Category Archives: Philosophy

Words of Advice for Future Residents of Spaceship Earth

1. People that are scared lose time worrying.

2. The best artists don’t know what they’ll do next.

3. The fearless see death as an eventuality that has already happened.

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Irrational Reason

What is rationalized is not always reasonable. What is justifiable is not always just.

In the early 1950’s, a Chicago-area cult named the Seekers believed they were able to communicate with aliens. Dorothy Martin, the group leader, would transcribe the cosmic communications through automatic writing.

While communicating, the aliens informed her the world would end catastrophically on Dec. 21, 1954. Several of the Seekers quit their jobs and sold their homes, expecting salvation from a flying saucer.

Dec. 21, 1954 came and went without ruin. The Seekers, who were so emotionally invested in a belief system that proved to be unequivocally wrong, struggled at first for an explanation. But rationalization soon occurred.

A new transmission from the aliens arrived declaring that Earth had been saved at the last minute as a result of the Seekers’ meditations the night of supposed destruction.

The Seekers, who were previously indifferent towards the press, began to urgently express their beliefs in public. Despite heavy criticism and mockery, the Seekers continued to believe in their alien deities. Ironically, the decimation of everything they believed allowed them to become even more confident of their beliefs.

As it turns out, logical conclusions are often illogical and inconclusive. Although the Seekers’ astral cult is an extreme example of self-delusion, many of us are guilty of our own convictions in half-truths.

Our minds tend to gravitate towards facts that agree with our beliefs, while dismissing other facts that conflict with our worldview. This occurs because our ability to reason is actually connected to our emotions. Positive or negative thoughts are formed about people, things or ideas within a matter of milliseconds, before we are even aware of it happening.

As we evolved in a hostile environment, we were required to make rapid decisions in order to survive. We now apply these fight or flight reflexes not only to physical danger, but to information as well.

That doesn’t mean that reason is completely driven by emotion. Reasoning just occurs after emotional judgments are calculated, which can lead down a path of biased thinking. Reasoning through emotional responses is what cultivates our values.

As we mature and our sense of self becomes more solidified, so do our values. We are less likely to alter our well-established perception of the world, especially about ideas we care about greatly.

Several psychologists have conducted studies regarding bias and fact. One study gathered a group of Republicans that believed Saddam Hussein and Al Qaeda were both linked to the 9/11 attacks.

The researchers cited the 9/11 commission report as well as President Bush’s own words – that he denied his administration had “said the 9/11 attacks were orchestrated between Saddam Hussein and Al Qaeda.”

Only 1 of 49 participants changed their mind regarding the Iraq-Al Qaeda link. The others either created counter arguments or flat out refused to believe the facts the researchers had presented.

Similar tests conducted regarding President Obama’s birth origin, climate change and vaccines produced very similar results.

It turns out that people will seek out information that confirms what they already believe – not a terrifically new concept.

Yet, in a world where it is increasingly easier to consume information based on our own unique and specific interests, perhaps our fight or flight survival skills are not well suited for the information age.

On an issue as important as climate change, it is frightening that a major indicator of whether or not you accept the science depends on your political party. What is even more frightening, according to a 2008 Pew survey, is that college-educated Republicans are less likely to agree that the planet is warming due to human action than non-college educated Republicans.

This means that despite facts, the more educated a person is, the more they will stand by their own value-based convictions. And instead of simply refusing to believe in facts, they are able to form arguments based on educated reasoning – no matter that this educated reasoning is irrational.

To be fair, Democrats can be equally blinded by their own passions. Many liberal leaders hold the belief that childhood vaccines are the cause of autism despite the fact that the researcher whose work was responsible for this assertion, Andrew Wakefield, lost his license to practice medicine because his autism research was heavily fabricated.

We all carry some bias when interpreting new information. What can be done to overcome such shades of perception? It is not wrong to dwell in the abstract world of emotions. But it is wrong to allow emotionally charged rationalizations to substitute fact based reasoning. Keep an open mind and don’t be afraid to be proven wrong, should such proof be based on measurable fact.

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Forever Machine

Technology has advanced rapidly in the last 10 to 20 years. A phone is now more capable of computing complex tasks than a computer was 15 years ago. Technology is becoming smaller, more efficient and more innovative.

Yet we continue to struggle to define the human experience in relation to the constant adaptation to technological development.

Ray Kurzweil, a futurist, author and inventor believes technology will change so swiftly in the next 25 years that average humans won’t be able to follow it unless they enhance their own intelligence by merging with technology.

Artificial intelligence, or synthetic consciousness, has been restricted to the realm of science fiction in the past. However, according to the books Kurzweil has written and the documentary “Transcendental Man,” in which Kurzweil’s life and ideas are highlighted, the science of artificial intelligence will be non-fiction in the near future.

Kurzweil believes that technology is evolving so quickly that humans may even one day conquer death by transcending our biological limitations. He calls this phenomenon The Singularity.

Human intelligence will surpass our current imagination of what is even possible. There will be a dawning of a new civilization where there will be no clear distinction between human and machine. The line between actual reality and virtual reality will become obscure.

Admittedly, Kurzweil’s ideas are pretty far out. They almost don’t even seem worth considering, but his vision of the future is rather optimistic. He believes the merging of human and artificial intelligence will lead to solving global problems like pollution, hunger, poverty and illness.

Artificial intelligence has already proven to be superior in the realm of trivia and general knowledge as the world watched IBM’s artificial intelligence computer system “Watson” defeat Jeopardy! champions Brad Rutter and Ken Jennings. But will artificial intelligence ever be able to reason or be creative without human interference?

This is all very exciting and groundbreaking fodder for thought. But a big part of me worries that hoping technology will provide solutions to global problems is like hoping to regain vision by wearing glasses when you’re already blind.

Granted, technology could solve global problems. But currently, this idea is only a hopeful approximation. Global problems need solutions now. By looking so far into the future, we forget about the present.

Climate change is the most urgent problem this world faces. Science demonstrates that technology has done little to nothing to relieve the risks of global warming. Instead, technology has intensified the problem.

Carbon emissions have spiked dramatically since the industrial revolution. And now that other heavily populated countries like China and India are becoming increasingly more industrialized, driving more autos and utilizing higher rates of electricity, global carbon emissions will continue to climb.

To exaggerate the positive possibilities of technology is delusional when it is clear that technology as it exists today is detrimental to the Earth and convoluting the human experience.

Cell phones allow immediate communication with others all over the world, yet they are conversation blockers to those who are physically present.

Video games allow an escape into a fantasy world where virtually anything is possible, yet they simulate real life activities and render physical presence inconsequential.

Film and television are reality substitutes, numbing the public mind and manipulating public discourse.

The Internet has become a second brain, relieving the burden of remembering facts and events, making it all too feasible to rewrite history.

Of course, if we look at the other side of the coin, technology has provided numerous gifts and has greatly advanced the development of civilization. Without electricity, penicillin or wireless technology, the world would be a very different place. There are always positive sides to any negative side. It is important to always consider both.

One thing is clear – as a species we have lost our connection to the Earth. I am sure there are not many people that could walk outside and identify five edible plants. In the room you are sitting there may not even be one object that is completely natural.

We live in an increasingly synthetic world and Kurzweil believes, we will see rapid changes in the near future regarding our relationship with technology. But we must not let ourselves become completely detached from the Earth.

Perhaps humans will evolve and merge with technology to form a new consciousness, as Kurzweil contends. But it seems unimaginable to live forever as a synthetic being. I cannot even begin to perceive what that would be like. I think I would rather die on Earth than live forever as a ghost in the machine.

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Saturated Superstition

Many people have irrational superstitions, even if they don’t like to admit it. A broken mirror, a black cat, the number 13 and opening an umbrella indoors are all common signs of alleged imminent misfortune.

No matter how absurd some superstitions may seem, they are prevalent across world cultures. Even people who claim to be pure logical thinkers inevitably act in irrational ways according to some unexplainable superstition.

Ahchoo, “God bless you.” This custom comes from the idea that when you sneeze a part of your soul flies out. Assumedly, not many people hold on to this belief. Rather, most just practice it to be courteous.

Superstitions provide a window into the past where people struggled to find meaning in the world around them. Understanding how these superstitions reverberate today allows insight into what people of previous lifetimes were concerned about and valued.

Spilled salt is a symbol of bad luck because long ago salt was a precious commodity used to preserve and season food. Wasting something so valuable would have been regarded as a sin of carelessness. People thought the sin of spilled salt would attract the devil and so they would throw a pinch of salt over their shoulder into the devil’s eyes to neutralize bad luck.

A superstition still believed by some remote cultures of the world is that a photograph captures your soul, or part of it at least. In such a camera saturated world this idea is either absurd or frightening, depending on whichever you believe.

When the camera was first created this superstition was more widespread. Several Native American tribes refused to be photographed. Likewise in Africa and South America. The belief is based on the idea that a photograph is more than merely a representation of one’s own image. It is a part of oneself, linked to the soul. It is a moment in time, a subtle essence of oneself captured and then reproduced.

Of course, I do not believe in this superstition, but I do find it interesting to see how much attitudes toward the camera have evolved since its creation and how it has affected the world in the process.

Cameras were once extremely bulky, requiring tripods and needing considerable time to elapse before an image could be captured. It was once a status symbol to have your portrait taken and displayed in your home.

Toady, nearly every cell phone has a camera. Whereas film cameras are mainly used by hobbyists or artists — digital cameras allow pictures to be uploaded to the Internet and sent anywhere in the world instantaneously.

Beyond still photographs, video is easily accessible and producible as well. YouTube allows anyone and everyone to claim their 15 minutes of fame, as Andy Warhol predicted.

When I go to check my email on Yahoo, I can’t help glancing across the page at the mish—mash of media and advertisements. In the bottom corner, there is always some inane video. I occasionally click on it out of curiosity or boredom.

It is typically some amateur video of a dog running into a wall or a celebrity saying something out of line, but recently it was a video of Good Morning America hosts talking about a YouTube video sensation that had spread rapidly across the web. I clicked on it hoping to be amused and saw a little baby shifting between terror and laughter at his mother blowing her nose.

Sure, it was cute, but it seemed strange for this video to have gained such prominence as to warrant a segment on Good Morning America.

It is great to share the joys of life. But is there a point where too much sharing is problematic? Do the joys of our own life diminish if we become so taken with the joys of other people’s lives we see on the Internet? Do amazing moments like a high school kid throwing a basketball at the buzzer across the full court and scoring the winning basket become less amazing if we see it happen more often through the Internet?

I do not adhere to the superstition that cameras capture our soul. But perhaps we are loosing something of ourselves by becoming so immersed in the lives of others, while neglecting our own potentials.

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Elusive Beauty

Beauty has been an obsession throughout centuries.

In the American dilemma today beauty has become cheapened, afflicted and exhausted. Advertisements sell impossible ambitions. Television and films promote flawlessness. And gorgeous skinny models impart an absurd standard.

In the American chasm of cultural dissonance plastic surgery, eating disorders, liposuctions, tanning salons and weight loss pills have filled the gap between self-identity and the need to be accepted. The ideal image of beauty in American culture is harming our national psyche as well as our physical bodies. Yet this detrimental image of beauty persists.

In other parts of the world the appearance of beauty takes on a much different form. Although in several cultures there is an element of pain involved in acquiring a beautiful image, it is less a matter of a choice and more an obligation to custom.

The women of the Mursi tribe in Africa pierce their bottom lip at a young age and stretch it in order to place a plate inside the opening. The bigger the lip plate, the more desirable they are to men.

The women of the Kayan tribe who live near Thailand believe that long necks are beautiful. They wrap copper rings around their neck in order to stretch it throughout their lifetime. The copper rings end up pushing their shoulders down, deforming their collarbone and compressing their rib cage, ultimately creating the illusion of a long neck.

Women of the Amazon tribes pierce their bodies and use plants and animal blood to paint their faces with tribal patterns.

The Maori people of New Zealand tattoo their bodies and faces as a sacred ritual. They believe that women are more attractive when their lips and chins are tattooed. These facial tattoos also reveal a woman’s lineage, special skills and marital status.

Whether it is the Mursi lip plates, ancient Chinese foot binding or modern stiletto heels, it appears people across cultures are willing to endure pain for beauty. The need to feel appreciation and belonging is universal. As a result, people comply with the cultural standards of beauty defined by their community.

Science, however, explains that physical beauty is a product of symmetry – the spacing and alignment of facial features and body parts. An infant will gaze at a picture of a symmetrical face longer than an oddly formed face because the symmetrical face is more pleasing.

In the appearance obsessed Western cultures, plastic surgery is able to modify physical features in order to appear more pleasing. This can have both positive and negative effects. In the case of a minor deformity or car accident, plastic surgery can greatly improve a person’s self-confidence and ability to be socially outgoing. However, the idea that plastic surgery can solve someone’s problems can become a detrimental psychological affliction.

Western media has inflamed a paradoxical beauty mania. Women strive to imitate the rail thin bodies that radiate from television screens, yet America is headed toward an obesity epidemic. There is a daunting gap between the cultural ideal of beauty and the reality of the American physique. This has contributed to an increase in depression, eating disorders and low self-esteem.

Beauty can be a monster – a neurotic, mutation of cultural impulses. Beauty can also be an idiosyncratic algorithm – a peculiar variable of personal preferences.

At its best, beauty is a celebration. From a Brazilian Txikao warrior painted in leopard like spots to Madonna in a pointy bra, it is humanity shedding its everyday skin for a chance to revel in the attire of a more powerful, radiant, sexy being.

At its worst, beauty victimizes. It causes trauma to and discrimination against those who look different than the socially acceptable norm.

When we move away from bodily beauty and toward the philosophical pursuit of aesthetics, beauty becomes even more difficult to define.

What is beautiful is good, Plato once wrote. James Joyce argued that true beauty causes aesthetic arrest. That is, true beauty neither pulls nor pushes. Rather, it causes a stillness of appreciation – an experience of simply beholding an object.

In his poem Ode on a Grecian Urn, Keats wrote, “beauty is truth, truth beauty.”

But perhaps Voltaire made the most sense when he argued that because of its relativist nature, beauty is not just difficult, but impossible to define.

A toad sees beauty in a flat nose and a nice hop. A donkey prefers a donkey and a pig prefers a pig. Whether beauty has a common core or not, the argument will persist between objective and subjective thought.

But above all beauty should be seen as a reinvention to be taken lightly – a mystical transformation of temporary pleasure. Beautification should be an enjoyable experience, not an impossible apex.

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Psychic Potential

Most scientists are quick to deny that humans are capable of psychic powers. There simply is no significant evidence to indicate that psychic abilities are real.

Yet, according to a 2005 Gallop Poll, three out of four Americans believe in paranormal activity such as extrasensory perception (ESP), ghosts, telepathy, clairvoyance and astrology.

Personally, I don’t put too much stock in my horoscope, but I am open-minded to the possibilities of the paranormal. I think science can explain a lot, but it can’t explain everything – at least not yet. Science is constantly playing catch-up to the puzzling mysteries of the expanding universe.

Scientists once believed that the sun revolved around the Earth. This was accepted as common knowledge and anyone suggesting otherwise was considered crazy or persecuted as a heretic. It took considerable time, study and argumentation before this geocentric fallacy could be disproved.

Nearly everything can be explained through science. It’s just that some things take longer to figure out. The nature of consciousness and psychic abilities are two such enigmatic realms of thought.

I recently attended a lecture and received a free ten-minute psychic reading by a soft-spoken, self-proclaimed clairvoyant gentleman.

He began his lecture by discussing archetypes, which are models or specific forms of human behavior. According to Jungian psychology, archetypes are primitive mental images inherited from the earliest human ancestors.

Some examples are the one who is about to drown and is saved. Or the one who only plays games they know they can win.

There are numerous archetypes and they are typically metaphorical, but can be as literal as the one who loves to eat. According to the clairvoyant’s lecture, everyone operates based on a combination of archetypes.

Archetypes inherently exist in the sub-conscious, where mental phenomena propel people to act without their knowledge.

By becoming aware of the unconscious archetypes that play an active role in one’s behavior, personal growth is made more possible, the clairvoyant reasoned.

With total confidence the clairvoyant went on to discuss his ability to see charkas, which are centers of spiritual energy located in the body. Chakras are a part of Hindu belief, but psychics often incorporate them into their practices.

There are believed to be seven chakras; six are vertically aligned along the spinal cord and the seventh is located above the crown of the head.

In ascending order, the chakras correspond to an individual’s relationship to the Earth, sex drive, emotions/intuition, ability to love, communication, psychic ability and connection to god.

Depending on the person, some chakras are more open than others. According to the clairvoyant, these centers of energy, along with archetypal sources, influence a person’s mental state.

After meditating consistently throughout his life, the clairvoyant decided to teach a meditation workshop. While meditating in a group he realized he was able to receive information about those meditating around him. He was hesitant to ask those in the group if his perceptions were correct, but he eventually confirmed that he did have psychic abilities.

Since then he has been improving his extrasensory perception skills. Allegedly, he can see which chakras are open in an individual and understand the energy sources at work within the chakras. By understanding a person’s chakras he is able to see what archetypes are operating within their consciousness. He claimed to have helped many people through his perceptions.

There was really no way to prove or disprove any of this. But I was curious to see what would happen in my ten-minute psychic reading.

I sat down in a private room. The clairvoyant sat across from me with remarkable concentration. After about a minute of focused meditation he proceeded to tell me surprisingly accurate information about myself. He explained personal conflicts I was having and detailed personality traits of mine.

I know there are several scamming psychics who make vague observations out there. When it comes to ESP, credibility is hard to judge before making the financial investment in receiving a reading.

Despite all the horrible stories I’ve heard about phony psychics, this clairvoyant actually seemed genuine and compassionate.

Of course, it’s difficult to determine the difference between how much I wanted to believe the self-proclaimed clairvoyant had psychic abilities and his ability to theatrically perform. Regardless, I was impressed by my experience.

Belief in psychic powers date back to ancient times. Astrological fortune-telling, Greek mythology, tribal shamen, Alexander the Great, Nostradamus, Edgar Cayce and even United States presidents have contributed in some way to the tapestry of psychic history.

Science has come a long way and has explained many previously unexplainable phenomena. But there will always be the realm of the unknown, the realm of possibility.

There is no scientific evidence of God, Allah, Vishnu, Yahweh, Jah or whatever you want to call it. Believing in God or an afterlife is suspending the constructs of definitive reality.

For whatever reason, people believe in things they cannot prove. Perhaps this is a result of a need for life meaning or perhaps such beliefs are based on experiences of higher consciousness. Either way, there is room for skepticism.

Science has given us instruments by which we can measure things our senses cannot consistently and accurately account. Yet we must rely on our senses to interpret the information such instruments gather.

For such a mysterious, constantly expanding universe, science is such a finite practice. Perhaps science has such a difficult time defining the obscurities of consciousness because consciousness, like the universe, is limitless.

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Machine God

In the Rivera court of the Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA) I was amazed by the artistic vision encompassed in the work that surrounded me. The 27-panel, four-wall mural titled Detroit Industry absolutely captivated my imagination.

In 1933, Edsel Ford, son of Henry Ford, commissioned the controversial Mexican artist Diego Rivera to paint a mural on two walls of the DIA depicting the spirit of Detroit autoworkers. After Rivera had spent time observing autoworkers in Mich., he excitedly proposed covering every wall in the courtyard with his mural.

I had little knowledge of the man or his work beforehand. Fortunately, the DIA offered free iPad tours of the mural, which I was somewhat skeptical of at first. I didn’t like the idea of staring at an iPad when I could be immersing myself in the line, color and shape of the beautiful artwork that whorled around me.

Yet, after handing my I.D. over in exchange for Apple’s latest sensation, I was happily surprised by my virtual tour. In fact, I couldn’t help but notice how my experience of the artwork, aided by a technological device, reflected one of several themes present in Rivera’s mural, the relationship between humans and technology.

Detroit autoworkers are depicted at work, in rhythm with factory machines. The back and forth of the assembly line directs the eye of the viewer in and out of the mural.

A large stamping press appears on one of the main panels. It towers above all the workers in the factory, symbolizing more than a machine that stamps large pieces of metal into auto body parts.

Without taking the iPad tour, I would have never realized that Rivera drew from his expansive cultural knowledge when he associated the stamping press with the Aztec deity Coatlicue.

Coatlicue was the goddess of birth, death, regeneration and war. To Rivera, this deity represented a full range of contradictory potential.

By infusing the imagery of the stamping press with the Aztec goddess, Rivera was commenting on the power machines have over people.

Aztecs believed that Coatlicue had to be fed with human blood for the world to remain in harmony. In Rivera’s mural the stamping press is shown being powered by human energy. Rivera was suggesting that humans have replaced old gods with new, industrial deities. The irony being that man created machines, yet machines end up pontificating human life.

As I learned about Rivera’s intention of showing the conflict between man and technology by interacting with a 21st century technological device, I wondered what he would have thought about such a powerful handheld computer. There I was holding one of this century’s most stunning inventions, gawking at one of last century’s most impressive artistic achievements.

Throughout the mural, technology is shown in both positive and negative light. In one example a passenger airplane is depicted as an exciting new way for people to travel across the world. Yet in juxtaposition, warplanes are painted on the opposing panel, with men standing beneath wearing gas masks.

Another wall depicts a modern nativity scene. An infant receives a vaccination from a doctor as a nurse stands by. Three scientists stand behind them working on an experiment. Animals appear in the foreground. Clearly, the infant represents Jesus, the doctor is Joseph and the nurse symbolizes Mary. The scientists are the three wise men. The animals are not rendered any differently then they appear in the original nativity scene. However, in this case the animals represent the source of the vaccination serum.

When the mural opened to the public, clergy members bemoaned the nativity scene was sacrilegious.

But Rivera meant it to be a statement of hope. He saw technology as both good and evil. Science was making beneficial advancements for humanity, especially in the medical field. Rivera meant to drain the nativity image of its old meaning and infuse it with new meaning in the context of 20th century faith in science.

Seventy-eight years later, science has made strides beyond Diego Rivera’s imagination. But as I stood there surrounded by his murals, I realized that many of the problems depicted in the mural are still present today.

There is division between wealthy and poor. Natural resources are depleted in order to build machines that end up dictating human behavior. And humans continue incomprehensibly to wage war.

Technology has given us the ability to save lives, communicate instantly, decode DNA, view other galaxies in space, and clone animals. Technology has made it possible to blow up the world many times over with nuclear bombs.

Technology is neither good nor evil. It is man made and it reflects the impulses of its creator. Rivera was brilliant in making the connection between the stamping press and the Aztec goddess Coatlicue. Just as Coatlicue embodied possibilities of contradiction, so does technology. Both are only as powerful as humans believe them to be.

Technology, like religion, encompasses all the potential of a complex creature on the course of evolution.

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