Self-serving advice?

All paradoxes intrigue me, but the one I find most delicious is not that in seeking one’s own gratification one finds only ennui, while lasting fulfillment may be found in seeking to gratify others, but rather that in commending this lesson to you, I am inviting you to provide me gratification, for your elevation at my expense.

— Josh Mitteldorf

Gee, the world is in terrible shape…

The reasoned despair of the intellectual is a disease born of one part cowardice, one part intellectual arrogance, and eight parts depression.  Surely every deeply thinking person must realize that the world is far too full of surprises for us to form with any confidence a view of the future even a few  years hence, least of all one bereft of hope.  The remedy for despair is vigorous exercise, meditation, and reaching out to create loving connections with nature and other imperfect humans. The remedy for intellectual arrogance is to open one’s eyes and on’s mind. There is no remedy for cowardice.

— Josh Mitteldorf

Don’t let your hormones dictate your metaphysics

I’m on a tramway, dropping from the sky
When I look down, my heart jumps in my throat
It’s only right—I’m not a mountain goat
My fear response knows well I cannot fly.

And just the thought of my mortality
Evokes instinctive terror, like a fall.
I think: surely it is the end of all—
A silent, black, black void—I’ll cease to be.

But Darwin tells us why these hormones rage:
They served our forbears in another age,
When bursts of strength and speed could save our genes.
(Natural selection’s good at counting beans.)

It’s epinephrine hijacks our best smarts
But visceral fear was never meant to be
Our astrolabe to map reality—
For that, we must consult our heads and hearts.

Despite their power, hormones are no guide
To what awaits us on the other side.
We cannot know what afterlife might be,
But here and now, can savour mystery.

— Josh Mitteldorf

A conscious choice

Accept that most of your beliefs have been inculcated either by social osmosis or the propaganda of social engineers who do not have your best interest at heart.  Seek consciously to dispel or to transmute such beliefs as are not supported by direct empirical evidence, especially when they have no salutary effect on your wellbeing.

— Josh Mitteldorf

Begin by asking which of my beliefs happen to be convenient for the rich and powerful?

Quantum Biology — Keeping an Open Mind

From ancient times, it was obvious to people the world over that life played by different rules.  Flowers and frogs could do things that rocks and babbling brooks could never do.  Great scientists through Newton and Faraday saw no conflict between their spiritual lives and the laws of nature that they were describing.  Then, in the 19th Century, Western science began to reveal the physical and chemical basis for life.  The possibility emerged that living things were powered by complicated chemistry, but that they played by the same rules as non-living matter.

Somehow, this possibility became a presumption and then a dogma.  Anyone who believed that life was governed by different laws was branded a superstitious enemy of science.  Worse, the laws that governed life were presumed to be physics that humans have presently mastered and understood.  

Implicitly, the entire mainstream of the scientific community dismissed the possibility that 4 billions years of evolution might have taught the living cell something about physics that contemporary human science has yet to discover.

Present day chemistry and physics is all built on the laws of quantum mechanics.  Is it possible that the living cell knows some quantum tricks that humans have yet to discover?  Not only possible, it has been verified.  The conservative view, already validated, is that (at least) two common processes—photosynthesis and animal navigation—are made possible by quantum superpositions within single molecules.  A more expansive view of quantum biology is that life is made possible by quantum tricks that allow micron-sized systems to explore many possibilities simultaneously, and enable single molecules to flip switches for entire cells.  These are considered radical ideas, outside the mainstream of science, but perhaps they provide a fertile hypothesis for exploring many mysteries of biology.  

More speculative yet is the idea that the contentious “observer problem” of quantum mechanics is essentially related to free will, awareness and the sense of self.  Since the beginning, the laws of quantum mechanics have included a rule outside of the mathematics of probability functions.  The state of a system changes suddenly when a measurement is made.  The probability instantly becomes a certainly.  But what is a measurement?  Is it a physical process?  If it can be described by the rules of quantum mechanics, then it is, itself, part of the probability function, and cannot suddenly change the function.  Quantum mechanics as formulated by Schroedinger and Max Born requires an observer outside of quantum physics to make the measurement.  My hypothesis is that inside every living cell resides an observer, and it is the presence of an internal observer that defines life.

Forgiveness. Gratitude. You’ve heard this before.

Political and psychological liberation are entwined. When we first find enough safety to be outraged at the world’s enormous cruelty and injustice, the first (necesssary) step is to experience anger at all the ways in which we personally have been hurt. It is freeing, but it is also painful to feel the power of our indignance. It is not a joyous place from which to live our long days, (though there are political leaders who may profit from keeping us stuck there.)

Beyond anger at the way the world’s unfairness has hurt us is the realization that there have been many ways in which the same unfairness has worked to our advantage. Especially for Americans, it is true that we have lived in comfort not supported by our own labors.  We consume resources mined in poorer countries, and we purchase products made by laborers who live in squalor.

Beyond our economic circumstances, there is much, much more cause for our gratitude; and gratitude is a foundation for helping ourselves and others to co-create the kind of world in which we all wish to live.

— Josh Mitteldorf