Monthly Archives: April 2012

Oil on 11" x 14" canvas.

Reply to a friend, who enjoyed my painting, and commented on what subconscious thoughts it might represent:

Thanks, I’m glad you like it. Like most of the art I’ve made lately, I have no idea how it comes together. I’ll have strong doubts about a particular piece (in this case “this one is not going to be that great, it’s already pretty messed up; that’s okay, I’ll just work harder on the next one”) and then somehow it does come together at the end, without me knowing how.

I feel like a lot of art is accident. A shifted line here, something slightly off there. For this painting, I was looking at a photo, but obviously it’s not a photographic copy; things came out differently. For example, in the big bird, the beak is pointing outwards more (showing more attitude), the bird is bigger (fatter; particularly due to the right-side wing, which I “misplaced” because of its position relative to the also-misdrawn beak), the middle bird looks a little bit angry, etc. The emotions are shifted by the subtle differences in strokes, which was unintentional. But you point out, subliminal? I have no idea. I can’t discount it, but I can also say that my mood while painting this was kind of about “just getting through the painting” so I could move on, while also hanging out with people who were in our little class. Towards the end I stepped back and was surprised that it actually was starting to look okay, so I put more effort into the remaining details. I think a lot of art is like that: accidental, as much as we like to think the artist was in complete control and every stroke’s meaning was intentional. And a lot of art doesn’t get made because of self-doubt in the mind of the would-be artist, because of that lack of control. This experience as a whole aligns with my belief that anyone can learn to create art; that it’s not about “talent” but about other things entirely.

Subliminal encoding or accident? We’ll never know! One thing I’m pretty sure of, though, is that whatever is encoded in it, it’s not a reflection of only one thing or one scenario or relationship.

From an ongoing discussion with a fellow I randomly met at a restaurant, who had overheard a philosophical conversation I was having with my brother:

I think that God cannot be understood rationally, through logic. Logic can only “point at” God in a completely inadequate way, such as the words “the moon” point to the actual moon, or “anger” points to an emotion of anger. If you have not experienced anger, then the word means little to you. If you were an alien and saw humans being angry at each other, then you might build some kind of logical model for the causes of anger and what it does to an organism that is in a state of anger, but you would not know anger, you would just know about it. Certain things you need to experience for them to really be meaningful.

So I think that we have made models about God, but that they are even less adequate towards understanding the experience of God than “anger” is towards understanding the experience of anger, or “the color blue” is towards understanding the experience of the color blue. Similarly, radio waves are just part of the electromagnetic spectrum. If we could “see” radio waves or X-rays, we would see some other “color” we can’t conceptualize, but we’re limited towards a scientific (model) understanding of it.

So we build models about God, yes. Where do they come from? They come from rare individuals’ actual experiences with different kinds of perception. It seems clear to me now that at key moments in history, individuals’ brains became wired a little bit differently, or something shifted, and they were able to experience directly something which is barely even hinted at by the words surrounding the experience, anymore. Were they actually experiencing God, or merely a part of themselves? Diverse traditions which spring up around these experiences differ vastly. For example, there is the Buddhist concept of “enlightenment”, where the Buddha himself was an ordinary man who, through years of meditation and asceticism achieved what is almost directly described as an altered mental state, a different brain wiring. It seems clear that Jesus also had radical change-of-consciousness experiences, as did other figures in the past. Mind-altering substances often also played a great role in inducing these states older civilizations (e.g. the Eleusinian Mysteries), when found in their natural forms, and do often achieve these states in the present. [The conservative forces (that is, the normal culture) of society deemed such experimentation, when these substances were not already part of the culture, extremely dangerous in the 60’s and reactively outlawed substances like LSD with extremely harsh penalties– not because that substance itself was particularly dangerous or physiologically harmful, but because used widely it facilitated a kind of self-transcendent experience that led to a radical social movement where individuals were questioning, casting aside the strictures of society (that is, their “programming”) and “dropping out,” with groups (see hippies) not-quite-yet beginning to redefine and build up sustainable rules for themselves, or testing rules which made mainstream culture uncomfortable.]

Books I recommend:
  1. Zen and the Brain by James Austin.
  2. Nothing Sacred: The Truth about Judiasm by Douglas Rushkoff (about Judaism, but takes a human-centered viewpoint on the origins and purpose of the religion, and the definition of God).
  3. Prometheus Rising by Robert Anton Williams (also freely available on the Web as a PDF; I just finished and highly recommend this one).

I also recommend seriously attempting meditation and giving it a chance, to see if there is “anything there” for you. After a very small amount of progress I can understand the greater progress that those who have devoted very great amounts of time to it. It is not something that can be explained in words, just like “blue” cannot be explained.

Ask yourself the question: “Who is the one who is living me now?” constantly, and try to focus deeply on experiencing the answer, not just through your logic, but through direct experience.

Regarding meaning, purpose, programming, et cetera: we are programmed by society around us. Prometheus Rising attempts to explain this. As human beings we have a particular “reality tunnel” as a species. This and our individual reality tunnels are what lead us to picking those things which give us meaning and purpose. Because our reality tunnel is not that much different from that of our parents, you can visualize humanity as “growing” like a giant complex plant on the planet.

Regarding what is real: the universe is empty without us, just like there is no color blue without us. Wavelengths exist (but not at all as we conceive them), but no color, no sound, no smell, no thought. Therefore every being creates these things for itself. You create the color blue by seeing. Does that make you God?

There is objective reality but it is meaningless; we create meaning. The same goes for more complicated concepts, like all ideas, or the idea of God, which is ultimately an abstract model. Does that make sense? Without humans, there is no God. We create God in our own minds, when we create the model, like we create blue.

[ Maybe “experiencing God” is experiencing the process of creation itself more directly as it exists in our own minds. ]

What is it a model of? What’s the objective reality? Keep in mind that you can think anything you want. There are a lot of ideas out there. You can imagine the earth balanced on the back of a giant sticky ten-legged frog standing on a lilly pad floating in space. Then you can imagine that the frog is invisible, or whatever you want to do in your mind. Does that make it real? The only way to know in a rational sense, is to test that model, somehow. Otherwise it’s “as good as” any religion’s model of God, but no more or less true.

Clearly people have experiences of the divine, of the infinite, of God, as real in these moments as “blue”. Does that mean they are perceiving what religion crudely depicts (for the rest of us) as God, or something else about the universe, something about its fundamental nature which we don’t ordinarily perceive? Or something about themselves? I think the religions which have sprung up around these experiences very quickly convert the actual experience into something blatantly inaccurate (and politically tainted), like a game of broken telephone. The biggest mistranslation by far occurs between the individual who had a mystical experience, and those surrounding him or her, because the experience can only vaguely be hinted at with language. Thus, the major religions of the world each tell us nothing about God besides giving us an untestable and crude model, which somehow has the people following it in its thrall, for both social reasons, and for reasons that we cannot (typically, in our society) understand because we have not had such experiences. These experiences (especially when they happen spontaneously) sometimes transform individuals who have them, in ways which make them charismatic (because surety is charismatic, and you are sure of your own experience). But again, language itself can barely touch these experiences, so the logical model constructed for transmission to others is pretty meaningless. Meta-study of the world’s religions (and all human experience, for that matter) would point us in the right direction, but again only in an “understanding wavelengths” way and not a “seeing blue” way.

Regarding free will: as I’ve said, it’s not something we can conceptualize. Free will versus determinism is like quantum mechanics versus large-scale behaviors. Everything can be modeled deterministically except at the lowest level, where the “particles” of choice seem to be unpredictable. When you think of another person deciding something, you can make a model to predict what that person will do. As accurate as your model is, you come to a point where whether the person will do something or not do something, when it’s right on the line, needs to be represented as a probability.

When you think about yourself, you are actually thinking about a model of yourself, not running your actual self. You have a model of yourself in your thoughts, and you run the model, just like you run the models of others. Clearly you end up with the same types of uncertainty as when modeling other people. So you cannot conclude that you have anything other than “free will”, which just means that you cannot know what you or your “self” will do, just as you cannot know what anyone else will do.

With respect to the universe itself, we build models of it, but we also cannot know what it will do, at the lowest level of our models (we can only resort to probabilities). Consider that our minds exist to perceive the universe and give meaning to it. (E.g., we create blue, which does not exist without us.) But we cannot fully model ourselves or each other, thus the necessary perception of having free will, regardless of whether it “really” exists or not. Does our own free will have anything to do with the apparent “free will” of the universe, the fact that we can’t pin down reality (at its lowest level) to anything other than probabilities?

I.e., in a probabilistic universe (such as one you simulated on a computer), could beings in it construct equipment to measure the deterministic behavior of its “fundamental particles”? Assuming that they could, then what would be the consequence(s) to them?

Assuming there were consequences, then it would make sense to “shield” the beings in the simulated probabilistic universe from being able to measure their own fundamental particles, by making the behavior of those particles random. (“Random” in what way? Using sampled natural data from the enclosing (e.g., “our”) universe?)

That’s something interesting to think about, for the time being.

The End of Faith CoverOn The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason by Sam Harris. I wrote this in response to a discussion with my friend Keith Cascio, and some comments he had made after watching Harris’ TED talk, when I was midway through the book.

What strikes me is the absolute desperation, the deep frustration that Harris injects into his text, in trying to get his points across. He’s peered long and deep into the tortured and bloody paths of history, at the chain of effects that faith-based thinking has had on U.S. policy, and seen the sheer magnitude of the utter waste of human potential, destroyed lives, misery and retarded progress across entire cultures which pervades the world (and our own culture) as consequences of ideas coming to us from our great religions– the “how could people possible be so absolutely dumb” exasperation, outrage and empathy with the victims of this machine is apparent.

I just finished the chapter on drug policy: We spend $4 billion a year prosecuting marijuana cases (at one end of a slippery slope); 50% of all U.S. court time is tied up in drug cases. …Which might seem somewhat tangential, except when we look at the parallels– it is a sort of pervasive religious type of thinking that continues to criminalize marijuana, both from refusal to rationally look at scientific facts, and, coming from Christianity, a puritanical national obsession with “sin” and the idea that other people might be enjoying themselves somewhere inappropriately (fornicating, smoking dope, seeking “alternative” spiritual experiences, et cetera). This is (mostly) nothing new to us liberal west-coasters, though, but it’s “fun” in a perverse way to see such idiocy taken on, while simultaneously sobering: this is the state of our world, and we’re in a somewhat more enlightened part of it.

Now, your concerns [about sloppy metaphors]. I conjecture that Harris has been so long steeped in his (justified) outrage towards the illogic of the world, so frustrated by the dimness and stupidity of those around him who “do not see” and either intentionally or not cause great human suffering, that he has become a little bit “tainted” by it. He has come to use hyperbole for emotional impact, because he has made a (probably subconscious) calculation that no progress will be made if he does not beat the sheep around him over the head a little bit with talk of wolves. His deepest fears (e.g., a nuclear-armed Islamic state, which he argues will show little restraint) lend a sense of urgency to his arguments: “they must be made to be able to see; I will reach for and use sensationalized (and even iffy) metaphors in the service of my argument because it is the only way it is going to get across and have some sort of agency in the world.”

[The following is regarding a statement Harris made in his TED talk: “The distinction between a healthy person and a dead one is about as clear and consequential as any we make in science.” Keith took objection to this, arguing that the comment represented sloppy thinking because the precise point of death is in actuality not at all clear-cut.]

We draw lines everywhere: between life and death, between being a child and being an adult, between sanity and insanity. Sometimes we know the lines are artificial, but they’re based on easy measurements, and so we accept them. E.g., you become an adult legally at 18. Same with life and death. There is the reality (some state of the body) and the definition (alive or dead, according to some guidelines, which we are apparently trying to make as precise as possible, erring to the side of caution). It’s nothing new that defining death is messy. E.g., I don’t remember if I shared an article I read recently about new techniques for reviving patients in cases of drowning along with hypothermia (where cold had preserved tissue and prevented oxygen-starvation damage), something that had not previously been thought possible. New medical technologies will keep pushing back the threshold of death’s door until someday, only the brain’s health will matter.

(Also, the definition seems to imply that if you are “potentially revivable” [with complex current technology] then you are not “dead”. What if said technology couldn’t revive you? Then do we move the time of “death” backwards to some newly determined point? Is a cryogenically preserved body alive in the face of potential future technology, or dead because it can’t be revived now? Messy.)

To Harris’s imprecise statement to which you take objection, I am willing to write it off as hyperbole. At the same time, though, note that he’s not comparing a living person to a dead one, rather a healthy person. I’m having a hard time thinking of an example where the line is blurred, since presumably we would need to create a definition of “health”, and it would include criteria which unambiguously classify persons into “healthy”, and once there, they could logically not be classified as “dead”.

What if the statement were: “the distinction between day and night is about as clear and consequential as any we make in science”? Or “solid” and “liquid”? Are there cases where we’re not sure if something is one or the other? Sure. We tighten the definitions as much as we can so we can operate using logic, but in reality there are ambiguous cases along the edges, everywhere. Any scientific field is full of them (e.g., classifying animals into species, physical effects into mathematical laws which mostly describe them, etc). So I don’t see the problem with the statement, other than reliance on the fuzzy term “healthy” (which is just hard to define, but conveys a strong image, thus: rhetoric).

After completing the book, I wrote this follow-up:

There is a chapter on torture about which I’m not sure how I feel. Something feels incomplete about its conclusion, but I need to think about it more, because Harris himself warned that the chapter’s conclusions will not feel right, rather that logic demands a scientific yardstick for assessing and decreasing human suffering and in this, explicit torture in rare cases might be justified (e.g., to prevent war and dropping bombs which will with certainty kill and maim large numbers of noncombatants). I sense the empathy which led to his conclusions, and I appreciate the sharp outlines of the position he’s willing to stake, but I do not have faith that there is not a corner of the argument that he has not missed. [And note that this is not the kind of faith that Harris attacks in the book.]

The final chapter is about Eastern religious traditions (their relative value), and shows an open-minded rigorousness of thought which I appreciate.

It’s hard to quantify what people know, but I think it’s safe to say that some fraction of the public are profoundly ignorant across multiple dimensions. I think we have a particular failing with respect to the public’s knowing what science is and what it isn’t, what it’s for, etc. Like the Christian preoccupation with sin, there’s also a general deep religious fear of science, and therefore a certain way that it is cast (e.g., there’s that old anxiety that science is somehow antagonistic to beauty), so as in effect to discourage genuine inquiry and understanding in many areas– a problem in practice, probably more than in principle, of faith in its most general.