The Spooky Nature of Self and Knowledge

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When Einstein famously wrote of “spooky action at a distance,” he picked an odd way of describing things. The word “spooky”, with origins tying to spectres, ghosts, and other strangeness, is not one you see every day and certainly not one you see coming from renowned scientists. Yet, seemingly, Einstein’s use is an appropriate one because the nature of reality that he was attempting to refute is genuinely vague and uncanny. Contrary to Einstein’s hopes, concerns about nature acting “spooky” have been repeatedly proved wrong. We now know that nature and all things in it are indeed spooky and much more akin to these immaterial ghosts that you may have believed in as a child than to the solid and scientific certainty in which you steadfastly anchored your worldview as an adult.

There is simply no doubt that we are living an illusion. Science and the unbending logic of mathematics and philosophy have clearly, and repeatedly, shown that the world as we believe we know it simply does not exist. If that wasn’t bad enough, the person who we think we are really doesn’t exist either!

Let me explain.

  1. For us to know anything about what we think in the world around us, conventional wisdom holds that we learn it largely through our senses. What could be wrong with that? It seems pretty self-evident. However, since Descartes, philosophers have shown that there are real difficulties with that position because there are so many instances where we cannot trust our senses. This could be as simple as Kanizsa-type optical illusions, the fact that when we are dreaming we actually think we are awake and sensing, the way that our brain actively makes up for blind spots in our field of vision, etc. In other words, our senses cannot be fully trusted.
  2. To make matters worse, even if we could trust our senses, they really aren’t all that effective for more complex tasks. They are ideal for identifying threats against ourselves on a sub-Saharan savanna but not so much for thinking about and sensing “reality.” For example, we only sense less than 1% of the visual and auditory spectrum. In addition, we are incapable of experiencing so much of the electromagnetic spectrum to the point that we are surrounded by birdsfishshrimp, and countless other animals who have senses much more refined than us. They see, hear, and feel things that we cannot. If we did encounter those experiences, it stands to reason that our notion of reality would be different.
  3. Furthermore, our memories have been shown over and over again to be faulty, at best. In fact, memory itself is a really lousy way of understanding your continuity in the world due to its unreliability for even basic recollection.
  4. It gets worse, and weirder! So much of our daily existence is based on what philosophers call “secondary qualities.” These include such key human experiences as seeing color, hearing music or any sound, taste, smell, the sensation of hot or cold, etc. As you know, those things don’t exist out in nature. The color of the sunset or the taste of the apple are not scientifically real. What actually exists are wave formations that make up the color and chemical compounds that make up the apple. Our minds create all of these secondary qualities from those stimuli. So, no, rainbows are not real – they exist only in your mind. The same with the taste of coffee or the smell of a rose. Chemicals are everywhere but characteristics (bitter, sour, sweet) are not. They are our perceptions.
  5. Now even weirder! The great philosopher Immanuel Kant (and so many others) pointed out that not only do secondary qualities not exist “out there” in reality but nor do they in space, time, or causation. That would be an interesting tid-bit from the history of philosophy if had not been proven to be true by contemporary physicists. Let that sink in for a minute. Time, space, and causation do not exist in genuine reality. Things are indeed getting spooky!
  6. But wait – there’s more! The very nature by which we talk about things (using language and metaphor) also impacts how we think of and experience them. While subject, objects, predicates, and adjectives all make sense in grammar – how are we to know that they are part of the real world? In fact, we have strong evidence that our language contributes much to what we call the real world. If this discussion was in Sanskrit or among medieval Westerners, it would not be the same discussion.
  7. It gets weirder!! We haven’t even started looking at your “self” yet. For example, would the fact that 90% of the cell life in “your” body actually belongs to the microbes in your gut surprise you? In other words, well over 90% of what you think is materially you is not you at all but rather a complex microbiome that has taken up residence in your large intestine.
  8. What about the rest of my cells – those are certainly me? Not necessarily. The cells you had yesterday or back when you were a child are pretty much all gone. Maybe 1% of the cells you had as a child are still in you. This is the Ship of Theseus problem. If an object has had all of it parts replaced over time – is it still the same object? If so, what makes it the same?

To be honest, I could go on at book length outlining the reasons why we simply don’t have solid knowledge on who we are or what the world is. This has been pretty much a “given” in Philosophy since the 1700s and science since the very late 1800s. Things are not what they seem yet we lumber about thinking that the world as we perceive it is the actual real world. This, in philosophical terminology, is called “naive materialism” or “simple realism” and has been discredited so many times that one would think none of us would buy into it. However, for a bunch of sociological and other reasons it is the operating framework that most of us use in our daily lives.

What is the bottom line? Our senses are not enough when it comes to understanding the world around us or the nature of ourselves. Our brains are good at identifying and consuming high energy foods, scanning for potential mates, and protecting ourselves and our families from obvious and imminent physical threats. These are ideal traits for primal survival and reproduction – they just aren’t so good in terms of understanding the nature of reality or the self. By using the tools of philosophy, mathematics, or quantum physics we see that things are not at all as they seem.

Vivekananda On Schopenhauer & Will

 

An interesting distinction between the notions of Will in 19th century German philosophy and Vedanta as understood by Vivekananda.

I think Schopenhauer’s philosophy makes a mistake in its interpretation of Vedanta, for it seeks to make the will everything. Schopenhauer makes the will stand in the place of the Absolute. But the absolute cannot be presented as will, for will is something changeable and phenomenal, and over the line, drawn above time, space, and causation, there is no change, no motion; it is only below the line that external motion and internal motion, called thought begin. There can be no will on the other side, and will therefore, cannot be the cause of this universe. Coming nearer, we see in our own bodies that will is not the cause of every movement. I move this chair; my will is the cause of this movement, and this will becomes manifested as muscular motion at the other end. But the same power that moves the chair is moving the heart, the lungs, and so on, but not through will. Given that the power is the same, it only becomes will when it rises to the plane of consciousness, and to call it will before it has risen to this plane is a misnomer. This makes a good deal of confusion in Schopenhauer’s philosophy . . . . Continue reading

Phenomenology of alternate means of knowing with Peter Sjöstedt-H (Univ. of Exeter)

Peter Sjöstedt-H is an Anglo-Scandinavian philosopher who specialises in the thought of Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Bergson and Whitehead, and within the field of Philosophy of Mind. Peter received a Bachelor’s degree in Philosophy and a Master’s degree in Continental Philosophy from the University of Warwick, where he was awarded a first-class distinction for his dissertation on Kant and Schelling in relation to ‘intellectual intuition’. He subsequently became a Philosophy Lecturer in South Kensington, London for six years but is now engaged in his PhD at Exeter University. Peter is the author of Noumenautics and an inspiration behind the new inhuman philosopher Marvel Superhero, Karnak.

From Inside the Rift.

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Einstein and Tagore Discuss Metaphysics

By my read of this conversation, Tagore is presenting the classical Idealism approach whereas Einstein tracks with scientific objectivity. This is a great, short dialogue from here.

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TAGORE: You have been busy, hunting down with mathematics, the two ancient entities, time and space, while I have been lecturing in this country on the eternal world of man, the universe of reality.

EINSTEIN: Do you believe in the divine isolated from the world?

TAGORE: Not isolated. The infinite personality of man comprehends the universe. There cannot be anything that cannot be subsumed by the human personality, and this proves that the truth of the universe is human truth. Continue reading

Longform Description of Idealism

WE MUST begin to philosophise with the hard facts of experience, not with the unchecked presuppositions of fancy. Knowledge that does not begin with experience can never attain certainty but only dwell in the region of conjecture.

But, alas! the first fact is an extremely awkward one. Experience itself is not really what it seems to be. The suggestive studies of the earlier volume in the relativity of time and space, the startling glimpses of the magical spell which Illusions can cast upon us, the revelatory discoveries of the mentalistic nature of all things no less than the semantic analyses of meanings and the words in which they are clothed, have combined to put us on our guard against the deceptions of the senses and the tricks of consciousness; in short, to make us somewhat wary of this thing that is called experience. Continue reading

Reality Theater in our Minds

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This distinction between phenomenon and noumenon is basically the same as the distinction between appearance and reality. The phenomenal and the noumenal are two aspects of The Real, viz., the aspect which appears to us when we perceive it, and the aspect that is actually really real. The physicists, for example, tell us that even though the chair appears to be impenetrable and solid, in fact it is made up of molecules and atoms which are themselves made almost entirely of empty space. So the way a thing appears to our senses may not be, at least according to physics, the same as the way the thing really actually is. The phenomenal aspect of a thing may be entirely different than the noumenal thing, the thing as it really truly is. Continue reading