Seen from Above

Falia was resigned to her mission. The thankless task of checking out possible new worlds traditionally fell to the most junior member of the Interplanetary Relationship Bureau. It was probably a false alarm anyway, and even if it wasn’t there was nothing she could do beyond data gathering, worse luck. To remove temptation, scout vessels simply weren’t equipped for landing.

After the autopilot had maneuvered her ship into orbit, Falia set to work. Satellites made tapping into data sources seem like child’s play. She was excited to get her first glimpse of a new species, have the ship’s computer navigate through the jumble of languages, and dip into it’s strange culture. But her excitement soon turned to dismay at what she found.

Morality. The planet was infested with it. Preachers of morality raped children; others murdered in the name of family values. Those whose very existence offended the reigning moral code were despised and persecuted; those unwilling to accept it reviled. Where two moralities clashed, hatred and violence inevitably followed: the slaughter of innocents on the way was defended by moral leaders.

On the way back Falia tried to shake off her feeling of revulsion. How could anyone value rules over sentient beings’ feelings and needs? Her report would go through the usual channels, though the outcome was clear.  After the Bureau had slipped up with Silema-β, only narrowly avoiding the first interplanetary war, the ruling on a morality-ridden planet was inevitable.

Quarantine.

***

T.Mastgrave’s weekly Philosophical Story Challenge: how do conflicting moralities come to terms with one another?

And the Weekly Photo Challenge: From Above, another look at last week’s flower.

Perfection

“It  will be fine, It will be fine.” Edith repeated her mantra. She was on the way to the medical center with her mate John, to receive their baby’s test results. It was their third attempt, the first two hadn’t passed the eugenics review. Maybe their genes just weren’t good enough.

The tube coasted to a stop. A woman and a child were waiting on the platform. Edith flinched as they got into the car. Clearly there was something wrong with the child: it’s awkward walk was painful to watch. She saw the mother looking at it with fierce protectiveness as other passengers turned away and some got up and moved away.

As the tube surged forward again, Edith instinctively put her hand on her belly. Suddenly she wanted her baby, whether or not it measured up to some arbitrary standard of perfection. It was hers, theirs. Even if it didn’t, there was no reason to be ashamed, no reason to hide.

To hide…

Maybe the reason you rarely saw disabled people anymore wasn’t the huge success of mandatory genetic screening. Maybe they were simply pushed out of sight by the contempt and disgust they were met with.

She gave the child’s mother an awkward smile.

* * *

T. Mastgrave’s philosophical story challenge: If natural selection (survival of the fittest) is the means by which the process of evolution unfolds, is eugenics wrong?

Sugar on Top

Cavern put the phone down slowly. After thirty years on the job, he didn’t need telling a summons to the White House wasn’t good news. When crisis after crisis hit, protecting the quality of drinking water suddenly became an important job.

More than an hour into the meeting, the cards were finally on the table. The president was instructing him to introduce antidepressants into the water-supply.

Cavern looked down. “It won’t work.” he said quietly.
“How do you know that?” the President asked. “You haven’t tried it.”
Cavern could hear his voice from a distance.  “They did. Nearly thirty years ago.”

There was a stunned silence. The Defence Secretary was the first to recover: “So what was their solution?”

Cavern swallowed. “Soda,” he said weakly, “they put it in the soda.”

* * *

T. Mastgrave’s Philosophical Story Challenge: Is greatest happiness the greatest good?  

A Fresh Start

When he woke up, his mind was a blank.

He would learn later that he was in a hospital and an accident with the wiring had erased his memory. In the beginning the doctors were hopeful his memory would return, but in the meantime he needed to start from scratch.

He was a quick learner. Walking, eating with a knife and fork, and brushing his teeth were a breeze. He loved mathematical puzzles, and once he had mastered  “See Spot run”, he quickly became an avid reader.

When the doctors pronounced him as good as new, he went home to his family and his job. He did his best to settle in, to do the things he was told to do. But as often as not, he didn’t see the point. He hated the noise, and was puzzled by the empty conversations.

One day he took a boat, and sailed for the horizon.

Nobody had told him he couldn’t.

* * *

T.Mastgrave’s philosophical story challenge: Do our memories make us who we are?

Lighting Candles

Thousands of candles can be lighted from a single candle,

and the life of the candle will not be shortened.

Happiness never decreases by being shared.

Buddha 

It all started with a science project. Angela Goodfellow set up a website, and crowd sourced her experiment. People registered, volunteered for a group, and returned to answer questions. There was the “Friends and Neighbours” group, the “Strangers only”, “Secret”, “Wear a Badge”, and various others.

Officially the project ended, but the test subjects stayed on. New volunteers showed up every day, and similar sites started popping up. The results were overwhelming. All of the volunteers – except the control group – reported they smiled more, felt less stress, and their relationships were better. After three to six months even their health improved. It did turn out to be addictive, but nobody really minded.

It seems obvious to us nowadays, but back then people really didn’t know: even if you do them in secret and for strangers, random acts of kindness make you happier.

* * *

This week’s philosophical story challenge by T.Mastgrave:  Is altruism possible?

Related post: Why Hate Hurts – or love heals.

Still Waters

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Jeremy yawned. Camping was bad enough; if only his Dad didn’t insist on having these pointless conversations. Did he exist? Well, obviously! Yes, like a drop of water joins the sea, he would die one day – who wanted to be old, anyway? But unlike a drop of water, he would enjoy life along the way.

Could he prove he existed? Sometimes Dad was like little Louey, really! Told the knight couldn’t move in a straight line, Louey had gone berserk: Prove it! he had shouted. Those are the rules, dummy. You don’t prove them, they’re just there. If you don’t like them, don’t play chess.

Family was really the limit. After lunch he’d find a way to slope off.

* * *

T. Mastgrave’s philosophical story challenge: Can you be sure you exist?

The End Is Nigh

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The End is Nigh! the man shouted.

Is there still time for hot chocolate? Riley asked.

The-End-is-Nigh guy blinked. Ah, maybe, I don’t know.

― Jana Oliver, Forbidden

Why, thank-you, dearie. I never say no to a biscuit. And what’s your name, young lady? Louise? The old face cracked in a smile.

Do I believe what? That the dragon is coming and the world will end tomorrow?

Now, when I was your age, the world was always coming to an end. Left and right people were predicting disasters. I think it’s because they want the world to change. And right they are! But no, I don’t think the world will end tomorrow.

The dragon, now, that’s a whole other story. The old eyes twinkled. I’ve seen it myself, you know…

* * *

T.Mastgrave’s story challenge: the End of Time.

A New Dawn

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Time was running out. He had put off the decision as long as he could.

Engrossed in the project he had asked strangers their opinion. The fuzzy answers annoyed him: what use were they? He studied ancient books and their sweeping judgements made him angry: it was just words. None of these philosophers had known the responsibility he faced.

It was up to him to finalise the program. His hand would flip the switch. Future generations would thank him – or curse his name.

We have many needs, he thought. Big ones and small ones. Some we all share, others are peculiar to ourselves. Sometimes we value one more; another time we valued it less. Not all our needs are met, indeed, some may never be.

So that is what he taught the machines. They would preserve life. They would consider needs varying in individuals and over time. They would do what was possible to restore the scorched earth. But when the planet was habitable again, they would relinquish their power.

And give mankind the freedom to make its own mistakes. Again.

* * *

T. Mastgrave’s philosophical story challenge: the relationship between “good” and “pleasurable”.

Up in the Air

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It was a beautiful day; clouds drifted lazily overhead. Jack and his Grandfather were lying in the grass.
– See the dragon? It’s turning into a duck! They laughed.

– Look, those two have joined. Are they still two clouds? Or is it one now?
Jack frowned in concentration. Over the meadow, the clouds seemed to peter out.
– What do you think happens to the clouds when they get there?
Jack pondered. People were always telling him things. Only Grandfather asked what Jack thought.

It would be the last time the two were together. Back in school, Jack’s teacher commiserated.
– It’s alright, Jack reassured his teacher. He’s in the air now.

* * *

T. Mastgrave’ philosophical story challenge: What is the soul?

A Bit of Peace

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Robbie sat down on a log and let out a sigh, Rufus flopped down beside him. The two had scampered up the hill and dashed into the woods, now both needed to catch their breath.

Robbie thought it was unfair. He was sure he tried to be good. OK, so he probably shouldn’t have tried to drape the neighbour’s tabby on his snowman – though it made a great fur scarf. He was sick of being lectured, especially when the lecture involved innocent animals.

If animals are innocent, why aren’t I? Rufus looked up at him, thumping his tail, and woofed.

* * *

Today’s philosophical story challenge: Is man innately good or evil?

And the Sunday Post Challenge: Peaceful.

Victory

The secret of all victory

lies in the organisation

of the non-obvious.

Marcus Aurelius

Always an early riser, the leading counsel for the plaintiff had made his way to court at the crack of dawn. He could barely keep still as he surveyed the place where only hours from now the historic hearing would begin. Steadying himself on an ancient tree, he suddenly realised he had spent almost 20 years – nearly all his professional life – preparing this case.

They had carried the point that the hearing take place in the plaintiff’s presence, hence the unorthodox venue. The motion to banish wooden furnishings from the court’s temporary residence had also succeeded. But only yesterday the decision had come through that would almost certainly clinch the case: as the plaintiff was suing for recognition as a full citizen, his full name was to be read out in court in an English translation.

20 sonorous pages, a few lines for each decade of the plaintiff’s life:

I am the tree who stands on the hill…

* * *

T.Mastgrave’s philosophical story challenge: “What does it mean to be equal?” A prequel to Neighbours.

Heartbeat

When the message came it was not what they expected. Scientists had been monitoring the electromagnetic spectrum for decades, but what came were gravitational pulses. Astronomers puzzled about what could be causing them, searching the skies for new comets. Then a series of prime number pulses showed it was a message, an alien intelligence trying to communicate.

Linda had joined the analysis team straight from Princeton. She spent hours listening to the pulses transformed to sound. There was an underlying thump, steady and rhythmic, always there. A heartbeat, she called it. There were many layers of other rhythms that had been filtered out to show the prime number message. Just noise, everyone said.

But Linda listened to the plaintive beats, over and over again. The others joked about her late night listening sessions. It’s lonely, she said, it wants to be heard.

After two years of research there was still no clue where the message came from. Now the most bizarre theories were being considered. One day Linda ventured hers:
I think it’s not alien at all: I think it’s the Earth.
She knew she would get enough flak for this, so she didn’t add:
I think it’s in pain. I think it’s screaming.

* * *

T. Mastgrave’s philosophical story challenge: What does it mean to be an individual?

Hope Springs Eternal

He had known the conversation would be difficult, and, as always, He had been right. He let His mind drift.

In his young godding days, things had been easy. Thunder, it had felt good. They did warn you. Creating a world was fun, but if you started to take an interest, if you let yourself become enmeshed with its history, it would change you.

And he had become enmeshed: he had fallen in love. With a perfect soul, a warm and wonderful human being. The warmth of her smile flooded Him with joy, and when she was in pain, so was He. And He had begun to change. Unthinking cruelty towards His creatures was impossible now, as it would hurt her. And when she talked of humanity, how could He not listen?

Slowly, He began to understand. He had given them knowledge, but not control. They were still at the mercy of every instinct and impulse. Teaching them to judge instead of to accept had backfired, creating conflicts and hatred, blocking their ability to cooperate.

How could He punish them for being what He had made them? She had asked, and He had found no answer. To understand all was to forgive all. He wrenched His mind back to the present.

“Rehabilitation?!” The devil’s ears were quivering. Hell wasn’t more than an eternal naughty step, anyway. He simply didn’t have the staff. But this was going too far.
“If a King orders a General to fly like a bird and the General fails, whose fault is that?”
Luce snorted. “Another one of your son’s little parables, huh?”
No, ” He said patiently, “it’s from a book, a human book.”  And He began to explain His plans.

* * *

When Luce left, his tail was twitching nervously. He gave himself a little shake. Early retirement didn’t sound too bad. Relax. Take some time off on a hot beach. Leave the job to someone else.

A smirk spread on his face.

Good boy Gabe, perhaps?

* * *

T. Mastgrave’s philosophical story challenge: Omniscience and Free Will. I couldn’t resist writing a sequel to The Devil Is in the Details.

The Devil Is in the Details


It simply wasn’t fair! He fumed. The client base was growing. There was really only so much he could do with his small host of imps. Who mostly chased their own tails, anyway.

With the population explosion, he had counted on setting the damned souls to work. Now the Boss had vetoed it. It would be pernicious to their souls. They were the damned, dammit! But, apparently, the fine print foresaw ultimate salvation for all.

He didn’t know how he’d manage without computers. Next: a customizable operating system. He grinned. It would drive people mad! He’d simply be raking the souls in!

* * *

T. Mastgrave’s story challenge: Overworked and rundown.

Simplicity

She hated frills and furbelows. A complex machine, now, that was beautiful. Everything in its place, functioning together as a harmonious whole.

She had spent aeons on the design, fine-tuning the different factors to achieve a delicate balance. Everything would be perfect. A few simple laws, that was the trick. No tinkering would be needed: only mechanics did that. It was fitting that to breathe life into her creation she would explode into a trillion trillion pieces.

She looked at her plan, and saw that it was good. Her final thought was: “Let there be light.”

And there was light.

* * *

T. Mastgrave’s philosophical story challenge: Simplicity.

WYSIWYG

K’12 Ink & watercolour sketch. Ceci n’est pas un chat.

I’ve always been fascinated by the gaps.

You know, there’s a blind spot,bang in the middle of your field of vision, but you don’t see a blank there, your brain covers it up. And you only see colour in a very small part of the picture, just where you’re focussing; the rest is gray. But your brain colours it in, or just lets you believe it’s in colour.

We only experience very small bits of the world, and extrapolate the rest. I  only  see  this  corner  now, but I imagine the rest of the room will be there  when  I  turn  around.  I can hear the cat in the kitchen. Rather, I hear noises,  and  I  think  it’s  the  cat in what I remember as the kitchen. I assume that if I get up, I’ll find the kitchen, and probably even the cat – but do I really know that?

What if the world is only what we perceive? What if things come into existence as we approach them, and are erased when we turn around or walk away? Maybe we live in a small bubble of reality we carry around with us.

I have to accept I can only check whether reality lives up to my expectation. If the kitchen is there when I go fetch a drink, I suppose it’s enough. I do worry about the cat, though…

Sorry, I know this must sound strange to you. But life isn’t easy when you live in a computer simulation.

* * *

My second attempt at answering T.Mastgrave’s philosophical story challenge: Knowledge.

The Writing on the Wall

I don’t really know when it started. At first, I just thought graffiti was on the rise. When I mentioned it to a neighbour, she just stared. Then I realised it was only me seeing the messages.

Some were more general “Who are you”, “Cheer up.” Then it was “Don’t” and “He’s a liar” when I was considering an offer to work for this chap.

The doctors have checked me out: my eyes are fine, and it seems I’m not properly crazy either. So am I getting messages from somewhere? Or just hallucinating? And how do I know the difference?

* * *

T.Mastgrave’s philosophical story challenge: Knowledge. My story is inspired by Joan Slonczewski’s The Children Star: a lovely read!

Moral Choice

The Xenian Alliance took pains to understand new joiners. For difficult questions audiovisual multiple choice material was provided.

  • Absolute morality. Created and hive species. – Material showing a self-replicating garbage-disposal creature. Its only reaction to “Garbage can stay here” was “This unit is faulty.”
  • Consequentialism. Hybrid species, i.e. machines evolved through learning. “Trying to achieve the Good.”
  • Relativism. Early social species. “Live and let live.” “To each his own.”
  • Non-violence, embracing need-based mediation over moralising. Advanced species with a concept of ecological systems. “Everyone is always doing their best.

What could she say?

Humanity is … Divided?

* * *

T. Mastgrave’s philosophical story challenge: moral absolutism vs. moral relativism. After some suggestions, I tried a rewrite.

* * *

– You can’t say?
– No.
– That is impossible. You must believe:
A) What is good is absolute.
B) What is good is relative to the society you live in.
or C) What is good must be determined by need-based mediation from case to case.
– We’re divided.
– Divided? The librarian’s voice rose in a whine. How can that be?

After the interview, the librarian needed to recharge his batteries. Cataloguing the attributes and beliefs of the Members of the Xenian Alliance was a draining task. He plugged himself into the outlet.

These humans! They confirmed all his suspicions about water-based species.

Unreliable.

Watchdog

Watching? Or dreaming?

No more surfing today, Kyledrone said evenly, you set the limit yourself on Wednesday.

Kyle hated the goal setting sessions. He always ended up setting goals he didn’t want. It was his decision alone, but somehow his parents and the drone always seemed to win. He hated his drone sometimes. It protected him, it was always there. But it should let him cheat sometimes!

The drone hovered. Only recently a neighbour had given his drone the slip, and thrown himself over a cliff. Kyledrone would never let that happen. It had put in far too much hard work for that.

* * *

T.Mastgrave’s philosophical story challenge: Whose body is this?

Night Terrors

Carl awoke screaming, still caught in his dream. Reeducation did that to you.

With the realisation that no-one could help their actions, had come the judicial reform. Violent offenders were no longer punished, but reeducated. Today it was possible to instill the sense of empathy in someone who lacked it.

So now Carl was capable of love and empathy. By day. By night he relived his past: every blow, every stab, every cruelty he had visited on his victims. The look in their eyes.

The suicide rate among Re-eds was 60%. The rest … probably innocent.

Quicker than death row, some said.

T.Mastgrave’s challenge: Determinism vs. Free Will.

When Your Laptop Crashes, Does It Suffer?

Fred. His patience makes up for his wooden demeanour.
K’12 Ink & watercolour sketch. Triad, Yellow.

In 1995, David Chalmers stated what he calls the hard problem of consciousness: why do we feel alive, why do we experience the world? He separates this from what he terms the “easy” problems or functions like reportability, attention focus etc. He answers his own question by positing a new fundamental unit, not part of the physical universe. In Red Mary I explained why I disagree with the answer, but I do think it’s a good question.

A detractor of Chalmers’, Daniel Dennett, maintains that the functions of consciousness alone are the explanation of subjective experience. That’s clearly nonsense. We can replicate all the functions in computers or other machines without these being aware. Therefore the functions alone do not explain our subjective awareness.

Consciousness  It’s not a bug, it’s a feature
Chalmers’ list of “easy” problems
The ability to discriminate, categorize, and react to environmental stimuli “Incorrect password. Please try again.”
The integration of information by a cognitive system CPU
The reportability of mental states “Insufficient memory. Please free up some disc space.”
The ability of a system to access its own internal states Going into sleep mode due to low battery.
The focus of attention Allocation of processors.
The deliberate control of behavior Control processes on production systems.
The difference between wakefulness and sleep Sleep mode
Dennett’s functions
Delight and dismay* Motor running smoothly vs. motor makes weird screeching noises.
Distraction and concentration Allocation of processors
Feelings of foreboding* “Are you sure you want to delete this?”
Disregard of perceptual details Cache not cleared
Obsessions Do you know how often an SAP run reads the company code customising? Talk about OCD!
Oversights Allocation of processors
Inability to hold more than a few items in consciousness Insufficient RAM
My ability to be moved to tears by X.* Plant watering automat – the rest is subjective “feeling”.
Inability to catch myself in the act of Y. “An unexpected error has occurred.”
*Delight, dismay, sinking feeling of foreboding, being moved to tears: these are subjective emotions, not functions. I’ve given parallels to what we may do functionally when these states occur.
Some of my own
Bad hair day / Getting out of bed on the wrong side. Processes stuck in loops, caches not cleared. This is why IT support tells you to “turn it off and on again” – a new day for the computer.
We’re stuck because we want to eat our cake and have it. Two processes are waiting for each other.

Now, I don’t believe my laptop is conscious. Nor will it become conscious when I add an app that measures things like available disc space, CPU capacity, and battery state, and says: “I’m feeling stressed out!” when the CPU is at more than 98% capacity, “I feel sick” when it’s out of disc space, and “I’m hungry” when the battery’s going. Actually, my iPod already does this: “Low battery,” it says mournfully.

But, I hear myself saying, that’s not how I work. I have no idea how high my blood-sugar is. But when it’s too low, I feel hungry. And that’s where the “extra” bit comes in. I feel.

Emotions have a function, or quite a few different functions. And we “feel” them. This is not a necessary consequence of the functions – we can write computer programmes that fulfill these functions without the computers suffering. But the path nature took to solve these issues is one that made us aware.

For my part: I’m happy it did. Aren’t you?

Red Mary

K’12 Watercolour sketch from a photo.
Trying Chris Carter’s Colour Scheme Game.
The die came up as Monochrome / Red-Orange.

I just read a blog-post taking up the story of Red Mary, a philosophical thought-experiment. Mary is a neuroscientist who has never seen colours, but has studied them scientifically. For the sake of the argument Mary is taken to have learnt everything that can be learnt about colours, without ever seeing them. The question philosophers now debate is whether Mary learns anything new when she is released from her monochrome prison and sees colour for the first time.

Intuitively, we agree Mary “learns” something new, namely “what it’s like” to see red etc. A similar conundrum “What is it like to be a bat” discusses the fact that we may know much about bats, but not what it’s like to be one. Both are intended to prove dualism, or the idea that there is something non-phyiscal in the world, the carrier of the so-called qualia – from qualis est  or lat. what / how is it, or  “how-ness”.

Reading these things feels a bit like watching a dog trying to catch its own tail. Of course, dogs eventually learn the trick of leaning against something…

Seeing is a skill

To make it easier, suppose Mary’s new experience is not seeing colour, but riding a bike, where she has no previous experience with anything wobbly on wheels. It’s fairly obvious that the outcome would simply be that she cannot ride a bike.

I would argue it’s the same with seeing colour. After a lifetime in monochrome Mary’s eyes might “see” the colours, i.e. the photo-sensitive cells might still be there, and they might react to the photons, but her visual apparatus would simply not have developed a reaction to it. Neurons that have never fired will not be connected to the visual cortex: she will not visualise or experience red at all.

We are not passive spectators of our experience; consciousness is a process, a skill that has to be learnt, just like riding a bike. We start with something quite basic and build it up as we develop. If we never use it, particularly in childhood, it atrophies and disappears.

This in itself is a fantastic quality of our brain. This is how we each develop an ear to detect and differentiate the sounds characteristic of our own language – how marvelous is that? And this is why our eyes are attracted to writing, as we’ve learnt this carries meaning, yet we ignore scratches on the pavement. In former times we’d have learnt to watch out for traces of sabre-toothed tigers…

Mental filing cabinet

An independent point is that seeing colour is a physical sensation. Neurons carry impulses to the part in my brain that maps information onto a body outline, to tell me what’s going on where. Knowing something theoretical, like “my phone number is 431234” is also an electrical impulse in my brain, but it’s in a completely different circuit. Everything I learn by reading, say, is put into the top mental drawer, body information is in the bottom one. This is brain-hardware.

No piece of information Mary can learn about colour is the same as “seeing” it in her visual cortex. Nothing you put in the top drawer is then in the bottom one. On a smaller scale there is no colour seeing which is “like” having a toothache (though some modern artists do try), and no smell is “like” a butterfly kiss. And no piece of information I learn about your height will make me believe you are a good cook (this one is brain software: I could, illogically, have learnt that the best cooks are 5’7” and vice versa).

That doesn’t mean we need to multiply metaphysical entities as carriers of the how-ness of smells, of colours, of touch etc. Not to mention of height and of being a good cook. If we have separate drawers in our mental filing cabinet, that is a quality of our brains, and it doesn’t imply that there is a top-drawer world separate from a bottom-drawer one, any more than the world we hear must be separate from the world we see.

Similarly, the reason I can’t know what it’s like to be a bat is simply that I don’t have a bat’s body. My body-feeling brain circuits are not built the way a bat’s are, nor are my cognitive processes.

What I find telling, is that in trying to prove the existence of “more than” the physical world, the dualist philosophers manage to ignore so much about the physical world. In particular the physical, very much awe-and-wonder-inspiring bodies we are so lucky to have.

P.S. Bats and colours

Bats obviously don’t see colours (different wavelengths of light) as they “see” by ultrasound echoes, i.e. sound waves. Biologist Richard Dawkins once speculated that bats might use what in our brains is used to visualise colours, to represent different textures of surfaces. I find this idea totally fascinating: would blue be smooth, and red be rough?

Why I Feel What You Feel

Watercolour from leaflet photo.

Emotions are the source of empathy and connection. We cannot read each others thoughts, but we can feel each others feelings. This can work in different ways.

1. Feeling and form

We show what we feel in our posture, our gestures and facial expressions, even our voice. This also works the other way round: smile and you will feel slightly more relaxed, let your spine droop and your morale will drop a little too. When we look at someone we unthinkingly mirror their general demeanor. Sometimes we can’t help smiling when someone smiles, or yawning when we hear someone yawn.

So we have a chain here. You feel, you express, I copy your expression (a tiny little bit), and I feel what you are feeling (at least a little bit).

Incidentally, this is what makes portraiture so difficult. Painting a face is not intrinsically more difficult than painting a tree, but we look at the result far more critically because so much brainpower is dedicated to “reading” each other’s faces.

2. Imagination, or “as if”

If you tell me, your neighbour has just won a major award, I can imagine he must be feeling happy and proud. If you tell me he’s just been fired from his job, you don’t need to tell me he’s upset.

We can put ourselves in another person’s situation, and imagine what we would be feeling if we were in their shoes. It’s not accurate, as in many situations our feelings can differ, but it gives us a starting point.

3. Knowledge

We can learn to interpret signals. I remember a teacher whose jerseys came in two colours: red and …mud-coloured. When he was happy, he wore red. When the mud-colour came out, we knew he was in a foul mood.

And we can interpret language, such as journals or blog-posts, to understand what the person writing them is feeling.

* * *

When we look into someone’s eyes, when we imagine their situation, we can feel what they are feeling. Not only every man’s death diminishes me, but every person’s – every creature’s – pain is in a way mine and their joy also. This is where our sense of connection, and of oneness comes from.

To my mind this is what makes us human. Not that it separates us from the rest of the animal kingdom – e.g. dogs and dolphins share this trait – and why would we want it to? Being fully human is also being part of the big animal family.

I do not think we are rational creatures, but regardless of that I’ve always rejected the tag of “thinking thing”. As sentient beings, I think we are far more than that.

Why Hate Hurts

Urban garden

A single flower can be my garden,
a single friend my world.
Leo Buscaglia

In Embracing fear I discussed the importance of accepting our emotions as they are. Yet our emotions do not come about entirely by chance.

Our reality is an inner stage representing the real world. We can see the glass as half-full or half-empty: one will tend to make us happy, the other anxious. I’m not talking about positive thinking, or trying to keep an unrealistically bright view of the world, but about thinking positively or looking on the bright side. Looking at the photo I can see a sorry excuse for a garden or someone’s personal little paradise – my choice.

This is especially important when we think about our relationships with others. The same interactions can be viewed in many different ways. Two people may have widely different ideas about their relationship with one another.

When I think about a person and our relationship, I am envisioning two little avatars on my own inner stage: a little “me” and a little “them”. All the thoughts and feelings I have about that person are messages in my brain, transmitters flooding my synapses, hormones coursing through my veins.

When I hate someone, I may do something to hurt or even kill them, but feeling the hatred makes me suffer, not them. By nourishing angry or hateful thoughts I am poisoning my own life. Why on earth would I want to do that? Conversely, when I feel kindness or compassion towards someone, endorphins flood my system.

Viewing our relationships with others through rose-tinted glasses would only create unrealistic expectations of their behaviour. But it’s a good idea to avoid nourishing grievances (Heresy n°2 helps) and to accept a share of the responsibility in a conflict. Not only can we then approach the other person more compassionately, we can also focus our attention the part in the relationship we have the power to change: our own. Denying responsibility always makes us powerless.

Let not the sun go down upon your wrath.
Eph. 4:26 KJV

If you want to be happy, practice compassion.
The Dalai Lama

Throughout history, spiritual teachers have advocated practicing compassion, tolerance,  forgiveness, and gratitude. Not because of any moral imperatives, not because we “should”, but because doing so will make us happier.

Self Construction

Urban Construction

It’s difficult to believe in yourself
because the idea of self
is an artificial construction.
You are, in fact,
part of the glorious oneness
of the universe.

Russell Brand

In an internet discussion earlier this week, I mentioned that I’ve never understood the discussion on selfish / altruistic behaviour, as everything we do is selfish (in the sense that we do it because we want to) and we show so-called altruistic behaviour because we are social animals. Being a social animal carries or is correlated with immense evolutionary advantages, e.g. it is needed for the ability to learn: longer learning phase for an animal means longer immaturity and thus need for parental or group protection.

I was non-plussed when someone answered, we might as well question the concept of self. Well, of course we should!

We have (or are) bodies, and I can move my hand by thinking about it, but not yours. If you have a toothache I may empathize, but it’s different from having one myself.  So far, so good, but usually that’s not what we mean by self. It’s much more … ethereal? … my thoughts, feelings, desires, and fears etc.

These needn’t be constant. What I think today, may not be what I thought yesterday. Tomorrow’s  desires may not the the same as today’s. If up to now I always turned left, there is no reason why I today I cannot go right if I really want to. Even at one moment in time, I may want to go jogging to improve my fitness, yet also feel far too tired or comfortable to do this now. But these are independent brain circuits, so why should  they agree?

So why do I feel “me”?

We see ourselves from an inside perspective, with our thoughts and feelings, others from an outside perspective, which creates a divide.
We remember the past in that same way. I  believe people who suffer from (total) memory loss have problems “identifying” with their past selves. In a small way we all experience this when we come across evidence of our own past we have no recollection of. Annotations, say, in a book we don’t remember even reading, though we recognise our own handwriting.
And when we think the same thought many times, it burns itself into our brain, and it’s hard to think differently the next time – I think this is what “habits” actually are, well-worn brain paths.
Our culture also reinforces the idea of self. We are taught to think: A is lazy. B is to blame. You have to be consistent.

And here the construct becomes dangerous. It is true that A, B, and I are physical units, that act in one way or another. But while I may not have access to the inner perspective of A and B the way I do to mine, I do know it’s there. When we ignore the fact that each individual acts in a context, we become selfish and judgmental. This leads to a feeling of isolation and a fragmented society.

When we practice compassion and see ourselves as connected with each other, the divide between self and other narrows, or even disappears (for advanced learners).

Like all my heresies, these ideas are not new, and this particular one was beautifully expressed by John Donne in Meditation XVII.

No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend’s or of thine own were: any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bells tolls; it tolls for thee.