Life And Meaning

I’d like to take a brief moment to write about life and meaning, or more specifically, that feeling we all sometimes get when we sense ourselves saying, “What’s the point of it all?”

That emotion swings back and forth within me, depending on what’s going on in my life.  If I were to try to define it, I would say it’s when reality fails to stand alone and justify itself.  Maybe I should explain what I mean by that?

If you’re doing something you really enjoy doing, sort of lost in the moment, totally immersed in that thing, whatever that may be, you’re not thinking, “What’s the point?”  That’s not when you’re searching for meaning.  During those times, you’re not searching for anything.  You’re in alignment with something beyond yourself, and reality justifies itself.  Life has meaning during those times.

Life seems to lose meaning when that feeling of inner satisfaction is gone.  Life no longer justifies itself.  We start asking, “Why am I experiencing this?”  There’s something intrinsically lacking in what we’re experiencing and our emotions are reacting to it with disgust and disappointment.  We may even ask ourselves, “What did I do to deserve this?”  It seems so pointless that we’re suffering, and we try to use our reasoning to make sense of it, even invoking our moral reasoning.  Why am I suffering like this?  Why am I feeling so miserable?  It must’ve been something I did!

We all seem to crave a world where everything is meaningful and delightful but instead we’re left in a world where most things leave us exhausted, bored, and frustrated.  To find things infused with meaning and joy requires a real search, and even then, the joy they offer is so often ephemeral and transitory.

That got me thinking why spiritual lessons are so important.  The first would be to be thankful.  When you find something wonderful, enjoy it, but expect to suffer a lot in life.  And when you do find yourself in a dark time, don’t make yourself and everyone around you more miserable than need be.  It’s very easy to make things even worse by raging, complaining, and whining.

My mother used to always tell me that this life is God’s way of testing our character.  We’re put in trying situations and we’re being watched to see how we’ll react.  Personally, I find all of that hard to believe, but it is a beautiful thought.  I doubt the universe has any sort of simple purpose or meaning, but I do know that she’s right about this world testing your character.

Life often seems to be testing me.  There’s always this “dark road” I could go down, offering me all kinds of nice things, only if I’ll compromise on values I hold.  I know I’ve mentioned this before, but when I look up on the walls of the physics building, there are all these posters.  Come work for the U.S. Defense department!  We’ll pay for all your school, we’ll pay you lots of money while you’re in school, and we’ll guarantee you work once you graduate!  I look at that and it’s like I see the devil’s face, baiting students.

They do the same thing to computer science students.  Just recently it was announced that the NSA is offering millions of dollars in scholarships to comp-sci students at my university, but only if they’ll come to work for them once they graduate.  If you’re willing to give your life to big brother and the surveillance state, they’ll set you up for life.

And after all, why not live an easy life?  Why should you worry about all these other people around you?  Build weapons of mass destruction.  Build chemical weapons.  Build an infrastructure of spying and monitoring of innocent civilians.  Do it!  You’ll earn lots of money and won’t have to graduate with $100,000 in debt.  C’mon, it’s so easy!

I oftentimes want to rip the posters down, but I don’t. My life would be easier if I took an offer like that, but it’d be a worthless victory.  How can you be happy when you know your success came at so many other people’s misery?

This reminds me of a Buddhist concept called Indra’s net.

Far away in the heavenly abode of the great god Indra, there is a wonderful net which has been hung by some cunning artificer in such a manner that it stretches out infinitely in all directions. In accordance with the extravagant tastes of deities, the artificer has hung a single glittering jewel in each “eye” of the net, and since the net itself is infinite in dimension, the jewels are infinite in number. There hang the jewels, glittering “like” stars in the first magnitude, a wonderful sight to behold. If we now arbitrarily select one of these jewels for inspection and look closely at it, we will discover that in its polished surface there are reflected all the other jewels in the net, infinite in number. Not only that, but each of the jewels reflected in this one jewel is also reflecting all the other jewels, so that there is an infinite reflecting process occurring.



We are the jewels hung in Indra’s net.  None of us exist in isolation.  In the Rg Veda, Indra used this net to entangle and trap people.  When you turn away from the light, you become trapped in this web, lost in darkness.

I know this is an overused cliche, but things are deeply interconnected in this world.  When you turn away from the light, you start shaking the web and others get trapped as well.  It sets off a nasty chain of events.  I refuse to take part in building weapons and waging war.  Other people deal with similar trials of their own.  Sometimes I see these young female artists being interviewed and I worry about them.  They tell how they didn’t want to dress skimpy for their music videos, but they were told they had to in order to be successful.  You have to refuse those sorts of things.  This world will never stop.  It will keep demanding more and more from you until everything around you is so ugly and dark, you’ll wonder why you ever sold your soul to the devil.  Respect yourself.

No amount of success is worth your integrity.  We’re all nodes on Indra’s web, but people are confused about who they are.  They get this mistaken belief that the only way they can succeed is by dimming the light which is trying to shine through them.  It’s the opposite.  You have to let it through you.  And if there’s no light around you, it’s time to find a new place on the web.  Don’t stay there.

Sexism And Political Correctness

As many of you have probably gathered over the years, I’m not a fan of political correctness.  The philosopher and neuroscientist Sam Harris recently got himself in trouble over a few comments he made.  People (primarily feminists) are claiming he’s sexist.  He’s written a book on spirituality without religion, and so he’s been touring around, giving talks and interviews.  He gave one interview at George Washington University with the Washington Post religious reporter, Michelle Boorstein.

She asked him why the vast majority of atheists, and many of those who buy his books, are male.  Then she went on to accuse him and the secular community of sexism.  I just rolled my eyes and thought, “Here we go again.”

I simply want to use it as an example of why political correctness is often a terrible thing.  As Betrand Russell said,


When you are studying any matter, or considering any philosophy, ask yourself only what are the facts and what is the truth that the facts bear out. Never let yourself be diverted either by what you wish to believe, or by what you think would have beneficent social effects if it were believed, but look only, and solely, at what are the facts.

– Bertrand Russell

So what are the facts about atheists and secular thinkers?  I would recommend this post by the Friendly Atheist.

But when we take the existing corpus of sociological, psychological, and anthropological data together — from the past sixty years — there is clear empirical support for the claim that men are more likely to be secular than women. As Marta Trzebiatowska and Steve Bruce note in their book Why Are Women More Religious Than Men? (Oxford University Press, 2012), “since 1945 the Gallup polling organization has consistently found that, on every index used, American women are more religious than men, and not by small margins.”

Consider, for example, that according to the American Religious Identification Survey, men currently make up 58% of Americans who claim “no religion,” 70% of Americans who self-identify as atheist, and 75% of those who self identify as agnostic. Or consider the Pew Forum’s U.S. Religious Landscape Survey, which found that 86% of American women claim to be religiously-affiliated, but only 79% of American men claimed as much; 77% of women believe in God with absolute certainly, but only 65% of men do; 66% of women pray daily, but only 49% of men do; 63% of women say that religion is very important in their lives, but only 49% of men say as much; 44% of women attend religious services on a weekly basis, but only 34% of men do. The differences may or may not be significant — social science gets fuzzy here — but they are consistent. And for one final example, consider the fact that the Freedom From Religion Foundation reports that 79% of its members are men (see Melanie Brewster‘s essay “Atheism, Gender, and Sexuality” in the Oxford Handbook of Atheism, 2013, for further details).

In short, whatever measures one uses to assess religiosity — frequency of prayer, belief in God, church attendance, or self-identification — men in the United States are more likely to be secular-leaning than women, on average.

And the “on average” is key, folks. The above studies do not illustrate that all men are more secular than all women. It is just an average. A percentage.

These same trends are pretty much found all over the world.  Harris wasn’t sure why most of those interested in his work are males, but he has noticed that about 70% are men and only 30% are women.  Is this evidence of sexism in the secular community?  Hardly.  Since the majority of atheists and secular thinkers are men, it sort of makes sense that most people showing up to these sorts of events are men.

Though I hate being too general, I tend to lean toward the opinion that, on average, women have strong inclinations to be caregivers and nurturers. They seem less likely to engage in careers, movements, and ideas which lack those features.  This tendency may be biological in origin, or it may be purely cultural, though I’m guessing it’s some of both.

Take for instance the field of psychology.  There are three times as many women earning PhDs in psychology as men.  In developmental and child psychology, women PhDs outnumber men five to one.  It’s hard to deny the nurturing and emotional connection argument.  Check out this article.

Since a lot of religion deals with caring for the sick, helping the poor, and taking care of the needy, it may appeal to women more than men.  Religion also has emotional aspects, such as God’s life-force and presence being everywhere and in all things.  That gives a feeling of connection, which I think is more important to women than men, on average.

Compare that to physics.  It’s mostly about mathematics and patterns, having little to do with interactions with people, family, children, etc.  What you do deal with is “cold”.  It’s about objective facts and a lot of abstract concepts and mathematics.  Engineering.  Many things in physics are impersonal.  So my first guess would be that women would be less inclined to be physicists.  Is this true?

phds physics

It’s nice to see more and more women getting interested in physics, but it’s still a field almost totally dominated by men.  What percentage is that?  I’d guess we have  80-90% men, and only 10-20% women.  Why?  Are all of us physicists sexist?  No.  There’s nothing stopping women from majoring in physics and advanced mathematics, but they just don’t seem to be all that into it.  The women I’ve met who are physicists are brilliant, there’s just not many of them.

My friend Greg and I used to notice that women are put off by libertarian ideas.  For example, if you attend libertarian events, where the core ideas are self-reliance, beating the competition, entrepreneurship, etc., there are very few women there.  As for those you do find, they’re with their husbands, not really there on their own.  If you study the numbers, almost 7 out of 10 libertarians are male.

The thing about freedom is that its heights are limitless, and its lows are bottomless. Libertarians, I presume, look at that void and never consider that they will do anything but rise. And “communalists,” as the Research Institute dubbed the other end of the spectrum, probably look and are horrified by the many eventualities that could sink them. This is Thomas Hobbes’s “state of nature”: The strong snap up all the firewood and nuts and berries and whatnot, and the weak die starving and shivering in the cold. But what does that have to do with gender? In any state of nature that today’s libertarians would like to return us to, women seem as well-equipped to succeed as men, their paucity of brute strength not being such an issue thanks to modern amenities. So the divide must be more between how women see themselves and how men, especially libertarian men, see themselvesnot how they actually are.

Way back then we figured that this was because libertarian ideas do not stress nurturing, caring, and connection.  They primarily stress beating the competition, getting stronger, and dominating your market.  Women seem less drawn to those ideas and ways of life.

Sam Harris is known for being critical, and to many in religious circles, his ideas are divisive, and may even sound angry.  He doesn’t have nice things to say about Christianity or Islam.  I don’t think the critical approach to sharing and discussing ideas appeals to a lot of women.  That may be part of it.  Also, Harris sometimes features articles on self-defense and guns, himself being a skilled martial artist.  Those things appeal to men but far less to women.  That’s another thing to consider.

Are there other factors?  Definitely.  This is all worth discussing, but let’s not play the sexist card.

What Education’s All About

Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker recently wrote a brilliant piece for The New Republic.  In it, he discusses his views on education.  I found one passage particularly important.

It seems to me that educated people should know something about the 13-billion-year prehistory of our species and the basic laws governing the physical and living world, including our bodies and brains. They should grasp the timeline of human history from the dawn of agriculture to the present. They should be exposed to the diversity of human cultures, and the major systems of belief and value with which they have made sense of their lives. They should know about the formative events in human history, including the blunders we can hope not to repeat. They should understand the principles behind democratic governance and the rule of law. They should know how to appreciate works of fiction and art as sources of aesthetic pleasure and as impetuses to reflect on the human condition.

On top of this knowledge, a liberal education should make certain habits of rationality second nature. Educated people should be able to express complex ideas in clear writing and speech. They should appreciate that objective knowledge is a precious commodity, and know how to distinguish vetted fact from superstition, rumor, and unexamined conventional wisdom. They should know how to reason logically and statistically, avoiding the fallacies and biases to which the untutored human mind is vulnerable. They should think causally rather than magically, and know what it takes to distinguish causation from correlation and coincidence. They should be acutely aware of human fallibility, most notably their own, and appreciate that people who disagree with them are not stupid or evil. Accordingly, they should appreciate the value of trying to change minds by persuasion rather than intimidation or demagoguery.

I believe (and believe I can persuade you) that the more deeply a society cultivates this knowledge and mindset, the more it will flourish. The conviction that they are teachable gets me out of bed in the morning.

– Steven Pinker, New Republic

Laniakea – Immeasurable Heaven

I often find myself coming home late at night and I stare up at the stars.  If you’re a physicist, a lot goes through your mind when you think of all of space and the universe.  Recently some new research has came out, giving us a new way to view superclusters.  So what is a supercluster?  They are regions of space which are densely packed with galaxies.  We can now view the flow and movements of galaxies within these giant clusters, leading to a more precise definition of what constitutes a supercluster.  Our galaxy, the Milky Way, exists on the outskirts of the Laniakea supercluster.  Enjoy the video.

Marriage And Sexual Morality

I can remember first buying Will Durant’s The Story of Civilization history bookset back when I was a teenager.  I tried reading it back then, but Durant’s vocabulary was beyond me, and I wasn’t getting much out of it.  Now it’s been some fifteen years or so, and I’ve went back to reading them again.  Well, actually I’ve been listening to the entire set from an audiobook on my mp3 player while I’m in the gym.  What an absolute delight!

durant story of civilization

He begins his first volume with a summary of all the elements of civilization and how they’ve evolved over thousands of years.  We’re greeted with a cursory overview of the origin and development of governments, their laws, courts, family structure, economic systems, cultural values, morals, religions, science, art, and other ways of life.  You really are left with the impression that people have lived every possible way you can imagine, and that our culture and values are rather arbitrary.  That’s not to say that some ways of life aren’t better and more conducive to happiness.  I’m just saying that there are many ways to live our lives, innumerable methods to share the Earth’s resources, and as many philosophies and outlooks about our place in the universe as you could possibly imagine.

In this post, I’d like to highlight a few interesting things I came across when studying the evolution of the family, the institution of marriage, and sexual morality.

In personal conversation among friends, I’d often argue that marriage is primarily a system of managing private property.  It’s for the government’s convenience, a sort of default system to distribute the property upon divorce, handle custody of children, deal with death and inheritance, etc.  That’s not very romantic, I know, and that leads people to scoff at me, even pity me, like I don’t understand love, but just sit and think about what marriage is.  Think about all of its restrictions, barriers, and complex ties to religion.

Don’t get me wrong.  I believe in love and commitment in relationships.  But when people talk about marriage, I’m thinking of the social institution itself.  The religious side of it, the legal side of it, etc.

Prior to reading the first volume of this set, my views on marriage were primarily just based on intuition.  I’d read some history and thought about it quite a bit, and that’s the answer I came to.  It turns out that Will Durant completely agrees with me, and I was left surprised.  As he went through the evolution of the institution of marriage throughout the ages, one thing totally jumped out at me.  It all comes down to private property.  We’ll have to step outside of our Western culture and look at how relationships between men and women have taken place throughout the ages, over thousands of years.   I obviously can’t tackle that subject in any depth, but I’ll highlight some interesting things to consider.

Many cultures and tribes have lived as a common group, sort of like a big family.  They have no private property.  Nobody starves.  There’s no homeless among them.  They hunted together, lived together, and died together, as one unit.

Why am I bringing them up?  Well they have no private property, so what happens to marriage, relationships, sexual morality, and all of that, once you get rid of private property?  Everything, and I mean everything changes.

The first thing you notice is that nobody is possessive.  People fall in love, but if a guy’s girlfriend goes off and sleeps with some other guy in the tribe, getting her pregnant, nobody cares.  You may think to yourself, “What?  I don’t believe that.  Jealousy always exists in relationships!”  But no, that’s actually a consequence of private property!

This is deep, so brace yourselves.  Think about a world where you’re all one big family.  Think of the types of arguments people get into over pregnancy, child custody, etc.  What’s it all about?  It’s pretty much all about raising the child, who’s going to provide, paying bills, etc.  None of that exists in their society, so none of it matters.

Who will raise the child?  Everyone will.  Children are just sort of born and then they’re raised by everyone there, and they’re given a place in the tribe.  Nobody owns anything or anyone, so it doesn’t even cross their mind to care about who got who pregnant.  They don’t have these isolated little “family” units which all compete with one another for jobs, income, money, and all that.  It doesn’t work that way.

Food is shared with everyone after a hunt.  People need shelter?  They all come together and would build huts.  Job training?  Just join the guys in the next hunt, or stay back with the women and gather berries.  It didn’t matter who was the father because there are no individual providers or private property owners.

In this sort of world, women and men just sort of drift among partners.  Young teenagers were often found that had four or five husbands, all still living.  Sometimes a couple may bond for life, but very often everyone sort of slept around with everyone else and nobody cared who was pregnant with who’s child.  Who’s the father?  Who cares.  Why would it matter?  What difference would it make?

In fact, these cultures sometimes had group marriage systems.  This would happen when one tribe would ally with another tribe.  One group of brothers would end up collectively marrying a group of sisters.  They all sort of cohabited together.  You can even read about remnants of this in the Jewish people during Biblical times.  A man was obligated to marry his brother’s widow.

Their societies are really interesting to me.  I had always believed that man is a greedy creature, always out for himself or herself.  I realize that that’s not true at all.  We respond to incentives and the culture around us.  Western explorers would find these tribes living all over the world, and they’d ask the people, “Are there any homeless among you?”  They’d reply, “Why would there be homeless among us?  Do you not have wood, mud, and grass to build a hut where you come from?”  Greed didn’t exist at all in those societies.

Our culture comes from a religious heritage, where chastity and virginity are looked upon as a virtue.  Women who sleep around are viewed as whores, and men who live that sort of lifestyle are frowned upon as unfaithful and unreliable.  If you get rid of private property, all that goes away.

People in these tribes viewed things very differently.  Many would ask outsiders and strangers to sleep with their wives.  They often had taboos against spilling the blood of fellow tribesmen, and oftentimes the woman would release blood during their first time of intercourse, and they didn’t want to have that blood on their hands, so to speak.  Even in tribes with differing degrees of private property, men would hire outsiders to sleep with their wives to take away their virginity.

Considering all of this, prostitution never existed in these societies.  There was no need of it.  Even children were encouraged to have sex as early as they could.  Virginity was actually a bad thing as it indicated unpopularity.  Mothers would be scolded if their daughters were brought up virgins.

And how about modesty?  Think about women and men wearing revealing clothing.  Or what about a man looking at a woman’s breasts?  “My eyes are up here!”  Even to this day, there are tribes all over the world which have no shame of completely baring all at all times.  They laugh at us and how silly we are about clothing and showing our bodies.

How far do we go with this?  Think about how uptight we all are about sex.  In these societies, people have sex out in the open for all to see and watch.  There’s an old woman weaving clothing and some elders nibbling on dried beef jerky while a young couple gets it on just a short ways away by the river.  Nobody cares.

And another thing which always baffled me.  Why is kissing the way we show affection?  Is there something special about putting our mouths together?  No, not at all.  Most societies disconnected from Western influence have no conception of kissing.  In fact, many of these tribes and cultures look at kissing with scorn.  Our obsession with it is completely cultural and arbitrary.

It’s also very interesting to note that these societies had no romantic love at all.  Most of them lacked a word for love in their vocabulary and translators struggled to even impart the idea to them.  They were all very poor and life was hard.  Men and women were valued if they could secure food, find water, cut wood, and carry belongings when following the herd.  The origin of romance is fascinating, though it’s all too complex to get into.

While beauty was appreciated, women weren’t valued for their looks.  It was more about being industrious and useful.  This whole idea of women as weak, pretty objects to be protected by men is peculiar to the Western world.  Throughout many ancient societies, men and women took life on side by side.  We tend to think of ourselves as progressive and modern and the ancients primitive.  But even if you look at the Egyptians, they had female pharaohs and there was no significant differences between men and women.  It makes you wonder, why are women even today still struggling for equal placement in our world?  All of this is fascinating, seeing how it all unfolded over the centuries.

Even as private property developed, women in these societies actually preferred polygamy.  They would encourage their husbands to marry other women as well.  You see, children were economic assets and men often died during their dangerous and violent hunts.   There were a lot of widows.  Men didn’t live long as their lives were far more threatened and short-lived.  This led to a large excess of women, so polygamy was the natural state of affairs.

Women figured that the more children they had in their family, the more likely they were to be protected.  Also the children gave the family more hands to work, and subsequently more wealth came into their household.  Only poor, undesirable men practiced monogamy.  It was a shameful position to find yourself in.  This might surprised you, but these women viewed monogamy as unnatural and immoral.

I could easily write a whole series of posts on how our institution of marriage evolved, how women were subjected under men, how we became sexually prudish, etc., but I don’t have the time right now.  I’m pretty busy with school work.  Still, I wanted to write this quick post.  I find it all really interesting.