What Are You Besides Your Body?

Let’s ask the question: What am I? Not ‘Who am I?,’ because asking ‘Who am I?’ would already presume the presence of some entity whose nature is being questioned. Just what am I. Am I my body? No, that’s my body…again the presence of an entity is presumed to which my body would be assigned. Because what is this ‘my’ in my body? What makes my body ‘my’ body and your body ‘your’ body? What makes ‘you’ you and ‘me’ me? Are there even such things as ‘you’ and ‘me’? Or all we all part of a bigger whole; a continuum of nature in which no discrete entities exist?

When I’m referring to ‘me’, I’m not referring to what I have. And that includes my body. I think I am referring to my consciousness. But then again: what is this ‘my’ in ‘my consciousness’? What makes my consciousness mine and your consciousness yours? Assuming that you have a consciousness of course…I don’t know. There has to be something ‘my’ consciousness would have to be ascribed to in order to make it different from ‘your’ consciousness. My body maybe…and now we’re back at where we started.

It appears like we are just too stupid to come to understand what the ‘I’ in ‘What am I?’ is. Our tiny little brains just cannot handle the question. But, instead of a big read ‘ERROR’ appearing in the middle of our minds, the mind desperately tries to come up with an answer. Anything. It doesn’t manner how unverifiable or implausible it is. Desperately it tries to find something that makes ‘me’ me and ‘you’ you. But over and over again it returns home disappointed…not even knowing where or what this home is.

How does the ‘who’ in ‘who am I?’ differ from the ‘what’ in ‘what am I?’ Do they even differ? Because if it not, determinism might be unavoidable. If there is nothing in us that contributes at least a little value to the collective of cells making up our bodies, then we have to conclude that we are the collective of cells making up our bodies. But then free will would be nothing more than an illusion. Or it must be something that is formed in some inconceivable manner by the gigantically complex network of cells we call our bodies.

But let me ask you: what if free will would merely be an illusion? Would you care? Would your life become any different from what it is now? You could still do anything you want to do. The only difference is that what you ‘want’ to do would be programmed into your genetic structure. ‘You’ would merely be a witness overlooking the execution of this protocol.

Do you believe in consciousness? And if so, what do you believe it is? And would you mind if your consciousness would be like a fart; nothing but a by-product of your body?

Feelings of Shame: Biologically or Socially determined?

We’ve all had it. That feeling of being deeply disappointed in yourself. That feeling of knowing that you’ve done something wrong, even though you might not know exactly what. I’m talking of course about the feeling of shame. But what is shame? Is it nothing but a chemical response our bodies tend to have towards “embarrassing” situations? And if so, how do our bodies decide between embarrassing and non-embarrassing situations? And what role does our social context play in determining our feelings of shame?

Like any feeling, shame has developed to increase our procreation chances. If we wouldn’t feel any shame, we might have never become the social creatures that we are. Imagine that you would be a caveman hunting with your fellow cavemen. While you’re sitting in the bush, you decide to attack a very angry looking bear, even though the leader of the group explicitly told you not to do so. If you wouldn’t feel bad – feel “ashamed” – about this situation afterwards, there would be nothing to prevent you from doing this “stupid” behavior again. In other words: there would be nothing withholding you from endangering you and your group members again. Sooner or later you would end up being banned from the tribe or dead.

This example might be a oversimplification of the actual workings of our “shame mechanism”, but it should do the job in explaining how our tendency to feel shame has come about. Millions and millions of years of evolution have weeded out those not feeling shame; ending up with a population in which (almost) anyone has the ability to feel shame.

However, while our ability to feel shame is biologically determined, the content of our feelings of shame – that is where we feel ashamed about – is for the biggest part socially determined. And the reason for that is simple: if the content of our feelings of shame wouldn’t be socially determined, they would always lack “environmental relevancy”. What do I mean that? Well – to return to the example of the cavemen – if we would be biologically “tuned” to experience shame whenever we let our fellow hunters down while chasing an angry looking bear, this would imply the requirement a great deal of likewise shame mechanisms to prevent us from doing anything shameful/harmful in life. And because our society is ever-changing – at least a faster pace than our biological makeup – we would always remain tuned to a historical environment; an environment not relevant in sifting the fit from the weak in today’s world. That’s why the ability to feel shame is biologically determined, but the instances that trigger our feelings of shame come about (mainly) through our social context.

There are, however, some aspects of life more important in determining one’s procreation chances than others. The most prominent of course being our sexual capabilities. This could explain why sex seems to take such a prominent position in the whole realm of of areas we could be ashamed about; sex related events simply tend to have a more profound physical effect on us than non-sex related events. This might be why people have the tendency to feel ashamed about their weight, looks, sexual experience, sexual orientation etc.: all of these have – or have had in the past – a significant effect in determining one’s procreation chances.

These are my thoughts on the issue; what are yours?

Free Will and Why Determinism Would Not Change a Thing

I want to take a look at what – at first sight – might seem to be a dichotomy between free will and determinism. I’ve written a couple of articles dealing with the question whether there actually is something that can reasonably be called ‘free will’, and – if so – what this might consist of. These are important questions, for if it turns out that there is no fee will – or that there’s nothing ‘free’ about our free will – then we are left with determinism, a position many people are uncomfortable with. I want to look at what the implications might be of assuming determinism to be true, and in particular at what this assumption would imply for our experience of free will.

When we think of free will, we usually think of a certain autonomous power, residing within our minds, that is capable of initiating (our) actions. Whether it is picking up a teacup or stroking a dog, if we want to perform an action, we seem to be able to decide (consciously or unconsciously ) to execute this action. Now, let’s ask ourselves: how would this picture change if it turned out that we are not fully autonomous in deciding to pick up the teacup or stroking the dog? What if it turned out that our brains are just responding ‘automatically’ (that is, by triggering evolutionary developed neural networks) to the stimuli received from our environments? What if – in case of you picking up the teacup – the stimuli of (1) you being in the living room and (2) it being cold, trigger your neurons into making you believe you want to pick up the teacup and making you in fact pick up the teacup? Note the ‘what if’ in the former sentence, because theoretically it is possible that this is how we come to ‘decide’ on what actions to perform; just by means of nerve cells responding to external stimuli.

The truth of the matter is that we don’t know – and we might never know – whether this is the way our actions come about. It might indeed be that our actions – and thus our decisions – are fully deterministic in nature. However, it wouldn’t make a difference if this would be the case: not as long as we keep on having the perception of having a free will. Even though we might come deterministically to the actions we perform, we still experience the sense of free will. And this experience will not change, not even if we’d come to know that our actions come about fully deterministically.

Because think about it: what if it would turn out that you – who considers him- or herself to be a creative person – depend fully upon the aforementioned neural networks and stimuli for coming to your ‘creative’ ideas? Although you believe you came up with the ideas ‘all by yourself’, fully autonomous and purely free, it turns out that your ideas are a logical result of the environment you’re in and the configuration of your neural networks.

At first you might feel a little hurt in your ego, but when you start thinking about it, you quickly come to realize that this observation doesn’t change a thing. After all, your experience of having a free will is exactly the same as it was before – when you truly believed to have free will. You can still do anything you want to; you’ve merely come to know where this “want to” finds its origin. You have come to know that you don’t have a free will; but you still experience having a free will. And since experience is all we have, nothing has practically changed.

But what do you think?

We’re Underway for Merely 500 Years

We as a species are underway for quite a while now. But when you look at how much of this time we’ve actually been making some progress, it seems like we’ve just started. It wasn’t until the Enlightenment (17th century) that we started to make some progress in our knowledge. Up till that time, we were consumed by religious indoctrination preventing any creative ideas from coming into existence. The Greeks had made some progress in the centuries before and after Christ, but this progress was mainly philosophical in nature and hardly applicable in any industry. So you could say that we as a species are truly underway (read: making a difference) for only 500 years or so – adding a few centuries of the Greeks to the period spanning the Enlightenment until now.

That’s an inconceivably short amount of time when compared to the 7,5 billion years our earth – and possibly us – has left before it is shattered to pieces by the ‘death’ of The Sun. 500 years…that is .000000666 percent of the time still to come. And look at what we’ve accomplished in this short amount of time already. We’ve totally revised the world. We’ve come up with electricity, computers, the internet, transportation, medical care and many other life- and world-changing inventions. Look at the progress we’ve made in science, the many disciplines and specializations that have come into existence. It is absolutely staggering.

With that in mind, imagine what can happen in the upcoming 500 years. Imagine our economies going green, robots doing pretty much all physical labor for us and the internet being put into our heads so that we can ‘wireless’ communicate with anyone else. Maybe even a new substance will be found, called ‘consciousness’, which might resolve many of the most fundamental philosophical problems around, such as the mind-body problem, scientific reductionism and determinism. It might even explain why some fundamental particles appear to change their course when humans are watching them. Furthermore: imagine that, after the next 500 years have passed, 15 million of such 500-year cycles are yet to come in the future of our species. And probably even more, since it’s not impossible to imagine that we’ll find another planet to live on, thereby leaving the earth before it explodes.

Almost everything you see around you is built on knowledge that is gathered in the last 300-400 years. The buildings you see, the car you drive and the power you use. Everything that is of any relevance to your daily existence. You can imagine our descendants in 300 million years from now laughing at our convictions that we know quite a lot about the world already.They will see us as nothing more than an extension of the Neanderthals.

I ask you to take a look at your grandparents and listen to their stories about their youth. My grandfather told me about his neighbor getting the first tractor in town. He also told me about his experiences in the Second World War, an opportunity the next generations will never have.

What do you think?

Where do our Minds Go to When We’re Asleep?

Where does your mind turn to when you fall asleep? It must be still there, right? Somewhere, lurking between your unfilled wishes and animalistic desires? Maybe your mind is sleeping too…but then, who’s in control of you, the “thing” I’m talking to right now? Something must be in charge, right? After all, you wake up every morning, thinking to yourself: “damn, it’s early”. That seems to be the point where your (conscious) mind takes over control again, right? But taking over control of whom? And why is that we are so powerless when we try to get some sleep? What is going on here?

You might have seen the film Inception. It’s about the possibility of having a dream in a dream in another dream etc. But while Leonardo DiCaprio seems pretty much in charge of his dream-worlds, and the moment he decides to enter them, we seem to have much more difficulties doing just that. Because while it’s pretty clear that our brains are doing all sorts of things while we are sleeping – sorting out memories, paving neural pathways and throwing away awkward experiences the brain does not consider to be awkward enough – our mind, the entity that is “you”, is nowhere around. But where did he go? He probably handed over the key of our control station to our unconsciousness, the evil brother of our minds, the one still firmly rooted in our evolutionary longings, and the one totally uncontrollable. But it is still weird though how – and when – this “handing over the key” takes place exactly, right? It’s only when the unconsciousness wants to that “we” lose control. This shows again how powerless we are when confronted with Mother Nature and its compelling powers.

Still though, it’s interesting to ask “where” in our minds our dreams take place. Surely, we can point out in MRI-scans what parts of our brains are busy sorting our thoughts etc. while we’re asleep, but that doesn’t explain which parts of the mind are busy when sorting out our thoughts and producing our dreams? And does the mind even consist of “parts”? Parts like the “conscious” and the “unconscious” mind? Or is the unconscious mind not really part of the mind, but merely a biological tool helping us to function in life? Just like our arms and legs?

Let’s assume – for the sake of this article – that there is an unconscious mind and that it takes “control of us” while we’re asleep. But then, when our unconscious mind takes over control, “what” then becomes in control of what our memories will come to look like? Given that this would be our unconscious mind, and that our unconscious mind doesn’t want us to remember a particular thought, can it then just prevent our brains from laying down the corresponding neural networks? But wouldn’t that imply that our unconscious mind would be fully in charge of who we are/become? We are after all little more than walking bundles of memories. Our memories shape us into who we are. So being in charge of our memories, implies being in charge of us, doesn’t it?

What do you think?

Rembrandt and the Use of only One Canvas

What’s the link between Rembrandt and your life? I’ll give you a hint: it has something to do with a technology called Macro X-ray fluorescence. By using this new technology scientists have been able to detect paintings that have been painted underneath other paintings. Apparently, ancient painters – even the big ones – made mistakes, or were in any other way dissatisfied with their end product. Therefore they decided to change this ‘end’ product, either by painting an entirely new painting on top of the old one, or by changing a few details. But that’s not really interesting, is it? Everyone makes mistakes, so painters make mistakes as well, right? That’s true, but what is interesting is the fact that the painters decided to reuse a used canvas on top of which they painted their new painting: they deliberately didn’t use a new canvas. Why is that? Were canvasses very expense in those days, or might there be a deeper meaning behind this seemingly innocent action? Let’s take a look at that.

When you think about painters re-painting a canvas, you might see similarities with the manner in which we – human beings – live our lives. We also have a canvas – call it our souls or bodies, or both – which we have to re-paint in order for a new and revised work of art to appear. Even more than the painter we are forced to use the same canvas over and over again. Not because new canvasses are expensive, but simply because we only have one canvas. Like the painters we can decide to make minor adjustments to our paintings, or decide to radically alter the shapes and colors of our work of art. Layer upon layer, color upon color, we build and redesign ourselves until we are reasonably satisfied with the ‘end’ result.

But then the painful question shows it face: will we ever be satisfied with the end product? Do we ever reach the point at which we are simply done adjusting the colors and shapes? Probably not, right? There is always a new color to implement, a new technique to use, and a shape more appropriate. We keep on changing our minds, and this change is reflected in our paintings. And the painting process will go on until we die, until we cannot adjust anything any more, and the painting of our lives will get sold.

You could take the analogy ever further by saying that – by using a certain ‘technology’ – we can, just like the paintings’, unravel the layers of our own existence. That’s after all what Freud intended with his psychoanalysis, right? Peeling down the layers of our mind until we reach those layers buried and forgotten, the lake of the unconscious mind. Just like the painters we try to correct the mistakes we’ve made in our lives. But no matter how good of a painter we are, and no matter how bright the colors that we use might be, we can never erase the layers beyond our consciousness: we can merely masquerade them with fancy flowers and rivers.

You can take the analogy to the extreme by applying the painting metaphor to society as a whole. After all, what do you think Marx meant with his structuralism? What about his notions of ‘base’ and ‘superstructure’? Sounds awfully familiar, doesn’t it?

So, what’s the conclusion of this article? Well, you could say that we’re all painters: painters of our own lives. And although we only have one canvas, we (have to) keep on adjusting our paintings, trying to attain that seemingly unreachable goal of perfection. And if we make a big mistake, unable to be corrected by a few brushes? We’ll start all over again. How to do so? Well, ask Rembrandt.

But what do you think?

The Inevitability and Arbitrariness of Signs

Linguistics is the study of language. And language is, if you think about, a beautiful and very intricate system. It has all sorts of rules or conventions that allow us to communicate with each other. Without these rules, no-one would be able to understand each other. I want to take a look at a central concept in linguistics: ‘signs’. For what exactly is a sign? Probably all kinds of associations with road signs and the like pop into your mind. But when used in a different context, a religious context for example, it can refer to ‘a sign from above’; a message from God. In other words: the notion of ‘sign’ is multi-interpretable.

There is something very peculiar about signs. Something that a man called Ferdinand de Saussure pointed out: the inevitable – but utterly arbitrary – connection between ‘signifiers’ and ‘signifieds’. But what does this mean? And why is this connection both inevitable and arbitrary at the same time? Let’s take a look at that.

According to De Saussure, a sign consist of two parts: (1) a concept or meaning (the signified) and (2) a sound image (the signifier). The signified is your mental image of – let’s say – a tree. When you hear the word ‘tree’, you immediately think about a big green thing standing in a park. That’s the conceptual level of language. The other is the phonetic level or the sound image of ‘tree’. When you write the word tree, you write a ‘t’,’r’, ‘e’ and ‘e’. And when you pronounce these letters in your head, the meaning or concept of a tree immediately arises. De Saussure claims that every sign we know of (whether it is a road sign or a sign from God) consists of these two parts: the thing representing and the thing being represented.

Now De Saussure points out the following: the connection between the word ‘tree’ and the concept (or mental picture) of a tree is utterly arbitrary. It is just because the English community has chosen to take the word ‘tree’ to stand for the mental image of a tree that this connection – or sign – exists. The concept of a tree could have just as easily been called ‘worm’ or ‘water’. You can see this arbitrariness at work when comparing different languages. The Dutch word for a tree is ‘boom’, yet  it still refers to the same mental image as the English word ‘tree’. It’s a convention. Nothing more, nothing less.

Furthermore, De Saussure claims that the fact that we know that ‘tree’ refers to the mental image of a tree is because we also know what other terms refer too, and where the word ‘tree’ doesn’t refer to. By that he means that we can understand the meaning of a word only in relation to other words. It is only because we know that the word ‘branch’ refers to a specific part of a tree that we obtain the mental picture of what the concept of a tree looks like. If we wouldn’t have mental images of ranches or leaves, and all the other parts making up a tree, we wouldn’t know what a tree would be.

So now you know that the connection between a “word” and a “concept” is arbitrary but necessary for the mental image to exist. We can “choose” the connection between the word “tree” and the mental image “tree”, but it nevertheless has to exist for us to grasp the mental image of a “tree”. Because our mental image of a “tree” only exists in relation to other words referring to other mental images.

This observation made me ask the following question: if we wouldn’t have the “phonetic sound” (the tones you hear when a word is uttered) of the word “tree” resonating inside of our heads, would that imply that we wouldn’t know what a “tree” was? In other words: if we wouldn’t have the word “tree”, or any other word referring the the mental image “tree”, would that imply that we wouldn’t know what a “tree” – in our every day conception of it – was? That we wouldn’t know what that big green thing standing in the park was?

Maybe animals can clarify this issue. Cats – for example – don’t seem to use words like “food” to refer to a mental image of “food”. However, they still are able to distinguish “food” from “non-food”. That is, when I put down real food in front of my cat, he runs straight to it. He doesn’t do this when I put a television in front of his nose. So he must have some “system of thought” that makes the concept of “food” different from the concept of “television”. The real question is: is this “system of thought” purely based on unconscious, intuitive and impulse driven forces – like “the smell of food” – that trigger him into moving towards the food, or does the cat have a “sound image” connected to his “mental image” of food that allows him to differentiate “food” from “non-food”?

I don’t know, but I find it pretty fascinating to think about.

But what do you think?

What’s Wrong with Pedophilia and Bestiality?

Pedophilia and bestiality: sex by an adult with a child and sex by a human with an animal. Most people consider the former to be disgusting and the latter to be twisted. Both of these activities are illegal in many countries. And that’s the way it should be, right? We all feel that both pedophilia and bestiality are wrong. But why is that exactly? What is it that makes us so creeped out by the thought of an adult having sexual intercourse with a child? Or the noise of the neighbor enjoying the companionship of his dog a little too much? And in what way do both pedophilia and bestiality differ from rape? Aren’t they ‘just’ rape, but disguised in a different form? Let’s take a look at these questions.

I believe that – as it is with all matters in life – you have to come to understand why it is that you find something right or wrong, and that you should not just take society’s word for it. After all, there are many societies in which gay marriage is believed to be morally wrong or even illegal, but that doesn’t imply that gay marriage is in itself morally wrong or illegal, right? Of course not. It is morally wrong or illegal because the society in which it is morally wrong or illegal made it so. And so it is with pedophilia and bestiality. However, in contrast to gay marriage, there might be more compelling reasons to make pedophilia and bestiality wrong and illegal.

Let me ask you the following question: what is it that you find so repulsive about grown up men (and women) having sex with (little) children? Responding with, ‘They are children!’, is not an argument; merely a shout of disgust. A better – but still unsatisfying – response would be, ‘Children aren’t outgrown yet. Therefore an adult who has sex with a child does not have intercourse with a “complete” human being, only with some entity that has the potential of becoming a fully developed human being. And it is not until someone is having intercourse with a full-grown member of his own species that he is engaged in a “normal”, or “morally right”, endeavor’. But that’s nonsense, right? That would imply that sex with any person who is not believed to be ‘fully developed’ according to the moral rules of society would be an act worthy of condemnation. Also, if you make this claim, you might be asked to answer the question of when it is that someone is fully developed; when someone has ‘reached’ his full potential as a human being. When he has reached the ‘normal’ IQ-level? When her breasts are ‘sufficiently’ matured? When he has got the ‘right’ amount of hair on his chest? These measures seem utterly arbitrary and incapable of explaining our repulsion with pedophilia, let alone bestiality.

The reason why we find sex by adults with children – and sex by humans with animals – inappropriate (to say the least) is because we believe that the someone, or the ‘something’, we have sex with should in potential be able to assent to you and itself engaging in the sexual transaction. Note the prefix ‘in potential be able to’. Why is the addition of these few words so important? If we would skip them, the act would still be worthy of our condemnation, right? If you engage in whatever kind of relationship with another person (whether this is trading collector-cards, selling a motorcycle or having sex), it is always ‘appropriate’ to make sure that both parties agree to the deal, right?

That’s true, but somehow we find pedophilia and bestiality to be different from – or even ‘more wrong’ than – rape. Thus, it cannot only be the absence of mutual agreement for entering into the sexual transaction that explains our repulsion with both pedophilia and bestiality. No, it is the fact that a child or an animal does not even possess the capability of making a conscious decision to enter the deal or not. They don’t even have the sense of consciousness required to deliberately consider the ‘pros and cons’ of having sex with a person. And where in the case of rape, the rapist doesn’t take into consideration the intentions of the person being raped, the case of pedophilia and bestiality is different because children and animals might not even have – or at least not to the same extent as human adults – the potential to consciously reflect on the situation they’re in, and hence to decide whether or not to engage in a (sexual) transaction. And it this absence of potentially being able to consciously reflect on the situation, of consciously (ab)using another living creature while knowing that it is – in principle – incapable to consent with ‘the deal’, that we as a society seem to find more inappropriate than the act of don’t paying attention to another person’s intentions. And that’s why we think that the former should be punished more severely than the latter.

But what do you think?

An Application of Freud’s Theory of Mind

Everyone must have heard of the name ‘Sigmund Freud‘ at some point in their lives. Thinking about the name, there might be all kinds of images popping up in your mind: things like the mind being like an iceberg, notions like ‘The Id’ and ‘The Ego’, and Freud’s ideas about sex as the explanation for pretty much everything we do. But you might not fully remember all of it. You could say that the ideas might be floating around somewhere between your consciousness and your unconsciousness – to speak in Freudian terminology. But what was it exactly that Freud claimed? And why do many philosophers of science condemn his theories to the realm of ‘pseudo-science’? And what’s the value of Freud’s ideas? Let’s apply Freud’s ideas to an everyday situation and find it for ourselves.

Let’s imagine that you are a guy that goes out with some friends. You guys are ‘chilling in the club’, while suddenly an absolutely gorgeous woman enters the room. You notice a certain feeling taking control over your body: attraction, the feeling of you wanting – in whatever sense defined – that woman. This is not a feeling for which you might necessarily have arguments. No, the feeling is just there. This feeling comes down from the part of your personality that Freud calls ‘The Id. The only thing that The Id cares about is receiving pleasure, loads of it. It has an inextinguishable urge to grab on to everything within its reach, just for it to calm down its perpetual longing for pleasure; no matter how briefly the satisfaction might last.

You can imagine that society would be a rather chaotic institution if every one of us would just give into his animalistic urges at all times. The notion of rape would become little different from our custom of shacking hands. Therefore some basic rules of conduct need to be ingrained in each member of society: ‘Be gentle to others,’ ‘Help an old lady cross the street’ and ‘Don’t have sex with someone else unless that someone wants to’. It is within this domain of ‘The Superego‘ that all kinds of religious and political beliefs nestle. Beliefs that will guide you in living your life like a caged monkey.

Surely: it’s all nice that we are trying to control our animalistic urges by coming up with a set of reasonable rules. But who makes sure that the needs of The Id and the rules of The Superego are properly matched? After all, as we have just seen, they might contradict each other. So we can’t always satisfy both at the same time: we can’t just rape everyone and be a gentleman at the same time. And that’s where ‘The Ego comes in. The Ego is the controlling power, the power that tries to satisfy the needs of The Id while taking account of the rules of The Superego. The Ego is the house of reason, of the economically thinking part of you; the part that decides to fulfill the most pressing urges first – like the urge to still our hunger – and postpone not so pressing urges – like the urge to have sex – to a point in time at which satisfying this urge might be more ‘appropriate’.

Now you can understand why Freud sees our sexual drives as the prime reason for all our psychological problems, right? After all, it isn’t easy to suppress our animalistic needs, put forward by The Id. That can only be done by repressing the beast that lives inside of us. Or, to put it more boldly, the beast that we simply are. But taming the beast does not make it fall asleep. The beast is still there, waiting for his opportunity to come. And when it comes, he unleashes his true nature. So we have to do everything within our power to shackle the beast, everything in order for us to live a ‘reasonable’ life.

There are – and have been – many criticisms about the scientific status of Freud’s ideas, and you might see why. It’s after all quite difficult to capture something as intangible as ‘The Id in terms of empirical data. Nonetheless, Freud’s ideas have found to be very influential within the domain of psychiatry, even though the current generation of psychology students hardly learns anything about them.

Ah well, scientific or not, it’s still a pretty fascinating point of view, right? Oh, and for the guy at the bar: he took the girl home.

But what do you think?

We Are the Masters of Time

I am sure you know the feeling: you have been focused at completing a task – let’s say studying – and then, when you look up from your desk and take a look at your watch, you see that a couple of hours have passed. A couple of hours! It feels like you have just started. But, when you take a closer look at the situation, you come to realize that it is not just that time seemed to go faster while you were deeply involved in the activity: it is more like the entire notion of time did not exist at all.

While you are 100 percent focused on doing something – whatever this ‘something’ might be – nothing outside of that something seems to exist. No outer world, no expectations, no time. Not even you. Only the world of the something ‘you’ are immersed in seems to exist. But what are the implications of observing this momentarily ‘non-existence of time’ for our common perception of time?

Let’s start by picking an activity in which your consciousness is put outside of the scope of time: sleeping. When you wake up from a good night of sleep, you have no idea – given that you did not look at the clock – how long you have actually slept. A period of time that in reality might have spanned a couple of hours might feel like it spanned only a couple of minutes. An even more extreme example would be a comatose patient: patients who awake from a coma usually have no clue how long they have actually been in the coma.

But it is not only while you are sleeping that time seems to play tricks on us. Also in our daily lives we are constantly bothered by its remarkable properties. For think about it: how slow does time go when you are waiting for your dentist, and he is already ten minutes late? Ten minutes can feel like eternity, right? But what if you are hanging out with your friends, laughing and having a good time, but you know that you have to leave in ten minutes? Then ten minutes might feel like a second. And you know who also pointed out this weird feature of time? The same man that shocked the world with his theory of relativity: mister Albert Einstein. This is what he had to say about our experience of time:

When you are courting a nice girl, an hour seems like a second. When you sit on a red-hot cinder, a second seems like an hour. That’s relativity.

Although our experience of time – and even time itself – might be relative, there is one aspect that remains constant throughout all frames: the seemingly uni-directionality of time. For it seems like time is always going forward, to the future. But even though nature pushes us forward in time, we can decide where in time we want to be: do you want to be in ‘the now’, or would you rather dive into your past or dream about the future? It is your consciousness that determines where in time you are situated mentally. It is pretty much like the movie The Matrix: your body stays put on planet earth, while your mind lives a life on its own. What this observation shows is that time does not equal the hands on the clock. Our perception of time is not always moving in fixed units in a fixed direction. The fact that we have invented the notion of time because it is convenient within our daily lives does not prevent us from experiencing time in any form we want.

But of course: we cannot live our lives totally detached from the ordinary – constantly forward moving – property of time. After all, our human bodies are earthly constructs and will break down after a quite predictable period of time. However, within the fixed time frame we have been offered, the unit of time is variable: within this fixed time frame a minute does not have to feel like a minute and a couple of hours can feel like a couple of seconds. Within this fixed time frame we are the masters of time.

What is your notion of time?

How Free Is our Free Will?

Materialism – which is the dominant (philosophical) position held within the sciences – claims that the only entities that exist are matter and energy. This implies that there is no place for supernatural powers – or any other “powers” besides those of matter and energy. And since these are two “natural” components, they should in principle be able to be captured in terms of natural laws. But how could natural laws – that are capable of fully predicting the trajectory of natural phenomena given that certain initial conditions are known – ever be able to capture the free will of us human beings? Isn’t free will by definition something that is unable to be caught in terms of rigid laws? But, if that would be true, wouldn’t that imply that free will is something “unnatural” – something different from both matter and energy? In order to get an answer to this question, we should start by looking at what the “options” for bringing about our sense of free will are; starting out with the purely materialistic ones:

The first “option” is that our free will is something we human beings are “simply” born with. In other words, our free will has come about through nature. In other words: somewhere in our genetic structure is encoded our ability to act “autonomously”. However, given that our free will would be programmed by strings of DNA, wouldn’t follow from this that every part of what we consider to be our free will has in fact been codified – and thus determined – by nature? And wouldn’t this result in all of our actions – although they might seem to come about through free will – in fact being determined by nature? And given that this would be the case, would this imply that our future behaviors are already encapsulated somewhere within our genetic code? That our lives could be fully predicted if only we would know what situations we would come to be faced with in our future lives?

However, in order for us to be able to respond, we need something to respond to. And you could (reasonably) say that this “something” could be our environment, and that our environment is part of nature as well, and thus, in principle, fully predictable by means of natural laws. After all, if all the information for what it means to be a human being can be captured in terms of DNA,  why wouldn’t this also be possible for the rest of nature? And if this would indeed be possible, wouldn’t this mean that, by taking together (1) our predetermined genetic structures and (2) the environmental predetermined structures, our free will would be fully predictable, determined and – therefore – nonexistent?

You might believe that this story is incomplete; that there’s some “entity” missing. Materialism holds that – next to matter (which we’ve looked at above) –  everything that is is energy. That would imply that, given that we’ve just established that it is unlikely for our “freely” free will to be encoded in our materialistic genetic structure, energy must be the factor responsible for our “free will”. However, once again, we have to face the question of how it would be possible for us to control this energy given that our control wouldn’t be fully scripted and captured by our biological make-up. That is, how can energy be encapsulated within our material bodies in such a way that it would be able to non-deterministically steer our minds and bodies? And how did this seemingly “magical spark” come about?

Maybe we should set aside our current scientific lexicon and look for other, yet unknown, explanations of free-will. What about our free will being a consequence of a not-yet discovered particle? A particle that is so fundamental to the existence of our consciousness that the discovery of it would shed light on all sorts of deeply philosophical questions like: what is the mind? What is the connection between subjects and objects? Is there a mind-independent world? And if so, what would this world look like?

Or we might turn to a new mixture of natural forces and particles we already know exist, like electromagnetism. Or maybe there is some kind of parallel universe in which our consciousness resides. A universe that is fundamentally detached from our material bodies but that, via some yet inexplicable connection, is able to influence our bodily behaviors. The latter option seems to come very close to religion and its claim that there is a deity that has blessed our bodies with an immortal soul that might pass on to the afterlife whenever our bodies turn to dust.

One thing is for sure: we better come up with a damn good explanation, or else the idea of free will might turn out to be nothing more than a fairytale; an illusion that, although we are under the impression that we are in control of our lives, reduces us to nothing more than puppets. But, in case the latter would be true, would knowing this make our lives different in any way from the lives we’re living today? Wouldn’t we still feel like we are in charge of our lives, even if we’d know we aren’t? These are interesting questions longing for an answer.

What do you think?

The Mind or The Body: Who Is In Charge?

We are under the impression that we are in charge of our bodily actions. We believe that by steering our thoughts, we are somehow able to steer our bodies. If you are hungry and want to grab some food, ‘you‘ – the entity that is in charge of your mental processes – seem to somehow cause your body to move to the refrigerator and grab a sandwich. But how is that possible? How can something that is immaterial, which our thoughts seem to be, cause reactions in a physical world? Is there some kind of causal linkage between these two domains? Or are our thoughts nothing but a by-product of the physical existence of our bodies, and thus unable to – although it might appear to be otherwise – cause any physical activity?

You could say that there are two ‘kinds of explanation’ we could turn to in order to explain our sense of consciousness or our sense of control over our bodies. The first kind consists of explanations pointing to what might be the biological causes for our sense of consciousness. The other kind consists of explanations pointing to what might be religious or spiritual causes. I will not zoom in at the second kind of explanations because – frankly – I have very little to say about it; except for the fact that if there would be some kind of deity which has endowed us with our sense of consciousness, there would be little left to explain. But even if that would be the case, it is still highly unlikely that we will get to know this during our stay on this earth.

Within the biological spectrum of explanations, again a distinction can be made between what appear to be two incompatible ‘stories’. The difference between these stories does not so much reside within the causes they say are responsible for our sense of consciousness, but more in the consequences attached to each of these causes. The first branch of biological explanations claims that our human consciousness has come into existence at some point during the stay in our mother’s womb; at a certain point in the growth process of ours, our neurological development crossed a certain naturally determined threshold, thereby initiating what might be an ever recurring neurological signal; a signal that is coextensive with our mental processes (our thoughts, so to say) and that has a causal influence on our bodily behaviors. This explanation thus explicitly points to our thoughts as being causally related to our neurological activities. This explains why it seems to us that we are able to steer our bodily actions.

However, the question that immediately comes to mind after thinking about this explanation is: how could it ever be possible for something like the mind, that is involved with the ‘realm of thoughts’, to be connected to the physical world? That is: how can thoughts, that most of us consider to be immaterial, steer our bodies, that are material? This question remains yet unanswered.

The other type of biological explanation seems to do a better job at explaining the mysterious connection between our minds and bodies. This explanation claims that our consciousness is nothing more than an accidental byproduct of our neurological development, and has, subsequently, no causal influence on our bodily actions. That is: although we might have the impression that our thoughts are steering our bodies, in reality our physical bodies are, via our brains, steering our thoughts and therefore the content of our sense of consciousness (our thoughts). Our consciousness is no more than the activation of different regions of the brain, triggered by bodily actions in the physical world. Our mind is, as it is being called, ‘epiphenomenal’ on the body. And although this explanation might appear to be (very) counter-intuitive, it does a remarkably good job at clarifying the connection between our thoughts and actions.

Maybe one day science will be able to provide us with the final answer to the question of who is in charge: our minds or our bodies. Until that moment has come, we should stay ‘open-minded’ about what this relation might look like. No matter how counter-intuitive the explanations might be.

But what do you think?

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