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.

Jun 282012

I like Costco. I buy most of my stuff there, including my food. This is a recipe for my current default lunch, which I think is healthy and is most certainly filling. I use an “Aroma” brand rice cooker which has a “slow cook” setting.

Add 50gm bulgur into the rice cooker along with 5gm curry powder, 5gm chili powder, and 375ml water. I’ve substituted McCormick powdered taco seasoning for the chili powder. Thaw one frozen chicken wing the night before in the refrigerator. This should weigh about 250gm, but more or less is OK. Cut this into chunks that weigh about 3gm, discarding bits of fat. I use Costco skinless, boneless chicken thighs.

Cook this for one hour in the rice cooker on the “slow cook” setting. On my “Aroma” brand rice cooker the slow cook button can be pushed multiple times; each press adds one hour to the timer. I watch this hour timer to check that one hour has passed. Stir occasionally with a long handled spoon that is compatible with the nonstick surface of the rice cooker.

I purchased my digital scale from Harbor Freight, but I understand they are now commonly available, even at Walmart.

After cooking one hour, add about 300gm frozen Kirkland stir-fry mixed vegetables and mix in well. You can add directly from the freezer, as even a short duration of cooking will thaw and cook them correctly. Add 20gm “Simply Asia” sweet ginger garlic seasoning (from Costco!) and mix in well. To avoid over-cooking the vegetables, don’t cook longer than about 20 minutes. 15 minutes is about right.

 Posted by on 06/28/2012 Personal History Comments Off
Feb 262012

Have you ever wondered how sweetness equivalence is measured? When we read that aspartame is “200 times as sweet as sucrose” what does that actually mean? Does that mean that 100mg of aspartame on the tongue will produce a sensation that is 200 times as intense as 100mg of sucrose?

I’ve wondered about this for YEARS. Consider other bodily sensations, like sound. If you sit quietly in a perfectly quiet place, you will begin to hear internal “noise” like your own breathing and probably some level of tinnitus. Consider that a baseline. Now compare that with the LOUDEST sound you have ever heard. In my case it would probably be my first rock concert, Van Halen. The range of internal sensation for sound is enormous.

Unfortunately for humans, the range of sensation for physical pain is also vast. Our other senses have ranges much greater than that of the sensation of sweetness. But even with taste, the range of sensation is great. Consider hot sauces, and what an enormous physical sensation that capsaicin and other capsaicinoids can produce. But perception of sweetness is different. The range from barely detectable to pure-sucrose-on-the-tongue is not very great. Why is that? Why does the human body have such a disparity in the ranges of sensation that we can perceive? Why do hearing and pain have ranges of sensation so vastly greater than the perception of sweetness? How did evolution “work” to create this situation?

When aspartame was first released as Equal brand by Searle, an advertizing campaign was run which claimed that Equal “tastes great straight.” I seem to recall Cher pouring the contents of a blue paper packet of Equal onto her tongue. Indeed, a similar test with a pink packet of saccharine produced a miserable and bitter result. From there I began to wonder what putting PURE aspartame on the tongue would be like. If you notice, you can’t buy PURE artificial sweeteners.

I long suspected that what it actually MEANS when the statement is made that an artificial sweetener is X times as sweet as sucrose is that a solution of the sweetener diluted X times is EQUIVALENT IN TASTE to a solution of sucrose. Indeed, a bit of Google-fu gives the result. In fact this is similar to the “Scoville scale” of heat in chili peppers. The Scoville scale is not a measurement of PPM of capsaicin but a dilution equivalence.

I do wonder though, if our tongues and brains were wired so that our sweetness range was like that of hearing or chili heat. Would chemicals like aspartame or sucralose become controlled substances? Consider how “abused” sweetened food is right now; what if your chocolate bar or pancake syrup was two hundred times as intense as it is now? Would we have pre-employment screening for sucralose?

 Posted by on 02/26/2012 Opinion, Science Comments Off