Do we have control over our thoughts?

If the answer is “yes,” when and how do we choose what we’re going to think next? And does that mean it’s possible to know what my next thought is going to be before I think it? (I don’t think so) And if we can choose what we are going to think, can we choose to think nothing for the next 30 seconds?

I’ve been reading up on this for a good while now and I’ve concluded it only feels like I’m thinking my thoughts. In fact, the thoughts are thinking me. I’m that little kid in the toy car on the front of the grocery cart. I’m turning the steering wheel left and right and — occasionally — the car turns in the direction I steered. And before you ask, no, I have no fucking idea who’s pushing the cart… I just know it ain’t me.

A Blockchain for Facts

The most interesting idea associated with blockchain have nothing to do with money. It’s ideas like this that really grab me. I fiddled with Klout when it first came out but quickly decided I didn’t care much about my ‘influence’ score. But it would be cool to have a high Rep score.

Here’s how it works: After one group of people joins a prediction market and bets on an outcome, Augur pays others to identify that outcome—to verify what happened. But it doesn’t just pay them a flat fee. On its blockchain, Augur houses its own cryptocurrency, a digital token that encourages people to get things right. “If you’re not telling the truth, you stand to lose a bunch of money,” Krug says.

Augur calls its digital token the Rep. This cryptocurrency doesn’t let you buy and sell stuff. It tracks your reputation—that is, how often you tell the truth. People bet their Rep tokens that they are indeed telling the truth—reporting the facts as they actually are. If most others agree, the system returns their tokens and pays them in cash.

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: 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.