If I were going to try to indicate my vocal inflections in the text, I would be italicizing a lot words, and syllables, and putting commas everywhere to indicate pauses, and I decided it was just too much trouble. So if you want the dynamic effects of my delivery, you’ll have to listen to the podcasts.
This recording was made in 2006, so the earlier tape would actually have been made in 1983. I confused my 2006 self by saying on the tape that I was 40, but I usually start giving my forthcoming age a couple of months before my birthday, and since I was still smoking pot, it would have been 1983, when I was 39--23 years ago, not 22. Now, in 2008, I've got that all straight, do you?
In the Beginning, There Were Stones
Episode Two begins with a flashback, 22 years into the past, in which you’ll hear me talk about how observations of the bird feeder outside my window came to effect my attitude, not only toward my womanizing, but every aspect of my life. Then we’ll snap back to the present, and get a condensed version of what has happened in the 22 years since that tape was made, which might be titled, “How I Learned to Live Without Pot, and Be Happy With Life As It Is.”
It’s amazing how tiny little details of life can lead to such major consequences. Take, for example, the detail of there being a cherry tree outside the window of this apartment that I moved into. The fact that I was moving into an apartment in this particular part of San Francisco is itself the result of a whole chain of tiny little insignificant details leading to unforeseen and unimaginable consequences.
But getting back to the cherry tree, when I moved in it was full of cherries; it was unbelievably full of cherries, and it wasn’t long before I noticed that the birds in the neighborhood were aware that it was full of cherries, and were all having a feast on them. And, to my surprise, it turned out that some of the birds that were feeding on them were parrots, and it turned out there’s a flock of them that live in the neighborhood, green ones with yellow--partially yellow--wings. And I’ve seen like fifteen or twenty at a time. So this is kind of strange and exciting, and I found myself looking out the window more and more, looking for the parrots, and listening once I had learned to identify their call. When I heard it I would look out--I would always go to the window and see--to watch them eat the cherries, which is simple enough, and harmless enough sounding.
Well, as the cherries thinned out on the tree, I began to realize that the parrots would probably not be coming around as often. The other little birds that I’d gotten interested in: the house finches, and the white crowned sparrows, and the mourning doves, and... well, the mourning doves came later, but it occurred to me--and this, too, is the result of an accident in that my parents have a bird feeder in their back yard--and it occurred to me that I could put a bird feeder on the fire escape outside my window, so that when the cherries were gone, the birds would still have reason to come around, and while the cherries were still here, the birds would notice the feeder and be aware of it once the cherries were gone.
So I did, I put the bird feeder out, and again, that seems like a fairly trivial act; it’s not the kind of thing that you’d expect to change your life. So anyway, I put it out, and it was a success, except for the parrots; I mean, all the other birds in the neighborhood went for it in a big way, but the parrots... I don’t know... they’re just more wily or what, or if the seeds didn’t appeal to them: although everybody says they love sunflower seeds, which, there are some in the mix that I use, but I’ve never seen one of them on my feeder.
But nonetheless, the other birds got my attention, and I began to watch them more, and I began to be able to distinguish the adults, and, what there came to be more and more of, the young birds--being spring and early summer, and the times when birds raise families. And I would see things like fathers or mothers leading their newly-flying chicks to the feeder, to get them off their backs, you know; teach them how to eat, and it’s really comical to see the young birds that can fly, but they’re still performing the little routine that they did in the nest to get their parents attention, to tell them that they were hungry. They sort of squat down with their tails in the air and fluff up their feathers, and flutter their wings, and make this little cheeping sound. They follow their parents around, and they’re walking in this tray full of seed, and begging their parents for more.
Early Life Forms
Well eventually they get the idea, and when they do, when they do finally eat a few seeds, they drop the nest behavior altogether. Their feathers sleek down, and they quit making the little peeping sound, and fluttering their wings, and they become a mature bird.
Well, that’s one of the things I noticed that was sorta cute, and appealing, and then one day I noticed this other thing with this young male house finch. The males you can tell because they have these bright red feathers on their head, and breast, and back, sort of fading out toward the tail, but the more mature ones, the adult birds, the coloring is much brighter than in the young ones. The young males, they look a look a lot like the females; they’re brown, with dark brown stripes on kind of a light tan breast, and the males, at first, the real young ones, they just have a blush of red on their chests, and then as they get older, they get more and more red feathers over their head and the rest of them. So you can sorta tell how old they are by how red their feathers are--the males.
So one day I was out looking and there was a female on the feeder, and a young male flew up. He had red on his head, you know, but he still wasn’t as dark as a mature male, but somehow, something about the female... something triggered this courtship behavior, and he went into a routine like a little mechanized bird. He sorta crouched down with his wings spread out--not fluttering so much like the baby’s do, and extended more--and his head sticking out at kind of an odd angle, and bobbing from one side to another, just like a mechanical bird--really stiff and precise in his movements--and going through this, well, kinda pretty song, a warbling all over the scale, up and down and everywhere, and toward the end of it he emits this piercing shriek like somebody scraping their fingernails on a blackboard--amplified and drawn out. And, like, it almost seems as if this final screech is supposed to be the one that trips the female’s response, but this youngster was barking up the wrong tree. He picked a too-young female or something--she wasn’t paying any attention to him, and in fact every now and then would sort of peck at him; make a rush at him to make him go away and leave her alone, and the male would sorta dodge, you know, but didn’t really interrupt his routine that much. It’s like he was undeterred by her rebuffs, and went on till she finally flew away, or whatever. But...
Now that’s something that surely hundreds of people must have seen, and I’ve seen too, and there have been other kinds of animal behavior like that that I’ve seen on TV, on the animal shows and stuff. But somehow, I identified more with that adolescent male bird than with any of the other animal things that I’ve seen on TV, or at least, in this particular way, in that, I saw, for one thing, how ritualized the behavior was, and I saw how it was like the bird was operating on a tape or a program--you know, the parallel to the computer came in--a very limited and repetitious kind of program.
When you look at the bird’s whole life, and the behavior of the baby birds in the nest, and then the development to adults, and the courtship and the mating, and the building the nest and caring for the young. It’s all pretty much programmed into the basic mechanism of the bird. Which is not really all that surprising or new information, but somehow... seeing it outside my window, I really felt the biological connection between myself and the bird and I recalled this reading that I’d done in sociobiology, where the complex behavior of human beings is seen as pretty much an outgrowth of the basic mechanism, and the mechanism itself has evolved as a means of propagating genes. There have been several books out on the subject--it’s not a new idea--and what it all comes down to is that although maybe we are more complex in any number of ways than birds or any of the other simpler, smaller animals, but nonetheless, the end result of all our complicated behavior is pretty much the same; that is, the maintenance and the spread--insofar as we are environmentally capable--the spread of our species.
And so, that little bird and I do have an awful lot in common, and I saw my behavior, my own growth through adolescence and young adulthood, and the pursuit of females, as the same kind of acting out of this genetic program. And somehow, although there’s no point, really, in arguing too extravagantly against one’s fate, nonetheless I felt somehow resentful that life couldn’t be more than that, couldn’t have some less mechanistic, perhaps, basis.
Life Gets More Complex
I was reminded of the Eastern concept of the universe as being in constant birth, and death, and rebirth, and I thought of that in relation to the life of the bird, the life cycle of the bird: growing up, having kids, dying, and the parallel between the life of any one individual and the idea of the universe as having a life and death, and a continual birth and rebirth, and the idea in some Eastern religions that one can get off the karmic wheel, sort of get out of the cycle of birth and death and everything, and become sort of... oh, I don’t know, sort of infinitely one with the universe, or something. But the idea that this cycle, this wheel, is something that, just by its determinism, by its inevitability, is something that people have wanted to escape, and...
Well I saw my own reaction to the bird in the same way, that I wanted to escape this cycle of propagation. I mean, not that I have anything against the human race’s surviving in the universe, I mean, I don’t think everybody should be like me, I mean, if they were, the human race would die out because I... Well, years ago, for other reasons... Well maybe for the same reason, but seen in different terms... well, now that I think of it, altogether different terms, but, anyway, for different reasons I got a vasectomy a few years ago, so in a way, I have gotten out of the programmed life cycle of the species in that I eliminated my reproductive capability.
Of course, maybe that effects my whole... or maybe the fact that I wanted to do that... (laughs) indicates that, at that time, I had some kind of feeling that I somehow wanted to escape the genetically determined kind of life that I saw, in one way or another. Which, I think, between the decision I made when I got the vasectomy, and the decisions I’ve made about my life as a result of the bird incident... The difference is that, when I got the vasectomy, I wanted to eliminate the reproductive part of the cycle, but I was still totally caught up in the courtship part of the cycle, and I wanted to continue the courtship phase forever without ever getting into the reproductive phase.
And now, looking at the bird... even though the courtship phase, and chasing all those pretty young girls, and all the fun I’ve had doing that, it seems... now... looking at the bird, just as mechanistic and genetically determined as the reproductive part had seemed to me at that earlier stage of my life. And somehow I find myself saying, “Hey, man, you’re like 40 years old, and you’ve been chasing cunt (laughs) since you were a teenager. I mean you’ve been going through this same program of presenting your qualifications as a mate, and either being accepted or rejected by the female, and going through the procreative phase of the reproductive cycle anyway, and getting all the built in strokes that accrue to an animal of any kind following a genetic program. I mean, the program has rewards built into it that make the animal go on to complete the phase. And so, I was really caught up in that courtship loop (suppressed laugh) there for a while.
It seems that in many ways, all my life I have been trying to circumvent my built in programming, trying to become my own programmer and make my own decisions, but... The question that comes to sociobiologists and me, is that, if we see our behavior in these genetic terms, and if we decide that we don’t want to be little automatons reproducing DNA, what then do we do with our lives? I mean, we have this basic mechanism that is programmed and adapted to reproduce DNA in this particular environment, and because it can reproduce DNA in really a lot of different environments, because it has evolved that capability, then we have all the other capabilities that we ascribe to being human: being able to think about ourselves, and about the future, which, supposedly, birds don’t really do that much of.
Life Reaches Upward
So we have this mechanism, this organism, that thinks, and does, and reacts to the environment, and solves adaptive problems. What do we do with it if we take away the function for which it was designed, which is to reproduce DNA? All the structures of society, all the activities that have developed over the centuries with which human beings occupy themselves can be seen (laughs) as variations on... well, just variations on the means of reproducing DNA in various environments, like, I mean, each individual of the species attempting in his own way to follow the dictates of DNA. There’s art, there’s music, there’s all these things that entertain and amuse the human animal while it goes about the business of reproduction.
So there are ways to occupy one’s time, but they seem to have all been developed, more or less, as subservient mechanisms to this basic DNA reproductive program, and so that makes them lose some of their appeal to a person like me, who is trying to escape programming altogether, or outside programming anyway.
It occurs to me that the predicament that I find myself in--that I have been led to, I believe, by the idiosyncratic circumstances of my life--I don’t think I’m the first person who has ever felt this way. I’ve already mentioned the Eastern religions in which people felt some kind of desire to escape this cosmic, karmic cycle or whatever, and I think that because of computers and the advance of technology, that more and more people are going to find themselves in this situation, because computers, I think, will eventually do all the things for us that our brain and everything has been biologically adapted to do, and they’ll do it better and with less fuss for us. Like, I think eventually food growing and processing and everything, all that will be handled by computer operated robots and machines, and reproduction, I think, is going to be a simple matter of, if a man and a woman want to have a child, taking a cell or two from each one, mixing them up and putting them in a jar, and raising a kid--growing a kid in a jar.
Well, of course, this is not a new idea, but the point is that when all this happens, once we get to the point--and I think eventually it’s inevitable--we’ll get to the point that we won’t have to do anything to insure the survival of DNA. I mean, we can just turn it over to the computers and they’ll handle it. They’ll produce as many offspring of as adaptable a kind of human being as they can program, (laughs) we can program, and the drudgery of reproducing DNA will be taken over by computers, and all us human beings will be left with the problem of what to do with our time.
A Bit Tangled
Back to 2006:
As I listen to myself of 22 years ago talking, one thing that strikes me is how close I had come to incorporating determinism into my thinking, and the way I looked at the world, and the way I looked at myself. I could see at that time that my behavior and my actions had precedents and grew out of prior events of my life, but what was happening at the time that I made the tape, as you could tell, was that determinism was getting closer and closer to where I lived, and I was seeing the implications for my behavior on a more detailed level as time went by. I was coming to see that fantasies I had had about myself from a very early age were just that. I used to say to people that I wanted to be as crazy as possible without getting locked up, and what I meant by that was that I wanted to be free from the arbitrary restrictions of society.
What I was coming to see was that it wasn’t just society that imposed limitations on me, it was biology, and it was the very nature of reality itself, that there was nothing that I did, not the smallest detail of my life, and thought, and feeling, that I could claim any authorship of; that it all grew out of prior circumstances, and the way the particular physiology of my brain put those circumstances together, and this illusion that I had, that I could somehow be free of all that, was just that, it was an illusion, and the more clearly I saw that illusion, the less I knew how to proceed, the less I knew how to regard myself.
I think it’s easier to have never had a fantasy of life that’s untrue, that you then had to give up. (suppressed laugh) It’s sort of like believing in Santa Claus. I was in the second grade when I was told by one of the kids at school that Santa Claus was really my mom and dad, and I was devastated. I went home and told my mom to get her confirmation, and I was crying, and she did the best she could to make it better, but the problem is to have been presented with an idea of life, and to then find out that it’s not true, that it’s untenable, that it’s wrong, that it’s a lie, or a subterfuge, and then to have to divest oneself of it and learn how to live without it, that’s the position I was in with determinism. I had been making inroads on myself as a free agent for a very long time, but the closer it got to home, the scarier it got, and I’m not alone in this. I have done a lot of reading since on determinism, and relatedly, how the brain works, and some very sharp thinkers on the subject have come to the same point. They get really close to seeing the implications, and then they say, “But, well, we can’t deal with that.”
Daniel Dennett is a philosopher who has spent the majority of his professional career trying to find a way to make peace with determinism in a way that allows him to hold onto some idea of himself that he came into the whole issue with, and would like to be able to leave with some of it left intact.
Marvin Minsky, who wrote, “Society of Mind,” has made an amazing contribution to my own understanding of how my mind works, and his reaction is to say that, well, there’s really no way you can justify the idea of free will--or some people call it free agency--in a world of science. There’s no room for it, and yet, it’s so much a part of our psychology that there’s no way we can do without it, or eliminate it, so he just says, in effect, well, you know, there’s nothing we can do about it; we have it, and it’s not true, but, well, we just have to live with it because there’s no way to divest ourselves of it.
Another guy, Michael Gazzaniga, is a brain researcher who’s done some work that’s given me some incredible insights. His answer is to just say, well, isn’t it wonderful that we have this illusion that we’re in control. Rather than try to find a way to divest ourselves, or to see ourselves without the illusion, he just says, oh wow, isn’t it great that we have this illusion.
Well, that was not satisfying to me. Actually, at the time, I didn’t know about those different points of view; I hadn’t read those books, but what happened was, a few months after I made that tape, I... (laughs) Depending on your point of view, it’s difficult to say, really, how everything interrelates, but I either, in the terms of Alcoholics Anonymous, “hit bottom,” with my pot use--I was stoned at the time I made that tape, if you weren’t aware--or, as a friend of mine said from a different point of view, is that I had a nervous breakdown, and it’s really difficult to say, to unravel whether it was just the...
Well, you know, I had been thinking for some time that my pot intake was unsustainable, that over the long run it was not good for my health to smoke at the rate that I was. So I had tried a couple of times, usually in the afternoon after having been stoned all morning. I would decide, OK, that’s it, no more pot. Well, I would get up the next morning and get stoned again. But what happened was, I got very uncomfortable. I started being self-conscious in places I had never been self-conscious before, and feeling very uncomfortable in public places, and whether it was just the pot, or whether it was the fact that I was having difficulty maintaining a view of myself that was compatible with reality, in that, in the words of the old Firesign Theater album, everything I knew was wrong.
Well, I decided one morning, that that was the day, January the 7th, 1984. I got up, and I didn’t smoke pot, and I was OK for a while, but I got suicidally depressed. I just could not think how to live, how to go about the day, what to do with myself, and part of it, you could say, was just that in the absence of my habitual drug use, I was at a loss, but it was that that was so much a part of who I was, that I didn’t know who I was without it, and I didn’t know how to cope with reality without it. So I went through this incredibly long process of learning how to be happy in the world without pot, and with reality the way it is, and I’m not going to go into all the details at this point, but it was a long road, and full of false turns, and very unpleasant situations. I mean, my anxiety--it took quite a while before it settled down.
The aspect of the universe, of reality, that particularly frightened me was that this little self that I had imagined, this... who I thought I was, was really nothing in the face of that; there was really no room for the idea of myself. I could not exist, as I had imagined myself, in the reality of the universe as it is. I had to find a way to be happy in the absence of that fantasy. In a way it reminds me of something they say in Alcoholics Anonymous; “You can stop drinking, but if you’re going to stay sober, you have to find a way to be happy not drinking.” You can’t just stop drinking. You have to stop drinking and learn to be happy.
So the problem is to learn to be happy with the deterministic world that we live in, in the absence of that fantasy of freedom that was unsustainable.
So while it was clear to me that I didn’t exist in the way I thought I did, it was also clear that I did exist in some way; I mean, you can send me an email, and so the question was, “In what sense do I exist, what is the reality of my existence?”
If I’m going to learn to be happy with reality, I first have to find out what it is: we are organisms; we exist in time and place, and we have a history, and we have recollections of our history. We have memory--not nearly as accurate as we’d like to believe--but we do have some recollection, and in the absence of perfect memory, we can write things down as we understand them, or make tapes, or recordings of some sort, of how we think things are at one time or another.
So, as an organism, with a history--and that history includes our history of interaction with other human beings--we certainly exist. It’s just the particular aspect of that organism that is in error, and the perplexity, for me, was that my brain didn’t seem to understand itself. At least it didn’t seem to understand itself in a way that was accurate. It had a false understanding of itself. And so one of the interesting things I learned, or came to understand, was that the brain does a lot of things that we don’t know, consciously, how it does, and maybe the simplest one is something like riding a bicycle. Like, it’s impossible to tell someone how to ride a bicycle. It’s something that most people are capable of learning, but how you learn it is you get on a bicycle, and someone supports you, or you have training wheels, and you pedal away, and at some point your brain figures out how to do this thing. It’s something that you cannot explain to another person, that you don’t have conscious access to.
The more I studied the brain, the more I found out how much of its operation is unavailable to consciousness. The whole process of how we see the world, which has been studied fairly extensively, is something that is not available to consciousness. We get the end effects of a lot of processing that we can’t see, that we can’t dissect consciously, and if that’s true of vision, it’s also true of hearing, and it’s true of language. How do we pick the words we use in conversation? I don’t have any idea how my brain comes up with the words that I’m speaking at this moment. It’s not as if I have conscious access to the process of going through this vocabulary that I have, as a virtue of my history, and picking out words that would fit together in a way that’s coherent and conveys ideas. It’s a process that is, for the most part, unavailable to consciousness.
Perhaps you get the idea, and it might be easier to read about it than to hear me talk about it. I’ve written a lot on my web site about how it’s possible for the brain to be deluded about itself. In particular there’s an essay on free will that you could read, that would cover the main bases.
The point is, that given the limitations of consciousness, my ability to be aware of what’s going on in my brain, my current experience of the world will forever remain largely mysterious to me. How the brain is putting together my experience of the moment, and why one thought comes up in mind instead of another, and why it occurs to me to look out the window and see whether there are clouds in the sky or not, or to look over at the flower on my bookshelf. Each of those experiences involves our brain making a choice about what’s available in the world, what’s going on in the world, and what’s available for us to experience, and what’s important. So the experience of each moment is the result of incalculable processing, and there’s no way to ever know why I’m having the particular experience that I am at the moment. Now after the fact, I can look over my life history, and I can find some likely precedents for why one particular thing was important at one particular time, and another thing was important at another time. We can do some sort of after the fact--what do they call that in sports? Grandstand quarterbacking or something. We can try to figure out what the coach had in mind, but we can never really know, and so our own experience is, on a very profound level, mysterious to us.
It may not be clear how that realization, that understanding of our brain and our experience, could be a cause for joy and jubilation; that it’s something that we could be happy about, given that for most of our lives, most of my life, I operated under the illusion that there was something in my head that I called my self, that was in control of my experience and my decisions, and to realize that that’s not the case, and to realize that I am, in some sense, simply an observer of what goes on in my brain, and at the same time I’m the product of what goes on in my brain. It may seem like a poor compensation for the feeling that I can be proud of something I’ve done, that I’ve produced some amazing work, or I have produced some consequence, and I can take credit for that.
When you realize then that all of that is the product of processing in your brain that you don’t have access to, the whole idea of pride seems nonsensical, and so, you look at your own accomplishments--I look at my own accomplishments, and my failings; the things that I wanted to do that it turns out, for one reason or another, that I couldn’t. I look at them without the kind of elation or depression that would otherwise accompany my accomplishments or my shortcomings.
My initial feeling of fear and disorientation when I realized that I was not in charge of my life or my brain has been replaced by a sense of wonder. I’m, in a way, like a child watching a magic show: I see the output of my own brain, the effects of the processing that’s going on in my head, and I wonder, how did it do that? The feeling of burden, of responsibility of being in charge of my own life has been replaced by a sense of amusement. Amusement, not just with myself, and my own feelings of pride, and puffery, and grandiosity, but with all of our delusions, and our self-importance, and our pomposity.
As I think about it, it seems that this new attitude, this new idea of myself, has brought me the same kind of relief from a sense of burden in life, the discomfort I felt with life, the same kind of relief that I got from pot, but without any of the negative aspects. It’s free, for one thing.
So far, in talking about the process of coming to this new attitude and understanding of myself, I’ve talked mostly about left-brains processes--looking at conceptual understanding of how the brain works, and consciousness, but there’s another component of this process, which might be called right-brain processing, in which I have come to appreciate a way of perceiving reality that is different from our ordinary, categorical way of looking at reality. But that is a very large subject, and one I think we should leave till next time.
In the meantime, I promised you a report on the virtual hug theory, which will demonstrate that this new idea of myself is still under construction, and open to revision and improvement. I have to tell you that every time I think of myself getting a hug, I get a big grin on my face, and it really has had a huge effect on my daily attitude and outlook, and I’ve extended it so that when I walk down the street, everyone that I see, I give a virtual hug. It really has changed the way that I look at my fellow pedestrians and people in cars, or buses, or whatever--anyone that I see. You can even give a virtual hug to a dog, or a cat, or a pigeon. So the opportunities to feel warm and fuzzy inside are endless, and it gives me a feeling of care and concern for the people that I meet on the street, and it gets me out of the typical human behavior, I think, of evaluating everyone we come across in terms of one particular system or another; something that, really, I don’t think does anyone any good.
Of course, you have to be careful, because I find myself smiling at people a lot, and some people don’t even notice, of course--most people don’t even notice--but some people notice, and I see the psycho-alert going on in their brain, and they immediately look away and proceed onward. But every now and then, another human being beams at me, as if we were life-long friends, and as if we had more time we would sit down and have a cup of tea together, and talk about how wonderful life is, and how much we care about each other, and those moments are well worth the occasional negative reactions that I get.
So there is anecdotal support for the theory that virtual hugs increase one’s sense of well-being, and I suppose we’ll have to construct some sort of scientific experiment to prove whether it’s generally true. But in the meantime, I think I’ll continue with my own personal experiment.