Mar 042015
 

I’ve only been camping a few times in my life. By “camping” I mean staying overnight outdoors, rather than just hiking and returning to sleep comfortably indoors. My first excursion camping was not the joyous adventure I’d hoped it would be.

I must have been about 11 or so at the time, probably in the 6th grade. My family was out of step with the popularity of outdoors culture in Montana. My father taught law, and spent his free time reading at home. My mother had once owned a cabin on Seeley Lake but had sold it, probably due to disinterest on the part of my father once they were married. My friend “R” had extended an offer to me to go camping with his father. R came from a “broken home” as his parents were divorced, and that situation carried significantly more guilt and shame than it does now. I was rather oblivious to his circumstance as a child, but in retrospect his parents seemed utterly absent in his life. At the time I knew R he was living with his grandmother and was largely unsupervised.

The offer of overnight camping was made to me during the winter. My parents allowed me to go. As I recall, there was little or no snow on the ground in the city of Missoula, but it was still cold and the days were short. I had a polyester filled sleeping bag; an older style that had square corners. I don’t recall its temperature rating, but I’m doubtful it was zero degrees F. My mother, to her credit, was insistent that I augment this sleeping bag with a down comforter. At the time I thought this superfluous.

So we disembark from Missoula. R’s father arrived in a pickup truck, whose bed I assume we loaded our gear into. Included in the journey was R’s half brother who must have been about 4 or 5 years old. R’s father made a strange comment, suggesting that we keep one of the rolled-up sleeping bags on our laps during the journey, in case of a collision. I still remember thinking to myself that the chance of that happening was utterly minute, perhaps one in a billion. I sat shotgun, with R to my left, so R and I would share this ad hoc air bag.

We drove out of town and proceeded up a winding mountain road. At this point the road is covered in compacted snow, and snow is covering the ground in the woods. I begin to become fearful of this man’s driving, which I perceived as WAY too fast for conditions. I began to slowly move the sleeping bag into my lap away from R. At one point we turned left, on a banked roadway. In front of us, parked on the opposite side of the road was a sedan. This vehicle did not create an obstruction to the truck’s path, as it was parked as close to the inside of the turn as it could be.

Instead of simply driving around, R’s father hit the brake. This caused the truck to skid, and gravity pulled the truck down the banked turn into the opposite lane. We were skidding directly toward the other car. We collided with the car, and upon impact R’s father exclaimed “God Bless America.” I think R went forward, and I believe he hit his face on the dashboard and bloodied his nose. I was not injured, as I assume I was wearing my seat belt and I had the sleeping bag in front of me. We all got out, surveyed the mutual damage and the adults exchanged insurance information. Thankfully the truck was still running and operable.

We continued on our journey. We parked the truck in what I recall was a sort of parking lot, probably just a wide spot in the road. We hiked into the woods, not very far though, probably only a couple hundred yards. We found a suitable spot to camp for the night. R’s father announced that we would be building an igloo to stay in for the evening. This sounded exciting, and fairly creative, and made me reconsider my initially unfavorable impression of the man. The forest had many lodgepole pines, and we set about cutting and gathering them in sufficient quantity to create a conical tipi sort of structure. It was not pleasant work, as I recall the snow being deep enough to impede movement. We didn’t have snow shoes. Eventually we built the structure, and we finished it by putting snow on top. By this time it was getting dark, and I was really looking forward to what I’d been imagining, which was eating a delicious hot dinner over a raging hot campfire, then retiring to sleep in this groovy igloo.

We did build a fire, but it wasn’t very good at warming us, and “dinner” was a quick snack of granola or granola bars, as I recall. But the bummer was only beginning.

At some point R’s father gave his announcement, rather casually; “OK Matt, you and R pitch that ripstop nylon tent and my son and I will sleep in the igloo.” WTF!! We had just worked all fucking afternoon building this cool thing and asshole was not going to let us enjoy it!

So we pitched the tent and got inside. As I recall, the temperature was around freezing. Thank goodness I had the down comforter, as I have a legitimate fear that I might have otherwise experienced hypothermia. I couldn’t sleep but for a moment or two, if it was sleep at all. It was a night of shivering misery. I was glad to leave the next morning, after a long series of gratuitous and unnecessary hardships.

I continued to associate with R in high school eventually parted ways with him when I went to college. The only other time I recall interacting with R’s father was when he gave me a ride home in his pickup truck on a different occasion. He took a left turn, and the passenger’s side door flew open! He had the presence of mind to say something like “I’ll turn right, and let centrifugal force close the door.” Thankfully the door closed. I was a buckled seat belt sort of kid, and perhaps I was responsible for not closing the door properly.

I was totally gun shy about camping for many years afterwards. It’s a demanding activity, in that a great deal of thoughtful preparation needs to go into it to achieve an enjoyable outcome. In an environment like Montana, and especially in the winter, camping can be legitimately dangerous. It’s an activity that can turn into a giant bummer, especially if the leader of your excursion is a complete douchebag.

Feb 092015
 

When I was a child my mother told me I had a “spiritual” experience. I think I was in the 8th grade or so when it occurred. I remember it happened during the winter, as I recall shoveling snow outside later that evening. At this point in our family’s history my brother was spending a considerable amount of time over at my grandmother’s house, as she had experienced a stroke and he looked after her. My brother and I each had our own bedrooms, and my mother would often watch television in my brother’s bedroom. I would freely come in and out of his room. His room had a walk in closet with a full length mirror on the outside.

I recall aimlessly walking into my brother’s bedroom, stepping in front of his mirror, and experiencing a profound shock. An instantaneous transition from ordinary waking consciousness to utter existential fear and panic. As with many “spiritual” experiences, describing it in words is difficult. A sort of profound question of “why do I exist?” Or perhaps “why does anything exist at all?” The experience was not at all “eerie” as it occurred too rapidly. It was as if I’d shocked myself on a doorknob, except the shock was psychological.

What caused this strange experience? I don’t know. I suspect that “cabin fever” had something to do with it. Staying inside for long periods of time can be mentally unhealthy. But this is speculation, I must concede. I was nominally a Lutheran at this time, but I don’t recall imputing any religious interpretation on the experience then or now. It caused no fear of mirrors in me, though it strangely caused a “fear-of-fear-itself” reaction. I would fear recalling this fearful experience, and that would “trigger” the experience itself! Thankfully, this self fulfilling prophesy was never as frightening as the initial experience.

I smoked cannabis several times in high school. I experienced genuine euphoria a number of times, usually in conjunction with listening to music, but unfortunately cannabis seemed to also occasionally trigger this fear-of-fear-itself reaction. Perhaps this is one reason why I never became a huge pothead; there is simply enough about the cannabis experience which still triggers anxiety in me.

By the time I was about a senior in high school, my mother and I would argue constantly. I had become an atheist by this time, and I loved rock music. At one point during an argument my mother brought up this experience, claiming she envied me, as I had received a “spiritual” experience. I tried to correct her, saying honestly that I did not interpret it in any sort of religious way, yet she persisted. Again, this sort of triggered the same sort of self-conscious panic in the first place! I was so upset I left the house and slept at a friend’s house that evening.

Thankfully, I have not had this sort of reaction in years. Ultimately I don’t know exactly what it was. I’ve struggled significantly with anxiety over the years, and I suspect, but do not know, that it’s somehow related. My mother’s take on the event is telling. If an experience is psychologically weird, anomalous, uncanny, or simply inexplicable, it becomes “spiritual.” I disagree with this assessment, but I include it because I think it factors in to how many people, particularly theists, might classify experiences as “spiritual.”

I had a second experience recently, arguably a more genuine spiritual experience. It happened in late autumn or early winter here in Seattle. Weirdly, it happened when I was shopping at Costco! I had just parked my truck in the parking lot and stepped onto the pavement. As I walked along I saw the sun was shining and the pavement was dry. Always a cause for joy in a wet place like Seattle! Yet I’ve been here since 1987, and have experienced many such moments of sunshine. I suspect that sunshine alone was not a sufficient condition for what happened.

As I entered Costco, I began to feel spontaneously, effusively, joyful. This was more than simply a selfish and somatic sort of buzz. I began to strongly empathize with and love every human around me. I don’t know how others usually feel in large crowds, but in general I see other humans in supermarkets as simply obstacles. I certainly look at good looking women in a sexual way, and try to be “polite” by not staring at people who look markedly unusual, but in general I don’t make eye contact with people and simply try to navigate ~around~ them. Almost always I simply view other humans in such situations as strongly neutral. Get in and get out. Take care of business.

But on this day, for about 10 minutes, I loved everyone. I looked at people, regardless of gender, class, race, age, or any other characteristic simply as HUMANS, exactly like me. We are all in the same boat! This was “unconditional” love, as I had not personally interacted with anyone else. I suppose it was analogous to the moment during a movie when everyone in the theater laughs at the same time. For a fleeting moment you feel a psychological “oneness” with everyone else. I am human, you are human, and we are fundamentally similar.

As with any such experience, I begin to ponder its meaning and how it occurred. I began to wonder if these sorts of experiences occurred regularly when I was a child, but maybe I’d forgotten about them. Suppose it’s 2:50 on a Friday afternoon in grade school on a sunny Spring day. You are itching to go outside, and you correctly infer that every other child is thinking and feeling the same thing. The joy you will feel when the bell rings and you get to run outside. It’s easy, and rational, to infer that that other humans are experiencing the same joy, and thus feel you are very much like other humans. It’s much easier to love someone that you can relate to.

It’s possible for me to interpret this very positive experience in a negative way! I can imagine that perhaps I’m simply a much more naturally misanthropic person than I’d like to believe. Perhaps other people have mental lives that more closely approximate my Costco epiphany. We certainly meet people from time to time that seem to exude ebullience and positivity. Perhaps for them unconditional love for humanity is a baseline emotional functioning, whereas it’s an emotional outlier for me. I don’t know. When I go for walks I often pass people walking their dogs. I often perceive the dogs as more beautiful and joyful than the humans walking them. I sometimes look at wild animals or even plants and impute more beauty and value upon them than many humans. On the upside, perhaps it’s possible to simply transfer those positive emotional perceptions onto humans as a matter of practice and habit.

I would dearly love to REALLY AND HONESTLY know what caused this experience. I certainly didn’t interpret in theistic ways; sadly no visions of Grace or Divinity, no metaphysical ideation or imagination. I was completely clear-headed during the experience. If there was a way to reproduce this experience, hopefully in a non-drug way, I think it would be a huge benefit to humanity. I could see myself becoming an evangelist for its methodology.

I’ve been practicing vipassana meditation for about 2 years now. Even as a beginner I can feel significant anxiolytic euphoria during meditation. I experience about 10 or 15 minutes of equanimity afterwards. I would love to connect my Costco experience to meditation, but I honestly can’t. I sometimes “fall” into mildly meditative states while walking, but usually not in more demanding situations like shopping in supermarkets. My father died last June, and in a selfish way I’m no longer burdened by having to take care of him, as I did for more than 2 years at the end of his life. Perhaps my Costco experience was a moment of finally feeling free of the burden of responsibility.

These days I’m quite taken by the messages of Peter Boghossian and Sam Harris. Both of these men place a high value on honesty. As I say, I’d love to impart a message that I’ve figured out how to reproduce this spiritual experience, but I can’t. I suspect, but do not know, that throughout history humans have had these sorts of spontaneous experiences, but simply interpret them in the religious contexts of the societies in which they live. I don’t have a really strong conclusion to this essay. Prosaically, it’s a record of an anomalous event.

bellini-saint-francis-in-the-desert

I believe the most productive conclusion is that such states of unconditional love are genuinely possible to experience, though I can’t honestly give you the recipe for attaining it!

 Posted by on 02/09/2015 Growing Up In Montana, Personal History Tagged with:  Comments Off
Nov 212014
 

Why should rationalists meditate? There are a number of good reasons, but the one I’d like to address is how it impacts our conception of free will.

For many, the question of free will is both a complex philosophical question and a religious doctrine. It can be intimidating for an individual to make sense of the arcane philosophical debates. I know I did. When I was in college I was rather fixated on the notion of free will to an unhealthy degree.

Eventually I discovered the weirdly counter-intuitive idea that both “free will” and the “self” are illusions. I can’t recall clearly where I first encountered this notion; perhaps it was reading Krishnamurti, or advocates of psychedelic drugs.

I began meditating with a reasonable degree of habitual regularity only a few months ago. I am by every metric a beginner at this practice. Nevertheless, during meditation it becomes MUCH easier to perceive the appearance of individual thoughts arising in the stream of consciousness. Because of this, it becomes a trivial matter to directly perceive the truth of the claim that “free will” and the “self” are illusions. They are certainly strong illusions, as our normal waking consciousness creates a veritable flood of images, words, perceptions, and somatic sensations in our stream of consciousness.

When one perceives a single thought arising during meditation, it becomes easy to see that the thought was not “chosen” in any way; it simply appears. There’s also a logical paradox in the notion of “free will” in that it assumes a mind chooses from a range of thoughts and picks one to enter consciousness. If this were so, we would know a thought before we actually know it.

The notion of “self” is another powerful illusion. Again, when one meditates, it becomes apparent that there is no “self” that chooses which thoughts to enter consciousness. Thoughts simply appear in consciousness.

Nothing I’ve said so far is really novel. What I’d like to suggest that might really be novel is that one of the specific virtues of meditation for skeptics, atheists, and rationalists is that enables a direct and simple way to understand why “free will” is an illusion. Why is this valuable? For a number of reasons, but one being that the doctrine of “free will” is a sort of moral Get-Out-Of-Jail-Free card for theists in the Abrahamic traditions. When confronted with the uncomfortable notion that God allows evil to occur even though he’s omnipotent, we are told that God gave man “free will” which puts the responsibility on mankind, not God.

Free will also factors into the doctrine of punishment, both human and divine. Curing immoral behavior is itself a more moral act than simply punishing it. For example, if it were KNOWN that a sociopath had a brain tumor that caused his sociopathy, the moral act would be to treat the tumor, not punish the sociopath. As fallible humans it’s largely beyond our ability, at present, to “cure” most sociopathy.

Once the notion of “free will” is abandoned, the notion of hell becomes all the more morally barbaric and gratuitous. It supposes a super-being capable of re-arranging the determinate causes of sociopathy, which is ultimately a victim state, yet chooses to punish the victim. Eternally.

Again, these ideas are not novel to me. I would refer anyone interested in the issue to read Sam Harris’ book on the subject or to watch this lecture of his:

I encourage skeptics, atheists, and rationalists to meditate. Discover for yourself how “free will” is an illusion.

 Posted by on 11/21/2014 Personal History, Science Tagged with:  Comments Off
Nov 112013
 

We commonly believe that “testing” is an intentional process. In fact, we think of the most carefully designed tests as “scientific” tests. Within the commonplace notion of “scientific testing” there is a tacit assumption that it’s intentional. Consider the spectacular success of finding a predicted subatomic particle, the Higgs boson. A giant machine had to be built, the Large Hadron Collider, and it had to be operated by educated people with highly specialized technical knowledge. The intention of the tests at the LHC is to find subatomic particles.

The kind of testing that Mythbusters does is also scientific testing, but with a much lower budget. There again, it’s intentional testing, as unique devices are often built to test the claims that they often erroneously refer to as “myths.”

There are tests that occur which are unintentional, which is why they are non-obvious. Consider Russian dashboard cameras, or “dash-cams.” Their designed function, their intention, is to capture traffic events such as collisions, to guard against fraudulent insurance claims. In a surprising turn of events, Russian dash cams videos were used to help calculate the trajectory of the Chelyabinsk meteor. The unintentional data was valid and scientifically useful. In addition, seismic sensors designed to detect nuclear detonations also provided data that was used to assess the Chelyabinsk event. Again, these seismic sensors were unintentionally testing for events besides nuclear blasts.

There are other “tests” which are as non-obvious and unintentional as dash-cam videos. Consider the question “is there a population of panthers in Florida?” The answer is yes. How do we know this? Well, a variety of reasons, one of them is the sad reality that some members of this population are hit and killed by cars. Roadkill is an unintentional sort of “test” for the presence of animals in an area.

How might this notion apply to skepticism? Consider the central claim of young earth creationism, that the planet is no more than 10,000 years old, and that all species on earth were created spontaneously at one time. If this was the case, there would be tangible evidence of this. This question was settled decades ago, but consider that even now the claim is unintentionally tested on a daily basis. Science learns novel things within branches of science relevant to evolution on a daily basis. If creationism were real, “normal science” as Thomas Kuhn calls it, would be encountering anomalies that suggest creationism EVERY DAY. This does not happen. It does not happen because creationism is false.

The culture of skepticism is often “reactive” in the sense that those who assert extraordinary claims act first and skeptics follow by analyzing or testing those claims. I’ve personally done this in the somewhat reviled area known as “Bigfoot skepticism.” Extraordinary claims were made that certain textures on a putative Bigfoot footprint cast represented “dermal ridges.” I involved myself with testing this claim.

Bigfootery is not seen by most skeptics as being as socially corrosive as creationism, and I would agree with this. Yet even most “Bigfoot skeptics” don’t conceive of Bigfootery as being as intellectually bankrupt as creationism.

I no longer think this way about the subject, and I now conceive of Bigfootery as being as intellectually bankrupt as creationism. Why? Because the Bigfoot proposition, like creationism, is tested on a daily basis. It has failed on a daily basis, and has failed on a daily failed for decades.

How specifically is the Bigfoot proposition tested on a daily basis? First off, as mentioned earlier, roadkill. Bigfoot is asserted to be a real animal, whose range is the entire North American continent. For decades now, drivers travel literally billions of miles on those roads each year. Traffic is constant. Animals of all kinds both common and rare, like Florida panthers, are killed. Not a single Sasquatch. Hikers traverse the wilderness daily, including the alleged habitation areas of Bigfoot. Humans by nature are curious, and anomalous details stand out. A human shaped skull the size of a basketball would stand out, as would virtually ANY part of a humanoid carcass. The natural curiosity of hikers is an unintentional test for all sorts of anomalies, such as aircraft debris occasionally found in the wilderness. No Bigfoot carcass has ever been found in North America. Geologists, road engineers, paleontologists, and others dig and move earth on a daily basis in North America. Though most are not intentionally looking for Bigfoot fossils, anomalous fossils would be noticed, as would all sorts of anomalies. Wildlife photographers capture high resolution, unambiguous photographs of all sorts of animals, including very rare ones, on a daily basis. In 50 years of Bigfootery, the number of clear and unambiguous photographs or motion pictures of Sasquatch produced by non-Bigfoot advocates is zero.

The claim by Bigfoot advocates that Bigfootery is a legitimate scientific question continues to function as effective propaganda because the notion of unintentional testing is non-obvious.

For many years now, creationists have tried to argue that creationism is a legitimate scientific question. “Teach the Controversy” they argue. It’s a subtle form of propaganda. Creationists attempt to stage public “debates” with top scientists. In this way, creationists are subtly attempting to persuade by suggesting the issue is a legitimate controversy, and that the creationist’s argument and evidence is equivalent to that offered by legitimate scientists. Bigfoot advocates engage in a similar form of propaganda, though I suspect that they do so unconsciously.

By causing “Bigfoot skeptics” to continually respond to putative evidence, Bigfoot advocates tacitly position the Bigfoot proposition as a valid scientific question. Furthermore, this obscures the damning flaw of Bigfootery, which is that the Bigfoot proposition is unintentionally tested daily, and fails daily.

 Posted by on 11/11/2013 Bigfoot, Pseudoscience, Science Comments Off
Dec 062012
 

Some years ago I was driving into downtown Seattle with my girlfriend and her son to see a movie. Suddenly I see the flashing lights of a police car in my rear view mirror. I pulled over, and the officer advised me that my tail lights were not functioning. A perfectly legitimate reason for the police to stop a driver. Thankfully, I was not given a ticket, just a warning, and shortly thereafter I had my truck serviced and the problem taken care of.

Unfortunately, there’s more to this story. During the traffic stop the officer asked if I had any marijuana in the car. I had none, no drugs, and I don’t drink alcohol. Why did he ask this question? He claimed he smelled patchouli, which he pronounced “pa-Chew-ee.” Encounters with the police are nerve-wracking things even for law-abiding citizens. I couldn’t immediately answer him why there might be a smell of “pa-Chew-ee” in my truck. The fact that this cop couldn’t even pronounce “patchouli” correctly instantaneously put him in the moron-shithead class along with the SPD officer who booked a coffee mug warmer into evidence as a “scale.”

In retrospect, perhaps I got off fairly easily. If I was black or brown perhaps I would have had the “Mexican piss” beaten out of me…

Later, I recalled that I had indeed used a bar of soap my girlfriend had bought that must have been scented with “pa-Chew-ee.”

This story is an example of one of the bizarre side effects of the failed prohibition on cannabis. It worked as one more avenue to shake down, intimidate, search, and question honest law abiding citizens. It functioned as an excuse that cops use to exert power and control, with the flimsiest of pretexts.

With the repeal of cannabis prohibition in Washington, at least on a limited scale, let’s hope the SPD gets back to REAL police work, busting REAL criminals and abandoning these moronic shake down practices.