Tag Archives: life philosophy

Reality, As Painted By A Five Sense Palette

Are you familiar with NASA’s various Hubble Deep Field observations?  It seems to me an appropriate metaphor for human understanding.  The very short version is that over an extended period of time, NASA pointed the Hubble telescope at an apparently empty and infinitesimal portion of the night sky (below is the amount of sky observed by the eXtreme Deep Field observation):

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Repeated exposures to the same area over many years allowed the trickle of photons to accumulate this stunning image:

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Most of those glowing objects are distant galaxies.  I have read there are an estimated 5000+ galaxies of various ages in that image.  Some date back as far as we have ever observed, approximately 13+ billion years ago.  This is what was observed upon careful and extended observation of an area of space that appeared to be empty to the naked eye.

The naked eye provides a great deal of the information by which we construct our impression of three dimensional space.  As humans, we have little intuitive insight regarding what information we are not perceiving.  Sight – combined with the four other senses of touch, taste, hearing and smell – provide my human perception of reality.  They provide the data on which derivative tools like inductive and deductive reasoning can be employed.  The data provided by my senses is woefully incomplete, limited on two fronts: scope and scale.  The scope of my sensory sensitivity involves just a tiny fraction of the electromagnetic spectrum as sight and sound.  We know of animals that perceive various facets of reality that human senses cannot.  Walls and chairs and beds and grass and trees look like what I see, sound like what I hear, feel like what I touch.  But we know from the study of subatomic particles that an atom is well over 99% empty space.  Even time may be an illusion.  Our best cosmological theories require that 96% of the universe be made up of mysterious “dark matter” and “dark energy” that have never been directly observed.

Scale also plays a role.  Maybe an even bigger one (I will write much more on this at some later time).  The diameter of the physical universe is estimated to be over 90 billion light years.  Strikes me as akin to guessing how many marbles are in a bowl, but whatever.  Regardless, the human mind really cannot comprehend the size of the cosmos, nor the infinitesimalness of the quantum scale.  The orders of magnitude are cleverly demonstrated here.  They defy our comprehension.  So we tend to settle for causal coherence, even if it leads to faulty conclusions.  The human brain seems addicted to pattern and predictability, where complexity and chaos may more accurately describe the universe that we inhabit.  Many researchers have shown that the human mind tends to create order, coherence, causality, even where none exists.  It appears to be how we are wired.  And it seems we can’t help but think the “mind” exhibited at our own scale is unique, without properly accounting for evidence of intelligent behavior in clustered matter at orders of magnitude both smaller and larger than us.  There are almost as many bacteria in our body as there are cells with our own DNA.  Yet we seldom recognize these microscopic organisms as individuals, rather we recognize only the collective “me”?   A city exhibits the ordered pattern of an organism, but we view recognize only the individual “me”‘s not the city itself as a “mind.”  Might our particular scale be restricting our appreciation for “mind” at different dimensional scales?

It seems to me that the primary limitation, and one that cannot be avoided within human perception, is the particular nature of human perception.  We cannot know what we do not know.  As Erwin Schrodinger said, “The reason why our sentient, percipient and thinking ego is met nowhere within our scientific world picture can easily be indicated in seven words: because it is itself that world picture. It is identical with the whole and therefore cannot be contained in it as a part of it.”  What I perceive is just one way of experiencing the universe.  It is just one version of the universe, painted using my five sense perceptual palette.  I try to remind myself of that whenever I think I know more.

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Beginning the World

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New Year’s celebrations remind me of a song by a band named the Innocence Mission titled, “Beginning the World.”  She sings about the nervousness of starting school, the uncertainty of what she’s doing with her life, and recites in the chorus: “I am always beginning the world.”  Those words always struck a chord with me, serving as a reminder that (as the cliche goes) every new day is the beginning of the rest of the your life.

So are we really free to begin anew?

The phrase “Same Shit Different Day” (SSDD), while often innocuous, communicates the anti-thesis of this.  It suggest a rut of unfulfilling habit.  No change is occurring.  Nothing memorable is being experienced.  No new pages are being added to your life story.

In this TED talk, Psychologist Daniel Kahneman discusses what he describes as concurrent but separate versions of Self: an experiential self, and a self of memory.  The former is the part of us that experiences each moment, forever existing in the “now”.  The self of memory (our memory-story, I will call it) is the meta view of ourselves; it compiles our story, creates connections in memory, anticipates futures memories, so forth.  Our memory-story, he points out, is not linear.  A ten second sequence can feel like forever, and whole weeks (years, even) can go utterly unrecorded.  Our memory-story does not care about time as measured by clocks, but rather is focused on change.  Noteworthy change.  According to Kahneman, it is change that is recorded and remembered.  Twenty straight days of lying blissfully on a beach is roughly the same as one day of lying blissfully on a beach to our memory-story.  Though our experiential memory likely loves each day the same, our memory-story does not appear to sum the total pleasure.  There is nothing new being added to the memory-story of our lives by the additional 19 days of repetition.

If life is what we remember it to be, is SSDD functionally equivalent to not living at all?

In “The Information“, James Gleick describes Claude Shannon as equating information with complexity (or perhaps more accurately, entropy).  He says, “According to this measure, a million zeroes and a million coin tosses lie at opposite ends of the spectrum. The empty string is as simple as can be; the random string is maximally complex. The zeroes convey no information; coin tosses produce the most information possible.”  In other words, the more repetitive a pattern is, the less information it conveys.  In this sense, a life of SSDD is void of information.

Does that make a life of SSDD void of meaning?  Is a life filled with sudden and surprising changes maximally informative?  Maximally meaningful?

Then again, there are many for whom routine appears to be a necessary anchor.  One of my children has been diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder, and one can see how important routine and repetition are to his ability to navigate his world.  He is not alone.  I find myself savoring tedium at times, perhaps for different reasons than my son.  Raking leaves, shoveling snow, driving to work, etc, are all tasks that engage my body while allowing my mind to wander off to some separate task.  In that sense, a small portion of SSDD would seem healthy and perhaps even necessary.  In “The Information”, James Gleick expands on the contrast between maximum complexity/information (a random series of digits) and minimum complexity/information (unvaried repetition) by asserting, “…these extremes have something in common.  They are dull.  They have no value. If either one were a message from another galaxy, we would attribute no intelligence to the sender. If they were music, they would be equally worthless. Everything we care about lies somewhere in the middle, where pattern and randomness interlace.”

Perhaps a little Same Shit Different Day serves as a baseline that helps make a truly Different day memorable and Beginning the World momentous?


Inner Space, Ignored

To what extent has humanity’s increased understanding and dominance over our external material environment come at the expense of understanding and insight into the nature of our inner mental space?

As Max Planck reportedly said, “I regard consciousness as fundamental.  I regard matter as derivative from consciousness.  We cannot get behind consciousness.  Everything that we talk about, everything that we regard as existing, postulates consciousness.”  Erwin Schrodinger expressed similar sentiments, “The world is given to me only once, not one existing and one perceived.  Subject and object are only one.”

The scientific method has provided an excellent process for examining our surroundings as expressed in the physical universe.  It has proved to be superb at exposing false theories.  It allows us to whittle away falsehoods in the hopes of getting closer to truth regarding our physical surroundings.  Smitten by this success and the technological advances that it has enabled, it seems mankind has focused increasingly on the material world which we inhabit.  To many, it is all there is.

Is it possible that the world within our mind is as intricate and expansive as the physical world that surrounds us?

Is it possible that if humanity devoted as much time to the study of inner space as it does to the study and exploitation of external space, we would discover just as many truths about the nature of reality – perhaps truths of a very different kind?

Does the speed of discovery and tempo of modern (Western) life actively discourage inner investigation?

Is it appropriate than mankind should focus increasingly on the material world and forego what can be discovered and experienced inside his/her own mind?

Is this evolutionary “progress” revealing itself?

If not, what is the cost of this partiality?


Preferred: Truth or Hope?

If hope is in any way tied to a particular (or preconceived) truth, can truth be honestly sought, regardless of where it leads?

Is truth that begets hopelessness less useful?

Is hope devoid of truth less useful?

Of the two, assuming mutual exclusivity, which is more important to you?


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