Thoughts on the Universe

1.

The refusal to link our origins to ‘lesser animals’ stems from a deep-rooted, audacious pride in our species that is instilled by most religions.
The sooner we understand that the universe is not a grand entertainment arena designed for us, that there is no designer who will watch over us and tide us through our mistakes, and that His ‘plans’ are only what we cause ourselves, the closer we shall be to avert the extinction of the living, including us.
We are an insignificant, expendable product of this universe. Our role, if any, is self-assigned, and it exists in protecting our fellow life, and to continue pushing the boundaries of our inquiry. Only in that, if at all, lies our sole relevance, our final salvation.

2.

Will language decay to sms-speak? Will people forget to write? Will we become semi-cyborgs in some decades? Will religion disappear?
It doesn’t matter what you think is morally, politically, philosophically more correct. Resist change, and you will lose. For history is written by the victors, and change is always the victor.
Look up at the night sky. In the perspective of this ancient universe, there is no morality, politics or philosophy. There is only what survived. And that is the entirety of its truth, no more.
“Existence has no pattern save what we imagine after staring at it for too long.” — Rorschach, The Watchmen.

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The Death of Consciousness

Up until a couple of years ago, I had a pretty strong conviction that some grand, strange things happen after we die. A sort of ultimate union with the source in which all consciousness become one and individuality and identity are lost forever. I used to imagine it as a grandiose play of bright flowing lights in a space of otherwise black nothingness.

My ideas have changed since. They may change again, and even change back, but as of now they are different. I still don’t know, of course, what really happens after we die. No one really can at the moment, but one possibility I had not considered at all sounds pretty valid to me now.

Have you ever fainted? I have never fainted, but I hear that when you come around, it’s as if you enter into light again from an unmeasured period of complete blankness. As if you had simply left for somewhere. This is different from sleep. We drift off to sleep and drift out of it. We dream in it. I don’t know about others, but I have an approximate sense of time even as I sleep. When I wake up, I can roughly tell how long I’ve been sleeping. I’m more accurate in the order of minutes, and not so much when I’ve been sleeping for hours. But at least the errors are of the same order as that of the duration of sleep. It’s like a CMOS clock that keeps ticking after you turn off your computer. So sleeping is not a complete blank, except in the special case of people with a specific brain injury that renders them incapable of dreaming. They have testified that sleeping for them is a period of complete blankness, which even causes them to always feel unrested.

What is blankness? It will undoubtedly be difficult to describe it, for our language is built with the purpose of communicating conscious experience, which blankness is the absence of. To put it simply though, a period with no conscious experience whatsoever must be a period of blankness. What is it like? Again, by its very definition, it cannot be like anything because you never feel it. You are nowhere when it happens. You just come around later with no memory of it whatsoever. I don’t know if you retain a sense of time passed after you recover from a fainting, but from things I have heard, I don’t think so. It’s as if someone just cuts off the flow of time at one point and stitches it to another point some time down the line, and you miss whatever happened in the story of the universe in the middle.

Thus, blankness is physically achievable, whether via fainting, brain injury, going into a coma, or some other mechanism. Even though it may be an experience many of us have never had and thus cannot even imagine (I don’t think there’s anything to imagine about it even if you’d had it), it is undebatably possible. And people have come back from it and described it as complete blankness, devoid of experience or journeys or revelations or other worlds.

So why isn’t it possible that the experience after death is just that? Just nothingness? It is already evident that spending time without any conscious experience of anything is possible. With death this state just has to continue forever. If it is quite possible for you to ‘be nowhere’, why not in death? Why is it so difficult for some, including my past self, to believe that?

Almost the whole of what we call this enigmatic consciousness is shaped and structured by our raw sensory perception. Our consciousness, supposedly abstract and transcendental of our physiology, nevertheless turns out to be a collection of inward imaginings of various physical stimuli. We can think, you say, which has nothing to do with our senses. But what do we think? We think images, happenings, things in motion, colour and sound, time flowing and events unfolding as we perceive them in our mind through much the same routes that are analogous to our raw physical senses. We cannot imagine feeling a magnetic field or ultraviolet rays or perceiving another thinking mind. No matter how much we claim our consciousness to be transcendental of our physical senses, we cannot imagine any experiences outside the standard sensory perceptions.

If our consciousness, the only kind of consciousness that we all know personally, is thus so tied down to our biology, then when that biology demonstrably stops working at what we know as death, why shouldn’t our first assumption be that consciousness also switches off right there? If a problem with a small part of our physiology can evidently cause us to faint and switch off our consciousness, why should we expect that with absolutely no part of it working any more, we shall have experiences and meet people and go places? That we shall be judged for our actions in our lifetime, and accordingly be sent to different destinations? It sounds just like life all over again, with conscious experiences deriving from the same sensory perceptions we are used to, and logical decision-making abilities, except without the service of any of our physical senses or our brain whatsoever. Isn’t that weird? Isn’t there a problem here? Now think of all the religious war we have fought over the things that supposedly happen once we’re dead and how many consciousness-es we have snubbed out in the process.

The more I think of this, the more my favourite little theory of the grand bright uniting lights falls apart in  a hundred sad little pieces. I am known to cause myself these unhappy things, armed with just a keyboard.

But indeed, why are we so easily persuaded to believe that there exists experience after our body has stopped working? Why do we, after an entire lifetime of continuous real-time proof that our consciousness is inseparable from our physicality, expect it to just carry on after death? Is it because we fear nonexistence? I, for one, do. Although I cannot put down simply why one should fear it, it is a deep-seated fear among many. But I have a hunch that it is a baseless, irrational fear. It is not simply a fear of the unknown, as some would opine. I do not, for example, as far as I can tell in my limited self-analysis, have a fear of the unknown. I think it is instead a fear of estrangement, of being torn away from all that we know and love and depend on. Familiar people, things we like to do, and all that we love about the world. These are things that exist, and they will be absent in nonexistence. The only limited substitution we can imagine for nonexistence is thus complete solitude, in a stifling static blackness. But it is, as we see now in the light of the discussion, a false picture. For in nonexistence, one cannot oneself exist. Experiencing nothingness, in the form of static blackness, is not non-experience. If there is no experience, one cannot experience this nothingness either. Thus, there can be no loneliness, no estrangement, no sadness. There can only be nothing. Sadness therefore lies only in our moments of thinking about a false picture of nonexistence, not in nonexistence itself. So what are we finally worried about? Should we worry at all? One moment you’re here and you’re happy with everything around you, the next moment you’re not there, you’re not anywhere. What’s to worry about? It’s completely twisted, this fear and deep sadness that we have built around the prospect of death.

In conclusion, I still don’t know if this is what happens after death, but it sounds like a likely possibility, and also by Occam’s razor I suppose any alternate, more elaborate theories can be dumped in favour of this one. In the end nobody can be sure. But we’ll all find out anyway, won’t we?

What do you think happens after death? Why do you think so? Hit me with your thoughts.

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Dear God

Our school prayer, recited together every morning before the beginning of classes and often fondly remembered by me and my schoolmates now, went like this:

Dear God,
Thank you for everything;
Bless me and help me to be good,
And to do my studies well.

I stopped believing in god when I was very small. I don’t even remember how far back that was; I was probably about eight or nine then. I faintly remember that I used to harbour a mild irritation for this prayer as a reaction from this atheism. Along with some other funny stuff I used to do. Like I remember that in all my essays and elsewhere I never capitalized the word ‘god’ or pronouns referring to god, as is the norm (I still stick to that). One of my aunts, very religious, used to give me on my exam days a little paper-wrapped bundle of flowers from her puja, for luck. My schoolmates who brought these used to brush them over all the pages of their answer scripts. I remember throwing it out the window once, and then feeling crap about it because my aunt had only wished me well.

Where many of my friends had pictures of gods and goddesses on the inside of their pencil-boxes, I had pasted pictures of Einstein and Donald Duck.

On visits to temples, I used to refuse to toll the bell. I was very little then. I was forced to do it once, “just to be nice”, by another aunt. Although I remember faintly, and this is one of my oldest memories, that I used to enjoy vigorously tolling the bell at a nearby temple when I was very small and before I stopped believing in god. But I guess at that age I had no clue what it was about.

I don’t remember at all why I stopped believing in god; it happened a long time back when memory starts failing. But it has stood for that long. Right now I won’t offhand say that I don’t believe in god. I don’t believe in organized religion. But god, well, it’s complicated, I’m not sure, and I don’t have very good arguments for whatever little ideas I have. I haven’t thought about it as much as I should. But yeah, for all practical purposes (which includes praying, visiting temples, fear of sin, trust on god etc) I am an atheist.

Coming back to that school prayer. Some friends were circulating it on facebook as a way to reminisce fond memories, and it suddenly struck me how wrong that prayer was in a way.

In an educational institute such as a school where the very foundations of a great many characters are laid, why would you put that prayer in everyone’s mouth? Educators need to know that theism is an opinion, that too without substantial arguments and a lot of bad past. Furthermore, thanking this elusive god character for ‘everything’ is so demeaning of oneself and one’s achievements and all other good things that happen in one’s life. And that ‘help me to be good’ really drives home the point that morality must be attained with assistance from this character. In the early constructive stages of so many children’s lives, this reiterated appointment of an absent character as the overseer of their lives to whom all credit for good things, good academic performance and morality must be channelled, suddenly seems very wrong to me now.

Is it part of an enforcement of conduct, this repeated chanting every morning of god as the controller of tidiness and goodness in oneself? If this is just an aid to discipline students, it was a bad choice. A dangerous, careless, morally incorrect choice.

I am no child psychologist, but attributing the credit for good behaviour to the one who exhibits it makes more sense to me. By Occam’s razor, there’s no need for an invention of an intermediate god to take over that credit. More important, it emphasizes that the ultimate person responsible for one’s actions is oneself, just as all things to be thankful for originate from life itself, from the doings of oneself and others. No divine assistance or intervention is needed to ‘be good’. Children are capable of goodness that comes from their own self. Isn’t that something important to let them realize instead of this ritual? Later on in their lives their spiritual and religious beliefs could grow independently from their experiences and thoughts; there’s no need to so crudely enforce that so early via a daily prayer.

But then, theism is expected to manifest in just such things.

Ghosts

Most people believe in a lot of ghosts. I don’t mean ghosts in the usual sense of the term. By ghosts, I mean notions that they believe not because they have absolute concrete proof, but because some sort of dogma and a personal servitude to dogma leads them to believe these things.

In the stone age, the ghosts were the innumerable gods in charge of each one of nature’s mysterious phenomena. Thus, there was a god to explain lightning, another to explain earthquakes. Then they would believe in the flat earth, or the geocentric cosmos. In the middle ages, these ghosts used to be things like witches. So they burned suspected witches at the stake. They believed things without sufficient proof, without checking for themselves whether the witch theory is true. Likewise, later they used to believe that heat is a fluid called caloric, and that atoms have the structure of a plum pudding, or that DNA codes for RNA that codes for protein, and no other type of coding takes place. They used to be more gullible and stupid then.

This, on the other hand, is the scientific age. We have put behind us most of the dogmas, whether in the field of religion or science or whatever. Today the common educated people know about science, and about the necessity to verify claims before accepting them as true.

Today we don’t believe in unproved ghosts. This, I believe, is one of the greatest steps forward that the human race has taken, and one of the greatest gifts of science to the common man. Today, the common man is not so gullible. You cannot easily make him believe in some ghost just because a lot of people are saying so or some authority says so. He knows about proof and he checks for himself whether a particular claim is true. Today, we are not so ready to believe in whatever ghost you care to invent. We believe in a select few things that are not ghosts:

We believe that Herbal Care shampoos have plant milk and essential thermal minerals that rejuvenate hair and keep it healthy. We believe that it has no chemicals, only the goodness of organic products, and that it is 30% better at beautifying dull hair.

We, in India, believe in Kosthi or star-charts. We check one against another before deciding on marriage. We, of the digital age, install Kundali-Pro on our computers to chart our horoscope. We seriously believe in castes. We believe it is bad to mingle freely with the opposite sex if you are not siblings or spouses.

We believe that the first time humans achieve the power to land men on the moon, they should plant a national flag there. We believe that whoever plants their country’s flag first on the earth’s rocky satellite does something important and significant and not something that is laughable in a deep way. We do not believe in a flag, symbol and anthem standing for humanity, or for earth and the living things.

We believe that there is no limit on the number of endangered animals that you can kill in order to get a death sentence. We believe that killing one human sometimes suffices.

We believe that we are higher than animals.

We believe that sex is somehow different from sleep or hunger or the need for security.

We believe that a certain country holds biological weapons, and so strong is this belief that on this pretext we attack the country and wreak havoc on it. We don’t find any such weapons. Nevertheless, we set their oil reserves on fire. We gang rape their women, videos of which reach college students as pornography. We believe that there is some type of glory and patriotism in this kind of war. We believe that it is the key to peace.

We believe that there are such things as private parts in our body, and that we must cover them to protect our dignity. We believe in such a dignity.

We believe that lustrous locks are beautiful, but armpit hair is not. We believe in an idea of good-looking men and women. We believe that being good-looking matters a lot. We believe that we must keep that fact in mind when we fall in love or choose a partner for life.

Yes, we believe there is such a thing as plant milk or thermal minerals, and that hair, which is dead tissue, has ‘health’. We believe that organic things are not chemicals (remember organic chemistry?) We believe beautification can be measured, and stated in percentage. We don’t know the answer to ‘30% better than what,’ but we believe it anyway. We believe that using a computerized horoscope is not ironic. We believe that the unconscious piece of rock that is earth’s natural satellite, or for that matter, any part of the physical universe, cares which country’s flag is planted on that rock. We believe that crimes have to be anthropocentric to be significant. We believe in super-overrating sex, and yet we hold that we are elevated from animals. We don’t believe in unquestioned authority, unless that authority is called the United States of America. We have invented shame, and we believe in an objective beauty as opposed to subjective beauty.

Oh, you meant these ghosts, you say. I don’t believe in them.

Great. Good job. Now let me tell you about a few other ghosts we believe in. Ghosts which you too, are sure to believe in. Ghosts which we are not wrong at all to believe in.

We believe in evolution, and dinosaurs. We believe in global warming, and that smoking causes cancer. We believe that the Holocaust was the single most abominable act in the history of mankind. We believe that women are equal to men, and that homosexuals are not freaks of nature. We believe in relativity and quantum mechanics, at least the fact that there are such things governing our reality. We believe incest is deplorable, so is cannibalism.

But these are not ghosts, you say. These are true. Why shouldn’t I believe in them? Well, there’s absolutely no harm believing in them, provided you know exactly what you are opting to believe in. If you learn about the thing, and check it with your wisdom, and judge it to be correct, you may damn well believe it. But if you believe a thing just because many people hold that view and it is the current convention of society, and because the times are such, then no matter how true or how right or how justified the claim, it is a ghost that you believe in. And that sort of belief, I maintain, does no good to anyone. In fact, I believe it does a lot of harm. It builds dogma. But you see, humans have a natural tendency to create and support dogma. We, the same persons, placed in Darwin’s era and nurtured in the ideas of that time would refuse to admit the possibility of evolution. Likewise, we would never understand, let alone believe, relativity. Just like most physicists at the time, even the Nobel committee, who refused to believe Einstein’s work. Similarly, we would listen to none of the fantasy that goes by the name of quantum mechanics, just as Einstein himself refused to believe it. And don’t, please don’t, fool yourself into thinking that you are such a visionary genius that you would have appreciated all these ideas in their own time. You only believe in them now, in this age, when they have been proved to be right, but not because you understand the proof, only because many people, including the authorities (scientists) hold the view. I am here of course talking about the common educated people, not the scientists themselves. And since your beliefs about the nature of the physical world stem from what the neighbours think rather than what you have researched, it doesn’t take much to just shake them and grind them to dust, and create new ones. You wouldn’t even mind much. Just a newspaper headline about a new experimental observation that completely changes the view of nature. Then you add some authoritative people talking importantly about it in the trusted media, and you have got yourself a brand new reality. Your very own universe, where you’ve been living all these years, has suddenly changed completely. It’s a frightening thought.

During the Holocaust, innumerable people carried on tortures and killings on a regular basis. Not that they were all somehow born cruel at exactly the right time. They were ordinary gullible men born at a time that gave them power in return for their ability to be cruel. They didn’t have to be born as cruel men. Heck, they didn’t even have to be born as men. Just today I read in the newspaper that the role of women in the torments carried out in WWIII was not small at all. I do not fool myself thinking that if all of us were born Aryans in Germany at that time, including you and me, we would have tried to stop this inhumanity. No, we would have risen to the occasion. Face it. At a time when women were referred to as the weaker sex or homosexuals as freaks, that is exactly how we would have looked at them. At a time when people killed other people to eat them, it would have been perfectly fine with us to dine with relish on a murdered person’s eyeball fluid. If incest with protection were legal, – and I don’t see why it shouldn’t be, – I bet you would be humping your cousins in no time. Yes, no matter how incorrect it sounds now. We humans always like to be safe, doing what everyone is doing. We don’t have enough courage to do something we believe in if it’s too different from what’s accepted. Leave alone doing what we believe, we are just too afraid, or too not used to even believe such a thing in our hearts. So don’t dare think that you would have been the sole individual to step aside and show the rest a new way. Why would you? You would have been brought up with those ideas. Why would you suddenly turn against them? Do you, today, suddenly turn against some well-established social rule just because you think in the far future it is going to be replaced by something fairer or more rational? No, we the ordinary people just don’t have that sort of vision. We think and decide and act on it like clockwork. We move like a flock of sheep. For this reason, no matter how far into the future, no matter how scientific the age, we shall always be chasing ghosts, only newer and newer ones, camouflaged subtly with ever greater care, while laughing at the ghosts of the past.

The cure of this, I believe, lies in two parts: the first part is when you are able to classify your own beliefs as ghost or non-ghost according to the definition of ghost, and take corrective steps accordingly. No, you don’t have to go out there and scientifically prove every fact that you know about the world. What you must do is included in the second part. This second part is a very simple thing Richard Feynman said in The Meaning of It All: learn to doubt. Leave room for uncertainty. Never be so sure of something that you become instinctively prejudiced against any alternative to it.

But there really is no cure. You cannot spread the message enough. We shall keep believing in ghosts. A select few ghosts.

Like the belief that we don’t believe in any.

1Life.

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