We rarely think about this. We think existence worth talking about started when hunters and gatherers settled into agrarian pursuits 10,000 years ago.
These are big numbers. Most of us have more manageable notions. The Gregorian calendar starts counting with the birth of Christ, and so we are barely into the 3rd millennium.
North Koreans are even better situated Their 'meaningful existence' calender starts with the birth of Kim IL-sung on April 15, 1912. On this reckoning, 2017 becomes Juche 106.
No matter which calendar is used, human beings have been busy, busy, busy.
The notion of the Anthropocene - a single species precipitating a global epoch - is regularly talked about. Everywhere one looks the world is heating up, burning down or flooding.
Economies are self-destructing. American President Donald Trump is warning Kim Jung-un that North Korea may not make it to Juche 107.
Although terrifying winds are blowing, our quarrels and concerns seem increasingly minuscule, our projects smaller still.
- "What would it take to get us talking about what is going on?"
- "Would we rather die than admit a sliver of complicity in what is happening?"
How Children Become Adults:
It took a half-century for an explanation of the way human beings treat one another to cross my mind. This is embarrassing. Now that I glimpse why curious, empathetic children turn into mutually-dismissive adults, clues seem to be everywhere.There is nothing personal in this metamorphosis. Adults are not interested in what other adults really think about anything because big questions are all resolved during childhood.
Every adult knows what the world consists of, what good and bad look like and what agendas are important. With so much resolved, there is nothing to discuss. Adults who do not understand this are probably up to no good.
This almost certainly instinctive attitude has many benefits. Mutual indifference sets the stage for breeding, profit-taking and gossiping.
In these pursuits, it helps to be confident about one’s prowess and opinions. The prowess part is easy. Strut around, put on lip-stick, do push-ups ... and one is good to go.
Feeling confident about opinions is harder. Every possible conclusion is provisional, inadequate and, strictly speaking, wrong.
All we can hope for is to be more or less wrong; and even this requires more experiment and discussion.
The solution to this worrisome business is to refuse to discuss the credentials of one's opinions.
I have sketched how this works:
The Arc of Conversing:
Children soak up information from families and communities until puberty. At this point, interest in familiars drops off and attention switches to strangers.The interests, values, biases and avocations boiling out of initial ‘information dump’ are pursued with single-minded intensity. Individuals focus one eye on their accomplishments and good looks—no bragging opportunity or mirror goes unrequited. The other eye is kept peeled for breeding opportunities, profitable ventures and charismatic strangers.
Until a few hundred years ago, these were excellent strategies. With few technological or cultural assets available, children needed to make good use of local people and resources and then look further afield. Even in these circumstances, indiscriminately soaking up information declines dramatically at puberty. Skills, interests and attitudes must be curated, sharpened and put into practice. Smiles must be replaced with sneers. Conversations must henceforth be trivial, involving already internalized notions or projects putting these notions into play.
This is such a dramatic change that it makes sense to say that puberty is the point at which birthing occurs. Everything up to this moment involves the growth of potentially-independent individuals. So-called birth events nine months after conception are trivial compared to the metamorphosis occurring when puberty transforms children into adults. What’s not to like? If families and communities have done their job, nothing remains to be discussed. If they have failed in this regard, here is nothing to talk about.
All is not well for other reasons. The post-industrial revolution world has been bastardizing natural proceedings into commercial and political opportunities. The families and communities necessary for wholesome childhood experiences are being obliterated in urbanized, outsourced life-styles. Nations and corporations are sending athletic prodigies to national and international competitions and packaging the results for consumption.This practice dates back to the Roman Coliseum featuring gladiators, lions and other Christian entertainments.
Leaders continue to find it useful to twitch mirror neurons with spectator opportunities. Quasi-experiences nurture politically-manageable, economically-fruitful voyeuristic lives.
The technologies twisting the world a sports/entertainment complex also provide individuals with more information than they can cope with. These resources reduce the perceived requirement for individual curiosity, learning and socialization, even as it makes the need more acute.
In addition, almost every person modern children encounter is likely to be a professional caregiver, a casual acquaintance or a stranger. I think this means these children risk becoming adults without a sense of time and place, empathy or responsibility.
Add economic globalization and human beings are fast becoming one another’s resource: Everyone sees everyone as an adversary, an economic opportunity or as nothing to speak of. The next time your phone rings, there is a good chance that it will not be a dear friend but a telemarketer.
To the extent that childhood is urbanized, automated and outsourced, the adults children become will be sanctioned to torment and exploit one another. They will not give a damn about anyone because they only got to know a few people when they were children.
The world is already full of just such men and women. Nothing can be added to or subtracted from their biases, faiths and notions of entitlement. No conversation considers the irony that mutual indifference and willingness to exploit guarantees that the rich will continue getting richer.
The results are already astounding. In 2017, the world’s wealthiest 8 people possessed $468 billion. This is a lot of money, but not much when divided among half the human population, which is the rest of the story. Another statistic rounds out this picture. Corporations and businesses presently spend almost $800 billion a year advertising goods and services. If 50% of this expenditure was vested with the world’s poor—perhaps by paying better wages—their assets would double in one year!
Doubling the resources of half the world’s population in one year sounds like an excellent stimulus program! The fact that this could be accomplished by you and I crowing half as much about goods and services they will never see sounds like a moral imperative.
If you are reading this, you also have a name. Reading and writing are impossible unless newborns are named and lots of other cultural stuff occurs.
This is a wonderful and perilous circumstance.Trillions of creatures pass through existence every second without noticing that they are alive.
How did human beings get so lucky? As we often remind ourselves, we have Big Brains. What we overlook is that these Big Brains are not the whole story. Big Brains are necessary for subjective lives. They are not necessary and sufficient.
Ten, twenty, thirty thousand years ago, our ancestors started naming objects, animals and children. They started making sure that children understood that those sounds were their names.
Big brains made languages possible. Languages and big brains caused music, mathematics, sciences ... to root up. Economies and populations flourished.
These successes spawned dangerous conceits. Human beings started talking about God incarnating persons for Divine purposes. We started talking about evolution with human beings at the top of the ladder.
No matter which fantasy we indulged - some manage both - notions of supremacy and entitlement remain insatiable.
This arrogance may be short-lived. Convinced that God or evolution fashioned persons - and not creatures capable of becoming persons - we think we deserve everything we see. We speak of leaving something for future generations, but insist upon getting our hands on it so it can be properly directed.
Ironically, since such God-like creatures should only have to wish for horses to ride, we have been outsourcing many of the responsibilities transforming human beings into persons.
Before the human beings to persons ratio gets worse, we might want to take a second look at what is going on.
- The processes generating conscious episodes are more complicated and interesting than the imaginary worlds we compile and promote into commonsense claims.
- We think these imaginary worlds are perched in a vanishingly small interval called the present situated between past and future.
- We think there must be a present because we need somewhere to store belongings and catch our breath.
This cannot be true. There are two other useful questions:
- Does it makes sense that God carved human beings out of creation for some special purpose?
- Does it make sense that human beings were distilled out of atoms and molecules in ways setting us apart from other creatures?
If the answer to both is no,where does this leave us?
I propose that everything going on is a 'local event' within the 'Big Bang Event'. You and I are not things born into an actual world. We are events in an ocean of events. We emerge, endure for a while, then subside. We distill glimpses of events into talk about objects, entities, persons and a world containing them.
Notions of objects, entities and persons are akin to taking derivatives in calculus. They involve vanishingly-small instants wherein pasts become futures and chickens and eggs take turns being first. (The Irish philosopher Bishop Berkeley referred to derivatives as the 'ghosts of departed quantities'.)
There are other challenges to realism and commonsense:
- We are only aware of a few of the events constituting our lives.
- Unless we talk to one another, we have no idea what is going on in one another's lives - and a correspondingly impoverished sense of an actual world.
- Even if an actual world existed, we could not have real-time relationships with its objects and entities. Although they seem real, objects and entities are images of historical events. Some intervals involved can be expressed in picoseconds, some are incomprehensibly long. Sunshine comes into existence 8 minutes and 20 seconds before your and my enjoyment is possible. Light from Alpha Centauri - the closest star in the Milky Way galaxy - started our way 4.5 years ago.
Since human beings remember experiences, but not intervals separating them, awarenesses and memories hang together seamlessly. Every morning my life seems to pick up from where it left off the night before.
This sets the stage for realism - the idea of an actual, external world - and narratives we think of as our lives. (I owe this understanding to Derek Parfit: Reasons and Persons, Oxford Paperbacks, 1984.)
Because we talk about experiences and organize projects based on these conversations, we conclude that an actual world exists.
Immanuel Kant referred to this as the noumenal world. Plato thought the world human beings experienced consisted of poor copies of perfect entities populating the Realm of the Forms.
I hope to persuade you that such claims cannot be true.
The conscious episodes we think of as our lives integrate memories and experiencdes with a view to predicting what will happen if we do or fail to do stuff. Such proceedings can be understood as elongated Stimulus-Response networks. Conscious episodes occur during the hyphens separating Stimuli and Responses.
As far as we know, interposing conscious episodes between stimuli and responses distinguishes human beings. However, there is no reason to assume that this capacity does not occur in other creatures on Earth or elsewhere. Consciousness is not a faculty human beings have and other creatures lack. Consciousness is a straightforward evolution of stimulus-response capabilities.The fact that conscious episodes look and feel like something is an efficient way to embody 'organic significances' so that optimal responses occur.
The arguments I offer are simple. Sophisticated individuals might wish to consider the reality described by quantum physicists.
The following is from: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Quantum_mechanics
According to one interpretation, as the result of a measurement the wave function containing the probability information for a system collapses from a given initial state to a particular eigenstate. ... The basic idea is that when a quantum system interacts with a measuring apparatus, their respective wave-functions become entangled, so that the original quantum system ceases to exist as an independent entity.
What is not often noticed is that such resolutions only benefit observers in the room. Others must make observations resolving quantum probabilities into imaginary objects, entities, events and - if they live in robust communities - notions of an actual world.
These images, gestalts, reifications ... are what realism and common sense have in mind.
To consider these issues from another vantage point, the 2013 Nobel committee recognized the Higgs Boson and Higgs field as mutually responsible for massive particles: The resistance imposed by Higgs fields meant that some events would no longer proceed at the speed of light. Without this sorting out, you and I would not exist because nothing would clump together long enough to evolve into subjectivities capable of noticing anything.
In the meantime, seeing is believing. Even though we acknowledge that appearances can be deceptive, we have not grasped that images, sensations and conscious episodes are not renderings of actual objects but more or less robust predictions of what the future will consist of. Notions of dogs, cats, trees and people are crystallized guesses of what would happen if we touched the images crossing our minds.
The sense we have of a world full of things, entities and events is a prediction distilled out of private experiences and more or less rigorous gossip.
The danger is that notions of objects and notions seem complete and perfect. They seem perfect and complete because image-generating processes include just enough consciousness to contain the images or whatever semantic contents consists of! Like mythical Cadillacs, images, concepts and thoughts come 'factory-equipped' with parking spaces.
This is why empty, bored, unfulfilled ... consciousness is rarely an issue. Experiences of unease, anxiety, inadequacy... can almost always be tracked back to some hormonal event, failed project or commercial blandishment.
- Recommendations that life-styles could do with a bit of improving occur every day.
- According to Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol, undigested beef is sometimes involved.
The point is, human beings' factory setting is that every idea, every image, every conclusion... is perfect. How could it be otherwise? The function of ideas, images, conclusions... is to improve responses. The notion that ideas, images, conclusions... could do with a bit of improvement never crosses our minds. Indeed, until communities and languages emerged, such worries would have been impossible.
This is why we prefer gossiping about the weather, the antics of public figures or the prospects of drug-addled athletes to discussing substantive issues. Only the inebriated or ideologically-driven attempt to persuade bystanders of the brilliance of their understanding.
Unfortunately, such individuals find converts more often than might be expected. I think the reason is that we are uncomfortable with deferred responses and unresolved tensions. Tucking in behind anyone with a plan dissolves the need for conscious episodes and the tensions they represent.
The resulting platoons of shoppers and soldiers can be easily deputized to seek out bargains, kill infidels and, in general, hand over the value of their lives and work.
I propose a more survivable way of thinking about what is going on:
- Each person dreams a world into existence and then imagines herself inhabiting it.
- You have your world. I have mine. There are as many imaginary worlds as there are people.
- There is no corresponding actual world.
Why do these imaginary worlds seem so real?
The most important reason is that they are distilled out of experiences and make successful responses possible.
The second reason is that they embody features of community lives.
- As far as we know, only human beings have the capacity to retain and reflect upon memories. Other creatures depend upon reflexes, conditioned responses, speed, strength, vision... to survive.
- As far as we know, whenever memories and reflections occur in communities, they spawn languages, cultures, hunting trips, ball games and notions of an actual world.
- As far as we know, only human beings have the cognitive resources necessary to organize experiences into notions of selves, events and a container world.
Since other creatures do not seem unable to regard themselves the way we do, we reassure ourselves that they do not know that they exist. This is convenient because we then conclude that they lack moral standing and can be farmed or slaughtered at will.
We treat humans this way too if ways to dehumanize them cross our minds.
What we overlook in these proceedings is that we notice and name animals and objects if and only if some hunting, farming, petting, manufacturing... project would be advantaged by sorting what is going on into manageable clumps of information.
The point is, whenever you or I see birds flying or squirrels making impossible leaps, we are glimpsing tiny portions of an unknowable reality.
Worlds conjured up based on such glimpses, worlds and populated with brief images of persons and objects ... are useful the way it is useful to throw dust in the air to see which way the wind is blowing.
This is worth thinking for another reason. Our lives are constantly changing. Consciousness has nothing to do with these changes. Awarenesses are always the result of events that have already occurred. They cannot cause themselves.
In addition, human beings have no way of knowing whether or to what extent changes are occurring. No matter how sophisticated we become, we will never be able to measure ourselves for the same reason yardsticks cannot say what they signify. Yardsticks compare things. They cannot say what the marks along their length signify.
This does not mean that human beings need to feel lonely. Along with shared dependence upon processes spawning notions of persons and the world, local possibilities and immediate problems bind us into complicated relationships. For example, every creature on the planet inherits the consequences of pollution, resource depletion and political unrest.
The good news is that many of these problems can be fixed.
The most important repair is that neither the world nor you or I exist the way we think. This confusion has been causing us to behave foolishly.
We think we really are something because we think we are some thing. We think we are tourists passing through a world populated with objects, creatures and other persons. We see ourselves as insulated from the consequences of what we get up to.
None of this is true. Geometries locating objects, entities and persons within imagined worlds depend first upon how 'far away' underwriting events happen to be, and then how 'far away' predictions project themselves. An anticipated event a year away will illuminate all the days, weeks and months between in ways that would not have occurred in the absence of this prediction and its associated planning.
In similar ways, the idea of an independently-existing actual world depends upon you and I discussing mutual events for practical reasons - building houses, organizing hunting trips, going to war... .
Finally, it is reasonable to suppose that only an infinitesimal proportion of what is going on has been generating such conversations. It is reasonable to suppose that this capacity evolved because it helps creatures like you and I prosper. Knowing that sunlight occurred 8 minutes before enjoyment is possible is part of a body of knowledge that makes satellites and GPS systems possible .
These benefits encourage us to overlook a homely truth. Awarenesses necessarily involve awareness of objects, entities, events... that have already occurred. Awareness is always awareness of... !
This means that conclusions, decisions, choices... cannot be conscious achievements. Consciousness is the fruit of events that have already occurred. The fact that these intervals are usually small does not matter.
All we can do is make predictions and compare notes.
From time to time I am aware not only of being alive but of myself being alive.
Whenever this happens I like to think of myself enjoying magisterial relationships with events responsible for these episodes. Candidates include my body, but my house, car, job, family, religion and nation are on the list. Rendered this way, everything and everyone else becomes the backdrop against which my life proceeds - and a potential resource to be harvested.
I am told that the being having these experiences and claiming these resources became identifiable August 22, 1942. This is usually referred to as being born.
My fortune is that 'my life' was judiciously encouraged. My family and community had enough resources that they could afford children, but not so much that children were prevented from prospering.
Armed with images of fetuses floating in amniotic sacs, pro-lifers insist that human beings commence nine months earlier than birthdays suggest.
This is an excellent observation but pro-lifers give up too soon. The question to ask is: why stop at conception? Why is every person not foreshadowed when their parents met? … or were imagined and conceived a generation earlier? … and so on, ad infinitum?
Conversations about ‘conception days’, ‘birthdays’, ‘death days’ … attempt to parcel up proceedings that have neither beginnings nor endings.
After a few decades of immortality fantasies, I started doing stuff to retain my status: bicycle, run, eat well, drink more than I should, bicycle, do push ups .... So far, so good ... although the equilibrium between catabolism and anabolism - between building up and tearing down - feels increasingly precarious.
When not muttering to myself or importuning strangers, I operate a tree farm near Belleville, Ontario. This has something to do with having been raised on the same farm when the principal crop involved children; and with having read Ralph Waldo Emerson's essays and Henry Thoreau's Walden in high school.
(For an audio rendering of Walden chapter 1: http://mirror.csclub.uwaterloo.ca/gutenberg/2/6/2/8/26289/ogg/26289-01.ogg.
If this whets your interest: http://www.gutenberg.org/files/26289/26289-index.html )
For such reasons, and curiosity about what is going on, my life has been seized with philosophical issues. As well, the need to survive has led me to question claims underpinning political and economic proceedings. I eventually realized that the most dangerous is the notion that free will is a human birthright - that we are souls or persons inhabiting bodies.
Ironically, the secular version is equally worrisome. The idea that human beings represent an extraordinary evolutionary achievement appears to sanction equally facile claims of entitlement. In other words, whether ' Divinely Ordained' or 'ordained divinely', the notion that human beings are special helps explain why we are now convening the biggest destruction of life since a comet eliminated the dinosaurs 65 million years ago.
Since there are no safe places on sinking ships, this conceit also threatens human well-being. Global warming, environmental contamination, resource-depletion issues ... are already causing misery and turmoil. In most discussions these issues are traced to population growth, industrialization or moral decay. The truth is:
- Modern economies require endless growth to avoid collapse.
- Endless growth is impossible in a small world.
- If a proportion of human needs were met by way of self-reliant communities, spontaneous efficiencies would reduce environmental burdens.
- In such communities 'progress and development' would focus upon preserving rather than exploiting resources.
- The resulting durable devices and small, beautiful systems would assist 'emerging populations' far better than the antics of multinationals and the politics of globalization.
In the meantime, the 'good news' is bad news for most of us. Intelligent machines mean that the wealth human beings are producing is flowing to ever fewer owners, to military and corporate adventures, and to entertainments designed to distract everyone else from what is going on.
Every new technology, every improvement in manufacturing efficiency, means products and services can be produced with fewer people earning living wages.
The resulting collapse of the supply:demand equation is already destabilizing economies.
This only makes sense if the wealthy are moving to a different economic model. (See http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/programmes/newsnight/9382745.stm)
This should not come as a surprise. Since the world's wealthy already own everything, they have no need to make more money to buy more stuff. Instead, common sense and self-interest recommends expanding the proportion of human beings on $2.00 a day lifestyles from fifty per cent to something like eighty per cent.
We need to think about ourselves in a new way: Persons do not exist because Divine Creation, evolution - or, a recent hypothesis, harnessing fire to cook food - yielded creatures with big brains.
In The Origins of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bi-Cameral mind, (1976,2000: Houghton Mifflin/Mariner Books) Julian Jaynes proposed that self-awareness emerged when genetic endowments combined with cultural resources - something he thinks first occurred roughly 3000 years ago, between the times the Greek poet Homer penned The Iliad and The Odyssey.
However and whenever it happened, a threshold was crossed very recently in human history. Although beings just like you and I have existed for at least 250,000 years, self-aware persons only recently became reliable possibilities.
Rather than assume that self-awareness and person-hood are birthrights, we need to figure out how they happened. We need to keep on doing it.
Backlander projects are my contribution. They are based on thinking introduced by the Greek philosopher Heraclitus (circa 500 B.C.) and developed in Alfred North Whitehead's 1927 Gifford Lectures.
Briefly, the world is an event, not a container stuffed with things undergoing change. Within this context, consciousness ebbs and flows within 'local events' sometimes known as persons.
Linking rich consciousness with a fragile balance of cultural activities, community life and self-sufficiency underscores the importance of getting 'things' right.
In 1729, two years after Gulliver's Travels was published, Irish writer Jonathan Swift published A Modest Proposal. The essay featured a suggestion for families seeking to improve their bleak prospect: "a young healthy child well nursed is at a year old a most delicious, nourishing, and wholesome food, whether stewed, roasted, baked, or boiled ...”.
In the 18th century, relentless poverty in Ireland made the idea of raising and selling children as culinary delicacies for wealthy tables satirically plausible. After all, such children would be well fed for a year or more, rather than doomed to starve upon birth. Even so, Swift's suggestion was so outrageous that he did not anticipate being attacked for being in earnest. He was however - which must have both delighted and horrified him. Such delight would have been understandable and such horror not misplaced. Swift's send up continues to be an excellent description of the way human beings treat one another. The wealthy continue to exploit human beings, so long as they can be identified as other, alien or inferior.
More often than not, the rest of us are willing to sell our souls - and anything else we can get our hands on - in attempts to join them on at the top.
To be sure, some things have changed. Three hundred years of progress and development since Mr. Swift ruffled aristocratic feathers means that today's movers and shakers can reach out and touch people on the other side of the world. They have, indeed, contrived to include future generations in their terrifying embrace.
There is a way to avoid this prospect. Unfortunately, the solution will not be easy because it involves ridding ourselves of our favourite fantasy - the notion that human beings automatically become persons a few months or years after birth. This conceit has been nursing greed and arrogance on one hand, and apathy and despair on the other.
How could this be accomplished? We must come to understand that we are not little Gods wandering the world in bodies we magically possess and control. We must recognize that human beings are neither more nor less than sustained events. Like thunderstorms, cats, trees and stones ... most remain identifiable for years - and a few for centuries. Shakespeare, Darwin, Christ, Newton, Einstein ... continue to inform events even though they no longer have identifiable centres, even though they are no longer alive.
The issue that should most concern us is that talk about persons, animals, objects and 'current events' requires something that is in no way guaranteed: communities of self-conscious, mutually-aware human beings. Squirrels and earthworms do not - and cannot - have such conversations. They do not suffer anxieties, endure dreads or savour moments because they are not, and cannot become, self-aware the way human beings often do.
When self-aware communities emerged - as far as we know they have always been human communities - some events began to be understood as persons and others as lesser creatures. Everything left over became stones, houses, atoms and, eventually, Higgs Bosons.
The point is just that, no matter how many worlds exist, no matter how many conscious beings inhabit these worlds, talk about entities and objects will only occur if awarenesses are communicated in beneficial ways. If I shout: "Watch out for the car!", and this prevents you from being run over, you are likely to conclude that you and I share an actual world.
This admittedly useful fiction has been leveraged into talk of not not only an actual world but of a world populated with moral and rational agents. The resulting arrogance has been spawning sophisticated technologies, shallow relationships and devastated communities. This matters because, without local well-being, we will not be able to sustain our sense of The World as a fragile, exquisitely balanced event. We will not be able to imagine and care about one another.
If so, the inequities that have been writhing into existence should give us pause. After thousands of years of awareness and understanding, 'progress and development' could be setting the stage for moral and rational collapse