The placebo effect

Think warm; be warm. Believe in the curative powers of a pill, and watch your body respond. How can it be that mere belief can affect physical reality? The placebo effect is one of the most difficult phenomena to reconcile with nearly any worldview.

If you are sick because of some bacterial infection, it makes perfect sense that ingesting an antibiotic will make the infection better. But how silly does it seem that a simple belief in the effectiveness of a pill, regardless of if that pill is an antibiotic or a sugar pill, will also make an infection better? We’ll look at this problem from three different perspectives.

[Note: By "dualism", I will simply mean the belief that mental phenomena and physical phenomena are fundamentally different.]

Worldview #1: Radical Dualism. First, perhaps the easiest worldview: the placebo effect is a mere example of mind-over-matter. Mental states have the power to override and change physical states. In one sense, the truth value of the statement “I am healthy right now” can be determined by the belief in the statement. If you don’t believe you are healthy, you aren’t. If you do believe you are healthy, you are. “Health” is not a completely objective phenomena, but is dependent on subjective, mental states.

Now, in this worldview, there are a couple of difficulties. First, there is an assertion of free will.  (Because if our mental states [beliefs] are determined by previous physical states, the placebo effect is not effective, by definition. They merely become another link in a causal chain.) Defending the existence of free will is already a difficult, radical position to take.

Also, there is difficulty in explaining just how these mental states can affect physical reality. By what mechanism or process can a person choose or believe molecules to act in various ways? Does a belief pop into physical existence for a split second to knock molecules around? How else can it be physically effective?

Finally, where is the line drawn with this worldview? Surely, you can not will yourself to be taller? Or, can you? Just what are the limits of the mind-over-matter phenomena? If we can hold beliefs which change physical reality inside of us, why can’t we ever seem to alter physical reality outside of us (through telepathy or something similar)?

(Keep in mind, a lot of people throughout history have claimed to be able to alter external physical reality through the power of the their mind. To date, none of these claims have help up to scientific scrutiny. This doesn’t mean there are no telepaths, but it sure does seem coincidental that everybody with psychic powers loses their mystical ability when put in a controlled, laboratory setting.)

Worldview #2: Self-Deluded Dualism. There is perhaps a less savory explanation for the placebo effect: we kid ourselves. There needn’t be anything mystical or radical about the placebo effect if it doesn’t really exist. It is not actually the mere belief which changes physical reality. It is physical reality which creates the belief. We don’t need to assert a free will, either. Any beliefs that we hold are completely caused by physical, chemical reality, and our “beliefs” are a result of matter-over-mind.

In fact, you might say something like this: it is predictable that we think we are healthier when we believe we are healthier. Of course… isn’t that self-evident? This doesn’t mean we can actually become healthier by believing so. It just means we are effective at deceiving ourselves.

Now, of course, there is a big problem with this worldview: the evidence suggests otherwise. At least, the evidence overwhelmingly suggests that our beliefs, in fact, do have a causal effect on our well-being.  When we think healthy, our bodies seem to react. Chemicals get released by mental states that would not have been released otherwise.

(Of course, one might say that our beliefs are merely caused by previous physical states, to avoid the question of free will, and that makes things easier.)

[And get this, if you deny the existence of the placebo effect, if you don’t believe in it, you won’t experience it. Normally, we need positive evidence of something before belief. However, this suddenly becomes a mistake, and leads to inaccurate conclusions. In this case, you actually need to believe in the placebo effect in order for it to exist, by its nature.

This is why I call the placebo effect terrifying. It is like an example of faith. If you don’t believe God exists, you probably won’t see him anywhere. If you do believe God exists, you will probably see him everywhere. Wouldn’t the skeptical position be the correct one to take? It does not seem so, at least for this phenomenon, and who knows to what else this applies? If you believe leprechauns exist, will you start actually seeing them?]

Worldview #3: Consistent Physicalism.

If we eliminate the distinction between physical and mental, and reduce everything to physical, what should we make of the placebo effect? First, we have to change what we mean by belief. Ultimately, a “belief” can be fully reduced to electric circuits and chemicals. As we will see, there is no room for an effective placebo effect in this worldview.

Any given physical state is caused by the physical state preceding it. This means all “beliefs”, as we have defined them, are caused by physical interactions between molecules. This means that a “belief” affects physical reality like a cue ball affects a rack of pool balls, with the cue ball being struck by a cue stick prior (again, this eliminates the need for a free will). Chemicals cause our brain to perceive a “belief”, and chemicals cause our bodies to react. There is nothing mystical involved.

The difficulty in explaining the placebo effect comes from drawing a distinction between physical and non-physical. If no such distinction exists, we don’t need to invoke mind-over-matter nonsense. It simply ends with matter. We can explain the curative powers of “belief” by concluding that the human body has already within it incredible reparative power which is able to be unlocked through certain chemical processes.

Keep in mind, this worldview also has the most compelling explanation for why mind-over-matter psychics are always thwarted: they are selling bunk.

(Of course, a physicalist will have an interesting time explaining why any individual holds a belief of being a psychic. What positive physical function can that possibly serve the brain? Through a series of causal, physical events, a brain has concluded that it has powers which is does not actually possess.)

Now, all three of these worldviews address a few important questions which would do anyone good to think about:

I. Can belief change physical reality?
II. If so, does this mean our future is determined by subjective, changeable variables?
III. If not, does this mean our future is determined by objective, physical reality whose causal chains can never be broken?

I. Do we have free will?
II. If we have free will, and our beliefs can change physical reality, does this mean the human mind is able to freely alter objective reality as he chooses? Really?
III. If humans have such a capacity, what in the world are we? Angels?


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Three a week: the physical world

Everybody seems to be invested in the physical world. Three questions:

Question 1: Does the physical world exist?

Seems like an easy question to answer. Of course the physical world exists, we interact with it every day. What could be more real than tastable, touchable physicality?

Question 2: What are the reasons for belief in a physical world?

So, if asked the question, “Why do you believe in physical reality?”, one would quickly respond, “Because I can see it, touch it, smell it, and I interact with it all the time.”

Here’s the potential problem with that: It’s pretentious. In fact, all of the above propositions are completely unknowable. Here’s why:

Your physical senses can never know the objective cause of the experiences you have. You might say, “I am feeling a desk right now”, but that is inaccurate. You have the experience of feeling a desk. What was the cause of that experience? You merely assume that your experience of a desk was caused by a physical desk. This does not have to be the case.

Think, for example, about your dreams. Surely your experience of reality in a dream is not caused by corresponding objective physical reality. If you ever have flying-dreams, you know that your experience of flying is not actually due to you flying; it is merely a sensory experience.

So, how can you ever get outside your senses to see whether or not your experience is actually an accurate reflection of physical reality? You can’t. While you might be utterly convinced that the desk you feel actually exists, all of your beliefs rest on your subjective experiences. It might be no different than somebody within a dream insisting they are flying, because they keep having the convincing sensation that they are flying.

Question 3: Should we abandon belief in physical reality?

If we can never know whether or not the physical world actually exists, and, in fact, the only justification for our belief in a physical world is circular, should we get rid of such a belief altogether?

It’s a tough question, but here’s my suggestion: don’t base any fundamental beliefs on the existence of the physical world. You can never have certainty that it exists. Keep your beliefs about the external world practical, and don’t try to conclude anything important about it.

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Three a week: Justification

People who value truth seek justification for their beliefs. Three questions:

Question 1: Is there a method to proper “justification”?

Should all justification for a belief rest on empirical evidence? If there is no “tangible” evidence to believe in something, are you ever justified in believing it?

Laos is in there, trust me.

(If we do believe that tangible evidence is what is necessary to believe something, then how strictly do we want to follow that? For example, you have probably never seen a single physical object in Laos, but you believe that houses, bicycles, and cars exist there. You believe that Laos exists. And what tangible evidence do you have to back this up. You have not had a sensory experience of anything that suggests houses exist in Laos. You may have seen pictures, but you merely trust that they are accurate pictures.

If your belief in the exists of physical things in Laos relies on “trust” of other peoples’ supposed sensory experiences, that is a different thing altogether.)

Question 2: Is justification objective?

If you sit down to play some poker with a few friends, and you get dealt a royal flush, are you justified in believing that the dealer is cheating? What about if you get dealt two in a row? Three? At some point, of course you are justified in believing something fishy is going on, but if this is true, it implies that a line can be drawn somewhere. At what point does a non-certain belief become justified?

Question 3: Is justification ultimate?

Is someone ever justified enough to be absolutely certain? Or, is that just the height of intellectual presumption. If it is possible to be justified in certainty, what method of reasoning can be used to attain such justification? If it is not possible to be justified in absolute certainty, what method of reasoning led us to that conclusion? Are we absolutely sure that our thought process was sound enough to lead to the conclusion that we are never justified in being certain?

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Three a week: Entities

Things exist, right? Three questions:

Question 1: What makes an entity, an entity?

Is a house an entity? What makes this so? If we gut the house entirely, so it is just studs and a roof, is it still a house? What about if we remove the roof, so it remains a bunch of studs? If we remove the studs, so it is just a floor? Surely, that is not a house. But when did this entity disappear?

Was it the removal of the roof? Well, what happens when we only remove half of the roof? Three quarters? Nine-tenths? What if we have one plank of wood serving as a “roof”, is that structure still an entity, or is it just a pile of things?

Question 2: What makes an entity, an entity?

Drawing lines in the sand when talking about physical reality can be hard (we can go down to the microscopic level and beyond). Perhaps there is an easier definition for a living entity. What makes a human being, a being? Is it the physical body? If so, we run into the same problem above – when we start removing parts from the body, at what point does a “human” just become a lump of flesh or a mass of cells (as certainly, a handful of cells can not be called “human”… or can it? Does the type of cell matter?).

Perhaps we can fit consciousness into this. Human beings are still human, even with their limbs removed, if they still have consciousness. To make it easy, perhaps we can say if any amount of consciousness, even minute, is present, that human is still a being or entity. We don’t run into any infinite regress problems here.

Question 3: What makes an entity, an entity?

Ah, but if the line is drawn at consciousness, that surely opens up more questions than it answers. If we deliberately describe consciousness as “non-physical stuff” to avoid the earlier problems, we are really claiming that what makes a human being, a human being, is its non-physicality. And what are we talking about then? A spirit? An essence? What exactly is this non-material point of awareness?

Does this mean that a human “being” can exist without a physical body? Surely we don’t want to go down that road. Perhaps it is easier to re-examine the case for the purely physical human being. Perhaps there is a certain cell count at which a thing becomes a human being. Perhaps there is a certain molecular amount of clumped-up wood or material which constitutes a “house-entity”.

Or perhaps the opposite of all of this is true, something which hasn’t been mentioned. If these problems arise when we assert that entities exist, perhaps the conclusion should be that entities don’t exist. We don’t need to struggle to draw the line anywhere if there is no line that can even be drawn. Perhaps the worldview that simply claims, “everything exists, without the need for division between things” is correct. They reject drawing lines, and instead draw circles.

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Three a week: Contradictions

This post is about contradictions, and this post is not about contradictions. Three questions:

Question 1: Why do contradictions sound alluring?

“They went to a world where 2 became 3, where good became evil, and hot was cold.”

Ooooooh! How mysterious! Such a proposition titillates our senses. Mystics have written in such a way for millennia, and they have been quite popular. This is odd, because after the application of basic logical analysis, the mystery fades into pure impossibility. “2″ is not “2″ if it is “3″. “Hot” is not “hot” if it is “cold”, by definition. Things can not be hot and not hot at the same time, otherwise they would not have been hot in the first place. Any description of reality which includes a contradiction, however romantic-sounding, is mere confusion and must be false. It is not “I don’t think hot was cold at time X”; it is “hot can not be cold, ever.” There can not be any plausibility to it.

Question 2: Aren’t there any exceptions to the rule?

Answer: No. There can’t be. Take, for example, the following statement:

“Joe is tall, and Joe is not tall.”

Now wait a minute, this seems like a contradiction, but isn’t this true? Joe is tall in certain circumstances or countries, and in others, he is not tall. Why can’t this work?

This is a great example of subtly vague language. If you are not precise in your analysis, contradictions like this can seem like they are true. Here’s the important part: when dealing with contradictions, you must keep both propositions exactly the same, while negating one. This principle has not been followed in the above example. Here’s why:

The reason the above sentence seems plausible is because Joe is tall in certain circumstances. Then, we can say that Joe is also not-tall in certain circumstances. The problem is in the “not” placement, believe it or not. We are dealing with two different propositions. You’ll see what I mean by an example of a well-formed contradiction:

Joe is tall in certain circumstances, and it is not the case that Joe is tall in certain circumstances.

Aha! There the contradiction becomes clear. We can no longer say that the negation of the first proposition is true. If Joe is tall in certain circumstances, it cannot be the case that he is not tall in certain circumstances. Still confusing? Again, the trickiness of this can be explained via example. In order for the contradiction to be true, we want to make the proposition:

Joe is tall in certain circumstances, and Joe is not-tall in other circumstances.

Now, the mistake is clear. These are two different propositions altogether. We must talk about Joe in the same circumstances, otherwise, we are not making a proper contradiction.

[Formally, you can see the difference like this:
(A and not-A)
is quite different from
(A and not-B).
The former can not be true, the latter can be.]

Question 3: Why all this “can’t” and “must not” language. Isn’t that too extreme?

Nope. The nature of logical analysis is unique in dealing with absolutes. It is absolutely the case that a proposition is either true or not true, there is no in-between. Upon reflection, one can find that this is not extreme at all, it just necessarily follows from the inescapable laws of language and thought. Think about contradictions this way:

If we claim proposition X is true, we are really claiming that proposition X is not-false. That’s what we mean by “true”. By claiming proposition X is false, we are really claiming it is not-true. That’s what we mean by “false”. So, it becomes literally impossible for something to be true and false at the same time. Again, this is not a hypothesis. This is what we necessarily mean by our terms “true” and “false”.

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How the heck can you be “one with the universe”?

            For as long as I can remember, I have always been intrigued by Eastern worldviews. Until recently, I have frankly never understood them. How can you be “one with the universe”? What is the sound of one hand clapping? Well, that’s a stupid question I am afraid. One hand can not clap. Simple. In fact, what we mean by “clapping” is usually “striking together”. If you only have one hand, you can’t strike your hands together. Seems obvious… what am I missing? Why are so many people devoted to these ideas? (I am going to lump Buddhism and Hinduism together and just call them “Eastern” or “transcendentalist”.)

I am going to stick my neck out and say I finally understand the core ideas of what so many people find compelling about these ideas. In fact, I think there is a lot of meat to an Eastern worldview. This post is for you Westerners who are perplexed (as I was) by some of the confusing statements that are put forward by Eastern gurus/hippies/transcendentalists.

First, I am going to give a summary of what I think are the core ideas of this worldview. Then, an attempted explanation, without the mystery. So, here’s a list of propositions that I think a transcendentalist would agree with:

a. All is one.
b. We are all connected.
c. All divisions between things are artificial constructions by humans.
d. Pain and pleasure result from an attachment to the physical world.
e. You can achieve a state of “oneness” with the universe by ridding yourself of your “ego”.

Alright, that’s a good bunch of interesting statements. These will hopefully become comprehensible after some foundational beliefs are explained.

So, this all started with some conversations I have been engaged in for the last few years with various people in various different places. Then, recently, I woke up around 5am one morning (much to my chagrin) and started doing research on Buddhism. Shortly after that, I took a trip to Washington DC and had a few marvelous conversations which cemented my belief that I finally understood the basics of what Buddhist monks have been talking about for a while.

The question is about methodology (a common theme on this site). How should we go about arriving at our beliefs? Should we use a dartboard? Logical reasoning? Faith? Or something else? Here’s their methodological claim: you can arrive at “truth” by abandoning reasoning and language altogether. Reasoning and language are constructed by humans – why should we think they result in the discovery of truth? There is in fact, they argue, a more fundamental truth, accessible to every person regardless of mental capacity: you exist. Not only do you exist, but everything exists. This is key. Everything in the universe exists. Hence, “you” are part of everything.

If we mesh this with a theory of atoms, you are made up of the exact same stuff as every other thing which exists – you are just arranged differently. However, you don’t need to use left-brained reasoning to understand this as a proper sentence/proposition. You just exist. Indeed, if you abandon language, you still exist. If you abandon your goals and even your beliefs, you exist, just like everything else in the universe. Just “be”.  (Note: think how meditation plays into this. Is this not a proper explanation for why monks meditate all day?)

Logical analysis and linguistic reasoning are exercises in futility. They are just another artificial, illusory construction by busybody human beings who want to kid themselves into thinking they are uniquely gifted to discern “true” propositions from “false” propositions, all the while forgetting that “true” and “false” and “propositions” are merely arbitrary words.

In fact, acting with “goals” to “succeed in life” or get ahead in some material way is also pointless. Again, all artificial. A proper life is one lived by understand that you are part of “one”, and not getting caught up in what some culture throws at you and tells you is important. Furthermore, even what you consider your “self” is artificial – your beliefs, goals, attitudes, AKA your “ego”. Only upon abandoning your self, your ego, can you attain a state of “nirvana” or pure one-ness with the universe.

OK, that is the overview. Pretty interesting, eh? Before I get into my personal take on this worldview, let’s revisit those five propositions.

a. All is one.
This is fairly easy to understand now. Add up all the stuff in the universe, everything which “is”, and you will get one. Divisions are merely two sides of the same coin.

b. We are all connected.
Of course, this naturally follows from everything being one thing. As part of the same thing (the universe/”all”), we are all connected, or indeed, fundamentally the same.

c. All divisions between things are artificial constructions by humans.
A box is made up of little bits of matter. Some people could argue that the box is actually a table. Others, a chair. Some could argue that it is in fact a stepping stool. In reality, it is none of these things, it just “is”. The words we use are arbitrary, and have no effect on the box’s “is”-ness.

d. Pain and pleasure result from an attachment to the physical world.
Think about it through the lens of this worldview, pain and pleasure are purely arbitrary. We think we should have a certain level of material well-being or kind of relationships with people. If these arbitrary expectations are not met, we experience “pain”. In fact, pain and pleasure really aren’t so different after all. They are really two sides of the same coin.

Are the meditator and the clouds really one?

e. You can achieve a state of “oneness” with the universe by ridding yourself of your “ego”.
Again, this is the attainment of nirvana. No more artificial division or constructions, no more “self”. Reduce yourself to the bare bones of what you are: just pure existence  (like everything else).

You have to get yourself into this mindset when trying to understand the mysterious sentences which monks give to students to think upon, called “koans”. One example which comes to mind: a student was eagerly asking his teacher, “What is the Buddha?” The teacher responded, “Three pounds flax.”

Think about it. All divisions, names, and words are arbitrary. Everything “is”. Buddha “is”. Three pounds flax “is”. The student “is”; the teacher “is”. Everything is “Buddha”.

Now, while I disagree with plenty of things here, I think many pieces fit together nicely with the worldview for which I have argued. Here’s my take/response:

The question remains one of methodology. Perhaps the methodology of the East and the West can ironically be two sides of the same coin – ways of finding absolute truth. I don’t think rational analysis should be given up just because another methodology might arise, especially if that methodology has severe limitations. Yes, I think is it valid to say that by abandoning language, you can still arrive at a truth: that you exist. However, just because everything shares a common property (existence), does not mean everything is the same thing. Apples and leaves are often both red, does that mean they are often the same thing? (Of course, I am the one drawing the division between an apple and leaves.)

You might not even need to the reality of existence linguistically. You can just be. OK, I’ll give you that. But just because you can arrive at a truth, does not mean you have arrived at all truths or the “ultimate” truth (if such a thing exists). The most left-brained person in the world can arrive at the same conclusion of existence via logical (presuppositional) analysis. Yes, you must exist because you could not think a single word without existing. You are logical necessity/presupposition if you speak.

I think it is accurate to try to reject artificial constructions, at least as it relates to your beliefs about yourself. I think culture is deceitful and empty. However, just because it might be wise to not completely devote your life to becoming wealthy in an attempt to find happiness, it does not follow that you have to entirely reject a career or life-goals. The ultimate reason for living should not be to fulfill some arbitrary role that society has given you, but that does not mean you should not have any role. (Of course, I believe this should be discovering what truth is. Let’s not kid ourselves into thinking our lives matter unless we’ve done enough research to confidently conclude either way. This journey takes precedence, necessarily, over anything else.)

Why not mesh these two worldviews, in the ways in which they are not mutually exclusive. While the West is typically dogmatic in its physicalist empiricism, the East tends to be dogmatic in its various versions of spiritualism/mysticism (to the point of rejecting Reason altogether). Why not take the middle road? Perhaps Dualism best explains the world, both as a philosophy of mind (both mental phenomena and physical phenomena exist), and as methodological Dualism: you can know certain truths through different methodologies. You exist, and you can either think about that rationally, or just “be”.

Now, if you want to get beyond the simple truth that you exist, I would recommend not abandoning logical, linguistic reasoning. There are an enormous number of truths to discover with your mind, if you go about it the right way.

Posted in Culture, Metaphysics | 2 Comments

What is real?

Two separate questions: What is real? And, what is “real”?

The former is a grand metaphysical question. The latter, a question about the definition of “real”.  Because we should always attempt to define our terms, here is a standard definition of “real”: “Being or occurring in fact or actuality; having verifiable existence”.

If we use that definition, however, we might not like some of the conclusions that follow. Do we know what “occurring in actuality” means? What is meant by “actuality”? Perhaps this means physical reality. Well, come to think of it, what do we even mean by “physical reality”? Existence which can be reduced to some form of material existence. Let’s go with that.


So, a “real” thing is something which “occurs in some form of material existence”. Chairs, tables, planets, grass, etc. Are there any things which might challenge this definition? What about thoughts? Can thoughts be reduced to material existence? Are there little atoms which, grouped together, make a specific thought? Does that mean thoughts have some kind of weight? How much does a belief in Zeus weigh? With enough precision, is it actually possible to point to a thought-particle or particles? Hmm…

What about first-person experience? Is that real? Can experience itself be reduced to material existence? Of course, a being might have an experience of the material world, but does that mean the experience itself is material? Yes, you might be able to explain the physical correlates of experience (chemical X interacting with chemical Y…), but why is this accompanied by first-person experience?

You can explain the third-person phenomena of rocks colliding into one another fully by just talking about physical matter. The two rocks had a mass of X and a velocity of Y, they collided with force Z…  there is no information loss. However, you can not explain beings colliding with one another in purely third-person terms without significant information loss. (How did it feel to collide? This is a question we don’t posit to rocks.)

One might say, “Well, when the two people collided, there was a certain amount of force applied to their nerves, which in turn sent electric signals to the brain, and so on…” This is insufficient. You can explain material phenomena all day long without ever being able to convey the information of how something feels to someone. (Try it.)

Now, this is a long way of saying, “If first-person, subjective experience can not be ultimately reduced to third-person, objective material existence, it is not real.” At least, according to our definition. But how absurd! Our experience is not real? What could be more real to us than our own experiences (or our thoughts)? Perhaps we need to change our definition?

Let’s revisit the definition of “real” once again: “Being or occurring in fact or actuality; having verifiable existence”. Perhaps the problem is how we defined “actuality”. Reducing “actuality” to a kind of brute, material existence might be a mistake. Let’s loosen that up a bit and see what happens. We can have “actual”, “real” physical phenomena (rocks, chairs, stars), as well as mental phenomena (experience, thoughts, beliefs). Sounds good, but I am afraid the conclusions which follow from this are also troubling.

If we accept this definition, how would we deal with the question, “Can you experience something that is not real?” If yes, what would that look like? Surely, I can experience the thought of a unicorn, but does that mean unicorns are real? Well, by our definition, a “real” phenomena can be either physical or mental. While unicorns do not seem to have a physical existence, they certainly have a mental one. So, unicorns must be real. Perfect circles do not have a physical existence, but I can think of one just fine. They, too, must be “real”. This is ridiculous! According to this definition, can anything not be real?

Then again, perhaps that is a legitimate question. Can any thing not be real? How can “a thing” be “a thing” if it is not real? Perhaps the existence of “not-real things” is even more absurd! So, according to this definition, everything which exists is real, in any form whatsoever. The only things which could not be real are logical contradictions. A square circle can not exist, and it is not real. Granted, our thought about the non-existence of square circles can be real, but this is quite different from a real square circle itself.

So, everything is real: numbers, unicorns, pigs on Mars, zombies, you name it. Is this really more tolerable than saying thoughts and experiences are not real? In fact, I think so, but perhaps with a little alteration.

Now, at first, the real existence of man-eating-gingerbread-men does seem absurd. However, perhaps this can be more acceptable if we make a sharp distinction between mental realities and physical realities.

In fact, the only reason the sentence “Zombies are real” seems juvenile is because we assume that “real” means “to physically exist”. This might be a mistake. Zombies are real… in your dreams. Literally. You can really imagine a zombie, but this does not translate into your thought having a manifestation in physical reality.

Of course, this brings up other questions. Could a zombie exist without a mind to think of it? Are mental phenomena completely dependent on a mind? Do numbers go away if human beings go away? Would “experience” completely cease to exist if there were no minds?

If so, how much of our reality can exist without us? We like to think of ourselves as being separate from reality, interacting with it, but are we actually creating reality around us?

My personal opinion: I do not know what is real, because I do not know what “real” is. (I mean, “real” – as opposed to what?)

Posted in How to Think Critically, Metaphysics | Tagged , | 14 Comments

How to understand

It is easy to take in information. Just open your eyes and ears. We are bombarded with data and information virtually all day, everyday. You can be filled up and brimming with facts in no time.  I have written about ways to sift through that information to find truth and falsehood, things you can know with certainty, and justification for these things, but there is a more general action which deserves just as much (or more) attention: understanding.

This is what I mean by understanding: To know how things work and why they work, not just that they work. To know the causes for something and be able to predict the effects. To be able to make relevant connections to other phenomena and see the big picture at work. To know the deeper causal relationships between things, not just the readily seen.

I am going to make the case that understanding is not a function of raw data gathering or fact-retrieval, but it is necessarily related to abstraction and conceptual reasoning. In order to understand things, we remove the specifics (or “particulars”) from various situations and, instead, look at general principles and concepts that we can recognize in other situations. It is a tragedy that “abstract” is, today, often synonymized with “impractical”, “irrelevant”, or “unrealistic”. As we will see, we would be reduced to a pathetic state of ignorance if it were not for abstract reasoning.

To illustrate, we’ll take the story of a child:

Hot Wheels: Stanley is a kid. He plays with toy cars. He has progressed in his toy-playing abilities over the last few years. There was a time where he hadn’t ever seen a toy car before, let alone touch one or roll one on the floor. Let’s visit that moment, in fact:

“What is that? Can I eat it? Should I touch it? I wonder what it feels like. Cold, and hard. Ah! It moves. And squeaks. Hmm, it moves easily. A little nudge and it goes rolling away. How fun!”

What can be gathered from this example? If Stanley takes his knowledge of this car (the look, the feel, the rolling properties, etc.) and only makes connections with the specific experience he had with the specific car under specific circumstances, he will have a very limited understanding of anything, indeed. After all, if he was rolling the car on a wooden floor, he would have no idea whether or not a car might roll on tile or concrete. If the force he applied to the back of the car is only understood in specifics, he could never understand that any push of the car will result in movement, only that his one specific amount of force applied under that specific circumstance resulted in that specific movement.

Now, what happens when he sees a friend’s new Hot Wheels car? If there is no understanding made, no abstraction from the previous experience, Stanley will be equally as perplexed and curious as he was when he first encountered a car. However, perhaps he abstracted away from the specifics of his car-knowledge and can easily recognize the shape and the “wheels” on the bottom of his friends car. It is likely that if he pushes this new car, it will roll as well. Maybe the child now understands that rolling over his toes will hurt regardless of the specifics of the toy. The general principle of pain, as it relates to metal things running into the body, can be understood at a conceptual level. (When a child puts his hand on a burner, he hopefully learns that all burners (the cause) have the capacity to result in the same unpleasant feeling (the effect), not just the one specific burner.)

In time, Stanley will learn that slanted surfaces will result in faster movement from his cars. The steeper the incline, the faster the movement. Perhaps he can create his own ramps for even more enjoyment. Imagine what he could teach a child, with excitement, who had never played with a toy car before. He has built up a basic understanding of toy cars, why they move (a push), their feel, sounds, looks, speed, and perhaps their relationship to certain people (friends, parents, siblings). Again, these are non-specific principles, not facts relating to merely his own cars or even the ones he has played with.

Now, fast forward a bit. Stanley has moved on to college, and he studies physics. Seeking deeper understanding, he understands that if you have a thing with wheels on an incline, it will move, with the speed depending on the incline. But why is this the case? He learns about (what we will call) the principle of gravity. It is not only toy cars which are affected by gravity, but everything with mass. He studies the formulas developed through other people’s experiences with things, and learns that there is actually a way to predict the speed of objects moving through space, regardless of certain variables (like color, taste, etc.). This is more universal abstraction, and it has all sorts of other conceptual implications in other areas.

If Stanley were to read his textbook and only understand the specific examples in a vacuum, he would not understand very much at all. It is when he abstracts away from the specifics that he develops an understanding of what is going on.

Fast forward again. Stanley is still fascinated by physics. “Gravity” is no longer a satisfying answer to the question, “Why do objects fall to the ground?”. He seeks a deeper understanding. Why does gravity work this way? What are the fundamental causes of gravity, and does it really apply universally? What principles can be found at this new level of inquiry? And so on…

Enough of Stanley. You get the picture. As he progresses along his intellectual journey, he gets deeper and deeper into understanding the fundamental principles and concepts behind whatever his studies, and he gets farther and farther away from studying what seems to be the most immediately “practical”.

Here’s some great news: you have countless chances to seek conceptual understanding and abstraction every day. The more you seek out conceptual knowledge, the easier it gets, and the faster the connections are made.

In contrast, we are told that the possession of “concrete facts” is the hallmark of an intellectual. I disagree. For example, one who only knows figures and numbers about some specific economic system understands nothing and can explain nothing, in contrast to the man who can always apply certain economic principles in any situation. A precise knowledge of cause-and-effect is not numerical or immediately factual. The principles, theory, and concepts come first, then their manifestation into the specifics.

In fact, every discipline requires abstraction. Historical facts are meaningless and incomprehensible unless put inside a conceptual framework. Science can’t tell us anything about the world without abstracting to the world outside the laboratory. Somebody who says they are concerned with “just the facts” or “just the data” is confused. Pure data input is no different than looking at and memorizing the digits of pi. You need to know how concepts relate to one other, not be able to regurgitate numbers and unstructured information.

Perhaps the most fundamental abstractions are those of language. Every belief that you hold, regardless of the specifics, can be put into language. If you understand the principles and necessary rules of language, this applies to literally every sentence which you will ever speak. What could be more fundamental? (Relevant to this site: it just so happens that logic has been called the study of the “rules of language”.)

Abstract, conceptual reasoning is not only an academic pursuit. You will find that those who are the most accomplished professionals in nearly every field and discipline are learned in the theory of what they study. In fact, even the same exact concepts and principles are used between different activities. For example, the principle of relaxation, or the economy of motion, is used at the highest levels in everything from Ju Jitsu to chess, or from piano and guitar playing to table tennis. Getting from point A to point B via the easiest, most comfortable and natural move is an abstract concept, but it is immediately related and incredibly practical in any specific endeavor.

So, the next time you want to put on a shirt that you have never specifically worn, don’t fret. Think about the abstractions that you have learned in the past. Perhaps it does not matter the color of the shirt or the day of the week; you can put it on the same way.

If you want to be somebody who understands how a machine works, and not somebody who is merely content that it works, you must actively search for the deeper concepts at work, not get caught up by arbitrary specifics.

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I am getting married today to the wonderful woman mentioned in this post. Needless to say, I will not be writing much for the next couple weeks.

If you haven’t read them yet, I would suggest the following:

Why Reason comes first
Why you shouldn’t have faith
Discovering presuppositions
Statistical anomalies: are they divine?
The methodology of trust

I will be back in January.

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Three a week: Happiness

“The pursuit of happiness”. Sounds great. Three questions:

Question 1: What is happiness?

Be careful how you answer this question. It could have big implications on the nature of reality. For example, does happiness have to do with your subjective feelings? Does it have something to do with your beliefs and attitudes towards life? Or, can you reduce it to a physical nature? Is happiness purely a physical phenomenon, nearly synonymous with dopamine? If you bring a 1st person perspective into the definition of happiness, you better explain how it is possible for humans to have a 1st person perspective in the first place.

Question 2: Should you pursue happiness?

We seem to think the pursuit of happiness is an obvious goal of life. Why? What is the justification for this near-universal assumption? If it is the case that “happiness” is reducible to chemicals, consider the following scenario:

Humans have identified with precision the chemicals that lead to feelings of happiness. They have also developed a flawless way to hook people up to a machine which keeps their mind flooded with these chemicals in a permanent state of happiness. Do you hook yourself up to the machine for life?

Some people would, most people would not. Why not? If the goal of life is happiness, and it is as simple as hooking yourself up to a machine, would one not be a fool to turn down such an opportunity for permanent bliss? If you wouldn’t do such a thing, are you claiming there is something additional to what you seek? Is there some kind of true or non-artificial happiness, not attainable with mere drugs?

If it is the case that you seek such a thing, what does this mean? The accuracy of the feelings which we have should be justified with the reality of the situation we are in? Does the human mind value justified happiness over permanent dopamine-release? (Might the human brain seek dopamine, while the human mind seeks something deeper?)

Question 3: Does happiness matter?

Put it in perspective. We’ll take two different worldviews:

In the first, humans are accidental, physical animals, with an existence which “matters” no more than an ant (or a rock, or a planet, or a random cluster of stars). Granted, we matter to ourselves, but who cares? A slug wants to preserve its own existence; so do we. In the big picture, a slug doesn’t matter; neither do we. Our planet, and everything on it, is going to eventually cease to exist because the sun will burn out, an asteroid will hit us, we will nuke ourselves to death, or whatever. Does a human creature seeking dopamine-release matter at all? Why do we kid ourselves into getting so wrapped up in our own pathetic existence to think the pursuit of anything matters. Fundamentally, our brains are like drug addicts: we seek chemicals, constantly. Why not acknowledge this futility?

In the other, humans are not accidental. They are part physical, part non-physical (with either a non-physical mind, a non-physical “soul”, or both). Because of homo sapiens fundamentally unique nature, we can (at the very least) posit the idea that there might be a purpose to our own existence, some kind of grand plan for us. But so what? Where does individual human happiness fit into the grand scheme of a creator? Are we really so pretentious to think that our personal fulfillment is somehow relevant or important enough to matter whatsoever when it comes to a divine plan? Might it really be the case that the creator of the universe has thought to himself, “Now, I know Johnny really like playing dominoes. It makes him happy. I’ll make sure to create the universe just right so that Johnny gets to be happy playing dominoes.” Might we not be so important?

Or, might we? Perhaps it is premature to disregard the staggering novelty of human existence. Perhaps the mere existence of a mind is enough to entertain the idea that God has some spectacular plan for the most unique creatures in the universe. Molecules with a unified, subjective experience who can think, feel, reason, believe, and choose? Maybe these humans are the only creatures whose happiness is more consequential than an ant’s life of reproductive success? Or, might all of this just be a wonderful example of the homo sapiens’ ability to think wishfully? Yes, humans are unique, but perhaps only in the capability to delude ourselves into thinking we matter on a literally divine scale.

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