Wednesday, December 30, 2009
I've been thinking about Christmas lights (the kind that make it look like they're moving), rivers and ocean waves in relation to this quote by Dharma teacher Andrea Fella: "The Buddha understood human beings as a process rather than an entity," and this (paraphrased) quote from biologist Richard Dawkins: "Matter flows from place to place and momentarily comes together to be you... Some people find this thought disturbing; I find the reality thrilling."
This "song," I think, very effectively captures the awe I feel when I think of such things. I hope you will enjoy it as much as I have (and check out that guy's site for even more cool stuff).
"The Cosmos is also within us; we're made of star stuff. We are a way for the Cosmos to know itself."
Happy New Year, everyone. See you in 2010.
Wednesday, November 11, 2009
Things have been a little crazy for me of late, though... I'm back in the workforce, so that was a pretty complicated transition (what with figuring out what to do with the kids and all).
But, it should technically mean that I have some extra time to post... so I shouldn't have any excuses, now that I'm (mostly) settled in to my new job.
So let me post a little thought about natural Buddhism and sentience. This kinda goes back to some of the thoughts that first drew me into Buddhism, and when my wife spontaneously started talking about the same things last night, I thought maybe it was worthy of posting.
So let's think about thinking, for a bit. Sentience, that is, self-awareness, is one of the hallmarks of humanity. We see it as the greatest thing that seperates us from the animals. Some of the greater apes are able to recognize theirselves in a mirror; and quite a few animals can understand cause and effect. But we seem to be the only organism that can put the two together in a non-linear fashion. That is, we can think about ourselves in the past or in the future, and likewise we can think about how causes in our past are effect our present, and how causes we make now can effect our non-immediate future; this ability seems, so far, to be unique to us.
Because we are thinking creatures, and because we're the best at it on the planet, we tend to think of ourselves as having arrived at an apex. We are sentient; ba-da-bing, ba-da-boom, like a light switch turned on in our heads; as though self-awareness is an on-or-off thing. When we imagine other self-aware entities in (most) science fiction, whether aliens or robots, we imagine them like US.
But sentience is not a zero-sum game, it's not a "yes" or "no" answer. It's a quality, and like other qualities, while it's absence can be clearly seen, it's presence can come in degrees. For example, it's easy to say if a room is dark, but how does one gauge a room with a light better than "dim" and "bright"? Dimmer or brighter? There's no easy gauge. And I think it's the same with self-awareness. Between humanity and the other mammals, there seems to be a quite nuanced degree of awareness of oneself and one's actions, temporally. Chimpanzees seem able to comprehend themselves and their causes and effects about as well as a 3 or 4 year old child. And even among humans we recognize varying degrees of self-awareness in humans with neurological or psychological disorders, like autistic children or savants.
The conclusion, then, is that we normal human adults may be "brightER," but we cannot know--indeed, it would be arrogant to assume--if we're "brightEST."
My first musings on the subject were brought about by Frank Herbert's DUNE novels (allow me to indulge in some geeky side-tracking, here). In it, an organization called the Bene Gesserit often talked about how humans, despite their cognitive abilities, more often than not reacted like lower animals, driven by instinct and external forces (I may have mentioned this before as the start of my Buddhist leanings, though I didn't know it at the time). To be truly human, one had to analyze one's own emotions and motives, to rationally discern the path one must take.
In addition, the Bene Gesserit ran programs that often took generations to complete; and saw this as completely natural. This generational point of view--and the ultimate goal of the project, which was to produce a super-human who could divine causal lines to their ultimate end, i.e., know the future--helped broaden my mind beyond a shallow understanding of the all important "I". I don't know, maybe you think it's a little silly, but I'm sure you've probably had a similar experience, from a quote from a great philosopher, or perhaps observing the majesty of the ocean or the stars... At least, I hope you have.
But it helped me to realize that we homo sapiens are not at any apex. We may have a greater level of sentience than all the other animals on earth, but just as the simple burnt wood fires of Prometheus rose us above the natural world but still gave way to coal and oil and then to nuclear fire, we can still look forward to a time when our feeble ruminations give way to much greater understandings. And know that I'm not talking about mere knowledge here; what I'm talking about is a greater causal awareness, an expanding of the shallow concept of "I" as a disembodied voice in our heads, and a realization that "I" stretches out much further as a natural entity in the natural world.
Douglas Hofstadter, in "I Am a Strange Loop," described sentience as a feedback loop of a video camera pointing at a TV displaying the camera's feed. With most mammals, only a small corner of the TV is visible in the image; with the great apes, perhaps the camera is almost looking at itself. With us, the camera is fully pointing at the TV, and we see a cascade, like a tunnel, of TV's inside of TV's. That's a milestone, to be sure, but I think there's room to see farther down the tunnel. Like a dog that is unaware that it's wagging tail might knock over a vase, we are still blithely unaware of the consequences of most of our actions. Like a Grand Universal Pay-it-forward Theory, we have to understand that every insignificant action we take ripples out into the environment and into people's lives. We have to understand that there is an "I" that lives in other people's brains, too--note that I don't mean "Them," I mean "I"; as in, there is a me that echoes in my wife's brain. My actions and words create a feedback loop in her brain that she uses to interpret and predict my future actions; sometimes she'll know exactly my motives or my thoughts, but sometimes she'll be wrong. I have to recognize the echo of me that exists in her brain is just as real as the feedback in my own brain; just different. It's a real entity and I have to contend with it.
We're not there yet, I know. Our brains simply aren't able to WILL themselves to the next cognitive level, anymore than an ape or a dog could will themselves equal with us.
But if we're aware of our own deficiencies, and if we keep in mind where we're going, we can get a leg up. We can, at the least, rise to our own potential, rather than barely squeek by with what we can get away with. Because that's our gift, that's the Promethean spark; it's the burden and the blessing of self-awareness. That's what we, as humans, are capable of. We look at where we've been and what's brought us here, and then we can look at where we want to go and figure out how to get there.
Tuesday, September 29, 2009
If you're new to this blog because of the CFN Newsletter, might I recommend you start at Why Natural Buddhism? to understand my perspective, my goals, and a glimpse at my definition of Buddhism; all of which are important for understanding this blog.
Also, while I haven't yet received funding to do a scientific study, I'm pretty sure there's a direct correlation between comments on my blog, and the length of time until my next blog post... so, please, comment! (But hopefully, this recognition from CFN will kick my butt into gear)
If you've been following my blog for a while but haven't checked out the link to the CFN at the top of my page, now would be a great time to check out that Newsletter to see some really great articles and links that show what Naturalism is and why it's important.
Saturday, September 12, 2009
I can't remember exactly when I started downloading my first Dharma talks, or even when I decided to start calling myself (among many other things) a Buddhist, but I know it was around last Autumn. Since then, I've only been to 3 (maybe 4?) Sangha meetings, and I've meditated only a few times each month. Looking back, it sounds like I've made a pretty epic Fail on my buddhism... I could whine about how my kids wake me up too early to meditate in the morning and they wear me out too much by night to meditate after they've gone to sleep... Ok, I just did... but I don't want you to think I'm just a slacker! Alright, I know I could do better...
But one thing I also notice is that I'm very bad at ever following through with anything. I pick up new interests and hobbies then get disinterested again and abandon them like nobody's business. Some might call me indecisive (or capricious, or inconsistent, or impulsive...); though I like to think of myself as just having "too much passion."
But I notice that Buddhism has not suffered the same fate. I still listen to Dharma talks every week. I still try to meditate, even if I'm not very consistent with it. And I still consider Buddhism to be an intrinsic part of my identity--at least, the part I get to choose for myself.
And I think there's a good reason for that. I think it's because Buddhism really works.
Now, you may say I'm suffering from confirmation bias or self-fulfilling prophecy, but... isn't that just what I set out to do? When I started on my Buddhist path, I was interested in ways to decrease unhappiness, increase happiness, and reign in my volatile emotions (among other things); and I've found that it really does help.
I have, in the past year, had many instances where I recognized the source of my unhappiness as clinging to certain wants or desires; and that when I looked at those desires from the right perspective--a broader, "zoomed out" point of view--the aching need often evaporated away.
I have learned the immeasurable value of ignoring the constant torrent-of-consciousness thoughts that bray for my attention, and to soak in "every second as a lifetime," in the words of VNV Nation. Especially now that I am "professionally" a stay-at-home dad, learning to let go off the "The kids just made that mess!" and the "We need to be here at this o'clock, then there at that o'clock," and to just experience being with them at this age... just soaking in every up and down... that's something I'll never regret.
And Buddhism has been another tool in my ongoing battle against depression (like my hobbies, it comes and goes). When everything seems like it's closing in; when it all seems too much to handle and I just don't feel like going on... I remember that everything is impermanent. Everything. And, though it may seem counter-intuitive, it makes it better to realize that the bad things are not forever, and it makes the good things in my life that much more precious for being fragile.
So, Year One into Buddhism and I don't plan on stopping. I can see how much help it's been so far, and I've also seen how much help it's been directly correlates with when I actually practice meditating ^_^, so I'm quite confident that it can only get better the more regular my practice becomes.
I'm also quite confident Buddhism can work for you, too; but I'm not trying to sell you a religion or anything. Any type of philosophy or practice that helps you to look at things from a wider perspective, or teaches you to appreciate the moment, I'm quite sure would have the same effects. There's nothing magical about Buddhism. What's important is conquering the more instinctive, less rational parts of our minds; what's important is being brutally honest with ourselves about our motivations and our goals, at all times; what's important is striving--not just to continue existing, not just to "get ahead" in life; but to strive to eliminate suffering, and increase happiness, not just in ourselves, but for all living beings.
Wednesday, August 19, 2009
I realize I've been approaching Buddhism from a very philosophical point of view, ignoring the fact that Buddhist teachers never call Buddhism a philosophy, they call it a practice. Mindfulness meditation really is the path through which all the philosophical ideals of Buddhism are put into effect in one's daily life. Perhaps it's a primitive analogy, but spending all my time reading about Buddhism without practicing meditation is quite a bit like reading about basketball without ever practicing it--I'd be very knowledgeable about the sport, but I couldn't dribble to save my life.
The problem with just thinking about Buddhism is actually a good example of why mindfulness meditation is so useful. You see, we get caught up very easily in our thoughts; understandable, given how present and real they feel. But it's all too easy to get carried away with thinking, to the point where they become more real to us than the outside world. I know I'm guilty of having entire conversations play out in my head--conversations that haven't even happened yet--that create such strong emotions that it changes the way I feel about the person I was thinking about talking with! Maybe you've never done that, but I'm sure you can think of other examples... What are daydreams, if not us getting carried away in our thoughts, away from the prosaic world around us?
There's nothing wrong with this--from time to time--but we musn't deceive ourselves into thinking that thinking is the only way to experience the world. For one thing, as I've blogged before, our thoughts can be quite misleading, sometimes. But more importantly, we have other ways of experiencing things that get too often overlooked. Our feelings, for example, are an important way of experiencing the world. Too often we believe that our thoughts are actually on a different level, different plane, than our feelings, but in fact our feelings and our thoughts are both reactions of our bodies to the outside world. Although, if we're not careful, our thoughts can be a reaction to our feelings, or our feelings a reaction to our thoughts, and we can get caught in a vicious loop of self-created feedback, totally irrelevant to what is actually going on, but still seeming very real to us.
Mindfulness meditation helps to train the mind not to take our thoughts so seriously. When you are calm and still, and can focus your attention only on awareness itself, allowing thoughts to rise and fall in your mind without grabbing onto them and letting them hold your attention, you swiftly realize several things.
You will realize that your thoughts--which we tend to think of as the ultimate expression of Self (in other words, most people would identify their thoughts as "Self" even more than they would their body)--are not actually as... purposeful as we like to suppose. You will find that thoughts rise and fall seemingly quite randomly, without your bidding them (and if capital-y You are not bidding them, then who is?). And your thoughts are almost never alone; always there are several different thoughts, rising and falling, clamoring for your attention, like a little kid who just can't stand silence.
And that's the point--our minds can't stand silence. They're not used to it. Meditation is important precisely because it is a practice; we can't just tell our brains "embrace silence" any more than we can tell our untrained muscles "dribble this ball between your legs."
Thursday, August 13, 2009
No. They didn't take her to the hospital because they believed that God would heal their daughter. They surrounded her--family and friends, all accomplices--with prayer, right up to the moment she stopped breathing, believing that God would heal their beloved daughter.
It breaks my heart to think about that poor little 11-year old girl, dying so young of such a curable illness. But when I think about her parents, it fills me with horror--makes my blood run cold and the hairs stand up on the back of my neck.
Because, if not for a lucky roll of the dice, it could have been me standing before that jury.
You see, I understand exactly where Dale Neumann is coming from. The vast, vast majority of Christians--even the ones who don't see the Bible as metaphor, and consider themselves literalists--will look at Mr and Mrs Neumann with a sad shake of their head; "God gave us doctors and medicine to use," they'll say. They'll recite some old adage about a man on a roof in a flood, turning down rescue boats and helicopters because he's "waiting on God to save him." God wants us to use our intellect to find cures to diseases; it's not a lack of faith to go to the hospital.
But I know what Dale was thinking. He was thinking of Proverbs 3:5, "Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and lean not on your own understanding." He was thinking of 2 Chron 16:12 "And Asa... was diseased... yet in his disease, he sought not to the Lord, but to physicians." He was praying Phil 4:13 (I can do all things through Christ...) and Luke 1:37 (Nothing is impossible with God...). He took literally the passage in James 5:14-15 (...and the prayer of Faith shall save the sick...) and Psalms 103 (The Lord... healeth all thy diseases). He believed Jesus was the Son of God and meant what he said in John 14:12 when he said, speaking of his miracles of healing the sick and raising the dead, "I tell you the truth, anyone who has faith in me will do what I have been doing. He will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father." Then he assures all Christians, "whatsoever ye shall ask in my name, that I will do." Then he repeats it in the next verse, just in case you didn't get the message!
I could go on for paragraphs quoting more verses like this. I know them, because I used to pray them, too. I was taught to believe that the Bible is THE Word of God, and that everything in it is capital-T True. These verses are not talked about in most churches, because if they were, it would have to be explained why Christians go to the doctor and why the church elders aren't anointing anybody with healing oil (that actually heals anybody). It would have to be explained how we could know that THOSE verses are meant metaphorically, or are actually talking about something other than what the plain reading would suggest (which is usually the test for Biblical literalists). So, they're largely ignored.
But not all the time. Some Christians desire to go deeper than their Sunday lessons, and they realize there's a lot their pastors left out. Some branch out on their own and start their own churches, preaching "everything" the Bible actually says, not just the traditional Protestant parts. And that's when things become dangerous.
I was one of those Christians. And when my daughter was only a year old, she had a febrile seizure. My wife and I totally freaked out (as any parent would). We called an ambulance, which took her to the emergency room--all sorts of worse-case scenarios running through our heads. We were there for hours, spending most of our time, as is typical, waiting. Waiting, with a feverish, cranky one-year old, I might add.
Turned out, after spending our entire day there, running our daughter through some terrible tests, and then having to pay way more than we had to the hospital so that we had to ask my parents for money (we were quite poor)... that everything was ok. They gave her some tylenol, sent her home, call us if there's any changes. All she'd had was a rather high fever, which the sharp temperature changes of getting out of the bath had aggravated. There was nothing wrong with her.
It was a sign. We knew it. We knew those verses I quoted above (and more), we professed to believe them. But when our daughter was in trouble, we took her straight to "the physicians," and our terrible time of it was God showing us how it doesn't pay to be unfaithful. Isn't that obvious? It was to us, anyway, the same way little coincidences are obvious Signs From God to most casual Christians. We resolved, from that point forward, that if anything were to happen to Eva--anything at all--we would not call the doctor. We would not call 911. We would not seek any treatment aside from what the Word of God recommended--prayer. Lots and lots of prayer.
The same way Dale Neumann and his wife treated their little girl. I'm terrified to even imagine what would have happened if my daughter had gotten badly ill or hurt back then.
Everyone's heart breaks for little Kara Neumann. Most people are angry at her parents, even literalist Christians. "Why didn't they just see this verse, or this verse, that would have told them it's OK to take their daughter to the doctors? It's obvious to me!" But I understand Dale Neumann's faith, and I understand his pain. Because, even now, sitting in that jail cell, Mr. Neumann believes he did right. He believes he put his faith in God and not in Man, and so he'll be rewarded after he dies. He has to believe it--it would be far too painful to question it, now. You see, Kara Neumann wasn't the only one that was sick. Her parents have a mind virus; a set of ideas that passes from one person to the next and protects itself by saying, "Never doubt! Never question! Doubting Thomas questioned, and look what a fool he was! Adam and Eve questioned, and look where it got them!" "Reason is a whore, the greatest enemy that faith has," said Martin Luther, the founder of the Protestant Reformation. That blind faith, that avoidance of reason, is what kept Dale Neumann from questioning whether his interpretation of the Bible was right or not; and it cost his daughter her life. Ironically, that same blind faith, that same avoidance of reason, keeps those Christians who snub their nose at the Neumanns from questioning whether ~their~ interpretation might be the one in error. After all, with a belief that proposes "We won't know until we get there [meaning heaven]" as an acceptable answer for difficult questions, how could any interpretation ever be questioned? Only by reason, that whore, that enemy; thine own understanding that is scoffed at in Proverbs.
I believe Dale and Leilani Neumann deserved their conviction--their daughter died through their inaction, and the law must be followed. But I don't for one minute believe that I am better than them; that four short years ago I wouldn't have done the same thing. And if any of you harbor any beliefs--no matter how small or innocuous--that you do not constantly subject to reasoning, thoroughly examining them without hesitation or trepidation, do not imagine yourselves better than the Neumanns, either. Your beliefs may not result in anyone's death, but beliefs become actions, and actions have consequences, both for yourself and for others.
I look at the Neumanns, and I feel sorrow and pity, but I also feel a powerful need to examine my own life, my own assumptions. Because I know that there, but for the luck of the draw, go I.
Wednesday, May 27, 2009
Partly, though, another reason I haven't gotten back on here is because I think I pigeonholed myself into too tight of a corner; I didn't really find my life interesting enough to blog about, so I wanted a specific theme for the blog... But now I feel like, if a post isn't about Buddhism AND naturalism, I shouldn't bother posting. That is, of course, silly; it's my blog, I should post whatever I damn well please, and if you're not interested, you won't read it. Not like I'm inconveniencing anybody!
That said, I'd like to talk about Buddhism and naturalism ^_^
I've been learning a lot about genetics, lately. Cellular biology is a passion of mine--a purely amateur passion, for now, though I hope to go back to school for it one day--and genetics are naturally integral to any understanding of microbiology. Now, everyone knows that genes have something to do with DNA, and DNA is the code in your cells that builds you, right? Hollywood Science 101, and it's more or less right. But what actually goes on in the DNA at the cellular level? While your body is being built and maintained, macroscopically, what is actually happening to those strands of sugars and acids called DNA?
Allow me to give you a brief layman's version, as best as I understand it (being a layman, myself), and work it around to the Buddhist notion of the interconnectedness of all things.
DNA is code; I think everyone knows that. It tells your cells what to make, how big to make it, when to stop making it, and where to put it when it's done. (Advanced Biology, meet Layman's judo chop!)
Every cell in your body carries, in its nucleus, the entire code for every part of your body. The bits of code for specific parts are called genes; and the grand totality of the information for building your whole body is called the genome.
Now, when I speak of code, what I mean is that DNA is like a type of binary language that a computer would use--every amazing thing that your computer does is because a super-long string of 1's and 0's told it how to behave. Well, DNA is twice as expressive as that; rather than 1's and 0's, it has A's, G's, T's, and C's. A special enzyme runs across a string of DNA like a blind person's finger across braille, translating the GATC's as instructions. And so you can picture what I'm speaking of a bit better, I know you're familiar with the double helix shape of a string of DNA--take it and flatten it out into a ladder in your mind's eye. Now, each rung is made up of two letters, one on either side. And here's a little tidbit that will become important in a minute: just like a magnet always has a north and a south, each letter will only ever fit across from one other letter--G's with C's, and A's with T's. When the enzyme "reader" scans along, it's only looking at one side of the DNA... because the opposite side is always going to be the exact same, just in reverse!
Don't worry, I'm getting somewhere.
So, when a cell receives the chemical signal that it's time to divide (you know, asexual reproduction), another enzyme slices through the DNA's ladder rungs like a zipper, separating a single strand into halves. And since each letter will only ever go with one other letter, it's easy enough for those two halves to be fitted with the appropriate nucleotides (the freefloating letters, if you will) and so you have two copies of one original genome. Each genome goes to an opposite side of the cell, and--sploot!--the cell splits in half, creating two new cells out of one old one. It's kinda poetic, ain't it?
Now, this copying is happening over and over, constantly, within your body. With the exception of a few rare mistakes, every cell in your body replicates, over and over, the exact same set of codes that you started out with when you were just a blastocyst in your mother's womb. From the moment of conception til the moment of death, your cells--whether they're in your skin, your heart, your brain or your spleen--are all expressions of the same genome; like color is the expression of the same quanta of light, just in different wavelengths.
But that got me thinking... what about that little bundle of cells called an embryo? It didn't just pop out of nowhere. It starts out as a single cell, too: an egg. And this egg has exactly half of the mother's genome (the specific genes selected randomly), and the father's sperm has exactly half of his genome, also selected randomly. These combine together to form you--but these genes you're replicating didn't originate with you, they don't belong to you--your mother and father, respectively, were replicating those exact same genes for decades before you ever existed. Which, of course, means that their genome is a constantly replicating amalgam of their parents' genomes, who faithfully replicated their parents', etc. Each time these genomes get replicated into egg or sperm cells, they might contain a few trivial mistakes, but overwhelmingly they stay the same, and have stayed the same for the last 100,000 to 200,000 years. Yes, friends, our similarities are more than just superficial--they literally run right into our marrow; into the very fiber of who we are.
Which means, of course, that if one were to look back at our closest ancestor which split off into a different species, we would see that we still replicate the same genes they had almost identically, and our relatives also still replicate those same genes, almost identically. This is, in fact, exactly what it means when you here someone refer to the fact that we share 98% of our DNA with chimpanzees--we literally are still copying 98% of the same patterns, using the same sugars and acids to build the same little twisted ladders, over and over and over again.
We replicate 85% of the same genes that mice use. We have half the genome in us that our shared ancestors also gave to fruit flies. And 31% of the genes in our bodies are the same ones being duplicated right now in a simple, unicellular organism like yeast.
I remember thinking how bizarre it was that some sea creatures reproduce by budding. Like a fungus, they start growing a little clone of themselves, like a little mini-me, off their shoulder, then they cut the little squirt free and start the process again. No sex? No internal gestation? How weird!
But what is reproduction, really? From a gene's-eye-view, sugars and acids stack up, split apart, and copy themselves, over and over. It doesn't care what kind of cell it's in; it doesn't care if the cell is located in one body or another; it stacks up, splits apart, duplicates. For over half the age of this planet, those molecules have duplicated. They've changed a great deal--from the basic need to replicate, all the way into a sentient being that can gaze upon distances astronomic and microscopic and wonder at it all... but it's all connected. From the carbon forged in the massive hearts of stars, to the eye that receives the light shed from those stars' contemporaries.
Ponder the intricate web of it all. Let it make you humble, and let it make you proud, to be part of such a magnificent process. And let the love you feel for your children, your parents, your siblings--knowing that they are literally a part of you and you of them--extend not only to all humanity, but to all life in the world.
Friday, March 27, 2009
But Ethan Nichtern has written a book called "One City: A Declaration of Interdependence" that blows my mind. I've only read the preview in Google Book Search, but I'm sold. This guy is a great communicator, and I think he has something to say that everybody in this day and age needs to hear.
As I said in my last post, I don't have a lot of time to blog right now. But I'm going to show you this link to the preview, and I really think you should check it out. It's not a dry lecture; his writing is very organic and it draws you in. Check it out, and I'll try to find time to blog about it more, later.
Here's the preview
Many thanks to 21awake for blogging about it and bringing it to my attention!
Wednesday, March 25, 2009
I got laid off from my job at the beginning of March. Since then, I've been working full-time at my wife's studio, which we jointly own but it's really hers.
I've wanted several times to blog about it, but I haven't had the time and couldn't come up with much more to say than that. I thought it was kinda too short to post, but, what the hell, it's my blog. So, there ya go.
Hope to be posting again soon.
Sunday, March 1, 2009
I ran across this story in the New Scientist just the other week. It's about herd mentality, a character trait all social animals have, but one we like to imagine only exists in humans when it's "them" (in the "us vs. them" worldview).
Nothing earth-shakingly new about the idea that humans will go along with a crowd, but right at the end was a discovery that really shocked me. Vasily Klucharev, at the Donders Centre for Cognitive Neuroimaging in Nijmegen, the Netherlands, (my spell checker just crapped itself), did a study where they asked 24 women to rate more than 200 women for attractiveness. They must have been shown the ratings other women did and were then allowed to readjust their own ratings, because it says that if they discovered their scores were significantly different, they would change theirs to match consensus.
Now here's the shocking part:
When a woman realised her differing opinion, fMRI scans revealed that her brain generated what the team dubbed an "error signal."(emphasis mine)
Did you see that? Your brain, that wonderful little "You Factory" that you depend on for, well, everything, will actually tell you "Hey, you were wrong" when your opinions go against your peers.
I don't know about you, but that kind of pisses me off a little bit. Brain, I trusted you *shakes fist*! But it's not really surprising, though, is it? Peer pressure is common knowledge. But knowing the science behind it makes it a little more urgent, doesn't it?
Just trying to raise awareness on this simple, fundamental fact: you can't trust your brain.
So, what do we do about it? Well, in the same way that science provides a self-correcting system to check our hypotheses, I would recommend some sort of system to check your instincts and gut reactions. For me, it's Buddhism. But before Buddhism, it was just remembering the Bene Gesserit from Frank Herbert's Dune novels--they often talked about the difference between a human and a human animal; the idea that 99% of all humans react to their instincts no different than a lower animal and that to rise above such animalism and truly achieve our potential, a human must always examine their intentions and know the "Why" behind every action, every word spoken, every opinion held.
Try it some time. Ask yourself "Why?" you feel a certain way, or said a certain thing, and really be honest with yourself. Despite how well you might superficially think you understand your intentions, you may be surprised to discover what lies just beneath your immediate conscious awareness.
And such self-awareness is not only informative, it's also empowering. It gives you the chance to adjust your actions and feelings to match your true--that is, your conscious--intentions.
Tuesday, February 24, 2009
I believe in keeping an open mind to all ideas, and to always try to understand your opponents' point of view, now matter how ridiculous it sounds at the outset. At the very least, you will strengthen your own position and resolve.
So, in that spirit, I've been trying to understand why all the diehard conservatives and Republicans are so against Pres. Obama's stimulus plan; besides just the obvious motivation of being contrary to whatever the new administration says--that's a time honored role that I think politicians believe is a mandatory requirement of their job.
The thing is, I'm not a hypocrite; I practice what I preach (or, at least, I try to). I examine the claims that I agree with even harder than those I don't, and I've found a lot I don't like about Obama's plan. But the Republicans don't seem to be against the bill for the same reasons I am... in fact, they don't seem to mention all the bad parts of the bill that allows fat cats to keep their cake and eat it too; at least, so far as I've heard. Instead, they just complain that spending is wrong because, well, that's what "the other side" does, so it must be wrong. They use plenty of standard political rhetoric that means a whole bunch of nothing--no surprise, that's what all politicians do.
So I'm trying to look at what the Repubs would do differently. What is their solution to the economic crisis? What would they do if they had control of both congress and the White House?
And the answer, so far, has been: Pretty much, nothing. Cut taxes some more. Deregulate some more. And sit back and let the "Free Market" sort itself out.
I find this position striking. Let the Free Market work itself out? While how many families loose their jobs and get booted out of their houses because fat cats in Washington and Wall Street made short-sighted decisions? How many people have to suffer because of the mistakes of the few? I find it absolutely remarkable that the rhetoric from conservatives about greed keeps talking about "people who bought a house they couldn't afford" or "ran up credit card debt because they were greedy." What? Visa and Mastercard brought the world's economies to their knees? There is a fundamental lack of awareness about the nature of this recession evident in that kind of thinking. Now, despite the fact that I am pretty sure I know the reasons behind what they're thinking, I don't believe in making claims about people's intimate thoughts; I can't read minds.
Buuut, I was raised Republican, and I was a Republican myself for many years before I started thinking for myself, so I can tell you what I used to think. I used to think that, when bad things happened to people, somehow, they deserved those bad things. If I was still a Republican in this economy, when someone lost their home to a foreclosure, in my mind it would never have been because the housing values plummeted around them through no fault of their own and they couldn't refinance because the banks were scared and their job was laying off employees--no, it was because the person racked up too much debt living "above himself," or he wasn't working hard enough, he should take some more jobs. It was vital that I believed this, because if it wasn't true (at least the majority of the time), then terrible things happen to good people all the time, which meant I was vulnerable to the same random happenstances, and that if I would want help in those circumstances, then I would have to help other people who found themselves in those circumstances. But if someone got themselves into a jam through their own greed and/or stupidity, then they would have to get themselves out of it, and any government assistance that person received was my tax dollars bailing a fool out of problems I was smart enough not to create for myself.
I'm not so naive as to think that every fiscal conservative believes this. But as I read over the comments on my Facebook friends' pages and on blogs and news sites, I'd have to be a fool to think this isn't the opinion of "Joe the Plumber" on the street.
The fact of the matter is, bad things happen to good people. Stop the presses! Real shocker there, I'm sure. But while I understand the GOP looking to score browny points is going to be anxious to toss "Joe Foreclosure" on the street, what I can't understand is why so many of my fellow "Main Street" Americans are ready to see their neighbors jobless and homeless because of some sort of deluded "survival of the fittest in the free market" scenario. Here's a little factoid: survival of the fittest worked great for 3.5 billion years to create new species... and 99.9% of those species are now EXTINCT.
We are all connected. That's not some sort of spiritual woo-woo, that's a fact of the 21st century. It's not just a pun to say that our fortunes are linked. What happens to autoworkers in Michigan effects whether I can run a small business in North Carolina. What happens on the Stock Market on Wall Street effects what happens on Stock Markets in Tokyo, or London, or Beijing. Remember those little charts we made in 3rd grade, where the cricket eats the grass, and the frog eats the cricket, and the snake eats the frog, and the eagle eats the snake, etc.? Yes, the Circle of Life is not just for Simba anymore, folks. What happens to the Bulls and the Bears affects whether you get to keep your job, or whether your neighbor can go to college or has to flip burgers instead. Survival of the fittest worked great to get us here, but it's time is done. We have to move forward. We have to adopt bigger ideals, or we're ALL screwed, not just your imaginary welfare bogeyman.
So, to wind up this incredibly long and rambling post, let me just quote Jesus as he spoke to the money-changers in the temple: "Take your Free Market and shove it."
Wednesday, February 11, 2009
Thursday, February 5, 2009
It's reaffirmed my original hypothesis--that we are not as in control of our brains as we think, that our brain has many left over "programs" from earlier in our evolutionary history that hold us back, and that the philosophy of Buddhism (or any very strict system of introspection) can help us to overcome and transcend those vestigial instincts.
Let's take perspective, for instance. A lot of things about our perspective make sense: our eyes evolved to see in the tiny spectrum of light we call "visible" because it gives us the greatest benefit when moving about and manipulating our world--a solid state world that is, at the atomic level, mostly just empty space. But we didn't evolve to see radio waves, because then we'd be bumping in to trees and rocks as the light waves pass through that space. No, visible light provides the best information for navigation (give or take a few wavelengths--I'm lookin' at you, bees and snakes!), so it makes sense that that's what we see; it's how we build our point of view.
But some things that shape our perspective of the world don't make sense anymore. For instance, our natural tendency to view the world in a sharp divide of "us" and "them" makes sense in a social species that must compete for resources in a pack vs pack (or, troop vs troop, as I discovered primate groups are called) environment. But in today's modern age of interconnectivity, this tendency is vestigial. Actually, I take that back; wisdom teeth are vestigial. The "us vs them" mentality is downright destructive. And while the danger might not be as prevalent as it was during the Cold War, this mentality still holds the potential to actually self-destruct our very species.
While I'm on the doom and gloom, I guess I should also mention our difficulty in making long-term plans. For our ancestors, "long-term" was "next season". The forager and hunter gatherer societies in which our modern brains evolved could not possibly have damaged their environment so much that not planning years in advance would be a detriment to their offspring surviving--the driving factor behind natural selection. But even with our lifespans quadruple that of our ancestors and our influence now able to shape the face of the planet, we still have enough problems planning for retirement; much less thinking about the consequences of our actions generations from now. What's more, we don't really care. It takes a conscious effort and a great deal of empathy to care what happens to future generations--again, that "us" and "them" thing.
But enough of the doomsaying--what about our day to day living? Everything, from our craving of fatty, sugary foods, to our general avoidance of change, comes from our ancestor's needs, not ours.
What does this mean for us? It means that if you've had your wisdom teeth pulled and your appendix removed, you're only halfway there.
Friday, January 30, 2009
This excerpt from A Pale Blue Dot was inspired by an image taken, at [Carl] Sagan's suggestion, by Voyager 1 on February 14, 1990. As the spacecraft left our planetary neighborhood for the fringes of the solar system, engineers turned it around for one last look at its home planet. Voyager 1 was about 6.4 billion kilometers (4 billion miles) away, and approximately 32 degrees above the ecliptic plane, when it captured this portrait of our world. Caught in the center of scattered light rays (a result of taking the picture so close to the Sun), Earth appears as a tiny point of light, a crescent only 0.12 pixel in size.
Look again at that dot. That's here. That's home. That's us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every "superstar," every "supreme leader," every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there--on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.
The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that, in glory and triumph, they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of this pixel on the scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner, how frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds.
Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the Universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.
The Earth is the only world known so far to harbor life. There is nowhere else, at least in the near future, to which our species could migrate. Visit, yes. Settle, not yet. Like it or not, for the moment the Earth is where we make our stand.
It has been said that astronomy is a humbling and character-building experience. There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we've ever known.
-- Carl Sagan, Pale Blue Dot, 1994
I tried several times to write an introduction for this, but Carl Sagan's words speak too beautifully by themselves; there's nothing I can add. Except to echo, Look again at that dot.
(Picture and quotes copied from The Planetary Soceity)
Tuesday, January 27, 2009
"I think, therefore, I am" is a well known quote; even the average layman will quote this famous line from Descartes without realizing the profound philosophical statement they are making. Called "Cartesian" philosophy, this idea that there is a centralized "I" somewhere deep within the brain, some sort of "ghost in the machine," is a foundational tenant of almost all Western thought. Certainly the idea of an indivisible soul is central to all Western religions.
The argument sounds convincing enough, on the surface. I thought it was quite brilliant, when I first studied Descartes. The idea is that, if one doubts one's own existence, the very fact that there is an "I" doing the doubting proves that "I" therefor exists. And I will grant that, in the conventional, everyday speech kind of way, it is true. If I don't exist, who's typing this right now? So there seems to be a built-in argument--a kind of obvious rebuttal--of the notion that the self is an illusion.
The Buddhist, however, would not argue against this subjective sense of self, though (nor would a naturalist, for that matter). The sense that there is an "I" sitting in the pilot's seat behind our eyes, thinking, pondering, making decisions, is very real. But it's a trick, an illusion.
The trick is what Douglas Hofstadter, in his book I Am a Strange Loop, compares to a feedback loop (hence the title); what happens when you point a camera at the TV it is feeding into. As the many sections of our brain register other sections registering stimuli (whether external or internal), there is this illusion created of self-awareness. Some of those portions of the registering are "visible" to us; they occur within our conscious awareness. But what we don't even realize is that some--or perhaps most--of those portions are unconscious; they happen too fast for us to "see," and they feed information directly into the conscious parts that do the "registering." (Don't believe me? Check out this fascinating article that shows how casually we rationalize reasons for actions that were unconsciously motivated)
The implications are troubling for anyone who clings to the notion of Free Will, but are quite profoundly empowering for someone who has moved beyond such Cartesian notions. The doctrine of no self is central to Buddhism because it is a powerful motivator of compassion and a reducer of suffering.
When we believe that every man is a Free Agent, that he has the power to make any choice he wants, it becomes easy--perhaps necessary--to condemn those who make "evil" decisions. "If the terrorist has Free Will, why didn't he just choose not to hurt anyone? I never choose to hurt anybody!" we tell ourselves.
But if we stop to consider that the terrorist is a product of his surroundings, his upbringing, his genetic dispositions, and so many millions of other influences, it is easy to realize "there but for circumstances I go."
When we believe that we are Free Agents, the ultimate cause in our line of causation, and we make choices that create suffering (in ourselves or others), we beat ourselves up, we become self-loathing.
But if we are able to consider the chain of causation (as much as we can see) that led to that decision, it does not absolve us of responsibility, but it empowers us to then influence that chain to create the influences we want--a feedback loop that we can direct. And the same goes for the above case of the terrorist--when we look at the causes, we find that you cannot beat someone into changing with violence; that path is ultimately self-defeating. We have to change the factors.
Our consciousness is a funny, paradoxical thing, and hopefully I'll blog more about it in the future. It's a huge subject and I find it intensely fascinating. In the meantime, here are some more fascinating articles on the strangeness of this ghost of a ghost in our machine:
Mindtricks: six ways to explore your brain
How your friends affect more than just your mood
Sunday, January 25, 2009
Friday, January 23, 2009
I'm a naturalist. I've not always been one, but reason and logic (as well as a healthy interest in science) have led me to a naturalistic conclusion about life. This means that I see no evidence or reason to believe in anything supernatural, that our world is goverened by natural laws, and that we humans are not seperate from this world. That is, there's no ghost in the machine.
I discovered Buddhism two years after I became a naturalist. I've always been fascinated by the East; it's such an alien culture to the Western one in which I grew up. But Buddhism really caught my interest when I started learning about it. Here was a religion, a paradigm, that dominated Eastern culture; yet, at it's core, there was nothing inherintly supernatural about Buddhism. Oh, sure, it has gods and demons, souls and wheels of rebirth... But these things are all extraneous to the philosophy. You can peel every last supernatural belief away and Buddhism is still there; try the same trick with any of the "Big Three" monotheistic religions and you're left with nothing.
This fascinated me, so I studied Buddhism some more. I found that its core teachings--the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path--are simply, what I would call, common sense. The only problem is, it's the kind of common sense that we all know--or, at least, should know--but it's filed away in our brain as an intellectual fact; it's never applied in our lives. You know what I mean--pretty much any stupid decision we make, we know we shouldn't make it, but we do it anyway.
So I started asking myself, What's the point? I know I should look at things from the right perspective, I know I shouldn't get my 'wants' confused with my 'needs' and shouldn't cling so strongly to the desire to get that next Xbox game that it causes me anxiety... I already know those things, so why do I need Buddhism?
And that's when an interesting thing happened. I looked at the Why behind Buddhism, and I found a very rational, logical answer.
You see, it's well known by psychologists (and by salesmen and conmen, too) that we construct a very strong mental identity of Who We Are. Most of the time, this construction is unconscious.
Our brains will go to great lengths to reinforce that mental identity--again, usually unconsciously--to such an extent that people can actually take advantage of this tendency (it's called the foot-in-the-door technique, very fascinating, you should check it out).
I realized that I could use this technique to my own advantage. By calling myself a Natural Buddhist, by self-identifying with Buddhism, I am constructing a self-concept which my unconscious mind will then help reinforce.
So far, it's working. When my temper gets out of control (a common enough occurence, believe me) and I want to yell at my wife, my unconscious brain fires up to say, "Hey, aren't you supposed to be a Buddhist? Examine your intention". Conscious brain then says, "Ah, yes, I would like to mend the relationship with my wife, but this action will only serve to make things worse." When my kids act out and I want to get angry at them, unconscious brain brings up Right Perception, and I'm able to take a step back and remember that I shouldn't take their acting out personally... they're just kids!
Now, of course, that doesn't happen all the time; I'm still human, after all. And it doesn't only happen with Buddhists; I've been able to examine my intentions and look at things from the right perspective plenty of times before I discovered Buddhism. The point is, I'm using my knowledge of psychology to my advantage; I'm setting myself up for more moral behavior and less suffering. By marrying science and Buddhism, I'm stacking the deck in favor of rational thinking over instinctual, animal impulses.
So that's why I'm making this blog. I'm crowdsourcing my journey, putting my thoughts on display for debate and input; internet peer review, if you will. I also want to journal my own thoughts and discoveries; it reinforces my self-concept even more, but journaling is also a form of introspection--even when open for all to see--and hopefully, by putting my thoughts and experiences into words, I'll see things that I hadn't before.
So, while I intend this blog to be fairly personal, I insist on discussion. Do you agree? Disagree? Have some parallel or tangential thoughts? Please, share them.