An Essay by Tagore
The Relation of the Individual to the Universe
For me it is interesting mostly as a sort of poetry, a form of metaphor, not as any sort of truth.
For me, many of the ideas seem unlikely.
It seems unlikely to me that there is any sort of god, any sort of “unity held together by the one Eternal Spirit, whose power creates the earth, the sky, and the stars, and at the same time irradiates our minds with the light of a consciousness that moves and exists in unbroken continuity with the outer world”, any sort of “his consciousness that the sun attracts the earth; it is through his consciousness that the light-waves are being transmitted from planet to planet”.
I certainly align with the sense of awe and wonder at the complexity of the living and non-living world.
I have a certain respect for the minds that looked for and thought they had found some sort of pattern in that complexity.
And it is a not a pattern that makes sense to me.
I certainly align with the sentiment that there is far more to appreciating life than satiating desires.
I am clear that all desires, all likes and dislikes of body and culture are in a very real sense just sets of heuristics selected over deep time by the simple expedient that they survived and the alternatives did not. All determined by survival in our past, and not necessarily relevant or useful to our exponentially changing present.
So we live in a very difficult time.
The old ways no longer work, and the current systems appear to be overrun by cheating strategies.
It is hard to see a way through, and it does seem possible, even probable to me.
And it is by no means certain.
To me, Truth is illusion.
It is an idea that we must all believe as part of our developmental process, and it is one that needs to be superseded by an understanding of probability and uncertainty in all things as soon as possible.
Having “Truth” is dangerous, as it leads people to recklessly follow paths that require great caution.
So I don’t deal in Truth, only in confidence, probabilities, uncertainty.
And it seems clear in logic that there must be infinite domains that are not simply uncertain, but unknowable, and unpredictable by any method. One must simply accept such things, and let them be as they are, and will become.
So I am not all about control, and I am all in favour of understanding as much as possible about what can be influenced and what cannot, and how one makes such distinctions, and where one can most powerfully develop and use what limited skills one brings to existence.
I certainly align with the idea that we as individuals, and the living systems around us are vastly more complex than we are capable of consciously comprehending. I’m good with numbers. I have actually taken the discipline myself to count to 10,000. It takes a long time. Yet it is such a small number. 86,400 is the number of seconds in a day. 31,536,000 the number of seconds in 365 days.
Yet those numbers pail beside the 7 Billion people currently alive, or the 100 trillion cells in each of our bodies, or the 500 trillion molecules in every cell. Numbers and complexity beyond any hope of comprehending in detail, yet a rough understanding of the general principles does seem possible.
And one principle is that all explorations of any infinity must start from simple distinctions, and expand into more refinement of gradations, closer approximations to the infinite.
And our minds are finite. Our experience of being seems to be of the subconscious model of reality that our brains assemble, rather than of reality itself, and often those two are quite close in many aspects, and sometimes not so much.
So Indian culture seems much like any culture in a sense, both alike and different, both interesting and irrelevant in the same way as all cultures are.
We all need a culture for our birth, and we can all go beyond culture – and not many do.
Hi Deb at al,
Bows to you too.
And yes Bhatta, in the context that this was written 125 years ago, it is an amazing piece of work. Another little gem dating from about the same time (1898) is this little piece by Thorstein Veblen Why is Economics not an Evolutionary Science?.
And Mendy Lou – love that Einstein quote (“The most beautiful and most profound emotion we can experience is the sensation of the mystical. It is the sower of all true science.“). It is one I can very strongly align with in most contexts.
And thank you Judi for highlighting one aspect that Tagore and I completely align on, even if we get there by very different paths – in respect of “the supreme freedom of consciousness” … “it has an ethical basis, and it must be translated into action“.
Back to Deb’s highlights:
In the comment of Tagore “The man whose acquaintance with the world does not lead him deeper than science leads him, will never understand what it is that the man with the spiritual vision finds in these natural phenomena” I see a righteousness and a hubris that comes from “Truth” that is the eternal danger of such a notion. For me, science has no end. Science is the eternal journey, questions without end. Anything less may be common, and the practitioners may call themselves scientists, and it is not what I call science, but a righteousness even worse than that Tagore displays. And I can understand that such an understanding of the term science would not have been common in Tagore’s time, when the clockwork view of Newton was still so clearly in the ascendant even at the higher levels of science.
For me his idea of “Essentially man is not a slave either of himself or of the world; but he is a lover. His freedom and fulfilment is in love, which is another name for perfect comprehension.” has both the germ of something valuable, and the greatest impediment to finding that which is most useful and powerful. For me “perfect comprehension” is illusion and hubris, and the root of the worst despotism possible, yet the love of freedom and the search for and exploration of the nature of this feeling we call fulfilment is definitely an essential aspect of the journey.
For me, several of the great errors of Tagore are in the passage:
“The man of science knows, in one aspect, that the world is not merely what it appears to be to our senses; he knows that earth and water are really the play of forces that manifest themselves to us as earth and water – how, we can but partially apprehend. Likewise the man who has his spiritual eyes open knows that the ultimate truth about earth and water lies in our apprehension of the eternal will which works in time and takes shape in the forces we realize under those aspects. This is not mere knowledge, as science is, but it is a perception of the soul by the soul. This does not lead us to power, as knowledge does, but it gives us joy, which is the product of the union of kindred things.”
Those errors are encapsulated in the phrases “the ultimate truth” and “the eternal will” and “not mere knowledge, as science is, but it is a perception of the soul by the soul”.
Each of these phases contain notions that seem to me to clearly be of the same type as “the earth is flat”, the earth is the centre of the universe” and “phlogiston”.
Each of those things made a certain sense.
The earth does seem to be flat. It is flat to within the errors of measurement available to people who measure things with sticks or strings and the “naked eye”.
And within such measurement errors, it is flat.
It isn’t that long ago that people were killed for daring to speak that the earth might not be the centre of the universe. Everyone could see, just by looking, that the heavens revolve around us, and it is written in the holy books. One dared not challenge holy and revealed wisdom, on pain of death.
Now it is clear, that we are not the centre of anything. Ours is just one roughly round ball of stuff orbiting around a sun that is one of about 100 billion suns in this galaxy, and we have already catalogued billions of other galaxies, and strongly suspect that there are many billions more beyond the range of our instruments, many of them forever so.
The ideas like “eternal will” and “soul” seemed to make a lot of sense. In many circumstances they seem to be what is present (just like in the examples above), and it is now clear, beyond any shadow of reasonable doubt, that they are not how things are.
It is now clear that reality is complex in many ways that make aspects of it unknowable and unpredictable, and the logic of such classes of things is now well understood. In a sense, we now know why we cannot know everything, or even anything about some classes of things.
We now know that nothing in reality can be known with absolute certainty. All things in reality come with many different aspects of uncertainty and unknowability.
And some things can be approximated to very great degrees of accuracy, such that the margin of the unknown is far less than the measurement errors of our best instruments.
So while it is true that many cultures have found many valuable heuristics for action, valuable ways of being in the world – the explanatory frameworks that those cultures created to support those ways of being are in almost all cases entirely inaccurate.
So love is indeed a powerful way of being in a cooperative society – the mathematics and logic of that are now clear, and that has nothing necessarily to do with “souls” or “will”s or anything eternal.
Tagore’s attack on science was an attack on a certain sort of science, one with the hubris to think that it could solve all problems, answer all questions.
That sort of science is for me as dead as dinosaurs.
The sort of science I have is one of eternal questions, the eternal journey of exploration, in the full knowledge that there are infinite classes of questions that cannot, even in theory, be answered; infinite classes of things that are not predictable in any fashion.
So the science I have has a sort of humility to it. A profound set of uncertainties at many different levels and contexts.
So I have a certain confidence that the notions of “will” applied to the universe at large is a category error in logic and a mistake in reality, and the idea of “soul” is not applicable to human beings. I am clear that we are very complex embodied entities. I have no reasonable doubt remaining around either proposition. And there is always a level of uncertainty around anything to do with reality – so there is doubt, and it is very low level doubt.
So while I can accept that all individuals here have the experiences that they claim to have, I often do not align with the explanatory frameworks within which individuals make sense of those experiences, and create narratives about them.
And I completely understand that very few other people have narratives like the ones I use. I do get how far from the “normal distribution” of such narratives my own set is. Which is not to make any sort of claim of “Truth” about the set I use, and it is making the claim of utility, and not yet falsified by observation – so a certain reliability in the contexts experienced thus far in my journey. And I fully expect that future experience will require modification of aspects of the explanatory frameworks I am using, and I expect that to be the case for the rest of eternity, should I be fortunate enough to live that long.
I think Tagore, like many others, had great intentions, and great intuition.
I think his intuition told him what was important, even if the explanatory framework he developed around that “what” has been subsequently disproven beyond any reasonable doubt.
Much of what Tagore (and many others, including the Buddha) proposed as actions in the world, I strongly align with.
Where we differ is in the foundational explanatory frameworks we have developed around those actions.
And I get I am a weird geek.
I live in a world of systems, relationships, logic.
Within that world I am highly intuitive.
It is a very different sort of world to the one of ancient times.
Living systems are to me something like amazing complex computer programs (that includes myself).
Evolution by natural selection, biochemistry, information flows, decision systems – that is how I see reality.
I don’t do formal logic well, I haven’t the patience for their methodical proofs – kind of like Thomas Hardy (the most boring prose I ever tried to read – just kept sending me to sleep. I said to my English teacher I would get more enjoyment from reading the dictionary – so she let me – I got to F while the rest of the class ready Hardy – I definitely think I got the better deal).
For me, it is just about survival, and freedom.
And the nature of logic, of computational spaces and paradigms, of strategic sets, defines the nature of what is possible.
And in a very real sense, anything is possible, and some of the desirable possibilities are a very long jump in computational and strategic space from where we are now.
So it is – kinda – and not really.
We really are in very different conceptual spaces.
Hi Jeff, Deb and Bhatta,
@Deb – love the Rumi Guesthouse poem – a lot of practical wisdom in that – again in a strictly metaphorical sense, and then Rumi is seldom anything else.
And there is certainly a very real sense in the idea of “that which we resist persists”. [Metaphor and useful technology follows] If one tries to hold back the flow of a river, one ends up with a dam, that when it does eventually break, causes a catastrophic flood. And there can be real power in building dams to mediate the worst ravages of floods and droughts, and such dams are not built with the intent of resisting, but of maintaining flows withing narrower limits than would otherwise occur, by having low maximum flows but sustaining them for longer, and then using the stored water to sustain higher minimum flows for longer. Such action can be life sustaining rather than life endangering.
The Nan Yar teachings for me show a method for achieving a state that works, but the entire explanatory framework around that method and the nature of the state has been clearly falsified. So again, it works only in the abstract metaphorical sense, and much of it not even in that sense. Yes the state exists, and from my experience and understanding, it is not at all as described, and I can see how it could seem to be so.
And the “reality” of what is happening is so complex, that it is forever beyond understanding in detail, only in the broadest of brush strokes seen at a distance. The numbers are just vast. The concepts so complex. Patterns, computational systems, Turing complete and Turing incomplete computation, at many different levels, building recursively to deliver our experience of being (which experience is of the model our brains create, not reality itself, so in this sense, we can form it into any shape with enough practice). Fascinating, and nothing at all like any conception of ancient times (and it explains why the ancient conceptions work as they do/did).
And none of that says that my understanding is in any way complete – I know it is not, I know it cannot be so – and that in itself is a fundamentally different sort of knowing from most ancient texts. One can see it in the mystic writings of those like Rumi, and in some aspects of notions of mystery, and in most cases there is an overlay of “Truth” that is little short of hubris.
So for me, the realities of:
the physics of stellar nuclear-synthesis;
the biochemistry of RNA, DNA, proteins, lipids, complex sugars etc;
the logic of computation, of Turing machines, of computers and modeling;
the infinite “spaces” of computation, algorithms, heuristics, abstraction, logic, strategy, …;
the many levels of uncertainty, measurement error, Heisenberg uncertainty, quantum uncertainty, stochastic unknowability, maximal computational complexity, probability, chaos, complexity theory, fractals, etc;
the process of evolution by natural selection, initially at the biochemical level, then cellular, eventually to mimetic, and now beyond mimetic – infinitely recursive and abstractable.
All of these things add to my limited understanding and appreciation and experience of being that which I am.
All of these things inform me that I must be so much more than I can possibly understand – there is no other logical interpretation possible.
My best heuristics, my best guesses, can only ever be just that, useful shortcuts (appropriate when they are, and misleading when they are, with no possible way to be absolutely certain which is which).
So I am profoundly conscious of the uncertainties of my existence, of my understanding, and at the same time I still exist, I am still capable of action, and my actions have the consequences that they do, both predictable to the degrees that they are, and unpredictable to the degrees that they are.
And I exist, as an ethical entity, capable of choice and action, and at the levels that I currently have access to.
And in that profoundly uncertain context, I act, as I do. I have the confidence that I do, both with respect to the motives I have, and the outcomes I expect, and such confidence cannot ever be 100%, we are all far more complex than that.
In Mandukya Upanishad-Part 1 he talks of the waking, dreaming, sleeping and observing selves, and makes the claim that the observing self is not changing.
That claim to me seems very improbable.
In my experience, as observer, I have noticed change in the observer I.
I am clear that our experience is of a software model. When waking, the model is kept entrained to reality by input from the senses, which is why most people find sensory deprivation difficult to deal with, and some do not recover from it (are permanently mad).
In sleeping, there are many changes in the brain’s configuration, and usually motor and memory functions are disabled, and not always. Sometimes in most, and in some people often, remember dreams, and some people at some times move in sleep. The biochemical nature of these switches is now understood. I was a sleep walker as a child. I still sometimes move.
What now seems beyond reasonable doubt, is that in dreams, the experiential world (model) is created from aspects that the subconscious has prioritised for various levels of reasons.
It seems clear that in deep sleep, there is not sufficient systemic coherence for either consciousness or memory. We exist only as potential for restart, patterns of memory and habit available in the matter of brain but not currently instantiated (think of a computer with the power off to the processor, and all long term and short term memory in tact – and it is not a perfect analogy, and it does convey the essence of something).
And there are many levels of awareness possible.
When one practices extremely slow breathing, the most extreme form I managed after 5 years of consistent practice was one breath every 4 minutes, in for 1 minute, hold 1 minute, out one minute, hold one minute (actually just under – 56 seconds, if I went to 57 seconds I would lose consciousness after about half an hour, at 56 seconds I could maintain consciousness indefinitely – at least for 2 hours). And that consciousness was a very restricted form of consciousness. There was not much it was capable of, other than regulating and counting breaths and time. Only those two, and a very slow watcher, capable of thinking very few, very slow, thoughts of counting and breath.
The idea that one is untouched by all of the states is in my experience, untrue.
The changes may be small, and the changes do seem to be real.
He states it beautifully about 1:07:30 into part 1 – From ignorance comes error. The whole construct of Upanishads is subtle, beautiful in a sense, yet in a modern sense, it is ignorant of the biochemical and logical constructs that give rise to consciousness. So they have the heuristic of Turiya, which kind of works in a sense, kind of points to something, yet is also an embodiment of ignorance in another and deeper sense – thus leading to error.
It seems most probable to me that the Turiya experience is one of software, abstracted from software. Individual, embodied, yet in a very real sense, unconstrained in many dimensions by the embodiment (yet in a basic sense, absolutely reliant on that embodiment). Just as software is not constrained by the computer it runs upon, and it does require a computer. Yet our linkages to our bodies are much tighter and deeper than that. Our software has many levels of “hardware hacks” that are tightly coupled to our embodiment, while at the same time delivering infinite flexibility. A notion at once simple and subtle and as difficult to get as that of Turiya.
So there are very real senses in which we create our realms of experience, both waking and dreaming. And there is a sense in which our only possible experience of reality is through such creations. And there does in fact seem to be another sense in which the reality does in fact exist, though its true nature is never fully available to us, and many of the things that culture (scientific or religious) teach us of the nature of that reality do in fact seem to be false.
The idea that any individual could fully understand reality seems to me to be illusion. And there are certainly many heuristics that make new levels of access to aspects of reality possible. And I suspect that should one live for the rest of eternity, one would continue to learn such things, if one continues on the path of the seeker.