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Finding Meaning In A Meaningless World

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This is the first in an occasional series on “deep science,” an attempted antidote to the prevailing “absent-minded science” I’ve written about in my book, Eco, Ego, Eros.

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Science has defined the modern era in many ways and is truly the reigning knowledge paradigm in the modern era, even if it’s not always acknowledged. The key features of modernity–specialization and technology–were made possible primarily by the remarkable development of scientific techniques and knowledge over the last 400 years, since the time of Galileo and Kepler.

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But while science has brought us the modern world, in a very real and direct way, it has also brought us to a point where man’s perennial search for meaning is imperiled. This is the case because today’s scientific worldview seems to deny the importance of many inquiries that humans have perennially found important, including questions about our place in the universe, the nature of consciousness, and questions about God, purpose, and many other deep topics. And where it doesn’t deny the importance of such questions the answers it provides are increasingly dissatisfying and, frankly, depressing.

Scientific Materialism

Science is the basis for “scientific materialism,” the worldview shared by most of today’s scientists and philosophers. Scientific materialism holds, essentially, that the universe is nothing but matter and energy in motion; humans evolved through random processes, as did all life; and human minds emerged at some point in our species’ development as our nervous system became sufficiently complex.

Much of this is surely correct, but there are a number of problems with this worldview. For example, scientific materialism is unable to explain coherently when and why mind/subjectivity emerged. How far down the evolutionary ladder does mind extend? When did mind first appear in the universe? We shouldn’t expect science to be able to provide firm and specific answers to these questions because such answers are probably impossible to produce. But we should expect the intellectual architecture of our modern world to provide at least an outline of coherent answers to such questions. Thomas Nagel’s recent book, Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False, makes a very similar point.

Is Today’s Science An “Absent-Minded Science?”

I’ve argued that today’s science is an “absent-minded science” because of this failure to adequately explain the role of mind in nature. The prevailing theory of “emergence” argues that mind simply appears with the development of sufficient biological complexity but no one today can provide a good answer as to when and why mind emerged when it did. These major questions remain unanswered within the materialist paradigm and its philosophy of “emergentism.” This inability to explain the most primary feature of reality for each of us — our own minds — seriously undermines the intellectual edifice of modernity.

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tambookPerhaps even more importantly, scientific materialism is, for most of us, an ill-suited foundation for our search for higher meaning in our lives. As human beings, we have an innate need for a life-affirming mythos. By mythos I don’t mean fantasy; rather, I mean we need a subtextual narrative that supports our sense of self and our place in the world. The more accurate this narrative is, in terms of its congruence with events in the external world, the better it works. Scientific materialism falls short in providing such a mythos because it denies the reality of much that seems most real to us. We have, with today’s scientific materialism, seen the pendulum swing too far.

The Copernican Revolution, which correctly shifted the center of our solar system to the sun away from our planet, has now gone too far in suggesting that there isn’t really anything special about us or our place in the universe. We are the product of random chance on a small backwater planet in a very boringly normal arm of a very normal spiral galaxy, so the conventional view holds. Independent of the grasping of ego, we can see that this worldview doesn’t provide much space for personal or higher meaning.

A key challenge of our time is to reconcile the truths and methods of modern science with this need for personal meaning.

Scientific materialism’s mythos was summed up well by the Nobel Prize winner Steven Weinberg:

“The more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it also seems pointless.”

If this is the case, why don’t we all just commit suicide? Well, we don’t because each of us has a personal mythos, despite the claims of today’s materialism, that justifies the space we occupy and the air we breathe.

We Are In Need Of A More Life-Affirming Worldview Than Scientific Materialism Can Provide

We are, it seems, in need of a more life-affirming worldview than today’s scientific materialism can provide. This new series of essays will flesh out my thoughts on 1) how science can and should change to become more scientific, but also 2) how a new type of science can act as the foundation for a new mythos to better sustain our psyches.

This is what I mean by “deep science.” A new deep science will be more scientific than today’s surface-oriented endeavour because it recognizes the internal aspects behind the world of surfaces that is the primary focus of today’s science. Deep science is also more holistic than today’s overly narrow science because it can help us more comprehensively describe the universe and its amazing contents, and allow us to create coherent and useful theories about these contents.

Ken Wilber’s Deep Science

Ken Wilber coined the phrase “deep science” in his insightful book The Marriage of Sense and Soul: Integrating Science and Religion. Wilber’s suggestions in this area are a great basis for additional inquiry. I will use Wilber’s framework as the basis for my own discussion in these essays, but will expand and amend upon his original outline.

The key point of Wilber’s deep science is that all scientific and spiritual inquiries — which are united methodologically in his deep science, at least in an overarching manner — consist of three strands: 1) an injunctive method, which is a set of how-to instructions specific to the field at issue; 2) data gathering, in terms of direct experience, through use of the injunctive method at issue; 3) community confirmation or negation of the data gathered. Wilber states in The Marriage of Sense and Soul:

The three strands of deep science [what I’ll call the “triple braid” from here on out] separate the valid from the bogus … helping us to separate not only true propositions from false propositions, but also authentic self-expression from lying, beauty from degradation, and moral aspirations from deceit and deception.

Future columns will explore some applications of the triple braid of deep science and will also flesh out how Wilber’s approach might be a useful and fair reconciliation of scientific and religious ways of viewing the world.

If we are to find a way out of the existential trap of scientific materialism, we need not reject science; rather, we should look deeper into scientific method and reexamine its foundations. This approach will have two major benefits: 1) we gain a deeper and more comprehensive understanding of the physical world; 2) as a nice side benefit, we also find a worldview that is more conducive to the long-standing need for finding personal meaning in our lives.

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Tam Hunt is a philosopher and lawyer based in Santa Barbara, CA, and Hilo, HI, and a visiting scholar at UC Santa Barbara.

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Consciousness

The Study of Fundamental Consciousness Entering the Mainstream

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In Brief

  • The Facts:

    Consciousness is appearing to be a fundamental property, just like liquids, solids and gas, consciousness and its connection to the physical material world is now gaining big time credibility.

  • Reflect On:

    How much do we have yet to discover? Are we ready to abandon what we thought we knew in light of new discoveries and evidence?

The world-renowned neuroscientist Christof Koch, spent nearly two decades working alongside the co-discoverer of the DNA molecule, Francis Crick. Their mission was to find the neurobiological basis of consciousness. They discovered many insights into cognition and the functioning of perception, yet the central enigma, the nature of consciousness itself, remained mysteriously elusive.

In 2009, Koch shocked the scientific community by publishing his conviction that consciousness probably isn’t just in brains, but is a fundamental feature of reality. This is a view known to philosophers as ‘panpsychism.’ The theory Koch is now dedicating his research to is called ‘Integrated Information Theory’ or ‘IIT.’ It is the brainchild of neuroscientist Giulio Tononi of the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

In explaining his theory, Tononi asks us to consider a simple light sensitive photo diode like those found in a digital camera. A simple diode might respond to just two states: light or dark. We could present our diode with any number of images, yet regardless of the picture, the diode conforms to one of only two possible states. Is it light, or is it dark?

Now consider yourself looking at the same picture, lets say, of the Eiffel Tower on a beautiful spring day in Paris. For us, looking at this image results in a reduction from a near infinity of possible states. Not an image of the Andromeda galaxy, not a childhood picture of your mother, not cells dividing in a Petri dish and so on.  Because of the vast number of images we are capable of recognizing, each one is highly informative. For Tononi, the vast amount of information capable of being integrated in the brain means that we have a comparatively huge capacity for consciousness.

Tononi’s theory, that consciousness is born out of networks with high integrated information, has novel ways of being tested in the laboratory.

In studies with sleeping participants, Tononi and his colleagues used transcranial magnetic stimulation to send a ripple of activity through the cortex of sleeping participants. The researchers found that when dreaming, this ripple reverberated through the cortex longer than when participants were in stages of dreamless sleep. This demonstrated that during dreaming, when the brain is conscious, the cortex has a higher degree of integration.

In another experiment, the researchers built tiny robots known as ‘animats’ that were placed into mazes. The animats used simple integrated networks capable of evolving over sequential generations. To their surprise, the greater the degree of integration that the animats evolved, the quicker they were able to escape the mazes. For Tononi this finding suggested that consciousness may play a more central role in evolution than had previously been thought.

The mathematical value of integrated information in a network is known as phi. But Tononi’s theory, now the topic of serious mainstream discussion, has an extraordinary implication. Phi didn’t just occur in brains, -it is a property of any network with a total informational content greater than its individual parts. Every living cell, every electronic circuit, even a proton consisting of just three elementary particles have a value of phi greater than zero. According to Integrated Information Theory, all of these things possess something, albeit but a glimmer of ‘what it is like’ to be them. Tononi states:

“Consciousness is a fundamental property, like mass or charge. Wherever there is an entity with multiple states, there is some consciousness. You need a special structure to get a lot of it but consciousness is everywhere, it is a fundamental property.”

Integrated information theory is in its infancy and there are still many questions it must face. Did the information of brains operate at the level of the neuron, or the protein, or something deeper still? The electromagnetic field of the brain, as observed by psi researcher Dean Radin, is always re-establishing its quantum connection to the entire universe. Could a much richer informational interaction exist than has yet been imagined?

Physicists such as John Wheeler have laid the groundwork for a radical new understanding of reality, in which matter, the laws and constants of nature, and indeed the entire universe is best described, not in terms of physical objects, but through the play and display of a fundamental dynamic information.

Quantum mechanics suggests that at the deepest level of nature, the entire physical universe is interconnected. Might the total information of the universe be integrated in some deep sense? Is it in a mysterious way conscious of itself?

As spiritual traditions throughout the ages have long asserted, instead of isolated and separate experiencing beings, we may experience on behalf of the greater evolving system in which we find ourselves.

In Koch’s highly anticipated 2012 book, ‘Consciousness – Confessions of a Romantic Reductionist’, he states:

“I do believe that the laws of physics overwhelmingly favored the emergence of consciousness. The universe is a work in progress. Such a belief evokes jeremiads from many biologists and philosophers but the evidence from cosmology, biology and history is compelling.”

Regardless of the validity of Tononi’s theory, today increasing numbers of scientists and academics are convinced that the existence of consciousness simply cannot be sensibly denied. The study of fundamental consciousness is now entering the mainstream. This movement consists of thinkers in and outside of the mind sciences. Yet despite their different academic backgrounds, they are united by two common convictions: that consciousness is an intrinsic rather than incidental emergence in the universe, and that any complete account of reality must include an explanation of it.

 Sources:

 Koch, C. (2009, August 18). A complex theory of consciousness: Is complexity the secret to sentience, to a panpsychic view of consciousness? Scientific American.

 Tononi, G. (2008). Consciousness as integrated information: A provisional manifesto. Biological Bulletin, 215(3), 216-242.

 Edlund, J. A., Chaumont, N., Hintze, A., Koch C., Tononi G., & Adami, C. (2011). Integrated information increases with fitness in the evolution of animats. PLoS Computational Biology, 7(10).

 Radin, D. I. (2006). Entangled Minds: Extrasensory experiences in quantum reality. New York: Simon & Schuster.

 Koch, C. (2012). Consciousness: Confessions of a Romantic Reductionist. MIT Press Books.

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Alternative News

If You Could Power Your Entire Home With 60 Minutes Of Cycling, Would You Do It?

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In Brief

  • The Facts:

    Mechanical energy, converted into kinetic energy can provide the energy that we use on a regular basis to power our homes and electronic devices.

  • Reflect On:

    Rather than focusing on the current problems in our world it is great to change gears and have a look at all of the solutions that are popping up all over the world.

Imagine if your morning workout could power your home for the entire day, all the way until your next morning workout. Well, you may not have to imagine, as this technology exists now. Manoj Bhargava has invented a new exercise bike that can power some homes for 24 hours after use for only sixty minutes per day.

This invention was a part of a new initiative to bring electricity to places that undergo frequent power outages or may only have access to power for a few hours during the day. In our modern age, going without electricity can really separate a person from the rest of the world. Bhargava’s mission is to bridge the gap for those who suffer from poverty and make it easier for them to access the same information as the rest of the world, potentially giving them more opportunities in life.

The Free Electric

The above heading is also the name of this awesome and innovative bike serving as a solution to a pretty significant issue in the underdeveloped nations of the world.

According to Bhargava, the Free Electric is meant to lead to “better health, more leisure time, better access to education and opportunities for entrepreneurship.” He also feels that it could, “literally change the world.”

Power to change the world? Bold statement, but if this is able to be implemented worldwide, I would absolutely have to agree with him. This technology not only has the capacity to assist those in poverty, but can also be used by the rest of the world as well as more and more people around the world who are aiming to reduce their usee of fossil fuels. I have a feeling that Millennials (such as myself) and younger generations would be all over this if its made available! Not only is it a great way to get your cardio in, but it provides FREE electricity that produces no other pollution.

As mentioned in the video, it is also a great solution in the face of natural, or even man made disasters because this type of electricity would not rely on that generated and sold by power companies. Perhaps even one day a way to stock up and store this energy will be possible — then, the opportunities here will be much more plentiful and could be a huge factor in reducing the amount of pollution our current methods of energy production are creating.

The Future Is Friendly

As much as there is sometimes destruction all around us, there is also innovation and ingenuity. Human beings have tremendous potential. Even though there are many problems that we as a society are facing, solutions are popping up and fast, and in most cases they already exist. Finding solutions doesn’t seem to be the problem, so ask yourself, what is?  It’s so great to see ideas such as these being conceptualized and then created and put into use so efficiently, it shows how our species is capable of stopping and potentially reversing some of the destruction that we have caused over the years.

This is absolutely a double win! We are constantly bombarded with news stories and articles that are telling us to be more active, stop sitting so much, and now with the Free Electric, we will have to be active before we can relax and enjoy the use of our precious technology.

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Discover

Physicists ‘Grow’ A Man Made Diamond From Nuclear Waste That’s Able To Generate Electricity

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In Brief

  • The Facts:

    Scientists have developed a technology that can convert leftover radioactive materials into diamond batteries to power a wide range of electronics.

  • Reflect On:

    Could this be the solution to use op all the radioactive materials on the planet and shut down nuclear power plants worldwide?

Currently there is more than 2 billion tons of nuclear waste across the globe. This nuclear waste is a hazardous threat to the environment if not disposed of correctly. Scientists have recently begun attempting to transform nuclear waste into batteries that could last for thousands of years. If they are successful with this conversion project it would be a double win, less nuclear waste contaminating our environment, and a way to reuse energy that was generated to give power to whatever requires it.

Diamond batteries that use the energy from leftover radioactive materials have been developed and tested by researchers at the University of Bristol. They are now hoping to be able to recycle the waste leftover from decommissioned nuclear power plants in the UK. According to the University, “New technology has been developed that uses nuclear waste to generate electricity in a nuclear-powered battery….A team of physicists and chemists from the University of Bristol have grown a man-made diamond that, when placed in a radioactive field, is able to generate a small electrical current.” (source)

How Does This Work?

According to The Independent,

Carbon-14 isotopes extracted from graphite blocks produced by the plant are infused with wafer-thin diamonds to create the batteries, which researchers say are capable of providing power on a “near-infinite basis”.

Potential applications range from powering hearing aids and pacemakers, to extending the range of spacecraft to distances much further than are currently possible.

“Eventually, a highly powerful version of a diamond battery could power a mobile phone,” James Barker, from the University of Bristol’s Faculty of Engineering, told The Independent.

“Primarily though, they are best for devices requiring long lifetime, low power and where it is difficult to replace energy sources.”

In order to make these diamond batteries safe for medical and consumer use they are encased in a non-radioactive diamond layer, which will absorb any radiation given off by the C14 source.

According to the University,

Unlike the majority of electricity-generation technologies, which use energy to move a magnet through a coil of wire to generate a current, the man-made diamond is able to produce a charge simply by being placed in close proximity to a radioactive source.

Tom Scott, Professor in Materials in the University’s Interface Analysis Centre and a member of the Cabot Institute, said: “There are no moving parts involved, no emissions generated and no maintenance required, just direct electricity generation.  By encapsulating radioactive material inside diamonds, we turn a long-term problem of nuclear waste into a nuclear-powered battery and a long-term supply of clean energy.”

Could This Be The Solution We’ve Been Searching For?

“The ultimate aim is to have a factory based at one of the former power stations in the South West that takes Carbon-14 isotopes directly from the graphite blocks for use in diamond batteries. This would significantly reduce the radioactivity of the remaining material, making it easier and safer to manage,” said Professor Tom Scott, director of the South West Nuclear Hub.

“With the majority of the UK’s nuclear power plants set to go offline in the next 10-15 years this presents a huge opportunity to recycle a large amount of material to generate power for so many great uses.”

Time will tell how effective this method that scientists have come up with will be able to be implemented worldwide, but if it is, just imagine the implications of what this technology could represent.

Is It Time To Move Away From Nuclear Energy?

You’d think since the Fukushima disaster there would be a worldwide agreement for countries to stop generating power from nuclear reactors and to safely shut down these plants. Nuclear disasters have devastating effects on our planet and all of it’s inhabitants, recovery from such accidents can take tens of thousands of years to lose their hazardous radioactivity. Take the Chernobyl disaster that occurred in 1986 and is now contained under a metal shell, this site will likely remain radioactive for up to 20,000 years.

Instead of waiting for these disasters to occur, shouldn’t we be safely dismantling these sites before any more devastating disasters occur? Thankfully many countries are vowing to shut down their nuclear power plants and we can only hope that the rest of the world will follow suit.

The Future Is Here

There are so many amazing technologies that have the capacity to revolutionize the way we use energy on this planet. Of course many of those are hidden from us, especially if they cannot be in some way profited from, and unfortunately as it seems, if they don’t exploit the environment and our resources in some way.

As innovative ideas abound and technology continues to rapidly develop, we have to assume that safer and more innovative means of producing electricity will be uncovered. Hopefully these technologies will also have the capacity to undo some of the damage that we have done to our planet.

At the end of the day, using nuclear energy is not needed anymore, and in reality nuclear waste should not even exist at this point in our development as a collective.

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