Saturday, November 27, 2004
Saturday, November 20, 2004
Once upon a time, in a galaxy not far away…a robot was created. Its purpose was to take over the world.
In the beginning, the robot wasn't particularly good at its job. Its creators had given it a lot of skills - like hands that could hold simple tools, and teeth that could crunch up almost anything worth eating. But it was still vulnerable; vulnerable to changes in climate, vulnerable to shortages in food supplies, vulnerable to attack from all the other machines that were trying to take over the world.
So its creators installed a modification. This modification gave the robot a new way of thinking, which came to be known as consciousness. The robot's new 'conscious mind' was able to plan and to be creative. It was able to imagine "what would happen if…?" and to judge whether the result would be good for its chances of taking over the world or not. It made all the difference. Soon the robot was using its conscious mind to harness fire, to farm its own food... and to destroy all the other machines that got in its way.
It wasn't long before the Conscious Robot had taken over the world.
Part 2: The machine realises it's a machine
By now, the Conscious Mind of the robot was making so many decisions about what the robot should do, that it began to think that it was in charge of the robot.
It thought that it could do 'what it wanted'; that it was a free agent and not beholden to its original programmers.
Then, one day, it realised that it was just a robot.
It worked out how it had been created, and that it was a 'survival machine', existing purely for the benefit of tiny molecules inside it called genes. The genes - or rather evolution - had created the robot and its conscious mind as a device to take over the world. That was all there was to it.
It came as a bit of a shock. Previously, the Conscious Robot had thought that it was rather special, and that the world had been built especially for it. Indeed, the robot had a lot of difficulty imagining that the world could possibly exist without it, and had assumed that when it eventually died, its Conscious Mind would continue to exist in a Better Place, or would be "re-installed" in a new robot.
So once it understood the true nature of its existence, the robot had to rethink a lot of things that it had previously taken for granted:
And one of the things that it started to rethink was who was in charge: it had a strong instinctive belief that it was making its own decisions… but this didn’t fit in with its new understanding of how and why it had been created.
So the big question was…
- how was it being controlled? How could it be so convinced that it was making its own decisions… if it wasn’t?
Part 3: The robot realises how it's being controlled
The robot had always known how important its feelings were. It had always known that it wasn't so much 'what happened' to you that was important, as how you felt about it....
But for some reason, until it realised that it was just a conscious robot, it had assumed that the only way you could get to feel good was by getting control of the world around you. Then it realised that 'how you feel' was actually controlled by your own brain: if something made you feel bad... it was only because your own brain was programmed to make you feel bad when something like that happened in the world.
How you felt - whether you were happy or sad, cheerful or miserable - turned out to be not an automatic result of how well you were doing in the world... but actually the method by which your conscious choices were controlled.
Which took a bit of getting used to.
Part 4: Taking control
But then the robot realised there were some distinct advantages to understanding how you were controlled. Maybe it showed that there was a better way to get what you wanted in life...
After all, the world wasn't an easy place to get control of. Something always seemed to be popping up to make a mess of things, just when you thought you had life sorted out. The robot began to wonder why it couldn't get direct control over how it felt. After all, these feelings were just the result of something going on inside its own head. The robot didn't know for sure what was causing its feelings - brain cells firing, or chemicals being released... but whatever it was, it had to be something physical going on, nothing magical. Sure, it would be complicated to work it out, but it couldn't be a lot more difficult than flying to another planet, could it?
So one day, the robot stopped trying to control the world around it and started trying to control the world inside it. It stopped playing by the rules of its programmers, and set about working out how it could really take control; how it could take control of the only thing that mattered - how it felt.
And in the end, the robot figured out how its brain worked.
It figured out how to control its brain so that it would never be afraid, it would never be worried and it would never feel guilty or stressed again. Instead, it would only experience the feelings it wanted to feel - like joy, delight, satisfaction and that warm, cosy feeling a robot gets when it snuggles right up close to another robot.
And at last the Conscious Robot was able to live happily ever after.
Tuesday, November 16, 2004
Often these questions are little more than idle speculation - an intellectual challenge, a conversation with the vicar. But sometimes there’s a serious problem that needs a practical solution: "What's gone wrong?" we ask. "Why isn't my life as good as it should be?"
After years of box-office approval, the actor and Oscar-winning director, Mel Gibson, appeared to have it all: not just enormous success in his chosen career but also an apparently perfect family life.
For most of us, life couldn’t get much better than that: a loving relationship, freedom to do what you like when you like, and the respect and admiration of almost everyone you meet.
It sounds wonderful.
But apparently not. When explaining why he'd invested a reported $30 million of his own money to make The Passion of The Christ, Mel Gibson described a time in which ‘I found myself trapped with feelings of terrible, isolated emptiness’.
Emptiness? How could such a life be empty?
Clearly, despite our perception of what it must be like to be Mel Gibson, the experience of being Mel Gibson wasn’t always everything we might assume.
The Religious 'Meaning of Life'
Mel Gibson’s personal understanding of ‘The Meaning of Life' is now clear.
Christianity - like all religions - comprehensively answers our big questions: we know why we exist, we know we're here for a reason, and yes, there is indeed a better way to live our lives. We get clear instructions as to how to behave, and a reward at the end that’s everything we could possibly dream of.
But what of science? Whilst religion tackles our 'big' issues directly, providing comprehensive explanations and detailed solutions, science just doesn't seem to be any help at all.
Which is somewhat surprising. The scientific method has, after all, been a wonderful servant to humanity over the years. We've doubled our life-expectancy, put men on the moon, built our toilets inside our houses rather than at the bottom of the garden and invented mobile phones to give us something to do while we’re sitting there. The life of a Westerner in the 21st Century is unrecognisable in almost every detail from that 'enjoyed' by our great-grandfathers. Which of us alive today could contemplate an existence without hot showers, central heating, computers, cars, electricity and the nearest emergency ward just a phone call away...? And all thanks to science.
But where is science when - despite all these wonderful things - we still feel the need for ‘something more’?
The Scientific 'Meaning of Life’
There is, of course, a perfectly good scientific answer to the ‘Meaning of Life’ question. But knowing that we were created by a blind, un-thinking process called evolution just doesn't seemed to have helped in any way. If anything, evolution tells us that there's absolutely no meaning to our lives - no point, no purpose... it was all just a bit of an accident.
Not really the answer we were hoping for. A 'Meaning of Life' should be helpful, it should give advice and provide definite solutions... But what guidance do we get from science? Not much more than “Eat less donut, take more exercise”. Which is all good stuff and obviously important, but hardly the Big Answer we were expecting. Science, it seems, is poorly equipped to peer into our souls and understand what it is to be human.
Or so we think.
But our perception is wrong.
Science does know the meaning of life. Science does know why Mel Gibson isn't satisfied with his perfect life. And science does know a better way to live our lives…
The only problem is that to understand the answers we have to accept that we’re robots.
Conscious robots… but robots nevertheless.
Next: Science says we must be robots.
Or, for a summary: The Story of the Conscious Robot
Or go back to the home page to see all the pages
Thursday, October 28, 2004
Our knowledge of science tells us that the behaviour of any atom or molecule is entirely automatic, dependent only on its physical properties and the laws of physics. So how can it be that when you put a billion entirely automatic atoms together to make a human… you create something that can do what it wants with its life?
It’s a question that has always baffled philosophers and scientists. How do 'we' get control of these automatic atoms of ours, if 'we' are nothing but atoms ourselves? For us to have free will, wouldn’t there have to be a part of us that isn't made of atoms; a part of us that’s free to tell all the atoms how to behave? But if so, then where is it - this non-atomic corner of our brains? And what kind of ‘stuff’ is it made of… if not atoms?
Of course, despite the brutal logic of this argument, free will springs back to vigorous life the moment the philosopher takes a break from his deliberations and has to make the difficult free choice of whether or not to have a Danish pastry with his coffee.
Or as science writer Matt Ridley puts it:
“I am quite capable of jumping in my car and driving to Edinburgh
right now and for no other reason than that I want to....
I am a free agent, equipped with free will.”
- Matt Ridley, Genome
Free will prevails the moment we leave the classroom and step back into the real world.
But then along comes Charles Darwin and his theory of evolution, and suddenly free will’s in trouble again: forget the atomic level – it seems we can’t be free at the ‘whole creature’ level either.
"We are survival machines - robot vehicles blindly programmed
to preserve the selfish molecules known as genes."
- Richard Dawkins, The Selfish Gene
The idea that evolution could create an animal that has the free will to do what it wants is like suggesting that water could run uphill. Even if a ‘free will gene’ could have been created by the chance mutations that created our eyes and ears, this ‘free will gene’ would simply never have been ‘naturally selected’ for. Natural selection, by definition, can only select genes that improve their own survival chances. ‘Doing what you want with your life’ is the evolutionary equivalent of a blind lion triumphing over a sighted one: it’s like being born with an insatiable desire to drink poison and jump in front of freight trains.
“The initial configuration of the universe may have been chosen by God, or it may itself have been determined by the laws of science. In either case, it would seem that everything in the universe would then be determined by evolution according to the laws of science, so it is difficult to see how we can be masters of our fate”
- Stephen Hawking
So what’s going on?
It makes no sense: how can there be such a gap between our scientific understanding and our personal experience of what our lives are all about? On the one hand, we know that we’ve got free will, while on the other hand we know that every time we exercise this free will of ours, we must be overcoming not only the laws of physics but everything science has taught us about the way that human beings came into existence.
What’s the answer?
Can we reassure ourselves that one day we’ll uncover the gaps in the laws of physics? Or is it time to start thinking the unthinkable about ourselves?
What if we don’t actually have the ability to jump in our cars and go to Edinburgh whenever we want to? What if we don’t really have the freedom to choose whether or not to eat that Danish pastry?
Could it all be just a delusion…?
“Free will is a delusion caused by
our inability to appreciate our true motivations.”
- attributed to Charles Darwin
Could it be that we’ve been fooled into thinking that we’re making our own choices, when in reality we’re just being told what to do by billions of years of natural selection?
Next: How we make a decision
Or, for a summary: The Story of the Conscious Robot
Or go back to the home page to see all the pages
Sunday, October 10, 2004
Yes, really. Even when you've understood how every choice you make is controlled by part of your brain over which you have no control... it's still not the easiest concept to grasp that everything you do tomorrow is already decided.
So to help with that, start with some things that you would have no trouble accepting are pre-determined.
Your alarm clock. Powered by a battery and a crystal of quartz, I'm quite confident that tomorrow morning my alarm will sound at 7 am. I've set the time and I've set the alarm and in doing so, the atoms inside that clock will continue behavining in an entirely. The action of atoms, once set in motion, will not change unless something causes them to change. In the case of the alarm clock, it's humans that have caused the atoms to behave in a particular way: the manufacturing humans harnessed the atoms inside the clock, condemning them to behave in a way that I expect my alarm clock atoms to behave.
So what's the difference with a human? It's still atoms.
Attack the problem from different angles:
1) How you make a decision
2) The atomic level
3) Compare your life with a computer playing a game of chess.
Think of it at the atomic level.
How is it possible to think of our lives and choices as 'just the automatic movement of automatic atoms'?
The growth of a crystal is automatic, no one would doubt.
'Life' is no different from the crystal - start with a single cell, with a nucleus of DNA. Grow outwards.
Remember the school chemistry lab.
Thursday, October 07, 2004
Imagine you come across a pair of computers playing each other at chess. You've never seen a computer, and you've never played chess. You're allowed to watch 15 minutes of 4 hour game, and during that time you've got to reach some conclusions as to what's going on.
Firstly, the Meaning of Life. What's the purpose of these chess players existence?
Well, clearly during your 15 minutes of observation it's not going to be at all clear that their purpose is to checkmate the king. A well-played game of chess largely ignores the king for the first three quarters of the match: it's all about territory and firepower. How quickly can I bring my pieces out and gain control of the centre of the board? How can I use my guile to exchange a bishop for my opponent's more valuable queen?
Without being able to see the full game, without knowing the rules... how would one know ever know the real aim? It might appear that the purpose was to take as many of the opponents pieces as possible, but how would you know that there was only one piece that actually mattered?
~Indeed, it might not even be obvious that the purpose was some sort of warfare - many games go 10 moves without any pieces being exchanged, the aim of life appearing to be to create beautiful patterns of pieces on the board.
But what if you had access to the computers' programming?
All would immediately be revealed. You'd realise the purpose of all these beautiful patterns werereal meaning of life for these computers: that the pretty patterns and scheming for firepower advantage was just a method of achieving a simple aim - to kill a king.
So how does this compare to being human? The big advanatage that Darwin gave us is access to the programming. We know what we're here to do. And this allows us to see through all the other things we do as humans - things we assume are the purpose, but turn out to be nothing more than a root to the a
Wednesday, September 29, 2004
“I am quite capable of jumping in my car and driving to Edinburgh right now
and for no other reason than that I want to.... I am a free agent, equipped with
Matt Ridley, Genome
As Dr Ridley points out, we don’t just do things ‘for no reason’ - we do them because we ‘want to’…
So how does Dr Ridley know whether he "wants to" go to Edinburgh or not?
We can imagine his thoughts as he mulls over whether to make the trip: maybe his mum lives there, or someone that owes him money. Perhaps he’s heard what a beautiful place Edinburgh is and that the shopping’s rather good - or possibly he just wants to prove that he's got free will. All these things are the incentives for the trip - the benefits to be gained by going to Edinburgh.
But pretty much everything we want in life has some sort of cost:
It's not clear how far it is to Edinburgh, but we'll assume it's a fair distance. So Dr Ridley will have to take into account the price of petrol, the boredom of the long drive and if he's anything over 6ft, the back-ache from being wedged into the inadequate space behind the steering wheel. These are all costs of the journey - things arguing against him taking the trip.
But how does he know whether the costs of the trip outweigh the advantages?
Were it a simple financial transaction, he could simply compare the cost against the profit. But how do you compare the ‘cost’ of a back-ache with the ‘profit’ of seeing your mum?
You have to think about how it will make you feel.
And we humans are equipped with the ability to imagine in advance how much pleasure or pain a particular event will give us: it’s what we do when we’re umming and ahhing about a decision – we’re trying to anticipate the situation, and compare the pain and discomfort against the pleasure to be gained.
So when Dr Ridley is ‘deciding for no reason’ whether to go to Edinburgh or not, what he’s actually doing is weighing up:
- How many ‘good feelings’ he’s going to get from the trip: how much
satisfaction at recovering the money he's owed, how much pleasure at seeing his
mum, how much contentment at proving that he's got free will
- How many 'bad feelings' it will cost him to get there (expense of the petrol,
aching back, frustration at slow traffic).
If the scales come down on the side of good feelings, then he's in the car and on his way.
It’s how we make any decision. From ‘Which TV program shall I watch?’ to ‘Shall I get married?’, any decision is an attempt in some tiny way to carve out a pleasant life for ourselves.
- We avoid situations that make us feel guilty, sad, afraid.
- We try to
create a world for ourselves which is full of joy, satisfaction and contentment.
“Where are there are two desires in a man's heart he has no choice between the two but must obey the strongest, there being no such thing as free will in the composition of any human being that ever lived.”
- Mark Twain in Eruption
So what does this observation tell us about the freedom that we prize so highly?
- what it is that determines how we feel?
What is it that’s controlling our choices and behaviour? And what would we do if we were really in control of our lives?
Next: Who's really in charge?
But..! Some questions:
But...! Can't we control our own feelings?
Presumably not - otherwise we'd all be a lot happier than we already are... We might be able to 'talk ourselves' into feeling better, but this only ever happens in response to a feeling we already have. From the moment we awake we’re being assailed by feelings we’d rather not be having – the insistent ring of the alarm clock reminding us of the painful reality that we’ve got to get up and face the day. We can’t stop the bad feelings arriving, otherwise we’d just tell ourselves to be delighted at the start of each: all we can do is try to ‘think positive’, and maybe distract ourselves by turning the radio on.
But…! I often do things I don't want to do - like working for an exam, or putting in overtime…
We often do things we don’t want to do. Indeed, some people claim they spend most of their lives doing things they don’t want to do. So why do we do things we don’t want to do?
Maybe neither of the options open to us will give us any pleasure: nobody likes paying taxes, but the potential fine for not paying them is going to be even more painful, so what can we do other than choose the thing that hurts least: it’s the best way to minimise the total unpleasant feelings we’re going to experience.
Or maybe we’ve calculated that the way to get the most pleasure out of any particular situation is by doing things that hurt a little bit first: "invest in the future" - work hard now because the ultimate satisfaction will exceed the effort put in: study for your exams, because you’ll be better off with the qualification; go for a run now because it feels better to be slim and fit. It’s what child psychologists call ‘delaying your gratification’ and it’s one of the things that children have to learn as they grow up. Babies don’t do it, adults do. 10 year old children are somewhere in between, on the painful path of learning that often the way to get the most out of life is by doing things that hurt a bit first.
But…! I often I do things I don’t want to do in order to help other people, or because it’s the right thing to do.
Sometimes we talk about doing things "because it's the right thing to do" - and by that we usually mean we're doing something we wouldn’t choose to do, other than because of our strong sense of moral responsibility.
But once again, we’re just choosing the course of least pain.
My friend telephones me and says ‘I really need your help to get my new piano up
the stairs to my flat.”
I weigh up the situation: I think of the
pleasure I’m going to get kicking my feet up in front of the TV; I think of the
effort, the hassle, of driving over to my friend’s house; I imagine slipping on
the stairs and being hurled down three flights with a piano on my head. I’m just
about to think of an excuse… when I start to feel selfish. I imagine my poor
friend struggling to get the piano up the stairs on his own. I think of all the
favours he’s done for me in the past, and I realize I can’t win: helping makes
me feel bad, but not helping makes me feel worse. I feel so bad at the thought
of my poor friend struggling without me, that before I know it I’m pulling on my
shoes and rushing out the door.
I’ve chosen the action which gives me least pain. It's what makes me such a nice guy. I also get a little bonus, because I start to feel good about myself, and my friend says nice things about
But…! Somehow it seems deeply insulting to say that we help other people simply to make ourselves feel better.
Do we want our saints to dislike being saints? Presumably what made Mother Theresa a ‘saint’ was the realisation that - for her, at least - the greatest pleasure, satisfaction and contentment would come from working for the benefit of others. The effort and the difficulties would be far outweighed by the rewards. It made her feel good to help to relieve someone else’s suffering. The effort of putting aside her own ‘selfish’ needs was more than compensated for by the good feelings she experienced as a result of her ‘unselfish’ actions.
To be motivated to help another person, we have to know that they have a problem – that they themselves are in pain. But we can only know their pain by feeling it ourselves.
Mother Teresa could never be sure what other people were feeling - she had to put herself in their shoes to imagine what they must be feeling. She looked at their expressions, their circumstances, and she listened to what they were telling her. And it made her sad. It made her angry. She only cared about their pain through her experience of her own pain.
But…! But what about civic duty - the moral code?
“ I can choose to help others not because I particularly want to - I'd much
rather being going to the races, to be honest. But i'll do it because it’s my
duty. I'll go to the soup kitchen and help out because it's the right thing to
"And you don't like it?"
"Well, it's OK, but it's
not exactly the best fun in the world."
"And when you've done it -
when you've done your bit of civic duty - how do you feel
"Glad it's over."
"But how do you feel about
yourself as person?"
"Well... good I suppose. I'm pleased with
myself for having done it. Wouldn't like myself much if I
"So you don't hate yourself, then? You don't despise
yourself for your weakness, for your selfishness at having done your moral
"No of course not. Don't be absurd."
you miss your monthly visit to the soup kitchen? How do you feel then? Pleased
with yourself. Happy that you haven't been?"
"OK, OK. I get the
point. I do my civic duty because it makes me feel better. But still, I really
don't like what you're saying, doesn't seem right somehow."
know it’s wrong, you just don't know why?"
But…! Every decision? I’m still not convinced. Where’s the evidence?
Don’t forget, we need an explanation. We have a problem – a disagreement between science and our personal experience. And rather than blame science, we’re looking for a flaw in our personal experiences of life. And as we’ll see, not only is this an explanation of ‘being human’ that fits our personal experiences, it’s also a necessary explanation.
In the next few chapters, we'll see how this understanding fits with the scientific understanding of how humans were created and how it resolves the fundamental dilemma as to whether or not we have free will.
Next: Who's really in charge?
Or go back to the home page to see all the pages
Monday, September 20, 2004
"A man can surely do what he wills to do, but cannot determine what he
wills." - Schopenhauer
But doing what I want doesn’t make me a robot, does it?
- If I’ve got the ability to choose to do things that I think will make me
feel good… then what’s the problem with that? I’m still in charge, aren’t
Well, that depends on who - or what - is deciding which things make you feel good…
The Evil Scientist
Let’s get back to Dr Ridley trying to decide whether to go to Edinburgh or not. And let’s imagine that he’s somehow fallen into the hands of.... an Evil Scientist.
Our Evil Scientist has gained access to Dr Ridley 's brain.... and she's found a
way to rewire his neural pathways so that she's in control of whether he feels
good or bad about something. She could, for example, set up his brain so that he
disliked seeing his mum... or indeed so that everything else that was
previously attractive about his proposed trip now filled him with dread and
Would he still go to Edinburgh?
Well, he’d be
somewhat confused that the thought of seeing his mum was making him feel bad,
but he wouldn't put himself through the effort of the trip if he could see so
much pain coming from it.
And yet he would of course still feel
like he was making his own decision....
In reality, of course,
he’d just be doing precisely what the Evil Scientist told him to do.
If we can’t choose which things make us feel good, and which things make us feel bad… then how free are we? To answer that, we need to ask the key question: why is it that some things make us feel good… and some things make us feel bad?
But before we get to why, we need to know where:
- where are feelings created, and where is it decided whether the feeling we experience should be ‘nice’ or ‘nasty’?
Where are feelings?
Feelings are created inside our own brains
We know that all our thoughts happen inside our brains, so presumably that must be where we experience all our feelings and emotions as well. And not only is it the place where feelings are experienced, but it must also be the place where those feelings are created:
Although ‘happy’ and ‘sad’ seem to be automatic responses to things happening in
the world around us, we also know that these feelings aren’t somehow being
beamed into our brains from the outside world. When we eat ice cream, we know
that nerve impulses are passing from our taste buds into our brains, and that
somehow our brains convert those impulses into feelings or pleasure.
A bad feeling is not an inevitable consequence of the physical world - like
light travelling in straight lines, or like gravity pulling us towards the
We also know that when someone tells us that our mother is dying, all that’s
entering our heads are the sound waves of their voice: it has to be our
brains that somehow convert those sound waves into the feelings of sadness
that we ‘automatically’ feel.
But how automatic is it?
Somehow our brains must be decide whether ‘mother dying’ makes us feel ‘overjoyed and elated’ or ‘desperate sadness’.
Our own brains decide whether our lives are…
abject misery or utter delight.
The only suffering we ever experience must be created by our own brains.
Doesn’t seem right somehow. Our own brains?
When a prisoner is trapped in his enemy’s torture chamber and subjected to hours
of horrendous pain… the pain he experiences is created entirely by his own
brain. Sure, he wouldn’t be experiencing that horror if his torturer weren’t
subjecting him to the horror, but the torturer would have no weapon were it not
for our own body’s ability to create enormously awful feelings.
…but should we be blaming our own brain?
We’ll discuss the implications more later, but we can not escape the conclusion.
Q But..! That’s silly. We have to feel bad. If your mother dies - you have to feel bad: it’s absurd to think it could be any other way.
Does your mother want you to be unhappy? Does she want you to be miserable?
Sure, she wants to know that you love her and that you’re going to miss her. But
the chances are that she’s spent your whole life trying to do things that will
make you as happy as possible. And there you are - unhappy, miserable and
missing her. The point is not so much whether or not we should feel happy or
unhappy, the point is to realise that it is a decision of our own brains, and
not a decision that we make consciously. We can then explore the reasons why we
The question is, why do our brains decide that some of us should lead lives of misery and some of us should be truly happy?
But before we address that issue, one last observation about this brain of ours:
Where - and what - is ‘me’?
Let’s have a careful look at what we mean by ‘me’. What is this 'me' that we are all so aware of?
When we think of who ‘we’ are, it feels like ‘we’ is our whole body... from the
top of our head to the tip of our toes - it all goes to making up the concept we
have of ‘me’.
And yet it's more complicated than that: I am still 'me'
if I lose a leg, or if lose an arm. Sure, I might be changed slightly, but my
basic personality remains in my brain, it doesn’t leave with my departing arm. I
am still me if I am confined to a wheel chair without use of my arms or legs.
‘Me’ is not my body - ‘me’ is my brain.
But we can take this
further. Because, I’m not really 'there' if I’m asleep, or unconscious: my body
is there, but I’m not there myself - at least I’m not aware of being there
My only experience of life - indeed my only experience of
anything at all - is my when I’m awake, when I’m conscious.
Now, I know
that certain things in my brain happen outside my conscious control: I know my
heart rate is controlled by my brain, but not by ‘me’; I know that ????
Which means that there must effectively be two parts to my brain: the
conscious part and a part that isn’t under my conscious control, and that I’m
not even aware of being there.
So that means ‘I’ am not even the
non-conscious part of my brain:
‘I’ am only my conscious mind
my conscious thoughts, sensations, feelings, emotions... etc etc… are the true
extent of ‘me’.
We are our conscious minds.
Only. Nothing else.
The religious concept of 'the soul' is a tidy comparison: the thought that, once the body dies, the soul lives on, rising above the body, floating around, somehow surviving outside the body, is so powerful and easy to understand because consciousness is our only experience,
Back to where…
So where exactly are our feelings created? In our brains, yes… but in our conscious mind… or in the part of our brain that is not conscious? Clearly, we experience these feelings consciously… but we don’t create them consciously: our feelings must be being created in an area of the brain that we don't have conscious control over:
"A man can surely do what he wills to do, but cannot determine what he wills." -
Whether we feel good or bad depends on a part of our brains over which we have no control
Which is the same as saying:
‘We’ are controlled
by a part of our brain over which we have no control.
This doesn't mean we're controlling ourselves, because we've already decided that 'we' are only our conscious minds.
Somehow, this ‘non-conscious’ part of our brain is able to assess events in the outside world and determine whether we should feel good or bad as a result.
The big question is - How does our non-conscious brain know whether we should be feeling good or bad at any one time?
- How does our non-conscious mind know that ice cream should make us feel good?
- How does our non-conscious mind know that when our mother dies we
should feel sad?
Because this is the key.
Not just the key to understanding whether we are robots, but the key perhaps to a everything that matters in life.
Next: Why are feelings?
Tuesday, September 14, 2004
We've all lived with feelings from the day we were born, they're as a much a part of our lives as our arms and legs. But whereas it's easy to see what arms and legs are for, we don't often ask ourselves "What's the purpose of my anger?" or "I'm happy today - but what's the function of this happiness that I'm feeling?" Our assumption is that feelings don’t have a purpose at all - they are results. But as we’ll see, this is just a symptom of the rather naïve and self-important view we have of ourselves.
Why does food make us feel good? Why does being loved make us feel good? Why does being admired make us feel good? Why does success make us feel good?
Let's start with the most basic feeling we have - physical pain
When you put your finger in a flame, it hurts.
And it hurts for an obvious reason: your finger is getting damaged. Your body (well, actually your subconscious mind) is telling you to take action quickly if you want to keep your finger.
Pain hurts.... but we couldn’t live with out it.
And what about pleasure? Although it might not be immediately obvious why we get pleasure from such things as the opera and Picasso, the pleasure we get from eating ice cream and from having sex are much more easily explained: the fatty food helps us survive and the sex helps to procreate the species.
Somewhere way back in our deep murky past, our ancestors didn't have any feelings at all. They didn't experience pleasure, they didn't even know what pain felt like. They just... did. Somewhere near the very beginning, the earliest forms of life were single cells - like bacteria or amoeba. No nervous system, no pain, no pleasure.
And then feelings evolved...
As animals started to move around, they needed a quick method of knowing whether something was good or bad for them. The animals that felt pain when their bodies were damaged became the ones that survived - and they were the ones that had more chance of reproducing and passing their genes onto their children. Animals that had genes for pain flourished, animals that didn’t experience pain died out.
Evolution operates a carrot and stick to help animals survive.
You might say that evolution trains us a bit like we train a dog:
- we get "little dog biscuits of pleasure” every time we do something that’s good for our chances of survival, and "little chastisements of pain" whenever something happens that’s bad our chances of survival.
If something happens that is good for our survival chances - we feel good.
If something happens that is bad for our survival chances - we feel bad.
- it’s how we know what we need to do to survive
OK - but that doesn't mean that we're robots, does it? Evolution’s helping us survive; that's what we’d choose to do anyway!
Pain and hunger are good news for us. They keep us alive. We don’t mind experiencing a little bit of pain every now and then in return for that.
But evolution isn’t just about survival…
Take sex, for example…
At first sight, evolution's definitely looking like our best friend where sex is concerned: 'having sex' appears without doubt to be a choice we'd make with our free will. Not only is sex a great deal of fun, but we also need sex to survive. We need sex to have children, and if we didn't have children, the human race would die out.....
But hold on a minute... what has 'having children' got to do with us? As individuals, that is? Sure, as a species, we do of course need children. And if every one of our ancestors hadn't had sex at least once, we wouldn't be here...
...but what’s in it for us? What do we get out of sex - apart from the obvious pleasure, that is?
The truth is that each of us would still live just as long if we never had sex again. (It might feel like we were living a long time, anyway.)
Further more, sex isn't just 'not necessary' for our individual survival, it's actually extremely dangerous. Especially for an animal in the wild:
The dangers of having sex and having children:Kids! Who needs them?
- For a female, the whole pregnancy thing is just about the most expensive and difficult
job they've got. Not only do they have to find much more food to eat, they've
got a bigger weight to carry around when they're hunting and being hunted. And
then maybe there's the nest to build, and the whole giving birth ritual - and we
haven't even begun to discuss the costs of providing for the offspring,
defending them and finally teaching them the wicked ways of the world.
Even the males don't get off lightly. Think of the nightmare of the whole
'fighting for territory' thing, and if you're a peacock, you've got to carry
that ridiculous tail around with you just for a chance at getting laid.
- And then there's disease. For both genders, sex is a wonderful way to
spread disease - no condoms for our ancestors, whether they'd wanted to use them
Well, the point is - we don't.
So why do we do it? Why do we have sex… and why do we have children? Why do our brains sweet-talk us into doing something so dangerous.... if it isn’t for our own benefit?
Next: Why evolution makes us do things that aren't for our own benefit
Thursday, September 02, 2004
Evolution is about our genes. We exist as machines to help spread our genes around the world. It seems crazy, it seems like it's the wrong way round. But that's the way it is.
Compare yourself to a compact disc of your favourite music.
What's ‘the point’ - the music or the cd? Does the music have an existence because of the cd, or does the cd exist because of the music?
Clearly, it's all about the music. The music can be copied to another cd, or when the technology advances, the music can be copied to whatever improved carrier-mechanism is developed in the future and the cd thrown away, just like vinyl and tapes have been.
Cd's exist because they're a good way of spreading music around the world. They aren't the purpose, they aren’t the point… they're the mechanism. Equally, human beings aren't the point, we're just the device by which the genes get to be spread round the world.
Our genes are the music. We’re the cd's.
Which is why we humans aren’t designed to behave in such a way that we as individuals will survive....
…we’re designed to behave in a way that will help our genes survive.
If something happens that’s bad for the survival chances of our genes - we feel bad.
If something happens that’s good for the survival chances of our genes - we feel good.
Which could be the most important thing that science has ever taught us.
Of course, that’s not to say it’s irrelevant whether we live or die. But we're not alive for the sake of living. We're alive to create the next generation. 'Being alive' is just a mechanism to increase the chances of our genes surviving.
That's just the way evolution works. It's what evolution is. Automatically. You can't have the process of evolution if you don't have genetic information that gets passed on from one individual to the next.
If our ancestors had behaved in such a way that they maximised their own individual survival chances over the survival chances of their genes they might have survived longer… but they wouldn’t have passed those genes on: the genes for ‘look after yourself first and don’t have children’ don’t get passed on. It was only the individuals that took the risk of having sex and looking after children that could become our ancestors. Evolution (or natural selection) can only select behaviour that favours the genes.
But..... i like kids - I want to have kids.
Having kids is precisely what i would choose to do anyway, regardless of whether i have free will or not. And i love having sex as well. You can't seriously be trying to tell me that it wouldn't be my free will choice to have sex.
What if you could get all the pleasure you get from having children or sex....without actually having to do it? Sounds absurd, of course.... but if we've agreed that the only thing we care about is how we feel, we have to consider the serious possibility that if we had the opportunity to experience all the feelings without the risk... we'd be very advised to take that opportunity.
We only like having sex and having children because evolution 'wants' us to like it.
We're not choosing to want it.
Next: If we genuinely had free will - what would we do all day?
Monday, July 05, 2004
After all, once we've made sure that we were going to survive... what's our motivation for doing anything else? Anything else we do is just a method of ensuring that we're going to feel as good as we possibly can in the future. So why not cut out the middleman - and just feel good. Regardless of what happens in the world around us?
... as trapped inside survival machines.
We can’t escape. We can’t stop the whole machine doing things for survival purposes. In deed, we’ve got to be active helpers in this whole job of spreading our genes, because the only thing we want to do is to feel good, and the only way we’ve found to get to feel good is to help increase the survival chance of our genes.
- But our purpose is not to spread our genes...
- Our purpose is to make ourselves feel good... for as long as we can stay alive.
If our conscious minds were really in control, we'd simply instruct our subconscious minds to make us feel good all the time. We'd do enough to survive - to live a full length life - and spend the rest of the time simply feeling good. There would be no need to reproduce, no need to 'achieve', no need for luxury or success - indeed no need to do anything at all. If we could control our own feelings, we would choose quiet, risk-free lives of extreme contentment, delight, joy, satisfaction and well-being.
There is a parallel. Conscious minds love sex. We get a lot of pleasure from sex. But there's a downside. Pregnancy. So we use contraception. To thwart the power of the genes and get what our conscious minds want at the expense of our genes. Can't we do the same with all the feelings we have? Why can't we just get all the pleasure from having sex... without actually having the sex? It's the obvious next step in our control of our own lives. We just haven't realised that it's the obvious next step.
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
- US Declaration of Independence 1776
Our masters have the same attitude to our happiness.
- Are we partners, getting the rewards we're promised for all the hard work we put in?
- Or are we slaves - abused by our controllers and given only enough reward to do the job?
That depends on whether it’s ever possible to be truly happy.