Tag Archives: consciousness

‘The Brain with David Eagleman’

I’ve really been enjoying the PBS series “The Brain with David Eagleman” (here at Eagleman’s website, and here at PBS) over the last three episodes, and apparently there are a total of 6 episodes. What I’ve been seeing has prompted me to do more of my own thinking about reality, consciousness, etc.

I’m not sure how long the whole episodes will be available online, but here’s the link for the first one:

http://video.pbs.org/video/2365580655/

The second episode:

http://video.pbs.org/video/2365587672/

The third episode:

http://video.pbs.org/video/2365564819/

More episodes here.

Links: Failure, denial, ghosts

1. “Welcome to the Failure Age” by Adam Davidson at NYTimes.

2. Denialists (those who practice “the willful disregard of factual evidence by ideologically motivated groups or individuals”) use the rhetoric of logic.

3. Research in consciousness: “The Brain Makes Its Own Ghosts

Past-tense, present-tense names

For the verb draw, my dictionary lists the past tense form as drew.

So then, people named Drew, like my neighbor’s son, have a past-tense name. I wonder if having a past-tense name influences how he experiences time — maybe he only senses things that have already happened. Well, I guess we all kinda do that. (For more, see here.)

Maybe if he’d been named Draw instead, he’d be experiencing the world in present-tense? Or if he had a name like Margot, which is presumably the present tense of Mar-went?

Links: Teacher movies, teaching philosophy, etc.

1. This post about teacher movies makes a valuable point about education and how we talk about it in general terms but this makes little rhetorical sense, since education (maybe more than almost any broad aspect of our lives) is irreducibly a matter of what particular individuals learn, how individuals come to understand the world of ideas and facts but only through the framework of their own perspectives:

It would be a huge step forward if we could conceive of the people in our education system—students, teachers, families, administrators—as human rather than cartoonish media representations or, perhaps worse, mere data points. Policies not only have human consequences but they are also implemented by humans—invariably flawed, often self-seeking, sometimes incompetent humans.   It’s humans all the way down.  The language we use should reflect this and not carelessly cede ground to abstractions like “African-American males” or “the lowest-third percentile” or even “teachers unions.”  This is an acknowledgment that idealized categories, run amok, can in fact short-circuit the hard work of ensuring each individual student, in their individual family context, neighborhood, and cultural background, receives a high-quality education.

And the fact that while education is a system, learning is a particular, even private, matter, is the reason that any new educational system that attempts to treat students as indistinguishable, like Common Core (in which “common” is used to mean that every student learns the same things, in the same ways), is doomed to irrelevance.

2. Isaac Asimov’s 1964 predictions for the year 2014.

3. New Year’s traditions as religious/magical.

4. A compelling text by Ta-Nehisi Coates: “The Myth of Western Civilization.”

5. Dan Savage’s review of Sarah Palin’s Christmas book. (Via The Dish).

6. Jason Silva and awe.

7. The Scottish tradition of Hogmanay.

8. Miguel de Unamuno on consciousness.

9. An article suggesting reading on tablets is different from reading on paper, vis-a-vis getting engaged in narrative.

10. The New York Times editorializes about Finnish education. Interesting link here to Finland’s curriculum, including philosophy education:

5.13 PHILOSOPHY
Philosophical thinking deals with reality as a whole, its diverse perception and human activity in it. The special nature of philosophy lies in its way of structuring problems conceptually, rationally and through discussion. Upper secondary school studies in philosophy will support students’ individual development and promote the general learning and thinking skills that they will need in a changing and complex society. The theoretical themes studied in philosophy are necessary to form an understanding of cultural heritage and contemporary culture.
The practical significance of philosophy is based on the fact that students will learn to structure questions about values, norms and meanings in conceptual terms. Studies in philosophy will help them to perceive the significance that different types of skills and knowledge hold for individuals and society. To counterbalance the specialised skills and knowledge, studies in philosophy will also teach students to grasp broader conceptual systems and relationships. It will help them to see the ways in which the conceptions of reality, values and norms held in different branches of science and schools of thought may form consistent systems or contradict each other. Philosophy will develop judgement.
Philosophy instruction will promote development of creative and independent thinking. Philosophy will provide students with plenty of scope to form their own personal views. As they delve deeper into basic philosophical questions — to which there are no simple solutions — they will learn to formulate and justify their own views and, at the same time, to respect other reasoned views. Group deliberations on complicated questions will develop students’ ability
to trust their own individual opportunities to resolve even the most difficult problems. Studies in philosophy will support students’ growth into active, responsible and tolerant citizens.

Not nihilism, but creative possibility

After I write a post like the previous one, in which I argue that there are limits on our knowledge, or that there are many things that can’t be known, I feel like I may be taking a nihilistic position that denies the possibility of solid knowledge. This feels like a negating-other-ideas position that can’t really make positive, content-ful statements or ideas.

But I don’t really see it that way. By pointing out limitations on what we know and can know, how much more one experiences one’s own subjectivity, one’s consciousness, rather than the experiencing any objective reality, I feel like I’m opening mental space for new possibilities. I’m making the case that we don’t have to think in the ways we’ve thought before, the ways we’ve learned to think.

And further, by pointing out that we may want to be skeptical of all stories, all ideas (as I said before, we may want to look at every narrator (and every person) as an unreliable narrator), I’m also hopefully pointing out that there is a world of experience beyond that which can be symbolized and abstracted, beyond any medium (whether that medium is a video screen or just the abstractions of words). I remind myself to let go of all ideas, to just lie down and let go of all ideas (as much as possible).

There’s no name for what exists beyond thinking (we could call it “external reality,” or “the world,” or whatever, but using these labels bring us back to ideas). But we don’t have to think all the time.

(Maybe that’s not a problem for everybody, but it’s something I try to remind myself. Perhaps in this I’m like the philosophers discussed here who think as a way to cope with a world they don’t find easy to live in.)

So it’s kinda funny that I do as much thinking (abstracting) as I do, in these blog posts and elsewhere, especially since I’ve said that the ideas I come up with may not be all that real or valuable. And yet, this is what I do.

The Iliad, consciousness, reality: How I get tired this evening

I’m tired tonight, so I’m not sure how coherent this post will be, but I’ve been waiting for a chance to post some things, so here goes:

I’m reading selections from Homer’s Iliad (in a recent translation, though the translator’s name escapes me just now) and as we’re reading, I’m finding lots of weird and wonderful things that I point out to my students, and things I’d also love to talk to other adults about. For instance, there are moments in this serious work about war and grief that seem to me to be just plain funny, as when Hector says he will fight Achilles and kill him, or he will die an honorable death — and then when they meet, Hector turns and runs around the city of Troy, three whole laps.

It occurs to me that discussing artworks is one of the few things in life where many people can share the same experience and then discuss it. We can all read or watch the same book or movie, and then compare our experiences of reading or viewing. In much the rest of our lives, we have experiences separately (for example, even if two friends are each parents, they are parenting distinct children, in different houses, etc.), and while we can discuss our separate experiences, we cannot directly compare our experiences, the way we can when we experience artworks.

I experience subjectively — that is, even if you are standing next to me, you do not know what I experience. At best, I can communicate through words what I experience, but of course, that’s not direct experience. You can get my symbolic interpretation/representation of my experience, but you do not see through my eyes, or sense my mind.

So, when we experience, we are sensing (seeing, touching, etc.) and we are processing/interpreting what we sense. Much of what we experience, we forget. We may remember certain sights and smells, etc., but what links those senses to meaning is the stories we form from our experiences. For me, at least, much of what I know about my past is in the form of stories — that is, abstracted experiences, ideas of connected interpretations that often describe not the experience that was had but the world itself. These stories tend to compress time and ignore the moment-by-moment nature of our lived experience.

These stories may help us to structure and remember our experiences, but these stories may also be complete bullshit. Our memories are often faulty, but even if they are not, our stories edit out moments from continuous time. It’s so easy to look back at our own lives and think that all we were thinking about was the experience at hand — but I don’t seem to experience my waking moments that way; I’m often doing one thing now but also aware of what I should do, or would like to do, next.

I realize it’s sorta futile to discuss, in words and ideas, the limitations of words and ideas, and how words and ideas are always at best a kind of (what physical metaphor to use here?) layer, a kind of overlay, on top of physical reality.

Another of my classes is discussing the definition of “real,” and so far we have “something that exists or is proven to exist” and so far we’ve spend many minutes discussing what a “thing” is and what we’ve come up with is that a thing is a boundary we imagine around a piece of matter so that we can talk about the physical realm one piece at a time. We notice that a certain piece of matter, a fork, can be separated from another, a table. To simply be able to see pieces of matter as separate is an abstraction — and of course even words like “matter” and “physical realm” are abstractions.

No words exist outside human consciousness (or so it seems — it’s quite a generalization to make there). Or, perhaps some animals — like apes who use sign-language — can think symbolically. But the point remains — a fork can never declare itself to be a fork.

But to see how arbitrary the label of fork is, is also to see how hard it is to keep talking about the physical realm without the help of differentiating labels. We revert to “object” and “thing” and “this thing” and “that thing.”

So maybe we can’t escape words, but we can, through the ongoing process of thinking, become aware how loosely our ideas about the world are connected to the world itself (even such a loose term as “the world” starts to feel like bullshit and the word wilts, somehow — “wilting” is a pretty good metaphor).

And I asked my students how we can talk about things we don’t have labels for, and they suggested we talk about relative terms, and that we make comparisons — a platypus has a beak like a duck’s, but a body like a beaver’s, for example. So our ideas connect one to another, from these we can build whole systems of ideas, and yet, …

And yet, it seems to me lately that whole systems of ideas — Hegel’s metaphysics, histories of World War II, mathematics — start to seem deflated, as if they were held up by hot air that, once it escapes, leaves the idea-systems flat on the ground, unimpressive, step-on-able.

Taking a bit of a leap here, but it makes sense in my head to do this (and what are all writings, all texts, if not signs that there was a consciousness that produced them?), to say that fiction works and nonfiction works have in common that they are both ideas. Sure, nonfiction purports to be about the real world, but if the “real world” is itself an idea, a construct … and further, there are no facts in nature — there is no tree or rock on which facts are discovered. Facts are made by people, in the form of words, ideas, symbols, and these are what we are comparing nonfiction or fiction to.

But we have a notion of what the real world looks like. As my class has read The Iliad, I’ve become aware of how careful the story is to make most of the human-god interactions believably subjective, so that the story could be read in two different ways: as a fantasy-tale featuring personified gods who intervene directly in human activities, or as a realistic tale of human-only activities (and where the gods speak to only one person at a time, or in the guise of a human, so that the gods could be said to be the product of a particular person’s subjective experience).

That The Iliad can be approached in two ways, or as two distinct stories, seems very subtle, very wise, and it suggests that we can approach any text and decide whether it’s fiction or not based on what the text contains. I mean, if there is no truth “out there” — and where, exactly, would that be if there were? — but all ideas are products of human minds, then what exactly are we asking for in a distinction between fiction and nonfiction (or in any distinction, really — guilty/not guilty, here/there, up/down, etc.)

I’m not quite sure what I’m getting at, which to me is the beauty of the writing process — if I knew what I was saying, I wouldn’t need to say it. Sometimes I have ideas, and they seem cool, and I start to think I should write them up — but then I think that maybe they are just so much inert deflated ideas (as described above). But then I think, eh, what I write is just the byproduct of my mind’s ongoing function, and perhaps somebody else will have some of their own ideas provoked by something here.

One of the earlier discussions my class of sophomores had before we started The Iliad was about where the world began, where everything came from. I gave the case from science, that there was a Big Bang from which all matter and energy and life descend, and we also discussed the Bible’s Creation story in the first chapter of Genesis, in which God creates the world. But science can’t know what came before the Big Bang (because how could there ever be evidence before there could have been evidence?), and Judaism and Christianity can’t explain how God came to exist, and so both the religion and science accounts are just stories, are sets of ideas. Yes, the science account has more physical evidence to explain the physical realm, and religion can go beyond what has evidence, but both science, in its generalizations called facts and theories, and religion, in its formal structure of creeds and theology, have little to say to inform my personal, particular, subjective experiences.

After all, my mind contains ideas from many external sources, but whatever it is that gives rise to my mind, to my thoughts, my words, my experiences — whatever it is that is me feels like its beyond explanation, beyond theory, beyond labeling. I am complete in every moment, in every thought, continuously the same through the years I’ve been alive but I experience my consciousness discontinuously, leaping from crystallized thought to the next crystallized thought, each thought whole-born. I exist only and wholly now. And now. And now again. (And even talking about “now” or “the present moment” feels inadequately abstract.)

But in my thinking, I’m attracted to discovering the limits of ideas, the boundaries of what can be known. I’m not sure why this feels more important and interesting to me than other sorts of thinking. This, too, is part of the mystery of where ideas come from. (See here for related post.)

And now, I really am getting tired, and I’m feeling that in my attempt to distance myself from abstraction, I’ve gotten quite abstract. Ah, well. Such is a mind and its chatter. The ideas come and go but the thinking goes on.  Living is more than merely figuring stuff out abstractly, of course. Living is also falling asleep in my comfy bed.

So this post may not satisfy — but writing it felt good.

More boring than silence: A runny-nose manifesto

Coming back from eating pizza at Subway tonight, I turned off my car radio. What we were hearing was “more boring than silence,” my wife said. It’s a good line. It prompted me to think about myself (as so many things do) and my writing and whether any particular post I’d write here would be more or, perhaps, less boring than silence, than not writing. I’ve been telling myself for the last couple hours that I wanted to write something today, but since I’ve also been battling a cold the last several days, I’m not sure I’m quite thinking clearly today. Maybe this is an experimental trial — some people have written while drunk, high, or, as Mark Leyner proposed, while having to go to the bathroom, so why not try to write while having a cold?

So, anyway, here is a link to a story I saw earlier about how slang lights up the brain — I don’t know so much about brain scans, but I know that it’s fun for me to play with words: make up new lyrics to songs, invert consonant sounds of adjoining words to make  spoonerisms, etc., so yeah, it seems these language things can be brain-engaging. Also, there’s this story about a theory of how the brain creates meaning from language, of which article I’ve not read the entirety, but I read enough to want to link to it and read it later. Maybe that’s something having a cold does for my brain — it seems to make it OK (less guilt-inducing) for me not to have to fully explain why I found an article relate-worthy.

But also, I tend to have this belief that the specific idea of a piece of writing doesn’t necessarily matter so much as that the text exists as a communique from one conscious mind. I tend to be interested in the raw text, as contrasted to the stylized, formalized, familiar text. While I feel hospitable to Kerouac’s idea of spontaneous prose being valuable, I don’t know that I’d assert the merit of the spontaneously written prose text over the structured, revised text. But I like the rawness, the sense that with a text that has not been overly edited, that is the author’s voice pouring, more-or-less uninhibitedly, onto paper (or screen). These texts can sometimes reveal more than the author even knows he/she means to say. But all meaning can be so … boring. (Note to self: easy on the generalizations).  I guess I mean to say that whatever we mean to say, we still say words.  Our meanings may be different tomorrow — tomorrow I may disagree with what I wrote today, but I still did say it today. I am alive now, at least.

Not that my mere being alive is in itself interesting to others who are also alive. But I guess that if I were to propose a manifesto (and it’s such lovely fun to do so), I’d say I’m interested in finding writing, in doing writing, that isn’t written with an outcome, a final shape, in mind. I’m interested in finding words — on signs, boring old words, and playing with them. I’m interested lately in writing down the things I hear — in turning everyday speech into words-on-paper, which somehow makes them seem more note-worthy, more significant, than speech. This preserves speech — and I’m not sure why that’s a good thing. But I guess I’m less interested in the writing project of a novel, of setting out to write a novel, or of setting out to write any particular thing that is defined before one even starts writing. Why not allow yourself as a writer to be smarter than you are?  Why try to control what you say?  Why try to structure it?  Haven’t we already seen the same stories over and over?

I guess what I’m saying is this: the frontier of new ideas is wide open. We — it is all too easy for our (or any) culture to live in a world it has defined, a mental world on top of/separate from the physical world. This mental world we have partly inherited from generations and cultures before us — for two small, simplified examples, Plato’s theory of Forms (ideas ) as existing separately from, independently of, physical/sense-able reality, and Aristotle’s urge to classify.

And so I’m saying that it’s all too easy for us — OK, for me — to think that what we think is real, matters. That our perceptions and theories are somehow … let’s give an example I use when I talk about philosophy and argument in my philosophy classes. I’ll ask kids if atoms are real, and someone says they are, giving the definition that they are the “smallest amount of indivisible matter.” But, of course, they aren’t — the science story continues beyond the atom, to say that they are divisible into electrons, protons, neutrons, and these last two are further divisible into quarks, and … so, no one really knows what is the smallest piece of matter. Sure, maybe there are vibrating “strings” below that, whatever that metaphorical explanation means. But, so, here’s the thing: nobody knows. There are explanations and theories that accord with known evidence, but these are basically stories, and when I taught science, I felt that all too often, I wasn’t teaching actual inquiry, but a story of science.

When my students and I talk philosophy, I say things like, “scientists would say that the university began at the Big Bang 14 billion years ago, when an infinitesimally small piece of matter and energy expanded to create the universe.” And this doesn’t seem really any more satisfactory of an explanation than giving the Biblical account of creation. But do we need either one? Do we really need to have an account of the origin of everything, which account would be necessarily speculatively fictional at some point?

In fact, why even do we make the distinction between real and not-real?  This is the distinction I present to my students and I lead them through a discussion of the definition of real, and how we’d decide what’s real and what’s not-real, and then we apply this definition to some particular, like numbers or ghosts or optical illusions. I want to show them how unsettled these biggest of questions truly are — which, by extension, (and I’m not sure how many kids do extend their thinking), shows how flimsy are most systems of belief (of any flavor of religion or philosophy or ideology), requiring as they do acceptance of some ultimately unprovable premises and definitions.

OK, this feels a tad sophomoric here, and of course I want to seem not that — I want to seem Worldly and Intelligent and so on … and of course, as soon as I start making generalized statements from a relativist position (“There is no truth,” he said, speaking relatively), arguments fall apart. But I guess I say this as background to justify/rationalize my feelings of disinterest in Perfectly Constructed Stories or Insightful Essays. I want to see people who are aware of the openness, the possibility, of being alive, of being conscious, right now, or, since right now is always moving on, passing away, people who are at least not bullsh!tting themselves into thinking that there are answers. That last part seems harsh, but I guess I sense that there’s urgency to this quest, this feels important, more important to me than writing some story or essay that peels off from this target and gets occupied in some little side-cave, when the main cave still is unexplored. I’m not sure the cave metaphor is a good one, either. Metaphors too are wonderful bullsh!t, the flocked wallpaper on the sentences of life (whatever that means — ha!).

I’d better quit before my brain shuts down anymore. But I guess this description is as good as any I’ve done before in trying to explain (to myself, even) my sense of urgency, of importance, of my mission — which mission is …?? I don’t even know it’s a cave. I usually console myself with the idea that there is no place we’re trying to get to, so I’m already there, so I don’t need to push on. That, if there are no particular answers (and why would there be? I’d only recognize a meaning of life if it came in the form of words, in the form of an idea, or a feeling, or something — so that if the purpose of life is merely to procreate more life, that seems unsatisfying, somehow, to my intellectual consciousness — perhaps my consciousness, since it feels like it was born new to each moment, it finds itself alive in this moment, cannot be satisfied with any mere answers to the question of the meaning of life, or of any other enduring, basic questions) —

That, if there are no particular answers, then satisfaction is to be found in the process, in the act of expressing, in the act of thinking, in the acts of being engaged in thinking and writing — and maybe this is as good an explanation as any as to why I’m more interested in the act of the person talking, the writer writing, than in what are the messages of the talker or the writer. Lately I’ve noticed some of my students saying things to me that are true only for them — “it’s hot in here,” or “this song reminds me of when I was 8 and  …” — and I think, “OK, I don’t feel hot,” and “this song reminds me of something totally different,” but in some sense, it doesn’t matter what they say. That they say it, that they can express some perception or some association their consciousnesses made, is beautiful.  Parenthetically, I don’t always think these are beautiful — sometimes I have wondered why they are saying these things aloud. But as I wrote this tonight, I recognized the beauty of their speaking, and now I’m glad I did this writing and learned from it. And (here comes the titlular tie-in), this learning is why writing and speaking aren’t more boring than silence.

What we are to do with the insights/new ideas/epiphanies that come to us while writing, I don’t know either. Again, I don’t want to say that these things are valuable as independent ideas that should be printed in some Tome of Wisdom someplace — but perhaps having these insights, learning from ourselves, is how we shape our consciousnesses as these arrive in each new moment of consciousness.