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Glimpses: Short Essays, Big Questions by Richard Seltzer

 "Glimpses" are short essays on big questions that are intended to stimulate thought. The best of them deal with knotty questions that have no definitive answers. Their value lies in the thoughts they provoke.
Experts typically write in a jargon that few outside their field understand; and they focus on narrow questions. I am a generalist, seeking practical common-sense answers and using everyday language that makes sense to all. The scientific breakthroughs of man and machine over the next hundred or thousand years might provide answers. But my readers and I need plausible answers we can live by now. I question basic assumptions of philosophy, religion, and science, and write to explore who we are, where we are, and why.  We need to make sense of the one life each of us is given.     

Is Reality Discontinuous (7/14/2007)
Getting Personal (8/8/2007)
Scared to Life: the Plus Side of Night Terrors (9/1/2007)
The Master-Plot Generation Seeks Meaning (1/20/2008)
Coping with a Brain that Changes Over Time (6/29/2009)
Truth and Consequences (6/29/2009)
The Abraham Effect: Be Careful, Be Proud -- the Future of the Human Race Depends On You (2/2/2009) 
Why We Read/Write/Watch Stories -- Fiction and Evolution (5/2/2010)
Trying to Move Beyond the Limitations of Science (10/22/2010)
Language: Anarchy, Dialogue, and Understanding (11/28/2011)
Reading, Publishing, Writing and the Quest for Meaning (1/14/2012)
The Improbability Drive (1/14/2012)
Listening to Life With A Tin Ear And Loving it (1/25/2012)
Advice to my Dad When He Was My Age (2/7/2012)
Memory Clusters: Trying to Rescue the Past (10/10/2012)
Free-Style Time Management: “Done List,” Instead of “To-Do Lists (3/4/2013)
The Three Stages of Man (So Far) (4/20/2013)
The Evolutionary Benefit of War, and How That Has Changed (4/18/2013)
Meaningful Action - Dialogue with a Philosopher (1/9/2014)
Occam's Shaving Cream (1/30/2014)
Philosophic Insight From the Blind (3/6/2014)
Is Helen Keller's Experience A Counter Example to "Philosophic Insight from the Blind" (3/8/2014)
Creation Story for the 21st Century - An Email For My Granddaughter (3/14/2014)
A Restatement of the Niche Version of the Theory of Evolution (2/16/2014)
Random Thoughts About Thought (6/23/2014)

In addition, my original web site, which I used as a sandbox to test ideas about the Web, has been preserved by the Internet Archive as part of their Wayback Machine.  They have stored 666 versions of that web site, captured from November 1996 to September 2017. This link takes you to the part of the archive that is devoted to Select the date you are interested in; then you can browse the archive the same as you do the live web, clicking on link after link.  Everything from the web site is there, including all the issues of my Internet-on-a-Disk newsletter and the hundreds of articles from my blog.

Is Reality Discontinuous?

A question to consider is whether the laws of Physics that apply on earth apply throughout the universe.
Occam's Law, written in the 14th century, boils down to "the explanation of any phenomenon should make as few assumptions as possible, eliminating those that make no difference in the observable predictions of the explanatory hypothesis or theory".or "All things being equal, the simplest solution tends to be the best one"
(Wikipedia, 2007).

Occam's Law is in itself an assumption -- a huge one.  And the fact that much of science since Occam wrote is based on the idea that simple solutions serve us best, some of science may be put in doubt. 

Following in Occam's footsteps, Isaac Newton, in the 17th century, published the laws of gravity. He presumed that those laws would apply not just for the Earth or the solar system or the observable stars -- but everywhere. Yes, that is simple. But is simplicity truth? Does "truth" mean anything?

A hundred years ago,w in "A Pluralistic Universe", William James speculated that reality isn't necessarily neat or logical or predictable. Rather, the world we live in is messy and full of surprises.

More recent books such as "The Elegant Universe" and "The Fabric of the Cosmos" by Brian Greene, "Warped Passages" by Lisa Randall, and "Parallel Worlds" by Michio Kaku explain the many flavors of string theory (successor to quantum theory, which was the successor to relativity, which was the successor to Newtonian physics).  These books deal with a multitude of possibilities, such as multiple universes, multiple dimensions, dark matter, dark energy, and negative gravity.  They build on the notion that not just our senses but our reasoning abilities reach limits as the scale goes down or up, far beyond our normal experience. Our ability to make sense of the world around us evolved. The result is very practical for everyday life. But we are not very well-equipped to understand what happens on scales smaller than an atom, much less smaller than an electron, or scales larger than a galaxy, much less multiple universes.

Far too often, great scientists have, like Occam and Newton, presumed that the universe is simple and logical. But why -- aside from the aesthetic taste of Plato, should simplicity and logic be presumed to be "beautiful" and the beautiful presumed to be true? Personally, I find complexity fascinating. And I suspect that, at some level, reality is "broken" and discontinuous.

In other words, the laws of physics that apply in our solar system and in our galaxy may not apply elsewhere in the visible universe, much less beyond; or  may not be stable, and if they change, may not change in ways that are predictable.

So what? Well, consider Hubble's Law. Wikipedia explains "the redshift in light coming from distant galaxies is proportional to their distance." In other words, our calculations of the distances from Earth of stars and galaxies are based on analysis of the light from those bodies and on the assumption that the same laws of physics that apply here also apply hundreds, thousands, and even millions of light years from here.  That is an enormous assumption, with mind-boggling consequences. If there are, in fact, discontinuities in reality and variations in basic physical laws beyond our galaxy, then what scientists have concluded about the size and nature and past and future of this universe (much less other universes) may be in doubt.

Perhaps it's time to question such assumptions and to explore the possibility that reality is messy, and that complex answers may sometimes prove more useful and suggestive than simple ones.

I have no doubt that when we finally figure out what dark matter is and how the forces of nature all work the physics and chemistry we know will be out the window.

Put differently - why is every age prone to the view that we understand just about all of it, we just need to put the pieces together? I highly recommend - if you haven't done so - Kuhn's Paradigms of Scientific Revolution. He was really the first to be onto the lack of continuity in the history of science...

Getting Personal

Sometimes “inspiration” isn’t a matter of stimulating new ideas, so much as confirming and clarifying thoughts considered earlier. In my eclectic reading, I stumble upon passages that feel “right”, not as a discovery of something totally unexpected, but rather, as a clear and cogent expression of what I believe.

Such was the case recently with a passage from Boethius, who wrote in the sixth century. Well, sending out a “free ebook of the week” motivates me to be on the lookout for little known/little appreciated works from long ago. In prison, awaiting execution at the random whim of King Theodoric of Italy, Boethius tries to make sense of life. He presents the idea that infinity, eternity, and chance reduce everything we might do to total insignificance.

Boethius' thoughts didn’t strike me as new. Rather, his starting point toward religious faith seemed similar to the world view of Ecclesiastes, or of Camus, (“The Myth of Sisyphus”)
Camus went in a totally different direction, valuing heroism through living and doing “right”.

But at this stage of my life (having passed 60), that starting point triggered another kind of response.

The endeavor to try to understand the nature of everything is unending. That is just another aspect of infinity/eternity — no single breakthrough, no individual contribution matters in the long run, because the process of discovery never ends. There’s never a moment when “THE ANSWER” is found. Every answer gives rise to new questions, which lead to new insights.

Yes, part of why we exist (presuming there is a “why”) must be to participate in some way in such overall human endeavors — trying to make the world a better place than we found it, trying to advance knowledge, or trying to help those who might some day do so.

But another very important role (one which becomes all the more important the older we get) is personal — striving to make personal sense of the world we live in and our role in it.             I will never understand the absolute nature of anything, but I can arrive at a personal understanding — building context through reading and experience, making personal mind maps to help me recognize interrelationships and potential directions, arriving at personal answers to the “big questions”, answers that help me deal with day-to-day reality and to arrive at a sense of fulfillment, so that the ordinary tasks and challenges of life make sense to me in a self-built context.

From this personal perspective, infinity and eternity are positive, not negative. Every moment in time is the middle of all of time. And every point in space is in the middle of all of space.      I, just like everyone who has ever lived, stand at the center of the universe.Truth and meaning in life are found from within. I therefore strive to build and find truth and meaning within the fabric and context of my life.

In practical terms, this means that I need not read and strive to understand the works of every major philosopher, scientist, and novelist. Rather (after having sampled widely) I read particular authors because their perspective and style feel right to me.Their thoughts make sense to me and stimulate follow-through on thoughts of my own.

Yes, learning is important, but not in the sense of struggling through everything written by the great names in in hopes of catching a glimmer of what they discovered; but rather in the sense of a very personal quest, following a natural path toward an understanding of what really matters to you as an individual..

Scared to Life: the Plus Side of Night Terrors

Last night, I woke up and saw three hoodlums with machetes walking through the outside wall of my second floor bedroom. I screamed. There was no "waking up" at that point. I was already awake. I had seen the "vision" while awake. It took a long while for my breathing and heart rate to slow down. In the process, I felt as if I had come close to being "scared to death". Then it occurred to me that I may have been "scared to life".  I have an irrational belief that we have complex self-regulating mechanisms, and that a dream (not an ordinary dream composed of images from everyday life, and not a recurring dream heavy with "symbolism") -- one that comes out of nowhere and that is seen while awake or semi-awake and that seems to serve no other purpose than to frighten -- must have a purpose, must fill a necessary function.  

My night terror got me to thinking, as I had many times before, about self-regulating mechanisms; how from the perspective of your life, events take on special meaning that they would have to no one else -- leading you to see the world in different ways and to live life differently. So I now see that terrifying "vision" as a mental/moral wake up call.  

That's what led me to start "Glimpse", to make sense of questions I've left un-examined for far too long.

And, now I realize that the experience itself is an affirmation of a basic belief of mine -- that as individuals and as a species, self-regulating mechanisms come into play, pushing us toward balance and reason and compassion. And in that context, our worst experiences and our worst fears can nudge us in the "right" direction, as if some godlike force is trying to navigate a huge ship down a river, with the crudest of controls, a push this way, then a push that way. Toward what goal?

Seeking Meaning

This morning I woke up thinking that many of us have assigned plots. I wouldn't say "fate" or "destiny" because that implies a supernatural source and gives an aura of dignity. No, it's a plot, a story line, perhaps randomly assigned following some statistical pattern known to insurance professionals and public health officials. Our plot is part of our lives for many years -- perhaps from the very beginning of our lives -- but only toward the end do we find out what it is.

Statistically speaking, there are a limited number of possibilities. Yes, there are  exceptions, but for the mass of us the possibilities are few: the quick (accident, suicide, stroke, or heart failure) and the long (diabetes, cancer, Alzheimer's, or failure of the immune system). It's the long that have the plots.There are more of them than I have listed. I'm not a statistician. The point isn't what they are, but that they are.

For the fortunate, we go to the age of 50, 60, 70, 80 years or even more before we find out which plot is ours. Advances in science are making it possible to determine which plot is likely to be ours, and are enabling us to postpone the onset of such conditions and to slow their progress. But the plots remain the same. We are progressing to the point where, for many of us, the type of death we experience will be close to certain.

I cannot help but connect this to the certainty and fear of death, a factor in the formation of religions. 

Would or should you live your life differently in the early stages if you knew that at the end you would face decades of debilitating illness?

Or would you simply hope and believe in a cure -- a miracle of science that could radically change your plot and make human life in your generation far different than it was in previous generations?

From knowing what a person is likely to die of, techniques might be developed to change the "programming" so the end that was most likely becomes far less likely.  That could mean that people live longer and remain healthy and active longer -- not that they would live for ever, but that they would die of a far greater variety of causes and with less fore-knowledge of the particular end.

Yes, we of the baby-boomer generation are now beginning to learn which plots we have and are beginning to have to cope not just with that medical condition, but also with the fore-knowledge, in a way that previous generations never did.  And the next generation or the generation after that may be able to live out plotless lives, with far less constraint and far greater variability at the end.

Yes, we, and in many cases, our parents are the ones with the plots -- the pre-assigned long-drawn-out medical soap operas.  But this may not be the "human condition", but rather our condition.  And it is our challenge to find ways to make sense of it or derive meaning from it.

In a good novel, what matters isn't so much what happens from scene to scene, but what it means; not just what the characters do and say, but what that signifies; and the significance might vary through multiple perspectives.  The plot itself is nothing.  What matters is what you can derive from it, in the resonance from one life story to another, cascading insights and revelations into human relationships and into who we can become.

Coping With A Brain That Changes Over Time

As we age, the thinking apparatus, the brain, becomes stiffer, less agile, less able to deal with new information and new circumstances. As a result, it may be difficult to cope with the notion that what we perceive and what our minds make of what we perceive does not match the "real" world around us. Fortunately, our apparatus for perceiving and thinking evolved in the "real" world, and hence, does an acceptable job.

However, it is disconcerting to realize that the apparatus we use to determine what is "true" and "important" is not static. It changes radically over time. Whether we think the Earth is flat or round, we presume that the brain and the mechanism of action (combination of perception and reasoning power) that we use to arrive at conclusions is constant.  But that is not the case.

The typical challenge to the assertion "I think therefore I am" is that it presumes the existence of a subject who can think  Now I'd question that from the perspective that the thinking apparatus changes over time; so if I define who I am by how I think, I am a different person today than I was 20 years ago and than I'll be 20 years from now (if I should live so long), not just because of accumulated experience and memories, but because the brain perceives and thinks differently over time and outside of my control.

I recently read "Talks for Teachers About Psychology", by William James. I see that article as a user's guide for the human mind.  Nothing startlingly new, but well stated and making you realize things you should have realized long ago.  For instance, if you focus on one kind of activity, one realm of knowledge (which is natural as you advance in your career) it becomes harder and harder for you to learn new things that are unrelated.  You might postpone learning about something you are curious about or doing something you enjoy, only to discover later that you no longer can make sense or it or no longer can enjoy it.  James didn't say this, but the analogy that came to me was the ability to digest milk.  If you go for a long stretch without drinking milk, you lose the ability to digest milk, because chemicals in milk are constituents in the chemicals neeed to digest it.  That's another way of saying -- use it or lose it.

I wonder if I would have made other life choices if I had understood that principle when I was in my 20s and 30s.

On the plus side, I have kept up with a wide variety of interests. On the minus side, I'll probably never be able to decipher Japanese (no surprise there) or make sense of advanced math and science (that I didn't realize).

A pessimist would say that that our ability to think deteriorates as we age, just as our ability to see and to hear changes. But my instinct tells me (and that "feels" more reliable than reason) that what matters overall isn't the individual mind, but rather the results of our collective thinking and what we do based on that thinking: that the aging mind has characteristics that are important when mixed with the diversity of other ways of thinking. In other words, I believe the world needs older thinkers like me, just as it needs the next generations.


Truth and Consequences

I have long thought that we should not judge the merit of our efforts based on consequences.  Those consequences will keep changing over time and as  perspective change. Hopefully, we do what we feel is right and we do it to the best of your ability. No regrets.  No second-guessing.  If everybody does that (given the diverse mix of what people believe is "right" and of what they are capable of), the flow of human endeavor will move in the best possible direction.  (Don't ask me the criteria for determining "best' here.  This is raw gut feel.)  Just as with our children -- we do all we can to get them started in the right direction, and then they are on their own.  Your projects, too, leave the nest.

If you knew beforehand the long-term effects of what you were about to do, in all their permutations, you would never do anything.  And even knowing exactly what would happen next, and then next, and then next, you wouldn't really know anything, because at each new instance the context and hence the meaning would have changed. The old Heraclitus bit, that you can never cross the same river twice.  If you could relive any moment of your life, it wouldn't be the same moment, because your knowledge/consciousness/perspective would be so different.

This discussion reminds me of an essay I read back in high school "Grandeurs and Miseries of Old Age" by Elmer Davis (from his collection "But We Were Born Free").

I'm now 63, and getting unexpected emails from old friends re-evaluating their life's work.  I guess we're at the age when we realize that we're moving from middle-game to end-game, and a change of strategy makes sense.

My father (86) was talking that way about a week ago.  Apparently, he is having trouble sleeping at night, unintentionally going over and over in his mind decision points in his life and why it turned out one way rather than another, wondering whether he made the right choice, wondering what could have happened; heavy with regret.  I mentioned that my take on that was that we have a natural proclivity, and that what seem like decisions often aren't decisions at all.  In our guts, we know what we are going to do, what we have to do because we are who we are.  And the reasons we give are simply rationalizations, excuses we cobble together.  Yes, there are random events that affect our lives.  But in many cases, those just temporarily knock us off track, and we continue in the same general direction by a different path (cf. movies Sliding Doors and Wonderland).  Think of Einstein-ian space-time. There are ups and downs in that landscape.  There's a shape to time.  As we approach a decision-point, the further we go in one direction everything gets difficult and painful (you trip over yourself, you can't find the words, you forget things that you have to remember; you are at odds with yourself); and in another direction the path feels right. And if you go the first way despite the obstacles, soon there's another branching of the path, another choice, and then another; and, most likely, sooner or later you find your way back to what was natural for you.

So 1) you can't judge what you do based on the consequences; you should just do what you feel is best, and do it as well as you can, and 2) your life isn't as subject to random occurrences as at first appears, nor is it as much under your control as you believe.

Basically, I believe that there is more to your life than you are ever likely to realize. And that should inspire not frustration, but rather wonder, curiosity, and reverence.

The Abraham Effect: Be Careful, Be Proud -- the Future of the Human Race Depends on You

By doubling each generation, counting backwards, 1000 years ago, about 36 generations ago, you had nearly 69 billion ancestors (that's 2 to the power of 36).  At that time, there were only about 50 million people alive in Europe.  So along the way, there was lots of intermarriage, and, basically, everyone of European descent alive today is a cousin of everyone else, and probably in multiple ways.

That means that there were people alive in Europe  a thousand years ago who were the ancestors of everyone of European descent who is alive today.  In fact, there were probably hundreds, no thousands, tens of thousands, even millions of people alive a thousand years ago who became the ancestors of everyone of European descent alive today.

Let's flip that concept and take into account that people are much more mobile today than they were a thousand years ago.  Let's look ahead a thousand years.  In the year 3000, every human being alive on Earth (if the human race survives that long) will be a descendant of people who are alive today, and not just of one person alive today.  No, odds are they will be descendants of hundreds, thousands, even millions of people who are alive today.  In other words, if you are a parent or could become one, there's a reasonable chance that everyone alive a thousand years from now will have genes that passed through you.  That is an awesome responsibility.  Be careful. Be proud.  The future of the human race depends on you.


Why We Read/Write/Watch Stories — Fiction and Evolution

Why do we read/write/watch stories? Why do we need so many, and always new ones?

It’s not just escape and fun. It’s also survival of the species.

Each of us has the potential for thousands of different personalities/lives. Some of those personalities are stronger than others, but all are capable of growing and becoming dominant.

When a group of people faces a crisis together, the individuals by nature (like water finding its own level) take on roles (like “leader”) that are necessary for survival — with previously hidden potential coming to the fore.

In reading and writing stories, we exercise these potential lives within us, and vicariously acquire experience, which could, under unexpected crisis situations, prove important for the survival of the group or the species.

That’s also why it’s important to preserve and read thousands of old previously out-of-print and forgotten books.

Trying to Move Beyond the Limitations of Science

The scientific method is a way to answer questions.  But every question implies hypotheses.  And the scientific answer is limited to those hypotheses. And hypotheses are limited by previous knowledge, cultural bias, etc.

We face the same limitation in everyday life  We automatically filter what we sense based on what we expect to sense.  Every time we direct our attention to what we see or hear, we are asking questions of the world around us, based on what we have experienced before; and anything seriously out of the range of expectation goes ignored.

Basically, if you don’t ask the right questions, you don’t get the right answers.  And as human beings, we are very limited in the range of hypotheses we can consider, in the kinds of questions we can ask.  Intuition/thinking-out-of-the-box some times expands that range, but not by much.

Today, computer simulation is widely used in conjunction with physical experiments to test hypotheses/answer questions — but still within the limits of the hypotheses/questions that the human mind can generate.

To move beyond this limitation, we need programs which automatically generate hypotheses that otherwise would not be considered; programs that come up with off-the-wall ideas and subject them to a preliminary check of plausibility, without ruling out possibilities that are complex and improbable.  Such hypotheses could lead to experiments and inventions that record and help interpret potentially important data that would otherwise be ignored.

In the Middle Ages, the rule of thumb known as Occam’s Razor (”one should not increase, beyond what is necessary, the number of entities required to explain anything”) was important in setting the stage for scientific advancement.  That rule made sense in terms the limitations of the human brain.  But computers can deal with far more variables than humans can; and can calculate trees of causation far further; and open up the possibility of identifying multiple explanations of the same event, all valid from different perspectives, but perhaps leading to different long-term consequences.  Any automatic hypothesis generator should move beyond Occam’s Razor.

It is time to expand the range of what we consider possible, to move beyond categories and conceptual limitations of the human mind.

Language: Anarchy, Dialogue, and Understanding

In a dream last night, two people were completely at odds with one another  They used language differently, understood the same words in different senses  They argued repeatedly. But through the medium of language, using words to define other words,  they found common ground and arrived at a state of mutual acceptance.  Language was the medium for their reconciliation, almost magically helping bring about understanding.

I had this dream after dozing off in the middle of reading “The Information” by James Gleick.  And when I woke, I realized that what I had previously presumed was the weakness of language was, in fact, its strength.

It is the flexible, self-referential nature of language, its basic fuzziness and imprecision that makes the process of understanding and reconciliation work.  There is no absolutely meaning of anything.  Meaning comes from the conflict of two people who use words in different ways, each striving to communicate with one another.  The fuzziness fosters the process of arriving at mutual understanding.  And it all works so well not despite, but rather because of the anarchic creation of new words and new definitions of old words.

At the beginning of an attempt at serious communication, there can be no illusion of understanding because the fuzziness of the words that both parties use is so obvious.  That problem initiates the dialouge through which by a repetitive, recursive process, using language to define language, understanding is reached.

In other words, language’s fuzziness leads to clarity and agreement.  The fuzziness is not a weakness, not a mistake.  It’s the essence and genius of language.

Two people from different regions or different disciplines or different walks of life or different ethnic backgrounds naturally use the same words in very different ways.  When they meet and try to communicate, the self-referential nature of language — how we use words to define words, how we sometimes use the same words with different intended meanings — sets our expectations of conflict and provides the path toward reconciliation.

Hence the complexity and multiplicity of language (consisting of many different private languages within the massive overall language), the way language continuously grows and changes — that is the source of the mysterious power of language.

Language is not just a static tool that people use to communicate.  Its apparent faults and weaknesses and ambiguities force dialogue, since only through the give and take of dialogue is it possible to communicate concepts of consequence.

Hence Plato’s dialgoues with definitions proposed, challenged, and refined.

Hence the precedents of case law enriching the understanding of laws.

Reading, Publishing, Writing and the Quest for Meaning

Every day I'm confronted with the question -- "What is the meaning of life?"  My life is the sum of what I do and did; so did I do anything worth doing today?

Yes, relationships are important -- interacting with those who matter to you, enjoying being with them, even if not doing anything with them, and hopefully helping them to enjoy.  Also enjoying the the pleasurable sensations of life, of living, of being alive.  But the question isn't "What are the pleasures of life?" but rather "What is the meaning of life?"  What of what you do -- aside from your direct interactions with others -- matters?  Aside from maintenance activities -- the things that you do to stay alive and to continue living at your accustomed level of comfort -- what that you do matters?  You should be able to figure that out by looking at what you in fact do and how you value those activities.

Is your work more than a maintenance activity?  Do you do it simply to make the money you need to keep functioning as you are accustomed?  Or do you believe that what you do and how you do it has real merit, such that you are proud to do it, feel that it needs to be done, and believe that you do it uniquely, such that it wouldn't be done as well, if at all, if you weren't doing it?  And what do you do in your "leisure" time that isn't just a matter of relaxation, change of pace, pleasurable sensation (which could be seen as maintenance activities -- necessary breaks)?   Is there anything you do in your leisure that might contribute toward what you consider the meaning of your life?

In my case, I am fortunate to be in a position where I make a living publishing books.  And in my leisure -- as a way of relaxing and in addition to relaxing -- I read a lot of books and write some, as well.

So for me, the question "What is the meaning of life?" amounts to "What is the meaning of writing and publishing and writing the kinds of books that I do?"

To me, these activities are a form of communication that extends beyond the realm of those I know and care about directly -- to others remote in space and time, from previous generations and in future generations, the vast majority of whom I could never meet.  It's a connectedness with the fabric of humanity, through time.  Reading and remembering and trying to understand what has mattered to others and, through writing, trying to communicate to others what has mattered to me, and also acting as a signal booster, translating to contemporary terms what mattered to others long ago, and converting their words to physical forms that make them more accessible today and hopefully passing them on toward the future, where others can pick up the baton and run more laps.

Given this penchant of mine, the question of "What is the meaning of life?" translates to "What is the meaning of humanity/mankind?"  Is there a purpose, a mission, a reason for being for all of us collectively?

And at that level, the question is transformed -- I don't need to know what that meaning is.  I doubt that I could ever decipher it from the mass of data.  I doubt that anyone could.

But I can accept and believe in mankind -- as a multi-million-year endeavor.  We are all in this huge boat (Ark) that seems so small in the context of the universe and in the context of eternity.  Simply on faith, I believe that mankind has meaning and that it matters for me to live, just as it matters for mankind and whatever mankind evolves into to continue to live and to continue to be bound together by word and image and memory across all inhabitable space and through all inhabited time.

The Improbability Drive

In Douglas Adams' Hitch Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy, a space ship is powered by a ludicrous, hilarious "improbability drive."

And I have often been amazed by the improbability/unlikeliness of chains of events that have had great influence on my life, that have led to me being me.

Now it finally occurred to me that improbability isn't the exception -- it's the rule.

Everything that happens has an infintesimally small probability of happening.  Only when you generalilze and thereby lose the specificity of events do they seem probable.

Example of a specific event: At 7:53 AM on January 1, 2012, George Smith bumps into Frank Jones (someone he doesn't know) at the corner of Main and Forest Streets in Dayton, Ohio.

Example of generalized event: On the morning of January 1, 2012, George Smith will bump into someone on the sidewalk somewhere.

The more you generalize, the more probable the event; and the more you know about the near-term circumstances, the more accurately you can determine the probability of specific outcomes.  In other words, the probability of an event is not an inherent property of the event, but rather depends on the perspective of the observer.

All events are infinitesimally probable.

Some infinitesimally probable events are more probable than others, but the distinction is academic.  The distinction could become a subject for mathematical analysis (like sorting out which kinds of infinity are large than others). But focusing on such distinctions masks the reality that confronts us every moment -- everything that ever happens to every individual is infinitesimally probable.

Reality is continuous and unending and absolutely unique.

Probability deals with static discontinuous views of events from variable distances in time and space.  In other words, probability is a convenient fiction.  That's a basic truth that it's very easy to ignore or forget.

Everyone is absolutely unique.  And every moment of every life is absolutely unique.  Statistics do not apply.

And, ironically, our uniqueness attracts us to one another and bonds us together, in totally improbable ways.  That's the true "improbability drive."

Listening to Life With A Tin Ear, and Loving It

I used to envy those born with perfect pitch.  They could appreciate music to its fullest, unlike me.

I couldn’t tell if a piano was out of tune.  I couldn’t distinguish great from mediocre performances.

Then I realized that perfect pitch is a curse and a tin ear a blessing.

To someone with perfect pitch anything less than a perfect performance is painful to listen to.  Yes, such a person can appreciate subtleties beyond my ken, but that same person cannot appreciate and enjoy the vast majority of what passes for music for the rest of us.

I can enjoy a flawed performance on a piano that is out of tune.  I can enjoy sing-a-longs and amateur singing and informal musical events.  I delight in whistling while I walk.  My opportunities for musical pleasure are far greater because of my tin ear.

And, similarly, I am blessed not to be a genius or an expert at anything.  I can appreciate and savor ideas that don’t quite work or that aren’t thoroughly developed and proven.  I can enjoy a story, a book, a movie that is good but not great.  I can speculate and get caught up in possibilities in fields that I have little understanding of, because there is no field that I have mastered (regardless of efforts to do so).  My standards are not high.  I have everyday, non-professional expectations.  And now I’ve reached an age when instead of being ashamed of my limitations, I’m proud of them.

The world is far too complex to understand accurately and in detail.  And I’d rather dabble in many subjects and arrive at a practical working understanding from a variety of perspectives than devote myself to one narrow field and still never arrive at certainty or complete knowledge of it.

So let’s enjoy what we can know and how we can know.  Let’s enjoy life as best we can, glorying in the imperfection of our tin ears.

Advice To My Dad When He Was My Age

Adapted from a letter written to my father in 1981, when I was 36 and he was 58. I am now 65, and my oldest son is now 36.  My Dad is 88 and in a nursing home.

Your letter struck a familiar note.  Much of what you said about your job and frustrations I might have written myself — not happy with what I’m doing and not seeing any way out.  It’s hard to justify spending one’s time doing things that seem to have no intrinsic value when there are so many worthwhile things that need to be done and that you have the talent and experience to do.  That sounds trite, but thoughts become trite because they are true.

I find myself making mental lists all day of what I want to do when I get home.  But the unexpected almost always intervenes to sidetrack me, or I simply don’t have the energy to get around to it.  And all those items end up on a wishlist for the weekend. And the sheer burden of expectations is too much for that brief time, so frustration grows.

Is there a way out?


First, time and energy are related to desire and interest. If there’s a project I’m involved in and that requires thought, I find myself doing much of the thinking at odd moments, wherever I am, almost despite myself; and working on the project late into the night with very little sign of exhaustion. That is like an energy reserve.  No matter how tight the schedule and how weary I am from everything else, I can, infrequently, draw on this reserve to acquire a new skill or accomplish something I feel is important.

Second, it takes far more energy to shift from one project to another than it does to single-mindedly pursue a single project that completely absorbs your interest.

Third, I can only allow such a project to dominate my mind if I go through a warmup period of delving into related background material; and if I set myself a firm and difficult, but not impossible deadline, with  benchmarks along the way.  Sometimes it helps fuel the process to know that with the limited time available what I’m attempting is nearly impossible, that very few others would even try.

Fourth, the best business opportunities for individuals and very small companies appear in the cracks between segments of society or the economy.  Someone with knowledge of two different realms can, under the right circumstances, generate unique value.  There are many specialists in every established career area.  But the folks with knowledge of two and the ability to act as a go-between or translator between two can find interesting and lucrative roles.

So it you feel stuck and you have an entrepreneurial urge, try to develop a second area of skill, distinctly different from the dead-end career that you find so frustrating — an area where you have strong interests and/or talents but everyday hassles kept you from developing them.  That second area didn’t make sense as a main career for you — the job openings were too few or the pay too low for the life-style you felt you and your family deserved.  So you moved forward single-mindedly, and achieved a level of success that left you trapped and frustrated, with little additional opportunity, seeing your real life as consisting of the leisure activities you engage in after work and on weekends and on your all too brief vacations.

Starting delving into that second area as a hobby.  Only pursue it if you love pursuing it.  Then pour all your reserve of energy into it. And as your knowledge of that second area deepens you will begin to see occasions when that area and the area of your career meet or should meet, and instances of confusion, misunderstanding, and hence opportunity.  That’s where you are likely to find or create the kind of business that you can be fully engaged in, where you take pride in your work and feel you can make a unique contribution, where your work becomes your life and you love it.

EPILOGUE, Feb. 2012

At the time I wrote that letter I worked for DEC, the minicomputer company, writing and editing the company employee magazine/newspaper.  Having majored in English, and with a masters in Comparative Literature, I intermittently pursued my personal writing, totally separate from my job.  At work, I learned how to use PCs, and the Web, becoming the company’s “Internet Evangelist”.  When DEC was swallowed by Compaq, which then downsized, I was able to make a living as an independent Internet marketing consultant, while building an ebook publishing business.  Today I publish, in electronic format, the classic books I love; and I continue to write books I wish others would love :-) .  I feel fortunate making a living doing what I love.  And my work is my life, rather that life being what happens when I’m not working.

Memory Clusters: Trying to Rescue the Past

Ive been having trouble remembering names that I am very familiar with — mostly names of well-known actors and actresses, but randomly, other names as well.

This isn’t the normal kind of forgetting that I read about back in high school in Freud’s Psychopathology of Everyday Life.” With that kind of forgetting, you have made some association between something you want to forget and the thing you now want to remember. The repressed memory has accidentally obscured other connected memories, and the association could be sound, shape, or anything else. In that case, by free association I could eventually retrieve what I wanted to remember and could recognize what the associated repressed memory was and could see the association. Problem solved.

In this case, even if and when I do remember the name, I don’t no why it was ever forgotten; and I might very well forget it again tomorrow.

My mother, who died a couple years ago at age 90, had Alzheimer’s. Of course, I’m concerned that I too may develop that, and that this kind of forgetting could be an early sign.

In any case, I need to take practical steps now, to try to preserve a functional, day-to-day memory.

I’ve been obsessively keeping a list of every book I read for the last 54 years (since 1958). 

But I need to construct written reminders for the rest of my life.

When I forget a name, I’ll know the context — like a particular movie — and I can see the face clearly. but I can’t attach the right name. In the case of an actor, I might remember the name of a character played or a movie or TV show acted in, but not recall the actor’s name.

For famous people, I can use the Internet to tack down the names — Wikipedia and are particularly helpful.

But for personal acquaintances, if I lose the name, I could lose it permanently.

Hence, I am now recording in a notebook names that I can still remember now — organized by what they have in common or what era of my life I encountered them.

Very quickly the process of writing names down led me to remember people/names that I hadn’t recalled in many years. The more names in a given cluster, the sharper the memories and the more names/images occur to me.

The ancient technique for memorizing involved associating images representing facts with the layout of a building with which you are familiar. So reconstructing in my mind the layout of the various houses in which I have lived has also helped me recover previously lost names and faces and events.


Free-Style Time Management: “Done List,” Instead of “To-Do List”

March 4th, 2013

I work at home for my ebook publishing company.  There’s a lot of work that needs to be done, but there is no inherit structure to it.

My to-do list was growing out of control.  Every day it got longer, more daunting.  There was no way I could keep pace, much less catch up.  It was intended as a way for me to prioritize and get organized, but it became a chore in and of itself, and a burden.

Yesterday I shifted from “to-do list” to “done list”, and it’s making a big difference in my state of mind and my productivity.

My “done list” records what I actually do with my time.  Each day is separate.  I categorize what I do into four main areas: family, maintenance, business, and personal.  And each of those categories has subcategories.  For instance maintenance includes health, food, and house.  Personal includes writing, reading, languages, TV, etc.

I start the day recording when I get up and what I weigh (maintenance).  When I read, I record what page I stopped at or if I finished it.

Before, time seemed to disappear.  The day would end and I’d wonder how I managed to waste so much time.  My focus would be on all the to-do list stuff that I hadn’t gotten to.  Now I look back and see the wide variety of things that I accomplished and enjoyed.  And the categories give me a feel for what kinds of things I do, showing my patterns, making sense out of what seemed to be chaos.

Of course, I still keep a tickler/reminder list and a short, manageable list of things I plan and expect to do today.  But the focus is on the “done list”.

It feels good adding a new item to the “done list.”

And now I can add the writing of this to that list :-)

The Three Stages of Man

This occurred to me as I was (finally) raking my lawn today –

Farming is inherently cruel:
killing off runts
selective breeding
killing off pests of all kinds
territoriality, property ownership

When generalized (and it’s natural to generalize), the lessons that farming teaches are counter to what we now consider civilized behavior.

Only when mankind advanced so far in technology and specialization that people with first-hand farming experience were a small minority were we able to embed into law values that we now take for granted: that the weak and handicapped should have have equal rights; responsibility for that extend beyond the family and the local district; the notion that we are all citizens of the entire planet and all part of a global family.

You could look at the history of man as consisting of three stages:
each with a distinct value system learned through the struggle for survival that ordinary people face from day-to-day.

The story of Cain and Abel was about the shift from hunting to farming, as the predominant way of life, with its related learned values. But I can’t think of any myth ornovel that deals with the shift from farming to “modern” in a positive light. Many novels from the 19th and early 20th century that contrast a farming way of life with life in the city — Tolstoy, Steinbeck, etc. But they strongly favor the farming mode. City life is presented as degraded, and amoral or immoral. The whole “back to nature” routine dating back to Rousseau and the Romantics exalted the rural and pastoral over city life. What I’m suggesting here is that it was only by getting away from “nature” in the sense of the farming way of life that mankind established a new set of humane values and global awareness.

As a corollary to this, I suspect it is extremely difficult to try to introduce modern values into the rural parts third world countries where the way of life is still primarily centered around farming. Even basic communication could be difficult — aside from language differences — when two parties have very different basic assumptions about the meaning of life and what to value and why, based on the kinds of challenges they face day-to-day.

For instance, the phrase “this land is my land” to someone in the farming stage would be a concrete statement of land ownership — this is mine, not yours. While someone in the “modern” stage would probably understand it in the metaphoric sense of the song, meaning an entire country or the entire world.

(Of course, this is vague bookish speculation on my part, since I’ve never had direct contact with folks in rural areas of third world countries.)

In other words, it is a mistake to romanticize rural life and undervalue modern civilized life.

Let’s take a closer look at the three stages of man.

Stage one — hunting/gathering (pre-history)
physical strength and survival skills, man vs. beast/the elements
using knowledge, skill and experience to cope in a world over which you have no control

Stage two — farming/industrialization (pre-history until the end of the 20th century)
agriculture and and animal husbandry; manual then industrialized;
values of control and obedience
man as owner and controller of beast and then then of other men
Egypt/Assyria etc., man as laboring animal, to be controlled like other animals
personal property, “my land” in the limited sense
planning, evaluating, making difficult and sometimes brutal decisions
weeding, herding, eliminating the weak and handicapped
controlling intended consequences
farming plus industrial revolution
technology turning man into animal, then into machine
first man as slave to another man, then as slave to machinery and system
values learned from farming support/fuel industrialization and nationalization
farming and manufacturing not just as functions to be performed but as the source of society’s values
the Roman Empire and the Dark Ages were both part of the same stage

Stage three — “modern”, global society (now in the beginning stages)
knowledge, skill, and experience important (rather than physical labor and control of physical labor and its mechanical extensions)
connected by global communication and global economy and enhanced by machine intelligence
new values evolve, based around the recognition of interdependence and the possibility of group action and progress without central control
ability to cope with unintended consequences, to find order in seemingly chaotic processes, to benefit from such processes without needing to control them
broad view i terms of time and space
“our land” and “our planet”
diversity of backgrounds, skills, experiences essential for diversity of possible solutions
technology extending human reach and knowledge
global economy
instantaneous global communication
one interdependent world
new values evolving from this new style of life
(circumstances leading to the formation of values, and values then shaping society)
no need for control
information and communication lead to new ways of working together and living together
farming and manufacturing are still performed (are necessary) but only a small minority of the population is involved in them and they take place in a larger, very different value context where the aim is not simply personal gain
(e.g., organic farming and green manufacturing)
these new values are internalized by the majority and are gradually codified in law

What is different about this concept?

From the beginnings of farming (in pre-history) until the end of the 20th century was all one stage.
Farming and industrialization are different aspects of the same control-based value system.

Also note that there are a few points of similarity between stage one and stage three. For instance, the value of knowledge, skill, and experience; and the ability to cope/survive/progress without rigid control of circumstances or of other people.

One could see the 20,000-40,000-year-long stage two as a temporary aberration of human behavior :-)

Does this concept ring true to you? Do you think it has some value and is worth elaborating?


The Evolutionary Benefit of War, and How That Has Changed

April 18, 2013

War used to have evolutionary, survival value. It blasted people out of their valleys and villages, forced them to flee or led to them being carried off as prisoners or led them to march hundreds or thousands of miles in raids and conquest. Without war, they would have interbred, becoming susceptible to illness (because of the commonality of their genes) and also to genetic defects. Without war, there would have been no spreading of innovative ideas, no cross fertilization of ideas.

Today, due to the Internet and advances in transportation, genes and ideas spread and mix globally, quickly. In other words, war no longer provides a survival/evolutionary benefit to mankind.

If my speculation is accurate, the problem is that although war is no longer necessary for the survival of mankind, we evolved when it was necessary; so there is something in us, as a species, that drives us to war (the so-called causes of wars being just rationalizations of our unconscious collective will). So it is likely to be a long process. But (thinking optimistically again) over the course of that time, wars may become less frequent, less intense, and less costly, as the urge to war no longer has a basis in actual necessity.

Meaningful Action

After a long career in philosophy, you have concluded that life is meaningless. I’m still trying to sort out the possibilities in my loose, non-rigorous way.

At this point, I suspect that the crux of the matter lies in the difference between simple action and Russian podvig.

Thinking of the existentialist notion that you are what you do, I’m reminded of the Russian word “podvig”, which includes both an act and its meaning. It is used for heroic feats and deeds of the spirit and soul as well as of the body. It’s a word that would be used in connection with someone like Hercules and also of a saint; a legendary hero who slays a dragon and a saint who cures with prayer or who sacrifices himself for what he believes.

I’m interested in the difference between the French and English “action” and the Russian “podvig”. In the one case, the act/the deed could be simply a matter of muscle and the laws of physics. In the other case, the very same act/deed is fraught with meaning because of the context in which it is perceived.

And the difference is not just of significance to the actor. It can have enormous consequences for others as well — in the Remember the Alamo and Christ on the Cross sense, changing the course of human history. What we believe matters (in the sense of Varieties of Religious Experience — we cannot know if a belief has a basis in “reality”, but we can observe and analyze the consequences in human behavior.)

Consider this possibility –

You are what you do when your act has meaning.

Your act has meaning when performed with purpose, conceived and perceived in a context that has has meaning to you and to others. It matters, it has weight because of its perceived cost and perceived consequences and because you engage in it authentically with the full force of your will.

The extreme case is Luther’s “Hier stehe ich. Ich kann nicht anders.” (Here I stand. I cannot do otherwise.)

The weight of the act is perceived as greater when the cost of doing it is great to yourself and the benefit to yourself is mall or negative but the perceived benefit to others is great. The weight/meaning of the act is inversely proportional to the benefit to yourself and directly proportional to the benefit to others. Hence you are the meaning of what you do.

This meaning is not static and is not limited to the moment of the act.

The total meaning of an act is the sum of all its meanings perceived by all of mankind over all of human time — including unintended consequences. It includes perception and consequences generated in anticipation of the act and after the act. The meaning may rise and fall, but eventually will approach zero. Sometimes it will be important to a few and sometimes to many, but its value is the sum of all values to all of mankind at all times.

The meaning of a man’s life might be defined by a single meaningful act/podvig or by a series of them.

What, at the time, may seem to be an insignificant act could through its influence on others and by chain-reaction or transistor effect (small change here making large difference there) have vast repercussions.

Those are the tidal waves which occur rarely but which make us aware of the mechanics of meaningful action.

The vast majority of mankind never initiates such a tidal wave.

But on a much smaller scale, we all do affect one another through our meaningful acts.

You are connected to those who came before and those who come after you by your genes (cf. The Abraham effect), by ideas and related chains of teaching/learning, and also by chains of meaningful acts, both those you initiate and those that influence you.

You do not act alone.

What you do has meaning because of its consequences not just to you but to others.

In a sense, you are a tiny part of a vast organism that existed before you and will exist after you. And your meaningful acts can affect the meaningful acts of others and can help amplify and transmit the consequences of the meaningful acts of others, sending ripples/waves/repercussions beyond your brief life and significantly impacting the organism as a whole — be that humanity or some still larger conglomerate of beings that can act meaningfully.


Well, I can certainly agree that the causal consequences of one’s deliberate
actions can be hard to predict in advance, can depend on what others do, can
be significant over a certain range of time and insignificant over a greater
range (or vice versa), etc. Among the causal consequences of an action
might be the formation, in the agent and in others, of particular beliefs
about that action. Some of these beliefs may be true, and others false.
But of course even false beliefs can themselves have a wide range of

But I don’t think this bears on the question of whether a human life can
have a meaning, can mean something, etc. I’d still say it’s just a
“category error” to speak of a life as having meaning. It’s a category
error to ask what the color of the number 4 is, or what the gender [not the
sex, mind you, but the gender] of Halley’s comet is–numbers aren’t in the
business of having colors, and celestial bodies don’t have grammatical
features. A human life is just a protracted event. It’s not the sort of
thing that can have a meaning, anymore than a rain shower can, or a clap of
thunder. Texts can have meaning, as can gestures, and I guess many
different kinds of individual deliberate human actions can have
meaning–that is, the agent can mean something by the action. But it seems
to me just a misuse of the word “meaning” to speak of a whole human life as
having meaning, some meaning, this or that meaning, etc. A life is not a novel!



Of course, Baudelaire would be fascinated by the idea of numbers having
color, so would Andre Gide (Symphonie Pastorale).

I think our difference lies in the meaning of the word “meaning”.

In language, meaning is determined by context — within a single written
work and within the totality of speech and writing of a language. No set of
letters, no “word” has meaning in and of itself; only in context.

I would contend that likewise a human life has no meaning in and of itself,
but that every human life has meaning in context — different meanings in
different contexts — and that the context depends on the perspective. And
one such perspective is that of all of humanity.

In that sense a life is to humanity as a set of words is to a novel. The
life and the words have meaning in their respective contexts.

By the way, thinking of that existentialist concept that you are what you do, I’m reminded of the Russian word “podvig”, which includes both an act and its meaning. It is used for heroic feats and deeds of the spirit and soul as well as of the body. It’s a word that would be used in connection with someone like Hercules and also of a saint; a legendary hero who slays a dragon and a saint who cures with prayer or who sacrifices himself for what he believes.

I’m interested in the difference between the French and English “action” and the Russian podvig. In the one case, the act/the deed could be simply a matter of muscle and the laws of physics. In the other case, the very same act/deed is fraught with meaning because of the context in which it is perceived.

And the difference is not just of significance to the actor. It can have enormous consequences for others as well — in the Remember the Alamo and Christ on the Cross sense, changing the course of human history. What we believe matters (in the sense of Varieties of Religious Experience — we cannot know if a belief has a basis in “reality”, but we can observe and analyze the consequences in human behavior.)

Is there anything in philosophy, aside from William James, that examines this aspect of human life and meaning?


Yes, I’ve run across a discussion of a similar point. It’s what Arthur Danto says about “narrative sentences” in his *Analytic Philosophy of History*.


As I read your thoughts on meaningfulness of actions I was reminded of the Medieval concept of an integrated organic concept of the world– in that context the organicisim was of the Saviour — Christ– but it could be any entity that we could find our meaningful being to inhere with. I am constantly confronted with meaningful beings in all the cultures and religions of the world since I expanded beyond what Teihard de Chardin called the Cosmic Christ to all those ontological beings of our mental worlds where we can find ourselves in a meaningful context with. I am reminded of the caste system of Nepal, where when you walk into a village and are greeted by the school teacher who tells and shows you the history of the village and then are taken to the blacksmith and the women potters etc, etc, etc, and finally are taken to the village museum where you see all of what you have experienced over the last three hours beautifully laid out before you. This is true organicism to me where the local community is an integrated whole and takes care of each other and that is where I began in my adherence to Congregationalism in Marblehead and then study of it and then expanded to all the other communities of the world that express these organic ideals of integration of the whole in a microcosm of reality to do good for themselves and for others.

Occam's Shaving Cream There Are Many Possible Answers To Any Question

The simplest is the most probable, but not necessarily the most interesting.

The universe is very interesting.

Vive l’intéressant!

Philosophic Insight from the Blind

(thoughts inspired by the essay that follows)

Directly sensing the presence of other minds and even their mood, the blind know with certainty that other minds exist. They don’t have to logically, rationally, and with great effort arrive at that conclusion.

Perhaps Kant’s categories and the philosophic problems that arise from his approach are dependent on the faculty of sight and the related rational brain activity.

A sightless person perceives the world differently and relates to it differently. The absence of sight does not mean the brain has less data to deal with, but rather it has a different mix of data — not dominated by the data of sight. And in adapting to this different environment, the brain processes the received data differently coming to different kinds of conclusions based on different categories than Kant defined.

Yes, in interacting with sighted people and the physical/social environment that sighted people establish and dominate, the blind develop correspondences between what they perceive and process and what sighted people describe. So the categories by which the blind organize and deal with the world come to approximate the categories of the sighted.

But the categories themselves are not essential features of human existence. Rather they are learned. And the philosophic problems that arise from such categories, such as whether there exist beings other than myself who feel and think as I do — such questions are artificial and contingent on my having eyesight and having developed the associated rational processes with for dealing with that type of data.

A newborn baby does not have those sight-related categories. Over time, through the practice of dealing with sight-dominated data of perception in a social/cultural world organized and explained and talked about and written about by others in terms of a set of sight-oriented categories, the young child learns Kant’s categories and comes to understand the world and his/her relationship to it in those terms. Hence we see the stages of development described by Piaget.

Hence, too, there develop cultural differences and also sex-role differences in how we perceive and process the data of life — how we understand, how we pose questions, and how we answer questions, what we understand as proof, what we believe without question, how we relate to life and death.

But our fundamental concepts of space and time, our concept of self, the range of our possible relationships with others — these are not absolutes, are not given structures of our minds, but rather are contingent and learned and alterable.

And in different circumstances — without the same faculties of perception or confronted with very different perceptual data in a scifi-style world very different from today’s human-dominated Earth, the human mind could develop in very different ways, with very different kinds of understanding — with different certainties, different questions, and different answers.

I perceive, therefore I think. How I think depends on how I perceive as well as on what I perceive. How I think also depends on how I have learned to organize and process what I perceive.

And in the absence of a primary sense such as sight or hearing, other senses come to play more prominent roles, including, perhaps, more than the basic five, leading to different structures of processing and understanding.

Conclusion — the “world” is much richer than we normally presume, and our capabilities for perceiving and understanding it extend over a wider range than philosophers have presumed.

Today, we should benefit from the insights of the blind.

Perhaps, in the future, we might benefit as well from the insights of computer-based entities which operate with different modes of perception.


The essay that prompted the above thoughts –


(From “The World As I Have Found It” by Mary L. Day Arms, first published in 1878)

Is Helen Keller's Experience A Counter Example to "Philosophic Insight From the Blind"?

Since many people in my audience are blind and I am not, I feel compelled to send a followup to yesterday’s message about “The World As I Have Found It” by Mary L. Day Arms. I’m hoping for feedback — either validation or counter examples from personal experience.

I can’t help but wonder if Helen Keller’s experience is a counter example.

In her autobiography, “The Story of My Life”, she says, “It seems to me that there is in each of us a capacity to comprehend the impressions and emotions which have been experienced by mankind from the beginning. Each individual has a subconscious memory of the green earth and murmuring waters, and blindness and deafness cannot rob him of this gift from past generations. This inherited capacity is a sort of sixth sense–a soul-sense which sees, hears, feels, all in one.”

That concept is tantalizingly similar to Jung’s collective unconscious. And it is very tempting to take it as gospel that we all start with the same capacity to understand the world — that the human brain and the world it perceives are in harmony from birth; that “green earth” and “murmuring waters” are primordial ideas that we are born with and that there is a moment of recognition when we first perceive the associated phenomena.

That concept of Helen Keller’s is very different from the theory I expressed yesterday that the brain is plastic at birth and that it develops the capacity to process sense data in response to that data, that the ways we think are contingent on our experiences, leading to significant differences related to the abilities of our senses, our cultural environment, our social roles, and even our sexual roles. If that is the case, then instead of or in addition to celebrating our inherent similarity as humans, we should celebrate our differences. (I’m not trying to sound “politically correct”. I hate that kind of jargon. But the logic of my thoughts leads me to that conclusion.)

My idea of the world of a blind and deaf person derives from the movie “The Miracle Worker”, with its striking scene in which Helen learns the meaning of the word “water”. Yesterday’s thoughts prompted me to read Helen Keller’s book, where I found out that that brilliant scene, that inspired teaching moment was made possible because Helen remembered the word “water” and how it sounded and how water itself felt, from the first 19 months of her life, when she could see and hear. In that moment, she grasped the concept that words could signify things and gradually she learned that words could also signify emotions and abstract thoughts. She connected the rudiments of an internal map of the world with language, as she had done once before when she could see and hear. The moment of insight and learning, when a whole world of possibilities flooded her mind was like Proust’s famous moment of memory which was triggered by taste. She remembered and the strucutres of understanding that had already developed when she had sight and hearing suddenly connected with the sensations she was now able to perceive.

By the time Helen Keller was 19 months old, many of the structures for processing the data of perception had already formed. She had developed the mind of someone who could see and hear before she lost her sight and hearing. Then she struggled mightily and brilliantly, with the help of a brilliant guide and teacher, to come to understand the world the way those who see and hear do.

Touch became her sight and vibration her hearing, filling those niches in her already developed brain.

She strove hard to think and act like every one else, and she had a basic map of the world to go by, from those first 19 months of sight and sound. And she had been a precocious toddler — talking and walking early. After she was stricken, she was like a sighted person walking around a familiar room in the dark. She had learned the connectedness and predictability and cause-and-effect of objects and could link that to the data of her sense of touch, to extend and enrich her mental image of the world.

Only once in her autobiography does she hint at a special intuition, like that mentioned by L. V. Hall in his essay “How Do the Blind See” which appears in “The World As I Have Found It” by Mary L. Day Arms.


I remember the morning that I first asked the meaning of the word, “love.” This was before I knew many words. I had found a few early violets in the garden and brought them to my teacher. She tried to kiss me: but at that time I did not like to have any one kiss me except my mother. Miss Sullivan put her arm gently round me and spelled into my hand, “I love Helen.”

“What is love?” I asked.

She drew me closer to her and said, “It is here,” pointing to my heart, whose beats I was conscious of for the first time. Her words puzzled me very much because I did not then understand anything unless I touched it.

I smelt the violets in her hand and asked, half in words, half in signs, a question which meant, “Is love the sweetness of flowers?”

“No,” said my teacher.

Again I thought. The warm sun was shining on us.

“Is this not love?” I asked, pointing in the direction from which the heat came. “Is this not love?”

It seemed to me that there could be nothing more beautiful than the sun, whose warmth makes all things grow. But Miss Sullivan shook her head, and I was greatly puzzled and disappointed. I thought it strange that my teacher could not show me love.

A day or two afterward I was stringing beads of different sizes in symmetrical groups–two large beads, three small ones, and so on. I had made many mistakes, and Miss Sullivan had pointed them out again and again with gentle patience. Finally I noticed a very obvious error in the sequence and for an instant I concentrated my attention on the lesson and tried to think how I should have arranged the beads. Miss Sullivan touched my forehead and spelled with decided emphasis, “Think.”

In a flash I knew that the word was the name of the process that was going on in my head. This was my first conscious perception of an abstract idea.

For a long time I was still–I was not thinking of the beads in my lap, but trying to find a meaning for “love” in the light of this new idea. The sun had been under a cloud all day, and there had been brief showers; but suddenly the sun broke forth in all its southern splendour.

Again I asked my teacher, “Is this not love?”

“Love is something like the clouds that were in the sky before the sun came out,” she replied. Then in simpler words than these, which at that time I could not have understood, she explained: “You cannot touch the clouds, you know; but you feel the rain and know how glad the flowers and the thirsty earth are to have it after a hot day. You cannot touch love either; but you feel the sweetness that it pours into everything. Without love you would not be happy or want to play.”

The beautiful truth burst upon my mind–I felt that there were invisible lines stretched between my spirit and the spirits of others.


Sensing those “invisible lines” reminds me of Hall’s ability to sense the presence and mood of other people, without seeing or hearing them.

But that is the only glimmer of unique perception or unique processing of perception that appears in Helen Keller’s autobiography.

Her words are a delight to read. It’s amazing that she could write like this, given her handicaps. If you read passages out of context and didn’t know who the author was, you would admire the writing and simply presume that she had no handicap.

But, as the editor notes in his introduction to a collection of her letters, which follows the autobiography: “The best passages are those in which she talks about herself, and gives her world in terms of her experience of it. Her views on the precession of the equinoxes are not important, but most important are her accounts of what speech meant to her, of how she felt the statues, the dogs, the chickens at the poultry show, and how she stood in the aisle of St. Bartholomew’s and felt the organ rumble. Those are passages of which one would ask for more. The reason they are comparatively few is that all her life she has been trying to be “like other people,” and so she too often describes things not as they appear to her, but as they appear to one with eyes and ears.”

I so wish that we had an account of how things appeared to her.

This is like the account of a slave writing about life after slavery, after she had adapted to ordinary life and found a niche and role in society and had proudly come to see the ordinary world as others did.

That accomplishment is wonderful. But I wish I could have heard a first-hand account from the prison of darkness and silence, to have gotten some hint of what the world was like to her before she was freed by education. Because that could teach us about what the world can be like when shorn of the categories of perception that we take for granted and shorn of the habits and cultural biases which normally filter the data before we process it.

I can’t help but wonder in what unexpected ways the mind could develop, what the mind can be, and what the “world” can be.

Rather than a good imitation of a sighted person, I’d like to hear from a blind person with the confidence and insight to grasp the implications of his or her unique perspective and with the talent to express that in ways that sighted people can understand.

I a hoping to find the story of a bllind person who is proud to be blind, proud of what he or she uniquely knows about what it means to be human, about what life an mean.

Do any of you know of such books?

Creation Story For the 21st Century, An Email For My Granddaughter

This message was written for my precocious six-year-old granddaughter Adela, who has lots of questions:

In our last Skype, you had lots of questions that I didn’t have time to answer.

Please keep in mind that I’m not a scientist.  Other people know physics and biology much better than I do.

But this is what I understand from what I’ve read and heard and figured out from trying to make sense of all the pieces, this is what I think about how the universe came to be and where we fit in the overall scheme of things.

Imagine you’re blowing bubbles.  You’ve got a really big bubble ring and lots and lots of soapy water and all the time imaginable to blow over and over again.

Most of your bubbles pop right away, before they are really formed, before there’s much of anything to see.  Lots come out small and pop pretty soon.  And some last for a while and get big and drift away and are simply beautiful.

And you keep blowing bubbles over and over again, for years, for billions of years, for trillions of years.  You’ve been blowing bubbles forever and you’re blowing them now and you’ll keep blowing them forever in the future.  You’re an absolutely amazing bubble blower.

Imagine that one of your bubbles is a grand-prize winner.  It keeps getting bigger and bigger.  All the conditions are just right.  Blowing all those bubbles for all that time even something ridiculously unlikely like that should happen sooner or later — in all of eternity a one-in-a-trillion shot will happen many times.

This bubble lasts for 14 billion years and keeps expanding and might continue for billions of years more.

And on that bubble — not of soap but of space-time, the “stuff” that makes the existence of stuff possible — there form galaxies and stars and planets, billions and billions of them.  And on one of those planets, life forms and evolves over three and a half billion years, from one-cell creatures to dogs and cats and monkeys and people.

And imagine that everything and everyone in this universe is connected to everyone and everything else.  We’re all on that ever-expanding bubble, and we’re connected by forces like gravity and we’re connected by history as well.

Have you heard of atoms and molecules — the little bits of matter that everything is made of?

When our big bubble — our “Big Bang” — happened, at first there were only the very simplest of atoms and molecules.  These randomly came together by the push and pull of forces (like electricity and gravity) and eventually formed stars.  And new kinds of atoms and molecules formed inside those super-hot, super-dense stars.  And over billions of years some of those stars got so big that they exploded as “super novas”.  And in those explosions new far more complex atoms and molecules were created — kinds of matter that are essential to life as we know it were formed in the explosion of stars.

In other words, the matter that makes up your body was created in the explosion of stars.

You might say that stars died that you might live — that all of life as we know it could exist.

Space and time are vast, and we seem so small and insignificant next to all that vastness.

On the other hand, it took all that vastness of time and space, it took an entire universe 14 billion years for us to come into existence, for us to be who we are here and now.

In other words, the bigger the universe, the more important we are, because it took all of that to make us.

So then the question becomes — what do we do about it?

If we’re all that important, what can we and should we do with our lives, with our effort and our thinking and our working together and our caring for and about one another, what can we and what should we do to make the creation and evolution of the whole universe worth the effort?

That’s my question for you for our next Skype :-)



A Restatement of the Niche Version of the Theory of Evolution

In a given climate/ecological territory there are a finite number of niches in which living creature can thrive.  Life forms will compete and survive and evolve in those niches.  Once a species has adapted to the point where it thrives in a particular niche and dominates there, no other life form will have an opportunity to adapt and evolve there.

Likewise, in a given social and political and cultural climate.  Ideas and beliefs and their physical manifestations (inventions, sacred books, means for communicating and recording ideas) survive and evolve in a finite number of niches.  When the niches in a particular social structure are full, there is no opportunity for new ideas and new technology and new social forms to evolve until catastrophic events break the structure into many pieces, which over time coalesce in new patterns, with new empty niches to be filled, often inspired by fragments remaining from the previous structure, and opening the opportunity for new creativity and technological advancement/evolution, until the new set of niches is filled.

Today, global transportation and communication have led to and are leading to the breakup of what once had been isolated and stable social structures.  And the societies that fostered the evolution of the technology that made that happen are in turmoil themselves, are changing unpredictably from the resulting tectonic shifts in economies and social structures.  Desperate masses of people with no fixed domocile and no jobs or useless pointless low-paying jobs and no role in the economy or in society and no sense that their effort/work/creativity can provide them with a livelihood, much less have any lasting significance, are likely to lead to cataclysmic consequences, to a global breakup of social and economic structures.

Over time the pieces will coalesce, and new ideas/beliefs/technology will evolve in the wreckage, inspired by remaining fragments of the previous stage, perhaps, as in the past, forming many separate, isolated, local structures; or, if the infrastructure that supports global communication and transportation survives this upheaval, the new structure will be global, with a multitude of niches to be filled with an unprecedented surge of creativity, leading to a new stable and, this time, global social structure.

Random Thoughts About Thought

Thought exists without words, before words.

When you associate a thought with words, the thought gains momentum through the association of those words with other words and other thoughts.

And the thoughts become clearer and more specific and more focused when you express them in words

And they become clearer still when you share those words with other people, who then associate them with other words and other thoughts and engage in dialogue with you about what they perceive as the implications of that thought.

And what once was a shapeless glimmer of a thought sometimes grows beyond what had ever felt possible, as it spreads from person to person and, in some cases, from one generation to generation, gaining momentum and following its own trajectory, far beyond its incohate origins.In response to this, a friend said:

I tend to think that until the words come, the thought is not yet a thought… “In the beginning was the word.”

The Information Manifesto

As water seeks its own level, scientific information wants to be free — meaning freely available to all (not necessarily free of cost).

Scientific information can be stated precisely in words and symbols that only a specially educated elite can understand.

The original scientific statement can be of varying reliability and laden with bias of theory or of economic interest or due to its attachment to the reputations and careers of the researchers. A source that might connote reliability and validity to one audience might seem suspect to another audience for reasons of allegiance and self-interest and personal bent.

Over time, what was once a series of experimental results becomes a narrative, a story with intention and direction, prescribing a course of action or calling for caution and more study and adding a sense of risk to any recommendation.

The stories that experts tell one another can then be restated in language that the public can understand, and can be interpreted, reinterpreted, misinterpreted, and twisted by wishful thinking, and transformed to rumor in wave after wave of telling and retelling.

These stories acquire layers of commentary that become an integral part of them and are remembered and discussed — the review sometimes being more memorable and more trusted than the story itself.

This layered, sometimes contradictory story stream motivates individuals to take direct action or to consult with a trusted practitioner who might to varying degrees be familiar with and/or understand the gist of the original research. And from that dialogue consumer and practitioner agree on a plan of action, or the consumer seeks another practitioner and another, or decides for himself/herself. In any case, the practitioner needs to be familiar with the popular story stream to effectively communicate with the individual consumer.

The story that began with data becomes public rumor; and in the dialogues between practitioners and consumers and from their direct experience and what they hear about the results of related action taken, the story is further edited and reshaped and gains or loses credibility.

Over time, the story becomes more reliable from the addition of layers of practical experience and becomes more understandable from multiple telling and retelling by both consumers and practitioners.

Meanwhile, new streams of related data appear and go through similar transformations, and affect the credibility of previous streams.

Scientific information by nature needs to be processed by the many to be understood by the many and hence to be acted upon.

When scientific information is held tightly and prevented from flowing, distortions arise. The public stream becomes polluted with distrust and incomplete understanding. The story cannot develop naturally, and the public cannot properly process it and cannot find the right path of action.

In the ideal society, scientific information is freely shared and is fully processed by the public, who then act on it, creating a feedback loop that leads to a continuous stream of innovation and discovery.

In a closed society, there is a gap between the community of science, academic institutions and government and the community of the public. In such a society, the public is expected to accept the judgments of science on authority and without true understanding, and there is no feedback loop leading to innovation. In addition, the entities participating in the scientific community tend to hold their information tightly, as a corporate asset, leading to duplication of effort and splintered ineffective research efforts.

Information seeks to be freely available; and over time, when a closed society competes with an open one, open wins time and again.

The conflict between the Soviet Union and the West wasn’t so much a conflict between democracy and dictatorship or between capitalism and communism. Rather it was an open society versus a closed one, which was played out in economic terms — the innovation of freely flowing information toppling the stasis and decay of a closed information society.

Moving forward, we need to learn from that lesson. As technology makes it possible share and spread and publicly process scientific information ever more quickly, we need to value and foster that stream rather than investing in technology designed to dam it up and distort it.

The public’s participation in scientific discourse is not simply a nuisance –a source of noise and distortion. Rather it is essential to the process that can lead to widespread understanding, practical action, and further innovation.

In this mode, the story (which is the basis for practical action) can be more important than “truth”. Stated another way, scientific truth in some instances can be irrelevant, trumped by organic public truth.

In the beginning was the word. Let the word spread. Let the word be shared. Let the word lead to a new beginning, now and forever. Amen. privacy statement