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Friday, May 26, 2006

The Mental Air Conditioner

Today's entry is from my wife, Julie, and touches on how our focus determines our reality. A view shared by Marcus Aurelius, Buddha, and Qui-Gon Jinn. Thanks Julie!

The air conditioner on my husband's car started not cooling very well several weeks back. It's HOT where we live! Once the decline in cooling was noticeable, I refused to ride in it anymore. It was just sheer misery having to drive around in a hot car with no cool air. My car's air conditioner was fabulously cool in comparison.

We were about to take my husband's car for service, and then my own car's transmission went out. I have a 10 year warranty that covers the transmission, but we've had the most rediculous run-arounds from Hyundai on attempting to get it fixed, which has meant for close to a month we've had only one car and I've been driving my husband's car every day to go to work.

It no longer seems so bad to me. I keep the windows open. In the mornings it's a little humid, but the air is relatively cool and it's kind of pleasant riding with the windows down. In the evenings, it's hot air, but it's a steady amount and even if I'm not as cool as I like, at least I'm not actually sweating.

It seems like suffering can be directly connected to knowing whether or not there's a choice. Nothing about the weather or car has changed in the past month, and if anything it's hotter than it was a month ago. My own brain determined whether or not I would make the choice to suffer.

Saturday, May 20, 2006

Black Iron Prison

I've recently read one of the most interesting articles on Wikipedia I've seen in a while. It's called the Black Iron Prison. I'm not going to try to summarize it since I'm not sure I fully understand it myself yet. Rather, I'll let you read the article for yourself by clicking HERE.

[Note, Nov 30 2008: They seem to have changed the article linked above in Wikipedia. The link now goes to an article on the science fiction novel "Valis". One section of this article briefly describes the concept, but not nearly as in depth or as interesting as the original. An anonymous poster has left a web link in the comments for this post today, which can also be accessed with the link HERE.]

It's probably best if you read that article before continuing on this post below...

After reading this article I was wondering if its possible to escape the Black Iron Prison. It seems to me that if the 'carrot and stick', and fear, are what keep us in this cycle, then many of the personal-level contemplative philosophies are good at helping to break it.

Buddhism teaches non-attachment and to seek out perspectives on the world that are free of bias and our own delusional preconceptions. Stoicism instructs us not to be a slave of our passions, which would include fear.

I have said before that a lot of evil happens as a result of our obsession with simple matters of life and death. There are worse fates than death and there is more to a good life than mere survival. Yet, the delusion to the contrary seems to be one of the elements of our imprisonment in the Black Iron Prison.

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Consciousness Around Us?

The second half of Sam Harris' The End of Faith covers various aspects of consciousness and spirituality from a naturalistic perspective. Something I read recently in this has had me wondering again about the nature of consciousness. But first a recap and some background.

It would seem, for the naturalist, that brain function results in processes which bring about the subjective first-person experience of consciousness. This materialistic view implies, even demands, something which is quite amazing. If we know that consciousness can arise from the interplay of complex systems of matter, then there seems to be no special requirement that such a system be a human brain, or even a brain, or even biological. Absent the notion of a spirit or soul, the floodgates are opened and nearly any sufficiently complex system of a particular nature would have experience of consciousness.

Of course, to be conscious would seem to require more than complexity, but rather a certain sort of complexity. A sort where external data is 'modeled' or 'symbolized' in some way, and that data can be manipulated in meaningful and creative ways. There would also have to be a symbolizing of the functions doing the symbolizing in order to have self awareness.

But in Harris book, he points out two things I hadn't considered before about human consciousness. Brain scans and REM readings show that we dream nearly every night, but we don't always remember it. Consider a dream you remember. Certainly, you would say you were conscious during this dream, even if limited in some ways. Now consider when you awake in the morning and don't remember any dreams. Were you unconscious throughout the night, or were you conscious and simply don't remember it? Does your lack of memory of this period change the fact that you were indeed conscious when it happened?

The second thing Harris mentions is that there are cases such as brain damage, drugged states, infants, and simpler animals where there is no self awareness - no sense of 'I'. Yet, there certainly seems to be an experiential first-person consciousness of one's environment.

What both of these examples made apparent to me, was that memory is distinct from the first-person qualia of consciousness, as is self awareness. There is a sense of 'what it is like to experience things' and this sense can occur in the brain even when there is no memory involved and even when there is no sense of self involved.

This notion greatly expands the possibility that there is 'something it is like' to be other complex systems besides brains. Unlike my previous assumptions, I am no longer certain that a complex system need have a system for storing data representing externals (memory) or that it need have a system which codes for its own internal functions (sense of self), in order for it to experience qualia. Consciousness may be a basic quality that exists on a spectrum, inherent in the universe wherever highly localized concentrations of causal interactions take place.

But what would it be like to experience qualia and not keep a running memory of it? What would it be like to experience qualia without a sense of self? Certainly, whatever we are talking about here in other natural systems is no personified being or entity, but rather something more basic - perhaps even too alien for us ever to truly relate to directly. Nevertheless, the possibility that ecological systems, computer systems, or even cosmological-scale systems may be having some sort of 'experiences' is a tantalizing notion.

I am not claiming, necessarily that other complex systems do have first-person experiences of qualia. Merely, I am stating that given these two realizations about our own brains, it now seems much more reasonable a possibility to me than it did before. The variety of complex systems which might (might) experience qualia seem to me now to be possibly much more broad and diverse in form and function than I would have suspected previously.

Picture taken from

Saturday, May 13, 2006


Time magazine author Andrew Sullivan recently outlines the distinction between Christians and 'Christianists' in his article, "My Problem with Christianism". The distinction is similar to the difference between Muslims and Islamic fundamentalists, or 'Islamists' as some call them.
LINK HERE (note: this article has since been changed to require subscription to the site, which it didn't at the time of posting. Sorry!)

Along a similar theme, Michelle Goldberg is interviewed on her new book Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism by the NPR. In this 40 minute audio program, she goes into detail about the political objectives of the Christianists.

I think it would be helpful to start distinguishing between radical Christianists and Christians, if for no other reason than the fact that more reasonable moderate Christian voices are being lost in the mix.

Friday, May 12, 2006

Religious Atheism

Tom Clark is Director of the Center for Naturalism and I've recently discovered an interesting interview with him discussing what spirituality and religion can mean in a naturalistic sense.

Here is the interview, "How to be a Religious Atheist": LINK

And here is the site for the Center: LINK

Thursday, May 11, 2006


I have recently completed a book called "Christianity without God" by Lloyd Geering. I'll be reviewing this book at my local Freethought & Humanist book club* in July, so I'll save a detailed review for then.

But one thing I found very interesting was a point made by Geering about idolatry and the bible. Biblical literalism, as it stands today in Protestant denominations, seems to be largely a result of the reformation. The Protestants had to have some competing authority on which to base criticism of the Catholic church. By the time of the Westminster Confession of Faith, supreme authority of the bible itself was placed as a higher Article than even talk of God.

As Geering points out, this had the affect of "demoting God". Geering suggests that biblical literalists are practicing idolatry by making the bible itself into an idol.

After reading this I was reminded of a conversation I had with someone prior about Jesus. In Matthew, chapter 5, verses 17-48, Jesus points out the distinction between laws and goodness. In several examples he points out what the law says, and then goes a step further into the issue of how we think. Jesus is written to be saying that these principles should extend into our minds and our character; not to be based on mere legalism.

Although the meaning of these verses is little appreciated, the essential meaning is that the Law does not exist on stone tablets, but must live in our hearts. Jesus was said to be the 'word made flesh' and making the word flesh was to be an example for others. So what do Christians do after Jesus? They spend the next several centuries taking everything he said (and much of what he didn't say) and inscribing it into immutable law; more stone tablets.

There is a word for the idolatry that biblical literalists and those who hold it to be inerrant practice - Bibliolatry.

*Actually it's called the "Ideas Club" because, rather than merely a book club. We use the concepts in the book as a springboard into discussions of the ideas they present.

Saturday, May 6, 2006

Stoicism as Philosophical Psychotherapy

English Psychotherapist Donald Robertson has written an interesting paper on the usefulness of Stoic concepts in Psychotherapy. His paper can be read by clicking the link HERE. Thanks to Steven Leysen on the International Stoic Forum for informing me (and the other members) of it!

Monday, May 1, 2006

Naturalist Karma & Rebirth

I have recently completed an essay describing a naturalistic interpretation of Buddhist karma and rebirth. If you'd like to read it, it can be found on my philosophy site, or by clicking the link HERE.