At the core of your smartphone sits a choice. Do you use it to extend your mind, or to imprison it?
You’re imprisoning your mind if you’re …
- staring at your phone like a zombie while more important things are going on around you,
- always looking at a limited slice of reality (an echo chamber),
- using your phone to paint a idealized picture of yourself on social media or
- pulling-to-refresh like an addict.
You’re exending your mind if you’re …
- looking up all the knowledge of the world to teach and learn,
- making interesting computations with useful apps,
- extending your senses (some AR apps, for example) or
- augmenting your own memory with notes, sketches and pictures.
Most people only know one type of travel. The expensive type that also damages the environment immensely. It’s often personally rewarding to travel the world, because—done right—travelling gives us new perspectives. When done wrongly though, without experiencing the foreign place and its people, physical travel is little more than an expensive way to heat our planet.
Using the second type of travelling, I’ve been 10000 years in the future, seen foreign galaxies, visited the past and met a lot of unique individuals along the way. I’m talking about travelling with my mind, of course. To do this, you can use many vehicles: books, video games, in rare cases even television. A good book will take you on a journey to its own world, immersing you completely for hours at a time. The feeling of immersion here is the same as standing in a foreign place, breathing in the atmosphere.
I’m writing this mostly because our society overvalues physical travelling and undervalues travelling with the mind. Many people never experienced being immersed in the exciting world of a well made video game. Or dove head first into the unusual universe of a well written science fiction book. If you haven’t, please try it some time! I’ve been on many physical journeys. But for almost all of my most memorable travels, I’ve been using my mind only.
If my little son were a computer, he’d be horribly designed. Here are a few examples:
- There’s only one type of error sound without any message. If you don’t find the solution to the problem, the sound becomes louder and louder.
- Sometimes, it just plays the error sound for no reason, and it won’t stop.
- Solutions to problems can be polar opposites, e. g. raising or reducing temperature.
- Bad ventilation and temperature control, needing frequent manual adjustments by the user.
- It has an inbuilt mechanism to not allow the user to get enough sleep by doing periodical error sounds at least every four hours, probably more often, but basically random. This prevents the user from operating at full productivity by having impeded problem solving capabilities.
- Whenever you lift or move it, you need to take care that it doesn’t break because the internal structure is very weak.
- Huge energy demands but tiny battery, needing frequent recharges.
- Not owning one usually causes a strong biological urge inside the potential user to get one.
- Relies on hormonal manipulation of the user in order to be liked despite all of the above.
Thanks a bunch, evolution!
“All opinions matter” said the poster in the subway, trying to get me to take part in a survey. Would that it were so simple. Opinions are quickly adopted, easily changed and rarely based on facts. So I’d disagree with that poster and say that your opinion doesn’t matter at all—unless it’s an informed opinion. That is, one based on facts.
For example, when talking about vaccination, it is often asserted that there are two sides, pro and con. And that both positions are valid opinions. But being against vaccination is not a valid opinion, because it’s not grounded in facts. There are no rational arguments against vaccines in general. Vaccines are an astoundingly useful achievement of science.
The false balance between informed opinions and uninformed opinions changes a rational discussion between informed people to an irrational discussion between opinionated people. For me, the transition from having opinions to having informed opinions meant being less opinionated and more often stating “I don’t know, I’ve not seen any facts point either way.” I can only wish for everyone holding uninformed opinions to do the same.
Family reunions, although generally nice events, often bring me into contact with religion. Since I’ve been around 14 years old, it’s been obvious to me that none of the approximately 8000 gods humanity has invented actually exist. The god delusion is still very prevalent amongst my relatives, though. At my grandma’s 80th birthday party, I was especially surprised by the way the prayers my uncle spoke, deprive believers of agency and responsibility. Let me review two prayers in more detail, to clarify what I mean.
The Forces of Good
First, a very common prayer from Germany:
1 The forces of good are wonderfully surrounding,
2 so we await confidently whatever comes our way,
3 God’s with us from dawn to the slumber of evening,
4 and certainly at the break of each new day.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer (translated from the German original)
Line 1, aside from being obviously false, also gives the believer the impression that there is someone good looking out for them. It removes responsibility from the believer, especially with line 2 following. Believers can just sit at home and watch TV, awaiting confidently whatever comes, because the forces of good will deal with all problems. That’s so wrong, it hurts. No, the forces of good won’t deal with all problems. Every person has to do the best they can in order to make living on this planet work out. We can’t sit back and wait for imaginary good forces to do our bidding.
Unfortunately, the prayer takes a turn for the worse in lines 3 and 4. These lines make sure the believer understands that they will be surveilled all the time, every day. The fact that believers are already used to the state of total surveillance makes them much more easily content with the total surveillance of the state. Which is a direction many states are heading in. Believers, like all people, need to resist that, not revel in it!
The Lord is my Shepherd
To show that this is not a unique example, here’s another well-known prayer:
1 The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.
2 He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: He leadeth me beside the still waters.
3 He restoreth my soul: He leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for His name's sake.
4 Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for Thou art with me; Thy rod and Thy staff they comfort me.
Psalm 23 (1—4), The Bible
Similar to “The Forces of Good”, lines 1 and 2 paint a picture of a good shepherd caring for the believers. Believers don’t need to do anything by themselves, everything will be provided for. I think this also instills a sense of entitlement in believers. They’re told everything will be provided, but in reality, it isn’t. So they might complain why they aren’t given what was promised, instead of providing it themselves.
In line 3, we find a nice example why conflicts beween religions are so common: the path of righteousness sounds to me—from a perspective of the enlightenment—to be a path where the believer can’t be wrong. In reality, however, admitting (or even assuming) that we’re wrong and then looking for reasons why we’re wrong, is often a great path towards enlightening discoveries.
With it’s conclusion in line 4, the prayer takes even more things away from the believer. This time, it’s fear. Especially in dark valleys, fear is a useful instinct. I admit that in a metaphorical sense, modern dark valleys (e. g. problems at work) might not be served by this instinct. But we shouldn’t walk through the valley trusting in an imaginary friend, we should walk through it with real friends or real skills, trusting in those instead. The surveillance theme in this line is also not helpful, but I repeat myself.
Prayers—ritualistic phrases that are often repeated—aren’t a bad idea in general. But the examples I know, two of which I’ve discussed, all degrade the believer from enlightened human to powerless worshipper. Such a waste! Christians could have used these opportunities to highlight mindsets that are beneficial for personal development. They could instill skepticism instead of obedience, freedom instead of surveillance or responsibility instead of passivity. Wouldn’t that be great‽
Since I dislike setting unrealistic goals for the next year, I’ll set realistic goals for the rest of my life instead. My wife started this with her three goals, but I was quickly convinced it’s a great idea to define this kind of life goals. They are meant as reminders, as to not forget them in the daily work-life treadmill.
Control my Body
Through training in the Dojo, my outdoor adventures and lots of introspection, I want to explore the operating parameters of myself (also know as my body). Self-control and self-knowledge have always been important to me, but I can’t let up. Physical skills quickly fade away when they are not practiced. Improving control over my wandering mind as well as improving my movement intelligence will always be challenges that accompany me.
Understand the Forest
I enjoy being in the forests so immensely, I identify as a woodwalker. This enjoyment is also rooted in a basic understanding of the forest ecosystem and the relationships between different plants, animals and other life forms. My goal is to deepen this knowledge to a point where I know all the common or important actors in the ecosystem so well that I can truly feel at home in the forest, because I also understand how I can fit in for a while.
Know the Sky
From the forest, my gaze goes up into the stars. I’m deeply fascinated by the fact that we’re all made of stardust. Understanding our place in the cosmos means knowing what’s going on above and around our planet. While I managed to aggregate some basic celestial understanding, my goal is to keep up to date with this very current field of research in a way that allows me to grasp the enormity of what’s happening, which in turn will keep me humble.
My relationships to other people take many different forms and purposes. I want them to have one thing in common: through association with me, I want people to grow, to become better people. That’s a tough one, because the action required of me is different for each person I interact with. I’m starting by growing myself, of course, but extending rapidly to my (future) children, friends, colleagues and many more. To grow others, that’s my highest goal—above the sky, even.
A great king, his dominion spanning most of Persia, had everything.
His kingdom flourished, he had wise councellors, his wife being the most brilliant of them. And yet he suffered from varying moods, feeling elated and overjoyed on one day, depressed and thoughtful on the next. In both moods, he would make poor decisions. This was slowly becoming a danger to the kingdom.
He had heard of the wisest of wise men, at the boundary of his kingdom. So he sent for him, for he might find an answer to the king’s sole problem. When the wise man arrived, the king challenged him to find a solution.
The wise man was uncertain at first. In the following months, he discovered many ideas, but none would help the king. Then he tried meditating. In a silent mountain retreat, he pondered the problem in solitude. More months went by. Then, after the king had almost given up hope, the wise man reemerged. He bore a ring, that he presented to the king. The ring was of simple craft with no ornamentation. Only an inscription traced across the surface:
Even this will pass.
I read this story as a child and reproduced it from memory. It’s said to be originally from the koran, but I couldn’t find it there. What I love about it is how true it holds. Even this will pass. The science of happiness supports that statement: humans tend to adjust their happiness level. Lottery winners aren’t any happier one year later. Survivors of devastating accidents aren’t any less happy one year after the event. We adjust. That’s what we do.
As I wrote before, a philosophical zombie is a person who looks and acts exactly like a normal person, except they aren’t conscious.
Let me inverse that idea: let’s say a zombie is someone who behaves as if everyone else is non-conscious. Which is a behaviour I encounter way too often. It’s sometimes hard for us to accept that we’re not players of a video game within a virtual society of non-conscious entities.
Drive a few kilometers on any German autobahn, and you’ll find plenty of zombies, people who don’t realize that everyone else also has conscious experience. These zombies behave recklessly and carelessly. They deny other people’s realities, other peoples conscious experience.
By degrading other people like that, they’re really degrading themselves—to the level of a zombie.
There are many things I don’t know. Including what will happen tomorrow. Some things I do know. Including what happens after I die. Spoiler alert: my loved ones will grieve.
There are people who want to make me believe they know the future with certainty. Politicians who make grand plans. Religious zealots who preach heaven or hell. That’s all bullshit.
We can’t act with a limited imagination of the future. We need to base our actions in facts about right now and allow for multiple possible futures. Yes, that’s hard. Admitting you don’t know what’s going to happen is hard. But planning for exactly one possible future and being wrong—that’s much harder!
It doesn’t matter if we’re talking about personal decisions, project management or even laws: they all benefit from a realistic understanding of the involved uncertainty. And everyone who preaches certainty is at least wrong about their own fallibility. We need to be much more skeptical with those people.
That places us in the difficult position of living with uncertainty. My mind doesn’t feel right in the presence of uncertainty, like there’s an open loop in my head. So I try to figure out the future as it happens and react accordingly. I make decisions, but will adjust them if and when the world changes.
Why don’t we make all decisions like this? For example in politics: we institute a law, but regularly check if it’s still compatible with reality. By admitting uncertainty, we can create something that better fits reality—because we’ll frequently check. And that’s something the preachers of certainty often forget to do.