Posts Tagged ‘cosmology’

Fantasy, Species Dominance, and Happiness

January 18, 2016

Our brains are wired to construct a model of the world, outfit it with precepts, then believe in that virtual world, sometimes fiercely. See How God Changes Your Brain, Newberg & Waldman, 2009.  This propensity for fantasy may be our species’ most significant achievement:  By actually believing in things that are true solely within confines of interacting human brains, we leapfrog over the problem of trusting and cooperating with the 50 to 150 people we can keep track of and observe on a regular basis socially, roughly the local community in the tribes of  human history.  By subscribing to a story — virtually any story, that intrinsically cannot withstand the scrutiny of testable evidence — of who we are collectively, we achieve acts of metacooperation that distinguish us categorically from other species and secure our dominion.  See Sapiens, Yuval Noah Harari, 2015.

The question arises: What relationship does this feature bear to our potential to be happy?

In A Beautiful Mind, we learn that a mentally-compromised mathematician must teach himself to ignore most of the people he perceives to be in the room at a given moment — because they are not really there. In the act of downhill skiing, the student must teach herself to apply pressure to her right foot in order to turn left.  In acquiring any language, we must crowd our brains with parallel utterances, often with an awkwardness that makes the attempt seem futile.

Similarly, to place ourselves in the position of appreciating the day that is about to unfold, to wish to inhabit the world that the universe — along with our personal fantastic story — presents to us on a given day, may be a route to well being. The choreography of improvisation, like a football running back in a field of constantly-shifting defenders, may be the solution.  Our brain demands meaning, it shops for meaning, then plucks ideas and consecrates them.  It feels like a search for truth, but it is likely anything but.  Happiness, then, may consist in gliding lightly over the totemic physiography of a day of life, that rock is either there or not; that cliff, there or not, that trough, and so on.  The descent itself need not be virtiginous.

Happiness: A Theory – Attitude

November 26, 2010


In their book, How God Changes Your Brain, University of Pennsylvania’s Andrew Newberg and Mark Waldman examine the effects of a strongly-held, positive belief system on our well being, concluding that, religious or not, an optimistic, well-rooted view of the world makes us healthier and happier. 

If they are correct, the proliferation and diversity of beliefs about life and its meaning may be more easily understood, since the belief itself, rather than its veracity, enhances those who hold it.  As a corollary, disabusing others of what we conceive of as incorrect beliefs may be less beneficial than we imagine. 

Adopting a framework for perceiving our universe seems a constant tug within us.  Whether we view life as replete with significance or meaningless, we are often tied to our particular vantage point.  Whether we view our neighbors as essentially rotten or essentially good, again, our perspective is often something we hold dear.

The good effects of believing in our beliefs may nonetheless lead us to an unintended consequence:  whatever mysteries the universe might reveal, they are scarcely more discernible if viewed through only one kind of lens.  When we approach our understanding of what is with an attitude, how likely are we to see things as they are? 

The question arises:  Is there any relationship between our well being and a less-distorted perception of the world?  Herein lies one of the conundra of a diligent search for understanding:  The more we peruse the testable evidence of our neuronal function, the more we reveal our brain’s indifference to the universe as it is.  In order to hold a belief with any tenacity, we tend to need to actually believe it, which becomes harder to do under these circumstances.  If we can’t hold a belief, it would appear, we can’t enjoy the kind of happiness described by Newberg and Waldman.

There may be a solution, however. 

If we adopt the belief that whatever we believe is suspect, that any particular view should be held for the time being, but readily discarded when the testable evidence reveals its flaws, we may console ourselves that we have removed one prominent obstacle to knowing.  Our attitude provides a glimpse of the impetus behind the human quest to know.  When we drop the attitude, however, we may find we have found something truly worthy of belief.

Happiness: A Theory — Being Wired for Belief (or Not)

August 4, 2010

One of the more interesting ideas in neuroscience suggests that there are some of us who are simply wired for skepticism, others, for belief. It stands to reason that a mix of the types makes for a stronger overall culture. If so, the notion that exposure to critical thinking enhances the self-doubt of one who is inclined toward belief may be unduly optimistic. If one is wired for skepticism, one intuitively sees the fit between this mindset and the limits of our ability to know. If one is wired for belief, however, is it any less intuitive to perceive the fit between that mindset and the elegant architecture of a belief? There certainly appear to be so-called critical thinkers who are just as chained to their comfort zones as any faith-oriented folks they may wish to ridicule. The cultivation of an open mind is no simple task.

Steadfast belief is a strength, no less so than healthy skepticism.  These two attitudes appear to be constituents of our evolutionary glue, no less so because we misapply them.  We doubt in the face of profound evidence, and we believe fervently in, among other things, disbelief.  But just having such neural pathways may allow humans, as a group, to stumble upon a workable perception, then cobble together a culture to support it. 

It is when we tease out one attitude or the other and attempt to superimpose it on the universe that we get into trouble.  The feeling of knowing appears to be an emotion, which may or may not correspond to a rational deduction based on testable evidence.  What some of us term a spiritual experience might be nothing more than stimulation of the feeling of knowing without accompanying content, so that we fill the empty container with whatever cosmology is rattling around in our personal tin cup.  See On Being Certain, by Robert Burton, one of the very best tomes to emerge from the current study of the brain.  When we criticize our neighbors for the contents of their cup, we may be doing little more than succumbing to another dab of evolutionary glue: the addicting notion that our “in” group trumps someone else’s “out” group.

Recognizing that neither belief, nor skepticism, in themselves, warrant judgment (in the form of belief, or skepticism), is an important step in cultivating happiness.

Happiness: A Theory — The God Question

July 28, 2010


We conceive of the universe as having a beginning, hence, a moment of birth, or creation.  Such a scenario implies a creator.  But we may think in terms of cause and effect, beginnings, because that is our milieu.  Our brains evolved in an environment steeped in birth, in beginnings.  The concept of something eternal is simply not part of our thought process.  We may posit a deity to set the universe in motion, but what about a universe that has always been here?  Why can’t that be true, without a prime mover?  If we insist on perceiving an original moment of creation, we merely perpetuate the conundrum: if creation is the way all things begin, how was god created?  If god is an exception, why can’t the universe be an exception?

Consider how many different competing conceptions of how the world began are to be found in the religions of the world.  Consider how fervently adherents to these faiths propound their particular creation stories, and all the other precepts.  Yet, how testable are these beliefs?  One thing can be known: insofar as they each claim their own exclusively true account of how the world began, they must all be wrong, with the possible exception of one.  If we select just one of these stories and claim it to be the one true account, how likely are we to be correct?

All of this should leave us with one abiding perception:  when it comes to matters of god and our metaphysical plight, we should be humble.  We may feel as though we we know, but we should not claim to know.   This humility should not be so difficult to come by, for the simple reason that we do not know.  Being brought up to believe one story or another is not knowing; it is simply the belief that we know.

There is something else.  There is a kind of metaphysical bravery in accepting that we, ourselves, may be the ultimate arbiters of our own lives.

Origin of the universe

November 23, 2007

If we say the universe was caused by something, aren’t we excluding that thing from our definition of the universe. Why? If the universe means everything, it either arises from nothing, creates itself, or has always been, no? Of these three choices, the third seems least unlikely.

Here is a sample response I have received when posing this question elsewhere:

[If we say that the universe was caused by something, aren’t we excluding that thing from our definition of the universe.]

Not a priori. We ask ourselves about self-created things and about the concept of infinite pasts. Then we see where we are. Then we move forward.

[If the universe means everything, it either arises from nothing, creates itself, or has always been, no? Of these three choices, the third seems least unlikely.]

I presume that the universe is all material things. So to me the idea that material things created themselves or that they have existed eternally is unlikely, if not logically impossible. So the third option becomes a consideration (unless I’ve already decided not to consider it.)