Neil deGrasse Tyson: A Passion for Science

I have become a bigger and bigger fan of Neil deGrasse Tyson over the years. As I have watched and read more about him, I have come to admire his passion for science, way of thinking, and his ability to communicate and debate. He is a voice in the scientific community that is truly inspiring. In fact, after watching videos of him speak and get excited about science, it makes me want to grab my math textbooks and brush off the dust on my mathematical background. He inspires me to want to learn and discover more about what is true of reality.

For the last couple of weeks, I have been watching YouTube videos of him and I thought I would share a couple that I have enjoyed, here. So please, take the time to sit back and enjoy some good arguments, comebacks, and inspiring thoughts of Neil deGrasse Tyson.

I am Everything. I am Nothing.

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In continuing my thoughts on consciousness, I want to look at the self. As I discussed in my last post on consciousness, thoughts, sensations, everything attributed to experience seems to arise and have an effect on consciousness. I think this is fairly intuitive to most people in one way or another, whether they are looking at it through a correct or incorrect lens. What I mean by this is, people seem to, at the very least, believe that things happen to themselves. There is this separation of the mind, the body, and the self. Nobody tends to feel, or believe they are, identical to their body or their brain. That is, you don’t feel identical to your hands, you believe you have hands. You don’t feel identical to your brain, you believe you have a brain. There is the body, the brain, and the self. The self is what people tend to believe is consciousness, the “I”. I look at this differently and the self will be the topic of this post.

The first thing we need to do is talk about redefining “I”. Now if you have read my earlier posts, you can see that I want to do away with the term free will. Free will really seems to be a term that carries around too much implicit baggage that really isn’t there. Intellectual supporters of the term want to use it to differentiate reactionary from intentional behaviors (What makes the term more needless is there are words we can use that are more precise and don’t carry the baggage. Terms like reactionary, intentional or unintentional, for instance. It’s really that simple.). They also boast that the term acknowledges the complexity of the mind, in many cases proclaiming that our ability to make the sane and logical choice is what free will is. But with that argument comes a dualistic perspective that is almost impossible to accept when being truly critical of who and what we are and it is why I tend to argue so fervently against it. Supporters of the term will bring with it, whether they truly realize it or not, the claim that we have the ability to step outside the mind, almost. Suggesting, implicitly, that we can go beyond the processes of the brain and use the information given to us by the brain to make our very own, self-authored decision. This is incredibly dualistic to believe. For instance, to be able to use what the brain gives us begs the question; who is this “us” that is separate from the mind and it’s processes. In their argument, there is the mind and then there is the self, the conscious ego resting behind the eyes utilizing the body and brain as a tool separate from itself. This is the only light in which a free will that people want seems to make sense. It is this personal control, or power beyond the natural order that they desire that naturally spawns the dualistic perspective. It is the only way that the term free will can be held so near and dear to one’s heart. So one might wonder, if I believe the self, or the I is an illusion as well, why I don’t want to simply rid of these terms also. Unlike the needlessness of the term free will, “I” is fully integrated into our every day language. The use of terms like “I” or “myself”, etc. are almost as reactionary as breathing. You would really have to stop and pay close attention to avoid these terms. And in many cases you wouldn’t know what to use in their place. I am also not trying to be in the business of creating new words or making new terms and it would be much more convenient to adopt a different view of the term “I” rather than abandoning it altogether. However, I wouldn’t say this is adopting a new view so much as developing a more comprehensive understanding of what it means to say “I”. Because, to this point, I think there is still a way to use these terms in a way that makes sense, while still carrying no additional baggage about the self that the critical mind can see isn’t really there.

Most of us don’t feel identical to anything that makes up “us”. You don’t feel identical to your hands, you feel like you have hands. I would also confidently say that most people don’t feel identical to their brain, they would say they have a brain. This is made especially clear when we say “my brain”, a phrase that simply does not make much sense when we think about this critically. Who is the possessor of this brain? Can we really be something that isn’t the brain? And even if you could claim that you are part of your brain, does that really give you any ownership of the brain? I digress.

Now it’s easier to look at your hands or feet and say, “these are my hands”. It is very difficult, and most likely impossible, to feel identical to our hands. If there is a self or a feeling of “I” that can reside anywhere that we can feel connected, it is in the brain where consciousness arises. That is, this experience that we are all having is completely due to the existence of consciousness. It is in the psychology that contains most of what we value about ourselves.

Something begins to happen, however, as we look at consciousness and the experience. We begin to feel like we are more than the experience itself. We believe that we are inside the brain. This separate entity, of sorts, that is calling the shots. This ego, or self, that is using the body and the brain as a tool to aid in it’s experience. For many, this is where people can place things like free will. The ego is the ultimate author and decider of our thoughts and actions. This ego is ultimately responsible for everything we do, and it is the power of this ego, self, or I, that we can judge, praise, respect, or hate and condemn. Because of the ego’s appeal on the surface, many people are reluctant to analyze the validity of this belief. What many will find when doing so, is that the ego, the self, “I”, does not exist.

There is a phrase that has been running through my head lately when I think about “I” which is; I am everything. I am nothing. If someone asked me what I call me, or, what would be “I”. So when I’ve used the term “I” without quotations, what am I referring to? This is my answer; I am the continuous psychological and physical entity correlated completely to this brain and this body. In that sense, I am everything. I am consciousness and it’s contents. I am consciousness and a body and the only consciousness and body that is correlated to this brain which, as far as we know, is the sole reason I can even conceive of the idea of an I. I know, it is convoluted, a little complex, and maybe on the forefront, it sounds ridiculous or senseless, but it is the best way I know how to explain it. The easiest, most appealing way to say it, I am consciousness and it’s contents, and in that sense, I am everything.

If you want to feel “the self” drop, there is no easier way to do it, than to introspect and try to find a self within you. If you try to find something that is separate from the brain and it’s continuous stream, you will find yourself somewhere that nothing else exists. The self will drop. When I look at this, I am nothing.

When one refers to the self or “I” in a way that means they are a conscious observer that is basically residing behind the eyes, using the brain as a tool rather than being merely a direct cause of the brain, they will never be able to truly find this self when they look for it. I came up with the analogy of a home to explain this.

Imagine the house that you live in, or perhaps a friends house if you do not live in a house. Now if you go inside this house and try to find the house, you will not find anything. You can’t point at a piece of furniture and say, “There’s the house!” You can’t point to a cupboard or a bedroom either. If you look for something within the house that you call the house or the home, you will never find it. There is nothing. You have to consider everything when you are talking about the house as a whole. The same goes for I.

What I currently like about the phrase, “I am everything. I am nothing.” is it allows you to conceptualize how you should view the “I”. If you look at the I as a means of representing everything that you are and the continuous stream that represents everything that you have been and everything that you will be, you are looking at it in a way in which a very reasonable, and very real, you, exists (I am everything.).

If, on the other hand, you begin to view the I as something that is more than everything that you are and the continuous stream that represents everything that you have been and everything that you will be, you will continually find nothing, because it just isn’t so. There is no self to pinpoint residing behind the eyes (I am nothing.).

This can be a lot to take in, and there are many emotions that this can lead to. I am still pondering this a lot and critiquing my thoughts on this often. Everything that I said above is still a rudimentary framework. You are witnessing a brainstorm of sorts, though I must say that I think I am on the right path. I’m just not sure how far down this path I have gone yet.

The next time I explore consciousness, I think I may look at more of the emotional implications, and the lens through which we should look at this. But I am not certain. I will continue to think about this and try to build off this hopefully with the feedback of others, both on this blog and in my life. I’m not sure when I will return to this topic on this blog. It may be soon, it may be a while. One thing is for certain. More to come.

Questions for the reader: If you would like to respond to this, of course say whatever you would like, but also, if you would like, I have some questions that if you could answer would help me look at other perspectives of consciousness.

1.) How would you explain consciousness?

2.) What are your views on the self? Do you believe it is an illusion? If not, where is the self?

3.) What are you referring to when you say “I”?

Kindle Quotes 5

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 The intention to do one thing and not another does not originate in consciousness–rather, it appears in consciousness, as does any thought or impulse that might oppose it.

Sam Harris – Free Will

More on Free Will

I have written about free will twice on this blog. In my first post about free will, I argue that regardless of where you stand on the debate, you must concede that the most important things in your life hinge on your inability to control it. My last post on free will was probably my most popular post to this point, especially on Google+. In my last post on free will, I have a much more in depth approach on my views on free will. I base a lot of my points by arguing against Daniel Dennet’s critique of Sam Harris’ book Free Will.

For this post, I have found a few videos on YouTube from Big Think which touch on some common errors that I believe many people make when discussing this topic. Most importantly, the last video I will show I believe is the strongest argument I have ever heard in support of free will, yet I still believe it is missing the point.

Free Will is a Term That Distinguishes Intentional Actions From Unintentional Actions

Now I will first start off easy because this is something I can basically agree with. It is useful, in some sense to have a term that differentiates the two behaviors, one being the iris closing when a light is shined in your eye, and the other being the decision to invest in a type of stock or where to move the next chess piece (Though we already have less misleading ways to distinguish the intentional from reactionary, etc.). And I believe almost anyone that argues against free will would probably concede that if we are to define free will in that way, then I will agree with it.

The only problem that occurs is that a great majority of people do not look at free will in this way. Similarly, they may explain it in an elegant way such as Steven Pinker and yet hold deeper, illogical, and incorrect implications of free will. In a lot of ways it seems that people who argue for free will in intellectual circles will explain it in a similar way as the video above yet as the conversation continues, it becomes more and more clear that they have smuggled more into their definition than they originally advertised. And it is usually the smuggled information that we disagree on. And it is because so many people either believe or continue to smuggle the bullshit, that we can appear hyper-critical at times or stubborn. I argue however that this is us merely trying to look at the core of the issue rather than spar in a game of semantics. For the record, I do not believe Steven Pinker is doing any smuggling here.

Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle

This is a common argument that I have heard again and again. My response is pretty quick and concise. Randomness is not free will and it is certainly not the free will that anyone is trying to hold on to. That is, if you are arguing that you have free will because there is randomness to the decisions that you make, then you are still not making the choice. To have free will to any level worth caring about is to claim that you are the author of your thoughts and actions, not that you are the recipient of random emotions.

A Strong Argument for Free Will

In this video, Alfred Mele makes many good points and says a lot of things that I agree with. For instance, as he defines it, I would agree that we all have this “regular” free will. At least us sane folk. That is, when we do something, we were aware of what we were doing, we probably understood the consequences, and no one was forcing us to do what we did. Yes, we can all behave in this way. Similarly, he makes a good point about the mid-grade free will. There isn’t really any evidence to suggest that the brain, or the universe, works in that way, but there also isn’t a lot of evidence that it doesn’t. So he’s right, from a scientific perspective, this is still empirically open.

He goes on to talk about the experiments that have been done to “show” that we don’t have free will, and here is where I believe he makes his strongest point. That is, that we can’t really correlate, clearly, decision making with the spike we see in the data. He also makes a point about how the muscle motion triggers the computer to log the data whereas the other data very well may have been useful. Now he may be completely wrong, but I am willing to give him the point.

There are two issues that still remain. First, this is still missing the point that those opposing free will are making. We are acknowledging that many people, even the intellectuals, are using free will as a means to place a conscious author in the mind. Something that is solely responsible for it’s actions and is not really affected by the laws of physics. This seems to come from a desire to want to hold people ultimately responsible for their actions. This justifies many negative emotions, such as hate and vengeance. I have already argued how we can still be civil people even with a view that no one is ultimately responsible for there actions, and I have shown that we are still justified in having prisons and other means of “punishment” which you can read in my earlier posts on free will. If it becomes clear that I wasn’t clear enough, I will touch on that specifically in another post.

The second point that I want to make is that I don’t really need the science to back me up on my view. Now this is not to say that I won’t listen to what the science reveals. If it is discovered that free will exists and it is proven, I would not hesitate in changing my view. But for now, in the science realm, this is still empirically open. So when I say I don’t need the science to back me up, this is because a lot of experiments on free will can be done through introspection.

What has become clear to me is that thoughts merely arise in consciousness. These thoughts have a causal affect on emotions which lead to other thoughts which cause other emotions and so the causal string goes. Again, I believe I have gone into further detail in the past and will reserve deeper discussion on this unless prompted by others, or if I later decide to devote a post to the point.

In many ways, we probably all agree and this argument is really a lot of semantics. But I do believe that at the core, far too many are smuggling too much into this term which leads to what I am currently convinced are views that simply aren’t true.

Thoughts on Consciousness

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Consciousness is perhaps the most mysterious thing that we know exists. It has only been recently that I have come up with a model that seems coherent, to some degree, with what consciousness might be. I believe that the implications of a better understanding of consciousness are fascinating and I hope to, over time, elaborate on these initial thoughts. This may be the first post I have done where going into it, I felt like I was going to basically publish a “rough draft” of an idea. So please feel free to leave your thoughts as I try to further my understanding of consciousness on a deeper level than I ever have. Let me begin.

Consciousness is a very difficult topic to discuss in a way that makes any clear sense to someone who hasn’t thought in much depth about it before and it has only been recently that I feel I have a framework that is presentable to others.

As I view it, we have to look at what we know, or what we think we know about the mind. Our brains are some of the most complex and miraculous outcomes of the natural order that I can think of. Primarily functional to survival and in many ways can be simply described as an efficient data processing apparatus. We know that as our brains function in a certain way, consciousness seems to arise. This consciousness is very much, simply an awareness. And it can be argued that this awareness isn’t based upon the senses. For instance, we do not need to see to be conscious. We also don’t need to hear to be conscious. And our minds don’t have to stretch too far to see that we don’t need to smell, taste, or touch to be conscious either. I am newly aware of a discussion on this topic where people are arguing whether there is such a thing as “pure consciousness”. I have not read one word on these arguments or what they even are so I will not comment on that in this post, but I do know that it exists and my intuitions lead me to believe that I may be barking up that tree right now. I digress.

So in my mind, it is relatively easy to accept that we do not need our primary senses to be conscious. What we see, however, is that these primary senses have an effect on consciousness rather than being consciousness. This brings me closer to my framework on what consciousness is there is one last thing I would like to look at first.

Thoughts. Are thoughts consciousness? Per my logic and understanding, asking the question almost shows that the answer is no. It seems to just sound ridiculous. Introspection, probably most efficiently seen by means of meditation, tends to show that thoughts arise in consciousness rather than thoughts being consciousness. Taking what I have said above one step further, it seems we don’t need thought, in principle, to be conscious.

Now this is the most that I am willing to take away at this point, so now I will move on to the picture that I feel this paints for what consciousness is.

What we can see here is that consciousness seems to be more malleable than a constant or rigid “something”. I like to describe consciousness through the analogy of a pond. Imagine this pond is still. It simply is and exists. Imagine there are no waves or anything. Now imagine you drop a pebble into this pond. There will be a ripple effect. The pebble itself, however, isn’t consciousness, but the pebble has an effect on consciousness. So think of this pebble as a thought, or a sensation. Maybe the feeling of pressure on your back, maybe the sound of a bird. All of these things arise in consciousness, and because of this, they change consciousness in some way.

Now, as conscious, fully functioning people, life does not present us with one pebble at a time, so I think a more accurate view of life and it’s affect on consciousness is to imagine an absolute torrential downpour of rain on this pond. Imagine wind as well, along with any other natural forces on the water. This is the nature of experience arising in and affecting consciousness.

It is worth recognizing that we are all different. We have different strengths, weaknesses, interests, etc. And we all react to stimuli differently. I would claim, and it shouldn’t be hard to buy into, that consciousness is highly correlated to our brain. That is, your consciousness does not exist beyond your brain. I cannot be consciously aware of the thoughts in my wife’s mind as they arise. To use a mathematical term, consciousness and the brain are one-to-one and onto. So what does this do to our pond? It shapes the pond. No pond looks the same. It can experience very similar stimuli, but due to the contours of the pond, or the natural function of one’s brain (to draw the connection I am trying to make), we will interpret, react, or behave differently to similar stimuli, even if only slightly.

Now there is so much more to touch on but I will leave it here for now. I think that there are many implications of understanding reality as we look at consciousness in more depth. I soon hope to write about how the introspection of consciousness leads you to find that there is no self, no ego that we call “I” residing in our heads, acting as the experiencer. But I will also want to use this and my discussions with others, as a foundation to continue to talk about what we can think or say about consciousness. More to come.

Ideals of an Ethos (Part 2): Knowledge

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I continue, today, with the second part of this drawn out series I have created to talk about the ideals that I believe create a necessary foundation that allows us to live in the present moment. That is not to say that in doing what I write about today, you are living in the present moment. Rather, it is a means by which doing so can be more fulfilling and rewarding.

We cannot always be in a state of living in the present moment. We must plan, we must exist and be a part of a chaotic society just by means of survival. What I am promoting is a means by which our state of mind is in the best place it can be moment to moment, even when ideal conditions are not available. I intend to look further into this in my final post of this series, but it is worth mentioning that living in the present moment, even when the right external conditions offer themselves, is a very difficult task. And for many, this task borders on impossible. That is why I believe a strong foundation of ideals, rather than just a single ethos, creates a path to peace and happiness that is much easier to connect with. Without further adieu, allow me to explain my thoughts on knowledge.

Knowledge

Like part one of this series, Honesty, where I argue that being honest is a method that intrinsically forces us to face what is, I think of knowledge as our pursuit for truth beyond ourselves. This creates a give and take system of sorts; provide truth to others and (this may not be obvious) ourselves, then compliment this by seeking truth elsewhere. Learn, grow, and seek to discover what is true about the nature of reality. Challenge yourself. Challenge your beliefs. Question everything. Leave your mind open to the possibilities of reality.

Now, what I have just said may sound far reaching. It may sound like I am priming you so that I can then provide you with an unsubstantiated claim about the nature of reality. You can rest easy knowing that this is not the case. Of course keep an open mind, but not so open that your brain falls out. But I stand by what I said above because there is a lot about reality that does not make sense to us. We simply did not evolve to naturally understand and unlock the mysteries of reality. I will allow Lawrence Krauss to elaborate on this.

 The universe doesn’t care about our common sense. We have to force our ideas to conform to the evidence of reality rather than the other way around. And if reality seems strange, that’s okay. In fact, that’s what makes science so wonderful. It expands our minds, because it forces us to accept possibilities which in advance we may never have thought was possible.

The quote above is my favorite portion of the video. This speaks to the nature and beauty of what is. As we continue to learn and grow from our experiences, eager and open to accept what is, our minds can be open to the astounding possibilities of the nature of reality.

Do Not Fear Truth

I do remember one formative influence in my undergraduate life. There was an elderly professor in my department who had been passionately keen on a particular theory for a number of years. And one day an American visiting researcher came and he completely and utterly disproved our old man’s hypothesis. The old man strode to the front, shook his hand and said; “My dear fellow, I wish to thank you. I have been wrong these fifteen years.” And we all clapped our hands raw. That was the scientific ideal. Somebody who had [almost a lifetime invested] into theory, and he was rejoicing that he had been shown wrong, and that scientific truth had been advanced.

– Richard Dawkins, The Root of All Evil

Link to video can be found here.

Too often, our hindrance to knowledge is our own fault. We can easily close ourselves off to the possibility that we are wrong. But here I want to argue that we should not fear being wrong.

Many people when in a debate, are trying to win, rather than to discover truth. In this scenario, nobody wins. It is why the religious seem so quick to offense. They aren’t in a real pursuit of truth and what is, they (and in many cases, ourselves) are seeking validation of their own beliefs. But if you instead take on these sorts of challenges honestly and with a desire for truth, not fearing being wrong, you will reach two possible conclusions, neither of which we should fear:

1.) You are “still” correct and thus your understanding of what is true of reality appears sound.

2.) You are proven wrong. But this is for but a moment in time because you have in fact won again. You now know what is. Your understanding of reality has been strengthened, you have grown, you have learned. How could this possibly be a bad thing?

As is shown in Richard Dawkins’ example, when we are eager to know the truth and what is with regard to the universe and reality, only good can come of it. There is no benefit to forcing reality to conform to our beliefs, rather, as Lawrence Krauss stated in the video above, our beliefs must conform to reality.

The Wonder of What Is

Knowledge is an honest pursuit of truth. This does not mean we allow our experience to mislead us to unjustified claims about the nature of the universe, and if that is what you take from this, reread this post. Perhaps the greatest aspect of learning and growing intellectually is that in many ways, knowledge is infinite. You will never learn everything. When we learn about what is, our minds will only expand and be made richer for the experience and further enlightened to new possible experiences.

There is nothing more fascinating to me than witnessing my intuition crumble, this is the moment when I allow my beliefs to conform to reality, which as Lawrence Krauss points out, is how it should be, and it is quite obviously true. This can occur everywhere we look. There is absolute wonder when we look at the night sky and observe a sliver of the majesty of our universe, meanwhile recognizing that we are every bit the universe as the awe which we are partaking of. We can consider the forces we understand intuitively, and yet, don’t understand at all– Gravity, for instance. And perhaps most beautiful of all, our minds. Do you understand the nature of consciousness? The inner workings and the depth of understanding left to be discovered at the dwellings of our skull is endless.

There is a universe and beyond of knowledge to be attained, and every bit that we grasp is more fulfilling and rewarding than any “selfie” or reality show, or follower on our twitter account. I urge you to connect with reality as you allow a pursuit of truth to be the rewarding experience I promise it will be. In closing, I will let Neil deGrasse Tyson send you off with a video I actually posted last week. I will put it here for convenience.