You, me, and the holoverse

We sit here, somewhere in the vast and trackless thing called reality, thinking ‘Jeez, am I just a computer simulation? Do I even exist?’

Yes, you do exist, of that you can be sure. In fact, as Descartes pointed out around 500 years ago, it’s the only thing you can be sure of. Only, this you that exists could just as easily be a computer simulation as a physical organism, or the dream of a big blue turtle for that matter. To be perfectly frank, it doesn’t matter. Whatever it is you are, it’s real.

The good news is that none of this affects the most interesting question, which is ‘Why me?’ That’s the great mystery. How did you, or I, end up as the conscious center of this – whatever it is? Here sits an individual, discernable entity like a huge fat spider with its web buzzing with variable vibrations which the entity perceives as information about a reality outside and separate from itself. For all practical purposes, the deepest meaning of reality is that there are only two things in it: you and not you. How is it that the barrier seems so clear, psychotropic drugs aside?

Don’t even think about the odds against you existing at all; they are astronomical. A chance encounter, a condom, an interruption, and a completely different sperm might have gotten through the defenses of a completely different egg, even assuming that the same two people who generated you are involved. Little wonder that some people have invented a God who created your soul and just stuffed it into whatever embryo was handy.

And isn’t this computer simulation theory the same thing slightly altered for a more secular aesthetic?

About those golden years…

Something many people don’t know about me is that, years ago, I was a young person. Back then, I saw the world in terms of unlimited possibility, if only I could overcome the proliferation of totally unfair obstacles it was throwing at me. I was idealistic. If something wasn’t good enough, then, dammit, get rid of it, and if you didn’t agree with me, then it was time to leave you behind to fend for your sorry self.

Now that I’m old, I’m not much different, except that I keep my more misanthropic thoughts to myself. I imagine I’ve gotten smarter about life, but how can you trust someone who has always thought that anyway?

I hear a lot of people my age (old) say they still feel like they’re in their 30s, or 40s if they’re 10 years older than I am, which is not at all what we expected to feel like. When you’re young you imagine old people as a kind of separate species. You imagine them sitting around on benches, either thinking wise and kind thoughts or crabbing about everything, when you’re not seeing them drooling their walkers through the corridors of a nursing home. The wise and kind elderly are usually dead, the better to be idealized; the crabby type lives in your neighborhood to be seen every day. The old fart yelling at kids to get off his lawn has become a trope, but I’d venture to say that sort of behavior is more characteristic of the young and up-and-coming. A bit of projection?

Anyhow, my young friends, I’m here to tell you exactly what being old really feels like.

It feels exactly like being young. And recovering from a car wreck.

Achilles who?

Years ago, when I was traveling in Morocco, I was fascinated by the story tellers who plied their wares in the souks of the ancient cities. It was radio, television and the news all rolled into one bright, vivacious package.

The story tellers would begin something formulaic, and gradually work in current events and other things the audience would be familiar with.

They worked for tips, and if you were generous, you could get your name added to one of the stories in the teller’s repertoire. If you were particularly generous, you could get a story custom made, with you as the main character.

Years later when I was studying Homer’s epics, it occurred to me that what I had seen in Morocco was directly descended from that tradition. There’s a long-standing debate about who Homer was, or if he even existed, but what’s clear is that the poems attributed to him were written down in the early 8th century BCE, just about contemporaneous with the development of writing itself in ancient Greece. Before that they were a part of the rich tradition of story telling in the agoras of Greece. Analysis of Homer’s poems reveals his use of standard structures and characters from older traditions. The stories themselves relate to the Trojan War, which seems to have happened near the end of the 12th century BCE.

This all got me thinking about Achilles, the hero of the Iliad, and the most fearsome of all the Greek warriors. For a hero, he was not much of a bargain. The story is that, on the way to lay siege to Troy on a trump-up grievance, the Greeks sacked a few minor cities here and there, apparently just to pass the time. In one of these attacks, Achilles kidnapped a woman with whom he became enamored. Agamemnon, the king of Mycenae and the commander-in-chief of the Greek expedition, decided to take her for his own.

Achilles was furious, and, in revenge, spent almost the entire war, which lasted ten years, sulking in his tent while his comrades were getting slain and wounded. It was only after his friend and probable lover, Patroclus, was killed that Achilles roused himself and joined the fray, killing Hector, crown prince of Troy, and the killer of Patroclus.

For my money, Hector was a much more admirable character for a number of reasons; go read the Iliad for yourself, and you’ll see what I mean. I recommend Stanley Lombardo’s translation.

So why focus on Achilles? True, he was a formidable fighter when roused, but mostly he’s portrayed as a pouting adolescent nursing his pride.

Unless, of course, a contemporary of Homer, co-incidentally named — drumroll — Achilles, promised to fork over a generous fee to get put into the Iliad as the main character.

Perhaps this Achilles promised more than he ended up paying. Never cross a poet!

True colors?

Some time ago, I wrote a piece on this blog about peace activists during the Vietnam war.  The gist of it was that whether or not to go into the military was a difficult decision back then, and that motivations varied from person to person regarding that decision.  Many activists were sincere in their opposition to the war, but many more were simply saving themselves, and got into the anti-war effort as a justification.  My own decision to join was similarly motivated by personal considerations.  I was not a believer in the cause either way, really; my parents had fled the Soviet Union and were no fans of communism, and I couldn’t bring myself to break their hearts.

Anyway, a friend of long standing took exception to something I said in the comments in response to a reader’s comment, expressing disappointment that I would say such a thing; what it was is not relevant to this post.  What is relevant is that our relationship has changed since then.  It got me to thinking about our default thinking about our fellow humans, perhaps even ourselves.

We seem to begin with the assumption that people are intrinsically bad, and while we’re willing to give people the benefit of the doubt, we accept the first bit of evidence, even the flimsiest at times, of their inherent wickedness.  Once done, there’s no going back.

It’s easy enough to see this as a reflection of the teachings of the dominant religions in the world; we are wicked, unworthy, and can only be saved by supernatural intervention.  If left to our own devices, we are condemned to eternal, horrifying anguish, and, what’s more, we deserve it.

It might be more insightful to turn this explanation around.  Religions are the reflections (and amplifications) of our natural tendencies.

Why on earth would that be a feature of our nature?  I think the evolution of our social co-dependency goes a long way toward explaining it, and the key to understanding it is that, conversely, we tend to resist thinking ill of our closest friends and relatives, no matter how much evidence there is for it.  The result is the coalescing of the core social group, while pushing outward those at the periphery.  In short, it’s not wise to trust someone you don’t know very well, and who might have an allegiance to another group.  Historically, or rather, prehistorically, I suppose, our welfare was intimately tied to the welfare of our core group.  When agriculture developed and spawned urban civilization, groups became much larger and intertwined in a complex way; it’s no accident that religion as we know it developed precisely then.  Originally, there was no distinction between religion and ideology, it all served the same purpose: as the glue that bound together these larger, more complex social groups.  It’s not surprising that the precepts and values under this new situation would be the same as those we had for the 2 or 3 million years of our existence as hunters and gatherers.  They represent the sow’s ear from which we fashioned our silk purses.

Have we outgrown the utility of such conventions?  No doubt, but there seems little we can do about it beyond just being aware of it.  Evolution is a matter of more generations than we’ve had to deal with all the changes we’ve wrought upon ourselves.

Dream challenge #1

I have friends who insist on interpreting dreams.  I also have very strange dreams from time to time, so I’ve decided to put the two together in an occasional Omniop feature I’m calling ‘Dream challenge.’  Go for it.

I’ve been selected to participate in an expedition to colonize a distant planet.  We file onto the spacecraft, giddy with excitement, check our bags and take our seats.  Because the planet is so far away, it will take 30 years to get there, so as soon as we’ve settled in, clear polycarbon canopies descend, sealing us off and putting us in a state of suspended animation for the duration of the flight. We don’t feel the tug of Earth as the rocket lifts off, we get no last glimpse of our erstwhile home; we are essentially comatose until we get there.

30 years pass,  The computer wakes us as we approach our new home.  The spacecraft has a wide window, through which we see the rapidly approaching terrain, green and inviting, when it hits me.

“Damn!” I say, turning to the Captain.  “I forgot my phone.  Would you mind going back to get it?”