Archive for the 'Science' Category

Reinterpreting the karma/rebirth theory in terms of neuroscientific determinism, or, Another look at déjà vu

8 April 2012

There is so much I wish to cover in this post, and I can only cover all of it unsatisfactorily, so I’ll just jump write in and try not to worry too much about how paltry my efforts will be.

Since I’ve been intrigued and inspired by, broadly, Buddhist thought, I’ve been similarly intrigued by the dual theory of karma and rebirth. The precise theory is framed and conceived of differently in different contexts, but loosely speaking the theory is that action (karma) leads to a rebirth the qualities of which are determined by various qualities of the relevant actions. That is to say, act “well,” be reborn in a “positive” rebirth. For a time I was indifferent to the truth or falsity of this theory. Then for a while I didn’t believe it; then I believed it; then I became indifferent again, but differently than the original indifference. In Intro to Buddhism courses I tried to argue to my skeptical classmates (who were often quite new to this theory other than in the popular “what goes around comes around” version that holds that if you do a nice deed at the beginning of the day, someone might do something nice by day’s end) that it was “not moral.” Why would I say such a thing? Our typical conceptions of morality involve moral guidelines, such as those laid down by a creator god, by which we can judge our actions and by which our actions can be judged. To say that the Buddhist theory of karma is “not moral” is to suggest there is no such outside agent determining which kinds of actions are good and which are bad, but rather just that actions that lead to a rebirth that feels good can be considered “good” and those that lead to an unpleasant rebirth can be considered “bad.” This is not moral so much as it is metaphysical. It “just is that way.” The better in tune one is with how it “just is,” the better one is able to judge which actions are conducive to what we would consider good results. In the meantime, I guess we ought to just follow the Buddha’s guidelines. Something like that.

Now, there is an argument to be made that this is a non-moral theory. But what if the details of my argument were true and the theory were still moral? What might that entail? Perhaps morality is just “how it is” when “how it is” comes into contact with the human mind, human relationships, and human culture. What if morality is just our half-hearted attempt to make sense of how it is?  Read the rest of this entry »

In another universe I am a theoretical cosmologist

28 October 2011

And in every universe I am a heretic. Though an agreeable one.

Here’s a recent piece by my favorite contemporary theoretical physicist (i.e. the one I can name), Sean Carroll: Welcome to the Multiverse. So in another universe, in some other pocket of the multiverse perhaps, my life is changed in the tenth grade when I discover that in addition to having an aptitude for math (which was true in this universe), I also kinda like it and decide to pursue it a little more seriously (not true here). I allow my rather strong desire to go beyond the earth’s atmosphere (true) to lead me into theoretical domains that do just that (sort of true), and when I am seventeen, rather than take some serious time trying to figure out exactly what I might have to do to become an astronaut (true), I go ahead and pursue complex maths and wacky sciences and gain an insider’s understanding of the kind of stuff (this is all obviously not true here) of which Sean Carroll writes popular descriptions and explanations. (He writes insidery articles, too, but I don’t read those in this universe. And in this universe I just trust that what he says is good science, whether or not it’s “right,” which is, anyway, a different question altogether.)

As it happens, in the universe in which I am writing this blog post, when I was seventeen I decided against trying to become an engineering student, which seemed absolutely dreadful to me, and instead figured if I live long enough and make a decent enough living, eventually some opportunity to blast off and see the earth from high, high above will probably come to be. Dissatisfying, but true enough. And in the meantime, I can read and think about the multiverse and dream the distant dream that someone someday will be able to observe (in some sense) and understand the early universe, and maybe what came “before,” and that someone like me, having chosen against pursuing math and science at their highest levels, will nevertheless be able to read about what they find, and imagine…

Atheism and Curiosity

15 August 2011

James Wood recently wrote a piece for the New Yorker called, “Secularism and Its Discontents” – a review of and response to The Joy of Secularism: 11 Essays for How We Live Now, ed. George Levine. Atheism, secularism, religion, etc; these things are on my mind most days, not only because I study religion, nor simply because I don’t believe in God (let’s note now: this is distinct from saying, “I believe there is no God”), but because of my interest in politics, in the conversations of people I pass by in the street, because of literature I read, movies I watch, etc. I’ll mention a couple of other recent sources below. First, however, I’d like to respond to a few points Wood makes/cites.

Early on Wood, commenting on a “convinced atheist” friend who wakes in the night anxious whether the universe really could just come from an accidental big bang, explains the following: “In the current intellectual climate, atheists are not supposed to have such thoughts.” I was not, after this opening, expecting to enjoy this piece. (As it happens, I ended up enjoying it quite a bit, and it convinced me to be interested in The Joy of Secularism.) What does it mean to be a “convinced” atheist? It’s funny, Wood will later refer, rather casually, to the so-called New Atheists as miltant atheists. This word contains sufficiently diverse connotations – some sufficiently mild, i.e. not all refer to violence – for my complaint to be limited. Sure, they are confrontational. But is the dogmatism so woefully (for Wood) demonstrated by Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Dan Dennett and Sam Harris, not contained within this little adjective convinced? Convinced of what, exactly: atheism? Convinced that there is no God, yet waking in the night to wonder whether there just might be? I’m just not sure what it would mean to be a convinced atheist – perhaps this is why people would want the term agnostic to be used more frequently, but so too would people prefer I respected all religious traditions and beliefs equally, when some simply are not as respectable as others. Atheism seems to me to describe someone who has not been convinced. Perhaps a convinced atheist is convinced she is not convinced. Now, I know, the word is not always used that way, but even the denial of the existence of God seems to me different than the belief that there is none. (Emphasis, again, on the term ‘belief.’) Agnosticism, as it happens, is a perfectly fine word, and as it also happens I apply neither word to myself, but only because they don’t seem particularly useful titles for me. Nevertheless, atheists are not supposed to ask themselves whether their lives are cosmically irrelevant? Well then, who else is going to ask? Any convinced theists would have no need for such a question. Unconvinced theists, on the other hand – now, they are an interesting bunch… That Wood’s friend seems to, without too much concern, posit irrelevance and accidentalness as the obvious results of the revelation of God’s death would occupy a greater share of this blog post, were it not for the fact that Wood’s subject is a book that hopes to posit secularism as not a loss but a gain. A great start.

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28 June 2011

Recently an asteroid came whizzing by the Earth, 30 times closer to us than the moon. It was big enough that it would’ve made it through the atmosphere and landed, leaving a decent sized crater, if it had been on a collision course. What’s remarkable is that this is unremarkable. Which is to say two things: (1) Objects of this size not only fly by fairly often, but are often closer, and actually hit every once in a while (there was a collision in 2008), making this an unremarkable event; and (2) No one cares.

Point (1) makes point (2) more dramatic, as far as I’m concerned. I don’t think we should be running around like a headless chickens because we might get killed by an asteroid. But a little awareness of this possibility seems healthy. Sooner or later, one of the scientists in that NatGeo article explains, a larger one is going to hit us. Will it crash into the ocean, or land? Will that land be remote, or populated? If remote, will it nevertheless have a drastic impact on the environment, causing a natural disaster of one sort or another? Possible. We have the technology and the information to be aware of possibilities like these. We (lay people) should use them. Not in terms of defending ourselves. Rather, we should arm ourselves with awareness. What does it mean that I could be killed by random space junk? This is a question worth asking. Or rather, How do I create meaning out of the fact that I could be killed by random space junk? Random space junk is just one (interesting) of the infinite possibilities. Choosing to go on with life as if we weren’t hurling through space together with an unknown quantity of unguided rock and stuff – once we’ve been given this knowledge – seems, well, a little childish.

Karma is an itch

26 June 2011

The question is whether something non-bodily remains after death, some stream of consciousness – as, say, the Dalai Lama would contend is the case. Or, at least, that’s the question that often gets asked. And you might think – were you to hear that I “subscribe” to a notion of karma quite similar to the Dalai Lama’s – that I would subscribe also to his understanding of the continuity of consciousness after death. A few quick points:

  1. I put ‘subscribe’ in quotation marks because my thinking regarding the law of karma is a matter of holding something as if it were true. The point is: karma, as I understand it, seems to me to best describe what the nature of things seems to me to be. This is hedged in the terms ‘as if’ and ‘seems to me,’ which should hopefully convey that I don’t put terribly much weight on the validity or Truth of the claim. Rather, so long as I don’t have any better way of describing it (which I’m on the hunt for, as it happens, and my sense of how karma operates does shift, as I’ll mention below), I find it best to have a placeholder with which to make judgments. Otherwise I would be stuck in a state of non-commitment, which strikes me as, for reasons I’ll try to bring up in a later post, undesirable.
  2. It is important to explain what these various claims are: karma, as far as I understand it, is the law of cause and effect that governs the co-arising of all things. It’s not morally causal, though it may be possible to describe it as phenomenally causal. Some might want to call it spiritually causal, but I’m not entirely sure what that would mean. The point is: If it is true that there is a matrix of continuously co-arising, co-dependent, impermanent phenomena, then karma is the infinite set of action and effect present moment after moment in/as this matrix. That is to say, it’s necessarily incredibly complex beyond ordinary human understanding, and is thus difficult to think and talk about. So forgive me. And,
  3. Consciousness after death: As far as I’ve heard the Dalai Lama put it, think of your body at death: does it simply cease to exist at the moment of death? No, it continues to exist, decays, and goes “back” into the surrounding matter in the air, the ground, the digestive systems of the worms and bacteria that eat it, etc, etc. Does it then stand to reason that consciousness would simply cease at the moment of death? Or, instead, that it would continue on, also possibly decaying into the collective consciousness, or else totally or in part becoming inherited by another newly conscious being(s)? He opts for the latter. I took this as a placeholder for a few years, but I’m finding that I don’t particularly need it to hold any place these days.

What would be the use of holding this notion of karma without holding this notion of consciousness? Well, for one thing, the notion of consciousness continuing in this way seems increasingly scientifically untenable. Has it been proven factually wrong? I think this question is an incorrect question, if not disingenuous. I’ll link, for example, to a Sean Carroll post from a month or so ago.

But in addition to the position being potentially untenable, it also strikes me as, regarding karma as spelled out above, philosophically unnecessary. How so? If consciousness can be reduced to brain functioning, brain is nevertheless still part of the physical world, and is, if the karmic view of the world is accurate, therefore part of the complex system of cause and effect as all else, both in terms of its original development in the womb, through to its functioning and development throughout a life.

I am here

26 June 2011

There are all sorts of New Agey, Deepak Chopra-esque ways of misattributing findings related to quantum mechanics to consciousness. I always find these sorts of discussions very annoying. It is my intuition that quantum mechanics is indeed relevant to questions of consciousness, but that easy, disingenuous characterizations of the relevance undermines what insight might actually be graspable by those of us who don’t understand quantum mechanics but study consciousness and are interested in relevant scientific findings. Chopra, for example, speaks about the quantum world as if he is a particle physicist, or something – which he is not.

I study Buddhism, and though I’m often wary of overly simple and confident declarations about Buddhism being right (a rather vague statement considering the vastness of Buddhisms and Buddhist teachings and beliefs), I nonetheless do find that certain Buddhist theories and philosophies resonate with my sense of how things may really be. I would neither say that I find Buddhism (in the select sense I presently mean it) to be accurate, nor that I believe it is accurate, for reasons that I will go further into in a separate post. Rather, I sense (through a combination of logic and intuition) that the particular theories and descriptions of reality qua consciousness bring me in the right direction, so to speak. It’s an interesting process that I look forward to delving more deeply into later.

The reason I bring all of this up now is that I’ve just watched this TED talk, which blew me away. What we have here is an object that can be demonstrated to behave in a “quantum way,” but that is visible. You can’t see it being in two places at once – that’s something that can be measured under precisely controlled conditions – but you can, having measured it doing so, then go ahead and look at it with the naked eye, in one piece. What this means is that statements about the quantum world being utterly distinct from the macro world, statements about quantum laws “breaking down,” may in fact go against more than just our intuitive sense of how physics should work (i.e. if we are made up of stuff that can be in two places at once, why are we so solid?), but against the physical reality, too. Now, it goes, I hope, without saying that I am nothing even vaguely approaching an expert or even a novice on these matters. Even ‘layman’ seems a bit too strong of a term. All I can do is listen to talks like these and read blogs like Cosmic Variance and hope to be aware enough of my limitations not to get too far ahead of myself. But since this was presented to me to digest as an extreme layman, I will make a brief statement or two regarding Buddhist philosophy and quantum mechanics.

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