Thursday, September 24, 2009

On Confronting Sentience

The very nature of language makes discussion of consciousness difficult.

For instance, consider the question, "Are you conscious?"

Break it down: "Are" - form of verb "to be", or the state of existence.

"You" -- the "second person" pronoun that describes your own "I".

"Conscious" -- having this consciousness, this sentience, this
self-awareness that "I" know that I have & experience -- and that, through
this shared experience, I assume you have, too.

Hopefully you can get the gist of the sentence, because its very structure
is an exposition of the nature of our perceptions: that there is me -- "I"
-- here, and everything else is "out there".

The zen philosopher Alan Watts was a man before his time, and we would do
well to consider his discussions of consciousness. He considered this
duality of "I" v. "everything else" an illusion of our senses, and that we
are all the same (Buddhist-esque concept of) "Big Self", only separated by
various eddies of decreasing entropy, of which "everyone" includes "their"
"own" perceptions.

To paraphrase Watts: an apple tree "apples". And so too, the Universe
"peoples". In his model, we "people" have in us aspects of the Universe, in
the same way an apple has the seeds to make other apple trees. Further,
there are "principles" of the apple tree, from which these "apples" grow.

Again, we are stretching the limits of language when discussing these
matters. An apple, until it falls, is part of an apple tree...but clearly it is not
the apple tree.

In the same way, our Universe is awash with grandiose forces that almost
defy human comprehension -- yet we live in a miniscule eddy of these
swirling forces, which is calm enough for an emergent principle of the
Universe to have emerged: Human beings, our little sub-eddies and pockets of
"self" that peer out at the Universe, perceiving in "own" particular ways.
We are sensor-pods and brains, connected to the Universe in ways that allow
us to _experience_ the Universe, as well as remember these experiences, and
contemplate them.

Now, Alan Watts may have gone out on a limb when he postulated that even the
very rocks of our world are conscious, but "just at a lower level"
(paraphrased) -- I'm a bit too sentience-chauvinistic to consider rocks
"conscious", even a little bit. Maybe this is a limitation of my own
perceptions, which (say) if regarding rocks at the proper time scale, would
observe this elusive emergent property of parts of the Universe --
consciousness -- from even the very rocks themselves.

But Watts, in his genius, did give us one of many neat turns of phrase in
these speculations: "...but Watch Out! The rocks will come alive!"

And you know, he's right. We know for a fact that evolution happens, and it
starts with "rocks" of various sorts being formed in stars, from which
eventually we have -- at least here on Earth -- ended up with organic
compounds, for which all scientific evidence indicates has produced human

BUT, the face that us human beings are "I's" -- conscious individuals --
continues to perplex science. I submit that those who have said that
consciousness is deeply intertwined with, and an integral part of, our
Universe, are indeed on the right track. Further, if we admit to ourselves
that the only way we "know" our neighbor is "conscious" is through our
shared experience of this noumenon, then we would do well to consider
other "shared experiences" that seem to be part of our Human Condition.

This is all lead-up to my speculation: "Consciousness" -- that is,
"Sentience" -- is only known to us through perceptions of the behaviors of
us packages of brains and sensory equipment that we call "sentient beings".

But it is clear that consciousness is also, at the very least, an emergent
property of our Universe. I wonder if it doesn't make sense to decouple
this "counsciousness" from our organic packages, instead regarding it as
part of the Universe itself, from which we gain the illusion of being
"individuals" through the nature of our own particular organic packages, our

_I_ certainly don't know how we would design an experiment to determine if
that is the case. But if we broaden our notions of science to include
"share experiences that are difficult to measure", we might have a start at
understanding from where this "consciousness" arises...and if any part of it
persists beyond the destruction of our own packages of organic matter.

Wishful thinking? Maybe. But definitely worth exploring, if only to push
the boundaries of a fundamental essences of our Human Condition: the
Science of Mind.

Thank you for reading.


Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Regarding the Direct Experience of Reality: "Now" or "Suchness" (My take)

Having affixed such a grandiose title to this post, I have no clue how I'm going to address the subject.

Everybody has their own philosophy. But I guess a "philosopher" is just someone who tells others about the philosophy that they've adopted for themselves, and a "theologian" is just another kind of philosopher, albeit with God(s) in his considerations.

Or so it seems to me. I could be wrong.

Anyway, so to this matter of direct experience: I owe a friend a deep debt of gratitude for introducing me to the philosophies of Alan Watts.

Watts was ahead of his time. But though he passed away in the 70's, there is a wealth of texts, recordings, etc. where he tries to explain his particular brand of "regarding suchness", aka "zen".

Here are some of his take on things -- including "figure" v. "ground":

9.5 minutes of philosophy -- just what you always wanted, right? But it's illustrated, so hopefully you enjoyed it & weren't too bored.

As you might have seen, Watts is very much into finding pairs of things that rely on each other to exist: figure v. ground, apple v. apple tree, and so forth.

Consider, then, the space-time continuum...that is to say, "Everything". What is the thing this is paired with? Does all of existence rely on a non-existence to exist?

Well, consider where "we" fit in: We live in an "eternal Now", which is the very thing we are experiencing right now.

And that the thing: direct experience of "Right Now" seems to be taken for granted. And once you start becoming more aware of "What's Happening Right Now", you can't help but wonder: how am I here to experience all this?

So "your 'I'" can also be the opposite of "Everything". When you look out through your eyes, there's "you", and then there's "Everything Else...the Stuff Out There".

Some folks stop there, using that "Watts pairing" to conclude that consciousness is non-existence. That's interesting, and might tickle the funny bone (oh look, a zen moment ;P ) but clearly that is absurd, because I'm certain that I exist, and I hope you have that certainty too -- because sometimes, that's all you've got.

Maybe we have it backwards. If "I" exist, could "I" be everything, and the other side of the "Watts pair" be, in effect, "non-existence"? Well, we could talk about that, but I do know that we aren't going to get far in our philosophies if we aren't pragmatic about it...and that's where some Kantian thinking comes in.

Because, in essence: if you are holding a rock, you are actually processing a set of senses that "gives you the feeling of holding a rock" -- we see it, touch it, feel it's weight, and so forth. But if this "approximation" of the direct experience of holding a rock is close enough to the _Ideal Concept_ of holding a rock...what do we gain by arguing that we "might not be holding a rock at all?"

Because as our successive approximations of direct experience of those phenomena approach that "Ideal", there's got to be a point where we "give in" to the evidence, and say, "Fine, I'm 'really' holding a rock." Because we are close enough to "certain" to make that determination...and when bringing this to the practical level of concepts and communication, we just say "I'm holding a rock", instead of "my epistemology has convinced me that I am, in fact, holding a rock".

(BTW, I sometimes call these different ways of arriving at knowledge "our epistemologies"...because what might be enough "direct experience" of "evidence" for one person, won't be enough for (say) a "Doubting Thomas". Just like "everybody has a philosophy", we could add to that "everybody has an epistemology", which is the sensations of Reality that they trust.)

Anyway, so one take on zen is this: It is about figuring out *who* is partaking in this "direct experience" that you are eternally in...if anything.

I've rambled on quite a bit. If you made it this far, I thank you for taking the time to read my screeds, and I hope i was able to get my point across.

Take care,

Thursday, July 16, 2009

My comment in response to the fine work of the Right Reverend JC Christian

Actually, I must raise my sword in defense of the lay Mormons, or anyone who has been indoctrinated (and even "endocrinated") into a religion that tells lies (i.e., pretty much all of them)...

In almost all religions, there are a full spectrum of adherents, ranging from almost complete apostasy to rigid fundies...and it is the latter that cause all the trouble.

Interestingly, the more non-ignorant the adherent is, the less fundamentalist they tend to be.

I have a good friend/ex-boss who happens to be Mormon, but I don't think he's much into the alternate history espoused by said religion. (Or any religion.) In other words, he's not a literalist.

[ Though, I guess I should mention he is a Glenn Beck fan, it has seemed to me that he disagrees with Beck when the latter acts like a screaming weenie.

And even if we doubt Beck's sincerity when he does so, he does "say the right thing" from time to time, such as advocating non-violent protest in the manner of Gandhi and MLK.

But I digress. ]

Then there was my old almost girlfriend, who was raised Mormon...a few years ago, she told my pastor that she was a "recovering Mormon", and he said, "that's okay, I'm a recovering Catholic." Funny to hear that come from a Catholic priest...

So hearing his courageous words helped this one realize that there _is_ that
wide spectrum of religious belief in any religion... AND at all levels of their hierarchies.

There was another time, when the gentleman said -- in a _sermon_ -- "the stars do not always shine on the Vatican." (If Bill Donahue had been in the audience when he said that, I fear we'd have had to put him in 5-point restraints.)

But, this was probably the best way for the man to carry out his pastoral mission. Men and women of conscience know the guy is is my Mormon friend...and as are plenty of Mormons.

In summary: religion is a funny thing...and some religious detractors are more "literalist" than the religious adherents.

Indeed, if you were to bring up one of hundreds of Bible contradictions to a mainstream theologian, she would most likely roll her eyes, pat you on the head, and offer to buy you an ice cream cone.

Take care,

(In response to Men with huge forearms holding long, hard, rigid shafts of steel

Friday, July 3, 2009

Catholic News Agency: Birth Control Apologetics

Observe the lack of logic or reason of any sort in the following expression of dogma:


But of course.

Participants also discussed state legislation that would have rolled back the statutes of limitation on civil lawsuits that could be brought for alleged sexual abuse of minors, regardless of how long ago the alleged abuse occurred. The “Child Victims Act,” sponsored by Assemblywoman Margaret Markey (D-Maspeth), had the support of the Rabbinical Council of America, but was strongly opposed by the Catholic Church in New York for targeting private institutions.

But of course.

Here's the full dope:

Another reason for the RC's to fade away

Story of a young man's struggle with a Jesuit high school:

In a nutshell: the guy saddled with thousands of bullshit debt...but was left to be homeless.

And if the angry, angry man known as "Bill Donahue" were to hear of this story, what do you think he would say?

The RC's have had their chance to correct the huge systemic injustices and abuses in its structure: Now it is time to call for their dissolution.