The thinking seems to be these days among neuro-scientists and phenomenologists that the concept of Self is an artificial construct evolution has foisted upon us in the interest of fending off extinction. By providing a focus upon which to differentiate options for action, evolution has provided, over considerable time, the means to improve our potential for personal survival. I’m guessing things like:” is that Sabretooth Tiger looking at me thinking about a meal in which case “‘I’better think about reacting” and so forth, has developed and perpetuated the myth of the Self.
So, I guess there really is no ‘Self’ other than a concept our consciousness has found useful to limit possible choices in order to provide some bit of stability within our limited sensible abilities; which also means the ‘World’ our artificial ‘Self’ recognizes is but a tiny fraction of what is actual out there existing around us.
But our sense of Self, researchers assure us, is pretty much impossible to eradicate as enlightening as it might be to do so. We can, though, I suppose, think seriously about growing our world awareness through meditation which is, after all, a ‘Self’ subordinating enterprise.
It appears neuro-scientists, brain researchers, have determined that there’s an innate sensibility, a pre-language understanding that all humans and some other mammalian species have in common. The theory is that this sense of existential commonality could only have occurred after the evolutionary neural development process that first produced a ‘self-model’ or individual identity in our early ancestors and that through observation and mirroring their cave mates, social connectedness and empathy developed from which cultures and civilization followed.
So, I’m beginning to understand that what I am, who I understand myself to be, my personal identity is little more than a particular aspect of neural development no more or less significant in the greater stream of consciousness than the world experienced through my sensual awareness.
Along with the sense of personal identity I’ve inherited self-consciousness, moral second guessing and the anxieties that go along with the desire for social inclusion as well as all sorts of other desires that have a tendency to pre-occupy my consciousness, all of which temper the positives a bit.
One could romanticize, I suppose, that a step back on the evolutionary scale would offer a simpler mental engagement. At the very least social media wouldn’t be an issue.
I’m being led to understand, through some quite credible readings, that it’s likely physiological variations, like elevated heart rate or shortness of breath or even a stubbed toe precede emotional states; which means, I guess, one might be more likely to develop romantic feelings for a jogging partner or feel an excessive animosity for an athletic opponent after spraining an ankle.
So, I was thinking about this after my bi-weekly exercise regimen the other day when it occurred to me that I did indeed feel a sense of bonding with and good will toward my companions, nothing romantic you understand, but a familial closeness with the good people in our group. Whether I would have developed those same feelings had our relationships developed as, say, library board members I don’t know but I do kind of doubt it. I suppose one could over-intellectualize the issue, debating which came first the heart palpitations or the feelings but better, I think, to just keep exercising and let nature take its course.
So I’ve been reading that the idea of cause and effect is not a necessarily local process, one thing following another in a relatively straight forward manner related to time sequences and spatial proximity; that an occurrence in one place, at one time has ramifications not only for what universally will be but what has been throughout time as well.
I guess it all has to do with quantum physical theory, that subatomic entities exist simultaneously as two things, particles and waves and these most basic of material building blocks defy logical analysis, interacting non-locally with other entities, shifting what has and will occur as entropy moves them to action. Or something. But all of this leads to the absolutely mind-blowing idea that what I do right now, right here, affects everything that ever was, is or will be.
As counter-intuitive as this may seem there is certainly something enlightening about the idea. If I can realize my impact and connectedness in relation to the world around me and then act accordingly it can only be a good thing.
I’ve been reading, lately, a most intriguing perspective suggesting much of what our common sense tells us is inaccurate if not totally wrong. For one thing, so goes the thinking, consciousness must precede material existence. Which means, I guess, that when I’m unconscious not only does nothing outside of my dreams exist for me but the birds presently flitting about the feeder cease to exist altogether with my fall into unconsciousness.
Apparently the idea is that, since sub-atomic entities like electrons exist as both tangible particles and invisible waves simultaneously, at any given moment, what they actually are depends upon whether they’re being observed and if, when eyes are cast in their direction they are invisible waves one has to wonder about their very existence: electrons may be present when watched, absent when unobserved.
Which leads me to wonder whether or not the birds outside my window continue to exist after I doze off into one of my afternoon naps and then, when I wake, do the birds come back into existence or am I just seeing different birds. Anyway, if sub-atomic entities, of which the world consists, depend on an observer for their existence I guess it stands to reason that the presence of a conscious intelligence is required in order that there be a manifested world.
It all seems pretty counter-intuitive but, as I think about it, the notion of a world dependent on conscious awareness is pretty hard to disprove.
According to the 19th century psychologist William James, man creates the world he inhabits. The path one takes, says Mr. James, may focus on ugliness or beauty, a man may choose to concentrate and relate to the Good or the Bad. The idea here is that faith is required: an acknowledgment of that which is beyond the empirical, outside the domain of scientific certitude: the realm of God and immortality.
Which seems to imply the need for perspective: that the natural world isn’t all there is, suggesting those in the ‘natural world only’ camp will have a much harder (impossible?) time maintaining an optimistic view of things, of remaining positive, of retaining and maintaining a high moral outlook.
On a personal level, to my mind, there is no doubt considerable energy is required, as our daily travails weigh upon us, to stay upbeat all of the time; even most of the time. Still, if it’s perspective it takes to stay on one’s preferred path I wonder if the only play is the metaphysical one. Mr. James suggests unless one is oblivious, we’ve already made our choice: skepticism in moral matters is an ally of immorality; who is not for is against, he says.
Answers to the big questions must have appeared much clearer back then.
There’s thinking these days that Biological evolution, natural selection, will result in ever increasingly capable survivors, generation after generation, better suited to exploit and thrive within their changing environment than were their ancestors in theirs. From the perspective of increasing prosperity alone, there appears little need, biologically, to embrace any sort of ethical stance. Cooperation between these increasingly fit beings will likely occur only in so far as personal interest is concerned. So, I’m wondering, is our evolutionary destiny to be increasingly inundated with assholes?
Yet, altruism does exist. Clearly humankind does embrace certain ethical standards. Generosity toward others certainly occurs; empathy is a true emotional response for many. There are those among us who make for a kinder, gentler society where cooperation means lifting everyone to a state of reasonable well-being. I have to wonder, in the next millennium, assuming humankind is still around, where the emphasis will lay; I have a feeling Friedrich Nietzsche would have had thoughts on this.
I’ve been thinking, lately, how natural selection manifests itself in myriad ways among plants and animals: adaptation to changing environmental conditions ensures survival of species. And, individuals with superior survival skills pass on their genes to ensure superior off-spring better capable of surviving and thriving in harsh natural environments.
It seems in some ways unfortunate similar evolutionary progress doesn’t happen among humans where mating practices appear to be pretty thoughtless with regard to what sort of off-spring might be produced, you know, in terms of the capabilities needed to deal with life. The less-able results of indiscriminate coupling are, of course, cared for by the more able and humane where as in the animal kingdom such unfortunate progeny would certainly parish.
Still, it seems to me compassion should rule the day. I do think virtuous behavior toward the less fortunate should be expected of thinking beings, but, being thinking beings, mankind might do well to think before passing on seed.
I was reading the other day that what we are, when it comes right down to it (way, way down I might add) is ‘collections of vibrating quantum fields, held together in persistent patterns by feeding off of ambient free energy according to impersonal and uncaring laws of nature.’* Vibrating one-dimensional strings or sub-atomic particles organize themselves to form our senses and memories, record and qualify our experiences which are then interpreted in language containing personal pronouns which identify self and, voila, we awaken and become conscious of our individual selves.
It’s a great story, a believable narrative that answers a lot of questions about our unique natures and our reality as we conceive it. There are, of course, other narratives. On a macroscopic level our complex beings seek out and find entities beyond the physical that on occasion reach out and touch us, make us aware of the magic in a changing natural world; give us the capacity to embrace beauty, to love others than ourselves, give us courage in the face of adversity, offer a benevolent overseer to rule our very existence.
There are without a doubt other narratives as well. The question we need to ask is: which stories carry the greater validity, answers the most questions, accounts for nature as we know it. I must admit I’m often swayed by a well stated thought which leads me to embrace, for the moment, the ideas of poetic naturalism, seeing as how it is so convincingly backed up by theoretical physics.
So, for now I will embrace the beauty and complexity of a naturalistic view and set aside explanations requiring any sort of supernatural participant. At least until the next new, well-thought-out conception comes my way.
*credit to Sean Carroll for this wonderful summation.
I’ve been reading about the recent astronomical discoveries related to gravitational waves and it’s got me thinking about how very tenuous our existence is. Apparently, it’s been known for some time that the slightest variation in gravitational fields could send the earth cascading to its fiery demise in collision with the sun, or, shooting off into space where it’s very dark and cold; not exactly up-lifting scenarios.
I suppose the healthy thing to do would be to not pay a lot of attention to these abstract astronomical notions but the way it’s presented, for anyone with a penchant for SciFi, the vision is pretty terrifying.
I guess researchers have found evidence of gravitational ripples originating from the very beginnings of time and now believe they can actually hear such waves occurring from the collision of two black holes deep in space. If these waves are out there it may be just a matter of time until they get close enough to maybe raise havoc with our solar system.
Let’s hope our brave scientists keep looking, as they have been, I guess, for some time, for other worlds out there somewhere that have the capacity to support life as we know it. Any planets they find that might fit the bill will probably be too far away to do any of us much good, but the knowledge of the existence of such places is bound to provide a bit of peace of mind for us SciFi readers.