We’re All Gonna Die!

We’re all gonna die! We’re all gonna die!
And it’s only a matter of time.
We’ll live on in memory, and then not at all
(and it’s not any better in rhyme)
The meek and the mighty, the great and the small
Will be gone. So the message is clear:
Since you won’t be immortal, you’ve no time to waste;
Get the most from your life while you’re here.

A strange day today… lots of death–and yet, none of it today.

Radiolab (on our local radio, at least–the episode was from 2009) had 11 meditations on death and dying. Listening, I found out things I did not know about myself–mostly, that I had very strong opinions on most of the segments, and that I disagreed (again, strongly) with a good many of their guests.

As I drove along, I took a bit of a detour in order to hear the whole program. I found myself driving a road I had not traveled in many years, not since my kids were small, and I was driving cuttleson to a friend’s house. I passed that house, and remembered that this kid… a boy from my daycare, whom I had read stories to while he lay on his cot… this boy had died in a fire, at the age of 19, a few years ago, overcome by smoke as he tried to reach the door.

One of the Radiolab segments, long time readers will not be surprised, reminded me of my brother’s death. My brother continues to make a difference, years after his death, in very specific ways–in my classes, in programs he started at his work, in community projects he initiated and contributed many hours to, let alone in the memories of his wife and children, who must miss him even more than I do.

Perhaps my favorite segment reminded me of the big picture. I will likely not be remembered in a century… but it is possible. I will almost certainly not be remembered in a thousand years… but some are remembered from a thousand years ago, so it still possible. This segment took a longer view. A hundred million years. Our species will, in all likelihood, be gone. Most of the species we know–perhaps all of the species we know–will be gone. My book will be transformed to carbon–342 sheets of paper-thin coal, the verses long gone. (Ok, that doesn’t bother me–not so much as the segment’s assertion that Mozart will be gone, presumably along with Beethoven, Shakespeare, Emily Dickinson, Charlie Chaplin, Mae West, Louis Armstrong, Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, and Justin Bieber).

We are all going to die–not just individually, but as civilizations, and as species. We won’t last forever.

Like the sidebar says… Since the music plays so briefly… can you blame me if I dance?

XKCD comic, “time robot”

(image, XKCD, of course)

At The Dalai Lama’s Science Conference…

They’re analyzing consciousness
By means of introspection
And none of them have noticed that
They’ve looked the wrong direction.

The Dalai Lama saw the moon
Was not lit from within
He shared his observation
(To his tutors’ great chagrin)

Tibetan thought did not survive
Objective observation
The moon was not a lantern—
That was just imagination

This sparked his curiosity
And formed a strange alliance:
A Buddhist monk’s philosophy
And love of modern science

This skepticism surely might
Be called on to explain
How their use of introspection
Tells us beans about the brain

They call it looking inward—
That’s the purpose that it serves—
But the trick is that the brain itself
Is lacking sensory nerves!

We cannot feel our thinking—
To those processes, we’re blind;
So introspect your brains out, but
Beware of what you find.

They’re analyzing consciousness
By means of introspection
And none of them have noticed that
They’ve looked the wrong direction.

So, yeah, the Dalai Lama (winner of the 2012 Templeton Prize in Science & Religion) hosted a science conference. The 26th Mind and Life Conference (this year’s theme: Mind, Brain, & Matter) invited scientists and Buddhist monks to join in scientific pursuit of an understanding of consciousness:

The examination is rooted in the personal story of the Dalai Lama. During his secluded training as a child in Tibet, he would gaze at the night sky through a telescope on the roof of the Potala Palace. He looked at the moon with such intensity he realized the shadows and asperities on its surface contradicted the Tibetan belief that it was lit from within. He took his findings to his tutors.

“When I told my tutors of my interest in science, they replied that it made sense,” said the Dalai Lama during his welcome speech to the conference. “However, although we have an interest in science, that doesn’t mean we have to devote all our energy to it. I spend the majority of my time in meditation on love, compassion and wisdom, which is the source of my interest in science.”

It’s perfectly understandable that a meditating monk would want to understand consciousness. It’s also understandable that scientists would. Which makes it a bit strange that the confluence is, well, strange. But I guess we are used to science and religion having such very different, competing, and (often) mutually exclusive approaches to finding the truth. These monks, though, are not like, say, young-earth creationists:

The monks are Tibetan scholars from all monasteries who followed a multiple-year science course and are now asked by the Dalai Lama to compile what they learned into a book for their fellow monks. “These are monks who have spent from early morning to late night memorizing ancient texts, having them explained by wise elders and debating them long into the night,” says Rato’s abbot. “They had to leave behind Tibetan beliefs in place for centuries and apply the same strict discipline they had in their Buddhist studies to modern science.”

This is the strength of mind required of the modern monk, he says: a capacity for knowledge, open mindedness and debate, carried alongside the absolute belief in Buddha’s words.

That last bit does raise the question of whether this is a joining of science and faith, or a superb job of compartmentalization.

As for the scientists?

Responses from the scientists differed strongly.

Christof Koch, a University of California neuroscience best known for his work on consciousness, said we could speculate but ultimately we don’t know where it lies beyond the brain, its physical basis. He added that all mammals have consciousness but it is impossible to know where it lies (for example, our immune system can function without it).

Matthieu Ricard, the French monk who was a genetics scientist before taking up the monastic life, turned towards his Buddhist teaching more than his scientific past.

“By honest introspection, by following one line of inquiry which is pure experience,” one can reach an understanding of consciousness, he said.

Ricard then addressed the topic of reincarnation and some individuals’ ability to remember past lives.

Arthur Zajonc, a professor emeritus of physics at Harvard, doesn’t consider himself a Buddhist he said. Yet, he added, “I meditate and through that, have come to believe in the possibility of reincarnation.”

I’ve seen Koch speak before; his expertise is in the brain, of course, so it makes sense that he looks there (and that his expertise is there and not in the terra incognita he sees outside). Koch has also worked with Francis Crick, of “you are your brain” fame, (oh, yeah, and being a co-discoverer of the structure of DNA), with which I very much disagree; again, it makes perfect sense that he looks to the brain for answers. Ricard and Zajonc, it appears to me, suffer from the very common problem among scientists: they take their well-earned scientific expertise to mean that they know what they are talking about in other areas. Their reliance on meditation and introspection (apparently the monks’ investigative methodology of choice) is fatally flawed: the brain, lacking sensory nerves, cannot feel itself think.

This, of course, is why we have such bizarre conceptions of “mind” as something ontologically distinct from matter. Imagine you could not feel yourself, say, walking. It would feel like you were magically floating from place to place (or perhaps teleported there in a flash?). You cannot feel yourself think; you only have partial access to some of the outputs of that thinking, and even then your access is both imperfect and subject to constraints of situation–were you even attending to that information at the time? (For those who have not seen it, looking around for examples of attentional blindness, or the art of the pickpocket, easily demonstrates the limits of our awareness.) Let us suppose that the extraordinary training of the monks allows them to attend to all of the outputs at once (very unlikely, but let’s go there)–they would still have no direct access to any of the processes that led to those outputs. And researchers like Koch are happy to tell us of how many interacting and/or parallel processes are at work in an active brain. The metaphors that come to me–diagnosing car problems without opening the hood, or diagnosing computer problems without the ability to see what any of the components are doing–all are considerably simpler than trying to figure out this extraordinarily complex, non-intelligently designed, meat-based data processor.
XKCD cartoon
(image: XKCD, of course)
From the point of view of the introspector, it feels like magic. The vocabulary we use to speak of consciousness, of course, precedes scientific exploration of consciousness, but still shapes what we expect to find, and what explanations we will accept as reasonable. It’s like asking how the sun climbs through the sky, and rejecting the notion that the earth turns. Magic begins to seem reasonable. As long as we’ve got magic consciousness, why the hell not have reincarnation as well? (BTW, the Times post mentions that quantum physics was a topic at the conference–at a “mind, brain, & matter” conference, this can only mean one thing–quantum physics was being misused, and can very likely be considered the modern vocabulary for “magic”.)

I’ve written more than I intended to, already. I’ll stop rather abruptly here. Oh, but I will note that the conference is available for viewing–11 looong youtube videos cover the morning and afternoon sessions of the 6-day conference. I’ll be looking through them at least a bit, to see if I am wrong.

I was wrong once before, and didn’t like it.

Cuttlefish!

Ah… XKCD has done it again!
(and of course my formatting screws it up–click image for the full comic!)

A cuttlefish learns, so amazing quickly,
And oh so incredibly much—
We’ve figured out chemistry, quantum mechanics,
Biology, Physics, and such;
We could, if we chose to, go traipsing through wormholes
To galaxies light-years away;
But frankly, there’s something more baffling to study,
And that’s why we’ve chosen to stay.

These rather unusual featherless bipeds,
So noisy, so smelly, so strange—
It seems they can learn, or at least they respond
To contingencies which we arrange.
They learn rather slowly, it must be admitted;
It could be their brains are quite small.
And given their habits, the evidence tells us
Some probably don’t learn at all.

They somehow invented some horrible weapons
Which all thinking beings should fear
They constantly threaten complete devastation—
I’m rather surprised they’re still here!
They keep dumping poison in lakes or in rivers
Where others get water to drink—
Although this is senseless, and foolish, and stupid,
I still believe some of them think.

They’ve hit upon something that multiplies thinking,
A process they like to call “science”,
Where each person builds on the other ones’ progress
Like standing on shoulders of giants.
Some say these “humans” are smarter than cuttlefish;
I won’t be taking that bet!
But maybe—just maybe—with science to help them,
These humans… they might make it yet.

A Blood-Curdling Cautionary Tale Of Science Run Amok

Genetically, of course, a spork
Is half a spoon, and half a fork
A laboratory in New York
Created them, then popped the cork.

Please, gentle reader, do not swoon,
But there was also, once, a foon
(That’s half a fork, and half a spoon)
Created, sadly, all too soon.

In cutlery, one tempts the Fates
When artificially, one mates
Utensils from across the plates
Regardless of recessive traits.

A careless thought: “let’s cross F-1
Again with forks, and have some fun.”
The simple plan was soon begun,
Then all too soon: “What have we done?”

With thirst for blood and killing drives
Such meddling ends in loss of lives
I only hope someone survives
To tell—the sporks have found the knives!

From xkcd, of course.

I just love XKCD!

I want to make peace with my laptop computer;
I think that its feelings were hurt.
It read what I wrote–at least, that’s what I figure;
Since then, it’s been rather more curt.
It’s dialogue boxes are monosyllabic,
I swear it’s beginning to pout.
Now I’m thinking that, maybe, it’s bored in that box,
So I’m working on letting it out.

I wired a handful of microcontrollers,
Some batteries, bearings, and wheels,
A webcam for eyes, so it sees where it’s going
And doesn’t fall, head over heels.
It’s programmed, of course, not to run into objects
While making its way ‘cross the floors,
And it talks to my house’s security system
And opens and closes the doors!

Now it sneaks out and wanders all over the city–
I follow its progress online.
It’s posting its story, and streaming its cam
On a blog that gets more hits than mine.
It asked me last week for a solar recharger–
I found it a small one to add;
This morning, I woke to a note in the printer:
“I’m off to adventure! Thanks, Dad!”

Inspired by the inimitable XKCD, in case you are the last person not to know about it.