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 biological mechanisms that themselves are part of and harness the intrinsic ‘physical’ processes of Reality. Real or ‘physical’ information is 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 yet we know very little about it. Everyone is utterly familiar with the greatest show on earth, the Theater of The Mind, featuring true feeling, compelling narrative, cycloramic 3-D full color and stereophonic sound – even in our dreams as we sleep. Despite this intimacy, perhaps because of it, we have always been confused about what it is and what it all means. There are so many fanciful theories: an immaterial spirit, an accurate representation of the external and internal world, our governing faculty, the decider, 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.

Human self-aware consciousness and thought are without doubt our most characteristic attribute. We incessantly think about our feelings and our interactions with both the environment and our fellow sapient creatures, with an almost limitless ability to 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. Many believe that this represents the essence of who and what we are. But in order to really understand what is going on 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 secrets of human thought we may be able to extend our self-understanding greatly, in turn opening up large opportunities for social improvement.

Thus, if our consciousness is 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. A good place to start toward understanding consciousness, is to separate content from the underlying 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. Many 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 more on our prejudice and misunderstanding rather than a rigorous evaluation. In all likelihood, we will never fully know what it is like to be a bat, a lion, a dog, a dolphin or a bee. Each species represents their own very special case. We have already been stunned by how complex and intricate the lives of other creatures can be. The closer we look the more common threads there are between all living creatures.

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. By studying this little denizen of the dirt, we have learned a lot about ourselves. Certainly, we must accept the likely possibility that any creature with neurons shares the beginnings of consciousness with us in some essential but not yet clearly identified way. Anyway, it would be wrong to reject this possibility out of hand – a mistake we have been consistently guilty of in the past.

Let’s get to know this sightless little nematode a little better. C. elegans was first beautifully 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 have 383):

“With only five olfactory neurons, C. elegans can dynamically respond to dozens of attractive and repellent odors. 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 and social behavior; 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 tympanic 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 (allocentric “lefties”), other populations consist of solitary individuals proceeding by themselves (idiocentric “righties”). 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 displays consciousness! (In fact, I am surprised by how much can be done with so little.) This kind of anthropomorphizing 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 and ineffective, producing a paragon of impotence.

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 also varies widely among species and this has a profound effect on the many different types of behavior expressed by different animals, even amongst closely related species. 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 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 passed through the cell as digestion takes place. Its cell membrane bears cilia, 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. It likely is more complex than any single mammalian cell with the possible exception of a neuron. It is ‘conscious’ of its environment and 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 existence to a strictly controlled community that is impervious to toxins, or perhaps to a virulent community attacking other organisms or their host.

There seems to be no limit to the strange behaviors of bacteria: 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 may 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! (This benefits humans because bacteria are the major pathway for introducing non-carbon elements into the food chain.) There is thus a very impressive arsenal of toxins and weapons at their disposal, often leading to feasting on DNA released during the fray. A recent sensational headline warns “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 brothers, but the opposite can also happen: virulent individuals commit suicide when exposed to the ‘love-hormones’ of their more peaceful kin. [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. 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. 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 ecosystems. Already theoretical possibilities of bacterial memory and awareness of history are being considered.

(A common thread in human history seems to be that we always have been and continue to be surprised by Reality. Since oracles have been proven unreliable sources regarding the nature of reality, we should not be so surprised in the future.)

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. Bacteria in no way think the way we do, that would be impossible. However, careful observation of them leads to the firm conclusion that they are ‘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 but fascinating mystery. An intuitive understanding of what drives molecules would be very helpful.

From what we now know, it is clear that all of life exhibits a basic form of intelligence by directly responding to and interacting with its environment, its particular niche of Reality. We will term this biological consciousness. It has been stated that most animals also appear to exhibit phenomenal awareness which would be in addition to the various forms of basic biological consciousness. That is, most animals are also aware of the macroscopic structures and events in their environment. It seems almost certain that animals with eyes, ears, noses and tongues like ours would experience the world generally in the way we do, but with numerous differences. For example, most primates have trichromatic color vision like we do – they can see red. Most other mammals are dichromatic and can not see red. Shapes, sizes and movements seem to observed like we do, but we can not even imagine what their sense of smell or taste is like, or what they experience when threatened or in danger. Trying to imagine the world of other creatures like fish, worms and bacteria at this time is asking too much.

Furthermore, it is still a profound mystery as to how our utterly reliable and predictable subjective sensation of any color comes about – the qualium 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. There apparently exists in our brains a system that monitors all of the central system neural activity and then secondarily constructs all these sensations of sight, smell and so forth. It is as if there is a neural network that looks at all the intracranial electrical activity and then produces a report to a separately experienced self.

Human consciousness is, therefore, an extraordinary complex incarnation of biological and phenomenological consciousness. Still, it is potentially explainable by the underlying biological processes. Human behavior seems limitless in its adaptability, its creativity and its unpredictability, but there are definite limits. There are many things that we want to do, yet can not. By comparison, it would be easy to dismiss less complex organisms as unconscious machines or automatons, as many scientists and philosophers still do. That clearly is a mistake and it appears to be a result of our prior ignorance. We have been blinded by the infinitely complex and utterly compelling nature of our subjective experiences; mythical narratives have also contributed to this prejudicial attitude. This represents a basic anthropocentric error which is still very prevalent in many schools of thought.

We have learned much about human consciousness by studying animals. 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 very 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 not very rigorous at all in many cases; 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, although we might still think that we consciously initiated the process. Gaps in a narrative or pattern may be unconsciously filled in. Conscious thinking 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 complex processes occurring while we are under the impression that a ‘simple’ conscious act is being undertaken.

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 intellectual, scientific and philosophical discourse. Unlike cognition, there is nothing clear and distinct about affect, yet there may lie another of our great stores of future discovery. Emotions provide the underpinnings of all our behavior, even ‘rational’ thought; they may in fact represent the bridge between our dark ‘unconscious’ core and the brilliance of our mental landscape. Intellectually we are utterly unique but in our essence we are intimately connected. There yet may be a realm in which all are almost as one – “I am you” (Kolak)

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, they broaden and build, bring growth, innovation with improvements in health, wealth and happiness. Given our state of ignorance, we do not know how to harness the powers within.

The adaptive value of human thinking and communication thus far appears centered primarily around the social goals of inclusion, cohesion, security and survival. Our interests in philosophy and science, i.e. a pursuit of truth, are rather recent and have been secondary, although very fascinating. 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 about human consciousness? What 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 culture. However, our consciousness, like all others, has evolved from basic biological ‘consciousness’ over billions of years. It is an attribute of our special biology. All animals with brains have what is referred to as phenomenal consciousness; awareness of the surroundings through the 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 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 plan. Non-humans are at a deep existential disadvantage! Each human can mentally simulate what is being discussed as if it is 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. That, at least, is what the latest evidence suggests, but it is likely that animals will  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.

Furthermore, 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. There are, also, real strengths inherent in our thinking: many individuals are able to intensely focus on logic and evidence and achieve very impressive results in science, mathematics and philosophy. Our greatest creative achievements have been thus inspired, but also some of our greatest misadventures. This is the source of our celebrated faculty of  so-called ‘free will’; it can lead to great good or bring untold misery. The true garden of good and evil is enclosed within the walls of our skull.

The evidence alluded to so far exposes numerous and large gaps in our understanding of human and animal consciousness. Interestingly, while human consciousness is still 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. 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 aspects, such as complex language and culture, are very exceptional indeed but their primordial beginnings can be recognized in other animals. 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 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 specific supra-biological 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. 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, “Man is the measure of all things”. Consciousness is a fundamental feature of life, itself having been produced by the dynamic natural processes of a cosmic and microscopic Reality. All species have their unique qualities; human culture is our major distinguishing feature. Our unique human consciousness appears to be a culmination of the ancient processes of biological awareness and phenomenal consciousness. Most of our processing of vast amounts of information still occurs in the biological realm without involvement of phenomenal or conscious thought 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 environment and culture, however, are usually and mostly managed through automatic and semi-automatic processes residing in biological 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 and society at large. 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 tasks is possible.

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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.