How do you know who you’re talking to?

A few questions for theists: How do you know to whom/what you pray? Even if you feel that some kind of God exists, how do you know He/She/It isn’t a malicious, malevolent being misrepresenting Itself as a kind, benevolent being? If everything is left to faith in traditions, institutions, prophets, etc., how can you confirm the identity, nature, agenda, extent, etc. of what you call “God(s)”? If there is an all-powerful creator God, shouldn’t that being be able to make all humans clearly understand Her/Him/It, and what might it say about God that all humans haven’t been made to clearly understand Her/Him/It (e.g., is God not all-powerful, not always loving, etc.)? If God changes (i.e., takes actions to create or affect this world or people), to what extent can God be eternal?

Valuing life

What is appealing about eating, or wearing, the rotting carcas of a dead animal or plant?

Why are captive, genetically weakened animals and plants more valued than the freer, stronger animals and plants in the fields and forests?

Why do larger, more intelligent animals (cows, pigs, etc.) deserve to be killed and fed to smaller, less intelligent animals (cats, dogs, etc.)?

Why is a human brain and body configuration more valued than non-human configurations?

What positive contributions do you make to the world that justify killing thousands of other beings for you throughout your life?

Why are humans in other countries less valuable than humans in your country?

Why are children you give birth to more valuable than orphan children who have already been born?

9 disgusting things about sex

Mainstream media find any excuse to make sex seem appealing, so here are 9 ways in which sex is disgusting.

  1. It’s a chemical addiction, and it’s built into most people’s bodies, so it’s very hard to stop taking the drug. If you think you’re not a sexual drug addict, just try not doing or thinking about sexual things for a few days, weeks, or months (depending on how often you usually do it). The withdrawal symptoms are similar to cocaine (anxiety, depression, fatigue, insomnia, nightmares, obsessive thoughts, etc.). Sex is often associated with other drug use.
  2. There are few/no natural safeguards. Sexual cravings often lead people to create unwanted children, too many children, or to have abortions. There are also a wide variety of sexually transmitted diseases, some life-threatening. It’s very easy for people to be physically compatible but mentally incompatible, with short, lustful actions causing many difficult, life-long consequences for multiple people.
  3. Sex involves close, including oral, contact between parts of the body that are otherwise only associated with using the toilet.
  4. Sex-related organs of the body (e.g., women’s enlarged hips and breasts, men’s prostate and external sex organs, etc.) are quite fragile, and are prone to cancers, injuries, pain, and infections.
  5. Sex involves the body automatically creating things that are technically alive (sperm and eggs), and then destroying most of them.
  6. People’s bodies are just different configurations of skin, fat, muscles, glands, nerves, bones, etc., but sexuality causes people to get attached to certain configurations, putting pressure on people to modify their bodies, often unhealthfully.
  7. People often associate sexual thoughts with racist thoughts, preferring the physical features of their own ethnic group. Humanity probably began as a single species in Africa 50,000 to 100,000 years ago, and we keep moving farther and farther away from that genetic unity.
  8. Sex, and sexualized media, encourages people to revel/wallow in very self-indulgent, fickle, exploitive, greedy, jealous, aggressive, objectifying, shallow/mindless, etc. states of mind. Much like food advertising, sexualized media is very charged and harsh, showing exaggerated things in extreme situations. Pretty people with little intelligence or education often receive ridiculously large amounts of money and power as actors, models, or politicians.
  9. Sex has led to a variety of dangerous, exploitive, or criminal social activities: harassment, discrimination, segregation, strip clubs, sex clubs, porn, prostitution, sex slave trafficking, forced marriage, rape, genital mutilation, castration, etc. About 50% of people who have been raped develop PTSD (source).

A conversation about truth between a natural scientist and a Theravada Buddhist

Scientist: If it can’t be measured with an objective, mechanical instrument, it didn’t happen.
Buddhist: Everything you’ve ever thought, seen, made, or done — including hypotheses, instruments, experiments, results, and theories — are constructs of the brain/mind. Everyone’s experience of life is inherently subjective; objectivity is impossible. Even one person cannot truly understand another person.
Scientist: But humans have evolved on this planet for millions of years. Under Earth-like conditions, our constructs are probably very accurate.
Buddhist: Under land-dwelling, great-ape-like conditions, the constructs are probably very accurate. But can a human really fathom the experience of something like the underwater echolocation experience of a dolphin, or the “rapid-pink” (Varela, Rosch, & Thompson, 1991, p. 183) combined temporal-visual sense that allows small birds to fly through dense bushes? Minds are embodied, and different species’ brains and bodies seem to be configured differently.
Scientist: Under ape-like or aquarium conditions, humans can observe dolphins and see what their echolocation abilities seem to allow them to do (e.g., navigate in the dark). Then we can create instruments (e.g., sonar), with which we can interact, that seem to us to allow us to do the same things as dolphins.
Buddhist: We can mentally construct a perception of physical instruments….
Scientist: Agreed.
Buddhist: So the goals of science are conceived from a human perspective. Humans see something they want to understand, or a challenge they want to overcome, so they set about finding a way to feel like they’ve understood or overcome it. What bothers me about this is that, earlier, you claimed “it didn’t happen,” in an absolute sense. How can a research project that was conceived in a species-biased way lead to an impartial, unbiased realization of absolute truth?
Scientist: When research is done on extremely large scales, and involves extremely brilliant people, I think the results approach absolute truth.
Buddhist: I will grant you that it approaches an intersubjective truth, which may be all that most selfish/greedy/angry humans really care about (i.e., a human-serving truth), but not absolute truth.
Scientist: Then on what grounds would you say that absolute truth has been found?
Buddhist: With practice, the human mind has the capability to internally turn upon, observe, and go progressively deeper into itself. Eventually, we think it can go to such a basic level that it is no longer human, and some Buddhists think no longer subjective. From such a perspective, we think that one is in a less biased, or possibly unbiased, position to observe reality.
Scientist: How could that be verified? How could a human, from their everyday state of consciousness, confirm that a Buddhist meditator has gone to such an unbiased state?
Buddhist: Well, we don’t know whether you scientists could think up a way to measure states of consciousness, but we think that people who can achieve such a state are able to tell whether other people have attained it. “Enlightenment,” as we call it, is like a club with very difficult entry requirements. Western science also has quite high entry requirements: a high degree of cognitive abilities, often many years of school, a controlled laboratory environment, etc.
Scientist: How much practice are we talking about here?
Buddhist: For most people, it takes about three years of vigorous practice in solitude (i.e., few external distractions), with a good teacher.
Scientist: So it’s independently, empirically verifiable, but very hard to verify. Most people aren’t going to spend three years sitting out in the woods, in order to gain the ability.
Buddhist: Right. It would be wonderful, if more people would make the effort, but not many are willing. The Buddha suspected that it would always be that way.
Scientist: Can anyone do it, or only certain, privileged people?
Buddhist: We think pretty much every human being has the mental capability. Brain-damaged or severely mentally handicapped people might not, but most people can. It’s easier for some people than others (e.g., people with a calm temperment who live a peaceful life), for many reasons, but it’s just a learned/developed skill, like playing the piano.
Scientist: So it’s transcultural and dissociated from things like personality, gender, and social position.
Buddhist: Yes.
Scientist: It sounds like Buddhist meditation, at least at a very advanced level, might be the doing of science from a more basic or simple, and possibly less biased, state of consciousness.
Buddhist: We would agree. Unfortunately, in order to communicate the findings of enlightened people to humanity, it is difficult to avoid the trappings of languages, cultures, institutions, and so forth. But, like Western natural/positivistic science, we think that there is basically one truth about one reality.
Scientist: Must one worship Buddha statues, wear charm bracelets, and so forth, to practice Buddhist meditation?
Buddhist: No. Monastic Theravada Buddhists think that the Buddha was just a man who accomplished something great. He is highly respected, but not worshipped. Westerners often mis-understand bowing as worship; in the Buddha’s case, it is only supposed to indicate deep respect. However, pop-culture and later Buddhist traditions sometimes take the Buddha in more religious, folklore, magic, astrology, etc. of directions. Buddhist monks are not supposed to participate in such things. It seems like some scientists also have faith in things like the scientific method and the capability of the discursive part of the human mind to understand everything. And then there is science fiction.
Scientist: Thank you. This has been very enlightening.
Buddhist: Not really, but please find a good teacher and practice meditation. Meditation is not the same as talking or thinking about things. Don’t take your discursive, human mind for granted.
Scientist: I’ll think about it.

Reference: Varela, F. J., Rosch, E., & Thompson, E. (1991). The embodied mind: Cognitive science and human experience. MIT Press.

Love.txt

Though an artificially intelligent (AI) robot might someday look and behave just like a human, how do its internal ‘mental’ states compare with a human’s. Is it possible for a robot, which behaves in a way that a human interprets as kindness or empathy, actually to be internally loving, kind, compassionate, sympathetic, attached, etc.? Can love be stored in a file on a computer disk, and what would be in such a file? Was the file designed by someone and/or was it constructed inductively from a history of sensor (infrared, microphone, etc.) data organized by machine learning algorithms? Can those algorithms modify themselves; if yes, to what extent?

Similarly, can different species (or even different people) ever really empathize with or understand each other, and does it matter? Does anyone care whether the happiness of a dog is the same as the happiness of a human, as long as the dog is wagging its tail or behaving affectionately, and as long as we believe the dog isn’t secretly plotting to hurt us?

I suspect that robots might some day reach this ‘close enough’ stage, where humans develop enough of a degree of apparently mutual love and trust with them to live with them, but I also suspect that robot minds and bodies will evolve differently, and much more rapidly, than biological ones (perhaps unless an artificial version of a human is made), such that our communications with robots will be similar to inter-species communications, and it might be hard to trust that the robot’s intelligence and/or motivations didn’t drastically change overnight. Limited hardware capabilities, similar to the way that numbers of neurons limit the complexity of biological thought, might provide some comfort to humans, though computer processors are becoming smaller and denser by the day.

Questioning STEM funding priorities

How does finding distant solar system objects or subtle gravity waves, studying distant supernovae, determining the geologic compositions and distant pasts of uninhabitable planets in our solar system, theorizing about the ultimate fate of the universe trillions of years from now, creating super-intelligent AI that could replace or kill us all, etc. solve humanity’s most pressing problems (i.e., old age, disease, death, poverty, ignorance, over-population / resource shortages / environmental destruction, natural disasters, etc.)?

Why isn’t the above research money being spent on healthcare research, poverty elimination programs, giant solar and wind farms in the Earth’s deserts, giant solar panels or shades in space, giant CO2 scrubbers for Earth’s atmosphere, propulsion systems and ships capable of taking many humans to other habitable worlds (or at least large-scale space stations and Mars colonies, so that not all of humanity is on one fragile planet), etc.?

The time since/at something we all share

GMT/UTC has a British imperial past (i.e., the time at Greenwich) and was colonialistically imposed on the world. Many countries seem to prefer to measure time with respect to themselves. I wish we could think of something that all of humanity shares, and measure universal time with respect to that.

Time (e.g., seconds and multiples thereof) since the Big Bang, or some other large astronomical event, is perhaps the most universal and future-proof idea. Big Bang time is not yet possible, because humanity’s best astronomy instruments currently can measure when the Big Bang happened to a precision of only about ±21 million years. Whenever it becomes possible, perhaps only the last few digits could be used, for convenience.

The time at the center of the Earth, or at some location that is administered by an open-member international committee, is another idea. The poles probably wouldn’t work, because the sun rises and sets there only once per year. Time runs slightly slower at the center of the Earth than at the surface, due to Earth’s gravity well and time dilation, but I have read it is only about one year slower for every billion years. I understand that GMT/UTC is local mean solar time, meaning the apparent position of the sun relative to a fixed point on a sphere. Even if the sphere was much smaller, one still would have to pick a point on it.

Can you think of anything else that all of humanity (going into the future) shares with respect to which we could measure time?