It seems to me that there are many aspects to getting a germ of an understanding of what we are as human beings.
One of those aspects is getting some idea of number, some idea of the vastness that resides within each and every one of us. Most people get lost with big numbers, they are just big.
Follow this paragraph to get some idea of some of the numbers involved in your own being.
How many things can you see in a second?
For most people the answer is about 10, if they are focused.
If we were to spend 8 hours a day, 7 days a week, directing our attention to see new people, we would be able to see about 100 million people in a year. At that rate it would take 70 years to see all the people alive now, many of whom would have died in the interim.
Within each of us are about 10,000 times as many cells as there are people on the planet.
Within each cell are roughly as many molecules as there are cells in our bodies. (That is almost a million years just to see each of the cells in our body, or the molecules in any one of those cells.)
Each cell has about 50,000 different types of molecule within it.
There are about a further 30,000 different types of molecule between different types of cells.
Each of these molecules has magnetic and electrical field resonance, as well as physical properties of vibration and resonance.
Each cell has electrical and chemical properties.
To think that we know what is going on in all that complexity is an absolute nonsense.
We can certainly understand some of the principles that are in action within that amazing complexity, and to think for an instant that we understand all of the relationships/strategies/interactions/emergent properties is hubris (extreme pride and self-confidence) in the extreme.
Having clearly said that, and keeping that uncertainty clearly in mind, there are some things that do seem to probably be important factors in the understanding of the reality of being human.
We have bodies.
We have very strong and confident evidence that these bodies are part of the whole evolved genetic/cellular systems that are very largely the result of evolution by natural selection acting out over some 4 billion years of existence on this planet.
Evolution is an amazing concept.
At its core it is an extremely simple idea.
The idea is that if we have something that replicates (copies), and that there is occasional error in the replication process, then there will be differential survival amongst the variants (perhaps due to competition or cooperation or pure blind chance).
In the world of organic chemistry there are a couple of families of molecules that can replicate like this, they are known as DNA and RNA.
We call the thing that is replicating a gene.
That differential survival between variants drives changes in the genetic makeup of populations over time.
It gets more complex.
These genes have lots of different sorts of impacts on the world around them, as well as being influenced by lots of different things in the world around them.
Under certain conditions, RNA molecules can replicate themselves.
Under other conditions, RNA molecules can fold up into very complex shapes that can be relatively stable. One such set of RNA molecules is called the Ribosome.
The ribosome has two major components made of RNA.
When these two components get together, they create an environment where other different types of RNA molecules can feed through a slot in the ribosome, and attract different amino acids to form chains based on a sequence of three of the nucleic acid sub-units within the RNA molecules. The sequence of Amino acids so formed is called a protein.
Proteins fold as they form, and form very complex shapes, with very complex chemical and electrical properties.
Some of these proteins can act as catalysts.
Catalysts are things that are involved in the change of some chemical to some other chemical, speed up the rate of that change, but are not themselves altered by that change.
When a protein has a role as a catalyst in living systems we call it an enzyme.
Enzymes can create environments where very complex organic molecules can be formed, from very complex chains of reactions.
Enzymes can have very interesting secondary and tertiary properties.
Some enzymes are so shaped that when the concentration of the thing they catalyze the production of reaches a certain level, that reaction product binds to a site on the enzyme and the resulting change in physical properties inhibits further activity; effectively giving it an “off” switch when it creates a certain concentration of whatever it makes.
Other enzymes have similar off switches, that are affected by the products of other reactions, 2 or three or four or more steps down the chain.
The complexity of the chemical molecular feedback systems, and their interaction with each other rapidly gets way beyond the ability of any human mind to follow in detail, yet it works. It is what we call life, and it is what we see in bacteria, algae, plants, animals, ecologies, and the mind-boggling complexity of interacting life on this planet.
If you haven’t got a headache yet, you soon will.
Our species, human beings, seems to have evolved a very interesting set of abilities.
We are complex mammals, and share a host of complex patterns that assist us to live with most of the other mammals. (We also share many attributes with all of our other ancestors, which include bacteria, and the ancestors of all plants, and all other sorts of animals.)
There are many thousands of those complex mammalian patterns, including being warm-blooded, brain organisation, sense organ structure, etc ….
Most mammals have complex brains that allow them to learn behaviours based upon interaction with their environment, as well as patterns of behaviour that are inbuilt, and for the most part simply trigger when they do, as a result of some environmental cue.
As a species, we have far fewer of the inbuilt behaviours than most other mammals.
We have very large brains, capable of very complex action.
We have brains capable of processing multiple streams of information simultaneously.
We can store and retrieve vast amounts of information very rapidly and very reliably.
It seems that the mechanisms we use to store and retrieve that information operate in analogous fashion as interference patterns, which has an interesting side effect of allowing us to make abstractions and intuitions.
To understand a little of how that works, we need to consider how our nerves transmit information.
Our nerves use FM (frequency modulation), for the same reason that modern radios do, it has a much better signal to noise ratio; that means that the message is more likely to get through, with less static and hiss (as is found in AM (amplitude modulation) signals). The nerves in our eyes, for example, have a standard rate of firing. They fire at that frequency all the time when our eyes are closed. When we open our eyes, the effect of light hitting our retina either increases or decreases the rate of firing. This is FM, frequency modulation (modulation just means changing).
Thus our brains have natural frequencies, and we speak of brain waves – billions of neurons in our heads firing in synchrony. This synchronisation has many similarities to how LASERs work, and LASERs provided us with a great analogy for how to think about many of the fundamental processes of brain. One of the things about LASER holograms is that every bit within the hologram contains a little information about the whole of the object being imaged (Zen anyone). So it is with human memory, human intuition, creativity, creative contextualisation, etc.
Our brains are a mix of information, habit, context, intuition; and those abilities seem to be able to be recursively applied into potentially infinite levels of abstraction and awareness.
These abilities have bought a new replicator into existence.
We can transmit ideas, and actions from one individual to another.
These units of transmissible information have been termed “memes”.
Memes are subject to very similar rules (in a mathematical sense) around their evolution to those rules that apply to genes.
We see in humans very similar meme structures to the sorts of gene structures we observe in the natural world – right up to the level of ecosystems, and beyond.
Each of us, as human beings, comes into existence with a genetic lineage that goes back billions of years, and has complexity that is numerically mind numbing.
We then begin our memetic existence. Our brains start to learn.
We do not exist in a learning vacuum.
We are born into a “culture”.
For the first five to seven years of our lives we are genetically programmed to accept most things that we encounter without question.
Thus we learn from our parents and our peers, and such learning is, for the most part, uncritical.
Some in society try to continue that uncritical learning and extend it as far as possible through adult life. People influenced by such structures tend to obey without serious question, throughout life.
Others in society attempt to teach individuals to be critical (to question, to test, to critique) of everything they encounter, and to go back through all that they accepted in childhood without question, and re-evaluate that also.
These two modes of operation are extremes of a spectrum that is infinite.
This line of thought leads to some very interesting analysis of trends and systems (economic and political) that is beyond the scope of this post.
For most of us, somewhere about age 3 (in the range 3 to 7 usually) we will have been children simply being, acting and languaging as per our genetic and cultural inputs, and we will have learned the concept of right/wrong (or good/bad, or some other simple binary distinction of valuation) along with the rules for how we ought to be in relationship to it. Sometime shortly thereafter we would each find ourselves in a situation where according to the rules we learned, we must declare ourselves to be wrong (or bad or whatever).
It seems that the brain (being a problem solving machine) solved that problem for us by declaring something in language – in the general form “being x (x being whatever we were doing) was wrong, so I am going to be y (y being something within the rules and culturally appropriate)”.
It seems to be, that that declaration is what is known in computer parlance as a “bootstrap routine” (from the idea of picking oneself up by ones own bootstraps – which is physically impossible, yet we can think of it). It starts a new pattern into existence, which pattern, when maturing, we will come to call our ego, and when matured beyond ego becomes high level awareness. It is pure software, running on the hardware of brain and body.
This declaration is the “bootstrap” routine that starts the next level of awareness into being, and that being comes with an awareness that there is something fundamentally wrong out there – because it was birthed in that “wrongness”.
It usually takes quite a bit of experience for most of us before we get to see this for ourselves.
During that time, being right, and looking good, will be the most important things to us (both stemming from the initial declaration of being wrong).
Once we gain the next level of awareness, where we can start to distinguish things outside of the realm of culture, and can see existence simply in terms of being, without the judgement of right and wrong, then a whole new realm of existence and experience becomes available.
However, the brain is not simply a distinction machine, it is also a habit machine.
It takes a lot of time, discipline, and practice to bring this new realm of existence into being as the dominant mode of existence, and no matter how trained and aware any of us is, we will each have moments when we are not our highest self, but one of the lesser habits of self that we have acquired in a lifetime of experience. One of the mechanisms that doesn’t help us is that when under stress the brain tends to narrow focus and to revert to the strongest (which usually equates to the earliest, as they have usually had most repetitions) patterns available.
So it seems that it is possible to have instantaneous transformation of experience, and to have new distinctions available to us; and it is not possible to immediately discard the habits of a lifetime. It takes a lot of effort to transform the habits of being at all levels to the highest of the new levels of awareness.
Stepping beyond good and evil is a major paradigm shift, and is profound; and it appears from my personal explorations that there are no limits to the number of such paradigm shifts that are available to be experienced. It seems that there may be an infinite series of such recursive shifts in awareness.
There appear to be many factors in our society that work against most people having the time and the will to make such explorations for themselves.
Money is a major problem. Each group is trying to make more of it. As an example; many teachers think people need more teaching, and most find it difficult to accept the reality that most students only require about 100 hours of programmed tuition in reading, writing and mathematics, and after that will learn far more effectively by being engaged in whatever takes their interest than by being fixed in any classroom situation or following any course of instruction (John Taylor Gatto was initially praised for his results, then fired when he publicised his methods).
Politically, those who currently make vast sums of money by means that most would consider corrupt, have no interest in the majority (or even a significant minority) becoming aware of just how and what they do; so they have institutions that fill the void with distractions (entertainment and news – the more addictive they are for attention the more effective they are in restraining awareness).
It is a very complex situation in which we find ourselves. Far beyond such simple notions as good and evil, requiring levels of acceptance and forgiveness that few are demonstrating at present in their everyday actions.
Thus, as adults some of us get to learn about disciplines involving questioning everything, and trusting our own intuitions.
We find ourselves to be beings that are tied to the physical bodies we find ourselves associated with, yet at the same time to also be intimately linked at many different levels to all that surrounds us.
In certain states of mind we are able to access certain aspects of different levels of connectedness. Historically many individuals have achieved such states, and very few, have had any real idea about just what is going on.
I do not make any claim to “know” all there is about such relationships, and it does seem to me that those relationships are, in reality, very different from most of the explanatory frameworks that most cultures provide.
Competition is an essential aspect of evolution, and so is cooperation.
All major advances in complexity of evolved systems are characterised by new levels of cooperation.
By the time we get to human beings, we are looking at about 20 levels of cooperation in action within the many layers of systems that give us our current reality.
In evolutionary terms, all systems of cooperation require attendant strategies to provide stability. Raw cooperation is vulnerable to cheating, and cannot survive in a competitive environment. What is needed is some set of strategies that make cooperation stable. The simplest set of such strategies fall into the retaliator class of strategies, which involve some variant of trust until that trust is betrayed, then retaliate in some fashion that removes all benefit acquired by cheating. In games theory, a strategy called “tit for tat” is the most stable of the simple variants in the retaliator class. We see many variants of that at many levels around us, from our legal systems, to our personal relationships, through many levels of the chemistry of life.
Perhaps our future depends on us bringing a new level of global cooperation into stable existence.
So yes – we can have profound and deep experiences.
Yes we can feel and experience connectedness and clarity.
And it is highly unlikely that any explanatory framework more than 50 years old is even partially accurate as to what is actually going on.
My most read post – What do you think constitutes human flourishing.
An exploration of metaphysics and a rejection of nihilism – a discussion on the nature of the human experience over many weeks.
My side of an email exchange with Steve Omohundro on AI and Utility Functions from a biological context
a discussion of the utility of simple binary ideas like right and wrong
Lots of links at the bottom of this post on evolution and humanity repeated below:
The Source of my life – evolution in a nutshell
A long discussion starting with Death and exploring many ideas of evolution
Awareness and Beauty
Soul and Spirit
Theism and Atheism
On Economics, with lots of stuff on Evolution
Economics and Holism critiqued from an evolutionary perspective
Starting with Poverty and exploring more aspects of evolution
Some fairly deep stuff on knowing from Jan 2011
Has technology surpassed our humanity?
Nature of Consciousness
An exploration of the probable validity of the idea of god, and its relationship to science.