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[salon] Salon Discussion, November 21 - Transience Divine
November 27th, 2006
06:36 am

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[salon] Salon Discussion, November 21
Disclaimer: I hold a regular Salon discussion group, with wide-ranging conversations on politics, philosophy, society, and life. I've decided to start using Salon discussions as the subject of some LJ posts, as a way to propagate and record the ideas. I make no claims to these ideas-- they arose out of the dialogue-- nor do I claim that they're an accurate reflection of the dialogue. A good Salon discussion is like a rich tapestry: you can tell many different stories by following different threads. This is just a smattering of what came up.

Society is currently undergoing a vast "exploding out" of ideas, cultures, and technologies. This isn't new-- it's characteristic of modern society, maybe even reaching back to the Renaissance. But it is pervasive and getting faster by the year. It's even built our notions of progress and creativity. If creativity ever meant simply the creative process, it's long since come to mean the inventive process. Progress in art, science, and philosophy is understood as the creation of new, previously unknown constructs.

As society spirals out, specializing and extremifying, and its various branches create language and cultures of their own, it seems inevitable that the common bonds that hold society together will become more tenuous and strained. These branches release new technologies and ideas into the world at a future-shocking speed, changing the ways we live, work, and think, and leaving us forever reeling from the effects. One has to worry if this ever-quickening explosion will end in an enormous catastrophe, or a singularity of multiplicity and change.

But maybe this chaos reflects a necessary and temporary process as civilization adjusts to recent changes in technology. We are in the midst of a society-wide paradigm shift. Like the big-bang-bust cosmological question, the exploding out could tear society apart, or it could just rip out some old stitching allowing society to fall into a new configuration. Western civilization is searching for a new foundation: a societal world view or foundational paradigm or Weltanschauung that we've been missing since the fall of Newtonian mechanics.

We now know that the world, of which we are part, is a dizzying mesh of complex and chaotic mutually-causal systems and based on inherent uncertainty and unknowability. There is no room for personal free will (unless it's to be found in quantum probability functions) or a soul that exists outside natural laws (unless it is a powerless observer). If there are gods, our best chance to meet them is heavy drug use. Our senses and psychology are so self-absorbed that we can only guess at the nature of reality. Purpose, morality, and meaning are only possible as a personal temporary suspension of disbelief. These are difficult (and disputed) ideas that we have yet to come to terms with.

The past hundred years hasn't managed to find a way out by exploring any of the hallways of the mansion of Western civilization through the project of post-modernism in art, literature, philosophy, and science. But recent world developments might soon force us to confront other civilizations fundamental paradigms. Western civilization can no longer act like the only kid in the world's playground, and that might save us from our own failings.

Traditional eastern philosophy holds a very different conception of the universe, and one that might handle the paradoxless dilemmas of contemporary thought better. At the discussion, we might have pulled out a copy of the Bhagavad Gita, but we like to find our own way, especially if its an opportunity to create a new paradigm for use by the whole of civilization. We tried to resolve the paradox in eastern philosophy that individuals should escape the misery of life by realizing that both they and the world they live in don't exist, and came up with a few interesting possibilities.

What if individuals are distinct from collective reality in the way that waves are distinct from the ocean? We experience life as individuals because we are bundled knots in a collective experiencer, like eddy currents that divide themselves off from a large river. We are unruly collections of neurons in a Great Mind. Enlightenment is a kind of merging back into the collective consciousness.

Specifically, paradigms-- the structures that allow us to understand our universe-- are the walls that bind off these individual knots. The Salon ended with a long discussion about the mindsets instilled in the business world, the paradigms of economics and corporations, and how they could be re-written to better suit concerned individuals.

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From:catullus_5
Date:November 27th, 2006 09:18 pm (UTC)
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There is no room for personal free will (unless it's to be found in quantum probability functions) or a soul that exists outside natural laws (unless it is a powerless observer).

And even assuming that physics is provably non-deterministic at the quantum level, random decision-making is hardly the same thing as free will.

Pointing to quantum physics and saying "that's where the free will is found, in the non-deterministic quantum events within my neurons" is, it seems to me, a religious belief. The essence of the claim is that something seeming non-deterministic nonetheless has a determiner, one that can't be detected by any human methods. This puts free will in the same mystical bin as heaven, blessings, prayers, and all the other things which supposedly exist even though no scientific experiment can ever detect them.


What if individuals are distinct from collective reality in the way that waves are distinct from the ocean?

I'm skeptical of hypotheses about human nature, consciousness, higher powers, collective reality, and so on, when they rely on an assumption that humans are fundamentally unlike all the other primates, vertebrates, animals, biological processes, chemical processes, and physical processes that we evolved from. Take the idea of the soul, for instance: Did cavemen have souls? Do today's apes? Or did souls just suddenly spring into existence at 11:51 AM three million years ago? The hypothesis doesn't satisfy me unless it explains this. The same goes for a higher-order consciousness in which humans are hypothetical nodes: How and when did our particular branch of the evolutionary tree evolve this characteristic?

If I seem preoccupied with applying science to metaphysics, it's because I feel any belief at all should be able to withstand logical scrutiny; science is simply the application of logic to observations of physical phenomena; and thus metaphysical beliefs should be consistent with scientific understanding.
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From:jrising
Date:November 27th, 2006 10:38 pm (UTC)
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Pointing to quantum physics and saying "that's where the free will is found, in the non-deterministic quantum events within my neurons" is, it seems to me, a religious belief.

Yes, but there's more room for that than I think we appreciate. Science is based on only those aspects of reality that are objectively observable. Objectivity is, I claim, a method of collective knowledge based on *ignoring the most prevalent aspects of our experience*-- that is, all the subjective ones. Moreover, quantum uncertainty is a result of our own understanding of observation, not an empirical fact. It comes out of the math behind science, not anything inherent in the world. It doesn't seem to me so unlikely that these two facts are related: that we have constructed a method of understanding the world which is incomplete precisely because it ignores part of reality.

But that's just a theory. I agree that randomness and free-will are very different, and that there will never be a good (objective) reason to ascribe any intelligence to the results of quantum probability.

I'm skeptical of hypotheses about human nature, consciousness, higher powers, collective reality, and so on, when they rely on an assumption that humans are fundamentally unlike all the other primates, vertebrates, animals, biological processes, chemical processes, and physical processes that we evolved from.

Me too, but I think that's a different question. I suspect that whatever feature allows us to have a subjective experience is to be found to varying degrees anywhere you find complex systems. I don't think that "souls" are unique to humankind, but (depending on what you mean by the term) we're one of the entities that has them, so it makes sense to ask what they are. In fact, I think this hypothesis holds up better than most: if all of reality is ripples in a collective medium that admits consciousness, then everything shares to some degree in consciousness. The theory goes on to say that creatures of paradigmatic thought will tend to cultivate the "individualness" or "separateness" of their consciousness, but it seems plausible that so would any tightly-self-referencial [chemical] system.

I don't think this is bullshit, but I am trying to cover a large ground in two paragraphs, so if it sounds like it is, call me on it and we can look at these questions more minutely.
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