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.

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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.