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?

Depression: Thinking Too Much and Doing Too Little

Why do dogs never appear to be depressed? Why do they always seem to be happy, no matter what it is they are doing? Well, the answer might be very simple: because they are always doing.

Dogs are always involved in one activity or another. They always got their little heads occupied with all kinds of biologically induced juices – whether they (consciously) know it or not. And it is because they’re always ‘busy’, doing whatever seemingly irrelevant activity it is they’re doing, that they are happy. It’s because they’re always busy, that they feel the effects of that constant stream of dopamine, rewarding them for their evolutionary beneficial action: the act of acting itself.

Not acting frees the mind from the duty to allocate resources to the execution of actions. However, the mind cannot simply do nothing. In fact, doing nothing – as in thinking about nothing – might be one of the hardest things to do for the brain. And that’s what you expect, right? After all, not thinking about anything can hardly be beneficial to our – and therefore our brain’s – survival. While we’ve got our brain, it’s better to use it, than to let it be idle, like an empty fridge waiting to be filled with postponed protein-intakes. That’s why the brain will do anything in order to try to be busy, even if there are no actions it has to be focused at. It is at those moments that the brain ‘thinks’ it is good idea to use this ‘break’ to think about your worries, your goals in life, your purpose and other fundamental questions. And it is at these moments that your mind explores the deepest purposeless of life, and triggers the feelings of depression that haunt us.

So – in case we want to get rid of the seemingly unproductive (and surely depressing) reflections on life – we must keep the mind, and therefore the brain, busy. We have to make sure that there’s no time – or no capacity – for it to become filled with soul-searching thoughts. Because although a little soul-searching might be good, and might point us to what it is that we should do with our lives, too much of it inevitably results in feelings of purposeless and depression. Hence it is only by being busy, by avoiding boredom and by don’t risking to become drowned in the most existential questions of our being, that we can live a  ‘happy’ life. It is only then that we can unleash the dopamine flows triggering those feelings of happiness we’re longing for. Or, to return to the fridge, it’s only by filling the fridge to the maximum, that we feel it is a worthwhile investment.

But what do you think?

Note: this article has been published at Rod Peek’s “Finding Personal Peace“.

Getting Addicted to Cigarettes…on Purpose

This might be one the stupidest articles you’ve ever read. My apologies for that.

Four months ago, I decided to start smoking. Why? I don’t know. Probably a combination of factors: I was fascinated by the series Californication, in which the main character (Hank Moody) smokes. Although it is sad to admit, it might be that watching him smoke sparked my curiosity about why it is people grab to cigarettes. Also, I have always been wondering whether smoking is primarily a physiological addiction (an addiction of the body) or a psychological one (an addiction of the mind). I could never understand why less than 25 percent of those who want to quit smoking, actually manage to do so. I always thought: if you want to stop, then you can stop. I mean: if you want to stop travelling by car, you can just stop taking the car, right? So given these ‘rational’ considerations, I decided to take up the cigarette, and start my journey of addiction.

Now, four months later, I have decided to stop. My little ‘experiment’ has provided me with the information I was looking for. I experienced what it is that makes you want to light up a cigarette. And, what I can say, it is more of a psychological addiction than a physiological addiction. It is the feeling of allowing yourself a break from what it is that you are doing. Also, the habit of smoking a cigarette every morning during your ‘morning walk’ gives you a clear signal that the day took off; a feeling as if the referee blew his whistle and the match has started.

However, I must admit that there are also physiological factors that make you want to grab a cigarette. In case you drink coffee (which is more likely than that you smoke), you can compare it to that longing for a cup of coffee to give your the energy you need to get through the day. And, as with drinking coffee, the first cigarette/cup of coffee gives the relative biggest ‘boost’; the relative biggest satisfaction in calming down your longing for nicotine/caffeine.

I’m not sure whether I have become truly addicted to cigarettes. I can only tell how I feel, and that’s what I’ve described above. And – since I’ve been drinking (much) coffee for the last couple of years, and I can fairly say that I’m addicted to caffeine – I think my smoking adventure will have likewise effects. Probably, even though I ‘quitted’, I’ll keep (at least for a while) on having that same longing for cigarettes as I have for coffee. I wonder which impulses will be tougher to handle: the psychological or the physiological. I am curious, and a little anxious, to find out.

What do you think?

What to Do if Absolute Truth Doesn’t Exist?

As I’ve written about many times on this blog, we cannot step outside of our own perspective to look at “the naked world as it really is”. That is, we are fundamentally subjective in any judgments we make, moral other otherwise. We simply have no possibility for holding on to anything “absolute” in the world, in which absolute should be interpreted as “something” the existence of which cannot be doubted, is unalterable or permanent. And although we can agree upon something being a “permanent” fact – and thereby making it a permanent fact, if we keep on holding on to it for long enough – a fact remains a subjective construct, having no absolute connection, or at least not one detectable by us, with the world outside of us (given that such a world would exist). While this might sound radical, it might be true from a philosophical point of view – or at least: from my philosophical point of view.

From a scientific point of view, the notion of “absolute” truth can be discarded in an other way: by saying that there can merely be evidence for or against the existence of a phenomenon – but no definite (read: absolute) conclusions. And it is therefore – one could say – that we cannot claim to be certain regarding the (absolute) truth of any of our scientific theories.

Philosophy, however, can go one step further by claiming that the notion of “truth” is in itself no empirical issue at all. Because, one could say, empirical data are about the outside world and the phenomena this world imprints upon the subject, while having no clue whether the connection between this world and the subject is absolutely (read: 100%) as we believe it to be. We assume it is, we assume there to be such a connection, but we don’t know. And we’ll likely never know. That’s a fundamental consequence of being human.

Does this imply that we cannot know anything for certain about the world around us? Does this mean that solipsism (the philosophical position that the only claims we can be sure about are claims about our minds and what exists in it) is the only “truly true” position? Yes, maybe it does. But it’s important to see the difference between the notion of certainty and the notion of truth. While certainty refers to us having a “certain” degree of faith in having an accurate set of beliefs about the world around us, truth – as being the “absolute” value striven for in all of our knowledge – implies 100% certainty regarding the accuracy of our beliefs/claims. And while the former can be reasonably applied to the external world – and our claims about it – the latter should be reserved only for those claims we cannot deny without stumbling into philosophical paradoxes. And although it might be counter-intuitive to deny the existence of the outside world, it isn’t impossible. On the other hand, as Descartes showed, denying the existence of the mind is much harder – even impossible.

I shortly touched upon the notion of “certainty” as representing the degree of certainty in the accuracy of a claim (60%, 45%, etc.). But, given that we’ve seen that there is no “absolute” link (at least no one we can be sure of) between the external world and our inner world (mind, gut feelings etc.), how then can we come to judge the certainty of a claim. How’s that possible if certainty is interpreted as being the degree of belief in the truth of a claim? We don’t know the (absolute) truth of a claim, so how can we come to certainty regarding the truth of our claims?

I believe we can only do so by dropping the notion of certainty as something that stands in some sort of relation to the “truth”, as being an absolute entity only attainable through Cartesian Skepticism. When we drop the notion of truth, while engaged in our scientific efforts and daily lives, we can come to a construct of “certainty” that is based upon intersubjectivity, the degree in which claims are accepted by members of society. And intersubjectivity is founded on many subjectivities, which are ultimately founded on – if not the external world – intuitions about the way the world works. And it is in these intuitions that we find the “absolute truths” that we believe we come closer to by means of science. When a new scientific theory is accepted that changes the way we think about the world around us, it’s not because the new theory corresponds better to reality – the world outside of us, the world which “true colors” never shine through – but because the new theory corresponds better to our intuition. And since all human beings share the same sense of “primal” intuition (evolutionary developed or otherwise), we can come to intersubjectively “certain” (read: useful, “natural”) beliefs.

But 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?

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?

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 Mind: What Are You?

What are you? Are you the body I am talking to? The collection of cells sitting in front of your computer, clustering for long enough in order for it to be given its own identity? Or are you something else? Are you the something that lies within your body? A something that is far less tangible or even intangible? Is the real you some kind of spirit? We feel like we are more than just a collection of cells, right? But can there actually be something like a spirit inside our bodies? I mean: how would this intangible spirit ever be able to control our bodily – and thus physical – motions? How can something intangible make something tangible move? Let’s take a look at that.

It’s a quest that is underway for hundreds of years now: the quest to find the true nature of the mind, the key to who we are. And by the mind I am not (only) referring to human intelligence, since the search for explaining intelligence is for the biggest part about totally different questions. These are questions like: what is intelligence? Does our intelligence lie – as a group of people called “the cognitivists” proclaim – in our ability to observe distinct symbols, transform these symbols into symbolic structures and extract meaning from these symbolic structures? Or resides our intelligence – as “the connectionists” claim – within the connections between the neurons in our brains, which makes intelligence a inherently distributed property?

These are interesting questions but none of them touch upon the most important issue: what exactly is the mind? Because it is in this mind of ours that the answer to who we are might be found. Our minds do not merely contain our ability to be intelligent. After all, computers might be considered to be intelligent as well; intelligent in the sense of being capable of detecting and manipulating symbolic structures. The mind seems to go further than this. The mind is about what, assuming that there is something like that, makes us different from inanimate objects. It questions the very nature of our existence. It questions what it is that makes you you and me me. It is about what makes you different from a tree or a mobile telephone. Besides the fact that we believe that we are different from a tree or a mobile telephone of course.

However, isn’t it just this ability of ours to reflect upon who we are and what we do that is what we consider to be our mind? The mind as some kind of power to reflect upon our animalistic urges and being capable of intervening if considered to be necessary? Maybe, but this still doesn’t seem to be much of an answer to the question of what our mind actually is. It merely describes in what manner our minds might differ from our animalistic urges.

Maybe we should take a look at how the mind might have come into existence. Let’s see what would happen if we would follow the biological route: it might be that, at some point in time while a fetus is in the womb of its mother, some kind of complexity threshold in the fetus’ brain is reached that triggers an ever recurring neural signal; some kind of signal that can – at least partially – be directed by an “autonomous” entity: the mind. But this observation immediately raises many new questions. Let’s say, for example, that we would indeed be able to control in some sense the neural activities within our brain; that we would be able to steer our neurons, and thereby our bodies that are connected to the neurons by strings of nerves. Then the question that comes to mind is: where does this autonomy of our minds lie? It must be somewhere inside of the neural activities, right? But then: where did these neural activities come from, given that they are “different” from the non-autonomous or non-mind like brain activities? And if these special neural activities driving our “free will”, or that part of our human brains that is responsible for our seemingly autonomous actions, need to be present in order for the brain to be able to send out its “free will” signals, then what is pushing these signals? New neurons again?

I haven’t found a satisfying answer yet. Therefore I ask you: what do you think? Do you think that there is some kind of spirit inside of us that is fundamentally separated from our human bodies, in the dualistic sense that Descartes proclaimed? Or do you think that the human mind is nothing more than a byproduct of our neural activities, because of which it is fully intertwined with our physical existence? And if the latter would be the case, how come that we seem to be able to control this physical existence of ours, without having some kind of autonomous spirit responsible for this? And if the first would be the case, how would it be possible for an intangible spirit to make a connection with the tangible life we, because of our bodies, are living? How is the connection made between these two seemingly incompatible worlds? That is philosophy, and that is interesting.

Note: if you have found this article interesting, you might also enjoy this one.

Does The Truth Exist?

What is it that we humans beings truly know? About what are we absolutely certain? And will it ever be possible to know everything? And, if so, how could we know that have come to know everything? These are fascinating but difficult questions and trying to answer them all at once is very likely to lead to little result and a firm headache. Therefore we will just pick one of them, and that is: does the truth exist?

We always see the world through our own eyes. Even when we are trying – like I am doing right now – to develop a meta-perspective upon how we as a species should think about ourselves, we will never be able to become fully detached from our own inherently limited points of view within which all of our beliefs reside. And it is because of this inability of ours to transcend ourselves that coming to know how things “truly” are seems to be an impossible task. That is: impossible for us human beings. If we would be Gods, it might have been a different story.

But what now? What if we cannot ever touch upon “the truth as it truly is”? Well, we could of course fall back upon Cartesian skepticism with its beautiful credo of: “I can doubt everything but the fact that it is me who is doubting.” It is in this one little sentence that Descartes describes what it to be human. It is also in this one little sentence that Descartes has lain down the fundamentals of what might be the single most admirable human trait: the trait of humbleness. A trait that is rooted in our fundamental and inescapable ignorance. A trait that fosters respect for each other’s (different) ideas about the way the world works. We are all the same in our ignorance; so don’t take your own ideas too seriously. But given that there is nothing we cannot doubt – expect the fact that it is us who are doubting – what are the implications of this observation with regard to our quest for the “truth”?

Let’s see. The human quest for knowledge – or the “truth” – is the most praiseworthy and impossible journey we have ever embarked on. But even though the residence of “truth” might be impossible to find, we still have no reason to stop our efforts for obtaining this holy grail of knowledge. I even dare to say that it is a great good that we simple human beings will never come to touch upon “the truth as it really is”. Since, it is for as long as there is no single “truth” pressing down upon our human souls that we will be able to create our own truths. But that seems kind of vague, right? What does it mean to “create our own truths”? And isn’t that idea contradictory to the core meaning of the notion of “truth”?

It seems fair to assume that each and every person on this planet of ours has got a certain set of beliefs about the way the world works and the way the world should work. And although none of us will ever come to know whether our beliefs are true in the absolute sense of the word, we still consider ourselves to have reasons for believing our beliefs to be true. And it is just because of these reasons that we consider our beliefs to be true. The reasons act as the foundation on top of which our beliefs hold true. And it is throughout the course of our lives that you and I are likely to have developed different sets of beliefs about the world we are living in. You might believe that people are essentially good, while I might believe that they are essentially bad. In other words: both of us have – throughout our lives – developed a grounding consisting of reasons because of which we have come to believe what we consider to be true. This explains why someone always has to come up with “reasons” in order to convince another person of the truthfulness of ideas. Since it is only because of these reasons that beliefs come to be true. Without these reasons the other person would literally have no reason to believe your idea to be true.

This observation shows that “truthfulness” is a dynamic property. One year you might consider a certain idea to be true, while the following year you might consider this same idea to be false (think about you believing in Santa Claus while you were a kid). That is to say that, by experiencing changes in your reasons for believing something, you simply cannot help but changing your ideas as well.

Therefore the relevant question becomes: how do we come to believe what we believe? I personally think that there is a huge amount of arbitrariness playing a role in this. I mean: we haven’t decided to be born in the country in which we actually have been born, did we? But – assuming that you live in the Western World – how do you think that your view on the world would have been if you would have been born in – let’s say – Africa? How would your view on the world have been if you would not have been educated in the manner that you are? How would your view on the world have been if you as a child had to work 80 hours per week in order for your family to be able to survive?

I want to ask you the following question, and it is a very important one: given that you would indeed have been born in Africa and given that you would have developed a set of beliefs that is different from the one you are having today, would this make the beliefs you would have had if you would have been born in Africa any less true than the ones you are having today? I do not think so. And that is where the arbitrariness of our notions of the “truth” comes in.

What I have tried to show in this article is that our beliefs are not true simply because we believe them to be true. It would indeed have been very satisfying to know that our beliefs about the the way the world works are the ones that are true and that the beliefs of others are just plain nonsense. But the truth of the matter is that in the end, everything comes down to faith. Whether it is – as can be read in a latter article of mine – within the realm of science or religion, it does not matter. The last step – the step of faith – always has to be taken by yourself, and it is that step that makes your beliefs come to be true.

Don’t you believe this is fascinating? The idea that everything – all the things we consider to be true and all the things that we consider to be false – is just a matter of believing? And that this is all we will ever know? I most certainly do. Believe me.

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?