April 22, 2011
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Knowing others is wisdom… Knowing yourself is enlightenment.
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This is the first part of a series of blogs that I mentioned would be coming… The ones where I was going to do my best to present several ideas which aptly demonstrated that the notion of a ‘self’, a notion which we all seem to cling to so ardently in life, is really nothing more than a sort of grand illusion of consciousness conjured up by the biochemically ‘aware’ molecular systems of our bodies, which – if you’re a human being (or even a bird, perhaps) – use a vocalized type of memetic linguistic patterning to confer ideas, notions, emotions, warnings and/or other data to one another within social groups of a similar species… As it happens, these memes also evolve in a very similar way to the physical bodies that we presently use to convey all these ideas/memes with (after all, we do live in a fractal like universe)… And, it should be mentioned, all of this arose ‘naturally’ from the strange and unexpected relationship between order and chaos inherent within the solar system’s accreted mass of star dust… In fact this same strange and unexpected relationship between order and chaos resides at the heart of all universal phenomena… But more on that later.
For the moment… Please do excuse the length of time it has taken for me to realize this post… However, much patience, practice and research was needed to construct the essence of, what I’m sure many experts on the subject will only consider to be, this very rudimentary study. And perhaps, while I am managing to be humble, I should also add – so as to be totally honest and fair – that I’m really no better off reaching any definitive conclusion about what ‘I’, or rather my ‘self’, actually is either!?!?
In fact… This study has only made me more and more unsure – more unsure than I’ve ever been before – about what constitutes an idea of a ‘self’… Demonstrating for me, at least, that what many of us seem to take for granted as being a ‘certain’, ‘definable’ and ‘constant’ notion of identity and/or existence, upon closer inspection, actually becomes a very vague, intangible and indefinable man-made abstraction centered more around linguistic syntax rather than on direct knowledge or experience alone. I know that might sound quite disconcerting to some… However, it should be noted that it is nothing more than an alternative idea to counter the many commonplace views that presently exist on how the majority of us see our ‘selves’ and our position here in the cosmos today… Not to mention that I feel it might well be a good time to start evolving a bit, both mentally as well as physically.
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The individual has always had to struggle to keep from being overwhelmed by the tribe. If you try it, you will be lonely often, and sometimes frightened. But no price is too high to pay for the privilege of owning yourself.
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I know, I know… Why would anyone want to challenge the socially accepted Western view of the universe that we’re presently running along with… One that seems to set in stone a type of superiority over the rest of life here on Earth… One where the ‘self’ is all pervasive, and yet, it remains silently un-clear and unrevealed to those who need to know the most about it… ? Well, I for one don’t feel that our present state of Being and/or understanding adequately reflects our true circumstance… Let alone our true nature… And, having spoken to many fellow human beings here on Earth recently (so as to clarify whether we’re all functioning properly or not), I have discovered that many of our present problems i.e. over population, food shortages, war, etc… seem to stem from a fundamental error in the way we all perceive how we connect to the environment around us… To be more specific about this error… We all seem to be observing everything we do through an idea – or lens – of ‘self’. One that focuses our minds into modes of specific and present action within the world we presently find our ‘selves’ in.
But why should this way in which we perceiving things actually be a problem? Well… If we were to accept the idea of our ‘self’ somewhat blindly – like many of us do presently – and see ourselves as all being independently standing i.e. our ‘self’ exists separately and independently of everything else (which many of us clearly thinks is the case, seen by most people amassing bank balances, material wealth like gold, jewelry, cars, fashion based clothes, social status, etc)… Then we can actually limit the way that we see, understand and interrelate to everything and everyone else around us here on planet Earth and within the universe… Why? Because if we choose to completely disregard how the notion of ‘self’ came into being, and use only a marginalized approximation of what this unbounded essence of existence really is, then I fear we may mangle and divorce ourselves thoroughly from any real chance that we might have of developing a true and more appropriately connected state of Being that considers who ‘we’ all i.e. all sentient beings, unquestionably are.
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It is astounding that man, the instigator, inventor and vehicle of all these (i.e. political opinions and religious understandings) developments, the originator of all judgments and decisions and the planner of the future, must make himself such a quantité négligeable. The contradiction, the paradoxical evaluation of humanity by man himself, is in truth a matter for wonder, and one can only explain it as springing from an extraordinary uncertainty of judgment – in other words, man is an enigma to himself. This is understandable, seeing that he lacks the means of comparison necessary for self-knowledge. He knows how to distinguish himself from the other animals in point of anatomy and physiology… But as a conscious, reflecting being, gifted with speech, he lacks all criteria for self-judgment. He is on this planet a unique phenomenon, which he cannot compare with anything else. The possibility of comparison and hence self-knowledge would arise only if he could establish relations with quasi-human mammals inhabiting other stars…
Carl Gustav Jung (1875 – 1961)
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I mean… If we could cultivate an understanding of things that is free of ‘self’ centered tendencies and ‘selfish’ attitudes towards natural resources and ecological processes… An attitude that is devoid of all ‘self’ importance… And, thus, prevents our ‘selves’ from taking this idea of a ‘self’ too literally… Thereby relieving most – if not all – of the unnecessary stress and folly that awaits us if we continue with these ‘self’ centered views and relationships i.e. unwittingly promoting deconstructive behavioral patterns within our societies and ecosystems… Then we might well be able to disarm the citadels of ‘self’-importance that we have all imprisoned our ‘selves’ in… And REALLY SEE how ‘we’ all closely interconnect to the world (and universe) around us…
In many ways, this is why this journey to find my ‘self’ was so important… In fact, it’s why I feel it’s a really important journey for us all to undertake. Otherwise we will be cursed to pollute and destroy our delicate ecosystem over and over again, propagating an unsettled karmic pattern from our unenlightened mind streams and resulting behavior patterns, creating a Saṃsāra without end.
Thus, bearing in mind all I’ve written about within this website, it became, for me, a natural evolutionary process to take sometime to ponder over where the true enemy lay hidden… And, by being as humble and as diligent as I possibly could (please bear in mind I still have many faults and, thus, have done only as best as I could with my present defilements of mind, etc…), I managed to catch a glimpse of the enemy within… The enemy within my ‘self’… The one who created all the ‘self’-centered views, stances, opinions, arguments and ways of being that I’ve had, gotten into or done over the years… And I wondered, how can pacify this selfish mode of being… ?
For, once we manage to dismantle this ‘selfish’ perceptive stance, we might well be able to grasp how our present worldview was constructed and, thus, develop a better attitude toward solving our problem of ‘self’ obsession from the inside out rather than trying to do it from the outside in. Nothing we can do outside will ever really permanently change what is going on inside… Why? Well, it’s a bit like what Robert Persig once wrote in “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance”…
“But to tear down a factory or to revolt against a government or to avoid repair of a motorcycle because it is a system is to attack effects rather than causes; and as long as the attack is upon effects only, no change is possible. The true system, the real system, is our present construction of systematic thought itself, rationality itself, and if a factory is torn down but the rationality which produced it is left standing, then that rationality will simply produce another factory. If a revolution destroys a systematic government, but the systematic patterns of thought that produced that government are left intact, then those patterns will repeat themselves in the succeeding government again and again. There’s so much talk about the system. And so little understanding.”
In my humble opinion, it’s in building our present conceptualized understanding of things from the inside out that we have created most of our problems here on Earth.
For example, the idea of ‘self’ – which is a designated social construct that allows anyone who can grasp it to relay, say, how they are feeling in relation to the world around them – provides us with the necessary notions/ideas for constructing sentences with, eluding to a “subject” and “object” with regards to some aspect of happening or action, OR change, between – or relative to – the two entities i.e. a subject and an object… From this formulation we derive the ability to describe to others our place in the world around us, along with the changes that effect all within it daily unfolding, and even how they affect our ‘selves’ and each other (see Noam Chomsky’s “Language And Mind”). Thus the notion of a ‘self’ gives us a very handy tool by which we can understand the world around us, conveying what we feel we need to convey to others in order to act with every one’s best interests at heart (or not) and do our best to survive.
Through this conveyance, We i.e. human beings, were able to organize – via the use of language – our ‘selves’ as collective groups who work together more effectively and efficiently as an objective, collective unit, relaying the merits of certain actions, and condemning overly ‘self’-centered interests that broke up group efforts (see Scientific American’s recent article “Groups With Good Social Skills Outperform The Merely Smart“). In this kind of linguistic/collective exchange, the ‘self’ allowed us to find a type of collective ‘fairness’ and/or ‘equanimity’ within the subsequent constructs of moral codes of conduct… Which, in time, became laws of the land.
So the ‘self’ has bestowed us with the advantage of understanding how we – as individuals – would like to be treated morally and, thereby, it allows us to develop a kind of moral, self-referenced exchange that ultimately posits an agreeable universal code of conduct between us all, precluding good living and optimal survival conditions for the majority. This is a type of morality that most of us would agree with one another upon… Why? Because it allows us to see things in relative terms i.e. the body, where our ‘perceived’ center of consciousness ‘seems’ to emanate from (more on this later), is the center of our perspective… And, relative to everything else, we desire a certain amount of ‘happiness‘ from the actions we perform, so that, on the whole, we all lead stress free and healthy lives. Thus, for the most constructive outcome within the complex dynamics of human flourishing, our actions should be morally guided with a concern for the whole… For looking after the interests of the whole precludes looking the interests of the individual.
So… Bearing all this in mind… Perhaps now is a good time for me to introduce the idea that most languages are essentially the same… I know on one level it might sound a bit bizarre i.e. Japanese is certainly not the same as French, which is not the same as English or Tibetan, otherwise we’d all speak like each other… Rather I mean that the syntax of all sentence structure is essentially the same as one another. In order to demonstrate this, I have quoted the following passage, which comes from the introduction to Noam Chomsky’s book, entitled “New Horizons in the Study of Language and Mind.”
Taken from Noam Chomsky’s “New Horizons in the Study of Language and Mind”, this is a Forward by Neil Smith. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press. Pp. xvi, 230. Reviewed by Gilbert Harman, Princeton University
Here are seven essays that describe and deplore a philosophical double standard that respects the methods and results of physics, chemistry, and biology but not the methods and results of linguistics and other sciences of the mind.
One sign of the double standard is that, while hardly anyone thinks one can do philosophy of physics without knowing physics, it is all too common for one to think that they can do philosophy of language without knowing linguistics.
Chomsky is, of course, the leading figure in contemporary linguistics. Starting in the 1950s, his development of generative grammar was an important factor in the shift from behavioristic to cognitive approaches to language and mind. Chomsky’s approach takes the goal of linguistics to be to characterize the human faculty of language, noting its differences from the human faculties for general problem solving science. As Chomsky and other linguists tried to give explicit characterizations of the competence of a speaker of a language like English, it became clear that a child learning language simply does not have the sort of evidence available that would enable it to learn the relevant principles from scratch. There is a “poverty of the stimulus.” The child must be prepared to acquire language with these principles in a way that it is not prepared to acquire the principles of, say, physics or quantification theory.
It is clear that normal children acquire a language that reflects their particular linguistic environment. A child brought up in Japan acquires a version of Japanese. The same child brought up in Brazil acquires a version of Portuguese. So, these languages must in some sense reflect some of the same underlying innate principles.
Further reflection along these lines and a great deal of empirical study of particular languages has led to the “principles and parameters” framework which has dominated linguistics in the last few decades. The idea is that languages are basically the same in structure, up to certain parameters, for example, whether the head of a phrase goes at the beginning of a phrase or at the end. Children do not have to learn the basic principles, they only need to set the parameters. Linguistics aims at stating the basic principles and parameters by considering how languages differ in certain more or less subtle respects. The result of this approach has been a truly amazing outpouring of discoveries about how languages are the same yet different.
More recently, there have been attempts to try to explain some of the basic principles on the assumption that the language faculty is close to an ideal engineering solution to a problem of connecting the language faculty with the cognitive system and the articulatory perceptual system. This “minimalist program” remains highly speculative, but whether of not it succeeds, contemporary linguistics as a whole has been a tremendous success story, the most successful of the cognitive sciences.
One would therefore expect that any philosopher of mind or language would make it his or her business to understand the basic methodology and some of the results of this subject. But many philosophers of mind and language proceed in utter ignorance of the subject.
For me, at least, this demonstrates – via the tenets of linguistics – that languages used for communication, a ‘universal’ trait of human beings presently here on Earth, are all essentially structured in very similar ways to one another. This notion of the subjective vs. objective in turn aids, what I can only call, the programming of one’s ‘self’ – via a type of memetic feedback loop – into who they ‘feel’ they presently are in this moment of their lives.
Perhaps it should also be mentioned here that, as we use with such daily regularity a linguistic ‘method’ that defines how separate aspects of the world occur in relation to ourselves i.e. we use sentences that include a plethora of ‘nouns’ or ‘names’ for almost everything we can experience tangibly or intangibly (see the dictionary for a full scope on the number of words that we use to describe things seperately with, coupled with their manmade ‘meanings’/'definitions’) along with how these names/nouns/concepts all interrelate to the separate notion of our ‘selves’… Thus we are unwittingly cementing in place a worldview based on an understanding of ‘separateness’… Of ‘independent’ arising… Where everything seems to have an ‘apparent’ individual identity and meaning, independent of everything else. And, if we don’t check ourselves daily, then we will fall foul of this ‘self’ referential system of thought, and think that everything must be ‘separate’ from everything else… Or even have a ‘meaning’ or a ‘purpose’ of some sort… A meaning that differentiates and/or separates it from other things… !!!
Perhaps that is why many of us feel at a loss when we truly realize that there is no inherent meaning to anything i.e. that everything is ultimately empty… Even the idea of our own lives, which is just a fantastical social construct at best, has no inherent meaning beyond that which we create for our ‘selves’… And, something that has scared me recently (though I must say I am slowly beginning to feel more at ease with the idea now), that there is no inherent meaning, or even concrete definition, to the notion of my – or even your – ‘self.’ I know I still haven’t discussed why the idea of a solid, or ever constant, ‘self’ is perhaps a delusion… But I am getting there slowly…
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Ultimate truth cannot be taught without basis on relative truth.
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After we have seen how everything slots together within linguistic constructs – and understood from which direction we constructed the conceptualized notion of the universe around us – we might well clinch a better method of action with which to resolve most our problems of sustainability and war with… Not to mention that it might well become a highly effective method that will allow us to see how we constructed the notion of our ‘self’ within our relative modes of understanding. For, once that is understood, I believe that we might well give our ‘selves’ the power to ‘self’ realize and actualize our own remedy from within.
It’s a bit like a motorbike… If you don’t know how one is constructed… Or even what a screw does… Or, even, how this basic unit of the motorbike functions i.e. a screw… Then you will never be able to repair it when it breaks down… Just because you know how to drive a bike doesn’t mean you know how to fix it. But when you look at all the parts that gave rise to its coming together… Even how it stays together… Then we will be able to at least take the motorbike apart, bit by bit, undoing the of the basic units that built it up… And, thus, through that process, we’d be able to have a better chance at seeing what is wrong with it and, so, have a better chance of repairing it.
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So as to look at some functions within the mind/brain/body/environmental continuum… I’d like to recap on what we’ve already covered in this blog… Mainly because I feel they contain some very important aspects about how the ‘self’ functions within this here website… For example, the notion of our ‘self’ functioning as a sort of feedback loop (as discussed in Douglas Hofstadter’s book, entitled “I Am A Strange Loop“), along with how analogy can be viewed as the core of cognition, plus how the mind naturally demonstrates that the very process that drives it is based on an engine of nonlinear dynamics i.e. an engine of pure chaos, as well as how we are beginning to use these models of understanding in order to develop artificial intelligence with… Not to mention we have discussed concepts that treat our ‘self’ as nothing more than an amalgamation of ideas/memes that collect over the course of our lives, via a feedback loop between the mind/brain/body/environment continuum, and which are then assimilated into a central memeplex of ‘self’ for relative temporal processing… !!! We’ve also seen how prone to illusion the system of our biomechanical bodies makes us – the very bodies that we use on a daily basis to perceive the world around us with… And, thus, we can see how we should also be aware of the resulting delusions that therefore creep into our own socially constructed understanding about what the nature of reality ‘seems’ to be… !?!? And, bearing that in mind, we’ve even managed to discuss how nothing is permanent and that ‘time’ is really only a conceptualized understanding about how our past memories relate to the only moment that we really have i.e. this present moment… Thus we can begin to understand how we distort the essence of experience with social constructs, like the concept of ‘time’, which we choose to gauge gradients of change with in relation to our own, somewhat ‘self’ biased perspectives, which are usually mainly centered around our own clusters of personalized memories.
I think all these insights are so important to bear in mind… Why? Because rarely do we truly see past these prejudiced, memetically procured views and glimpse at the pure and ultimate nature of everything – and I mean EVERYTHING – which resides in a continually evolving flux of new patterns… Unfolding freely and interconnectedly from one ‘conceptualized’ moment to the next… In fact, there never was any need for conceptualization… Nor was there ever any moment… There was only Being… Being in the now… A Being that was beyond all definition… Continually evolving… Beyond all understanding… Free from any conceptualization…
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None by his own knowledge, or by subtle consideration, will ever really understand these things. For all words and all that one can learn or understand in a creaturely way, are foreign to the truth that I mean and far below it.
John Van Ruysbroeck (1293 – 1381)
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‘Being’ never needed any conceptualization because experience was naturally selected for without it and, so, it spoke completely for its ‘self’… Pure ‘experience’ is unbounded and beyond all dualistic modes of thinking… But once one takes the bitter bite/byte from the fruit that came off the tree of knowledge, we instantly limit our understanding of all things and forget that we are much like butterflies ‘flapping our wings’ of imagination within the parameters of our caged, syntax based existence, ‘using our structured minds’ to shape the world in which we now live… How many of us realize that there is this beautifully unbounded, enchanting, chaotic beast lurking deep within the system of our ‘selves’… ? One that, if ignored, can amplifiy subtle changes to manifest infinitly further down the line, like ‘hurricanes’ ripple off the flutter of a butterfly’s wings… Capable of destroying as much as creating.
Without a better viewpoint of our ‘selves’ and how we relate to the universal system in a karmic manner, it will be very hard for us to develop a pure and compassionate intent that amplifies predominantly constructive modes of living, while diminishing the destructive aspects of actions suitably for optimal flourishing of all sentient beings… For, without constructive modes of living, we only unwittingly harm other sentient beings, including ourselves, much further down the line.
Furthermore… So as free our own existence from a “God created us in his image” induced self-righteousness, which seems to only further this ‘self’ obsession… I’ve also begun to touch on how science, along with other ‘human’ endeavors, are yielding results that clearly demonstrate that ‘We’ all are really nothing more than a bunch of ‘interdependently’ related chemical reactions which are slowly evolving in a closed-off, ‘petri dish’ type of a planetary environment, which is isolated from other planetary ecosystems only through space’s vast and open, inhospitable expanses… Here, on Earth, whether we realize it or not, we are simply ‘doomed’ (though I fear that is very much the wrong word with which to describe life’s bountiful delights with) to do our best to survive and work around any sudden environmental/social/universal changes that might disrupt or hamper our ability to live in stability with the environment and ecosystem we find ourselves in. That is unless, somewhere down the line, we actually forget what our original purpose was.
Here I’d like to take a moment to introduce an article from Paulo Coelho’s blog entitled, “Learned Helplessness”… Perhaps, while reading it, I would beg everyone to consider the plethora of maladies that this modern world – and its medicine – has invented for us i.e. ADHD, anxiety disorder, etc…
The American psychologist Martin Seligman’s foundational experiments and theory of learned helplessness began at University of Pennsylvania in 1967, as an extension of his interest in depression.
A person should be able to walk away from an abusive relationship, for example, or voluntarily quit a stressful job. A psychological condition known as learned helplessness, however, can cause a person to feel completely powerless to change his or her circumstances for the better. The result of learned helplessness is often severe depression and extremely low self-esteem.
Learned helplessness can be seen as a mechanism some people employ in order to survive difficult or abusive circumstances. An abused child or spouse may eventually learn to remain passive and compliant at the hands of his or her abuser, since efforts to fight back or escape appear futile.Learned helplessness results from being trained to be locked into a system. The system may be a family, a community, a culture, a tradition, a profession or an institution.
Initially, a system develops for a specific purpose. But as a system evolves, it increasingly tends to organize around beliefs, perspectives, activities and taboos that serve the continuation of the system. Awareness of the original purpose fades and the system starts to function automatically. It calcifies.
Some experts suggest learned helplessness can be passed on through observation, as in the case of a daughter watching her abused mother passively obey her husband’s commands. The daughter may begin to associate passivity and low self-esteem with the “normal” demands of married life, leading to a perpetuation of the learned helplessness cycle.
Child abuse by neglect can be a manifestation of learned helplessness: when parents believe they are incapable of stopping an infant’s crying, they may simply give up trying to do anything for the child.
Another example of learned helplessness in social settings involves loneliness and shyness. Those who are extremely shy, passive, anxious and depressed may learn helplessness to offer stable explanations for unpleasant social experiences.
A third example is aging, with the elderly learning to be helpless and concluding that they have no control over losing their friends and family members, losing their jobs and incomes, getting old, weak and so on.
How many times could I have just given up and gone to sit with the rest of the herd, medicated up to my eye-balls, happy and supposedly contented with my lot in the daily routine of ‘supposedly’ well adjusted human endeavor… And done so until eventually, one day, I died… ? Too many times was I given this option… And how many times could I have just proclaimed helplessness within this capitalist society and given up this quest of ‘self’ discovery and operated in only the confines of some syndrome or mental disorder, looking for immediate gratification and comfortable conformity? Again, all too many…
Perhaps when one begins to formulate all this for themselves… And glimpse at a more adequate type of interdependent reality for themselves… They might well suddenly realize that our own need for stability limits the way we view this ever-changing world and universe… And, once that step has been taken, perhaps we can then also begin to glimpse at a humbling reminder that shows us we are all really nothing more than the ‘left-overs’ of matter reconfigured in the present solar system’s accretion process – all of which was constructed naturally, via processes of chaos, from a mass of fused atomic debris which had been expired, like soot from a fire, by past splendiferous burns of long gone suns…
Here, perhaps we are somewhat fortunate to have developed a type of organic Life that allows ‘us’ to be present, both here and now, and perceive the wonders of the universe as they unfold around us… Using similar structures and processes to those found in and around the universe so as to guide our perceptive mechanisms and understandings..
Well… I’m sure you can imagine how all this began to sound to a layman like myself… Especially when I began compiling and piecing together all the data and experience I had available to me – which, on the whole, was taken from a vast quagmire of scientific journals, published papers, university/researcher websites, books, video lectures and even going to (though I think ‘sneaking into’ is a far better description of events) a few university lectures in person, as well as some transcendent experiences involving psychedelic drugs and certain meditative techniques – so as to understand a bit more about my place, here, in the unfolding non-linear dynamic of the cosmos…
No doubt, while gorging my ‘self’ on the raw data that ‘I’ had amassed, ‘I’ found my ‘self’ restructuring and rearranging it into streams of, what ‘I’ can only call, an intuitive patterning, or sense of reasoning… One that came from my heart and gut as much as it did my head, all the while filling up the pages of this website with these ‘raw’ ideas… Ideas that relentlessly kept flooding into my mind’s memetic stream… And yet, whilst laying out all these ideas for restructuring, I never knew that I’d be slowly coming back round, ‘full circle’ so to speak, to look back at the observer… At the ‘self’… To see this idea of consciousness looking back at its ‘self’ in an eternal feedback loop… Like someone standing in front of two slightly distorted mirrors faced back in upon each other… And then, when I discovered that the observer, them ‘selves’, can actually shape the way in which the world functions around them simply through the act of perceiving it… !?!? Well… That blew a lot of the ‘supposed’ common sense I had learned from school and society right out of the water.
However, during this process of reflection, the hardest thing for me was trying to pin point where this ‘self’, this observer, actually was… Where ‘I’ actually came from… Why? Because, in trying to discover what my ‘self’ was – this powerful perceiving entity that could shape the universe around it simply by observing – I found my ‘self’ using all the antiquated social constructs that I had been provided with during my childhood and teenage years; concepts and ideas that I had learnt while I was at school and university… And in doing so, I found my ‘self’ needing to ask new questions within questions, so as to to puncture the crusty surface of a hard-baked, almost calcified, social reality… Questions like, if I didn’t use any type of language to communicate with, then, in the absence of any conceptualized notion of a ‘self’, would ‘I’ still be aware of my ‘self’ in the way that ‘I’ presently am, etc… ???
‘I’ mean… Surely if this idea of a ‘self’ was meant to be so obvious a fact… Like, “I think, therefore I am…” ! And as obvious as the existence of a ‘self’ seemingly was… Didn’t there have to be an equally obvious and simple answer about what the ‘self’ actually was/is… An answer that could exist independently of everything else – like language seemed to hint at – without the need to unravel the highly complex and infinitely long chain of cause and effect that brought it all into being… !?!?
But every time I looked at boiling any set of these conceptualized notions about the ‘self’ down into a concise and tidy bit of understanding… I only found endless vagaries, each of which did not quite fit the mark… Each of which didn’t satisfy my need for precision… Each of which required more questions to be asked… And each of which required more answers than the last to be defined and clarified… Spiraling into and endless foray of attach and parry that would apparently lead me to a reachable goal. Oh, how deluded I was.
It eventually became evident that a straightforward and transparent concept of the ‘self’ was not possible. In fact, the solution of my ‘self’ – which I found to be impressively colorful, soluble and ‘seemingly’ apparent in the vocalized solution of syntax which we all used in every day life, much like a dye in water – kept evading any type of concise certainty about what the ‘I’, which was being discussed, actually was. Paradox upon paradox kept layering over one another… I mean… How far could it go? Could these questions go on and on forever and ever… ? Like the way we could go on zooming into and/or out of our present scale of conscious resolution (let’s temporarily forget the apparent limits imposed by the Planck length)?
For example… When I wanted to look at the solidity of my body, where I once thought I perceived my ‘self’ to reside… I wondered whether the ‘self’ could simply be a sum of its physical parts i.e. and enduring form relating to all the atoms in their present structural configurations, connected together in cascading molecular lines/chains of environmental functionality?
But then ‘I’ remembered an idea that was discussed earlier in “An Idea About Who We Really Are“… An idea where the body’s apparent solidity comes into question.
Perhaps here it is a good time to introduce one of those paradoxes that I came across not too long ago, entitled the “Ship of Theseus…” For I feel this adequately allows us to grasp the idea of whether physical (even mental) identity – something that is related to the idea of a ‘self’ – is persistent or not…
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“The ship wherein Theseus and the youth of Athens returned had thirty oars, and was preserved by the Athenians down even to the time of Demetrius Phalereus, for they took away the old planks as they decayed, putting in new and stronger timber in their place, insomuch that this ship became a standing example among the philosophers, for the logical question of things that grow; one side holding that the ship remained the same, and the other contending that it was not the same.”
Plutarch tells us that the ship was exhibited during the time [i.e., lifetime] of Demetrius Phalereus, which means ca. 350-280 BCE.
To make the original puzzle clearer… Let me reiterate this idea in planer English… Over the years, the Athenians replaced each plank in the original ship of Theseus as it decayed, thereby keeping it in good repair. Eventually, there was not a single plank left of the original ship. So, did the Athenians still have one and the same ship? Or was it a completely different ship?
But we can liven it up a bit by considering two different, somewhat modernized, versions. On both versions, the replacing of the planks takes place while the ship is at sea. We are to imagine that Theseus sails away, and then systematically replaces each plank on board with a new one (say it is his habit to carry a complete supply of new parts on board as his cargo). Now we can consider these two versions of the story:
Simple version: Theseus completely rebuilds his ship, replaces all the parts, throws the old ones overboard. Does he arrive on the same ship as the one he left on? Of course it has changed. But is it really the original ship?
Let A = the ship Theseus started his voyage on.
Let B = the ship Theseus finished his voyage on.
Our question then is: Does A = B? If not, why not? Suppose he had left one original part in. Is that enough to make A identical to B? If not, suppose he had left two, etc, etc… Where do you draw the line? I mean… If all the new parts came from the same forest… Or even better… If they all came from the same type of tree as the pieces of wood that ship was originally constructed from did, would this allow one to call it the same ship? Or if these pieces of the same tree were carved by the same person… Would it then be the same ship? Then again… Are these just trivialities? And, if so, would it even matter if Theseus stopped along the way and used different types of wood, whatever came to hand, so to speak… Then would this still be the same ship?
The permutations on this paradox are almost endless… For example, if all the atoms in the ship, atoms that have come together after the processes of accretion and evolution that formed us all along with the rest of the solar system that we now see around us today… If these atoms were replaced in exactly the same position and manner… The only difference being that the atomic matter came from a different set of suns… Would Theseus’ ship still be the same ship? Are the processes that made us more important that the material we are built from?? Or is the notion of ‘importance’ its ‘self’ empty of all inherent meaning… And, thus, is inadequate to describe anything ultimately???
In my humble opinion… We can apply this same principle to the physical notion of our ‘self’… For example we have already seen in a prior blog, entitled “An Idea About Who We Really Are” that, over a 15 year period, the human body replaces almost every single cell within its structure. All the material changes within us… Thus, is this body, that you are now using to read these words with, actually the same body that you had several years ago? I know for me, at least, it certainly feels like it is the same body… In fact it feels similar to the body I had 15 years ago… 15 years ago I was 20 years old, and pretty much looked the same… Albeit now I have a few grey hairs and am slightly fatter than I used to be… I know I ‘essentially’ still feel the same now… And I can still do nearly all the same things I used to, etc… But, despite these similar feelings, am I really the same person?
The same happens with experience. Experience shapes the way we react to the world around us. Different experiences cause different memories to be formed… And with these memories, we temporally choose to guide our ‘selves’ through certain situations… So, if we had to two of me… Exactly the same as each other, up to a specific point in time i.e. all the materials and processes that made us both were exactly identical… Along with all the experiences up to that moment in time, etc… Then, if one of me was to experience something completely different to the other… Would that differing experience mean that ‘I’ am no longer my ‘self’?
. . . . . . . .
Even if the ‘self’ was simply just a sum of its parts and expereinces… We should ask the question… Where should one draw the lines between all these parts i.e. at a molecular level, or at an atomic level, or even at subatomic levels, as with neutrons, protons, electrons, quarks, etc… ?? Or even, where should one draw the line between all these experiences? I mean… What even REALLY constitutes a part??? Isn’t it just the mind grasping at trying to understand the unfathomable process of everything… And, in doing so, procure its own brand of stupid dependability and definition???? Because to define any part properly, shouldn’t we still also include the processes that brought all these individual parts together to function as they do presently, describing, as well, how those processes arose too, and the ones that gave rise to them, ad infinitum?????
But perhaps more pertinently… Do we actually have any real right to divide the flow of an interdependent system up into conceptualized parts? You know, like we feel we do, for example, with borders between countries i.e. separating these interrelated topographies with merely imagined, fracturing lines that stem from our fractured, intellectualized memetic mind streams… I mean… It obvious that these lines simply do not exist in the real world. Nowhere that I have ever been on Earth is there some line that nature left us that denotes who should live where and how they should live or what they should be called… Nowhere!
And even if we did have a right to divide up them up… What would happen if we were to walk around these imagined borders, examining every nook and cranny of the immense majesty and diversity that fell into and out of every facade of their periphery… ? Wouldn’t we also find what Benoît Mandelbrot wrote about in his 1967 paper, published in Science, entitled “How Long Is the Coast of Britain? Statistical Self-Similarity and Fractional Dimension“?
Surely with every new question asked, a new level of detail emerges, giving rise to an unbounded and infinite boarder? Just as Lewis Fry Richardson discovered, the length of a given coastline depends on the method used to measure it. Since a landmass has features at all scales, from hundreds of kilometers in size to tiny fractions of a millimeter and below, there is no obvious limit to the size of the smallest feature that should/could not be measured around… And, hence, there is no single well-defined perimeter to the landmass.
In my humble opinion, it is this very idea that should be applied to trying to understand the notion of ‘self.’ For example, when someone asks us the question “who are we?”, various approximations seem to come to mind and, with these approximations, vague assumptions are made about who we are i.e. he/she lives in Tunbridge Wells, wears sunglasses on sunny days, is a vegetarian, etc… And, perhaps, if we were from a scientific disposition, we might also include that we were made from flesh and bone, which in turn is made from proteins, carbohydrates, fats, water, calcium, etc… It doesn’t matter to our conceptualized notions that this flesh and bone changes every few years… Just so long as we can describe what it is that we vaguely want to talk about here and now… !?!?
Just as with landmasses too, various approximations exist when specific assumptions are made about minimum feature size. So… How far can we go on probing the idea of a ‘self’ with out questioning the very logic/ideas/ approximations/processes that created it? Or even the language that we use to describe it? I mean… If we go all the way… ALL THE WAY… Will we not discover that we are really inherently unbounded and indefinable… ?? That we are infinite in a perspective that present social conditioning and understanding has forced us to forget… ???
While looking for my ‘self’, I found that Douglas Hofstadter’s book, entitled, “Escher, Bach and Gödel: And Eternal Golden Braid”, was more pertinent than I had ever really imagined it would be… And recently I’ve found my ‘self’ coming back to it time and again… Because in many ways this search for the ‘self’ reminds me of looking at Gödel’s “Incompleteness Theorems.” Rather than the ‘self’ being a real entity that can be defined logically and reasonably within axiomatic definitions based on “good-old” empirical evidence – evidence that is derived from many types of experimental observation, and then assessed via modes of logical reasoning, so as to posit how it all fits together into a greater, universal picture… Upon a closer inspection, this ‘I’ or ‘self’ seems to merge with, and become part of, the WHOLE universal dynamic… A tiny part of the WHOLE picture… Like a baby Mandelbrot set in the totality of the WHOLE Mandelbrot set… Each of these little sets is dependent on all the totality of the patterns preceding it… Patterns that, if they were any different further upstream, would not have brought it to rest in its present place, shape, size and/or fashion.
Saying that… I doubt that the factors that brought about our “selves” into this present universal moment are quite as simple as zn+1 = zn2 + c… Rather, in my humble opinion, there would have to be – more likely – an infinite amount of describing equations, all entangled and entwined into one another, rippling in and out of sync with each other, feeding back through and around them ‘selves’, making – from a human’s point of view – such an overwhelmingly complex totality of indefinable and unpredictable occurring precisions that one might only be able to describe it as Baruch Spinoza once did… Simply as “God, or Nature” its very ‘self’.
When I began to view the idea of ‘self’ in these terms i.e. that there is this evolving fractal chain of interdependent events, linked by cause and effect – one that gives rise to the notion of ‘self’ – it reminded me somewhat of Kalu Rinpoche’s writing on “Karma, Interdependence and Emptiness.” This unfolding cascade of events stacks up with every conscious and unconscious decision/action creating the karmic patterns that determine the unfolding nature of our reality and, therefore, our circumstance.
I know many of us might well call everything We i.e. humans, do or make or say, even, “man-made…” But in reality it is all a part of the natural flow of things… There is an order there, one that defies comprehension… It’s flow is so uncertain and unpredictable that it flexes with every new action or event that is presented to it… Never does it stay the same… In fact, it is so sensitive to everything, that even a little ripple can manifest huge changes somewhere later down the line… Certain ancient Chinese philosophers once called this the great Tao. It was unspeakable, un-describable, and all pervasive… To talk of it would limit it and destroy its essence… To define it would only end up defiling its purity.
So too with the ‘self’… When we try to define our ‘self’, nothing that we hang on ‘it’ conceptually fits ‘its’ essence properly… Every limiting word presumes a rough approximation of something infinite and unbounded… And to use limitations to describe something which is unbounded is dangerous… It breeds delusion and breaks the delicate balance between what ‘IS’ and what we think ‘it’ is. I’m sure that if we all were to spend most of our time striving for enlightenment, then we would begin to see all this i.e. that we are nothing more than a part of the chaos inherent in a universal – although even the term universal might well seem to limit what I really want to express – system that is continually evolving and unfolding in this present moment. When we let go of our ‘selves’ then we truly become free and we can see that nothing begins or ends… Nor does anything exist independent of everything else, especially in the finite ways that we have been taught to describe the world with.
So… To bring it back round to where we started from… To understand what the ‘self’ is, I found my ‘self’ having to look at all the processes that brought me into being… And while I’m sure I’ve only touched on just a hand-full of these in the infinite majesty unfolding continuously around us… It lays a good idea at the unknowable totality of the interconnectedness we all share with one another AND the universe around us… I know we might well like to describe everything in terms of how it relates to our “selves”… But it would be better not to get too attached to this way of describing things… For it can breed delusion and spread confusion by manifesting fantasies beyond what actually “IS”. I As Douglas Adams once said…
This is rather as if you imagine a puddle waking up one morning and thinking, ‘This is an interesting world I find myself in—an interesting hole I find myself in—fits me rather neatly, doesn’t it? In fact it fits me staggeringly well, must have been made to have me in it!’ This is such a powerful idea that as the sun rises in the sky and the air heats up and as, gradually, the puddle gets smaller and smaller, it’s still frantically hanging on to the notion that everything’s going to be alright, because this world was meant to have him in it, was built to have him in it; so the moment he disappears catches him rather by surprise. I think this may be something we need to be on the watch out for. We all know that at some point in the future the Universe will come to an end and at some other point, considerably in advance from that but still not immediately pressing, the sun will explode. We feel there’s plenty of time to worry about that, but on the other hand that’s a very dangerous thing to say. Look at what’s supposed to be going to happen on the 1st of January 2000—let’s not pretend that we didn’t have a warning that the century was going to end! I think that we need to take a larger perspective on who we are and what we are doing here if we are going to survive in the long term.
I will leave it here for now… The second part to this study of ‘self’ will follow soon.
September 17, 2010
A somewhat strange question, I know… But still… I’m going to ask it, none the less. What is time? How do we define it? Something popped into my head this morning regarding the passage of time, and I just couldn’t shake it off. While lying there in bed, I was meditating upon a spot on the ceiling… And I heard my wrist watch ticking away down by this chest of mine, as my left hand lay motionless on it. “Tick-tock-tick-tock-tick-tock…” it uttered in the silent darkness of the early morning. And I couldn’t help but wonder what it was counting… Observe the thoughts coming into to my mind… And they dissipate… Stillness… Awareness… My eyes resting on the ceiling’s spot… Subtle and distinct, it goes beyond words… And then the bizarre, “tick-tock-tick-tock-tick-tock-tick-tock-tick-tock…” murmured back into the gap of mind. “It’s the watch”, I thought… “BUT what is it measuring?” Again the cycle repeats itself, bringing the mind gently back around to observing the thoughts… “Free to come, free to go…” repeat the words of Lama Chodrak as I remember the technique we were recently taught. “But still… What is that sound measuring?”
Up I get… I have no idea how long its been since I went to bed. Was it two hours now… Maybe three… Possibly even four… ? The wrist watch states clearly that it is 3 hours 47 minutes and 32 seconds past in the morning. But ‘past’ what? It’s past midnight… So what? What does that tell me? It tells me that its three hours and forty seven minutes… Oh! It’s now forty eight minutes past the third hour of the morning of the 17th of September, of the year 2010… BUT… So what… ??? It’s just a blindingly stupid social construct to linearise a strange passage of some abstract notion… Some abstract objectification of this essence that we call ‘time’. I know it feels like time is passing by… But is that because time actually exists… OR is because I’ve been conditioned to believe it somehow exists… !?!?
So down to the kitchen I go… I put the kettle on in the chill morning’s still of night. The silence is deceptive… Until the slight roar of the kettle begins… The stars glisten wildly in the clear dark skies above… Everything seems so slight… Jupiter is setting in the west near the horizon, a big white star-like beacon of light in the sky… Only a few hours earlier had I been watching it in the inky sky through an 80mm APO telescope. “Tick-tock-tick-tock-tick-tock…” once again broke through the ambient noise as the kettle boiled down to a silent plume of undulating steam that poured wildly forth from its spout… There, in the steam, I saw the same currents of turbulence that were also writhing about over the gas giant’s surface some 900 million kilometres away… Movement… The planet had moved… “Tick-tock-tick-tock-tick-tock…”
And that’s when it happened… That’s when I realised what time is… I know it might sound somewhat silly… But in that moment I realised that time is not about seconds passing by… Nor is it built from minutes or hours… Even the days fluttering past (or dragging by, whatever they do for you) don’t really make time what it is. Time is about change… It’s change that really matters. Our notions of time give us a linear representation of something that is not linear at all from the point of the observer. What many of us understand time to be i.e. seconds, minutes, hours, days, etc… Is not really what time is… I know, I’m repeating myself… But it’s so obvious that it had me fooled for quite a while… It’s like looking at a meter long piece of string… Measuring it and then writing it down on a piece of paper i.e. “it is 1 meter long…” And then forgetting how long 1 meter is… And forgetting totally that “it” refers to a piece of string, which is 1 meter long… Because the notion of time is so abstract i.e. it’s not something we can view directly with any certainty like we can a meter rule, for example… We can take two meter rules and place them side by side and see that they are of the same length… And with a weight we can roughly feel that two 1 kg masses are similar to one another in their pull downwards… However with the notion of time, we cannot see it… It’s hard to define… Thus we simply use a device, like a clock or watch, to measure what it is that we think is a unit of time i.e. a second, or a minute, or even an hour, is… But in this notion of a unit of time, we (well, I did) totally forget what it is that is being measured… And that is the dynamic of material change as it unfolds in the world/universe around us.
So I poured the hot water from the kettle into the big mug that held a Rooibos tea bag in it… And, as I was doing this, I placed my hand around the mug. The cold surface turned from cold to warm, to an almost sudden hot… “Tick-tock-tick-tock-tick-tock…” Time passed by in a linear clock/watch like fashion as the energy moved from the hot water in the mug to the ceramic of the mug itself. Change… Energetic change… As I slowly eased my grasp on the mug, I saw the colour from the tea bag diffuse into the clear, hot water around it. As I placed the spoon inside the mug and gently stirred, more colour broke free from the leaves, and the colour became a darker red, which almost resembled a black inky colour under the dim kitchen light that was shinning from the cooker’s fume hood. Change… More change… As I stirred the tea further, and then went to get the milk, I became aware of the vast orchestration of changes that were going on in my body’s biochemistry, all of which effected the contraction of various muscles that allowed me to move coherently across the kitchen, to the fridge, open the door, grab the soya milk, removing it from the fridge carefully, closing the fridge door and then returning to the mug of tea standing, steaming by the hot kettle… My desire for a warm drink had effected a change in my body’s biochemistry… A change that was carried out with a precision that avoided any accidental spillage or vague awareness… All the time, during this change, “tick-tock-tick-tock-tick-tock-tick-tock-tick-tock-tick-tock-tick-tock…”
There is a universal dynamic that allows things to move and things to change. One direction i.e. letting the colour and flavour out of the dried tea leaves and into the hot water in a mug, is obvious and easy… But doing the reverse i.e. putting the colour and flavour from the hot water back into the dried tea leaves is obviously a somewhat harder action. There is a natural entropy of cause and effect, whereby what goes in one direction does not necessarily mean that it can go back in the opposite direction with the same amount of ease… Change goes in the obvious direction… From a greater energy to a more diffuse and lower energy state… A state of greater entropy… Thus, there is a crazy direction to this ‘time’ thing… An arrow of sorts, that points to how change can occur in a particular, or given, system. That’s when I realised that someone here had sent me a web link to a lecture on ‘time’… One that I hadn’t yet watched, even though I said I was going to… Cheers Tim!
So I effected another biochemical change as I moved to the living room and sat down with my tea in order to search through my comments here on this website to find Tim’s reference… And there it was. As I played the video I was aware of more change occurring within the code of the computer in front of me… Muffled, and almost inaudibly, it procured a gentle “click, dit, click, dit, dit, click, dit…” of the processor, as the screen colours changed to form one picture to the next – with sound (of course) – of Dr Sean Carroll giving a talk about what I had been previously thinking about…
But before I discuss this video, I’d like to have a look at what we generally perceive to be ‘time…’ How do we – the human race – define what is ‘generally’ known as time… And why do we perceive it thus… Why did I think that time was the passing of seconds… Why did the units of time come to mind before the idea of entropy and change? And for that I want to look to a dictionary in order to initially find what everyone else might discover if they decided to use this common repository of understanding and meaning.
time – noun
1. the system of those sequential relations that any event has to any other, as past, present, or future; indefinite and continuous duration regarded as that in which events succeed one another.
2. duration regarded as belonging to the present life as distinct from the life to come or from eternity; finite duration.
3. ( sometimes initial capital letter ) a system or method of measuring or reckoning the passage of time: mean time; apparent time; Greenwich Time.
4. a limited period or interval, as between two successive events: a long time.
5. a particular period considered as distinct from other periods: Youth is the best time of life.
6. Often, times.
a. a period in the history of the world, or contemporary with the life or activities of a notable person: prehistoric times; in Lincoln’s time.
b. the period or era now or previously present: a sign of the times; How times have changed!
c. a period considered with reference to its events or prevailing conditions, tendencies, ideas, etc.: hard times; a time of war.
7. a prescribed or allotted period, as of one’s life, for payment of a debt, etc.
8. the end of a prescribed or allotted period, as of one’s life or a pregnancy: His time had come, but there was no one left to mourn over him. When her time came, her husband accompanied her to the delivery room.
9. a period with reference to personal experience of a specified kind: to have a good time; a hot time in the old town tonight.
10. a period of work of an employee, or the pay for it; working hours or days or an hourly or daily pay rate.
11. Informal . a term of enforced duty or imprisonment: to serve time in the army; do time in prison.
12. the period necessary for or occupied by something: The time of the baseball game was two hours and two minutes. The bus takes too much time, so I’ll take a plane.
13. leisure time; sufficient or spare time: to have time for a vacation; I have no time to stop now.
14. a particular or definite point in time, as indicated by a clock: What time is it?
15. a particular part of a year, day, etc.; season or period: It’s time for lunch.
16. an appointed, fit, due, or proper instant or period: a time for sowing; the time when the sun crosses the meridian; There is a time for everything.
17. the particular point in time when an event is scheduled to take place: train time; curtain time.
18. an indefinite, frequently prolonged period or duration in the future: Time will tell if what we have done here today was right.
19. the right occasion or opportunity: to watch one’s time.
20. each occasion of a recurring action or event: to do a thing five times; It’s the pitcher’s time at bat.
21. times, used as a multiplicative word in phrasal combinations expressing how many instances of a quantity or factor are taken together: Two goes into six three times; five times faster.
22. Drama . one of the three unities. Compare unity ( def. 8 ).
23. Prosody . a unit or a group of units in the measurement of meter.
a. tempo; relative rapidity of movement.
b. the metrical duration of a note or rest.
c. proper or characteristic tempo.
d. the general movement of a particular kind of musical composition with reference to its rhythm, metrical structure, and tempo.
e. the movement of a dance or the like to music so arranged: waltz time.
25. Military . rate of marching, calculated on the number of paces taken per minute: double time; quick time.
26. Manège . each completed action or movement of the horse.
So there you go… There are quite a few notions of how the word ‘time’ can be used, along with the various subtleties in how the noun ‘time’ can affect another word’s respective definition. The aspect of time seems to remain fairly similar throughout though i.e. it remains closely linked to the idea of a ‘period’ of time… To the measure of time itself… Without any mention as to what it is necessarily measuring. Yes, it mentions events… But what is an event? In its ultimate notion, an event specifies, or even denotes, change… So change is really what is occurring… Not time itself.
But still… That doesn’t explain why I was seeing seconds fluttering by in my mind’s eye, a second hand on a big universal clock that was counting numbers in as linear fashion as possible, while lying in bed listening to my wrist watch… !?!? So perhaps it was the devise that we use for measuring time that had clouded my apparent judgement of what time actually was…
The hands on every watch the world over count in seconds, minutes, hours and even days as they flutter past in our daily routines. Whenever we ask ourselves, “what is the time?” we effectively are asking what time is it in relation to the social construct of time that our human civilisation had forged for itself. Thus seconds, minutes, hours, days, weeks, months and years spring to mind so prominently. Not once will anyone answer, when asked the question of what time is it, something like, “Well… It’s that time of day just after breakfast, when you’re grabbing your coat and rushing out the door to cycle to work…” Rather they’d automatically say, “It’s half past eight in the morning.” So often we don’t see the change that happens in between asking what the time is… We miss the HUGE elephant in the room!
In this regard it is our over dependence on the clock and watch to visualise the abstract temporal passage of change that blinds us to the change itself… So here I’d like to have a look at these humble and innocuous machines that attempt to allow us to perceive time in a linear fashion… The use of a clock/watch, a devise that is found commonly throughout our everyday lives and which has a sort of sacred place within society, is our crutch to seeing change… To knowing the tricky and “apparently” painful subject of uncertainty… So what exactly is a clock/watch? Well… I’m no expert on the subject, so I’m going to refer to a dictionary’s definition before I proceed any further.
clock – noun
1. an instrument for measuring and recording time, esp. by mechanical means, usually with hands or changing numbers to indicate the hour and minute: not designed to be worn or carried about.
2. time clock.
3. a meter or other device, as a speedometer or taximeter, for measuring and recording speed, distance covered, or other quantitative functioning.
4. biological clock.
5. ( initial capital letter ) Astronomy . the constellation Horologium.
6. Computers . the circuit in a digital computer that provides a common reference train of electronic pulses for all other circuits.
So, again, there appear to be several definitions… However, in this instance I’m particularly taken by the first entry, as it references the machine like devises that I’ve been referring to. But still, this is hardly an adequate description of the instrument that has fooled me for so long… And, with regards to trying to understand what time actually is, it doesn’t remotely touch on why time is necessary to understand. So why were clocks invented? What follows on from this scentence, I’ve borrowed from the Wikipedia website, and describes the history of clocks, along with their uses.
A clock is an instrument used to indicate, keep, and co-ordinate time. The word clock is derived ultimately (via Dutch, Northern French, and Medieval Latin) from the Celtic wordsclagan and clocca meaning “bell“. For horologists and other specialists the term clockcontinues to mean exclusively a device with a striking mechanism for announcing intervals of time acoustically, by ringing a (wendell) bell, a set of chimes, or agong.[dubious – discuss] A silent instrument lacking such a mechanism has traditionally been known as a timepiece. In general usage today a “clock” refers to any device for measuring and displaying the time. Watches and other timepieces that can be carried on one’s person are often distinguished from clocks.
The clock is one of the oldest human inventions, meeting the need to consistently measure intervals of time shorter than the natural units: the day; the lunar month; and theyear. Devices operating on several different physical processes have been used over the millennia, culminating in the clocks of today.
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Sundials and other devices
The sundial, which measures the time of day by using the sun, was widely used inancient times. A well-constructed sundial can measure local solar time with reasonable accuracy, and sundials continued to be used to monitor the performance of clocks until the modern era. However, its practical limitations – it requires the sun to shine and does not work at all during the night – encouraged the use of other techniques for measuring time.
Candle clocks, and sticks of incense that burn down at approximately predictable speeds have also been used to estimate the passing of time. In an hourglass, fine sand pours through a tiny hole at a constant rate and indicates a predetermined passage of an arbitrary period of time.
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Water clocks, also known as clepsydrae (sg: clepsydra), along with the sundials, are possibly the oldest time-measuring instruments, with the only exceptions being the vertical gnomon and the day-counting tally stick. Given their great antiquity, where and when they first existed are not known and perhaps unknowable. The bowl-shaped outflow is the simplest form of a water clock and is known to have existed in Babylon and inEgypt around the 16th century BC. Other regions of the world, including India and China, also have early evidence of water clocks, but the earliest dates are less certain. Some authors, however, write about water clocks appearing as early as 4000 BC in these regions of the world.
The Greek and Roman civilizations are credited for initially advancing water clock design to include complex gearing, which was connected to fanciful automata and also resulted in improved accuracy. These advances were passed on through Byzantium andIslamic times, eventually making their way to Europe. Independently, the Chinese developed their own advanced water clocks（钟）in 725 A.D., passing their ideas on toKorea and Japan.
Some water clock designs were developed independently and some knowledge was transferred through the spread of trade. Pre-modern societies do not have the same precise timekeeping requirements that exist in modern industrial societies, where every hour of work or rest is monitored, and work may start or finish at any time regardless of external conditions. Instead, water clocks in ancient societies were used mainly forastrological reasons. These early water clocks were calibrated with a sundial. While never reaching the level of accuracy of a modern timepiece, the water clock was the most accurate and commonly used timekeeping device for millennia, until it was replaced by the more accurate pendulum clock in 17th century Europe.
In 797 (or possibly 801), the Abbasid caliph of Baghdad, Harun al-Rashid, presentedCharlemagne with an Asian Elephant named Abul-Abbas together with a “particularly elaborate example” of a water clock.
In the 13th century, Al-Jazari, an engineer who worked for Artuqid king of Diyar-Bakr, Nasir al-Din, made numerous clocks of all shapes and sizes. The book described 50 mechanical devices in 6 categories, including water clocks. The most reputed clocks included the Elephant, Scribe and Castle clocks, all of which have been successfully reconstructed. As well as telling the time, these grand clocks were symbols of status, grandeur and wealth of the Urtuq State.
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Early mechanical clocks
None of the first clocks survive from 13th century Europe, but various mentions in church records reveal some of the early history of the clock.
The word horologia (from the Greek ὡρα, hour, and λέγειν, to tell) was used to describe all these devices, but the use of this word (still used in several Romance languages) for all timekeepers conceals from us the true nature of the mechanisms. For example, there is a record that in 1176 Sens Cathedral installed a ‘horologe’ but the mechanism used is unknown. According to Jocelin of Brakelond, in 1198 during a fire at the abbey of St Edmundsbury (now Bury St Edmunds), the monks ‘ran to the clock’ to fetch water, indicating that their water clock had a reservoir large enough to help extinguish the occasional fire.
A new mechanism
The word clock (from the Latin word clocca, “bell”), which gradually supersedes “horologe”, suggests that it was the sound of bells which also characterized the prototype mechanical clocks that appeared during the 13th century in Europe.
Outside of Europe, the escapement mechanism had been known and used in medieval China, as the Song Dynasty horologist and engineer Su Song (1020–1101) incorporated it into his astronomical clock-tower of Kaifeng in 1088. However, his astronomical clock and rotating armillary sphere still relied on the use of flowing water (i.e. hydraulics), while European clockworks of the following centuries shed this old habit for a more efficient driving power of weights, in addition to the escapement mechanism.
A mercury clock, described in the Libros del saber, a Spanish work from AD 1277 consisting of translations and paraphrases of Arabic works, is sometimes quoted as evidence for Muslim knowledge of a mechanical clock. However, the device was actually a compartmented cylindrical water clock, whose construction was credited by the Jewish author of the relevant section, Rabbi Isaac, to “Iran” (Heron of Alexandria).
Between 1280 and 1320, there is an increase in the number of references to clocks and horologes in church records, and this probably indicates that a new type of clock mechanism had been devised. Existing clock mechanisms that used water power were being adapted to take their driving power from falling weights. This power was controlled by some form of oscillating mechanism, probably derived from existing bell-ringing or alarm devices. This controlled release of power – the escapement – marks the beginning of the true mechanical clock.
These mechanical clocks were intended for two main purposes: for signalling and notification (e.g. the timing of services and public events), and for modeling the solar system. The former purpose is administrative, the latter arises naturally given the scholarly interest in astronomy, science, astrology, and how these subjects integrated with the religious philosophy of the time. The astrolabewas used both by astronomers and astrologers, and it was natural to apply a clockwork drive to the rotating plate to produce a working model of the solar system.
Simple clocks intended mainly for notification were installed in towers, and did not always require faces or hands. They would have announced the canonical hours or intervals between set times of prayer. Canonical hours varied in length as the times of sunrise and sunset shifted. The more sophisticated astronomical clocks would have had moving dials or hands, and would have shown the time in various time systems, including Italian hours, canonical hours, and time as measured by astronomers at the time. Both styles of clock started acquiring extravagant features such as automata.
In 1283, a large clock was installed at Dunstable Priory; its location above the rood screen suggests that it was not a water clock. In 1292, Canterbury Cathedral installed a ‘great horloge’. Over the next 30 years there are brief mentions of clocks at a number of ecclesiastical institutions in England, Italy, and France. In 1322, a new clock was installed in Norwich, an expensive replacement for an earlier clock installed in 1273. This had a large (2 metre) astronomical dial with automata and bells. The costs of the installation included the full-time employment of two clockkeepers for two years.
Early astronomical clocks
Besides the Chinese astronomical clock of Su Song in 1088 mentioned above, in Europe there were the clocks constructed by Richard of Wallingford in St Albans by 1336, and by Giovanni de Dondi in Padua from 1348 to 1364. They no longer exist, but detailed descriptions of their design and construction survive, and modern reproductions have been made. They illustrate how quickly the theory of the mechanical clock had been translated into practical constructions, and also that one of the many impulses to their development had been the desire of astronomers to investigate celestial phenomena.
Wallingford’s clock had a large astrolabe-type dial, showing the sun, the moon’s age, phase, and node, a star map, and possibly the planets. In addition, it had a wheel of fortune and an indicator of the state of the tide at London Bridge. Bells rang every hour, the number of strokes indicating the time.
Dondi’s clock was a seven-sided construction, 1 metre high, with dials showing the time of day, including minutes, the motions of all the known planets, an automatic calendar of fixed and movable feasts, and an eclipse prediction hand rotating once every 18 years.
It is not known how accurate or reliable these clocks would have been. They were probably adjusted manually every day to compensate for errors caused by wear and imprecise manufacture.
Water clocks are sometimes still used today, and can be examined in places such as ancient castles and museums.
Clockmakers developed their art in various ways. Building smaller clocks was a technical challenge, as was improving accuracy and reliability. Clocks could be impressive showpieces to demonstrate skilled craftsmanship, or less expensive, mass-produced items for domestic use. The escapement in particular was an important factor affecting the clock’s accuracy, so many different mechanisms were tried.
Spring-driven clocks appeared during the 15th century, although they are often erroneously credited to Nürnbergwatchmaker Peter Henlein (or Henle, or Hele) around 1511. The earliest existing spring driven clock is the chamber clock given to Peter the Good, Duke of Burgundy, around 1430, now in the Germanisches Nationalmuseum. Spring power presented clockmakers with a new problem; how to keep the clock movement running at a constant rate as the spring ran down. This resulted in the invention of the stackfreed and the fusee in the 15th century, and many other innovations, down to the invention of the modern going barrel in 1760.
Early clock dials did not use minutes and seconds. A clock with a dial indicating minutes was illustrated in a 1475 manuscript by Paulus Almanus, and some 15th-century clocks in Germany indicated minutes and seconds. An early record of a second hand on a clock dates back to about 1560, on a clock now in the Fremersdorf collection. However, this clock could not have been accurate, and the second hand was probably for indicating that the clock was working.
During the 15th and 16th centuries, clockmaking flourished, particularly in the metalworking towns of Nuremberg and Augsburg, and in Blois, France. Some of the more basic table clocks have only one time-keeping hand, with the dial between the hour markers being divided into four equal parts making the clocks readable to the nearest 15 minutes. Other clocks were exhibitions of craftsmanship and skill, incorporating astronomical indicators and musical movements. The cross-beat escapement was invented in 1584 by Jost Bürgi, who also developed the remontoire. Bürgi’s clocks were a great improvement in accuracy as they were correct to within a minute a day. These clocks helped the 16th-century astronomer Tycho Brahe to observe astronomical events with much greater precision than before.
A mechanical weight-driven astronomical clock with a verge-and-foliot escapement, a striking train of gears, an alarm, and a representation of the moon’s phases was described by the Ottoman engineer Taqi al-Din in his book, The Brightest Stars for the Construction of Mechanical Clocks (Al-Kawākib al-durriyya fī wadh’ al-bankāmat al-dawriyya), published in 1556-1559. Similarly to earlier 15th-century European alarm clocks, it was capable of sounding at a specified time, achieved by placing a peg on the dial wheel. At the requested time, the peg activated a ringing device. The clock had three dials which indicated hours, degrees and minutes. He later made an observational clock for the Istanbul observatory of Taqi al-Din (1577–1580), describing it as “a mechanical clock with three dials which show the hours, the minutes, and the seconds.” This was an important innovation in 16th-century practical astronomy, as at the start of the century clocks were not accurate enough to be used for astronomical purposes.
The next development in accuracy occurred after 1656 with the invention of the pendulum clock. Galileo had the idea to use a swinging bob to regulate the motion of a time telling device earlier in the 17th century. Christiaan Huygens, however, is usually credited as the inventor. He determined the mathematical formula that related pendulum length to time (99.38 cm or 39.13 inches for the one second movement) and had the first pendulum-driven clock made. In 1670, the English clockmaker William Clement created the anchor escapement, an improvement over Huygens’ crown escapement. Within just one generation, minute hands and then secondhands were added.
A major stimulus to improving the accuracy and reliability of clocks was the importance of precise time-keeping for navigation. The position of a ship at sea could be determined with reasonable accuracy if a navigator could refer to a clock that lost or gained less than about 10 seconds per day. This clock could not contain a pendulum, which would be virtually useless on a rocking ship. Many European governments offered a large prize for anyone that could determine longitude accurately; for example, Great Britain offered 20,000 pounds, equivalent to millions of dollars today. The reward was eventually claimed in 1761 by John Harrison, who dedicated his life to improving the accuracy of his clocks. His H5 clock was in error by less than 5 seconds over 10 weeks.
The excitement over the pendulum clock had attracted the attention of designers resulting in a proliferation of clock forms. Notably, the longcase clock (also known as the grandfather clock) was created to house the pendulum and works. The English clockmaker William Clement is also credited with developing this form in 1670 or 1671. It was also at this time that clock cases began to be made of wood and clock faces to utilize enamel as well as hand-painted ceramics.
Alexander Bain, Scottish clockmaker, patented the electric clock in 1840. The electric clock’s mainspring is wound either with an electric motor or with an electro-magnet and armature. In 1841, he first patented the electromagnetic pendulum.
The development of electronics in the 20th century led to clocks with no clockwork parts at all. Time in these cases is measured in several ways, such as by the vibration of atuning fork, the behaviour of quartz crystals, or the quantum vibrations of atoms. Even mechanical clocks have since come to be largely powered by batteries, removing the need for winding.
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How Clocks Work
The invention of the mechanical clock in the 13th century initiated a change in timekeeping methods from continuous processes, such as the motion of the gnomon‘s shadow on a sundial or the flow of liquid in a water clock, to repetitive oscillatory processes, like the swing of a pendulum or the vibration of a quartz crystal, which were more accurate. All modern clocks use oscillation.
Although the methods they use vary, all oscillating clocks, mechanical and digital and atomic, work similarly and can be divided into analogous parts. They consist of an object that repeats the same motion over and over again, an oscillator, with a precisely constant time interval between each repetition, or ‘beat’. Attached to the oscillator is a controller device, which sustains the oscillator’s motion by replacing the energy it loses to friction, and converts its oscillations into a series of pulses. The pulses are then added up in a chain of some type of counters to express the time in convenient units, usually seconds, minutes, hours, etc. Then finally some kind of indicator displays the result in a human-readable form.
This provides power to keep the clock going.
- In mechanical clocks, this is either a weight suspended from a cord wrapped around a pulley, or a spiral spring called amainspring.
- In electric clocks, it is either a battery or the AC power line.
Since clocks must run continuously, there is often a small secondary power source to keep the clock going temporarily during interruptions in the main power. In old mechanical clocks, a maintaining power spring kept the clock turning while the mainspringwas being wound. In quartz clocks that use AC power, a small backup battery is often included to keep the clock running if it is unplugged temporarily from the wall.
- In mechanical clocks, this is either a pendulum or a balance wheel.
- In some early electronic clocks and watches such as the Accutron, it is a tuning fork.
- In quartz clocks and watches, it is a quartz crystal.
- In atomic clocks, it is the vibration of electrons in atoms as they emit microwaves.
- In early mechanical clocks before 1657, it was a crude balance wheel or foliot which was not a harmonic oscillator because it lacked a balance spring. As a result they were very inaccurate, with errors of perhaps an hour a day.
The advantage of a harmonic oscillator over other forms of oscillator is that it employs resonance to vibrate at a precise naturalresonant frequency or ‘beat’ dependent only on its physical characteristics, and resists vibrating at other rates. The possible precision achievable by a harmonic oscillator is measured by a parameter called its Q, or quality factor, which increases (other things being equal) with its resonant frequency. This is why there has been a long term trend toward higher frequency oscillators in clocks. Balance wheels and pendulums always include a means of adjusting the rate of the timepiece. Quartz timepieces sometimes include a rate screw that adjusts a capacitor for that purpose. Atomic clocks are primary standards, and their rate cannot be adjusted.
Synchronized or slave clocks
Some clocks rely for their accuracy on an external oscillator; that is, they are automatically synchronized to a more accurate clock:
- Slave clocks, used in large institutions and schools from the 1860s to the 1970s, kept time with a pendulum, but were wired to amaster clock in the building, and periodically received a signal to synchronize them with the master, often on the hour. Later versions without pendulums were triggered by a pulse from the master clock and certain sequences used to force rapid synchronization following a power failure.
- Synchronous electric clocks don’t have an internal oscillator, but rely on the 50 or 60 Hz oscillation of the AC power line, which is synchronized by the utility to a precision oscillator. This drives a synchronous motor in the clock which rotates once for every cycle of the line voltage, and drives the gear train.
- Computer real time clocks keep time with a quartz crystal, but are periodically (usually weekly) synchronized over the internet to atomic clocks (UTC), using a system called Network Time Protocol.
- Radio clocks keep time with a quartz crystal, but are periodically (often daily) synchronized to atomic clocks (UTC) with time signals from government radio stations like WWV, WWVB, CHU, DCF77 and the GPS system.
This has the dual function of keeping the oscillator running by giving it ‘pushes’ to replace the energy lost to friction, and converting its vibrations into a series of pulses that serve to measure the time.
- In mechanical clocks, this is the escapement, which gives precise pushes to the swinging pendulum or balance wheel, and releases one gear tooth of the escape wheel at each swing, allowing all the clock’s wheels to move forward a fixed amount with each swing.
- In electronic clocks this is an electronic oscillator circuit that gives the vibrating quartz crystal or tuning fork tiny ‘pushes’, and generates a series of electrical pulses, one for each vibration of the crystal, which is called the clock signal.
- In atomic clocks the controller is an evacuated microwave cavity attached to a microwave oscillator controlled by amicroprocessor. A thin gas of cesium atoms is released into the cavity where they are exposed to microwaves. A laser measures how many atoms have absorbed the microwaves, and an electronic feedback control system called a phase locked loop tunes the microwave oscillator until it is at the exact frequency that causes the atoms to vibrate and absorb the microwaves. Then the microwave signal is divided by digital counters to become the clock signal.
In mechanical clocks, the low Q of the balance wheel or pendulum oscillator made them very sensitive to the disturbing effect of the impulses of the escapement, so the escapement had a great effect on the accuracy of the clock, and many escapement designs were tried. The higher Q of resonators in electronic clocks makes them relatively insensitive to the disturbing effects of the drive power, so the driving oscillator circuit is a much less critical component.
This counts the pulses and adds them up to get traditional time units of seconds, minutes, hours, etc. It usually has a provision forsetting the clock by manually entering the correct time into the counter.
- In mechanical clocks this is done mechanically by a gear train, known as the wheel train. The gear train also has a second function; to transmit mechanical power from the power source to run the oscillator. There is a friction coupling called the ‘cannon pinion’ between the gears driving the hands and the rest of the clock, allowing the hands to be turned by a knob on the back to set the time.
- In digital clocks a series of integrated circuit counters or dividers add the pulses up digitally, using binary logic. Often pushbuttons on the case allow the hour and minute counters to be incremented and decremented to set the time.
This displays the count of seconds, minutes, hours, etc. in a human readable form.
- The earliest mechanical clocks in the 13th century didn’t have a visual indicator and signalled the time audibly by striking bells. Many clocks to this day are striking clocks which strike the hour.
- Analog clocks, including almost all mechanical and some electronic clocks, have a traditional dial or clock face, that displays the time in analog form with moving hour and minute hand. In quartz clocks with analog faces, a 1 Hz signal from the counters actuates a stepper motor which moves the second hand forward at each pulse, and the minute and hour hands are moved by gears from the shaft of the second hand.
- Digital clocks display the time in periodically changing digits on a digital display.
- Talking clocks and the speaking clock services provided by telephone companies speak the time audibly, using either recorded or digitally synthesized voices.
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Types Of Clock
Clocks can be classified by the type of time display, as well as by the method of timekeeping.
Time Display Methods
Analog clocks usually indicate time using angles. The most common clock face uses a fixed numbered dial or dials and moving hand or hands. It usually has a circular scale of 12 hours, which can also serve as a scale of 60 minutes, and 60 seconds if the clock has a second hand. Many other styles and designs have been used throughout the years, including dials divided into 6, 8, 10, and 24 hours. The only other widely used clock face today is the 24 hour analog dial, because of the use of 24 hour time inmilitary organizations and timetables. The 10-hour clock was briefly popular during the French Revolution, when the metric system was applied to time measurement, and an Italian 6 hour clock was developed in the 18th century, presumably to save power (a clock or watch striking 24 times uses more power).
Another type of analog clock is the sundial, which tracks the sun continuously, registering the time by the shadow position of its gnomon. Sundials use some or part of the 24 hour analog dial. There also exist clocks which use a digital display despite having an analog mechanism—these are commonly referred to as flip clocks.
Alternative systems have been proposed. For example, the Twelve o’clock indicates the current hour using one of twelve colors, and indicates the minute by showing a proportion of a circular disk, similar to a moon phase.
Digital clocks display a numeric representation of time. Two numeric display formats are commonly used on digital clocks:
- the 24-hour notation with hours ranging 00–23;
- the 12-hour notation with AM/PM indicator, with hours indicated as 12AM, followed by 1AM–11AM, followed by 12PM, followed by 1PM–11PM (a notation mostly used in the United States).
Most digital clocks use an LCD, LED, or VFD display; many other display technologies are used as well (cathode ray tubes, nixie tubes, etc.). After a reset, battery change or power failure, digital clocks without a backup battery or capacitor either start counting from 12:00, or stay at 12:00, often with blinking digits indicating that time needs to be set. Some newer clocks will actually reset themselves based on radio or Internet time servers that are tuned to national atomic clocks. Since the release of digital clocks in the mainstream, the use of analogue clocks has declined significantly.
For convenience, distance, telephony or blindness, auditory clocks present the time as sounds. The sound is either spoken natural language, (e.g. “The time is twelve thirty-five”), or as auditory codes (e.g. number of sequential bell rings on the hour represents the number of the hour like the bell Big Ben). Most telecommunication companies also provide a Speaking clock service as well.
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Clocks are in homes, offices and many other places; smaller ones (watches) are carried on the wrist; larger ones are in public places, e.g. a train station or church. A small clock is often shown in a corner of computer displays, mobile phones and many MP3 players.
The purpose of a clock is not always to display the time. It may also be used to control a device according to time, e.g. an alarm clock, a VCR, or a time bomb (see: counter). However, in this context, it is more appropriate to refer to it as a timer or trigger mechanism rather than strictly as a clock.
Computers depend on an accurate internal clock signal to allow synchronized processing. (A few research projects are developing CPUs based on asynchronous circuits.) Some computers also maintain time and date for all manner of operations whether these be for alarms, event initiation, or just to display the time of day. The internal computer clock is generally kept running by a small battery. Many computers will still function even if the internal clock battery is dead, but the computer clock will need to be reset each time the computer is restarted, since once power is lost, time is also lost.
An ideal clock is a scientific principle that measures the ratio of the duration of natural processes, and thus will give the time measure for use in physical theories. Therefore, to define an ideal clock in terms of any physical theory would be circular. An ideal clock is more appropriately defined in relationship to the set of all physical processes.
This leads to the following definitions:
- A clock is a recurrent process and a counter.
- A good clock is one which, when used to measure other recurrent processes, finds many of them to be periodic.
- An ideal clock is a clock (i.e., recurrent process) that makes the most other recurrent processes periodic.
The recurrent, periodic process (e.g. a metronome) is an oscillator and typically generates a clock signal. Sometimes that signal alone is (confusingly) called “the clock”, but sometimes “the clock” includes the counter, its indicator, and everything else supporting it.
This definition can be further improved by the consideration of successive levels of smaller and smaller error tolerances. While not all physical processes can be surveyed, the definition should be based on the set of physical processes which includes all individual physical processes which are proposed for consideration. Since atoms are so numerous and since, within current measurement tolerances they all beat in a manner such that if one is chosen as periodic then the others are all deemed to be periodic also, it follows that atomic clocks represent ideal clocks to within present measurement tolerances and in relation to all presently known physical processes. However, they are not so designated by fiat. Rather, they are designated as the current ideal clock because they are currently the best instantiation of the definition.
Navigation by ships and planes depends on the ability to measure latitude and longitude. Latitude is fairly easy to determine through celestial navigation, but the measurement oflongitude requires accurate measurement of time. This need was a major motivation for the development of accurate mechanical clocks. John Harrison created the first highly accurate marine chronometer in the mid-18th century. The Noon gun in Cape Town still fires an accurate signal to allow ships to check their chronometers.
I like the idea that there was a 10-hour clock, which became briefly popular during the French Revolution, when the metric system was applied to time measurement. And this raised in me a curiosity as to why there are 24 hours in a day… !? Why 24??? Okay, okay… I know… Why not 24… ? But still, there must have been a fairly comprehensive reason as to why 24 hours was chosen… Rather than 20, or 15, or whatever… ? Well, there are several websites that recount reasons as to why this is so…
But ultimately, the purpose of this blog is not really interested in why there are 24 hours in a day… For me, all this seems to demonstrate clearly is mankind’s ability to give meaning to things that didn’t have (or even, really need) any meaning. Whatever “memes” were floating around at that “point in time” i.e. when the clock was invented, gave credence and importance to the number 24 over other numbers… I mean, it’s certainly not the case that some righteous ‘dude’ sat down one day, and feeling the need to divide up the day into smaller units – mainly so that he could allocate his time more equally to specific pursuits that he had/wanted to do – sat there experimenting with 10 hour days, 15 hour days, 40 hour days, etc… and eventually choose 24 hour days, simply because the groove this gave his days felt good. I mean, come on… It’s another one of those social constructs, which apparently allow us humans to function better within the confines of our social conformity, similar to some of those that I’ve already discussed in previous blogs i.e. Imaginez… Ceci N’est Pas Une Pipe!
All this 24 hour business shows us is that we’ve chosen to describe – as linearly as possible – the passing of time with 24 equally divided hours. Why is this? Well… When you’re a human being i.e. a big hairless ape-like-creature, creatures who – through memetic evolution – become curious about our own passage through entropy… Oops… I mean time… We begin to notice that ‘time’ can sometimes fly-by (especially when having fun), while sometimes it can crawl along, sluggish and sloth like, dragging the moments out into gruelling hours of torment. So how do we measure it? How can we tell if our perception of its passing is going slowly or quickly? And bang… There’s the devise… A clock springs forth from someone’s imagination.
Here I would like you to take a moment to view the following video on how the perception of time can distort due to certain pressures and/or stresses that are induced within the perceiver.
So… What I’m really curious about is… What limits our perception of time. ??? Even… What regulates our perception of time. ??? Just like the internal workings of watch, which cannot go beyond a certain speed, otherwise the gears and cogs that are integral to its function would fall apart and/or wear out with the increased strain… So too the human body’s biochemical system for perception has certain limitations. For example, neurones can only fire/trigger a certain number of times per second. Mainly as the discharge of ions, along with the re-uptake of the ions, throughout the neuronal structure takes a certain period of time before an action potential can be re-established. The molecules do not teleport themselves into and out of the cell without consequence… Otherwise they would simply bypass the natural order of things and the neurone would not be able to serve any function whatsoever. What is important here, is that this is a system of diffusion gradients. One that is delicately balanced on the genetic blue prints upon which the system is all built… This came about through trial and error… And this trial and error yielded the present structures that we have in our bodies here today on Earth, with their relative sizes and structures that, in relation to the organism and the atom, function in the ways that yield the best adaptive and survival results for organism in question… And that applies to all those organisms found here on Earth presently. These survival mechanisms i.e. the release of adrenaline, for example, can directly affect the complex interplay between the natural workings in the biochemical pathways of perception. Which in turn affect the way we perceive things around us… Such as the passage of time.
Time isn’t some objective quantity like the kilo or mile… The material clocks and watches that recount time’s so-called “passing” throughout our lives – along with their unit of seconds, minutes, etc… – do provide us with a linear idea of how time flows… But still, the passage of time is very intricately linked, even woven, into the fabric of our own body’s bio-mechanisms. Our bodily functions are governed by a vast and intricately array of complex cellular machinery, all of which is regulated by inter and intra cellular processes – a load of feedback loops – as well as a “bunch” of natural physical chemistry, much like those that Jack Szostak discussed in the article “Biologists On The Verge Of Creating New Form Of Life” with regard to the formation of cellular walls. These natural limitations are all interdependent on a vast and long line of cause and effect… A chain of events that allowed Life, as we know it, to come about… And, thus, these present conditions are the very limits to how the delicate systems of our current human physiology and anatomy can function… And at what rates they can function… Thus time is dependent on the environment in which it is being perceived, as well as the mechanisms i.e. our bodies, which are what we use to perceive time’s “passing”, utilising our own internal system of changes (firing of neurones, biochemical pathways eliciting changes in muscle tissue for movement, etc…).
As I’ve said earlier… Time is ultimately about change. Without change, things do not happen. We must understand that change is what drives our need to understand time… And, having seen how our bodies are really one big complex, biochemical reaction that is unfolding temporally, We – the observers – directly affect the viewing/observing of environmental changes that we witness, all through the use of our own internal biomechanical pathways, which – we must realise – can change due to stimulus, and thus alter the way in which we perceive time’s “passing.” Thus time is not objective i.e. like a second or an hour… Why did I even think that!?!? Rather it is a subjective occurrence that, through our own imposed linear division of it, has become a subjective/objective interdependent duality.
Cellular functions are all limited by diffusion gradients within the solutions of our bodily/cellular fluids, which are all at specific concentrations and temperatures, etc… Like the internal mechanisms of an overly strained watch that is running way to fast for its own design, if our bodies ran too fast, things would natural cease to function in the way that they do presently. The nonlinear dynamics of our current state of being would collapse and chaos would redesign us from the inside out. And natural selection would temper those of us hardy enough to continue into better, more functional biochemical machines. Such is evolution.
As I sit here writing this… “Tick-tock-tick-tock-tick-tock…” The change in the watch’s internal mechanism makes itself heard… What I am hearing is change within the air pressure… Sonic pulses of rarified and pressured air. Change is everywhere… Impermanence here is important with regards to understanding what time is. We are not permanent beings who never change. Change continually goes on inside of us on a daily basis. Change allows us to perceive events in the forward motion of accruing figures of time, and allows us to develop and modify ineffectual habits with new ways of doing things… So we learn… Change shapes the landscape around us, and the cradle of the universe that our solar system rests in. Change is all important, especially when trying to understand what the “self” is… I know some of our words and ideas seem permanent and fixed… But that is delusion… That is fear of change preventing you from seeing that meaning is empty… Meaning changes… When we cling to something so strongly, we forget that it’s ALL in a constant state of flux… We forget that it is ALL changing… All the time… This is something which I am about to discuss further in a future blog on “self”… Why? Because change allows us to understand what is happening to us on a daily basis, without clinging to solid definitions of apparently real, ultimate, and constant meaning… With this idea we might well glimpse how impermanent things really are. Seconds are not concrete… They flex into and out of standard perceived notion of what a second “should” be… Our perception of these apparently solid units of temporal passing are not concrete… Why do we feel sad sometimes… ? Perhaps it is because we have lost touch with what change really is, and how common it is. I know I had until last night… Or that this morning… !?!?
Whatever it is… Or even was… I know this day will never happen again in quite the same way that it did. Change is all encompassing… Difference continually blooms everywhere… The chaos in this universal system is what makes things worth living for… It’s what drives us forward… Nothing ever truly stagnates… Only the rigid ideas of our egocentric certainty… A permanence driven by pride and self-assured delusion… Prevent us all from seeing this ocean of change that surrounds us… That washes around me… And yet sometimes I will probably still wake up and feel like it’s the same day as it was last week. “Oh, it’s Friday… AGAIN!?!?” But it’s not… Delusion and illusion is so pervasive in our society’s perception of the world that it is really no wonder so many of us here in the UK – apparently 15% in 2006 – suffer from depression. I mean, if you looked at time like I did until recently, I can understand that change is a really dizzying and bizarre concept… One that breaks open the bubble of conformity and certainty… Allowing uncertainty to wash over you on a daily basis… Sometimes the change is so subtle that we barely even notice it occurring through the rigid and seemingly unbending social constructs that we use to define time and other seemingly permanent, well established ideas… And it is for this very reason that I am driven to despair when people look to science for ultimate and unbending truths… “But you said it works like that… And now you’re saying it doesn’t do that anymore… It now works like this!? What’s that all about then… You obviously haven’t got a clue what you’re talking about…” jive that I’ve seen time and again in news reports concerning climate change and other issues… When something is too clear, it becomes hard to see. It is said that a dunce once searched for fire with a lighted lantern. Had he known what fire was, he could have cooked his rice much sooner.
Even so… There is still hope… Because ultimately, through these little steps – and with big awareness – we can peer into seemingly obvious notions that we’ve taken for granted for so long, and see something new, something fresh and real… Nothing lasts forever. Not even sadness… Time is testament to this… It’s not about the seconds or the minutes… These seemingly unbendable units of time’s eternal flow… Nope… It’s about change. Even time changes near big gravitational distortions in space time… And when we look closely at things around us, we may discover that even they change.
So… To bring this posting to an end, and to focus on what exactly (well, nearly exactly) ‘time’ is, I’d like to finish this exposé with that video that Tim provided me with a link to… A video that shows Dr Sean Carroll’s lecture on “The Origin Of The Universe And The Arrow Of Time”, clarifying why time moves seemingly in one direction… Why time denotes change and destroys any idea of permanence…
To find out more about Dr Sean Carroll, please click here.
Or to see another version of this lecture, the one that I originally viewed, please click here.
August 12, 2010
This is a picture that hangs from the living room wall at home… Everyday ‘I’ see it, it triggers a deep reminder of the treachery of delusion and of all wasted narrative. This is my point of entry into a daily meditation that rests upon the delusion of ‘self.’ As my ‘self’ sits cross legged under this framed print, the memetic ideals of my ‘self’s’ identity slowly dissolve into ‘emptiness.’
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We should always remember… Any interpretation always remains – and only can ever be – an interpretation. The actual ‘something’ that is being interpreted i.e. the object of interpretation, say, within an artistic work such as Magritte’s “The Treachery Of Images,” is merely a means of transmission… Means that relay the ‘key’ to the idea of/about ‘something’… That is, the notion of the ‘something’ can be conjured up in the mind of the viewer through simply seeing the ‘imperfect’ painting. Thus the painting of the object becomes a sort of sign… One that is housed, in this case, within two dimensions i.e. laid flat on canvas, allowing us to observe the unambiguous and unequivocal nature of its physical presence, just as it was viewed through the eyes of the artist who originally painted it… But never, at any time, are we viewing the pipe directly! And yet, when many of us look at the pipe in Magritte’s modest reinterpretation, and are asked what we are looking at, a majority will reply, “It is a pipe!”
In many ways, experience itself is like this… What we interpret from our senses – our senses being the artist that paints what he sees/hears/feels/tastes/touches – is not as clear, defined, nor even as present, as the actual ‘object’ itself… Always our ‘minds’ become involved beyond immediate appropriateness, and acts as if everything is on trial; as if it was the high judge him/herself presiding over the case called our ‘Life’ as it unfolded moment by moment… And yet all we can do to support any decision we arrive at – decisions regarding what we perceive through our senses i.e. hardness, softness, colour, hue, shape, etc… – comes not only from all good sense data derived from our eyes, ears, nose, taste buds and sense of touch alone, but from our good (or maginalised) intentions too.
The real interpretation of the pipe in Magritte’s picture is done by the viewer using a set of past observations, which act as points of references through which one compares the observed ‘picture’ to the picture of mind… Through these a priori ideas/memes/schemas, we find meaning in the picture being observed… When we understand this, we can see that the meaning imposed upon experience comes solely from within ourselves… And not from within the picture itself.
No doubt ALL of our interpretations regarding the pipe will not exactly agree with one another. One must only consider all the possible variances in experiencing a pipe i.e. the diversity of each individual’s direct or indirect experience with one, in order to understand this… For example, I remember first hand my uncle smoking a pipe, using pipe cleaners to clean the accumulation of tar from within the pipe, their sticky fur left coated with sweet aromatic gumminess in used ash trays… While after every smoke, is vividly remember the way he ceremoniously and gently tapped out the soft grey ash… Along with the rich aromatic scent of honey-dew tobacco that permeated and lingered on all the apartment’s upholstery… While, on the other hand, my friend George simply has never come across a smoker of pipes in real life… The only way he can relate pipes to comes from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle‘s fictitious character, Sherlock Holmes, which he read avidly as a child. How different are our experiences? While we can agree on the conceptual aspects of what a pipe is, we have had totally different experiences concerning them. But the important thing remains… Despite these differences, all of our own interpretations and observations about what a pipe is, which have been derived through our experiences, do regularly – and commonly – overlap with other people’s ideas about what a pipe is.
Here, in “The Treachery Of Images,” Magritte reminds us that these interpretations and inspections are not based on direct, or first degree, observations of the object itself… The pipe we observe follows from the sensory input that, when seen from the right angle, merges together with the minds previous experience of a pipe i.e. the shape and coloration, giving rise to what the mind – after all its programming – can only naturally want to call a pipe. But, in actual fact, what our minds sees and recognises as the pipe is nothing more than canvas and paint brushed in a manner that seems to resemble what we think we see as a pipe.
From this ‘brushed’ representation, when we really think about what we are seeing through our eyes, we can all deduce a clear conclusion that, what we are looking at, resembles a pipe… In other words, we all interpret what we see, so as to expose the implicit meaning behind the painter’s ‘subject,’ just like our senses watch temporal events unfold before us in our daily waking lives… But it is our own programming that paints the meaning of this picture. Thus I ask… Are we in error when we reply that we are viewing a pipe instead of a picture of a pipe?? Is our interpretation of life, via religious and scientific modes of understanding, actually real???
With our experiences we paint the abstract meanings we have been taught to ‘bear’ by family, friends and society. But before this ‘rude’ imposition of mankind’s own making, the world was a subject who at first refused to be defined… The blank canvas of our minds saw through the bizarre reality of present day understandings. Then, as we became more laden with successive ideas about the world around us – ideas that no doubt relayed survival tactics and skills, which natural selection seemed to chose prudently – these memes started to forge the schemas of our ‘fantastical’ world, causing us to operate somewhat ‘out-of-alignment’ with our original purpose i.e. to simply survive. Thus, in this strange state of memetic frenzy, we seem to have forgotten what exactly it is that we were really looking at. And so we over pollute, over consume and never question what we see.
We recognise the pipe from Magritte’s perspective… But, despite this recognition, it is not really the pipe. We see the world and all Life through human social constructs i.e. all the mythological and scientific understanding we have learnt… But it is not the real world. Nor is it what Life really is.
“We are faced with the paradoxical fact that education has become one of the chief obstacles to intelligence and freedom of thought.”
If we reply that what we see is a pipe, then we have lost sight of reality… We have become disconnected with the pattern behind our Being… We have lost the simple essence of Life’s organic and fluid form. Like the Tao, Life has no meaning… It requires none to exist. To talk about it misses the point. It simply is, always has been, and always will be a part of the infinite universal flow.
So I ask… Can you see through the fantasy of society’s drama? Can you cut through the taut/taught memetic structures that echo through your own mind to reveal the haunting delusion of society’s limited schema’s of Being? Can you free yourself from the social inertia – those heavy ‘herd’ like constraints – that bind the majority of us to pointless routines and epic errors of under estimating and limiting our own potential? Can you help us break free from the over consumption of raw materials, monetary hoarding for luxurious goods, pointless pollution and en-mass over population? Can we survive the Tao’s “gom jabbar?” Or will we die at the hands of our own insatiable appetites, like the “animal’s” who failed the “Bene Gesserit‘s” test, all because we/they could not see the pain for what it really was i.e. it is nothing more than a sensation that links into a reactive habit for preserving an instinctual and complacent desire to remain in comfortable bubbles of blasé subsistence, and thus withdrew their hand from the box?? Will we simply get lost in the memetic sea of illusion and forgot to exercise any honest measure of self-control, so that we might pay honest concern to the Mother who bore us???
Surely if we have come this far… Then shouldn’t we go all the way? Perhaps it’s time to put the expensive, week long holidays abroad on hold, and instead put solar panels on your roof? Perhaps it’s time to avoid all plastic packaging, and buy your food from a local farm that is slightly further out of town than the immediate convenience of the big, unenlightened supermarket?? Shouldn’t we be discouraging the big petrol companies from digging for more oil by giving up our cars and going electric??? Or even just cycling to where we need to go if only locally??? Perhaps it’s time to consider how you want to love the children you have brought into this world… ??? Shouldn’t we give them the greatest gift of all i.e. a clean planet that can support the complex web of Life for generations to come???
As I walked through town this morning I saw, in a Building Society’s shop window, a slogan on a bill board… It simply read, “Protect what is most important.” Followed underneath, in slightly smaller writing, by the words “Car Insurance.” So I wonder… When I see the amount of this BS littering the high street, I shudder a mighty spinal wriggle. Can we still not really see that the ‘pipe’ that we are all looking at is not the ‘pipe’ itself??? As Gael García Berna’s character in Jim Jarmusch’s “The Limits Of Control” mentions, “The old men in my village used to say… Everything changes by the colour of the glass you see it through… You don’t think that’s true? Everything’s imagined…” Then, a moment later, he adds… “Do you notice reflections? For me, sometimes the reflection is far more present than the thing being reflected.”
No doubt we must become what we feel we should become… I, nor anyone else, can – or even should – tell you how to be or what to do… First one must find their ‘self.’ Then, through honesty and a keen sense of observation, one can begin the formidable task of changing themselves. As Mahatma Gandhi once said, “You must become the change you wish to see in the world.”
No doubt reality is arbitrary… And so I leave it to you to create what fate you feel should be ours… Shall we float – here in this garden of Eden – a garden that we call the Earth… Which is really a dot of lively, rare moving magic in the vast inky black void of space and time – where a select group of atoms have been given the chance to spin into an ecstasy of human Beingness – wondering at how fortunate WE ALL ARE to have won this lottery of existence… This lottery of experience… ??? Being naturally so in moderation and with ultimate concern and awareness of where we’re at in the universal pattern… ??? Or should we hang ourselves upon our own fantasies and fictions, obsessively clinging to the very thing that will bring about our concluding demise… ???
Pour en savoir plus sur René Magritte, s’il vous plaît cliquez ici.
June 22, 2010
What a pertinent New Scientist article… Especially after everything that’s been posted recently here at polynomial.me.uk… I’ve said as much in as many ways as I could… And I’m just presently glad to see others saying the same thing now. We certainly need to understand that truths are nothing more than personalised beliefs that suite our own schemas and memetic make ups. Until we grasp this simple principle, and let the importance of our ‘self’ dissipate in varied stances of shifting perception – shifting like the sand dunes of the Sahara, with new daily landscapes uncoiling in the dry desert winds of reason – where we will be afforded many varied and compassionate mindscapes of egoless wonder, we will only grasp at delusions of self imposed, rigid and taught/taut modes of discourse.
As Bertrand Russell once wrote, “Men are born ignorant, not stupid. They are made stupid by education.” Here, within this ‘certain’ construct of human education a sort of deluded Hollywood romanticism is appearing… A romanticism that seems to allow people to understand their educational upbringing is not subject to modification or reinterpretation. In my humble opinion, it is this un-dynamic view of knowledge that cripples the very essence of all our scientific endeavours, as well as science’s educational system itself… If we encourage this fallacy, it will only cause us to scream at every eventuality that we were not prepared for and distrust all we have learnt, rather than simply updating our Operating Systems, as any good computer ‘bod’ will know to do regularly to keep things running smoothly. I know it’s not easy to never be certain of anything. But as Kung Fu Tzu once said, “A scholar who loves comfort is not fit to be called a scholar.” Without this continual updating of our mental schemas and memetic constructs – where we ‘weed’ those erroneous ideas and/or modify them to fit better what we see/observe in actual fact – we can never hope to find that greater perspective that every Taoist sees writhing in the world around us… A perspective of uncertainty; one that complements the natural and inbuilt chaos/nonlinear dynamics inherent within this universal flow… For without this perspective, we can never truly live harmoniously through the Tao.
Just bear in mind one thing before reading this article… Do yourself a favour and don’t get bogged down with Dorothy’s placing hope in the scientific truths we will come to know — after she says that we can never arrive at a truth. This means exactly what it means… Science will show us many aspects of our world, mainly via understanding the patterns unfolding within our dynamic universe… These patterns, while they change and evolve over time, will be repeatable and will show us a functional truth behind their unfolding, one that we can use to understand the world in which we live better. But to ultimately devise a single truth from these patterns – a truth that can only ever satisfy your own schema and memetic self-centred world view – is to lie to yourself. This is not a contradiction… One must see this important point, or we will lose sight of what logic is, and misuse it to trip ourselves up.
Liar, Liar: Why Deception Is Our Way Of Life
How did we get ourselves into this mess? Continual wars and conflicts, climate change and economic crisis loom at the international level, while as individuals we continue, generation after generation, to inflict pain and suffering not only on other people but on ourselves. Why do we have such difficulty in learning what we most need to know to mitigate our most destructive behaviours?
Throughout history there have been a few individuals whose insight into what goes on inside us is as clear as their understanding of what goes on around them, yet with what looks like self-induced stupidity most of us have been wholly unable to learn what they have been telling us.
Take the Stoic Greek philosopher Epictetus. He commented on human behaviour this way: “It is not things in themselves that trouble us, but our opinions of things.” In other words, it is not what happens to us that determines our behaviour but how we interpret what happens to us. Thus, when facing a disaster, one person might interpret it as a challenge to be mastered, another as a certain defeat, while a third might see it as the punishment he or she deserves. Crucially, the decisions about what to do follow from the interpretation each person has made.
For me, this uncertainty lies at the heart of what we need to know if we are to understand ourselves and behave differently. And yet throughout history we have denied this truth because what it tells us about ourselves is that, while we are not responsible for most of what happens to us, we are always responsible for how we interpret it. And we seem to dislike taking responsibility for ourselves as much as we dislike uncertainty.
Over the last 20 years or so, neuroscientists have shown that Epictetus was right – and given us important clues about our neuropsychology. They have found that our brain functions in such a way that we cannot see “reality” directly. All we can ever know are the guesses or interpretations our mind creates about what is going on. To create these guesses, we can only draw on basic human neuroanatomy and on our past experience. Since no two people ever have exactly the same neuroanatomy or experience, no two people ever interpret anything in exactly the same way.
This is frightening. It means that each of us lives alone, in our own world of meaning. Moreover, if everything we know is a guess, an approximation, events can, and often will, invalidate our ideas.
“Each of us lives alone, in our own world of meaning. This is frightening…”
Can you bear to remember that time in your life when you were going along feeling secure and thinking, “This is me, this is my world, that was my past, this will be my future,” when suddenly you found that you had made a major error of judgement? When you realised that many of the ideas underpinning your whole sense of being a person – that sense of “I”, “me”, “myself” – had been invalidated by events?
Have you ever had the sensation of falling through infinite space, shattering, crumbling, of being about to disappear like a raindrop into the ocean? Perhaps you knew that what was falling apart was not your sense of self but some of your ideas. You knew that you now had to go through a period of uncertainty until new ideas emerged.
But if you did not know this, you would have been utterly terrified, so terrified that you would do anything never to go through such an experience again.
Psychiatrists and psychologists have either ignored this experience, maximised its significance as a full-scale “breakdown”, or minimised it as a “panic disorder”. Yet this feeling of falling apart is an essential part of our lives and of most of our narratives. In The Wizard of Oz, for example, Dorothy and her companions emerge wiser and strong from the invalidation of their idea that the wizard could solve their problems, while paradoxically Othello is destroyed by the invalidation of his belief that his wife Desdemona had been unfaithful.
We first experience the terror of being invalidated when we are small children, but by the time we are 3 or 4 we have learned a way of avoiding it: we have learned how to lie. From then on, whenever we glimpse the faintest possibility that our “selves” might be threatened with annihilation, we lie.
First of all, we lie to ourselves. Why? Because we fear that we do not have the strength and courage to face the truth of our situation. We even lie about lying, preferring to call our lies anything but a lie. We say: “He’s in denial” or “She’s being economical with the truth”.
We lie in our private and work lives, to friends, family and colleagues. Often we tell them what we call “white lies”. Some of us do so because we need people to like us: our greatest fear is of being abandoned and rejected. Others tell white lies to avoid the chaotic feelings they get from seeing other people being upset by the truth: they know the world is a chaotic place, and to survive in it they need a personal island of clarity, order and control.
At a public level, we lie about nearly everything, from the true level of corporate wealth to expenses and evidence that humans are responsible for changing the climate.
When it comes to such global-level events, you might think finding out what is true would be a top priority, especially as we start out neurologically blindfolded. But it is not. For all of us there is something more important than finding the truth. We are too frightened to confront the facts because doing so means confronting the danger that most of what supports our sense of who we are could disappear.
Unlike lies, truths require evidence to support them. But no matter how much evidence we accumulate, our truths will always be approximations and absolute certainty will exist only in our fantasies. Lying gives us the temporary delusion that our personal and social worlds are intact, that we are loved, that we are safe, and above all, that we are not likely to overwhelmed by the uncertainty inherent in living in a world we can never truly know.
We can never escape uncertainty: it is part of our very being. Scientists struggle daily to accept uncertainty, and still search for “evidence”. In our personal, professional and collective social lives it looks as if we may have no choice but to confront uncertainty if we are to survive – and survive well.
So we will need to be very careful in future about choosing the situations in which we lie. All lies have networks of consequences we did not expect or intend. The lies we tell may well protect us and our personal – or collective – sense of self in the short term, but in the long term and in a linked-up, complex world, the consequences can be truly disastrous. After all, when we lie to ourselves and to others, we multiply a thousandfold the inherent difficulties we have trying to determine what is actually going on inside us and around us.
One day, neuroscientists may be able to describe the damage we do to our brains when we lie to ourselves and to others, when we create confusion about knowing something that we deny we know. Let’s hope that by then we can start to believe – and to use – the scientific truths we will be telling ourselves.
by Dorothy Rowe
To find out where I sourced this article from, please click here.
June 15, 2010
Just a moment ago a friend sent me a link to an article in Scientific American entitled “The Neuroscience of Distance and Desire.” As I’m particularly interested in delusions that spring forth from varied perceptive stances, or illusions that stem from blind spots within biomechanical processes within the mind, as well as illusions i.e. optical illusions and perceptual distortions, I’m posting this article here, as I feel it pertinently stands to remind us all about how something can sometimes seem greater than it actually is… Or closer than it really might be… Or even stranger than it really is.
Take a look at the cup of coffee in front of you. Think of how badly you want it. Think of the warmth it will bring as it slips past your pursed lips and reaches through your body’s core. The inviting astringency that lingers on your tastebuds, and that can only be abated by another sip. Once you have worked yourself into a caffeine-deprived frenzy, reach out your hand and try and grasp your liquid gold. New research conducted by Emily Balcetis and David Dunning and published in a recent issue of the journal Psychological Sciencesuggests that you might not reach far enough. The coffee cup appears closer than it really is.
This may sound absurd to those of us who believe we see the natural world as it is. How far away am I from my coffee mug? Why, as far away as it looks! The authors’ argument, however, rests on the idea that the way we see the world can be distorted by the way we feel and think about it. Their research is part of an emerging body of work supporting this idea. For example,researchers have found that hills appear steeper and distances longer when people are fatigued or carrying heavy loads. The difficulty of the task distorts our perception of distance. This will ring true for any post-holiday jogger who might at first be astonished at how long a mile appears with the weight of turkey, stuffing and cheesecake dangling from his sides. But as the pounds drip away, the mile marker doesn’t look quite so distant. Anyone who has been tasked with exceedingly tedious administrative work probably has an intimate understanding of this well. As I grade student exams, the more tedious the work, the less of an impact I seem to be making in that tall stack of papers in front of me. Haven’t I been doing this for two hours already?
Balcetis and Dunning wondered whether the desirability of an object might also influence perception, causing us to distort our proximity to objects we crave. In other words, do objects that we want or like appear closer to us than they actually are? In a series of clever experiments Balcetis and Dunning varied the desirability of target objects and asked for participants’ estimates of their physical proximity to these objects. For example, participants who had just eaten pretzels perceived a water bottle as significantly closer to them relative to participants who had just drank as much water as they wanted. In other words, those who desired the water more, perceived it as more easily attainable. A $100 bill that participants had the possibility of winning appeared closer to participants than a $100 bill that belonged to the experimenter. The results of surveys that provided participants with positive social feedback (you have an “above average” sense of humor) were perceived as closer than surveys that provided negative feedback (you have a “below average” sense of humor).
These perceptual distortions manifested in physical actions towards desirable or undesirable objects as well. Participants who were asked to toss a beanbag towards a desirable object (a $25 gift card) came up significantly shorter than participants who tossed the bag towards a neutral object (a gift card worth $0), perceiving it to be closer than it actually was.
Finally, participants were asked to stand opposite a wall upon which experimenters had placed two strips of tape exactly 90 inches away from each other. Beneath one of the pieces of tape was either a bag of chocolates or a bag of what experimenters described as a “freshly collected sample of dog feces” – two things most of us can, hopefully, agree are desirable and undesirable. Participants were asked to move towards the object until their distance equaled the distance between the pieces of tape. Participants, overestimating their proximity to the desirable object, moved significantly closer to the feces than the chocolate. Street-walkers everywhere beware: dog poop is closer than it may appear.
Though these findings may conjure up images of moving in for kisses that land short or attempted caresses that only glance the tip of your target’s nose, the authors argue that these types of distortions are an important part of social life. They help motivate us to pursue those goals that are particularly desirable, and encourage us to not pursue those goals that might be particularly difficult to attain. The logic here is simply that energy is a limited resource, and over evolutionary time the individuals who have been most successful have been those who directed their energy towards goals that would either benefit them the most or that would not come at too high a risk.
The closer an object appears, the more obtainable it seems. The more obtainable it seems, the more likely we are to go for it. Likewise, the more challenging a goal appears (a mile run when you’re out of shape) the more distant it will seem. The more distant it seems, the less likely you are to lace up your sneakers and the more likely you are to hit up those sweat pants and leftovers. This may seem counter-intuitive – after all, running is good for our health, so how could a perceptual bias that makes us less likely to do it be helpful? While it may be disconcerting to know that your eyes conspire against your waistline, the “impossible is nothing” mentality of our exercise culture, though it will certainly help you look great in a swimsuit, was probably not a terrific strategy over evolutionary time. That chasm over there? Impossible to jump across. How about that growling bear? It’s impossible to physically subdue. There would have been goals that were impossible or, at least, very difficult or unlikely for an individual to achieve, and having the perceptual system guide us in the right direction (e.g. by making the chasm look wider than it actually is, and the bear perhaps a bit larger and meaner) would have been extremely important.
In sum, the things that we want will be perceived as relatively closer and more obtainable and energize action geared towards their acquisition. This perhaps explains why that cute bartender you’ve been eyeing recently appears to lean in tantalizingly close when pouring your drink. But beware of how your eyes may deceive you. Though you may desire the barkeep’s affections, those dexterous hands may be farther away than you think. What appears to be within reach might, in fact, not be so. Indeed, these findings suggest that Morrissey’s musings on the effects of unrequited love need revision. While he may be right that the “the more you ignore me, the closer I get”, it may be equally true that the more you ignore me, the closer you get.
To find out where I sourced this article from, please click here.
March 2, 2010
I like it when people leave comments and offer their own perceptive stance on their world view. It usually results in my learning something really important about the world… Something that I’m sure I knew on some level (having learnt most of statistics at university) but just never really had the foresight to translate it into real world analogies. Well… I’m glad to say it’s happened again!
Relating to current escalating global population levels and, thus, the resulting increase in consumption of resources, we’d be all well advised to watch this lecture entitled “Arithmetic, Population And Energy,” given by Albert A. Bartlett, Professor Emeritus in Nuclear Physics at Colorado University at Boulder. Here Professor Bartlett felicitously explains what it means to see an annual 7% increase in growth, asking questions like “What’s the doubling time for 7% growth?” and “Should we be promoting disease?” so as to bring these ideas into a crystal clear perspective… With a touch of humour here and there.
So where do we start? Well, let’s start in Boulder, Colorado. Here’s my home town. There’s the 1950 census figure, 1960, 1970—in that period of twenty years, the average growth rate of Boulder’s population was 6% per year. With big efforts, we’ve been able to slow the growth somewhat. There’s the 2000 census figure. I’d like to ask people: let’s start with that 2000 figure, go another 70 years—one human life time—and ask: what rate of growth would we need in Boulder’s population in the next 70 years so that at the end of 70 years, the population of Boulder would equal today’s population of your choice of major American cities?
Boulder in 70 years could be as big as Boston is today if we just grew 2.58% per year. Now, if we thought Detroit was a better model, we’ll have to shoot for 31?4% per year. Remember the historic figure on the preceding slide, 6% per year? If that could continue for one lifetime, the population of Boulder would be larger than the population of Los Angeles. Well, I’ll just tell you, you couldn’t put the population of Los Angles in the Boulder valley. Therefore it’s obvious, Boulder’s population growth is going to stop and the only question is, will we be able to stop it while there is still some open space, or will we wait until it’s wall-to-wall people and we’re all choking to death?
Now, every once in a while somebody says to me, “But you know, a bigger city might be a better city,” and I have to say, “Wait a minute, we’ve done that experiment!” We don’t need to wonder what will be the effect of growth on Boulder because Boulder tomorrow can be seen in Los Angeles today. And for the price of an airplane ticket, we can step 70 years into the future and see exactly what it’s like. What is it like? There’s an interesting headline from Los Angeles. (“…carcinogens in air…”) Maybe that has something to do with this headline from Los Angeles. (“Smog kills 1,600 annually…”)
So how are we doing in Colorado? Well, we’re the growth capital of the USA and proud of it. The Rocky Mountain News tells us to expect another million people in the Front Range in the next 20 years, and what are the consequences of all this? (“Denver’s traffic…3rd worst in US…”) These are totally predictable, there are no surprises here, we know exactly what happens when you crowd more people into an area.
Well, as you can imagine, growth control is very controversial, and I treasure the letter from which these quotations are taken. Now, this letter was written to me by a leading citizen of our community. He’s a leading proponent of “controlled growth.” “Controlled growth” just means “growth.” This man writes, “I take no exception to your arguments regarding exponential growth.” “I don’t believe the exponential argument is valid at the local level.”
So you see, arithmetic doesn’t hold in Boulder. I have to admit, that man has a degree from the University of Colorado. It’s not a degree in mathematics, in science, or in engineering. All right, let’s look now at what happens when we have this kind of steady growth in a finite environment…
Thus I ask if this could be a new slogan for the “Optimum Population Trust“? And perhaps when we tie this idea up with consumption, it might be a reason to change our habits, like finding the goods we need off “FreeCycle” rather than ‘buying’ them brand new in the shops OR throwing away what we think we don’t need or can’t use?
A BIG thank you to Andrew Soon for bringing this to my attention!
To find the transcript for this video, please click here.
Or to find out more about Professor Albert A. Bartlett, please click here.
September 9, 2009
Two more ideas that demonstrate how the human mind works…
- Here Vilayanur Ramachandran tells us what brain damage can reveal about the connection between celebral tissue and the mind, using three startling delusions as examples.
This lecture was presented and posted on line by the TED network, which you can visit by clicking here.
About Vilayanur Ramachandran:
V.S. Ramachandran is a mesmerizing speaker, able to concretely and simply describe the most complicated inner workings of the brain. His investigations into phantom limb pain, synesthesia and other brain disorders allow him to explore (and begin to answer) the most basic philosophical questions about the nature of self and human consciousness.
Ramachandran is the director of the Center for Brain and Cognition at the University of California, San Diego, and an adjunct professor at the Salk Institute. He is the author of Phantoms in the Brain, the basis for a Nova special, and A Brief Tour of Human Consciousness; his next book, due out in January 2008, is called The Man with the Phantom Twin: Adventures in the Neuroscience of the Human Brain.
“Ramachandran is a latter-day Marco Polo, journeying the silk road of science to strange and exotic Cathays of the mind. He returns laden with phenomenological treasures…which, in his subtle and expert telling, yield more satisfying riches of scientific understanding.”
- Neuroscientist and inventor Christopher deCharms demonstrates a new way to use fMRI to show brain activity — thoughts, emotions, pain — while it is happening. In other words, you can actually see how you feel.
This lecture was presented and posted on line by the TED network, which you can visit by clicking here.
About Christopher deCharms:
Neuroscientist Christopher deCharms is helping to develop a new kind of MRI that allows doctor and patient to look inside the brain in real time — to see visual representations of brain processes as they happen. With his company Omneuron, deCharms has developed technology they call rtfMRI, for “real-time functional MRI” — which is exactly what it sounds like. You move your arm, your brain lights up. You feel pain, your brain lights up.
How could we use the ability to see our brains in action? For a start, to help treat chronic pain with a kind of biofeedback; being able to visualize pain can help patients control it. And longer-term uses boggle the mind. Ours is the first generation, he believes, to be able to train and build our minds as systematically as a weightlifter builds a muscle. What will we do with this?
deCharms is also the author of the book Two Views of Mind, studying Buddhist theories of perception from a neuroscientist’s perspective.