Books I have finished recently:

On The Conquest of Happiness by Bertrand Russel: The message is simple, clear, and eminently sensible. Focusing outwards on things, causes, family, others leads to happiness; focusing inwards on yourself leads to unhappiness.

How can meditation lead to happiness, given that it seems to be a focus inwards? The answer is that it is an inward focus using the same type of perception with which one focuses outwards. I’ll change my wording now, because I realize that “focus” does not capture what should be going on. Instead of “focus” we can use “concern for.” In meditation we are not concerned with the self as self, as in, “I have a concern for myself,” but rather there is looking-inwards while specifically cultivating an attitude of unconcern, of detached yet alert observation. So this is something else entirely, and I would not say that meditation is really concerned directly with happiness but rather something else; as a consequence it is a practice which facilitates one’s becoming more free from concern for the self so that concern can be directed outwards towards the causes and things in the world which one has the power to influence.

The Perennial Philosophy by Aldous Huxley: I anticipate a hard time expressing what this is about because it centers around something which I imagine to be foreign to most people, which are the experiential truths behind the world’s religions, in our time almost completely covered up by rituals, politics, symbols and social drama. What is “faith”? What is “spirituality”? Who was Jesus and what did he experience, what did he really teach? I use Jesus to pick on one particular avatar, but in reality, there are many; this one created a particularly powerful ripple in the pond, even though Christianity as practiced in recent times seems mere lip service to the actual experience and the actual teachings as I am understanding them in bits and pieces; also, great harm and suffering has been caused in its name. Some spiritual teachers get the real meaning behind the words and try to translate them so as to be relevant to our own times and our own experiences, because they are universally relevant.

Central to all religions is the so-called “mystical experience” whereby an ordinary human being becomes transfigured, changed; God or greater reality as it exists beyond words and concepts is perceived directly. Huxley describes faith as being a vehicle towards forms of this experience and not an endpoint; it is on this foundation of direct communion with God that religions were built up, becoming containers and step-down transformers for the knowledge which was obtained such as to make it understandable, applicable and beneficial to the majority.

This book is a collection of quotations from great mystics of the past interspersed with Huxley’s insightful analysis and commentary. He ties together Christianity, Sufism (a mystical branch of Islam), Hinduism and Buddhism, showing that these are merely culturally-derived sets of clothing for the same thing. Notably absent is any mention of Judaism besides Christian biblical reference to “pharisees;” I understand this to be a derisive term for a form of Judaism practiced at the time which was looked upon to be full of ritual and practice concerned with the letter of the law to a degree such that its spirit was completely eclipsed and was therefore empty; this was in contrast to a competing branch of Judaism at the time whose adherents were called “sadducees” and who were either more friendly to or ancestors of early Christians. [ My only knowledge here comes from a vaguely remembered elementary school lesson in a religious class where I was taught that sadducees had been an enemy of sorts and that pharisees were the ancestors of the practices of modern Judaism; this was taught with overtones of being as a kind of inoculation against “secular” culture with its emptiness and lack of discipline and the allure of not having to conform to potentially burdensome-seeming (particularly for kids) rules and rituals. ] I wish Huxley had directed his discerning mind and awareness of mystical experience towards this “ancient” religion, perhaps via quotes from scholars of the mystical bent themselves such as Maimonides; what I am left with is a slight feeling that Judaism is “different” somehow from the other religions as communicated via this treatment, perhaps in that it has no avatars or spokesmen as “likable” or iconic in our imaginations as Jesus and Buddha. There is a certain humbleness where any particular character we might pick is merely human, perhaps noble for some reason but in merely human terms, and where God gets all the credit; neither Abraham nor Moses are adored for having had much charisma or flawlessness of character and there are no saints or process of beatification and little centralized organization in this respect. Rather everyone is human and equal; there are biblical prophets and modern-day geniuses but no concept of sainthood which comes to mind. This distinction is interesting to me. Judaism seems to be concerned with protecting itself somewhat from what it believes to be a possible trap, based on a conviction that the worship or sanctification of a person, no matter how much of a channel for God he may have been, or how much mystical awareness she may have possessed, distracts from attention towards God. At the same time, with respect to the nonexistent role of Judaism in The Perennial Philosophy, I think there are other possible explanations or factors active at the time the book was written: (a) it was perceived as a minority religion; (b) the contrails of anti-semitism persisted more strongly then; (c) Christianity is perceived as an evolution of Judaism with respect to such treatment and is thus the same thing; (d) there just aren’t many powerful quotes by well-known Jewish mystics. And finally, it is possible that (e) Jewish mysticism was of a different kind for some reason and didn’t fit in with the kind of analysis and exposition which was the author’s intent.

I also read Huxley’s 60’s classic The Doors of Perception and Heaven and Hell. I confess that I have never read Brave New World, yet I have put Island on my reading list ahead of it.

The Perennial Philosophy by Aldous Huxley (the chapter I’m on) talks about love of God, devotion to God, et cetera as a commonality across all religions. What is the underlying truth? What is “God”? Proposition: it doesn’t matter. Or alternatively, God is always the unknowable. So God may be solely a creation of our minds, but loving, submitting or being devoted to some principle which accesses a particular way of thinking brings about a greater nobility of thought or freedom from anxiety and a certain way of being in the world.

Logical arguments for God fall short. They are unconvincing or self-referential. They generally take the form of “if God doesn’t exist then <something scary>.” Well, maybe <something scary> is true. Maybe there is no “purpose” (a man-made concept) to existence. Maybe consciousness ends when we die, or is only an illusion, no matter how real it seems. Maybe bad people are not punished somehow. Wishful thinking and a draw towards comforting ideas proves nothing, but all logical arguments for God seem to eventually reduce to these; meanwhile science adequately explains morality or points in the direction of adequate explanations where it doesn’t yet.

Arguments that faith is what we should aspire to because of a recognition that there can be no proof fall short. Faith (at least by today’s definition, it seems to me) is not enough. It may be a force which gives comfort, feeds curiosity, connected with belief (e.g., it is fundamental in that I believe or have faith that what people around me have experienced and communicate contains truth), and which encourages me towards further inquiry, but by itself it seems like a mechanism or vehicle rather than a truth.

The ignorant reject what they see, not what they think. The wise reject what they think, not what they see.

-Huang Po

Only perception, an experience of “knowing,” is worth something to me in approaching some truth, here. In other words, faith may bring about a feeling, even a feeling of certainty in some, which they no doubt aspire to (and which I think is an unsatisfactory endpoint), but what can I perceive?

[ First of all, I will say that it must be possible to perceive something in this area, whether or not that something is “real.” We can talk about real-ness later. But the commonalities across the world’s religious cultures and especially commonalities among experiences related to us by individuals across the diversity of their beliefs points to something significant, even if we eventually conclude that it’s an accidental “feature” of the mind. I should be able to have the same sorts of feelings and perceptions that most other human beings can have. ]

I vaguely “perceive” God filtered according to the limits of my logical understanding. Inner vision, emotion, logic, and so on are never enough to perceive what God is, but these senses/abilities try. I propositionally understand God these days as the “computer” which runs our “simulated” universe. The nature of this computer cannot be apprehended in this universe because it is outside of the universe and therefore probably abstract to anything we consider real or of this universe. But still, my imagination tries, because there is no other way of understanding. I visualize brilliant-white interwoven valves, like transistors, going off into the distance across an endless landscape. This is the “computer” which is running absolutely everything. It disappears into the horizon in every direction, and my brain grasps towards the concept of infinity by trying to hold on to more and more of the area covered by these interwoven valves.

[ But this is all just a model. And as such, how much truth does it contain? It is a proposition, pointing at something, but what? So we continue. ]

[ I have been influenced a great deal by certain Science Fiction novels. In particular, Permutation City and the chapter entitled Wang’s Carpets (which was originally published as a short story) in the novel Diaspora, both by Greg Egan. I read these many years ago, but oddly I’m reading articles in the news about experiments being designed now in an attempt to test whether our universe is a simulation. So the idea is entering into scientific and even popular consciousness somewhat. Thank movies like “The Matrix.”]

I believe that every person who has an experience of the nature of God will have that experience presented by relationships with known real things and, in order to be comprehensible, as objects, concepts and attributes connected with things which can be sensed or felt. The brain by its nature tries to make what it experiences comprehensible. This happens in every culture, and so we have many, many contradictory representations of God. Lower-case gods are still a representation of the system they are in (upper-case God, eventually, no matter how much or little thought is given to that ultimate context). [So I’ll call polytheistic systems holders of a tiered model.] These understandings are all simultaneously true and not true. They are true in that they reflect an understanding of reality, and they are not true in that they are simply symbols, which are devoid of meaning when they cannot point the way. They represent a grasping towards truth, but not truth itself.

[ After spending some time on Erowid reading about people’s psychedelic-mediated spiritual experiences (a source for what could be a modern-day Perennial Philosophy), I posit that normally the brain holds onto and presents to consciousness only what is comprehensible; the brain does some amount of thinking which is not comprehensible and which, if it cannot be made comprehensible, is discarded; the “mystical experience” may be an extension into consciousness of that which has not yet been made or in fact cannot be made comprehensible. However, we need to divide “mystical experience” into two categories: (1) Things which are simply incomprehensible to logical understanding, and (2) Things which are spiritual, are “of God”, or present a profound yet inexpressible understanding of reality. I’m talking about (2), here. ]

Now, the big question is still, what is being perceived? Is it something outside of ourselves, or something within? Why would our brains have the apparatus for giving us what we call spiritual feelings, thoughts and perceptions (“incomprehensibleness” poking into consciousness notwithstanding)? There is a scientific explanation you may have heard: God is an evolved principle within complex social societies necessary to promote order and obedience to that which servers the greater good of the tribe. But I didn’t consider this a sufficient explanation. Why not? After all, it seems a convincing argument for some scientists. E.g., Michael Shermer expounded this argument at the beginning of a debate, for the proposition “science refutes God.” The explanation seemed reasonable to me a while back, but from all that I’ve read, now feels inadequate due to its simplicity.

The basic case is this: you have the opportunity to benefit by taking some action which helps your own self, but which harms the rest of your tribe slightly. Nobody is looking; nobody will ever know; you won’t be caught. To prevent such selfish actions (which eventually harm the individual), “God” evolved as a principle implemented by brain circuitry which prevents these situations from harming the collective good, by individuals taking advantage of them. Fear of “God” keeps us in line and serving the common good, even when we individually are harmed. We will even die for noble causes greater than ourselves. [Although reason can arrive at similar conclusions, it doesn’t seem fast or powerful enough. Reason’s certainly not been enough to prevent us from collectively harming our environment.]

Now that I write it and think about it more, however, the argument becomes more powerful, because evaluating “individual benefit” versus “common good” may not be so simple for the brain; it is a complex task. So this leads eventually to the evolution of mental circuitry to think “as God would,” to think as if without the Self as a vaunted object of primary concern. Each individual must therefore carry this brain circuitry, and its invocation carries with it a particular emotion: feelings of selflessness, of subsumption into something far larger than oneself. Taken further, due to the self-contemplative construction of the brain (another topic), this circuit would also be able to create thoughts about the model itself which it is using in its evaluation, so as to refine it. That model (used in a search to find parameters within which to evaluate the model) it builds up is one of nature, of the universe. The recursive model continually strives towards apprehending some “ultimate reality” because the model itself is concerned with collective survival of <something>, be that the tribe, or something larger than the tribe; the recursive model works on refining the model by creating universal understanding within which the model itself works. In fact, it makes sense that this circuitry in ever-farther-reaching and had evolved to consider something greater than simply other people in the immediate tribe. Think back to how people lived in the past, in times of scarcity, farming or gathering what they could, hunting animals and trying to predict their patterns and behaviors, trying to grasp how their own treatment of their land and surrounding animals and resources led to particular reactions and therefore their group’s survival chances. The drive to live in these social groups must have created intense pressure to become good at such modeling. So from here we get the tendency of this brain circuitry to think about life and its environment, extending the sphere of its model (via the recursive model) to include everything that it’s “told” and believes to be true about existence. We ourselves hear about the universe and our deductions about it which science, highly sharpened as our tool, is gaining, and integrate this into our sphere of understanding. For us, our “God circuitry” now must include everything we believe, because it is concerned with understanding the context of everything that is. Think about how conceptions of God changed through time, and across cultures. [E.g., why did the geocentric model die such a messy death?]

It does feel plausible, then, given more thinking about evolution, that God could exist solely as a function of the human mind, that what we are perceiving via spiritual experience is what is “in here” rather than anything that is “out there.” Not to simplify or give up any sense of wonder, it likely exists “in here” as a result of vast meaningfulness in the complexity that is “out there.” That there is something to comprehend (a pattern of matter and energy, to things, not something actually of a non-physical nature) combined with the brain’s searching for understanding this life’s context, gives rise to thought processes which are quite different from those we are familiar with in the everyday. The attempted comprehension feels spiritual, but in this model God does not exist as some kind of intelligent being or force except as by the internally created symbols we place below the “all” in our model.

[ As for the truth or untruth of this model, it clearly contains aspects of both; our task is to separate them as best we can. On the one hand it is plausible; on the other hand it does nothing to tell us what this, the universe, all that is, is “in” or is. To say that spiritual experience is merely a kind of thinking/understanding or language of some part of the mind still doesn’t feel like it’s enough when laid alongside all that I’ve read, yet at the same time we seem to have no tools for resolving this one way or another. ]

It also makes sense that the “language” of this brain circuitry has certain features:

  1. It is not afraid of individual death; it is hardly concerned with this individual’s (my own) death except relative to its understanding of how this individual is part of the whole. Therefore with respect to my death it generates no emotion of fear but rather one of [profound] understanding within the big picture; a feeling of peace because my death does not, truly, matter to the universal model (“all that is”) that this brain module generates.
  2. It is concerned with understanding the pattern of life and the universal meaning that this brings. Therefore it generates no emotion of self-worth, because the Self has no worth to the pattern, whereas relative to even the tribe or the world (and certainly the universe) one death loses no hard-fought knowledge in the grander sense, that sense being that in which “knowledge” is what is propagated via DNA and the other machinery by which life persists through eons and eons of time. (The ego will fight this conclusion or will pull back or cling to reality; it is the advocate for the Self, for this body, for this tiny bit of thinking and knowledge contained in it.) Because this module evolved for a certain purpose, under certain conditions and scope of perception of reality, its language does not even contain the “vocabulary” to communicate a feeling of worry as if from the universe’s point of view. Instead, it communicates its understanding of the pattern as that which is life, and the rest of the brain constructs various real-world analogues for understand this, which we incorrectly think of or perceive as being real. For example, life does persist after individual death: the pattern, the DNA (almost all of it) we have in common with each other, and so on, the universe, which is what this model is concerned with, is what stably persists. However, the rest of the brain misinterprets this and becomes convinced that this consciousness (what it, what the ego, is concerned with as being “life”) persists. From this we get inner perceptions that translate to absolutely-real-seeming visions of Heaven and Hell, reincarnation, and so on.

I set out in this post to explore the idea that our infrequent perceptions of God [because logic tells us nothing, and faith is simply a form of positive mindset and curiosity, a vehicle, but which also confirms for us nothing about absolute truth] come from a reality that is a combination of ourselves (the way we understand and envision what we have perceived in the so-called spiritual experience) and some ultimate reality (what we are perceiving, which is beyond any mental model we can make). I started with the assumption that we are actually perceiving something out there, which due to my computer-science background I had envisioned as a near-infinite field of “transistors” that implement or instantiate the universe, and wanted to express that at least one particular scientific argument I had heard for why we think we perceive God, being that it was a useful trait selected for and refined by evolution, felt inadequate to explain the sheer depth, complexity, and compelling-ness of all I have read about mystical (direct) experiences, ego death, near-death-experiences, and so on. That is, science seems overly dismissive of “God,” whatever “God” is. Instead, I arrived at the proposition that evolution does explain this particular yet strange-relative-to-everyday-life feature of our minds not only in the sense that we evolved to perceive something out there, but that the thing we perceive is not God in the direct sense (some intelligent being or force) or in the sense that any model we create of what God is, is true, but that this is simply another way of thinking where normal consciousness doesn’t, usually, dwell. It’s metaphoric. Call it “cosmic consciousness” if you will, but in the sense that your mind has a module which thinks cosmically, generates no fear of death, considers your worth as an individual as being infinitesmally small (if/when it considers it at all), and which seeks to grasp the flow of patterns of things, among them life, which it also can view not as individual agents but as the grand flow of the pattern itself as it persists and changes over time. From this perspective we are much like atoms relative to the ripples in water, or ripples in water relative to the flow of the river (as it empties into the gene pool…) Each ripple comes and goes, but ripples do not cease to exist; nor are we the water, as the term “cosmic consciousness,” as if there is one consciousness divided, wants us to think. That’s just a model. Scale up “complexity” in every possible feature but we are no different. Yet, a part of our minds wants to apprehend the flow, as best it can, and thus we have spiritual or cosmic consciousness— not as something that is out there, but as something that is wholly in here, a way of thinking, understanding, and being motivated.

I also want to explore the possibility in another post that this is not the case, that we are actually perceiving something out there, or a feature of something out there, which is not accessible to the ordinary senses, and is not merely “the pattern” or features of “the pattern.”

I had a dream that I was dining at a large table with Krishnamurti and his followers, and had the opportunity to ask him a couple questions. Krishnamurti was a spiritual leader who renounced his position with a quotable speech:

I maintain that truth is a pathless land, and you cannot approach it by any path whatsoever, by any religion, by any sect. That is my point of view, and I adhere to that absolutely and unconditionally. Truth, being limitless, unconditioned, unapproachable by any path whatsoever, cannot be organized; nor should any organization be formed to lead or coerce people along a particular path.

Everyone at the table was encouraged to ask, and since I had two questions in mind, I meant to ask them both during my turn. I asked the first, but I don’t remember what, in my dream, the second was. Even so, I remember raising my hand to ask additional questions, although after the first two he had told me to slow down and give other people a chance.

My first question had to do with the difference between his style of meditation and the Buddhist/Zen style. I had just wanted him to compare them. The answer he gave: His style “achieved union with the godhead,” he said, which he called by a word: it was something like “mu-mind” but not that. I understood him to mean that within this state of consciousness, one comes to know the shallow and illusory nature of the world we think is real. On the other hand, I’ve come to understand (abstractly) that Zen meditation is about achieving an understanding of reality which does not seek to withdraw focus from sensory input and into an internal mental landscape, but rather the opposite: it seeks to amplify and stabilize focus so as to achieve “raw” knowledge of the perceived world and its reality minus a “layer” of everyday interpretation by the mind in terms of “personal relevance” of what is perceived (the “ego layer”). These two methods, (a) fully withdrawing consciousness from perception, and (b) amplifying consciousness on perception, seem to have opposite characteristics.

What was this about? I had read about Krishnamurti in Confession of a Buddhist Atheist, which I finished recently. I then read the full text of his speech, and was left with the impression that he was quite a strange individual, perhaps a product of his (sheltered, atypical) upbringing combined a powerful meditative experience of awakening combined with the rather strange (it seems) nature of the group he was being groomed to lead. But I find myself drawn to unusual people, because they are the ones who most often seem to have something to teach, either through their ideas or by observation. Yet, strangeness makes it harder to relate– the teaching becomes more symbolic.

Truth is a pathless land? It seems to me that truth is a land crisscrossed by paths, all leading somewhere, but where? The well-trod paths have eroded the truth they wind through. Walk on one and you will likely focus on the path itself more than any truth to which it leads or through which it leads. Walk your paths mindfully, and switch among them freely, according to your own will. Wander off of them frequently to see what lies where few have gone. Perhaps all such paths traverse but a tiny corner of truth, and in its mathematical infinity, truth reduces such paths to zero. But this is becoming overly abstract.

Why do people believe things?

We believe because we are weak.

Let me refine that.

We believe because we have limited energy.

Much of what we believe, we believe because we believe we are weaker than we are.

We believe because the elevation of an idea to a belief feels so good. It’s the end of a search.

[ Shortly after I had written the above, I encountered this relevant blog post, Born Again, Briefly, by the s.f. writer Greg Egan, describing his own experience with belief. ]

This was fascinating:

Heaven Is Real: A Doctor’s Experience With the Afterlife, which became a Newsweek cover story…

…counterpointed with this:

This Must Be Heaven, in which Sam Harris debunks it.

Reading the feedback: Despite a lot of junk comments online, there are more strong and rational voices out there than I had thought long ago, now that there are spaces for them to be heard. The death of traditional media forms is like an old tree falling and clearing room for light to shine down and a multitude of new views to start taking root. Small voices, but often voices of great clarity, beating back the fuzzy molds of wish-based thinking.

(In fact, Newsweek announced the discontinuation of their print edition almost immediately after publication of this story.)

It seems that internal experience can be incredibly powerful and compelling, and believe that when we can learn to accept the metaphoric nature of mental hyper-realities as expressions of our own reality tunnels and a playing out of the thinking process (that this is how the brain actually thinks, in the ocean depths below the surface ripples of normal consciousness), we will some day learn how to harness our actual mental capabilities, as they exist before our ego programs clamp down on them, in new and startling ways.

“We don’t see things as they are, we see them as we are.” – Anais Nin

Heaven is not “real.” Gods are not “real.” But our cultural ideas about all these things came from people’s actual experiences with what to them are real (filtered through the limitations of language, which is a blunt instrument, and through which experiencers struggle to communicate the reality of what they’ve experienced): landscapes of thought which reveal metaphysical truths that make everyday beliefs based on what we’re told to be true, simply given to us to accept by society around us and which are therefore expedient to believe, or on the conclusions of abstract logic (e.g. word-based thinking) seem vastly distant in comparison. But such experiences are themselves nothing more than thinking, in unchained glory. This is the brain trying to make sense of some aspect of reality, modeling concepts not necessarily bound to three dimensions and time, within a hyper-concrete exploratory experiment different from (because of the feelings of awake-ness/awareness, “reality,” and “conclusiveness” attached, to begin with), but at the same time not all that much different from, dreams.

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.