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.



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