Mind Over Matter

In a recent  Scientific American article  dated April 19  titled  “Should Quantum Anomalies Make Us Rethink Reality?”  Bernardo Kastrup  muses over the fact that inexplicable lab results may be telling us we’re on the cusp of a new scientific paradigm.

He is writing about the nature of reality, and how it is currently perceived in terms our conceptual understanding, and how the latter predetermines our ongoing observation of the natural  world, to the point that the notion of being able to look at the world objectively – something that should be at the core of all scientific inquiry – may no longer make sense. When I read this,  the first thing that came to mind was something that Nietzsche once said: There is no immaculate perception.

In this context Kastrup invokes Tomas Kuhn’s  idea of the paradigm shift – first introduced in 1962 – when it becomes necessary to start questioning the accepted model of a scientific theory or concept on the basis of an increasing number of observations that are deemed anomalous when they don’t  fit within the prevailing model. You need to read Kastrup’s complete article to see the specific anomalies he is referring to for his argument.

The Kastrup article boils down to the the distinction between mind  and matter – the experiential or mental world and  the material or physical world  – and the  need to question the belief “that nature consists of arrangements of matter/energy outside and independent of mind.”  The anomalies he cites in the article question this independence, and while the issue arises the Quantum level of observation, the inference is that there are implications for the larger view of the nature of reality.

I am interested in the nature of the distinction between mind and matter, or, if you will, the mental realm and the physical realm. The traditional view of mind and matter is that, while our physical bodies are  part of the material  world, our conscious minds  are something over and above the material world, in the sense that consciousness as a phenomenon cannot be explained in terms of its underlying material complexity.  Philosophers have struggled mightily to give some account of consciousness in terms of the nature of its existence and as a result a duality has been introduced which has been less than helpful in trying to understand how the mental realm and the physical realm are related.

The distinction as taken mutually exclusive led Immanuel Kant to postulate the “ding an sich” – or “thing-in-itself” – as something fundamentally unknowable as a cause behind the experiential world, and something that Schopenhauer faulted him for because it would take the concept of cause and effect beyond what it could deliver, logically. However, instead of postulating an unknown really behind the world, Schopenhauer himself proposed a different kind of duality, by giving the world an inside and an outside, with the outside being the objective experiential world of our knowledge, and on the inside the true nature or essence of the world. The latter is not directly knowable as object of knowledge, yet we are conscious of its presence within our bodies as something that is over and above our actions and motivations that guide our interaction with the world.

I have a lot of sympathy for the Schopenhauer position, as well, I can reconcile it to a large extent within the Spinoza one substance view – something I wrote about earlier – even though the latter rejected the duality of matter, claiming both the mental and physical were part of the same substance, and no distinction between the inside and outside of matter – although it could be said that humans could only apprehend two attributes of this matter, namely thought and extension.

The bottom line is that there are two ways for us to be in the world, and if there is any duality to it, it is not within the world, but within ourselves and a function of how we are able to interact with it.  This is the duality that follows from the distinction between subject and object, the observer and the observed, between the conscious mind and its experiential content. In the end, however, it is a false distinction, as it is the world looking at the world, creating the illusion of separate substantive realms – the mental realm and the physical realm – while in fact both of them are one and the same reality, and the one that is internal to our mind. There is no other reality.  That doesn’t mean that what we typically refer to as the physical realm is any less real than we think, but regardless of what we think, it all comes down to a bunch of neurons firing in our cranium. 

And so the fact remains that we cannot access the world without going through the conceptual apparatus of our minds. Any idea we have of it is entirely dependent on having processed our experiential perception of it, consequently, it cannot exist logically (or ontologically, for that matter) independently from us. So getting back to the belief “that nature consists of arrangements of matter/energy outside and independent of mind” it should be clear that since we can’t get to the natural world directly, i.e., independently from human observation,  there is no direct or objective observation of the world, and that all knowledge derived from it is entirely subject to being interpreted and shaped and conditioned as necessary by the very creature that we are.  Had we been a different creature, we would likely be experiencing a different world, i.e., we would have a different concept and understanding of it. That is to say also that reality needs to be a certain way in order to accommodate whatever it is we are, as such we shape it as much as it shapes us, and to some extent this is a function of the cultural-linguistic environment we inhabit, e.g., there are the legendary 50 different words for snow in Eskimo languages, denoting unique properties within their reality as these have been discerned on the basis of having interacted with it.

And taking this view a little further – it would seem to follow that the boundaries of the world are the boundaries of our mind, in the sense that our understanding of the world will be  limited to what our mind will be able to process given the neuro-physiological infrastructure that supports it. I believe it is somewhat presumptuous to assume that there are no limits to the acquisition and accumulation of knowledge or the ability to conceptualize the various features of the cosmos as were are coming across them.  That is to say, we will be running out of processing power in the gray-matter department, as much as it is a bio mechanical process subject to the laws of nature, and not being able to get our heads around the notion of infinity (in whatever direction) when to comes to concepts of time and space is an example of this.  So, too, Mr. Kastrup’s Quantum Anomalies  are likely to show themselves as features of the mind-matter / subject-object distinction, as an example of the mind looking back at itself and no longer being able to hold on to the distinction, as much as this distinction would be pushed at the QM level of scientific research.  As I said earlier – in the end, all our observations of the  world are instances of the world looking at itself. We are merely the instantiation of this process as a means to enable the cosmos to continue on its evolutionary path towards what this is all about.

The truth about man is that he is not a pure knowing subject, not a winged cherub without a material body, contemplating the world from without. For he is himself rooted in that world.  (Schopenhauer – The World as Idea)




Artificial Intelligence

Artificial Intelligence has been in the news a lot lately, mainly because more and more people at all levels of society are starting to recognize its potential, in whatever area of human activity. From a briefing paper published by the European Parliament October of 2016:

The ability of AI systems to transform vast amounts of complex, ambiguous information into insight has the potential to reveal long-held secrets and help solve some of the world’s most enduring problems. AI systems can potentially be used to help discover insights to treat disease, predict the weather, and manage the global economy. It is an undeniably powerful tool. And like all powerful tools, great care must be taken in its development and deployment. However, to reap the societal benefits of AI systems, we will first need to trust it.

What kind of trust are we referring to here? This a very complex question. The more we let AI into our lives, the more likely we are to develop a dependency on it, and the amount we are willing to trust it will be in direct relationship to the willingness to have our lives altered by its outcomes, since the rise of AI will have without question a bearing on them, regardless what aspect of life we might be talking about.

But since we don’t really know what kind of future we want for ourselves – how will we be able to trust AI if it pushes us into a direction that at first glance appears to be not in our best interest, if only because we might not fully understand the consequences of an AI suggested action.

And so the critical question remains: with or without AI, what course of action is ultimately in humanity’s best interest? I have written enough on that subject in the past to suggest that, at minimum – owing to the fact that we really don’t know what we are or what we are about – our survival as a successful species ought to be of primary interest to us.

Beyond that it is anyone’s guess how to proceed from there, and this on the assumption that we will in fact be successful in not wiping each other out in some stupefying display of nuclear grandstanding.  Then, hopefully, a day will arrive in the not too distant future when we might have an inkling of what is going on with us, and start living our lives in that context. In the meantime, it will likely be AI to help us figure out what course of action we need to chart in order to be able to reach that future.

I believe AI will be able to gain our trust gradually and take an ever greater role in our daily lives. The technology will continue to seduce us with the ability to seemingly give us everything we ask for, leading to our ever greater dependency on it, but the caveat is that throughout the application of AI we cannot take its credibility for granted, as much as it may continually seem to prove itself. At bottom, AI is a calculator working with an algorithm (a set of rules governing a deductive process) and any data derived from it is subject to the ago old dictum “garbage in – garbage out”.  To safeguard the integrity of process is one thing, safeguarding the integrity of the information it is working on is a whole different matter.

My biggest worry, however, would be to allow AI to modify its own algorithms in order to overcome its limitations, e.g., allow it to simulate an inductive or inferential process, to make the process seem more “human”, or as smart, if not smarter.   I’m thinking about situations where AI is faced with  incompatible observations – or when there is just not enough data – in which case it might be allowed to arrive at some kind of “best guess” scenario by either modifying one of its procedural rules or by introducing some other random factor to settle the issue in order to simulate a reasoned conclusion.  In case of finding your way out of conflicting data a machine cannot benefit from a “gut” feeling, or by an appeal to instinct or intuition, since the essential quality of being human cannot be translated  into machine language, no matter how sophisticated the algorithm it has been derived from.

But this is precisely the crux of the matter, and in order to safeguard a future that is in fact in our best interest, AI should never be more than an augmentation to human intelligence.  This so we will continue to strive  for a future that will always put the interest of humans first, efficacy over efficiency, by seeking to maximize our social-economic well-being and the ethical-legal framework that supports it.

AI will not be able to apply critical and uniquely human qualities such as empathy and compassion to its output, although it might be able to simulate them to a certain degree, based on what it has “learned” from the observation of human behavior.   This may be good enough for some  behaviorists out there – followers of the late great behaviorist psychologist B.F Skinner – who hypothesize that human behavior is strictly a function of external factors, and not driven by thoughts or emotions, but I think they are definitely out to lunch on that front.  There is a logical gap between what is seen on the outside in human behavior and that which motivates it from within, and what it means to be human is the only thing that fits in that space and is able to connect the two.

(For those who think that the essence of a human being can be reduced to a bunch of neurons firing in some particular fashion – so what is so special about that, right?  Well, a couple of things. Clearly, you need to get out more – and a lot more, I would think;  watch a sunset or two, take in a play, maybe listen to a little Mozart, or do something more adventurous such as a hike up to Machu Picchu, whatever. And then also ask the questions as to why these neurons are firing, and the earlier question: why are these neurons here  in the first place, i.e., why is there anything here at all.  No aspect of the given world should ever be taken for granted; doing so  is the ultimate arrogance of man, and not only does this diminish the value of the world, but especially the value of the one making the assertion.)

As a result, AI must remain in a secondary position to the human mind in its determination what might be best for us, although there is no guarantee that we will always decide to do the right thing there. Such is our predicament at the moment, as well as in the foreseeable future.

A Tale of Two Selves

…  man is, relatively speaking, the most unsuccessful animal, the sickliest, the one most dangerously strayed from its instincts – with all that, to be sure, the most interesting! (Nietzsche)

Why is the human race, with its superior intellectual capacity when compared to its most recent primate ancestry on the phylogenetic tree, at the same time so unstable, so unpredictable, and so neurotic, and so often acting against its own interest? One would have thought the advanced brainpower would have had the opposite effect, by benefiting its host in all aspects of human endeavor and  maximizing its existential advantage. Instead, we ended up being a deeply troubled, schizoid species.

I think we can safely conclude that all the human induced problems in the world are related to the very latest features of our neuroanatomy, as no other species had its brain hijacked by what has been classified as “the human cortex”. While being an integral of our brains, the expansion of the cerebral cortex, the neocortex, and in particular that of its prefrontal region, is a major evolutionary landmark in the emergence of humans, the crowning achievement of evolution and the biological substrate of human mental prowess.

Yes, and so the trouble started, as much of the misery experienced by human beings is likely the result of the conflict within our minds between the inherited lower and newly acquired higher brain functions, i.e., between the animal, or instinctive self and the moral, or rational self, and the latter presumably courtesy of the evolutionary upgrade

The moral self is that part of our self-awareness (as opposed to mere awareness)  that is able to take responsibility for its actions in light of its consequences, whether they are intended or not. In doing so, it must be able to think and act rationally, and see itself as a causal agent with respect to its actions and its consequences.

It presupposes that all rational actions are preceded by a decision making process – essentially making all actions initially optional, as opposed to an automatic or learned response to a stimulus, which would be the case for any action initiated by instinct only.

After receiving a major upgrade in the gray matter department, quantitatively as well as a qualitatively it seems, the new human species saw the world and themselves in a different light from their genetic predecessors. On the assumption that our sensory organs have not changed all the much qualitatively from our immediate ancestors,  we can suppose that sensory data would show the world in many ways unchanged, yet different from the moment they started interacting with it. Instead, it became an environment capable of being changed based on how they interacted with it. No longer were they merely at the receiving end of the world; they were now in a position to alter, if not recreate certain aspects of it.

More importantly,  major substantive changes were introduced in how the new species is able to communicate among its members. Beyond the hitherto primitive primate cultures depending primarily on grunts and gestures for communication – but already including a degree of social structure – Homo sapiens developed something entire new under the sun. They were able to establish cultures capable of abstraction and conceptualization, in language, in the arts and above all, in the sciences

The result has been that, in spite of all the turmoil, upheaval and chaos our species has endured since the beginning of time, self-induced or not – and a subject not easily dismissed or glossed over if our recorded history of past and current civilizations has anything to say about it – our knowledge and understanding of the physical world has steadily increased, to the point that – after a long and initial period of linear growth – it is now growing exponentially, doubling on average every twelve months according to what has been referred to as the  Knowledge Doubling Curve.

This later fact should not surprise us, as we have this innate need to know; it is an essential if not “necessary” feature of our species to keep looking for more answers, about the world, the greater universe, and by extension about ourselves. Necessary because we will not be able progress along the path that evolution is pushing us unless we keep increasing our knowledge and understanding of the cosmic phenomenon that we find ourselves a part of and must be able to build our future in.  Evolution isn’t some process over and above ourselves – we are the very embodiment of it, and each of us is an instance of that process!

An essential step in that process will be the need to reconcile the instinctive self with the rational self, to establish some sense of harmonious, symbiotic relationship between the two, such that we  will only undertake actions that are to the greater long-term benefit of our species. Will we ever be capable of this?  I don’t know, but time will tell, and as AI continues to edge forward in our lives, it may well decide the matter for us, one way or the other.

Evolution in Transition

the -human-brain

The other day a neuroscientist described the human brain as the most complex biological structure in the known universe, containing hundreds of billions of cells, and trillions of connections controlling every thought, feeling, movement and function of our bodies.

If this proves anything, it is the fact that – outside of explanations invoking religious mythology – the human brain has evolved through a teleological process that was directed from the inside out, to be what it is today, and instantiated within each of us at some point along the way towards its desired objective, whatever that might be.

In that context the arrival of the human species can be seen as constituting a transitional and critical period in anticipation of the next phase of cosmic evolution,  as organic life has likely been pushed to the limit of what it is able to accomplish beyond the mere act of survival and propagation.

What I am referring to here is our species’ precarious status as a creature that has one leg still firmly in the animal kingdom, our past,  while the other is in a future we know little or anything about. And so we are acting accordingly, with no clear idea of what is expected of us, making us inherently unpredictable if not an unstable life form at best, as evidenced by its self-destructive tendencies, including suicide, homicide,  genocide, and undermining  its own life-sustaining environment.

However, there is one area of human endeavour  where we have clearly gone beyond our animal traits and can claim some considerable accomplishments since arriving as a brand new species relatively recently. This might suggest that our arrival on the cosmic scene brought about the transition of matter’s evolutionary pressures from a strictly internal process  to an external one.

We can point to the ingenuity of our species to manipulate and restructure matter into ever increasing organizational complexity as reflected by the various aspects of technology that we are familiar with today. Through us, nature has achieved a quantum leap in the creativity department, now being able to push its evolutionary objectives over significantly shorter time frames. In this sense, human beings function as nature’s evolutionary agents, pushing these objectives along an ever increasing pace for no other reason than that it seems to be the natural thing to do …

And so the question remains as to how and why this process exists within matter, such that it is able to sort itself out within the apparent randomness of  cosmic events into the direction of ever more complex material structures and organizational capacity.

Mea Culpa

Someone contacted me to tell me they didn’t like much of what  I had to say on this site. Too negative, most of the time – depressing, regardless of the subject matter,  and obsessively repetitive in particular on the subject of religion, and disrespectful of people of faith regardless of whether they represented a completely harmless strain of beliefs or not. Then, most perplexing, my references to “the larger context” … what in the world does that mean, if not someone seriously confused about what their own life means to them? Thank you …

Well, the best I can do to address this critique is to say, first of all,  mea culpa, in particular when it comes to being negative, depressing and repetitive regarding the subject matter I like to write about.

As I stated up front – in so many words – I’m writing this primarily for myself in the attempt to figure out what the world is all about beyond the twists and turns that life can throw your way, and beyond the  typical humdrum of daily tasks that – while not necessarily meaningless in themselves –  tend to obscure the larger existential questions, and so by extension what life might mean to everyone else.

I know that sounds rather presumptuous, but given that each of us is just one of many – and, when it comes down to it, not all that different from each other when it comes to what we bring to the table to take on the challenges of everyday life. That is to say, how different can we be in our overall approach to life, when as members of one species we are primarily driven by our shared biology and our DNA, and the differences between us are no more than varieties on a theme, i.e., they are differences of degree, and not of kind. Beyond that, they are the circumstances of our birth such as the place and social-economic environment that we grow up in that help shape us into the individuals that we are today.  That this will leave each of us as distinct and unique individuals with needs and desires and expectations from life possibly as different between two people as day and night is undoubtedly true, yet at the same time the differences again are a matter of degree, and not of kind.

And if I can shed some light on the meaning and purpose of life for myself by sharing my thoughts about it, perhaps this might help someone else to start thinking about it, and add some definition or context or value to their outlook on life in a world that, in my humble opinion,  is going down the wrong path in terms of pursuing the best possible future for our species.  This is not say that I think the human race is going to hell in a handcart, although there are many among us who are doing their best to make this happen.

About being overly negative :  Who can begin to enumerate the number and variety of social  economic, health and environmental issues ranging from poverty to homelessness to starvation across the globe? Just this week the NY Times in an article titled The U.S. Can No Longer Hide From Its Deep Poverty Problem showed a tally of those living on $4 a day or less in selected developed countries, and it included 5.3 million people living in the US.  I don’t necessarily want to pick on the US, but with the highest GDP in the world you wonder how this can even be the case when a country is deemed the wealthiest country in the world.

Beyond that there is the disturbing statistic that half of the world’s wealth belongs to the top 1%, while the top 10% of adults hold 85%, and the bottom 90% hold the remaining 15% of the world’s total wealth.  If you believe that these discrepancies  are simply a function of some folks working harder and smarter than others, and reaping the benefit of it, then bless you, but you may have to learn something about how some people, organizations and certain governments operate in order to produce the incredible wealth that they have accumulated.

So against these things  – and with the brazen assumption that there is a lot more going on in the world than meets the eye –  I am introducing “the larger context”,  which, I postulate, is the true intent behind the world, and the reason for it being there in the first place,  including our very own presence in it, and something I hope we will  be able to get a glimpse of once we look  beyond the infantile gobbledygook of religious dogma  of whatever flavor and the unsupported and hence gaseous notion that someone else is in charge of our world.

Why do I think there is ” a larger context” or  “true intent” to life that we are currently not aware of?  Only because we are the offspring of the greater cosmos, and as such contain its “DNA” within every particle of our being.  As a result, what motivates it likely motivates us, either directly or indirectly,  and then at  a level where we would be capable of initiating some course of inspired action commensurate with the evolutionary achievement that we currently represent, although at the moment one might be hard pressed to think much of that,  given the aforementioned sorrowful status of the world today, and that would include the questionable quality of  leadership of some of the most powerful nations in the world at the moment..

But it is without question that our evolutionary path shows that the cosmos is on a mission, and to date we  appear to be that mission; it is just that we don’t yet know what that mission is about. But it would be unreasonable to think that this is a multi-billion year mission of self-destruction, given the kludge that we are currently making of it, although I hate to think that we are  doomed to end up that way because we haven’t evolved enough in the gray matter department to be able to take care of it.

And so my hope is that  gaining even an inkling of  understanding of the world’s greater mission might eventually enable us to abandon the current seemingly runaway path of self-destruction and allow us to rise to the occasion and take ownership of our destiny, to determine as best we can what our role should be in this fantastic cosmic adventure that we have only  just woken up in.  Evolution is providing us with some pointers here, but we need to be able to understand a lot more of what has moved us along its path before we can start making more  sense of it.

In the end, much of this is about not being able to see the forest for the trees, or, for that matter,  the universe for the stars, when, usually, the whole is larger than the sum of its parts; we’re just not seeing it at the moment, and my greatest fear is that we might never be able to too.

I know, all of this sounds astonishingly naive, if not desperately so, and maybe I should have thrown in little Kant or Hegel  to provide a seemingly more erudite account of what I am trying to express here. (I must admit both Hegel and I share a fondness for the poet Friedrich Hölderlin, but I digress.) Or maybe injected something more currently in vogue, e.g., a dash of Derrida, but as he seems to have invented his own language there isn’t much I can relate to in his universe other than seeing the familiar shadow of Heidegger there, e.g. along such lines as “standing in the clearing of Being,” as “being open for the openness of Being”, und so weiter.

But feel free to contact me if you have  more profound thoughts on these matters than what I am able to deliver here, provided your account, brand of metaphysics  or eschatology does not include any aliens, angels or demons,  or any other mythical  beings that are in principal not able to be accounted for – at least not by observation, logic or reason – and neither should it include  virgins expecting around Christmas,  nor ancient tribal rituals requiring a human sacrifice or  genital mutilation in order to connect to your concept of the Almighty, or celibacy for that matter.  Indeed, how stupifyingly  naive can one get!

And when it comes to religion – it is one thing to have beliefs about the origin and destination of the world as individuals – but thinking of such periods as the Dark Ages and the Inquisition I’m letting history speak for itself right up to today when it comes to deciding whether our species has benefited from organized religion (as claimed by Teflon Tony Blair) , either as theocracies, in cahoots with national governments over the centuries or as stand-alone paternalistic institutions such as ruled by a papal throne.  The fact remains that religious beliefs cannot be substantiated – and while in principle they maybe nonsensical and hence harmless beliefs– it is precisely the unsubstantiated and irrational nature of these beliefs that allows them to be used as an excuse to control or otherwise abuse people, including killing them. When you think you have the creator and eternity on your side – all your actions are justified; you cannot be wrong!  Until we shake off the influence of these nonsensical beliefs, our species will continue to be murdered for them.

Better Never to Have Been

A South African philosopher by the name of David Benatar believes that the world would be a better place if sentient life disappeared altogether, i.e., no remaining life-form capable of undergoing pain or suffering. As a consequence he claims it would have been better if no one had children ever again since reproducing is intrinsically cruel and irresponsible – not just because a horrible fate can befall anyone, but because life itself is permeated by badness.

Benatar is a proponent of what has been termed the anti-natalist position. In a 2006 book titled Better Never to have Been: The Harm of Coming into Existence he writes that

While good people go to great lengths to save their children from suffering, few of them seem to notice that the one (and only) guaranteed way to prevent all the suffering of their children is not to bring those children into existence in the first place.

The disappearance of sentient life on this planet would be of no consequence to anyone or anything according to Benatar, and in that context he joins earlier existentialist writers such as Sartre and Camus when he believes the universe is indifferent to our fate; it is without meaning, and other than that “we are subject to blind and purposeless natural forces”.

But when at least Nietzsche would find some purpose in suffering (and hence life) when he wrote “To live is to suffer, to survive is to find some meaning in the suffering” Benatar does not believe that human suffering and the struggle to survive are capable of providing meaning to existence.

While one might want to argue about all the good things in life providing value to it, he would claim that they can never offset the badness of all terrible tragedies that might happen during one’s lifetime, including one’s death. I guess he has a point when you think of all the natural disasters that have happened – and are likely happen again – be they earthquakes, floods, famine, and what have you.  Or man-made tragedies, such as the 9/11 terror attack, the holocaust or the slaughter of millions of people  in the various wars. What kinds of positive experiences might one put on the other scale to suggest that all this will balance out in the end?

This is not to say that on an individual basis someone might not be able to look back at one’s life and conclude that it has by and large been a very positive experience – but I’m assuming that Benatar has appraised the human condition from a species perspective, and from there concluded that it – life – just isn’t worth it when it is all added up. So why bother; sentient life is just a waste of time, causing much unneeded pain and suffering

I have some sympathy for the view that planet earth would be better off without the likes of us,  given our longstanding and well established record of harming ourselves and the  environment.  And no doubt there is something to say for discontinuing the amount of pain and suffering we have inflicted onto our fellow creatures in the animal kingdom through our thoughtless practices of whatever nature – such as the asinine practice of trophy hunting certain animal species into extinction, to give just one example.

And so the question remains if the continuation of sentient life – and in particular human life – is a value added experience of sorts, and the point being that – regardless of incredible misery, pain and suffering being regular features of human existence – life is worth the effort of sustaining it.

Clearly, professor  Benatar thinks not, but I have already argued that it is, since just because we appear to be unable to determine the meaning or purpose of life today  beyond the immediacies of survival doesn’t mean it has no meaning or purpose in a larger context. (I suspect this question is too large for us today).


The Future is Ours, and Ours Alone

Given what we think we know about the age of the universe, we have only just arrived at our current level of sentiency and became a species capable of reflective thought and reason. With it, surely, came the obligation to make something of ourselves beyond just being another animal, i.e., survive for the sake of surviving, although being perhaps much better at it than any species that came before.

But for many this “being better at it” appears to have been limited to some stupefying exercise in “eat, drink and be merry”, and that at great cost to themselves, their fellow human beings, and the planet that spawned them.  We might be the last species on earth that will go extinct, but by God, we’ll make sure every other species will be extinct before us. If you don’t know what I am talking about, you should look around you, as well, clearly, you need to get out more.

And better hurry, because the great barren expanse of Mars is waiting for you, just as soon as  Elon Musk has been able to charge up enough batteries to shoot you there in a tin can, as this is apparently where our future lies as the acolytes of modern consumerism. It will be the first interplanetary step after we’re done with the earth to conquer the universe in our quest to spread the gospel of the holy trinity of modern consumerism among the stars:  unlimited exploitation of people and resources,  compulsive  acquisition of goods and services,  and the mindless accumulation of waste.

Alternatively – and yes, there is always an alternative, in particular to just being  stupid – we could use our collective brain-trust to decide what kinds of unique human activities might truly benefit us as a species, and act accordingly. Imagine a world-wide society  built on mutual trust and respect, featuring such things as a sustainable waste-free economy, free education, healthcare, equal opportunity, the pursuit of arts and sciences, and free from famine, disease and crime. In other words, not much we are familiar with today, but something worth pursuing, wouldn’t you think?

As such the future is ours, and ours alone – to do with as we should – and ideally reflective of the tremendous potential that must necessarily lie within us.  I say “necessarily” because we are the descendants of an incredible cosmic spectacle that is represented within every particle of our being. Clearly, this is the larger context we should be living our lives in – as little as we are able to grasp of it at the moment-  and I have referred to a number of times in previous posts, already ad nauseam no doubt.

And while it seems near impossible to quantify the mostly mundane activities of our daily lives in such terms – and especially  the not so mundane, and that would include most if not all of human kind’s murderous past and all of our present self-destructive activities – it is nevertheless the implicit promise of our cosmic origins that will continue to urge us along this uncertain path towards a future we cannot yet begin to imagine what that might look like. Well, at least not until we develop the insight and intellectual wherewithal that will allow us to conceive the instantiation and reality of it.

However – and as much as I hate to admit this – my biggest fear is that this kind of future is in fact not available to us.  That is to say, very much like the man from the country in Kafka’s parable Before the Law seeking access to the Law –  we will just have the promise of being able to access it, and so will spend our entire lives with the assumption that  this this future, this promise,  will come true.  This because we may not have moved up far enough on the evolutionary spectrum to be able to handle it, and so don’t have the gray matter and intellectual machinery to even begin to conceptualize it, or see ourselves in the gestalt of it (Ask me why I think this, but before you do: again, look around you … )

And as the next higher life form  follows from the one that preceded it, so might we be superseded. It may well be  Artificial Intelligence  that will take over from us, leaving us in a supporting role, enabling them to move ahead. And as they do, we will not even be aware of it … it is just that we will not know any better.

The Substance of the World

Baruch Spinoza was a Dutch philosopher of Portuguese-Jewish extraction who lived from 1632-1677. He is one my favorite philosophers, and the reason I quote him from time to time is because much of what he says I would agree with, at least in principle. It gives me some comfort to know I might not be entirely out to lunch when developing a particular line of thought that seems consistent with what he had in mind when he wrote about the same subject matter almost five centuries ago.

This has to do with the concept of God, and the notion of a supreme, all powerful being purported to be  the creator of the world; the biblical God of the Old Testament. I struggled with this concept a lot as it never made sense to me from the earliest days that I started thinking about these sort of things. And believe me, that was from a very early age, having been brought up in a strict Calvinistic household that would always go to church  on a Sunday, and sometimes twice, once in the morning and once in the afternoon.

When Spinoza talks about God, it is not in the anthropomorphic sense of a God as usually portrayed by the Christian-Judaeo or Muslim varieties of religion, i.e., very much like a person – a kind of father figure – with human-like emotions who seems to take a personal interest in what the creatures he created here on earth are up to, and in the process suggesting  a personality featuring some of the worst “petty” human traits I can think of, such as being  narrow minded, vain, jealous, as well as vengeful! If you are familiar with the Old Testament, you will know exactly what I am talking about.

In particular, this is how the God of the Christian-Judaeo Old Testament comes across: high maintenance (!)  And as such we could well fault him for being an overbearing, possessive megalomaniac who refuses to own up to the fact that he should take full responsibility for the murder and mayhem that has taken place down here as a result of his desperately fallible human creation.  But I digress…

Spinoza strongly rejected the notion of a providential God – the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, in complete control of all things; he claims that the Law was neither literally given by God nor any longer binding on Jews. (Not surprisingly, this conception of God got him thrown out of the Amsterdam orthodox Jewish community for good when they excommunicated him in 1656.)

Instead, Spinoza holds that God is the one and only unique and indivisible substance that the universe is made of. There are no other substances. The view is a bit more complex than that, and involves perceiving this substance through a variety of distinct attributes – such as Thought and Extension – but not its basic premise.

This view suits me fine, to the point that, if God is everything, and everything is God, why even use the name “God”, as this renders the concept of a distinct metaphysical entity – the great creator –  logically empty (i.e., meaningless) since it doesn’t signify anything over and above the totality of the cosmos, and ends up being just another label for it.

Accepting this also restores our raison d’être to an intrinsic property of the cosmos, together with the seemingly limitless energy and creativity that brought us about.   As well,  there is the implication that we originated  from the inside out, from whatever place within our cosmic ancestry that life came from and is the source of our evolutionary history that brought our species about.

The World as Form and Function

Reality is created by observers in the universe  – John Archibald Wheeler, Theoretical Physicist (1911-2008)

Today I am revisiting the views held by Schopenhauer in The World as Will and Idea (1818), and his rejection of naïve realism, or what has been called scientific materialism, that the things we observe in the world are what they appear to be, absolutely, and forever, and not in anyway a function of human perception and experience in the sense that they can be modified based on our understanding of things.

This view would suggest a possible distinction between how things are independently from human observation versus how they are perceived by us once they have been observed and their information has been processed by our perceptual and conceptual processes.

Now while there may be a logical gap between the world and the world observed, it could be argued that it is in fact a useless  distinction,  given that we have no other means of accessing it in an ontological sense.  And so the question remains: is it in fact a meaningful exercise to even refer to it as a matter of some significance? To all intents and purposes, if we never refer to it again, what would be lost in our discussions about the nature of the world?

To deal with this alleged problem, Kant introduced the “thing-in-itself”, or “ding ansich” in German – to suggest that the true nature of  the world is fundamentally unknowable as we can only grasp the nature of things indirectly through perceiving them as objects in relation to ourselves – how we have experienced them.  I respectfully suggest that Mr. Kant is out to lunch here, in the sense that is is contradictory to say that something is fundamentally unknowable as to make such an assertion implies some knowledge about  it. In other words, the distinction serves no useful purpose.

Moving on,  it is one thing to experience the world through one’s senses – it is another thing to experience it logically, e.g., to experience such things as cause and effect, time, space and the various ways in which objects relate to us and each other. If these relationships are permanent features of the physical universe, it wouldn’t matter in what form you encountered them in your experiences, your conclusions about them would be same. But in the end, it would be less important what the world looks like versus what can be abstracted from it simply from interacting with it. And this would lead me to say that the nature of the world is about function (a method that relates an objective to its instantiation) –  and not form (the manifestation of matter and energy), the latter being  incidental to the process, and a means to an end in terms of being the medium that allows the function to be enabled or expressed.

This is an important view for me and consistent with my argument that we should perhaps be less preoccupied with determining the origin, age and size and makeup of the material  universe, by poking into the furthest and oldest region of the universe, looking for clues of sorts and so on  – and, instead, look more closely at what the logical or functional nature of the various cosmic events appear to be about,  such as the manifestation of a directional and seemingly intrinsic teleological process leading to ever higher degrees of material complexity and organization – evolution – and where this particular process would seem to want to take us to.  As such, the cosmos appears to be a  work in progress, and that is at least some concrete information we have about the nature of the world as we have encountered it.

The Larger Context

Life’s larger context is defined, in the first place, by our ideas about our place in the world provided we see it in in terms of being intrinsically linked to everything else that is going on in it.  Consequently, our true human potential will never be realized unless we start taking our cue from the larger context of existence as it is being manifested by our daily experience of it.

The challenge here will be to translate these experiences into a language that allows the larger context to emerge so that it can be articulated and inspire us to create a destiny for ourselves that does justice to the effort that has gone into the making of us.

This effort is not easily understood – and if we even understood just the tiniest fraction of it I’m not so sure we would be much further ahead in gaining an insight into the larger picture.   No doubt I will be writing more  about that in a future piece …

For now we describe our arrival here on earth in terms of an evolutionary process over billions of years.  Nothing is explained in terms of why or how or where this process is heading for, and so we are left with a mystery. Being at the receiving end of this process, we can look back to some extent and infer that apparently this has been about the gradual enablement of what we call “consciousness”, and achieved by the development of ever more complex organizational structures within matter, reaching its current summit in the grey matter of our brains. Now what?

The one thing that this did bring about was the transition of life’s apparently intrinsic evolutionary pressures from a strictly internal process over billions of years to an external one, as evidenced by the ingenuity of our species to manipulate and restructure matter into ever increasing organizational complexity as reflected by the various aspects of technology that we are familiar with today. Through us, nature has achieved a quantum leap in the creativity department, now being able to push its evolutionary objectives over significantly shorter time frames. In this sense, human beings function as nature’s evolutionary agents, pushing these objectives along at a breakneck speed for no other reason than that it seems to be the natural thing to do …

Smart enough to move it along, yet not smart enough to know why, and that is probably a wise thing as far as nature is concerned, given our tendency to self-destruct, a function of being an intermediate, transitional and demonstratively unstable life-form, schizoid, capable of being both intellectually brilliant and emotionally brittle, or logical and illogical, and the latter most likely caused by that aspect of ourselves that is still very much the predatory, primitive beast in the field that we descent from.

So yes, where do we go from here?