Thinking About Life

Maybe it’s do with the weather of late – cool, dreary, wet; or maybe it’s to do  the long runs I’ve been doing – lonely, peaceful, contemplative.

Whatever it was, I’ve been thinking about life – about how it has been; about how it is now; and about how it is going to be.


I first came across this beautiful poem called Ithaca by C.P. Cavafy more than ten years ago. I was about 17 or 18 then, and I must admit that I didn’t fully appreciate it. I had, in fact, actually thought that it had to be mistaken: what is life but the destination?

Now I’m almost twice as old, and its reading has a profound new meaning to me, and reading it always calms my nerves when I start worrying about possible life-changing decisions (which, experience tells me, is truly life-changing in only 1% of the cases).

Ithaka gave you the marvelous journey.
Without her you would not have set out.
She has nothing left to give you now.

And if you find her poor, Ithaka won’t have fooled you.
Wise as you will have become, so full of experience,
you will have understood by then what these Ithakas mean.

(An aside: I’d come across the poem in Robert Fulghum‘s Words I Wish I Wrote, a book I first loaned from the library and which I later procured second-hand through a charity event. It was perhaps the most influential book in my life, introducing me to some of my favourite pieces of literature and authors, including the book Catch-22, which made me realise I could actually like fiction; and Albert Camus, who introduced me into the rather dark world of existential philosophy.)


An added bonus here. I was just re-reading Words I Wish I Wrote and came across this gem from Franz Kafka, which is another magnificent calm-your-nerves piece:

If we knew we were on the right road, having to leave it would mean endless despair. But we are on a road that only leads to a second one and then to a third one and so forth. And the real highway will not be sighted for a long, long time, perhaps never. So we drift in doubt. But also in an unbelievable beautiful diversity. Thus the accomplishment of hopes remains an always unexpected miracle. But in compensation, the miracle remains forever possible.

What are you doing to help the person next to you?

Was taking a break from my studies (exams next week, people!), having my dinner and watching some YouTube vids on “leadership” (just because) when I came across Simon Sinek and this video.

Reminded me of something I knew very well sometime back, but forgotten in the hustle and bustle of corporate life: that we sometimes have to put ourselves aside, ignoring the modern social beat of “I, I, me, me“, and think about how we can help and serve others, not in the hope for some future karmic gain, but because we can.

On Catholicism, science, and being good. Amen.

I was just thinking back to the days when I’d I used to pray each night like the semi-devout catholic I was. Semi, because I wasn’t so much into catholic traditions and beliefs, but more of a “being good is what I want to be and Catholicism just so happens to be the most accessible way I know how” kind of way.

I remember praying for peace on earth, corny as that may be; protection and blessings for family and friends, with name-specific mentions for people whom I felt most on need of divine help; and I’d ask for blessings for myself too. I also remember praying for my grandma (on my mom’s side) and my grandpa (on my dad’s side), the latter of whom I’d occasionally met when young, and the former who’d taken care of me through my primary school days.

And, if you’d believe it, I’d also ask Good to bless my enemies and people whom I’d disliked, and the strangers I hadn’t met as well as those I had. I’d end it off with a “and please bless everyone else here on Earth” for good measure, making sure everybody got a serving of divine help.

Every night I prayed without fail, even when terribly tired. I couldn’t, wouldn’t, let the world down.

But as I grew up I started approaching life with a skeptic’s mind; I believed only in things backed by science and proof and I’d developed a strong need for evidence. God slowly left my life. (Do prayers work? Is religion rational? Can miracles be proven?)

Nightly prayers became weekly; then disappeared altogether. Church, which I attended occasionally, was attended to even less (never). But life continued as normal, and nothing seemed to have changed.

Every once in a while, though, while lying in bed, I’d wish for someone to talk to. Someone to listen as I blather about the state of the world and the state of my life. The God I prayed to each night played this role of cheap psychotherapist and friend brilliantly, but I found I couldn’t remain true to my scientific self and continue with my prayerful nonsense. These days I’d find it harder to push Him away than to embrace the beauty of religion. But still I did.

It was then that I’d realise that life had changed. I’d realise too that ever since I stopped calling myself a catholic I’d grown that little more selfish; that little more “bad”. Conceit, narcissism, concern for oneself; these feelings took over. No longer looking through compassionate eyes, the mind took over where the heart once ruled.

But it’s part of who I am now, and I don’t think much about it anymore.

A pity really.

But like how you never can quite tell when exactly the sun has set while you’re watching it, my becoming “less good” happened without my knowing when; maybe it had something to do with my abandonment of religion, but then again, maybe not. Maybe I just grew up.

As I lay on the bed tonight, I reconsidered my position on religion. Maybe it’s unscientific; maybe irrational; maybe ridiculous. But if it helps make me a better person, would that not make it worth scientific scorn? To give in to my temptation of prayer… yes, I don’t believe in a God; yes, I pray each night. Deal with it.

It reminds me of a philosophical debate I  recently had with myself regarding the merits of charity: would it be better to give (to the needy; to charity) with selfish intentions, or not to give at all?

Though I didn’t finally settle on an answer, I was leaning toward the camp that was pro-giving no matter what. Who cares if your intentions are selfish? If it helps the world, if it doesn’t make anyone worse off, do it.

Give.

(Some shamless self-promo: I’m currently raising funds for World Vision, through which Lix and I are sponsoring a child called “Chippo” (a girl who loves drawing onions too much in our opinion). My fundraising is through GIVE.sg, and you can find my fundraising page here, called “Run Forrest Run!”, named after Forrest Gump, my favourite runner! I’ll be running the full Standard Chartered Marathon this December and will be dedicating my run to them — for every minute I run below 5-hours (my previous marathon timing), I’ll pledge $2 to the cause!)

And I’ll remember you in my prayers tonight.

Beethoven vs. Internet Pornography

I like to think of myself as a rather rational person. I weigh pros and cons before making (fateful) decisions; I (try to) think before I speak; I abhor superstition (as best I can) and gravitate toward science.

And when you tell me that a certain product, idea, or bias is preferred to another, I tend to think that it is superior to that alternative.

But it’s not always so. And Caldwell in his book I quoted just a month ago (Reflections on the Revolution in Europe) puts this point across very well:

Marcello Pera, who as president of the Italian Senate worried greatly about the erosion of Italian culture, uses a convoluted logical formula to show that the cultures of Europe are superior to the cultures of those who migrate there: “If the members of culture B freely demonstrate their preference for culture A and not vice versa — if, for example, migration flows move from Islamic countries to Western countries and not vice versa — then there is indeed reason to believe that A is better than B.” This gives the speaker a warm sense of satisfaction as long as he assumes A means “Western countries” and B “Muslim countries.” But Pera’s rankings will not be obvious to anyone who doesn’t already consider the West superior to the non-West. If you called A “Beethoven’s symphonies” and B “Internet pornography,” the statement would be equally true. Judging merit by following the herd works for economists, but not for cultural historians.

Be the Best You Can Be!

I was recently reading a personal development blog when I recalled the days not too long ago that I, too, had wanted to start my own personal development blog. Back then, I had wanted to be something along the lines of a “life coach” to people; I’d envisioned that I’d write self-improvement articles, give prep talks in schools to graduating students, and provide seminars to people seeking personal growth.

“Imagine that you could have anything you wanted in life,” I’d say, pausing a little to let that thought sink in, after which I’d add,“now imagine that the last statement was a self-evident truth, that you could have anything you want in life.”

“Now,” I’d then say, while casting sideways glances at anybody and nobody in particular, “stop imagining, and start knowing… because it is true.” My audience would get goosebumps and, truth be told, so would I.

But let’s get back to reality here. I just thought how great it would be to help people be the best they could be; I mean, what greater life purpose is there than to help others find their life purpose?

Along the way though, self-doubt crept in. Emboldened by books such as Fooled by Randomness and The Halo Effect, by Nassim Taleb and Phil Rosenzweig respectively– both of whom in their books wrote about the large role chance plays in our lives — self-doubt effectively made me reconsider my own role in empowering others find their purpose.

Occasionally I’d find myself going back to books of the typical “self-improvement” genre. For a while, I’d feel empowered and motivated, and feel like self-doubt made its way back out, only to realise a little later that many such books are based on faith more than anything else. Too many of these books are based more on faith than anything else, and even acclaimed books based on “research” such as Good to Great, which I enjoyed greatly, have not convinced me entirely — their research methods, let’s just say, are not entirely bullet-proof either.

The problem with what has happened (to me) has left me feeling rather confused. I’m stuck between a “be the best you can be” mode and a “let things be” mode, each of which returns to and leaves me on a rather cyclical basis, like the rising and falling of the tides. The only thing is, the tide of the “let things be” seems to be getting more often the older I get.

The Relationship Between the Infinite Monkey Theory and Evolution

I recently read an article refuting the infinite monkey theorem: that if you have lots of monkeys hammering away on typewriters one of them will eventually reproduce one of Shakespeare’s sonnets through pure chance alone. What the author was really refuting was the theory of evolution (some writers having used the infinite monkey theorem to back up their claims that evolution can occur by chance, and not by intelligent design. How can something so “design-like” occur by pure chance alone?)

The author explains his findings through many calculations, and eventually arrives at the fact that though possible, the chances of such a scenario is so small that by saying that something will “eventually reproduce” is so unlikely that using it as a analogy to evolution is akin to saying evolution’s not possible at all. But though the calculations are generally mathematically sound, the premise behind them are suspect. There’s been a misunderstanding on the author’s part on how evolution works.

In his example, the typing monkeys had to get all characters of Shakespeare’s sonnet right one time through — there was no room for error. Even if the monkey got 499 out of 500 of the characters right, a mistake on the last character would reset the monkey back to square one.

But evolution does not work like that. Evolution takes things one step at a time. At every step, changes that are fitter (more adaptive to survival) survive, while those less fit die off. So if we go back to the typing monkey example, after a monkey types the first character, if it is the same character as any of Shakespeare’s sonnets it survives, if it is not contained in any of Shakespeare’s sonnets it “dies” and the monkey continues on to its next random character, which is then once more matched against one of Shakespeare’s sonnets.

This process is iterated until a full Shakespearean sonnet is typed out. What role does chance play in this? Lots, as we’ll find out.

Imagine that the monkey sits down at a typewriter. It randomly hits a key and that key turns out to be the letter “W” — that’s down to chance. Does any of Shakespeare’s sonnets start with “W”? If there is, then the next character that will be most fit to survive will be the one that matches the second character of all Shakespearean sonnets that start with the letter “W”. Every other character will die off, but the first character remains because it is has adequate survival skills (e.g. the very basic survival mechanism is that it matches the first character of at least one of Shakespeare’s sonnets).

So the first character that the monkey types practically determines which sonnet will eventually be typed out, but the very first character is totally down to chance.

The Monkey Typewriter Fallacy

I recently read an article refuting the infinite monkey theorem: that if you have lots of monkeys hammering away on typewriters one of them will eventually reproduce one of Shakespeare’s sonnets through pure chance alone. What the author was really refuting was the theory of evolution (some writers having used the infinite monkey theorem to back up their claims that evolution can occur by chance, and not by intelligent design. How can something so “design-like” occur by pure chance alone?)

The author explains his findings through many calculations, and eventually arrives at the fact that though possible, the chances of such a scenario is so small that by saying that something will “eventually reproduce” is so unlikely that using it as a analogy to evolution is akin to saying evolution’s not possible at all. But though the calculations are generally mathematically sound, the premise behind them are suspect. There’s been a misunderstanding on the author’s part on how evolution works.

In his example, the typing monkeys had to get all characters of Shakespeare’s sonnet right one time through — there was no room for error. Even if the monkey got 499 out of 500 of the characters right, a mistake on the last character would reset the monkey back to square one.

But evolution does not work like that. Evolution takes things one step at a time. At every step, changes that are fitter (more adaptive to survival) survive, while those less fit die off. So if we go back to the typing monkey example, after a monkey types the first character, if it is the same character as any of Shakespeare’s sonnets it survives, if it is not contained in any of Shakespeare’s sonnets it “dies” and the monkey continues on to its next random character, which is then once more matched against one of Shakespeare’s sonnets.

This process is iterated until a full Shakespearean sonnet is typed out. What role does chance play in this? Lots, as we’ll find out.

Imagine that the monkey sits down at a typewriter. It randomly hits a key and that key turns out to be the letter “W” — that’s down to chance. Does any of Shakespeare’s sonnets start with “W”? If there is, then the next character that will be most fit to survive will be the one that matches the second character of all Shakespearean sonnets that start with the letter “W”. Every other character will die off, but the first character remains because it is has adequate survival skills (e.g. the very basic survival mechanism is that it matches the first character of at least one of Shakespeare’s sonnets).

So the first character that the monkey types practically determines which sonnet will eventually be typed out, but the very first character is totally down to chance.