Reflections On Pain And Suffering

The past few days I’ve found myself pondering on how much misery and suffering there is in this world.  When I look at it from the perspective of us as individuals, it all seems so pointless.  We watch our loved ones die, we see young children afflicted with cancer, and people starving in third world countries.  Does pain and suffering serve any real purpose?

I seem to have come to some realizations about these issues rather recently.  When I began to view pain and suffering collectively, I started to see that they are some of the most powerful driving forces in human evolution.  Without them, we wouldn’t develop and grow.

Take sickness and disease.  How pointless!  People come down with fevers, cancers, and flus.  We have malaria, AIDs, and diabetes.  What good are these things?

Think about how powerful your suffering is, and how much it influences your thought.  We hate sickness.  We hate disease.  We hate hunger and starvation.  Naturally we want to do everything we can to prevent these things, but how do we gain the power to prevent these tragedies?  In a way, this suffering nature inflicts on us is forcing us to learn about what we are and where we exist in the cosmos.  We have to learn about our environment, how plants grow, how the ecosystem works, how our body digests food, how our immune system works, and so forth.  Pain forces us to learn and grow into a more powerful and intelligent species.

There’s nothing in the laws of nature which says we must suffer.  We mainly suffer because we’re stupid.  Why do we suffer from disease?  We don’t know how our bodies work and therefore we can’t fix them.  Why do we starve?  We don’t know how to grow crops or control our environment.  Why do we have poverty?  We don’t know how to efficiently manage our resources and get things from point A to point B in the best way possible.  We don’t know how to organize ourselves or  work together effectively.  Pain is driving us to evolve.

Also, as the world seems to progress, it’s demanding more and more from us.  It’s getting harder to keep up with everything going on in the world. We are subjected to a new sort of self-inflicted stress.  Then again, there are a few bright sides to this.  I often daydream about living in an advanced society, where everyone is intelligent and working on interesting things.  I dream of flying cars, intelligent robots, and an inter-planetary civilization with advanced technology.  I dream of viewing the news and hearing meaningful discourse from the television and the internet.  A world free of poverty and disease.  A world free of superstition, where people are building beautiful structures and researching the secrets of the cosmos.  A world where it’s a joy to be alive and where I can be proud of my species and what we’ve accomplished.  In some ways I am proud to be a human, but there’s also a lot I’m ashamed of.  So much potential is wasted.

How are we ever going to build space-ships and go explore the cosmos when all our discourse and interest is in superstition, ghosts, and astrology?  Or look at your television. The networks produce shows about a bunch of hillbillies repoing cars, alien abduction conspiracies, and “reality” shows.  How are we going to manipulate the weather or construct new energy sources to get us off coal and oil when we have such a terrible education system and such an empty culture?  How are we going to build the human body 2.0, free of disease and with an upgraded mind if we’re wanting to remove basic alegbra as a high school requirement because our kids are not able to study, and are too busy playing Call of Duty?

I see a lot of pain and suffering in this world and it seems to me the universe is calling out to us saying, “Get smarter!  Learn how your body works!  Learn how the ecosystem works!  Control your world and explore the universe!”  Until we follow the call, that pain and suffering will not go away, and that’s not entirely a bad thing, though I’m not saying it’s a good thing either.  We’ll endure pain for a while, but it’s refining us into something better.

There’s a greater world calling for us, but we have to heed the call.  The desire to be free of pain and suffering is a huge impetus for us to learn about ourselves and the cosmos.  They can be defeated, but how soon is up to us.  The pain, death, and suffering is telling us we’re doing things wrong and need to step up.

TrapWire – We’re Being Watched

About a year or two ago I remember reading an article in Wired reporting that the United States is just a key-turn away from becoming a total police state.  Top NSA operatives and others from high government positions were warning us of how easily this new digital surveillance technology could be abused and how we need to be greatly concerned for our civil liberties and privacy.  Huge data centers exist which contain detailed files on every single one of us, and all our digital communications are being monitored and archived within detailed files.   This much you all probably know already.

When I mention this to family members, they just sort of roll their eyes at me.  I don’t understand why nobody cares.  This isn’t paranoia.  What has to happen before people actually acknowledge this is happening?

So what’s the latest erosion of our civil liberties?  Wikileaks has came into some information that all those fancy new cameras being installed all over the country, especially in big cities, are all linked together in vast networks, with predictive AI software monitoring the footage.  All of us are identified using facial recognition and other algorithms, and this footage is linked to our file.

“Emails obtained via a hack of intelligence agency Stratfor have shed light on a secret, comprehensive U.S. surveillance effort led by Virginia-based TrapWire. The details were released by whistleblower site Wikileaks, but an ongoing distributed denial of service (DDoS) attack against Wikileaks.org has made it difficult to access the TrapWire docs…”

– The Young Turks

Here’s Cenk Uygur breaking down the story.  This is all being done to detect “pre-crimes”, with advanced AI systems monitoring us, looking out for suspicious activity and communicating it to local lawn enforcement.

I don’t like any of this.  *sigh*

Glass Infused With Nanotechnology

On my blog, I’ve often talked about the possibilities that come into being when we infuse technology and knowledge into the world around us.  Nanotechnology allows us to insert tiny computers and other devices into everyday things around us, making the “dumb” world come alive.  In around ten years or so, you will be seeing all glass windows and surfaces come alive, filled with tiny electronic devices.

These special glass surfaces will turn your counter-tops into vivid computer displays.  Combined with augmented reality, your windows will become virtual portals into other worlds.  Thin glass sheets will act as hand-held newspapers which will be a weird blend between surfing the internet and a physical piece of paper.  You will go into a store and they will have a glass finish on their floors, embedded with nanotechnology.  These tiny devices will interact with your iPhone and virtual arrows will appear on the floor, guiding you to whatever you’re looking for.  If you’re an artistic person, you could have these surfaces covering the furniture and walls of your home and you’d be able to digitally change the “theme” of each room almost instantly.  There’s so much more, but the videos convey these things much better than words.

Reflections On Work And Play

In this culture of ours, I often find my frame of mind toward work and progress to be in sharp contrast to those around me.  I’m far more in agreement with the philosopher and entertainer Alan Watts, and I’d like to share a short excerpt from one of his lectures.

…the riches that we produce are ephemeral.  As a result of that we’re terribly frustrated.  We feel that the only thing is to go on getting more and more.  And as a result of that, the whole landscape begins to look like the nursery of a spoiled child who’s got too many toys and is bored with them and throws with them as quickly as he gets them.

Also, we’re dedicated to a tremendous war on the material dimensions of time and space.  We want to obliterate their limitations.  We want to get everything done as fast as possible.  We want to convert the rhythms and skills of work into cash, which indeed you can buy something with but you can’t eat it.  Then we rush home to get away from work and begin the real business of life, to enjoy ourselves.

And, you know, for the vast majority of American families, what seems to be the real point of life, what your rush home to get to, is to watch an electronic reproduction of life.  You can’t touch it and it doesn’t smell and it has no taste.  You might think that people getting home to the real point of life in a robust material culture would go home to a collasal banquet or an orgy of lovemaking or a riot of music and dancing, but nothing of the kind. It turns out to be this purely passive, contemplation of a twittering screen.

As you walk through suburban areas at night, it doesn’t matter in what part of the community it is, you see mile after mile of darkened houses with that little electronic screen flickering in the room, everybody isolated, watching this thing, and thus in no real communion with each other at all.  And this isolation of people into a private world of their own is really the creation of a mindless crowd.

Some time ago it occured to me that a crowd could be defined as a group of people not in mutual communication.  A crowd is a group of people, that is say, in communication with one person alone.  I regret to say that you listening to me at this moment would constitute a crowd.  We’re not really in full communication with each other, though naturally it’s terribly difficult to bring about mutual communication between a large number of people, but that does seem to me to be the essence of a crowd, and thus of a community that is not a community, not a real society but a juxtaposition of persons.

No, one other thing that one notices about this anti-materialism is its lack of joy, or I prefer to call it its lack of gaeity. A little while ago I was reading a book called Motivation and Personality by A. H. Maslow, who is professor of psychology at Brandeis and he had amassed together a very amusing set of quotations from about thirteen representative and authoritative American psychologists, and they were all saying words to the effect that the main drive behind all forms of animate activity was the survival of the species.  In other words, all the manifestations of life are regarded by these men as intensitvely purposive and the purpose and value for which they strive is survival.

And Maslow commented on this, that American psychology, as a result of its contact with the culture, is over pragmatic, over Puritan, and over purposeful.  That no textbooks on psychology have chapters on fun and gaeity or on aimless activity, or on purposeless meandering and puttering and so on.  And he said they are neglecting what may be one whole or even the most important half of life.  In other words, it is a basic premise of the culture that life is work and it’s serious.  And herein lies its lack of joy.

Life is real, life is earnest.  What do we mean that life is serious?  What do mean when we differentiate work from play?  Well work, it seems to me, is what we must do in order to go on living, in order to survive.  Play is pretty much everything else.  But now you’ll notice that in this culture play is justified and tolerated in so far as it tends to make our work more effecient.  We have the saying all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy, but that really means dull at work.  Play is recreation, it’s something you do to get refreshed and face the great problems of life.  Now this is all very well, but that saying, even to play, that play is necessary, you must play, I remember in England we used to have the institution of compulsory games in school, as a result of which I developed an intense loathing for most of the games that we played, like cricket and football, and so on.  They were forcing you to play.

And so in the same way, the supreme value is survival value.  It’s the thought that it is absolutely necessary to go on living, and it’s a basis for life which takes the joy out of life, it is really contrary to life.  I feel that the biological process that we call life, with its marvelous proliferation of innumerable patterns and forms, is essentially playful.  By that I mean that it doesn’t have a serious purpose beyond itself.  It’s an artform like music and dancing and the point of these artforms is their present unfolding.  The elaboration of an intelligible design of steps and movements through time.

That is not to say their goal is the present, when you think of the present as the hairline of a watch, the immediate instant.  That’s only an abstract present.  As for an example,  in listening to music, a person who hears a melody, he doesn’t just hear a sequence of notes, he hears the steps between the notes.  A tone deaf person hears only the notes.  What a person able to hear music hears is therefore steps in a certain order, and this is what this diffused present, what I would call the real or physical present.  I feel life is something of this nature.  It is a play.  It is its own end.  But now if you say to a form of play, you must happen, you must go on, you turn it into work.  You immediately turn it also into what we colloquially call a drag.

Are we surviving, is it our duty to survive, in order that our children may go on living?  Well if we think that our children catch the same point of view from us and they go struggling along for their children and the whole thing becomes fatuous progress to an ever eluding future.  And it is because fundamentally that we have this compulsive view of the necessity of existence that our culture is distinctly lacking in gaeity.  Now it seems to me that this attitude rests on two further premises.  The first is the idea of God that we inherit from the European, Protestant, and to some extent Catholic and Judaic background.  This conception of God as creating the universe for the fulfillment of His purpose is a conception of God quite strangely lacking in either humor or joy.

– Alan Watts – The Unpreachable Religion

Watts’ insight into crowds was really profound.   If you recall, he defined a crowd as a group of people who are not in mutual communication.  After hearing this, I immediately began reflecting on my own life and realized that throughout most of our entire lives we live within a crowd, not a community.  We’re rarely asked to contribute to life’s conversation.   Well up into my late teens, my entire life consisted of forced passive consumption.  I sat in school and consumed lectures from my teachers.  I sat in church and consumed sermons.  Even at sporting events, I was largely controlled by my coaches and they never asked for my input.  Nobody asked for my input.  If they did, it wasn’t substantial.  There wasn’t any real mutual communication or involvement.  I was always busy doing things, but they were always things someone else told me to do.

My grandpa often visits on Sundays and has dinner with the family.  He’s particularly fond of a childhood memory from years ago when he visited our home and asked me, “Jason, what do you do at church?” to which I replied, “I sit still while Daddy preaches.”  This throws him into a fit of laughter.  Sadly, this tale sums up most of my life up to age twenty.

Maybe to some extent this is inevitable.  Children need to be guided if they’re to survive in the world.  Even still, “I sit still while teacher teaches”,  “I sit still while Daddy preaches”,  “I sit still while boss lays out corporate agenda”, Watts pointed out that this represents a lopsided and imbalanced community.  There’s only a few people who have anything worth saying while the rest of us passively consume and obey.  And strangely, even when we’re finally free from this compulsory system, we just sit at home and immerse ourselves in a fictitious reproduction of life on the television.

I feel we need a more balanced community where everyone is interacting in a meaningful way.  Take school for instance. We need less passive lectures.  Leave that to a pre-recording from Youtube.  When you come to class, it needs to be some sort of interactive thing where you get to know your fellow students, work with them, and practice team building and social skills.  Interact with your professor, asking questions, and having informal discussions.  I also think there should be less stressing of mechanical procedures, less standardized testing, and more hands-on projects.  “Work on a team and build this.”  I like those sorts of environments the best.   I’m no expert in education though. I’m not going to pretend to understand these things.  I often ponder it all and can’t seem to justify why it is the way it is.

In the business world I’d like to see more companies run like Valve software.  I think it’s Valve.  They are completely democratic.  The company is completely owned by the people who work there and they vote on everything.  Everyone has a significant say in what games they make, how their resources are allocated, and how much everyone should be paid.  It’s very open and they’re one of the top game companies out there, so it’s obviously a model that works.  That’s a community.

If you get used to being within a community, I think you’ll have no problem developing yourself.  But if you haven’t had access to these sorts of environments, you’ll probably have no idea how to spend leisure time because for most of your life you’ll have been a passive consumer who has always had someone else telling you what to do.  In school and in college your teachers and professors laid out a curriculum for you to study.  You’ve never learned how to gather materials on your own and teach yourself.  Your bosses have always gave you an itinerary and list of objectives to work on.  You’ve never had an experience where you were in complete control of a project.  When you’re finally old and retire, free from a system of control which you’ve been in for so long, you’re not sure what to do with yourself.  You’re used to coming home tired from work and watching TV, and so you do that.  If you’ve worked on bettering yourself over your life, you may be able to handle the freedom, but many people struggle with it.

I ask you, the reader, have you ever had a project you’ve done completely on your own?  Nobody is forcing you to do it. A significant project.  Something that required you to deeply research things out, make some long term plans, and execute those plans, step by step.  Something that challenged you, leaving you with a feeling of fulfillment just by doing the work.  Something that required at least six months or more to accomplish, taking up many hours a day of your time.  Something that, if it failed, you’d be devastated?  Something truly meaningful to you?  Have you ever done such a thing?

I’d like to share a little bit of my own journey.  I didn’t attend college right out of high school.  I instead earned money writing software and running my own business.  Originally I learned my own study habits from teaching myself computer programming and business.  I developed my own technique which I still use to this day — if I want to learn something, I go to various websites like Amazon.com, abebooks.com, and other sites, and order a bunch of books on the exact same topic.  I then try reading one of them, see if I understand it, if not, read another book, and continue on.  If I don’t understand it on the first go, I read it several times, but if I still don’t get it, I just put the book back on the shelf and grab another book on the same topic and read it instead.  Most of the time, after a handful of books, I find an author who explains it in a way I understand.  I don’t just assume I’m stupid, I assume the book isn’t written in a way which relates to experiences I’ve had, or how my mind works.

At first I had two primary interests, totally different than what I’m interested in today.  I wanted to learn how to be successful in business and I was interested in religion as I had grown up in a very religious household.  In the beginning, I primarily read books written by entrepreneurs who wrote about the American Dream and how you can make it if you work hard, but you just can’t give up.  They talked about the importance of marketing, building up contacts, and doing whatever you do better than anyone else.  My religious interests lead me to philosophy and theology, primarily because I had heard that philosophers talk about God.

I wasn’t a model student of any sort.  I didn’t have any interests in science or the universe.  Those things didn’t even enter my mind.  I was interested in making money and having time to think about religious issues.  But all of this started branching off into new areas.  I heard businessmen talking about the importance of understanding the economy and how the business cycle works.  After you earned your profits, you had to invest them wisely or they’d be stolen by inflation.  Life was a rat race and the system was against you, but if you worked hard enough, you could get out of it.  I felt compelled to understand the entire process.

I became fascinated by money and the economy.  How did it work?  Why do we use money?  When did it start?  Have we always used money?  Have societies existed without money?  What function does it serve?  Why are some people poor and others rich?  Why do some nations on Earth have so little while others have so much?  I learned that economies are complex and have deep ties with their historical situations.  The natural progression was to move on to studying history and read through the entire story of mankind, from the earliest civilizations to today.  What were the causes of violence?  Of prosperity?  Of poverty?  What ideas moved humanity forward, and what set us back?

While all that was churning in my mind, I was also reading a lot of philosophy.  I started off with Plato and Aristotle as they’re probably the most famous philosophers.  The internet was also starting to take off at this time so I got a list of all the main philosophers and bought their books.  Though I was initially passionate about understanding God, eventually I came to feel that the very ideas of God taught by religious people were shallow and didn’t make much sense.  So much of it seemed to be people’s own minds playing tricks on them, a sort of complicated self-deceit.  I became quite passionate about understanding the mind.  I remember reading Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason and wondered, “What sort of data structures does the mind use?  How does it store a representation of a chair?  Of a table?  Of a bed?”  I started reading lots of psychology, neuroscience, and books on the philosophy of mind, trying to understand what I was.  I’d stare in the mirror and I saw myself as this evolving process, but what was “I”?  What was I looking at?

Being interested in computers, I wondered if it was possible to build a computer which was conscious of its environment.  I dreamed of building a little machine which could drive around on the floor, capable of detecting what was in front of it, and pondered how much of the mind could be simulated within a machine.  Were we a type of complex computer?  What exactly was a computer?  Could we build different types of computers?

Eventually I lost most of my interest in business, finding most of it boring.  Understanding the universe was far more interesting.  People became something to study and understand, and as all of this developed, I became far more passionate about life.  I realized that I had been living in a sort of box, completely unaware of this vast cosmos all around me.

My interest in science was one of the last things to develop, but it became the thing I was most interested in.  I read through the entire history man and I thought to myself, “What has made the biggest impact on the human condition?”  The answer was obvious — science and technology.  Sure, there was democracy and other great ideas, but science seemed to me to be the biggest player.  Without it, we’d still be living in dirt huts, caves, and chasing animals around the plains.  Maybe that’s how I justify it to myself, telling myself my ponderings on space and time are actually quite useful to mankind, but I don’t know if they are or not.  Truth be told, I’m just interested in the questions and am not really out to get anything.  I just want to know more about the universe and what’s going on.  But I’m also a practical man, understanding human suffering and am not afraid to work and do what needs to be done.

You see, with me it was a gradual process which took many years, upwards of a decade.  I don’t know if most people have ever went through something like this, or have had the opportunity to spend so much time reading and studying all these different things.  I’m not married and I had a business which allowed me to work from wherever I wanted to.  I could set my own hours, and as long as I earned enough money to support myself, I could devote the rest of my time to other things, and I did.  I started to flourish, but I needed to be set free to think and develop along my own course.

I have confidence that people are capable of great things, and will thrive in the right environment.  Unfortunately, our society is structured in a way which produces a crowd, not a community.

Watts also mentioned how our religious heritage plays a large role in this mindset that work is holy.  I was speaking with my mother just the other day and she specifically told me that she felt life was a sort of test which God has us in.  God is watching our every moment and is critically watching and evaluating every little thing.  My father oftentimes likes to say, “People don’t want to work anymore.”  A claim that so many people are just lazy and not willing to contribute.  Life is serious.  Life isn’t a game.  You need to survive, you need to get to work!  What’s our goal?  Who knows, but you need to be working and not goofing around.  Life is important.  Life is solemn.  No fun and games for you.

Sadly, people spend their whole lives serving some fictional purpose.  They feel they’re serving the Lord, their creator, and they have to hold things together here on Earth until He returns.  They’ll spend years traveling around, delivering sermons, walking down the streets handing out pamphlets, and serving religious functions in their chapels, but will rarely if ever spend any time thinking if about whether or not there’s any truth to their religion.  They’re so busy wasting time, they have no time to realize they’re wasting their time.

There are many people who want you to stay in line, and the world seems very uncomfortable with true freedom.  Their fears show themselves in a sort of nasty pessimism.  We’re told that if people were free from the typical social responsibilities, such as say working twenty hours a week instead of forty, we’d all become misfits and the world would fall into depravity.  Judge Posner recently wrote for the New York Times, reviewing a book written by the historian Robert Skidelsky.  Basically the book is about how we work far too much and miss out on the good life.  Posner’s response?

“But with everyone working just 20 hours a week (on the way down to 15 in 2030), few of these opportunities would materialize, because people who worked so little would be unable to afford them. Nor could leisure-activity services be staffed adequately. The implications would be social as well as individual. Productivity would fall because workers would acquire skills at a slower rate. Nations would be defenseless, with soldiers who were on duty only 20 hours a week and had few weapons because the employees of munitions makers were also working only 20 hours a week. And imagine the maintenance of internal order in a society in which police officers, firefighters and paramedics worked only 20 hours a week.”

“The Skidelskys have an exalted conception of leisure. They say that the true sense of the word is “activity without extrinsic end”: “The sculptor engrossed in cutting marble, the teacher intent on imparting a difficult idea, the musician struggling with a score, a scientist exploring the mysteries of space and time — such people have no other aim than to do what they are doing well.” That isn’t true. Most of these people are ambitious achievers who seek recognition. And it is ridiculous to think that if people worked just 15 or 20 hours a week, they would use their leisure to cut marble or struggle with a musical score. If they lacked consumer products and services to fill up their time they would brawl, steal, overeat, drink and sleep late. English aristocrats in their heyday didn’t work, but neither did they cut marble or explore the mysteries of space and time. Hunting, gambling and seduction were their preferred leisure activities.”

To me, this seems contrary to the entire development of civilization.  We used to have to work nearly every waking hour in order to survive.  We even had to work when we were sick.  Our story is one of increasing abundance through progressive technological improvements, and as people became free they diversified, specializing in their fields, and progress developed even faster.  We fought for more human rights and civil liberties, and our working days have became shorter, safer, and far more enjoyable. I see no reason for this trend to end, and as future technologies provide even more of an abundance, as long as we’re rational and control our populations, we can work less and enjoy life more.   There have been some slight setbacks here in America as formerly impoverished nations are rising into the global economy, but this trend will equalize with time, and we’ll all be much better off from it.  The more minds we have working together, the more progress we’ll see.

What I admire in Alan Watts is his love and faith in people.  He accepts them as they are, believes in them, and knows that they have valuable things to contribute.  Judge Posner holds a far lower opinion of those around him.  If the masses weren’t ordered around, he feels they’d just all be fighting, drinking, and robbing one another and there’d be no police force to keep them in line.

Don’t get me wrong, there’s some degree of truth to what Posner is saying, but he seems too pessimistic to me.  People respond to their environment.  If they’re treated like they’re worthless, they’ll often fulfill your expectations.  But if you love them, cherish them, and educate them, you’d be surprised how quickly they’ll change.  Maybe I’m naive?

I shared my story earlier so that we could ask why I was not growing when I was a young teenager.  How did I go from a rather dull jock who spent most of his time playing basketball to a person spending his evenings contemplating the mysteries of quantum mechanics?  Why didn’t this progression happen sooner?  I think there are three main factors for progress.  1) Variation, 2) Cooperation, and 3) Competition.  My parents raised me in a home where there was no way for variation to occur.  On the walls, there were always framed posters with the scripture, “As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.”  Christianity was the way and the only truth.  Since I had the light there wasn’t anything else to discover.  My mind was turned off.  No new ideas were flowing into my head.  Competition didn’t happen because nobody ever challenged my beliefs.  My school system was too politically correct to teach evolution, and I never even questioned my religious beliefs until I was in my twenties when I finally got around to studying biology and evolution on my own.  The only one of the three factors for success I had was cooperation, which entails having people to support and help you in your endeavors.  I’ve always had friends and family to support me, and for that I’m grateful.

Knowledge, Desires, and Information

I’d like to briefly discuss some of the ideas which have been running through my head lately, though I’m not sure where I should start.  To try to put this into words, I want to talk about how, and in what sense, we control and change the world. This gets into many different things, and we can’t possibly expect to tackle it quickly.  Forgive me if I go all over the place.

Ideally I’d like to begin with a discussion about evolution and how knowledge is infused into matter by natural processes, but that would get me too far from where I’m wanting to go, so for the time being I’ll stay away from it and only mention it briefly in passing.  I more so want to discuss the sense in which I think we’re “divine”, though I’m sure just mentioning that sort of word will run many people off.  I want to focus on how we are beings in complete control over the direction of this universe, but at the same time, there is no entity, God or otherwise, who is forcing us to do anything.  So what does that even mean?  If no greater being or force is compelling us in a certain direction, and we’re truly free to direct this universe as we desire, we have to think about what that implies.

Our universe was born from random quantum fluctuations and the Big Bang.  From there we had the evolution of the first stars, galaxies, solar systems, and life evolved here on planet Earth as we know it.  The trees, insects, sea creatures, all of it.  Forgive me for simplifying this far too much, but I want to discuss how sentient life arose, and I plan to do so in a short paragraph or so.  We began as a replicating molecule, which then started joining forces with other replicating molecules, and they all went into competition one with another.  There was both competition and cooperation.  As these colonies of molecules competed and cooperated, sensory organs evolved.  Those colonies of self-replicating molecules which could react to the environment could find food and other resources better than those who had to stumble upon it by blind chance.  Hence they were able to replicate better and they survived.  This eventually led to eyes, ears, nerves, brains, and all the rest of it.  These organisms, complex colonies of replicating molecules, became more and more intelligent and self-aware, pruned by natural selection as predators chased prey.  Prey had to learn to outwit predators if they were to survive, and predators had to catch prey or they starved.  This means they had to develop instincts, intelligence and an awareness of their environment.  A sense of self arose, as they had to have an awareness of their own body in distinction to that of an “outside” world.  As their brains further developed, a sense of memory evolved within their brains.  This helped them to remember experiences they’d had and not repeat mistakes, yielding the first organisms with a sense of existing within the flow of time.  I suppose you could say we’re the pinnacle of this process, though that’s not to say we’re that much higher than the animals.

Nothing is guiding this process.  No intelligent force or being is watching over it.  It’s truly free.  As a being who exists within this totally free environment, you’re quite literally free to do anything you’re able to imagine or think up, or at least try to do so.  Thing is, if you didn’t have some body and awareness of the world to start with, you couldn’t even interact with the environment.  So your divine subjective consciousness began working through the body you’re in now.  Why you’re who you are, as opposed to somebody else, I don’t know.  Why you’re living in this time, as opposed to some other time, I don’t know.  Regardless, we’re all here and that’s the situation.  I’ve talked many times on my blog about this subjective consciousness, which is the deepest aspect of what you are.  It’s the capability to have experiences.  What those experiences are, and how they flow, is probably infinitely variable.  Right now it’s connected to your current physical body and changes in brain states are directly correlated with what you subjectively experience.

Your brain is a physical object and there’s nothing divine about it.  It could be changed and does change throughout your lifetime.  If you were sufficiently knowledgeable, I’m sure you could greatly enhance its powers.  You could probably hook it up to vast computers and direct link yourself into vast databases of knowledge.  It’s just a physical object which evolution created over a long period of time.  It’s not sacred though.  It’s not optimal.  It’s just a starting point.

I think what we are could be changed if we were only technologically capable to do so.  Say I meet you in the street and you tell me, “Have you ever wondered what it’s like to be a dog?”  I then reply, “I don’t know, but would you like to give it a whirl?”   I think that if I was intelligent enough, I could put you under and perform a complex surgery, rewiring your brain and placing you in a dog’s body, and you would become a dog.  I could even make you into a dog-human hybrid, where you’d still have high level knowledge and language, but with the instincts of a dog.  You’d smell the smells a dog smells, you’d have that enhanced hearing, and you’d enjoy drinking out of the toilet.  You’d scamper across my laboratory, stare at me, slobber on the floor, and would feel comfortable with that state of existence, assuming I was a skilled enough surgeon.  Intelligent dogs capable of language aren’t inconceivable, and you being born or living as one isn’t either.  Your real self is capable of inhabiting any form.  There are no set boundaries.  You’re not ultimately a “human”, though you currently live as one.

To whatever degree we understand the universe around us, we have control over it.  Nature has given us a brain which is somewhat aware of the environment around us, though its conceptions and models of the world are wrong and incomplete.  Even so, our brain is capable of manipulating the physical objects around us with ease.  We can walk around, pick up a book on the desk, flip a light switch, or take a shower.  We do all these things effortlessly.  Our brain is wired up to automatically process these sensory impressions and commit their patterns to memory.  It automatically stores these memories to give us a sense of time.  It can make predictions about how things behave based on past experiences.  It can even understand how things move, such as stepping out of the way as a car drives by.   Though we’ve only scratched these surface of these innate abilities, let us content ourselves with saying we humans have a native intelligence.  You’re born with it and as long as you have normal experiences, your brain will develop and be more than capable of performing the functions of everyday life.  It’s only when you go to build a robot and try to make it capable of doing these same things that you realize how intelligent and complicated we humans are.

Ok, now that we have that out of the way, let’s discuss what it means to have control over the universe and how this ties in with knowledge.  I want you to walk out into an open field and yell out, “I command a mansion to come forth!  I want a new home!”  Air would come out of your mouth, you’d hear yourself, but nothing will happen.  Why is that?  Interesting question.  Let’s instead ask ourselves what it would take for that situation to actually work.

Say you’re living in the distant future and you blurt out those words.  All of the sudden a legion of nano-robots living within the dirt hear your command and get to work.  Problem is, what should this mansion look like?  What will it be made out of?  Where will the materials come from?  How exactly will the nanobots collaborate to make this happen?  What will be their fuel to power their little microscopic parts?  The pressure waves emitted by your vocal chords do not contain that information and reality doesn’t know how to respond, so it doesn’t.  If this is going to happen, something is going to have to guide all the details of that process.  If this did work, some intelligent AI system would have to exist with vast processing power, with knowledge of all Earth’s resources, and some way of reading in what the person is wanting.  Maybe there’s tiny nanobots within the person’s brain, I don’t know.  But without all of that infrastructure, desires are in a sense, empty.

You’re free, remember?  Tell reality what to do!  All you’ve told reality to do is make some sound come out of your mouth, so that’s all that happens.  And the reason you’re able to make those sounds is because nature gave you that ability.

But where do desires come from?  There also has to be a process of thinking up a home in the first place.  Why do you desire a home in the first place?  Why that sort of structure?  Why aren’t you fine with just wandering around naked outdoors?  Why don’t you desire a jetpack to fly around with instead?  Or why not a flying airship?  Why a mansion on the ground?

You might not have realized this, but pain has a lot to do with shaping what you want.  You know why you desire a home?  You’re too cold or too hot when you’re standing outside.  That pain made you uncomfortable.  You’ve experienced the dangers of this world and you want a safe environment to thrive in.  You want an environment under your control.  You want to place to safekeep all the things you’ve acquired.  Hence you want a home.  These aren’t the only factors, but they’re certainly central.

Without pain you can’t even know what you want and don’t want.  You can’t distinguish the two.  You can’t tell what’s ugly without first seeing something beautiful, or vice versa.   You have to have all these experiences and then have a brain which processes them in a set way, able to compare them, and store the reactions in memory.  It then desires one experience over another because of some way it processes the sensory information.  That’s what a desire is.  It requires memory, imagination, and brain power to think and store the information.  Physical atoms have to be allocated to those desires and storing their representations.  It’s a process of starting out with a sensory experience and how you will react to it.  This is why people oftentimes don’t know what they want.  If you haven’t experienced enough, you don’t know what you like or don’t like.  If someone was to offer me Indian food, saying, “Do you want some?”  I’d have to reply, “Do I?”  I don’t know, I’ve never had it.  Essentially you’re asking me, “Would you like to have a new experience of what this Indian food tastes like?”, and in that case, I can answer, “Yes”, or “No.”  After I taste it, I can then say, “No, I don’t want anymore of this.”, or, “Yes, I’d like to experience this again.  I enjoy this food.”  It’s a gamble, as are most decisions in life.

Now say I’ve changed you into a dog, but your memories are left intact.  Someone could then say, “Would you like some spaghetti?”  And maybe you loved spaghetti as a human, but who knows how this will happen now that you’re a dog.  Those memories are now worthless.  They don’t reflect your desires in your current state.  You may prefer dog food.  I don’t know.

Desires are information.  They are reactions to sensory information.  They’re your brain’s predictions about how you think you will experience future events based on various circumstances.  You tell me, “I don’t want to go the meeting.”  I ask, “Why?”  You say, “My ex-girlfriend will be there, and I don’t want to bump into her.”  But that’s just your best guess based on past experiences.  Maybe things will be different if you did happen to bump into her, but you’re gambling that chances are, things will be as they always have, and it’ll be an uncomfortable experience if you come with me.

People tend to think of desires as this spiritual wind which blows into their brain from some mystical consciousness.  They think it’s some inner divine flow of inspiration, the deepest aspect of who they really are.  It’s nothing of the sort.  This is a case of not understanding what you really are.

This is why robbing a person of a good education is such a tragedy.  Education is supposed to help you learn what’s valuable in this life and it curbs your desires toward truly fulfilling things.  It’s supposed to bring you an awareness of the world and all that’s available.  To give you a small taste of what’s out there and help you find what you want to do in life.

The first day I enrolled in college, I remember sitting in a room after taking my entrance examinations.  A young woman came and sat next to me and we began talking.  Shortly after this, many young male students, primarily interested in the girl sitting next to me, began asking her about campus life and where the best parties were thrown.  She tried her best to answer their questions.  As I listened, I thought to myself, “If these kids aren’t taught what’s truly valuable in this life by the time they leave this university, our entire education system has failed.  Of all that’s possible in this world, with all the interesting things to do and work on, what a shame it is that the only thing they can think of is going to a dingy fraternity and get wasted.”

That’s why culture is so important.  Young people don’t know what they want, and they think they want to be reality TV stars or rich CEOs.  They don’t realize how exciting the world can be and all the other wonderful things they could do with their selves.  Our society doesn’t lift up great scientists, artists, or philosophers anymore.  All we see are celebrities like Paris Hilton, Kim Kardashian, or Miley Cyrus, and these people aren’t inspiring at all.  It’s empty and vacuous, but you don’t know that until you’ve been introduced to someone truly great.  You’re introduced to Albert Einstein and the expanding universe, or quantum physics, and then you realize how amazing this place really is.  We’re robbing our young people of their future.

To get back on topic, let’s further investigate what knowledge is.  What is it, and why can we control reality once we have it?  We might want to distinguish conscious knowledge from unconscious knowledge.  For example, you know how to pick up a book from a desk, but it’s not something you have to sit and think about.  You didn’t have to deeply deliberate and plan the action.  You just said, “Oh, there’s that book I was looking for”, and you grabbed it.  Even so, a huge process happened to make that event possible.   Inside your brain, information from your eyes and body was processed into a spatial environment.  A coordinate system was formed and your brain solved several simultaneous differential equations and properly contracted individual muscles all throughout your arms, hands, and body to make the action happen.  Thing is, nature built this system for you, and you’re connected to it.  Remember the whole discussion of the predator and prey?  Evolution by natural selection created a brain capable of that.  Your brain is like a computer and that programming was wired into it over millions of years.  You may think that “you” made that happen, but you’d be mistaken.  If you get brain damage in any of the areas involved in this process, you won’t be able to do this any longer.  The brain’s a type of computer connected to your robotic body.  It’s all a sort of electric meat bag, but it’s not unlike a robot.

Conscious knowledge is a bit different.  You’re aware of the information flow.  I don’t think you can control this process either, but it’s debatable, I suppose.  I think most of it is mechanical.  Say when you’re having a conversation.  You can hear the words in your head, and if you truly desire, you can “filter” words before you say them, carefully withholding speech at times, but you don’t really choose what you think to say.  If that were true, we’d all be funny and witty and loved.  It’s more like words are thrust to our attention and if we allow them to pass, they’ll come out of our mouths.   If we’re not careful, we’ll oftentimes say things we wish we hadn’t.

Conscious knowledge seems to operate in symbols linked to abstract concepts in our mind.  Our brain’s cortex, where thinking takes place, is arranged in a series of cortical columns.  Sensory information feeds into them, and they find patterns, and then patterns within the patterns, and then patterns within the patterns within the patterns, becoming more and more abstract as you make your way through a column.  Connections from these columns then run to your language center, which is linked to your vocal chords, and words and symbols can be linked to abstract patterns and concepts.  This language center also has recursive capabilities, and we can link our experiences to symbols, making language, written words, and spoken words to be possible.  Math and logic is also rooted in this system, as best I understand it.

This is complicated stuff, but let’s try to at least get a grasp on how this system becomes aware of the world and how it can control nature.  The world seems to follow the laws of physics.  It’s not just randomness.  We live in an ordered universe, though it’s not mechanical.  Since it’s ordered, that means that it creates consistent sensory impressions on our sense organs.  In theory, our brains are capable of finding the patterns in ordered sensory experience, thus we can oftentimes predict what will happen in a given circumstance.  Of course, that’s just in theory.  Reality is much more complicated.

If you study chaos theory, even if a system follows deterministic laws that doesn’t mean you can know what will happen in a given circumstance.  For example, if you change the initial conditions just slightly, something totally different may happen.  This is called the butterfly effect.  Even in a simple physical situation, like a double pendulum, if one of the arms is started with a position just a fraction of a millimeter different from where you thought it initially was, after a short while the system will behave differently than you’d calculated.  It’s like trying to predict the weather far into the future.  It’s pretty much impossible.  Since we can never determine the initial conditions with complete accuracy, we can only confidently say what will happen for a certain amount of time.  As time progresses, things become less certain.  Remember, this is in a completely deterministic system, following Newton’s laws of motion.

However there is a sort of imprecise knowledge you’d have of the pendulum system which your brain would automatically form just by watching it.  You’d know the arms would swing back and forth, though you might not be able to numerically specify exactly where they’ll be at a given time.  This is oftentimes what a physicist would call “intuition”.  This is why I spend a lot of time writing simulators on my computer, allowing me to watch different things and let this section of my brain store visual patterns.

So there’s a mathematical knowledge allowing you to manipulate equations (symbols) and predict, with a certain probability, what will happen, and there’s the brain’s native pattern system, which has a “feel” for what will happen, even though it’s not very precise.  In both cases it’s a type of information stored in the brain, related to an experience, in this case, a double pendulum.

The main gist is this.  We have sensory inputs which go into the brain, that information is processed, some of it being stored for future use, and then sometimes we get outputs which translate into bodily motions of various kinds.  If that information in your brain correctly correlates with reality, you can control it.  But of course, knowledge can always be faulty, and oftentimes is.

Now why do we observe the things we do?  That’s the next question.  Sure, your brain will form patterns and come to understand things you study and try to figure out, but why focus on those things as opposed to others?  That’s a huge step most people don’t even consider.  It’s ‘the’ step.  As best I understand it, we have dreams and desires of this world, and we want to make them a reality.  They exist in an imperfect state in our imagination, as a sort of fragmented and incomplete form of information.  We try to fill in the details, so we begin making observations and making conjectures about the world.  We ask, “Is this possible?  Could I make this happen?  What would I need to do?”

Our brain is a sort of scanning system. It works based on limited information.  In fact, most of the information that falls on our sensory systems is discarded.  It leaves out far more than it takes in.  It mainly focuses on either confirming what it wants to be true, or working out details into how to make a desire reality.  All the while, as new sensory inputs come in during the process, desires change.  People find out they didn’t really want what they thought they did before, and become interested in different things instead.  We’re constantly examining how different experiences make us feel, and we pursue those things which excite us.  Knowledge and information is then directed in those areas, and those particular future realities are brought nearer to us.

Now these sorts of processes don’t have to take place in a brain.  In the futuristic world we considered earlier, intelligent processes existed within the world around the person, allowing them to speak the word and the world created a mansion for him.  Knowledge had been infused into the outside world.  But what is the knowledge?

The knowledge itself can’t be defined because knowledge can be about anything.  In general though, it’s a form of computation.  There’s an input, an algorithm of some kind is run on the input data, and then outputs are produced in some controlled and consistent manner.  That’s what a computer does on practically an atomic scale.  So as computers are made smaller and smaller and are embedded in the world around you, the world will start to respond to your desires, as long as they’re programmed to respond to them.

Say you have implants in your brain and they communicate with your iPhone.  It has an app installed which can turn on your car and direct it to your location.  You’re in the grocery store pushing your cart and are checking out.  You think the thought, “Car, meet me at the front door.”  That thought runs through your brain, the implant reads it, creates an electromagnetic wave which is detected by your iPhone, which then transmits the command to your car, which then uses AI to drive to the front door.  Computer scientists had to write code which told all of those atoms what to do, guided by information which was stored in the computers in the phone, implant, and in the car.  Those things broke the vague thought into individual actions each atom had to do in order to make it a reality.  Your desire was fully specified and so reality responded accordingly.

You’re completely free at all times.  No outside forces are making you do anything.  Then again, that doesn’t mean you have free will in the traditional sense most people think of.  That concept doesn’t even make sense if you think about it.

The interesting ideas here are computation and information.  Our brains, which we cherish so much, are just one form of computation and information storage.  There are all kinds of ways to process information.  Our brains are well suited for translating sensory impressions into certain types of models of the world, particularly the world we evolved in — things moving at slow to medium speeds, and of medium size.  However, our brains’ mental model of the world breaks down for large systems, such as thinking about the entire cosmos, or the world of atoms, such as quantum physics.  It’s tuned into a certain “range” of experience, similar to how our eyes are sensitive to only certain frequencies of light.

I had originally planned to talk about a lot of other things, which is what I was mostly thinking about, but I had to give this background information first.  I’ll have to continue this conversation another time.  I was spending a great deal of time thinking about video games, and how mankind is experimenting as the inventor of his own universes.  We’re creating our own rules of physics, controlling how objects behave, and trying to create worlds with the most vivid and exciting experiences possible.  Virtual reality is interesting to consider.  I was thinking about how we program those things, and how it’s based on our current knowledge of the world.  Objects are represented by polygon “shells”, ultimately hollow on the inside.  I was wanting to discuss if VR worlds are true parallel universes, and if so, in what way?  Anyways, we’ll get into it another time.