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!
Isn’t it obvious that the more consequential an opinion is, the more careful we should be about forming it? Yet one of the mysteries of human behavior is that we often do the opposite.
At a recent gathering of the philosophically minded, a friend lamented that she has been troubled by the sense that our lives don’t matter. Some of us around the table suggested that the way we live affects the people we love, which surely matters. “But eventually,” she countered, “the impact of even the best of us dissipates to nothing.”
Our wish to matter for the long term is very strong. Our ancestors who were apathetic on that point … well, they’re not our ancestors because they lost the competition to reproduce.
We also want to be connected to something more consequential than our individual lives: a tribe, a religion, or a Great Cause. This, too, has been bred into us as members of a species whose ecological niche is “animal that is individually weak but is an apex predator by dint of cooperation and intelligence.”
So what happens when that animal becomes so intelligent that it is able to see through the whole game — when it realizes that no tribe is better than another, that its religions are man-made, and its Great Causes will become utterly moot long before a dying Sun vaporizes the planet?
Last weekend, I was running an errand in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Cambridge is not an easy place to find a parking spot, so when I came across one I nabbed it.
I was in a hurry so I jogged to my destination without taking much note of what was around me. I just followed Google Maps on my phone. It turned out to be much farther than I thought — about 15 minutes at a brisk pace.
I finished my shopping and headed back to my car. There was only one problem: I was not entirely sure where it was! I headed in the general direction (at least I knew that much) and explored the unfamiliar streets of the city. They were all very quaint but as far as I was concerned one was exactly like the other.
After 20 minutes of that, I called to tell my daughter, who I was scheduled to visit that evening, that I would probably be late and might be wandering the streets of Cambridge all night.
Then I had an idea. Sammi, my Samsung Galaxy phone, had helped me out on so many occasions before. Maybe she could help now.
I pressed the button to activate voice recognition. “Where have I been today?” I asked.
Instantly, Sammi told me how to use a feature of Google Maps that I had not known about: Menu / Your Timeline. Up came a map that allowed me to retrace my drive from earlier that day. I recognized the corner where I had parked, and was at my car in two minutes.
I don’t know about you, but I plan to willingly submit to our digital overlords just as soon as they arrive.
Perhaps God engraved the Ten Commandments with his finger on stone tablets because he knew they would become the touchstone of morality in the western world. (Come to think of it, is that where the word touchstone comes from?) Even Christopher Hitchens, no fan of the biblical ten, connected to them when he produced his own ten.
Sean Carroll’s book, The Big Picture, is an exposition of what he calls poetic naturalism. He has this to say about the Ten Commandments (page 420).
A good poetic naturalist will resist the temptation to hand out commandments. “Give someone a fish,” the saying goes, “and you feed them fish for a day. Teach them to fish, and you feed them for a lifetime.” When it comes to how to lead our lives, poetic naturalism has no fish to give us. It doesn’t even really teach us how to fish. It’s more like poetic naturalism helps us figure out that there are things called “fish,” and perhaps investigate the various possible ways to go about catching them, if that were something that we were inclined to do. It’s up to us what strategy we want to take, and what to do with our fish once we’ve cauth them.
It makes sense, then, to put aside the concept of “commandments” and instead propose Ten Considerations…
Here are his Ten Considerations with excerpts from his few paragraphs about each.
Here’s the most astonishing, scary thing I came across all week. Have a look. I promise that you’ll consider it time very well spent and a real eye-opener.
Armed only with a man’s cell phone number, a hacker skilled in what’s called “social engineering” is able to totally take over his account. She effortlessly convinces a representative of the phone company that she’s the man’s wife, gets herself added to the account, and then changes the password. Bingo!
The difference between life and non-life is so slight, isn’t it? Even now, as our friend reclines in this casket, he is barely distinguishable from a week ago when he was merely sleeping. He looks so similar to the irrepressible, playful man we all love that I half-expect him to wink at me during this speech when he thinks nobody is looking.