Saturday, August 16, 2014

Events of Mass Extinction


     Are God and Nature then at strife,
     That Nature lends such evil dreams?
     So careful of the type she seems,
     So careless of the single life.

     "So careful of the type?" but no.
     From scarped cliff and quarried stone
     She cries, "A thousand types are gone:
     I care for nothing, all shall go."                     
                                                     —Tennyson

     People nowayears often mention the topic of greenhouse gases and global warming, and the current theory seems to be that it's almost certainly going to produce major, possibly catastrophic, upheavals in the earth's environment. Almost certainly, because we humans are too self-centered, stubborn, and myopic to change until the hammer has already come down—such, apparently, is human nature. Many environmentalists, including James Lovelock, father of the Gaia Hypothesis, believe that increased global temperatures will turn large areas of now fertile land into hot, barren deserts, resulting in a major human population crash due mainly to starvation. I've wondered about this, and am not sure how they have arrived at this prediction. There have been many times in the history, or rather prehistory, of this planet when the climate has been much warmer than it is now (for example, during the age of dinosaurs the Antarctic Circle was warm enough for dinosaurs to live there), yet at such times it has often been humid and jungly, not dry and deserty. 
     Still, there are very likely going to be major changes in the environment, possibly resulting in a mass extinction event in the earth's biosphere. In fact, a human-induced mass extinction event has probably already started on this planet, but we are too short-lived to have seen it clearly. Already species are dying out in the Amazon rain forest, or so they say, faster than scientists can record them. For that matter, even in the stone age we apparently drove a few species to extinction, like the woolly mammoth and the cave bear. And in the so-called "Age of Discovery," especially in the 17th and 18th centuries, hungry sailors not content with eating sea biscuits wiped out entire species, like the Stellar sea cow, the great auk, and the dodo bird. Just today I happened to read about a species of parakeet that once was common in the eastern United States but became extinct back in the 1920's. So the mass extinction event seems to have already started, but, like geological changes in general, it's happening too slowly, thus far, to be really obvious to most people.
     Not that driving most species of life to extinction, or lots and lots of them anyway, is anything new under the sun. There have been plenty of mass extinctions on this planet already. For example, around 240 million years ago there was a very big one, in which around 95% of marine genera (i.e., almost all kinds of living things in the ocean) became extinct, although only about 50% of terrestrial genera disappeared. One theory as to what happened is that a gigantic coal field somehow caught fire, pumping countless millions of tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, creating a much more serious greenhouse effect than we humans have managed to create so far. When some of this overwhelming amount of carbon dioxide was absorbed into the ocean, it changed into carbonic acid, which acidified the ocean sufficiently that most organisms with calcium carbonate exoskeletons—like corals, clams, snails, tube worms, marine arthropods, animals most people have never heard of, and even some microscopic plankton—had their shells dissolved, and they died. After which, the creatures higher up on the food web that specialized as predators on these organisms also died. It was very much worse than we humans have managed to accomplish as of yet.
     Another, more famous mass extinction is what, when I was in college, was called the "C-T Boundary." This is the one that notoriously caused the dinosaurs to become extinct about 65 million years ago, so it is like the bookend to the age of dinosaurs on the other side from the other mass extinction, mentioned a moment ago, which helped the dinosaurs get started. This extinction was not so bad overall as that one, but while it was happening it was pretty damn awful: some say the mass extinction mostly took place over a matter of days, maybe even hours. When I was in school I was told that it was caused by a mountain-sized meteor smacking into the Atlantic ocean where Iceland is now, Iceland being essentially a scab where the magma gushed up through the wound. But now they say the meteor struck what is now called the Gulf of Mexico, causing a cataclysmic wall of fire to sweep across much of North America. As it turns out, cataclysmic walls of fire cause dinosaurs to become extinct pretty quickly.


extinct ammonites, with thanks to the Hooper Museum

     Much more recently—literally recently, since geologists say that anything that happened less than 10,000 years ago is "recent"—there was another mass extinction: the most recent Ice Age. Every Ice Age, and there have been several in geologically rapid succession, causes more than half the living things on land, if not in the ocean, to become extinct. Most terrestrial life becomes squeezed into a relatively narrow band near the equator. Many species die every time this happens. They say that we are in an Ice Age Age, an Age of Ice Ages, and that another one is due to happen at any time; although I assume that our greenhouse effect will probably hold it at bay for awhile, especially if Ice Ages are caused by world-wide primeval forests sucking the carbon out of the atmosphere in a kind of anti-greenhouse effect, thereby chilling everything. That's not likely to happen soon; although it would be nice if global warming and the next, expected Ice Age could cancel each other out.
     Much more recently than the last Ice Age we have been threatened by mass extinctions of other kinds, the most blatantly obvious being the threat of thermonuclear Armageddon. People don't worry about this nearly as much as they did when the Cold War was raging at full intensity. The early 1960's especially were a very scary time, with people digging fallout shelters in their back yards, government officials declaring that a nuclear war with Russia was inevitable, and both sides threatening, in accordance with the game rules of "brinksmanship," to annihilate the other. Nuclear war is still possible, of course, because even though America and Russia are not so hostile towards each other as they used to be, now there are lots of other countries with H-bombs, including the likes of North Korea. And still some fool could push the button, or a malfunction somehow could push it for us.
     But nowadays people seem more concerned with global warming, the sea level rising higher than coastal cities, overpopulation, and the terrible effects of wheat gluten. People aren't concerned enough to make any of these problems go away, however. We have our everyday lives to attend to. Let tomorrow tend to itself.
     Yet a mass extinction in modern times will not necessarily be our own doing. There could be other causes, like another mountain-sized meteor or comet smacking into the world. It does happen sometimes; and although it seems safe to gamble that it won't happen anytime real soon, in the long run it's practically inevitable. Sooner or later the earth will be smacked into again, possibly by a large asteroid, possibly even by some invisible black hole. 
     In fact, in accordance with the universal law of impermanence, our entire planet will someday cease to exist. At the very latest this will occur when our beloved sun starts running out of fuel and metamorphoses into a red giant star, thereby swallowing, or at least vaporizing, Mercury, Venus, and Earth. This is assuming that astrophysicists understand the development of aging stars aright, and that I understand the astrophysicists well enough not to misrepresent them.
     But the whole planet, or at least all life on it, could meet its end long before the sun swells up or goes nova. For example, it is a bizarrely, terribly common occurrence out there in space for entire galaxies to explode. This kind of bothers me sometimes. Assuming that what happened on earth (i.e., the evolution of life) could happen on other worlds too, then when a galaxy of literally tens or hundreds of billions of stars explodes, there's a very good likelihood that some of those stars are suns for planets with intelligent life on them. One day a race of intelligent, sensitive, relatively happy space aliens are calmly going about their business…and suddenly an astronomically immense shockwave of extremely lethal radiation slams through their world and disintegrates it, and them too. This is probably really happening out there, assuming that the astronomical universe is real, and that some Semitic deity hasn't singled out our little species as the main purpose of the whole Universe.

An exploding galaxy, courtesy of the Hubble space telescope

     As a teenager my favorite science fiction author was Larry Niven, and he actually explained, somewhere in his writings, his understanding of how galaxies explode. According to him, the central core of a galaxy has its stars very close together, on average much less than one light year apart from each other. The night sky on a planet in a galactic core must be spectacular. Anyway, what happens is that when an old star finally goes supernova, an immense shockwave of radiation is unleashed; and when it hits nearby stars it gives them an energetic jolt which brings them closer to their own time of exploding. Eventually, enough old, repeatedly jolted stars at the core are poised so that one really big supernova is sufficient to trigger the supernovae of them too…starting an unimaginably gargantuan chain reaction that eventually spreads throughout the galaxy, eventually reaching even the remote areas. It may even be that most galaxies eventually explode.
     In Larry Niven's "Known Space" series (probably the most well-known story of which is Ringworld), the author assumes that our own galaxy, the Milky Way, is currently in the process of exploding. There's no way we could know this, though, since we couldn't see the core exploding until the light from there, thousands of light years away, finally reaches us; but the deadly radiation travels at the same speed of light, so we'll probably be killed before we can know what is going to happen, or is happening. And even if we did have some advance warning, there's nothing we could do to stop it. It's really strange to think that our earth could suddenly, at any moment, be vaporized by the radiating shockwave of billions of exploding stars. But again, it's probably a safe bet that it won't happen any time real soon. We may as well get out of bed tomorrow morning.
     But the threats to our planet's extinction are not exhausted, and can be even weirder than an exploding galaxy. In fact our extinction could be caused by some cosmic phenomenon totally un-understandable to us, or even totally unimaginable. 
     Possibly the mind-blowingest story I've ever read in my life is "Heresies of the Huge God," by Brian Aldiss (who became my favorite science fiction author when I was in my twenties). In this story, one fine day, possibly any day now, a creature like a metallic lizard with six legs, about a thousand miles long from head to tail, falls from space and smacks into the Mediterranean Sea, landing with its tail end in North Africa and its head end in Southern Europe. The impact causes earthquakes, tsunamis, and millions upon millions of human deaths. After this it just rests there, motionless; but nevertheless it is so huge that it disrupts weather patterns, resulting in droughts, floods, famines, and lots more deaths. So before long the nations of the earth decide to get rid of this thing by launching missiles at it—the first heresy of the Huge God, incidentally, being that It was just some thing to be gotten rid of—but with no discernible effect. Next they try nuclear weapons, but even nukes fail to scratch the surface of the Huge God. Many more people die from the radioactive fallout though. Occasionally, maybe every few decades, for no known reason, the creature shifts its position, usually jumping up and smashing back down, resulting in the inevitable earthquakes, tsunamis, millions of deaths, etc. Of course before long a new religion is born, of worshipping this being. And not long after that, naturally, hostile sects of this religion begin waging holy wars against each other over matters of doctrine (the losing side being guilty of gross heresies), possibly resulting in almost as many deaths as the Huge God's shifts of position. Finally, after more than two hundred years of this, the last scattered vestiges of the human race come up with the last of the great heresies: They begin praying to the thing, "We're unworthy of Your greatness! You are too good for us! Please go somewhere more worthy of Your Huge Majesty!" Perhaps It hears their prayers, because at last it suddenly, unexpectedly leaps into space and disappears. The trouble is, though, that it kicks off so hard that it knocks the earth out of its orbit. The story concludes with the monk who has chronicled all the heresies begging the Huge God to forgive them and to come back, because it's getting very cold and they're running out of virgins to sacrifice.
     Now, for all we know, something like this really could happen. As Arthur C. Clarke used to say, not only is the universe stranger than we imagine, it is stranger than we can imagine. So there's really no telling when and how this earth of ours is going to meet with destruction. Who knows, maybe some multidimensional deity who is dreaming us right now will wake up at any moment, causing us instantaneously to poof out of existence. His alarm clock will suddenly go off; and although he'll press the snooze button, it will already be too late for us. (Later on he'll be at work, drinking a multidimensional deity's equivalent of coffee, and he'll tell the deity in the next cubicle, "You know, last night I had the weirdest dream—but now I don't remember what it was.")
     Even so, even though we cannot possibly know when our planet is going to explode or otherwise stop supporting organic life, it's a fair guess that it won't be real soon. It is, however, inevitable. The end of our world, if anything is certain, is certain. Not to mention the end of polar bears, Asian rhinoceroses, Amazonian tree frogs, and a prolific species of ape called Homo sapiens.
     Another point to consider, for me to consider anyway, is that according to my theory of everything (TOE), in a truly infinite Universe, which I consider our Universe to be, anything that possibly can happen does happen; and anything that is conceivable, is possible. So assuming that the Universe is really infinite, then somewhere Adolf Hitler didn't mess up and let the British Army escape from Dunkirk, and came up with a better strategy for invading Russia, so that the Nazis won World War II. Also, somewhere, the Cuban Missile Crisis led to World War III, a meteor the size of Manhattan Island is smacking into the earth, the Huge God is landing in the Mediterranean Sea today, etc. etc. If it can be imagined, then it is happening somehow. It all has to happen in order for the Universe to be infinite. This is not just a crackpot theory, but may actually be scientific; a similar idea found in physics is called the Many Worlds Hypothesis.
     However, as Eckhart Tolle says in his first famous book, it doesn't matter at all. From the perspective of Ultimate Reality, our entire galaxy could explode, and it wouldn't make any difference. Reality, or Being, or "God," would not be harmed or lessened by this event, not in the slightest degree. As venerable Mr. Tolle also says, what is Real does not die. Only an illusion seems to die. It just doesn't matter.
     Some may be of the opinion that, if it doesn't matter, then why think about it? Why should I bother to write about mass extinction events or the Huge God on an ostensibly Buddhist blog, unless it is simply out of the self-indulgent exhilaration of contemplating the morbidly apocalyptic? Well, all this is a variation on the theme of maraānussati, or recollection of death, one of the forty standard themes of meditation taught in Theravada Buddhist texts. In fact, recollection of death is considered so important in Dharma that it is called one of the Great Protectors. It protects us by preparing us for arrival at the end of the road we are walking.
     So, we're all going to die. The whole world is eventually going to die. The entire galaxy is going to die too. Everyone and everything will die, and is in the process of dying even now; and ultimately it doesn't matter. Life is strange. Such is life. 


"Yeah, I'm extinct too. Don't worry about it."




Saturday, August 9, 2014

Similarity, Identity, and Nonexistent Dill Pickles

    
     At the time of writing this I am almost finished reading F. H. Bradley's metaphysics text Appearance and Reality. Less than twenty pages to go—woohoo! It has taken about six months to wade through the thing; mainly because it's rather heavy and hard to read, with lots of deep, strange ideas, and so after five or ten pages it becomes necessary to put the book down and digest what one has managed to swallow. But also, while I was in Rangoon, after reading all but the 70-page-long Appendix, I took a break and read some science fiction. Then after coming here to Migadawun Monastery I became sick as the proverbial dog, and reading dense philosophy books just doesn't work out so well when one is nursing the flu. Plus sometimes I just haven't felt like reading. But I'm getting there, little by gradual.
     Anyway, in Bradley's Appendix (his supplement to the second edition of A & R), he tackles the rather psychological issue of Similarity and Identity, their nature, and their relation to one another. I gather from his long Note on the subject that this particular issue was somewhat controversial in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, at least at places like Oxbridge. Some people actually got worked up over it.
     Bradley claims that identity is primary, and that mere similarity MUST be derived from it secondarily; and he declares himself mystified at how any rational person could possibly suppose otherwise. He maintains that if two objects are considered to be similar, it is because they MUST have some quality, or group of qualities, in common—i.e., they share the same quality, and in that limited respect they are identical. Two objects or entities simply cannot be similar without sharing an identical quality. Two red spheres are similar because they share what is apprehended as the same redness and roundness. Without this perceived sameness, there could be no similarity, because there would be no respect in which they were similar. Obvious, right? He even ventures to suggest that anyone who denies this primacy of identity suffers from "intellectual bankruptcy." Resemblance without some identity serving as its foundation is monstrous superstition. 
     On the other hand, I apparently am intellectually bankrupt and superstitious, since I just cannot agree with Bradley on this point, or even really relate to what he's saying. It underwhelms me; it just doesn't ring true somehow. It seems to me that his way of thinking and philosophizing is heavily conditioned by Plato (and also Hegel); and although he's willing to deny the ultimate reality of Platonic universals, ultimate, eternal qualities like Redness and Roundness that things in the phenomenal world merely borrow, so to speak, he considers universals to be not only valid as a way of explaining the phenomenal world (or "appearance," or Samsara), but necessary for such explanations. But I have never had much use for Plato, except maybe for entertainment or for salvaging historical information about ancient Greece. (For instance, the rather homosexually-oriented Symposium contains interesting details about the personality of Socrates, the Critias contains a weird story about Atlantis, and the Euthydemus is just plain funny. Yet the famous Simile of the Cave in the Republic definitely resonates with me, as something profound.) 
     Bradley believed in the essential importance and power of human rational thought, largely because he was an Idealist who didn't believe in physical matter at all (except as a convenient working fiction), and largely because of ways of thinking that he inherited from previous Western thinkers, especially Plato and Hegel. He believed, for example, that thought operates through lifting qualities (or "what") from substrates ("that"), and then applying them to other substrates. Thus thought cannot be entirely wrong, since the qualities, or adjectives, that it isolates have their roots in Ultimate Reality. This way of thinking may seem rather odd to a Westerner in the early 21st century; it is probably not very impressive at all in a world that has come to consider thought to be a kind of inexplicable side effect of brain biochemistry. I can sympathize with his Idealism, and occasionally regret that the "barbarous intellectual monoculture of Scientism" has overwhelmed the world, but still I don't buy Bradley's theory. And I don't like Plato, or Aristotle either. 
     My theory of similarity (which is undoubtedly half-baked, and which I haven't worked out nearly so thoroughly as Bradley worked out his) comes from the other side. Let's say that at one level there is "A is similar to B." Beyond that is another level—"A is identical to B"—and, as already mentioned, Bradley insists that the former is derived from the latter. But on the other side of "A is similar to B," opposite "A is identical to B," is "A is reminiscent of B." In other words, when I look at A, certain perceptual associations arise, and when I look at B certain perceptual associations arise, and the more overlap there is between these associations, the more similar A and B seem. If there was complete overlap, so that the associations were exactly the same when looking at either A or B, then we simply could not tell them apart. They would be perceived as exactly the same—not "A is the same as B," but just "A." The qualities seemingly shared between A and B are not really the same qualities; it's just that we can't always tell them apart. So considering two entities to be similar or the same is not based upon a positive recognition of universal qualities that they share; it is based more upon a negative failure—a failure to differentiate those qualities. The similarity or sameness is an abstraction of something positive based upon what is actually negative.
     Here are two points to consider. First, real identity, absolute sameness, would be a virtually meaningless tautology, and would involve no relation or comparison at all. If two things really are identical in every way, even with regard to their relations to other things, then they are not two things at all, but only one. Again, we wouldn't have "A is exactly the same as B," we would simply have "A." We would perceive them as the same thing. Even Bradley, who was no idiot, acknowledged this, for example in his strange observation, "When resemblance is carried to such a point that perceptible difference ceases, then, I understand, you have not really got sameness or identity, but you can speak as if you had got it." So absolute sameness, complete identity, is meaningless, unless you want to make the tautological statement "A is exactly the same as itself." (Whether absolute difference is possible or not is irrelevant to this discussion, I think.)
     Second, consider the case of two people watching a movie and one of them saying, "That guy looks like So-and-so," and the other promptly responding with, "No he doesn't!" (This actually happened to me recently.) The first person perceives a similarity that the second person doesn't perceive. It may be that there is no exact identity of any feature between that guy and So-and-so. The nose isn't exactly the same size or shape. The jaw isn't exactly the same shape. Maybe some skin on the forehead appears exactly the same color and texture as the corresponding skin on So-and-so, but that's just because of the imperfect reproduction of images via photography, plus maybe makeup. So-and-so's patch of forehead skin is really slightly different. Yet that first person saw a certain resemblance, not based on any exact likeness at all.
     Furthermore, there apparently is no precise line separating "reminds me of" and "is similar to." Going with the example just mentioned, where do you draw the line between someone who just reminds you of Brad Pitt and someone who begins to start to kind of resemble Brad Pitt? Of course, someone who resembles Brad Pitt's ex-girlfriend might indirectly remind you of him, but that's not quite the kind of "reminds me of" I'm talking about.
     So relative sameness is derived from perceived similarity, not vice versa; and absolute sameness shrinks down to zero (which F. H. Bradley acknowledged).
     In the mind of a being devoid of conscious logic, say, a chicken, there may not be enough intellectual sophistication for that being to conjure up an idea of "similar to," let alone "same as." "Same as" would appear to be the more advanced of the two ideas, if only because it is less realistic. If a chicken sees an object A, and then later sees an object B which stimulates pretty much the same associated perceptions, then the two objects are simply the same. It's not anything so sophisticated as "A=B," or even "A=A," it's just "A." The chicken is unaware of any "B" in this case, or of any "=" either. Yesterday a guy came out and threw food on the ground. Today a guy comes out and throws food on the ground, and today's perceived guy elicits many of the same kind of associations as yesterday's perceived guy. So the chicken perceives, simply, in the language of chicken thoughts, "That's the guy." The chicken doesn't lift the same positive quality from two different substrates; it just fails to see sufficient differences to consider today's guy to be different from the usual guy. But language fails me in my attempts to describe chicken psychology. 
     In a somewhat more logically advanced being, such as a human, there are ideas of "similar to" and even "same as," even though the latter, like those mirages of puddles on the road on hot days, disappear the closer you come to them. We furless apes have evolved the sophistication to generate positive abstractions based on a mere failure to perceive something. For instance, we generate the positive universal of sameness as the result of failing to tell a difference. Sometimes, however, we still think like chickens and simply don't even try to make differences. There's nothing necessarily wrong with that, unless maybe we're writing about logic at the time. 
     Negation, or failure to find something and then turning that failure into a positive idea, is much more sophisticated intellectually than finding something directly. Consequently I have sometimes wondered if a dog is intelligent and logical enough to perceive a positive absence. He may whine and be restless if his master is away, or may hungrily approach his food dish, find it empty, and walk away whimpering in apparent disappointment, but still I'm not sure if a dog is sophisticated enough to be that abstract. A chicken almost certainly isn't bright enough to perceive a positive absence (although it may have evolved some instinct to imitate it or make up for it, if in fact perceiving absences has been conducive to the survival of the chicken species).
     Here is a case of what I'm trying to convey: Let's say someone asks you, "Is it raining?" So you look out the window and check. You don't see rain falling, and you don't see wet ground and puddles—or if you do see them, you don't see the spreading circles of raindrop impacts on the surface of the puddles. You don't see water dripping down car windshields, or from tree branches or the eaves of the house. You don't hear the sound of rain either. Plus maybe your gimp knee isn't acting up. So you turn to the other person and say, "No, it isn't raining." (And if you're a joker you might add something like, "It doesn't even look foreboding out there…although it looks like it could start to forebode at any minute.") So to form a positive perception of "It isn't raining" or "It's non-rainy" one must first hypothesize that it is raining, and then fail to confirm the hypothesis. Hence this is much more advanced reasoning than looking out the window and simply seeing rain, and forming a positive idea of "It's raining" on that.
     Here is another example: You go to the refrigerator looking for a jar of dill pickles. You open the door and look around…there it is…no, that's relish…wait, there…no, that's olives…hmmm. You don't see the jar of pickles after looking in the places where it might be, so you give up and form the judgement, "There is no jar of dill pickles in the fridge." It may be that you've been out of pickles for several months, or it may be that the pickles are behind the carton of milk, and you just didn't see them; but the perception of "no pickles" would be essentially the same in either case. 
     But why exactly did you perceive an absence of pickles and not, say, an absence of caviar? There may have been no caviar in the fridge either, but you didn't notice at all. And if the pickles really were behind the milk, then the caviar would really have been more absent than the pickles. But you were totally clueless as to the absence of caviar. In fact, there are literally an infinite number of things that are not in that refrigerator. Live gibbons, for instance. Extremely few refrigerators contain live gibbons, but how many people notice this? How many people walk to the fridge in search of pickles or beer and suddenly realize, exclaiming at the strangeness of it, "Hey, there are no live gibbons in the fridge!" But those gibbons may be more absent than the pickles.
     The reason why we don't notice an infinite number of things that are not in the refrigerator is because we don't first hypothesize their presence, and then fail to confirm that hypothesis. The absence of something may seem very simple, maybe even more simple than that something's presence would be, but a perceived absence is a complicated abstraction, based on a deduction, based on a failure, based on an initial hypothesis. We may think of that absence as an "it," but really nothing's there. Unless maybe it's behind the milk. 
     Platonic universals, or Bradley's identities, or any notion of "same as" or "similar to," may be generated in this same general way, indirectly. Sameness or similarity might seem like something obviously positive, but I consider it to be a camouflaged version of the same process as perceiving an absence of rain. Two red balls may seem alike, but if there are two of them, then they are really different. One may reply that the balls are different, but that the shade of color, the redness, for example, is the same. But the principle is still the same: it doesn't matter if there are two grains of salt or two identical twins or two tones of B-flat played on the same instrument or two spheres or two samples of fire engine red; so long as there are two of them, they are not the same, even if in certain respects we can't tell them apart. The two balls have two different roundness and two different rednesses. We call it a positive sameness because we have failed to tell the difference, and then failed to notice our abstraction from a deduction based on that failure. Or else we're being meaninglessly tautological by saying, essentially, "A is the same as itself." But again, if there are two different things, they really are different. That statement too is tautological, but most people don't fully "get it." Human thought is based upon generalization; and if we fully acknowledge that different things really are different, pretty much every word in the English language except "this" and "that" becomes uselessly futile. We would land ourselves in a meaningless, absolutely specific Now, with even "Now" not meaning anything. Even a proper noun like "Abraham Lincoln" is a generalization, considering that it's lumping together infinitely many Abe Lincolns in various moments, various places, various states of existence.
     It may be that the beginning of "consciousness," that which separates frogs, chickens, and us from bricks, moss, and possibly even insects, is this ability to generalize; and it may be that our strange ability to perceive as a positive state of being something that doesn't exist at all, to form an abstraction based on a failure to perceive, and even to believe in its palpable reality, is the beginning of truly human intelligence—or truly human delusion, take your pick.
     All this may seem like idle, gratuitous philosophizing, but it can be very useful to understand how our own mind works. Even many meditation teachers in the West (and East too) are relatively clueless as to the processes of their own thinking, despite the fact that they supposedly observe those processes while practicing mindfulness, and teach others how to observe them. Even meditating monks can be pretty clueless. I once knew a monk who was born in a Spanish-speaking country, but who had become an American citizen and had lived in America for several years. His English wasn't perfect, but it was fluent. One time I asked him, out of curiosity, what language he thought in, his native Spanish, or English; and to my surprise he answered, "I don't know." How can we practice introspection regularly and still not even know what language we're thinking in? (Hopefully he knows by now, as he has become a relatively famous Dharma teacher in certain circles.) Western meditation teachers may have considerable handicaps in this respect, such as the distractions of Western worldliness, busyness in making a living, and the Western "Protestant" approach to Dharma, like unwillingness to follow much of it, inability to believe much of it, etc. But I haven't been writing this to pick on Western meditation instructors. No offense intended. Trubba not, no trubba. 
     Carefully examining our own thought and feeling processes can be very beneficial. At the very least it's an exercise in introspection. It may even lead to Insight. For example, we may realize how so much of our suffering is the result of abstract perceptions based on what isn't there, on what doesn't actually exist at all. We hypothesize the presence of something, like money, or a certain person, then fail to confirm that presence, and then suffer because of this abstraction. But if we hadn't made the hypothesis in the first place, or turned into a positive "something" an abstraction based on a negative failure of perception, then we wouldn't have experienced the unnecessary suffering. Or we imagine that we might lose something or need something, and suffer because of that worry, when we haven't really lost or needed it. Most of human suffering, especially in the West, is this kind of unnecessary futility. Chickens have it much easier than us, especially if they're free-range.
     In my personal case, careful, complicated introspection and analysis of thought can also demonstrate to me (and maybe to some of you) how living alone in Burmese forests, without emotionally complicated, heart-oriented women giving input (or otherwise getting on my case), tends to make me pretty damn top-heavy. If I am to continue developing in spirit, with not only a clear head, but with head and heart in harmonious balance, then it's likely I'll have to go back to the West and face chaos, turmoil, and lovely females in the Plato's cave of America. 
      


Are the two 85mm artillery shell vases on this altar identical, similar, 
or completely different? How do you know?
      


Appendix I: A Thought Experiment Concerning Sameness

     This post is already a long one, but what the hell.
     Years ago I happened to encounter the following statement by Leibniz: "To suppose two indiscernible things is to suppose the same thing under two names." In other words, if two things have exactly the same qualities, or for whatever reason we just cannot distinguish them at all, then they are not two things, but only one. I can accept this statement of Leibniz's, largely because I don't accept the Scientistic dogma that there is an objective world out there with individual things going about their business, even if no conscious mind is perceiving them. This strikes me as a case of human ape psychology being superimposed onto a supposed material universe…but I digress. The statement of Leibniz inspired me to devise a rather odd thought experiment, which is as follows.
     Imagine a small, baby universe (and Stephen Hawking says they exist, so they must) which contains only two entities which are exactly identical and have exactly the same orientation toward each other. Would there be one, or two? If the entities were unconscious there would be no observer in that universe to count, so it might be argued that there would be no number at all. So let's assume that both entities are conscious, and observing each other, like two conscious eyeballs. If they were self-conscious they might count two things, themselves plus the other that they are observing; that would complicate this thought experiment, so let's further assume that they are conscious the way a chicken is conscious, without having a developed concept of "me." (Incidentally, I once read that scientists experimentally determined that the only animals other than humans who are self-conscious enough to look into a mirror and perceive that it is a reflection of themselves are chimpanzees, orangutans, and (probably bottlenose) dolphins. Gorillas didn't make the cut; although some creatures that weren't tested, like sperm whales, might also qualify as "self-conscious.") So the two identical conscious beings in this universe each see the other, and in exactly the same way. And so are there two entities, or only one?
     As far as I can remember, every person I've posed this question to has responded without hesitation that there are two entities; but this is mainly because they are adding themselves to the universe as a third, imaginary entity. Or else they're dogmatically assuming the truth of that Scientistic belief about objective universes that was mentioned just recently. But if all that existed in that universe was an eye observing an identical eye, then those two eyes would be exactly the same, especially if we accept the relativity of space (i.e., the idea that space does not have absolute orientation, as Newton assumed). And if they are exactly the same, then they are one, not two. It seems surreally counterintuitive, but I still can accept the notion that those two identical beings merge into a single being. So I suppose describing them as two at the beginning was nonsense. But even so, in a way there would have to be two, since one is presumably observing the other. Strange.
     Now let's complicate the experiment and let them be self-conscious, so that even they count two entities in their little cosmos, themselves, plus the other. But still they are exactly identical! So even if they're both counting two, since they're doing it identically is there still only one? Then again, maybe they're identical only to an imaginary third entity, so that there really is a difference? Yet if this is the case, the difference would not be between the two supposed entities, but between the subjective "me" and "that" perceived identically by both, rendering each of them both "me" and "that"!
     Now let's go back to conscious eyeballs with the consciousness of a chicken, but this time let there be three of them, each with exactly the same orientation towards the others, that is, each at the vertex of an invisible equilateral triangle, looking exactly at the midpoint between the other two. Now each entity would be able to distinguish the other two from each other, since one of them is on this side, and the other is on that side. All three of them would make exactly the same distinction between the other two. So would there now, ex hypothesi, be two entities—with each of the "three" being both of the other two in the view of the other two, even though they all see things in exactly the same way? 
     This is all making me a little dizzy, so I think I'd better stop at this point.


     
Appendix II: A Passage from Plato's Euthydemus 

     …If you will answer my questions, said Dionysodorus, I will soon extract the same admission from you, Ctesippus. You say that you have a dog.
     Yes, a villain of a one, said Ctesippus.
     And he has puppies?
     Yes, and they are very like himself.
     And the dog is the father of them? 
     Yes, he said, I certainly saw him and the mother of the puppies come together.
     And is he not yours?
     To be sure he is.
     Then he is a father, and he is yours; ergo, he is your father, and the puppies are your brothers.
     Let me ask one little question more, said Dionysodorus, quickly interposing, in order that Ctesippus might not get in his word: You beat this dog?
     Ctesippus said, laughing, Indeed I do; and I only wish that I could beat you instead of him.
     Then you beat your father, he said.
     I should have far more reason to beat yours, said Ctesippus; what could he have been thinking of when he begat such wise sons?

     (—translated by Benjamin Jowett)    






Saturday, August 2, 2014

The Advantages of Associating with Riffraff


     Throughout most of his life my father preferred associating with riffraff to associating with "respectable society." He could hobnob with an academic crowd wearing suits and ties and sipping expensive wine, but he felt more at home with tumultuous, chaotic misfits on the fringe of society, quite beyond the range of "respectability." He preferred fighting, rutting, guzzling, and general anarchy to the "sanity" of a formal cocktail party. Even after he stopped drinking and settled down in his old age he still preferred the company of misfits. My main girlfriend in college also went through a longish phase of preferring the companionship of riffraff. I went through such a delinquent phase too, especially when I was sixteen years old, and was just beginning my open rebellion against "the system."
     Association with riffraff definitely has its advantages. For starters, anyone with outstanding qualities is much more likely to receive recognition for those qualities among riffraff than among, say, a snobbish elite, and to be respected for them. A person with intelligence and some strength of character can quickly rise in the ranks and become a prince or princess…of riffraff. This was a privilege enjoyed by my father and my girlfriend, both of whom had a strong, "alpha" personality type. They liked to be leaders and the center of attention, and among the "dregs of society" they got what they liked much more easily. I enjoyed this sort of status to some degree also: In high school I originally had a foot in the door to become a minor member of the "soshes," or social elite, but eventually took the course of becoming a feral, long-haired drug enthusiast and party animal; and I was honored and respected by many of the other "burnouts," as they were derogatorily called, largely because I was the only party animal in school who was in Honors classes, and even got straight A's when I wanted to. Also I could drink most of them under the table, and experimented with chemical substances that many of my friends had only heard about. I was viewed as somewhat of a cool cat, or even a mystic. (This applies only to certain circles in school, though—the jocks considered me to be pathetic, since I was the kind of kid who was picked third-to-last when teams were being chosen for PE. And a lot of the girls simply thought I was weird.)
     But a much more valuable advantage of association with social misfits in a semi-criminal counterculture was that with them one could be oneself; phoniness and dishonesty were entirely optional. By choosing such friends one was much more likely to get into trouble, and to have, for example, one's car stereo stolen, but one was accepted (or rejected) for who one was, without having the need to live up to some ridiculous and largely arbitrary code of acceptability. At a party among the rebellious party animals there might be a drunken brawl or two, although there usually wasn't; but at least people were candid, and if they acted like they liked you, it meant that they really liked you. If they didn't like you, they let you know about that too, often openly offering their various reasons for not liking you. I was shocked when I first attended a party at the University of Washington, probably the most prestigious university in the state of Washington: young elitists in their most stylish leisure wear stood around stiffly posturing, more interested, apparently, in projecting an image than in actually having a good time. They had transformed college keggers into the forerunners of business class cocktail parties. I didn't see the point of it—what the hell is a party for, anyway, if it isn't to party! Needless to say, I didn't attend many University of Washington keggers. 
     I have reflected upon my delinquent past to myself recently, and now here on this blog, because it has occurred to me what benefit I have derived from associating with social barbarians. The main benefit from it after all these years, naturally, is that it reminds me that if others accept us as we are without requiring us to live up to (or pretend to live up to) some code of political correctness or whatever, then we naturally appreciate this and accept them as they are—or reject them as they are, if they are just too obnoxious—but we don't insist that they become different, which essentially amounts to insisting that they become hypocrites. In other words, one learns to accept the faults of others. If one can accept riffraff, then one can accept just about anybody. Eventually one might even realize that everybody on this planet is messed up somehow or other, possibly including enlightened beings. The Buddha himself was despised by many, and possibly some of them hated him for personality traits that have not been recorded in the Buddhist literature. According to the "experts," the Buddha was nowhere near to being the most popular or most respected teacher in his day. Neem Karoli Baba of India was also intensely disliked and disapproved of by many (largely due to his unorthodox behavior and outspokenness), although I consider him to have been, very possibly, a fully enlightened being. From a samsaric point of view, everybody is messed up. It helps to bear that in mind, because it helps us not to be so hard on others and, even more importantly, it helps us not to be so hard on ourselves.
     We don't really become enlightened by purifying ourselves. We become enlightened by detaching from who we think and feel that we are. And if we are able to detach from an impure personality, without purifying that personality to help it see more clearly, then purity is completely unnecessary. Pure or impure, it isn't us anyway. (I will add, though, that this detachment results in a transmutation of energy, of one's "vibe," which is better than mere purification.)
     So what capacity I have for accepting the quirks and limitations of my companions in this world nowadays has been enhanced by my past associations with druggies, drunks, and crooks, not to mention wild lunatics. I'm not OK and you're not OK, and that's OK. Others may not always return this favor of tolerance, but that's OK too. I'm not perfect at it myself.
     Some may say that association with unruly rabble is never a good thing. For example the Mangala Sutta, in its list of the 38 greatest blessings in life, begins the list with asevanā ca bālāna, or "non-association with fools." But this assumption of some seems to imply that the average person is not a fool, or at least is necessarily wiser than a drunken party animal. As I mentioned above, in all actuality honesty and "authenticity" are more of a viable option among the riffraff than among respectable society. They may be more accepting and appreciative of what one has to offer too. And they have their own barbarian code of honor. And in addition to this, and more importantly, being more natural, they might even allow their innate human wisdom more freedom. For instance I mentioned in a previous post how morally unrestrained women tend to have greater psychic talent than their more inhibited sisters.
     They say that Dostoevsky's great compassion for the human race, and his profound faith in the innate wisdom of human beings (let alone his profound understanding of the criminal mind, and of the criminal elements of the non-criminal mind), resulted from his years living in a prison camp in Siberia among hardened criminals. He saw their strength and courage, their force of character, as well as their violent psychological aberrations.
     Here is another example of barbarian wisdom which I saw on a television documentary years ago while visiting my family in America. A police officer had infiltrated a notorious motorcycle gang under cover, and was collecting evidence of their many crimes against society. Then, while he was living among them, his mother died, and he was obligated to return home to attend to her funeral. He figured that the best way to explain his absence to the other bikers was simply to tell the truth, that his mother had died, and that he had to see to her final requirements, so that's what he did. While back home he also took advantage of the opportunity to visit his police station and make reports, do paperwork, etc. He said on the documentary that while he was at the police station not one person expressed any condolences over the death of his mother; but when he returned to the motorcycle gang, a group of very rough, criminal barbarians, a number of them came up to him, patted him on the shoulder, and said things to the effect of, "Hey man, sorry to hear about your mom." If a savage doesn't immediately kill you, he may treat you like his dearest brother. (Suddenly I'm reminded of Queequeg the cannibal in Moby Dick.)
     It just goes to show that not only is everybody messed up, in a way, and thus worthy of compassion and "Christian charity," but that everybody—absolutely everybody—also has innate goodness and wisdom, and we can learn from that, and from them. If the world isn't perfect now, it never will be; and the only way to see its perfection now is through unconditional acceptance.