Comfortable with Emptiness

I came across the following eight or nine years ago on a blog called Beyond Karma. The title of the post was “Cease to Cherish Opinion” and the line that has stuck with me is: “Do not seek the truth; only cease to cherish opinions.” You can and will have opinions, of course… but hold them lightly. Don’t cherish them. At least that’s been my understanding. But the “Do not seek the truth” part has always puzzled me. Why wouldn’t you want to seek the truth? Because (I think) “truth” is a concept. A word we’ll come back to in a minute.

“Rely only on direct experience. It may feel little uncomfortable to rely only direct experience, because what do we really know from direct experience? If you go into it, there isn’t much we can be sure of. “I exist,” there is Awareness, and all experience is in the Now. That’s about it.”

“Get comfortable with the emptiness of no beliefs, no ideas, no concepts, no knowing, no desires, no anticipation, no system, and no future.”

The notion of “emptiness” comes up a lot in Buddhism and Taoism. But what does it mean to to have no beliefs, no ideas, and all the rest. I’ve read that last sentence so many times the words lost all meaning and became just sounds coming out of my mouth. So I looked up the definitions.

Belief – an acceptance that a statement is true or that something exists.
Doesn’t sound all that iron-clad, does it. “I’m not certain, but I believe…” Okay, I can sorta see no beliefs.

Idea – a thought or suggestion as to a possible course of action; the aim or purpose.
A “possible course of action” isn’t the sort of thing you can take to the bank, is it. And who hasn’t admitted to being “fresh out of ideas.” Sure. No ideas.

Concept – an abstract idea; a general notion.
I’m thinking I could go for a while without a concept. I thought an ‘idea’ seemed a little ‘abstract’ so an ‘abstract idea’ is fuzzy enough to put down for a bit.

Knowing – be aware of through observation, inquiry, or information.
To know something through “inquiry or information” doesn’t seem that rock solid. We get bad information all the time. But isn’t observation as good as it gets, reliance-wise? David Blaine says no. Our powers of observation aren’t really that powerful. I can get comfortable with no knowing.

Desire – a strong feeling of wanting to have something or wishing for something to happen.
This one sounds easy to give up but we all want things to be the way we want them to be. Even after they aren’t, if you know what I mean. But desire feels like an emergent property to me. I don’t decide to desire. Desire just is. From out of nowhere (probably the brain). I’d be happy to relinquish desire if someone can tell me how.

Anticipation – the action of anticipating something; expectation or prediction.
This is sort of a ground ball. Maybe. Anticipation must be of a future event or time but the anticipating can only happen now. The future is, after all, imaginary. Not real. Not yet. If I’m anticipating something — even something very pleasant — I’m missing out on the here and now which is the only real time. So let’s “be in the moment” and no anticipation.

System – set of connected things or parts forming a complex whole, in particular.
This one has me stumped. What would it mean to be comfortable with no system? And why would we want to? If I had to guess, this has something to do with spontaneity. Don’t plan, just wait and see what happens.

Future – the time or a period of time following the moment of speaking or writing; time regarded as still to come.
Did we cover this with anticipation? The future only exists in my head. Mind stuff. Sure, I can think about the future but I can only do that thinking in this moment. Now. Put me down for no future.

So we’re “comfortable with the emptiness of no beliefs, no ideas, no concepts, no knowing, no desires, no anticipation, no system, and no future.” What is this state of being? What could be happening?

I could hear a bird singing. I could feel the sun on my face. I could smell that first delicious whiff of a double espresso.

Seems to me the one thing beliefs and ideas and concepts and all the rest have in common is thinking. Thoughts. But no thinking is required for most of the really good stuff. I’m not sure it’s possible to intentionally stop thinking but we do experience moments where the mind becomes still and focused. Jumping the boat’s wake at 40mph is something you do (not me but you, probably) without thinking. The guitarist completely in the groove, playing that song she’s practiced a thousand times. Those moments in deep meditation when the chattering voice in your head becomes silent for just a moment. Emptiness filled with a special kind of awareness, perhaps.

No more car chase movies?

Everything I’ve read to date about autonomous vehicles has led me to believe this technology is inevitable. Not if, just when. But something (finally?) occurred to me a couple of days ago that has me reconsidering. This would mean the end of car chases in movies, wouldn’t it? The horror! Think of all the great car chases in the last fifty years.

“The consensus among historians and film critics is that the first modern car chase movie was 1968’s Bullitt. The revolutionary 10-minute-long chase scene in Bullitt was far longer and far faster than what had gone before, and placed cameras so that the audience felt as though they were inside the cars.” (Wikipedia)

Terminator, French Connection, The Blues Brothers, To Live and Die in L.A., The Bourne Identity, The Italian Job, Mad Max: Road Warrior (okay, we’d probably still have that), Vanishing Point, The Matrix Reloaded (will we have autonomous motorcycles?). And the list goes on and on.

You’re gonna tell me it will drone chases or something like those vertical “highways” in Minority report or The Fifth Element but, man, it won’t be the same. Is it too late to stop this train?

Homo Deus: Dataism

This is the third of three posts featuring excerpts from the new book by Yuval Harari (Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow). The first post dealt with traditional religions, creeds and ‘isms.’ The second post, free will and consciousness. The excerpts below are some of Dr. Harari’s thoughts on new religions that might replace the old.

The obvious problem with posting selected excerpts the the absence of contest which you can only get by reading the book. I encourage you to do so.

The new religions are unlikely to emerge from the caves of Afghanistan or from the madrasas of the Middle East. Rather, they will emerge from research laboratories. […] Despite all the talk of radical Islam and Christian fundamentalism, the most interesting place in the world from a religious perspective is not the Islamic State or the Bible Belt, but Silicon Valley. That’s where hi-tech gurus are brewing for us brave new religions that have little to do with God, and everything to do with technology.

These new techno-religions can be divided into two main types: techno-humanism and data religion. Data religion argues that humans have completed their cosmic task and should not pass the torch on to entirely new kinds of entities. Techno-humanism still sees humans as the apex of creation and clings to many traditional humanist values […] but concludes we should use technology to create Homo deus — a much superior model. Homo deus will retain some essential human features, but will also enjoy upgraded physical and mental abilities that will enable it to hold its own even against the most sophisticated non-conscious algorithms. (With the help of genetic engineering, nanotechnology and brain-computer interfaces.

What might replace desires and experiences as the source of all meaning and authority? Information. The most interesting emerging religion is Dataism.

Data (has been) seen as only the first step in a long chain of intellectual activity. Humans were supposed to distil data into information, information into knowledge, and knowledge into wisdom. However, Dataists believe that humans can no longer cope with the immense flows of data.

Dataism is most firmly entrenched in its two mother disciplines: computer science and biology.

As data-processing conditions change again in the twenty-first century, democracy might decline and even disappear. As both volume and speed of data increase, venerable institutions like elections, political parties and parliaments might become obsolete — not because they are unethical, but because the can’t process data efficiently enough.

In the early twenty-first century politics is bereft of grand visions. Government has become mere administration. It manages the country, but no longer leads it. Government ensures that teachers are paid on time and sewage systems don’t overflow, but it has no idea where the country will be in twenty years.

We often imagine that democracy and the free market won because they were ‘good’. In truth, they won because they improved the global data-processing system.

Dataism is the first movement since 1789 that created a genuinely novel value: freedom of information.

Homo Deus: Free Will and Consciousness

This is the second of three posts featuring excerpts from the new book by Yuval Harari (Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow). The first post dealt with traditional religions, creeds and ‘isms.’ The excerpts below are some of Dr. Harari’s thoughts on the concepts of free will and consciousness.

The obvious problem with posting selected excerpts the the absence of contest which you can only get by reading the book. I encourage you to do so.

Free will exists only in the imaginary stores we humans have invented. […] (The question is not whether humans) can act upon their inner desires — the question is whether they can choose their desires in the first place.

I feel a particular wish welling up within me because this is the feeling created by the biochemical processes in my brain. […] I don’t choose my desires. I only feel them, and act accordingly.

Once we accept that there is no soul and that humans have no inner essence called ‘the self’, it no longer makes sense to ask, ‘How does the self choose its desires?’ […] There is only a stream of consciousness, and desires arise and pass away within this stream, but there is no permanent self that owns the desires.

If I am indeed the master of my thoughts and decisions, can I decide not to think about anything at all for the next sixty seconds?

(There are) at least two different selves within us: the experiencing self and the narrating self. The experiencing self is our moment-to-moment consciousness. The narrating self is forever busy spinning yarns about the past and making plans for the future. […] It doesn’t narrate everything, and usually weaves the story using only peak moments and end results. […] Most of us identify with our narrating self. When we say ‘I’, we mean the story in our head not the onrushing stream of experiences we undergo. […] We always retain the feeling that we have a single unchanging identity from birth to death (and perhaps even beyond).

If you want to make people believe in imaginary entities such as gods and nations, you should make them sacrifice something valuable.

Each of us has a sophisticated system that throws away most of our experiences, keeps only a few choice samples, mixes them up with sbits from movies we’ve seen, novels we’ve read, speeches we’ve heard, and daydreams we’ve savoured, and out of all that jumble it weaves a seemingly coherent story about who I am, where I came from and where I am going. This story tells me what to love, whom to hate and what to do with myself. This story may even cause me to sacrifice my life, if that’s what the plot requires. […] But in the end, they are all just stories.

Every moment the biochemical mechanisms of the brain create a flash of experience, which immediately disappears. Then more flashes appear and fade, appear and fade, in quick succession. These momentary experiences do not add up to any enduring essence.

CSPAN meets YouTube

(Business Insider) “A new site called Digital Democracy aims to help voters hold their elected officials accountable by making local government hearings searchable by speaker and subject. You can think of the platform like CSPAN meets YouTube. […] A bot makes daily transcripts of state senate and assembly hearings. It uses facial recognition to monitor who’s talking. Users can see legislators’ financial ties on the platform, and easily share video clips on social media. […] Users can look up hearings by date, topic, speaker, or committee. Or if you want to hear a specific speaker, the video will automatically jump to the point when that person starts talking.”

“Digital Democracy only posts footage from hearings in New York and California right now (the nonprofit launched the platform in California in 2015, and it became available in New York in February). But Blakeslee says that his team hopes to eventually expand the platform nationwide.”

Will we see a day when I can tell my personal AI to find everything my state rep says on topic XYZ? (Sound of thousand of tiny cockroach feet scurrying from kitchen light)

Homo Deus: Religion

One measure of a good (non-fiction) book is how much highlighting and underlining I do. The new book by Yuval Harari (Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow) filled seven pages so I won’t include all of the excerpts here. The link above will take you to a Google Doc that has them all.

Like his previous book (Sapiens), Homo Deus made me think about a lot of Big Ideas in fresh, new and sometimes uncomfortable ways. He makes some bold predictions but presents them more in terms of trends and in this regard the book reminded me of Kevin Kelley’s The Inevitable. Dr. Harari specializes in World History and macro-historical processes. (Wikipedia)

And the “macro-historical” perspective is what really grabbed in this book. It was good to be jolted out of my ‘election cycle’ time frame. I’ll probably do two or three posts on this book just to keep them from getting impossible long.

I came away with a new — and much broader — understanding of religion which Harari defines as: “any all-encompassing story that confers superhuman legitimacy on human laws, norms and values.”

He includes Liberalism, Communism and other modern creeds but one quickly understand from context that he’s not talking about “liberals vs. conservatives” in the narrow sense of American politics.

“Liberals, communists and followers of other modern creeds dislike describing their own system as a ‘religion’, because they identify religion with superstitions and supernatural powers. If you tell communists or liberals that they are religious, they think you’re accusing them of blindly believing in groundless pipe dreams. In fact, it means only that they believe in some system of moral laws that wasn’t invented by humans, but humans must nevertheless obey.”

This topic gets really interesting in the final chapter of the book but we’ll save that for another post.

The communist laws of history are similar to the commandments of the Christian God, inasmuch as they are superhuman forces that humans cannot change at will. According to Marx, we cannot change the laws of history.

Religion is a tool for preserving social order and for organising large-scale cooperation. […] Without the guiding hand of some religion, it is impossible to maintain large-scale social orders.

Religion is a deal, whereas spirituality is a journey. […] If you obey God, you’ll be admitted to heaven. If you disobey Him, you’ll burn in hell. […] Spiritual journeys take people in mysterious ways towards unknown destinations (Who am I?). […] For religions, spirituality is a dangerous threat.

Religion is interested above all in order. Science is interested above all in power (e.g. to cure diseases, fight wars and produce food.)

Modernity is a surprisingly simple deal. Humans agree to give up meaning in exchange for power.

Is economic growth more important than family bonds? By presuming to make such ethical judgements, free-market capitalism has crossed the border from the land of science into that of religion.

New technologies kill old gods and give birth to new gods. The revolutionary technologies of the twenty-first century are far more likely to spawn unprecedented religious movements than to revive medieval creeds.

Islamic fundamentalists may repeat the mantra that ‘Islam is the answer’, but religions that lose touch with the technological realities of the day forfeit their ability even to understand the questions being asked. […] Hundreds of millions may nevertheless go on believing in Islam, Christianity or Hinduism. But numbers alone don’t count for much in history. History is often shaped by small groups of forward-looking innovators rather than by backward-looking masses.

In the early twenty-first century the train of progress is again pulling out of the station — and this will probably be the last train to ever leave the station called Homo sapiens. Those who miss this train will never get a second chance. In order to get a seat on it you need to understand twenty-first-century technology, and in particular the powers of biotechnology and computer algorithms. […] If Marx came back to life today, he would probably urge his few remaining disciples to devote less time to reading Das Kapital and more time to studying the Internet and the human genome.

Ask yourself: what was the most influential discovery, invention or creation of the twentieth century? That’s a difficult question, because it is hard to choose from a long list of candidates, including scientific discoveries such as antibiotics, technological inventions such as computers, and ideological creations such as feminism. Now ask yourself: what was the most influential discovery, invention or creation of traditional religions such as Islam and Christianity in the twentieth century? This too is a very difficult question, because there is so little to choose from. What did priests, rabbis and muftis discover in the twentieth century that can be mentioned in the same breath as antibiotics, computers or feminism? Having mulled over these two questions, from where do you think the big changes of the twenty-first century will emerge: from the Islamic State, or Google?

The Bible is kept as a source of authority, even though it is no longer a true source of inspiration.

College theater days

I spent my first two years of college trying to keep my draft deferment and quickly figured out I could do that better as a Speech/Theater major than as a Business major. I got a small part in Taming of the Shrew (below) my junior year which earned me a tiny scholarship ($500 a semester?). In my senior year I played the idiot son John in Lion In Winter. From the review: “Mays, in an attempt to convey his awkwardness, at times overdid John’s walk.” You can read my reviews here.

I loved the theater crowd. It was as cliquish as any fraternity or sorority but we didn’t have to dress as nice. As much as I enjoyed it, I never developed an interest in community theater. I still have a recurring nightmare in which I have to go onstage before a huge audience but I have never been to a rehearsal. In the dream, I’m trying to figure out how I can have a script in my hand without the audience noticing. Or come up with a way to adlib through the whole thing.