Scientistic Perspective on Everything – Reality As It Is.

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

PART ONE: GENESIS OF REALITY AS IT IS NOW.

Domain 1. Reality as it is (Ultimate Reality, Ontic Reality, the Universe of Everything, the Cosmos) consists of evolving interacting and non-interacting systems, said to be composed of energies, forces, matter, atoms, molecules and structures; animate or inanimate, dead or alive, organic or inorganic, simple or complex, observed or unobserved or unobservable. With the advent of higher forms of life Reality is now contemplating itself. (See caveat below.)

Contrary to the imaginary situation described in our still very popular creation myths (mythical ontologies), we now have a pretty detailed and complex idea of Reality based on vast amounts of empirical observation (scientistic ontology). The evidence can not be squared with our beloved ancient myths: we now ‘know’ that our cosmos might have been evolving over the last ~14 billion years. The most popular version of the cosmic story is that in the beginning there was nothing, except maybe a relatively simple hyper-dense state of some sort. Suddenly, this point of comparative nothingness changed and an unimaginable effusion of energy ensued with particles radiating into space, possibly expanding at speeds even greater than light. After about three billion years our galaxy began to form. After 6 billion more the sun and earth emerged; a billion or so more, i.e. about 4 billion years ago, life came about. Reality as it is had tempestuously done its own thing for about 10 billion years, in secret, noiselessly and in the dark. There was no person to see, hear or smell, let alone wonder about it. But out of the bosom of a vast interplay of material/physical/natural processes, life somehow became established on our little planet: a panoply of millions of different forms, sizes and shapes, all now orchestrated by an extremely gifted molecule: DNA.

The cosmos has been evolving on scales so immense that we can not intuitively understand it – from the beginning, now and henceforth. Each supposed little particle or wavy fluctuation has its place. Physicists use mathematical abstractions and a special language to describe their findings, still there reigns much disagreement amongst different schools of thought. Those who claim to understand the physics and math – many say it is impossible – admit that the microscopic universe is very different from the natural world we intuitively know. Chemists and biologists have also amassed libraries of information, far more than what any one person could possibly digest. No one person could claim to understand all the ‘fundamental’ processes. Reality as it is does not readily conform to the ‘laws of nature’ as we know them from our ordinary natural perspective and common sense analysis. Natural logic, language and human imagination are incapable of describing reality as it is, albeit now partially and indirectly observed in a very small nook of the cosmos. All we know for certain is that the findings are real, observable by anyone who would make the effort, and could be independently confirmed by anyone with huge resources. The findings have a basis in Reality but their interpretation is highly controversial and may yet prove to be highly inadequate. Our narrative therefore has qualities of a fairy tale based on reams of very strange but hard data.

Anyhow, our infant universe supposedly expanded prodigiously as it cooled from billion plus degree temperatures down to 1000 degrees C. in the course of the first 200,000 years. (It may have taken 10 billion years to get the temperature down to the about 70 degrees C. at which DNA could exist.) Out of this miasma things coagulated and precipitated on a microscopic and macroscopic scale. The early universe was lifeless, but definitely not still. Tumultuous energy, force and motion was everywhere, yet exquisitely directed by intrinsic, systemic relationships. Then, still quite inexplicably, there arose molecules that had the ability to multiply and organize other molecules such as to create minute little organic systems of energy processing and molecule building: LIFE. There is nothing known for certain about what produced this miracle. Likely precursors or initial conditions have been modeled based on creative guess-work; we now have some vague suspicions of a series of events that could have lead to the evolution of DNA as the sole replicating molecule responsible for this diverse abundance of life on our planet. The possible roles of nanomotors (molecular motors) as drivers of an evolutionary process based on enhanced survival have been suggested. DNA must be such a rapidly replicating nanomotor, a local, microscopic conduit of basic physical and chemical forces that drive it along – the will to power, an élan vital, whatever. DNA appears to select in favor of survival, efficiency or fitness through competition. Perhaps this selection is in favor of greater information processing – an early sign of ‘intelligence’ in a molecule? The essence of this replicating force is that it appears to enhance survival through learning, adapting and diversifying as vast numbers of different iterations compete for limited resources. Probably viral RNA and DNA contributed crucially to the creation of life. A dynamic universe, therefore, drives all processes, including life, but how? (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3185796/) (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Abiogenesis)

And then life bloomed in dazzling profusion! Our earthly sector of living Reality rapidly proliferated and spread to populate seemingly every niche on our tiny planet, located near the sun, toward the edge of the Milky Way, one of a supercluster of 100,000 galaxies! After about 3,800 million years of life, the first mammals arrived, circa 200 million years ago. The first anatomically modern humans appeared only about 200,000 years ago, having the most complex anatomy and physiology of any animal, regardless of size, and a clear and distinct human consciousness which is manifested in an utterly unique and exceptional socio-cultural existence. There thus seems to have been an inexorable drive toward ever more diverse and complex organisms, possibly having something to do with processing more information, exact reason unknown, but in the process probabilities of survival are increased. This promotion of diversity appears to hold even down to the individual level. For example, at least 12% of the human genome is highly variable, adding yet another level of mystery, uncertainty and unpredictability. Each individual human organism thus represents a unique assemblage of Reality, as it is now. And, as far as we know, there are only about 8 billion copies extant in the universe; an infinitely small number in the greater scheme of things.

Reality, as it is in itself, has certainly come a long way! From our perspective, the arrival of life and the arrival of hominid self consciousness demarcate important phases in the evolution of Reality as it is. The fundamental lesson to be learned from this story is that we do not see a clear break when traveling from quark to neuron. Reality, as it is, supposedly started out as an undifferentiated singularity, and we, like everything else, are all descendants of that hypothetical Big Bang. Life and all its processes are expressions of this dynamic universe, even though it is limited to an extremely minute section of the whole, as far as we can tell. It appears that each of us is a slightly different and unique variation on this overarching theme. You and trillions of other organisms incarnate Reality as it is here on Earth in its most up to date version. This is awesome. Congratulations to all that have made it thus far – we have been lucky indeed.

It is impossible for us to fully understand what utterly amazing creations we are. We do not come with an operator’s manual or list of components, and so we have to slowly uncover our own miraculous design and structure. Our nervous system is at the apex of complexity in our universe, unparalleled amongst most of the animals: about 100 billion interconnected neurons, approximately 100 trillion synapses continuously transmitting electrochemical signals. Each one of the neurons may be nothing less than a small (collection of) quantum computer(s). The neuronal cell body is stuffed with microtubules apparently containing quantum critical proteins that could function like quantum computers. This is still highly preliminary but does show the vast amount of information that would be required to understand brain function and the processes of life. We are just beginning to scratch the surface. (Kaufmann/Hameroff 2015)  Killer whales and elephants have somewhat comparable brains to humans.

This is probably more than what most of us would want to know about reality as it is (Reality). Most of the evidence and science is beyond me, and, I would assume, for many others. Still this new story told through science, even though extremely incomplete, rings truer now than all the wonderful creation myths of old.

HOWEVER, a major caveat is in order. The above description is very misleading because the language used to describe Reality is derived from reality as we experience it, subjectively, in consciousness, and not as it is in itself. There are no words to describe Reality since human consciousness has no direct access to Reality. The eye of the mind can not see Reality. Despite our direct sensing of it, intimate interaction with it, and the existence of volumes of investigative information about it, Reality still hides behind an impenetrable electrochemical fence in our brain.

We cannot conceptualize Reality except through representational imaginings correlating with our senses, or from experimental information obtained in ways that are very mysterious to almost everyone. Hence there is a very troubling, but not very surprising, degree of conceptual disagreement amongst researchers and ordinary folk. These conceptual imaginings exist in consciousness thus allowing us to describe in words what we think about this all encompassing presence. Unfortunately for us, our words are not up to the task, our communications are nothing but hints of the Real. (Here, as an example, is a fun review of the common sense difficulties encountered in imagining the atom.)

Furthermore, the overwhelming number of people on our planet do not agree with this naturalistic, physicalist, materialist or scientistic  narrative because it is based on new and unfamiliar information, and it calls into question age-old settled beliefs. Our natural experience of reality in consciousness also is so compelling that we are not inclined to second guess it, or our intuitive understanding of it. Most also feel that this cosmic evolution could not have occurred without the guiding hand of a Creator and want to see an accommodation for this external force. It is becoming increasingly clear that direct evidence for such an intervention will never be forthcoming. The supreme intelligence of the design is in its divine seamlessness, in its inexplicability and ineffability. Clues leading to the designer are either everywhere or nowhere.

In stead of relying on oracles and revelations, us humans should realize that we are part and parcel of the process of changing and discovering an evolving reality. But there is much more to the story!

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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.