Posted in Philosophy

The Meaninglessness Of It All

What is the meaning of life? This has been one of the greatest philosophical questions of all time, pondered by almost every human being at some stage in their life. In the early days, the meaning of life was simple: survive. We had to use all of our resources to feed and warm ourselves, while defending ourselves from the various creative ways nature can kill us. But as civilisation developed and we had more luxury of food, time and thought, we began to wonder more and more: why are we here?

When we are babies, the world revolves around us. Parents exist to feed us, what we see are the extension of our minds and what we cannot see does not exist. This belief carries on to adulthood somewhat. We see this in old beliefs that the universe revolves around the Earth, and religions telling us that everything on Earth was created for mankind. The concepts of destiny and divine will provided us with purpose in this world. We felt important and valuable because we felt that we were part of something greater and our lives mattered.

But as science developed, we came to learn that the universe does not exist for us. Things don’t happen because they are scripted as an intricate chain reaction as part of a grand story; they just happen thanks to random chance. Biology teaches us that life is a product of a series of accidents and mistakes, to create better adapted beings. Statistics teaches us that we are not special; just a point on a bell curve. Psychology teaches us how flawed we are in interpreting cause and effect, thanks to our brain’s tendency of seeking patterns resulting in cognitive biases.

In short, there is a real possibility that there is no meaning of life. We are simply happy accidents amidst the course of the universe’s timeline.

Yet we cling to the idea that we need to find our purpose. We cannot bear the thought that we have no celestial guidance as we navigate through life, or that our choices and actions play no role in how the world spins on. We fear that without purpose, we are worthless. The thought that life is meaningless invokes existential dread and we wonder what’s the point of doing anything in life.

However, consider the opposite. If we are not bound by fate or some calling, then our lives are truly ours. We are not chess pieces following every instruction of an unseen player. Instead, we have the freedom to make our own choices and write the story of our lives however we want. This is no doubt scary, because we have little guidance along this journey. Nevertheless, it is our story, our choices, our life.

Instead of lamenting that we serve no purpose, we can create our own purpose. We won the lottery and got to experience consciousness. How will you use that gift? Will you waste it away by doing nothing, or will you make the most of it by enjoying it? If we don’t have some mission to accomplish, then we can use our time to enjoy our passions (given that it does not harm anyone) and challenge ourselves to be better people.

The pursuit of happiness, to be the best version of yourself, to help others lead a happier life… However you want to make use of your life, as long as you are content with it and accept that it is your choice, that is the true meaning of life. Hopefully, it is something positive and constructive, rather than something harmful or something that you would regret in your final moments.

You are not worthless because you have no purpose. You are priceless because there are no expectations or plans or predestined path for you. Life is like a blank canvas with little restriction on what you can do with it. You might as well get the most value from it by painting the best damn picture you can – something for you to smile upon and be proud of, while inspiring others to paint their own beautiful pictures.

Enjoy the meaninglessness of life.

Posted in Philosophy

Changing The Past

If time travel was possible and you could go back in time to change one thing in the past, what would you change?
Would you try to change the world by attempting to kill Hitler before World War 2 starts? Would you buy stock of a company you know is doing extremely well in the present? Would you take a leap of faith that you never did, such as asking out someone you didn’t have the courage to, or moving to a city that you always wanted to live in?

If we ignored the numerous hypothetical troubles that come with time travel, such as the grandfather paradox and chaos theory, the possibilities seem endless. This is because hindsight is 20/20 and we have a tendency to obsess over roads not taken and missed opportunities. Even though we cannot change the past, we lament how if we had the choice, we’d make so many changes to make our present and future better.

Now ask yourself this question: if you from the future could travel back in time to now, what changes do you think they’d want to try to make? The thing with time is that it marches on linearly, making every moment a past of the future. A major difference in this scenario is that unlike the first scenario, we actually have the power to change in the present and the future.

So whenever you catch yourself regretting how life would be different if you had made different choices in the past, change your frame of mind. Instead, consider what changes you could make now to make your future self have less regrets. Maybe it is treating yourself (within reasonable limits), or finally taking that trip you always dreamed of, or taking a chance on something you are unsure or anxious about, or keeping resolutions on living a healthy, better life.

Although physics (currently) dictates that time travel is impossible, our minds have the power to travel in time virtually from the future to now, letting us make choices and take actions so we can live with less regrets.

(Image from the movie About Time)

Posted in Philosophy

Analog And Digital

We now live in the Digital Age. We take photos with our digital cameras, letting us take thousands of photos as we can easily delete photos that did not turn out well. We write emails on our computers, where we often type and retype, proofreading and editing until we have perfectly sculpted our message. We bombard each other with messages that package complex words and feelings into neat little abbreviations and emoticons.

Going digital has, without a doubt, made our lives easier. Digital is exact and fast, while being easily editable thanks to existing only in virtual space. But what is the price of convenience? Did we lose something in the process?

Before the Digital Age, we used film cameras that required careful photography as we had a limited number of shots per roll of film. We wrote handwritten letters, where we had to give considerable thought to what we were going to write before even picking up the pen, lest we waste another sheet of paper. If we wanted to say something important to someone we cared about, we would do it face to face, or at least over a phone call, where our body language and voice gave off subtle nuances about how we truly felt.

As cumbersome as this sounds, the value of analog is that it focusses on quality, not quantity. We no longer have photo albums that summarise a whole year (or even childhood) in just dozens of carefully curated photos. Instead, we have albums full of hundreds of pictures per day, which we rarely review because there are too many to go through.

The worst consequence of going digital is that our words have lost weight and substance. We throw words at each other like paper planes because we feel compelled to reply in some way. We think less about our choice of words because they are a dime a dozen, yet we overanalyse the meaning of what others say in a message because we have no other cues such as body language. We become hurt by hollow words and emoticons devoid of feeling and personality.

We are still analog. We cannot treat each other like photos that can be taken en masse then culled, or a word document that can be freely edited. We should put more care into the things we say to each other – with more thought, feeling and personality – to avoid hurting each other so much.

Posted in Philosophy

Trolley Problem

Imagine the following situation. There are five people working on a railroad. Unfortunately, a train is travelling down the track at the same time. Neither the conductor nor the workers are aware that a crash is coming. You are the only person that knows. Next to you is a switch that will change the tracks so that the train diverts and misses the five people, but the second track also has one worker working on it. Here is the dilemma: do you pull the switch to save the five workers at the cost of the one worker?

This is the famous trolley problem, a thoroughly discussed ethical dilemma that explores the ethics of utilitarianism. Is it morally right to sacrifice the life of one person to save the lives of five people? Mathematically this makes sense, as you are essentially saving four people through your action.

But now consider a similar yet different situation. Instead of a switch, this time you are standing next to a very large man on a bridge overhanging the tracks. The only way to save the five people on the track is to push the large man on to the tracks, slowing the train down and giving the five workers enough time to escape harm.

Mathematically, the end result is the same: one person is sacrificed so that five people live. But when presented the two scenarios, the majority of people will say they would not push the large man, even though they were willing to pull the switch in the first situation.

This is a complex ethical problem as the rational, logical choice may not necessarily be the “morally right” choice. It directly conflicts with our natural and cultural belief that we should not kill members of our own species. The slippery slope argument also applies here, as if you can argue that killing one man to save five people is correct, then what’s to stop us from sacrificing one person to harvest their organs to save the lives of many people awaiting organ transplants?

Although the original problem was developed to explore the morality of utilitarianism, we are now living in a time where the trolley problem has become an actual logistical issue. The issue lies with self-driving cars. Self-driving cars should theoretically dramatically reduce road traffic accidents as it removes human error such as drink driving and inattention as the cause of crashes. However, if a situation was to arise where the car senses that it is about to collide into a pedestrian (or five), what does it do? Does it swerve to avoid the pedestrian and put the passengers’ lives at risk? How does a computer decide what the morally right choice is?

A computer is designed to make calculated, rational decisions. Mathematically, it may deem that swerving and crashing into a tree – endangering the life of its sole passenger – is the logical choice to prevent hitting five people on the road. But then who would buy a car that willingly sacrifices its passengers’ lives for the greater good?

Technology is advancing at a staggering rate and we are facing ethical dilemmas that we have never had to consider before. It is our job to discuss and explore these issues ahead of time so that we can prevent irresponsible use of technology in the future.

Posted in Philosophy

Memento Mori

No matter how special you may be, there is one universal truth: we will all die someday. It may be in fifty years’ time, or it could be tomorrow. But nonetheless, we all have to eventually face our mortality. Memento mori, which is Latin for “remember you must die”, is the philosophy of being mindful of this fact.

It may sound morbid to ponder one’s own mortality day by day. However, the true meaning of memento mori is not to live anxiously fearing that death may be around every corner. Instead, it teaches us to not take life for granted, as it is finite and will end someday.

Many of us stress about the future so much that we cannot enjoy the present. We are ambitious: always aiming higher, to reach a higher position, to gain more wealth and to attain pleasure. But we forget that on our deathbed, none of these material things matter. What matters is whether you will be able to look back on your life and say that you truly lived with little regrets.

That said, it is okay to fear death. It is human nature to fear the unknown. Instead, we can harness our fear of death to live a fuller life. Fear is a poison that prevents us from seizing the day. Fear of failure, fear of rejection, fear of judgement… But when we compare it to the weight of our inevitable demise, it is nothing. Although we are all afraid of dying, the vast majority of us are able to live without the fear of death interfering with our day-to-day lives. Therefore, unless death is an immediate consequence of your actions, nothing should make you afraid of trying.

Lastly, memento mori is a reminder of the temporary, impermanent nature of the human condition. Any moment could be our last, no matter how banal it may be. A brief phone call with your loved ones arguing about something petty may be the last conversation you have with them. It is a well-known fact that the human brain remembers the first and last things or events the most (primacy and recency). When you remember that death awaits all of us, every moment becomes a little bit more precious. We start paying more detail to how wonderful life is and how fortunate we are to have loved ones in our lives.

Remember you must die; you might as well make the most of life before then. Or as Ferris Bueller put it:

“Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.”

Posted in Philosophy

Quantum Immortality

The famous Schrödinger’s cat thought experiment illustrates the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum physics. Quantum physics is an extremely complicated field of study, but the gist of the Copenhagen interpretation is that a probability remains in a superposition – that is a state where many possibilities exist at the same time – until it is observed, when it collapses into a certain state.

For example, imagine a cat that is locked in a box sealed with a vial of poison, that is set to break open only 50% of the time. Until the box is opened, we do not know if the cat has been killed by poison or not. Therefore, the cat can be said to be both alive and dead at the same time (Erwin Schrödinger initially devised the experiment to mock the Copenhagen interpretation).

There is a fascinating theory that takes this strange thought experiment one step further. Another interpretation of quantum physics is the Everett many-worlds interpretation. This explains that instead of the wavefunction collapsing (i.e. producing a single result such as alive or dead) on observation, two parallel universes are created instead: one universe where the cat died and another universe where the cat is still alive. Essentially, it states there are infinite universes containing every permutation of possibilities that can exist and that whenever a probability is observed, we enter a specific universe.

This is a very confusing concept to grasp, so let us return to the cat in the box. According to the Copenhagen interpretation, the cat has a 50% chance of surviving the experiment the first time. From then on, the chance of the cat being dead grows exponentially with every experiment. However, according to the many-worlds interpretation, no matter how many experiments we perform, there always will be a universe where the cat miraculously survived each one. From the cat’s perspective, it would not know of the universe if it had died. Therefore, the only universe where the cat is able to tell this story to its friends at the end of the day is one where it survives every single experiment

Now let us apply that to our own lives. Imagine that you are crossing the road and a bus is about to hit you. If there is even a 1% chance you might survive this event, your quantum self will move to a universe where it is possible (otherwise you would be dead and your consciousness ceases to exist). By extrapolation, you can never really die as a version of you will forever live on, beating improbable odds until a point where there are literally no possible universes you could be alive.

Quantum immortality is a thought experiment that relies on the many-worlds interpretation. However, it is also extremely difficult to prove wrong. The only way you could confirm this is if you attempted to kill yourself over and over (quantum suicide) and failed each time. But if you were wrong, you would die and not be able to tell anyone. Ergo, you cannot rule out the possibility that you will live forever.

The scariest part of the theory is not that you are potentially immortal. It is that quantum immortality does not account for your well-being – just your consciousness. If an accident were to leave you horribly disfigured but alert, it would still satisfy quantum immortality. You could be trapped in a motionless body for the rest of eternity, unable to communicate to anyone. Yet quantum immortality will keep you alive, forever and ever.

(Infinity Mirror Room by Yayoi Kusama)

Posted in Philosophy

Anthroponuclear Multiple Worlds Theory

A famous theory in philosophy is the anthropic principle, which argues that the reason the various physical constants and laws of nature are consistent with an environment that can support life is because if life were impossible, no life would be able to observe the universe. Simply put, it argues that the reason the universe seems so improbably perfectly tuned for us to exist in it, is that we exist to observe it.

What if we applied a similar theory to modern world history? Since the advent of nuclear weapons, we now have the capability of destroying human civilisation with the push of a button. There have been so many incidents in the past century where international tensions and mistakes have nearly resulted in thermonuclear war, such as during the Cuban Missile Crisis. However, through improbable coincidences (and the moral fibre of certain heroes), we continue to live on as a species.

But perhaps history only seems so full of coincidences because we are still alive to study it. For our reality to exist, human beings have had to resist the urge to annihilate themselves. Ergo, the longer we live through the Atomic Age, the stranger our reality becomes, as otherwise we would have been wiped out. Zach Weinersmith calls this the anthroponuclear multiple worlds theory.

So perhaps this explains why we are seeing crazier and crazier stories on the news as of late. As in any other sensible timeline, we would all be dead.

(Sourcehttp://smbc-comics.com/index.php?id=3994)

Posted in Philosophy

Heroes And Villains

A nearly universal belief most people seem to share is that we all like to think that we are the “good guy” in the story of our lives. We like to think that we are doing our best in life to be a positive influence in the world. No one likes to think that they are a villain; all our actions – even the questionable, harmful ones – are justifiable by our intent. Even Hitler thought that his massacre of the Jewish people and other horrible deeds were simply a means to an end to provide an environment where his own people could flourish.

But there comes a point in our lives where we are faced by a situation that challenges this belief. More often than not, it is when someone close to us, such as a friend or partner who we trust in to know us well, criticises us. Not superficial things such as critiquing your fashion sense or correcting your grammar, but digging deep and shining a bright spotlight on a flaw in your person, pointing out how much you have hurt them because of what you said or how you acted.

Such an event typically shocks us to the core. Because of the invisible social contract, we rarely point out people’s character flaws out of politeness and to avoid hurting them. This means we do not always know our own deepest flaws. However, sometimes enough is enough and people will explode in a fit of rage to let you know that you have hurt them through your behaviour. You have not been the good guy. You have been a villain.

Our response to this type of situation defines who we really are. An appropriate response is to listen to this criticism, have a period of introspection to understand your flaw and make an effort to try and correct this and improve yourself. This is a display of maturity. But if you become defensive, reject all criticism and continue to act in a way that hurts those around you, then how could you call yourself a hero?

Remember that life is not a story revolving only around you. You are simply one of many characters, like other people, in the grand, unifying story we call life. Whether you develop your character to be a mature hero willing to accept and improve on their flaws, or an immature villain deluded that they are always good, is up to you.

Posted in Philosophy

Zugzwang

Chess is a game of choice. Each move sets in motion a myriad of possible games and a single misplay can drastically turn the tables. A skilled chess player will deliberate on each move as they try to predict how the game will flow on from the decision they make, but in an infinite sea of possibilities, choosing the best outcome is extremely difficult.

However, there is one situation that is the direct opposite. Zugzwang is a state in which the most viable, ideal move is an impossible one – to not move. In zugzwang, whatever decision you make will reduce your odds of winning compared to skipping your turn. In some cases, you are even forced to make a choice that will spell your inevitable doom.

Life is similar to chess in that we are always faced with choices. What outfit will you wear today? Will you sit in the front seat or the back? Who will you ask to be your date for the ball? Should I take this job offer to change my career path, or stay in my current, stable job? Some choices are simple and appear inconsequential, yet others make us feel stressed even considering the implications. We often regret choices we made, looking back and wondering “What if?”. How would my life be different had I chosen differently?

But in the grand scheme of things, how important is it that we make “the best choice” each time? A majority of the time, it is highly unlikely that a single poor decision will completely ruin your life. Sure, your life may turn out different for better or for worse in a certain way, but we neglect to account for all of the other ways our life may change. Chaos theory teaches us that even a small change like a butterfly flapping its wings can wildly and unpredictably affect the future. For example, it could be that changing jobs results in your career progress being delayed by five years. However, by changing jobs you may meet the woman or man of your dreams, when you would have not met them had you not changed jobs.

We often trap ourselves in a state of zugzwang – pondering all the horrible ways our decisions may cause regrets in the future. Our fear of the unknown causes us to be paralysed by these choices. But as discussed above, our choices do not cause purely good or bad outcomes, but instead result in a simply different future due to the sheer number of variables that can change.

Ergo, there is no point stressing about each and every choice you make – you might as well pick one, see how it plays out and learn from the experience.

image
Posted in Philosophy

Mary And The Black And White Room

Mary is a brilliant scientist who specialises in colour. She knows everything about colour – the spectrum, wavelengths, properties of light, the mechanism of how human vision works… She knows exactly how a certain wavelength of light will excite the retina and what kind of electrical impulse it will send in the brain. However, Mary has never seen colour. She has lived all of her life in a black and white room and can only observe the world through a black and white TV screen. The question is: if Mary was to leave the room and see the colourful world for what it is, would she learn something new?

Considering that Mary already knows everything theoretical about colour, would her seeing colour change anything? Or is the experience of seeing a colour something that you cannot learn without actually experiencing it?

This was a thought experiment proposed by Frank Jackson to question the nature of knowledge. Is physical knowledge truly everything, or is there something more than that? In philosophy, there is a concept called qualia, which describes the subjective, qualitative properties of experiences. That is, experience is a unique type of knowledge that cannot be learnt without experiencing it first-hand.

A further expansion of this idea is the refutation of physicalism – the school of thought that argues that everything (including knowledge and the mind) is physical. The logic is that since Mary knew everything “physical” about colour before leaving the room, her learning “something’ (i.e. experience of colour) is a direct argument against all knowledge being physical, as she learnt something “new”.

Another way to look at it is this. Some things in life can only be learnt through experiencing it. It is not enough trying to learn about life and the world purely from stories and books. To truly learn everything, you must get out there and experience it yourself.