Monday, July 29, 2013

Vision of the Future -- Gray Goo and Exponentially Expanding Consciousness

In the deep future I see, machines of inconceivable complexity radiate outward from the Earth like rays from the Sun. They are tiny, sophisticated, self-replicating seeds with the sole objective of converting all matter they come in to contact with in to exact replicas of themselves. Their purpose is to wake up the "dumb matter" of the universe by taking cold, unstructured matter and restructuring it in to computational substrate.


Because the only thing that really ever matters is computation. We can easily convince ourselves of this by seeing that consciousness is a form of computation, and further that consciousness is the canvas on which all other experience is painted on. If any kind of experience is important to us, then consciousness, and therefore computation, must surely be more important.

One might argue that claiming "consciousness is all that matters because all of our experiences are felt through the medium of consciousness" is to ignore why consciousness is important to us in the first place: the experiences. Without experience consciousness is empty. In analogous words, a blank canvas is not interesting to look at. This quickly degrades into a "chicken-or-the-egg" problem. Without consciousness, experience is impossible, but without experience consciousness is boring. Therefore, one cannot be more important than the other. And, this may be true, but the reason computation is so valuable is because not only does it encompass consciousness, but it can also produce and simulate experience. Computation supersedes both. Regardless of which precedes the other, consciousness or experience, it makes no difference since computation realizes both.

What is likely the most amazing fact that I can think of, and one that I happen to spend a significant amount of time thinking about, is that consciousness seems to be a built-in feature of the universe. There's nothing truly mysterious about consciousness (in the sense that it's not supernatural or scientifically unknowable), it's simply the emergent property of arranging physical chunks of the universe in just the right way. Sure the details of how to arrange those chunks are a little more complicated, but from a high-level overview, that's essentially what consciousness is. You can take a relatively small amount of hydrogen, and given enough time, produce an entity that can think about the fact that it used to be a relatively small amount of hydrogen. Consciousness is, quite literally, the universe conceptualizing itself.

That thing that I describe as "my life" is simply the collection of experiences inflicted on my physical body over the course of a few decades during which my body is lucky enough to possess just the right properties for consciousness to emerge. After this period (and before it too), my body will continue to undergo change, but the properties necessary to host consciousness will no longer be there, and those changes wont really be experienced in the way that they would be at this moment.

In that brief span of time when our bodies do possess consciousness, we crave experience. Since experience is just information processed by our consciousness, in a very real sense, all we ever crave is information.

Along this line, civilization is simply the process of reorganizing the physical universe in a way that makes "pleasant" information most accessible to the most number of conscious entities. All of culture -- that is the creation and appreciation of art, science, and entertainment -- is to this end as well, to create and consume information.

Thus, if we take this understanding of civilization to it's logical endpoint, we see that the end-game of any intelligence (human, alien, or otherwise) is to fill the universe with as much positive conscious experience as physically possible. In fact, not only is "waking up" the universe the end-game of any intelligence, it would be difficult to argue that it's not also its moral obligation. If we take the utilitarian approach to ethics, namely that what's good is that which minimizes suffering and maximizes pleasure, then certainly the creation of galactic super-intelligences, capable of joy and ecstasy orders of magnitude greater than what humans can experience, is a moral good.

For these reasons, I believe that the ultimate state of the universe is a conscious one. In a way, this is very fitting. Since it's inception through evolutionary selection, consciousness has been a self-replicating process. Technology will enable that process to continue on to cosmic scales. The universe sowed the seeds of consciousness at the bottom of the gravity well that we call Earth (and most certainly other planets as well), and those seeds will eventually blossom in the form of universe-wide consciousnesses. It's as if the universe had consciousness in mind all along.

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Is the Problem Our Attitude or the World?

We've already seen in Zen Preliminaries III that attachment to craving is the central cause of suffering. While this seems to be the case for the human condition as we know it thus far, would it still be the case under different circumstances? Put another way, is the underlying cause of human suffering the result of the human mind or the world in which it's forced to inhabit? Buddhism doesn't exist within a vacuum; it's a system designed to alleviate the suffering caused by an imperfect world, but what if the world were more accommodating? Imagine that instead of the actual world, we inhabited one where desires can be satiated at will.

Buddhism teaches us that to find deep and lasting happiness, we need to shift our attitude towards the world, ourselves, and each other. But if the world no longer provides us with obstacles, is it really our attitude that needs shifting? To really distill the essence of this question, allow me to phrase it this way: Would you rather live in a world where no one experiences attachment to desire and everyone is in a perpetual state of tranquility, or would you rather live in a world where every desire and whim may be satisfied immediately and infinitely?

Unfortunately, to the hedonistically inclined, the right answer is probably closer to the former.

For one thing, it's logically suspect whether or not a world where every desire is satisfied can even exist. Humans have a notorious affinity towards novelty, so any pleasure no matter how satiated would eventually lead to the craving of the original novelty of that sensation. A craving that is logically impossible to satisfy, since it's impossible to experience something for the first time twice. Therefore, a world where every desire is satisfied is impossible. Of course, you could always substitute "every desire" with "every desire that's logically possible to satisfy", but then you'd miss out on certain desires that you would inevitably want to satisfy that can't be satisfied (such as the one explicated above), and consequently generate suffering (the thing we're attempting to avoid).

But let's assume that this obstacle can be overcome through further detachment or some other method, and that novelty fetishism is no longer an issue. Can it then be said that the hedonist's paradise is the ideal world? In this case the answer is difficult to give. Will there be a place for art in the hedonist's paradise (is art even relevant anymore, and if not, who cares)? Will there be for love? For self-transcending love? Or will life consist of merely satisfying sensory cravings?

This becomes a fundamental wedging question that splits people into either camp based solely on personal values that are so deeply ingrained as to almost be entirely removed from the scrutiny of the conscious mind. As such, I am forced to admit that I don't have a satisfying answer to this question, and I doubt one exists. It seems to me that both worlds have their costs and benefits, and both have sustainable paths to lasting happiness, so my only conclusion can be that both answers are valid. 

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

The Case for Many Loves: Why Polyamory Makes Sense


We live in a strange world where social norms and paradigms are so deeply ingrained in our culture that we mistake them for divine mandate. We think that the customs we observe are a part of some natural order, some objective structure in the fabric of our social space that unambiguously decides how humans should behave. The worst part is that most of us don't realize that things can be different and that in many cases things ought to be different. Monogamy is precisely this sort of paradigm. Although most people are monogamous by choice, the choice is not always well informed. Many people are not even aware that polyamory exists as a viable alternative to monogamy, and most of those who are aware of it think of it as some peculiar, deviant, and amoral lifestyle.

I understand that for many of you this can be an off-putting and even upsetting topic, but that's precisely my point. If the mere thought of anything outside of monogamy is causing you unease, then you've already allowed the prevailing social mores to direct the way you think. Instead of shutting out the other side and making a biased predetermined judgement, allow me to present the best arguments for why polyamory makes sense.

Strictly speaking, "monogamy" refers to marriage to a single spouse, whereas "polyamory" refers to love of many people. Technically, there's no reason why someone can't be both monogamous (married to one person) and polyamorous (romantically in love with multiple people); in fact, it happens often during affairs. To avoid this confusion, know that when I say monogamy I mean monoamory (a less frequently used word) which means maintaining one romantic mate, and that marriage is not necessarily part of the equation.

Polyamory is Simply More Natural

Most proponents of polyamory begin their arguments with the idea that polyamory is somehow more "natural" than monogamy. They might argue that humans are genetically programmed to reproduce and diversify the gene pool, and that in our "natural state" humans would not be restricted to one long-term mate as evidenced by the behavior of our recent human ancestors and our ape relatives. Whatever the reasons may be, the argument is that humans are naturally predisposed to wanting polyamory. Note that when I say "natural" or "unnatural" I'm not using the terms in an ameliorative or pejorative sense. Instead, when I say "natural" I mean "congruent with biological desires and impulses". In this sense, homosexuality is just as natural as heterosexuality, for example, and polyamory then -- I will argue -- is more natural than monogamy. (Note that natural does not imply better either; my point is only that it makes no sense for something more natural to be viewed as something deviant or fey). As it turns out, the scientific community tends to agree with this position. Allen et al. make the following claim.
Although pair bonding appears to be a common human behavior, a survey of contemporary preurban societies ... provides no basis for the contention that exclusive long-term monogamy is or ever was the only bonding pattern for humans (1982).
The survey that the authors refer to is one found in Murdoch's Atlas of Human Culture. In the survey, 563 societies are cataloged, and of those only 17.8% showed any form of monogamy whatsoever (1981). What this suggests is that under the operational definition above, polyamory is more natural. This is because societies that are less fettered by layers of cultural mores, and are more in-tune with biological impetus, tend to align with the polyamoric paradigm, and thus polyamory appears to be more natural than monogamy.

However, if this line of evidence is not convincing enough to suggest that polyamory is (more) natural, then I will make my best efforts to appeal to intuition. One way in which we can intuitively know that polyamory is natural is by realizing that monogamy is hard. In fact, if we consider an instance of infidelity as a failure of monogamy, then monogamy is so hard that it fails between 30-40% of the time (Guerrero et al. 2010). It's important to keep in mind that that statistic refers only to reported incidences of infidelity and that actual rates are likely far higher. Moreover, that statistic doesn't take into account individuals' struggle with their urges. If we take into account the rate at which individuals want a romantic or sexual experience outside of their monogamous relationship but through willpower resisted the urge, then my contention is that the rate would skyrocket closer to 100%. Intuitively speaking, because monogamy requires individuals to consciously override their biological urges -- go against the flow, as it were -- then monogamy must be in some sense less natural than polyamory which requires no such unnatural restrictions.

Furthermore, in logical discourse, it is the claimant who has the burden of proof. Since monogamy is the policy that insists that biological urges be suppressed, and polyamory doesn't, the onus to demonstrate rationality is on monogamy not polyamory. If someone were to tell you that you can only eat one type of food for the rest of your life, you wouldn't need to make an argument for why you should eat other types of food, instead you would insist on an argument for why you can only eat one type of food in the first place. Likewise, polyamorists don't have the burden of proof here, monogamists do. Their policy is the one imposing a restriction, so they are the ones that must put forth a sufficiently reasoned argument for why I should listen. Though monogamists have supplied arguments, none are "sufficiently reasoned".

Arguments For Monogamy

Natural Isn't Necessarily Better

One argument that can be given for monogamy and against polygamy is that "natural isn't always better", and that nature is something that ought to be transcended. While it's true that natural isn't always better, it's not true that nature should always be transcended. There should be a reason for why something natural should be transcended. For example, peace is a transcendent state. War and violence are natural human behaviors that ought to be transcended for good reasons -- because people will suffer on widespread scales otherwise. Are there equivalently sufficient reasons for transcending sexual and romantic urges? If there are, I haven't heard them.

Monogamous Couples Are Stronger Than Polyamorous Ones

Another common argument for monogamy is that monogamous couples tend to form stronger relationships than their polyamorous counterparts. Comforting as this might sound, it's simply not based in reality. Monogamous couples are more fragile than polyamorous ones in a number of significant ways. The most salient of which is jealousy and insecurity. Monogamous couples are strained and often collapse at the first sign of jealousy or imagined infidelity, and almost always deteriorate after an actual instance of infidelity. On the other hand, polyamorous couples not only survive external affairs, but grow and prosper through them. Every new external romance reinforces the couple's notion of trust, respect, and openness, since there's no need for deception. Moreover, the sex life of the couple is improved as both members become better lovers through exposure to more diverse ways of having sex.

This mindset of strength and fidelity also causes loving relationships that are otherwise healthy to end abruptly and on hurtful terms. How many good relationships have ended due to a single moment of indiscretion when one partner succumbed to base needs? It's such a common occurrence that it's practically a trope of modern fiction. Under polyamory, a good couple will never be broken apart by something as petty as sexual infidelity; after all, how can a single moment of indiscretion override years (sometimes decades) of love and bonding?

Another way of phrasing the above argument for monogamy is to say that exploring romance outside of the main relationship weakens it by distancing the couple. Again, this is entirely false. Exploring romance outside of the main relationship reinforces it in two main ways. The first is by solidifying the belief that the partner you have chosen is right for you. In monogamy, there's no way that you can assure yourself that someone is not more suitable for you unless you go outside the bounds of monogamy. But in polyamory, you're constantly free to explore and convince yourself that you made the correct decision when you chose your mate. This feeling of confidence in your decision brings closeness and intimacy to the relationship. Additionally, by allowing partners to seek romance elsewhere, there's less pressure on the individual to constantly satisfy the other. The alleviation of this burden removes stress from the couple and, again, allows the individuals to grow closer together.

Other proponents of monogamy argue that monogamous couples are more genuine or more "real" because they are exclusive. In fact, in some ways monogamy forces its participants to be disingenuous. Partners must often lie to each other about their sexual needs and desires out of fear of inciting hurtful feelings such as jealousy or undesirability. Whereas this problem is much less prevalent in polyamorous relationships because partners feel much more comfortable expressing their desires for other individuals. In monogamous relationships, the suppression of these urges often leads to resentment, "midlife crises", and ultimately to marriage-ending affairs. On the contrary, it seems that polyamorous relationships are more "real" and genuine because their participants remain together out of choice and love even when granted access to numerous other partners, and not out of some sense of loyalty or promise.

Monogamy is Fundamentally a Selfish Policy

Additionally, monogamy perpetuates the myth that every urge and need that one has should be satisfiable by a single person. This notion causes stress and insecurity in people as they attempt to reach an impossible standard and fail. Let's face it, because there are seven billion humans on the planet there's a good chance that you're not even the best match for your partner, so why would you expect to be able to fill all of their needs? Why should you have to be able to fulfill all of their needs? By limiting your partner exclusively to yourself, you're doing them a disservice by not allowing them to have all of their desires met. This becomes especially pronounced in monogamous couples who have been together for a relatively long time. Sex becomes stale because humans enjoy novelty and get bored and jaded relatively fast. For obvious reasons, polyamorous relationships do not suffer from this defect.

A common objection to allowing external exploration is that "if I let my partner explore, he or she will find someone better than me." This is an instinct we all have. No one wants to lose something they love dearly. But if you truly examine that statement, you'll immediately see the selfishness in it. So what if your partner finds a person who makes them happier than you? If you truly love your partner, you would want them to do whatever makes them happiest. By adhering to monogamy, you're imposing a policy of mutual selfishness.

Not only is monogamy selfish towards your partner, but it's also selfish towards all of the people that could potentially be with your partner. If the person you're with is somebody you love, then chances are good that there is something about them that you value and treasure and deem worthy of love. In some sense you must consider your partner to be a great person. By not sharing your partner with others, you are depriving the others of whatever joy that your partner brings you -- you are hoarding love out of jealousy.

Put into formal language, here is a tongue-in-cheek argument for why polyamory is morally superior:

P1. If the most moral action is one that minimizes suffering and maximizes pleasure, and sex and love are among the greatest pleasures that a human can experience, then a relationship that restricts the amount of sex and love that a person can experience is less morally optimal than one that has no restriction on the amount of sex and love that a person can experience.
P2a. It is the case that the most moral action is the one that minimizes suffering and maximizes pleasure; and
P2b. It is the case that sex and love are among the greatest pleasures that a human can experience.
C1. Therefore, it is the case that a relationship that restricts the amount of sex and love that a person can experience is less morally optimal than one that has no restriction on the amount of sex and love that a person can experience.

Of course the argument isn't meant as a serious deductive proof of polyamory's superiority, but it is nevertheless fairly compelling and difficult to argue against (I'd gladly entertain some counterarguments). It's at least evident that monogamy is more selfish than polyamory, and is therefore at least a somewhat less compassionate way to live.


None of this is to say that polyamory is not without it's hardships. Overcoming the initial barrier of jealousy is difficult, and most couples are incapable of crossing that hurdle (in my personal experience, however, it was well worth the effort). Additionally, once crossed, there's no guarantee that jealousy and insecurity will not resurface later in the relationship. While I agree that this is an obstacle in polyamory, I'd like to point out that those issues also exist in great quantities in monogamous relationships as well. Those problems also only exist because polyamory exists within the context of a society that overwhelmingly instills the idea of monogamy and thus creates an environment of jealousy and insecurity.

In closing, polyamory may still carry a social stigma, it nevertheless offers a healthy and natural alternative to monogamy that is in many ways superior. Counter-intuitively, polyamory promotes security, trust, and intimacy in couples that employ it. Just as importantly, polyamory promotes traits such as selflessness and compassion, whereas monogamy encourages selfishness and jealousy.

At the end of the day, the decision between monogamy and polyamory is left up to the couple and the individuals that make it up. My only hope is to inform and educate others that there is at least one alternative and that it is viable.

Works Cited

Allen, L. L., et al. "Demography and human origins." American Anthropologist 84.4 (1982): 888-896.

Guerrero, L. K., Andersen, P. A., & Afifi, W. A. (2010). Close encounters: Communication in relationships. SAGE Publications, Incorporated.

Murdock, G. P. (1981). Atlas of world cultures. University of Pittsburgh Press.

Monday, March 18, 2013

Do Smart Devices Make us Smarter?

Advances in computing have removed a significant amount of pressure from the human brain. Computers provide us with quick access to nearly an unlimited source of information with websites like wikipedia, imdb, khan academy, w3school, etc, to the point where human memorization is significantly less important than in previous decades. Computers also grant us access to powerful query answering tools such as wolframalpha and google as well as calculators of various sort that out-preform TI-89s, alleviating the need for 'manual' human research or computation. Moreover, computers make it possible for all of us to access communal pools of brainpower: forums where many minds come together to solve problems; places that exemplify the old adage "two minds are better than one". These include websites like stackoverflow, quora, physicsforum, etc.

While I believe that these peripheral upgrades to human intelligence are a great improvement to our species in general, I disagree with authors like Daniel Lemire who claim that they are sufficient (or even superior) substitutes to 'actual' intelligence. In his blog, Lemire makes the claim that China's attempt to increase its population's average intelligence is an unfruitful endeavor because the pace at which intelligence can be increased genetically is grossly overshadowed by the pace at which intelligence can be enhanced using computing. I agree insofar that computers will enhance our intelligence quantitatively more and in more rapidly increasing ways compared to genetic engineering, but I disagree with the idea that we shouldn't attempt to increase our "base-line" intelligence. 

My reasoning is that increasing our biological brain's intelligence is qualitatively different from adding peripherals to our intelligence. This is actually a fairly difficult position to maintain, especially if you're familiar with the Chinese room thought experiment. In essence the thought experiment can be distilled to the following. Say you have a man who can't speak any language but English in a room with a set of perfect instructions for translating Chinese into English and English into Chinese. The room is sealed, and the only way to communicate with it is by passing notes through a slot in the door. People from outside the room may pass papers with Chinese writing into the slot, and the man inside will carry out the instructions to decipher the text, compose a response, follow instructions to translate it back into Chinese, and then pass the paper back to the outside world. (Note that we must assume such a set of instructions exists if we are to believe that Strong AI is possible, otherwise we would be forced to conclude that computers are incapable of understanding natural language.) The question then is: Can it be said that the room understands Chinese? What if the room is replaced with a Strong AI who uses those same instructions as part of its programming, does the AI understand Chinese? Is there a difference between the two?

Now picture the following thought experiment I cobbled together based on Searle's Chinese room. Say you are forced to take the final exam of a course in a subject that you've never studied before. Assume further that you're allowed to use as many smart devices during the exam as you wish, but for all other students the exam is closed-book. Then there's a good probability that you will perform better than many students in the class merely because of your access to computing devices. Can it then be said that you are more intelligent in this particular subject than the students who you out-performed? 

The point of me posing this question isn't to say that it's obviously not the case that you are more intelligent than the students whose grades you beat (because it's not obvious at all), but rather to show that the idea of intelligence is nebulous. Do we simply define the intelligence of a person as the intelligence of his or her physical brain, or should we consider intelligence as the emergent property of a system of smart devices only one of which is the biological brain?

In any case, it's my assertion that increasing biological intelligence will increase intelligence in a fundamentally different way than increasing peripheral intelligence (at least with the technology available today). 

Allow me to illustrate this with yet one more thought experiment. Take a particularly cherished children's film (a book or anything similar will work too) that you enjoyed as a child. Remember the joy you experienced when viewing the film as a child and compare it to when you viewed it as an adult. With an adult-level intelligence, you have the capacity to appreciate the film at a much deeper level then you ever could as a child no matter what contemporary smart device your child counterpart is equipped with. This definitively shows that there are certain ideas and concepts which cannot be 'translated' down to our Cartesian theater by peripheral devices the way that languages can be translated from one to another; instead they must be understood at a fundamental level within our brain.

To clarify my point a little, I am not arguing that "biological intelligence" is somehow superior to artificial intelligence. In fact, I believe that the ultimate route to expanding human intelligence is through computation rather than biological enhancements. My argument is only concerned with technology at the present. In other words, with current technology our intelligence can only be augmented in asuperficial way--for the lack of a better word--that is fundamentally different (and in many cases inferior to) biological increases in intelligence. However, note that this doesn't say anything about which type of intelligence is more useful. It's entirely plausible that a doctor equipped with a myriad of smart devices will be a better diagnostician than a doctor with only a high IQ. Furthermore, few would argue that the combination of the two is not the obvious choice if presented with the possibility. I.e., why not have both if we can?

At present, technology can make us appear to understand more than we actually do, much like the Chinese room appears to understand Chinese, but so far technology can't make the man inside the room understand Chinese; that's a job for genetic engineering, at least for the time being. 

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Why Your Romantic Proposal Stories Aren't Impressive to Me

Nothing says "love" like an expensive rock from the earth.
If your partner proposed to you and you were surprised (or vice-versa), then you two are probably not ready for marriage.

It's a bold claim, but hear me out. First and foremost, let me say that I'm brutally skeptical of the value of marriage as a social institution and I hardly view it as an immutable contract, but the chances are if you proposed or were proposed to in the traditional western way, then you probably think marriage is a big deal.  Right about now, if you're the type of person I'm describing, you might be thinking "This can't possibly be true. Most marriages begin with a traditional proposal." You'd be right, but you'd also be forgetting that more than half of all marriages end in divorce (at least in the US). If you like fifty-fifty odds, then by all means go for it.

The next thing you might be thinking is "Well, I know my parents had a traditional proposal and marriage, and they've been together for my entire life and then some." That's sincerely nice for your parents and family, but anecdotal evidence doesn't amount to much. Especially considering the fact that we all know at least one person whose parents are divorced (unless you've been severely sheltered).

If you're the type of couple to take matrimony seriously, but yet have not for whatever reason discussed it openly and honestly enough that you can anticipate your partner's thoughts on the subject, then to me this implies that there probably are other important life issues that you two haven't discussed. It amazes me how many people know so little about their long-term significant others. Important issues too, like whether they want children or not, what their long-term goals in life are, what their political views are, what their financial situation is like, etc.

I don't mean to harp on this sort of couple, and I certainly am not proposing that only one type of romantic bond works (though some definitely work better than others). I'm merely suggesting that perhaps the reason you proposed or were proposed to in the exact same way as hundreds of millions of people before you is because of social norms and pressure, and not due to genuine desire. Keep in mind that I don't mean genuine emotion here, I don't deny that couples like the ones I'm describing feel genuine love; that's not the issue at hand. What I am saying is that perhaps sometimes people propose just because "it's what you're supposed do."

Consequently, couples rush into marriages that they're not ready for with partners whom they don't really know. Worse still, the people who tend to fall for this trap believe so much in marriage that they refuse to gracefully end the marriage when it's clearly failing. Instead, they pump an absurd amount of emotion, money, and time into attempting to resuscitate the failed marriage when it shouldn't have existed in the first place.

I view proposals as catch-22s. If you have to propose to get an answer from your partner about the rest of your life, then you aren't ready for the affirmative answer. If you're intimate enough with your partner to know that you two are spending the rest of your lives together, then you don't need to propose in the first place.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Criticism of William Lane Craig's Moral Argument For God

In his debate with Sam Harris, William Lane Craig makes the following argument:
  1. If god does not exist, then objective moral values and duties do not exist.
  2. Objective moral values do exist.
  3. Therefore, god exists.
The argument seems simple enough. It consists of two premises and is in the valid logical form known as modus tollens. If we are logical, then we must accept his conclusion if we accept his premises. Fortunately, there is no compelling reason to accept either one of them.

The first premise hinges on the idea that only a fixed and unchanging objective creator can instill reality with an objective morality. Craig emphasizes that this is an ontological claim rather than an epistemological one. The difference is that the former only asserts the existence of this kind of morality whereas the latter would be a claim of what we can know about said morality. Craig very carefully chooses his language so that his argument is purely ontological; he makes no attempt to claim that there is any way for us to know what his proposed form of morality entails. 

This raises an important question: why would god create an objective moral standard (an ideal by which to live) but not grant us humans any objective means to access it? There are two ways that Craig can resolve this. The first would be to claim (as he actually does) that the abstract god whose existence he and Sam Harris debated can be specified to be the god of Abraham and the Bible. Moreover, Craig would have to argue that the Bible or perhaps the Holy Spirit or some other variation of Christian mysticism is god's way of granting humans access to the objective moral code. This obviously doesn't work because these "methods" of accessing the code have been available for centuries and yet there are almost as many interpretations of the code as there are humans interpreting it. Am I too believe that god could not devise a method of accessing his own moral code in an unambiguous way? Mathematicians and programmers have no problem writing unambiguous instructions, yet god does? The second way in which Craig can deflect this is to simply say that this is irrelevant to his claim. God simply created the objective moral code, but is under no obligation to reveal it to his creations. That's fine, but then Craig must admit that his argument implies that morality is inherently unknowable. 

Now let's approach the first premise sanely. Let's say we have the set of all objective moral values, laws, and duties, called OM. Additionally, say we have some law L that is in the set OM. The main disagreement in the debate is what makes L objectively good. In Craig's version of OM, L is objectively good simply on the basis that it is in OM, and OM was compiled by god. In Harris's version of OM, L is objectively good because it minimizes suffering and maximizes pleasure; I'll call this "L is morally optimized". 

Craig's objection then is: what is objectively good about being morally optimized? In other words, what is good about minimizing suffering and maximizing pain? If we want L to be morally optimized, then we assume that there already is some moral standard against which to optimize L. Since there is a morality more fundamental than Harris's OM, his OM can at best just be a subset of a true and more basic OM, thus his OM is not objective. What Craig fails to realize, is that the same objection can be raised against his OM. Namely, what is objectively good about L being chosen by god? Is L good because god chose it, or did god choose it because it is inherently good? If the latter is the case, then Craig's OM suffers from the same defects as Harris's. If it's the former, then there are even more issues raised. If god chose all L in OM, then that implies that he could have chosen otherwise, therefore god's OM isn't objective (similarly, the natural numbers are objective because it's provably impossible to pick them differently). Put another way, if he could have picked otherwise, then there's nothing 'objective' about it.

To summarize, it now seems apparent that god's existence and the existence of objective morality are independent of one another. The argument used to show this can be somewhat generalized to show that absolutely no moral framework is objective. Let's show this by contradiction. Assume OM' is the most fundamental and objective moral system and L is an arbitrary law of that system. One can then ask, why is L in OM'? There are two possible responses:
  1. There exists some formal decision process, D(x), such that on any arbitrary moral question x, D says whether x is moral or not. For example, D("is child abuse good?") = no, D("is feeding the poor good?") = yes. Thus, OM' is the set of all moral values v such that D(v) = yes. 
  2. It just is.
If we assume (1), then we can always ask why does D produce laws that are good? What is objectively good about the laws that D produces? On the one hand we can say that D is good because D says so, i.e., D("are the values that D says yes to good?") = yes, but this would be trivially circular and would not be a satisfying answer. On the other hand we can say that D decides its answers based on some more fundamental morality, but this would contradict our initial assumption. Ergo, we can conclude that (1) is not a legitimate response. 

The only other response is (2), which may not seem like much of a response, but it actually carries more weight than (1). If you think about it, what is 'objectivity' other than something that "just is"? The natural numbers are objective because they follow from a small set of axioms; they simply are. However, this sort of reasoning makes little sense when it comes to questions like "what is good?" This is because if you say something is good just because it is, you can continue to ask "why?" and still make sense. Whereas you can't reasonably have this same regress of whys about the natural numbers; they actually just are. The axioms that they arise from (the Peano Axioms for those interested), constrain them into existence, and the natural numbers manifest naturally as their consequences. It would make no sense to ask "why?" because we know why: the rules of logic joined with the Peano Axioms force the natural numbers to exist, and no other set of entities could have taken their place, hence they are objective. 

Thus, if assume the existence of an objective morality OM', we are lead either into direct contradiction or a contradiction via infinite regress. In either case, we can conclude that Craig's second and last premise is also unfounded.

Despite what I wrote about Harris's moral philosophy above, I don't want to leave the reader with the impression that his moral system is just as bad as Craig's. In terms of my general argument against moral objectivity above, Craig's OM suffers by assuming response (2), and Harris's OM suffers by assuming (1). Harris's moral system (which he outlines in The Moral Landscape) is superior for the following reasons. As already stated, Harris's OM assumes response (1), which means that there is some decision process D that determines whether something is moral or not. For Harris's OM, this D is based on socially-evolved traits, namely mutual cooperation and empathy. Things are 'good' because they minimize suffering and maximize pleasure; they benefit the species as a whole. While this decision process doesn't yield objectively good values (and in fact it can't be as per my argument above), but at least it's not arbitrary, and is in some sense universal. Furthermore, Harris's OM gives us a perfectly reasonable way by which to know it: science, the best tool with which to know anything at all. 

Although Sam Harris can never conclude that his moral system is objective, there are plenty of arguments to be made for why his system is a good one in general (need it be objective to be useful?). My conjecture is that it's probably the best system of morality that's devisable, at least in terms of fairness. If you're interested in the full debate, it can be found here: 

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Buddhist Imagery In Film

Neo sees the Three Poisons for what they are.
There are a few noteworthy films which are not explicitly Buddhist, but which make excellent use of Buddhist symbolism. Certainly there are more than I can discuss in the brief span of a single blog post, so I will focus on three of my favorite examples: Groundhog Day, Fight Club, and The Matrix.

Starting with Groundhog Day, starring Bill Murray, we immediately see that even though the film has no obvious connections to Buddhism, its underlying premise is extremely relevant to Buddhism. The premise is this: a cynical and worldly man (Bill Murray) becomes trapped in a time-loop, wherein he is forced to relive the same day over, and over, and over again. Does it sound like it's related to Buddhism yet? Think samsara, and being trapped in an endless cycle of birth-death-rebirth.

While Murray's character is trapped in this hellish cycle, he quickly realizes that life is no longer consequential, and he begins to indulge in hedonistic pursuits--sex, food, breaking the law, etc. He becomes attached to sensual experience and more importantly to existing. Later in the film, Phil (Murray's character), realizes the emptiness in these pursuits, and becomes determined to end his life: he becomes attached to the idea of not existing. Ultimately, his various suicide attempts fail, and every death is followed by a reboot of the time-loop. In Buddhist terminology, his attachment to non-existence blocks his escape from samsara, and thus he is reborn a countless number of times. Finally, it isn't until Phil learns compassion and the wholesomeness of living for the sake of others that he is released from this nightmarish loop.

It's not surprising that Groundhog Day is often listed as a favorite among Buddhists for these reasons.

Next let's consider Fight Club. A cult classic starring Brad Pitt and Edward Norton. This film is difficult to describe to someone who hasn't seen it (five or more times). Simultaneously, it's an indictment of capitalism, materialism, consumerism, and everything that stems from those things, as well as an implicit celebration of Buddhist principles.

The film opens with the unnamed protagonist--played by Edward Norton--explaining how he is seeking to fulfill his life by buying just the right things (IKEA furniture mostly). As the movie progresses, (spoiler alert if you haven't seen the movie) the protagonist's alternate personality--played by Brad Pitt--slowly forces the former to let go of all of his attachments. In one particularly memorable scene, Pitt's character forces Norton's character to "just let go" of his false sense of control of life symbolically by literally letting go of his control of the car he is driving.

This point is congruent with the Buddhist teachings of no-self. Since there is no driver (self), there can be no control of the car (life). The mind has no option but to go with the flow.

In another scene, Pitt's character makes excellent use of meditation and mindfulness.

In this scene, Norton's character attempts to shut out pain inflicted by lye sprinkled on his hand by using meditation. Pitt's character points out that he is experiencing "pre-mature enlightenment" and is actually being counter-productive by shutting out the current moment. Instead, Pitt's character insists that the protagonist "stay with the pain." Furthermore, the famous quote "it's only after we've lost everything that we are free to do anything at all" exudes Buddhist sentiment. In other words, we're not free until we rid ourselves of delusion, greed, and hatred, and all the fetters that bind us to the material world.

In the final scene of the film, the protagonist is at war with his alter ego. To show that he has become enlightened (and that he no longer needs his alter ego), Norton's character shoots himself non-fatally in the cheek (through his mouth) after stating that "my eyes are open." My take on this scene is that by opening the wound in his cheek, the unnamed protagonist has symbolically opened his third eye, signifying that he is, in fact, enlightened. Additionally, what the protagonist realizes that causes his enlightenment is the middle way. He realizes that his previous lifestyle of material indulgence and Pitt's character's lifestyle of anarchic-asceticism are two extremes that must be avoided.

Finally, let's examine The Matrix. This action-packed classic from 1999 needs little introduction as it has been probed extensively in all of its philosophical orifices. While the movie shares many parallels with other philosophies and religions besides Buddhism such as Christianity, Plato's Allegory of the Cave, and your cookie-cutter typical Joseph Campbell/Jungian archetypes, let me direct you to my favorite scene of the film:

This scene starts with Neo's realization that he is the one. After this breakthrough, he finally sees the world for what it truly is: desolate of real phenomenon and instead composed of the artificial green rain (the cascading green text that he sees around 0:43). Moreover, with his new knowledge, Neo is able to finally thwart his three enemies and be truly liberated. This chain of events is roughly identical to those of Buddha's enlightenment. First the Buddha realized the true nature of reality: that everything is empty of its own intrinsic essence and that everything is interdependently originated. Armed with this knowledge, the Buddha defeats the Three Poisons (greed, delusion, and hatred) that in the Matrix are symbolized by the three Agents. After which, the Buddha is said to have entered a state of supreme tranquility known as nirvana. Neo's flight at the end of the film can be said to be symbolic of him reaching nirvana as it shows near absolute liberation (in his case from the rules of the Matrix).

Also observe how Neo breathes at about 1:52 into the clip. This, in my opinion, is a testament to the level of detail that the Wachowski brothers fill their movies with. The way Neo breathes in this scene is very reminiscent of a meditative state (as focusing on the breath is a common technique in meditation), and the way he opens his eyes suggests a remarkable epiphany as well as an extremely tranquil disposition. He has become an enlightened being.

I'm certain that there are other parts of the three films that I've mentioned here that can be mapped on to Buddhist teachings, but the parts that I did mention give a good enough representation of how Buddhist concepts translate beautifully into film. Next time you watch Groundhog Day, Fight Club, or The Matrix, I urge you to approach the film from a Buddhist angle and see what you can pick up.

Monday, February 11, 2013

Free Will and Buddhism

It's unfair to say that Buddhism believes in free will, simultaneously, it's also unfair to say that Buddhism does not. Since Buddhists deny the concept of an "agent", then it would seem that it stands to reason that Buddhists would also deny the concept of a "free agent". But, things are not so simple, and as usual, Buddhism opts to take the middle route on this issue. Which in this case is some distant cousin of western compatibilism.

Much like compatibilism, Buddhism acknowledges the existence of volition, which in the latter is seen as something that arises as part of the conscious stream of experience. And much like compatibilism, Buddhism acknowledges that just like every other entity in reality, volition is conditioned on a whole host of other entities. If we name the conditions that give rise to volition something like "antecedent causes", or "current circumstances plus the laws of nature", then we tread dangerously close to hard determinism. For what good is volition if you had no hand in choosing it freely? As Arthur Schopenhauer concisely stated, "Man can do what he wills but he cannot will what he wills".

At this point, I could argue semantics and say that compatibilism offers nothing new in the way of free will, except for a redefinition. Instead of arguing for free will's existence, compatibilism simply redefines "acting freely" from choosing an action out of a list of potentials without any coercion, to choosing an action based on a volition that was entirely coerced. Before I conclude this digression, let me illustrate this in a more poignant way. 

First consider how hard determinism views the world:

... -> p_(n-2) -> p_(n-1) -> p_n -> p_(n+1) -> p_(n+2) -> ...

In hard determinism, we are the nth state of the universe in a long chain of states (possibly infinite). Each state follows directly from its predecessor and the laws of physics. Thus every state is completely determined by its antecedents, and thus every future action of yours is already written in stone. You might be tempted to throw quantum mechanics into this discussion, but doing so would not actually amount to anything. Maybe the result would be that the chain branches and isn't linear, or that there are random events--in either case, there's still no personal control over these factors, so you're not granted any additional freedom.

Now consider what compatibilism offers:

 ... -> p_(n-2) -> p_(n-1) -> V -> p_n -> p_(n+1) -> p_(n+2) -> ...

V represents in this case our volition. Note that compatibilists do not claim that volition is in any way special, that it is somehow immune from the causal chain upon which it rests. Compatibilists fully acknowledge that the state of volition is just like any other state of the universe, it is completely determined. Moreover, compatibilists do not argue that volition transitions into present action in any special way either; they will admit that action proceeds from volition in a manner prescribed by the laws of physics. The only thing that differs is that compatibilists have given a name to the direct antecedent cause of an agent's action (volition), and that an agent can act on that cause (forced to act by that cause would be more accurate). What I mean by that last aside is that if you have the volition to do something, you're going to do it, you're determined to.

Bringing this back to Buddhism, as already stated above, the volition arises in consciousness, and is dependently originated. That much we can agree on, but precisely what this means for free will is left somewhat ambiguous, at least for those interpreting the meaning from within a Buddhist context. To me, it seems overwhelmingly a deterministic view at best (if free will is defined in more traditional terms like the one given above), and a compatibilist view at worst (but as I showed above, this is just a semantic game that degrades into determinism when scrutinized).

There are a few reasons why Buddhism might want to incorporate free will into its doctrines. For one, it allows karma to make sense. How can karma be retributive if no one is truly responsible for their actions? Moreover, how is one's afterlife determined if not by the consequences of their freely chosen actions? Since I don't believe in karma or reincarnation, I don't really feel compelled to make any arguments for them, but they aren't hard to think of. For example, there's no reason why karma has to be fair if it's a blind force of nature. Or perhaps it's more like human judicial systems, wherein punishments are meant to discourage bad behavior, and rewards to promote good ones, regardless of whether the behaviors are conditioned or not.

On the other hand, I feel that there are far more reasons why Buddhism should incorporate hard determinism into its doctrines instead. For one, it would promote far more compassion. By letting go of free will, it suddenly no longer makes sense to hate a person for any reason. The mindset of "don't hate the sinner, hate the sin" instantly makes sense. We can hate the act of murder, but love the murderer because we compassionately understand that their actions were determined by forces entirely out of their hands (note that this doesn't mean crimes should go unpunished, refer to where I wrote about the human judicial system). Even oddballs with socially unacceptable personalities are seen in a better light. I.e., Since you didn't pick your horrible personality, how can I hate you for it? 

No matter where or who we look at with our free-will-free-lenses on, we see compassion, acceptance, and understanding. Naively, some might take this to mean passiveness and misguided tolerance. But that certainly does not logically follow from what I've said so far. If in some part of society an anti-social behavior arises, we still have the tools to recognize and address it, regardless of the fact that both the initial behavior and our reaction to it is conditioned. Ill behaviors, can and still should be corrected.

As a conclusion, I'll leave you with a video of Sam Harris laying down an airtight argument for hard determinism, and making some of the same points about compassion as I have (though far more eloquently). 

Saturday, February 9, 2013

The Genesis and Consequences of Craving, Zen Preliminaries III

Impermanence is symbolized by the sand mandala.
The theme so far seems to be that nothing in the universe, without exception, has a fixed "essence" or self. All entities are conditioned, constantly in flux, arising one instant, and fading away in the next. And while you might agree that this realization is profound (or you might not), you might also be asking what, if any, are the practical implications of it.

As it happens, there is a salient and immediate consequence that follows directly from the "theorems" proved in Zen Preliminaries I, and Zen Preliminaries II. The corollary states that suffering arises directly as a result of craving and attachment, because ultimately these behaviors are irrational and will always lead to an undesirable state of being.

The truth of the claim can be derived from observing that pleasure is not immune to impermanence. Pleasurable sensory experience is just another kind of entity within the universe, and just like everything else, it is empty and it arises dependently on a web of interconnected conditions. Thus clinging to sensory experience, or experience of any sort for that matter, is tantamount to clinging to something that is perpetually in motion: It ensures that our future selves experience dissatisfaction by building our happiness on a foundation of quicksand. Put another way, attempting to hold on to sensory experience is similar to trying to hold on to the flow of a river; no matter how intense our effort, the water will always slip through our hands unobstructed in much the same way that experiences slip through our minds. We destine ourselves for failure and disappointment by fixating on a task that is impossible and Sisyphean.

It's worthwhile to note that the "self" discussed in Zen Preliminaries I is just like the river of experience mentioned here (some including myself would argue that they are identical). Just like the river, the self is constantly in flux, never the same at any two distinct points in time, and its path is entirely determined by the landscape through which it runs. Most importantly, much like the river, the self will also slip right through our hands if we attempt to hold on to it. Consequently, attempting to cling to the self will result in the same kind of suffering as attempting to cling to other types of empty phenomenon like sensory experience.

Clinging to the self also gives rise to the fallacy of "mine" and "yours". This divides resources and compassion unnecessarily, and creates potential for future suffering. Moreover, this fallacy also generates the belief that there is an "I" to experience various kinds of material pleasures. This obfuscates the truth that these experiences simply arise within and as part of the conscious stream, and not as separate entities to be experienced by some observer "behind" the stream. This latter fallacy is perhaps the progeny of all lower forms of desire, as it justifies the craving of pleasant experiences and material comfort.

In traditional Buddhism, this type of craving is believed to be the primary impetus for the cycle of birth, death, and rebirth. Because the false ego craves existence--the argument goes--it literally cannot let go of the world, and thus forces itself back into reality after death. Of course, we need not believe in anything supernatural to see the benefits in letting go of our cravings for experience. We need only perform a cursory glance inwards, and see that all instances of suffering arose either from being separated from object(s) of desire, or being in proximity with object(s) of anathema. In either case, the most immediate agent of suffering was craving; whether it was craving for a more pleasurable experience, or craving to avoid a less desirable one.

While Buddhism may posit unwarranted assumptions about the nature of reality (such as reincarnation), at least it also provides us with rich imagery to visualize some of its more nuanced concepts. Buddha's well known Fire Sermon analogized attachment to fuel and clinging to fire. By letting go of our attachment, the Buddha argued, we can extinguish the fires that torment us throughout existence. Note that the term "nirvana" literally means to "blow out" or "extinguish", a subtle but revealing point to keep in mind when studying Buddhism.

As an aside, what, in my opinion, is beautiful of and unique to Buddhism, is that it applies this idea of deep non-attachment even to itself. In Buddhism, we are meant to view all beliefs and practices (collectively called the Dharma) as a raft whose only purpose is to see us safely across a turbulent sea to a tranquil shore, and as something that should be let go off once the destination is reached. Put more bluntly, Buddhism is to be viewed as a tool to achieve peace and happiness, and not something to be consumed by, as this would be counterproductive to its goal. Buddhism is a self-constraining religion by its very nature: the only way to be extreme is to not be extreme at all.

Pragmatism aside, I hope that I've shown enough cause for any reasonable person to see craving and attachment as irrational and futile and as things that should be eliminated, at least on a purely intellectual level. Realizing the true implications of the empty nature of experience and clinging on an emotional level takes much more time and commitment, and requires practice to fully cement.

Monday, February 4, 2013

In Defense of the Poor Live Performer

Let's say you have a band that you absolutely adore listening to. You love listening to the studio version of just about anything they put out. More importantly, by some chance you've never heard them live (fairly common in today's world of digital distribution)--until now. Somehow, this band that you love, for the lack of a better word, sucks when it comes to live performance. Maybe their voices are a bit shaky, or off key--whatever it is, it sounds nothing like their studio recordings. What's the right response here? Ditch the band and find one that can perform live well?

In short, it depends. Obviously, I'm not going to tell you what art you should and should not consume, all I can try to do is convince you that for an artist a good live performance should not be the litmus test for excellency. Instead, we should look at the relationship between you and the artist's music, and the relationship between the artist and his own music.

Starting with the former, we should ask ourselves: is it the physical act of performing music that enchants us, or the music being performed itself? My conjecture is that it's more likely to be the music being performed itself. Think of a player piano for a moment--one of those old upright pianos that can play music without a human player. Even though it will flawlessly play Beethoven or any other piece of sheet music fed into it, no one would ever call a player piano an artist. The reason for this is because the piano had no part in the actual creation of that music; it simply reads and plays perforated sheets of music using a clever internal mechanism (as an interesting aside: these perforated music sheets are likely the first examples of structured programming languages). In other words, it's not the technical rendition of a piece of art that makes it beautiful, but the original thought that conceived it to begin with. At best, all an artist can hope to accomplish in their career is to transmit some small part of the awe that he feels in his brain to your brain. And if the artist accomplishes this with a studio version, then mission accomplished, and any live performance thereafter is superfluous.

Please note, however, that I'm not denying that there is artistry involved in playing a musical instrument (including the human voice); there absolutely is. And appreciating musical talent and artistry in that respect is a wholly separate topic that I'm not at present discussing. What I am arguing is that we (your average music consumer) don't listen to Jimi Hendrix for his mastery of the guitar, we listen to Jimi Hendrix for the string of sounds that his mind was capable of producing (though his mastery of the guitar certainly aided in this step, but that's neither here nor there). If a machine played a Hendrix song without error, and sounded identical to his version, we wouldn't truly care which version we listened to. It's the original thought and emotion that created the music and the emotions and thoughts that the music creates within us that we appreciate.

To reiterate the point one more time, let's look at one example of art from a different medium. Consider Salvador Dali's The Persistence of Memory:

While Dali's technical skill is impressive and should be appreciated on it's own merit, the painting per se should be appreciated for an entirely different set of reasons. As some examples: the painting's representation of a salient aspect of the human condition (the passage of time and our mortality), and the way in which Dali uses aesthetics to project that representation (surrealism).

Would you appreciate the painting any less if Dali were incapable of replicating it exactly, or even remotely close? Probably not. What matters is that Dali had this beautiful thought in his head, and by chance had the skill necessary to put it to paper. Even if Dali were a terrible painter, but had a vivid enough imagination to picture this image in his mind's eye, and the communication skills necessary to dictate what he sees to an artist capable of rendering it, then the painting would still be impressive with respect to Dali. Of course if Dali's dictation in this hypothetical scenario of what he sees in his mind was less than perfect, and left some ambiguity for the other artist to interpret, than the other artist would certainly share the credit for his contribution. Otherwise, it would be no different than creating a picture on a computer and printing it out without attributing any artistry to the printer itself.

Moving back to music now, based on this principal, it's also important that we consider the artist's relation to his own music. If, for example, the artist had little or no hand in the creation of his music, then for all intents and purposes he's worse than the player piano. At least the player piano can perform at a live concert and sound good. For this reason, pop "artists" who neither write their own music, nor perform it well, should at least be considered lesser artists with respect to those who do either of those things. And those pop artists who neither write nor perform but generate volumes of income for corporate labels... well that's an entirely different circle of hell, I mean future blog post idea.

What it boils down to is this: Did the artist have a beautiful, awe-inspired, or awe-inspiring thought? Did he deliver some morsel of that thought to your mind? Did that morsel, upon delivery, resonate within you and cause some sort of emotional response? If the answer is yes to all of these, then the artist succeeded where most fail miserably, and should be commended thoroughly. What makes art "art" is not how well you can replicate it, but the emotional impetus (whether it's some social critique, a personal experience, something entirely abstract, or anything in between) and its aesthetic encapsulation that makes it "art".

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Generalizing to Emptiness, Zen Preliminaries II

Indra's Net symbolizes the interconnectedness of all things.
Now that we've let go of the idea of the "self", we are one delusion down, but many more to go. Fortunately, we can kill a few more (quite a few more) delusions by taking the previous discussion about the self and generalizing it to everything in the universe. This is less daunting than it sounds, as the leap from one to the other is rather natural, and is the next logical step. In Buddhism, this generalization is called emptiness, or śūnyatā (Sanskrit). The idea of emptiness is complimentary to the idea of no-self. Where no-self declares that the internal self is an illusion, emptiness declares that all external events and all external "objects" in the universe are, in some sense, illusory. This does not mean, as many western novitiates of Buddhism are tempted to believe, that objects in the universe do not exist, or are some kind of Matrix-like or Allegory-of-the-Cave-like constructs.

Before I explain any further, allow me to ask one question. If the state of the universe remains exactly the same from point t to t+1, did any time elapse in that interval? It at least seems that by any conceivable definition of time, the answer is no. This question and the various answers proposed to it over time (no pun intended), is quite involved, and I wont pursue it any further here. Let it suffice that by most useful definitions of time, the universe must be different than its immediate temporal predecessor. Hopefully, by now the connection between the universe as a whole and the mind is clear: If there is no self because the self is in a constant state of change, then there is no universe because the universe is in a constant state of change.

Obviously, I can point to the universe and say "there it is." But I can do that with "you" or "me", and we already know why that's fallacious. Because when I say "you" or "me", I'm using a convenient linguistic construct, I don't actually mean that there is some "you" that persists over time. In exactly the same sense, I can point to the universe, and call it "the universe", but that doesn't imply that there exists a fixed universe that persists in time. The universe I point to at time t, will be a different universe from the one I point to at time t+1. In a real sense, we only occupy the same world once.

Applying this logic further, we see that it applies not only to the universe itself, but to everything in it, from top to bottom. Since nothing is permanent, it stands to reason that nothing exists in a fixed form--everything is empty of intrinsic essence.

Moreover, everything that exists within the universe exists because certain conditions within the universe allow it to exist. Take your own existence as an example. You only exist because by mere chance your parents came together and produced you. (On a side note, this is more impressive than it seems at first glance. Imagine how unlikely your birth really was. Not only did your parents have to come together, but so did the parents of your parents,  and the parents of your parents' parents, and the parents of your parents' parents' parents, etc. Additionally, for you to be the result of your parents' union, one very specific zygote [one of billions] had to be produced from each parent [this is true for the zygotes of each of your ancestors too, so the chances of your existence drops exponentially with each ancestor that had to come together to make you]. On an even larger scale, the history of our species had to play out in a certain way, as did the evolution of life in general, and even the way in which our solar system and the universe itself formed had to be conducive to your existence.) Your origin, is dependent on the conditions of the universe that preceded it. In Buddhism, this concept is called dependent origination. This concept shows that in a real sense, everything is dependent on everything else.

The implications of this revelation may not be immediately obvious, but they tend toward compassion, and empathy, and I will demonstrate this in a future article. For now, it's enough to understand that nothing in the universe is fixed, and everything in the universe depends on something else if not everything else. 

Saturday, January 26, 2013

Know Self, No-Self: Some Quick Zen Preliminaries.

I wanted my first real post to be an essay on the rationality and irrationality of self-improvement within the context of Zen Buddhism. But after starting and restarting that essay several times from different angles, I realized that I'm building the essay from concepts that are too nuanced and too complicated to mention only in passing as a means to a different end. These complex ideas need to be ends in themselves, and are certainly worthy of their own discussion.

Before I continue, I need to make one disclaimer. I don't consider myself a Buddhist, I don't believe in karma or reincarnation in any literal sense, but I do believe there are many valid teachings that can be absorbed from the religion. I welcome any and all corrections or discussions to be had about my interpretations of Buddhist concepts, but keep in mind that these are my interpretations of the concepts and how I incorporate them into my life.

Take first the Buddhist concept of anattā, or "no-self". The notion is often referred to as the "illusion of the self", and as a result can sound a bit strange to many of us, particularly those with firm western mindsets. To alleviate some of you who are going through an existential crisis at the mere suggestion of "no-self", be assured that neither Buddhists nor I deny that your conscious experience is real, nor do we deny that your experience of consciousness is continuous (more on what this means later). Instead, the claim that we do make is that the consciousness that perceived the events of yesterday is not the same consciousness that perceives the events of today. This idea draws heavily on the Buddhist concept of impermanence, but can also be derived from western philosophy as well as the physical sciences.

This can be more readily fleshed out by pondering on the western philosophical thought experiment known as The Ship of Theseus. The experiment is based on the myth of Theseus (the details of which are unimportant), and goes something like this: While Theseus and his companions are adventuring on the Aegean, his ship becomes damaged little by little over time, and the damaged pieces are replaced with newer parts. Over the course of his adventure, however, the ship accrues so much damage that every part is eventually replaced, and some more than once. The question then materializes: Is the ship that Theseus originally sailed out on the same ship that he sailed home with? If so, by what merit is it the same ship if every piece of the original is no longer there? If it's not the same ship, then at what point did it stop being the same ship? When the last part of the original was replaced? When half of the original was replaced? When a single part of the original was replaced? When a single molecule of the original was replaced? The very concept of permanence and identity seem to go out the window.

The unsettling part of this thought experiment is apparent when it's applied to the very structure running the experiment: our minds and the physical brains that support them. While the exact figures are up to debate, the scientific consensus seems to be that every cell in our bodies--including seemingly "fixed" ones such as the ones in your teeth, bones, and even nervous system--are replaced with new ones every few years at the most (time varies based on who you ask). For more on the science of this, see Aebersold's seminal 1953 paper on the topic, or any recent paper on the insights into neuroplasticity. 

The implication of this is that our physical bodies, including the brain which is the seat of the self, is exactly like Theseus's ship: constantly in flux, and in time completely replaced. So then, in what sense could your brain today be the same brain that you had last Tuesday, or when you were five? You might be tempted to argue that the physical structure of the brain is irrelevant, and that what matters is the software running on it. Analogously, we don't care about the nuts and bolts of our computers, you might say, so long as the information on them stays the same. We can swap out the RAM, the motherboard, the CPU, and even the hard-drives so long as the contents are transferred over to the new one. What matters is the information. The vacation photos, the work papers, etc. Similarly, what matters for our identity is our personality and our memories. These two things form the continuity of our consciousness: "I feel like the same person from last Tuesday, because I have all the memories and the personality of the person from last Tuesday." Perhaps it's this continuity of mind that I can call "I". 

There are two main flaws with this line of thinking. First, the software that runs on your brain--your mind--is not fixed or unchanging. Much like the cells in your brain, the different structures of your mind are continuously in flux. Your sensory perception is almost never the same at any two arbitrary instants, your stream of thoughts never revisit the same exact thought pattern, your personality constantly undergoes changes however small, your memories fade and reemerge unexpectedly, and who knows what's going on with your subconscious mind? It's safe to conclude that your mind is, in a real sense, different from one instant in time to the next. 

But does this mean that it's impossible to define "self" in a logical and meaningful way? What if we define "self" not as the concatenation of the individual snippets of consciousness that vary from moment to moment, but rather as the higher awareness that can unify those snippets and point to different states and say "that was me last Tuesday, and this is me right now." This definition is a necessary concession since the "self" can't be any one of those individual states, because each of them varies from one moment to the next. From a Zen Buddhist perspective, this definition changes literally nothing. This notion of a higher awareness that can differentiate between your past, present, and future states, is simply a single instance of your mind arising in the present, and in no way binds your previous experiences into a single cohesive "I", nor does it persist in time. It is no more "you" then the you of last Tuesday, or the you of when you were five.

Moreover, this higher awareness is not immune from impermanence either. For example, your current higher awareness might be able to glue together your current state to perhaps your ten year old self, if you're lucky enough to have a memory that works well enough. So then you can conclude that your ten year old counterpart shares an identity with your present self. Further, when you were ten, you were likely capable of remembering your mind states from earlier ages. So say when you were ten, you could have pointed to your five year old self and made the same conclusion that the present you just made about your ten year old self, and so on. Here's where the tricky bit comes in. We've already concluded that present you = ten year old you, and that ten year old you = five year old you. But, chances are you currently have little to no access to the mental states of the person that you believe you were when you were five, so current you != five year old you. In other words, your current self can claim to be the same person as you were when you were ten but not the same person as you were when you were five. Allow me to abstract this for clarity. What this line of reasoning suggests is that A can be the same as B, B can be the same as C, but A and C need not be the same! To cling to a notion of self, one must sacrifice transitivity of identity (mathematicians all over the world will cringe).

Instead of thinking of the mental machinery which processes your thoughts, awareness, and perception as "you", think of them as tools and organs at your disposal--like your hands and liver--to be used for personal growth and development. And much like your hands and liver, this mental machinery does not define "you" any more than do your hands and your liver.

To be perfectly clear, I understand that some people might indeed have intimate knowledge of their five year old selves. But certainly there are states of mind which you had that you no longer have access to, but that you did have access to at one point in time (not including the moment you were actually experiencing them). Furthermore, for those anxious to bring up a soul-related objection, all of the arguments above are just as applicable to the "soul" as they are to the mind. Simply interchange the words, and the arguments remain just as sound.

So where is there left to run? Where must we look to find identity? Well you wont find me answering these questions. I firmly believe that attempting to reason a "self" into existence when there isn't one is detrimental to spiritual progress because it's simply another form of clinging and attachment--attachment to the self. The illusion of self is so deeply ingrained in us as a species, that language itself makes it nearly impossible to point out the reality of the illusion, hence my inconsistent use of the words "self" and "I" throughout this writing. So instead of rationalizing a self into being, I'll attempt to redirect the language around it so that having and digesting this discussion is a bit easier. When we say "self" we need not refer to a fixed entity that persists through time. We can establish a new convention wherein "self" refers simply to the substrate of the conscious mind, and the flow of sensory experience through it. Like a canvas and an image formed out of paint strokes, respectively. Neither of these things need to be permanent, and in fact neither are. This is not a way of circumventing everything I said above, there is still no "self", this is merely a workable English definition that is congruent to intuition but free from the impediments and illusions that the old notion suffered from. I can now say "you" or "I" in an English sentence without contradiction, and you will know precisely what I mean.

By letting go of the old self, and embracing the reality of anattā, you open yourself to compassion, and liberate yourself from all sorts of delusions and misery. The exact nature of this liberation I will leave open-ended for now, because almost every future topic will require it as a prerequisite, and its utility will become apparent with every new post. What's important for now is that we can conclude that the idea of a fixed unchanging person that persists over time is an illusion. Armed with this realization, we can now move forward to higher more complicated ideas and discussions.