October 15th, 2013

On Complexity of Thought

There is a certain state of mind. It is not something you can attain easily. To reach it requires constant work, an insuppressible curiosity, and years of experience. As far as I know, there is no technical term for it. If I had to name it, I would call it “complex thought”.

It is perhaps best contrasted to the typical way of thinking of an adolescent: “I know that there is only one answer; It is my answer, and it is the only correct one.” When we’re young, the answers seem simple and pure, and we marvel that the adults around us do not see it that way.

So here I find myself, years later, and my perspective has turned 180 degrees. If there is one thing I have learned by now, it is that the simple truth is neither simple nor true. Always we are working with incomplete knowledge, never fully understanding. And there are always more ways than one of looking at something, of thinking about it.

For example, let’s take one of the deepest rooted assumptions of western civilization: “All live is sacred.” It is this deep-seated belief that underlies two of the toughest moral issues our society is now facing: euthanasia and abortion. In recent years, we have started to question this assumption. We ask ourselves at which point life stops being sacred, when it can and perhaps must be ended, guilt-free.

The easy approach to thinking about such an issue is to pick one side and blind yourself to any other viewpoint. You pick up one, two, maybe three core arguments and then repeat those arguments in varying forms until the opposition gives in.

In the mindset of complex thought, the problem becomes multi-dimensional. Rather than looking at the surface characteristics, you dig deeper and try to find the root of the problem. First: where are both sides coming from?

One side is leaning heavily on what has for nearly two millennia been the philosophical underpinnings of our world: Christianity. As all life is created by God, it is not for us human beings to decide when to end it. But the story doesn’t start there: the sanctity of life is something that, along with many other things, was inherited from Judaism, going back another millenium. So on the one hand we have an idea that is at least three thousand years old, probably older still. It may be because of this idea that most of the world is now Christian rather than pagan: caring for the sick, monogamy and prohibitions on birth-control, abortion and infanticide were part of why Christians did so much better than Romans and became a dominant force in the empire. Clearly this idea has merit.

The other side of the argument reasons from quality of life. For euthanasia, this means asking whether life spent in constant discomfort is worth the trouble for its own sake. In the case of abortion, it is the prevention of life spent among unready and possibly unfit parents. These things are observable, measurable, empirical. Metaphysical implications need to take a back-seat to what we can know for certain in the here and now. Such thinking is far more recent, popularized by science and first formalized by late 17th century philosophers, notably John Locke. Locke found himself surrounded by extremists among scientists, clergy, and laymen alike, who acted on whatever wild idea came into their minds. He sought to bring reason and moderation by encouraging a distrust of any line of reasoning that did not find its root in provable, observable evidence. This has been at the heart of the overwhelming success of the scientific method. Clearly, there is something to be said for this as well.

Le Penseur

Le Penseur

Besides the mindset of both sides of the argument, there is the framework in which the problem is discussed. What counts as admissible evidence? What are we counting, along what scale? What is the most desirable goal? Within a theological framework, the metaphysical implications are important. Within a scientific framework, they are not. A humanitarian framework focuses on the rights and abilities of the individual, a sociological or political framework looks at everything but the individual.

These are things that a complex thinker considers as a matter of course: history, philosophy, logic, beliefs, causes, primary and secondary effects — the list goes on. Of course, this doesn’t make it easier to make a decision. In fact, it becomes much harder. But that is the way it should be. We live in a universe that is “not just more complicated than we imagine, but more complicated that we can imagine.

As a result, the complex thinker is never completely sure of his or her answer. After all, if there are so many different ways of thinking about the same subject, how can one person claim to have understood them all, united them all to one absolute answer? A complex thinker does not believe in absolutes. She has seen them fail too often.

In fact, the true complex thinker rarely feels the need to settle on a single answer. He does not judge, does not define, does not try to narrow his thinking into a single point. He keeps all the lines open, considers them besides each other. If an answer is required, he can condense his current perspective to one, but it is temporary — something lightly held and easily changed.

A complex thinker needn’t tie herself to one system, one set of values, one way of thinking. Therefore context becomes vastly more important. What is the right thing to do, if there even is such a thing? At one time, it may be dictated by a the golden rule: do onto others as you would have them do unto you. Another time, she may apply the rule of the jungle: the fittest survives for the good of the species. The brain of a complex thinker is always in a storm, but she finds harmony within the storm.


Hopefully I have convinced you that being a complex thinker is something worthy to aspire to. If you feel inclined to pursue this idea, here are a few hints from my own, still growing,experience.

Question your assumptions.

This is not easy to do. Our brains are understandably geared toward preserving energy, and having to think constantly is not something that comes naturally. Especially when the rewards for doing so are not readily apparent. So you have to make it a habit. Teach yourself certain triggers. Whenever you find yourself saying or thinking words like ‘naturally’, ‘everyone knows’ or ‘of-course’, that is when you know that you’ve just based your thinking on an assumption that needs to be examined. For example: Should making money and holding a steady job be my goal in life? Does that give me happiness? If society claims that this is the road I must take, should I believe that without question? What alternatives are there? Do any of them work better for me?

After doing this for a while, you may be surprised to find how deep certain assumptions go. It also helps to be aware of the society you were brought up in, because that will most likely be the source of your deepest assumptions. Study foreign culture, anthropology: bring your own societal values into clearer focus by contrasting them. Study history: learn where your basic ideas came from, in what conditions there first arose and whether they still apply to your situation today.

Don’t invest yourself

Learn to let go. You needn’t tie you self-worth nor your identity to the way you think. Hundreds of years of increasing human understanding, personal freedom, education and modernism have led to this: that you are completely free to believe what you want. So don’t waste that right by using it only once — by finding one belief, one way of thinking for yourself and sticking to that from then on. You are allowed to change your mind. A lot. To the point where you give a different answer to the same question every time it is asked.

Be widely, wildly, impulsively interested

To be a complex thinker, you’ll need to learn about as many ways of thinking as you can. This has to be something you want for yourself: it won’t work if you think of it as work. You’ll need to have an interest, a passion for discovering new things and new perspectives. Vary widely and wildly. Study science, by all means, but study history, psychology and economics as well. Learn about religion, and moral philosophy. Whenever a new subject catches your fancy, seize the opportunity to immersive yourself in a new way of looking at the world.

Whenever you encounter somebody whose point of view you cannot understand, like e.g. a fundamentalist or a religious extremist, your first reaction should not be to judge nor to argue, but to seek understanding. You cannot argue if you cannot understand what you are arguing against. Reserve judgement. Find a good book that explains how this person is thinking and read it. Understand this person, his ideas and the world that gave rise to those ideas. Understand these ideas as intimately as you understand your own.

Cross-fertilize

When you’ve learned all these different perspectives on the same subject, you can compare, contrast and finally integrate. Build your own line of reasoning from what you perceive as the best traits in all the systems you’ve learned. But always remember: the perspective you build is, in the end, always one among many, and not necessarily better than any other. In fact, the word ‘better’ is, you may find, highly problematic and you may want to give up thinking in such terms. Never allow yourself to invest enough in one way of thinking that you can lose sight of others. Hold open all the lines, consider all possibilities, make no judgements unless you have to.


Always be aware that no matter how much you know, how rich your understanding, there is still more that you do not yet know, do not yet understand. From that come two things: A profound humility, that will enable you to come to understand other human beings more fully. And a neverending thirst for more knowledge, deeper understanding, and new perspectives.

Finally, I’ll leave you with the cartoon that started me thinking about complex thinking in the first place. It shows in one image what takes me hundreds of words to describe. May it give you the same intuitive understanding that it gave me. Have a great day, and a better one tomorrow.

Saturday Morning Breakfast Cerial

September 22nd, 2012

Learning one’s true name

In case you’ve never heard of True Names: it is the concept that every thing and being has one true name that represents that being’s true nature and that, if learned by others, gave them power over it. It occurs sometimes in religion but even more frequently in fantasy literature.

This is the story of how I learned my own true name, and the unexpected benefits it brought me.

Before I can get into the how, I have to mention some of the prerequisites. Although I’m a spiritual person, that is not a prerequisite. What is needed mostly is experience with looking inside yourself, and with examining your own life. The best way I’ve found to achieve this is through meditation. If you know meditation, you can skip the next part, if not, I highly recommend you read on.

Meditation has gotten a strange reputation in the West as being a bit silly, somehow slightly embarrassing. It may be this undeserved reputation that has kept this amazing tool from many of us. I can say from experience that meditation is a way for one to become aware of their own thought processes, and then start to alter them. In essence, it allows you to think and feel any way you choose.

In fact, if I were allowed a single piece of advice to anyone I ever meet, it would be this: meditate. It’s really not that difficult. All you have to do is sit and make yourself comfortable, but not sleepy. Those weird poses you sometimes see in yoga may work for some people, but really you can meditate just fine sitting up on a chair. And the most important factor: don’t just try it once. To start out with, try to do it for at least twenty minutes every day, for years.

How to meditate: there are lots of things you can try (look it up, there’s tons of material out there) but really the simplest and most effective thing is to relax, close your eyes and do your best to think of nothing at all. Pretty soon you’ll notice that your mind, when not needed for a particular task, starts to run around in circles. Doing this again and again, you start to notice not just what you’re thinking, but how you’re thinking. After some sessions of this, you’ll develop your own little tricks for quieting that mind down and making it do what you want it to. No special techniques needed: all this stuff comes pretty naturally, in my experience, if you’re just willing to put time and effort into it.

And that’s it. Once you’ve mastered this sufficiently, you’ll be surprised at the new perspective you’ll gain on your own mind, and the control you can exert. For example: I don’t think I’ve been really sad in the last six years or so. When I notice my feelings heading in that direction, I simply relax into a meditative state, find out what the underlying cause is, remove it, and restore happiness. And that’s it. It works.

Anyway, about that name. I’d encountered the concept of True Names a couple of times before. Le Guin’s Earthsea probably, although I can’t remember exactly. Anyway, one night I was suddenly convinced that I’d find out my own true name. I could have gone through some elaborate process, but really what would be the point? I simply sat down, got comfortable, got quiet, and looked inward.

Not that it was easy to do. I had to dig really deep. Questions that I had to answer, like ‘who am I’, ‘what defines me’, ‘what do I like to do’, ‘what is my nature’. In effect, I had to look past all the ordinary stuff and find the deepest, most fundamental truths about myself. Not that I could answer any of those questions in the end, but thinking about it gave me clues. The rest of the experience is hard to explain, it simply felt like struggling against the stream, uphill, while moving deeper inside myself, into the dark.

But then, realization finally dawned. The clues and random thoughts about myself merged together, into a single vision of a person. And the name came with that. I perceived it’s meaning, and what it said about the person I was.

It’s been years since then, but the knowledge of my own True Name still proves invaluable day after day. I have doubts and make bad decisions like anyone else, but I’m never shaken because at the core I hold this existential certainty: I know who I am. That is something that can never be taken from me, and it is a true comfort. It also gives tremendous confidence, I’ve found, to know your own true nature. Finally, it’s also a handy guide when making life decisions, but knowing who you are does not tell you where to go or what to do. It’s more like knowing the departure point of the journey than knowing the end destination.

Now to distill this experience into a lesson that may help anyone. I don’t know whether you believe in such vague concepts as ‘faith’ or a ‘true name’. That’s not really what is important. The lesson to take from this, I think, is that you can turn deep inside yourself, examine your own mind, your life, your ‘being’ for want of a better word, and learn the nature of this being. This isn’t the same as asking yourself ‘what am I doing’, ‘where will I be in 5 years’, ‘what career choices should I make’ or anything like that. Like I said, this exercise will tell you who you truly are, not where you’re going or how you’re going to get there. But knowing who you are will help you figure these questions out next.

So that’s it for today, for those who’ve stuck around this far, thank you for you time. The final piece of advice I can give you is this. Don’t just brood on this information, and don’t dismiss it. Do something with it. If only to do the exact opposite of what I have done, but do something with it. Whoever you are, I wish you nothing but luck. May you find your way, just as I have, and may peace and happiness be with you always.

Blessings on you, and good night.

Redge

September 5th, 2012

Prop-free 3D interaction with virtual environments in the CAVE using the Microsoft Kinect camera

May 13th, 2012

A rock stands in a river

Once there was a slow-moving river, and in the middle of the river stood a rock. It had been there for thousands of years, and would stay there for thousands more. Every day, every second, water came up to the rock, then flowed around.

Western Culture: Be like the rock. Be unmoving, uncompromising, in the face of all adversity. Be bold, courageous. When all has passed, only you will remain, victorious.

Eastern Culture: Be like the water. When you encounter an obstacle, do not think, do not work, but by your very nature, flow around it without offering resistance, then continue on your way.

March 10th, 2012

Books in a word, part two: The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant

Well I’ve been thinking about some of the books I like, or rather series of books because the kind of book I like comes in a trilogy at the least. And it seems to me that if you summarize them enough, they always seem to come down on the main character or characters trying to find their way on a line between two opposites. I want to do a series of posts about what line each of my favorite books comes down to. For my second post, I’ll talk about The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant by Stephen Donaldson.

The first thing to note is that Stevenson’s writing is a bit difficult. He tends to use complicated words where simple ones will do, and sometimes he will go off on a philosophical tangent before returning to the story. On the other hand, he is quite gifted in making his main characters come to life for the reader. He will write at length about what the character is thinking, how his entire previous life relates to the character’s current situation, and how his next actions are motivated by these thoughts.

Probably Stevenson’s most interesting character is Thomas Covenant. Covenant suffers from leprosy, a disease that destroys nerves. As a consequence, Covenant can no longer feel parts of his body, not even pain. This numbness alone does plenty to shape his rich psyche, but an even bigger influence is the scorn the disease brings him from his fellow human beings, who seem to implicitly blame him for contracting a disease that has since ages been associated with sin.

Covenant is grim and cynical. Because of his disease, he can easily get wounded without being aware of it. Therefor he must never loose his tight grip on himself, constantly checking himself for little scrapes or nicks. He believes that hope is the one thing that will kill him: it could cause him to forego the iron discipline and brutal realism that is the only thing keeping him alive.

Not to give too much of the plot away beforehand, but one day Covenant finds himself in a fairy tale world, where everyone is happy and healthy and the people think him the reincarnation of a lost hero. Covenant is convinced this world is not real, that he is hallucinating and loosing his precious grip on reality. On the other hand, the world before him is as real to every sense as the normal world. From this conflict, all his actions are motivated.

It is not easy to pick out the true theme of the Covenant stories, because the stories feature a great number of themes. The major theme of the first book, for example, is whether the world Covenant finds himself in is real or not, and whether Covenant is a fool or a hero for choosing not to believe in it. There is one theme, however, that underlies all Covenant books, and it is made explicit in the first book of the second trilogy. It is this: guilt vs innocence  power vs powerlessness. The two are related, in the Covenant chronicles, thus: only the powerless can be innocent. Those with power either use force, losing their innocence, or stand by when they have the power to intervene, and thus gather guilt.

Covenant wants to see himself as innocent, but cannot help but see himself as his fellow human beings see him: guilty, his disease the physical proof of his sins. But once he enters the fairytale world, he is given great power. First he withholds his power, convinced that the world he finds himself in is an illusion, and he not responsible for what happens in it. Tragedy strikes, and Covenant stands by passively, and the guilt for this is more then he can bare. Then he decides to use his power, but in the process, must kill other beings. Again he finds himself guilty.

This theme continues through all Covenant novels (nine so far, the final tenth book to appear soon). Sometimes Covenant finds himself powerless, in which case he can maintain his innocence but is also unable to prevent tragedy from striking. Sometimes he has power but refuses to use it. And sometimes he uses power and garners guilt. The finales of many of the books are when Covenant finds a still point, what he calls “the eye of the paradox”, where he can use power and still maintain his innocence.

 

Like I said, Stevenson’s writing style is quite dense, and as you may have noticed, carries heavy underlying philosophical notes. You’ll rarely crack a smile while reading the Covenant novels. But if you can live with this, reading the Chronicles of Thomas Covenant can be quite a profound experience.

That is all for now. Next time I will discuss the fantasy trilogy that has made the deepest impact on me of any book I’ve read: “His Dark Materials” by Phillip Pullman.

January 11th, 2012

Books in a word, part one: Discworld

Well I’ve been thinking about some of the books I like, or rather series of books because the kind of book I like comes in a trilogy at the least. And it seems to me that if you summarize them enough, they always seem to come down on the main character or characters trying to find their way on a line between two opposites. I want to do a series of posts about what line each of my favourite books comes down to. For this first post, I’ll talk about Terry Pratchett’s great series: the Discworld.

 

Discworld is one of the most extensive book series I know about. Wikipedia lists 39 titles so far. Although some of these tell one-time stories, most of them are about one of a set of themes, each of which has its own setting and major characters. There are the stories about Rincewind, a wizard, and those about Granny Weatherwax, a witch. There are a few about the adventures of Death, and some are about Sam Vines, commander of the City Watch. The most recent books have introduced two new themes: Moist Von Lipwig, which take place in the same city as the one in which Sam Vines works, and Tiffany Aching, a young witch whose stories always include Granny Weatherwax.

Now the Discworld is a difficult series to categorize as a single set of opposites, because the series as a whole is actually rather a parody on modern culture and fantasy literature specifically. This works wonderfully because Pratchett has a sharp and insightful sense of humor. But it does mean that many of the stories are defined not by themselves, but also by the thing they parody.

But at the core of things, there is one thing that all Discworld stories have in common. They always include, whether it is named explicitly or not, what Pratchett calls Narrative Causality. It means simply that because the Discworld books parody other literature which has a well defined structure, the narrative of each story also has that structure. The unusual thing is that most main characters in Discworld novels are aware of this, consciously or not. Witches Abroad is, I think, the quintessential Discworld book. In it, the Witches travel to a kingdom of fairy tails and encounter talking wolves, princes made from frogs and bakers being sentenced for not having rosy cheeks. Why? Because the secret leader of the country knows about stories, and wants to reshape the world to better fit the stories.

And this forms the line among which Discworld characters must place themselves: to accept their role in the story, or to fight it.

Sam Vimes, for example, is based on the detectives from Noir novels and films. He knows this, and accepts it. If you put him out in the streets, at night, in the dark, in the rain, trying to catch killers and thieves, he’ll be completely happy. But dress him up in fancy clothes, name him a duke and put him in a room full of nobles, and he’ll be miserable.

On the opposite side we find Granny Weatherwax. She is a witch. Therefor she can either be a bad witch, which means cackling and shoving little children into your oven, or be the good witch, which means handing shining swords to heroes and helping lost travelers find their way. But Granny Weatherwax is stubborn. She refuses to be pressed into something she does not want. So she has to be the good one, much to her own chagrin, but she doesn’t have to like it and she doesn’t have to be nice.

Death is supposed to be ominous and frightful, and he knows it. The problem is that he’s not very good at it. He keeps messing up his lines. Trying, for example, to make a little joke to try and lift the spirits (pun intended) of the recently departed. But because his delivery sucks, the ghost in question asks him to explain the joke, and all sense of Death being ominous is suddenly gone.

Rincewind finds himself in the role of the adventurer, but he doesn’t want to be. What he mostly hopes for is a warm meal and no worries, but people keep giving him missions and pushing him into dangerous situations, which he then has to weasel his way out of again.

Moist Von Lipwig is a con artist. He keeps telling the world stories about who he is, and is amazed when the world buys into it. Then, to his dismay, it turns out that he is actually playing the part of the story he has made up about himself, thinking to himself that he can stop at any moment, he just wants to wait a little bit longer.

Tiffany Aching is just a little girl when she finds out she’s a witch, but not quite like other witches. She plays a role in an ancient story about the life of the land itself. The problem is that she doesn’t know the role she has to play, and she finds out as she’s going along.

So that is the core of Discworld novels. Each parodies existing stories, and the characters that can find out what that story is, and how they fit into it, can use it to shape their own destiny.

 

Next time I’ll talk a bit about one of my favourite book series: The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant by Stephen Donaldson. Donaldson has a very dense and deep writing style, making it a challenge to summarize. Until next time!

December 10th, 2011

Via monstrare potest

I decided to translate the first verses of my favorite spiritual text, the Tao Te Ching, into Latin (don’t ask why). I based it on my favorite translation, the one by Stephen Mitchell, but I added my own interpretation. I haven’t translated Latin in years, so my conjugation is probably off here and there.

 

Via monstrare potest non est via vera.
Nomen vocare potest non est nomen verum.
Innomine, veritas aeternus est.
Nomine, mater res decamilles est.

Cupire absolvus, mysterius intelleges.
Cupire irretitus, res decamilles solum intelleges.
Sed mysterius atque res decamilles ab origo idem emaniunt.
Hoc origus calligatius est.

Calligatius intra calligatio,
portus sensu omne.

November 26th, 2011

Using ACT-R for Human Error Identification

November 26th, 2011

Do we have minds?

November 26th, 2011

Neurofeedback – An Analysis of Existing Practices and Predictions for the Future