How Science Empowers Philosophy

It’s pretty amazing that we can still understand Plato 2400 years later. Our world would be unrecognizable to him, yet a lot of his ideas make intuitive sense. But we know vastly more about the world, the universe, and the forces that govern things than he did. If we want, we can go back, nitpick, and make almost any philosopher look like a quack. But science is changing that.

Touching A Nerve: Our Brains, Our SelvesRecently I picked up Touching A Nerve: Our Brains, Our Selves by Patricia S. Churchland. It is a philosophy book through and through, but her approach to philosophy is modern, empirical, and diverse. She draws heavily from neuroscience, psychology, sociology and evolution to answer questions on the soul, morality, and free will with minimal assumptions. When she makes a claim, she provides factual evidence to back it up, showing why she thinks the way she does, often with citations for more curious readers.

I’ve read some philosophy from different periods of history for pleasure, but it gets old. It’s hard to read Kant these days without getting frustrated; so many underlying assumptions, perfectly common in his time, now seem groundless and misleading. Without any recourse to empirical proofs, we’re left trying to sort through his assumptions and figure out why he thought the way he did. His reasoning is correct in spots however, and it’s easy to get caught up in the flow an accept propositions because they sound right, even when they’re totally wrong.

The Ptolemaic universe probably made perfect sense to ancient world, but Copernicus showed it was false. Newtonian physics probably clicked for many people, but Einstein proved it wrong. When the next revolution in philosophy comes, we’ll be able to go back to philosophers like Churchland and Dan Dennett and precisely analyze the basis of their claims. If future science disproves or modifies a finding, we’ll see plainly how this changes the philosophical propositions resting on it.

Churchland’s writing is personable and entertaining. She sticks to the issues and draws her material from modern science, providing us a temporal touchstone on the state of philosophy today. I’m really enjoying this book, and wish more public intellectuals had her epistemic standards and clarity.

Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion

waking upSam Harris is the co-founder and CEO of Project Reason, a non-profit organization dedicated to spreading science and secular values. Many of its members speak openly against the dangers and evils of religion, so I find it significant that in 2014 Harris released Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion.

It’s significant because it’s a risk. It doesn’t play to a large audience. According to the jacket, Waking Up is for the “20 percent of Americans who follow no religion but who suspect that important truths can be found in the experiences of such figures as Jesus, the Buddha, Lao Tzu, Rumi, and the other saints and sages of history.”

Most of Harris’ fans are hardline atheists and anti-theists who probably wouldn’t deign to admit that there is such a thing as “spirituality.” Even Harris’ brilliant contemporaries like Daniel Dennett and the late Christopher Hitchens haven’t entertained “spirituality” with much respect, and I suspect that a large number of people simply never will. So this book is not for them, and Harris has risked alienating himself from some of his own team.

There are also a number of other public meditation advocates who portray reason and rational thinking as an enemy to spiritual progress. Shunning reason has left many of these gurus open to absurd beliefs about consciousness and the cosmos. I assume advising against critical thinking is one of the reasons some of them remain so popular.

When I first became interested in meditation, yoga, and various techniques for the manipulation of consciousness, I went to the beginning. I read several ancient Indian yoga books, doing my best to account for cultural differences. I took claims about conquering death and walking on water with an arched eyebrow, and tried let the exercises and proofs of experience speak for themselves.

As I worked my way through history, things clarified slightly, becoming more contemporary and palatable, but even now the amount of pure garbage written about consciousness is staggering and time-consuming. I wish I had found Waking Up years ago when I first began.

Harris’ writing is clear, his claims based on evidence and experience, and he adds no metaphysical nonsense to the completely practical, physical, real-world exercise of meditation. He also expresses many of the philosophical issues about consciousness in a tidy fashion, peppering in humour and sharp skepticism along the way.

Much of the opening explains what he means when he says “spiritual.” Transcendent experiences are valid, he says, and they have long been misinterpreted through the lens of religion. Granted, some people may never have these experiences, and many will confuse transcendence with moments of aesthetic contemplation or ecstatic bliss (both of which may be extremely valuable), but for Harris, transcendence is the subjective experience of consciousness in a state prior to thought, when the illusion of the self is annihilated.

Of course, we’re all thinking all the time, so getting to that state can prove quite difficult. With years of meditation training, a firm grounding in philosophy and a PhD in neuroscience, Harris gives straightforward advice, tips about the snags and traps one can find on the path of meditation, and ample evidence that meditation is for most people an entirely beneficial practice.

Harris has successfully written a brief but engaging overview of meditation from scientific, philosophical, and personal perspectives. At 237 pages, Waking Up provides ample explanations and citations in the endnotes from a wide variety of sources. Waking Up will hopefully serve as an olive branch to people searching for peace without the usual religious baggage.

How To Argue Badly And Fool People

In the last few months I followed a handful of Twitter accounts about neuroscience. Occasionally I’ll read a post that is intriguing, offering the latest insights into the mind and the workings of the brain based on scientific evidence. But recently @NeuroNow posted an argument that disturbed me. The writer of the article was the millionaire New-Age guru Deepak Chopra.

In the article, he criticized “Are We Really Conscious?” by Michael S. A. Graziano, an Op-Ed piece in the New York Times. He says Graziano’s post will generate conversation, and he wanted to contribute. When I read the contribution, I was frustrated and decided to add my two cents to Chopra’s two cents.

Chopra writes: “[Graziano] states the extreme case for brain-as-machine: We are fooling ourselves to believe we are conscious. He also states, quite falsely, that this mechanistic view is the only viable explanation for consciousness currently to be found in science.” Quite falsely, he says, so surely Chopra must have a better explanation for consciousness, and surely he will cite this explanation to refute Graziano’s point.

Wrong. And this is Chopra’s appeal; he uses authoritative-sounding language to hide the fact that he has no explanation at all outside of his hodgepodge of pseudo-mystical solipsism. Let me show a handful of examples so the next time you think of taking Chopra seriously, you can avoid his little traps.

Graziano says that human beings are not a special act of creation, but a twig on the tree of evolution. Chopra writes, “Actually, human beings are neither of these. Our nervous system makes us unique on the evolutionary ladder, which is more than being a twig.” The word “actually” makes him sound really authoritative doesn’t it?

Saying our nervous systems make us unique in evolution is nonsense. Our nervous systems are similar to other primate nervous systems. Also, one could argue that every species is “unique” in evolution. The fur, ears, incredible sense of smell, loyalty, and limited intelligence make dogs unique evolution too. Being the apex predator of the sea makes sharks unique in evolution. All of this is meaningless, yet the sentence makes him sound like an expert while sidestepping the real issue.

Graziano’s position, roughly, is that electrical and chemical activity in the brain forms experience, and that what we experience as “mind” is the actual electro-chemical activity and not some metaphysical observer. We know that chemical or electrical changes in the brain manifest in experience because we can test this. But Chopra says this is wrong, and says that Graziano’s argument is like solving the question on gender equality by saying that women don’t exist. Yes, he actually wrote that.

This is a crude attack, meant to turn you against Graziano and blind you to his argument. I mean, how could you listen to someone who says women don’t exist? Well, Chopra’s analogy is an immoral ad hominem attack, that to my mind, has no logical connection with Graziano’s actual argument and merely aims to paint Graziano with a broad brush of sexism for no reason other than the fact that Chopra wants to refute him. This fact alone should let you safely cross Chopra off your reading list forevermore. Chopra seems so sure Graziano’s opinion is wrong because he really, really wants it to be. If Chopra had a coherent, alternative Theory of Mind, he would present it with evidence. But he doesn’t. Battling science with emotions and slander, however subtle, is just distasteful.

Graziano argues that a computer and camera can determine that grass is green, and that what we perceive as green is similar in principle (recognizing contrasts in the spectrum of light). Chopra states this is “flat wrong.” He says that the experience of colour is dependent on a human nervous system, photons have no colour, and that a camera and computer have “no perceptual ability whatever.”

This is a favorite manoeuver of Chopra’s: to retreat into solipsism to refute empirical evidence. He’s basically saying that experience only exists to human beings, and if you push him on this point, I suspect he would stand firm. He is of the type who believe a tree makes no sound if it falls in a forest with no observer.

This is another semantic trick. What we call “sound” is a human experience, filtered through a human nervous system, and it’s called “sound” because we’re the only species that uses human words. So what we call “sound” is technically a human phenomenon, translating vibrations in the atmosphere through the ear into internal experience.

But if a tree falls in the forest with no human around, the tree still falls, and the atmosphere is still disturbed. The vibrations still ripple out across the woods, and it’s those vibrations that become “sound” to our ears and minds (should we be present). The fact that there isn’t a human present to call it sound doesn’t mean the phenomenon we call “sound” isn’t going on. It obviously must be going on, and we know this because of our huge and expanding knowledge of the physics Chopra tries to ignore.

And to say a camera and computer can have “no perceptual ability whatever” is the same argument. Chopra thinks that “perception” must only be a human being having a subjective experience. But the light still goes through the camera’s lens, and the computer creates a representation of the external world for processing. Chopra here suffers from the same species-centric chauvinism as before; he seems to support the idea that humans are the only species to have real experiences, and everything outside of the human experience isn’t real. This is a bad argument of definitions and philosophy, not science, and certainly not neuroscience.

We can confidently infer that light from an event travels through a lens and can be interpreted by a computer, recreated in detail, and we know the information is in the computer. But Chopra refuses to acknowledge that this has happened until a human puts his or her eyes on it, and then he attributes the phenomena to some vaguely miraculous human perception. This is not science, it is fairy magic, and I’m disappointed and troubled that a so-called “neuroscience” article would print such an anti-scientific, ill-considered worldview. Like so many of Chopra’s ideas, it is purely an argument from ignorance.

To Graziano’s claim that we should be skeptical of the validity of our inner feelings, Chopra cites Sam Harris as a defender of subjective experience. But Chopra has almost never agreed with Harris in the past. Harris is a materialist and a (real) neuroscientist, and I bet he would gladly tell Chopra that the mind is a product of the brain. Appealing to an authority he has never sided with in the past—one who seemingly has the exact opposite worldview—shows desperation.

Graziano says the brain builds up models about items in the world, and the models are often not accurate. Chopra says this point “is flogged to death by similar thinkers like Daniel Dennett who somehow believe they can accuse the brain of being faulty, fallacious, and unreliable.” Chopra seems here to believe the brain is not a product of evolution, subject to flaws, trial and error, and so forth; that the brain is a special and perfect gift from heaven. He can’t really believe this, can he?

Both human eyes have a blind spot (which is easily proven with visual tests) yet we never notice it. The visual information in the blind area of each eye is picked up by the other eye, but even looking through one eye we don’t “notice” it unless we know how to look for it. Our impressions of the world are incomplete without us even acknowledging this. Also, as Dennett points out, the mysterious affliction known as “blindsight” shows that brains unreliably report the world.

And what about light and colour? We know (from scientific testing) that light comes in different wavelengths we call colour, but our eyes cannot see this fact. Instead, our perception adjusts to the context of light to give us a general “best impression.” This is the brain inaccurately representing the external world and should be all the proof we need that our brains can be unreliable. Also, dreams. Also, any time someone has ever made a mistake.

            “Almost all other theories of consciousness are rooted in our intuitions about awareness. Like the intuition that white light is pure, our intuitions about awareness come from information computed deep in the brain. But the brain computes models that are caricatures of real things. And as with color, so with consciousness: It’s best to be skeptical of intuition.” – Michael S. A. Graziano

Chopra says, “neurons are made of molecules, and molecules don’t create or listen to music. They don’t create any experience of the world, any more than the wood and ivory in a piano experience music even though music is played on a piano.” This piece of incoherence, when you strip it down, is just a juvenile, terrible argument. He’s basically saying that molecules can’t do much, so how can something made of molecules get anything done? Think about that. His argument goes as follows, by analogy: I need a car to drive to the store, but molecules can’t drive to the store, and my car is made of molecules, therefore my car can’t drive me to the store.

In the final paragraph Chopra revisits his human-as-center-of-all-experience argument, saying “information” requires a mind. This is a squishy, semantic argument only, even if it sounds authoritative. Any data about a tree is “information.” But the attributes of trees exist even without humans around to call that data “information,” and so much of Chopra’s argument uses this obfuscation that it’s shocking.

I literally can’t tell if Deepak Chopra is maliciously trying to confuse the point to promote his brand, or if he’s genuinely, absolutely confused. Either way, it seems wrong that he’s allowed to call himself a doctor, and it’s especially shameful that he and his religiously addled ideas should be promoted by a Twitter account allegedly supporting neuroscience. There is nothing scientific about the man or his theories, and just because he’s found out how to word things strongly doesn’t make him right. After my first read of this article, my thought was that he’s flat wrong. After reading it again, and checking to make sure my quotes were accurate, I’ve come to believe he’s “not even wrong.”

Evolving Computers

My oldest brother was born at just the right time to participate in the groundbreaking new world of home computing. My dad bought the family a Commodore 64 and I invested huge swathes of time playing games, occasionally learning very basic computer programming from my brother. A 386 (one of the first modern PCs) and later a Pentium processor found their way into our home. Soon after that, the internet was born. My brother stayed with the developing technology and is now a programmer at Google.

His kids, on the other hand, have never known a world without the internet, PSPs, streaming video and Bluetooth. Technology has insinuated itself into the fabric of their lives, and they may never experience such a severe paradigm shift as home computing or the internet made when I was a kid. (To give you a sense of my age, I remember the world without the internet, and I remember being frustrated when this new thing called Windows triumphed over my familiar text-based DOS. I also remember the command prompt: LOAD”$”,8,1)

For kids today, computers are second nature. They cannot fathom the complexity of these devices because it is masked by the ease of use. A child has no need to consider the circuitry, the silicon, the programming language or the million increments in technical achievement that accumulated to this incredible moment in history, where we can summon seas of information with the click of a button.

But just because they can’t understand the million steps leading to such ease of use, they will suffer no handicap when it comes to understanding future computers. Indeed, they are already experts, of a sort, and the evolutionary history of computing hardly matters; the outmoded technologies both mechanical and programmatic are not useful any more except to historians or theoreticians. When was the last time LOAD”$”,8,1 did anything useful for me or the people at Google? (Playing Dig Dug on an emulator doesn’t count.)

We might think that kids today are spoiled, reaping rewards accumulated by generations of brilliant minds without fully appreciating it. But this has been the case with all technologies since the wheel. And this time binding faculty of humankind extends to more than just “technology”.

We are all guilty of this ignorance, for example, with our own bodies. We don’t consider the incredibly complex specialization of our eyes, how perfectly the lens focuses light onto the retina, how the rods and cones react, and how our brains parse information about shape, colour, shade, edges, depth, context and so forth. We just see a red curtain and go about our day.

Everything in our bodies is in fact the end result of innumerable biological adjustments, mutations that have been use-tested and refined through the ages by our ancestors’ survival and procreation. And not one of us needs to know these millions of stages of evolution in order to use our own biocomputer at least decently.

There will always be those who have a passion for the specifics, the evolutionary biologists, art historians and so forth, and we need them to impart their knowledge on the next generation of hungry minds. But you can’t blame someone for being born too late to really get it. It’s all we can do to work with what we’re given, do research when necessary, and move forward. Even my brother, currently on the cutting edge, was born about 150 years after Ada Lovelace, the world’s first computer programmer.

Deepak Chopra’s Cosmic Confusion

In all of history, no topic has been the subject of more bullshit writing than the spiritual side of life. We all live through the lens of our own experience, and it’s commendable to try to explain internal experiences, but because consciousness is such a mysterious and strange aspect of life, an unfortunate majority of opinions about it are sadly misguided.

Deepak Chopra, for example, says that matter is an illusion and consciousness is all there is. This is wrong. I’ve voiced my disagreement with his opinions before, but I assure you I’m not holding a grudge; I’m simply voicing my reaction to the ongoing dissemination of his ideas, which I find pernicious. We should all strive to understand our selves, so I don’t hold his efforts against him, but I would love to share a coffee with the man and let him in on the following:

Matter is real. It is one of the fundamental facts of the universe, as all sane people know. Even most insane people know this. Under some very special conditions, matter gives rise to organisms. As those organisms evolve, some gain tremendous complexity and computational powers to employ for survival, and very few attain what we would call consciousness. Referring to a persistent fact as an “illusion” isn’t helpful.

“Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away.” – Philip K. Dick

Some of the functions of consciousness remain a mystery, but we have no evidence to assume that consciousness is all there is. What we know as consciousness today has only been around for the tiniest sliver of the history of the universe, and there is plenty of evidence to support that claim. How can Chopra’s theories explain prehistory? If consciousness is all there is, does he believe that there was absolutely nothing in the universe until the first conscious being was born? What gave birth to that being?

Chopra’s philosophy seems like redressed Hinduism, where matter is maya (illusion) and we are all facets of Brahman (God). He redresses it with the ill-fitting jargon of quantum physics, a perplexing topic that arose from the exploration of matter. Chopra is certainly no authority on this dense and confusing field of study, and most quantum physicists disagree with his interpretations.

Chopra and his ilk love to refer to materialism as “reductionism” as if materialism reduces our significance in the universe. But this is bush league word play. Pay attention to how often they use that word and you’ll realize this is a cheap tactic in a mind game and has no relation to how the world is described by materialism.

And besides, not one facet of our internal experienced is “reduced” by materialism. Whatever explanation we throw at it, we all have an internal experience. Belief in God or spirits or a soul—even the belief that we are all biological puppets—doesn’t change the fact that consciousness as we know it arises from the brain. Beliefs don’t change our qualia and don’t change our perceptual apparatus. It only changes our explanation of these phenomena to ourselves. But those explanations are just words.

I’ve experienced the feeling of being in the true presence of divinity. It was a fully conscious experience and it came stamped with an undeniable feeling of authority. I came out of the experience thinking, “Oh, that’s what they mean when they say ‘God’.” In no way does this experience prove that there is some sort of external divine intelligence; it only proves that such a conscious experience is possible. Such a feeling is possible. It’s a beautiful feeling, but it says nothing about the fundaments of the universe, and the experience would have been totally impossible without matter (my brain, for example). I spend time every day cultivating that experience, and I need no belief of any kind to justify it. These are purely pragmatic concerns, denuded of metaphysics.

I’m sure these facts have been laid out for Mr. Chopra over and over again, yet he keeps on with his message, adjusting his pseudo-scientific jargon ever so slightly but failing to learn or change or grow. It makes me question his motives. The fact is that his name has become a brand, and to admit his prior confusion hurts the brand. After all, what does an enlightened spiritual guru need with a net worth of $80 million? He doesn’t need any of your money, and you don’t need any of his nonsense.

Free Debate

Last year I read Free Will by Sam Harris. The book impressed me as a concise demolition of folk psychology’s casual (lazy) assumptions about free will, written with straightforward language and a direct approach. I had a few issues with the book, and as an exercise wrote a “Devil’s Advocate” critique in which I used the last vestiges of the dualism I inherited from growing up with church and Catholic school.

Shortly after I read Free Will, I read Consciousness Explained by Daniel Dennett. The latter struck me as beautifully written, philosophically and scientifically strong, and it razed my already crumbling Cartesian Theater. I remember thinking distinctly that I’d like to read Dennett’s take on Harris’ book, as Free Will openly challenges Dennett’s stance on the issue.

Monday I was happily informed through social media that this has happened. Sam Harris has posted Dennett’s rebuttal here. The rebuttal is a bit long, a bit thorough, and, to my thinking, imperfect, but I highly recommend both Free Will and Dennett’s take on it. Because what’s more fun than sitting at home reading philosophy?

Why should you read Harris’ opinion that free will is an illusion, then read Dennett’s opinion that Harris is wrong? It might seem a bit of a waste on the surface; if neither has the whole answer, what do we gain from these essays? We get a glimpse into a dialogue between two intelligent minds, and dialogue is the reason books like Free Will should be written in the first place.

Newton’s theories of space and time held sway for a couple hundred years until they were shown to be wrong by Einstein. But there could have been no “Einstein” if not for the foundations laid by Newton. Without Newton’s boldness, his willingness to put opinion to paper and publish it, science might have remained a stagnant morass of religious dogma and superstition. Even as Einstein was proving those theories wrong, he was standing on Newton’s shoulders (and the shoulders of many more recent scientists and philosophers).

“[A}ny hypothesis, however absurd, may be useful in science, if it enables a discoverer to conceive things in a new way; but … when it has served this purpose by luck, it is likely to become an obstacle to further advance.” – Bertrand Russell, History of Western Philosophy

It takes guts to point out what you think are mistakes and sloppy thinking in the work of a professional, especially one that is a friend. But Dennett speaks his mind and isn’t worried about Harris’ feelings because this is what intellectual adults do. They make rational arguments, arguments that come from science and sound philosophy. They are not arguing emotionally, and you can be sure since Harris posted the rebuttal on his own website that he respects the man behind it and thinks the rebuttal worthy of our time, even if it is expressly intent on showing Harris is wrong.

Why does this behavior seem strange to me? Because so many outspoken debaters fail at it. Deepak Chopra, for example, debates publicly about God but quickly gets emotional and degrades himself by hurling ad hominem attacks, like this muddled thing he co-authored about Sam Harris. This confused article says nothing of significance, continually attacks Harris, and yet is couched as a sort of moral high road for sloppy thinkers who hold onto beliefs despite evidence.

Some scientific figures like Richard Dawkins think some debates can be a bad idea. Dawkins posted this article on his website admonishing Bill Nye the Science Guy for debating evolution with Ken Ham, founder of the Creation Museum (what items this “museum” contains, I do not know). Dawkins thinks these debates give undo credence to propositions that are not falsifiable and lack real evidence.

But this free will debate is completely justified, and I’m excited to read Harris’ response. Dialogues like these enrich our understanding, and though Harris and Dennett share many beliefs, they are two very distinct minds with distinct styles of argument. Neither is liable to make a proposition without either empirical evidence or a strong philosophical argument.

I don’t think this dialogue will resolve the issue once and for all. Certainly neither side will convince everyone in the world if scientists can’t even convince creationists of evolution. But if the debate causes us to question our own beliefs, maybe even shed some of our lazy assumptions, it will have done the us good.

Journals, Art, Journeys

When I was young my oldest brother Jeff showed me what an amusing pastime it was to keep a journal. I’ve found this essential. Without keeping a record of the day’s events, we forget most of the coincidences, oddities, and revelations of our lives. Even when we remember the facts of our experience, it’s impossible to recapture the exact feel of events. Most of my life I’ve kept some kind of book on the go, whether it’s just funny lines or ideas or scenes from movies I’d like to see.

It seems important because of this main fact: memories are not real. When you think about an event in your past, (spoiler alert) your brain does not magically go into the past. Our brains attempt to reconstruct our reactions to that experience, but our brains are different now, so the reconstruction is imperfect. Plus, memories can be bent and changed.

Regular journal entries give us a window into our state of mind at the time. This is crucial if you want to understand your life as a journey or narrative, or if you want some sort of proof that you’re getting closer to your goals or developing intellectually.

The same can be said, on the macroscopic scale, of art and science in culture. Art expresses the zeitgeist while science improves our understanding of each moment. We could never have had The Wire without ancient Greek literature, and we could never have invented smartphones without first understanding how radio waves work. This only works when people write it down.

Occasionally an artist makes a conscious effort to draw our attention to cultural development by retelling ancient, fundamentally human stories with current language and culture. The best example is Ulysses by James Joyce. The story is not about a guy named Ulysses in ancient Ithaca, but a man named Leopold Bloom in 20th century Dublin. The title and structure of the novel showcase thousands of years of human values in flux.

“This race and this country and this life produced me…I shall express myself as I am” – James Joyce, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

It can be great to read old, embarrassing journal entries because it means you’ve grown. Without writing it down we have no proof. And without a record it’s sometimes impossible to understand how we could have believed the crazy notions we’ve outgrown. This blog is likely full of ideas I’ve outgrown. I’m fine with that. Years from now I’ll be glad I was observant, honest in my assessments, and most importantly, that I wrote it down.

 

P.S. There will be no blog post next week because I will be busy eating food. Happy Holidays everyone.

Memetic Evolution

Most of us have a general sense of how biological evolution works. Simple organisms differentiate, mutate, and replicate. Some new traits prove to be good coping mechanisms and help organisms outlive and proliferate further than those organisms with traits ill fit for the environment. Over millions of years the biological changes that take place are increasingly complex. The survivors win. Their reward is life.

But evolution can explain more than biology. Memetic evolution, for example, happens upon almost identical lines. Simple ideas, the kind that represented simple objects or situations to our unintelligent ancestors, were encoded in spoken and pictorial languages (dubbed “memes” by Richard Dawkins). These ideas are sent from one mind to another, and just like genes, they differentiate, mutate, and replicate into other minds.

Some ideas take hold because they provide a benefit to the organism using them.  An early human who learns how to use a club has an advantage over one who hasn’t learned to use a club. A man who knows how to fashion a sword will do well in a fight against that club-wielding guy. Someone who learns how to string a bow and fire an arrow can stand back in the trees and kill the man with the sword with little risk. And the man who communicates all this information proficiently can show up with a gang of hundreds, each with a homemade bow, and so on, and so on. Now we have nuclear weapons.

As our human powers of rational thinking developed, we had an increasing ability to think abstractly, which had far-reaching benefits. Humanity went from understanding individual problems to understanding types of problems. When we figured out how to handle one type of problem, the individual problems of this type no longer required as much investment in thought. As our knowledge outgrew its abstractions, our memetic evolution accelerated exponentially. In relatively no time, our memetic, semantic, cultural reality was infinitely more complex than our biological reality.

Humanity seems like the only species with the ability to continue abstracting beyond the first few levels. Even when we teach lower primates sign language, we can prove that they think, but they tend not to read Bertrand Russell or discuss the plot of a good sitcom.

Memes replicate as aggressively as possible, just like genes. Particular genes can pass around the entire world, but it takes generations, decades of effort and luck. Ain’t nobody got time for that! By contrast, how many people know about the Sweet Brown meme since it appeared in the world?

As memes mutate and grow more complex, they push the boundaries of the semantic world outward into various specialized niches. This is obvious in our internet-soaked world culture. Nobody can keep up with all the facts of our world. Nobody can even keep track of all the relevant facts to their particular field of specialization at our current rate of memetic growth.

New insights gained from trial and error continue to expand all fields of knowledge. If you can combine ideas into something novel, you have pushed the boundary of our semantic world. Notice how ideas normally don’t just appear out of nowhere? Ideas are almost always build upon the foundations of previous ideas.

So wouldn’t it be great if there were a tool that organized memes into easily understandable fragments, and we could each curate our own stream of information so that the knowledge relevant to our interests could be scanned easily as well as studied for detail? Welcome to the world of Twitter.

Twitter acts as an exploder button for memetic evolution. Think of all the Sweet Brown remixes! But seriously, I want a genetic scientist to have all the specialized knowledge available from around the world so progress can continue. I curate my own feed and my knowledge of worthwhile writing and music and film has increased in a dramatic way. Plus it allows us to stay current, so our cultural developments remain on the cutting edge.

The internet has brought us together in unexpected ways. It’s easy to see how much time is wasted on sites like Twitter and Facebook. But it isn’t like that for everyone. Most of the gene swarm on planet Earth died off before our ancestors replicated successfully. Think of how much of Earth’s matter has been incorporated into our 7 billion neighbours. We give our particular genes a great success rate, so it’s a good thing for them that they made us. As for Twitter, could memetic evolution ask for a better medium of proliferation through human minds?

Memes, like genes, want nothing more than to replicate, and they do so in a very chaotic way until they find a best-fit pattern for the environment. We invented Twitter to share information. But our inventions are always on the shoulders of past ideas. So our semantic, memetic world has guided us to invent Twitter, the ultimate replicator (so far) for memes. Are we in the driver’s seat here, willfully directing memes for further progress, or are we being directed by our memes? And anyway, what’s the difference?

Wordfail

Most of my favorite works of art deal with psychological, internal, and (if I may) spiritual problems. I might be in the minority on that, but it’s hard to tell. Most pop cinema and music seem to actively avoid these issues in any serious or thoughtful way, but my view may be skewed by massive PR budgets, while many profound works count on niche marketing and word of mouth.

Two nights ago I was working through an internal process during my meditation, essentially allowing my sensory inputs to drain out and empty, and it occurred to me (not for the first time) that many of these internal obstacles literally defy rational language. The scientific method is a beautiful tool for explaining and enhancing our understanding of our world, but when it comes to internal experiences, scientific language fails to capture the experience in any way I can relate to.

I can talk about the cessation of dialectical thinking, stimulation of the parasympathetic nervous system or increasing respiration for lowering systolic blood pressure, but these descriptions are cold and say nothing about the end-user experience, despite their medical accuracy.

To speak about “turning the light around” captures more of the mysterious essence of the experience, even though this phrase provably does not describe what’s going on in my body. All language is in a sense arbitrary. If we can find language that more closely captures the experience, we should use it.

Scientists have been encroaching on this field for a while now, and with good reason. Some organizations like The David Lynch Foundation try to analyze meditation from a scientific perspective so they may explain it to rational people. This is totally laudable and seemingly essential these days. But I was always more affected by artistic interpretations of internal experiences, art forms that somehow poetically capture the ineffable nature of what’s happening, what it feels like to have internal revelations.

This is where I find uncompromising value in art. Art is the best conveyor of human experience, and exposure to it seems essential to me if we want to mature as human beings.

All communication is symbolic. The word “kite” is not the physical object called a kite. If the best we can do to symbolize an actual kite is to come up with a verbal grunt with sharp sounds on each end—a sound that is intrinsically meaningless—then we are at least slightly lame as a species. The word itself seems complete gibberish to someone without experience of an actual kite. But to watch a film of some kite-flying enthusiasts, or read about a child’s wonder as the wind pulls the kite down a sunny beach, is to learn on more than merely verbal levels.

This is where I cut a lot of slack for religious literature. There are a lot of religious books which, if taken literally, are absurd and stupid. But those books tend to elicit analogical and mystical interpretations that resonate with people in deep ways. Reading The Bhagavad Gita, I never once expected that the events depicted in it really happened. But I was moved by it, and I continue to find it beautiful.

This might be why I value “saying something” over simply making art for money. I am glad to fork over my hard-earned cash for a meaningful experience, and usually annoyed when I walk away from a movie or book thinking, “so what?”

I have written on this previously, if anyone is interested.

Change Your Brain – Pt. 4

In “Change Your Brain” parts 1, 2 and 3, I tried to recommend books that had a positive effect on my behavior. Glancing back over recent posts I’ve noticed a shift in my thinking, and it stands to reason that the book I just finished contributed to that change in a major way.

We can’t know exactly why we are the way we are. Since each of our ‘minds’ arise out of the darkness of unconscious processes, it stands to reason that we should look toward the unconscious when we need a tune-up. Discovering our unconscious assumptions and bringing them into consciousness allows us to shed light on the processes that guide our minds.

The following book might have made me a little more sane.

Science and SanityScience and Sanity by Alfred Korzybski

The book’s full title is Science & Sanity: An Introduction to Non-Aristotelian Systems. This is the foundational text for the branch of study called General Semantics. Its claims rest on the fact that language and science are forms of human behavior. If our behaviors and interpretations of reality are not accurate to the facts of the world, our evaluations, and therefore our future behaviors, will result in harmful shocks, delusions, failures, etc. We use science to communicate facts to one another. These facts offer dependable models. But in our communication and even our thinking, unconscious assumptions can deform the information and leave us with models that are false to the facts of the world. If these unconscious assumptions aren’t remedied, our species will become less sane.

So why pick on Aristotle? Briefly, this work is an attempt to recondition the Western mind. Because Aristotle had the last word on philosophy before the Dark Ages, his theories went untouched for centuries and have become engrained in most Western culture. Though Science and Sanity was published in 1933, we still have a long way to go.

Aristotle inherited the primitive language of his day. The language was formed by cultures that did not have the benefits of rigorous analysis. He inherited a mythologized interpretation of reality, a worldview that explained phenomena in anthropomorphic terms without the checks and balances of science. Aristotle used the language of his day to express the laws of “logic”, thus introducing primitive unconscious assumptions about the world to future generations. World events halted the progress of philosophy after Aristotle and his works became canonized. Simply because he was the last word in reason for hundreds of years, his philosophy took deep root in the Western mind.

Aristotle’s assumption of properties in objects and his use of subject-predicate language take the brunt of Korzybski’s criticism. Words are words and things are things and never the two shall meet. No word can ever “be” the thing it describes. When I claim “Mark is lazy”, I overstep empirical means by ascribing to Mark some property of laziness which I have not looked for scientifically. In truth, all I have is my empirical observations of Mark’s behavior. To say “Mark acts lazy” is more accurate to the known facts and describes the world as a dynamic process.

I know this seems like nitpicking, but subject-predicate reasoning leads to unjustified inferences about the world and in extreme cases can lead us to completely false assumptions. Most pernicious is the fact that these assumptions usually go unchecked because they happen unconsciously.

Next on the chopping block is Aristotle’s law of the excluded middle. This is the claim that a thing, A, is either true, or it’s negation, not A, is true, and nothing else is possible. This thought pattern oversimplifies observations in the worst way. Korzybski’s revision encourages a revolt from this two-valued logic to an infinite-valued logic. A person can be wholly inside a house, wholly outside a house, or partially inside and partially outside to any conceivable degree.

Another major consideration is the elimination of elementalism in language. Elementalism describes the breaking down of concepts into constituent elements that cannot exist outside of the whole. Most famously, Newton broke down our reality into ‘space’ and ‘time’ and this verbal trick led countless scientists on the search for the properties of ‘space’ and ‘time’ which led to failure, of course, since there are no such observable things as ‘space’ or ‘time’. Einstein proved that they are inseparable. When we verbally separate them, we must make sure this separation remains on the verbal level. Words are not things.

Another example is the linguistic dichotomy formed between ‘mind’ and ‘body’, two aspects of a whole that cannot exist independently. A man who researches the properties of ‘mind’ while disregarding ‘body’ does himself a disservice because the properties of ‘mind’ involve the ‘body’, and vice versa, to varying degrees. Entities work as-a-whole, and should be analyzed and spoken of as such.

The harm of Aristotlian systems is that they look for The Truth as opposed to a truth. Science and future humanity need languages that correspond to observable phenomena that operate within a context and as-a-whole. Accurate descriptions lead to accurate models of the world, and accurate models lead to sanity. As you might tell from the description so far, the aims of Science & Sanity reach far and deep and aim to completely reformulate many of the thinking-habits of Western culture.

But it doesn’t stop there. You’ll learn about colloidal chemistry, the dynamic gradient, differential calculus, Euclid and Riemann, Einstein and Minkowski, and why nothing truly happens “simultaneously” with anything else. This vast, multidisciplinary approach gives a philosophical and technical basis for using language in clear, unmistakable ways.

Science and Sanity claims that knowledge and language are only accurate when their structure matches the structure of the world. If we rely on words, and the definitions of those words are other words, concrete meaning retreats from us. The true test for a scientifically sound language, according to Korzybski, is that the language matches the structure of the world it represents. More far-reaching still is his insistence that structure is the only true content of knowledge.

Korzybski believes that mathematics most perfectly matches the structure of the world as well as our nervous systems, therefore acting as our most perfect bridge of communication. Since our linguistic processes must make instantaneous assessments of a dynamic world, differential calculus offers an analogy by its ability to provide us with empirically accurate snapshots of processes.

Overall, the work means to enhance our “consciousness of abstracting”, to keep us mindful of the world around us, to differentiate between our observations through lower order nervous centers (sense input) and our higher order abstractions (language, mental models, etc.). “Consciousness of abstracting” offers an scholastic approach to mindfulness, and means to keep us from confusing orders of abstraction. The attempt is to bring scientific clarity to human thought.

While there are large swathes of the book that are quite technical, mathematical and daunting, the underlying principles remain easy to understand (though I should admit that I was somewhat primed for it by Robert Anton Wilson). Chapter to chapter, the exposition is powerful and comprehensive through its nearly 800 pages.

I recommend this book for scientists, linguists, philosophers, and people with time to read.