Friday, November 21, 2008

Free will

I'll leave the loose ends in the last post for later.

Free will is an interesting topic. Being of eastern thought (and background) myself, I have an weird fascination with it. Free will is the tenet of humanity's control over its own fate, or more specifically, of each person over his own fate. I guess its opposite would be predeterminism, or at least it's the concept to which free will is most frequently juxtaposed.

Essentially, as I understand it, these two are complete and utter adversaries. On the one hand, free will empowers us to do what we want, as we want it. It also lets us make our own mistakes. However, we end up stuck because of our (and here's my eastern thought coming up) attachment to our fate. Since we control it, we have to keep it in mind when we do things that affect it. To what degree does any one event affect your fate? There's quite a bit of confusion there.

Predeterminism also has certain problems. If our fates are completely laid out, then what exactly is the point of going through the motions? If you believe in Heaven and Hell, then is it really just for us to end up in one and not the other, despite not having had control of our actions?

These are two very interesting extremes. In many eastern traditions (especially in Hindu and Buddhist lineages), neither of these extremes truly exist. Free will and predeterminism are products of Judeo-Christian, or sometimes Islamic thought. In philosphical debates, the idea arises that God is Almighty and knows all. If He knows what we're going to do, are we really free to do it? Or is it that He knows what will be despite the varying paths we take to reach that fate? A friend of mine once said, "God's knowledge of our decisions have nothing to do with our free will." Just because I know what my brother is going to eat for dinner doesn't detract from his decision of what to eat, I just know him that well. Or, I know more about the initial conditions. Or whatever... If I was God, I'd know all the information pertaining to that particular choice of his, and then some.

In eastern traditions, however, the view is very different. While various strains of thought exist, (you can be atheist and still be considered "Hindu," for example), the idea of free will is understood to have its limits. There are things I can control, and things I cannot. I cannot choose my parents, or their actions, but I can choose my wife (or to follow through with an arranged marriage, if I so desire) and my own actions. I can choose amongst the options that I have, though I may not always be presented with all options.

The reason for this? Karma. Karma (कर्म, from the root kR कृ "to do, to act") sort of like Newton's First and Third laws, but applying to our ideas, thoughts, feelings, and actions. It's the idea that what we do will affect us in the future. I'm reminded of the butterfly effect (no, not that horrid movie), where a simple action can impact or create a chain of reactions (re-actions, get it?) leading to something that was not predictable in the original conditions. Why? Because there're too many initial conditions, or too many simultaneous occurrences.. Whatever. Chaos theory is fun, children!

To boil this down, the problem with free will is that everyone (and their mother) has it. All people are created equal, since the actions of all people cause reactions elsewhere, in some way. Or, in a different light, we're all bombared by each others' free wills. The reason I can't get a good parking spot? Your free will parked your car in "my" spot.

People are dumb. Sure. But, we've all done dumb things. And, just because we're us, and we know why we did stupid things (I'll give you all the benefit of the doubt), that doesn't mean that everyone else is just dumb. How many times can we really see the whole picture? We don't actually know why other people do the things they do; if we did, we'd be them, or close enough to them to get over it. The real stupidity is not being able to remember this crucial fact, and get past it. Or, give others the benefit of the doubt.

So, before we go on complaining about how people make the dumbest mistakes, how "God's plan" for us is something entirely different, or how other people drag us into things, we should really think about action and reaction. We can't always control the action, but our reaction can be our own.

We aren't the only ones in the world; other people exist, and this is a really important lesson for a lot of people. Why should any one of our wills be any freer than any other? We're not awfully far-sighted in a lot of things. We don't know how things will turn out after a certain point from now (or even that far, in most cases). No one really does. So what's there to be all bent out of shape about?

Changing yourself

Instead of a Wednesday post and a Friday post, I'm offering two Friday posts. It's been a hell of a week.

A post or two ago, I mentioned that it's important to realize that as humans, we must remove our minds from the mercy of our thoughts. So how do we go about doing that? Personally, I'm a utilitarian in many ways. I find that with enough repetition, patterns become ingrained so well that we don't even realize what happens. Think of how people develop weird behaviors like nail-biting and knuckle-cracking, or if you study psychology, you can look into theories as to why people develop eating disorders. Another, albeit extreme example would be people who suffer from Dissociative Identity Disorder. Whether habits are the cause of repetition, the byproduct, or neither, the fact is they're highly correlated.

Toss some repetition in your life. Every time that you see a "bad" thought, stop yourself and replace it with a "good" one. Sort of like the "kick one, pick one" initiative seen on Nick at Nite. Pretty soon, you'll be wondering why you've become so optimistic, and you'll have forgotten all about the process of stopping yourself.

The problem I see is that a lot of people don't realize what exactly they're doing. They don't see their habits as habits, they act without thinking about what they're doing, and so their action is an automated response to something. Inserting this kind of repetition of a "checks-and-balances" thought is going to take a lot of work in this instance. A person like this needs to get in the habit of actually seeing what the undesired behavior is and catching it, then they have to learn to catch it before it happens, then they have to insert that layer of thought or will. Only then can they actually remind themselves to change things.

Changing yourself can be a lot of work, to say the least. Now think of your life, think of how many automated responses you want to change, how many you're aware of and how many you're just told about, and how many you actually think about. If you're thinking about how bleak this is already, then you're in for a surprise.

There are a lot of studies on studying. One suggested method of learning is constantly switching the subject after a period, and reviewing material in a time frame where that knowledge is still fresh. Apply this sort of approach to changing yourself and you're well on your way. Simply work on a few things you want to change at a time (though not all of them), and work on them as you remember them, or as they come up. A lot of it is subconscious (or unconscious), and simply bridging that to your conscious self by actively seeing and thinking can have a tremendous change.

Another suggestion is making a list. People have been making lists since antiquity. Even 3000 years ago (Vedic Samhitas), lists were the predominant method of remembering stuff. Keep the most important things first and last in line, so they're easily recalled, and you're all set!

The workload is cut tremendously. Not seeming so bleak now, is it? In my life, I've seen so many people upset by "life" and they don't take the time to figure out why. Most of them don't have the luxury to pay a psychiatrist for drugs so that they can "balance out" before they ditch therapy and the problem arises elsewhere. They just self-medicate, or more prominently, complain and do nothing.

Religion can be nice, because it gives you something to blame, or a reason for why it happens. I'll be honest, the whole "God's plan" idea totally is a cop out to me, even though I do believe in some form of "God," as well as the idea that I can't always see the result of an action until much later. Getting back to the point, I suppose that it works for some people because they're so out of touch with themselves that they need something to give them even a crappy reason for things happening. They can then accept it and try to move on or do something about it from there. It seems more of an indirect approach. And then, some people become so attached to their religion that strict interpretations of scripture may cause more damage than good. I hate to point to the scapegoat, but look at the Great Inquisition.

Really, I feel that the best way about it is to sit and detach. Look at things objectively. It's hard for some people to realize that the world does not revolve around them (we as a species still don't realize that the world doesn't revolve around humanity) and so this becomes an obstacle instead of a solution. But, if you do realize that you're not the only human being in the world, then you may be able to take a step back and look at what's going on in your life from the perspective of another human being. You may be able to try to see the series of problems in your life. You're unhappy? Why? Because you hate your job? Why? Because your boss is a horrible human being?

It's really stereotypical to think of your therapist as the person who just asks "Why?" It's also true to an extent. One may then reason that if you can sit down and do it yourself, and not get attached to your response, you may not need a therapist, though there's nothing wrong with needing one. I just think that self-sufficiency in some things is a goal worth having. It may be a long-term goal, and you may need your therapist to get there, but it's not totally unreasonable. Make it a habit to ask yourself "Why?" and answer properly, and then you may find that your thoughts can, in fact, work for you.

I realize this post was not much more than rambling between a few ideas. I hope that as I continue this blog, I may be able to write more clearly, concisely, and stay on topic. Although, I find that some of my best realizations come by serendipitously.

Monday, November 17, 2008


My third post (second, if you stick to topics), and it's already late. My apologies; I've been trying to fix my sleeping pattern. It's been twenty-four hours (and a 3 hour nap) since I last awoke.

I was sent a link relating to cob houses (from and was simple amazed. For those of you unfamiliar with cob construction, I'll explain it briefly. Cob is a building material made from dirt and clay, mixed with straw, grass, sand and/or mud. It's used variously by itself and with stone to make domiciles. Apparently, people have recently started looking at this as an alternative to modern building materials for houses. It utilizes readily found or easily found materials, is extremely cost effective, is resistant to seismic activity and fire, and can be used to make extremely modern houses (including heated floors).

What is really wonderful is that due to its cost effectiveness, even when combined with modern technology, it seems to be a great alternative to "traditional" houses, and even to underground DIY housing (courtesy of Perhaps the two can be combined in some way as well.

Technology for using "natural" and "infinite" resources such as wind and solar power is becoming more and more feasible on a wide-scale. I really think this is a welcome improvement, but even when things were expensive and not very efficient, people have utilized it for their own homes. Now, with emerging revolutions in hydrogen power (Scientific American) and effective solutions combining hydrogen and solar power (MIT News), it has become extremely beneficial for those who have the resources and know-how to build and utilize these systems themselves. And, with the economy the way it is, every penny saved matters.

The problem? It takes years for these technologies to trickle down to consumers. Just like green rooftops on city buildings and vertical greenhouse farms (both from, there's a lot of money needed up front, and with many competing technologies (some still in their infancy), it becomes a risk to invest. Honestly, we need more people thinking long term, like the teams at MIT (of course, just one example), who realize the utility in combining technology and working out the new kinks that come up to really spearhead this problem. When different avenues stop competing, but work together, we as consumers and end-users get the benefit much more quickly. The more quickly we get the technology, the more immediate the effect on the environment.

In my opinion, this is heart of the matter: combining technologies from the get-go. Instead of spending lots of time (and money) waiting for a leader to emerge from each nook of technological development, and then having them combine, time could be spent on experimenting with combining different technologies while they're still being worked out. This can save a lot of time later by tweaking each aspect to work well with the other. Complementary technology, if you will.

Imagine a vision of the future, filled with hybrid-electric cars that use alternative fuels as well as batteries to get us from place to place. Large greenhouses that provide jobs for people, as well as safe, clean, local organic food, acting as boons for their communities. Houses made of "sustainable" natural materials that are as elegant as they are efficient, and just as cost-effective. It will take us time to get there, but once we do, our lifestyles can be as sustainable in the long-run as our environment. And this time, it'll be for the better end.

Friday, November 14, 2008


The thought has crossed my mind that the word "religion" brings up awful connotations for a lot of people. Admittedly, when I think of religion, large institutions with powerful figureheads come to mind. I promptly shudder. But I do feel that in this crazy mixed-up universe of ours, there's some sort of obvious order. We, as humans, have an inclination to come up with a list of things we live by or believe in, whatever they may be. In addition, I feel that we often forget that list in our day-to-day struggles. That's most apparent for me when I'm cursing at the lady in front of me on my way back home to get out of the way.

With vast amounts of information being drilled into our skulls these days, I relish the simple little thoughts I have. One of them is what I dubbed "techno-spirituality." Spirituality, for me, is really about applying my basic personal beliefs in my life so that I live by my own standards. I don't mean thinking "my religion says that everyone who doesn't believe won't go to Heaven," and then going out and trying to convert people. I do mean "don't take things personally" and then when someone yells at me, I try to understand where they're coming from and not take it to heart. If I can't do that, then at least I shouldn't blow up on them in return.

Technology plays a humongous role in my life, as it does in the lives of everyone I know (save my grandmothers'). Despite interacting with machines all day, I find little trouble in retaining my humanity. I have applied my spirituality to my technology. I can't say the same for some of those around me, who despite having much in the way of technology, lack some integral things in real life. Randall Monroe once did a comic (can't find the link atm) wherein a person on a computer, pissed off at someone, was magically flown to the other end of the pipe. Once he saw that the object on the other side was human being, he stopped being so angry. Along the same lines, one of the Microsoft "I'm a PC" commercials features Deepak Chopra, saying "... and I'm a human being. Not a human doing. Not a human thinking. A human being."

As silly as that seems, it also seems very apt. I told read that as a human being, I must control my thoughts lest they control me. Now, think back to your day-to-day struggle. Are you at the mercy of what pops into your head? Or are you more deliberate with what you do, and little more conservative in letting those thoughts pop out into the open?

Right about now, I'd love to quote Ze Frank. But, if you aren't thinking, then where are those thoughts coming from?

A Foreword

This first post is merely to lay out the premise of what I'm going to be doing. As I awoke from a dream, only 30 minutes ago, inspiration struck me cold.

Ultimately, I'm pondering technology on Mondays, spirituality on Wednesdays, and how they relate to one another on Fridays. Expect the occasional late posts, multiple posts, and changing layout. In addition, I am a student of Sanskrit, and I may be using that periodically.

I'm going to try to shy away from religious doctrine, and outright preaching. What I'm trying to do here is attempt to secularize some ideas and try to see how they fit with a "modern" outlook. I'm also focusing on "spirituality," something which I'll outline (as to my usage) soon.

Lastly, what I hope that you will glean from this is stimulation; my goal is to produce my thoughts as food for your own. Regardless of your opinion of them, I aim to get your mind going in a slightly different direction, for both the most secular and the most religious of you.