I read a lot of things and listened to a lot of things in 2016. Mentioning it all would be time consuming and also dilute the best, so I’ll just pick one from each category:
- Fire in the Mind by George Johnson was the best book I read.
- The Science of Mindfulness, an audio course by Dr. Ronald Siegel, was the best thing I listened to.
Together, these two works are a nearly perfect representation of my non-professional interests at this stage of my life: understanding the universe outside and within my mind.
Fire in the Mind
I don’t remember how I stumbled across George Johnson’s Fire in the Mind, but it ended up being the most holistically fascinating thing I read in 2016. Johnson uses his intimate knowledge of physics and Tewa Indian culture, rooted in the hills of the Santa Fe area of New Mexico, to make fascinating connections between the two most fundamental human constructs for explaining reality: science and religion.
Fire in the Mind is truly universal in the sense that it weaves countless threads through the quantum and classical realms that define the universe that we’re capable of perceiving as humans. I’ve included a few of my favorite quotes below, interspersed with my comments and related things.
For starters, I really admire how Johnson questions everything, even imposing humility on concepts like Darwinism that in modern life seem indisputable from a scientific perspective:
Once a filter becomes installed in the brain, it bends everything we see. Gazing out on the jungle, a Darwinist sees the beauty of natural selection, an invisible Maxwellian demon sifting order from randomness in a Sisyphean effort that ultimately cannot succeed. A structuralist imagines instead a multidimensional fitness landscape, the vortices of its basins ensuring an orderly world. Like all of us, both are faced with never knowing the extent to which the patterns they see are out in the world or imposed by the prisms of our nervous systems.
We are just smart enough to realize how incapable we are of ever answering the questions we come up with:
We are endowed by nature with this marvelous drive to find order. But we constantly bump up against our limits. Just as a frog can only see objects that move across its visual field with certain motions, so are we aware of only a tiny part of the electromagnetic spectrum. But we assume that we can supplement our senses with our minds and with our mathematics. We theorize about frequencies beyond our horizon, the invisible rays of infrared and ultraviolet light, of gamma and radio waves, and we build instruments to detect them. Then we weave stories about how these hidden worlds must be. When we fail to find symmetry in the world around us, we imagine extra dimensions, higher vantage points from which the world will regain its perfection. But for all our efforts, the whole truth will always elude us. Try as we might, we will never succeed in squeezing the immensity of creation into our tiny heads.
Related: Watch Carl Sagan explain the fourth dimension by imagining creatures confined to a two-dimensional universe.
The inherent limitation of using mathematics to explain the universe is that we don’t have a system for explaining mathematics itself:
Gödel, after all, proved that mathematics itself has its limits. In his famous incompleteness theorem, he showed that no logical system can be used to prove its own consistency.
Any effort to explain the world must begin with a leap of faith.
Sidebar: For me, this brings to mind one of my favorite conclusions from the great physicist Charles H. Townes in 1966:
… if science and religion are so broadly similar, and not arbitrarily limited in their domain, they should at some time clearly converge. I believe this confluence is inevitable. For they both represent man’s efforts to understand his universe and must ultimately be dealing with the same substance.
Johnson also wonders how the existence of science and information can be explained in the fabric of the universe. What is science? Is it a platonic form, or part of the “real” world?
… numbers, equations, and physical laws are neither ethereal objects in a platonic phantom zone nor cultural inventions like chess, but simply patterns of information—compressions—generated by an observer coming into contact with the world.
… could information also be an artifact, another of our projections? After all, there are not really any 1s or 0s inside a digital computer, just voltages that we chop up by arbitrarily drawing a line and declaring everything below it 0, everything above it 1. Everything going on in the machine could conceivably be described in terms of continuous currents of electricity without recourse to this notion of information.
Maybe we’re just keeping ourselves busy:
Sometimes the intelligence of our species seems like a tiny flame flickering on the periphery of a vast blackness, trying to illuminate the void. Who gave us this burden? Will anyone or anything beyond our celestial campsite ever care? If this web is just something we are spinning for our own amusement, it will die along with its creators.
Our simultaneous advantage and curse compared to other organisms is that we can conceive of these questions at all. Imagine if you could make a conscious being out of legos, then enclose him a box with extra legos that have no obvious form. Imagining watching him wonder why, though made of the same parts as the leftovers in his tiny universe, he is animate and conscious. Imagine the stories he would invent about his possible creators—perhaps even conjecturing that through some improbable shaking of his box, he was formed.
It’s quite possible all order that sits atop the quantum world is a computer-like simulation, and the conditions and constraints of that simulation likely confine us forever to our tiny box without any ability to think outside of it, even if we dream we can.
The Science of Mindfulness
Speaking of the perils of a runaway mind, I’ve danced around the subject of mindfulness for several years now—reading mostly things written from a Buddhist perspective. In my experience, most such readings ultimately come across as marketing material, so to speak, for Buddhism.
I think if ever there was a religion or religion-like thing that I could unequivocally subscribe to, Buddhism would be it. But alas I find that Buddhism has too many social impracticalities and cultural stigmas that cause it to clash with my immediate surroundings in the southeastern United States—sort of like trying to adopt a vegan diet in the Arctic. I also think that the more dogmatic anything sounds, the less credibility it has with me. I can’t change how I’m wired.
Dr. Ronald Siegel’s audio course, The Science of Mindfulness, was a welcome change to the typically Buddhist-centric things I’ve studied in the past on the topic of mindfulness and meditation. As the name suggests, Siegel presents mindfulness from a more universal perspective without relying on any particular religious support. When he does mention Buddhist teachings, it’s more from a psychological and referential perspective. He also notes how western innovations in mindfulness are bettering practices that were traditionally only Buddhist. For me, this was a welcome change from the usual rhetoric that frames eastern traditions as panaceas for everything that’s wrong with the west.
In my mind, if I could reduce mindfulness to a single practical concept, I would describe it as a thought technology designed to combat a basic problem of the human mind. As Siegel explains:
The human mind did not evolve to be naturally happy. It evolved to survive. Happiness is not a natural state for a human being.
Persistent pessimism was a very useful thought technology for early humans. Confronted with an object on the horizon that might be a beige rock or might be a crouched lion, surviving humans were biased to act as though it was a lion. Even if they were wrong, they lived another day. People who systematically worried more survived longer than those that didn’t.
This persistent negativity bias gives rise to thought processes like “things have gone really well lately, so something horrible must be about to happen soon.” Put simply, we are poorly evolved for our modern environment, which is largely devoid of the perils our minds are equipped to avoid. Absent the need to dodge predators or search for food, all our minds can do is create illusions to worry about.
No amount of prosperity exempts a human being from these feelings. The human mind will create problems for itself no matter how good things get. In fact, the better off someone is financially, the more they have to lose quantitatively. Hence the fear-driven greed that causes Wall Street billionaires to do unethical things to protect themselves from loss.
Being able to see thoughts more as fleeting objects and understanding that your perception of yourself is entirely an illusion created by your experiences and emotions is the art of mindfulness. The implications are profound for becoming more mindful in the modern world, which is loaded with attention-stealing stimuli.
I truly believe cultivating mindfulness is the next frontier in human evolution. Innovation in thought technology will matter far more to our well being than any computer technology. If you have any interest at all in mindfulness, I can’t recommend Siegel’s course enough.