Monday, October 19, 2009

New Medical Marijuana Policy

One Giant Leap for Kind! AP reports: "The Obama administration will not seek to arrest medical marijuana users and suppliers as long as they conform to state laws, under new policy guidelines to be sent to federal prosecutors Monday."

If we formulate lofty goals and impose them on our neighbors with force (governmental or otherwise), we increase conflict in society. We reduce conflict by defining and increasing those situations in which we disapprove of what our neighbor is doing, and respond with persuasion at most, taking force off the table.

Part of the genius of the founders of America was the goal of limiting the extreme power of government from intruding on individual freedom. That's why it's argued that this is a country founded on a great idea.

Thomas Jefferson famously wrote in Notes on Virginia (1782): "... it does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods or no God. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg." The same spirit can be applied to any private or consensual behavior. Those who itch to forcefully impose their superior morality in such situations, ought not to be surprised when it ultimately results in coercion directed against themselves.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Are Near Death Experiences Real?

The lead story on at the moment is titled Doctor says near-death experiences are in the mind. Yet within the story, the doctor calls NDEs "real":

Dr. Kevin Nelson, a neurologist in Louisville, Kentucky, studies near-death experiences and says they're not imagined. The explanation, he says, lies in the brain itself. "These are real experiences. And they're experiences that happen at a time of medical crisis and danger," Nelson said.

Huh? The doctor suggests that an experience explained by brain activity is real and not imagined. There must be other experiences that he'd call unreal and imagined. Where would these imagined experiences come from? Somewhere else, somewhere other than the brain?

We're always faced with big, imponderable questions. What caused the universe? In philosophical discussions, some may say the cause is God, others may say The Big Bang. Neither response resolves anything, as it just pushes the question a bit further down the road. What caused The Big Bang? Who made God?

In the early days of chess-playing computer programs, an interesting problem arose. Say the program could analyze a chess position six moves ahead (a very impressive accomplishment). If the computer was threatened with check-mate, but could make a move that pushed that disaster beyond six moves in the future, it would treat that variation as if the check-mate didn't exist.

Our brain-computers seem to operate the same way. We're faced with a great question of original cause. It can initially be disturbing to realize that we don't know where we came from (and indeed don't know who we are). If we throw in some ideas about Gods or Big Bangs, it pushes the questions a little further away, to a more abstracted level... so we can comfortably pretend that the mystery doesn't exist.

Likewise with claims that "everything is in the brain." If we assume that it all resides in the brain, what have we accomplished? We're left with the slightly more abstracted mystery: in what does the brain exist? Don't know...

We commonly posit two distinct types of phenomena: the unreal ones that exist in the mind, and the real ones that exist outside the mind. Is that true?

Our bodies have skins, so it's easy to distinguish what's inside them from what's outside. Kidneys are inside the body, trees are outside of it. But where is the mind's skin? If we can't locate the mind's skin, how can we say that one thing is inside the mind, while something else is outside it?

Thursday, October 08, 2009

Decrepit Bowl of Dog Urine

Tamerlane Phillips is the son of John Phillips of the Mamas and Papas, and half-brother of One Day At A Time's Mackenzie Phillips (who recently promoted her book High on Arrival on Oprah, complete with incest revelations). A few weeks ago, Tamerlane was quoted in the New York Post thusly:

Tamerlane, 38, told Page Six: "My family is and always will be a decrepit bowl of dog urine compared to Nityananda of Ganeshpuri. That is how great Nityananda is." The Indian yogi died in 1961. "Worship Nityananda, not the Phillips family. Nityananda can protect you," said Tamerlane.
Nityananda was the iconic yogi worshipped by Swami Muktananda, my own erstwhile guru. It's a mark of Nityananda's greatness that, nearly 50 years after his death in India, he's still inspiring an American quasi-celebrity to consider his family to be like dog urine.

Though this is an unusually big splash for Nityananda to make in the popular press, he's long had great influence in the Spiritual subculture. Among the successful gurus claiming Nityanada as a Master are the aforementioned Muktananda, his elusive successor Gurumayi, and graphomaniac Adi Da Samraj (aka Da Free John, Bubba Free John, etc). The lineage is well-detailed on the Nityananda Tradition site (created by my friend and former chess rival Swamiji Shankarananda of Australia).

Maybe we can't hold Nityananda responsible for his post-mortem devotees (and good luck trying to hold a dead man responsible for anything, anyway). Yet I do think there's some insight to be drawn from Tamerlane's eloquence.

If you teach that some things are hot, it by necessity implies that other things are cold. You can't have Good without Evil, or Spiritual without Mundane. To the extent that devotees shower Nityananda etc with extreme praise, it follows with mathematical precision that they'll balance the equation by cultivating derisive attitudes towards someone else. If we make one person out to be existentially holy, spiritual, perfected, and God-like... then we'll surely make someone else out to be dog urine.

Follow-up: Tamerlane made similar comments on YouTube, so I've added a brief clip here. On video and in context, he comes off more sympathetic than in the NY Post quote. His beliefs may have been useful in his situation. The benefits of holding his belief-system come wrapped in many other effects, and the helpfulness may have a limited shelf-life. Still, Tamerlane gets points in my book for having some awareness that he's flirting with fanaticism.