Wednesday, January 6. 2010
Continuing our discussion on Kenny's conversation on consciousness . . .
As I described yesterday, when we empirically observe the nature of our own thoughts and consciousness through meditation or introspection, we observe that:
That's the evidence of our introspection. The question is: how do we interpret that evidence? What does it mean? There are at least two approaches to that evidence:
Currently, I find both interpretations to be almost equally compelling.
The spiritual interpretation of consciousness was the most compelling case I had ever found for spirituality – much more compelling than traditional religion could muster. It generally satisfies my intuition. I can't deny that consciousness is – it is the one thing I am most sure about – so I am perpetually annoyed by people like Dennett or Hofstadter who refer to it as an "illusion." (If it is an illusion, to whom is it an illusion? Can something be an illusion to itself? This is what Ken Wilber would call an "operative dysfunction": if it's right, it's wrong.)
On the other hand, the materialists have some good points I can't shake off. As I wrote previously, I think the Churchlands were right: just because we can't imagine something does mean it's not true. Steven Pinker made the same point in How the Mind Works, arguing that not only might we not understand consciousness now, we might never understand consciousness, for the simple reason that our species never evolved the capacity to do so.
Most significantly, there are the troubling correlations between the mind and the brain. So far, the only minds we've ever found appear to be housed in brains. (Some mystics would claim that ALL things are aware, which is an interesting idea but impossible to verify.) Electrical wave patterns in the brain are strongly correlated with states of consciousness in the mind. If you damage the brain, the nature of consciousness also appears to be affected. (I cannot for the life of me understand why so many spiritual people are all gaga over Jill Bolte Taylor, when her experience only lends credence to the notion that supposedly "spiritual" states are the product of the brain, and a damaged one at that.) Even if you accept the spiritual interpretation of the phenomena of consciousness, you are left with difficult questions: if awareness is "a thing apart", total separate from thoughts and feelings, why does awareness only occur in brains? And what makes us so sure that awareness will continue when the brain is gone? It's at this point that I start to feel like the materialists are winning the argument: the mind is the product of the brain, and awareness, though mysterious, is part of the same physical package. It's only the fact that the neuroscientists still don't have a satisfactory explanation for qualia and consciousness that keeps me on the fence.
Tuesday, January 5. 2010
Ok, I'm going to start running down my own arguments and positions related to Kenny's conversation with Keli Y on the nature of consciousness and how it relates to meaning, purpose, and how we choose to live. Please forgive me if this is all repetitive of things you've read from me before.
Starting from the top of the list: who do I think I really am? Am I a body, or thoughts or emotions, or the consciousness observing the body, thoughts, and emotions?
On this question, I'm right in there with Kenny – I am the conscious awareness of thoughts, emotions and perceptions. Like Kenny, I find this to be empirically self-evident: if I sit in quiet meditation and observe my thought processes, it inevitably becomes clear that "I" do not control my thoughts. The thoughts happen, and "I" observe them happening. Whatever that "I" sense is, it is NOT in the thoughts themselves.
The best thought experiments to hone in on the nature of identity are to imagine immortality. What would it take for "you" to live forever? Does your physical body need to survive, forever unchanging? Does the pattern of your thoughts and feelings, your personality, have to survive? Or is it something else entirely – for lack of a better word, your soul?
Most people will readily agree that their body is not who they really are. Were that that case, we couldn't even imagine stories like "Freaky Friday", in which a mother and daughter trade bodies for a day. We observe people losing parts of their body (an arm, a leg) and replacing them with prosthetics, and we don't consider them to be different people. A body seems like something we have, not something we are. So we can readily believe we might be immortal without keeping our bodies.
What about our thoughts? Here it's a lot harder to see the distinction between what I am and what I have. In English we use both forms for describing thoughts and emotions: "I am angry", versus "I have a lot of anger", or "I lust after her" versus "I keep having lustful thoughts." It seems like we can go either way on that one, as Kenny described, through a process of identification, in which our sense of self temporarily attaches to particular thoughts and feelings. When you observe carefully, though, you will ultimately conclude thoughts are not essential to the self. We can easily imagine dying, finding ourselves in Heaven, and realizing that we don't feel angry, hateful, or lustful any more. Our thoughts can change (they do all the time anyway) but we are still the same person. In fact, such change is almost necessary for us to feel like we are alive: we call it "growth."
What about memories? Do we need to remember our lives in order to continue being, essentially, "us"? This gets even harder to pin down, since almost everybody thinks the sum of their experiences are what makes them them. And yet, even that doesn't seem to be central to our notion of ourselves, for an obvious reason: we forget. We forget lots of stuff. In fact, we forget most of what happens to us. We even construct memories of thing that never actually happened. And (getting back to immortality) we can imagine getting to Heaven, and enjoying ourselves so much there that eventually we forget everything that came before – our jobs, our worries, our fears, even our own names. And yet it would still be us that were living on in Heaven.
What's left, after you take away body, thoughts, feelings, and memories? Only consciousness – that which observes everything and is nothing in itself. That's who we know ourselves to be.
And yet . . . in spite of all that . . . the argument is still not won. More on that tomorrow.
Monday, January 4. 2010
Kenny posted his latest essay -- actually, an ongoing dialog on the nature of consciousness -- with the apology: "Somewhat intellectual and abstract, even by my standards--sorry!"
No need to apologize. Of all the topics on which one can get intellectual and abstract, this is the one worth doing it for. The questions that Kenny discusses with Keli Y are exactly the questions I have been struggling with for most of the last year. I have a dozen or more unfinished essays, all taking different stabs at the same questions:
Anyone familiar with the SKS, which defined most of my spiritual life for the last twenty (!) years, would recognize that these are all the perennial koans of a genuine spiritual path, at least as Augie Turak and many other teachers define it. This should all be old hat. So why should I be so fired up about them now?
So, in a nutshell: I started out agreeing almost entirely with Kenny's position on all these questions . . . And over the last year or so I have been dragged kicking and screaming to a position closer to Keli Y's. It might take me a while to explain why.
Sunday, January 3. 2010
Shortly before Christmas, I was running some late-night errands when I heard a lecture by David McCollough, the Pulizer Prize-winning historian, on NPR. It was an unexpected Christmas gift.
Our culture does not appreciate history much. We are a people of industry and innovation and technology – we think only the present and the near future matter. With the increasingly rapid pace of change brought on by technology, even ten years ago feels like the distant past, and almost by definition irrelevant. (See, for example, the Onion's coverage: "Internet Archaeolgists Find Ruins of 'Friendster' Civilization".) Why, then does history matter at all?
History is not merely useful or good. McCollough maintains it is vital to the education of our children, and most especially to our leaders:
After hearing the lecture, I went back to my bookshelves and found a gift from several Christmases past: a copy of 1776, McCollough's best-selling history of the beginning of the American Revolution. It is every bit as good as the critics proclaim. One of the advantages of my relative ignorance of history: it makes for an exciting story when you read it for the first time.
Saturday, January 2. 2010
Every writer (or reader, for that matter) can't help but watch the bookstore shelves. We know the relative dimensions of the Barnes & Noble sections better than the supermarket aisles. One trend I had noticed is the philosophy section growing significantly larger. About ten years ago, genuine philosophy books took up about two shelves, wedged between three bookcases of Religious Inspiration and two bookcases of New Age. Now, philosophy is occupying about two bookcases, with two whole shelves just dedicated to the "new atheism." About three shelves are given over to the "Philosophy and…" books. Evidently the popular culture has a taste for philosophy as long as it is liberally mixed with its favorite music, television, movies, and/or pulp fiction: "Philosophy and Superheroes". "Philosophy and Def Leppard". "Philosophy and Twilight". The publishing trend is noticing something the SKS has recognized for decades: people (especially young people) are interested in philosophic ideas, so long as they are made relevant to the things they care about, and framed up in compelling narratives instead of abstract principles.
Maybe it's just a matter of title inflation. After all, the big-box bookstore came into being in my lifetime, and now there's five times as much of everything. Christian Inspiration now has one side of an entire aisle. But still, the Long Tail is making for more and better philosophy offerings.
I've always been somewhat ambivalent about these "Philosophy and…" hybrids. I got into philosophy by reading popularizations like Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, which made high-falootin' thinkers accessible to a high school senior. So I'm usually for anything that brings the wisdom to the masses, no matter where they are at. On the other hand, it's a little sad that Plato can't get a hearing in our culture unless he dresses up in a clown suit. I'd feel a lot better about the popularizations if they led people to read the actual texts, or better yet, to write them.
I got an unexpected taste of the Philosophy and [insert pop culture fad] trend in a stocking stuffer this year: Heidegger and a Hippo Walk Through Those Pearly Gates. This is a sequel to Plato and a Platypus Walk Into a Bar: Understanding Philosophy through Jokes. (I am notoriously difficult to shop for, Puritanical Stoic that I am, so a lighthearted book on philosophy was a safe bet for Santa to make.)
The book was . . . much better than I expected. The jokes were only so-so -- there were only one or two worth the retelling. What surprised me was how heavy the philosophy was. The book opens with a discussion of Ernest Becker's The Denial of Death, which is the correct place to start with talking about death, but it's no laugh riot. Kierkegaard gets a surprisingly detailed treatment as well, in spite of hilarious titles like "Fear and Trembling" and "The Sickness Unto Death". For all of their lighthearted banter, the authors don't pull any punches. They keep up the banter strictly because it's the only way to sugar coat a bitter pill. "We're all going to die, and that really sucks! Hahahahahahaha!" Rather than hewing to the chicken-soup recipe of feel-good visions of heaven, they deconstruct it. It turns out our common popular notions about the afterlife -- clouds, harps, meeting loved ones, etc. -- are more the result of paintings and movies than scripture, and the authors make it fairly clear that even a fundamentalist (especially a fundamentalist) will not find a lot of scriptural backing for a continued existence in the hereafter.
I give them credit for tackling not only the unpopular ideas, but the hard-to-understand ones, too. The nature of consciousness, qualia, time and eternity -- no philosophical distinction is too subtle for their undertaking. That's tough sledding, especially if you want to keep Joe Six-Pack's attention.
Even more surprising: the authors reference the same pop culture items that had been part of the SKS canon for years. For instance, Peggy Lee's "Is That All There Is?" or Tim McGraw's "Live Like You Were Dying." And best of all: Thornton Wilder's Our Town. I'm glad we're not the only ones who noticed.
After all their wise-cracking explanations, do they take a stand on anything? Do they have an answer to the question of Death? Not really . . . but they are mostly honest about it. They candidly admit that the promises of religion are not credible, the offerings of existentialism are cold comfort, and technological immortality is currently unobtainable and not even necessarily desirable. They have a consolation prize from Williams James, a get-out-of-angst-free card that defends our "right to believe anything that is live enough to tempt our will." In effect: "Unless you have direct contradictory evidence, you're free to believe whatever you darn well please. Whatever works for you, baby, that you're thing." That sounds like a great way to avoid offending anyone, but throws wide the gate to all kinds of rationalizations. As many devout Pastafarians can attest, once you're free to believe in something without evidence, you are free to believe anything . . . which ultimately devalues the very notion of belief. The whole reason we have beliefs is because they are true (at least, conditionally true), and truth helps us navigate the universe. If we use our beliefs to guide our actions, then there is an inevitably price to be paid for holding false beliefs. And if we don't use our beliefs to guide our actions – if a belief is so harmless that it has no impact on the way you live -- then it's hardly worth having, is it?
Friday, January 1. 2010
Happy New Year!
A small gift I picked up at Kenny's New Year's Eve party, which I will pass on to you: an essay from the New York Times that reminds me what is possible with popular writing on philosophy.
Ross Douthat's essay analyzes James Cameron's latest blockbuster "Avatar" and finds it is one more Hollywood tribute to pantheism, along with the likes of "Dances with Wolves", "The Lion King", and "Star Wars". That's obvious enough; the American audience is familiar by now with ham-fisted eco-fables that glorify Nature and those who commune with it. (I would throw in "Princess Mononoke", too, but Joe Morgenstern beat me to the punch.)
But Douthat moved beyond the obvious, to make a spot-on analysis of why American movies have been so taken with pantheism: ambivalence about technology, and the need for a more immediate (and less inconvenient) sense of divinity. And, even better still, he provides as terse, eloquent, and devastating a critique of pantheism as you'll ever find in 190 words.
How could they possibly allow this much wisdom in a newspaper? And in the Times, no less?
And that's just the content. On a process level, check out the dude's bibliography. My enduring respect goes to anyone who can cite five movies, two gurus, a Pew Forum report, a historian, four philosophers, and a scientist (not to mention the casual allusions to Christian theology)inside of 800 words, and not even break his conversational tone. That's what Augie would call "Plato to NATO" -- a well-read person bringing the full weight of their intellect to a conversation, even if it is just about a pop sci-fi movie.
I continue to despair of writing anything remarkable, but for different reasons than before. Once upon a time it felt like people like me, or Kenny Felder, or Augie Turak were all alone in the cultural landscape. The volume of the cultural noise has gone way up in the last decade, but amidst the ocean of drivel there is more sensible thinking to be found than ever before.
So, here's to a new year, a new decade, and the ongoing hope that wisdom is possible, if not easy.
Friday, November 13. 2009
My seven-month-old son James has the distinction of being a Happy baby. He wakes up happy. You have to turn up the monitor louder than usual, it's so easy to miss his waking up. While my first two sons generally woke up crabby or groggy, James just lies there blowing raspberries while he admires the stitching on his knit blanket. Sometimes he bangs on the bed repeatedly with an open palm, full of enthusiasm, as if to say: "Man, I cannot wait to get going. This is gonna be great." I like to sneak up on him when he's just woken up, just so I can see that serene clarity on his face – unafraid, and full of interest. Then he notices me standing by the bed, and he smiles like I am the best thing that could possibly happen to him today. If I died today, my final thoughts would be of that wake-up moment.
I have a theory on why people like dogs so much. Dogs are consummate optimists. To a dog, everything in the world is interesting: "Man, check out this bush! I mean, just smell it! Did you catch the whiff of . . . and what's that? Wow!" Every day is a good day to a dog. No matter how many times they fail to catch the squirrel, every time the squirrel comes into the yard, they chase it, with full-tilt commitment. As far as they are concerned, today is the day they are gonna catch that sucker. And when you come home at the end of the day, they are always very glad to see you, and make a point of saying so. In short, we keep dogs because we want to be reminded that happiness is possible.
My son James has near dog-like powers of happiness.
He is also remarkably good-looking. There is so little one can say about a human being before their first birthday, other than routine observations of their appearance or their disposition. "He's so cute/adorable/beautiful" usually top the list of comments, but people sense that even those rubrics are insufficient for this particular child. "No, I mean, really, he's really good-looking." Once my wife walked down the street with him, and a stranger abruptly interrupted her cell phone conversation to step forward and say, "Now that . . . is a beautiful baby." Talk about super-powers . . . Superman might be able to leap over tall buildings, but my son can shatter cell-phone bubbles.
This isn't just a proud parent qvelling over his kid. I have a philosophic point. The last year or so I have been lost in the wilderness, philosophically speaking. I have struggled with doubts and fears and reservations. As Rumi put it, I wake up "empty and scared." I have tried to use Reason to nail down the purpose of my life . . . and yet James reminds me every day that Life is not a rational proposition. What we believe, what we know is only a small fraction of how we live, how we hold ourselves as we move into life. Love and joy, the things that give meaning to existence, while always transcend reason.
Tuesday, November 10. 2009
It might help if I tested technologies before I wrote about them. I've read a whole bunch of critiques of Outlook's handling of RSS feeds, and even following my own instructions I ran into some trouble with them. It looks like Outlook will not remember the RSS settings if you create the feed as I described.
Isn't technology fun?
So, after a few more test posts to make sure things are running smoothly, I'll correct my instructions. Normally, I wouldn't bore my readers with such things, but Blogland has a ready-fire-aim pacing. And I need more posts to see how quickly things will distribute. <evil scientist hiss>Patience, my little guinea pigs.</evil scientist hiss>
Monday, November 9. 2009
I'm just testing the RSS feed to make sure it comes through in a timely manner. If you see this post, it's probably because you already know more about RSS than I do. This post will self-destruct in about ten minutes.
Friends and family have frequently (all too frequently, sadly) carped about the fact that I'm not posting as regularly as I used to, and after years of daily posts it's a drag to check the site day after day and see nothing new. Wouldn't it be nice if new stuff I wrote just showed up in your email inbox?
Well, such hypermodern technology exists. It's been around for longer than this blog, in fact. It's called RSS, which stands for "Really Simple Syndication." It must not be that simple, because the majority of people I know (including me) don't use it. But, for what it's worth, here's how you can get Abandon Text delivered to your Outlook 2007 inbox:
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