Sunday, November 4, 2012

Astounded by Reality

I am astounded by reality. When I think about what I am, what everyone is, and what the universe is, I am amazed by the magnitude of it all. Of course we do not have all of the answers. However when I take a step back from everyday life and try to get an idea of the part of the picture that we seem to understand, I am in awe!

When I imagine that, the observable physical universe started with the seemingly bizarre event that we call the Big Bang (really a misnomer) and that it led to all THIS, I am overwhelmed with wonder. How all that we call energy and matter, and even time itself came to be in that instant.  How over immense periods of time stars and planets formed. How chemistry on Earth led to life. How life evolved from single cell organisms on to creatures of astounding variety and complexity. How humans came to be. How the great mystery of consciousness came about. How over a relatively short time period (but from my point of view a long time period), people developed culture, science, technology, civilization etc. The totality of it all is really beyond comprehension.

The way that the universe got from the Big Bang to the world today in our tiny piece of the Cosmos is a mind- boggling wonder of wonders that most people scarcely think about.  Often I stop to ponder how odd it is that in this little corner of the Universe it has thus far cumulated into cars, gourmet food, Shakespeare, bad television, Mozart, Da Vinci, pop music, war, politics, capitalism, communism, Nazism, morality, computers, on and on and on! The path that reality has taken seems so long and strange yet it is the fabric of our existence.

As I alluded to above, I find consciousness to be one of the most baffling phenomena of it all. What is this thing that we call “Self?” I have read a bunch of books and articles on it. It is still very mysterious.  A belief that seems common, though not universal, with both researchers as well as modern philosophers is that when a certain high level of information processing organization occurs, the phenomena that we call consciousness ensues. I believe that this set of theories and beliefs likely to be true. Yet as David Chalmers points out in The Conscious Mind, this is an extremely unsatisfying explanation if one is intuitively trying to get at the nature of what we call awareness!

No doubt there are wonders that are yet undiscovered. However, maybe in some areas our view of the big picture is nearly complete. Perhaps the above explanation of consciousness is pretty much all there is to it and science just needs to fill in the details. In regards to awareness and our minds, current theories just seem so inadequate. I feel a similar sense of not really intuitively understanding the seemingly paradoxical concepts relating to the Big Bang, Quantum Physics, Time, singularities, the nature of matter and energy and thus existence itself, etc.

Yet it may very well be that my brain, which evolved to mostly deal with hard practical problems of survival and reproduction on a tough planet whose rules are mostly governed by animal behavior, chemistry and Classical Physics, is just not capable of intuitively understanding concepts such as consciousness, the Big Bang, Time itself, etc. It is a wonder that we are beginning to get at these elusive truths in the form of scientific observation, theories, experiments and mathematics. Alas, real gut level comprehension may elude us forever.

Some will attribute much of this wondrous Universe to a God. Personally I see little evidence of the existence such a Being. However the reality of such an entity is possible. If there is a God I would guess it to be very, very different from that conceived by most religions and philosophies. There are so many rarely discussed possibilities that seem much more likely then those traditionally conceived. Just one example, a variation on Deism comes to mind. Imagine a super powerful intelligent entity that created the part of the Universe that we can observe. This Being is not omnipotent and needs to play by the rules and laws of a much larger Universe. It is extremely long lived on the order of tens of billions of years but not necessarily immortal. This Being cares little for humanity or what we call morality. I do not believe that this hypothetical entity exists. I do think it to me more likely then the traditional conception of God. I describe it just an example of many possibilities.

We humans in 2012 are traveling the cusp to time. We find ourselves awake and aware in an enormous Universe that has been here for billions of years. All the past has gone before. The future has not has happened yet (Many Physicists contend that there is nothing special about the forward movement of time and such may just be based upon our perception. I cannot claim to fully understand this concept and I find it near impossible to write a Blog from that perspective!). We are only able to look back at all that has gone before and wonder about what is to come.

I am hesitant to recommend too many books on these topics as advances in our knowledge quickly make information obsolete. I love all the writings of Carl Sagan. He combined astronomy, physics, biology, history, culture, philosophy, as well as a very humanistic and tolerant worldview to weave a picture of the universe that very much parallels my own. Of course Stephen Hawking’s writings on physics and the nature of the Universe are classic.

In terms of biology, evolution and what I call the philosophy of science and understanding I agree with much of the worldview espoused by Richard Dawkins. However, I find Dawkins to be too angry and disrespectful towards those whom he disagrees with for me to advocate for his writings too strongly. Daniel Dennett and David Chalmers have really good books and articles on the subject of consciousness.

There are many others thinkers of note, some that I have read of and I am sure some that I have not. There is much exploration available to the curious person. We live a great time to possess and inquisitive mind!

I think that if and when we discover extraterrestrial intelligence it will in the very least help and change our perspective on many of these issues. Imagine how such a discovery will impact upon our views concerning science, philosophy, our place in the Universe, and almost everything else! In the meantime, I urge everyone to take a step back and think about the ALL.


Anonymous said...

Hello Brian,

It is indeed difficult contemplating even briefly the facts of the universe and of life and of consciousness without being overawed by a sense of wonder.

I remain deeply sceptical of the contention (for it is no more than that) that consciousness is but the ability to process information beyond a certain threshold.

It seems to be intellectually fashionable nowadays to see everything in the most empirical of terms, and I for one don't buy into this. Pure empiricism has its place - and a very important place it is too - but it must not be insisted upon in every context: it has its limits. I cannot, for instance, demonstrate empirically that I love my children: the human mind does not work like this. Empiricism can only be insisted upon if we are prepared to reject a big part of ourselves, and I, for one, am not prepared to do that.

Neither am I satisfied by the contention that the Big Bang "explains" our existence. Any child in Bible class will ask the obvious question "If God made everything, who made God?" Similarly, I think I am entitled to ask what caused the Big Bang to occur. No doubts physicists may some day find the answer to this: it may be something to do with quantum fluctuations or whatever - it is sure to be something that will go way over my head. but even if the Big Bang can be explained by the laws of physics, the question will still remain: "Why are the laws such and not otherwise?" Or, indeed, "Why do laws have to exist at all?"

Just as God is an unsatisfactory explanation because we canot go back further than God ("Who created God?") so, similarly, no matter what explanation science comes up with, the question will remain: "But why so?" There cannot be a "primal cause" because the primal cause will have to explain its own existence, and that becomes circular. Why does the universe exist? Because the laws of physics dicate that it should. Why do the laws of physics exist? They just do - now shut up! Hmmm....

Brian Joseph said...

Hi tom - As I tried to get at, this questions are indeed mind bending. As I also tried to get at above, I fear, but am not completely certain, that real understanding may elude us forever.

For a fascinating but reason based exploration of how conciseness may be a little more then just "processing power" I recommend David Chalmers "The Conscious Mind".

Anonymous said...

Hello Brian, it's Himadri here, not Tom! :) and yes, I'd agree that full understanding will elude us for ever.

Ryan said...

The Japanese have a philosophical concept known as "Yugen." It literally means "deep," "dim" or "mysterious." But in a more abstract way its a feeling or sense of wonder at our world and universe that cannot be accurately expressed with words. I totally know what you are trying to say here.

You're right, there aren't many great writers who can write about such things. I love Richard Dawkins, but he is too strident. The other writers who may be capable are probably scientists, and scientists aren't the best at writing for non-scientists.

I really enjoyed this post. Thanks for that.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Himadri - Sorry about the typo! My head must be too stuck in contemplating the Cosmos!

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Ryan - One thing about the sense of wonder that we are discussing is that it is amazing at how many people seem to miss it!

As I alluded to above, I find Carl Sagan to be such a great writer who is a scientist who writes for non - scientists.

Lucy said...

I really like the Japanese concept "Yugen" mentioned by Ryan - other languages can so often encapsulate ideas better than we can in English!

I wish I knew more about physics and the universe. However, my current ignorant state doesn't stop me from being amazed by reality and my existence :p There's so much to learn and to contemplate.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Lucy - I would say that a basic and surface understanding of quantum physics and cosmology is all that I have have. I agree one does not need to know all that much to be in awe.

I had never heard of "Yugen" myself but I want to know more about it!

Tom Cunliffe said...

Hi Brian - As a Quaker I have no problem with a non-dogmatic, non-specific, non-doctrinal concept of a mysterious other who is behind our amazing existence. This does not mean that I believe that we have a soul or live in some other form beyond death, just that the mystery we sense in the world around us needs more than science to explain it.

I hope the US elections today give you the outcome you wish for. Perhaps you have seen this alternative perspective on the US polls

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Tom - I really do acknowledge that there really is an entire spectrum of possibilities out there as to the nature of the universe as well as our own existence. I do tend to favor a scientific explanation to the "nuts and bolts stuff" and tend to think that if there is something or someone that we would roughly define as a God, then there will be something of a rational and scientific explanation behind him or her.

Thnaks for the link. I am not that all surprised as I knew that Obama is very popular around the world. I noticed that the poll did not include Israel, I have recently heard that Obama is not very popular there and I think that I have heard that polls back that up too. I am very interested in politics and even thought of putting up a blog post but decided that it really did not fit the character of my site. With that said I make no bones about it that I very much want to see Obama will the election.

Caroline said...

Entirely fascinating topic.
I'm not tempted to read Dawkins though, I don't think he and I would agree much but to a certain extent I'm still grateful for his work as it does at least provoke people to think about God, existence, ...
Have you ever read Krishnamurti?
Thas is one of the rare thinkers or spiritual people I agree with a lot. And Ken Wilber. I find his writings very interesting.
Let's for a good outcome of these elections although one of the most important political papers in Germany had an article yesterday which stated more or less "we Europeans couldn't care less who is going to win, all we care a biout is whether there will be war or not and that can come from both sides"... Highly, highly problematic statement.
And so phony.

Sharon Wilfong said...

Hi Brian:
Very interesting article. You're a good writer and I appreciate your honest exploration of truth.

I read some of the comments here and it seems the idea that God has no beginning or end is a stumbling block to many people. And maybe the belief that God created everything into existence is too simple for some to accept.

I embrace the mystery that God is infinite. Because of this I see how nature and all existence "declares Him" as the Psalmist says. It's obvious that everything is so ordered and with purpose.

It also explains the problem of evil. Evil is no evolutionary accident but a rebellion against God. As Dostoevsky's Ivan said in "Brothers Karazamov": Without God the intellect can justify any act, no matter how cruel or heinous. Comparing nations founded on Christian principles compared to those that aren't shout that truth out loud and clear.

Finally, I know God is a personal God who loves me because as amazing as the universe is and as wonderful it is to contemplate it, it means nothing without personal relationship.

Personal relationships, in the family unit, friendships etc. are really more important to us than anything else.

Evolution is only about survival-and at the expense of others-. There's a great emptiness in that. No purpose, no meaning just existence.

Anyway, I have enjoyed reading your posts. They are thought-provoking.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Caroline - The thing about Dawkins is that I agree with him on most things factually, it is his tone and intolerance that I have a beef with.

I have not read Krishnamurti but I just looked at the Wikipedia article on him and he seems very interesting.

As I alluded to I really do like Barack Obama, with that said he has been much more militaristic then some folks know. There is certainly a possibility of war with Iran if he is reelected.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Sharon - Thanks for the good kind words. Your comments are also reasoned and clearly thought out.

As I mentioned I cannot say for certain that your conception of the universe is faulty. It is not how things seem to work when I look around however.

Probably one area where I would quibble a bit as to what you wrote is about the evolutionary process. True, at times it is about survival at the expense of others, but it is also survival though cooperation, altruism, the family unit and I would argue love. Like the universe it really seems to be a mixed bag!

Thanks for commenting!

vb said...

its an interesting read as gazing use to be my favorite pass time even when I didn't know about anything about light years..The mystery and the thoughts allure me both scientifically and philosophically..In India lot of people go by astrology they believe that the moment of stars influence once behavior their present and future though its a field of argument for ages..supporters say its just like the moon influencing the tides...Setting that aside , the questions and the answers and the universe that put forward is something that make me want to know and learn more about it...

Brian Joseph said...

Hi VB - You are making me think, it has been far too long since I have actually sat down and looked at the stars. It is so amazing!

Andrew Blackman said...

Great post, Brian! What's amazing to me is how we take this all as so normal. You're right that when you look at it all, it's truly bizarre! I was just reading a special section in NewScientist magazine where different scientists tried to answer the question of What is Real? The answers became very convoluted, and all ended up with basically "not much".

One argument that really freaks me out is the one that says we are very likely to be living in someone else's computer simulation. Of all the great theories we've come up with over the millennia to explain our origins, that one strikes me as being the most depressing!

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Andrew - Thanks for the good word.

Though I do not take it as definitive, In "Consciousness Explained" Daniel Dennet makes a somewhat convincing case that reality could not be a computer simulation.

In the same book he also explains that our senses are only perceiving a narrow band of reality in terms of vision, hearing, taste, etc. The band is so narrow that what we perceive is really not an accurate representation of reality.

Thanks for commenting!

Rick S said...

Brian, thanks for this thoughtful post. My mind also reels at the enormity of the history of the universe. We've only possessed the capability of sending or receiving interstellar communications for about sixty years, which is just a blink in the tens of billions of years since the big bang. Think of all the civilizations which may have been born, thrived, and snuffed out in those tens of billions of years. The odds that one of them is thriving right now seems relatively small. Until we prove we can survive for at least a few million years and spread our DNA to other star systems, we haven't accomplished anything of note. Deep space travel is much harder than it looks on TV, but if we stay here, our game will undoubtedly end soon enough from war or disease or asteroid impact.

Brian Joseph said...

Hey Rick. Glad that you stopped by.

Indeed human extinction is a real possibility. It is hard to know the likelihood of there being a relatively nearby intelligent civilization. I am sure that you are familiar with the Drake Equation, it depends upon what numbers one puts into it.

Of course even if we do not make it much longer as a species, I think that it is really something that at least for a short time, the Universe became conscious and intelligent in us!

Maria Behar said...

Hey, Brian!

Sorry I haven't visited in quite a while... I've been a little busy. In the future, I will definitely make time to come over, because you always have such FASCINATING, intellectually stimulating posts!! In fact, I'd love to reprint this one as a guest post on my nonfiction blog, "MindSpirit Book Journeys". Hope you agree to let me do so!!

This is one of the very BEST posts you have written yet!! (Although I do like everything you write!) What I find immensely interesting about this one is that, in spite of all the wonder and awe you express at the magnificent mysteries of the universe, you do not ascribe any of them to the design of an omnipotent, eternal God. But I must confess that I myself have been grappling with this issue for a very long time now....

I was brought up Catholic, and have also been a member of one non-denominational, although Protestant, church. I have also delved to some extent into Eastern religions, as well as pagan ones. I have a lot of doubts and questions. Yet, some part of me does cling to a belief in an all-powerful deity, the ONE true God. I continue to search and question, even while I cling to this God, most especially in the person of Jesus Christ, to whom I am immensely attracted.

Still, I am far from being a fundamentalist. I certainly don't believe that the Bible is inerrant, as many fundamentalists claim. How can it be, when there are passages in which God orders mass killings? Why would a supposedly benevolent God single out the Jewish people as His 'chosen', and ignore all the other people of the earth? Why would a kind, loving God order the killing of every Egyptian firstborn, just because the Pharaoh refused to allow the Jews to leave Egypt? And mind you, the MAIN reason he wouldn't let them leave was because God Himself had hardened his heart!!! This is all in the Bible.

So....I continue to search. I continue to read. I am SO frustrated by the fact that I have to work for a living!! I have TWO jobs, and neither one is satisfactory. Both take too much time away from me, time that I could better use to ponder such questions... Life is SO unfair. While I strain at the bit, wanting more than anything in the world to have the time to study, to let my mind roam free on intellectual and spiritual heights, people like Paris Hilton use their money to fritter life away in the meaningless existence of partying, useless intoxication of the senses, and promiscuity!!!! If I had her money, I would spend my time studying, writing, thinking, researching, meditating!!! Of course, I would also contribute to charity. I would volunteer my time and donate my money for causes such as the pro-life movement, children's rights, women's issues (domestic violence being the most important) and saving the environment.

Well, I'm doing the best I can...


Please let me know about the guest post. And thanks for listening! I really needed to vent...

Brian Joseph said...

Hey Maria - Once again you honor me. You can definitely repost this entry.

I actually have similar feelings about the Bible as you do. Though I do not take the stories as factual. I find that the philosophies presented in the New Testament to be noble, world changing and wonderful. I do agree about the Old Testament. My knowledge of them is a little sketchy, but I believe that some of the Gnostics believed that the God of the Old Testament was an evil Satan like force and that Jesus came to put things right. To me that actually makes some sense.

I certainly sympathize with your struggle for answers, no matter if there is an omnipotent God or not, the whole thing is really perplexing and mind bending!

I also share your thoughts and frustrations on free time. I work Really long hours myself. If I had the luxury of not needing to work I too would spend real time helping others as well as in self - improvement. Of course there are folks who rally have no free time, no access to books, or so stressed by war, disease or other hardships that all they can manage to do is survive, so in a way we are lucky.

Maria Behar said...

Hi, again!

Well, "honor to whom honor is due"! These words just popped into my mind...I wonder if I've heard or seen them somewhere before,..

Yes, I agree that Jesus "came to put things right", although I'm afraid that statement would not quite sit right with those Christians of a fundamentalist stripe... Sometimes I wonder if the Gnostics were right, after all, when they viewed the God of the Old Testament as an evil entity. However, there are parts of the New Testament in which divine harshness is also present. I won't quote any verse numbers now, though, because I don't remember them.

You're so right -- there's always someone who's worse off than we are. It still galls me, however, that people like P.H. exist, and they're the ones who seem to have all the money!!!

Thanks for allowing me to post your interesting article on my blog!! : )

Brian Joseph said...

Hey Maria -

Thanks again!

I too become frustrated by the likes of people like Paris Hilton. Of course there are folks - like Hitler and Stalin :)

LouH said...

Do not wish for money Ms. Behar, desire is a root cause of suffering.

We should all strive for compassion and contentment.

Brian Joseph said...

Hello Lou-I would argue that like everything else moderation is the key when it comes to desire and money. Some desire is beneficial to the individual as well to society. When it goes overboard undesirable things happen to the individual and yo society.