We hold these truths to be self-evident…

The idea that humans are autonomous individuals with individual self-interests that mutually conflict was already an old idea when it became the underlying philosophy behind the Declaration of Independence in 1776.  Libertarians take this perspective as the only truth, and social philosophers such as Ayn Rand, Paul Samuelson and Ludwig von Mises are not afraid to carry the premise of individuality to its absurd logical end.

The essence of modern Western political economy is that humans are inherently selfish and that a system of rewards and punishments forcibly imposed by a strong government is all that stands between us and destroying one another for profit.

In making this postulate explicit, we can begin to examine and question it, perhaps for the first time.  Compare it to the Confucian and Daoist philosophies that have been the basis of Chinese governance for 2500 years.  Compare it, indeed, to the picture that modern social psychological science has painted of human nature.

In Hindu and Chinese and Inuit and all the indigenous cultures with which I have a passing familiarity, the concept of “who I am” is much more closely tied to a social context than in the modern, industrial West.  I am my role in my family. I am a member of my community. I am defined by my relationships of love and work and play, the ideas I exchange, the art we create together. It’s hard to imagine what I would care about, what I would do if I lived in isolation.  Baby primates, including humans, die promptly if they are not held and cuddled. People in solitary confinement go mad, or worse. Older people warehoused in nursing homes die within months.

Contrast the Social Contract of Hobbes, Locke and Rousseau with the Confucian ideal which has threaded through millennia of Chinese society.  To the Western philosophers, society exists as a deal made by individuals, submitting to constraints on their freedom in exchange for the means of security and comfort that are difficult for an individual to engineer on his own.  To the Confucians, there is the harmony of being together and the symbiosis of a smoothly-functioning community, and from these flow the fulfillment and self-satisfaction of individual members.

There is a great deal of research supporting the Eastern view over the Western.  People have mirror neurons, and they experience pain and pleasure in sympathy with those around them.  Health and longevity are tied far more tightly to family relations and position in the community than to diet, self-care, genetics, or any medical variable.  There are cultures where most people are happy and satisfied with life, regardless of their pecuniary circumstances, and other cultures where even the wealthiest and most powerful are chronically nervous, bitter and unsatisfied.

More controversially, there is a suppressed literature of PSI research which shows that our thoughts and motivations are not just ours individually, but can be shared and transmitted by extrasensory means that science has yet to understand.


Image result for social contract


(~∃∞) = (Infinity doesn’t exist)

“Where did the Big Bang come from?  Who made it? Answer me that, wise guy!”

It would be plenty Daoist enough to imagine that the Universe popped into existence from the void.  There was nothing, and there was nothing, and there was nothing, and then there was everything.

What Einstein’s equation tells us is another leap beyond what our diminutive brains can grok.  Space-time came into existence at the moment of the Bang. We might stretch our minds to imagine existence outside of space. Existence outside of time is something else again.

∪∉t.    t∈∪

(The world does not exist in time, but time exists within the world.)

The domain of time is part of our Universe.  Another part, part of what exists, is outside of time.


Contemplation of paradox is a path to expanded awareness.  This is the logic of the illogical Zen koan. The mind that forms rational structures to house and to order its knowledge gives up, and a larger mind takes over, one that is capable of encompassing a reality beyond our senses, beyond comprehension, beyond logic.

Existence outside of time.

Time is just one domicile, one possible home for being.  Something birthed space-time, something larger, something capable of encompassing space-time as part of itself.  

Dao is beyond understanding.  Words may be used to speak of it, but they cannot contain it.

Dao existed before words and names, before heaven and earth, before the myriad things.

Therefore, to see beyond all boundaries to the subtle heart of things, dispense with names, with concepts, with expectations and ambitions and differences.

Dao and its many manifestations arise from the same source: subtle wonder within mysterious darkness.

To dwell in the world as it is, we must first dispense with the ambition to understand.

— Dao De Jing (or Tao Te Ching), Brian Browne Walker translation (all except the last line which is my own rendering)


Les Deux Infinis

Infinity as a concept has been made rigorous by mathematicians.  It is assigned a definite meaning so that the symbol ∞ can be manipulated sensibly without undermining the logic of the systems in which it participates.  Mathematicians can talk about infinity because they have come to agreement in advance about precisely what it means.

1 / 0 = ∞

In science, infinity has another meaning, a different meaning that must not be confused with mathematical infinity.  To a physicist, infinity simply means “large enough that we don’t have to worry about running out, or coming to its end.”  Alternatively, infinity is a conceptual tool for approximate calculations. We say something is infinite to justify neglecting terms that are in comparison, that might be added to it or subtracted from it.  We always remember that an infinity must be divided by a comparable infinity before it has a meaningful place in our computations or in our conceptions.  Infinity always cancels out of the equations.

The greater part of quantum field theory consists in rules for how to add and subtract infinities so that we are left with a finite answer.

Physicists acknowledge that we come to practical limits of what we can measure, or of what affects us, so we never have to grapple with mathematical infinity.  Mathematical infinities are not part of our world, not in any sense that has consequence for science.

Astronomers commonly raise the question, Is our Universe finite or infinite?  And the related question, Will the Universe go on forever, or will time come to an end?  They adduce evidence in the form of measurements of speeds and galaxy counts and densities, plug those numbers into Einstein’s equations, and purport to tell us one way or the other. These questions and their answers must be understood in the context of physical infinity, not mathematical infinity.  

Physics offers us enough challenges to stretch our mental framework without having to worry about forever, so there’s one subject on which you can set your mind at ease.

Time, even time had a beginning, and will have an end.

On Waiting

I’ve spent the day (20 Jan) on airplanes, waiting in security lines and passport control lines, waiting at airport gates, waiting.  It’s the kind of day that underscores a basic truth that I have shoved into the background because it’s the water I’m swimming in:  I spend a lot of my day waiting for something to be over.airport-security-line1

Buddhist teachingat least the version popularized in my American circlestells us that “life is suffering”: the first of four Noble Truths.   (How noble is suffering?)  Meditation is prescribed as the remedy for suffering, but meditation can feel like waiting.  This is very bad.  I can’t help but feel it’s bad.  Certainly, it’s not what I wish to get from my meditation.

Modern life is full of waiting.  Because we’re social, all of us spend much of our day waiting for the slowest of us.  Or we wait for some limited resource. “Please listen carefully because our options have changed.  Please wait to hear all options before making your selection. Press 1 if you are a Platinum Star Preferred Customer…”

Waiting for my computer.  People who design software environments seem to be stretching us to our limits and beyond.  Waiting for screens to load with (mostly) stuff I don’t need and don’t want.  Ads are much more data-intensive than content on most web pages.  The Windows operating system can drop into a mode—unanticipated by its designers—in which most of its CPU cycles are used to swap information from memory to disk cache and from cache back to memory.

It drives some employers crazy to watch their employees sitting idle during paid time.  But they’re not engaged as autonomous agents, tasked with accomplishing a goal in the way that makes the most sense given their current situation; rather they are confined to a strict protocol, to act in a pre-determined way regardless of how the system around them may be functioning or failing to function.  Hence, employees spend a great deal of time waiting for one another.

Much of the time that I’m not waiting, I’m trying to “get something done” which is closely related. Part of me is doing the task, while another part is waiting for it to be over.  I’m chopping the vegetables as fast as I can because the oil is already smoking in the pan, where I’ve turned up the flame to maximum in order to save time by pre-heating. If I swim harder my laps will be over sooner, but they’ll be that much less pleasant along the way.  High intensity interval training offers more conditioning in a shorter amount of time, but it hurts.

I’ve learned to be patient.  I’m good at tolerating empty, waiting time. That doesn’t make it good or right.  It’s not the way I want to live. I want to think about how to change the reality or, more realistically, change my attitude toward the reality.  I want a practice that will lead to a new habit, a program to change my waiting behavior.

What does it feel like to be waiting?  What would it feel like NOT to be waiting?  

When am I not waiting?  Am I waiting while I’m sleeping?  Lying down at night feels like a release, and I am not conscious of waiting to fall asleep.  Up in the middle of the night, I can sometimes feel impatient for sleep.  Relaxing doesn’t feel like waiting.  Often I’m waiting to eat, but then I’m distracting myself while eating, or else waiting to be done eating.  Chewing is a grind.

Dream recall is waiting of a different sortwaiting for an image or idea or memory to gel enough that I can write it down.  It makes me impatient. As I write now, I have a sense that I’m waiting for the right word to appear in my head, or waiting for the sentence to congeal around the idea.

What is multitasking about?  Sometimes it can be a way to fill my life with more of the rich experience that I love.  Sometimes it can be a statement that I don’t value any of these chores in themselves, so I want to get them all done as fast as possible and move on to time spent in something more meaningful.  A third possibility is that there is pain inside me that requires more and more distraction to insulate me from experiencing what is going on inside.

I don’t want to spend my life waiting because it seems a tragic paradox.  Life is precious. In my 70th year, I am aware how much of it is in the past, and how little of these decades I have spent savoring the texture of my consciousness.  A voice from deep within me intuits that this paradigm of time as a scarce commodity that I squander while I am waiting is not reality, that indeed it is the root of my problem.

I can take a more positive view.  What do I envision as my occupation and my attitude that I propose to substitute for waiting?  Answers:

  • A living relationship to the present
  • Joy, if available
  • Awareness of my sense experience and thoughts
  • Learning
  • Empathetic attention to others, reaching out with my intuitive faculties to feel what someone else is feeling and to use empathy as a focal origin for sharing good will.

And how might I get there?  Suggested therapies and disciplines include:

  • A “homeopathic” or paradoxical approach: Experience waiting.  Meditate with the focus, “I’m waiting for the bell to ring so this can be over”
  • Introspection.  Repeatedly say or write, “I am waiting for this exercise to be over”, and write down my thought in response each time.
  • Clock meditation.  Sit watching a clock for 15 minutes or 30 or 60 minutes.
  • Heartbeat meditation.  Sit while counting 1000 or 2000 or 3000 heartbeats.
  • Ask during meditation and throughout the day, “What is the highest calling for this moment?”
    • Ossia: What is the richest experience that is available to me in this moment?
    • Alter ossia: I invite my awareness to full aliveness in this moment.
    • Sed alter ossia:  I remember my intention to dive into the full experience of this moment.

The time I have spent waiting can be subdivided into

  1. Time when I’m actually in pain or discomfort, as trapped on a jet plane with a headache, noise and no room to move
  2. Time when I’m not in pain but don’t feel in control of my time (waiting in line, waiting for someone’s attention, waiting for a train or plane)
  3. Time when I’m waiting for my own brain to fetch a memory or produce an idea or parse a sentence.

Each of these situations may require its own separate approach

  1. When I am uncomfortable, I seek distraction to pass the time.  Would it be be more beneficial to set my attention on my inner pain, to notice the pain and discomfort and noise as the focus of my present awareness?
  2. When I am in line, the best experiences I have had have been connecting with others in the same predicament, making eye contact or beginning a conversation or sharing messages that reinforce our solidarity in the face of absurd rules that keep us trapped here.
  3. Surely I can learn to appreciate my mind as it is working, to watch it in a state of gratitude and wonder.  Getting up to walk or do a minute of intense exercise or play the piano can be a way to manage my internal creative process, creating space for the idea or the paragraph or the algorithm to emerge.


A restaurant waiter today is assigned more tables than he can attend to, and he has no time to spare.  But consider that the word’s origin comes from a culture with a different pace of life, before optimal efficiency became a religion, before money became the common denominator of all our values, before the mindset of capitalism had metastasized to dominate every aspect of our lives.

A restaurant’s patron could expect that there would be a person assigned to respond to his whims and fancies in the moment, not to hover about the table but to remain attentive within earshot so that whenever the patron desired service, he could respond without delay.

Through the 19th Century in Britain and Europe, people of modest wealth (not just the super-rich) routinely employed butlers and valets, maids and household servants who lived as adjunct family members, having traded their freedom and status for a lifetime of security and a pace of work that was often not overly taxing.  Their job was indeed to be available, to spend most of their time waiting for instructions, being ready to act with alacrity when called upon. I don’t think that they routinely experienced boredom.

Consider the common expectation that we are busy.  Beginning with an infant’s feeding schedule and nap schedule, we accustom children to time structures, so that by the time they are ready for kindergarten, they are amenable to a time for reading, a time for drawing, a time for recess, a time for napping.  By the time we are out of grade school we have absorbed the necessity of “using our time” efficiently, and we have ceased to question whether time is a scarce commodity to be budgeted, or is it the ocean in which our lives are swimming? If Friday comes around and you don’t have plans for your weekend, do you feel uneasy with the implication that you may be less important or less in demand than others whose dance cards were filled in long ago?

Machines have taken away the need for human servants to perform many of the tasks we require for everyday comfort.  But today, even machines are kept busy by the capitalists, as a way to increase efficiency and maximize profits. You may have a vacuum cleaner and a food processor that are used just a few minutes each week, but the factory owner who has invested in expensive equipment may feel a need to employ shift workers so that the equipment is in use 24/7, and the airlines have made a science out of scheduling to keep their craft in the air.

The words “bored”, “boring” and “boredom” appear nowhere in all of Plato.  2000 years later, Shakespeare uses “bored” and “boring” exactly once each, and both times refer to boring a hole through the earth.  It would seem that boredom is a modern affliction. To “be a bore” meaning “to be tiresome or dull” first occurs in print in 1768, and at that time it is not about an absence of stimulus, but rather a grating, persistent irritation.

That doesn’t mean that before 1768 the prospect of sitting quietly or walking through a quiet meadow was regarded as inherently blissful.  But it does suggest that there was nothing wearisome about unscheduled time, time without a goal, time spent comfortably in the absence of notable stimulus to the senses.  This time passed in intimate relation with the self might be tortured or it might be blissful or anything in between. At root, it is the un-dyed texture of the living moment, the fabric of which life is made.  It is, in the last analysis, all that we have.

The Measure of All Things

For 99.99% of the history of the living earth, there were no human beings on its surface.  Was this world of no value, an extravagant waste because there was “no one there to appreciate it”?

And for most of the remaining 0.01%, humans had a negligible global impact on the web of life.  So, during that time, were things better or worse?

Image result for most beautiful tree

If man is the measure of all things, then it makes no sense to ask about the beauty of a biosphere on which no man opened his eyes. But if elephants can paint, then surely they have a visual aesthetic, and even human musicians recognize a beauty in the cetacean’s song. Birds decorate their nests, and spiders love symmetry. Some butterflies rival the peacock’s prodigious pulchritude, and even the bees seem to prefer a pretty flower to a plain one.

Beautiful Bee In Flower</a>

Can trees and mushrooms be unaware of their beauty?

amanita_muscaria_fly_agaric beautiful mushroom photography

We do not have to stretch far to imagine a broader sense of beauty shared by animals

Just as we are awash in numb, blind terror of impending death, though we regard the aeons of time before our birth with equanimity, so we view human extinction as the ultimate apocalypse, rather than a return to normalcy.

Estimates of the probability of near-term human extinction differ widely. Probably, the question is not subject to probabilistic analysis. But it is hardly unthinkable, for those of us with the courage to indulge in the folly of thought.

What would the brontosaurus have said if you told him that he would be succeeded by fieldmice?

I might have been embodied animal

I might have been embodied animal.
Instead, I wear my brain outside my skin
And touch the world through thought, unlike my kin
Who know th’immediacy of Gaia’s pull.

From brain I’m loathe to separate, it can
Provide me understanding and control.
My thinking is conflated with my soul
Because ’tis mind, not joy, that makes me Man.

How much I’ve sacrificed for this conceit!
So long as I am “better”, I can be
Depleted, dim and lifeless effigy,
Miserably anxious, numb and effete.

For connection to my body, only pain
Reminds me of the truth: I’m not my brain.

— Josh Mitteldorf

Image result for reincarnated elephant

Many universes?

“The universe” is, by definition, everything we can ever know anything about.  It’s hard enough to know about things (in our one universe) that are small and far away, at temperatures beyond what we can create in a laboratory.  It’s hard enough to know details of our evolutionary past, unable to do experiments, dependent on a spotty fossil record and conflicting studies of DNA similarity.  I’d say science has enough on its plate with trying to figure out this universe.  There’s no need to take on other universes, about which we can know nothing.

Last week, I wrote about the Anthropic Principle, which prompted mainstream astronomers to postulate the existence of zillions of other universes to avoid the alternative inference: that life is as primary as physics—that the purpose of our universe is to be a home for life.

There is another realm where physicists have postulated the existence of (even more unthinkably many) extra universes in order to save their 19th Century worldview.  That is in quantum mechanics.

QM is a set of equations for determining how the wave function changes over time.  Roughly speaking, if you know how the probability of a particle’s presence is spread out over space at any one time, you can use the QM equation to project that same knowledge into the future, to tell you, for example, what the probabilities will be for finding the particle at various points in space one second from now.  This is the mathematically-intricate but unmysterious part of QM.

The mysterious part is what happens when an observation is made.  All of a sudden, the wave function stops being what it used to be, and all probability becomes concentrated at a single point in space, where you saw the particle in your observation.  Then the equation picks up from there to start projecting a new future, based on your new knowledge.

The problem with this is: “What do you mean by an observation?”  If an observation is made by a physical system, then that physical system is governed by the same QM equations, and it shouldn’t be treated as an observation at all—just a more inclusive wave function that includes both systems.  Why should you need special rules for observations?  Aren’t Geiger counters and cloud chambers just physical systems subject to the rules of QM?  For that matter, aren’t human scientists just physical systems subject to the same rules as non-living systems?

The standard answer these days is to say that there are no observations, only different universes in which we might find ourselves, different universes in which the electron was here and it was there, different universes in which the photon spins to the right or the left, different universes in which the electron went through the left slit and in which it went through the right slit.  Every particle, every billionth of a billionth of a second, is splitting the universe into copy universes, each a tiny bit different from the other universes, each going its own way.  This is called the Many Worlds Interpretation of QM.  “Many” is the biggest understatement in science.

The reason the Many Worlds Interpretation has become popular is simply to avoid the alternative implication: that there is something outside of physics that is doing the observing.  In the MWI, all you need is a universal wave function—but a universal wave function for each universe, and there is a god-awful proliferation of universes.

In the minority view, there is just one universe, but it contains consciousness in addition to wave functions.  It is consciousness that collapses wave functions, and consciousness has an independent existence, separate from matter, able to influence matter (by making observations, collapsing the wave function).  Various versions of this view were promoted by such luminaries as von Neuman, Wigner, Bohm, and Schrödinger himself.

This story is another instance in which science is crying out for an interpretation congruent with ancient mystical ideas, but the science establishment recoils and invents a gazillion universes to avoid having to associate with mysticism.