Friday, July 15, 2011


(I am posting this right after two more posts; if you're not RSS/Google Buzzing this, scroll down to read something a little less esoteric, and a little less me-standing-on-a-rock-and-repeating-myself)

I understand that Emptiness (with a capital E) is a big deal for Buddhists. If you get Emptiness right, if you fully understand it all down to your core instincts, then I think you have got pretty much everything under control. You might even get a badge for being "enlightened." If you are like me and just sort of maybe cognitively cold-brain understand it, then you have got a lot of work to do, so you are like 99.999% of the world.

Here is how I understand Emptiness: everything is just atoms.

Do you know Conway's Game of Life? Read up about it, or try it yourself. It's just a grid with a few simple rules. On every turn, every square with >3 black neighbors or <2 black neighbors turns white; every black square with 2 or 3 black neighbors stays black, and every white square with 3 black neighbors turns black. Draw some patterns, see what happens. (granted, it goes fast, so it can be hard to see.)

But draw this pattern:
and click start, and it'll start flying across the screen! You've created a glider!

But the thing is, we call it a glider, but it's really not much of anything. There is no glider there; there are just black and white dots following the rules of the universe. "The glider" is empty of gliderness. It doesn't even make sense to talk about "the glider".

Everything is like that. Ultimately there is no "chairness" in the chair that I'm sitting on, there is no "Seattleness" in this city all around me, and there is no "me-ness" in me. We're all very big, very complicated gliders.

This is where some of my family members jump in and say "You've just argued away God. Any God, all gods, any divine anything, you're killing them. Isn't that depressing?" Ah, no! Sorry. I didn't mean to kill God! God is still there in all the wondrous emergent behavior that makes an imperial stout taste so satisfying, makes a friend care about you, makes a summer Seattle day feel like the best thing in the world. But to talk about these is like talking about gliders: they are just big collections of particles behaving according to the rules of the universe. The only thing we're arguing away is the illusion that there is "A ROSE" separate from the atoms that make up that rose.
(if you're interested, family, we could continue this offline.)

Anyway, this is all very satisfying really, because it means that any problems you have do not actually exist! You see this all the time: you're worried about some failure or something, but the thing you are so worried about is just a construct of your imagination. You can stop dealing with your problems by confronting them or suppressing them, and just let them dissolve at the root because they are not real.

(side notes: I have this book Consciousness Explained, by Daniel Dennett, which I haven't read, but from what I hear about Dennett, I am pretty sure that anything I've said here, he will exactly say the same in that book, and better. (but then, it is a long book.) And while we're at it, Daniel Lemire posts this topical thing that pretty much says the same thing about brains: "sentience" is empty. Throw this in the "I agree a lot" camp, along with Wilber and Csikszentmihalyi.)

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