March 23rd, 2012


Okay, so what do I believe in? (Or not.)

Today's news coverage of the upcoming Reason Rally (a big Washington hoedown for atheists) gives rise to the question, "Am I an atheist?". The answer is no -- but increasingly, I feel like it's the wrong question.
[Waxing perhaps eloquently, and pretty metaphysically, but certainly at length]
When I was a kid, I was a fairly ordinary reflexive atheist, like so many 13-year-old science fiction fans. The world should be governed by SCIENCE! and religion was just silly. It wasn't any more a considered viewpoint than that of the average parochial schoolchild -- it was simply the assumptions of the cultural milieu that I had bought into.

After college, that softened quite a lot, and I wound up with the sort of squishy intuitive Deism that I still have today. I joined the Masons (on the grounds that Deism was good enough for many of the founders of the organization, so it should still be good enough), but certainly never bought into any organized religion. For 10-20 years, when I made myself think about it, I generally identified my religion as "Minbari", which was a bit flip but mostly accurate: a vague sense that we are how the Universe learns about itself, and that "god" is really made up of the collective sentience of the Universe. That sense is still there, but is just a piece of the puzzle.

The thing is, though, that while I may still kinda-sorta believe in a demiurge, I increasingly do *not* really believe in the idea of a soul, and that's arguably the more important question. There are a lot of reasons why not, and I'm not sure I've ever unpacked all of them before.

On the one hand, there was the realization last year that the idea is not universal, and hasn't always been part of the human experience. This was really driven home by the course Religions of the Axial Age, one of my favorite-ever Teaching Company courses, which is about many of the religions of the thousand years BCE. Among other things, it traces the rise of the meme of the soul, and the surprisingly quick evolution through the logical complications, especially Hinduism's take on the notion of reincarnation (which is far from entirely benign, if you really push through the logic) and Buddism's reaction to that idea. The eastern religions wrestle much more honestly than the western with the notion that eternity is a Very Long Time, so an eternal soul is a mixed blessing.

Then there is my growing internalization of the logic of quantum mechanics, and the increasing trend for cosmology to be viewed in Many Worlds terms. I've always been intuitively attracted to the Many Worlds hypothesis, the notion that the world as we see it at any given moment is simply the sum of a lot of probabilities, one among a multitude. I know that not everyone in science buys into that viewpoint; still, with Stephen Hawking implying pretty clearly that it's how things work, I don't feel dumb in accepting it. And personally, I find it pretty wondrous, the idea that every possible outcome exists in that probability-space to some degree -- it's the IDIC principle (baked into my brain at a young and impressionable age) taken to its logical extreme.

But it's very difficult to square Many Worlds with the idea of a soul. If "I" am branching -- slowly on the macro scale, but a billion billion times a second on the micro scale -- into variant versions of "me", with different probabilities of following particular pathways of my life, how are those all "me"? And how can such a rigidly unitary notion as the soul encompass that branching probability tree?

And then there are my explorations of Buddhism itself -- not so much accepting any of the religious schools that grew out of it, as playing syncretically with the underlying philophies and ideas. One of the points that comes up from time to time goes right to this point: as one Buddhist site puts it, "According to Buddhism mind is nothing but a complex compound of fleeting mental states.":
Every moment there is birth, every moment there is death. The arising of one thought-moment means the passing away of another thought-moment and vice versa. In the course of one life-time there is momentary rebirth without a soul.
Putting it more simply, I am not the man I was ten years ago -- far from it. And I have no expectation or desire that I will be the same person in ten years. Life is continuous change, and that is a *good* thing; lack of change is stillness and death.

Within that viewpoint, a person isn't so much a unitary eternal soul as a *process* -- each moment giving rise to the next. The process is continuous, and that continuity produces a sense of identity, but that identity is momentary: a snapshot of the current state of the process. It is constantly changing and shifting, and eventually that identity comes to an end.

But -- and this is the part that I find genuinely inspiring about it -- the process doesn't end, because the identity is only a piece of it. We are more than a little isolated soul, an island lost amidst trackless seas; rather, we are part and parcel of everything around us, and that world is just as much a part of our process as our own identity. If that isn't inspiring, I don't know what is.

Moreover, this viewpoint forces me to consider the moment seriously. "I" am not something that will be summed up at the end; I can't be bad today on the theory that I'll make up for it later so that the scales balance positively at the end of my life. If all I have is now, then I have to drink that now deeply: I need to find my joys in the current moment, and be the best person I can be right here, right now.

So when I put this together, I wind up with a truly beautiful world. I am part of the world, and it is part of me, all just processes interacting. The idea of the soul is a counter-productive separation of the one from the other, and I find that I miss that idea less and less with each passing year, slowly quieting the part of my ego that fears losing it.

God is the summation of the sentience of everything in the world -- all the moments that ever have been, ever will be, and ever *could* be. All of this has to be viewed from outside time -- which, after all, is just one dimension of the giant probability structure. That viewpoint comforts and quiets the fears of opportunity cost, the desire to know and experience everything I possibly can. Somewhere in the probability tree, someone has been there and done that: the chance is not lost simply because this little shard of the universe doesn't happen to be doing it right now.

And in this grand scheme of things, I -- the collection of probability waves typing this essay right now -- am just a speck: a particular, relatively well-defined process among an infinite number of others. But everyone around me is also part of that process, and anything I can affect for the better increases the probability of states of joy in the grand array. I don't think anybody can really ask for more than that...

Do You Live in a Bubble?

Today's fascinating link comes via Aaron, and is closely related to yesterday's screed about dumb things rich people say. It's a quiz on the PBS site, titled "Do You Live In a Bubble?" It's 25 questions, and gets quite nicely to the core of what makes up the experience of the typical white, educated and wealthy upper-middle-class person as opposed to the typical middle class. Simply going through the questions is fascinating food for thought -- it's really about culture, not politics or wealth per se -- and it pegged me pretty accurately at the end. (I scored 28.)

Why Working More Than 40 Hours a Week is Useless

This week's LinkedIn trawl turned up one good new article, arguing that it is a bad idea to work more than 40 hours a week.

The title's a bit overstated -- the article itself is a bit more nuanced -- but I applaud the general sentiment. This is one that was driven home to me at Buzzpad, which was probably the most *productive* company I've ever worked for. We were a tiny little XP (Extreme Programming) shop, and among the XP rules that we chose to live by was that you not only don't demand that your people work overtime, you don't *allow* them to work overtime. Buzzpad's rule was that Thursday was the only day in which you were allowed to work more than an eight-hour day, and that specifically because Friday was end-of-sprint, so we would allow a *little* extra time if needed for integration. And then everyone was strongly encouraged to have a beer and play Starcraft afterwards.

Like I said, we were phenomenally productive -- we were an eight-person company (including the CEO, CFO, UX designer and tester), and we wound up building software *way* out on the cutting edge, doing things with the browser that the rest of the industry still hasn't caught up with, ten years later. By truly internalizing the "work smarter, not harder" principle -- requiring everybody to *focus* during the workday, in exchange for which there was an explicit commitment that the company didn't own the rest of your life -- everybody accomplished more than I've seen at any other company. We had zero burnout, deep company retention and loyalty, great team spirit, and everybody able to stay sharp month in and month out.

So since then, I've become a fairly outspoken devotee of this principle. It has nothing to do with fairness, or being nice, or anything squishy like that: plain and simply, in the long run it is better for business if the company focuses rigorously on keeping folks on a strict 8-hour schedule, and treating it as a severe process bug if you have to violate that routinely...