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.

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