Friday, June 11, 2010

We Really Don’t Know Very Much

For the past year and a half I've been privileged to know a very prominent psychologist who combines her discipline with extensive work in the incredible field of neuroscience.

And, recently I experienced some profound changes—I recognized that I had shifted my outlook and way of relating to others in a way that probably was the result of a specific physiological change (possibly in my brain) and asked about it from a scientific perspective when she replied with the words that are the title of this blog: "We really don't know very much."

I was taken aback and shaken by this remark for a number of reasons—at first it was a shock because if anyone could give me an answer to why my life had changed by adopting a cat, it was her. She has advanced degrees, years of research and experience, and incredible insight. Yet that was her initial response.

But her subsequent explanation of my response was more poetic and metaphorical than one might expect from a scientist – she said that I had opened a door into another area with unknown results, and I was experiencing a depth of emotion I hadn't let in previously.

I couldn't argue with this description. The undeniable reality is that since I let another small living being into my life, and connected and let it attach itself to me and show mutual affection, many things that used to weigh me down seem less significant.

But does that mean the cat is like Prozac? Does it directly affect specific areas of the brain or emotions in ways we can document and understand?

My understanding is that the actual effects of chemicals like Prozac aren't entirely understood either; for one thing the results vary from person to person. Certainly there are volumes written about how drugs work with the brain chemistry and activate other chemicals like serotonin, or inhibit them.

And science goes on to unearth a tremendous amount of information about how we work, our world, and even the universe; for example, we seem to "know" that the universe is over 14 billion years old.

But returning to the psychologist's remark, I think what really troubles most thinking and feeling people is that yes – we really don't know jack about things that are really important.

That's because despite our worship of science and technology, the really big questions either cannot or will not be addressed by science.

For example, this 14 billion year old universe – what the heck is it? Why is it here? Why are we here? Where did it come from? Where did everything else come from? And so on.

The last time many of us raised these questions we were children and our parents and perhaps a teacher indulged us briefly but then gently patted us on the head and suggested we not concern ourselves with such matters.

When I studied philosophy in college I discovered that the prevailing school of thought in academia simply dismissed these types of questions as "unknowable" and redefined philosophy to those things we could know with conviction, narrowing its scope to a degree that make it, to my mind, irrelevant.

Other schools of philosophy did address areas of "being" and "existence", but these were excommunicated outside the bounds of holy science and thinkers like Sartre and Camus were seen more as novelists. Other philosophers in this realm, whom I read, remain relatively obscure even though they were courageous enough to attempt to introduce concepts only recently embraced by quantum physics: that knowing anything without taking the "knower" into account (namely that illusive thing we sometimes call consciousness) makes any attempted explanation of reality incomplete and erroneous.

Indeed even Einstein, who probably knew more than almost anyone else on the planet about how things may really be, made frequent mystical remarks about his own relative ignorance in the face of all that might be knowable.

Why is this so important?

Because when we think we really know stuff, individually and as a species, we really screw up.

For example, we know that more is better and more profit is best of all, so maximizing shareholder value is more important than taking into account the well being of the planet that sustains us.

This is only the most currently obvious example of our ignorance of our own ignorance.

Fortunately it may serve to make many more people raise the question of priorities and what is really important and at stake for our species.

At the same time many individuals and groups are engaged in various paths of "personal growth" similar to what ultimately led me to the conversation with the psychologist.

There are many different versions of what may be "other doors" that can be opened at various times that bring a different level of insight and experience beyond the logical.

At the same time, an attitude that must be nurtured to sustain these sorts of activities is one of comfort with "not knowing." Another psychologist I know uses the phrase "I don't know is a good place to be."

On the other hand, when we interact or particularly when we consume mass media, we are bombarded with people who seem to be very certain of a particular truth.

But only relatively recently has the prevailing attitude of the public turned to rampant cynicism, to the point where if you try to sell a product , service or idea, you'd better have more than just facts but the concrete experience of other people to back you up to sustain credibility.

What people are slowly discovering, I believe, is that what is really true is also a function of who and what we are – and as we study that we constantly fall into error, get in our own way, and come up against our own physical, mental and perhaps spiritual limitations in our quest.

Go back to the age of the universe. It's easy to say the words, "14 billion years" – but can you really grasp the meaning or scale of that span of time?

Is it not likely that anything that "lives" or exists for such a span is beyond the comprehension of a being that lives for perhaps 1200 months, with a brain that evolved over perhaps less than a million years?

And yet we can seem to connect with such an experience, sometimes briefly and fleetingly, but not with the part of the brain that "knows" the age of the universe, but rather the part of the brain that feels it.

That's why adopting a cat changed my life. It altered my daily experience in ways that are unfathomable without engaging the other part of the brain – that part that laughs at the cat's antics, loves the feel of its fur, and is constantly surprised by its independent being and vitality, and particularly relishes its love as it licks my hand or nose in greeting and warmth.

Perhaps in the next century geneticists and scientists will map the chromosomes and neural circuits that make these reactions possible, and graph them to within milliseconds of the response.

But they still will not touch the meaning of my connection with the cat, or with other humans, unless they take into account "the other doors" that we sometimes open– those parts of existence that defy our current logic.

Some branches of science – like quantum physics and astronomy are already there – coming up against incongruities in reality that are functions of our own limitations as beings.

14 billion years. Billions of galaxies as big as the Milky Way. Don't think about it—you can't. Just feel its meaning—we really don't know very much.



Thursday, June 3, 2010

Human Hubris – “We Created Life (In a Lab)”

Several weeks ago we were treated to the following headline on CNN, "Genetics pioneer J. Craig Venter announced Thursday that he and his team have created artificial life for the first time."

Under closer scrutiny, it turns out that Venter's team had used code created on a computer to sequence DNA that was then placed in an already living bacteria, and "reprogrammed" it – they used the term "booted it up."

This speaks again to two important points.

First, that there is an underlying aspect of natural life that follows logical laws and programs that can be altered genetically, just as we reprogram software in our PCs. If I change the code for a web page, for example, it displays differently in a web browser. Turns out if I change the genetic structure of a cell, it behaves differently.

But then the second question arises, where did the cell itself come from? – it turns out that it is life that was already in existence – it was not "created" in a laboratory.

And based on the genetic code, what is it really doing? It is interacting with an environment according to laws being unearthed daily by geneticists, biologists and even quantum physicists and more and more we discover that is doing so intentionally.

Bruce Lipton, in his book The Biology of Belief describes his own epiphany as a biological researcher when he discovered that the same single cell bacteria with identical DNA will behave differently in different environments (they don't really have brains). It led him to the conclusion that the brain of the cell is not the nucleus (or the DNA, which we can now sequence) but rather the cellular membrane, that exchanges energy with the environment and in effect decides what to do next.

In the computer analogy with life, it turns out that what we can replicate genetically is simply the code, which is amazing enough, but using the web page analogy, it means that we know how to rewrite the HTML, but we still have no idea of how to create a "natural" web browser (the organism that manifests the code and responds to input from the user and the Web (environment) -- or the intelligence behind it.

The problem for our civilization is becoming more and more apparent.

Our incredible scientific achievements have certainly given us what seems like mastery over our environment – until an event like the BP Oil Spill occurs.

I believe that the reason this is so troubling to so many people is that it is a stark reminder that we're not as smart as we think we are, and that when we follow our analytical minds at the expense of our emotional senses in the belief that "we know better", we get into some serious trouble.

I might add that it is not just BP that is at fault. Our entire culture has blindly followed the flag of "progress" and technology to this brink of self extermination—to the extent that we drive on the freeway and power our air conditioners, we are all part of the problem.

BP itself is an interesting phenomenon. It is a corporation comprised of organic beings but dedicated to an abstract concept – profit. One could say that its DNA (corporate bylaws?) program it one task – maximizing shareholder value.

Where does its lofty mission statement fit in? Probably in that part of the corporate brain that is similar to our own – dedicated to rationalization and self delusion.

The Oil Spill is just the latest in many events that dramatize our disconnection from the natural universe of which we are a part (and now technologically apart).

If you read the mission statements of credit card companies, tech firms, law firms and any other corporate entity, and compare them to their actual behavior you will see the same disconnect.

Watch commercials on television and you will think these are wonderful companies creating products and services for the benefit of mankind. Get into a conflict with any corporate entity and discover how human they are as you try to navigate through a voicemail menu specifically designed to keep you from talking to another human being.

The same technology that has provided so many real benefits to mankind, and many through corporations that have brought them to market, has also now separated many of us from our own natural feelings and better instincts in order to achieve what the mass media suggests will satisfy us – wealth, fame, a full head of hair, and so on.

No wonder so many people are on antidepressants and unhappy – even when they have attained many of the material rewards our culture can provide.

In his book (and upcoming film) Life Inc., Douglas Rushkoff maintains that "most Americans have so willingly adopted the values of corporations that they're no longer even aware of it."

To me that is why the BP Oil Spill is a wakeup call. As we discover inevitably (as 60 Minutes has already reported) that the entire episode might have been avoided if safeguards and regulations had been put into place – but for the exigencies of profit and performance (getting the oil out faster), maybe people will realize the consequences of making real corporate values of pure profit (and not their mission statements) as priorities.

Of course in this case it is so dramatic and tragic how these values impact not only the human species, but all life on the planet and particularly the oceans. While global warming is in the headlines, the oceans have already taken many body blows with toxic chemicals and wastes and many "dead zones" where no life can exist. This will only make it much worse.

The question is whether this will truly wake us up? Many humans and animals will suffer, to be sure, and the extent is yet to be determined—every gallon that leaks into the sea increases the jeopardy for organic life on the planet.

It is interesting that many (and I include myself) see social media as a hopeful sign for calling corporate entities to account and reintroducing the voices of individual humans into the discussions of what matters most in our world.

So far, predictably, there is a movement to boycott BP on Twitter and that certainly has its place.

But I think we need to look much more deeply into our entire relationship with the natural world out of which we come, and in which we live. We need to realize that we still cannot "create life"; we can manipulate it and certainly threaten it and maybe even make ourselves extinct.

Or we can continue our evolution by reexamining our relationship with the natural world, with our scientific breakthroughs as a guide, and realize that whether you believe the natural world was created, evolved or just simply is – it represents a level of mind and intelligence far beyond our own, and when we think we know better, we do so at our peril.

Life, the earth, existence and indeed the universe itself is sacred in a way that transcends all of our arguments about religion or philosophy. We've shot a puny spacecraft out of the solar system; the universe is vaster than we can even comprehend or imagine.

We are better served by also feeling and sensing our rightful relationship with what is – and consciously proceeding based on a degree of reverence that it sometimes takes a disaster to make us understand.