The Ego and The Id: Beauty and The Beast

There it is again: that feeling of purposelessness. What to do about it? I might go on with whatever it is that I’m doing right now, hoping that the feeling will eventually fade away. But I know that that won’t help: it never does. Or I might try to grab some sleep and possibly feel fresh and productive again when I’ll wake up. But I don’t want to waste my precious little time on this planet sleeping just to get through the day. I might go read something, and possibly become inspired by some great stories. But there’s not that much interesting stuff around to read, at least not much that really gets down to the core of where it’s all about. So, what choices do I have left? Not many. So I guess I just have to face the feeling head on. Get my head straight, figure out why it is that I have this feeling, and possibly – as in a therapeutic Freudian manner – calm down my unconscious drives by ‘channeling’ them through my Ego. The drives won’t leave by themselves, so it’s better to find a way to use them in a constructive fashion, than to suppress them and let them linger on in my life. So that’s what I’m trying to do by writing this article.

In a sense my entire blog is a quest to do just that: channel my uncontrollable and inexplicable drives by promising to give them what they want: answers. And even though my Ego knows that there are no answers, or at least no definite ones, my unconscious Id doesn’t know. My Id is retarded in the sense that I can’t think properly, given that it would be able to think at all. The Id is an iPhone you carry around all day and that starts beeping when a new message is received. And although you don’t want to listen to it, because you just want to go on with your life, you just can’t ignore whatever it might have to say. Because, although it might be smart, the Ego can’t set any goals. The Ego is like a calculator, calculating the most efficient route to whatever goal you might have. And this ‘whatever goal you might have’ is determined by the Id, the part of you that bases its decisions on evolutionary induced impulses, pushing you to the refrigerator and to the internet (if you know what I mean).

But what if they could work together? What if they could live happily ever after in harmony, dividing the mental labor as if Adam Smith was there to delegate it? That would be great: Beauty and The Beast working together. Beauty being so consciously aware of its environment, and the Beast just taking her wherever he wants to. Great, let’s do that!

What do you think?

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?

Time and its Prerequisite to Exist

“What time is it? It is 7:15 P.M. Hhm…then I’ve still got time to write another article. But after that; what am I going to do then? How am I going “to kill” that time? Well, I would probably watch another episode of Californication and grab a bite or something. But let’s not think about that for now; let’s stay in the present. Let’s put time on a hold, shall we?

Too bad that isn’t possible. There’s no switch around, allowing us to turn of “the production process called time”. But what exactly is time? It is intangible but omnipresent; it is always moving forward and it is limited. It is unity and difference at the same time. It is the most valuable good we have. Everything we do depends on it. Time is the creator of value and the destructor of lives. Time can cure aids or let it continue unsolved. Time is us, we are time.

But, besides the philosophical picture of time, how do we “use” time in our daily lives? As a planning device, right? We use it to create order in this mess we’re living in. Imagine that we wouldn’t have our notion of time; our notion of standing up at 7:10 A.M., taking a shower, start working at 8:45 and wander around until – let’s say – 10:30 P.M when it’s time to go to bed and start the whole cycle of time all over again. Without time we wouldn’t know when to take our children to the crèche; cook dinner or attend at a birthday party. Without time we would be trees or clocks. Although the latter seems to have a pretty good sense of time, or doesn’t it?

But who’s in control? Are we in control of time, or does time control us? We think we know what time is which makes us base our entire lives upon it. “Our” time is a human construct; it’s created by us to make sure everyone gets on the train “on time”. But this is merely a superficial reflection of Time with a capital “t”; Time as the flow of life and death; as the creative power of this earth. Without this notion of Time there wouldn’t be anything. The only things that could “be” are snapshots; frames in time. But there would be no-one to experience these frames, because experiencing takes time. There wouldn’t even be things; because for something “to be” it needs to exist in time. Without time there would be nothing; and not even that. We could chop up time in pieces and glue them together, but that wouldn’t make something exist. “You can’t step in the same river twice”, Heraclitus said, because time is always present, making the river change continuously. However, without time, there wouldn’t even be something to be called a river; not by us – because we cannot exist outside of time – but neither by the world itself, because without time there wouldn’t be “things” to divide the world into; without time there wouldn’t be a difference between a river and its water. Both are one without time. It is only within time that these “things” become what they are. It is only in time that nature shows its true colors.

Time makes us who we are but continuously changes this “us” at the same time. The “I” that exists now thinks differently than the “I” that started this sentence. The “I” that reflects upon the previous sentence thinks that this article might be getting a little too philosophical. But luckily for you, I see it’s time to go.

What do you think?

The West versus The Poor: Who is in Charge?

We need oxygen. We need food. We need shelter. We need money. We need so many things, just in order to stay alive. And for as long as we are alive, we are involved in this exchanging relationship with nature. A conversation that we always try to pull in the direction that is best for us. And we have become pretty good in this. We can use nature’s trees to build our houses, we can use nature’s oil to fuel our cars and we can use nature’s drugs to pleasure ourselves. However, there is one natural resource we have difficulty mastering: the human resource.

The human resource is just another resource we need to say alive. However, in contrast to the passive part of nature, we have to be a little cleverer in our approach of the human resource. We can’t just reap the benefits, move on to the next one, and start all over again, right? No, because – in contrast to potatoes – human resources are autonomous; or – in contrast to potatoes – humans understand that they are autonomous. So we have to be smart; we have to use our intellectual super powers nature has endowed us with in order to trick them; in order to make them do what we want. And Bam! There it is: civilization is born.

But let’s – for a moment – shed of the norms and values society has poisoned our brains with; let’s for a moment imagine that we are starting from scratch, and let’s think to ourselves: what would be the best for us? That is: what would be the best for this collection of “Mes” (plural of “me”). What if we could just cultivate people like we cultivate grain? To just have acres full of them, use them when we need them, and move on to the next round? To only extract value without giving anything in return? To use their powerlessness and dependence on us as being their only need we have to fulfill? That would be great, right?

Okay, back to reality: because, aren’t we in fact already doing this? Using the powerlessness of our fellow human beings for our own benefit? The most striking example would be of those people working their asses off in some kind of sweatshop in Vietnam, or any other “less-developed country“. Aren’t we just using their dependency on us – on our money – as being the only reason they don’t leave us? The only reason that they don’t die? Just like grain depends on our water and our fertilizer in order just to stay alive? Aren’t they just as interchangeable as resources like grain and potatoes are? After all: does it matter what piece of grain we put in our bread? And does it matter what Vietnamese made our shoes? The only difference might between grain and Vietnamese is that the Vietnamese might have more potential than the average piece of grain.

But that’s how we want them; vulnerable and fully dependent upon our money just to stay alive. Because the more dependent they are, the less they need. The less they have, the more they can provide us with. And you know what is the best part of all of this? We think that we are fighting the good fight; that we are helping those poor people to stand on their feet. After all, if we wouldn’t be there, those people would have nothing, right? They would die, they wouldn’t be able to take care of their families etc etc.

But is that true? What about those hunters and gatherers we descended from? They seemed to do pretty good without sweatshops, right? They seemed to live a rather autonomous life; not dependent upon “the West” for them to feed their families. Isn’t it that we are in fact preventing those poor people from standing on their own feet? That we are providing them with the illusion of wealth; the illusion of their dependency on us? Aren’t we just rationalizing our immoral behaviors because – in our hearts – we feel that “we are just good people”? Aren’t we changing seats; aren’t we the ones that are dependent on them? And aren’t we the ones that should prevent them from discovering their autonomy? Aren’t they the ones in charge?

Or as Rousseau once said: “Man is born free, but everywhere he is in chains”. The only question is: who are the guards and who are the prisoners?

What do you think?

The Herd that Is Humanity

The train station of a big city is the place to be for seeing the human survivor instinct in optima forma. It is here that Thomas Hobbes proofs himself right: humans are indeed selfish by nature. People can seem so friendly, waiting in serene groups for the train to come. But then, when a last minute change in the track is announced, the herd goes mad. It is like the butcher coming to slaughter the last few pigs. Like the shepherd and his golden retriever pushing the crowd onto the road of freedom.

People take themselves and their lives very seriously. When the broadcaster on the train station announces that, two minutes before the planned departure of the train, the track has changed, hundreds of people sigh and mumble, “Why does this always happen to me?” At those moments I always think to myself: isn’t there just as much reason to laugh as there is to whine? I mean: isn’t it awfully funny to see hundreds of people waiting in the cold, desperately nipping of their coffee and smoking their cigarettes, waiting for the train to bring them to the jobs they hate? To see them running back and forth, like monkeys on acid? If we wouldn’t take ourselves so serious, and come to realize that truly no-one cares that we’ll be late for work, or for anything about our lives for that matter, then we might come to enjoy running around like fools, pushing away those other self-centered train-people.

This little illustration captures society in a nutshell. It is always chasing the next big thing that is going to save them, whether this is a train bringing them to their “money making destination” or to an ideology saving the true nature of the human species. This process will repeat itself until society makes up its mind and realizes that the track has changed. And when the track has changed, everyone stands in the front-line, everyone claims to be the one who knew where to go all along, waiting to get punched in the face by the next change in track that is announced.

Let’s face it: we are followers. Although we would like to believe that we came up with things for ourselves, in fact, we have no idea what to do until someone tells us. That goes for marketing as well as for societal movements. But radical changes in society take time. It is not like announcing a change in track. At least, not in a democracy. It is there that societal changes are incremental, behaving like a snowball gathering mass. And when the snowball is big enough, the second biggest snowball will lose its followers and eventually melt down.

The crowd has no reason. It moves according to the whims of its animalistic instincts. Food is food, power is power. Discrimination does not exist in its vocabulary. Merely genuine but unreasonable fear. And it is this fear that drives all of us. It is this fear that makes us go to work every day, even if we don’t want to. It is this fear that fuels envy, making us hate those that are better than us. It is this fear that drives our hunger, the fear to die. And fear goes hand in hand with our human weakness, our vulnerability to Mother Nature’s changes. A little wind and we are gone. A little water and we are dead. A little shacking and our lives will tumble down.

Let’s accept our vulnerability and seek shelter in the irrational source of life fueling the crowd. You want to know what this would look like? Go visit a train station.

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?

Why do People Enjoy Talking about Themselves So Much?

Do you know those people who always seem to interrupt you when you are talking? Those people who always seem to find a way to make the conversation go about themselves? Or maybe you consider yourself to be just that kind of person? And if so, how does that make you feel? Personally, I get very uncomfortable around people using the word ‘I’ more than five times per minute. It makes me feel like I am attending a lecture instead of having a conversation. But do you know what bothers me even more? I am that kind of person.

Too much using of the word ‘I’ can be an indication of either of two things: (1) a lack of empathy or (2) a disproportionately large longing for validation. Let’s start with empathy. Any human being living in this world of ours has a need to socialize with its fellow species-members, whereby socializing consists of keeping an adequate balance between the giving and taking of thoughts. It is an endeavor that allows us to live together in the dense populations we have. However, whenever the balance between giving and taking gets distorted too much, we don’t consider ourselves to be engaged in a conversation anymore. By talking about ‘I’ too much, the conversation has stopped and the plea has begun. By talking about what ‘I’ believe too frequently, you implicitly take away the right of your conversation partner – or even his duty – to contribute to the conversation. And that is what we usually consider to be anti-social behavior.

The other reason for using the word ‘I’ too frequently is that you might have a disproportionately large need for receiving validation from your social environment. This need consists of a sense of ‘wanting to be listened to’ that is significantly larger than what people generally consider to be pleasant. The question is: why would someone do that? Why would someone keep talking about his own ideas while knowing that his interlocutor might not find this pleasant? Well, maybe it is because the person doesn’t understand yet or doesn’t understand why his behavior is considered to be anti-social. Maybe it is because he just started interacting with his species members and still needs to experience the nature of giving and taking which is present in a pleasant conversation. Or maybe the person knows all of the above but still doesn’t consider himself to be anti-social; maybe the person believes that we he says is right and that what the others say is wrong, and that this observation justifies him in talking about his ideas disproportionately much.

However, it often is very difficult to draw the line between what is a healthy contribution to a conversation and what is a narcissistic urge to express one’s ideas. The former is praiseworthy and can function therapeutically, constructively and even emphatically. Speaking is after all the best medium we have at our disposal for us human beings to make others aware of our beliefs. You could of course say that works of art and other human creations also have the capability to pass on their creator’s message. And although that might be true, social interaction in terms of the spoken word still seems to dominate each other medium in making your intentions clear to another human being. Face-to-face communication allows people to absorb the often subtle gestures, facial expressions and tonality that are required in order to truly understand the creator’s beliefs. And, as you might have experienced, passing on a well-intended written ironic statement is much more likely to be misinterpreted than the same message being spoken out loud. The subtleties present in human speech can make all the difference for interpreting a message in either the intended or unintended way.

But although it might be annoying, sometimes we just have to let the ‘I-talkers’ rush out and talk about themselves. Sometimes we just have to let them release the tension that is underlying the painfully unidirectional ‘conversation’ you appear to be engaged in. We might even learn something from it; that is at least what I hope your response will be after reading this self-centric plea of mine.

Therefore the right question to put all the above into perspective would be: what do you think?

The Link between Capitalism and Wanting to Kill your Neighbor

Let’s face it: we don’t know why we are here on this earth of ours. Biologists might say that we are here to procreate; economists might say that we are here to maximize profits; Christians might say that we are here to please God. However, on the level of humanity as a whole, no-one truly knows why we are here. And you know what? We will probably never figure it out, so we might just as well stop trying, right? Why don’t we focus all of our efforts on answering a question that we are actually capable of answering, such as the question: what should we do with our lives while we are here? Or more specifically: do we want to screw everyone around us, or do we want to look for another, more social option?

Let me tell you a short story. This morning I went to the grocery store, for which I had to cross the street. I saw a few cars driving up to the pedestrian crossing, so I decided to wait a second. When the cars had passed, I decided to give it a go. While I was half-way on the crossing, I saw – in the corner of my eye – a car approaching: quickly approaching. And even though the driver had plenty of time to slow down, he didn’t do so. Moreover, he accelerated and almost hit me while passing me by. While the driver passed me, I looked him in the eyes for a split second, and all I could see was a glance of utter indifference; a glance you would have when you accidentally drop your 5-year old phone on the ground. I shook my head and asked myself: ‘Is this the world we live in?’ So now I ask you: is this the world we live in? How come that we are  indifferent towards the life of others? Are we just hateful people?

We might very well be, but let’s try to find a different reason; an economic reason, for example. Let’s ask ourselves: what is the economic system we’re living in? There it is: capitalism! Capitalism is an economic system that fosters values such as individual value maximization, efficiency and competition. Those who are the most focused at maximizing their profits are the ones that are (regarded to be) the most successful. The capitalistic system has a tendency to create hatred towards the wealthy egocentric people living on the other side of town. Children are being urged to stand up for their property rights (‘That’s my ice-cream’) and not to trust strangers. And this indoctrination doesn’t stop with the dawn of adolescence. As a student being niggardly is a virtue; being free-handed is just stupid.

Socialism, on the other hand, is an economic system that is characterized by collective ownership of property. The value that your neighbor contributes to society benefits you just as much as his benefits him: his gain is your gain. This implies that it would be reasonable to help each other out. After all: why would you decide to cross the street if that would result in three other contributors to your wealth having to wait? Wouldn’t that – indirectly, via the ‘wallet of the state’ – harm yourself? It probably would, right? This observation makes values like camaraderie and cooperation being valued and fostered in a socialistic society. Growing up in a socialistic society will urge children not to stand up too firmly for their individual property rights, but rather to focus on the property rights of the collective. And, as you can imagine, this would create an entirely different (economical) world.

This article is not a plea for socialism per se. Nonetheless, if everyone could just be a little more social, the world wouldn’t stop turning, right?

But what do you think?