Archive for the 'Philosophy' Category
February 19th, 2013 by Wil
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.
February 18th, 2013 by Wil
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?)
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.
January 19th, 2013 by Wil
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.
January 17th, 2013 by Wil
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.
January 3rd, 2013 by Wil
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.
December 1st, 2012 by Wil
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.
November 17th, 2012 by Wil
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.
November 13th, 2012 by Wil
Here’s an interesting interview with the author of a new book on psychopaths. Psychopaths are, of course, frequently discussed on this blog; they are essentially individuals untroubled by the concerns of morality. The author makes an interesting observation:
Psychopaths and Buddhists, in terms of their performance in the lab, have certain characteristics in common. They’re good at living in the present. They’re mindful. Both are calm under pressure. They focus on the positive. But also, both are good at mind reading. They’re very good at picking up on micro-expressions, basically lightning-fast changes in facial scenery; our brain downloads onto the muscles of our face before it decides on the real picture that it wants to project to the world. These micro-expressions are invisible to most of our naked eyes. But it seems that expert Buddhist meditators are able to pick them up, probably because they are able to slow down their perception. There’s a recent study that seems to show that psychopaths are also good at picking up on micro-expressions. We don’t really know the reason for that, but it could be that psychopaths might spend more time just studying us.
November 3rd, 2012 by Wil
I continue my reading of Jung and find it to be heady, intellectual material that can only be understood by erudite intellectuals such as myself. One of Jung’s main concepts was that we are born with certain presumptions already built into our brains (as opposed to the tabula rasa theory which stated that we learn all our behaviors and ideas from our culture.) Jung thought we had built-in archetypes which might be thought of as characters. For instance, we come out of the womb expecting a mother and father archetype. We also come with complexes which could be thought of as patterns of behavior.
To consider one complex: in males*, Jung described a process by which the individual separates from the mother (and family in general.) Part of why he thought this behavior was an innate complex, as opposed to being a cultural artifact, is because cultures all over the world have codified this separation into myths (e.g. there seems to be something universal about it.) Frankly, you can see it in Star Wars. Luke’s family is killed and he must leave his home planet to face his great enemy (who, ironically, turns out to be his own father.) Of course, you see this behavior in a lot of animals as well. Animals grow into early adulthood and leave their tribe or pack and go off to find a new one. Or, in the case of something like bears, they go off to live in solitude and deep contemplation.
* An obvious question: what about females? The sense I get from a book is that while Jung explored this question, he didn’t explore it as deeply as he did for males. Probably because men are much more interesting.
The point being that this behavior — leaving the comforts of home — seems to be built into not just humans, but many animals.
To my knowledge Jung never deeply explored the mechanisms that drive these kinds of behaviors and complexes, but they certainly tie in with biology and genetics. We understand that a lot of our behaviors are at least modulated by the release of hormones in chemicals in our bodies at different stages of development. (The release of sex hormones creating the randy teenager, for example.) And we understand that the programming for the timing of the release of these hormones is built into our genes. So, in a rather vague way, Jung was predicting concepts and ideas that future scientists would arrive at.
November 2nd, 2012 by Wil
A fairly recurring argument you see in western literature philosophy of the past… oh, I don’t know, 2000 years, is the idea that humans are progressing towards something. Basically, as we exist in this world, we learn more and more and get better and better at what we are doing.
Of course, a lot of non-Western philosopher types argue the opposite. They would say progress is a chimera.
I was thinking a bit about this today. If you look at music, it is hard to argue that we’ve really progressed. Certainly music has changed over time, but I don’t think anyone can really argue that the Beatles are somehow superior to Bach. The same might be said about writing. Is Hemingway superior to the Greek poets? I doubt anyone would seriously make that case.
Of course, those are the arts, and the arts are notoriously subjective. What about science? Clearly we have been making great leaps in our understanding of the world around us — chemistry, biology, physics and even more ethereal “sciences” like psychology etc. But does that count as progress? Is the core human experience vastly improved because we can put a man on the moon or power cars with gasoline? I’m not sure. Certainly I get that things are more comfortable with bug spray than without, but does that really alter our fundamental emotional state? Are we happier because of bug spray? Again, I’m not sure.
What about knowledge for knowledge’s sake? I like quantum physics, but I’m not sure the statement “the world is made up of subatomic particles such as protons, neutrons and quarks” is any more informative than the statement “the world is made up of stuff.”
There’s one area where it would seem that we could without doubt say we’ve advanced: medicine. Our lifespans are increasing and, despite everything you hear about obesity and whatnot, we are basically healthier. We’re less blind, less deaf, less prone to childhood diseases etc.
And I’m a bit torn here. Because I do agree with this point about medicine. Having said that, is living into our 90s really an improvement? Has medicine, in its all-out war with illness and death, changed those entities into something more fearsome than they really should be?
It comes down to this question again: are we living “better” lives than the average man 10,000 years ago? It’s impossible to answer, of course, because we don’t have a resident from that era around to voice his or her opinion. And it’s very hard to look at the total experience of lifetime; usually we’re very aware of how we’re feeling right now, less aware of how we were feeling five years ago.