The alpha and omega of our humanity: an all-too-familiar trope

It is a standard narrative trope. We’ve encountered and enjoyed it millions of times: life is not as it seems. Our hero is not what she appears to be. Behind the veil of illusion, there is a different and more profound reality to discover.

If I have previously reflected on the ubiquity of this trope, I probably concluded that it is so commonplace only because it is a very easy idea to hang a story around.

I am now wondering if there is something much more fundamental to the trope. I am wondering if an ability and willingness to treat direct experience as an illusion behind which a more fundamental reality exists is the ultimate source of our humanness.

Take, for example, religion and science.

On the one hand, religion tells us that the savage and unpredictable storm is really an angry god. On the other hand, science tells us the storm is really an atmospheric disturbance created by the interplay of fundamental laws. The explanations are different, but they both rely on the idea that the truth of the matter is very different from what we directly experience. For them both, direct experience is an illusion behind which a more fundamental reality exists.

With these examples in mind, take a closer look at learning, creativity, language, consciousness, hermeneutics, the human reproductive cycle — really, just about anything fundamental to understanding humans as humans — and the trope turns up time and again. It seems to be as ubiquitous in reality as it is in our stories. If that is correct, perhaps, the trope appears in our stories so often only because we are fundamentally the kinds of beings that make sense of the world from that perspective. Perhaps, our stories mirror and reinforce an innate way of looking at the world.

Now, if this is true, here is a curious thing.

True happiness, the sages often tell us, is found only when we learn to appreciate the here and now, our given circumstances, the moment. Unhappiness, we are told time and again, is rooted in an inability or an unwillingness to appreciate the inherent value of direct experience. We suffer unnecessarily only when we grasp for superfluous wants beyond the here and now.

If the sages and I are both correct, it looks like our ability and willingness to treat direct experience as an illusion behind which a more fundamental reality exists is not only what makes us fundamentally human but it is also the root cause of our unhappiness. We are our most human, it seems, when we treat the given as something to be looked through and dismissed. We are also our most unhappy when we fail to appreciate what we are experiencing in the moment.

My highly speculative and totally-talking-out-of-my-ass theory to make sense of this apparent conflict is that the species is coping with a recent adaptation. Our brains, at some point in our recent evolutionary history, developed an ability to treat direct experience as an illusion behind which a more fundamental reality exists. From this adaptation, many of our most distinctively human traits have sprung. We are, nevertheless, mammals fundamentally and, for most of our evolution, we were animals that took direct experience as a given and succeeded because of it. We carry both traits in us now because they both helped us to succeed over the course of our existence.

The big worry for me, however, is that the ability to treat direct experience as an illusion behind which a more fundamental reality exists might actually be a maladaptive trait. Because of it, we dominate and control the environment like no other species and are reproducing at a frenetic rate. On first impression, this seems like the very definition of an evolutionary win. However, if our species gets wiped out in the next century or two because of our domination of the environment and frenetic population growth, that will be a undisputable lose. Our “success” might be so fleeting in geological terms that in a few thousand years no trace of us will remain beyond a curious spike in carbon emissions. If that is the case, as a species, we would have been much better off never developing the traits that allowed us to dominate nature and reproduce so frenetically.

There, of course, remains an outside chance that enough people will recognize the reality of what is coming and act together to make the dramatic changes necessary to avert the species’ oblivion. Perhaps, our day-to-day existence will become so difficult that we will have no choice but to change our ways before it is too late. There is even the faint hope of some kind of technological fix. And while the colonization of other planets is also feasible, abandoning the ship does not really seem like much of a solution or a victory, when we were the ones who scuttled it.

It seems we have painted ourselves into the corner of a familiar story. A catastrophic outcome is inevitable and only a miracle will save us. Is there a plucky band of misfits assembling now who will save us, thanks to their courage and conviction? Perhaps, a higher power or powers has already picked the chosen one and will reveal his or her true destiny shortly. Perhaps, that flickering light is not a star but a starship racing towards us, laden with the technology and know-how we will need to survive and flourish. One can only hope that there is some reality in these well-worn fantasies, but that in itself is an all-too-familiar story.

The condition of my humanity: arrogant humility

It would be fair to say that I have spent most of my life thinking about the human condition.

The catalyst for this lifelong reflection was the profound realization, at the age of nineteen, that God does not exist. At the time, it seemed that the fact of God’s non-existence was a big deal. I also thought that a full and proper understanding of this fact would have profound consequences for the way I, you, all of us should live. I expected profound consequences because we live in ways that have been built on and around the idea that God exists. Remove the keystone of God’s existence, I thought, and the structure of everything would fall away, and we could rebuild everything anew. I read, I argued, I taught and, in the end, I realized that God’s existence or non-existence is pretty much irrelevant to deciding how we should live.

Then, it occurred to me that capital-T truth does not exist. It seemed to me that this was the fundamentally important fact, for more or less the same reasons that I thought God’s non-existence was so important. Again, I hoped that if I thought long and hard enough about it that I would identify some profound implications for the way I, you, all of us should live. I read, I argued, I taught and, in the end, I realized that the existence or non-existence of capital-T truth is as irrelevant to how we live as the existence or non-existence of God, for more or less the same reasons. Whatever you or I may believe about the nature of truth, it doesn’t really matter when it comes to deciding how we should live.

Then, it occurred to me that a fully naturalized and evolutionary understanding of consciousness was the key. Because culture and society begins and ends with humans, it seemed reasonable to conclude that a better understanding of the human nervous system would lead to profound implications for the way I, you, all of us should live. Moreover, for the first time in human history we had tools that allowed us to exorcise the quasi-divine conception of self we had inherited from our ancestors. The moon may have already been conquered by others but we are the first humans to tread on the very stuff of the human condition. And while it remains theoretically possible that there may be some unimaginable discovery yet to be made that will falsify the conclusion that I am about to share with you and that you should really be able to anticipate by now; but, after reading, arguing, and teaching, I have reached the conclusion that we will never be able to draw unassailable and universally compelling conclusions about how we should live based on a fully naturalized and evolutionary understanding of consciousness either.

The crucial words here are “unassailable” and “universally compelling”. With the benefit of hindsight, I see now that I was hoping to find a conclusion, a claim, an idea, something that would win in every argument and always compel all others to action. I was doing what prophets and priests and philosophers and warlords have been doing since time immemorial. I was trying to derive an “ought” from an “is” and hoping that the “ought” would be so magical and powerful that everyone would be swayed by it. The subtle and not terribly sophisticated difference is that I was trying to derive an unyielding “ought” from a “not is” instead of an “is.” Rather than saying, “x, therefore you must do y”, I was saying (or hoping for), “not x, therefore you must do y.” For example, instead of “God is love, therefore, we should do good,” I was hoping for “there is no God, therefore, we should do good.” And while it remains intuitively plausible to me even now that there is some special significance in the fact that things like God and capital-T truth don’t exist, I know that it is as nonsensical to draw unconditional moral claims based on what is not as it is to draw unconditional moral claims based on what is.

And, as important as that conclusion may be, the far more important insight, I think, is that the very idea of an unassailable and universally compelling argument is a coercive fantasy. It is essentially the hope that might and right are identical and that rightness can in and of itself compel others to believe and act. It is also an idea that leads, I think, either to passivity or to oppression because, if right and might are one in the same, either unpopular beliefs are not quite right or there is something not quite right with everyone who fails to accept and act on beliefs we think are right. If a belief, idea or way of life fails to compel acceptance and motivate action, we either think less of that which was  not compelling or think less of the people who failed to be compelled. So, either we end up believing and doing nothing because the burden of proof is impossibly high or we do whatever we want because disagreement is proof that those who disagree with us are somehow broken or not fully human and, for this reason, don’t deserve our consideration and can be compelled to do anything we want.

It’s also crucial, I think, to realize that might comes in many forms, is expressed in many ways, and is never in itself a measure of rightness whatever its form or expression. Most people, for example, would probably now accept the notion that the strength of a person’s muscles has no bearing on the validity of their beliefs, and yet many today still believe that the strength of a country’s military or its economy is a measure of the rightness of its moral and political values. Vote-getting, profit-making, and fundraising are often thought to be legitimate measures of rightness but they really only indicate what can attract votes, profits, and charity at any given point in time. An argument, a speech or an essay may be persuasive, but this in itself is proof only of its persuasiveness. Charm may be non-violent, but there is no reason to think that a consensus built on it is any more true than a consensus built on fear. Might comes in many forms, and it never makes right — even when it is expressed in a way we admire or by people we like.

I should, nevertheless, be explicit on this point: coercion is an inescapable fact of social and political life. We must sometimes coerce people to do things they would rather not do (remember: forcing people not to interfere in the lives of others is a form of coercion too). However, we should always coerce cautiously and from a place of humility, respect and empathy, recognizing that there will be times when we will also be coerced to do something we would rather not do. Most importantly, we must never conclude that our ability to force a person to do something that they would rather not do proves anything about the merits of our beliefs, our way of life or our worldview. Coercion becomes oppression, I think, precisely when we start to believe that our might — whether it be physical, intellectual, emotional, financial, electoral, anything — is proof that we are right. It is one thing to force people to comply with, say, a political or legal decision with which they do not fully agree, while at the same time recognizing that the decision may be imperfect. It is something altogether different to force compliance and, at the same time, insist that coercion would be unnecessary if only those who were being coerced were more rational, compassionate, or open-minded — or whatever term we might use to signal that they are to blame for not seeing it our way. We must, I think, always remain mindful of the fact that anyone of us — and not just those people who we think are the bad guys — can walk the path of good intentions from coercion to oppression.

With that important caveat in mind, we must, nevertheless, carry on living and, in my own case, I have come to embrace an attitude of, what might be called, arrogant humility. I’m arrogant enough to think I have a pretty good shot at making pretty good judgments about what is or is not the best course of action in most situations, when I do the work to gather and consider enough of the relevant evidence. I am also humble enough to accept that I often get it wrong, that I have blind spots, and that some of my most cherished beliefs and well-considered beliefs might be totally wrong. In short, I’ve come to trust my judgement, while at the same time accepting its limitations and failings. I am no longer looking for something — or a not-something — to validate my beliefs, decisions and failings.

I will not, however, claim that all people should necessarily adopt this attitude. I can’t ignore the fact that much good has come from people who have put their faith in God, who pursue the Truth, or stand their ground in the name of moral facts that they consider to be self-evident. I am also well aware that much evil has been done in the name of God, Truth, and indubitable moral facts written into the bones of nature, however, when I consider the evidence available, I am not convinced that these attitudes necessarily lead to good or evil. Whether a person has faith in God or in their own judgement, they must consider the evidence and make judgments based on it. They and I may sometimes disagree over what counts as admissible evidence, but a shared commitment to the fact that might does not make right and right does not make might seems to me to be much more important than a shared opinion about the nature of God.

And once I set aside aside worries about the existence or non-existence of God, Truth, and Human Nature, it was much easier for me to see that there is both too little and too much to say about the human condition. From one perspective, we are simple, fleeting and trivial creatures who, like all the other quirks and quarks in a cold, vast and indifferent universe, are, in principle, perfectly predictable. From another perspective, the human condition is an unimaginably rich and cacophonous kaleidoscope of boundless possibility and each human life is unique, beautiful, and precious. The human condition is a lot like the weather, I think. Seen from on high, it is simple and perfectly predictable, but, closer to the ground, it is complex, varied and difficult to predict, and, at the eye of the storm, no two storms are ever quite the same for those who experience it — no matter what the experts, instruments, and equations may say.

And that’s all I have to say about that (I think).

As Insignificant As A Star: The Brief Light of Consciousness

Pale Blue Dot“We’re made of star stuff,” Carl Sagan famously quipped.

Sagan makes this claim, in part, because of what we are made of. We humans, like all other animals and most of the matter on Earth, are made of carbon, nitrogen, and oxygen. These elements, we know, were created in stars long ago.

Sagan also makes this claim because he wants to make us feel special. He adds, in a curiously Hegelian turn of phrase, “We are a way for the cosmos to know itself.”

In this way, Sagan adds his voice to a chorus of opinion about the nature of human consciousness. Like Sagan, many other people want to characterize the fact of our consciousness as something profoundly special. They want human consciousness to be much more than one more mere phenomenon of the universe. Sagan wants us to feel special because we are conscious of the universe and can come to know it.

Sagan’s claim about the specialness of humans, however, like all such claims, does not make much sense.

Yes, we are made of matter that originated in stars. That matter, however, has existed in one form or another for billions of years. It will exist for billions more. The amount of time it will be animated by our consciousness is imperceptibly short. From this perspective, consciousness and whatever it might come to know is of no more or less significance than anything else.

Consciousness, nevertheless, is precious to us. From our perspective, it should be. Its temporality, its finitude, its ephemeralness, its very nature shouldn’t diminish its preciousness to us. It only seems less precious, I think, when we fantasize, like Sagan, about its special significance.

We humans seem to have a desperate need to make ourselves out to be much more than we are. Even a cosmologist like Sagan, who is all too aware of the vastness and scale of the universe, succumbs to this desperation. It is this desperation to be more than we are, I think, that leads either to hubristic fantasy or pointless nihilism.

Instead, we should accept and embrace our indifferent and fleeting place in the vastness of the universe. It is, after all, the most plausible account of our place in the universe. It may also be the key to truly enjoying our brief time as conscious and experiencing matter here on our pale blue dot of a planet.

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The Performance of Teaching: Not Ready For Its Close Up.

Blue and BrutalTeaching, I’ve discovered, is a bit like theatre.

I’ve always known, of course, that performance is an important aspect of effective teaching, especially when the size of the class is more than a handful of students.

I’ve now learned that the kind of performance involved in teaching, like the performance involved in theatre, does not translate directly to video very well.  

I learned this recently while developing a video version of Brains, Minds, and Human Nature, a course I developed and delivered for Carleton University’s Learning in Retirement program.  

Originally, I had imagined I would make the video version of the course simply by delivering and recording new lectures using the lecture notes and slides that I used for the class. As soon as I tested the idea, a few weeks ago, I realized it wouldn’t work.

There’s a casualness of speech and tone in classroom teaching, which doesn’t transfer well to the detailed attention of an audiovisual recording. Similarly, audio recordings also require a pace and intensity that would be over the top in the classroom.

Repetition, in order to reinforce key details, is essential in classroom teaching. In an audiovisual recording, which can be stopped and played again immediately, that kind of repetition quickly becomes tiresome.

After a few false starts, I developed a script for the video which is much shorter and much more focussed than I thought it would be, focussing on only a few of the ideas I presented in the course. It will work, I think, but it will be different than a formal course.

Hopefully, it will be ready for sharing fairly soon, depending on the approach I adopt for its visual components. I’m considering a simple approach and a more elaborate approach. I’m inclined to keep it simple, but I won’t know for sure until I get the audio recorded and drop it into a video editor.

If you’d like me to send you a link to the video, when it’s posted, drop me a quick note at sterling.lynch@gmail.com or leave a comment below.

My Learning In Retirement Course Wraps Up: More to Come!

LearningSix weeks goes quickly when you’re preparing new lectures and delivering them to a group of highly engaged and attentive students.

My Learning In Retirement course, Brains, Mind, and Human Nature, wrapped up at Carleton University last Tuesday.

I haven’t received the official feedback yet, but I expect it will be positive overall.

I’d say most people in the class enjoyed the course and my lecturing style. A few people even took the time to express their enthusiastic appreciation directly to me. One woman told me that she enjoyed my humor. I’ve also got a few more Facebook friends too.

For me, it was an exceptional experience. It’s rare to have the rapt attention of any number of people, but all the more rare while teaching. In sharp contrast to most undergraduate classes, everyone present wanted to be in the classroom and was very eager to engage with the ideas I presented. 

If you’d like to learn more about the course, I produced fairly detailed lecture notes to go along with my slides. Take a look below and send me your thoughts.  

  1. Introduction and Overview
  2. The Politics of Your Brain: Anarchy Not Monarchy
  3. The Unconscious: An Altogether New Kind of Beast
  4. The Geography of You: Where Do You Begin and End?
  5. You’re Not in Charge: Free Will and Moral Responsibility
  6. Exorcising the Ghost in the Machine: A New Understanding for an Old Vision of Self

I will also convert this course material into a series of YouTube videos. I expect the videos will have a slightly different tone, given the nature of the medium, but I expect the series will cover much of the same ground that the course did.

If you’d like to be notified when I produce and post the first video, send me an email: [Sterling.lynch@gmail.com]. I’m also available for tutoring — one-on-one or in small groups. 

Think you’ve got a lecture series in you? Contact the good people at Learning In Retirement. The program is exceptionally well-administered. I highly recommend the program to any teacher, who is ready to bring their passion to a group of people who are ready to share in it and to learn from it.

The Geography of You: Where Are Your Borders?

Springs eternal.Where do you begin and where do you end?

If you’re like most people, your answer to this question is probably something like, “I begin inside my skull, at a spot about an inch or two behind my eyes, and I extend only as far as my skin.”

Other than the feeling that this is the extent of your geography, is there any other reason to believe that these are the true borders of you?

Perhaps, and probably not.

Your sense of your identity’s geography, like everything else about you and your mind, has roots in your brain. Moreover, the parts of the brain responsible for this feeling can be influenced, damaged, and manipulated to change the feeling of where you begin and end.

In controlled experiments, for example, subjects can be induced to believe fake rubber hands, mannequins, and even other people are a part of who they are — in the same way that you currently believe your hand is a part of you. Similarly, damage to the brain can cause a person to deny that one of his limbs belongs to him — in the same way that you are likely to deny that another person’s limb belongs to you. Last but not least, a person can be induced to believe, by seizure activity, intentional stimulation of the brain, and psychoactive chemicals, that they exist outside of their body — in the same way you think you exist inside your body now. In other words, that feeling of where you begin and end is not set in stone and is open to influence and manipulation from and by stimulus in your environment.

Once we recognize and accept this fact about our sense of self, it become much easier to second guess the presumption that a mind — yours or mine — necessarily originates in one body or brain. If the feeling of where a person begins and ends can change depending on how the brain is stimulated, there doesn’t seem to be any reason to accept as natural and given the very modern notion that a mind is something that originates in and, ultimately, belongs to one body or brain. We might even come to question whether or not this modern notion is the correct understanding of the relationship between a mind and the environment in which it emerges.

For example, many indigenous people often talk as if the land is a part of who they are, in a very concrete sense. There is an easy temptation to understand such talk allegorically, but, if a brain can be induced to believe that a fake rubber hand is a part of its identity, presumably a brain can also evolve to see the land around it as a part of its identity, in a way that is as concrete as the feeling that your hand is a part of you.

More importantly, we can and should turn this observation on its head and ask, instead, if it is our modern sense of self that has been distorted, say, by colonialism and capitalism. It is, after all, much easier to exploit other people and the world around us, when we believe that our identity extends no further than our skin.

Intrigued?

If this line of reasoning has piqued your interest, please take a look at some of my other posts that discuss our new and growing understanding of the brain.

If you’re feeling more ambitious, take a look at Robert A. Burton’s A Skeptic’s Guide to the Mind. It a friendly and accessible start to a fascinating topic, which discusses some of the research I’ve mentioned in this post.

I’m also in the process of developing a little (and free!) online course, which will explore the implications of the research described in Burton’s book (and others) from a philosophical perspective.

If you want to be the first to receive what I develop, sign-up to my email list or subscribe to my YouTube channel.

If you would prefer a personal guided tour through this research and its implications, let’s talk.