Archive for the 'Philosophy' Category

Earning to Give

I’ve mentioned how years ago I had an argument with my then girlfriend about how to best aid charities. My argument was that the best thing you could do is take a high paying job and give a substantial portion of your income away (as opposed to taking a low paying job with a charitable org or NGO.) This idea seems to be gaining steam as seen in this page for the “Earning to Give” movement.

For all of the reasons that donating can be extremely effective, earning to give is too. The opportunities to make the world better through donations are enormous. If we take the salary earned by a fairly typical UK banker over their life-times, and assume they choose to give half of it away (leaving them still very well off) they end up able to distribute more than 600,000 malaria nets. That saves more than 100,000 lives.

The main point here isn’t that this is an ideal way to solve the world’s problems but rather that, in any argument I have with a girlfriend, I am alway right.

The struggle with struggling

An interesting point I find floating around in Eckhart Tolle and others’ writing has to do with the notion of striving. We seem to live in a world that places great value on striving and struggle. For example, if you ask two people what their plan is for the day and one answers, “Well, I might got the beach and read a book. Maybe watch some old horror movies. But first I’m going to take a nap.” and the other says, “Well, I woke up early for my jog – I’m in marathon training – and then I studied for my pre-law class. Now I’m running of to work and later tonight I’m going to stop off at the orphanage and nourish the orphans back to life,” we are programmed to believe that the second person is a better, more valuable person. Because they are “doing something with their lives.”

This attitude is built into our modern culture, particularly – and I hate statements like this but it’s clearly true – American culture. We are a nation of strivers or at least a nation that reveres strivers. We value struggle. We worship people who tackle adversity. George Washington. Lincoln. The greatest generation fighting the Nazis. Martin Luthor King. Rosa Parks. (This attitude probably goes back to the Puritans and their life-is-only-to-be-endured ethos.)

This seems so built into our DNA that it’s hard to imagine people who aren’t addicted to struggle the way we are. But I’m reminded of my visit to Morocco several years ago. Like a lot of Mediterranean cultures, people there seem comfortable chilling out in the afternoons. Grabbing coffee, chatting with friends, taking what the Spanish would call a siesta. I remember walking into a restaurant one burning hot afternoon and having to wake the waiter up to order a much needed Coke. (Man, that Coke was awesome too – I can still taste it.) Here was a guy who was comfortable not striving.*

* A caveat here: Morocco is a Muslim nation and struggle does seems to be a big part of the Muslim ethos so I’m probably oversimplifying things, but in the public sphere of Moroccan life I did not see the kind of struggle and striving you see in America and similar nations.

The first world’s comeback to this would be “But that’s why Morocco hasn’t accomplished anything whereas the first world, particularly America, has been to the moon, teased apart the mysteries of science, given the world movies, Computers, music etc.” And, yeah, that’s all true. But I’m not sure that really matters in the long run. And I think we may have driven ourselves crazy in the process.

My main point here isn’t that struggling is bad, but that struggling simply to struggle, struggling because struggle is revered and honored, is bad, or at least takes a toll on the individual. And I can’t help but suspect that if everyone stopped struggling and chilled out then we wouldn’t have a lot of the problems everyone seems to be struggling with.

Who’s there?

Lately I’ve been musing on the following ideas related to consciousness and free will. Our conventional view of “will” going back thousands of years is that we are, on some level, mental or even spiritual beings and that is where thought originates. So this mental spirit thinks “I need some coffee,” and somehow that thought is transmitted to our brain which orders our arm muscles to pick up the coffee cup. Now, in modern times, we’ve dismissed the spirit component explicitly (well, some of us) but we still think that’s a pretty good approximation of how things work (or maybe more correctly, we don’t really examine the process at all, perhaps in fear of what we’ll find out.)

Modern science does indicate that there is a pretty direct correlation between thoughts and brain activity. By this I mean, you think a thought and brain cells send electrical signals to other brain cells and ultimately other parts of the body. But those nerve firings are physical processes bound by the laws of the physical universe, meaning things can’t just suddenly move or send electrical signals by themselves. So we have a couple options to explain this. One is we are all mental, non-material beings and we are firing our nerves off with a kind of telekinesis. I’m dubious about that one. The other is we have no free will and we (and who/what the “we” is there is hard to define) are merely observing the pre-determined firing of nerves bubbling up as thoughts. That’s probably my preferred explanation. The third option is there’s something about the true quantum physics nature of reality which allows for randomness and chance (though generally only at a sub-atomic level) that explains all this.

So this kind of ties in with Eckhardt Tolle and many other’s point about ego. If option two above is correct, I’m not really doing things, I’m merely observing my brain/self running through the programmed motions of doing something. So I really should have no pride in achievement for example, since it’s not really me doing things.

You would think this would be disturbing but I don’t really find it so. Partly because it does map to certain experiences I’ve had. What are things I’ve accomplished, that I feel proud of? Well, various songs I’ve composed, articles I’ve written. But the truth is, during those processes of creation I often don’t feel that I’m doing the writing/composing – it’s more like the universe is handing me ideas and I’m annotating them.

I’m reminded of a book I’ve mentioned in the past, “The User Illusion.” In there is story about the scientist James Clerk Maxwell, a guy who came up with a lot of groundbreaking ideas related topics like thermodynamics. He was on his deathbed and said, “What is done by what is called myself is, I feel, done by something greater than myself in me.”
E.g. it wasn’t “him” doing the things.

But then who/what is doing the things? And who/what is observing them?

The end of the world as we know it (and I feel fine)

I’m continuing my reading of Eckhart Tolle’s “A New Earth.” One of Tolle’s contentions is that the ego (that ethereal ball of self-interested consciousness living within us) is very invested in “forms.” Forms could be objects the ego uses to define itself, like “Look at my fine collection of Peruvian Death Masks.” Or the forms could be non-material thoughts or stories the ego uses to define itself, like, “Let me now bore you with my exhaustive knowledge of 13th century castle building techniques.” The point being that our egos are dependent on these forms to build them/us up.

The problem being that all these forms eventually decay. Your “stuff” will eventually break down. Your knowledge and ideas will certainly die when you die if not before (e.g. when you get Alzheimer’s/demetia etc.) So to be dependent on this stuff for happiness in a recipe for disappointment. This is all pretty standard Buddhist type philosophy, though Tolle has a nice little anecdote. He describes how he and a friend discovered a burnt out husk of a house in a nature reserve…

As we approached the property, long overgrown with trees and all kinds of magnificent plants, there was a sign by the side of the trail put there by the park authorities. It read: DANGER. ALL STRUCTURES ARE UNSTABLE. I said to my friend, “That’s a profound sutra [sacred scripture.]” And we stood there in awe. Once you realize and accept that all structures (forms) are unstable, even the seemingly solid material ones, peace arises within you.”

If that’s Tolle’s reaction to an old house, he’d probably get a real kick out of this headline from today. Cosmos may be ‘inherently unstable’

Scientists say they may be able to determine the eventual fate of the cosmos as they probe the properties of the Higgs boson.

A concept known as vacuum instability could result, billions of years from now, in a new universe opening up in the present one and replacing it.

“What happens is you get just a quantum fluctuation that makes a tiny bubble of the vacuum the Universe really wants to be in. And because it’s a lower-energy state, this bubble will then expand, basically at the speed of light, and sweep everything before it,” the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory theoretician told BBC News.

But don’t fret.

It was not something we need worry about, he said. The Sun and the Earth will be long gone by this time.

Just knowing a quantum bubble is gong to eradicate the universe as we know it makes me feel peaceful already.

The Eckhart Tolles for theee

Recently I had a rather unpleasant interaction with a woman who was one of these new-agey, hippy types. You know, one of these people who feels that they have a deep understanding of the universe and thus are superior to you.

Now, currently I’m reading what my be considered a new agey book: “A New Earth” by Eckhart Tolle. Tolle, while not associated with any particular religion or belief system, is one of these guys who argues that humans can achieve a sort of inner peace. I’ve heard about him in the past and a lot of what he says seems to jibe with my theories on neuroscience and psychology so I thought I’d give him a shot. Today I come across a section about how material possessions help construct our egos. He notes…

… [R]enouncing all possessions has been an ancient spiritual practice in both East and West. Renunciation of possessions, however, will not automatically free you of the ego. It will attempt to ensure its survival by finding something else to identify with, for example, a mental image of yourself as someone who has transcended all interest in material possessions and is therefore superior, is more spiritual than others. There are people who have renounced all possessions but have a bigger ego than some millionaires.

I read that and it immediately brought to mind [annoying woman who shall remain nameless.] I had the sense that for all her purported spirituality, she was very much in the thrall of her own ego. She would do something nice for someone (whether they needed it or not) and you could practically see her patting herself on the back. (“Aren’t I a good person, so much better than these scum around me.”)

Frankly, this is what bugs me about a lot of do-gooder types, be they altruistic liberals or conservative Christians. There’s this unavoidable sense that they feel their self sacrifice makes them feel superior to all around them (in which case it’s not much of a sacrifice, is it?)

Tolle continues.

Anticonsumerism or antiprivate ownership would be another thought form, another mental position, that can replace identification with possessions. Through it you could make yourself right and others wrong. …making yourself right and others wrong is one of the principal egoic mind patterns, one of the main forms of unconsciousness.”

That’s the rub right there. A lot of people purport to have beliefs that serve the interests of everyone else, but it seems these beliefs really serve the owner’s ego.

I, on the other hand, do not need to endlessly tout my own good acts to create a sense of being superior to those around me. I know I’m superior to everyone for a variety of reasons I can get to later. Thus I am truly enlightened.

The dangers of teleportation

I’ve just started reading “The Emperor’s New Mind – Concerning Computers, Minds, and the Laws of Physics” by Roger Penrose. I don’t know a whole lot about the book — Penrose is a physicist, I think. (He also might be dead. The book was written in 1989.) — but my general sense is that it is an argument that there’s something about human consciousness that cannot be explained in purely materialistic terms. For example, you could not re-create a conscious human brain simply by using some magical device to wire up neurons you happen to have lying around so that they perfectly replicate an existing brain. I believe he’s going to argue that somehow the magical and confounding properties of quantum physics come in to play and are essential to create this mystical thing we call consciousness.

However, in the section of the book I’m reading, he’s contemplating the classic idea of Star Trek teleportation. The basic premise is that a person is scanned and the location of and relationship between all the subatomic particles (electrons, protons etc.) in his or her body are mapped out. This information is then sent to some other planet, where it is used to assemble a version of the person there. A purely materialistic view — the kind I believe Penrose is ultimately criticizing — would say that the consciousness of the person being reassembled on another planet should “arrive” undisturbed.

But there’s a kind of side issue here. By that process, you’re not so much teleporting someone as you are cloning them. After all, you’re scanning the person in the original location, but you’re not destroying them. This process would seem to lead to a potentially endless amount of duplicates of oneself. Penrose contemplates the procedure. (Page 28.)

Try to imagine your response to being told the following: “Oh dear, so the drug we gave you before placing you in the teleporter has worn off prematurely has it? That is a little unfortunate, but no matter. Anyway, you will be pleased to hear that the other you —er, I mean the actual you, that is — has now arrived safely on Venus, so we can, er, dispose of you here — er, I mean the redundant copy here. It will, of course, be quite painless.”

That Penrose… he’s a real card.

Meet the giant brain

A theory often put forth by New Age hippie types is the notion that humanity is part of some kind of shared consciousness. In this complex network, each individual human is a node, not unlike an individual cell in the much more complex human body. Hippies often use this hypothesis to make the dubious assertion that we should work together as a species, and not smash and destroy those who annoy and confound us.

Of course, you could take this idea even further. Could this “shared consciousness” be even bigger than just one species on a planet, but comprise the complex network that makes up the entire universe? Apparently, physicists are recognizing this possibility, though with various caveats.

The idea of the universe as a ‘giant brain’ has been proposed by scientists – and science fiction writers – for decades.

But now physicists say there may be some evidence that it’s actually true. In a sense.

According to a study published in Nature’s Scientific Reports, the universe may be growing in the same way as a giant brain – with the electrical firing between brain cells ‘mirrored’ by the shape of expanding galaxies.

The results of a computer simulation suggest that “natural growth dynamics” – the way that systems evolve – are the same for different kinds of networks – whether its the internet, the human brain or the universe as a whole.

A co-author of the study, Dmitri Krioukov from the University of California San Diego, said that while such systems appear very different, they have evolved in very similar ways.

The result, they argue, is that the universe really does grow like a brain.

Go with the flow

I think I’ve mentioned in the past my interest in pursuing a state that I call “flow.” (I’m also interested in pursuing Flo, the Progressive Insurance girl, through as many states as necessary.) To my thinking, in this flow state you’re operating almost unconsciously. You’re doing things, performing actions etc. but you’re doing it without thinking about it; there is no mental effort. You’re not running down a mental to-do list in your head; in fact, your mind may be 1,000,000 miles away.

This kind of state is, of course, more and more difficult in the modern age with its litany of beeping, screeching distractions. But I think that with practice, one can achieve a certain flow.

As I think I’ve also mentioned, we need look no further than the ninja to understand flow. When the ninja is about to do what he does best — kill people — he doesn’t think, “oh boy, so now I’m gonna kill someone. I guess I’ll use my ninja sword… well, wait, maybe some ninja throwing stars… no, that’s not right… maybe some nunchucks? Oh, I don’t know!” No, he simply calmly and methodically kills someone, without really thinking about it. Some guy walks up to him and says, “say, Mr. Ninja, would you mind signing this…” and whammo! That guy’s head is cleanly sliced off his shoulders.

It sounds like a very peaceful way of existing.

The evils of instruction manuals

I’ve never been a big fan of instruction manuals. They always seem deliberately obtuse and for the most part I don’t really think they’re necessary. If you just bought a self launching space station then, yeah, maybe you need an instruction manual. But I don’t think a coffeemaker needs an instruction manual. I don’t think a lawnmower needs an instruction manual. It should be possible to design those things in such a way that getting them to work is obvious just from looking at them.

And for the most part, I seldom need to use instruction manuals. Usually, with a little fiddling around, I can figure out how to get something to work. It strikes me that instruction manuals are probably yet another modern invention that’s causing vast sections of society to become neurotic. After all, instruction manuals treat you like a child; basically say, “you can’t figure this out without reading 20 pages of technical jargon. Without me, you are nothing.” People become overwhelmed with all the technical contrivances out there and additionally become convinced they have no way to handle them without instructions.

I suspect instruction manuals are also responsible for a lot of male homosexuality. Guys look at the naked female body and think, “there’s no way I can figure that out. I’ll just stick to what I know.”

Yeah, instruction manuals are lame.

Trip on this dude…

Here’s a bit of a head trip: There are schools of thought that argue that we don’t really have free will but rather our consciousness exists under the illusion of free will. So, for example, the grinding gears of our subconscious decide that it would be a good thing to ask out Jenny Miller next door and that decision rises up to our conscious state and we think we made the decision. But the decision was really just the culmination of a series of unconscious processes. However, by that argument, could we not then have many consciousness in our head, each thinking they run the show? We think that one “I” lives in our head but could there not be many? A dozen people in there, each thinking they were the one who decided to take a sip of coffee or go skydiving?

This might tie into the whole multiple personality diagnosis.