Not Quite a Pink Light From VALIS

by James Wallace Harris, Monday, December 14, 2020

Yesterday I needed to do laundry and I put on an old pair of overalls. As I was storing away my wallet and other items I was annoyed they didn’t have back pockets, or a front pocket on the bib, and that the shoulder straps were permanently attached to the bib. I remember thinking what kind of overall have straps sewn on? Eventually, I took them off, throwing them on the bed, and put on sweatpants when I discovered they were too much trouble in the bathroom. I remember thinking at the time that I didn’t remember buying any overalls like those.

Then this morning when I went to hang them back up in the closet they had back pockets, a front pocket on the bib, and the shoulder straps had hooks.


Was Susan gaslighting me? WTF? I looked all over for the overalls I put on yesterday but couldn’t find them.

Not quite a pink light from VALIS but it sure is weirding me out.

I just put the overalls back on to see if the perspective of wearing them hid the bib fasteners and the front pocket, and maybe I just didn’t feel the back pockets. But they were all clearly there.

These have to be the same overalls because I left my wallet and other things in them. It was when I was trying to stow all my stuff that I couldn’t find the pockets I wanted.

I’m pretty sure God isn’t screwing around with me, and this is a brain fart, but it’s fucking weirding me out.

I distinctly remember looking for a front pocket on the bib and even pulling at seams thinking it was just hidden. But this morning there was clearly one pocket with a zipper, and even more obvious a second pocket with a flap and snap. Too obvious to miss – so how could I have missed them? My spare keys were still in a lower side pocket by my knee where I had put them when I couldn’t find a pocket on the bib. So I didn’t dream that.

I also distinctly remember thinking how hard it was to deal with the overalls in the bathroom because the straps were sewn on. Clearly they aren’t. And I distinctly remember trying to put my wallet in a back pocket and not finding one, so I put it in a front pocket.

Now I understand how Philip K. Dick could get so obsessed thinking he saw a pink light, even inspiring him to write three novels. The mind is a weird thing, but even then I don’t want to lose it.


Reliving Recorded Reality

by James Wallace Harris, Saturday, November 30, 2019

Humans are known for their self-awareness, but we’re also reality aware. Before our species evolved its higher awarenesses Earth was covered with countless species who just existed. Grazing animals grazed, carnivorous animals hunted, fish swam, birds flew, snakes slithered, and none of them paid much attention to themselves or reality. They just did their thing. Reality unfolded in an infinite variety of creations. Probably, always has, always will.

Then we come along and said to ourselves “Hey, I’m here. What’s going on?” At first, all we did was think and talk, ooh and aahed, bitched and moaned. Along the way, we began to remember, and then to think and talk about the past. Finally, some cave person painted something on the wall, and said, “This is something I saw.” Thus began our long history of wanting to record reality.

Many of us spend more time reliving recorded reality than we do just existing. Just existing is what gurus teach. Be here now. I don’t follow their advice.

We record our reality for many reasons. Often we just want to remember. Sometimes its for art. Other times its because we can’t let go. Last night I watched The Jazz Loft According to W. Eugene Smith, a documentary about a photographer who shared his New York City loft with jazz musicians and recorded the sessions with photography and tape recorders. This documentary is free to watch if you have Amazon Prime.

W. Eugene Smith was a major photographer who worked for Life Magazine before and during WWII. Smith was a wildly productive picture taker, overly-obsessed even. After recovering from injuries he received doing battlefield photography, he took the above photo, A Walk to the Paradise Garden. Smith then went back to work on several large photo projects, but couldn’t settle down.  He left his family and moved into a rundown loft in the flower district of NYC in 1957. From then until 1965 he recorded 4,000 hours of audio and took over 40,000 photographs from the windows of his loft, or the jazz musicians who came to jam.

Watching The Jazz Loft perfectly illustrates our effort to record reality. Smith assumed what the musicians were doing was important and should be preserved. I spent an hour and a half of my life last night reliving what he had recorded by watching a documentary that other people spent years to make by studying those recordings. Jazz musicians also study Smith’s recordings to see how musicians they admired jammed and practiced. Photographers study Smith’s work. Historians of New York study those photographs and tapes.

W. Eugene Smith experienced reality deeply by working so hard to record it. Watching what Smith recorded helps us appreciate our place in reality. Not only are we aware of our own existence, and the reality in which we exist, but we take those awarenesses to meta-levels by recording them and then reliving reality while thinking about all of this at higher levels of reflection and contemplation.

Pay attention to how much you observe reality first hand, and how much is second, or even third hand. Watching TV involves several layers of recorded reality. A movie might be based on a novel where the author tried to capture a primary experience. Then screenwriters reinterpreted that novel by their experiences. Then actors and a director added their interpretations based on their personal experiences in reality. The film is further shaped by the cinematographer and film editor. And, when the story was filmed, the cameras captured a staged version of a creative past reality in the existing real reality. It’s like two mirrors reflecting back and forth.

Art is part of reality, but it also apes reality. The above photograph represents an actual moment in Smith’s life when two of his children walked out of the dark and into the light. It’s a very sentimental view of reality and childhood. In the documentary his son talks about the day the photograph was created. Smith had his children do their little walk over and over again. So what we see is artificial and real at the same time.

I often ask myself should I be pursuing direct experiences of reality or allow myself to enjoy reliving recording reality. I have friends who love to travel. They consider traveling the best possible experience a person can have. I often feel guilty because most of my experiences in retired life are based on reliving reality. I find art more rewarding than travel. In fact, the only incentive for me to travel is to see original art elsewhere.

My waning years are all about reliving recorded reality. I sometimes worry that I don’t spend enough time experiencing primary reality, but I also wonder if those real experiences aren’t an illusion too, aren’t that primary. We can’t leave reality. Moving from one location on Earth to another might feel more thrilling, more real, more important, but is it? It’s not where you are but what you do.

The reason why The Jazz Loft is so inspirational is it tells us about a time when many very creative people hung out and were very productive at being creative. That loft, that location in time and space is important because a parade of extremely talented people gathered together. It was a locus of admirable activity. If you think about it, such loci of creativity become special to us, and documentaries and books are often about them.

Sensualists are often travelers, especially ones who like to eat, drink, and enjoy the sights, sounds, and smells of foreign places. Artists are people who like to create new things in reality. Scientists are people who like to measure reality. But it is us philosophers who like to relive and analyze reality.

My reality at the moment is trying to recapture the philosophical insights I felt while watching a documentary last night about people who lived in a rundown building in 1957-1965. I went to sleep last night wearing headphones playing The Thelonious Monk Orchestra At Town Hall, a recording of a live performance, which I had seen the musicians practiced for at Smith’s loft in the documentary. In the future, I will listen to other musicians I saw in the documentary, and I will study Smith’s photography. I have already gotten a lot out of that 90 minutes watching The Jazz Loft. I will go on to get more. I may rewatch it in the future. I’ve also got the experience of writing this essay. Reality is endlessly fascinating when you think about it.




Deception, Self-Deception, Confabulation, Bullshit, Narrative Fallacy, Dunning-Kruger Effect, and Fiction

by James Wallace Harris, Saturday, November 23, 2019

I’ve been studying Plato. Plato is good for the soul but hard on the ego. Humans often lack the ability to distinguish fact from fiction. Our superpower is self-deception. As children, we are told stories that we desperately cling to for the rest of our lives. We adapt to reality by making up explanations that usually end up being fictional. And when our stories clash with reality, the odds are we embrace the story. We aren’t rational. We are rationalizing creatures. We seek what we want by lying to ourselves and the people around us.

Anyone who follows the news knows this.

If a noise wakes us up in the middle of the night we don’t rush outside to investigate it. We start making up explanations trying to imagine what the noise could be. We tell ourselves its a burglar. Or if we’ve seen a raccoon lately, we’ll say to ourselves that Rocky is in the garbage can. Or its the wind, or a fallen tree limb. We can’t help ourselves. Instead of saying we don’t know we imagine that we do. Generally, we imagine wrong.

Nassim Nicholas Taleb called this tendency the narrative fallacy in his book The Black Swan. Neuroscientists call it confabulation. As children, we ask how the world was created and our parents tell us answers to the best of their abilities. How we are raised determines a lot of what we believe. If you were brought up a Southern Baptist more than likely their ideas about God are what you’ll believe for the rest of your life. However, if you were kidnapped at birth and given to a Muslim family in Saudi Arabia you’d grow up believing their local variation of the origin story.

Psychologists and philosophers talk about deception and self-deception. We like to think this problem belongs to other people. Our intuition tells us we’re right. We feel right. But are we?

We want to believe what we learn growing up is the truth. Few people are intellectual rebels that reject their upbringing. Not only will you maintain your beliefs, but you will also rationalize and lie to defend those beliefs.

A good percentage of humans learn to lie to get what they want. Conscious lying sometimes involves knowing the truth but working to suppress it. Liars are different from bullshitters. To a degree, liars are conscious of their lying. Bullshitters, as defined by Harry G. Frankfurt in his philosophical essay “On Bullshit” often don’t know they are lying, or even know what is true. Their grasp of reality is usually tenuous. They have told so many lies they don’t know what’s true anymore, but they have learned they can say anything to get what they want. Their concept of reality is so fluid that it changes from moment to moment.

The trouble is we bullshit ourselves all the time. We are especially dangerous to ourselves and others when we think we know more than we do. This is called the Dunning-Kruger Effect. People who suffer from this cognitive ailment are clueless about their own lack of knowledge. They firmly believe they are smart and wise.

We have so many built-in brain functions for fooling ourselves that I have to wonder if it’s even possible to know the truth if it came up and tapped us on the shoulder.

Most people dismiss philosophy as abstract useless wordplay. I just finished reading Plato in the Googleplex by Rebecca Goldstein and I’ve developed a new respect for Plato and philosophy. Goldstein came up with a very clever gimmick for presenting Plato’s philosophy. She imagines him alive today going on a book tour in America. She has his ancient words respond to our modern conundrums by fictionalizing Plato in different settings arguing with people of varying beliefs. I really recommend listening to this book on audio because these discussions are quite dramatic and effective. When Plato goes on a conservative talk radio show it’s hilarious. But I think my favorite encounter was between Plato and a neuroscientist who was going to scan his brain. The section where he’s on a panel with two opposing authors dealing with education was also quite brilliant.

However, the gist of Plato at the Googleplex is to question what we know and think we know. I’ve been lucky to be the kind of person that’s usually gone against the current, but I realized in later years my skepticism has not always protected me from bullshit. I’m acquiring new levels of doubt as I age realizing my own persistent gullibility.

For example, as a life-long science fiction fan, I’ve had high hopes for the future. I realize now that many of my cherished science-fictional beliefs are no better than what the faithful believe about God, Heaven, angels, and life-after-death.

And there is one cherished concept I have to reevaluate. I’ve always believed that humans would one day overcome their problems with confabulation. 2,400 years ago Plato concluded that only a small percentage of humans would ever be able to tell shit from Shinola.  He felt only a few could ever understand what philosophy teaches. I’ve always wanted to assume that we’re evolving, our knowledge is growing, and our abilities to educate are improving, so eventually, that percentage would be much greater.

That belief might be self-deception. But it might not.

We have to honestly ask ourselves can philosophy be integrated into the PreK-12 educational system so the majority of the population understands their problem with confabulation? This is to assume we can be totally different from who we are now as a species. Are we hardwired so we can’t change, or are we adaptable to change if we can find the right educational path?

This experiment would require raising a generation without fiction. That includes both God and Harry Potter. No Easter Bunny, Tooth Fairy, or Santa Claus. We’d have to stop lying to our children, or letting them play with lies and fiction. They’d have to grow up on nonfiction and documentaries instead of fiction, television, and movies.

Children’s entertainment would be limited to sports, games without a fictional narrative component, arts, crafts, and other hobbies. When kids ask why we can only give them answers that we know. For example, if they ask why everything is here we can only answer we don’t know. If they ask who made the world, we can only answer what we know from observable cosmology and geology.

It’s too late for me. I can’t give up fiction. I love it too much. I too addicted. I should be building my own robots and programming them instead of reading science fiction about robots. I wish I was, but it’s so much easier just to dwell in fictional worlds where intelligent robots exist, or we’re colonizing the solar system, or we’re creating utopias.

Fiction offers an infinity of virtual realities we prefer over actual reality. I believe our chronic confabulation is caused by wanting reality to be different from what it is. Buddhists call that desire. Eastern religions teach we should accept reality, whereas western philosophes promote shaping reality to our needs and wants. Western thought is active, it’s all about conquering reality. When we fail we lie to ourselves. Probably we suffer from such great confabulation because we seldom get what we want. It’s easier to have romantic fantasies or watch porn than date than to actually seek out our perfect match.

I think the path lies between the East and West. We shouldn’t be completely passive in our acceptance, but we shouldn’t want absolute control either. It would be interesting to know how people think a thousand years from now. Will they have a more honest relationship with reality? There could be a good science fiction story in that, but then it would be fiction. Maybe there’s another kind of acceptance too. Maybe we have to accept that we are amazing confabulating creatures. It will be a shame when such an imaginative species goes extinct.

And I’m not excusing myself from self-delusion either. My liberal friends and I believe Republicans are only out to reduce taxes and regulations at any cost. That they are either deluded about Trump, consciously lying to get what they want, or they are confabulated by his bullshit. Anyway, they ware willing to back Trump at any cost because Trump gets them what they want.

Like I said, I’m willing to consider this a liberal narrative fallacy. I believe its possible Republicans could be seeing a truth we liberals don’t. However, their stance on climate change suggests they are blind to science. I believe scientific consensus is as close as we ever get to the truth, and I could be wrong about that too. I also know that even though I accept what science says about climate change I don’t act on their conclusions. Oh, I do a token amount, what’s convenient for my consciousness. But if climate change is real, then none of us are doing what it takes to avoid it.

Looking in the mirror and seeing who we really are is hard. That’s what Plato was all about.




I Haven’t Studied Biology in a Classroom Since 1967

by James Wallace Harris, Friday, January 5, 2019

How old is your knowledge? That question can be taken in two ways. The years since the last time you studied a subject, which for me and biology is 52. Or, the age of the subject itself. For example, Euclidean geometry is two thousand years old. And dating the ages for either isn’t precise. I’m sure when I studied biology in the tenth grade (1966/67) my textbooks were not up-to-date, and far from chronicling the current discoveries in biology. Thus, my simple-minded memories of cell structure might be about two hundred years old.

In the first third of life, we go to school and college to prepare ourselves to be functional adults for our middle third of life, but how much do we need to know for our last third of life? What is a useful education for our retirement years? I certainly could sneak by without knowing any more biology, but should I?

I’m reading The Tangled Tree: A Radical New History of Life by David Quammen for a book club. Reading it makes me feel ashamed of how little I know about biology while blowing my mind with new information. It makes me wonder just how current my knowledge should be in various important subjects, subjects that help me understand my place in reality. Just because I might be leaving this reality soon, doesn’t mean I should fall into oblivion knowing so little.


The Tangled Tree starts out by announcing “recent” discoveries in biology, such as horizontal gene transfer (HGT) and the third domain of life called archaea and how they are disrupting our old image of an evolutionary tree structure, thus the title of his book. Both discoveries occurred after my last biology class. I had heard of archaea since and seen the graph above. I’ve read about prokaryotes (bacteria) and eukaryotes (plants, animals) but I couldn’t remember those labels. They say to really learn a subject you should be able to teach it, but I could only confuse small children with the vague ideas about biology.

Of course, I’m not totally ignorant of later biological developments. I regular watch PBS Nova and Nature, and over the decades read books like The Double Helix, The Selfish Gene, and a few popular books about the history of evolutionary theory, but they don’t require the same kind of learning that taking a class does. To really know a subject, even at a fundamental level requires knowing the words that describe it. As an adult, I’ve read many books about physics and astronomy, so I know some of their vocabularies, but I know very little of the terminology of biology. Quammen describes many fields within biology that are new to me, like molecular phylogenetics. I’m savvy enough to know what molecules and genetics are, and I could guess that ‘phylo’ concerns their taxonomy, but I’m totally clueless about how scientists could go about classifying these wee bits of proto-life.

Before jumping into the work of Carl Woese, Quammen succinctly describes the history of how the idea of evolution emerged in the 19th-century with various scientists using the tree metaphor to illustrate life emerging out of an orderly process. And he gives passing references to those scientists that developed taxonomy systems to categorize all living things. This lays the groundwork for understanding why Carl Woese wanted to develop a tree model and taxonomy of bacterial life.

1837_notebookb_cul-dar121.-_040Quammen grabbed my interest by describing how 19th-century scientists first started drawing trees to describe their theories. He even describes a page from Darwin’s notebook saying his first tree was rather simple. I was shocked when I saw it though, it was too simple looking, but the basic idea is there. I’ve vaguely remembered seeing this before, but to be honest, I’ve never tried to learn all of this information in a way that I’d memorize and use it. I put my faith in science, in evolution, but I know very little of the actual science. What I know probably compares to what the average Christian knows about this history of Christianity.

This got me to thinking. Should I study biology before I die? I doubt I’ll need it after death since I’m an atheist. So, what should my educational aspirations be in my retirement years? I’d like to pass from this world knowing as much about reality as possible. Why leave in ignorance? Why live in ignorance? There’s no meaning to our existence, but why not try to understand our situation to the fullest extent possible?

linnaeusWe’re a bubble of consciousness that has accidentally formed in reality. That’s pretty far out. Most of the matter in this reality is unconscious stuff like subatomic particles, atoms, molecules, and a smidgeon of biological living things. Reading The Tangle Tree makes me want to do more than reading over the subject and forgetting it again. Like Linnaeus, I want to organize what I should know into categories, into a Tree of Knowledge I Should Know. But I realize I am limited by time and energy – the time I have remaining to live and the dwindling personal energy I have each day.

How would I even go about studying the subjects I deem time worthy? I do have access to free university courses. And there are countless online courses, and I already subscribe to The Great Courses on my Amazon Fire TV. I could pick out some standardized tests for my goals, and thus limit the scope of what I want to learn. Or I could start studying and then try to teach what I learn by writing essays for this blog. That sounds more doable.

Other than the history science fiction, I don’t think there’s a single topic I could teach. I’m not even sure how many other topics I’d like to study — at any level. I do feel a sense of challenge that I should work on biology. At least for a while. Maybe read a few books on the subject this year. Maybe take a Great Course.

That makes me think I could choose a topic each year to study. I can’t promise much, but I think I should try.

Thus I declare:  2019 is the year to learn about biology.



We Can See Far, But Can We See Forever?

Why is there something rather than nothing?  The people who work hardest to answer that question are called physicists.  Physics is the study of the very large and very small.  The study of physics looks in four directions:  expanding out to the large, shrinking in to the small, looking back in time, and looking forward in time.

We can see far, but can we ever see an end to any of these directions?  Does time have a beginning, or end?  What is the largest object in existence, what is the smallest?  During our lifetimes, especially if you are older, how far we see in any of those directions has gotten further and further, and yet we see no sign of an end anywhere or anywhen.  Whenever we detect smaller particles, theorists come out and suggest they might be composed of even smaller particles.  Before 1929 the universe was the size of the Milky Way galaxy, now it’s billions of galaxies, and scientists are speculating about a multiverse – a reality of endless universes, each a bubble in a sea of infinity.  When there was just one universe, many scientists wondered if the Big Bang was the beginning of time, and the final expansion or contraction, the end.  If there are multiverses, time might have no beginning or end.

Scientists currently have instruments to see so far, and no further – telescopes and particle accelerators.  Beyond those limits lies speculation and conjecture.  Long ago, during the time of classical Greece, there were men who speculated that everything was made of atoms, and that the stars were suns.  It took many centuries before we could prove those speculations.  Today we live in a time when we speculate on strings and the multiverse, whether they will be proven to be true will take time and a lot of money.  Building machines that see farther are very expensive.

The question is:  Can we see forever?  Can we know the ultimate truth?  Can we ever answer:  Why is there something rather than nothing?  How can there be a creator if “creation” is infinite?  To tell children that God created everything is like saying the Tooth Fairy left money under the pillow or that a man in a red suit left presents under the tree.

Back in the times we now think of mythic, people were told if they could see into the minds of gods they would go mad.  That human minds would burn out with too much knowledge, too much truth.  Is that why people prefer religion over physics?  Recently Oprah Winfrey challenged swimmer Diana Nyad that a person can’t be in awe of existence and be an atheist.  The trouble is no matter how much awe Winfrey can feel, it’s only the smallest fraction imaginable over what science can teach us.  And what science can show is is tiny compared to the theoretical size of reality.  But from where we can see, science owns awe, and the religious are blind and cannot see.

We can all see far, but we can’t see forever.  The question you must ask yourself, do you want to see further?  If you are happy living in the fantasy of a Santa Claus like answer, that’s fine, but don’t talk about the awe of existence.  Learn some physics and math to understand how far you are looking before you claim too see far.  The best tool for the average person to do this is The Power of Ten, the classic film from 1977.

A more modern and stunningly beautiful web site is Scale of the Universe.


This is just a start.  Watching it once won’t do.  You have to really study it.  Powers of ten is a wonderful concept to understand the size and magnitude of reality.  Powers of tens work both ways.  Humans are at the 1 meter level, or 100.  101 is ten meters, 102 is 100 meters.  Just beyond 107 gets to the level of the whole earth.  But we can also go small with the negative powers of 10.  At beyond 10-9 we’re at the size of an atom.  I’m going to borrow some images from “The Rise and Fall of Supersymmetry” at ScienceBlogs to help illustrate.


To “see” the very small requires what used to be called an atom smasher, but are now called particle accelerators.  The most famous one at the moment is the Large Hadron Collider (LHC).  It requires tremendous amounts of energy to see small.  Here’s another graph using the powers of ten, but this time using energy, to show how much energy it takes to see small.  You can click on both pictures to get larger versions.


If you haven’t studied much physics this might not make sense, but between these two tables it indicates how far small we can see, and how much energy it will take to see to the edge of what we’ve speculated about.  About the middle of each chart is the edge of the known universe of the small.  We know there’s much further to see, but we don’t have the tools to see further – at the moment.  And when I say “see” we don’t see directly, but detect.

To understand this better I recommend reading The Trouble with Physics by Lee Smolin.  It’s a rigorous attack on string theory, but it’s also an explanation of how science works, and about the limits of what we can see now via detection, and what we speculate is beyond the edge of the known universe.  Smolin worries that we’re in an era of mostly speculation and not enough actual detection.  And here is where the title of this essay comes into play.

We can see far, and hopefully we can see further, but it will be expensive.  But ultimately, how far can we see?  Is there a limit to science and what it can detect?  The LHC is huge and costs a lot of money.  The LHC was supposed to be a big step up from the Fermilab collider, but if you look at the energy chart, it’s just one magnitude.

The thing is people inhabit a level of perception of around 10-3  to 103.  Astronomers might be concerned with 107 through 1027, but few other people.  Many scientists, including medical researchers are concerned with the range of 10-3 to 10-9, only particle physicists want to explore smaller.  For people who live in the 100 to 103 range, religion is an easy answer, but not a correct one.  If you want to know the whole truth, you have to study the known universe, roughly  10-24 to 1027, and beyond, as we speculate and explore further.  That’s a lot of territory.

Maybe next century we’ll be speculating that reality is 10-100 to 10100 in scope, but at some point, being just humans on Earth, we’ll come to an end of how far we can see.  We might be getting close to that limit now, and just don’t know it, or it might be we’re getting to the limit of what we can afford to see.  Our lives are limited in scope.  Our lives do have a beginning of time and an end.  It’s amazing that humans can see so far, but when it comes down to the nitty gritty, our well known living space is 10-7 to 107 meters in scale.  That’s our environment, which offers an almost unlimited possibilities, which could last for billions of years.  It’s a damn shame we’re using it all up so fast, and trashing everything.  Now that’s something to be in awe of Miss Winfrey.

JWH – 2/24/14