Columbia University valedictory address

I was lucky enough to be the Valedictorian of my class. Here is the transcript or video of the address I gave, where I talk about mental illness, free will, and the beauty of science.

President Bollinger, Provost Coatsworth, Executive Vice President Dirks, General Casey, Dean Awn, families, friends, and fellow graduates. Think back to what you were doing nine years ago. None of the memories we just conjured up forecast us graduating from Columbia today. Nine years ago, I was so depressed and anxious that I could barely function, and I had grown disgusted with high school, both socially and academically. I pleaded with my high school deans to let me take some time off, but they threatened that I would be expelled if I was not at school the next day. And then I would never get into a good college or get a good job. I would never be happy. I would be labeled hyperactive. Undisciplined. Overemotional. The next day, I drove to school, but every time I reached for the door handle I was paralyzed, overcome with tears. I couldn’t get out of the car. There was so much pressure to fit a mold I did not fit. And trying to fit myself into that mold was hopeless.

I grabbed on to the only thing I enjoyed doing, a sport called motocross, which is racing dirtbikes around tracks composed of hills, turns, jumps, and bumps. When I was floating 90 feet through the air, with my heart a hummingbird, my anxiety and depression couldn’t touch me. So, while my friends finished high school, I moved to the southern California desert, the epicenter of the sport, in order to pursue a career racing dirtbikes. I spent five years of my life completely dedicated to making a living racing. I got beat a lot. I broke a lot of bones. But I learned that completely dedicating myself to something I am passionate about and letting it consume my life makes me happy. But one can’t race motocross forever, and, despite my troubled academic history, I always had a passion for learning. My mom suggested that I try taking just one class. So I started studying philosophy at Orange Coast Community College. I was terrified, but I applied what I had learned from racing to academics. I studied what I was passionate about, and I let it consume me. And it worked. The next thing I knew, I was a Columbia student…And now I am standing up here.

All of our convoluted, complicated, and messy paths to this moment are far from recommended. Usually, if you don’t fit the norm, if you deviate even once from the traditional path, it’s expected that you won’t be successful. You certainly won’t end up here. But we made it here because GS knows that progress most often results from deviations from the norm, and the world needs more educated people who are not afraid to deviate from the norm. As a result of this opportunity and our hard work, we are some of the most educated rule-breakers in the world. As Noam Chomsky says: “opportunity confers responsibility”. With our remarkable pasts and our amazing education comes an even greater responsibility. We came here not afraid to think differently, and we have to continue to think differently, blaze new paths, and embody the values that GS saw in us. But we also have to use the skill that is the defining value of our liberal arts education: the ability to control the way we think. We now have the ability to choose to think rationally and logically even when it leads us to a result that seems grimmer than the result our intuitions deliver. As my symbolic logic professor, Achille Varzi, explained, learning to use logic frees one’s mind from being bound by one’s limited intuitions.

My struggles with mental disease, my studies of philosophy and the brain, and my newfound ability to use reason and logic instead of intuition have led me to some unconventional and counterintuitive insights concerning human freedom. We all intuitively feel as if we freely will our thoughts and actions, and we judge others’ actions as freely willed. However, this intuitive belief is flawed.

Fighting depression taught me that there are limits to our freedom. I couldn’t simply will more Serotonin in my brain; I couldn’t just decide to be happy and have it happen. But people judged me as if I could. My high school attributed my troubles to character flaws, not chemical imbalances. Had an organ other than my brain been effected, I certainly would have been given time off to recover

My philosophical and scientific studies here have taught me that I am not an entity that is separate from, and controls the workings of my brain. I am what my brain does. During my depression, I wasn’t freely controlling the storm of activity in my brain. I was not lost in it. I was the storm. As Einstein explains: “human beings, in their thinking, feeling, and acting are not free agents but are as causally bound as the stars in their motion”. We are all forced screaming into this world with random genetics set upon a path we didn’t even choose. For every choice we make, we can, in theory, trace a causal chain back to one’s genetics and the path one was placed on at conception. It’s an illusion that a person–what we each call “I”–is a separate entity that can alter this causal chain, independent of the chain itself. We can’t be an uncaused cause of our behavior. We simply perceive our actions as such when the causes are obscure to us.

I am not claiming that we’re not in control of our decisions, of the way in which we think, and our actions, or that our lives are predetermined, that we are fated, and we can just sit back and the same events will occur, no matter what effort we put in or the decisions we make. I didn’t show up to Columbia and say, well, I have a personal history that interacts well with my genetics, so I can just kick back and watch the perfect grades flow in. I had to try. Really hard. While I put in that effort, my ability to do so, to be motivated, to not fall back into depression, were not things I earned on my own. Had I been born with different genetics, to a different family, or even had different events occur in my life, I could have failed miserably. As Charles Darwin explains: “this view should teach one profound humility, one deserves no credit for anything…nor ought one to blame others”. This does not mean that I don’t sometimes feel a little, tiny bit self-important given my accomplishments, or blame others for their actions. But I can choose to use logic and reason to override those flawed intuitions and emotions.

Realizing that we are not completely free is scary, but, as Bertrand Russell says: “even though the open windows of science make us shiver after the comfortable indoor warmth of traditional humanizing myths, that fresh air brings vigor, and the great spaces of science have a grandeur all their own”. The scientific view of human freedom leads us down a more pragmatic and empathetic path than does the myth of free will, as it views the brain as another organ that can break, but also that can be fixed, and promotes empathy, not blame, towards that person who is suffering.

I have let neuroscience and philosophy consume me, and I now perceive everything, including human freedom, differently than I did before. I have loved this process, and I hope that my career as a scientist allows me to constantly see things, both inside and outside the lab, differently than I did before, and that I can discuss what I see with others. To me, that is a source of happiness that feeds off itself, growing stronger every single day.

This has been my development as a person. While your development was certainly different in content and conclusions, it was not different in methodology and opportunity, and we all share the same responsibility. We all have a logical, free, and fearless intellect, combined with a unique perspective given our past. From this opportunity flows the responsibility to not waste it. To use it to make the world a tiny bit better. It is unimaginably hard to do this, to stay actively conscious and logical, really thinking, day in and day out, and to have the resulting insights motivate one’s actions, especially when those actions are risky deviations from the norm. But, if anyone can do this, we can.

We wouldn’t be here, we wouldn’t be us, without the people who supported and nurtured us, the Columbia faculty who took a risk by accepting all of us, and then nurtured our intellect, as well as the people who tried to pull us down, but actually catapulted us to success. So I am gonna go thank my high school for kicking me out. And then thank my friends and family while we throw back a lot of whiskey. I encourage you to handle yourself in similar ways. Celebrate who you are and what you have done, but do it with some of the people who are responsible for your being who you are and accomplishing what you have done. Congratulations, and good luck out there.

Valedictory Address
Columbia University’s School of General Studies’ Class Day
May 13, 2012