Sunday, February 28, 2016

The Big Bang of Experience

Holy shit... something

Let me try to lead you to a sense of the mystery I'm talking about, and then to some "close" analogues of it.

Try to imagine what it was like the first time you experienced... anything. Tall order, I know (unless you're currently on a DMT trip or being born, maybe). The problem is that right now you have all these conceptual filters in place, making sense of everything, making it hard to remember what the initial shock and awe must have been like. But just pretend.

From nothing, an explosion of colors and sounds -- though you haven't yet categorized them as such. It's just... something-ness where "before" there was nothingness. (I use "before" loosely, since it doesn't make sense to speak of what it was like "before experience.") You don't yet have the concepts to form "holy shit," but a rough description is:

Holy shit, something!

The mind-blasting awesomeness of this moment cannot be captured in words, but you probably have at least a faint sense of what I'm pointing at. It also cannot be stored in memories, which is why we typically have only a faint recollection that something unspeakably, impossibly awesome and awesomely impossible once happened.

Now, this "something" has not yet been conceptually split into a "self" and a "world," or a subject and object. It's certainly not yet "me" experiencing "matter." Those concepts will take some time to congeal from the explosion. As of yet, it's just... well, it's just really hard to talk about. Before the subject-object split, there's no sense that there are two different aspects: something being experienced, and someone experiencing it.

I'll try to point out a remnant of that nondual recognition in your present experience.

Try to feel some exuberance at being alive: wow, it feels great to be alive!

Did you have some sense of the world "brightening," or becoming more alive to your senses? So, was it you that livened up, or the colors, sounds, etc. that constitute your world that did? Can you imagine the sights and sounds of the world being overwhelmingly intense without you feeling quite alive yourself?

Try to get a sense of that. The intensity of your experienced world (of which your body is a part) is your aliveness. There aren't two different things there. This is a strong hint, and as close as I can come to explaining what the explosion of experience would have initially been like: sheer aliveness, as of yet attributed to neither a "you" or a "world." We normally think "I am alive" and "the world exists," but as far as our experience is concerned, those aren't two different things.

Shortly thereafter, the intellect came online, and desperately tried to make sense of it all.

Aliveness?! How?! From where?!

I contend that most (maybe all) of what we do in life is to try to recover that primordial epiphany of aliveness. I also think that much of what science is trying to do is to explain it. Which is all well and good, but let's revisit the ways in which it may be fundamentally unsatisfying.

Let's science the shit out of this!


Biology seeks to explain this aliveness by objectifying "life." After all, you can't study something unless you objectify it. It's really hard to pin down life, and this is about the best we've done. Ready? We're about to pin down the big epiphany:
Life: the capacity for growth, reproduction, functional activity, and continual change preceding death.
A valiant effort, but it falls "a little" short of the  I was originally after. Even if I play along, and patiently await an explanation for the above definition, I swear on my grave that there's no combination of enzymes and redox reactions that will "explain" the Big Question for me.

That's not to say that the details of biology aren't overwhelmingly amazing in their own right -- they certainly are, and make studying biology incredibly awesome -- but (again, this is only my suspicion) our questions about "life" were birthed by a realization even more stunning than the mechanisms of "growth, reproduction, functional activity, and continual change."


How about physics? Well, shortly after the intellect divided the indivisible glory of aliveness into a "me" and a "world," it sought to explain each separately. We inferred that this "world" was made of "stuff" and gave it a label ("matter"). By zooming in to discover its building blocks and looking back in time to its origins, we're hoping to answer the questions from above: (the material aspect of) aliveness?! How?! From where?!

Once again, the results of this line of inquiry have been incredibly fascinating, but an answer to this question doesn't scratch the itch of that question. Again, put yourself in the shoes of existence (/ experience) having just exploded out of fuckin' nowhere, with these ineffable questions (where the shit did this come from?!) exploding with them, only to be tossed a book full of equations. To invert a famous saying, those equations are not even wrong.


Finally, let's look at neuroscience. With physics having run with the "world" ball, neuroscience tries to tackle the "me" ball: where does this ability to experience anything come from? Having decided that physics comes first, the question takes the form: how does consciousness come from matter? This is called the Hard Problem of Consciousness, and is sometimes described as science's last remaining mystery.

And again I say, an explanation of how serotonin and glutamate "create" the wonder of aliveness are not at all what I was after. Nor will it help to try to feed me a denial, something that's increasingly in vogue:
"Let me be as clear as possible: Consciousness doesn’t happen." 
-- Michael Graziano, Princeton Neuroscience Prof. Yes, really.
Congratulations, Prof. Graziano, you have truly "science[d] the shit out of this." It's dead. You happy?


Finally, if you're religious, you can simply invoke the word "god" to explain it all away. That's all I'll say about that.

Conclusion and stuff

Okay, this post is getting long so let me try to hurriedly wrap it up.

We are desperately trying to explain something that clearly resists any and all "answers" in the form of explanations. Not because they're wrong, but because they're not what we were originally getting at. I mean it: origin-ally.

What if this big WTF?! isn't looking for an answer, but looking for us to get reacquainted with the question?

And more: what if all our late night TV binges, fancy restaurant experiences, and everything else we do for entertainment are just desperate attempts at trying to get reacquainted with it as well -- as best as we remember how? Not the "WTF" part of it, necessarily, but the overwhelming amazement at life? That's what we're trying to recover.

So why am I harping on this? Because I see a link between philosophical materialism (the idea that matter is the end of the story) and cultural materialism (the desire to have more and better material things). It's not that there's some moral failure here; it's that we're trying to recapture The Glory in a way that is doomed to failure -- and ravaging the planet as a side effect. And we don't quite see the connection yet; and the ravaging will continue until we do.

It's not that I've accomplished the task myself, and that I'm preaching to all you heathens needing to catch up. I'm just as far off as anybody. But I feel inspired, somehow, to share this sneaky suspicion with you. I also suspect that you suspect it, too. After all, like me, you're just one appendage of The Big Experience Bang, trying to call itself home, as well.


Okay, some notes:

  • I have clearly caricatured science. There's an incredible amount of wonder and mystery to be found while doing science. I feel the mistake is when we believe we're about to "capture" the mystery in our net -- and I believe this sentiment is very common. It manifests as the vague sense we all carry around that we've mostly figured it out (it's "just" inert matter and energy), with just a few details to iron out (like this pesky consciousness thing). Even though I don't believe it, even I carry around that feeling in a deep way.
    • Relatedly: while doing science, I have a remarkably hard time avoiding the sense that I'm getting closer to figuring it out. Nothing wrong with that feeling, but it precludes the experience I'm describing above.
  • I have also caricatured religion. I think the more sophisticated religious thinkers aren't using "god" as an answer, so much as a placeholder for and pointer back to the ineffable mystery; the glory that refuses to be captured.
  • I didn't explain why the ravaging will stop just because we rediscover this wonder. In (very) brief, it's because the wonder is accompanied by a peace and kindness beyond all understanding.

Saturday, February 27, 2016

When the Miracle congeals into Philosophy

I was reading a blog today with a quote from a man describing how he comes to terms with meaning in a meaningless universe. For much of it, we agree:
“Accepting that not only will I die, but so will everyone I know and everyone I don’t know – and humanity, and the universe itself – brought me a very deep and profound peace. I don’t have to run away from the fear of oblivion. I am not afraid. I celebrate reality. I don’t have to pretend that there will be some magic deus ex machina in the third act of my life which will make it all OK and give me a happy ending. It is enough that I exist, that I am here now, albeit briefly, with all of you. And it’s an amazing, astonishing, remarkable, totally mind-blowing fucking miracle.”
It's in a description from a preceding paragraph where I lose the plot (bolded):
“When you start to think in universal time spans, your perception of humanity must necessarily change. Differences of opinion seem pathetic. National borders become ridiculous. The only thing that starts to be important to me is material reality and understanding how it operates and how matter itself came into being in the first place.
When The Miracle (TM) really hits you, your intellect is non-operational. You haven't formed a philosophy yet -- materialism, solipsism, whatever-ism. When your intellect comes back online, you box the realization into some neat category and thereby lose it. What remains is a cheap imitation. The mind may think it's a perfectly fine stand-in, but it ain't. I'm not telling you this out of dogma. You can test it out for yourself (though it may take some effort).

You may be thinking "Nonsense. Even if I wasn't philosophizing at the time, I've since worked out that materialism is correct, and so obviously it was correct even when my intellect was offline. Therefore I can reduce the miracle to matter, and there's nothing more to explain."

The sleight of hand here is so subtle that it escapes notice just how badly we've cheated ourselves. What you really sought to explain at the time wasn't matter, even if your philosophy can now prove that it was.

I will surely not be able to communicate what I mean by that, but if you have a sneaky suspicion that there's something worth (re)discovering that will never bend itself to your philosophies, know that you are not alone and not crazy.

Friday, February 26, 2016


Do you know what I mean when I say that it is shocking, stunning, marvelous, mysterious, unspeakably amazing to be alive?

I suspect you do.

It's a realization too tremendous to be captured by something as puny as an intellect. When it hits you, there are no words for it. Fearing losing the epiphany, you struggle to commit it to memory. I must not forget this. Not this time.

But of course you never quite capture it. You're left with words, ideas. "Remember, being alive is great." A mere whisper of what once left you ravished, now confined to the narrows of the mind.

And you're left with questions. Where the hell did it come from? How could it come to be? And when? But having failed to capture the "it" in question, your questions point slightly -- and thus infinitely -- in the wrong direction. Not wrong by anyone else's standards, but ultimately, by your own heart's.

Perhaps you try to pin down "life" through biology:
The capacity for growth, reproduction, functional activity, and continual change preceding death.
Is that what you were once gobsmacked by? Something growing from four feet to five? Splitting from one to two? Being able to lift a box? Graying hair? Not to take away from the wonder of those, but be honest: is that what you were after? Close, but still infinitely far.

Or maybe you try to answer the "where did it come from" question through physics. We're just stuff, and if we can figure out where all the stuff came from, we can regain the splendor. Getting ever-closer to the start time of the Big Bang; to the smallest stuff of existence. Almost there!

A more refined approach might be to notice that the splendor of being alive is really the splendor of experiencing -- i.e., of being conscious. And since, as we all know, consciousness is created by brains, we'll probably find the answer in neurotransmitters. Or, as the current thinking goes, it's just an algorithm, in which case it can be captured by a sufficiently complex lambda expression.
λnfx.n (λgh.h (g f)) (λu.x) (λu.u) 
Fig 1: Consciousness. Or close enough. Just need to add a few terms....
Or perhaps you've moved past the passé phase of believing that we'll explain it, and onto the hip new phase of hand waving it out of existence.
"Let me be as clear as possible: Consciousness doesn’t happen."
Oh, whew. For a second there I thought there was a profound mystery at the heart of existence. But... words on a page.

You desperately want the big answer to be something more grand than just "dead stuff randomly bouncing off each other" but you don't want to be naive. And so you quietly settle for an imitation, patiently waiting to be roused again.

Alas, the more I harp on it, the further I take you from it. So, as frequently as you can, return to the realization that sparked it all.

You cannot capture it. You will not explain it (i.e., find closure in words or formulas). But you can regain it. Which is a great relief, because it's the one thing you ever wanted.

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

The Fundamental Mystery aka The Original Miracle

We've all felt the sense of how wondrous, how marvelous, how miraculous it is to be alive. To exist!

The definition of "alive" is something we've outsourced to biologists. And "existence" is in the domain of the philosophers.

But whether I'm technically "alive" or "existent," the situation I'm marveling about doesn't change one whisker. I experience something! And even when "experience" is fully outsourced to the neuroscientists, the marvel remains untouched. (Actually for most people it seems to be redirected. It's why we are trying to unravel the Big Bang and the evolution of life. These are pointing to the Fundamental Mystery.)

Of course, over the years, the wonder can dim. I'm probably not as exuberant about it as when I was a kid. Where did it go? The obvious answer is that I simply became accustomed to it. I'm sure I could even find the neural circuits responsible for the wonder and its dimming. Then I might use evolutionary biology to explain why this is a common characteristic amongst humans. And then I can be content that there was no real mystery at all; it was just a trick of genes and neurotransmitters.

The thing is though, consciousness is stateless. That's a computer term, here referring to the fact that consciousness isn't carrying around baggage (history; a state) telling it how to be or what to be conscious of. If I had a freshly minted consciousness and I fed it all the details of your current experience, it too would experience exactly what you are. It would feel exactly as old as you are, experience the same lack of wonder, and exactly the same reasons why the wonder had disappeared.

It seems like the external world is responsible for the dimming of our wonder, but what if it isn't so? What if the Original Miracle just keeps on keepin' on, ever fresh, waiting patiently for you to rediscover it?