Thursday, July 12, 2012

What's more Real??

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We are getting so "life, the universe and everything" here, of late - that some wiseguy is SURE to make the comment "42".  But if you don't mind adding a little chaos to your mental mix, come along for the ride!  There are sure to be more questions than answers, but I've fallen victim to an addictive fascination, so here we go again!!

I've been marvelling at the infinite nature of human consciousness (here and here, if you missed it), and the fact that our own "internal worlds" are immeasurably vast, and able to both represent and transcend the physical universe, in so many ways.  The physical universe and our own biology certainly do place limits on us, and far more than I think we like to believe.  There are many ways in which our behaviour and thinking can be seen as very much "biologically determined".  I get that.  And I know we are adept at inventing fictitious (or at least, semi-fictitious) explanations for our own motivations and actions, fooling even ourselves - so this really is a complex puzzle to tease apart.  

However, as much as I pull and poke at my understanding of ourselves and our universe - I continue to see something infinitely larger than the sum of our atoms.

I'm having trouble pulling my thoughts together coherently on all this (a sure sign that I'm in over my head!), but here are the bits that make sense to me...

It seems to me, that even the most "basic" human being (if there even is such a thing!) Lives in a world coloured by ideas; imagination, fantasy, ideals, hopes, aspirations, world-view...  the list goes on.  Add to this the fact that even the "physical" realities of our world are experienced within our own consciousness - a kind of virtual representation, if you will - and our "internal worlds" contain all that we will ever experience.  

In addition to the fact that all we are and know is contained within this nebulous construct we call "consciousness"; our internal worlds fly so far beyond the physical and biological, that I can only describe thinking about it as a "glimpse of eternity".  Relationships, surely an aspect of our internal worlds that have very demonstrable links to our biology, are chosen and maintained according to social and ideological criteria.  An exhilarating romance, for example, seems fuelled by fantasy, shared ideals and dreams and social game-playing, just as much as it is by basic biological instinct.  In fact, romantic relationships based "purely"(!!) on sex, don't tend to last.  

Now think about things such as philosophy, religion, literature and technology.  Much as we are undeniably "biological" creatures, I don't believe our biology can account for all of this.  Our intellectual worlds are incredibly complex and far-reaching, and much as some might say that our internal worlds are simply a powerful illusion, I would argue that this "illusion" is what drives our behaviour, our relationships, and our societies.  Yes, basic greed, "territorial instincts", and other "animal instincts" colour our world in ways that mar our ideals and interfere with any "transcendent reality" we may aspire to.  Yet the fact that we even have ideals, values and morals, speaks to me of something more than the physical.   We look at the destruction caused by our unchecked impulses and seek answers.  Even if what you define as "something more" is simply consciousness and intellect; it cannot be dismissed as illusory, when it has so much influence over behaviour, relationships and society as a whole.  In fact, every major social change, every life-altering decision, probably started, not with a biological drive, but with an idea.

As we learn more about the science of how our minds and bodies work, understanding more of the biological platform out of which our conscious minds seem to arise, I don't think the mystery is lessened.  Perhaps it is good to also remember that what we think of as "solid matter" really is not solid at all - and in light of this - if even our physical bodies are comprised of nothing but orbiting energy - what IS more real??


  1. I think i better be careful with what I say, because you have also been careful, to preface the importance of biology, chemistry, physics.

    You mentioned "philosophy, religion, literature and technology" and you also stated "I don't believe our biology can account for all of this"

    Why can't it?

    Biology is an extremely subtle and complex science, which relies on the complicated processes and interactions of chemistry and physics. We certainly do not know enough about biology. Further, I have read, convincing evolutionary explanations in regard to literature being a type of display behaviour, much like a Peacocks Feathers. And how many Peacock Pastors have you met, regarding a discussion of religion?

    Apart from that, religion and philosophy contains some of our deeper, reflective and most profound thoughts. Does that mean, however, that the brain tissue used to help develop those thoughts, was not instrumental in the thoughts?

    The point is, that has been demonstrated over and over, is that if you remove or damage parts of the brain, people cannot write or even speak, or even hold a pen or use a keyboard. You cannot write, about philosophy or literature, in that situation, let alone write your name.

    When you argue, that there is more than biology helping to create, philosophy, literature and religion, you argue that there is more than what is natural. Biology, is the study of nature, of living things. To argue that there is more than Nature, is to take a SuperNatural position.

    I no longer think, that a Supernatural position, has any validity, because there is no evidence, whatsoever, that anything lies beyond or above, or to the side of what is natural. Nature, is physical and chemical, but not JUST physical and chemical, but wondrously, physical/chemical.

    You may disagree, as is your right. Pushback welcome, says Stu the Soggy.

  2. How many roads must a man walk down? What is six times seven? 42!

    (I just had to be that guy!)

    Anyway, I just wanted to let you know that I've been thoroughly enjoying these last few posts, and I'm chewing on them rather a lot. I'll have something deeper to say about them in another day or two.

    Thanks for being you, Kerry.

    You is kind of awesome. :)

  3. Recently during a technical training session, my small group was tasked to learn, and then present and explain, a very complex procedure to the large group. My suggestion was to do so using interpretive dance. It was so absurd that many people couldn't stop laughing and the trainer thought it best chastise us for the good time we were having and 'drill down' and find the 'core message' so that we could 'move forward' by having a 'conversation' with others. Although there was a momentary suspension of laughing to listen to the trainer's admonishment, it achieved exactly the opposite result. The hilarity spread.

    People who experience brain bleeds in specific areas of the brain lose any ability to differentiate the body from its environment. The use of certain illegal drugs achieve the same effect, as does successful meditations and religious prayer. This shows that our brains create meaning based not just on its function but also from interpreting various kinds of input... including sophisticated conceptual notions of relationships. Quantity isn't a thing nor is any standard used to measure these differences 'objective'; we grasp that amounts of stuff can be symbolically represented and then shown to others through a comparative means we call 'quantity'. This is sophisticated biology at work, which is why all of know that 4 as a unit of comparative quantity that means the same as four means the same as quatre means the same as ЧЕТЫРЕ (in Russian, pronounced by saying chih-TEE-reh). The symbols aren't important; the comparative difference as fewer than 5 and greater than 3 is. No matter how sophisticated the biology may be to generate recognition patterns and stable comparisons, at the end of the day it must translate into being reflective yet workable in reality.

    The mistake many people assume is that this conscious process we call 'mind' is somehow separate from both our brains and the environment in which they operate - reality. Our brains use a variety of symbols to which we assign meaning and when the symbols are inappropriate to reflect the meaning we are trying to convey from a common reality, we run through an imaginative projection to see why it doesn't work. We paint images of possibilities and test them on ourselves to see if we would be subject to the same inappropriateness. Some people do this better than others and we assign to these folks a 'sense of humour'. But again, all this does is examine how the biology works. Nothing more is needed for us to create worlds in our minds than - as Stuart so rightly points out (I've been enjoying all your comments, Stu) - the operation of physics and chemistry expressed biologically. And it's marvelous in its complexities and products.

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  5. (whoops - messed up my html link: take two!!)

    Hey, guys!

    I'm responding slowly, partly because life's been pretty busy, but also because I need to think through it - it's a topic that's well and truly "doing my head in" (in a good way, I hope).

    Stu and Tildeb - I think the thing I am boggling on about in this series is not that consciousness is so big that it must be "separate" from biology. Just that what appears to arise out of "mere" biology IS so big! I don't think spirituality necessarily has to be something outside of this - perhaps it is - yet I suspect reality is a whole lot more connected than that.

    These are such huge concepts, that I find I have to break them down, and focus on one aspect at a time in order to make any sense at all... at the moment, I think my focus is just on the fact that our worlds of "thoughts, ideas, values, culture, desires, motivations ... etc!" seem to be just as real and powerful (perhaps, arguably more so - than what we deem as "physical".

    The implications of this, I have not really nutted out... I think Philip Clayton's ideas on Systems Biology, and the implications of this for faith, are an important contribution here... shall mull over it some more, and perhaps that will make up my next post...

    ETHAN!!! Don't you know that the QUESTION is "What do you get if you multiply six by nine?"

    Looking forward to hearing your thoughts - it's always worth the wait... so glad you're part of the conversation!!


  6. Hello Kerry, thanks for the video link.

    I am NOT Professor Dawkin's No.1 fan. Nor am I enamoured of Neo-Darwinism or Social-Darwinism.

    While much of what Dawkin's has said, is important and truthful, I think the virulent hatred of anything religious that he has helped generate, is unhelpful and counter productive to civilised debate, to say the least.

    My main objections to Dawkins and his most ardent followers:

    1 Not all Christians are the same
    2 Not all Christians are Roman Catholic or Anglican
    3 Not all religions, are Christian
    4 If a person is inspired, and gains meaning for life from a deity like Jesus, or a prophet like Muhammad that's fine with me, as long as they don't expect everyone else to conform to their God's laws.
    5 Churches, or similar kinds of religious social interest groups, do a lot of good in the community, with charity, friendships, a sense of belonging
    6 I have seen people turn their lives around, for the better, with a simple faith in their God.
    7 By viciously attacking, those Christians and other religious, who are trying to engage, discuss, who are generally tolerant and thinking beings, you alienate a key set of allies on the path to reason.

    Generally speaking, hurling insults is a poor teaching method, that both sides engage in.

    My biology professor, called himself a "spiritual" man. He was a rigorous Darwinian, but also a founding, passionate member of the Australian Koala Foundation. If genes, in the way in which they are a foundation for behavior were entirely selfish, caring about Koalas really would make no sense.

    Neo-Darwinian thinking, Social Darwinian thinking, falls down on the fact, that humans aren't entirely selfish, and we live in a complex social structure. My professor, was an Ecologist, where phenomena like mutualism between species, is constantly, accurately and rigorously described.

    1. Stu, you make a lot of accusations here and use words that are themselves doing exactly what you accuse Dawkins and his 'ardent followers' of doing, hurling insults.

      Dawkins lays out his arguments against why believing in gods is equivalent to delusion. The case stands on its own merit, whether you consider it 'viscous' or not. He primarily uses the christianity of his upbringing as his template (which he explains very clearly upfront but which equivalently applies to any belief in the supernatural), whereas Harris is evenly split between comparing and contrasting christianity of the West and islam. These criticisms are accurate although those who believe in making allowances in methodology for faith to have a say in our lives are understandably uncomfortable having their very notion of belief so criticized, targeted by big brained people as a poison, a parasitic meme, a delusion, a danger to the health and welfare of humanity.

      Look how far you take your misunderstanding of what Dawkins means by the 'selfish' gene. Although I easily understand why anyone would question such an assertion you think Dawkins makes, it also falls to you to remember that these folk are widely recognized for their intelligence and knowledge and abilities to communicate; going by what other people say about them in such a negative and demeaning way should alert you that all may not be as it seems. Take a peak at the thousands of people who have written about their fall from religious belief at at Converts Corner before supporting the trope that such criticism 'alienates' the allies of reason. Quite the opposite seems to be the case, that the Horsemen have helped bring that much closer the tipping point of our young away from magical thinking and belief in the supernatural that so many people assume is a necessary pacifier of comfort. In comparison, Dawkins et al think we should grant our primary respect to what reality shows us is true about it and stop respecting those who prefer to believe and teach and respect such gems as Stork Theory because to do or say otherwise threatens the 'allies' of those not quite ready to support the distribution of knowledge about human reproduction. As far as I can tell, coddling those who would impose their religious beliefs into the public domain has never been a very effective strategy in countering it. Confronting the Emperor of religious belief for his nakedness in what's actually true (and how we can find what that is) is a pretty good way to expose religious belief for what it is: making shit up.

    2. Where, in that last post of mine, was the insult hurling? Virulent hatred of anything religious, is a demonstrable fact, of the Dawkinite neo-darwinians. One would only have to do a few days work and come up with a 1000 pages of collected internet postings of neo-darwinian gnu atheists, and measure the intensity of the hate language qualitatively.

      You must know by now, Tildeb, I'm no friend of the Church. The best I can say about Dawkins, is that he forced people to argue and debate, and this kind of polemic is helpful, it clears the air. I cannot retract anything from what I said above, because, as far as I can see, it is all true.

      A thought about ecology though, if an ecology is greater than the sum of its parts, why do ecologists insist on counting everything? Of course it would be an approximation... but ecologists love biomass.

      Also i have read substantial amounts off the Selfish Genes. Perhaps it is the use of an unscientific word, such as selfish, which is emotionally loaded, which puts me off. It is not "selfish" to replicate. As for mutualism, this is only a part of the Symbiotic phenomena in nature, which also includes parasitism and commensalism.

      I've always been crap at spelling "vicious".

      Social Darwinism, in particular has an appallingly bad record, in that it was the intellectual basis, behind Eugenics.

      Points 1 to 7 of my argument above remain valid. Though you are right, that a lot of "shit" was made up, not all of the "made up shit" is totally and unequivocally wrong.

      There are some truths, to be found in ancient thought, even if it is just about human behavior and thinking. In this sense, i am just as likely to read, Hermes Trismajestos, as the Bible, and find them equally valid.

  7. Hey, Stu!
    Looking at the video, I can see why you might interpret my posting it as a way of refuting neo-Darwinism or whatever (since that is where it starts) and I suppose he does do that, in a way that makes sense - but that wasn't what struck me about his explanation.

    I was more taken by his description of a biological system that is not simply "bottom up" and where the whole is most definitely greater than the sum of the parts! It makes a lot more sense to me - and it is a view of biology that doesn't conflict with my own instinct that we are not "simply" biologically driven; where thoughts and feelings, and even culture and ideology are recognised as having an impact on biology, as well as the other way around. Is "God" or "Spirituality" a necessary factor in explaining the model? Not at all. Yet neither are they "ruled out". The question remains open. All sorts of questions occur to me at this point - but I'll save them for further ruminations!

    I really appreciate your contributions to the conversation, Stu - if nobody "pushes back" then I tend not to clarify what I'm thinking and trying to say... and I'm actually trying to challenge my own belief system, as much as anyone else's. I figure if there's "truth" to be found, it will be robust enough to withstand any kind of tough questioning you throw at it!!

  8. well, what he says is true, and there is a general agreement within ecology, that "the whole is greater than the sum of the parts" and while this makes sense in the fact, if you need to discect something, you have to kill it. Or that there is a greater whole, to be considered, rather than trying to reduce everything to components.

    Life is quite precious, and wondrous. This wonder and sense of preciousness, is reflected in ecology, which itself, is grounded on Darwinian evolution.

  9. Part 1:

    This reference to systems biology shows why we don't go to a theologian like Clayton to learn about biology; he falls into the typical trap of believing that emergent properties cause the emergence, which is exactly backwards. It's like the sociologist who believes the emergent property of social complexity is caused by society, which is why sociologists who achieve a doctorate have usually done absolutely nothing but come up with some new term; hard science is about establishing cause with effect by some understandable and predictive mechanism, whereas these folk think themselves equivalent by thinking up a new word students must now learn. Beyond hard science we have the soft sciences of correlation and beyond that the made up imaginings of metaphysics.

    Once again we see Dawkins misrepresented; his notion of the selfish gene has to do with the mechanism by which genes drive changes in biology without care or concern for intentions, purposes, or meaning. And modern biology is called the Synthesis... of Darwinism (common ancestry and change over time by natural selection) with genetics (also known as neo-Darwinism). The two independent lines of inquiry are mutually supportive across the biological spectrum. This is an improvement of the Theory of Evolution and not some radical or conspiratorial shift Clayton implies.

    The problem with systems biology is that it fails to link system wide complexity (these emergent properties assigned to be evidence for group selection (quite different from kin selection, it must be mentioned)) with any mechanism to drive changes in allele frequencies (or genetic shifts in populations that reveal evolutionary change over time). That's why it is widely rejected in biology: it is not suitable for hypothesizing, testability, making predictions, testing, and so on because it assumes the link between effect of complexity is caused by some untestable mechanism belonging to 'the group' (but the 'group' is already arbitrarily defined as possessing this complexity). Notice how effortlessly, for a shining example, Clayton assigns his example of the lactose enzyme in some human populations to be 'caused' by that population on their genes! This is absolutely the kind of typical bunk that comes from the more scientifically intrigued sociologists among us. It may even be true, but systems biology allows us no way to find out anything more than statistical correlations (to keep the criticism simple). But it's not good science to make such bold statements as if true and its conclusions are not helpful (in spite of sounding good) because they cannot be shown to be causally accurate. And that's why those interested in systems biology are told to shift their efforts into genomics, which does have the ability to be good science if done correctly.

    1. Part 2:

      Phillip Clayton's wishful imaginings do not provide ANY contribution to science but present another slippery way to insert theology under its door and fool people into thinking it has some scientific merit when it does not. "(T)houghts, ideas, values, culture, desires, motivations," are various human expressions that appear to be emergent properties separated from the biology that produces them but they are not; they are fully and wholly dependent on how genes express themselves. I urge people to read Dawkins' book The Selfish Gene to find out for themselves how this wonderful process actually works to cause the effects we see as 'wholes greater than their parts.'

      But lest I be misunderstood, be assured that the Synthesis is the very finest science we as a species have ever produced, one that has met all tests, all challenges, and has successfully aligned all the evidence from reality with an explanation that works for everyone everywhere all the time.

      Understandably, the religious are terribly jealous of this method of inquiry called science and try to hitch their epistemological junk pile of metaphysical musings - so often wrong - to whatever bits of progressive science that seem to support their widely different and contrary claims about the reality we share... theological claims that have always and always shall produce not one bit of knowledge. To be clear, religion and science have been, are, and always will be confrontational adversaries in how we inquire into the workings of reality and on what evidence it provides to support or challenge our conclusions. Whenever people attempt to suggest that these fatal differences are simply differences of 'perspectives' and 'worldviews', methods that are actually kin, friends, or even agree-to-disagree but mutually compatible methods of inquiry, (and BTW, don't listen to that shrill and militant atheist Dawkins who is pulling back the curtain to show the human workings of religious belief... just ignore him) remember that they cannot be because their methods are diametrically opposed: science allows reality to arbitrate what is true about; religious belief arbitrates what shall and shall not be considered true about reality. So the assertion that religion and science are compatible methods that sometimes reach different but equivalent-in-knowledge-value conclusions is simply not true.

    2. I have read the "Selfish Gene" well, a large proportion. It is not "Selfish" to replicate. Selfishness, carries with it, emotional baggage. And yes Dawkins is shrill, grating, and hasn't the capacity to laugh at himself, even though, what he says, is usually true. But notably, NOT ALWAYS.

  10. Hey, Mr. T

    The insertion of Mr Clayton into the discussion certainly seems to have provoked some strong reactions!!

    I'm not qualified to answer a lot of your assertions, and in any case, have no wish to go at it "hammer and tongs" but here are my thoughts, for what they are worth.

    You state that Clayton "falls into the typical trap of believing that emergent properties cause the emergence, which is exactly backwards". I re-watched the clip again, just to see if I'd missed something - but I don't hear him saying that at all! What I do hear him saying, is that in a dynamic system, causation is not simply "bottom up". Properties that no doubt "emerged" from a biological base are able to then interact with and influence that base. In addition to this, these "emergent" properties, arose out of interaction between a biological organism and its environment, which includes both physical and perhaps social/cultural factors - so causation cannot be seen as entirely "gene based". As far as I understand, Clayton is a believer in Darwinian evolution - so this is certainly not a "Creation/evolution" debate!

    From my understanding, Clayton is not talking about the "shift" in biology from Darwinism to Neo-Darwinism, or even disagreeing with either, as such. He is talking about a shift from a reductionist model of biological systems, to something more wholistic. It seems to me that in any living system, things are far from "linear", so although I am neither a biologist nor any kind of scientist (apart from having a curious mind), it seems to me, to be a more realistic approach.

    Is Clayton asserting that religion and science are compatible methods of inquiry?? I think not. The only "natural partnership" he mentions, is that between human beliefs and practices and their biology - again, the environment and emergent properties interacting with one another. How could they not?? It's a fairly "value free" statement - I think he's talking about any kinds of beliefs and practices that society and/or individuals hold, irregardless of their veracity.

    Personally (and I'm not speaking for Clayton here - just myself) I think that taking a "systems approach" in this way does not solve the age old "chicken and egg" conundrum. There is no evidence for "external" or "spiritual" causation, and actually, I don't think Clayton is claiming this either. However it does (as he says in the clip) "leave room" for such. It doesn't mean people like myself who believe there could be such a thing, are correct. All it does, is leave the question open.

    Anyway, after all that, this has been a little lesson for me in "internet communication". I didn't post the clip with a Dawkins vs. the Church style debate in mind (and honestly, I know little about Dawkins anyway). The idea of dynamic systems makes sense to me, however - and hopefully you can see why it is a factor in my thinking about the whole being greater than the parts - as it provides a satisfying model to help explain this (whether or not you see "spirituality" as something separate).

  11. Ooops - think I just made up a new word!! I think I meant "irrespective" - or perhaps "regardless" - anyway, take your pick!!


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