Scientistic Perspective on Everything – Consciousness.

PROPOSED: A SCIENTISTIC PERSPECTIVE ON EVERYTHING.
A POSSIBLE BASIS FOR IMPROVED COMMUNICATION IN A WORLD OF CHAOS AND INCOHERENCE.

PART TWO: LIFE, CONSCIOUSNESS AND HUMAN THOUGHT.

Domain 2. The necessary interaction of all living organisms with reality as it is (Reality) occurs through exquisitely precise physical, chemical and biological mechanisms that themselves are part of and harness the intrinsic ‘physical’ processes of Reality. Real or physical signals are recognized, internalized and processed in organized, interdependent, ‘intelligent’ biological systems (organisms) that respond to the environment, grow and multiply. This primary response to the environment can be recognized in all organisms, i.e. they appear to be ‘conscious’ of their environment. Animals have added prodigiously to this basic template: nervous systems and sense organs allow for a representational awareness of the internal and external world.

Let us start with what we all know well, our minds, and work backwards.

Embedded in our conscious minds lies a deep contradiction: we know it intimately, it is part of us yet we know very little about it. Mind is inexplicable even as everyone is utterly familiar with it: the greatest show on earth, the Magnificent Theater of The Mind, featuring true feeling, compelling narrative, cycloramic 3-D full color and stereophonic sound – even in our dreams as we sleep. Add to this our favorite tastes, smells and pleasurable activities; everything.

Despite this intimacy, perhaps because of it, we have always been confused about what and how it is and what it all means. There are many fanciful theories: an immaterial spirit that enters our body, an accurate representation of the external and internal world, our governing faculty, seat of the decider making choices, or even a completely pointless and distracting epiphenomenon of unconscious brain processes. Actually, the objective answer is disarmingly simple: Consciousness is everything an organism does in response to its environment, whether that includes thinking about it or not. The mechanisms by which our subjective experiences are produced are still shrouded in mystery. There is no adequate explanation, despite prodigious amounts of empirical data, because we still do not know all the structures that are involved. Invoking patterns of electrical discharges across trillions of synapses does not explain much. Our narratives are still pretty paltry.

Human self-aware consciousness, thought and language, along with their social implications, without doubt are amongst our most characteristic attributes. We are constantly aware of our feelings and our interactions with both the environment and our fellow sapient creatures, with an almost limitless ability to think, talk and write about it. We are compelled by our inner experiences and social interactions; it is there that we feel we find the reasons for our existence, our purpose and the meaning of it all. Many believe that this represents the essence of who and what we are. But in order to really understand what this means we need to examine the process, the underlying mechanics. After all, one would be very confused about the workings of a TV by analyzing the content of the programs on its screen. Rather, by unlocking the biological secrets of human thought we may be able to extend our self-understanding greatly, in turn, hopefully opening up opportunities for social improvement. Ignorance is not bliss.

Thus, if consciousness relates to the essence of who and what we are, it would be critically important to understand it. That would be a great step toward understanding ourselves and others. A good place to start, then, is to separate subjective content from the underlying objective physicochemical and biological, including psychological, processes.

We are not alone. Clearly, many other animals have easily recognizable consciousness since they objectively exhibit behaviors associated with consciousness – eating, drinking, sleeping, seeing, hearing, caring for off-spring, etc. Mammals and primates have sense organs just like ours with large brains and behaviors that parallel ours for the most part. Animals also exhibit on careful study what appears to be emotions, learning, memory, language and problem solving ability. The prior opinion that we were the only conscious creatures appears to have been based on prejudice and deep ignorance. Or, perhaps, we do not understand what our ancestors meant by consciousness In all likelihood, we will never fully know what it is like to be a bat, a lion, a dog, a dolphin or an ant. Each species represents their own very special case. We are constantly being amazed by how complex and intricate the lives of other creatures are. The closer we look the more common threads there are between all living creatures.

The Unity of Life

All animals capture and process ‘information’ from the environment in very similar ways. One of the major discoveries of evolutionary biology over the last 5 decades is the surprising degree to which all animals, down to the very simplest, share in a large set of common molecules that coordinate development and allow interaction with the environment. About 40% of the genes of a tiny worm, Caenorhabditis elegans, persist in humans. It has been possible to insert the human version back into the worm where it continued to perform its functions quite well. Outwardly, then, there is no similarity between this worm and a human being, but if one drills down on the molecular details, the correspondences are astounding. The similarities may even outweigh the differences. Human and worm have about the same number of protein coding genes, ~20,000, even though the human genome is about 30 times longer. But, by studying this little denizen of the dirt, we have learned a lot about ourselves. Certainly, we must accept the very likely possibility that any creature with neurons shares the beginnings of consciousness with us in some essential but not yet clearly identified way. Anyway, rejecting this possibility out of hand would be repeating a mistake we have often been guilty of in the past.

Let’s get to know this sightless little nematode a little better. C. elegans was first described by Emile Maupas in 1900. Then it was left mostly alone until 1960 when Sidney Brenner suggested that this humble, ~1 mm worm with no brain or respiratory and circulatory system would be ideal for intensive, collaborative study in the hope of understanding the mysteries of life. Brenner ultimately received a Nobel Prize in 2002. Today it is the best understood animal of all, including us. It was the first multi-cellular organism to have its genome sequenced. This little worm is also extremely predictable structurally: every one of 959 somatic cells of hermaphrodites has been mapped, including the structure and connections of each of its 302 neurons (males, a minority of the population, have 383):

“With only five olfactory neurons, C. elegans can dynamically respond to dozens of attractive and repellent ‘odors’ or ‘tastes’. Thermosensory neurons enable the nematode to remember its cultivation temperature and to track narrow isotherms. Polymodal sensory neurons detect a wide range of nociceptive cues and signal robust escape responses. Pairing of sensory stimuli leads to long-lived changes in behavior consistent with associative learning. Worms exhibit social behaviors and complex ultradian rhythms driven by calcium ion oscillators with clock-like properties. Genetic analysis has identified gene products required for nervous system function and elucidated the molecular and neural bases of behaviors.” [De Bono, 2005.]

When describing the behavior of a 1 mm blind roundworm, dispassionate scientific observers cannot avoid using anthropomorphic terms because the objective similarities to human activities are undeniable. Memory, learning, smell, rhythms, tracking, escape, social behavior and measurement of time; these terms describe intelligence and consciousness, not necessarily of the human kind, but of an organism fully engaged according to its needs and abilities in its world, sensing it, evaluating it, applying memory and making choices, using all available tools to flourish and survive. Lacking eyes it does not see, without ears it can not listen, BUT like the retina it has photoreceptors and like the cochlear membrane this little worm has mechanoreceptors. It does have an extremely rudimentary ‘nose’, and it does feed on bacteria so we can wonder what it likes best. There is neural circuitry for navigation and exploration to satisfy a natural curiosity perhaps.

Some populations of C. elegans feed in social groups, other populations consist of solitary individuals proceeding by themselves – a genetic basis for political preferences??. This is all due to the presence of a variant of one gene that codes for neuropeptide-y receptor. A related receptor is found throughout the animal kingdom and affects food consumption, mood and anxiety. Interestingly, it may modulate our intake of alcohol.

A small worm with no brain thus appears to be highly intelligent and clearly displays awareness of its surroundings – consciousness! (In fact, it is surprising how much can be done with so little.) This kind of anthropomorphizing (teleonomy) risks the introduction of confusing biases, but one has to start somewhere to gain insight and understanding of ourselves, others and the natural world. The complex and graceful interaction between a male C. elegans and an hermaphroditic partner is a choreography of multiple intricate steps that has to be perfectly sequenced for success: contact, reversing, finding the entrance, inserting spicules and ejaculation. This particular behavior (e-motion) is coordinated by oxytocin-like peptides (nematocin) without which the sequence becomes uncoordinated, ineffective and impotent. A few neurons are capable of producing very complex responses to the environment, responses that can be modulated and coordinated by chemicals.

If a short oligopeptide hormone can do this for a tiny worm with 302 neurons, imagine what it could do for an animal with millions or billions of neurons: oxytocin is a peptide consisting of 9 amino acids – not big enough to be called a protein – and it contributes much to what makes us human. It affects sexual, social and maternal behavior, controls lactation and uterine contraction; it can also affect levels of anxiety and fear, even ethnocentric behavior; the list is long and the interactions are extremely complicated. The cellular and tissue distribution of receptors for these neuropeptides varies widely among species and this has a profound effect on the many different types of behavior expressed by different animals, amongst closely related species, and even within a species such as C. elegans. It is complicated! With more basic information forthcoming, we are bound to learn much and our understanding of behavior should become even more nuanced. At this stage it seems that, while inputs and outputs are extremely variable, the internal tools with which responses are managed are surprisingly uniform. A stark, fundamental difference between worm and man is that the latter has a vast amount of DNA that is ‘non-functional’, i.e. DNA that we do not quite understand yet. [Bargmann, 2013.  Wikipedia.  Insel, 2010.]

Climbing further down the phylogenetic ladder in our search for what might be deemed unconscious life, let us take a quick peek at Paramecium, a unicellular creature with multiple nuclei. However, this one extremely large cell has many specialized intracellular organelles. There is a mouth area where food vesicles are ingested and then funneled through the cell as digestion takes place. Its cell membrane bears cilia for propulsion, is excitable and, like a neuron, can maintain a surface electrical charge due to the presence of ion channels. One cell thus performs many specialized functions. Its genome codes for about 40,000 proteins, almost double that of Homo. This is also, therefore, not a candidate for simple, unintelligent life. It is very complex, coordinated and extremely good at what it does. A Paramecium likely is more complex than any single mammalian cell. It performs many different specialized tasks and it is ‘conscious’ of its environment. It even has the ability to solve ‘simple’ navigation problems by ‘choosing’ between a few ‘simple’ strategies. Memory appears to be involved.

Bacteria occupy the bottom rung of life on the complexity scale, so what can these minute unicellular creatures do? Most of them amount to almost nothing, up to a million or more could fit inside a single Paramecium. However, once methods were developed to study their behavior and correlating such behavior with molecular structure, there ensued shocked surprise: “Nearly all motile bacteria can sense and respond to their surroundings—finding food, avoiding poisons, and targeting cells to infect, for example—through a process called chemotaxis” which exhibits “exquisite sensitivity, extensive dynamic range and precise adaptation”. [PhysOrg, 2012.  Hazelbauer, 2008.]

Rich systems of communication via chemical signals can exist between individuals of the same or different strain, sometimes communicating with a different species or even the host. Thus bacteria can sense their population density, and so judge whether conditions are favorable or adverse (quorum sensing). This allows bacteria to coordinate their gene expression and the behavior of their entire community to enhance collective survival and prosperity. This may even entail a life-style switch, from a nomadic individual, “planktonic” existence to that of a strictly controlled community, e.g. a biofilm, one that is relatively impervious to toxins, or to a virulent community that can attack other organisms or their host. In biofilms it has been found “that the descendants could remember the surface sensing signals of their ancestors”, suggesting primordial memory and learning. This is surprising. Also quite impressive has been the discovery of electrical signaling resembling neuronal activity, allowing different parts of the biofilm to communicate. [Lee, CK et al. 2018Prindle, A et al. 2015Masi,E et al. 2015]

There seems to be no limit to the strange behaviors of bacteria; strange because such behavior seems, improbably, to be an analogue of human behavior. For example, there is community policing of ‘cheaters’ that benefit from collective efforts but do not contribute their part. In some situations, some cheating is tolerated, apparently because such diversity improve chances of overall survival. Sometimes competing entities might try to disrupt the cooperative efforts of others by chemically interfering with their signals. Bacteria are actually engaged in a never-ending arms-race with intense and lethal competition for lebensraum and natural resources! (Humans can benefit from this because bacteria are the major pathway for introducing non-carbon elements into the food chain.) Bacteria thus have a very impressive arsenal of toxins and weapons at their disposal, even leading to feasting on DNA released during the fray. A recent sensational headline warned “Killer Cholera Bacterium Stabs Others With Tiny Spear, Steals DNA” – some fragments of victims’ DNA may become incorporated in the genome of the victors in the hope of promoting fitness for survival. Sometimes fratricidal groups will kill off their non-aggressive comrades, but the opposite can also happen: virulent individuals commit suicide when exposed to the ‘love-hormones’ of their more peaceful kin – give me freedom, or give me death. [Speaker Abstracts, 5th ASM Conference on cell-cell communication, 2014.]

Bacteria are the smallest free-living units of DNA – viruses exist at the borderline of life. While animals are infinitely more complex, bacteria are definitely not simple. There are predictions now being made that we will never be able to accurately conceptualize the submicroscopic structure and inner workings of even a single cell. Therefore, it seems rather odd to call something simple when one is utterly unable to explain how it works. That almost everyone is guilty of ignoring this paradox raises interesting questions about the accuracy and precision of human thought: maybe close is good enough? Now that we are able to study bacteria with more sophisticated tools we have been surprised at their level of complexity and exquisite interaction with their environments. This now makes sense given the fact that life and its precursors have been incubating for ~4 billion years or more. Today’s survivors are all highly evolved and maximally complex, it being highly unlikely that a bacterium from the dawn of life could survive today.

Nobody would seriously suggest that bacteria think the way we do. However, careful observation of them leads to the firm conclusion that they are very ‘intelligent’, conscious in an operational and objective sense of the word, and that they react purposefully. It is apparently built into their DNA, or, more precisely, that is what DNA does. Understanding what exactly that purpose is and how it is pursued is still a deep and fascinating mystery. A better intuitive understanding of what drives molecules would be very helpful. DNA is a very talented, purpose driven and intelligent molecule indeed! In its most basic bacterial form, it has managed to infiltrate and populate every nook and cranny where life could survive.

A common thread in human history seems to be that we always have been and continue to be surprised by Reality. Now that oracles have been proven unreliable or possibly deceitful as sources of knowledge regarding the nature of reality, all possibilities are now on the table. We should continue to expect more surprises.

Human Sociobiology

After learning of the extraordinary ‘intelligence’ of bacteria, worms, fruit flies, fish and so on, we come face to face with a very interesting and revealing set of questions: what a piece of work is man? How do we do what we do? But most important, perhaps, what, exactly, are we doing, and why? One of the first attempts at a science based materialist investigation of these matters was apparently met with anger and derision. Edward O. Wilson has said that he was taken completely by surprise by the reaction to his “Sociobiology, The New Synthesis” published in 1975. Political biases came into play. However, answers to our basic questions about  life are seemingly far more subtle and  complex than what we had anticipated. Our universe contains much more intelligence than we ever imagined. But how does this help us in dealing with our apparently chaotic culture? That is our fundamental challenge. It has been said that ignorance is bliss. However, our thesis is that ignorance is also very dangerous – it certainly has been so far.

From what we now know, it seems clear that all of life exhibits a form of intelligence by directly responding to and interacting with its environment, even altering that environment in a particular niche of Reality. We will call this biophysical consciousness. It has been stated that most or all animals also exhibit phenomenal awareness which would be in addition to the various forms of basic biophysical awareness. That is, most animals are also aware of macroscopic structures and events in their environment – the crash of a falling tree, a sudden flash of lightning or the repellent stench of rotting flesh (repellent to us but attractive to flies). Thus through enhanced processing and integration of the basic physical signals that give rise to biophysical consciousness many animals have senses like ours; sight smell, sound, vision, touch, etc. It seems almost certain that animals with bodies like ours (eyes, ears, noses, tongues and brains, etc.) would experience the world generally in the way we do, but with numerous specific differences. For example, most primates have trichromatic color vision – they can see red. Most other mammals are dichromatic and can not see red. Shapes, sizes and movements seem to be observed similarly to us, but we can not even imagine what their sense of smell or taste is like, or what they feel when threatened or in danger. Trying to imagine the world of very different creatures like fish, worms and bacteria at this time is asking too much. (Since there is also a wide variation in how humans are constituted, we are also never quite sure what another person would be experiencing.)

Furthermore, as an example, it is still a profound mystery as to how the utterly reliable and predictable subjective sensation of any color comes about – the qualium of color. Apparently, we can distinguish ~200,000 shades of color. It is another one of those ‘miracles’. Add to this the stunning variety of  tastes, smells, sounds and feelings that we experience, pleasurable and otherwise, and we can not help but being cognitively overwhelmed. Apparently, the nervous systems processes signals from everywhere in the body in a complex hierarchical system, feeding information via the autonomic and peripheral systems upwards through the hind-, mid- and forebrain. It then seems as if there is a cortical network that looks at all the intracranial activity and then produces a report to a separately experienced self. The dimensions of what is happening as we laugh, cry and dream are practically infinite: billions of neurons, trillions of synapses, interactions with peptides, hormones and the immune system, ad infinitum. But, put it all together and there effortlessly appears before us a clear and distinct world. It is quite beguiling, another miracle.

We have learned much about human consciousness by studying animals. Parallels with primates and mammals are now obvious. Somewhat surprising, it has also been very revealing to learn that fruit flies, fish and many other lower animals also use social strategies that can be correlated in humans: strategic copying, innovation, social learning. (Laland, KN. 2017) With new technologies we are now also learning much by scientifically studying human subjects. Research over the last few decades in human consciousness has yielded quite surprising results, leading to a complete rethinking of how it works and what its biological correlations are.

The almost universal assumption that what you see is what you get is not tenable anymore. The longstanding, still popular, common sense view that “the conscious self is fully in charge of behavior, sees the world generally as it is, and directs behavior as it sees fit” has been almost completely revised based on human psychological research. In essence, close observation of humans under controlled conditions has revealed that our mental processes may produce unreliable results unbeknownst to ourselves: our explanations of our own behavior are often not very rigorous at all; rather, the most convenient or facile reason may be selected from a trove of stock explanations, especially if it is socially acceptable. Actions may already be underway before conscious thought joins in, even though we might still think that we are consciously initiating the process. Gaps in a narrative or pattern may be unconsciously filled in. Conscious analysis may not even be essential for complex planning; goals and social motives can be activated in the absence of a conscious decision. There are therefore multiple extraordinary complex processes occurring while we are under the impression that a ‘simple’ conscious act is underway.

Perhaps the most arresting feature of all the new information about consciousness is that we have historically neglected the role of affect, feelings, mood and emotions in our lives – swept under the rug, as it were, because, quite simply, emotions were beyond the reach of all rational understanding. They needed to be suppressed or controlled, certainly banished from rigorous intellectual, scientific or philosophical discourse. Unlike intentional cognition, there is nothing clear and distinct about affect, yet here may lie another great store of future discovery and understanding. Emotions appear to provide the underpinnings of all our behavior, even ‘rational’ thought.

We know guilt, shame, fear, disgust, anger, hate, etc. These negative emotions tend to narrow the focus onto a problem to the exclusion of everything else. They often end in separation, loss, destruction or worse. Positive emotions may be less conspicuous or salient; they broaden and build, bring growth and innovation with improvements in health, wealth and happiness. Given our state of ignorance, we do not know how to best harness the powers within. The range of possibilities beckon, especially if it turns out that emotions are not as automatic and primitive as had been thought. (Barret, LF. 2017)

The adaptive value of human thinking and communication thus far appears centered primarily around social goals such as inclusion, cohesion, security and survival. Our interests in philosophy and science, i.e. pursuit of reliable and useful knowledge, are rather recent and had been largely secondary. This now appears to have changed, with science, technology and engineering affecting human social existence radically. These findings, accumulating now for a couple of decades, have been devastating to the classical conceit that consciousness controls input and output from the perspective of objective knowledge. The concept of humans as independent rational conscious executive agents is rarely true, if ever. [Baumeister et al, 2010.  Panksepp, The affective brain and core consciousness, 2008.]

What have we learned then, so far, about human consciousness that is likely to be true? Well, as we already know, humans occupy a special place amongst the animals when it comes to thinking, language and complex social interaction. However, our consciousness, like all others, has evolved from basic biophysical consciousness over billions of years. It is an attribute of our particular biological heritage. At least all animals with brains have what is referred to as phenomenal consciousness; awareness of the structures and events in their surroundings through sense organs leading to highly intelligent responses, e.g. tracking a smell across an open field, identifying the prey and then capturing it. Humans can do much the same, except for the tracking of a smell part, but what no other animal can do is to communally identify a goal, devise a specific strategy, communicate it amongst the group, assign different responsibilities and then execute based on the mutual understanding of the articulated plan. Non-humans are at a deep existential disadvantage in this theater of operations! Each human can mentally simulate what is being discussed as if it were really happening. No other animal can communicate in complex logical sentences because none can think in such sentences. So their powers of simulation have to be very limited compared to ours. That, at least, is what the latest evidence suggests, but it is likely that animals will again surprise us to the upside.

We have diverged from other animals by virtue of this ‘quantum leap’: our ability to simulate events and circumstances away from the here and now, to communicate what is in our mind, and attempt to emulate what someone else is simulating in their mind based on their words. Past or future events can be simulated, shared, discussed and analyzed, leading to vastly improved cooperation, execution and coexistence. Such advanced teamwork obviously has been of great adaptive and survival value – fitness in our case is determined by how much information is processed, communicated and stored. We have access to a total store of about 200,000 words, the average person has a vocabulary of about 20,000 words, with an upper limit of about 100,000. We all have quite a memory for words, but there are extraordinary individuals, for instance, that can remember every day of their life. There are others that can remember a sequence of about 80,000 random digits. There are yet others that can replay a piece of piano music after hearing it once.

Nevertheless, notwithstanding the unreliabilities already mentioned, conscious thought has a creative ability of coming up with novel situations and ideas, including the ability to imagine, fantasize and speculate without limit or regard for practicality. These are the skills that produce art, literature, music or play-acting for entertainment and enlightenment. There are, also, real strengths inherent in our focused thinking: many individuals are able to intensely concentrate on logic, evidence and innovation, achieving very impressive results in technology, science, mathematics and philosophy. Our greatest creative achievements have been thus inspired, but also some of our worst misadventures. This creativity is the source of our celebrated faculty of  so-called ‘free will’; mind can seemingly go anywhere. A garden of both good and evil is enclosed within the walls of our skull.

The evidence alluded to so far exposes numerous, unsuspected large gaps in our understanding of human and animal consciousness. Interestingly, while human consciousness is rightly elevated on a pedestal, much of what we know is based on studies in animals, including primates, rodents, insects, worms and bacteria. The evidence so far does not support the popular but ancient concept of a specific supra-natural or extraneous human faculty inserting itself into our bodies. All of the vegetative, tropic and reflexive functions, as well as many of their molecular and genetic underpinnings, present in humans, can be found in other animals. Our unique specializations, such as complex language and socio-cultural interactions, are very exceptional indeed but their primordial beginnings can be recognized in other animals. All this correlates very well with our large neocortex, great number of neurons and possibly 100 trillion synapses that are further fine tuned by physiological factors. Therefore, no unbridgeable gap or irreducible mystery appears to exist – our biological equipment seems very much to be up to the task. Our perplexity and confusion is due to the extraordinary nature of our subjective experiences, which had led many to assume a  divine gift. However, it now seems likely that mammals also see, hear and taste like we do. They too have phenomenal consciousness, but, unlike us, they probably just don’t think or talk about it as  much or as clearly as we do. Like many other mysteries, we can not explain phenomenal consciousness yet – it is extraordinarily complex, another ‘miracle’. Evidence based theories are only now beginning to show up.

In summary, consciousness divides the universe of information into two: the little that we are aware of and the rest that we are not. Protagoras had said something similar, “Of all things the measure is Man, of the things that are, that they are, and of the things that are not, that they are not”. Consciousness is a fundamental feature of life, itself having been produced by the dynamic natural processes of a submicroscopic and cosmic Reality. All species have their unique qualities. Our unique human mind appears to be a culmination of the ancient processes of biophysical awareness and phenomenal consciousness. Most of our processing of vast amounts of information still occurs in the biophysical realm without involvement of phenomenal or conscious thought (mind) centers. Everything that we find interesting is addressed in the realm of thought and simulation, and it becomes part of our culture when it is socially shared in words, sounds, images, tastes and artifacts. Our responses to information that we acquire from the environment (culture), however, are usually and mostly managed through automatic and semi-automatic processes residing in biophysical and phenomenal consciousness. Affect, emotions and feelings are central to our humanity, and, unsurprisingly, we understand even less about their role in our personal lives. It appears that conscious thought is very selective in its involvement in day to day operations, monitoring our activities and intruding when necessary. Intense focus and concentration on certain selected tasks are possible.

Human consciousness is, therefore, an extraordinary complex incarnation of biophysical and phenomenological awareness. Still, it is, in theory, potentially explainable by the underlying biological processes. Human behavior now might seem limitless and it had been easy to dismiss less complex organisms as unconscious machines or automatons, as some scientists and philosophers still do. That clearly is a mistake and it appears to be a vestige of prior ignorance. We have been blinded by the infinitely complex and utterly compelling nature of our subjective social and cultural experiences, erroneously concluding that lower animals can not possibly share anything like this with us; mythical narratives have also contributed to this prejudicial attitude. This represents a still very prevalent basic anthropocentric error.

 

Published 2015. Revised 2018.

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Scientistic Perspective on Everything – Culture and Existence.

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’.

Scientistic Perspective on Everything – Epilogue.

PROPOSED: A SCIENTISTIC PERSPECTIVE ON EVERYTHING.
A POSSIBLE BASIS FOR IMPROVED COMMUNICATION IN A WORLD OF CHAOS AND INCOHERENCE.

EPILOGUE.

All things appear connected in a vast, complex, ineffable system constantly in evolution. A dynamic, prebiotic Reality gave rise to forces for survival, life and, ultimately, imaginative exploration beyond the here and now. We now dare to think that we could decide the future.

The complex relationship of our experienced universe and the actual universe is managed by little understood processes of life and consciousness, instantiated in our bodies, or brains, to be more specific. Mankind continues to be befuddled by the dual questions of what to make of ourselves and all that we are confronted with. The clues are most intriguing.

A surprising result of our scientistic project has been that, although there may never be a final answer, many of our past understandings have been incompatible with the evidence.

Another surprise of our study has been that this triune relationship of Reality as it is, the reality of life’s processes and the virtual reality of culture strangely resembles the structure of the Christian God: an all-powerful Father and Creator; the Holy Ghost, giver of life; and a Son struggling with society. The Sumerians, Egyptians, Etruscans, and others all had made reference to magical triads of gods that seemed as one. Emperor Constantine for political reasons tried to unify the Roman church under one creed in the 4th century. The end-result was an official statement on the Holy Trinity. This correspondence is very interesting, its explanation might very well reside in the intuitive recognition of the basic structures of Reality, consciousness and culture. It certainly is fun to think about.

A prime lesson issuing from this personal review of all that I know, believe or suspect is that there is no single foundation, perch or fulcrum from which to view our challenges, or from which to move the world and those in it. Diversities and differences are baked into our biological selves. Intellectually there is also no infallible tool, all-revealing instrument or reliable method to apply. Logic, reason, science and faith/intuition all fail to account for everything. For one, we have inherited so much subconscious knowledge and skill from our distant ancestors. Therefore, if our goal can not be certainty then perhaps we should strive to manage uncertainty, i.e. be aware of its presence in everything we do. At this point we must concede that all knowledge, except perhaps the most basic or simple, is relative and incomplete, representing nothing more than fallible opinions. This probably will never change, but in the meantime, we will and should keep on with our collective explorations, society imperceptibly changing as a result. We might never get there but that arduous and virtuous road might reveal clues to the key that has eluded us thus far.

All foundational religious and creative myths thus far have been proven wrong because they were unable to predict the unfolding of knowledge, and so were contradicted by it. Since the whole is evolving, accounts of the whole must be able to evolve also. There is no escape from this conundrum for anyone, unless the seeker opts for a delusion of absolute knowledge. No secret door leads out of our personal ‘universe’ which is only one of billions of other such personal ‘universes’. Our culture is therefore a multiverse made up of about 8 billion separate but interconnected idioverses. Engagement through honesty, humility, love, caring, diligence and generosity sounds like a good thing.

Older fixed ideas with little supporting evidence riddle all cultures, and with good reason. Such endemic fallacies may have played a very constructive role in a society and may have been supported by most at some point in time. Unfortunately these fossils of the mind often survive beyond their usefulness; foundational ideas are not easily discarded. Replacing these important existential ideas with the latest and greatest liberal thought would be too chaotic. So there are very good reasons for being conservative. It would be such a very good thing, though, if all could learn to be more diligent, open-minded and sympathetic. Engaging in honest and fair discussion would seem the best way to do cultural maintenance. The time honored methods of settling disputes through conflicts are too brutal and destructive.

Some examples of endemic fallacies:

EF1. God is an entity with humanoid features.

Many conservatives are committed to defending and some liberals have dedicated themselves to destroying this obviously fantastical idea. At one time the idea of gods actively intruding in the operations of the world was generally accepted by most. A Wizard of Oz hiding behind some cosmic curtain! There is not one iota in support of such fantasy, but here is the paradox; one cannot disprove this myth either. It is a matter of unsupported opinion and fantasy. HOWEVER, we all are still completely baffled by the world around us. Whether there is a higher pan-cosmic or supra-cosmic intelligence or creative agent is something we can only speculate on, using the rather limited information we are able to access in our region of the universe. The concept of god will continue to evolve as more information is revealed.

EF2. Truth is real and eternal.

Reality, knowledge and culture are in a state of continuous change, but our ancient myth-makers forgot to include that little fact in their story. Obviously, the creators of those myths were ignorant of evolution’s pervasive and powerful presence. Societies and communities, however, depend for their existence, it seems, on the binding power of a grand story. Central to many of these stories is an all-knowing, changeless generator of all things that provides a solid foundation upon which all can confidently build. There may, indeed, be such a Supreme Entity, but only in extreme reaches outside the cosmos, far beyond our most creative imaginations, in speculative regions such that it could have absolutely nothing to do with our mundane lives as we must live them, or with the universe as we continue to find it.

EF3. History follows the actions of a few great men and women (placed there by God for a purpose).

It is convenient to attach a famous name to an important development in history. Yes, a few ‘geniuses’ have done spectacular things and seem to have ‘rewritten history’, but they have all stood on the shoulders of others and reflected the culture of their time. They were completely dependent on the work of predecessors and colleagues. Einstein could not have done what he did had he lived in the 18th century. Conversely, many once great personalities are now almost completely forgotten – probably because they were later proven wrong. The vast floods of real-time information that determine events are lost almost immediately. What survives is a miserably anemic rendition of very complex events. The majority of us know almost no history, and much of what is regarded as history is nothing more than propaganda. The idea that a few great leaders have forged our present is not believable. With trepidation we can now see in real-time the clay feet of the self-anointed great ones when we turn on a 24-hour news channel. Leaders, wielding frightening power, thrash blindly hither and thither. We could even feel sorry for these feckless ones, but we all really need to figure out a more manageable system of government. Communication technology certainly could make democracy a more interactive or distributed proposition, with wider participation. Present systems of governance place such great responsibility in the hands of a limited few that nobody could be expected to fully understand the situation. It is therefore to be expected that in most parts of the world leaders dissemble and deceive in order to stay in power. Is it time that the critically important contribution of the very large majority of human beings be recognized and, indeed, be encouraged? After all, the quality of society is completely dependent on the quality of its members.

EF4. Individual human beings are small, ignorant, weak and dependent.

This is still an almost universal sentiment and fits in very well with the designs of our ‘great’ leaders. The more people are willing to subject themselves to authority the better for the status quo (e.g. the powerful will arrogate more power). Ignored usually is the fact that each genetically, structurally and functionally unique human being represents the most advanced computing system known. Inherent in the great and small person theory is supposedly great differences in abilities and accomplishments. The reality is that we are very different, not necessarily better or worse, from each other at the margins, but in our cores we are probably very similar, possibly identical. This is a fascinating question with more evidentiary information forthcoming. This interplay between our differences and commonalities is at the center of our culture and our struggles. More people are intuitively onto this shell-game and progress in a more enlightened direction could become a reality. It may even be that greater acceptance of diversity is the mark of a more advanced culture. Sociological studies of individualism and cultural complexity seem to suggest this already. Complex societies are wealthier, but there is still much work to do, especially on the egalitarian front.

Investing resources in a global project of research and learning should be surprisingly cost-effective. Improvements in efficiency should far outweigh the costs involved.

Our Lost Center, in Defense of Reductionism, the Dangers of Metaphysics.

Our history is a nightmare, despite the efforts of great figures like Abraham, Buddha, Plato, Jesus, Mohammad, Marx and many others. We have lurched from one disaster to another, from wars to persecution, genocide, oppression, massive exploitation and more. One popular idea after another has been the reason for our descent into hell. Obviously we have not figured out why we keep on repeating the same mistakes, much less what to do about it.

THE SECOND COMING

Turning and turning in the widening gyre

The falcon cannot hear the falconer;

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;

Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,

The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere

The ceremony of innocence is drowned;

The best lack all conviction, while the worst

Are full of passionate intensity.

Surely some revelation is at hand;

Surely the Second Coming is at hand.

The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out

When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi

Troubles my sight: a waste of desert sand;

A shape with lion body and the head of a man,

A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,

Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it

Wind shadows of the indignant desert birds.

The darkness drops again but now I know

That twenty centuries of stony sleep

Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,

And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,

Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

Written in 1919 in the aftermath of World War I, full of despair and hopelessness – no hope for change here – an ominous zeitgeist already stalks the land. Indeed, William Butler Yeats (1865 – 1939) died just 8 months before the next tragic installment of our bloody history. The center did not hold then and it will not hold in the future, unless…

The center could not hold because there never really was such a thing. There could not have been since it was built on the sandy shoals of illusion and delusion. Enlightened minds envisioned rational human beings that aspire and transcend. By our genius we could remake society in our own image, rather than that of a battered and abused God. These new ideas worked for a while, sort of, with a flowering of art, music, science, philosophy and literature giving inspiration to some. Of course, many disagreed, and therein lies the rub. Some have disagreed violently and the results are now for all to see and think upon.

During World War II humanity revisited hell again: extermination camps, genocide, incendiary bombing and nuclear annihilation. Not unreasonably people blamed the status quo ante. The crumbling edifice of modernism and humanism left an opening for yet another narrative, a postmodern one: there is no narrative, no author, no subject, no concept of the human. Radical, atomized difference is the reality and decentering of society shall be the program. Western civilization was responsible for the evil and had to be taken down. We must ask, however, what will fill this vacuum? Radical action? Marxism? A new revelation and second coming? Perhaps a New Critical Theory? The brilliant professors of Ecole Normale Superieure would surely come up with something.

Yes, they do have a point. Ideologies, generally based on philosophy, religion and/or science, had brought us the status quo, but post-modernism promises to be no different. Why? Surely, it would be silly to trash our past and start over again without knowing the etiology and pathogenesis of our disease. What would we do different this time to avoid the pitfalls? It would be just as silly to pick through the rubble of history yet again, hoping to stumble upon the hidden key that we have repeatedly missed over the past 3 millennia. False keys will surely be found, giving great hope to the needy crowd.

No, we should ask at least two questions, probably many more: Where did we go wrong? How do we integrate knew knowledge into our basic assumptions about ourselves and others?

Now, maybe we should try something different! Start our search where we have not looked, in the quiet corners and back alleys where there are no paparazzi or adoring crowds. We should study the idiots! (From the Greek idiṓtēs, “a private citizen, one who has no professional knowledge, layman”, also one who declined to take part in public life). After all, there are vastly more ordinary people than emperors, messiahs, generals, prophets or pundits.

There seems, based on what we are learning now, to have been a misunderstanding of what it is to be a human being; sometimes a god-like creature that struts across the globe and pretends to reach for the stars, but beset mostly with profound challenges. Yet, what a piece of work is man! We are much, much more complex and interesting than we ever did imagine:

1. Each one of us represents an intricate and utterly unique memory bank of psychological events. These experiences start at birth or even before and mold the developing brain, both functionally and physically. The final anatomical shape of our brain may actually be determined by childhood experiences! We begin life in complete ignorance and have to learn everything: how to form mental pictures, how to interpret sounds, how to recognize tastes. Much of this is ‘innate’, but in many situations learning is a combination of direct experience and guidance by others. We must also learn the structures and rules of nature, our culture, social relationships, ‘philosophy’, etc. Unfortunately, much of what is learned is imprecise, inaccurate, or, sometimes, just plain wrong. Everything we are exposed to has to be captured, recognized, sorted and classified; thus a vast amount of information is reduced, compressed and formatted to manageable proportions. Almost all of this is done subconsciously.

2. There are also remarkable, unappreciated variations amongst members of the species that further enhance our individual uniqueness. Each one of us is genetically, physically and functionally different. Genetic polymorphisms induce variations from our sense organs to our brains and everything in between – in fact, we seem to be programmed for diversity. The experience of taste or the pain of injury, all may be unpredictably different from person to person. We come preloaded with strengths and weaknesses, with high functioning and low functioning faculties, and there is no way to tell what is happening on the inside by just looking and listening. What unfolds after birth has an additional and profound effect on the brain and body of the developing human. An absolutely unique genotype is thus further modified in a mostly unpredictable way.

3. Everything in our ultra-super-complex culture in some way is dependent on 1 and 2. The quality and content of culture is therefore different for each one of us, despite the effects of socialization and enculturation. Each one of us, therefore, transfers a unique view of culture to the next generation – quite a personal responsibility!

Each wonderfully original individual person represents a unique universe or idioverse, a term, introduced about 60 years ago by Saul Rosenzweig, indicating that each individual is considered to be a unique universe of psychological events. Everything that one feels, thinks or does becomes part of that idioverse. Not much has been said about it since Rosenzweig. It refers to the totality of our being; there is nothing else in our consciousness but our psychological events. Enjoying the genius of Bach, Beethoven or the Beatles is a series of psychological events completely enclosed in our personal idioverse, composed of and mediated by electrical and chemical signals. We may listen to the same recording but each of us, almost certainly, is transported on a different experience.

Our personal idioverse interacts with a vast ambient cultural universe that consists of family, friends, acquaintances, public figures and about 7.5 billion other human idioverses, our artifacts, as well as mother nature, the cosmos and perhaps things unknown. A single idioverse is certainly a supercomplex system but it can only receive and process an extremely small fraction of all the available and potentially relevant information. Each person integrates into patterns, concepts and abstractions all the information they have been able to capture, sometimes extremely detailed and impressive, but still just shadows of reality. Our reductionist processes (thinking, speaking, body language, etc) can not reproduce the complexities and subtleties of consciousness, understanding, feeling and motivation as they exist in ourself and each other. We cannot fully share awarenesses with each other.

This is the essence of our challenge: The irreducible complexity of a single person and their idioverse must face the irreducible complexity of the total universe, the latter being vastly more complex than the former. The most immediate challenge, by far, is what is one to make of the billions of other people, each with their own unique idioverse, all enigmatic and mysterious? This is beyond supercomplex and seems to be an adequate reason for why ideologies, philosophies and religions have failed to keep the peace and/or caused so many wars, despite our best efforts. These narratives, for example, have tried to stuff everyone into various boxes and categories – an example of a misguided, reductionist effort that has been at the core of our nagging problems.

It is not possible for any one person to acquire all the relevant information on any complex issue, whether personal, social, political or philosophical. While we are intimately aware of what enters our conscious awareness, we are unaware of the underlying ‘unconscious’ processes. These affect our thoughts and behavior and they are under the direction of our genotype. So, we are unaware, and therefore not in conscious control, of our complete self. An academic committee, the US Congress or the United Nations Human Rights Council would seem to be even more ill-equipped to come to an accurate understanding of an issue. This is just a fact about what it means to be human. We have limits, all of us, but also amazing faculties. We do not have to become skeptical or cynical or heretical or religious or mystical or angry or sad, or whatever. This simple fact has always been with us in one form or other, but perhaps it has been too daunting or unpalatable to deal with. It certainly has caused a lot of confusion. However, we can not avoid the issue any more. Life is now too dangerous on multiple levels. The good news is that we have done surprisingly well, so far, despite our ignorance, our wrong ideas and grievous misadventures. There must be forces for the good, the crucial question is what are they? Could there be hidden, implicit biological, psychological and sociological factors at play? (Yes!)

Humans utilize reductionist strategies all the time, it comes to us naturally. We are less successful with integrative processes. There are a number of existential reasons for our situation, some related to the core of our being. This would be a wonderful subject to explore at length but here are some basic elements to consider:

1. Living organisms are reductionist when sensing the environment. Only information useful for the organism is culled from the ambient universe and is then reduced to signals that can be processed and responded to. Unlike dogs we cannot hear very high frequencies. Unlike chickens we cannot detect four different bands of light, only three – our mental pictures could be much simpler than theirs, who knows. We will have to ask a chicken. And unlike mosquitos we can not ‘smell’ carbon dioxide. Some birds, frogs and salamanders use earth’s magnetic field for orientation and direction. Still, humans capture more information from the ambient universe than any other creature, but it is still meager, i.e. highly reduced. Captured information is then converted to generic electrical and chemical signals impinging on neurons.

2. Conscious awareness is an almost realtime reconstruction based on integration of trillions of bits of continuously changing electrical and chemical information. We are only just beginning to identify the sites at which different tasks are performed in the brain, but we already know that most of our subjective experiences via the senses are rife with ‘illusions’. Colors, sounds and tastes do not exist independent of consciousness. Our reconstruction of nature is exquisitely precise but not very accurate. Our subjective reconstructions are in fact detached from ‘true reality’.

3. On the other hand “Thoughts are the shadows of our feelings — always darker, emptier and simpler” – Nietzsche. Sounds true, but even further down the reductionist road are the words used to describe such thoughts and feelings. So, when we read or listen, we are getting a reduced and redacted version of events which we reconstruct and integrate into our subjective experience. Misunderstandings of all kinds are inevitable.

4. Science is the prototype of reductionism. Believers in ‘holism’ use this fact to undermine knowledge gained from analytic experimentation. However, “Reductionism is one of those things, like sin, that is only mentioned by people who are against it”—Richard Dawkins. A surprising fact is that “Few scientists will voluntarily characterize their work as reductionistic. Yet, reductionism is at the philosophical heart of the molecular biology revolution” – Fang, FC; 2011. Anyone who wants to know what they are talking about must understand and know reductionism, and it seems that few do, even scientists.

5. Philosophy is a complex personal thought narrative integrated from abstract reductionistic concepts such as truth, love, beauty, reason, good and evil. Religion is a similar narrative except for the use of an abstract reductionism, God, to rationalize the difficult and mysterious parts. (This does not imply, of course, that there is no God.)

6. Our conscious dealings with other human beings are reductionist inasmuch as everything we say, write or do is filtered through the mechanisms and concepts existing in our and their minds. The information thus exchanged is a greatly reduced version of the conscious awarenesses on both sides. It is impossible for anyone to ‘fully understand’ another person. We do like to believe that it happens though, in spite of the evidence, and this probably relates to that powerful axiom, our common humanity. We love, care for, help, sympathize and empathize with our neighbors because that is what most members of a community do, but not all. We also hate, discriminate against and make war for more complex reasons.

A huge problem should now be evident in our almost exclusive reliance on politics, philosophy and religion as guidance on the most difficult questions. These systems of thought and communication are all based on integration from reductionist inputs which can not yield anything even approaching a complete understanding of reality or any complex issue. Integration always takes place within an idioverse where information is very incomplete and rules apply that are unique for each person. Serious disagreements and opposite views are inevitable. Our huge problem then has been our general unawareness of the systemic imprecision and inaccuracy of religious, political and philosophical thought – the deep personal and cultural biases of such thinkers are not acknowledged. These modes of ‘higher thought’ or speculative thinking are even more susceptible to the systemic error inherent in integration. However it seems that times could be a-changing. Complexity science is being developed and the role of education in a supercomplex world with few definitive answers, is being addressed. So there is progress and hope as people are waking up to the enormity of our challenges, but also to our unrealized potential. (See Ronald Barnett on supercomplexity and education.)

There is more to be careful of. The integration process at the level of politics, philosophy and religion is further compromised by elites competing for power and influence. Fairness and honesty fly out the window when self-interest is at stake. This has been a distraction, a sideshow, deadly, wasteful and corrupt – we still live in the midst of cycles of war and peace, boom and bust. One of the things that distinguishes elites from the rest of us is that they have access to more information, partly because they are closer to the levers of power. They often come out ahead when things go wrong. However, given what we have indicated above, there is very little reason to believe that these power brokers are any closer to the truth than the rest of us. They are, on the contrary, much more prone to the common delusion of “Since I am smarter and know more, I am right”. The problem with our so-called great leaders is that they are frequently wrong, do not take responsibility for their failures and failings, and are insufficiently aware of their own limitations and ignorance.

There is another narrative that is more plausible: society has survived and even progressed in spite of the difficulties and obstacles, in spite of the disastrous adventures of leaders and governments. There apparently are powerful hidden, implicit, common human factors at work, throughout society, including elites – it could be our ‘common humanity’ or maybe something like our ‘common sense’ as described during the Scottish Enlightenment. How this operates is almost completely unknown at the present, but it appears to be real. The idea of instincts comes to mind. Hints are also coming from the study of complex adaptive systems in which unexpected emergent features develop spontaneously. Human beings do not need to be told to have families, to provide for and raise their children, or to participate in the organization of a community. We are competitive, we respond to incentive and disincentive. Above all, it seems, we learn, share information and ‘pursue happiness’. Of course we love to do things better, and for this purpose, good teachers are supremely useful. Everyone, however, should exercise judgement and be appropriately skeptical. Beware of alligators!

In the end individuals evaluate, consciously AND unconsciously, all the information available to him or her and react in the perceived interests of themselves, their family and/or the community. Every decision is a psychological event amongst numerous others in a single, utterly unique idioverse. While our decisions are often intuitive or based on woefully incomplete information, others provide direct feedback on their wisdom or otherwise. This is the level at which society operates and shapes itself. Individual, unique humans and their networks are at the center of our universe. A single human is the most complex and powerful learning and decision-making entity in the universe, pound for pound, that we know of, committees and deliberative bodies not so much. Those billions of idiṓtēs out there should realize that they are in the best position to evaluate and act on what is best for them and their community.

So yes, because our society is a widening gyre, neither the falcon nor the falconer can see or hear each other, unless they focus on better communication. We are still looking for our lost center but a sense of it should begin to appear as we become less distracted by epiphenomena and more appreciative of our greatest asset, those formidable abilities residing in each of us. We are the center of the functional universe and we should all act appropriately, expecting more of ourselves and others.

__________ __________

Some random political thoughts:

We should not be surprised when systems theorists and complexity scientists soon start publishing results about sophisticated computer models, utilizing the largest databases in the world, being able to predict social outcomes. Policy recommendations will be based on their findings, and the smartest people in the world will promise that, if elected, they will fundamentally transform the world. A new UN Commission on Freedom and Justice will be chartered for the benefit of all. China and India will be permanent members of the Commission since they account for more than a third of the world’s population. Unfortunately, results will be very disappointing! All the world’s leaders, and all the world’s elite professors will explain how reactionary forces had caused the failure. All will recommend that far more resources be invested and the programs be expanded.

It would seem axiomatic that a smarter, more responsible and more empowered populace would forge a smarter, better and more prosperous society. The USA has been the country that has historically diffused power the most and, not surprisingly, has been the most prosperous. Our representatives are given power to govern and it is absolutely crucial that they not be given power that is not required for their responsibilities. They should also be held as accountable as possible. The central authority in a large state such as the US should only be delegated the power to do things that can not be done by institutions closer to the people. The closer government is to the people, the less large scale corruption there should be. Powers not necessary at the federal level should automatically revert to the people or the states.

Presently an increasing amount of power and influence is being vested in central government in most societies because it seems like an easy solution for just about any problem – that, at least, is the current favored narrative. However, when things go wrong, and they frequently do, it can be incredibly destructive and deadly. We must find leaders who are honest enough to appreciate the superior wisdom of the people. We need more empowered and competent citizens who are prepared to challenge abuses of power and assume more responsibility in their own lives. We do not need a revolution.

The above is not a recommendation for more self-loathing in ‘the West’ (a useful reductionism), there is enough of that. The West can be blamed for much, not because we are necessarily evil, but because we have been the most dominant actors on the world stage for quite a few centuries. The disasters have occurred under our watch and so we own them, but other cultures have been caught up even more in their own ruts. The ultimate geopolitical problem, everywhere, is how to bring power under control, specifically how to align it with the interests of The People in all their diversity. This will happen when power understands its own interests better. The West gets little credit and much blame, but we appear to be further along on the winding road to empowerment, liberation and realization of the individual human self. A turn to a new narrative that respects and values the diversity and power of each individual, a narrative that does not idolize reductionist fallacies is my recommendation. No revolution required, we just have to put people, philosophy and religion in their proper perspective.

Appearance, Reality & Science, or Illusion, Delusion & DNA.

An Introduction.

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.

* * * *

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.

* * * *

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.

Stay tuned.