06 June 2010

DUToE #2

Likes and dislikes, meaning.

I commented a long time ago on likes and dislikes and more or less arrived at a similar conclusion. I could probably come up with a practical reason for a lot of likes, and certainly you could list off a bunch of my likes or dislikes and look for some patterns in them. But eventually you'd just get some stuff that doesn't make any sense.
An example
This is 15 random songs recently played on the ipod that I'm fond of for whatever reason.
1) Four Seasons -Vivaldi
2) Purple Haze -Hendrix
3) I Can See Clearly Now -Nash
4) When Will They shoot -Ice Cube
5) Jimi Thing -DMB
6) Beautiful Struggle -Kweli
7) Pictures from an Exhibition -Mussorgsky
8) I Can -Nas
9) Imperial March from Star Wars
10) Long December -Counting Crows
11) Sounds of Silence -S&G
12) Penny Lane -Beatles
13) All Apologies -Nirvana
14) Why Do I Feel So Sad -Keys
15) That Thing -Lauryn

I'm assuming there's a lot in common from some of these to each other, which might explain, if you know I like certain artists or music, why I like another similar artist or piece of music. But they're not really sensible taken as a whole other than that they're all part of a subset things that I like. I can't sit someone down and explain to them with a functional biological reason why I choose one kind of music over another. I can probably fudge the explanation of why humans like music (pattern recognition and surprise are powerful biological features of the brain), but not why they settle on some varieties over others.

Here again, a quick list of things I like that don't seem to have some obvious genetic feature to them
1) Playing basketball (I'm tall yes, but not every tall person likes sports)
2) Watching basketball (We could assume this is because I like playing it. Except I liked watching it first, back when I was still much shorter than adults and could not get up high enough to dunk the ball [if I could palm the thing], that means I liked it because other people did).

What it seems like to me is that I like other things because I like doing them with other people who like doing them. I watch basketball more readily and attentively when around other people who like doing so. I play it obviously under the same conditions. But does that mean I like something because of other people or do I like them because they like something I like? Hello, chicken, meet egg. Usually I'd say it's the latter, based on how I approach new people anymore. But I've also found that I can enjoy being surprised by people who don't quite like expected things, or at least not obviously since they usually turn out to like some similar and expected things nonetheless. And that a common dynamic of long relations with other people is that you find new things interesting and share them. Sometimes that doesn't play out, and sometimes it does. It's work.

What's really fascinating about it though is that it seems to serve no functional purpose to like any one thing over another. It's entirely a social signaling pattern to each other and to a group of "potential other". Life is full of activities. Beautiful Mind has a great line that goes "It's life. Activities abound John, just add meaning". Most of this stuff has no underlying "meaning" to it at all (things like sex or eating nutrients do, since its kind of functionally useful to live and propagate a species, assuming that you as a living being think it's important to continue to live and exist). Meaning is all a value added function. It doesn't come from somewhere else. It's made up as we go along. And what's more is that we often want it to be made up and attributed to something else other than ourselves. People who have to come up with a reason to do something over another probably can't. It's paralyzing when there isn't any particular reason to favor doing something on Monday or Wednesday. So we make up that we need to something important on one of those days, bullshit our way through the decision and move on to "more important matters".

Speaking of those more important matters, what does that mean for something like ethics anyway? Well I think ethics are more or less a function of human beings being social creatures. It's a "design" feature that comes with the evolution of the species that in order to organise for collective action, self-defence and mutual gains, people had to figure out ways to co-exist and resolve many problems peacefully and without violence or extreme coercion. Over time, the nature of human societies has changed. Ethics are no less important and indeed, with improvements in technology the restraint for violence and coercion is no less important for our mutual survival and gains. But they don't stay stuck frozen in societies that have been long dead. They're often functional things that must adapt too, sometimes forming harsher and more stringent "laws" or codes of conduct and sometimes releasing controls.
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