Monday, August 22, 2016

Ethics and Evolution

I'd like to preface this one with a few important notes.  Feel free to skip them:

First, I can almost guarantee that this post has been written before by someone much smarter and more learned than me.
Second, I have intentionally avoided searching for those essays which might shape my currently  uncultivated perspective on the subject.  As I've written before: the Barrier of Knowledge only goes one way, and once I know what other people think about something, I can't un-know it, and writing my own unique take would be a lot more difficult.
Third, I'm not a philosopher, and as such I'll probably make lots of illegal logical leaps, and those of you who know better will just have to forgive me, for I am willfully ignorant.


The study of ethics is an attempt to establish a cohesive moral framework.  It's been a subject of debate for thousands of years, and for good reason!  It's interesting, most everyone cares about it, and no two people completely agree.  But at the heart of our disagreements concerning ethics is a larger disagreement concerning values, right?  Some people value happiness above all else, so their moral code is structured around maximizing aggregate good.  Others put life at the top of the list, making them willing to diminish its quality in order to preserve it.  Still others set their god on the altar.  Take your pick, but whatever you value most generally dictates your moral framework.


The theory of evolution is the idea that populations change from generation to generation.  Often, these changes tend toward maximizing an organism's ability to survive in its environment.  For example, over time, a species of bird might develop a naturally longer beak if that extra inch makes accessing their food easier.  Birds with shorter beaks will get less food and die out over time.  It should be noted that this is an extremely crude explanation of evolution, but it'll do the trick for today.

You've probably heard the term "survival of the fittest."  I'm careful not to treat this as synonymous with the theory of evolution, but the two are definitely related.  The idea is pretty explicitly stated in the phrase-- the fittest survive.

Now, I want you to accept something that probably isn't true.  Ready?

Your survival is the most important thing.

At first, it's not all that disagreeable, but then you get into the scenario where it's your life versus the lives of a billion people, and it all starts to break down.  But let's not go there.  Let's just accept this one basic, fundamental value.

Your survival is the most important thing.

Now, how do we survive?  Well, we've been told all of our lives that we need three things.  What are they?  Food, water, and shelter.

If my survival is the most important thing, then I'm going to need lots of food, lots of water, and lots of shelter.  In fact, if my survival is the most important thing, then I'm going to take all of the food, water, and shelter that I can get.

Imagine a world in which everyone operated in this way.  Unfortunately, it wouldn't be much different from our own, right?  Living things act out of their own self-interest daily, and the most efficient way to get food, water, and shelter in our world is not to collect it directly-- it's to amass currency and buy it.  But if the universe has a fixed amount of resources, then we can't really produce or generate this currency, we have to take it.  That's why there are rich people and poor people.  Every dollar I earn is a dollar out of someone else's pocket.  Collecting valuable resources is no joke, and it often seems we humans will do whatever it takes.

What if that's okay?  No, what if that's required?

What if your survival is the most important thing?

Then that's what we should base our moral framework on!  Right?  In this world we've imagined, it's not happiness or life in general, it's not some god, it's your survival upon which morality should be built.  Now, you have a moral obligation to accumulate food, water, and shelter, and every crumb of food, drop of water, and block of shelter that you horde is a crumb, drop, or block that someone else is deprived of.  And that's okay.  Why?

Because your survival is the most important thing.

That's sick, right?  I'm morally obligated to deprive people of what they need to survive?  That's a world that I certainly don't want to live in.

But what if it is the world you live in? 

If all of your features are just the result of favorable, random mutation, and your reason for being is because your species was fit enough to survive, if every bit of you, down to your opposable thumbs and your hairy nose is the way it is because at some point in evolutionary history it gave you an advantage over your thumbless, hairless cousin, then doesn't that point to that lie I told you to accept earlier?  That your survival is the most important thing

If biology is the driver, then I'm sorry, but your survival is the most important thing, and your ability to reason beyond that purpose is just an artifact of the very vehicle that got you here.

Am I crazy?  Is that not the logical conclusion of a universe driven by survival?  Is the building up of self, even at the expense of others not the highest call of a morality founded in the most basic principles of evolutionary theory?

The fittest tend to survive.  That's a fact of life, and I fear that that fact, in the absence of some other moral absolute, demands that your survival is the most important thing and that the pursuit of that end is the only believable ethical framework.

Friday, July 8, 2016

If You've Ever Read a Book

I'm very vocal about my disdain for Jane Austen. To quote myself, "Austen paints a naive and unrealistic picture of romance that is harmful to adopt and attempt to apply to real life." She encourages a worldview that is too idealistic and convenient to truly subscribe to, yet I see people every day who live their lives like it's a romance novel, and it kills me.

Don't worry. This blog post won't be about Jane Austen-- heaven forbid I have to write another essay about her. This blog post will be a shoutout to someone who followed a century behind Austen. I'm going to briefly dissect an excerpt from George Eliot's Adam Bede, in which Eliot discusses her moral duty as a novelist to describe the world as it is, not as she thinks it ought to be.

PS: If you've never read a novel within the realist genre, I highly recommend it.  They're crunchy, painful, and sympathetic reads.  As I mentioned in one of my recent posts, I love literature that invokes a feeling, and I think realist novels do it best.

PPS: If you want to read the chapter I'm referring to in its entirety, it's Chapter XVII, but I'll copy/paste everything you really need.

"Certainly I could, if I held it in the highest vocation of the novelist to represent things as they never have been and never will be... But it happens, on the contrary, that my strongest effort is to avoid any such arbitrary picture, and to give no more than a faithful account of men and things as they have mirrored themselves in my mind."
--George Eliot, Adam Bede

Right.  So she just comes right out and says it.  It is her duty to accurately describe reality.  She goes on to admit that a mirror image is imperfect and that so too will be her account, but she also swears to do her best.  Great, good for her, but who cares?  Like, why is that her "strongest effort"?  Isn't the beauty of writing your own story that you get to twist and tweak reality to be whatever you want it to be?

Not for Eliot.

"Perhaps you will say, 'Do improve the facts a little, then : make them more accordant with those correct views which it is our privilege to possess. The world is not just what we like ; do touch it up with a tasteful pencil, and make believe that it is not quite such a mixed, entangled affair. Let all people who hold unexceptionable opinions act unexceptionably. Let your most faulty characters always be on the wrong side and your virtuous ones on the right. Then we shall see at a glance whom we are to condemn, and whom we are to approve. Then we shall be able to admire, without the slightest disturbance of our prepossessions : we shall hate and despise with that true ruminant relish which belongs to undoubting confidence.' 

"... I would not, even if I had the choice, be the clever novelist who could create a world so much better than this, in which we get up in the morning to do our daily work, that you would be likely to turn a harder, colder eye on the dusty streets and the common green fields-- on the real breathing men and women, who can be chilled by your indifference or injured by your prejudice ; who can be cheered and helped onward by your fellow-feeling, your forbearance, your outspoken, brave justice."
--George Eliot, Adam Bede

This is my favorite.  This is everything in the world.

You can just hear Eliot pleading with her audience.  She has seen the effects of a dishonest novel on its reader.  She truly believes that depicting a more perfect world than exists would make her readers "more likely to turn a harder, colder eye... on the real breathing men and women."  The people around you are not words on a page, they are human beings "who can be chilled by your indifference."  As someone who has chilled many with his indifference, this resonates with me.  If the Jane Austens of the world convince us that life should be the way it's depicted in a romance novel, where all trees are green and all ever-afters happy, we will soon grow jaded when we walk the streets of reality, or so Eliot claims.

(What I just did is called blame-shifting, and you shouldn't do it)

"Yes! thank God ; human feeling is like the mighty rivers that bless the earth : it does not wait for beauty-- it flows with resistless force and brings beauty with it.

"All honour and reverence to the divine beauty of form! Let us cultivate it to the utmost in men, women, and children-- in our gardens and in our houses. But let us love that other beauty too, which lies in no secret of proportion, but in the secret of deep human sympathy."
--George Eliot, Adam Bede

In other words, do not anticipate beauty in reality as you see it in paintings.  Yes, such magnificence can and should be appreciated, "Let us cultivate it to the utmost," but more importantly, "let us love that other beauty... which lies... in the secret of deep human sympathy."  Do grieve over the brokenness of our world, but don't grow apathetic.  Don't "turn a harder, colder eye" on the people in your life.  

As Eliot puts it:

"There are few prophets in the world ; few sublimely beautiful women ; few heroes. I can't afford to give all my love and reverence to such rarities ; I want a great deal of those feelings for my everyday fellow-men, especially for the few in the foreground of the great multitude, whose faces I know... more needful that my heart should swell with loving admiration at some trait of gentle goodness in the faulty people who sit at the same hearth with me... than at the deeds of heroes whom I shall never know except by hearsay, or at the sublimest abstract of all clerical graces that was ever conceived by an able novelist."
--George Eliot, Adam Bede

Don't save all of your grace for kings and queens, spend it on the people who go along beside you in the walk of life.  

Now I know what you're thinking: I just let George Eliot write a blog post for me, and that's cheating.  And yes I did.  But no it isn't.  Because I put her name all over it in slightly smaller print.

Don't live in agony of the world that you wish was; rather, work daily to make the changes you want to see, cultivate beauty of form, and recognize the beauty which takes root in "deep human sympathy."

Sunday, June 26, 2016

The Barrier of Knowledge

I'm obsessed with an idea.  I'm obsessed with lots of ideas, but I've been enthralled with this one in particular for over a year now-- in fact, I wrote a bit about its conception in a blog post called "A Break Through" in February of 2015, and I've since mentioned it to just about anyone I've made Big Talk with.  If you know me at all, we've probably talked about the Barrier of Knowledge.

The Barrier of Knowledge is the veil through which you pass whenever you learn something.  It's as simple as that, but it's so interesting.

Let's say I have a run-in with the Men in Black, and they wipe my memory completely-- my mind is now a true tabula rasa: I know nothing.  From here on out, anything that I observe will teach me something brand new, and this information will become the context in which I ground my reality.  Cool.  But more interesting to me than the idea that I am shaped by the new things I learn is the idea that I cannot be unshaped by them.  Sure, I can be reshaped, but never unshaped.

In other words, the present me is, in every passing moment, forfeiting the perspective of the former me.

Let's rewind to my elementary school years, when I was reading the Harry Potter books.  If I'm on The Order of the Phoenix, and you walk up to me and tell me that Dumbledore dies in book six (I intentionally dropped that spoiler without warning you first-- if you haven't finished the Harry Potter series and you're sitting here reading my blog, you have some Sirius priority issues, and you should feel bad), then you've "ruined the story."  We actually say that!  Because you told me what happens before I made the full journey there, you ruined the experience for me.  What you have done cannot be undone.  It is the Barrier of Knowledge, and it's a one-way Veil (gee wiz, this post is Riddle-d with Harry P. references).  You can say that you were kidding and try to convince me that everyone's favorite Gandalf doppelganger doesn't really die in The Half-Blood Prince, but it won't do any good.  I'll still be expecting it when Snape casts the Killing Curse on Dumbledore.  You can reshape me, but you can't unshape me.

But this idea isn't just interesting, it's actually useful to be aware of.  I'll use the example of teaching.  Everyone teaches.  You teach your friends how to play your favorite games, you teach your kids how to ride bikes, you teach your parents how to dab-- everyone teaches.  And when you teach someone something brand new, you're ushering them through the Barrier of Knowledge from the other side.  From the other side.  That's an important, albeit subtle, point.

Like I said before, once you pass through the Barrier of Knowledge, you forfeit the perspective of your former self.  This can be an issue when it comes time to teach something, if you are unaware that the Barrier of Knowledge exists.

For example, if I told you that Euchre is a game in which ace is high, trump is higher, and right and left bauers are highest and that you need to take a majority of the tricks when you're in the barn to win, you might be a little confused.  One cannot use the vernacular of a particular game to teach a new player the rules, yet sometimes it's difficult to remember that terms which become so familiar over time are completely foreign to someone who hasn't been exposed to them.

Similarly, I can't explain acceleration as the derivative of velocity with respect to time if someone doesn't know calculus.  It's still completely possible to explain that acceleration is just how velocity varies with time-- I just can't call it the derivative.

One of the reasons that I spend so much time thinking about this is because I don't think that very many of my professors are as aware of the Barrier as they should be.  It's taken me years of exposure and countless hours of study just to speak the language of physics, and honestly, I'm still not there, yet.  I'm not saying anything particularly complicated when I claim that it's a requirement for operators in Quantum Mechanics to have an orthonormal basis of eigenstates, I'm just not respecting the Barrier of Knowledge.  Like, at all.  I firmly believe that just about anyone can learn just about anything, but I also believe that it has to be explained in a way that is accessible to them.

In the summer, I work as a math instructor, and I see people on both sides of the Barrier of Knowledge struggling to send messages through it on a daily basis.  But being aware that this barrier exists is the first step to training oneself to respect it and thus become a better communicator in all areas of life.

Using big words in everyday conversation?  Probably not respecting the Barrier of Knowledge.  Speaking gamer to a jock?  Not respecting the Barrier of Knowledge.  Explaining the perpendicular of a slope as the negative reciprocal to someone struggling with their Algebra homework?  Not respecting the Barrier of Knowledge.

It's not a trap we mean to fall into; it's honestly just the result of lazy communication.  Which is why we should train ourselves to speak accessibly, no matter the context-- to respect the Barrier of Knowledge.

Saturday, June 18, 2016

Language, Science, and the Infinite Complexity of the Universe

What a title, am I right?

I'm awful at titling things.  Titles are supposed to draw you in, they're supposed to give you enough that you can taste it, but not so much that you'll spoil your dinner.  But that's not how I like to title things.  I like to call things what they are.

I made this pot in high school:

You know what I called it?  "Green and Yellow Pot."  I think Mrs. Yousey took off points for that.

Believe it or not, this blog post will be about language, science, and the infinite complexity of the universe.  I'll probably give a nod to history as well, but I didn't want to include that in the because screw history.

The method of human communication, either spoken or written, consisting of the use of words in a structured and conventional way.

Language is a tool that we use to externalize our thoughts.  At the most basic level, we do not think in words, we do not think in a language.  My favorite fiction series growing up was The Inheritance Cycle by Christopher Paolini.  This series consists of four books, the protagonists of which are a boy and his dragon, Saphira.  If you've seen the movie Eragon, wipe your mind of it (if you haven't already) and go read the book.  Anyway, one of the coolest features of the relationship between dragon and rider in Paolini's world is that their thoughts are intermingled.  Eragon does not always use language to communicate with Saphira, he often shares images or feelings with her through their mental connection.  

We can't do that.  We're stuck with language: an inherently insufficient means of expressing our thoughts.  I say inherently because the insufficiency is inherent!  There is a degree of complexity and exactness that is lost when we try to take an idea and turn it into a word.  The word "butterfly" does not capture the beauty and the grace of one, nor do the millions of other words that have been used to try and capture the creature in a literary net because they too are insufficient.  I cannot perfectly communicate anything that I see, feel, or think.

Don't get me wrong, more often than not, words are good enough, language is good enough.  But not perfect.  If I could share my mind with you and you, yours, with me: that would be cool.  I believe that's why the writers I like the best are the ones who can really make me feel or see something.  Mind you, it's not the same thing they felt or saw, but it's something.  I see a wordsmith as truly accomplished in his or her craft when they have the ability to impress something on me that goes beyond language (see "A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning" by Donne).  

But you see my point, I hope (though I can't perfectly communicate it).  Words are self-limiting.  They're the best tools we have for transferring data from my hard drive to yours, but there is always something lost when an idea passes through the channel of language.

The intellectual and practical activity encompassing the systematic study of the structure and behavior of the physical and natural world through observation and experiment.

Uh... fine.  That's kind of a mouthful, but fine.  Science is the process through which we try to understand the way existence as we know it works (I say "as we know it" here for the multiverse people, not because I want to sound stuffy).

But I fear we're on a different ship crashing into the same rocks we did with language.  Is it really possible to take our universe, which is infinitely-complex, and shrink it down into something we can actually swallow?  If someone asked me that, I'd give them a hard no.  Even if I knew for a fact what the exact radius of a perfect circle was, I couldn't tell you the circumference without truncating pi at some point.  

Just as thoughts and ideas are too complex for words, creation is too complex for science.  We can do well enough to send a man to the moon, but there's really no hope of developing an understanding of existence that is perfect and complete.  

In fact, nature puts limiters on what we can observe, making science as a system (recall: "The intellectual and practical... of the physical and natural world through observation and experiment) inherently insufficient.

There are things in this world (I don't mean world here, but I've already used creation, universe, and existence...) that we cannot see, hence science, just like language, is inherently insufficient for its own purpose.

Confession time.  Normally, I would just take the history thing for granted and skip over it.  But, I have to admit, this one's actually pretty interesting, so I'll briefly go over the third parallel.

The study of past events, particularly in human affairs.
The whole series of past events connected with someone or something.

The reason the history one is interesting is because there are two reasons history is hopeless:

One, we cannot record any event in its entirety.  I could scribble down that George Washington was the first president of the United States, but I could not capture his every shift in pose and take of breath as he gave his first speech to the American people.  It couldn't be done!  Not only would language limit me, I couldn't even observe everything I would have to write down.  

(See how we cannot study history perfectly because we can neither communicate nor observe perfectly? Hmm...)

Two, even if technological and biological advances took place which allowed us to communicate and observe at the level we would need to to document an event completely, there are events which we would have already failed to document in this way (such as Washington's inauguration) as well as current events that either aren't important enough or are too well hidden to be documented.  

The idea of a "complete history" is an oxymoron (aside: I couldn't remember the word "oxymoron," so I Googled "big shrimp hot ice" to find it).  In reality, we only cover the most important details of the most important stuff, which, by the way, is kind of dumb, since what's important to me is not the same stuff that's important to you.

In all three of these examples (and in many others you could easily come up with), we see our limitations as humans.  We can neither externalize (language) nor internalize (science) perfectly the time and space around us (history).  But there is one who can.

Probably my favorite quality of God is his that he is not finite as we are.  He exists outside of time and permeates all space.  He was before and he will be after (the alpha and the omega, anyone?).  He is all-knowing and completely sovereign.

And it comes as no surprise to me that we, created in his image, strive for that even though we know that inherently we could never accomplish it.  We cannot see all that he sees, and even if we could, we could not capture it with language and bind it all up in some complete set-- only God has the "whole series" of events, and he wrote them "before" time even existed.

Thursday, June 2, 2016

The Most Interesting Lecture of all Time (and Space)

What you're about to read is the Holy Grail of physics lectures.  Well... it's the introduction to the Holy Grail of physics lectures.  It's the lecture every professor wants to give and the one every student wants to hear.  In the next couple of paragraphs, I'm going to lay down the foundation of Special Relativity and explore some of the paradoxes that arise from it.  This is some seriously cool stuff.
Within this post, I'm going to include links to several helpful videos.  I'll try to write in such a way that you don't need the visual aids, but I highly recommend that you click the links as they come up-- they will prove very helpful in wrapping your head around this new way of thinking (I'm speaking from personal experience).

First thing's first.  If we want to understand special relativity, we need to understand "frame of reference,"  Simply put (as everything should be), this is just the idea that things appear to move differently from different perspectives.  For example, if you're driving your car around your neighborhood, the bobble head on your dashboard seems to sit still (aside from the occasional nod it gives you when you slow down or speed up), while the mailboxes, houses, and and old men sitting on their porches are zooming past you.  From the perspective of one of those old men, however, it's you who appear to be traveling very quickly, while his glass of lemonade sits motionless beside him.  Video.

This idea probably isn't new to you!  This thought first crossed my mind sometime around third grade, when I was tossing a tennis ball up and down in the back seat of our truck on the way to grandma's house.  How is it that our vehicle can be traveling so fast, yet the ball doesn't fly backward when I let go of it?  As you could easily reason, it's because I'm effectively throwing the ball at 60 miles per hour (or however fast the vehicle is moving) every time I let go of it.  This is why cricket players get a running start when they bowl-- the velocity of the ball when they release it is equal to the combination of the speed at which they're running and the speed at which their arm is moving when they let go of the ball.

Now you're ready for the first (and most) mind-bending idea I'm going to hit you with.

Imagine that I have a flashlight.  If I aim it straight in front of me and turn it on, the light will travel at 300,000,000 meters per second (300 million m/s).  Great.  Now, let me get a running start.  Let's say I get going at like... 7 meters per second, then turn on the flashlight.  From my perspective-- my "frame of reference," how fast does the light travel?
I know, I know, you're smart enough not to fall for the trap I set.  I just explained reference frames, and you know the from my perspective, the light is still moving at 300,000,000 meters per second.  But how fast does my mom, who's standing next to me, wondering why I'm running around the house with a flashlight, see the light moving?  Well, if I'm moving at 7 meters per second, and light travels at 300 million meters per second, then my mom should see the light moving forward with the sum of these two velocities: 300,000,007 m/s!

But she doesn't.

What my mom sees light traveling at 300,000,000 m/s-- the same speed it was traveling before I took off running.

Wait... what?  Video.

Light travels at a constant velocity, regardless of from what reference from you observe it-- inertial (moving), or otherwise.

This fact is the foundation of Special Relativity, and it is not easy to swallow, yet we know it to be true.

The fundamental implication here is the first that comes to mind-- one that you might have already considered: nothing can travel faster than the speed of light, or we're going to encounter some serious problems.  For example, If I ran at twice the speed of light and flicked on my flashlight, then the light, which doesn't change its velocity with mine, would be behind me, while I'm running forward, flashlight in-hand.  Or maybe the light just wouldn't escape at all?  Once I reach that threshold of 300 million meters per second, the light just vanishes?  Who knows.  It's spooky stuff, and it can't happen.
So with the axiom that the speed of light is constant follows the rule that nothing can travel faster than the speed of light.  Nothing

However... as things move faster and faster, approaching 300,000,000 m/s, some interesting "paradoxes" arise.  I say "paradoxes" because these aren't paradoxes at all!  They are truths that follow from that first axiom: the speed of light is constant.  We call them paradoxes because they counter the intuition that we've developed from a lifetime traveling at ordinary, "non-relativistic" (AKA not very fast) speeds.

Now, when I set out to write this post, I planned on explaining some of these paradoxes in my own words, but then I realized that if you just watch the videos that I provide links to, you'll get a better, clearer, more complete explanation than I would be able to give you in a then redundant paragraph.

So what I'm going to do instead is leave you with videos explaining the two most famous paradoxes of relativity along with brief explanations, just so you can get a taste of what they're about and decide whether you want to invest the five or ten minutes watching the coolest things you'll ever see.  Then, you can ask me any questions you have about things that don't make sense or sit well with you!

So I leave you with these links and the feeling that the rug has just been ripped out from under you because that's what learning new things about physics does each and every time.

The Twin Paradox:
This is the idea that if you start out with two people at the same age (twins), then send one of them, person A, off in a spaceship at really, really high speeds, person A will return to earth younger than person B.
[this is because of something called time dilation]

The Pole-Barn/Ladder Paradox:
In this paradox, a 6 foot pole can fit completely into a 4 foot barn.
[this is because of something called length contraction]

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

"All Life is Precious" -- But why?

The title of this post was taken from AMC's original series, The Walking Dead.  The show is about a zombie-infested post-apocalyptic world.  I'll avoid dropping any spoilers, don't worry, but a character in the show lives by the phrase "All life is precious."  They don't kill (I'm invoking 'they' as a gender neutral singular here-- have no illusions: no one else hesitates to pull the trigger).  

It wasn't The Walking Dead that gave birth to the content of this post, but the maxim of this character steps closely with something that I've put a lot of thought into over the past few years.  It's an age old question and a favorite topic of discussion between armchair philosophers:

What makes life valuable?

I'd be lying if I said this was the way I phrased the question a few weeks ago when I was walking by the Grim Dell on my way to dinner.  The words I originally chose were: "What makes my life valuable."  No, I'm not having an existential crisis.  I believe that God gives my life value; I am his ambassador and servant., and what purpose could be more fulfilling than serving the king and creator of the universe?  (None come to mind.)  No, I know why I value my value the breath in my lungs; I was more interested in what makes my life valuable to others.

Though I'm still being too general.  Chances are, anyone who shares my beliefs will agree that the church is the body of Christ, placed on earth to accomplish his work.  I need to narrow my search.

What makes my life valuable to non-Christians?  Now we're getting close to the question I really asked myself back on William and Mary's campus.

A few answers came to mind, though I didn't find any of them particularly satisfying.

I might be a pet-- a companion.  Many people find comfort in the company of others.  There is safety in numbers, conversation breaks the silence, and having more people around presents the opportunity to participate in a wider range of activities (it's no fun playing catch or Euchre by yourself).  Perhaps that's what makes me valuable to some of my friends: our relationship is a classic example of mutualism.  The dog gets fed and petted, the human gets a loyal and indiscriminately-loving companion.  Everyone is happy. But what if I'm not your friend?

I might be a processor.  I have spent a lot of hours learning to analyze data and go through computations.  A computer can do math problems much more quickly (and correctly) than I can, but I can feed it the relevant information or even program it to do what needs to be done.  I can read, I can write.  My hands are useful in a lab.  Maybe I'm a processor and some future employer is eager to roll up to me in his swivel chair and input commands so that I can make him more money.  Again, we would have a mutual relationship where he gets another brain to work toward some task that will make him lots of dollars, and I get a few of those crisp Washingtons for my trouble.  But what if you don't need another (weaker) computer?

I might be a tool.  Maybe what gives my life purpose is simply my ability to do work.  Because I can apply a force, I am valuable to society.  Just fuel me up with a cheeseburger or a potato and I'm ready to move some rock or hammer some nail.

Now we're getting to the bare bones of the question.  Again, the question is: What makes life valuable?

What separates the living from the non-living?  The ability to move?  To apply that force necessary to do work?  Google told me that life is "the capacity for growth, reproduction, functional activity, and continual change preceding death."  What is it about the ability to grow, function autonomously, and reproduce that equals value in life's big equation?

I'm a better pet than a rock.  I'm a better processor than a river.  I'm a better tool than a cloud.  But is my value to society as a useful object the only thing that gives my life force purpose from a non-believer's perspective?  I'm not saying it is, but I struggle to reason that it isn't.  After all, I've always said that if I wasn't a Christian, I'd be a utilitarian.

Furthermore, I'm a better pet than a plant.  A dog is a better pet than a plant!  And I'm a better processor than both a plant and a dog.  Does there exist some hierarchy of value when it comes to life?  Is it okay to kill and eat vegetables but not meat, or is it wrong to eat either?

Is all life really precious?

Now usually at this point I'd drop some opinions on you guys.  Or I would find some convenient way to redefine a key word or twist a fundamental idea of the question to make it so we could all sleep okay at night.  But I already told you my opinion: God gives me purpose and value.

To be 100% honest with you, I don't understand the idea of the inherent value of life from a non-Christian perspective.  It seems that we all grow up just to die if our purpose is tied to this world.

If I dedicate my life to better understanding the universe or inventing some convenient machine, all I've done is made it easier for the next generation to live and die more comfortably, and that's not enough for me.  I don't know how it's enough for anyone.

Thursday, February 25, 2016

I Don't Talk Politics

I don't talk politics.  I don't know anything about them.  But do you find it interesting that our nation is split pretty much 50/50 on political issues?  Rather, do you find it interesting that half of our nation identifies with one party and half with another?

Now, don't get caught up in semantics here, or you'll miss the point.  I'm not saying that there are exactly the same number of Democrats as there are Republicans, nor am I saying that these are the only two political factions.  What I'm saying is that there are two main political parties and the numbers are close enough that your vote counts.

Maybe that doesn't seem strange to you, but like... shouldn't it?  Shouldn't people generally agree on this kind of thing?  Or shouldn't one argument be more persuasive than another?  On one hand, it seems odd to me that we the people would be so evenly polarized on these issues, but on the other maybe it isn't so surprising.  I will now give several reasonable theories on why this even split exists-- the last is my favorite and the inspiration for writing this post.


People have different circumstances, and one's circumstances play a huge role in one's opinions about what is best for the nation.  It's undeniable that we become biased because of our situations.  When it's cold, I imagine that I would take any heat over Jack Frost's nipping at my nose, yet, when summer rolls around, I reason that if it was winter, I could just bundle up and be a much happier camper.  It's been said that the goal of education should be to become conscious of these ideologies-- maybe that's another blog post.  Back to circumstances.

I find this idea difficult to agree with.  Circumstances are almost wholly dependent on wealth.  Right?  If your income is six digits, your house is probably bigger, your food is probably tastier, your clothes are probably nicer.  People say money can't but happiness, but no one actually believes that.  Now, we've all seen those graphs of "how many people hold what percentage of the nation's wealth," and from this illustration we can see that it's not a 50/50 split.  Few have very much.  Many have very little.  So if one's circumstances dictate one's voting habits and one's income dictates one's circumstances, then it doesn't make much sense to say that this is a reasonable explanation for the split.  That being said, there are factors other than the cash in your pocket that determine your quality of life, but we don't have time to explore every lurking variable, so we'll continue.


People have different ideologies.  I mentioned ideologies before.  If you're not voting on the basis of "what is best for the country" maybe you're voting on "who agrees most with my beliefs."  Maybe political issues equate to moral issues for some.  I mean, if a candidate for president thought that murder should be legal, would you vote for them?  Again, that's another blog post, but you understand what I'm trying to say: people don't vote based on what is objectively best for the nation, they vote based on what is most important to them.

This argument really isn't reasonable.  To say that this accounts for the even divide of our nation makes too many assumptions.  First, that most people vote based solely on ideology-- this likely isn't the case.  Second, that people are split evenly on a moral framework-- this seems counter-intuitive.  Third, that people with one belief will share a slew of others-- this makes sense for a religious nation which would be bound to some standardized moral code, but it is no longer popular (or accurate) to say that we are a particularly religious nation.


If you have a bag that contains 5 red marbles and 5 blue marbles, what are the odds that you will pick out a red marble if you randomly take 1 out?  This calculation is trivial.  There's a 50% chance.  What if it's random?

You're already mentally objecting.  Naturally.  People take pride in their team.  You like the Democrats because you believe in what they stand for!  Right?  You're a Republican because big government sucks!  Yeah?

I already told you I'm politically ignorant.  I will not engage in political debates over this post, but it seems to me that there are truths on both sides of this coin, and many people have just flipped it.

PS:  I didn't revise/edit this.  It wasn't worth it.  Thanks for not holding it against me.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Einstein, Bears, and Mental Health at William and Mary

Sit Einstein (not actual Einstein-- just the proverbial smart person) down in a room with a problem he or she couldn't hope to solve (we know they exist).  Never expose this person to anyone except the people overseeing the experiment, all of whom pretend as though they know the solution to the given problem and act as though it is simple.  Now, our proverbial smart person feels more like a proverbial dumb person.

Obviously, right?  Intelligence is relative.  I really haven't said anything profound, and, as is the case with most of my blog posts, I probably won't, but this is interesting, right?  Our Einstein doesn't even have to be the dumbest person in the room to feel like the dumbest person on earth-- as long as the only people he comes into contact with put on a convincing enough air of superior intelligence.

I feel like this happens all the time in the media, in conversation-- really in any mode of self-expression you could imagine.

I'm not going to give the speech about the digital age and being more concerned with our image than our actions.  I won't make the claim that we found our self-esteem on likes and shares.  Honestly, I'm kind of tired of that story, and I feel like it's age-old.  Haven't we been concerned with symbols of status for all of recorded history?  Like, I'm a complete idiot when it comes to stuff that happened a long time ago, but I'm pretty sure kings wore crowns and rich people wore purple.  The whole idea of compensating for insecurities by trying to paint a more perfect image of ourselves is nothing unique to the twenty-first century.

This is a bit of an aside, but if you're reading it, then it probably comes full circle in good time.  I think it's interesting to look at the way this makes other people feel.  Right?  Like, I've posted several pictures of my physics homework on social media in the past.  The average bear can't make heads or tails of it (half the time, neither can I).  It looks complicated and foreign.  This probably affects said bear in some way!  The bear probably doesn't like looking at what his fellow forest-beasts are doing and thinking "Hmm.  Well, I have no idea what that means."  Do I think about that when I hit post?  Hopefully not.  You'll have to take my word that I don't.  But I when I see Suzy's Computer Science test or Jimmy's Arabic homework, it opens my eyes to the things I don't know.  When I listen to sports analysts, I have no idea what they're talking about-- I don't speak their vernacular.

So now we get to be psychologists.  How does that make us feel?  It's a good question, and I think everyone has a different answer.  I don't feel dumb when I see everything Suzy and Jimmy know that I don't.  But I do feel kind of small.  I know a lot about some things.  Physics.  Math.  A few video games.  Euchre.  But I know very little of most others.  Language.  Culture.  History.  Now, I said I don't feel dumb when I see what other people know about the things I don't have much experience with, but what about our Einstein?  Let's say math is his thing, and the problem his overseers give him is to discover the lost proof of Fermat's Last Theorem.  No one has done this, yet, but they're pretending this problem is elementary (Watson)!  Poor Einstein would feel destroyed by this, wouldn't he?  Yet I'm not destroyed by the fact that my friend Jacob knows a lot more about history than I do.  I guess the difference is context.  Our experiment kind of assumes some level of naivete, limited exposure, etc...  We're all pretty well aware that we're not the dumbest person in the world, right?  Now we're getting to the point.  You feel it, don't you.

Our final stop on this intellectual journey brings us to academia.  I rarely post a Facebook status saying "I got a 54 on my Classical Mechanics exam!"  That's not really a thing.  But I might post that "I had a rough semester in Class Mech II, but I managed to pull out an A in the course!  Praise God!"  Why post one and not the other?  Obviously, the first makes me look like an idiot and the second makes me look like a hard-working, successful student who doesn't crumble in the face of hardship. I don't need to belabor that point-- you get why we publish what we do.  But what does this do to others?  Let's go back to our bear!  Let's say some other furry beast didn't end up with an A in Class Mech.  They see that I did and now they feel belittled.  In fact, anyone who posted much of anything about their grades probably talked about their good ones.  Now the sad bear is practically in Einstein's position because everyone is pretending like they know the proof to the Fermat problem.  Little does the grizzly know, I got a C+ to his or her A- in Electronics or a B- to his or her B+ in Quantum.

I feel as though this is the biggest issue at William and Mary.  I love my college.  Ask me one day to tell you about all of the good things.  But one thing we do poorly is portraying ourselves in a realistic light.  Here comes my psychoanalysis-- ready?  We all came from the top 10% of some high school somewhere.  We had good grades.  We had good SAT scores.  We were big fishes relative to our tiny ponds.  All of a sudden, someone drops us in the ocean, and we realize that we're not as big as we thought we were.  We question whether we can even survive in salt water.  We struggle to beat the average.  It's a shock!  It is!  It's scary.  It's unnerving.  Many of us went from success without effort to failure with blood, sweat, and tears in just one year.  So how do we compensate?  We tell all of our friends how much work we have to do and how hard our tests are, omitting the lazy Saturdays we've spent watching Netflix, then we post to Facebook about our amazing grades, neglecting to mention our failures.  The result?  Everyone feels like they're drowning.  If we were just honest with each other about success and failure alike, if we were just truthful about how many hours we actually spend studying versus wasting daylight, if we were just realistic in the way we portrayed ourselves, I believe it would do wonders for the mental health of this campus-- and I have a feeling that William and Mary is just a microcosm of the world at large.

Surround Einstein with enough convincing actors, and he might just lose hope before he ever has the chance to achieve something great.