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.

Tuesday, 24 April 2012


On my Facebook profile, this is one of the quotations which quietly sits in my personal information, overlooked by most and understood by few:
- the single, most important question with respect to human knowledge.

This is not a complicated quotation, and in its obvious simplicity I can imagine it is hard to grab someone's attention with it. Usually quotations are the perfect verbal manifestations of what we know as the appeal to authority. In terms of pure logic, it does not matter who said what you quoted; the truth and validity of a statement must be assessed independent of its author. The reason why one always gives the source of the quotation is understandable, though: it is a sign of respect towards the author, a referential aid for those who wish to verify the quotation's source, and a necessity if one is to avoid being accused of plagiarism, should it be in an academic or social context. Beyond those formalities, however, a source is a surreptitious invitation to commit the logical fallacy I mentioned, either in a negative or positive light.

This is the very reason I did not attach a source to the quotation. Doing so would be to imply that its meaning should be dependent on who said it, but also that it in fact had a specific author. By avoiding the source I want the reader to somehow end up thinking "Wait a second, it doesn't matter who said it. In fact not only could anyone have asked that question, but most people do every day!". The meaning of a statement is a product of the reader, not the writer whose intended meaning will hopefully be accurately identified by the reader.

As you will no doubt (or as my friend likes to say "indubitably") have started to ask yourself, where am I taking this train of thought? And isn't this in any case a very complicated way to arrive at the conclusion, while the sand of your life's hourglass is slowly trickling?

At the risk of seeming inarticulate and unstructured - a risk I have faced many times throughout the writing of this text alone - I am going to conclude with a very vulgar and desperate opener. Wait for it...

The point is that by asking the question "Why?" with respect to everything you can imagine, you will either become completely obsessed, if insane, or come closer to a true understanding or at least appreciation (or deprecation) of the world around you. Because I feel I am beginning to bore you, I am going to present you with an example. But why do I feel that I am beginning to bore you? Because I myself am trying to envisage a writer, entirely by prejudice, who can identify the same sensation of structural chaos that I am identifying when writing this text. Technically that was an example, but here is another one (in the form of an anecdote).

One day I was walking home from university, as I often - or should I say always - do after having been at university for a given amount of time. It was raining, and being a very sensible person I forgot to bring an umbrella. The first sensation I felt as the water established contact with my hair and skin was one of annoyance. My entire life, I had developed an association between water and annoyance - unless of course I was swimming. Did wearing clothes justify my annoyance? Well I guess they would have to dry once I reached my flat, but when qualifying that consequence as annoying, I needed to justify the qualification. Was drying clothes annoying? Well the action itself involved exactly the same movement as that required to hang up dry clothes, so it shouldn't be. Maybe it was the knowledge that water might be dripping or evaporating away from the clothes, and raise the humidity in my room? I don't see how that in itself is excessively annoying, and even if it were, why should that distant action need to alter my mental state in the present? What an unnecessary way of becoming in a bad mood. I concluded that there must be something else: some other justifiable, rational reason for me being annoyed, seeing as there doesn't seem to be any real practical issue with being slightly wet.
     Perhaps it is an accumulation of impressions from my entire life, where I have heard people complaining about being wet, and myself beginning to form a mental network combining the events, the emotions, the sensations, to end up to this day becoming genuinely annoyed at water touching my skin. I can't help but feeling gullible, because that is what human beings are. Not in terms of being easily persuaded, but because the entire human mind is based on our inherent openness to external stimuli. Without such a quality, there can't be mental development. The only reason why I employ "gullible" in this context, is because it expresses my feeling of helplessness and stupidity, having just realised that everything I am is a completely irrational heap of mental networks synthesised in an attempt to make sense of the world around me.
     And so I decided to rebel against my values. At no point in my life had I consciously decided that I wanted to be annoyed by water touching my skin, so why should it put me in a bad mood at the present moment? I pulled up my sleeves, and smiled as I pointed face towards sky and embraced the previously annoying sensation of water touching my skin, landing on my eye. At this point the annoyance was just a result of evolution, and the body's natural response to pain related to self-preservation, but I knew that this is all it was. I had simplified the situation by repeating the simple question "Why?", and it had brought me a feeling of independence, of superiority, at least giving me the power to acknowledge that I am indeed a product of stimuli.

Now ask yourself how much of your identity does not have any rational foundation? Ask yourself how much is personal choice, and how much is an unconscious result of the surroundings? I challenge you to take any aspect of your life, and travel through the infinite regress of causality, and if necessary restructure your perspective.

For instance, when the professor holding a lecture does not meet my standards, I ask myself why my education should be in any way affected by the skills of the professor. Why should I silently complain about it, when I know that I will have to sit through this lecture anyway, and that whether the information I was learning should be used for the exam, or even later in life, the only significant goal is to indeed obtain this information. It is at this point that I decide to attempt to separate myself from my preconceptions and preferences, and embrace the fact that he is a lousy professor, and use it to reinforce my memory of the information he is presenting. I attempt to use the lousy nature of the professor as a facilitation of my learning, instead of putting myself in a state of disappointment and lesser receptivity of information.

In fact I intend to write another post about this fascinating aspect of memory, so I should probably end this post now before I sabotage my own work. But remember to always ask yourself "WHY?".