Friday, June 29, 2018

Freely Willing and Chilling

I’ve always found the materialist position on free will amusing, because to believe in just the material you could not concede that there was an immaterial element to the person making decisions — whether we call it the soul or whatever mediates the natural to the supernatural.  Yet, neuroscience and psychology have come up with some evidence that we are not so free, so maybe it is us more “woo-woo” types who need to (unfreely) make concessions.

I enjoyed Alfred Mele’s book Free: Why Science Hasn’t Disproved Free Will, because he doesn’t go down any “woo-woo” tracks as to what makes free will possible, but instead offers a lucid and decisive refutation to the recent evidence that attempts to undermine it.

Perhaps the best known evidence against free will comes from the experiments conducted by neurobiologist Benjamin Libet. Participants were asked to flex a wrist whenever they felt like doing so, and then to report on when they had become consciously aware of the urge to flex it while being wired to an EEG machine. The results found that that the activity in the motor cortex would begin an average of 300 milliseconds before the participant had a conscious sense of the willing to flex the wrist. So from the materialist view, this proves their case. If free will requires that conscious willing to do something is the cause of doing it, then we don’t act so freely.

Mele posits that there are issues with Libet’s approach: (1) we have no evidence that the specific kind of neural activity really is sufficient for flexing; and (2) the approach is quite artificial since it does not take account for active deliberation by participants.

Moreover, there is some nuance to the idea of free will, and as to whether or not we have it depends on what we mean by free will, and more importantly, where are we coming from? 

Mele admits the following definition raises the bar too high: “(1) Having free will requires making conscious choices that are entirely independent of preceding brain activity, and (2) Having free will requires being absolutely unconstrained by genetics and environment (including the situations in which we find ourselves).”

If you take that as the straw-man argument, then yes, you have to concede that we are soul-less mammals. But truthfully, we can see our actions as being more fluid, in that, we are pre-consciously making choices in each moment as to where we place our attention to act, and consciously deliberating more complex choices during other times. We are both conditioned and unconditioned, with mixed motivations in respects to many of the behaviors we enact.

Again, where are we coming from? There is also the possibility of coming from not our will, but God’s will. There is no “do-er” and yet we individually align to fulfill actions not necessarily of our own making. This is where it gets most interesting, and while Mele does not dare explore such terrain, it makes the contrast of “thy will be done” and “Thy will be done” all the more compelling.

Saturday, June 16, 2018

Meditation Made Me Sick

Meditating on emptiness 
Spilled tea on the zabuton 
Cup not as empty as I thought 
~Richard Arthure

I’ve been a serious meditator for over a decade now, and it hasn’t always been easy. The monkey mind is only part of it. During my first week-long retreat I had sort of a meltdown due to some challenging energetic discomfort. I literally felt like I had a severe headache outside of my head for days. For a few years thereafter, my head would wobble uncontrollably (a.k.a. kriyas) during my practice. I would feel my right heal involuntarily raise up if I was seated in a chair. I was continually prone to such “kundalini” experiences due to metabolic imbalances in my energy system. Moreover, I needed to purify a less-than-mature ego that was not ready to give up its tendencies.

In recent years, I have gradually come to see an easing into practice where the relationship to experience is more accepting. At times, I still encounter a mind full of agitation, over-intellectualism, and desire. Yet, I look forward to practice now. 

Moreover, I have redefined why I practice. In the past I did it more to find some life-changing “awakening” experience and enduring happiness. Now, I practice to cultivate my relationship to be with God, so that I can better relationally become in the world. It’s less about me, where the practice and being are one in the same.

Still, there are always places where we can go awry in spiritual practice. I recently came across a blog post by David Brazier on Meditation Sickness. He says, “Meditation sicknesses are states that can come about as a result of meditation, generally meditation that has, in effect, been practised with an unsound motivation.” 

Many techniques and teachings of meditation, albeit popular these days, are metaphysically lazy. There seems to be little motivation to meditate beyond physiological and psychological benefits. For some, this may be adequate. But for the rest, we are losing sight of the relational potentials we can have to the transcendent and immanent Source to become more whole(y).

This also reminds me of what Frithjof Schuon says about Realizationism: “A pernicious error that must be pointed out here -- one which seems to be axiomatic with the false gurus of East and West -- is what could be designated by the term 'Realizationism': it is claimed that only 'realization' counts and that 'theory' is nothing, as if man were not a thinking being and as if he could undertake anything whatsoever without knowing where he was going.”

For those of us who can lose sight of knowing where we are going, here are the sicknesses pointed out by Brazier:
1. Unsustainable infatuation: The practitioner falls in love with the practice in an unsustainable way that in due course often leads to an equally sudden rejection or loss of faith.
2. Pursuit of visions and emotional high: The practitioner pursues the practice primarily in a quest for visionary or psychodelic experiences and is endlessly looking for such novelties.
3. Attachment to heavenly states: The practitioner makes some progress and attains to one of the higher dhyanas and becomes strongly attached to it, wanting only to dwell there.
4. Emptiness disease: The practitioner, having had an insight into emptiness loses all sense of purpose or direction. At an extreme this can become a kind of psychopathy.
5. Self-inflation: The practitioner believes him or herself to be enlightened and in possession of super-normal abilities in a way that leads to recklessness or abuse of others.
6. Reactivation of extreme ego states: Meditation can trigger neurotic or psychotic symptoms in persons already so predisposed.
7. Loss of connection with instinct: The practitioner may become so detached from bodily processes that he or she loses the ability to respond naturally to somatic messages.
8. Accidie: The practitioner becomes weary of spirit and can see no point in the practice or in any other activity.

Sunday, June 10, 2018

If You're Chasing Your Tail, You Better Make Sure It's Not a Fat One

Despite the title, this post is not referring to the recent passing of my feline friend. Fat and thin tails are related to probabilistic expectations that anchors Nassim Taleb's work. I just finished his book, and want to unpack some of his core ideas. Besides, we know most actions have risks, so better sometimes to know what we don't know.

I particularly enjoy Taleb's polemical discourse on IYI's (Intellectual, Yet Idiot) or folks who don't know what they don't know. Living in Boston and having access to many academic and intellectual circles, I've always intuited a stink among certain fairly smart individuals. It seemingly manifests itself in a sort of compartimentalization, where the brain is firing on all cylinders in a couple areas and taking a nap in all the others (including the heart at times). It seems there are some who are a little too wet behind their closed ears.

I've seen people talk about think tanks or firms collectively with many years of experience. But let's say someone says their firm has 40 years of experience; that could mean they have 20 post-grads each with a couple years to their resume verses a couple seasoned professionals with at least 20 years of work-life. Who would you rather trust? Taleb notes, and it would seem to me also, that “adding people without fundamental insights does not sum up to insight.” 

Taleb believes good, long times are on the side of rationality: “fragility is the expert, hence time and survival.” But IYI's like to stay close to home. They are usually good at first-order thinking, but not second-order thinking. They can reason to some extent, but because they compartimentalize so many of their ideas they can't see the complex whole. In other words, “the higher the number of possible interactions, ... the more disproportionally difficult it is to understand the macro from the micro, the general from the simple units.” Although they arrogantly try, usually through some reductive foibles.

That does not mean time always brings in wisdom to IYI's, but wisdom is rare without the ebbs and flows of life. Or as David Bentley Hart says: “Wisdom is the recovery of innocence at the far end of experience.” Many young people lack both epistemic humility and life exposure. Many older people can also lack both if they never got their boots on the ground and their hearts out in the open.

And then there's the issue of too much time for one life. Taleb says, “If humans were immortals, they would go extinct from an accident, or from a gradual buildup of misfitness.” It seems we have an optimal shelf-life where our genetic changes can benefit future generations for adaptability. Beyond that, we would be crusty curmudgeons afraid to cross the street.  

Life is always about risk, but hopefully not ruin. Taking risks allows for wisdom to ensue, but the question remains what risks are too much: 
Never compare a multiplicative, systemic, and fat-tailed risk to a non-multiplicative idiosyncratic, and thin-tailed one. (Taleb)
Taleb explains that thin-tailed risks are ergodic: meaning, the statistical expectation for a collection of players is similar to a single player over time. Yet, there are many risks that can look good collectively, but may create havoc on the individual if he/she is at the game long enough. (Yes, flying is less risky compared to many other forms of transportation, but overtime if you're flying a lot, it just takes that one hungover pilot to ruin your life.)

Let's say you're in a position in power, and making a bet on something you're doing where the odds of something catastrophic is low, but should it happen it can create mass ruin (listen up wall street, AI developers, politicians). Maybe you should have skin in the game yourself. Maybe you should be following the Silver Rule: do not do to others what you would not like them to do to you. Maybe you should resign and move to a tropical island.

Yet, most IYI's have an entitled sense to act on their "expertise" and usually make a mess of things for the sake of perception. In their view, adding something new (e.g. policies, technologies, etc) is always going to look sexier than removing something. But we can never know all the interactions that will result in an action, so sometimes we can do better with subtraction (via negativa) than addition (via positiva).

All in all, the world is far too complex for IYI's on top to be making decisions that will inconsequentially impact those of us on the ground. Fine for thin-tailed risks, but not if you're going to ruin my (and everyone else's) party. So if you're in a position of influence, better the outcomes will be if you're not externalizing the risks to others and have skin in that game yourself.

When the beard (or hair) is black, heed the reasoning, but ignore the conclusion. When the beard is gray, consider both reasoning and conclusion. When the beard is white, skip the reasoning, but mind the conclusion. — Nassim Taleb

Monday, June 4, 2018


With deep sadness, I had to say goodbye and put down my best feline friend, Bobo, on Friday due to abrupt kidney failure. He was magisterial, fierce, gentle, sweet, and always a great companion. In his younger years, being an indoor/outdoor cat, he would often bring me a rodent as a gift. I didn't always appreciate waking up to a dead mouse in my apartment, but I understood he was acting out his nature. (I even had an ex-girlfriend who placed an ultimatum on me as to whether she or the cat stays due to these episodes. He stayed and she eventually left.) He stopped this activity a few years back, but then suddenly decided to bring me an unprecendented three mice over one evening a couple weeks ago. I now realize this was his last hurrah and gifting to me. Of course, he gave me so much more than I could have ever offered him.
At this moment, the loss has quite an intensity to it as I sit with it. It's not like I haven't experienced the loss of loved ones or relationships. But the unconditional love from a pet is quite unique, as many have expressed. I recently heard someone say grief is love that has no place to go. I would add that it's a love that has no place to go in this existence. The earthly relationship is severed. But through the suffering, I can sense how the love can be transformed beyond the form to an essence that stays. I am enriched by the experience I had with Bobo, which I would not trade in for a moment even in my grief. As Taleb says, “Love without sacrifice is like theft.”
Bobo will be remembered for so much: how he curled around my leg as I meditated, his love for rubbing his face against mine, the times he would follow me around outside, and the way he initially found me more than I went looking for him. He really was unique as far as cats go. He often acted like a dog in some ways. And in others ways, he was very much a descendant of rich feline genes. His dignified appearance and soulful like eyes gave him a regal presence. Even as illness and age crept upon him, he allowed his youthful zeal to give in to a wise solidity that was at times ineffable. We were deeply connected in that ineffability, and I very much look forward to reconnecting with him in the light.
Bobo, 2004 — 2018