Boo. You.

Boo!

Not scared?  You will be, by the end of this story.

YOU should be scared because this is all about you.  It’s all about WHO YOU ARE.

You see, once you know who you are, you will also know who you aren’t.

Let’s start off easy.  And since this is Halloween, let’s start off imagining that you are chained to a classic rack of the Inquisition.  Scared yet?

First off, as your Inquisitor, I will clip your long fingernails.  Now I’ll give you a nice manicure.  Look at those fingernail clippings.  Are they you?  Are you they?

Of course not!  You are not your fingernail clippings!  You don’t care if they go or come, do you?  And look at how nice your fingernails look!

Is the nail polish dry?  Good.  Let’s go to step two.  I’m now pulling out all your fingernails.  The whole thing.  Don’t worry.  It won’t hurt.  Much.  I’ll wait for the crying to stop before we continue.

Now, here are your fingernails in a box.  Here are your fingers, without any nails.  A bit bloody, but that will heal.  Are YOU still YOU?  Probably.  People will recognize you.  You can sign your name on checks and play with your smart phone.

Can you guess what step three is?  Step four?  Do I need to elaborate?  I hope not.  If I remove your hands, your feet, your arms, your legs, and so on, when do you stop being you?  If you were to be deprived of everything except your brain, and if we knew how to keep your brain alive and even still be able to communicate with you, would that be you?

A story was written a long time ago about this very sort of thought experiment, called “Johnny got his gun.”  It was meant to be a statement against war, but it serves equally well as a question about where YOU end, and the rest of your body begins.

The next time you’re clipping your fingernails, think about what would happen if the nail clippers suddenly became possessed and began clipping away at your body, out of control.  At what point would they have stopped clipping body, and started clipping you?

Boo!

 

You want to study what?

The guidance counselor screwed his face into a Picasso print.

Behavior,” I said.

There is no such major.  How about psychology?

Sure, sounds good.  Does psychology study organizations?”

Sure, there’s Industrial Organizational Psychology, and Organizational Behavior.

Great, and do they teach you how to lead people?”

No.  For that there’s Business.  And maybe Military Science.

That sounds good too.  Does they also teach what’s best for the nation?”

No, not necessarily, that would be Political Science, or maybe Philosophy.  You could study those.

Great!  Do they emphasize history, and other cultures?”

Not so much.  You could study History.

But what of also studying other cultures, both those that still exist today, and those that are extinct?”

Well, for those you could use some Anthropology, Archaeology, and maybe some Ethnology for variety.

“Now you’re talking!  And will those disciplines help me understand the big picture, the grand forces that help define success versus failure, growth versus death?”

That’s a tall order.  No, for that you should get into economics.  Yes, you’d make a great economist.

That’s pretty cool.  I’d like to be an economist.  They get to be on TV all the time.  Do economists also deal with what makes people really care about?  Things like the meaning of life, where we come from, what this all means?  You know, like what happens when we die, that sort of stuff?”

Well, no, for that you should really be studying Religion.  You could become a priest, or rabbi, or mullah.

I’m okay with that, too.  After all, people give you lots of stuff.  But will I also be able to study all the rules that people should live by in order to always be safe, respectful, and kind to each other?  Are there enough religious rules to make everybody always kind to each other?”

Not quite.  For that you’re probably going to have to study Law.  Yes, the law is all about the rules that govern how we deal with each other.  Yes, I can definitely see you as a lawyer.

Nice.  My father always wanted me to be a lawyer.  Maybe I could be a great trial lawyer.  Yeah, I’ll be a prosecutor and take on creeps!”

The counselor looked at me with a sigh of relief.

Good, I’ll put you down for trial law, he said.

He started typing away, but was thinking aloud…

First, you should start learning psychology…

 

 

How much is YOUR holiday worth?

Do you have a day of rest and religious observance?  How about an important holiday?  No, Valentines and Halloween don’t count.  I’m referring to the big old holidays, like Easter, Christmas, Yom Kippur, Ramadan, things like that.  The stuff that is observed by billions of people.  Holidays that were around BEFORE there was a greeting card industry.  Wait a minute, WAS there a BEFORE time for greeting cards?

Anyway, your holiday.  Your day of rest.  How much is it worth to you?  How much to give it up?  Would you take credit?

We all have a price for everything.  Some of us hold ideals that we’re willing to give our lives for.  But even our lives have a price tag associated with them.  And if you’re willing to average out these values across society, it becomes even easier to figure out.  Let’s take Easter and Pesach (Passover), since we just observed them a few weeks ago.

We know families get together, but how far are they willing to travel?  On average, if a family member is too far away they won’t come to dinner.  If they are close, they come.  That distance costs something to travel, and that’s part of the value.

Some people have jobs that don’t let them follow a normal schedule.  So they have to forgo the pleasure of family and observance in order to keep their job, serve the company and society, and ultimately secure the future of their own family.  The extra amount they get paid is part of that value.

People spend time getting ready for the holiday.  They fix up their homes.  They buy the nice and traditional foods.  They may spend extra time getting clean and making themselves beautiful.  They probably also take extra pains to make sure they don’t say anything nasty to Aunt Sadie who was so terribly insulting last time she was over that …

Excuse me, I’m getting carried away.  At any rate, there is a cost to all that work.  All that pain.  If we were aliens paying a visit to our backward Earth cousins, we could infer the value of the holiday by all these things.  We could make it easy and choose only one thing, like spending money.  But in that case something like Christmas would be the all out winner.  What if eating candy was the one measure?  In which case Halloween would come in first, with Valentine’s day a close second.

So, here’s to your holidays – past and future.  I certainly hope they’re worth it!

 

Problems counting

Last week I rambled on about how there is no science of problems.  Is there?  Did anyone contradict me?  What do you think?

So, what the heck.  Let’s try it ourselves.  This is supposed to be a day of rest and reflection, right?  Let’s think about how lucky we are and how problem free our lives are.

What?  You say that’s not true?  You have problems, too?  Certainly not starvation or educational neglect.  But still problems?  Great.  Let’s hear them.  Let’s list them.

Maybe if we get enough problems we can start listing them using some system.  Maybe the Dewey decimal system – now that it’s been abandoned by our libraries.

Go ahead – list all of them.  Think about them.  We have computers with giga-bits of space – so try to fill them up.  How many problems are there?  Are there more problems than people?  Maybe it’s people that are the problems?  List them!

Maybe, just maybe, like the Nepalese names of god, if we list all the problems there are in existence they will magically go away?  I wonder.

Okay, I’ll start.  Here’s a starter list of problems.

What happened to flight MH370?  Why are the Russians overrunning Crimea against Ukraine’s wishes?  How can we help people living in squalor in tidal regions, like Bangladesh?  What can we do to help, and prevent, with accidents like the mudslide in Washington state?  How can we prevent every possible child molester?  What’s the best way of being 100% assured that all know molesters will never harm another child?  How can the SAT or ACT be improved so that it becomes a perfect predictor of academic success, without needing ANY preparation?

On the small front, how can I eat better so that I don’t gain weight so fast?  Why do my coworkers always seem to push the boundaries of acceptable behavior?  When can I expect my suppliers to always do things better than I expect, instead of just doing well enough to get by?

That’s my list, for now.  What’s your problem?

 

Problems with Science

Sunday typically sees a few people taking the time to think about those less fortunate than ourselves.  We may put a few dollars in the collection plate, pray for the sex slaves of Sudan, the child soldiers of Uganda, or even the garbage pickers down the street.  Then we leave.  We have to think about the kid’s soccer practice, or that project due at work tomorrow.  After all, if I don’t get that project done on time, I don’t have a job.  Without a job I can’t put money in the collection plate. And without that money, that garbage picker won’t be able to get free soup from our soup kitchen.

But this is the way we’ve been doing it for many years.  Have we learned nothing?

Perhaps it’s time to ask a simple question; why don’t we start collecting problems?  Like bug collecting.  Start going out into the wild and just collect them.  Don’t address them yet, don’t try to understand them, just collect them.  Pin them up on the wall.  Study them at leisure.

Why isn’t there a science of problems?  Aren’t these the things that plague humanity through the ages?  Hunger, anger, aggression, and suppression?  How many different problems are there?  Maybe once we put them up on the wall and take a good look, we might figure something out about how to make them all go away!

Imagine this.  You go to a museum in the future, and there’s a wall of dusty note cards.  The name of the hall?  Extinct problems that used to exist.  Just think, someday maybe all our problems will only be remembered in a museum.

Well, they might be on a history test as well.  But that’s another problem.

Or is it?

 

et tu, Neal?

Cosmos 2.0 has begun, and like the Olympiad, it heralds a new dawn of entertainment.  Whether it also ushers in understanding is another question.  On this day that we celebrate and respect religious worship, does it seem odd that Neal deGrasse Tyson should appear just before the altar?

Now that 34 years have passed, Dr. Tyson is taking up the mantle of Carl Sagan and teaching us about the wonders of the cosmos.  In so doing, he’s touching upon some significant events in our intellectual history.

A tragic character chosen in Episode One is a priest named Giordano Bruno.  Now poor Mr. Bruno didn’t do well as a priest, ostensibly because he had a great revelation about the infinite cosmos.  He tried to tell others, but the Catholic church took offense.  Somewhat unwisely he returned to Rome where the church gave him a warm welcome – and goodbye.  They burned him at the stake.

It’s not quite true, unfortunately.  The stake part is, but let’s say that the show took poetic license in telling the story.  You can read the details here.

The details aren’t quite important for today’s post, because my question is this; why do you think the Church felt threatened by Bruno’s crazy ideas?  That they were crazy is beyond doubt, because any idea that isn’t shared by more than “a lot” of people has to be crazy.  That’s the whole definition of crazy.  The fact that he would eventually be proven right, centuries later, isn’t important.

There’s a good chance that you, too, have a deeply held model of the universe.  It might have a god, or a GOD, or a whole pantheon of gods.  For all I know it may center around a black hole.  However, I ask you, why is it that (for most people!) it’s such a sensitive topic?  If someone comes along and says “Your view is wrong!” what does it matter?  Why do you care?

Why DO you care?

 

 

God. First.

Sunday are a good day to discuss religious topics in a behavioral context.  In fact, any day is as good as another, but Sunday works for me because it’s at the end of my workweek and it’s the ‘religious’ day in the context of how I was raised.

Saturday is fine, as is Friday.  Technically, it seems that for those who are sufficiently religious, every day should be a day of worship.  But there’s the crux of it – worship what, exactly?

Let’s worry later about who / what / if we worship anything in our modern age.  For now, let’s hit the back button on our magic history browser and ask what our great great grandparents were worshiping in their day.

Even if you are an ardent follower of a modern religion, you know that there was a time “before” your god came around to enlighten your people.  Before that you were heathen, and you worshiped the “wrong” god.  Presumably those people also knew there was a time before, and so on.

Eventually we will come to a group, a tribe, perhaps even a clan with a chief.  And this clan went about without any god.  The didn’t have a god, because, before their clan, there was no group that needed god.

Then, whether you think it revelation, or necessity, or inevitable, they needed god.  Where did they find god, this First Clan?

My guess is that they looked up at the most important, regular, and life-giving object in any human’s existence – the Sun. (And this is a pure guess, Gentle Reader.  Everything before here is straightforward logic.)  Yes, the Sun was God number One.  It’s big.  It’s bright.  It gives light.  It gives life.  It pretty much does it all.  Even today we know that the Sun is the only thing that makes living on Earth bearable.

There’s evidence from anthropology that this is likely, and we do know that ancient civilizations also tend to focus quite a bit on the sun.  So, as students of behavior, the next time you respect your god, or the next time you look up into the sky, think about where it all began.

Up there.