Thoughts of the Day – 10/2/2012

…there is no total cure for bias, as we’re innately predisposed to prejudice of some kind or another. The only thing that can assist us the critical scrutiny of others. The more we debate, discuss, and learn about one another’s perspectives, the closer we can reach the truth. Science has been successful mostly because of the concept of peer review: a community of individuals reading, challenging, and re-testing each other’s claims for verification. That is why discussion and public debate are so vital, and why we must instill a scientific mindset into our youth.

…whenever I’m reading news articles, particularly those pertaining to other parts of the world, it is easy to forget that they are real. Politics, history, and current events often feel unreal, almost fictional. We’re so psychologically and physically removed from them that we don’t often connect with them on an emotional level, even when we try. I must sometimes reminds myself that these stories are as real my own life – the vast sociopolitical changes, the deaths, the wars, and the drama that unfolds simultaneously around the world. What is mere statistics or datum to me, is something very real to those fellow humans that live through them. The human mind simply wasn’t evolved to fully take in the details of a world full of information.

…this other thought isn’t mine, but I’ve been reflecting on it a lot lately. It comes from blogger Dan Fincke, who has an excellent column over at Freethought Blogs.

Most of our ethical life is about our own flourishing. I think that most of our own flourishing is achieved through actually aiding the flourishing of others since I think that we are at our most powerful when we are empowering other people who then replicate our power and spread it further. In this way, I think that if we tried to truly excel at being powerful, we would be people who empowered others rather than destroyed them for the sake of trinkets like material possessions. In this way, I think it is wise advice to just let people pursue their happiness, to encourage them to maximize their excellences since this is good for them, and to only worry about morality in those cases where it is a matter of turning down short term gains in ways that damage our mutual trust and cooperation with each other, which serve as the preconditions of our prosperity as individuals.

…In both absolute and per capita terms, the US imprisons more of its population than any other country in the world. At the same time, however, we have one of the lowest rates of psychiatric institutionalization in the developed world. Perhaps there is a connection here: the people that should otherwise be receiving psychological help are instead being locked away, and such treatment only worsens their behavior (hence why we also have a high rate of re-offenders). Imagine how many crimes could be prevented if we had a better mental health infrastructure. Just a thought.

On Logical Fallacies

The following was a homework assignment for my Critical Thinking and Ethics course. I figured its content merits a post of its own, so I hope you find it informative. I learned quite a bit while writing it. 

A fallacy is an error in reasoning that violates at least one principle of good argumentation (as they were outlined in the previous homework). Despite the negative connotation, a fallacy isn’t necessarily malicious or intentional, but merely represents poor logic and argumentation on the part of its perpetrator. A single fallacy can undermine the legitimacy of an entire argument.

Because all humans are liable to think and argue poorly, even if we don’t mean to, we’re all susceptible to fallacious ways of thinking. Therefore, we should be alert to these fallacies not only to ensure the truthfulness of the arguments we encounter, but to help us from committing similar errors in reasoning. The following are just four of the fallacies typically encountered in various debates, although by no means the only ones.

Straw Man Fallacy
This is perhaps one of the most common fallacies, especially in the realm of politics. It consists of someone claiming to have successfully refuted an argument, when instead, they’ve attacked a weak or degraded version of it, e.g. the straw man. Often times, this corrupted argument seems similar enough (superficially at least) for a third party to buy into it. A straw man may be a deliberate attempt to make the opponent’s argument look bad (especially if an audience is involved), or may be the result of genuinely misinterpreting the argument.

For example, Alvin is arguing that the United States should grant some sort of amnesty to illegal aliens through a long-term process that includes background checks and citizenship tests. Bob counter-argues that Alvinwants to open the floodgates to millions of people who will take American jobs.

Instead of challenging Alvin’s argument on its merits or rationale, Bob “attacked a straw man” by claiming that his opponent wants America to be taken over by foreigners. Obviously, Alvin said no such thing, but Bob is distorting his statement while also making him seem like an awful person. Not only does doing this undermine what could otherwise be a worthy discussion, but assuming it was intentional, what Bob is doing is dishonest and unethical, thereby violating the principle of charity for any rational discussion.

Irrelevant or Questionable Authority
Behind most good arguments are good sources: studies, institutions, specialists, or other authorities that help add weight and legitimacy to one’s point. Even the most educated person doesn’t know everything, which makes reliance on experts a necessity. However, not every authority is credible, and this fallacy entails relying on a source that either has no bearing on the argument for which it is used, or that is illegitimate due to bias or lack of credentials.

Annabel: I’ve decided I’m going to keep smoking, since it turns out it is safe.

Beatriz: Really? Says who?

Annabel: This study done by a group called Marlboro [a cigarette company].

Annabel believes smoking is okay for her health based on the research of a company that profits from people who smoke. Clearly, her argument is undermined by the fact that her source would have good reason to be biased in favor of smoking cigarettes – it is a questionable authority. She’d be committing the same fallacy if she relied on the opinion of a veterinarian or her Aunt Sally, both of whom would lack the credentials or relevant expertise on the matter being argued. Had Annabel cited research from the National Institute of Health or a specialist on respiratory health, her argument would be far less suspect. Always pay attention the authority your opponent is relying on, while being certain of the legitimacy of your own sources.

Post Hoc Fallacy
This error consists of confusing correlation with causation, whereby you claim that one event was caused by another event just because they occurred in chronological order. It’s a very easy mistake to make, since humans naturally seek out a pattern or relationship between certain factors in order to explain something, especially if those events follow in some kind of sequence.

For example, a landlord receives a new tenant in his apartment block. Shortly after, the water heater breaks down. The landlord insists that it must have something to do with the new occupant, since this happened not long after he moved in.

The landlord is committing a post hoc fallacy because he attributes one event (the water heater breaking) to another event (the new tenant moving in) on the sole basis that the former occurred after the latter. The fact that events occur in some temporal order tells us nothing about whether there is a relationship between them – it could simply be a coincidence. Now, it could very well be that the new renter is somehow responsible for breaking the water heater, but the landlord would need more evidence besides the order of events.

Hasty Generalization
This is arguably one of the most ubiquitous fallacies around. It consists of drawing a broad conclusion about something or someone based on a small sample size of data. Most people do this quite regularly: stereotyping, which occurs in nearly every society, consists of generalizing about a large and diverse group of people based on a few encounters.

For example: “People from Kansas are just awful. I just dealt with a tour group from there, and they were very rude and obnoxious.”

Kansas is a state of a nearly three million residents, so concluding that all of them are nasty people based on a handful of individuals is highly erroneous: a few people can’t possibly offer an accurate representation of an entire state. This is an easy trap to fall into because immediate anecdotal evidence often has a greater impact on us than an often long-term compilation of more data, studies, or statistics. Withhold reaching a conclusion about something until you’ve gathered more information or observed a larger sample size. Make sure arguments making broad claims are doing so based on sufficient data, especially if the argument is citing polls, surveys, or personal anecdotes.

Learn about other fallacies here. Familiarize yourself with these so that you may think and argue well and avoid being fooled or unjustly undermined in debates.

An Interesting Anecdote for Whenever Life Gets Rough

The following parable has been making the rounds on Tumblr, and I’m not sure who the author is or whether it’s even true, but I don’t think it matters. The message is a good one. For all the nonsense the permeates the web, there is quite a bit of wisdom to be found, if your willing to do some sifting.

When things in your life seem, almost too much to handle,
When 24 Hours in a day is not enough,
Remember the mayonnaise jar and 2 cups of coffee.

A professor stood before his philosophy class and had some items in front of him.
When the class began, wordlessly, he picked up a very large and empty mayonnaise jar and proceeded to fill it with golf balls.

He then asked the students if the jar was full.
They agreed that it was.

The professor then picked up a box of pebbles and poured
them into the jar. He shook the jar lightly.
The pebbles rolled into the open areas between the golf balls.

He then asked the students again if the jar was full.
They agreed it was.

The professor next picked up a box of sand and poured it into the jar.
Of course, the sand filled up everything else. He asked once more if the jar was full. The students responded with a unanimous ‘yes.’

The professor then produced two cups of coffee from under the table and poured the entire contents into the jar, effectively filling the empty space between the sand. The students laughed.

‘Now,’ said the professor, as the laughter subsided, ‘I want you to recognize that this jar represents your life.’

The golf balls are the important things – family,
children, health, Friends, and Favorite passions –
Things that if everything else was lost and only they remained, your life would still be full.

The pebbles are the other things that matter like your job, house, and car.

The sand is everything else —The small stuff.

‘If you put the sand into the jar first,’ He continued, ‘there is no room for the pebbles or the golf balls.’

The same goes for life.

If you spend all your time and energy on the small stuff, you will never have room for the things that are important to you.

So…

Pay attention to the things that are critical to your happiness.
Play with your children.
Take time to get medical checkups.
Take your partner out to dinner.

There will always be time to clean the house and fix the disposal.

‘Take care of the golf balls first —
The things that really matter.
Set your priorities. The rest is just sand.’

One of the students raised her hand and inquired what the coffee represented.

The professor smiled, ‘I’m glad you asked’, he said.

‘It just goes to show you that no matter how full your life may seem,
There’s always room for a couple of cups of coffee with a friend.

As always, it’s about the simple things in life. Don’t underestimate the little breathers that come between all the hustle and bustle of our daily routines. They can often make or break our lives, and it will be those moments that we’ll reflect on when we’re judging the quality of the lives we lived.

An Atheist Discusses Death

And not just any atheist, but the esteemed Sam Harris, one of the “Four Horsemen” of the “New Atheist” movement. It’s a long video, but it’s well worth the time. Concerns about mortality are probably the biggest impediment to the acceptance of a nonreligious position, not to mention a source of anxiety for people of any faith. Thus, it’s great to see a fellow secularist make an attempt to resolving our awareness of a finite existence.

Granted, even Sam’s (eloquently presented) solution isn’t a complete panacea, but it’s certainly a start, and at the very least it’s opening up more useful dialogue and discussion about this very important issue. It’s definitely got me thinking, and I hope it elicits the same among some of you.

Stoicism and the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius

Michael Grant called Marcus Aurelius “the noblest of all the men who, by sheer intelligence and force of character, have prized and achieved goodness for its own sake and not for any reward.”

Marcus Aurelius was a Roman Emperor who historians consider to be the last of the so-called Five Good Emperors, after whom the empire suffered decline and chaos under a succession of weak, corrupt, or insane rulers. Most people may better remember him as the kindly old emperor from the film Gladiator.

Among philosophers and intellectuals, however, he is known as one of the wisest and most influential thinkers of his time, a man whose works still bear relevance today. Aurelius was an adherent and proponent of Stoicism, a philosophical school of thought that, among other things, emphasized self-control, clear-thinking, and living a virtuous life.

His greatest contribution to this line of thinking, if not philosophy in general, was a collection of personal writings known as the Meditations, which were written during a decade of military campaigning between the years 170 and 180 – a surprising context given the subject matter.

First written in Greek, it was originally intended for Aurelius’s own guidance and self-improvement – which he no doubt needed plenty, given that he was leading a war. In fact, his own title for the works was To Myself, which suggests that it was never intended to be published (though no one knows for sure). Meditations was thus one of several titles assigned to this compilation, though now it’s the most common. It’s unknown when it was first disseminated and how much circulation it received, as it was first published in the 16th century, based on a manuscript that is not lost to history (the only copy of it is in the Vatican Library).

Given its personal nature, Meditations has a unique but nonetheless digestible style. It consists mostly of quotations varying in length from one sentence to several. It’s divided into 12 chapters that chronicle different periods of his life, albeit without any chronological order, though it’s not as confusing as you may think. In fact, the writing is plain, simple, and straightforward; depending on the translation, it doesn’t even read like you’d expect it to, given his intellect and royalty. For a philosophical text, it’s quite relatable to the average person.

As for the subject matter, it mostly discusses the notions of service and duty, and describes how one can maintain serenity in the midst of conflict (internal or external) by following nature as a source of guidance. His ideas may remind readers of Buddhism.

For starters, Marcus advised against sensory indulgence, and claimed that avoiding them will liberate the individual from the pains and pleasures of the material world. He asserts that the only way a man can be harmed by others is to allow his reactions to take control of him. He speaks of an order to the universe, called logos, which can be transcended to through rationality and clear-mindedness, allowing one to rise above what he considers to be simplistic perceptions of “good” and “bad.”

What does he mean? Well, the most central principle of Meditations, and by extension Stoicism as Marcus sees it, is to analyze your judgment of yourself and others and seek to develop a cosmic perspective. As he explains:

You have the power to strip away many superfluous troubles located wholly in your judgment, and to possess a large room for yourself embracing in thought the whole cosmos, to consider everlasting time, to think of the rapid change in the parts of each thing, of how short it is from birth until dissolution, and how the void before birth and that after dissolution are equally infinite.

At several points during his work, he makes this argument that each individual is part a greater cosmic structure, leading some to conclude that Marcus is advocating for a collectivist and worldly approach rather than an individualistic one. Essentially, he’s advocating that you find your own place in the universe and observe the bigger picture.

There is more to this existence than you, or than plain ideas like good or bad. You must connect the larger, deterministic world around you, for which you have no control over but through your reactions to it. Everything came from nature, and so everything will eventually return to it. The best you can do in the meantime is to make the most of your life through discipline and virtue; to remain focused on your goals, avoid distractions (both within and without), and maintain strong ethical principles such as “being a good [person]” – hence that famous quote I posted in the beginning.

Needless to say, this advice is applicable to just about any area of life, from politics to business. What Marcus discusses is relevant to every human being who has ever lived – in everything we do, we must find peace with ourselves and the world around. It is no wonder that Meditations remains a revered literary masterpiece, considered a favorite of such diverse figures as Frederick the Great, John Stuart Mill, Matthew Arnold, Goethe, Wen Jiabao, and former president Bill Clinton (who no doubt should have followed its advice better). John Steinbeck, one of my favorite authors, even alluded to it several times in his magnum opus, East of Eden.

Like all philosophical works, Meditations isn’t without shortcomings or criticisms. For many people, Stoic philosophy in general is considered too staid, with too much opposition to sensory experience. People will always debate what great thinkers actually meant in their works, or interpret their writings differently. Personally, I see it as a more balanced work, much like Buddhism’s admonishment not against material goods per se, but on the excess attachment to such things. Though I’m inspired by stoicism and the Meditations, I also adhere to tenets ofHedonism (greatly misunderstood) and Epicureanism, taking the best from which and I applying them as I see best.

If you’re a philosopher, or someone who’s otherwise read and studied this work, please share your own thoughts and reactions. If you haven’t read it yet, I highly encourage you to do so. At the very least, it’s a thought-provoking experience.

Below are some of my favorite quotations from the Meditations:

  • If thou art pained by any external thing, it is not this that disturbs thee, but thy own judgment about it. And it is in thy power to wipe out this judgment now.
  • A cucumber is bitter. Throw it away. There are briars in the road. Turn aside from them. This is enough. Do not add, “And why were such things made in the world?”
  • Soon you’ll be ashes or bones. A mere name at most—and even that is just a sound, an echo. The things we want in life are empty, stale, trivial.
  • Never regard something as doing you good if it makes you betray a trust or lose your sense of shame or makes you show hatred, suspicion, ill-will or hypocrisy or a desire for things best done behind closed doors.
  • Whatever happens to you has been waiting to happen since the beginning of time. The twining strands of fate wove both of them together: your own existence and the things that happen to you.
  • Not to feel exasperated or defeated or despondent because your days aren’t packed with wise and moral actions. But to get back up when you fail, to celebrate behaving like a human—however imperfectly—and fully embrace the pursuit you’ve embarked on.
  • Let opinion be taken away, and no man will think himself wronged. If no man shall think himself wronged, then is there no more any such thing as wrong.
  • As for others whose lives are not so ordered, he reminds himself constantly of the characters they exhibit daily and nightly at home and abroad, and of the sort of society they frequent; and the approval of such men, who do not even stand well in their own eyes has no value for him.
  • Shame on the soul, to falter on the road of life while the body still perseveres.
  • Take away your opinion, and there is taken away the complaint, […] Take away the complaint, […] and the hurt is gone
  • Do not act as if thou wert going to live ten thousand years. Death hangs over thee. While thou livest, while it is in thy power, be good.
  • Words that everyone once used are now obsolete, and so are the men whose names were once on everyone’s lips: Camillus, Caeso, Volesus, Dentatus, and to a lesser degree Scipio and Cato, and yes, even Augustus, Hadrian, and Antoninus are less spoken of now than they were in their own days. For all things fade away, become the stuff of legend, and are soon buried in oblivion. Mind you, this is true only for those who blazed once like bright stars in the firmament, but for the rest, as soon as a few clods of earth cover their corpses, they are ‘out of sight, out of mind.’ In the end, what would you gain from everlasting remembrance? Absolutely nothing. So what is left worth living for? This alone: justice in thought, goodness in action, speech that cannot deceive, and a disposition glad of whatever comes, welcoming it as necessary, as familiar, as flowing from the same source and fountain as yourself.
  • Do not then consider life a thing of any value. For look at the immensity of time behind thee, and to the time which is before thee, another boundless space. In this infinity then what is the difference between him who lives three days and him who lives three generations?
  • When you wake up in the morning, tell yourself: The people I deal with today will be meddling, ungrateful, arrogant, dishonest, jealous, and surly. They are like this because they can’t tell good from evil. But I have seen the beauty of good, and the ugliness of evil, and have recognized that the wrongdoer has a nature related to my own—not of the same blood or birth, but the same mind, and possessing a share of the divine.

The Primacy of Death

It’s hard for people to remember that death is ubiquitous, that at any given moment anyone of us could disappear from this Earth forever. We go about our lives doing everything in our power to avoid this frightening reality: we don’t talk about death in casual conversation, and few people are ever exposed to it intimately. We tuck death away, both physically and psychologically.

Maybe it’s mostly my OCD that makes me overly concerned about this fact. I’m not sure if other people, especially younger ones, think and worry about death as much as I do. The fragility of life both frightens and terrifies me: it’s so much easier to die than it is to live. There’s no avoiding death – not only will it come for us inevitably, but even if we take every precaution imaginable, we never completely eliminate the risk of dying from some cause or another.

I read a story about a man, the father of two young girls, who died because – of all things – he was swarmed by a flock of swans, which caused his kayak to tip over, drowning him. A few weeks before that, a six year-old boy died met a gruesome end while helping his father with some yard work; he got caught be a wood chipper as he was disposing of foliage. That story reminded me of a woman who lost her infant son after a tree branch in Central Park, Manhattan fell upon them.

These are just a miniscule sample of the freak tragedies that play out everyday, somewhere in the world. None of these people woke up thinking that this would be their last day. No one expects to be drowned by swans or killed while posing for a picture at a scenic public park. If death were personified, he’d be the most keenly creative being in existence.

It’s strange to read these stories and not be able to relate. Don’t get me wrong, I’m quite grateful that for the most part, I’ve never been intimately affected by death (though several friends both on and off the web have died). But it always strikes me how random it all is: it’s always those people, always, someone else that suffers this fate. We read up on it as if it were a story in a book, never truly making the connection that it could just as well be us.

We’re all powerless in the face of death. The most we can do is wait it out. Even stars that last billions of years eventually expire. Presumably, our universe will too (though who knows if it will begin anew). All things must come to an end. That makes existence precious and beautiful, and makes me value every moment on this Earth even more. But it can also be the cause of many sleepless nights, as I wonder if I, too, will be one of those freak deaths that people read about.

The Quiet Life: What’s Life Like Without Hearing?

What’s it like not to see or hear? I can’t even begin to imagine. But I want to try my hardest to understand as many perspectives as possible. It’s difficult to remember that not everyone experiences the world we do. Even removing a single sensory ability can fundamentally alter your reality.

Thankfully, a young man named David Peters has written a personal and insightful account of everyday life as a deaf person. You can read it on Gizmodo. Needless to say, it makes me appreciate the “natural” senses we take as a given. I have tremendous respect for those who could adapt to the difficult and often lonely reality of being “different” from most of the world.

However, this is just one perspective of many, and as with any demographic, we shouldn’t generalize based on one experience. Keep this in mind as you read it, and take the time to read this very different counterpoint, which offers a much more hopeful perspective.

Many thanks to those who raised this to my attention.

What Makes a Human

A human is made of the following:

  • Oxygen (65%)
  • Carbon (18%)
  • Hydrogen (10%)
  • Nitrogen (3%)
  • Calcium (1.5%)
  • Phosphorus (1.0%)
  • Potassium (0.35%)
  • Sulfur (0.25%)
  • Sodium (0.15%)
  • Iron (0.70%)
  • Magnesium (0.05%)
  • And trace amounts of Copper, Zinc, Selenium, Molybdenum, Fluorine, Chlorine, Iodine, Manganese, Cobalt,  Lithium, Strontium, Aluminum, Silicon, Lead, Vanadium, Arsenic, Bromine.

It’s hard to realize that everything we are, down to the smallest sub-atomic level, is a product of nature. We share the same origins and atoms of a tree, rock, insect, or star. Everything around us, everything in this entire universe, has the same origin. How strange it is that we’re all so connected in this way.

And just as our bodies are made off the atoms of previous organisms and stars, so too will future substances contains our atoms once we die. Nothing is ever destroyed. Our matter merely moves on to take another form, to make up some other part of our wonderful universe. As a great physicist once said, we are literally made out of star stuff – and visa versa.

The Default Western Perspective

Most people reading this post are from Western societies that are broadly middle-class (albeit under a lot of recent strain). Our popular culture – movies, television shows, music, etc – are all based on a middle-class perception of the world. That is the “default” or “normal” way we imagine life.

So it’s strange to consider that we’re a very tiny minority in this world: the majority of our fellow humans live in poverty. They don’t even remotely have the same perspective (although popular entertainment media will still depict middle or upper-class life as the default).

Indeed, the overwhelming majority of people who have ever lived were terribly impoverished and miserable. We are a very exclusive group, especially when you consider that most young people live in poorer societies, while most rich countries are older demographically.

One of the Best Feelings in the World

That moment when you discover something new and enriching to your life: beautiful music, a delicious flavor, new sights, a companion. Arguably, life is all about experience: our existence is just a compilation of all the things we’ve seen, done, and learned. The fragile and finite nature of time on Earth means we should savor everything while we can. Curiosity is one of our greatest gifts. Embrace the world. Make the most of it. Do what you can, while you ca