September 27, 2007

Life is an error-making and error-correcting process, and nature, in marking man’s papers, will grade him for wisdom as measured both by survival and by the quality of life of those who survive.

– Jonas Salk

September 26, 2007

Given the accepted principle that every moment of consciousness has its neural correlates, the crucial question arises, Which produces which? Most neurophysiologists work on some highly specialized area of brain research and are not particularly interested in the philosophical issue, as they see it, of the relationship between the brain and the consciousness. For it does not make any practical difference to them whether consciousness is identical with, or caused by, or only correlated with brain activity. But those who do concern themselves with this fundamental question distinguish between the easy problem and the hard problem. The easy problem – easy in principle – is to trace precisely what is going on in the brain when someone is consciously perceiving, thinking, willing, experiencing some emotion, creating a work of art, etc. The hard problem is to find out what consciousness actually is and how it is caused – assuming, as they mostly do, that it is somehow caused – by cerebral activity. This, says Steven Rose, is “science’s last frontier.”

– John Hick

Another way of saying the same thing. I’ll get to the bottom of this if it’s the death of me!

I love podcasts. Especially the round table discussion sort. Everyone ‘sits around’ [that being entirely metaphorical at times… sometimes the ‘panelists’ communicate via Skype / other VoIP] and just discusses whatever it is that comes to mind. One of my favorite such shows is MacBreak Weekly. Listening to show is enjoyable, and not because of the discussion of all things Mac. It’s enjoyable because you feel like you’ve just plopped down between four or five best friends that are having a nice chat. The rapport between the people on this show is amazing.

This all crystallized something for me about my personality: I really prefer listening vs. interacting in a group setting. Emphasis on the prefer part. It’s not that I suck at interacting and therefore end up listening [though that may be the case sometimes too]. It’s that I really would rather just sit in a group of friends and listen.

I’m sure some of my friends who think I have a giant mouth [especially a giant bitchy mouth ;) ] would disagree, but I know from personal experience that it’s the truth. I really do enjoy just soaking in all the banter between people, and I only get engaged either when it’s something I’m passionate about [like, say, whether or not some swimmer is the world’s best athlete] or if there’s an awkward silence [which doesn’t happen among good friends].

And I would imagine this is part of the reason that I have such ‘trouble,’ if you want to call it that, making new friends in a new situation: I like to take without giving in a group dynamic. I’d rather just be quiet, listen, and enjoy. But that doesn’t work in a newly forming group. Everyone has to contribute or else things fall apart. People tend to instinctively shun social parasites. Except when that kid is the ‘quiet’ one in a group. But you can only have so many quiet ones. And I feel like that label loses its charm as we get older.

All of this just further solidifies my characterization of myself as an ‘introvert.’ And makes me wonder yet again if that’s such a ‘bad’ thing. I suppose the best thing for a ‘parasite’ to do is to find a really chatty person and make friends with them. That way, the person that loves talking will get just as much bang for his/her buck as the person that loves listening. It’s a win-win situation. And interestingly, one I’ve found myself in more times than not.

Interesting how the little things shape our destinies. I guess it’s easier that way.

Addendum: All of this also has to do with something else I realized about tenuous relationships: you do have to be willing to do some, and at times most, of the talking. I had a strange experience while hanging out a few weeks ago. I was noticing how much I was talking in comparison to my friends, and then I tried to increase my end of the ratio. The socializing was over a meal, which made me all the more conscious of talk time because I could compare the completion of meals to how much each person was talking. Needless to say, that’s way too much analysis. And only a real loser would do such a thing in the middle of a good time. But the experience did make me much more aware of the fact that in normal social relationships, its extremely important to talk. And despite the majority of the advice one gets about relationships, it may be important to talk more to make a person comfortable in a newly forming relationship.

Addendum+: Wow, I just realized I could go on and on about social interaction with all the observations I’ve been making lately. Only a person so inept would spend so much time analyzing social encounters. But I find it all so interesting. Once again, a case of preferring passive observation to active participation. For sanity’s sake, I’m going to assume all of this will lead to some sort of Nobel Prize someday. Then it’ll be worth it.

Funny how…

September 25, 2007

Funny how social comparison can lead to envy, which can then lead to speculation about how much you want something that you know ultimately won’t make you happier. If anything, it would bring more anxiety and frustration into your life.

But funny how you also can’t know if that reasoning is true or just a rationalization for past incompetence. And you can’t know whether or not you’re ‘strange’ for not wanting it or ‘weak’ for wanting it and making no attempts at getting it.

Funny how life works.

The Brain as Prism

September 24, 2007

Here’s that post I promised you from last week. About consciousness and the mind-brain dilemma.

First, it should be noted that what I’m doing here is purely speculation. I don’t have a degree in neuroscience [yet], and I certainly haven’t reached any sort of level of contemplative mastery [also yet]. Luckily that doesn’t mean I can’t look at a little info, toss it around in my head, and possibly come out with something interesting. So here it goes!

The study of consciousness in any sort of ‘scientific’ form really just got its legs during the end of this century. Coming from a physicalist perspective, Western science has tried to narrow down the possible origins of consciousness. Surely we’ve come a long way from the Egyptians who thought the brain was a giant waste of space and the heart is the seat of all intelligence [mmm, brain slurries!]. And yet Western science still has a ways to go towards explaining how subjective experience arises.

Let’s put it this way: it’s entirely possible that you could have a ‘zombie’ person that went about their day, doing all the things that a normal person might do, and yet that zerson would have no subjective experience of what’s going on. Another word for zerson is robot.

Yet, we all know that at the very least we all experience subjectivity, and we therefore assume that others too must experience it. If all this whirlwind of activity goes on in my head, and you seem to act in a similar manner to me, then you too must experience this subjectivity. Now, that’s a hypothesis. One that I don’t know if you can actually check. Kind of weird. But not the main point yet.

As Western science has become more and more powerful, with new technology and theory intertwining to provide a complex picture of the interaction between subjective experience and objective correlates in the brain, the general assumption upon which all consciousness studies rest is that the brain creates the subjective experience. That it’s a matter of direct causation, and that we just haven’t quite figured out how all the flashing of neurons can create the colorful experience we all know and love [and I mean the colorful part literally. It’s the old question about the color red: does it have any objective significance? Or is it just a subjective thing? Yes, there is a objective wavelength associated with red. But the redness is purely subjective, only attributable to beings with our specific eyes, brains, etc.]

The reason we make that ‘brain = mind’ jump is because when we see firing in the brain, the subject also reports [either through actions or words] a certain emotion, thought, or behavior. Simply, I think of a loved one, and a certain part of my brain lights up on an fMRI. But just because two things happen co-incidentally does not mean that one causes the other. It means that both are happening at the same time.

An alternate hypothesis, in the works for a very long time [about as long as people have been sitting in diapers on cushions, meditating] is that there is a unique part of the universe, separate from matter-energy, something we might call the substrate consciousness (SC). This SC pervades all things, much like vacuum energy can be found anywhere, even in ’empty’ space. [NOTE: please excuse my mixing of different topic areas as if I know what I’m talking about. I don’t, but this is what’s coming to me as I write.] This hypothesis then posits that the mind stems from this consciousness. And if this is true, then the brain must be thought of as a prism, not a flashlight. Western science claims that consciousness comes directly from the brain, as light from a flashlight. Eastern wisdom [and all contemplative practices in general] posit that consciousness is a given, and that the brain merely directs the substrate consciousness, bending and dividing it much like a prism.

Now, the brain makes a very complicated prism, as made clear by the abundance of subjective experiences made available to humans, not to mention other animals. Every brain filters a very unique personality, spawned from a unique combination of genes and life experiences. The brain then can be studied as a way to see how consciousness may differ from person to person, as Western science already does.

I suppose this is all just a matter of world play and metaphor. Do you want to see the brain as a filter or a generator? Living life for so long seeing the brain as a generator, I find it a pleasurable experience to see it as a filter. All the facts of science still hold, except for the Hard Question of where the subjective experience comes from.

And this change of metaphors creates a whole new outlook on all things related to life, also opening a whole avenue of possibilities previously made ‘impossible’ by the laws of physics. If there really is a fundamental aspect of reality not yet discovered by scientists, as Buddhist contemplatives would argue, then perhaps some of the oddities of human myth and legend could be rationally explained.

Take reincarnation, for example. The traditional view that every person has an individual soul that moves from body to body seems a little far out. But consider that the interaction between the brain and the mind changes the substrate consciousness in some way, just as a physical interaction with an electric would change the field strength. Then that change could, upon interaction with a similar brain, manifest itself in the recollections of past lives. In fact, one might suppose that all past lives [and by that, of course, we mean past memories of those lives] still exist in some form in the substrate the consciousness.

Of course, this also leaves open an explanation for psi phenomena: if everyone is just a filter, an antenna of sorts, for one pervading medium, then it wouldn’t be hard to imagine a message being sent through that medium, perhaps in a wave-like fashion [but that’s also a metaphor, because we don’t actually know what the medium, let alone the method of motion, is like], from receiver to receiver.

As I said earlier, all of this is extremely speculative. Well, at least in the manner I’m going about discussing it. But it really does open whole new branches of thoughts / possibilities, in addition to entirely novel ways of looking at existing phenomena and experiences.

Take this all with a grain of salt. A very interesting grain of salt that merits further scientific investigation and personal reflection.

PS – I hope at this point the meaning of the previous post becomes clear. Just as in a dream there is the substrate consciousness [the consciousness of the dreamer] manifesting through the persona in the dream as well as all the different individuals encountered in the dream, waking life could be thought of as the substrate consciousness [in this case, a pervading ‘something’ that has yet to be identified] manifesting through the persona [YOU] and as well as the different individuals encountered in the waking life [ME, and everyone else in the world]. Carrying this metaphor further, we can think of the subjective experience of everyone stemming from one universal ‘something,’ which we all the substrate consciousness, and only seeming to stem from many different sources because, just as in a non-lucid dream, we do realize the unity of it all. Yeah, I just thought that was pretty cool. And worth reiterating.

September 23, 2007

To clarify this point: other people and objects in my dream are not manifestations of my mind as one more character in the dream; rather, they, like myself in the dream, are manifestations of my substrate consciousness, while I am asleep outside the dream. The dreamed self’s mind still seems to be local, but in a lucid dream the dreamer is aware that his or her mind pervades all people, things, and events. So the lucid dreamer is, so to speak, localized as the dreamed persona, but nonlocalized in the knowledge of the self as being the dreamer. Another way of saying this is that as a dreamed persona, one engages in intersubjective relations with others in the dream, but with the recognition of oneself as the dreamer, one knows all these encounters to be intrasubjective. A lucid dreamer is aware of both these perspectives, and in the awareness that transcends the duality of self and others in the dream, enters into an “I-thou” relationship with the other, who is none other than the self.

– From Contemplative Science by B. Allan Wallace

Heady stuff, for sure. But, since I still haven’t written that post I promised, chew on this one for a bit: what if waking reality is just another layer of this onion? Not in the Matrix sense of ‘this is all a dream that I am making up,’ but rather, ‘this is all just a dream of a larger dreamer,’ where that dreamer is consciousness itself.

Philosophical and speculative? Sure. But you have to live a little!

And the greatest part: neuroscience hasn’t disproven this hypothesis yet! That’s why they call it the “Hard Problem” of Consciousness.

September 21, 2007

One fundamental difference between the scientific pursuit of objective truth and the Buddhist pursuit of spiritual awakening is that the former has relied principally on third-person modes of investigating external, physical phenomena, while the latter has relied principally on first-person modes of investigating internal, mental phenomena. If all mental phenomena are in fact merely epiphenomena, or emergent processes, of physical events that occurred very late in the evolution of the universe, then scientists, not Buddhists, would speak with the greatest authority about the nature of the mind. But modern science has yet to devise any means of objectively studying the origins, nature, or role of consciousness in nature, either at present or over the billions of years since the Big Bang. Since scientists have no way of objectively detecting the presence of consciousness in any sentient being now – even those we know firsthand to be conscious – they certainly cannot claim to know whether consciousness of any kind existed in the distant past. If, as Buddhists claim, consciousness is at least as fundamental to the universe as mass-energy and space-time, then it is plausible that the deep exploration of consciousness might reveal truths about the objective world as well as the subjective, even truths concerning the origins of the universe. This is a question to be explored empirically, with as few metaphysical biases as possible. The way forward in any fruitful collaboration between Buddhism and science is by letting go of subjective, ideological biases of any kinds, and uniting forces in the pursuit of empirical discoveries and open-minded, rational inquiry.

– From Contemplative Science by B. Allan Wallace

September 21, 2007

Buddhism is commonly categorized as a religion – a view that hides its empirical and rational elements – on the grounds that the vast majority of Buddhists relate to it as such. Its principles are accepted on authority, without concern for empirically or rationally corroborating them for oneself. But this is precisely how the vast majority of the lay public who believe in science accepts its discoveries and theories. Scientific assertions are accepted by most people on the basis of authority. The major difference between such followers of Buddhism and followers of science is their choice of authorities.

– From Contemplative Science by B. Allan Wallace

On the West and Eudaimonia

September 19, 2007

In short, the West presently has no pure science of consciousness that reveals the nature, origins, and potentials of this natural phenomena and it similarly lacks an applied science of consciousness that reveals means for refining and enhancing consciousness and thereby achieving eudaimonia. But this does not necessarily imply that all other human civilizations throughout history have been equally deficient.

– From Contemplative Science by B. Allan Wallace

So very true. The closest thing the West has to an applied science of consciousness is the hokey self-help field and the newly sprouting ‘positive’ psychology movement.

We can put a man on the moon, but we don’t know how to make someone thrive?

Though at times I think teaching the ‘good life’ smacks of totalitarianism. But that’s a post for another day.

Speaking of posts for another day, look for one about consciousness and the mind/brain dilemma.

This book is giving me so many good ideas!

Looks like a jumped the gun a bit on that whole splitting of sea water into hydrogen and oxygen.

I forgot about electric potentials. And that because the chloride ion has a more negative potential, it will split out first during electrolysis. Creating chlorine gas. Which we all know is bad.

I’ve been in organic chemistry way too long. ;) I need to get me some inorganic. Or physical. Or just about anything that doesn’t solely involve carbon, oxygen, hydrogen, and the occasional nitrogen with a halide!

Scientists of the world, please forgive my brashness. I must have been in a mood. IMS?