Posts Tagged ‘belief’

Evolved Hip Hop

Monday, July 18th, 2011

Recently I’ve been listening to The Rap Guide To Evolution (Revised) by Baba Brinkman. I know, I know, I would have preferred The Metal Guide To Evolution, but I guess I can make do with this for now (but seriously metal bands, get on that already). It’s interesting stuff, and it’s nice to listen to music where the lyrics actually align with my interests for a change (for the most part, anyway…). Here is my favourite passage, from “Worst Comes To Worst”:

In the South Pacific Islands, there’s certain animals that don’t
Experience fear, like Galapagos iguanas
They never had predators, so their adaptive responses
Evolved to be as calm as a pack of Dalai Llamas
So then, why do we have to live with violence
When this whole planet could be like a pacifistic island?
Do we need fear to escape invading aliens?
The only predators here are called Homo sapiens
And yeah, we can be dangerous, but we can also be
Motivated by affection and positive reciprocity
Stop the violence, right? We can all agree!
But violence comes from the fear of predators stalkin’ me
See, violence is never entirely senseless
Natural selection, that’s how you make sense of it
We just gotta identify what triggers a threat switch
And redesign society to disconnect it
And then instinct will take care of the rest of it
It’s a simple idea, but when it’s widely comprehended
Then I predict a world of aligned interests
Where the people are as peaceful as Galapagos finches.

Pretty sweet, huh? Another highlight is “Survival Of The Fittest”, in which he remixes the classic Mobb Deep song of the same name but puts the subject matter in more literal evolutionary terms (Brinkman explains his approach in this TED Talk, which features earlier versions of both that song and “Worst Comes To Worst”). The result is a fairly compelling examination of the evolutionary roots of violent behaviour and other crime amongst the lower socio-economic classes.

It’s not all good, though – much like Brinkman’s feminist sister (mentioned in “Creationist Cousins”), you know I’m going to take issue with some of the ev-psych gender theories he puts forward. To be fair he does a good job of explaining the theories, so it’s not his treatment I’m worried about, it’s the ideas themselves. But since I’m here suggesting that you go and listen to this stuff, I would like to balance it out with my own views. The thing is, these theories are often useful explanations of how the gender binary manifests in the context of a patriarchal dominance hierarchy (which is the kind of underlying scaffolding that has shaped our cultural evolution, although it manifests in many different ways) – but they usually don’t carry this qualifier; instead, they are put forward as explanations of the intrinsic nature of gender, which is another thing entirely. Admittedly I have noticed this trend as a result of reading popular accounts of research rather than the original research itself, but unless that research is being systematically misrepresented (which is not all that farfetched in discussions about gender), then it is based on a flawed assumption of bizarre inflexibility of gender and gender roles. Certainly, it is still important to understand our evolutionary past and the reproductive strategies which shaped it, because this gives us a better understanding of the ways in which our behaviour can be inadvertently manipulated or distorted – but tired old suggestions that women are “choosier” than men because they have to worry about babies just don’t make any sense in the age of contraception and birth control, and the idea that humans won’t rapidly adapt to this new environment is fairly naive, I think. It’s like assuming that people will instinctively avoid eating too much junk food because being overweight could put them at a disadvantage if they have to run away from a lion. We don’t live in that environment anymore, and more to the point, unnatural satiation of biological responses which evolved to deal with scarcity (and therefore compel people to take advantage of every opportunity) will always leave past strategies in the dust, even when the results aren’t optimal (or the case of sex, they are super-optimal and totally sweet).

I hate to go on about this, but it’s just really jarring when he puts forward lines like: “Especially women – on you the pressure is greater [to be sexually selective] / ‘Cause men will always do what it takes to get into your favour / That’s just in our nature“. If this was actually true then men would have been leading the feminist movement, not trailing petulently behind it, resisting every step. Besides, the pressure for women to be selective only exists because men create it! And there is nothing in our “nature” that forces men to be constantly pressuring women for sex in this fashion. Indeed, if men actually did want more sex then the ideal approach would be to relieve this pressure, so women could be more forthright in expressing their own desires without having to worry about a subsequent avalanche of propositions and general creeper-tude (not to mention judgment and slut-shaming). The result would be more sex for everybody, men and women alike. But of course, this approach would require cooperative foresight and, much more alarmingly, freedom for women to make their own choices and have those choices respected – so, you know, goodbye patriarchal dominance hierarchy. The fact that alleged male hypersexuality often results in less sex than may otherwise have been possible reveals its true nature: this behaviour is not about increasing mating opportunities, it is about maintaining control (ie. dominance) over women.

Incidentally, I’m certainly not suggesting that there is anything malicious in this regard about the views Brinkman is expressing or indeed the similar views held by quite a lot of men in our culture – and more importantly, the reasons why they hold these beliefs are irrelevant. We are discussing imitated behaviours that have been passed down from a far less enlightened time. Each generation picks up on them and puts forward their own justifications, but in the end it is behaviour, not belief, that we should concern ourselves with if we want to see positive changes on these issues. Belief is just the past tense of behaviour, and it is often next to meaningless, especially when it is being used to justify harmful behaviour.

An important thing to note here is that evolution, by its nature, is engaged in an eternal battle with entropy, which means that in order for evolved traits to be maintained over long periods of time, there must be a sustained source of “pressure” which will cause natural selection to favour these traits over and over again (for example, gazelles exist under constant threat of predation by cheetahs, so only the ones fast enough to elude these threats will be continuously selected as time goes on, and any mutations to the contrary will be swiftly weeded out. If cheetahs were suddenly removed from the environment and could therefore no longer act as selecting agents for fast gazelles, the gazelles’ subsequent evolutionary path would be drastically altered). An obvious example of what happens when this pressure goes away is cave-dwelling animals whose eyes have degenerated to the point of being no longer functional, because they are no longer a beneficial adaptation – indeed quite the opposite, they simply consume resources unnecessarily. The traditional human gender roles, even if they were necessary for our survival in the past, can now be seen in this same light. Once the sources of evolutionary pressure which shaped this dynamic are lifted – and not only has this already started to happen, but the change is gathering momentum – then gender will start to manifest in increasingly diverse and unexpected ways, and in principle there is no rational reason to see this as anything other than a good thing.

Aaaaanyway, I doubt we will resolve this argument anytime soon but it’s just something I find rather annoying, mainly because I personally don’t fit it with most of the stereotypes being traded here. I can understand why people who do possess these traits, and encounter them regularly amongst others, might latch on to these theories as a relatable explanation, though. I am reminded of Hitchens’s infamous Vanity Fair article from a few years back, in which he argued that men are funnier than women because humour is just a way for men to attract mates – an argument which on one hand is almost self-evidently wrong, but on the other hand, quite possibly matches up with a lot of Hitchens’s past experiences and observations. If he had mustered similar evidence and instead concluded that this was how people had been taught to behave, rather than suggesting that this was their inherent nature, then the article may well have been praised instead, at least by the feminist critics who quite rightly tore it to pieces afterwards.

Okay I’ve gotten way off track here, so let’s finish with this: even if like me you don’t agree with all of it (and I didn’t even touch on the potentially even more controversial subject of group selection, which I am somewhat more sympathetic towards, as is Brinkman), The Rap Guide To Evolution is certainly worth checking out, and it’s always nice to see people popularizing science and getting Darwin’s message out there. I can’t really speak authoritatively on how musically accomplished it is, considering I hardly ever listen to hip hop anymore, but it kept me entertained, at least.

And finally, speaking of music, I came across some strong evidence recently for one of the other theories that Brinkman deals with: the idea that music evolved through sexual selection. I think you will agree, it all adds up. ;)

Only A Matter Of Time

Thursday, August 19th, 2010

I didn’t watch last Monday’s Tony Abbott-fest on Q&A (GNW was on, and besides, an hour of watching Abbott speak? I need at least three hours of preparatory meditation before I can endure something like that, and I don’t have that kind of time), but I just caught his answer to that question about gay marriage – quite poignantly posed, if you also missed it, by a man with a gay son who overcame his own prejudices as a result of being exposed to this alternate point of view. Funny how empathy can change people like that. Abbott, perhaps realising that the sympathy of the crowd was dangerously against him at this point, was suitably effacing in his answer – but in doing so, highlighted the absolutely absurd position this debate has reached. He praised gay relationships, not a bad thing to say against them, seemingly drawing no distinction between them and their straight equivalents – except for the fact that he believes straight relationships are special for some arbitrary reason, and therefore they are the only ones deserving of the title “marriage” (itself a completely arbitrary social construct). That’s where we are now. “I believe marriage is between a man and a woman because I believe marriage is between a man and a woman.” That’s all it takes to justify social oppression. Not even so much as a Biblical citation, let alone some actual logic.

The fact that the human brain is actually capable of sustaining such a position should be a cautionary tale for us all. It’s easy to cite the deeply ingrained memes surrounding homophobia passed down from a patriarchal society which automatically devalues anything that threatens aggressive masculinity, because these memes are still so prevalent that even many gay people still display latent tendencies towards them, let alone their straight allies – so people who have been taught that homosexuality is somehow a lesser form of sexual expression certainly do have a lot of memetic baggage to sort through, especially if they’ve been insulated from alternative arguments, as people raised in a religious environment often are. But there’s more to it than that. This strange desire to cling to a pre-existing viewpoint despite all logic to the contrary is a hallmark of religious thinking, and it stems from the rarely-spoken assumption that the system of morality put forward by the religion in question is the only thing standing between a stable civilisation and total societal collapse. In other words, if you were to suddenly take away religious morality, there would be no more civilisation, and we would return to a state of barbarism, if not outright savagery.

This view is plainly false. Morality is a product of evolution, and evolution does not just unravel itself like that – not when the same selective pressures which produced this behaviour are largely still in play today. True, memetic information exists in a far more tenuous state than genetic data, but even so, we have reached a level of development where only a truly catastrophic event, like nuclear war, could make such an impact on our progress as to undo it completely. Gay marriage is not, safe to say, the equivalent of nuclear war, though you could be forgiven for assuming as much if you’ve listened to some of the rhetoric from those who oppose it. And even in the event of an ACTUAL catastrophe, we would still be human, and thus still possess our kin-selected ability for empathy and a natural tendency towards social co-operation. If we survived, we could rebuild over time. We’re kind of bad-ass like that.

Aside from discussions surrounding proper problems with an actual scientific basis, like nuclear war or climate change or death by intergalactic space laser, conversations about morality should revolve around determining what is best to make people’s lives happier and healthier, not what must be done in order to avoid self-destruction. This fear that a loosening of moral standards will result in an inexorable backwards slide is really quite ridiculous. Cultures have been built around far less developed types of morality than that which exists today, and whilst they certainly weren’t perfect, they survived okay. This is kind of like when people argue for action against climate change by saying that we have to “save the planet” – it’s not about saving the planet, it’s about preserving its current state to the extent that is physically possible, so that it remains comfortably habitable for humans. That’s still a worthy goal. And the inherent selfishness of it might actually be more appealing than a Captain Planet mantra (since unironically caring about things beyond our immediate concerns is apparently still an embarrassing trait to publicly display). In the same way, people should be putting forward moral arguments in order to make the world a better place for us, the self-centred, fear-driven weirdos who live here. And arguments against gay marriage do not pass that test – they only promote divisiveness and oppression of people who don’t line up with arbitrary social norms. There is a reflex to automatically treat religions as though they have the moral high ground, because for much of our history that was actually the case (hard to imagine, I know), but morality has continued to evolve, and the major religions have – through their harmful actions and their unwillingness to catch up with this forward progression – clearly relinquished the ground they once held. There is no moral high ground for those who discriminate based on sexual orientation. It is bigoted, it is logically indefensible, and it is wrong.

You know what this “I believe because I believe” bullshit reminds me of? A school bully in the playground, playing keep-away with the socially-outcasted kid’s hat. There is no rhyme or reason to this behaviour; the bully is simply afraid, and is trying to placate that fear by wielding power over others, since that is what his greater physical stature allows. He does it, because he can. But as is the nature of power, it does not release that fear, it simply feeds it, and causes it to grow stronger. The pursuit of control only highlights what an impossible goal it is, causing him to pursue it even harder, only for it to move even further away – and so the cycle continues. The bully becomes even more strongly attached to these behaviours he has developed to try and cope with his fear, and yet he does not understand why. The bully’s hierarchical worldview is a type of morality, albeit a highly flawed one, just like the religious argument against homosexuality is a type of morality, albeit a highly flawed one. People cling to these views because even as their fears are being fed, they are even more afraid of what would happen if they had to face these fears completely exposed, without the behaviours they have developed in the past to try and cope with that fear. But the funny thing is, if you stop feeding these fears, they will genuinely stop growing, and they will become easier to deal with. Over time, you will find that you are able to develop new patterns of behaviour, and if you meditate on the consequences of your actions, you can try and ensure these new behaviours don’t have negative effects on others. That is actually a key point, because actions which harm others will also harm you (especially if you follow your natural impulse to try and create ethical justifications for your harmful actions – ironically, you’d do less harm without an ethical approach). Of course, you will always continue to make mistakes, there’s no getting around that – but as long as you acknowledge and learn from these mistakes and keep moving forward, you will notice a gradual improvement not only in your own life, but in the lives of those around you.

In other words, if you stop trying to force morality onto others and instead just learn to chillax so that productive discussions can take place, and you ensure any high-minded ethical meditations are backed by an intuitive and empathetic approach in addition to a scientific understanding of human behaviour (not just one or the other), you will quite likely find that a lot of your fears are simply figments of your imagination.

Regression

Wednesday, April 21st, 2010

I was listening to Dream Theater’s Metropolis Part Two: Scenes From A Memory the other day, for the first time in a while. It’s been almost a decade since I was first introduced to what most fans would agree is Dream Theater’s best album (it’s either that or Images And Words), but even today, it still sounds as sweet as it did back then. I don’t want to understate this: from a purely musical perspective, it is an awesome feat, and demonstrates the ability of metal to convey a wide range of emotions, far apart from the narrow and angst-ridden, anti-social view that most people have of the genre. Indeed, it’s one of the main reasons why I first became interested in metal, back in the day.

From a lyrical point of view, however, the intervening years have not been kind.

It is a concept album, recounting a somewhat convoluted story involving hypnosis, past lives, reincarnation, and just in general, what happens after you die. But whilst they might have avoided specific Christian imagery and instead opted for more of a generic spiritual…ness, make no mistake, they are a Christian band, and this album is a fairly transparent representation of their views. I mention this because the end result is actually a conveniently straightforward list of reasons why religion is still a Thing – so it may prove to be a useful resource for anyone who looks at these bizarre monoliths of ancient dogma still attached like barnacles to the whale of our glorious civilisation and asks the inevitable question: WHY?? (Especially if you want your ponderings to be accompanied by excellent music.)

I’m not going to bother with a detailed analysis of the lyrics, because it’s all fairly basic stuff (I mean, thematically – trying to follow the actual storyline takes a more concerted effort). If you’re pressed for time, though, then just go to the penultimate track, “The Spirit Carries On“, because it acts as the summary sheet for everything that you’re supposed to learn from this story. LaBrie even states quite unironically that he used to be afraid of death until arbitrarily deciding that some ethereal part of his being will survive into eternity, and then like magic, his fears disappeared. That’s religion in a nutshell, my friends.

The line that really gets me, though, is when he says “I may never prove what I know to be true.” No. Just… fucking no, man. Not being able to prove something is the exact opposite of knowing it is true. And I have to ask, if you’re just going to decide that something is true without any evidence to back it up, then why do you even care about proof at all? If the presence or absence of proof has no bearing on your beliefs, then the whole concept is irrelevant anyway. It’s as if he sees proof as some sort of window dressing that he is happy to display when it lines up with his worldview, but if it doesn’t, then, you know, whatever. It’s not important. Because he knows that he’s right.

The significance of this logical trap is somewhat deceptive, I think. People tend to see faith as either a sort of security blanket (the argument I have used in the past) or alternatively, as some sort of noble dedication to higher ideals. But I have come across a better definition: it is the only known cure for that most annoying of existential problems, doubt. In other words, it is one of the dumbest acts of self-sabotage you can inflict upon yourself.

Like most people, I’ve spent a disproportionate amount of my time searching for ways to get rid of doubt. I can be quite hesitant and indecisive even at the best of times, I have social anxieties and other problems, and it just seems like everything would run a whole lot more smoothly if I could just jettison all that doubt and get on with things. But I’ve come to realise lately that that would actually be a disastrous achievement. Doubt is good. And the only reason we don’t realise this is because the only doubt we encounter on a regular basis is our own. Everyone else keeps theirs safely hidden away in their own minds, because we are all operating the exact same delusion – that everyone is more confident than us, and that our doubt is somehow unique. I can pretty much guarantee that the only people who don’t feel this way are those select few who are either too ignorant or too deluded to realise how frighteningly small their own depth of knowledge is compared to the unimaginably vast amount of information that exists in the universe. And while they may seem to be better off, with their false confidence and all the rest, they really aren’t. They are trapped in their own vortices of circular logic, which they will in all likelihood never emerge from. They will never get to experience the entirely new and uncharted delusions of the free-thinking individual, amiright lol.

So when you introduce faith into this equation, to quell that quiet voice in the back of your mind that is incessantly asking “but what if I’m wrong?”, what you are really doing is shutting down your capacity for growth. This is why religion closes people’s minds. You’ve found a nice little cottage, everything seems to be in working order as far as you can tell, so you just say to yourself, fuck it, I’m going to live here, I don’t care if there might be nicer places further down the road. Doubt, as it turns out, is actually the force that keeps pushing you down that road, because even if you passed some decent places along the way, you just want to go and check if there’s something better around that next corner.

Okay, yeah, people certainly have a right to set up camp wherever they wish. My main complaint here is just that it is just such a fucking waste. Billions of years of evolution have given rise to an immensely powerful tool which is, right now, decoding strange patterns in the beams of light being emitted from the screen in front of you and translating them into a language of its own devising, triggering a cascade of electronic pulses and chemical reactions which result in you reading a sentence about what is happening when you read this sentence. And that’s not even one of its main functions. I don’t care who you are, if you have a brain, you can do some amazing things – if you open yourself up to all possibilities, including the ones which make you uncomfortable or fearful. Which means that instead of trying to force everything to fit in with some kind of pre-existing idea, you have to sit back and let your brain do its thing. Your brain is designed to take in information, analyse it, compare it with information it already possesses, and finally, to produce new ideas from this raw data. That is its friggin’ job, and the delusions of faith and certainty only serve to hinder that process.

I mean, do you have any idea how incredible brains are? Just think about it, you guys. These things arose through entirely natural processes, with no guiding hand or pre-existing blueprint. That’s fucking amazing. Fuck! I’m tripping myself out just writing this, man. I’ve gotta go lie down for a while.

ETA:

Okay, I feel bad for ragging on Dream Theater in this post (I’m just frustrated because the music I like so rarely has lyrics I can relate to). There are a couple more points I should add: perhaps the most important being that their religious views played a major role in helping singer James LaBrie and drummer Mike Portnoy overcome some pretty serious personal problems (specifically, depression and social anxieties for LaBrie, and alcoholism for Portnoy). When people find a way to deal with such problems, regardless of the nature of that solution, they tend to latch onto it wholeheartedly, and naturally become blinded to any faults present in their newfound beliefs. But for most people, this levels out after a while, and once they begin to feel like they’ve really put their problems behind them, they may feel comfortable enough to start asking some harder questions about their own views. I think, to their credit, you can see this evolution occurring in some of Dream Theater’s later albums, where they start dealing with some of the more problematic issues surrounding religion. They are still operating from a decidedly deistic viewpoint, but they are at least adopting a more questioning attitude, and personally I think there is only one inevitable destination once you start down that road, so long as you pursue it honestly.

So basically, it is interesting to compare Scenes From A Memory with songs like “In The Name Of God” or “The Great Debate” – and even more interesting to think about where these questions might lead them in the future.

Depression

Tuesday, March 2nd, 2010

A few weeks ago, in that entry I wrote about happiness and belief, I briefly mentioned depression and how it may be related to a breakdown in the way the brain processes belief, and I also linked to this article which explains some of the physiological changes the brain goes through during depression, and the possible evolutionary causes behind this changes (it’s not the only thing I’ve read on the subject by the way, it’s just a convenient summary). I’m going to expand on that part a little more here. I’ve been trying to decide whether or not I really want to talk about this, but I guess we’ll see how it goes.

As I said in that previous entry, beliefs act as a sort of interconnected network of proven, reliable thoughts, and we use this network to interpret new information. We build up our beliefs through experience and education, and strengthen them through repetition – which is not always a good thing. Due to our limited knowledge, we are forced to adopt illusory beliefs in order to function. But whilst in an ideal world these could just be necessary stepping stones to increased knowledge, in the real world we tend to buy into these false beliefs, and fall into repetitive patterns of behaviour, stunting our growth. Human behaviour often moves in repeated patterns, after all, because the overriding influence on our psyches is fear – the central survival instinct – and anything we can do to placate that fear is something we naturally want to stick with and reuse over and over. We all have our individual tics, unique ways of doing things, flaws, bad habits. Sometimes these patterns are relatively harmless; sometimes they are an inconvenience but still bearable; other times, they can significantly impact our ability to function.

This network of beliefs exists on a deeper level than conscious thought, and so we don’t normally notice its existence or reflect on it at all. Moreover, if you were to try and analyze your own beliefs, you would have to use your belief network to do so, which means it is not possible to gain a truly objective view of them. This is important to keep in mind, because the result is that reflecting on your own beliefs usually just reinforces them, even if you are genuinely trying to find fault. If you could see the flaws in your beliefs you would have accounted for them already; it’s the flaws you can’t see that are the real problem. And considering our finite knowledge, you can be quite certain that such flaws do exist, and that you’ll probably end up encountering them at some point in the future. What happens next, however, is far more important – because you can either acknowledge your mistakes and learn from them, or you can try and preserve your beliefs by rationalizing the discrepency away (in other words, you can turn justified belief into blind faith). This is why most people generally don’t change their beliefs much, because unfotunately, rationalizing them is simply the much easier option. After all, our brains are extremely powerful rationalizing machines. This gives us a rather astounding capacity to understand the universe around us, but only if we employ this power wisely.

When people do change their beliefs – and I’m talking about major, significant changes here, like switching religious or political allegiances – it is often the result of a rare and devastating blow to their entire belief system, which leaves them with little choice but to change their ways. This is not always the case, of course, but it accounts for most sudden and short term changes. When people change their beliefs through reflection and personal growth, it usually takes a lot longer for the changes to manifest, as they sort through all the details at their own pace. For example, I gave up my religious beliefs quite voluntarily, but I also did it over a very long period of time, as I was never faced with any direct challenges to my beliefs. I just gradually changed them on my own terms, as I learned more about the world and decided that some of the things I had been taught to believe were wrong. I realised fairly early on that the idea of a “god” in the conventional sense was a rather tenuous concept, but I held onto other aspects – like an afterlife of some sort – for quite a bit longer, purely because of the basic appeal of the idea. And that’s the thing with a lot of false beliefs: because they have no basis in reality, they are free to appeal to our emotions without being constrained by truth, like any good piece of fiction. They can be extremely hard to dislodge – except under special circumstances, when you encounter something which breaks through your rationalizations and brings the whole structure down at once.

It is this sudden and short-term collapse of the belief network which I will be focusing on here, because it seems to be one of the primary causes of depression (perhaps there are other causes as well; it probably manifests in a variety of complex ways, but this is the one I am interested in today). And as an aside, I think that this type of breakdown of beliefs also accounts for the “light” that people claim to see when they discover religion. It doesn’t have much to do with the intrinsic properties of their new belief system (all you need is a concept that carries its own internal logic, as I discussed in that previous entry); rather, it is just the enormous sense of relief that comes with finding a replacement for their old and broken beliefs. Because make no mistake, when your belief network breaks down, the pressure to build it back up again is quite severe. I know, because I have experienced it firsthand. And personally, I’m just glad that I had already tried seeing that particular light – and I didn’t find any answers there, either.

(more…)

Positive Psychology

Sunday, January 3rd, 2010

If you follow my twitter or liverjournal then you’ve probably seen me linking to videos from TED.com in the past. I love that site. It is basically an ideas forum, featuring short speeches by a variety of experts on diverse subjects relating to technology, entertainment and design (ie. T.E.D.). Some of the speakers are quite prominent (Al Gore, Richard Dawkins, etc) whilst others are simply there for being experts in their field, even if they aren’t celebrities. Because the speeches are generally short (usually around 18-20 minutes), I find it’s a convenient site to visit when you need to take a quick break from whatever you’re doing, or if you need something to do over lunch or whatever. Taking this approach, I’ve gradually worked my way through a large number of speeches, most of which have been really fascinating, and some of which have even been quite astounding (mushrooms! Who knew?!). There are inevitably a few weird and silly ones which really don’t seem to belong there, but for the most part, the quality has been high. I’ve been toying with the idea of writing a long post linking to a whole bunch of my favourite talks, but for today, I’m just going to focus on one: Martin Seligman On Positive Psychology.

So, uh, it would probably help if you went and watched that now, but if you can’t be bothered or if you’d rather find time for it later or whatever, then here’s a quick summary: Seligman is a psychologist working on the idea of positive psychology, ie. studying what makes people happy, as opposed to the more traditional approach to psychology, studying what makes people unhappy. He briefly runs through some points on why this seemingly-minor switch in focus is actually quite important to psychology in general and has opened up new areas of understanding about what makes humans tick, but he also makes note of the advances made by the older model of psychology and why they are still important as well, even though they were only part of the larger picture which is beginning to unfold. He then explains that there seems to be different types of happiness, which can be approximated by three broad categories. The first and most obvious category is things that provide an immediate pleasurable reaction, the second revolves around activities which you can lose yourself in and become completely immersed by, and the third relates to the desire for meaning and knowledge. This is the part that I found most interesting, and the reason why I decided to write this blog entry, because I can really relate to a few of the unexpected findings his studies have revealed.

Perhaps the least surprising of his findings is that the first category – things that provide an immediate pleasurable reaction – is the most superficial and short-term form of happiness. The example he provides is the experience of eating something which is delicious to start off with, but you’re sick of it by the time you’re done eating it. This is a very fleeting form of happiness, and interestingly, you can’t really stretch it out by continually moving from one pleasurable activity to the next – it is simply not enough to provide real and long-term satisfaction. This is probably a conclusion that most people eventually reach on their own anyway, even if they don’t give it much conscious thought. People tend to naturally gravitate towards certain things which provide a deeper and more fulfilling sense of happiness, and gradually leave behind more superficial pursuits. Or else they don’t, and can’t figure out why they are unhappy.

The second category is kind of a subtle one. Again, it’s not something that usually receives much conscious thought, but I can certainly relate to the idea of losing yourself in an activity and feeling better afterwards. For me, I can most easily accomplish this through playing videogames, especially a platforming game like Mario, which doesn’t require too much planning and forethought, and instead revolves around simply being in the moment. But I can also reach a similar state of flow through writing, and occasionally, when I am drawing, though I’m still not very good at that one. There have, however, been times in the past when I’ve spent several hours in Photoshop bringing some silly comic to life, and then I look back at the time that has passed and wonder how the heck that happened. It’s easy to understand why people would seek out activities which provide that feeling of accomplishment, even if it’s not always easily obtained.

The third category, though, is the one that really caught my attention. There is a definite sense of satisfaction and contentment that comes from having an understanding of how the world works, and from searching for the meaning behind what you see around you. The important thing to remember, though, is that this feeling is subjective, and entirely separate from reality – ie. it doesn’t matter if your explanations are objectively correct, it only matters that you can convince yourself that they are accurate. And because your head only contains a finite amount of knowledge, it is often very easy to convince yourself to believe in the accuracy of your own thoughts. I think a good illustration of this is religion. As an atheist, you will often find me arguing that religion is illogical, but from a certain point of view, that isn’t really accurate – all religions contain their own internal logic, and that is what makes them so appealing. They offer answers to just about any question you can think of, so if you accept that internal logic, you are essentially given a complete worldview, which is a very basic human desire. I think this stems from the fact that our brains evolved to understand the real world, and it wasn’t until they had grown much more powerful that we started turning our thoughts towards abstract concepts. Hence, we had no mechanisms for discerning objective truth, because until then, everything had been literal and there in front of us. Additionally, because we lacked a true understanding of the world anyway, we really relied on illusions for much of our development, until we could finally advance far enough to supplant these illusions with the real answers. Modern scientific progress is largely just a process of stripping those illusions away, one by one, so that hopefully we can make some progress towards a more accurate understanding of the universe.

So uh basically, the problem is not that religion is illogical, but that in order to accept the logic it offers, you need to ignore reality, which inevitably contradicts it.

But I’m digressing from my original point here. Regardless how and why this desire for understanding developed, it’s safe to say it definitely exists. We have an undeniable curiosity, and a need to at least feel like we understand things, even if we are merely operating under illusions because we’ve reached the limits of our comprehension. This desire to learn is what makes us so intelligent, but also what leads us into logical traps that provide that contented feeling, despite being built around inaccurate logic. In many ways, the goal of a skeptic is to avoid that feeling of contentment, because there are still so many things that we don’t know, so however much we feel like we understand the world, the only thing we can really know for sure is that we are still held under the thumb of illusions that we don’t even know are there. That, I think, is the real strength of a skeptical worldview: not that it explains everything, but that it reminds you that you can’t explain everything. In spite of our awesomely powerful ability to rationalize abstract concepts, we are not truly rational beings, and our preconceptions can’t be trusted.

Interestingly, there could well be a fine line between this type of happiness, and depression. According to one possible explanation, depression is the result of a breakdown of that feeling of understanding, so that the world doesn’t quite make sense anymore. It stems from encountering a problem or problems which can’t be easily solved, thus sending the mind off in all different directions in an effort to find that elusive explanation, so that a more stable worldview can be reestablished (hence, depression of varying levels being common amongst teenagers, as their childish illusions crash headlong into the real world). This often happens on a much deeper level than we are consciously aware of, which is why it can be difficult for depressed people to really articulate what the problem is, even though they are acutely aware of it. This makes illusions such as religion even more attractive, because without that feeling of understanding, we are lost and confused. So an explanation, even if it is merely an illusion, becomes a much more agreeable alternative… until that illusion becomes the source of the next problem, of course.

The main reason I brought up this possible link with depression is because even though the pursuit of knowledge can be a deeply satisfying form of happiness, it doesn’t necessarily result in the smiley-cheerful kind of happiness. As I said, the line between happiness and depression in this sense seems quite fine, and is largely dependent on whether your search for knowledge is yielding any results. Staring down the barrel of a particularly large problem can be quite daunting and frustrating, blurring this line even further. But just because the outward indicators of happiness are absent, doesn’t necessarily mean that a person is unhappy. Personally, I am often told that I need to smile more, or receive enquiries as to why I am not all happy and cheerful. Often these comments are motivated by genuine concern, of course, but it can still be kind of annoying, because I actually find it far more satisfying to search for knowledge than to content myself with illusion, even if the result is that I’m sometimes too distracted to be appropriately, superficially happy. And certainly, I don’t want to discourage people from speaking up if they think someone really is depressed, because sometimes it can be vitally important to intervene when a person’s problems are getting the best of them, but just keep in mind that there are other forms of happiness aside from the more obvious and friendly kinds.

So anyway, how do you build up a stable worldview, as free from illusion as possible, when there are still so many things that we don’t know yet? You need to recognise what beliefs actually are. Despite the significance that religious folk place on their faith, the fact is, the brain processes thought and belief in the exact same way. Beliefs are merely thoughts that we hold to be unquestionably true, so much so that we don’t even really reflect on them. Which, again, makes sense in the context of brains that evolved to deal with real-world problems – once you’ve established that your prey behaves in a certain way or that certain weather cues indicate an approaching storm or a variety of other things, then it is helpful to have a method of mental categorisation that allows you to recall these tried-and-true facts immediately. So we build up webs of belief, interconnected thoughts which operate as a filter for new information, allowing us to immediately recognise familiar patterns and to interpret new patterns to the best of our existing knowledge. But when beliefs are built up around illusions, it distorts the way we view the world. An easy example is stereotypes, which cause us to place greater significance on behaviour which lines up with the prescribed stereotype, even if it is not actually typical or significant at all. Once illusions have distorted our worldview, they pave the way for further illusions, burying us under the weight of false belief.

The answer, then, is to ensure that no beliefs are held to be unquestionable. And instead of desperately clinging to our existing beliefs, we need the courage to let go of them, and search for the truth, as best we can determine it. Which, in the short term, may mean letting go of that feeling of contentment that comes from having a working understanding of the universe. Illusions, ultimately, are just another form of fleeting happiness, which cannot be sustained. And if I’m really honest, I think the ability to be consistently, superficially happy in such a flawed world as ours is something of a delusion anyway. Which doesn’t mean that I don’t think it’s worth pursuing, or anything like that. I just think it’s important that we don’t lose sight of the bigger picture when trying to carve out our own little place in the world.

And you’d be surprised at how much happier you feel when you let go of your illusions, and make peace with your incomplete understanding of the universe, safe in the knowledge that there are still so many things left to learn – for an animal with a natural sense of curiosity, that is perhaps the most exciting prospect of all.