The Fact of Coherence

Einstein once said (I think it was Einstein, anyway), “The most incomprehensible thing about the universe is that it is comprehensible.” The universe we live in is really a very strange place, and the deeper physicists dig, the more strange it appears. And yet, everywhere we look within the strangeness, we find surprising patterns of regularity. That’s what Einstein was talking about.

I have a sort of half-formed idea about this. I present it not as a statement of fact, merely as a mild observation. Make of it what you will.

I got to thinking about this last month while trying to work through a personal dilemma (the details aren’t important) by consulting the Tarot and the I Ching. Now, any scientist who knows that the sun comes up in the East will assure you that the results you get by shuffling a deck of cards and then laying out ten or twelve of them are entirely random. Likewise casting the I Ching — toss three coins six times, and the results will be entirely random.

And yet, these oracle devices seem to work pretty well for me. As a rock-ribbed atheist, I don’t attribute the apparently meaningful outcomes to the guidance of invisible spirit entities. That would be very silly. But when you ask the I Ching whether to concentrate on music or fiction writing and you get a text that refers specifically to music … what is an atheist to think about this?

As we all know, the Second Law of Thermodynamics assures us that over time, in any closed system, entropy (that is, randomness) increases. Order decreases. And yet, everywhere we look in the universe, we see order.

A cosmology book I was reading a couple of months ago pointed out that at the time of the Big Bang, the distribution of particles in the universe was in a state of very high entropy. The distribution of particles was pretty much the same everywhere. It was smooth. We know this, because when we look at the cosmic background radiation we see that it’s pretty much the same in every direction. However, at the time of the Big Bang the force of gravity was in a state of extremely low entropy. That is, there was a huge amount of potential energy in the form of gravity, which began to turn into actual energy as bits of the early universe started clumping together. If gravity had already been in a state of high entropy, stars and galaxies would never have formed.

As an aside, this book explained that life on Earth doesn’t exist by virtue of the energy the sun shines down upon us, in spite of what you’re taught in biology class. In fact, the amount of energy on the surface of the Earth is pretty much constant. At night, just as much energy is radiated away into space as was absorbed during the day. What the sun actually sheds in our direction is low entropy.

The low entropy of gravitation was not, of course, the only way in which the early universe exhibited an extremely regular structure. All of the electrons in the universe (and there are quite a lot of them) are identical, as far as we’re able to determine experimentally. Why are they all the same? There’s no explanation for that; they just are, that’s all. Likewise, the speed of light is a constant. (In fact, there are more than 20 numerical constants — pure numbers — that physicists need in order to describe how the universe works. Physicists have no explanation at all for how those numbers came to have the values that they have.)

The charge of an electron exactly balances the opposite charge of a proton; it isn’t 5/8 of the value of a proton’s charge, or 1.374906 times the value of a proton’s charge. The precise balance of charges between the proton and the electron is about as anti-entropic a phenomenon as you could hope to find. Also the way electrons form shells around atomic nuclei, which is what allows molecules to form and remain stable. Nothing random going on among the electron shells, in spite of the incessant froth of quantum indeterminacy.

Everywhere we look in the universe, we see structure. Galaxies, stars, and planets. The organization of subatomic particles into atoms and molecules. And as we look around at the normal state of affairs on our lovely planet, we see trees, rocks, clouds, hair follicles — structure everywhere!

It may be objected that the existences of trees and hair follicles is accounted for by evolution. And that’s certainly true. Evolution is pretty much a logical necessity, once you have any type of cellular life that is kept organized by large molecules and can reproduce itself. But that fact doesn’t falsify what I’m suggesting; it’s just another example of it. Everywhere that structure can appear, structure appears. Look at a geode sometime. No evolution is involved in the production of geodes — the forces that produce geodes are of an entirely different character from the forces of evolution. Likewise the force of gravity. Gravity has nothing whatever to do with the ability of atoms to gather into large molecules endowed with unique properties. The causes of the structure are different in each case, but in each case, structure arises.

So when I cast the I Ching and get a meaningful answer, the reason it happens isn’t gravity, or evolution, or quantum mechanics. All I can say for certain is that the result of my action has a structure. It appears not to be governed by the Second Law of Thermodynamics, which would dictate that the fall of the coins be entirely random; instead, something different seems to be happening. It’s a pretty darn weak structure, frankly, but it appears to me that the universe is, here as in so many other ways, organizing itself into a regular structure.

Anyway, the Second Law is highly suspect. What it actually says is that entropy increases in a closed system. But we don’t actually know that the universe is a closed system. We don’t know whether the universe is finite (which would make it a closed system) or infinite. What we are fairly sure of is that the structure of subatomic physics — that is, the way electrons and quarks move and interact — has not increased in entropy during the past 3 billion years.

This is not an argument for the existence of “God.” We have no evidence at all that the universe was created. It just is. Nor is it an argument in favor of progress, morality, or anything else, though I’m sure some woolly-minded people would like to think of it that way. I’m just ruminating.

Turn Left at Stop Sign

Some things are more important than selling books.

I’ve been thinking out loud on this blog for some years now. Long-time readers (of whom there may be three or four) will have noticed that last year I repurposed the blog, writing exclusively about writing. This was an attempt (which doubtless would have proved completely ineffectual) to use “social media” to promote the series of novels that I’m planning to publish this year. I don’t tweet, but by golly I blog. Or blob. Or glob.

In view of the current political situation, however, I’m going to have to return to those thrilling days of yesteryear, when I commented about anything and everything. Writers who appreciate my take on other topics will of course want to stick around, and will find occasional posts on writing tucked in amongst the musing, ranting, and other ill-considered verbiage. If you’ve been enjoying the discussion of writing but find that you’re not in sympathy with my political views, all I can say is, “Fine. Go away. And good riddance.”

The time for being accommodating, for “agreeing to disagree,” has passed. It’s time to resist.

I would leave the United States in a hot New York second, but it’s hard to get a resident visa to live anywhere else when you’re retired — or at least, to live anywhere that I’d want to live. You can get a work visa, but even that is difficult to acquire, and I don’t feel much like working full-time now that I’m nearing 70. I could go to college in New Zealand, I’m sure, but when the student visa expired I’d have to come back to the U.S.

So I’m stuck here. And you’re stuck with me. Sound like a plan?

Yardstick? What Yardstick?

How do you measure success? If you’re a writer, or in fact an artist of any kind, this is a treacherous question.

Tonight I glanced at a blog post by Derek Murphy. Derek is a very bright guy and a tireless self-promoter. He designs book covers, he writes his own fiction, he builds websites. I’m sure he does lots of other stuff too. I wish I had his energy! But I’m not sure I agree with his view of success.

Let’s look at a few quotes from his essay.

“If you can’t understand why a book was successful, you’ll never come close to matching its sales.”

“If you covet an author’s success, you need to understand and mimic their book enough to please the same audience.”

“They [authors who “made a product based completely on their assumptions about an ill-defined audience that doesn’t really want it”] won’t be able to get any reviews or even give it away for free. Nobody will ‘get it.’ Much of this could have been solved with excellent cover design and some basic research and author platform set up: but some authors eschew all advice and do it the way they want to. Because they think they know best. If you’re making gut decisions for your book about what you like, you’re probably doing something wrong. You need to focus on what sells….”

“There’s a lot of room at the top: you can make a lot of money with your writing. But you need to learn the rules of the game first.”

The assumption Derek is making here, and what got my hackles up, is the idea that success is measured by how many books you sell. I’m sure a lot of people think of it that way — but it’s wrong.

He’s certainly right that a lot of aspiring writers don’t want to hear suggestions about how they could improve their writing, but that’s a different topic altogether.

I dislike the word “spiritual,” and never use it, so I’m going to grope for an alternative here. Success is measured, or at least defined, internally — not on a spreadsheet. It’s defined by the feeling that you’ve done your best. That you’ve lived up to and perhaps exceeded your own expectations for yourself. That you have been skillful at each and every point in the work you’ve just completed. That you have accomplished what you set out to accomplish. That you have reached or perhaps surpassed the goals that you set for yourself when you began.

Success is when you feel good about your work. When you look at your work and judge that it is good — that it does what you want it to do. Everything else is just dust in the wind.

The danger in focusing on sales figures as a measure of success is that it warps the creative process. If you’re trying, as you write or paint or sing, to sell your work to the greatest number of people, you will make bad decisions. You will harm yourself, and you will harm your readers, viewers, or listeners. You will deprive them, and deprive yourself, of an entire dimension of experience that would otherwise be available. If you’re writing or painting with an invisible audience looking over your shoulder and judging your work, you’re in big trouble.

Of course, most people need to earn a living one way or another, and a great many artists would like to make a living by selling their art. Having a day job is no fun at all, and having to work full-time or even part-time at some menial or demeaning job will wreak havoc with your creativity too! Nobody said living on this planet would be easy. (Actually, Ira Gershwin did say that: “Summertime, and the livin’ is easy. Fish are jumpin’ and the cotton is high.” But you can’t trust a songwriter.)

I keep coming back to something that Ram Dass said in one of his books. Quoting from memory here, “The only thing you can really contribute to the world is the quality of your own consciousness at any given moment.” If your consciousness is polluted, whether by the need for money or by the fear that your self-esteem will be crushed if not enough people admire you, then that pollution will surely show up in your creative work.

There’s a Zen story — I think it’s a Zen story, anyway, it sounds like one. The young painter goes to the master painter and says, “Please, master — tell me how to paint the perfect painting.” The master replies, “Oh, that’s easy. Just become perfect, and then paint naturally.”

Becoming perfect — well, that’s not going to happen. But getting better can and does happen. Getting better is something that happens inside of you. You can’t measure it, you can only feel it and know it. What’s more, you get to define for yourself what “better” means.

My wish for you is that you become better; that, as you continually get better, you continue to write as well as you can; and that you find, as you do so, an inner reward that deeply satisfies you.

Why Is There Sex?

Pardon me for boasting, but on the way home from the gym this morning I seem to have solved a long-standing problem in evolutionary theory. I don’t think I’ve read this idea anywhere — it just sort of popped up.

The problem is, why does sexual reproduction exist? Evolution is ruthlessly economical. Any behavior that doesn’t “pay off” in terms of reproductive fitness will sooner or later get weeded out. Sexual reproduction is expensive in behavioral terms — all the trouble of finding a mate, fighting off rivals, and so forth. What’s the payoff?

A theory that I have read is that the payoff is protection from microbes. The microbes in your immediate environment, which includes the millions of tiny critters living on your skin right at this moment, breed much faster than you and I do, so they can evolve faster. There’s a kind of arms race going on. Any advantage they gain (in making you sick, which will increase their numbers radically) has to be fought off by your immune system. Sexual reproduction, according to this theory, jumbles up the genes of the next generation, which essentially confuses the microbes. They have to start over, trying to figure out how to make the next generation sick.

I’m sure that’s a fine theory. I’m not a cell geneticist, so I’m not equipped to evaluate it. But here’s a different idea.

When we talk about evolutionary fitness, we’re not really talking about the fitness of a big, strong animal. We’re talking about the fitness of the genes that encode information with which to build a big, strong animal. It’s the fitness of the genes that is crucial in evolution.

In asexual reproduction, the mother passes all of her genes on to her daughter, and so on, unto the nth generation. Because evolution is ruthlessly economical, it will tend to trim away redundant genes. An asexual creature would quite likely have, for instance, only one gene to produce an essential digestive enzyme, because if there was ever a second gene that did that, when the second gene fell apart or got mis-copied, it could never be reconstructed.

Genes do occasionally mutate. Not often, but it happens. And there are, in your genetic makeup and mine, thousands of genes that are essential for the organism to remain alive. You have genes that constructed your heart, your lungs, your skin, and so on. If you had only one copy of each of these genes, any mutation (in the portion of your own developing body that produced egg cells) would be fatal to your offspring. You would never produce any viable children.

But when you have two copies of these important genes, one from your father and one from your mother, a defect in one of the copies is not necessarily fatal to you or to your offspring. If you only have one copy of the gene that makes that essential digestive enzyme, you may never even know it — and half of your children won’t inherit it. True, fatal mutations can still occur. But the redundancy of the genetic information lowers the rate of fatalities due to mutation.

This is all Biology 101. But the essential point is this: From the point of view of your genes (anthropomorphizing a bit here — genes obviously have no point of view), sexual reproduction protects all of them against the occasional fatal “traitor” gene. The healthy genes work together, producing a sexually reproducing species, in order to protect themselves from those occasional traitors.

Q.E.D.

Smut Smiters

I’m kind of burned out on the whole Caitlyn Jenner thing — trying to explain to people that a trans woman is not “a man in a dress.” But somewhere along the way, I was taking a quick, horrified glance at a couple of radical feminist web pages, and I was reminded that most radical feminists are vehemently opposed to pornography.

Whenever we find supposed leftists aligning themselves with fundamentalist Christians, we should probably be a little suspicious. But the Christians’ objections to pornography are really too silly to be worth discussing. The feminist objections, I think, can be dealt with in a rational manner.

If I understand it correctly (and please correct me if I’m missing something), the feminist objections to pornography are, first, that the pornography industry exploits women; and second, that pornography objectifies women by portraying them simply as bodies suitable for lusty purposes rather than as whole human beings.

Of course, gay male pornography complicates the picture. Really, we should be talking about “people” rather than “women.” But let’s avoid complicating the discussion.

I’m sure it’s true that the pornography industry exploits women. But then, so does the garment industry in Taiwan. I’m guessing that the type of exploitation that so upsets radical feminists is that the women who are employed as photographic models or film actresses in pornography are required to take their clothes off as part of their employment. And to engage in real or simulated sex acts.

However, artist models routinely pose naked. And are sometimes paid for doing so, I’m sure. For that matter, there are nudist colonies and clothing-optional beaches. There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with either nakedness or being paid to get naked.

If some women feel that being in porn (or stripping) is the only way they can earn a decent living, then yes, that’s exploitation. The solution is not, however, to remove those job opportunities. The solution is to provide other well-paying job opportunities so that women don’t have to do porn unless they want to.

I’m pretty sure some of them do want to. And that fact is nobody’s business but their own. Neither the radical feminists nor the fundie Xtians get to say, “But she shouldn’t want to!” No, you don’t get to go there.

Is there something uniquely awful about being paid for sex, as opposed to, say, being paid for cleaning motel rooms or working as a cashier at Wal-Mart? No, I think we can dismiss that notion. Sex is a normal, healthy activity.

Prostitution ought to be legal, and plenty of feminists understand that. Laws against prostitution punish women. How is engaging in sex for pay on camera any different? It’s not.

In sum, the argument that pornography exploits the women who work in the porn industry pretty much falls apart when you look at it closely.

But doesn’t pornography objectify women? Doesn’t it demean all women, whether or not they’re on camera? Doesn’t it give men unrealistic fantasy ideas about women’s bodies? Doesn’t it damage men’s ability to relate to real women as whole human beings?

I think if you took a survey, you would find that most heterosexual men think healthy, well-formed 20-year-old women are sexier than healthy, well-formed 40-year-old women. I think you would find that most men are not sexually aroused by pimples, wrinkles, stretch marks, or surgical scars. (There are exceptions, of course.) Most men have, in other words, an ideal in their heads of what they would like a sex partner to look like. The ideal will differ from one man to another, but there will almost always be an ideal. A man who is equally aroused by all women, and who is not lying about it, would be extremely rare, and would probably be worth studying in a laboratory that’s equipped with brain scanning technology. We can safely say there must be something wrong with his wiring.

Men’s ideas of what they would ideally prefer in a sex partner are not created by the porn industry. The ideals are natively just there, in the men’s heads. The porn industry certainly targets those ideals, but it doesn’t create them. It can’t create them. It’s really difficult to get anyone sexually turned on by something that he or she doesn’t already want to get turned on by.

Most men understand that the sex partner they have is less than ideal — and they’re okay with that. Unless something a lot better comes along, of course. Infidelity and divorce are painful and unfortunate, but they’re not caused by the porn industry. They would exist, and probably at about the same frequency, even if pornography were prohibited. Indeed, a case could be made that pornography gives some men a sexual outlet that allows them to remain faithful to their wife. In the absence of pornography, they might feel a greater need to seek outside stimulation of a more direct and personal nature.

It’s important, too, to emphasize that when a man looks at a woman — perhaps a stranger — and is turned on by her in a specifically sexual way, without reference to her personality or her other fine qualities, that’s normal. There’s nothing wrong with that. I’m sure millions of happy marriages have begun in momentary lust. Men are not such primitive, loathsome creatures that they are unable to move outward from their lust into an appreciation of a woman’s intelligence, honesty, or other attributes.

One of the basic rules of progressive politics is this: Politics stops at the bedroom door. You don’t get to have a political opinion about what turns anybody on. You don’t get to say, “But that shouldn’t turn you on!” As long as the two (or more) people involved in the sexual encounter are consenting adults, anything they do is fine, and any feelings that they have are fine.

Attempting to demonize pornography is, at root, an attempt to tell men, “But you shouldn’t be turned on by that!” It’s bullshit. Men are turned on by whatever they’re turned on by, and as long as it involves consenting adults, you don’t get to have an opinion about it.

Sexual attractiveness is a commodity. The mating game is market economics in action. We all try to make the best deal we can, and we all try to market ourselves as well as possible — through personal grooming, buying a fast car, or whatever. That’s biology, as expressed through human instinct and human culture. I’m going to be unkind here. My suspicion is that quite often radical feminists object to the portrayal of women in porn because they, the radical feminists, feel ill equipped to compete with the women in porn.

But you know, I’m ill equipped to compete with Ben Affleck. That’s reality. Deal with it.

The Quest for Knowledge

Nibbled at by some persistent demon, it has occurred to me that I really would like to go back to college and get my B.A. Possibly a Master’s as well. At the tender age of 66.

I live less than 40 miles from UC Berkeley. Not only that, but I’m a former Berkeley student (for two quarters in 1969). If they can find my student ID number (not guaranteed — probably on microfilm in the basement), I qualify as a returning student. I can apply this week and start classes in the fall.

But there’s a fly in the ointment. More like a wart hog, actually. (Visual: wart hog in the ointment. Let’s not go there.) UC Berkeley is not a commuter school. There are something like 800 parking spaces to serve 20,000 students. On top of which, as a music student, I would often need to carry my cello. The nearest and most convenient parking garage (which might, on any given day, be full) is too far from the music department for a 66-year-old to carry a cello.

The music department has lockers. The most likely solution will be for me to rent a barely adequate cello ($70 per month for a couple of years, thereby adding a cool $1,500 or so to the cost of attending school) and leave it in the locker. But the parking situation is still dismal.

Riding BART in from Dublin is not an option. As a male over 65, I sometimes need quick access to a restroom (or at least to a place where I can pull off the highway for a minute). No, I’ll be driving.

Hey, how about parking on the street a mile from campus and riding the bus? Sounds like a swell idea. The 49 bus runs right up College Ave. to the campus. But most of Berkeley’s residential neighborhoods, including those that lie along the 49 line, are parking-controlled. Two-hour limit unless you have a resident sticker.

Contrast this with Cal State East Bay. It’s a commuter school. Plentiful student parking within 200 yards of your classroom. And the commute from Livermore is shorter. Trouble is, Cal State is not really a wonderful school. You can get a degree there, no problem, but if you want an actual education UC would be a far better choice.

Maybe I can charter a daily helicopter.

Ruminations on Religion

Today I got into a low-key wrangle with a woman on Facebook who feels that her moderate, enlightened version of Christianity is superior to the version espoused by the right-wing zealots who are currently spewing their toxic garbage across our national discourse. She said she simply follows the teachings of Jesus, which she finds not very ambiguous.

I asked her whether she opposes divorce; Jesus was quite specific about that, if the Bible is to be believed. Of course, the Bible is a farrago of fantasy, we all understand that — but if she’s trying to follow the teachings of Jesus, she has to use it.

She wouldn’t answer the question. But she got me curious, so I hauled out the King James Version and had a look at Matthew. The sayings of Jesus turn out to be more peculiar than I remembered — and a lot harder to use as teachings or moral precepts, I’d say. Here’s Matthew 8:21-22: “And another of his disciples said unto him, Lord, suffer me first to go and bury my father. But Jesus said unto him, Follow me; and let the dead bury their dead.”

Okay, so one of Jesus’s teachings was that corpses were to be allowed to rot unburied. Have I got that right?

Earlier in the same chapter, a centurion comes to Jesus requesting that Jesus heal his servant, who is “grievously tormented” by the palsy. But the centurion doesn’t want Jesus to be seen entering his house! “For I am a man under authority,” he explains. He wants Jesus to heal the servant remotely. Jesus does so — but what’s remarkable about this incident is that Jesus goes out of his way to praise the centurion’s great faith. “Verily I say unto you,” he says to his disciples, “I have not found so great faith, no, not in Israel.”

The centurion is worried about losing his job if he’s known to be hanging out with Jesus, and Jesus praises his faith. That’s enough to set my head spinning. Jesus is unabashedly praising fear and hypocrisy. He’s praising a man for not wanting to lose his job.

And yet he also says, “Take no thought for your life, what ye shall eat, or what ye shall drink; nor yet for your body, what ye shall put on.” Yes, that does seem to be fairly unambiguous, though it’s precisely the opposite of what he praised the centurion for.

Can we safely assume that the woman who is following the teachings of Jesus has no interest in dieting and nutrition? Can we safely assume that she doesn’t bother to wash her clothes or make sure that her socks match?

Or, as is much more likely, shall we assume that she is picking and choosing among the teachings of Jesus, embracing the teachings that she likes and ignoring those that would be embarrassing, inconvenient, or dangerous?

I’m not too concerned, at the moment, about hypocrisy. That’s not what I’m driving at. What I want to suggest is that not even the most scrupulously religious can dodge personal responsibility for their moral and behavioral choices. If you try to follow every single thing in your favorite holy book, of course you’ll go mad, because holy books are full of contradictions. But even if you did try to do that, it would still be your personal choice. You can’t evade responsibility for your actions by trying to blame it on Jesus. In practice, people do pick and choose the verses they will admire and embrace. And that’s as it should be.

But if you do it that way, and if you have even a scrap of honesty, you really have to admit to yourself that the Bible is not a reliable guide to anything. The only reliable guide to morality or life’s difficult choices is your own personal sense of right and wrong. Jesus got nothin’ to do with it.

Mushrooms

I’m not a philosopher. The contortions of academic philosophy as a discipline leave me, alternately, gasping for breath or rolling on the floor laughing. I’m just a reasonably bright guy who likes to think about stuff.

Lately I’ve been thinking about things that happen (occasionally) in my life that seem to have no detectable cause. I’m pretty sure most people encounter these odd events from time to time. One popular term for them is “coincidences.”

The notion behind the word “coincidence” is that when two events happen in conjunction with one another for no detectable reason, it was just pure dumb luck. Randomness in action. In the course of your daily life, thousands and thousands of events will occur; the probability that a few of the concidences will seem meaningful is actually quite high.

My own experience, however, suggests that meaningful coincidences seem to occur preferentially (though not reliably) at moments of heightened emotional significance. I’m driving along a road, thinking profound thoughts about the nature of the universe, stumble upon an especially pregnant insight — and at that moment I pull up at a stop light behind a car whose license plate comments in a very specific and personal way on my insight.

That actually happened to me, by the way. Such things — all different, all unlikely, all meaningful — have happened half a dozen times in my life that I can recall offhand.

One essential point to understand about such moments is that they cannot be investigated scientifically. They can’t be taken into a laboratory. You can’t run a double-blind study while repeating them with controls. They’re essentially one-off events.

Here’s the big question: Is it possible that the universe occasionally produces meaningful constellations of events for which there is no cause? Or rather, for which there is no cause other than the fact that the events are being experienced together by somebody who finds them meaningful?

The reductionist physicist view of this idea is that of course it’s nonsense. Events cluster at random, that’s all. Each individual event is caused by simple physical processes involving molecules, and that’s the whole story. Sometimes we perceive meaningful connections between events, but the meaningful connections exist only in our minds.

The difficulty with the reductionist explanation is that it presupposes that all events in the physical universe have physical causes, and that the physical causes are entirely sufficient to explain why a given event occurs. This is a form of the First Cause argument in philosophy — a thoroughly pondered but quite silly argument for the existence of God. The First Cause argument starts with the thesis, “Whatever begins to exist has a cause.”

That thesis is suspect on at least two grounds that I can summon up without being a philosopher. First, physicists assure us that matter and energy can be neither created nor destroyed. So in fact nothing ever “begins to exist.” It’s all already in existence. Second, and perhaps more alarmingly for the philosopher in his ivory tower, how do we know that that statement is true? What if it’s not true? What if there are millions of uncaused events going on around us all the time?

The human brain likes to find causes, and there are profound evolutionary reasons for that. If your ancestors heard a rustling in the bushes, it was darn well important for their brains to jump (and quickly) to the conclusion that something was hiding in the bushes. Could be a lion, could be something tasty — but if they didn’t think about the cause of the rustling, they were a lot less likely to pass on their genes to the next generation.

The fact that we’re hard-wired to look for causes does not imply that everything in the universe necessarily has a cause.

The universe doesn’t know the difference between male and female. The universe doesn’t even know the difference between 1 and 2. (Conjoined twins are a fine example of this fact. Not one baby, and not two babies. 1-1/3 babies, or 1-5/6 babies.) The universe, I would argue, is not bound for a moment by human ideas of logic or causation. Those are just human ideas.

Think about electrons for a moment. There are untold trillions of electrons whizzing around in your body at this very moment. The physicists will assure us that all electrons are identical. They all obey the same simple set of physical laws. But why? Well, because they do, that’s all. There is no outside force compelling electrons to interact with other particles the way they do. If there were such a force, the same question would have to be asked of it: Why does this force behave the way it does?

The short answer, as unsettling as it may be, is that there is no cause. Electrons just do what they do, that’s all we can say about it. We can investigate their behavior, but we can’t explain it. If we try to explain it, we’ll find ourselves hunting for the philosophers’ elusive First Cause. We’ll tumble down the rabbit hole into an infinite regression.

Maybe electrons are like mushrooms. They just pop up. (Yes, I understand that mushrooms are the fruiting bodies of mycelium. I’m using a metaphor here. Cut me some slack.) And maybe larger events, events that we can observe with the naked eye, sometimes just pop up too, without being caused.

The universe doesn’t know about logic. It doesn’t know about the difference between 1 and 2, or between true and false. It just is. We only expect it to adhere to the “laws” of causation because evolution trained us to look for causes. Sometimes there are causes, yes. Sometimes it’s the mycelium creeping along under the ground. But what outside agency would force the universe to always have causes for things?

Food for Worms

In the course of prepping a couple of obsolete computers for recycling, I discovered I have CD and DVD copies of the entire Myst series games. Unfortunately, I’m unable to play the later ones, because Windows has moved on. I’ve got realMyst (an enhanced version of the original), and for some reason Myst III: Exile runs fine under Windows 8. But IV and V are toast. Or coasters, I suppose.

The sad part about this is that in some sense these games are digital art. And they’re gone. Okay, maybe not as great art as Beethoven’s Third or a Van Gogh painting, but Myst had a real visual style. Arguably, the games have a narrative theme too — or several themes, actually. That the world is vast, lonely, and mysterious. That there are places you may want to visit that are not accessible to you. That you may need to explore hidden places and find unlikely connections in order to solve the basic problems of existence. That the Creator has moved on and left you behind to deal with his inconvenient handiwork in whatever way you can manage.

I happen to have a Windows XP laptop, which is on its way to recycling in a day or two. I hauled it out of the trunk of the car and installed Myst IV. Unfortunately, it’s a MusicXPC machine, built for dedicated audio professionals. As such, it has no soundcard. None. Myst needs a soundcard to run.

So I plug in an M-Audio Fast Track Pro that I happen to have lying around. It’s class-compliant. Windows XP likes it fine — system sounds play. But Myst IV still isn’t happy. It complains that the desktop isn’t in 32-bit mode, even though it is in 32-bit mode.

Phooey.

What’s in the Cards

Playing cards seem to have been invented near the end of the 14th century. In addition to the precursors of the four suits that we know and love, the earliest decks had a variety of additional picture-cards. Today’s Tarot cards are a systematization of those early decks.

As a hardcore atheist, I don’t have much patience with the idea that if you lay out a spread of Tarot cards for the purpose of divination, the universe will somehow produce a meaningful spread. What cards show up in a spread — that’s random.

Nonetheless, the symbolism found in the Tarot is fascinating. The images on the cards have very little to do with any scientific description of the world, except accidentally. But they have everything to do with human perceptions and human psychology.

The meanings of the images on the cards are anything but cut-and-dried. Some are simply vague and open to interpretation. Others are close to what Jung called archetypes: They represent deeply unconscious tendencies in the human brain. Your interpretations may not be at all like mine, and either of us can change our interpretation from day to day. On Monday, The Fool may represent the Eternal Now. On Wednesday, it may depict childish impulsiveness. And so on.

Once you know the basic (and multi-faceted) meanings of the cards, if you lay out a spread in a calm, attentive manner your intuition may be prompted toward a new realization with respect to whatever concerns you. The cards are not going to give you advice, but your unconscious may give you a nudge that’s prompted by whatever random cards show up in the spread. Or not. No guarantees.

Lots of artists today are designing, printing, and selling Tarot cards. Some hew closely to the set of images in the Rider-Waite-Smith deck, which has been around for a hundred years now. Others offer radical reinterpretations. Some are visual feasts; others are regrettably amateurish in execution.

One of the things that I like about the Tarot is this cultural free-for-all. The cards seem to satisfy some of the same human cravings as religion, but unlike the Bible or the Koran, the cards are almost entirely wordless. The very few words that are associated with the Major Arcana (The Tower, The Emperor, The Star, and so on) are not infrequently redacted by card designers who prefer other terms, due either to the needs of a new deck with a particular theme or to simple squeamishness. Sometimes the Death card becomes “Transformation.” In a Celtic-themed deck, The Devil is transformed into Cernunnos, the horned god.

I also like the idea that you can carry 78 beautiful paintings around in a small box.

If you’re curious to see what the card designers are up to, a good site to visit is Aeclectic Tarot. You’ll find decks depicting everything from Egyptian mysticism to cats.