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Monday, November 28, 2011

You Can't Take It With You

Are you ever tempted to burn everything you own and start over? I am. There was this story of a guy who rented a big wood-mulcher and just started throwing everything in. He even threw in his ID, the title to his house, and all his papers. Finally his clothes went in as well. He stood there naked, and free.

I guess it's more complicated when you are married and everything. But sometimes I wish I could just get rid of everything I own and be free too.

I somehow feel bogged down by all my possessions. I can see an image of myself in the afterlife, drudging through endless, forsaken, dreary plains, hunched over with a giant sack on by back full of all the worldly possessions I couldn't let go of in life... OK, maybe that is a bit dramatic. Perhaps a ball and chain would suffice; each chain representing some useless possession...? Never mind, you get the picture.

I think that the more we are attached to things, the more they control our lives. I don't know how to explain it, but I feel liberated every time I throw something away. I would love to live in a clean, white, minimalistic room, with nothing but a table (with a built-in tablet computer of course), and a chair, and the few books and things that I need. It would be like an office in Star Treck. 

There are people that are addicted to shopping. Literally. Physically, their brains release chemicals that make them feel good when they buy things. Psychologically, they feel validated somehow when they have new, shiny things. That scares me because I really like new shiny things. o_O

I know people whose houses are so cluttered with things they've collected over the years, that one feels claustrophobic and overwhelmed just being in their home. Often these people have no idea about the many things they have tucked away in drawers and such. I am close to someone like this. They are often surprised when I pull ancient artifacts out of the far reaches of time and space (their cupboard).  But then, after a few minutes, they recognize whatever it is, and proceed to tell it's story in detail, as I sit captivated and on the edge of my seat. (...)

Many people have tremendous difficulty letting things go. They seem willing, at first, for me to help de-clutter their house. But when it comes down to each little knick-knack, it turns out that each one is of unspeakable sentimental value (now that they've found it again). Or, what I hear most often is, "you never know when that might come in handy!"

I knew a single lady who had--I counted--18 cooking pots in her kitchen.

I'm looking around our house right now, at all my things, and there are so many things I wish I could get rid of!

I would love to take up a minimalist lifestyle, like Gandhi. I would mulch all my possessions, except the bare essentials: a bed, a couch, cook-ware, dishes and my clothes. Oh, and my computer of course... And my books I would need to keep. I couldn't really part with my iPhone either, I need that too much. And, well, none of my 6 guitars are worth giving away, really, I don't think anyone would want them, and besides I invested a lot in those. My other computers I would probably need to keep too, in case this one breaks down... Have you ever used Bose headphones before? I have a pair, they're really exceptional. You can't really go back to normal headphones afterwards... Of course my MIDI keyboard; I hardly use it, but I've been meaning to play around with it more. Actually I think I should get another keyboard since this one doesn't have MIDI support that works with Windows 7. I'm sure I can store this one in the laundry room. I have a whole box full of cables of every kind and type. You really never know when you're going to need something like that, and you always regret not having one, when you need one... My music collection I can keep. That doesn't really count, does it?

Damn. I guess I am just one more ensnared consumer.

God, I hope my kids don't have to innocently take me out to the zoo one day when I'm old and naive, and while I'm gone sneakily empty my house of all my old useless gadgets because it's become unlivable. ..Sigh..

The truth is: we are born into the world naked. And when it's finally time to leave, we'll find that we can't take anything with us.

"Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moths and vermin destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moths and vermin do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also." - JC

We really need to figure out what that means.


Friday, November 25, 2011

Thank You For The Mustard

I recently finished Chesterton's enduring masterpiece, Orthodoxy. I am still digesting it, re-reading sections at a time, trying to follow his thoughts. He is the finest writer I've ever come across. He uses so much paradox. The impression I get is that he is willing to turn the entire world upside down, if only he can get you to realize you've spent your entire life standing on your head!

I've always found it strange that many see Christians as narrow minded. Although, nowadays, after I've experienced much of the anti-intellectualism, thought-manipulation, and adherence to unfounded dogma that infects most of Christendom, I can see more why that accusation is in many cases valid. But I mean in more general terms, who is more open minded: the one who believes strictly in observable material laws that govern and determine, or the one who believes in a supernatural element to the universe? OK, that was rhetorical...

Chesterton puts it superbly:

"For we must remember that the materialist philosophy (whether true or not) is certainly much more limiting than any religion. In one sense, of course, all intelligent ideas are narrow. They cannot be broader than themselves. A Christian is only restricted in the same sense that an atheist is restricted. He cannot think Christianity false and continue to be a Christian; and the atheist cannot think atheism false and continue to be an atheist. But as it happens, there is a very special sense in which materialism has more restrictions than spiritualism. Mr. McCabe thinks me a slave because I am not allowed to believe in determinism. I think Mr. McCabe a slave because he is not allowed to believe in fairies. But if we examine the two vetoes we shall see that his is really much more of a pure veto than mine. The Christian is quite free to believe that there is a considerable amount of settled order and inevitable development in the universe. But the materialist is not allowed to admit into his spotless machine the slightest speck of spiritualism or miracle. Poor Mr. McCabe is not allowed to retain even the tiniest imp, though it might be hiding in a pimpernel. The Christian admits that the universe is manifold and even miscellaneous, just as a sane man knows that he is complex. The sane man knows that he has a touch of the beast, a touch of the devil, a touch of the saint, a touch of the citizen. Nay, the really sane man knows that he has a touch of the madman. But the materialist's world is quite simple and solid, just as the madman is quite sure he is sane. The materialist is sure that history has been simply and solely a chain of causation, just as the interesting person before mentioned is quite sure that he is simply and solely a chicken. Materialists and madmen never have doubts.

"Spiritual doctrines do not actually limit the mind as do materialistic denials. Even if I believe in immortality I need not think about it. But if I disbelieve in immortality I must not think about it. In the first case the road is open and I can go as far as I like; in the second the road is shut. But the case is even stronger, and the parallel with madness is yet more strange. For it was our case against the exhaustive and logical theory of the lunatic that, right or wrong, it gradually destroyed his humanity. Now it is the charge against the main deductions of the materialist that, right or wrong, they gradually destroy his humanity; I do not mean only kindness, I mean hope, courage, poetry, initiative, all that is human. For instance, when materialism leads men to complete fatalism (as it generally does), it is quite idle to pretend that it is in any sense a liberating force. It is absurd to say that you are especially advancing freedom when you only use free thought to destroy free will. The determinists come to bind, not to loose. They may well call their law the "chain" of causation. It is the worst chain that ever fettered a human being. You may use the language of liberty, if you like, about materialistic teaching, but it is obvious that this is just as inapplicable to it as a whole as the same language when applied to a man locked up in a mad-house. You may say, if you like, that the man is free to think himself a poached egg. But it is surely a more massive and important fact that if he is a poached egg he is not free to eat, drink, sleep, walk, or smoke a cigarette. Similarly you may say, if you like, that the bold determinist speculator is free to disbelieve in the reality of the will. But it is a much more massive and important fact that he is not free to raise, to curse, to thank, to justify, to urge, to punish, to resist temptations, to incite mobs, to make New Year resolutions, to pardon sinners, to rebuke tyrants, or even to say "thank you" for the mustard." - C.K. Chesterton Orthodoxy 1908 (Public Domain)

read more from Orthodoxy... 


Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Before You Get De-Eared

Few things annoy me more than those people who choose their musical preferences based upon what is fashionable, what is congruent with the subculture they identify with, or what makes them feel validated. People who use music to create or sustain their own self-image should be de-eared.

It sounds harsh. Those who limit themselves to one or two genres, and especially those who ignore particular genres on principle, frustrate me so much because they are missing out on so much undiscovered beauty! To me, it's like being in Hawaii and refusing to go in the water.

Someone overheard me listening to an alternative metal band recently and asked, "how can you like that kind of stuff?" I asked her why she likes bananas.

You see, we all like things for a thousand different reasons. Music is not good on a linear scale, because all music is different, and each type is beautiful for its own reason. I like apples because they are tart and sweet. I like oranges because they are, well, orange. In the same way, classical music is beautiful because it is dramatic, or serene. Metal is beautiful because of its energy. Acid house is beautiful because it makes me feel like I'm floating...

I also get frustrated when people ignore the beautiful or interesting things around them. I remember walking with a girl through the streets of Amsterdam. It was her first time there, and she spent the entire time with her eyes on the ground in front of her. I was so annoyed that she was a visitor in my beautiful city, and wasn't doing it the honor of taking everything in!

I was sitting in a waiting room, and there was a poster on the wall. Someone had scratched out one of the sentences and rewritten it in a more 'proper' grammatical form. It seemed that at some point another person had come along and scratched out his comment, replacing it with a 3rd, more correct sentence. I mused over this poster for a good while, and I looked around at the other people in the waiting room to see if they were enjoying it as well. They were all frustratingly placid!

All of us get annoyed or frustrated when people seem completely unaware, unconcerned, or unmoved by things that we find of great concern, of particular interest, or especially moving (at least I hope I'm not the only one). Sometimes I look around at people and it seems like they are zombies, focused only on eating brains.

That makes me wonder what beautiful and interesting things I am missing out on. Things all around me that I never notice because I am too focused on what I am interested in, like music... and brains. (In 8th grade they made us all play with a real human brain, soaked in formaldehyde, in biology class. It was gross and squishy, but I was the only one who didn't actually get a chance to touch it, so I've always been looking for another opportunity.)

Maybe we all need to slow down and take a step back. We should try to notice things more. We should let beauty surprise us in places that we would never expect. We may discover light where we thought there was only darkness! And you should listen to that genre of music that you've blacklisted because those people like it, and instead try to discover the reason why they like it! ... Before you get de-eared.


Tuesday, November 22, 2011

You Too Will One Day Diffuse

I'm so fascinated by the second law of thermodynamics. The idea that energy diffuses, and all its implications, just boggles my brain.

When you put a drop of dye in water, it will spread out as far as it can until the concentration of the dye is equal and consistent throughout the entire substrate. That is the natural law of diffusion. Everything likes to spread out as far as it can unto equal concentration. The same goes if someone passes gas in a room o_O.

If a spaceship door is opened, since the void of space is empty (that's why it's called space) everything will be violently sucked out because of this same tendency to diffuse! The air wants, desperately, to spread out evenly through space. And, well, space is very empty, and there is lots of it.

When I have a hot cup of coffee, it sits on my desk, and I get so absorbed in writing that by the time I go to drink it, it is cold. Why is it cold? Because the heat-energy wants to diffuse. The air around it is colder, the desk is colder, and so the heat happily moves along to these colder things in its mission to be consistent.

Everything wants to spread out. There are no mountains on the ocean. Mountains take energy after all. The surface of water is flat because all the water spreads out to the path of least resistance.

Potential energy wants to be released! A lot of energy was put into making your average stone. It wants to release its energy and break into sand, into dust! An enormous amount of energy was put into building a city. People ate carrots, full of energy from the sun, their bodies extracted the energy from the carrots to be used by their muscles and brains. But energy diffuses, and so eventually the city will all crumble (unless more energy is added to maintain it).

Suns will burn out. Planets will grow cold. Solid objects will break up into smaller and smaller objects. Everything made will eventually be unmade. Everything gathered will be spread out again. Pressure will be released. Gravity will be satisfied. Things will get simpler, and smaller, and colder.

One day everything will be even, released, empty, broken down, spread out, cold and consistent.

But happily for now, here on Earth, for some reason that nobody knows for sure, things keep getting more complicated, more advanced, more built up, and more sophisticated. Weird.


Monday, November 21, 2011

Dark Timelessness Of Non-Existence

What in God's name am I? I don't mean what sort of animal. I'm quite certain I am human. But I mean, what is my personhood, my consciousness, my self-awareness, my attention? In short, what makes up my mind?

Am I my brain? If my brain were to be in somebody else, would I still be me? If my brain were sitting on a shelf (yet somehow kept alive and active), would I still be me?

I think, yes.

But what I can't wrap my brain around, is this: am I my brain, or do I inhabit my brain? All evidence seems to point to the idea that I merely am my brain. Yet, I don't believe it. They say that every psychological occurrence in my mind, every thought, is simultaneously a physiological event in the brain. Ok. But that doesn't explain me.

During brain surgeries, they have shown that when they stimulate a certain place in the sensory cortex of the brain, the person will feel a sensation corresponding with the place they stimulated. They might poke here, and the person will feel as if someone touched their hand. They might poke there, and the person will feel as if someone is tickling their toes.

I suppose then, that if the technology existed, a scenario like in The Matrix, is perfectly plausible. We could exist in a reality completely separate from reality by connecting our brains to the proper sensory inputs. Of course, we all know it will be the gaming industry who will invent it!

What if someday, then (I really believe this to be probable), we are all just brains sitting on a vast array of shelves, connected together, without the need for bodies, living in a real-as-reality virtual existence, where the discomforts of real-reality don't have to irritate us anymore, and we can make up any reality (or set of realities) we want? Who would need (or even want) the real world? Of course this has been the subject of science fiction novels for decades.

But my question is what exactly is sensation? I see the mechanism of sensation, but where is the point where the neurological message is received? Just because a neurological pathway is stimulated in my brain, where am I to receive that message? Light waves may enter my eye at a particular frequency, my retina will pick them up, and my optic nerve will send a signal to other nerves in my brain, but at some stage I experience color.

But where do the signals end up? What good is a message if there is no one to receive it? Is the neurological pathway transmitting data me? If a packet of binary information is sent across an Ethernet cable to a computer, the website is only rendered if that packet is received and interpreted, and eventually displayed in a web browser. What good is the cable sending signals to other cables? But all I see in the brain are the cables!

Am I the cables? Power cables being lit up with data, transmitting in circles? Who experiences the signals? Are the signals the experience? It's a complex pathway consisting of millions of nerves that activates and is flooded with electricity and neurotransmitters, and... then it stops. Who is on the receiving end of that message?

If the signal is the sensation, then do cables, computers and circuit boards sense?

Imagine I were to die. Ok. Now, say my brain was perfectly preserved. All brain activity has long ago ceased. Much later, one of those clever brain surgeons pokes something in my inactive sensory cortex, suddenly stimulating the sleeping neural pathway that would cause the feeling of my hand being touched. Now, if I am my brain, would I not feel that?! Even though I am not concious, even though I know nothing, would I not still experience that sensation?

If the message is the experience, then yes, in the dark timelessness of non-existence, I would indeed feel someone touch my hand!

But it makes no sense to me. How can the mere activation of neurological pathways cause me to sense anything? There must be a recipient of the messages, on the other side of the brain. I can only conclude that I inhabit my brain. How can the thing be self-aware? How can the cable feel?

This is a conundrum that has bothered me for many years, and I cannot properly articulate it with words. I've tried here, and I don't expect you to see what I see. How can I craft my words to stimulate the same neural pathways in your brain that have been stimulated in mine?

I feel trapped in here.


Sunday, November 20, 2011

Thoughts On Gandhi

Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi
I just read about how Gandhi led approximately a fifth of the world’s population to liberty, with a very unconventional approach: meekness. His commitment to non-violence later went on to inspire people like MLK.

Even though Gandhi didn’t at all identify himself a Christian, and clearly never really grasped the concept of grace or God’s forgiveness, Jesus’ sermon on the mount was one thing he strove to model his life after. In fact, he followed Christ’s teaching to such a degree that most Christians would call him radical. His life mimicked Christ’s in many ways (just read his biography next to a gospel account).

As he went on to transform an entire nation, armed with nothing but the humility of Christ, he read about every morning (in addition to his Hindu scriptures), the evidence of the power of Christ’s gospel of reconciliation is, in my mind, made overwhelmingly clear.

Now, here is what I am thinking. If to be “Christian” means to follow Christ in teaching and practice, is it possible that an “unbelieving heathen,” a Hindu even, could actually have been a more authentic Christian than many who name themselves Christian?

Just so the conservatives won’t accuse me of blasphemy, let me simply ask the question this raises: Which is more important, how correctly we believe or think about God (orthodoxy); or how we live and act in relation to God (orthopraxy)?