Category Archives: Life

Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion

Sometimes I’m tempted to upgrade to YouTube Red so I don’t have to watch all the ads, but then an ad comes along that changes my life. Well, almost.

Yesterday, a video that I can’t even remember was preceded by an ad I’ll never forget. Maybe you’ve seen it, too. It opened with a scruffy-looking man in his back yard saying, “Yeah, so this is my back yard…” except this wasn’t just any back yard. It was mostly a gigantic swimming pool, sited behind a luxurious home in Beverly Hills. The next five and a half minutes consisted of the scruffy man, Tai Lopez, nonchalantly taking me on a tour of his uber-house while promising to reveal the Three Secrets of Success.

He was disarmingly casual, not even sure how many bedrooms the house had (18, or was that the number of bathrooms?), nor which of his many cars were in this particular property’s garage at the moment (they turned out to be the Ferrari and the “Lambo”).

I admit that I watched the whole thing. Even after all these years of knowing that wealth can’t buy happiness, I still wish I were rich. Call me irrational.

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Overcoming Blackness and Gravity

The universe is on its way to a slow, cold death.

In the meantime, global warming is causing record levels of wildfires.

Worst of all, Donald Trump is still at the top of the polls.

How can a serious-minded beagle keep his head up?

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Dancing on the Feet of Chance

When my daughters were small, we used to dance with one of them standing on my feet: I would dance and she would go along for the ride. Our course was up to me, but she enjoyed wherever I would take her. Sometimes, there wasn’t even any music — no external justification for the dance, if you will — just a light-hearted communion between father and daughter.

That’s what came to my mind when I read this passage from Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra. The wise man, Zarathustra, is speaking to the pre-dawn sky.

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My New Friend, the Toll Light

Way back in 2011, I confessed my love for the woman in my GPS. I still love her, but I have a new friend: the green Thank You light at the tool booth.

This year, I finally joined the rest of the country in using a transponder at toll booths instead of paying cash. If I go through the toll at a reasonable speed, and my transponder is paid up, a green light says, “Thank you.”

It makes me so cheerful!

In fact, it makes me happier than hearing a human being say the same thing. Why could that be?

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How Far Would You Go to Prevent the Extinction of the Human Race?

In the movie Snowpiercer, a disastrous attempt at controlling climate change has exterminated all of humanity except the passengers on a high-tech train ruthlessly run by Ed Harris’ character, Wilford. An interesting question that comes up is what actions would be justified to keep the human race from going extinct.

If you were in charge of humanity in crisis, which would you choose: killing some people to keep the ecological balance, or letting everyone live, with the result that all will die sooner rather than later?

To hear Ed Harris / Wilford tell it, of course you should keep humanity alive — by any means necessary. But why? The human race will go extinct at some point. Wouldn’t it mean more if we were to reach a pinnacle of love and starve to death in each others’ arms, than if we were to survive another few hundred years in savagery?

The universe will go on without us.  There is a lot of beauty in the way it unfolds. Isn’t quality more important than quantity in any work of art?

What do you think? How far would you go to keep humanity alive?

Do Animals Believe in God?

Whenever we humans have been wrong about animals, it has been because we have underestimated them. As a schoolboy, I was taught that animals could not reason, solve problems, or use tools. False, false, and false. Earlier than that, scientists believed animals even as advanced as other primates could not feel pain. Way false.

Any dog-owner knows that animals can anticipate and even manipulate the thoughts of members of other species (their human companions).

Animals adopt children, display altruistic behavior, and wage organized war. Elephants, dolphins and chimpanzees have all been observed to take special care of their dead. All of this was unthinkable a hundred years ago.

If you are a religious person, you have your own reasons for believing in God. But think for a moment about people in general, especially primitive people. Why do they pray for rain? Why do they sacrifice their daughters to volcano gods? Why do they believe every tree and rock has a spirit? Surely humans’ hyper-developed sense of agency has something to do with it. We believe there are personal forces behind events, even when there are not.

It’s easy to see why we have evolved to go overboard in this way. If one of your great-great-…-great grandparents had seen the grass rustling on the savanna and mistakenly thought a lion lurked there, he might waste a few calories running away from nothing, but otherwise no harm done. The opposite error, believing there was no lion when it was right there stalking its dinner, would have been fatal and you would not be here. In that environment, it would not take long to evolve a bias for seeing animate forces behind events.

That environment was also the one that shaped the forbears of our animal cousins. Why wouldn’t the more cognitively endowed among them evolve a belief in some sort of god exactly as we have?

Maybe animals are smarter than we are, in a way: they know when to stop. After all, they have never been observed sacrificing their daughters to volcano gods, or doing rain dances. But why wouldn’t animals have an animistic view of nature? And isn’t animism a form of polytheism? And mightn’t that polytheism have developed into a proto-theology in some of the more advanced animals? Maybe they can’t talk about it with each other (or maybe they can), but who knows what’s going on in their heads?

What do you think?

What if Life is a Joke?

What if the truth about life were horrible? What if, as the ancient Hebrews believed, we are all destined to spend eternity in a shadowy sheol rather than a glorious heaven? Or what if there is no afterlife at all? What if life is absurd — just a cosmic joke played on us by no-one at all?

If you were to discover that any of these propositions is absolutely, undeniably true, how would you feel?

I’ve been rereading Plato at the Googleplex, in which author Rebecca Goldstein imagines Plato on a book tour in modern America. I’d like to share with you a passage that I find very moving. Ms. Goldstein, synthesizing Plato’s writings, has him say this about those who are fit to be the Guardians of his ideal republic.

[An essential character quality is] an inborn horror of being deceived as to the nature of things, and an inborn desire to know the truth… [It] is something different from intelligence and different from knowledge. Those who have this trait love the truth not because it is like this or like that. They love the truth simply because it is the truth and are prepared to love it no matter what it turns out to be. They will stick to a view just so long as it seems to them the truth and will not be seduced away from that view no matter what others are telling them, or what flashier and more attractive options are dangled before them; but they are also the least reluctant among all people to abandon a formerly loved view, if once they become convinced that it is not true. They are always on the scent of the truth, like dogs, who are the most philosophical of animals.

Do you identify with this? I do. During the years that I was in the evangelical church, nothing “seduced me away from that view” — not money, not social opportunities, not fleshly lusts, not even the common decency to see some of its teachings as horrible. I thought I had found the truth; how could anything else matter?

When I became convinced otherwise, I did not mourn the loss of eternal life, a God who loved me, or a sense of eternal purpose. Instead, I felt anger at having been deceived.

I don’t think life is a joke. I’d say it’s more of a game. But if that is the truth of the matter, I am prepared to love it. Delighted, even. How about you?