Mama, Don't Let Your Babies Grow Up To Deny Evolution
If adults want to deny evolution, sure. That’s fine. Whatever. But those adults better not make their kids follow in step because we as society need them to be better. Bill Nye, everyone's favorite Science Guy, explains the importance of promoting evolution education for America's future voters and lawmakers.
My Man, Sir Isaac Newton
Are you at least 26 years-old? If so, you are older than Isaac Newton was when he invented calculus... on a dare! (If you're younger than 26, better hurry up.) Big Think expert and overall cool guy Neil deGrasse Tyson explains why Newton is the greatest physicist who ever and likely will ever live.
Will Mankind Destroy Itself?
Theoretical physicist Michio Kaku sees two major trends today. One eventually leads to a multicultural, scientific, tolerant society that will expand beyond Earth in the name of human progress. The other trend leads to fundamentalism, monoculturalism, and -- eventually -- civilizational ruin. Whichever of these two trends wins out will determine the fate of mankind. No pressure, everyone.
Ricky Gervais on the Principles of Comedy
Comedy isn't just about making people laugh, says actor Ricky Gervais. It's about making people think. And while different forms of comedy require different approaches, the crux of any good performance will always be rhythm.
Reading the Bible (Or the Koran, Or the Torah) Will Make You an Atheist
Author and magician Penn Jillette was asked to leave his Christian youth group by a pastor who told his parents: "He's no longer learning about the Bible from me. He is now converting everyone in the class to atheism." The reason? Jillette did his homework and was turned off by the hostilities of the text. It can be intimidating to come out as an atheist, especially in a religious community. Jillette found that having "out" atheist role models helped him feel unalone.
Henry Rollins: The One Decision that Changed My Life Forever
Punk legend Henry Rollins describes the biggest turning point in his life: the moment he decided to leave his job as manager of a Häagen-Dazs store and eventually become the lead singer of Black Flag. It was the courage to take a risk, plus a whole lot of luck, that got Rollins to where he is today.
5 Programming Languages Everyone Should Know
Java is "heavyweight, verbose, and everyone loves to hate it," but programmer Larry Wall still thinks you should know it. In this video, he offers suggestions for people interested in learning languages, as well as suggestions for those significantly less invested in computer programming.
The Importance of Unbelief
If you assume there’s no afterlife, Stephen Fry says, you’ll likely have a fuller, more interesting "now" life. The actor and comedian details the positive influence philosophers have had on his life, as well as his journey of understanding both what he believes and why he believes it.
Why be happy when you could be interesting?
We don't really want what we think we desire, says philosopher Slavoj Žižek.
James Gleick on the Common Character Traits of Geniuses
This video is part of a series on female genius, in proud collaboration with 92Y's 7 Days of Genius Festival.
The personalities of Isaac Newton and Richard Feynman were, on one level, extremely different. Biographer and former New York Times reporter James Gleick says Newton was argumentative, had few friends, and likely died a virgin. Feynman, on the other hand, loved dancing and going to parties, and had many friends in the scientific community. But in regards to their working habits, both men were solitary and had the ability to concentrate with a sort of intensity that is hard for mortals to grasp. At bottom, Gleick says geniuses tend to have a yearning for solitude which, though fruitful for their professional work, made the task of daily living more burdensome.
The Importance of Doing Useless Things
From poetry and ballet to mathematics and being clever, life is laden with frivolous pursuits that hold no bearing on our ability to survive. Yet, insists Richard Dawkins, if it weren’t for the development of these impractical activities, we wouldn’t be here.
Why monogamy is ridiculous
Dan Savage: the idea that one instance of infidelity should ruin a relationship is a new—and misguided—notion.
Dan Harris: Hack Your Brain's Default Mode With Meditation
Dan Harris explains the neuroscience behind meditation, but reminds us that the ancient practice isn't magic and likely won't send one floating into the cosmic ooze. He predicts that the exercise will soon become regularly scheduled maintenance, as commonplace as brushing your teeth or eating your veggies. Harris, an ABC News correspondent, was turned on to mediation after a live, on-air panic attack. His latest book is 10% Happier: How I Tamed the Voice in My Head, Reduced Stress Without Losing My Edge, and Found Self-Help That Actually Works--A True Story.
How Intellectuals Betrayed the Poor
For 40 years academics were duped into idolizing the idea of unfettered markets, says Cornel West, and now our society is paying a terrible price.
Why Some Races Outperform Others
A psychologist explains the latest research into education disparity.
Why It's So Hard for Scientists to Believe in God
Some scientists see religion as a threat to the scientific method that should be resisted. But faith "is really asking a different set of questions," says Collins.
Why Facebook Isn't Free
Internet pioneer Jaron Lanier argues that free technologies like Facebook come with a hidden and heavy cost – the livelihoods of their consumers.
How to Tell if You’re a Writer
For John Irving, the need for a daily ration of solitude was his strongest "pre-writing" moment as a child.
Your Behavior Creates Your Gender
Nobody is born one gender or the other, says the philosopher. "We act and walk and speak and talk in ways that consolidate an impression of being a man or being a woman."
Are You a Liberal Snob? Take The Quiz
Charles Mrray designed this quiz to have a salutary effect on bringing to people’s attention the degree to which they live in a bubble that seals them off from an awful lot of their fellow American citizens.
Why You Should Watch Filth
John Waters defends the creation and consumption of obscene films, and recommends some of his personal favorites.
What Are You Worth? Getting Past Status Anxiety.
Writer Alain De Botton says that status anxiety is more pernicious and destructive than most of us can imagine, and recommends getting out of the game altogether.
Sheila Heen on the Psychology of Happiness and Feedback
Sheila Heen, a Partner at Triad Consulting Group and a lecturer on Law at Harvard Law School, explains the psychology behind feedback and criticism. Heen is co-author of "Thanks for the Feedback: The Science and Art of Receiving Feedback Well."
Are You a Psychopath? Take the Test.
Psychologist Kevin Dutton presents the classic psychological test known as "the trolley problem" with a variation. Take the test and measure you response on the psychopathic spectrum.
Here's How to Catch a Liar, If You Really Want To
It’s very complex as to whether or not we really want to catch a liar. We think we do. What if we find out that both of our presidential candidates are lying? Then what do we do? I’m not saying they are; I never comment on anyone in office or running for office. Only after they’re out that they’re fair game. . . . Clinton said, "I didn’t have sex with that woman" and then gave her name. "That woman" is putting her at a distance from himself.
Why I Came Out at Age 81
As a teenager in the '40s, James Randi "would have gotten stoned" for being gay. But when he outed himself to the world in 2010, the reaction was "wonderful."
- Many countries made incredible gains in IQ scores during the 20th century, averaging three IQ points per decade.
- Studies out of Europe have shown a reversal of this trend.
- Such declines are not universal, and researchers remain unsure of what is causing them.
Are people getting smarter or dumber? It seems an easy enough question to answer. Researchers look at IQ tests; see if scores go up, down, or sideways; and report their findings. You, in turn, google the question and read an article detailing said findings.
Perform such a search, however, and you will net a surprising amount of contradictory claims. Many, many, many headlines maintain that people today are more acute than ever. Yet many, many, many others assert that recent decades have blunted humanity's mental tools. And each claim is based on studies, surveys, and all-around science.
Which is correct? Before we answer that, we need to figure out what exactly the so-called Flynn effect tells us about the intellectual gains of the 20th century.
The Flynn effect: how people got smarter
In the 1980s philosopher James Flynn noticed that IQ tests were occasionally renormed. The average IQ must stand at 100, but every few years, scores would creep up, and test makers had to add tougher questions to bring the average back down. Flynn crunched the numbers and found that IQ scores had increased, on average, three points per decade. The phenomenon was named the Flynn effect in his honor.
"The implications are stunning," developmental psychologist Steven Pinker writes in The Better Angels of Our Nature. "An average teenager today, if he or she could time-travel back to 1950, would have had an IQ of 118. If the teenager went back to 1910, he or she would have had an IQ of 130, besting 98 percent of his or her contemporaries. Yes, you read that right: if we take the Flynn effect at face value, a typical person today is smarter than 98 percent of the people in the good old days of 1910."
Of course, Pinker quickly points out, we can't take the Flynn effect at face value. People living in 1910 weren't blithering fools who couldn't wrap their heads around calculus or believed the Earth to be flat. Nor did evolution genetically reengineer our mental software in a mere century.
Rather, the industrialized environments of the 20th century required people to use and think in abstract terms more frequently than previous generations. Not coincidentally, IQ tests such as Raven's Progressive Matrices measure one's ability to think abstractly and apply that ability toward new problems (i.e., one's fluid knowledge).
Pinker provides a telling example. Consider a similarities problem that asks, "What do dogs and rabbits have in common?" The answer is obvious; they are mammals. But in 1900, an average person was likely to answer, "You use dogs to hunt rabbits." This isn't wrong. The answer elucidates a concrete relationship between the two. It's just not the abstract classification that IQ tests look for.
"So, modernity has essentially changed the way we think, to make us better at using broad abstract concepts and applying them to situations that are unfamiliar to us," journalist David Epstein told Big Think. "And it's not to say that one type of thinking is better than the other. That's certainly not the case. [We're] just adapted to different conditions."
The gains haven't been equal in all types of knowledge. As Pinker notes, matrices and similarities have increased by leaps and bounds since 1950; however, arithmetic, vocabulary, and information (i.e., crystallized knowledge) have seen the fewest gains overall. In other words, today we are much better at recognizing patterns in geometric shapes, but only slightly better at remembering the capital of Switzerland. (Or that the latter is a trick question.)
Are we losing intelligence gains?
But the Flynn effect may now be regressing. According to recent studies, the populaces of several countries are essentially bleeding IQ points. One eye-catching example came out of Norway last year.
Norway practices mandatory military service. Conscripted men are required to take an IQ test, providing researchers with a wealth of data. Brent Bratsberg and Ole Rogeberg, at the Ragnar Frische Centre for Economic Research in Oslo, analyzed more than 730,000 of these IQ tests, and their results showed 1975 to be the tipping point for Norway's Flynn effect. The country's IQ scores have tumbled downhill since.
It's worth noting that this decline is not necessarily endemic among Norway's entire population. Though the study had a large sample size, it only looked at native-born men, 18–19 years old, and whose parents were also native born. Men of other ages or parental makeup were not accounted for, nor did the study look at women's IQs at any age. (While Norway practices universal conscription today, the law wasn't extended until 2013, so such data were not available.)
Even so, Norway's dip is part of a larger trend. An analysis out of the University of Otago, written by James Flynn and Michael Shayer, looked at intelligence research in various countries. While the declines were not uniform, they were certainly present in the data, particularly among European countries.
Flynn and Shayer found that Nordic nations — namely Finland, Denmark, Norway, and Sweden — will lose an overall average of 6.85 IQ points (projected over 30 years). The Netherlands showed losses at high school but gains in adults and no change in preschoolers. Germany maintained verbal gains but lost spatial points. Interestingly, Britain showed slight gains on Raven's Progressive Matrices but losses on Piagetian tests, another test measuring a test taker's analytic ability.
"Massive IQ gains over time were never written in the sky as something eternal like the law of gravity," the authors write. "They are subject to every twist and turn of social evolution. If there is a decline, should we be too upset?"
In other countries, the Flynn effect remains in effect. The Unites States continues to gain at the historic rate, while South Korea is gaining at twice that. Flynn and Shayer also believe that developing countries will continue to show gains for some time.
Did smart people dumb down their environment?
What has caused the current slump in IQ scores among some European nations? Researchers aren't sure, but they have some hypotheses.
One hypothesis blames dysgenic fertility. Dysgenics postulates that negative traits can accumulate in a population if not weeded out by selection pressures. In the case of intelligence, the idea goes that above-average intelligence couples have fewer children than those who aren't; therefore, there are fewer intelligent children to pass on their genes. The Flynn effect masked this reality until the inevitable ceiling was hit. It is exactly the setup for Idiocracy.
Bratsberg and Rogeberg push against the dysgenic hypothesis. Their results show Norway's negative trends occurring within families as well as across them. For this same reason, the researchers don't believe immigration is a major factor either. They argue in-family environmental effects are the most likely culprit, though they cannot weed out particular causes and effects. Possibilities include changes in educational exposure, worsening nutrition, and changes in media exposure.
Flynn and Shayer also provide some possibilities. They point out that Scandinavian countries support more advanced educational systems. These education systems may have reached a theoretical limit in their ability "to produce graduates that can generalize and use logic on the hypothetical (mental abilities that pay dividends on IQ tests)."
Scandinavian welfare states may have also leveled the educational attainment between citizens of different classes. Quality education reaches everybody. This could explain the U.S.'s continued gains, as students in poorer areas continue to play catch up with their upper-class peers.
Societies escalated skill requirements in the 20th century. That environment caused IQs to rise. Conversely, Flynn and Shayer note, if 21st-century societies lessen skill requirements, IQs scores will backpedal.
But the question of whether our IQ scores are higher than another society's, whether historical or contemporary, isn't what truly matters. It's whether we've developed societies that support and foster our many different intelligences wisely and purposefully. As Flynn and Shayer point out: "Capitalizing on a people's intelligence, rather than worrying about their intelligence, is the most important thing."
- A new analysis of an ancient Wari brewery suggests chicha helped maintain the civilization's social capital for hundreds of years.
- Civilizations throughout the ancient world used alcoholic drinks to signify kinship, hospitality, and social cohesion.
- The researchers hope their findings will remind us of the importance in reaffirming social institutions and sharing cultural practices — even if over coffee or tea.
Beer is history's happiest accident. Though the discovery probably happened much earlier, our earliest evidence for beer dates back roughly 13,000 years ago. Around this time, the people of the Fertile Crescent had begun to gather grains as a food source and learned that if they moistened them, they could release their sweetness to create a gruel much tastier than the grains themselves.
One day a curious — or perhaps tightfisted — hunter-gatherer hid his gruel away for a safekeeping. When he returned, he found the bowl giving off a tangy odor. Not one to waste a meal, he ate it anyway and enjoyed an unexpected, though not unpleasant, sensation of ease. By pure happenstance, this ancestor stumbled upon brewing.
That's one possible origin story, but we know that our ancestors learned to control the process, and beer took a central role in Fertile Crescent civilizations — so central that Professor Patrick McGovern, a biomolecular archaeologist at the University of Pennsylvania, argues that beer, not bread, incentivized hunter-gatherers to relinquish their nomadic ways.
Beer may also be proof of a God who wants us to be happy (Dionysus?), because the beverage* would be independently rediscovered by peoples across the ancient world, including those in China and South America.
One such peoples, the pre-Inca Wari Civilization, made beer, specifically chicha de molle, a critical component in their religious and cultural ceremonies. In fact, a study published in Sustainability in April argues that the role was so important that beer helped keep Wari civilization intact for 500 years.
Brewing social capital
Twenty years ago, a team of archaeologists with the Field Museum of Natural History, Chicago, discovered a brewery in Cerro Baúl, a mesa in southern Peru that served as an ancient Wari outpost. The brewery contained original equipment, clay storage vessels, and compartments for milling, boiling, and fermentation.
The team recently analyzed these on-site vessels to uncover the secrets of the Wari brewing process. Removing tiny amounts of material found in the spaces between the clay, they were able to reconstruct the molecules of the thousand-year-old drink. They then worked alongside Peruvian brewers to recreate the original brewing process.**
Their molecular analysis revealed several key features of the beer: The clay used to make the vessels came from a nearby site; many of the beer's ingredients, such as molle berries, are drought resistant; and though alcoholic, the beer only kept for about a week.
These details suggest that Cerro Baúl maintained a steady supply of chicha, limited by neither trade nor fair weather, and became a central hub for anyone wishing to partake. The Wari would likely make such trips during times of festivals and religious ceremonies. Social elites would consume chicha in vessels shaped like Wari gods and leaders as part of rituals attesting to social norms and a shared cultural mythology and heritage.
"People would have come into this site, in these festive moments, in order to recreate and reaffirm their affiliation with these Wari lords and maybe bring tribute and pledge loyalty to the Wari state," Ryan Williams, lead author and head of anthropology at the Field Museum, said in a release. "We think these institutions of brewing and then serving the beer really formed a unity among these populations. It kept people together."
The Wari civilization was spread over a vast area of rain forests and highlands. In a time when news traveled at the speed of a llama, such distinct and distant geography could easily have fractured the Wari civilization into competing locales.
Instead, the researchers argue, these festive gatherings (aided by the promise of beer) strengthened social capital enough to maintain a healthy national unity. This helped the Wari civilization last from 600 to 1100 CE, an impressive run for a historic civilization.
Bringing people together (since 10,000 BCE)
A Mesopotamian cylinder seal shows people drinking beer through long reed straws. Image source: Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Of course, the Wari weren't the first civilization to use beer to reaffirm bonds and maintain their social fabric. Returning to the Fertile Crescent, Sumerians regarded beer as a hallmark of their civilization.
The Sumerian Epic of Gilgamesh tells of the adventures of the titular hero and his friend Enkidu. Enkidu beings as a savage living in the wilderness, but a young woman introduces him to the ways of civilization. That orientation begins with food and beer:
"They placed food in front of him,
They placed beer in front of him,
Enkidu knew nothing about eating bread for food,
And of drinking beer he had not been taught.
The young woman spoke Enkidu, saying:
"Eat the food, Enkidu, it is the way one lives.
Drink the beer, as is the custom of the land."
Enkidu ate the food until he was sated,
He drank the beer — seven jugs! — and became expansive
and sang with joy.
He was elated and his face glowed.
He splashed his shaggy body with water
and rubbed himself with oil, and turned into a human."
Tom Standage, who recounts this scene in his History of the World in 6 Glasses, writes: "The Mesopotamians regarded the consumption of bread and beer as one of the things that distinguished them from savages and made them fully human." Such civilized staples not only demarcated their orderly life from that of hunter-gatherers, they also served a key role in their culture's unifying mythology.
Furthermore, Standage notes, Sumerian iconography often shows two people sipping from waist-high jars through reed straws. The earliest beers were consumed in a similar fashion because technological limitations prevented baking individual cups or filtering the beverage. But the Sumerians had the pottery skills to make such cups and filter the dregs. That they kept the tradition suggests that they valued the camaraderie brought by the experience, a sign of communal hospitality and kinship.
The ancient Greek's similarly used alcohol as a means of maintaining social and political relationships — though their drink of choice was wine.
During symposiums, upper-class Greek men would gather for a night of drinking, entertainment, and social bonding. In Alcohol: A history, Rod Phillips notes that symposiums were serious affairs where art, politics, and philosophy were discussed throughout the night and could serve as rites of passage for young men. (Though, music, drinking games, and sex with prostitutes may also be found on the itinerary.)
Of course, we can amass social capital without resorting to alcohol, which has been known to damage social relationships as much as improve them.
In the 17th century, London's coffeehouses stimulated the minds of thinkers with their caffeine-laden drinks, but also served as social hubs. Unlike the examples we've explored already, these coffeehouses brought together people of different backgrounds and expertise, unifying them in their pursuit of ideas and truths. Thus, coffeehouses can be seen as the nurseries of the Enlightenment.
Relearning ancient lessons
The Field Museum archaeologists hope their research can help remind us the importance social institutions and cultural practices have in creating our common bonds, whether such institutions are BYOB or not.
"This research is important because it helps us understand how institutions create the binds that tie together people from very diverse constituencies and very different backgrounds," Williams said. "Without them, large political entities begin to fragment and break up into much smaller things. Brexit is an example of this fragmentation in the European Union today. We need to understand the social constructs that underpin these unifying features if we want to be able to maintain political unity in society."
So, grab a beer or coffee or tea, spend some time together, and raise a glass. Just try not focus too much on whether your friend ordered Budweiser's swill or an overpriced, virtue-signaling microbrew IPA.
* This article uses "beer" to describe any grain-based alcoholic drink. Today, we tend to think of beer as fermented malt flavored with hops, but hops didn't become part of the brewing process until around 1200 CE. As Phillips notes, historians use the term much more broadly.
** In the spirit of bringing some social capital stateside, the Field Museum also teamed up with Off Color Brewing, a Chicago craft brewery, to create a modern variant of the chicha. The brewers used purple corn from Peru and spiced the libation with molle berries. Their recreation is available to try, though its availability is dependent on the brewery's supply of purple corn.
- Philosopher Nick Bostrom argues that humans are likely computer simulations in the "Simulation Hypothesis".
- Bostrom thinks advanced civilizations of posthumans will have technology to simulate their ancestors.
- Elon Musk and others support this idea.
Are we living in a computer-driven simulation? That seems like an impossible hypothesis to prove. But let's just look at how impossible that really is.
For some machine to be able to conjure up our whole reality, it needs to be amazingly powerful, able to keep track of an incalculable number of variables. Consider the course of just one human lifetime, with all of the events it entails, all the materials, ideas and people that one interacts with throughout an average lifespan. Then multiply that by about a hundred billion souls that have graced this planet with their presence so far. The interactions between all these people, as well as the interactions between all the animals, plants, bacterium, planetary bodies, really all the elements we know and don't know to be a part of this world, is what constitutes the reality you encounter today.
Composing all that would require coordinating an almost unimaginable amount of data. Yet, it's just "almost" inconceivable. The fact that we can actually right now in this article attempt to come up with this number is what makes it potentially possible.
So how much data are we talking about? And how would such a machine work?
In 2003, the Swedish philosopher Nick Bostrom, who teaches at University of Oxford, wrote an influential paper on the subject called "Are you living in a computer simulation" that tackles just this subject.
In the paper, Bostrom argues that future people will likely have super-powerful computers on which they could run simulations of their "forebears". These simulations would be so good that the simulated people would think they are conscious. In that case, it's likely that we are among such "simulated minds" rather than "the original biological ones."
In fact, if we don't believe we are simulations, concludes Bostrom, then "we are not entitled to believe that we will have descendants who will run lots of such simulations of their forebears." If you accept one premise (that you'll have powerful super-computing descendants), you have to accept the other (you are simulation).
That's pretty heavy stuff. How to unpack it?
As he goes into the details of his argument, Bostrom writes that within the philosophy of mind, it is possible to conjecture that an artificially-created system could be made to have "conscious experiences" as long as it is equipped with "the right sort of computational structures and processes." It's presumptuous to assume that only experiences within "a carbon‐based biological neural networks inside a cranium" (your head) can gives rise to consciousness. Silicon processors in a computer can be potentially made to mimic the same thing.
Of course, at this point in time this isn't something our computers can do. But we can imagine that the current rate of progress and what we know of the constraints imposed by physical laws can lead to civilizations able to come up with such machines, even turning planets and stars into giant computers. These could be quantum or nuclear but whatever they would be, they could probably run amazingly detailed simulations.
In fact, there is number to represent the kind of power needed to emulate a human brain's functionality, which Bostrom gives as ranging from 1014 to 1017 operations per second. If you hit that kind of computer speed, you can run a reasonable enough human mind within the machine.
Simulating the whole universe, including all the details "down to the quantum level" requires more computing oomph, to the point that it may be "unfeasible," thinks Bostrom. But that may not really be necessary as all the future humans or post-humans would need to do is to simulate the human experience of the universe. They'd just need to make sure the simulated minds don't pick up on anything that doesn't look consistent or "irregularities". You wouldn't have to recreate things the human mind wouldn't ordinarily notice, like things happening at the microscopic level.
Representing the goings on among distant planetary bodies could also be compressed - no need to get into amazing detail among those, certainly not at this point. The machines just need to do a good enough job. As they would keep track of what all the simulated minds believe, they could just fill in the necessary details on demand. They could also edit out any errors if those happen to take place.
Bostrom even provides a number for simulating all of human history, which he puts at around ~1033 ‐ 1036 operations. That would be the goal for the sophisticated enough virtual reality program based on what we already know about their workings. In fact, it's likely just one computer with a mass of a planet can pull off such a task "by using less than one millionth of its processing power for one second," thinks the philosopher. A highly advanced future civilization could build a countless number of such machines.
What could counter such a proposal? Bostrom considers in his paper the possibility that humanity will destroy itself or be destroyed by an outside event like a giant meteor before it reaches this post-human simulated stage. There are actually many ways in which humanity could always be stuck in the primitive stages and not ever be able to create the hypothetical computers needed to simulate entire minds. He even allows for the possibility of our civilization becoming extinct courtesy of human-created self-replicating nanorobots which turn into "mechanical bacteria".
Another point against us living in a simulation would be that future posthumans might not care to or be allowed to run such programs at all. Why do it? What's the upside of creating "ancestor simulations"? He thinks that it's not likely the practice of running such simulations would be so widely assumed to be immoral that it would be banned everywhere. Also, knowing human nature, it's unlikely that there wouldn't be someone in the future who would not find such a project interesting. This is the kind of stuff we would do today if we could and chances are, we would continue to want to do in the far distant future.
"Unless we are now living in a simulation, our descendants will almost certainly never run an ancestor‐simulation," writes Bostrom.
A fascinating outcome of all this speculation is that we have no way of knowing what the true reality of existence really is. Our minds are likely accessing just a small fraction of the "totality of physical existence." What we think we are may be run on virtual machines that are run on other virtual machines - it's like a nesting doll of simulations, making it nearly impossible for us to see beyond to the true nature of things. Even the posthumans simulating us could be themselves simulated. As such, there could be many levels of reality, concludes Bostrom. The future us might likely never know if they are at the "fundamental" or "basement" level.
Interestingly, this uncertainty gives rise to universal ethics. If you don't know you are the original, you better behave or the godlike beings above you will intervene.
What are other implications of these lines of reasoning? Ok, let's assume we are living in a simulation – now what? Bostrom doesn't think our behavior should be affected much, even with such heavy knowledge, especially as we don't know the true motivations of future humans behind creating the simulated minds. They might have entirely different value systems.
You can take the plunge and read the full paper by Nick Bostrom for yourself here.
Check out Nick Bostrom’s TED talk on superintelligencies:
When we think about productivity at work, things like meeting deadlines and producing deliverables come to mind. And while those certainly can be aspects of productivity, many of us overlook how empathy comes into play.
Not only does empathy come with some serious, science-backed mental and physical health benefits, it can also make our work lives more enjoyable and more productive. We spoke with two empathy experts on how, exactly, we can harness the power of empathy to improve our productivity. Here are three tips anyone can try:
It can help explain changes in behavior, allowing you to course-correct
Between parenting challenges, caregiving, or other personal issues, there's a lot that can distract us at work, making us less productive, Helen Riess, M.D., associate professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and author of The Empathy Effect: Seven Neuroscience-Based Keys for Transforming the Way We Live, Love, Work, and Connect Across Differences, tells Thrive.
"One of the biggest mistakes that leaders can make is to assume that a lack of productivity or a lack of engagement is due to not caring about the work, or a lack of understanding the importance of a job," she explains. By using a lens of empathy, Riess says, managers can pinpoint their specific productivity issues and figure out how to deal with it to ensure that the employee is thriving in their position.
Riess gave the example of a scenario of when a member of a team is consistently not meeting deadlines, which results in the rest of the team growing frustrated. In this case, if the manager checks in with the person who is struggling to see what's going on in their life — before they judge them and their work performance — it gives the person a chance to explain that they are caring for a sick parent. Once they find this out, the manager can then provide the person with additional guidance and give the team the opportunity to step up and fill in or show compassion in other ways, helping team productivity by making sure deadlines are met and work is completed.
It decreases misunderstandings and conflicts
Nothing can derail a project or task at work like a misunderstanding, but using empathy as a way of understanding emotions and motivations can help, Karla McLaren, author of The Art of Empathy: A Complete Guide to Life's Most Essential Skill and founder of empathyacademy.org, tells Thrive.
"So many workplace hassles stem from a lack of perspective-taking, or an attempt to avoid emotions — which is impossible," she explains. "Skilled empathy — which includes a capacity for emotion regulation — can strengthen relationships, help people weather conflicts, and increase understanding and compassion throughout the workplace." For example, many studies, particularly of the health care workplace, suggest that empathically skilled workers increase patient satisfaction, reduce stress and conflict, and help practitioners and clients feel that they are effective, heard, and valuable, McLaren says.
A 2007 study found that physicians who are empathetic with patients during what can be emotionally charged conflicts during their treatment have the ability to reduce anger and frustration in the interaction. This logic can be applied to conflicts between co-workers as well. When we demonstrate that we're taking the time and energy to understand our colleague's challenges or perspectives on something, it may help to de-escalate situations that may otherwise have gotten heated, taking away from the productivity at their workplace.
It helps us give & receive feedback more effectively
Giving and receiving feedback at work is an important part of productivity, allowing us to make adjustments as needed to improve at our job. At Thrive, we're all about compassionate directness when it comes to feedback, and empathy is a big part of that.
One way to incorporate empathy into giving feedback is to start with a question like, "How do you think things are going?" or, "How are things going for you?", according to Riess. This may allow someone to open up about an area in which they're struggling, which may be hurting their productivity. "To begin with a question instead of 'Can I give you some constructive feedback?' sets the tone of openness and curiosity," she adds.
Another option, Riess says, is to ask a person how they'd prefer to receive feedback — whether that means writing it out in an email, talking about it in person, or discussing over the phone. "Just knowing what channel they receive feedback in the best [is helpful] because sometimes people need to digest it a little bit before they can talk about it," she explains.
Long-time “Jeopardy!" host Alex Trebek announced in March that he had been diagnosed with stage 4 pancreatic cancer.
Within days, he offered thanks to “the hundreds of thousands of people who have sent emails, texts, tweets, and cards wishing me well regarded my health." Then last month, Trebek reported that his cancer was in “near remission," saying that his doctors “hadn't seen this kind of positive results in their memory."
Although the odds remain stacked against Trebek (advanced pancreatic cancer has a 3% 5-year survival rate), his experience raises an intriguing question: What are the benefits of such well wishes?
Greeting card industry statistics amply demonstrate the relevance of the question to most Americans: We buy about 6.5 billion greeting cards a year, and while birthdays constitute the number one occasion, “Get Well" cards figure heavily in the mix.
Benefits for recipients
The most immediately apparent benefits of well wishes accrue to recipients. When we are injured, sick or suffering, knowing that someone else is thinking about us can be a source of comfort. It counteracts one of the worst aspects of suffering – isolation. During periods of convalescence, we often miss school or take time off from work and other social activities, which leaves us feeling alone. Knowing that we are in someone else's thoughts helps to counteract this.
When such well wishes are accompanied by offers of assistance, they can help to solve everyday challenges. Co-workers might offer to assume work responsibilities so that a colleague can take the time needed to get better. Neighbors might offer to feed a convalescent's pets, to deliver groceries or to help with household chores or self-care. Relatives might offer to stay with loved ones, or even bring them into their own homes to provide care.
Prayer offers perhaps the most dramatic opportunity to study the health benefits of well wishes. In studies of the efficacy of prayers for others, some studies have shown small health benefits, while others have shown no effect.
As a practicing physician who teaches large numbers of medical students and residents, I believe that sharing well wishes benefits us in all sorts of ways that are not reflected in medical outcomes. For example, reaching out to others can reduce anxiety and fear, and connections formed during difficult times may persist for many years, even a lifetime.
Benefits for well wishers
Wishing others well is also good for the person doing the well-wishing. For one thing, we cannot genuinely do so without shifting our attention away from ourselves. Much unhappiness can be traced to an excessive preoccupation with self, which for some can reach the point that we become curved in on ourselves. Thinking of others counteracts this. There is neurological evidence that acts of generosity make us feel less anxious and happier.
People who feel disconnected from others suffer health consequences worse than obesity, smoking and high blood pressure. By contrast, wishing others well helps us to recognize our interdependence, thereby fostering a greater sense of connectedness. We tend to invest more of our own time and energy in others when we stop and contemplate how much our well-being – economic, social, psychological and spiritual – hinges on theirs.
Of course, there is a trap here that needs to be recognized and avoided. We cannot genuinely wish others well if we are doing it for our own sake. Merely to appear to others to have their best interests at heart while really pursuing our own is but a form of deception, only compounding the adverse effects of self-centeredness and isolation. To realize real benefits from caring for others, we must genuinely care for them.
Benefits for all
It is so important to care for others that we should do it, at least in some cases, even when it redounds to our detriment. For example, marriage, parenting and friendship involve sacrifices. Sometimes we set aside our own good entirely to tend to the needs of another. While we may not benefit directly from such sacrifices, we do help to build larger wholes – relationships and communities – of which we are all a part. We make the world a better place.
The need to foster mutual care has perhaps never been greater. When Americans were asked in 1985 to say how many people they were close to, the typical response was three. By 2004, this number had dropped to zero. Over one-quarter of us reported that we have no one we consider a close friend.
I knew a physician who once met a patient with end-stage skin cancer in the emergency department. When it became clear that the patient had no place to go and no one to care for her, the physician, who had once been a nun, brought the patient into her own home, where she, her husband and their two sons cared for the woman around the clock during the last few weeks of her life. When such stories are shared, they can inspire our own resolve to do more to care more for those in need.
The recent outpouring of well wishes for a television game show host – a stranger to most who reached out to him – offers an important insight into what makes families, friendships and communities thrive. Connectedness and its benefits are not something we should take for granted. Whether in the form of a simple text message or greeting card – or better yet, a phone call or a visit – letting someone who is hurting know that we care can make a big difference for all.