Thoughts On Death

I’ve had an interesting understanding of death all my life. I’ve always understood life and death in a materialistic sense. We are physical beings and when we die we no longer exist, but return to earth from which we came. Of course their was a spiritual side to it, but it was practical — even if it was Christian or just plain biblical. What is a spirit? It’s our breath. In most ancient literature “spirit” is synonymous with wind, air, or a driving force  — like wind filling a sail. In Greek it is πνεῦμα (pneuma)[1][2], where we get the root for the word “pneumatic”. In Hebrew, it’s וּחַ (ruach)[3]. In this context, what is death? It is what happens when someone stops breathing — their breath leaves them. To me, breath is spirit and breathing is living.

It’s interesting that this view of life, death, and spirituality came out of a Christian upbringing. I was Seventh-day Adventist and our faith was strong enough to not need a concept of the “Stuff Of Unending Life”[4] that transmigrates from one reality to another that is so darling to other ways of believing. For us, “God” would simply resurrect someone by recreating that person out of the ground and breathing life into them. This semi-materialistic view[5][6] shaped a lot of my beliefs — especially after I left my church and became an atheistic secular humanist. It also didn’t require a giant change in beliefs about spirits and souls.

A soul? What is a soul? To me, it’s a breathing, living being. One does not posses a soul, one is a soul. In Hebrew נֶ֣פֶשׁ  (nephesh)[7] is a being. That Hebrew word is used to refer to a being, a creature, and life. I really like the Hebrew word for it, even if the concept is muddied with other notions from Christianity (evidenced in the way most Bibles translate it). The Greeks also had word for it: ψυχή (psuche)[8]. Of course this word should look familiar, it’s the root of the word “psyche”. The greek word has more of the connotations of the English words “soul” and “spirit”, but it also means “life” and “self”.

Self, consciousness, is an emergent phenomena of our being continuously taking in energy from the environment and pushing itself out of equilibrium. It does an elaborate balancing act to keep itself in homeostasis. The end result is this amazingly intricate machine[9]. We’re alive as long as our complex organs and organ systems are working well and we’re breathing. But what makes someone special? It’s the embodied information of their genetics, interactions with their environment, their elaborate biochemistry, and labyrinthine neuronal connections. Our sense and experience of self is most likely so pronounced because we have several orders of magnitude more connections between neurons within the neurocortex than to neurons going to and from our senses. There’s an astounding amount of information in all of those connections. When we interact with someone each of us triggers different parts. Each of us experiences and interacts with others in a different way.

As long as a soul’s intricate inertial dance of life perpetuates itself, this amazing ability for us to connect with that unique being is possible. Our own physical being interacts with their systems in several intricate and deeply physical ways. I don’t believe the magic of a human being’s existence is diminished at all by this view. I believe it makes it more mind bogglingly unbelievable once we see the true complexity and wonder of what a human actually is. It also creates a physical basis for understanding death and what happens to someone once they die (and also how we connect on so many physical levels while they’re alive).

Before I share what I believe death entails, I must share a few prerequisites. Physics has led us to figure out a few things:

  • The law of conservation of energy; the law that energy can neither be created nor destroyed, just transformed from one form to another.
  • The equivalence principle; the law which states mass and energy can be converted from one form to the other.
  • The conservation of information at the quantum level[10]; transformations are unitary — this means that if you know the dynamics of the system you can recover the inputs from the outputted information.
  • The second law of thermodynamics; Entropy never decreases[11][12].

I would say that entropy has a relation to information like work has a relation to energy — except it’s more nuanced. If a physical process transforms one bit of information into another bit of information and the process is reversible then the entropy of the process is zero and it can spontaneously oscillate between those two states forever. If the physical process is irreversible (or takes energy to reverse it) then entropy increases. In a way entropy is like meta-information about a physical process containing the instructions of how it got to the current state[13] — like a knot being tied through space-time.

As far as the non-emergent properties of a person go, their body does indeed return to the earth. We are all made of the same stuff those who came before us were made of. We breathe the same air. Our matter continues to be a part of this world.

Every person who has ever lived lives on in the entropy[14] of the universe and their effect upon our intellect, affect, and physical being. This world would be a very different place if it weren’t for each and every person who lived and the pattern they weaved into the fabric of our reality. The world becomes a different place when each of us weaves our own patterns of entropy into the fabric of reality. When people die, this pattern is still there encoded in our universe’s entropy. Unfortunately for us, we can’t directly perceive these patterns; we only have our memories of a person and the effects they had on us. Fortunately, communities can come together and celebrate someone’s life. Each participant sharing more of a picture of the one being remembered and creating a more complete picture of that persons interactions and influences.

It is up to us to decide what happens to the memory of the deceased. Each of us has our role models and some of them are dead, but we allow ourselves to embody the behaviors and interactions of those who are dead. Unfortunately, sometimes the deceased is a counterexample of how to live. Whose effects are we enhancing?

Notes

  1. <http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.04.0058%3Aentry%3Dpneu%3Dma>
  2. <http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.04.0057%3Aentry%3Dpneu%3Dma>
  3. See <http://biblesuite.com/hebrew/ruach_7307.htm> and related וְר֣וּחַ (veruach) waw-conjuctive form <http://biblesuite.com/hebrew/veruach_7307.htm> and <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Prefixes_in_Hebrew#Conjunctions>.
  4. Afterlife is a cute game where you get to play god and decide where souls go <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Afterlife_(video_game)>.
  5. <http://ssnet.org/qrtrly/eng/99b/less04.html>
  6. <http://www.sdanet.org/atissue/books/27/27-07.htm>
  7. http://biblesuite.com/hebrew/nefesh_5315.htm
  8. See <http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.04.0057%3Aentry%3Dyuxh%2F>. Coincidentally, it is the present subjunctive third person singular form of ψύχω <http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.04.0057%3Aentry%3Dyu%2Fxw> (eg, ἐάν ψυχή, “if he breathes”).
  9. <http://jap.physiology.org/content/104/6/1844>
  10. <http://motls.blogspot.com/2005/07/hawking-and-unitarity.html>
  11. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Second_law_of_thermodynamics>
  12. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Entropy_production>
  13. In fact, I’m pretty sure one could derive this from Kolmogorov complexity and only using vector clocks or matrix clocks instead of local time and Lorentz transformations .
  14. Maybe there should be another term for this, since it’s the length of the algorithm (or sequence of operators) which can be use to calculate entropy and not pure entropy — but maybe they really are the same thing?

θάνατοι: In Memoriam

Name Date & Location Born Date & Location Deceased
Eni Korbeci March 19, 1980 Tirana, Albania January 12, 2002 Edmond, Oklahoma
Augustine “Auggie” Ariza March 2, 1925 June 28, 2005 Thousand Oaks, California
Brandon M. Fenton June 21, 1983 Grand Island, Nebraska June 25, 2009 Grand Island, Nebraska
Brandon Lee Glovatsky April 12, 1985 Grassy Butte, North Dakota June 9, 2010 Portland, Oregon
Eleanor Montané Ariza June 28, 1925 Santa Maria, Vera Cruz, Mexico January 5, 2011 Loma Linda, California
Joseph Paul Bingman November 21, 1948 Portland, Oregon April 3, 2011 Portland, Oregon
Tomás Pitagoras Gouverneur December 14, 1978 Berkeley, California March 13, 2011 Corvallis, Oregon
Kathleen Bosibori Sagini February 10, 1988 Lansing, Michigan July 26, 2012 Edmond, Oklahoma
Zachary Konowalchuk July 21, 1988 Florida October 8, 2012 Newport, Oregon
Kent Ryan Hall 1950 Fairbury, Nebraska February 20, 2013 Lincoln, Nebraska
Igal Koshevoy December 13, 1975 Moscow, USSR April 9, 2013 Portland, Oregon
Yan Forrest Hendersen January 29, 1958 January 22, 2014 Portland, Oregon

Moral Imperatives and God — or — “Why I Sometimes Want to Place You in Harm’s Way.”

C. S. Lewis would have thought the moral sense referred to in this meme was one of the strongest evidences of God’s existence.

One can, like C.S. Lewis, posit this evolved moral sense is a signifier of God’s existence. However, this is misusing a perceived correlation as a causation. Even this error hinges on interesting factors for it to even be made.

Tribal societies or hunter gatherers had a great incentive to treat their own members nicely and have fond feelings for one another. The biological mechanism backing this is mediated by oxytocin.1 One would be tempted to say that this extends to all members of our society. Sadly, as evidenced by people’s tendencies through history and by modern biological research, oxytocin plays a dual role.

An increase in oxytocin tends to produce fond feelings only for those that are part of your tribe. Those who share your culture or share a more similar appearance (a phenotype symbolizing a desirable genotype, suitable for reproduction). The other side of this, is an increase in oxytocin also increases the instinct to distrust others who do not share a simliar phenotype. It breeds xenophobic tendencies in people.2

Many other regulators of behaviors exist, but it turns out that this is a fairly primary motivator of a healthy and happy group of people:

As it turns out, the needs that are most linked with everyday satisfaction are interpersonal ones, such as love and respect. Our troubles, conversely, relate most to lack of esteem, lack of freedom, and lack of nourishment. Only when we look back on the quality of our lives thus far do basic needs become significant indicators for well-being.3

The other regulators basically cluster around having real and felt needs met. A lot of these needs are met through society and access to the proper resources. If these needs aren’t met for prolonged periods of time, the organizational unit (either the individual or group) will exhibit behaviors associated with self preservation and increased stress. This means acting more out of self interest than out of respect for others or any other moral imperative (theft, war, violence, distrust, etc. are all game here).

I think it is safe to say human biology doesn’t change much over time unless there is an adaptation to some external change or new constraint in the environment — in other words evolution. Even then, biology has noted the similarities of certain basic structures and chemistries of living organisms. I think it’s safe to extrapolate our modern biology back some 10,000 years (since that is a fairly short time scale, evolutionarily speaking). Under this extrapolation using the young earth hypothesis as a postulate, it is a logical conclusion that our biology was the same or very similar at creation. Which implies that the only way for our biology to have changed so suddenly is through an act of God.

If this was by God’s design, who said he intended us to love our neighbor and by extension all people, there is a severe disconnect between the biology we were “created” with and how he intended us to behave. If this was the case then the garden of eden would not have been perfect. As soon as groups split off there would be fighting in a perfect world and not as a result of “the fall in the garden”. There was no need of an apple for this to happen — and it is doubtful that an apple could change a human’s biology that much.

If God intended to rescue a race that was sinful, because of it’s own choice, why would he choose to change their biology intentionally to make sure they were inherently prone to distrust? A change like this would lessen the efficacy of free will to choose a moral imperative over natural tendencies. Also, why would this change in biology persist past the time of what Christianity defines as the final sacrifice for all time, meant to atone for all sin?

A contradiction such as this is most readily remedied by looking to evolutionary processes, where such tendencies would tend to promote group cohesion and the desire to protect itself when encountering a foreign group, thus ensuring its survival and the ability to reproduce and grow. As a result of continuing growth and constant interaction and breeding with differing phenotypes the level of hostility toward different groups has decreased over time. For more on this, please see Steven Pinker’s excellent TED talk on the myth of violence. 4

Through this process of increased interaction with foreign groups, moral imperatives regarding the treatment of people from other cultures arose. These moral imperatives are abstract high level constructs people create for themselves outside of and, sometimes, in opposition to their natural tendencies. Moral imperatives are not natural and take energy and practice to maintain. They are only good so long as reason can beat the lizard brain. As studies with Tibetan monks have shown, it takes time to develop strong pathways between the prefrontal cortex and the rest of the brain (the prefrontal cortex being the area that is understood to mediate higher level planning, decision making, and reason).5

This ability to use reason over natural tendencies is willpower. Willpower is the basic determining factor if someone will choose to act on a higher moral imperative or if they will go with their own path of least resistance. It has recently been observed that willpower is limited. This ability quickly depletes if the underlying biological mechanisms are no longer being fully supported. Willpower is entirely dependent on all of the biology supporting the brain and requires one’s body to be well nourished and in good health.6

Where scarcity is not a daily concern, it is easy to see how humans are becoming better people. We are able to make better decisions because we are not in survival mode. Without scarcity and with plenty of close social interaction, it is easy to think moral imperatives are natural. It however takes a “leap of faith” to believe they signify God’s existence.

  1. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Oxytocin
  2. http://www.nytimes.com/2011/01/11/science/11hormone.html
  3. http://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2011/08/maslow-20-a-new-and-improved-recipe-for-happiness/243486/
  4. http://www.ted.com/talks/steven_pinker_on_the_myth_of_violence.html
  5. http://www.news.wisc.edu/13890
  6. http://www.nytimes.com/2011/08/21/magazine/do-you-suffer-from-decision-fatigue.html?pagewanted=all

What is the #Occupy Movement?

The Intellectual Roots of the Occupy Movement

#occupy wall street poster

The #Occupy Wall Street movement is primarily a Dadaist expression. Dada originated out of anti-war sentiment during World War I. Participants classified it as a protest against the bourgeois nationalism and colonialism. They also saw it as a protest against intellectual conformity during wartime.

According to Wikipedia:

Many Dadaists believed that the ‘reason’ and ‘logic’ of bourgeois capitalist society had led people into war. They expressed their rejection of that ideology in artistic expression that appeared to reject logic and embrace chaos and irrationality. For example, George Grosz later recalled that his Dadaist art was intended as a protest “against this world of mutual destruction.”

Already at this point, there is a clear resemblance to the apparent chaos and disorganization of the Occupy Movement and the Dadaist Movement. However, this is only where the roots of the movement began. There is a very rich cultural and revolutionary history behind the Occupy Movement.

Situationists and the French Protests of ’68

The Avant-garde Dadaist Movement paved the way for the Situationist International group in 1957. The Situationists were primarily a restricted group of European revolutionaries spanning across several borders. The other heritage they drew from was the Marxist ideology. They were very involved in creating situations where people could experiment with alternatives to the group think of society. They created fields such as Unitary Urbanism and Psychogeography. Détournement is a particularly important practice of Unitary Urbanism.

Civil Unrest - France May 1968This group played a large role in supporting the General Strike of May 1968, in France. This strike lasted two weeks and brought the economy of France to a halt. Nearly 11 million people went on strike for the entire two weeks of the protest. This counted for nearly a quarter of nearly 49.9 million French citizens in 1968 and two thirds of the working population. The movement caused massive changes in society as a result of the total disaster it caused. Initially, it focused on educational system. Then it branched out into workers.

The Situationists called for workers to occupy the factories. They established the Council for Maintaining the Occupations. This instituted a democracy with equal voice for all participants:

The council implemented a policy of equal representation for its participants. It was described by Situationist René Viénet as “essentially an uninterrupted general assembly, deliberating day and night. No faction or private meetings ever existed outside the common debate.” It was formed on the evening of May 17, by supporters of the Sorbonne Occupation Committee.

The factory occupation was to prevent workers from being locked out of the factory. It resulted in the workers taking over and directing the factories through a democratic process.

Some may say that similarities abound between the French protests of ’68 and the Occupy Movement. Sure, they were both started by culture jamming societies. You could say they are nearly the same play from very similar organizations. Unfortunately, they were not organized in the same way and a very different intellectual history make them entirely unlike. These two events unfolded drastically differently due to many differences and concerns that may not have been thought out.

The Reality of Occupy

The Occupy Movement was started by Adbusters, a Canadian culture jamming publication and organization. It was formed in 1989, in Vancouver, British Columbia, by Bill Schmalz and Kalle Lasn (author of Design Anarchy). Adbusters describes themselves: “We are a global network of culture jammers and creatives working to change the way information flows, the way corporations wield power, and the way meaning is produced in our society.” Culture Jamming, coined in 1984, is a modern example of détournement, revived in the 1970s with the punk movement.

The Occupy Movement was inspired by the Cairo’s Tahrir Square protests, and the Spanish Indignants. The Egyptian Revolution wanted to overthrow an entire government regime. The Spanish protests have a little more in common with the Occupy Movement:

Even though protesters form a heterogeneous and ambiguous group, they share a strong rejection of unemployment, welfare cuts, Spanish politicians, the current two-party system in Spain between the Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party and the People’s Party, as well as the current political system, capitalism, banks and bankers, political corruption and firmly support what they call basic rights: home, work, culture, health and education.

Notice again, there is a definite similarity of the composition of the group and the demands between the Occupy Movement and the Spanish Protests. Occupy is a group of really different people all rallying around demands that each member has. Their focus is wide and there are a diverse range of needs represented.

Democracia real YA

A grassroots movement organized in March 2011 and became known as ¡Democracia Real YA!, which apparently is also the name of the social network that was used to organize it. This organization has created a manifesto and has brought about a (broad) set of demands and became an actual political platform to operate from. The real momentum behind organizing ¡Democracia Real YA! came from a prior timeline: On 29 September 2010, labor union strikes broke out in Spain. More strikes happened on 27 January 2011, when unions in Catalonia, Galicia, and Basque Country also protested. Both of these strikes were for reasons similar to the Wisconsin Labor Strikes in February 2011 and March 2011. On 7 April 2011, 5,000 people organized a protest in Madrid around the demands of Jovenes sin Futura (Youth Without a Future). On 1 May 2011, a riot broke out in Barcelona and destroyed many businesses in the richest neighborhood. The first occupation planned by the ¡Democracia Real YA! came on 13 May 2011. Two days later, 50,000 protesters joined in and showed support. The protests have continued since (over 6 months).

Interestingly enough, the Spanish protests have also been compared to the French Protests of ’68. The similarities: both started around education and employment. Both were in countries small compared to the US. Sure, there was some unrest and an area of Barcelona was trashed, but it has not caused a whole third of the country to cease their daily activities. It has not brought Spain’s economy to it’s knees.

The Intellectual Heritage of Modern American Protests

During the period of 1954-1968, the most recent African-American rights movement happened. Voting rights and racial desegregation were brought about in the south. The Black Power Movement also happened. It sought to bring about a true relief of oppression from white Americans and a power balance with white Americans. This movement was steeped in non-violent practices.

Second wave feminism emerged during this period, too. Women worked hard to gain equality in society. Women worked to attain equal pay, and equal footing economically. More generally, women worked hard to dispel the media’s portrayal of women’s role in society. This movement was also rooted in non-violence to achieve its goals.

Parallel to the development of the Situationists in Europe, the development of Happenings came about in the US during 1957. Allan Kaprow coined the term to describe performances happening that spring on George Segal’s farm. These happenings were meant to involve the audience and draw them into the art, to interact with it and become a part of the performance itself. In Kaprow’s words, “The line between the Happening and daily life should be kept as fluid, and perhaps indistinct, as possible.” A happening depends entirely on the audience that participates. Since the audience changes every time, each performance is never the same. This idea would go on to inspire others.

In San Francisco, The Suicide Club formed in 1977 by Gary Warne (also the founder of SantaCon). This secret society involved itself in urban exploration and social exploits borrowing ideas from happenings. They started The Billboard Liberation Front (one of the first US culture jamming groups) as a result of their bridge climbing antics. They performed street theater — sometimes this involved riding the streetcars naked. They hosted elaborate games in strange places like a cemetery. They also infiltrated organizations — such as the Unification Church and the American Nazi Party.

In 1986, ex-Suicide Club members founded the Cacophony Society. According to their website:

The Cacophony Society is a randomly gathered network of individuals united in the pursuit of experiences beyond the pale of mainstream society through subversion, pranks, art, fringe explorations and meaningless madness.

This group is responsible for creating Burning Man during Zone Trip #4. One of the co-founders, Kevin Evans, conceived it as “a dadaist temporary autonomous zone with sculpture to be burned and situationist performance art.”

The idea of the Temporary Autonomous Zone, came to Hakim Bey as early as 1985 while he was studying pirate utopias. The book on TAZ (Temporary Autonomous Zones) was published in 1991. The book skirts around defining the meaning of the TAZ, leaving the term as a floating signifier. Fortunately, the context of the book creates enough of a boundary around the meaning that one can grasp in intuitively. A protest, a happening, a Burning Man event, a Lost Horizon Night Market, a ComicCon, and the Oregon Country Fair are all examples of a TAZ (and happening) to one degree or another.

Hakim’s book on the TAZ begins with a section entitled “CHAOS: THE BROADSHEETS OF ONTOLOGICAL ANARCHISM”. At this point, we can see that the Situationist legacy had been united with the anarchic tendencies of the US Cacophony Society and earlier Suicide Club. Most likely the notions presented so shortly after Adbusters was founded would have been on the radar of Lasn, since Lasn is such a proponent of the anarchy of design and ideas. It would seem that much of the ideology behind the Cacophony Society would have made it into the minds of those planning the Occupy event.

What Does This Mean for Occupy?

Politically, the French protesters of ’68 failed. President De Gaulle tried to fight back with Police action. This was not met well and streets broke out with battles against the police. Fearing a revolution, President De Gaulle fled to Germany, staying at a French military base. He dissolved the National Assembly and held re-elections. His party emerged even stronger after the elections. The aftermath only included sweeping changes to French society because so much of society was effected by a fourth of France protesting.

Contrasted to the French protests of ’68, Occupy is definitely not a large movement concentrated in one area. It is not a sizable force that can recon with a cities economy, much less an entire country’s economy (maybe a neighborhood economy). Now, the Occupy movement is being confronted with police force in many states. If it were to get violent, that would be the end of the movement. Fortunately, there is a great heritage of non-violent protesting in the US. If this were not the case, the moment a violent fight broke out between protesters and cops, the movement would be dismissed and would have no political power. There is no way this movement as it stands will be able to bring about the social change the French protesters brought about through force.

Occupy may appear to be a grassroots movement, but it only became one after Adbusters manipulated the psychogeography by placing posters around the area Occupy Wall Street would happen. Unlike both the French protests of ’68 and the Spanish Indignants, it did not grow out of groups already protesting. Sure, there were union strikes in Wisconsin. Where were students already protesting about the educational system? The sentiment was not nearly as widespread as it was in May ’68 in France. There is a similarity between Spanish protesters and Occupy, the length of time occupations have been happening. Occupy has been going on for about 1/3 of the time as the Spanish Indignants, and the protests have lasted 1/3 of the time. They do seem to be very similar in action.

Occupy is seemingly artificial, not to disqualify it, but it was not an organic grassroots movement where lots of people decided to start protesting. It is an idea piggybacking on generally felt sentiments, sentiments felt very deeply by some. It was provoked, not by the government or economy itself, but rather by a culture jamming collective with a nod towards ontological anarchism. Occupy is a work of art. It is a readymade art installation and a happening. Kaprow and Duchamp would be proud.

Occupy quickly evolved into a special type of TAZ. It reminded people that there is more to life than this rat race of consumerism and capitalism. People’s belief in reality must be suspended when coming into contact with Occupy. If someone’s beliefs are not suspended, they, like many others, will probably be in conflict with Occupy. They might yell, “Get a job!”, as I heard many times around Occupy Portland. This is a city bound Zone Trip #4, the origin of Burning Man. As Matt Taibbi phrased it:

This is a visceral, impassioned, deep-seated rejection of the entire direction of our society, a refusal to take even one more step forward into the shallow commercial abyss of phoniness, short-term calculation, withered idealism and intellectual bankruptcy that American mass society has become. If there is such a thing as going on strike from one’s own culture, this is it. And by being so broad in scope and so elemental in its motivation, it’s flown over the heads of many on both the right and the left.

As Occupy stands, it cannot be sustained for long. If their sentiments are true, let them stop being a non-commissioned art installation occupying public space. It needs to get off the lawn, before too many anti-protest protests break out.

What Occupy Can Do to Be Taken Seriously

Occupy needs to realize it is a happening, a deeply heartfelt, everyday performance art gathering. It needs to realize that the needs of its actor-participants influence the outcome. The needs of its members must be met. Occupy represents a large cross section of people everywhere on Maslow’s hierarchy of self actualization (let us not delve into it being a hierarchy, just needs that people have). At Occupy, peoples needs include: physiological (air, water, food, sanitation, etc.), safety (health, shelter, clothing, employment, property, etc.), love & belonging (friends, family, sexual intimacy), esteem (to be accepted, valued, and respected), and self-actualization (morality, creativity, spontaneity, problem solving, lack of prejudice, and acceptance of facts).

This provides an interesting strain on Occupy. It is based on volunteerism, which is a very hard way to manage social services. The strain becomes pronounced in places like Portland where Occupy Portland held a march that ended in occupation of three blocks of parks — parks where a few homeless people already slept. Some of them didn’t know what was going on, but it was “cool” that all of these people came to join them. Word of the camp spread and soon there were a lot of actual homeless people with many needs living in the camp. Even today, there has not been any funding sought out to provide mental health and drug addiction counselling to people that desperately need it.

Occupy has a real need for expert facilitation to sort out the needs of people that are a part of the movement and firmly establish groups in charge of meeting those needs. They need to be groups separate from the people with the needs, so there is accountability. There needs to be a definite schedule for meetings around these different needs and concerns, not like the currently ad hoc situation. This would allow more representation in the spokes council meetings. General Assemblies seem to be derailed because of the number of needs represented by each participant.

In Portland at least, passers by and the media have noticed the homeless people, the drug problems, and the mental health problems. Having continuing issues around these untended needs presents many issues to having a consistent and positive view of Occupy by outsiders. Finding a way to take care of these needs will improve communities and improve the outlook for Occupy.

The language of the original poster for the Occupy Wall Street gathering, “What is our one demand?”, failed to specify any specific demand(s) but rather left it up to the Occupy group to democratically decide a set of demands, or rather, needs. Adbusters left demands wide open, greatly contrasting with the origin of the Spanish protests. This needs to happen soon. Once the needs and demands are sorted out they can be used to drive powerful changes that people can rally behind.

There are so many ways Occupy could incorporate and become a driving force for local economies. By doing so, Occupy would be setting an example for others to follow. A lack of skilled workers may arise, but this really only presents an opportunity to partner with local organizations and create training programs.

The environment of Occupy’s TAZ is ripe for experimentation and innovation. Occupy needs to involve the right people and generate ideas that spread and cause measurable change in society. Once people’s needs are met and actual progress and community improvement is made by Occupy, people will start taking it seriously.

Epiphenomenal Inkling

I saw a man begging on the side of the street and, naturally, I wanted to help. I got the idea that I should start talking to him, and get to know him. I also thought about taking him around the businesses in the area to asking about any work they might have available for him. As I imagined that, I imagined walking into a large corporate building with this man and to inquire about work for him. The response I got was, “Who are you?” I responded, “No one knows who I am, not even myself. If they knew who I was they tremble at the greatness. If you knew what was in each person you too would tremble.”

Hey you! Yeah, you rummaging through the streets of this great city! What would you do if people realized that you were their brother, their sister, their transsexual sibling, or their queer aunt? What are your dreams? Where would you go? What would you do? What are your deepest desires? What do you want right now? I know you don’t want a job right now. You wouldn’t know what to do with one. The truth is most people don’t know what to do with a job, its just that one thing they think they need — just like those diving fins they have in storage, still in the packaging, because they thought the would learn to dive but got too caught up in their job.

Most days, jobs seem like corporate parasites that suck the life out most people; they’re driven by corporations needs and not yours. You just put up with it because everyone else does. One starts to think that there’s no other way. After all, the measly pittance of minimum wage feeds you. Would not having a job be better? My question is, would not having any McDonalds restuarants be a bad thing? Do people need McDonalds? Would society cease to function if they went out of business?

Oh, thanks for bringing me back to you. This isn’t about them. It’s about you. You don’t even care about McDonalds — unless you have a buck or two and some hunger. Again, that wouldn’t be an issue if people were more connected with each other and not split into some unrealistic fractal dimension. If you could be in charge of things for one day, what would you say? If nothing got in your way what would you do? Who would you be? Would you even know? How could you know? Poor orphan, fellow human, universal companion, do you know who you are?

Thoughts on “Knowing” and “Knowledge”

What is knowledge?

Opaque answer: Knowledge is the sum of neural activity occurring after one has learned.

Clearer answer: One can only gain knowledge by building it. One can only build knowledge through experience. Experience is the constant stream of information from our senses modulated by our inner state (emotions, hunger, thirst, health). Inner state corresponds to our inner senses. Emotion can be reduced to a sense organ that monitors the levels of certain neurotransmitters. Hunger, thirst and satiation are functions of specialized sense organs in the digestive tract. Our inner sense of health is indeed collected by many nerves throughout our body (deep innervation of organs). One can then generalize the totality of experience is indeed the stream of all information from all of our sense organs.

If emotion is a sensory organ, then it is feasible to say that we build sensory organs for thoughts and ideas in our brains. If a sensory perception is a pattern of electrochemical stimuli, and likewise an emotion, then thoughts themselves can be perceived in the brain just as real objects are perceived by our senses. Knowing in the abstract then becomes the process of sensing thoughts in the inner world of the brain.

One can only come to know something through contact with the senses. For example, imagine a toddler playing with a ripe, yellow banana. Fist, he sees it and then grabs it. Hears it as he smacks something with it, tasting his fingers after he feels and sees mushed innards come out of the it. Then he gnaws on it, smelling it while noticing how his deep inner senses feel after he’s consumed part of the mush he inadvertently made. Smiling, like he’s found treasure, he squeals with joy at the knowledge he just built about that fruit. Full knowledge comes from full sensory experience.

To come into contact with something else is to form a relationship with it. Knowledge can only be built out of relationships. Information only means something in context. It only is meaningful if it is taken in relation to something else – something known. A pattern is only distinguishable because of the relation of each element to the next element of the pattern. Something else is only distinguishable as something else in relation to self or self in relation to it (think about how much more you could learn about a fish by imagining to be one!).

If information is given with no relation to other information, it needs to be taken in relation to knowledge. If there is little knowledge, like our toddler in the above paragraph, his brain seeks out all the information it can get to tease the relationships out of the patterns so that knowledge can be built.

Relationships and Knowledge

Innately, we have a deep connection with other people. I have a hunch that it stems from our motor cortex, and the so-called mirror neurons. These neurons correlate perceptions with inner states. They let us try to imagine what is going on in other people’s heads based on what they’ve done. At the most basic, when someone else is eating, our motor neurons fire in preparation for doing the same. Out of this basic mechanism, we build shared knowledge.

People in many cultures have traditions and other ritualistic behaviors. These are mechanisms for creating closeness and a sense of unity. They create similar thoughts and feelings, a resonance, within the people involved. Though the thoughts may be similar, each person comes with their own knowledge which shapes their thinking and creation of knowledge within the experience.

Divorce this behavior from ritual or traditions and substitute shared process, and one sees beginnings of a powerful mechanism for creating collective knowledge around shared experience. At this point, lines delineating boundaries between minds start to blur. The collective becomes just that, a collective. The process creates coherence and focus, and the collective becomes a coherent cluster of photons on the same wavelength, traveling in the same direction – a laser beam.

People work most effectively when arranged into this type of super-organism. The connections between people help optimize the flow of information, and the relationships between people come to embody knowledge as large inter-personal synapses. The more connections amongst the team members, the more intelligent the becomes. The flow of information through the team makes embedded knowledge spark. The people with pertinent knowledge can then start to share information and create experiences where knowledge is created in the other team members – thus knowledge is transferred.

Often times it works like a holographic memory, where the whole can be retrieved in great fidelity from small fragments. Each person can remember parts that help other people recollect more fuzzy memories. Then the process of corroboration works its fuzzy magic and knowledge increases in the group.

What Chess Piece Are You?

A cemetery is the universe’s pile of chess pieces taken from the zero-sum game of life.

I happened to walk into a cemetery today. I was walking and found a path I hadn’t taken before. I think the above statement sums it up. That’s what I thought and felt as I looked at the stonework scattered about, some straight, some made crooked by the Earth’s shifts, and many well worn. Some stones were akin to pawns, other’s had majestic stonework that was obviously meant for someone special. Yet others were more like a bishop. Pictures of rows upon rows of exact look-a-like white crosses of soldiers’ graves flashed through my mind. They were the pawns of the government.

I thought about people’s economic standing, the impact they may have had on their community, and the approximate value of each of those memorials. I wondered how their character, charisma, and drive effected their worth in their community and affected those around them. I thought about the unequal distribution of memorials. There were many more small memorials than large ones.

It really made me think about how comfortable people are with maintaining the status quo — a shortened version of the Latin for “the state in which things were before the war”. War was never about ideological change, war was about survival and preservation of an ideology, belief and way of living. War was always about maintaining the status quo. People who maintain the status quo are just as guilty as people at war. They are pawns of an ideology trying to stay their ground keep their lives from changing. People are evolutionarily programmed to be pawns — to be xenophobes vehemently opposed to change. It used to be a matter of survival, but it is no longer about visceral survival in this day and age. It is blatant and obstinate opposition to a different way of life and a new way of experiencing the world.

Socrates wanted a class of philosopher-kings to rule the world. For his day and age, this was fantastically forward thinking in its abstraction. In fact, it was so forward thinking that, evolutionarily, we are not ready for it. As humans, we love to quarrel and do things our way and that is a part of the creative process. We borrow ideas and extend them, giving them back to the world. Some are accepted, others are rejected for being too different, too forward looking. Even if we had a class of philosopher kings, people would think they were crazy and do things their own way and establish the forms of government we have now. In order for philosopher kings to work out, everyone needs to have the openness to embrace and extend new thoughts, new viewpoints, and new ways of living.

The kings in the graveyards of this world are those who pioneered a community around a certain ideological vision, be it founding a town, creating the next best startup company, or running for president. They rallied people to invest themselves into an ideology that resonated within their identity and became the leader or figurehead of that ideology.

What chess piece are you?

P.S.:

I would love to envision a world where everyone is a philosopher-king. Though, I wonder if that society would ever get anything done. Would they just be detached observers, considering everything and embracing nothing long enough to do something with it? What are limits of this human medium given evolutionary pressures? Is peace possible evolutionarily? Would it require a transhumanist approach?

Creativity, Innovation, and Syntax

Humans and chimps both have tools and both can learn languages. Even birds can learn language, but all animals besides humans seem to be incapable of learning to master a language’s syntax. It seems even the ability to use tools and manipulate the environment seems to depend on the ability to use syntax.

If one looks at the word, syntax, one sees it derives from Greek for together(σύν) and an ordering/structuring(τάξις). It an ordering together of parts. In linguistics, it is simply how words are put together to form a sentence. One can be more abstract and just analyze formal grammars, too. These have a set of symbols (the vocabulary), and a set of rules for combining each combination of symbols. Mathematicians and physicists have recently tapped into the resource of formal grammars (more specifically generative grammars, but that’s another blog entry) to describe physical processes and system behavior.

It would make sense that a brain capable of developing the ability to understand and generate the patterns of syntax would be required to develop complicated tools. Both constructions require the ability to see the consequences of ordering or structuring things one way over another. In sentences, it dictates the nuance and directivity of meaning. In machines, it dictates the precise path of motion and allowable configurations of a specific machine.

It seems that every creative designer would use a process akin to constructing sentences, but based instead upon the specific grammar and syntax of the design paradigm they work within. Programmers embody this, since each language they learn has a specific grammar and syntax comprising a formal grammar.  Musicians too have their unique domain specific language whose syntax limits what material they are able to express in musical notation. These limitations are always being extended by additions to the language. Mathematicians have proven that proven that a formal language cannot express or prove everything, only an infinitely extensible one (Kurt Gödel’s incompleteness theorem). I’m sure this is why language has been constantly fluid and evolving, escaping any canonicalization.

Language itself is inflexible, but the mind is infinitely more nimble and able to extend and comprehend things that are beyond it. Yet it is this capability that allows us to construct our limited language, modest machines, and determinate designs. Each revision gains more refinement and more nuance as we explore what is possible and what delineates the boundaries of reality. With each revision our mind becomes more nuanced and precise. With each revision our reality grows like a fractal and the possibilities for expression and creativity become infinite and nearly continuous, but harder to differentiate for those less experienced. The space of possible combinations and juxtapositions grows as large as the unknown universe.

Innovation and creativity prosper, all because of the brain’s capability for nuanced syntax.