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This journal is part of a class assignment for Joi’s and Tenzin’s class on Principles of Awareness in the Spring term 2016
Joscha Bach

February 12

There is a sense in which we cannot fail. I mean, we usually do not fail with respect to our most basic experience of the world (we feed and wash this body, take care of all our basic needs etc.), and we usually do not fail with respect to our core values. The failures in between tend to be about narratives. We set ourselves arbitrary symbolic goals, and then we try to comply to these stories. We want to be successful at tests, in relationships, at projects, we are abusive against ourselves if we are missing these goals, etc. Sometimes I try to take a friendly third person perspective towards my life, and then I stop pushing this poor little fellow around so hard.
The goal is to be like a cat. Cats are competent and diligent and super-focused… at being a cat. Cats do not try to succeed in strange symbolic narratives. They are just great. Even the not-so-great cats are still amazing. If a cat falls off a table, it has not failed. It is still an excellent cat, albeit a clumsy one.

February 21

As it turned out during a regular blood check, our apartment has too much lead paint for our children. Ever since we are somewhat frantically looking for an apartment, not too far from our places of work and daycare, within our financial means, without lead paint, and fitting four people. Losing our home feels stressful, especially in the absence of decent alternatives. Making the wrong decision is expensive, and means moving twice.
To be able to sleep and work, I need to practice disentangling myself from the perceived pressures. Without fear, we can make the same decisions, perform the same actions. One way consists in going into “Avatar mode”, something I have resorted to in periods when my life became unbearable: I am a figure in a game, remote controlled by my knowledge and reasoning. The figure, the game is not something I have to identify with. I just have to play it well. This is a crude strategy, because it destroys experience and joy, but it also avoids depression and breakdowns. A nicer, much more serotonergic strategy consists in subjectively syncing myself with whatever the universe has in store for me, and opening myself to the perception that this is not only worth it, but meaningful and deliberate. It is compatible with being fully awake, and enjoying experience. It means that I have to unshackle myself from certain motivational impulses, letting go of my preconceived goals, and allowing the path to embrace me.

March 3

Higher levels don’t matter.

A lot of the construction of my world view focuses on very high level concepts, which carry enormous normative weight. I have strong opinions about global warming, macro-economic principles, international law, health care organization, individual cost and allocation of education, to name just a few, and this makes me a very typical person in my view.
These ideas influence what I feel and see and how I judge aspects of other people, and how I construct my social identity. But they have surprisingly little relevance for what I need to do every day, and for what I can and do actively influence. Yes, the Greek crisis was entirely foreseeable, worried me a great deal, and when it happened, it captured my attention and emotional engagement. I read and discussed it a lot, but aside from a few letters to a Greek friend, it did not spawn any Greece-related actions on my part, nor did it have practical relevance.
My model of the world contains predictive elements that tell me what to do when, and what to expect. Structural elements are inferred and allow deeper predictions, based on functional models. But most of my sense-making does not serve either purpose. It acts as a social signal, to define groups based on what they care about, and it satisfies my curiosity, but both things could be also achieved with TV shows or science fiction books. The higher levels simply do not matter.
I used to be worried about the fact that most people in the US heavily disagree with my world view. They might deny man-made global warming, the utility of global health care, or evolution, but when it comes down to it, this just means that we have different opinions on what the most high-ranking administrators of the US should decide, something that we do not even seriously believe to be competent to give advice on. Since these administrators do not care much about our opinions either, it only matters how I directly interact with my fellow citizens. As it turns out, we have quite compatible and largely benevolent ideas about this. Higher levels do not matter. But I certainly won’t give up on them.

March 10

Eternalism and Transcendence

I have learned a new word: Eternalism.
I am an eternalistic nerd, a sucker for meaning, addicted to transcendence. I am constantly looking out for a higher purpose, willing to sacrifice my life for it. Not working or a higher purpose appears meaningless and dismal to me. Serving a higher purpose removes all sense of futility from my actions.
Higher purpose manifests in the beyond. It is not of this world. Where does my addiction come from? I suspect that it is either the urge for legitimacy (a need to follow internalized norms, with the evolutionary role of providing a hook for group goals into the motivational system of the individual). Or it is a more general principle of cortical processes that need to link up into computational architectures: all individual units need to be perfectly altruistic. Like cells i an organism, they should always serve a system that is more important than them. My self concept is a cortical process; perhaps it has inherited this property? Is my self model constantly on the lookout for something that it can serve, something that will absolve it of its existence?
In our culture, we have a number of names for the abstract beyond that we seek to serve. The Sacred. Deeper Meaning. The Eternal. God. We also have a name for this service: Love. Not in the sense of romantic attraction or of compassion or of identification, but unconditional submission. If I can convince you that I am serving the Sacred, I will become one of your gateways to transcendence, a part of this system that is more important than you, than anything in this world, and you will love me. Or rather, you will love the transcendent through me. If we do it together, the veil of separateness will fall. There is nothing that I will not do for you, in the service of the Eternal.
Much of the creation of culture owes itself to the service of transcendence, performed by Eternalism addicts. Artists, scientists, community organizers, priests.

March 11

Does God exist? (No.)

Last summer, Martin Novak has accused me of being religious. Not as the result of a particular conversation, and while knowing that I am a Good Atheist like everybody else. Well, he is an, um, religious catholic himself; I meant: like every reasonable person.
Martin has observed what motivates my work, and he saw a similar impetus as in his own: A desire to find God. “You are deeply religious, but you are confused by Secularism.” – I hastily retorted: “And you are an atheist, but confused by your Catholic indoctrination.”
It took me some time to understand that Martin’s God is an epi-phenomenon, and his belief an epi-belief: one that has no consequences, allows no derivates or conclusions. Martin’s God is the one of Thomas of Aquinas. The reason why there is something, rather than nothing, and the bearer of the ultimate purpose of the universe. None of these tasks is likely to interfere with science or politics, and God has no knowable properties beyond this.
Is the transcendent real? Does God exist? It is as if he has spawned me, poor little cognitive process that I am, and put me into the hermetically sealed room of my axiomatic reasoning. I cannot escape this room: all shape and structure that would constitute a door or window has to be erected by axioms first, and will only lead inside the room. I cannot possibly get outside, and have no way to infer a necessary God. Aquinas was wrong, there is no necessary God, and possible Gods won’t do.
Martin Novak’s reasoning must work differently from mine. I suspect that his primary algebra is not based on a truth table, but on a deontological matrix. This matrix does not resolve ideas by mapping them onto true and false, but onto right and wrong. In this formalism, every logical statement is not self-contained, but always the answer to a question. Hence, the existence of a statement always implies the existence of the question, and therefore, God must exist. God is the question to which I am the answer; otherwise, I would not exist. My more standard logical system is directionless. It does not matter if truth is 0 or 1; it is just a label, unable to refer to anything outside of the algebraic box. Martin’s algebra can do everything that mine can do, by stating that truth is a kind of right, and false is a kind of wrong. But in addition, Martin’s algebra is directional: ultimately, his statements will always point outside of the box, embedding a reference to a necessary transcendent realm. We cannot know God’s properties, because he cannot reach into our algebraic system, but we can know his existence, since it is implied in ours.
Can I adopt Martin’s algebra? In my world, nothing can be truly right or truly wrong. When you talk about something being wrong, my mind maps it onto axioms that express explicit preferences. “Murder is to be considered bad, because removing people prematurely from the world is on average undesirable for most people, hence we implement a norm against murder.” No problem. I can see Martin’s algebra, but only as something his mind has built inside of my algebra, by implementing the axiomatics of right and wrong, and then sealing them off.
I feel as if my mind is wired up to believe in the necessity of the Transcendent, but my cognitive apparatus has gotten the wrong truth table. Is this the core of the nerd mutation? That we don’t truly understand right and wrong, like all you neurotypicals seem to do? Is that why your thinking is always normative, and ours fails to grasp your norms? Are there multiple types of reasoning/transcendence combinations?
  1. Neurotypical: A person that feels and thinks normatively (is oriented towards meaning and reasons in terms of right and wrong), feels an urge towards religion and perceives group norms as objectively real, beliefs are in sync with group
  2. Eternalist nerd: A person that feels normatively and thinks logically (is oriented towards meaning, but does not align itself with social norms), usually an artist or scientist or seeker
  3. Patternist nerd: A person that feels logically and thinks logically (tends to sit in an arbitrary corner and draw patterns into the sand), usually a technical puzzle solver or autistic person drawn to an inner world of patterns
  4. Sociopath: A person that feels logically and thinks normatively (is unconstrained in seeking to optimize its local rewards, but always applies its rationality to establishing behavioral imperatives), when smart enough, a natural leader, because he can both intuitively understand and rationally exploit the normative urges of others

April 8

Waking up is the most desirable state I know. I am coming home, into the present. Sharp, the biting wind of existence touching my face. The conceptual mirror shatters, and I experience the presence of being right here, right now. Now. Now. Now.
This moment. Nothing else. No preparation. No dwelling on past and future. No story. Just this. This moment is the only place where I can exist, the only source of happiness.
I am suddenly an adult. I know what is important to me, and I do this thing. There is nothing else to do. The present tends to be very clear. It holds few options. But all options.
At the core of waking up, there seems to be the absence of impulses. My mind is usually being dragged along or pushed by my impulses. Restless, urgent, breathless, high-strung and always in the thrall of what seems to be so important, so interesting, so worrying, so meaningful, so promising.
Now, I just stand here. If impulses are there at all, they are barely tugging at my trouser legs, unable to move me. I am free to sense what I really want, and I am free to move in any direction I want, acutely perceiving what I do while taking every step. Or, I can just stand here.
Waking up is like raising my head from an engrossing book, like waking from a dream, like hitting pause in a movie and turning on the lights. I pop out of my game of existence. What am I doing here, now? Why do I think it is important? What do I want to do? What is here?
Waking up is not so much an effort, as a jolt, caused by stopping all effort.
Still so hard to get there. There, there. Where is here again?

April 10

Motivation is resistance.

Motivation is not adaptive. Motivation is resistive.
The most natural thing would be to give in to the path of least resistance. To gravity. To collapse on the floor, to stop breathing, to become a vegetable, to decompose.
I get up in the morning, I clean my surfaces and orifices, insulate my body against the elements and social disdain, fill my digestive tract with nutrients. I interact with people, love, am angry, have sex, cry and laugh. I am resisting entropy in a myriad of ways, all of these things not because they are the easiest thing to do, but because my motivational system forces me, using the irresistible prods of pleasure and pain, hope and fear. The individual parameter settings of my motivation define my personality traits.
Discipline and executive control are not ways to overcome my inner path of least resistance. They simply pit one set of urges against another. Spending less effort means to dissociate from motivation.

April 12

On Consciousness

Our culture tends to treat consciousness as an essence, something that has an intrinsic nature, independent of what we can measure or observe. I suppose that gets into the way of our understanding: for instance, we are prone to imagine that there could be systems that exhibit everything that is observable and measurable about consciousness, without actually being conscious, a.k.a. “philosophical zombies”.
Daniel Dennett sarcastically illustrates this problem with the idea of the “zombank”: A zombank is a building where you can go and deposit and withdraw money, and ask for the amount of money in your account, etc., but even though the zombank resembles a bank in all of its functional aspects, it lacks the intrinsic powers that only real banks possess, and therefore is not a real bank. Since it is not possible to explain what these powers are or how they manifest, banks defy a naturalist explanation, and our attempts at artificially recreating banks will either fail or result in zombanks.
Elsewhere, I have explained why I think that consciousness requires the interplay of about 50 different mechanisms, which give rise to a variety of different states. Core consciousness (which you can perceive having in dreams, in the absence of even agency, expectation, memory, personhood, planning and perspectivity) still involves directional attention, inner stage, and the ability to experience the manipulation of content in a local perceptual space. Without going into detail, consciousness requires the integration of experience.

April 13

The motivational sources of love

Our motivational system originates in physiological, social and cognitive needs which direct our impulses and decision making. If a need becomes to large, it makes itself known to our cognition as an urge, which in turn activates related content in our memory and sensory experience, and directs our attention on that content. Physiological needs let us attend to our bodies, social needs direct our interaction with others, and cognitive needs structure learning, exploration, aesthetics and problem solving. Individual needs can be discerned by factor analysis over many individuals, or by the fact that they can be selectively absent in some people. Not surprisingly, the needs related to love are mostly social ones:
  • Affiliation seeks out the approval of others, and when satisfied, creates a sense of belonging and social identification. It can be stimulated by legitimacy signals, such as smiles, praise, etc., and frustrated with disapproval. Physical closeness is a particularly strong type of affiliation signal, but different people seem to need different amounts of cuddling. Without a strong need for affiliation, social interaction may be more stressful than rewarding, and the respective individuals are prone to introversion.
  • Nurturing creates discomfort in the face of the suffering of others, and gets rewarded by supporting them. People without a need for nurturing tend to be psychopaths. A mutual balance of affiliation and nurturing may create the bond that we call philia, i.e. the kind of friendship in which we look out for each other and feel cared for. In our relationship with our children, the need for nurturing often plays a primary role.
  • Romantic affection is both a need and a cognitive mode. It is instrumental in monogamous pair bonding, and courtship, i.e. the state of emotional turmoil and cognitive impairment that we call being in love. A-romantic people may have loving and libidinous relationships too, but do not fall in love, do not experience strong jealousy, and are more often polyamorous than romantic lovers.
  • Internal legitimacy lets us conform to internalized social norms, and embeds our love-related behaviors into the context of what we perceive as right and wrong. The most crucial aspect of love is what we colloquially call the Platonic one, though. It is the deep sense of respect, the feeling of sacredness that becomes apparent in the other. This pure, spiritual love manifests as seeing the other as inviolable. It requires a need for transcendence, a desire to serve a system that is more important than us. This urge is probably put into us by an evolutionary development that enabled us to control behavior beyond personal and tribal interests. By serving abstract principles, we can form cohesive societies far beyond the reach of the reputation of the people we know or have heard of. Perhaps it is the reason why we outcompeted Homo Neanderthaliensis, our poor cousin with the larger brain and disinterest in religion. Platonic love is without desire. It does not require compassion, attention, compliance, identification or affection. But it allows us to see one another as gateways to transcendence, as ambassadors of the Eternal. It is the only way in which we can meet anyone in this universe, in which we are not alone. If we purge our respect, our sense for the sacred from our minds, the universe will become an empty place.

April 14

Conscious Awareness

Let us explore what we mean by conscious awareness:
Conscious awareness is the feeling of what it’s like. While our cortex produces a virtual world from sensory input, conscious awareness inhabits this world, by scanning its contents.
Conscious awareness is the maestro that is conducting our cortical orchestra. It is called to attention whenever the neural operators producing the simulated world we inhabit cannot resolve something automatically. Conscious processes integrate our otherwise distributed and automatically operating sensorimotor scripts, maps and concepts. They can relate features across sensory modalities, resolve inconsistencies, collapse probabilities into narratives, direct memory retrieval and sensory processing etc. They also create a protocol of what they attended to, which we perceive as the stream of our conscious experience.
Conscious awareness is instrumental in creating my personal self, the story that my brain tells itself about myself.
I believe that our conscious awareness itself is probably neutral. By itself, it does not want anything, does not identify with anything, has no shape or content. However, we rarely experience our awareness in that neutral state. It receives content by scanning cortical events (it is perhaps implemented in the dorsolateral PFC), and it judges and identifies with that content via additional circuitry. We can identify that circuitry by selectively turning it off, for instance through meditation. Five mechanisms are especially prominent:
  1. The motivational system attaches relevance to my mental content. It generates immediate pleasure and pain, tells me what is good or bad (valence), desirable or to be avoided (appetence), regulates arousal and coping estimates (competence). If consciousness fully dissociates from the motivational system, I am unable to feel concerned about anything.
  2. The somatosensory binding system makes me identify with my body, in particular with the state represented in the somatosensory map. If I disturb this system, I experience dramatic changes in my body image, or lose access to the sensation of my body altogether.
  3. The spatial binding system directs the construction of my local perceptual space based on a position and direction in space. Dissociating this system may lead to out-of-body experiences.
  4. The person binding system makes me identify with my personal self-image, including my desires, intentions, expectations, and self-ascriptions. If I disturb the connection between conscious awareness and the personal self, I lose the association between the first-person perspective and being a particular person. I can usually still remember all details about that person, and even remember what he might like or dislike, but I am not directly concerned. I just happen to run on that person’s brain. Depending on the degree to which the motivational system is still connected, I may still experience a hedonic tone, such as a feeling of bliss, discontent, dismay, loneliness or arousal, but these are no longer part of my inner biography. For instance, I do not feel fear of death.
  5. The self construction system gives me access to my attentional protocol and generates a first-person perspective. In the absence of the person binding system, this first-person perspective is free to latch onto arbitrary mental content, which will result in this content becoming subjectively conscious itself. For instance, I may experience a subjective identity with the universe itself, or with Gaia, or with the Media Lab, or with a cat, or with a cell of my body, or with an elementary particle. It feels as if this idea has become conscious, i.e. I am this thing, I feel the agency of this thing, and perceive a rich world through that thing’s senses and ideas. There can be more than one self-construction active at the same time (i.e. the experience of multiple consciousnesses), which probably means that this system is a particular sensorimotor script that is being dynamically instantiated, even though the instances probably share the same infrastructure in the brain. If the self-construction system is inactive, things will just happen, without subjective agency, and without any locus of an I.

May 5

(previous version edited out because of oversharing concerns 😃
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Joichi Ito 4/6/2016
Private. Collaborators only.
Selection made on Version 3
The goal is to be like a cat. Cats are competent and diligent and super-focused… at being a cat. Cats do not try to succeed in strange symbolic narratives. They are just great. Even the not-so-great cats are still amazing. If a cat falls off a table, it has not failed. It is still an excellent cat, albeit a clumsy one.
Cats are competent and diligent and super-focused… at being a cat. Cats do not try to succeed in strange symbolic narratives.
Sorry, I just had to share this:
Kris Menos 2/20/2016
Private. Collaborators only.
The goal is to be like the cat, but not to want to be the cat. Sometimes when I look at a cat, I admire their life of being a cat, and I feel jealousy. I have failed at being like the cat. I guess I am human, whether that is my goal or not.
Joscha Bach 2/24/2016
Private. Collaborators only.
Yes, cats do not want to be cats. They just do cat-stuff. I suppose that is the normal condition. That we don’t just do the human-stuff but want to be a particular someone may be a symptom: of some basic needs not being met, and our minds starting all these complex and misguided computations in response.