Drink It In

If I expect a good cup of coffee in the morning, I go to bed excited for it. Everything about coffee appeals to me. The aroma of coffee is one of the most compelling I can think of, and the flavour of a really good cup lives up to that aroma. So for years it has boggle my mind that most people tend to drink coffee like this:

Tall French Roast

Congratulations, you have successfully robbed yourself of half the pleasure of coffee. It isn’t a fluke that when we raise a glass for a drink, our noses are in that glass. That’s just good evolution. If all you want is the caffeine, you can get that in a pill. Likewise, drinking beer out of a bottle is only a good idea if you don’t want to fully taste it.

Our senses are not as cleanly delineated as our language implies. The sense of taste is an overall impression made up of multiple brain processes. The taste from the taste buds is part of that impression, but the olfactory receptors play a vital role as well. Similarly, when we listen to music, the bass drum thumping in our chest and the vibrations through the bottoms of our feet contribute strongly to the experience.

This is why you cannot beat live music. To be inside a physical environment tailored for live music, to hear the music loudly, to feel the music and to see it performed in front of you – this is to experience music fully. The more nerve centers we can engage, the more sense data our brains have to build up our experience.

So-called holy sites can really evoke sacred feelings in people because these places are full of sights, smells, sounds, textures, and all the other sensory paraphernalia correlated to holiness. In places like these, brains simply have more to work with, more “food for thought” that can be used to build up a holy experience.

Of course it also helps to pay attention. Our senses and brains have evolved to extract meaningful data from a noisy environment. You can be inside that concert hall–band wailing away, laser light show twirling all around you–and remain totally oblivious because you are watching a YouTube video on your phone. And with all that noise in your environment, how deeply can you expect to be engaged by that YouTube video?

Mindfulness exercises teach us to connect with experience, to tone down distraction and stay present with the task at hand. Whatever we turn our attention to has the potential to completely fulfill our experience. A fully engaged experience doesn’t want for anything; the more fully we are engaged, the further we must be from worry, depression, and pain.

You can make an exercise in mindfulness out of your morning cup of coffee. It might change your life. Turn all your senses to your task, and drink it in – with the lid off.

Whole Foods Coffee

P.S. These days I roast my coffee from green beans on my stove, then grind the beans into a French press with filtered water I’ve heated to just shy of boiling. It makes for a great cup, but it takes time. Obviously this can only be worth my while if I know I’ll have the time to relax and enjoy the drink fully. You may wonder how much time I spend on coffee. The answer is…don’t worry about it.

Solipsism, Semantics and Science, Between You And Me

Previously I wrote that all our experiences of the world happen within our nervous system, that we cannot truly see past our perceptions and experience reality directly. While this is a fact, it doesn’t mean we remain completely separate from each other.

Dictionary.com defines solipsism two ways.

1. Philosophy. The theory that only the self exists, or can be proved to exist.

2. Extreme preoccupation with and indulgence of one’s feelings, desires, etc.; egoistic self-absorption

Obviously if all we can ever experience happens within our nervous systems, it’s tempting to think that we will always remain apart, that our experiences are never truly shared and don’t even overlap. Too strong a belief in that separation can cause feelings of isolation. But experience happens on many different levels, and some of these levels allow more connection with other people and the world at large.

Nothing in the Universe happens in isolation. Fundamental forces tie all matter together, so everything is related to everything else in a real, physical way, in differing degrees ranging between 0 and ∞ (not inclusive). This is why we have theories like the Butterfly Effect which claim the wind from a butterfly wing can cause a hurricane across the planet. (Careful! Don’t watch the movie of the same name starring Ashton Kutcher.)

Everything that exists is in constant flux, constantly changing and never static. When we talk about any thing, that thing is different one moment to the next (it may change in temperature, mass, and so forth, but at a minimum, the atoms and electrons, etc., are in different positions). So it’s wrong to speak of things as static, unchanging blocks of reality. A static noun implies an unchanging object. It’s much more accurate to discuss reality in terms of process transactions, using active verbs and avoiding the verb is and its other forms (to be, being, was, etc.).

So here we are in a whirling field of activity (of which we are a part). When we observe a part of the universe, we can never know all the details of an event because the characteristics of any event are linked to the details of every other event which are always changing, and so really, the universe is just one big, continuous, ever-changing event, never twice the same. What we perceive are objects abstracted from that event that fall within our range of frequency response.

By frequency response I mean that there is a range frequencies that are perceivable by the ear, other frequencies that are perceivable by the eye, and so forth. These naturally observable frequencies—including others like infrared that, through technology, come within our frequency response—are all we can perceive externally.

So we observe an object, a part of the whole event, and we abstract a set of details. Let’s say I’m watching tennis. Tennis is a sport that depends physically upon the sun, Earth, gravity, nuclear forces, and so forth, even though we do not think about or even perceive these factors. Instead, I focus on the ball, or the short skirts, depending on who’s playing.

The ball or skirt that I perceive is a tiny part of the entire event. The characteristics that I perceive in the ball are finite (because I can only perceive so much), but unlimited (I can always find new characteristics by looking in different ways). So what I perceive, the ball or skirt, will always contain fewer details than the actual event.

But this perception comes together inside my brain. The visual information, audio, movement and relations to surrounding factors (rackets, the net, etc.) all happen on an unspeakable, objective level. My brain compiles the information together into a workable model before I even become aware of it. And I cannot take my perception directly out of my head and place it into the head of my friend. But now that I have a workable model based on perception, I apply a label to the object of my attention; I choose to call it “ball”.

When I call it “ball”, I am applying a verbal label to this non-verbal, objective level of experience. It is the label that I communicate to my friend. But this label is just a label, a semantic tool used to signify my experience. The word “ball” stands for the assembly of perceptions in my brain. The label does not contain the same quantity or quality of information that my perception does. The label has few possible values, because “ball” is a generic term, but for my tennis example, “ball” has one value; the word signifies the actual object being hit back and forth by the players. My label leaves out all the information that I perceive when I perceive the actual ball. But now that I have a label, a means to communicate with my friend, something special happens.

I can apply labels to my experiences and attempt to describe that wordless, objective experience, and my friend can do the same. If I say, “the ball is fuzzy and purple”, my friend can think about what those words mean, or look them up if need be, and say, “actually, you lunatic, the ball is fuzzy and green. Take another look,” at which point I can test my perceptions against his at the verbal level. When I look and find that the ball is green and not purple, I have learned something. I am colourblind.

So while we cannot know reality directly, and we cannot know another’s perceptions, we can communicate with one another to compile more and more information about the experience of our fellow humans. Labels allow us to communicate, which is fundamental for human progress. Without communication, we would still be primitive instead of domesticated primates.

At the label level of life, we can have meaning. There is no such thing as meaning on the objective level of reality, and I doubt the universe as a whole has meaning. Meaning comes from language, and on that level we share reality with our friends.

If we really want to share reality, the key is clear communication. The more thoroughly we communicate our experiences, the more we are connected. This is part of the reason that clear language, proper grammar, and creativity are important to me. There is also a direct link between clear language and clear thinking. At the very least clear language is a symptom of clear thinking. But I have a hunch that clear language can lead to clear thinking. As our rational brains use language and logic to piece together our worldviews, increasing our linguistic capacities can only help the rational process.

Knowing what is communicable and how best to communicate is a key to creativity. Part of that is learning how to differentiate the real from the unreal, fact from fiction, and so forth, so that our friends can weigh our communications accurately. Semantics is essential to how we live and learn; it is how we translate our wordless experience of reality into shared experience. If we can nail down a systematic way of testing experiences against one another, we might learn how the universe operates. This is what science tries to do.

Science is based on a method of experiment and observation, a reduction of hopefully irrelevant variables, and then proper communication of the data to others for verification through further experiments. This is how we methodically tally one person’s experience with another. Through science we learn tendencies about the wordless, objective level of objects, and we can compile theories about the actual events, even the manifold of spacetime in which reality happens. Though science doesn’t prove anything 100%, the more scientific evidence there is for a theory, the more reason there is to believe it.

The goal of science is the discovery of our reality. Science is intentionally sterile to reduce the subjective variables that change so radically from person to person. If we can discover how the universe works independent of our personal experiences, we can fit our personal experiences to the truths of the universe to avoid unpleasant surprises.

In my personal experience, I can apply whatever metaphysics I want. I can believe in faeries, gods, demons, or whatever, and I can talk about them meaningfully and even use them to explain my experience, but this is not science. I might enjoy my metaphysics more than yours, but that doesn’t make them right. Even still, differing viewpoints are essential to scientific testing. The metaphysics of Ptolemy, Gallileo, Newton or Einstein helped move science forward because their metaphysics increasingly seemed to tally with the experience of others and the evidence of the day.

As science moves forward it becomes more and more sure of itself. Science continually out-modes metaphysics. That’s progress. It’s crucial that people keep posing new questions about the world as long as theories don’t get in the way of experience. Since theories can alter the power of our investigations, it’s a good idea to pause, take a breath, let the sense data register and be processed by higher abstractions, and try to see things for what they really are. Then, communicate.

Of course, that’s just my opinion. If my opinion tallies with your experiences, feel free to believe me. But you should feel free to not believe me as well. Belief might change your actions and perceptions, but not the external facts of reality.

Inside, Outside, and “The Real”

Atheism is on the rise thanks to progress in empirical sciences and reason. This movement of un-belief is popular in our social media due to the satirical efforts of atheists like Richard Dawkins, Bill Maher and Ricky Gervais. Unfortunately it seems that these outspoken atheists cannot argue against the devoutly religious using reason, and so resort to a campaign of constant ridicule. Besides being generally distasteful and disrespectful, their comments have the effect of polarizing people, getting laughs from like-minded people while causing believers to dig in their heels. They generally do not promote dialogue.

When confronting this disrespect of religion it’s helpful to remember that religions maintained their power for centuries by the systematic persecution of all those who disagreed with them. This is much worse than ridicule, and entrenched power structures still pull this nonsense today. It’s only now that U.S. politicians are taking a second look at the religiously-inspired intolerance of homosexuality. (And just this weekend, BBC reported that a 60-year-old woman was tortured for alleged witchcraft in Nepal, which assault was apparently sanctioned by the local village council. Last year a different woman was burnt alive for the same reason.)

The problem seems to be that everyone is so sure of themselves. I recently saw an episode of Real Time with Bill Maher that mocked a Newsweek article called “Heaven Is Real”, in which a comatose neurosurgeon claims to have visited the afterlife. Bill and his panelists scoffed in their usual manner, claiming the account was unscientific and unreal. While the account was definitely unscientific, its reality is debatable.

The scientific empiricist laughs the experience off as a hallucination, as unreal because it is not verifiable in a laboratory. They say that such an article is harmful to science, and therefore to society, because it promotes belief in the supernatural. They would argue rightly that belief in the supernatural leads away from belief in empirically-testable phenomena and hence towards insanity.

Of course there is no doubt that Dr. Eben Alexander’s experience was real to him. It reordered his conception of reality and was a transformative experience with obvious subjective value. He is not wrong to write about his experience, though he is wrong to call it scientific. The whole method of science is to root out those variables that are purely subjective.

This debate brings me to one of my favorite topics: The Real. I get a lot of personal joy from the fuzzy definitions of the word “real”. Individually the definitions of the word are unbearably limiting because they fail to acknowledge the multi-ordinality of the word (to borrow a term from Alfred Korzybski). The definition of the word “real” depends entirely on its context and the structure of the argument in which it is used.

Through our entire lives experience is the primary datum. We can’t even properly speak of the universe without reference to our experience of it. Scientific advancements are valuable to us because they can make the macroscopic, microscopic, or sub-microscopic realms intelligible to our experience, just as a telescope is merely a technological extension of our sense of sight. A telescope does not measure the reality of far away places; it is the empiricist who proclaims “I see it, therefore it is real.”

“The empiricist…thinks he believes only what he sees, but he is much better at believing than at seeing.” – G. Santayana

I am comfortable in proclaiming the reality of subjective experience. However, subjective experience has the insidious tendency to colour our perceptions of the outside world. William James says the mystic has every right to his or her visions, and that no outsider can refute this. However the corollary to this is that mystical realities are valid only to the one experiencing them and do not extend beyond the subjective realm. The connection between the inside and the outside cannot be perfect.

This is where I can get on board with Bill Maher: theism and atheism aside, when purely subjective experiences leak out into the objective world, the objective world is made insane. When religious metaphysics shape our social policies, the politicians are out of touch with the external reality they ought to be governing. It is only when subjective experiences are true to the facts of the external world that they should be used to dictate external laws. To do otherwise is a confusion of planes; what is real externally may not be real internally and vice versa.

Zeno’s paradox of dichotomy, which states we can never make it to our destination because we have to first travel half way there, then half of the remaining distance, and so on ad infinitum, is silly and insane because it disregards the external fact that we don’t travel according to logarithmic principles. I simply walk to my destination and arrive without noticing when I’m half or three-quarters of the way there. Zeno puts mathematics before experience, but mathematics is a priori and doesn’t refer to nature.

When empirical policies must be formed, empirical laws must be obeyed. When we decide our own personal code of beliefs and ethics, the subjective experiences of our life will be determinative. To regulate belief from without would also be a mistake. As for religion, if a subjective, personal connection to the divine becomes good enough for everyone, I bet these atheists won’t have much to say about it. It’s mainly belligerent evangelism they’re trying to tear down.