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April 08, 2015

Comments

When you write:

". . . Yuval Noah Harari, a historian, says in his fascinating book, "Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind," certain entities exist only in the minds of people. Like, science and religion; quantum theory and God; the periodic table and angels.

"All of these things spring from human imagination. If we didn't exist, neither would they. The natural world would keep on doing its thing, but there wouldn't be anyone using terms like quantum theory, God, periodic table, angels.

"Understand: I'm not claiming that science and religion are equally valid imagined stories. Science deals with entities that actually do exist outside of the human mind, whereas God, angels, and other imagined supernatural entities don't."

Perhaps I am hung up on his assertion that “certain entities exist only in the minds of people. Like, science and religion; quantum theory and God; the periodic table and angels.”

There is something about us that is, to our knowledge, unique in this and all other universes: we are the most highly sentient creatures of which we know.

It seems like there is a tautology lurking about. Descartes’ je pense, donc je suis may sufficiently prove our existence, but quantum mechanics existed without our ever having thought about it. Physics describes the world, metaphysics seeks to find order in the observations of physics, much as the function of history is to find the order in the chaos of events.

The order or disorder within and among the universes is. The sentient mind observes and seeks to find that order. Those observations that can be predicted and measured (when water gets sufficiently hot it changes from a liquid to a gas) we call physics. Those observations for which no test can be structured (what happened before the big bang; why does evil exist) we call metaphysics.

“Entities that exist only in the minds of people” describes the vessel of metaphysics, a vessel that physics diminishes with every discovery. Humans stand at the apex of sentience because we are able to act, not only by nature, but by nurture. Our concept of free will, I think, comes from the tension between nature/nurture. We stand at this apex because we can ask a question no other entity is capable of asking: Why?

When you look at the eyes of a Sumerian statue you see how, looking into the vessel of metaphysics, the Mesopotamian sought to answer that question and how. When you ask why things happen, where we came from, and that ultimate question of sentient beings, where will we go, we create structures that determine how we may best structure our lives so as to live in harmony or accord with that which is within the metaphysical vessel.

What I find distressing is the amount of research that has been done by Jonathan Haidt and his colleagues suggesting that those who frame their lives in accordance with metaphysical values are more likely to lead moral lives than are those such as myself.

Maybe it isn’t a tautology. Perhaps it is a paradox. We are the stories that we tell.

God and money are both fictions. Belief and acceptance of both lead to a multiplier effect. The former results in religion and the ethical and moral structures of religion while the latter results in capital and capitalism.

As Ronald Dworkin wrote: “Absolute confidence or clarity is the privilege of fools and fanatics. For the rest of us we must do the best we can: we must choose among all of the substantive views on offer by asking which strikes us, after reflection and due thought, as more plausible than the others.”

Thus, we separate the physical from the metaphysical. Scientists form opinions through a causal process in which science plays an important part. Because gold has the properties it does, experiments involving gold have the results they do, resulting in a causal chain that is essentially circular.

Science is a spiritless religion.
Religion is a spiritless science.

Spirituality alone is live science and a live religion, call it Scientific Religion.

~
OI

The Tragedy of Sentience

"The “primary consciousness,” the basic mind which knows reality rather than ideas about it, does not know the future. It lives completely in the present, and perceives nothing more than what is at this moment. The ingenious brain, however, looks at that part of present experience called memory, and by studying it is able to make predictions. These predictions are, relatively, so accurate and reliable (e.g., “everyone will die”) that the future assumes a high degree of reality — so high that the present loses its value.

"But the future is still not here, and cannot become a part of experienced reality until it is present. Since what we know of the future is made up of purely abstract and logical elements — inferences, guesses, deductions — it cannot be eaten, felt, smelled, seen, heard, or otherwise enjoyed. To pursue it is to pursue a constantly retreating phantom, and the faster you chase it, the faster it runs ahead. This is why all the affairs of civilization are rushed, why hardly anyone enjoys what he has, and is forever seeking more and more. Happiness, then, will consist, not of solid and substantial realities, but of such abstract and superficial things as promises, hopes, and assurances."

Allan Watts

Early mankind’s greatest discovery was the certainty that there is something about us that is, to our knowledge, unique in this and all other universes: we are the most highly sentient creatures of whom we know. Of all the creatures of the earth, only mankind can ask “why” and “how.” Descartes’ je pense, donc je suis may sufficiently prove our existence, but quantum mechanics existed without our ever having thought about it. Physics describes the world, metaphysics seeks to find order in the observations of physics, much as the function of history is to find the order in the chaos of events.

The order or disorder within and among the universes is. The sentient mind observes and seeks to find that order. Those observations that can be predicted and measured (when water gets sufficiently hot it changes from a liquid to a gas) we call physics. Those observations for which no test can be structured (what happened before the big bang; why does evil exist) we call metaphysics. With our distinguishing punctuation mark, the question, arose Inquiry. Inquiry is how we answer primal questions. Inquiry evolved into a process, the recognition that the answer to “why” required disciplined thinking in order to progress from what is not known to what can be known.

Inquiry recognized that knowledge progresses from suppositions to plausibilities to probabilities, and then to certainties. Those who inquired became seers, teachers, philosophers, artists, artisans, growers, and thinkers. Those who inquired came to see a paradox in their inquiries. The more they inquired the more questions that would arise. Long before Mandlebrot, Inquirers understood that clarifying and answering one question merely uncovered further lines of inquiry.

The tragedy of mankind is that at an early point in our development a cleaving of how we look at the world occurred. Somewhere along the line, what I can only describe as a pivot occurred. The goal of Inquiry is to move “why” from the plausible assumption vessel to that of probable certainty. Somehow a line of inquiry developed that turned inward upon itself and began creating lines of inquiry premised solely upon a series of plausible assumptions.

Two schools of inquiry emerged. The first school premised Inquiry upon a foundation of “trust, but verify.” The second school relied upon trust alone. The framework of their school rested upon the principle that plausible correlations answered questions about causation. From this school emerged priesthoods that could intercede between the natural and the supernatural worlds - for what this line of inquiry created was a separation, a barrier, a wall. The unknown became the realm of the spiritual.

It worked something like this: We begin with something, an event, that has, in the telling, the aura of plausibility.

The more people hear of the event and accept its plausibility, the more it takes on an existence of its own. It is a narrative accepted as true, as the narrative is repeated and affirmed. The faith of the believer, the confidence of the believer is sufficient to overcome Inquiry’s objection that trust requires verification.

As the event morphs and grows, It develops rituals, beliefs, a theology, a liturgy, a priesthood. It becomes the touchstone by which everything is judged.

In the rational, evidence-based world of Inquiry, the vessel of metaphysics is emptied as the world of science and physics provides more and more of the answers that had hitherto been found in the realm of the metaphysical. But with a potent metaphysical narrative, the answers provided contradict or repudiate the findings of Inquiry. It then become heresy to think that the earth revolves around the sun or that Bishop Usher was wrong and that dinosaurs and man did not frolic in the Garden of Eden.

So convincing is the plausible narrative that the values, morals, and ethics we have framed over millennia in order to live together in communities are replaced by alternatives - alternatives that require allegiance to a series of plausibilities that undermine community, society, civilization, and Inquiry itself.

The pursuit of Inquiry is the hard road. It is a road that is seldom straight and when you do reach the end, you are often not far from where you started. The enchantment of the plausible supposition is that it acts like some magic key or elixir. It is a talisman that can deflect paradox, contradiction, and fallacy. Once you accept it as true you are absolved from doubt and inquiry. In a perverse paradox of Inquiry, the believer finds truth within the pages of the Bible or the pronouncements of FOX News.

The burden of Inquiry is lifted. Once all questions are answered, faith substitutes for the knowledge Inquiry conveys. The distinguishing feature of our sentience is muted as you no longer have to ask “why” and “how,” never realizing that the satisfaction, fulfillment, and certainty you get from the answers provided by your fabric of plausible suppositions come with a price: the surrender of your sentience.

Thanks for this post, Brian. Truly a treat, reading these ideas. Fascinating fodder-for-thought to champ away at!

This ties in with that lovely Philip K Dick quote you often mention, that “reality is what remains even when you stop believing in it”.

So we have three categories of “things”, it seems : the undeniably “real” ; then the abstract-but-real (as in, for example, mathematics) ; and finally the “myths” (per Harari’s terminology), which are both abstract and unreal.

I’ve never thought of it this way. This gives us a remarkable perspective of seeing and evaluating all of our constructs.

Are all “myths” dysfunctional at some level? (Even while perhaps being, at more primitive levels, useful in being instrumental in our progress?)

Religion is obviously something we’ve long outgrown. It may, arguably, have had a hand in civilizing us (if only as historical accident), but now is no more than toxic baggage. Best discarded immediately. (Even while “spirituality”, again arguably, may conceivably hold out the potential for a great deal of progress even now. Especially if/when freed from the stranglehold of religion.)

What about the concept of nations? This also is a “myth” that has definitely helped our “progress” as a species (if only, as earlier, as historical accident), but is it still really necessary? I would say NO! I think nations, in sum, result in far greater harm than good at this time, if we take humanity as a whole (as opposed to individual bits and pieces). I think we’d be far better off without nations : but, unlike religion (which we can and should drop immediately), we need to first build up alternative social and political structures to take the place of nations. (Sounds slightly cuckoo, I know, but theoretically at least it makes a great deal of sense!)

What about all of our other “myths” that you/Harari mention? Money, corporations, even something as apparently wholly positive as justice? That’s a slightly dizzying thought, with no immediate answers (but with plenty of tempting rabbit-hole pathways!).

Again, Brian, thanks for that lovely selection (of Harari’s book) and that lovely summary/review!

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