Small in a big place or big in a small place? We are both.

Michael Shermer, a renowned author and Presidential Fellow at Chapman University gave valuable comments to one of the most disturbing questions regarding the significance and meaning of our life: do we and our actions matter in the universe? The question seems valid. Compared to cosmic scales (to the Milky Way, let alone to the observable universe), not just we, humans, but Earth itself is insignificant, less than a grain of sand on the seashore. We are so proud of our achievements, but we can hardly leave our own planet. We say that we rule the Earth, but we are more like ants on its surface, more depending on nature than ruling it.

Michael Shermer, however, shows that our actions do matter, if we make the analysis at a proper level. We shall assess our actions at the human size and timescale, at where we actually are. Our actions do matter to our friends, enemies and also to our society. See the article below. We can add only one thought to this. If we are diligent, lucky and if we are very smart, making the right decisions, we may even reach a level of development and may live long enough to have some effect on systems beyond the Earth and the solar system. Our current actions do matter to our own future and potentials as well.

Our Actions Don’t Matter in a Cosmic Sense—But That Doesn’t Mean They Don’t Matter. Science reveals our deepest purpose.

The Meaning of Life Team

The Interbrain: a wi-fi or a net?

Browsing the net I have indirectly run into the new book (about to be released) of Digby Tantam, a British Professor of Psychotherapy. The first traces toward the book were not promising at all: some article in the International Business Times (India Edition) reported that „Human brains act like Wi-Fi”. Great, I said, another like hunter article with either no content at all, with overstretched conclusions or a commentary grossly distorting some background research. But at least I can write a short post about how modern and/or social media distorts scientific results, I thought.

So I clicked and yes, at first the content of the article has just seemed to confirm my suspicion. No reference to any research or proper written source: a supreme act of evil in my eye. Moreover, at some point the article said that Mr. Tantam claims that there are „direct connection between our brains”. Great, what comes next, telepathy? But a newspaper article is not a proper representation of the author’s statements – especially if the journalist is not able to write his name once properly, but misspelled it two times in two different way… And there were also interesting points as well: the importance of nonverbal, subconscious perception of other peoples’ emotions and their focuses of attention. We all are constantly aware of the moods and intentions of people around us – obviously a very useful feature for one’s survival and success. Humans are social beings after all. Obviously it won’t make our brain wi-fi, it will make more of a part of a larger net, if you are forced to use a metaphor. Regardless, the scientific article in the background may be interesting, I said, so lets’ find it.

There came the surprise: I could not find any related recent article from Mr. Tantam at the beginning. But my hunting instinct was already on, so after a time I discovered that the article was probably linked to his new book, The Interbrain: Embodied Connections Versus Common Knowledge. Luckily I was able to look into it and could see that there is no nonsense there: no telepathy, not even wi-fi, but well based research and conclusion about the idea that human beings are endlessly connected by a continuous interplay of non-verbal communication, of which we are unaware. The channels of these communications are the eyes, nose, skin and ears. All inputs from these sources are subconsciously processed and used by everyone’s brain, potentially creating a network of connected feeling and low-level awareness. If you think about how much the feelings of our family members immediately affect us, causing either happiness or misery, you can understand the validity of the conclusions. And all of this automatically, without a conscious thought. Quoting from some summary: “Considering social smiles and the way emotions can spread from one person to another, he explores the research that shows how our brains are linked and draws out the implications of the interbrain for our understanding of empathy, social communication, psychology and group behaviour.”

The book may have several interesting fundamental contributions to our own topic (the scientific answers to the meaning of life):

  • The author openly speculates about the meaning of life. The connections built and knowledge gained unconsciously have several results, and of these results “…the experience of transcendence is one and this might be the root of spirituality and indeed what many people would consider the meaning of life.” So the meaning of life may be obtained unconsciously. Interesting idea, deserves further research.
  • The Interbrain significantly influence our feelings and behaviour. But this influence leaves less room for conscious decisions and, indirectly, free will. At least partly we are dragged up and down by invisible forces. It is hardly new: most of our thinking (data processing and decision) process is also not conscious, and most of the physical and biological processes of our body is deterministic. Nevertheless these new unobserved influences are direct, personal and targeted free-will-limiting factors. They can even be (and probably are) exploited to manipulate our behaviour and decisions. The first step to solve a problem is to see it.
  • We have always knew that a potential answer to the meaning of life is our relationship to other people, friends, family or to a group. It is not just a logical conclusion, it is also our deep feelings about these connections. Now we partially understand why we have these gut feelings.

 

And I also have a gut feeling that this book may deserve a proper post-publication review sooner or later.

 

Laszlo

The Meaning of Life Team

Singularity as a Heaven for Humanity?

It was interesting to read about and see the studio discussion of Ray Kurzweil, Google’s Director of Engineering in the SXSW Conference. He is a well-known futurist and he claims “Of his 147 predictions since the 1990s, …86 percent accuracy rate.” An undeniably smart guy with (probably merited) high self-confidence. Let’s see his latest forecasts!

“2029 is the consistent date I have predicted for when an AI will pass a valid Turing test and therefore achieve human levels of intelligence. I have set the date 2045 for the ‘Singularity’ which is when we will multiply our effective intelligence a billion fold by merging with the intelligence we have created.”

The related article confirms that “Kurzweil’s timetable for the singularity is consistent with other predictions,– notably those of Softbank CEO Masayoshi Son, who predicts that the dawn of super-intelligent machines will happen by 2047.”

Ray Kurzweil may even be right. The future is unpredictable and computers are still developing rapidly. New technologies are developed daily. However, there are also reasonable doubts here.

Even if we assume the Moore’s law will be valid for the next 18 years (not fully realistic), computer’s speed may increase by about 260 thousand times “only”. We can’t see the million times here. Besides our intelligence is difficult to be measured. We can hardly estimate our memory capacity, let alone the number and nature of calculations our brain makes automatically during e.g. image/pattern recognitions. Moreover, how can we “merge” our brain/intelligence with that of the machines? It sounds great, but any programmer can tell to you that even building interfaces between computer programs is difficult sometimes. What about building functional connections between two entirely different “hardware”, “software” and “operations”, between human brains ad silicon chips?

These problems are somewhat resonate with those expressed regarding any other “singularity” theory. Singularity theories usually relies on assumptions of exponential growth – growth of knowledge, growth of performance. However, it is knows that in several areas of science new discoveries requires investments increasing more that linearly. USD 5 bn price tag of the Large Hadron Collider is a good example. Moreover, there are physical limits to certain developments, as there are limits for the speed (the speed of light) and the accuracy of certain physical measurements (Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle). It is simply too bold to say the exponential growth is feasible anyway in a limited environment, on Earth. And yes, we used the word “environment” not accidently.

But we don’t have to rely on word only. We can test his predictions relatively soon. In his 2005 book “The Singularity Is Near” he predicted that we can buy a computer with computational capacity of the human brain for 1000 dollars in 2020. So we can just sit back and wait for the first test results.

What is also very interesting in his speech is his positive outlook of these developments for us. “What’s actually happening is [machines] are powering all of us,” Kurzweil said. “They’re making us smarter.” Yes, there are many positive effect of the computers. We can hardly wait to be cleverer – we all know that we need it, right? But they can also make us weaker and stupider. It is proven that those parts of the brain and the body, which are not used and exercised usually, become weaker. Brain and body functions taken over by machines will not be better – they will be artificially augmented, resulting in dependencies. Remember the cars/elevators and obscenity, glasses and weaker eyesight, orthodontics and tooth degradation. Such effects can happen in short-term (lack of exercise results in weaker muscles) and long-term (lack of evolutionary pressure can allow the inheritance of unfavourable genes variants).

So while we sincerely hope that Ray Kurzweil is right in every possible aspect, we recommend not to lay down our mental weaponry and give up thinking. Chance favours the prepared mind – not the lazy one.

The Meaning of Life Team

The dark side of the attention-based economy

Once upon a time, human needed food and shelter most. Then they lacked security from diseases and wars. They wanted to have love, to join a family, group, to belong to a community. From this community, they also wanted to gain prestige and self-esteem. The lucky ones who got even these things might wish for self-actualization too.

Yes, you remember well. These things are coming from the Maslow’s Pyramid of Needs. It is not easy to achieve all these aims, fulfill all these needs. However, at least some problem seemed to be solved recently: lack of information, lack of community, lack of groups and people to connect with, thanks for the internet and the modern social media providing the technology connecting people on the other side of the globe.

Is this all well now?

Definitely not. It turned out that too much information through the net can also have material side effect: lack of or limited attention time span. In case of too much information and too much connection opportunity you have to decide that for what you will use your limited time. Moreover, your time has become a prize, a currency in itself. Whoever can grab and hold your time and attention can use this time to try to sell you something. Or he can sell your time to other sellers: what do you think Facebook, Google, and all celebrities are living on and profiting from? Yes, from your time and attention.

The business model is very tempting. The information flows freely and abundantly. You are receiving one fabulous story after another. You have access to news and articles of all kind, both Google and Facebook offer you free services: search engines to reach the global knowledge base of humanity and a useful platform to keep in touch with your friends and people interested in same things than you. The same goes to Twitter, Snapchat; you name them.

However it all comes at a price: they try to monopolize your attention with smart solutions, deviously designed “useful” applications and with algorithms knowing your tastes and habits better than you do. Computer game addictions are just the tip of the iceberg: obviously they are mostly useless, obviously they are developed to make you spend money in them or become a platform for ads and obviously they distract you from the reality, where you can have a meaningful life and where you can achieve you real (not virtual) aims and desires. In most cases, the “information” provided by them turns out tabloid-level “news,” celebrity stories or outright marketing and product placements. Even more useful applications and facts can distract and disturb you so much that your useful intelligence can drop by 10 IQ points. These providers and applications have become so efficient that even their designers may decide to break any link with them.

Certain analysis of this situation goes so far that modern media effectively limit your free will (as it limits your effective IQ). There are well-supported arguments that Modern Media Is a DoS Attack on Your Free Will. It is not just that modern media may have influence can distract you from real activities. There are arguments that they can hijack your brain: modern media specialists and marketers know too much about our brain and behavior. Using this knowledge they can tailor and title articles and messages to grab your attention and influence your behavior. They don’t even have to be perfect: analysis the results of an actual campaign and using A/B testing methods, they can correct their mistakes during flight. They can even cancel whole campaigns in the middle and try it from a different angle. Without their knowledge, budgets of few million dollars, tools and methodologies it is difficult to resist such campaigns.

Quite a dark picture, isn’t it? Where is the meaning of our life if we have become puppets of the puppet masters/gurus of the online social media?

Fortunately, this situations is not so severe. So far we have presented only one side of the coin, the pessimistic one. On the other hand:

  • The whole situation is partially coming from a positive development: scarcity of the information has practically vanished. It is not bad. With having an internet connection, you can have access to most of the information you need to gain a new skill, solve a problem or reach a practical aim. We can contact our loved one remotely in seconds now. In the Middle Ages sending a letter could have taken weeks or months, affordable to nobles only. Every bean has its black: we have to suffer some consequences of our luck of living in an information age.
  • Even the attention-based economy has its bright side: we have a scarce resource of the economy, our own time and attention. And there is a competition for this resource. We just have to use this resource wisely. Don’t sell it cheaply: don’t click on links, ads, picture and videos unless they serves your actual needs. Don’t click on any title without info on the content. Learn the most common clickbait titles and the related trash media organisations to ignore them! Don’t believe in bombastic, promising advertisements – make them work more hardly for your attention! The situation is familiar to the labour market. You control our workforce: don’t jump to the first job offer, choose a job with the best fitting terms, if you can. In the online social media paying your bill doesn’t depend on your quick decision. Just the opposite: you will pay less if you click more carefully. This competition for your attention can mean that you can get what you really want. This is actually happening: advertisers must (and already do) tailor their messages to the suitable audience. You just have to be even more selective.
  • For most of the population, the situation is not favorable right now. People are stuck to Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat and their computers and mobile phones, regularly ignoring reality. There is the learning curve here, however. People can learn their lesson in a hard way, having traffic accidents due to their unwise mobile phone usage. But they can be simply bored sooner or later, realizing that all those chats, posts and likes lead to nowhere. It may be just a childhood disease; we may outgrow it with more accumulated personal experience.

 

So what is the moral of the story?

Use your intellect, learn the nature of the beast and you will easily have the upper hand in this game. You just have to realize that the aces are with you already.

 

The Meaning of Life Team

Mortal Dangers Ahead?

In his latest paper in the International Journal of Astrobiology Daniel P. Whitmire, PhD., teacher at the Faculty of Mathematical Sciences of the University of Arkansas found (taking our current state and the Principle of Mediocrity into consideration) that we have high chances to go extinct relatively soon. Needless to say that extinction would be a telling argument against any meaning of our existence. Is the situation really so grave? We can not afford to look away from such a risk, so we shall come back to this topic as soon as possible.

The original article: Implication of our technological species being first and early

Meaning of Life Team

Did The Human Genus Occur By Chance?

It’s long been assumed that the human genus originated during a significant climate change event in Africa. According to this hypothesis an ice age occurred between 2.8 and 2.5 million years ago which coincided with a pulse or cluster of diverse new species, including Homo. These pulses may be seen in the African fossil records.

It’s a theory partly made popular because of its grand theater. It highlights a dramatic story of humans having evolved into a sophisticated species with huge brains under extreme pressure. It sounds heroic to become a clever enough survival in a few hundred thousand years after the onset of a catastrophic ice age. A great origin story worthy of our intellect.

Now Andrew Barr from the George Washington University (Signal or noise: significance of turnover pulses) has published a study which refutes the ice age theory. Instead it claims that simple random factors other than environmental shifts are likely to have caused these pulses.

W. Andrew Barr’s paper declares that the underlying cause of these pulses may be down to just chance. To prove it, he ran a series of computer simulations to model how the African fossil record might look without factoring in climate change. The results showed species clusters of a similar size to the real African fossil record. While it is true scientists can’t agree on what defines a cluster, Barr’s paper implies that species origination is more random than once believed. In other words, Homo, the most intelligent of species, may have come about from pure luck. A simple roll of the cosmic dice.

At first glance, it looks like our collective human ego has been dealt a massive blow. Barr believes his findings must prompt us to look for causes other than climate change for human evolution. He adds that our larger brains and technological prowess could have evolved for any number of prosaic reasons.

For those searching for meaning in life, Barr’s randomness of evolution may strike a deep disappointment in our hearts. It seems like our heroic backstory has been stripped away, leaving nothing but a primordial soup of arbitrary numbers.

This randomness of life’s origins suggests that we as high functioning individuals have no control over our own fate. However noble the vision of our destinies, we might as well wander aimlessly through our lives, subject to the vagaries of chance.

How does that alter our perception of life’s meaning? Moreover if all organisms are created by chance, what does this mean to be human? How does this shape our ego? If all species originate from random fluctuations over the course of time, then that makes us no better than amoebae. Our first thoughts might be that this is rather depressing for humankind. It’s far easier to have purpose to our lives when we believe we were shaped by an extreme external forces providing us a favourable (we, the clever-enoughs to survive) framework for our existence.

Science relentlessly seems to strip away the purpose in our lives, declaring we’re not as important in the scheme of things as we believe. Galileo risked inquisition from the Church by suggesting the Earth revolved around the Sun, implying Man was not the center of the Universe. Darwin theorized that all species evolve by natural selection and are not designed from scratch by some celestial being. From parallel multiverses to quantum mechanics, our sense of order and how we shape our destiny has been knocked time after time. Science has shown us to be tiny and inconsequential against the vast backdrop of space and time. With this latest paper, has Andrew Barr just thrown another pebble at the hubris of mankind?

However, before we get too disconsolate, we shall step back to have an overall picture.

First of all, we shall realize that randomness is integral to the fabric of life and universe. It’s been with us since the Big Bang and will exist to the universe’s last dying whisper. The molecules of a gas move around randomly, a process called Brownian motion. Volcanoes erupt through sudden shifts in the Earth’s tectonic plates, spewing destruction. An abrupt shift in temperature can trigger avalanches. Sunspot activity occurs at random resulting in magnetic storms affecting the Earth’s weather. Stars form and collapse into black holes, sucking other stars into oblivion. These are events are beyond our control, caused by forces of nature arbitrary and spontaneous from our point of view. They existed long before humans walked the earth and will continue long after.

Consequently Barr’s study didn’t uncover a new layer of randomness in life’s origins; it only shines a brighter light on the existing ones.

The real question we must ask is whether past randomness of our formation is a decisive factor of our meaning of lives. Is our past or our future is more important for us?

The answer depends on your personal views and preferences. One may think that the past, such as our ancestors and where we are coming from is more important than what we will do in the future. I don’t share this view. You cannot change the past, but you can define yourself and make your own decisions in the future.

Randomness might pervade all mechanisms of Nature, but it may not prevent us from forging a path toward our selected destiny. This chance is obviously depends on the existence of our free will, so further research is more than justified. But if we can meet this “minor” precondition, we can look for meaning outside the past whims of Nature.

Such future realization of the meaning of life is uncertain in almost all respect at best. We are all mortals, so our personal “futures” are limited. Even humanity’s existence in threatened by internal and external dangers. Individuals, whole groups and even entire societies have grossly different views on what is a worthy meaning of life. Nevertheless, we all, individually or together must look inside ourselves for a meaning of life. Raising a family, having a successful career, or travelling the world? Why not? Accomplishing our dreams during a finite lifespan of an individual or a hopefully very long existence of humanity may be the best we can hope for in a random world.

The Meaning Of Life Team

Citation

(Barr, W. (2017). Signal or noise? A null model method for evaluating the significance of turnover pulses. Paleobiology, 1-11. doi:10.1017/pab.2017.21 10.1017/pab.2017.21)

Something brave and clever – which can make us clever as well

The Greatest Story Ever Told–So Far by Lawrence M. Krauss

We don’t know whether it is the greatest story ever told or not – but definitely among the most interesting ones. Going through a large chunk of the development of modern science is exciting even if one knows what are the latest discoveries.( Obviously most of us have to realize that we don’t know or we don’t know well enough of them). Compared to other popular science books one of the most difficult but most rewarding characteristic of this book is that it doesn’t simplify the scientific results too much. It is brave enough even to risk losing some of its audiences. Nonetheless, if you are persistent enough (and you are not lazy to check out Wikipedia for some additional explanation 🙂 ) you can really learn something new about the world around and inside you.

Meaning Of Life Team

 

Recent Doubts on Free Will

 

You too, my son, Testosterone?

 
Recent experiments seem to show that the very existence of our free will (and our meaning of life with it) can be questioned. Is that really the case?

In more than one recent experiment, the results showed that we humans are making decisions (if at all) before we are actually aware of them. Our consciousness only records and explain our decisions and does not make them.

For example in certain cases, the brain scanners can prove that the actual decision on a hand move and preparation for that very move starts before it can be made as a conscious decision.

Decision can be predicted before it is made

In other experiments, the participating people were ready to explain their decisions as a conscious one. However, the setup of the circumstances made it impossible to actually make those decisions. People do not just tend to think that they are making conscious decisions, they are also ready to rewrite the past, adjust their own knowledge about their own decisions (retrospectively creating an ideology for them) to have a better fit with the actual events and results.

What neuroscience says about free will

A Simple Task Uncovers a Postdictive Illusion of Choice

Furthermore, under the influence of testosterone shots, males are more likely to make impulsive and wrong decisions in an IQ test. In these tests, quick, impulsive, and intuitive answers are usually wrong – yet more testosterone motivate males to make such decisions.

Testosterone makes men less likely question their impulses

Single dose testosterone administration impairs cognitive reflection in men

It seems that we are just deceiving ourselves thinking that we have free will. If our decisions can be easily “adjusted” with some chemicals, if we don’t make certain decisions at all, and if our subconscious mind is the real boss of our actions, how can we say that we have free will? And if we don’t have free will, if we are just robots, how can we say that our life has any meaning?

Don’t be afraid! Our situation is not so disastrous. The above deductions are just samples of some simplified logic and it mustn’t be applied mechanically to scientific results. The problems with the above simple conclusions regarding our free will are as follows:
• The above results may not be entirely correct (there are always critics and questions regarding any experiment). It may be better to wait until someone confirms the results.
• The above results may be applicable to special cases only. It is a common element in all of the experiments above that they examine quick decisions, artificially reducing the time available for the decision-making process. It is no surprise that consciousness plays smaller roles there.
• The experiments sometimes does not examine, “follow up” the next steps of the individuals: a testosterone-driven man may take a second look at the test, realize his error, and consciously correct it. Everyone deserves a second chance!
• It is not a logical contradiction to make a “free” decision subconsciously. Quick, emotional decisions may also be our own, regardless.
• We must be aware of and calculate with other scientific results too. We already know that many physical processes are predictable, “pre-determined”, controlled by the existing state of the physical system and the laws of nature especially in short term. So it is not a surprise that short-term decisions and processes may not be “free” – exactly the situation in all the experiments above. However, predictability of the physical processes is declining quickly with longer forecasting periods.

Hence, there is no need to panic regarding our free will until someone can make long-term valid forecasts of the behaviour of human beings.

Is our future bright?

 

As per Max Roser’s article on Our World In Data The short history of global living conditions  there was a tremendous improvement in the human living conditions from 1800 to date. The data he presented seems correct, impressive and persuasive. Does it mean that our future is bright, and we just have to wait until our Meaning of Life will be discovered as our knowledge increases, created by some future discoveries and inventions or just simply become an unimportant question as all our problems will be solved?

 

To make it easier for the readers to understand the transformation in living conditions that humanity has  achieved, the author of the article made a summarizing visualization in which he imagined this 200 year history as the history of a group of 100 people to see how the lives of them would have changed if they lived through this transformative period of the modern world.

 

 

In spite of these data, people do not think that the world is becoming a better place. A recent survey asked, “All things considered, do you think the world is getting better or worse, or neither getting better nor worse?” In Sweden, 10% thought things are getting better. In the US, they were only 6%. And in Germany, only 4%. Very few people think that the world is getting better.

Our first reaction to these “new” facts may be just shouting:  “Hey You All, wake up! Don’t believe that mass media, with all those reports on catastrophes, terrorism, wars, and economic crises, are telling you the truth! Our world and our living conditions is better than ever!” And, yes, we may actually be telling the truth; we know that practically all media distorts reality heavily. In order to gain an audience, they show far more negative news (such as murders) than we can actually experience in our own life. Recent articles are describing how the media creates a  “social reality” or  “social perception of reality,” sometimes quite far from the actual  events, the frequency of actual events, or the actual effect of real events to our life. So, yes, people can actually wake up and fear less as the world is a better place than currently perceived.  The article also explains why we can’t perceive these positive developments.

The false negative perception may also affect our thinking regarding the meaning of life. If we believe that the world is going in the wrong direction, we start worrying about our future and start thinking about whether the whole suffering is worth the effort… Now, however, we know that we are going in just the right direction. Just a little further and we may find ourselves in an Earthy paradise! Yee!

Unfortunately, it is not so simple (as usual…).  First of all, we must check the sources, the reliability and relevance of the data presented, then we can think about what other living conditions can be examined, of which evolutions are not so encouraging. But the two most significant reasons are as follows:

  • Some of our current most difficult problems are direct consequences of the above past successes. Vaccination, decline of child mortality, and poverty (larger consumption per capita) have directly led to the current large population increase and extensive usage of natural resources. Therefore, our success is indirectly leading to a major environmental problems. No cross no crown. Nothing is for free.
  • Past performance is no guarantee of future results. It is essential to understand WHY these past developments have happened. If the factors behind the progress are not sustainable, if it would reverse, or if the positive effects of these factors are declining (the law of diminishing returns), then we may find ourselves in deep trouble in the future.

So, based on these data and their careful analysis, we can say,  yes, we can have a solid hope for the future. But then again, we should avoid arrogant confidence at any cost; we should  keep our powder dry.