Heretical Ideas Whose Time Has Come, Part Two
By Wil Forbis
In part one of this article I discussed the challenges of separating good ideas from bad. I also described two controversial ideas I think are worth considering. I continue here with three more notions that individuals and society should muse upon.
This is probably the least controversial of the ideas in this article. The idea of the self as a chimera goes back tens of centuries and is, to my understanding, a big part of Buddhist philosophy. I've read some writing of the modern spiritual guru Eckhart Tolle and he also expounds on this notion, as do various books on the topic of consciousness (such as the terrific "The User Illusion.") I'm hardly walking into unexplored territory here; nonetheless, I think the idea is often dismissed merely because of the discomfort it causes. Being that this is a list of "heretical" ideas, it deserves inclusion.
Of course, it's hard to know what the statement, "the self is an illusion" really means. What is our self? It's an odd question really. If we understand our self to be us---our ideas, emotions, sensations and whatnot---then there should be no thing we know better than our self. But upon close examination, the boundaries of our self and the rest of the world seem strangely elusive.
The history of western thought on the subject, as captured in disciplines such as psychology and neuroscience, has trended towards a gradual redefining of the nature of the self. The (largely religion based) concept of the individual soul (present in but not bound to the body) has been under attack for centuries. It has been replaced, to some extent, by the concept of the mind. In the early decades of the last century Freud popularized the idea that the mind has two parts: the conscious and subconscious. While this exact nature of this split is controversial, numerous experiments and observations (the priming effect for example) make clear there is a part of ourselves that we are not aware of. If this is the case, to whom does the subconscious mind belong? Us, or some other entity within us?
Look at our language and you see the ways that our sense of our self and its boundaries are hard to define. You might say, "my stomach is bothering me," or "the dog licked my leg,” but aren't your stomach and your leg part of you? Yet you might also say, "I'm hungry," or "I'm sad," implying some notion of ownership over our sensations. Why are some sensations sometimes "us" and at other times removed from us?
What about things we do, actions we perform? The experiments of Benjamin Libet seem to imply that the decision to perform an action bubbles up in our brain before we are consciously aware of it. If so, then who is making the decision? Some part of our subconscious? Is that part of our self, or part of some other entity (perhaps, as some have theorized, a "pre-self")? Or consider the experiments of neuroscientist Michael Gazzaniga. While studying epileptics whose two brain lobes had been surgically separated he observed subjects performing actions---speaking and drawing---with no conscious knowledge of what had prompted them to do so. Parts of their brain were processing stimuli and making decisions, but the brain-owner had no awareness of this. And, finally, consider dreams. These are little stories that run in our heads nightly. But who is the author of these stories and who is the observer? Does our self play both roles? Or neither?
These might seem like quaint but harmless ruminations but they have weighty ramifications. Much of our moral and legal theory is based on the idea that the self is real; that it has rights and responsibilities and is deserving of protections. Yet consider cases like that of mass murderer Charles Whitman. Whitman killed several family members before climbing a tower in Austin, Texas and killing and wounding over a dozen strangers. Whitman's own notes make clear he was driven by a rage that perplexed him. An autopsy showed a brain tumor near the emotion-affecting part of the brain called the amygdala. Was Whitman's "self" responsible for his actions? Or was a piece of inflamed neural tissue? These are the kind of questions contemplations on the illusory nature of the self provoke.
I first started thinking about this topic after watching the Big Think video "Gravity Doesn't Exist" in which scientist Erik Verlinde postulates that gravity is an illusion. What he means by that is complex (this NY Times piece has details) but it made me realize something. We---humans that is---still don't really know what gravity is, even 300 plus years after Newton contemplated the falling apple. That something so basic and integral to our lives remains a mystery is both awe inspiring and enraging. I explore the topic here for two reasons. 1) Gravity is pretty interesting. 2) It forces consideration of how limited our understanding of our world is. For all our purported knowledge, we are, in some ways, blind people fumbling around in the dark.
So what do we think gravity is? Opinions have changed over time. Isaac Newton theorized in 1687 that gravity was a basic property of mass. Things with a lot of mass attracted things with lesser mass. Newton worked out some specific calculations about this but even he was frustrated with the vagaries of his theory. It provided useful information---so useful that we still use it---but it didn't really explain what gravity is. Gravity was simply dubbed as "a force" which is a way of saying "a thing that we don't know what it is."
This theory stood in place until Einstein came up with his own theory of gravity (part of his theory of general relativity) in the 20th century. By his account, gravity was not a regular force but a property of space-time. I know... once discussions of space-time begin we all start to nod off, myself included. This web page, however, has a fairly concise explanation of the theory.
As you may recall from high school physics however, the early 20th century was the birthplace of what is known as quantum physics, a discipline which studies the world of very tiny particles like photons and electrons. Many theories that make sense in our "large scale" world run into problems when applied to the quantum realm. This is true with Einstein's theory of gravity. Quantum physicists have several weirdly named theories like string theory and loop quantum gravity which try to explain (among other things) gravity when viewed through the lens of quantum physics. They postulate the existence of a yet unproven massless particle called a graviton which gives rise to the gravitational force.
Which leads us back to the original question, "what the hell is gravity?"
Not long ago I was lost in a bit of musing. I was contemplating how an object---say, a coffee cup---can be broken down into ever smaller parts. First to molecules, then atoms, then to quantum particles. Of course, the same is true with living creatures. They too can be reduced to the same basic units of molecules, atoms and quantum bits. So what, I wondered, makes living things "alive" and non-living things not alive?
The rumination would have likely faded into the ether had I not within a week stumbled across a Scientific American article that explored this very topic. The author, science writer science writer Ferris Jabr, thoroughly examined all the ways we try to separate the living from non-living and he found them quite wanting. Living things are said to grow old but a very interesting jellyfish is the exception to this rule. Living things are said to evolve over time but so too do strange forms of digital organisms that software engineers have created. There are also many “creatures”---bacteria, ribozymes, parasites and viruses---that live in between the blurry borders of life and non-life. Ultimately Jabr pontificates...
Why is defining life so frustratingly difficult? Why have scientists and philosophers failed for centuries to find a specific physical property or set of properties that clearly separates the living from the inanimate? Because such a property does not exist. Life is a concept that we invented. On the most fundamental level, all matter that exists is an arrangement of atoms and their constituent particles. These arrangements fall onto an immense spectrum of complexity, from a single hydrogen atom to something as intricate as a brain. In trying to define life, we have drawn a line at an arbitrary level of complexity and declared that everything above that border is alive and everything below it is not. In truth, this division does not exist outside the mind. There is no threshold at which a collection of atoms suddenly becomes alive, no categorical distinction between the living and inanimate, no Frankensteinian spark. We have failed to define life because there was never anything to define in the first place.
Jabr's ideas were more than enough food for thought. Nonetheless, I got a second helping when I stumbled across an article in Quanta Magazine about Jeremy England, a young physicist who is speculating that the emergence of what we call life is merely an example of a more "general phenomenon" that can be found in physics. He has derived a mathematical formula which...
...indicates that when a group of atoms is driven by an external source of energy (like the sun or chemical fuel) and surrounded by a heat bath (like the ocean or atmosphere), it will often gradually restructure itself in order to dissipate increasingly more energy. This could mean that under certain conditions, matter inexorably acquires the key physical attribute associated with life.
Simply put, if you have a bunch of atoms sitting around in a warm friendly climate and you shine some light on them, life is the predictable result. It's a simple idea, in its own way, and one with ramifications that align nicely with Jabr's thoughts. Carl Franck, a biological physicist quoted in the article states, "[England] is making me think that the distinction between living and nonliving matter is not sharp."
We humans, as self-described living things, have a bit of an ego about our purported high status. We may need to open up our club and let in some new members.
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Wil Forbis is a well known international playboy who lives a fast paced life attending chic parties, performing feats of derring-do and making love to the world's most beautiful women. Together with his partner, Scrotum-Boy, he is making the world safe for democracy. Email - firstname.lastname@example.orgVisit Wil's web log, The Wil Forbis Blog, and receive complete enlightenment.