The good and bad of prayer, and finding a better way.

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I am neither an atheist nor a spiritualist, but some strange place in between I call an apatheist. After doing a series of posts called Philosophers Squared I felt an affinity for the Stoics, so I did another series on Epictetus, a 1st century slave in the Roman Emperor Nero’s court. The goal of that world view is to live tranquilly with one’s inner self and contented with the outer world. Having practiced that, intermittently as all things must be, for several months now, I do feel more comfortable being who I am, and more accepting of everyone else being who they are. I have been more willing to explore well outside of my usual self-imposed box, of demanding conformity to testable reality.

With that broadened view I am going to explore the world of prayer. I don’t want to get trapped into Saint Augustine‘s, “Faith is to believe what you do not see; the reward of this faith is to see what you believe”.

My plan is to observe what I presently think about the value of prayer, then to read and discuss a variety of prayers, and then to write some prayers that an objective apatheist would consider helpful. This is a large subject and will take a while, and perhaps the first prayer would be to my own self – to direct me along the proper paths. At this time I perceive a prayer to be a request of the Universe, of which I am part, to give goals that I can seek and directions that I can obey.

A prayer is a quest for right action, and the action begins within one’s own choice.

I will, as I must, function within the realms of the possible. Seeking the impossible must inevitably lead to failure, disappointment, and despair.

Prayer is a prelude to the action needed to fulfill the goal of the prayer.

If we seek something from something that doesn’t exist, the only thing to come into being will be our own fantasies, and unless they are grounded in something they will lead to nothing.

We must ask in such a way that our emotions understand and can motivate us to action, as the mind perceives all things with too complex a view to have motivated action.

Prayers can only come true if it is possible for them to come true. A bad prayer is one that asks for the impossible, and it will bring nothing but something you didn’t pray for.

When we pray for what is, and what will be, and what has been, our prayers will always be answered.

Let us seek to be able to think clearly when terrified, and act properly when in pain.

Hand – push open the gate that I might see the path. Feet – step forward that I might tread the path. Heart – give courage that I might travel the path. Mouth – smile that I might enjoy the journey.

The journey begins.

 

The Tao Teh Ching – #13 – Revealed by Lao Tzu – Rendered by Charles Scamahorn

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13

Honors and dishonors will disturb your equanimity; and
When you think highly of your self,
Your body will be filled with suffering.

Why do both honors and dishonors disturb your peace of mind?
Honors set you up, and then you may be knocked down.
Thus, not having honor,
You are anxious that you may get it;
Or, having honor,
You are anxious that you will lose it.

Why is your body filled with suffering
When you think highly of your inner self?
To have suffering requires that
You be tied to an injurable self, but
When your essence is tied to your uninjurable void,
How can there be suffering?

One who loves his country as this self
May be trusted by his country;

One who treats his country as this self
May be entrusted with its care.

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How do we identify wisdom?

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Our Socrates Cafe question was “How could we identify wisdom?” and we covered many aspects and variations of that problem for two hours. The opening salvo began with the Biblical quotation “Get wisdom and with all thy getting get understanding,” Proverbs – 4-7. This isn’t a religious discussion group, but that was a logical beginning, and Coleridge’s “Wisdom is common sense to an uncommon degree” quickly flew by, Buddha’s Four Cardinal Virtues were mentioned, and a definition was read off an internet dictionary. We sought on for the basis of how we could know wisdom, and most agreed that it could be seen in hindsight as having consistently gotten good results out of seemingly very difficult and confusing situations. Just having a good outcome in a specific situation might be simple luck, and thus “Wisdom oft comes from the mouth of babes” was discounted.

We felt that the individual consciousness was critically involved in who we saw as possessing wisdom, because it was an active and ongoing process kind of thing. There was the hindsight versus foresight problem, and how can we know whom to follow, when we know that we do not know the best way forward. To which, all else being equal, it seemed best to go with a record of successful accomplishment in similar situations. But, there reared the concept of confirmation bias, and the distortions our own minds would insert into a clear decision-making process. Did a situation call for a life-smart kind of person, or one of considerable book learning? Did the problem to be coped with need intelligence, or courage, or experience or leadership?

Wisdom becomes a difficult thing to define, and to choose, and to follow. Typically it’s the person shouting the loudest who claims leadership, but they are clearly functioning from prejudice and performing with bigotry, and following them will often bring us to disaster. Yet, the person who over-thinks the problem will be crippled by doublethink and doubts, and lack of decisive action, and that too will lead to disaster. Perhaps the Classic Greeks had the best answer, and that was to pursue all of the functional options through the planning stage, and if a best one couldn’t be decided upon, to then consult the Delphi Oracle. Then the Gods would speak, and say what must be done. Then the doubter could proceed with utmost confidence, vigor, and enthusiasm because the Gods were with him.

We had a round robin on the question, “Have we, as an individual, had an experience of personal wisdom?” I spoke of my encounter last week with the garden gnome Samumpsickle, and after realizing that my requests for improvement inevitably had a serious downside, I ended with, “Let the world progress as it was going to do without my suggestions or his help.”

We did end with a few generalizations, such as “It’s not enough to be right, if your actions end in disaster,” “Ignorance leads one into bondage, and wisdom gives one freedom of action,” “Wisdom brings calmness and the ability to generate kindness.” It ended with,

Wisdom is the ability to find the exact thing that will make a difference, and the ability to propagate it virally.

The good, the bad and the ugly of Ebola

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The good news about the current Ebola outbreak in West Africa is that the massive efforts to bring it under control are working. There were only 33 new cases reported last week, which is much better than the roughly 1,000 per week back five months ago in November. The bad news is that the disease is still being spread by individuals who don’t realize they have the disease, and discovering all the people they came into contact with in the previous days is ultimately impossible. Fortunately, Ebola only spreads easily when the person is quite sick, so the transmission rate is low, but until every case is found and isolated a recurrence of the epidemic is possible. A year ago, on January 1st, only a single person, a two-year-old boy named Emile Ouamouno, had died in the West African outbreak of Ebola Virus Disease (EVD), and today’s sad count is 10,808. An intense effort for a few more weeks may bring this scourge to an end.

Perhaps the best news was just reported in Nature-Letters, that one of the newly created drugs, named TKM-Ebola, has been very effective. Of six macaques infected with lethal doses of Ebola virus, the three given the drug after they were sick with Ebola survived, and the three not given the drug died. No doubt the drug will now be given to humans, and as there are so few people now contracting the disease all of the new victims may be given this new drug.

Perhaps even the very best news is that the researchers who developed this new drug knew exactly what they were trying to create, and knew exactly how to create it. I didn’t see the word CRISPR in the news report, but they did mention putting strings of DNA into exact places in the Ebola virus to disable it. That is terrifically wonderful news because it implies that the research community can now eliminate many diseases, and quickly too.

And now for the ugly, and it is truly ugly! There are people who have collected this virus and other ones throughout the world and are using these same advanced technologies to weaponize these diseases. I blogged about this problem five years ago relative to chemical weapons in a book review of State Secrets: An Insider’s Chronicle of the Russian Chemical Weapons Program by Vil S. Mirzayanov. This is readily available knowledge, and I do acknowledge that it is part of the natural order of things that people will wage war on other people by any means available, but collecting diseases with the intent of randomly creating epidemics is the ultimate evil. This ability to manipulate the disease and its methods of transmission can so easily go out of control and destroy many non-involved living things. To these research people I would say –

Remember that you too are part of humanity.

A Dictionary of New Epigrams – Grief

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A Dictionary of New Epigrams

Grief

Let your griefs be short and your recoveries long and lovely.

The way to respond to a great loss is with a great new goal.

Tragedies will happen, but we are the ones who choose to grieve or laugh.

We need not grieve for a life well lived, that responded appropriately to each new moment as it came into being.

When your dog dies a big piece of your heart dies too.

No need to grieve for me when I am gone. I am not suffering, but choose to have a moment of shared remembrance because a laugh that comes to you comes from me too, for I am everywhere now.

You can not share grief with the dead, for they feel nothing.

Life may have its pain, suffering, sorrow, and grief but it also has pleasure, recovery, enjoyment and bliss;  To detach oneself from any of these aspects of life to achieve oblivion is the path of the fool.

Grief is a wound that must not be continually prodded; instead it must be protected from prodding so that it may be healed.

I need not grieve for my dead friend — he will not be comforted — but I must grieve for myself, for it is I who is suffering my former companion’s death.

Grief hurts, so it is best to keep it brief.

Grief for all of the infinity of inevitable things must be an infinite grief, and who can endure that kind of life? Instead choose to live and quickly abandon grief, and participate in all that life has to offer, including its infinite passing away.

When a friend dies one must realize that they were but one of a category, and one can acquire more friends, but when your mother or father dies there is no replacement.

Everything that lives must cease to live in the expanse of time, and that being a fact one must accept, it is wise to limit our grief and move on to other things.

When the time comes for action we must set our griefs aside.

Grief is like the Laocoon snake, slowly squeezing the living breath out of now.

An important task soothes many pains and it’s productive too.

Too much time spent in grief only succeeds in training you to be a skillful griever.

I have opinions based on observations. What are yours based on?

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The premise of this blog has been the expressing of the opinion:— I know something and I think it will help you if I write it out and post it where you can see it. — My intention has been to present ideas, not as fixed facts, but as explorations that you might make to discover some things that might be helpful to you. Most of the subjects that are covered are probably covered by other people elsewhere; after all, there are over seven billion other people and only one of me, and one of you, and of course there are some hundred billion other people who have had an input into our thought processes. So what I am really saying isn’t totally new, but rather a viewpoint, inevitably different from yours, that might give you a stereo-vision on your problem. With that additional view of it, and a different insight of your perception of it, hopefully something better might come about.

Hopefully if you do find something valuable you will communicate to others, and they to the rest of humanity at large through osmosis of thought. Perhaps just as important is when something doesn’t work you communicate that too, but before you condemn new ideas it is important that you actually understand and try them. If a idea is even a little bit different from a person’s preexisting way of doing things it will be rejected, and it is difficult to change. There is the old saying, “A mind is a terrible thing to waste.” but a greater truth is, “A mind is an impossible thing to change.” We never really change our minds; we only overlay a way of thinking with another one that seems to fit our new situation better than the old one. The old one is still there, but we choose to use the new one.

There is a major problem that has developed in our world over the last decade that has been created by the internet and the search engines like Google. It is called confirmation bias. That is, we search for the information that proves what we already believe is true, and therefore we can continue behaving the way we have been. That, coupled with the fact that we can now easily find people who believe as we have already conditioned ourselves to believe, means it is easier than ever to form opinions more deeply that are founded exclusively on the opinion of others who already believe what we believe. It is a positive feedback cycle of the type that can bring about poor results, because there isn’t a process for correcting any poor information. We all have these propensities, to believe that we are right, but normally when we are wrong about something we soon get negative feedback and stop believing things that aren’t true and doing things that don’t work well. The idea of science, and the reason it has improved technical operations so much is because the various people working on a subject constantly challenge each other’s work. They like to prove the other guy made a mistake, so they can get their promotions for being right, but because science in general has been tested this way it is very difficult to find things that don’t work. Part of the fair play of science is to admit you are wrong when you are proven wrong. And there is the current problem, because it is now so easy to find someone to agree with almost anything that can be conceived, and also to quickly form a group of true believers in a new cause. I don’t condemn this trend; I only want people to individually verify that what they are basing their thoughts and decisions upon is real.

 

Your world might expand like mine just did.

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Today I was on Pilot Butte, a scenic tourist spot, and two well-dressed women were trying to take a selfie photo. I offered to take the photo for them, and Nattie introduced herself and agreed, so we fiddled around with her new camera phone a bit looking for the little image of a button. I took a couple of pictures, they both thanked me, and we all expected that to be the end of our pleasant little encounter. But then we started chatting, as almost all the people here in Bend do, and one thing led to another, but then the other woman, whose name I’ll leave out, mentioned how God was guiding her every action. Rather spontaneously, she said she was putting all of her actions in God’s hands, and how she was now paying exclusive attention to God, and praying to him constantly.

Many people will back off when even a very properly dressed and well presented woman starts talking about God, but I don’t, at least since attending improv classes, spiritual awareness seminars, Socrates Cafe discussions, Band of Brothers meetings, professional helpers’ seminars and some other similar social gatherings. Nowadays, instead of challenging people in any way on their beliefs I go wholly into their world view, and participate to see where it will go. I am totally open to what my personal beliefs are while people are explaining theirs, but I don’t hesitate to see things the way they are explaining them. I try diligently to see things as they see them.

Perhaps this searching human realities is like my exploring into the unknown unknowns of the physical world, that I have blogged about many times. That search can go to some strange places, like pursuing cuttlefish in the ocean just south of Australia, where I saw the very limits the animal world has exploited in an effort to visually disguise itself. All the same, humans will go even further in their explorations of mental reality than physical reality permits the cuttlefish. So, I go with them. To feel comfortable doing these explorations I must abandon my confirmation bias that I am right about whatever the subject at hand is, and instead assume that the person I am talking to has a good understanding of their reality. Yes they do, once you make the assumptions that they have made, and then make the conclusions, and the behavior that follows. The people are coherent wholes, and will explain themselves well, if given a chance.

Part of this exploration has led to a deeper understanding of kindness, because it is impossible to be kind to another being until you have an understanding of what it is they are trying to accomplish.

 

How can we find truth?

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Every adult admits their world is filled with biased information. Advertising is obviously aimed at convincing us to buy stuff we don’t need. Sometimes it’s an expensive watch, a car, or some lemons, and we probably encounter thousands of these kinds of appeals for every one that actually influences us enough to spend our money. Politicians also try to get us to vote for them and we tolerate their duplicitous spins on what they say, because we hope their opponents will catch them in obvious lies.

What about medical truths? Should we take some drug, or eat some special foods, or do some special form of exercise to maintain our health? How can we get reliable information without having our personal information bias filter the information we encounter, only to verify that we are already right about everything? Some people go directly to Wikipedia as a reliable source, because it is juried by well-intentioned people, and they keep the site as filled with accurate information, and free of bias, as possible. But, it’s boring.

At a recent group discussion, Google was reported to be used by almost all my interlocutors, but they complained that the first page is so heavily loaded with commercial stuff, and gamed stuff to get top ratings, that it takes too much effort to bother with. What was recommended was to include the term “edu” as part of the search string, because that limits the pages to universities and avoids some of the commercials.  Several mentioned their love of YouTube, but it too has become so laden with popups, and ads that it has become so annoying as to be hated and now avoided.

Well, I love those sites, and realize they need to make a profit to cover the cost of providing their services. But, when I discover their owners are now billionaires, it seems that they could have delivered a better product at less cost to their customers. Sites that clearly give total value without intrusion, such as Craigslist and Amazon, are great for their customers, but they are destroying many classic business models. Destruction of people’s livelihoods is sad, but that business model does create a more efficient world economy, so it is good for almost everyone else. I suspect that the purveyors of information like Google and YouTube may be at serious risk of being destroyed by people who choose to distribute the same information, but to do so in a less intrusive way. The truth may win in a while.

The pirates who can somehow become legitimate will eventually triumph.

 

Be nicer.

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The older I get the nicer I get to other people. I still have a long way to go, because I started off at such a low-level. In grade school I remember that I was known as a ball hog, because when another guy was about to catch a baseball, I would grab it right before he got it. In high school I was known as arrogant and obnoxious. Even when I was in Air Force pilot training people complained at me for swaggering. And even in my years in Berkeley people complained that I was too assertive. Of course all those times I felt I was only being normal.

To all of these people I said, in self-defense, that they were misconstruing my actions, and that when I said or did something they thought of as demanding, I said it was simply a better way to do whatever it was they were doing. People still complain at me occasionally for being too “helpful.” Even with these blog posts many people will complain that they are unfounded opinions about things. To which I will readily agree that they are often new ideas, but once again in self-defense, I will assert that I have tried the things I suggest and they work. I usually say that they should try these things themselves, and report back their results, good, bad, or indifferent.

Where is the obnoxious indifference in that? Earlier today I was talking briefly about the EarthArk project, probably for about a minute, and certainly less than five minutes, and my intelligent companions launched into saying let humanity die, that the Earth would recover in a hundred million years, like it did after the dinosaur extinction. I am surprised that when I say my primary long-term goal is to help humanity to prosper, that many people immediately challenge that as a foolish goal. These are honest, well-employed, successful American people, and it leaves me wondering just how common those types of beliefs are among our nation’s public, and humanity in general.

A scientific study was mentioned where medical doctors were tracked to see which ones were being sued for malpractice. The results were that the quality and success of the operations had little correlation with the complaints, but what did correlate was how friendly the doctors were to their patients. Doctors who were perceived by their patients as caring about their individual welfare were rarely sued. Of course to become a doctor requires years of dedication to the well-being of their future clientele, and one would assume that those doctors who did get sued did have sustained compassion for humanity. I mention this because, as of today, I have published 2,715 posts here at Probaway, all of which I believed when writing them were helpful to other people, and yet as of now I haven’t earned a single cent. Some have even said I may have saved their life. I am happy about that, but I write this to assert that I am not a swaggering idiot. I do give things that are helpful to other people. Isn’t that being nice to people? It seems that –

It is not the helping of people that is desired, but their perception of being cared for personally.

Categories are only in our heads.

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It seems obvious to me that categories exist only within the operations of my brain. And even more of a problem is that every word I speak is a category of something or other at some level, and thus everything I, and by projection we, talk about is a fabrication of our unconscious brains and is observed by our conscious minds.

The problem is that an apple doesn’t physically exist as a category. These things do exist as physical things that are made up of discrete and definable bits of matter, and obviously the apple does exist as a characteristic arrangement of matter, but as an entity that can be spoken of and transmitted via a comprehensible language, the apple exists only in our minds. The physical apple has been transformed into a physical arrangement of stuff in my brain, but it isn’t an apple, and it does become observable to my consciousness in my mind, but its identity as data in my brain would be difficult to distinguish from a baseball. Or would it?

Perhaps the difference between an apple and a baseball would be quite apparent in our brain response, because our relationship with these two categories is vastly different. We may hold each of these similarly sized objects in our hands, but we never bite into a baseball. We might throw an apple, as I have done with rotten apples in my family’s apple orchard, but I wouldn’t expect my uncle to hit it over my head with a baseball bat. This is about as far as the overlap between these seemingly similar objects can be expected to go, and then they diverge. So, an MRI brain scan should show very different responses to these similar items.

I bring this up because people I talk with sometimes speak of reality, and categories of the mind, in divergent ways. One seemingly normal man I know speaks reasonably on most subjects except the spaceship that resides in his back yard. I can’t see it because it is in a different dimension, but for him it is sufficiently real that he can talk about it in considerable detail. I know others who claim to have an eternal spiritual essence, and their physical body is only a temporary meat covering for this eternal essence. They insist that their real self is eternal. They treat me with some disdain when I speak of my conscious self as being dependent on the operation of my living meaty body. They believe they can claim a superiority over me, because they exist on a higher plane, and thus they reside in a more significant reality than I do.

I have been exploring a wider range of humanity since I departed from Berkeley, four years ago. That city is known for tolerating people who are living on the periphery of human thought and behavior. Bend, Oregon, is considered to be a center of ordinary people, and is a center for outdoor recreation, and not very intellectually inclined, but the periphery of people here is just as wild as in Berkeley.

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