taking the me out of the mix

Some time ago I was annoyed.

Not at anything specific, just generally irritated. Maybe by my life circumstances, maybe by my inability to reach any satisfying conclusions when thinking about philosophy, ethics, responsibility and identity, maybe by a general feeling of existential angst, a sense of ennui.

Whatever it was, it wasn’t right.

So I decided to do a little thought experiment.
It went like this:
What if there is no “me”?

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I mean, what if there was no mind, no consciousness (outside the strict medical definition) and no free will?

How would this change who I was?

I’d read about the idea of us having no free will in various neuroscience blogs, and I found it interesting, but I hadn’t previously considered it as an alteration of my world view.
So I considered the way I would interact with others, the way I would arrive at decisions, the way I would view myself.
I thought about each of these in turn.
And I could not find, despite serious consideration, any difference.
None!
Within this thought experiment, life went on just as it did before. Everything remained exactly in place in my brain. I detected no change.
Nothing.

So I thought,
“Hold on a minute! I may be on to something here!” and decided to run with it. The question then arises:

How?

How do I actually go about detached from the idea of free will? Without a “me” to think about? Well, that could be the subject of its own post, but basically, I just did it.

I can’t even call it a decision as such, more a form of realization, because once you accept this world view, decisions are no longer quite what they seem.

But I digress.

It was the new me. Or rather, the new not-me, and everything was just as before.
It appeared that all that vague baggage that I’d assigned to my mind, all those recursive philosophical concepts that I’d attached to my identity, all of that stuff had absolutely no impact on what was happening in my brain! It felt like I’d shut down a whole department of my organization, sent everyone home, locked the doors, and nobody had even noticed.
Strange.
I was half expecting something, a panic attack, a sudden onset of stuttering, bursting into tears at the sight of a broken flower stem, I don’t know, just something!

Nothing.
Everything went on exactly as before.

So that’s it. All was well. End of story.

until…

As time went on, I started to feel an alteration in the way I felt after all. Something had changed.
At first it was barely noticeable, indefinite, really quite vague. Try as I may, I just couldn’t pin it down. I was trying to find the new thing that had come into my thought processes, whatever it was, but I couldn’t get hold of it.
And then it hit me.
There was no new thing.

It was old things.
And they were missing.

IMG_0150

I realized I no longer felt such a weight of expectation, that sense that I’m letting myself down somehow.
I no longer felt such a suspicion that some others had a depth to them that I could never understand.
I no longer felt as much irritation at people’s faults, including my own, because I’d discarded my mental model of perfection.
Without a sense of some abstract, deeper meaning, my brain appears to have taken a slow, deep sigh of relief. I’d managed to deflate a bubble of cognitive dissonance. Like clearing a blockage.

The irony: the thought experiment that I embarked upon with some trepidation, due to a fear of somehow losing my sense of self, led me to a state of increased confidence, greater enthusiasm for life, and, quite often, simple, childish, carefree joy.
Another difference worth noting: those close to me now find me even more maddening than before, but hey, there’s always a downside.

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40 comments

  1. Robert F

    I don’t know if you’re aware of this, and I know that your not interested in religion, but the Buddhists have a doctrine involving the assertion that there no permanent self, that the self is a temporary illusion and that the path to what they call enlightenment is to detach from the illusion that there is permanent self, or a permanent anything for that matter. They assert that suffering is caused by attachment to phenomenon that are perceived to be enduring, but since they aren’t enduring, suffering occurs when the cease. The experience of self is the most primary attachment to an illusion, and the greatest cause of suffering. All forms of Buddhist meditation are designed to detach those who meditate from the illusions of self andpermanence that attach to awareness. The Buddhists have been practicing this detachment from self for most of two millennia, so what you are describing is familiar to millions of Buddhists.

  2. adaminberlinio

    I have some awareness of that, yes (it’s been a while since I’ve read up on Buddhism). I find it interesting that in the few cases that it appears religion has got it reasonably correct, it’s the eastern philosophies with their notion of illusion of self, and I believe the Hindu creation myth is also surprisingly expansive in its timescales.
    I find these facts strangely beautiful and touching, although I see it as a combination of humanity’s capacity for imagination and conjecture, and sheer chance, as, let’s face it, the vast majority of religious claims, whenever testable, have been comically inaccurate, and with all the belief systems in the world, the chances of one or two of them hitting the jackpot ends up pretty high.
    This post was actually inspired more by my understanding of neuroscience (of which I know very little). It became apparent to me that, as a monist, the concept of mind made no sense, and therefore free will no longer had any meaning. I wrote this as a kind of beginners’ steps towards the naturalist/materialist world view, as it’s fun for me to try and think back to how I arrived at where I am, but if it fits with the buddhists too, well I’m happy with that.
    I am actually quite interested in religion, but I see it as cultural history, something that can teach us about the superstitious nature of some great apes, but nothing about the universe those apes happen to live in.

  3. Robert F

    Of course, the Buddhists are not saying exactly the same thing that you are. For one, they’re not materialists. That is, they do not believe that measuring and testing the phenomenal world scientifically can render an accurate description or adequate definitions of what reality is. Rather, they say that what we call the mind is capable, through focus and concentration, of looking directly into reality, into itself, and through direct apprehension is capableof experiencing the nature of reality immediately and without conceptual representation. There are many forms of Buddhism; Zen, which is part of the larger branch of Mahayana Buddhism, is the form I’m most familiar with. In Zen, it is said that Samsara (the illusory world that arises from attachment) and Nirvana (the cessation of attachment and the suffering it causes, or the suffering it is, which is the result of looking into the nature of reality through the application of prajna, which is the wisdom/intuition developed in meditation, and karuna, that is compassion, or empathy) are both the same. That is, from the viewpoint of enlightenment, this phenomenal world is discovered to be the home of nirvana, not something distinct or separate from it. In Zen there is a saying reflecting this experience: First there is a mountain; then one practices Zen, and the mountain is no longer a mountain; and then, the mountain is a mountain again. Buddhists would say that the practices of rational understanding and scientific method may be useful for measuring and redesigning the world around us, but such measuring and redesigning does not give us direct experience of reality, nor does it represent reality as it is in itself, and can be a manifestation of delusion when clung to, like any other form of attachment. Another thing that Buddhism says that is different from what you are saying is this: what you call empathy, Buddhists call karuna, and they say that when one sees into the nature of reality through the practices of prajna and karuna, one discovers what they call the Great Void, and further, that the Great Void is the source of both karuna and prajna, which constitute reality. So for Buddhists, empathy is writ large, not merely a human quality, or animal quality, but an inherent characteristic that gives rise to reality itself. Another interesting thing they say is that existence and nothingness, what they call form and emptiness, are both the same; by which is meant that no phenomenal reality exits independently of anything else but rather arises or more precisely co-arises in complete interconnectedness, or inter-being, with the totality of reality; another way they put it is to say that you are composed of non-you constituents. You are empty of any intrinsic you-ness apart from the totality of existence. So they would agree that “you” have no free will; but they would say that what we mistake for individual “free will” is actually the freedom of the totality of existence reified by attachment into a quality of self.

  4. Robert F

    Buddhists are monist, too. But another difference between you and them is that, while you believe that “the concept of mind” makes “no sense,” they believe that mind pervades everything. And to be fair, a non-existent mind cannot believe something (including that the concept of mind makes no sense), since it actually doesn’t exist, and so talk about believing or not believing is meaningless; whereas, if everything is pervaded by mind, it’s meaningful to talk about believing or not believing.

  5. Robert F

    And there is an interesting question for you: if no mind exists, what is it that can truthfully be said to have a belief, or a perception, for that matter? And how would this perception, even if possible, correspond to reality, since in experience reality is a perception? Are you saying that no perception has truth value, since all perceptions occur in minds, and minds don’t exist? And if that is so, then your own assertion that the concept of mind makes no sense would have no truth value, because it’s the result of a perception (or perceptions); the assertion that minds make no sense would be a self-defeating proposition. Is that not so?

  6. Robert F

    Or is it that you believe that believing takes place apart from mind? Do you distinguish between consciousness and mind? And if so, how would you define that difference?

    The issue for me is not a semantic one; my question(s) really has (have) to do with whether it is possible for a subjective experience of a belief to meaningfully be called true if in fact all beliefs are the result of processes which cannot be conceived or perceived because there is no conceiver or perceiver? It would be a rather odd phenomenon for a thought to exist without a thinker, or a perception to exist without one who perceives, because both words strongly suggest that the thought or perception exists inside some field of self-experience that has an interest of some kind in the thought or perception, and has an interest in the truth value of the thought or perception.

    Another thing: while you are doing away with the concept of “me” in your thinking, why not do away with the concept of being human? If the “me” is not real, what makes you think the concept of humanity is real? If there is no you, and there are no other selves who can call themselves “me,” then there is no category “human” corresponding to any factual existent, either. Isn’t that logical?

    Or does humanity somehow exist apart from the existence of the individual “me”s that erroneously experience themselves as human?

    I eagerly await your response(s).

    Signed
    Your Friendly Interlocutor

  7. Robert F

    I find that the problem with much thinking by philosophical materialists is that it lacks the boldness to venture into the pure, Olympian heights of cogitation that Nietzsche scaled; it wants God dead, but it doesn’t want the epistemological vertigo that inevitably issues from the absence of the transcendent. This reluctance to live with that vertigo Nietzsche called “nihilism,” which he defined as the refusal to embrace life as it is, and the consequent retreat into conventions of thought and belief as a form of sheltering from pure, unmediated existence. What you call empathy he would have seen as herd morality, an illusion to escape by self-mastery, which incidentally might involve the mastery of others. The idea that rationality and science could serve as a basis for conducting one’s life would have made him laugh. He would have called it human, all too human, and asserted that without transcendence, the human is an illusion to be overcome by self-creation. He would have seen the technocratic planetary civilization that is haltingly developing as the spread of one giant herd, docile and bovine, and it would have disgusted him as the retreat from reality of a weak and decadent, that is nihilistic, race.

    Oh, for another Nietzsche for us theists to cut our teeth against!

  8. adaminberlinio

    Robert, I think you’re asking a lot of interesting questions, also a lot of questions that I don’t understand, just generally a lot of questions, very few I have anything near an answer to. I have utterly no beef with anyone who chooses to follow some kind of spiritual or philosophical path, but in order for me to do either, I’d need some kind of motivation.
    My rather simplistic world view is perhaps as you suggest somehow cowardly, but when I regularly consider the age of the universe, the vast, vast spaces between stars, the construction of an atom, the wonderful laws of thermodynamics, the Doppler effect, Pi, the evolution of the aye-aye’s middle finger, bee navigation, the creation of all carbon molecules in the center of a dying star, radiation waves and visible color, all these things and many, many more are so beautiful, so astonishing, and so well understood, completely without cause to invoke some unnatural influence, I cannot help to conclude it’s perhaps those without an appreciation of the wonders of the universe that are failing to live their lives to their full potential. I may be wrong about that, but to me it doesn’t matter. When I want to feel like I share the vision of a god, or when I want to feel truly at one with the universe, or that none of my problems have any significance, or simply to float in an endless sea of indescribable beauty, I turn to physics, biology, chemistry, math.
    Offering me a spiritual path or a philosophical framework is like offering a stale cracker to a man in the process of feasting at the greatest buffet in the history of humanity. Or perhaps like throwing a life jacket to someone who’s already standing firmly on solid ground.
    Arrogant, simplistic, dismissive, yes. I’m all those things as times. I don’t always make a lot of sense, and I don’t think my world view stands up to thorough philosophical scrutiny, but you see I don’t care. That’s okay with me. I have a sense of process and consistency that works pretty well for me, even if it wouldn’t sell any philosophy books.

    I’ve completely failed to answer any of your concerns, instead I’ve attempted to give a further description of how I see the world. To name names, those people who have far more eloquently explained a very close viewpoint include Richard Feynman, Carl Sagan, Steve Novella and perhaps Karl Popper. With your knowledge and eloquence I’m sure you could explain how my view is somehow incomplete, but until I encounter the evidence, follow the logical argument, and can read up of the general scientific consensus, I’ll probably not take it too seriously. I’m not saying I’m right, I’m just saying you haven’t supplied any evidence to suggest that I’m not right, so I’ll carry on with what I’ve got. Does that make sense? I hope so.

  9. Robert F

    You have your own perspective, and, being a largely irrational creature like the rest of us humans, driven mostly by primal, cthonic motivations, you avoid the questions that would challenge your worldview, also like the rest of us humans, and opt for what is familiar and comfortable. I supplied no evidence to convince you of anything, that is true, but I did with my questions ask you to give an accounting of your worldview, to see if it could hold water epistemologically, and of course it can’t, it has cracks, like every other worldview, none of which is comprehensive, all of which are partial, my own included. But, as Leonard Cohen sang, the cracks are the ways that light gets in. I’m not the kind of theist that either expects or wishes non-theists to go to hell (I have far too many Buddhist friends for that), nor one that even believes in hell, for that matter, in its traditional definition. So I say to you, in the words of Bob Dylan, fare thee well, and I hope that we can, even in some remote sense, recognize each other as fellow travelers across the face of this mysterious and inextinguishable universe. Salaam.

    • adaminberlinio

      The mistake you’ve made here Robert is to assume that I avoid questions that would challenge my worldview, that I opt for familiarity and comfort. In fact, I’ve come across the only meaningful tool I can find to do exactly the oposite, namely scientific skepticism. It’s an imperfect tool, and needs to be wielded with constant awareness of our weaknesses for confirmation bias, cherry picking, straw man creation and cognitive dissonance. I do not deny my irrationality, and that’s exactly why I chose to systematically guard against it.
      As of this message, I’ve yet to find any system that appears to have any success in demonstrating the universe in any meaningful way other than scientific skepticism. All forms of mysticism, however beautiful, touching elegant and entertaining, fail to tell me anything about the universe.
      I’m glad that you chose not to consign me to your vision of hell, but only for your sake, as I wouldn’t want you to be burdened with some sense of responsibility for my eternal wellbeing.

  10. Robert F

    Ah, but the mistake you make, my friend Adam, is that you do not acknowledge that your irrationality shapes even your science; as Blaise Pascal wrote, “The heart has reasons that reason does not know.”

  11. adaminberlinio

    🙂 Dear Robert, I do acknowledge just that. There’s no perfection as far as I’m aware, so we work with the tools available. Despite our irrationality shaping our science (via funding decisions, usually), the body of knowledge continues to grow, irregularly, not in any systematic direction, but it grows. No other system shares this crucial characteristic. To know that I’m on a journey of discovery that started long before my time and has no ending, no direction, that all doors are open, all conclusions provisional, I find that exhilarating, and to know that this discovery is something we share as a species, something that belongs to us all, well, that’s where my sense of transcendence lies. Being a part of the universe as it becomes aware of itself, that’s a profundity that speaks far deeper to me than any religion or spirituality.

  12. Robert F

    Here is an interesting development: a monist talking about “Being a part of the universe….”; his very language betrays him and underscores the metaphysical truth.

  13. adaminberlinio

    Robert, we ARE the universe! Every molecule in your body was forged in the center of a dying star! Christians like to tell me that a Middle-Eastern carpenter died for me some couple of thousand years ago.
    Science shows that stars died for me, billions of years ago!
    That’s just physics, no meta. Wonderful, wonderful physics.
    I believe that when theists separate themselves from the universe by making themselves little replications of their god, they’re thinking far, far too small. We are part of all this! Just like every rock, dust particle, bacteria and metal.
    You can call that metaphysics if you want, I don’t mind. Scientists stopped using it generations ago when they realized that it no longer held a meaning for them, but to argue that point would only be semantics.
    I suppose the bigger point is, yes, I stare in wonder and awe at our existence and the existence of the rest of the universe, and our profound connection to it all. I do that from within science, the best place to be, because it works!

  14. Robert F

    Scientists may have stopped using the term metaphysics, but philosophers and logicians have started using it again because, under the pressure of arguments developed by analytic philosopher Alvin Plantinga (now, don’t hang ALL the personal beliefs of Plantinga around my neck, please; I’m only referring to his analytical arguments), and some of his colleagues, they’ve realized that the logical positivists were incorrect in asserting that metaphysical assertions are meaningless, because to deny the meaningfulness of metaphysical assertions is in fact to make a metaphysical assertion, in this case an untrue metaphysical assertion because its self-defeating.

    And I’m not sure how one would distinguish the multiple-universe hypothesis (you know, the hypothesis developed to get around the thorny issue of the anthropic principle) from a purely metaphysical and religious hypothesis, since the idea includes the assumption that there can be no communication or influence between the separate universes; after all, if there were, it would actually only be one universe, which would negate the explanatory effect of the hypothesis with regard to the anthropic principle.

    And if you think language involving a phrase like “part of the universe becoming aware of itself” is not mystical and religious, you are very much mistaken. But the point is moot for you materialists, since being aware, that is, being conscious, from your perspective is only an epiphenomenon, the merest froth at the interface of a cosmic ocean and the sky above it, and to think that the froth can say or perceive anything either meaningful or true in the brief milliseconds it endures before it dissolves forever, is surely the most absurdly inconceivable thing possible.

  15. Robert F

    The more I think about your position on these issues, the more I think of you as a theist rather than a materialist; a pantheist, to be exact.

    • adaminberlinio

      If you wish to view me that way, I don’t mind. I’m only interested in the materialist perspective, but perhaps other people could interpret my view differently, I don’t really see why I should object. I go round calling other people’s interests silly, and I doubt they see it that way themselves, so I don’t see why I should insist that everybody characterize me the way I do.

  16. adaminberlinio

    Well, I just read Plantinga’s view on evolution, which I’m not pinning on you, but it’s worth looking at if you want to understand why I’m so dismissive of such philosophy. I just find it silly. Some stuff is just so obviously silly that I believe it’s a waste of time bothering to pick out the logical fallacies from within it, but if others like to do such things, that’s fine by me.
    I’ve no objection if others want to talk about metaphysics, but it has no meaning for me, and I don’t propose to go too far down that road. Regarding multiverses and other elements of theoretical physics, I have quite a limited interest in that too, because of its theoretical nature. I feel it moves too closely to philosophy. Sorry Robert, I suspect you’re deeply disappointed in me, and you feel I’m closed minded and intellectually timid somehow, but I like to use the little brain I have to understand the universe the best I can, and that can only come, in my view, through a materialistic process of empirical evidence, rational and critical thinking, and following logic. I realise that to many this is an oversimplified philosophy, but as far as I’m aware, it’s all that science needs to function, and that’s where my interest lies. Most of philosophy is much like sociology, anthropology and psychology for me. I don’t understand these disciplines. They seem vague to me, lacking in meaningful measurement. Perhaps my brain just isn’t suited to them.
    The “part of the universe becoming aware of itself” was meant as a little poetic flourish, much like “we’re all made of stardust!”. It’s an amusing way of characterizing our current scientific understanding of the universe. You can take it at a deeper meaning if you wish, but for me, the depth lies with the universe, not us. I don’t believe that all romantic and poetic imagery should be excluded from the description of science, if it functions to increase interest and understanding.

    I don’t expect we’ll ever agree on any of this, although perhaps we both share a similar sense of wonder at the universe. I don’t even mind if you want to call it spiritual, but that word has no inference beyond the materialist universe for me. I don’t begrudge anyone their beliefs, I’m not an activist atheist, and I know I’m just as capable of self-delusion as anyone, so I don’t feel in any position to judge anyone else’s beliefs.

    I wonder, does my materialist view irritate you somehow? I get irritated by some elements of post-modernist philosophy, for example, because I feel it has corrosive effects on some elements of science communication, and of course fundamentalist religious beliefs are often troublesome for reasons I don’t think I need to go into, but you haven’t claimed anything that I have any issue with, however you seem perhaps in some way frustrated with my world view. Is that a fair characterization?

  17. Robert F

    I go all the way with Plantinga on epistemology, not evolution. I don’t think you or anyone else is capable of adequately answering his epistemological arguments while maintaining the fiction of metaphysical neutrality.

    I think, though, that you are correct about me being frustrated with your world view, as well as the worldview of the crop of missionary atheists who have evolved in the last few years (I know, it’s probably just guilt by association, since you don’t seem to be missionary in your approach; but, since I’m forever being asked as a theist to account for the Crusades, which I had nothing to do with, I’m going to hold you accountable for the overreaching of your militant atheist brethren). And if I had to render in a few words the gist of my frustration, and irritation, it would be that you all seem so very smug, reducing human love and the mystery of existence and the romance and pathos of being to impersonal forces and chemical
    interactions and genetic survival strategies; I don’t think a single one of you can plumb the depths of Shakespeare’s King Lear when he holds his beloved daughter Cordelia’s lifeless body in his arms and cries…”She’s gone forever!” You have nothing to say to him, no hope to give him, nothing to meet the tragedy of his condition, or the condition of the human race. Yet you blithely spout your smug truisms about reason and science, as if they answer anything. They don’t. And they can’t.

  18. Robert F

    I suppose that you don’t know that poetry is not just an amusing way of characterizing anything, nor is it merely the assembly of figures of speech that symbolize other utterance more meaningful, but is inseparable from mysticism and religion, and along with cooking, clothing, religion and art, music and pornography, among the things that make human animals qualitatively different from other animals?

  19. adaminberlinio

    Thanks for your refreshingly direct response to my question. Of course, as you know, I’m not going to defend all non-theists, any more than I expect you to defend radical Islam, but I do reject your accusation of smugness. Just as I’ve found a position through which I can explore the universe in the most meaningful way for me, I feel no frustration that others don’t share it. If the data appears to point clearly in one direction, I may have a tendency to be a little dismissive of an opposing view, but if someone comes back to me with more complete and compelling data, I’m actually happy to shift my views. I don’t think that’s smug.
    What *is* a little smug, in my view, is the certainty that human culture is in some way a higher form.
    I spend a great deal of time among animals of all kinds (I visit Berlin Zoo normally twice a week), and, having studied animal behavior at university, I have to disagree here. I see all kinds of cultural behavior in different species. Some weeks ago I watched a mother orangutan teach her daughter how to use a twig to get food from inaccessible places. To watch the complexity of behaviors among a pack of wolves, or torque macaques, and then to say with certainty that no other animal has the richness of culture as us is smug. The point here is that we don’t understand other animals because we haven’t evolved to understand them. Of course we can’t see any real value in their culture.
    Playing Bach to a humpback whale may not illicit much of a reaction. Would you conclude that humpbacks are of a lesser intelligence because of this? Does this prove to you they are a lower order of animal? If so, I believe that would be absolutely smug. I believe we recognize and value our culture because we’ve evolved to do so. I find this hypothesis clear and obvious, and I see no other hypotheses that offer any other working model within materialism. I also see no need for any. I’m quite happy to be a bipedal, naked ape with large frontal lobes, sensitive hands and a marked ability to adapt to my surroundings. Separating us further from our furier cousins seems like a pointless distraction to me.
    Why are there colors that we cannot see, but that reptiles and insects can? Why are there smells that we cannot perceive, but that wolves can? Why do sound frequencies just keep going long after they are beyond the range of the limited human ear?
    I’d like more people to appreciate the scientific skeptical outlook, because it’s fun, it’s liberating, it presents endless puzzles that cry out to be solved.
    I also realise that it’s not for everyone, and that we haven’t evolved to constantly be aware of the misleading nature of our intuition, so it’s not my intention to convince you of the correctness of my position. I do welcome the opportunity to discuss this though, because it certainly helps me clarify my own thoughts on the matter.

  20. adaminberlinio

    With your King Lear reference it appears that you are suggesting that materialists are incapable if feeling a depth of emotion because of their scientific awareness of the universe. This is a little nutty. Richard Feynman, the wonderful physicist and thinker, explains why in this short clip here

  21. Robert F

    No, I’m saying that your worldview has nothing more to respond to Lear’s grief with than its offering of a pathetic and merely animal empathy; in fact, you make his loss no more significant than the travails of an ape, a “tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” You say that you stick with science because it works; but it does not work for Lear, nor has it worked for the long train of human grief that stretches from the present back into the mists of time. It has nothing to say.

    • adaminberlinio

      Robert, are you proposing that we need faith in the supernatural to truely appreciate Shakespeare? That’s an extraordinary claim, but one that I can’t falsify, so I have no objection.
      I am, however, less interested in the complexities of the human condition than others, perhaps. Rather, less interested in analysis that neglects the fact that we are but apes. Until our thought processes are measurable, this field lays outside science.
      You chose to place a deeper meaning upon the poetic musings of Elisabethan midlanders than I. Btw, I don’t dismiss the delightful works of old Bill S, but such hushed reverence towards this kind of culture is too reminiscent of the religious solemnity from which I feel we are finally liberating ourselves.

      • Robert F

        Adam,
        Forgive me for whatever vitriol or misrepresentation I’ve put into this exchange, and I know there have been some. It has been an interesting wrestling match, perhaps with some purpose beyond my ken, as things often are.

        A (perhaps) final word: I think what I really hold against your worldview is that it makes no place for the weak, for those who have neither strength of mind, body or spirit to face a naked and godless existence, a heartless existence. And it seems as if some of you, your missionary brethren, want to denude many of us of what they take to be our superstitious illusions so that we may…..what, perish in despair in the heart of a heartless universe?

        And Adam, humanity is more religious now than its ever been before; look anywhere in the Two Thirds World and you will see the pervasive face of religion. Look even at the so-called “nones” in Western societies and you will find the majority believe in spiritual realities, though they don’t identify with any institutionalized religion.

        Please don’t disabuse us weaklings of the only things that make our lives endurable in the face of suffering.

  22. adaminberlinio

    Robert,
    I’d like to apologize for my glib reaction to your Shakespeare reference. I superficially assumed that you were using the example merely to demonstrate the breadth of your literary knowledge, and responded accordingly, without taking the time to consider your chosen example. My only excuse is various distractions I’ve been having elsewhere on this blog, but that’s not a good enough excuse, so sorry.
    Regarding your actual point, consolation when confronted with terrible loss, I fully acknowledge that faith in a simple story of life can play a crucial role when coping with grief, and again, I regret passing so thoughtlessly over this issue, as it’s an inevitable difficulty that arises from my worldview. You’re quite right to focus on it, as many people struggle with this when considering materialism.
    I’d also like to make it clear that it’s never been my intention to strip anyone of their comforting beliefs. Humans are not perfect, and going with the coping mechanisms that we’ve evolved seems a pretty good way to go for most people, perhaps.
    Personally, I draw so much comfort from an understanding that the Kilojoules of energy stored in our cells are passed on to micro organisms, to plants, to fungi, to animals, to trees, to all the forms of life we see on this planet, and I understand this endless cycle through the laws of thermodynamics. The process of decay leads inevitably to renewal, and this process connects us to every other living thing on the planet.
    Please don’t misunderstand me, I do not intend to be insensitive here, but I genuinely smile at the knowledge that my body will one day provide food for the tiny organisms that provide food for the worms that provide food for the rats that provide food for the foxes, all the while passing on energy to insects and plants. All this energy, the building blocks of life on our planet, comes from our star, and the molecules in our bodies come from former stars. The brief moment we have here is so wondrous to me, in any form, I feel nothing but gratitude when I consider it. Reality is so fantastic, so spellbindingly vast, complex and beautiful, but yes, sometimes it appears cruel. For that, I have no words of comfort. Sometimes there are no words.

  23. Robert F

    I thought the second law of thermodynamics said just the opposite of what you are saying: that, though energy subsystems, like eddies in a larger pool, may increase in complexity in local areas, the tendency in the larger system is toward entropy, so that the end result for all energy systems, including the temporary subsystems, will be the “heat death” the universe, that is energy will be evenly distributed and immobile across all space, and manifestations of phenomenon will cease. Am I wrong about entropy and its implications for all phenomenon, so far as physics can say?

  24. Robert F

    It’s strange to hear you speaking about gratitude: gratitude to whom?

    I suppose its just your evolutionarily developed human tendency to experience the world and express yourself in personalist categories and terms, an adaptive behavior that enhances the likelihood of the survival of the human cluster you belong to. But it is nevertheless irrational, and makes me wonder if I can trust anything you say.

    That’s a joke.

    Sort of.

    • adaminberlinio

      Like I say, I see myself as a rather silly ape, talking to other rather silly apes (no offense), so it’s only natural to use the language of superstition, myth and tradition.
      I’m not seeking any kind of cold perfection in myself or others. I like the messy, error prone tendencies of our species. You appear to have a harsh perception of science people. Most of the ones I know are often quite silly, certainly fun loving, and they enjoy irrationality as much as anyone, but just perhaps, in quieter moments, they see it for what it is.

    • adaminberlinio

      Oh, and I’d never ask you to trust anything I say. Please feel free to check up on anything. The chances are that my biology claims are more accurate than my physics claims unfortunately, so you should start there.
      🙂

  25. adaminberlinio

    I was talking about the first law, but yes, you’re right. The time scales are in the many billions of years, so as far as our species is concerned, it’s “endless”. As it is, for as long as our sun has fuel, which is a really, really long time, the energy will continue to potentially sustain life on the planet. I’m not a physicist, but that’s my understanding. Entropy can of course be seen within a scale we can see, like your coffee getting cold, but the sun works like one of those filter machine coffee pot rings, (almost) perpetually keeping the heat coming.

  26. Robert F

    Perhaps the solution to the mystery of why humans have developed empathy as an evolutionary strategy for enhancing the likelihood of survival of the human cluster or group rather than the individual human organism is rooted in a wrong philosophical conception that we tend to have in our reflections about the nature of identity, both as a biological and psychological phenomenon. Perhaps, since as a species we are very social, and depend on human social networks for survival and thriving from infancy onward, the true locus of identity is not the individual organism but the psycho/somatic bond developed between the individual organism and the larger human network. If true, then there would be cases, perhaps many, maybe even most, in which we would not be able to distinguish between our survival and the survival of the cluster or group we identify with, and our behavior would form accordingly around that experience of self-as-group.

    Do you see what I’m driving at?

    None of this means that I’m moving away from my theistic commitment; I can even see it reflected in a trinitarian conception of God,
    which as a Christian I affirm.

    • adaminberlinio

      Robert, you’ve suddenly taken a leap into theology/philosophy, little of which I understand. Tomorrow I’ll look up some of the words and have a go, but honestly, I doubt it’ll help, as my brain just doesn’t seem to work that way.

    • adaminberlinio

      Okay, I’m going to try and respond to what I think you may mean here.
      Our concept of the individual, including our self-identity, can, perhaps, only exist when we are as a group. I suspect our motivation to survive drops dramatically when we are alone, and I suspect that when we do spend extended periods alone, we’re likely to enter a state that lacks self-awareness, something we recognize in the behavior of other species. When I’m completely alone for more than, say, 24 hours, the second I’m confronted by another human I sometimes feel the sudden return of self-awareness, suggesting to me that, when alone, who I am has far less significance.
      This is all conjecture, but it would be fun to research the levels/states of self-awareness in different circumstances.
      As you know by now Robert, I’m not against, unsettled by, antagonistic towards, frustrated with, or, I’m afraid, particularly interested in faith, beyond its historical value.
      I find it illogical, but I’m sure I suffer from all sorts of delusions myself, so I’m in no position to cast the first stone!
      (John 8:7) 😉
      (btw, I’m actually a great fan of the King James Version, as well as the works of Shakespeare, because of the richness of language they’ve produced, especially the idioms)

  27. Robert F

    Do you like to read fiction? Have you ever read any Kurt Vonnegut? Have you ever read his novel “Cat’s Cradle”? It’s a short, hilarious comedy about the end of the world triggered by a scientific invention called Ice 9, if my memory is correct; you really should read it.

    • adaminberlinio

      I do read fiction. Like I said, I like the King James Version

      (a joke)

      (sort of).

      I love Vonnegut, but I’ve yet to read that one. I’m sure I’d love it (I just read the wiki page for it).
      Please don’t mistake me for someone who believes that scientists bare no responsibility for their developments, and that ethics and careful consideration of the consequences are not central to all good science. In fact I believe that we, as a species, share that responsibility, and my passion for spreading the understanding of science stems from this belief.
      It is beholden to each of us to join the conversation, not from the perpective of an outsider, but that of a family member. It is WE that are learning about the universe, and it takes care, consideration, and wisdom to do so without doing harm.
      We must all engage with science! Each of us has something to contribute. I believe that science is the twin of democracy. Both function better the more informed we are. We cannot leave it up to the “boffins”, as they share our failings, but we must resist the urge to fear and shun what we do not understand. Only this way can we reap the rich rewards of scientific progress, safe in the knowledge that any advances will be made with our best interests at heart.
      (In my head, I was standing on a podium saying that to gathered journalists of the world. See, I’m delusional too!)

  28. Robert F

    Well, I wasn’t trying to take a partisan swipe at you in the “war” between science and religion; Vonnegut’s novel indicts religion just as savagely as science, actually more savagely.

    The people you scientific types should really be wary of are the ones who populate the humanities and arts departments at major universities, who resent very viscerally the difference in the size of the budgets that your disciplines command in comparison to theirs. They can be pretty crafty, you know: they did manage to have sociology designated “social science,” as counter-intuitive as we all know that appellation is, and I think anthropology is a phoney science, too, engineered by your envious humanities colleagues, and populated by all kinds of artistic and philosophical types who don’t have the slightest idea how to design a good experimental model.

  29. adaminberlinio

    Here, Robert, are we in wholehearted agreement!
    Post-modernism: my sworn enemy!
    The problem is, they’re difficult to goad into an argument because they have no skin in the game. Every time I ever express an opinion that ventures from complete relativism, I get compared to the NAZIs and dismissed.
    I’ve yet to formulate a practical strategy of getting around this.
    I suppose we could just cut their funding to nothing at all, but that would, in a way, be making their point for them. We’d lose the argument, but there’s would be a Pyrrhic victory!
    (In case there are lurking post-modernists, this opinion is relative and therefore as equally valid as everyone else’s, so you’re not allowed to be offended)

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