Friday, September 16, 2022

Reincarnation: A Different Perspective

 In high school, I dismissed the concept of reincarnation. Hindu belief systems seemed far from my understanding of the world. I did not discriminate in dismissing other belief systems. I also felt the belief in any afterlife, heaven, or hell, or Valhalla, among others, were driven by a human need to explain the purpose of life, given death.

More recently, I have become interested in the functions of collections of humans. In particular, I think of these "human-lifespan-independent" processes, like education, religion, culture, and more recently, business and economics, the scientific method, as forms of memetic transmission. Memes, or the passing of ideas from one person to another, versus genes (see Richard Dawkins' book, The Selfish Gene) has been a hotbed of ideas for me. In another post, I talk about the meta-conflicts going on in our societies between memetic and genetic processes.

What struck me as interesting, and has always struck me as interesting, is the appreciation of "the old ways" in the context of "the new ways". Towards this end, I propose that the concept of reincarnation is analogous to species survival, where the reincarnation (or life-after-death) represents the impact of the past and present on to the future. My reincarnation, based on my present behavior, actually represents my memetic impact on future generations. The belief that my reincarnation is dependent on my present life will (hopefully) lead me to better behavior, which (again, hopefully) leads to a better chance of the survival of our species, similar to the suspected altruism effect.

In this sense, the ancient cultures that talk about reincarnation might be a better way for me to look at my own death, as opposed to the challenges of my Western-European atheistic individualism culture.

Sunday, May 22, 2022

On the Advantages of Being Human

I find it interesting that so many individual human beings think that
their purpose in life is to be individual. Now, to me, this is
impossible. Though a human's point of view seems naturally biased
towards imagining themselves as an individual, we are all the result of
a process, inexplicably connected to other processes. My point of view,
my particular, individual point of view, is tied to my unique sense of
the world, in and around me. It is also tied to my history, both my
personal history captured and saved in my memory, and my genetic
history, captured and saved in my genes and manifested in my body. It is
my genetic history, the result of a process of trial and error, survival
of changes that improved my chances of survival, that built my body,
including my brain, which is capable of observing and learning.

As an individual, my genes have come to me through a long process known
as evolution. My genetic knowledge has been built upon a heritage that
goes back over a billion years. So even at the very beginning of my
life, I owe my existence to a string of events that spans beyond my
comprehension; billions of choices, chances, and variations. At birth, I
owe my existence to a process completely outside my control, encoded in
a message that defines me in ways beyond my understanding.

How I perceive the world through my senses is the starting point of my
"individual" journey. My sense of who I am begins to take form, and "I"
begin to exist as my body discovers its relationship to the world around
it. But even here, my individual experience is guided by a long history
of "shared" learning. Shared learning is the lessons I learn through
modeling or imitating what other entities have learned. My genetic
traits have hard-wired my modeling ability, so it comes naturally. I not
only learn from direct experience, I learn from the experience of others.

Most importantly, as an infant I model communication skills, like
talking. I may have been born with some basic, genetic communications
skills (crying, laughing, eye contact), but my ability to learn from
others depends on the deeper communication skill of language. Initially,
I learn from watching and listening to others. As I get older, I was
presented with the skill of reading, the ability to learn from people
who live beyond my sensory world, and who may not even be living. I'm
not sure at what point "who I am" was based more on the lessons beyond
my own senses, but I would guess that happened some time around
adolescence. My world exploded as the lessons I learned from reading
easily exceeded those I could garnish from my "individual" experiences.
In fact, by now, my personal experiences were heavily influenced by the
learning I had gotten from the "virtual" experiences books had given me.

By the time I reached high school, I was no longer an "individual".
Rather, I was a process of learning, dominated by lessons, carefully
culled and passed on from the past. And the more I wanted to learn, the
more I surrendered to the process of culling the lessons of the past.
But how do we, as a species, decide what lessons to pass on? How do we
decide which lessons get the attention, energy, and commitment necessary
to keep them alive to pass on?

The scientific method is a process by which sensory experiences are
culled based on their shared perception. It is a process of
communication, a process that permits learned information to be passed
on to future generation.

To claim that I am an individual, and as such, need only make decisions
with my own, selfish interests in mind, is a rather narrow view of who I
am and how I got here. To think that I am even able to make decisions on
my own is a bit of an exaggeration. Certainly, I am responsible for my
own decisions, in that I am the one making the decisions. But those
decisions are overwhelmingly driven by my education, which is a
distilled version of the experience of millions of other human beings,
many long-since dead. Imagine the decisions I would make if I had never
learned to speak, had no way of communicating with others, never learned
the lessons passed on from generations past. I am responsible for my
decisions, and I take on that responsibility. But to say my decisions
are my own is a bit laughable. To deny the legacy passed on to me, both
genetically during the past billion years, and through teachings of the
past 100,000 years, is an arrogance that satisfies the small,
self-rewarding part of me that I know as my ego. I choose to be humble,
based on evidence that who I am is defined more by those before me than
on my own existence. I choose not to forget that who I am, and what I
accomplish, depends on a much larger process than my own experiences. I
acknowledge that my well-being is the result of a process of testing,
gathering, and remembering lessons, a process that has been going on for
over a billion years. I commit to feed this process, not just feed off
of this process, by giving back and contributing, rather than satisfying
my own ego and consuming and destroying, the very source of my well-being.

Thursday, March 17, 2022

Layered Creation

From a distance, it looked like a woman’s labia, topped with a hooded clitoris. Visible during the long walk from the fountain at the Stanford Bookstore to the the corner where I caught the Berkeley-Stanford bus, I walked towards the poster every day. And with every step nearer, the female genitalia slowly transformed into a standing naked woman, head and shoulders turned away, arm and hand descending to her crotch.


 

The poster was outside the Art Department gallery, announcing a show of monotypes, including those of Nathan Oliveira. I had taken Professor Oliveira’s watercolor class, so knew the artist well. I had only gotten into the class after an interview by Oliveira.

“You don’t have any art training,” he said, “and haven’t taken the prerequisites...”
“No...”
“What is your major?”
“Economics... bachelor’s, and a Master’s in Statistics.”

His bushy eyebrows flicked upwards. His face was kind and gentle, round with a coarse black mustache that oozed a Hispanic heritage.

“Why do you want to take the class?”
“I’ve heard you are a great teacher, and I am studying information theory.”

Again, his eyebrows flicked up.

“What’s that case you’re carrying?” he asked.

He was interested in my electrical engineering black case, which looked something like a small cosmetics suitcase, but which held a collection of solderless breadboards, a 5 volt power supply, and a spaghetti of wires connecting one 7400 quad NAND gate to another.

“I’m studying digital electronics in electrical engineering,” I said, putting down my books, laying the case down, clicking it open.

“Electrical Engineering?” he said with a chuckle, followed by a friendly, warm, inviting smile.

“Yes, I’m designing a computer from the NAND gate up.”

As I continued, my enthusiasm for computers spilled out of me like a new father showing pictures of his first baby.

“I’m learning how to go from logic tables to digital circuits to assembly languages to operating systems to programming languages,” I beamed. “I’m studying the layering of information, hoping to build a computer that is smarter than I am.”

This last led him to a laugh, not judgmental, more an obvious shared enthusiasm of enthusiasm.

“Well, if you teach me about layering information in computers, I’ll teach you about layering information in watercolors!”

With that, I was on the roster.

“You need to make the subject of your watercolor,” he instructed at the first class. “You will make a ‘fetish’, something that has mystical powers for you.”

I didn’t understand what he was talking about, but on a walk around campus, I found a large, curving chunk of eucalyptus bark. To make it into my fetish, I looped the bark with a length of jute twine.

“Your fetish has to inspire you,” he said, looking at me, reading the doubt on my face.

What inspired me was my digital electronics lab. And at each art class, Professor Oliveira would nod and smile an acknowledgment of the tiny suitcase. We nick-named it “the little black box.” Note: Though Professor Oliveira was known as “Nate” (short for Nathan) to his friends and other students, I insisted on the respect accorded by the more formal title, especially since my father was a Professor at Stanford, too.

“What’s in the little black box, today?” he would ask, coming to me as he circled the class, observing each student’s work.

I would talk with him about my latest digital circuit, show him the logic tables, the schematics, and, if it was working, the blinking lights that showed the circuit in action. In my digital electronics class I had to design an ALU (arithmetic logic unit), memory, input/output, and eventually, my own CPU, with its own machine language. By the end of the quarter, the little black box was working and doing things that I couldn’t believe myself, even though I was its creator.

“It’s like a painting,” Professor Oliveira said. “At some point, it has a life of its own.”

Professor Oliveira taught me about watercolors, monotypes, and oil painting. Though the class was limited to watercolors, he would connect what we were doing to the other media, especially to monotypes.

“You never know what the final image will look like,” he said, his eyes twinkling with excitement, “because the image you have been working on is reversed when pressed.”

Another time, he explained the layering of information, as one monotype’s ghost image, still on the stone, inspired the next image.

Professor Oliveira wanted me to understand two things: (1) that an artist should only paint that which intrigues, that which has mystery, is sacred, and has special power to inspire, and (2) that painting is a process, a layering of understanding, in an attempt to capture that which inspired the artist.

By the end of the 13-week class, I still had not finished my watercolor.

“Perhaps it was not inspiring enough?” Professor Oliveira offered.

But it was more likely that I was too timid, afraid of making mistakes, afraid of being judged. I later learned to put aside these limitations, beginning in 1997, inspired by the work I had done for the Sterling Men’s Weekend and subsequent men’s team work.

By the 1980’s, Professor Oliveira had moved his studio close to my parents’ home on Frenchman’s Hill. I’d be sure to pass the studio when I visited my parents, and took walks with my dad. I’d peek in the windows to look at the large oils of hawks that Professor Oliveira was working on, part of his Windhover series. He’d moved on to another “sacred” inspiration, that of the hawk.



And I had moved on, too, giving up my artwork until 1997, after my divorce, after the end of my engagement to Brigitte, after the Sterling Men’s Weekend. I continued painting, more seriously, after the sale of my company, Wally Industries, in 2001. I would paint until the economic depression of 2008, when that and my severe sleep-apnea-induced psychological depression ground me to a halt by 2009.

 

I communicated with Oliveira two more times, before his death in 2010. The first time was when I found a monotype, part of the Tauromaquia series, at the Oakland Museum Store in 1985(?). It was stuffed in a drawer filled with many other prints. The price was $1,200, which seemed low to me. I didn’t buy the print, but called down to Gallerie Smith-Anderson in Palo Alto, which told me the current retail value was more like $2,200. I STILL didn’t buy the print until I had called and talked with Oliveira. He said the print, a donation to the museum, was still marked at his original price. He was angry with the museum, but said I should buy the work. He was glad the piece ended up where it belonged, with someone that appreciated it!

I talked (emailed?) with Oliveira one more time, soon after selling my company in 2001. I offered to finance a documentary on the Tauromaquia series. My vision was a slow dissolve, in order, from one monotype to the next, capturing the inspiration each print provided to the next. The audio would be a running interview of Oliveira, talking about the series, and about his relationship with monotypes. At that time, Oliveira said it was not possible, since the monotypes had been sold and were scattered around the country. A few years later (2007?), Oliveira let me know that he had found high-quality negatives of all the works, and I could use prints made from those for the documentary. Unfortunately, I was too depressed to take up Oliveira’s generous offer.

Oliveira will always hold a special place in my heart. He was the first to teach me how to look at art. Soon after getting my first job in 1978, I began collecting art. I only bought artwork of living artists where the artist benefited directly from my purchase of the art. Collecting art was a passion that I followed for some 10 years, until I realized it had become an addiction, draining my family’s limited income with works “I had to have.” I still have about 100 works that I don’t have room to display in my house. But now, 30 years later, most of the artists have moved on, and I should too...

Friday, February 04, 2022

Life is but a dream?

 I read an opinion piece in Scientific American today: "Does Quantum Mechanics Reveal That Life Is But a Dream?" by John Horgan, Director of the Center for Science Writings at Stevens Institute of Technology. In the article, Horgan talks about the challenges of understanding and coming to terms with the lack of commen sense in quantum physics, and "QBism’s premise that there is no absolute objectivity; there are only subjective, first-person viewpoints."

As a statistician (especially as a subjective probability statistician), I don't view anything through the dichotomous lens of two-state logic, where there is just "true" or "false". Instead, I view everything as having a probability of being true or false. Nothing is absolutely true or false, not even this statement! In my world, I work hard to move from my personal, subjective reality, by consulting with other sources. The sources may be other human beings, or other objects/observations/experiments that help me test and improve my subjective reality. And by improve, I don't mean that my subjective reality is bad, but only that I might be better served by acknowledging that my perspective, my personal, subjective reality, might be expanded to my own benefit, if I see things from another point of view.

Surely, there is a more nuanced understanding of subjective reality, a more continuous, rather than dichotomous, interpretation. Something more like:

$$Reality(obs) = SubjectiveReality_{obs}$$

Where \(obs\) is some measure of the observers/observations.

In the special case of \(obs=1\), we get an individual's reality. And as \(obs\) increases towards infinity:

$$\lim_{obs \to \infty} Reality(obs) = ObjectiveReality$$

In this way, objective reality is a funtion of the observations and observers. [Note: I am not going to talk about the challenges of weighting observations or observers. This is the domain of the scientific method. But suffice it to say that observation in science is NOT a democracy! ☺ ]

Horgan suggests that, perhaps like T.S. Elliot's poem, The Waste Land, "Its meaning is that there is no meaning, no master narrative. Life is a joke, and the joke is on you if you believe otherwise."

I would suggest that it is my responsibility, as a conscious, sentient, self-aware being, to understand my own limitations, my own subjective reality, and to endeavour to move closer to some objective reality, at least within epsilon, where epsilon is small enough that any further attempts to aproach objective reality are beyond my abilities and/or lifetime.

Perhaps the only difference between physicists, who are admonished to "Shut up and calculate!", and "friends majoring in philosophy", who one might advise to “Shut up and procreate!", is the size of their "epsilon".

To Horgan I would suggest, get a smaller epsilon!