In evolutionary theory, spite has a meaning not too distant from the everyday meaning of the word.  Classical evolutionary theory says that natural selection works only between individuals, only locally, only short-term.  The name of the game is to get more of your genes proportionately into the next generation, which means that keeping others in the same community from thriving is just as important as thriving yourself. Therefore, don’t just grab more than your share of the community resources, eat all that you can eat, and when you’re done stuffing yourself, destroy as much as you can of the remaining food so your neighbors don’t get it.  Cannibalism is a twofer.

This is the prediction of classical (neo-Darwinist) evolutionary theory, but it is not the way most animals behave in nature.  Spite and even cannibalism can be observed in nature, but far more common is wide-spread cooperation, altruism that goes across families and communities, even crossing species lines.

Among humans, sociopathic behaviors exist, and they have devastating effects for all of us, but most people—like most animals—behave generously.

In my opinion, the greatest danger to humans is not from this handful of sociopaths but from an ideology that grows out of Social Darwinism and laissez-faire capitalism of the invisible hand.  They tell us we should behave selfishly because everyone else is behaving selfishly, and this becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy.  They tell us that universal selfishness is the foundation of the harmonious ecosystems that we find in nature, while, in fact, ecosystems are stable only to the extent that individual animals and animal species behave unselfishly.

Worst of all, they tell us that when corporations behave like sociopaths that this is normal, and that our collective prosperity is somehow supported by their rapacious greed.  They warn us not to interfere with ‘free markets’ lest we undermine our own prosperity, but we look around us and we ask, ‘What prosperity?’, and a little light goes on and we begin to ask ‘Who is served by this ideology of unrestrained greed?’


Flying Soulo


Five-year-old Josh is watching Sunday morning TV while his parents sleep in. “The Fourth R” is “Religion”, and it is also the name of a program designed in a more innocent age to introduce children to religion, or to indoctrinate young minds into a narrow Judeo-Christian perspective on things spiritual, or most likely the producers of this show have experienced no such conflict because they have not in their own investigations ventured beyond the comfortable religious views that are sanctioned in America’s most complacent decade. Kerouac is not yet on the road, and Ginsberg has yet to begin his howl.  A comforting, grandfatherly war hero is in the White House, and all is copacetic.

The well-mannered child waits for Mommy and Daddy to wake up, but not a moment longer. He climbs onto the edge of the bed and “What’s a soul?” he asks.
Daddy is caught off-guard. Home for the weekend from his job as a traveling salesman, he has proudly mentored his precocious son through the wiles of Mr Wizard and the subtleties of fourth-grade mathematics, but he is utterly unprepared for the boy’s interest in metaphysics.

He gently pinches the boy’s arm. “If I pinch you here, that’s not your soul. If I pinch you there, that’s not your soul. It’s part of you, but it’s not anywhere on your body.”
The boy is abashed. He is accustomed to expect lucid explanations from his Dad, and he usually catches on quickly. But this time, he has no idea what Daddy is talking about. He doesn’t want to let on, for fear of appearing slow-witted.

“Oh” says the boy.

Secretly, he wonders, when the boys at the bus stop ask him whether he believes in Guard, what is he expected to say? What is the answer that will conceal his ineptitude in this matter and buy some time for him while he figures it out. He imagines a crossing guard who protects all the students by stopping cars in the street. He wants to be a policeman when he grows up, but he knows that the Guard on Sunday morning TV is much bigger than policemen, and he is embarrassed that Nicky Fisher and Robby Rosenthal seem to have some familiarity with this Big Guard that he lacks, and maybe that is why sometimes they don’t invite him over to play Calling All Cars or build a secret clubhouse in the woods on the other side of Stronghurst Avenue.

Already, the boy has amassed some confidence in his ability to figure stuff out, but not much confidence that other kids are going to want to play with him, especially the boys from the other side of 229th Street. He senses that this business of Souls and Guards is too important for him to betray his ignorance, so his plan is to keep his ears open, to try to hear what the other kids say, and use their clues to figure out the right answer.

Josh’s brain is what he has learned to rely upon to get him through the perils of embarrassment and ostracism. His ability to figure things out has won him the praise of his parents and teachers, and a new Erector Set from his Aunt Tillie. There are other aspects of his experience which he doesn’t talk about, and which are already half-walled off as a secret, inner world. His deepest secret has to do with the warm, tingly feeling he gets when he thinks about a blond-haired girl named Michelle who walks with a brace on one leg. He knows that it would be all over for him if boys started whispering that Josh Likes Girls.

A lesser secret has to do with a sense he has had sometimes when he is lying in bed or sitting in the bathroom. This one doesn’t seem perilous, exactly, but he has no language with which to talk about it. “I am Josh” he says to himself, and he just feels like—no, he knows—that that just isn’t true. I am these thoughts. I am the experiences and the experiencer. I am the one watching all this happening. I am the one figuring this stuff out. Josh—Josh, on the other hand, is this body that’s sitting here on the toilet seat. Josh doesn’t seem to be bound so tightly to who the boy is, who “I” is. The boy has this recurring experience, but he does not relate it to the puzzle about the soul, or the part of the body that can’t be pinched. The question of the soul is something he’s just going to have to figure out logically, by thinking. It seems hard, but it can’t be that hard, because grownups seem to know. He’s just afraid that he doesn’t have much time.  He can’t afford to wait until he’s grown up to figure it out.


Exquisite Etude

A “suspension” is a musical device in which a change in harmony happens but one note is left behind, usually one too high (occasionally one too low) and it falls into line on the next beat. While it hangs suspended, the note stands out as dissonant, and then when it falls in line there is a satisfying feeling that harmony has been restored.  Suspensions became a favorite during the 16th century, and they’ve never gone out of style since.  By the early 19th century, Chopin could write into this etude one suspension leading to another to another, so that we listen with a sense that just as one note is resolved, there’s another that’s hanging.

An etude is a study piece, presumably meant more for a student’s learning experience than for an audience’s listening pleasure.  Chopin wrote 27 etudes, (Op 10, Op 25, and three more after he was dead, which is a good trick by any stretch) and — just to make a point, I think — he included some of his most beautiful melodies in the etudes.  I think he was sending a message, “just in case you think this is a boring student piece…”

I fell in love with one of the posthumous etudes last week, and spent a few hours learning to play it.  The melody is simple, based on notes repeated 2, 3 or 4 times each.  The interesting thing is that as the melody notes repeat, the notes underneath are subtly shifting.  We say the “inner voices” are moving even as the melody and bass, which you hear most prominently, stay constant.

One more feature in the composition of this piece that adds tension and interest is that the left hand is written 4 eight notes to the measure and the right hand in 6 eighth notes, with the result that alternate notes of the base fall in between melody notes.

I had trouble finding a recording in which you can really hear the inner voices moving, so I tried to make one myself, by playing more slowly, slowing imperceptibly before some of the inner voice changes, and playing the inner voices a little louder than they might otherwise be played.  I count the experiment a failure–I like Edna Stern’s recording far better than my own, even after I allow myself a few gaffs and goofs.  Stern, by the way, is playing on a Pianoforte styled after one from the early 19th Century, such as Chopin might have played.  The tones don’t resonate as long and the overtones are less rich than a modern piano, so it sounds just a bit plinky.

Here is Stern’s version,
and here is mine.



Manchmal, wenn ein Vogel ruft
Oder ein Wind geht in den Zweigen
Oder ein Hund bellt im fernsten Gehöft,
Dann muß ich lange lauschen und schweigen.

Meine Seele flieht zuruck,
Bis wo vor tausend vergessenen Jahren
Der Vogel und der wehende Wind
Mir ähnlich und meine Bruder waren.

Meine Seele wird ein Baum
Und ein Tier und ein Wolkenweben.
Verwandelt und fremd kehrt sie zuruck
Und fragt mich. Wie soll ich Antwort geben?

–Hermann Hesse

From flickr.com: Primeval (4) | Old-growth forest, Columbia County, within th | Flickr1024 Ã-- 683 - 446k -


Sometimes the call of a bird
Or the rustle of wind-blown leaf,
Or the yelp of a dog, barely heard…
I am taken by laughter, then grief.

My soul flies back, aeons past
This life and so many others,
To a time when we all clove fast;
This bird and the wind were my brothers.

My soul becomes the tree,
A wisp of cloud, then a pond…
When, transformed, it comes back to me
Ripe with questions, how should I respond?

— translation by JJM

The Illusion of Separation

Many prophets whose wisdom I acknowledge have said that the self is an illusion, that I am not a separate consciousness but part of a Universal Consciousness.  In fact, this tenet seems to be at the core of every mystical tradition. But it is not my experience. My experience is dominated by conditions of this body, its physical needs, its habits, its aches and its yearnings.  Even my thoughts and reveries I experience as my own—no one else is thinking these thoughts when I am thinking them. I can experience empathy, but it is less immediate and compelling. I sometimes know a resonance or a consanguinuity of experience with another; but rarely, it is an intellectual experience, less palpably immediate than empathy.

I want to know what they are talking about.  I want to have the experience of Universal Consciousness.  I crave the palpable sensation of what these sages say is my deep nature.

If I didn’t have a lifelong antipathy to drugs, maybe what to do would be obvious.  Maybe ayahuasca is the answer to my prayers. 

What other paths present themselves? Moments of mutual orgasm? The marriage bond? The all-embracing commitment of parenthood?  I have known all these, and they have transformed me. But can I say that they broke through my sense of being a separate self? Have they softened the boundaries of my ego so that I could say, even momentarily, “Thou and I are one”?

My instinct is to look to meditation or dreams to find this experience, but isn’t it more likely to be found in a community or an ecosystem?  A oneness with nature, or maybe a culture that takes nature as a point of departure?

Sign me up.

But wait.  What sense does it make to say “I want this experience”?  There are some things you can obtain by trying, and often wanting something enough is a big boost toward achieving it.  But this direct experience which “I” seek can never be the experience of an “I”. It is the dissolution of the “I”. It is the feeling of what it’s like to not be an I.  It is what it is like to not be. It is death.

Don’t sign me up quite yet.


If you find yourself feeling utterly separate, you are not alone.

A Radical Truth

I’m at a stage of life where the thing I treasure most (and dread most) is the discovery (more and more) that things I have believed all my life are wrong.  I want to know what is true, even if it shakes me up. It’s disorienting, it’s humbling, it’s confusing and damn inefficient, but it’s all worthwhile if only the doors of wonder crack open for an instant.  

I now question the very idea of truth, in the sense of an objective reality that can be discovered via observation and logic.  

I am a scientist.  All of science is premised on the presumed objective existence of an external world, independent of what we think, independent of what we want, independent of the questions that we ask about it and the ways in which we ask them.  There must be some reality behind this assumption, because science works so well, and it has led to so much control over our material world.

It’s not just science, of course.  The fact that we can (often) agree with others about what has happened, about what is now the case, about what we might do, and what the likely consequences will be.  We may argue about what the truth is, but we don’t deny that there is a truth that you and I ought to be able to agree on. The fact that human societies can function at all depends on a substantially universal agreement about what is real.

Two hundred words into this essay, you’re rapidly losing patience with me because only a dreamer (or a pedant) would ever waste time on the question whether there is an objective reality.  What possible difference could it make? If I don’t want to lose you, Dear Reader, I’d better hurry on to offering some reason to doubt what you have never imagined could be doubted.

First, the idea that there is no way to separate subjective from objective is built into quantum physics, and this aspect of the theory has been explictly tested.

Second, results of parapsychology experiments tell us that our mental intention has an effect on reality, even when the intention is focused on an object far away with no known mechanism of influence.

Third, there is common experience, if we are honest about it: things that we have dismissed as coincidence because we had no other framework in which to view them, and because we have rejected the mythologies and superstitions of countless generations past.

  1. Physics

From the birth of quantum theory in 1925, physicists realized that the relation of subject to object was profoundly changed from classical physics.  Some argued for a kind of co-creation of reality between the experimenter and the experimental object. The stark contradiction to our notion of objectivity was brought into focus in the theorem of J.S. Bell, 1964.  He showed that quantum randomness is more than just our inability to know what is objectively real. His theorem interprets (and experiments verify) that the world is making decisions based on what questions we ask in our experiments.

An dramatic example is the “quantum Zeno effect”.  An atom may be known to decay into another state with a certain probability, but as long as we look at it and continually ask (with our experiment) “Have you decayed yet?” the answer will always be no. “Watched water never boils.”

There is an “inverse quantum Zeno effect” as well, in which you efficiently can move a system along from state 1 to state 2 by asking, “Are you in state 1.01?” and then “Are you in state 1.02?”, etc…


  1. Parapsychology

Sometimes, people make things happen by thinking about them.  There are small effects that are common and statistically reproducible.  There are large, dramatic effects that turn up in anecdotes. There are individuals who have more effective psychic powers than the rest of us.  Remote healing. The power of prayer. Psychokinesis. It has all been documented for those who are open-minded and patient with the experimental details.  (That excludes most established academics and journal editors.) I recommend Dean Radin’s books for a rigorous and readable introduction to the subject.


  1. Intuition, common sense, experience, and traditional cultures

I ask you to look back over your life and recall times when something very improbable happened that dramatically changed your course.  Perhaps you’ve shrugged and written off the

Remember that the idea of an objective world determined purely by the mathematical logic of physical interactions is only as old as the Enlightenment in Europe, and that a far more mystical, enchanted and animated view of the world is common to all the indigenous traditions of the world, going back into pre-history.  With what hubris do we dismiss the entire body of acquired cultural wisdom as superstition, and assert that “we know better now”!

What do we make of this?

It doesn’t mean that we have to throw away any of the practical, experienced-based knowledge we have about how to be in the world, what works and what doesn’t, how to talk to one another about reality.  But it does open up the possibility–even the probability–that there are many new ways to be and ways to create that we have yet to discover.

And surely my message resonates with our feeling that we live in a time when the practical is no longer practical, when our ways of doing and ways of knowing have imploded and are ripe for replacement.  My guess (I don’t presume to call it a prediction) is that we are unable to change the way we look at our world while surrounded by the culture we are in, and we are unable to change the culture while we are mired in our present world-view.  So the two will have to evolve together. Maybe we shouldn’t even aim to discover the ultimate nature of reality, but moderate our goal toward finding a model that is a little more comprehensive than the positivism/physicalism that needs replacing.