Tag Archives: Perception

Spiral galaxy NGC 6384, photographed by the Hubble Space Telescope

The Doors of Perception

I love this.

A couple weeks ago, Financial Times Magazine published a feature by Clive Cookson on Lord Martin Rees: Britain’s Astronomer Royal and an absolutely fascinating man. One quote of Rees toward the end caught my attention:

“There is no reason to think that our [human] comprehension is matched to an understanding of all key features of reality … There may be phenomena, crucial to our long-term destiny, which we are not aware of,” Lord Rees says. This is not exactly a widely declared opinion among scientists, who tend to celebrate how successful they have been at understanding the universe, rather than ruminate on how limited the scope of their study is. But Rees holds this opinion unabashedly, as he describes in a 2012 op-ed in The Telegraph.

And why not? There is no question that science has been amazingly, ridiculously successful at developing an empirical account of our physical reality, but it is still only our physical reality that it describes. Even our most advanced scientific instruments, such as the Large Hadron Collider, are based on a series of theoretical and physical steps out from our basic biological identity. All of science is founded on our experience as primates possessing five(ish) physical senses, inhabiting organic bodies on a wet, rocky planet in three-dimensional space and one-dimensional time. That experience forms what I would call a “bubble” of human scientific capacity.

We’ve been able to do a lot within that bubble, but we would be utter fools to think that we’ll be able to comprehend everything from that basis. There could be principles in our universe—as basic as gravity or matter-energy equivalence—that we have no clue exist, because our brains and perception are incapable of registering them. There could be other dimensions of reality, perhaps infinite in number, existing within and around our own, each inhabited by its own life-forms and intelligences. Our own universe could be nested within other universes, and others within ours, infinitely deep and vast. Continue reading The Doors of Perception

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Photo of three dolphins jumping through waves in the Gulf of Mexico

The Overwhelming Abundance of Consciousness

Last week, I wrote about how animals becoming persons may lead to artificial intelligences and other unusual entities gaining personhood, and what the ramifications of that could be. There is another side to the question of animal personhood that I did not address, which profoundly impacts the way we perceive our world and all other life. That side is consciousness beyond humanity, and I feel it is well worth contemplating as our experience becomes increasingly technological.

When India declared that dolphins should have the status of non-human persons in May, it was fantastic news for dolphins and all humans (like me) who care deeply about animals. Much of the news coverage, like my previous post, focused on what exactly personhood meant for dolphins, how close it came to human rights, and where it might lead for animal rights. Only in passing was mention made of the extraordinary fact that, in saying “Whereas cetaceans in general are highly intelligent and sensitive… [it] is morally unacceptable to keep them captive for entertainment purpose”, the Indian government essentially acknowledged that our planet is home to conscious beings other than humans.

This acknowledgement is coming more and more frequently. On July 7, 2012, a bevy of prominent scientists (including  physicist Stephen Hawking) proclaimed and signed the Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness, which lays out the scientific case for consciousness in a variety of animals. It is a document that may figure prominently in the history of intelligent life on this planet (you can read it in full here [PDF]). In its conclusion, it declares:

The weight of evidence indicates that humans are not unique in possessing the neurological substrates that generate consciousness. Non-human animals, including all mammals and birds, and many other creatures, including octopuses, also possess these neurological substrates.

–Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness

Whether or not you agree that consciousness is wholly generated by physical, neurological processes, this is an eye-opening development in science and intellectual thought. For over two thousand years, it has been argued by philosophers, theologians, and scientists that humans are superior to the “dumb beasts” of field and forest, because we possess some combination of reason, self-awareness, and an immortal soul, and animals do not. This flies in the face of most human history and basic human experience. The traditional beliefs of Native Americans and most other indigenous tribes recognized animals as beings equal to mankind—in some cases, descended from the same ancestors. Respect and honor was always due to animals, especially when hunting them for food and clothing. (Interestingly, it appears that many modern hunters preserve some measure of this ancient tradition.) And who has not looked into the eyes of an animal and sensed there a will, intelligence, and presence at once familiar and incomprehensible? Continue reading The Overwhelming Abundance of Consciousness

Out of Time

“You’re fired, Matt,” I said, and sighed sadly. “I’m sorry.”

The man across the desk did not appear surprised. He pursed his lips and, for a few seconds, stared blankly into my eyes, then dropped his gaze. He lifted his right hand slightly and ran the pad of his thumb over his fingernails.

“Of course. I understand. I know you couldn’t keep me on like this. I’m undependable,” he stated, in the same tone he used to talk about the weather.

I nodded. I might as well be honest about it. “You’re brilliant. The stuff you’ve written for me is the best I’ve ever had, no exaggeration. But I’m running a magazine here. I need articles on time and regularly. I have to do things by the clock. And you haven’t been able to meet that requirement.”

A bitter line appeared between his lips. “Time. That’s always the problem.”

“Why does it have to be you?” I said, more vehemently than I intended. “Damn it, Matt, I want your articles! I want you on staff, but not if you’re like this!” He said nothing, just kept staring at his fingernails.

“Never mind,” I continued. “I guess it’s my fault to some extent. I’ve known you long enough, I shouldn’t have made the gamble in the first place. I’ll get you the forms and information for the severance package. You can take it home with you.”

I pulled open a drawer behind me, fished out the papers I needed, and handed them to him. Matt took them gently from my hand and glanced at them, then caught my eyes with his own.

“I’m not going to argue with you,” he remarked, “but there are some, well, some circumstances that you should know about. I am inclined to tell you, and they might help explain. Not that they would convince you to keep me on, but they may make you feel a little less confused.”

“OK, shoot.” I leaned back in my chair and put my hands behind my head.

“How much time do I have?” he asked.

I checked my watch. “Exactly twenty-five minutes. Then I’ve got a meeting to look over the layout draft.”

“I’ll tell you what I can,” Matt said, and began:

“Time doesn’t work for me. Or I don’t work with time—I don’t know which. I’m … out of sync. With normal time, that is, what you and everyone else experience.

“You know how, when you’re doing something you greatly enjoy, time seems to fly, and it’s gone before you know it? Or how the seconds just crawl by when you’re in the middle of something unpleasant? Good. Now imagine that, sped up or slowed down a thousand-fold, and disassociated from whether you like or dislike what is going on. That’s a rough idea of what happens for me.” Continue reading Out of Time