Thursday, August 21, 2014

We Contain Multitudes

We are patterns, processes, interconnected life forms sharing a space. That our minds have thoughts in each moment, that our brains exist longer than the rest of us, gives rise to the illusion of consistency. In reality, throughout our entire lives, we are in a constant state of becoming.

Cell Life Times

Adult humans have about 37 trillion cells (37,000,000,000,000). Each has its own life span ranging from a few hours to our entire lifetimes. Red blood cells live for about four months. White blood cells average more than a year. Skin cells die in about 18 days. Colon cells live less than five days. Some brain cells live an entire lifetime.

The number, arrangement, life, and state of our cells undergo constant change. They are never the same from moment to moment. For the middle aged like me, most of my body is less than ten years old, although in total cell's average about a 16 year lifespan.

Our brains are standout exception to this aging. Most brain cells live as long as we do. A few die, a few arrive to fill in, but most are with us through our entire lives. This persistence in our brains existence is part of the reason we perceive ourselves as being more consistent than we are.

Body Biomes

We are more than just human cells, our genetic makeup is only a tiny fraction of the total genes that exist inside our bodies. There are many bacteria that live inside us, on us, with us.

In this sense we humans are more like biomes or ecologies than individuals. In a 200-pound adult, 5 pounds of us are not truly us. For every human gene in our body, there are 360 microbial genes. This includes viruses, micro-phages, and other tiny organisms.

There are about a two thousand trillion bacteria (2,000,000,000,000,000) in our bodies. Our human cells are outnumbered by twenty to one by bacteria. Human cells tend to have more weight and size, but lose the numbers and diversity game.

Bacteria and yeast colonies live through most of the body. Coexisting in symbiotic relationships with us from our bellybuttons to our eyebrows, from our blood vessels to our ear canals. Bacteria are so vital to our survival that we would soon die without them.

More than 500 species of our co-life-forms are living at any one time in an adult intestine.
Our friendly passengers produce molecules that help us harness energy and extract building blocks from food, act as a first line of immune defense, and provide communication pathways between our cells.

Inside Cells

Even though an individual cell may exist for a period of time, The contents of cells are also constantly changing. All cells are in constant motion within.

Inside each cell has a ongoing flurry of activity as it builds, transports, uses, then recycles proteins. There are about 100,000 different kinds of proteins necessary for each human cell to function. Each protein exists for about one to two days.

Molecules go in and out of cells constantly. Large complex molecules containing energy, raw materials, signals for behavior and more; pass in, move through, and leave cells regularly. Smaller molecules like oxygen, water, and carbon dioxide move in, out, and about cells freely.

Very well, then I contradict myself,
I am large, I contain multitudes.
We Are Multitudes

We have a over five hundred (500) times the number of cells in our bodies as there are stars in the milky way galaxy.

It is our shared illusion to perceive ourselves as humans rather than ecosystems with a human framework. Not sensing the cells, the proteins, or bacteria allows us to ignore their fundamental part of our existence.

We think ourselves a single thing, but we are much more than that.

At each moment we are something. In the next moment we have changed all over. As time passes what we are is completely different.

Friday, August 15, 2014

Limited Will

Choice-less Starting

Sometimes, at conception, parents choose to have a child. More often than not it just happens. Parents do not choose which child they will have, a genetic lottery selects which features will grow.

We do not choose who our parents will be.  After birth years pass before we even become aware of choice, much less those made by parents.  We do not choose the society we are born into, the planet we appear on, or even the star around which we zoom.

We are thrust into existence with out our intent.

After birth a long period of time passes where we are driven by simple responses to senses: emotional at best, instinctual at worst.  Our family, society and environment put upon us what we can learn, what we can know, providing a framework of what we can be.

The demands of being drive us until we finally become aware of our own existence, only gradually do skills develop allowing mastery of body and desire.

Life Divided

A third of our lives are dissipated in sleep.  Dreams only a small part of this unconscious portion of our lives.  Making choices within dreams can be a rare treat, a momentary fantasy of self control.

Eating consumes another thick slice of life; finding things to put in our belly, chewing and swallowing, seeking a place to relieve the unused excess.  These autonomous actions, rarely reach our conscious thought, much less require considered selection.

Taking pause to rest, even in the midst of our labors, it is healthy to let the mind wander a bit.  Day dreaming is the flip side to focus, a time to deliberately not act, to stay our hands from making choices become real.

Who among us chooses at each moment to make their heart beat, ears hear, or skin itch?  Indeed our bodies function mostly without mindful intervention.

Another piece of life is used putting on clothes, taking them off again, brushing teeth, grooming bodies, and maintaining the space to live in.  These actions are in the main conducted with wandering thought, by rote and habit.

Reality Intervenes

Living among others, we often find choice limited.  The needs of spouse and children, family and friends, even society at large limit the range of choices available.

Habits formed from expectations guide much of our time.  Listening to other's tell about their own thoughts is necessary to keep relationships healthy.  Caring for children and the aged demand attention from other choices that might be made.

Work demands action from us.  Boss or customer schedules toil where we attend and interact.  Plans made by others guide our activity.  We do what is required of us in order to gain those resources necessary for life.  Making a choice to work, is followed by many demands we do not choose.

Sometimes, the world intrudes in more harsh ways.  Accidents happen.  Government requires time to pay and then file tax.  Things wear out and break requiring attention to maintain our lives.  Natural disasters and weather can interrupt our intent.

Room for Will

The moments of choice that transcend our environment, ignorance, and emotion are small.  In a life of 80 years we are lucky to have but a few where our own will can be expressed.

The considered choices we are able to make, much less implement to our plans, are often so slight as to fade into insignificance.

Even the simple act of selecting from a menu at a restaurant requires we wait for the menu, scan the options, filter those that will not suit, and then, only then, make a choice about what we might eat.

Each selection made, each choice of will, requires two separate activities: assessment and decision.

Our choices begin by comparing our desires.  What of all our current wants should have a priority.  A part of the brain determines value of each, categorizing them by immediacy, risk, and reward.

We then must begin to consider potential actions, what could we do that might result in realizing what we want.  Picking which path might get us to the end of our desire.

Decision Fatigue

Deliberate acts based on the choices require effort and time.  Everyday we face small decisions both major and minor.

Our thoughts are occupied with comparing and choosing.  Rarely does this process happen instantly.  Different parts of our prefrontal cortex, our fore-brain, hold symbolic patterns, metaphors of desire, potential solutions, and determine choice.

Making choices wears us down.  We expend focus and energy.  With no nerves sensing the usage of our brain, we feel no fatigue, but the brain does tire from exertion. No matter how sensible we attempt to be, we can not make decision after decision without paying a biological price.

The more choices we make in a day, the harder each one becomes.  Like a weight lifter, we tire from the exertion.  As we make more and more choices, we start to look for shortcuts, even become reckless, are more prone to act on impulse.

Experiments have clearly shown that there is a finite store of mental energy available for exerting will. When people resist the desire to eat a donut, they become less able to resist other temptations.

Limits to Free Will

Even if we do not accept that our existence is pre-determined, that fate does not rule us, that our choices are not an illusion; our free will is fleeting at best.

Harsh environments, social, financial, and environmental, radically reduce our chances to prosper.  When our lives are full of hard choices, when we our focus must be on finding the next meal, the next place to sleep, resolving crises after crises, we use up our ability to create a better existence for ourselves.

When the affluent expect others to make choices like theirs, they assume others have the mental reserve to act as they do.  Picking one's self up by their bootstraps requires more effort than picking which stock to buy next.

Children gradually develop their ability to exercise free will, so we must help them make choices until are able to do it on their own.  This requires us to put aside our own choices for their survival.

Judging the success and failures of others, without being able to sense the energy expenditure of choice, is an illusion.  This does mean we have to accept their poor choices, but rather we ought understand they have limits to choosing.

When we choose to judges others harshly, we use up some of our own capacity to act with our own free will.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Breath of Vanity

"Vanity of vanities," says the Preacher, "Vanity of vanities! All is vanity."
What advantage does man have in all his work which he does under the sun?

Angry about Israel?
Disturbed about the plight of a Palestinian?
Do you demand that Obama is evil?
Is Limbaugh pissing you off?

Have you a bed?
Is your belly full?
Does someone cherish you?
Do you yet breathe?

I read a letter from father to son, their children's children's children long ago turned to dust.  An Egyptian father urged his son to make something of his life, to do his duty, to bring honor to his family.

His worry and admonition so familiar, so far away.

Now, except some fragment of his scratching, they are both nameless, mostly forgotten.  Even the worms that ate their bones, dispersed amongst us all.

Photograph by Ryan Mckee
Some claim that if we know the secret symbols etched out on some rock or page, we can have eternal life, live forever in an ecstatic paradise.  All we have to do is believe.

Others claim the whole universe will fade out, in some entropic heat death at the end of time from a hot bright flash of nothing becoming something it will slowly all fade until something means nothing.

Looking up on a clear, starry night at a two dimensional view of a cosmos only grasped on the fringes of awareness, I see billions of galaxies each with billions of stars, long gone, pale photons emitted from some violent eon gone action, pushing upon my eyes.

What am I to them, these stars these photons?
What small significance would I, this little pattern of energy and matter, matter so much to them?

Then a plane passes in my direct view, just overhead, full of Fed Ex's bound for someones expectation of desire.
Boxes of hope.  Boxes of wants. Boxes of some scheme.
Busy expectations of a tomorrows arrival.
A reason to strive and reach and climb and achieve.
Dead trees of cubical enclosures with ink arranged on paper just so to let everyone know they exist.
Meaning created for meanings sake.

At my knee is a rose.  A beautiful pink explosion of life.  At my feet a quiet ant hill, still from its many lives exertions for food to procreate the next colony of being.  Within each ant cells process, divide, grow and pass on, full of molecules and quarks moving in a complex dance.

My grown daughter, far away, yet so close in space, puts down her head on dead birds remains covered by rearranged plant fiber and begins to snore.  I hope she knows peace.  A step son, unseen, unheard for many a year, goes about his day in a land on the other side of this tiny, revolving sphere unaware of my trivial existence.

In this moment I breathe.  I feel the oxygen and nitrogen, born in dead distant stars, rush past the hairs of my nose, giving my little pattern of existence one more brief moment.  I am content to have the token of
it's presence and I too fade to vain sleep.

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Tokens of Being

Stumbling In the Dark

Getting out of bed late one night to answer bladder's demand for a release of pressure, I blindly walked in the darkness toward the toilet.  With scant light, I was following a mental picture of the room, groping my way toward where I remembered the porcelain throne might be.

Suddenly a sharp pain shoots up from my toe.  It had collided with a forgotten coffee table.  A sensation of pain demands my focus.  I had felt this pain before and knew it meant trouble.

Hopping toward where I remembered the light switch to be, I groped to flick it and gain a better sense of how the room was laid out.  It was obvious that my mental map of objects did not meet it's reality.  I was paying a price for a bad idea.

Tracing Experience

The sense of pain works by a series of events that starts in the toe and ends in my brain.  The skin has cells which act like sensors, gadgets that detect temperature, pressure, damage and more.

These sensor cells respond to their environment by sending chemical signals to nearby nerve cells. The nerve cells are like long wires that feed the signal into the spinal column, up my back, and on to my brain.

From the top of my spine the signal is split into three parts. One part of the information goes onto the thalamus where memories are associated. A second signal is sent to the part of the brain governing awareness and attention.  A third signal is sent to the body map laid out on the very surface of my brain.

My awareness of the pain, where it came from, and how it may have been caused, are all wired into what I am.  My sense of the world is fed chemically from toe to thought.

Indirect Experience

The pain in my toe is experienced indirectly, but this is not how it feels.  The awareness of my toe and its pain is triggered by conditions in the toe.  What happens to the toe is relayed to my brain where the experience is felt and understood.  I am wired in such a way that the map in my brain seems as if it is the toe, but it is not.  The toe is connected by signals to an area of brain is associated with the toe.  My experience of my toe is actually the part of my brain that understands my toe.  The signal is understood to be the toe.

The signals that damage has occurred are symbols.  The signals are not the pain itself.  The signals are representations, metaphors of the experience of the toe's condition.

The direct connection between the sensor and the represented gives us an illusion of being all at once, when in reality we are manipulating signals, symbols, metaphors of the experience.

Symbols travel down the nerves to provide information.  It is a symbol of the damage to my toe that reaches my brain.

A clearer example of this happens when a person's toe is amputated.  The amputee continues to experience as if the toe existed when it is long gone from their bodies.  The nerves which carry information about the toe can read false triggers.  Symbols travel to the brain from sources that no longer relate to any toe.

Signals of existence of the toe are still mapped to the brain area that relates to the toe.  This area of the brain tries to interpret the signals as if the toe where still there.  If the amputee is lucky, the brain will adapt to ignore the false signals and begin to forget the toe.  Unlucky amputees can experience pain from a toe that no longer exists.

This idea, that our experience is symbolic, runs counter to our experience.  We feel as if we are a body in the world.  Our sensors give us information about the world in what seems like presence.  We are unaware of the translation of sense into symbol and so find it hard to accept.  Our being is experienced differently than our actuality.  What seems direct experience, is indirect as symbols.

Senses as Representations

Boxes are a thing we can put other things in.  The box could hold fruit or toys or even just air.  The box's function, its ability to hold contents, gives rise to the idea of what a box is.  At first, this idea is confusing.  The box is a squarish thing with five sides and a hole in the middle.  When we think of a box, we think of the cardboard on it's boundaries, physical shape, and size.  The boxes ability to contain other things comes later.  Seeing the box's utility is added as a characteristic of the box as a thing.

If the box is full of something, it takes on the properties of that thing in our mind.  A box of light bulbs is about the light bulbs and the box only a way of saying "these light bulbs belong together".  The box has become more than its cardboard and shape, it is a placeholder for stuff in it.

This is also how our brain operates on sense data.  We have the equivalent of boxes where symbols are stored. Our sensory data is is held in a mental equivalent of a box that allows us to put a boundary upon it, to fix a limit where the symbol can exist.

The things in the box are like the sensory experience held in our brains.  We hold indirect, symbols of the sense data in our brains.  We do not have the actual reality, only a symbol bounded by the boxes that make up our brains.

Experience Disconnect

Understanding that our experience is not the thing that actually happens assaults the mind.  Our moment to moment feeling does not feel abstract.  Our lives do not feel symbolic.  We feels as if it is in the now, as if reality is happening to us.  Our symbols feels as if they are us.  This feeling is an illusion, an abstraction of the reality we exist in.

Another way to approach this seeming disconnect between reality and our experience is to consider what it means to look at a tree.

When I look at a tree's leaves, I see green.  That frequency of light that hits my eye is the wave length of the color green.

The light photon vibrates in a way that triggers my eye sensor, sending a chemical impulse to my brain saying "green was detected".

The light that hit the tree had many frequencies, many colors.  The tree absorbed all of the light except what was green.  The tree contains, absorbs, holds all those colors of light.  The only light that gets reflected away from the tree is the green light.  The green light is the part that is NOT the tree.

When I see the green from the tree, I'm seeing what the tree is not.  The reality is that the tree is all the colors except green.  My experience of the tree when I look at it is not what the tree is, but what the tree it is not.

If I go to a friend and say "The tree is everything but green", they will most probably think I am a little crazy.  Their experience of the tree being green is a strongly held illusion.  Challenges to the illusion violate their pattern of experience.

 Not knowing the tree as it is, a thing that absorbs everything but green, we assume the green we see is what the tree is.

Our symbolic experience of reality can be understood, but remains remote from our seeming experience of it.

Symbols of Stored Experience

The brains neurons are plastic.  The connections between them and the chemicals held inside the cells of our brain are in a constant state of flux.  Each new sensory input changes quantity and position of chemicals held in each neuron cell.  Neuron cells make connections, break them, and reconnect in new ways to hold symbolic representations of the total reality we experience.

In a sense, each neuron and its connections acts like a box.  It holds symbolic information, a representation of the sensory data.

Each new sense from our body is layered on top of the senses we have had before.  A more and more complex set of symbols is built through this chemical and mechanical storage of symbols we have experienced.

As we live life, we gain more and more sensory data.  The experience is translated into symbols that wash over the brain.  Each experience is layered into the very structure of our brains.  Our brains become many symbols held together.  The longer we live, the more symbolic information is layered, the more accurate our symbolic model of reality can become.

Experiencing the Moment

Each moment has a unique content of chemicals and structure that we experience as "now".  Our constant plasticity, our constant changing of our brains structure, our constant input of new senses gives rise to the feeling of being in the moment.

Each thought can be understood as a brain structure of symbols experienced.  This does not happen all alone.  The brain is always receiving new signals.  The symbols, the content of the brain is always changing.

Watching the waves crash or lap onto the a beach is another way of absorbing how the brain works.  As the water flows in and out in waves or ripples, it acts like the sensory data hitting our brains.

Our brains store senses like sand on the beach.  Each wave pushes the sand particles about, changing the shape and structure of the beach.   The overall shape of the beach remains.

The waves never stop.  The focus of changes can move up and down the beach.

Sensory data puts pressure on the pattern of our brains as the waves water pulls and pushes the sand.  The beaches shape is constant yet plastic. The brain holds symbols from previous waves of thought, adding each new sensory experience on top of those that came before.

Our experience of consciousness, our experience of mind, is both the wave and the beach at once.  Our sense data provides the waves of water, while our brain remembers the previous waves in the very structure of the beach.  We experience both the wave and the sand at once.  We are our memory and our senses at the same time.

Soul as Symbol

Experiencing the world through indirect symbols, feeling the sense data in context of what was already in our minds, gives us an experience of being.  Our past experiences are apart of our interpretation of the moment of sensation. This constant connection between the experience of now and the past layers of experience gives us a feeling of self as a being in time.

We experience ourselves only indirectly.  We form a symbol, a metaphor of what we are.  This idea of our existence exists as a symbol of symbols is an abstraction, a meta-symbol defines us to ourselves.

Another way of thinking about this returns us to the box and its contents.  We commonly view our body as a box that holds our mind.  We put our mind's existence into the box of our body.  We consider our mind is not the box, but our mind is it's contents.  Yet the box is required to hold the symbol.

We are confused by the need for a box and the description of our minds as a symbol in the box.  In order to understand this relationship between box and the symbol it holds, we isolate them, objectify them, considering the box as separate and apart from the symbol.

Assigning a separateness to the box and symbol is an misconception, a by product of how we experience reality, but not the actual reality we are experiencing.  This leads us to see the world as dualistic, two separate but connected parts united into a single thing.

Token Culmination

Starting with sensors of experience, our nerves send patterns representing the reality to our brains where a symbolic abstraction is held.

Our awareness is a symbolic translation of reality.  Our physical experience of the world is indirect, metaphorical, an analogy of what is.

Knowing no other but the symbol, we presume it is the reality.  Unable to transcend ourselves in experience, we are a bounded, closed system.

Our minds are symbolic representations of reality. In this way we only experience the symbols, never the reality.

Our symbolic experience maps so well with our expectations of being, we are tricked us into thinking the symbol is the reality.  Never experiencing reality as it is, we only know tokens of being.