Response to Bernardo's presentation at Science & Non-Duality 2013

By Michael Larkin

(This guest essay is an interesting essay in reaction to an earlier post of mine. I particularly like Michael's interpretation of space-time under the idealist framework of the whirlpool metaphor, as described in that earlier post. I trust you will enjoy it at least as much as I did!)

Space-time representation under Relativity theory.

The materialist paradigm implies that everything is perceived internal to the brain. There must be something "out there", but as far as each of us is concerned, it's rendered in terms of neuronal signals. We perceive things we call "stars", but those twinkly things are perceptive impressions in our brain inside our skulls. And, of course, the interpretations of those impressions are held to be thoughts, also the result of neuronal interactions.

The "things themselves", the stars, and all the different things we perceive, are actually inside our heads. Even if you argue that you can set up some kind of detector that is outside the brain, the output of that detector once again comes through sense organs to the brain. The "real world", "out there", is ineffable: we don't actually know what it is; all we know of it is what we perceive internally.

Even if we say that we agree we perceive the same thing inside our skulls--that that agreement comes from "out there"--we haven't thereby actually externalised what we perceive. Everything is subjective: what is objective is deemed so by agreement of a number of subjects, each of them individually inside their brains. According to the materialist paradigm, never in our lives do we get so much as a millimetre outside our skulls. Human beings are merely transducers of reality, and if I've understood him correctly, Bernardo is saying that that idea is metaphysical to its core.

It could make more sense to say that what is "out there" is contiguous with what is "in here"; that "in here" and "out there" are illusions set up as soon as one thinks in dualistic terms. This seems for me to tie in with what Rupert Sheldrake says: our consciousness isn't inside our heads: stars and everything else (including brains and skulls) are within our field of consciousness, which is potentially as big as the universe.

It's as if our consciousness reaches back in time to perceive distant objects. This applies to anything at a "distance", which is related to time. We see the stars instantaneously "where they were some time ago", where they effectively "are" for us. But we usually think in terms of light having a certain speed and travelling to our eyes so that we can see objects inside our brains in the present moment. It's a conditioned way of conceptualising "reality" that we have great difficulty seeing differently.

Reflecting further, I have arrived at a fresh concept (for me) of the distance/time (or space/time) concept. It's only recently in human history that when we look into the night sky and see what we call stars, we have come to think of them as being suns like our own; but since they appear much smaller and fainter, we deem them to be very far away. However, another possible explanation is that--being constricted in our ways of perceiving by our "whirlpools"-- we don't *notice* them as much as our own sun: they don't impinge as much on our consciousness, even if they might be bigger and brighter than our sun. This isn't limited to perception of light; it could also be applied to perception of sound, for example. An atomic bomb exploding in the Mojave desert might be inaudible not because we are "far away", but because the current conformation of our whirlpool imposes restrictions on how much can be perceived: hence we don't notice the explosion.

So in this model, time/distance and apparent effects on us are a function of how much something impinges on consciousness as constricted by our whirlpool. If for some reason our whirlpool conformation changes, but consciousness remains, then we might in theory have a different perception of reality.

It seems to me that key to the idea of the whirlpool is that it represents the limitation imposed on the perception of reality when we're what we call "incarnate". In certain conditions, such as what we term "NDEs" and various other "spiritual" experiences, its conformation might change so that we perceive a lot more, including phenomena that we might otherwise not notice. We might then still have an individual POV, still possess *some* limitation on how much of reality we can notice, even if by comparison that were to be vastly more than in our usual waking state. This might allow, for example, for what we would think of in the ordinary incarnate state as telepathic communication; merging with other entities; instantaneous "travel" or interaction facilitated by attention and intention, etc.

I like this idea of persistence of the whirlpool in different states of conformation because it readily explains reincarnation and the inaccessibility (usually, at any rate) of information gleaned in previous incarnations. It's also compatible with ideas of individual evolution. The typical "human" conformation might allow us to periodically have certain experiences that help us in some way refine a higher-level conformation. At some stage, we might cease to reincarnate in human form, and move permanently to the next level of conformation: and who knows, there may be yet further levels of conformation to be analogously progressed through. There's also the possibility of merging back into the ultimate conformation of all conformations, that which we might call Source or God.

"Physical death", then, might not completely disrupt the whirlpool. It might rather change its conformation so that it's more aware of the reality that's there: in other words, after death, we might still have a sense of individuality of some sort, but with a greater appreciation of reality. As long as one has individuality in some degree, then one wouldn't be aware of all there actually is. Indeed, individuality could perhaps be seen as being in a state of some degree of ignorance of all there is. The ultimate evolutionary impulse could be the desire to overcome all ignorance through merging with Source, thus allowing It to have the experience of knowing Itself as if there were something else other than It.

I can't help recalling the words of the famous Hadith Qudsi: "I was a hidden treasure and I longed to be known. Therefore, I created the Creation so that I might be known."

Copyright © 2013 by Michael Larkin. Published with permission.

My presentation at Science & Non-Duality 2013

Bernardo presenting at Science and Non-Duality Europe 2013.

Here is a video of my recent presentation at the 'Science & Non-Duality' conference 2013, where I discuss parts of my upcoming book 'Why Materialism is Baloney.' The presentation was very well received there, so I hope you enjoy it too.


Implanted memories... or are they?

(An improved and updated version of this essay has appeared in my book Brief Peeks Beyond. The version below is kept for legacy purposes.)

Are memories stored in the brain as physical traces?

This week several people sent me a link to an article just published on Scientific American. The title promised something extraordinary: "The Era of Memory Engineering Has Arrived: How neuroscientists can call up and change a memory." That certainly sparked my curiosity, so I decided to read it tonight, while sipping some cold Riesling in my garden, trying to cool off from the heat of the day. In the end, I was indeed amused, but not for the reasons I thought I would be... allow me to elaborate.

The article starts with references to science fiction films in which the hero, at some point, realises that his memories were all implanted by 'evil' scientists. None of the past he remembers actually happened, but was artificially synthesised and inserted into his head. I immediately thought of Total Recall (the original), where people could go to a shop called 'Recall' and order custom-made memories of holidays, adventures, heated romances, or what not, without actually having to live through any of that. The author goes on to suggest that cutting edge work done at MIT is comparable to these amazing sci-fi scenarios. He writes: "...these scientists have captured specific memories in mice, altered them, and shown that the mice behave in accord with these new, false, implanted memories. The era of memory engineering is upon us, and naturally, there are big implications for basic science and, perhaps someday, human health and society." Wow, really? Have we been able to synthesise and implant memories like in Total Recall? I mean, no need for entire narratives... if even a simple memory (say, of switching on the lights) could have been synthesised and implanted, it would be very significant not only for science, but for philosophy as well.

You see, if it were possible to synthesise and implant memories that way, it would imply that we knew exactly what memories were, as well as where and how they were encoded in the brain. So the author's opening lines in the Scientific American article caught my attention. However, things weren't as they seemed...

When you read the rest of the article critically, and with attention, here is what you discover:
  1. No memories were synthesised at all.
  2. What was actually done was this: they found a way to measure and record the pattern of brain activity in mice when they were placed in a certain environment, and then they managed to 'reactivate' that same pattern of brain activity later on, in another environment.
  3. When they re-activated the pattern in another environment, they gave the mice electric shocks, scaring the heck out of them.
  4. When they put the mice back in the original environment, without the shocks, the mice were paralyzed with fear.
That's it. Now, let's look at what this actually means.

Both the experiences of the environment and of the electric shocks weren't 'implanted' memories. They actually happened. They actually shocked the mice. They actually placed the mice in that environment. All the experiment accomplished was to create an association between the original environment and the electric shock, without needing to actually make the two happen together, as in classical conditioning. So there is a sense in which one could perhaps say that the 'memory of the association' was 'implanted,' but that's totally different from what the article suggests in the beginning. It has very little, if anything, to do with Total Recall-type memory implants. No memory was synthesised at all, not even a very tiny simple memory. All experiences involved were actual experiences of the mice. They just tricked the mice into linking one real experience to another real experience. This is rather a cognitive link than a memory. They 'implanted' association, conditioning, not phenomenological or experiential memories.

You might say that, by reactivating a certain pattern of brain activity, the scientists artificially created recall. This is true, but it doesn't address the important question of what memory is or where it's stored. You see, experiences correlate with brain activation patterns; we know that. So if you induce a certain brain activation pattern in mice and associate that with a shock, it's no surprise that the shock will be cognitively linked to any future experience that triggers the same brain activation pattern. But that's not the question. The question is, when I close my eyes and remember my dead father, how the heck do I know what exact pattern of brain activity to bring back to my brain? Where is the information stored that allows me to reconstruct that pattern? In the MIT experiment, the scientists created their own storage mechanism by genetically modifying the mice to grow molecular switches in each neuron activated when the mice were placed in their original environment. Only the activated neurons grew the switches, so the distribution of the switches recorded the neural correlates of the original experience. The scientists could then turn these neurons back on later, using light. Of course, this doesn't explain how mice remember things when they haven't been engineered to grow these switches! The experiment explains exactly nothing about the mechanism of memory storage simply because it by-passes it altogether! It was the scientists who recorded and stored the information, and then used this information to create a pattern of brain activity, not the mice. How do the mice do it when there are no scientists to record, store, and re-launch the information in their brains?

The experiment also says nothing new about the nature of conscious experience. That experience is correlated with certain patterns of brain activity is very old news. That they could create an association between two events by activating their respective patterns together in the brain is also no news, since this has been shown by classical conditioning since the time of good-old Pavlov. The only novelty (and, make no mistake, it's amazing and important, just not in the way the article portrays it) is the scientists' amazing ability to record and then re-activate a particular pattern of brain activity. Kudos to MIT! This might have important far-future applications in e.g. new treatments of brain diseases and perhaps even in training & education. But don't expect a 'Recall' shop near you any time soon. Don't expect a solution to the 'hard problem of consciousness' any time soon. And don't expect an answer to the nature and location of memory any time soon. None of this was addressed, not even in principle, by this work.

To me, the key value of this Scientific American article was the fact that it powerfully illustrated how, through hysteria, lack of critical judgment, and naive enthusiasm, a false idea can be hyped by the mainstream media to the point of not only looking entirely plausible, but even certain. How many well-meaning people out there, who briefly read this article, won't be thinking now: 'Wow, it's a done deal... memory and consciousness really are all in the brain'? Can we even blame them? When one is already predisposed to finding confirmation of a certain idea, it's very easy to find it if one isn't critical of what one is looking at. We tend to find what we are looking for, even if it's not there. This article powerfully illustrates it. Here is an experiment that says exactly nothing about the nature of memory or our ability to synthesise memories, yet it's hyped precisely as such.

Since you're reading this post in my blog, this time you are at least thinking a little more critically about this specific article. But how many other similar articles have you read before? How many of your implicit beliefs today have been subtly created this way? It's scary, isn't it?

New book closer to publication

More books, please.

I have great news: I've just signed the contract for publication of my new book, Why Materialism Is Baloney. Not only does this bring the book a major step closer to availability, it may also have a positive impact on my previous three books. Moreover, the process of interacting with potential publishers over the past few months has taught me valuable lessons about the reality of the publishing industry today, which seems quite different from what it was only two years ago. I want to share some of these new learnings with you.

As most of you know, my previous three books have been published by John Hunt Publishing (JHP), a mid-sized English publishing house with several imprints. My previous titles Rationalist Spirituality and Dreamed up Reality were originally brought to market under the O-Books imprint. Meaning in Absurdity was published under the Iff-Books imprint. Now, all three of the books have been brought under Iff-Books (the science and philosophy imprint), where they all truly belong. My experience with JHP has always been positive.

Yet, after finishing the manuscript of Why Materialism Is Baloney, my first instinct was to try and publish it with a bigger publisher, so to ensure as wide circulation as possible for the ideas in the book. The driving force behind it is my heart-felt feeling that this latest book is the most important one I ever wrote; perhaps even the most important thing I ever did. Therefore, for the past several months, I have engaged with some of the biggest publishing houses in the industry.

In all honesty, this process has been slow and frustrating. One large publisher (Rowman & Littlefield) offered to publish the manuscript, but the proposed retail price of the book would have placed it beyond the reach of many readers. Moreover, I felt that the contractual conditions were so unbalanced that it would be irresponsible for me to agree to them. I'm not talking about the financial clauses, which were poor but I don't write for the money anyway. I'm talking about what I felt to be the self-contradictory and, frankly, unreasonable representations, warranties, and commitments they required from me. It is a sad but true reality in the publishing industry today that there seems to be more authors motivated to publish than readers motivated to read. So many publishers appear ready to leverage this reality against authors. And even then, there is no guarantee of wide availability for the book.

So I went back home like the prodigal son, submitting the manuscript to JHP a couple of weeks ago. The result positively surprised me: Not only did they want to publish yet another book by me, they suggested to use the opportunity to do a new, combined marketing push for all my titles. And their new contract is an example of internal consistency, balance, and author-friendliness. Nothing unreasonable is asked of me and the financial terms are entirely fair; perhaps even more than fair. Overall, I am extremely happy to be working with them again. My search for something 'bigger' just brought me to things 'worse' and to a renewed appreciation of what I already 'had.'

My experience with JHP is that these are people who, above all else, love books. As everybody else, they need to make a viable business out of what they do, but they don't do it because it makes money. They do it because they believe in, and are passionate for, what they do. Big or small, these are the people I want to work with.

Why Materialism Is Baloney will, therefore, be available in both paperback and eBook formats, around the world and before the end of this year, for a retail price significantly lower than it would otherwise have been. Overall, you, the reader, is the winner. And I, the author, am a happy camper.

So stay tuned: Why Materialism Is Baloney is coming soon!

Presenting Inception Dialogues

The logo of Inception Dialogues.

Today I am releasing my new project, Inception Dialogues, a series of conversations with some of the better and lesser-known right-brained thinkers, feelers, and visionaries of our age. Episode 1 is an overview of the project, its character, and purpose. Episode 2 is a fantastic interview with psychologist Rick Stuart, which I encourage you to watch and share with as many people as possible. Rick, in his uniquely open-hearted and authentic style, shares with us many valuable nuggets about the nature of life and the human psyche, the meaning of suffering, as well as his experience working with terminal patients.

While I am announcing the Inception Dialogues project here in this blog, I see it as separate from my on-going philosophy activity. The reasons for this are manyfold: For one, in Inception Dialogues the content is mostly not mine. Secondly, the series of dialogues represents my adventure into right-brained territory, which is not the usual hemisphere of my philosophy work. As a skeptic and analytical thinker, I do not want to mix up that adventure with my regular work. For this reason, Inception Dialogues has its own website, separate from Metaphysical Speculations. On YouTube, I will upload the episodes under my usual channel, but in a dedicated and clearly identified playlist.

I hope that Inception Dialogues complements my on-going work, and that you find value for yourself in the conversations!

'Why Materialism Is Baloney': An overview

Cover of Why Materialism Is Baloney.

Today I want to share with you an overview of my upcoming fourth book, tentatively titled Why Materialism Is Baloney: How true skeptics know there is not death and fathom answers to life, the universe, and everything. The manuscript is currently complete and discussions with potential publishers are ongoing.

For far too long has the cultural debate been framed as materialism versus religion. Materialism has, unjustifiably, gone unchallenged as the only viable metaphysics as far as clear rational thinking. Why Materialism Is Baloney seeks to change this and reframe the cultural debate. It uncovers the internal contradictions and absurd implications of materialism, and then presents a hard-nosed, non-materialist metaphysics substantiated by hard empirical evidence and clear logical argumentation. In this, it is a unique and much needed work that closes a glaring hole in today’s cultural dialogue.

Why Materialism Is Baloney articulates a surprising and compelling way of looking at nature, the laws of physics, and our condition as conscious beings. From that basis, the book lays out a coherent and logical framework upon which one can model, interpret, and explain every natural phenomenon and physical law, as well as the modalities of human consciousness, without the unlikely assumptions of materialism.

If the hypotheses and formulations of the book are correct, consciousness does not end at death, the brain being merely the image of a process by which mind localizes its own flow. Physical death entails a de-clenching or delocalization of awareness. The brain is in mind, not mind in the brain. And there is no abstract, strongly-objective universe outside of mind.

Unique in the modern intellectual discourse, the book challenges materialism on the basis of reason, empirical evidence, and skeptical argumentation, articulating ideas in clear, matter-of-factly, and direct language, with no use of loaded spiritual or religious terminology and concepts.

The book starts by laying out the key premises and implications of materialism and highlights materialism’s influence in our culture and value systems. The following chapter discusses the mind-body problem, offering a coherent view of the relationship between mind and brain according to which the brain is merely a localization mechanism of mind, a view that is substantiated with abundant empirical evidence. Thereafter, the book presents a modern and powerful formulation of the philosophy of idealism, according to which all reality is fundamentally mental. A series of metaphors are then discussed, each with an increasing level of complexity and explanatory power, which seek to make sense of all natural phenomena in terms of an idealist framework. The metaphors explain the division of the medium of mind into conscious and ‘unconscious’ segments, the origin of the laws of nature, and why they feel so separate from us. They explain the relationship between different individual minds, the nature of altered states of consciousness, mystical experiences, and many other phenomena. These metaphors are the main contribution of the work, for they offer a compelling new way of thinking about reality, scientific discoveries, and personal identity. The book closes with a series of more speculative ideas regarding the afterlife state, psychic phenomena, and other subjects of general popular appeal.

These are the topics covered in Why Materialism Is Baloney:
  • The materialist worldview and its counter-intuitive, absurd implications.
  • The influence of materialism in the cultural zeitgeist.
  • The mind-body problem: the relationship between the brain and the mind.
  • A powerful explanation for the undeniable correlations between mind states and brain states that does not entail that the brain generates the mind.
  • A powerful and modern formulation of the philosophy of idealism, according to which all reality is an essentially mental phenomenon.
  • A compelling articulation of a metaphysics according to which the body is in the mind, not the mind in the body.
  • The relationship between the laws of physics and idealism.
  • An explanation for the division of mind between conscious and ‘unconscious’ segments, as well as an elaboration of the fundamental nature of the ‘unconscious.’
  • An explanation for how, if reality is a projection of mind, the world seems so separate from us and governed by seemingly objective laws.
  • Coherent and compelling explanations for altered states of consciousness, mystical experiences, psychic phenomena, near-death experiences, etc.
  • A coherent and compelling way of thinking about reality that is consistent with all empirical evidence and yet denies the key assumptions and inferences of materialist philosophy
Stay tuned!

Interview on idealism

Snapshot of my interview with Et Vita.

An interview I gave very recently to Et Vita has just been published. It contains a nice overview of topics I address in my upcoming book tentatively titled Why Materialism is Baloney and, as such, is somewhat of a preview of the book. I hope you enjoy it!

In Memoriam

Snoes, spring 1998 - 2 January 2013.

Today, breaking from the usual pattern, I want to share with you a very personal thing. As I neared the completion of the manuscript of my fourth book, late in 2012, my cat neared the completion of her life. As my surreptitious co-author, she sat next to me while I wrote most of the articles in this blog, and most of the words in my books. Her name was ‘Snoes,’ a Dutch word that means something like ‘darling’ and is pronounced ‘Snoos.’ My wife and I adopted her only a few months after we settled in our first real home. Unlike many cats – who tend to avoid direct eye contact – Snoes would always look us straight in the eyes. That was our way to communicate, which we refined into a language over time. For almost 15 years, Snoes was an integral part of our family and lives, filling voids we didn’t know existed until after she was no longer with us.

With an uncanny synchronicity, her little body failed bit-by-bit as I completed each chapter of my manuscript. Because I was her nurse – administering daily injections, giving her pills, helping her eat, cleaning her up, making her comfortable, etc. – we grew even closer to each other. My home life became split between birthing the book and trying to make Snoes’ remaining time worth living. Birth and death, hand in hand.

Although her body was becoming a very unyielding tool, Snoes never failed to be by my side, with a serenity that baffled me. Towards the end, her little heart already giving up, we would go together for short, slow walks around the neighborhood every evening. I was her companion and protector against the odd unleashed dog. Despite growing weakness, her interest in these little adventures increased significantly in the last few days of her life. Mind you, the whole thing was her initiative: She would call me, nose pointing unambiguously towards the door, and then drag her little body as we made our way to the quiet, dark streets. Hard as it must have been, she still took every step with a grace that made me feel small next to her. I, a 6’1” (1.85m) man, was tiny next to that enormous little creature. Walking by her side, I watched as she showed me how to live life fully, and with dignity.

Often she would need to sit for a few seconds and catch her breath. She always made these little breaks look like the only appropriate course of action, never a surrender to physical distress. As she rested, she held her head high. Her ears were always alert, scanning for the smallest noises as if they were of great and urgent import. She smelled the air with gusto, her head tilting backwards as though she wanted to take everything in. She was completely in the moment: Every odd vehicle that drove by deserved her unreserved attention; every bush was investigated with the curiosity of a newbie explorer; the cool evening breeze was savored as it caressed her face. Her eyes glistened with renewed openness and innocence. I sensed that she was somehow becoming young again, rushing to reencounter the wide-eyed kitten she once was. Her body was falling apart, but her spirit was untouched; as radiant and fresh as in the day she opened her eyes for the first time. Snoes was coming full circle.

In her last evening, already unable to eat or drink, she humbled me once again by taking me further up the road than ever before in her whole life. Her single-minded determination was surreal; her steps firm and decisive. Her gaze was pointed straight ahead, without the slightest hint of hesitation. Her entire body language was saying: ‘This time, I am not stopping.’ I had x-rays and blood tests asserting that none of that should be physically possible. Yet, there it was. Who was I to tell nature what could or could not happen?

At some point, she crossed a side street towards a little channel that ran along the edge of our neighborhood, past most houses. She had the lead, and I was following next to her. Together, we went past the former boundaries of her world. She had entered entirely new territory; blazing a new trail as though she were rehearsing for the big journey only a couple of hours ahead. She seemed possessed by an urge to go beyond, into the unknown. As she reached the edge of the channel, she sat – exhausted – and looked longingly at some distant houses across an open field on the other side, lit up and shimmering like a row of small Christmas trees. I believe to have seen her sigh. Yes, she had discovered that the world was bigger than she had ever imagined. I watched her in awe and quiet despair, my heart tearing open.

Snoes spent everything she had in that final walk; there was nothing left in her afterwards. Her epic journey of discovery was her final act in this world; and what a fine, grand act it was. I carried her back home in my arms. Later that evening, the vet came to our place to deliver her of her pain; one final time. She passed away serenely, cozy and warm, in my wife’s arms. As life slowly seeped away from her battered body, I looked straight into her eyes, our noses touching, and gave her a final loving stroke. What a magnificent being I had in front of me; so much stronger than me in so many ways; so inconceivably larger than the physical dimensions of her body. I was the last thing she saw as she embarked on another, bigger journey. But this time, to my agony, I couldn’t go and walk next to her…

Yes, Snoes was ‘just’ a cat, and I don’t mean to belittle the larger dramas of life by going overboard with her story. But that feline’s journey showed me what it really means to say that life is an evocative metaphor for something ineffable, a point of view I was defending as I wrote the last chapter of my manuscript. On multiple levels, her story mirrored back to me the essence of what I was writing, as if to show me the true significance of my own message. Book and life mingled together in a strange, tangled hierarchy. Was I really the author or were Snoes and I mere characters in the book? The richness and rawness of the unspeakable shone through Snoes’ final days in pungent imagery and synchronicities, whizzing past the intellect and lodging themselves firmly in the truest and deepest reaches of my being.

Snoes had no philosophy, no knowledge, no books, and no narratives. She lived most simply. Through her, I understood that there is little better we can really hope to accomplish. She never lost her grace – not for one moment – because she was grace. She lived fully while she was alive, never rebelling against what is. And she never allowed me to truly feel lonely. Her journey and passing forced me, in a pungent but loving manner, to put the intellectual rationalizations of my book in perspective even before it was completed. She was a fine teacher, all the way to the end.

Modern Tales of the Dioscuri: The Quest for Truth

(An improved and updated version of this essay has appeared in my book More Than Allegory. The version below is kept for legacy purposes.)

Phineus with the Boreads. Source: Wikipedia.

Chapter 1: The seer

Pollux and Castor sailed far, to a distant island beyond the boundaries of maps, in search of Phineus, the seer. Upon arriving, exhausted but exultant, they immediately sought an audience with the famed prophet. Pollux, carefully trying to disguise his identity as son of Zeus ⎯ whose fit of jealousy had caused the blindness of Phineus ⎯ was the first to speak:

⎯ Greetings, wise seer. My brother Castor and I are on a quest for the ultimate Truth. But we know not which course to pursue. Bewildered as we are by the myriad myths of man, we humbly plea for your guidance.

Phineus looked over the two brothers with compassion. He knew the inevitability of what was to follow. After a long sigh, he replied:

⎯ There are only two authentic paths to truth, young seekers. Man has no shortage of myths at his disposal. If his true motivation is to find peace, he must search for the myth that resonates with his heart and make it his life and reality. This, the path of the heart, is authentic to man's deepest being.

He paused, knowing full well what he was about to do to the son of his nemesis:

⎯ The other path is one in which many seekers before you have found their demise. It is the path of the absolute: The rejection of every myth in the quest for a truth as pure and untarnished by the touch of man's mind as a buried jewel in the bowels of the Earth. This path requires the rigorous cleansing of raw experience from the narratives constantly woven and projected by mind. Behold, for he who finds and polishes this jewel will know the absolute truth!

Castor ⎯ whose mother, like Pollux's, was Leda, but whose father was the mortal king Tyndareus ⎯ interjected:

⎯ How do we know which path to choose, great seer?


⎯ Listen to your deepest, most uncritical, most sincere motivation, young seeker! What does your heart truly seek? Peace...?

And then, turning slightly to glance at Pollux, he continued:

⎯ ...or the absolute truth? Listen to your heart and, above all, be honest to yourself. This is the most personal of all quests. In its pursuit, you cannot deceive anyone but yourself.

Pollux and Castor, confused but resigned, thanked Phineus and returned to their ship. The darkness of the night had already descended upon them.

Chapter 2: The choices

On the deck of their ship, bathed by the light of many stars ⎯ Gemini particularly conspicuous above their heads ⎯ Castor shared his thoughts with his brother:

⎯ I must be honest to my most sincere motivations, brother. Truthfully, what I seek is peace. The confusion and doubts of life corrode my very soul. If I can find safe haven in a myth whose validity my heart can accept, there my quest will end.


⎯ I respect the sincerity of your choice, brother. But truthfully, no myth can sooth my heart. I must know what is, not the narratives woven by my own mind, or the minds of lesser men.

The brothers then parted ways, each pursuing the path dictated by his heart.

Chapter 3: Castor's quest

Having scoured the known world for the many myths and traditions of man, Castor failed to find the peace he so deeply craved. He did find a handful of myths that resonated with his heart. But how could he surrender to a myth while knowing that it was just a narrative? How could his heart be soothed by something his intellect knew not to be the absolute truth?

Castor, diligent as he was, could observe his own mind in the very process of weaving narratives whose true motivation was to sooth his pain and disquiet. The narratives were inventions. Castor knew that he was consciously trying to deceive himself; and that such attempt was ultimately futile. A man cannot be both trickster and audience at the same time. The trick has no power upon those who know how it is done.

Chapter 4: Pollux's quest

Having spent years in seclusion in some of the most isolated islands of the Adriatic, carefully observing the dynamics of his own mind, Pollux sought diligently to separate the jewel of immediate experience from the pollution of narratives. He saw through the many subtle layers of narrative-making: stories built on top of stories, all ultimately resting on unexamined assumptions. He realised that removing the narratives was like peeling an onion: there was always another, more subtle layer underneath.

In his quest, he tried to find the most basic, raw factors of reality: He had a body; that seemed free of narratives. His bodily sensations in the present moment seemed as close to an apprehension of the raw truth as he could get. The past and the future were just stories. Extrapolating this line of thinking, he concluded that only a newborn baby could experience the absolute truth, before any narratives had raised their ugly heads. As a grown man, such a state was not available to Pollux, but it suggested to him that an absolute truth did exist; his ultimate goal was there, just tantalizingly out of his reach.

Yet, upon further reflection, Pollux began to question his own conclusions. The possibility of narrative-free apprehension in a newborn was itself a narrative; a story constructed by his mind, since he could not experience the state of being a newborn in the present moment. Could there really be such a thing as raw perception without narratives? Was the mind of a newborn truly narrative-free, or was it simply in the process of weaving its first narratives as it perceived the world for the first time? Was perception fundamentally concurrent with narrative-making? Could anything ⎯ anything at all ⎯ be perceived without being couched in a narrative, chaotic and inconsistent as it might at first be? Pollux realised that he was forever locked into the narrative-making processes of his mind, which constructed the very reality of his search for the absolute truth. His search was itself a narrative. Whatever there could be outside of that narrative was fundamentally inaccessible to him and, as such, as good as unreal.

Pair of Roman statuettes (3rd century AD) depicting
Castor and Pollux. Source: Wikipedia.

Chapter 5: The meeting

After many years, the brothers met again on the deck of their trusted ship. As it floated gently on calm night seas, under the light of the new moon, Castor offered:

⎯ Brother, I have failed in my chosen path. The soothing power of myth needs permission from the intellect to be accepted as the truth. Without such permission, it is sterile. Knowing, as I do, that narratives are not the absolute truth, my intellect cannot give my heart permission to bask under the light of its chosen myth. I cannot find peace. For this reason, wise brother, I shall follow your example and pursue your path towards the absolute!

To which Pollux, in horror, replied:

⎯ Seek not through my path, brother! It is a hall of mirrors. Nothing absolute will you find there; only reflections of yourself, layered in exquisitely subtle veneers. The intellect is an unstoppable narrative-making machine of unfathomable power. It constructs all of our reality, like a cocoon which we inhabit. In my search for the intellectual ideal of an 'absolute,' I have only found my own limits.

The brothers sighed longly, as they starred at the moon. They remained in silence for a long time, until Castor offered in resignation:

⎯ The intellect... that is the common thread of our failures, brother. My intellect won't give me permission to surrender to my heart's chosen myth. Your intellect weaves an impenetrable wall of narratives that insulates you from the absolute, if there is any...

Pollux did not reply. He knew his brother was right, but he knew also that they were their intellects. What else could they be? Their quest was doomed to failure from its very beginning. He had nothing left in him anymore; he was defeated.

Chapter 6: The dreams

That night, they fell asleep on the deck of their ship, under the moon's light. Pollux dreamed of Phineus. In the dream, Phineus sat by a rich banquet table, indulging his appetite and laughing hysterically at Pollux's dilemma. Phineus had taken revenge on Zeus simply by telling the truth when requested to do so. What an ironic twist of fate, Pollux thought, as he descended into a domain of restless hopelessness. Orpheus had deserted him...

Castor, in turn, dreamed that he was swimming naked in the sea, under the moonlight. He swam effortlessly, drifting along as if one with the waves. He could feel the water caressing his skin. There were no thoughts in his mind... only the sea, the moon, and the fresh air, as if they were aspects of himself. In his dream, he found peace.

Zen Buddhism and Christianity

(An improved and updated version of this essay has appeared in my book More Than Allegory. The version below is kept for legacy purposes.)

Stained glass at St John the Baptist's Anglican Church, Ashfield, New South Wales. Source: Wikipedia.

Who am I to talk about religion? I am no theologian or religious scholar. Heck, I'm not even religious. So what compels me now to write something about two of the world's most significant religions? The sincere answer is: I am not really sure. Over the past weeks, after having finished the first draft of my fourth book – a very analytical, intellectual piece of work – I've found myself operating less at an intellectual level and more at an intuitive, heart-felt level. It is as though the completion of the draft freed me up to explore new avenues of being, and new ways to relate to myself and reality. In this process, it occurred to me that there is a striking similarity, even an equivalence, between Zen Buddhism and Christianity when it comes to the key manner in which these two religions help an individual relate more harmoniously to the world. This is what I'd like to talk about below.

Before you feel compelled to point out to me how these two religions differ dramatically in their respective worldviews and dogmas, let me emphasise what I said above: The equivalence I see is in the way they help an individual relate more harmoniously to reality; not in a similarity of dogmas. Moreover, I am aware that many scholars suggest that Christianity grew out of Buddhism as much as of Judaism, as the BBC documentary below suggests. But this is not what I want to talk about either. My point is completely agnostic of possible common origins. So let me get to it without further ado.

The source of all human suffering is the ego's inability, yet absolute need, to control how reality at large unfolds. This is a recipe for perennial frustration and anxiety since, deep inside, the ego is well-aware that it cannot control the world; that it cannot have everything it wants or stop bad things from happening. If you think carefully, you will notice that all suffering ultimately comes from this dilemma. If the ego could tell nature how to behave, what to do and what not to do, we would all be happy tirants. As a tiny, limited, but tireless aspect of nature, the ego is at war with what is, was, and can be. That's why we suffer.

Now, my key point is that both Zen Buddhism and Christianity help us tackle this fundamental cause of suffering in surprisingly analogous ways. To see it, one has to look past initial appearances.

Zen aims at stopping all suffering by disidentification with the ego. In other words, a Zen practitioner seeks to lose his or her identification with his or her own thoughts, feelings, beliefs, and persona. A successful Zen practitioner will identify him or herself with what they call pure awareness; a formless, narrative-free, neutral, but universal witness. The practitioner will still maintain an ego, but instead of believing him or herself to be the ego, he or she will use the ego as a tool for interacting with the world, without identifying with it. The moment this goal – often called 'enlightenment' – is achieved, all suffering stops: Only the ego suffers, and you are not the ego! The suffering of the ego is witnessed as the suffering of a character in a movie. In a strong sense, the ego is demoted from king of the hill to a small, limited, yet useful servant of impersonal awareness.

Now let's look at the essential manner in which Christianity reduces the suffering of the faithful. Christian believers also suffer because of the inability of their respective egos to control the world: They can't have all they want, they can't stop illness, and they can't avoid death. Their religion offers a way to deal with this dilemma through a form of surrender to a higher power: 'My destiny is in the hands of God,' they will say. By handing over its responsibility and struggles to a higher power, the ego withdraws from its war against reality. But as a consequence, it also finds itself demoted from king of the hill to a small, limited, yet useful servant of a higher power. Do you see the equivalence? At the level of inner feeling, the end result is precisely the same as that achieved by Zen practitioners: The tremendous lessening of a burden – as if a huge load were lifted off one's shoulders – and the cessation of futile struggles against what is.

Zen seeks to achieve this end result through an extremely skeptical and radically empirical path: It entails no narratives, dogmas, or theories of any kind. Its masters simply try to point the way for you to achieve a state of mind in which you no longer identify yourself with your ego. Instead of wasting time describing what 'enlightenment' is, they focus all their attention on helping you reach 'enlightenment' yourself. As such, Zen has enormous intellectual appeal to me as a skeptic empiricist. It soothes my instinctual fear of falling pray to fairytales: There are simply no tales in Zen, let alone fairy ones. For the same reason, I believe Zen to have enormous intellectual appeal to anyone involved in science or philosophy. The price, however, seems to be a kind of dryness that may come across as non-empathetic. When one is suffering, such detached approach may be difficult to embrace wholeheartedly. As humans, we crave empathy and reassurance, which is authentic and legitimate. Moreover, disidentification with all thought and emotion may end suffering, but how bland does it make life?

Christianity, on the other hand, achieves the exact same result through a plethora of narratives, symbols, and dogmas. Instead of the barren landscapes of Zen, it provides one with incredibly rich and meaningful images that speak directly to the unconscious (see Carl Jung's book Aion for a discussion of the psychology of the Christ figure and related topics). Empathy, compassion, and reassurance abound. Instead of the abstract concept of formless, universal awareness, Christianity offers the image of a divinity who is concurrently a flesh-and-blood man (Jesus the Christ) and a formless, universal potentiality (the Holy Spirit). The Holy Trinity can make a difficult abstraction such as the Holy Spirit directly accessible to any person, regardless of education or capacity for abstraction, in the form of a man who is also God himself. How much easier it is for the ego to surrender to such a concrete father figure, handing over its struggles to Him, instead of accepting itself to be a mere illusion! The price of this richness and accessibility, however, is the difficulty faced by any rational person to accept the narratives of Christianity uncritically. And make no mistake: The power of the narratives is entirely dependent on their being believed at some level, even if not literally! One must, somehow, muster enough faith in the Holy Trinity – most easily accessible in the form of Jesus the man – for it to be of any help in achieving the surrender of the ego. This isn't trivial in today's cynical and overly rational cultural context.

I could go on to explore the implications of everything I said above, and to relate it to the appalling state of religion in today's society. But I'll refrain from doing so for now. After all, my motivation for writing this article was simply to point out a similarity between faiths that, on the surface, are so radically different. Perhaps analogous similarities can be found across many other faiths. If that is so, they are all pointing to the same key for the end of suffering: The surrender of the ego in face of the wider reality of mind.

What is there to do?

(An improved and updated version of this essay has appeared in my book Brief Peeks Beyond. The version below is kept for legacy purposes.)

La Liberté guidant le peuple.

The other day I was discussing with a reader what can be done to prevent the growth of meaninglessness and isolation in the heart of our culture from crossing the point of no return. Although my conversation with her included more practical issues, like the alarming environmental deterioration and dangerous geopolitical trends we all bear witness to, I want to focus here on the psychological and 'spiritual' – a word I use with hesitation, since its meaning is so loose – health and wellbeing of humanity. On this specific point, my young reader felt strongly that vocal and decisive initiative should be taken by those with insight into the situation; that something must be done in the form of strong actions. It wasn't lost on me what she was trying to suggest regarding my responsibility in all this.

Yet, I am not inclined to revolutions or attempts to change people on a mass scale. By and large, I don't think they are effective. I believe change comes from within the individual, not from without. Once the impulse for transformation has manifested itself from within, then people can help each other transform by sharing experiences, ideas, philosophies, worldviews, etc. My work consists precisely in such an attempt to share my own ideas and worldview with those who already have the nascent drive to look at alternatives to our current cultural madness. Such sharing helps provide validated grounding for a new way to relate to reality and each other. But it only works with those who are already rejecting the status quo.

My attitude here can be construed as too passive; as too-little-too-late, which I suspect is my reader's take on it. A big part of me even acknowledges this. Shouldn't I then do something more proactive? Shouldn't I take more responsibility, as an inhabitant of this planet and a member of humanity, for changing our presently suicidal course?

I pondered much about it this weekend and finally found a way to reconcile my conflicting attitudes: Instead of trying to do something I will, instead, suggest what we could stop doing in order to improve our own psychological and 'spiritual' circumstances. Indeed, I believe that much of the damage arises from our own misguided actions. We blindly go about life doing all kinds of things that ultimately harm us. As such, perhaps the best way to stop the downward spiral of madness is not to do yet more things, but to stop doing a few things. In fact, it is a symptom of the madness of Western culture – which now pervades the whole world – that all useful thinking must translate into actions. Ours is a culture of do, do, do. However, when someone is pounding his own head with a hammer, the right course is not to look for a helmet, but to stop the hammering.

So here are my three suggestions – only three! – of things we could all, individually, stop doing to help improve our collective sanity and wellbeing. None of the three entries in the list below requires effort, since they are not proactive but purely passive. Yet, if most of us would stop doing these three simple things, I am convinced that our psychological and 'spiritual' health would improve substantially, both individually and collectively. And as a direct result of that, we might even find our culture and civilisation on a path back to meaning.
  1. Let us stop compulsively stupefying ourselves. We all feel, in the depths of our unconscious minds, that our ordinary lives are becoming increasingly empty and meaningless. The unconscious tries to correct the course of our lives through an array of signals, which we then diligently ignore through distractions: idiotic television shows, alcohol, shopping 'therapy,' compulsive money-making and status-chasing, compulsive dating, and what not. This is understandable in that nobody likes to remain exposed to the anguish and anxiety emerging from the unconscious in its attempts to force a change. But if those feelings are not allowed conscious room to be processed, acknowledged, and integrated, not only will they harm us even more from within – think of neuroses and even psychoses – we will not give ourselves any chance to find the meaning of our lives again. This tragic loss is unnecessary: The unconscious process often unfolds by itself when given the appropriate room in consciousness. All we need 'to do' is to stop stupefying ourselves and trust that the initial discomfort will be, in time, followed by a much richer and more harmonious life.
  2. Let us stop eating so much meat. No, I am not saying that we should all turn into vegetarians, just that we could perhaps reduce meat consumption. Now, why am I saying this? Not for the usual reasons, like better health, less environmental impact, etc. These reasons may all be true and good, but my motivation here is different: The conditions under which animals are kept and 'processed' (like objects) for food are dreadful under the best of circumstances, and often outright unthinkable. Here are some videos (viewer discretion advised). If you have the stomach, try this (no, really, if you have the stomach). Many more higher animals are killed for food every day than the total number of human beings killed in the whole of World War II. The enormous volumes of animals involved mean that they aren't 'nicely put to sleep,' if you know what I mean. This unfathomable and excruciating orgy of torture, distress, and death is being carried out on our account as you read this, because we provide the demand for it. And if all minds are one at the level of the collective unconscious – a point I argue in my philosophy – imagine how much outrage, stress, fear, anxiety, dread, anguish, and sheer pain is being pumped every day into our unconscious minds? Do you really think that you, as an individual, is completely insulated from this? Can you even imagine the magnitude of what we are doing to ourselves?
  3. Let us stop acting so much. Now, what do I mean with this one? Let's face it: We all act. We act at work, we act at home, we act at the gym, we act at the pub, etc. We act so consistently that we mistake the acting for living an ordinary life. We try to control the image of ourselves that we make available to others, motivated by a need to fit in, to appear strong, to look attractive, etc. In psychological terms, we all wear the mask of the persona. But since we know, deep inside, how much suffering, insecurity, and anxiety we actually live with, and since everybody else is acting too, each one of us ends up thinking that she or he is the weakest, most inappropriate and fear-ridden person on the planet. The acting causes us all unnecessary suffering. Show me a person who claims to have no significant fears or insecurities and I will show you a liar. We're all on the same boat; we are all suffering. But because we try to put up this image of strength and harmony, we add insult to injury by convincing ourselves that we are each alone in our suffering. This only increases our profound isolation and loneliness as individuals. We forget that the only real strength is the courage to present ourselves to the world as we really are, so we can live in authentic community and help each other out.
That's it. Three simple things we could stop doing today in order to change the world significantly.

Brain, Mind, and the Matrix of Innovation

I have been busy writing my fourth book and, therefore, have not written much here lately. To try and compensate for it, I'd like to share with you a presentation I gave recently. In it, I discuss the nature of the creative process and its relationship to the mind-body problem. Are innovative ideas generated algorithmically by the brain? Or is brain activity, in fact, an obstacle to creative insight? An intriguing pattern in revealed: creative insight correlates precisely with a reduction of brain activity. Many cases are reviewed to substantiate this pattern: accidental savants, psychedelic trances, brain damage, hyperventilation, meditation, acceleration- and strangulation-induced loss of consciousness, traditional ordeals and initiatory rituals, transcranial magnetic stimulation, etc. The presentation concludes with the surprising idea that, analogously to how lightning is merely the image of the process of electric discharge, the brain is not the cause of mind but an image of the process of mind constriction. As such, the path to creative insight is a de-clenching, a relaxation of brain activity, not its increase. The presentation is in video format, with accurate closed captions that I created manually.

I hope you find it enjoyable!

Here is the relevant bibliography alluded to in the video:
  • Bergson, H. (1912). Matter and Memory. London: George Allen & Co.
  • Blanke, O. et al. (2002). Stimulating illusory own-body perceptions: The part of the brain that can induce out-of-body experiences has been located. Nature, 419, pp. 269-270.
  • Carhart-Harris, R. L. et al. (2012). Neural correlates of the psychedelic state as determined by fMRI studies with psilocybin. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. [Online]. Available from: [Accessed 6 June 2012].
  • Huxley, Aldous (2004). The Doors of Perception and Heaven and Hell. London: Vintage Books, pp. 10-11.
  • Kelly, E. W., Greyson, B. and Kelly, E. D. (2009). Unusual Experiences Near Death and Related Phenomena. In: Kelly, E. D. et al. Irreducible Mind: Toward a Psychology for the 21st Century. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, pp. 367-421.
  • Neal, R. M. (2008). The choking game. In: The Path to Addiction: And Other Troubles We Are Born to Know. Bloomington, IN: AuthorHouse, pp. 310-315.
  • Pascual-Leone, A. et al. eds. (2002). Handbook of Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation. London: Hodder Arnold.
  • Retz (2007). Tripping Without Drugs: experience with Hyperventilation (ID 14651). [Online]. Available from: [Accessed 6 June 2012].
  • Rhinewine, J. P. and Williams, O. J. (2007). Holotropic Breathwork: The Potential Role of a Prolonged, Voluntary Hyperventilation Procedure as an Adjunct to Psychotherapy. The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, 13(7), pp. 771-776.
  • Taylor, K. (1994). The Breathwork Experience: Exploration and Healing in Nonordinary States of Consciousness. Santa Cruz, CA: Hanford Mead.
  • Urgesi, C. et al. (2010). The Spiritual Brain: Selective Cortical Lesions Modulate Human Self Transcendence. Neuron, 65, pp. 309-319.
  • Whinnery, J. and Whinnery, A. (1990). Acceleration-Induced Loss of Consciousness: A Review of 500 Episodes. Archives of Neurology, 47(7), 764-776.
IMPORTANT DISCLAIMER: Many, if not most, procedures aiming at reducing brain activity can be potentially dangerous and even fatal. This presentation is not meant to encourage anyone to carry out risky activities. I disclaim any and all responsibility, legal or otherwise, for any damage incurred by those choosing to run such risks, or as a consequence thereof.