Monday, 30 December 2013

Santa Claus: As likely true as not

[Eds' note: We are pleased to present the annual Social Interface Christmas post by Colin B. Picker. We look forward to hosting more vibrant discussions and debates around the social implications of technology in 2014; in the meantime, wishing you all happy holidays and a great new year.]

Colin B. Picker

This post will, using logic and relying on the current inadequacy of science and technology, show that it may be legitimate for a free-thinking person to believe in Santa Claus.  

Were that not enough, this post may also allay concerns that person may have about mortality.

The route to permitting a free-thinking person to legitimately believe in Santa Claus will start with a rather fundamental concern – mortality.  Mortality can be considered in the context of the three fundamental views of existence, which can be simply stated as three possibilities:
  1. I do not exist
  2. I exist but everyone else is an illusion
  3. I and everyone else exists.
If option one is true then there is no meaning to death, for if I do not exist now then my cessation to exist later, my mortality, is simply not possible.

If option two is true then without me there is no existence, so my non-existence is not possible or makes no sense.

If option three is true it means that others like ourselves exist, which means they too think and have a consciousness.

Here is where science and technology enter the discussion.  At the moment, science and technology cannot explain consciousness other than describing some correlated physical activities within the brain (e.g. neurons shooting off here and there).  The truth is that, despite great advances in medical science and technology, we are no closer to scientifically understanding consciousness than prehistoric humans were to understanding the television.  We really have no idea from a scientific perspective what happens to consciousness when a person dies.  Certainly, we know that the associated neural and other currently understood physical activity ceases with death, but the scientific connection of neural activity to consciousness, thinking and existing, is rudimentary at best.

Science may at some point in the future unravel the connections between consciousness and how the body, specifically the brain, works.  But until then, at a fundamental level science and technology remain almost completely out of the picture in understanding what happens to our consciousness when we die.

As such, all sorts of possibilities remain.  The conventional, non-mystical/spiritual/religious view is that consciousness ceases when we die.  But given the lack of any real understanding of what makes up consciousness, it seems that logically other possibilities may exist.  True, proof for those other possibilities is essentially non-existent, but then there is equally no proof of the expiration of consciousness at death.  

The idea of a soul, a non-corporeal embodiment of our identity, is logically not an invalid option.  So too, heaven, Valhalla, reincarnation or anything that our imagination can conjure up.  All of those possibilities are not ruled out by our current scientific and technological understandings.

So, an agnostic or atheist need not assume that the only alternative option to non-existence at death are those presented by religions.  Scientific understandings today do not require an atheist to accept non-existence at death.  That is but one of the many possibilities opened up by our uncertainty, and arguably it may make as much sense to choose to believe a scenario that is most comforting and most allays one’s concerns about mortality.  The interface with science and technology here is thus through the absence of science and technology.

So, how can this be related to Santa Claus – whose existence is for many a more fundamental question at this time of year?  The answer lies, as it did for our concerns about mortality, in considering the three possibilities that explain our existence.

Under scenario one above - that we do not exist - then presumably too Santa would not exist.  But then we would not care for we too would not exist.  Under scenario two in which I (or you the reader) exist alone, Santa could not then exist (as he is not me or you, the reader).  But then no one else would exist, in which case concern about Santa’s existence would pale by comparison for one’s concern about the non-existence of loved ones.

Rather, it is with the third option - that we all exist - that the likelihood or potential for Santa’s existence is revealed.  As noted above, given the fact that we have no clue about what happens to our consciousness on death, we can then just as plausibly argue that our consciousness does indeed wing its way up to heaven, or to Valhalla or be reincarnated – with all the gods and bible stories and other beliefs that go along with those views.  With the freedom to believe any of these scenarios, it is but a short leap to assume that, as with the afterlife, there may be other fantastic things in the universe that interact with our life even before death.  And among those fantastic things that we are permitted to accept as not unlikely may be an elderly red-suited jolly gentleman, riding a sleigh through the sky, pulled by magical reindeers, delivering presents to children throughout the world.

Image by Kevin Dooley, made available by Creative Commons licence via Flickr.

Thursday, 12 December 2013

Around the world in 80 hashtags

Amanda Parks

Earlier this year, I decided to leave the safety and predictability of day-to-day life and embark on an undefined overseas adventure. I wanted absolute freedom to see, do, relax, reflect and absorb everything without a pre-determined expiration date staring at me like the stamp on a milk carton. Aside from some bookmarked dates and destinations, my slate was clean. Maybe I’d travel for 3 months or 4, or 6 or more, before growing up and returning to work. My approach was admittedly indulgent, but it was the one I needed to ensure my travel bug was sufficiently fed.

When I told various friends and colleagues about my plan I was surprised by how many asked if I’d write a travel blog. There were several reasons why my answer was no. For one, I’d always disliked the sound of the word blog and I didn’t want to be a blogger [Editor’s note: no offence taken]. More importantly, I had a sneaking suspicion that if I committed to writing a blog it would ultimately detract from, rather than add to, the experience I sought. I knew I’d feel pressured to package my days into posts that would be interesting, funny or somehow read-worthy, with the result that I’d spend hours staring at my laptop and poring over words and photos when I’d rather spend those hours staring at the ocean and pouring a deliciously refreshing drink.

The reality is that blogging, sharing, posting, commenting, tagging, and hashtagging have become so prevalent, so expected, that I felt rebellious for choosing to be a relatively quiet traveller. Why wasn’t I updating my Facebook status upon arriving in each place? Why hadn’t I joined Instagram to tell my travel tales through daily photos? Why did I take 4 months to send my first real update to a relatively small list of friends and family (by old-school email, no less)?

Let me be clear - I didn’t entirely boycott social media while travelling. I did post some Facebook updates and photos, and I reaped great benefits that arose solely because of my participation in social media. For example, I chose certain travel destinations after being inspired by friends’ photos, and I met up with friendly faces in foreign places simply because one of us had posted something on Facebook that told the other where we were. Social media can undoubtedly connect and benefit its users (travellers or not) in incredible ways.

But what I feared was getting dragged over to the dark side, the point at which we shift our focus too far away from the live experience and we become preoccupied, too occupied, with how we will capture it, tag it, post it and wait for the “likes” to filter in.

At one point during my trip, I was one of what felt like 5,000 people packed into London’s Sloane Square to watch a large screen on which Andy Murray was seeking to become the first British man to win Wimbledon in 77 years. Last year, he lost in the final and cried. This year, he was hoping to do neither. The pressure on him was monumental, as was the tension that hung over the crowd. When Murray finally won the eruption was incredible: people cheered and clapped and jumped and hugged and did whatever victory dance they could manage on the tiny piece of pavement they’d claimed as their own for the last 4 hours. It was one of those spine-tingling live sporting moments that you’re thrilled to be part of and leaves you feeling like you’ve made a new best friend in the stranger beside you... and it was a moment that I shared with my phone. Ashamed as I am to admit it, I was one of those people who couldn’t clap, jump or hug my human friends beside me because I was busy holding my digital friend above the sea of flailing arms trying to “capture the moment”. While I’m glad to have caught some great footage (which I have actually watched since), the moment would’ve been better if I’d just lived it. I caught myself wondering almost immediately: was this what the dark side felt like?

A photo finish
Happily, my travels involved very few moments like that one and, for the most part, I did what I’d hoped to do when I decided not to blog: I saw, I did, I relaxed, I reflected and I absorbed and I didn’t feel tied to a gadget while doing so.

About a month after that day in Sloane Square, I overheard a brief but brilliant exchange between two friends which, I think, reflects an increasingly unhealthy addiction to social media and the tools that feed it (arguably most striking in its younger users, but the older ones aren’t immune; certain grown-up world leaders have, after all, just been roasted for taking a selfie at Nelson Mandela’s memorial service). After logging into his Facebook account in a hostel foyer, Traveller #1 exclaimed “This is an epic photo, how can I only have 5 likes?!” and traveller #2 replied “Who cares?”. Indeed, who does care? When we post things, who are we posting them for? Should getting only 5 likes or 3 likes (or, horror of horrors, no likes) make our epic travel photo seem any less epic to us?

Social media undoubtedly has its place, but the trick is to ensure it’s used for the right reasons and without letting it detract from our real-life experiences. Because, in the end, the live show is always better than the recording.

Photograph by Amanda Parks.