an intergalactic experiment

“Planet Earth in our solar system is a kind of zoo for extraterrestrial beings who dwell out there somewhere. And this is the best, the most interesting experiment they could set up: to set up the evolution on Planet Earth going in such a way that it would produce these really interesting characters — humans who go around doing things — and they watch their experiment, interfering hardly at all so that almost everything we do comes out w_d_hamiltonaccording to the laws of nature. But every now and then they see something which doesn’t look quite right — this zoo is going to kill itself off if they let you do this or that.”

Biologist William D. Hamilton

The New York Times recently ran a column by Robert Wright, Can Evolution Have a ‘Higher Purpose’,  of great interest to the Omnivore. This life of ours, this planet, this way with which we deal with each other and with events has always seemed like a very poorly-designed science project, and certainly the happenings of 2016 have only seemed to validate this even more.

Wnyt-evolutionilliam Hamilton died in 2000 at the age of 63, a noted evolutionary biologist who helped unify Darwin’s principles of natural selection and pioneered the use of computers in biology, including complex simulations.

Most unexpectedly, in an interview conducted in 1992 by Mr. Stone (which was to focus on a documentary he was preparing on evolutionary psychology) Mr. Hamilton began speaking about his firm conviction that life as we know it, on our planet Earth, was actually more of a social experiment being orchestrated by extraterrestrial life forms and that adjustments were being made whenever we seemed doomed to hurtle ourselves into oblivion.  Interview with William Hamilton

tysonAnother recent article from a reputable source amplified on the same theme. In Scientific American, Neil deGrasse Tyson, director of the American Museum of Natural History’s Hayden Planetarium, put the odds at 50-50 that our entire existence is a program on someone else’s hard drive. “I think the likelihood may be very high,” he said.

scientific-american

The article, entitled Are We Living in a Computer Simulation? posited the possibility, much as Hamilton had 25 years earlier, that we were all part of a giant intergalactic simulation, or game, as you were (although the Omnivore has always wanted to think of it more as a project, rather than an extraterrestrial version of ‘Warcraft’, albeit with real blood).

A popular argument for the simulation hypothesis came from University of Oxford philosopher Nick Bostrum in 2003, when he suggested that members of an advanced civilization with enormous computing power might decide to run simulations of their ancestors.  They would probably have the ability to run many, many such simulations, to the point where the vast majority of minds would actually be artificial ones within such simulations, rather than the original ancestral minds. So simple statistics suggest it is much more likely that we are among the simulated minds.

So just how long has this theory been around? And how many of us have the strong feeling that this particular social experiment is running out of time?

The BBC recently addressed the issue in its acclaimed ‘Earth’ series, in a program entitled We Might Live in a Computer Program But it May Not Matter.

The idea that we live in a simulation has some high-profile advocates.

In June 2016, technology entrepreneur Elon Musk assertedthat the odds are “a billion to one” against us living in “base reality”.

Similarly, Google’s machine-intelligence guru Ray Kurzweil has suggested that “maybe our whole universe is a science experiment of some junior high-school student in another universe”.

Much as in the ‘Matrix’, the central question seems to be: what is real? Is any of this? Are we sentient beings or simply complex creations in a vast experiment? And, really, does it matter. According to the BBC:

Who is to say that before long we will not be able to create computational agents – virtual beings – that show signs of consciousness? Advances in understanding and mapping the brain, as well as the vast computational resources promised by quantum computing, make this more likely by the day.

If we ever reach that stage, we will be running huge numbers of simulations. They will vastly outnumber the one “real” world around us.Is it not likely, then, that some other intelligence elsewhere in the Universe has already reached that point? If so, it makes sense for any conscious beings like ourselves to assume that we are actually in such a simulation, and not in the one world from which the virtual realities are run. The probability is just so much greater.

bbc

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a world where poetry matters

Poetry is so important for the human soul, so incredibly nurturing and one of the best ways to replenish the spirit. We are all poets…David Whyte shows us how…

The Lightest Touch

Good poetry begins with
the lightest touch,
a breeze arriving from nowhere,
a whispered healing arrival,
a word in your ear,
a settling into things,
then like a hand in the dark
it arrests the whole body,
steeling you for revelation.

In the silence that follows
a great line
you can feel Lazarus
deep inside
even the laziest, most deathly afraid
part of you,
lift up his hands and walk toward the light.

— David Whyte
from Everything is Waiting for You

the nature of luck

“Nature creates ability; luck provides it with opportunity.” François de la Rochefoucauld

Many of us are obsessed with luck. Recent record lottery jackpots had millions of  extra tickets, as much as 50% more than usual, sold in both Canada and the Netherlands. Clearly, luck is something that we not only are looking for, many of us think there is a chance that we’ll find it. Consider the Merriam-Webster definition:

luck

noun \ˈlək\

a : a force that brings good fortune or adversity b : the events or circumstances that operate for or against an individual

Seldom do you hear those who reach the heights of their professions, however, allude to luck as being a factor. And yet, it may be the only one of significance. That train connection that you just managed to make, the last seat on the plane you were able to purchase, the phone call you returned at exactly the right moment…these were all ‘right place, right time’ factors, a force that brought good fortune.  Synchrodestiny, written in the stars, or luck…there are some things in life that just can’t be put down to our own innate skill…or can they?

Veteran Canadian test pilot and astronaut Chris Hadfield will take over command of the International Space Station in 2013, the first Canadian to do so. This is a significant honour, both personally and for the nation, so recently on the CBC 1 radio show ‘Comment’, Colonel Hadfield was asked what the most important factor was in his career, and why it was that he was being chosen.  Being a little cynical, the Omnivore expected the standard ‘I’ve been training for this opportunity my entire life’, and ‘this will be my third space mission, so I have the experience for the position’. Instead, Hadfield replied –

“the most important factor in my career has been luck, specifically, surrounding myself with lucky people”.

The interviewer was also surprised, and asked him for more details. Well, said Hadfield, lucky people are those who have discovered early on what it is that they are best at. They focus on these key skills and talents, getting better and better at what they do, which means they succeed at what they attempt more often than people who never really understand (or are able to) do what they could do best.  He would like to see luck, and what causes it, acknowledged more as a reason for professional or team success.  In putting together a team, he always looks at people’s career track records and their resultant success rates. When he finds someone who has performed to a standard of excellence, consistently, over their career, he knows he’s found his lucky teammate.

So is it luck? Is this a new definition of luck? Honing in on what it is that makes us special? The Omnivore has realized for a long time that it takes 100 times more effort to complete a task for which we have no aptitude (and often little interest) than it does to complete one for which we have real interest and ability. And, let’s face it, we’ll probably still do the task we’re not good at badly (a wonderful reason for outsourcing your taxes if you can afford it, by the way). The things that come easily, well, the tasks just seem to complete themselves. And our success rate…

So think it about, the Omnivore certainly has been. Looking back on successes, be they personal or professional…how many were due to hard work, to opportunity, and how many to just using the tools that one was born with, and using them well.

And something the Omnivore is taking away from Colonel Hadfield…when you really want to get something done well, surround yourself with lucky people!

speaking to the heart

A few years ago, the Omnivore had the great pleasure of hearing David Whyte speak on his work, his vision for living, and read aloud some of his exquisite poetry. She recently discovered this wonderful, and very apt, David Whyte poem on fellow wordpress blogger Inspirare‘s website, and would like to share it. Hopefully it will resonate with some in the same way it has with the Omnivore….and if this is your first introduction to the peerless David Whyte….enjoy, enjoy, enjoy.

The Truelove

 by David Whyte

There is a faith in loving fiercely
the one who is rightfully yours,
especially if you have
waited years and especially
if part of you never believed
you could deserve this
loved and beckoning hand
held out to you this way.

I am thinking of faith now
and the testaments of loneliness
and what we feel we are
worthy of in this world.

Years ago in the Hebrides
I remember an old man
who walked every morning
on the grey stones
to the shore of the baying seals,

who would press his hat
to his chest in the blustering
salt wind and say his prayer
to the turbulent Jesus
hidden in the water,

and I think of the story
of the storm and everyone
waking and seeing
the distant
yet familiar figure
far across the water
calling to them,

and how we are all
preparing for that
abrupt waking,
and that calling,
and that moment
we have to say yes,
except it will
not come so grandly,
so Biblically,
but more subtly
and intimately in the face
of the one you know
you have to love,

so that when we finally step out of the boat
toward them, we find
everything holds
us, and confirms
our courage, and if you wanted
to drown you could,
but you don’t

because finally
after all the struggle
and all the years,
you don’t want to any more,
you’ve simply had enough
of drowning
and you want to live and you
want to love and you will
walk across any territory
and any darkness,
however fluid and however
dangerous, to take the
one hand you know
belongs in yours.

(from House of Belonging)

mirror neurons

The Omnivore attended an interesting event in the Netherlands recently, a business conference for PhD researchers. Good speakers, eclectic group of professors and students and a few fascinating discussions, but one ‘big idea’, which made her sit up and take notice. The concept of mirror neurons. From the Wikipedia definition:

A mirror neuron is a neuron that fires both when an animal acts and when the animal observes the same action performed by another. Thus, the neuron “mirrors” the behavior of the other, as though the observer were itself acting. Such neurons have been directly observed in primates, and are believed to occur in humans and other species including birds. In humans, brain activity consistent with that of mirror neurons has been found in the premotor cortex and the inferior parietal cortex.

Some scientists consider mirror neurons one of the most important recent discoveries in neuroscience. Among them is V.S. Ramachandran, who believes they might be very important in imitation and language acquisition.

Ramachandran, Director of the Center for Brain and Cognition and Professor with the Psychology Department and Neurosciences Program at the University of California, San Diego, Adjunct Professor of Biology at the Salk Institute, has been called “The Marco Polo of neuroscience” by Richard Dawkins and “The modern Paul Broca” by Eric Kandel.

He has this to say about mirror neurons:

I predict that mirror neurons will do for psychology what DNA did for biology: they will provide a unifying framework and help explain a host of mental abilities that have hitherto remained mysterious and inaccessible to experiments.

Scientists have already determined there is a gender difference in the human mirror neuron system, with female participants in significant studies exhibiting stronger motor resonance than male participants. Mirror neurons are also widely held to influence language development (the learning, and imitating of, language), our degree of empathy, and also our ability to infer another person’s mental state from their behaviour (and understand their intentions, including behavioural prediction or ‘mind reading’).  Ramachandran:

Humans are often called the “Machiavellian Primate” referring to our ability to “read minds” in order to predict other peoples’ behaviour and outsmart them. Why are apes and humans so good at reading other individuals’ intentions? Do higher primates have a specialized brain center or module for generating a “theory of other minds”? If so, where is this circuit and how and when did it evolve?”

The answer, he feels, is in mirror neurons. Up to 30% of the brain is suspected to consist of these mirror neurons, making mirroring and imitating activity and behaviour one of the strongest impulses in the human brain.

They may also hold the key to understanding autism. From Live Science:

the idea is that the mirror neuron systems of autistic individuals are somehow impaired or deficient, and that the resulting “mind-blindness” prevents them from simulating the experiences of others. For autistic individuals, experience is more observed than lived, and the emotional undercurrents that govern so much of our human behavior are inaccessible. They guess the mental states of others through explicit theorizing, but the end result is a list — mechanical and impersonal — of actions, gestures and expressions void of motive, intent, or emotion.

This all interested the Omnivore strangely, and she started to think: what might this mean when it comes to who we are ‘predestined’ to like, trust, see ourselves in, recognize as our own ‘mirror image’? Might it be that some of the divide, the canyon, in fact, in gender communication, in contact across cultures, across generations, across difference, comes in fact from our own brains ignoring the signals from those we are not programmed, or are unable, to mirror? Laboratory research shows that we are more likely to buy products from, or be influenced by, those who mirror our own gestures, language, posture, etc. Wouldn’t the opposite also be true? If we are unable to see ourselves in the other, wouldn’t we be almost RESOLUTELY uninterested in and uninfluenced by that person? Even to the point of dislike? Certainly to the extent, perhaps, that we would be unable to see competencies and talent in this ‘other’.

Systemic bias against, or preference for, one type of person over another..couldn’t this be explained in part,  by mirror neurons doing what they have been doing best for the past 200,000 years — making us like and trust those who are most like ourselves, those who remind us of those we grew up imitating and, empathetically speaking, in whose shoes we’ve walked? Think of babies smiling back at those who smile at them…you are programmed at a very young age to react favourably to others from your own culture, family, society…wouldn’t the corollary be that you were also hardwired to really ONLY react positively to them? And negatively to those who in no way remind us of ‘the familiar’?

Certainly much more work is needed on the role mirror neurons play in human ability, learning, and behaviour…but the Omnivore was privileged to be in the presence of  ‘a big idea’ last week, and thought she’d share it.

Have a look at a wonderful RSA Animate presentation on the Empathic Civilization…and mirror neurons…

courage

The Omnivore has recently been contemplating the concept of courage, and discovered the very definition is what makes it so hard to grasp why, how and when we are courageous — and what it is that makes some people ‘rise to the occasion’ while others just retreat. At best those who can’t summon the resources to be courageous can lick their wounds and return, perchance, to fight another day. At worst — there won’t be another day.

The Omnivore was mightily impressed by Viktor Frankl’s masterpiece classic ‘Man’s Search for Meaning’ when she first encountered it eons ago as a freshman in Journalism school. He talked about those who had survived the concentration camps…why them? Why not others? Courage played a strong role, and, as the title suggests, it was those with meaning in their lives, with something or someone to live for, that had a better chance of making it out alive (combined with a healthy dose of luck, always).

“He who has a why to live can bear almost any how”.
Friedrich Nietzsche

“To love someone deeply gives you strength. Being loved by someone deeply gives you courage.” Lao-Tzu

Is that what it is….knowing the difference between strength and courage? Having the support and devotion of those we hold dearest….is this what makes us courageous?

It is a nightmare that we hope never to have to face personally — terminal cancer. How does one react to the news that, out of the blue…you are going to die? Sooner, rather than later. You hear the dreaded words ‘palliative care’. You see the look of disbelief and shock on the faces of your loved ones, of those you love yourself beyond words.

And you call up the courage for this last fight, because fight you must, to buy yourself some more precious time. To spend just a few more months as a mother, lover, wife, daughter, sister and friend. To have the courage to accept the unacceptable, to believe the unbelievable, to know that the impossible has just become possible.

The Omnivore salutes cancer patients everywhere, especially one remarkable woman who is fighting the last great battle of her life. To those who are on this solitary path of great courage and personal fortitude, remember, that while we  came alone into the world, and we shall leave it in the same way –in the distance between the two is a wonderful space full of love, light, laughter, joy and kindness.  Let the flowering of this support give you strength, and let your pure and unceasing love for those around you give you courage.

the business rationale behind inclusiveness

A wise friend and business counterpart, Lisa Kepinski, Diversity and Inclusion International Director at Microsoft, recently explained she isn’t talking about the Business Case for Diversity any longer…it’s 2010, wake up, people….but rather referring to the Business Rationale Behind Inclusiveness.  The Omnivore also vastly prefers the concept of explaining the rationale behind the need for culture change in business, the kind of change that will propel us all into this century when it comes to including and utilizing the talent in our organizations. Like Lisa, the Omnivore feels enough time has been spent patiently explaining the business case — why engaging and motivating one’s employees just makes good business sense — and  the time has come to move forward.

At this point, if  business leaders still need to be convinced that  reflecting one’s markets and being attractive to the majority of the world’s talent is a strategic business driver, they should not be sitting where they are. Shareholders, use your power. How sustainable is the business if they are still favouring only one leadership model, and do not seem to be able to diversify their senior management?

The Ominivore is amazed that this does not come up more often in shareholder meetings. Groupthink and ‘new clothes syndrome’ in the boardroom are arguably the two most common  factors behind destruction of corporate value, loss of market capitalization and plummeting share prices in today’s business arena (barring war & pestilence, as always).

the last all-male board at UBS 2006The tendency in business to surround oneself with clones, resulting in ‘groupthink’ with its attendant inability to contemplate or hear any dissenting opinion, or the self-preservation instinct that prevents those around senior management from telling them what is really going on (‘the emperor’s new clothes’) means shockingly bad business decisions are made on a daily basis.

The Ominvore begs the question – does NO ONE have a liberal arts education, for heaven’s sake? Can no one contemplate the existentialist vision around business reality?

Walter Kaufmann described existentialism as “the refusal to belong to any school of thought, the repudiation of the adequacy of any body of beliefs whatever, and especially of systems, and a marked dissatisfaction with traditional philosophy as superficial, academic, and remote from life”.

And yet how can we know what we don’t know if there is no one there to tell us we don’t know it? Yes, perhaps with a very homogenous board (usually consisting of  older white men in western business) one can still make money anno 2010….but is it not possible to even imagine there might be a parallel reality where one was making more money, behaving more ethically, making sounder business decisions, smoothing the path for continuity and sustainable business initiatives in the future — by having different voices in corporate leadership? Is there really so little vision and imagination in today’s business?

There were many articles in the past year on the possible effects of the collapse of so many financial institutions in late 2008/2009, of the need for a ‘new way of working’, for new leadership. What has happened? Where is the supposed run-on effect that would make the way we do business, and the people in charge, more trustworthy, more responsible, more…decent? Fair? Humane? Accountable?

So…no more business case. The business rationale is here, it is clear, it is real and for heaven’s sake it isn’t going anywhere. Women…more than 60% of all university graduates in the western world. Gen Y…1.1 billion and counting (with 53% of them in Asia). Being male, stale and pale is NOT a positive factor in business, and no one should have to make a ‘case’ for changing it.