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.

Dreams of stuff that never happened

The subject of memory comes up a lot in my reading. Cognitive science; philosophy; Buddhism and Taoism. Eventually they all get around to talking about the sense of self. That feeling of “I” that almost everyone experiences. Memory seems to be the glue that holds the self together throughout the years. I few nights ago I was reminded there are two types of memory (perhaps more, but two that I’m aware of).

I was going to call the first — and most common — “real memory.” But memories don’t seem as real to me as they once did. I considered “Memories of Stuff that Probably Happened,” but that’s a mouthful. Let’s call these Accessible Memories. I’m sure people who study this kind of stuff have a name for these, I just don’t know what it is.

Accessible Memories are of people, places, things that (probably) existed or happened in your past. I call them “accessible” because you can “go back” and retrieve them. Let’s say someone you work with mentions taking her son to Little League practice. If you played you probably have memories and you can intentionally retrieve some of them. In my experience, it’s usually the same ones. Perhaps because they’re good memories… or bad memories. In my experience, the longer I spend thinking about that time in my life, the more memories I can access. But my sense is there is a finite number of memories. Perhaps with drugs or hypnosis I could recall all of my memories but that’s another topic. But for whatever reason, I have a strong sense these memories are of stuff that happened.

Let’s talk about dreams for a moment. Most of my dreams involve people and places from my past. As well as events that, though distorted and warped, have some basis in experience. But every so often I’ll have a dream that features totally unfamiliar elements, involving people/places/events that were never part of my waking life. Where did those images come from? Creepier still, one of these “made up” dreams might reoccur months or years later.

I’m aware of these “made up” dreams because I remember them. Sometimes upon awakening. Sometimes days later, “out of the blue” as it were. This is the other type of memory that I find so mysterious. Can one have a memory of something that never happened. Not just an inaccurate memory where you get some of the details wrong. But of something completely… imaginary? But that’s not right. The dream did happen. And I’m having a memory of that dream. Are dreams and memories completely different phenomenon? Can I dream about a memory? Why not?

Since I can have a memory of a dream (based on experiences), why not a memory of a dream featuring people that never existed and stuff that never happened? It feels like I’m conflating dreams and memories and they’re probably two different but related experiences. But these memories-of-dreams-of-stuff-that-never-happened fascinate me. And make my head hurt. (I keep looking for Leonardo DiCaprio’s little top from the movie Inception.)

Memories and dreams are “head stuff.” That’s the only place they happen (I know, I know. That’s the only place everything happens). So they feel less real to me than, say, the breath I’m taking at this moment. I can reach into wherever memories are kept and paw through them like a shoebox full of old photos… I can’t go digging around for a favorite dream. They’re mostly gone. For good reasons, I’m told. But once in awhile one “pops into our heads.” A memory, but always fleeting. Perhaps dreams-of-stuff-that-never-happened (DOSTNH) belong to someone else and got caught in a cosmic consciousness riptide before drifting over to one of my dreams.

Memory creates the illusion of continuity

Daniel Kahneman said, “There are the experiences in our lives… and our memories of those experiences. And they are not the same.”

Memory seems to be the secret sauce to that feeling of a continuous, unchanging ME. But I’m finding it increasingly difficult to think of my memories as “mine.” It was easier when I thought of them as photographs in a shoebox on a shelf in my mind.

“Memories are not etched permanently in the brain. Instead, every time a memory is retrieved, it is destroyed and then re-created, and it becomes a memory of a memory. Any current memories we have are copies of copies of copies… many times over depending on how many times we have recalled that particular experience. Because of this process of creating, destroying, and re-creating memories, our recollections are unstable and subject to alteration. Each time we recall an event from our lives, the memory of that event can change. […] We never have a full recollection of anything that’s happened to us, and our memories are constructed from hints, scraps and traces found within the mind.” — Living As A River

I have a memory of a four-year-old Steve jumping up and down on the bed and then crashing through the bedroom window. Obviously that didn’t happen and I have no idea when or how the memory was formed. How many other of my memories are “constructed?”

Thirty years ago Barb and I went to New York with another couple. It was miserably cold and I remember almost nothing of that weekend. I have a photo of me with a parrot sitting on my shoulder. That must have happened but I’m not sure if I have a memory of the experience or if the photo somehow created that memory.

So what remains when the person, that oh-so-strong sense of a permanent self, is gone?

“A vague memory remains, like the memory of a dream, or early childhood. After all, what is there to remember? A flow of events, mostly accidental and meaningless. A sequence of desires and fears and inane blunders. Is there anything worth remembering? Realize that your present existence is like a shower of sparks, each spark lasting a second and the shower itself — a minute or two.” — Nisargadatta Maharaj

My memories seem so important. Would there be a “me” without them? And, yet, when I examine them, one at a time, they are indeed “mostly accidental and meaningless.”

James Gleick says “We experience childhood one way when we’re living it and another way when we relive it in memory.” Good. That means it was more fun than I recall.

Again, James Gleick: “But if memory is the action of recollection, the act of remembrance, then it implies an ability to hold in the mind two constructs, one representing the present and another representing the past, and to compare them, one against the other. How did we learn to distinguish memory from experience?”

Might that be why memories are mostly fuzzy and vague, “…constructed from hints, scraps and traces found within the mind.” We seldom confuse experience with memory.

I’m spending a lot of time thinking about the question who or what am I? And the answer I keep coming up with is: I am this immediate experience. And nothing more. As Alan Watts said, “This is it.” But it’s impossible for me to think of an experience as a discrete ‘thing.” Each is gone before I can bring it into consciousness. I can only think about the experience that just slipped away. It easier to think in terms of process, a flow of experiences. Ever changing. Never the same. That means keeping all the inputs wide open. Turn down the noise, turn up the signal. Be here, now.

Everything is exactly the same

“Everything is made of some other thing. And those things in turn are made of other things. Over the next hundred years, scientists will uncover layer after layer of building blocks, each smaller than the last. At each layer the differences between types of matter will be fewer. At the lowest layer everything is exactly the same. Matter is uniform. Those are the bits of God.”

— God’s Debris by Scott Adams

“Matter is incredibly, mind-bogglingly empty. An atom is like a miniature Solar System, with a tight nucleus playing the role of a Sun orbited by electrons like planets. But the nucleus is incredibly tiny compared with the orbits of the electrons. Tom Stoppard, the playwright, had the best image. He said, if the nucleus is like the altar of St Paul’s cathedral, an electron is like a moth in the cathedral, one moment by the altar, the next by the dome. Imagine squeezing all the space out of an atom. Well, if you did that to all the atoms in all the people in the world, you could indeed fit the entire human race in the volume of a sugar cube.” — Physics.org

A few months ago I read James Gleick’s biography of Richard Feynman (Genius: The Life and Science of Richard Feynman). Lots of math and physics (all way over my head, but fascinating nonetheless) and a deep-dive into particle physics, at least for me. My simplistic take-away: 1) Matter and energy are the same thing. Sometimes. 2) Everything is made of this energy/matter. Everything. My hat. My body. Donald Trump. All made of the same stuff.

It would be difficult to get through the day if we experienced reality at this sub-atomic level so our brains (consciousness?) process it in a way that won’t make our heads explode. Nevertheless, I find it comforting to think of it in this way. Little bits of god or the Universe or whatever… winking in and out of existence.

The Fear Basket

I’ve struggled with worry and anxiety my entire life. Tried a little counseling. A mild anti-anxiety drug for a while. Lots of reading on the subject. And, in recent years, meditation. I suspect a professional would put me on the low end of the anxiety spectrum, if there is such a thing. At this point in my life, I don’t expect to ever be completely worry-free. I’ve learned to live with it.

The subject comes up in just about every book and article I’ve read on Taoism and Buddhism. The term most often used is good old “fear.” And it seems we fear the one thing that is inevitable: change. And, of course, we fear that biggest change of all, death.

I think most adults know that fearing what might happen at some future time is pointless. And, yes, we know that most of the things we fear never happen. There’s a part of me that will always believe that worry/anxiety/fear is either hardwired into our brains and/or learned behavior at a very early age. These days I’ve been dealing with worry (anxiety sounds too clinical and fear a bit extreme) from a Buddhist/Taoist perspective. Here’s how it plays out in my head.

Anxious thoughts pop into our mental stream with some regularity. We don’t choose our thoughts. At least, that’s my understanding. Thoughts bubble up from somewhere in our subconscious and quickly (usually) get pushed out by the next thought. If you’re really busy and involved with something, most thoughts don’t stick around long.

Now Buddhists and Taoist are quick to point out that we don’t really have permanent self. The “me/I” that we all feel is inside somewhere, watching things and calling the shots, isn’t really there. I know, I know. But it’s damned easy to imagine there’s a me, myself and I. And that’s who reaches out and grabs that fear thought when it floats into consciousness.

“Whoa! What’s this on my leg? Is that a stage four melanoma?” The passing thought doesn’t pass. It goes into what I’ve been calling the Fear Basket. The Fear Basket is what the self lugs around to hold all the thoughts I’m worried about. Think of them as stones of varying size. There’s no limit to how many stones your basket will hold so it can get damned heavy. Occasionally, we can toss one of theses stones. The lab report said benign pigmentation. Nothing to worry about. Yeah, okay, if that was the only stone in your Fear Basket. You get the idea.

But if our Buddhist/Taoist friends are right and there really is no self… who’s holding the basket? I’ll admit the “no self” thing is a tough one. I’ve been wrestling it for years. But here’s something of which we can be certain: those rocks might be heavy but they’re not real. Not yet. So when I feel that basket getting heavy, I’m going to focus on a rock and see if I can make it fade like Jim Kirk getting beamed up by the Enterprise transporter.

I tell you what else might work but I’m not there. Yet. A real basket you carry with you everywhere you go. Worried about the stock market? Find a rock of the appropriate size and put it in your basket. Concerned that bald spot is getting bigger? Look for a fist sized stone and put it in the basket. When someone asks you why you’re carrying around a basket of rocks, explain that each rock represents something you’re worried about. After telling that story half a dozen times you might decide to just put the damned thing down. Or at least dump the rocks.

UPDATE: The Fear Basket can only contain rocks when someone is holding or carrying it. The longer they hold/carry the basket, the heavier the rocks become. And, paradoxically, the more difficult to set the basket down.


“This very large thing (the net) provides a new way of thinking (perfect search, total recall, planetary scope) and a new mind for an old species. It is the Beginning. […] At its core 7 billion humans, soon to be 9 billion, are quickly cloaking themselves with an always-on layer of connectivity that comes close to directly linking their brains to each other. […] By the year 2025 every person alive — that is, 100 percent of the planet’s inhabitants — will have access to this platform via some almost-free device. Everyone will be on it. Or in it. Or, simply, everyone will be it.”

— The Inevitable by Kevin Kelly

“All information will come in by super-realistic television and other electronic devices as yet in the planning stage or barely imagined. In one way this will enable the individual to extend himself anywhere without moving his body— even to distant regions of space. But this will be a new kind of individual— an individual with a colossal external nervous system reaching out and out into infinity. And this electronic nervous system will be so interconnected that all individuals plugged in will tend to share the same thoughts, the same feelings, and the same experiences. […] If all this ends with the human race leaving no more trace of itself in the universe than a system of electronic patterns, why should that trouble us? For that is exactly what we are now!”

— The Book: On the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are by Alan Watts

“Humanity is developing a sort of global eyesight as millions of video cameras on satellites, desktops, and street corners are connected to the Internet. In your lifetime it will be possible to see almost anything on the planet from any computer. And society’s intelligence is merging over the Internet, creating, in effect, a global mind that can do vastly more than any individual mind. Eventually everything that is known by one person will be available to all. A decision can be made by the collective mind of humanity and instantly communicated to the body of society.”

— God’s Debris by Scott Adams

In all of my reading about Taoism, Buddhism and other eastern mystical traditions, one theme repeats over and over. That there is no permanent, on-going self. That feeling of “me” and “I” is an illusion. And the source of all suffering. Clinging and resisting is mixed in (I want things to be the way I want things to be) but I won’t try to tackle that here.

There is nothing more difficult for me to comprehend than the idea that my feeling of “me-ness” is just an illusion. Not real. I’ve been struggling with this for many years. And I’ve grabbed on to various metaphors in an effort to see (or feel) how this could possibly be.

For the last week or so I’ve been thinking of myself as a computer connected to a vast network of other computers. Over the years, every part of the computer has been replaced. The monitor, the hard drive, the keyboard, all the internal parts… all have been replaced. In no sense is the computer the same computer that was there in the beginning.

In this tortured analogy, the computer operating system is my brain(mind?). But from the very beginning, the OS was being continuously updated. This is where the analogy gets wobbly because who or what is using the computer? I don’t have a clue so I’m gonna say the computer OS is using itself and, in the process, creating an imaginary sense of self that believes it is operating the computer. Why is it doing this? No clue. How is it doing this? No clue.

But every day the OS changes and evolves as it processes ever more information. Emails, text messages, videos, songs, news articles, and all the rest. Every new bit makes a tiny change in the OS so it is never the same from one moment to the next. From the computer’s perspective, everything is humming along fine. An endless flow of new and interesting stuff.

But let’s assume we can only keep the hardware and software running for 80 years. Manufacturer’s planned obsolescence or something. The network knows this and when one computer goes “offline,” another one comes on, running the latest OS. The network is always becoming. It only exists as an entity in relation to the network.

But the imagined self — the ghost in my machine — is horrified by this prospect. It doesn’t know (can’t know?) it’s not real. It’s non-existence is horrifying and unimaginable (take a moment to appreciate the irony). I took a moment to watch the final scene of 2010 (A Space Odyssey) in which Dr. Chandra explains to HAL that it will be destroyed.

So, no self… happy ending (No ending, actually). Self… The End. Oblivion. Easy choice. But it is only from my God-like, Creator of the Analogy perspective that any of this can be considered. The only way I can keep my head from exploding (one of the most difficult parts to replace) is to imagine the “always Becoming OS” can generate this view, this understanding and in so doing, recognize the illusory nature of the self. Enlightenment.

Additional reading:
Neuroscience backs up the Buddhist belief  that “the self” isn’t constant, but ever-changing
You’re a completely different person at 14 and 77