The Path

1. Becoming aware there is a Path (and watching for it)
2. Stumbling upon the Path and becoming aware of when one is on (or off) it
3. Understanding oone was always on the Path
4. Realizing the Path does not come from or go anywhere

Our extended self

I’m rereading Kevin Kelly’s The Inevitable: Understanding the 12 Technological Forces That Will Shape Our Future.

“If I re-google my own email (stored in a cloud) to find out what I said (which I do) or rely on the cloud for my memory, where does my “I” end and the cloud start? If all the images of my life, and all the snippets of my interests, and all of my notes and all my chitchat with friends, and all my choices, and all my recommendations, and all my thoughts, and all my wishes — if all this is sitting somewhere, but nowhere in particular, it changes how I think of myself. […] The cloud is our extended soul. Or, if you prefer, our extended self.”

My relationship with the cloud has changed how I think about who or what I am. The best example of that is my fetish for saving excerpts from my favorite books in Google Docs. A few of those ideas might have stuck in the mush between my ears but not many.

Today I can open up Google Docs, enter a word or phrase (consciousness, self, universe, time, reality, media, etc) and instantly pull up every instance of that in every book or article I’ve read (and saved). And, increasingly, I’m linking these excerpts (someday Google will do that for me if I want).

Like Mr. Kelly, it doesn’t feel like Google et al are (is?) replacing my memory or intelligence so much as expanding and enhancing it.

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.

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.

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 now 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.

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.

Time as kaleidoscope

“There was also no longer any sense of my moving along a timeline. Time was no longer a path with the past behind me and the future before me, as we commonly conceive of it. Instead there was a sense of an eternally unfolding present moment. Rather than time being a journey along a linear path, change appeared to be mandala-like. It seemed to be like a flower seen from above, endlessly unfolding from within, or like a kaleidoscope’s image forever rearranging itself. It struck me as highly misleading to think in terms of there being a past behind us and a future ahead of us. Instead there was only this one present moment, eternally unfolding according to its nature. I found myself in an eternal, timeless present.”

The passage above is from Living As A River. I have a little trouble with the flower image but really like the kaleidoscope analogy. I even bought a small one and enjoy watching the tiny pieces of glass rearranging themselves. How many different patterns are possible, I wondered. I thought it would be a matter of permutations and combinations but couldn’t find a formula. I did find this from the Encyclopaedia Britannica:

“The kaleidoscope was invented by Sir David Brewster about 1816 and patented in 1817. Sold usually as a toy, the kaleidoscope also has value for the pattern designer. […] The number of combinations and patterns is effectively without limit.

That surprises me a little. If there are x pieces of glass, it would seem there would be a finite number of combinations. But for the purposes of the analogy, “without limit” works just fine. But another question occurs to me: Is there a way to compute the probability the exact same pattern will repeat? But I’ve drifted pretty far from the “present moment.”

The image of our lives as a road stretching from birth to death, always in one direction, is pretty grooved into my psyche. But I like the kaleidoscope better. All the tiny, colored pieces of my existence, rearranging themselves, moment to moment, never the exact same pattern twice. Yes. That’s a more interesting way to imagine time.

From Bacteria to Bach and Back

From Bacteria to Back and Back. The Evolution of Minds, by Daniel C. Dennett. The book’s cover teased me with “How did we come to have minds?” The author dragged me through 300 pages of “groundwork” before providing anything I could recognize as an answer. But I took notes (below), if underlining counts as taking notes. And here’s a review by Thomas Nagel. And a 45 minute audio interview at The Big Think.

The immaterial mind, the conscious thinking thing that we know intimately through introspection, is somehow in communication with the material brain, which provides all the input but not of the understanding or experience. 

Can there be reasons without a reasoner, designs without a designer? (Dennett says yes)

A central feature of human interaction, and one of the features unique to our species, is the activity of asking others to explain themselves, to justify their choices and actions, and then judging, endorsing, rebutting their answers, in recursive rounds of the “why?”

Natural selection doesn’t have a mind, doesn’t itself have reasons. […] For instance, there are reasons why termite colonies have the features they do, but the termites do not have or represent reasons, and their excellent designs are not products of an intelligent designer.

Turing showed that it was possible to design mindless machines that were Absolutely Ignorant, but that could do arithmetic perfectly. […] He foresaw that there was a traversable path from Absolute Ignorance to Artificial Intelligence. […] Both Darwin and Turing claim to have discovered something truly unsettling to a human mind — competence without comprehension.

Why and how did human-style comprehension arrive on the scene?

Ontology – the set of “things” a person believes to exist.

Comprehension is an emergent effect of systems of uncomprehending competence.

What is consciousness for (if anything)? If unconscious processes are fully competent to perform all the cognitive operations of perception and control.

Information is always relative to what the receiver already knows.

If DNA can convey information about how to build a nest without any terms for “build” and “nest,” why couldn’t a nervous system do something equally inscrutable?

Intentional mind-clearing, jettisoning information or habits that endanger one’s welfare, is not an unusual phenomenon, sometimes called unlearning. […] The brain’s job in perception is to filter out, discard, and ignore all but the noteworthy features of the flux of energy striking one’s sensory organs.

One of Darwin’s most important contributions to thought was his denial of  essentialism, the ancient philosophical doctrine that claimed for each type of thing, each natural kind, there is an essence, a set of necessary and sufficient properties for being that kind of thing.

Children learn about seven words a day, on average, from birth to age six.

Understanding a word is not the same as having acquired a definition of it.

Words don’t exist,  strictly speaking. They have no mass, no energy, no chemical composition.

Memes are transmitted perceptually, not genetically.

Words are memes that can be pronounced.

“In terms of the brain, we know that concepts are somehow stored there, but we have little idea of exactly how.”

The acquisition of a language — and of memes more generally — is very much like the installation of a predesigned software app of considerable power, like Adobe Photoshop, a tool for professionals with many layers that most amateur users never encounter.

We may “know things” in one part of our brain that cannot be accessed by other parts of the brain when needed. The practice of talking to yourself creates new channels for communication that may, on occasion, tease the hidden knowledge into the open.

Nature makes heavy use of the Need to Know principle, and designs highly successful, adept, even cunning creatures who have no idea what they are doing or why.

Our thinking is enabled by the installation of a virtual machine made of virtual machines made of virtual machines.

We learn about others from hearing or reading what they say to us, and that’s how we learn about ourselves as well.

“We speak not only to tell others what we think, but to tell ourselves what we think.” — John Hughlings Jackson

Bare meanings, with no words yet attached, (can) occupy our attention in consciousness.

Evolution has given us a gift (the mind?) that sacrifices literal truth for utility.

(The mind is) that thinking thing with which you are so intimately acquainted that is hardly distinguishable from you, yourself. No wonder we are reluctant to see it as illusory; if it is illusory, so are we!

If free will is an illusion then so are (we).

Human consciousness is unlike all other varieties of animal consciousness in that it is a product in large part of cultural evolution, which installs a bounty of words and many other thinking tools in our brains, creating thereby a cognitive architecture unlike the “bottom-up” minds of animals. By supplying our minds with systems of representations, this architecture furnishes each of us with a perspective—a user-illusion—from which we have a limited, biased access to the workings of our brains, which we involuntarily misinterpret as a rendering of both the world’s external properties (colors, aromas, sounds,. . . ) and many of our own internal responses (expectations satisfied, desires identified, etc.).

Deep learning will not give us — in the next fifty years — anything like the “superhuman intelligence” that has attracted so much alarmed attention recently. […] I have always affirmed that “strong AI” is “possible in principle” — but I viewed it as a negligible practical possibility, because it would cost too much and not give us anything we really needed.

The real danger, I think, is not that machines more intelligent than we are will usurp our roles as captains of our destinies, but that we will over-estimate the comprehension of our latest thinking tools, prematurely ceding authority to them far beyond their competence.

When you are interacting with a computer, you should know you are interacting with a computer. Systems that deliberately conceal their shortcuts and gaps of incompetence should be deemed  fraudulent, and their creators should go to jail for committing the crime of creating or using an artificial intelligence that impersonates a human being.