Overweening Generalist

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Where The Hell Am I?

Often, when meditating whilst sitting quietly or even walking alone with "my" thoughts, I often use the gimmick of thinking about the Bohr Model of the atom (leave aside that it can be viewed as a "flawed" model for now), and how we're made up of atoms, which have a tiny nucleus with neutrons and protons "inside." And inside that are just all sorts of quarks and other surrealist "material" shenanigans.



And I read once in some popularization of quantum mechanics that the nucleus is so small relative to the electrons buzzing around in discrete "orbits" or "outer shells" that, if the nucleus were an orange put at the center of the 50 yard line at the Rose Bowl, then the electrons are whirling around - relatively speaking - outside the entrance gates, all around. What's "inside" all that "space"? It's empty! (But it's probably "really" not...no time to get into it now, here.)

Hell, every-thing else on this planet seems subject to the same laws of physics, and as Stephen Dedalus said, we are "ineluctably constructed upon the incertitude of the void." (Ulysses, p.697, "Ithaca")

[Interestingly to me, Joyce wrote Ulysses between 1915-1922; it was published in 1922. Quantum physics would show there was a physical basis for this poetic line, but not until 1925-27 or so.]

And therefore "I" am mostly empty space. "I" just seem solid because "I" can only make investigations with the sensoria Nature gave me: clunky stuff. Gigantic, really. And seemingly a plenum of bone, skin, blood, lymph, viscera. But - and "I" still think on one level this model "is" legitimate - "I" seem really quite ghost-like. "I" only bump into stuff because the stuff "I" bump into has roughly the same levels of non-emptiness that "I" have. What a world!

Usually this has served me well: thinking of myself, as Bucky Fuller said, "I seem to be a verb." Yea: what's not all about the empty space seems more about electrons and energy exchanges between "me" and my surrounding environment. I meditate on this physics and get outside of my (mostly empty?) "self."

I end up summoning some picture of myself as a cloud of energy, with a module near the top that seems to want to make everything into some solid "meaning." But that module seems utterly foolish and but one of the modules that make up what Marvin Minsky called The Society of Mind: what's going on seems a "booming buzzing confusion" of energies, everywhere and everywhen. When I do this I've entered what the phenomenological sociologists call a "finite province of meaning." This particular province of meaning seems about blissful meaninglessness, and it's a second cousin to being stoned on cannabis, only it's still legal. For now...

Going "Up" One Level
But lately - say, the last 24 months - I've been trying to understand the human genome. It turns out to be  absurdly complex, for the OG. But it's abecedarian compared to what I found out about epigenetics. HERE's an amusing short explanation about some of what is entailed by epigenetics. He does it far better justice than I could; I'm afraid I'd bore you with my explanations about methyl groups and histones and how your grandmother's smoking habit effects your health. My favorite metaphors so far for the genome and the epigenome are this: the genome is the hardware; the epigenome tells the genome what to do with its information, and when. Talk about complexity!



So getting back to trying to find out where "I" am: who and what I seem to be is not only atoms and the void, but information inherited roughly 50/50 from mom and dad, plus the environments I've accidentally been born into or found myself in, the choices I made about what environments to go into (and "environments" here means something closer to what McLuhan meant than saying "I grew up in the San Gabriel Valley area of Los Angeles County"). Although geography does seem to matter quite  a lot. But what my parents worried about, what they ate, what their parents experienced...and just an enormous amount of CHANCE occurrences seem to be a lot about where "I" am.

Then I found out something wonderfully disturbing that makes what I've mentioned so far seem trivial.

Going "Up" Another Level
In the 20th century, modern medicine finally arrived. O! The things we learned! About surgery (lots of insanely brutal war wounds provided ample practice), and what worked and what didn't, and doctors caught up to the washing their hands dealio. And we began to merge our physics (harnessing light) and chemistry with technology and imaging, and...we're on our way! We even found out we'd been acting like superstitious fools for millenia: if we wipe out bacteria, we'd live a lot longer, and healthier. And so: antibiotics (miracles!), antiseptics of all sort, cleaning products in every modern home. But we were wrong about bacteria: we need Them to maintain a healthy immune system. And oh wow: just sooooo much more.



You know this "I" that I'm trying to find? Turns out "he" is part of a system that's not only genome and epigenome, but microbiome. 90% of the cells in "me" are bacteria. And I'm healthy! "I" took a long bike ride today, got all kinds of work done, had some Big Laffs. But if "I" am 90% bacteria...I'm not sure what to think. And it turns out bacteria in my gut influences what I think and feel.

Who is running the show here?

Preliminary Ideas About Where the Hell "My" "I" "Is"
I understand the history of modern "self" hood had to do with rationalistic ideas about agency and law and responsibility. It was a convenient fiction. If some crime was committed, we want to gather the evidence and convict that rational actor for his wrongdoing and make that person "pay" a debt to another convenient fiction: The State. Or "society." But if we're driven by things our ancestors did and we're mostly empty space or bacteria, as the kids say, WTF?

At this point I take a deep breath and remember what Robert Anton Wilson said, in generalized account of what the Copenhagen Interpretation of quantum mechanics: every model we make to account for some aspect of "reality" tells us as much about our own minds as it does Nature, or what's "out there." As we grew up, toddling around some environment, as mostly empty space, our genes being played by histones and methylations and other Damned Things, we were constantly ingesting atoms and incorporating them into our "selves" without knowing it. Most of us still seem blase about the whole schmeer! And even then we were mostly bacteria. And if our parents found out this fact, they probably would've killed us. Literally. With antibiotics and a lot of scrubbing.

We're toddling around and our brains are receiving signals and ignoring others, setting up our nervous system to perceive the world a certain way and - this is crucial - not other possible ways. But some kid on the other side of the world was making grooves in his brain, connecting neural clusters in a different schema. That kid was "learning" a different language, for one thing. And language, being part of the world, also influences further how we'll "see" the world, and take action. (Sorry anti-Whorfians! You're on the outs, now.)

And yet: many of us grow into adulthood and enjoy enduring alliances and deep, satisfying relationships with someone from a remote (relative to "us") region of the world. We're terrifically malleable, plastic. But not infinitely so. Yep: I was born in LA, grew up there, lived in Colorado for a a few minutes, then moved back to LA, lived in a few areas in the vast sprawling metropolis around La-La Land, then moved to a different state within the state of California, a place called "Berkeley." And yet: I have friends who speak Chinese, who are also mostly empty space and bacteria. And it's good.

Okay, okay. I'm starting to feel better now. "I" accept my verbishness, my existence as a dissipative structure, and don't really care all that much where "I" am. Because, not being a solipsist, I assume you're reading this now, and you are enough like me, so what does it matter? How do I know I'm not being dreamed by some gaseous vertebrate of astronomical heft? I don't. Hell: maybe YOU are dreaming all this? And "I" don't care. This seems like a cosmic funhouse to me. All of it. What the hell: I'll just assume we sort of exist, and that it matters, bacteria and all.



16 comments:

Eric Wagner said...

Terrific piece. It reminds me of a comment you made a while ago that you didn't like Star Trek as a kid. I loved anything science fictional as far back as I remember. I remember watching Batman at about age three, loving sf cartoons at four, racing home from kindergarten to watch "Rocket Robin Hood" and "Eighth Man" at five. "Star Trek" became the holy grail for me. It didn't go into syndication in San Jose until I got into fifth grade. Neither of my parents dug sf. I wonder why I became attached to it and you didn't.

This also reminds of the challenges of obesity. I saw a picture of a celebrity who has had a challenge with weight at the age of about six, and she appeared chunky. It seems like some human characteristics form before we reach any kind of age of reason. (And yet many adults feel guilty about their challenges with weight.)

Anonymous said...


Like HP Lovecraft pointed out the
comfortable worldview of a geocentrist
simplicity, bounded neatly in time
with a 4004 BC start date, has been
roughly mauled by science in passing.

The self image seems to be suffering
from the same. When Rod Brooks was
so unkind as to remark that an insect
lacked the neurons to do insectal
things using the current metaphor
of a central omniscient POV, the
days of that model for humans was
gone like the Dodobird.

Those who bewail the loss of the
ancients shitty simplistic epistemological cartoon worldview
are missing the whole point. Things
are still mysterious and wonderful
and we are supposed to be in awe
of the complexity and sheer wonder
of the "real".

If we can figure out what "real means these days. When Ernst Mach
said he didn't believe in atoms
he was only two generations away
from being right about it...GRIN

This I came out of the darkness
into a world mostly ceilings in
the beginning, the rest is all
just a learning process and a grab
for experiences.

Meanings I just make up as I go
along one long pink timeworm in
the Norns tapestry.

I'd like to see a weird version of
peace, allowing the Syrians to fight their civil war with the rest
of the world as silent spectators.

Either that or drop the Neo-cons
who think it's a good idea as the
first wave of the attack. That
would solve two problems at once.

My version of I have a dream.

Keep on keepin' on

michael said...

Eric-

I like the idea that epigenetics may have had something to do with me not liking Star Trek, but I'm not at all sure that's what you meant.

To clarify my own narrative to my "self" about what happened when I tried to get into Star Trek: the assumption of military hierarchy with uniforms was a big turn-off to me, although I could see why other pothead peacenik intellectual types would still like it. I think I'd had extensive, baroque imaginings of what space travel would be like and what interactions with alien life would be like, and I what I saw on Star Trek didn't turn me on. You know the alien intelligence (like some sort of sentient ocean?) in Lem? That made sense to me. So did VALIS. Star Trek seemed like a cowboy show, but I must give Roddenberry and the other makers mad props for firing the imaginations of others. I think I was just weirder or something.

I did not and do not dislike Star Trek. It's just that I have had Trekkie friends and I was not even close to their level of enthusiasm about the show.

The show wasn't even on my radar until it had gone into syndication and reruns on non-network stations in LA. (I seem to remember it was on Channel 13?) I remember being utterly alienated in Aurora, CO, in high school math, stoned, and there was a kid who seemed to have memorized every line of every show. I remember thinking, Gawd what a geek. But I should check that thing out if it wigs other kids out so much.

Your comments about obesity are spot-on: there's mounting data that suggests both one's own microbiome (which, like language and puberty and all sort of other things, gets "turned on" and then "set" during a certain timeframe, and that gut bacteria has quite a lot to do with metabolism. Even "experts" are trained to look at individuals and their efforts to regarding fatty and sugary foods and exercise. Food choice and exercise DO have something to do with obesity, but it's only a part of the story. And I see that narrative changing rapidly towards understanding how important bacteria is to our health. I find this very excting!

But possibly even moreso: the data on epigenetics and obesity seems more established and yet I don't hear/read all that much in the popular media about it. I could see editors looking at the story and seeing it as too damned convoluted. How do you explain epigenetics of obesity to a public that doesn't know how the light goes on when you flip a switch?

And "the human genome" has drawn yawns from literary friends when I've broached the subject. Hey, you wanna know what I found really interesting when reading about how genes work? Much less epigenetics! That's why I think that video I linked to (9 minutes or so) is so important: we have to make this stuff as enticing and funny and sexy as possible...'cuz it IS!

It's just that people don't know that yet. (NB what he says about "guilt" which I find both funny, profound, scary and almost absurd.) A critical mass will get turned on to the microbiome and epigenetics. I really think they will, if only because the implications seem sooo utterly far-reaching.

I reviewed a book on epigenetics (Richard Francis was the author) in the OG, but I've since read three books that were even better for the intelligent layperson, the best one being _The Epigenetics Revolution_ by Nessa Carey, which I found both digestible and a tour-de-force. I love her.

There's about 15 top-notch longish articles on the microbiome that I've read and re-read, tryna get a line on this mindblowing stuff, but here's two of my favorites:

Some of my best friends are germs: Michael Pollan:
http://www.nytimes.com/2013/05/19/magazine/say-hello-to-the-100-trillion-bacteria-that-make-up-your-microbiome.html?ref=magazine&_r=0&pagewanted=all

Carl Zimmer: the human lake:
http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/loom/2011/03/31/the-human-lake/#.UhH19ODrZFI

michael said...

Anon-

In Unistat foreign policy, all NeoCons want to export "democracy" and all neoliberals seem hawkish enough. Making war: it's what the Ruling Class does really well. But as you wrote earlier, "What are we winning?"

There seem to be no truly sane minds in the Pentagon, and they seem to run the show. Have since around 1947, seems to me.

My disposition seems to harmonize with yours: when I was sitting in libraries as a kid, reading about Copernicus and Darwin and Hubble and how their science utterly wrecked the God-centric view of "who we are," I was thrilled when I guess I was supposed to be frustrated or anxious.

Hell: I'm STILL thrilled. And paradoxically, it makes me feel something like..."religious"? But not in any organized sense. Gimme that ol' fashioned disorganized religion. Like Lao-Tse and the latest from someone like Anton Zeilinger or Lawrence Krauss.

Let us all now bow our heads and freely abuse our illusions with the logic of Sri Syadasti and, while we eschew dogma, affirm that we have catmas: relativistic meta-beliefs?

Cleveland Okie (Tom Jackson) said...

Given your interest in genetics and in musical "codes," I thought I should suggest that you read a novel called "The Gold Bug Variations" by Richard Powers. It's one of my favorite novels, all about information and sex and music.

Drew Zi said...

Lem's attempt at rendering an alien life-form "alien" is one of the best I have read. I also like the intra-universal alien in Excession, though banks can render alien species without making them extremes of some narrow human traits, which sempt to happen a lot in Star Trek.

Drew Zi said...

I have always seen the self as an emergent property of complex interactions, and therefore, to look for the self anywhere is to reify it. I think Heidegger was correct in thinking that when we are coping in the world, say using a hammer, at the point at which it becomes transparent, you have actually extended your self and your body, and this is why it is easy for us to envision incorporating technology into our body without negating our "self".

When something, even in, or of, our body, is not working the way it should be (or that we are used to) it immediatly becomes opaque and almost like it is not part of us.

I have a blogpost in draft form with some of these reflections, but it has just been sitting there for months, I need to rework it.

michael said...

@Tom: you recommended Powers's Gold Bug Variations in a comment back when I was writing on "codes"; I still haven't gotten to it, but I have stood in a library and paged through it and you're right: I will enjoy that 600=page novel when I get to it.

Pynchon's new novel comes out next month!

michael said...

Drew Zi: I'm oddly relieved to find some accord on Lem. In the Euro SF welt he was a huge spur to get people to notice how great PKD was/is. I've really loved everything I've read by Lem and he seems unduly neglected in Unistat. The Polish Borges? Is that a stretch?

I'm glad someone else saw fit to address the problem of "the self." The attack on the unitary rationalistic "self" from postmodernists was one of the valuable moves from those thinkers, and I do think they got a lot from Heidegger. Certainly Derrida did.

"Here's me using a hammer." OR: "The complex dynamic energy pattern we conveniently call a 'self' extends its energies by augmenting with a tool."

Me me me me me me!

I barely touched the surface of the problem of "the self" and I suspected that if anyone chimed in they'd bring up how the Hinayana and Mahayana Buddhists long ago say the "Self" as an illusion. Or something along those lines...

O! The number of ways to address the problem of "self"!

"I" quite often feel that part called the sense of "self" - the Ego? - an albatross around my neck. When, via gimmicks like meditation and drugs and sex and humor and other non-ordinary states, I've gotten away from my "self" it felt very liberating.

I find Max Stirner deeply funny yet valid. We project worlds and make most of "reality" by talking and other forms of communication, so...the "self" seems completely legit to me. But I agree with you: we reify it and forget we made it up!

When, in performing some act of kindness to a stranger, I've caught myself in at least two minds: 1.): I should do a kind thing here; it's good to do kind things to others and I'll feel better about myself and can tell myself I'm a good person, etc.

2.) I caught myself seeing the other person as a "me" and did something to help, not really thinking about "ethics," not even "the golden rule." I just did what I could, without abstracting about it. This was more fulfilling. I think we are all connected in some way, but I won't dogmatize about it.

If intelligent Westerners stuck in their egos and unhappy about it can't get with varieties of Buddhism or if pomo reads like claptrap (can you blame 'em?), then the neurosciences have scads to say about it, if they'll listen to "science."

Do feel free to plug your blog here, if you wanna, and thanks for chiming in with your choice thoughts., Drew Zi.

Drew Zi said...

"the polish Borges" I think would only irritate the academic types; I find it a very plausible comparison.

I think you'll recognize me from commenting here. I used to comment under my real name - Andrew Crawshaw, but got a little anxious about doing so, not on blogs but just in general, so I reverted to using a pseudonym.

My blog is here tollendo.blogspot.co.uk

Crawshaw said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Drew Zi said...



I have still yet to read Stirner's Ego with more than just a cursory look at the contents and some of the early pages.

Do you find that being drawn completely into any form of activity is similar in itself to the effects of meditation, or do you find that meditation has a particular attraction? i.e I spend a lot of time studying and playing Weiqi, and seem to get lost in thinking about it.

I used to mediate a lot, but I found that it increased by susceptibility to hypnogogia.

We also a lot of the time forget that the self enables us to navigate in the world, and because we have been taught to not be inconsistent we cling to an ideal of who "we are" and what our "self" is and we don't change it and sometimes even when living up to that demand starts fucking our lives up.

michael said...

Drew Zi-

I think Stirner should be a bigger deal; I wish every kid who reads Ayn Rand and sees themselves in one of her heroic individualist roles really ought to continue in her line by going back to Stirner...and then read Kropotkin for a very different view of how to think about the libertarian (anarchist) role. But then I'm a dreamer.

Great Q!: The sorts of states I get into in meditation seem similar to "flow" states I get into when doing something that's challenging but enjoyable. And then sex seems slightly different from those.

Oddly, when I've been riding my bicycle along for 45 minutes or so I seem to get into a state of mind very much like the one i get into when I sit quietly, eyes closed, counting breaths, paying attention to my diaphragm as I exhale through the nostrils, tuning into the feeling of air movements, saying some mantra-word as I exhale. On the bike, I could easily get killed and yet I feel very much attuned to other cars, pedestrians, etc. Very zen-like. If you read that I got killed while riding my bike it will be because some driver wasn't paying attention to the road. (Probably texting.)

A very pleasurable flow-state I get into rather easily every day is study. Hours can go by unnoticed while I'm reading some text(s) (usually books but sometimes stuff on line), making notes, looking stuff up in the middle then going back to the text. This reminds me of Joseph Campbell, who was asked by - I think it was Alan Watts? - if he meditated. And Campbell said yes: he underlines passages in books.

This "study" state seems flavored with a quite different quality from the meditation state. Walking and taking a shower seem to be discrete states for me, too. I don't know why, but I know I'm guaranteed at least two interesting connections of ideas while showering; these are connections I don't obtain while "trying" to make interesting connections. (Whether these connections are interesting to anyone else is something I'm quite unsure about; all I know is they're interesting to me. And they will come, unbidden.)

I wonder what my brain looks like in fMRI over 3 hrs of "flow" state among books, paper, pens, note-cards, etc, vs. 35 minutes into meditation, esp. when I've been practicing?

All of the states mentioned above I consider non-ordinary and finite provinces of meaning, a temporary excursion away from my "self" that I seem to inhabit for a lion's share of waking life.

When you catch the slide to hypnagogia, have you tried to say "No!" and go back? Do you think you get quality sleep usually?

michael said...

Drew Zi: >We also a lot of the time forget that the self enables us to navigate in the world, and because we have been taught to not be inconsistent we cling to an ideal of who "we are" and what our "self" is and we don't change it and sometimes even when living up to that demand starts fucking our lives up.<

Aye, yea: the "self" seems to be able to get a lot of business done. The part about it I have a problem with, frankly, is when It wants to strongly assert Itself as the ONLY "self." Clearly, this is a semantic problem. It seems most of those who think about such things - those thinkers I find interesting - are cool with acknowledging the unconscious, and then their waking life flows seamlessly from dealing with one experience and then another. There seems a common tendency to bracket off, say, "drunkenness" as an anomalous yet mostly socially sanctioned behavior...And I think a central problem with the "self" - for non-academics and people who wouldn't ordinarily concern themselves with such stuff - is just what you mention: reifying our "self" and becoming overly concerned with "living up" to it and maintaining, as a Unistatian philosopher said, "a foolish consistency" about it.

I will say that my tendency to seek to nail different states as discrete may come from a fascination with breaking up and isolating so that I might study and learn more about myself. It seems almost solipsistic, but I don't think it is.

Which reminds me about some brilliant woman in the early 20th century who, IIRC was the first woman to get a PhD in Philosophy from Cambridge. Something like that. I think she studied under Bertrand Russell. She later wrote Lord Russell a letter saying, "I've become a solipsist and it's wonderful! Everyone should try it!." (I paraphrase.)

Drew Zi said...

>>When you catch the slide to hypnagogia, have you tried to say "No!" and go back? Do you think you get quality sleep usually?<<

The hypnogogic state is a strange one. Sometimes it quite interesting, as when I get clear musical passages that play out like I am wearing headphones or something, but usually it is very uncofortable, When I feel myself slipping into hypnogogia I usually have to force myself through it then I get up and have a glass of water and sit around for a bit and then go back to bed, if I go straight back to sleep I lucid dream but without the ability to move around.

Hypnogogia is I think when your body falls to sleep but your mind is still partially awake, because the body stops conscious control of the body so you do not flail around during sleep.

Yeah, my sleeping pattern has always been crazy, sometimes I don't sleep for 24 hours, and then sleep for 2, othertimes I can sleep 13 hours solid.

I am currently arguing, and have been for while, with wittgensteinism on Youtube about solipsism - he is a solpsist and a wittgensteinian, which seems strange because Wittgenstein said something along the lines of any philosophy has gone wrong if its conclusions lead to solipsism, philosophy is the avoidance of solipsism.

I find solipsism to have too little assumptions to deal with the world and too many assumptions about the mind, i.e the assumption of direct access, the idea that we can have knowledge of ourselves without already having a theoretical framework already inbuilt, through generations of evolutionary trial and error. I do not believe "direct access" exists in the way the solipsists believe.

michael said...

Your hypnagogia sounds very interesting. Is it something you worry about? Or do you make it work for you in some way? It seems problematic. I wonder if a sativa would help.

I'll throw in all my cards with you against the guy arguing for solipsism. I think the map is part of the territory. Because the territory may be all that there is. I think this is a basic phenomenological idea.

We can make up all sorts of entities, talk about them, write about them, abstract and quarrel and argue over them...and suddenly they seem "real." And they sort ARE, unless we remember or figure out we made it up. So solipsism exists in some sense, I would argue. And yet I don't think it's to be taken seriously.

Currently the only solipsists who exist are those people who talk on their cell phones or text while driving, or while paying at the checkout stand. Some people also call them "assholes."