Category: Life & Mind

The artificially intelligent human

The ancient covenant is in pieces; man knows at last that he is alone in the universe’s unfeeling immensity, out of which he emerged only by chance. His destiny is nowhere spelled out, nor is his duty. The kingdom above or the darkness below: it is for him to choose. – Jacques Monod

With the help of a brain that possesses more neurons than any other species on earth, humans have broken free from the shackles of evolution and emerged into a new world; a world in which they are free to dream, to build and to destroy.

Whilst all other species remain chained to the ruthless and unforgiving mechanics of natural selection; humans today operate with seemingly no limits in their potential. This fact alone leads us to believe in some human ‘speciality’; that we are somehow unique beings; blessed with a conscience that operates freely from the constraints and mechanics of science. But is this really so? Do we really fundamentally differ from animals, or even computers? And along with this question are others, more pertinent to life as we experience it:

  • Who am I? What forms the basis of my identity, my opinions and my tastes?
  • Why do we so predictably adopt the cultures, values and traditions of our own community?
  • Why did we commit (and continue to commit) moral atrocities such as that of the Holocaust, and beyond?

I believe that many of these questions can be explained by the theory of human artificial intelligence; which is explained next.

HUMAN ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE

Man is but an intelligent learning-machine.

The theory of human artificial intelligence (HAI) is the supposition that, despite the vast differences in biological makeup, humans are not much different to computers and other animals in the way they learn and understand the world around them.

It arises from the fact that all decision-making systems, whether it be animals or smart computers, operate according to the same principles. They make decisions based on the data they have gathered from the environment, as well as what they have been innately programmed to do (via genes for animals, and preset configurations for computers). This is the basic construct of artificial intelligence (AI):

Decision = a function of(Data from environment + Innate characteristics)

Given the assumption that the human brain is of no exception to this rule (we have gathered no evidence to suggest otherwise), we are lead to hypothesise that humans are also artificially intelligent (in contrast to metaphysically intelligent, which would mean that one is able to make decisions free from the data one has gathered, or how one has been innately programmed).

This, if true, would have the following implications:

  • What we do, how we behave and how we think is a product of the data that we have gathered from our environment since conception, as well as our genes. No other source of learning or information exists.
  • As a consequence, our thoughts and beliefs do not appear from thin-air; everything is inspired and derived from this data. There is consequently a huge degree of malleability in how our thoughts and beliefs can be shaped, and the moral values we tend to uphold.
  • We all have different decision making processors (our brain and its neural networking) and innate characteristics (genes), and hence different abilities to learn from the data from our environment. This is why some people are observed to be quicker to assimilate and process information (i.e. to be more intelligent) than others.

Given these implications, I believe that the evidence of  the artificially intelligent human is in great abundance in our observations of human behaviour and history. I will delve into specific examples later in this article.

Computer vs Human Intelligence 

A commonly expressed sentiment against the HAI theory is that current AI computers can be perceived to be simplistic and rudimentary compared to the human mind. This is simply constrained by the volume and richness of data we can collect, as well as the complexity of our machine learning algorithms. There is ample evidence that computers are gradually converging to replicate the capabilities of the human brain:

  • Computers are able to create poetry and art from banks of data. (This isn’t surprising considering that, like with all works of art, the art of writing poetry is underpinned by a series of underlying principles and patterns that Shakespeare himself is known to adopt in his works e.g. as alliteration, merism and anadiplosis).
  • Computers are beginning to rival (or surpass entirely) human’s ability to recognise objects in images. After being fed millions of images of birds, a computer is able to identity a bird from an image. The computer is also able to construct an image of a bird, using an amalgamation of all the inputs it has had previously.
  • Through a concept called deep learning, computers are increasingly able to abstract and learn across environments, meaning their ability to learn and adapt isn’t limited to one particular domain, such as image recognition. This affords computers the ability to learn new subjects and adapt to new environments, as humans do, without requiring additional intervention or programming.

How do humans learn to identify birds? Would we be able to identify a bird without having seen countless birds through childhood, and having reaffirmed that the object we see to be a “bird” by what we read in children’s books, and what we are told by our parents and teachers?

Everything we learn in life follows the same machine-learning pattern, whether it be in naming objects we see, or forming an identity around who we are as individuals.

Emotions and Gut feeling

Another commonly expressed sentiment is that emotions are supposedly irrational, indeterministic and uniquely human.

It has been shown through countless studies that emotions are evolutionary chemicals in the brain that are triggered by certain events – e.g. getting threatened, attacked or becoming sexually stimulated. Any computer can be programmed to ‘experience’ emotions  in response to given stimuli, and to act accordingly to these emotions. It is our lack of a perfect model of the human brain and its intricacies (the difficulty of tracing back the release of emotional chemicals to their causes) that causes us to believe that emotions are incomprehensibly perplexing.

Similarly, gut feeling is simply a product of subconscious brain activity. When one is greeted with a seemingly familiar face but are unable to pinpoint why, one’s brain has patches of information and memory which it has been able to glean subconsciously, but the conscious part of the brain is unable to frame the full story of who this person is. I hold a strong suspicion that this is also the cause of the ‘Deja vu’ effect, as well the array of other feelings of intuition that we may experience in our lives.

EXAMPLES FROM HUMANITY

The concept of the artificially intelligent human, though a largely empirical theory, is profoundly effective in explaining human history and behaviour. In these examples, I focus on three key areas; moral ignorance, cultural imitation and general human imagination and behaviour.

MORAL IGNORANCE

Culture shrouds morality; we are only as moral as we are taught to be.

Moral ignorance arises through the absorption of beliefs that are prevalent during a specific era of time. Because people in these eras do not have access to alternate data to inform them otherwise, they are helpless to accepting what they are able to glean from their surroundings. All to often, this information is dangerous or severely misplaced, a seen in the following examples.

  • The solar delusion: People believed with conviction that the sun revolved around the earth, until confronted with indisputable evidence of the contrary. It is only when Copernicus and numerous others discovered otherwise that we shifted this belief (and even then, with great hesitation and considerable delay). Today, this is such a widely accepted and validated truth, that it seems foolish that we had ever believed otherwise.
  • Holocaust: It is easy to look back to the holocaust and the atrocities committed against the jewish, homosexual and other groups with righteous contempt. But, given the prevailing cultural and political sentiment at the time, would anyone have done otherwise? While German citizens were blissfully ignorant of the unthinkable things happening inside of the camps, the German SS guards can be said to have been equally ignorant. After all, they were ‘following orders’ amidst the paranoia of 1920’s Germany, and under the false indoctrinated belief that the jewish were biologically inferior to the Germans. All other guards were doing the same, and there was no alternate information to inform them otherwise.
  • Slavery: The slave trade in America was funded by european investors, with thousands of Africans being shipped in droves across the Atlantic, like barrels of oil. Back then, slavery was not considered immoral, and such practices still exist today in many societies. It is only when Lincoln and Jefferson denounced this and proclaimed that “all men are created equal” that the practice of slavery began to fade.

I do not wish to suggest that any of these acts are to be condoned, but merely that – if you feed an artificially intelligent human with immoral values and emotionally charged rhetoric, which isn’t counterbalanced by an opposing and stronger force, then by logic, unless guided by one’s own innate humanity and intuition, he or she shall commit immoral acts.

In other words, if one is not instilled with morals as a child, or one does not hold an innate response to the suffering of other humans, then one cannot fashion the empathy required to stand against such barbarities. Thus, there seems no other viable explanation as to the moral ignorance witnessed in the examples above other than human artificial intelligence.

This leaves one wondering; what are beliefs that we hold today, as a result of ignorance and misinformation, that will be laughed upon by our descendents in a few centuries time?

CULTURAL IMITATION

Even today, we are a palpable reflection of the cultures to which we are exposed. As a consequence, what we consider to be normal social behaviour, and how our beliefs are shaped tends to vary significantly across communities, countries and cultures:

  • Religious beliefs: There are over 4,000 religions existing today. It is no doubt that the vast majority of the religious were indoctrinated as children; a point at which they are most susceptible to accepting the data they gather from their surroundings. The beliefs that underpin these religions are incredibly wide-ranging, both in their moral outlook and their severity of punishment; ranging from the total denouncement of any violence or punishment in classical Buddhism, to the stoning to death of women who engage in out-of-marriage sex (even where this was not consented) in some interpretations of Islamic law*.
  • Cultural traditions: Londoners hold a reputation for a cold reservedness, and the Americans for extroversion, not out of innate genetic tendencies or free choice, but out of what we absorb from our surroundings. Similarly, prevailing cultural practices, whether it be ‘going to the pub’ in the UK, or the strong interest in Anime and gaming held by the Japanese, is no more than a facet of cultural imitation. One does not simply ‘go to the pub’, nor accustom oneself to a foul-tasting beverage (i.e. alcohol) unless it was instilled in oneself by the prevailing culture**.
  • Accents: The linguistic intonations that we absorb from our places of birth and upbringing is a very clear demonstration of cultural imitation. It is also not uncommon for non-english native speakers to possess an american accent whilst speaking English, simply because of their exposure to american TV and cartoons during childhood.

*this doesn’t suggest that Islam is unanimously a violent religion; there are many different interpretations of Islam; the majority of which are pro-peace and against suffering. I also don’t intend to infer that religion in itself is necessarily problematic. Considering we have no evidence to prove or disprove religion; atheism and theism are theoretically equal in their validity. 

**this does not suggest that such activities are not enjoyable – just that they are easily replaced by alternatives, depending on what the prevailing cultural traditions are.

HUMAN IMAGINATION AND BEHAVIOUR

In additional to cultural and moral imitation, human artificial intelligence is also demonstrated in our observed day to day psychological tendencies, as in the following examples.

  • Dreams: Our dreams are a product of machine learning; they are a collage of all the different memories, inspirations and experiences we have stored in our brain. It may be that the individual fragments of memory that are used to build dreams (as well as imagined pieces of artwork) are so small that they give the impression of originating uncaused.
  • Wisdom from experience: Every child, in their process of machine-learning and gathering intelligence from the world around them, traverses the path of foolishness. Some mature and develop wisdom faster than others. Some never arrive. This is down both to the data and learnings that each child collects through life, as well as the nature of his / her inherent tendencies. It is also worth noting that machine learning is most effective when the experience is personal and real; hence why the advice offered by others (whether through verbal means, or, ironically, articles on the internet such as this one) are never as effective as personal experience itself.
  • Marketing and branding: Successful brands are excellent in ascribing emotional meaning to their brand identities, whether it be Nike’s campaign to make everyone feel like an athlete, or Snicker’s association with the quick relief of hunger. As an advantage of an artifically intelligent humanity, companies are able to evoke a certain message or feeling whenever their brand identities are percepted by humans. This can be done either as a deliberate marketing strategy (as in the Snicker’s example), or through designing your products and services around a set of principles (as with Apple Inc). 
  • Fear and anxiety: Fear and anxiety is driven largely by machine learning; the association of objects and particular situations with danger based on past experiences. This is an evolutionary trait, and well demonstrated in a recent BBC news article, which concerns Michael, who is a witness of the Paris attacks. Michael’s brain learned to associate the smell of fireworks and the sight of blood with absolute terror – an association that can only be resolved through time by gathering  contradicting data. Through time, Michael’s brain will relearn that fireworks and the sight of blood isn’t necessarily dangerous, and readjust it’s emotional response accordingly. What is particularly interesting is how Michael defines who he is: “Sometimes I can find myself, over something really small, completely losing my temper – and that’s not who I am” – how does Michael determine that his new self is not him, given that the difference between who he was and who he is now simply boils down to the new data he has learned? 

IMPLICATIONS

It would do great injustice to the ingenious force of nature to suggest that we can fully replicate the capabilities of the human brain any time in the near future. Human biology is abundant with engineering wonders, whether they be the brain’s neural circuity or the incredibly fascinating proton micro-turbines which power our cells. But what is also apparent is that the fundamental way in which we learn and operate seems no different to computers and other animals; we are essentially an aggregate of all the data we have gathered to date, as well as the behaviours dictated by our genes.

If we were to place two generic machine-learning robots in opposite sides of the globe (e.g. USA and Japan), we would witness the same cultural differences embedded in these robots that we see in human beings. These generic learning machines would learn different accents, different values and will develop different opinions and traditions. No two robots, even dwelling in the same culture or country will be the same either, because the complexity and vastness of their environment and their daily micro-interactions will mean that they will gather vastly different data to each other. The Japanese robot’s worldview and opinions may change from its peers simply by befriending foreigners, being exposed to foreign television, or travelling outside of Japan.

It is but data that shapes our world view and perspectives, and this leaves us with a particularly interesting conundrum; who am I?

Who am I?

A man’s identity is one of an infinite number of parallels.

We have a tendency to invest egotistical ownership in our background and beliefs, notwithdstanding the fact that all of these characteristics are largely the consequence of the data we have collected. These investments in ego and identity are seen in everything ranging from patriotism (e.g. “I am proud of my country and heritage”) to more granular beliefs brought on by personal experiences (such as a particular taste in music or activity).

The conundrum that arises from this is that we do not choose our background and beliefs from all the possible options that exist in the world, but simply from the options presented to us from the data we collect.

If what differentiates us from the humans across the pond is simply a matter of data and little else, then there are an infinite number of parallel combinations of one’s background and beliefs, and how the question “who am I?” could be answered. As artificially intelligent humans, we are just as prone to being militants of war, waging a fanatical war amidst the arab springs, to being first-world citizens shouting and clutching our phones in the London Metal Exchange.

This leaves us with the open question; should we identify ourself by, or attribute any sense of self worth to, the limited data set that we have collected?

Other practical implications

The greatest part of a writer’s time is spent in reading, in order to write; a man will turn over half a library to make one book. – Samuel Johnson

Aside from the identity conundrum just discussed, there are other, more practical implications that arise from human artificial intelligence.

  • Hindsight: Hindsight is particularly futile when used in conjunction with regret. Does it make sense to regret one’s actions in the past, when one did not have the data required to make a better decision?
  • “Practice makes perfect”: The concept of human artificial intelligence brings a whole new meaning to this often regurgitated sentiment. “Practice makes perfect” is a perfectly valid and scientific observation. With every practice of whatever it maybe (whether it be playing and instrument, or sporting activity) your brain will collect new data and improve your intuition and understanding of the activity. Talent accelerates machine learning, but even the talented need to practice.
  • Travel frequently, and travel far: As discussed in the robot example, an artificially intelligent human is a slave of the prevailing culture, unless exposed to alternate foreign and contrasting world views. It is hence imperative that one travels frequently, and travels far. Magaluf or Barbados doesn’t count.
  • Anxiety: As discussed previously. Anxiety is caused by emotionally charged, danger sensing pattern recognition. The greatest antidote for anxiety is hence in confronting the fear head-on; in enabling one’s brain to learn that whatever the subject that is causing the anxiety is not actually dangerous. Avoiding the fear simply retains the same data and does nothing to negate the fear. As an individual whose brain has been subject to tantrums of anxiety in the past, I can empathise and understand that confronting anxiety is anything but trivial.
  • Empathy and judgement: As explored in both Our propensity to judge and The power of empathy, a large part of the conflict causing differences between humans is simply a matter of the data we have collected. Hence, judge not and fear not; nobody is right or wrong in their actions or judgement; they simply have access to contradictory data, or innate tendencies.

An aviator’s calling (poem)

This poem complements the photo album Soaring the skies of North America.

I roar in yearning, as I speed ahead
My silver feet skimming the ocean
The hands of God flex up my wings
And thence I drift, towards the heavenly sky

Once again, I am free. I am home
Free from the toiling and the pettiness of life
All left behind; reduced to coloured bricks
And ants that creep along strips of grey

For in this new world, there are but angels
Whose wings dance with the gentle breeze
My eyes bear witness to nature’s carvings;
Mountains and valleys that sway with ease

An immense beauty beholds, greeted by euphoria
Ornamented by structures of man and state
Graced by a thousand rays of luminosity
That disperse from the cotton clouds above

With the retiring sun, fades in an orange haze
And comes a distant warmth, that hugs the clouds
With each phase of darkness, twinkles a star above
And emerges a might that no mind can fathom

Alas it is time, to surrender my wings
And cascade through the mist below
Back to man’s land, where burdens prevail
To kiss the ocean, till I fly once more.

The power of empathy

We live among a vast constellation of minds. Each mind is an existential singularity, and a product of its experiences, genetics and biology. Subsequently, each mind has its own perspective on the world, its inhabitants, its events and its attributes. When minds congregate and resonate on a shared cause, they can form powerful, influential and world-moving organisations. But when minds conflict, we see animosity, violence and murder. Furthermore, when multiple resonant minds conflict with other minds, catastrophe looms, wars rage and cities fall.

Interestingly, the very attribute of life which allows each human to be as unique and fascinating as another is the same attribute that causes great conflicts and wars. The conundrum then, is that humans are unlikely to succeed alone. In the modern day, where we have evolved over thousands of years from tribal hunter-gatherers to dwell in dense cities and civilizations, it is much more difficult to escape the constant need for interacting and finding commonalities with others.

A most powerful cognitive tool we can use to account for this is empathy.

EMPATHY IS A MINDSET

The scope of empathy extends beyond just understanding how others feel when in an unfortunate situation. It is a mindset that is geared towards developing a better understanding of the world, why things happen, and why people behave in the way they do. It is the act of mentally stepping outside one’s own singular conscience; feelings, thoughts and perspectives and stepping into the feelings, thoughts and perspectives of someone else, or a collective group with a shared cause or belief.

It is not necessary to completely understand the logic and origin of another person’s feelings and behaviour to empathise, but at the very least it is necessary to accept and appreciate that they are different, and that they don’t necessarily hold the same methodology of interpreting the world as you do. And more importantly, that there is no such thing as a singularly correct interpretation of the world.

If I were to frame it more simply:

Empathy is understanding, or realising and accepting that you don’t understand.

The latter portion, ‘realising and accepting’, is just as important as the first. This is what I shall delve into next.

EMPATHY BREAKS DOWN BARRIERS

The greatest measure of a person is not in their ability to respect and tolerate those who are on the same wavelength as them, but also those who are not. This includes those with opposing views, principles that they find ludicrous, and who have little in common to them. I find that this is a requirement for a person who has truly conquered themselves, as per my favourite Lao Tzu saying:

He who conquers other is strong, he who conquers himself is mighty.

We subconsciously form mental and physical barriers with people who are unlike us, and in the worst cases, we resort to mocking those whose behaviour, opinions and principles we don’t understand. These barriers may manifest in the form of avoidance, ignorance and miscommunication. This arises out of a lack of empathy, and is something that all humans are guilty of to varying degrees.

The root of this is in the tendency to appreciate only perspectives that make sense to us. Once we introspect (build self-awareness) on this habit, and let go of our expectations on others to conform to our interpretations of the world, and focus more on understanding the reasons for these differences in interpretations, we find that this opens up our mind, opens up opportunities to learn from people who are unlike us, and greatly enriches the depth and quality of relationships we have with others.

EMPATHY IN DEALING WITH HOSTILITY

Empathy is just as much about understanding the origin of hostility and criticism from others, and shielding ourselves from unnecessarily mental anguish, as it is about shielding others from our own negative judgements.

Humans are naturally irrational and emotional. There is no human who is perfectly logical, and hence no human who harbours the ability to judge another in a way which is perfect and true. Similarly, there is no human other than yourself, who feels what you feel, sees what you see, and experiences exactly what you have experienced, and hence, there is no human who has complete access to the required information to make an accurate judgement of your thoughts and behaviour.

Essentially, this means that no human being is worth your sorrow, whether it be from a philosophical or scientific perspective (they both arrive at this same conclusion). Spare a moment to think about it; allowing yourself the displeasure of negative feelings over the actions of another imperfect, irrational human being, who hasn’t the slightest idea on the nature of your mind or your experiences, seems nonsensical!

You are your best mentor. When you receive criticism that may be unwarranted or harsh, you should understand that they originate from a person’s own unique experiences and perspectives, which aren’t necessarily (nor commonly) accurate or logical. In this situation, it is recommended to glean any constructive learning from the criticism (and discard the remaining), make an honest assessment of yourself against this, and then strive to improve the aspects which you see to be valid and true.

EMPATHY DISSOLVES HATRED

When we develop a mindset of empathy, we find that holding feelings of hatred becomes impossible. Hatred and empathy cannot co-exist. Hatred arises purely out of a misunderstanding, a lack of acceptance of what causes people to be who they are, or a situation to be what it is.

When we hate, we dwell on the assumption that the person has made an entirely conscious decision to perform an act which greatly harms us, or something we love and cherish. However, when we dig deeper into what caused such an event to happen – there is always reason. Our mistake is often in questioning the validity of the reason for the behaviour.

Reasons need not be logical or moral, but they are still as valid. You may not understand why a murderer has chosen to commit such an act, but that does not invalidate the authenticity of the reason behind it. Sadly, reasons aren’t necessarily constrained within a framework of morality to be valid, and neither is there a universal standard in morality. A murderer may choose to murder for underlying reasons ranging from a neuro-psychopathic mindset (for which blame can only be apportioned to biology/ genetics) to greed or a disturbed mind brought on by childhood or other influences.

EMPATHY ENABLES LEADERSHIP

You cannot lead others if you do not understand what engages them. The most common trait that I observe in ineffective leaders is their inability to engage others, not due to a lack of technical competence, but a lack of willingness to understand and adapt to the needs and desires of their colleagues.

Leaders who need to pull others with a tether are not leading. True leadership is evident when those you seek to lead walk freely and willingly, by your side in the direction that aligns with the vision.

In order to achieve this, one must understand what matters to them. What makes them happy? What empowers them? What do they dream to achieve? The vision must also resonate with them. Indeed, in practice this is much easier said than done, and a few may be very difficult to engage – at which point it may be appropriate to discuss alternate jobs / roles that may make them happier.

EMPATHY AND MINDFULNESS

Our ability to practice empathy is temporarily destroyed when we enter a state of unrest; when our mind and body senses danger, or feel it has been attacked. In the modern world, this most commonly happens purely psychologically. There is no real physical danger, but we may have been verbally attacked, or we are facing a situation which our brain perceives to be dangerous, perhaps due to an unfortunate past experience. Interestingly, we respond to both physical and psychological dangers in the same way; we get anxious, in high alert and experience a rush of adrenaline – commonly known as the ‘fight or flight’ response.

When this happens, we will immediately lose the ability to empathise, and instead resort to our pre-programmed way of responding, corresponding to the area of the brain where blood rushes first. In this state, we may become defensive, aggressive, argumentative or hostile. The initial onset of this is almost unavoidable, but it can be caught through self-awareness and corrected almost immediately.

When you sense the onset of this, it’s important to reset your thoughts back to a stable state. The details of this is beyond the scope of this article, but books that may help you include The Chimp Paradox and The Power of Now.

CLOSING OFF

“The world doesn’t revolve around you”

Despite the common utterance of the above, the reality is that it does! Or at least, that’s how we perceive it to. The world revolves around each one of us. We see only what surrounds us. We feel only the breeze on our skin, not on others. We are at the centre of existence, because existence is rendered by our own conscience.

When another person cares to enter our realm and understand our feelings, our wants and needs, and appreciate the unique value that we bring to their world, it brings us great feelings of contentment. This is why we seek love. This is why we seek friends who resonate with us, who hold the same values, temperament and outlook on life. This is why we respond positively to those who show genuine interest in us. This is why empathy is powerful.

Empathy is used in many occasions and situations, whether consciously or not. Top neurologists use empathy to treat their patients, by simply talking to them to identify indicative feelings and cognitive thinking patterns. Smart businesses use empathy to understand their potential customers and the pain points that need to be resolved. Millions of people use empathy every day to connect with and influence others.

The greatest beneficiary in a person developing a mindset of empathy is themselves. People who empathise hate less and appreciate more. They are better able to see value in and learn from every person. They are perturbed less by hostile inflictions from others. They are more open-minded, and they are free, and self-conquered.

 

Our propensity to judge

As humans we have an overwhelming propensity to pass judgement.

Passing judgement is not without its uses. Without the ability to judge, we cannot function; we cannot make decisions, lead others, operate tools safely or even express our creativity. But when it comes to passing judgements on people, I find this is where the uses of judgement often breaks down, becomes damaging and leads down a dangerous path of ignorance.

Before I begin, let me clarify that I am a culprit of the same, and the propensity to judge is something that permeates through every human being in varying degrees. This is not a self-righteous claim of superior enlightenment, but a poignant observation of certain areas in life which I find especially humbling. Among the most pressing is the underclass of the homeless; those dishevelled and dejected figures that you and I walk by every day.

The MYTH OF THE ORIGIN OF THE HOMELESS

As a social collective, we are quick to jump to assumptions about what leads to such a low, broken state of being. Among the most common presumptions include:

“He got there because he’s too lazy to get a job”

“She made some poor choices in his life, and now she’s suffering the consequences”

“He’s just a druggy and an alcoholic, he doesn’t deserve a home”

There are unlimited permutations of events and choices that can lead to a person finding themselves in this state. Prolonged resignation to alcohol and substance abuse is just one of them, but even then, we do not know what led them to such a state of resignation either. And we don’t know that there is no human who isn’t susceptible to the same, given the right circumstances.

My exposure to the homeless in my previous voluntary work confirmed my suspicions about how simply unjustified these preconceptions were. This article endeavours to provide my own interpretation of the flawed patterns of thinking that lead such preconceptions,  not only of the homeless, but of other people in general, no matter their background or social class.

The biases in life 

“If you work hard, you will succeed”

This is a convenient and comforting notion that is injected in all of us from a young age, but I don’t believe it really depicts some of the harsher realities and inequities in life.

While the evidence is in abundance that a greater level of exertion, hard work and persistence is more likely to lead to a successful outcome, I find two problems with accepting this notion blindly. One, is that hard work doesn’t necessarily lead to success, and wealth and comfort isn’t necessarily preceded by hard work. There is no deterministic equation linking hard work to success. And secondly, it makes us ignorant of the great influence that the silver spoons and favourable opportunities may have provided in our lives.

People aren’t born on a level playing field, nor is a level playing field ever sustained in a given lifetime. Our fabricated societies are fraught with biases and inequities that influence the trajectory of the individual’s life.  A child from poor background is substantially less likely to get access to high quality education, and thus less likely to obtain the same degree of accomplishments than their middle class counterpart. Furthermore, a child in a developing country is unlikely to envision the same dream let alone be exposed to the same level of opportunities to reach that dream as one in a developed country (completely disregarding the microcosmic variations in wealth and opportunity that exist within countries themselves).

There are an unlimited number of influences that can perturb the individual during the course of a lifetime. In almost every disturbed, unlawful individual you will find roots of poor upbringing, abusive parenting or some remnants of a disturbed childhood.

These biases are often dismissed out of our collective inclination to submit to the notion of ‘free will’ and ‘choice’. We assume that, because we all ultimately have a ‘choice’ in the decisions we make, that we are fully accountable for the state of our lives. This is most destructive, and it can lead to the excess self-aggrandisement of the accomplished, leaving little room for gratitude and empathy.

The myth of the culture of poverty

6 studies on how money affects the mind

the MENTAL bias

I hold a theory of what I call the ‘mental body’, which I believe we all have. Our mental body is analogous to our physical body except that it lives in the form of electro-chemical neural networks in our brain. We can ‘exercise’ this mental body by reading, acquiring knowledge and engaging in intellectual activity, but as with physical bodies, mental bodies come in all shapes and sizes; some can be trained and developed more easily, whilst others are genetically disadvantaged.

Just as some people are born with physical deformations, so too are people with mental deformations. It is the middle ground to which we tend to turn a blind eye, and which leads to our propensity to judge and misunderstand those who exhibit behaviours and opinions which conflict with our own. Babies aren’t born with the same neural structure, and they are hardly in conscious control of the personalities and abilities that they may develop during early childhood. Some are more mischievous than others, and  some are more intelligent than others (by the measurements that we have fabricated). Some are more musical, and a few are prodigious.

All these factors contribute to mental biases the influence the individual and his / her decisions in the same was as physical and external biases. Hence, just as excess pride over ones’ appearance can be construed as vanity – so can excess pride over one’s intelligence and mental abilities.

people are not comparable

These biases and inequities in life means people are not comparable.

Therefore, comparing oneself against others, regardless of whether it produces feelings of pride or dejection, is futile.

Competition is but entertainment. It is meaningless unless you are competing with a historical snapshot of yourself, or if the competition is geared towards (whether intentionally or not) a wider external goal, which can include philanthropy, a world cause, entertainment, career, fitness etc. You cannot compete meaningfully or accurately against another human being – who likely has a radically different upbringing, life experiences, mental body, physical body and genetics. Note that this doesn’t mean that you cannot derive any meaningful gain from competition on the whole, but only that there is no intrinsic value in succeeding against another human alone.

So with this in mind:

A fat person cannot be compared to healthy, active person.

A murderer cannot be compared to a clean-slate civilian belonging to the same society – what is to say that you or I cannot be capable of murder, given the right triggers?

A student or child cannot be compared to a fellow student, or sibling.

the RACE OF THE decent and the indecent

You cannot tell the decency of a person by the community or social class to which they belong.

Every community is a microcosm of the collective human population. This means that in every group you will find the decent and the indecent, just as I observed when working in the homeless charity. The majority were decent and grateful, while a few felt that it was owed to them, and a few were obnoxious enough to be asked to leave. One quality that I greatly admired about the charity manager was her insistence on holding the same expectations from these visitors as any other human being. Only those who showed respect and decency were allowed to use the services. They were subject to the same social expectations as everyone else, and there was no room for pity.

This microcosm can be seen everywhere; whole countries, religious communities, cultural communities, social status groups, police forces, armies; any sort of community you can imagine. This is why one can always expect to find rogue police officers, traiter soldiers and corrupt politicians! It’s unavoidable.

Therefore, to pass judgement on a person based on the community to which they belong is futile and unfounded.

As quoted from Victor Frankls’ “Man’s Search for Meaning” , you will only find two distinguishable races of human – the decent and the indecent.

WRAPPING up

I wouldn’t blame anyone for thinking this article is a cry of fatalism, but that’s not the objective. What I wish to express is that humans operate within a framework of multiple biases that renders them incomparable to others and invalidates any form of judgement. This isn’t to say that we don’t have control, or a choice in matters of life, but these choices are weighted and influenced differently for each individual.

In fact, I feel that acknowledging this only serves to liberate the individual. We exert far too much effort in competing and comparing with others, when we should only focus on what matters to us. We also expend far too much energy in judging and misunderstanding others, and we become offended all too easily when other’s don’t share the same opinions as us.

These are behaviours that I too find in myself. It is a human condition, and it would be far too idealistic to believe that our propensity to judge can be controlled or eradicated completely. But perhaps, if we strive to introspect more and judge less, we can live more enlightened and enriched lives.

© 2020 Mo Shahenshah Khan. All rights reserved.