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Posts Tagged ‘science’

02 SEPTEMBER, 2014

The Science of Finding Your Soul Mate

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Breaking down the mathematical odds of winning at SoulMateRoulette.

It’s been argued that the secret of lasting love is giving up the myth of “the one” — and yet the notion of a perfect soul mate is irresistibly alluring to most of us. We go after it with remarkable ambition and even try to calculate the odds of finding that special someone, that invaluable human mirror who will “tear apart your ego a little bit, show you your obstacles and addictions, break your heart open so new light can get in.” But in a world of seven billion, how likely is it, really, that each of us will find that mythic other?

That’s precisely what NASA-roboticist-turned-comic-creator Randall Munroe explores in a chapter of What If?: Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions (public library), the altogether fantastic book based on his ever-delightful and inexhaustibly original blog xkcd.

Munroe answers a reader’s seemingly simple, strangely unsettling question: “What if everyone actually had only one soul mate, a random person somewhere in the world?” Acknowledging that this proposition is problematic — “a nightmare,” he approaches the premise that each of us has “one randomly-assigned perfect soul mate” with a scientist’s vital balance of skepticism and openness, and a side of a cartoonist’s snark:

We’ll assume your soul mate is set at birth. You know nothing about who or where they are, but — as in the romantic cliché — you’ll recognize each other the moment your eyes meet.

Right away, this raises a few questions. For starters, is your soul mate even still alive? A hundred billion or so humans have ever lived, but only seven billion are alive now (which gives the human condition a 93% mortality rate). If we’re all paired up at random, 90% of our soul mates are long dead.

If this weren’t disheartening enough, Munroe assures us that things get worse when we account for the arrow of time:

A simple argument shows we can’t just limit ourselves to past humans; we have to include an unknown number of future humans as well. See, if it’s possible for your soul mate to be in the distant past, then it also has to be possible for soul mates to be in the distant future. After all, your soul mate’s soul mate is.

To make matters somewhat less messy, Munroe assumes that your soul mate is your contemporary and, with an unnecessarily judgmental remark how this would “keep things from getting creepy,” that your age difference is only a few years. With these parameters, each of us is left with a pool of about half a billion potential matches. Even so, the math remains murky — Munroe explains:

What about gender and sexual orientation? And culture? And language? We could keep using demographics to try to break things down further, but we’d be drifting away from the idea of a random soul mate. In our scenario, you don’t know anything about who your soul mate will be until you look into their eyes. Everybody has only one orientation — toward their soul mate.

Returning to the mythic requirement of identification via eye contact, he delineates the infinitesimal odds of finding your soul mate:

The number of strangers we make eye contact with each day is hard to estimate. It can vary from almost none (shut-ins or people in small towns) to many thousands (a police officer in Times Square). Let’s suppose you lock eyes with an average of a few dozen new strangers each day. (I’m pretty introverted, so for me that’s definitely a generous estimate.) If 10 percent of them are close to your age, that’s around 50,000 people in a lifetime. Given that you have 500,000,000 potential soul mates, it means you’ll only find true love in one lifetime out of 10,000.

Here, Munroe veers into a science-fictional scenario reminiscent of Malcolm Cowley’s 1930 prediction for the future of love, envisioning an artificial platform for maximizing eye contact exposure — a webcam-based system akin to ChatRoulette, which he dubs “SoulMateRoulette”:

If everyone used the system for eight hours a day, seven days a week, and if it takes you a couple seconds to decide if someone’s your soul mate, this system could — in theory — match everyone up with their soul mates in a few decades.

In the real world, many people have trouble finding any time at all for romance — few could devote two decades to it. So maybe only rich kids would be able to afford to sit around on SoulMateRoulette. Unfortunately for the proverbial 1%, most of their soul mates are to be found in the other 99%. If only 1% of people use the service, then 1% of that 1% would find their match through this system — one in ten thousand.

After further exploring this scenario to its most outrageous extremes, Munroe arrives at a strikingly familiar outcome:

Given all the stress and pressure, some people would fake it. They’d want to join the club, so they’d get together with another lonely person and stage a fake soul mate encounter. They’d marry, hide their relationship problems, and struggle to present a happy face to their friends and family.

His conclusion, however, contrasts the hopelessness of the soul mate theory with the hopefulness that keeps our hearts alive with a sense of possibility, that immutable optimism that helps us go on living and loving:

A world of random soul mates would be a lonely one. Let’s hope that’s not what we live in.

Perhaps John Steinbeck put it best: “If it is right, it happens… Nothing good gets away.

In the remainder of What If?, Munroe brings his signature blend of science, snark, and sensitivity to such mysteries as how lightning picks its targets, whether vigorously stirring a cup of tea can bring it to a boil, and what it would actually be like to travel in a time machine. Complement it with scientists’ answers to little kids’ questions about life and an illustrated tour of today’s greatest scientific mysteries.

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28 AUGUST, 2014

Darwin’s Battle with Anxiety

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A posthumous diagnosis of the paralyzing mental malady that afflicted one of humanity’s greatest minds.

Charles Darwin was undoubtedly among the most significant thinkers humanity has ever produced. But he was also a man of peculiar mental habits, from his stringent daily routine to his despairingly despondent moods to his obsessive list of the pros and cons of marriage. Those, it turns out, may have been simply Darwin’s best adaptation strategy for controlling a malady that dominated his life, the same one that afflicted Vincent van Gogh — a chronic anxiety, which rendered him among the legions of great minds evidencing the relationship between creativity and mental illness.

In My Age of Anxiety: Fear, Hope, Dread, and the Search for Peace of Mind (public library) — his sweeping mental health memoir, exploring our culture of anxiety and its costsThe Atlantic editor Scott Stossel examines Darwin’s prolific diaries and letters, proposing that the reason the great scientist spent a good third of his waking hours on the Beagle in bed or sick, as well as the cause of his lifelong laundry list of medical symptoms, was his struggle with anxiety.

Stossel writes:

Observers going back to Aristotle have noted that nervous dyspepsia and intellectual accomplishment often go hand in hand. Sigmund Freud’s trip to the United States in 1909, which introduced psychoanalysis to this country, was marred (as he would later frequently complain) by his nervous stomach and bouts of diarrhea. Many of the letters between William and Henry James, first-class neurotics both, consist mainly of the exchange of various remedies for their stomach trouble.

But for debilitating nervous stomach complaints, nothing compares to that which afflicted poor Charles Darwin, who spent decades of his life prostrated by his upset stomach.

That affliction of afflictions, Stossel argues, was Darwin’s overpowering anxiety — something that might explain why his influential studies of human emotion were of such intense interest to him. Stossel points to a “Diary of Health” that the scientist kept for six years between the ages of 40 and 46 at the urging of his physician. He filled dozens of pages with complaints like “chronic fatigue, severe stomach pain and flatulence, frequent vomiting, dizziness (‘swimming head,’ as Darwin described it), trembling, insomnia, rashes, eczema, boils, heart palpitations and pain, and melancholy.”

In 1865 — six years after the completion of The Origin of Species — a distraught 56-year-old Darwin wrote a letter to another physician, John Chapman, outlining the multitude of symptoms that had bedeviled him for decades:

For 25 years extreme spasmodic daily & nightly flatulence: occasional vomiting, on two occasions prolonged during months. Vomiting preceded by shivering, hysterical crying[,] dying sensations or half-faint. & copious very palid urine. Now vomiting & every passage of flatulence preceded by ringing of ears, treading on air & vision …. Nervousness when E leaves me.

“E” refers to his wife Emma, who loved Darwin dearly and who mothered his ten children — a context in which his “nervousness” does suggest anxiety’s characteristic tendency to wring worries out of unlikely scenarios, not to mention being direct evidence of the very term “separation anxiety.”

Illustration from The Smithsonian's 'Darwin: A Graphic Biography.' Click image for more.

Stossel chronicles Darwin’s descent:

Darwin was frustrated that dozens of physicians, beginning with his own father, had failed to cure him. By the time he wrote to Dr. Chapman, Darwin had spent most of the past three decades — during which time he’d struggled heroically to write On the Origin of Species housebound by general invalidism. Based on his diaries and letters, it’s fair to say he spent a full third of his daytime hours since the age of twenty-eight either vomiting or lying in bed.

Chapman had treated many prominent Victorian intellectuals who were “knocked up” with anxiety at one time or another; he specialized in, as he put it, those high-strung neurotics “whose minds are highly cultivated and developed, and often complicated, modified, and dominated by subtle psychical conflicts, whose intensity and bearing on the physical malady it is difficult to comprehend.” He prescribed the application of ice to the spinal cord for almost all diseases of nervous origin.

Chapman came out to Darwin’s country estate in late May 1865, and Darwin spent several hours each day over the next several months encased in ice; he composed crucial sections of The Variation of Animals and Plants Under Domestication with ice bags packed around his spine.

The treatment didn’t work. The “incessant vomiting” continued. So while Darwin and his family enjoyed Chapman’s company (“We liked Dr. Chapman so very much we were quite sorry the ice failed for his sake as well as ours” Darwin’s wife wrote), by July they had abandoned the treatment and sent the doctor back to London.

Chapman was not the first doctor to fail to cure Darwin, and he would not be the last. To read Darwin’s diaries and correspondence is to marvel at the more or less constant debilitation he endured after he returned from the famous voyage of the Beagle in 1836. The medical debate about what, exactly, was wrong with Darwin has raged for 150 years. The list proposed during his life and after his death is long: amoebic infection, appendicitis, duodenal ulcer, peptic ulcer, migraines, chronic cholecystitis, “smouldering hepatitis,” malaria, catarrhal dyspepsia, arsenic poisoning, porphyria, narcolepsy, “diabetogenic hyper-insulism,” gout, “suppressed gout,” chronic brucellosis (endemic to Argentina, which the Beagle had visited), Chagas’ disease (possibly contracted from a bug bite in Argentina), allergic reactions to the pigeons he worked with, complications from the protracted seasickness he experienced on the Beagle, and ‘refractive anomaly of the eyes.’ I’ve just read an article, “Darwin’s Illness Revealed,” published in a British academic journal in 2005, that attributes Darwin’s ailments to lactose intolerance.

Various competing hypotheses attempted to diagnose Darwin, both during his lifetime and after. But Stossel argues that “a careful reading of Darwin’s life suggests that the precipitating factor in every one of his most acute attacks of illness was anxiety.” His greatest rebuttal to other medical theories is a seemingly simple, positively profound piece of evidence:

When Darwin would stop working and go walking or riding in the Scottish Highlands or North Wales, his health would be restored.

(Of course, one need not suffer from debilitating anxiety in order to reap the physical and mental benefits of walking, arguably one of the simplest yet most rewarding forms of psychic restoration and a powerful catalyst for creativity.)

My Age of Anxiety is a fascinating read in its totality. Complement it with a timeless antidote to anxiety from Alan Watts, then revisit Darwin’s brighter side with his beautiful reflections on family, work, and happiness.

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22 AUGUST, 2014

How We Know What We Know: The Art of Adaequatio and Seeing with the Eye of the Heart

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A timeless guide to “understanding the truth that does not merely inform the mind but liberates the soul.”

“What is essential is invisible to the eye,” Antoine de Saint-Exupéry memorably wrote in The Little Prince. Indeed, in our quest to perfect thinking, could we be neglecting those deeper, more intuitive gateways to accessing the essential? Susan Sontag memorably argued that the false polarity of intuition vs. intellect imprisons us, but the question remains — how do we really know what we know? By what mechanism can we truly make sense of the world and our place in it?

A decade after his influential clarion call for prioritizing people over goods and creativity over consumption, British economic theorist and philosopher E.F. Schumacher turned to this delicate subject in his 1977 essay collection A Guide for the Perplexed (public library) — not to be confused with this Werner Herzog gem of the same title — in which Schumacher also explored how to map the meaning of life.

Schumacher considers the concept of adaequatio:

What enables man to know anything at all about the world around him? … Nothing can be known without there being an appropriate “instrument” in the makeup of the knower. This is the Great Truth of “adaequatio” (adequateness), which defines knowledge as adaequatio rei et intellectus — the understanding of the knower must be adequate to the thing to be known.

Building upon his notion of the five Levels of Being, Schumacher bridges the physical and the metaphysical:

Our five bodily senses make us adequate to the lowest Level of Being — inanimate matter. But they can supply nothing more than masses of sense data, to “make sense” of which we require abilities or capacities of a different order. We may call them “intellectual senses.” Without them we should be unable to recognize form, pattern, regularity, harmony, rhythm, and meaning, not to mention life, consciousness, and self-awareness. While the bodily senses may be described as relatively passive, mere receivers of whatever happens to come along and to a large extent controlled by the mind, the intellectual senses are mind-in-action, and their keenness and reach are qualities of the mind itself.

Illustration by Vladimir Radunsky from 'On a Beam of Light: A Story of Albert Einstein' by Jennifer Berne. Click image for more.

He illustrates the spectrum of human ability as it relates to our capacity for adaequatio:

As regards the bodily senses, all healthy people possess a very similar endowment, but no one could possibly overlook the fact that there are significant differences in the power and reach of people’s minds… Beethoven’s musical abilities, even in deafness, were incomparably greater than mine, and the difference did not lie in the sense of hearing; it lay in the mind. Some people are incapable of grasping and appreciating a given piece of music, not because they are deaf but because of a lack of adaequatio in the mind. The music is grasped by intellectual powers which some people possess to such a degree that they can grasp, and retain in their memory, an entire symphony on one hearing or one reading of the score; while others are so weakly endowed that they cannot get it at all, no matter how often and how attentively they listen to it. For the former, the symphony is as real as it was for the composer; for the latter, there is no symphony: there is nothing but a succession of more or less agreeable but altogether meaningless noises. The former’s mind is adequate to the symphony; the latter’s mind is inadequate, and thus incapable of recognizing the existence of the symphony.

This spectrum plays out over and over in every domain of the human experience and, Schumacher argues, making sense of the world in an intelligent way requires that we understand where we fall on the spectrum of adaequatio in every domain of knowledge. Ignorant attitudes, he implies, result from assuming that something is not true or not valuable simply because we lack the adaequatio to grasp it:

For every one of us only those facts and phenomena “exist” for which we posses adaequatio, and as we are not entitled to assume that we are necessarily adequate to everything, at all times, and in whatever condition we may find ourselves, so we are not entitled to insist that something inaccessible to us has no existence at all and is nothing but a phantom of other people’s imaginations.

This pulls into question the notion of capital-T Truth as commonly used and pursued:

People say: “Let the facts speak for themselves”; they forget that the speech of facts is real only if it is heard and understood. It is thought to be an easy matter to distinguish between fact and theory, between perception and interpretation. In truth, it is extremely difficult.

In a sentiment that Philip K. Dick would echo mere months later in asserting that “reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away,” Schumacher adds:

When the level of the knower is not adequate to the level (or grade of significance) of the object of knowledge, the result is not factual error but something much more serious: an inadequate and impoverished view of reality.

Illustration by Ralph Steadman for Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland. Click image for more.

But the most important determinants of our access to knowledge, Schumacher argues, are our direction of interest and our existing beliefs — something even truer today, not to mention more dangerous, in our age of filter bubbles, when we have an ever-harder time changing our minds. Schumacher writes:

The level of significance to which an observer or investigator tries to attune himself is chosen, not by his intelligence, but by his faith. The facts themselves which he observes do not carry labels indicating the appropriate level at which they ought to be considered. Nor does the choice of an inadequate level lead the intelligence into factual error or logical contradiction. All levels of significance up to the adequate level — i.e., up to the level of meaning … — are equally factual, equally logical, equally objective, but not equally real.

It is by an act of faith that I choose the level of my investigation; hence the saying “Credo ut intelligam” — I have faith as to be able to understand. If I lack faith, and consequently choose an inadequate level of significance for my investigation, no degree of “objectivity” will save me from missing the point of the whole operation, and I rob myself of the very possibility of understanding.

Our existing beliefs and baseline assumptions, on which our entire capacity for understanding is predicated, is very much a product of our era, cultural context, and what William Gibson so memorably termed our “personal microculture.” Schumacher writes:

The observer depends not only on the adequateness of his own higher qualities, perhaps “developed” through learning or training; he depends also on the adequateness of his “faith” or, to put it more conventionally, of his fundamental presuppositions and basic assumptions. In this respect he tends to be very much a child of his time and of the civilization in which he has spent his formative years; for the human mind, generally speaking, does not just think: it thinks with ideas, most of which it simply adopts and takes over from its surrounding society.

And yet, Schumacher urges, our greatest responsibility in cultivating true understanding is to question precisely those assumptions, directing at them the types of critical-thinking tools Carl Sagan advocated in his timelessly necessary Baloney Detection Kit and Lewis Carroll outlined in his four rules for digesting information. Schumacher notes:

There is nothing more difficult than to become critically aware of the presuppositions of one’s thought. Everything can be seen directly except the eye through which we see. Every thought can be scrutinized directly except the thought by which we scrutinize. A special effort, an effort of self-awareness, is needed: that almost impossible feat of thought recoiling upon itself — almost impossible but not quite. In fact, that is the power that makes man human and also capable of transcending his humanity.

One of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s original watercolors for The Little Prince. Click image for more.

Echoing the Little Prince’s memorable assertion that “what is essential is invisible to the eye,” Schumacher writes:

Only through the “heart” can contact be made with the higher grades of significance and Levels of Being.

Cautioning against scientific reductionism, he adds:

For anyone wedded to the materialistic Scientism of the modern age … higher levels of Reality simply do not exist, because his faith excludes the possibility of their existence. He is like a man who, although in possession of a radio receiver, refuses to use it because he has made up his mind that nothing can be obtained from it but atmospheric noises.

Turning to the timeless question of how science and spirituality relate to one another — a question previously addressed by such monumental minds as Carl Sagan, Isaac Asimov, Ada Lovelace, Alan Lightman, Buckminster Fuller, and Jane Goodall — Schumacher writes:

Faith is not in conflict with reason, nor is it a substitute for reason. Faith chooses the grade of significance or Level of Being at which the search for knowledge and understanding is to aim. There is reasonable faith and there is unreasonable faith. To look for meaning and purpose at the level of inanimate matter would be as unreasonable an act of faith as an attempt to “explain” the masterpieces of human genius as nothing but the outcome of economic interests or sexual frustration.

Citing 13th-century Persian poet and philosopher Rumi‘s famous line — “the eye of the heart, which is seventy-fold and of which these two sensible eyes are only the gleaners” — Schumacher revisits the notion of perceiving with something other than the intellect:

The power of “the Eye of the Heart,” which produces insight, is vastly superior to the power of thought, which produces opinions.

[...]

This is the process of gaining adaequatio, of developing the instrument capable of seeing and thus understanding the truth that does not merely inform the mind but liberates the soul.

[...]

Ideas produce insight and understanding, and the world of ideas lies within us. The truth of ideas cannot be seen by the senses but only by that special instrument sometimes referred to as “the Eye of the Heart,” which, in a mysterious way, has the power of recognizing truth when confronted with it.

A Guide for the Perplexed is a magnificent read in its entirety, the kind that gives more every time, the more you bring to it upon each new rereading. Complement it with Schumacher on how to stop prioritizing goods over people, then revisit Alan Watts on becoming who you really are and John Locke on understanding and the folly of our borrowed opinions.

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