The lamb and the bread and the shepherd and the 26.6 million kilometer tall cosmic monster wielding 7 stars.
Credit to my nephew Adrian for the drawing.
Credit to St. John for trying to spice things up a little.
The lamb and the bread and the shepherd and the 26.6 million kilometer tall cosmic monster wielding 7 stars.
Credit to my nephew Adrian for the drawing.
Credit to St. John for trying to spice things up a little.
Life is an information system.
Of photons are wrought the waves of the Earth. Of photons are the machinations of crust-dwelling monsters set in motion.
Oxygen is a toxin that wiped out life for a new form to evolve. It is a currently breathable reset-button.
Darwin’s warm little pond must have been fresh water because cell membranes cannot form in salt water. Early earth was a ball of water, no land. Actually, little specks of land, sporadic volcanic islands. Maybe it rained and a pond formed.
So soon did life arise after the formation of this first ocean. Does that mean that life is common in the galaxy? Or does it mean that we are special and can only lift the burden of our improbability with the many-armed god we call the multiverse?
Asteroids carry organic molecules. Sugars are formed of stardust clouds. It was thought that most carbon came from stellar nucleosynthesis, but now we know that most of it comes from the effects of UV irradiation. Carbon, Hydrogen, Helium, and Oxygen are the four most common elements in the universe, with Carbon being the fourth.
Life, also known as The Rage Against Entropy, needed a boundary to separate from the rest of the matter. What was that boundary?
Current life came from extremophiles and these in turn came from an RNA world, but this RNA world came from some other -NA world.
Our LUCA, our first father, was probably an extremophile. If you look at the base of the phylogeny of life, you’ll see that both in bacteria and archaea, the most ancient clades are extremophiles. If we find a bacteria-like organism under the ocean of some moon, this will lend credence to the idea that LUCA was a creature dependent on hydrothermal vents.
Short recap: The Big Bang, then Gravity, then Light, Andromeda, then Hera’s breast milk, then our solar system and Earth, (then ocean, then life), then oxygen, then photosynthesis, then the now of humans.
The first life might have been a super organism trading its innards amongst itself, without clearly defined boundaries. Only later did it form clear boundaries and gain the ability to move into the salty ocean. [Side note: This is the inspiration for LDL in Neon Genesis Evangelion.]
We know that ribosomes are actually ribozymes with an RNA core. RNA must have auto-catalyzed itself, but because its sugar backbone can be easily cut up (hydrolyzed) it couldn’t have been swimming naked.
As Boltzmann, the Austrian physicist pointed out and his compatriot Erwin Shrodinger later co-signed in his book, What is Life?: life is not competing for energy or limited resources, most life is actually competing for something more profound which is the safety from entropy afforded by some particular solar grace.
If we view life as an information system, it must have started from simplicity – just a slight betrayal of the thermodynamic equilibrium in it’s surroundings while simultaneously having a way to replicate that rebelliousness.
The similarity of blood to salt water is probably related to the fact that our ancestors evolved in salt water. Clay may have been essential to the initial formation of life. These are hypotheses that, while not proven, are taken seriously. One point for Bible thumpers, zero points for those Quranically-oriented. (The Quran claims that God fashioned man from a blood-clot.)
If we blur our eyes a little and look at it from a physicist’s perspective, it is a matter of mathematical probability that a clump of matter shot with constant UV will eventually form pockets that isolate and enclose themselves. Or is it?
Water with a metabolism came first and only then did it seal itself off as current cells do with a phospholipid bilayer. Phospholipid bilayers in the form of micelles form readily anyway.
Cyclic carbon molecules seem to be extremely common in space, so the carbon needed for organic molecules such as the simple CH4 (methane), and all the others, is easily explained as having rained down from space. We know that the Earth was heavily bombarded by meteors along with Mercury, Venus, the Moon, and Mars when a shift occurred in the orbit of Jupiter.
The spark for the initial thermodynamic departure may have been caused by lightning or a radioactive beach with uranium sand.
Then there are pseudo-mysteries like why the amino acids are particularly what they are. The truth is that they could have been different, but as soon as the first were formed – taking into account all causal variables such as the direction of the spin of the Earth, etc. – these first amino acids then had to be favored by natural selection.
There might have been several origins of life, some with different chemistry than others, but only one really took off. We might yet find evidence of the other failed geneses in ancient rocks.
The electrochemical gradient is very “natural” with protons (H+) going out and negatively charged ions going in. On the other hand, the storage of information in sequential packets like RNA and DNA seems like less obvious consequence of matter bouncing around in the primordial soup. So there was probably a step by step evolution by means of natural selection with regard to the formation of RNA and DNA as the hereditary machinery. There must have been a precursor to RNA, but we know that it wasn’t crystals because although these could replicate, they have been shown to not preserve information faithfully from mother to daughters.
People believed that frogs formed from slime, that rats formed from old hay, and that flies spawned from rotting meat. Even Aristotle believed that logs became crocodiles. Pasteur proved all this wrong, and what had been common knowledge was replaced with the idea that life only comes from life – for all living beings, there is an egg. But this created the scientific problem of where the initial life came from. Darwin said it was as unfounded to speculate about this initial origin of life as it was to speculate about the origin of matter. Ironically, the people who believed in abiogenesis were partially correct but for the wrong reasons. At some point, what we call life, must come from basic molecules which we choose to not call life.
Panspermia is the idea that life already existed and that microbes are spreading it through space, maybe even interstellar space. This doesn’t address the problem of abiogenesis but that doesn’t mean panspermia isn’t true. It is possible that life originated in Mars and that a chunk of Mars bearing that life seeded the Earth since early Mars might have been more hospitable to our current postulated conditions for abiogenesis than Hadean Earth.
Craig Venter’s team is reverse engineering life. Starting with a simple cell and subtracting until they can’t anymore. Others are trying to build it from scratch. Venter’s approach has been more successful so far.
Stellar nucleosynthesis created the heavy elements needed for life. As Lawrence Krauss likes to say, “Stars died so you could be born.”
Currently, our decision-making system is designed somewhat arbitrarily by our genetic inheritance and our trajectory through the contents of spacetime. That means that it is not optimized to execute our most desired decision. In the future, technology might allow us to further redesign our decision-making system. Here, I consider changes to the brain, or other similar mind hardware, that would allow conscious experience to inch closer to what is desired conscious experience by that hardware, and why defining desired as fair is problematic.
Depending on how we engineer our decision making system, we will end up with radically different decisions. So some might argue that it’s important that our decision making system has a certain property – that it produces decisions that fairly represent what the subsystems of the mind would like to decide. This is, of course, made difficult by arrow’s impossibility theorem. But let’s ignore that here, and assume that voting systems are nonetheless considered fair by people.
Consider trying to determine the best decision when faced against a three-headed humanoid lion.
The possible decisions are:
fight bluff run cry suicide
Assume the brain has a constant amount of resources, k, that does not change. So there is no possibility of hooking up the brain to an exobrain in order to increase the brain’s resources.
Someone concerned with giving fair expression to the entirety of decision-making subsystems within the brain could consider several voting systems such as:
However, each of these could result in different decisions being made.
Atat that moment when the decision is made, the brain resources “voting” on each choice could look like this:
run > cry > bluff > fight > suicide
With each of the voting systems, a Complete Group Ranking can be produced. If such a ranking endeavor were operating in the reengineered brain instead of it’s normal procedure, it would first determine the group winner using the chosen voting system, then kick them off the ballot (imagine deleting the pattern of neural circuitry that created that decision) and rerank the remaining decisions using that same voting system. This procedure would be repeated until every decision is ranked.
For example, this could happen in the Two-Round Runoff system:
[The values are in a hypothetical standardized unit measuring relevant brain variables (brain matter, or neural pathways, or information processing) devoted to executing each decision]
-round one- -round two-
fight 18 fight 18
bluff 12 bluff 37 *
*(from 12+10+9+6 if the dormant parts were isolated and given a weighted vote based on their initial resources)
Hence, the person would bluff, waving their improvised twig sword at the muscular beast.
If someone considers the Two-Round Runoff system more fair than the arbitrary current system designed by evolution, they might decide to get this brain-mod to account for their opinion. And yet another person might consider the Borda Count system to be more fair and so modify their brains to operate that way. When any such transhuman person comes across a beast, they would come to a self-declared fair decision that somehow tries to account for all the desires of their dormant subsystems.
However, even if this was fair to all the subsystems, the decision outputted is not actually our true desire. Our true desire is the best possible outcome, one which doesn’t involve our limbs scattered across the mud and our bone marrow tainting the creature’s pristine fangs.
This conclusion may not seem too radical but it actually has fairly shocking implications. It means that in a post-human existence precipitated by AGI, fairness should not be considered. We should not seek to create an AGI that takes a course of action by working up some voting system that magically instills our condition with fairness. It should consider only what is truly good, and that will require a science of consciousness which graphs all the possible functions in mindspace and knows how to formulaically climb the peaks in this territory.
Currently, fairness is just a primitive mindspace-climbing formula we think is granted from our conjured voting systems. But since we can get radically different results depending on what voting system we like, fairness is completely imaginary. And what Western Democracies are doing is actually just preventing totalitarianism, which has proved to be bad historically. Therefore I agree with Churchill in saying that, “Democracy is the worst form of government… except for all the other ones.” That is, until our true philosopher king comes along.
The late Christopher Hitchens said something to the effect that conversations about religion are always interesting because you find out so much about a person: Their values, their conception of what is real, what matters in this life.
In this podcast we use religious scripture to take us to that base, to that framework, and then with the questions incited from this investigation, we connect it to the future of humanity. Say, to the tech that might enable what the Buddha experienced in meditation. What if instead of devas, there are advanced alien races, who like devas, are not worthy of worship. They die too, and are not our salvation, but may be beings of great knowledge who wield technologies that make preposterous religious dialogue sound like “terms and conditions” read by Spocks.
Where would an artificial general intelligence with consciousness fit. Would it also be a mere deva or would it be a god like that of Abraham? Able to create universes as many physicist believe is possible with sufficient knowledge? Then what would be its values? Could it be that our cultures in inventing their particular god have been preparing for the advent of general AI. And how well has that historical project gone? Are the attributes of Allah or Krishna mere reflections of apish ignorance?
These are the sorts of questions we ask.
In this episode we look at the Aggi Vacchagotta Sutta from Buddhist scripture. In which the Buddha converts a wanderer, Vacchagotta, to his way, to the way of the Buddha, to the Dharma.
Have you ever had a walk with a friend, like I have through the nearby shoreline of Lake Michigan and just asked philosophical questions? Not the boring esoteric philosophy questions, but questions like, “Would you rather know the truth of all things or would you rather experience pure pleasure in some machine?”
Back then, I was really unsure. Truth seemed so valuable – to see beyond my eyes conceived of mortal dust, and witness what is at bottom. And pleasure seemed so… unheroic. Yet if I was smart, I knew I would pick that blissful, everlasting, heroin high. But to even say it sounds vulgar. And I think this is because we know that pleasure in our conventional lives is not fulfilling. It fades and leaves us hollow.
This is what underlies the teachings of the Buddha. The concept that life as is lived by those uninstructed in his teachings, the natural way of things is unsatisfying because nothing lasts.
Would knowing the truth be any different? Say you discovered we lived in an eternal multiverse. You had the true theory of everything. You might be ecstatic for a moment, but how long would it take before the ups and downs of life, of samsara, made you think, damn knowing truth is not as important as I thought, I should have picked the other option.
In this sutta, the wanderer is like who I was when I was debating that question with my cousin and craved truth. He meets the Buddha and asks him, “Is the cosmos infinite? Is it finite? Is the body and the soul, the same? Or is dualism, with the soul not the same as the body, the way things actually are? What are the views of Master Gotama on these questions?” And the Buddha replies to each question saying that he does not hold that view.
In our debate walking by the shore, the Buddha is one who picks something more akin to the machine in our philosophical question. But not quite. He introduces the option of a machine, so to speak, that would make you perceive all phenomena of consciousness clearly for what they are. Sight is sight. Sound is sound. Sensation is sensation. Thought is thought. All being perceived closely as they appear and disappear. And you would not form views and stories about it. You wouldn’t even form the story of being a self who is experiencing these things. Therefore in this machine you would not get tired or bored after some time, because you would not perceive yourself as even being there. It doesn’t mean there would be sleep or nothingness. It means there would be a flow of experience so fluid that everything would be a clear stream, and you would be so tripped out in this stream of clear recognition that questions of truth or pleasure or your place in the world would be beyond irrelevant.
At first, the wanderer is confused. Because he views the world conceptually, like a philosopher or scientist or theologian. But the Buddha advocates a very clever way to game the system. And unless you have practiced this kind of meditation yourself for a long time, you too may be confused. So I would recommend that after this podcast you tune into a guided meditation by Sam Harris. He teaches you that operating system which is radically different from the way we normally interact with the world. And you can be sure there’s nothing magical about it, given that Harris has built his reputation on being radically skeptical of unreason.
I say this to my more scientific, atheistic side of the audience. But to the more mystical side, skeptical of things like the material basis of consciousness, I ask that you lay aside that skepticism and consider the possibility of engineering the brain at a molecular level so that all the neuronal circuitry is redesigned to experience precisely what the Buddha describes. Say we had this option in society. Would it be cheating, or would this hacking the system mentality be exactly what the Buddha was all about in the first place. Would there be nothing lost? Isn’t it just as vulgar as the traditional pleasure machine to forsake the quest for truth and enter this state that may just be a purer and nobler and ultimately more pleasurable version of the pleasure machine. Or can we say that the quest for truth as most conceive it is misguided and truth about the cosmos is ultimately as insignificant as truth about a toenail? That truth should be measured as the intensity to which you are in a state of flow?
Most Westerners, even if atheistic, think of truth as Christians do. Nietzche commented on this succintly. Plato to Christianity to Enlightenment thought; it’s all the same in one respect. Enlightenment thought uses the scientific methods, unlike the dogmatic reliance on scripture, which makes it very different, and yet it similar in that it creates a sense that there is some foundation that we can understand through thought to which we all belong. We never stop to see thought as the blip of energy that it is. A transient image or voice. We believe that what we see and think refers to something.
Think of dissecting a frog. That makes sense to you. We have been trained to dissect and expand on concepts. But have you ever stopped to directly dissect an emotion or the sound of these words? The Buddha asks that we turn to dissect truth on that plane, not the plane of concepts.
Unfortunately, I consider this way of existing incompatible with being a highly productive member of society. In order to transcend the human condition, we need more mastery over technology. Meditation can only go so far, and requires great investment of mental faculties in order to actually reach anything that is radically different from the base state of being. If the globe could be transformed into a dedicated community of monks, that would be better for most people living today, but it would forever cap our potential. Transhuman progress requires spiritually-disgusting sacrifice, ambition, and smart people of today being constantly lost in thought. However, it promises to reveal a much greater array of sustainable “higher-pleasure machines,” which, if we are honest, are all we could ever hope for.
*If you like this podcast idea, let me know. I might actually start something like this.*
Is Ibn Battuta a credible writer?
The question of, “Is this credible?” should be asked of independent statements and pressure tested against information known to have a high probability of being true. To put the blanket label “credible” or “not credible” on this kind of writing makes no sense.
What are his prejudices, if any?
A prejudice is a preconceived opinion that is not based on reason or actual experience. All of Battuta’s opinions can be suspected of having formed before Battuta had the evidence for their truth or usefulness (as can anyone’s opinions). All of these potentially preconceived opinions, or a subset of these, may not have foundations on the power of the mind to think, understand, and form judgments by a process of logic. Luckily, there is a way to discover which opinions within the larger domain of preconceived opinions are not based on reason. The way to do this is by applying one’s own power of the mind to think, understand, and form judgments by a process of logic to Battuta’s opinions. However, there is no way to know of the other kinds of preconceived opinions – to distinguish which are based on experience and which are not. This is because practical contact with facts or events is a first-person experience. If Ibn Battuta had not been constrained to giving an account in language, but rather had been a futuristic explorer, then he might have been able to leave a technology that would allow others to have his recorded experience. In this hypothetical scenario, there would be a higher probability of succeeding in distinguishing preconceived opinions that are based on experience and those that aren’t.
Therefore, the task is to find preconceived opinions not based on reason. But Battuta’s account is inundated with the ambiguities of language, so it is difficult to know which sentences are opinions that can be processed by one’s own machinery of reasoning without rendering the endeavor absurd. This problem of personal bandwidth constraints is exacerbated by the fact that every single sentence written by a human being expresses a view or judgement formed about something. Take this sentence:
“I left Tangier, my birthplace, on Thursday, 2nd Rajab 725 [June 14, 1325], being at that time twenty-two years of age [22 lunar years; 21 and 4 months by solar reckoning], with the intention of making the Pilgrimage to the Holy House [at Mecca] and the Tomb of the Prophet [at Medina].”
As far from opinion as you can get, right? But if this is viewed through the lenses of a hardcore Buddhist understanding, the very first couple of words reek of delusion. There is an expressed view that a unified “I” did something. And this view is taken for granted, not even recognized as a judgement overlaid on the experience of mindstream in flux. And if we take the lenses of someone more cosmically oriented, we see that Ibn Battuta is expressing a particular view when he says his birthplace is Tangier. Wasn’t the birthplace a causal geometry in Battuta’s past light cone with coordinates that are determinable in principle? An easier view to identify is that he is fond of Islam. He hints at holding an Islamic view by apparently disagreeing with the yet unborn Pope Gregory as to what century he lives in (note the brackets inserted by infidels to create relatable context.) Not to mention that he refers to a section of his movement across the four-dimensional spacetime continuum with the word “Pilgrimage”, and also invokes the symbols of “Holy House” and “Tomb of the Prophet” to refer to some clusters of baryonic matter.
So given this predicament of being creatures laden with views and judgements, cognitive overload will occur if reason is applied to every sentence. So instead, a general assessment of Battuta’s use of deductive, inductive, and abductive reasoning should suffice.
In the section mentioning Battuta’s visit to Gehenna, he says this:
“In the same place there is another church which the Christians venerate and to which they come on pilgrimage. This is the church of which they are falsely persuaded to believe that it contains the grave of Jesus [Church of the Holy Sepulcher].”
Since Battuta shows pretty convincing signs of being a devout Muslim, it is fair to assume that he arrived to the conclusion that the Holy Sepulcher was not the grave of Jesus because he adopted the following premises:
Premise 1: All Islamic teaching is true.
Premise 2: The teaching that Jesus was not buried is Islamic teaching.
Conclusion: It is true to say that Jesus was not buried.
If these were his premises, then he deduced in proper form. And yet the fact that he was capable of deducing properly within Islamic logic-space does not make Ibn Battuta reasonable. Neither could he be considered reasonable if a dispassionate alien came to the same conclusion that Jesus was not buried in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. If Ibn Battuta is right, he is so by accident. When applying logic, it is essential that the premises on which the conclusion is established be based on verified facts. Ibn Battuta should be willing to change and seek justification for his premises if he is to be considered reasonable. Premise 2 is contended by a small minority of Muslims. But to go that route is unnecessary because Premise 1 doesn’t survive reason, and Premise 2 hinges on Premise 1.
Ibn Battuta only once seems to seek justification for a belief. This is when he asks an imam about the authenticity of the cave with the purported graves of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. The imam then ‘kicks the can’ further back by saying that all the scholars (Muslim scholars) have told him that they are indeed the graves of these figures. One does not detect an eagerness to change and justify their practices, institutions, and beliefs based on new or existing information. To the contrary, if Battuta’s writing accurately described his mental behavior and that of others, it would seem as if this was not at all a part of their human nature.
Inductive reasoning can never reach certain conclusions, only become evermore probable based on evidence. With that being said, Battuta probably sucks at inductive reasoning.
Here are general principles he derived from what couldn’t have been but an unconvincingly small set of data points:
“The Meccan women are extraordinarily beautiful and very pious and modest.”
“Three days’ march through this district brought us to the town of Wisit. Its inhabitants are among the best people in Iraq–indeed, the very best of them without qualification.”
“The inhabitants of Basra possess many excellent qualities; they are affable to strangers and give them their due, so that no stranger ever feels lonely amongst them.”
“Its inhabitants (Zabid’s) are charming in their manners, upright, and handsome, and the women especially are exceedingly beautiful.”
“Its people (of Ta’izz) are overbearing, insolent, and rude, as is generally the case in towns where kings reside.”
“Some of the merchants are immensely rich, so rich that sometimes a single merchant is sole owner of a large ship with all it contains, and this is a subject of ostentation and rivalry amongst them. In spite of that they are pious, humble, upright, and generous in character, treat strangers well, give liberally to devotees, and pay in full the tithes due to God.”
There may, in fact, be some truth to his impressions. But he doesn’t communicate as if he were suggesting hypotheses and making offerings of data, but instead as if his conclusions were necessarily entailed by his all-seeing discernment.
“The whole concourse, weeping and supplicating and seeking the favour of God through His Books and His Prophets, made their way to the Mosque of the Footprints, and there they remained in supplication and invocation until near midday. They then returned to the city and held the Friday service, and God lightened their affliction; for the number of deaths in a single day at Damascus did not attain two thousand, while in Cairo and Old Cairo it reached the figure of twenty-four thousand a day.”
Abduction goes from an observation to a theory which accounts for the observation. Here, the observation is less deaths than usual in Damascus, Cairo, and Old Cairo. The hypothesis is that there is a God that can be persuaded to decrease the death toll by sufficient prayer. And due to the display put forth by the faithful, this god was convinced.
For a medieval context, this abductive reasoning is at least intelligible. The problem is that there is an almost infinite amount of guesses that can also be at least intelligible explanations. Battuta does not view his guess as one among many that might explain the decrease in deaths. He doesn’t even view it as a guess at all, and therefore doesn’t think twice about attributing the phenomenon to his first intuition. This is bad abductive reasoning.
This habit is seen again when he tells the story of the Ummayad Mosque which involved the destruction of a Christian church:
“When Walid decided to extend the mosque over the entire church he asked the Greeks to sell him their church for whatsoever equivalent they desired, but they refused, so he seized it. The Christians used to say that whoever destroyed the church would be stricken with madness and they told that to Walid. But he replied “I shall be the first to be stricken by madness in the service of God,” and seizing an axe, he set to work to knock it down with his own hands. The Muslims on seeing that followed his example, and God proved false the assertion of the Christians.”
It is fairly easy to see that the situation has been flipped in the other direction many times before. If the triumph of some men over others is testimony of divine favor, Tengri was really giving Allah a beating in the siege of Baghdad, Christ in the Capture of Jerusalem, etc. It is palpably irrational to think this way.
Lastly, what kind of world emerges in Ibn Battuta’s account?
Everyone gets a different stream of mental pictures. To get those mental pictures, it is necessary to read the account.
It is important to emphasize that the ‘world’ that emerges is a set of images and tags of language that are understood by integration with previously established patterns in a mind. Every computational substrate with the capacity to process and understand Ibn Battuta’s words will have a different world emerge. Nonetheless, there will be greater overlap in similarities than if one mind had read this and another had read about the structure of carbohydrates. To point to the characteristics that overlap is difficult because there are many. For instance, there is a high probability that sand, or a sandy undertone manifested in the mind at some point while reading his account. Then it could be said that a sandy world emerges from Ibn Battuta’s account, and it would be as correct as anything else one could say.
Here is where personal talent or intuition come into play. One must tell a non-boring, yet reasonable story with some motiavion(s) in order to not simply say: “A sandy world emerges in Ibn Battuta’s account.”
I’m taking up science with the specific intent of doing SENS research. This is because young transhumanists may be key to changing the biogerontology establishment from within. The people of SENS and I envision a phenomenon in which there will be a small cadre of people opposed to aging in institutions all over the place. And as the economy improves over the next few years, and the public finally starts to demand serious work on rejuvenation biotechnologies (with any luck, just as I’m getting on with my postdoctoral studies), we’ll be ready to take up the challenge with full public and government support.
Here, I summarize the two strategies I’ve discussed with the people at SENS for clearing lysosomal aggregates:
*The first, involves decomposer bacteria. We identify the specific enzymes they are using and then modify them for the different environment in our lysosomes. Then we unleash a barrage of injections upon the living.
*The second is to genetically engineer our own macrophages so that they produce the necessary enzymes themselves.
The gene therapy approach is a continuation of the injectable enzyme approach: the sticking point is that I’ve been told we don’t have a safe, reliable system for gene therapy in humans yet, except for very niche applications such as the genetic form of retinitis pigmentosa1 (where target cells are few in number and located in a compartment that is isolated from the immune system). As a researcher, I need to identify a candidate enzyme, test it in cell models, and then in animals. If by the time I get to human testing there is safe, reliable gene therapy, I can encode the gene into a vector; if not, I can work on modifying it for cellular and then lysosomal uptake after injection, as is done today for genetic lysosomal storage diseases.
Exactly what direction I should push to pursue this kind of work will depend substantially on which target I go after. But since it is not the case that I graduated from high school at 15 and have already completed my BS, those decisions are still some time off: my real goal as an undergrad is not to specialize, but to get a broad foundation in life sciences. And I think there normally isn’t that much specialization at the undergrad level anyway. So I will want to focus to the extent that I can on cellular and molecular biology. I’ll be talking to my department student advisor to tailor my classes in that direction — but honestly, I doubt there will be much tweaking. My real goal is to build up foundational skills and the knowledge base, and to set myself up to do whatever most appeals to me and matches my aptitude at the graduate level.
Biological senescence has had a busy first 130,000 years in office, displaying the misanthropic bravado, crudity, and proficiency of which it seems naturally tasked. It is quite absolutely what we allow it to be: a deceptive Grim Reaper. And now our lives have begun to wilt at its whim. The fact that people like me can’t find the time to think about the infectious diseases with which it has tag-teamed us into oblivion is a measure of how bad the problem is. Transmissible disease has become the lesser of our assailants. Our fates have been stolen by an imbroglio of metabolism.
What will you bring to the Honors College?
One of the key issues that comes up here in trying to answer this question is the extent to which the individual self, the personal identity – the thing this question expects will bring something to the Honor’s College – is actually a real thing worth preserving. The body is one thing. But what is this “self” that has something so valuable to offer and will persist throughout its time at the Honor’s College?
There is a lot of neuropsychological research showing that the “self” is in a strong sense an illusion – much like its sister illusion, “free will.” A year ago, I spent much time investigating this question in a rigorous way. To summarize my months of meditation, the neuroscientists Bruce Hood and Sam Harris, and 2600 years of Buddhist philosophy: The human mind’s image of itself is in fact a construct that the human mind creates in order to better understand and control itself, it’s not a “real thing.” And there are valid reasons to speculate that my mind – after Honors seminars and a ream of stimulating Honors coursework – might not offer what it offers now. Rather than constructing for you a story of a unified “self entity” that’s in control, a more intelligent and introspective take might simply be to describe myself as a partially heterogenous collection of patterns and subsystems. In this sense, any defining individuality that I describe now might not survive the immersion of my mind in the Honor’s College.
The key philosophical point here is: What is the point of not changing? Or, to put it more precisely: What is the point of attempting to be who I say I am? Is it to keep what I know to be important now around forever? That is a valid goal if I believe there exists a way of perceiving which is more valuable than anything I could possibly be exposed to. The closest I can describe to such a preservation-worthy way of perceiving is the following:
“For two full 584-million-mile laps around a ball of hydrogen swimming in infinite spacetime I will be at the collection of atoms known as UIC. I will then exist for an arbitrarily imposed human lifespan; then an eternity of nothingness. The normally- complicated question of “what to do?” is clear, because the only fathomable reaction to being a symphony of energy-field excitations in boundless space for an eyeblink in endless eternity is to love every moment of connection with other flashes of consciousness that happen to exist on the same speck of the cosmos that I do.”
Since the nature of the brain is to change and bounce around from subsystem to subsystem, my mind won’t be able to hold that state of consciousness for long. But if I could press a button that would allow the subsystem that thinks that way to become the unified, constant individual in the sea of nodes at the Honors College, I would.