Awareness (A Poem for Michael Graziano)

Still pond of attention.

Frog represents it,

announces it,

jumps in.

Reverberations.

Strange loops.

From the deep dive,

frog breath rises,

bubbles to the

surface. Pops.

Poet represents it,

announces it,

jumps in. 

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Uncertainty v. Certainty (or Bayes’ Rule v. the Bible)

What’s the major premise I live my life from? I’m not outside the system I’m trying to explain, I’m inside it; I’m an evolved primate in a vast and ancient cosmos. That’s my existential situation. I can’t get a God’s eye view on things–I can and do readily mistake ropes for snakes all the time–so I can only work with probabilities (with grayscale judgments; with inductions from evidence) and maintain an open mind to incoming data (keep Galileo’s telescope up and pointing). “For now I see through a glass darkly.”

So when fundamentalist Bible believers speak of “waking up” to things they regard as certain (God’s existence deduced from metaphysics; the resurrection; young Earth creationism, etc.), I am in awe of their confidence, which, given their limited vantage on the world, is unwarranted, and therefore hubris, folly, emptiness, and vanity (Ecclesiastes and Socrates).

But I understand why they make these confidence moves: they’re grounded in anxiety (their fear of damnation) and narcissism (their desire to live forever). Religion’s chief stick (hell) and carrot (heaven) have arrested their attention psychologically, and they’ve become hostage to The Stockholm Syndrome (in this case, threat and love coming from the same source: the Bible). So the tension between myself and fundamentalists is Bayes v. the Bible. I wish I was as certain of anything as they are of everything.

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Michael Graziano: Awareness Is “A Schematic Description Of Attention”

Michael Graziano teaches neuroscience at Princeton, and his theory of consciousness sounds plausible to me. No woo, with a sound explanation for how and why evolution would have brought it into existence in the first place (as a schematic modeling device for managing computational information and communicating it across social settings).

A taste from his article for aeon.com:

[T]o control its own state of attention, the brain needs a constantly updated simulation or model of that state. Like the general’s toy armies, the model will be schematic and short on detail. The brain will attribute a property to itself and that property will be a simplified proxy for attention. It won’t be precisely accurate, but it will convey useful information. What exactly is that property? When it is paying attention to thing X, we know that the brain usually attributes an experience of X to itself — the property of being conscious, or aware, of something. Why? Because that attribution helps to keep track of the ever-changing focus of attention. I call this the ‘attention schema theory’. It has a very simple idea at its heart: that consciousness is a schematic model of one’s state of attention. [...]

If I am looking at a blue sky, my brain doesn’t merely register blue as if I were a wavelength detector from Radio Shack. I am aware of the blue. Did my neurons create that feeling? [...]

Consciousness isn’t a non-physical feeling that emerges. Instead, dedicated systems in the brain compute information. Cognitive machinery can access that information, formulate it as speech, and then report it. When a brain reports that it is conscious, it is reporting specific information computed within it. It can, after all, only report the information available to it. In short, Arrow A and Arrow B remain squarely in the domain of signal-processing. There is no need for anything to be transmuted into ghost material, thought about, and then transmuted back to the world of cause and effect. [...]

When you look at the colour blue, for example, your brain doesn’t generate a subjective experience of blue. Instead, it acts as a computational device. It computes a description, then attributes an experience of blue to itself. The process is all descriptions and conclusions and computations. Subjective experience, in the theory, is something like a myth that the brain tells itself. The brain insists that it has subjective experience because, when it accesses its inner data, it finds that information.

 

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A Very Zennie Ad Slogan: “You’re Here. The Hard Part is Over.”

Saw an ad slogan this morning that said, “You’re here. The hard part is over,” and thought, “Wow, that strikes me as very Zen!” What I was thinking of is what zennies (Zen hippies) call “spontaneous Buddha mind.” The groovy qualia of directly experiencing, say, red paint on a wooden fence, is effortless; it just happens. And shifting again your attention, perhaps you next notice a sunflower overhanging that fence. Again, effortless; it just happens. One experience of qualia follows another. Spontaneous Buddha mind.

What you don’t see is the unstable, dynamic, mutually interdependent time and space that went into having that experience in the first place: the neurons sending chemical and electrical signals across your brain; the blood cells supporting your neurons; the dancing atoms supporting your blood cells; the energy from the sun that went into making the tree that became a fence; the dying star, long ago and trillions of miles away, that exploded and expelled the carbon that makes life possible on Earth; the billions of years of evolution that led to a sunflower and you at this moment, together; your act of awareness collapsing (or splitting into two universes?!) the quantum wave function. “You’re here. The hard part is over.” Are you missing it? What are you seeing in this moment? Carpe diem. Momento mori. Carpe momento. Be here now. Spontaneous Buddha mind.

Here’s William Carlos Williams:

so much depends
upon
a red wheel
barrow

glazed with rain
water

beside the white
chickens.

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What I Believe

I’m an agnostic. No superstitions. No spooks. I think there’s one world. No evidence for minds apart from brains. The form of theism that seems vaguely plausible to me is simple deism. I think it’s logically possible that there is a ground of being that ends all regressions (a Being at the beginning of beings).

I have no idea whether this “Thing” is conscious or lacking in consciousness, but if it exists it somehow grounds the possibility for physical law, time, space, mind, and energy-matter. It breathes fire into the equations. I simply don’t know what to call it; I don’t know that it even exists.

Perhaps I should get a puja table and light a candle to this unknown God, for the cosmos is beautiful on many levels, but empirically that’s as far as I can get with religion. I call myself an agnostic for this reason. I don’t know if the Hindus are right, contemplating their way to the One (Atman), or the atheist Buddhists are right, contemplating their way to the Zero (Anatman, no-self). It’s math at the end: a one (being) or a zero (emptiness).

All information, curiously, is ones and zeroes. Not even the cosmos, it seems, can make up its mind about God. The poet Wallace Stevens calls God “the palm at the end of the mind.” I’m not smart enough to know what the end at the end of the end is, but I can give it a name as a place marker, so I’ll call God the “Metazeroone.” It whispers a singular taunt to me, the only thing it tells me about itself: “Anything you can do, I can do meta.” (That, by the way, is Daniel Dennett’s boast to his fellow philosophers.)

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The Stockholm Syndrome and Religion

The Stockholm Syndrome is where love and threat are coming from the same source; it’s a form of hostage taking, and it’s what religions do emotionally with people when they make God the source of love and acceptance if you conform, and exclusion and eternal torture if you don’t (heaven or hell, turn or burn). It’s a source of extraordinary emotional pain in our culture, religious Stockholm Syndrome. It plagues the psyche, often for decades. And it’s everywhere, and almost never gets discussed. It’s near to taboo to discuss it. Discuss it.

Think of the victims. The walking wounded are everywhere. (Maybe this is part of our culture’s fascination with zombies; with being hijacked inwardly.) The religious zombie is someone abused by religion, frightened into conformity with the stick of hell and the carrot of love coming from the same group of friends and relatives, stunting the vulnerable person’s interaction with the world. Religious Stockholm Syndrome causes a person to be in the world, but not really. The world becomes spiritually dangerous. It’s there for you, but also not. And you’re there for the world, but also not. The zombies are in and out. “We are in the world, but not of it.” That’s the voice of a zombie.

And then you bite others, infecting them. You’ve been terrorized and tormented–and still are–but you’ve come to accept the abuse, internalizing the love-threat formula, and now you’re terrorizing and tormenting others with it. (“You’ll be part of a community that will love you forever and will do anything for you, and God will be your loving Father, if you believe, but if you don’t believe, well, I pity your fate, and I’ll be praying for you.”) That’s the bite.

The love-hell formula is abuse all around. It’s wrong, ugly, hateful. It’s a way of controlling people. It disrespects the dignity and autonomy of individuals. If God exists, God is not like that–and if God is like that, then God is wrong. You shouldn’t believe in God, in my view, if this is what it means; if you turn God into Hitler; a devil; if you let a religious community make of you a hostage.

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Two Pens Are Better Than One: Why I Write

For me, I get writing energy from other people, responding to what they have to say (or to questions they might pose). If they respond again in turn, I hope to be surprised by the angle they take in the counter “chess move.”

I write, therefore, to dialogue. When I read a book, I find myself (for example) writing notes in the margins–essentially arguing with the author. I then might flesh out my reflections more fully in a blog post, which a stranger from some other part of the world might respond to. I then respond to that. “They say, I say.” It becomes my next writing project for that day.

So the first product of my writing is not the end, only the beginning. “Words are birds,” Ram Das used to say (perhaps he still does), and in the Gospel of John it says, “The wind blows where it will, and you hear the sound of it, but you don’t know where it’s going” (3:8).

That’s the pleasure I get from writing; the constructing of sentences and ideas, seeing what others think in response, seeing what I think of that, etc. The genre might change–it could be a short story, a poem, an article, an opinion shared–but the word construction and interactions with other people are the same; that’s what pleases. It’s writing as surprise; as collective jazz.

So my writing for me is like a pick-up game in basketball. I might start shooting at the park all by my lonesome, but I hope others will join me. That’s when it gets interesting.

Claustrophobic garret writing or writing as performance (where people politely smile or applaud, but don’t actually comment directly, honestly, specifically), are not especially interesting to me. In writing, I’m hoping at minimum for dialogue with myself or an author–and best of all, dialogue with living others, for mutual growth. Two pens are better than one.

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Will Hillary Run on a $12.50 Minimum Wage?

I favor a $12.50 national minimum wage, and would like to see Hillary Clinton make it a platform position in 2016. Why? Because globalization has put enormous downward pressure on American wages over the past 20 years. This means that those white collar and business-owning Americans with professional and higher education skills–and who make, say, $80,000 a year or more–need to think about what sort of society they want to live in going forward. The fate of the majority of Americans, however intensely and dutifully they work in the 21st century, is to be stuck in service oriented jobs with low or stagnating wages (even as those with high-end skills see their incomes rise substantially).

Under these circumstances, what’s the minimum floor for wages going to be for average people in this country? I don’t think $12.50 an hour ($500 dollars a week for 40 hours of work) and access to Obamacare subsidies are unreasonable propositions. And I’d make the $12.50 an hour inflation adjusted. A lot of Americans are going to be doing low-end service work their whole lives, and it maintains social order to make it possible for a 40 hour per week service worker to have an apartment, food, and health care. $12.50 an hour means that the poorest full-time workers in the country would have some degree of dignity and stability even as the rich and highly educated get much, much richer over the next several decades. We don’t want the country to bifurcate so dramatically in terms of income that the fates of the top 20% and the bottom 80% have little real contact with one another. It’s bad for society as a whole to disrespect the working poor. Nobody wants to reward freeloading, but the working poor are not freeloaders. They are, instead, people caught in the vortex of some very large historical forces.

And recall that most people (by definition) are average in intelligence, creativity, and energy-level. (Statistically, for example, only 1 person in 400 has an IQ above 140.) This means that there are only so many individuals in a culture who can rely solely on their creativity, intelligence, entrepreneurship, and motivation to outdistance the larger economic forces exerting downward pressure on them (in this historical moment, that would be globalization and technological innovations that are rendering the future of whole employment sectors in the U.S. insecure). Globalization is a good thing, technological innovation is a good thing–but this also means a $12.50 minimum wage with Obamacare is a good thing. In a dynamic time like this, they all go together. Hillary would inspire my active support if she would run on issues like this.

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A Prophetic Film from 1940

It’s title: To New Horizons. The logic is sunny and simple, but it has proven (thus far) to be pretty much dead on.

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Bayes Rule, Julia Galef, and TAM 2014

I went to TAM 2014 in Las Vegas over the weekend and saw Julia Galef of the Center for Applied Rationality on a panel with philosopher Daniel Dennett. I’d never heard of Galef before this weekend, but she has a luminous intelligence, and more than held her own in discussion with older critical thinking colleagues. Anyway, below is one of her videos at YouTube, and I assume her panel appearance with Dennett at TAM will also be on YouTube at some point.

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God and Evolution?

As an agnostic, I never have any problem with somebody who says, “13.7 billion year-old cosmos and evolution, yes, obviously, but not, ‘It all happened via the combination of chance and natural selection.’ Something more is up, and I think that’s God (some sort of Ground of Being or Mind underlying the cosmos).” This, to me, is a plausible hypothesis that respects what science has discovered over the past 200 years. I’m not quite prepared (myself) to endorse it, but I understand it.

My own view is that the sheer vastness of the cosmos, combined with the multiverse hypothesis, may account for the long odds on evolution on our particular planet, and so I’m open-minded to outright atheism as well, but I don’t know. What I find depressing is when someone says, “Noah’s ark and 10,000 years. I read the Bible literally. It says it, I’m done. Scientists have conspired to cover-up the evidence for this because they hate God.” When a person says this, it makes me despair of human rationality because it has no more merit than believing the Earth is flat or that the Holocaust didn’t happen.

But here’s the kicker: probably more than two billion people on Earth (the vast majority of Muslims and perhaps half of Christians) affirm young Earth creationism outright–or at least entertain it seriously. The mentality behind this is akin to that of the theologians who wouldn’t look into Galileo’s telescope.

And yet here we are. It’s the 21st century and there are something like two billion YEC believers in the world–150 million in the United States alone. That’s a lot of people. Think about it.

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Christopher Hitchens Recites From Memory Wilfred Owen’s Great Anti-War Poem, “Dulce et Decorum est”

The great Hitch reciting Owens.

__________

And here’s the text of the poem from 1917 or 1918:

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of tired, outstripped Five-Nines that dropped behind.

Gas! Gas! Quick, boys!–An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime…
Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.

In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,–
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.

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Shark Cracks Glass

Yikes.

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Un-Fricken-Believable

Seriously.

__________

Okay, I have to comment. First, before you can even get this sort of logic going, Adam and Eve would need to have actually existed in a garden in Mesopotamia 10,000 years ago. They never did. Second, you’ve got to be cool with genocide (the story of Noah’s ark). That’s a nonstarter. Next, you’ve got to believe that virgins can give birth and God is a self-punishing sadomasochist.

It’s all just too much.

The question then becomes: Why can’t we let it go? What is the story protecting us from?

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Sea Ice Going, Going …

Just 18 years. It’s hard not to look at these two images together (via National Geographic) and not be stunned:

Screen shot 2014-06-24 at 6.32.13 AM

2012:

Screen shot 2014-06-24 at 6.32.42 AM

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Jesus and Ayn Rand

What sort of conservatism blends Jesus with Ayn Rand? Oh, that would be contemporary Tea Party conservatism.

But why isn’t it more widely noticed that “Christian libertarian” is an oxymoron? I would argue that this has to do with the human mind’s capacity for compartmentalization and cognitive dissonance, for Jesus and Rand simply do not go together coherently. Buckley, before he died, was less illusioned: he saw that his Catholicism and Randianism are not a match. Rand herself recognized this as well. She was an atheist.

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Breeding for Intelligence? A Google Employee Asks the Question to Researcher Stephen Hsu of the Beijing Genomics Institute

In the below Google Tech Talk, Stephen Hsu talks to Google employees about the search for the genes behind intelligence (and seeks to recruit them into an ongoing study being conducted at the Beijing Genomics Institute).

I shit you not.

The whole talk is vitally important to listen to, both for the cultural Zeitgeist it reveals–when did such a topic become capable, among the meritocracy, of so open and casual a discussion?–and for getting up to speed on the genetic basis for intelligence (about 80% heritable, apparently).

The talk is informative–but in its low-key and matter-of-fact style of presentation, it also struck me as oddly chilling. Are we hearing, in this talk, the 21st century beginnings of a divergence, in future generations of humans, of naturals from the genetically enhanced?

If you don’t have time for the whole talk, I’ve cued the below video to a specific question in the Q&A in which an audience member asks (politely, if indirectly), not the elephant-in-the-room question (race and intelligence), but that other elephant-in-the-room question: breeding for intelligence. How, in other words, might such research into the genetic basis of intelligence be used in the future? Hsu doesn’t dodge the question. He says broad genetic fetal testing, apparently with the option of abortion, is already available in China for other genetic traits, and I take from Hsu’s response that intelligence could soon be among them–why not? (And, of course, fetal selection happens on a more limited basis in the United States as well whenever an older pregnant woman undergoes amniocentesis, learns of a severe genetic abnormality, and opts for abortion.)

Hsu doesn’t think the artificial selection train for intelligence, once the associated genes are reliably identified, will be called back to the station. The rich will go first, of course, using the technology to enhance their offspring, and presumably not just in their intelligence. We’ll see health, attractiveness, and temperamental traits selected for as well. Again, why not?

And Hsu likens the ethical issues for geneticists working on finding trait genes to the ethical issues faced by physicists at Los Alamos in the 1940s (those racing to make the first atomic bomb). 21st century researchers, in other words, are in the process of making a genetic bomb–acquiring the knowledge, not for splitting the atom, but for systematically identifying and splitting test tube fertilized eggs and already existing fetuses from one another by identifying their genetic markers (markers that empirically and reliably yield a statistical range of definite traits on reaching adulthood). The test tube fertilized eggs and fetal sheep will go to the right, to life; the test tube fertilized eggs and fetal goats to the left, to death. The determination will be made, presumably, by parents in some countries, by governments in others. Think restaurant menu. Think Huxley’s Brave New World.

How can researchers know today how this new power of division that they’re in the process of uncovering will be put to use fifty years from now? They don’t, exactly. But, like the Los Alamos physicists before them, they press on.

Listen to Hsu’s response to the (indirectly asked) eugenics question. I’d be curious as to your thoughts about this.

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An Awesome, Awesome Documentary on the Women’s Movement

I recently watched the first two hours of a three hour documentary on the American women’s movement (I found it at a local library, then bought it at Amazon to have my own copy). It’s titled, Makers: Women Who Make America (2013), and it’s really, really good–the kind of documentary you want to give as a present to a daughter (and just as important, to a son). It’s life affirming, thought provoking, and heart opening. Great stuff.

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God Exists And Evil Is Always For The Best?

Sounding like Dr. Pangloss in Voltaire’s Candide, the Thomist philosopher Edward Feser recently made the following statement at his blog:

[I]t is not just God’s existence but also divine providence which can be known via purely philosophical arguments.  Hence, even apart from special divine revelation, we can know that God allows evil in the world only insofar as he draws greater good out of it.

In other words, one can arrive by reasoning a priori–just sitting on one’s couch, absent evidence–at two things: God exists and what happens in this world is for the best. One can know this.

My question for Professor Feser: Et tu, the Holocaust?

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Hillary’s Fate: Mitt Romney’s?

I personally think that Hillary Clinton’s calculated insincerity, so persistently on display whenever she opens her mouth in interview (or writes a book), is going to doom her as a candidate. Her husband was insincere, but he knew how to do it in a way that we could all cheer for him. He was America’s bullshitter, and we could almost believe him when he bit his lip and got dewy in the eyes.

Hillary has never had that skill set. Don’t get me wrong, I’ll vote for her should push come to shove in a general election. I don’t want a far right president. Hillary will have good general policies if she can reach the presidency (on climate, on science funding, etc.), and I want my kids growing up at a time when they see a woman as president. But she grates on me as a campaigner, and I don’t think I’m alone among liberals to say so. I’m not thrilled about Hillary at all, and I think she’ll probably crash and burn as a candidate because she’s just not very good at the populist political game (and the next decade is shaping up to be a time of populist politics). She is an elitist to her bones, and Republicans are going to exploit that by playing populist cards hard against her.

I’m sure she’s very good interpersonally with her peers (when engaging in diplomacy, for example). But she is the Democrats’ Mitt Romney (someone you feel is never really straight with you, always cynically calculating, having rehearsed and poll-tested every word). A recent example: pointing to the Bible as the book that most influenced her. Does anybody seriously believe that?

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