Things and events are not always what they appear to be and it seems that humanity often forgets that lesson. In the early 1500’s, in the so-called early modern period, Copernicus confirmed that the observable facts were inconsistent with the doctrine that earth was at the center of the universe, thus ending Ptolemy’s illusory system of cycles and epicycles. A few decades later, in 1624, William Harvey demonstrated that the delusional dogmas of Galen were also wrong: no, blood did not originate in the liver and pass directly to the left side of the heart where it would mix with air! Fourteen centuries of settled science thus quickly came to an end. Ptolemy and Galen had been second century contemporaries and it is remarkable that their mistaken ideas had survived for so long. The vast majority of humanity ‘blindly’ went along, and the entrenched powers could be jealous, wrathful and lethal. Giordano Bruno died at the stake in Rome in 1600 for his inspired speculations about many suns and multiple inhabited worlds! Even in our modern times punishments for similar ‘crimes of the mind’ still occur, sometimes on a vast scale in convulsions of ‘mass psychosis’. Erroneous ideas are stubborn and will endure unless searched for, confronted and corrected. Harvey was very clear, “I profess to learn and teach anatomy not from books but from dissections, not from the tenets of Philosophers but from the fabric of Nature.” There is power, and danger, in independent curiosity and discovery.
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Nowadays the search and discovery of new knowledge is prolific and discussions about it can be downright chaotic, even nasty! Stephen Hawking recently said that philosophy was dead because it had not kept up with modern developments. Indeed, developments are so rapid that nobody can keep up, even within their own fields of study. However, philosophy also has its internal problems. Noam Chomsky recently observed that statements of Slavoj Zizek were gibberish and went on “If there are such theories, I am happy to see them. I don’t find them when I read Paris Post-Modernist talk. What I see is intellectuals interacting with one another in ways which are incomprehensible to the public and, to be frank, incomprehensible to me.” Even great intellects can get confused.
Could it be that these deep thinkers have been so immersed in deep thoughts that they themselves might not have kept up with some important developments in the mundane world of human sciences? They probably think such ‘soft’ sciences can not have relevance to fundamental questions regarding truth, reality and the cosmic universe. Despite the Socratic injunction to “first know thyself”, these philosophers and physicists blindly forge ahead without regard to fundamental aspects of human beings, aspects that could explain their and our universal difficulties with communication, and with the nature of knowledge itself.
We must first know ourselves, and here are some very basic facts to start with.
We are unable to detect the outside world without our sense organs, all of which connect electronically to the brain. For example, the pleasant conscious experience of a great meal with friends is mediated entirely through our meager senses and is wholly constructed in the brain with lavish care, most (!) of the details added from within us. Food interacts with chemical receptors in mouth and nose. Sounds of talk and music are picked up by mechanical receptors in the inner ear. At the same time, an almost real time video of the activities is captured by a system that is activated when photons of electromagnetic radiation hit cone cells in the retina. Vast numbers of sensors are also arrayed in and under the skin. Imagine snuggling with a loved one next to a warm fire. Even a life changing experience, such as reading a book, listening to a lecture or seeing a performance, begins as electrochemical signals first incited by sensory structures and then spread throughout the nervous system, where circa hundred billion neurons and trillions of synapses play their part. Our subjective conscious experiences, created by this vast symphony of electricity and chemistry, sometimes propel our infinite imaginations far beyond the surly bonds of this earth.
Consciousness is a great mystery. Functional MRI can highlight active centers of the brain engaged in a particular task. Still, we cannot measure or interpret the billions of little electrical nerve impulses as they continuously run up and down the nervous system, all the while releasing tiny bits of neurotransmitters at synapses. This vast and constant flow of potential differences and outpouring of chemicals is the basis of consciousness. This is too much for many philosophers to accept, bringing them to imagine spirits or other ill-defined forces. If such ill-defined forces are ever found, they will soon become defined forces. Such is the nature of progress.
What could be the most remarkable aspect of consciousness is its substrate. It is based on relatively simple electrical pulses, originating from all over the body, that do not contain any information per se about the initial cause of the pulse, be it radiation, chemical or mechanical. The only information associated with a nerve impulse is its frequency and the exact location of its origin. The brain then constructs in sumptuous detail a surreal representation of the external universe out of non-specific nerve impulses arising from receptor cells. When we intensely listen to a lecture or admire a beautiful scene in nature, the entire experience is recreated in the brain from non-descript electrical impulses arriving from our ears or eyes and interacting with memories of past bodily experiences. Obviously, our lifelong memory bank of sounds, images and tastes was also thus created from sensory electrical signals, and their recall combined with real time inputs generate a new set of conscious signals. The complexity of this is cosmic.
Our entire awareness of the external world, ‘real’ or imagined or both, in its infinite variety, present and past, has been synthesized in our lonely brain from ‘simple’ electrical signals originating from our genetically determined sensors. This does not mean that our awareness is a straightforward calculation based on current inputs from the senses. Far from it. All the subjective experiences of color, shape, smell, taste, heat, cold, pain or pleasure, so-called qualia, are not features of the outside world. Rather, they are created in the brain in response to relatively ‘simple’ stimuli. But there is so much more: our physical and emotional state, our past experiences in life, our education and culture. All these, and probably more, have prepared us for the present moment and an anticipated future. Consciousness is a dynamic state in continuous flux.
This now appears to be a central and universal fact about us: we are all locked in by our sensory systems – and are utterly dependent on them for information on the outside world! Our hundreds of millions of external receptor cells provide us with our only contact but, unfortunately, they also prevent us from directly knowing anything that can not enter through their portals. We are totally dependent on and constrained by our genetically determined receptors. Through them we have experienced, learned, have been taught and, yes, have been indoctrinated. We have learned skills through observation. We have seen ourselves reflected in a mirror. In short, all of our knowledge of the external universe has come to us via our personal set of external receptors. We can either experience the universe personally, or receive communications about it from others, or gain information via experimentation. However, all that we know of becomes known by first being processed in the nervous system via a mixture of generic chemical and electrical intermediaries.
The color of burgundy, the smell of honeysuckle, the hum of bumblebees, the taste of sugar and the pain of a wasp’s sting are all artifacts in consciousness. These familiar sensations do not represent direct properties of their causes but are specific artifacts created by the brain that are then recognized in consciousness, talked about and recalled from memory. To see the sky as blue is an ‘illusion’ that most of us experience and agree on. To believe that the sky is actually blue is a ‘delusion’. Clearly, the natural world we inhabit is filled with these normal ‘illusions’ and ‘delusions’. (These should, however, not be confused with hallucinations which are their pathological counterparts.)
Our sensations are the building blocks of a vast and unique personal library that automatically provides us with the appropriate references from moment to moment. Every person obviously will have a private set of experiences, different from everyone else, sometimes markedly so,. This helps somewhat to explain the difficulties humans have in communication and coming to a common understanding on any subject. Most ideas have their supporters and detractors because, as they say, the Devil is in the details. Just as problematic is the fact that during a lifetime everyone is limited to sampling only a minute fraction of all the available information, no matter the scope of their curiosity. Hence, each of us pretty much has their own set of experiences, facts, confusions, suspicions, illusions, delusions and prejudices. Therefore, one should, at the very least, be very careful, even skeptical, when one thinks one has a full understanding of anything or anyone, especially oneself. Even simple rules of logic are interpreted with subtle differences by different individuals. Each person is enclosed in the bubble of their own ‘reality’ and is privy to what is ‘really’ going on only in their private bubble universe. No one knows what is really going on in a neighbor’s universe.
Speaking of devilish details, our private universes are different for an additional common reason. Recently, i.e. over the last half century or so, we have learned of the existence of surprising variations in how our sense organs are constituted. These gatekeepers to our external world are unpredictably different in function and structure from person to person. No one would be aware that these variations exist, except in the most dramatic cases. Severe color blindness is obvious to most, but more subtle forms are often only picked up on special testing and afflict up to 8% of males. How would I know, if I were so afflicted, that the color blue looks different to me than what it would to another person? Even among ‘normal’ individuals the ratios of the three different color receptor cells (cones) in the retina can vary sixteen fold! Clearly the pattern of signals being sent to the brain from eyes at the opposite ends of the range of cone densities would be very different for a given light source.
Similarly, common inherited genetic variations in our ability to taste certain chemicals are also well documented. About 30% of us are completely unable to taste PTC, the rest being divided between those that are ordinary tasters and ‘supertasters’.
Our brains also appear to be subject to the same kinds of structural and functional variations as our sense organs are. Brain weights are genetically determined for the most part, and range more than 30% from largest to smallest. As the brain matures during the first 20 years of life, it is physically molded by events. Patterns of stimulus and reaction determine the final shape of the brain and of the pathways within it. This plasticity of the brain is so great that non-genetic developmental factors are largely responsible for the size and shape of folds, so-called convolutions, on the surface of the cerebral cortex. So, as the brain grows it appears to be moulded by its environment, apparently in anticipation of similar things to come – similar to a muscle that gets bigger and stronger with work. Finally, in cases of severe sensory deprivation and social neglect in otherwise healthy infants, profound and permanent reduction in brain weight with severe effects on structure and function have been documented. Often these babies grow up to be permanently handicapped, emotionally and intellectually, despite efforts to compensate for their early abuse.
The evidence is very persuasive. Each of us, independently and alone, occupies a real but unique corner of the universe. Everything in our private universe has been acquired and appropriated through our sense organs and brain. Every and each adult represents a different and unique combination of sensors and brain, and is subjected to a unique set of experiences. We can look at a picture together, we can share our thoughts about it, but we cannot directly share our conscious experience of looking at it. My and your realities seem to be absolutely amazing, but private, different and unique.
“What a piece of work is a man! How noble in reason! how infinite in faculty! in form, in moving, how express and admirable! in action how like an angel! in apprehension how like a god! the beauty of the world! the paragon of animals!”
If only Shakespeare had known what we know now. The amount of information that one mind processes during one lifetime is truly amazing. Yet it still represents only a minute fraction of the immense theoretical total that exists in the whole of human culture. Concepts from atom to cosmos, feelings from depression to exultation, or plans for love or war, all exist entirely and only in brains, one at a time – hence a clear need for everyone to cooperate and do their best.
Biological differences, therefore, amongst us humans appear greater than previously thought with significant internal differences of structure and function. But before we plunge into a downward spiral of despair over loneliness and isolation, as some writers have, there is another side that must be acknowledged. It is very likely a feature of humans that we are genetically programmed to be social, to interact and care. This force of attraction obviously is much more powerful than any repulsion we might experience due to all of our grave social ills and misunderstandings. However, we are certain to be more effective in our personal interactions by first understanding ourselves better and then learning about the many surprising ways in which other human beings can be different. Differences of opinion and attitude are more likely due to structural and functional variations, rather than stupidity, ignorance, envy, hatefulness, dishonesty or bad faith – but one never knows exactly what is going on in another brain. Local cultures are also quite diverse and so the challenge for a world with better understanding and cooperation is really a challenge to each one of us, individually. Entrenched dogmas have been amazingly resistant to change.
What advice would physicians and biologists have for dueling mathematicians, physicists, philosophers and spiritual leaders? Be cautious, cast your net as widely as you can, and seek clarification, precision and accuracy through application of different disciplines. Knowledge will always be incomplete for two reasons; there is too much for any one brain to absorb, and no two brains will ever agree on everything. It is relatively easy to see the errors of others, but our own personal blind spots are as damaging. As suggested, these blind spots could have their origin in our genes, our childhood development and our culture. We cannot know the truth about all of reality unless we accomplish the impossible which is to know everything about everything. We will have to be satisfied with partial knowledge and be very careful about even that.
Exploring the black hole at the center of our galaxy might represent something closer to reality for some, but most of us must deal with the shifting faces of reality, every day, along with almost 7.5 billion other people, all trying to survive and presumably to do the right thing. Even as the dominant players in the biosphere, humans still have to struggle with a million things. Mostly, our difficult struggles are seared with suffering and loss, interspersed, if we are lucky, with a few moments of ecstasy and joy.
Our human reality now appears to come down to this: we are propelled by DNA which, in its human incarnation, has the ability to perceive itself in action and talk about it, a phenomenon that we call individual human consciousness. Consciousness may or may not be present in all forms of life, but we are the only species that have been able to write about it. Our DNA binds us together in families and communities, creating a world wide culture in the process. In fact, the only form of direct information exchange between humans occurs at fertilization when readable strings of DNA combine to form a new, utterly unique and precise text, a recipe for another person.
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So, what is ‘real’? There is the noisy, indirect and imprecise realm of daily conscious interaction as practiced via our senses. Or there is the precise, silent imperative of our unique personal DNA that directs chemical reactions, builds complex proteins and intra-cellular structures, forges specialized cells, and through it all coordinates a miraculous human ‘machine’ – what a piece of work is man! The answer is that all is real, including our innocent illusions, delusions and mysteries, our triumphs and failures, our lies and our corruptions. What a piece of work!
Here are some speculations about us and reality as new science continues to be uncovered:
‘Reality is anthropocentric.’ The center of the physical ‘cosmic universe’ is unknowable, but, for the time being, in a counter-Copernican way, the center of the ‘real universe’ has moved back to earth and, more specifically, into the bodies of each one of us. The single human being at the center of reality is a variable and ill-defined entity. Nevertheless, that single, independent enigmatic individual is at the center of society, reality and culture, and is the only processor of information into consciousness. It might take a village to raise a child, and we might learn an incredible amount from our parents, teachers, mentors and friends (and from reading books!) but individuals are the only players in the game of knowledge. Each of us after birth must reconstitute in our brains our culture anew, blend it with the whole as best as we can, and pass it on to our heirs. We owe it to the children to do our best.
All philosophy will be recognized as incomplete; all past, present and future philosophy as formulated by any one person, no matter how prodigious,. We can also include mathematics and physics under this limitation where there has been much talk of Incompleteness Theorems, Uncertainty Principles, and Multiple Universe Interpretations of quantum mechanics.
The classic ideas inherited from philosophers, both ancient and modern, will need to be revised and reformulated. These old concepts on the whole are now more of a hindrance than a help, although they do represent a very valuable lesson in history. Our predecessors just knew too little, and much of what they thought they knew was plainly wrong. Philosophy in the total abstract, if it exists, is delusional and should not be relied upon. Disembodied thoughts do not exist.
There is no fundamental need to postulate an esoteric, immaterial spiritual element unique to human beings. The more we learn about the human body the more awed and humbled we are by its complexity. One could speculate that we are ultimately unknowable but that should not deter us. If we put our minds to it, there is much that we can and should learn in order to improve our culture.
Culture is the aggregate of all that is said and done at a particular moment in time. The quality of a culture depends on the quality of the active intellects actively contributing to it. Culture can change rapidly from generation to generation, and is very uneven from person to person and community to community. Culture is an abstract concept and only becomes real when it is present in someone’s consciousness. A forgotten text is lost from the culture, unless it is rediscovered and read again. To be transported by a masterpiece of music requires genius, both from the composer and the listener.
There will be a more complex and nuanced understanding of ourselves and our fellow travelers. The marvelous complexity of each individual stands in stark contrast to his or her severe limitations. There will be greater sympathy and greater respect for the human condition. It appears that we are more different one from the other than usually realized, yet also more profoundly alike.
Religious revelation probably occurs when the chemical and electrical configuration of the brain is suddenly realigned because of an unusual intellectual, emotional and constitutional climactic event.
Human knowledge will obviously become more accurate as it is based on better information. New discoveries will continue to surprise us, reaffirming science as our most powerful source of reliable information. However, philosophy will and should try to keep up because speculation about human nature is too important to leave to scientists, or any other elite group.
Political discourse will continue to be largely uninformative and misleading, but perhaps less so with greater appreciation of the important necessity of independent thinking and the critical role of the individual.