Abstraction, Death of Nihilism and The Human Experience

One way of looking at how human beings behave is to talk about our basic desires (food, sex and power) and how they manifest themselves as complex behaviour. The reason the rich guy helped the poor guy is because that helps him demonstrate power, which increases his chances of getting laid. The engineer builds bridges to impress men (see how cleverly I spliced in that the engineer is either a woman or gay — these things help keep my blog politically correct) and the doctor refuses to perform cosmetic surgery (again, more political correctness) because he thinks when the word gets around, he’ll get some extra action. Now, however incredulous my tone may sound, I think this way of looking at things is quite accurate; I believe we do have a certain set of basic instincts that guide our actions. But I disagree on whether this is a useful way to reason about people. I don’t think it is. Not because it isn’t true (it probably is), but because more complex behaviour may exist at higher levels of abstraction.

For instance, I could argue about how we all are automatons driven solely by the desire to increase the entropy of the universe. Not a very useful way to discuss why A’s marriage did not work out, is it? I find it more useful to look at human beings as a reflection of their line of existence through time and place. This way, I treat a person not as someone (or something) contained in the physical realms of his or her body; but as a context that spreads out in time and space. The coffee he’s drinking is changing his mood, why should it not be as much “him” as his tonsils? How about the kindergarten school she went too? Is that not as much “her” as her retina? How about the book she’s reading? This way of thinking about people is very rewarding (I personally think so) — it allows me to be more compassionate, understanding and patient. Once the object of your frustration is no longer a sharply defined physical entity, things start to diffuse and you begin thinking more clearly.

As a result of this context (spatial and temporal) which everyone carries around, we have certain goals, aspirations and biases. That is, what I think, makes us human.

I have had arguments with my peers on things like whether it is better to live comfortably without free speech and liberty or to live without material comfort surrounded by intellectual freedom. But such arguments are probably too restrictive — maybe the North Koreans are actually happy! Perhaps they [2] really do think that their dear leader is divine. Maybe is isn’t some mass cognitive dissonance after all? I find their condition desolate and pitiful because I am carrying around this huge bag full of my own context, which I shamelessly dump on them. What is it really, to think in someone else’s shoes? Can I possibly think like a unwanted child born to a prostitute in a Bombay slum? My personal rationality is biased, more so when applied to analyzing others.

It seems to me that everyone, on account of the biases in their rationality and the inherent context they carry, tend to distort their world in their own unique way, by reflecting themselves off a mirror that isn’t really perfect and by looking at others through tainted glass. But then how do you reason about the flaws in your rationality using your flawed rationality? Maybe this, the dents in our looking glasses, is the human experience. Perhaps without it the world would be a very boring place.

I still maintain that our existence, at the very base level, is purposeless and incidental. But I now have something shiny to look forward to — the human experience; something that can not be dissected, explained and thrown away.

Thanks to all those who disagreed, those who still do, chai and Albert Hofmann.

[1] http://www.edge.org/3rd_culture/eagleman09/eagleman09_index.html
[2] I’m talking about the majority here — some people do try to escape.

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3 Responses to Abstraction, Death of Nihilism and The Human Experience

  1. vjt says:

    Have you ever read Jeff Hawkins’ theory of intelligence, memory and prediction? It dissects how the neocortex works and it fits nicely with your analysis. πŸ™‚

    Check out http://www.numenta.com/ and watch http://www.ted.com/talks/jeff_hawkins_on_how_brain_science_will_change_computing.html


  2. Sanjoy says:

    I’d hardly call this an “analysis” πŸ˜› Thanks for the links, will check them out.

  3. Sanveer Singh says:

    Easily your best post.

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