The Meaning of Meaning (2)

January 28th, 2013

It would be one thing if our unmet need for existential closure meant only that we had occasional unsettling attacks of meaninglessness, or a vague cloud of doubt hanging over our heads as we went about our daily lives. But unfortunately this nagging psychic unease also interferes with us just getting done our day-to-day business as normal human beings, as if we were lugging around a 20-pound sack of potatoes everywhere we went. For all the design flaws in the whole homo sapiens mind-body system that the messy evolutionary process has bequeathed to us, we basically work remarkably well. We’re endowed with well-functioning instincts and behaviors. We’re lithe. But the bag of potatoes bogs us down, gets in our way, disrupts our rhythm, saps our mojo, puts us off our game.

Then there’s a second order effect which is that our inability to find the big pattern we crave saps our confidence. We can’t find it–so maybe there’s something wrong with us! Maybe there’s other patterns we’re missing! Maybe other people have found the pattern and we’re inferior to them! This fear, this complex is yet more sand in the gears. If the basic existential pain is not sufficient motivation for us to try to do something about the problem, this negative effect on our basic functioning certainly is.

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The Meaning of Meaning (1)

January 26th, 2013

Here is the theory I have arrived at. Humans are successful animals because we have developed large brains with the capability of identifying and matching patterns of many varieties. These patterns could be called concepts, or theories, or hypotheses, or just rules of thumb. The patterns can range from the highly concrete (“a chair”) to the social (“a family”) to the philosophical (“happiness”).

Evolution equipped us not only with the ability to handle patterns but also a reward mechanism for exercising it, which like other reward systems takes neurochemical form. You will know this as the “Eureka” moment when something suddenly “makes sense” (meaning you found a new pattern it fits into, or an old one, or a modification to an old one), or, less dramatically, the little satisfying mental click when something falls together.

Although it is not directly related to my overall topic here, the human inclination, or one might say compulsion, to believe in God can be tied to this neurotheoretical notion of pattern-finding and pattern-matching (and thus the somewhat unfortunate term “neurotheology”), in the sense that a belief in God again activates our reward systems for finding patterns, in this case a “pattern” or framework that ties together disparate and otherwise unexplainable things. Of course, this fundamental biological motivation that results in a notion of the supernatural is then embroidered and modulated by any number of social and political factors, and people have written entire books on the subject, but underlying it all is the human thirst to understand (in other words, find patterns), which, again, has a neurobiological basis.

Thirst in the very real sense, because reward is the flip side of desire, be it for water or anything else, and desire merely one stage on the path to addiction. Those neurochemicals sloshing around in our brains making us feel great when we have sex are also capable, by their absence, of making us sad, horny, jittery, or desperate. It is when this deprivation becomes so serious that we seek to satisfy it, even at great cost to ourselves, that we call it addiction.

Evolution made a wise enough choice in developing these mechanisms; they mostly serve us well when it comes to nourishment, or reproduction, or social relationships, or even intellectual pursuits, such as in the urge Einstein felt to discover the pattern which resulted in the theory of relativity. But what purpose is served by the deep emotional unease, pain, or even agony, that we feel when we are unable to satisfy our cravings for finding patterns, especially big patterns, or the biggest pattern of all, which is how all these other patterns fit together–the “meaning of life” (yes, patterns are essentially identical to what we call “meaning”)–even in the case where there is no pattern to be found? (The millions of people who are desperately seeking the big pattern by pursuing whatever form of religion or practice or devotion or philosophy are, at one level, hardly different from the crack addict furiously looking for his next fix. Of course, just as not everyone develops an addition to drugs, not everyone develops an addiction to finding patterns. In both cases, I suppose it is, like most other things, a matter of so-called epigenetics.

Crime, Punishment, and the Singularity

May 28th, 2008

Another interesting social issue related to the is its effect on our penal system especially the millions of folks we’ve got locked up right now. Take a prisoner with a 50-year sentence. If he has to serve his entire sentence he wouldn’t be out until 2050, but by that time we expect inconceivable advances in genetics, nanotechnology, and artificial intelligence/robotics, all of which could have implications for his case. Read the rest of this entry »

The Singularity is Near

May 26th, 2008

Ray Kurzweil’s The Singularity is Near ( ) is one of those books that really changes the way you look at things.

For instance, when the Supreme Court rules on virtual child porn as it did recently ( ), you see that the real issue goes far beyond Photoshopping some kidpix. Read the rest of this entry »

Sakiko's new blog

May 22nd, 2008

Sakiko has started a blog at . Expect lots of cat pictures.

Nearman’s new translation of Shobogenzo

May 21st, 2008

Rev. Hubert Nearman, O.B.C. has put out an ambitious new translation of Shobogenzo, a 14-year labor of love, now available from the Shasta Abbey website.

Getting guidance for your life from the web

May 21st, 2008

A recent college graduate I know recently found himself most unhappy in his new job. But was there something really wrong with the company he had had such high hopes for, or was it merely a case of the freshman blues? Where to turn for advice? Friends? Parents? Professors?

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The Neural Buddhists: Neurotheology in the NYT

May 19th, 2008

The New York Times published a last week on the topic of meta-neurotheology: the context and evolution of the social discussion about neurotheology. Author David Brooks points out the huge impact that the neuroscience revolution is having and will have on our culture’s views of God, religion, and science. His main point: the direction we will take as the discussion unfolds is not towards atheism and pure materialism, but rather something he calls neural Buddhism: “new movements that emphasize self-transcendence”, based on beliefs in a dynamic self , shared morals, elevated experience, and a new concept of God .

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Epigenetic Enlightenment

May 19th, 2008

“Life’s experiences add molecular switches to the genes that control our brain activity,” is the subhead on an article in a recent issue of SciAm Mind. The article presents the new field known as epigenetics , which holds that experience can cause chemical changes that boost or depress the expression of certain genes.

This is a rich potential mechanism for describing interaction of nature and nurture in general, but in particular the progress of spiritual development associated with ongoing practices such as Zen meditation. Simply put, meditation practice could have chemical effects such as attaching methyl groups to genes, which quiets the gene by interfering with the ability of the RNA-based transcription mechanism. Or it could attach acetyl groups with the opposite effect, letting the genes express themselves more easily.

This is an intriguing supplement or alternative to other explanations of the long-term effects of meditation, such as neuroplasticity, but what is the gene, or genes, in question? Such a hypothesis will be a prerequisite for experimental design in this field.

Image of chromatin created by Nicolas Bouvier; courtesy of Genevieve Almouzni, Curie Institute, Paris, France.

Hofstadter and the Singularity

May 16th, 2008

I got a copy of Douglas Hofstadter’s “I Am a Strange Loop” (Amazon) for my birthday and spent the next month puzzling over why this inane book ever got written, other than to make a few bucks from aging technohippies with fond memories of Godel, Escher and Bach. It’s basically a random collection of unstructured jottings, boring personal stories, and contentless musings. Try as he might, Hofstadter never manages to convince us of the connection between Godel’s proof and some kind of loop that supposedly lies at the basis of our consciousness. Oddly, there’s almost no reference to any of the actual research in neuroscience or related fields which has started to cast light on the phenomenon of consciousness in recent years.

Hofstadter’s treatment of Zen in the book is emblematic of its problems. In a dialog between “Strange Loop #641”, a believer in the ideas of I Am a Strange Loop (such as they are), and “Strange Loop #642”, a doubter, he has them saying: Read the rest of this entry »