Religion and The Absurd

There are times at which I envy religious people. Their sense of determination, of knowing where all of this is about and what to do with it, can seem very alluring at times. Like it can really put your mind at ease. And why wouldn’t it? After all, religious people always know that, no matter what they are faced with in life, they will always be able to come up with an explanation that is 100 percent bulletproof. An explanation that always points to the one single source of everything. Down to God himself. That truly must be a peaceful mindset, right?

Wrong. Reality contradicts this assumption. For it seems fair to say that religions, or differences in religion, are an important – if not the most important – cause of war in this world of ours. And since war is – by definition – not peaceful, it is fair to say that not all theists experience peaceful consequences through adhering to their religion.

But this article is not an attempt to criticize religion. This article zooms in at the different positions regarding religion, and the reasonableness – or unreasonableness – of each.

Teapot
First of all atheism. I have established that I am not an atheist. For to be an atheist, one must reject to believe in the existence of deities. And I most certainly do not reject believing in deities. At least: not as long as it is someone else who does the believing; not me, for I don’t believe in any deity.

Neither do I consider myself to be an agnostic. An agnostic claims that one will never be able to prove or disprove the existence of deities. Therefore one should postpone judgement (possibly indefinitely) about the existence of any deity. Agnosticism as thus defined doesn’t seem to be unreasonable. However, it leaves one with an unwanted consequence, being: one can reflect only on those entities that definitely do or definitely do not exist.

Let me clarify this. Suppose I say that – somewhere in space – there is a teapot floating around. The existence of this teapot can neither be proved nor disproved. Should we hence be agnostic about its existence? This seems unreasonable, for we might have reasons to suppose that the existence of such a teapot is extremely improbable. But notions such as probability do not make any sense from an agnostic point of view. For how can something be more or less probable, given the fundamental assumption that one cannot make any reasonable judgement about the existence of entities that cannot be proved or disproved? If the latter would be true, one cannot talk about probability; for probability – or at least everything between 0 and 100 percent – is not absolute like a proof or disproof. If one cannot accept this consequence, one should not be an agnostic.

But then the unavoidable question pops up: what then am I? Is there a group of like-minded people I belong to? Is there a religion or a philosophy that suits my particular ideas and intuitions? Or am I forever doomed to wander around lonely on this earth of ours, searching for my very own, not yet formulated, views on life?

Baby Jesus
The answer is no. Because recently something special happened: my very own baby Jesus was born. My lord and saviour. While surfing on the internet, I stumbled upon the philosophical position called ‘absurdism’, and I was hooked right away. What is absurdism? The best way to explain it, is to zoom in at its fundamental notion: the Absurd. The ‘Absurd’ refers to ‘the conflict between the human tendency to seek inherent value and meaning in life and the human inability to find any’. Note that absurdism does not consider it to be ‘logically impossible’ to find meaning in life; it just considers it ‘humanly impossible’ to do so. That is a subtle but very important distinction. It is this distinction that implies that, even though there might be an absolute meaning of life floating around somewhere in this universe of ours, we – simple human beings of flesh and blood – will never be able to find it.

And that’s it, right? We simply cannot come to know how things ‘truly’ are, including the ‘true meaning’ of life. We are doomed to live within the boundaries of our own little worlds. We are unable to trade our points of view for any other humanly conceivable point of view. The latter implies that we can never come to an absolute grasp of ‘the truth’; supposing that such a thing would exist. Surely: if everyone would develop the same beliefs about what is true and what is not, about what is right and what is not, seemingly universal ideas tend to emerge. But the question we must then ask ourselves is: were these ideas universal before people considered them to be so? Or did they become universal because everyone believed them?

Meaning
A note of caution is in place. For an absurdist does not always lead a happy life. There is always one major danger hiding in the corner. Absurdism implies the absolute freedom of humanity, the non-existence of any shackles besides the ones we have created ourselves. But sometimes this destined freedom of ours conflicts with what is the human longing for certainty. A longing to know how things truly are; a need to know who or what is behind all this craziness we call life. Absurdism claims that we cannot come to know these certainties. And when this observation strikes, it strikes hard: a feeling of powerlessness tends to take control over our minds and bodies. That’s an inevitable consequence of appreciating the Absurd.

But then, a little later, when you get yourself together, and taste again of the juices of total meaninglessness, of total freedom, you realize that you have found true love after all. You will realize that it is the only path leading to something that at times comes close to meaning. For even though the absurdist knows that he will not find any absolute meaning of life, it is in the very act of trying to find it, that he finds fulfilment. The fulfilment he is longing for. The fulfilment he proudly calls life.

Have you ever thought about what your most fundamental beliefs are? Upon what beliefs you have built your life? And have you ever asked yourself why those are the beliefs that have the authority to determine the remainder of your framework of beliefs?

But what do you think?

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?

The Changed Nature of Money: From Gold to Digital

What is money? In the Middle Ages and before, money was a physical entity. Something you either had in your pockets, or not. Whether it was cows or gold, it was something you could touch, something of which you knew it couldn’t just be created “from thin air”. Although gold coins could be made by the government, the government still needed gold to make the coins. And since getting gold wasn’t easy, you could trust that the amount of money in a society – whose value was based on the amount of gold being in circulation – wouldn’t fluctuate that much. You had certainty, just like you could be certain that the tree in your backyard couldn’t grow new apples every day. It was a gradual, natural process. And this was a calming thought, ensuring you that the value of your money would be rather stable of time.

But now – a couple of centuries later – we’ve got the internet, and everything has changed. Money no longer is gold, but is replaced by a string of digital numbers on your computer. We no longer pay the butcher by handing him over a few tangible units of gold, but we put our plastic card into a digital machine and our digital string of numbers gets digitally reduced. The comfort that this brought us is enormous. We don’t even have to carry gold around anymore.

But although the “digital era” brought us many comforts, it also brought uncertainty – and vulnerability – into our lives. Because who ensures us that the amount of digital money that is in circulation will be a stable amount of money over time? Who ensures us that, whenever the government feels it’s losing in popularity, it cannot just put an extra zero-digit behind the digital number on its bank account? Who ensures us that – like cows and gold – the value of money is based on stable, natural entities that cannot be created from thin air, and not merely upon our perception of the value of money, which is an entity susceptible to the whims of those with monetary power? In other words: who guarantees the value of our money? Who besides ourselves, besides our perception of money? And if the value of money is merely dependent upon our perception of it, then how easily can this perception – and thus the value of our money – be adjusted by means of external intervention? How much certainty do we have regarding the value of our future money?

Because what is the value of money if we can just hand over an 8-digit number to Greece, knowing that it will never come back, and not even worrying about it never combing back because we know we can create more money whenever we want to. Who can ensure us that the money we’re working for is really worth the value we expect it to be worth over time? What is the value of money if new money can just be printed over and over again? Or even worse, when it requires nothing but the adding of an extra digit in the server space of the government. Is that still money? Or is it a 21th century substitute for money, created as a logical consequence of our fetish with digital technology and its “benefits”?

Let’s stay realistic. One thing we can reasonably say is that money – instead of possessions like gold and cows – has become more of a means for exchanging rights and less of a means for exchanging property. Rights of obligation, rights of someone to do something for another person in change for an increase in that someone’s right to legitimately claim something from others. I know it sounds abstract, but that is because it is abstract. The non-abstract gold- and cow time is over. Mutual obligations are all that remains. A problem? Maybe. A change? Definitely.

But what do you think?

We’re Underway for Merely 500 Years

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

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

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

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

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

What do you think?

If You Ask a Question, You Should Expect an Answer

‘Well, If you didn’t want an answer, then you shouldn’t have asked me a question.’ That’s what I often think when people ask me about my point of view on a particular topic, and – subsequently – respond by looking disgusted and saying something along the lines of: ‘No, that is never going to work’, or ‘How can you ever think that?’

Every scientific discipline is divided in two groups of people: those who are prepared to utter original ideas and those that seem capable only of smashing down these ideas. This ‘force field’ between the forces of creativity and destruction is most prominent in philosophy, and then in particular in what I call ‘definition battles’. With the term ‘definition battle’ I mean philosophical discussions about – as you might expect – the definition of a term. ‘What is life?’ could be a question triggering a definition battle. But also questions such as ‘What is pleasure?’ or ‘What is altruism?’ are likely to lead to a definition battle. Let’s focus ourselves at the example of ‘What is life?’

I remember a philosophy teacher of mine asking the class what we believed to be ‘life’ is. With no-one seeming to make the effort to answer his question, I decided to give it a go. I came up with my interpretation – or definition – of life as ‘a natural process that has an end and a beginning and that is capable of keeping itself functioning solely by means of metabolic processes.’ You might find this definition inaccurate, but I hope that you can at least agree with me on the fact that it is a definition; a definite statement based upon which one can distinguish living from non-living entities.

After having given this definition of life, other students looked at me in disbelief, as if they saw fire burning. And then one of them asked: ‘But, according to your definition of life, a comatose patient wouldn’t be alive. After all, a comatose patient isn’t ‘alive’ solely by means of his metabolic processes; it’s is being kept ‘alive’ by means of external interventions (medical machinery etc.).’

I replied by saying: ‘Yes, I indeed believe that a comatose patient is not alive anymore.’ Then hell broke loose and students kept on saying that my point of view was wrong. Note: saying that my point of view was wrong; not saying why my point of view was wrong. Because how could they ever say that my point of view was wrong? It was, after all, my point of view, right? It was my definition for which had – and gave – reasons.

I believe this case is exemplary for the manner in which people interact with each other: people ask each other about each others point of view, but whenever people really give their point of view, it gets – no matter what the point of view might be – shot down. This doesn’t necessarily have to be a problem; not if the opponents of the point of view have good – or at least any – arguments against the point of view. But what often seems to be the case is that the ones who criticize others don’t dare or unable to take a stance for themselves. Hence, whenever such an instance occurs, I always ask to myself: how can you criticize others, if you don’t know – or you don’t even dare to express – your own position? Based on what view of the world are you criticizing the position of others – in this case myself? And if you don’t even have a view on the world, how then can you say my views are wrong? Wrong based on what? Teach me. Please. How can I make my beliefs more reasonable?

I say that we should dare to make choices, even when it comes down to such delicate questions as ‘What is life?’ For if you ask a question, you should expect a definite answer. Because if you don’t expect to reach a definite answer, no matter how counter-intuitive this answer might be, you will inevitably get lost in an everlasting and non-value adding discussion. And worst of all: if you aren’t prepared to listen to any (definite) answer a person gives you, then you aren’t taking this person seriously. You ears are open but your mind is not. And lastly, as I mentioned before, you simply cannot judge others without occupying a position for yourself. So you need to have some sort of reasonably firm position in order to be able to criticize others. So please…share your position with us.

But what do you think?

Do we Need the Social Sciences?

There is a debate in philosophy of science about the status of “entities” like “churches”. Most of the philosophers agree on the fact that “churches” don’t really exist; that is, don’t really exist apart from the people that are part of a church. Just like a forest cannot exist apart from the trees being part of it. That’s pretty clear, right? The sum is merely a collection of its parts; “1 + 1 is always 2”. This is the ontological part of philosophy; the part of what exists out there in the world, with the position of “ontological individualism” winning the battle.

But there is a problem. Because if “churches” don’t really exist – in the sense I explained above – then they cannot have causal powers. After all, how can you cause something if you don’t exist? That’s impossible, right? But if that is true, a painful question arises: what then about sociology? Or what then about any social science dealing with entities like “churches”?  If these entities can’t cause anything, why then use them in “social laws” like, “If a group has the property of being a church, then its degree of solidarity will be higher than groups that do not have this property”? Then this “law” wouldn’t make sense, right? Unless, of course, it is not a causal relationship being “captured” in this ‘law”, but merely a correlation between the properties of “being a church” and “having a high degree of solidarity”. In this latter interpretation of “law” it can be true that members finding themselves to be “part of a church” have a relatively high degree of solidarity.  But then this would be merely an observation, right? Not a law representing the “causal nature of the universe”, right?

This is difficult issue for philosophers to crack. Since it is appears not to be easy to do without terms like “churches” in “social laws”; that is, if we would claim that “churches” don’t really exist and that the “laws” making use of the term “church” are not really laws, then we would have to come up with an alternative; an alternative posed in terms of individual properties instead of social properties like “being a church”, “being a football game” or “being an argument”. So how are we going to do this? Well, we could come up with a list consisting of all the “individual level properties” belonging to the social level property “being a church”. That list could look something like this: (1) the individuals share a building in which they pray, (2) the individuals believe in the same God…etc. etc. You get it? But then the problem would be that this list can go on forever! How could we ever put this in a law?! That’s impossible, right? And because this is impossible to do, it also becomes impossible, according to certain philosophers, to do away with social properties like “being a church” in social “laws”; after all, they claim, these social terms are needed to make sure that we don’t regress to those kinds of infinitely long lists.

The conclusion of this debate? Social laws are needed. Although churches might be composed of nothing more than individuals; it is conceptually impossible to reduce “social level entities” to “individual level entities”; where the former are used in sciences like sociology and the latter are used in sciences like psychology, neuroscience etc. Another implication of this observation is that it is impossible to do away with the social level sciences – like sociology – by reducing them to individual level sciences – like psychology. Therefore, our efforts to do so have failed miserably……although I seriously doubt the validity of this argument. But that’s something for another article.

But what do you think?

Why Are We?

Before you embark on reading this article, I have to warn you upfront that this article might appear to be depressing. And if it does, it might be because it is in fact a depressive article. Having said that, here we go.

Do you ever ask yourself where all of this is about? Not only why we are here on this planet of ours, but why we really are: why we are capable of experiencing; why we are capable of tasting; why we are capable of complaining. We are ‘just’ living our lives, and going with the flow, but do we ever think about what this ‘living’ might actually consist of? Let’s take a look at that.

‘Purpose’ is an inherently unstable concept. The reason for this is that the Purpose of everything – from which all other purposes (which a small ‘p’) can be derived – will always lie outside of our reach. Whenever we embark on the journey of trying to grasp this Purpose, we’ll inevitably end up in an infinite regress. It’s like a diver trying to reach the bottom of the sea, but each time he thinks the bottom is near is forced to return to the surface to grasp fresh air. Our human limits will deter us from reaching the limits – either of our Purpose or of the sea.

We only have a (very) limited framework of beliefs within which we can claim to ‘know’ things: within which we can claim to ‘know’ that the world consists of particles; in which we can claim to ‘know’ that we descend from the fish; in which we can claim to ‘know’ that we are alive. But how big is this limited framework of beliefs in the scope of which we believe to know? That’s an unanswerable question, since we don’t know what we don’t know, and therefore we cannot have a benchmark to measure our sense of ignorance (or omnipotence) against. We believe we know a lot, but we can never know how much we actually know.

Don’t you find it – at times at least – frustrating that we cannot deny the fact that we’ve got no clue about all of the things we don’t know? That we can try all we want to unravel the mysteries of the universe, but that we don’t know if we’re getting any closer to ‘the truth’? Closer to the way the world really is? Closer to the true Purpose of all of this? It’s like we’re forced to always look into one direction, and that even within that direction our line of sight is inherently limited by the horizon set by our human limits.

A depressing thought? Maybe or maybe not. Since there are two ways to deal with this thought: either (1) by drowning in it and feeling the total absurdity and seemingly insignificance of our existence, or (2) by shutting of the part of our minds this thought resides in, and keep on ‘shooting for another perfect day.’ But, irrespective of the option we choose, we’ve got to remember that closing our eyes doesn’t hide the truth; it only makes us (temporarily) incapable of seeing it.

Are you happy? Are you content with the way you’re living your life? And if so, why are you happy? Are you ‘just’ happy because you don’t allow yourself to see the only absolute truth in our existence – the meaningless of life? Or are you happy for other reasons? If you are happy because of the former, then that’s a noble – or at least understandable – sense of ‘constructive’ happiness. But have you ever thought to yourself: why should I even be happy in life? Just because it’s a nice feeling – or at least nicer than unhappiness? And aren’t we making it a little too easy for ourselves by striving for nothing more than a feeling of ‘just being happy’?

What if it’s just one big joke whatever it is that we’re doing here? What if there are just a couple of aliens that have put our ancestors (the monkeys) on this planet just so that they – the aliens – could have some fun? Just to be ‘happy’ for themselves? Maybe. All we know is that we are.

But what do you think?

The Link between Inspiration and Trying to Grasp Gas

Have you ever tried to capture gas with your bare hands? If not, I can tell you that it isn’t very effective. You might “sustain” a little gas after you’ve “caught” it, but the biggest part of the gas cloud will just vanish in thin air. But that’s no problem; at least, not if you aren’t dependent on gas to make your money However, it might become more of an issue if you are fully dependent on this gas in order to make a living, and especially if you don’t have anything besides your bare hands in order to capture the gas. Well, that’s how it is with artists trying to “capture” sudden bursts of inspiration.

People in creative professions – like arts and poetry – are dependent upon an intangible “well of inspiration” in order to come up with tangible results. Their inspiration is the fuel that keeps their “production process” going; pretty much in the same way that a construction worker needs food in order for him to continue doing his job. However, the main difference between food and inspiration is quite obvious: the first you can produce, take care of and provide, while the second “just” happens to you or “just” doesn’t happen to you. While you can water your plants, and cultivate the soil, all to make sure that your potatoes will grow; putting your head in the ground in order to “grow inspiration” might not be the best of options.

So what then? Are artists just doomed to wait on a sign from above in order for them to create their products? Well, that would be an imbalanced power-relationship to say the least, right? It nonetheless seems true that this “waiting for an (external) sign” is for a big part the manner in which artists go about their business. Why else are artists disproportionally often high on drugs, and exploring “higher spheres”, looking for that glimpse of inspiration? There must be some kind of correlation between the two, right?

However, maybe artists aren’t fully dependent upon the mercy of the Gods of inspiration. Maybe the artists can help the Gods a little by feeding them with suggestions; by pouring information into their own artist minds and hoping that the random connections in their artist brains might lead to a flash of insight. At least a little support from the side of the artists is needed, right? After all, who do you think would be more inspired: (1) the artist laying in bed all day thinking about how awesome it would be if he would become inspired, or (2) the artist that proactively takes part in his life, reads, observes and absorbs whatever the world has got to offer him? The answer seems pretty clear to me.

So maybe inspiration is more of a constructable product then we might thought it was; maybe there is some kind of “production line” in our heads, pumping out ideas, if only it would be fed with raw materials a.k.a. experiences. And although the raw materials might be intangible, and not capable of being exploited like mines, they are still there. But it’s only for the true artists to find.

But what do you think?

Note: this article has been published in the first edition of the Carnival of Inspirational Lifestyle.

The Recurrence of Difficult Decisions

Most of the people that are in their early twenties – and that I know of – seem to have no clue about what to do with their lives. And I am not talking about the “I don’t know what kind of shirt to wear” kind of don’t having a clue. No, I am talking about a fundamental – almost existential – sense of doubt. A sense of doubt that – at times – seems to come awfully close to a desperate confession of the inherent meaninglessness of life; a confession of the lack an innate purpose in life. But why is that so? And could there be something wrong with this view?

We all know that feeling of “standing on a crossroads in life”. In some sense you could say that every new situation we’re faced with in life is such a crossroads. Shall I go to the grocery store, or not? Shall I sleep a little longer, or not? Shall I go left, or shall I go right? These are choices we’ve got to make on a daily basis. And having to make choices is an inescapable part of life. It’s just as true as that other truism of life: the fact that we are all going to die. But why then are “the students” so hesitant in cutting the cord and making a choice? Well, frankly, “we” believe that – compared to all the decisions we’ve made before – this time a truly big decision has to be made that is truly going to influence our lives for now and forever.

Some decisions are likely to have a bigger impact upon your life than others. Deciding who to marry is likely to influence the course of your life more than the decision to buy that cheap peanut-butter in the grocery store. And it is this realization of “influencing the course of our lives” that seems to paralyze many of us in the student community, and leave us with a sense of despair. And that’s understandable, right? There’s reason to be afraid. Choosing – for example – what to specialize in within your field of study is, from all the decisions you have made up to that point in your life, likely to have the biggest impact upon the type of job you’ll get, and therefore upon the way you’ll spend a big time of – the remainder of – your life (both financially and time-wise).

But, when you dig a little deeper into the caverns of your mind, and really start to question the nature of life, aren’t you then forced to jump to the conclusion that there is always that next big thing to worry about? That there will always be that next issue you need to get out of your system before you can “finally” move on with your life? But, and here’s the catch, what if that is life? What if life is nothing more than a string of decisions? Then we are about to live a rather anxious live, aren’t we? If we are constantly being worried about the choices we have made, and those we are about to make, we’ll pretty much have no time to do anything else at all. We would have to quit our jobs, and feel down all day. And that isn’t a very compelling foresight, is it? So maybe we (the students) just have to stop being such pussies. Maybe we just have to accept that we cannot predict the future, and that we have nothing to guide us in our life journeys besides our very own compass: faith or intuition or how you call it. Because having faith is the only manner by which we can prevent the train of decisions from killing us, and thereby enable us to “finally” go on with the rest of our lives.

But what do you think?

How to Interpret the Notion of Chance?

We all think we’re familiar with the notion of ‘chance‘. But are we really? And if so, what are the consequences we should attach to our interpretation of chance? For instance, are chances purely descriptive in nature – in the sense that they refer only to past events – or do they have a predictive power that might be based upon some kind of underlying ‘natural’ force producing the structured data? And why would it even matter how to interpret chance? Let’s take a look behind the curtains of a probabilistic interpretation of chance, right into its philosophical dimensions.

On average, 12,3 per 100.000 inhabitants of the USA get killed in a traffic accident. Also, 45 percent of Canadian men are expected to develop some form of cancer at some point in their lives. So, what do you think about these data? First of all: does the fact that 12.3 out of 100.000 inhabits get killed in traffic tell you anything about the likelihood that you are going to be killed in traffic? I guess not. It is merely a descriptive notion invented to condense a large amount of data into an easy to read figure. It says nothing about your future, or anyone’s future for that matter. After all: you will either die in traffic or you will not, and you will either get cancer or you will not. At this point in your life you are absolutely clueless which way it will turn out to be. For all you know, it might be a 50-50 kind of situation.

Although this interpretation of chance might feel counter-intuitive, it seems a more reasonable position to take than believing you are expected to die in traffic with a probability of 12,3/100.000. You are after all a unique person and you don’t have 100.000 ways to go. You either go one way, or the other. It is only by adding huge amounts of data together that scientists can come to compressed figures (like chances), thereby describing what has happened in the past. But description does not equal prediction, and totality does not equal uniqueness.

What are the implications of this manner of looking at chance for our interpretation of science? What about the inferences scientists make based upon data, like the one about cancer I mentioned above? Are they making unjustified claims by posing that 45 percent of men are expected to die of cancer? I believe this might indeed be the case. In case scientists want to be fully justified in getting at their conclusions, they should do away with any claims regarding the likelihood of any event happening in the future. That seems to be the only manner for staying true for 100 percent to the data available.

But watch it: this is not to say that the scientific enterprise has lost its value. Science can still be the vehicle best-suited for gathering huge amounts of data about the world, and for presenting these data in such a way that we are able to get a decent glimpse of what is going on in the world around us. And that is where – I believe – the value of science resides: in the provision of data in an easy to understand manner. Not in the making of predictions, or inferences of any kind, as many scientists might happen to believe: just the presentation of data, a job which is difficult enough in itself.

You could say that I am not justified in make this claim. You could back up your argument by saying that a difference should be made between the case of ’45 percent of men are expected to get some form of cancer’ and ‘one specific man has a 45 percent chance of getting cancer’. Where the latter might be untrue, because of the fact that one will either get cancer or not, the former might be more justified. That is because it divides a group into units that will either get cancer or not. However, although this might be true to a certain extent, it still seems to be an unjustified manner to make predictions about the way the world will turn out to be. After all, considering 100 men to be the unit of selection is only to replace the level of the individual with the level of a group. On an even higher level of abstraction, one could consider the 100 men to be one unit, which subsequently would make the conclusions reached unjustified again.

Also, when choosing to make predictions on the level of the group, why does one choose the higher- instead instead of the lower level? Why wouldn’t it be okay to say that, instead of human beings, cells are the true units that either get cancer or not? That’s only a difference in the level of analysis, right?

So, next time you read somewhere that 99 of the 100 people fail in achieving something, interpret this for what it is: a description of what has happened in the past that can inform you in making the decision about what you should do right now. So don’t interpret this as meaning that you only have a one percent chance of being able to achieve a certain goal, because that would be a totally unjustified inference to make: an inference that goes way beyond what the data can support. And don’t consider a scientific fact to be a prediction about the future. Consider it for what it is: a useful description of the past, but no legitimate claim about the future.

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?