There Is Nothing to Wake Up to

Waking Up - Sam HarrisThis is the third article I’ve written about Sam Harris’s new book, Waking Up. The subtitle of the book is, “A guide to spirituality without religion.” And that’s something I’m really interested in. One of the big problems of the modern atheist movement is that it is populated by reductionists. That in itself is not necessarily a problem — I too am a reductionist. But they tend to use it as an excuse to be really boring. And Sam Harris — who I have many problems with — has shown himself to be admirably open minded about the kinds of ontological questions that fascinate me, which have caused so many atheists to label me an agnostic.

Harris’ main concern in the book is the nature of consciousness. Although this isn’t my main issue, I’m really interested in it. And the parts of the book that deal with this issue are well worth the price of admission. But the rest of the book is largely a muddle. Much of the time, it reads like a memoir. The rest of the time, it reads like a self-help manual on meditation. That’s all fine, but I’m not really very interested in getting life lessons from Sam Harris. But if these parts of the book lead to even a few New Atheists not being quite so boring and closed minded, then it is a good thing that the book was published.

The curious thing about the parts of the book that matter to me is how Harris and I seem to completely disagree. Harris believes that the riddle of consciousness may never be figured out. Unfortunately, he isn’t terribly clear about this aspect of his discussion. He just takes it as a given that consciousness is something other than a mechanistic process. I share his awe that consciousness seems to be this thing that sits on top of the brain rather inside it. But I don’t see the problem.

I realize that it is very unhip to analogize the human brain to a computer. But I think I approach it from a higher level than it usual is, so forgive me. A computer is not a CPU. The CPU is simply what brings most of it all together. Instructions come from it. But it is rare that a computer will, for example, push a character onto a text screen directly by putting it there. Instead, it will talk to the BIOS and tell it to display the character. The CPU doesn’t have to worry about how it gets done. Similarly, if I want to scratch my nose, I just decide to do it and the details are worked out for me.

But I am not suggesting that consciousness is the CPU in this analogy. Consciousness, instead, would be the software that is running on the CPU. And it does rest in some netherworld that isn’t the brain but which most definitely exists because of the brain. And this leads to a subject that Harris never even touches on: that consciousness could just be an evolutionary trick — something that helps us survive but isn’t “real” in the sense that our bodies are real.

Let me step into Neuromancer for a moment. In it, Dixie Flatline’s consciousness has been stored in cyberspace. When it is reactivated, it disappoints him to learn that the person he thinks he is is dead. But the computer program that he now is seems to exist without a will. So he asks that the program be deleted after the job is done, because he doesn’t like existing in this state. This, of course, goes right along with Schopenhauer’s thought. According to him, the only reason we continue to live is because of the will pushing us on. It is irrational.

And that’s where I’m left. I have a very hard time believing that my consciousness is anything other than a mechanical construct. It is a matter of faith, of course — something that most New Atheists are blissfully ignorant of in their own lives. But I see no reason to believe that science will not one day show that what it is to be “me” is not something that I will find by drilling down one level. Ultimately, we drill down far enough and we get to the level of the cell. But there is no there there — or at least no end point. I’m all for meditation. But it isn’t how we will find our true selves, because there is no such thing.

Looking on the Bright Side as a Tool for Happiness

Sam HarrisAs I was working to finish this book, we experienced a series of plumbing leaks in our house. The first appeared in the ceiling of a storage room. We considered ourselves genuinely lucky to have found it, because this was a room that we might have gone months without entering. A plumber arrived within a few hours, cut the drywall, and fixed the leak. A plasterer came the next day, repaired the ceiling, and painted it. This sort of thing happens eventually in every home, I told myself, and my prevailing feeling was of gratitude. Civilization is a wonderful thing.

Then a similar leak appeared in an adjacent room a few days later. Contact information for both the plumber and the plasterer was at my fingertips. Now I felt only annoyance and foreboding.

A month later, the horror movie began in earnest: a pipe burst, flooding six hundred square feet of ceiling. This time the repair took weeks and created an immense amount of dust; two cleaning crews were required to deal with the aftermath — vacuuming hundreds of books, drying, and shampooing the carpet, and so forth. Throughout all this we were forced to live without heat, for otherwise the dust from the repair would have been sucked into the vents, and we would have been breathing it in every room of the house. Eventually, however, the problem was fixed. We would have no more leaks.

And then, last night, scarcely one month after the previous repair, we heard the familiar sound of water falling onto carpet. The moment I heard the first drops, I was transformed into a hapless, uncomprehending, enraged man racing down a staircase, I’m sure I would have comported myself with greater dignity had I come upon the scene of a murder. A glance at the ballooning ceiling told me everything I needed to know about the weeks ahead: our home would be a construction site once again.

Of course, a house is a physical object beholden to the laws of nature — and it won’t fix itself. From the moment my wife and I grabbed buckets and salad bowls to catch the falling water, we were responding to the ineluctable tug of physical reality. But my suffering was entirely the product of my thoughts. Whatever the need of the moment, I had a choice: I could do what was required calmly, patiently, and attentively, or do it in a state of panic. Every moment of the day — indeed, every moment throughout one’s life — offers an opportunity to be relaxed and responsive or to suffer unnecessarily.

We can address mental suffering of this kind on at least two levels. We can use thoughts themselves as an antitdote, or we can stand free of thought altogether. The first technique requires no experience with meditation, and it can work wonders if one develops the appropriate habits of mind. Many people do it quire naturally: it’s called “looking on the bright side.”

For instance, as I was beginning to rage like King Lear in the storm, my wife suggested that we should be thankful that it was fresh water pouring through our ceiling and not sewage. I found the thought immediately arresting: I could feel in my bones how much better it was to be mopping up water at that moment than to be ankle deep in the alternative. What a relief! I often use thoughts of this kind as levers to pry my mind loose from whatever rut it has found on the landscape of unnecessary suffering. If I had been watching sewage spill through our ceiling, how much would I have paid merely to transform it into fresh water? A lot.

—Sam Harris
Waking Up

More on Teleporters: It’s Murder!

TeleporterBack almost two years ago, I wrote an article, Using a Teleporter Is Suicide! It was about some scientists who had written a paper looking at the enormous amount of information that would have to be transmitted for a human body to be “transported” from one location to another. It turns out that it is enormous and so it is likely that teleportation would never be practical. As the title of my article suggests, I think this is all nonsense. All a transporter does is kill you and create a copy of you somewhere else. The fact that the resulting copy thinks that it is you hardly matters to the dead (nonexistent) you.

So I just read Sam Harris’ new book, Waking Up. (I plan to write about it later today.) And in it, he discusses a transporter thought experiment by Derek Parfit. It comes to the same physical conclusion, but takes it in a very different direction. But I think this way of thinking about the basic case makes it crystal clear that anyone who decided to use a transporter would be insane:

[I]magine a teleportation device that can beam a person from Earth to Mars. Rather than travel for many months on a spaceship, you need only enter a small chamber close to home and push a green button, and all the information in your brain and body will be sent to a similar station on Mars, where you will be reassembled down to the last atom.

Image that several of your friends have already traveled to Mars this way and seem none the worse for it. They describe the experience as being one of instantaneous relocation. You push the green button and find yourself standing on Mars — where your most recent memory is of pushing the green button on Earth and wondering if anything would happen.

So you decide to travel to Mars yourself. However, in the process of arranging your trip, you learn a troubling fact about the mechanics of teleportation: it turns out that the technicians wait for a person’s replica to be built on Mars before obliterating his original body on Earth. This has the benefit of leaving nothing to chance; if something goes wrong in the replication process, no harm has been done. However, it raises the following concern: while your double is beginning his day on Mars with all your memories, goals, and prejudices intact, you will be standing in the teleportation chamber on Earth, just staring at the green button. Imagine a voice coming over the intercom to congratulate you for arriving safely at your destination; in a few moments, you are told, your Earth body will be smashed to atoms. How would this be any different from simply being killed?

Shockingly, for Parfit and Harris, it is different. And their reason for thinking so is akin to my reason for suggesting that it might not matter, “There is no stable self that is carried along from one moment to the next.” I put it differently. I suggested that perhaps on a quantum time level, we are constantly being replaced. But that is a rather different — and highly speculative — idea. What I think is far more likely is that the continuity of our cells (atoms) is what matters.

Again: the body on Mars is a copy. Let’s suppose that the original version of you were then killed by being burned alive. Would that not have happened just because there was another copy of you happily terraforming Mars? Or what if the original copy of you wasn’t destroyed? Is that Martian who thinks he’s you really you? I think we can argue that she is. But what we can’t argue is that the person who pushed the green button isn’t also you. And we certainly can’t argue that the person in the example above wasn’t being killed.

We Have Not Been Doing Enough for the Poor

David BrooksOne of the best articles I ever wrote was, I Was a Middle Class Food Stamp Kid. In it, I discussed how my parents owned a 7-11 when I was a kid. There were lots of people who lived near by and they spent food stamps to pay for stuff. That helped them, and that was great. But the truth of the matter is that those food stamps helped everyone — most especially my family. I estimated that 5% of the store’s gross income came from food stamps — probably more than our entire margin. It is a sad thing that people like me tend to look down on poor people who are dependent upon SNAP benefits, even while they help us as much if not more.

On Friday, David Brooks wrote, The Nature of Poverty. As the totally clueless commentator that he is, he thinks he has a big ol’ scoop. You see, silly people like Jon Stewart complain that we aren’t doing enough about poverty in this country. But Brooks has some news for you, “Since 1980 federal antipoverty spending has exploded… in 2013 the federal government spent nearly $14,000 per poor person.” If we just gave that money to poor families, they would be middle class!

It should come as no surprise that Brooks concluded his column, “The world is waiting for a thinker who can describe poverty through the lens of social psychology.” That’s because it isn’t his conclusion. This is his unspoken postulate mascaraing as a conclusion. Where have we heard this sort of thing before, “Individuals are left without the norms that middle-class people take for granted.” Oh, that’s right: the last time David Brooks “tackled” the issue. It’s always about social dysfunction among the poor — the causation never goes the other way. Why would it? The whole point is to tax the rich as little as possible and to tell the poor to pull themselves up by their bootstraps.

But as Dean Baker was quick to point out, Brooks’ statistic was nonsense, David Brooks and the Federal Government’s $14,000 Per Year Per Poor Person. A shocking 40% of it is in the form of Medicaid. That is money that doesn’t go to the poor but rather “directly to doctors and other health care providers.” It is true that the poor get medical care, but the cost is so high because doctors make twice in America what they make in the rest of the advanced world.

So this is a situation like mine growing up in a 7-11 store. What we have here is welfare for the well off that people like David Brooks pretends is done for the poor. To him, somehow doctors’ salaries would go down if only poor children did better on the marshmallow challenge. This is just a way for rich people to justify doing nothing while pretending to care.

As for the other 60%, well, it isn’t as Brooks claimed either. That total $14,000 claim is based upon taking all of the money that we spend on programs for lower income people, and then dividing it by the much smaller number of people below the poverty line. So they don’t actually get that much money. As Baker noted, we are a stingy society, “The average family of three on TANF gets less than $500 a month. The average food stamp benefit is $133 per person.”

Paul Krugman later pointed out that the funding for these programs have all basically been flat — except for Medicaid, and it has only been going up because healthcare costs are going up, not the amount of service. He provided this helpful graph:

Non-growth of Welfare State

So people like Jon Stewart are right. And David Brooks is just a jerk.

Morning Music: Worst Pies in London

Sweeney ToddI don’t quite know why it came into my mind, but I was talking to a friend about the song “Worst Pies in London” from the filmed version of Sweeney Todd. On stage, it is nothing special: just a pretty and amusing song. In the film, it is something quite different: an interesting contrast between the beauty of the song and the reality of mid-19th century London. The pie filling looks like it is something dredged from the sewer; cockroaches the size of mice are everywhere; and the actual pie seems to have mold on it. “It tastes like pity?” I think that is a decidedly optimistic appraisal.

Regardless, I love the song. I love the movie. It is extremely rare that a Broadway musical is brought to the screen so successfully. I can only think of two films off hand: West Side Story and Cabaret. Just the same, I can rarely get myself to watch Sweeney Todd. I admire it, but it is hard to take. It has a lot of great moments, however. And this is definitely one of them.

See Also

We All Deserve to Die
The Nice Side of All Deserving to Die