Monday, September 5, 2016

Are Mindfulness and Meditation Natural?

Mindfulness and Meditation are becoming increasingly more popular these days as people look for ways to cope in a world that is becoming increasingly more chaotic and stressful. Some feel that meditation is best in a natural setting that provides a backdrop of natural beauty and tranquility. We have already discussed whether or not these natural settings really are natural. So we don't need to go down that path. But, it does bear asking whether or not meditation in particular or mindfulness in general is natural or artificial.

People meditate for a variety of reasons. Some meditate because their friends do. Some meditate because it is an affirmation of their world view. Some meditate because it lowers their stress levels or their blood pressure. Some meditate because it makes them more effective at other things that they need or want to do. It is not up to me to judge whether any of these reasons are good or bad. But, I wanted to allow for the fact that there are many reasons for meditation and I am going to focus on just one.

Many people who meditate do so because it helps quiet their minds. We are constantly bombarded with thoughts that create stress or make us fearful or unhappy.This is sometimes referred to as "Monkey Mind" but it is an experience that most people experience. Thoughts pop into your head, sometimes in rapid fire, that cause you concern and stress. "My boss gave me a funny look this morning. Am I going to loose my job?", "My car made a funny noise. I hope it isn't going to be something expensive.", "That's a funny bump on my arm. Is it a bug bite, or melanoma? If its melanoma, did I catch it in time?", "We are going out with a new couple tonight. I hope they aren't judgemental. I really don't like judgemental people", and so on, and so on.

Why does this happen? Evolutionary biologists explain this in a way that is making great headway into the mindfulness community. First, we evolved an advanced neo-cortex which allows us to model the world in which we live and make predictions. This ability to anticipate rather than participate saved a lot of our hominid ancestors from predators and thus created an evolutionary advantage.In addition, our brain generates scenarios and lobs them into our conscious mind for consideration. "Is that grayish brown blog a lion or a rock?"

Unfortunately, our minds have gotten really good at generating scenarios as we have gotten really bad at distinguishing between a remote scenario and one that is worthy of consideration and we suffer from the emotional impact of too many negative although very unlikely scenarios. So, we have to calm our minds and meditation is a great way to do that. But, if meditation is an attempt to overcome millennia of natural evolution, can it really be considered natural? I would strongly argue that it isn't. Meditation is technique developed by humans to overcome negative aspects of our natural evolution. Meditation is artificial and it is a good thing.

Monday, August 29, 2016

Is "Act Naturally" an Oxymoron?

We think we like people who "act naturally". In fact, we have derogatory terms for people who do not act naturally. We call them phonies. We call them insincere. But, upon inspection, we will see that we really don't want people to "act naturally" and that the world would simply not work if people were not insincere.

What is "natural" behavior? Well, if we follow our evolving definition of what it means to be natural, we can see that natural behavior is behavior that has not been influence by mankind. If we did, indeed, act naturally, we would act like wild animals. We would kill, steal, fight over mates and territory, and would certainly not feel obligated in any way to observe social amenities. Instead of voting, we would have politicians fight it out with each other. If one was hungry, you would just steal food from a weaker member of society. If your neighbor's house was nicer, you would just take it over and kick them out as long as you were physically superior. No, we don't really want people to go around acting naturally.

In place of acting naturally, we have thousands of years of evolving norms that we adopt, centuries of cultural development, decades of things that are fashionable, and years of current fads that we follow. Not only do we have these constructs, but they are conveyed in stories, laws, and TV shows. "Correct behavior" could not be further from natural. It is entirely an artificial construct (such as manners), reinforced by other artificial constructs (such as media).

Imagine encountering someone and asking how they are. And, in response, they actually tell you. You would wonder what is wrong with that person. Imagine meeting somebody new and instead of saying "nice to meet you", they say, "I really don't like meeting new people, so don't bother to tell me your name." No, natural behavior is not what we are looking for. And we really do want people to be insincere. So, clearly, something other than the natural/artificial dichotomy is going on.But, what is it?


Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Is Natural Food Really Natural?

You hear a lot these days about eating natural food while avoiding artificial foods such as genetically modified organisms or GMOs. I am not sure that this is a meaningful dichotomy and would argue that there is no such thing as "natural" food.

I made the distinction in a previous post between natural and artificial saying that something is natural if it is a product of nature while we can think of it as artificial if it is caused or created by humans. Is the food we eat today, a product of nature? Honestly, I don't see how anyone can claim that anything we eat today is natural.

Around 10,000 years ago humans gave up their hunting and gathering lifestyle in order to settle down and stay in one place. In order to feed themselves they had to start farming and raising animals for food. I realize that I have hazed over the complexity of this transition. But the transition is not part of the argument I am making. The argument I am making is that humans have not eaten any natural food for over ten thousand years.

As people settled down, they began planting seeds in specific locations rather than gathering the grains from where ever they naturally grew. Over time they began selecting seeds from more desirable plants. Eventually, they started getting scientific about crop production and eventually got down to the DNA level with GMOs. The point here is that GMOs are not a different kind of thing from natural plants. They are merely the latest human innovation in attempting to improve the food supply. If you really want natural food, you need to go out to a pristine field somewhere and gather it in its natural state hoping that there are no human finger prints on it.

A similar argument can be made for animals which were fed and bred to produce more desirable results. The animals, as well as the plants, were not only selectively bred but they were protected against diseases by antibiotics and any number of other interventions. So, if you want a natural steak, you would have to go out to that pristine field and hope to find a woolly mammoth, hoping further that it hasn't eaten all your natural grain.

Natural vs. artificial is not the distinction we are looking for. But, if it isn't, what are we concerned about?

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Caused vs Created

I said, in the last post, "Something is natural if it is caused or created by nature and not caused or created by mankind. Something is artificial if it is caused or created by mankind" I acknowledged that this may have to change and already I am beginning to doubt if this definition will work.

What is the difference between something that is caused and something that is created? Let's take some extreme examples. If lightning strikes your house and causes a fire, we would be fairly comfortable claiming that the lightning "caused" the fire but not very comfortable claiming that the lightning created the fire. On the other hand, if the person who lives in the house make a marble statue to honor the god of lightning in order to protect the house, we would be fairly comfortable in saying that the homeowner created the statue, while uncomfortable saying that the homeowner caused the statue. This is not as obvious as it sounds because if we view this activity in terms of Aristotle's Four Causes, one would have to acknowledge that the homeowner did cause the statue, although we don't look at things that way anymore.

To explore this line of reasoning, let's say that A causes B if B is an outcome, side product, or epi-phenomenon of A.  Alternatively, A creates B if the production of B is an intentional activity of A.This still does not quite work. If the homeowner threw gasoline on the house and then lit it, we would say that the homeowner caused the fire but might be reluctant to say that the homeowner created the fire. On the other hand the homeowner definitely created the statue and it would seem silly to say the homeowner caused the statue. So, in order to create we need not only intentional activity, but we need the thing created to be unique and brought into existence by the creator and not likely to be brought into existence any other way.

This may feel a little tedious, but we cannot make clear value judgements about things unless we clearly know what those things are. In addition we need to know what the consequences of those things are in order to assess their value. That also requires clear definitions. We could go on with the hair splitting of meanings but will drop it for now and come back to it later. Next we will look at some things and attempt to determine, using our current definitions, whether or not they are natural.

Monday, August 8, 2016

Evolving to the Artificial

There is a misunderstood and unfortunate dichotomy between the natural and the artificial that has created a lot of paranoia about eating genetically modified organisms or a day in the future when robots take over mankind and enslave us. While there are issues to be addressed, these paranoid ravings are not at all productive in addressing them. Over the next few posts I want to explore the meanings of natural and artificial, and see if we can get down to the real concerns, and hopefully address a few of them.

What is the difference between natural and artificial? And is the artificial, whether it be intelligence or some other creation a threat to humanity or is it merely the realization of mankind's destiny?  What is the role of nature in our lives and what is the role of the artificial? And when we refer to the natural are we always referring to something good? What threats and benefits do we derive from the natural and the artificial. and what can we do to have more of the benefits and less of threats?

These are big questions and cannot be addressed directly without developing some foundation. So, let's begin with the question - what is the difference between natural and artificial. Something is natural if it is caused or created by nature and not caused or created by mankind. Something is artificial if it is caused or created by mankind. We may have to modify this definition later as we further explore the topic. But, this is a workable definition for now.

Most people would agree that a primeval wilderness forest is natural and a robot is artificial as these two examples are at opposite ends of the spectrum. But, if the forest is going to be considered natural then nothing about its current state can be caused or created by mankind. So, if anything was done to influence the ecology of the forest such as laws or barriers to protect it from the surrounding environment, then it is no longer natural. If any effort was made to influence the flora or fauna in any way then it is no longer natural. Sometimes people with wonderfully good intentions do things in any attempt to protect nature. But, the very act of protecting reduces the naturalness that they are trying to protect. Given the extent to which mankind has come to dominate the globe, it would be very difficult to find anything on the planet that is truly natural. And any attempt to remedy this situation would further reduce the existence of anything truly natural on the planet.

We may try to back off a little and say that something is still natural if it has not been "intentionally" caused or created by mankind. The allows us to keep the robot in the artificial category while allowing aspects of nature that have only suffered side effects of mankind to still be in the natural category. But, further inspection shows that this doesn't work either. Mankind did not intentionally create global warming. So, global warming and climate change would have to be considered natural.

Further, the robot may not be excluded from the category of natural because it is not clear if the robot was "intentionally" caused by mankind or just the outcome of mankind's curiosity and natural tendency to make tools of varying levels of sophistication. When a lion attacks a zebra and causes its death, we see that as just part of nature because the lion is just following its natural tendencies. When a human creates a tool, why isn't that just an expression of the human's natural tendencies.

Already the dichotomy has become a little murky and we need to explore it a little further and in a little more depth.


Wednesday, August 3, 2016

There is a Message in the Message

Yes, my last post was in January of 2015. That was a year and a half ago. I was giving tips on writing and in the last post I promised to elaborate on the list of items that I had offered. And then, nothing happened. Well, something did happen. I got distracted. I don't remember what it was. But whatever it was distracted me so that I forgot all about blogging. I wasn't sitting on the couch watching TV all day, as I never do that. And I was working. In the last year and a half I wrote a research paper entitled "What is Information" which I am presenting at a conference in a week or so. I developed a course in Python programming. And, yes, I worked on my writing.

At some point, earlier, in this blog I wrote about self-publishing. I still plan to do that although it may take me a while to get around to it. But, in order to make progress, I tried to write an essay every day so that when I finally got around to publishing a book of essays, I would have some rough drafts to work with. I haven't counted how many essays I wrote during that time but I would guess around 200-300. And I am still cranking them out although not every day.

I plan to not only write but to illustrate my writing as well. Unfortunately, I don't know how to draw. So, I put away the essays for a while to concentrate on teaching myself how to draw. I am making good progress but still have a way to go. Learning to draw is a lot like learning to write. Just do it every day. Look for ways to improve. Look for techniques to over come problems you encounter. Look at what others have done. And eventually, you will figure it out.

But most of all (and this is the continuity message in this post) I do what I feel like doing. I always have a number of tasks going on. There is always something I am getting tired of. And there is always something I feel like doing. So, I might write everyday until it isn't fun any more. Then I might work on lectures for a class that needs a little work. Then, I might obsesses over classic novels (btw Gone with the Wind is truly outstanding). Then my focus may turn to sketching, fishing, golf, mindfulness, jigsaw puzzles, cooking or any number of other interests. Here is the key. You need to pursue things with passion and discipline. But, your attention will always wear out at some point. Since you are a thousand times more productive when you are excited about something, you should always work on something you are excited about.

This blog came to my attention a day or so ago and this morning I was writing an essay on Natural vs. Artificial in which I wanted to put the rising paranoia about artificial intelligence into perspective. The two came together, and I thought "what a great topic for  my blog". So, here I am. Or, more dramiatically.... "I'm back"

Friday, January 30, 2015

How Did I Come Up With That List?

Before diving into the elements of the list I just provided, a good question to ask is - how did I come up with the list. The answer is that I took a piece of paper, jotted a few things down, thought for a minute, scratched a couple out, and added a couple more. There is no magic in it. And the more often you do things like this the easier it will get. And, I should mention that if you want your list to be perfect and read by everyone, then you should probably stop right now. Your list will be one of thousands of writing exercises. And out of those thousands of writing exercise a few gems will emerge. But, you won't know, as you start out, which will be the gems and which will be practice writing exercises.

So, I have a list and the next thing to do is to try to make it work. This is what I will be doing over the next few posts. I will create as good of an argument as I can for each of the items. At the end, I might get rid of an item. I might merge two items. I might add one or more items. But, the purpose of the list is not to be right or perfect. The purpose of the list is to get you started.

Once you have started on the list, and tried to make a solid argument for each, you will find that your cognitive juices are flowing. New ideas come to mind. You see existing ideas in a new light. You decide some of the ideas weren't as good as you thought. But, you are rolling. And that is the purpose of the list.

I attended a writing workshop many years ago where the instructor said that the reason you get writer's block is that you don't have anything to say. If you have something to say, the words will flow. So, if you don't have anything to say, you need to get something to say. There are many ways to do that. But, a tried an true way that I use a lot is to make a list and get going with it.