Sunday, July 27, 2014

How much do we see?

[Johnathan Clayborn]

Yesterday I was having one of my classical philosophical mind trips where I sit in awe at the nature of the universe. I was thinking about vision. We use our eyes to inform ourselves about so many things. For most of us, our vision is a very large part of how we perceive the world. We can see what time of day it is, what the weather is like, if there's danger approaching. We can observe our fellow humans and animals and see their behavior. For most of us, our eyes are critical to understanding our world. And yet, for all of the importance that we place on our vision and our eyesight, our eyes don't really see anything at all.

There are many different estimates of how far the human eye can see. A lot of it has to do with ambient light, elevation, etc. But, assuming that you are standing in an open field during the day and you are looking around you can see fairly large objects at distances up to 20 miles. Assuming that your line of sight is a radius and you could turn and look equally in every direction, then your total field of view would be calculated by π(20)^2. 3.14159265359 * 20 * 20 = 1256.637061436 Square Miles. That's how much you can see at any given time. The entire surface of the Earth is 139,430,000 square miles. This means that as much of the earth as you are seeing is still only 0.000901267% of the planet we call home. Even if we made a more liberal assumption that you could see 100 miles in every direction, you would still only see 0.022531684% of our home. If you round that to the nearest 10th, then that means that everything that you're looking at right now, everything you can see, is 0% of the Earth. You see nothing. All of the wonders and beauties of our planet account for an infinitesimally small fraction of our home, so small that it's less than 1/10th of 1/4 of 1% of the earth.

Not even close to 0% of the Earth. Photo Credit Ben Foley

Thinking about things from a different perspective let's talk about space for a moment. Just looking at stars in the sky, at best we can see about 8,479 stars unaided with a telescope on any given night, assuming average lighting conditions. There, according to the average estimates, 200 Billion stars in the Milky Way galaxy. That means that what you can see accounts for only 0.0000042395% of our home galaxy. A more realistic calculation is that we can see only 2,500 stars unaided with a telescope from any given point on the Earth at once. That's only 0.00000125% of our galaxy.

Milky Way Galaxy
Not even close to 0% of the Milky Way. Photo Credit National Geographic. 

Switching to a larger scale and talking about entire galaxies, the number is even smaller. Without the aid of a telescope you can see the Milky Way (our home galaxy), plus Andromeda, and the Large Magellanic Cloud, as well as the Small Magellanic Cloud. That makes a whopping total of 4 galaxies. There are, according to the most recent estimates, 500 Billion galaxies in the universe. That's 0.0000000008% of the universe. Even with the aid of the Hubble Telescope we can see only 10,000 galaxies at once. That's 0.000002% of the universe. All of the beauty and wonder of the galaxy, all of the planets, all of the stars, and the nebulae, and supernovas, and comets. Everything that we know, everything that we see accounts for nothing in comparison of the entire universe. We know 8 to the -10th power of the universe.

0% of the Universe as seen from the Hubble Telescope. Photo credit - NASA.

And what about what we do see? What we do see is in the form of visible light, which is a form of radiation that is part of the electromagnetic spectrum. It might surprise you to learn that, calculated on a linear scale, the amount of light, color, everything that you can see with your eyes accounts for only 0.0035% of the entire EM spectrum. We are completely blind to radio waves, microwaves, infrared waves, ultraviolet waves, x-rays, and Gamma Rays, all of which are part of the EM spectrum. Every flower, every bird, every piece of art, literally everything we see is only a tiny fraction of the actual amount of things that are theoretically able to be seen.

Our eyes are also completely unable to see any of the other invisible forces at work constantly around us; wind, barometric pressure, gravity, temperature, and so on. And while we can observe specific behaviors, we have no idea why those behaviors are occurring. We can't see other people's thoughts.

For all of the beauty and splendor and awe-inspiring things that we can see, when compared to the scope of reality, we see absolutely nothing. And yet, many of us still continue to rely so heavily on our eyes to make decisions for us instead of letting some of our other senses and feelings take over.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Perception, Reality, and Words

[Johnathan Clayborn]

I have been thinking a lot about relationships, perception, truth, reality, and fate the last couple of weeks. So much so that I'm compelled to write a rambling article about it because I have no one else who will really understand my meaning anyway. It turns out the sometimes the people who you think understand you the best don't really understand at all. There's so much that's running through my head that I don't even know where to begin.

First, I wanted to start with the concept that God/fate brings people into our lives for a reason. I don't think that this is true anymore. I used to wholeheartedly believe it. I used to think that we were meant to cross paths with people for some kind of grand-reason that was beyond our knowledge or understanding. Now? I can't possibly fathom how that could be so. Sometimes things just don't make sense. 

Perception is another thing that I've been thinking about recently also. It's been brought to my attention that some people have the idea that just because people appear calm, reserved, or self-contained on the outside, surely it must mean that they are simply devoid of emotions on the inside as well. Some people I know are emotional time-bombs. They're highly emotional people and they show everyone exactly how they feel by laughing, or crying, or screaming, or yelling, or whatever the case is. There is aboslutely nothing wrong with that. But, a lot of those people also think that because other people don't express their emotions the same way that it somehow means that their emotions aren't as intense. They don't realize that the collected exterior shell is simply a mask that they wear for the world and that under that shell is a turbulent storm of emotions that boils with the intensity of 1,000 burning suns. Just because people don't actively express outward bursts of emotion doesnt mean that they don't feel more strongly about something than you can imagine. I would argue, in fact, that in most cases the reserved people probably feel more strongly than the outbursters. My basis for that statement is because the act of having an outburst of emotion triggers an emotional release that allows the floodgates to open as some of that pressure to bleed off. Collected people don't have that same release, or if they do, it's too much to handle or too late. That's part of the reason that people say "it's the quiet ones that you have to watch". The highest rates of suicide are among those who are calm and collected on the outside. (And no, that's not a cry for help or an implication that I'm contemplating suicide, that's merely an example to demonstrate that people who don't express emotions outwardly very much feel with great intensity).

With regards to truth and reality, they weave an intertangled web. It's very easy to sit down and talk about general facts and information. People can deal in facts, they provide data and arguments in their case to make their point. The evidence can be considered and weighed and judged. When dealing with personal matters and feelings, this is almost impossible. You say that feel this way? Really? Well, where's your proof? It's easy for people to make up their mind about a situation and then fall into cognitive biases like confirmation bias and discount or discredit anything that's presented. "Oh, well, yes, you said that, and I can see that, but you didn't do it sooner so whatever you're saying must be a lie to cover up some nefarious plot". Or, "you've said that already, you keep saying the same thing. While it's possible that you keep saying the same thing because it's true, it's much easier to believe that it's just a line that you're feeding me so that I can keep clinging to my biased opinion of how things are". Certainly, those developments of bias aren't without cause or provocation. Something happened to cause people to develop that way of thinking in the first place. But once they've latched on to that ideal, it's nearly impossible to convince them of the actual truth no matter how hard you may try. This is doubly true when you are talking to the kind of person who deals with emotions through outburts and you are a reserved type. Because you don't make the same outbursts, your words must not be true either. The whole thing must just be some sort of scheme. Often as a result of that people begin to convince themselves that relationships between people meant different things to the other person. Two people can both go into a relationship feeling and thinking the same thing. But, within a short time it could easily be a situation where one person still feels the same way about the relationship and the other person feels like they were being used, or played, or whatever the case is. It makes it easier to replace the other person if we just convince ourselves that they were being disingenuous the whole time and never meant anything they said.

Words alone are a wholly inadequate expression of feeling. Words convey thought, but not feeling. I love you is a wholly meaningless expression. I'm sorry is a meaningless expression. You can say these things to people all day long, but it is not possible for them to feel what is in your heart. Since they can't feel what you feel, the words that you are trying to use to convey those feelings creates an impossible scenario. It's like trying to count out ten trillion dollars in pennies. You imagine that as "a lot", but you cannot possibly, realistically visualize exactly how much. As a result you wholly understimate the magnitude of the expression. You might be trying to convey ten trillion dollars in pennies with your words, but the person hearing it might only hear ten thousand dollars in pennies, because that's all they can imagine. If this is coupled with someone who has fallen prey to confirmation bias and has begun convincing themselves that everything that you say is a well-rehearsed line as opposed to a fact, or that it was all a game or lie to begin with, it represents an extremely morose exercise in futility. Some people might say "I'm scared", or "I'm terrified", but again, it's totally meaningless. Without being able to feel what you feel there's no possible way that anyone will ever understand the true gravity of that emotion or the paralysis it might induce. This is a departure from my way of thinking as well. A few weeks ago I was a self-proclaimed logophile (lover of words). I used to think that words had a grand purpose and meaning, that they were the glue that held society and civilization together, that with the proper selection of words, you can make anyone understand anything. This is no longer true for me. Words have lost a lot of their meaning and value to me. They will never again hold that same special place in my mind as they did before.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

The measure of a man

[Johnathan Clayborn]

Recently I've found myself asking what makes a person a "good person". Sure, the obvious answers are they have a sense of ethics and morals. But, ethical and moral codes are subjective and dependent entirely on the cultures and religions that define them. What is considered perfectly ethical one in culture is not ethical in another culture. But, beyond that, what makes a person a good person? Are there universal traits that make a person "good"?

Respect for other people is probably one trait that I would mark highly on the list of a good person. Do they treat people equally and fairly in all situations? Do they think themselves equal to everyone or do they see themselves as superior to others? Do they treat service staff like human beings instead of servants? Do they treat everyone with the respect and dignity that they deserve, or they think that they own other people directly or indirectly?

Falling right along those lines similarly is compassion. Do they have compassion for others? Are they likely to give up their last $5 so that  someone starving and homeless on the street  can get some food, or are they likely to walk past saying that they deserve it? Do they protect those who are weaker than they are, or do they prey on them?

What about integrity? Is this a mandate of a good person? Many would argue, Yes. I would be inclined to agree with them. In it's most basic form integrity means doing what you say that you are going to do and doing the right thing even when no one is looking. It means being able to live with yourself after all is said and done.

What about selflessness? I would argue yes again here as well. are they willing to go out of their way to help others? Are they willing to help others at all? Would they park at the top of a freeway off-ramp and walk 1/2 mile back down the hill to help some poor sap push their 1974 Cadillac up the hill in August in Phoenix asking for nothing in return, or would they continue to drive by? Would they spend $100 of their own money to buy wooden cross necklaces for the homeless just to give them a glimmer of hope, or do they think that homeless people should have to work for everything that they need too?

What about community improvement/civic duty? Are they requirements for a good person? Do they volunteer in things that make not just their own lives better, but increase the betterment of the whole neighborhood? Is that a requirement for a good person, or does that play a factor at all?

If these general codes are the essence of a good person, how much margin of error is a person, a human being, allowed before they go from being a good person to a bad person? Is it one strike and you're suddenly a bad person? By this criteria I hit every single mark of a good person on this list. So that makes me a good person, right? But what I've lied? What if I've made mistakes? what if I had allowed myself to develop a bad behavior due to an intense emotional stimulus? Am I still a good person then, or does that mistake overwrite all of the good that's within me?

When we judge other people we should take care not judge people by their behaviors alone, but by the entirety of their character and their intent and motivations for those behaviors. Someone very dear to me told me that they didn't believe that people can change. I think that for the most part this is true, but with a critically important caveat; a person's nature cannot change, but a person's behavior can. If a person is self-absorbed and is only interested in getting what they can for themselves, then they will not likely change that nature save for an act of divine intervention. However, if a person has developed a bad habit, a bad behavior, or something about them that is otherwise negative we should take care to ask ourselves if the cause for this behavior can be removed or changed, or if we are going to discard all of the positive traits that a person has because of a temporary situation. Addicts of all sorts successfully go through rehabilitation programs all of the time. They are usually good people who are in a bad spot. But, someone saw enough good in them to help them through their situation and give them a different set of behaviors, a way to change their pattern and their stimulus that drives that behavior. Shouldn't we afford that same chance to everyone? Shouldn't everyone be given a second chance to demonstrate that they have the propensity to change, and that they can go from being good people to wonderfully amazing people? At what point are people resigned to their sins and deemed hopeless?

Much adverse human behavior is predicated by one solitary emotion: fear. What each of us fears is different, but fear compels us to act in strange ways that are outside of our normal character and pattern of behavior. A very good friend of mine once told me that fear is nothing but "False Emotions Appearing Real". I really wish I had remembered that advice sooner, but I can tell you from experience that fear can cast a pretty intensive and realistic hallucination on your mind if you let it and in the process you can ruin the best things that have ever happened to you and the things that matter most in life. If you find yourself stuck in a situation of inaction as I was, or overly nervous about doing something, like forgiving, trusting, or making a change in your life, ask yourself what is it that you are truly afraid of. Dig deep, find the cause, and wipe it out. Fear has never done anything good for anyone and only serves to allow many of the best things to become tarnished, broken, or lost completely. Don't let the wonderful people in your life slip away because of fear. That is a regret that you will have forever because, sadly, there was no real reason for it in the first place.

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Emotional Stability and Motivation

[Johnathan Clayborn]

Recently something has happened that has rocked my emotional foundation to its very core. I have always been aware of how much emotional needs tie into other aspects of life, but this time I am acutely so. What I've also discovered is that the pyramid shape of the hierarchy, if it is truly a pyramid, can experience earthquakes (..or need-quakes?) .

The traditional hierarchy is presented in 5 levels, the base of the pyramid, and the most important level, is physiological needs; food, water, warmth, rest, etc. Then after you have is Safety and Security, then Belongingness and Love needs, then Esteem Needs, and finally self-actualization at the top.

In theory, if something in the middle of the pyramid breaks, it should affect the levels above it. However, this isn't necessarily true. For example, hypothetically speaking, suppose the person that you are madly in love with suddenly decides that they don't want to be in a relationship with you. This is revealed in the middle layer; love and belonging. Certainly, you don't feel loved or like you belong. Certainly being rejected in such a fashion can damage your ego and self-esteem, which in turn topples the self-actualization component. Why try making something beautiful like art or working on self-improvement, when you don't feel worthy of being improved to begin with?

What surprised me was that this upset to the middle layer also reverberates back down to the lower levels as well. When there's a major disruption to something like that people usually do not eat or sleep, or if they do it is in small amounts. This belies the nature of the first layer and flies in its face as a contradiction. It can also affect the safety and security layer as well. Some people are actually motivated to hurt themselves physically, but even those who are not have a general feeling of apathy and won't try as hard to keep themselves safe as before. They either don't care about their bodies or their health as they should, or they don't avoid risky behavior like they should and sometimes actually seek it out. All these actions contradict the pyramid shaped hierarchy structure.

A disruption to emotional stability, especially a drastic and unexpected one can have serious consequences to motivation and thoughts of self-worth. It definitely affects a person's self-esteem profoundly. The effects of these impacts to the hierachy are often long-lasting and can be quite serious. In some cases these effects can be life-long.