Many of the thoughts presented in this section draw chiefly upon what I remember from my secondary school education in mathematics and science, and that was thirty years ago, as well as some light reading I’ve done through the years. So there are probably some blunders. But that’s both the danger and the benefit of insufficient knowledge...

On the Senses and Perception

We can perceive things and feel things only in certain ways. You can have perfect vision or you can be color-blind; you can feel the pain of a cut or the pain of a burn or the pain of an abrasion (which, curiously, is something between the pain of a cut and the pain of a burn; is it a combination of the two or is it something entirely different?). All perception and feeling is physiological in nature, even with abstract things like love or hatred. At any moment, it depends on how you’ve developed to that point—it depends on what’s in your related archetype at that time.

All things are different, but sometimes they seem the same to us because of limitations in our sensory powers of resolution and because of limitations in our cognitive breadth and precision.

If you like the flavor of cherries but your friend does not, is it because cherries taste different to both of you? Or is it because, while they taste the same to both of you, for some reason their flavor pleases you but displeases your friend? Is the pleasure you get from tasting cherries separate from their flavor, or do the flavor and the pleasure come together as a single experience? And can you imagine a flavor without also imagining your like or dislike of it?

Is a smell pleasurable to us only because of the context in which it exists to the other things of our world?

Say you like the smell of beef being grilled over charcoal. You like it a little more when you’re hungry, but you also like it when you’re not hungry. Is it the same kind of liking? Is it simply that when you’re hungry, the liking is accompanied by or intensified by thoughts of eating?

Say you were an explorer hundreds of years and you’d just come upon a new land. There you found the natives eating oranges with relish. You’d never seen an orange before, and it looked like nothing you’d ever seen. But now you knew they were edible and that at least some people liked them. The smell of the oranges would probably mean nothing to you until you tasted them. Then, depending on how you liked their taste, you would either like or dislike their small. And would this be different than the way you liked or disliked their smell if instead you’d seen the natives squeezing juice from the oranges and using it to clean up around the house? And within the category of foods, is there a difference between the way you like an innate smell, such as that of a freshly cut orange, and an induced smell, such as when steak meets flame?

When you remember the wonderful kitchen smells of Thanksgiving, is there a difference between remembering them on any old day, remembering them on a later Thanksgiving Day, and remembering them on Christmas Day? Do you
smell the same thing on each occasion, or is there some kind of interference between the smell of the memory and the smell of the present?

Of all the senses, sight is the eeriest. Sound, in contrast, seems abstract in principle, just an intangible effect of a tangible
event. But sight seems to show things as they really are. We can’t see on the subatomic level, of course, but within our biological limits, it is sight that seems to most reveal the physical world to us.

Think of how the eyes and the brain work together to create our image of the physical world. Where is the screen on which that image is displayed, on which it moves? Is it like the surface of a crumpled piece of paper, except that it’s in the folds of the brain? Or perhaps it’s more like a television screen. Between the eye and the brain, how are images disassembled and reassembled in the correct way? And why does the image seem to be mapped out in our eyes? Surely not just because we know that sights enter our brain through our eyes. I suppose it’s simply that in order for us to know where the things of the physical world are in relation to us, they have to be perceived in reference to something, and that something is the eye.

I’d estimate my field of vision to be roughly 100 sq in. Does that mean the brain has to have an area of this size in order to contain and display the image?

On Memory

Think about what is actually stored in a memory versus the fullness of the original thought or experience. Is it different for memories of sensory experiences than it is for memories of thoughts or of learned techniques such as the order of the alphabet? And what of abstract memories, like the color blue? When we remember blue, is it a memory of a particular, or indeed of any, instance of blue we have seen? Or is it a memory that is somehow distilled from a number of our experiences of blue?

The compression of memory. Is it done along the lines of how electronic devices compress digital data? When we remember the walls of a room as being blue, how much of that room, and how accurately, do we really see in our mind? Compare your memory of something you saw yesterday with how that scene actually looks today. Try it with your other senses, too.

If you try to imagine a blue house, you can do it readily enough, perhaps instantly. But now look closely at your mental creation and see how little detail it actually contains. Compare it to the amount of detail you see when you’re actually looking at a blue house. Is the limitation of memory, versus the senses, due to what’s stored or due to what’s been retrieved?

It could be that when you remember the walls of a room as being blue, what you’re picturing then is not a stored image but something that’s been reconstructed from something that’s more of a textual memory. Do you now picture blue walls because you remember simply
that the walls were blue, or do you now think the walls were blue because you remember an image of blue walls?

If you see a thing as it is, given the limitations of your senses, then to you it is that thing and not merely a concept. But if you see it only in a fuzzy way, then to you it’s merely a concept and not an actual thing. Does the time come that a memory of an actual thing is replaced with a memory of a concept? Perhaps it’s like the half-life of radioactive substances...

Continuous blocks of time can seem to be compressed in our memory if they’re uniformly good or bad or boring. But I think it’s instead that we’ve stored so little of those times in our memory. You remember the year after your spouse died and all you remember is being depressed. But because it was an entire year, you think you should have a lot of memories of it and so therefore they must have been compressed.

How is it that memories are organized and retrieved? What are the access keys to a particular memory, and why does going along the sequence of keys to retrieve a memory sometimes trigger another, but not always the same, set of related memories? How many different access paths are there to a given memory? It’s easy for me to remember which vacation I took in which year, but other than for the most recent year or two, I can’t call up a Christmas memory for a specific year.

Is the mechanics of remembering a dream the same as that of remembering a thought or a sensory experience? Within a dream, I’ve sometimes remembered a dream from my past. Or is it just that I’m dreaming a portion of the old dream all over again, and if so, is it happening for the same reason or for a different reason that I initially dreamed it?

On the Physical Realm and the Mental Realm

Things in the physical realm become known in the mental realm through a mixture of imagination, observation, reasoning, measurement, and calculation.

It’s interesting that many of the fundamental concepts from the physical sciences can be applied in the mental realm as well. For example,
critical mass is the amount of something that must be present in order to overcome inertia and cause a particular effect. A smile, a look, a word, a touch…sometimes they have enough mass to start a reaction in us. The amount of mass required depends on the underlying connection—the distance—between the two people…the connection that, like the conductivity of an electrical circuit, is there in the absence of any particular stimulus. Critical mass can also be thought of as critical proximity.

I wrote this about a woman I kept seeing at the train station a couple years ago; eventually we met but it didn’t work out.
It was then that the secret glances and the incidental contact, the standing close and the sitting close, reached critical mass for me. Each new look and touch and physical nearness carried the weight of all those that had gone before. Critical mass in time rather than in space…

If you want to understand a thing—whether a person or an object—or to use it efficiently, you must first ask
What is its center of mass, what is the sweet spot of its striking or cutting surface, what is its freezing or boiling point?

Of the attributes of a particular thing or a particular person, you have to know what are their possible states, and you have to be able to tell when a given state is on or off.

The properties (as opposed to the states of matter as defined by science) of
solidity and liquidity are similar to the properties of mass and energy.

Only a thing can move, and without a thing there can be no movement.

Once movement stops within a thing, can it resume without the addition of something external? Not necessarily energy, but perhaps simply something such as water, something that simply imparts or facilitates movement.

If you add water to a seed, it begins to grow. How much of what is added by water is simply that its liquidity facilitates movement and correspondence between the internal parts of the seed? You could add olive oil; it has liquidity, but still the seed will not grow. You could ice, which has the same chemical composition as water, but still the seed will not grow.

Ice doesn’t have a growing effect on seeds. Is that simply because it lacks fluidity, or are there other issues related to temperature?

Habits, as well as feelings such as love and hate, are all examples of inertia, of the path of least action or, alternatively, the path of least resistance. Once something is entrenched in our mind, is in control of part of us, it doesn’t want to relinquish its power to another mental agency. That’s where discipline comes in—having a higher mental agency that can wrest control from other agencies when they become counterproductive to the whole. It depends on the degree of entrenchment of your Big Picture of life because your mind’s circuitry of discipline is tripped when you veer from the path you feel is consistent with leading you to that big picture.

It’s interesting how things can so powerfully change you, how you can come to want them so much. Cigarettes, alcohol, drugs, sex, money, power, achievement and success, fame, entertainment and diversion, religion, warmth, love...they’re all things you start life having none of, but there comes a time when you’d rather die than be without them. What you’re really wanting then is a feeling, a state of mind, and these things are simply the paths of least action
known to you between you and that destination. Often your body is involved in that, but what you’re really getting from that is simply the mental feeling you’re having then. Even love is much like this; you love the feeling of loving and of being loved.

But real love transcends this because you want good things for the other person even if those things are not what you would otherwise want, even if those things don’t make you feel good. It’s more of an imperative, a code that appeals to something beyond feeling good. Sure, you can feel good about doing the right thing, but often it’s not really about that. It’s about the satisfaction that some part of you is getting, a part that is higher up the hierarchy than is simply feeling good. I think of that part as the part of you that’s playing at being God.

Elasticity. When you’re young, you can get over certain things because you don’t yet have enough of a past, enough to hold you in place, enough inertia. But when you get older, you acquire all that and eventually it becomes harder to get over certain things, either because they are a part you or because they are not a part of you.

You can imagine a thing just sitting there, unmoving, over time...perhaps forever. Time can exist without movement, but movement cannot exist without time. In each infinitely small slice of time, there can be no kinetic (
actual) energy, only potential (theoretical) energy, and it is time that allows the potential to become the actual.

If everything suddenly stopped in place, was frozen, could it ever start up again? No, because if everything stopped, there would be no external force to get things going again.

It’s like static electricity…the things you pick up as you go through life, the things that must be let go of.

Physicists and engineers call it sympathetic vibration—vibration in one thing causing vibration in another thing. There is some famous video footage of The Tacoma Narrows suspension bridge in Washington state. It was made of concrete and steel. One day there was a strong wind; there was something about its velocity and its frequency of oscillation that resonated with the harmonics of the bridge—its shape, structure, and materials. The bridge started to ripple, then to buck up and down as if a giant had hold of one end and were shaking it up and down like you’d shake out a rug. Finally the bridge just blew apart because it had not been designed to meet such a wind.
Or perhaps because it had all along been destined to become one with just such a wind. Warmth is like that, but in a much nicer way...

The last I heard, gravity is the one fundamental force of physics that has yet to be integrated with the others into a single elemental force; electromagnetism and both the strong and weak nuclear forces have already been integrated. The commonality in these forces is that they somehow involve the concept of attraction between separate entities or within regions of what could perhaps be thought of as a single entity. If space-time is warped by gravity such that things are always simply following the shortest path, how different is that from our human feelings of warmth and love? The shortest distance between two people is love. Warmth has a slightly lesser effect, and at the farthest reaches of the opposite end is simple indifference.

On Certainty and Possibility

It’s not the case that some things are definite and others are indefinite. It’s the case that everything is definite, and that it’s only our knowledge of things that is indefinite. Heisenberg had the right idea, he just put it in the wrong place.

What we think of us as fate or chance or randomness is simply the work of hidden factors, ones that either are unknown to us or are known to us but are beyond our ability to precisely control. They’re neither less deterministic nor more powerful than other factors. A factor is a factor, it just depends on the extent to which we understand and can control its behavior. The hidden factors are mysterious
now in the way that gravity once was mysterious.

Coin-flipping is a classic example of what people think of as chance or randomness. Unlike the more obscure turns of events attributed to fate, coin-flipping can be relatively isolated as to the factors involved, and yet still we can’t predict the outcome of any given flip. But image if we were to create a coin-flipping environment that further isolated factors involved. Say the machine was able to flip the coin every time from the same starting position and orientation and with the same speed, trajectory, rotation, etc. Say the machine was housed in a temperature-controlled chamber from which all air molecules had been evacuated. Say that the chamber was mounted on a damping device that absorbed all vibrations coming from the floor, and that the inside surfaces of the chamber were precisely uniform. This would cut down on the incidence of what we think of as randomness, wouldn’t it? It would greatly increase our ability to predict the outcome of every coin flip, but all we’ve changed are factors which are not random.

If after each flip, the environment could be restored to its condition at the time of the preceding flip (no scratches, etc), then the result of each flip would be identical—the coin would always land in exactly the same position, with the same side showing, and after exactly the same amount of time had elapsed since the coin flew into the air.

Or say we had a thousand identical coin-flipping environments. They would all produce the same result. Or better still, say we could rewind time after each flip, perfectly reestablishing everything as it was then. We could do this endlessly and the result would always be the same, and there’s randomness in that.

Randomness also seems to be a property of
abstractions we’ve made from any number of specific situations, abstractions that factor out the specifics of time, space, and matter. It’s one thing to speak of my flipping a specific coin in a specific place at a specific time. It’s another thing to speak of coin-fipping in general; there’s only so much you can say about that, and the rest is what we call randomness.

Say you’ve misplaced your keys. You try to remember the last time you had them and where you’ve been since then. You think
Maybe I left them in the car…or Maybe they slipped out of my pants pocket on the train…or Maybe I left them in a desk drawer at work. You think all these things are possible, but they are not. Wherever you left them is the only possibility, and for you to have left your keys in one of the other places is as unlikely as for you to have left them on the dark side of the moon. The other places just seem possible because you don’t know, and because, in general, you could have left them in any of those places.

Imagine it this way. You are an all-seeing observer at the above situation, and I am the one who has lost his keys. I ask you, “What’s the chance my keys are on the dark side of the moon?” You say it’s zero. I ask you, “What’s the chance my keys are in the car?” You say it’s zero. I ask you, “What’s the chance my keys are in the desk drawer?” You say it’s 100 percent.

On God and Causality

Things always happen for a reason, but that doesn’t mean they happen for a purpose. Purpose is an illusion, but a useful one.

Does it make sense to say that things don’t always happen for the
best reason—the one that’s the most compelling, the one that would win a fight with a lesser reason? Can things sometimes happen for a lesser reason, or perhaps even for no reason? Does causality even exist, or is it just an abstraction of the human mind? Perhaps it’s more a matter of unfolding. Perhaps cause-and-effect is how this unfolding looks to us when we’re looking at only a small part of the universe…when, for example, we drop a glass on the floor and see that it breaks.

Is God, too, constrained by cause and effect? Is God simply the incarnation of cause and effect? Either of these would make for a God who is less than omnipotent and omniscient, because He could create and have knowledge of only a single set of events. He would be the God of what was, what is, and what will be; He would not be a God of limitless possibilities.

I believe miracles are impossible because, by definition, they would necessitate a break in the ongoing causality that is at work as the universe unfolds. Miracles would deprive past actions of their rightful future effects. If there were events that broke the chain of cause and effect, how and where and when could casuality safely resume? But perhaps there is some quantum gap in which the chain of cause and effect can be broken and in which the break in causality can be limited to the intended scope of the miracle…

I see no reason to believe God takes an ongoing role in the universe. It’s not necessary for Him to do so. Whether He is somehow apart from His creation or is one with it, the simplest view is that He created substance and unleashed time, and that everything that happened after that happened for a reason.
A clockwork universe with a nonparticipative God...

A malevolent God would have done far worse than what we’ve seen on Earth. A benevolent God would have done far better.

I read that astronomers recently observed some kind of high-energy event that occurred 12 billion light years away. That’s a lot of territory to cover. Can even God be stretched so thin? How busy He must be ...

To put that in perspective:

  • Scientists estimate the age of the universe to be 14 billion years and the age of the Earth to be 4.5 billion years.

  • A light year is a measure of distance, not of time; it’s the distance light travels in one year—5.9 trillion miles. For example, the sun is 90 million miles from Earth, so it takes 8 minutes for light from the sun to reach Earth.

It would help a bit if God simply expanded along with space-time, but then wouldn’t it be unnecessary for Him to be anything other than the law(s) of nature?

Having created everything, and knowing, or at least being able to know, how everything will play out at every instant in time, wouldn’t God become bored? No surprises, no spontaneity, nothing outside His control. I’d get bored but I’d never get hurt, and that’s not a good trade.

It’s mind-bending to imagine how God created everything. Imagine Him thinking
Hmm, how to go about this? Let’s see, first I’ll make some quantum particles, then from them will come photons, electrons, protons, and neutrons. Then the elements, but I’ll stop at a certain point and leave the rest for humans to create a zillion years down the line. And from all this will come larger forms of matter and energy, and finally life itself.

As humans, we work with the limited palette of the stuff that’s already there. In our thoughts and feelings, though, we can be more creative. Maybe it’s in that way that we’re most like God...creating something new, if not something from nothing.

On Randomness and Free Will

When people talk of having free will, what they really mean is that the locus of decision making is within themselves, not within something external. Say you and I are a happy couple and we’re in the cereal aisle of the grocery. You say, “Hmm, Corn Flakes or Lucky Charms...” I say, “Whatever you want.” You think you have free will then because the choice is up to you. But even though the choice is yours, is made within you, do you really have free will? No, because whichever you choose, you do it for a reason. It’s more a matter of coming to a decision than a matter of choosing, and that, too, happens for a reason. I would say that if you ended up choosing Corn Flakes, then it had to be that way just as surely as if I’d forced you to take the Corn Flakes, that you really had no other choice
at that time and in that place.

Now, say you’re my child and we’re in the same cereal aisle. You say, “Hmm, Corn Flakes or Lucky Charms...” I say, “Corn Flakes. They’re better for you.” Whether you wanted Corn Flakes or Lucky Charms, you think you don’t have free will then because the choice was made by me.

The ancient Greek philosopher Zeno devised a paradox involving a race between Achilles and an unnamed tortoise. The faster Achilles spots the tortoise a distance of, say, 100 meters. The race starts. By the time Achilles reaches the tortoise’s starting point, the tortoise has progressed a certain distance to point x. By the time Achilles reaches x, the tortoise has progressed to point y. And so on, the paradox being that, in this way of viewing the race, Achilles can never overtake the tortoise, no matter the length of the race either in distance or in time. But another way of viewing this same race is in terms of mathematical equations. To make the simplest case, let’s say that Achilles runs at a constant speed of 11 meters per second and the tortoise runs at a constant speed of 1 meter per second. At the end of 10 seconds, both Achilles and the tortoise will be 110 meters from the point at which Achilles started the race, and Achilles will have caught up to the tortoise. Simple experience shows us that this is the view that reflects reality, but how do we refute the first view, which also seems to make sense? The concept of free will is the result of a similar paradox.

There is no free will, but there is what can be thought of as
degree of participation. People can be thought of as having certain properties and abilities—giving off bodily warmth, jumping, performing arithmetic calculations, writing literature, loving, and so on. The more numerous and powerful are these abilities in people, the more we tend to think of them as endowing people with free will. It’s easy, and in many ways useful, to treat our properties and abilities in such an abstract way; it’s a way that allows us to accomplish incredible things, but still it’s simplistic.

Randomness and free will seem plausible, perhaps even natural, because we do not perceive and understand the whole of the universe…its scope. A toss of the dice appears random because we see only a small part of the world, one that cannot even approach our being able to predict the outcome of the toss. God, who by common definition encompasses all, would surely find that there is no randomness or free will at work in the universe. Everything is known to Him; there are no secrets, nothing to be figured out, nothing to be discovered or learned. And by knowing with certainty all things in the past, He knows everything in the future equally well.

But can God know the future before it happens? I don’t think so, simply because it takes time for things to play out. When we think we know something is going to happen, ours is a rough knowledge, one that doesn’t include all the particulars of what and when. God’s knowledge would be unlike that, it would be complete as to all a detailed photograph but with sound and smell, too. It doesn’t seem that even God could know a thing in less time than it takes for that thing to occur.

Can there be randomness or free will if there is an omniscient God? By definition, no. If a thing can be known ahead of time, then there cannot be the slightest shred of randomness or free will in its past.

Imagine your entire life being replayed as a film. At the moment you were born, you were in a certain state and the rest of the world was in a certain state. When you were separated from your environment in the womb, you cried. Then your mother held you and you stopped crying. Play the film from that point, through all your nonstop experiences and what you learned from them, and show me the
exact point when causality stopped and free will began.

The purpose of all valid rewards and punishments— those done other than out of love, playfulness, or vengeance—is modify behavior. If you murder someone and are then executed for that act, the purpose of your punishment is twofold: to deter other people from committing murder, and to remove the threat you present to society.

If you tell your children you’ll give them twenty dollars, or whatever the going rate is these days, for each A on their next report card, the purpose of that reward is to provide an additional incentive for them to study hard and to learn. Such a reward is often effective because it’s easy for everyone to determine whether the criteria have been met, and because it will be given in the near future, coincident with the desired behavior.

But do rewards and punishments make sense if there’s no free will? Sure, because they affect a person’s mental state by affecting their big picture. One of your children may not care for mathematics, man not see its usefulness in their future, or may just find it difficult. But they may want the twenty dollars enough to put in the effort. This kind of reward is also a good way of showing your children the concept of
The Big Picture. It shows them that they have to balance short-term desires with long-term desires in order to maximize the goodness of their life.

And does it make sense to have rewards and punishments in the afterlife? Most religions talk at length about the rewards and punishments to be found after death. That kind of thing is easy to say because you don’t have to put up any kind of proof along the way. Such rewards and punishments may modify your big picture, but generally they’re too far away to be effective. You have to continually live your life in the prescribed way, and at the end of all that, then you’ll be rewarded or punished. What good does it do to punish someone after they’re dead if you want to guide their behavior during life? By then it’s too late.

On Other Things

Time travel seems impossible because time seems to be an abstract concept, not something with a physical component (matter or energy) that can be
worked. The idea of going backwards or forwards in time may be possible in some mathematical models, and may even be possible in reality, but it seems not to be the case. It seems that what has passed is gone forever, and that what has not yet occurred cannot be shortstepped to. All things in due time...

Evolution is a heady theory. The thought that all life present on Earth started from a bunch of simple molecules and a bit of electromagnetic energy. And the thought that from those simple blobs of life we have all the complexity and variety of the millions of plant and animal species living today, as well as those that have become extinct in the past.

It’s easy to think of evolution in a general way. Over time, with a little mutation here and there, one thing gradually turns into something very different, something better suited for survival and therefore more likely to pass on its characteristics to its offspring. But think of a human eyeball, or better still, the best eyeball to be found in the animal kingdom. How could that develop from a simple light sensor, and how could a simple light sensor have developed from nothing? Think of the complexity of the eye, of its optics and its connection to the brain, and think of the complexity of the brain’s visual processing, and think how they would have had to develop together in order to be advantageous. Now, I’m certainly hampered in my understanding of all this due to my lack of scientific knowledge, but somehow it just doesn’t seem possible. It’s not that human life, with its body, its intellect, and its emotion, is so perfect that it had to be divine in origin. It’s simply that it seems to be too much complexity to have come about over even a zillion instances of spontaneity, even with each instance working from the benefits of all that past spontaneity.

Perhaps scientists should create an enclosed environment that mimics the conditions prevalent on Earth at the dawn of life. Over the millennia to come, they could observe what happens in there and see what’s what.

Mt. Everest is commonly thought of as the highest peak on earth. Its apex is about 29,000 feet above sea level, but a large part of that is due to the fact that it sits on an already high elevation of land; from its base to its apex, it’s only about 17,000 feet. Mt. McKinley in Alaska is about 19,000 ft from its base to its apex, Mauna Kea in Hawaii rises up from the ocean floor to a height of about 33,000 feet, and Mauna Loa in Hawaii rises up about 56,000 feet from its base, which is actually below the ocean floor. And the apex of Mt. Chimborazo in Ecuador is the point that, due to the bulging of the Earth along the equator, is almost 4,000 miles from the center of the Earth and is the point on Earth that is closest to outer space.

It’s eerie how strong yet tenuous life is. You could be eighteen years old and depressed, and you could slit your throat and die within seconds. Or you could not slit your throat and perhaps live another eighty years.