Sunday, June 15, 2008

Defining Spirituality without the Spirit

It seems to me that the religious often try to claim a monopoly on spirituality and that anyone else is therefore heathen or pagan. Then there's another classification often termed "spiritual, but not religious". These folk are usually much easier to get along with, but still have no corner on spirituality. One thing that, in general, unites these two groups however is the belief in some god or gods or generic higher power that somehow guides or cares or does something or other for the universe. I think though, that it is possible to be spiritual, even from a completely secular viewpoint.

In order to do this, spirituality isn't defined by that magic sparkly thing that many people imagine to exist somewhere in their bodies or perhaps in another dimension. It's not that part of man that communes with the divine. No, the spirit is simply that part of a human that makes the ticking. Of course this can be boiled down to purely physical processes, but somewhere in all this, sentience and cognizance emerge and bring with them the spirit. This spirit is the driving force behind the human will and the human heart. It too is a metaphor - a thing that doesn't have a physical presence other than in the operation of the human brain. That is, it exists as a self-describing idea that travels the neural roads of the mind. The spirit is the resulting evaluation of our intellect, our emotions, our thoughts, and our desires. I'm just not sure on the exact formula - it probably involves integrals.

If then we are not to satisfy the spirit through communion with the divine, then how should we provide what it seeks? (This is left as an exercise for the reader [and the writer])

Taking care of our spiritual lives can then become a matter much different than religious experience, but perhaps similar to the spiritual who just don't like to go to church, or temple, or synagogue, or whatever. It comes from somewhere in our conscience not completely understood and therefore a little mysterious. The unknown and wondrous nature of our own being and this realization is worth quite the same to me as the sense of the divine felt by others. Discovering this anew each day and seeing it in others and in nature can make for a full spiritual life.

One thing missing here is that sense of continuation that all souls seem to desire. Too few people are willing to admit their own ephemerality and thus cling to stories told them to feel better about the unpleasant inevitability of death. Realizing and embracing this inevitability however, can make each day more precious and bring a new perception to the beauty of everything. When we see the fleeting nature of the world, we see that we must appreciate that we're here to enjoy it while we're still here. That's a bit of an anthropocentric view, but how else should I see the world? Can I honestly see it any other way? This is not, however, an argument about humanities' treatment of its environment. If it were however, I might mention that most religious types honor their places of worship. Perhaps I should be no different in this respect and regard the whole world my temple.

And of course, if it comes right down to it, spiritualism can be applied using another definition for spirit. Just so long as you don't drive while in the spirit.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

The Classics

I have a theory about the classics of literature that attempts to explain the reason why most are boring to the point of narcolepsy. It distills down to a conspiracy either out of a haughty pretension or a malicious sense of humor. Also note that this theory may isomorph to any fields where certain works are said to be "classics".

The first supposition goes that in order for the experts to remain experts they all have to agree that the best examples of great literature are those which are so dense and unreadable that the laymen would never be able to muddle their way through them. This ensures that the uninitiated will not be able to easily usurp the experts. This also gives the experts a feeling of vague superiority for their virtuous march through the classics just defined on the basis of said march.

But because they're classics everybody who reads feels obligated to make the attempt at reading them. When they unsurprisingly fail, they feel guilty and more importantly inferior to the experts who not only read, but analyze and even define the classics through the analysis. Twain once said that a classic is a book that everyone wants to have read but that no one wants to read. Twain was an observant fellow.

The other theory, or perhaps a corollary as they are not mutually exclusive, suggests that experts are merely playing a tremendous and well orchestrated prank upon the average reader. "Gentlemen!" a literature professor at a prestigious university might inquire, "which book shall we foist upon the masses this year?" This literati might then all go about writing deep analyses (reviews are only for recent works and in any case are not up to academic standards) and start covering them in their upcoming classes. Suddenly we have a new classic solely on the basis of a small group of people who wouldn't know taste from touch, at least not taste as it relates to the average reader.

I honestly believe this is how classics are born, it is only a question of intent as to whether the elite are pranking themselves or pranking us. My new philosophy of books is to read what I like or am interested in and ignore the rest no matter how classic. Besides, enough unread classics already sit on my bookshelves always ready to impress anyone foolish enough to be suckered in by this prank.

Monday, June 09, 2008

I Got Revisionism

If we don't kill ourselves, we may be on to something.

Despite all the atrocities of mankind towards itself and its environment, there is still reason to be optimistic. That we are still here seems reason enough to rejoice. Despite the possibility or perhaps even the likelihood of our imminent self destruction, it is still a wondrous occasion that we haven't already done so.

Despite the fact that our progress has cost millions of lives due to reckless expansionism and related evils, we still find ourselves in a better position for having progressed. Perhaps we got where we needed to be for all the wrong reasons. And although, man may be greedy and would kill millions for as many dollars, evolution has been no kinder over the centuries. There is no room within the gene pool for the weak and the fact that this even now seems gruesome to any of us should be proof enough of our progress.

We are far enough along that we can thumb our nose at evolution and say, "To hell with you, we're going to take care of our own." While this may not be the sentiment of all or even most of our population, that it is there at all is a hopeful sign. No longer are the weak immediately weeded out of the pool. In fact, we may soon not only keeping them in the pool but weeding out the weaknesses as well.

Hope springs eternal. Live well. Help others. That is my wish and my hope and my desire. For myself and for mankind.

Of course there are other things out there vying for the title of destroyer of mankind. If we're going to survive them too we're going to have to stick together.

Sunday, June 08, 2008

A Virtual Machine

This probably isn't a unique or original observation but it strikes me that the mind, that metaphysical entity separate from the brain, could be viewed as a virtual machine that runs on the hardware of the brain.

In computing technology a virtual machine is a piece of software that simulates hardware and is in turn ran on hardware (or theoretically on another virtual machine) in order for other software to run on it without knowing that it really isn't natively running directly on the hardware. Java works this way so that any application written in Java only has to have the virtual machine written for any particular hardware/OS platform and the code is almost completely independent of the hardware (sometimes you have to deal more directly with the hardware or with idiosyncrasies of the OS that don't translate).

Lately, hosting multiple virtual servers on a single real machine has been all the rage in the IT field. It certainly makes a lot of things easier. Hardware malfunction? Restart the same server on another physical machine. Configuration also becomes much easier when you can simply duplicate a machine and all its settings by copying a file. Plus you can get multiple servers running on a single piece of hardware.

The point here, is that I'm thinking this is a good metaphor for the whole brain/mind issue. Philosophers and scientists are always talking about what makes a mind and is there any difference from the brain. We all can pretty much agree that the brain is the collection of neurons and tissues, etc. in biological organisms that controls a lot of what goes on within those organisms, including, ultimately, thought. But there's a lot of debate about whether the brain and the mind are the same thing. Is there a soul and does that affect anything? Is the mind an emergent property that cannot be completely described by the hardware it runs on? Is the word quantum involved in here anywhere? Because if it is, things will surely get difficult.

I'm not even going to enter into the debate of soul and spirit and what have you, because I frankly don't think you need them to explain anything. Even if there are unknown properties of the brain there is no indication that we will ever need to stoop to the explanation of a soul to explain it.

So if the brain is the hardware then perhaps the mind is simply the program that is running on that hardware. Except it's not any old program, it's a meta-program and can host other programs. Thinking of the brain in this way then, we have certain applications running natively on the hardware of the brain such as our metabolism and other involuntary processes. Since I'm not a brainologist I won't stumble into this territory any further. And since I'm lazy, I won't do any research about it either. Suffice it to say there are some things your brain is doing of which you are not aware. I think any brain scientist would probably agree with that.

These then would be the system applications and not running around in user or interactive land such that we know nothing about them consciously. But what about a thought or a fantasy or conversation? All of these things we agree happen in the brain, but we are aware of them and exert some form of control over them. Yet we don't know what happens in the hardware when we say the word, "nonsense" for instance. Now of course, we can scan the brain with some device and have someone say "nonsense" and see which parts light up, but we don't know that within ourselves and more important and to the point, we don't have to know it to do it.

So we have this level above the system or kernel space where we sort of know what's going on. This is what people generally refer to when they refer to the mind, I believe. Synonymous with consciousness. Within this mind or consciousness we have the thoughts and processes of which we are aware. Walk down the street. Eat that cookie. Compose this thought. These are all finite processes running on the virtual machine that is the mind.

Why then must this be a virtual machine instead of simply processes running along side each other in the same address space? In our conscious mind we really have no way of knowing just what else is going on, so we are effectively isolated in a higher-level abstraction where we now somewhat know what is going on.

Virtualization is itself, in effect, the process of wrapping up a set of functionality and representing it on the platform at a higher level of abstraction where it can't access anything else running on the physical system. Considering this is only an analogy, I think it works pretty well from this point of view.

So what does this say for science fiction fans? Can we then run the mind of one person on the brain of another. I would say that that is taking the metaphor too far. You are, inasmuch as you can contemplate the concept of you, your hardware. Your brain is you, so it doesn't really make sense to try this operation. If you were in someway able to run your mind on another brain, you would have effectively converted that brain into you in the process. So I am saying nothing about the impossibility of copying a brain, except that if you do such a thing it wouldn't be a transfer of consciousness, it would be a copy of consciousness. There would be two of you.

Of course this whole concept, much like the mind, is merely an abstraction there to help us picture what is going on.