The Challenge of Trying to Enlarge the Pie

I often feel that we are moving so fast toward the future that we are advancing beyond our means. I think we are in some ways exceeding the capacity that we have evolved to fit, and this is creating great challenges for humans across the globe. We have new technologies, new social structures, and new understandings of our places in the world and in the universe more broadly that exceed the type of living that we evolved to succeed with.

 

A passage from Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson’s book The Elephant in the Brain highlighted this for me. They write, “Despite the fact that it’s possible to cooperate, politically, in ways that “enlarge the pie” for everyone, this is the exception rather than the rule – especially for our distant ancestors. In most contexts, for one coalition to succeed, others must fail. Importantly, however, members within a coalition can earn themselves a larger slice of the pie by cooperating – a fact that makes politics such an intoxicating game.”

 

The line about our ancestors being incapable of expanding the pie for everyone is important. Without much technology, without shared languages and translation, and in a state of constant threat from nature, it is easy to see why our early ancestors were limited to a state of competition with each other for social status, sex, and politics. There simply were too few humans, too few easily accessible resources, and too few scalable technologies for everyone to be sufficiently comfortable and connected.

 

We now live in a new world, where literally 7.5 million people in the San Francisco metropolitan statistical area are constantly thinking about ways to build new technology to scale to improve the lives of all people, not just the people they are connected with. We understand that our actions can have global manifestations, and that we need global solutions to address climate change and other existential threats. Our technology and ways of thinking have surpassed the world our ancestors lived in, and have created a new game for us to play, however, we are still stuck in the zero-sum mindset of our ancestors, asking what we can do to get a bigger share of the pie for our narrow coalition.

 

Understanding why we fall into thinking about narrow coalitions is important. Recognizing the way our brains work and why they are limited helps us see new potentials. Understanding how we can change our thoughts and how we and others will react in a world that offers so much more is key to actually living up to our new potential as a global species.

Creating History

Physics often times does not align with what we expect. But really, there is no reason that the physics we experience here on our planet with our limited senses should lead us to perfectly predict how physics and reality play out across the universe. Trespassing on Einstein’s Lawn is an excellent physics book because it takes readers with little scientific background through the complex paradoxes and challenges of physics to explore the furthest reaches of our scientific thought. Author Amanda Gefter herself is not a physicist, and learned to understand physics first as a hobby, and later (as detailed in her book) as a bit of an obsessive search for the universe’s ultimate building block.

Along her journey, Gefter introduces us to John Wheeler, a physicist who wrote with an almost poetic style when describing the complex science that he worked on. Wheeler helps us understand that one of the things within human experience that is so fundamental to how we view reality, is not quite as solid as we would expect. He is quoted  by Gefter writing, “We used to think that the world exists ‘out there’ independent of us.” When we study physics we are actually adjusting and changing the past. We are not looking at an independent system that existed before us a certain way. When we measure and observe the past, we actually can change it from the present. This is explained by Gefter with further help from Wheeler by describing experiments with photons to measure how sub-atomic particles travel. Light is made of photons, but it acts as a wave, with probabilities based on the wave function determining where the photons of the light will be. Once, however, we make an observation of a single photon, the probabilistic wave function ceases to exist, and the photon acts as a particle, and not as a wave. Up until we make our measurement however, the photon is a series of probabilities and behaves as a wave, the same way a wave behaves in the open ocean, and not as a particle on a direct path.

Gefter writes, “Delayed-choice experiments have been carried out in laboratories, and each time they’ve worked just as wheeler suggested. It’s an established scientific fact: measurements in the present can rewrite history. No, not rewrite. Just write. Prior to observation, there is no history, just a haze of possibility, a past waiting to be born. ‘There is no more remarkable feature of this quantum world than the strange coupling it brings about between future and past,’ Wheeler wrote. If observations we make today can create a billion-year-old past, so, too, can observations made in the future help build the universe we see today.”

In the quote above Gefter is describing the same experiments with photons, but looking at photos billions of light years away from us that had to travel across the universe and split on one side or another of a black hole, universe, or other star to reach one of our telescopes. The path taken by a given photon is best described by the probabilistic wave function with all the features, such as frequency and amplitude, of physical waves that we can observe on earth. But once we make an observation in a telescope to measure the path the photon took around a galaxy, black hole, or star, the wave function no longer describes the photon, and the photon has to have followed a set pathway, a pathway that was not determined until it reached our planet, billions of years after it was emitted from its original source.

The physics is beyond my ability to describe, but the key point is that we are human and have limited brain space and experiential ability. We can only experience first hand so many sensations and realities. More possibilities exist than we can experience and understand. Thinking that we can ever describe reality in the most comprehensive manner is a great dream for scientists and physicists to work toward, but we will always be limited by the fact that we are human and can only experience the world in so many ways. Things that we take to be so certain, like history and the passage of time, seem to be interconnected with the present and the future in ways that we can’t quite explain right now.

Becoming the Master of Our Own Destinies

Why do we hesitate before taking on new opportunities, especially when those opportunities are ones that we tell people we have wanted? Why do we wait for another person to be a catalyst for action in our own lives? These are questions that Colin Wright asks in his book Come Back Frayed. He looks at our hesitation during times of opportunity and our lack of self belief during  times of challenge, and encourages us to be the ones who drive and dictate our lives instead of leaving our lives to be shaped by people beyond us.  He writes,

 

“We create our own continuity. We mustn’t depend on someone else to construct our frame works for us. … But we are the masters of our destinies and direction. We are the most capable, competent, correct people for this particular job. All we have to do is recognize this and accept the responsibility.”

 

Wrights quote comes after an explanation of how our reactions to struggles either provide us with opportunity for growth or keep us from being able to change for the better. By adapting to the obstacles we face and using the experiences and challenges as building blocks for growth, we can make sure that our personal evolutions are marked by positive changes. When we do this, we create our own future. We decide how we will react to the world around us and build our own scaffolding toward the success we desire.

 

Throughout his writing, Wright seems to acknowledge how much of the world and universe truly lies beyond our control. We cannot shape how other people will behave, we cannot control natural disasters, and we cannot truly predict any future event, but this does not mean that we must surrender our lives and allow ourselves to be pushed in any direction by the forces outside ourselves. Instead, by controlling our mind (the only thing we can possibly have control over) we can shape the direction of our journey through the choices and reactions to those outside factors.

 

The first step in this process is accepting responsibility for our decisions, actions, and thoughts. From this point we begin to decide how we will react to what goes on around us and if we will use adversity to propel us forward. It requires that we stop looking at limitations in our lives as reasons not to move forward or pursue a goal, and it requires that we elevate our vision of what we believe possible for ourselves, recognizing that our mental framing will determine how creative our future can be, and how persistent we can be on our path forward.

 

I want to also push back against Wright’s quote and some of the suggestions that this perspective may create. Controlling the faculties of our mind and accepting responsibility for our own agency does not mean that we will find economic success, which is the default version of success that American’s refer to.  Epictetus certainly believed in his own agency in his thoughts, decisions, and reactions, but he lived as a slave for much of his life without an opportunity to pursue wealth. The forces that are beyond us may be so limiting as to squash any hopes that we have of reaching specific goals, especially in a world so easily shaped by inherent bias, but nevertheless, we can thoroughly evaluate our motivations and goals, and always find a reasonable measure of success which does not tie in with monetary figures set by people external to us. Wright’s suggestion encourages us to pursue great goals and to be the agents driving toward those goals, and while it is important to practice building that mindset, what we also must consider is how arbitrary those goals can become, especially if not set by ourselves and our own true reflection.

The Power of the Present

Marcus Aurelius believed in the power of the mind and our ability to control our thoughts to overcome our challenges and find peace with ourselves and the situations we find ourselves in.  In his book Meditations he wrote down his personal thoughts and struggles so that he could return to what he had learned from philosophers and life experience. He kept the book as a journal that he could use to help himself learn and grow through difficult situations, and one topic he returns to throughout Meditations is the idea of being present in the current moment.  Aurelius wrote,

 

“Do not disturb thyself by thinking of the whole of thy life. Let not thy thoughts at once embrace all the various troubles which thou mayest expect to befall thee: but on every occasion ask thyself, What is there in this which is intolerable and past bearing? for thou wilt be ashamed to confess. In the next place remember that neither the future nor the past pains thee, but only the present. But this is reduced to a very little, if thou only circumscribest it, and chidest thy mind, if it is unable to hold out against even this.”

 

His paragraph speaks about  recognizing our present moment and taking our mind off events in the past that we cannot change and away from the possibilities of the future that we cannot predict.   He also recognizes that our present moment is the only moment that can truly impact where our life is heading, and reminds the reader to look at the present moment with all the clarity possible.  Seeing each moment as it exists right now helps us change the way we think and ultimately change our perception of the present moment.

 

Living in the present is a challenge because we are constantly pulled toward the history of our  past while simultaneously pushed toward a future that we cannot see. We bring the lessons, pains, emotions, and fears of our past with us as we move toward a future that we desire and wish to be better than our current circumstance.  All of this, Aurelius would argue, ultimately fails us on our quest to become the best version of ourselves possible.  Worrying about what has befallen us allows our past to impact our future, and stressing the future takes us away from the present, preventing us from being able to maximize our current actions.  For Aurelius, in stoic fashion, there is only the present, and it is up to us to recognize the present and take all the necessary steps to create the perfect present for ourselves regardless of our history or future plans.

 

What the Roman emperor also builds into his thoughts about the present moment is our ability to choose how we wish to experience the present.  We can decide that the present action, fortune, or obstacle in front of us is insurmountable or an aid for us on our journey.  If we approach life shying away from our challenges and looking only for what is comfortable, then we will never achieve our fullest potential.  What Aurelius in his quote above urges us to do is forget our past and future and focus on our ability to be great in this current moment.  It is only our opinion which determines whether anything is good for us or negative, and it is in our power of mind to decide how we will react to challenges and behave when faced with arduous tasks. Ultimately, we create the reality of our present moment.