77 Things I Learned From Writing 1,000 Blog Essays

By James Wallace Harris, Wednesday, January 20, 2016

This is my 1,000th blog post and I’ve learned a lot from blogging.

My first post was “Access time in a fifty-five year old brain” published 12/26/2006. Here’s the first paragraph:

The main reason I’ve created this blog is to help me remember.   After that I want to study how information is organized with the ultimate plan of taming the horde of competing topics that have tangled up my synapses.  I’m hoping if I can find a way to organize my thoughts I will be able to remember facts and details more efficiently and faster.  If I can’t, then the search box will do the job my neurons can’t.  My access time for my gray matter runs from instant, to many hours, to total failure.  This started as a noticeable problem in my late forties and has been getting worse ever since.

Well, I’m still struggling to organize my thoughts, but I’m quite confident Auxiliary Memory has been an huge help as an external memory device. Blogging is also a form of mental exercise that keeps my declining mind in shape. After nine years, or 3,314 days, and over a million words, I have forgotten most of what I’ve written, but it’s still there for me to retrieve. I’m often surprised to reread what I write. Blogging has turned out to be an incredibly useful tool, and I wonder why more people don’t blog.

To celebrate these nine hundred and ninety-nine essays, I thought I’d note some of what I’ve learned.

  1. Blogging is like piano practice for writing.
  2. Essay writing is a concrete way to organize thoughts.
  3. Original thoughts are thin and vague, and it takes a lot of work to make them coherent.
  4. Often coherency doesn’t show up until days of writing and rewriting. 
  5. We don’t realize how unclear our thoughts are until we try to put thoughts into sentences.
  6. Thinking improves with editing.
  7. The quality of my writing is directly related to the number of times I reread and edited an essay before I hit the publish button.
  8. There is no relation between getting hits and what I’m interested in writing about.
  9. I can’t predict what people will want to read. The old essay that gets the most current hits is “Do You Dream About Dinosaur Attacks?” If you search Google for “Dreaming about dinosaurs” my piece is 2nd in their listing. Evidently 30-50 people a day research this topic. I never would have predicted that.
  10. If my goal is to get hits, then I should review products. Product reviews are my consistent hit getters, but I quit writing them. 
  11. Science fiction is the subject that has garnered my most readers, and my favorite topic to write about.
  12. Don’t expect your friends and family to read your blogs.
  13. Only a few of my friends have subscribed to my blog and will occasionally mention reading an essay, or post a reply.
  14. I’ve learn to write what I feel like writing and not to worry if it will be read. I’m currently getting 250-350 hits a day, mostly due to Google searches, but also because of a handful of regular readers. I have 1,500 subscribers. But I can’t assume that a hit means a read. Just because a person clicks on a Google search return doesn’t mean I’m providing them with information they want to know. And many of my subscribers are other bloggers hoping I’ll read their blog. (Which I do try to do.)
  15. It’s extremely hard to write a 1,000 words that someone else will want to read.
  16. Few people want to think about a specific topic the same time that I do.
  17. There are very few people that have the same mixture of interests as I do.
  18. Blogging is a way to embed your personality into words.
  19. Blogging is a way to find out how many of your friends, family, and strangers think your interests are interesting.
  20. Blogging is a way to express yourself without boring your friends.
  21. If you want to find out how interesting you are to your friends, blog your thoughts. You might be surprised.
  22. There is a direct relationship between how much time my friends are willing to listen to me talk and whether or not they will read what I’ve written. My most chatty friends, the ones that never let me get a word in, never read my blog. I don’t say this as a hurt ego, but to show that blogging will reveal which of your friends are actually interested in what’s going inside of your head. Don’t blog if you don’t want to know.
  23. Blogging will reveal what your true interests are to yourself, and how fanatical you are about them.
  24. Blogging is a good way to meet people like yourself online.
  25. Blogging is a good way to learn if you have common interests or obscure fascinations.
  26. Blogging is a way to learn when your thinking is faulty.
  27. Blogging is a way to learn when your thinking is political incorrect.
  28. Blogging is a way to learn things about yourself that you don’t see – because readers do.
  29. Blogging is a way to test the limits of your memory.
  30. If you blog about a past event and try to document it with photos, outside reference material, interviews with people at the event, you’ll learn that memories are piss-poor at best.
  31. A well written blog about an event written within 24 hours will provide a better memory than your brain.
  32. If you get an idea for a blog post start writing it as soon as possible because the idea will disappear quickly.
  33. Blogging is mostly memory, opinions and reporting.
  34. Reporting is when you document events outside of yourself.
  35. Being a good reporter is hard.
  36. Opinions are a dime a million, essentially worthless unless you can back them up with evidence.
  37. The more evidence the better. 
  38. My personal memories are only interesting to people if I can frame them in a universal theme. And even then, few people will read them. One of my favorite memory-lane pieces, “Super Men and Mighty Mice” has gotten the least amount of hits. It was about being kids and pretending to fly, and begins like this:

    During the Ozzie and Harriet years, when I was seven and people called me Jimmy, my sister Becky and our best friends Mikey and Patty, would beg old tattered terry cloth towels from our moms and pretend to be George Reeves. We’d tie those old faded pastel rags around our necks, stretch out our arms, hands flat, fingers pointing forward, tilt our heads down and run like Hanna-Barbera cartoon characters, occasionally jumping with all our might, with the hopes of getting airborne like Superman, or at least Mighty Mouse. And when we were burnt out and our little bodies too tired to try any more, we’d go to sleep at night and have flying dreams.

  39. It’s hard to write Jean Shepherd type nostalgia and get hits. Shepherd is famous for A Christmas Story. Nostalgia just doesn’t index well on Google.
  40. Nostalgia does appeal to readers who have similar past experiences. It’s lucky when you find those people, or they find you. 
  41. Blogging teaches elements of journalism. If you want hits, you have to write what other people want to read. That means focusing on current popular topics, and writing short pieces that don’t exceed the common attention span. I decided long ago to write what I’m interested in and at lengths longer than most people want to read. So it goes. 
  42. I’ve learned that I naturally think in 500-1500 word essays.
  43. 500-1500 words is far longer than what most people want to read.
  44. Titles are very important.
  45. Delete all the words that people will skim over.
  46. I’m a verbose writer and don’t delete enough.
  47. Over the years I’ve often written about topics I’ve already written about but have forgotten that did.
  48. I have common themes I repeat but I hope are refined with each new approach. 
  49. Regular blogging helps with my writing and thinking skills.
  50. Regular blogging helps with my verbal skills. This was a real revelation.
  51. Regular blogging keeps my vocabulary active. If I don’t blog for a week or two I start forgetting words, and forget how to pronounce them. That old saying, “Use it or lose it” is true.
  52. Blogging has been a great social outlet since I retired.
  53. I can express myself better in a blog than I can talking.
  54. Blogging helps me listen to other people.
  55. Blogging makes me wish my friends blogged so I could read their thoughts.
  56. Blogging makes me wish my friends blogged so they would make their thoughts more coherent.
  57. Blogging is somewhat like being in a hive mind.
  58. I wished I had started blogging when I learned to read and write.
  59. I wished I had learned to read and write at age 4, when I started being self-aware.
  60. I wished my parents, grandparents, and ancestors had blogged so I could read about their inner lives.
  61. I wish the Library of Congress would archive blogs.
  62. I wish politicians, famous people and people doing interesting jobs would blog. Sound bites on television makes people seem shallow, tweets make them seem snarky, and Facebook makes them seem silly.
  63. Everyone approaches blogging differently. Some people use it like a diary, making short notes about their day. Others post photographs of all the places they visit. Some people repost other people’s blogs that they like. Some people write excessively about tiny topics, or say essentially nothing about big topics. There’s no one way to blog.
  64. Folks want to read about your dreams about as much as they want to see your vacation photos.
  65. Sometimes you have to guess what you remember. In recent years many writers have gotten into trouble for writing nonfiction that turned out to be fiction. Memory is closer to fiction than nonfiction. That’s just how it is.
  66. Wikipedia is my absolute best memory bank.
  67. Google makes a great spelling tool and dictionary.
  68. Sometimes I have to play Six Degrees of Separation to remember a person. IMDb is great tool for that.
  69. I’ve learn to fact-check my memory.
  70. I always try to send friends my blog when I mention them, but most people don’t care.
  71. I generally get photos from Google and use them without credit. I shouldn’t do that. I do try to get generic photos, or things in public domain.
  72. Sometimes people use my posts and photos without credit. Sometimes I think it’s flattery, other times I think fraud.
  73. Blogging is good for my mental health.
  74. Blogging gives me a sense of purpose after I retired.
  75. Blogging is a way to examine my life – remember an unexamined life is not worth living.
  76. Blogging is a way to be philosophical.
  77. Blogging is a way to push myself to do more.

Pug10

JWH

String Theories in Science Fiction

By James Wallace Harris, Friday, January 8, 2016

String theory must be in trouble if Sheldon Cooper, a fictional character from the popular TV series, The Big Bang Theory, decides to give up working on the theory after twenty years of dedicated effort. String theory is an elegant mathematical theory that seeks to explain how the Standard Model unites with the  quantum theory of gravity. In recent years string theory has come under attack because its not falsifiable, implying it’s not scientific. This is quite controversial. But don’t worry, string theorists are far from packing it in, see the new book Why String Theory? by Joseph Conlon.

Why String Theory by Joseph Conlon

I think these science wars defining the scope of science are a good analogy for what’s going on in science fiction. Many, if not most, science fiction fans want to believe the future holds unlimited possibilities, and science and technology will eventually create everything we can imagine. For some deep psychological reason, most science fiction readers do not want to believe our species has limitations. They hate the idea that faster-than-light travel might not be possible. And are horrified at the suggestion that colonizing the galaxy might be an unrealistic pipedream. Let’s face it, true believers of science fiction want Star Wars or Star Trek to become humanity’s future. They passionately cling to Arthur C. Clarke’s First Law: “When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible, he is almost certainly right. When he states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong.” In other words, they want to believe nothing is impossible.

What if science does discover we have limitations? What if we reach the limits of what we can observe or infer by all our extended senses of technology? What if we can’t build machines that can test string theory? Or find clues to prove the existence of the multiverse? As long as we know we can’t go further, we can assume that we can, and science fiction has hope. But what if science conclusively finds the boundaries of our existence? Should science fiction stay within those boundaries? Aren’t stories outside those boundaries called fantasy? I believe Kim Stanley Robinson’s 2015 novel Aurora explores these very questions.

Aurora KSM

Shouldn’t science fiction be about the possibilities of science? Aren’t we really wanting to believe the inverse of Clarke’s Third Law: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic” – that magic is just technology we don’t understand? Isn’t that how God created Earth in The Book of Genesis? I’m afraid most fans of science, even beyond the science fiction fans, are hoping that science will magically make anything we want happen.

Science Wars by Steven L. Goldman

Few people understand the limitations of science. I highly recommend one of The Great Courses from the Teaching Company called, Science Wars: What Scientists Know and How They Know It by Professor Steven L. Goldman. (Just one credit at Audible.com.) Goldman starts with Plato and Aristotle and takes us through the centuries showing how scientific thought emerged in natural philosophy and then science. Science is far more complicated than the Scientific Method. Science cannot state absolute facts in the philosophical sense of explaining the Truth of Reality. Current scientific theories are our best statistical explanations for what we experience. Theories are always supplanted by newer theories. Newtonian physics was excellent at explaining reality in the 17th century, but Einstein explains reality better in the 20th century. Is Newton wrong for not seeing what Einstein did? Will Einstein be wrong when someone comes up with a better theory?

One of our limitations is we never get to know. We only get to know the best explanations we have at the moment, and most people’s working knowledge is based on theories hundreds of years out of date. Any fundamentalist Christian is working with a 2,000 year old model of reality. If you don’t know the new theories, the old ones feel perfectly good. And aren’t most science fiction readers hoping for the future based on theories long out of date?

Basically string theory was getting too far ahead of science. String theory is like the concept of galactic civilizations in science fiction, it just sounds so good, that we insist it must be true.

But here’s the kicker. If we don’t want to live in fantasyland, we have to stick with the current best theories that are falsifiable. Religion and most of philosophy aren’t, and look where they’ve taken us.

I lean towards believing science will eventually show us our limits. One limitation that’s under examination by science philosophers is whether or not we can examine reality without our subjective bias. That understanding is limited to our perceptions and how our brain works, and that will always color what we discover. I wonder, when we invent machines that think, if they will discover aspects of reality that we can’t see because of this limitation? And if they do, can they report it to us. Right now whatever we see with the telescope comes through the limits of our perceptions. What if we invent a telescope that can see for itself. Can we ask it: Are you seeing the same reality we do? Can you see things we don’t?

It might turn out that humans will never discern strings, but our machines will. Can science determine that? Or is even that only possible within the realm of science fiction? If you pay attention to reality, we live with endless limitations now. There is no reason to believe that our species has no limitations. There’s no reason to believe science is unlimited. I think it helps us to know what is falsifiable by science, and even expect science fiction to work with those limitations. Isn’t that what distinguishes it from fantasy?

JWH

Searching For Hope Thanksgiving 2015

By James Wallace Harris, Thursday, November 26, 2015

Yesterday was my 64th birthday. I had planned to publish “100 Signs of Hope for the Future” in reaction to my 63rd birthday post, “50 Reasons Why The Human Race Is Too Stupid To Survive.” That essay, the most popular one I wrote this year, still gets 20-50 hits a day. This year I felt challenged to discover twice as many signs of hope for my 64th birthday. I’ve been working for weeks, but alas I have failed. Not because I couldn’t find that many signs of hope, but because the essay just got too big to finish on time. I’ve decided to break it into several essays.

Thanksgiving 2015 

I’ve switched to searching for hope because pursuing pessimism is pointless. Even if we know we’re going to lose, we have to bet to win. Signs of despair are everywhere, so it’s too easy to find roads to apocalypses. The real existential challenge is to find  routes out of our maze of problems. Deciding what we want is the first step on the journey. I want an Earth friendly society, where everyone is equal, who follow universally accepted standards of ethics, with lifestyles that are sustainable over millions of years, that leads to opportunity for all Homo sapiens while still fairly sharing this planet with the rest of our fellow species.

When we are young we have great hope for the future, but as we age, little by little, that hope fades. I grew up with a tremendous sense of wonder for this amazing reality around us, but as I’ve grown old, I’ve become increasing pessimistic about the future of our species. Most people on this planet hide from reality in childish beliefs about God and Heaven, but as an atheist, I have to live with the scientific assessment of our existence. The future looks bleak. But I want to fight the natural tendency of becoming cynical while growing wrinkles. I desperately want to the human race to get its shit together and make the most out of this astonishing piece of ontological luck.

Finding hope for the future is a Mt. Everest size challenge. News reporting makes us all want to stick our heads in the sand. How can we overcome our sense of powerlessness? Why does being spectators on the sidelines of history feel so soul destroying? When will weathervanes stop pointing to countless hurricanes bearing down on us from all the directions of the compass? I actually believe there are ways to solve our collective problems. The trouble is we are our own worst enemies.

It would have been much easier to find a 1,000 signs of despair than 100 signs of hope. We all cope by ignoring what we don’t want to see, and rationalize things will magically get better. It’s impossible for one person to even comprehend the holographic information behind one half-hour news program. Having access to the internet overwhelms our minds with infinite data. We can’t even tell the facts from misinformation. We all maintain an ever shifting illusion about the future. The easier path is to ignore what might be, and focus on our personal needs and wants. I see hope in just defining our problems, which is what I want to do in future essays.

The other night I found an especially important sign of hope in a very strange place, the documentary Pandora’s Promise. This film is about environmentalists who were once passionately against nuclear power that have changed their minds. The hope I find, is not in the promise of cleaner energy, but in the fact that fervent true believers can admit they were wrong. To survive all the ill winds that blow our way, will require open minds with a strong willingness to study new information. We’re currently being bombarded by politicians who regurgitate the same brainwashed propaganda of their parties. This gives us little reason for hope. We need more Sauls who become Pauls, transformed by the light of reality. And before all you conservative Christians gloat with glee over my metaphor, let me tell you that you’ve still got your own Road to Damascus to travel.

For all of us to find hope for the future will require each of us to transform ourselves. Last year I was pessimistic because I doubted we could change. Recently I decided to bet on hope than spend my waning years becoming bitter about the human race, like the aging Mark Twain. What I need, and I think every else needs too, are signs of hope. I’ve spent a lifetime reading science fiction, so thinking about the future comes easy to me. If this essay seems more worried over despair that’s because it illustrates two significant points. One, finding hope is Sisyphean task. Two, recognizing that we have a problem is the beginning of transcendence.

Our problem as ordinary citizens, is we feel powerless at controlling our own fates. We think leaders should enact policies that will change the way we live. That passivity is dangerous. It is our individual decisions to change ourselves that is the solution. The key issue is sustainability. The ways we live our lives are not sustainable. For me to find 100 true signs of hope will require finding signs we are all choosing sustainable ways live.

People seldom change without being forced to change. Few people will unilaterally sacrifice what they have to help others, or even help themselves. It’s one thing to have a lot, and share some extra. It’s a whole other thing to give up what you have. This past year I’ve chosen to go on a plant-based diet for health reasons. I’m constantly tormented by what I can’t have. It’s not easy doing without. I know so many people who have far more serious health issues, yet they say they won’t change how they live to save themselves. They pray for magical solutions. Such false hope will destroy us.

I agree we won’t change without technological help. We’re more likely to survive if clever engineers invent technology that bypass our human failings. But technology can’t be our only salvation. Anyone who has been on a diet knows how hard it is to change the momentum of habits. Anyone who has succeeded at losing weight and transforming their health, knows how empowering new habits can be. No civilization of the past has survived a major disruption, so we have a perfect record of losing. On the other hand, our species has been mutating and transforming at a hyper-rate since The Enlightenment. Scientific knowledge has transformed our cognitive abilities dramatically, and with technology we’ve transformed human society, the face of the Earth, and the biosphere. So far this knowledge has allowed us to become a cancer upon the planet.

The reason why I wrote that pessimistic essay last year was because I felt people are incapable of change, but a year of reflection tells me the human race constantly changes. Recent research shows the brain is very plastic, capable of rewiring, even late in life. Another good sign of hope. However, humans tend to change because of powerful outside forces rather than by personal choice. We evolve through survival. And now it’s time to evolve like we never evolved before. Is it possible to intentionally guide our evolution? Can we choose to do what’s hard instead of what’s easy? Will the seven deadly sins always rule our habits?

There seems to be little reason to expect a political solution. A U.S. president from either party will never be bold enough to defy political self interest. In fact, their self interest thrives on our weaknesses. Does that mean we should just give up and wait for the apocalypse? I’d like to believe when the going gets tough, the tough get going, and we’re all tough enough.

Everything is interrelated. Solving any of our major problems requires solving our other major problems. Finding hope also involves recognizing the problem—we cannot solve problems we refuse to see. We cannot solve our problems without becoming different people from who we are now. Learning what we need to do will require reeducation, and that means a lot of reading and watching of documentaries. We need to learn how reality works. We need to stop pursing mindless forms of escapism. We’ve spent thousands of years praying to God, and we know that doesn’t work. Waiting for a Zoroaster, Moses, Jesus, Mohammed, Buddha, isn’t practical either.

To stop acting like lemmings rushing to the cliffs of oblivion requires thinking for ourselves.

Essay #982 – Table of Contents

How To Save The Planet–Without Detailed Instructions

By James Wallace Harris, Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Humans are destroying the biosphere of planet Earth. Homo sapiens have overpopulated the planet, crowding out all the other species, and has initiated a self-destruct countdown. To solve this crisis requires creating a sustainable way of life, one that will ethically accommodate 13 billion people, allow other species to thrive, create a stable weather system, and not poison the biosphere with pollution. This is an immense challenge. There are countless books, studies, organizations, documentaries and pundits claiming they have solutions, but few people agree on anything. (I use the number 13 billion because most people today will see the Earth’s population grow to that number before it starts to shrink.)

The real responsibility falls on us individually. We each have to decide how to live and justify that lifestyle’s sustainability. In other words, any rational for survival you choose must be judged by what impact that lifestyle would have if 13 billion people also followed it. The Lifeboat Earth metaphor applies here. Ethically, we all have a justification to claim one thirteenth billionth of the planet’s resources, excluding the ethical share we first deem is due to all the other species. Our current philosophy is “everyone for themselves” – grab all you can get, and fuck all other humans and all the animals. It is this philosophy that will lead us to self-destruction, and why there is so much hate, violence and stress in the world.

Earthe-Europe1413

Finding an ethical way of living that is equitable to our fellow humans and to all the animals is hard. You will have to do a lot of research, read a lot of books, watch a lot of documentaries, and listen to countless thousands of talking heads argue and argue. One recent documentary I feel is very persuasive is Cowspiracy, a film by Kip Andersen and Keegan Kuhn. I shall use it as an example. At it’s core, the film is trying to do what I’m talking about regarding sustainability. However, I don’t trust it’s numbers, and I’m guessing it’s motivations aren’t entirely honest and straight forward. But understanding these problems I have with the film are exactly the skills we need in evaluating any solution to save the planet.

There is no reason to want or expect us all to decided on the same path. We can each develop our own consumption plan so long as it integrates into the whole, and we each use only our fair share. Before we can begin inventing our individual solutions we need to understand what is our fair share of consumables and pollution. The mathematics of such an undertaking is way beyond my ability. So I never trust other people who claim to have that ability.

I find documentaries that use lots of facts, figures and infographics to be more persuasive than documentaries that don’t. The watchers of these film must deal with is whether or not the film’s figures are accurate. Even cheap, crudely made films can have great impact, such as Cowspiracy. I was far more moved by Cowspiracy than I was the more famous and better made, An Inconvenient Truth. Both appear to be about climate change and environmentalism, but I suspect the underlying motivation by Cowspiracy is animal rights. Andersen and Kuhn contend that raising farm animals has more impact on the environment than all burdens the various transportation industries place on the planet.

Do their numbers add up? Is their basic assumption correct? They are offering a reasonable solution to save the planet. Are they right? They offer a very simplistic path to solving the sustainability problem. First, watch the film Cowspiracy (free on Netflix streaming, $4.95 digital download, $19.95 DVD). Their solution, stop eating meat, poultry, fish and dairy. We must evaluate their plan. Would choosing a plant based diet make a sustainable lifestyle? Cowspiracy defines the sustainability issue properly, but I doubt their numbers justifying their solution, even though I’m personally pursing a vegan lifestyle and I’m for animal rights. I’m willing to consider that there might be ethical ways to eat meat that is sustainable.

Whether or not to eat meat, and whether or not raising food animals has a massive impact on the environment are a highly contentious issues. You can can find people on both sides of the argument claiming they know the truth and throwing out tons of facts and figures. I wish to set the ethical issues of killing animals aside for a moment, and just consider Andersen and Kuhn’s assertion that raising animals for food has a greater impact on the environment than all of the transportation industries combined. Does giving up meat help the environment significantly? More than going to mass transit and switching to a renewable energy based economy?

My guess is we could greatly improve meat and dairy production to make it sustainable, but it might require that people eat a lot less animal products than they do now. And even then, we’d still have to bring back the issue of animal cruelty. Andersen and Kuhn do define many of the issues we have to consider in creating a personal sustainable lifestyle.

  • We all have a fair share of fresh water this is sustainable, but will vary by location.
  • That a sustainable lifestyle will impact specific area of land.
  • That land set aside for humans should leave plenty of natural areas for animals.
  • That the impact of our land requirements not impact the weather, pollution or the biosphere.
  • That our personal energy use must be sustainable.
  • That we shouldn’t let people starve while we feed animals to produce meat.
  • Can we raise animals so they have quality lives before we kill them?
  • Are there humane ways to kill animals?
  • Is it ethical to kill animals?
  • Should you eat any animal that you didn’t personal kill?
  • Should we give land to food animals when wild animals have so little?
  • That factory animal raising is not sustainable.
  • That free range animal raising is less sustainable than factory animal raising.
  • That industrial fishing isn’t sustainable.

I’ve been a vegetarian since the 1960s, and in the last couple years I’ve been veering towards veganism to reduced the clogs in my arteries, so Andersen’s and Kuhn’s solution would be no sacrifice for me. It would demand a tremendous change for most people, and a drastic transformation of society. Can you imagine if all restaurants were vegan and all grocery stores health food stores? I’m going to assume Cowspiracy plays fast and loose with its numbers simply because the film is on the amateur side. On the other hand, I’m going to assume they might be right and explore their solution.

We often admire members of The Greatest Generation because they survived The Depression and WWII. We admire their determination and sacrifice. We admire first responders and soldiers for their dedication and heroism. Often I meet people who wished they had done more good in their lives, or even lament they hadn’t done something extraordinary like their heroes. Some even feel their life has been without meaning. I don’t believe you need to be Pope Francis or Martin Luther King to help other people and make a great sacrifice. Just being decent, law abiding and nonviolent adds a lot to our society. Choosing not to act like an asshole and controlling your temper goes a long way toward bringing peace on Earth. Of course, I think many folks reading this will say they’d prefer to work inside burning buildings or go to war in Afghanistan than give up eating meat. However, from now on out, the best thing we can do for our fellow humans and our descendants is live a sustainable lifestyle. Are we willing to make that sacrifice and dedicate ourselves to meeting the challenge?

You need to see the film to be convinced that animal farming is having a greater impact on the Earth than all forms of transportation combined. Cowspiracy asks why all the major environmental groups are not focusing on the biggest problem the planet faces. If Andersen and Kuhn are right, then the single quickest way to fight climate change, the current mass extinction of animals, the destruction of the oceans, the collapse of civilization and create a sustainable society is to give up eating animals. The documentary points out that a plant based diet is sustainable, and it’s healthy. My own research into healthy diets is uncovering more and more doctors advocating a plant based diet. Giving up meat is better for the planet and better for you, and gives us hope for our descendants. However, I don’t know if Andersen and Kuhn’s numbers are anywhere near accurate.

Will people give up eating meat? I doubt it. Republicans are taking the brunt the responsibility for not doing anything about climate change because they refuse to give up fossil fuels. What if giving up meat could actually solve climate change without waiting on new renewable energy technologies? I doubt even liberals would embrace that solution. Why are bacon and eggs, milk and cheese, beef, chicken, pork and fish so important to us? What if the facts and figures in Cowspiracy are right?

Are there any sustainable sources of animals products? If people raised chickens and rabbits in their backyards, feeding them with yard grown food, would that be sustainable? What about hunters culling deer populations every year, or other animals that could live abundantly in the woods without human support? What if all fishing was from hook and lines? Andersen and Kuhn make it obvious that neither factory animal farms, or free range animal farming are sustainable. But what if everyone hunted their own meat? What if you really wanted to eat meat and were willing to hunt down an animal, kill it and butcher it, you could eat it and be sustainability justified? Andersen and Kuhn assumes all the land that went into grazing or raising food for livestock would be returned to the wild. Would that be true?

We all ignore the fact that we’re consuming more than the Earth can give. Humans are increasing in numbers while everything else is decreasing. We’ve been laughing at The Limits of Growth for forty years because the book hasn’t come true. We always assumed science and technology would continually solve the problems of exponential growth. The Club of Rome didn’t anticipate disruptive technology, but their basic premises were still correct. The Earth’s resources are finite and consumption can’t increase forever.

Table of Contents

Sex and the Soul

By James Wallace Harris, Wednesday, October 21, 2015

If your soul was drawn to this essay because of the word “sex” then you need to be asking yourself why. By the way, this is no prurient clickbait come on. This is a philosophical exploration of why the soul is influenced by sexual chemistry. And full disclosure, I’m an atheist, so you might find it a bit discombobulating to hear me use the word soul. I could have called this essay “Sex and The Observer” but that could create all kinds of kinky misunderstandings. And I could have labeled this discussion, “Sex and The Self-Awareness,” but that’s kind of clunky and maybe onanistic. I happen to like the word soul, and I’m willing to accept that some folks believe they have an immortal soul. Since I’m an atheist, I believe my soul expires with the body.

Now, to the point. When you yearn for physical contact with another person, is that your soul or your body doing the yearning? In other words, is horniness inside your soul, or outside? Many readers are going to think this is a silly, pointless question. But if you know this history of the concept of the soul, it’s a fair question. Just study Plato and Aristotle, or St. Augustine or St. Aquinas, to see what I mean. Christians fervently believe they have a soul. Most don’t spend much time contemplating it—they just believe if they say the magic words, “I believe in Jesus” their souls get a free pass to heaven to hang out with friends and family for eternity. The main selling point to Christianity and Islam, is we have a soul that won’t die, but I doubt if even one percent of those populations ever contemplated the nature of the soul. They might be disappointed. In fact, when most people study the soul, they quickly get bored. The philosophy and theology behind the concept is deep and tedious, and often borders on the effort of counting the number of angels that can fit on the head of a pin.

To catch up on the 2,500 year discussion of the soul, I recommend reading A Brief History of the Soul by Stewart Goetz and Charles Taliaferro, and The Rise and Fall of Soul and Self by Raymond Martin and John Barresi.

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If you’ve ever studied meditation, then you’ve come across the concept of the observer. If you’ve ever studied artificial intelligence or brain science, then you’re familiar with the concept of self-awareness. It’s just easier to call it the soul. (My atheist friends cringe when I do this.) Once you understand why philosophers have been examining the concept for the last several thousand years, then this essay will make more sense. Or you can just practice meditation, and sooner or later you’ll notice that you can watch your thoughts. Then you can ask questions like: “Is the observer, my soul, the self-awareness that lives in this body, writing this essay, or my thinking mind?” This implies dualism, which is a black-hole of a topic. Modern thinkers see humans as a whole, with completely integrated parts. But if you meditate on your wholeness you’ll notice it has parts. The act of observing gives the illusions that the observer is separate from the observed.

Sexuality feels like part of the whole because people mostly think “I want to get laid.” But contemplate this thought problem: “If I die, will I still get horny in heaven?” I keep bringing up heaven and the afterlife, even though I don’t believe in them, because conceptually it helps to analyze the problem. In ancient times Christians believed they would be reunited with their bodies before they went to heaven. That’s why they wanted to be buried properly. Modern believers know the body deteriorates, and even allow for cremation. This allowed people to believe the soul leaves the body upon death. There is a subset of Christians who are concerned with abortion, who believe the soul is created at conception. And there are other believers who believe the soul exists before birth. The ancient Greeks thought the soul animated bodies. They observed when people died, their bodies became inert, and assumed whatever mechanism that animated those bodies had departed. This little bit of logic probably got the whole ball of wax rolling.

I take a totally different view of the soul. Brain and computer scientists want to discover what creates self-awareness. They assume it’s a bio-chemical process that can be replicated in silicon. In both the spiritual or materialistic sense, the soul is the driver of the body, whether it’s a human body, or a future robot body. Like I said, if you meditate, you can get to a place where you feel like you’re a passenger in the body, and you can watch it be driven around. Are you the driver, or something else? Strangely, the observer can only observe. A vast unconscious mind does most of the work.

One of the things the body likes to do is have sex. The question I’m asking is: “Does the soul desire sex or does desire originate in the body?” Many people will think this is a silly question. But if you are plagued by tormenting horniness or depressed because you can land Mr. Right, it might not. You might want to study Buddhism. If you’re unhappy because you’re not getting laid, is that the observer, or the body?

I think the soul is what’s created in our complex brain that allows us to be self-aware and conscious of reality. I think animals have this feature to a lesser degree, but they lack language, or the thinker. I believe our souls can evolve, become more complex, and more aware. I believe it’s possible to move further and further away from our animal nature. Currently, I think the observer/soul is different from the thinking mind because as we get older, or suffer disease or injury, it’s possible to damage the thinking mind, but the observer can still exist and even grow. Just read The Mind’s Eye by Oliver Sack for evidence. However, the soul can be damaged, or diminished too.

Modern thinkers don’t like the concept of the soul. They don’t like dualism. But they accidently bring up this problem when they speculate about brain downloading. This is a mostly science fictional concept that real scientists are exploring. What if you could record whatever makes up a person before he/she dies and then write that to a clone body or robot body. I doubt this is possible, but a lot of people hope it will be. I’m not a dualist. Brain downloading is the secular version of rebirth and immortality. I find it a fascinating topic because it opens up the question: “What is a person?” I believe we could call this theoretical entity that we hope to transfer to another body, the soul. Religious people have been using the same concept for thousands of years, why not repurpose the word for modern times?

We know a person can lose a leg, arm, eye, etc. and still be the same person. What if they lose a whole body? I believe, like modern scientists, that who we are is an integrated whole, and we can’t separate soul from body. But I do think it’s possible to create new souls in computers—which is the goal of artificial intelligence.

By now, you’re probably wondering when I’m going to get to the juicy sex discussion. Science is learning more about gender identification and sexual preference every day. Studies with transgender children only emphasize how deep gender identification goes into our programming. We’ve also come to accept that sexual desire comes from a deep genetic level and not layered on cultural conditioning. So, does the soul have gender? Does it have a sexual preference? Or is that the body? For those who don’t separate soul and body, this is no problem. But if you plan on residing in heaven or hope to reincarnate in a robot body, it might. I think it’s also an interesting question for meditation. Is the observer, the mechanism that is self-aware and watches reality, an observer of gender and sex, or a participant?

Ultimately, this is a theoretical discussion. It has no answer, at least until science can recreate consciousness and self-awareness in the laboratory. Yet, it’s a great philosophy exploration in the vein of “Know thyself.” It’s also very important to asceticism. The world has a long history of people who seek to avoid suffering, and maybe gain enlightenment, from detaching themselves from the physical desires of the body.

Spiritual believers feel we are a soul that is visiting physical reality to inhabit a body for a limited time. Materialists believe we are accidental self-aware beings that have evolved inside biological creatures through brain complexity. Spiritual people believe the body corrupts the soul. I wonder if the body dominates the soul and if its possible for the soul to dominate the body. Why are some people are civilized and other people little better than savvy animals? Is that a choice? Is it cultural conditioning? Is it genetics? Is it a matter of seeing your soul separate from your body?

JWH

What Is Outside of the Box?

By James Wallace Harris, Friday, October 9, 2015

We are constantly advised to think outside of the box. This usually comes on the job, when a breakthrough is needed because doing things the old ways are obviously no longer working. But what is outside the box? For a CPA, it might be new ways to shelter taxes, or for a NASA engineer, a completely novel way to land a rover on Mars, but for most people it means, “Try thinking other than the way you’ve always thought.”

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To understand how that’s done really requires knowing what’s in the box and what’s outside the box. I like to think of the box as our skull. Our brains are inside a bone box, connected to the outer world by five sensory input ports. You can read 2,500 years of philosophy about what’s outside the box, but it essentially comes down to three things. Solipsistic thinkers believe only the self exists and there’s nothing outside the box. It’s all an illusion. Theistic thinkers believe we are souls embedded in a physical reality created by God, that obscures a greater spiritual reality . Finally, scientific thinkers believe there is a vast singular objective reality outside our heads that can be understood through gathering evidence with scientific and statistical methods using our five senses.

Each of these viewpoints can hinder the perception of what’s outside of the box through rigid adherence to beliefs about what might potentially be outside the box. Which is why we’re constantly told to think outside the box. If you believe your religion explains what’s outside the box, then why are there so many other religions? Which one explains reality? If you believe the religion you were brought up to believe, how can you know if you’re not culturally brainwashed? To think outside the box would require studying a good sampling of all religions, and then deciding which theological ontology is the most valid, if any. Any scientist who’s heard the phrase paradigm shift will understand their own potential for rigid thinking that blinds them to something new.

Inside our heads, we build the walls of our box with cultural brainwashing. Most people think the way they do because they were taught to think that way by parents and peers. We seldom escape that original packaging. Anyone who is completely confident in believing what they were taught are delusional. And even when taking on new views, it’s very easy to take on new delusions about what’s outside the box. Can we ever really know what’s exists outside our skulls?

It’s very easy to find masters of hidden wisdom who to claim to teach the ultimate secrets to what’s outside of the box. Just watch this entertaining video about thinking outside the box. It’s a come-on for the esoteric belief in hidden knowledge called Kabbalah. I highly recommend watching this video because it’s very convincing. And that’s the trouble, there’s an infinity of convincing cases made to what’s outside the box. There are plenty of other ancient systems of hidden knowledge, like Gnosticism and Pythagoreanism. Folks have been trying to figure out what’s outside the box for thousands and thousands of years. Yuval Noah Harari suggests in his book Sapiens that humans have been inventing ideas since the cognitive revolution 17,000 years ago. Homo sapiens are experts as making shit up—it might be our defining characteristic.

For the last five hundred years, science has been trying to measure data from outside the box by looking for consistent behavior. During the time it has developed an extremely statistically consistent view of what’s outside the box. It’s precise down to enough decimal places to allow scientists to send probes to Pluto billions of miles away or let giant heavy-than-air jumbo jets fly around the world.

We all live in a subjective reality created by our minds which give us delusions that we know what’s outside the box. We’d like to believe there an objective reality that is the same for all seven billion of us to perceive. Subjective reality might be too powerful to ever let us comprehend what’s outside the box. Culturally we carry the baggage of thousands of years of religious and philosophical thinking that provide no actual evidence to what’s outside the box. Zen Buddhists work to teach people to see directly with their senses and forget corrupting concepts, but few people can do that.

Often to think outside of the box requires us to stop thinking inside the box. It helps to let new concepts inside.

If you’re following the 2016 U.S. Presidential campaign, so far all the candidates are rigidly thinking inside their boxes, and so are the voters. Essentially politics have become a way to form coalitions of like minded subjective thinkers, usually based on the same moldy old issues inspired by subjective desires. If there is an objective reality out there, we must work on the actual problems that we face to let us live safely in that objective reality. If it’s a solipsistic or metaphysical reality, it hardly matters. Sadly, most voters are seeking candidates that validate their delusions. Isn’t time we all start wondering what’s actually outside our boxes?

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JWH #971

If God Created Everything, Who Created God?

By James Wallace Harris, Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Do we still ask the same philosophical questions at 60 that we did at 6?

Many youngsters will ask their mom who created the world, and when they are told God, the smart alack kids will ask, “Who created God?” Because of this who created the creator problem I always wondered as a kid why wasn’t there nothing. I kept trying to imagine a void without time or space ever starting anything. This caused a lot of philosophical agony in my little kid self. To put my mind to rest, I concluded that nothing can’t exist, and reality is everything that can be, because if nothing could have existed, nothing would have existed. That was my best solution to that philosophical conundrum.

Science had another solution – The Big Bang – which on the surface seemed a clever explanation to the origin of everything, but we still have to ask where that original singularity came from. Now that we’re exploring the idea of a multiverse, we’re back to how was the multiverse created. Philosophically, we’re no better off than it’s turtles all the way down.

As I got older, I encountered another impossible question – “How can bad things happen to good people?” I eventually solved that one by accepting the theory of evolution. Evolution is indifferent to our suffering. We can’t take it personally. Bad things happen by chance.

There are a lot of impossible questions out there that torment little kids. With countless religions how can one be right and the rest wrong? If God is all powerful why can’t he make his message obvious? If God is all powerful why does Satan exist? One of my solutions to that last one is Satan doesn’t exist, but is the illusion created by false ideas about God. Of course, that creates another impossible question – if all gods are Satan but one, which is the real God. And if God is all power why are there so many illusions?

Is it any wonder that I became an atheist by the eighth grade? As a kid I wanted to know the answers to those impossible questions. One problem with atheism was I’d never know. I use to fantasized that dying would grant me answers. I imagined being told the answers to all my agonizing questions before being shown the door to oblivion.

Now that I’m older I feel like I’ve found all the answers, and I know the reality of reality. Of course I don’t, but like religious people, I’m just going to assume I have. It’s easier that way. In case your curious, here are my answers.

I use the word reality to describe the whole shebang. The universe has gotten too small to encompass everything. Reality has always existed, and will always exist. It’s infinite in all directions. Humans are infinitely small, but there’s an infinity of things smaller than us, and an infinity of bigger things. There’s no edge, either expanding larger, or shrinking smaller. Time had no beginning or no end. We exist on the Earth by accident of cosmological and biological evolution. Humans will exist on this planet until we go extinct or the Earth is destroyed. Reality will continue without us. As individuals we are conscious of being in reality, but that awareness expires when we die. Ideas about gods were invented by earlier humans to explain reality but now that we see more of reality those explanations no longer work. There is no intelligent designer. There is no creator. We don’t have ask who created God because there is no God. We don’t have to wonder about good and evil because there is no good or evil. We exist. There is no why.

Some people answer childhood questions by accepting religion. I don’t think I had the religious gene, so I answered them differently. But does it matter.

My bit of personal philosophy does explain why I’m so concerned with climate change. Humans exist on Earth by accident, and are aware of reality by accident, but if we want to continue to exist we need to preserve the Earth. The reality of reality is we will exist as long as we do, and then reality will continue without us. It’s not personal. It is personal to want to stay alive, and it is personal to want your species not to expire. And although reality is indifferent to our desires, it is also indifferent to us making something of ourselves. We can do whatever we want within the limits of reality.

A human can push life for about a century if they are lucky. Humanity could push existence for billions of years. It’s only a matter if we choose to do so, otherwise the odds of reality are against us. Nothing in reality has everlasting life except reality. As a being aware of reality, I dislike the idea of nonexistence but that’s part of reality. I wonder how many other beings in far flung reality are aware of its existence. It seems tragic that as a race of reality aware beings would let ourselves go extinct. If we do, that’s how reality works. If we don’t, that’s how reality works too.

I no longer suffer impossible philosophical questions. I enjoy existence and study reality. The only thing that makes me suffer is my declining health and my species insanity to each other and how we’re collectively committing species suicide. It’s a comfort to know it’s not personal. From Buddhism, I know my suffering is caused by attachment and desire. A modern Buddha would now say suffering is caused by trying to control reality.

But reality allows that too. We are aware of reality, and we can shape it to the extent of our powers, and the cost is suffering the effort and desire.

Now that I’m in my sixties, I’ve stopped asking such questions. Along the way I found some answers I can live with.

JWH