Beginning the World


New Year’s celebrations remind me of a song by a band named the Innocence Mission titled, “Beginning the World.”  She sings about the nervousness of starting school, the uncertainty of what she’s doing with her life, and recites in the chorus: “I am always beginning the world.”  Those words always struck a chord with me, serving as a reminder that (as the cliche goes) every new day is the beginning of the rest of the your life.

So are we really free to begin anew?

The phrase “Same Shit Different Day” (SSDD), while often innocuous, communicates the anti-thesis of this.  It suggest a rut of unfulfilling habit.  No change is occurring.  Nothing memorable is being experienced.  No new pages are being added to your life story.

In this TED talk, Psychologist Daniel Kahneman discusses what he describes as concurrent but separate versions of Self: an experiential self, and a self of memory.  The former is the part of us that experiences each moment, forever existing in the “now”.  The self of memory (our memory-story, I will call it) is the meta view of ourselves; it compiles our story, creates connections in memory, anticipates futures memories, so forth.  Our memory-story, he points out, is not linear.  A ten second sequence can feel like forever, and whole weeks (years, even) can go utterly unrecorded.  Our memory-story does not care about time as measured by clocks, but rather is focused on change.  Noteworthy change.  According to Kahneman, it is change that is recorded and remembered.  Twenty straight days of lying blissfully on a beach is roughly the same as one day of lying blissfully on a beach to our memory-story.  Though our experiential memory likely loves each day the same, our memory-story does not appear to sum the total pleasure.  There is nothing new being added to the memory-story of our lives by the additional 19 days of repetition.

If life is what we remember it to be, is SSDD functionally equivalent to not living at all?

In “The Information“, James Gleick describes Claude Shannon as equating information with complexity (or perhaps more accurately, entropy).  He says, “According to this measure, a million zeroes and a million coin tosses lie at opposite ends of the spectrum. The empty string is as simple as can be; the random string is maximally complex. The zeroes convey no information; coin tosses produce the most information possible.”  In other words, the more repetitive a pattern is, the less information it conveys.  In this sense, a life of SSDD is void of information.

Does that make a life of SSDD void of meaning?  Is a life filled with sudden and surprising changes maximally informative?  Maximally meaningful?

Then again, there are many for whom routine appears to be a necessary anchor.  One of my children has been diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder, and one can see how important routine and repetition are to his ability to navigate his world.  He is not alone.  I find myself savoring tedium at times, perhaps for different reasons than my son.  Raking leaves, shoveling snow, driving to work, etc, are all tasks that engage my body while allowing my mind to wander off to some separate task.  In that sense, a small portion of SSDD would seem healthy and perhaps even necessary.  In “The Information”, James Gleick expands on the contrast between maximum complexity/information (a random series of digits) and minimum complexity/information (unvaried repetition) by asserting, “…these extremes have something in common.  They are dull.  They have no value. If either one were a message from another galaxy, we would attribute no intelligence to the sender. If they were music, they would be equally worthless. Everything we care about lies somewhere in the middle, where pattern and randomness interlace.”

Perhaps a little Same Shit Different Day serves as a baseline that helps make a truly Different day memorable and Beginning the World momentous?


Faith and Reason

It is sometimes said that faith and reason are opposite; even that they cannot coexist, that they are contrary to one another and mutually exclusive.  I believe just the opposite: that they mutually assure one another.  All faith is supported by a reason, and all reason relies upon faith.  They are never apart.  Reason relies upon faith in sensory perception, faith in logic, faith in intellectual processing, etc.  Faith is always directed by the mind, even if only intuitively, in determining what beliefs and concepts deserve faith.  I believe both concepts are so foundational to conscious existence that a worldview cannot exist without having both faith and reason.  Reason is built upon the illusion of certainty in a fundamentally uncertain world, and faith is ascribed based upon personal reasoning, which is often flawed.  So both are built upon a fairly shaky foundation.  But neither exists without the critical support of the other.

Sadly, it seems to me that often those who value faith fail to acknowledge that their faith is based upon their own reasoned beliefs, and those who value reason often refuse to acknowledge the faith in perception and logic upon which their reasoning is built.

Do I have it wrong?  Do you believe either faith or reason can function without the critical support of the other?

The Placebo Effect

In recent years, the interaction between mind and matter has become less of a speculative venture and more of a mysterious fact.  There has long been anecdotal and/or observed evidence in the form of faith healings, yogic phenomenon, changes brought about by hypnosis, etc, all of which suggests that our mental states or beliefs relate to material reality in some way. There has been plenty of verified experimental evidence to support the health benefits of meditation. This relationship between mind and matter is often classified and dismissed as mysticism.  While many of the explanations may indeed be mystic in nature, the correlation itself seems fairly incontrovertible to me.  On the quantum scale, observed behaviors like the Observer Effect, Entanglement, and Complementarity would seem to suggest that consciousness plays a role in our experience of reality.  Some dismiss these as strictly a quantum phenomenon, but consciousness continues to play a testable and verifiable role in our material existence on the macro scale, as witnessed in the Placebo Effect.

The Placebo Effect is, in my opinion, the most well-documented and incontrovertible evidence of this relationship between mind and matter.  The rate of effectiveness varies depending upon the nature of the illness, but in one of the landmark research papers on the subject, “The Powerful Placebo”, Henry Beecher cited a efficacy rate of about 35%, + or – 2% margin of error.  That is astonishing: 35%.  One in three people experienced very real psychological, or even physiological effects as the result of believing they were being made well by some agent.

Studies have continued to prove the efficacy of placebo treatments.  Most startlingly, this proved to be true even when patients knew they were taking placebo treatments, as evidenced in a PLOS ONE study on placebo effects by Ted Kaptchuk.

When I first met my wife, she would recite, “I will not get sick” and drink Echinacea.  I suppose Beecher’s research would suggest such a tactic should work around 35% of the time on average.  I was diagnosed with two herniated discs, L4 and L5, when I was 22.  I was unable to walk for two weeks, and was told to have back surgery.  I ignored the advice.  I did nothing, opting instead to rest as long as necessary.  As a lifelong athlete, this was rather trying.  Then, inexplicably, by the age of 28 or 29, my back healed “itself.”  I started playing ultimate frisbee, then basketball, and now (over a decade later) exercise 6 or 7 days a week and seldom experience discomfort.  Why did my back heal?  I have no idea.  Neither do Doctors.  I am not suggesting that my mind necessarily had anything to do with my back getting better. But that’s the point: the relationship between mind and matter, brain and body, remains largely shrouded in mystery.

Neuroscience has helped us understand some of the chemical and neural mechanisms by which this relationship works, but from all I can gather, it hasn’t yet begun to answer the deeper question of why.  I think Erwin Schrodinger effectively captured the problem with a purely physical approach to the problem with this comment in his “Mind and Matter” lectures:

“The reason why our sentient, percipient and thinking ego is met nowhere within our scientific world picture can easily be indicated in seven words: because it is itself that world picture. It is identical with the whole and therefore cannot be contained in it as a part of it.”

In this way, it may be nearly impossible to “objectively” study the relationship between mind and matter, since mind itself is both researcher and subject.

When Does Sufficient Become Excessive?

As an American, nothing drives home the modern obsession with material luxury more than Christmas.  What was once a religious holiday is… still a religious holiday.  A celebration of the material consumption that is the religion of modern America.

I suspect that, ethically, I should give everything I have to those in need.  I should live only on what is necessary to survive. At the very least, I should use my abilities strictly to help others rather than using my abilities to help increase my own level of comfort.

But alas, I am a coward.  Perhaps that’s what Jesus meant in saying “it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of God”.  Material comfort is an opiate. Virtually every religious tradition warns against the seductiveness of material comfort.

However, I have a wife and children.  It is both an honor and my duty to provide for them, to care for them.  In addition to providing for their material needs, I think I should educate them as best I’m able, and should provide them with every opportunity to make a life for themselves.  I believe I should not impose my beliefs upon my children.  Rather, I should give them tools for evaluating truth, tools for developing character, and let them follow their own path through life.  I hope I leave them with very little that they must unlearn later in life.  It seems to me that enacting my own fairly unorthodox views would do a grave disservice to my children (and perhaps my wife as well).

So I am a coward with an excuse.

I can try to exercise personal restraint.  I expect any attempt at “asceticism” in modern America likely resembles the “garish opulence” of yesteryear.  But nevermind.  I know there are many others who harbor or exercise beliefs that extol simplicity.  I am only now waking up to this idea.  I have been drunk with materialism for so long that I am not sure what sobriety might look like.

When does sufficient become excessive?  Where is that line?  I am not sure.  But I do feel fairly certain that my American Christmas has well and truly cleared it.  And despite the assurances of American propaganda, I don’t think that’s a good thing.

Inner Space, Ignored

To what extent has humanity’s increased understanding and dominance over our external material environment come at the expense of understanding and insight into the nature of our inner mental space?

As Max Planck reportedly said, “I regard consciousness as fundamental.  I regard matter as derivative from consciousness.  We cannot get behind consciousness.  Everything that we talk about, everything that we regard as existing, postulates consciousness.”  Erwin Schrodinger expressed similar sentiments, “The world is given to me only once, not one existing and one perceived.  Subject and object are only one.”

The scientific method has provided an excellent process for examining our surroundings as expressed in the physical universe.  It has proved to be superb at exposing false theories.  It allows us to whittle away falsehoods in the hopes of getting closer to truth regarding our physical surroundings.  Smitten by this success and the technological advances that it has enabled, it seems mankind has focused increasingly on the material world which we inhabit.  To many, it is all there is.

Is it possible that the world within our mind is as intricate and expansive as the physical world that surrounds us?

Is it possible that if humanity devoted as much time to the study of inner space as it does to the study and exploitation of external space, we would discover just as many truths about the nature of reality – perhaps truths of a very different kind?

Does the speed of discovery and tempo of modern (Western) life actively discourage inner investigation?

Is it appropriate than mankind should focus increasingly on the material world and forego what can be discovered and experienced inside his/her own mind?

Is this evolutionary “progress” revealing itself?

If not, what is the cost of this partiality?

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