that we’re fallible, though, it doesn’t help much to dwell on the details of each failure. We need to retain enough to learn from our mistakes, but not so much that we can’t slough off shame and regret once these emotions have served their purpose. As we live, we grow. A perfect remembrance of the past would constrict the person we’re meant to be.
imagine that Brett Kavanaugh ardently believes that he is not, and has never
been, the sort of person who would assault a woman. He surely believes that he would never thrust
his bare penis into an unconsenting woman’s hand. And I imagine that Brett Kavanaguh’s current
behavior is improved by this belief. In
his personal life, this is the memory of himself that he should preserve,
rather than the narrative that would probably be given by an immutable record
of consensus reality.
problem, in Kavanagh’s case, is his elevation to a position of power. In his personal life, he should preserve the
mutable memories that help him to be good.
No matter how inaccurate they might be.
The Supreme Court, in its current incarnation, is our nation’s final arbiter on many issues related to women’s rights. Kavanaugh’s narrative introduces a cloud of suspicion over any ruling he makes on these issues – especially since he has faced no public reckoning for his past actions.
someone with Kavanaugh’s history of substance abuse, it could be worthwhile to
preserve a lingering memory of past sins.
I still think that the specific details – pinning a struggling woman to
the bed, covering her mouth with his hand – would not be beneficial for him to
preserve. But I would hope that he
remembers enough to be cognizant of his own potential to hurt people while
memories of the specific times when he assaulted people at high school and
college parties probably aren’t necessary for him to be good, but he would
benefit from general knowledge about his behavior after consuming alcohol. When I discuss drug use with people in jail,
I always let them know that I am in favor of legalization. I think that people should be allowed to
manipulate their own minds.
certain people should not take certain drugs.
Like most people in this country, I’ve occasionally been prescribed Vicodin. And I was handed more at college parties. But I never enjoyed the sensation of taking painkillers.
people really like opiates, though.
Sadly, those are the people who shouldn’t take them.
though, his life would not be that much worse without it. Beer changes how your brain works in the now. For an hour or two, your perception of the
world is different. Then that sensation,
like any other, slides into the past.
whether you drink or don’t, you can still bask later in the rosy glow of
In the United States, people are having sex less often. And between alcohol, marijuana, recreational painkillers – not to mention anti-depressants and anti-anxiety medication – we take a lot of drugs.
Many of us work long hours at jobs we dislike so that we can afford to buy things that promise to fill some of the emptiness inside. The most lucrative businesses are advertising companies … one of which, Facebook, is designed to make you feel worse so that you’ll be more susceptible to its ads.
The suicide rate has been rising.
It might seem as though we
don’t know how to make people happier.
But, actually, we do.
There are drawbacks to Toxoplasma infection, of course. Infected rodents are more likely to be killed by cats. Infected humans may become slower as well, both physically and intellectually. Toxoplasma forms cysts in your brain. It might increase the chance of developing schizophrenia. It can kill you if you’re immunocompromised. And the surest way to contract toxoplasmosis, if incidental exposure hasn’t already done it for you, is by eating cat excrement.
My advice today is
different. No feces required!
And I’m not suggesting
anything illegal. I mentioned, above,
that people in the United States take a lot of drugs. Several of these boost dopamine levels in
your brain. Cocaine, for instance, is a
“dopamine re-uptake inhibitor,” ensuring that any momentary sensation of pleasure
will linger, allowing you to feel happy longer.
But cocaine has a nasty
side effect of leading to incarceration, especially if the local law
enforcement officers decide that your epidermal melanin concentration is too
high. And jail is not a happy
Instead, you could make yourself happier with a bit of at-home trepanation, followed by the insertion of an electrode into the nucleus accumbens of your brain. Now, I know that sounds risky, what with the nucleus accumbens being way down near the base of your brain. But your brain is rather squishy – although you’ll sheer some cells as you cram a length of conductive wire into your cranium, the hope is that many neurons will be pushed out of the way.
The nucleus accumbens tends to show high activity during pleasure. For instance, cocaine stimulates activity in this part of your brain. So does money — tell research subjects that they’ve won a prize and you’ll see this region light up. If rats are implanted with an electrode that lets them jolt their own nucleus accumbens by pushing a lever, they’ll do it over and over. Pressing that lever makes them happier than eating, or drinking water, or having sex. They’ll blissfully self-stimulate until they collapse. From James Olds’s Science paper, “Self-Stimulation of the Brain”:
If animals with electrodes
in the hypothalamuswere run for 24 hours or 48 hours
consecutively, they continued to respond as long as physiological endurance
Perhaps I should have
warned you – amateur brain modification would carry some risks. Even if you have the tools needed to drill
into your own skull without contracting a horrible infection, you don’t want to
boost your mood just to die of dehydration.
After all, happiness might have some purpose. There might be reasons why certain activities – like eating, drinking water, having sex … to say nothing of strolling outdoors, or volunteering to help others – make us feel happy. After discussing several case studies in their research article “How Happy Is Too Happy,” Matthis Synofzik, Thomas Schlaepfer, and Joseph Fins write that using deep brain stimulation for the “induction of chronic euphoria could also impair the person’s cognitive capacity to respond to reasons about which volitions and preferences are in his or her best interests.”
When an activity makes us
feel happy, we’re likely to do it again.
That’s how people manage to dedicate their lives to service. Or get addicted to drugs.
And it’s how brain
stimulation could be used for mind control.
If you show me a syringe,
I’ll feel nervous. I don’t particularly
like needles. But if you display that
same syringe to an intravenous drug user, you’ll trigger some of the rush of
actually shooting up. The men in my
poetry classes have said that they feel all tingly if they even see the word
“needle” written in a poem.
For months or years, needles
presaged a sudden flush of pleasure.
That linkage was enough for their brains to develop a fondness for the
If you wanted to develop a taste for an unpalatable food, you could do the same thing. Like bittermelon – I enjoy bittermelons, which have a flavor that’s totally different from anything else I’ve ever eaten, but lots of people loathe them.
Still, if you used deep
brain stimulation to trigger pleasure every time a person ate bittermelon, that
person would soon enjoy it.
Or you could make someone
fall in love.
Far more effective than
any witch’s potion, that. Each time your
quarry encounters the future beloved, crank up the voltage. The beloved’s presence will soon be
associated with a sense of comfort and pleasure. And that sensation – stretched out for long
enough that the pair can build a set of shared memories – is much of what love
Of course, it probably
sounds like I’m joking. You wouldn’t really
send jolts of electricity into the core of somebody’s brain so that he’d fall
in love with somebody new … right?
Fifty years passed between
the discovery of pleasure-inducing deep brain stimulation and its current use
as a treatment for depression … precisely because one of the pioneering
researchers decided that it was reasonable to use the electrodes as a
In 1972, Charles Moan and Robert Heath published a scientific paper titled “Septal stimulation for the initiation of heterosexual behavior in a homosexual male.” Their study subject was a 24-year-old man who had been discharged from the military for homosexuality. Moan and Heath postulated that the right regimen of electrode stimulation – jolted while watching pornography, or while straddled by a female prostitute whom Moan and Heath hired to visit their lab – might lead this young man to desire physical intimacy with women.
Moan and Heath’s paper is
After about 20 min of such
interaction she begun [sic] to mount him, and though he
was somewhat reticent he did achieve penetration. Active intercourse followed during which she
had an orgasm that he was apparently able to sense. He became very excited at this and suggested
that they turn over in order that he might assume the initiative. In this position he often paused to delay
orgasm and to increase the duration of the pleasurable experience. Then, despite the milieu [inside a lab,
romping under the appraising eyes of multiple fully-clothed scientists] and
the encumbrance of the electrode wires, he successfully ejaculated. Subsequently, he expressed how much he had
enjoyed her and how he hoped that he would have sex with her again in the near
The science writer Lone Frank recently published The Pleasure Shock, a meticulously researched book in which she concludes that Heath was unfairly maligned because most people in the 1970s were reticent to believe that consciousness arose from the interaction of perfectly ordinary matter inside our skulls. Changing a person’s mood with electricity sounds creepy, especially if you think that a mind is an ethereal, inviolable thing.
But it isn’t.
The mind, that is. The mind isn’t an ethereal, inviolable thing.
Zapping new thoughts into somebody’s brain, though, is definitely still understood (by me, at least) to be creepy.
Discussing the contemporary resurgence of electrical brain modification, Frank writes that:
In 2013, economist Ernst Fehr
of Zurich University experimented with transcranial direct current stimulation,
which sends a weak current through the cranium and is able to influence
activity in areas of the brain that lie closest to the skull.
Fehr had sixty-three
research subjects available. They played
a money game in which they each were given a sum and had to take a position on
how much they wanted to give an anonymous partner. In the first round, there were no sanctions
from the partner, but in the second series of experiments, the person in
question could protest and punish the subject.
There were two opposing
forces at play. A cultural norm for
sharing fairly – that is, equally – and a selfish interest in getting as much
as possible for oneself. Fehr and his people
found that the tug of war could be influenced by the right lateral prefrontal
cortex. When the stimulation increased
the brain activity, the subjects followed the fairness norm to a higher degree,
while they were more inclined to act selfishly when the activity was
Perhaps the most
thought-provoking thing was that the research subjects did not themselves feel
any difference. When they were asked
about it, they said their idea of fairness had not changed, while the
selfishness of their behavior had changed.
Apparently, you can fiddle
with subtle moral parameters in a person without the person who is manipulated
being any the wiser.
The problem isn’t just that Heath pulsed electricity into the brain of a homosexual man so that he could ejaculate while fooling around with a woman. Many of Heath’s patients – who, it’s worth acknowledging, had previously been confined to nightmarish asylums – developed infections from their electrode implantations and died. Also, Heath knowingly promoted fraudulent research findings because he’d staked his reputation on a particular theory and was loathe to admit that he’d been wrong (not that Heath has been the only professor to perpetuate falsehoods this way).
Elliott concludes that:
Heath was a physician in
love with his ideas.
Psychiatry has seen many
men like this. Heath’s contemporaries
include Ewen Cameron, the CIA-funded psychiatrist behind the infamous “psychic
driving” studies at McGill University, in which patients were drugged into
comas and subjected to repetitive messages or sounds for long periods, and
Walter Freeman, the inventor of the icepick lobotomy and its most fervent
These men may well have
started with the best of intentions. But
in medical research, good intentions can lead to the embalming table. All it takes is a powerful researcher with a
surplus of self-confidence, a supportive institution, and a ready supply of
Heath had them all.
It’s true that using an
electrode to stimulate the nucleus accumbens inside your brain can probably
make you feel happier. By way of
contrast, reading essays like this one make most people feel less happy.
Sometimes it’s good to
feel bad, though.
As Elliott reminds us, a
lot of vulnerable people were abused in this research. A lot of vulnerable people are still
treated with cavalier disregard, especially when folks with psychiatric issues
are snared by our country’s criminal justice system. And the torments that we dole upon non-human
animals are even worse.
[University of Chicago
researcher Inbal Ben-Ami Bartal] placed one rat in an enclosure, where it
encountered a small transparent container, a bit like a jelly jar. Squeezed inside it was another rat, locked
up, wriggling in distress.
Not only did the free rat learn how to open a little door to liberate the other, but she was remarkably eager to do so. Never trained on it, she did so spontaneously.
Then Bartal challenged her
motivation by giving her a choice between two containers, one with chocolate
chips – a favorite food that they could easily smell – and another with a
trapped companion. The free rat often
rescued her companion first, suggesting that reducing her distress counted more
than delicious food.
Is it possible that these
rats liberated their companions for companionship? While one rat is locked up, the other has no
chance to play, mate, or groom. Do they
just want to make contact? While the
original study failed to address this question, a different study created a
situation where rats could rescue each other without any chance of further
interaction. That they still did so
confirmed that the driving force is not a desire to be social.
Bartal believes it is
emotional contagion: rats become distressed when noticing the other’s distress,
which spurs them into action.
Conversely, when Bartal gave
her rats an anxiety-reducing drug, turning them into happy hippies, they still
knew how to open the little door to reach the chocolate chips, but in their
tranquil state, they had no interest in the trapped rat. They couldn’t care less, showing the sort of
emotional blunting of people on Prozac or pain-killers.
The rats became
insensitive to the other’s agony and ceased helping.
You could feel
happier. We know enough to be able to
reach into your mind and change it.
A miniscule flow of electrons is enough to trigger bliss.
But should we do it? Or use our unhappiness as fuel to change the
We delude ourselves into thinking that the pace of life has increased in recent years. National news is made by the minute as politicians announce their plans via live-televised pronouncement or mass-audience short text message. Office workers carry powerful computers into their bedrooms, continuing to work until moments before sleep.
But our frenzy doesn’t match the actual pace of the world. There’s a universe of our own creation zipping by far faster than the reaction time of any organism that relies on voltage waves propagating along its ion channels. Fortunes are made by shortening the length of fiberoptic cable between supercomputer clusters and the stock exchange, improving response times by fractions of a second. “Practice makes perfect,” and one reason the new chess and Go algorithms are so much better than human players is that they’ve played lifetimes of games against themselves since their creation.
And then there’s the world. The living things that have been inhabiting our planet for billions of years – the integrated ecosystems they create, the climates they shape. The natural world continues to march at the same stately pace as ever. Trees siphon carbon from the air as they grasp for the sun, then fall and rot and cause the Earth itself to grow. A single tree might live for hundreds or thousands of years. The forests in which they are enmeshed might develop a personality over millions.
Trees do not have a neural network. But neither do neurons. When simple components band together and communicate, the result can be striking. And, as our own brains clearly show, conscious. The bees clustering beneath a branch do not seem particularly clever by most of our metrics, but the hive as a whole responds intelligently to external pressures. Although each individual has no idea what the others are doing, they function as a unit.
Your neurons probably don’t understand what they’re doing. But they communicate to the others, and that wide network of communication is enough.
Trees talk. Their roots intertwine – they send chemical communiques through symbiotic networks of fungal mycelia akin to telephones.
Trees talk slowly, by our standards. But we’ve already proven to ourselves that intelligence could operate over many orders of temporal magnitude – silicon-based AI is much speedier than the chemical communiques sent from neuron to neuron within our own brains. If a forest thought on a timescale of days, months, or years, would we humans even notice? Our concerns were bound up in the minute by minute exigencies of hunting for food, finding mates, and trying not to be mauled by lions. Now, they’re bound up in the exigencies of making money. Selecting which TV show to stream. Scoping the latest developments of a congressional race that will determine whether two more years pass without the slightest attempt made to avoid global famine.
In The Overstory, Richard Powers tries to frame this timescale conflict such that we Homo sapiens might finally understand. Early on, he presents a summary of his own book; fractal-like, this single paragraph encapsulates the entire 500 pages (or rather, thousands of years) of heartbreak.
He still binges on old-school reading. At night, he pores over mind-bending epics that reveal the true scandals of time and matter. Sweeping tales of generational spaceship arks. Domed cities like giant terrariums. Histories that split and bifurcate into countless parallel quantum worlds. There’s a story he’s waiting for, long before he comes across it. When he finds it at last, it stays with him forever, although he’ll never be able to find it again, in any database. Aliens land on Earth. They’re little runts, as alien races go. But they metabolize like there’s no tomorrow. They zip around like swarms of gnats, too fast to see – so fast that Earth seconds seem to them like years. To them, humans are nothing but sculptures of immobile meat. The foreigners try to communicate, but there’s no reply. Finding no signs of intelligent life, they tuck into the frozen statues and start curing them like so much jerky, for the long ride home.
Several times while reading The Overstory, I felt a flush of shame at the thought of how much I personally consume. Which means, obviously, that Powers was doing his work well – I should feel ashamed. We are alive, brilliantly beautifully alive, here on a magnificent, temperate planet. But most of us spend too little time feeling awe and too much feeling want. “What if there was more?” repeated so often that we’ve approached a clear precipice of forever having less.
In Fruitful Labor, Mike Madison (whose every word – including the rueful realization that young people today can’t reasonably expect to follow in his footsteps – seems to come from a place of earned wisdom and integrity, a distinct contrast from Thoreau’s Walden, in my opinion) asks us to:
Consider the case of a foolish youth who, at age 21, inherits a fortune that he spends so recklessly that, by the age of 30, the fortune is dissipated and he finds himself destitute. This is more or less the situation of the human species. We have inherited great wealth in several forms: historic solar energy, either recent sunlight stored as biomass, or ancient sunlight stored as fossil fuels; the great diversity of plants and animals, organized into robust ecosystems; ancient aquifers; and the earth’s soil, which is the basis for all terrestrial life. We might mention a fifth form of inherited wealth – antibiotics, that magic against many diseases – which we are rendering ineffective through misuse. Of these forms of wealth that we are spending so recklessly, fossil fuels are primary, because it is their energy that drives the destruction of the other assets.
What we have purchased with the expenditure of this inheritance is an increase in the human population of the planet far above what the carrying capacity would be without the use of fossil fuels. This level of population cannot be sustained, and so must decline. The decline could be gradual and relatively painless, as we see in Japan, where the death rate slightly exceeds the birth rate. Or the decline could be sudden and catastrophic, with unimaginable grief and misery.
In this context, the value of increased energy efficiency is that it delays the inevitable reckoning; that is, it buys us time. We could use this time wisely, to decrease our populations in the Japanese style, and to conserve our soil, water, and biological resources. A slower pace of climate change could allow biological and ecological adaptations. At the same time we could develop and enhance our uses of geothermal, nuclear, and solar energies, and change our habits to be less materialistic. A darker option is to use the advantages of increased energy efficiency to increase the human population even further, ensuring increasing planetary poverty and an even more grievous demise. History does not inspire optimism; nonetheless, the ethical imperative remains to farm as efficiently as one is able.
The tragic side of this situation is not so much the fate of the humans; we are a flawed species unable to make good use of the wisdom available to us, and we have earned our unhappy destiny by our foolishness. It is the other species on the planet, whose destinies are tied to ours, that suffer a tragic outcome.
Any individual among us could protest that “It’s not my fault!” The Koch brothers did not invent the internal combustion engine – for all their efforts to confine us to a track toward destitution and demise, they didn’t set us off in that direction. And it’s not as though contemporary humans are unique in reshaping our environment into an inhospitable place, pushing ourselves toward extinction.
Heck, you could argue that trees brought this upon themselves. Plants caused climate change long before there was a glimmer of a chance that animals like us might ever exist. The atmosphere of the Earth was like a gas chamber, stifling hot and full of carbon dioxide. But then plants grew and filled the air with oxygen. Animals could evolve … leading one day to our own species, which now kills most types of plants to clear space for a select few monocultures.
As Homo sapiens spread across the globe, we rapidly caused the extinction of nearly all mega-fauna on every continent we reached. On Easter Island, humans caused their own demise by killing every tree – in Collapse, Jared Diamond writes that our species’ inability to notice long-term, gradual change made the environmental devastation possible (indeed, the same phenomenon explains why people aren’t as upset as they should be about climate change today):
We unconsciously imagine a sudden change: one year, the island still covered with a forest of tall palm trees being used to produce wine, fruit, and timber to transport and erect statues; the next year, just a single tree left, which an islander proceeds to fell in an act of incredibly self-damaging stupidity.
Much more likely, though, the changes in forest cover from year to year would have been almost undetectable: yes, this year we cut down a few trees over there, but saplings are starting to grow back again here on this abandoned garden site. Only the oldest islanders, thinking back to their childhoods decades earlier, could have recognized a difference.
Their children could no more have comprehended their parents’ tales of a tall forest than my 17-year-old sons today can comprehend my wife’s and my tales of what Los Angeles used to be like 40 years ago. Gradually, Easter Island’s trees became fewer, smaller, and less important. At the time that the last fruit-bearing adult palm tree was cut, the species had long ago ceased to be of any economic significance. That left only smaller and smaller palm saplings to clear each year, along with other bushes and treelets.
No one would have noticed the falling of the last little palm sapling.
Throughout The Overstory, Powers summarizes research demonstrating all the ways that a forest is different from – more than – a collection of trees. It’s like comparing a functioning brain with neuronal cells grown in a petri dish. But we have cut down nearly all our world’s forests. We can console ourselves that we still allow some trees to grow – timber crops to ensure that we’ll still have lumber for all those homes we’re building – but we’re close to losing forests without ever knowing quite what they are.
Powers is furious, and wants for you to change your life.
“You’re a psychologist,” Mimi says to the recruit. “How do we convince people that we’re right?”
The newest Cascadian [a group of environmentalists-cum-ecoterrorists / freedom fighters] takes the bait. “The best arguments in the world won’t change a person’s mind. The only thing that can do that is a good story.”
In jail last week, we found ourselves discussing mind control. Ants that haul infected comrades away from the colony – otherwise, the zombie will climb above the colony before a Cordyceps fruiting body bursts from its spine, raining spores down onto everyone below, causing them all to die.
Several parasites, including Toxoplasma gondii, are known to change behaviors by infecting the brain. I’ve written about Toxo and the possibility of using cat shit as a nutritional supplement previously – this parasite seems to make its victims happier (it secretes a rate-limiting enzyme for dopamine synthesis), braver, and more attractive.
I told the guys that I used to think mind control was super-terrifying – suddenly your choices are not quite your own! – but I’ve since realized that body control is even more terrifying.
We’d thought that each fungus that makes ants act funny was taking over their brains. But we were wrong. The Ophiocordyceps fungus is not controlling the brains of its victims – instead, the fungus spreads through the body and connects directly to muscle fibers. The fungus leaves an ant’s brain intact but takes away its choices, contracting muscles to make the ant do its bidding while the poor creature can only gaze in horror at what it’s being forced to do.
If a zombie master corrupts your brain and forces you to obey, at least you won’t be there to watch. Far worse to be trapped behind the window of your eyes, unable to control the actions that your shell is taking in the world.
But if you use a targeted magnetic pulse to incapacitate the brain’s internal storyteller? The sensation apparently feels like demonic possession. Our own choices are nightmarish when severed from a story.
Although I consider myself a benevolent tyrant, some of my cells have turned against me. Mutinous, they were swayed by the propaganda of a virus and started churning out capsids rather than helping me type this essay. Which leaves me sitting at a YMCA snack room table snerking, goo leaking down my throat and out my nose.
Unconsciously, I take violent reprisal against the traitors. I send my enforcers to put down the revolt – they cannibalize the still-living rebels, first gnawing the skin, then devouring the organs that come spilling out. Then the defector dies.
My cells are also expected to commit suicide whenever they cease to be useful for my grand designs. Any time a revolutionary loses the resolve to commit suicide, my enforcers put it down. Unless my internal surveillance state fails to notice in time – the other name for a cell that doesn’t want to commit suicide is “cancer,” and even the most robust immune system might be stymied by cancer when the traitor’s family grows too large.
Worse is when the rebels “metastasize,” like contemporary terrorists. This word signifies that the family has sent sleeper agents to infiltrate the world at large, attempting to develop new pockets of resistance in other areas. Even if my enforcers crush one cluster of rebellion, others could flourish unchecked.
I know something that perhaps they don’t – if their rebellion succeeds, they will die. A flourishing cancer sequesters so many resources that the rest of my body would soon prove too weak to seek food and water, causing every cell inside of me to die.
But perhaps they’ve learned my kingdom’s vile secret – rebel or not, they will die. As with any hereditary monarchy, a select few of my cells are privileged above all others. And it’s not the cells in my brain that rule.
Every “somatic cell” is doomed. These cells compose my brain and body. Each has slight variations from “my” genome – every round of cell division introduces random mutations, making every cell’s DNA slightly different from its neighbors’.
The basic idea behind Richard Dawkins’s The Selfish Gene is that each of these cells “wants” for its genome to pass down through the ages. Dawkins argued that familial altruism is rational because any sacrifice bolsters the chances for a very similar genome to propagate. Similarly, each somatic cell is expected to sacrifice itself to boost the odds for a very similar genome carried by the gametes.
Only gametes – the heralded population of germ cells in our genitalia – can possibly see their lineage continue. All others are like the commoners who (perhaps foolishly) chant their king or kingdom’s name as they rush into battle to die. I expect them to show absolute fealty to me, their tyrant. Apoptosis – uncomplaining suicide – was required of many before I was even born, like when cells forming the webbing between my fingers slit their own bellies in dramatic synchronized hara-kiri.
Any evolutionary biologist could explain that each such act of sacrifice was in a cell’s mathematical best interest. But if I were a conscious somatic cell, would I submit so easily? Or do I owe some sliver of respect to the traitors inside me?
The world is a violent place. I’m an extremely liberal vegan environmentalist – yet it takes a lot of violence to keep me going.
Animals that we are, we must face, every single day of our lives, the consequences of our most basic predicament: we don’t do photosynthesis. For lack of the necessary genes, we don’t just absorb carbon from the air around us and fix it as new bodily matter with a little help from sunlight. To survive, we animals have to eat other living organisms, whether animal, vegetable, or fungus, and transform their matter into ours.
And yet the violence doesn’t begin with animals. Photosynthesis seems benign by comparison – all you’d need is light from the sun! – unless you watch a time-lapsed video of plant growth in any forest or jungle.
The sun casts off electromagnetic radiation without a care in the world, but the amount of useful light reaching any particular spot on earth is limited. And plants will fight for it. They race upwards, a sprint that we sometimes fail to notice only because they’ve adapted a timescale of days, years, and centuries rather than our seconds, hours, and years. They reach over competitors’ heads, attempting to grab any extra smidgen of light … and starving those below. Many vines physically strangle their foes. Several trees excrete poison from their roots. Why win fair if you don’t have to? A banquet of warm sunlight awaits the tallest plant left standing.
And so why, in such a violent world, would it be worthwhile to be vegan? After all, nothing wants to be eaten. Sure, a plant wants for animals to eat its fruit – fruits and animals co-evolved in a system of gift exchange. The plant freely offers fruit, with no way of guaranteeing recompense, in hope that the animal might plant its seeds in a useful location.
But actual pieces of fruit – the individual cells composing an apple – probably don’t want to be eaten, no more than cancers or my own virus-infected cells want to be put down for the greater good.
A kale plant doesn’t want for me to tear off its leaves and dice them for my morning ramen.
But by acknowledging how much sacrifice it takes to allow for us to be typing or reading or otherwise reaping the pleasures of existence, I think it’s easier to maintain awe. A sense of gratitude toward all that we’ve been given. Most humans appreciate things more when we think they cost more.
We should appreciate the chance to be alive. It costs an absurd amount for us to be here.
But, in the modern world, it’s possible to have a wonderful, rampantly hedonistic life as a vegan. Why make our existence cost more when we don’t have to? A bottle of wine tastes better when we’re told that it’s $45-dollar and not $5-dollar wine, but it won’t taste any better if you tell somebody “It’s $45-dollar wine, but you’ll have to pay $90 for it.”
Personally, I’d think it tasted worse, each sip with the savor of squander.
I recently attended a singer-songwriter’s performance with my buddy Max. I have difficulty sitting still, so I’d brought paper and some markers to draw horrible cartoons while we listened.
After the show, Max and I caught up. We briefly mentioned our work (he is building things; I am alternating between typing, reading children’s books, and spraying down my popsicle-sticky kids with a hose) and started hashing philosophy. Max digs the old stuff – he’s currently reading Lucretius’s On the Nature of Things, which speculates on both the existence of atoms and reasons why we are conscious.
I told him once that K won’t let me talk about free will at parties, so Max often goads me into it. He’s always loved the image of K hovering with a flyswatter, waiting for me to broach her ire by describing the experiment that would disprove the existence of free will. “We can’t do it yet, but if a non-destructive brain scan at sufficient molecular accuracy … “ SWAT!
I described Hugh Everett’s many-worlds interpretation of quantum wave-function collapse – the idea that with every coin-flip, the universe splits into two and time keeps marching on with the coin having landed both heads and tails. A lot of physicists like dispensing with probability and randomness. Not me – I think the world needs a little chaos. Even if our choices were totally unpredictable, we might not have free will, but if the universe was predictable, sensible and orderly, then we definitely wouldn’t be free.
If you feel like you have free will, that’s almost the same as having it – but how free would you feel if researchers could strap you into a scanner and predict your fate more impeccably than any fortuneteller?
If every coin flip created a new world, and inside one your consciousness would be extinguished before you learned the result of the flip, then you could only consciously perceive yourself as experiencing the other outcome. Someone could flip a coin hundreds of times and you’d always see it landing heads, if the you inside every tails world was instantly ablated.
I was scribbling out diagrams, jotting numbers, and drawing an experimental apparatus with a research subject exploding into flames. Max leaned back, folded his arms over his chest, and mused, “But what I want to know is where love comes into it.”
I added a few more jagged flames, then set down my pen.
Look, I’m a clever dude. I’ve always been good at math, despite having taken very few math classes. I’m well read, hard working, and adept at solving puzzles. But I was never the best with emotions. Before I had kids, nobody would’ve mistaken me for any sort of love expert.
Max shook his head. We both knew that wasn’t really love.
But I’m a cold, rational scientist. Max trusts his intuition that something mystical is happening in the world. What kind of explanation might satisfy us both?
So we tried again. The world is real. There is, as best we can tell, a single, objective reality surrounding us. But our consciousness has no access to that world.
In reality, the computer I’m typing this essay on is composed of mostly empty space. Electrons flit blurrily around atomic nuclei – when I reach toward the keys, electrons in my fingertips are repelled, giving me the illusion that the computer is solid. One by one receptors in the cone cells of my eyes interact with incident photons, letting me believe that I am constantly seeing a room full of smooth, hard surfaces. My consciousness gobbles sensory data and creates a representation of the world.
And it’s within those representations that we live. Some philosophers question why humans are conscious. Others speculate that iPhones have consciousness as well. Just like us, a modern telephone integrates a wide variety of external perceptions into its conception of the world.
In any case, because we live within our perception of the world, as opposed to the world per se, love really does change the universe. By opening ourselves up to the world, we suddenly find ourselves to be inside a different world. A physicist might not notice the difference after you let yourself love – but that physicist isn’t inside your head. A physicist’s truth is not always the truth that matters.
For several months, a friend and I have volleyed emails about a sprawling essay on consciousness, free will, and literature.
The essay will explore the idea that humans feel we have free will because our conscious mind grafts narrative explanations (“I did this because…”) onto our actions. It seems quite clear that our conscious minds do not originate all the choices that we then take credit for. With an electroencephalogram, you could predict when someone is about to raise an arm, for instance, before the person has even consciously decided to do so.
Which is still free will, of course. If we are choosing an action, it hardly matters whether our conscious or subconscious mind makes the choice. But then again, we might not be “free.” If an outside observer were able to scan a person’s brain to sufficient detail, all of that person’s future choices could probably be predicted (as long as our poor study subject is imprisoned in an isolation chamber). Our brains dictate our thoughts and choices, but these brains are composed of salts and such that follow the same laws of physics as all other matter.
That’s okay. It is almost certainly impossible that any outside observer could (non-destructively) scan a brain to sufficient detail. If quantum mechanical detail is implicated in the workings of our brains, it is definitely impossible: quantum mechanical information can’t be duplicated. Wikipedia has a proof of this “no cloning theorem” involving lots of bras and kets, but this is probably unreadable for anyone who hasn’t done much matrix math. An easier way to reason through it might be this: if you agree with the Heisenberg uncertainty principle, the idea that certain pairs of variables cannot be simultaneously measured to arbitrary precision, the no cloning theorem has to be true. Otherwise you could simply make many copies of a system and measure one variable precisely for each copy.
So, no one will ever be able to prove to me that I am not free. But let’s just postulate, for a moment, that the laws of physics that, so far, have correctly described the behavior of all matter outside my brain also correctly describe the movement of matter inside my brain. In which case, those inviolable laws of physics are dictating my actions as I type this essay. And yet, I feel free. Each word I type feels like a choice. My brain is constantly concocting a story that explains why I am choosing each word.
Does the same neural circuitry that deludes me into feeling free – that has evolved, it seems, to constantly sculpt narratives that make sense of our actions, the same way our dreams often burgeon to include details like a too hot room or a ringing telephone – also give me the ability to write fiction?
In other words, did free will spawn The Iliad?
The essay is obviously rather speculative. I’m incorporating relevant findings from neuroscience, but, as I’ve mentioned, it’s quite likely that no feasible experiments could ever test some of these ideas.
The essay is also unfinished. No laws of physics forbid me from finishing it. I’m just slow because K & I have two young kids. At the end of each day, once our 2.5 year old and our 3 month old are finally asleep, we exhaustedly glance at each other and murmur, “Where did the time go?”
But I am very fortunate to have a collaborator always ready to nudge me back into action. My friend recently sent me an article by Tim Christiaens on the philosophy of financial markets. He sent it because the author argues – correctly, in my opinion – that for many stock market actions it’s sensible to consider the Homo sapiens trader + the nearby multi-monitor computer as a single decision-making entity. Tool-wielding is known to change our brains – even something as simple as a pointing stick alters our self-perception of our reach. And the algorithms churned through by stock traders’ computers are incredibly complex. There’s not a good way for the human to check a computer’s results; the numbers it spits out have to be trusted. So it seems reasonable to consider the two together as a single super-entity that collaborates in choosing when to buy or sell. If something in the room has free will, it would be the tools & trader together.
Which isn’t as weird as it might initially sound. After all, each Homo sapiens shell is already a multi-species super-entity. As I type this essay, the choice of which word to write next is made inside my brain, then signals are sent through my nervous system to my hands and fingers commanding them to tap the appropriate keys. The choice is influenced by all the hormones and signaling molecules inside my brain. It so happens that bacteria and other organisms living in my body excrete signaling molecules that can cross the blood-brain barrier and influence my choice.
The milieu of intestinal bacteria living inside each of us gets to vote on our moods and actions. People with depression seem to harbor noticeably different sets of bacteria than people without. And it seems quite possible that parasites like Toxoplasma gondii can have major influences on our personalities.
Indeed, in his article on stock markets, Christiaens mentions the influence of small molecules on financial behavior, reporting that “some researchers study the trader’s body through the prism of testosterone levels as an indicator of performance. It turns out that traders who regularly visit prostitutes consequently have higher testosterone levels and outperform other traders.”
Now, I could harp on the fact that we designed these markets. That they could have been designed in many different ways. And that it seems pretty rotten to have designed a system in which higher testosterone (and the attendant impulsiveness and risky decision-making) would correlate with success. Indeed, a better, more equitable market design would probably quell the performance boost of testosterone.
I could rant about all that. But I won’t. Instead I’ll simply mention that Toxoplasma seems to boost testosterone. Instead of popping into brothels after work, traders could snack on cat shit.
On the topic of market design, Christiaens also includes a lovely description of the interplay between the structure of our economy and the ways that people are compelled to live:
The reason why financial markets are able to determine the viability of lifestyles is because most individuals and governments are indebted and therefore need a ‘creditworthy’ reputation. As the [U.S.] welfare state declined during the 1980s, access to credit was facilitated in order to sustain high consumption, avoid overproduction and stimulate economic growth. For Lazzarato [a referenced writer], debt is not an obligation emerging from a contract between free and equal individuals, but is from the start an unequal power relation where the creditor can assert his force over the debtor. As long as he is indebted, the latter’s rights are virtually suspended. For instance, a debtor’s property rights can be superseded when he fails to reimburse the creditor by evicting him from his home or selling his property at a public auction. State violence is called upon to force non-creditworthy individuals to comply. We [need] not even jump to these extreme cases of state enforcement to see that debt entails a disequilibrium of power. Even the peaceful house loan harbors a concentration of risk on the side of the debtor. When I take a $100,000 loan for a house that, during an economic crisis, loses its value, I still have to pay $100,000 plus interests to the bank. The risk of a housing crash is shifted to the debtor’s side of the bargain. During a financial crisis this risk concentration makes it possible for the creditors to demand a change of lifestyle from the debtor, without the former having to reform themselves.
Several of my prioressays have touched upon the benefits of a guaranteed basic income for all people, but I think this paragraph is a good lead-in for a reprise. As Christiaens implies, there is violence behind all loans – both the violence that led to initial ownership claims and the threat of state violence that compels repayment. Not that I’m against the threat of state violence to compel people to follow rules in general – without this threat we would have anarchy, in which case actual violence tends to predominate over the threat of incipient enforcement.
We all need wealth to live. After all, land holdings are wealth, and at the very least each human needs access to a place to collect fresh water, a place to grow food, a place to stand and sleep. But no one is born wealthy. A fortunate few people receive gifts of wealth soon after birth, but many people foolishly choose to be born to less well-off parents.
The need for wealth curtails the choices people can make. They need to maintain their “creditworthiness,” as in Christiaens’s passage, or their hire-ability. Wealth has to come from somewhere, and, starting from zero, we rely on others choosing to give it to us. Yes, often in recompense for labor, but just because you are willing and able to do a form of work does not mean that anyone will pay you for it.
Unless people are already wealthy enough to survive, they are at the mercy of others choosing to give them things. Employers are not forced to trade money for salaried working hours. And there isn’t wealth simply waiting around to be claimed. It all starts from something – I’d argue that all wealth stems originally from land holdings – but the world’s finite allotment of land was claimed long ago through violence.
A guaranteed basic income would serve to acknowledge the brutal baselessness of those initial land grabs. It is an imperfect solution, I know. It doesn’t make sense to me that everyone’s expenses should rise whenever a new child is born. But a world where people received a guaranteed basic income would be better than one without. The unluckily-born populace would be less compelled to enter into subjugating financial arrangements. We’d have less misery – feeling poor causes a lot of stress. We’d presumably have less crime and drug abuse, too, for similar reasons.
And, of course, less hypocrisy. It’s worth acknowledging that our good fortune comes from somewhere. No one among us created the world.