Why something instead of nothing?

whydoestheworldexistI’m not losing any sleep over this question, unless you count some late nights reading books like Jim Holt’s Why Does the World Exist? Holt is an American philosopher, author and essayist. Mr. Holt tells his “existential detective story” by talking with “philosophers, theologians, particle physicists, cosmologists, mystics and one very great American novelist.”

This is one of those books I found myself rewinding every few pages in an effort to simply understand the words, the sentences. So I can’t review it but here’s what the NYT had to say.

I do manage to come away with something from books like this. First, an appreciation for how long really smart people have been thinking about questions like why-something-not-nothing. Second, how little I really know and understand about… everything. Okay, here’s a third thing: nothing that happens in our (humans) blink-of-an-eye existence is of much consequence when viewed against the backdrop of a 14 billion year old universe. Global warming; Rush Limbaugh; a nuclear Iran. Specs of dust. A few excerpts:

“For the vast majority of Americans there is no such thing as the “mystery of existence.” If you ask them why the universe exists, they’ll say it exists because God made it. If you then ask them why God exists, the answer you get will depend on how technologically sophisticated they are. They might say that God is self-caused, that He is the ground of His own being, that His existence is contained in His essence. Or they might tell you that people who ask such impious questions will burn in hell.”

The life of the universe, like each of our lives, may be a mere interlude between two nothings.

Perhaps we see too little of reality to be aware of the reason behind it, or because any such reason must lie beyond the intellectual limits of humans.

Nothing is popularly held to be better than a dry martini, but worse than sand in the bedsheets. A poor man has it, a rich man needs it, and if you it for a long time, it’ll kill you. On occasion, nothing could be further from the truth, but it is not clear how much further.

Nothingness – A possibility reality, a conceivable state of affairs: that in which nothing exists.

In the thirteenth century, the Catholic Church declared it to be an article of faith that the world had a beginning in time.

The entities making up the physical world are like the pieces in a game of chess: what counts is the role defined for each piece by a system of rules that say how it can move, not the stuff the piece is made of.

“Words like ‘theism’ and ‘atheism’ and ‘God,’ they’ve moved around so much that they’re practically meaningless. Who really cares? I do consider myself a Spinozist, however, for two reasons. First, I think Spinoza was right that we’re all tiny regions in an infinite mind. And I agree with him that the material world, the world described by science, is pattern of divine thought.” — Cosmologist John Leslie

Buddhism Without Beliefs

buddhism-beliefsI’m not really sure what Stephen Batchelor is trying to say in Buddhism Without Beliefs. I think his main idea is there in the title. Excerpts below got some highlighter… real reviews at Amazon.  This wasn’t one of my favorite books on the topic.

Awakening is no longer seen as something to attain in the distant future, for it is not a thing but a process — and this process is the path itself. […] It is an authentic way of being in the world.

The dharma is not something to believe in but something to do. [ Wikipedia: In Buddhism dharma means “cosmic law and order”, but is also applied to the teachings of the Buddha.]

An agnostic Buddhist is not a “believer” with claims to revealed information about supernatural or paranormal phenomena, and in this sense is not “religious.” […] The dharma is not a belief by which you will be miraculously saved. It is a method to be investigated and tried out. […] An agnostic Buddhist eschews atheism as much as theism, and is as reluctant to regard the universe as devoid of meaning as endowed with meaning.

Buddhism could be described as “the culture of awakening.”

Religions are united not be belief in God but by belief in life after death.

Regardless of what we believe, our actions will reverberate beyond our deaths. Irrespective of our personal survival, the legacy of our thoughts, words, and deeds will continue through the impressions we leave behind in the lives of those we have influenced or touched in any way.

Life is neither meaningful nor meaningless. Meaning and its absence are given to life by language and imagination.

Anguish emerges from craving for life to be other than it is.

Dharma practice is founded on resolve. […] An ongoing, heartfelt reflection on priorities, values and purpose. […] Dharma practice is the process of awakening itself: the thoughts, words, and deeds that weave the unfolding fabric of experience into a coherent whole.

The process of awakening is like walking on a footpath. When we find such a path after hours of struggling through undergrowth, we know at last that we are heading somewhere. Moreover, we suddenly find that we can move freely without obstruction. We settle into a rhythmic and easy pace. […] What counts is not so much the destination but the resolve to take the next step.

Focused awareness is difficult not because we are inept at some spiritual technology but because it threatens our sense of who we are.

The stiller the mind, the more palpable the dazzling torrent of life becomes.

The world is so saturated with the meanings given to it that those meanings seem to reside in the things themselves.

At every moment we are either inclining toward or engaged in an act: a physical movement, an utterance, a thought. Even when you decide not to act, you are still doing something: refraining.

As you sit in meditation, notice how what you are doing is the enactment of an earlier resolve. By attending to the details of this present moment, by choosing not to recollect the past or plan for the future, you are engaged in a process of creating yourself in a specific and deliberate way.

What are we but the story we keep repeating, editing, censoring, and embellishing in our heads? [I am] an unfolding narrative.

We cannot attain awakening for ourselves: we can only participate in the awakening of life.

When belief and opinion are suspended, the mind has nowhere to rest.

The Devil’s Code

The Devil’s Code by John Sanford was published in 2000. Fourteen years ago.

Clipper II was an Orwellian nightmare come true, a practical impossibility, or a huge joke at the taxpayers’ expense—take your pick. It was designed in response to a fear of the U.S. government that unbreakable codes would make intercept-intelligence impractical. And really, they had a point, but their solution was so draconian that it was doomed to failure from the start.

The Clipper II chip—like the original Clipper chip before it was a chip designed to handle strong encryption. If it was made mandatory (which the government wanted), everyone would have to use it. And the encryption was guaranteed secure. Absolutely unbreakable.

Except that the chip contained a set of keys just for the government, just in case. If they needed to, they could look up the key for a particular chip, get a wiretap permit, and decrypt any messages that were sent using the chip. They would thereby bring to justice (they said) all kinds of Mafiosos, drug dealers, money launderers, and other lowlifes.

For those too young to remember, the Clipper chip was a real thing. The NSA was a real thing as well.

Word got around, and the word was that the NSA was rapidly becoming obsolete. Once upon a time, agency operatives could tap any phone call or radio transmission in the world; they could put Mao Tse-tung’s private words on the president’s desk an hour after the Maximum Leader spoke them into his office phone; they could provide real-time intercepts to the special ops people in the military.

No more. The world was rife with unbreakable codes—any good university math department could whip one up in a matter of days. Just as bad, the most critical diplomatic and military traffic had come out of the air and gone underground, into fiber-optic cable. Even if a special forces team managed to get at a cable, messages were routinely encoded with ultrastrong encryption routines.

The NSA was going deaf. And the word was, they didn’t know what to do about it. They’d become a bin full of aging bureaucrats worried about their jobs, and spinning further and further out ot the Washington intelligence center.

And if the NSA was becoming obsolete, might their solution look something like what we have today?

How to Fail at Almost Everything

howtofailThe full title of Scott Adams’ book is: How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big. Kind of the Story of My Life. (Too long to fit in the headline space above.) Easily one of the better “how to succeed” books I’ve read. And I’ve read a bunch of them. I won’t try to explain how Mr. Adams’ approach differs from the others. As always, the best I can do is share a few excerpts that spoke to me.

Consider the people who routinely disagree with you. See how confident they look while being dead wrong? That’s exactly how you look to them.

In our messy, flawed lives, the nearest we can get to truth is consistency.

Sometimes the only real difference between crazy people and artists is that artists write down what they imagine seeing.

My optimism is like an old cat that likes to disappear for days, but I always expect it to return.

Things that will someday work out well start out well. Things that will never work start out bad and stay that way.

If no one is excited about your art/product/idea in the beginning, they never will be. Don’t be fooled by the opinions of friends and family. They’re all liars.

Every skill you acquire doubles your odds of success.

Everything you learn becomes a shortcut for understanding something else.

I don’t read the news to find truth, as that would be a foolish waste of time. I read the news to broaden my exposure to new topics and patterns that make my brain more efficient in general and to enjoy myself, because learning interesting things increases my energy and makes me feel optimistic. Don’t think of news as information. Think of it as a source of energy.

Skills in which every adult should gain a working knowledge:

* Public speaking
* Psychology
* Business Writing
* Accounting
* Design (the basics)
* Conversation
* Overcoming shyness
* Second language
* Golf
* Proper grammar
* Persuasion
* Technology (hobby level)
* Proper voice technique

When politicians tell lies, they know the press will call them out. They also know it doesn’t matter. Politicians understand that reason will never have much of a role in voting decisions. A lie that makes a voter feel good is more effective than a hundred rational arguments. That’s even true when the voter knows the lie is a lie.

The point of conversation is to make the other person feel good.

People who enjoy humor are simply more attractive than people who don’t. If you don’t have funny friends, find some.

Escape from my cell, free the other inmates, shoot the warden, and burn down the prison.


(Happiness is) a feeling you get when your body chemistry is producing pleasant sensations in your mind.

We’re all born with a limited range of happiness, and the circumstances of life can only jiggle us around within the range.

The single biggest trick for manipulating your happiness chemistry is being able to do what you want, when you want. […] A person with a flexible schedule and average resources will be happier than a rich person who has everything except a flexible schedule. Work toward having control of your schedule.

Happiness has more to do with where you’re heading than where you are.

Pessimism is often a failure of imagination. If you can’t even imagine an improved future, you won’t be happy no matter how well your life is going right now.

Dying at age eighty isn’t worse than dying at a hundred. If you meat diet is a bomb with a long enough fuse, it might kill you at just about the time you’d want it to.

No other nation makes war its business

“What’s more, war is obsolete.  Most nations don’t make war anymore, except when coerced by the United States to join some spurious ‘coalition.’  The earth is so small, and our time here so short.  No other nation on the planet makes war as often, as long, as forcefully, as expensively, as destructively, as wastefully, as senselessly, or as unsuccessfully as the United States.  No other nation makes war its business.”

— Excerpt from Ann Jones’ new book, They Were Soldiers: How the Wounded Return from America’s Wars — The Untold Story

More at WarIsACrime.org

Consciousness and the Social Brain

consciousnessAmazon: “What is consciousness and how can a brain, a mere collection of neurons, create it? In Consciousness and the Social Brain, Princeton neuroscientist Michael Graziano lays out an audacious new theory to account for the deepest mystery of them all. The human brain has evolved a complex circuitry that allows it to be socially intelligent. This social machinery has only just begun to be studied in detail. One function of this circuitry is to attribute awareness to others: to compute that person Y is aware of thing X. In Graziano’s theory, the machinery that attributes awareness to others also attributes it to oneself. Damage that machinery and you disrupt your own awareness. Graziano discusses the science, the evidence, the philosophy, and the surprising implications of this new theory.”

The (attention schema) theory explains why a brain attributes the property of consciousness to itself, and why we humans are so prone to attribute consciousness to the people and objects around us.

Consciousness is the window through which we understand.

Attention is a data-handling trick for deeply processing some information at the expense of most information. Awareness is the brain’s simplified, schematic model of the complicated, data-handling process of attention.

People have personal, quirky definitions of the term consciousness, whereas everyone more or less agrees on the meaning of the term awareness.

Not all information in the brain has awareness attached to it.

Consciousness refers both to the information about which I am aware and the process of being aware of it. Consciousness encompasses the whole of personal experience at any moment, whereas awareness applies only to one part, the act of experiencing.

Self-knowledge is merely another category of knowledge. How knowledge can be encoded in the brain is not fundamentally mysterious, but how we become aware of the information is. The awareness itself if the mystery.

Whatever awareness is, it musts be able to physically impact neuronal signals. Otherwise we would be unable to say that we have it.

Awareness is a description of attention. […] Attention is not data encoded in the brain; it is a data-handling method. It is an act. It is something the brain does, a procedure, an emergent process. […] In addition to doing attention, the brain also constructs a description of attention and awareness is that description. […] Awareness allows the brain to understand attention, its dynamics, and its consequences.

Awareness is the brain’s cartoon of attention.

The same machinery used to model another person’s attentional state in a social situation is also used to model one’s own attentional state. The benefit is the same: understanding and prediction one’s own behavior.

Attention is an active process, a data-handling style that boosts this or that chunk of information in the brain. In contrast, awareness is a description, a chunk of information, a reflection of the ongoing state of attention.

The unconscious machinery of the brain is so vast that it is like an elephant. Perhaps consciousness is a little boy sitting on the elephant’s head. The boy naively imagines that he is in control of the elephant, but he merely watches what the elephant chooses to do.

Your decision machinery does not have direct access to the real object, only to the information about the object that is encoded in the visual system. A perceptual representation is always inaccurate because it is a simplification.

The brain does attention but knows awareness.

(There is a ) distinction between being aware of something and knowing that you are aware of it.

Awareness is a schematized, descriptive model of attention. […] The purpose of (the) model in the brain is to be useful in interacting with the world, not to be accurate.

My awareness is located inside me. In a sense it is me. It is my mind apprehending something.

Your own private awareness and your ability to attribute awareness to someone else are products of the same machinery in your brain. That machinery computes the property of awareness and can attribute it to others.

Is it necessary to be aware of any specific information in order to be aware? Can you be aware, simply aware, without any target of the awareness? Can I be aware of being?

Consciousness (is) essentially a tale that the brain tells itself to explain what it is doing and why it is doing it. Consciousness is after-the-fact. We know about our mental states using the same tricks and inferences that we use to reconstruct the mental states of other people. We tell ourselves a story about ourselves. As a consequence, we routinely and confidently make up incorrect reasons for our own behavior.

Awareness is a model of the act of attention. […] Attention is not itself information. It is something that happens to information.

The only objective, physically measurable truth we have about consciousness is that we can, at least sometimes, report that we have it.

Consciousness is information that describes the process of attending to something.

Awareness is not knowledge about yourself as a person, or knowledge about your emotions, or knowledge about your thoughts; it is not remembering your past, or introspecting about your mood, or any other part of self-reflection. Awareness is equally present whether you are reflecting on yourself or looking out at the external world. It is present whether you are focused on your innermost feelings or on the grass and sky in the park on a nice day.

(One view of consciousness) Consciousness does not directly cause most of our actions but instead rationalizes them. In (this) view, free will plays a minor role, if any.

All consciousness is a “mere” computed model attributed to an object. One’s brain can attribute it to oneself or to something else. Consciousness is an attribution. (Consciousness) is not something a person has, floating inside. It is an attribution. […] To say that I myself am conscious is to stay, “My own brain has constructed an informational model of awareness and attributed it to my body.”

The most reasonable approach to spirituality is to accept two simultaneous truths. One, literally and objectively, there is no spirit world. Minds do not float independently of bodies and brains. Two, perceptually, there is a spirit world. We live in a perceptual world, a world simulated by the brain, in which consciousness inhabits many things around us, including sometimes empty space.

We will build computers that can construct their own awareness in the same way that the human brain does.

If I spend enough time (with him) and my friend gets to know me well, then he will construct a model in his own brain, an informational model of a mind filled with the quirks and idiosyncrasies that reflect me. His model of my mind will be the same general type of data run in the same general manner on the same general hardware architecture as my own conscious mind. It will be a copy, at low resolution, of my consciousness. In effect, I will have been copied over from one computer to another. […] Fuzzy copies of our conscious minds exist in all the people who knew us.

I consider it a technological inevitability that information will, some day, be scannable directly from the brain and transferrable directly to computers. As embarrassingly sci-fi as that sounds, no theoretical reason stands against it. If the attention schema theory is correct, then human consciousness is information processed in a specific manner. Don’t want to die? Download your consciousness onto a central server and live in a simulated world with all the other downloaded souls. When your body dies, the copy of your mind will persist. You need not know the difference. If the simulation is good, you should feel as though you are in a realistic universe. You can possess what seems to be a human body and can walk and live and eat and sleep on the familiar Earth, all simulated, all in the form of information manipulated on computer hardware. At the rate technology is advancing, give it a few centuries.

It has been said that people invented God. People will invent the afterlife too.

Across all cultures and all religions, universally, people consider God to be a conscious mind. God is aware. God consciously chooses to make things happen. […] The critical question is whether consciousness lies behind the events of the universe. If so, then God exists. If not, then God does not exist. […] The universe is conscious in the same sense that it is beautiful. It is conscious because brains attribute consciousness to it, and that is the only way that anything is ever conscious.

This Town

thistownThis Town: Two Parties and a Funeral – Plus, Plenty of Valet Parking! – in America’s Gilded Capital, by New York Times reporter Mark Leibovich is one of the most depressing books I’ve read in a long time. Daily Show comic John Oliver: “This Town is funny, it’s interesting, and it is demoralizing … I loved it as much as you can love something which hurts your heart.”

Not matter how deep your cynicism, or how low your opinion of the people who run things in Washington D.C. — and the people who “report” on our government — this book will take you a little deeper into that cesspool. A few of my favorites from the book:

“…the members of The Club nourish the idea that the nation’s main actors talk to the same twelve people every day. They can evoke a time-warped sense of a political herd that never dies or gets older, only jowlier, richer, and more heavily made-up. Real or posed, these insiders have always been here— either these people literally or as a broader “establishment.” But they are more of a swarm now: bigger, shinier, online, and working it all that much harder.”

“The anti-Washington reflex in American politics has been honed for centuries, often by candidates who deride the capital as a swamp, only to settle into the place as if it were a soothing whirlpool bath once they get elected. The city exists to be condemned. … You still hear the term “public service” thrown around, but often with irony and full knowledge that “self-service” is now the real insider play.”

“Washington may not serve the country well but has in fact worked splendidly for Washington itself— a city of beautifully busy people constantly writing the story of their own lives.”

“I have lots of Washington friends and also some real ones.”

“You know someone big has died when they play “Amazing Grace” on the bagpipes.”

“The city of Washington feels like a conspiracy we’re all in together, and nobody else in America quite understands, even though they pay for it.”

“God just loves Washington; of that we are certain. His presence is indeed potent at the Kennedy Center, although everyone keeps looking around for someone more important to talk to.”

“Fly on the wall,” a journalistic practice that is both a cliché and a misnomer: no one notices an actual fly on the wall while everyone is fully mindful of the maggot reporter taking notes.”

“No single development has altered the workings of American democracy in the last century so much as political consulting,” Jill Lepore wrote in the New Yorker.”

“Political Washington is an inbred company town where party differences are easily subsumed by membership in The Club.”

“Whether journalists are gathered on a physical bus or reading a virtual document, it is a shared space. They are encountering the same names and characters and, after a while, acquiring a shared language and sensibility. “If there was a consensus,” Crouse wrote, “it was simply because all the national political reporters lived in Washington, saw the same people, used the same sources, belonged to the same background groups, and swore by the same omens. They arrived at their answers just as independently as a class of honest seventh-graders using the same geometry text— they did not have to cheat off each other to come up with the same answer.”

“Parallels between Facebook and D.C. come up a lot. Both are spaces to collect people, show off our shiny hordes, and leverage our “connections.” … Like D.C., Facebook is a vast and growing network, evolving and under some assault, but secure in its permanence as an empire.”

“By the middle of 2011, at least 160 former lawmakers were working as lobbyists in Washington, according to First Street, a website that tracks lobbying trends in D.C., in April 2013. The Center for Responsive Politics listed 412 former members who are influence peddling, 305 of whom are registered as federal lobbyists.”

Take time to empty ourselves

“For the first two hundred thousand years of human history, we were only exposed to the news (and the suffering) of those immediately around us in our tribes and villages. We saw birth, sickness, death, and wars, but on a limited scale. Only in the last forty years or so has the news media poured the suffering of the entire world—wars, natural disasters, torture, starvation—into our ears and eyes every day, day after day. This suffering that we are helpless to fix accumulates in our mind and heart, and makes us suffer in turn. When the mind and heart become too full of pictures of violence, destruction, and pain, we must take time to empty ourselves.”

How to Train A Wild Elephant by Jan Chozen Bays, MD

Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking

I really enjoyed this little book by Oliver Burkeman. It’s a more thoughtful book than the title might lead you to believe. I don’t review books but will share a few excerpts:

“At best, it would appear, happiness can only be glimpsed out of the corner of an eye, not stared at directly. … The effort to try to feel happy is often precisely the thing that makes us miserable.”

“Learn how to stop trying to fix things, to stop being so preoccupied with trying to control one’s experience of the world, to give up trying to replace unpleasant thoughts and emotions with more pleasant ones, and to see that, through dropping the ‘pursuit of happiness’, a more profound peace might result.”

“What motivates our investment in goals and planning for the future, much of the time, isn’t any sober recognition of the virtues of preparation and looking ahead. Rather, it s something much more emotional: how deeply uncomfortable we are made by feelings of uncertainty. Faced with the anxiety of not knowing what the future holds, we invest ever more fiercely in our preferred vision of that future – not because it will help us achieve it, but because it helps rid us of feelings of uncertainty in the present.”

And how gratifying to find my philosophy of life within the pages of this book:

“You should sun yourself on a lily-pad until you get bored; then, when the time is right, you should jump to a new lily-pad and hang out there for a while. Continue this over and over, moving in whatever direction feels right.”

A couple of times, in fact:

‘A good traveller has no fixed plans and is not intent upon arriving.’ — Lao Tzu

And this for you Dale Carnegie devotees:

“The ‘cult of optimism’ is all about looking forward to a happy or successful future, thereby reinforcing the message that happiness belongs to some other time than now.”

I’ve been reading self-help and motivation books for half a century, with limited success. This was a refreshing new perspective.

The chief danger to freedom of thought

“The chief danger to freedom of thought and speech at this moment is not the direct interference of … any official body. If publishers and editors exert themselves to keep certain topics out of print, it is not because they are frightened of prosecution but because they are frightened of public opinion. In this country intellectual cowardice is the worst enemy a writer or journalist has to face. … The sinister fact about literary censorship in England is that it is largely voluntary.”

— George Orwell (via Brain Pickings)