The search for autonomy

Our experience of the continuity of self, the sense of personal autonomy with which we awaken each day, is very persuasive. “I” is a persistent experience, persistent enough that each of us can treat it as real and thereby treat others as real, too. Indeed, the richness and history of persona, the identity of our interior self accumulated over a lifetime, is so persistent that in comparison to the nature of all things external to ourselves, it is our most stable, unchanging experience

Everything material, however, is indisputably and conditionally dependent. Despite outward appearances and characteristics which appear to be stable and solid, all things are temporary combinations of “earth, air, fire and water,” which is to say, impermanent. Some are very long-lasting, others appear and disappear in the flash of an instant, but nothing is truly autonomous and ever-lasting.

This has not prevented us from projecting autonomy onto external objects. Feeling the persistence of “I” inclines us to invest external objects with comparable “selfness.” Moreover, what we imagine often appears real and prompts action. We experience this effect in our dreams; caught up in our internally-generated visual and emotional narrative, unaware that we are dreaming, people and things appear to be behaving autonomously, much as they do during waking life. Our psyches display a deeper truth about “self” and our conception of it.

Upon examination, our seemingly autonomous self is as conditionally dependent as everything else we experience. We must breathe, eat, and move. Alongside the estimated 40-trillion human cells in our bodies reside an additional 40-trillion-plus non-human cells; microbes, bacteria, viruses of all types are essential to our survival. Our own cells are replaced roughly every seven years; the material of which we are composed changes continuously, and the most we can claim as self is the persistence of patterns. On a cosmic scale of galaxies and super-massive black holes, each “I” represents a portion of matter patterning so small as to be effectively unmeasurable.

It is not surprising that “I” seems to the the most reliable and autonomous of all experiences. The world around us continuously changes before our eyes, as if we sit in the center of the universe. While the possibility exists that consciousness does not depend upon materiality, in other words consciousness without a physical brain, scientifically no evidence as yet confirms such theory. Quantum mechanics even implies that consciousness itself may be a non-local phenomenon, and is the result of properties of entanglement transcending time and distance. If, on the other hand, consciousness emerges from the complex arrangement of brain matter, then “I” is as impermanent as matter itself.

Beyond all this speculation rests the question of how to conduct life. All and everything appears to be a construct of consciousness, simultaneously illusory and real. The emotional temptations of nihilism and hedonism, depression and the willful bliss of ignorance are strong. The refuge of religious faith beckons many, providing the security and mystery of omniscience.

Facing up to the unfathomable depth of our ignorance with humility and gratitude would seem to be the best answer. Reactions of arrogance and shame serve us poorly; fear-based, they incite and propagate cycles of global violence and increased suffering. An admission that we cannot “know” anything in an absolute sense is not an admission of failure, but rather – in a complex universe of gargantuan forces and dimension – provides an acceptance of cosmic grace upon which the continuity of humanity depends.

Right back where I started from

I’m enjoying my life. I didn’t ask to be here but now I don’t want to leave; seems to be my particular version of the human condition. Think about it; two microscopic gametes meet and decide to live together as one for a lifetime. If it sounds like marriage, well, it wasn’t my idea.

And hey, those gametes came from other gametes, and those from others, you know…all the way back to the beginning of, hmmm, life itself. And before that, before life? I guess the answer is… everything was just stuff. And before that, and before that, and before that…our world was just a dust bunny. Seriously though folks, that’s how it all began, dust bunnies! No wonder they talk about ashes to ashes, dust bunnies to dust bunnies.

After I’m gone, and by that I mean the “me” inside my stuff, I’ll just be stuff again. Slowly, piece by piece, molecule by molecule, all the stuff that’s been borrowed from the Universe will be returned. It’s a good system, I think, a good deal. I get to use stuff Universe has provided for while and when I’m done it all gets returned so other things can use it. What could be fairer than that? When it comes down to it, I’d call that system basically good.

Now a lot of people don’t think dying is good, they think it’s bad. I disagree. I believe recycling is the way of things; it’s sustainable! If the theoretical physicists are correct, every bit of stuff we enjoy today was created in an instant at the Big Bang, all of it. Since then it’s been mixing and matching, merging and dissolving, integrating and disintegrating – continuously and all at once.

This is where the confusion comes in about death, that it’s some sort of black hole – cold, dark, lonely and timeless. You can think of it that way, won’t do you any terrible harm but may keep you up at night and anxious. I prefer to see it otherwise – warm, welcoming, familiar and interpenetrating. I agree with the timeless, infinite thing, though. I like infinity in a Universe.

What happens to the “me” inside my stuff? It’s like asking what happens to the light energy from an incandescent bulb when the wall switch is turned off. The light energy keeps going, and illuminates new places and things. In an infinite Universe there’s no limit to where “me” is going. Einstein understood. Like old episodes of the Honeymooners just now making their way past Alpha Centauri at the speed of light, the energy of “me” will just go on and on. Buddhists understood this too; energy is action, and action is Karma, which is infinite and penetrates everything. The Karma of “me” is, you know, a 100-watt bulb. Ok, maybe 50-watt.

Here’s the scoop; I’m not going right back where I started from, and I don’t mean California. (Do you think it’s interesting that California can be spelled Kalifornia; Kali, of course, being the Hindu deity of destruction, which is the twin of creation). I’m not going back because in truth, I’ve never left; it’s not possible to return to that from which you’ve never left. Get it?

It’s the great perfection of a closed system; nothing is discarded, nothing wasted. Universe does not believe in trash, it’s all good stuff, the best stuff no money can’t buy!

Body, Mind and Universe

A great deal of attention has been paid to the workings of mind, that curiously self-conscious and often self-absorbed entity we take to be who we are in the world. The widely-held presumption is that mind is an emergent function of brain, and therefore, mind is located solely within the confines of our cranium. This view has fueled belief in what is termed the mind-body split, the idea that body functions merely as an instrument of mind.

Over the past few decades, this view has come into question and has been supplanted with a more integrated and nuanced picture, namely that the body is the mind. “Embodiment” is now the fashionable term used to describe the fullness of human consciousness, that body is no mere instrumentality of mind, but rather attendant to and from mind, essentially inseparable from it.

Observations of developing babies and toddlers reinforce the opinion that an experience of “being in the world” is essential to the formation of the workings of mind, and in this way – through the senses – mind is extended to encompass the entire world-at-large. The use of tools, for example, is an extension of sensory capability beyond those limited to the body itself. As such, all human artifacts are actually sensory extensions, and all sensory functions are an extension of mind.

Embodiment does not propose that our fingers are doing the talking, but muscle-memory can be seen as more than just the result of practiced habits of repetition. Once embodied, the use of a tool such as a keyboard becomes an extension of touch; the same is true of a hammer. What has become more evident to researchers, however, is that prior assumptions about brain-processing have to be revised. Once embodied, typing or using a hammer does not require mindfully employing complicated, conscious calculations of trajectory, force of action, or detailed directions. The body’s neural pathways, when well established, function in a seemingly autonomous fashion: embodied cognition.

Disciplines of mind and body reinforce rather than fragment the wholeness of embodied cognition. Athletes respond to the world successfully, as do musicians and carpenters, because the essential unity of mind-body is a developed-with-the-world capability. We are not merely in or of the world; we embody the world itself. Embodied cognition is an interactional outcome of the truth of essential unity: interconnectedness.

To be sure, there are forces beyond the limits of mind. The earth itself is a living system: a self-regulating, self-organizing entity which dispassionately employs what one might call the Sacred Geometries of Universe. These universal geometries extend, fractal-like, to encompass all forms and potential forms, including human beings. Seen this way, humankind and its consciousness are the embodiment of the “mind” of Universe: universal mind in physical form. Accordingly, we are perfectly suited to where and when we are, though we often are grievously confused about it.

Universe makes no mistakes; nothing is superfluous, nothing discarded. It is in this way perfect and complete at every moment. By extension, we too are complete, but our self-conceptions are far from perfect. Having created our human world of embodied cognition – and by varying degrees confused, afraid, and superstitious – we now confront the challenging interplay between the particular human-centric world we have created and the relentless workings of the Sacred Geometries of Universe.

Levels of abstraction

While I was having lunch with “the guys” I began talking about “how we know what we know.” One friend interjected that what I was saying was “too abstract” to be of interest. This has happened to me before, and in such social situations switching topics is fine with me. My friend then went on to say that his interests are “practical” and he prefers to talk about real-world problems and possible solutions.

In a sense, “practical” conversation seem to lack an abstract quality, but in truth all words and all thoughts are abstractions, even words or thoughts about practical subjects. We can use words like “chair” in discussing practical matters, like preferring to sit in a chair instead of the floor, but in that case, the use of the word “chair” is abstract. In such case, we are not speaking about a particular chair, but the concept of “chair.” All concepts are abstract by nature, and lacking this abstract quality our ability to speak in general or broad terms would be impossible.

When we move to the particular and begin to speak about a specific chair, we essentially abandon concept and instead rely on sensory experience. Sensory experience does not require concept; a burning ember feels hot even if we are not familiar with the concept of “hot.” So it is for all direct sensory experience; ice feels cold, noises are soft or loud, textures are rough or smooth, seen objects have form, and so forth.

Accordingly, from birth onwards our sensory experience of the particular evolves into an ability for abstraction; as we accumulate memories of direct perceptions, concepts develop into which we then place patterns we perceive. “Chair” as concept includes an unlimited number of variations, depending upon the conditions of patterning. For some, a “chair” requires a pattern of four legs, a seat and a back; for others no back is required and perhaps just three legs. Conceptual abstraction is flexible and non-particular.

The animals figures on the cave walls at Lascaux, France, are conceptual abstractions; bison, antelope, and horse drawings created 35,000 years ago attest to innate human powers of abstraction. It may be that animals other than humans have the ability to form abstract concepts as well; we certainly treat some of them, our pets in particular, like they do.

As computer scientists work towards developing Artificial Intelligence, their great stumbling block is abstraction. Computers excel in finding patterns at great speed; programmed algorithms are simply formulas designed to examine data and recognize patterns. What algorithms cannot do, as of yet, is generate abstract thought. Computers recognize only a literal reality, the reality of the particular, even if that is ten-billion particularly complex bits of information. Someday perhaps, when posed with a problem to solve and the computer asks “why?”, we will have crossed over into the realm of Artificial Intelligence.

We cannot simply be practical or we would be like stupid machines, unable to form meaningful conceptual hypotheses about ourselves, others or the world-at-large. Human practicality requires the abstraction of language, and the myriad ethical, moral, cultural and personal complexities that accompany abstract concepts.

This does not mean we must talk about “how we know what we know” while eating a hamburger at lunch, but recognize it or not, beneath the appearance of “practical” discussion lurks the unavoidable abstractions of conscious and unconscious mind.

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Merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily

It’s been said life is like an illusion; a drop of dew, a flash of lightning, a phantom, a dream. Such contemplations have endured for thousands of years, fueling philosophers, Mystics, poets, and even scientists. But what if life is not a dream at all? What if life is a video game?

I know you’re rolling your eyes right now, figuring “here comes another silly column” and wondering why on earth I’d waste my time writing such drivel. It’s a reasonable thought, and it’s running through my head right now, too. But…and you knew there would be a but…some very well-paid, highly-respected and brilliant cosmologists have built a strong case for exactly that possibility, namely, what we experience as real life is nothing more than a simulation created on an otherworldly, super-duper quantum computer.

Now I know Hollywood has explored this subject, albeit with really big explosions and killer robots intent on enslaving or wiping out humanity, but underlying such fanfare sits a logical conundrum rather impossible to refute. Here’s the logic:

If ours is not the only universe (and opinions in the scientific community lean heavily in that direction), and if in fact what’s true is that our universe is but one among an infinite number in an infinite multiverse, then it follows that intelligent life also exists elsewhere among the infinite worlds in the infinite multiverse. You with me?

OK. If that’s the case, then it’s also true that some of the other intelligence in the multiverse have developed advanced technology, and if they survived (always a big question, except in the mind of Donald Trump), some technology is far more advanced than ours. In fact, with an infinite opportunity, we can posit the notion that technology far more advanced than ours definitely exists. Hang in there, I’m getting to the point.

So, we’re investing big R&D money into creating digital Artificial Intelligence (AI), Virtual Reality (VR) and already envisioning quantum computers (all the computing power of your desktop compressed into a device the size of a grain of sand). All this combined means the prospects for some killer AI/VR video games are nearly infinite, and if this is true for us, imagine what’s true for those super-highly advanced civilizations out there in the multiverse.

Now suppose, you, I, all and everything…our entire universe, it’s past, present and future, is nothing more than self-generating computer code, a simulation-game among an infinity of simulations amid a multiverse of infinite universes. Can you prove otherwise? What if everything – the family photos, George Washington, the Parthenon, the ancient cave paintings in Lascaeux, the taste of orange marmalade, sex, all of it – is nothing but digital information generated within an infinitely powerful computer created by a far higher intelligence than we currently possess? What if?

Well, you might answer, “So what!” and, frankly, that’s a reasonable response. If indeed life is a video game, does that change anything? Of course not. But, it does bring our physics and science-based mathematical scenarios of Big Bangs, Super String Theory and the Bubble Universes of Inflation full circle and back around to the unfathomable and uncomfortable mystery of the metaphysical; if our universe has indeed been created within a quantum computer designed by an unimaginably powerful, super-intelligent being, is that not the basic narrative underlying the world’s religions?

Experience, memory and time

We relate to life primarily in two ways: experience and memory. Our experience is subject to the type attention we offer at a given moment; if our attention wanders we lose track of a particular experience. For example, at a baseball game we might find ourselves distracted by a hot dog vender and lose track of the action on the field. Experience, therefore, is largely momentary as we focus on peak moments; time seems to pass slowly or quickly depending upon our focus of attention.

Memory, too, is subject to the influence of peak moments. Typically, we do not remember every second of a baseball game but, like a sportscaster recapping the game, mostly highlights. The peak moments stand out above the continuity of experience, and it is from such moments and the emotions accompanying them, we construct our memories. Memory forms the core of our personal narrative, the story we weave from sensory and emotional experience.

Experience is primarily physical, and experience determines behavior. We use our body’s senses to interact with the world; the things we see, feel, hear, taste and smell are what we first experience, followed quickly by emotion and then thought. We are exquisitely adapted to being in the world this way and experiences become embodied, which is to say we need not think about them before, during or after our behavior. Our legs remember how to walk, throat how to swallow, fingers to avoid flames and so forth. Connected to our emotions, we select peak moments from such experiences to create memory and narrative. Our sensory apparatus is always in operation, though while sleeping it goes into an internally focused state. Research now indicates that the REM stage of sleep (dreaming) is necessary for the formation of long-term memories stored during non-REM sleep.

Dreaming allows us to create a virtual sensory experience during which we seem to be able to see, feel, hear, taste and smell a world of our own making. Psychology and mystical traditions consider dreaming to be thus illuminated, wherein the self-generated light of “visual” appearances and events may provide a key to understanding our deeper, and often hidden, selves. Though dreams can be difficult to remember, through contemplation they too can thus become a meaningful part of our waking personal narrative.

For nearly all of us memory is notoriously selective, more akin to a series of snapshots than a continuous video. There are those rare few among us who have perfect recall of each and every moment, but by all accounts this condition is more of an impediment to living well than an enhancement. And brain function, we’ve learned, is more about inhibition than excitement, discarding rather than retaining. Accordingly, memory and the narrative we weave from it is mostly focused on peak moments – our experiences of greatest pain and greatest pleasure. We also seek closure and pay particular attention to outcomes.

Unless observed through concentrated efforts of disciplined intention, such as certain forms of meditation, the vast unbroken continuity of time – the 86,400 seconds of each day we experience – is not given our full attention. Our memories of life thus resemble time-lapse photography, forming a narrative arc of sensory and emotional experiences beginning in childhood and stretching to the present moment. We also use our creativity to project that narrative arc into realms of imaginary time: the future.

Clock time is a cultural phenomenon, the by-product of the introduction of the machine. Seconds, minutes and hours are something we’ve created. The actual nature of being is timeless; marking time is simply our process of observing change, though change itself is ultimately illusory. According to super-string theory, all-and-everything appear to be manifestations of infinitesimally small, particular, resonant wave forms lacking any physical substance whatever. The existence we experience, as well as all memory, are embedded within a timeless and uniform primordial soup of elementary harmonics without beginning or end that never changes. It’s not for nothing that physicists call the Higgs Boson the God Particle. Similarly, in teaching the profound reality of no-change, Buddhists offer, “Looks like coming, looks like going.”

The non-reality of time and change notwithstanding, our persistent personal narrative often makes it appear that we remain the same person we have always been while everything else we experience is changing all around us. In this way we each confront, and perhaps learn to relax, within an unfathomable paradox of experience, memory and time.

Ornaments of Liberation

A closeup of cowry shells

It’s easy to dismiss much of modern culture as crass, insensitive, dull or even stupid. Set aside the fact that a TV commercial featuring Mathew McConaughey for the new Lincoln MKC is a 60-second full-fledged Hollywood production costing millions to create; it’s still basically a slick sales pitch directed at those aspiring towards the 1%. It’s not a far cry from McConaughey to Subway’s $4.99 over-sized meatball sandwich, for ours is the age of hucksterism: an unceasingly ubiquitous barrage of advertising coming at us from each and every direction.

All this hawking, of course, requires stuff to hawk. Accordingly, for every sales pitch there is a product or service being offered. Each passing day brings new iterations of old stuff refashioned to reflect today’s technologies, tastes and color-trends. Yesterday’s treasure rapidly metamorphoses into today’s junk, replaced by junk to be. Such is the nature of human creativity harnessed to the engine of technology and industrial production.

From our earliest days humans seemed to like stuff and find creative ways to use it. From cowry shells to obsidian, strings of bone to nuggets of gold, a combination of creativity and craftsmanship accompanies the archeological evidence of early human habitation. Even Neanderthal remains have been found carefully buried in graves, surrounded by arranged flowers and ritual objects.

Perhaps it is our primate heritage to be drawn to shiny pebbles, a function of curiosity now transformed into aesthetics. Whatever its source, what we today call “art”, both commercial and fine art, represents a collective social outpouring which dwarfs nearly every other human activity. Though the business side of western “art” represents an entirely modern dynamic, folk art and crafts of indigenous people emerge from the very same underlying creative impulses and human capacities. Color, pattern, sound, shape, image, texture and size; these and other elements are the monkey-bars of our imaginative aesthetic playground.

It may appear that our obsession with stuff is habitual and unthinking, and no doubt Mathew McConaughey is laughing all the way to the bank; but something deeper is at hand. At heart, humanity is awake — self-conscious and aware that each of us has a place in the world. Yet the mystery of self-consciousness remains exactly that: how does organic matter give rise to a sense-of-self? Sense-of-self is an undeniably subjective experience for each of us and an objective reality we accept about others, but we are offered no precise explanation of why or how self-consciousness has happened. Alongside, despite or perhaps because of this mystery we make and play with stuff.

Being awake is not some end-point of religious or esoteric spiritual discipline, but the starting point; to be awake is to be human, a prerequisite in fact. All that follows being awake – the art, the ads, the hucksterism – is adornment, ornamental cowry-shell beads to wear around our neck which confirms our sense-of-self. This recursive, self-reflexive process provides its own answer to the mystery of self-awareness: our stuff speaks for us in ways our words cannot express. As we grapple with having no explanation for either the how or why of self, our stuff is elevated to transcendent ornaments of liberation. A shiny pebble, a new Lincoln MKC – both are the same – the stuff of dreams pointing to that which we, despite our storied artfulness, cannot explain.