PROPOSED: A SCIENTISTIC PERSPECTIVE ON EVERYTHING.
A POSSIBLE BASIS FOR IMPROVED COMMUNICATION IN A WORLD OF CHAOS AND INCOHERENCE.
PART THREE: CULTURAL AND SOCIAL EXISTENCE.
Domain 3. All our accumulated knowledge, stories and beliefs, along with the things we do and make, exist in a virtual public domain, composed of numerous social and cultural communities. Throughout history communities have preserved what is regarded as valuable and thus a vast trove of virtual information becomes the ecology in and with which individuals consciously interact (existence). This interaction of humans and culture is the point at which virtual information becomes real. For instance, an unread book or blog may contain very valuable virtual information, new knowledge or even truth, but our culture would remain completely unaffected.
We thus distinguish here between what is real and what exists. Many things exist in our minds that are not real. Santa Claus exists, he provides a huge boost to the economy every year despite his being an imaginary figure. However, like all thoughts, the thought of Santa Claus is, apparently, real in our minds.
So far we have rather fancifully described the evolution of reality over about 14 billion years, from an hypothetical Original Moment to the arrival of amazing molecules that organize to grow, replicate and compete for survival. There are almost 8 billion original copies of H. sapiens, as well as untold trillions of trillions of copies of millions of other species. Reality-as-it-is has evolved, from relative simplicity into us and a vast multitude of other extremely complex living things.
This third domain is so rich and varied that it cannot be fully described, not even its local manifestations. We will, therefore, simply point out some aspects that are not well appreciated. For instance, most people assume that they have a very good understanding of their local culture and what their community is about. Rather, each one of us interacts with the small, usually unrepresentative, sample that they have access to.
As already indicated, it appears that we are the only ones that can recall our experiences, simulate them and relay them for further consideration and commentary. We can also simulate and plan future events, and even freely imagine novel situations or circumstances. Most crucially, we can communicate and share this virtual simulation with our fellow human beings and, very importantly, our children, for the purposes of discussion and learning.
Thus, adding together all the things we can learn, make, do and say, we create our own existential experience of ‘everything’ in a deceptively seamless process. We neither understand the processes involved, nor do we agree on the ultimate purposes. Our culture is completely dependent on the real, dynamic connection of immaterial, virtual ideas to the material reality of our brains. A dynamic web of virtual ideas and culture is created by real material processes brought together in our brains and bodies by evolution. Our brains are the critical central processing units in the vast web of our cultural universe. Each one of us occupies a small niche in this multidimensional web where we actively participate in this continuously creative and destructive process of maintaining our culture; each brings their own perspective on what is beautiful, good and desirable, or not. Thus there is a liberal agenda to discover the new and replace the old, and a conservative agenda to preserve what is best. Every single person brings a totally unique perspective which unfortunately is not generally recognized nor appreciated in the vast majority of situations.
The only coherent and comprehensive statement that can be made about the content of human culture is that it is so vast and complicated that no one individual is capable of grasping the whole or even understanding it in the abstract. Nor would anyone seriously consider putting a thousand experts in a room, and ask them for a definitive summary – most people would not believe them anyway, even if they succeeded in the impossible by coming up with a consensus. Something as simple as a universal declaration of human rights is a bridge too far for many. There are so many components of culture, no one can understand them all. There are so many different perspectives there can never be universal agreement.
A fundamental difficulty with culture is that there is such a large excess of information, no brain is capable of directly sampling even a small fraction of it all. This explains the reason for efforts being made to augment human thinking by means of prostheses that could directly download vast amounts of information directly into the brain. These efforts probably are misguided, as is the idea of superhuman computers capable of integrating all available knowledge and then presenting humans with manageable summaries from which they could make more informed and ‘reasonable’ decisions. It is difficult to see how this would work, but it clearly illustrates the problem. However, humans already augment their inputs and outputs by multiple devices such as printing presses, telephones, televisions, calculators, copying machines, spread sheets, internet based communication and search engines, etc.; these trends should continue to improve our culture.
Another fundamental aspect of culture is that much of its content is entirely opinion based and personal. Almost all human beings accept as true great swaths of belief that can not be verified or falsified, but are accepted simply because such ideas appeal intuitively, are embedded in tradition or are repeated by large numbers of individuals. Children have no choice but to trustingly imbibe much of culture as it is presented to them by important adults in their lives. This makes perfect sense from a survival perspective, but it leaves every young adult pre-loaded with a large pool of entrenched ideas that will go largely unchallenged. The generally accepted ordinary or folk view of ‘reality’ is therefore highly subjective, even as it appears highly real to the observer. Fundamental misunderstandings are built into our lives.
We exist, intellectually, subjectively or ‘consciously’, in a seamless, self-enclosed individual-social-cultural continuum. What we see and hear in our heads, the incredible Theater of the Mind, seems to us to correspond exactly to what is happening out there in the virtual universe that is our culture. The reason for this is straightforward: every consciously observed event or object out there must first be simulated before one becomes consciously aware of it. This process of simulation must occur 100% of the time, separately, in the brain of each one of us. Since all of awareness is continuously created by one instrument, one’s own brain, it stands to reason that everything we see, hear and think is absolutely personal, familiar, internally consistent and compelling. (We should note that our widely divergent behaviors clearly indicate a radical lack of consistency from one brain to the next.) Even when confronted with something totally strange, we can only deal with it as a simulation or as a reflex ‘fight or flight’ reaction. This means that before we can consciously deal with anything, it must first be sensed, reduced to electrochemical signals, and then subjectively simulated. It is impossible for us to consciously deal with things as they are. The interactions between self, society and culture therefore take place in a clear and compelling virtual space that is entirely constituted as a real simulation in our unique brain, separately, one at a time. Each one of us is the bearer of their own version of the universe; disagreements about the nature of ‘reality’ which includes us are built in again.
Thus the individual personality interacts with a simulation of a vast and expanding idio-socio-cultural continuum grounded entirely on electrochemical processes in their own brain! The obstacles to a true understanding of just about anything are enormous. Very few, if any, are aware of this and its implications. Realizing this would make it possible for us to imagine going even further – to begin to think ‘outside the box’. How do we communicate better, plan more effectively where we want to go, or exercise our ‘free will’ more constructively. The limits of global cultural possibilities are set by the aggregate limits of individual imagination. The potential total cultural experience is vast beyond comprehension, yet the degree of creative participation by individuals vary tremendously. Greater involvement by everyone, according to their interests, should be in the primary political interest of everyone, liberal or conservative, socialist or individualist. We certainly have so far been frustrated by our inaccurate understanding of self.
Existence in culture has continued to become more and more complicated ever since the days of Homo erectus, maybe even Australopithecus. Conservative ancients related this to our eating of the fruit of knowledge, expulsion form paradise and a fall from grace. Our liberal culture, nevertheless, has defiantly evolved over the last few millennia; even now we seem to be going through a rather tumultuous period. In the beginning, ~200,000 thousand years ago, ‘modern’ human culture consisted in what was discussed around the campfire – we can only imagine.
Communities kept on growing. About 40,000 years ago counting systems began to appear and about 6,000 years ago the first literature on business and entertainment apparently came into use. Almost immediately speculative religious, philosophic, political and scientific writing also appeared. Many great names from that time are still revered today even though most of what happened then is dimly recorded and left to our sophisticated imaginations. One could bet, though, that crowds flocked to the best entertainments of the day. Nevertheless, there always was a strong spirit of learning, enquiry and sharing. A high demand for books finally lead to the development of the printing press in the 15th century; cheap secular works became available for the first time to a rapidly growing audience. Intellectually we were off to the races. Today there is an inexhaustible supply of information with popular culture front and center. Electronic media has made access to content effortless and cheap. In the early days of Rome one had to venture down to the Colosseum for a distraction from the daily grind, today we click on the TV remote and watch with 186 million others as exciting history is made in the battle of Super Bowl football.
The crowd always follows the crowd. It seems to have a mind of its own, whether in search of a messianic leader or a seductive paragon. When aroused a crowd will not be deterred – there is power there, waiting to be unleashed or brokered. This fits the theory, therefore, that human consciousness (conscious thought, affect, feelings and emotions) is more involved with social interaction and bonding rather than the classical concept of consciousness as primarily involved with discovery, learning, logical analysis and informed executive action based on knowledge and truth. The pleasures and rewards of friends and community serve to pull societies together even as these same forces can work to separate us, or, even worse, blow us apart in war and conflict. When the crowd wants to get serious, it engages in dogmatic debates on religion and politics, hurling stock phrases at the opposition. The language is usually couched in terms of fighting and battle, victory or defeat. However, there are tantalizing signs suggesting that the crowd is wising up, which would be a wonderful thing – why would anyone trust the politicians?
Mass religion could thus be viewed as performing important functions such as fostering social cohesion and reducing internal conflict. A culture-wide foundational, explanatory and aspirational narrative eliminates the need for endless debates and argument; the community can just go ahead with its daily business. Life is thus certainly made easier for everyone including the rulers who can also use religion as a powerful motivational force against a common enemy. The great religions have been quite successful in this regard, but, in the end, different doctrines, even within a religion, have almost always led to conflicts on an even larger scale. A temporary peace and quiet is inexorably followed by an uncontrolled eruption of fear, paranoia and war. The naive faithful have a very difficult time, psychologically, dealing with challenges to their entrenched foundational beliefs. Unfortunately, such challenges are inevitable since most religions claim to be an explanation of all of the mysteries – primitive theories of everything. Volumes of objective evidence adduced so far, however, have contradicted the basic religious explanations of life and the cosmos in all cases. The faithful have no other option but to steadfastly affirm the infallibility of their blind vision. Their received dogma must be preserved against a tide of evidence to the contrary. Challenges become increasingly difficult for the faithful, inevitably leading to a final confrontation. Such a process can be bloody as believers, in denial of the evidence, rise in a violent defense of their threatened ‘truth’ and the superiority of their way of life. Crude political strategies can inflame the passions even more.
Philosophy is another product of the incandescent power of our minds but, unlike religion, the diversity of its manifestations seem quite limitless. Any interesting question automatically implies many different and challenging answers. Tot homines quot sententiae. As we all know, persons will interpret difficult questions differently and are likely to come up with their own unique answer. It may actually be that we are destined to come up with different answers for multiple reasons: every brain is genetically different; every brain is functionally and physically(!) shaped by an unique set of experiences (plasticity); conscious thought can also be susceptible to uncritical acceptance of perceived socially sanctioned solutions; conscious thought sometimes may not be aware that it is making things up; every individual comes from a different perspective and will produce different simulations based on their personal history in their socio-cultural continuum. Left to our own devices, therefore, we are guaranteed to come to different conclusions on all questions that might require insight or intuition.
Expertise in philosophy, as in most other subjects, requires much dedicated learning, including familiarity usually with technical languages. Its power appears to reside in the rigorous analysis of the content of minds, the philosopher’s and that reported by others. Novel ideas and speculations may be introduced, but firm conclusions, though, are rarely established. Alternative formulations are immediately provoked, challenging the original position, ad infinitum. Many philosophical questions over time have become of interest to scientists, and it seems that when science provides relevant information, philosophy is obligated to take that into account. There is no philosophical position that can survive when it is consistently contradicted by empirical findings. Indeed, psychology and sociology employing the methods of science have contributed much to what used to be the exclusive domain of philosophers. Even in metaphysics empirical findings are changing the landscape.
Some observers have suggested that, because of the above, the idea of a creative rational personality capable of ascertaining truth is an illusion, or even that consciousness may have no real adaptive value. It seems obvious, however, despite these naysayers and despite our many supposedly irrational and pointless pursuits, conscious thought can indeed be a very powerful creative, analytical, rational learning and adaptive tool.
Scientific enquiry and technological creativity are the most obvious examples of the positive powers of conscious thought: logic, reason, intuition. The apparent explanation for the astonishing successes of science and technology is that their insights and inventions relate to objects or ‘things’, and are available for independent examination and verification by other interested parties. This is a crucial difference with religion and philosophy. The pursuit of objective knowledge is a community effort that always seeks to find support through the accumulation and analysis of evidence. “Show me” says the curious sceptic. Science and technology build knowledge one little step at a time, without much concern for the survival of any pre-existing favorite opinions or the sensitivity of others. Coming up with a more accurate and complete answer is, in fact, the goal and a reward in itself, both personally and tangibly. Applying mathematical rules to physical relationships has also been amazingly powerful. Analytic human thought is thus capable of discovering new aspects of truth about phenomena as they appear in existence around us. We also try to probe the secrets of Reality but that has been extremely difficult. Deep mysteries still remain at the limits of our imaginations, and wide differences of opinion abound.
What about these unique individuals that make up the crowd? What kind of actors are they? We apparently guide our behavior through continuous simulations of the past, present or future in consciousness. We probably have little control over the content of our simulations. What bubbles up from our unconscious processes is not under direct conscious control as far as we can tell. For example, when one meets an old acquaintance, the name of that person comes to mind automatically. Sometimes the memory can be jogged, sometimes the name pops up two days later, seemingly from nowhere. Conscious efforts to remember do not help very much. Recall from memory can also be highly unreliable; sometimes memories are simply incorrect no matter how distinct they are. The content of such memories are highly conditioned by our past psychological events, themselves colored by our particular cultural environment. This would roughly correspond to our personality. The brain, via a non-conscious executive, must therefore select relevant memories when attempting to analyze a present situation. This is all still quite mysterious, but there does seem to be an interested spectator inside that sometimes tries to direct what is happening – a self-inspector, perhaps Freud’s super-ego?
Conscious thought is conditioned by past history and present phenomena, yet it is probably free to ask any question and to simulate any response. The content of thoughts and images are immaterial, purely ideal, and have no specific mass. It is therefore almost effortless to manipulate any thought according to the personal inclination or caprice of anyone. The only requirement are keeping the brain and body healthy and supplied with energy and oxygen. Unlike anything else in the cosmos that we know of, the range of human thought is potentially infinite. The concept of infinity is a good example. The only place where infinity exists for sure, is in human imagination: infinite number of integers, infinite space. (Space may or may not be infinite in reality.) All our thoughts, therefore, require approximately the same expenditure of energy, it does not matter whether they are little banal truths or great transcendental errors. The only difference might be that more time could be ‘wasted’ on the latter because they are so beguiling.
The distinct clarity with which we view the world and ourselves thus becomes somewhat suspect once one starts probing into the processes involved. Our innocence and naivety are great but are not obvious to ourselves. Nevertheless, it appears that our faculty of conscious thought and culture building has made us the most successful primate – the most fit for survival. Our greater communication abilities have allowed us to exploit nature to a point where we ourselves have become a problem. Our benign earth now may need to be protected. Erstwhile predators and competitors are in danger of extinction. The biggest threat to our survival now is H. sapiens. That is clear, but what is very unclear is how to tackle the problem that is us. In the past we managed by assuming that an appeal to truth is the best guide for our actions. That foundation is now in ruins; the belief that we have an ability for discovering and being guided by radical existential truth is being assailed from all sides: physics, biology, psychology, philosophy. Support for this conclusion jumps out by simply observing the nature of politics.
Unassailable truth had been a delusion, a pipe dream, inherited from more innocent times. Absolute truth would require total access to all information and flawless data processing, a situation that could only be in the Mind of a God. Such a mind presumably would instantly understand everything that has been, is and will be. A MoG knows ultimate Reality as it is, as it was, and as it will be, without limit of time, place, space or number – no need for counters or clocks. It does not need to think, ponder or plan because that would indicate a degree of uncertainty. A MoG is not dependent on any senses because that would limit the information streaming in, it would also imply that God needs to learn when everything is already known. A MoG is not defined by any human category, distinction or requirement. Is a MoG jealous and wrathful as stated in the Bible? Does it care about human interests but not those of bacteria? We ask these questions because we can, while knowing that any answers would be human answers, miserly anthropocentric efforts, limited by our very impressive but still very finite processing capabilities.
We are created as nature and the cosmos is created, through evolution, but we do not understand the processes well at all. We should be honest with ourselves and recognize that answers to existential questions are articles of faith. All philosophers, politicians, pundits and preachers are simply expressing their opinions with varying degrees of conviction and skill. Truth by acclamation is a democratic delusion but it has been our best governing option. There is untutored personal conviction with clear and distinct opinions at one end and unattainable absolute truth at the other. In between, there are numerous local installations of belief and objective fact, depending on which of thousands of subcultural communities is being addressed. Everyone operates in the sphere of their personal firmly held beliefs, their ‘truth’, which merges with their existential reality: all their simulations, memories, internalized values and interactive discussions with others combine to produce an unique instance of personality, beliefs and behavior, an idioverse (Rosenzweig). A personal identification with a particular, self-defined but real community is thus arrived at – no one operates in a vacuum. A further limitation of our deliberations is that most of the information processing occurs unconsciously, away from the theater of the mind. The degree, therefore, to which individual biologic and genetic variations affect our thoughts is presently unknown, but it is a question that is being asked more and hopefully with greater urgency.
A better, more pragmatic approach to the true nature of our world could, therefore, still be extremely useful: truth is always relative to the perspective of individuals, whether they be the questioner, the responder or an innocent bystander. Every individual therefore is a custodian of part of the truth, wrapped in many layers of hope, faith and, alas, misunderstanding. Everyone is contributing to the structure and content of society, whether they are aware of it, or not.This is a responsibility that should be taken seriously. Personal convictions have a naive air of certainty and authenticity, but are always riddled with biases, inaccuracies and gaps. Radical self-doubt should not be encouraged, for good reason: no contribution is too small.. Religious, cultural and political axioms are nothing more than strong contemporary convictions or passing popular opinions on the needs of individuals, communities and societies. Ultimate and final truth is unattainable, but it still remains as an ultimate idealistic goal and, as such, it is related to such concepts as God and Ultimate Reality.
Humanity seems to be in need of a better regime: diligence in one’s endeavors, fairness to others, and honesty with oneself. Humility, self-reliance and openness should be natural outflows. We should be careful, the only ones that should be trusted are those that have been vetted, preferably in person. All dogmas are suspect. There are thousands of communities that are so focused on their narrow agendas that they are ignorant of the big picture, including what affects the majority of mankind. Life in all its splendor and diversity passes these specialists by because they are too busy or too distracted. There is a great need to be able to communicate broadly which puts an onus on us to learn, to integrate and improve at the personal and community level. Labor needs to understand capital, ‘society’ needs to understand individuals, economists needs to understand poverty; the list is infinite. Certainly atheists and believers should try empathy for the other. Left versus right, conservative versus liberal – these labels confuse more than enlighten. A generally well-educated layperson would be struck by the obvious biases of these specialists. A better system of teaching children would do wonders. At a minimum, everyone should be taught a course on the evolution of human consciousness. 😉
Society must learn to flourish as it acknowledges the now very apparent limitations and biases afflicting everyone, especially the so-called elites who seem to be especially vulnerable to the temptations of corruption. The best compromise is to recognize that local community efforts have the potential to leverage individual efforts by generating better information, limiting errors and moderating biases. Promoting the independent efforts of everyone in all their diversity, would be fundamental in our quest to elevate individuals, communities and culture as a whole. Society needs to be more integrated, up and down, and across.
In conclusion, our proposed scientistic narrative of the evolution of everything places all systems of information and knowledge into a feasible relationship. Any discussion, debate or disagreement could benefit by reference to an overall map of knowledge. At the center of our problems are the many different exclusionary and conflicting formulations of ‘human nature’.