Uncommon Sense

September 19, 2021

The Purpose of Human Existence

Filed under: Culture,Philosophy,Religion,Science — Steve Ruis @ 8:58 am
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I continue to write about this because I see questions galore on Quora and Medium about “the purpose of our existence at the material/physical level.” For some people just the miracle of our existence is insufficient, there must be a grand scheme behind the scenes that we are helping to fulfill.

Allow me to throw a bucket of cold water on this idea through a favorite tool of Albert Einstein’s: the thought experiment.

Here is how it goes: for a period of 24 hours, human beings disappear and leave no trace. Along with us disappearing, so does all of our superstitious claptrap: souls, ghosts, etc. . . . all gone, but for just 24 hours.

What purpose or purposes do you think would exist once we were gone? I suggest “all gone.” Of course if we left behind written records alien archeologists could decipher them and discern that we believed we had a purpose in the universe. When they stopped laughing, they would recognize that our species hadn’t really been around for long when it fell.

Before the 24 hours elapses and we come back, ask yourself: how would the rest of the universe be affected by our disappearance? I hope you would see that there would be no effect of any note on the rest of the universe.

Purposes are things we invent. We invent them for ourselves, as individuals, and sometimes we band together in groups around a shared purpose. Shared purposes can also be very large, such as winning a total war in your country against an invading force, but it takes a large number of people to shape that purpose and keep it going.

The desire that there be some outside purpose for the existence of humanity as a whole, is the wish for there to be some supernatural agent which will take responsibility, rather than us taking responsibility for ourselves, as it were. Which of these two beliefs is the child-like one? Is it any wonder that so many religions ask you to “become like a child,” because if you do, then you de facto accept a belief in the existence of that deity, all because you didn’t want to take responsibility for yourself and for a few people around you.

The seeking for a grand overall purpose for all this is an egotistical juvenile search. If you just look at your life openly you will see that you have many purposes you have created all by yourself: you have the purpose of being a good parent, for example, or an exemplary worker, or a purpose to make a shitload of money, or a purpose to be the best player at you local poker game, or. . . . If you have a goal and act upon it, you have a purpose. If you want a purpose, establish a goal and start acting upon it. Go around and tell people your purpose(s) and you may even find people who share one of them and will help you meet it.

Should you decide to search out the grand overall purpose of humanity, be sure to wear your diapers.

August 26, 2021

e-motion 2.0—a Documentary Review

Filed under: Culture,Entertainment,Reason,Science — Steve Ruis @ 11:14 am
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Jumping the Tracks and the Shark at the Same Time

I took two running starts at this documentary but neither time could I make it even one quarter of the way through. I was washed out on a wave of woo each time.

The film begins easily enough by making a few claims, through quotes, such as “The subconscious mind determines everything about us.” Well, no it doesn’t, but it is very close.

They then went on to state that “emotions control the subconscious mind” and again, no they don’t but they do impact it substantially.

Next they made the completely wild claim that “at the root of every illness is suppressed emotion.” So, their thinking is starting to be exposed: emotions control the subconscious mind combined with the subconscious mind determines everything about us (my emphasis), and they create a direct link between emotions and everything about us, including illnesses. Now, there are some truths involved here but they are extrapolated so far as to make them disconnected.

I am, for example, convinced that imagination is our super power; it is what makes us distinct from every other species. And it is not that other species do not imagine (I don’t know but suspect that some do), but we took that sucker and ran with it. And one thing we can do is imagine a stressful situation so vividly that we can get a bodily stress reaction from it. And that, if repeated a great deal, will lead to an illness. So, memories and emotion can lead to illness.

In the sport I coach, archery, we claim that our subconscious mind cannot distinguish between reality and a vivid imagining. (This is based in science. It seems that instead of interacting with “reality,” whatever that is, directly we create a simulacrum of reality in our mind and interact with that. So, imagination and reality are not at all distinct in our minds.) Where this comes into play in archery is that archers are taught to vividly imagine a perfect shot from their personal viewpoint, just before raising their bows to make each shot. I am of the opinion that this “visualization” is a set of instructions to our subconscious mind, which controls all of our physical movements, to “make it so.” All motion of our bodies, not just archery shots, is controlled subconsciously. You know this from whenever you had no training in some physical activity and had to do it consciously: driving a car, riding a bike, tying your shoes, etc. How’d that go? Clumsy, eh? We all are. We have to train our subconscious minds and then we can turn it over to them to do it effortlessly.

So, our subconscious minds control a great deal of our lives, but “everything”? (Otherwise, how do we train our subconscious minds to do things like tie our shoes?) That’s quite a stretch at best. And we still don’t know what a “mind” is, but most psychologists think we have a stack: we have our conscious minds, then our subconscious minds, then our unconscious minds, and at the bottom, our autonomic processes (heartbeat, gland secretions, etc.). Each “layer” is intermixed with the one’s next to it. Some think that the “subconscious mind” is really just an expanded mode of conscious mixed with unconscious mental activities and it is not really a separate thing. 9In archery discussions I use subconscious and unconscious interchangeably because the finer points are not needed for archery.) The mixing of “minds” (No, Spock, not now!) is evident from experiments in which the subjects exhibited mental control over things like their heart rate, blood pressure, and other “autonomic” things.

So, we don’t know exactly what a mind is, and there seem to be multiple minds with somewhat separate functions or abilities. For example, archers are taught to moderate their emotions because they do affect our subconscious behavior and archery shots are largely subconscious events. Get overly emotional and your shooting becomes erratic.

But, going from “some diseases” are caused by subconscious emotions to “all diseases” are caused by emotions, requires a bridge too far. We became much more proficient in fighting diseases when we discovered the germ theory of disease, that there are microorganisms, including viruses, that cause disease. (In the Age of COVID, does anyone argue against this any more?) So, are disease organisms manifestations of repressed memories?

Also, they jumped to “suppressed emotions” from “emotions.” They claimed that “good emotions” are expressed while “bad emotions” are suppressed. And the bad emotions build up over time and . . . disease. WTF? We obviously have memories of emotional events. Evolution has decided that there is something to learn from emotional events (like to avoid being eaten by the tiger, I don’t have to outrun it, just out run the others in my group) and those memories last longer than mundane memories.

And, we are just now starting to learn how memories are stored. If you thought little video stories are storied in this or that place in your brain, well, you guessed wrong. Memories are dissected. The visual parts are stored in the visual cortex, the audio parts, are stored elsewhere, as are the tactile parts, etc. The locations in the brain that possess the ability to process specific kinds of information are where those kinds of information are stored. When a memory is triggered, all the parts get reassembled (well, usually all of the parts do, but not always) lickety-split. The more often a memory is triggered, the easier it is to recall. So people who chew on events of the past find it oh so easy to pull up the memories of the things they cannot resist. Those who do not dwell on the past find it harder and harder to come up with those recalls.

None of these things were discussed, at least in as far as I got. The second try I stopped at the comment “Ninety percent of our energy is used to suppress energies from our past.” WTF?

I did get past the obligatory mention of vibrational energies and how they are linked to various parts of the body. Vibrational energies were the vogue in the woo-woo crowd of 100 years ago as the wave nature of light and whatnot were in open discussion because of all of the excitement surrounding Einstein and his posse of physicists. No mention of how these vibrational energies operate other than through resonance and the kind of energy is never mentioned, just “energy.”

So, as I said, a tidal wave of woo washed me out.

If anyone gets to the end I would appreciate hearing your thoughts on this . . . whatever it is.

Oh, btw, we do not yet know what an emotion is. One of the most promising theories is that these things are learned!

July 31, 2021

OMG, We Are That Stupid?

According to surveys and modeling by The Economist magazine, the single greatest predictor of whether an American has been vaccinated is whether they voted for Joe Biden or Donald Trump last November.

Is there a better sign that we have taken a public health issue, a basic nonpartisan issue, and politicized it?

Are we that stupid?

Yes, we are.

Of course, a massive dose of demagoguery was involved but that is the direction our politics have been turning for quite some time.

Where were all of the anti-vax people when we developed the vaccination scheme for our children? For example, here are the common vaccinations that U.S. children are supposed to get:
Chickenpox
Diphtheria
Hib (protects against Haemophilus influenzae type b)
Hepatitis A
Hepatitis B
Influenza (Flu)
Measles
Meningitis
Mumps
Pertussis (whooping cough)
Polio
Rubella
Tetanus
And for Chicago School Children
In addition to the above:
Invasive Pneumococcal Disease
Varicella
I assume your local community will have similar standards.

There were anti-vax people before, some screaming “religious exemption!” but they were a very small minority, not 40% of the population.

While researching the Chicago school vaccination requirements I found that religious exceptions are granted. So I downloaded the form and lo and behold, they require documentation! Here are the relevant sections on how to fill out the form:
How to complete the Certificate of Religious Exemption to Required Immunizations and/or Examinations Form
• Complete the Parent/Guardian sections, which include key information about the student and the school the student will be entering, and the immunizations or examinations for which religious exemption is being requested. Provide a statement of religious belief(s): for each vaccination/examination requested.
• The form must be signed by the child’s parent or legal guardian . AND the child’s health care provider* responsible for performing the child’s health examination
• Submit the completed form to local school authority on or before October 15th of the school year, or by an earlier enrollment date established by a school district.
• The local school authority is responsible for determining whether the information supplied on the Certificate of Religious Exemption to Required Immunizations and/or Examinations Form constitutes a valid religious objection.
Religious Exemption from Immunizations and/or Examination Form Process:
• The local school authority shall inform the parent or legal guardian, at the time that the exemption is presented, of exclusion procedures, should there be an outbreak of one or more diseases from which the student is not protected, in accordance with the Illinois Department of Public Health (IDPH) rules, Control of Communicable Diseases Code (77 Ill. Adm. Code 690).
• Exempting a child from health, dental, or eye examination does not exempt the child from participation in the program of physical education training provided in Section 27-5 through 27-7 of the Illinois School Code [105 ILCS 5/27-5 through 105 ILCS 5/27-7]. A separate request for exemption from physical education, if desired, would need to be presented.

The key part of this exception in my mind is: The local school authority is responsible for determining whether the information supplied on the Certificate of Religious Exemption to Required Immunizations and/or Examinations Form constitutes a valid religious objection.

So, the anti-vax people seem to be signing up to be home schooling parents, no? Oh, goody, the transmission of ignorance codified.

There are Always Consequences
The state of Montana recently passed what they, euphemistically, called their “Human Rights Act,” which does not bar discrimination based on sexual orientation or against trans children, but now protects a class of people who don’t want to get vaccinated, whether against COVID–19 or the measles. Yes, Montana’s “small government” Republicans have mandated by law that Montana’s citizens cannot refuse to hire unvaccinated people to work in their homes, or as caretakers for their elderly parents, or they will be in violation of the state’s human rights law. O . . . M . . . G!

Okay, let’s consider a hypothetical. Let’s say that a massive number of cases of leprosy break out in Montana and there is a vaccine. Who do you think would be first in line to get that vaccine? Those same assholes who passed this law and others like it under the false flag of “personal liberty,” which is a joke coming from the party that waved the flag of personal responsibility as a protection against government meddling in our public and private lives. Now they are employing government meddling to avoid having to recommend personal responsibility. That they consider COVID-19 and its variants to be basically a case of the flu, and a health basket case like Donald Trump pulled through it quickly telling them it ain’t so much, allows them to play fast and loose with the issue, milking it for political gain. But a nasty disease, such as leprosy, or one that makes your dick fall off, would have those very same Republicans trampling over other people to get their shots.

July 22, 2021

I-mag-i-na-ay-shun . . .

Filed under: Education,Reason,Science — Steve Ruis @ 10:57 am
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Here is an excerpt from an interview of Brian Greene, a science populizer (specifically physics), on the PBS program NOVA:

NOVA: Well, for example, most people have trouble envisioning a fourth spatial dimension. Can you?

GREENE: No. I cannot envision anything beyond three dimensions. What I can do is I can make use of mathematics that describe those extra dimensions, and then I can try to translate what the mathematics tells me into lower dimensional analogies that help me gain a picture of what the math has told me. But the picture is certainly inadequate to the task of fully describing what’s going on, because it’s in lower dimensions, and in higher dimensions, things are definitely different.

To tell you the truth, I’ve never met anybody who can envision more than three dimensions. There are some who claim they can, and maybe they can; it’s hard to say. But it’s very hard, when your brain is involved in a world that appears to have three dimensions and is well suited to envisioning that world, to go beyond that and imagine more dimensions.

The discussion was about understanding Einstein’s view of physical reality, so I found this strange. Einstein was the inventor of “space-time” that is four dimensional “space” in which three of the dimensions are spatial and the fourth is time. Basically Einstein claimed that these four dimensions are interdependent.

Note that no fourth spatial dimension is mentioned.

It is easy to think in four dimensions. Imagine a small ball hanging in space. Its position is determined by three “dimensions” being up-down, left-right, to and fro and one can be time, it being 10:47 AM CST as I type this. We can add another dimension to make five: temperature. We can specify that this ball is 22.2 Celsius. We can add another dimension by adding color: the ball is blue. We are now up to six dimensions and you are having no trouble keeping up, right?

Trying to imagine four dimensional space would be quite a trick. If you have read the book Flatland, you have imagined one dimensional space (weird) and two dimensional space (intriguing but limited), and we all are quite versed in three dimensional space, but what about four dimensional space?

Uh, uh . . . has anyone ever succeeded at this? I would love to hear about them is they have.

July 3, 2021

On Montaigne, Truth, and Faith

Filed under: Culture,Reason,Religion,Science — Steve Ruis @ 8:42 am
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I was reading an essay on Montaigne recently (here) and a couple of statements jumped off of the page.  As a scientist I find these to be disturbing. They show persistent misunderstandings about science fomented deliberately.

Here they are:

“In the secular world, science is often pitted as an alternative to religion. This is a category mistake — to believe in science is just to have a new kind of unfounded ‘faith’.”

and

“Science has its pragmatic benefits to humankind. Discoveries and technologies have allowed us to walk on the Moon and cure thousands of diseases, but we should not confuse the march of technology with a scientific idea of the ‘truth’. Even scientific thinking has its basis in doubt: the scientific method holds that theories are only true until disproven.”

Science is nowhere pitted against religion as an alternative, except in the minds of religious apologists. This is part of a classic straw dog argument. Set up a nonexistent situation and then show how false it really is. I have never heard anyone talk or write as if they held this belief. I have heard many people express enthusiasm about science and I can understand that theists might confuse this with the enthusiasms of some of the faithful, but this conclusion is just a case of projection of their “faith-based belief” onto science aficionados.

Similarly “we should not confuse the march of technology with a scientific idea of the ‘truth’” is quite mistaken. Science is not a quest for truth, in fact the concept doesn’t exist in science, except maybe in true-false questions in science education.

The idea of truth is an absolute. Absolutes have no place in science. In fact, I argue that absolutes do not exist. They are extensions in our minds that exceed any manifestation in reality. (Consider the temperature of “absolute zero” which we can get close to but not there.) The religious are fond of discussions of truth, because such claims are difficult to counter in ordinary discourse. Logically, one counter example destroys a truth claim, which is why so many apologists shrug off such counters as if they didn’t exist. Many fundamentalist Christians insist that the Bible is inerrant, yet there are hundreds of documented contradictions in the Bible. At one point Jesus got the name of the high priest wrong. Such examples destroy the claim of inerrancy, but the “faithful” ignore them because they are full of “faith.” They get to believe what they want to believe and their fellow travelers back them up in this attitude.

In short: science does not place itself as an alternative to religion, only theists do that and science doesn’t deal with truth. Theories are not “true” until proven “false.” Theories which are supported are considered valid, pragmatically, because we do not have all of the information there is to be had to make a truth judgment, and we never will.

June 29, 2021

De Aliens, Boss, de Aliens!

Filed under: Reason,Science — Steve Ruis @ 8:12 am
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A recent post on the EarthSky.org blog (reposted from Cornell University) told about a recent sky survey. The bottom line? Well, I’ll let them tell you.

Bottom line: Scientists have calculated that 2,034 stars within 326 light-years have an opportunity to detect Earth using the transit method.

The “transit method” is how we detect “exoplanets” (there is a orientation requirement involved and I don’t know how they determined that for the study—for the curious the orientation requirement is if we are looking at the star from its north or south pole, the planets don’t transit in front of the star).

But I digress. My point is that by my rough calculation, this number of star systems is 0.000002% of the star systems in our galaxy, the Milky Way, and 0.00000000000000005% of the star systems in the visible universe.

Which is why we haven’t actually seen any aliens as yet.

Oh, and the number of star systems that can detect of radio and TV waves is smaller, since they have gotten a max of 200 light-years away from Earth.

De odds, Boss, de odds!

May 3, 2021

It Says So Right on the Label

Filed under: History,language,Medicine,Reason,Science — Steve Ruis @ 11:00 am
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I was reading the label of an over the counter (OTC) medicine and right on the front it said “No Artificial Sweeteners” and “Contains 44% Xylitol.” Not being a chemist, you might not be confused here.

Xylitol is produced from xylose, a naturally occurring sugar, by both chemical and biological methods. In the chemical process, catalytic hydrogenation of xylose produces the sugar substitute xylitol. In the biological process, quite a few chemical “pretreatments” are needed before biological action (via bacteria or yeast) creates the desired product.

The distinction here between “artificial sweetener” and “xylitol” is “wafer thin” (“Waffer thin” as pronounced by John Cleese in the Monty Python masterpiece “The Meaning of Life.”)

The difficulty is due only to advertising, which is a form of propaganda (which it was called pre-WW2, then propaganda became a “dirty” word). In advertiser lingo there are “bad” words and “good” words. Only “good” words are to be used with one’s own products and only “bad” words are to be used with other products.

For example, here are some “good” words: natural and all-natural, fresh, wholesome, etc. And here are some “bad” words: artificial, synthetic, chemical, etc.

In the above instance xylitol can be found in nature, but it is hard to harvest, so it is synthesized chemically or biologically. Yep, xylitol (chemical names are not capitalized, btw) is artificial (the xylitol they put in that bottle certainly was anyway).

Now, before you go bonkers on me, do realize that butter is artificial. What? Butter isn’t natural? Nope, butter is not natural, certainly not “all-natural.” You can not go pick a pat or two off of a butter bush out back, you know. The word artificial means made through man’s arts. Many things you think are natural aren’t really. For example, you go out into your backyard and pick an apple off of your tree and take a bite. Hmm, natural goodness, right? It seems so (and I have fond memories of doing just that as a child; I can still recall the taste of those apples). But most often it is not. Most fruit trees have been artificially selected to produce “non-natural” fruit, hybrids. Almost all of the plants we eat were never part of nature. We created them though artifice. Artichokes were thistles, corn was this spindly little plant with inedible seeds, sugar beets were tiny little things, not the football-sized things we grow today, and all bananas and grapes had seeds. The change process is called artificial selection to distinguish our efforts from nature’s.

Take the case of aspirin. Aspirin, by far, is the most successful drug ever devised. It’s century plus history began from the recognition that a tea made from willow bark had analgesic properties (the Egyptians knew this). But the tea was bitter as hell and if you used a bit too much it gave you a very upset stomach. Much later, it was discovered that the active ingredient in the willow bark tea was salicylic acid. An effort was made to find a chemical variant of salicylic acid that was still potent by which didn’t have those side effects. Since salicylic acid is a carboxylic acid, one attempt was to turn it into an ester, a much less irritating class of compounds. Aspirin is the ester formed from salicylic acid and acetic acid, the active ingredient in vinegar, and a star was born. Aspirin is artificial and I am happy about that.

Just being “natural” is not a sign of “good” or “safe.” Rattlesnake venom, arsenic, and monkey dung are all natural but I don’t want any of them in my body. In foods and pharmaceuticals, if a natural substance shows some promise, it is studied to see if modifications could make it better. In the case of pharmaceuticals, if they are strictly chemical we look to see if we can synthesize it as a lower cost/higher volume process of creating it. Instead of extracting rare colored dyes from clams, we can synthesize what we want and have more variety and permanence. This is what we do.

Problems arise when what we synthesize isn’t recognized by the biological process responsible for the breakdown and recycling of our wastes (they are not natural you see). We are currently experiencing these problems with oceanic plastic waste and microfiber residues in all natural waters.

A Side Note Question—What kills more fish: chemical pollutants or plastic waste? The answer is: commercial fishing. We kill via this method orders of magnitude more fish than all of the sources of pollution put together. I mention this because we have blind spots and advertisers take advantage of them.

April 27, 2021

Deepak Chopra BS

Deepak Chopra is a medical doctor of some sort (his certification is in internal medicine; he specialized in endocrinology) and yet he is better known as a new age guru who harkens back to being an old age guru (he is a fan of chakras and other aspects of Indian medicine). Note This is why I refer to him as Mr. Chopra below because his doctorate is not in a field that impinges at all with his opinions in this article. Were he writing on the pandemic and endocrinology, I would refer to him as Dr. Chopra.

In an online essay (A Reality Reset is Coming) Mr. Chopra emphasizes the “flaws” of materialism. He refers to a recent experiment on muons that “may” challenge the standard model of physics. I emphasize the “may” because such things come along with great regularity. And, also with great regularity, the predicted possible disruption of current theory does not happen. On the flip side, experiment after experiment confirms the standard model, but those experiments do not make the news. Maybe the last one that did was the “discovery” of the Higgs boson. I say discovery because its existence was predicted decades earlier and what was looked for was a conformation of its existence. Predicted by the Standard Model and then found. Quite a success.

But Mr. Chopra goes on to state “Materialism, it turns out, is just a plausible story, not a viable way to explain the world around us and certainly not the world “in here” where the mind operates.” He goes on to list many things that have not been explained . . . yet:
• No one knows where the Big Bang came from.
• No one knows how life began.
• The origin of time, space, matter, and energy remain totally hidden.
• The two leading theories in physics, General Relativity (which explains how large objects work) and quantum mechanics (which explains how tiny things work) turn out to be seemingly incompatible.
• The relation of mind and brain is as up in the air as it was at the time of Plato and Aristotle.
• The nature of consciousness and how it evolved—if it evolved—cannot be agreed upon.

I suppose Mr. Chopra thinks that these are trivial problems that should have been solved decades ago, but he glides over several thousand years of philosophy and religion having failed to solve these problems. Consider that roughly 100 years ago, we thought that our Milky Way galaxy was the entire universe. We knew nothing of the Big Bang. We had no evidence of planets existing around other stars. We knew little to nothing about quantum mechanics. Both special and general relativity had been postulated but at most fewer than 100 people understood those theories.

And Mr. Chopra is criticizing that which brought all of that knowledge to us.

He concludes “To boil things down to their most basic, if you don’t know where the universe came from and are equally baffled by where thoughts come from, how reliable is your explanation of reality? Intellectual honesty forces an answer: not reliable at all. Persuasive stories and unexamined assumptions riddle our current worldview.”

Okay, Mr. Chopra. Exclude materialism and explain . . . reality for all of us. Go ahead, we will wait.

And as to the reliability isue. I offer a test to Mr. Chopra. I will hold a 50 lb weight over his foot and ask him what he would do if I looked as if I were to drop that weight? He, like ever other person, would move his foot out of the downward path of that weight. That behavior, aka falling, is dependable, even though we still don’t know what gravity is. Dependability is based upon testing, not upon whether one knows where the universe or thoughts come from.

April 5, 2021

Who Wants to Think? Really!

I have been reading a revealing and fascinating book of late (They Thought They Were Free, The Germans 1933-45 by Milton Mayer). The author interviewed ten ordinary Germans right after WW2 and came to think of them as friends. Many of the conclusions I had come to about the nature of the German people have been severely corrected. And, I have spent more than a little time reading about and viewing works on WW2, particularly about the Germans (I am also reading a new bio of Hitler).

Consider the following quote from a colleague of the author who was a German college professor.

“The dictatorship, and the whole process of its coming into being, was above all diverting. It provided an excuse not to think for people who did not want to think anyway. I do not speak of your ‘little men,’ your baker and so on; I speak of my colleagues and myself, learned men, mind you. Most of us did not want to think about fundamental things and never had. There is no need to. Nazism gave us some dreadful, fundamental things to think about—we were decent people—and kept us so busy with continuous changes and ‘crises’ and so fascinated, yes, fascinated by the machinations of ‘national enemies,’ without and within that we had no time to think about these dreadful things that were growing, little by little, all around us. Unconsciously, I suppose, we were grateful. Who wants to think?”

Who wants to think?

This was an intellectual speaking, right after WW2, so things were fresh in mind.

Who wants to think, indeed?

I was immediately reminded of Richard Hofstadter’s book, Anti-Intellectualism in American Life (published in 1964, so also not long after the war). In that book, Hofstadter points out that there has been a large streak of anti-intellectualism in American culture from the beginning. (You may observe it in action right now: anti-vax, flat earth, chem trails, climate change is a hoax, etc. All of these are anti-expert and anti-intellectual efforts which find fertile soil to grow in our culture.)

Thinkers, bah, what do they know?

Of course, what I want to write about is . . . what the heck are they talking about? What is “thinking?”

At present we have no idea where conscious thoughts come from, and even less about subconscious mental processes. So, a conscious thought pops into your mind, what do you do? In most people, with most thoughts, we just ignore them and they go away. We need do nothing to make this happen. We don’t have to “shoo” away these thoughts (although I teach my archery students to do just that as there is no time to think non-helpful thoughts while trying to perform at archery). If a thought is important and ignored, it may come back. I tend to think that this is because whatever stimulated that thought in the first place (The house is on fire!) still exists and continues to stimulate that thought. Most thoughts just “go away” and they do not “come back.” And, since we don’t know where they come from, we certainly don’t know where they go to.

So, what distinguishes thinkers from those who do not want to think? Multiple things, I suspect, primarily thinkers are way more likely to grab that thought and examine it, which reinforces its existence, by injecting it into memory, first short-term memory and even long term memory (later). We consider that thought, as I am doing with “Who wants to think?” For intellectuals this is pleasant experience, or failing being that, at least stimulates one’s curiosity. I think it is in this “one thing leads to another” making of connections that much of this pleasure arises. By fitting a new thought in amongst the storehouses of ones memories, one is making that new thought part of what one “knows.” One is learning.

“It is not that I’m so smart. But I stay with the questions much longer.” Albert Einstein

Of course, we are not all alike. I remember a conversation I had while I was in grad school. It was over our backyard fence with a neighbor. She asked what I did and I said I was a student at the nearby college. (One doesn’t volunteer one is a chemist casually. Most people’s eyes glaze over then any conversation begun ends.) She responded with “Oh, you must have read a lot of books.” And I said, just “yes,” not the “thousands upon thousands” that was the truth of the matter (I was an avid reader from age 5.). She looked at me, smiled, and said “I read a book once.”

This natural ability to “let thoughts go” is the core of meditative practices. If you stop accepting thoughts, they come less and less frequently and finally, you get the dial tone of your mind. (I used to think of it as the empty TV screen static but that no longer exists for most people, so that metaphor is now dead/dying.)

Remember this?

If you have a mind like mine, you recover “normal programming” when a meditation is over rather quickly.

So, what do you think? (Do you see how cleverly I worked up to this question; neat, huh?)

PS I had an afterthought! It is clear to me that people who like to think, often have specialties: hobbies, topics, academic disciplines, etc. in which they exert their thinking and then other parts of their lives in which they think as little as possible. So, thinkers are rarely generalists. They choose what it is they will think deeply about, possibly creating a refuge from others. (Intellectuals often have poor social skills and retreat into mental pursuits as a way of escaping the bewildering nature of interpersonal relations. This is why scientists are often considered to be geeks . . . because they are.)

March 29, 2021

You Have a Conscience, Right?

I have been writing about the major axis existing for all sentient social species, that of dividing up our collective responsibilities from our individual responsibilities. In science fiction there are species with “hive minds” in which the individuals are totally subordinate to the collective (think of bees or the Borg). There are also species that are total individualistic. These are, of course, fictional, because we do not see these on Earth, where we are basically the only sentient social species.

I had a bit of a revelation when I heard a recent discussion of what we call our conscience. It was referred to as a subconscious function of our minds but I don’t see it that way. It seems to me that our morality is either taught to us or learned by us and so is like any other knowledge that we acquire. Possibly it is tinged with emotion more than anything else. I am sure you can remember occasions when as a child, you had an inner debate that began with the thought “If I do I am going to get in trouble!” (or feelings that amount to those words). Such thoughts/feelings come from where thoughts come from (which we still don’t know) and are conscious, not subconscious. They may be accompanied by emotional affect (tingling sensation, quivering, shuddering, etc.).

So, what is this “conscience thing”? I suspect it is a label we give our thoughts on issues that fall into the category of morality. I don’t think it is a thing in itself, like curiosity seems to be. It is, in my humble opinion, a social construct, the monitor so to speak of our social compact with one another. This is why in some cultures our consciences include feelings of how to deal with witches and in others this is absent.

So, basically, the fact that we recognize that “having a conscience is a good thing” is a recognition of our collective responsibilities to one another. It is rare, I suggest, that our consciences provide any guidance for us when the only person affected by the triggering action is us ourselves. Some claim that individual responsibilities come up in such a context religiously, but I suggest that those are collective feelings brought about by the teachings of a religious community. It is not a god which is the enforcer of our behavior but the approval or disapproval of those in our religious community. This is supported by the wide variations of what is acceptable behavior in various religions.

What this amounts to, if my supposition is correct (that our conscience is a monitor of our collective responsibility of others), is that if a matter impinges upon one’s conscience, then the responsibility is communal, not individual. If you see a child suffering because his/her parents’ cannot afford to take them to a doctor and you “feel bad” about that (empathy) but also pangs of conscience, then you are acknowledging that this is an area that belongs under our collective responsibilities and not just an individual responsibility.

Of course, there is no such thing as complete honesty when sharing feelings, consciences, etc.

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