What is Science Trying to Prove?

So just imagine this – it’s midnight, you have to get up at 6am, go hang out on campus for 14 hours the next day enduring a 6 hour break in the middle that is just long enough to come home but the bus ride is also just long enough that it’s not worth the effort. Sounds like a good time to sleep, no?
I don't alwaysOf course not.
It’s time for a big idea. That absolutely MUST be written down BEFORE you sleep, because let’s face it, we always think we’ll remember in the morning, but science has shown we really just can’t. We don’t really consolidate anything that last 15 minutes, so I pick up my phone and dutifully start typing.
So what was this absolutely marvelous idea that absolutely HAD to be written down? That was worth sleep deprivation on a 14-hour-Monday (which just makes it suck even more)?
It’s (another) discussion on the issues of science. I’ve talked about the whole induction deduction issue before, and I have talked about how psychology is more aware of its propensity for errors in conclusions and results, largely due to the variation that exists within individuals, but I’ve missed out I think on how science contradicts some of it’s own principles, and has set up this double standard.

source

source. For the record, men’s brains are technically larger, though most of the difference is owing to their generally larger size,  and there is a high degree of overlap between the distributions of male versus female brain size. Which is essentially irrelevant because connections matter more than mass.

What is interesting is that science is paralleled largely as a man’s world. You know, as in men are rational and logical and they rely more on the right hemisphere (?) than women who are so incredibly irrational (but damn are they good in the kitchen!). And because of this “fact” women cannot be associated with science, it must be a man thing. Which to be fair more females are engaging in scientific pursuits lately thanks to various women’s and men’s movements, and some of the big thinkers in science are female (nevermind that Watson and Crick used a woman’s data and then took all the credit…). But we are presented with this wonderfully rational and emotionally sterile picture of science. Except that’s not really the case.
The problem with science is that its methods are designed to prove by deduction and inferences – we don’t prove something is true in theory. In theory we demonstrate that the alternative is extremely unlikely, to a level that our theory or proposal is more likely. And science acknowledges this in its theoretical methods, but the problem is that this information is then taken as fact and used on future studies as such. Thus our hypotheses become progressively more precarious as they come to rely on “most likely true” which was developed from another “most likely true” but science doesn’t acknowledge that. So we’ve essentially set off a cascade of potential error each time we report results.

Oh the normal curve. This will prove or disprove the last 8 months of my life's efforts. Crossing fingers and toes.

Oh the normal curve. This will prove or disprove the last 8 months of my life’s efforts. Crossing fingers and toes. Source.

What becomes even more problematic is the public reaction to such results. As a student in psychology and science it has been drilled into my head to carefully look at the results, and while I rarely track down the results unless it bears significance for me (usually in the context that I am already interested in the topic for personal or school related research), I know how to read a study and discriminate between statistical and practical significance.
Curious if the general population was as careful I asked a few friends, who, except for one, told me that they would likely simply take the evidence at face value without further skepticism or investigation assuming it came from a reasonably credible source (i.e. the newspaper. Because you know, those guys NEVER bias their information.). At this point I decided to ask them if they knew the difference between statistical and practical significance. It’s my bread and butter. What we want is both, but we don’t always get that. Tragically, again, only one person (the same person) understood what I was talking about.

The issue is that newspapers rarely distinguish the two. So people make life decisions potentially or at the very least alter their opinions about things, somewhat needlessly. So for non-psych junkies allow me to explain it in less than 30 seconds: statistical significance says that there’s a very small mathematical chance that there isn’t a difference between the groups/that our “best guess” was wrong; practical significance is whether or not something actually matters – is the effect size (i.e. the effect of whatever manipulation was applied on one group compared to another untreated) big enough to be a big deal?

So you end up with a situation like this... maybe.  Source.

So you end up with a situation like this… maybe.
Source.

For example, suppose a study reports than individuals on diet X lost significantly more than the individuals on diet Y. They very well may have – there might be a mathematical difference, but then you look at the effect size and the means, and you realize that there’s a high degree of overlap, lots of people on diet Y lost more than diet X and lots lost less, but the difference in the average amount of weight lost between groups is say 35lbs compared to 32lb.

Well stop the presses. Not. This is hardly worth getting excited for.

Well stop the presses. Not. This is hardly worth getting excited for. Source.

So how science is reported and viewed is a problem. Beyond the general population’s lack of awareness of how to interpret the results, is the issue of how people don’t appear to get how science does it’s thing. We trust the process just a little bit too much. Even I have fallen prey to reading a study, remembering to check all the appropriate statistics and methodology and going, yup looks good, let’s source this in my paper and call it fact, without considering how it was that the scientists developed their theories and how shakey the foundation of their theory (or any theory for that matter) may be. Yes I ensure that I mention when things only showed increased likelihood (i.e. the study was correlational and thus proves very little according to science), but I also sort of treat it as fact, as a given, when I build it into my argument. So really, I’m not better than the general population, I’m just more aware of  that fact that I’m doing it.

Beaker, Flasks, Test TubesIn most of the “pure sciences” – chemistry and physics – you are dealing with inanimate objects with no will or growth on their own. But I don’t recall there ever being a discussion of the null hypothesis, I remember taking measurements to calculate error – but the error measurements didn’t assume confounds, it affirmed that either you did something wrong or the scale or PCR or whatever other science machine wasn’t working properly. For example, you compare the mass you DID get versus the theoretical amount you SHOULD HAVE gotten. When you calculate the error it is based on a theory, which either was thought up almost out of thin air, or was based on other potentially flawed measurements. Thus the theoretical answer (based on either a theory/idea or a potentially flawed answer) is used to judge the accuracy of another lab experiment. Yet the point of comparison may be no more accurate.

To give the pure sciences credit, at least they have a tangible point of reference. In psychology we just have the complex calculations and a lot of assumptions because we never can KNOW if we were right or wrong about people. They change their minds too often. Psychology lacks a point of reference for it’s error, it can in no way calculate the true state of the world, and so we work in a world of theories, but we are not immune to using these theories as near fact. We perhaps acknowledge it more, but we are no better. 

See the issues?

  1. We take “science” as fact, when really it’s probability because we can never know the true state of things.
  2. We judge probability from theory.
  3. We develop theories from ideas and pre-existing “fact.”
  4. Go back to 1.

There’s an infinite loop of probability painted as truth. But we don’t talk about it. Like if we ignore it, it’ll go away.
At the risk of sounding like some sort of hell-raiser, just out there to leave you hanging from a metaphorical cliff, I don’t have really any solutions to fix this. It’s part of being human, this notion of knowing and perceiving reality without actually having any proof of anything. The only solution I can offer is skepticism and awareness. Not taking things for face value, find the science and judge it’s results for yourself, or at least learn to read the graphs and data and not fall prey to tricks such as modifying the scale.

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Admitting I Have Something Intelligent to Say

I remember four months ago, in my first History and Systems of Psychology lecture, when Claude told us that the most difficult thing for us would be to admit that we had something intelligent to say. I have lots to say, I know I am smart. I feel comfortable talking about this around my friends. But then I get around the “experts” or in a classroom and suddenly while intelligent, my thoughts are not worth saying.

Why?

Because someone might challenge my beliefs, they might think that what I am saying is weird, ridiculous, I don’t know something undesirable.

about photo

And being wrong sucks. A lot of the time we would rather live in ignorance, it feels a lot nicer to think you’ve got something figured out than to realize you have nothing figured out. And I get it. This term didn’t make me realize that I had something intelligent to say, or at least that wasn’t the hardest thing for me to realize. The hardest thing for me was to realize that I might know nothing. To realize that all I have is temporary knowledge, is sort of terrifying. Especially for me. Minus in the kitchen, contrary to what horoscopes say about me as an Aquarius, I like certainty and plans and organization. Chaos and complete uncertainty are the polar opposite of what I cling to. 

I thought all the freedom would be terrifying. I thought that this uncertainty and lack of clear conclusions would be a little terrifying. And it was a little, but then I realized how sometimes the things that make you the most uncomfortable make you grow the most.

A few weeks ago, a good friend of mine, Jeff, pointed out – sometimes, things suck, they seem painful at the time, but long-term they are better. He told me that it’s like running, yes Sundays I would rather stay in bed and sleep, but I get up out of my warm bed and go for a run anyways. And it’s good for me. It’s not always hard, some days I look forward to the runs. Now that it’s winter and I occasionally wake up to a foot of snow, I look forward to them a little less.

And that’s what running is for me, making myself a little uncomfortable, so I can find and define new boundaries, which I will later break. When I started running I thought 6 minutes per kilometer was the fastest I could go, then I thought 5:45 was the fastest I could maintain. Now, I know I can do a 5:03. I found the limits only so I could destroy them.

And I never realized how beautiful discomfort can be, how comfortable I find it.

For example, it sounds crazy, but I think there is beauty in crying. A sort of release from our core, and overwhelming amount of emotion either positive or negative, but with it comes this peace. Eventually you cry everything out, and this sense of calm clarity can emerge.

There’s also the whole no pain, no gain mantra (which isn’t actually true), but I remember as a kid, and even now, I prefer the lip balms/chap sticks that actually burn a bit. Like some sort of indicator that it is doing something. Or at least some indicator that I am alive and can feel something. (Is that too dark and moody?)

In school,  well I am signing up for another 6-7 years of school, so clearly, I am a fan of looking long-term and appreciating the long-term benefits. But on a more micro level – I would rather take a course that is challenging and get a B, than an easy course where I didn’t have to work for the A+.

This course has shown me what it is to question, and what is in an answer. The value of each, and how to differentiate. And I think that was hugely valuable. I think the biggest thing I learned was that realizing you have no clue what you’re doing is kind of terrifying and unnerving, and the possibility of being wrong, or worse, knowing you’re wrong, is outright painful. But those two conditions provide the most fertile ground for growth…. Okay I can’t that was just too cheesy. How about suffering is good for the soul? Getting lost is the best way to get found?

Why are all my punchlines so cheesy? Maybe because despite being lactose intolerant until 20, I am addicted to cheese. In all forms. Except spray cheese. That’s just weird.

Punchline: Don’t be a martyr, but be wrong sometimes, hurt some times, be lost sometimes. Say the stupid thing once and a while, it might not be so stupid, or you may at least get an answer and be less stupid. Let yourself be a sobbing hot mess with a pile of tissues. Leave the road and hope to God you make it home eventually.

Cool?

Cool.

I may not have come out of this course with all the right answers, but I came out with a lot of the right questions.

Bam!

Double loaded nachos right there. With guacamole and bacon.

So tell me – am I crazy, masochistic,  or is there merit to occasionally being just a little uncomfortable? Is there beauty in pain? What is the one thing you do, that sucks but you do it anyways, because you know it’s going to be better in the end?

“Judge a man by his questions rather than by his answers.”

― Voltaire

Psych, Psyche, Psycho, Psychic?

“I don’t believe that consciousness is generated by the brain. I believe that the brain is more of a receiver of consciousness.”

― Graham Hancock

Ladies and gents, go get some paper towel because your mind is about to be blown.

Mindblown

Like this is big. I wrote a piece sort of in advance (mostly because I realized that my post was getting too long) that I planned on using this week. I came to some pretty big insights into the function of psychology and why we accept the flawed system and how the system is still incredibly useful. The level of insight I am feeling now relative to then is like the difference between a firecracker and the atomic bomb.

The Psyche

As I mentioned last week this week we got into the depth of what is psychology, and while last week I got caught up in justifying all the systems – the education system, the system of psychology, the system of science – I think it is important at this point to talk about what is the psyche? Or so Claude drew me back to. This very quickly developed into a debate of the brain versus… something else?? One student raised the concept of the soul as the psyche, the brain camp quickly fired back that no – everything is a function of the central nervous system (CNS), and just for fun, I threw in the grey area of something that, I believe, cannot be boiled down to a set of neurotransmitters and electrical impulses, neurons depolarizing while still refusing the concept of a soul that transcends our being. 

I think at the time this was taken as I lie in the soul camp.

I don’t.

It sounds incredibly sad, and atheistic, and I want to make it clear that I am not out to question anyone’s religious beliefs, nor am I atheist – I was raised Catholic, but I have come to develop my own belief system, independent of any church. Which really I guess is atheism in the general public’s mind (which I argue shouldn’t be taken as a bad thing). Except I do believe in a higher power, something bigger than ourselves. I just don’t quite know what I expect this higher power to do. Some may argue that this sort of system is almost at complete odds with science – how can you believe religion when it defies all tenets of science? Answer – I can believe in the power and importance of science, while acknowledging that it hasn’t figured everything out yet, and there are some things it seems unable to figure out – there is still an explanation, but not everything needs to be explained.

So, all those qualifiers and asides… aside… why do I not hang out with the soul camp if I appeal to an area that science can never, in my mind, truly explain? Because I don’t believe that anything happens after death. When you die, I do not believe in reincarnation (though it creates a wonderful idea, an opportunity to repair your mistakes, find your “soul mate” whatever that actually means), I do not believe in some afterlife. When you die, people’s memories of you live on, if you’re famous, you may live on in textbooks, but eventually every trace of you is gone. When you die, everything that is you, dies too. All that is left is the memories of who you were.

Which suggests that I would find a better fit within the brain camp – if there is nothing intangible to continue on then everything must be housed in the brain.

No.

There is something that goes beyond the neurons, the connections alone are too vast to be coded by DNA, perhaps the environment takes over from there, but babies are born with a personality (or so we are told). At least they are born with a temperament, which evolves into personality which is supposedly unchangeable. So maybe personality is just the more describable version of temperament, ascribed only due to how we as a culture ascribes the behaviour. It is temperament once those around us have had sufficient experience with us to describe us on broader terms.

Call it what you will – Call it life force, call it your essence, your personality, your you-ness. I simply believe that there is something that goes beyond the brain, but that which is dependent on the vitality of our systems, and impacted by the activities of your brain. Two gears working together that require the same engine to function.

So I don’t seem to have blown any minds yet. Heck I don’t even appear to have come to any conclusion other than I don’t like options A or B, give me a new option. Stick with me – we have to build up to the mountain peak before you can experience the awe.

This is the screen shot for this video. Watch it. Watch all of them.

This is the screen shot for this video. Watch it. Watch all of them.

The idea of a continuum was raised, which I think fits beautifully with my desire to give a only semi-concrete answer to what is the psyche. I lie closer to the brain end, but barely past middle.

The point was raised that we are essentially big giant bundles of carbon. True. Somewhat depressing, but true nonetheless. So at what point did we decide that the soul exists? At one point in the arrangement of carbon did we decide that something more than the brain existed? We claim cats and dogs can’t have the same emotions we have, but they have the same brain structures – they too have an amygdala (the supposed seat of emotion in humans) so why not emotions? We assume they do not experience emotions by entirely subjective observations and assumptions. We don’t know they don’t think and feel, they communicate in a way that cannot be converted to any known language so we assume they don’t think. The anthropomorphism debate is probably better left alone for now – I raise it only to bolster the implied argument that the existence of anything other than the soul is incredibly arbitrary.

Perhaps it is the result of some evolutionary hat trick – the one that allowed us “higher thinking” – we at some point developed a brain structure that allowed us to meditate on the functions of our brain?

But if the brain is the end game why would it create a sort of separate state of awareness and experience. For example, we talked about colour being in your brain versus your experience of the colour and the objective firing pattern of neurons, your experiences associate with specific colours. At this point the wise ass joke was made when Claude asked if “redness” was in your brain, to which, “well yeah, it’s pretty bloody in there” was given as a response.

I see what you did thereSo I arrive at the first major mind-blow of the night: Perhaps the mind was something that was invented to protect us from the terror of the unknown. In the same way, that I believe we create an afterlife because the concept that we will cease to exist is too much for us to handle, I realized that perhaps the mind was something I can believe in because without it we are powerless. If I accept that all that we are and do is because of a complex set of neurotransmitters and electrical impulses, then there essentially is nothing I can do to control anything. That is terrifying. We need to predict, in my mind, because we need to feel like we have some control, some ability to influence our environment. And I would argue that we cannot doubt that we can influence the environment. Or at least my theory has yet to be proven wrong. If I want everyone in Starbucks to start looking at me, I can say with reasonable certainty that standing on my chair and screaming at the top of my lungs will do the trick. I can “make” people look at me. I can control something. If my neurons tell me what to do, I can decide to do nothing. I am helpless, at the whim of the availability of neurotransmitters and neuron depolarization. 

In that sense perhaps the mind was a creation from before we could grasp the capacities of the human brain, before we had the technology to see the brain and all it’s power of computation. We need to know something about why we do what we do, we cannot accept our ignorance, yet the knowledge is too much for us to grasp. And yet the brain in its survival of the fittest goals would have us keep this knowledge to ourselves, but we don’t we share it and develop these every expanding extensions of our mind. As a great video from Jason Silva (seriously get more paper towel and go check him out on YouTube or TestTube Shots of Awe) pointed out – we are finding new ways to remove our intelligence from the confines of the human brain – create it in other substrates. The awe of human creation for me means that there has to be something else. We have to believe that there is something else, because to believe otherwise bursts the bubble on the philosophical question of “why am I here?”

Which is a powerful thought and realization for me, I was quite impressed with myself. Not bad But then I realized, wait why would the brain, if it is so powerful, give off some of it’s control to another entity. Why would it create something that would allow us to question it? What would the use of such a system be? Which I suppose strengthens my conclusion that there must have always been this mind – and really who can argue it wasn’t. It is an essentially irrefutable argument. I choose to see it as a theory that has yet to be disproved. I just don’t know how it would be disproved.

Or maybe the brain kids are right. I also entertained the possibility, that since the frontal cortex is praised as the epitome of higher thought, it is like a specific division of our brain that tells our brain how to interpret the stimuli? But perception and processing areas are all so spread out? Maybe we process, then send the info to a central analysis centre where we derive meaning from the processed input?

I will admit, I’m not really 100% on board with that explanation, doesn’t entirely fit with my concepts of the nature of experience and reflecting on the experiences.

Psychology as a Science?

Psychology is awash with terms that describe something that in no way can be measured, which has lead to two camps. The first accepts that we are using subjective or proximal indicators, but that allows things to go unexplained and allows for potential error. The second camp, argues that by studying the brain we can explain everything in concrete, objective terms – except it can’t explain everything, or at least the general population will never accept all of its explanations entirely. And it tries to ignore the fact that there are vast variations between individuals on the activity of the brain – it tries to deny the frustration of the individual in science. They can’t pin down the science enough to make it any more useful in explaining behaviour and creating useful generalities than the first camp. But oh, it’s science, it is measuring something much more concrete and objective

I prefer to take the sampler tray, and admit that some things neurosciences can explain – there are certain correlates between behaviour and brain activity. But this boggles my mind – in psychology we talk all the time about how correlation does not indicate causation, and yet the brain campers, on the basis of correlations seem to be suggesting that the brain activity precedes and creates the experiences of say love.

say whaaatApparently correlation=causation is the kind of stuff they accept in “science,” sweet, rigorous, careful, science.

So let’s return briefly to what is science?

  • the testing and validating of our generalities (in which case psychology is a science)
  • strict standards for measurement and evaluation of data (which is somewhat arbitrary – each field has it’s own standards for how likely or how frequently the null must be voided )
  • convincing everyone else that you are right (in which case arguably English essays are a sort of research report)

I took Claude’s advice and asked a science major the answer:

“Error bars – each field accepts progressively larger error bars, biology has the biggest error bars that should be accepted, psychology as a field accepts too big an error bar”

Doesn’t seem like a very scienc-y answer to me. And at any rate, the pharmacologists can never state anything for certain either, if the issue is that psychology is simply more accepting of the human condition, and the knowledge that we can know nothing, then the argument of psychology not being a science is pretty lame.

So I went to the chemistry building to find someone to give me an answer, all the doors were closed. Will continue that mission later

Google told me:

Good answer Google

Good answer Google

Thanks wikipedia

Thanks wikipedia

The Hard Problem

skeptical african

So you’re telling me, that you use what proves you wrong as proof that you are right?

Simply put, the Hard Problem (an idea I already had, now I knew the name) asks how can the brain activity explain experience? How can the depolarization of neurons explain how we experience things?

Theoretically neurons should react the same way to the same stimulus, but they don’t. So science argues that people have different sensitivities. So science uses the inherent individuality of it’s subject matter to explain the generalities of it’s subject matter.

Building on this, it was raised by Claude tonight, that you cannot put a brain up to a painting and have it communicate an experience. To which I raised a mental point – but we can trigger hallucinations by stimulating neurons? Which somewhat bolsters the idea that maybe we are just a hot mess of neurons, and we’re back at the idea that we created the idea of the mind, because the idea that this is the case, is too much. Like the concept of mortality is too much so we have created an afterlife, and a religion that promises a sort of immortality.

But if the brain is responsible (assuming an evolutionary perspective) for protecting us from harm, why did the capacity for such complex and harmful emotions come up – why would it create the possibility of love, when with this also comes the possibility of deep heart-wrenching heartbreak and loss. Why would it allow us to feel sorrow and rage?

Ultimate point it comes down to for me – we cannot know for sure what does and does not exist. The concept of the mind, appears to be somewhat like religion – it cannot really be disproved, because it cannot be separated from it’s opponent – the brain. There is no way of knowing for certain.

Expanding once more on this – the brain perceives itself – thus perception is inherently biased, both the brain and the mind become hypotheses, that only in death can be proved or disproved. Once we die, so does the brain – it ceases to exist. What makes it the possible source of intelligence, thought, and you-ness is no longer functioning. It cannot exist.

To bolster this view is the concept of mental illness. Science has not found a way to diagnose someone of, say depression, or eating disorders, exclusively on patterns of brain activity – because as mentioned above, it is too variable. The only thing neuroscience can diagnose is the dementias because they have an actual, biological cause, there is something concrete that you can observe. Things like depression are diagnosed not on the presence of some brain chemistry, it is diagnosed based on the feelings, and yes to a degree the somatic symptoms, but the feelings are required, the physical symptoms are considered to be side effects in a sense of depression.

A brain scan cannot capture all the thoughts and worries an individual has. It cannot show or tell anything. It knows nothing beyond the electrical signals, and it doesn’t even fully understand those.

This is truly a thing of beauty taken from here

This is truly a thing of beauty
taken from here

BAM! Another mind explosion.

Emotions and such phenomena as the placebo effect were discussed tonight as biological – but then why do the drugs that treat depression not act as quickly as the placebo effect? Why have we evolved a need for these drugs? Perhaps if evolution had its way there would be no treatment, those whose brain chemistry or neural pathways were improperly assembled would die off. Which sounds callous. But I mean it in the nicest possible way – I raise it to point out that we have found a way around the problems of our brain. Has our brain manufactured them? Maybe. That’s something I cannot resolve. Going back to emotions – they can change on a dime. I know the speed at which the brain can process information, it is truly astounding, but how do emotions arise? We know where emotions are located, why we experience things such as fear, but not how they are created. Is it that we do not have the technology yet to discover this? Maybe. After all we used to believe the heart to be the seat of the soul – the site of thought and emotion, we no have demoted the heart to a pumping position, and went to the higher ups 😉 hehehe.

Perhaps one day science will find a way to disprove the theory of the mind, but until then, I will believe in this sort of consciousness, me-ness, thought bank, that is beyond the power of my genes and neurons.

What is the psyche that psychology is after?

It is the sum of the powers of the brain, and the attempt at understanding that which goes beyond the brain. The human experience. Call it a soul, call it consciousness, or you-ness, call it flipenflagen – there is something that science cannot explain yet, and until it can, if it can, there has to be something beyond the neurons.

A cogent explanation can be found from Shots of Awe, discussing singularity- Sylva argues that “religious myths reflect our yearnings to transcend our limits.” A way to deal with the fact that “with our minds we can ponder the infinite, yet we are housed in these heart pumping, breath gasping, decaying body.” Check it out here.

I found this from Dishing It Up Daily, but I was unable to track down the original source, which appears to be a tumblr account know-knowledge? Either way add to this that maps of the internet look like the same maps of the universe and neurons and you can see how connected these concepts and perceptions are - how the internet is an expansion on our own minds, one that has gone beyond the capacity of any one mind

I found this from Dishing It Up Daily, but I was unable to track down the original source, which appears to be a tumblr account know-knowledge?
Either way add to this that maps of the internet look like the same maps of the universe and neurons and you can see how connected these concepts and perceptions are – how the internet is an expansion on our own minds, one that has gone beyond the capacity of any one mind

So what is psychology? It is the study of everything man can and cannot know, attempting to converge the two into one coherent understanding of the universe, man, and reality. It is both the study of the concrete and measurable brain activity and behaviours, and the study of the unknowable state of the mental world of the individual. Attempting to understand how the two converge into one being.

“Man is literally split in two: he has an awareness of his own splendid uniqueness in that he sticks out of nature with a towering majesty, and yet he goes back into the ground a few feet in order blindly and dumbly to rot and disappear forever.”

― Ernest Becker