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?


  1. <>
  2. <>
  3. See <> and related וְר֣וּחַ (veruach) waw-conjuctive form <> and <>.
  4. Afterlife is a cute game where you get to play god and decide where souls go <>.
  5. <>
  6. <>
  8. See <>. Coincidentally, it is the present subjunctive third person singular form of ψύχω <> (eg, ἐάν ψυχή, “if he breathes”).
  9. <>
  10. <>
  11. <>
  12. <>
  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

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.

Breakfast and Nanotubes

Ah! There’s nothing quite like cooking stir fry for breakfast at 3:20 am. Then eating it. Then biking to get to work by 5:00 am. This happens to be a semi-delectable sweet and sour variety concocted in semi-awake-ness. As I scarf it down remember this article that my friend emailed to me. It is from MIT Technology Review

Nanotube Radio
It is an all-in-one nanotube radio. And the original paper on it can be found here. How it works is really incredible. The nanotube acts like a tuning fork and a piano string at the same time. It is like a tuning fork because it has an intrinsic frequency the it vibrates at. It is like a piano string because the amount of voltage applied to it acts to tune it like tightening a piano or guitar string. Increase the voltage and you increase the frequency that it vibrates at. Now the strange yet cool thing about this is that the tube does not act like an antenna. It is the electrons that collect at the free end of the tube that act as the antenna. They will start to induce motion in the tube in response to any electromagnetic fields. The tube naturally filters out any other frequencies since it naturally damps any motion induced by the electrons at any frequency besides what it is tuned to. There is a cathode a little over a micron away from the end of the 500 nm tube which picks up the electrons ejected during the tube’s movement. This is actually the demodulated signal — meaning that it is an audio signal and not a radio signal.

Aside from the technology involved in making this radio, it is the simplest radio ever. Right now it is really sensitive to temperatures, and the reception could be improved by operating it at lower temperatures or operating several tubes together. I also think that there are other distortions to the signal besides just the temperature interference. I think that other radio signals that operate at frequencies that are partials of the main resonant frequency of the tube and tuning would still induce enough motion to distort the signal. So it has it’s imperfections, but it will get better — just like my cooking gets better when I’m fully awake.

Out of Chaos: Order

Many creation myths contain an element that chaos reigned before order emerged. There’s the Enuma Elish, Genesis, and Ovid’s Metamorphosis. They all imply that there was some sort of chaos until a god (ruler) commands or acts to create order by establishing laws. In Genesis the words used are tohu (toe-who) and bohu (bough-who), which mean unformed and unfilled more or less. They imply a certain amount of disorder. God is introduced using the word elohim, which is normally translated as God. However, this word is definitely broader than that. In few places, and there might only be two, it is used to designate the word rulers or kings.

If you dig deeper in your Biblia Hebraica Stutgarttensia (that’s the gold standard used for researching the old testament; it contains all the known variant readings in their original language), you will find more textual evidence pointing towards the meaning of elohim being rulers. Genesis 6 talks about the sons of God (benai ha’elohim) and the daughters of man (benot ha’adam). This passage has been misunderstood to say that angels were having sexual relations with human women. However taking the meaning of elohim to be rulers, we can safely say that this passage means the rulers were hogging all the women (just in a very different tone). This makes much more sense. It also means that Genesis 1 describes the rulers establishing boundaries, creating names, and decreeing order upon the chaos.

I think the fact that well developed societies had this type of creation myth tells us something about ourselves. Once a society has built a hedge against the randomness of life, they feel as though they have established order. As the generations progress, they begin to feel as though everything is orderly and that order should be demanded of everything. However, there is now a glaring crack growing, bifurcating the facade of that security. In quantum mechanics everything is a probability, nothing is certain until it is measured. Einstein spoke against this negative feature of the quantum by saying, “God is not a pair of dice.” normally translated, “God does not play dice.” Everything is based on randomness. This is a stochastic universe.

Mathematics is begining to tell us the same thing: Everything is based on randomness. The sequence of the prime numbers is random. Algorithmic information theory tells us that the closer to random something is the more dense the information content. A truly random number sequence cannot be compressed. This means that randomness is pure information.

It is the nature of order to emerge from chaos, because chaos represents dense information. Nature’s order comes from a careful balancing act of the creation of information, increasing entropy, and nature’s self organization. Nature, being a complex adaptive system, must let information occupy the most stable state it can form. Randomness is the engine that drives creation (in the present tense). It is probably even the explanation for the arrow of time. All this leads me to believe that order is an emergent property of randomness.