Tag Archive | "agnosticism"

We should try not to take ourselves too seriously

“The game is not about becoming somebody; it’s about becoming nobody.”

                                  — Ram Dass

Well, folks, this is where I restock my wagon with snake oil and hit the ol’ dusty trail. My time as your resident opinion guru and charlatan has come to an end, as this will be my final piece for The Voyager.

In my last piece, I discussed the concept of agnosticism as it applies to our observations of the universe.

In this piece, I would like to extend the discussion further and advocate applying that same agnostic point of view to our observations of ourselves or, more accurately, to the very concept of self.

In the same way that we can never assume our faculties of receiving and processing information will allow us to comprehend the totality of the mystery of the universe, we also cannot assume that our conception of self, as we think we understand it, allows us to comprehend the totality of the mystery of consciousness.

There are many things about the mystery of consciousness that are entirely elusive to understand.

The mystery of senses

Take something as seemingly simple as sensory input. Our material science has elucidated a great deal about the mechanics of the senses, but material science can say absolutely nothing about how consciousness perceives such phenomena within the mind itself.

For example, let’s examine the concept of sound or hearing for a moment.

Material science can explain the mechanics of acoustics: An oscillation of pressure produces vibrations that form a mechanical wave transmitting through a material medium such as a solid, liquid or gas, and if the wave falls within a certain range of frequencies, the eardrum and inner ear will detect and convert the vibrations into neurons via the cochlear nerve and the brain stem can recognize them as electrical signals.

But none of that has anything whatsoever to do with explaining the phenomena of hearing itself. Yes, material science explains the mechanical process of acoustics. But the phenomenon of actually hearing a sound is something that can only be experienced by the mystery of consciousness.

We can literally say nothing about the actual perception of sound. We can only experience it.

So, then what is sound? Ultimately, we have no friggin’ idea.

This goes for all the senses. We can explain the mechanical process, but we can say nothing at all about the phenomena of the perception itself. It can only be experienced by consciousness, as an event for the mind alone.

The mystery of self

The mystery of consciousness is so pervasive that we can’t even explain using words or scientific instruments what it entails to perceive sensory input. However, there is one aspect of consciousness we do know: As we each perceive the universe, we seem to organize the experience into subjective morsels that help solidify the idea of self-awareness.

It is difficult to define exactly what we mean by the concept of “self,” and we will perhaps be charting some murky and dangerous waters just trying to frame this conversation in a way that yields coherent results.

Sometimes, the word “ego” is used synonymously with the concept of self. “Ego” is simply Latin for “I.”

But for most people, our sense of self or ego comes from a series of associations we make from which we derive a strong sense of identity.

These associations usually consist of our past, our emotions and our thoughts. In fact, for most people, the most easily recognizable aspect of their ego is the interior monologue — the incessant thinking we do all day long.

We tend to think that the voice in our head is actually us, when the reality is that the voice in our heads is just a seemingly endless series of words that we as humans invented and has very little to do with the mystery of consciousness.

Form from the formless

This is another area where I feel Alfred Korzybski’s phrase “the map is not the territory” is relevant. Just as Korzybski suggested that language and theories are not the same things as the objects and ideas for which they symbolize, our ego or sense of self with which we identify is not the same thing as the mystery of consciousness.

We as humans have a tendency to over-conceptualize and try to create tangible things out of transient ideas. So, when we think of the concept of self, we unconsciously try to create an actual thing in our minds that we can reach out and touch and say to ourselves, “This is me. Here I am. My name is so-and-so, etc.”

It’s what I like to call “creating form out of the formless.”

It’s difficult to say why we do this. Perhaps it’s the by-product of language or some evolutionary bio-survival mechanism or a myriad of other possibilities.

But we tend to over-conceptualize the idea of self to the point where we identify wholly with some tangible box-like object that contains the idea of who we think we are.

We constantly try to place our life story, past troubles, emotional baggage and habitual thought patterns into this little box and keep writing our names on it and calling it our “self.”

The Russian mystic G. I. Gurdjieff once suggested that our egos ultimately can become prisons for the mind, writing, “What you took as yourself begins to look like a little prison-house far away in the valley beneath you.”

And Buddhism essentially teaches that there is no self or that the self is an illusion. This concept in Buddhism is called “anatta,” a Pali term meaning “no self.”

Dance of the Human Mystery

Ultimately, if you were to ask me who I am, my response would be, “I don’t know, and I don’t care.”

I have zero interest in such an idea because any metric I used for a definition would come up radically short. It would be like attempting to grasp a handful of sand — the grains just run through your fingers.

Buckminster Fuller once said, “I live on Earth at present, and I don’t know what I am. I know that I am not a category. I am not a thing — a noun. I seem to be a verb, an evolutionary process — an integral function of the universe.”

I think Bucky puts it pretty well. It seems to make better sense to think of human consciousness as being much more akin to verbs than nouns — as mysterious bundles of energy functions and processes flowing within time and space as integral aspects of the unfolding universe.

It’s what I like to call the Dance of the Human Mystery.

This is not to say that we do not each have wonderfully unique traits about ourselves, but these traits are just as beautiful and mysterious as consciousness itself. For example, there seems to be a reason that Mozart was able to start composing at age 6 — we just don’t know what that reason is.

We ultimately don’t know who we are, and there’s nothing wrong with that.

And while I might not know who I am, I do know this: Whatever I am, the concept of self is not something that should be taken too seriously.

We’re all dancing through this swirling, mysterious universe together like lotus flowers flowing downstream on a river of uncertainty.

We might not understand where we’re going or from whence we came, but along the journey, considering no one really knows who they are, let us try our level best to cultivate compassion, forgiveness and empathy without any sense of judgment for our fellow travelers — at least that’s what I’ll be telling the next townsfolk when I hitch my wagon and unload my cases of snake oil.

So, fare thee well, folks. The dusty trail beckons me forth.

W. Paul Smith
Opinions Editor 

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Human ability to receive and process information is limited

Well, folks, my time at The Voyager is rapidly coming to a close. I graduate in May, and then I’ll be steering my wagon into that great wide open — my final destination as yet unsure.

Since September of 2010, I’ve often played the role here of resident opinion guru and know-it-all, opining on matters whether political or societal and offering my analysis and solutions. But the truth is I’ve never been totally comfortable with the rigidity of this role.

So, since this will be my next-to-last piece ever for this rag, I figured it was time to offer a death-bed confessional of sorts and atone for my past polemic sins.

As an opinion writer, it has been my role to play the arbiter of knowledge and justice, to render issues as worthy or unworthy using only the might of my alleged intellectual prowess.

And though I tried my best to perform my duties in this role as fairly and rationally as possible, there have no doubt been times when I felt a bit like a charlatan peddling snake oil from the back of my wagon for two bits a jar.

H. L. Mencken once said, “All men are frauds. The only difference between them is that some admit it… I myself deny it.”

The Sage of Baltimore may have been crafting a meta-joke with this statement, but I think there’s some truth to it. In some sense, I am a fraud, and I don’t mind admitting it.

The reality is that my actual perspective on life is informed much more by what I don’t know rather than what I do. I consider myself an agnostic about most things, not just religion, but also science, politics, philosophy and pretty much the entire breadth of human knowledge.

So, I would like to take a moment to step out of my opinion-guru role and explain why I am actually an agnostic. Because when it comes to the big, pertinent mysteries of life on this blue rock, I prefer to dwell comfortably in the gray area.

Limited ability to perceive 

Ultimately, we as human beings can never escape our limited ability to receive and process information and the limited ability we have to communicate such information.

What we can ascertain about the workings of the universe is directly circumscribed by the faculties we possess in order to observe the universe, and by faculties I mean the capacity for sensory input, functions of the nervous system and the brain and their relationship with the phenomena of the mind.

There’s an analogy I like to use to convey this point, and it is has to do with dogs. Now, our science suggests that dogs, along with many other animals, cannot see the entire range of colors, basically what we as human beings call the visible light portion of the electromagnetic spectrum.

In other words, their eyes cannot see all of the colors that our eyes can see. They have what’s called dichromatic sight and only see in shades of red and gray because the biological makeup of their eyes contains more rods than cones. But the point is that they cannot see the full color spectrum as we as humans understand it.

So, in the same way that we know a dog cannot see all of the colors available in the universe, there is absolutely no reason to think we as human beings possess the faculties necessary to receive all of the information available in the universe.

We can only know as much about the universe as is available to us based on our ability to perceive the universe. We don’t know how much, if anything, there is that we cannot perceive.

We can only know as much as our faculties of receiving information will extend. There is no reason to think the faculties we as human beings possess are all encompassing in the scope of the universe. There is no reason to think we are capable of comprehending the totality of the existence.

There could be an endless amount of information available in the universe that we simply are not able to receive, much less comprehend.

In philosophy, the idea that our senses or faculties that perceive information can provide us with a direct accurate representation of the universe is called naive realism. And naive realism has been rejected by nearly every philosopher and school of knowledge in recorded history (except maybe Ayn Rand).

Everyone from Plato to Buddha, Descartes to John Locke and David Hume to George Berkeley suggested in one way or another that we can never know what an object is but that we can only know how an object is perceived by the mind.

Well, let’s extend that idea to the entire universe. We can never know what the universe is; we can only know how the universe is perceived by our minds.

The map is not the territory

And when it comes to communicating our perceptions through language and theories, the Polish scientist and philosopher Alfred Korzybski coined the relevant phrase: “The map is not the territory.”

On the most basic level, the idea is very simple. Let’s say you have a map of Florida. You do not have Florida itself; rather, you have a metaphorical representation of Florida. It would be impossible to ever make a complete, all-encompassing map of Florida.

On the surface, this is supposed to be an analogy for language: the word is not the actual thing it represents. But, at the macrocosmic level, the analogy speaks to something much more substantive.

What it also speaks to is the process by which we as human beings develop our theories and ideas concerning the workings of the universe.

It is a reminder that we can never escape our limited ability to receive and process information, and that as we organize this information into theories and ideas through language, the information is inherently biased.

It is the product of the human condition. All of the ideas and knowledge we accumulate, whether it be through science, psychology, philosophy or religion, are simply the maps we make to chart the human experience.

They are maps of our experiences as seen by our eyes. And they are just that, maps — or models. They are metaphorical representations of the universe that we have created based on our limited ability to perceive the universe.

I think Robert Anton Wilson perhaps said it best of all when he wrote, “Any grid we use to organize our experience of the world is a model of the world and should not be confused with the world itself.”

I think that sums it up beautifully: The models we make of the universe should never be confused with the actual universe itself.

Studying ourselves 

And it’s not just the philosophers that have rejected naïve realism; modern scientists reject the notion as well. One need only look to the field of quantum theory to discover this.

From the quantum entanglement of the EPR paradox to the uncertainty principle of Heisenberg to the measurement problem of Schrodinger, if we examine the phenomena of matter and energy enough, we ultimately discover that we are looking just as much at the inside of the human mind as we are the inside of the atom.

Because, if you really think about it, when we as human beings study something, no matter what the field of knowledge, at the end of the day, we are learning just as much about ourselves as we are the subject of our studies. We are learning how we process and receive information.

So perhaps Mencken was right. We are all frauds; the only difference is that some deny it… but I myself gladly admit it. We are all agnostic charlatans whether we realize it not.

But maybe this is just the ramblings of your resident opinion guru, and, as always, I very well could be wrong.

I will further explore a similar topic next week in my final piece for The Voyager.

W. Paul Smith
Opinions Editor 

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