Friday, February 23, 2018

Life in the Universe – Probability and Perspective

Recommended Pre-Reading:
The Fermi Paradox


When we look up at the sky at night from a place without too much light, we can see thousands of stars. Telescopes and centuries of formal astronomy have shown us that there are billions of stars in our Milky Way galaxy, and billions of galaxies in the observable universe. Considering the mind-bogglingly high number of chances for civilizations to arise, and the incomprehensible amount of time that has passed since the big bang, it seems natural to ask why the sky is so silent. Where are all the aliens? This is famously called the Fermi Paradox. But is it actually a paradox? Do we really have good reason to believe there should be aliens everywhere?

Back in the days of Ancient Greece, Aristotle modeled the solar system—or rather the terrestrial system—with the Earth in the center, and the sun, moon, stars, and planets revolving around it in perfect circles. There is something in human nature that makes it easy to believe that the universe is centered around us. Aristotle’s model survived for over a thousand years into the middle ages, until a troublemaker by the name of Nicolaus Copernicus shook the world with the model we all know today, with the sun in the center and the Earth being a planet, just like all the other planets. Since then, the Copernican Principle has been the idea that there is nothing special about us. We don’t live at the center of the Universe, Earth is not a special planet, the sun is not a special star, and so on. We are an ordinary part of the Universe, just like everything else. Taking the Copernican Principle to its conclusion, it seems the cosmos should be positively teeming with civilizations’ phone calls, TV shows, and internet sites.

On the other hand, we must also consider the Anthropic Principle,* which basically says, “we should not be surprised to find ourselves in a place where intelligent life is possible.” For example, if you were to wake up in a room and find a letter which said, “There are a million rooms just like this one, and only one of them is occupied,” would you think to yourself, “what a miracle it is that I find myself in the only room out of a million that is occupied”? Of course not, because the fact that you are there is what makes it occupied. When applied to life in the Universe, the Anthropic Principle shows us that even if the chances of life arising around any particular star are a soul-crushing one in one septillion (1 in 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000, or 0.000000000000000000000001) over 13 billion years, it is completely unsurprising that we find ourselves here on a planet that is perfectly suited for intelligent life. In fact, since we have no reason to believe the entire Universe ends anywhere near the edge of the observable universe, it doesn’t matter how infinitesimally small the odds are, there is really nothing interesting about the fact that we exist.

Taking the Copernican and Anthropic principles together, all we can really conclude is that we are probably normal as far as civilizations go. However, we still can make no reasonable guess as to how many civilizations should exist. There might be millions in our own galaxy that we are just on the brink of finding, or there might be no others in the entire observable universe. There are those who claim life should be everywhere, and those who claim Earth is unique. Who is right? We don’t know. What we do know is that neither has a good enough argument to win the debate, because there just isn’t enough data yet.

Click to view larger.
Speaking of data, we can turn this question into a scientific one with the Drake Equation, which says the number of civilizations in a given volume of space is equal to a bunch of stuff multiplied together. Those variables are the rate of formation of stars in that volume that could potentially host life, the fraction of habitable stars with solar systems, the average number of habitable planets per solar system, the fraction of habitable planets where life begins, and the fraction of planets with life that evolve civilizations. I have taken liberties and condensed some of the variables together to make it easier to explain, but that is the gist of it. We know the first three pretty well. Almost all stars have solar systems, and it is quite common for stars to have rocky or ocean planets in their habitable zones. However, Earth is the only planet we know of that has life, and we don’t know how it got started, so we have no idea what the last two variables are. They could be anything from so small that ours is the only planet in the Universe with even microbial life, to so large that we might stumble upon our neighbors’ interstellar radio network any day now.

Talking about the Fermi Paradox has always bothered me. Not because it is a paradox, but because everyone calls it a paradox and I don’t see why. A paradox requires a valid theoretical prediction that either leads to two apparently contradictory conclusions, or disagrees with observational evidence. But the assumption that life should be everywhere in the Universe is not valid, hence no paradox. Regardless, whether or not we are alone is still one of the deepest, most awe-inspiring questions a human being can ask.

*The Anthropic Principle should not be confused with the Strong Anthropic Principle or the Weak Anthropic Principle, both of which apply the Anthropic Principle to the Universe. The Weak AP assumes there is a multiverse, while the Strong AP assumes there is not.

Friday, February 16, 2018

The Question at the Core of Existence

A year ago, the intellectual giants Sam Harris and Jordan Peterson got together on Sam’s podcast to talk about the relationship between fact and morality, and ended up arguing for two hours about the definition of the word “truth.” Sam argued for what Jordan called Newtonian truth, which is the set of beliefs that most closely resemble fact, while Jordan argued for what he called Darwinian truth, which is the set of beliefs that lead to the survival and flourishing of humankind. Though they parted on a friendly note, they left with the frustration of talking in circles without end, and their audience felt the same.

From the promotional poster for their Vancouver event this coming June.

Although I side with Sam over this disagreement of definition, the question begs to be asked, what went wrong between them? How can two men with IQs so far through the roof that you couldn’t see them with binoculars disagree so stubbornly about the mere definition of a single word? I suspect it was not about the word at all, but something deeper and more profound than either of them realized. It surrounds a single question so basic and monumental that the entirety of human existence revolves around it.

For most of my life, I thought the most important question was, “What is true?” After all, it seemed like the quest to understand the universe and how we have come to wake up in it was the highest, most noble goal of being alive. If someone was factually incorrect, it seemed my duty to drum up a logical argument and correct them for Truth’s sake. As recently as August of last year, I wrote a blog post titled “Truth,” in which I treated Truth with a capital T as if it were a god. But being skeptical in nature, I came to doubt that putting Truth at the center of my existence was, in fact, objectively correct. To my great surprise, I discovered that there is another, more fundamental, more profound question than what is true.

One of the observations that led me to this conclusion is that not all truth is equal. For instance, it never does you any good to know exactly how many atoms are in the paint on a particular stop sign. It is obvious that this type of fact is pointless, but I needed to know why. What makes some truths worth knowing, and others a waste of time?

We are here, existing with corporeal bodies on Planet Earth. We have internal drives that cause us to do things, but we also have a strange feature called a will, which lets us choose actions and courses that deviate from the path of least resistance. We can do things that are easy, or things that are hard. We can reach for pleasure or satisfaction, or to meet the needs and desires of others. We can set out to punish wrong, or to forgive. Thus, after the observation of self-existence, the very first question, which guides our lives from beginning to end, and which must be asked anew every waking moment, is “What should we do?”

In answering this, we find a momentary purpose. Some people go out and act on this purpose immediately, but those who are wise look open-mindedly for relevant facts, using the purpose as a guide. For the most part, the better informed we are about the facts relating to our purpose, the better we can fulfill this purpose. It may be that during our pursuit of relevant knowledge, we discover something that makes us reevaluate our purpose, and this new purpose may send us looking for other information, and the cycle continues. We might say that this is the course of intellectual maturity. Looking at this cycle, it is easy to see how one might get these questions, “What is True?” and “What should we do?” mixed up in their order of importance. It’s a chicken-and-egg scenario. Which came first? It’s hard to tell.

But it can be resolved by considering an asymmetry between the questions’ results. It is possible to have great and meaningful purpose while being completely wrong about the facts. Just compare people from different religions, who believe different sets of facts that contradict each other, but who have equally purposeful lives. On the flip side, however, things are different. It is completely possible to have deep and thorough knowledge about many things, problems that need solving, injustices that need correcting, and also have a clear understanding of the boundaries of one’s knowledge, and yet do nothing at all. While logically these amount to A and not B, and B and not A, there is no question that from a human perspective there is a world of difference between the two. It is infinitely more fulfilling to be with purpose than with knowledge, and fulfillment is what we spend every bit of energy striving toward.

I think the core of the argument between Sam Harris and Jordan Peterson, the disagreement between the lines, is to what degree one must ground themselves in factual reality in order to have a maximally positive purpose-driven life. Sam’s position is that it is essential to have the facts straight, and the more factually correct you are, the nobler a purpose you find, and the better you will be able to successfully live it out. Jordan is more interested in what to do when the facts are beyond one’s reach or comprehension, or when doubting one’s current knowledge might lead to a loss of purpose. Both men have important things to say, and are well worth a respectful listen.

Friday, February 9, 2018

Where Secrets Lie – The Well of Images Part 2

Read Part 2: "Where Secrets Lie," at WritersCafe.org. (WritersCafe is having problems, so I am looking for a new platform.)

After months of hard work, I am pleased to announce "Where Secrets Lie," the second story in The Mentor, the Hero, and the Trickster, book 1 of The Well of Images.

Accepting Professor Berkeley's offer to take her on as a research assistant, Hope is dismayed when Berkeley forbids her from entering the Realms on her own, because of dangers unknown. Samuel, the only person who could be her delving partner, is completely disinterested. Can Hope find a way to convince him to join her, or will she have to brave the uncertain depths alone, behind her mentor's back?

When starting a new project, it can be easy to get wrapped up in beginner's enthusiasm. Getting through the first challenge is tough, but your excitement gets you through it. The hard part begins with the second challenge. You're already tired, and some of that enthusiasm is draining away. Worse, all of the parts you're most excited about don't happen until later, and you find yourself having to grind through the boring parts of the journey, while trying to make it look interesting enough to keep your readers' attention. With that in mind, getting "Where Secrets Lie" to a high enough quality level to share with the world is one of my most significant writing milestones. Here is to a successful future of the series.

The Well of Images is a fantasy series of short stories, following two college students in their adventures through the Unconscious Realms, full of symbolism and mythological archetypes. If you have not read part 1, or if you are from the future and want to read a later chapter, you can find them in the Finished Stories tab.

If you like "Where Secrets Lie," why not support me on Patreon? It means a lot to me to know that others find what I am passionate about to be meaningful.

Friday, February 2, 2018

Quantum Entanglement

Science has discovered a whole lot of cool and mysterious phenomena, some stranger than fiction. Today, we will dive into one of these, explaining it with accuracy, as well as the background knowledge that someone unfamiliar with it would need in order to understand. Today’s topic is quantum entanglement.


First, what is quantum physics? Put simply, it is the study of the very small. In a microscope, we can see things that are too small to see with our own eyes, like the cells that make up all living things. This is still far too big to be quantum. Zooming waaaaay in, we find organelles, chromosomes, DNA strands, proteins, and finally the basic building blocks of all matter: atoms. Now we have arrived at the level of quantum physics.

“Quantum” means the smallest possible amount. It does not mean consciousness, alternate histories, or time travel, so put those thoughts out of your mind. Quantum physics is the study of things that cannot be divided. For instance, an electron orbiting an atomic nucleus cannot have less than a certain amount of energy, called its ground state. Above that is the first excited state. To gain more energy, an electron must receive enough to make the difference between the ground state and the first excited state. After that, comes the second excited state, and so on. Think of it like climbing a ladder. If you want to get to the next rung, you have to lift your hand all the way up to it. If your hand isn’t high enough, it won’t be able to grab onto anything, and will fall back to where it was before.

Electrons have a little-known property called spin. They don’t actually rotate, because that doesn’t make sense, but they have a magnetic field as if they were rotating. If you measure an electron’s spin, you will either find it to be aligned with your measurement, spin up, or opposite your measurement, spin down. The details get complicated, but the important thing is that there are only two possible spins that an electron can have. Also, it is impossible for an electron to be without spin.

A quantum state is the way that a particle or system of particles is at any given time. An electron’s state includes its energy level, which atom it is a part of, or lack thereof, and its spin. Electrons are a type of particle called fermions, which means that two of them cannot have their total state be exactly the same at the same time. Looking at an atom again, there can only be two electrons in the ground state of energy, since there are only two possible spins. A third electron would have to go in the first excited state, and would not be able to get to the ground state.

There is one more important fact about quantum physics: a particle can be in two or more states at once. An electron can be 50% spin up and 50% spin down. This is called quantum superposition. To be clear, it is not halfway between spin up and spin down; it is both at the same time. If you measure something in quantum superposition, it becomes 100% one of its options, and we say it collapses. This means that if you measure an electron in a 50% spin up, 50% spin down state, it will collapse to be either 100% spin up or 100% spin down.

Think of it like these two sine waves. There cannot be two fermions with the same wave, but they can be antisymmetric like this.

Note: this does not mean consciousness creates reality. What exactly counts as a measurement is still debated, but there is no evidence that it has anything to do with consciousness. There is no counter-evidence either, but the burden of proof is on the person who wants to make the claim that there is a connection.

So if you have two electrons in an atom’s ground state, you would think that one has spin up and the other has spin down. But in reality, one is 50% spin up and 50% spin down, and the other is 50% spin down and 50% spin up. You might ask, how can this be? We just talked about how it is impossible for two electrons to be in the same total state. Well, unlike in everyday life, in quantum physics, order matters. Half-down-half-up is different from half-up-half-down—different in exactly the right was so that the two electrons occupy different total states.

If you take an electron away from its atom, its spin will still be in a superposition of up and down. This means that if you measure it, it will have a 50% chance of collapsing to spin up, and a 50% chance of collapsing to spin down. The same is true for the other electron, 50% for spin up, 50% for spin down. But here’s where the magic happens: When the two electrons are in the atom, they must be opposite from each other. If you take them out of the atom, they must still be opposite from each other. So if you measure one and it collapses to spin up, you immediately know the other one is going to be spin down. The thing is, it does not matter how far apart the electrons are. You could separate them by light years, and measuring one will collapse the spin state for both of them at once. This is quantum entanglement. It can happen for all kinds of particle combinations, and for many properties besides spin. A lot of neat stuff regarding it has been observed in labs, and there are even theoretical technologies based on it like quantum computers.

To reiterate, when two particles are entangled, measuring the entangled property of one will immediately determine what you will get when you measure the entangled property of the other, even if two people do the measuring at faraway places at the same time. Although it seems like instantaneous action faster than the speed of light, there is unfortunately no way to use entangled particles to communicate, so it does not break the speed of light barrier. After all, when you measure your particle, you have no idea if the one on the other end has been measured yet. Too bad for humanity’s galactic civilization 10 million years from now. But even if it doesn’t solve communication light-lag, quantum entanglement has plenty of other uses, and it’s quite a marvelous mystery of the universe.

Friday, January 26, 2018

The Nature of Natures

The Nature of Reality:
Quasi-Realism
Representational Realism
Existence and Natures


In the past, I’ve argued for the metaphysical theory of Representational Realism, the belief that Reality exists objectively, on its own, and that what we perceive is not reality, but a copy of reality constructed in our brains from the information provided by our senses. This raises the question, what is Reality really like? If our perception is just a translation of data from our senses and memories, prone to error and bias, how can we know what is really true?

Even though we can never directly perceive Reality, we can learn some things about it through reasoning. If something is objectively real, it must be well-defined. I don’t mean in terms of word definitions, but that it has a “way that it is,” also known as a nature. This is true independently of whether we know what it is or not, or even whether there is anyone in existence to do the knowing. The mysteries of science have an answer now, and that answer has always been true. Gravity followed Newton’s formula before Newton. DNA existed before Watson and Crick. The natures of things, even those which do not yet exist, are already set within Reality, and have been since the beginning of time.

So what are these natures, and what do we know about them? The most successful process for trying to figure them out is science, particularly modern physics. The nature of gravity is best described by General Relativity, and the natures of pretty much everything else in the universe, bar some as-of-yet unexplained phenomena like consciousness, are emergent from Quantum Field Theory. This is where we get the idea of the laws of physics, mathematical representations of the natures of real things. There are laws of physics for the fundamental level of nature, as well as approximations for larger systems like fluids, solids, electricity, and all kinds of stuff.

The Einstein field equation (top) and the Schrodinger equation (bottom) together describe almost all of physics as we know it.

When we talk about the laws of physics in the context of the nature of Reality, we mean the most fundamental. Quantum Field Theory and General Relativity work for the most part, but there are still places they don’t, like the centers of black holes and the first instant of the big bang. It is thought that at the base of everything there is a single true law of physics describing one all-encompassing nature of Reality, a Theory of Everything. The two major contending Theories of Everything right now are String Theory, which hypothesizes that all things are made of spacetime membranes and extremely tiny strings; and Loop Quantum Gravity, which hypothesizes that there is a smallest possible amount of space and time. Neither of these theories has any evidence backing them up, so it is still an open question.

But let’s back up. How do we know everything has a nature? It may seem like I’ve sped through the logic and left a lot of room for error. So let’s think about what would happen if things did not behave according to their natures. It would mean that their existence, properties, and everything about them would be fuzzy and undefined. This is what I call quasi-real, the worldview, often unnoticed by those who have it, that reality only exists as it is understood, and anything outside of our understanding does not have a definite state of existence yet. In a quasi-realist view, scientists do not discover facts through their experiments, rather they conjure them into existence from a sort of fuzzy pool of potential realities.

One might ask whether quantum physics provides evidence of quasi-realism, and against the idea of natures. After all, you can do an experiment where you prepare two or more electrons or other particles exactly the same way, and end up with different results. But this apparent lack of a nature is just an illusion. Run the experiment enough times, and you will see that the results follow a clear distribution of probability. Take the famous double-slit experiment. When photons—light particles—are shone through two tiny openings, they will land on what seem to be random places on the other side, bending when they pass through the slits. But let enough photons through, and a clear pattern of alternating dark and light fringes appears. This pattern always appears when you shine enough light through two slits of the right size, no matter where or when you do the experiment. So although it may seem that there is something inherently non-natural about individual photons are unpredictable, they are actually following their nature.


What about abstract things, like love, a symphony, or the appreciation of beautiful art? How can these things have a well-defined nature? The answer is tricky, because these words are used in ways that are not well-defined. But if you zoom in and isolate one concrete part of it, like how seeing the painting affects your brain and body chemistry, we can begin to see how it might be possible, that these abstract constructs are emergent from level upon level of complexity. We cannot describe a Shakespeare play at the level of quantum physics, not because it’s impossible, but because there is not enough computing power in the world to do it. The higher up the chain of emergence, the more difficult it is. When we talk about something that concretely exists, it is well-defined, whether or not its nature is possible to compute or understand in fundamental terms.

What about free will? Doesn’t the existence of choice challenge the idea of natures? You might be surprised, but free will is actually an emergent property of determinism. Think about it, you never make a decision without a reason. Sometimes you don’t know the reason, and it was your brain and body working automatically in their deterministic way. Sometimes you have an idea of the reason, partially the values you were taught as a child, which you were reminded of by a stranger smiling at you as you walked past each other, and a thousand other things adding up. The often misunderstood point of free will is that we have the ability to do things for good reasons, not for no reason at all. Now you might say there is a loophole, as we choose between actions that have good reasons and those that have bad reasons. But this choice is also based on reasons. No matter how you slice it, it’s reasons all the way down. Of course I am not saying that we don’t have free will. We do. I’m just pointing out that free will is not a basic-level principle of reality, and it has a well-defined nature.

Many people believe in the idea of the supernatural, a layer of reality that is not bound by natural laws, but nonetheless exists. This simply doesn’t make sense. Anything that exists must have a way that it is, which is another term for nature. The average person, however, does not think at the philosophical level, but rather uses it to describe a collection of phenomena like ESP, ghosts, demons, angels, and God. However, the line between the supernatural and the natural is arbitrary. Many things that were once called supernatural, like the weather and the motion of the objects in the sky, were later understood by science, and so lost their supernatural status. Nowadays, it seems to me like the supernatural is a cover behind which people hide when their beliefs are called into question. If I tell a believer there is no evidence for the existence of ghosts, and that mere witness testimony does not count, they will probably accuse me of being a close-minded naturalist, rather than countering my claim with evidence.


This accusation is baseless, because I personally believe in several things that may be considered supernatural. Consciousness and hypnosis, for starters, and I have personally had out-of-body experiences and meaningful dreams. Because they are real, they have a well-defined nature, and can be understood. Anything that exists, whether you call it supernatural or natural, has a nature, a way that it exists and interacts with the rest of reality. This does not close the door to the possibility of God or demons; quite the contrary, it brings these things into the realm of serious consideration rather than quasi-realist speculation. I don’t disbelieve in the supernatural. Rather, I don’t see the division between natural and supernatural as having any meaning. It all comes back to the fact that anything that exists must have a way that it is, a well-defined nature. For each “supernatural” thing, we can ask whether it exists, and test it empirically just like every “natural” thing. And for each, there is a definite answer that is already true.

But enough of case examples, let’s get to the center of the issue. What would it mean for something not to have a nature? Remember, an object’s “nature” in this conversation means the “way that it is.” Suggesting that something exists without having a way that it is simply makes no sense. That would mean there is no true well-defined statement that you could say about it. For instance, does it explode when wet? If yes, there must be something about its physical properties that causes it to explode, which would be part of its nature. If it does not explode, that would also be explained by its nature. But what if it only explodes sometimes? Even then we will be able to calculate the probability of it exploding in a certain amount of time based on its nature. In order for it not to have a nature, it must not act according to probability, which means it should have the same chance of exploding in the next three seconds as it does in the next ten minutes as it does in the next hundred trillion years. This lack of probability would not be because of our human lack of information, but inherent in the object’s very being. Of course, this would apply not just to exploding, but to turning blue, transforming into a pizza, growing arms and legs and break dancing, blowing up the Earth, and every other possible thing that can happen. All this because it would have no nature preventing it from doing so, because not being able to do something is a well-defined statement about the way that it is. The fact that we have a Universe where it is possible for things to make sense is evidence that everything has a well-defined nature.

But what if something had a nature that was not well-defined? Could something deviate from its nature in small amounts, following its nature most of the time, but just once in awhile doing other things? Well no, because as we discussed, even having a probability counts as a nature, so the real truth would be that we are wrong about its nature, and its true nature really does explain everything that it does. Take gravity for example. Newton’s theory explained planets and moons most of the time, but not all of the time. Newton predicted that all planets should orbit the sun in perfect ellipses (ovals), but the planet Mercury’s ellipse swiveled so that the point where it was farthest from the sun moved each year. Then Einstein came along with his General Theory of Relativity, a theory of gravity which worked like Newtonian gravity in weak fields, but differently in strong fields. General Relativity predicted Mercury should precess exactly as it did. Ultimately, it wasn’t that Mercury behaved in a way slightly different from its nature, but instead we weren’t quite right about what its nature was.

The key to all this is the difference between knowledge and fact. It is easy to believe that we know a lot more than we do, and therefore the vast plunges of the unknown must be inherently unknowable. However, this can be overcome if we acknowledge that no matter how certain we are about what we think we know, there is always at least a small chance that we may someday find ourselves to be not quite right, and have to amend our beliefs to better reflect the truth. Fundamental facts about natures are always true, always have been, and always will be regardless of whether we agree about them, or if anyone knows them at all. It all comes down to one simple tautology, that everything that exists has a way that it is. Though true by definition, its vastly powerful implication for knowledge and understanding goes unnoticed by so many.

Friday, January 19, 2018

Learning by Unlearning – Deconstruction

Toolbelt of Knowledge:
Algorithms
Skepticism
Equivalence
Emergence
Listening
Deconstruction


What is a cat? A picture appears in your mind of a furry creature with pointy ears, a configuration of matter and energy that is “cat,” and outside of which is “not cat.” But these lines between “cat” and “not cat” aren’t as absolute as they may seem. A cat is made of trillions of cells linked together by common DNA, and even more cells, bacteria, with different DNA. Furthermore, it is constantly trading matter with its environment—shedding hair, flaking skin, breathing air—so that what is “cat” is constantly in flux. We have a common sense understanding of what things are, but when we try to find a basis for this common sense, we come up scratching our heads.

Back in ye olden days of philosophy, Plato tried to solve this problem with the idea of forms, perfect conceptual objects, which all real objects are replicas of. So even though all cats are different and each individual cat is always changing, they are all cats because they are modeled after the Platonic form of cat. The same would be true of pots, raindrops, hospitality, and everything else in the universe. The closer something is to its Platonic form, the more perfect it is.


However, the theory of forms breaks down when we consider that there are an infinite number of possible objects. New objects get invented every day. Is there supposed to be a Platonic form of an orange juicer? Does a door handle have a different form than a doorknob? What about the fact that a spoon can be used as a hammer, or a bucket as a stool? You can keep trying to fortify the theory of forms against these questions by coming up with more and more arbitrary rules, but a much simpler conclusion would be that a spade is a spade not because it has some special spade-ness to it, but because everyone who sees it agrees to call it a spade.

An alternative to Plato’s forms is social construction theory, the idea that objects and ideas are constructed in our minds as we learn about the world. That is not to say that things don’t exist, but that the way we think about and differentiate them is artificial. We use the words that our parents, teachers, and society give to us, and it would be possible to use a completely different set of words with different meanings to describe the same things, as evidenced by the fact that every language has its share of words that are not easily translated.

Over the last century, French philosopher Jacques Derrida developed deconstruction, the process of looking for assumptions and arbitrary decisions that our views of things are built on, and breaking them down to see reality in a more raw form. For instance, where is the edge of a cloud? If you look closely enough, you'll see it fades from opaque to transparent, but nowhere is there a definite boundary. With practice, we find that most of the words and concepts we have in our minds, or perhaps even all of them, are not fully descriptive of reality, but shortcuts to help us think and function. By understanding this, we can begin to glimpse the finer details of truth between concepts that first appeared to be black and white. Good and evil are positions on a multi-dimensional sliding scale, which looks different depending on where you’re standing. Gender (in the sociological sense) is not merely male and female, but a connected spectrum with two sharp peaks. Money has no intrinsic value, we just all agree to pretend it does. Ultimately, deconstruction is to recognize that everything is always more complicated than we think it is, and we ought to respect that.

Derrida also styled his hair like a supervillain.

For many people, it can be terrifying to entertain the thought that so much of what we take for granted, the basic things we rely on to function in the world, are a product of social construction. But on the other hand, seeing how far you can deconstruct ideas can be really fun. It’s not like the universe will stop existing if you think about it the wrong way. Reality is what it is, regardless of the concepts we construct surrounding it, and the deeper we go with deconstruction, the closer we get to the bedrock foundation of immutable bare Truth. Of course it’s not wrong to use social constructions—most of the time it is good for us—but by understanding that there are other ways to organize reality, we will open up new frontiers of knowledge, and power up our ability to imagine new ways, new constructions, to make things better.

Friday, January 12, 2018

Tapping the Unconscious – The Secret to a Great Story


A good story requires good writing. That’s a given. But even with good writing, some stories are amazing, and some are just okay. This means that there must be something else at play, but what? The answer lies in how writing transports us into other worlds, stimulating our imaginations to take us somewhere else so vividly that we can forget where we are.

When it comes to perception, our mental wires are tangled up in a messy web. Colors feel warm or cold. Musical tones feel like emotions. Shapes will make us wary or put us at ease. Everything we sense or experience is connected with all kinds of other things, most of which have no connection in the outside world. This is how metaphors work. If a writer says the sky is smooth as glass, it creates a picture in your mind of cloudless blue, even though the sky and glass have nothing in common.

Can you guess which of these shapes is called a "kiki" and which is called a "bouba"? Around 90% of people choose the same thing, regardless of native language.

The best stories are those that resonate with us, tickling these crossed wires so that we get to things that are deep and meaningful. It is one thing to talk about human nature analytically, and another entirely to learn about it through the guided experience of an artist’s hand.

Back in the early days of psychology, Sigmund Freud modeled the mind as three layers, the conscious, which is where our thinking and perceiving and everything that we are aware of takes place, the unconscious, a vast ocean of ideas, beliefs, and calculations we are completely unaware of, and the subconscious, which lies between the others, and takes things from the unconscious and brings them to the conscious.


Freud’s contemporary, Carl Jung, added to this with the idea of the collective unconscious, a commonality of the unconscious minds of all of humanity. He came to this idea by looking at mythical archetypes, characters, events, settings, etc., that appear in stories all over the world. For instance, there is the hero, who does grand and difficult things for the good of their community; the mentor, who helps the hero reach their potential; the trickster, who manipulates everyone for their own ends; and many more. It is a common misconception to think that Jung meant everyone’s minds are connected. What he really meant is that humans have a lot of the same stuff in our unconsciouses, just like we all have two hands and two eyes.

Influenced by Freud and Jung, mythologist Joseph Campbell came up with the idea of the monomyth, also called the Hero’s Journey, which is a structure that the most powerful stories in human history, the ancient myths from all over the world that have survived until today, adhere to. The monomyth has several stages, including the call to adventure, crossing the threshold, death of the mentor, figurative or literal death and rebirth of the hero, ultimate triumph, returning home with the prize, and others. Few stories have all of the monomyth’s elements, but most of the great ones have some. It is also worth mentioning that there are other story formats that resonate besides the monomyth.

Star Wars: A New Hope is often hailed as the modern representation of the monomyth.

The fact that tales from all over the world follow this structure suggests that the secret ingredient that makes stories great is when they resonate with the collective unconscious. You may have heard writers say that the story already exists, and they are just putting it to words. Back in the day, there was an idea of a personal genius, a spirit that gave creative people inspiration for their work. It turns out this is not merely superstition; the subconscious mind functions just like a personal genius, bringing forth the best ideas from the reservoir of the unconscious. When creators follow the guiding of their genius, it is an expression of the unconscious, and when this expression resonates with lots of people’s unconsciouses, it is a great story. True art appears when the artist looks inward and lets their heart guide them.