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A Good Life in a World of Distraction and Anxiety: A conversation in eight parts

Part II: A Free Prisoner                               Part III: A Life without Distractions
Part IV: On being Authentic                        Part V: On Crisis and Friendship
Part VI: A Good Person or a Good Life?    Part VII: The Meaningness of Meaningness?
Part VIII: A Leap of Faith

Part I: Of Stuff and Persons

To be Human is to be wounded

Some people in our town, those of us who could, had succumbed to the summer’s heat and made a habit of making the pleasantly air-conditioned mall a meeting point. Awkwardly I moved across the shiny floor knowing full well that just a few drops of water would turn the surface treacherous. Some days earlier I had injured the big toe of my right foot, and I was visibly limping in order to walk without pain. I could feel people watching me. To be wounded is to be humiliated. My friend Notme had already found a table at the noisy café on the mezzanine and waved for me as I slowly joined her. At the table next to ours were a couple of middle aged business people enjoying what appeared to be a business lunch. Part of me envied their moneyed confidence, another was grateful for the absence of dress codes in my life. At the table on the other side sat Cato the Younger, Sean-Paul Sartre, David Hume, and Nick Cave. I nodded in their direction as I joined my old friend. It had been some time since we last met, and even if I would never admit it, I was eager to tell her what I had come up with: That I had figured out what “meaningness” 1is. As I sat down she said: Continue reading

A Good Life in a World of Distraction and Anxiety: Complete!

To be Human is to be wounded.

As you know, there are three types of meaning: Cosmic Meaning, the Meaning of Stuff, and the Meaningness of Life. The former we readily dismissed as irrelevant, and was in fact historically disconnected from the others with the advent of modernity. The second contains all the prejudice by which the world becomes fathomable to us. These commonly agreed upon and emotionally charged meanings of stuff constitute the cultures within which we become, and it is by being savvy of the prejudice of our specific cultural context that we conform into adults. The meaningness of life comes from understanding Ourselves and Eachother as being different from stuff, beyond the happenstance of our nature and our nurture, as unpredictable and infinite human beings, as persons, and to transcend the necessary thingification inherent in our romantic cultural identities which are imposed upon us to varying degree. Two (possible) friends, Notme and Me, are discussing how this comes about in the following eight part conversation…

It begins… by clicking on this text here (or the image above).

Season One: The Free Prisoner’s Dilemma

Episode 1:
The Meaning of Life: Where I was
In which the two friends Me and Notme try do deal with everything being pointless. With the help of many thinkers, Me resorts to hedonism, while Notme refuses to give up on finding meaning in existence 


Episode 2:
The Meaning of Stuff
A description how we manufacture meaning of items and other stuff around us, and how it is all connected with feelings.



Episode 3:
What’s ‘meaningness‘? or the Wrath of God
In which Notme refuses to give up on finding meaning. She coins the term “meaningness” without really defining it. The conversation is interspersed by a science fiction story about a scientist who very well may have disproved (or proved?) God’s existence. Would that matter? 


Episode 4:
Understanding Understanding
In which I try to understand what it means to understand something. As it is a topic which inevitably becomes a bit meta, I try explaining it in a way which makes the points I’m trying to make. 


Episode 5:
Time, memory, and the pursuit of meaningness
In which Notme develops her thoughts on meaningness to a reluctantly interested Me. She relates it to memorable moments of life changing quality while dismissing happiness as something false to pursue. 


Episode 6:
(trans)formations part 1: On being a bit of filth.
Notme, while trying to understand meaningness stumbles upon a quote on what makes a human being. In this first part, Me argues that the sense of self is an illusion in a deterministic world.



Episode 7:
(trans)formations part 2: On being a human being.
Notme, on thinking on Me’s emails, strongly disagrees and explains why there is room for personhood, and why it is so important for us to take responsibility for our personhood and become human beings and not bits of filth.



Episode 8:
The pain in the brain game
On the pain of being ostracised. Brain research shows how social pain is equivalent to physical pain in some parts of the brain. This means that social and physical pain have similar functions: Telling us what to avoid at all cost.




Episode 9:
A false sense of insecurity
In which insecurity is described as a driving force for sustaining cultures and identity. Here culture savvy adults do anything to stay within their comfort zones, which essentially makes them prisoners who decide to be content, or even happy, with their circumstances. The free prisoner is not free. She is a bit of filth and not a human being.



Episode 10:
The Meaningness of Life
This is the Season Finale. Here meaningness is finally defined. It turns out that it has to do with sincere engagements–with oneself, with Eachother, and with the surrounding world. Through sincere engagements one brings into existence new aspects of oneself and Eachother, which only manifest through sincerity. Thus, one transforms the self, Eachother, and the world.

Cynicism, in many respects, is the opposite of meaningness.

3 Quarks Daily Competition for Science Posts

Thinking of Things has been nominated for two posts from the last year. Go there and vote for Me, or if you prefer, Notme–there are some really great posts there! 😉

The link is here: http://www.3quarksdaily.com/3quarksdaily/2015/09/vote-for-one-of-the-nominees-for-the-3qd-science-prize-2015.html

The nominated posts are All I didn’t know about Cancer and The Pain in the Brain Game.

Update: Both posts were voted into the semi-final. The Pain in the Brain Game was further selected as a finalist, together with eight great posts, and did not make the top-three selection. See the announcement of the winners here: http://www.3quarksdaily.com/3quarksdaily/2015/09/the-winners-of-the-3qd-science-prize-2015.html 

Next up is the Philosophy Prize!

Thinking of Things, Season1, Episode 10:

The Meaningness of Life
Towards a sincere being.

Immanuel Kant: Always recognize that human individuals are ends, and do not use them as means to your end.”

This season has been about meaning, and it has been about formations and transformations and how these are connected. And it has been about meaningness, discussed in many and roundabout ways without spelling out what it is. It is time to concretise what is meant by meaningness, as well as to summarise the season.

Thinking Of Things is a way for me to investigate ideas and to spark conversations with those who read, and those who don’t. As such it has been a succesful season, with many conversations in person, email, comments on the posts, and on social media. For the purpose of a line of thought is not its conclusion. The purpose is the line of thought itself, and that it may not end. The word conclusion is a misnomer in this sense; to conclude signifies an end, while in reality it signifies a continuation, a new beginning. A reached conclusion is boring and meaningless without the follow-up question: so what? And thus, with your help, we continue our line of thought together. This is the concluding episode of the season. Read Episode 10

All I didn’t know about Cancer


I wrote this a few years ago for a different context and purpose, while bored on a beach in Puerto Rico. The context and purpose were replaced many times over, and the text was forgotten. Now I was reminded of it and I dug it up to be posted here.

I do not remember how I came to realise that all I knew about cancer was wrong, but I remember discussing it with my friend the prostate cancer researcher, who gave me the articles (referred to at the end), which I was reading and writing about on that beach. Maybe I wasn’t that bored after all…

Here it is. 

Three of my grandparents died from cancer. One of them was treated with chemotherapy, one with surgery, and one with radiation therapy, all to no avail. These are the three main methods for treating cancer today. Chemotherapy was first used in its current form in 1942. A search for “cancer” on the online data base for medical publications, PubMed.gov, shows that 2.7 million scientific papers have been written on the subject since 19422. Still, the treatments remain the same, albeit more accurate, cheap, and accessible. For some cancers, like some leukaemia or testicular cancers the chemotherapy is highly efficient, while other diagnoses still come with “a few months up to a year” attached to them. So, in a way we are celebrating over 70 years of not improving cancer treatment much.

Why is that? Why has a cure for cancer not emerged in the course of those millions of publications? Well, cancer is a tricky beast and we are only recently beginning to learn how it works. We are also beginning to learn how cancer does not work (but we thought it did). Also, maybe more surprisingly, we are starting to learn why we do not get cancer (most of the time) and that a tumour is not necessarily a bad thing. Let’s start the story with how it does not work. Continue reading

Uncoupling Truth from Elegance in Scientific Theory

abstract-art-wallpapers-wallpaper-images-array-wallwuzz-hd-wallpaper-2506In a recent comment in Nature, George Ellis and Joe Silk3 employ Karl Popper’s falsifiability criterion of science to demote superstring theory to the realm of pseudoscience. At the heart of the debate lie two questions: Is superstring theory a scientific theory? And if so, how likely is it to be true? Here I will predominantly try to address the second question. I agree with many of the conclusions of Ellis and Silk but will make the case that we can find a more viable reasoning for them by joining Karl Popper’s falsifiability condition with Thomas Kuhn’s analysis of science as a progression of different phases taking us from one paradigm to another. In order to contextualise the discussion of Kuhn’s ideas, I will first take a brief historical detour back to the scientific revolution of the 17th century. Continue reading

Thinking Of Things, Season 1, Episode 9:

A false sense of insecurity
The free prisoner’s dilemma 

We perceive the world, and we perceive what is in the world. We separate objects from objects, and we ascribe them value. We create salient landscapes. And then we sort. We categorise, we make lists, and we understand. 

Here is an example of a taxonomy, a list which orders and sorts something: 

Three parts to understanding:
1. Definition. The ability to separate stuff from other stuff and to assign them emotional value or meaning. (See Episode 2)
2. Taxonomy. The sorting of things into categories. (See e.g. this list.)
3. Intuition. To feel as if something is understood, and thus have it become an intuition, gut feeling and “common sense”. (See Episode 4).

And a feeling of understanding emerges.

Read Episode 9

Thinking Of Things, Season 1, Episode 8:

The pain in the brain game
on how deeply the tossing of balls affects our brains 

A fascinating and increasingly famous psychology experiment has to do with the tossing of a ball.

The psychologist Kipling Williams and his colleagues brought in test-subjects for a general survey. The test-subjects were asked in-depth questions about their psychological well being; about their sense of belonging, their sense of being in control, their self-esteem, how meaningful they find their existence, how unique they find themselves and others and so on. But unbeknownst to the test-subjects, they were participating in an experiment with a somewhat cruel twist.

Read Episode 8