Thursday, November 24, 2016

Something from nothing

How does life arise from inanimate matter? How did existence arise out of nothing? How does sentience arise from insentience?

It seems impossible that the glory we experience as being alive could be the result of nothing more than arbitrary, intrinsically purposeless forces tossing around dead stuff.

And yet we now know with near-certainty that this is indeed the case. This "aliveness" that we want to ascribe to ourselves or other parts of the universe is just a trick of the brain; probably a random adaptation that happened to avert us from some evolutionary cul-de-sac. There is nothing alive about the universe other than this illusion that inert matter is fooling itself with.

I suspect that part of you doesn't quite believe this party line. There's probably also a competing instinct in you that thinks that that first part is hopelessly naive. It's more courageous and honest to just face the facts with, no matter how bleak they may seem.

I think there are approximately three ways to proceed from such a juncture.

One is to take all the data and interpretations at face value. From this perspective, the universe (and therefore the Earth) is intrinsically lifeless, and so we might as well force nature into a shape that is convenient for us during our short, pointless stay. That is what is happening today. While we might temporarily slow down our march to extinction, if we deep down believe that there's no such thing as life (not really, anyway), our attempts to salvage it will always be half-hearted.


The second approach is to realize the tragedy of the first, and to brainwash ourselves into believing that there must be something miraculous about life. Religions and spirituality sometimes do a good job of this. Unfortunately this approach also fails, because the rational mind is tugging in a different direction. There just isn't enough evidence.

The third approach is to notice something we've been overlooking. In order to see it, the mind needs to be awfully quiet. So quiet that it becomes possible to notice details that lie hidden below the layer of our metaphysical assumptions.

Our assumptions about the nature of reality -- about the inherent and independent existence of time, space, and matter -- operate at such a deep level in our minds that we likely never notice them, let alone experience what lies underneath them. And in an amazing feat of circular reasoning, we convince ourselves that it's pointless to find our way down there: after all, whatever we find couldn't be anything but a trick of a physical brain.

But actually nothing could be less pointless than going down there.

Pause for a moment and marvel at the experience of being alive. Don't think about being alive or how great it is; try to experience the glory as directly and fully as you can. Let it overwhelm you.

Now consider what happens when we try to answer questions about "life." First we attempt to define it. Here's what the dictionary tells us:
Life (n): the condition that distinguishes animals and plants from inorganic matter, including the capacity for growth, reproduction, functional activity, and continual change preceding death.
Imagine being innocent enough to ask a smart adult wow, how do you explain life? and getting an answer about the capacity for growth, reproduction, and functional activity. The answers may be fascinating enough to make you forget that it's not at all what you were really asking about. After a few of these sleights of hand, maybe you forget your original question entirely.

So what happens when you delve underneath your metaphysics? You finally stop trying to frame the fundamental question of existence in terms of answers you're already unreasonably certain about, and rediscover the meaning of "life."

Before you can discover "the meaning of life" you must discover the meaning of "life." In that stunning moment where you rediscover life, it may occur to you that you haven't really been living most of the time. A damn shame, that.

At the same time, you may find that something fascinating happens to your question about how life could come from non-life. But I wouldn't spoil the surprise for you even if I could.

Instead, I would simply like to offer this possibility: it's time to stop bouncing between the first two approaches, and find our way toward the third. It's possible that the fate of our species depends on it, but surprisingly, that's not even the most compelling reason to pursue it.

Saturday, November 12, 2016

The dream is collapsing

You don't remember how you got here. In fact, you don't remember there ever being anywhere but here. You're so completely lost in this dream that you have completely lost track of the fact that this is a dream. An infinitely long time ago, there was a somewhere else.

There is never enough evidence inside a dream to implicate it as a dream. None of the objects in the dream, nor the set of tools available to you (e.g., what we call "science" and "reason" in this dream) are sufficient to indicate to you that you're dreaming -- let alone enough to pop you out of it. But sometimes a voice speaks up:
Psst... there was once a somewhere else. 
What? What do you mean "somewhere else?" This is all that has ever been, and ever will be
No. You ate something. 
What do you mean I ate something? How could eating something have anything to do with this crazy place I am in now?
Thousands of years go by. You forget about the crazy voice. 

But one day, things in the dream start providing you hints that the voice is indeed correct. And slowly, it starts to dawns you. You did eat something. That's how you got here. There's a somewhere else! You were once there! You can get back! You must get back!

What will you do when things in this dream start hinting at you that it's time to wake up? What would those hints even look like?

Will it look like the leading physicists widely agreeing that time and space are illusions, generated by some deeper reality?

Will it look like leading technologists being totally convinced that this universe is a simulation?

What of ancient cultures everywhere having long agreed that reality is a dream?

And how will you find your way out, once you start to suspect it?

Perhaps you will realize that nothing in the dream will ultimately lead you out of the dream. And perhaps when that realization dawns, you will finally pick up the one clue that has any value:

Find the dreamer.

What is that by which You know that you exist and by which You perceive the body in the world? Is this not really the only question Needing to be answered? Investigate this exclusively.
- Wu Hsin