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?

What is the Value of Beauty?

Beauty is ‘a characteristic of a person, animal, place, object, or idea that provides a perceptual experience of pleasure or satisfaction.’ Okay: now we know the definition of ‘beauty’; but what exactly is beauty? Let’s zoom in on the human part of beauty: why are some persons more beautiful than others? Why do men become ‘happy’ when they see Kate Upton, but not as much when they see Queen Beatrix (the former queen of The Netherlands)?

Studies have shown that when we recognize someone’s face as beautiful we are actually making a judgement about the health and vitality of that individual. We interpret facial symmetry (the similarity of the left and right half of a face) and a smooth skin to mean that a person has good genes and is – or has been – free from diseases. But what exactly we find beautiful differs per sex. For example: women attach less value to the looks of their partner than men do. But that begs the question: why do men attach so much value to the looks of a woman? And aren’t we men – by chasing the pretty girls – nothing more than simple puppets of our evolutionary determined instincts?

If you think about it, beauty is – next to its evolutionary function – a totally useless characteristic. The only way in which a woman’s beauty can be of value is in the seduction of ‘primitive’ – or at least superficial – men. Well, that’s not completely true; beauty is not totally irrelevant. For example: if a man sees a woman – of if a women sees a man – that is very fat, it might be a good idea to stay away from this person. You don’t want to waste your food – or your fertility – on that one, do you? And being so fat might not be very healthy. And we don’t want an ill partner, do we? But now we are back again at beauty’s evolutionary value

Beauty might be the single most overrated characteristic a person can have – next to cynicism, which is the most easy characteristic to have. Beauty is either present or it is not: you’ve either got it, or you don’t. Just like you can be tall or short, black or white, handicapped or ‘okay’, you can be beautiful or less beautiful (ugly). But even though it is fully determined by nature, we men still go crazy when we see a beautiful woman. A woman’s beauty alone can be sufficient reason for men to chase her. A phrase often heard is: ‘She’s stupid? So what? She’s beautiful, right?’ But the real question is: who in this example is really the stupid one? The one being chased, or the one chasing? If you value someone for her looks, aren’t you just better of taking a picture and hanging it above your bed? Not only will a picture last longer, but the beauty depicted on the picture will last longer too: beauty, after all, has the tendency to stay only until gravity shows it face. Intelligence, wisdom en experience, on the other hand, come with age.

So: what to do? Should we listen to our primal instincts and perceive beauty as it is dictated to us by nature? Or shall we take control of whoever we find beautiful? Are our bodies leading the way; the happy feelings we get when we see someone beautiful? Or do we listen to our minds telling us that an asymmetrical face doesn’t imply Down syndrome? The ever recurring philosophical dichotomy returns: the battle between the body and mind, between determinism and control.

Who do you think is going to win?

The Beauty of Guilt

Do you remember Lance Armstrong sitting at Oprah, feeling all guilty about his former doping usage? I couldn’t help but asking myself: why would he admit that? Why would he, after all those years of denying doping usage, suddenly declare to the world that he has indeed been using doping in order to win the Tour de France seven times? What did he believe he would gain by admitting this? He must have been aware of the consequences – the returning of prize money, lawsuits and loss of status – that were likely to result from him confessing? So why did he confess?

Armstrong is a smart guy. If you have seen video clips in which he is lying about his doping usage, you must have noticed that he is an excellent actor. He might have confessed because he would hope that by telling what had truly happened he would somehow gain the support of the crowd, and maybe even improve upon his current situation. Or maybe he is planning on writing a autobiography, titled The Fight or so, and the confession would make for an excellent ending chapter. All of that could very well be possible. But I want to look at another potential reason for him confessing. And that is the reason of guilt.

As you surely know, experiencing guilt is terrible. Knowing that you have done something wrong through which you harmed others, even though these others might not even know what you did, hits you in your dignity like nothing else. You are confronted with a version of yourself that you are disgusted with. You know that you should have known better and you will try to prove towards others, but mainly towards yourself, that you are the good person you know you are. That you, after all that happened, decided to stay true to the good version of yourself. And this realization leads you to apologize and say that you will never, ever do it again.

Guilt is nature’s very own mechanism for unveiling the truth despite us being the hedonistic pain-avoiding creatures that we are. Just like we feel physical pain by hurting the outer part of our bodies, so we feel emotional pain by hurting our ‘inner self’. That is: by not staying true to who you think you truly are. And just like you want physical pain to stop as quickly as possible, by retreating your arm from a fire for example, so does nature wants you to avoid not staying true to yourself by endowing you with a sense of guilt. Nature seems to have programmed us with some sort of universal judgmental capability, guarding us from stepping away too far from the comforting warmth of ourselves and society.

Ah well: let’s be glad that nature tries to keep us on the right track, right? That we are inclined to be nice to each other because we don’t want to experience that nasty feeling of guilt. Or do you rather think of guilt as just another irrational byproduct of thousands of years of social and biological conditioning? A burden evolution forced upon us?

What do you think about it?

Why Are there Only Men and Women?

Have you ever heard of the New Mexico whiptail? Probably not. Well, the New Mexico whiptail is the only animal species – that I know – whose members all have the same gender: all New Mexico whiptails are female. There is no need for mating with male New Mexico whiptails in order for the females to lay eggs, which is a good thing since there are no male New Mexico whiptails. This made me wonder: why are there so few species having only one gender? Why do we human beings, and so many other animals, need two ‘versions’ of our species in order to prevent ourselves from extinction? Why not three or four? Is this number utterly random? Or might there be some reason behind it?

Before thinking about this question, I saw absolutely no reason for there to be this dichotomy of men and women ruling the animal kingdom. I always thought to myself, ‘Why can’t there just be one “type” of human – which we could then simply call “human” – that, just like the whiptails, gives birth every now and then, without requiring any “intervention” of a different sex? What would be wrong with that?’

Maybe it’s inadequate to ask whether it is ‘right or wrong’ for there to be both men and women. Nature, after all, doesn’t seem to care much about being morally right or wrong. Why else would it give AIDS to babies, who have done absolutely no harm to this world of ours? It is more likely that – assuming there is a reason explanation – there is a biological explanation for there the widespread division between men and women.

So let’s see: what could be nature’s ‘purpose’ in making two types of human? How could that ever be beneficial for so many animal species – including our own? Well, the distinction could be nothing more than a very fundamental evolutionary developed instance of Adam Smith‘s idea of division of labor. A division that appeared to be working so well that nature extinguished almost all species not conforming to this division. However, for this evolutionary explanation to be true, it would have to be the case that men and women together should be able to achieve more than only men or only women could ever do. Let’s take a look at that.

One could claim that a division of labor in which the woman carries the baby and the man gathers food (for the woman, the baby and himself) could benefit the reproduction chances of both the woman and the man. Because think about it: chasing swine while being pregnant does not seem to be very convenient. In this case, having the woman at home – safely warming herself at the fire – and having the man out hunting – not having to worry about endangering the life of his unborn child – could be a set-up benefiting both parties.

Another explanation could be that the existence of both men and women provides both parties with some sort of purpose in life: the purpose to form little groups, called ‘families’, thereby creating structure into – what otherwise might have been – chaos in the animal kingdom, or an utterly meaningless life; a structure that would make every creature better of. Because, again, think about it: what would the world be like in case there was only one type of purposeless creature wandering around? Wouldn’t that lead to an utterly unstructured and – therefore – unsafe environment? The families that provide the confines in which each one of us can life relatively safe have fallen away.

If that would indeed be the case, it might have been evolutionary beneficial for our species to ‘develop’ the distinction between men and women; simply in order to program the species members with a goal: to create that save little world they can call ‘my family’.

However, none of these explanations explains why there are only two sexes; maybe humanity would be even more organized – and even better off – if there were three, four or even more sexes. So why only two? Well, maybe nature ‘decided’ to go for only two because creating more than two might have complicated things a little too much. Now it’s at least clear what everyone has got to do: find a man or a woman, make a family, and live happily ever after.

But what do you think?

Humor and the Role of Randomness

Sometimes when I listen to the radio I cannot help but become annoyed by the bad sense of humor many DJ’s seem to have. One day, when I heard the DJ crack another bad joke, I said to a friend of mine, “Damn, that guy has a seriously lame sense of humor“. My friend responded by saying that, “Who are you to say what is funny and what is not? I thought it was funny”. This made me think: why is it that people differ in their taste of what is funny and what is not? Why do some people interpret a joke to be a factual statement, while others appreciate the ironical undertone of it? And what actually is humor? Let’s take a look at that.

Believe it or not, but also the notion of humor has been intensively scrutinized by the philosophical loop. For many centuries philosophers have focused upon the question of what humor is and why it works the way it does. So let’s don’t do that. Let’s reflect upon what we consider to be funny and upon the reasons we consider things to be funny.

The first aspect that caught my eye is that humor seems to have a lot to do with fooling one’s expectations. That explains why Family Guy with its touch of randomness has become such a success. That’s also why many people I know of – including myself – do not enjoy watching 90% of the comedians. They are all chanting a mantra filled with deliberate laughter-breaks and tension-build-up moments. It is the manner in which the jokes are delivered, the robotic “look how good I’ve rehearsed my script” and “I am playing this show every evening” attitude, that spoils the fun. And when you notice this lack of spontaneity these comedians seem to have, it becomes fairly easy to see the next joke coming. And it is from this point on that you stop being surprised and that you stop finding the comedian and his jokes funny.

Humor might also have a lot do with intelligence. You have to be mentally challenged by a joke. You have to be taken on an imaginary journey you know you could not have experienced without the support of the comedian. You have to be fooled over and over again. And the more intelligent you are, the more difficult it might be to be mentally challenged. You might have a pretty lively imagination already, which makes you less easily swept of your feet by hearing a new joke.

The jokes that I find to be funny are the ones that are so bad that, while some people genuinely laugh at the joke, you simply have to laugh about the fact that the joke had the intention to be a very bad one. However, it can be very awkward to hear a comedian delivering a bad joke, with the intention of it being a good one, and to see the whole crowd laughing its ass off.

We now have at least a slight idea of what funniness consists of. The next (fundamental) question would be: why is there even such a thing as humor? The evolutionary benefits of emotions like anger and fear seem to be quite clear, but humor? What is the evolutionary benefit of laughing? Is it better to mate with a funny partner than with a non-funny partner? And if so, why would that be?

Maybe it is because humor is a manner by which to cover your mistakes in a not too harmful manner. Some situations might be very awkward, like shitting yourself while you are in the middle of a group of fellow species members, and can therefore lead to you avoiding likewise social situations in the future. And avoiding social situations might decrease your chances of finding a partner to mate with. In those cases, humor might loosen the social tension and show that you understand and respect your flaws or that you might even feel comfortable about having them. This might increase your level of attractiveness, as would explain why people are looking for a partner “with a good sense of humor”.

But still, it is unsure what the purpose of humor would be. Is it indeed an evolutionary tool to relax awkward situations or is it just another inexplicable feature of human life?

What do you think?