The Speed of Non-Thought

The previous article (The Bounded Infinite and Free Will) took me over an hour to type in. I will now spend another hour proof-reading it. That's the speed at which I work — the speed of thought.

What I find intriguing, though, is that the entire idea for the article (complete with references to Free Will, cigarettes, alcohol, addiction, the original Siamese Twins, and Pi) came to me within the span of a minute or two. That's the speed of creativity — the speed of non-thought.

It's amazing how slow we are compared to how fast we can be.

We see the speed of non-thought also in cases of crisis. I've encountered it during motorcycle accidents (and near-accidents), where the speed of non-thought saved me from injury or death, and once during an attempted home invasion, when the speed of non-thought may have saved my life.

From what I've heard, it seems that athletes and martial artists also use non-thought when they excel at what they do, though I cannot claim to have direct personal experience in this matter.

It is my impression that thought evolved to serve non-thought — preparing the organism to react at lightning-quick speed to complex situations. The side-effect is creativity.

Anyway, that's what non-thought just told me. Perhaps it's wrong.

Addendum: Total time to type in and edit the previous article: 4½ hours. Number of new ideas for the article during that time: One (specifically: the final sentence).

The Bounded Infinite and Free Will

Please bear with me for the next 20 seconds or so while I recite the numerical value Pi as well as I can.


Okay, that's Pi to 55 digits. I memorized that about 40 years ago and on a good day I can still remember it. I'm pretty sure that with so many digits I could calculate the circumference of the galaxy and be accurate to less than the width of an atom. So it seems like a pretty useless thing to remember.


I'm not the only person to have memorized Pi to absurd levels of accuracy. According to a list I have from 2007, a Chinese guy named Lu Chao memorized it to over 67,000 digits! The list mentions 54 more people who have memorized 1000 or more digits.

What is it about Pi that is so fascinating? I can't speak for Lu Chao or the others, but to me it's the fact that a seemingly random infinite number is right under my nose every time I look at a circle. Because if you remember your high school math class, Pi is the number you get when you divide a circle's length around the outside edge by its width across. That is to say, you're dividing its circumference by its diameter. And you end up with a weird series of digits that go on forever without repeating.

You might think that surely the numbers repeat at some point. I can't personally prove to you that that's wrong, but I've read several proofs, by actual mathematicians, that clearly showed me that the digits never, ever repeat. So I'm convinced that the digits continue forever and ever, always presenting something new.


So what does Pi have to do with the sort of things I usually talk about? Well, when I look at the number Pi I am reminded of the apparent unpredictability of my own life.

Now, I say that there is no Free Will — that everything I do could, in theory, be predicted if there was enough information about what makes me choose one action over another. I also say that, under everyday circumstances, nobody will ever be able to predict what I'll do next because it's impossible for any human to get enough information.

Please note that qualification I used: “under everyday circumstances.” If I'm wired up to a bunch of machines that are monitoring my brain it is possible to predict what I will do if the prediction is about something trivial, like whether or not I'll push a button. In such cases my actions can be predicted, but in a standard day, when I'm not hooked up to machines, and my decisions involve things like what to have for lunch, there is usually no way to predict what I'll do next.


Think about what I'm saying for a moment. Think about it skeptically and suspiciously. Suspect that I've made a mistake, or that I might be lying to myself. Do you see something wrong in what I've been saying?

Well, doesn't it sound like I've come up with the idea that there's no Free Will, then came up with a reason (“You can't get enough information!”) why you can't prove me wrong?

That's the kind of convenient cop-out you usually hear from religions, who say that God exists, but here are two dozen reasons why nobody can prove that. How convenient!

Nonetheless, I think that Pi demonstrates that my hypothesis about Free Will is at least reasonable. Because even though I know the first 55 digits — far more than anybody actually needs — having only that knowledge in no way helps me predict the 56th digit. I simply don't have enough information to figure it out. And this, to me, is exactly what my life is like: I seem to know everything that has happened up until this moment, but I can't predict what I'll do next.

That lack of predictability sure seems like Free Will, doesn't it? But nobody claims that Pi has Free Will, even though it seems to act as unpredictably as I do.


Let me tell you a story that might at first seem unrelated to what I've written above.

Once upon a time there was a pair of conjoined twins. They were what people sometimes call “Siamese Twins.” In fact, these two people were the original Siamese Twins. Their names were Chang and Eng, and they were originally from Siam (now known as Thailand).

Most of us are fascinated by their story: how they made a life for themselves, married two sisters, and sired 21 children. These are all impressive accomplishments for people in difficult circumstances. But what fascinates me just as much is the fact that Chang was a heavy drinker, while Eng was not.

You might think that this disproves my entire hypothesis about Free Will. After all, Chang and Eng had identical DNA and nearly identical life experiences. So if my hypothesis is correct, you'd expect them to behave exactly alike, wouldn't you? Either they'd both drink heavily or neither would. Right?

Well, no. There were some significant differences that would affect their lives and subsequent actions. In my mind, one of the most obvious differences is that Chang was on the left-hand side, while Eng was on the right-hand side. Thus, Eng had convenient use of a right hand, which makes a big difference in this right-hand-oriented world.

There must have been other major differences, too. But even small differences can make a huge difference in how we develop. For example, imagine you're at a party and somebody looks at you in a strange way. This might affect your enjoyment for the rest of the evening. If, on the other hand, you hadn't noticed that odd look, your experience of the party would be completely different. That's two possible versions of the same party, and the only thing that distinguishes one from the other is a momentary difference in what you were paying attention to.

It takes very little difference to make a big difference in the long run. In mathematics and elsewhere this sensitivity to small differences has been called “The Butterfly Effect.” And since it affects our imaginings about Free Will, I'm tempted to also call it “The Free Will Effect.”


If you really think you've got Free Will, I'm guessing you've never been addicted to anything. I stopped smoking 2 years ago and I still want a cigarette. (Young readers, if any, take note! You really don't want this kind of problem. You won't become addicted if you don't start.)

Also, like Chang, there was a time when I was a heavy drinker. I don't know why that happened. Well, I can list some reasons but that would just be rationalization. The fact is, I can't possibly know all the reasons that go into why I do something. I cannot get enough information. To know for sure why somebody does something I'd need to know the trajectory of every atom going back to the time of the Big Bang.

Science Note: More accurately, to predict something N seconds into the future all I probably need to know is the states of all particles within N times 299,792,458 meters. It that all? Gee, how hard could that be?

Mind you, people can (and do) make generalizations, many of which are accurate, using incomplete information. So I'm not utterly unpredictable. My wife, for example, could predict that I'd tend to turn down a ham sandwich because for the past 6 years I've declared myself a strict vegetarian.

Let's get back to the drinking example, though. It took me several attempts to quit drinking. I thought it would simply be an informed choice. It seemed clear that drinking was a poor solution to whatever problems it was supposed to address. Since I'm a reasonably intelligent person it should have been easy to stop. But it wasn't.

No matter how much one part of my brain would scream that having another drink was stupid, I'd see myself — no, watch myself — marching to the liquor store to buy another bottle. I daresay that anybody who has ever experienced that sort of thing will be pretty sure that there's no such thing as Free Will.

How did I stop drinking? Well, it took me several tries, and I had help from a lot of fine people, both on the internet and off. Eventually the right circumstances arose and the right choices were made. But it would be silly for me to say that I “chose” to stop. It makes more sense to say stopping happened for some reason I do not have sufficient information to explain.


If you think you have Free Will and are afraid to consider that perhaps you don't, I heartily recommend that you either get addicted to something and then try to stop, or memorize Pi to a few dozen digits. Of those two options, the second one is far, far less damaging to your health. To the extent that you can choose, I'd recommend the second choice.

Of course, you may choose neither option. But nobody has enough information to know far in advance which choice you'll make or not make. Not even you can know that.

One thing I will predict, though: when you finally make your choice it will feel like Free Will.


The Death of the Intuitive User Interface

It seemed like a simple enough question: “How do I Un-follow a Blogger Blog?”

While reviewing my Blogger (a.k.a. BlogSpot) profile, I noticed a  blog that I wanted to remove from my list of followed blogs. A simple enough request, right? Yet I could not find an easy way to drop it from the list.


Optional Information Section

If you came to this article looking for a solution to the “Remove Blog” question, try clicking this link:
That might put you in a good place to solve your problem. 
If possible, click the “Settings” link next to the blog you want to un-follow. You may then be asked to sign in again to prove you're really you. If you succeed with that existential challenge you will then see another page that features a link that seemingly permits you to remove that blog.
Does it work? Well, it seems to have worked for me. But who knows? I don't remember how that blog got added to the list. I don't even remember visiting that blog. Perhaps I did it in my sleep.


I don't know about the rest of you, but I find this strange:  These days many online user interfaces seem to have been designed by a kid in the fourth grade.

I am frequently perplexed by newbie-level “How To” issues, even on world-standard, ground-breaking services like Facebook and Google. And even though I've been using computers since 1972 I find myself looking up a walk-through for simple functions, like adding a contact to an email group.

Why is this? Why do online user interfaces suck so much?

In my opinion, it's part of capitalism's reaction to the lightning-fast speed of today's electronically-connected world. These days every product is produced with “Triple-Threat Ultra-Crash Priority.” In other words, the pressure of competition results in sloppy user interfaces and faulty software. Get the product out the door! Work the developers nearly unto death! Ship, ship, ship that sucker before the competition does! Forget quality — we can patch the problems afterwards!

I've seen this problem arise in video games, too. Consider the game “Fallout: New Vegas.” The game itself was marvelous, but it kept crashing. Over and over and over again. How did this ship? How did so many show-stopping bugs get out the door?

Well, that's Ultra-Crash-Mode Triple-Threat Sudden-Death Code-Ultra-Violet Super-Duper Priority for you.

I am now going to carefully proof-read this article, because it would be really ironic if it contained some stupid errorz.


Free Will Does Not Make Sense

Many people will react strongly if you tell them that there is no Free Will. Now why would that be? Well, what is the opposite of “Free?”

People who believe in Free Will have the impression that if it's not true they will be forced to do something against their Will. They'll want to do one thing but something will force them to do something else. As they see it, their Will would no longer be free; it would be under compulsion.

Such people do not believe that their actions are caused merely by the actions of the laws of physics. They do not accept that they are simply expressions of the universe. They want to be, in some sense, separate from all that.

It is because of this line of reasoning that I've said (in another article) that “Free Will is a red herring.” The idea that the universe, while obeying the laws of physics, will force you to do something is somewhat of a misconception.

Yes, at times the universe does act against your desires. For example, if you are standing on top of a hill during a lightning storm and the laws of physics cause you to be hit by a million volts of electricity, this will almost certainly not be what you wanted. But what did you want?

You want what you want. Why do you want that? Why, because it strikes you as the best choice of all the ones you can choose from. You might like apple pie and cherry pie, but there's only cherry pie in the fridge. So you “choose” the cherry pie and don't feel bad about that. You don't complain that the universe “forced” you to choose the cherry pie. In fact, you enjoy it.


No matter what you do, you always attempt to improve your situation. That's what we sentient beings do. You will never choose the second-best choice. Not ever. If you seem to be doing that, there will be turn out to be some extenuating circumstance that caused you to pick something that seemed second-best in one way, but overall was best (as far as you knew).

In everyday life all choices are made this way. All those choices are in accord with the laws of physics, based upon what you know, what you are capable of, what your resources are, and so on. So when the time comes to choose, you choose. And every time it feels like you have Free Will, because the choice came from you. For example, you weren't being forced into the choice by some other sentient being.

There are, of course, many times when we are, in fact, forced to do things by other people. Nobody claims to have entirely Free Will in such cases. But in this article I am speaking only of those cases when it seems our will is entirely free, as with the example of the cherry pie.

You are so accustomed to choosing from within the realm of the possible that you do not notice that you choose within constraints. For example, if you are going to visit a friend you cannot “choose” to get there by flying like a bird. You don't even notice that that option isn't available; it simply doesn't occur to you (unless, perhaps, you think a lot about airplanes or birds). So when you choose to not fly, you don't feel you've had your eventual decision (car, bus, walk, whatever) forced upon you.


It is my impression that many of the sages of the past realized that everything we do comes about as the end result of a sequence of causes. They couldn't say, “Your choices are caused by the laws of physics,” because they didn't know about those laws. So some of them spoke of “The Way” (a.k.a. Tao) while a lot more of them spoke of “The Will of God.”

What is the Will of God? Is it at odds with your Free Will? “Why, no,” they might tell you, “everything that happens occurs because God willed it so.” Or to put it another way: everything happens because the laws of physics — God's most stringent commandments, one might say! — made it so.

Can you resist the Will of God? Technically, no. Even if you choose to defy God, it will be because He allowed you to do so. Or to put it in the language of science, you can attempt to break the laws of physics, but you won't succeed.

In addition, there's no physical law that prevents you from believing in erroneous ideas about the Will of God and attempting to convince others likewise. Some might call that “defying God” but, once again, it happens only because it can happen. The Will of God is not contravened just because people pass around mistaken information. The laws of physics always apply, whether we're passing along truth or falsehood.


You may think that I am abusing the word “God” above. But I am not speaking of the idea of God (which represents a vast array of beliefs). Rather, I am speaking of the Will of God, which most believers would agree means, “The Way Things [Must] Happen.” What else would the Will of God be but “The Way Things  Happen?”

It is true that believers have attached a huge range of notions to that word “God.” As a result, I do not recommend that people speak in terms of “God,” because the idea has become confused to the point of being ludicrous. As I mentioned in my article Theism Does Not Make Sense, the typical conception of God as an invisible person does not stand up to scrutiny.

However, if you envison God merely as the embodiment of the universe, and his Will as “The Way Things Happen,” then perhaps you catch a glimpse of the insight of past sages.


As many sages have said, we have no choice but to follow God's Will. That is to say, we enact the laws of physics. It's not compulsion; it's just the way things work. You can no more disagree with it than you can argue with the existence of light or the force of gravity. That's just the way way things are in this universe we inhabit.

Nonetheless, it is possible for people to imagine that they are separate from all this. Indeed, we have been taught to see ourselves as separate agents. Human civilization evolved this belief as a  means to control us. That is to say, by making us individuals, we can be blamed for individual action. It's a practical, extremely effective set of memes, and it lets society off the hook when it inadvertently creates monsters.

Since we have been taught that we are separate, this induces within us a separation from God. To put it another (far better) way, we have been taught that we are separate from The Way Things Happen. We have been taught that we are, in some strange, undefinable way, immune to the laws of physics and the mundane principles of cause and effect.

We're not.

If it can be seen that we are not separate, we also see that we are one with the universe. You can, if you wish, call this becoming one with God. And indeed, many sages have said just that.

I wouldn't recommend phrasing it that way, though. It's sufficient to say that each of us is an expression of the universe.


Some people are horrified by the idea that they do not have Free Will. They think that the moment they admit that, something horrible will happen. But you know what? Things continue exactly as before.

Why would they change? You didn't have Free Will before, and knowing you don't have it changes very little.You'll still be free to choose the option that seems best from within the existing constraints. By not bewailing the choices you can't make and not obsessing about the reasons you choose as you do, you can still feel like you're choosing freely.

Sometimes this will result in pleasure. Sometimes it will cause you pain. Just as it has always been.

In those moments you can surrender your misconceptions about separation and Will — doesn't this sound like a religious statement? — you find that other people aren't so far away. They are subject to the same rules you are. They make the same types of mistakes you can make. When this is seen, forgiving others is much simpler, and when that is done, love (even for one's enemies) isn't blocked.

If you give up the idea of Free Will you will, in my opinion, see things as they really are. And you don't actually need to use the word “God” to see that.

Theism Does Not Make Sense

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


If you weren't raised to believe in a god, you'd probably be astonished that anybody does believe in one. In fact, simply being around people who believe makes us accustomed to the odd belief. So let's imagine you're an alien from another star system and a human explains to you about his god.

You'd learn that the human's god is a person, but he's invisible. He is at least a trillion times smarter than the smartest human. He knows everything and can even read minds. He sees everything that happens. He is so powerful he can move galaxies around.

He wants all the humans to have accurate information about him and know that he is real. But somehow he always fails to make this happen.

The alien would probably be puzzled.

There are, of course, lots of reasons given why the god can't simply appear in the skies and say something like, “Hello, I created the universe. Here I am.” Well, of course there are reasons. The believers have to explain why their god doesn't plainly and indisputably show up, even though he supposedly did so many times in the ancient past.

So there are explanations. However, if you examine the explanation of the average believer, you'll find that it isn't very detailed. They simply assume that somebody else must have figured out why their god isn't proving to everybody that he exists.

What the average believer does know for sure is that the gods of other religions aren't real. After all, that wouldn't make sense!

Note: If I am wrong about what I wrote above — if a god-person actually does exist  may he (or she, or it) cause my old computer to crash before I save this note.


You're Too Interesting!

6 AM ... I didn't sleep
Didn't bother counting sheep
Surfed the web until I tired
Didn't work: it got me wired
Brain burned out, so hard to think
Yet I click another link
Internetting planet-wide
Earth's awake so sleep denied
Darkness gone, I see the sun
Guess I've had sufficient fun