czwartek, 19 listopada 2015

The ultimate guide to life

"When I was a little boy, my father told me to always listen to my heart.
When I was a big boy, my father told me that only money counts.
The wind blows and breaks the weak trees, the wind blows and pets the strong trees. The most important thing is to be strong."

This is a free translation of the "Kiedy byłem małym chłopcem" ("When I was a little boy") song by the famous polish blues band Breakout. This great piece really puzzles my children: which advice is the right one, why did the father lie at some point? Let's take a closer look at all three advices with a little help of physical and cognitive sciences, but we'll start in the reverse order.

3. The most important thing is to be strong
The weak are meat the strong do eat. Being strong is a basic principle of life, we were shaped by the evolution to maximize our chances of survival and reproduction, otherwise we wouldn't be here. So that's it, the end of the song presents the ultimate wisdom, which can also be applied to the companies or the nations and help us mentally endure during the bad times.
Well, not so fast, there are some catches. First of all being strong can lead to an arms race, stifling the cooperation and possibly leading to a risky confrontation, it also consumes an energy, which we'll examine later on. Secondly it doesn't change our fate, which is death, so maybe the resistance is futile. Even if we come up with a recipe for immortality, the stars will burn out and the whole Universe will become cold and inhabitable, we can't win with an entropy.

2. Only money counts
Money makes the world go round. This saying depicts the role of the money in our society, which is an equivalent of the energy in physics, nothing happens without it. Connection between the money and the energy is more than symbolic, because for example we need the money to buy a fuel or an electricity, and without them all the present social structures would die, just like a living creature without a food. So focusing on the money (or the energy in general) seems like a very good advice.
Life needs the energy to fight with the entropy, but the energy comes from the outside world, making life a predator. Becoming stronger in order to grab more energy creates an addiction to the higher energy needs, which can backfire when the environment changes and the energy supply becomes short. That’s why the nature doesn’t blindly seek for more, but rather reach some equilibrium and minimize the energy consumption where possible.

1. Always listen to your heart
There seems to be a more precious resource than the energy, which is our limited time. We can spend the time to get more energy, but we can’t buy the time back. Think about it for a while, you can even measure with a stopwatch what really matters in your life. Here we reach our first advice, listen to your heart to know what really matters. It may seem a bit cheesy or sentimental, but it has another strong justification. Every second you process a huge amount of data from your senses. Most of this information is discarded and the emotions filter what gets attention, what gets analyzed and remembered, which is very efficient and saves a lot of energy. We can even think of ourselves as the patterns of neurons getting excited by the certain inputs.
Listening to the emotions which provide the optimal default hints for our specie to survive and reproduce in the Stone Age may not always be the best in the modern times. Evolution never optimized us for a precise reception of the reality, we get it as a side effect to a degree in which it helps us to survive and reproduce at the minimal energy costs, keep this in mind and don’t treat your world image too literally. Our genes didn’t have enough time to adapt to the abundance of food, to the lack of most dangers, to the longer lifespan and to the complexity of the modern world, instead our cognition is full of biases, which make us vulnerable and are ruthlessly abused by the marketing folks. Of course we can rely on the science for the better hints and practice Buddhist like discipline to retain a better control of our emotional life, but it’s very difficult as those things are so deeply wired in our brains.

Reading between the lines
After analyzing all three advices we can see that none of them is perfect, they all have the strong bases, but can fail us in the certain situations, they can also produce either similar or contradictory hints. Father didn’t lie, things are just more complicated. There are no golden rules and there can’t be, because it all depends on both our abilities and the external conditions. What used to work for some great person, probably won’t work for us, because we are different and the world has already changed since then, otherwise everybody would simply do it. Luck is an important ingredient of all great successes, because the right abilities must meet the right conditions at the right moment, the world may not be technologically or socially ready for your great start-up or it can be already too late, because the competition is too fierce. Fortunately we don’t have to depend on the luck, but should rather help it by adapting to the changing environment conditions, which happens to be a definition of an intelligence.

Even a behavior of a simple creature fleeing from a danger and seeking the opportunities is considered intelligent and our capacities are much bigger. We can adjust our patterns of behavior, we can predict the changes instead of being surprised by them, we can even change the environment to better suit us. It may all sound so simple, but is actually the most difficult thing in the world, life is the art of making choices. First difficulty comes from the fact that we can even choose what we want to optimize. If you don’t believe in some divine powers, then there are no objective values and the whole meaning is just local and subjectively created by the individuals or the society. It’s even worse, different people represent different values, which you have to take into account when optimizing for your own values, and each person including you can have a conflict among their values. Now let’s add the complexity of the external world and we can imagine the scale of the problem. I really admire how our simplified thinking often leads to the surprisingly good results, but sometimes it fails miserably, in such cases we can only adapt again and again. There is an interesting alternative definition of the intelligence, which is maximizing your choice options. This may come at some cost, but in the long run should allow for a better choice and avoid reaching a dead-end, where you’ll no longer be able to adapt. This sounds familiar to the notion of freedom, but they are not always the same.

Our specie excels in a cooperation. We have defeated the Neanderthals by outnumbering them, even though they were stronger and smarter, but the bigger brain and more muscles required more energy and the same area of land could feed a smaller group. Cooperation of similar yet diverse individuals have many benefits: common problems get better solutions as more people work on them or some specialize in them, resources are used more efficiently when they can be shared, risk is minimized when people help each other. Contrary to the animals, which only trust their own herd, we also trust the strangers and can form the groups as big as the society, which can be compared to a meta-organism or a human hive. So maybe the final advice should be to join or create the best groups?
Being a group member comes at the cost of freedom, but can actually increase your choice options as the whole group has more possibilities. On the other hand being an outcast requires you to be more self-sufficient rather than specialized or managing, which can be beneficial when the whole group is in trouble.

My advice for the children is to adapt using the available information and other advices as the good hints. Don’t regret your choices, because they were the best what you could come up with at the given moment, failure is simply a part of a trial and error process, and if you don’t like the outcomes adapt again…

czwartek, 14 maja 2015


Was Francis Bacon right writing "We must obey the forces we want to command."? This quote definitely refers to the virtue called humility, which is not very popular in the modern times. Nevertheless I would like to advocate for the wisdom of this message.

"If there is one thing the history of evolution has taught us it's that life will not be contained. Life breaks free, it expands to new territories and crashes through barriers, painfully, maybe even dangerously, but, uh... well, there it is". These words by Dr. Ian Malcolm from Jurassic Park predicted the incoming disaster. Life will eventually find its way through every obstacle, whether we consider biology, business or society. No matter how weak it may seem, plethora of creatures given enough time is unpredictable. Collapse of the slavery was unimaginable for centuries and yet it happened, leading to the society we know today.

"To answer power with power, the Jedi way this is not. In this war, a danger there is, of losing who we are". This quote by master Yoda from Star Wars points to another danger. Not only we cannot fully control the reality, but the act of control can change us in a way we do not desire. Control requires us to create the mental models of reality, which are leaky by definition. Incorporating those models in our thinking is changing us, so we must carefully choose them. Famous experiment conducted by Philip Zimbardo with the students acting either as prisoners or guards can be a very good warning. Guards showed no respect to the prisoners, which led to a violence.

To sum up, Bacon's message is universal and withstands the trial of time, it warns us about the many mistakes that arrogance can lead us to.