Sunday, January 24, 2010

The Power of Now (or Obfuscation)

I am insane. I am unconscious. I am mind-identified, and embracing the pain-body. At least, that's how Echart Tolle would describe me. I just finished listening to an audiobook version of his book The Power of Now, and I am NOT on his wavelength. Or should I say, "vibrational frequency"?

Many people revere this book, and Tolle as some sort of Zen master. I just don't see it. To me, the book was like serving after serving of word-spaghetti. He lays out his view of the human psyche, explaining to us that the only real time we have is NOW; the past and the future are just human constructs (OK, but that doesn't make them irrelevant). He goes further to declare that anyone who is not present in the now is "unconscious". Such people are mind-identified... that is, they put too much stake in their own logic and explicit thought processes. Ironically, most people refer to one's logic and explicit thought processes as "consciousness". But Tolle -- knowing better -- decides to reverse the definitions. "Consciousness", according to Tolle, is to turn off your internal voice, power-down your logic, and simply be in the now.

There are many things that I don't like about this book, but I'll try to group them into themes.

I don't like his casual use of poorly-defined words and concepts.

He often uses phrases like "vibrational energy of the frequency field". I'm familiar with a few different definitions for each of those words, but I can't seem to figure out what it all means together. But I needn't worry. Early in the book, Tolle asks us not to get too hung up on the meanings of words. Given that it's a book, I'm not sure where else the meaning can come from. But I guess it's a good thing he starts with that disclaimer, because it takes the wind out of my sails when I want to take him to task on statements like "through becoming vulnerable, can you discover your true and essential invulnerability", or when he describes "a 'no' that is free of all negativity".

And how about this one? "Unless and until you access the consciousness frequency of presence, all relationships -- and particuarly intimate relationships -- are deeply flawed and ultimately dysfunctional." With a properly chosen definition, EVERY relationship could be labeled dysfunctional, regardless of anyone's "consciousness frequency".

I don't like how his convoluted framework prevents anyone from thinking for themselves.

While listening to this book, I felt like I was playing Cups with Chandler Bing; it seemed like every rule was a new rule, completely independent from those preceding. An example, "You cannot be conscious and unhappy, conscious and in negativity. Negativity, unhappiness or suffering in whatever form means that there's resistance, and resistance is always unconscious." He just says things, and people seem to lap it up uncritically.

I don't like his oversimplified solutions.

Question: How can we drop negativity, as you suggest?

Answer: By dropping it. How do you drop a piece of hot coal that you are holding in your hand? How do you drop some heavy and useless baggage that you are carrying? By recognizing that you don't want to suffer the pain or carry the burden anymore, and then letting go of it.

OK, but what if I'm holding the coal so that it doesn't land on my children? Ahhh, I guess I should be in the now, and let my kids deal with the burns. Makes total sense. It seems so simple now.

I feel sorry for Tolle's apparent lack of scientific literacy when he says things like, "Sexual union is the closest you can get to this state [of wholeness] on the physical level. This is why it is the most deeply satisfying experience the physical realm can offer." No evidence or further justification. He just says it as if it's patently obvious. Back here in reality, we have scientific theories explaining why sex is so satisfying; it's called the Theory of Evolution, and it's complete even without an extravagant, mystical pain-body or a "vibrational frequency energy force".

I don't like that he makes claims without evidence.

At times, Tolle takes on a Freudian ideology, attributing human illnesses to mind-identified intelligence. He also says stuff like "Humans are a dangerously insane and very sick species. That's not a judgement; it's a fact." Oh, is it now? Too bad I'm not allowed ask what "insane" means. Here's another one: "All cravings are the mind seeking salvation or fulfillment in external things and in the future as a substitute for the joy of being." Just because he says it doesn't mean it's correct (just like Freud).

I will say one nice thing about the book. The book really seems to be about acceptance. "Being in the now" is about accepting your past instead of dwelling on it, and about letting go of unproductive worry. These ideas make sense to me. What I don't like is that the message is shrouded in a vague, spiritual, convoluted framework, complete with a disclaimer that the words should not be taken at face-value. I would much prefer a scientific explanation. Perhaps Tolle can find a place for his ideas in the right hemisphere of the brain. His "power of now" sounds a lot like the phenomenon that neuroanatomist Jill Bolte Taylor wrote about in My Stroke of Insight; her left-brain was temporarily off-line due to a stroke. She describes her right-brain existence as a deeply satisfying feeling of oneness with the universe.

I suppose Tolle has made a lot of money from this book. If he really is living in the now, I wonder what interest rate his investments earn.


Friday, January 22, 2010

Synesthesia - kind of maybe

In the PSYCH 261 lecture today, the prof. mentioned synesthesia. It's a condition in which your sensory perceptions of objects become mixed. For example, some people see numbers as coloured, or automatically associate months with personalities. I'm not sure if I experience some of that or not; I expect everyone does to some extent.

Here is how I view the months of the year... every time I think about months, I see them arranged in this format.

I also used to associate emotions with letters and numbers (eg. f and 5 are angry, but b and 4 are calm), but that's faded somewhat over the years.

Anyone else?


Happy Birthday, Mike

If you've encountered my web pages, then you might have stumbled across this page. Today Mike would have turned 35. That's Mike on the left, and me on the right.

Since he died in 1993 while playing hyperventilation games, my mom has been on a crusade to spread awareness of this dangerous practice. She's made a lot of progress, and was recently interviewed. You can see it on YouTube... (my mom is 2:20 into the video)

Happy birthday, little brother (who was actually taller than me).


Wednesday, January 13, 2010

God's time machine

Woo-hoo!! I just received the next issue of "The Good News" from the United Church of God. Let's see... what should I tear apart this month.

Oh, this looks interesting. An article entitled "God's Time Machine". It describes how the Bible is actually a time machine that can take you back in time -- all the way to the beginning of the universe -- as well as into the future. Here is their proof.

The Bible described the big bang theory before science arrived at the same conclusion. That is, if you interpret the text "In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth" (Genesis 1:1) to mean "The universe started at a single point, out from which all the matter and energy in the universe emanated." Funny how Genesis leaves out that bit about the universe expanding from a focal point. The article quotes from God and the Astronomers (1978, p. 116),
For the scientist who has lived by his faith in the power of reason, the story ends like a bad dream. He has scaled the mountains of ignorance; he is about to conquer the highest peak; as he pulls himself over the final rock, he is greeted by a band of theologians who have been sitting there for centuries.

Let me offer a more realistic, albeit less congratulatory, variation on that metaphor.
For the scientist who has lived by his faith in the power of reason, the story ends like a bad dream. He has scaled the mountains of ignorance; he is about to conquer the highest peak; as he pulls himself over the final rock, he looks down from the peak and sees a group of theologians pointing up the mountain at him, nodding approvingly.

The article then gets off-topic for a bit. It quotes Paul Johnson,
Years later, I began my book Modern Times, a detailed study of the era from World War I to the early 1980s. This is the first epoch in nearly 2,000 years in which most governments have been guided by what might be called post-Christian ethics. And I find it to be unique in its cruelty, destructiveness and depravity."
("Why I Must Believe in God", Reader's Digest, June 1985, pp. 126-127).

Umm... have you ever heard of the witch hunts, or the black plague, or genocide (see Leviticus 34:11-14). This quote from Johnson is only a self-serving opinion. If anything, it seems that getting rid of religion gives people one less thing to fight about. The least religious countries are consistently the most peaceful.

OK, back on track with Biblical prophecies. The article quotes Daniel 12:4.
But you, Daniel, shut up the words, and seal the book until the time of the end; many shall run to and fro, and knowledge shall increase"

The article points out that people travel a lot more these days, by planes, trains, cars, etc. According to the article, the text "many shall run to and fro" predicted all that (of course, the word "run" must be interpreted rather loosely). Also, computers and the Internet were predicted by "knowledge shall increase".

Jesus Christ himself apparently predicted the nuclear arms race, "if that time of troubles were not cut short, no living thing could survive" (Matthew 24:22, Revised English Bible). First of all, the Bible was REVISED?! The article points out that gunpowder and nuclear weapons had not yet been discovered, then asks "But how could the Bible predict such a remarkably accurate scenario 2,000 years in advance?" It didn't. I would NOT call "no living thing will survive" remarkably accurate. Nor do I think that "time of troubles" accurately predicts nuclear arms races.

The article makes no serious effort to predict anything at all. Its only focus is on trying to convince you that the Bible predicted past events. But it's all just classic post hoc rationalization, and data-mining for any shred of Biblical text that could be used to support their current agenda. It's very much like astrology; a horoscope makes vague statements (eg. "jump on the next opportunity that comes your way"), and the reader later on fills in ALL the meaningful interpretation and accompanying details.

The Bible is only good at predicting the future retrospectively. And it leaves out all the details. Utterly useless.

Of course, the article finishes off with a qualifier. Let me paraphrase it for you: "You can only know how to use the Bible as a time machine if you join our church and surrender to God." Convenient.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Priest commits genetic suicide

I'm listening to an episode of the Point of Inquiry podcast in which they interview Dr. Darrel Ray, the author of The God Virus: How religion infects our lives and culture. Yet another book to add to my wish list.

I have not read the book, but from the interview I gather that the book explains the metaphor of religion as a virus. An example is that you tend to get "infected" with the same virus as your parents.

Dr. Ray made a statement that I found particularly interesting. We think of terrorist bombers when we talk about suicide in the context of religion. However, Dr. Ray used the term "genetic suicide" to describe the effect that religion has on Catholic priests and nuns. That is, they voluntarily exclude their genes from the next generation, and every generation thereafter.


Monday, January 11, 2010

Eating cows is not bad for the environment

A good friend and I recently had a discussion about the environment. We talked about the 100-mile diet, and the environmental impact of eating beef versus chicken or vegetables. I generally agreed with what he was saying, until he said something like, "raising cows to eat is terrible for the environment".

Now, I suspect I agree with the spirit of what he means. But I have an issue with how he's saying it. What does it mean for something to be terrible for the environment? I claim that the word "terrible", in this unqualified context, is subjective. Kind of like saying "Christianity is terrible for Canada".

Let me continue with a different example, taken from a similar debate I had with another friend years earlier. He said, "Sugar is bad for you." What does he mean by that? One interpretation is,
Compared to the host of other food choices we're blessed with, food containing refined sugar tends to have a higher glycemic index.

I expect that's along the lines of what he meant. But another interpretation is,
If given the choice to eat sugar or nothing at all, you will live longer if you eat nothing.

That, by the way, is false; sugar will save your life if you are severely energy starved.

My objection in this example is to the unqualified use of the word "bad". Last I checked, nature doesn't label things as good or bad. It's not written on their atoms. Consider a lion killing a zebra. Is that good or bad? Well, I suppose it depends on your perspective; it sucks for the zebra, and rocks for the lion. But outside of those perspectives, it's neither. Things just ARE.

If you want to use the word "bad", you have to qualify it with a purpose. That is, the lion killing the zebra is bad for the purpose of the zebra's survival. And it's good for the purpose of nourishing the lion's pride (social unit).

Getting back to "raising cows to eat is terrible for the environment". Again, the use of "terrible" should be qualified with a purpose. For example,
Raising cows to eat is terrible for the purpose of water conservation.

... terrible for the purpose of minimizing greenhouse gas emissions.

This takes the statement from a subjective judgement, to the realm of a specific and quantifiable claim.

OK, I can understand that some shortcuts are allowed for the sake of conversational economy; you might lose someone's interest if you take these technicalities too far. But for something as complex as the environment, how one factor impacts the big picture is anyone's guess. For those cases, a clear understanding of cause-effect is more useful than blanketing judgements. If nothing else, it cultivates an appreciation for how complex these issues really are.


Thursday, January 7, 2010

Make up your mind

This is so typical of what I encounter when I submit a manuscript to a journal. The IEEE Transactions on Biomedical Engineering web page says

... all submissions of new manuscripts must be in IEEE format. This format is for double column, single spaced text with embedded figures and tables.

However, the "instructions for authors" pages consistently say

The manuscript should be formatted in one single column, double-spaced, with the figures embedded within the manuscript.

OK, do I use one or two columns? Do I make the text double- or single-spaced? This kind of ambiguity is rampant in journal submission instructions.

Here is what the difference looks like.

Once I see that discrepancy, I'm not sure what to believe anymore. Should I embed the figures in the text, or put them at the end? Should I exclude the authors' names for anonymity, or include them? Should citations be indicated as superscripts, or as numbers in brackets? For an institution in the business of communicating to the world, you'd think that the instructions would be better organized.


Waterloo plug in "What the Dog Saw"

I'm listening to the audiobook version of What the Dog Saw, a collection of interesting stories by Malcolm Gladwell. Toward the end of the book, in the chapter entitled "The New Boy Network: What do job interviews really tell us?", Gladwell makes reference to the University of Waterloo computer science program. The other schools mentioned in the same list: MIT, Harvard, Stanford, and CalTech.

Of course, one could point out that Gladwell's father was a prof. at Waterloo (though not in computer science).