To be, or not to be

Pink or purple?

Yesterday I wrote about the SEP article on existence. Today I’ll describe what I think it means to say something exists, and what that implies for “reality“.

All the world’s a stage

When we think about the world, we have an image in our minds, though it’s not necessarily visual. I think of this as our inner or mental stage. It can become a blasted heath, the banquet hall in Hogwarts, the office, or our dream holiday location: let’s call these different sets. When we imagine something or someone to be “there”, we add a placeholder or avatar on our stage to that particular set (e.g. “blasted heath”) with mental notes describing the properties we attribute to that object or person.

A placeholder for a chair may have notes like: can sit on this, stand on it to reach top shelf, take it apart and throw in fire (n.b. owner might not like this), best not collide with it, as may hurt.

Let us say something exists with these properties relative to a mental set if adding the mental placeholder and notes there leads to good results, i.e. accurate predictions and appropriate actions. If I walk into the chair, I’ll hurt myself, just as I thought, and hopefully avoid it in future.

Appropriate properties are needed for these predictions: if I believe the bugblatter beast makes a good meal for tourists, rather than of tourists, our poor hitchhiker may well get eaten.

Both properties and existence belong to their mental set. When Harry Potter grabs his broomstick (note: it flies!), I’ll know what to expect, even though I’m aware my own broomstick can’t do that. And I can talk about Harry Potter, although I know he’s a fictional character.

Say thy opinion

For some things, we all agree they exist in this sense.

I’ve never met anyone who chooses to sit down just beside the chair rather than on it. I’m not talking about metaphysical beliefs. You may believe the world is an illusion; you’ll still take care to sit in the place where-the-chair-isn’t. That’s because if you step out in front of the tram you don’t believe exists, or walk off the roof you believe is an illusion, even once, I’ll never meet you.

For other things, it’s not quite as clear.

I accept that protons, electrons, and photons exist in this sense because the predictions based on them seem fairly accurate to me. I’m not sure what a photon is exactly, as it’s one of these strange things that is sort-of-a-wave and sort-of-a-particle, but I’m happy to stick a mental toothpick in my stage set for the “real world” with notes like: flies around, lets me see things, best not worry about it too much.

Some people think they see things just because those things are there. These people don’t feel the need to allow for weird things like photons and say, “mmm, whatever” – like I do when the physicists start talking superstrings.

It’s when we consider supernatural entities, e.g. God, that things get complicated.

For some people, God is an integral part of their life. They agree you can’t touch him like a chair, but they “feel” him, talk to him etc. They have a God-placeholder in their world, with varying properties depending on their particular faith, and that works just fine for them.

Others cannot imagine a world with God in it. When they  try to put a God-placeholder on their mental stage, it leads to all kinds of contradictions, and is generally unpleasant – so they remove it, and are completely happy without it.

Airy nothing

As both mental worlds work well, I believe both views, both truths, are equally valid. Whether or not you believe God exists*, you can come to a working view of the world – though the two will be rather different. And questions about truth aside, you may like one of these worlds better than the other.

*Caveat: I am talking only about the claim that God exists, not about claims concerning creation or miracles.

Now, on my mental stage there isn’t a place for God.

In my view, people who believe that morality comes from God are in fact creating their own morality. They pick which Bible stories to use and which to ignore for deciding what is right or good. And then they attribute this to God because having a clear moral authority makes them feel more comfortable than believing they have to make things up as they go along. But this line of reasoning is in my head. On my mental stage. With the placeholders and properties I put there.

I assume that conversely, people who believe in God think I’ve somehow derived my morality from God and just don’t realise it. On their inner stage the set for “the real world” looks quite different from mine.

To conclude with truth

I wish we could all accept that there is no absolute truth, no final answer to questions about concepts and supernatural entities!

If people from all sides accepted this, maybe we could stop arguing about who is right, and try to find common ground. On how to live together, on how to make this world a better place. Regardless of whether we believe in another one. O brave new world.


The quotes: 01, 02, 03, 04, 05, 06.

Next week I want to write on why hate hurts – a continuation of Heresy n°3.

Good Samaritans?


We tend to see actions of others in terms of their characters. An action to us seems to prove someone is kind, or courageous, or selfish. We rarely stop to think about what situation the person is in.

Perhaps one of the most important experiments on human behaviour ever done is Darley & Batson 1973. It suggests that whether or not we help someone in need depends more on what that means to our current situation – in this case the test subjects were in a hurry – than whether or not we are “kind” or “helpful” people.

If we could stop judging people by their actions, and try instead to understand why they act as they do, it could be a whole new world. 

A glorious blaze
Trees are one of my favourite subjects.

Responsibility vs. Blame

I’ve argued before that we are pulled in many different ways by our feelings and needs, and that we do not consciously choose our actions. Also, believing that somebody deliberately chose to act badly is what triggers anger, hatred and blame.

– Heresy n°2 –

Everyone is always doing their best.

While I characterise it as a heresy, it’s not exactly a new idea. Many people reject it because thy are afraid that if noone is to blame for their actions, we will lose any kind of morality, and the basis for social order. In one sense this is true: our current societies are based on blame, and that does go out the window. At the same time we can easily replace it with something better: responsibility.

Blaming is about looking backward, about judging and finding a guilty party. Responsibility looks forward: it is our common responsibility to find a way of living together in peace. Blame is divisive, responsibility binds us together.


Adopting Heresy n°2 means we can think in terms of incentives and deterrents. These don’t depend on free will: if an action is connected to a cost or benefit, this becomes a factor in the unconscious decision making process, and influences our behaviour. And we can think about influencing behaviour much more clearly without the fog of concepts like blameworthiness, and just deserts.

Have you ever found yourself defending your own behaviour, although, in your heart of hearts, you were unhappy with it yourself? When we play the blame-game, we are automatically creating opposition. When we say “you are a bad person” to someone, it’s not really surprising that they push back. Suppose instead we say: “I understand you had a good reason to act as you did, at the same time I really don’t like what you did, maybe you aren’t completely happy with it either?” Then maybe together with that person we can find ways to help them act differently in the future, or to prevent the negative consequences of such actions.

Most important of all, when we adopt the idea that everyone is always doing their best we can stop wrestling in our minds with what we think is going on in someone else’s head. Have you ever found yourself repeating an argument you had with someone? Have you ever found yourself wanting to “teach someone a lesson”, or to “show them how it feels”? This is all unpleasant, and it’s not about what really happened, but about what you think is going on inside the other person’s head. When you accept that that person did not choose to act as they did, you can let it go.

Personal slant

There are many ways of expressing Heresy n°2., e.g. “Everyone is acting the only way they can act in the situation as they see it.” I prefer my version “Everyone is always doing their best” because I find it emotionally more appealing. The positive slant makes it easier for me to feel compassion with someone whose actions are getting on my nerves. Of course, everyone is free to find their own way of putting it.

A final test

If you think: “Well that’s all very nice, but it’s not really true, is it?” try this test. Think of something bad that you’ve done, something you are really unhappy with in retrospect. Were you happy and relaxed that day? Was the sun shining, the sky blue, and did you decide to do something bad just for the hell of it?  Or were you under pressure, stressed out, exhausted, afraid, or hurt? Was this something you did because you saw no other way, or you just couldn’t help yourself?

I think you will find that at that moment, under those circumstances you did the best you could, however miserable that best may have been. Now, if you claim this compassion for yourself: how can you deny it to anyone else?

Voices in My Head

I want to sit down and write this post. At the same I really don’t feel like it at the moment, I’d much rather go on watching…Dr.Who, I’m afraid. But I do really want to write these Heresy posts. After all, that was why I started this blog.

Is this inconsistent of me? Yes, it is. We humans are inconsistent. All the time. But for some reason, we’ve learnt to pretend we are consistent. I’m sure psychologists have a name for it. It’s also held up to us as some kind of value and we tend to be embarrassed about being inconsistent.

When we look at it closely, though, there is absolutely no reason why we should be consistent. Our minds are made of millions and millions of brain circuits, which are more or less independent of one another. It is inevitable that conflicting emotions, desires, fears, and needs  coexist in my brain and pull me in different directions all the time.

The point I want to make today is that we need to listen to these conflicting thoughts. It is not a good idea to sweep any of them under the carpet. We don’t need to act on all of them, indeed we cannot, as there are far too many. But give them some space, allow them to be there. Each thought is a part of me, I want to honour every one. They do not all go together: I want to accept, that I cannot follow all of them.

Peace and quiet

If I consider each of these impulses as an interested party, and let each of them have their say, they also listen to each other. Then maybe an amicable agreement can be reached among them about what I am actually going to do. This may sound slightly loony, but I believe it is a better way of making choices, than by filtering the impulses, i.e. suppressing some at the start, or by sitting in judgement over them: which are worthy, unworthy, important, or not.

I cannot follow all impulses, but when I do act, I act as one physical human being, and I carry all the “dissenting” brain circuits with me. So if any one of them feels too unhappy about what I’m doing, chances are that they’ll let me know. Dealing gently with them to start with – giving them space and allowing sadness over the fact that I cannot act on all of them –  can minimise how badly the “dissenting circuits”, and therefore I, feel.

So no: I am not calling myself lazy because I want to go on watching Dr. Who. Or a spoilsport for wanting to get some writing done. I simply have different needs: one for relaxation and fun, one for putting some ideas down in writing, maybe gaining some clarity for myself. They are all good, all part of me. And I am quite happy with the compromise of jotting down a draft now, and doing a drawing and some polishing tomorrow.

No unhappy circuits for now. Let’s see how the doctor is getting on.

P.S. If I accept the thoughts, all of them, then I just may get the internal chatter to quiet down a bit. If I start censoring, I’m only going to get into an argument with myself – and that’s a sure lose-lose.

Embracing Fear

I am scared. I’m having surgery, and it’s really making me nervous. I’m currently sorting mail from 2009, it’s that bad. Normally my filing is chronological (with some local turbulence, where I had to root around in the pile to find something).

A few weeks ago I spoke to a colleague who was also having surgery, and she seemed very relaxed about it. It wasn’t anything major, but then I’m not getting a heart transplant either. And she’s always moving so fast, perhaps she never stops long enough to be scared. Or maybe she just didn’t like to say.

It did make me wonder: are other people less afraid than I am? Or are they just better at hiding their fear, or ignoring it? And is that a good thing?

– Heresy n°3 –

Emotions are an essential part of our being. To accept ourselves is to notice our feelings and to accept them.

We are taught to reject all our negative emotions, to suppress them, to ignore them, or to distract ourselves from them. Don’t worry. Don’t be sad. Don’t be afraid. Cheer up. It’ll be alright, I promise. How often have we heard these phrases?

But when I am afraid, or I am sad: that’s me. You’re telling me not to be myself. At the same time all these things are meant kindly. What they mean is: “I can see that you are sad/scared/… and that makes me sad/upset… because your happiness is important to me. I would like to help you feel better.”

Sweeping our negative emotions under the carpet guarantees that they stay with us. In order to let them go, we need to walk through them, to let them be there. In other words: it’s OK to be sad, or afraid.

The other day the fear was even worse, and I took the time to sit down and feel it. I even allowed myself to realise that I can still call the whole thing off if that’s what I want. At the same time the alternatives are not that great. For now, I’m OK with doing it.

Am I still scared? Sure: I dare to be scared.

And I may even get that pile of letters cleaned up.

Thought Experiment on Anger

Why is the free-will question so important, especially if reality is bunk, anyway? Do this thought experiment:

Step 1: Choose a situation in your life, where someone made you really angry. Angry, not devastated; no murders etc.

Don’t read on until you’ve chosen. “Person A did X, and that really pissed me off.”

Continue reading Thought Experiment on Anger

Why God Invented Free Will

What is free will, anyway? Here some ways of seeing it._____

Free decision _____
“If we went back to a situation and faced it again, we could go another way.”
This is simply meaningless. As Heraclitus already knew, you cannot bathe in the same river twice._____

Unpredictability _____
“Before we decide, it could go either way.”
Recent findings suggest that someone looking at your brain can see what you will decide, before you become aware of it.
More relevantly, simple factors are good predictors of our lives._____

Changeability _____
“If we go through the same type of situations again and again, we can make different decisions.”
No, we can’t. No matter how badly we want to change our behaviour, as long as the situations remain the same (for us), we tend to make the same bad decisions over and over.
What we can do, is change the situation. Often by changing the way we think about it. Therapy types that change how we think about a situation are the ones that seem to be most helpful. ___

Harm avoiders ____
“We can take measures to avoid bad things we see coming.”
Undoubtedly. In fact, we cannot do otherwise.
Call that freedom? Prisoners of the world: you are free. Well, free to remain in your cells.

Manual override 
Why do we actually want free will? Who wants to bother with all the little stuff: breathe in, breathe out, lift foot, blink eyes…?
What we want, is to have the power to make the big decisions. Especially when our actions seem to go against what we think we want. Then we want a “manual override” button, to do as we choose.

We are simply not aware of many of the factors going into the decision making process. An override button might do more harm than good. Anyway, why should our conscious self be allowed to skew the decision in its favour?

But it feels like I’m deciding 
Someone told Wittgenstein that people had thought the sun revolves around the earth “because it looked that way”. He is said to have asked: “But how would it have looked if the earth revolved around the sun?”
Now, how would it feel if you were not consciously deciding? Of course, “you” do decide. It’s just not a part of you that is in the spotlight of conscious awareness.

Where does that leave us?

Our decision making process is largely an unconscious one. Our cognitive brain may be asked for an analysis of the situation, but that’s it. Our conscious justifications come after the fact. There is an “out”: when we are too unhappy with our decision making, this triggers conscious reflection and we can take steps to improve.

German philosopher Schmidt-Salomon says: we are free to act according to our desires, but not free to choose what we desire (here).
Good enough for me.