Graham

Archive for the ‘Meaning of Life’ Category

If a Tree Falls …

In Meaning of Life on June 11, 2011 at 3:54 pm

George Berkley did not go far enough. He only asked the question, if a tree falls in the forest, but no one is around to hear it, did it really happen? Consider the following. If vision is severely limited to one narrow band of the electromagnetic spectrum, then it is at least possible that things exist which we do not see.

It is even possible that the same characteristics of those things which we do not see determine that we cannot touch them or feel their presence. Perhaps we pass through them with little or no resistance for if we do not see them, they may even appear as ghosts to the more developed eye.

Ghosts are seen to pass through objects, and the same phenomenon may help to explain ghostly sightings.

Copyright © 2011 by Tad Laury Graham

Original version written in 1974.

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012 The Meaning of Life and Other Tall Tales

In Meaning of Life on December 16, 2009 at 8:43 pm

WHAT THE MATERIAL PRESENTED LAST WEEK NEEDS IS A GOOD SUMMARY

The theory restated: your brain constructs a plausible representation of everyone you know, including you, from limited real world data. Particular care is given over to individualizing faces because faces are important for you to know with whom you are dealing. Beyond face recognition, approximations seem to be acceptable for navigating the world as we know it.

Some Examples from last time:

  • There is limited evidence that we appear differently to different people based on how each of us “feels” about that person. (If we like them, they are attractive; if we don’t, they are unattractive).
  • There is evidence that the brain constructs an interpretation of everything we see, hear, touch, smell or taste.
  • That the brain paves over the gaps in radio transmissions.
  • That the brain acts as though a missing limb isn’t missing.
  • That our  brain tells us how to feel.
  • That the brain fragments what we see, and stores the pieces separately.
  • That the brain controls which brain maps will be changed (body maps extend into our comfort zone and define our space to include this zone).
  • And that the 26 modules of the brain act independently of each other.

All of these examples tend to support the idea that what exists appears to be a very sophisticated biological robot platform, minimally, or a creation of god (the other end of the spectrum), using many of the techniques currently used by man to build metal cousins to our human species. Over the top? Yeah, probably, but I think there is something to it, and the field of robotics has at least a few crackpots who may show us something more, one day.

If none of this suggests the same to you, then ponder this: software is nothing more than instructions. Most of our nervous system works based on inferred sets of instructions. The fact that the brain isn’t binary, that the skin, bones and organs are alive, or that the model is more sophisticated than any robot on earth shouldn’t be cause for rejection before you take at least a critical, hard look.

It’s been fun, but I am taking some time off, starting tomorrow, ending on January 6th. Before I leave tonight, I will convert the evaluation system to “Nero” (thumbs up or thumbs down). If you want to hear some more of this silliness, then give me a thumbs up (before the 6th of January); otherwise, I have no way of knowing if anyone is actually interested in continuing. (Although we are getting a lot more hits than before we started down this path.)

Have a great Christmas, or whatever other holy day you may choose to observe.

And Happy New Year …
Copyright © 2009 by Tad Laury Graham

“The Meaning of Life and Other Tall Tales”

011 The Meaning of Life and Other Tall Tales

In Meaning of Life on December 12, 2009 at 5:08 pm

THERE ARE NO ANSWERS BUT THERE ARE INTERESTING EXPLANATIONS

The right question isn’t, “Does god exist, but does god make a difference?” The first question is irrelevant, albeit this is where most of us get stuck, but the second question is important: whether or not god exists, the “idea of god” can influence events and change outcomes. If the perception makes a difference, it doesn’t really matter if he exists or not—what matters is that he makes a difference.

On the other hand, humans must exist to have an impact. If we are not present, we are ignored. Because we examined the case for including god vs the case for excluding god, and because the question of our existence is more problematic than the question of god’s existence, I began to take a look at deriving a comparison (a bit tongue-in-cheek, at first). The results follow.

Please keep in mind that this discussion is over simplified to improve the reader’s ability to understand the arguments presented without wading through a lot of technical jargon.

The “I” that I Call Myself is Actually a Construct that Does NOT Exist

A Construct is what you get by combining or arranging a number of existing parts or elements in a logical order to construe, interpret, or explain a theoretical concept. We might also refer to it as a real-world model. In our example, the parts used to build our construct are analogous to the parts used to build a computer. We use the computer because nothing else comes closer when trying to model the part of the human body that defines the “I” that we call ourselves.

I propose the theory that we can build a construct, using analogies between the human body and the computing machine that will cause us to question our reality, and our membership in it. At the highest level, the construct is made up of hardware, firmware and software (obviously analogies to computer parts on a functional level). What we are not saying is that a human is nothing more than a computer. What we are saying is that these computing parts are the functional equivalent of biological robotics.

  • The hardware is made up of a computer-like device (the Brain) and wires and cables (the Neurons).
  • The firmware (the genetic code) is read-write, though it is usually “read” when carrying out its instructions and “write” when a glitch occurs in the genetic encoding (or, a change is made to our brain maps, see below).
  • The software is the Electro-Chemical Messenger System that provides the mechanism for executing programs in the brain, in conjunction with various methods of input / output, storage and retrieval, and brain maps.

in this model, the hardware exists

Consider the human eye. We used to believe that we see everything as is, but now we have come to understand that all we actually “see” is created by our brain using limited data outside of ourselves, built primarily from variations in light intensities. These data are collected by the eyes and sent to the brain, where the data are deciphered, and the model for the real object is created. It is our brain that creates a representation of everything we see. We “see” with our brain, not with our eyes.

Lets extend this observation by talking about our hearing. When a radio station broadcasts a program, there are actually silent gaps throughout the transmission. There is enough delay between each transmitted pulse to be highly annoying, if we could actually hear the gaps. But our hearing is so slow that we cannot hear the gaps, because our brain covers them up, and we hear our favorite music, or stock reports, or perhaps a baseball game, courtesy of our inability to hear as well as other animals.

Our brains are physical realities in the real world. A single brain is actually a collection of no fewer than 26 modules, all of which have functions that must be performed, but none of which is in charge of ensuring overall success. It is remarkable how well they usually work together (in a healthy mind). However, when you are having that bad hair day, it could very well be because no module is boss, and all of them are vying for attention, leaving us little room to deal with the resulting emotional states.

More importantly, there are periods of time when these modules perform less than optimally, e.g., the prefrontal cortex (located in the forehead) does not fully develop until the body is fully developed, which occurs perhaps as late as our early-20’s. This causes problems for teenagers especially, who are already under the influence of hormones, and in combination causes inconsistent and sometimes uncivilized behaviors throughout our teen years.

Lets take a look at how those pesky modules we introduced might function in a way that supports my theory. Specialists in neurology have determined that we don’t control how we feel. That happens in a primitive area of the brain called the limbic system, and we are only along for the ride. The limbic system not only tells us how we feel, but it does it before we sense it ourselves. In fact, it tells us how we feel before we feel the emotion itself. The brain literally identifies our emotional state and pushes for a response from us in such a manner that we are certain that the “I” I call myself was ahead of the game.

Another quick example where the brain is messing with us in the background is the loss of a leg or an arm in an accident and the “I” that I call myself believes it is still attached (phantom limb syndrome). We would probably continue to experience the pain in the space where the missing limb used to be because the brain, independent of us, thinks the leg is still there. The reason? The brain map has not changed. The limb is severed,but the brain map doesn’t yet know it. (With some coaxing, we can influence the brain to fix this disconnect.)

the firmware exists

One of the most important discoveries of our time is that we operate in accordance with brain maps. And these brain maps can change their own structure, and even change their own function, well into advanced age. We say that the brain is plastic and self-directed because the brain can change, but all you or I can do is influence the brain to change in the direction we prefer. We don’t actually make the changes. Further, the brain is subject to many influences—the 26 modules, our own preferences, the group we hang around, or work with, or avoid, etc.

We can continue doing what we have always done, in which case the brain will execute in “autopilot” or we can choose to do something else, in which case the brain maps will alter them-selves to accommodate the new skill. It has been estimated that repeating a new fact for about fifteen minutes will change a brain map forever, assuming that periodic reinforcement of the change continues. The other side of that coin is if we don’t use what we know, the brain will stop maintaining the skill, gradually, until it disappears altogether after about ten years.

The brain literally seizes the space required for new thoughts and new ideas, and lets go of a part of our past that has fallen into disuse. This is why most immigrants after only one generation have lost prior language skills, and assimilated their new language. We no longer think that the brain retains every thought we ever had. We now know that the brain must overwrite old thoughts with new thoughts in order to accommodate what is important today.

Because our storage capacity is not infinite, the brain also uses what might be thought of as “data compression.” Most of what is stored in the brain is stored as an attribute. As a child, I might have a red fire truck, and my best friend might have a red bicycle. The brain takes the attribute of redness and stores that attribute in one place, linked to other attributes for the toy and for the bicycle. The greater the difference between the two, the less reinforcement occurs and vice versa. In other words, our firmest memories are in general polluted with a lot of variation, unrelated to the original item. (People make very poor witnesses.)

The foregoing is generally true for all but faces. We are excellent at face recognition (stored in one location), but often can’t get the name right (stored in another). A very large part of the brain is reserved for faces, probably because there is survival value in knowing who you are doing business with.

but the executing software DOES NOT EXIST

When computer software is still in its wrapper, sitting on a shelf somewhere, waiting to be installed so it can come alive and do its job, we think of it as something tangible with a physical presence in our universe that can be defined and understood in its proper context. We agree on what it looks like, what it is supposed to do, and whether or not it does it.

But take it out of the wrapper and install it, and if the development phase has achieved it’s goals, you move into the realm of self-contained decision making based on predefined criteria. In other words, the programmer, the end user, and the internal parts are all part of a system, in general, that operates independently of its creator.

Only the dead no longer execute the software in their brains. The living continue to run their programs around the clock. This very action suggests that we are programmed for something—perhaps that mythical quest we are all supposed to be on, and that we must complete before we die. And the “I” I call myself is actually a construction by the brain to represent all of the systems that define body conciousness that could not otherwise exist.

Put another way, biological software is the set of instructions that define the ego, which makes the transformations that define our lives. Software operates like a set of switches that must be thrown for each pathway chosen. This biological software does not have a human creator. It is generated by our bodies from experience, and from our genetic encoding. The new question is, “Do I really exist or am I just a construct of my brain?”

In school, we learn that behaviors are learned and unlearned, which suggests that we are always in charge. But “learned” is the wrong paradigm. Changes in humans are not learned, they are merged as physical changes to the brain, which is why it takes so long to “unlearn” negative behaviors.  The “me” that I am is wholly dependent on these physical representations and changes.

The “who am I?” in all of this is that I realize “I” am a construct:  the sum of all I do and all things done to me; embodied in flesh, brain cells and nervous system the “I” that is not much more than the sum of the influence of my parts. It is the “me” in motion, the executing program instructions formed by the wiring and chemistry of my computer-like brain. And nobody is in charge.

Copyright © 2009-2010 by Tad Laury Graham

“The Meaning of Life and Other Tall Tales”

010 The Meaning of Life and Other Tall Tales

In Meaning of Life on December 4, 2009 at 6:46 pm

IN SEARCH OF AN ALTERNATIVE

There are some, I am sure, who will choose to continue believing what they have always believed, regardless of the opinions expressed here, but this is not an issue. It is precisely because we don’t know for a fact what is true, that we construct religious belief systems around opinions.

Some of these opinions are quite well-reasoned, enough to create the possibility of belief (a theory of belief, if you will) and can easily be applied to both camps (believers vs non-believers), and can be used to support either position—which further demonstrates the inconsistencies in things attributed to god.

This is my way of saying there is nothing to argue about. You are probably both right. All you have to do is spend an afternoon trying to understand the behavior of “quarks” to know that this universe is even more amazing than we could ever have believed. Quarks (the building blocks of life) literally alter the physics of life.

The Last Word on the Inflluence of Religion on the Meaning of Life

The only topic left to talk about with regard to the role of religion is this: Do we need god in order to explain the meaning of life? Not do we need to exclude god, but do we need to include him? Remember, we only introduced the subject of god because the claim is made in almost every faith on the planet that you don’t have to die if you know and follow the required ritual.

Yet there is still another possible explanation why we can put god in one box, and the world in another, and still talk meaningfully about the meaning of life. Consider the artist who creates a work of art. Once the work of art is complete, do I need anything more from it’s creator? How about a novel, or a poem. Once written, do we still need an author? Does music still need a composer? A computer need an engineer? Or any other technological gizmo?

The answer is a resounding no! Even the black widow understands this on a biological level. Once created, the creator is a short-lived non-essential presence. No wonder he is never around once he creates the miracles. So in the final analysis, we will let the churches and philosophers oversee the religious aspects of life, and the rest of us will continue the search for the meaning of life, rather than the meaning of religion.

Next week, we take a side excursion in which we attempt to demonstrate that we do not exist. If we do not exist, then there is no meaning of life. If we do exist, then we have the first hint of proof that life has meaning. This may not be the most efficient way to solve the riddle (we would need a great deal more than one instance), but it does satisfy our requirement to lighten up on occasion by spinning a tall tale.

Copyright © 2009-2010 by Tad Laury Graham

“The Meaning of Life and Other Tall Tales”

009 The Meaning of Life and Other Tall Tales

In Meaning of Life on November 27, 2009 at 1:07 pm

IN SEARCH OF GOD

We have pretty much exhausted this avenue of consideration for the meaning of life, for how can an inconsistent god provide direction on what is expected of us? If a loving god is still in the picture, then perhaps it is also a god who is not all powerful, for a loving god would not set up the earth to be a place where fear of death is constant and omnipresent. I will ignore the long list of inconsistencies because I am sure you are familiar with them, from incest to murder.

To say that god works in mysterious ways is to say nothing meaningful. There is nothing mysterious about creating a place of death, sacrificing your own son to die in that place, and threatening to destroy the planet if we don’t figure out what he wants from us. Furthermore, god can only act in mysterious ways if he exists, and I am at a loss to prove it either way.

Additionally, if you consider what he is selling and what we are buying, it is nothing short of loss of autonomy for you and me. If I do what god (or his highly placed priests) want from me, the price is my eternal, unquestioning obedience and my continual singing of his praises (starting now!). The word for that is “slavery.” On the other hand, I could have as many as 100 years of total freedom, before I am punished for exercising free will. If this is the only choice, why would I choose immediate incarciration?

My god would be a loving god

Most Christians don’t feel they need to prove this step because the only unforgivable sin in Christianity is disbelief. No matter how the proof comes out, there is only one answer. My bias says to that bias, how can you be sure you haven’t backed the wrong god? (Remember, as discussed earlier, at the same time and place that Jesus was vying for the title of messiah, there were more than 200 other “messiahs” laying claim to the throne.)

A true believer would perhaps also be concerned that they have not inadvertently selected the devil to worship because they didn’t make the effort to verify this god that claims to be the one, true god.

My god would be a tolerant god

An extension of a loving god, called out separately because I cannot believe that any god worth his salt would be so petty that he tortures his creations for an eternity for failing to measure up. Mistakes are bound to happen, particularly with so much in the way of imperfection in the world. I believe that if there is a god, he forgives mistakes much more readily than man forgives, and seeks no revenge, but teaches non-violence in its place. If we prefer the violence we can easily find it everywhere on earth.

My god would be nothing like man

My god would be a force for positive unification of the power that is the universe, that has no anthropomorphic resemblance to man. A life force that I would liken to Carl Jung’s collective unconscious, or Ralph Waldo Emerson’s transcendental oversoul, or even Stephen Spielberg’s the force. Or perhaps all three, and still more, which serve to remind us that one man is a pathetic wretch, but six billion, properly educated, are a formidable force in the universe.

FINDING MEANING WITHOUT GOD

It is clear that we are going in circles. Whatever god is, he is not our guardian in any sense of the word, and there is nothing we can do for him that he cannot do for himself. The traditional way of painting him makes him the Dictator, the King, the Emperor, the Warrior, or any other dictatorial figure in our history. What we need is a President, a Prime Minister, or any other open-minded individual who is also truly interested in his fellow man.

We need to act on facts, not on fictions. So unless one of you out there steps into my life and says he thinks differently, I think it is time to write-off the silver-tongued individuals who wish to manipulate and control us. Even if we are wrong, creating a life where we are taking care of each other for 80 or more years is much more important than singing the praises of a tyrant for an eternity. And if I am wrong, then this is not the place I want to be, anyway. Next week we look at alternative meanings.

Copyright © 2009-2010 by Tad Laury Graham

“The Meaning of Life and Other Tall Tales”

008 The Meaning of Life and Other Tall Tales

In Meaning of Life on November 17, 2009 at 7:49 pm

IN SEARCH OF FACTS

We now have the minimum tool set required to sift through clues in search of facts.

  • We begin by asking the inevitable questions,
  • We compile a list of things known through opinions and interpretations,
  • but which cannot be proven,
  • We derive a second list, this time of facts which can be proven,
  • The second list is shown to be true, and right under our noses for thousands of years with the questions of the first list, with little or no change.

For the sake of completeness, we should note that we previously introduced a two-part theory which states that we cannot understand the meaning of life without understanding the meaning of death and vice versa. We may or may not try to prove this theory later, but it feels important, so it has been labeled and filed for future use.

For contrast, lets identify an initial list of facts.

  • All living things eat, and are eaten by other living things.
  • All living things kill other living things.
  • All living things die, from the perspective that physically we are gone from this world (regardless of where we might or might not return).
  • All animal species known to man have members that are gay.
  • All animals and plant life are evolving,
  • These changes occur rapidly, and have been observed for many years.
  • All living entities experience pain and illness,
  • Yes, even plants feel pain, experience fear, and have memories (NOT opinion, but FACT!)

Every statement on this list is a fact  because we can prove that every statement on this list is true. Now let me give you an opinion that illustrates why we might want to include them in our search for meaning: there is an inconsistency between what these statements say and the existence of an all-knowing, all powerful and loving god who watches out for us. I do not think it would add anything to the discussion to labor over these statements ad nauseum. For me, and by now for you, they should come under the category of intuitively obvious.

If it seems unfair to bind you by these rules, let me say that you also may personalize this list with some true statements of your own.

  • If you say, I believe in god, then we take this as fact. It’s a fact that you believe in god.
  • You can even believe in the inconsistent god of the Bible.
  • But, if you say, there is a god (my book says so), then we take this as opinion, and we respect your choices, for afterall we cannot prove you wrong.

More to come next time.

Copyright  © 2009-2010 by Tad Laury Graham

“The Meaning of Life and Other Tall Tales”

007 The Meaning of Life and Other Tall Tales

In Meaning of Life on November 12, 2009 at 10:35 pm

IN SEARCH OF CLUES

The first action we will take is to explore how far we can get looking only at opinions. We will attempt to define the boundaries of what would be an acceptable answer. This may seem like stuffing the ballot box to ensure that the answer matches our own bias, but the issues are so large when looking at belief systems that we could grow into old age before we begin to appreciate the complexities of the task.

The first boundary that we can probably agree on is that opinions provide clues, but they fail to provide certainty. This is why I gave you a very complete (perhaps too complete) picture of my own personal biases (i.e., it is difficult to know what influences what in this complex environment). Furthermore, clues provide theories to be tested in the field, so to speak.

Second, but of some importance, to ask “what is the Meaning of Life?” presupposes that we live our lives for a purpose. I will assume that most would agree, since the most common “reason” for being here includes getting closure or finishing something. But so far, we are only talking about process, and to really understand we need to talk more about substance.

We could start by asking:

  • What are we supposed to finish?
  • Is this task specific to each individual, i.e., is it different for each of us?
  • Or is this a group task, whereby we are supposed to work together?
  • How would we figure out what we are supposed to be doing?
  • Why don’t we already know the answers to these types of questions?
  • Or are we born with the answers hard-wired into our brains?
  • What would this suggest about the nature of free-will?
  • And many other such statements …

Perhaps the first thing we notice about these statements is that they are inspecific. In fact they are high level, broadly based and infused with popular opinions. And that is the key to these kinds of questions, they are about opinions. It’s the method we have been using for centuries to understand our world, but we have gotten no where for the diversion.

None-the-less, as stated above, opinions are useful in providing clues to understanding. For now, lets begin the analysis of some of this data with the statements: “Why are we here? What are we supposed to finish?” We have already noted that this question is too broad to be meaningful, and perhaps too vague to prove, so lets start by forming some additional, plausible theories, using the statement list:

  • [Theory 2a] Maybe god works through man to achieve his goals. Maybe we are some kind of caretaker for the planet, a stand in for god who is busy in other parts of the universe creating more worlds where new life forms can thrive.
  • [Theory 2b] Maybe that was the mission that god gave to Adam and Eve, the job of first caretakers, starting with the Garden of Eden—until god fired them for eating the fruit “from the tree of knowledge of good and evil.”
  • According to the scriptures, when Adam was asked why he ate the fruit he basically said, the woman made me do it. On hearing this, god makes every woman on earth a second class citizen, to suffer pain in child bearing, and to be subjugated and kept in their place by men.
  • Yet god is not convinced that the problem is handled, and he banishes both Adam and Eve from the garden before Eve can tempt Adam to taste the fruits of the Tree of [Eternal] life.

This scenario, while contrived by us, would explain why god is suddenly an absentee landlord, and what he thought was required to keep us in line until he got back. It would explain the appearance of not caring. Maybe, just before god left, he really did say that he would annihilate us when he returned, if we didn’t get it right. As usual, however, there is no evidence that this scenario is true, but it does provide some theories that can be further examined.

This approach of trying to explain away man’s biased views of his personal god, of his own design, out of his own personal need, without proof leads to disbelief. The problem with this approach is that we have to suppose an awful lot to get to a plausible, satisfying explanation. And the facts do not support the case, except in a superficial way.

For example, we could be caretakers. The message can be found in the Bible that we are to take care of each other, and other forms of life. But do we really believe that god so despised half of the human race, that he subjugated them to pain and slavery for the rest of time for wanting to understand the difference between right and wrong?

This post will end with a quick summary:

  1. It would be pushing it to say that god left on a mission, and man stayed behind on a mission, without an exchange of a single word of instruction.
  2. We can’t seem to go down any path for very long before we are confronted with an inconsistent, angry, punitive, bully that people call god.
  3. I don’t know whether or not god is reality, but I truly believe that this god, the one that hates women, would be an affront to any real god.
  4. Finally, even when we fabricate the answer to the what-if, we still have no facts to base it on.

By the way, if you missed the 1st comment at the end of this section, where Terry (The Other I) talks about catastrophic events that have influenced man’s thinking on the nature of god, please do take a look.

More to come next time …

Copyright © 2009-2010 by Tad Laury Graham

“The Meaning of Life and Other Tall Tales”

Questions I have been asked

In Meaning of Life on November 9, 2009 at 9:42 pm

I received two questions over the week-end, apparently causing the readers some confusion. The questions were submitted as follows:

  • “What is Yahate?”-  Yahate is a family surname, used by the Ojibwa Indian tribes. The Ojibwa are called Chippewa in the United States (but Ojibwa prefer the traditional name for their people).
  • “What [is] the meaning … of facts and opinions?” – A simplistic method of categorizing what can be known and what cannot be known. If we can prove a statement to be either true or false, we say it is a fact. If we cannot prove a statement true or false, we say you are giving your opinion. For example, if you say you believe in god, that’s a true statement, and therefore a fact (unless you lied). But if you say there is a god, that’s a subject of much speculation. It is not a fact, but an opinion. However, an opinion does not prove that god doesn’t exist, only that there isn’t enough information to prove one way or the other. (Which is why I am an agnostic, not an atheist.)

I was also asked about the meaning of tall tales.

  • A tall tale is a story that exaggerates a truth into a lie to make a point. If we go that far in the series, we will will identify when we are on shaky ground (to keep the academies happy). The reason for adding it is that we often take ourselves too seriously, and we miss the point: life above all else was meant to be lived. Otherwise, why bother going through the pain of birth, child hood, and 40 years of a career we didn’t choose, before we finally get to do what we want, only to find out that we are dying, which shouldn’t be a surprise because that’s the next step in the grand scheme of things? In case you are wondering, yes, I just told you a tall tale.

Copyright © 2009-2010 by Tad Laury Graham

006 The Meaning of Life and Other Tall Tales

In Meaning of Life on November 4, 2009 at 12:06 am

METHODS OF INQUIRY REVISITED

Most of us, at one time or another, expend a fair amount of energy in wishful thinking regarding something we want, or something we want to do. It turns out that the more energy we put into the thing we want (i.e., the more we invest of ourselves, and our egos) the more we tend to believe that we are entitled to it. There is something about pursuing a goal that the longer you pursue it, the more you think you should achieve it.

So where am I going with this? Let me suggest the following: religion is not trivial; most people have expended a lot of time thinking about what they believe. Many are still asking the questions, i.e., have made a huge and continuing investment in the decision. And most have arrived at an answer based on emotion, often fear, and irrespective of the facts.

On the other hand, we often agonize over these decisions for no justifiable reason. Nothing is permanent (fact), and all paths lead to the same place (opinion), which in English goes by the name of Death. Through Death, we either find the missing piece of the puzzle (i.e., through some form of life after death), or we find that life has no meaning (at the instant of death). No amount of wishful thinking will change this.

As much as we possibly can, we will construct fact-based arguments, which (ideally) are proven to be true. Remember what we said earlier:

  1. A fact is a data point that can be proven true or false.
  2. An opinion is a data point that cannot be proven true or false.

There are many types of opinion. I have already mentioned that an opinion in the scientific world is often called a theory. Wishful thinking is an opinion-driven argument. Speculation is the expression of an opinion. We can have an informed opinion, or a misinformed opinion. Regardless of what we call it, it’s still an opinion, unless proven otherwise. Therefore (in my opinion) The Meaning of Life, when taken in its totality, weighs in as an opinion unless we prove otherwise.

Intuition (and a certain amount of stubbornness) tells me that we might be able to prove pieces of the great cosmic puzzle. You might see this as an inconsistency, for only a few posts back I pointed out that we were missing part of the definition: The Meaning of Death. Taken in its totality we had to consider both sides of the coin.

But if we can find a smaller “piece,” taken in its totality, we have a better chance of proving that smaller piece. And if we find enough smaller pieces that are facts on their own, we might be able to discover some new truths, through combining some older ideas.

Copyrite © 2009-2010 by Tad Laury Graham

“The Meaning of Life and Other Tall Tales”

005 The Meaning of Life and Other Tall Tales

In Meaning of Life on October 29, 2009 at 10:05 pm

THE AUTHOR DISCLOSES HIS BIAS

If I talk about God as though he exists, it isn’t because I have proven (or disproven) his existence, nor does it mean that I accept any of the commonly held views of God. It’s because I don’t have enough information that I am comfortable in either camp. I none-the-less reject that the Earth is evil, that God is inconsistent or that God discriminates. I reject the inconsistencies in the Bible, eternal damnation, torture, favoritism, claims of being chosen (for anything) over others or their beliefs, mass murder by any name (e.g., the Rapture / the Apocalypse ) or any other fear-based approach to proselytizing unquestioning believers.

All roads lead to death, whether we are gone forever, reincarnated from time-to-time, off to another universe or chosen for any variation on this theme. I do not believe that any of the paths we take were meant to discriminate against anyone, to treat others as inferior, or to define who will be turned away—using religion, race, sex, or any other god-given-attribute during creation, whether or not his method of creation involved evolution, rebirth or rubbing two match sticks together. Nobody has the definitive truth, and if we have even a snails chance of learning the truth, it won’t likely happen before we die.

Why An Agnostic?  Why Not A Believer With an Explanation?

“God may not play dice with the universe, but he seemingly does so with the lives of its inhabitants; either that, or he has no interest in outcomes.” It was Albert Einstein who said, “I shall never believe that God plays dice with the world.” [Einstein, His Life and Times, 1947] It was I who added the observation that god doesn’t appear to care one way or the other. A believer would say, “God works in mysterious ways,” and ask no further questions. An atheist would say, “the whole universe operates on mathematical probabilities” and think he answered the question. An agnostic never stops asking the question.

We are taught by religious leaders that god is love. This makes more sense than many of the alternatives. If true, then god asks nothing from me, not even belief in his existence. My creation was a gift not unlike the gift of life that I participated in when my children were born. I understand this god. This is the god that expects me to take ownership of my life and for my mistakes. I reject the god that put us on earth to live our lives in constant fear of his wrath. The god that works in mysterious ways. There is nothing mysterious about getting the razor strap off the top shelf and showing us who is boss. This isn’t my god; this is the god of our forefathers, the god who makes us winners and everybody else losers.

If god exists, and if god created everything, then god forgives our mistakes because to do otherwise would make us god’s mistake. I reject the notion that god creates weaklings so he can punish them for an eternity for their mistakes (or for failing to beg for forgiveness). I reject most interpretations that present god as judge or warrior spewing fire and damnation. If god made me in his image, then it makes even less sense to torture me for my mistakes.

If we are all sinners, and god punishes us for doing what is in our nature, then god has created a perverse universe. This would be the god we curse when we lose our temper and expose our short comings, for he created us with our imperfections. But I do not believe this is anymore than a false god. I do not exclude the notion that we have some responsibility for our actions. For whatever reason, we have been given the awesome responsibility of choice. We must be expected to use it. And we will make mistakes, and we will get up, dust ourselves off and try again.

But the hardest idea to accept in this discussion is that nobody, not even god, waits 2,000 years to punish a child. If you truly believe in god, then forget the rapture. There will be no Judgement Day. God doesn’t need revenge. (Did Jesus seek revenge?) It is man who seems to need revenge. Neither does god take sides. It is man who takes sides. It is man who wrote the Bible and man who interprets the Bible (or its equivalent) to prove that he is on the right side. And it is man who picks his version of God based on his current needs, and who doesn’t recognize that his choices are inconsistent with a single god, a god of love.

If I still haven’t made clear why I am an agnostic, let me say this: it’s as much to associate more with those who are still looking (agnostics), and less with those who gave up years ago (believers and non-believers). “Faith in a holy cause is to a considerable extent a substitute for the lost faith in ourselves” [The True Believer; thoughts on the nature of mass movements, Eric Hoffer, © 1951, reprint 2002] I do insist, however, that before I accept the one true god, somebody must prove that I am not being seduced by a cheap imitation.

A final note before closing out this week’s installment: I recently read an excellent new book [Jesus Interrupted; revealing the hidden contradictions in the bible (and why we don’t know about them), Bart D Ehrman, 2009]. The author is a well-qualified expert in bible studies and expresses his findings with the care and sensitivity you would expect from a man of his experience. I think everyone over the age of 21 should read this book and listen to his story. Whether or not you are believer, agnostic or even atheist, it’s a good read, well worth your time.

Copyright © 2009-2010 by Tad Laury Graham

“The Meaning of Life and Other Tall Tales”

004 The Meaning of Life and Other Tall Tales

In Meaning of Life on October 27, 2009 at 3:19 pm

THE ROLE OF RELIGION

At first, I thought we could avoid the issue of religion with regard to the meaning of life, and I hoped we could simplify our approach in so doing. But religion is clearly at the center of this question because religious leaders have altered the original meaning of life by removing the sting of death. We will begin our examination of the role of religion by discussing the three traditional relationships man is said to have with God. These relationships are believer, agnostic, and atheist.

Believers

Most believers in the United States are faith-based, which is to say that they believe in God because the Bible says he exists. In Christianity, disbelief is the only unforgivable sin. I would speculate that the reason for this stipulation is that it shuts off arguments that cannot be proved. The problem with blind acceptance is that you may have backed the wrong God. In the time period that Jesus was claiming to be the Messiah, more than 200 other would-be “Messiah’s” were traveling around the Middle East in an effort to fulfill the prophesy.

Agnostics

Because neither the existence of God nor the absence of God can be proved with any degree of certainty, some of us—the author included—take a wait and see approach. From the data available, the question of the existence of God remains a question. But with or without proof, I believe with absolute certainty, at the same level of conviction that we find in the faith-based believer, that a “fair and just God” does not hide from his creations for more than 2,000 years, only to come out of hiding to bring down the apocalypse. And then what? Rewind and do it again?

Atheists

The atheist is satisfied that if he cannot prove God’s existence, then God does not exist. He ignores the fact that he cannot disprove God’s existence, so at best we have a stalemate.

CHOOSING YOUR RELATIONSHIP

It is not my intent to convert anyone to a different category than you have already chosen. It is my intent to get you to know why you made the choice you did. I recommend that you avoid pat answers, that you understand what you believe and why you believe it when you profess it. Until we have better answers, to do otherwise is a crap shoot.

Copyright © 2009-2010 by Tad Laury Graham

“The Meaning of Life and Other Tall Tales”

003 The Meaning of Life and Other Tall Tales

In Meaning of Life on October 26, 2009 at 10:42 pm

THE AUTHOR EXPLORES AN ALTERNATIVE MEANING

While I was working on an opening statement to share my thoughts on the meaning of life, I suddenly had one of those eureka experiences that change our thinking. It began with an assumption that the only way I can know the meaning of life is to understand its opposite, the meaning of death. My life (my existence in the universe) defines a system, and one cannot study part of a system and expect to get the whole answer. But that is exactly what we do when we only ask part of the question.

So how do we justify excluding death? The Neanderthals are believed to be the first race on earth to bury their dead in a ritualistic ceremony, beginning about 50,000 years ago. Their graves were not a final resting place, however, for they were given the tools required to keep doing what they did in life. The practice of ritualistic burial quickly caught the attention of almost every religion from primitive times to the present day, and they went one better. They formalized the concept of life after death.

If it were the case that we are able to live forever, to talk about the meaning of death would itself be meaningless, i.e., if there is no death, then our language would have no word for death, and there would be no concept of death in our culture. But death is part of every life form known to man, so presumably God must intervene to make man the exception, the only animal that has a means to escape death. This is what religion does. It removes the side that grapples with the meaning of death by promising that believers will never die.

By removal of death from the meaning of life, we distort the outcome. If I were able to live forever, to talk about the meaning of life becomes less urgent, less meaningful in fact, and therefore less relevant). What gives life meaning is the urgency of death. We will categorize the complete answer as a theory, which is the scientific way of saying an opinion. The significance of this will be discussed later. For now, we capture the theory that life has no meaning without death [Theory 1a] and death has no meaning without life [Theory 1b].

And we make the following observation: the idea that I might live beyond my death exaggerates my importance in the universe. Man is the only species that studies itself. It is difficult for man to be objective in this role. It has only been a few hundred years that we have understood this. But we have had nearly 150,000 years to convince ourselves that we really are that important.



Copyright © 2009-2010 by Tad Laury Graham

“The Meaning of Life and Other Tall Tales”

002 The Meaning of Life and Other Tall Tales

In Meaning of Life on October 26, 2009 at 8:47 pm

THE MOST COMMON ANSWERS

Probably the answer most often given in response to the question, What is the Meaning of Life? is that we are here to complete something, and this “something” has the status of what we might call our mission in life. The task itself might be simple, but the achievement is apparently important in the grand scheme of things.

Another fairly common answer is that we are here to learn something, although for me it is difficult to understand what I might learn in a physical plane (which we occupy for a few short years) that also applies to a spiritual plane (which we occupy for an eternity). The other concern I have is the school that teaches this lesson is Hard Knocks. Hard Knocks often distort the lesson plans to fit the neurosis of the moment.

For many of us, our interest in asking the question centers around the idea of getting clarity regarding our mission, whether it’s a task to be performed or a lesson to be learned. For the religious minded, how they recognize their mission from all of the other choices is not of great concern because it is believed that sooner or later the answer pops into mind and the riddle is immediately understood. They say they are called to service. And this revelation is the means to be called.

Still another common answer is that we are here to give meaning to life. Life wouldn’t mean anything if it didn’t include a witness, perhaps. I have even heard it said that we create reality through our actions, which define the meaning. Either way seems like an invitation to chaos: too many visionaries and not enough work horses.

Are there any other answers given? Have I left any out? If I am leaving anything out, or missing the point, please feel free to identify my shortcomings in the comments section of this post. I pretty much don’t have all the answers, so I enjoy hearing from people who have figured out a piece of the puzzle.

Copyright © 2009-2010 by Tad Laury Graham
“The Meaning of Life and Other Tall Tales”

001 The Meaning of Life and Other Tall Tales

In Meaning of Life on October 23, 2009 at 3:55 pm

I was amazed at how many people showed up for the post entitled “An Alternative View of God.” You have inspired me to push a little further into the nature of God and the meaning of life. There are so many places to start from, and by definition only one place to end up, that it would be easy to find ourselves bogged down in meaningless side journeys without guidelines, principles, or rules to keep us on track.

On the other hand, an excess of restrictions could just as likely have the same result, which is why we invite some serendipity to lighten the load (the Tall Tales). To make matters worse, however, some of what we are going to explore cannot be proven because we simply don’t have enough data to form a fact-based conclusion. We hereby rule out approaches that are 100% faith-based conclusions because we could write that book in 25 words or less, and we wouldn’t be any closer to resolution of our quandary.

Another factor in the decision to stay away from faith-based explanations is that there is a trend in modern religious studies to seek historical explanations for proofs of God (i.e., fact-based explanations), though this trend does not always trickle down to the layman. I don’t wish to mislead anyone. What I am proposing is not a new form of bible studies. I am certain that the church of your choice can do a better job with that task than I can. My focus is only on what it takes to get a better idea of what life is all about. With this in mind, we begin.

Methods of Inquiry

My approach to God is to discover what is reasonable to believe, based on observed facts rather than on wishful thinking, using the following definitions:  a fact can be proven to be true or false; opinions cannot be proven either way. It is important to note that anything that cannot be proven is, by definition, an opinion. More importantly if you cannot prove your facts, it’s because they are your opinions.

It is not at all unusual to think that we are talking about a fact, but learn halfway through the conversation that we were expressing a preference. We can have that discussion if we want, but we must always know if we are coming from fact-based information or from wishful thinking. It saves time, and it helps us to get closer to the truth. Having in general limited ourselves to this constraint, opinions presented as well-reasoned speculation are welcome for discussion. In this context, speculation means theory, and a theory is an opinion we are trying to prove to be a fact.

More to follow …


If you found this website of any interest, you may also want to follow this link:

The Problem of God

Copyright © 2009-2010 by Tad Laury Graham

The Meaning of Life and Other Tall Tales

Still Alive and Kicking—Update on the Author

In Meaning of Life on May 14, 2009 at 3:11 am

It’s been a while since my last blog, and in the world of blogging there probably is no excuse for not keeping in touch … after all, a blog can be as long or as short as we want to make it. It can be on any subject.  It can be informal as well as formal. It doesn’t even have to be well-structured, coherent, or in any way make sense. What could be easier?

Not that it’s an excuse, but I think a lot more and do a lot less these days. Partly a health issue; partly that it is easier than trying to have directed, logical thoughts. Sometimes you mine nuggets; sometimes you end up with trash. It’s just the way life is. But always you find ways to participate, to be part of life. It’s what we are.

Day dreaming passes for “thinking” for most of us. We call it “lost in thought,” but we usually mean that stream-of-conscious, disconnected quasi-logical thought pattern which is pure escapism. Probably best kept private because most of it is of a personal nature and would put the average voyeur to sleep. It’s more-or-less an unwritten agreement, perhaps even a law, not to confess.

Besides the lack of entertainment value, there is always the risk of becoming maudlin and dumping on friends, who by the way are having the same issues and problems in dealing with their own lives (which they don’t dump on me). Yes, better left unsaid, better to be alone in our thoughts so the next time we meet, we can both answer, “fine, everything is fine,” thereby maintaining some sense of not being the victim, but of having some control over random attempts of life to victimize it’s participants.

As is often said, “don’t take any of this too seriously because we will never get out of this alive.”  Know that no matter how it seems, you are not actually alone. There are billions of human lives all over the planet, and in some trivial way, our lives are connected.  Call it the “collective unconscious” (Carl Jung), or the “transcendental oversoul” (Ralph Waldo Emerson), or “the force” (Stephen Spielberg). It doesn’t much matter.

The only thing that matters is that being connected provides strength when needed to pursue the dreams we have—regardless of how we personally define those dreams, and of whether or not we ever fully attain them. I was here, I did what I could, and what I did was good enough.

Copyright © 2009 by Tad Laury Graham

Reflections on Life (Part 2)

In Meaning of Life on April 2, 2009 at 7:32 pm

The spiritual side of my life seems to be missing. I have, once again, lost my centering.

Part of the problem is sleep deprivation. There is a direct correlation between sleep and …

  • Speech
  • Mood
  • Memory

Part of it is how easily I slip under other people’s influence, which causes me to move away from my baseline behavior.

Things I would like to have a reason to change:

  • No more swearing
  • No more complaining
  • No more getting entangled in other people’s hang-ups
  • Maintaining presence at all times
  • Focusing on, and deriving some satisfaction from, work
  • Finding balance in my life

But would it really matter?

My parents never believed I would amount to much. Now they are gone.  There is nothing more to prove, no one to prove it to. I feel less urgency, but not completely. I may not have to prove anything, but I am still in the habit.

Part of my malaise is the feeling that merit is not enough, that fairness isn’t a requirement. I don’t know what I think, but I don’t feel anything:  not emptiness; nothing negative, but no sense of what I really want, of what or who I really am.

I am aware, intellectually, that I am finite … that nothing I do will last or matter at some time in the future.  Making a difference is a myth in a cosmic sense. Nothing lasts: nothing good; nothing bad. Nothing at all.

Yet it seems to matter. There seems to be a connection between my finiteness, my parents, and my behavior. I don’t fully understand it, can’t quite make the connection.

Am I only the product of my habits? What are the necessary conditions for change? Will I ever be the man I wanted to be? Not what everyone else wants me to be, but what I want?

I don’t want to be an act. I want to be whatever I am, but I want what I am to have substance. Why am I letting it eat me up?

Symptoms include fear and fatigue (success or failure?). Seems to be success, but know this isn’t what my boss wants. He can’t want to do this, as he has used every delaying technique known to congressmen and lobbyers.

Sense that he is trying to screw it up, or to screw me over: not fear of success, nor conspiracy.  Might have been at one time, but this fear is that he will prevent it if he can. The fear is real, even if exaggerated.

Also have fears about my health. Could be that I am finally entering midlife crisis, but even if true, labeling it isn’t much help. I have had similar feelings at every level; I never expected to succeed as well as I have.

Mixture of feelings, but not a single identifiable feeling. Complex issues:  fear of lost opportunity; slight fear of failure; fear of loss of energy; fear of loss of control (aging, failing abilities, facing my own mortality).

Touch reduces fear, not sensual touch, but signaling that you are there. I must remember to breath. Searching for my source of strength. The “who am I?” in all of this. Suddenly I realize “I” am a construct:  the sum of all I do and all things done to me; embodied in flesh, particularly brain and nervous system cells.

The “I” that is not much more than the sum of the influence of my parts. It is the “me” in motion, the executing program instructions formed by the wiring and chemistry of my computer-like brain. This is why I must continue to deal with the past … in order to deal with the future.

The “demons” are hard-wired. With effort I can rewire the connections, but as I rewire myself I become something other than the “me” I know. I can’t change everything or I would be somebody else. In other words, I must accept the parts of me that trip me up. They are me, whether they bring me down or lift me up.

If I get passed over, I need to understand the often “accidental” nature of success. It isn’t necessarily anything I have done or have not done, and I don’t need to make up my mind in advance regarding what I will do next. I don’t need the additional stress, for one. Work isn’t, and shouldn’t be, my entire life. This isn’t the Holy Grail, it’s a pay grade.

Insight comes in many ways. It isn’t necessary to follow rigid methods, such as meditation or analysis. Stream of conscious writing seems to make me feel better even if I do not achieve resolution every time (no method produces resolution every time). Just because I have my demons does not mean I can’t lay down the burden from time-to-time.

Think there is some residual, some fallout. Once again, letting others define my personal value. I know that if I spend a lot of time in dysfunctional environments, I have a tendency to become dysfunctional myself. This is natural, and may point to the only good reason why I may have to move on.

While I should not move on bitter feelings, I should move away from a damaging environment. Most of recovery is seeing clearly. See “opportunity” for what it is. It doesn’t in anyway validate me. Fortunately I don’t need validation: I am one of the better managers, and most of the leadership knows this.

In the universe I occupy, it means only that someone in the food chain wants me to stick around and keep doing what I have been doing to make them look good. Different people may see different meanings, but that doesn’t change what it really is.

In truth, we control almost nothing. Life is mostly influenced by everything outside us and only a little by us, directly, by what is inside us. We try to game the system (a process which we have agreed to call competition), but the game is not owned by any one of us: different circumstances, different timing, different discoveries … different results.

If we are lucky, we learn to control ourselves.

Copyright © 2000, 2009 by Tad Laury Graham

Originally written March 2000, Updated April 2009 for Inclusion Here.

Reflections on Life (Part 1)

In Meaning of Life on August 6, 2008 at 11:14 pm

The “Quest” does not give life meaning, but neither does inward direction. The quest is a group hug, seeks to understand meaning through group effort, pushes outward into life for answers to the question. Inward direction seeks meaning through personal, individual experience. Whether you believe in creationism, evolution, or modern physics, the basis for “discovering” meaning in life is a belief system.

But what if there is no meaning? Perhaps no meaning is the meaning. What if we are here to give meaning to life? Then each of us would construct our own definition in any terms we choose. These terms must only be consistent with other individual choices, and could be valid even though other choices coexist throughout the universe. Maybe this is what we mean by free will, which by definition is free choice.

  1. We can verbalize what we think we are, but the facts may not bear out the verbalization. The only fact of which I am certain is that I am uncertain. I refuse to drift. I need to do something, and at the same time, nothing. On some level I want to be reserved, but passionate. Being reserved minimizes mistakes, but somehow lacks commitment. Passion exposes. I may be afraid of that exposure?
  2. If we believe that all of our problems are the result of one specific person, event or issue, then we miss the point. Chances are that they are due to the belief that they are the result of one specific person, issue or event. Our attitude affects our reality. We can see this in others without much difficulty, but when it comes closer to home, it becomes a bit more cloudy.
  3. What I mean by this idea that we create our own reality is that because we act as though the belief were the reality, in effect it is. And we tend to seek out friends who reinforce our beliefs, with the result that we muddle through life without any real insights about where we are going and how we intend to get there. It’s our choice, of course. If we choose to muddle through life, no one has the right to say that we have made the wrong choice.
  4. If we work in demanding careers, then we get wrapped up in only one highly specialized aspect of life. We commit to understanding life through a distortion. Most of us have heard this expressed as, “a surgeon sees every solution in terms of cutting the patient.” We are what we do and what we have done. We must name what we have done as truthfully as possible – we cannot know where we are going in a cosmic sense until we know who and where we are.
  5. When I say that I am what I have done, I do not mean that getting caught up in activity is in any way a definition of me.  I mean what I have done in comparison with what I think I am or have done. It is likely that one cannot inflict his or her personality on others without closing doors and losing friends. But if one does not, then the wrong doors open and one either changes into something he is not, or loses something because he cannot change.  What he loses is him or herself – either way.
  6. Although I will always believe that military service helped me to grow, there are those who profess to have hated every minute of their enlistment (same experience, different belief system). If you hate a thing enough, it becomes a part of you. It becomes so much a part of you that you never shake it. That’s one reason why those who really hated it still wear parts of their uniform; it is also why they often go back … those who hated Vietnam the most, seem to be the ones who voluntarily returned. Like the moth to the candle.
  7. Hating prevents growth, which gets in the way of going forward. You must identify with your demons because they personify the rejection of something that is a part of you. The more you reject what you hate, the more it becomes a part of you. Only when you accept what you hate will you be able to let it go. Disillusionment is catharsis, even if it only results in a new illusion that is closer to the truth.
  8. We are all brought up to believe that we are just a little better than the next person – which ought to tell us something. The thing that is “better” is usually expressed as personality, or some extension to personality. But the measure of a person’s value can only be seen in totality if viewed in proportion to the number of enemies he or she has made because otherwise they are simply reflecting back parts of others. It is only when you are not a reflection that you become an individual because it is only then that we see your true uniqueness, i.e., that part which is your own personality. Of course, this can be carried too far. For example, if one is role playing and mistakes the role for the reality.
  9. Rebellion is a feeble means to represent ourselves as individual or unique, for we end up becoming like so many other “rebels” that it defeats the purpose. It is only through the natural expression of our personalities that we actually become individualized. On the other hand, I do not think we ever express our true selves to anyone, unless we wish to run the risk of ending our relationship.
  10. The whole notion of being “individual” suggests that two different people must have two different personalities. The “opposites attract” theory. And if each personality were truly different, this would result in difficulties in just getting along for any length of time. I suspect that this is why people who have known each other for a long time fight or argue, and why people “change out” their friends, sometimes many times, without really being aware of the underlying dynamics.

We can will all we want, Rollo May, but we are still impotent if we will an illusion. Not everyone must face his demons.

2008-0815 Random Thoughts Copyright ©2008 by Tad Laury Graham; adapted from my personal journals, dated November 1970.