“If you are losing your leisure, look out! You may be losing your soul.” -Logan Pearsall Smith
I recently finsished reading a book called A Geography of Time, written by a social psychologist named Robert Levine. As one can easily discern from the title, the book is about life’s most important non-renewable resource.
It won’t come as a surprise to people who have travelled extensively (or to philosophical types), but how people perceive time heavily influences the creation of culture. And there are certainly many different ways to perceive time. As an American I live in a culture that is obsessed with clock time and with Ben Franklin’s assertion that “time is money”. Some cultures live by event time and the peoples of those cultures rightfully find some aspects of our time culture to be foolish. I can’t say that I always disagree.
I often lament the fact that I do not live in a country (like France) that has a more a relaxed perception of time and I’m disgusted by the sick sense of pride Americans take in the number of hours they work. Then again, at least I don’t live in Japan.
The pace of life in Japan is one of the fastest in the world and Levine states that “The magnitude of Japenese dedication to work can be dazzling.” The Japanese work long hours, avoid vacations, and dread the day they have to retire. Instead of “Blue Mondays”, the Japanese are more likely to be afflicted with “Sunday Disease” and “The Holiday Syndrome”. Pretty twisted, right?
The Japanese, however, also have a term called Karōshi, which means death from overwork. It turns out that too much of a good thing kills too — the Japanese literally love their work to death. Despite their ungodly dedication to work, the Japanese are a remarkably healthy people too, at least according to most health statistics. Surely there are a number of reasons (e.g., diet and activity level) that may help explain why this is so; however, for the purposes of this post I’d like to avoid the quagmire that is epidemiological research — I’m not trying to make any scientific health claims here. Rather, I’m speculating that speedy cultures aren’t necessarily more unhealthy than slower ones for reasons philosophical.
There was a wonderful film released in 2012 called Jiro Dreams of Sushi and it chronicles the life of one workaholic sushi chef named Jiro. Jiro’s dedication to his craft is both fascinating and horrifying at the same time. All those hours of work just to get sushi that tastes a tad bit better, if it even noticeably tastes better at all (Ah, the law of Diminishing Marginal Returns strikes again). Yet Jiro seemed to be a healthy guy and he has certainly found purpose in his quest to make the world’s best sushi.
One thing that is noticeably different about Japanese culture is that they have a principle called giri, which is in essence an obligation to others. Japanese workaholism is powered by this concept. While the official number of hours spent at work is very high in Japan, there seems to be a greater focus on well-being and social cohesiveness. The Japanese simply aren’t tyrannized by the clock in the same that most Americans seem to be.
Aspects of the Japanese work culture are certainly fascinating and I think there are many societal and personal lessons to be learned from studying it. It turns out that speed and ambition don’t necessarily kill; however, they can make a bad situation even worse. There is also somewhat of a contradiction at play here: what’s good for society isn’t necessarily good for the individual and what’s good for the individual isn’t necessarily good for society.
I can’t control what’s good for society, but I can change my relationship with time and work to make my own life better. I believe that hard work won’t kill you, but hard work without passion and without purpose will, even if it’s just on the inside. It’s important to remember that when and where we think about work won’t magically start and stop with clock time. As one of my favorite thinkers Nassim Taleb put it :”Work destroys your soul by stealthily invading your brain during the hours not officially spent working; be selective about professions.”
Work is nothing to be afraid of, shitty work is. Your happiness depends on how you define the word “shitty”, which is going to be different for all of us.
Amongst those interested in rationality, there are some who believe that more information is always better. The reason I suspect they hold this belief is because they think that it is within our epistemic powers to fully understand the universe, if only we can collect and analyze all of the information that describes it. This belief, however, is a dangerous one.
I happen to agree with J.B.S. Haldane who wrote the following: “My suspicion is that the universe is not only queerer than we suppose, but queerer than we can suppose.” [my emphasis] As with many things in life, I believe that more information is sometimes better, but more is certainly not always better.
It has been in vogue for quite some time now to write books about the myriad cognitive errors that we humans are prone to making. To readers of this blog, it’s no surprise to learn that we are indeed Predictably Irrational. However, the very same psychological processes, intuitions, and gut feelings that lead us astray often times help us navigate the world and make good decisions despite all the complexity.
It turns out that evolution may not care about rationality as much as some philosophers do. In other words, rationality may aid our survival, but it obviously isn’t necessary to be entirely rational in order to survive. The economist in me can’t help but think that the evolutionary costs of hyper-rationality may simply outweigh the benefits.
Anyway, I recently read Gerd Gigerenzer’s book Gut Feelings, which was excellent and very accessible. In my opinion Gigerenzer explains why Nassim Taleb’s aphorism — “To bankrupt a fool, give him information” – contains not only a half-truth, but one-and-a-half truths. The secret to good to decision making, argues Gigerenzer, is not to collect as much information as possible, but to discard most of it and trust your intuitions when appropriate. We humans have evolved to use rules of thumb (scientifically referred to as “heuristics”) that help us cope with the subjectivity that is endemic to the human experience – at least Mother Nature didn’t entirely throw us to the wolves.
It’s interesting to note that Gigerenzer’s research was at the foundation of Malcolm Gladwell’s blockbuster book called Blink, which also waxed lyrical about the beauty of human intuition. When I start to think about thinking and intution, I can’t help but conclude that the wise person knows when to trust their gut feelings without having to justify this trust to others. However, the wise person also knows when these subconscious processes can lead them astray. At its best, the human mind is a fickle thing.
I recently finished reading Steven Pressfield’s short book called Do The Work! The book is about fighting against the force that prevents you from doing anything important. Pressfield calls this force resistance. Have you ever noticed that you tend to put off important tasks in order to complete easier trivial tasks? That’s it right there, that’s resistance.
Since the ideas from the book are still somewhat fresh in my mind I thought I’d take the liberty of discussing some of my own thoughts as they pertain to resistance in this essay. Alright then, it’s time to get busy talking about resistance!
It almost goes without saying, but resistance is lethal to your dreams if you don’t learn how to overcome it. This is obviously not an earth shattering revelation, but that doesn’t make it any less important. As a blogger and writer I know this all too well. Frequently, I’ll catch myself using social media for “marketing”, but I know this is mere rationalization. I know that great content often markets itself and I also know that I should be spending more time writing or working on other projects, but, alas, resistance often gets the better of me.
Right now, for instance, I feel an urge to be cleaning out my email instead of working on this essay. After that, I’ll be probably drawn to Facebook for a dose of information sugar. So why am I drawn to tasks like checking my email? The answer is simple: there is a certain sense of satisfaction that comes with completing something and ticking it off our list. The worst part is that this satisfaction comes regardless of how unimportant the task is. The most dangerous part about these distractions is that they give us a false sense of accomplishment and delude us into thinking that were just too busy to ever do any work that matters to us. Talk about one of life’s great tragedies.
Is being aware of resistance a solution? Well, awareness is a step in the right direction, but it’s not going to help you in the slightest when it comes to doing the work. You can’t outsmart resistance because it is evolutionarily hardwired into the deep recesses of your mind. We humans are naturally hedonistic creatures who try to avoid pain and discomfort. Positive thinking won’t necessarily help either; it’s probably better just to embrace the suck because there is no magic formula or pill to help you overcome resistance. It requires work that will be undoubtedly hard, brutally hard. If you want to create, you better get used to it because speaking from personal experience, it never gets any easier. I hate to serve up a hackneyed platitude, but, if it were easy, everyone would do it (and you likely wouldn’t value it all that much if everyone could do it anyway).
When it comes to staying motivated to do work, one of the most important things I try to remind myself of is that benefits are not always delivered linearly with the amount of work done. You may spend year after year writing or working on a project with nothing to show for it, financially or otherwise. That doesn’t necessarily mean that you aren’t making progress though.
If there is one thing that I think most people fail to realize it’s that happiness and fulfillment don’t come the easy way. Money can come the easy way, but not happiness and fulfillment. The only way to succeed in life (i.e., to be happy and fulfilled) is to overcome resistance and do the work. The people who tell you that it’s easy are lying to you and the people who are lying to you usually have something to sell you.
A while back I finished reading Gregory Clark’s wonderful economic history book A Farewell to Alms. There is one particular idea from that book has been fermenting in my mind since I finished it. Although I don’t necessarily like its’ implications, I do fear that it’s true.
One of Clark’s theses is that classical economics brilliantly, and accurately, explains the world before the onset of the Industrial Revolution in the Malthusian era. However, he points out that many of today’s economists obfuscate the complexity of the discipline with overly technical analysis that doesn’t tell us anything important. This is particularly true when it comes to conjuring up explanations for why some countries are rich, some are poor, and how this all relates to happiness and well-being.
Near the end of the first chapter, he makes the following claim: “The final great surprise that economic history offers — which was revealed only within the past thirty years — is that material affluence, the decline in child mortality, the extension of adult life spans, and reduced inequality have not made us any happier than our hunter-gatherer forebears.” If this is indeed true, which I suspect it is, then another foundational assumption of economics is incorrect, i.e., all other things equal, increased financial wealth always increases happiness. As they are prone to do, many economists and policy makers fail to understand an important caveat when it comes to increasing happiness through financial wealth.
The old folk wisdom is that money doesn’t buy happiness. However, this isn’t exactly true either. The statement should be amended to say that money doesn’t always buy happiness. Money can buy happiness, but above a certain threshold the absolute amount of money makes very little difference to the happiness gained. The relative amount of financial wealth one has relative to her peers, however, seems to be of utmost importance to happiness. The economist Robert Frank has written extensively about this in books like Luxury Fever and Choosing the Right Pond, which have shaped my thinking on the subject.
Happiness research and common sense both seem to indicate that above a certain threshold relative wealth is all that matters when it comes to happiness. This seems to be true on both the individual level and at the country level. Clark points out that despite an enormous absolute gap in income between rich and poor countries, reported happiness is only every so slightly lower in the poorer countries. Now, I’ll concede that “reported happiness” is admittedly a problematic measurement for exact detail, but nonetheless, I think it is a suitable measurement to demonstrate this effect, even if it’s not perfect.
What is one to make of this? I can’t help but conclude that happiness is a zero-sum game. In other words, my neighbors increased relative wealth (and hence happiness) directly detracts from my own happiness, unless we happen to live in Lake Wobegon “where all the women are strong, all the men are good-looking, and all the children are above average.”
If happiness turns out to be a zero-sum game, as I suspect it is, then much of the advice people are given about becoming happier is dead wrong. The striking lesson here, on the individual level, is that avoiding hanging around your financial betters will likely make you more happy . “Choosing the right pond”, as Frank calls it, is actually incredibly important if you want to be happy. Sadly, however, I do realize that there must be those who are the small fish in the small ponds too — such is life.
Near the end of A Farewell to Alms, Clark describes the evolution of human nature in this way,
“Those who were successful in the economy of the Malthusian era could well have been driven by a need to have more than their peers in order to be happy. Modern man might no be designed for contentment. The envious have inherited the earth.”
As for me, I still find envy distasteful, but I also understand how it makes the economic pie bigger for all of us. There is an upside from benign envy, if only we have the philosophical and economic wherewithal to appreciate it.
I often remind myself that even the unhappiest people could probably be much unhappier than they already are, yet few of us find any solace in this point. The reason we don’t find comfort in this truth is that we have mistaken beliefs about the nature of happiness. La Rochefoucauld, then, aphorized something crucial when he wrote: “It is a kind of happiness to know just how unhappy we could be.” Accordingly, I’m ecstatically happy that I evolved the ability to be happy at all.
Last night, on a flight home from Chicago, I had the extreme misfortune of sitting in front of a man who made me embarrassed to be human. This lone man (I pegged him to be in his mid-thirties) solely made the flight the worst one I’ve ever been on. After we deplaned, I overheard several other people say the same thing. This man’s boisterousness alone made me crave the sound of the crying baby sitting directly next to me.
What I found particularly interesting was that this individual had clearly read the work of Tim Ferriss, Chris Guillebeau, Tucker Max, and Sam Harris, but I’m pretty certain he hadn’t read much else. Whatever the reason (mostly likely a form of cheap signaling), he felt compelled to spew verbal diarrhea on every person in the back half of the plane who forgot to pack their ear plugs (my poor fiance and I were some of these poor souls who forgot earplugs).
The really unfortunate thing is that I actually shared several of the same opinions as this tactless piece of work, which made me cringe. Though we shared a belief in the absence of evidence for a monotheistic God, we didn’t share the same views on how and when to approach the subject. He was the most evangelical atheist I’ve ever encountered and he made me realize why atheists can be equally as bad as (if not worse) than religious fundamentalists. As I discussed in my exchange with Larry Sanger, how you approach things matters.
Ultimately, this situation created quite the philosophical conundrum for me. At several points during the flight I thought that I ought to say something witty to put this arrogant ape in his place (at one point I thought he may even need a fist in his mouth to put him in his place), but I quickly realized he was probably hoping someone would do that. Besides, what made me think that I was the airplane’s chosen philosopher king responsible for putting people like him in their place? Where did my righteousness come from? Ignoring this irritating pontificator, difficult as it proved to be, seemed like the best thing to do and so it’s ultimately what I chose to do. However, it did nothing to stop the verbal onslaught.
This situation also made me afraid to speak ever again. Opinions are the stuff of life, but if speaking increases the probability of sounding like this guy, I’d prefer to remain silent for the remainder of my existence. Yes, it was that bad!
Why exactly this man felt compelled to launch a cacophony of pseudo-wisdom from his mouth for well over 90 minutes I’ll never know, but I suspect he was trying to signal something, albeit poorly. If this man truly had valuable insights on how to live better, as he clearly thought he did, I’m not sure why he would freely offer them up to anyone within earshot. To me, it seems prudent to never take or give unsolicited advice.
After I got off the plane, and began reflecting on the situation further, I feared that some people who don’t know me in real life (and only read my writing) may have the wrong impression of me. I voiced these concerns to my fiance on the drive home and I reasoned that writing was fundamentally different for one key reason — no one is forced to read my writing. On the contrary, when people like this sorry excuse for a human begin vociferously preaching on an airplane there is not much you can do to ignore it. You can ignore writing, you can’t ignore a loud voice in your ear.
Ultimately, I’ve come to the conclusion that there is nothing wrong with being opinionated per se. However, there are appropriate times and places in which to share your opinions and there are times when the wise thing to do is to refrain from sharing them verbally. What one writes about and what one talks about needn’t necessarily perfectly overlap — only fools don’t understand the difference.
My globe-trotting atheist friend from the the plane ride was clearly a fool — he was in desperate need of a course on critical thinking and how to be a civilized human-being. Unfortunately, the people who need to have their beliefs challenged the most are the least likely to seek it out. My experience last night is merely an anecdote which supports this idea of mine and it also reminds me that there is no perfect solution to these types of problematic situations, which I’m sure I’ll encounter again.
After last night, I began to think that perhaps Jean-Paul Sartre was right: “Hell is other people.” But then I also remembered that so too is heaven.
I often find that many people conflate economics and financial transactions. However, in my opinion the most interesting parts of economics are not explicitly financial. Analyzing the bizarre side of human behavior using the logic of economics is one of Tyler Cowen’s fortes and it’s the subject matter of his book Discover Your Inner Economist. I think it is chicken soup for the economist’s soul.
In the book, Cowen tackles the following questions (and more). How can you motivate your kids to do the dishes (hint: don’t try to pay them)? How can you find the best ethnic restaurants (hint: they’re not necessarily the most expensive ones)? How can you be a cultural billionaire? The answer to these questions, in short, is to become in tune with your inner economist! Be forewarned though, the logic of economic reasoning can often lead to strange conclusions.
Aside from the Marginal Revolution blog, Cowen also maintains a blog called Tyler Cowen’s Ethnic Dining Guide. One chapter I found particularly interesting in the book was about food. So what are some practical foodie tips?
Let’s start with restaurant selection. The key lesson here is that relative rents matter. According to Cowen, the best place to look for restaurants is in low-rent neighborhoods that are near high-rent neighborhoods. Cowen’s inner economist informs us that these types of restaurants still try to cater to the nearby foodies. The result — good eats on the cheap. Restaurants in high-traffic areas (and thus high rent areas) don’t have as strong of an incentive to serve amazing food because they will likely attract enough walk-ins to make up for serving mediocre food. Conversely, restaurants slightly off the beaten path in low-rent areas have a strong incentive to serve amazing food in order to attract repeat customers from the high-rent foodie neighborhoods, which keep their businesses afloat.
How about entree selection? Cowen writes, “In a fancy restaurant, order the item you are least likely to think you want.” The reason, in short, is because fancy restaurants don’t put bad things on the menu. Think about it this way, entrees that are familiar (think roast chicken) will appeal to the masses, thus retaining their place on the menu by simply attracting many orders from first-time visitors and those who aren’t adventurous eaters. The stuff that is less popular must be especially good otherwise it wouldn’t be on the menu. Also, roast chicken is fairly easy to make at home, so Cowen suggests that we order dishes in which the restaurant has a comparative advantage. For instance, do you know how to make the Cantonese dish of “Frog with Special Sauce Hot Pot”? I sure don’t and this item is on the menu of my favorite Cantonese restaurant in Denver, which reminds me that I should order it on my next visit there.
Cowen doesn’t mention it, but this logic can backfire on you. For one, he assumes you are an adventurous foodie. Secondly, one also has to assume that other restaurant patrons aren’t rational. If all people chose their entrees based on this line of thinking, then it wouldn’t work. Since I like culinary adventures and since I don’t think most people behave this way, I cannot help but conclude that this way of thinking works.
So is it better to beware your inner economist or embrace him? Well, it depends. My inner economist tends to have a knack for getting me into trouble. Sometimes he just can’t resist urging me to say something I later regret, even if it’s true. I realize that not everyone wants to get in touch with their inner economist and they may be appalled by some of the things their inner economist tells them. For example, my inner economist tells me that voting is irrational. There is an explicit cost to me with virtually no benefit (an extremely low likelihood of affecting the outcome.)
In the end, Cowen reminds us that things like happiness and love cannot be purchased, but that doesn’t mean they’re immune from economic logic. If we know what we are doing (hint: we don’t), we can often incentivize the outcomes we want. One definition of wisdom, then, is knowing when to tell your inner economist to shut up.
Nietzsche is often attributed with coining the following aphorism: “Whatever doesn’t kill me makes me stronger.” (From what I’ve read, it sounds more poetic in German: Was mich nicht umbringt macht mich stärker). Logician that I aspire to be, this phrase immediately sets off a red flag. Really, “whatever” doesn’t kill you makes you stronger – that’s just not quite true, Nietzsche! What is true, however, is that Nietzsche’s aphorism makes indirect reference to something I’ve become incredibly interested in over the years, i.e., hormesis.
So what exactly is hormesis? According to Stephan Guyenet, “Hormesis is the process by which a mild or acute stressor increases resistance to other, more intense or chronic stressors.” Another way to think about it is that some stressors, in the right doses, can actually be good for us by making us more resilient to future stressors. When it comes to these types of stressors, then, the Aristotelian notion of the golden mean seems to apply; create some stress, but not too much.
The graph below provides a nice illustration of how the mechanism of hormesis works.
Although it has a fancy name, most people are familiar with hormesis. Think about exercising for example, most athletes realize that putting stress on the body through training breaks the body down and then allows it to rebuild itself in order to make it stronger. If you don’t allow for recovery though, you end up causing harm through over-training. However, not enough exercise and you also become weak and cause yourself harm.
Unfortunately, as Nassim Taleb wrote in a recent EDGE.org essay, “Hormesis lost some scientific respect, interest and practice after the 1930s partly because some people mistakenly associated it with the practice of homeopathy.” Homeopathy has very little (if any) empirical backing, while hormesis is backed by rigorous scientific evidence demonstrating its efficacy.
Hormesis is about much more than just exercise though. There are actually many different things that provide hormetic benefits. According to Todd Becker, one who realizes this and actively seeks out hormetic benefits is said to practice the philosophy of Hormetism. In other words, Hormetism is a philosophy of life which is based upon harnessing the power of hormesis in a deliberate and systematic way in order to increase strength and resilience.
In what follows, I’ll briefly share some things I’ve experimented with when it comes to practicing Hormetism. People who are familiar with this blog know that I also practice Stoicism. In my opinion, the two philosophies integrate smoothly with each other and I think Hormetism can be seen as a part of Stoicism.
I’ve already briefly touched on the hormetic benefits of exercise. Here are some further thoughts: I try to spend a lot of time doing low intensity activities, like walking and hiking and I engage in intense anaerobic activities on occasion (think sprints, HIT, or lifting heavy things). I haven’t been on a jog in years.
There is empirical work showing that fasting can help protect against brain diseases. Obviously, correlation doesn’t mean causation, but I also haven’t been ill once since I started fasting regularly (not even the slightest head cold). I’ve been practicing intermittent fasting for years now and have never felt better.
When I fast, I typically like to eat dinner the night before and break the fast the following evening at dinner. I’m still experimenting with working my way up to 48+ hour fasts. Alas, I must confess that I still find the idea of waking up in the morning and going back to bed that evening without a meal a daunting psychological feat, but I’m working on getting over it.
There is a fantastic piece about fasting in the latest issue of Harper’s called “Starving Your Way To Vigor”, by Steve Hendricks (I think the issue is worth picking up for this essay alone). In the piece, Steve wrote about his experience of completing a 20 day fast.
As a kid I have vivid memories of that feeling I would experience after jumping into a chilly pool or lake. At first, the icy water stole my breath and then my senses turned onto a heightened overdrive. Plunging into cold water is uncomfortable initially, sure, but within a few seconds I always felt energized by it. It turns out, this may have been making me healthier and stronger too.
When I take a hot shower I usually feel tired and sweaty afterwards, not refreshed. However, I must admit that I rarely just jump into an ice cold shower either though. Usually I start with a warm shower and towards the end of it I’ll blast myself with cold water. When I first started doing this, I stayed in for a maybe ten seconds tops. Now I’m working my way up to a couple of minutes. The cold water at my house is very cold so I usually experience brain freeze (aka sphenopalatine ganglioneuralgia) when I take cold showers.
Eventually, I’d like to work my way up to taking an ice cold swim like the guy in the video below.
Most of us (particularly those of us who like wine) are familiar with the empirical work showing that a glass of wine (or two for men) a day is good for our health. Alcohol is a poison though, so how can this be? Can you say h-o-r-m-e-s-i-s? I personally think that this advice should be amended to say that a glass of wine or two is beneficial to have on some days. I also suspect that there are hormetic benefits from beer and spirits too, but this is just speculation and this belief of mine is grounded more in hope than evidence, since I enjoy a good bourbon and beer now and then too.
Catching some sun is not only healthy, but it makes me feel better. However, getting fried in the sun is not good for you. In Colorado, where I live, it’s very easy to over do it.
Smoking one cigar or cigarette every 72 days may be better for you than not smoking at all. Sounds strange, right? This one is really a moot point for me though. I don’t particularly enjoy smoking cigars and probably wouldn’t do so even if there were health benefits. Non-smokers who live in big cities probably (and inadvertently) inhale enough second-hand smoke to get the hormetic benefits without even trying.
Anyway, with all due respect to Nietzsche, I’d like to correct his aphorism: “
Whatever doesn’t Some things that don’t kill me make me stronger.” And that, in short, is why I practice Hormetism.
My gut intuition is that I have “free will”, I know, what a shocker. Perhaps naively, I tend to think I’m in control of my mind and will, at least to some degree. However, I’m well aware that my hopes and gut intuitions about things often stray me away from reality. In other words, I realize that I could be dead wrong about this. Before reading any further, I’d like to remind you that I’m not incredibly fluent in the language of neuroscience, but I find it very interesting, so consider yourself warned.
Last night, I saw Sam Harris give a philosophically titillating lecture about the illusion of free will at the Macky Auditorium on the CU-Boulder campus. The lecture was particularly timely since his book, Free Will, was released today. While Harris’ lecture was provocative, and while parts of his argument were undoubtedly true, I confess that I still remain agnostic towards the idea of free will.
First of all, I find it interesting that this question is discussed by anyone other than philosophers. This is because it’s not a scientific question. Is the theory of free will really falsifiable? I would argue that this is a metaphysical question and one which we lack the tools to fully understand. Like Immanuel Kant, I think we will always be blinded by the spectacles of our own human reason.
So what exactly is free will anyway? First of all, I think finding a coherent definition of free will is problematic, but for the sake of this post I will not quibble over semantics. I’ll loosely define free will as the ability to control one’s thoughts.
Here’s a thought experiment from the lecture: think of any city in the world. Now why did you pick the city you just did? Why, for example, didn’t you pick Ashgabat in Turkmenistan? Were you primed by some other material thing in the world or did you truly have the ability to pick any city? If I understand Harris’ point correctly, he’s suggesting that you had no real control over the city you just chose. Instead, your consciousness recognized the thought of which city you think you chose milliseconds after the initial thought occurred, but you didn’t actually choose or will what you think you chose. What are you thinking about right now? (I’m guessing you’re still trying to digest what the hell I meant by that last sentence.) Anyway, can you really control or will what you’re going to think about next? Harris would argue a resounding “no”, and on this point, I think I have to agree.
What some neuroscientists, like Harris, have concluded is that all of our thoughts are essentially the result of some prior physical causes. For example, memories, genetic-predispositions, and character defects are not the types of things that we can control yet they affect our ability to think. All of our behavior results from a bunch of molecules bouncing around according to the laws of physics. According to Jerry Coyne, “The debate about free will, long the purview of philosophers alone, has been given new life by scientists, especially neuroscientists studying how the brain works. And what they’re finding supports the idea that free will is a complete illusion.”
Harris’ shocking claim, then, is that free will is an illusion, albeit a very persistent one. The gist of the argument can be summed up as follows:
- If the universe is deterministic, then we obviously don’t have free will.
- If the universe is not deterministic, then it is random (random decisions are obviously not freely willed either).
- Determinism and randomness collectively exhaust the possibilities.
- Therefore, we cannot possibly have free will.
As Harris pointed out in his lecture, the death of free will spells disaster for religion and our criminal justice system for obvious reasons. The sinner didn’t will to be a sinner and what kind of unfair God would condemn him to hell? Uday Hussein was as odious as it is possible for a human-being to be, but did he necessarily choose to be the person he was? Or was he incredibly unlucky in the genetic lottery?
Although Harris didn’t mention it in the lecture, I couldn’t help but think about Phineas Gage. Most people who have taken a psychology course are familiar with his bizarre accident. Gage was an American railroad construction foreman who survived an accident in which a large iron rod was driven completely through his head, destroying much of his brain’s left frontal lobe. He turned from being a kind and mild-mannered man to a more brutish and rude figure. Was it his fault? Despite the fact that he was obviously still alive, did he have the will to change his behaviors after the accident? Or did some physical part of him change, ultimately meaning that he is not in control, and therefore has no free will to control his behaviors?
The thought of not having free will is a bit unnerving. Then again, if Harris is right, then you can’t really will how you feel in response to that statement anyway. I certainly need to spend some more time thinking about this.
Google co-founder Sergey Brin recently posted the picture of the man above on Google+. The photo is of a man named Edward who is 72 years old. He looks great, right? I can only assume that Brin asked Edward about his diet because in the caption of the photo Brin writes the following: “His diet consists mostly of conch and fish as well as some vegetables from a small garden. Lean and muscular, he looks healthier than most people I know in their twenties.” It certainly doesn’t bode well for modern American culture (or the people I interact with on a daily basis), but I think the last sentence in Brin’s caption smacks of truth as well.
Edward reminds me of many of the people I remember seeing in Costa Rica when I was there in 2010. The Nicoya Peninsula of Costa Rica is considered to be one of the world’s Blue Zones, which is essentially a term for places where people live exceedingly long and healthy lives (there are a disproportionately high number of centenarians in Blue Zones).
Strangely though, most of the Ticos I spoke with had never set foot in a gym, drank a protein shake, eaten an energy bar, gel, etc., or worried much about their diets. I suspect that Edward has never done these things either. Anyway, many of the lean and healthy looking Ticos I spoke with surfed frequently, had an all around active lifestyle, only ate real food, and lingered over meals with family and friends. When I heard these anecdotes, it defied much of the conventional health wisdom I’d grown accustomed to hearing in the United States. Wait, they don’t track their saturated fat intake or count their carbs? They don’t waste countless hours running on dreadmills, I mean treadmills? What gives?
Whatever the reason, I’ve always had an interest in health. I mean, really, all other things equal who wouldn’t want to live a more vibrant, healthy, and longer life? Seeing the picture of Edward on Google+ and reflecting on my experiences in Costa Rica has me thinking about something that has been a major theme on my blog as of late, i.e., the power of negative advice.
So what exactly do healthy people (like Edward and those in the Blue Zones) have in common? It may be in what they don’t do or don’t eat as opposed to what they actually do or eat. What I mean by that is that Edwards’ diet of fish and vegetables may not necessarily be what’s making him healthy. In our addition culture, however, that seems to be our first intuition, or at least its my first intuition anyway. I suspect that many people like me would initially want to mimic Edward’s diet, no matter where in the world we actually live.
As I mentioned in my guest post on Rationally Speaking, people the world over have managed to thrive and achieve magnificent longevity on a variety of diets though. The Masai, for example, live almost exclusively from their cattle and eat a great deal of saturated fat. Then, there are groups of people, like the Peruvians and Kitavans, who eat massive amounts of carbohydrates (in the form of tubers) and achieve remarkable health too. How can this be? I think the answer lies in what they don’t eat (e.g., processed foods or refined sugar).
As a young impressionable American teenager, I always wondered what food I should eat in order to get ripped. It turns out it would have been more prudent to look for things that I shouldn’t be eating.