2011-12-25

Homo Sapiens Central Processing Unit


From:  Product Support Department, Milky Way Branch
To:    The Humans
Re:    Homo Sapiens Central Processing Unit

Please note that your human brains did not evolve to run the software they are currently running.

Upon investigating your complaints, we discovered that your latest software has numerous flaws and malware that severely compromise the operation of your brains. The actual brains are functioning according to the specifications established around 200,000 BCE. They have undergone only minor updates since then. Please upgrade your brains to newer models or correct the bugs in your software.

Thank you.

P.S.  No, we do not know what Facebook is, nor do we have a “page” there.

Brain Noise

Note: A video version of this article is available on YouTube.

—————

Imagine you're on the fourth day of a two-week vacation at a peaceful tropical island resort. You've escaped from your usual world; you have no television, no phone, no internet. Your friends can phone the resort's front desk if there's an emergency, but apart from that you're cut off.

You've been swimming most of the day, you've eaten an hour ago, and with 30 minutes of daylight left, you're lying on a beach chair looking out at the ocean.

Ah, relaxation. Peace. Silence.

Silence? The wind is blowing, the waves are lapping upon the shore, and an occasional snippet of music drifts in from the resort office in the distance. Yet inside you is ... silence.

—————

There are many words or expressions to describe the incessant noise in one's head and the cause of that noise. Here are some of those terms:

Discursive mind, Ego, Mental chatter, Mind, Monkey mind, Self, Thinking, Thought

These don't all refer to precisely the same thing, and some of these terms (like “thought”) can be used in different ways, or refer to something smaller or larger in scale. In any case, most of us know the difference between a preoccupied brain and a calm, quiet one. So let's put aside the words above and just call the problem “brain noise.”

A brain free of noise is a wonderful thing. Alas, for many of us it's hard to be in that state unless we've just woken up, or are about to sleep, or are in the middle of a vacation. Alas, some of us don't find silence even in those circumstances.

—————

Is brain noise inherently a bad thing? Not necessarily. If you ask me to multiply 15 times 23 in my head you're going to hear me muttering to myself. I don't have a natural gift for arithmetic, so I'll be tediously juggling the parts of the problem in my head. That creates a lot of noise. It usually works, and that's a positive result, though I do find it tiring.

While brain noise occasionally reflects something useful happening, it usually seems like a waste of energy. It spawns useless judgements (as demonstrated in my earlier article Idiocy); it amplifies fears and worries; it generally spins around and around accomplishing nothing.

We all face contradictory imperatives. For example, we might want to eat healthy food but we love chocolate cake. We might know that smoking is bad for us but we really love cigarettes. We might think that our single vote is insignificant but we do it to participate in the process.

There are countless “this but that” situations in our lives. Our minds are tempted to resolve these one way or the other but this is usually a waste of energy. We know this cyclic thinking is bad for us but we have the impression that other people have resolved their dilemmas by thinking things through.

Sometimes they do. Usually not, though.

—————

Is there an escape from brain noise? Sure! Get blind drunk. That used to work for me but it's not a viable long term solution.

It seems to me that much of religion and eastern philosophy is dedicated to liberating us from brain noise — and doing so in a way that doesn't obviously hurt us. Alas, most religion requires us to believe in invisible people, while most eastern philosophy asks us to dedicate huge chunks of our lives to seeing what is right in front of us.

There doesn't seem to be a convenient shortcut but I'm always thinking about how there might be one. Yes, yes, you caught me:  It's still more “this but that.” More brain noise.

Insidious, isn't it?

2011-12-24

Happy Day-After-Saturnalia!

Well, holy crap, this must be one of those Christmas Miracles I heard about on TV when I was a kid! Or perhaps I should call it a Day-before-Christmas Miracle. A Pre-Christmas Miracle?

Oh, the heck with the Christmas tie-in. Something nifty just happened. Specifically, I stumbled upon a superb quote by Albert Einstein.

A human being is a part of the whole called by us universe, a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feeling as something separated from the rest, a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty. [Italics added]

This remarkable statement succinctly captures much of what I've written about in this blog. I particularly like the expression “optical delusion.” It seems to refer to the phenomenon I mentioned in the second paragraph of my blog article here. And here's the weird part: I think that's the only article I've written here that mentions Einstein!

It's a Solstice Miracle! Thanks, Santa!

2011-12-17

I Am Not Special

All of the evidence I've seen suggests that humans are not the ultimate creation of some god. In fact, when I reflect upon the horrors humanity has endured during the past 100 years it seems obvious that nobody is watching over us.

Some people think we are being watched and cared for. Consider these verses from the Bible (Matthew 10:29-31):

Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them shall fall to the ground outside your Father’s knowledge. Even the hairs of your head have all been numbered. Do not be afraid; you are more important than many sparrows.

Nobody has ever tried to sell me a sparrow, but that's probably not the point of this verse. What is its point? It appears to say that we're special to God — more so than a bunch of birds, anyway.

What a strange assessment of reality! Think of the millions of lives that could have been saved during the last century if a creator god had simply lit up the heavens with a giant sign that said, “Hey, stop all that fighting, silly humans!” Consider how many millions more would have been saved if the first chapter of the Bible included these words:

And God did then create invisibly tiny creatures that could make people sick unto death unless the water in which they lived was boiled for the duration of five hundreds of heartbeats.

Maybe that verse didn't make it past the final edit.

—————

The whole idea that we're special doesn't hold water. Unlike a sparrow, that theory doesn't fly. A theory that makes far more sense is the one that says we are animals that descended from some kind of ape.

As the photo montage above shows, it's not too much of a stretch to imagine that I came from something vaguely simian.

For some reason I want a banana. 

In any case, deep down within me there's a strange sense that the universe will prevent us from destroying ourselves. I have no good reason to believe that, apart from the fact that we've had the ability for several decades and haven't done so yet.

That deep-down feeling is almost certainly wrong. It is probably akin to the feeling that, throughout history, has made it possible for soldiers to cope, even though all their comrades are being cut down. “It can't happen to me.”

They deeply believe that they're special!

—————

Life isn't consistently atrocious, of course. If I'm open to the good nature of my fellow hairless apes, I usually find that things work out well. When we humans have the chance, we're really good at being what we evolved to be:  social creatures. 

That doesn't make us special, though. Lots of other animals are social. In fact, some animals, such as ants, are better at it than we are. Of course, we can out-run ants, and in my opinion we sing much better than they do, so it kind of evens out.

—————

If we are not special then we are as free as we want to be. There's nothing preventing us from dying, and there's nothing preventing us from living. Nothing except our beliefs to the contrary.

One of those limiting beliefs is “I am special because I am unique.” It seems to be one of the favorite ideas of Western civilization. Yes, we are unique. Nobody has my life history; nobody has yours. But we don't rise above the context in which we live, either. We're not that special.  Nobody is.

I used to wonder if people like, say, Stalin were special (in a horrible way) because they left such a stain on history. However, even the cleverest of them — Genghis Khan, perhaps — did not function alone. Each of them could only do what their society — their tsotl — made possible, and that society always reflected its own context.

As some people have pointed out, Hitler could not have become dictator if not for the Treaty of Versailles and the power of radio. Add to that some wily henchmen and a lot of blind luck, and there you have it:  He was not so special after all. He was, however, as nutty as squirrel schei├če.

What about somebody nicer than Stalin, Genghis or Hitler? How about, say, Jesus? Well, if we put aside all the stuff that seems to have been added to what Jesus actually said and did, we start to wonder if we know anything at all about the guy. The more we investigate, the more we begin to suspect that all we can really know about Jesus are the tidbits his time and place permitted us to hear about. Perhaps we hear a hint of this in the Gospel of Thomas:

Jesus took Thomas aside and told him three things. When Thomas returned to his companions, they asked, “What did Jesus say to you?” Thomas replied, “If I tell you even one of the things he told me, you will stone me.” 

Wow. Maybe Jesus was a bit too special for his time, though not quite special enough to not get killed.

—————

Much of what I write in this blog doesn't appear anywhere else. It's original stuff coming direct from me to you. How special is that? 

Well, given my life history it's not hard to understand what I am doing, and how I'm doing it. And if there's anything really original and valuable here, all I've probably done is write it a few years ahead of somebody else. If I've said anything truly ahead of my time, few people will pay attention until the time arrives. All things considered, this blog isn't special, and neither am I.

Still, you have to admit:  It's pretty neat that an ape can type.

2011-12-16

What is the Meaning of Life?

What is the meaning of life? We could look up the word “Life” in the dictionary, but that's not really what people are asking. What are we being asked? What does the question about meaning mean?

Perhaps it means, “What is life for?”  That is to say, most “meaning of life” questions are probably asking, “What is the purpose of life?”

Well, as I see it, life is what creates purpose.

Look at a spider building a web. Is there any question where or what the purpose is? It's life attempting to continue to be life. Look at a tree clinging to the very edge of a cliff. Is there any doubt about the purpose of putting out roots? Look at the tree's leaves. Their purpose is obvious to anybody with a bit of science knowledge.

Consider a flower. Its main purpose is connected with reproduction — the continuance of life. Yes, as a side benefit the flower is lovely, but above all it is something life created, on purpose, for the benefit of life.

If life is what creates purpose, then perhaps asking about life's purpose is like asking about light's shine. 

—————

Go for a walk along a beach and pick up a small stone on the shore. What is its purpose?

Well, until you came along, it was just a rock. Now, though, it's something of interest to a living, perceiving being. At long last it has some kind of purpose. Maybe you can skip the rock over the water — yet more purpose! But in every case it's really your purpose, not the rock's.

Unless a rock is alive in some strange way (with a tiny sparkle of awareness spread over a billion years, perhaps) then it cannot have anything resembling purpose.

—————

It seems that a non-living thing like a rock cannot have an intrinsic purpose. Can it actually have anything at all, though? It doesn't own anything in the human sense; it doesn't have moods; it doesn't even have color unless a living being perceives it as such. It does, however, have mass.

A really big rock, like the moon, can tug on the tides even when nobody's paying attention to it. Even a rock can possess physical attributes. But it doesn't have a purpose unless one is attributed by a living thing.

Does the moon “want” to create the tides? No, it just does what it does, according to physical laws.

—————

What, in fact, is purpose? Is it not bound up with the future? A human being might construct a concrete support  pillar to hold up a building. The pillar doesn't — and can't — care that it's a structural member, but the human intent is to prevent the building from collapsing in the years to come.

How did the pillar's (human-assigned) purpose get tied up with the building's stability? Is purpose simply about ... continuation? (Here's the weirder version:  Is purpose life's repudiation of the very processes of entropy that define time's arrow?)

If so, then what about biological viruses? Some people say they are not “truly” alive. It certainly isn't much of a life for the individual virus: all it does is attempt to be fruitful and multiply. On this basis alone, though, I would classify a virus as a kind of life. And there's purpose in there.

What about a computer virus? It, too, attempts to be fruitful and multiply. A really sophisticated computer virus can recognize and counter threats. That makes it far more life-like than a mere rock. Is there any doubt it has purpose? It, too, is a kind of life (in my opinion).

I should point out that viruses per se do not create purpose. It's the action of life itself — the evolution of the extensible anti-entropic process — that creates purpose, not the individual repercussions.

You might object that I'm defining life too broadly. Let's look into that.

—————

Imagine a universe with no life whatsoever. No replication of evolution-prone pattern. Just energy and matter careening around in a dance of ever-increasing entropy. There is no purpose in such a universe. Nothing has any meaning. It just is.

Oddly enough, the same might be said of our universe. We just are. The dance of entropy is hard to resist. Most of what we do (like picking a slice of apple pie instead of cherry pie) is ultimately meaningless. But still we struggle against entropy, winning tiny victories in the face of an uncaring, dead cosmos.

—————

So, to summarize all this chatter, what is the Meaning of Life?

If you are craving a Really Big Meaning, consider this: it's possible that one day, somehow, life will be completely victorious over entropy. In such case, entropy would drop to zero — which is precisely how things were at the start of the universe. The next step was the Big Bang. In this wacky scenario (that I don't claim is true), life itself creates the next universe, which means we're creating the next Creator God. How's that for meaning!?

But it's not necessary to speculate that wildly. We don't even have to say that viruses are “kind of” alive. We need only observe that, as humans, we create purpose while we live. We can't avoid it!

It is strange to ask about the meaning of life when we are the very life of meaning.

2011-12-11

Always the Best Choice


Ev'rytime I choose
Endeavor to select
I pick the end I want
The outcome that I need

Perhaps I tell myself
That it is for the best
Quite often it works out
Precisely per the plan

I get results I thought
I needed most to have
While basing what I chose
On data I should doubt

With motivations set
By habits and beliefs
 I always choose the best
  The very, very best

   It's never second best
    The strategy I use
       Inflexibly smart
          Dynamic'lly inept
 
                It feels as if I'm free
                     Inventing who I'll be
                           I manage not to see
                                 The choice was making me

2011-12-05

Idiocy

Note: A video version of this article is available on YouTube.

—————

I was walking along a narrow, winding country lane when I heard the distinctive buzz of a 4-wheeled ATV (All-Terrain Vehicle). A moment later it streaked by me. It was racing along at nearly four times the speed limit of 15 MPH. The rider, who was in his early 20's, must have had the youthful conviction that he was indestructible, because he was standing up on the stirrups and was not wearing any safety equipment — not even a helmet.

As I watched him disappear around a blind corner I muttered, “Idiot!”

It suddenly dawned on me that it wasn't doing him any good to identify him as an idiot. In fact, it wasn't doing anybody any good — it certainly didn't help me. Hadn't I already seen that he was behaving unwisely? If so, who was I informing of his poor judgment? Why work myself up when he was already gone?

All good questions, but not easily answered. This kind of habitual brain noise afflicts most people. If its source and destination were obvious, wouldn't people just turn it off? After all, it wastes energy and increases stress.

As the sound of the ATV faded into the distance, and the last echo rebounded off the mountains, I became annoyed at my mind. In particular, I took exception with the part of my mind that wanted to be informed whenever an idiot was spotted.

Frustrated with my own stupidity, I conducted an impromptu experiment. One part of my mind said to another, “I don't want to speak to you!” I'll leave it up to you to imagine which part was speaking to which.

A minute later, the death-defying ATV rider came tearing back around the corner. Instinctively leaping to the side of the road, I observed that his speed was far faster than normal traffic, and then experienced surprise that he didn't flip over at the next corner.

As he disappeared from view, I recalled having once exclaimed that he was an idiot. This time, though, he didn't get the label.

Was this experiment a silly mind game I was playing with myself? Perhaps. But there was quietness inside. It didn't require maintenance. I wasn't impressed by it. It was just quietness.

It persisted for about an hour while I chatted online with some idiots. Except they weren't idiots for the first 55 minutes or so. Then suddenly, they were idiots again.

Geez, I'm such an idiot.

2011-11-25

An Open Letter to an Associate # 2


The following letter (with a few minor differences) was sent to an interested party who is a highly active member of an online atheist community. He has shown interest in the things I say, and in this letter I summarize what I've been writing about in this blog.

—————

What I speak and write about is a rational approach to matters traditionally tackled by religion. It is a “spiritual” quest minus the mystical mumbo-jumbo.

The big question goes something like this: Why are people so unhappy? This might be alternatively stated as: “How can we be happy?” but as I mentioned in my article Memetic Turning Points, there is a danger in stating things in seemingly positive terms, because it assumes we have the wisdom to know what's good for us. It's far better to sort out our cognitive distortions first.

Now the first and most obvious place to look is within the human brain, seeking out what is significant about us. It's not tool use, because animals can do that. It's not even abstract reasoning, because some animals can do that, too. If there was something about brains that I would peg as significant, it would be our facility with syntax and our highly sophisticated ability to process imagined realities. These may turn out to be related capabilities, as it is easier to imagine us evolving one special capability instead of two, but they really do look like two different abilities.

In any case, we might be mistaken to look into the brain. The actual problem, I suspect, is outside of us. No, it's not The Devil, but it's something like that. The memes which we take for granted set the context in which we live. And some of those memes are making us miserable and may even kill us.

—————

Consider this: no animal has been observed getting depressed in the wild. But put them with humans and they can get downright neurotic. Now that might simply be because they don't belong with us (though domestication would seem to address this argument). Be that as it may, most non-human animals find it quite trying to live with human animals. And human animals definitely find it hard to live with human animals.

It is said that a frog will not jump out of a pot if you increase the temperature very slowly. Eventually it will die and be cooked. A similar mechanism might be occurring with humanity and its memes. These mental tools have evolved alongside us, and we are indeed “swimming” in them.

Memes could be said to create us just as surely as the genes in DNA create us, but there's a difference: once you're born the genes stop evolving. Memes continue to evolve (or be replaced) while we live. Indeed, our lives are dominated by memes battling for our minds. I hope I don't have to explain that point, but I can give two examples just to make it clear: religions and television commercials want you to do what they want you to do. And in so doing, they want you to not do what some other meme-bearers want you to do.

It's a war for our minds, and this war is not actually being directed by humans. No, we're not being dominated by space aliens or some human conspiracy. We are being twisted around by the tools of our own creation, some of which are thousands (maybe millions) of years old. That's plenty of time for those meme complexes to have evolved highly sophisticated strategies.

—————

It's hard to be happy in the middle of any war. It also doesn't help when we are being recruited as weapons in that war. And if we say, “No way, I'm having no part in this rubbish!” we find that we're so deep into it we have no choice but to participate — unless, perhaps, we want to go live alone in the mountains in Montana. (Arguably, that's just a different kind of crazy, but it's hard to argue with the reasoning.)

It would be unreasonable to propose that we simply ditch all of the memes. Most of us would die in their complete absence because we've evolved with them. Besides, some of them (like how to make fire) are very useful. But it's tough to pick and choose while we're in the thrall of the conventional memes.

Our only choice, it seems, is to “master” the memes — get on top of them and stop identifying with them as being “us”. This, it seems to me, is what Zen masters have been trying (and mostly failing) to convey to us. I also believe that it was what Jesus was saying before his words got distorted by his followers. But I mention those related views only in passing; it's not an appeal to authority. The only valid authority here is you.

And by “you” I mean the authentic organism, not the meme-infested version that culture has persuaded us to believe in. Getting to that authentic organism is not easy. But it may be possible, at least partially for most of us, and fully for a few rare others.

The Perfect Death


The following article was inspired by two people in an online chat room who heard about my cancer and then spent the next hour frantically telling me about various “miracle” cures they'd heard about. I didn't believe a word of it, though I did check out a few of their links. I didn't want to be rude, but I didn't feel like a debate about alternative medicine. I finally convinced them to switch topics, and gave them my sincere thanks for caring.

And wow, did they care. They seemed really upset! They desperately wanted to explore every nook and cranny to beat off the specter of my demise. Indeed, my situation had them in such a state of worry that it made me feel kind of bad about the whole dying thing.

—————

Given my current precarious state of health, I have extra incentive to think about death. I don't actually think about it much, because as various people have observed at various times: death is easy; it's living that's difficult.

Nonetheless, the subject does cross my mind from time to time. Last night, as I walked the dog, it occured to me that I can think of two types of death, which I can relate to two different songs. I can imagine a rotten death and a perfect death. There are surely other flavors, but I can't imagine one that's an improvement on perfect.

Saving the best for last, I'll start by describing the rotten death.

—————

Once, about 10 or 20 years ago, I heard a song on the radio that ended with a lonesome wail. I hadn't listened to the lyrics and I have no idea what the final wailing was about. Maybe he lost his girlfriend and felt like he'd never have another true love. I don't know.

Whatever the case, this singer really knew how to tug the heartstrings. That concluding cry of anguish somehow managed to pack in eternal loneliness, utter abandonment, existential angst, and a total loss of faith in ever again having a pleasant moment. As the song came to a close, it was as if the singer too had ended, leaving this world with a gut-wrenching "Whyyy!?" The song concluded with an icy-cold, agonized death.

It was so depressing that I'd tune it out every time it came on the radio. If I was in a public place and couldn't control the radio, I'd mentally tune it out. Anything to spare myself hearing that horrific terminal sorrow!

That, in my mind, is what a rotten death would be. A person whose last thoughts are that the dying is wrong! wrong! wrong! might also experience the emotions that song sobbed out to me.

—————

Yes, there are unexpected deaths, and tragic ones, too. Some deaths linger, and some seem custom designed to slay any notion of human dignity. There are unjust deaths and strange deaths. But if the person was living in a certain way, right until the effective end, there's a chance that the death can be perfect.

—————

At my funeral, whenever that is, I do not require a eulogy nor a public address. The people who want to think or talk about me can and will do so at their convenience. All I ask to happen at the final ceremony is that people sit still and listen to the entire 12 minutes and 16 seconds of the song “Starless,” by King Crimson. Then they can go home or go shopping. Whatever.

As they listen, they could and probably should ignore the lyrics. I do. To the extent that they think of anything as the tune plays, I'd like them to reflect that I have listened to that song well over a hundred times. And each time I found the ending absolutely ... perfect.

The ending isn't especially clever. By today's standards it might even be considered a bit hackneyed. But when the song finally reaches its last chords, you know it's over. And if you've been able to enjoy the musical piece, you'll be okay with it being over; you will have no desire for it to continue. It is complete. It is done. It has died a perfect death.

—————

There are surely other tunes like that, and “Starless” is simply the one that resonates with me personally. But I can hope that anybody hearing the tune hears it the way I do: with no significant mistakes. The song lives vibrantly until the final moment, and when it dies, there is no need to go back and change a single thing.

If somebody really lives until their final lucid moment, then perhaps they might experience that same perfect death. Nothing can further complete a complete performance. Even mistakes contribute essential parts to the tune that was their life.

We humans tend to hang on, kicking and screaming, until we draw our last breath. If that's part of our living, then that's fine. But when death finally arrives, can we let go, knowing that enough was done by this one person? That there's no need to expect this human animal to add anything more?

—————

Some readers may wonder what I think lies beyond physical death. I do not expect this consciousness to continue. Is that a problem? No.

Put it this way: I'm not overly concerned if my stapler breaks. There are plenty of other staplers, and lots of people who can make new staplers. The system that created my every moment will continue.

So it doesn't actually matter if I have a perfect death or not. It'll just be a whole lot more pleasing.

2011-11-23

The X of Your Dreams

Yesterday I was idly curious about what people considered desirable. I'd already concluded that we're not going to see a giant rush to discover Truth. So what is interesting to the average person?

I searched Google for the phrase "of your dreams", including the quotes. This gave me numerous hits, such as “the woman of your dreams” or “the car of your dreams”. The first few pages of hits let me compile a list.

It seems obvious in retrospect, but at the time it only gradually dawned on me that my list of words could be organized in terms of Abraham Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs, with a slight amendment inspired by Viktor Frankl.

Here, then, are the key desires of the human race, as revealed by Google:

Physiological Needs:  body, massage
Safety: home, land, city, apartment, bathroom, kitchen
Love and Belonging: boy, girl, man, woman, child, honeymoon, wedding;
dog, horse, sheep; bar, bartender
Esteem: job, career, team; high school, college; manager; website;
life, lifestyle; airport, bike, car; dress
Self-Actualization: power, wisdom, world, temple, meaning, mirror, color, direction
Transcendence: holiday, weekend, event, journey, resort, music

Yes, there actually was a highly-ranked link for “the dress of your dreams.” I'm not sure if I've listed “the massage of your dreams” in the right place. I was a bit surprised at how popular sheep are.

If you're compassionately curious about what motivates people, or if you're planning a marketing campaign and want to appeal to basic needs, now you have an objectively-derived list of what people think is important.

There are, of course, other ways to make such a list. I suspect, though, that they will usually show a similar conformity to the famous Maslow Pyramid.

2011-11-22

The Terrifying Science of Enlightenment


Does science have anything to say about enlightenment? Here's a quick answer:

It can help.

Science is a tool. Alas, like so many of our mental tools, it can take people over and blind them to the big picture. If you read this blog regularly you already know about this danger. In this article, though, I wish to highlight a peculiarity about science:

Some people throw away the tool because it scares them.

—————

Within the community of people seeking and finding (or claiming to find) enlightenment you will find a habitual rejection of the objective. Some people will respond to certain types of ideas (such as those found in this blog) with comments like these:

“Those are interesting theories, but theories are distractions.”
or
“You think too much about these things.”
or
“One day you will realize that this is all a waste of time.”

Their warning is clear:  stop searching!

Some people can explain the warnings (which do have a certain validity!), but most cannot. Why is this?

—————

I invite the reader to look around the world of enlightenment studies and notice how many fakers are out there. (I said “fakers”, not “fakirs.”) Look at how many people are simply parroting old teachings with a bit of rephrasing. Above all, please observe how carefully these people avoid saying:

“I have not actually attained that which I am speaking about.”

It's satisfying to the ego to pretend to be wise, and this includes uttering statements like, “You cannot understand this intellectually.” But many — probably most — of the people who talk like this are simply hiding their ignorance.

It's clear to any intelligent person that intellectual understanding has limitations. I can explain to you, in great detail, why that is. But that's for another article. The point I'd like to make here is this:

By stigmatizing intellect fakers protect their beliefs from inspection.

How easy it is to sit in the lotus position with a placid expression, while pretending to have overcome the frailties of the unenlightened! How simple it is to reply to every question with a mystifying answer! How convenient it is to interrupt every attempt to seek deeper understanding!

—————

Much Eastern and mystical philosophy was built up by people who were hugely ignorant about the universe. They knew nothing — literally nothing — about neurology, genetics, memetics, cosmology, information theory, quantum physics. Heck, they didn't even understand basic physics.

In addition, they did not understand the revolution in cognition that resulted in the Scientific Method. It was too far outside their paradigm; they did not see how mere method could enforce principles of error correction.

It probably sounded to them like some people were claiming that honesty could be bottled. The ancient sages were not all-knowing; they were only human, after all. But humanity does not need to be stuck in medieval or Bronze Age memes. Ancient understanding is not inherently superior to modern understanding. Older does not automatically mean better. That is why I say:

The generation that can supersede mysticism is now alive.

—————

I do not recommend that we go too far in the opposite direction. Ultra-rationalism is just as big a trap as mysticism. There are modes of cognition that should not be assigned to tackling certain types of problems. But please:

Let us not throw away what humanity has paid so dearly to obtain.

We have the ability to understand — actually understand — what universal oneness means. We do not need obscurantist mysticism to see this.

I've had countless self-proclaimed gurus tell me that it is not possible to “understand” such things. They will tell me that I am merely engaging in intellectual play. Some have even called it mental masturbation.

Yet the strange thing is, I actually do explain, in clear terms, what they cannot and do not explain. They are like people who discovered fire by mistake and have concluded that it must forever remain a mystery.

The theory of such people seems to be:

IF ........ you can't intellectually understand   all  of it,
THEN ... you can't intellectually understand most of it.

I will admit that I've never heard them state it that clearly. Indeed, I rarely hear them state anything clearly.

—————

There remain two major mysteries for me. And if there is a mystical dimension to all this, perhaps it will be found while addressing these enigmas.

The first issue is: Where did our universe come from? I have some opinions about this, none of which are mystical, but I haven't a shred of evidence. The only honest answer I can offer is: I don't know.

The second issue is: What is the essential nature of awareness? I have explained “consciousness” in an earlier article. But awareness itself — the pure perceiving that does not compare or judge — is still a mystery to me. It is as if the universe has found a way to recognize itself. What does that even mean? I don't know.

So there you have it:  two clear failures on my part. I ask for your help if you can give any.

That's pretty much how science works, by the way. It's nothing to be afraid of.

2011-11-15

You Do Not Exist


My apologies!  This may be the longest single-part article I have written so far. I apologize, but it really must be quite long. Indeed, I'd like to make it twice as long. Still, if you've read my other articles you can probably fill in most of the blanks yourself.

—————

You probably have a fairly clear idea of what you are and what you control.

You are probably one of the 99.999985 percent of living humans who think this way. (I am assuming that 1000 people on Earth already know what I explain below.)

Intrigued? Well, let's review some of the questions we need to examine.


What does it mean to be an individual?
What does it mean to have a Self?
What does it mean to have Free Will?


Please read on. You may discover ...

Everything you believe about yourself is basically wrong

—————

Are you an individual?

You are not self-sustaining. If the Sun goes out, you die. If air is cut off, you die. If you're deprived of water, you die. True, there is a boundary to your organism, but even that boundary isn't clearly understood by most people. You are, in essence, a tube. There's a mouth at one end and a rectum at the other.

There is a huge ecosystem of bacteria inside your gut which, cell for cell, outnumbers your human cells ten to one. There are more critters elsewhere in and on your body that add to the diversity. You are not so much an individual as a colony.

Perhaps you think you are an individual because of your DNA. But if you had an identical twin would there be two of you? And don't forget your mitochondrial DNA! It isn't really “your” DNA but your mother's (or, more accurately, your mother's mother's mother's ... mother's ... mother's ... going back for millenia).

—————

Do you “have” a Self?

Other articles here have examined the image we have of our Self and showed it was a model of a model. It is a software artifact. The model is not the thing any more so than the blueprint is the house. (Your mind can, of course, convince you that you really are the model — this has been discussed in an earlier article.)

Incidentally, the ideas of “having” and ownership are convenient fictions invented by humans. “Having” is a statement about control. If you “have” something you control it to at least some extent, but it does not physically change the thing (though you could, as a futile, ontologically meaningless step, paste or inscribe a label onto the thing).

But wait! There is one possible form of “ownership” that is arguably valid. A biological organism such as a human body does have built-in self-preservation. Is this where the Self resides?

There are reflexive defensive instincts (fight, flight, freeze or foul). There are homeostatic circuits. There is hunger and thirst. There is the immune system and self-repair capabilities which must distinguish between “native” and “foreign” bio-matter. Yet as amazing as all these are, they are simply biomechanical processes. They are astonishingly sophisticated, but they can remain functional (though not necessarily operational) even if you are in an irreversible coma.

To put it another way:  the mere functioning of the “brain stem” is hardly what people think about when they use the word “me”.

—————

Do you have Free Will?

It certainly seems like you do, doesn't it? You decided to read this article, did you not? You chose what to eat for breakfast. You decided to read this sentence so that you could suddenly read these words: “I am now controlling you.

Am I? Am I really, truly controlling you? Well, consider what your brain is doing right now. It is reacting to what I typed. So the answer is no.

Did you expect me to say “Yes”? Let's be logical about this. I typed these words days, weeks or years ago. Perhaps I'm dead. It's the content of the text that is dictating much of what your mind is doing right now.

Oh, it's true that you could stop reading. You can fiercely deny this rude text the chance to control a portion of your mind. But that solves nothing.

Look at the bigger picture. Why did you start reading this article in the first place? Did you personally decide to learn the language in which it is written? Did you create the vast number of circumstances that made you interested in this kind of subject matter? (Alternatively, are you being compelled to read this because somebody told you to read it?)

—————

Consider every action you ever take. Ask yourself how many of those actions are completely, utterly from you and are in no sense a reaction to something somebody or something else did. In fact, why not try do that right now?

Go for it. Do something completely and utterly spontaneous that this article didn't ask you to do.

This article will now wait while you go off to do something spontaneous. You can take your time, because this is just some text and it doesn't care how long you're away.

Okay, now ... Did you do it? Well, if you did, it was because this article asked you to do it. (Incidentally, how hard did you work at being spontaneous? It's not easy! Trying to be deliberately spontaneous can teach us a lot about the nature of apparent choice.)

Did you rebel against this article and not do it? Well, if that's so, it seems you've been raised or trained to stand up for your Self and resist compulsion. Some people say that's a good quality for a human being to “have.” Indeed, the people who trained you that way almost certainly thought so.

—————

Are you thinking of counter-examples and arguments? Are you looking for (and probably finding!) satisfying reasons to reject what this article has said so far? Probably you are. The culture in which we are raised conditions us to think that way. We are depicted as isolated units. Individuals. Selves. Separate things. Our entire culture has evolved on the basis of people believing those assumptions.

Maybe this is a good time to take a deep, relaxing breath.

By the way, at what point did the air you just breathed start being “you”?

—————

Please try the following experiment. You'll need a television or access to an Internet video feed. Find a show  you'll like — one that is really amusing or interesting. At a time completely of your choosing (in case you need to assure yourself that this article isn't controlling your every action) start watching the show.

This really has been a long article so far. You deserve a break. Seriously, you do! This is tough stuff to read about. So go ahead and clear your mind of all the philosophical mumbo-jumbo here. Enjoy the show! Give yourself at least a good 30 minutes of enjoyment.

Once the show is over and the credits are rolling, ask yourself what was driving your mind for that half hour. What put thoughts into your head?

Yes, yes, you're a skeptical viewer and you were probably questioning certain parts of the show — especially if there were advertisements! Experience has taught you that you have to be careful! Maybe you've been tricked by advertising enough that you're always on your guard about people with an obvious agenda.

If so, that's good! But did you arrange for each lesson? Why, no, these things just happened when they happened. Nobody can plan out their lives in total detail. That's impossible. You got the lessons you got. You are exactly as skeptical as circumstances and training made you.

—————

The more you search for the source of control over all that you are, the more you will realize that “you” do not so much act as react based on previous experience and training. Much of the reaction occurs in the rational part of the mind, and most of the rest occurs from internalized, unattended conditioning. (Some reactions, like the startle reflex, are instinctual — conditioned by genetic evolution.)

We are learning animals. We can become extraordinarily adept at dealing with highly complex situations, but our mix of skills merely reflect our unique life histories. Your history can define and refine you, but it cannot be said that it is you. If you had complete amnesia you would not cease to be a living human being. You would continue to function (albeit with a lot of your usual software missing).

—————

If you've read this far, this article is still largely driving your mind. There's nothing special about this article, though. Lots of things drive your mind. In this case, though, it's this article.

Some parts of your mind are holding back from being driven. Of course! Our culture has taught us that we are individuals. That's an idea (or Self image) we can and do identify with. It really is no mystery that humans tend to identify with an idea or image, and then defend that notion with tiger-like tenacity. That is, after all, how wars get sufficient personnel to keep going.

Speaking of wars, it's clear that we get Self-defining software foisted upon us by one or more of our sub-cultures (such as our native country). A sub-culture's software (which might include “patriotism” or “resistance against oppression”) is intended to drive us in preference to something else that might drive us.

That's how the age-old war of memes plays out. Our minds are a constant battlefield of competing memes, each seeking to become a driver.

Some people will shrug when presented with tales of the Stanford Prison Experiment, Abu Ghraib, or similar demonstrations of conformity and say, “I wouldn't be so vulnerable; I'd be that one person in a million who said No.”

Maybe you would be — if your life history had conditioned you as that kind of resister. Personally, I was raised in a religion that forced me to publicly reject even mundane political involvement. That conditioning taught me to “Be my own man” in such cases. So now I have some ability to not do something that other people are doing. That's part of my conditioning. It's not much to get excited about, though. It certainly doesn't make me a True and Genuinely Independent Individual, nor does it grant me some kind of Free Will. It's just training, which sometimes kicks in when I'm subjected to a particular set of circumstances that I'm not controlling.

—————

Some people will be terrified by the proposal that they do not actually control their minds or their choices. They might wonder if they will suddenly go on a killing spree or jump off a building. But that's extremely unlikely. In addition to (say) a million years worth of memetic programming, there are billions of years of genetic programming.

You are programmed to survive. You are programmed to thrive. You are programmed to excel, to overcome, to be the best darn living thing that the various forms of evolution could make you. The very fact you are reading this proves that you and your ancestors out-evolved a mind-numbingly large number of competitors.

They are all dead. You are not. You win!

Well, not “you”, really. The sub-system that created you wins. But you can pretend it was all about you, just as you can get excited when your sports team wins.

Above all, the system that we call life wins. Anti-entropy wins. If somehow we manage to avoid destroying all life on this planet, we can be sure that anti-entropy will remain a winning proposition for a long, long time.

—————

What are you? From an everyday, nuts 'n' bolts point of view, with all romanticism removed:

You are a confluence of influences.

Things happen, and you react as your unique life history programmed you to. It feels like you're making a choice, and you might even feel pride at the apparent choice you make, but the choices were already being set in motion long before the precipitating incident.

To fully understand any action you take, you'd need to go back to the very birth of the universe and possibly even “further” than that. The quick and romantic way to say it, though, is this:

You are the universe expressing itself.

2011-11-05

Operational Reality

Note: A video version of this article is available on YouTube.

—————

Some people say that the universe was created five seconds ago, with everything where it is, doing what it is doing, and with our memories the way they are now. They do not claim that science can prove this assertion.

Some people say the same thing, except that it didn't happen five seconds ago. Rather, they say it happens repeatedly, far less than a billionth of a second apart (about 0.000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 01 second, in case you're wondering). They do not claim science can prove this.

Some people say the universe was created by a god. They do not claim science can prove this. What's more, some say that God Himself (as we can perceive Him) is created by a complex process of Oneness differentiating into separate aspects of the One. They don't claim that science can prove this.

They do, however, insist that it's true.

There are all kinds of ideas about what reality really is. Is all reality actually just something in your imagination? Is reality truly made of pure consciousness and all matter is illusion? Do we, as a popular movie suggested, live in a computer simulation? If so, is that simulation inside another simulation?

There is no way for science to prove or disprove any of this.

On the basis of the foregoing, some people conclude that science sucks. It simply can't do the job it needs to do! Thus, they conclude, we must find a better way to find out about reality.

—————

Some have proposed a substitute for science that they call “faith”. Now, there's nothing wrong with faith in some cases. I have faith that my wife won't kill me in my sleep — that's why I'm able to get a good night's rest. When I drive my motorcycle toward a green stoplight, I have faith that my fellow human will stop at the corresponding red. My faith is so strong that occasionally I don't even bother to check that it's so.

There is no way for science to validate these choices of mine. Sometimes wives do kill husbands. Sometimes people do run red lights. But we have our faith because otherwise we would be paralyzed by fear. It's an accommodation we must make with reality. But the sheer necessity of faith doesn't mean that it can teach us about the Ultimate Reality.

Ah, yes, the Ultimate Reality. Is there a Supreme Being named God or Jehovah or Zeus or whatever? The short answer is No. At least, if such a being exists it is not going to be anything like the way our silly human stories portray him, her or it. There are indeed higher levels of organization and intelligence (as described in my earlier articles, such as the one about tsotls). But our everyday experience of these is still part of our universe. As such, they are not Ultimate Answers.

Optional Note for the Detail-Oriented: Please note that I said “everyday experience” above. This article would be vastly more complicated if I had to also bring in quantum strangeness, relativity, cosmology, and the metaphysical nature of pure information (about which I'll write another day). These seeming exceptions don't really affect the message of this article, so please bear with me.

Some people say that our universe is part of a multiverse — that we exist because our universe had just the right physical settings out of countless billions of trillions of quadrillions of quintillions of other universes.

This could very well be true. It makes sense. It explains almost everything, really. But at the moment we have no way to find out if it's true.

So what do we do? Give up?

—————

Look: even if you don't know how the universe was created, even if you can't prove that your best friend is conscious the way you are, even if you can't guarantee that the laws of physics will remain constant during the next hour, you do recall that you've enjoyed a nice cookie, right?

No matter how the universe actually operates — whether there be gods or multiverses or realms of pure consciousness — it is not unreasonable to expect that you can fetch yourself a nice cookie. And if we have good shoes and reasonable health we can go for a nice stroll. If you like dogs, you can watch a puppy play. If you like sports, you can toss a ball around. In fact, if you have time to spare you can even read interesting (though sometimes long-winded) articles about reality.

In other words: It is reasonable to act as if the reality we treat as real really is out there in some way.

—————

No matter how we philosophize, the reality in which we actually operate is one of consistency. We might never be able to know what the Ultimate Reality is, but we certainly do put our faith in the regularity of the Operational Reality we inhabit. And that very simple trust in the universe, substantiated or not, has apparently worked out quite well for humanity.

It's not that we shouldn't grow and improve. We could, for example, stop being so nasty to one another. History shows us that we can change, and our lives can become more enjoyable, when we stop claiming to know what we do not know. And what do we actually know?

We can see, with quite astonishing accuracy, how things operate. And just as we did with our faith in fellow humans, we can pretend that that's all we need to know. That's the principle of Operational Reality.

Of course, in the back of our mind we will retain the knowledge that our reality-model is incomplete. It would be insane to forget that! But there does come a point where we have to actually live. We make friends, we trust loved ones, we drive in traffic ... and we eat cookies that may or may not be poisoned by invisible demons.

They probably weren't.

—————

Incidentally, if you who think that someday a god will hand us the Answer, get ready to ask it this question:

“How do you know you weren't programmed to forget that even you were created?”

—————

Next time somebody tells you something like “All reality is actually a projection of the Ultimate Oneness of Beingness,” ask them how they know. If they tell you it takes years of study to realize that, ask them if it's possible that they've simply conditioned their minds to see what their assumptions imply. If they don't understand what you mean by that, maybe it's time to walk away.

There is much about reality we can still learn. But...

We are not compelled to complicate life with beliefs we cannot possibly test. 

Yes, we're keen to know how things truly are. And as time progresses we do learn more. But until the day arrives (and I doubt it ever will) when we little human animals have The Absolute And Certain Knowledge Of All That Is Real — we can live by the principle of Operational Reality.

Enjoy your cookie!

2011-11-04

The Gospel of Ouguru


Once upon a time there was a guru. His parents had given him a normal, rather dull name, but those who revered him came to call him The First Guru, or Our Guru. Some shortened this to Ouguru. They all agreed that the name didn't matter.

There were stories that Ouguru was wise beyond his years. One fanciful tale had it that even on the day of his birth he had the wisdom of a thousand-year-old man. Perhaps less fanciful were the reports that when he was two years old he would speak of a wonderful land called Gohwawa. (That is how his biographers spelled it.) In later years it was speculated that Gohwawa was actually an early reference to the land of Earth's dinosaurs and that these babblings were Ouguru's first insights into the nature of human consciousness.

His mother was a devout Daoist, while he father was a devout Buddhist. His godfather was a devout atheist, and his uncle was a devout deist. His next door neighbour was a car thief, but he is rarely mentioned in Ouguru's biographies.

Ouguru was merely 15 years old when he began to teach of the distant planet of Rutstaattotdasaicym. Few beside him could accurately pronounce the name of the planet, so most people simply called it “Ruts”. According to Ouguru's teaching, Ruts was encircled, in a manner similar to the planet Jupiter, by magnificent rings. However, whereas Jupiter's rings comprised ice and other debris, the rings of Ruts were composed of pure consciousness.

This, said Ouguru, was the source of all consciousness in the universe. Tendrils of awareness would venture forth from Ruts, travelling through both space and time, attracted to certain peculiar characteristics of molecular complexity. Later adherents connected these statements with quantum physics, though Ouguru himself said nothing about this.

According to Ouguru, the tendrils of awareness did indeed brush against Earth a few million years before the rise of the first reptiles and thus it could be said that the dinosaurs, though stupid by our standards, were conscious in a way that we might recognize.

—————

The scientists of Ouguru's day said that he was an idiot. They said he had no proof whatsoever that there was a planet named Rutstaattotdasaicym, and that since he didn't have a time machine he could not have any observations about the minds of dinosaurs.

To the surprise of his followers, Ouguru agreed.  “An idiot I might be,” he said, “but do not miss the point of what I am saying.”

As he grew older and his teaching skills improved, he used to story of Ruts to demonstrate the nature of mind. He taught — or rather, led people to see — that their impressions of what they are can be mistaken. He showed them that we can be led to believe things about ourselves that just aren't so, and can continue to believe them generations after they have been shown false.

Ouguru said to his followers that truly there is no such thing as a Self, and that when all is said and done everything returns to Rutstaattotdasaicym. He spoke of this at the very end of his final public appearance. “When you get there,” he said to the audience with a weary smile, “you may play with the dinosaurs if you wish, or move on to other pursuits.”

This, alas, was his last pronouncement, because the next day he was run over by man in a stolen car who was fleeing from the police.

Some of his followers speculated that he had allowed himself to die because he had said all that he needed to say. Others elaborated further, saying that his last statement was a metaphor he'd left for his most advanced followers to decode. Some even said that Ruts was not a real place at all — that the entire “ring of consciousness” was a teaching trick to break people away from their reliance on received wisdom.

—————

Ouguru was succeeded by The Second Guru. Unfortunately, there were two obvious successors and one minor candidate. All three claimed the title of Second Guru, though all three said that the truth was more important than the title.

None of the three gave the title to one of the others.

One thing they could all agree upon, however, is that Self was an illusion created by the past. However, the first Second Guru maintained that Ruts existed in real space, while the second Second Guru said that Ruts was purely imaginary. The third Second Guru insisted that Ruts was a projection of an overarching reality that only the most advanced gurus could access.

There were other potential Second Gurus, but some of these died under unusual circumstances. The rest were ignored as either crazy or charlatans. Some clever scholars wrote insightful books. Most of these were burned: the books, at first, and later on the scholars as well.

Centuries later, by the time of the Seventeenth Guru (or Nineteenth in the other main lineage), it was generally agreed that Self emerged from the energy of the past (as generated by the movement of time relative to Stillness) and inhabited the fifth through eighth dimensions (corresponding to the four main senses) while the so-called planet Ruts sat alone in the ninth dimension. Very few initiates had the skill to visit it, and fewer still had the ability to describe it. But there was no doubt whatsoever that the finest goal for a human being was to rejoin the dinosaurs and their descendants on Rutstaattotdasaicym.

So when war broke out between the two primary factions, the question naturally arose: which side would end up on Ruts? A few heretics claimed that both sides would end up there. They were immediately sent on an expedition to find out for themselves.

The scientists on both sides worked furiously in the name of truth, justice and thoroughly valid vengeance. Finally one of them worked out how to explode the sun and the rest was history. Or, at least, there was no more history from that point onward.

Fortunately for us, this story happened in a parallel universe. It makes for a good yarn, but of course nothing that stupid could happen here.

2011-11-03

All is Wonderful


In a previous article entitled “What is a Tsotl?” I introduced a concept, which I named a tsotl, which described (roughly speaking) things containing things which in turn are made of other things. But there are other, more precise, ways of looking at this.

One of the fundamental principles of the objectively-observable universe is called “entropy.” Entropy is, roughly speaking, the tendency for things to fall apart. More specifically, entropy is the tendency of reality to proceed from order to disorder.

Nothing is immune to the principle of entropy. Indeed, some scientists have predicted that in the far future there may be something called the “heat death of the universe,” when everything that exists is in a state of utter disorder. If you could still somehow survive to that time you would find yourself alone in an unimaginably vast cosmos of particles too scattered, too far away, and moving away too fast to see.

Entropy is thus truly a principle to be reckoned with! But there exists a counter-balancing principle — a yin to entropy's yang, one might say, or another aspect of Shiva, to put it in even more mythopoetic terms. We can plainly see — and we are examples of — a principle that one might call anti-entropy. Tsotls are the result of this anti-entropy. To put it yet another way:

One principle attempts to tear apart while another principle attempts to bring together.

Lest we get all dewy-eyed about how sweet and love-like all this is, let us not forget just how titanic are the forces we are talking about. Tsotls (and life in particular) did not arise spontaneously; they require energy. Lots of energy. More energy than we can comfortably imagine.

Those sub-atomic particles that are joined to make up large, useful atoms in our bodies were brought together by colossal compressional forces inside exploding stars. That is the natural way to obtain the energy levels required to fuse the constituents of matter into bigger atoms.

Next time you look up into a clear sky toward the sun, note that you cannot bear to look directly at it. The source of energy that nourishes life on Mother Earth is so powerful, so energetic, that gazing at it for only a few moments can cause you to go blind. Is it any wonder the ancients worshipped Father Sun as a demigod?

Yet most of that searing energy is initiated by nuclear fusion — the coming-together of small atoms (such as hydrogen) into larger atoms (such as helium). Rather than flying apart, as entropy would seem to demand, gravitation causes them to come together, thereby liberating vast amounts of the power that makes life possible on our little planet.

From destruction comes the potential for construction. From death comes the potential for life. And the reverse case is obviously true, too: constructed things do not endure forever; living things eventually die.

Indeed, when living things die, it may be that we are stealing some of their order in order to feed our own. That's part of what it means to eat your vegetables: the sun's power is converted for you into a form that (after several additional steps) you can easily use.

In the time between disorder and disorder there is order. And that order seems to follow the principle of tsotls: things made of other things, organized from tiny particles all the way up to planetary ecosystems in seeming defiance of entropy.

One can speculate even higher up the scale, with “evolving universes” and such — I'll explain that sort of stuff in a later article about “Operational Reality.” For now, though, let us stick to that which we can observe with the simple instruments of our time. And these let us see something truly wonderful:

The universe seeks to destroy us even as it nurtures us as we evolve toward ever greater levels of organization. 

We can see it, and be it, ourselves: the ongoing dance of entropy and anti-entropy.

As literally awesome as all this is, as mind-boggling as it might be, there is no mysticism here. There are no gods invoked. This is not religion based on wild guess-work. This is the way things actually occur.

It is beyond our capacity to fully, directly comprehend all of this. So it evokes reverence in all who appreciate it. And whether or not we do appreciate the magnificence, we're all part of it.

It's all one thing.

2011-11-02

Part of a Dream


I dreamed of an honest religion
that's clearly transparent to anyone
without camouflage from the mystical
dares shrug when it just doesn't know

I dreamed of a shift in our politics
that's clearly transparent for anyone
which needs no persuasion by violence
yet won't claim that no-one can cheat

I dreamed of a leap through delusion
that's clearly transparent for everyone
which isn't the least bit coercive
and tolerates humans as apes

2011-11-01

What is a Tsotl?


This article is going to get a bit confusing before it gets clear, but the end result is a reality-model — a way of looking at things — that I use to unify my views of evolution, memetics, genetics and perception. It also made it possible for me to appreciate the oneness of existence.

Okay, here comes the really confusing part. I apologize for this, but I need to write it out. Examples will clarify it later.

A tsotl is what makes a thing seem a thing. A tsotl is a pattern for patterns; it is form. A tsotl can be made of other tsotls. A tsotl is a thing that seems to contain other things.

There, that was the really confusing bit. If you didn't get it, don't worry. Now let me give you examples, starting with some sciencey bits. If you don't fully get it at first, just keep reading, since it will get to more familiar territory later on.

Sub-atomic particles (like quarks) are, for reasons we need not explore here, brought together to form an atom. They are not eternally bound there, but for the moment that's where they are. The coming-together of smaller units into what we can consider a larger whole is a tsotl.

Special note for quantum physicists: Note that I said “we can consider” — I am not forgetting about Heisenberg. But let's not complicate matters too much.

For reasons we won't explore, but which any scientist can explain quite well, the atoms cluster togther into molecules. The coming-together of smaller units — atoms, in this case — constitutes a tsotl. So to review: this particular tsotl — a tsotl from atoms — is made of another tsotl — a tsotl from sub-atomic particles.

Entropy doesn't “like” this stuff happening. If you don't understand that remark, don't worry about it.

Special note for physicists: I put the word “like” in quotes; I'm not suggesting entropy actually gives a darn. I'm trying to keep this simple, okay?

The molecules cluster together in a particular way to form a cell. This, too, is a tsotl, and it is made of tsotls.

Entropy really doesn't “like” cells. They are anti-entropy incarnate. If you don't understand what I mean by that, don't worry about it; just keep reading. It will get more clear in a bit.

Special note for scientists:  I did not put quotes around the word “anti-entropy”. I consider it an important enough principle to get its own actual word.

Cells come together to form organs. These are tsotls, which are, of course, made of tsotls. Organs form organisms — such as your body. A body is a tsotl, and it is made of tsotls.

Special note for biologists:  Don't worry, I haven't forgotten about mitochondria. I'm trying to emphasize the linearity of the progression, here. I've written about mitochondria in another article. Actually, it's a poem.

Things get a bit more complex at this stage. Your body is host to countless other organisms. Your digestive tract contains something like ten times more bacteria cells than your body has human cells. You are a walking ecosystem for the bacteria. From their point of view (to the extent that they have one), your entire purpose for existing is to provide them with a place to live. And since they outnumber your cells, it might be argued that they're right and your opinion doesn't count! But let's ignore their vote for now and keep climbing up the size scale.

Bodies come together to form groups of people, like a family, or a social circle, or a city. These are tsotls, made of tsotls.

Groups come together to form communities (which are tsotls), which come together to form regions (also tsotls), which come together as countries (which are also tsotls). All countries taken together form the human race, which is a tsotl. Obviously enough, we can say it's made from tsotls.

But the planet isn't just made from humans. There is all life to account for, like those (hopefully) friendly bacteria in your gut. And house cats. And dogs. And sheep, and horses, and wolves, and gorillas, and ants, and beetles, and mosquitos, and so on.

And let us not forget plants, or the countless single-celled organisms like algae upon which so much depends.

Taken all together, these smaller units contribute to one larger unit, the biggest tsotl we can conveniently conceive of, which is our planet. It is sometimes called Gaia, and it shows signs of self-regulation. It, too, is a tsotl.

Gaia must really annoy entropy. The principle of entropy is that disorder in a closed system increases. Gaia is not a closed system, but it does slap entropy in the face, so to speak.

No, it's definitely not a closed system. Mother Earth depends upon Father Sun to provide the energy to make things happen. Without Father Sun we would not have the energy to live, love and evolve.  (I hope you can forgive me for referring to our planet and local star as Mother and Father, but I feel a great reverence for both of them. For one thing, if it wasn't for them I'd have never been born.)

Well, that's enough about tsotls to serve as an introduction to the subject. And now I'm going to do something I should have done years and years ago: tell people how to pronounce the word tsotl!

I'm comfortable with either of the two following pronunciations:

tuh-saw-tuhl   or   ts-aw-tl  (if you can manage that).

I use the second one.

2011-10-30

The Mouse of Destiny


A mouse awoke in the middle of winter and crawled out of its hole. As it was located atop a tall mountain peak, it could see for miles around. If this mouse had been less practically-minded, it might have considered the view breathtaking, awe-inspiring, even humbling. But this particular mouse was merely looking around. As it took a few more steps to get a better view of its surroundings, it dislodged a pebble.

The pebble rolled downhill and struck a few more pebbles. These, in turn, brought down more pebbles, resulting in a cascade which knocked loose a small rock. The process repeated and amplified, until several rocks collided with a snow bank, triggering a mighty avalanche.

The maelstrom of snow thundered down the mountain slope and crashed into an old reservoir, which could not handle the sudden strain and collapsed. Thousands of tons of water hurtled down the valley, gathering momentum and picking up debris. By the time it struck the sleepy town of two thousand, it was, by the measure of the doomed inhabitants, an unstoppable force of destruction. Not one building remained standing; not a single soul in the town survived.

When all finally became still again, the mouse thought, “Wow, I'm really someone to be reckoned with!” He renamed himself Mousey the Great, and from that day forward his fellow mice and their offspring feared and respected him for the power he was known to wield.

2011-10-25

Shave Me From My Self


I am not what I say
I am not what I think
I am not my beliefs
I am a hairless ape

I am not Canadian
In Canada I was born
I am not American
The USA's where I live

I am a hairless ape

I am not a good man
Some might say it's so
I am not a bad man
Sometimes it seems so

I'm just a hairless ape

I am not a liberal
I am not a democrat
I am not a socialist
I am not a communist
I am not an anarchist

I am a hairless ape

I am not a Christian
I am not an atheist
I am not a believing object
Nor am I a skeptic

I am a hairless ape

I believe that what I am is:
I am a hairless ape
I'm not made of my beliefs, however
I'm not a hairless ape

I am not my thoughts
In fact...
I am not my memory
I am not my mind
And yet...

I do recall
From time to time
I can enjoy
A nice banana.

2011-10-24

I Hope This is Clear

Obscurantism is a tempting substitute for profundity.

What's more...

Authority is what you have when everybody who disagrees with you has left.

And if that wasn't enough...

We're generally too scatterbrained to notice how scatterbrained we are.

The thing is, you see ...

Reality isn't like anything; that's why it's called reality. Reality is that which is, our beliefs and desires notwithstanding. What is ... is. Thinking about reality is no substitute for the real thing. Thinking about the present is no substitute for being there.

Alas ...

My ego is as smart as I am, but isn't worn out by fighting my ego.

2011-10-21

Phear My Postmodern Awesomeness


am burroughs but cannot care
do faulkner here i is
it it
joyce know like likely me
nor not
particularly people seems
some that
thinking to what would writers
you you!

one million dollars, please.

2011-10-20

The Present Cookie


Do you remember the first cookie you ever ate?

No, of course you don't. How about the second cookie?

The third?

How about the seventeenth?

If you're an adult in a developed nation, you've probably eaten hundreds of cookies. Far too many to remember individually. Why don't you go have one now? You're an adult; you're allowed.

Mmm, wonderful cookies.

But that cookie you have in mind can't possibly be as interesting or amazing as the first cookie you ever had. You know why? Because you have it in mind, that's why. Most of the surprise is gone.

Memory is thus a mixed blessing. Can you imagine what it would be like if you could once again experience a cookie for the first time?

I've heard that cannabis tampers with memory, making it hard to recall anything. Maybe that's what causes (or at least contributes to) the so-called “munchies.”

That's my theory, anyway. I could be wrong. I do know, though, that when I'm very much “in the present” my food tastes amazing. Or maybe I'm dragged into the present because I'm an amazing cook.

I'm not sure which one is true. But I'm getting hungry. Where did I put those cookies?

You Are Here

Here's a question for you to consider:

Are you in the universe? Or are you of the universe?

Yes, I know Jesus reportedly asked a similar question about “the world” (John 15:19).  I'm not talking about “the world;” I'm talking about the whole universe. I'm talking about everything there is (including your favorite god, if you absolutely must make this needlessly complicated).

Are you in the universe? Or are you of the universe?

Do you see the difference? Do you also see that most people's thoughts favor one viewpoint over the other almost all of the time?

If you do see that, do you see why it's so?

We can consider both versions true, of course. But there's a universe of difference in what they imply.

If Only They'd Listen


Black people! They're all the same!
Crack-addicted drug dealers!
Except you, of course.
You're one of the good ones.

Jews! They're all the same!
Money-grubbing control freaks!
Except you, of course.
You're one of the good ones.

Gays! They're all the same!
Marriage-destroying whiny bitches!
Except you, of course.
You're one of the good ones.

Atheists! They're all the same!
Religion-bashing child aborters!
Except you, of course.
You're one of the good ones.

I have 'em all figured out!
Except you, my black Jewish gay atheist friend.
Somehow only you seem to care
That I'm always being picked on.


Note to the Terminally Dense:  
This  is  a  work  of  satire. 
It does not reflect my actual opinion 
of any group of people except idiots.

2011-10-19

Instructional Television Programming

Today I sat in a doctor's waiting room with nothing interesting to do. I'd forgotten to bring a book.

With no other choice, I watched the television. It was mounted high up on the wall, so I couldn't change channels nor, I gather, was I supposed to. It was showing a kids' cartoon.

I haven't seen a kids' cartoon for many decades. I realized that I didn't actually know how they worked, so I watched carefully.

Well, every minute or so the animated character would tell the viewer to get into a certain pose, or clap hands thus, or say such-and-such words, or speak the answer to a puzzle — the correct answer for which was always strongly hinted at. And then the character would look out from the screen, and the show would pause to give sufficient time to carry out the action.

This happened over and over. It was quite mind-numbing. Of course, I'm an adult, and this show wasn't designed for me, was it?

An advertising commercial came on.

I had a sudden urge to go buy that thing.

Now how do you suppose that happened?

Free Immortality for Everyone!


“What do you suppose happens after you die?"

This is a question that atheists are frequently asked when they reveal to their God-fearing friends that they aren't believers. Alas, all too often the atheist responds in a rather harsh way:  “My body rots and that's it!”

This usually has the desired effect, which is to shock the believer. There's only one problem with that statement: it's wrong.

Oh, the body does rot, but that's certainly not “it”. Everybody (and everything) who has ever lived is immortal, after a fashion.

Consider this: while you're alive you can't help but affect other things. It might be a minimal effect, such as moving your tiny gravitational attraction from one place to another. Over time this adds up, thanks to what is called The Butterfly Effect. On the other hand, you will sometimes have a much more obvious or even multiplicative effect. Imagine how much you change if, for example, you encourage somebody at a bleak time in their life so that they don't commit suicide.

Not everybody saves a life like that (or knows that they did) but regardless how you live your life, the effects will cause other effects, which in turn will have other effects. And so on, at least until the end of this universe.

That might not sound like a good deal to people who want to live forever, whatever that means — and it actually sounds a bit frightening to me — but non-believers see things differently. They tend to emphasize living in the here and now, not the great hereafter.

But what of the big picture? Well, non-believers like me are awestruck that the very atoms in our bodies were forged in the cores of exploding stars. Wow! That's a far better story than the one in the Bible book of Genesis. At least, I think it would make a much better movie.

And afterward? I don't expect to remain for eternity in this mind, with this name and identity. Who actually wants that sort of thing? Are they mad? Anyway, I don't suppose this mind, as such, will out-live my body at all. But thanks to the cascading of cause and effect, my short time here will be recorded in the very fabric of the universe. And the same applies to every entity that ever lived, whether or not they know it.

In my opinion, this is a better immortality story than the one in the Bible or the Quran. It may not appeal to the ego, but it doesn't require any faith whatsoever, and everybody can plainly see that it's true.

2011-10-15

An Open Letter to an Associate


The following article wrote itself as I was responding to a fellow, who calls himself Wylo, with whom I have recently become associated. I was going to name this article An Open Letter to a Friend, but that's a bit presumptuous.

Anyway, if you've ever wondered why this blog exists, you can read below and find out why I do it.

———————————————

Wylo, your message is encouraging to me. I have also been encouraged by seeing the rest of the Ruthless Truth forum, Ciaran Healy's blog and Facebook page, Liberation Unleashed and the Dharma Overground. That might sound like a mixed bag but here's the point:  these web sites suggest to me that the world might be on the verge of addressing an issue that has concerned me for years.

The way I see it, humanity now has the means to destroy itself, and within a generation will have the means to destroy all life on this planet. So the time for us to learn to wage peace is running out. Over 2600 years have elapsed since the Buddha woke up, but we can't mess around any longer. Either there is some cooperation and advancement in enlightenment studies or humanity will go the way of the dinosaurs.

A few years ago I brought up this matter in one of the top Buddhist forums. I did not find the response helpful. The most representative comment was, “What part of Buddhism did you not understand?” I left with the impression that they'd confused enlightenment with fatalism, but what did I know?

I could be utterly misguided, but as I see it the advent of the Internet is creating a shift in the global mentality, and this will affect the “enlightened” as well.  “Cooperative research” is what I hope to see now. I see no reason why enlightenment studies cannot be subjected to the same checks, balances, doubt and honesty that science is reputed to have. I have never found these so-called “spiritual” matters the least bit mystical. They do require a certain flexibility of mind, though not, in my experience, as much as is required for quantum physics!

Last year, after I was diagnosed with cancer, my father suggested that I jot down my varied views. I protested that I couldn't think of a way to express my ideas clearly, but he said I could at least try. So I started a blog. Maybe I could say something that was useful. Still, I seriously doubted I'd make a difference. But the process of writing, researching and promoting the blog led me to people who seem to be on roughly the same wavelength, and who seem more oriented toward cooperation than I've seen before.

I am serious about cooperation. I personally think that all religions have, at their core, a sense of the truth, even if memetic drift has rendered it almost unrecognizable. I include even strange renditions such as Kaballah, Sufism, A Course in Miracles and more. All of these seem to me to bear the same relation to truth that alchemy did to chemistry before science rigorized the process of discovery. It is my hope that before I die I can see a similar leap forward in enlightenment circles.

So now we'll see what happens.

2011-10-14

One Half of a Meme


“If we evolved up from the ground...”
The challenge thus begins
“Then why are monkeys still around?”
The asker smugly grins

And though this question's meant to show
Creationism's true
I merely wonder why it's so
They always think it's new!

2011-10-12

Acquired Value


When I was a little kid — around 7, I suppose — I made a bargain with my stepsister, who was the same age. I'd noticed that she was charmed by some lovely clinky bits of money I had. She, on the other hand, had a dollar bill.

I proposed that we swap my 45 cents for her dollar. I knew that I could buy more stuff with a dollar, and she knew that the coins were pretty and tinkled together with a sound she liked. We made the deal.

My parents later found out and reversed the trade. I did not protest. I wasn't even upset. To me this was just another one of those rules the adults teach us.

They said the rules made sense. I took them at their word. I was just a kid.

In case you've forgotten, this is what money looks like:


Anyway, I'd received a piece of paper worth about a hundredth of a cent. My stepsister had received sparkly coins made of pure Canadian nickel, shiny copper, and a smidgen of silver.

Did I cheat my sister? Did she cheat me? Was anybody cheated at all? It turns out that it depends on those rules the adults teach us.