Useful Concepts – #9 – Experience Machines

Quite possibly the first use of the adjective “superduper” in philosophical literature occurred in the mid-1970s in this paragraph by Robert Nozick:

“Suppose there was an experience machine that would give you any experience you desired. Superduper neuropsychologists could stimulate your brain so that you would think and feel you were writing a great novel, or making a friend, or reading an interesting book. All the time you would be floating in a tank, with electrodes attached to your brain. Should you plug into this machine for life, preprogramming your life experiences? If you are worried about missing out on desirable experiences we can suppose that business enterprises have researched thoroughly the lives of many others. You can pick and choose from their large library or smorgasbord of such experiences, selecting your life’s experiences of, say, the next two years. After two years have passed, you will have ten minutes or ten hours out of the tank to select the experiences of your next two years. Of course, while in the tank you won’t know that you’re there; you’ll think that it’s all actually happening. Others can also plug in to have the experiences they want, so there’s no need to stay unplugged to serve them. (Ignore problems such as who will service the machines if everyone plugs in.) Would you plug in? What else can matter to us, other than how our lives feel from the inside?”

Nozick gives three answers:

  1. We want to do certain things, rather than just have the experience of doing them. (But even Nozick asks, but why?)
  2. We want to be a certain way, to be a certain person. If we plug in, we’re just an “indeterminate blob.” Nozick asks, is the person in the tank courageous, kind, intelligent, witty, loving? How could we know? How could they be?
  3. Plugging in “limits us to a man-made reality, to a world no deeper or more important than that which people can construct. There is no actual contact with any deeper reality, though the experience of it can be simulated.”

The experience machine has created a whole literature, not to mention any number of sci-fi films. People have worked out variants, for example where you never emerge from the machine until your biological death, in order to get rid of the idea that you could ever become conscious of spending a lot of time just being a body in a tank, and so on.

People argue over whether Nozick got the right reasons to reject the machine. Some people may also take pleasure in the intellectual bravado of saying that they would plug in, that they see no reasons not to. That would be a typically annoying undergraduate posture to take up. (I’d know, I did for a whole afternoon. It was many years ago.)

The ongoing discussion just shows how great a concept the experience machine is. But the rejection of it, for most people who aren’t undergraduates in philosophy, is immediate and from the gut. (Not every belief or conviction that is instinctive and intuitive is necessarily right, though this one is.)

Experience machines exist, of course, and many of us plug ourselves in quite willingly. Some of those superduper people, for example, can help us flood our brains with a  bitter, white crystalline purine, a methylxanthine alkaloid that is chemically related to the adenine and guanine bases of deoxyribonucleic acid and ribonucleic acid. This blocks the action of adenosine on its receptor in the brain and stimulates the autonomic nervous system. It makes us less drowsy, more alert, physically faster and better co-ordinated. It can increase our heart rate and pulse. You’ll be aware of course, that we don’t have to plug into electrodes and float in a tank for this. And the superduper people aren’t neuropsychologists, but more likely baristas. This experience machine is just a regular cup of coffee.

But physical symptoms and mental states are a two-way street. Research has shown, for example, that, even when you feel you have no reasons to, you can smile for a while and your mood will improve, or you can clench your fist for a while and that can make you more aggressive. And so this experience machine can give us the impression that we’re well rested and refreshed (not in any way drowsy or tired) or that we’re facing an amazing, interesting experience (alertness, fast pulse) or a fight-or-flight type situation (heart beating faster, sudden alertness) even when it’s just a routine Monday morning and we’re on our way to the day-job.

There is, of course, also the type of organic compound in which the hydroxyl functional group is bound to a saturated carbon atom. This is an experience machine that can give us the desirable experience of being socially less inhibited, much more certain that other people find us entertaining and generally convinced that we’re all round great people. It can be ingested in pleasant-tasting drinks like wine and beer.

And anyone who has ever seen a small child on a sugar rush may also find it easy to believe that sugar provides a desirable experience of enjoyment and mental energy, not least by activating dopamine in the brain in a way that is similar to stronger drugs.

I’ll call things like coffee or alcohol  “mini experience machines.” After all, the effect lasts a much shorter time than a session in the superduper neuropsychologists’ floatation tank experience would. And it gives us not so much a whole set of new experiences that are wholly separate to what we’re doing and who we are, but it puts a little layer of, say, additional (alternative) reality, over and above that reality.

I’m not saying that coffee, alcohol and sugar are therefore bad things or that we need to reject them with the instinctive vehemence with which we would reject the idea of plugging into an experience machine. But it probably helps to be aware of the “experience machine light” effect of such things.

I also find some of the tools some of us work with are a bit like experience machines in that they give us an interface to interact with the world in a way that, as much as possible, reduces reality to things that pop up on a screen. So I know that people want to give me some information or want me to do something in something like the following way (that’s not my real inbox, by the way):

I  can have conversations and exchanges with lots of people and all the while I’m just “plugged in” to a screen.

So, in fact, there may be lots of mini experience machines that interact in various ways to put layers of differing experiences across “real” life on a day-by-day basis. And although we may not have the same reasons to reject these mini experience machines – after all, they are more time-limited, localised in terms of their effect and less intrusive in the way we can link up to them – maybe we should aim to be suspicious of them, particularly if we’re veering to more extended use (both in terms of timing or in terms of range of experience), so if one or more of the following are true:

  1. We use them in high doses, frequently or on a daily basis.
  2. They give us experiences that we worry we wouldn’t otherwise have enough of in our lives – excitement, connection, attention, confidence, mental energy.
  3. We would be forced to live our lives differently, if we didn’t have them.
  4. We couldn’t function properly in our daily lives without them.

But since I’ve declared so many things mini experience machines, would we even know whether we’re using them too much?

First of all, it is possible to take stock of the mini experience machines we use. We can then try not using them. Or, if that is too difficult, we could ask, what would the consequence be for the way I live my life, if I didn’t plug into this experience machine? How would I have to deal with the tiredness or the lack of challenges in my reality if I didn’t have coffee to simulate alertness? Why am I so inhibited when meeting people that I need alcohol to have its effect? What energy rush or feelings of enjoyment would I like that I currently take from sugar rushes?

And presumably, finding out about these things is what lots of people do these days when they sit down and pay attention to their breathing, to their mind and their thoughts with minimal stimulation from mini experience machines or communication technologies (particularly first thing in the morning when the body has processed all the ingested experience machines from the previous day). Maybe then they can listen to the real experience and find out if the like it, or not.

Or it may be away from screens in green spaces and in nature surrounded by other life forms who are less prone to plug into experience machines. Or it may be something we do while deeply involved in community, voluntary or religious activities. (These practices, by the way, have all been demonstrated to increase wellbeing.) They may also all help us to access the things in Nozick’s three reasons for rejecting experience machines:

  1. We may gain a better understanding of what we are doing in our lives, rather than just having the experience of doing them.
  2. We can ask ourselves and learn about what kind of person we are or want to be (rather than being an indeterminate blob).
  3. And we may even access a world that is deeper or more important “than that which people can construct.”

 

 

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Useful Concepts – #7 – Chardi Kala – Sikh Reasons to Be Cheerful

“They alone are called husband and wife, who have one soul in two bodies” says Sikh scripture. And when I got to know the beautiful person who later became my wife and her Punjabi Sikh background, which is different from mine, my mind and my soul were certainly drawn to learn new things from her cultural, spiritual and intellectual background.

Reading Sikh scripture, or reading about Sikhism, occasionally sitting in a Gurdwara, a Sikh temple, and being able to read translations of the teachings of the Gurus that were being read, I gained insights into new concepts and new ways of thinking that enriched mine.

In many ways, I am not the ideal person to write about the things I am going to write about. I haven’t managed (yet) to learn modern Punjabi, let alone the older language in which the teachings of the Sikh Gurus were written. I haven’t been able to read or study much of the history of Indian religion and philosophy which forms the intellectual background to the teachings of the Sikh Gurus. So I write this tentatively, in the hope that if I get things wrong no one will take offence and (at least) someone will correct me.

The useful concept here is called “chardi kala.” These words actually don’t feature, so far as I could see, in the teachings of the Gurus, but they feature in a key prayer, the ardās. They also feature in everyday talk of Sikhs, as in:

“How are you?”

“Oh, I’m in chardi kala!”

Chardi kala can be translated as “relentless cheerfulness, optimism and hope (even in the face of challenges or disaster).” It explains major dramatic historical events, like the willingness of Sikh Gurus to face martyrdom cheerfully rather than be forced to change their faith, to positivity in the face of things that get thrown at ordinary people in the course of a normal life.

Chardi kala is founded in some key philosophical and religious beliefs of the Sikh faith. But my strong belief is that it is a useful concept even for people who aren’t of the Sikh or of any faith. I’ll try to discuss some of the principles that are at the foundation of chardi kala. I’ll also discuss what pointers to a more cheerful life those who don’t have a religious background can derive from these principles.

Everything that happens to us and everything we do is predestined.

Guru Nanak, the founder of the Sikh faith, says things like:

“By his written command, pain and pleasure are obtained.”

“We come to receive what is written in our destiny.”

“The mortal does that work, which has been pre-destined from the beginning.”

These are all ways of saying that whatever happens to us is pre-ordained or decided in advance. A key image that is used again and again is that what happens to us is written on our foreheads. That is to say, our fates are so clearly pre-determined that they might as well be written on our face.

The link to chardi kala is that we don’t need to be too judgemental to ourselves about the eventual outcome of our actions and activities. We can neither attribute our success to ourselves, nor blame ourselves for failure. Another quote from Sikh scripture is:

“the sharp tool cuts down the tree but it does not feel anger in its mind. It serves the purpose of the cutter and does not blame him at all.”

To presuppose that everything is predestined, is a controversial point. In the argument between those who believe that we live in a fully predetermined universe as fully predetermined creatures and those who believe that we exercise free will, consensus has not yet been achieved. Neither is there an agreed view on what the consequences for our ethics and state of mind should be, if one or the other were true.

A claim that might be easier for most people to agree on though is this: There are always factors at play that influence what actions we are able or inclined to take, as well as our thoughts and feelings and that we are not aware of. And there are factors outside of our control that control what we are able or unable to do. In the big debate, for example, over whether nature or nurture determine more what becomes of us, the point is often forgotten that both are given to us before we can make conscious decisions for ourselves. The family we grow up in, our earliest care and upbringing, the kind of parenting and early years education we receive is pretty much as far outside of our conscious choice as our genes. And all of these factors shape our actions for life.

In addition, there is increasing evidence and understanding about things going on in our brains or minds that influence our actions without us being aware of them. For example, the large number of thoughts that run through our minds that we aren’t necessarily paying attention to, or the things, we purely do out of habit without ever exercising choice.

Then there are also the many weird and wonderful factors that research has identified, such as the fact that we tend to be kinder (warmer) towards people if we’re holding a warm cup of tea or coffee, or that we negotiate harder if we are in contact with a hard surface, or that people are statistically more likely to live on roads that start with the same letter as their name.

The question then is, what proportion of our actions would we have to think of as in some way influenced by factors outside of our choice to ease up a bit on ourselves? The majority? Or is it enough just to believe that there’s a chance that any of our successes or failures were co-created by a single factor outside of our control? In any case, I believe it’s likely that enough of what we do, think and feel is outside of our control to make it irrational to be down on ourselves about anything that doesn’t work out the way it did. (Neither should we be too proud of anything that turns out well, though there’s no reason we shouldn’t enjoy it.)

Not being in control of our actions (or not being entirely in control), is perhaps a reason not to worry too much about anything that goes wrong, but some people may not find it sufficient reason yet to be cheerful. There are some other factors that may help.

2. Everything is interconnected.

The key statement of Sikhism is hard to translate but here are two translations by renowned experts.

“There is one supreme being, the eternal reality, the creator, without fear and devoid of enmity, immortal, never incarnated, self-existent, known by the grace of the Guru.”

“One, Manifest as Word, True of Name, Creative Being, Without Fear, Without Enmity, Whose Form is Infinite, Unborn, Self Existent, through the grace of the guru.”

“One” or the numeral “1” is the first word in Sikh scripture. This is not just an expression of monotheism, a statement that there is one God. It goes further. God is in everything.

The Sikh Gurus teach that God is “pervading everywhere, totally permeating the water, the land and the sky.” And the gurus mention that, “having created the universe God remains diffused throughout it. In the wind, water and fire he vibrates and resounds.”

In a stunningly poetic extended metaphor, Guru Ram Das says:

“He Himself is the field, and He Himself is the farmer. He Himself grinds the corn. He Himself cooks it, He Himself puts the food in the dishes, and He Himself sits down to eat. He Himself is the water, He Himself gives the tooth-pick and He Himself offers the mouthwash. He Himself calls and seats the congregation, and He Himself bids them goodbye.”

Try to unravel that! It means that the divine being has not just created the universe but is every part of the universe and every process that goes on in the universe. (It creates, processes, consumes, serves, is served, invites, and bids farewell).

What is more, the divine is within us human beings. Guru Arjan Dev writes, “He dwells deep within, inside the heart.” And crucially, Guru Amar Das says: “O mind, give up the love of duality. The Lord dwells within you.” Giving up the love of duality would mean to stop seeing oneself as a different entity from everything else.

That oneness is another foundation for chardi kala. Why should it matter what happens to me, if this perception of myself as a separate entity is a bit of an illusion, or at least an exaggerated sense of the importance my point of view? Why should I not move with flow of the universe perfectly cheerfully. As we’ve seen above, an important statement of the Sikh faith is that the One is “without fear” and “without enmity.” That can be seen as a logical consequence of rejecting dualism. It would take two, for something to fear something, or for something to be inimical to something. The fearlessness and positivity of chardi kala is founded in that principle.

To the secular mind, the claim that “all is one” may sound like the ultimate new age cliché. And I’m aware that the additional claim that the one is God, or that the divine fully permeates the one, will not make it any easier to believe.

But again, there are related less strong assumptions that could take the edge off fear and enmity give rise to the sense of cheerfulness and optimism that is chardi kala. We don’t need to believe that all is one. It may suffice to remind ourselves that we don’t live in isolation. I just want to mention three related thoughts:

  • We are able to let go of our subjective point of view and take on a more objective perspective, sometimes called the point of view of the universe, the view from nowhere or the view from the perspective of eternity. Taking that view, when we feel particularly sorry for ourselves can help relativise whatever it is that causes us to feel sorry for ourselves, or remind us to be grateful for what we have and what is going well in our lives.
  • Feeling connected with other people, just having social contact, has been shown to be a major factor in increasing wellbeing and happiness. Taking altruistic action, doing someone a favour, giving to charity or someone in need, has equally shown to be able to improve happiness.
  • Feeling connected to nature, even if it’s a green space in an inner city improves wellbeing. Spending time in nature has been shown to improve health impacts, e. g. by lowering blood pressure. Hospital patients with a view of plants have been shown to recover faster than those who had no such view.

3. Life as a human being is an opportunity too good to be squandered.

The Sikh Gurus regard the human life as a precious opportunity. This is because they believe that a soul wanders through various incarnations until it is freed from the cycle of re-birth. (Once it is released from having to be embodied in a living creature it is said to have entered nirvana.) A soul can be incarnated (literally “entered into flesh”) in any species. (That shared belief is also the reason why the some of the earlier Western philosophers recommended vegetarianism.) But the human being has the best chance to lead the kind of life that would lead to nirvana. (Though the Gurus are not derogatory about other species. They say: “Even kings and emperors, with mountains of property and oceans of wealth – these are not even equal to an ant, who does not forget God.”

So for example, in Sikh scripture you frequently read things like:

Through 8.4 million incarnations you have wandered, to obtain this rare and precious human life. (Guru Arjan Dev)

he wastes this human body, so difficult to obtain. In his ignorance, he tears up his own roots. (Guru Arjan Dev)

That body, which you believe to be your own, and your beautiful home and spouse none of these is yours to keep. See this, reflect upon it and understand. You have wasted the precious jewel of this human life; you do not know the Way of the Lord of the Universe. (Guru Teg Bahadur)

So, being born as a human being is already proof of great good fortune and a massive opportunity to achieve the release from suffering in various incarnations. As well as making the most of the opportunity (that would be through virtuous conduct and focus on the divine nature), it also is  a reason for cheerfulness and optimism. We could after all reach nirvana after a long series of  incarnations.

Again, I would argue that there is a pointer here to reasons for cheerfulness even for those who do not necessarily buy into the whole background of belief in re-incarnation through a number of species. Without wanting to be disrespectful to other species, it is hard to deny that as human beings we enjoy advanced cognitive functions, abilities to communicate, express ourselves and apply reason to practical and theoretical problems.

These are a unique opportunity to think about the kind of life that makes for a good life. (As Aristotle says in another point that compares being human with being an animal of another species, the good life must be about more than just satisfying our desires, otherwise we’d be no different from cattle eating grass.) They are also unique capabilities with which we can achieve greater happiness, such as cultivating conversations and relationships with other human beings, deepening our understanding of the universe and our place within it or contemplating the beautiful and the sublime (which in turn points us to that which is greater than our own time-bound existence). This life then as a human being is an opportunity to engage in all sorts of valuable activities. Of that opportunity we should make the most. We should also be happy that we have it.

 

 

 

Useful Concepts – #4 – Don’t Change Your Life, Use It!

Guess who had the following reading list:

  • Be Here Now by Baba Ram Dass
  • Zen Mind, Beginners Mind by Shunriu Suzuki
  • Autobiography of a Yogi by Paramahansa Yogananda
  • Cutting through Spiritual Materialism by Chögyam Trungpa

Yes, it was Steve Jobs, sometime in the seventies, according to his biographer Walter Isaacson. Isaacson tells us this, not least because it provides the intellectual – or maybe better spiritual – background for the minimalist aesthetics of what was to be Jobs’ global brand.

That spiritualism though was messy, often troubled and occasionally troubling compared to the clinical and secular mindfulness approaches we are more used to these days.

And yet… Continue reading Useful Concepts – #4 – Don’t Change Your Life, Use It!