5 Q's | 5 A's

Director of Death; Producer of a Wilderness Spy Program; Simulated Professor; Political Speech Writer; CBC Grief Reporter

John Troyer, Director of the Centre for Death and Society at Bath University

Q. How/why do you think that our relationship with death is made stronger by our ability to control it? I.e. Organ donation, euthanasia, method of burial. 

A. In general, I think we first world humans tend to get anxious about dead bodies, especially when there’s a sense that we can’t control what happens. Or if a dead body is in the “wrong place.” So mass burial can be seen as a failure, when in fact it’s the least worst option during a mass fatality event (and not a crime scene — that’s an important distinction to make). But I do agree that controlling our destiny with death is crucial to many many people, so organ donation becomes an important way to “give the gift of life” even if families don’t often control/choose who receives the organs. Assisted dying is another key issue, where control is a core issue. Right to Die movements since the 1970s have also built support around the right to choose how a person ends their life. Ironically enough, I think many people only become aware of these control considerations when they suddenly can’t control what happens — and that is why Advance Directives, Living Wills, and communication with next-of-kin on all these topics is so important.

Control is a huge issue. Ironically enough, I think that many people only become aware of the control issues when it’s suddenly not possible or compromised. That’s why it’s so important to create Living Wills and Advance Directives and communicated end-of-life wishes with next-of-kin.

Matt Gordon, producer of “Spy in the Wild

Q. The units that you so intricately create and deploy into the wild aren’t cheap, with some costing tens of thousands of dollars to create. This pricey endeavor encapsulates the idea that there’s something beyond entertainment revenue and ratings to be gained. What has been the biggest development/realization/discovery, thus far, in spying on nature? Something that can’t be caught on regular cameras or through simple observation and something that actually benefits the bio-scientific community.

In other words, what has been the most substantial discovery from this effort so far?

A. So there are different aspects that make our ‘spy’ filming technique a useful tool in discovering various perspectives and information about animal behaviour. So for example, when we filmed emperor penguins in the Antarctic the scientist we worked with said that thanks to our remote penguin cameras we helped save him approximately 10 years worth of research. In addition, Spy Gorilla was able to highlight the social behaviour of mountain gorillas that may have been a lot harder to film or show using traditional filming techniques. So we were able to show how the silverback commands his group very clearly with the help of Spy Gorilla. In addition we also saw a beautiful moment of a young gorilla beating his chest in front of Spy Gorilla that highlighted how youngsters beat their chest as a sign they want to play. So these interactions also help reveal behaviours more clearly for the viewer.

Marcus Arvan, Professor of Philosophy

Q. How likely do you, personally, think it is that we exist in a simulation?

A. I think it is extremely likely. This is because (1) we should believe the best explanations of what we observe in the world around us, and (2) I don’t know of a better explanation of quantum phenomena than that they are produced by peer-to-peer networking. Let me briefly explain both parts of this answer.

This might come as a surprise to a lot of people, but as famed physicist Stephen Hawking points out on pages 41–2 of his 2010 book with Leonard Mlodinow, The Grand Design, there is actually no observational proof of Copernicus’ theory that the Earth orbits the Sun over Ptolemy’s ancient theory that the Sun orbits the Earth. Hawking and Mlodinow write:

Although it is not uncommon for people to say that Copernicus proved Ptolemy wrong, that is not true…one can use either model of the universe, for our observations of the heavens are explained by assuming either the earth or the sun to be at rest. Despite its role in philosophical debates over the nature of our universe, the real advantage of the Copernican system is simply that the equations of motion are much simpler in the frame of reference in which the sun is at rest.

The reason we believe Copernicus’ theory is not that our observations prove it. We believe because it is a better explanation of why planets and other astronomical bodies move the way they do: it explains them in terms of a unified model of mass, gravity, and so on.

So, when people say there is ‘no proof’ that we live in a simulation, I think this mistakes how good scientific explanations work and how we should base our beliefs on the best explanations we have. We have plenty of proof that quantum mechanics exists, and (or so I’m inclined to think) we also some evidence that the peer-to-peer simulation hypothesis may be the most promising explanation for why quantum mechanics exists and has the features it does. If both of these things are true, then we should think it’s likely we’re in a simulation. Since some readers may be skeptical of this, let me conclude with an argument by analogy.

Suppose as a simple thought-experiment that we all lived on the surface of an ordinary wrist-watch, and the hands of the watch rotated in the sky above our heads. If we were standing on the surface of the watch, we would see that a central part of the ‘physics’ of our world would be the movement of the hands. We could observe their movements, and even carry out ‘physics experiments’ on them similar to what actual scientists do with particle colliders. For example, we could smash things against the watch-hands as they move and see the effects that it has on their movement, in much the same way that scientists at the Large Hadron Collider smash particles into each other to see how they behave, decay, and so on. Notice, however, that no matter how many experiments we carried out on the watch hands, our theories of Watchworld physics could never explain why they move the way they do. Those theories could at most describe the ‘laws of nature’ that govern the watch hands (namely, the law that the second hand moves 60 times per minute, and so on).

This is how actual theories of physics such as quantum mechanics and relativity work: they describe how our world’s laws of physics work, but not why they are the laws that govern our world to begin with. Bearing this in mind, now return to the analogy. If we lived on the surface of a watch, we would want to know the deeper reality behind why the hands move the way they do. The only way to determine what that deeper reality is would be to provide a causal-mechanical explanation of what is going on beneath the surface of the watch to cause the hands to move the way that they do. Now, what would a good causal explanation look like? It’s obvious, right? The best explanation would be that there are gears beneath the surface of the watch that are set in a particular way to produce the movement of the hands. Hence, if we were living on the surface of a watch, that’s what we should believe: that even though we cannot directly observe the gears beneath the surface, there probably are gears beneath the surface causing the hands to move around. By a similar token, if the Peer-to-Peer Simulation Hypothesis is the best explanation of why quantum mechanics and relativity exist and work the way they do, then we should believe we probably live in such a simulation even if we cannot observe the computer code, processors, and so on.

Could there someday be further observational support for the P2P Simulation Hypothesis? Yes, and I detail some of them in my published work. The point is simply that I think we already have some very good reasons to think that the hypothesis is likely to be true!

Riley Roberts, Obama Admin speech writer

Q. Do you ever get tired with the political horse and pony show? To be around politicians so much feels like it would become rather stale — that golf clubbing, shoulder rubbing, self-serving life-style; or is there more to it which keeps you motivated and interested?

A. Aspects of it definitely get old, and the egos grow tiresome after awhile (especially because, the more time you spend around powerful/self-important people, the more you realize they’re just PEOPLE… and you wish everybody would just shut up and do their jobs).

It’s easy to get burned out in this business. But there are a few things that keep me interested/motivated.

One key is to work for/with the right people. For every 3 or 4 shallow, self-involved glad-handers, there’s one passionate, driven idealist who’s in politics for the right reasons, works insanely hard, and genuinely tries (however imperfectly) to do the right thing/use power for good. I’ve been very lucky to work almost exclusively for people like this, and it’s the only reason I’m still doing it.

The challenge/variety keeps things interesting, too. At DOJ, there were times when I was writing about criminal justice reform in the morning and diplomacy/national security in the afternoon… and these days, I might have a keynote for a foundation leader one day and an op-ed for an activist the next, all with a book project simmering in the background. Like all jobs, it can be a slog sometimes, but it’s an intellectually rewarding way to make a living (and I love getting to work with/learn from people who are smarter than me).

More than anything, what keeps me interested is the same thing that led me to this in the first place. It’s hard not to be cynical about politics, given the current state of the world and the truly horrendous people who are making bad/self-serving decisions every day. But at its *best*, politics can be beautiful. If you get a bunch of people together in a room who care deeply about public service, believe in this country, and get fired up about changing things for the better, improving people’s lives, etc… it’s amazing/soul-affirming to be a part of that. And that still happens — or at least it *can* still happen. Which keeps the idealist in me coming back, even though this is a pretty dark time for idealists.

Marina L. Reed — CBC reporter, author:

Q. We know that grief is largely inevitable as part of our blink of an experience on this chaotic blue marble.. How can we spin that inevitability as something beautiful and as something we should learn from rather than something that should be avoided and feared?

Supplemental question — how do medications which serve to numb our relationship with grief hinder (or maybe help?) this process?

A. It’s interesting how we have put grief into something that is feared, and how hard we try to avoid it. Sadly, we have removed ourselves from the natural response to loss — any loss, not just death-loss. think about the normal losses we are experiencing right now with this pandemic — the loss of normal, the loss of how we define ourselves, the loss of connection. All these losses and certainly the loss of loved ones as well, are something we are experiencing and grieving right now. Knowing that we are grieving, knowing that is what we are experiencing is so helpful as we find our way. As we begin to normalize grief, as we begin to embrace the reality of loss, as we begin to learn how to grieve again, we will discover that grief will change us, as we heal in our grief we will see that the changes to ourselves are deep and meaningful. Because of my own losses and because I have been able to support and witness the grief journey for 100’s of people, I have seen , as you say, that something beautiful can come. We can’t start there — we can’t see beautiful at all in the early place of grief. It’s hard, it takes hard work for sure. so not only do we need to learn how to grieve again, we need to learn how to support people who are grieving, so that we are not afraid of their grief. 

Medication is an interesting question. there are some folks who, in their grief experience can become overwhelmed to the point of not being able to function. Some meds to help even out the emotions so that one can function can be helpful. it can allow the emotions to begin to come, a bit more slowly and in manageable doses. If it is used to totally avoid grief, and never allows the sadness to come, then that can create problems. What is cool about the Remember, It’s Ok series is that it allows someone who is afraid of grief, to literally peak into that world, see what it holds, see the movement, and begin to find the courage to let their own emotions begin.


Promoted resources:

Neurofunctional Prudence and Morality and Rightness as Fairness by Marcus Arvan

Spy In the Wild ,Series on PBC

Remember, It’s Ok by Marina L. Reed

Image by David Mark

None of the above answers have been edited or altered.