Saturday, August 04, 2007

From The Twilight Zone

"There was nothing in the dark that wasn't there when the lights were on." Rod Serling

There was an episode of The Twilight Zone about a woman who was afraid of the dark/death, but as Rod Serling said and the moral of the story goes, there wasn't anything there that wasn't there in the light. We fear the unknown, or worse, fear the imagined unknown, but the unknown is not unknowable, it's just undiscovered. One definition of truth is "conformity to fact or actuality", and another definition is "reality or actuality" itself. There is reality and then there is our perception of reality. The sun rises and sets is a relative truth. In reality, it does neither. It appears to rise and set due to the Earth's rotation, but if that rotation were to stop, one side of the planet would be in perpetual daylight and the other side in perpetual night. So, this truth is relative to your point of observation or environment. The Sun always shines on the earth is true now and will be until it becomes a red giant and swallows this world. The statement that SUVs are safer than cars is false, however. Our perception is that they are safer vehicles, but the mortality statistics show that they are twice as deadly as cars. So, what is reality? Reality is whatever is going on around you at this moment whether you perceive it or not. Reality is what is going on billions of light years away that we will likely never witness, but it's happening now any way whether we perceive it or not. You perceive sunlight or darkness now, but those photons are actually 8 minutes old if from the Sun and perhaps even older if from another star. It took the Sun's rays that long to reach us through the depths of space. That is the power of the human mind and it's ability to grasp what reality is. For all that power, we are more ignorant than we are wise, but given enough time, our ignorance will lessen considerably.

The seeker of truth acknowledges his or her ignorance and yet, never stops learning and questioning his or her perception of the world and learning that which conforms most closely to actuality. One might hear people say that there are no such things as truths, but I beg to differ. Try believing that Newton's Laws aren't true and jump off a high enough building and you'll discover for yourself how true relative to your fragile body they are. Actually, most people are ignorant of Newton's Laws, but they deal with them every day whether they know it or not. Newton just named and idealized these "laws", but they've existed since the universe was birthed over 13 billions of years ago, before they were named and codified. It doesn't matter how you think the world works, what matters is that you "know" or understand how it works, you know the actuality of it. From such knowledge comes wisdom and informed insight. Children generally test their world. They don't always take their parents' warnings as gospel, sometimes with painful results. But they learn over time what to accept as their parents' experience and what to experience for themselves in order to learn their own truths.

If you blindly accept what people tell you all the time, you might be happier, but you won't necessarily be wiser. Why then should you believe a leader or a holy man when they tell you something? Doesn't it depend upon the integrity and reasons of that person as to whether you believe him or her, or not? And yet, they can be completely sincere, and yet, be completely wrong in what they say. Many people didn't believe Churchill when he warned them about Hitler and events proved him correct. Many of us believed Colin Powell when he gave his speech to the U.N. only to find that he'd been essentially told lies. At best, he'd been told what he wanted to hear or what the people he talked to wished to believe. He was betrayed, or at least, deceived and people who believed him were deceived. I was one of those people at the time. But events didn't prove his speech correct, did it? If such a leader can be deceived by the CIA and his own government, why should you or I believe our own government when it tells us it knows what is best for us. And this is dealing with physical events! We haven't even talked about metaphysical events.

People will argue until they are breathless about whether God exists or not, but they will never seek to know whether that "God" really exists for themselves. They'd rather believe in the idea or concept of "God" or "no-God" rather than discover the actuality of "God" or "no-God". The word is not the thing or actuality it points to. It's just a label or description. People will argue until they are breathless that one needs a spiritual guide or guru or master to be this or that. No, one doesn't. All a teacher can do is point one in the right direction and save time and effort. It's up to each of us to attain the goal or realization that we individually seek by ourselves. If one seeks for an answer honestly and avoids deceptions and delusions, self-inflicted and otherwise, eventually, one will have a truthful answer. But, the answer was always there to begin with. It is there in the light or in the darkness. It just hasn't been discovered yet, through your own senses.

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Comments:
Thanks for your post reply to my questions over on Julie’s blog (http://anonymous-julie.blogspot.com/); I’m honored. :-) And starting your post with a sci-fi related quote made me smile, as I’ve read and watched quite a lot of science fiction over the years.

I like your emphasis on finding out for oneself, about God or no-God, or any aspect of spirituality.

Some differing thoughts on truth are below, just for the sake of conversation/connecting. I’m not trying to say you’re wrong, just that I’ve come to see/live things another way.

The two definitions of truth you provided make sense, and having two definitions makes it easier to talk about this.

It seems to me that we can know the “truth” of the first definition (conformity to fact or actuality). This relates to how we live and function as curious humans. But when we extend our curiosity to the second definition (“reality or actuality” itself), I see no reason to assume that “the unknown is not unknowable, it’s just undiscovered”.

To me, it just takes a little musing about the size difference between us and those pictures we’ve gotten back from the Hubble (and also in the face of those pictures, musing about the relatively identical size and functional similarity between us and cats and spiders), and suddenly human language and perception seem ridiculous as tools for gauging truth. Both our wordless perceptions and our language (these little bursts of air through vocal cords, with their associated brain pictures and labels) have a function, many functions, but it doesn’t seem likely to me that this practical evolutionary functioning includes accessing the “truth” of “reality or actuality” itself.

I’m wary of anything that makes us out to be “privileged”. Over and over our privileged thinking has been seen to be wrong. Example: it turns out that our planet is not the center of the universe. Example: it turns out that we are not the only animals who use tools or have language. To me, it’s like this: in the scheme of things, we are nothing. There are things we simply can never know. Insignificance turns out to be very difficult for humans to accept. (Witness all the fuss about Galileo's findings. And our insistence on the desperate importance of anything on our personal agendas.) We’re not built for accepting insignificance, nothingness, and that may be related to survival.

Anyway, that’s just my somewhat agnostic (?) take on things. And nothingness turned out to be freeing.

My blog co-author sees it differently, and probably you do too, and I used to until recently. Life is an adventure, huh. Good chatting with you.
 
When one states that the unknown is a limit to understanding that one can not cross, one is drawing a line in the sand. Just because humans at this point in time don't know or understand something doesn't mean that someone in the future, won't understand it. Humans have the ability to accumulate collective knowledge. A few other animals can do this as well, chimps, dolphins, orcas, whales, two other great ape species, etc, but man is unique thus far in being able to store knowledge in the form of writings.

We augment our senses when need be to see things we otherwise would not be able to see. We devise clever ways to understand complex cosmic events using computer simulations. We have this thirst or curiosity to understand this world /universe and our place in it.

You miss the paradox. The Earth is insignificant and yet precious at the same time. Compared to the vastness and scale of the Universe, it is nothing, and yet, it is a precious fount of life. The entire solar system can be considered to be an incubator of life eventually. Humanity, or whatever humanity becomes, or whatever comes after us, can not stay here indefinitely for the planet will not sustain life 2 billion years from now. We, humanity, are part of an organism made up of DNA. Almost all the organisms on the planet are DNA based and each serves a purpose or function shaped by evolution and DNA. There are levels and levels of function and information embedded in every organism from the molecular level to the cellular level on up to the species and planetary level. No one person can possibly grasp the totality of all that information. Indeed, it is likely beyond the comprehension of minds as we know them for now, but who knows what the future holds? I would rather humbly acknowledge my ignorance for now, then surrender and state that I'll never ever know certain things. The latter seems to be a cop out to me. I may not care to know certain things, that's my choice, but to say that some things are the domain of knowledge of God (or the unknowable) alone seems to me to be bowing to the supernatural, and that to a man of science or seeker of truth is a cardinal sin. There is a character in Zelazny's Lord of Light who states much the same. Yama, the God of Death, who is really just an augmented human with the psychic ability to kill other men, is a man of science. He gives an impassioned speech stating that he will bow to many things, but the unknowable is not one of them. There are things beyond the mind, beyond comprehension, beyond the ability of language to convey what they are, but not beyond experience and knowledge of humans to assimilate.

"God is what mind becomes when it has passed beyond the scale of our comprehension." Freeman Dyson

There is also the possibility of Intelligence Amplification as described by Vernor Vinge in his essay on Technological Singularity (http://www.aleph.se/Trans/Global/Singularity/sing.txt). I am getting on shaky ground here. I don't care to postulate about the future, for my own personal future has turned out extremely different from what I expected it to be 20 years ago, but I suppose I have some sort of optimism that we will become a wiser and smarter species because the cynic in me assumes that we will not have a choice. We are coming to a decision point where we'll have to be, because if we rely on the tried and true old ways, it means genocide over limited resources on an unimaginable scale with weapons of vast destruction.
 
Yes, I didn't figure we'd agree, but I thought it might be an interesting conversation. Thanks for your patience and your interest; I enjoyed reading your above thoughts on truth/knowability.

Actually, I haven't found all that many people who do agree. I used to be quite a proponent of "the perennial philosophy" - but no longer. Yet I have found similarities to my thinking in the writings of people as diverse as St. Therese of Lisieux, the Greek philosopher Pyrrho, and Robert Anton Wilson. So perhaps instead of the perennial philosophy, there are perennial philosophies, plural. :-)

I grinned when you said "You miss the paradox." I may have missed this one, but I've had my fill. Paradox has been a big part of my spirituality right from the beginning. (I'm not going to start rambling on about that, don't worry!)

"Life" is probably not all that special. Its presence likely follows as a process in a vast number of places in the vast numbers of galaxies. I don't know that thinking of this particular backwater planet as unique and as more precious than any other place is realistic. That sounded like an attack. Sorry, I was trying to be accurate, or at least articulate. :-) And our "clever" computer simulations and various augmentations of our senses might not seem clever to anyone/anything except, well, us.

I suppose that what you see as a cop out, I see as a version of Eastern (Buddhist?) acceptance or Christian surrender, yet from a scientific stance. Anyway, it wasn't something I turned to deliberately, but it ended by seeming to have a similar effect; that is, it led to quite a measure of peace.

Here, maybe this is a better way of stating how unknowability could be looked at: first, if there are things that we just can't know, how would we even know them, or know what percentage of theoretically knowable things they could be? NOW, look at the speck of a nothing that we are. A speck that views the universe through the adaptations for our particular set of circumstances. Any other possible views aren't in us because they weren't needed for survival. Does it follow that we could actually be capable of asking adequate questions?

Yes, you're correct that humanity can't stay here indefinitely. I wonder if we'll get our act together before the supervolcano or asteroid or looming bio-disaster (or yes, "weapons of vast destruction") makes those who are left go back to the square one of technology. We can envision leaving the planet. Can we implement it? It would be so interesting to see into our grandchildren's futures. Curiosity, I understand curiosity!

Like you, my own personal future has also "turned out extremely different from what I expected it to be 20 years ago". :-)

Thanks for the article link about intelligence amplification. I'd never heard of the term, or of Vinge. I won't go into why I think that even IA will always be limited by the intrinsic structure of our brains; it's kind of a Wittgenstein thing (I guess, I've just started to read him). Before that it was just kind of a "my" thing. :-) I see that Vinge's essay was written or published in 1994, and if you've been keeping up with science lately, the interfaces between brains and technology have certainly changed since then. Fascinating stuff, huh? Some of the advances lately amaze me. Or unsettle me, depending on whose hands the technologies would be in.

Or is that better written as "depending in whose hands the technologies would be." (?)

Obviously I'm up way too late here.

You're a good writer. Parallel construction. Varied sentence structure. Clarity. Have you written anything (besides blog posts) or ever thought of writing?
 
I can understand surrender. Surrender as I understand it is acceptance of the Now, of one's situation in the present moment. Surrender is the interface or door between psychological suffering and enlightenment, between suffering and no suffering. According to Buddhism, we are all consciousness . Perhaps we are each a discrete consciousness traveling through time in different bodies striving towards what? Or, we are all extensions of one consciousness traveling through time in different bodies. According to physics, the observer and the observed are connected. Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle doesn't exactly state that, but one can come to that conclusion when observing quantum phenomenon, since the observer affects the outcome of the experiment. Schrodinger's cat experiment is another example of the observer affecting the outcome of the experiment. As far as life in the Universe, I don't know. Of course, there are likely to be other Earth-like planets harboring life as we know it, but they might be very rare, or not. They are likely to be quite far apart and impossible to reach for some time though. As far as intelligent life, who knows? Perhaps there are older civilizations, or perhaps we are one of the first to emerge, who knows? The joke is though, that planets and life are finite and space is essentially infinite and any finite number divided by infinity equals zero, so any one you meet is a statistical anomaly.

I am a fan of Tolle. He's something of a mystical intellectual lacking any ego whatsoever. Reading his books, I understood that basically spirituality and science are seeking similar ends. The jargon is different, but the truths being uncovered are the same. Form is emptiness, and emptiness is form. Tolle explains that sutra as atoms are mostly space from Rutherford's experiments, so we and all matter are mostly empty space. Yet we are seemingly solid forms of flesh and bone even though at the microscopic scale, we are mostly emptiness. The Buddhists beat Rutherford by 2500 years, though. Scientific method, trial and error, and the testing of ideas has allowed us to progress. The last bastions that are being eroded by the scientific method are religion. Since religions generally corrupt spiritual truths, shining a little light on them to uncover those underlying truths can only be beneficial.

The most sophisticated computer is between your ears. Yet, these bodies and minds are evolving as we speak. Change is inevitable. In other words, evolution happens. Homo sapiens will either evolve to something else or die off. The next step in our evolution is mostly a mental one. It's a psychological evolution. Jesus, Buddha, and others have already made that leap. The only thing that keeps most people back is their learned beliefs from culture, parents and society. At some level, people have made a choice, conscious or subconscious, not to go beyond their egos to the next level. This is part of the perfection of the moment, don't you see? And if we are really just consciousness that temporarily exists in embodied states from time to time, then whether or not humanity makes it or not doesn't matter, because we would just come back in another form in any event. But at the subconscious level, each of us likely already knows the outcome or at least the goal we are all striving towards.

Yes, I used to be a good writer, though those skills have atrophied until I started blogging. If you can't express yourself, you are hampered as a scientist.
 
I share your interest in science (and appreciate the links on your blog). It’s the curiosity thing, I suppose. But also I’ve found science lately, especially biological science, to be jarring, even mind-boggling: all roads seem to lead to “I have no idea why I do what I do”. Mirror neurons, hormones, culture, genetics. Separated twins using the same brand of toothpaste.

There goes your “people have made a choice” . . . (Perhaps?)

And underneath it all, space/emptiness. Or, perhaps, “something” that we haven’t yet guessed with our brains. Or can’t. :-) Who knows. Ninety-six percent of the material world (whatever that means) is unknown, it seems. Dark matter? Dark energy?

It’s fun, isn’t it?!

I very much like what you wrote here: “Surrender is the interface or door between psychological suffering and enlightenment, between suffering and no suffering.” Surrender is practical, and has practical results.

You wrote, “According to Buddhism, we are all consciousness.” Buddha did say not to take his word for anything (I assume that would apply to not accepting subsequent Buddhist schools of thought without question, either), but said to go find out for ourselves. And I see from your writing that you’ve taken that to heart. I have, too. :-) As I said, of the two kinds of truth (about things that can be manipulated/studied and about metaphysics), I don’t see that humans are capable of commenting on such things as universal consciousness; human language applied to metaphysics (or “spiritual truths”) would be close to meaningless. I also don’t see that we have any ability to say what the next step in our evolution will be. “The next step in our evolution is mostly a mental one. It's a psychological evolution.” I’ve heard that before; you’re certainly not alone in embracing this line of thought.

Perhaps, we can agree to disagree. You take your unproven belief in (or should I say affinity for, or certainty of, or experience of) consciousness, human possibilities, and human spiritual evolution and go forward in the perfection of the moment, free. I’ll take my unproven belief in (affinity for, certainty of, experience of) our ultimate incapability and insignificance, our nothingness (and my own), and go forward in simple living, simple loving, free.

Nice to meet you, virtually speaking.
 
It is not a sin to submit to the unknown, but it is a sin to bow to the unknowable. Perhaps neither one of us is right, or wrong. The quest here is to end suffering, most of which is self-inflicted, or inflicted upon us by others. If you were Jim Watson, you'd be proposing that we genetically engineer ourselves to be the new Gods. While that is certainly a possibility in the future, hopefully after it's been thoroughly debated, I disagree with him. People want to fix genetic mistakes and allow children to live full and complete lives. Nature is more brutal. Those children would be sacrificed for the greater good. You see, those genetic mistakes are not mistakes. They served a purpose, to enhance the survivability of individuals when they contract certain infectious diseases. If you have one copy, you've an enhanced immunity. If you have two copies, you will suffer and likely die young. This is a trade-off though, between many dying young of say, malaria, and a few dying young of sickle cell.

What will beauty be defined as when all are beautiful? What will genius be, when all are as brilliant as an Einstein? Genetic variability is a blessing, not a curse, but most people value conformity. The definition of beauty is cultural to a degree. Fat women used to be considered beautiful. Fat was a marker for wealth, because the wealthy could afford all they could eat. Now, thin is a marker of beauty, starvation thin. Thus we see the insanity of the collective human psyche, its whims expressed over time.

The twin studies are interesting and there is some truth that genes may predispose one to certain behaviors, but the beauty of the human mind is that once the unconscious is known by the conscious, the conscious can decide whether it wants to behave unconsciously or not. My genes made me do it is generally a poor excuse for poor behavior. Your genes and your environment shaped you and made you who you are. You might have been taught to be an alcoholic or smoker or wife beater , but ultimately, you can choose not to be those addictions or monsters as well.

The Buddha, Jesus, countless Zen Masters have shown us that we are pretty much already there. The only thing we need to change is our mindset. Biological evolution works on time scales of a generation, but human cultural evolution can change on the scale of months. It takes a generation to alter the genetic hard wiring of a brain, but the brain can rewire itself to an extent by making new habits and it can be reprogrammed via education both of which may take only days or months.

In the span of 30 years, computers have gone from mainframe to appliance, and human culture has significantly changed. The USSR only lasted 80 years. One social experiment that couldn't sustain itself. Vestiges linger in Uzbekistan, but by and large, that form of socialism is dead for now. In the span of 100 years, we've made the entire planet an island via aircraft and space travel. Mankind's record of sustainable living on islands without trade is horrific to say the least. What other island than Earth can we rely on now?
 
Very interesting conversation.

Thanks.
 
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