Buddha & Absolutes: Hindu Thought & The View from Nowhere

I found an interesting article at the Skeptic site, called The View from Nowhere or Somewhere?  Maja Caron reviews a novel by Rebecca Goldstein, 36 Arguments for The Existence of God. ( I read her book Plato at The Googleplex, and it is a tour de force.)  In the review Caron brings up Thomas Nagel's classic work, The View from Nowhere, discussing Nagel in terms of the views of Cass Seltzer, Goldstein's protagonist.
Somewhere in her very interesting and good  article Caron says this: "In Buddhism, this 'groundless ground' is the absolute that can only be accessed by relinquishing the thinking process."

Not true.  There is no absolute in Buddhism, although it is posited in its parent, Hinduism. An absolute is metaphysical and Buddha only had interest in helping relieve suffering with a kind of psychology he offered, and not in speculating on what lies beyond mind.  First, here is a passage by the review author:

"If the universe is both personal and universal, as both Seltzer and Nagel suggest, and it’s not possible for an individual to wrap his/her logical thinking process around the notion, one should neither assign mystical significance to this nothing, nor should it seek to empirically dissect it as a 'thing in itself'."

I have this to say about that.  The central tenet of many of the Upanishads, the Bhagavad-Gita, and Buddhism is that the universe is both personal and universal.  The difference between Hindu teachings and Buddhism--as I understand them--is that India goes metaphysical with Brahman while Buddhism does not go there with anatta, or no-self.  India took the next step. Buddha, a son of India, did not delve into metaphysics.

Both Hinduism and Buddhism argue that the universal/personal cannot be understood by mind.  But Advaita--to use an example teaching--took a leap of faith while Buddhism--in its non-dogmatic teachings--says you are that, you are both personal and universal, but it's only part of your experience and to be realized empirically.*  What lies "beyond" your experience cannot be known by the human mind and there is no point in taking a leap of faith because any statement of faith is only an assumption. *(Realized in human experience that is not claimed as metaphysical revelation and as stated in The Heart Sutra: "Form is emptiness; emptiness form.")

Buddhist teachings go on to say that the so-called awakening experience, because it is not metaphysical and only a non-conventional possibility of experience, should not be exceptioned as beatitude. It should not be regarded as special because it is only another experience.  It is liberating but not magical, not other-worldly religious, and certainly not revelation from God.  Buddhism is agnostic about any absolute.  "If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him; if you meet a ghost kill the ghost," goes an old Zen koan. (Attributed to  Zen Master Linji, founder of the Rinzai sect.)  In short, don't follow mind in its old tricks about absolute/not-absolute.  The ultimate trickster is mind and its musings that keep ego involved in trying to find a "groundless ground."

Yeats said it well: "Like a long-legged fly upon the water his mind moves on silence."  With its attendant experiences the silence is as far as we can go.


What Is Time? Julian Barbour's Answer

Tell me what time is. You cannot. The future does not exist, nor does the past. Nor the present. You cannot live in the present. Snap your fingers and it is gone. By the time you say "now" it is already past.  You cannot apprehend any part of time you talk about. All you have are words to explain something that eludes you and the words only confuse you all the more.

In 1908 John McTaggart wrote The Unreality of Time, and using his A and B series of time he argued that our perception of time is an illusion. Of the A series, he argues this:

"If time exists it must be explained by the A series, which is how we normally think about time. This is a tensed series, as in past, present, and future. A cup of coffee was hot in the past, is lukewarm in the present, and cold in the future. The United States was created in the past, exists in the present, and will no longer exist in the future. In this series are three distinct instances."

McTaggart juxtaposes a B series against the A series.  This series is relational, or durational. One way to think of it is as events before the now and after the now. A cup of coffee had hot temperature, is colder temperature in the present, and colder after the present. Put in another way to think about it, the United States was founded in the past, exists after its founding, and will no longer exist after its founding. From both perspectives the instances are not distinct, but relational, enduring from one into another. The B series can be likened to space.  The wall is there, and a window elsewhere. They are spatially related. The B series as relational is not inherently separate (distinct) from other time-moments, just as space has no difference in it. As the wall is there, the window elsewhere, so events in the B series can be located as before and after.

Many rich and profound complications arise from thinking about the two series but the central point is that they are contradictory.  One is tensed, the other tenseless. The A series depends on personal experience and perspective.  "I am drinking hot coffee today." The B series does not. The experience and perspective are not there. "I recall drinking hot coffee today."

Because they are contradictory, McTaggart says time is not real.  His legacy is that he left A theorists and B theorists debating which kind of time is true, continuing a discussion traced back to Parmenides (reality is timeless, unchanging) and Heraclitus ("You can't step into the same river twice").

So what is time? If nobody asks, I know.  If they ask and I try to explain, I do not know. (St Augustine, Bishop of Hippo, 354-430.)

In his book, The End of Time: The Next Revolution in Physics, Julian "Barbour asserts that time simply doesn't exist." Barbour starts with the notion that time is just a way of describing change. He means that to measure time you have to have something that moves. How long does it take to get from point A to Point B?

~ "There's only change, not time. Things move around; time may just be a way of noting that. But Barbour goes further. He says there's no such thing as motion either. Instead, Barbour sees a universe filled with static instants -- instants that contain 'records' that fool any conscious beings who happen to find themselves encased in one into believing that things have moved and time has passed."

~"This common-sense view was one of many forever altered by Einstein's theories. We see time this way, he made clear, only because we move so slowly. If you could peddle your bicycle at something almost in the neighborhood of the speed of light, relative to an observer, your watch and your aging process would appear -- to that observer -- to slow. (From your own perspective, time, unfortunately, would still keep chugging along at its usual dispiriting pace, which makes it unlikely that anyone will figure out how to turn this phenomenon into a wrinkle cream.)"

~"Relativity found time a home as one of the four dimensions in something called spacetime. But it hardly settled the question of what time is. And the idea that time slows down in certain circumstances made it easier to imagine that time was just a construct of us observers, not itself a fact of nature."

~"What if, Barbour wonders, we just imagine a kingfisher to be flying? After all, it isn't exactly the same bird at perch A and perch B: Its molecules constantly change; its atoms constantly change. What if our brain has captured a few snapshots of kingfisher-in-flight that it plays -- movie-like -- in such a way that we think we see continuous motion?"

~"What if the instants we inhabit somehow happen to be filled with 'records' -- images of kingfishers with their wings spread, tread marks, 'memories,' fossils -- that manage to delude us into thinking that birds fly, cars lurch, species become extinct; 'records' that manage to delude us into thinking that we are scurrying along some sort of path from the past to the future? Isn't it true that all we know now about the past or the future comes from thoughts or objects we experience now -- in the present?"

~"What if, Barbour then asks, we're always trapped in one moment or another and everything else -- your sense, for example that X number of minutes ago you moved your hand and clicked on FEED -- is a kind of illusion, somehow evoked by the structure of this particular, all-encompassing moment? What if, in other words, our whole sense that things move is an illusion, as -- in another context -- our sense that the earth does not move proved to be an illusion."

~"This is, if it helps any, quite similar to the view of time presented in Kurt Vonnegut's 1969 novel Slaughterhouse Five, which Barbour has not yet read. ('I know,' he says. 'People keep telling me I should look at it.') Vonnegut describes most earthlings as trapped in moments like 'bugs in amber.' Billy Pilgrim, the book's main character, however, repeatedly comes 'unstuck in time': He jumps, in no particular order (though in accordance with the needs of Vonnegut's narrative), from one point in his life to another. Moreover, on the planet Tralfamadore, which Pilgrim visits, 'all time' is visible at once, as we 'might see a stretch of the Rocky Mountains. It does not change. It simply is.' That Rocky Mountain-like view of all time is remarkably similar to Barbour's Platonia."

The above comments are excerpts from a  review of his book published in the now defunct Feed Magazine on July 14, 2000 by Mitchell Stephens.  I wanted to link you to the review but the link is dead.  More of the review is below. Or click her for a Nature article on why time is an illusion according to classical physics.


Ota Benga: Man in A Zoo Cage

In September 1906 a caged human being was put on display in the Bronx Zoo. A sign on the cage read:

The African Pygmy, "Ota Benga."
Age, 23 years. Height, 4 feet 11 inches.
Weight, 103 pounds. Brought from the
Kasai River, Congo Free State, South Central Africa, by Dr. Samuel P. Verner.

Benga was exhibited in the afternoons during September. Zoo officials clothed him in animal skins for viewers to gawk  In youth his teeth had been filed to sharp points as was the custom of his people.  Many New Yorkers thought they were for eating human flesh and called him a cannibal.  Chimpanzees were put in the cage to suggest a comparison between him and them.  Nearly a quarter million people saw him--fathers holding children high to see over the shoulders of those in front, women standing in front of the cage so a picture could be taken of them with Ota Benga safely behind the background bars. Zoo attendance in September doubled over the previous year. "Bushman Shares a Cage with Bronx Park Apes," read a New York Times headline, which declared that "the human being happened to be a Bushman, one of a race that scientists do not rate high in the human scale."

The boyish-looking Benga sat on a stool in silence.   In the first week Benga seemed resigned to his fate.  The next week he kicked, bit, or hit attendants as they tried to put him in the cage.  By Sunday September 16th, Benga was allowed to roam the park while watched by park rangers. 40,000 people visited the zoo that day.  Hordes followed him.  The rowdies chased him.  They cornered him, poking him in the ribs or tripping him.  Others laughed at his fright. He struck back at them.  But he wouldn't go back to the monkey house.  Three rangers had to force him back.
Zoo director William Temple Hornaday wrote to the man who brought him, Samuel P. Verner, on Monday September 17th: “I regret to say that Ota Benga has become quite unmanageable.”  Hornady lamented that  “He has been so fully exploited in the newspapers, and so much in the public eye, it is quite inadvisable for us to punish him; for should we do so, we would immediately be accused of cruelty, coercion, etc., etc. I am sure you will appreciate this point.”

Eventually he was released from the zoo.  African-American clergymen had protested the exhibit. One Monday afternoon in September the Reverend James H Gordon, known as “one of the most eloquent Negroes in the country,” led a small group of ministers to see the exhibit.  They got off the train at the zoological gardens and at the primate house, they watched Ota Benga in a cage with Dohang, the orangutan.

James H. Gordon went home to write, "Our race, we think, is depressed enough, without exhibiting one of us with the apes." Other clergymen backed him.

Ota Benga became caged in the zoo because of a series of events beginning with history and imperialism.  As a member of the Mbuti people he lived in equatorial forests of Congo Free State. Thereby hangs a tale.  (Congo Free State was captured as metaphor in Joseph Conrad's The Heart of Darkness.)  The Congo was by no means free.  It was created by Belgian King Leopold II in order to plunder it, principally for rubber and ivory.  British consul Roger Casement brought home from the  Congo confirmation of mass atrocities under Leopold’s rule. Men had come to Casement with missing hands. Casement said the rampant practice of mutilation “is amply proved by the Kodak.” Photographs showed at least two dozen mutilated victims. Congolese were chained by their necks and forced to work for the "free" State. Leopold created the Force Publique in order to enslave and control the people.  Benga's people were attacked by the Force. Ota returned from a hunting expedition to find his wife and two children murdered.  Later he was captured by slave traders.

In 1904 Samuel Phillips Verner found Ota Benga among the traders and claimed to have bought his release for a pound of salt and a bolt of cloth.  Verner was under contract from The Louisiana Purchase Exposition (St Louis World's Fair) to return with an assortment of natives for the exhibition. W.J. McGee wanted an exhibit to represent "all the world's people . . . from smallest pygmies to the most gigantic . . . from the darkest blacks to the dominant whites."  In this new age of Darwinism he sought them to demonstrate a cultural evolution.  In short, ranging from inferior to superior cultures.

As Verner tells it, Benga agreed to return to America with him and encouraged a group of Batwa tribesmen to accompany them.  They did not trust Verner, a white man, because of atrocities committed by King Leopold's Force Publique. Benga told them Verner had saved his life and that they had developed a bond.  Four Batwa males as well as other Africans accompanied them to St Louis.

At the World Fair, Apache chief Geronimo, on exhibit also, came to admire Benga and gave him an arrowhead.

Verner returned Benga and the other Africans to the Congo, where Benga married a Batwa woman who died of snakebite. Without his Mbuti people, Benga did not feel he belonged with the Batwa and returned with Verner to the states.

While tending other business, Verner negotiated with curator Henry Bumpus for Benga to stay at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. Benga was given a linen suit to wear but became homesick for his own culture.  He was inside all the time, when outside he was in a big city.  The museum itself was silent with hard, barren surfaces.  Outside was concrete without birds, breeze, anything to hunt.   He was presented as a savage.  The museum was a prison.  Guards kept him inside and he tried to slip past them in the large crowds at the entrance.  Once he was asked to seat a wealthy donor's wife.  He pretended to misunderstand and threw a chair, barely missing her head.  One can only imagine him thinking, "So here's the savage you want." Verner found him another home.

It was the Bronx Zoo, where this story began.  William Hornaday, zoo director, had Benga help maintain animal habitats.  But people noticed Benga more than they did the animals. Hornaday eventually featured Benga in an exhibition.  We know how that ended.

The African-American clergyman who protested the treatment of Benga re-enters this narrative here.  James H. Gordon put Benga in the Howard Colored Orphan Asylum, a church-sponsored orphanage in Brooklyn, which Gordon supervised. At the Orphan Asylum 1906 wore into 1910 and the press was relentless in pestering Benga and Gordon for stories about the pygmy.

Gordon arranged with the McCray family in Lynchburg, Virginia, for Benga to move there.  He bought him American clothes and had Benga's filed teeth capped so that he could better fit in.  Anne Spencer, a poet of the Harlem Renaissance, tutored him in English.  He attended elementary school at the Baptist Seminary in Lynchburg.

At the time Lynchburg was a city of nearly 30,000 people. Benga would have ridden on its electric street cars, at the back of course, and traveled its cobbled streets.  He lived with Mary Hayes Allen and her seven children in a yellow house across the road from the seminary. Allen was widow of the Seminar seminary's former president.

Benga found the forest near the house as something reminiscent of home.  In it he taught neighborhood boys how to make bows from vines, how to hunt wild turkeys and squirrels. He told of his days hunting elephants.

He went to work at a tobacco factory. For a sandwich and root beer he told people his life story.  The sandwich, the root beer, and the life story suggests he might have become settled by then and leads to the question, Was he happy by then? Had he adjusted to a way of life far from the forest, the animals, the people, and the culture he grew up in?

As he grew older he lost interest in teaching neighborhood boys the ways of a hunter.  He wanted to go back to Africa.

He would have gone too, except for the assassination of Arch-Duke Ferdinand in Sarajevo, Serbia, which would grind up men as cannon fodder. In !914 World War I began and Germany launched submarine warfare.  Passenger ship were only one more target for torpedoes.

A largely European war kept an African man from his native equatorial forests

Old men recalled those war years and themselves as boys listening to Benga sing a song he learned at the Theological Seminary, “I believe I’ll go home / Lordy, won’t you help me."

The old men remembered  the late afternoon of 19 March 1916, as they watched Benga gather wood to build a fire in the field. They watched him dance around the fire.  He chanted and moaned. It was about a world he lost, they knew that, but he had done it before.

They went to sleep.  In the still night with cicadas chirping, Ota Benga crept into a shed near the yellow house. Before daybreak they heard a loud shot.  He had hidden a gun there and fired one bullet through his heart.

Ota Benga, 1883-1916


Belief Shapes Behavior, Free Will or Not

Whether You Think Free Will or Determinism, Belief Shapes Behavior

Popular wisdom has it that everybody will do right or wrong based on moral choice, and that moral choice is just―well, just a personal thing. One person can be as moral as another despite any difference in underlying beliefs about the world. Maybe, but Kathleen Vohs' and Jonathan Schooler's experiment gives us pause to think about the questions. What are the implications for society if people come to believe they have no free will? No moral responsibility?

They had some students read passages from Francis Crick's The Astonishing Hypothesis--a very deterministic view of the universe and the human place in it. We are creatures without God and without free will. The students read this: " ‘You,’ your joys and your sorrows, your memories and your ambitions, your sense of personal identity and free will, are in fact no more than the behavior of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules. Who you are is nothing but a pack of neurons.”

They had other students read inspirational books on how we make our own decisions and forge our own paths in life

They then let each group play a video game in which the groups were allowed to cheat. The students were told to do 20 arithmetic problems and to press the space bar when a question appeared, otherwise the answer would also pop up because of a computer glitch. The students were told that no one would know when the space bar was pushed. Still, the students were asked not to cheat.

So guess who cheated?

The group that read Crick's words.

What are the implications of this? We hold ourselves responsible when we think we choose our actions.
An interesting commentary on the experiment can be found at Mindful Hack.


Evolution Didn't Design You To Be Happy

Happiness and Evolution

When people are asked what they really want out of life most respond that they want to be happy.  They
may think more money, a better job, improved status, social recognition will make them happy.  Or they may think of all that as superficial and that they want inner happiness.  Whichever, people regard happiness as a good unto itself.

This is what Aristotle said. He held happiness as the central purpose of human life and an end in itself. It has no goal beyond it. To be happy is to arrive.

But happiness by itself does not propagate genes. It has no survival value. In terms of natural selection, we are not programmed to be happy. It's in our DNA.

Psychologist at University of Pennsylvania, Martin Seligman noted the bias in his field toward mental illness in the basic psychiatric reference work Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders from psychosis to schizoaffective disorder. He found no comparable manual for minds that worked well. He set out to correct this view in, among other books, Authentic Happiness and has a web site, complete with surveys, explaining his approach.

Maybe, though, the notion that shit happens is rooted in our natures. Maybe we are more inclined to worry and anxiety because of their survival value. Think about the word happy. It derives from the same root as our modern happens. In Middle English, happ applied to chance, fortune, accident. We have the application in the modern word happenstance. Given the Middle English root, if you are happy you are lucky. If shit does not happen to you, then you are happy. Happiness, then, carries a tragic view of life. Things occur that are out of your control. You may be happy today and struck down by a car tomorrow.

So what about the survival value of worry and anxiety?

"It is the year 100,000 B.C., and two hunter-gatherers are out hunter-gathering. Let’s call them Ig and Og. Ig comes across a new kind of bush, with bright-red berries. He is hungry, as most hunter-gatherers are most of the time, and the berries look pretty, so he pops a handful in his mouth. Og merely puts some berries in his goatskin bag. A little later, they come to a cave. It looks spooky and Og doesn’t want to go in, but Ig pushes on ahead and has a look around. There’s nothing there except a few bones. On the way home, an unfamiliar rustling in the undergrowth puts Og in a panic, and he freezes, but Ig figures that whatever is rustling probably isn’t any bigger and uglier than he is, so he blunders on, and whatever was doing the rustling scuttles off into the undergrowth. The next morning, Og finally tries the berries, and they do indeed taste O.K. He decides to go back and collect some more.

Now, Ig is clearly a lot more fun than Og. But Og is much more likely to pass on his genes to the next generation of hunter-gatherers. The downside to Ig’s fearlessness is the risk of sudden death. One day, the berries will be poisonous, the bear that lives in the cave will be at home, and the rustling will be a snake or a tiger or some other vertebrate whose bite can turn septic." New Yorker


Ben Underwood Clicks His Tongue To See

"To society he's blind," said Ben's mother, "but that doesn't make him handicapped. He just can't see."

She also said, "One thing that I truly get back from Ben being blind is that he truly sees people from within.

When he hears someone say that someone else is ugly, or anything negative towards someone else. He says, 'That's whats wrong with sighted people, you all look at one another and judge what you look like,' I see that statement being so true. "

His eyes removed because of cancer, Ben grew up without sight, but at age five learned to click with his tongue about every half second—to echolocate—to ride his bike, shoot hoops, play video games, and throw pillows at his sisters. Echoes informed Ben as to the position of objects, how big they were, their general shape, and how solid they were. Ben recognized a pole as tall and narrow, a building as tall and very broad. A pillow was soft and not dense.

I am left with mystery. Watching the boy in action left me scratching my head in amazement. Take a look for yourself:

Sadly, just shy of his 17th birthday this amazing and inspiring boy died of another cancer after the one that took his eyes. The obit video can be watched here. Also read another Mind Shadows post on echolocation, bats, dolphins, and Ben Underwood.

By clicking, Ben avoided curbs while riding his bicycle in his Sacramento, California neighborhood. Even though he couldn't see the hoop, he could sink a basketball through the basket. He played video games by distinguishing sounds. He wrote a novel, typing it at 60 words per minute on a standard keyboard. "I can hear that wall behind you over there. I can hear right there--the radio, and the fan," Ben told one reporter.

Ben was not the only blind person who developed echolocation. Others are Daniel Kish, 40, of Long Beach, California, who leads other blind people on hikes in the wilderness or in mountain biking. "I have mental images that are very rich, very complex,” says Kish. James Holman (1786-1857) used the sound of his tapping cane to travel alone around the world.

See the piece on Graham Young, a man who is blind but somehow can see. Young can sense moving objects but doesn't know how he does it.  In that article V.S. Ramachandran, a neuroscientist, explained Young's ability.

Here is a web site dedicated to Ben Underwood. Here is his mother's account of him in "Ben's Life."
Bats send sound signals in rapid bursts at high frequencies. Their sonar can bounce off flying mosquitoes, which the bats swoop on with open mouths. Dolphins find their meals in the same manner. Echolocation, uses sound to identify objects and their locations. As with vision, the brain processes energy reflected off an object—only as sound rather than light.


Jaron Lanier Disagrees with Dawkins' Memes and Kurzweil's Singularity

Jaron Lanier Disagrees with Richard Dawkins' Meme Theory and Ray Kurzweil's Singularity

As a goat farmer, Jaron Lanier supported his way through college. While growing up, he lived far from cities and near Mesilla, New Mexico, with his father in tents until they built a house centered around a hippie-esque geodesic dome designed by Jaron. (His father's Ukrainian family fled the pogroms for America. His mother, who survived an Austrian concentration camp, died in a car accident when he was nine.) As assistant to a midwife, he helped deliver a baby. The father gave him a car as a gift. When he was 13 New Mexico State University let him enroll. There he took graduate-level courses.

The phrase virtual reality was coined by Lanier, to his eternal regret. He recalls the early Utopian vision of his fellow youthful hackers and laments how quickly it was corporatised. A prodigy from the start, he helped create Web 2.0,  futurism, digital utopianism, and their ideology, which he now calls “digital Maoism.” He accused giants Facebook and Google of being “spy agencies.”  He believes the "hive mentality" destroys political discourse. It is the wisdom of the crowd, he says, and it cannot evolve upward but lead only downward.  The mentality weakens economic stability. With its alienated processes the hive mentality can destroy our personhood in the sense of social and legal dignity. He sees it all leading to “social catastrophe." He fears a cybernetic house of mirrors that could be manipulated by whoever is "the biggest asshole."

Born in 1960, Jaron Lanier shuns career stovepipes and has taught computer science in various institutions, including Dartmouth, Columbia, and Yale. His books are You Are Not a Gadget (2010), Who Owns the Future (2013), and Dawn of the New Everything (2017). Lanier reacted against an acquaintance of Timothy Leary who once told him to surround himself with gorgeous young people and flatter them. He decided to never fool people and tell the truth, especially when it was unpleasant.  He has never taken drugs.  A polymath, he a philosophy writer, computer scientist, visual artistcomposer of classical music, and  founding father of the field of virtual reality. A pianist, he writes chamber and orchestral music. He is also a visual artist. In 2010, Lanier was nominated in the Time 100 list of most influential people. He is sought out as an important contributor to current discussions on matters such as the philosophy of consciousness and the findings of science. His interests are widely divergent, among them the interface between artificial intelligence and biology as well as quantum physics.

 In "One-Half a Manifesto", Lanier disagrees with Ray Kurzweil, Google’s Director of Engineering, and a well-known futurist who has scored well with accurate predictions. It is said that since the 1990s his 147 predictions turned out 86 percent accurate. He writes of the Singularity and predicted that by 2029 artificial intelligence (AI) "will pass a valid Turing test and therefore achieve human levels of intelligence" and  has 2045 for the Singularity, when effective intelligence will be multiplied by "a billion fold by merging with the intelligence we have created."  He finds abhorrent the belief that  virtual worlds can be "on an equal footing" with reality.

Lanier says humans are not to be considered to be biological computers. Humans will not be generally replaced by computers in a few decades, even economically. This is highly unlikely. He says "Simply put, software just won't allow it. Code can't keep up with processing power now, and it never will."

In an interview, he was asked about the Meme Theory of evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins. In his classic book, The Selfish Gene, Dawkins explains memes thus:

"Examples of memes are tunes, ideas, catch-phrases, clothes fashions, ways of making pots or of building arches. Just as genes propagate themselves in the gene pool by leaping from body to body via sperms or eggs, so memes propagate themselves in the meme pool by leaping from brain to brain via a process which, in the broad sense, can be called imitation. If a scientist hears, or reads about, a good idea, he passed it on to his colleagues and students. . . . If the idea catches on, it can be said to propagate itself, spreading from brain to brain. `. . . memes should be regarded as living structures, not just metaphorically but technically. . . . When you plant a fertile meme in my mind you literally parasitize my brain, turning it into a vehicle for the meme's propagation in just the way that a virus may parasitize the genetic mechanism of a host cell. . . . 'belief in life after death' is actually realized physically, millions of times over, as a structure in the nervous systems of individual men the world over."

Here, then, is the question and Lanier's answer:

"Q: Is culture as important as genes in shaping the future of our brains? I'm not talking about Richard Dawkins' idea of memes here, which I dislike anyway.

A: I think the meme idea is wrong for a variety of reasons. First, there's an obvious sense in which ideas are Lamarckian and genes are not. Memes promote the wrong idea about genes. Richard's idea about genes is that there is a continuity of different creatures that come into being and evolution is walking through an infinite library where each space on the shelf is a slightly different creature. It's like Borges' infinite library, which contained every book that could be written. Every organism that could exist is in Richard's library, and there are two problems with this idea, both of which should kill this metaphor. The first problem is the size of the library. Let's suppose Borges' library was actually created and only held books up to 300 pages. Even in that case the library could not fit into our universe. Our civilization could not possibly survive long enough, even with the biggest starship we could build, to hold it. Just to get from one interesting book to the next would require more energy or space than our civilization has available to it. We're lucky enough to be next to one readable book and that's the only one we'll ever see. You could think of his library as the most efficient, definitely mathematical, perfect, conceivable form of procrastination ever invented.

The second problem is the difference between Borges' and Dawkins' infinite libraries. In Borges' library all the books in between the readable books might not be sensible to us but at least they're printable. But in Dawkins' library, all the creatures between viable creatures are not sensible or even viable. They're just possible creatures. You can't take an arbitrary genetic sequence and have a creature come out." (The link for this no longer exists but you can read his opposition to Memes at Edge, The Reality Club, The Value of Memes, A Powerful Paradigm or a Poor Metaphor?


Polish Exchange Student's Host Parents from Hell

Christian Fundamentalist Host Parents from Hell for Polish Exchange

Michael Gromek
Landing in Greensboro, North Carolina, Michael Gromek, 19, stepped off the plane from Poland. He had come as an exchange student and looked eagerly for his host family at the airport. When they found one another, he felt like running back toward the plane. They met him holding a Bible, and saying,"Child, our Lord sent you half-way around the world to bring you to us." He spent four hellish months among Christian fundamentalists, with dawn church visits and sex education talks. His new family were bent on banishing Satan from his soul.

Here's what he has to say. "Things began to go wrong as soon as I arrived in my new home in Winston-Salem, where I was to spend my year abroad. For example, every Monday my host family would gather around the kitchen table to talk about sex. My host parents hadn't had sex for the last 17 years because--so they told me--they were devoting their lives to God. They also wanted to know whether I drank alcohol. I admitted that I liked beer and wine. They told me I had the devil in my heart."

"My host parents treated me like a five-year-old. They gave me lollipops. They woke me every Sunday morning at 6:15 a.m., saying 'Michael, it's time to go to church.' I hated that sentence. When I didn't want to go to church one morning, because I had hardly slept, they didn't allow me to have any coffee."

One day I was talking to my host parents about my mother, who is separated from my father. They were appalled--my mother's heart was just as possessed by the devil as mine, they exclaimed. God wanted her to stay with her husband, they said.

The exchange student eventually discovered that they had more than his soul in mind. In short, they had a reason for agreeing to host him. Their generosity had not simply arisen out of the goodness of their hearts. They needed his help to construct a Fundamentalist Baptist church in Poland.

They thought it was God's will, something he could not avoid. He saw the matter otherwise. They had already begun construction in Krakow, and needed his help with translations and filling the church. For him, that was the last straw. His hosts could not understand his refusal, but refuse he did. They were appalled.

I am reminded of the Stockholm Syndrome, in which victims come to identify with their captors. Michael says, "It was a weird situation. After all, these people were my only company at the time. If I hadn't kept in touch with home through e-mail, I might have been sucked into that world." Fortunately, he was sufficiently strong-minded and had access via email to those with perspective.

At this point, four months into his stay, he asked to change his host family. Of his fundamentalist hosts, he explains that "they didn't understand--how could they? They had grown up with their faith and were convinced of it, and then suddenly I turned up and refused to fit in."

He had to wait two months for a new family, two months of hell. "My host parents detested me."

Finally, he went to live with his new family, young, "more friends than host parents," and he was happy.

Found at Spiegel.


George Berkeley: Rocks Are Not Physically Real

Bishop George Berkeley
George Berkeley: A Rock Is A Mental Perception. There Is No Matter. Only Mind and Perceptions

George Berkeley (1685 –1753), known as Bishop Berkeley, was an Irish philosopher whose main theory he called "immaterialism" (later referred to as "subjective idealism" by others). This theory denies the existence of material substance and instead contends that familiar objects like tables and chairs are only ideas in the minds of perceivers and, as a result, cannot exist without being perceived. Berkeley is also known for his critique of abstraction, an important premise in his argument for immaterialism. His famous phrase is  esse is percipi (to be is to be perceived). In other words, we are our sensations, mental events, and the things perceived are not material, but also a form of the mental.

Because he said "Westward wends the course of empire," the city of Berkeley, California, known for The University of California at Berkeley, was named after him.

He wrote Three Dialogues between Hylas and Philonous, which presented his argument.  His views are represented by Philonous (Greek: "lover of mind"), while Hylas (Greek: "matter") embodies the Irish thinker's opponents, in particular John Locke. Berkeley argued against Isaac Newton's doctrine of absolute space, time and motion in De Motu (On Motion), which anticipated the  views of Mach and Einstein.

With his wife, Anne Forster, in 1728 he moved to America to live near Newport, Rhode Island, where he bought a plantation at Middletown, Whitehall. In 1732 he returned to London.

Here is an excerpt from the Three Dialogues:

Hylas to Philonous: You were represented, in last night's conversation, as one who maintained the most extravagant opinion that ever entered into the mind of man, to wit, that there is no such thing as MATERIAL SUBSTANCE in the world.

Philonous: That there is no such thing as what PHILOSOPHERS CALL MATERIAL SUBSTANCE, I am seriously persuaded: but, if I were made to see anything absurd or skeptical in this, I should then have the same reason to renounce this that I imagine I have now to reject the contrary opinion.

Hylas: . . . can anything be more fantastical, more repugnant to Common Sense, or a more manifest piece of Scepticism, than to believe there is no such thing as MATTER?

(First of The Three Dialogues Between Hylas and Philonous, in Opposition to Sceptics and Atheists.)

When James Boswell told Samuel Johnson (1709-1784) about Berkeley's assertion that matter does not exist, Dr Johnson took offense and said, "Sir, I refute it thus!," kicking a rock away from him.
William Fawke Statue
of Dr Johnson
Kicking Stone

Laurance R. Doyle, SETI Institute, has this to say about the world as traditionally physical: ". . . the elementary particles making up the trees, people, and planets—what we see around us—are apparently just distributions of likelihood until they are measured (that is, measured or observed). So much for the Victorian view of solid matter!"

Ronald Knox, English theologian, priest, and crime writer, wrote these limericks, with a mockery and a reply to the mocker of Berkeley:

There was a young man who said "God
Must find it exceedingly odd
To think that the tree
Should continue to be
When there's no one about in the quad."

"Dear Sir: Your astonishment's odd;
I am always about in the quad.
And that's why the tree
Will continue to be
Since observed by, Yours faithfully, God.


Happiness Readings and The Three Princes of Serendip

Happiness Buddhism Daniel Kahneman Daniel GilbertHappiness Buddhism Daniel Kahneman Daniel Gilbert
In culling out old links, I isolated Mind Shadows posts on happiness. They are an eclectic lot, about aspects of the subject.  What you will discover for yourself will be a case of serendipity, the term coined by Hugh Walpole about the story of the Three princes of Serendip, who discovered by accident. Enough of that. Enjoy the serendipity. Here are the Mind Shadow links:


What Happened to The Women Involved?: Feminism and Abu Ghraib

Feminism and Abu Ghraib Prison

England and Charles Graner
Give Thumbs Up
Of the seven U.S. soldiers charged with sickening forms of abuse in Abu Ghraib, three were women: Spc. Megan Ambuhl, Pfc. Lynndie England and Spc. Sabrina Harman.

Abu Ghraib tells us that as Barbara Ehrenreich put it years back in the New York Times,  "a uterus is not a substitute for a conscience."

Barbara Ehrenreich:

"The photos did something else to me, as a feminist: They broke my heart. I had no illusions about the U.S. mission in Iraq — whatever exactly it is — but it turns out that I did have some illusions about women.


Lost at Sea: Richard Halliburton's Wildly Improbable Life and Some Who Knew Him

Richard Halliburton Wildly Improbable Life
Richard Halliburton's Wildly Improbable Life

In the human scheme of things, some are born lucky, some less lucky, and some unlucky.   None of us chose to be born nor did we choose the circumstances of our birth.

By accident Richard was born with a predisposition he valued highly, knowing he was lucky.  Of his "restless nature" he wrote, "I'm very grateful, because I wouldn't take $1,000,000 for it."  It was precious to him because he had visions of the possible where others saw only walls.

He was extraordinarily gifted in disposition—his life attests to that, as it is one that few are able to parallel.  People could only read about all he did and saw because they were bound to the morning coffee and evening newspaper of their days.  In Halliburton they found somebody who had slipped the bonds holding them and with sometimes wild energy delighted in a life that for them was not only improbable but impossible.

In the 1920s and 1930s Richard Halliburton was one of the most famous persons in America, even more than Amelia Earhart, and today he is forgotten.