May 4, 2014
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I must confess that I am always slightly baffled about how the majority of people that I meet in life don’t quite get why either conventional or unconventional methods of fossil fuel extraction are really not such great ideas for us evolved primates to be considering continuing with… It doesn’t matter if it’s done here in the UK with our amazingly tight regulations and/or our absolute best practices, or whether it’s done anywhere else in the world with little or no regard for the environment… The fact remains that it’s just simply not a path that any “together” life-form would rationally want to be advancing down, all things considered.
No doubt the “considering” is a hugely BIG and EXPANSIVE effort… One that requires us all to get a grip on and piece together many seemingly unrelated subjects so as to bring into focus the BIGGER picture of where we – as evolved life-forms who are highly dependent on a planetary ecosystem – are ALL presently at.
However, even after this BIGGER picture is sometimes accurately sketched out with as much clarity as anyone could hope to muster, given constraints of time and circumstance, it commonly seems that quite a few of my fellow primates are always left scratching their heads. In these particular instances I try to help by asking whether they might (at present) be feeling a bit like a puddle would do in the hot morning sun. Unfortunately, this doesn’t always have the desired effect that I intend it to, and commonly results in them gawping all the more.
When noticing that clarity might quickly be replaced with concerns about our ramblings being a type of contagious madness, which should swiftly be contained at all cost (either by alerting the local psychiatric hospital or even punching me in the face), I quickly refer to the eloquent lecture that the late Douglas Adams gave on the parallel subject about “Parrots the Universe and Everything”. I then hurriedly make my excuses about the time (or some other such contrivance that might need to be addressed) and leave, hoping that they will, in future, look it up on the Informational Super-Highway.
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Parrots the Universe and Everything
Douglas Adams was the best-selling British author and satirist who created The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. In this talk at UCSB recorded shortly before his death, Adams shares hilarious accounts of some of the apparently absurd lifestyles of the world’s creatures, and gleans from them extraordinary perceptions about the future of humanity.
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To find out more about the late Douglas Adam, please click here.
To find out more about unconventional oil & gas extraction and how it might affect those living near it, please click here.
July 18, 2012
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The opportunity to experience yourself differently is always available.
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While the first part of this exposé on the notion of a ‘self’ discussed how the idea of my own individual ‘self,’ as a distinct and separate entity that (at least in the present social context of most Western understanding) seems to be independently existent aside from everything else outside of it, might – in actual fact – only be an illusory conceptualisation that had been derived from our use of language and fragmented academic understandings (about what we are and what we are not) that aim to separate the world into definable and distinctly measurable/quantifiable parts… Part 2 will focus on the idea of how our senses (which I will parallel with the idea lying behind a particular optical illusion) form the notion of a “self”… When viewed in this way, it poses the question of whether the notion of our “selves” is actually merely just an illusion and, thus, begets whether or not we should be bypassing all and any certainty that we may have that the “self” actually does exist as a separate and independent entity from everything else. Just as a mirage in a desert can fool the thirsty person who perceives it to be a real body of water… Running forward without ever reaching it to quench their thirst… So to can the notion of a ‘self’ be seen as a type of mirage that causes us to function in such a way that is not in line with the true nature of reality.
Certainly we can all – to varying degrees – perceive the world around us using these bio-molecular bodies that we all have come into (I will not doubt this point here, as Descartes did, mainly because other philosophers have adequately covered the ground of this seemingly futile question well enough for me for the moment). Through these bodies, we find our “selves” in near proximity to all that we immediately experience going on around us. It is as though we are continually immersed in all the activity that is directly going on around us, seeing it only from the locality of our own body’s perspective. This is because we perceive all the things/objects/events in our lives via our senses i.e. sight with eyes, hearing through our ears, tasting with our tongues, scents through our noses, touching with our bodies… And as each of our senses are derived from and associated with the various organs we just described, all of which are directly attached to our bodies, is it any wonder that rarely do we see things from the perspective of another body? Our perceptions don’t just easily re-tune into what another person is seeing from their seemingly separate bodily perspective. Thus, on the whole, “I” tend to perceive the world around me exactly as though my very body were the central hub from which all interaction with the outside surrounding world happened. And it is because of this proximity to everything around us that “I” mostly always feel to be embedded right in the middle of ‘my’ body.
So… Is it really any wonder that we perceive our “selves” to be separate independent entities that exist separately from one another, and/or as separately from everything else going on around us? Still… Despite the obvious answer to this question, I would nonetheless like to further expound on the seemingly absurd notion that the “self”, appearing to be independent of everything else around it, actually isn’t… And I aim to make my point by means of drawing a parallel between a well-known optical illusion and the idea of the senses forming an illusion of “self.”
By doing this, I hope not to disprove that the “self” exists at all… Rather my aim is to help us re-equate the notion of our “self” into a softer and more gentle fit for the present world around us i.e. as a designated notion of how our body – along with its feelings, emotions, thoughts, opinions, desires, etc… – can be described as an entity that is different from another’s for the purpose of describing our experiences separately.
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As some of you may already know… I have a tendency to call myself a Buddhist most of the time… Though I dare say that I have quite a bit of trouble walking the path of one nearly all the time. Still, I do my best, and on the whole, whenever some free-time presents itself, I enjoy reading as much as I can about the subject and how it relates back to some of the thoughts that I have while reading about scientific modes of inquiry into what consciousness might actually be.
As it happened, yesterday I was reading about how our consciousness is apparently connected to the world that we perceive around us via a website called the “Mind Lab.” On it, I came across four beautifully presented sessions that aim to investigate and demonstrate how our brain perceives everyday phenomena, as well as how there are in fact clear limits to what and how we can perceive these daily phenomena. While these limits might not be easily noticed by many of us, they nonetheless exist and very much influence the way in which we perceive and understand the world around us.
For the purposes of this entry, I would like to focus on the last session of the “Mind Lab” website, where we are presented with a well known illusion called the Kanizsa Triangle (see diagram immediately below). The Kanizsa Triangle was named after the Italian psychologist Gaetano Kanizsa who first described its effect.
When you look at the above image your brain creates contours (outlines) of a triangle, even though one does not actually exist. In reality it is simply an illusion created by the the wedges and angles that exist in the image. To further this, on the “Mind Lab” website, in the session on “Perception Beyond Sensory Input”, we are told that:
“The brain sometimes perceives shapes and colours even in situations where there is no corresponding sensory input coming from the outside world.”
“For example (in the image directly above), you should see the missing sections of these dark disks as the sides of a square that is brighter than its surroundings, and even be able to see the vague contour lines of a square that doesn’t actually exist.
“When the brain sees an image like this, it interprets depth relationships to perceive that ‘there is a square set on top of four black disks.’”
The article on “Perception Beyond Sensory Input” then goes on to say, “these non-existent subjective contours can also occur with colour.” We are then presented with two more diagrams that illustrate illusions of this type and, are conclusively, lead to believe “that these subjective contours and colours are constructed by the brain to compensate for missing sensory information.”
Through out the rest of the piece we are presented with various examples that show us how our brain and mind automatically interpret things about the world around us, thus making assumptions about things that appear to be there when, in fact, they are not.
While reading through this section of the “Mind Lab” website, it dawned on me that the “self” came across as something very similar to the points (or disks) seen in the Kanizsa Triangle illusion that suggested to the brain/mind that there was a triangle present. But rather than graphical points in a diagram, when I began looking at what the “self” was, these points became points of a nexus of experiential phenomena that suggested the presence of a contained “self” – or an “I” – that resided in geographical proximity to each other, at the centre of a distinct and seemingly separate body i.e. our physical body.
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In order to make my point clearer, I would like to elaborate on a Buddhist idea that I recently came across called the “Five Skandhas” relating to the nature of compounded reality.
It should be noted here that Buddhism is not a religion in the classical sense i.e. it does not have a centralised omnipotent or omnipresent God or series of Gods that can be worshiped or appeased. Rather, Buddhism is based around the teachings of one man, a man who became the Gautama Buddha, or an enlightened being. And, as one does when ones achieves perfect realisation (so I’m told), he became perfectly aware of the true nature of reality and of all compounded phenomena that give rise to experience and karma.
No doubt, as the Buddha himself stated on several occasions, he was only ever truly just a man… A man who had strived to understand the world around him as best as he could in order to help all beings achieve a state of non-suffering, or Nirvana… And in doing so, he had severed all ties to the Karmic patterns of being that had kept him locked into daily routines of unenlightened activity so as to help other beings achieve the ultimate state of realisation that he had attained. Thus, rather than achieving enlightenment through supernatural means, he had merely learnt many helpful techniques from all the learned masters he had met during his lifetime (and previous lives). Then, along with much diligence, he had practised all these techniques with immeasurable devotion until he became a fully enlightened being.
I suppose I find strong parallels between how the Gautama Buddha learnt these techniques of liberation from all the Karmic patterns of his own making, as well as of those of other learned masters, AND how scientific methods of inquiry looking into phenomena so as to figure out how all the facets of the bigger picture fit into together and work around one another… Just as the Buddha strove to see things clearly and perfectly, without any dis-figuration or misunderstanding, in order to crystallise them into a naturally formed primordial experience devoid of any need for description or intellectualism, so too does science strive to see things clearly and perfectly without dis-figuration or misunderstanding (although without loosing the need for description or intellectualism). Perhaps this is why an eminent Buddhist teacher, Mingyur Rinpoche, wrote in his book, entitled “The Joy Of Living”, Buddhism “is a type of science, a method of exploring your own experience through techniques that enable you to examine your actions and reactions in a non-judgmental way…” While looking into the idea of what the “self” was, it was this particular quote that encouraged me to see the parallel between the concept behind an optical illusion (the Kanizsa Triangle) and the Buddhist idea of “non-self.”
Bearing this in mind… The Buddhist idea that I would like to have a look at to illustrate my point about how similar certain ‘optical’ illusions are to the notion of “non-self” is the principle of the ‘skandhas.’ The skandhas (which is Sanskrit) are any of five types of phenomena that serve as objects of ‘clinging’ and bases for a sense of ‘self.’ The historical Buddha often spoke of the “Five Skandhas,” also called the “Five Aggregates” or the “Five Heaps,” and taught that nothing among them is really ‘I’ or ‘mine.’ The skandhas, very roughly, might be thought of as components that come together to make an individual. Every thing that we think of as ‘I’ is a function of the skandhas. Put another way, we might think of an individual as a process of the skandhas (just in the same way that the points and angles in the Kanizsa Triangle illusion ‘suggest’ the presence of a triangle).
When the Buddha taught the Four Noble Truths, he began with the first Truth, life is ‘dukkha.’ This is often translated as ‘life is suffering,’ or ‘stressful’ or ‘unsatisfactory.’ But it is also well documented in Buddhism that the Buddha also used the word to mean ‘impermanent’ and ‘conditioned.’ To be conditioned is to be dependent on or affected by something else. The Buddha taught that the skandhas were dukkha.
The component parts of the skandhas work together in such a seamless way that they create the sense of a single ‘self,’ or a notion of ‘I’ (much like the points and angles do in the Kanizsa Triangle when our body observes it). Despite this single sense of an isolated ‘self,’ the Buddha taught that there is no ‘self’ occupying the skandhas (much like there is actually no triangle present in the Kanizsa Triangle). Thus, in Buddhism, developing a deep understanding the skandhas is extremely helpful to seeing through the illusion of ‘self.’
Please note that, while the explanation provided here is very basic, it is suitable to demonstrate how the five senses come together to produce a sense of ‘I’ and/or ‘self.’ Also, it should be noted that the various schools of Buddhism understand the skandhas somewhat differently from one another, so if you were to read more about them you may find that the teachings of one school don’t exactly match the teachings of another.
In a moment I’ll discuss how the Six Organs/Senses or Faculties relate to the Five Skandas. But before I do this, I would like to individually list the Six Organs/Senses, along with their corresponding objects, so that we might get a clearer view of what they are exactly in Buddhist terms.
The Six Sense Organs or Faculties are:
The Six Corresponding Objects to the Sense Organs are (respectively):
1. Visible form
5. Tangible things
6. Thoughts and ideas
Next I will discuss the Five Skandas and how they relate to the Six Sense Organs or Faculties.
1. The First Skandha: Form (Rupa)
Rupa is form or matter; something material that can be sensed. In early Buddhist literature, rupa includes the Four Great Elements (solidity, fluidity, heat, and motion) and their derivatives. These derivatives are the first five faculties listed above (eye, ear, nose, tongue, body) and the first five corresponding objects (visible form, sound, odor, taste, tangible things).
Another way to understand rupa is to think of it as something that resists the probing of the senses. For example, an object has form if it blocks your vision – you can’t see what’s on the other side of it – or if it blocks your hand from occupying its space.
2. The Second Skandha: Sensation (Vedana)
Vedana is physical or mental sensation that we experience through contact of the six faculties with the external world. In other words, it is the sensation experienced through the contact of eye with visible form, ear with sound, nose with odour, tongue with taste, body with tangible things, mind (manas) with ideas or thoughts.
It is particularly important to understand that manas – mind – in the skandhas is a sense organ or faculty, just like an eye or an ear. We tend to think that mind is something like a spirit or soul, but that concept is very out of place in Buddhism.
Because vedana is the experience of pleasure or pain, it conditions craving, either to acquire something pleasurable or avoid something painful.
3. The Third Skandha: Perception (Samjna, or in Pali, Sanna)
Samjna is the faculty that recognizes. Most of what we call thinking fits into the aggregate of samjna.
The word “samjna” means “knowledge that puts together.” It is the capacity to conceptualize and recognize things by associating them with other things. For example, we recognize shoes as shoes because we associate them with our previous experience(s) with shoes.
When we see something for the first time, we invariably flip through our mental index cards to find categories we can associate with the new object. It’s “some kind of tool with a red handle,” for example, putting the new thing in the categories “tool” and “red.” Or, we might associate an object with its context – we recognize a machine as a car because we see them regularly on the roads around us.
4. The Fourth Skandha: Mental Formation (Samskara, or in Pali, Sankhara)
All volitional actions, good and bad, are included in the aggregate of mental formations. How are actions “mental” formations? As is stated in the first lines of the dhammapada (Acharya Buddharakkhita translation):
“Mind precedes all mental states. Mind is their chief; they are all mind-wrought. If with an impure mind a person speaks or acts suffering follows him like the wheel that follows the foot of the ox.
“Mind precedes all mental states. Mind is their chief; they are all mind-wrought. If with a pure mind a person speaks or acts happiness follows him like his never-departing shadow.”
The aggregate of mental formations is associated with karma, because volitional acts create karma. Samsara also contains latent karma that conditions our attitudes and predilections. Biases and prejudices belong to this skandha, as do interests and attractions.
5. The Fifth Skandha: Consciousness (Vijnana, or in Pali, Vinnana)
Vijnana is a reaction that has one of the six faculties as its basis and one of the six corresponding phenomena as its object. For example, aural consciousness – hearing – has the ear as its basis and a sound as its object. Mental consciousness has the mind (manas) as its basis and an idea or thought as its object.
It is important to understand that consciousness depends on the other skandhas and does not exist independently from them. It is an awareness but not a recognition, as recognition is a function of the third skandha. This awareness is not sensation, which is the second skandha. For most of us in the West, this is a very different way to think about “consciousness.”
It is also important to remember that vijnana is not “special” or “above” the other skandhas. It is not the “self.” It is the action and interaction of all five skandhas that create the illusion of a ‘self…’ This is much like Kalu Rinpoche discusses in “Karma, Interdependence and Emptiness” when he discusses tendrel in relation to what actually makes the sound of a bell.
As a buffer to this idea… I’d like to highlight an exert from a book that I have been reading, entitled “No Self, No Problem.”
We identify with our body made of flesh, bones, and other components and therefore we believe that we are material, substantial, and concrete. This understanding has become so embedded in our belief system that we rarely question it. The results of that are the inevitable conditions of old age, sickness, and death. We acquire these conditions simply out of believing that we are this physical body. We always pay a high price when we believe false ideas. This perception is not just held individually; it is held dearly by the collective mind of society and has been for many generations. That is why it is so strongly entrenched in our psyche. Our normal, everyday perception of each other is governed by this false identity and then strengthened and enforced by the language we use.
At a very early age we are indoctrinated into this notion of self as the body. For example when we see a small child we say, “He is beautiful. I love his hair. she has the cutest eyes.” Through thoughts and comments such as these we are planting the seeds of this mistaken identity. Of course there is nothing wrong with giving compliments. It is much better than criticism. However it is still a form of misconception. The truth is that, independent of any characteristics, a child is inherently beautiful the moment she is born. So we are are all beautiful.
We are living in an age when people are disconnected from their true identity and this false perception is validated from every angle. Everyone is craving a perfect body and seeking it in others. For example, when you go to the grocery store you see magazines displaying pictures of men and women in a perfect and idealized youthful form. It is very difficult to resist these messages. They come from everywhere, all aspects of society, and they validate this sense of mistaken identity. They validate the sense that this body is who we really are. Given the tendency to establish a perfect idealized standard, many people suffer from pride, narcissism, arrogance, shame, guilt, and self-hatred because of their relationship with their body and their ability or inability to reflect this perfect standard.
Every moment when we wake up and look into the mirror there is a voice in our mind that is constantly judging us and others according to this standard. Have you ever noticed that? Our mind is always judging: “Oh, another wrinkle. She is too fat. He is strange looking. She is beautiful. He is handsome.” These judgements not only create a stumbling block on our spiritual path, they also create clouds of negativity in our consciousness and keep us firmly chained in the prison of duality.
But there is no need to hold onto this. There is the possibility of transcending this identification with our body in each and every moment. It is only when we drop all of these judgements that we will recognize that everyone is divine in their uniqueness. Egoic mind is always comparing self with others because it believes itself to be a separate entity and it uses the body as the divine line between self and others.
We are nonmaterial. We are insubstantial. We are not like a tale that eventually breaks down. The very essence of who we are goes beyond the conditions of decay and impermanence. Yes, our body is impermanent but our true nature is not impermanent. Our true nature is deathless and divine, transcending all imperfections. Because of this we are all equal, we are all one. Nobody is better or worse than anybody else. When someone manifests their true nature, they live out of love, kindness, and joy. They inflict less pain on others. When we meditate, sooner or later we discover that this is not just abstract theory. This corresponds to the truth, to reality.
by Anam Thubten
I hope that here you can now begin to see how the notion of a ‘self’ might comes about, as well as how it relates to an illusionary triangle that is suggested in the Kanizsa Triangle illusion. Just as the three disks and three angles in the Kanizsa Triangle illusion sit within proximity to each other in the diagram to suggest a triangle, so too do the six sense organs join together by way of the body via the 5 skandhas to produce a notion of a “self” or “I.”
I should highlight here that I am in no way suggesting that our “self” does not actually exist… Neither am I saying that it is certainly and independently existent of everything else. Rather I am suggesting that, in a relative sense, the “self” is related to many interdependent phenomena and, so, it should be obvious how the notion of our “self” is not independently existing away from everything/anything else around us i.e. the understanding that we are independent entities is actually a flawed perspective… In reality, everything is interconnected to everything else in a long chain-mail of causes and effects.
When we truly begin to understand this perspective, all the separate aspects of “self” and “other” merge into a unifying whole. What exactly happens at this point is somewhat beyond me as, while I can fairly clearly grasp the conceptual idea lying behind the negation of a certain and independent ‘self’, I find it possibly to be one of the hardest and most problematic notions to actually embrace into my being and way of living… I presume this is because ‘I’ am riddled with all sorts socially accepted forms of memetic vagaries and ideals, all of which relate very strongly and concisely to my living in a highly capitalist and consumerist society, the roots of which appear to be so deeply entrenched in my being that it somewhat reminds me of how I clear out the flower beds around my home from all the “creeping buttercup” that comes back each year… Every effort made to remove this invasive and vivacious plant from my garden’s boarders – even if almost all of the tiny/minuscule roots are removed (and, trust me, removing them all is near on an impossible task) – so as to prevent it strangling the other flowers that lie in the beds, is only as good as partially doing the job that is needed… Just one small part of a root left unwittingly in the bed ensures that the “buttercup” will come back the following year. In many ways, in order to take a decent go at negating my ‘self-ish’ tendencies, I would need to totally remove my ‘Being’ from the daily bombardment of advertising and business that I am presently immersed in, as well as taking solace away from usual social engagements and enactments, all of which would be much like one removing all the contaminated soil in and around the surrounding area to get rid of every last piece of the overbearing buttercup. No doubt it is a problem to develop a more attune sense of ‘self’ in a culture that ubiquitously embraces the ‘self’ as a justified and certain way of understanding and being.
Perhaps the only answer is to remove myself further from this culture’s pervasive and ‘self-ish’ embrace on my psyche? Or perhaps I should find a master to help me progress beyond this point at which I find myself stuck… And allow me to let go of my polarised views of what is right or wrong and so embrace all that simply is as it is… ? As emptiness… ?
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To find out more about Anam Thubten Rinpoche’s book, from Rinpoche himself, please click here.
Just the other day I remembered something that I had done recently, which was to make a vegetable stew for a friend… A friend who is not very well presently. And, as far as I can remember, it was a hearty vegetarian dish… A speciality of mine that I learnt how to make after I came out of university, when I found myself with a bit more money than I had usually been used to… What better way to spend it, I thought, than on fresh vegetables and good wine. In fact, it was this good old vegetarian combination of a leek and potato soup, sprinkled liberally with organic pearl barley and fresh herbs, that frequently put me straight on the path again after many a long, winding, fun-filled a weekend down in Glastonbury town. But then… That’s just what I recall.
Because, when I spoke to my partner about the food I had made after she went to deliver it over to our ill friend a few days back, she had told me how our ill chum had mentioned that the soup was ‘really good.’ In fact, she mentioned that she couldn’t believe that a vegetarian soup could have tasted so good! However, just after hearing that, my partner mentioned that she told our unwell friend that it wasn’t a vegetarian dish at all… In fact, she had said that it contained some lamb in it too. So I suddenly began to think that perhaps I had put some lamb in the soup, just especially for our ill friend, who certainly wasn’t a vegetarian… !?
However, when I began to piece together the parts in my mind of what I remembered about making the soup i.e. we had had lots of organic leeks and potatoes which needed to be used at the time, along with the fact that I knew a vegetarian brew would be better for our unwell friend than a meaty dish, as well as we were out of mutton for the moment… I found myself remembering something totally different to what I had been told.
Certainly this wasn’t the first time that a minor discrepancy such this had presented itself to me in a social context… In fact, with almost everyone I know (including several people I do not know), I have – at sometime or another – come across some type of incongruity in how we all remember certain things. Whether ‘why’ we remember something differently to someone else is because of the inherent difference in the way we each understand things i.e. because we have had different experiences to each other, and therefore different views about things; OR whether it is because someone might we have loaded a question that begs us to remember something that didn’t necessarily occur (something about which we will hear more about in a minute)… The fact remains that these inconsistencies pop-up more frequently than many of us usually care to notice.
In fact, I sometimes wonder whether there is ever any particular ‘point’ that two people – each standing in a slightly different position to the other and, thus, viewing the ‘point’ from another slightly different perspective – could ever completely agree upon? No doubt I’d like to once again to draw your attention to the opening chapter in Bertrand Russell’s book, entitled “The Problems Of Philosophy…”
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IS there any knowledge in the world which is so certain that no reasonable man could doubt it? This question, which at first sight might not seem difficult, is really one of the most difficult that can be asked. When we have realized the obstacles in the way of a straightforward and confident answer, we shall be well launched on the study of philosophy — for philosophy is merely the attempt to answer such ultimate questions, not carelessly and dogmatically, as we do in ordinary life and even in the sciences, but critically after exploring all that makes such questions puzzling, and after realizing all the vagueness and confusion that underlie our ordinary ideas.
In daily life, we assume as certain many things which, on a closer scrutiny, are found to be so full of apparent contradictions that only a great amount of thought enables us to know what it is that we really may believe. In the search for certainty, it is natural to begin with our present experiences, and in some sense, no doubt, knowledge is to be derived from them. But any statement as to what it is that our immediate experiences make us know is very likely to be wrong. It seems to me that I am now sitting in a chair, at a table of a certain shape, on which I see sheets of paper with writing or print. By turning my head I see out of the window buildings and clouds and the sun. I believe that the sun is about ninety-three million miles from the earth; that it is a hot globe many times bigger than the earth; that, owing to the earth’s rotation, it rises every morning, and will continue to do so for an indefinite time in the future. I believe that, if any other normal person comes into my room, he will see the same chairs and tables and books and papers as I see, and that the table which I see is the same as the table which I feel pressing against my arm. All this seems to be so evident as to be hardly worth stating, except in answer to a man who doubts whether I know anything. Yet all this may be reasonably doubted, and all of it requires much careful discussion before we can be sure that we have stated it in a form that is wholly true.
To make our difficulties plain, let us concentrate attention on the table. To the eye it is oblong, brown and shiny, to the touch it is smooth and cool and hard; when I tap it, it gives out a wooden sound. Any one else who sees and feels and hears the table will agree with this description, so that it might seem as if no difficulty would arise; but as soon as we try to be more precise our troubles begin. Although I believe that the table is ‘really’ of the same colour all over, the parts that reflect the light look much brighter than the other parts, and some parts look white because of reflected light. I know that, if I move, the parts that reflect the light will be different, so that the apparent distribution of colours on the table will change. It follows that if several people are looking at the table at the same moment, no two of them will see exactly the same distribution of colours, because no two can see it from exactly the same point of view, and any change in the point of view makes some change in the way the light is reflected.
For most practical purposes these differences are unimportant, but to the painter they are all-important: the painter has to unlearn the habit of thinking that things seem to have the colour which common sense says they ‘really’ have, and to learn the habit of seeing things as they appear. Here we have already the beginning of one of the distinctions that cause most trouble in philosophy — the distinction between ‘appearance’ and ‘reality’, between what things seem to be and what they are. The painter wants to know what things seem to be, the practical man and the philosopher want to know what they are; but the philosopher’s wish to know this is stronger than the practical man’s, and is more troubled by knowledge as to the difficulties of answering the question.
To return to the table. It is evident from what we have found, that there is no colour which preeminently appears to be the colour of the table, or even of any one particular part of the table — it appears to be of different colours from different points of view, and there is no reason for regarding some of these as more really its colour than others. And we know that even from a given point of view the colour will seem different by artificial light, or to a colour-blind man, or to a man wearing blue spectacles, while in the dark there will be no colour at all, though to touch and hearing the table will be unchanged. This colour is not something which is inherent in the table, but something depending upon the table and the spectator and the way the light falls on the table. When, in ordinary life, we speak of the colour of the table, we only mean the sort of colour which it will seem to have to a normal spectator from an ordinary point of view under usual conditions of light. But the other colours which appear under other conditions have just as good a right to be considered real; and therefore, to avoid favouritism, we are compelled to deny that, in itself, the table has any one particular colour.
The same thing applies to the texture. With the naked eye one can see the gram, but otherwise the table looks smooth and even. If we looked at it through a microscope, we should see roughnesses and hills and valleys, and all sorts of differences that are imperceptible to the naked eye. Which of these is the ‘real’ table? We are naturally tempted to say that what we see through the microscope is more real, but that in turn would be changed by a still more powerful microscope. If, then, we cannot trust what we see with the naked eye, why should we trust what we see through a microscope? Thus, again, the confidence in our senses with which we began deserts us.
The shape of the table is no better. We are all in the habit of judging as to the ‘real’ shapes of things, and we do this so unreflectingly that we come to think we actually see the real shapes. But, in fact, as we all have to learn if we try to draw, a given thing looks different in shape from every different point of view. If our table is ‘really’ rectangular, it will look, from almost all points of view, as if it had two acute angles and two obtuse angles. If opposite sides are parallel, they will look as if they converged to a point away from the spectator; if they are of equal length, they will look as if the nearer side were longer. All these things are not commonly noticed in looking at a table, because experience has taught us to construct the ‘real’ shape from the apparent shape, and the ‘real’ shape is what interests us as practical men. But the ‘real’ shape is not what we see; it is something inferred from what we see. And what we see is constantly changing in shape as we, move about the room; so that here again the senses seem not to give us the truth about the table itself, but only about the appearance of the table.
Similar difficulties arise when we consider the sense of touch. It is true that the table always gives us a sensation of hardness, and we feel that it resists pressure. But the sensation we obtain depends upon how hard we press the table and also upon what part of the body we press with; thus the various sensations due to various pressures or various parts of the body cannot be supposed to reveal directly any definite property of the table, but at most to be signs of some property which perhaps causes all the sensations, but is not actually apparent in any of them. And the same applies still more obviously to the sounds which can be elicited by rapping the table.
Thus it becomes evident that the real table, if there is one, is not the same as what we immediately experience by sight or touch or hearing. The real table, if there is one, is not immediately known to us at all, but must be an inference from what is immediately known. Hence, two very difficult questions at once arise; namely, (1) Is there a real table at all? (2) If so, what sort of object can it be?
It will help us in considering these questions to have a few simple terms of which the meaning is definite and clear. Let us give the name of ‘sense-data’ to the things that are immediately known in sensation: such things as colours, sounds, smells, hardnesses, roughnesses, and so on. We shall give the name ‘sensation’ to the experience of being immediately aware of these things. Thus, whenever we see a colour, we have a sensation of the colour, but the colour itself is a sense-datum, not a sensation. The colour is that of which we are immediately aware, and the awareness itself is the sensation. It is plain that if we are to know anything about the table, it must be by means of the sense-data — brown colour, oblong shape, smoothness, etc. — which we associate with the table; but, for the reasons which have been given, we cannot say that the table is the sense-data, or even that the sense-data are directly properties of the table. Thus a problem arises as to the relation of the sense-data to the real table, supposing there is such a thing.
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But beside all the differences in perception (which are part of the game of ‘delusion’ that we all so regularly take part in), along with the minor distortions in memory that we all – myself included – incorporate into our minds’ cycles… I still get a bit concerned when I notice someone remembering something in such a way that really disfigures what actually happened… AND I especially abhor it when I notice this type of disfiguration occurring in relation to questioning someone else’s integrity, such as in court of law, or with a police investigation, etc… Or worse still, when it scared face surfaces in the relation to international conflicts where thousands of people are dying and/or being made to suffer over some dispute about who was there first, or who owns what, or who wants what… !?!?
In fact, so as to avoid making any such blunders myself, I have gotten into a habit of continually checking my own memories with what I hear going on around me, cross referencing them with other memories I have had and/or even with memories that other people voice, so as to assimilate them together into a census that allows the facts to flow in a honest continuity – of sorts – with the facts, situations and temperaments of all those involved. And, if I ever find myself unable to deduce whether some type of accusation is within natural accord with a particular setting and with the people involved, I will usually refrain from commenting either way, as I believe it is better to be quite than unduly partake in another’s impeachment. I – for one – know that I am far from perfect.
And that especially goes for all types of propaganda perpetrated by any type of media dissemination i.e. radio, television, newspaper, internet, etc… Modern psychology has shown those, who care to listen to it, that our minds are so open to suggestion… And in order to guard against being misled into actions that give rise to disputes or civil unrest, even wars, we need to know everything we can about how our own mind/brain/body/environmental continuum works, so as to avoid slipping into dangerous habits of being/living… Because if we slip into these habits, habit’s that can never be justified with any certitude or credulity other than their own belief systems and egocentric views about why something might be right OR even wrong… Then we’re prone to persecuting the people who are innocent… And not addressing those who are, in fact, guilty… Even if it is all of us.
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Mind Changers – Elizabeth Loftus & Eye Witness Testimony
Elizabeth Loftus is the highest-ranking female in the list of top 100 psychologists. She’s gained world-wide renown for her experiments showing that memory, far from being an accurate record, is influenced by subsequent exposure to information and events and is re-constituted according to the biases these create.
Claudia Hammond meets the creator of several classic experiments, who broke new ground with the filmed simulations of road accidents she showed to subjects in the 1970s. These studies revealed that witness reports of the same incident varied according to the wording used by the questioner, giving rise to the development of the ‘cognitive interview’ – witness-led it avoids questioner-bias. Loftus’ work has changed the way witnesses are dealt with throughout the legal system.
Having shown that existing memories can be altered, Loftus was inspired to try to implant a whole false memory by the rise in cases of ‘recovered’ memories of violence and abuse in childhood. Her ‘Lost in the Mall’ and ‘Bugs Bunny’ studies proved that she could – in 30% of subjects – make them believe something that had never happened was part of their childhood history.
Loftus has inspired much work in the field of memory, including that of Barbara Tversky, on how memory reflects the spin put on a story.
Lorraine Hope, of Portsmouth University, has used the Cognitive Interview to develop the Self-Administered Interview (SAI), trialled by Greater Manchester Police. Steve Retford of their Major Incident Team is convinced of its benefits.
Loftus’ former friends and teachers at Stanford – Gordon Bower, Lee Ross and Brian Wandell – remember a fun-loving and forceful young woman, while Gillian Cohen reviews her influence in the UK.
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To find out where I sourced this BBC documentary from, please click here.
Or to find out more about Bertrand Russell, please click here.
May 14, 2011
April 30, 2011
Just the other day a friend brought to my attention this rather old online article from The Independent newspaper… And I have to say, I suddenly felt the overwhelming fresh sensation of reality kick in, as the reporter put into a better frame of reference the recent memetic scare mongering… Blowing out the flames of worry, as he did so, in order to give us all back our sense of humanity and perspective.
No doubt I’ve talked about this before in two blogs, one entitled “Expanding Those “Varied” Stances Of Perception” and the other “Manufacturing Of Consent“. Thus, I will not say much more on the subject… Other than well done Fisk!
Fighting Talk: The New Propaganda
Journalism has become a linguistic battleground – and when reporters use terms such ‘spike in violence’ or ‘surge’ or ‘settler’, they are playing along with a pernicious game, argues Robert Fisk.
Monday, 21 June 2010
Following the latest in semantics on the news? Journalism and the Israeli government are in love again. It’s Islamic terror, Turkish terror, Hamas terror, Islamic Jihad terror, Hezbollah terror, activist terror, war on terror, Palestinian terror, Muslim terror, Iranian terror, Syrian terror, anti-Semitic terror…
But I am doing the Israelis an injustice. Their lexicon, and that of the White House – most of the time – and our reporters’ lexicon, is the same. Yes, let’s be fair to the Israelis. Their lexicon goes like this: Terror, terror, terror, terror, terror, terror, terror, terror, terror, terror, terror, terror, terror, terror, terror, terror, terror, terror, terror, terror.
How many times did I just use the word “terror”? Twenty. But it might as well be 60, or 100, or 1,000, or a million. We are in love with the word, seduced by it, fixated by it, attacked by it, assaulted by it, raped by it, committed to it. It is love and sadism and death in one double syllable, the prime time-theme song, the opening of every television symphony, the headline of every page, a punctuation mark in our journalism, a semicolon, a comma, our most powerful full stop. “Terror, terror, terror, terror”. Each repetition justifies its predecessor.
Most of all, it’s about the terror of power and the power of terror. Power and terror have become interchangeable. We journalists have let this happen. Our language has become not just a debased ally, but a full verbal partner in the language of governments and armies and generals and weapons. Remember the “bunker buster” and the “Scud buster” and the “target-rich environment” in the Gulf War (Part One)? Forget about “weapons of mass destruction”. Too obviously silly. But “WMD” in the Gulf War (Part Two) had a power of its own, a secret code – genetic, perhaps, like DNA – for something that would reap terror, terror, terror, terror, terror. “45 Minutes to Terror”.
Power and the media are not just about cosy relationships between journalists and political leaders, between editors and presidents. They are not just about the parasitic-osmotic relationship between supposedly honourable reporters and the nexus of power that runs between White House and State Department and Pentagon, between Downing Street and the Foreign Office and the Ministry of Defence, between America and Israel.
In the Western context, power and the media is about words – and the use of words. It is about semantics. It is about the employment of phrases and their origins. And it is about the misuse of history, and about our ignorance of history. More and more today, we journalists have become prisoners of the language of power. Is this because we no longer care about linguistics or semantics? Is this because laptops “correct” our spelling, “trim” our grammar so that our sentences so often turn out to be identical to those of our rulers? Is this why newspaper editorials today often sound like political speeches?
For two decades now, the US and British – and Israeli and Palestinian – leaderships have used the words “peace process” to define the hopeless, inadequate, dishonourable agreement that allowed the US and Israel to dominate whatever slivers of land would be given to an occupied people. I first queried this expression, and its provenance, at the time of Oslo – although how easily we forget that the secret surrenders at Oslo were themselves a conspiracy without any legal basis.
Poor old Oslo, I always think. What did Oslo ever do to deserve this? It was the White House agreement that sealed this preposterous and dubious treaty – in which refugees, borders, Israeli colonies, even timetables – were to be delayed until they could no longer be negotiated.
And how easily we forget the White House lawn – though, yes, we remember the images – upon which it was Clinton who quoted from the Koran, and Arafat who chose to say: “Thank you, thank you, thank you, Mr President.” And what did we call this nonsense afterwards? Yes, it was “a moment of history”! Was it? Was it so?
Do you remember what Arafat called it? “The peace of the brave”. But I don’t remember any of us pointing out that “the peace of the brave” was used by General de Gaulle about the end of the Algerian war. The French lost the war in Algeria. We did not spot this extraordinary irony.
Same again today. We Western journalists – used yet again by our masters – have been reporting our jolly generals in Afghanistan, as saying their war can only be won with a “hearts and minds” campaign. No one asked them the obvious question: Wasn’t this the very same phrase used about Vietnamese civilians in the Vietnam War? And didn’t we – didn’t the West – lose the war in Vietnam? Yet now we Western journalists are using – about Afghanistan – the phrase “hearts and minds” in our reports as if it is a new dictionary definition, rather than a symbol of defeat for the second time in four decades.
Just look at the individual words we have recently co-opted from the US military. When we Westerners find that “our” enemies – al-Qa’ida, for example, or the Taliban – have set off more bombs and staged more attacks than usual, we call it “a spike in violence”.
Ah yes, a “spike”! A “spike” is a word first used in this context, according to my files, by a brigadier general in the Baghdad Green Zone in 2004. Yet now we use that phrase, we extemporise on it, we relay it on the air as our phrase, our journalistic invention. We are using, quite literally, an expression created for us by the Pentagon. A spike, of course, goes sharply up then sharply downwards. A “spike in violence” therefore avoids the ominous use of the words “increase in violence” – for an increase, of course, might not go down again afterwards.
Now again, when US generals refer to a sudden increase in their forces for an assault on Fallujah or central Baghdad or Kandahar – a mass movement of soldiers brought into Muslim countries by the tens of thousands – they call this a “surge”. And a surge, like a tsunami, or any other natural phenomena, can be devastating in its effects. What these “surges” really are – to use the real words of serious journalism – are reinforcements. And reinforcements are sent to conflicts when armies are losing those wars. But our television and newspaper boys and girls are still talking about “surges” without any attribution at all. The Pentagon wins again.
Meanwhile the “peace process” collapsed. Therefore our leaders – or “key players” as we like to call them – tried to make it work again. The process had to be put “back on track”. It was a train, you see. The carriages had come off the line. The Clinton administration first used this phrase, then the Israelis, then the BBC. But there was a problem when the “peace process” had repeatedly been put “back on track” – but still came off the line. So we produced a “road map” – run by a Quartet and led by our old Friend of God, Tony Blair, who – in an obscenity of history – we now refer to as a “peace envoy”. But the “road map” isn’t working. And now, I notice, the old “peace process” is back in our newspapers and on our television screens. And earlier this month, on CNN, one of those boring old fogies whom the TV boys and girls call “experts” told us again that the “peace process” was being put “back on track” because of the opening of “indirect talks” between Israelis and Palestinians. This isn’t just about clichés – this is preposterous journalism. There is no battle between the media and power; through language, we, the media, have become them.
Here’s another piece of media cowardice that makes my 63-year-old teeth grind together after 34 years of eating humus and tahina in the Middle East. We are told, in many analysis features, that what we have to deal with in the Middle East are “competing narratives”. How very cosy. There’s no justice, no injustice, just a couple of people who tell different history stories. “Competing narratives” now regularly pop up in the British press.
The phrase, from the false language of anthropology, deletes the possibility that one group of people – in the Middle East, for example – is occupied, while another is doing the occupying. Again, no justice, no injustice, no oppression or oppressing, just some friendly “competing narratives”, a football match, if you like, a level playing field because the two sides are – are they not? – “in competition”. And two sides have to be given equal time in every story.
So an “occupation” becomes a “dispute”. Thus a “wall” becomes a “fence” or “security barrier”. Thus Israeli acts of colonisation of Arab land, contrary to all international law, become “settlements” or “outposts” or “Jewish neighbourhoods”. It was Colin Powell, in his starring, powerless appearance as Secretary of State to George W Bush, who told US diplomats to refer to occupied Palestinian land as “disputed land” – and that was good enough for most of the US media. There are no “competing narratives”, of course, between the US military and the Taliban. When there are, you’ll know the West has lost.
But I’ll give you an example of how “competing narratives” come undone. In April, I gave a lecture in Toronto to mark the 95th anniversary of the 1915 Armenian genocide, the deliberate mass murder of 1.5 million Armenian Christians by the Ottoman Turkish army and militia. Before my talk, I was interviewed on Canadian Television, CTV, which also owns Toronto’s Globe and Mail newspaper. And from the start, I could see that the interviewer had a problem. Canada has a large Armenian community. But Toronto also has a large Turkish community. And the Turks, as the Globe and Mail always tell us, “hotly dispute” that this was a genocide.
So the interviewer called the genocide “deadly massacres”. Of course, I spotted her specific problem straight away. She couldn’t call the massacres a “genocide”, because the Turkish community would be outraged. But she sensed that “massacres” on its own – especially with the gruesome studio background photographs of dead Armenians – was not quite up to defining a million and a half murdered human beings. Hence the “deadly massacres”. How odd! If there are “deadly” massacres, are there some massacres which are not “deadly”, from which the victims walk away alive? It was a ludicrous tautology.
Yet the use of the language of power – of its beacon words and its beacon phrases – goes on among us still. How many times have I heard Western reporters talking about “foreign fighters” in Afghanistan? They are referring, of course, to the various Arab groups supposedly helping the Taliban. We heard the same story from Iraq. Saudis, Jordanians, Palestinian, Chechen fighters, of course. The generals called them “foreign fighters”. Immediately, we Western reporters did the same. Calling them “foreign fighters” meant they were an invading force. But not once – ever – have I heard a mainstream Western television station refer to the fact that there are at least 150,000 “foreign fighters” in Afghanistan, and that all of them happen to be wearing American, British and other NATO uniforms. It is “we” who are the real “foreign fighters”.
Similarly, the pernicious phrase “Af-Pak” – as racist as it is politically dishonest – is now used by reporters, although it was originally a creation of the US State Department on the day Richard Holbrooke was appointed special US representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan. But the phrase avoids the use of the word “India” – whose influence in Afghanistan and whose presence in Afghanistan, is a vital part of the story. Furthermore, “Af-Pak” – by deleting India – effectively deleted the whole Kashmir crisis from the conflict in south-east Asia. It thus deprived Pakistan of any say in US local policy on Kashmir – after all, Holbrooke was made the “Af-Pak” envoy, specifically forbidden from discussing Kashmir. Thus the phrase “Af-Pak”, which completely avoids the tragedy of Kashmir – too many “competing narratives”, perhaps? – means that when we journalists use the same phrase, “Af-Pak”, which was surely created for us journalists, we are doing the State Department’s work.
Now let’s look at history. Our leaders love history. Most of all, they love the Second World War. In 2003, George W Bush thought he was Churchill. True, Bush had spent the Vietnam War protecting the skies of Texas from the Vietcong. But now, in 2003, he was standing up to the “appeasers” who did not want a war with Saddam who was, of course, “the Hitler of the Tigris”. The appeasers were the British who didn’t want to fight Nazi Germany in 1938. Blair, of course, also tried on Churchill’s waistcoat and jacket for size. No “appeaser” he. America was Britain’s oldest ally, he proclaimed – and both Bush and Blair reminded journalists that the US had stood shoulder-to-shoulder with Britain in her hour of need in 1940.
But none of this was true. Britain’s oldest ally was not the United States. It was Portugal, a neutral fascist state during the Second World War, which flew its national flags at half-mast when Hitler died (even the Irish didn’t do that).
Nor did America fight alongside Britain in her hour of need in 1940, when Hitler threatened invasion and the Luftwaffe blitzed London. No, in 1940 America was enjoying a very profitable period of neutrality, and did not join Britain in the war until Japan attacked the US naval base at Pearl Harbour in December 1941. Similarly, back in 1956, Eden called Nasser the “Mussolini of the Nile”. A bad mistake. Nasser was loved by the Arabs, not hated as Mussolini was by the majority of Africans, especially the Arab Libyans. The Mussolini parallel was not challenged or questioned by the British press. And we all know what happened at Suez in 1956. When it comes to history, we journalists let the presidents and prime ministers take us for a ride.
Yet the most dangerous side of our new semantic war, our use of the words of power – though it is not a war, since we have largely surrendered – is that it isolates us from our viewers and readers. They are not stupid. They understand words in many cases – I fear – better than we do. History, too. They know that we are drawing our vocabulary from the language of generals and presidents, from the so-called elites, from the arrogance of the Brookings Institute experts, or those of those of the Rand Corporation. Thus we have become part of this language.
Over the past two weeks, as foreigners – humanitarians or “activist terrorists” – tried to take food and medicines by sea to the hungry Palestinians of Gaza, we journalists should have been reminding our viewers and listeners of a long-ago day when America and Britain went to the aid of a surrounded people, bringing food and fuel – our own servicemen dying as they did so – to help a starving population. That population had been surrounded by a fence erected by a brutal army which wished to starve the people into submission. The army was Russian. The city was Berlin. The wall was to come later. The people had been our enemies only three years earlier. Yet we flew the Berlin airlift to save them. Now look at Gaza today: which Western journalist – since we love historical parallels – has even mentioned 1948 Berlin in the context of Gaza?
Instead, what did we get? “Activists” who turned into “armed activists” the moment they opposed the Israeli army’s boarding parties. How dare these men upset the lexicon? Their punishment was obvious. They became “terrorists”. And the Israeli raids – in which “activists” were killed (another proof of their “terrorism”) – then became “deadly” raids. In this case, “deadly” was more excusable than it had been on CTV – nine dead men of Turkish origin being slightly fewer than a million and a half murdered Armenians in 1915. But it was interesting that the Israelis – who for their own political reasons had hitherto shamefully gone along with the Turkish denial – now suddenly wanted to inform the world of the 1915 Armenian genocide. This provoked an understandable frisson among many of our colleagues. Journalists who have regularly ducked all mention of the 20th century’s first Holocaust – unless they could also refer to the way in which the Turks “hotly dispute” the genocide label (ergo the Toronto Globe and Mail) – could suddenly refer to it. Israel’s new-found historical interest made the subject legitimate, though almost all reports managed to avoid any explanation of what actually happened in 1915.
And what did the Israeli seaborne raid become? It became a “botched” raid. Botched is a lovely word. It began as a German-origin Middle English word, “bocchen”, which meant to “repair badly”. And we more or less kept to that definition until our journalistic lexicon advisors changed its meaning. Schoolchildren “botch” an exam. We could “botch” a piece of sewing, an attempt to repair a piece of material. We could even botch an attempt to persuade our boss to give us a raise. But now we “botch” a military operation. It wasn’t a disaster. It wasn’t a catastrophe. It just killed some Turks.
So, given the bad publicity, the Israelis just “botched” the raid. Weirdly, the last time reporters and governments utilised this particular word followed Israel’s attempt to kill the Hamas leader, Khaled Meshaal, in the streets of Amman. In this case, Israel’s professional assassins were caught after trying to poison Meshaal, and King Hussain forced the then Israeli prime minister (a certain B Netanyahu) to provide the antidote (and to let a lot of Hamas “terrorists” out of jail). Meshaal’s life was saved.
But for Israel and its obedient Western journalists this became a “botched attempt” on Meshaal’s life. Not because he wasn’t meant to die, but because Israel failed to kill him. You can thus “botch” an operation by killing Turks – or you can “botch” an operation by not killing a Palestinian.
How do we break with the language of power? It is certainly killing us. That, I suspect, is one reason why readers have turned away from the “mainstream” press to the internet. Not because the net is free, but because readers know they have been lied to and conned; they know that what they watch and what they read in newspapers is an extension of what they hear from the Pentagon or the Israeli government, that our words have become synonymous with the language of a government-approved, careful middle ground, which obscures the truth as surely as it makes us political – and military – allies of all major Western governments.
Many of my colleagues on various Western newspapers would ultimately risk their jobs if they were constantly to challenge the false reality of news journalism, the nexus of media-government power. How many news organisations thought to run footage, at the time of the Gaza disaster, of the airlift to break the blockade of Berlin? Did the BBC?
The hell they did! We prefer “competing narratives”. Politicians didn’t want – I told the Doha meeting on 11 May – the Gaza voyage to reach its destination, “be its end successful, farcical or tragic”. We believe in the “peace process”, the “road map”. Keep the “fence” around the Palestinians. Let the “key players” sort it out. And remember what this is all about: “Terror, terror, terror, terror, terror, terror.”
by Robert Fisk
To find out where I sourced this article from, please click here.
And to find out more about the author of the article, Robert Fisk, please click here.
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’?
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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.
March 21, 2011
There once was a great king who ruled a vast and mighty kingdom with a just and fair hand. Because of this, all his subjects held him in high regard and had a deep and sincere respect for his authority and advice.
One day he was told by his much trusted soothsayer that all the water in the land would be soon contaminated and that his people would be stricken by a unending madness. Thus he was advised to protect his own water supply, lest he should too fall foul from the poison’s affects. So the king heeded his soothsayer’s advice and set about with many guards, both day and night, to protect his well.
Sure enough, the day came when everyone in the kingdom had drunk from the contaminated water, and they fell into a clouded delirium that lay beyond usual reason. But because the king had protected his own personal water supply, he remained sane and clear minded. Thus he set about helping his people…
But due to their own madness, they could not understand his actions and only saw his advice as irrational and absurd.
Devastated by his own inability to help his people and save them from their plight, he decided to drink from the poisoned water himself… And, thus, they lived in harmonious accord with one another ever after.
February 23, 2011
February 20, 2011
What can I say… I’ve been away for a while… A wee while… Four months to be exact… And it’s the first blog of the new year… So a big happy new year to anyone reading this.
Yes, I know… I’ve been slack on the blog front recently. No excuses for it really… Other than the endless days that I’ve been spending down at the farm… Ah… Yes… That’s the reason I haven’t been inside much recently. And that’s why I haven’t been in front of a computer screen as much as I usually like to… Not to mention it’s the reason why I find my comfort zone diminishing to an almost non existent pin prick of a bubble’s ‘pop’ reminder that change and uncertainty, no matter how big or small, is going on beyond all my deluded, insulated ideals of settled, homely stability… Yes… That’s right… I am presently engaged in setting up an organic farm somewhere in the South East of the UK. Not telling anyone quite yet where exactly… Not for the moment, at least… And I’m breaking those old chains of die hard habits i.e. soft living, staying in when it rains or snows, etc… By putting on my wellies and getting my hands, arms, face and clothes completely mud ridden and down right dirty… So, I’m now doing what I’ve been actually ‘preaching’ (although I don’t really like that word much, another doesn’t come to mind) about in this blog. And boy, let me tell you, it’s blooming hard work. Anyway… More on that to follow soon.
Basically, the reason why I find myself here in front of the computer once again… Is that I recently read this article, which was taken from a transcript of a speech by the late (or early, depending on which way you look at his input here on Earth) Douglas Adams, while he was talking at Digital Biota 2… And it resonated deeply in my being… Reminding me about why I was doing what I was doing… Not to mention how clunky my writing is in comparison to the sheer wall of towering genius that Adams was… I cower in shame! LOL!
Anyway… I’m tired. And so I’ll leave it here… For those of of you who have been following these blogs here at polynomial.me.uk, you will no doubt see the connection to all my previous musings…
So here’s the intro…
In honour of Douglas’ memory, Biota.org presents the transcript of his speech at Digital Biota 2, held at Magdelene College Cambridge, in September 1998. I would like to thank Steve Grand for providing this to us. Douglas presented this “off the cuff” which only magifies his true genius in our eyes.
by Bruce Damer
And here’s the transcript of Adams’ speech/debate…
Is There An Artificial God?
This was originally billed as a debate only because I was a bit anxious coming here. I didn’t think I was going to have time to prepare anything and also, in a room full of such luminaries, I thought ‘what could I, as an amateur, possibly have to say’? So I thought I would settle for a debate. But after having been here for a couple of days, I realised you’re just a bunch of guys! It’s been rife with ideas and I’ve had so many myself through talking with and listening to people that I’d thought what I’d do was stand up and have an argument and debate with myself. I’ll talk for a while and hope sufficiently to provoke and inflame opinion that there’ll be an outburst of chair- throwing at the end.
Before I embark on what I want to try and tackle, may I warn you that things may get a little bit lost from time to time, because there’s a lot of stuff that’s just come in from what we’ve been hearing today, so if I occasionally sort of go… I was telling somebody earlier today that I have a four-year-old daughter and was very, very interested watching her face when she was in her first 2 or 3 weeks of life and suddenly realising what nobody would have realised in previous ages—she was rebooting!
I just want to mention one thing, which is completely meaningless, but I am terribly proud of—I was born in Cambridge in 1952 and my initials are D N A!
The topic I want to introduce to you this evening, the subject of the debate that we are about to sort of not have, is a slightly facetious one (you’ll be surprised to hear, but we’ll see where we go with it)—“Is there an Artificial God?” I’m sure most of the people in this room will share the same view, but even as an out-and-out atheist one can’t help noticing that the rôle of a god has had an enormously profound impact on human history over many, many centuries. It’s very interesting to figure out where this came from and what, in the modern scientific world we sometimes hope against hope that we live in, it actually means.
I was thinking about this earlier today when Larry Yaeger was talking about ‘what is life?’ and mentioned at the end something I didn’t know, about a special field of handwriting recognition. The following strange thought went through my mind: that trying to figure out what is life and what isn’t and where the boundary is has an interesting relationship with how you recognise handwriting. We all know, when presented with any particular entity, whether it’s a bit of mould from the fridge or whatever; we instinctively know when something is an example of life and when it isn’t. But it turns out to be tremendously hard exactly to define it. I remember once, a long time ago, needing a definition of life for a speech I was giving. Assuming there was a simple one and looking around the Internet, I was astonished at how diverse the definitions were and how very, very detailed each one had to be in order to include ‘this’ but not include ‘that’. If you think about it, a collection that includes a fruit fly and Richard Dawkins and the Great Barrier Reef is an awkward set of objects to try and compare. When we try and figure out what the rules are that we are looking for, trying to find a rule that’s self-evidently true, that turns out to be very, very hard.
Compare this with the business of recognising whether something is an A or a B or a C. It’s a similar kind of process, but it’s also a very, very different process, because you may say of something that you’re ‘not quite certain whether it counts as life or not life, it’s kind of there on the edge isn’t it, it’s probably a very low example of what you might call life, it’s maybe just about alive or maybe it isn’t’. Or maybe you might say about something that’s an example of Digital life, ‘does that count as being alive?’ Is it something, to coin someone’s earlier phrase, that’ll go squish if you step on it? Think about the controversial Gaia hypothesis; people say ‘is the planet alive?’, ‘is the ecosphere alive or not?’ In the end it depends on how you define such things.
Compare that with handwriting recognition. In the end you are trying to say “is this an A or is it a B?” People write As and Bs in many different ways; floridly, sloppily or whatever. It’s no good saying ‘well, it’s sort of A-ish but there’s a bit of B in there’, because you can’t write the word ‘apple’ with such a thing. It is either an A or a B. How do you judge? If you’re doing handwriting recognition, what you are trying to do is not to assess the relative degrees of A-ness or B-ness of the letter, but trying to define the intention of the person who wrote it. It’s very clear in the end—is it an A or a B?—ah! it’s an A, because the person writing it was writing the word apple and that’s clearly what it means. So, in the end, in the absence of an intentional creator, you cannot say what life is, because it simply depends on what set of definitions you include in your overall definition. Without a god, life is only a matter of opinion.
I want to pick up on a few other things that came around today. I was fascinated by Larry (again), talking about tautology, because there’s an argument that I remember being stumped by once, to which I couldn’t come up with a reply, because I was so puzzled by the challenge and couldn’t quite figure it out. A guy said to me, ‘yes, but the whole theory of evolution is based on a tautology: that which survives, survives’ This is tautological, therefore it doesn’t mean anything. I thought about that for a while and it finally occurred to me that a tautology is something that if it means nothing, not only that no information has gone into it but that no consequence has come out of it. So, we may have accidentally stumbled upon the ultimate answer; it’s the only thing, the only force, arguably the most powerful of which we are aware, which requires no other input, no other support from any other place, is self evident, hence tautological, but nevertheless astonishingly powerful in its effects. It’s hard to find anything that corresponds to that and I therefore put it at the beginning of one of my books. I reduced it to what I thought were the bare essentials, which are very similar to the ones you came up with earlier, which were “anything that happens happens, anything that in happening causes something else to happen causes something else to happen and anything that in happening causes itself to happen again, happens again”. In fact you don’t even need the second two because they flow from the first one, which is self-evident and there’s nothing else you need to say; everything else flows from that. So, I think we have in our grasp here a fundamental, ultimate truth, against which there is no gain-saying. It was spotted by the guy who said this is a tautology. Yes, it is, but it’s a unique tautology in that it requires no information to go in but an infinite amount of information comes out of it. So I think that it is arguably therefore the prime cause of everything in the Universe. Big claim, but I feel I’m talking to a sympathetic audience.
Where does the idea of God come from? Well, I think we have a very skewed point of view on an awful lot of things, but let’s try and see where our point of view comes from. Imagine early man. Early man is, like everything else, an evolved creature and he finds himself in a world that he’s begun to take a little charge of; he’s begun to be a tool-maker, a changer of his environment with the tools that he’s made and he makes tools, when he does, in order to make changes in his environment. To give an example of the way man operates compared to other animals, consider speciation, which, as we know, tends to occur when a small group of animals gets separated from the rest of the herd by some geological upheaval, population pressure, food shortage or whatever and finds itself in a new environment with maybe something different going on. Take a very simple example; maybe a bunch of animals suddenly finds itself in a place where the weather is rather colder. We know that in a few generations those genes which favour a thicker coat will have come to the fore and we’ll come and we’ll find that the animals have now got thicker coats. Early man, who’s a tool maker, doesn’t have to do this: he can inhabit an extraordinarily wide range of habitats on earth, from tundra to the Gobi Desert—he even manages to live in New York for heaven’s sake—and the reason is that when he arrives in a new environment he doesn’t have to wait for several generations; if he arrives in a colder environment and sees an animal that has those genes which favour a thicker coat, he says “I’ll have it off him”. Tools have enabled us to think intentionally, to make things and to do things to create a world that fits us better. Now imagine an early man surveying his surroundings at the end of a happy day’s tool making. He looks around and he sees a world which pleases him mightily: behind him are mountains with caves in—mountains are great because you can go and hide in the caves and you are out of the rain and the bears can’t get you; in front of him there’s the forest—it’s got nuts and berries and delicious food; there’s a stream going by, which is full of water—water’s delicious to drink, you can float your boats in it and do all sorts of stuff with it; here’s cousin Ug and he’s caught a mammoth—mammoth’s are great, you can eat them, you can wear their coats, you can use their bones to create weapons to catch other mammoths. I mean this is a great world, it’s fantastic. But our early man has a moment to reflect and he thinks to himself, ‘well, this is an interesting world that I find myself in’ and then he asks himself a very treacherous question, a question which is totally meaningless and fallacious, but only comes about because of the nature of the sort of person he is, the sort of person he has evolved into and the sort of person who has thrived because he thinks this particular way. Man the maker looks at his world and says ‘So who made this then?’ Who made this? — you can see why it’s a treacherous question. Early man thinks, ‘Well, because there’s only one sort of being I know about who makes things, whoever made all this must therefore be a much bigger, much more powerful and necessarily invisible, one of me and because I tend to be the strong one who does all the stuff, he’s probably male’. And so we have the idea of a god. Then, because when we make things we do it with the intention of doing something with them, early man asks himself , ‘If he made it, what did he make it for?’ Now the real trap springs, because early man is thinking, ‘This world fits me very well. Here are all these things that support me and feed me and look after me; yes, this world fits me nicely’ and he reaches the inescapable conclusion that whoever made it, made it for him.
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.
There are some oddities in the perspective with which we see the world. The fact that we live at the bottom of a deep gravity well, on the surface of a gas covered planet going around a nuclear fireball 90 million miles away and think this to be normal is obviously some indication of how skewed our perspective tends to be, but we have done various things over intellectual history to slowly correct some of our misapprehensions. Curiously enough, quite a lot of these have come from sand, so let’s talk about the four ages of sand.
From sand we make glass, from glass we make lenses and from lenses we make telescopes. When the great early astronomers, Copernicus, Gallileo and others turned their telescopes on the heavens and discovered that the Universe was an astonishingly different place than we expected and that, far from the world being most of the Universe, with just a few little bright lights going around it, it turned out—and this took a long, long, long time to sink in—that it is just one tiny little speck going round a little nuclear fireball, which is one of millions and millions and millions that make up this particular galaxy and our galaxy is one of millions or billions that make up the Universe and that then we are also faced with the possibility that there may be billions of universes, that applied a little bit of a corrective to the perspective that the Universe was ours.
I rather love that notion and, as I was discussing with someone earlier today, there’s a book I thoroughly enjoyed recently by David Deutsch, who is an advocate of the multiple universe view of the Universe, called ‘The Fabric of Reality’, in which he explores the notion of a quantum multiple universe view of the Universe. This came from the famous wave particle dichotomy about the behaviour of light—that you couldn’t measure it as a wave when it behaves as a wave, or as a particle when it behaves as a particle. How does this come to be? David Deutsch points out that if you imagine that our Universe is simply one layer and that there is an infinite multiplicity of universes spreading out on either side, not only does it solve the problem, but the problem simply goes away. This is exactly how you expect light to behave under those circumstances. Quantum mechanics has claims to be predicated on the notion that the Universe behaves as if there was a multiplicity of universes, but it rather strains our credulity to think that there actually would be.
This goes straight back to Gallileo and the Vatican. In fact, what the Vatican said to Gallileo was, “We don’t dispute your readings, we just dispute the explanation you put on them. It’s all very well for you to say that the planets sort of do that as they go round and it is as if we were a planet and those planets were all going round the sun; it’s alright to say it’s as if that were happening, but you’re not allowed to say that’s what is happening, because we have a total lockhold on universal truth and also it simply strains our personal credulity”. Just so, I think that the idea that there are multiple universes currently strains our credulity but it may well be that it’s simply one more strain that we have to learn to live with, just as we’ve had to learn to live with a whole bunch of them in the past.
The other thing that comes out of that vision of the Universe is that it turns out to be composed almost entirely and rather worryingly, of nothing. Wherever you look there is nothing, with occasional tiny, tiny little specks of rock or light. But nevertheless, by watching the way these tiny little specks behave in the vast nothingness, we begin to divine certain principles, certain laws, like gravity and so forth. So that was, if you like, the macroscopic view of the universe, which came from the first age of sand.
The next age of sand is the microscopic one. We put glass lenses into microscopes and started to look down at the microscopic view of the Universe. Then we began to understand that when we get down to the sub-atomic level, the solid world we live in also consists, again rather worryingly, of almost nothing and that wherever we do find something it turns out not to be actually something, but only the probability that there may be something there.
One way or another, this is a deeply misleading Universe. Wherever we look it’s beginning to be extremely alarming and extremely upsetting to our sense of who we are—great, strapping, physical people living in a Universe that exists almost entirely for us—that it just isn’t the case. At this point we are still divining from this all sorts of fundamental principles, recognising the way that gravity works, the way that strong and weak nuclear forces work, recognising the nature of matter, the nature of particles and so on, but having got those fundamentals, we’re still not very good at figuring out how it works, because the maths is really rather tricky. So, we tend to come up with almost a clockwork view of the way it all works, because that’s the best our maths can manage. I don’t mean in any way to disparage Newton, because I guess he was the first person who saw that there were principles at work that were different from anything we actually saw around us. His first law of motion—that something will remain in its position of either rest or motion until some other force works on it—is something that none of us, living in a gravity well, in a gas envelope, had ever seen, because everything we move comes to a halt. It was only through very, very careful watching and observing and measuring and divining the principles underlying what we could all see happening that he came up with the principles that we all know and recognise as being the laws of motion, but nevertheless it is by modern terms, still a somewhat clockwork view of the Universe. As I say, I don’t mean that to sound disparaging in any way at all, because his achievements, as we all know, were absolutely monumental, but it still kind of doesn’t make sense to us.
Now there are all sorts of entities we are also aware of, as well as particles, forces, tables, chairs, rocks and so on, that are almost invisible to science; almost invisible, because science has almost nothing to say about them whatsoever. I’m talking about dogs and cats and cows and each other. We living things are, so far, beyond the purview of anything science can actually say, almost beyond even recognising ourselves as things that science might be expected to have something to say about.
I can imagine Newton sitting down and working out his laws of motion and figuring out the way the Universe works and with him, a cat wandering around. The reason we had no idea how cats worked was because, since Newton, we had proceeded by the very simple principle that essentially, to see how things work, we took them apart. If you try and take a cat apart to see how it works, the first thing you have in your hands is a non-working cat. Life is a level of complexity that almost lies outside our vision; is so far beyond anything we have any means of understanding that we just think of it as a different class of object, a different class of matter; ‘life’, something that had a mysterious essence about it, was god given—and that’s the only explanation we had. The bombshell comes in 1859 when Darwin publishes ‘On the Origin of Species’. It takes a long time before we really get to grips with this and begin to understand it, because not only does it seem incredible and thoroughly demeaning to us, but it’s yet another shock to our system to discover that not only are we not the centre of the Universe and we’re not made of anything, but we started out as some kind of slime and got to where we are via being a monkey. It just doesn’t read well. But also, we have no opportunity to see this stuff at work. In a sense Darwin was like Newton, in that he was the first person to see underlying principles, that really were not at all obvious, from the everyday world in which he lived. We had to think very hard to understand the nature of what was happening around us and we had no clear, obvious everyday examples of evolution to point to. Even today that persists as a slightly tricky problem if you’re trying to persuade somebody who doesn’t believe in all this evolution stuff and wants you to show him an example—they are hard to find in terms of everyday observation.
So we come to the third age of sand. In the third age of sand we discover something else we can make out of sand—silicon. We make the silicon chip—and suddenly, what opens up to us is a Universe not of fundamental particles and fundamental forces, but of the things that were missing in that picture that told us how they work; what the silicon chip revealed to us was the process. The silicon chip enables us to do mathematics tremendously fast, to model the, as it turns out, very very simple processes that are analogous to life in terms of their simplicity; iteration, looping, branching, the feedback loop which lies at the heart of everything you do on a computer and at the heart of everything that happens in evolution—that is, the output stage of one generation becomes the input stage of the next. Suddenly we have a working model, not for a while because early machines are terribly slow and clunky, but gradually we accumulate a working model of this thing that previously we could only guess at or deduce—and you had to be a pretty sharp and a pretty clear thinker even to divine it happening when it was far from obvious and indeed counter-intuitive, particularly to as proud a species as we.
The computer forms a third age of perspective, because suddenly it enables us to see how life works. Now that is an extraordinarily important point because it becomes self-evident that life, that all forms of complexity, do not flow downwards, they flow upwards and there’s a whole grammar that anybody who is used to using computers is now familiar with, which means that evolution is no longer a particular thing, because anybody who’s ever looked at the way a computer program works, knows that very, very simple iterative pieces of code, each line of which is tremendously straightforward, give rise to enormously complex phenomena in a computer—and by enormously complex phenomena, I mean a word processing program just as much as I mean Tierra or Creatures.
I can remember the first time I ever read a programming manual, many many years ago. I’d first started to encounter computers about 1983 and I wanted to know a little bit more about them, so I decided to learn something about programming. I bought a C manual and I read through the first two or three chapters, which took me about a week. At the end it said ‘Congratulations, you have now written the letter A on the screen!’ I thought, ‘Well, I must have misunderstood something here, because it was a huge, huge amount of work to do that, so what if I now want to write a B?’ The process of programming, the speed and the means by which enormous simplicity gives rise to enormously complex results, was not part of my mental grammar at that point. It is now—and it is increasingly part of all our mental grammars, because we are used to the way computers work.
So, suddenly, evolution ceases to be such a real problem to get hold of. It’s rather like this: imagine, if you will, the following scenario. One Tuesday, a person is spotted in a street in London, doing something criminal. Two detectives are investigating, trying to work out what happened. One of them is a 20th Century detective and the other, by the marvels of science fiction, is a 19th Century detective. The problem is this: the person who was clearly seen and identified on the street in London on Tuesday was seen by someone else, an equally reliable witness, on the street in Santa Fe on the same Tuesday—how could that possibly be? The 19th Century detective could only think it was by some sort of magical intervention. Now the 20th Century detective may not be able to say, “He took BA flight this and then United flight that”—he may not be able to figure out exactly which way he did it, or by which route he travelled, but it’s not a problem. It doesn’t bother him; he just says, ‘He got there by plane. I don’t know which plane and it may be a little tricky to find out, but there’s no essential mystery.’ We’re used to the idea of jet travel. We don’t know whether the criminal flew BA 178, or UA270, or whatever, but we know roughly how it was done. I suspect that as we become more and more conversant with the role a computer plays and the way in which the computer models the process of enormously simple elements giving rise to enormously complex results, then the idea of life being an emergent phenomenon will become easier and easier to swallow. We may never know precisely what steps life took in the very early stages of this planet, but it’s not a mystery.
So what we have arrived at here—and although the first shock wave of this arrival was in 1859, it’s really the arrival of the computer that demonstrates it unarguably to us—is ‘Is there really a Universe that is not designed from the top downwards but from the bottom upwards? Can complexity emerge from lower levels of simplicity?’ It has always struck me as being bizarre that the idea of God as a creator was considered sufficient explanation for the complexity we see around us, because it simply doesn’t explain where he came from. If we imagine a designer, that implies a design and that therefore each thing he designs or causes to be designed is a level simpler than him or her, then you have to ask ‘What is the level above the designer?’ There is one peculiar model of the Universe that has turtles all the way down, but here we have gods all the way up. It really isn’t a very good answer, but a bottom-up solution, on the other hand, which rests on the incredibly powerful tautology of anything that happens, happens, clearly gives you a very simple and powerful answer that needs no other explanation whatsoever.
But here’s the interesting thing. I said I wanted to ask ‘Is there an artificial god?’ and this is where I want to address the question of why the idea of a god is so persuasive. I’ve already explained where I feel this kind of illusion comes from in the first place; it comes from a falseness in our perspective, because we are not taking into account that we are evolved beings, beings who have evolved into a particular landscape, into a particular environment with a particular set of skills and views of the world that have enabled us to survive and thrive rather successfully. But there seems to be an even more powerful idea than that, and this is the idea I want to propose, which is that the spot at the top of the pyramid that we previously said was whence everything flowed, may not actually be vacant just because we say the flow doesn’t go that way.
Let me explain what I mean by this. We have created in the world in which we live all kinds of things; we have changed our world in all kinds of ways. That’s very very clear. We have built the room we’re in and we’ve built all sorts of complex stuff, like computers and so on, but we’ve also constructed all kinds of fictitious entities that are enormously powerful. So do we say, ‘That’s a bad idea; it’s stupid—we should simply get rid of it?’ Well, here’s another fictitious entity—money. Money is a completely fictitious entity, but it’s very powerful in our world; we each have wallets, which have got notes in them, but what can those notes do? You can’t breed them, you can’t stir fry them, you can’t live in them, there’s absolutely nothing you can do with them that’s any use, other than exchange them with each other—and as soon as we exchange them with each other all sots of powerful things happen, because it’s a fiction that we’ve all subscribed to. We don’t think this is wrong or right, good or bad; but the thing is that if money vanished the entire co-operative structure that we have would implode, but if we were all to vanish, money would simply vanish too. Money has no meaning outside ourselves, it is something that we have created that has a powerful shaping effect on the world, because its something we all subscribe to.
I would like somebody to write an evolutionary history of religion, because the way in which it has developed seems to me to show all kinds of evolutionary strategies. Think of the arms races that go on between one or two animals living the same environment. For example the race between the Amazonian manatee and a particular type of reed that it eats. The more of the reed the manatee eats, the more the reed develops silica in its cells to attack the teeth of the manatee and the more silica in the reed, the more manatee’s teeth get bigger and stronger. One side does one thing and the other counters it. As we know, throughout evolution and history arms races are something that drive evolution in the most powerful ways and in the world of ideas you can see similar kinds of things happening.
Now, the invention of the scientific method and science is, I’m sure we’ll all agree, the most powerful intellectual idea, the most powerful framework for thinking and investigating and understanding and challenging the world around us that there is, and that it rests on the premise that any idea is there to be attacked and if it withstands the attack then it lives to fight another day and if it doesn’t withstand the attack then down it goes. Religion doesn’t seem to work like that; it has certain ideas at the heart of it which we call sacred or holy or whatever. That’s an idea we’re so familiar with, whether we subscribe to it or not, that it’s kind of odd to think what it actually means, because really what it means is ‘Here is an idea or a notion that you’re not allowed to say anything bad about; you’re just not. Why not? — because you’re not!’ If somebody votes for a party that you don’t agree with, you’re free to argue about it as much as you like; everybody will have an argument but nobody feels aggrieved by it. If somebody thinks taxes should go up or down you are free to have an argument about it, but on the other hand if somebody says ‘I mustn’t move a light switch on a Saturday’, you say, ‘Fine, I respect that’. The odd thing is, even as I am saying that I am thinking ‘Is there an Orthodox Jew here who is going to be offended by the fact that I just said that?’ but I wouldn’t have thought ‘Maybe there’s somebody from the left wing or somebody from the right wing or somebody who subscribes to this view or the other in economics’ when I was making the other points. I just think ‘Fine, we have different opinions’. But, the moment I say something that has something to do with somebody’s (I’m going to stick my neck out here and say irrational) beliefs, then we all become terribly protective and terribly defensive and say ‘No, we don’t attack that; that’s an irrational belief but no, we respect it’.
It’s rather like, if you think back in terms of animal evolution, an animal that’s grown an incredible carapace around it, such as a tortoise—that’s a great survival strategy because nothing can get through it; or maybe like a poisonous fish that nothing will come close to, which therefore thrives by keeping away any challenges to what it is it is. In the case of an idea, if we think ‘Here is an idea that is protected by holiness or sanctity’, what does it mean? Why should it be that it’s perfectly legitimate to support the Labour party or the Conservative party, Republicans or Democrats, this model of economics versus that, Macintosh instead of Windows, but to have an opinion about how the Universe began, about who created the Universe, no, that’s holy? What does that mean? Why do we ring-fence that for any other reason other than that we’ve just got used to doing so? There’s no other reason at all, it’s just one of those things that crept into being and once that loop gets going it’s very, very powerful. So, we are used to not challenging religious ideas but it’s very interesting how much of a furore Richard creates when he does it! Everybody gets absolutely frantic about it because you’re not allowed to say these things. Yet when you look at it rationally there is no reason why those ideas shouldn’t be as open to debate as any other, except that we have agreed somehow between us that they shouldn’t be.
There’s a very interesting book—I don’t know if anybody here’s read it—called ‘Man on Earth’ by an anthropologist who use to be at Cambridge, called John Reader, in which he describes the way that… I’m going to back up a little bit and tell you about the whole book. It’s a series of studies of different cultures in the world that have developed within somewhat isolated circumstances, either on islands or in a mountain valley or wherever, so it’s possible to treat them to a certain extent as a test-tube case. You see therefore exactly the degree to which their environment and their immediate circumstances has affected the way in which their culture has arisen. It’s a fascinating series of studies. The one I have in mind at the moment is one that describes the culture and economy of Bali, which is a small, very crowded island that subsists on rice. Now, rice is an incredibly efficient food and you can grow an awful lot in a relatively small space, but it’s hugely labour intensive and requires a lot of very, very precise co-operation amongst the people there, particularly when you have a large population on a small island needing to bring its harvest in. People now looking at the way in which rice agriculture works in Bali are rather puzzled by it because it is intensely religious. The society of Bali is such that religion permeates every single aspect of it and everybody in that culture is very, very carefully defined in terms of who they are, what their status is and what their role in life is. It’s all defined by the church; they have very peculiar calendars and a very peculiar set of customs and rituals, which are precisely defined and, oddly enough, they are fantastically good at being very, very productive with their rice harvest. In the 70s, people came in and noticed that the rice harvest was determined by the temple calendar. It seemed to be totally nonsensical, so they said, ‘Get rid of all this, we can help you make your rice harvest much, much more productive than even you’re, very successfully, doing at the moment. Use these pesticides, use this calendar, do this, that and the other’. So they started and for two or three years the rice production went up enormously, but the whole predator/prey/pest balance went completely out of kilter. Very shortly, the rice harvest plummeted again and the Balinese said, ‘Screw it, we’re going back to the temple calendar!’ and they reinstated what was there before and it all worked again absolutely perfectly. It’s all very well to say that basing the rice harvest on something as irrational and meaningless as a religion is stupid—they should be able to work it out more logically than that, but they might just as well say to us, ‘Your culture and society works on the basis of money and that’s a fiction, so why don’t you get rid of it and just co-operate with each other’—we know it’s not going to work!
So, there is a sense in which we build meta-systems above ourselves to fill in the space that we previously populated with an entity that was supposed to be the intentional designer, the creator (even though there isn’t one) and because we—I don’t necessarily mean we in this room, but we as a species—design and create one and then allow ourselves to behave as if there was one, all sorts of things begin to happen that otherwise wouldn’t happen.
Let me try and illustrate what I mean by something else. This is very speculative; I’m really going out on a limb here, because it’s something I know nothing about whatsoever, so think of this more as a thought experiment than a real explanation of something. I want to talk about Feng Shui, which is something I know very little about, but there’s been a lot of talk about it recently in terms of figuring out how a building should be designed, built, situated, decorated and so on. Apparently, we need to think about the building being inhabited by dragons and look at it in terms of how a dragon would move around it. So, if a dragon wouldn’t be happy in the house, you have to put a red fish bowl here or a window there. This sounds like complete and utter nonsense, because anything involving dragons must be nonsense—there aren’t any dragons, so any theory based on how dragons behave is nonsense. What are these silly people doing, imagining that dragons can tell you how to build your house? Nevertheless, it occurs to me if you disregard for a moment the explanation that’s actually offered for it, it may be there is something interesting going on that goes like this: we all know from buildings that we’ve lived in, worked in, been in or stayed in, that some are more comfortable, more pleasant and more agreeable to live in than others. We haven’t had a real way of quantifying this, but in this century we’ve had an awful lot of architects who think they know how to do it, so we’ve had the horrible idea of the house as a machine for living in, we’ve had Mies van der Roe and others putting up glass stumps and strangely shaped things that are supposed to form some theory or other. It’s all carefully engineered, but nonetheless, their buildings are not actually very nice to live in. An awful lot of theory has been poured into this, but if you sit and work with an architect (and I’ve been through that stressful time, as I’m sure a lot of people have) then when you are trying to figure out how a room should work you’re trying to integrate all kinds of things about lighting, about angles, about how people move and how people live—and an awful lot of other things you don’t know about that get left out. You don’t know what importance to attach to one thing or another; you’re trying to, very consciously, figure out something when you haven’t really got much of a clue, but there’s this theory and that theory, this bit of engineering practice and that bit of architectural practice; you don’t really know what to make of them. Compare that to somebody who tosses a cricket ball at you. You can sit and watch it and say, ‘It’s going at 17 degrees’; start to work it out on paper, do some calculus, etc. and about a week after the ball’s whizzed past you, you may have figured out where it’s going to be and how to catch it. On the other hand, you can simply put your hand out and let the ball drop into it, because we have all kinds of faculties built into us, just below the conscious level, able to do all kinds of complex integrations of all kinds of complex phenomena which therefore enables us to say, ‘Oh look, there’s a ball coming; catch it!’
What I’m suggesting is that Feng Shui and an awful lot of other things are precisely of that kind of problem. There are all sorts of things we know how to do, but don’t necessarily know what we do, we just do them. Go back to the issue of how you figure out how a room or a house should be designed and instead of going through all the business of trying to work out the angles and trying to digest which genuine architectural principles you may want to take out of what may be a passing architectural fad, just ask yourself, ‘how would a dragon live here?’ We are used to thinking in terms of organic creatures; an organic creature may consist of an enormous complexity of all sorts of different variables that are beyond our ability to resolve but we know how organic creatures live. We’ve never seen a dragon but we’ve all got an idea of what a dragon is like, so we can say, ‘Well if a dragon went through here, he’d get stuck just here and a little bit cross over there because he couldn’t see that and he’d wave his tail and knock that vase over’. You figure out how the dragon’s going to be happy here and lo and behold! you’ve suddenly got a place that makes sense for other organic creatures, such as ourselves, to live in.
So, my argument is that as we become more and more scientifically literate, it’s worth remembering that the fictions with which we previously populated our world may have some function that it’s worth trying to understand and preserve the essential components of, rather than throwing out the baby with the bath water; because even though we may not accept the reasons given for them being here in the first place, it may well be that there are good practical reasons for them, or something like them, to be there. I suspect that as we move further and further into the field of digital or artificial life we will find more and more unexpected properties begin to emerge out of what we see happening and that this is a precise parallel to the entities we create around ourselves to inform and shape our lives and enable us to work and live together. Therefore, I would argue that though there isn’t an actual god there is an artificial god and we should probably bear that in mind. That is my debating point and you are now free to start hurling the chairs around!
Q – What is the fourth age of sand?
Let me back up for a minute and talk about the way we communicate. Traditionally, we have a bunch of different ways in which we communicate with each other. One way is one-to-one; we talk to each other, have a conversation. Another is one-to-many, which I’m doing at the moment, or someone could stand up and sing a song, or announce we’ve got to go to war. Then we have many-to-one communication; we have a pretty patchy, clunky, not-really-working version we call democracy, but in a more primitive state I would stand up and say, ‘OK, we’re going to go to war’ and some may shout back ‘No we’re not!’—and then we have many-to-many communication in the argument that breaks out afterwards!
In this century (and the previous century) we modelled one-to-one communications in the telephone, which I assume we are all familiar with. We have one-to-many communication—boy do we have an awful lot of that; broadcasting, publishing, journalism, etc.—we get information poured at us from all over the place and it’s completely indiscriminate as to where it might land. It’s curious, but we don’t have to go very far back in our history until we find that all the information that reached us was relevant to us and therefore anything that happened, any news, whether it was about something that’s actually happened to us, in the next house, or in the next village, within the boundary or within our horizon, it happened in our world and if we reacted to it the world reacted back. It was all relevant to us, so for example, if somebody had a terrible accident we could crowd round and really help. Nowadays, because of the plethora of one-to-many communication we have, if a plane crashes in India we may get terribly anxious about it but our anxiety doesn’t have any impact. We’re not very well able to distinguish between a terrible emergency that’s happened to somebody a world away and something that’s happened to someone round the corner. We can’t really distinguish between them any more, which is why we get terribly upset by something that has happened to somebody in a soap opera that comes out of Hollywood and maybe less concerned when it’s happened to our sister. We’ve all become twisted and disconnected and it’s not surprising that we feel very stressed and alienated in the world because the world impacts on us but we don’t impact the world. Then there’s many-to-one; we have that, but not very well yet and there’s not much of it about. Essentially, our democratic systems are a model of that and though they’re not very good, they will improve dramatically.
But the fourth, the many-to-many, we didn’t have at all before the coming of the Internet, which, of course, runs on fibre-optics. It’s communication between us that forms the fourth age of sand. Take what I said earlier about the world not reacting to us when we react to it; I remember the first moment, a few years ago, at which I began to take the Internet seriously. It was a very, very silly thing. There was a guy, a computer research student at Carnegie Mellon, who liked to drink Dr Pepper Light. There was a drinks machine a couple of storeys away from him, where he used to regularly go and get his Dr Pepper, but the machine was often out of stock, so he had quite a few wasted journeys. Eventually he figured out, ‘Hang on, there’s a chip in there and I’m on a computer and there’s a network running around the building, so why don’t I just put the drinks machine on the network, then I can poll it from my terminal whenever I want and tell if I’m going to have a wasted journey or not?’ So he connected the machine to the local network, but the local net was part of the Internet—so suddenly anyone in the world could see what was happening with this drinks machine. Now that may not be vital information but it turned out to be curiously fascinating; everyone started to know what was happening with the drinks machine. It began to develop, because in the chip in the machine didn’t just say, ‘The slot which has Dr Pepper Light is empty’ but had all sorts of information; it said, ‘There are 7 Cokes and 3 Diet Cokes, the temperature they are stored at is this and the last time they were loaded was that’. There was a lot of information in there, and there was one really fabulous piece of information: it turned out that if someone had put their 50 cents in and not pressed the button, i.e. if the machine was pregnant, then you could, from your computer terminal wherever you were in the world, log on to the drinks machine and drop that can! Somebody could be walking down the corridor when suddenly, ‘bang!’ — there was a Coca-Cola can! What caused that? — well obviously somebody 5,000 miles away! Now that was a very, very silly, but fascinating, story and what it said to me was that this was the first time that we could reach back into the world. It may not be terribly important that from 5,000 miles away you can reach into a University corridor and drop a Coca-Cola can but it’s the first shot in the war of bringing to us a whole new way of communicating. So that, I think, is the fourth age of sand.
by Douglas Adams
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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.