How to Die: Plastic Surgery

Plastic surgery has become commonplace. I have several acquaintances who have had operations, and we jokingly refer to the cougars at the local hot spots as “50/50 ladies” (50 years old and 50 percent plastic). It’s no longer just the older people; one of my colleagues died from complications of plastic surgery at the age of 23, and it seems like the girls in China and Korea are now competing to see who can get the most plastic at the youngest age.

I don’t have a problem with orthodontics or other mainstream cosmetic treatments, so I might be accused of hypocrisy for having a problem with plastic surgery. But I fear there is something terribly wrong in this obsession with youth. Life shouldn’t be about clinging to youth as long as possible — life is about growing old and dying gracefully.

Around age 12, one of my favorite poems was Yeats “When You are Old”:

WHEN you are old and gray and full of sleep
And nodding by the fire, take down this book,
And slowly read, and dream of the soft look
Your eyes had once, and of their shadows deep;

How many loved your moments of glad grace,
And loved your beauty with love false or true;
But one man loved the pilgrim soul in you,
And loved the sorrows of your changing face.

And bending down beside the glowing bars,
Murmur, a little sadly, how love fled
And paced upon the mountains overhead,
And hid his face amid a crowd of stars.

What kind of person would trade Yeats’ vision of graceful aging for plastic? Yeats had advice for those who rejoice in youthful beauty in “To a Young Beauty”:

DEAR fellow-artist, why so free
With every sort of company,
With every Jack and Jill?
Choose your companions from the best;
Who draws a bucket with the rest
Soon topples down the hill.

You may, that mirror for a school,
Be passionate, not bountiful
As common beauties may,
Who were not born to keep in trim
With old Ezekiel’s cherubim
But those of Beaujolet.

I know what wages beauty gives,
How hard a life her servant lives,
Yet praise the winters gone;

There is not a fool can call me friend,
And I may dine at journey’s end
With Landor and with Donne.

Around 200 BC, a Greek sculptor created a statue of a “Dying Gaul“, which has ever since been a symbol of how to die. Upon seeing the statue of the dying Gaul, still a dead ringer for Yeats’ countrymen, Lord Byron was inspired to write:

I see before me the gladiator lie
He leans upon his hand—his manly brow
Consents to death, but conquers agony,
And his drooped head sinks gradually low—
And through his side the last drops, ebbing slow
From the red gash, fall heavy, one by one..

Rather than being a celebration of youth, the dying Gaul shows the wisdom of Montaigne’s advice:

If you don’t know how to die, don’t worry; Nature will tell you what to do on the spot, fully and adequately. She will do this job perfectly for you; don’t bother your head about it.

He doesn’t try to prolong his youth any longer than is given to him. Montaigne examines this topic in his essay 17, “To Study Philosophy is to Learn to Die“, as well as a few other essays.

I recently read through “How to Live: Or A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer“, in which the author collects Montaigne’s thoughts on life, death, and much between. It’s not fantastic, but not bad, and I’m convinced that Montaigne would share my same misgivings about plastic surgery.

Remembering Boredom

A few days ago, I had a strange vision (I wasn’t sleeping, and no drugs were involved). I was just sitting there, allowing my mind to drift, when suddenly my mind was flooded with images of memories from my past. The memories seemed to be sequential, starting at about 4 years old. The first memory was of sitting in a shopping cart at Hamady’s (a local grocery store) as my mother shopped. The next was sitting in the back of the car waiting for my father to finish buying something at the store — I was small, so my visibility was limited to the sky and some portions of a roof and a sign. Then came a memory of sitting bored on the couch while my parents socialized with their friends at some strange house. The images came rapidly; hundreds in all, and a few seconds per image. I just let it happen, curious to see what it would show.

The images were all still images, attached to an emotion. The emotion was always some sort of emptiness, boredom or hopelessness; and the images were washed out, like old Polaroids of beach scenes. As the images flashed past, I knew that the emotional memory was accurate — these were all times in my life when I felt a terrible despair and empty boredom. It was quite unpleasant, since I haven’t felt that way for at least 15 years. I had forgotten what it was like.

Despite the unpleasantness, I avoided the urge to break my attention. I knew I had to stay passive if I wanted to understand what was happening. And I noticed something interesting. Those moments were very common in early childhood, but became less and less common as time went on. I also noticed that the strong negative emotion had washed off on many things in the environment. To this day, I don’t like certain colors, certain types of party mix treats, certain shapes of end tables, and so on. These were all present during those moments.

Soon I became anxious. If these memories were so prevalent in my distant past, and had been suppressed for more than a decade, was this a sign that my life would soon feature these sorts of experiences again? Was it purely luck that banished those moments, and now my luck was running out? The thought was almost unbearable.

I quickly dispelled the anxiety, though. I’m a very different person today, and I can easily keep my mind occupied in any environment. Ability to keep mentally occupied is like a muscle, and I am no more likely to lose my mental muscles than I am to lose my physical strength and revert to a 4 year-old level.

Next, I realized that these moments accounted for a huge portion of my childhood, but the memories had been suppressed. I suspect that this is true for most children. More than half of their lives are occupied with a terrible despairing boredom, but when they get older, they suppress these memories and only remember the high points. This is utterly fascinating to me. Life would be miserable if we remembered all of these moments as vividly as we remember the high points. People often act as if selective memory is a bad thing, but I suspect that selective memory is not only inevitable, but a very good thing.

Some other interesting questions arise:

  1. If it is that bad at age 4, what about age 3? If we extrapolate backwards, it would seem that 90% or more of a two year-old’s life is pure suffering. But perhaps there is some cognitive phase shift that happens, before which it is impossible for children to suffer in this way? It’s well-known that children don’t remember things before a certain age, but is this simply because it is 90% suffering and they suppress the memories? Or is the lack of memory formation actually the thing that prevents the suffering from even being experienced in the first place?
  2. Long term memory formation requires a level of attention and arousal that causes a glutamate response. Why did these specific events trigger a glutamate response?
  3. Although I’ve lived more than a decade without experiencing this sort of boredom, and don’t expect to experience it anytime soon, what about when I’m older? Do elderly people revert to this childhood condition, and does it worsen as we age? Does the default state evaporate as we age?
  4. My escape from the despair happened largely accidentally. Is it possible (or even advisable) to accelerate this process in children? Is is possible to improve beyond the point where I am now; even a new phase level that would make my current mentality seem like suffering in retrospect?

When Helen Keller Became Human

So I’ve been exploring this idea that suffering and joy are correlated to cognitive ability. Just yesterday, The OFloinn posted a fascinating excerpt describing Helen Keller’s subjective experience of “becoming human”. I recommend reading the whole thing, but here is one short quote:

On entering the door I remembered the doll I had broken [earlier that day, in a tantrum]. I felt my way to the hearth and picked up the pieces. I tried vainly to put them together. Then my eyes filled with tears; for I realized what I had done, and for the first time I felt repentance and sorrow.

Apparently, Helen Keller’s anecdotal experience is quite similar to mine, and could be seen as support for my more general thesis. OFloinn makes some interesting connections to theology that I never thought of, as well.

Of course, neither Helen Keller nor I were recording our experiences in a theology-free context, so it’s possible that our contexts colored our memories. But these anecdotes suggest that it could be worthwhile to investigate using more reliable techniques.

Dawkins on Animal Suffering

A few days ago, Richard Dawkins realized that there might be a link between cognitive ability and suffering. I’d like to think that he was inspired by my earlier post on the topic, but probably not, since he got everything wrong.

I can see a Darwinian reason why there might even be be a negative correlation between intellect and susceptibility to pain. I approach this by asking what, in the Darwinian sense, pain is for. It is a warning not to repeat actions that tend to cause bodily harm. Don’t stub your toe again, don’t tease a snake or sit on a hornet, don’t pick up embers however prettily they glow, be careful not to bite your tongue.

It is an interesting question, incidentally, why pain has to be so damned painful. Why not equip the brain with the equivalent of a little red flag, painlessly raised to warn, “Don’t do that again”? In The Greatest Show on Earth , I suggested that the brain might be torn between conflicting urges and tempted to ‘rebel’, perhaps hedonistically, against pursuing the best interests of the individual’s genetic fitness, in which case it might need to be whipped agonizingly into line. I’ll let that pass and return to my primary question for today: would you expect a positive or a negative correlation between mental ability and ability to feel pain? Most people unthinkingly assume a positive correlation, but why?

Isn’t it plausible that a clever species such as our own might need less pain, precisely because we are capable of intelligently working out what is good for us, and what damaging events we should avoid? Isn’t it plausible that an unintelligent species might need a massive wallop of pain, to drive home a lesson that we can learn with less powerful inducement?

At very least, I conclude that we have no general reason to think that non-human animals feel pain less acutely than we do, and we should in any case give them the benefit of the doubt. Practices such as branding cattle, castration without anaesthetic, and bullfighting should be treated as morally equivalent to doing the same thing to human beings.

Dawkins’ thinking is hopelessly muddled here, but I will restrain myself to pointing out just one major flaw in his reasoning.

Simply, “pain” is not “suffering”. Not even close. Suffering is a cognitive phenomenon. And even with the simple “brain soup” type of pain that Dawkins is talking about, there is a massive cognitive impact, as Dan Ariely has shown.

Dawkins is sloppily conflating operant conditioning with cognitive learning, and nerve stimulation with suffering. That doesn’t work.

Spinoza on Miracles

We recently discussed the fact that autistic people are more likely to reject libertarian free will, with Baruch Spinoza being a key example.

Conceptually, ideas about free will and ideas about miracles are inextricably linked. And when it comes to miracles, Spinoza is again a key example:

In like manner miracles were called works of G-D, as being especially marvellous; though in reality, of course, all natural events are the works of G-D, and take place solely by His power.

According to Spinoza, it is incoherent to talk about miracles being “violations of the laws of nature”. It’s literally nonsense. About 100 years after Spinoza, Hume tried to explicitly equate these two contradictory things, and philosophers and theologians have been debating ever since. If only more of them had Asperger’s like Spinoza, we could stop wasting our time on this stupidity. Aspies are allergic to contradiction, and Spinoza pointed out that scriptures and reason are both non-contradictory on this matter:

Further, in order to ascertain, whether it could be concluded from Scripture, that the human understanding is naturally corrupt, I inquired whether the Universal Religion, the Divine Law revealed through the Prophets and Apostles to the whole human race, differs from that which is taught by the light of natural reason, whether miracles can take place in violation of the laws of Nature, and if so, whether they imply the existence of G-D more surely and clearly than events, which we understand plainly and distinctly through their immediate natural causes.

Now, as in the whole course of my investigation I found nothing taught expressly by Scripture, which does not agree with our understanding, or which is repugnant thereto, and as I saw that the prophets taught nothing, which is not very simple and easily to be grasped by all, and further, that they clothed their teaching in the style, and confirmed it with the reasons, which would most deeply move the mind of the masses to devotion towards G-D, I became thoroughly convinced, that the Bible leaves reason absolutely free…

Spinoza realized that he needed to bite the bullet and define “miracle” as something that was merely extraordinarily unusual that would point toward God, and charmingly observed:

As, then, unusual natural phenomena are called works of G-D, and trees of unusual size are called trees of God, we cannot wonder that very strong and tall men, though impious robbers and whore mongers, are in Genesis called sons of G-D. This reference of things wonderful to God was not peculiar to the Jews. Pharaoh, on hearing the interpretation of his dream, exclaimed that the mind of the gods was in Joseph.

Most theologians seem content to argue that Hume’s definition of “miracle” is wrong, and leave it at that. Few seem eager to bite the bullet and follow things through to the obvious conclusion. That’s what’s so fun about Aspies — they don’t mind stating the obvious. From the comments to the earlier article on Spinoza:

I have Asperger’s Syndrome (though self diagnosed). I absolutely do not believe people have free will, in any sense. After reading the wikipedia entry on compatibilism I feel that compatibilism is just saying “we don’t have free will but lets pretend anyway”.


Much energy is expended championing Hume’s question-begging and inherently contradictory definition of “miracle”, for obvious reasons. I think that’s a waste of time, and detracts from the more interesting question — if theists bite the bullet and toss out Hume’s incoherent definition, what are the implications for faith?

Outsider Test for Philosophy

Here is Thomas Crisp’s new “Evolutionary Objection to the Argument from Evil” [via ex-apologist]. It’s a clever argument, and has persuaded at least one of ex-apologist’s readers that the Problem of Evil (PoE) is not a good reason to be an atheist.

The objection goes roughly like this:

P1) PoE depends on the premise that there are probably no good reasons for the observed evil in the natural world
P2) Determining whether there are good reasons for natural evil is a “recondite”, extremely difficult, philosophical problem.
P3) If our intellectual capabilities evolved, they evolved to track mundane matters of reality that are necessary for survival.
P4) There is no obvious reason that evolution would select for ability to reliably solve recondite philosophical problems
C1) Therefore, given evolution, there is no reason to trust our philosophical musings about observed evil
C2) Given that we can’t trust the key premise of PoE, then PoE is not a good reason to be an atheist

There are some obvious ways to attack Crisp’s argument. For example, we could deny that the key premise of PoE is recondite. Or we could argue that generally evolved truth-tracking mechanisms actually do apply to recondite philosophical problems (Crisp acknowledges that we could have developed such an ability as a “spandrel”, and I think there are plausible arguments for this, but I think an even stronger argument could be made for our ability to tackle recondite problems).

Crisp seems to sense this weakness in his argument, and he tries to strengthen his claim that judgments on recondite matters are unreliable. I laughed out loud at this part:

I don’t experience any emotion of ridicule when I entertain the possibility that my cognitive faculties are unreliable with respect to abstruse philosophical matters far removed from the everyday concerns of life. That possibility doesn’t strike me as crazy or ridiculous. I don’t notice any powerful seeming or seeing to be true when I consider the proposition that my philosophical faculties are reliable; it doesn’t strike me as just obvious that they are. In fact, when I consider the multitude of crazy views philosophers have defended over the centuries and the rampant disagreement among philosophers over almost of everything of substance, I find it wholly unobvious that we humans, myself included, have reliable philosophical faculties.

This is like the “Outsider Test for Philosophy”. It’s like saying, “When you realize why you reject all of the other contentious philosophical positions, you’ll understand why I reject yours”. IOW, the fact that there are multiple competing positions is taken as evidence that nobody really knows — that everyone is just mistaken or making things up.

This is shockingly sloppy thinking, whether it’s done by a Christian philosopher at Biola or by an atheist shyster like John Loftus. In this case, though, it’s especially funny. Winning a philosophy argument by claiming that philosophy is unreliable, is quite bold. Well played, Mr. Crisp! Well played!

When I Was a Retard

Several years ago, a medical accident left me with severely impaired cognitive function for about 12 hours. It was one of the most fascinating experiences of my life.

My IQ couldn’t have been more than 30, and my working memory was tiny. I couldn’t form full sentences, and had very few words. I could respond to very simple questions and state simple desires “Yes”, “No”, “Go”, and some curse words. My ability to form thoughts was better than my ability to speak, but not by much. My speed of thinking slowed to a crawl, and it took intense concentration to form thoughts containing more than a few predicate clauses. Many thoughts were simply impossible, because they took too long to form, and portions of the thought would be dropped from working memory before I had a chance to finish forming the thought. I would just get confused and give up.

It took some time for me to become aware that I was stupid, and I initially became alarmed. My anxiety wasn’t very sophisticated; it was basically “something went wrong”, “I’m stupid”, and “people are looking at me strange”. I knew those things were bad, but I couldn’t follow the implications far enough to know why they were bad. It was extremely hard work, and I had to give up.

As time went on, the anxiety at being stupid faded away, like some forgotten memory from a life that was no longer mine. I literally couldn’t concentrate long enough to figure out why stupidity was bad, so it stopped being bad. Same for the way that people reacted to me. I couldn’t possibly figure out why I used to think people’s strange looks were bad, so it stopped being bad.

I was definitely able to feel annoyance at environmental irritants, but the annoyance faded as soon as the source of irritation was removed, or as soon as I attenuated. I probably would have reacted violently if someone had provoked me physically, but my field of consciousness shrunk to a very small sliding window of time. As I got used to functioning this way, something very strange happened. Anxiety and unhappiness became memories of a distant past. I was aware enough of the strangeness of this to feel mildly pleased about it.

By the next day, I was back to full mental function. IQ, working memory, and speed of thought were all back. However, it was a few days before I returned to the habit of caring about things beyond a small window of time.

This experience was a puzzle that has fascinated me for many years. Here is a random brain-dump of some questions that have stemmed from this experience for me:

1) When you are cognitively impaired, you honestly don’t care, and you’re pretty happy. But success in modern life requires that you care about a lot of things. If you want to be able to form and execute multi-step plans, you need a certain level of neurotic obsession with details. You have to care. But how much should you care? What’s the “right” balance? That’s a fascinating problem.

2) It seems that, when cognitive function is impaired enough, you very quickly learn to not care, but it takes longer to start caring after function is restored. Why is there a mismatch? I don’t have any guesses, but I think the answer could have important implications.

3) While cognitively impaired, I could maintain a fairly reliable history of all of my thoughts and mental states. That is, my history was not impaired. My long-term memory was not impaired. What was impaired was my ability to pull multiple long-term memories into working memory and process them quickly to calculate implications. Once my cognitive function was restored, I continued to remember the historical details from when I was impaired, but could now integrate and process them to consider the implications. This raises a whole slew of interesting questions.

4) Living “in the moment” is about thwarting your working memory and your processing power (working memory and processing speed are inextricably linked). Thwarting these essentials probably makes you happier, but also makes you more like an animal. We hypothesize that a superhuman intelligence will have a far vaster working memory than we have, and also a far faster processing speed. So any God or demi-God who vastly exceeds us in these two capabilities will be able to experience suffering that vastly exceeds the suffering that we human “retards” could ever hope to experience. I suspect that suffering is directly correlated with working memory and processing speed.

5) Animal suffering. It seems popular to place animal suffering on the same scale of suffering with humans. In my experience, though, I was well above animals, but still quite free of suffering. My experience leads me to suspect that suffering requires self-conscious intentionality. Animals don’t have that. We humans can suffer on behalf of others, even where those others are incapable of suffering. Extrapolating this beyond humans, to superhuman intelligence, is a fascinating exercise.

6) What exactly is the link between memory and suffering? General anesthesia typically induces both paralysis and amnesia, and there have been cases where the paralysis part works, but the patient experiences and remembers the pain. It seems that there is a close link between the amnesia and the pain elimination. Anterograde amnesia is roughly opposite to what happened to me. In anterograde amnesia, the patient cannot form long-term memories, but has perfectly good working memory and speed of thought. This TED talk from Dan Gilbert explains that people with anterograde amnesia are capable of remembering emotional dispositions that form after onset of the disease, even if they don’t remember how the associations are formed. This is probably some form of operant conditioning, but also points more firmly to working memory as the culprit — loss of long-term memory does not prevent suffering. I really want to see more research performed to test theories like this.

7) If the theory holds true about suffering, does it also hold true for happiness? Or is there any asymmetry? Here is another TED talk, this time from Daniel Kahneman, about the way that our long-term memories of being happy are often very different from our actual self-reported happiness during the event. It’s absolutely fascinating.

In conclusion, I think that many of our folk intuitions about joy and suffering are hopelessly flawed, and a lot of our philosophical considerations on the topic are equally flawed. We need more experimental research to help us start forming a firm empirical foundation before further discussions.

Göbekli Tepe

Göbekli Tepe is the oldest human-made place of worship yet discovered. The site was constructed 11,000 year ago, and has only recently been excavated.

Our parents and grandparents didn’t even know about this site; it was buried for thousands of years. If you know your Old Testament and comparative religion, you will see the significance. These are amazing times to be alive! Göbekli Tepe will be a mandatory pilgrimage for my family sometime in the next few years. Perhaps I’ll take along a few PDEs to bury when I’m there. If I were a science fiction author, I would definitely have the singularity set up headquarters at an underground facility in Göbekli Tepe.

Machines of Loving Grace

The British documentary, “All Watched Over By Machines of Loving Grace“, is fantastic. The story it tells continues to be the most important story of our current age, and it’s not science fiction:

This is a story about the rise of the machines
And how they made us believe
We could create a stable world
That would last forever

The documentary simplifies tremendously and leaves out all of the juiciest parts, but is an exciting orientation. “Machines of Loving Grace” is to the information economy as “Left Behind” was to dispensationalism.

One of my favorite parts is where the document tries to blame the Californians for creating this all-devouring beast, as if the British had no part in it. The documentary would have you believe that this is all the result of a “California Ideology” created by followers of Ayn Rand. There is something deliciously hypocritical about one group of Anglo-Saxons accusing another of trying to manipulate the world. Of course, the real story starts with Lord Byron’s romanticism, and the inspiration of his daughter Ada Lovelace (which I mentioned briefly here). But shortly before Rand, we have British Occultist Aleister Crowley, with his philosophy of “do what thou will, shall be the whole of the law”. He visited California, where he spent some of his inheritance on heroin, and spent time with people like L. Ron Hubbard and the founder of the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Briton John Maynard Keynes also preceded Rand, and preached the life of an “immoralist”, with an economic system driven by “desire”. Both men were deeply influential with the California technocrats, and we can trace an ongoing incestuous back-and-forth between British and American technocrats ever since.

You’ll Understand When You’re Older

This is a post about how I do exegesis. When I was three or four, I would often ask my mother “Why” questions. Often they were questions about math, but sometimes about other topics. Her stock answer was, “You’re too young to understand. You’ll understand when you are older”.

Much later, I realized that she was just blowing me off, and simply didn’t want to say “I don’t know”. I asked her about this after I was 30, and she confirmed. But I now realize that her dismissal tactic was genius; whether intentional or not.

When you’re three or four, you believe everything your mother says. So when she said, “You’ll understand when you’re older”, I believed it. For the problems that I really cared about, I would sometimes demand that she tell me what age I would be when I understood. Sometimes she would say 10; sometimes she would say 12. I vividly remember a number of occasions where I panicked upon hearing this, thinking, “What if I forget to answer the question on my tenth birthday?!?” I would repeat the question to myself every single day, multiple times, so that I would be guaranteed to remember the question. I eagerly anticipated my 10th birthday, where I envisioned myself repeating all of the questions to myself and having the answers magically appear in my mind.

Of course, I never asked the questions on my tenth birthday, and I forgot some of the questions. Answers came when they came, and my childlike credulity was quickly replaced by the skepticism of an accomplished liar. But those early experiences shaped the person I became:

  1. I learned very early to train my long-term memory. I was desperate to know the answer, and the only way to know the answer was to remember the question until I was “old enough”. If my mother had given me some glib bullshit answer, I might’ve believed it and not even bothered remembering. If she had said, “I don’t know”, I might’ve decided that it was OK to stop caring.
  2. It’s worthwhile to believe that there is an answer, and that you will one day understand. Many times, I solved problems that others failed to solve, for no other reason than that I was certain “There is an answer, and it will feel good to discover it.” Throughout my life, I watched as people gave up and failed to see things that were right in front of their faces, because they convinced themselves that there might not be an answer, or that they would never be able to figure it out. In my experience, this is how the vast majority of people think, and it’s absolutely tragic. Nobody should think that way. If you don’t understand something, it’s only because you’re not old enough, and it’s that simple. If you have unanswered questions, you have something to look forward to. Of course, if you prove conclusively that some specific question is impossible to answer, that just means that you understand it, and that’s great! Until you’ve proven that there is no answer, you have no business saying that you will never know.
  3. Remembering the problem and being able to recognize when the answer is available is more important than stubbornly trying to brute force an answer. Things will happen when the time is right.
  4. Half of the answer is in formulating the problem. To remember the questions, I had to repeat the question subvocally over and over again. Some of the questions I had, I couldn’t even properly articulate in words, and therefore I couldn’t remember them by rote repetition. These problems vexed me greatly, because I could see the problem clearly at the moment, but I knew I would lose it. I still encounter problems like this, and they are motivation to get better at defining and articulating problems.
  5. Even if you have an answer that’s perfectly valid, you never have the answer. There were times when I thought I understood an answer, but I wasn’t yet 10, so I wasn’t sure if I had the full answer. There were other times when I gained a new understanding that replaced an old (albeit, useful) understanding, confirming my suspicion that I hadn’t fully understood. This means that there is always something to look forward to.


I’ve read a few child psychologists who say that attention-starved children ask “Why?”, because they’ve learned that this is the question that receives the most verbose answers. And when a parent has finished answering, the child can just say, “But, why?”, and trigger another long interaction. If you believe this theory, you should respond to every “why” question with long bullshit answers that make your children feel like you’re paying attention.

In my experience, though, the theory is wrong. Kids actually want to understand things, and you should encourage that desire. On the other hand, I’m not convinced that you should tell your kids, “You’ll understand when you’re older”. I suspect that technique is a total crap-shoot.