Friday, 3 January 2014

Further Thoughts on the Kalam Cosmological Argument

I previously wrote a piece criticising several aspects of the renowned Kalam Cosmological Argument. The argument, for the uninitiated, goes as follows:

P1          Everything that begins to exist has a cause
P2          The Universe began to exist
C            The Universe has a cause

The piece I initially wrote aimed to demonstrate that while P1 may appear to be true at face value, it avoids mentioning fairly crucial information concerning the nature of causality as we know it, namely the essential component that is time. I argue that based on the knowledge that we do have about causality, it doesn't seem to make much sense to discuss causality in an environment where time is not present (for example before the Universe existed). While this is not a positive argument disproving the fact that atemporal causality exists, it is a reminder that the Kalam Cosmological Argument uses premises that assume knowledge that we do not possess. In other words, the truth of P1 (as a universal principle) has not been sufficiently justified.

However, when you actually think about what P1 claims, you (should) quickly realise that it isn't even an intuitive premise, be it true or not, which is what it seems to rely on heavily. First off, let me briefly outline how most theists or deists try to support P1. They usually try to make it seem like its veracity is obvious by saying things like "I exist, but there was a point in time at which I did not exist. I therefore began to exist at some point in time, and I must have had a cause" (1).

Notice that in seeking to justify P1 of the KCA, the line of thought is empirical and inductive: it seeks information from the real observable universe and makes an inductive inference to arrive at a given conclusion based on this information. Now as I have already written about in my previous text, the problem with an argument using premises that are the result of inductive reasoning is that giant leaps are made very quickly, and the veracity of the conclusion (which is later used as a premise) tends not to be guaranteed, and if it is true, it is only true in certain contexts meaning it can't be used as a universal principle.

I explained how the context of P1 of the KCA is too narrow to arrive at a universal principle in the conclusion, but let me now attempt to show why the premise itself is devoid of all meaning, by attacking its defence (see 1).

Was there really a point in time at which you didn't exist? Before you jump to any conclusions, let me assure you that I am not trying to invoke the fairly popular woo-woo mumbo-jumbo idea that we as conscious beings are eternal because consciousness isn't physical and as such isn't dependent on time blabla... No. I am asking you to take a moment to reflect on what we actually know about the nature of physical things and causality.

Take a chair for instance. One would have you believe that at some point in time there was no chair, but only its constitutive wooden parts, and that after a sequence of causal mechanisms (a craftsman assembling the parts) it becomes a chair. Is this really the case though? To explain why this seemingly obvious line of thought is missing a key point about the nature of reality, let me ask you one more weird question. What is a chair really?

You didn't think I was actually going to give you enough context to understand what sort of answer I am expecting from you? Of course not, this piece of writing is just an act of narcissism to distract myself from the miserably boring world I live in.

So what is a chair really? Well, if you ignore any answer that is an extension of our subjective assessment of what a chair is, such as its label (it's a piece of furniture), its function (it's made for sitting on, mostly) , its appearance (it has a certain number of legs, a base and a back), its value (it's very useful and I would probably be miserable without one) etc. (notice that none of these qualities of the chair actually describe what the chair in fact is) what you are left with is the objective reality of what a chair really is: a massive collection of matter and energy, arranged with a specific configuration. The configuration this matter and energy has, defines how we label it, what we use it for, how we perceive it and how we value it, but at its core, what the chair is is just stuff.

So what am I getting at here? Do you recall that law of thermodynamics stating that energy can not be created or destroyed, only transformed from one state to another? Has the chair really ever not existed? When it was a tree, did it not exist? Did the matter and energy not exist then? Did the matter and energy pop into existence randomly from nothing between the tree stage and the chair stage, because that is clearly impossible according to some (let's assume for their sake that they are right). The chair - what the chair really is  - has always existed, in some form or another. Yes, the configuration has changed, but the stuff hasn't changed.

You can apply this line of reasoning to everything you see around you.

So what does this imply? Does everything that begins to exist have a cause? I'm sorry, could you kindly supply me with these countless examples of things that "begin to exist", because I have some bad news for you, theists and deists. If you want your P1 to have any meaning, you must admit to things (or as I eloquently put it "stuff") coming into existence without any prior constituents, which sounds an awful lot like the very concept you have already firmly established is impossible: something can not come from nothing.

In conclusion, the Kalam Cosmological Argument tries to prove specific qualities about the beginning of the Universe (a rare event that we know little about) by taking examples from the Universe (common events that we know a lot about). I've shown how the things we think began to exist, didn't really begin to exist at all, which means the only thing (that I am aware of) that did begin to exist, is the Universe.

What does this make the Kalam Cosmological Argument?

P1          [Everything that begins to exist] has a cause.

I've shown that the only example we have of an event belonging to the set denoted in square brackets is in fact the Universe itself, rendering "The Universe" and "Everything that begins to exist" synonymous,  so the argument turns into something like the following.

P1          The Universe has a cause.
P2          The Universe began to exist.
C             The Universe has a cause.

Which is circular reasoning, so fix your argument.

Check (mate?).

I don't feel it's necessary to debunk any of the other theistic claims and arguments (common ones include the teleological argument and the moral argument), because as far as I'm concerned I don't really have a reason to believe the Universe had a creator in the first place.

Saturday, 13 April 2013

The Illusion of Free Will – Introspection (1) : Chains of Thought

Without spending too much of your time writing a long introduction, like the one I’m writing right now, I’d like to introduce you to an aspect of existence you may or may not be familiar with or even interested in. You may have tried it once or twice. I’m talking about closing your eyes and letting your thoughts run wild, shutting out the outside world and drifting down your stream of consciousness. It’s pretty relaxing – to me at least – but that is not why I do it. I do it because it reminds me of what I am. 

Before describing the process any further in my next post, let me share with you an anecdote of my life. As you will know by now, that means the text will turn green and the letters will lean slightly to the right, as if patiently listening to the anecdote of a sleep-deprived teenager.

It’s sometime around May. Exams are approaching with the stealth of a rainbow-coloured elephant in a bag of M&Ms and the intimidating aura of a lion firmly pacing towards a group of M&M-sized elephants. This is the first semester of medicine. A new life has begun. Surely I will read all the recommended literature from cover to cover months before the exam period starts? Nope. What was I expecting? I’m sitting here on a Sunday afternoon reading about human behavioural psychology in a book so thick I could wipe my posterior with half the pages and it wouldn’t affect my exam results. Reading for the exams makes me forget that this is in fact what interests me the most in life. The human mind and how it interacts with other minds. Well, that and boobs I guess. Anyway, the book says nothing about boobs as it keeps ranting on and on about the different types of attachment, and as I just told you I forgot it’s actually a very interesting topic, so having eliminated any possibility of being remotely interested in what this book might contain, I drift off in my mistaken boredom.
I think about my ambidextrous mathematics teacher from “French school”, then about the time he threw a sponge at me but missed, greeted by my victorious laughter, then about the time some people laughed at a joke I had made (a rare phenomenon some claim), then about a live performance with my amateur band, then about going to the hair dresser and cutting my hair down to 3 millimetres, then about shooting an eraser across the classroom using a fairly elastic ruler-catapult, then I realised I had kept scanning down the page of the book as if still reading, without actually having consciously experienced a single word. And I got an idea. What if a single word or phrase in the book on behavioural psychology had triggered my mental digression? This could be interesting. What if I tried to reverse my stream of consciousness until I reached a thought that reminded me of something in the book – the something that had reminded me of the first thought. And so I did. I rewound the sequence of thoughts until I reached the thought labeled with the word “ambidextrous”, then scanned the page in the book backwards until I reached a word that could have caused my digression. Ambivalent attachment, ambi-, ambidextrous.
Bingo. A small victory for my obsessive, inquisitive nature. The fact that I was able to identify the word that triggered my day-dreaming was cool enough, but what did I notice about the two adjacent thoughts? They had something in common. Was it a coincidence? Grouping each adjacent pair of thoughts following from the first one, I noticed the exact same phenomenon. A Chain of Thoughts. The prefix ambi- made me think of my ambidextrous teacher, who had an obsession with throwing sponges at us (his students). The failed sponge toss was associated with laughter. My laughter made me think of people laughing at my joke. The popularity made me think of the live performance. The live performance made me think of my profile picture on Facebook in which I thought my hair was far too long. This reminded me of the trip to the hairdresser (located in a completely different part of my life, mind you). The 3mm long hair reminded me of the ruler. 

So awkwardly mundane, yet so fascinating. The repercussions of this experience are in fact so fascinating that I will spoil you with more accounts of how this phenomenon has consumed days, weeks and months of my existence.

Wednesday, 7 November 2012

Misconceptions About Evolution #1 - "If Australians came from England, why are there still English people?" - Part 1 - Definitions

I've been fairly active on Khan Academy answering various questions in chemistry, biology and medicine-related topics. The questions I find the most appealing are the ones about evolution, because despite evoking a strong sense of "I don't want to live on this planet anymore"-esque disappointment, the innocent simplicity of the misconceptions I see in many questionable objections (or objecting questions) gives me some consolation. Maybe there really isn't a large wall of information (or disinformation) separating creationists from accepting proper scientific theories?

In this series of rants I am going to go through some common misconceptions about the theory of evolution by natural selection, although I can't promise any consistent activity given that the exams are ominously creeping up on me. I'll do my best though.

This particular question is one that pops up wherever you turn your head, and is notoriously mocked by anyone who hasn't already fallen for the crocoduck hypothesis or other straw man misrepresentations of the theory of evolution by natural selection.

The question is of course "If humans evolved from apes, why are there still apes?".

So why is that? Let's first of all try to dissect the question to reveal the assumptions that are firmly lodged inside its loaded shell.

Q1. Did humans evolve from apes?
Q2. Are humans and apes separate species?
Q3. Does speciation necessarily imply the extinction of the original species?
Q4. What is a species?

Let's try to answer the above questions in attempt to clear up some misconceptions that can be found already in the underlying premises of the question. I will deal with Q3 and Q4 in unison in a much longer response that I will post later on in a second part (for those tenacious enough to bear with me 'til the end of this series of rants).

A1. Did humans evolve from apes? This is a malformed question, but let's assume they mean "the other apes that we see walking around today" (notice the word "other"). No, we speciated departing from a common ancestor, with which both we (homo sapiens) and other apes share genes with. If by "apes" we mean the correct meaning (which we shall discuss in a moment), then it follows by definition that we evolved from apes, although this doesn't actually relate to the issue most people have.

A2. Are humans and apes separate species? When we talk about the evolution of species (speciation), we trace one species' descent leading up to another species. For the previous question to make sense, both "humans" and "apes" have to be two separate species, but is this really the case? No (this is a link). Apes (hominoidea) are a "huge" (pardon my esoteric jargon) superfamily (order) of species, encompassing both the hylobatidae and the hominidae families, which both include many species. Only once you zoom in, going from superfamily to family to subfamily (tribe) to genus to species do you actually get to the level where you can compare species directly to each other. Using the word "ape" is in other words a massive misconstruction of what speciation entails. What I'm trying to say is "humans ARE apes by definition".

A3. Does speciation necessarily imply the extinction of the original species? Well does it? I mean coincidentally the answer to the main question is always "we did not evolve from apes, we evolved from a common ancestor", but given the information in the previous answer, such an answer is clearly inaccurate, although it does get the common ancestor part right. What such an answer does, it seems to me, is to shift away from the notion of speciation without the extinction of the original species. Just because it didn't happen to us in relation with the other apes, this doesn't imply that there is a problem with such a process. What if we evolved directly from the same species we see walking around today? What if we evolved from orangutans, and not a common ancestor? What if? Does this pose any problem for evolution? Of course not. A species will only change its phenotypic traits (the physical result of your genes that comes in contact with the environment and is acted on by natural selection) if the environment requires it. There are many animals that have remained the same for millions and millions of years without having speciated in any way, although there may have been members of such a population of species that decided to migrate to another environment, where other selection pressures would of course favour other sets of genes, in which case you would ultimately get speciation over time - this does not mean that the first species died out though. Maybe the title of this specific topic makes a bit more sense now?

A4. What is a species? A species is classified as any group of animals that are able to reproduce to produce fertile offspring. That is all, there is nothing more to it. However, even if things are very black and white when it comes to species in our day and age, it isn't in principle like that. If I were to rape a female rabbit (that's right, I just went there) the probability of getting a son or daughter Rablexander or Rablexandra would be 0. However, if I were to rape a female human (rape is justified if used for scientific analogies), the probability of getting a son or daughter would be extremely close to 1 (let's not exclude the possibility that the child for some reason becomes infertile). Is there anything in between these two extremities (0 and 1), or are we really dealing with absolute borders in nature? Obviously there is anything and everything between those two extremities. Let's travel back in time to a point where the common ancestor between me and the female rabbit existed. We are now both part of the same species, and we know that an extremely long time away, we are going to end up as different species (humans and rabbits) - and by "we" I mean the population of species. At this point, the probability of getting fertile offspring by means of rape (still justified it seems) is 1. As populations diverge (as described in A3) the genetic similarity between the two population pools (total set of genes in that population, including all variations of genes etc.) will become smaller and smaller over time. The smaller the genetic similarity becomes, the lower the odds of producing fertile offspring, giving us a smooth gradient ranging from 1 to 0. At which point do we become separate species? I HAVE NO IDEA. The only thing we can witness right now is the end product, once we have reached 0, although we know with unquestionable certainty that the probability was once 1.

Sunday, 12 August 2012

Loaded Questions and the First Cause Argument for the Existence of God

The holidays are soon over, and it's time to get serious again. I am now assuming that you have been less serious during the holidays, which I'm sure will apply to most of you, yet there might be one or two of you (and I really have no clue who "you" is, or are) who have been just as serious, if not even more serious, during the holidays than before. Enough verbal diarrhoea, let's get to the point.

Part of growing up, for most people, is about questioning your own existence, your own assumptions, whether what you believe is true can be justified, and of course whether what other people think is true is in fact justifiable. The process involves a lot of arduous thinking, at least when you get to the more complex questions, which is why some people might not make it past the "are red dresses really more sexually appealing than blue dresses?"-stage. In my opinion, red goes with brunette and blue goes with blonde, but I digress.

As you have probably guessed from the title, this post is about loaded questions, or questions with ammunition if you like. Why? Because by knowing when a question is loaded, you might realise that the question you are about to ask is presumptuous and might need to be preceded by a less presumptuous question before you ask the loaded question, if you are to ask said loaded question at all. We all come across loaded questions all the time, because they save time in the long run, but when you are discussing topics of importance it's important to be aware of them. Here's a couple of loaded questions, ranging from strikingly obviously loaded to less obviously loaded.

1. Have you stopped beating your wife yet?
In this case, not only does the question assume that you have been beating your wife, but no matter what your answer is, it will confirm the mentioned assumption. Of course you could throw your leather glove on the ground in front of whoever asked you such a question and answer "that's a loaded question, and I think we should discuss this matter with a pair of rapiers by the graveyard tomorrow at noon", but that would hardly be an answer to the question. It would be your reaction, nothing more. It was a yes or no question, and your noble attitude doesn't change that fact. This is how the question should be phrased:
- Do you have a wife?
- If yes, have you at any point been beating her?
- If yes, have you stopped beating her?

2. Who killed my brother?
Well, the two assumptions in this question are that your brother is dead, and that an agent killed him (by agent I am not referring to a trained government assassin, but a person who has intentions and means of fulfilling these intentions with an action). Well, it also assumes that you had a brother in the first place, but I guess all loaded questions tend to assume that you aren't delusional... This is how the question should be phrased:
- Do I have a brother? (I just had to)
- If yes, is he dead?
- If yes, was he killed?
- If yes, by whom?

3. What is your favourite colour?
Seems fairly innocent, doesn't it? Well shut up because it's still a loaded question. Stop crying, I'm sorry for hurting your feelings. Anyway, it assumes that you have a favourite colour. This is how the question should be phrased:
- Do you have a favourite colour?
- If yes, what is it?

4. What caused the Universe to begin to exist?
This is the pinnacle of our tedious journey of nitpicking. It seems like the most basic question you can ask, but it is still a loaded question. First of all, it assumes that the Universe began to exist (it did), but it also assumes that something caused it to exist. Now before you pull down your pants and come running at me with fiery torches, hear me out. This is how the question should be phrased:
- Did the Universe begin to exist?
- If yes, did anything cause the Universe to exist?
- If yes, what was it?

Now, this is where anyone who believes in a Creator thinks skipping the second question is OK. Somehow, they assume that everything that begins to exist must have a cause. Sure, that would seem extremely intuitive, and is the first premise of the Kalam Cosmological Argument, but it still has not sought out to prove that everything that begins to exist must have a cause. For anyone who pursues the question of the existence of the Universe honestly, it is obvious that if the answer to the second question is no, the third question becomes meaningless. But if you're religious, you would probably use Newton's third law (N3) as a means of demonstrating that because every action has an equal and opposite reaction, then obviously every effect (opposite reaction) must have a cause (action). Sure, but you must here assume that the Universe is an effect, and not merely a cause - the first cause, which is according to Einstein's Theory of General Relativity a distinct possibility, or in fact a necessity. 

N3 assumes, unless I am horribly mistaken, that as long as there is a time vector then every cause has an effect. (It states that time and space started at the Big Bang) The premise is not "everything that begins to exist has a cause", it should be "everything that begins to exist and is not preceded by anything with respect to time, has a cause". Time is a necessity when talking about causality. A cause must come before the effect. Now the problem with asking the questions "what came before the thing that wasn't preceded by anything?" or "what time was it before time existed?" is quite obvious. They make no logical sense. How can an effect (the Universe) come after a cause when the notion of "coming after" is only meaningful after the Universe already exists? Surely, I can't be the only one whose brain explodes every time someone asks "what came before the Big Bang?".

I do concede, however, that there was a point where the Universe was not theorised to be the beginning of both space and time. I believe Einstein stated that although space began with the Big Bang, time did not, but was a dimension stretching ad infinitum. Sure, at that point you could ask the question "what came before the Big Bang?" which is effectively the same thing as asking "what caused the Big Bang?" because as I have already mentioned, the cause must come before the effect, but it isn't so anymore.

It really does seem like the Universe is the uncaused cause; the unmoved mover, but now that I think about it, I retract my statement about red versus blue dresses for blondes and brunettes. It depends on the person, and I'm sorry for leaving redheads out of the equation. If there was indeed one hair colour that matches any colour of dress, I would have to give it up for black hair ... or no hair.

Thursday, 14 June 2012

Atheism - Rant 1

I have a confession. I doubt this comes as a shock, or even a surprise to any of you, in fact I don't even think many of you didn't already know this, but I am an atheist. In fact I would go as far as calling myself an anti-theist, seeing as I not only disagree with religion, but find the entire concept butt-clenchingly dishonest, arrogant and repugnant. Don't let that stop you from believing though. Everyone is entitled to their opinions, but everyone is NOT entitled to their own facts, which is why you might want to take my opinion into consideration even if you can feel the love of God before you go to sleep at night, every night, and can't wait until you will finally meet him in Heaven.
Anyway, being an anti-theist comes with a few perks, as well as a few disadvantages. You get to be fascinated by knowledge and debate, but conversely you get to debate complete and utter morons. Now before I offend you, if you are indeed a moron, stop being a moron (unless you enjoy being a moron), and if you are not a moron, then you have no reason to be offended. In fact if you are indeed a moron, I am glad I offended you, but you have no reason to be offended seeing as you will at no point admit to being a moron, even if you were one, and again, if you weren't, you wouldn't be offended. So I guess we can conclude that I am pretty much covered in terms of not being accountable for the level of offence you may take by reading what I am writing. Obviously the previous analysis applies to me as well (for all I know I may very well be a moron, if that is of any comfort to you).

Now one of these morons, which we have agreed that neither of us are, I managed to stumble upon on YouTube, because I like browsing the controversial God-loving videos on the Internet to debunk morons (sometimes mormons, but I save time by removing a letter and just shoving them under the more accessible word "moron" - it means more or less the same thing anyway, although technically a mormon is always a moron, even though a moron is not always a mormon, so pardon my generalisation). One of the common arguments is that because we have no reliable or signed accounts of Gaius Julius Caesar (the Roman guy who beat up Vercingetorix of Gaul), and we freely accept said guy's existence, the same applies for the existence of Jesus Christ (the gay Jewish rabbi that nobody is willing to admit is gay, not that there is anything wrong with being gay ... unless you are God, how ironic). Well the problem is ... no, that wouldn't necessarily justify the claim that God incarnate (Jesus) existed, but luckily we do have signed copies and contemporary documentation and evidence of the existence of Gaius Julius Caesar, so problem averted.

If you want, now that I am done insulting you (if you are indeed a believer), you can read my conversation with this moron. I included his last argument, and my response (which was kind of long so I had to make several comments and fill in the captcha multiple times). I thought it was pretty well written, and I hope you like it. Who knows, it might even make you think for a brief moment before going back to the more comfortable state of existence that is being thought-free and filled with divine purpose. OK, now I am done insulting you, sorry for lying the first time. Here's a link to the video whose comments the conversation can be found in, not that I watched the video before commenting, or that the identity of the video is relevant to the argument below.

Can you still be an Atheist after watching this? Overwhelming Evidence for Jesus Christ!

"Do we have any copies of Caesar's "Gallic War" or "Civil War" that are signed? I bet you believe that Caesar conquered Gaul and Pompeii despite that fact. Many things that Paul says about Jesus pass all the criteria of historical investigation: contextual credibility, independent verification, and dissimilarity. Paul met with Peter in Jerusalem in about 36. Paul met Jesus' brother there. So Paul met Jesus' closest disciple and his brother only a few years after his death. That is evidence!"

- mandalago18 in reply to Alexiaden93 (show comment) 17 hours ago.

"Caesar never wrote a book called "Gallic War", that's just the war he waged at some point in his life. You are most likely looking for "Commentarii de Bello Gallico" which was written by him (Julius Caesar), and the last part was written by Aulus Hirtius. Especially in Caesar's case, we have massive amounts of contemporary evidence, including especially archaeological findings that all point to the events written in the books. Extremely many events in the Bible are indeed very questionable.
     To answer your question, ignoring your false premise (the names you cited are wrong), yes we do have signed copies. Not only are these books commonly referred to by other Roman scholars (in the same era, during Caesar's life), but the events themselves are widely documented both by literature and archaeology. Not only that, but these events do not claim to be inspired by God, nor do they describe any supernatural occurrences. As such, we wouldn't even need much evidence to accept them as valid.
     Now, as soon as a book claims to contain information that is impossible with our view of the world, we need to be far more critical and skeptical, and I assume you would agree. If you find a diary saying "Today I ate two sandwiches", you would accept it provisionally, given your view of the universe, but if you read another diary saying "Today I made a house levitate with nothing but my mind", the evidence for the event required to accept the text as fact, would be multiplied.
     Not only would you want to see if other people described this event, and maybe you would try to look for more objective sources such as archaeological finds, but even this would not be enough. You know as a human being in the 21st century that people claim to witness extraordinary events ALL THE TIME. People levitate, people rise from the dead (including Elvis Presley according to some), in fact levitation is easy to reproduce with illusion.
     Now the odd part is that you agree with me. You frequently reject claims to supernatural power even if they use exactly the same arguments as you do for the resurrection of Christ and the fulfilment of prophecies. You reject these claims even if they are more heavily documented than your Biblical claims. The only difference is your confirmation bias when it comes to things that confirm your faith in the God of Christianity.
     And it is for this reason, and I assume you have enough reason to understand this reason, that you are even more gullible than the masses of people who willingly buy into all the crap on paranormality and supernatural powers. At least these people have witnessed the events with their own eyes. All you have is some irrational confirmation bias when it comes to the Bible, and the same attitude as I have towards your faith, towards other faiths (you don't believe in the Quran).
     When you start questioning your own faith for once, and put things into perspective, once you realise how many people have exactly the same level of conviction as you, with completely contradictory religions, perhaps with even better arguments, and you still do not accept their religious views as being valid or accurate. When you realise what an intellectually dishonest life you are living, and how much you sacrifice knowledge at the whims of your emotions.
     When you go through this quest for knowledge and certainty, and intellectual honesty, you might be lucky enough to laugh at your own past, give up your irrational beliefs, and move on as an honest human being. Until then, have fun living your deluded, discriminatory, gullible, arrogant, intellectually dishonest, pointless life among the rest of the flock. I "PRAY" you will find the light of reason."

- Alexiaden93 in reply to mandalago18 (show comment) 1 hour ago

Thursday, 10 May 2012

The Art of Memory - Linking System

Now that my fan base is expanding towards infinity (I'm sure you would need as much as two hands to count my fans, actually never mind, suggesting that you count on your fingers is an insult), I think I'll go on a rant about memory. Why? I like memory. I consider myself above average in things that have to do with memory (but then again, 80% of all people consider themselves above average, but then again, 91.7 % of all statistics are made up), and although I have never taken any active steps to improve or manipulate my memory, I was kind of forced to after reading a part of Derren Brown's Tricks of the Mind (which you will find to the left in the amazing widget powered by Goodreads). I am terrible at creating suspense, so I am going to throw the climax of the story in your face, in medias res, just like that, without warning (apart from the fact that you have been amply warned by now). I memorised a list of 20 words in only a couple of minutes, and without further efforts managed to recite it from first to last, or last to first. Do you want to know how? There is no payment involved, and you don't have to subscribe to some sort of scam website, but I do require that you give me your credit card information (or not).
The technique is known as the linking system. You see once upon a time, in Ancient Greece (should I have capitalised that A?), The Art of Memory was part of the school syllabus. Mnemonics were viewed as an essential tool to facilitate the acquisition and retention of new information, which is understandable considering how knowledge was mostly recited orally, and had been for centuries. However, once the more silly versions of religion (don't worry, they're all silly) became fashionable, and witchery and devil-worship was no longer fashionable, The Art of Memory had to go.
Oh yeah, the linking system. Well, basically it's a way of organising information centered around your ability to visualise "things". It's particularly helpful for remembering long lists of words, but can also be developed to store large networks of information, so says the Gospel according to Derren Brown. For anyone out there reading this blog (yes, you - hello!) who has ever tried memorising a long list of words, for instance one of 20 words in length (I'm going to stick with that number), in under a minute, you might find that your first reaction would have gone something along these lines (yes, this is a hypothetical anecdote, so it will be privileged with the colour green). By the way, I used to have a blue car. OK let's move on, don't be silly.

"Uhm. OK, let's see here. 20 words per minute, that's what? 3 seconds for each word. This thought has taken 10 seconds to think, so that leaves me 50 seconds, or 2.5 seconds for each. Wait, I could go on like this forever and not remember a single word. Shut up, and start memorising! OK, first word is... Wait a second. How am I supposed to memorise these words? I'll try the first 5 and see if I can manage. Damnit, I forgot the first one. I'll spend a bit more time on that one, oh and there goes the third one as well. How many words were there again? 20? Right, well I have about 10 seconds left, so I guess I'll just have to take a glance at each word then pray to the deity I don't worship that I'll be able to remember more than just a few."

In psychology, there has been research done on our ability to memorise lists. Basically, if you are given a series of words appearing one by one, you are more likely to remember the first words (the primacy effect) and the last words (the recency effect), whereas the words in the middle are either mixed with other words that your wonderful reconstructional memory has placed there, or that you have just completely forgotten. So let's face it, we suck at memorising lists. We just screw it up at some point and panic. At best we might remember around 7 words out of 20, sometimes less, maybe sometimes more. In any case, our natural way of memorising lists is not only painful and stressing, but it is more importantly unreliable. Sure you can remember 6, or sometimes 7, but we need to achieve 20 words consistently if we are to disprove the silly psychologists treating us like lab rats.

I am going to type a list of 20 arbitrarily chosen words, then I will write a small paragraph connecting each set of neighbouring words as follows: 1/2, 2/3, 3/4, 4/5 and so on. All you need to do is to remember the first word, and the next word should come naturally. As you may recall, I mentioned visualising. Well yes, the process is simple, your task is to make a vivid, recognisable mental picture linking two words. Grab the first picture that comes to mind, as that is most likely the most natural picture you can get, which will be easiest to remember, and start decorating it with crazy details, bright colours etc. Make it stick, and make it as ridiculously absurd as possible. The more nonsensical, the better. You will find that you will remember it precisely because it is so ludicrous.

Well, this is what you are going to do in the future. What I just wrote is indeed pretty much the framework of the linking system in general, but what we are about to do now is an easy initiation ritual. I will take care of the crazy visualisation process for you. All you need to do is read my scenarios, and the list should come naturally. In fact, let's make this easy. 10 words, how is that? Good? OK. Here we go (no, I am just going to write the list, don't rush it).


Now, make sure you remember Jesus (no, I'm not advocating Christianity here), because if you forget Jesus, you won't be able to remember the next 9 words (nor am I referring to the decalogue or the Ten Commandments). Form a bright image of the following descriptions in your head. After each paragraph, close your eyes and take a look at the picture that has formed in your head for a few seconds, then move on.

Jesus is drying out on the cross. The Sun is shining bright, but the Sun is also in the shape of a cross. And it has sunglasses. So does Jesus. Jesus shouts "fuck the police!" and rips one hand from the cross, grabbing a cup of milk. The cup is massive, in fact it is larger than Jesus, so the cup ends up drinking Jesus instead.

A red-leafed tree is in the middle of the ocean, but instead of bearing fruit, millions and millions of cups are dangling from its branches. When the cups fall and touch the water, they turn into boats that row themselves towards land with a spoon instead of an oar. The cups become bigger and bigger, and the tree becomes smaller and smaller as it runs out of cups.

The previous tree having vanished, a new tree grows in the same place, this time carrying apples. But the apples all have a bite mark on the left side, and as they fall, they land in an Apple factory producing Mac laptops. The apples are used to form the laptops' logo.

The laptops decide to fly away, shaped as a set of wings, with no body. As they fly out of the factory, they immediately turn into mechanical owls eating computer mice.

Owls are sitting on a branch eating Danone Yoghurt, but the Yoghurt is far larger than any of the owls, who look ridiculous trying to handle a spoon with their beak, which ironically makes it impossible to take in any food without dropping the spoon. Some owls find this hilarious and fall off their branches into a carton containing Yoghurt.

A man answers the telephone while eating yoghurt, but instead of a voice coming out of the device, there is yoghurt running down onto the floor and into his ears. An army of telephones break into his house and start vomiting yoghurt everywhere. The man desperately tries to eat it all, but needs to phone an ambulance because he is lactose intolerant.

A man is writing an essay about the history of telephones on his iPhone. The phone rings and his essay is deleted because he forgot to save it. In rage and protest he throws his chair out of the window, and phones the local store to order a new chair.

You are taken hostage, and are strapped to a chair. Outside there is nothing but desert and camels. A terrorist is hitting you on the head with a chair, but suddenly a chair storms into the room and blows itself up in the name of some deity.

A terrorist has successfully blown himself up, and has been granted access to heaven, where he is given peanuts at the gates. In fact, the gates themselves are made of peanuts, and people are throwing peanuts at each other, trying to catch them in their mouths. Rivers are filled with terrorists blowing themselves up and exploding into a massive rain of peanuts, which the people nearby try to catch in their mouths as well.

Now close your eyes, and try to recall the list. If you can't remember the first word, it's not important. I'll help you out. Here, it's Jesus. Why are you still reading? Close your eyes and go through the list.

How did it go? Try it backwards. I'll help you out, although you will indubitably (Hei, Andreas) remember the last word. Peanuts! Go! I mean close your eyes. Now go.

Comment on this post telling me how much you love me, and how you would polish my shoes for free. No seriously, how did it go? I'll catch you in my next rant.

Wednesday, 25 April 2012

Evening thoughts on blindness

This is essentially an anecdote, so I'm afraid I will have to spoil you with more green text printed in italics.

On the way back from town I was combining several thoughts that have been occupying my mind for a while. Two days ago I picked up Derren Brown's "Tricks of the Mind" in which I started learning about the "Linkage system", "Loci system", "Memory palace" as well as some other fascinating strategies for memorising networks of information. Without boring you with the details (though I can assure you they are all worth studying) what links all of the strategies is visualising words. It made me really think about whether the mind actually does work mostly in terms of the visual perception we have of events; how else could these memory systems work so incredibly well? I was thinking of evolution, and how most information we actually take in does come from the sensory stimuli picked up by the eyes; only on occasion did a car drive by. In fact there really was very little that went on in the realm of sound.
     And so I decided to force myself to adapt myself to the world of the blind. I am fairly certain some Asian people are able to sense their surroundings using secret meditative processes involving the ears, while keeping their eyes closed, and whether or not this outrageous stereotype holds any truth, I wanted to attempt it myself. First I needed to calibrate my sense of distance with the length of my steps. For every distinct feature along my path, such as a shadow, or a bush, or a crack in the tarmac, I would guess how many steps it would take to reach it, close my eyes, walk the prescribed number of steps, then judge the result. Obviously my judgement was fairly erroneous at first, but I am getting used to the sensation and in a few years time I can cut my eyes out for good and move to a mountain top in Asia and dye my hair white.
     In any case, this very eccentric practice should definitely alarm people passing me in the streets, but more importantly it takes my mind away from the dreary task of mentally assessing how long time it will take to get home. Frankly, though, I usually tend to counter that boredom by pretending to be fascinated by mundane things such as passing cars and bright office windows, imagining all the silly people who haven't yet asked themselves whether they are justified in being annoyed by the rain, and who haven't yet tried to walk blindly at the risk of being ridiculed by passers by.