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◷ 11 min read - Apr 19, 2021

So Long, and Thanks for All the Science

Lack of Real Agency

I seem to have agency, that is, when I want to move my arm, it obeys. It seems like I can do stuff in the world, shape it and interact with it in meaningful ways. Of course, according to science, that can't possibly be true. Whatever happens in the physical world is preceded by physical causes. The physical world is causally closed. The movement of my arm is caused by muscle contraction, which is caused by the coming together of the muscle, its fuel (like oxygen and glucose) and a spark (like an electromagnetic signal). The fuel comes from outside the body by breathing in air and eating food, and the spark is sent by the brain. Inside the brain, the spark can (at least in theory) be tracked through a series of signals that appear to be performing computations on sense data and memorized sense data (which of course is but an echo of original sense data). Sense data is generated upon body-environment interaction. As with food and air, sense input ultimately comes from outside the body. The brain and mind are like a complex version of Newton's cradle. You send an impulse into the senses and get back an impulse via the muscles. The whole body is but this (autopoietic) system, processing food and impulses according to circumstances. Therefore, my wanting to move my arm is not causally connected to the movement of my arm. I am typing these words not because I want to, but because of the entire history of this body, and by extension literally the entire universe. If I hadn't experienced what I have, if I weren't born when I was, if my parents weren't born when they were, if our evolutionary ancestors hadn't.... if the universe hadn't.... it's all connected to the point that each action anywhere is caused by the history of the universe in its entirety.

If I want to be in charge of my own destiny, i.e. if I want to be a causal agent, then that's because this wanting is exactly what is needed in order to live this bodily system. There's no way out. Even suicide, in some ways the ultimate "fuck you" to one's own nature, is merely an expression of the history of body/environment interaction and by extension the entire universe. The only real choice I have, it would seem, is to either play the game or watch the show. But even that isn't up to me in any meaningful (i.e. causal) way, as my involvement in all of this is determined by what is going on inside my brain.

Nobody Ever Lived Happily Ever After

Part of being human is wanting to be happy. In our stories, people get to have an adventure and then live "happily ever after", as it were. However, I can't think of a single instance where that has been true in reality. If we continued these stories, they would have some more adventures and in the end our heroes would fall sick and die. And that's really the best case. Looking at the animal kingdom, it would seem that getting eaten alive is a regular end-of-life experience for many beings. Whatever this universe is about, it certainly doesn't care about happy endings of any kind.

If we look at the development of human entertainment, we can see what happy endings are really about. They are an expression of hope, i.e. our eternal optimism in the face of the unknown. Stories end when people stop telling them, and we are built to prefer to look into the unknown with hope rather than despair. As stories get longer, happy endings get pushed further back. A movie depicts an adventure that typically ends in a happy end. A TV show, on the other hand, is a series of adventures, and at the end of a season some things may get resolved but then something new happens to set the stage for the next season. Characters on TV shows have to endure and endure and endure, until the show finally gets cancelled and they finally get to live happily ever after. As long as we keep watching the show, the characters will never get their happy end.

If there's no happily ever after, the only thing there can be is a "happily ever during". But that's something that evolution doesn't like to see. Happy dogs don't eat. Dogs that don't eat starve to death. Therefore, for dogs to exist they can't be happy for long. We are lured time and again by the promise of happiness because that's who we are. Only once the grip of evolution begins to weaken as these bodies grow older, we may, MAY(!), be able to see through this, and instead of doing what we enjoy to do, we learn to enjoy what we are doing. Of course the weakening grip of evolution also brings sickness and eventually death, so... enjoy?

Truth Is What Is Apparent, But What Is Apparent Is Not True

Ever since I was little I've always wanted to know the truth about everything. What a disaster. True, as it turns out, is what is apparent. If something is apparent to me, I believe it, and if I believe something, it is apparent to me. Truth is always the truth of what is apparent. Whatever I see or conceptualize, that is true. If I remember anything, the experience of remembering is true, although of course the contents may turn out to be false if I compare my recollection against externally recorded facts. If I predict the future, the experience of predicting is true, although the prediction may turn out to be false, which I realize when circumstances become apparent that verify or falsify the prediction.

As it turns out, the apparent, despite being true beyond any doubt in the moment of appearing, is not necessarily true at all, as evidenced by countless perceptual illusions. We can, however, make apparent (and therefore true) the fact that we cannot trust appearances, e.g. by making visible the blind spot of the human eye. Stare at a point with one eye closed, and move your thumb across the field of vision until it appears to disappear, slightly to the right of the center of your gaze. Thanks to science, we know that's where the optic nerve exits the eye through the retina. The fact that there isn't constantly an empty spot in our fields of vision demonstrates perfectly that the apparent is not as true as it makes itself out to be. What's worse, the truth that the apparent isn't true has shown itself by becoming apparent, just like any other truth. It would appear (pun intended) that the truth I crave is merely a craving for appearances, disguised as higher notions. If there were a truth beyond appearances, it couldn't appear, and therefore wouldn't be experienced as true.

There's No Bliss Without Ignorance

I've searched far and wide for the knowledge and wisdom of happiness. As described above, I found it to be a moving target. The happy people I met were happy for one reason alone: they didn't see problems. As a consequence, the less intelligent people were generally the more happy ones. I took pride in my misery, knowing I wasn't stupid, because society taught me that being smart was a good thing. I was proud of my ability to solve problems, and part of me even enjoyed doing that, but I had to realize that the problems never stop. In fact, this mind can only be good at solving problems because it's good at creating them. If I didn't create the problems, or, in other words, if I were ignorant of the problems, I could be happy instead of trying to solve them. Happy people don't solve problems. Then again, evolution lets us get away only with so much ignorance. Happy dogs don't eat...

Now, even the happiness of the wisest of sages, as it turns out, is the happiness of ignorance. I am talking about the happiness of being one with the universe, without an individual self, merged with all beings in the great oneness, this special experience of self-transcendence that forms the mystical core of most if not all of the great religions and spiritual traditions. It's a lack of information - or ignorance - of selfhood. If there's a sensation of myself being this person, then I'm inside the story of my life. When this sense of self is lost, I merge into and lose myself in the great oneness of universal consciousness. Neuroscientists are onto this, by the way, discerning the sense of being an individual self, a person, the protagonist of one's life's story, to be correlated with activity within what they call the Default Mode Network of the brain. Spiritual practices like meditation have been found to reduce the activity of this functional brain network. So it would seem that even the wisest and happiest among us are happy because they experience less, not more, than the rest of us.

The Gravity of the Mind-Body Problem

This has been a particular pain in my ass. How could "this", that is my present moment experience, all the sights and sounds and feelings and whatnot, arise from anything in the material world? Even if neuroscientists eventually pinpoint what they call the "Neural Correlates of Consciousness", i.e. the specific brain activity that coincides precisely with a particular experience, all we would get is a correlation. No physical thing we discover could possibly explain just how and why it should be creating a conscious phenomenon. How could a specific neuron firing at a specific rate result in the redness of red, the painfulness of pain, or the cheesecakiness of the taste of cheesecake? This "mind-body problem", also known as "the explanatory gap" or "the hard problem of consciousness", is worse than comparing apples and oranges. At least those are both fruit. The physical world is categorically different from the world of experience. It's like we're running around in The Matrix, only that taking the red pill has no effect because both we and the pill are part of the same simulation.

The mind-body problem goes away when we take consciousness, which I understand as synonymous to both "awareness" and "experience", i.e. the "somethingness that it's like to be", as primary to the physical world. The only thing we can be sure of is that there's consciousness, because without it there's no experience of anything. All of the physical world exist in any meaningful way only when there's consciousness. All the people, all the planets, space and time themselves, it's all phenomena in consciousness. The assumption that the universe continues while we're unconscious is super helpful to navigate this life, but it is itself but a conscious phenomenon. This perspective becomes apparent, and therefore as true as anything, upon entering a self-transcendent state of mind. The problem of course is that neither human perception nor intellect can possibly go beyond the apparent truth of the apparent. So while we can learn to trust in whatever lies behind the apparent, whether we call it consciousness, God or reality, none of what these human minds are capable of seems to have any bearing on that reality, whereas that reality expresses itself through us in every moment, and often in ways that suck ass. We can believe in magical ways of influencing reality from within these minds, to bend it according to our desires, but it seems to me that people were successful in performing miracles and magic only while not under scientific scrutiny. They all looked particularly small when they couldn't even prevent their own bodies from ageing and eventually dying.

I'm Done

Watching a scary movie is only fun if you know it's a movie. We rarely have that luxury while dreaming, and even more rarely do we have that luxury while waking. It is only when we focus our attention on the mystery beyond the apparent, and let go of what seems so true, so dear and so important, that we can wake up within the waking dream. It may just be ignorance of selfhood, and deactivation in certain parts of the brain, but at least it's a consistent perspective, from where the mind-body problem is as laughable as death is meaningless, from where agency is global, all life is the beautiful, sacred expression of cosmic consciousness, and from where even the shittiest shitfest of a life can be lived in happiness.

I'm done. If you need me, I'll be joining the sages and mystics where death can't follow. I'll be nowhere, being nobody, doing nothing. So long, and thanks for all the science.