Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Are We Here? Reality and Its Implications

Are We Here? Reality and Its Implications


Note: The following was written as a response to an aside in class during the second week of law school.  Here's hoping you enjoy it, even if it is a bit out there...


“It from bit. Otherwise put, every 'it'—every particle, every field of force, even the space-time continuum itself—derives its function, its meaning, its very existence entirely—even if in some contexts indirectly—from the apparatus-elicited answers to yes-or-no questions, binary choices, bits. 'It from bit' symbolizes the idea that every item of the physical world has at bottom—a very deep bottom, in most instances—an immaterial source and explanation; that which we call reality arises in the last analysis from the posing of yes–no questions and the registering of equipment-evoked responses; in short, that all things physical are information-theoretic in origin and that this is a participatory universe.”


-John Wheeler 


The question of existence and its purpose is one that unites the various disciplines across the humanities and the sciences.  Much of what the humanities do is involved with observing existence and attempting to foment some art or theory which closely parallels life; conversely, the sciences do the same thing.  We attempt through academic disciplines to understand where we are and why we are here in an attempt to understand who we are.  


My own attempts at understanding such matters have led me to several conclusions, and they are as follows: 


1. Reality is our conscious attempt to assimilate information into a form we can understand. 

2. We are ourselves nothing more than sentient or conscious information.  

3. We do not exist in finite or fixed locations; rather, our attempt to assimilate information into a recognizable form leads to a decoding of information which comes across as finite or      fixed in its categorization.  

4. The preconceptions we bring to our examination and assimilation of information very often exert a distorting effect on the outcomes of said examination.  


The simple truth, in my view, is that nothing is fixed but seeing makes it so.  We get what we look for, nothing more and nothing less.  I believe that this is demonstrated by the fact that when physicists go looking for evidence of whether or not light is a wave or a particle, their positioning of the sensors in a camera obscura determines which outcome will prevail. If the sensors are positioned to detect a wave, they detect waves. If the sensors are positioned to detect a particle, they detect particles. 






In much the same way, the same information viewed from a different perspective will produce a vastly different outcome where the human mind is concerned.  The two images to the left are the same information; however, to two average people, the top image will be identified as a duck and the bottom image will be identified as a rabbit.  




Much of our perspective on everything from languages to philosophy is dominated by the fact that our consciousness defines reality in terms of opposition.  Yes loses meaning without no, up depends very much on down for specificity, and in this way things are defined as much by what they are not as they are by what they are. We are certainly guided by in our perception of truth and untruth, though very often what lies between oppositional extremes is relevant to a richer or more accurate understanding. Truth and the devil lies in the details or the nuances, and it is in these details and nuances that the orthodox among us do not dare to tread for fear of disturbing their carefully organized view of the world.  

The great problem with an absolutist approach is that unique situations and circumstances are robbed of meaning when absolutism of any sort is applied. We are left with either/or, and we merely omit any other possibilities or realities in order to arrive at a destination which affirms our preconceived notions of reality.  Louis Althusser said it best: “Ideology is a ‘Representation’ of the Imaginary Relationship of Individuals to their Real Conditions of Existence.”

Proselytization is perhaps the greatest example of how representations of imaginary relationships get in the way of understanding real conditions of existence. My father was a Southern Baptist minister who was almost too conservative for the Southern Baptists.  He leaned more towards Independent Baptist in his extreme fundamentalism.  Everything was either/or, especially where outreach was concerned.  My father comprehended two possibilities: monotheism or polytheism.  One either worshipped the One True God, or a god, or a bunch of different gods.  There was no in-between.  

As a teenager going through my father’s books from seminary due to my fascination with comparative religious study, I found a possibility that my father had never really bothered to consider: henotheism.  The idea that a god could have many different facets, each of which took on a different identity or nomenclature apart from the  one god, was something I’d never really heard my father discuss.  It radically altered my understanding of the Egyptian pantheon of gods, and later came to shape my understanding of the Hindu pantheon as well.  Some years later, I engage in a discussion where the failure of Christian missionaries to make inroads in India was explained away as their inability to conceive of henotheism.  While berating Hindu individuals for worshipping many gods, the missionaries were mistakenly condemning Hinduism as a polytheistic religion when it fact all Hindus worshipped and revered Brahma while understanding that Brahma was manifested in different ways, or the personalities that we assign distinct identities to as western monotheists attempting to impart our classification methodology to an idea or belief system we really do not understand.  There is some dispute as to whether or not to call this view henotheism or pantheism, and, as I come from a tradition where pantheism is taken to refer to nature-worship, henotheism is the term I use to classify the above outlined belief system and others resembling it.  

I came to understand the Triune view of God as being somewhat henotheistic in the sense that while God’s manifestations (the Word or the Son and the Holy Spirit) retained the same essence or substance, they diverged or became distinct in their missions or energies.  I also came to view absolutism as lacking contextual accuracy.  In discussing my view of ethics with Dean Lewis, I expounded on my personal viewpoint of ethics, which was highly influenced by Objectivist epistemology and the teachings of Ayn Rand as related by Leonard Peikoff.  In essence, I agreed that it was generally unethical to lie or deceive others, but in certain contexts, lying is morally and ethically right.  If one comes across an individual who is seeking out another individual in order to do them harm, and he enlists you in his quest by requesting information as to his intended victim’s whereabouts, you have one ethically and morally correct course: you must lie in order send him in the opposite direction.  

We apply our ethics and the rules of law to situations or sets of facts or information, if you will.  We do this in order to glean the correct or most correct course of action.  In doing so, we shape the progress and course of information.  Each of our actions has an effect on the world, and nothing we do lacks significance.  You cannot move in the sea of information without causing a ripple.  You cannot merely exist; existence by its nature entails action and reaction, both of which which inevitably lead to a chain of actions extending infinitely.  

I do not fear death because I am merely information.  This physical coil which represents my attempt to assimilate the information that is me into a form which I can perceive is nothing more than a mechanism by which I might participate in a universe full of other information-theoretic beings who take on a physical form for the exact same reasons.  Am I here?  Does attaining the answer to that question matter more than understanding what I am and accepting it?  Can one destroy information?  By taking on physical form I take on the ability to procreate and pass on my information in my progeny.  What is more, the information I leave behind as the product of my cognition and the creative processes thereof will stand.  It is nigh impossible to eradicate all traces of a being from the universe.  The blood that courses through my veins contains genetic information dating back thousands if not billions of years.  I share much of that information with other species whose own ancestors roamed the earth well before my kind even existed.  

Am I here? Where am I not?  I am the accumulation of many intricate and wonderful processes and happenings throughout the cosmos, as the following excerpt from Carroll and Ostlie’s An Introduction to Modern Astrophysics lays out quite eloquently: 

“We are here because, more than ten billion years ago, the universe borrowed energy from the vacuum to create vast amounts of matter and antimatter in nearly equal numbers. Most of it annihilated and filled the universe with photons. Less than one part per billion survived to form protons and neutrons, and then the hydrogen and helium that makes up most everything there is. Some of this hydrogen and helium collapsed to make the first generation of massive stars, which produced the first batch of heavy elements in their central nuclear fires. These stars exploded and enriched the interstellar clouds that would form the next generation of stars. Finally, about five billion years ago, one particular cloud in one particular galaxy collapsed to form our Sun and its planetary system. Life arose on the third planet, based on the hydrogen, carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, and other elements found in the protostellar cloud. The development of life transformed Earth's atmosphere and allowed small furry mammals to take center stage. Primitive men and women evolved and moved out of Africa to conquer the world with their new knowledge of tools, language, and agriculture. After raising food on the land, your ancestors, your parents, and then you consumed this food and breathed the air. Your own body is a collection of the atoms that were created billions of years earlier in the interior of stars, the fraction of a fraction of a percent of normal matter that escaped annihilation in the first microsecond of the universe. Your life and everything in the world around you is intimately tied to countless aspects of modern astrophysics.”

Fearfully and wonderfully made, indeed.  From dust I was made, and to dust I shall return, but I will always be in some form or another.  Distance is a mere illusion that exists only in my mind’s tendency to dissect things, to tear apart wholes in order to engage in endless abstractions in order to get at some fundamental truth which we mistakenly believe to be the end destination of endless division.  But what if the smaller abstractions appear to be different due to my fixed or chosen sensory perception which limits me to the observation of distinct outcomes rather than the observation of a unified whole which manifests itself in various ways?  What if these differences are merely manifestations or facets of some sameness which I do not see because I choose to look away from it rather than towards owing to a flawed epistemology?  

I believe that like Janus, we all wear multiple faces.  My faces do not look forward or backwards, they look everywhere at once.  My life is a struggle to assimilate this understanding into guidelines for my behavior, to sublimate my beliefs into action.  I believe that a more correct understanding of reality gives one an advantage only if one can sublimate that understanding into action.  The utility of information depends on one’s ability to apply it to other information in order to extract a more advantageous outcome.  The correct law applied correctly to the facts which do not always conform exactly to the law, if you will.  I am not looking for a part; I am looking for a whole and the ability to apply that whole to contexts in a way that leads to advances in my own cognition so that I can become a more adept set of information.  I have struggled to break the chains of cognition enslaved by oppositional relationships since I first came across deconstruction as an undergraduate.  In my attempts to accomplish this, I have always hoped that I would not come across as a babbling idiot, which I firmly believe most deconstructionists do become over the course of their lives and careers.  

In closing, my answer to your query as to whether or not we are here is, simply and succinctly, that we are everywhere because we are interconnected with everything.  We are not merely divided components of an overall whole, we are the whole.  In my day to day examinations of matters of faith, I have become cognizant that oneness with God is not a destination.  It is an inescapable fact of our existence.  I no longer tend to stress or obsess over matters as a result.  I will be what I am.  I do not recognize an everywhere in the sense that I do not recognize a point as being fixed and apart from me.  Distance is a product of perception, and flawed perception at that.  It’s what we bring to the table in our attempt to understand a whole which cannot be dissected into separate parts by dissecting it into separate parts.  Law school for me is the realization of what I am, the unraveling revelation of my whole.  The fact that I have not perceived or realized that whole in my perception is not a sign of my need to progress to a point I have not arrived at, it is evidence of my unwillingness to let go of flawed perceptions which have for too long led me down rabbit holes.  Hopefully you have not rang the cows home before you read this in its entirety, but if you have, I can only accept that it wasn’t meant for you to read but rather for me to write.  Over the past week and a half, I haven’t written much apart from my briefs and assignments for law school, and inasmuch as writing gives me enjoyment, this certainly has been an enjoyable task.  


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