The Most Depressing Part Of Being Human

I think often about the human condition, and in particular what it would take to move beyond the current state of affairs that appears to be largely defined by an insatiable desire for personal gratification. The rule seems to be: the more you have, the more you want – and one can never have enough. Here, we have truly abandoned our animal past, by perverting the need to survive into a grotesque effort to rise to the top of the heap through relentless consumption, sustainable or not – with no regards for the millions amongst us who can do no better than maintain a marginal existence to the point of starvation in the face of draught or famine, or other conditions of adversity that prevent even very moderate levels of prosperity to be in reach of those willing to work hard for it.

I guess we can’t help ourselves – the higher primate within us is still very much in charge, and as such we are human only to the extent that we aspire to be more than that, although we really don’t know what that means in terms what is actually achievable beyond being able to survive successfully.

This – for me – is the most depressing part of being human.

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How Can Something Come From Nothing?

For some folks the question whether something can come from nothing appears meaningful in discussions around the existence of God or the creation of the world. For instance, how did the world come into being, and what was there before it came into being: something else, or was there nothing. And if there was initially nothing other than a God (whatever one might mean by that word), how was it able to create something from nothing, etc.

Aside from discussions around the existence of a God – usually a futile matter of wishful thinking versus a rational discussion involving  substantiated beliefs rooted in a common reality –  it is easy to get caught up in language games, words pushing  words, without actually being to assert anything either concrete or definitive, e.g., if something is not nothing, and nothing is not something – then, presumably, these terms are mutually exclusive, and it would be difficult to use either term, something or nothing, in some kind of meaningful relationship beyond stating that the one excludes the other on purely logical grounds.

One could involve the distinction between denotation and connotation – what event or object a term refers to versus what this  object or event means or signifies, e.g. the difference between Venus the evening star and Venus the morning star – they both reference the same object but we have different contextual meanings for them – and is something British analytical philosophers such as Austin spent a lot of time on, or Frege’s Sinn and Bedeutung  (sense and reference) which means something similar in my mind, but in the end we would in all likelihood be even less clear of what we mean by the distinction between something and nothing other than that nothing is the negation of something.

The question that might be meaningful to me in some sense is the one that asks: is the concept of non-existence even available to us?  Clearly, the answer is no. Nothing – nothing existing – is not available to us for discussion except, perhaps, in some abstract sense, where we can approach the concept of non-existence, which – of course – is really a contradiction of terms, and by pointing this out, we have come as close to it as appears feasible, given the rules of language that are there to keep things intelligible to the extent that some kind of discussion it about appears possible. And that should not be a function of the fact that – when we say something like “in the beginning there was nothing” – we have actually implied the existence of nothing at some time or another, as that would clearly be a function of grammar as opposed to making an ontological statement. Clearly, our language is misleading us here.

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How Can Order Evolve From Chaos?

Scientists have been known to look into the question of how organized matter could have evolved from what would have assumed to have been absolute chaos when the material universe came into being if we proceed from the “big bang” theory.

One answer to consider would be that there was no actual chaos to begin with, at least not in the sense that we understand that concept, e.g, a complete lack of organization.  I presume the thesis that the material universe  came into being following an inconceivably large explosion commits one to the initial chaos view, with much of it still around in the vastness of space where matter hasn’t settled down in some form of coalescence between particles, e.g., stray radiation, dark matter(?)  But we can only speculate about these things given the absence of any substantiated knowledge about the nature of such conditions, including the events that may have preceded them. All of this continues to be highly speculative and hence theoretical, and we should all be nervous about the fact that – as we work our way back to the beginning of time – we are inferring causes from their supposed effects, and in philosophy that kind of reasoning would be considered logically fallacious.

But whatever the conditions were at the time of its instantiation, even a cursory look at how the material universe appears to have evolved since its very early stages would suggest the (inherent) presence of an organizing principle  from the moment it came into being.   Presumably, for this principle to be present would suggest it to be present in every material particle in the universe, and as such we might consider it a physical  or scientific law, or “a theoretical principle deduced from particular facts, applicable to a defined group or class of observable phenomena”.

We may recognize this principle as the engine of evolution, as it is gradually being expressed at ever greater levels of material and organizational complexity.

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The Truth Lies Within

I believe I pointed out earlier that it makes more sense to look for answers that underpin the meaning and nature  of our existence “from the outside in”, as opposed to “from the inside out” – and this in connection with attempts to understand the origin and nature of the physical universe with VLTs (Very Large Telescopes), and where the field of vision becomes forever wider and less defined as we get further afield and away in time and distance from ourselves. As such, no meaningful antecedents regarding the origin and nature of our existence will be derived from our examination of outer space.

Instead, going into the opposite direction- and within ourselves – will narrow down to an ever finer point of focus, and should lead to the very source of why we have these  kinds of existential questions in the first place.  While the nature and intent of these questions remains the same – why or what for are we here – their formulation will be less a function of language or the need for a technical explanation and so not be limited by it. Language functions on the basis of distinctions between subject and object and the multitude of relationships between them in terms of their various properties.  While this will get us around in the material world and with each other in a functional manner, these distinctions become less relative as we descend within ourselves and beyond the world of our ever changing sensory experiences, and into the realm of  thought and understanding. That is to say, the place at the receiving end of our experiences  that can look past their fragmentation and complexity and discover their underlying unity, meaning and purpose, and that is some more easily intuited – or felt – as opposed to being capable of being articulated.

For instance, if you think of the multitude of people in the world – as opposed to thinking of all the differences between them, and the sometimes good  – but so often terrible things they do to each other as a result of the differences between them, and think of them instead as really being just one creature, one life form, one aspect of a living planet that is being instantiated time and time again with tremendous skills and potential to act on them with the hope that that it  will get it right one day and assume its proper place under the stars, whatever that place may be.

To focus on that requires you to be less of an individual, to blur the distinction between subject and object, between self and others, and to diminish the sense that you are one of many while assuming a  unity with the nature of the world from which you sprang, and to which you shall return.  To touch base with our fellow creatures in this manner begins beyond the level of our sensory experiences,  and predisposes our thoughts towards them, and should we ever be able to pull this off …  well, the world will be a more meaningful place for it.

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So Is There A Plan?

I made a reference earlier to the cosmos having an agenda as it pushes the evolution of its substance towards ever more organizational, diversity, complexity and behaviour.  We could deny this of course, but the theory of evolution wouldn’t make much sense without having some kind of intent at the root of it all. I guess the notion of the cosmos having an objective of sorts  makes a lot of people uncomfortable, in particular if they are saddled with religious beliefs that appear irreconcilable with such a concept. And for philosophers it will provide a ready ground to question the metaphysics around it, i.e. how does such an objective exist, and where would you start to formulate an ontological argument for its existence?

I would want to go so far as to say that – if the the cosmos were to have an intent or objective, it would not be over and above but be entirely intrinsic to it, such that it is present in everything that exists as a part of it. This would make every material particle part of “the plan”, but – in my mind –  it would be a mistake to think of the universe as consisting of gazillions of distinct and individual particles that somehow are held together, kept in place and enabled to interact with the help of natural laws, eg., gravity, mass, opposite attraction, etc.  That is what we see perhaps, and that is likely a function of how we need to see the world around us in order to be able deal with it effectively at our level.

Instead, there  is really only one entity that – while it exists in mysterious ways – its being encompasses  all that exists and what is significant about that is not the enormity of its age, size or energy (the very thing that we mere mortals find so intimidating) but the depth and quality of its creative ability to bring about its raison d’être, whatever that might be, such as to justify its own existence (what I think) –  as this is something we are all saddled with …

Sorry, more kitchen-table cosmology, I guess.

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Seeing Is Believing

And so I keep coming back to that notion that it is a mistake to think that we apprehend  the world through the machinery of our perceptual apparatus  as if we were seeing it through a clear piece of glass – although that is the way in which we would normally think we are seeing the world of our experiences, as the process of seeing is completely transparent to us.  And so it is when we look at a TV, and  see the images displayed on it.  The technology that brings us the imagery is taken for granted because we have no reason to question it so long as keeps producing an accurate picture of the world has we have encountered it without this technology. But if you think about how the technology  of television was developed, you can imagine that there was was a lot of going back-and-forth between the actual object and the appearance of it on a CRT after it was transmitted – to the point that the technology allowed for an accurate representation of the object.  And so you could argue that mother nature went about this the very same way, with the difference being that the adjustments were made as required, gradually, to the biology of living systems as it was evolving, based on how it needed to interact with the reality it perceived via its sensory experiences.  And that is the difference of course between seeing something on TV versus seeing it directly – as you are unable to in interact with your TV, but you can with your environment.

So what reason do we have to believe the physical world as we experience it is not accurately represented in our experiences,  such that it is necessary to maintain the distinction between the world out there – as it is from itself (Kant’s ding ansich) – and the world as it is delivered to us internally via our sensory apparatus?

To cut to the quick, I’m sure we have all seen the Matrix movies – and you will get from it the idea – in principle –  that the brain can be fed any kind of reality if the technology was there to make it happen.  This is a very old argument in philosophy: the Brain-in-Vat hypothesis, and the ultimate skeptical Cartesian argument about the external world, namely that:

… one is a brain in a vat with systematically delusory experience, (is) modeled on the Cartesian Evil Genius hypothesis, according to which one is a victim of thoroughgoing error induced by a God-like deceiver. The skeptic argues that one does not know that the brain-in-a-vat hypothesis is false, since if the hypothesis were true, one’s experience would be just as it actually is. Therefore, according to the skeptic, one does not know any propositions about the external world (propositions which would be false if the vat hypothesis were true). (Brueckner, Tony, “Skepticism and Content Externalism”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2012 Edition)

I don’t know about you, but I am quite comfortable assuming there is no evil genius or Matrix-like environment out there is messing around with our brains – although, yes, we can’t absolutely sure about that  :-)

Another reason to suspect the perceived world to be “tainted” by the perceiving and interpretive apparatus of the brain  is the fact that we approach the world, presumably with a particular intent or purpose in mind. That is to say, the evolving universe has put us here with an agenda.   And even if this agenda should to a large extent be about the ability to survive,  there will be a  principle applied to the manner in which the brain and its sensory apparatus  develops based on the input of the environment that is physically external to it. And so we can’t be sure what aspects of the world have been included or screened out in the development of our sensory organs, but we can safely make the assumption that the sensory abilities we have developed most are of the greatest benefit to us. Thus, we see what we need to see, hear what we need to hear, etc., as well as in the particular manner that serves us best in order to deal with the information in the most successful  manner.  That is: in the interest of advancing the agenda that includes our very instantiation and continued survival as a component of  the evolving cosmos for purposes that continue to be an absolute mystery for us.

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The Limits Of Our World

The ability to conceptualize the data of our sensory experiences into the reality of our every day world is critical to our ability to survive and thrive in it. And that isn’t necessarily a uniquely human ability – and would exists in varying degrees within other creatures in the world depending on their level of sentiency. But only in humans is this capacity developed to the point that it can be articulated in terms of shared ideas, and be the subject of continuing investigation and analysis.   Now that we can do this and chimps – our nearest cousins in the animal kingdom – cannot, is not just a function of the ability to use one’s brain more effectively, but also the fact that the human cerebral cortex, the brain’s most highly evolved region, is three times larger in humans than in chimps. The latter simply don’t have the hardware for this –  to put this in very simple terms.

The point is that –  when it comes to understanding the nature of the world – we will likely also run out of hardware in our cerebral department, eventually, when we run into the limits of the conceptual framework that we have imposed on it, as those will be the limits of our world as well.  We simply cannot reach beyond our grasp – either physically or intellectually – when it comes to understanding the world we see in our minds in terms that account for our own presence in it – as that would reach beyond the fact of our own physical creation, a fact that is given to us without recourse to justification.

Every man takes the limits of his own field of vision for the limits of the world. (Arthur Schopenhauer)

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About Form and Function

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

To (finally!) continue the thread from the previous post a bit further, it follows we are no innocent bystanders here with respect to the spectacle of the world as we have encountered it; we are implicated in the very creation of it, as a conceptual construct based on our interaction with the world, given that we have no other means of approaching it other than through the realm of our sensory experiences. Here I am revisiting the views held by Schopenhauer in The World as Will and Idea (1818). I wrote about this earlier in 2006. I also share his rejection of naïve realism, or what I would call 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 in the sense that they can be modified based on our understanding of things.

This doesn’t mean that things don’t exist unless they are perceived – the peculiar thing that Berkeley seemed to have believed, but only that – while the world brought us about in a material sense through a process of evolution – we also created it for ourselves conceptually in order to be able to function in it. (Thinking our way around these two seemingly incompatible theories of the world is what Schopenhauer referred to as an antinomy in our faculty of knowledge, and here he follows Kant who has some well-known antinomies of his own.)

Now it could be argued that it is in fact a useless – if not false – distinction between the world as it is from itself and that very same world as we encounter it through our experiences. Given that we have no other means of accessing it directly in a material sense, 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?

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.

In that connection I wrote earlier that  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. 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 age, origin and size of the material  universe, by poking into the furthest and oldest region of the universe, looking for clues of sorts – 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, and where this particular process would seem to want to take us to.  As such, the cosmos is a work in progress, and that is as much information as we have about it.


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About the Limits of Knowledge

Given that there are limitations to what we can achieve with our bodies in a physical sense – e.g., how high we can jump, or how fast we can run – it seems reasonable to me to assume that there are going to be limits to what we can achieve with our minds in an intellectual sense that are a function of the unique physiology of the human brain. But apart from that, there are going to be other limitations to our ability to think about the world and our place in it.

Here I am referring to our ability to understand  those aspects of our existence that would have to be larger than us in the sense that they have gone into the making of us – and underpin the evolutionary push that brought us about. All of this on the assumption that the evolution of matter is a teleological process, and intrinsic to matter itself.

But insofar as we are able to  look back to see how we did come about in an evolutionary sense – and attempt to deduce some evolutionary principles from this – we can’t look back quite far enough to see what started it all because we can’t conceptualize a world that doesn’t have any humans in it yet without begging the question.

That is to say – we cannot undo what we have added to the world due to our own presence in it, and see it independently from ourselves. In Schopenhauer’s words, in the end it is always a human eye that looks at the world, and a human brain that must interpret the information. As such, we will always see the world from the inside out, as opposed to from the outside in, i.e., there is no immaculate perception (as Nietzsche put it once).  And so there is no objective knowledge of the world, because all knowledge is a function of how we encountered the world from the very moment we were able to perceive our own presence in it.

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Looking Back From Our Vantage Point

I’m sure most would agree the universe is a difficult thing to wrap your brain around at any given time, and in particular when its various dimensions expressed in time and space are taken into consideration.  This makes it for mere mortals such as ourselves nearly impossible to relate to it in some meaningful way – and I don’t think that is just my problem. From that I want to I conclude that we aren’t meant to look at it in that way at all, and I base this on the premise that, since we – as human beings –  are an event of the universe, we embody its intrinsic nature in every particle of our bodies, and that means the very beginning of it, and all that it encompasses right up to the very present.  And if we are an intricate part in all of this, we should have a means to latch on to that particular aspect of our existence in terms of having some kind of understanding of the cosmic phenomenon that goes beyond the fact of merely residing in it – and yes, I am making a bold assumption here, but let me try to make some sense of it.

So we need to look at it in some different way to get an idea of where we fit in this spectacle of mind-boggling energy and expanse.  And the way to do this is to not see the totality of the cosmos as just another object to be characterized and classified, e.g. just one more thing we have encountered amongst other things that have their physical properties defined by their dimensions in space and time.  Instead, we might want to consider it as an event that is characterized by its ability to bring about progressive change, and in particular in terms of the organization of matter.  As such, what we are able to appreciate isn’t the relative comparison between objects of a different size and age – an ultimately meaningless exercise –  but the manifestation of a directional process leading to ever higher degrees of material complexity and organization.  In case of the latter, the physical scope of the universe doesn’t matter – but its ability to reflect the progression from elementary particles to ever higher levels of material complexity and organization does, as at the very end of this process we can find ourselves having a place in it, as there is no matter (that we are aware of) that is more intricately organized than the stuff the human brain is made of.

And looking back from our vantage point, we can now relate to the larger whole as an achievement in the evolution of matter that is not only able to look back unto itself and into the past, but also able to look forward towards its future and a tomorrow with a sense of purpose that is consistent with – and worthy of – the  magnitude of effort that has brought us to where we are today. Well, here’s hoping,  anyway …

Hope springs eternal in the human breast: Man never is, but always To be Blest. (Alexander Pope, Essay on Man and Other Poems)

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