I’ve made it my goal in life to become an intellectual giant.

Not only to crush old and feeble ideas, the ideas that shouldn’t be living still, that hold us in some past that we pretend to have moved on from, or an idealized as a golden age of living that never existed, when things were “right” (for a tiny minority of the population. Cross that out, the picture perfect nuclear family.).
But I dream of becoming a giant because I never want to be afraid of a thought. No idea should be overwhelming. But the truth is, ideas can kill. Give a bad idea to anyone, and watch her tip. It works the same with good ideas. Ideas that are strong and true, but too heavy. Too much for some people to hold. Take away identity. Take away freedom. Watch her tip. And I tipped with her. Ideas turned me into a child again. The same four year old crying because I thought I had been abandoned. This time it wasn’t my parents who I thought left me behind. It was myself. Ideas took me away from me. They’re bigger. And some are dangerously wrong. But even the right ones are stronger than we admit. I hid from them as long as I could. I was traveling from foxhole to foxhole. Carving out bunkers any time I stopped moving. Only getting a glimpse of the monster before ducking behind denial. The safety inherent in old ideas. The comfort of being pacified by your own mind. Nothing too drastic to break us out of ourselves. We hold concrete ideas of who we are. It’s hard to convince the mind that it’s wrong.

Until I become a giant and no thought scares me. I’ll be able to lose or gain any at any time. I’ll be strong.


Happiness and Meaning Revisted

Last week I was talking to a friend about happiness. We were discussing how to live a happy, meaningful life and not get discouraged by the general impossibility of eliminating suffering. That seems like a silly thing to get weighed down by, but it is hard to accept that people are suffering and there’s nothing you can do about it. No matter how much you do and how much you donate and how much you plan and all the rest, you can’t fix the world. Even small scale changing are incredibly difficult. Sure, I can volunteer at a food bank and make a difference in a number of people’s lives but that’s a tiny difference and doesn’t involve any wholesale changes to improve the person’s life. Feeding someone may help them get through the day more comfortably but how does it help prevent another person from taking his or her place (assuming the first person does move on)? I’m not suggesting charity is useless, a small help is still help. I’m wondering how we prevent ourselves from being worn down by the inevitability of true suffering considering even tiny changes are difficult to sustain?

This conversation about trying to help people turned into a conversation about what gives life meaning. It would seem like, on the face of things, eliminating suffering as much as we can for our fellow human beings would be the most important thing in life. But very, very few people live in a way that works towards that goal. And to be clear, I’m not looking down on those people, I’m included among them. It’s possible that neuroscience can help a great number of people, but it’s not entirely likely and not my primary interest anyway. (Free will arguments and being more rational isn’t feeding anyone or restructuring governments.) I always come back to the principle of equal consideration because I’ve never heard a decent take-down of the principle.

If I truly believe that overall well-being should be maximized then I don’t know how to argue out of improving someone else’s before my own. Giving arbitrary values to our well-being, someone in a poverty stricken country is probably aroudn a 1 or 2 (lacking essential needs for survival) and mine is, by default somewhere at a 5-7 (basic needs met, left over resources for entertainment and comfort and concerns about eternity and legacies and meaning). Looking at Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, which may have its flaws, the base is pretty necessary for life. We can argue over the extras to hit a fulfilled, actualized life, but we mostly need to be fed to care about them. And so I’m up on that hierarchy because I ate today, flushed a toilet, showered, have access to water, etc. Even if I didn’t enjoy listening to music or reading today, I’m still higher on that pyramid. Buying 5 books won’t bump me up to self-actualization, but giving that money to a charity may bump someone up by fulfilling physiological needs.


We got to talking in more detail about what we should be doing. And she said something slightly annoying, in my opinion. She said she didn’t like when people act as though animal lives are as, or more, important than human lives. I was thinking about that documentary in which people risk their lives to protect gorillas. It’s on Netflix and is called Virunga. I don’t think she was suggesting that those people are wasting their time but I also don’t feel as though she respects them as much as somebody who would do the same, but for humans. Meanwhile, neither one of us is doing anything for anyone. (At least not on the level the people in the documentary are. We were in a comfortable car on our way to lunch with her child.) I was reminded of the Tim Minchin line “your dog has a bigger carbon footprint than a four wheel drive. And so does your baby, maybe you oughta trade him in for a Prius.” Not the same topic, obviously, but it makes a good point that we certainly pick our battles to heavily favor ourselves. To use myself as an example. I didn’t get a Keurig because I felt the little cups were wasteful, but I use a French press and occasionally I’m lazy and use a paper towel to get rid of the grounds. Is that any better? Maybe marginally, but I still make myself feel better by not using k-cups.
So she decided to highlight her philanthropy, though it may be unavoidably limited due to her financial situation, by degrading others actions. We all do. Can’t fault her.

The main line through our conversation was being happy in a seemingly overwhelmingly unhappy place. (Although, she’s religious so she sort of has an out with being rewarded in the afterlife, which makes suffering on earth not that horrible, and the whole, “God has a plan” thing means suffering have a purpose. For some reason she didn’t mention either.) Most of our lives appear to be incredibly self-centered. I’m worried about my happiness and finding meaning. Even when considering all the good we do for friends and family, and the amount we worry about their well-being, it’s all centered around us. The amount most of us do for people we’ll never meet and the time spent agonizing over their well-being is diminutive in comparison.

Our conversation went on for some time along those lines. I’m not sure we discovered anything important, but it felt good to talk about.

Happiness and Meaning Revisted

Sitting on the Fence

Last week (or something, I don’t remember, look it up), I wrote about sticking to your guns in the face of contrary evidence. I talked about how we all have this tendency to not only hold on to our beliefs but use faulty logic to make us feel better and more convinced that we are right in whatever it is we think is true.

One part that I left out of my post was our initial desire to pick sides. It’s true that opposing information makes us uncomfortable but we are also uncomfortable being undecided. Our brains aren’t huge fans of uncertainty. So when a topic comes up, we like to have an opinion about it and we like to think our opinions are correct. Plus, if we didn’t pick sides we would have nothing to add to the awesome family arguments during the holidays.

Anyway, I was listening to my favorite Australian-born comedian, actor, writer, musician, Tim Minchin and realized his song is better than anything I could write about the topic. And it’s also funny. So I lose, Tim wins. Everyone with good taste wins. I guess I come out even.

The chorus is especially relevant

“We divide the world into terrorists and heroes
Into normal folk and weirdos
Into good people and pedos
Into things that give you cancer and the things that cure cancer
And the things that don’t cause cancer, there’s a chance they will cause cancer in the future
We divide the world to stop us feeling frightened
Into wrong and into right and
Into black and into white and
Into real men and fairies
Into status quo and scary
Yeah we want the world binary, binary
but it’s not that simple.”

It’s easier and it makes us feel good and less afraid when make up our minds about something and hold on to it. But sometimes it’s better to be on the fence, where you can “see which grass is greener, chances are it’s neither and either way it’s easier to see the difference when you’re sitting on the fence”.

Sitting on the Fence

My Niece Aged

My niece turned 1 year(s?) old last week and there was a party, and annoying relatives, and not enough food, and uncomfortable temperatures and conversations, and standing around waiting for something to happen, and watching nothing happen, and all the rest that goes into a party for a human that doesn’t understand much about the world or his/her surroundings.

It was more stressful than anything, but hopefully the little child had some fun.

At the party there was a table with a box, a pen, and index cards on top of it (what a stupid way to say that). You were asked to write what you predicted this one year old person would do when she got older. Of course, I take things way too seriously and am bothered by the concept of guessing what she will be when she gets older based on almost nothing. Sure, she has a scaffolding of a personality. She has some likes and dislikes but they are hardly more than whims. One day she loves her blocks and the next she just wants to carry a giraffe around. But this guessing game is just a fun thing to do at a first birthday and will get some sentimentality points when she gets older. (Even though we know what they say about sentimentality.) It seemed like the point of the game was to write down the most silly possibility. Someone said Mars citizen. Someone said pilot. Other space stuff was popular.

Unfortunately, I’m some weird asshole who can’t just go along with what I’m supposed to do. I should have said a research scientist or professor or neurobiologist. Something related to what I like and what I want to do. It’s cute and saccharine. Twenty years later, “Aww, Matt wanted you to be a scientist like he failed to become!” But I couldn’t do it, or wouldn’t do it. I don’t know. This wasn’t some utilitarian test or anything, I could have written something fun if I forced myself to do it.

I spend a lot of time thinking about advice I would impart on my niece. Advice that I avoid writing down because I know how useless advice is. Telling someone something is one of the worst ways to teach. On top of that, I don’t want to force any idea on her.

But giving myself some leeway, how would I honestly answer what I think/want her to be when she grows up?

I want you to find meaning. I think the most important thing people lack, more than happiness or love, is meaning. I don’t think anything makes us stronger than having meaning in our lives. It makes us resilient because we all will struggle. Everyone and everything will let us down at some point. The people we love will hurt us or leave us. They will disappoint us. (And we’ll return the favors.)  But when everything is stripped away, that meaning won’t go. Fortunately, and unfortunately, this meaning can come from anywhere. It’s fortunate because that means you get to explore and find what fits you. That journey is some fun. But it’s unfortunate because that journey might also be horrible. It may hurt and be lonely and sometimes things will look bleak. And you have to keep pushing through all that horribleness to reach that more secure place, but everything in your head will be urging you to turn back and settle on something within reach. Something easy or immediate. It may be accepting a job you hate and plan on quitting until it’s time to retire or contemplating taking your life, depending on your mental state. You have to fight against yourself. And you will have to do it repeatedly. You’ll have to be smart enough to listen to your doubts when they are valid, and strong enough to dismiss them when they aren’t. It’s not easy. It sometimes won’t be any fun. I hate that I want you to experience any pain, but I truly think it’s the way to go. And there’s every possibility that you’ll be one of the few who figure it out quickly and without struggling. That’s okay, too. Suffering is not necessary, but sometimes unavoidable and I think we should be realistic about it. Be prepared for it, even if there is no good way to prepare.

I think I’m losing the thread now, so I’ll end here. I don’t know what I said, and don’t want to edit it, so I hope it’s somewhat coherent.




*There’s nothing more arrogant than giving advice. I write as if I understand more than everybody else. I don’t. I steal ideas that make the most sense to me then butcher them. Hopefully they’re good enough to survive the process of traveling through my head.

My Niece Aged


I’m looking through my notes app and wondering if any thought is worth writing down.

Here is one bullet point from the mess of ideas.

Cognitive constraints and emotional constraints. Want information in order to seem rational and want to feel good about that information. WESTON studies on political affiliation. Brain shuts down distress through faulty reasoning. Made the person feel good to use reasoning, even though it was faulty, to eliminate cognitive conflict.

Maybe you could tell that I was thinking in a specific direction. I’m very concerned with how emotions color reason. And how no one likes to consider him/herself irrational. We like passion, without a doubt, but not many people want to say, “I have no reason to think what I think. In fact, there are plenty of reasons to think the opposite of what I think. I’m completely irrational. Now celebrate me!”

But the problem that seems to come up all too frequently is deciding what we think well before we have any good reason to think whatever it is we think. This comes up in the form of confirmation bias a lot but it’s more subtle than that, as well. It isn’t as simple as ignoring conflicting information, it’s the tendency to reason in a way that doesn’t make sense. According to these studies (the details of which I’ve long forgotten and need to reread), people don’t care if their reasoning is solid or absurd. It looks like reasoning, it sounds like reasoning. It must be a duck.

So I have a stupid belief. I want to feel good about this belief. I want to feel like I have good reason to keep this belief. I want support. I go looking for information like a good little philosopher, and come back with all kinds of data and facts and opinions and ideas. I skim through however much I feel I need in order to support my belief. Panic! There is information that conflicts with my belief. My brain is in distress! Warning! Warning! Conflict! In order to shut off the alarm system, I need logic on my side. “I’m not crazy! Look, I have reasoning!” No matter what the information is, I can skew it to fit my belief. I’ve resolved the conflict without ever actually facing it. I used what resembles critical thinking to convince myself that the belief I already had is, and always was, correct.

The way I think is mostly concerned with conflict. I think those alarm systems should be listened to. What tends to happen is that the alarm is running in the background. Most of this happens unconsciously. We aren’t aware of the warnings and the issue is resolved on its own. (Meaning the brain does what it’s good at, resolves cognitive conflicts.) The only way to become part of the equation is to actively seek out conflicts and allow yourself to sit in them awhile. Marinate in the uncomfortable conflict. Sometimes we have to be alright with being uncomfortable in order to come to a correct conclusion. But it’s more than being alright. (Let me correct myself a moment after making a statement, like an idiot, and not edit this.) We have to find the uncomfortable thoughts in our heads. The ideas and beliefs we hold most dear have to be challenged the hardest. That’s such an uncomfortable thing to do that many people would rather avoid it. (We call it a crisis of faith, not a fun belief challenge time!)

Alright, there’s the first entry in my Expanding on Notes series.


I’m Going to Hell

Dear, any or all, religious people,

Assuming you believe in heaven and hell, how do you feel about your non-believing family and friends going to hell for eternity?

I’ve tried to talk to a few people about this before but got really vague answers that basically skirted the question until we both got tired of going in circles and moved on. One person claimed she had no idea who went where (I feel like there is a sort of guidebook out there somewhere) and apparently never entertained the thought that her non-believing loved ones might go to hell. (I have a hard time believing she was being honest.)

Eternity is an incredibly long time, one might argue it’s the longest. Punishing someone for eternity is fairly extreme. We tend to think murderers should be jailed, or punished, for a set number of years. Only the most heinous criminals receiving life, or multiple life, terms. Imagine the criminal sitting in court being sentenced to eternity. That’s pretty absurd. What crime might she have to commit to deserve such a punishment? Genocide level crimes?

Yet, here I am, a perfectly messed up little idiot of a person, but harmless in most significant ways, under threat of eternal punishment. Now, some more liberal religious people out there may believe that being a good person is enough to earn a spot in heaven, but I’m not sure which holy book preaches that. There’s a lot about repenting and accepting so and so into your heart and soul. There are some other rules about praying and sex and marriage and children and on and on. Point being, unless you believe in this rather nebulous version of heaven and hell and which rules are important, some people who are, by all accounts, relatively good will be going to hell. Someone you love is probably going to hell according to your beliefs. That’s the heart of it. How does it feel to think that might be the case? I feel like it would drive me crazy, so how do you come to terms with it?

(If you believe in god and heaven and hell, but don’t think good non-believers, or good other-believers, are going to hell, then disregard the questions.)

I don’t want to start a theological debate, because this isn’t about whether or not any gods exist. It’s purely asking how it feels to think that someone you love is going to hell for eternity. For instance, maybe as a result you avoid forming relationships with people who don’t believe the same things as you do. Or maybe it motivates you to try to convert those you love. But when that doesn’t work and your brother, sister, aunt, niece, close friend, or etc. doesn’t believe, and you know most likely never will, how does it feel? I can’t wrap my head around believing something like that, so I thought I’d ask. And honestly, I’m scared to ask a few people close to me that I’m fairly certain do believe this about me. (I think they would try to avoid answering, even though we all know what’s happening to me.)


Oh, and if any religious people are reading this thinking I’m a terrible person who belongs in hell, you don’t need to tell me. I’ve heard. I’m genuinely curious about what it feels like for believers, if anyone is willing to answer. Thank you.



I’m Going to Hell


God wasn’t a concept I grew up considering. It was just true. It always was. It was assumed. It was as prevalent as anything else I can think of. It was in our pledge at school, on our money, on tv, and almost every sports star, singer, and actor thanked god at every turn. I never felt there was any other option. That’s one of the reasons I’m so happy vocal atheists exist. Besides teaching me how to debate (in general), pointing out faulty logic, and how to use reason; they give people another choice. I don’t doubt that famous atheists existed when I was younger, but it’s certainly changed now. So much so that religious news networks are telling me there’s a war on Christmas and Jesus. I can’t take those kinds of things seriously at all, but at least it’s hinting that secularism is more visible. Whether more people want to be secular or not, I don’t really care, as long as it’s a recognized option and more people get to choose. When I was younger I was terrified of losing my faith. Every time I questioned something, I thought I was going to hell… FOREVER. Eternity is a difficult concept for an adult to understand so maybe I can take some comfort in not realizing what forever meant, but not much comfort. It was still horrifying as a kid. I tried, repeatedly, to find faith and god. Primarily because I thought I had to. I thought everyone did. I thought it was normal and if I didn’t believe there was something seriously wrong with me. There was no pop culture or science poisoning my thoughts. The doubt came from me and even when I didn’t know it was okay to not believe, I still questioned. But when I would consider what I was thinking, I felt alone.

It may sound like I grew up in a very religious household, but I didn’t. Both my parents believe in god, but they don’t attend church and they never shoved the idea down my throat. It was just so common in my environment that I thought I needed to believe too.

I don’t know what it’s like for young people today. They might feel as alone as I did, but I hope not. Even if they end up being religious, I hope they see they have options and wherever they land, they won’t be alone.





note: this wasn’t intended to change anyone’s mind about religion or even be much a discussion about religion itself (though I’m happy to discuss it). I had a short conversation with a friend earlier today about growing up. We both had a heck of a time struggling with doubt and agreed that it’s a shame when vocal atheists are ridiculed, especially by other nonreligious people. We had similar experiences when we finally learned it was okay to be nonreligious. We both read a book and finally realized that you can be a perfectly normal human being and not believe in a god.