Category Archives: Inspiration

Transformative Experience

Transformative ExperienceOnly eight posts ago, I lamented that the more important our decisions are, the less thought we seem to put into them. We only invest enough thought to find what makes us feel good, I said, and I wished we would apply more rational thought to our big choices.

Maybe I was asking too much.

Philosopher L.A. Paul says that when it comes to truly life-changing decisions — ones that transform the way you think or your mode of being — there’s no way we can be entirely rational, because on the other side of those decisions we will be so profoundly changed that our present selves can have no idea what our future selves will think.

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What Defines You: What You Think or What You Do?

In the movie Batman Begins, Bruce Wayne (a.k.a. Batman) is acting the part of an outrageous playboy in order to maintain his cover. At the tail end of one escapade, who should appear but Rachel Dawes, a friend from years ago whose admiration he craves. He tries to explain that what she has just witnessed does not represent the real Bruce Wayne.

Rachel devastatingly replies, “Deep down you may still be that same great kid you used to be. But it’s not who you are underneath; it’s what you do that defines you.”

Is that true?

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How to Show Deep Respect

This week, Canada’s Governor General caused a stir because he touched the Queen of England during her visit to his country. He was only trying to ensure that the 91-year-old monarch did not take a tumble while descending a set of carpeted stairs, but still…there are certain things that are not done!

The episode brought to mind the ending of the 1956 film, The King and I, which is about how to show deep respect.

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Unusual Superpowers

I recently read an article in The Guardian about people who have a superpower I had never heard of. They are “empaths” — people who are “capable of feeling someone else’s feeling in their own body.”

Here is a sample experience from the article:

[An empath named Noah Berman and his friend] were sharing a joint when [the friend’s] sister came in looking distressed; Berman told his friend that her sister had been sexually assaulted by a person they both knew, and that she would disclose this in three weeks’ time. His premonition was correct.

Sometimes being an empath is a burden, as when one young empath was “bullied by his classmates, who were freaked out when he intuited information about them.”

This got me thinking about unconventional superpowers. If you could be granted one superpower other than the ones you’ve seen in movies (so no flying, combat skills, invisibility, or shape-shifting), what would it be? Here are some choices to get you started.

The ability to sing or play music that would evoke any desired emotion in those who hear it. The sirens of Greek myth had this ability, but only for the purpose of luring sailors to shipwreck on their island. Imagine if they had used their power to produce love, humility, patience, magnanimity, or other virtues!

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Fearless Girl, Bronze Bull, and the Purpose of Art

For over 27 years, a bronze bull has been a symbol of, well, bullishness on Wall Street. A gift from artist Arturo Di Modica following the stock market’s troubles in the 1980s, the iconic bull has no doubt fulfilled its mission of lifting traders’ spirits many times over.

For National Women’s Day of this year, State Street Global Advisors installed its own gift to Wall Street: the statue known as Fearless Girl. Hands on her hips and head cocked back, she faces down the bull.

Fearless Girl

This week, sculptor Di Modica registered his displeasure with the girl. He feels she has made his statue into a villain, robbing his art of its original purpose of portraying “prosperity and strength.”

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A Rich Ecosystem of Virtues

The Big PictureSean Carroll’s phrase, “a rich ecosystem of virtues and lives well lived,” which I mentioned two posts ago, has been in my head lately and I’d like to share more of what he had to say on the subject.

He starts with the maxim from Bill &Ted’s Excellent Adventure: Be excellent to each other. That’s one kind of virtue–how we treat each other. As Carroll says, you could do worse as a starting point for moral philosophy.

But the similar-sounding maxim, Make the world a more excellent place, also sounds good.

What’s the difference? Making the world more excellent is more of a big-picture view, less focused on individual relationships. You may have to be less than excellent to a few people along the way to creating a better world. For example, conservatives take this view when they say that in order to encourage individual responsibility (surely something we want in the world), the government may have to stop providing free health insurance. Liberals emphasize being excellent to each other by providing the insurance.

A third take is in the maxim, Be excellent. This is more about your motives: did you act “on the basis of virtues such as courage, responsibility, and wisdom”? Most of us believe that good intentions are not enough, but we also admire people who show great courage, even if it is in the service of the wrong cause.

Each maxim sounds good, but they can lead in very different directions. Sean Carroll says that we need people who emphasize all three types of excellence, and probably other types, too. When they are in conflict, the tug-and-pull of debate makes us stronger and better.

Just as a biological ecosystem is healthy when diverse species inhabit it and will die out if reduced to just one species, our ecosystem of virtues is healthiest when we have people who advocate a variety of perspectives.

Laplace’s Demon Meets Quantum Mechanics

In 1814, Pierre-Simon Laplace published A Philosophical Essay on Probabilities. He said that given complete knowledge of the present, one could perfectly predict the future:

LaplaceWe may regard the present state of the universe as the effect of its past and the cause of its future. An intellect which at a certain moment would know all forces that set nature in motion, and all positions of all items of which nature is composed, if this intellect were also vast enough … nothing would be uncertain and the future just like the past would be present before its eyes.

Makes sense, right? If atoms are nothing more than tiny billiard balls bouncing around then, in principle, our lives are as predictable and determined as the activity on a pool table.

A century later, along came quantum mechanics, which showed that the activity of the universe at the smallest scales is probabilistic. Laplace’s Demon (as the all-knowing intellect in the quotation above has come to be known) can’t be so sure after all!

What a relief! There is wiggle room for free will after all! By inserting the lever of our wills at this fulcrum of indeterminacy, we can move the world.

Or, as argued in books such as Modern Physics and Ancient Faith, God can influence what happens without violating the laws of physics.

Except that’s not how it works. Both of these views misunderstand what the indeterminacy of quantum mechanics is.

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