rhodoraonline

Posts Tagged ‘limitations of science’

MIND’S I EXPLORATIONS: The Wise Window on the World

In consciousness, Mind's I Explorations, Mind|Body|World, perception, psychology, psychology of religion, Psychology|Religion, Quran, sources of knowledge, The Method, universe on September 11, 2011 at 8:26 pm

This is the second edition of Mind’s I Explorations, a series I began with a view to base my reflections on the nature of reality (and how we come to learn it) on the anthology: The Mind’s I: Fantasies and Reflections on Self and Soul.

 

On having no head

The second piece of the anthology is a ‘charmingly childish’* narration of how one day in the Hamalyas, the author↓1  discovered (or rather realized) that he had in fact no head on his shoulders! In his own words, the discovery (or rediscovery) was an ultimate outcome of pondering a question for a long time: “What am I?”

*according to editors of the anthology, in their commnetary following the original piece.

If there was no head, what was there?:

It was a vast emptiness vastly filled, a nothing that found room for everything—room for grass, trees, shadowy distant hills, and far above them snow-peaks like a row of angular clouds riding the blue sky. I had lost a head and gained a world.

Indeed imagine not having grown up mentally, only developing the sharpened skill of seeing. And what would you have seen? No, you won’t see a head on your shoulders!

We conclude the presence of this head by comparing ourselves with others who have two sets of limbs and an overall physique similar to ours, and who speak, walk, eat and generally live like us. And based on this comparison, we deduce, that if they have a head, we must have one too. For although we can see our heads in the mirrors, can the testimony of a mirror (in a way, an optical illusion) be trusted?

This is the apparently naive explanation of the author. It’s not a philosophical explanation, rather it’s intuitive, describing things on an strictly ‘as is’ basis rather than distorting the first native experience of the world through rational logic. When we are born we have no idea of how the ‘uppermost part’ of our body looks. Our view is just like those film camera views when the directors are trying to show things from the ‘eyes’ of a particular character. Again, no head is visible in that view, only the body and limbs. And in place of the head is the view, the scene, itself.

In the author’s own words:

It was self-luminous reality for once swept clean of all obscuring mind … It was a ceasing to ignore something which (since early childhood at any rate) I had always been too busy or too clever to see.

The essence of this way of thinking really is: that the experience we go through at first hand must always be fundamentally different from all others. Yet, in this subjective experience lies a greater and more peaceful unity with the external world, than in reliance on logically deduced objective experiences.↓2(the anthology editors who comment on every piece seem to have interpreted it slightly differently).

All twoness—all duality of subject and object—has vanished.

 

The subject and the object: dichotomous, complementary, or uniform?

A duality or dichotomy refers to “two mutually exclusive, opposed or contradictory groups (such as): a dichotomy between thought and action”. Such dichotomies or dualities are of concern in nearly all major fields of knowledge. In human sciences and philosophy, often such dichotomies are subject of much debate as to their respective significance in some area and as to how much in distinction &/or opposition they stand with respect to each other. Examples include wave-particle duality, mind and matter/body, good and evil, creationism vs evolution, etc. Complement is what supplies the lack of another entity; literally, something which makes another thing complete, whole, or perfect. Uniformity may refer to an overall sameness, homogeneity and regularity.

In philosophy, the subject-object problem is concerned with delineating what is objective and what is subjective in our experience. As a starting point, we can think of ‘objects’, different beings in the universe, being perceived by an observer: the ‘subject’.  Thus on the face of it, the two entities appear to be dichotomous. However, we encounter various problems when we attempt to further elaborate this basic premise. For instance, if we depend on our own sensory experience to perceive an object, discerning only those properties which our capacities enable us to, can we really know the object objectively, as it really is?↓3 This also relates to the ‘observer vs the observed’ problem in physics epitomzied by the uncertainty principle so recently discussed on this blog. And then, to what extent our own properties (i.e. the subject’s) affect what has been observed?  

Thus, the way we actually experience the object (or the universe) certaintly seems to unify us (the subject) with it (the object). This is despite the fact that, through logical analysis, we may feel certain that the object (or the universe) has its own reality independent of our sensibility of it↓4, and also despite the fact that the total dependence for our own experience on our own devises of sensation and perception may also lead us to doubt whether ‘it’s all in the head’ or not↓5. Perhaps it’s best to say that what is out there complements what is in here (in me and in you), and that they are unified into one experience by the device of the mind which has no way to see the separation of the two.

Now, let us return to the original piece for further deliberations:

 

On regaining the pure nativity of one’s original perspective on the world:

What actually happened was something absurdly simple and unspectacular: I stopped thinking … as if I had been born that instant, brand new, mindless, innocent of all memories … like a sudden waking from the sleep of ordinary life, an end to dreaming.

I had been blind to the one thing that is always present, and without which I am blind indeed—to this marvellous substitute-for-a-head, this unbounded clarity, this luminous and absolutely pure void, which nevertheless is—rather than contains—all things.

…no arguement can add to or take away from an experience which is as plain and incotrovertible as hearing middle-C* or tasting strawberry jam.

— *a note in music

There arose no questions, no reference beyond the experience itself, but only peace and a quiet joy, and the sensation of having dropped an intolerable burden.

—-

These quotes let us infer four different aspects about the experience.

i) Our intuitive experience is pre-verbal; language is not involved. All thinking and speaking is learned from the world. The nature of the kind of thinking and speaking we learn from the world is rational: we learn to associate features with specific objects, objects with specific categories. We usually learn not to cross-over between concepts. As we grow older our creativity dies down since we are taught to think in terms of what’s rational and familiar, not what’s new and different.

ii) The ‘burden’ of all this rational knowledge and way of thinking tends to bury our own sources of pre-verbal thought (let’s call them intuition and the freshness and naitvity of creativity) farther and farther beyond the boundaries of conscious life. Whereas, the fact remains that this intuitive thought is as basic and primary to us as ‘tasting jam’ or hearing a melody.

iii) The burden is not just metaphorical, it’s literal: The more thought we put into issues, the more we experience generally negative emotions and the more the issue (that we have been thinking on) seems like a ‘pressure’ or ‘full of stress’. The most peaceful moments of our lives are indeed those when we are simply submerged in an experience rather than caught in the tangles of thought.

iv) Hence, the sense of joy and peace on having reconnected with one’s innate perspective on the world: that the whole world is unified by the fabric of first-hand experience. It’s the artifact of logic that ‘divides’ the world into things and categories and hierarchies, and into I and it. This is this and that is that. The author has replaced it with the original ‘I≡universe≡reality’ kind of experience that would have remained in our consciousness if we had not been trained otherwise by the rigors of reason.

In addition to explaining how we come to loose the freshness of our inborn perspective, these conclusions also touch upon another commonly discussed ‘duality’: nature and environment. However, the whole discussion might remain a heady philosphical or incomprehensibly mystical narrative if not made plainer.

 

How the world conditions us

The best way to clarify the subject is to recast it in terms of a famous (though not very widely known in mass media) person-centered theory of personality by Carl Rogers. In addition to becoming more familiar, an additional advantage in speaking in terms of this theory is that a lot of general psychological insights abour how life works might be gained.

In Rogers’ theory, the counterpart of the ‘native perspective on things’ is a process called ‘organismic valuing’. The counterpart for ‘the perspective the world imposes on us’ is ‘conditions of worth’. Before coming to these concepts, however, we must first consider what Rogers meant by conditional and unconditional positive regard.

When we give a person our trust and acceptance, with an expression of genuine positive sentiment towards them, despite their shortcomings, faults and mistakes, they have recieved ‘unconditional positive regard’.

On the other hand, when we treat a person based on how they behave, and how well they perform tasks, we are treating them with conditional positive regard: we love them when they are good to us, and neglect or mistreat them when they are incapable of goodness. In a way, we expect them to ‘conform’ to our standards of behavior; if they don’t meet those standards they are somehow worthy of inferior treatment.

These standards that others must meet to obtain our regard are what Rogers called as the conditions of worth.

Typically, learning takes place through the application of these conditions on the growing child. The child is given the impression of being a ‘bad child’ and treated with various forms of punishments (at the very least, the withdrawal of positive objects such as attention, praise or toys), when he/she fails in behaving as expected. It is the incentives of parents’ love and attention (positive regard) that prompts the child to learn speech, get toilet-trained, and learn to eat with manners. If parents are not very mindful of the balance in their attitude (specifically, in giving the child a steady sense of unconditional positive regard through all the ups and downs of child development) the child might well loose the innate interest and ‘fun’ in learning and exploring new things. As such, the child will learn to do every new thing just to obtain someone’s regard or to avoid someone’s punishment. That is also how many children come to despise any new learning, except what they learn from play-at-will.

Many a children have ‘discovered’ that playing with a certain child was ‘bad’ given his/her background; that someone we never thought of as good or bad is now definitely good or certainly bad since we have heard some of our elders announce and reinforce that; that even thought the idea that an act of dishonesty is unjust and harmful makes perfect sense, whether it’s ok to engage in it or not depends on who does it. Thus even when children have received noble and valuable guidelines for living at a formal level, they are more often than not negated by actual conditioning.

In adulthood, the primary forms of conditions may be replaced by other more sophisticated ones: money, power, status, achievement, renown and fame, and a luxurious life. Even though we come to experience them as our own needs, their common sense definitions contain the sense of comparison with ‘others’: more money than others, power over others, satus higher than others, achievement better than or different from others’, renown and fame among others, more luxury and comfort than others…. Our life is reduced to nothing but a race for meeting more and more worthy conditions of being.

 

What we loose in the process

What we loose in the process is our own pre-verbal, intuitive, and emotionally tinged sense of things—what Rogers called as ‘organismic valuing’. According to Rogers, all organisms (humans or lower) have a tendecy to develop as fully as possible. For lower organisms, this is restricted more or less to the physical sense: body needs and survival. For humans however, there is an additional dimension called as self-actualizing. This tendency refers to our innermost urge to realize all the possibilities of experience and capacity innate to us. This urge creates in us ‘organismic valuing’: an inner voice (of course, experienced as a feeling rather than a thought) that tells us that some things are superior and make us more content and peacefully satisfied from the inside than some other things, without anybody’s commentary as a go-between. In cases where conditioning has been rather foolproof, we never even come to realize that there are whole undiscovered, and unexplored sides of us suppressed beneath the life of society-imposed ‘values’ we are pursuing.

This rosy existence is unfortunately uncommon. We remain pressurized by the need to do more for others and for ourselves as our worth has been attached to certain objects valued by our society. We have to force ourselves to ways of behaving and thinking that are inferior in our own eyes, but suit others. We have to hide our true inclinations, attitudes, and opinions on grave matters of character and way of life so that they don’t meet with censure, ridicule, indifference, bigotry, or plain misunderstanding. Our happiness comes to reside solely in other’s being happy with us; moments of peace, contentment, and joy that originate solely from inside are few and far between.

And buried deep beneath the compost of all the negated inner and intuitive knowledge of good and right, bad and wrong, must be that original and fresh perspective on the world: of being at one with the whole universe, of experiencing the whole universe at first hand.↓6

 

Where do our innate knowledge and perspective come from

Scientists may call it nature; but nature means what is there already existing before worldly learning takes place. Hence ‘nature’ is not an answer to the above question; if used, it’d merely be a ‘circular’ definition. Nature is what has been created by God:

فِطْرَتَ اللَّـهِ الَّتِي فَطَرَ النَّاسَ عَلَيْهَا

 … this (faith) being the nature designed by Allah on which He has originated mankind. (in Ar-Rum, 30)

According to the Ma’ariful- Qur’an, English version,  two interpretations of ‘nature’ are derivable from sources. One is that nature here means Islam, in reference to the following Ahadith in Sahih Muslim, Book 33, Chapter 6:

There is none born but is created to his true nature. It is his parents who make him a Jew or a Christian or a Majoosi… (#6423)

and:

Every new-born babe is born on the millat, and remains on this until his tongue is enabled to express himself. (#6427)

According to the second, equally acceptable interpretation, “Allah Ta’ala has bestowed the capability to every human being to discern his Creator and believe in Him”. Once this capacity is allowed to develop, it will ultimately lead the person to submission to God in the form of Islam. In fact, Maulana Taqi (the author of the Tafseer) presents arguments clarifying that the meaning that resonates with both the context of the full ayah and the ahadith quoted above is this second one:

All children are born with the natural instinct to perceive and identify the truth through an observation of their environment; however, once they develop the skill of speaking (which actually means the ability to understand logical concepts and think accordingly) their conscious development falls dependent on the teachings of their respective social environments.

 

Where does it all fit in the subject-object problem?

 In Qur’an the world has been described many times as a thing of play and pastime:

وَمَا هَـٰذِهِ الْحَيَاةُ الدُّنْيَا إِلَّا لَهْوٌ وَلَعِبٌ

… the life of this world is nothing but a passing delight and a play… (in Al-Ankabut, 64)

And it’s objects a vehicle of deception:

وَمَا الْحَيَاةُ الدُّنْيَا إِلَّا مَتَاعُ الْغُرُورِ

THE worldly life is no more than a deceitful possession. (in Al-i-Imran, 185)

And it has indeed succeded in deceiving a majority of the people:

وَغَرَّتْهُمُ الْحَيَاةُ الدُّنْيَا

 … and they have been deceived by the life in this world… (in Al-An’am, 70)

And the real life will be the one to come after:

وَإِنَّ الدَّارَ الْآخِرَةَ لَهِيَ الْحَيَوَانُ 

whereas, the life in the hereafter is indeed the real life: if they but knew this! (in Al-Ankabut, 64)

 

Even research in astrophysics has progressed to the point that some authors have speculated on the ‘tentative’ and ‘image-like’ nature of this world. According to Michael Talbot, in his book The Holographic Universe:

… there is evidence to suggest that our world and everything in it. . . are also only ghostly images, projections from a level of reality so beyond our own it is literally beyond both space and time.

The interesting part is that the way we experience it, we are never in a position to ascertain whether this world is a literal inter-play of light and other energies. All our experience tells us directly is the uniqueness of one’s own window on the world — a window we cannot share with anyone else, nor can we ever succeed in ‘peeping’ out from any one else’s window. What we call red, is what we have heard others calling red and teaching us to do the same; we are not even sure (by direct experience) that what looks as red in our eyes looks the same in anyone else’s eye or not!

On the other hand, the tangibility of the objects of this world is also directly experienced by us. So we can’t be inherently sure of any ‘philosophical idealism’ either (the idea that we experience nothing but what our minds make up). Moreover, at the level of daily life, questions of what is good and bad behavior, what is just and unjust, etc affect us more though deeper deliberations do have their effect.

We also get a similar attitude from the Qur’an. While, at least at the meaningful level, the belief in the transience of this life (meant to be ever inexplicable at the level of this world and this humanity) is a direct corollary of the belief in a more real and eternal life; pondering too much on ‘how to explain it all in terms understandable to us’ won’t serve us in any practical matters:

هُوَ الَّذِي أَنزَلَ عَلَيْكَ الْكِتَابَ مِنْهُ آيَاتٌ مُّحْكَمَاتٌ هُنَّ أُمُّ الْكِتَابِ وَأُخَرُ مُتَشَابِهَاتٌ

فَأَمَّا الَّذِينَ فِي قُلُوبِهِمْ زَيْغٌ فَيَتَّبِعُونَ مَا تَشَابَهَ مِنْهُ ابْتِغَاءَ الْفِتْنَةِ وَابْتِغَاءَ تَأْوِيلِهِ

وَمَا يَعْلَمُ تَأْوِيلَهُ إِلَّا اللَّـهُ ۗ وَالرَّاسِخُونَ فِي الْعِلْمِ يَقُولُونَ آمَنَّا بِهِ كُلٌّ مِّنْ عِندِ رَبِّنَا

وَمَا يَذَّكَّرُ إِلَّا أُولُو الْأَلْبَابِ

He it is Who has revealed the Book to you; some of its verses are decisive, they are the basis of the Book, and others are allegorical; then as for those in whose hearts there is perversity they follow the part of it which is allegorical, seeking to mislead and seeking to give it (their own) interpretation. but none knows its interpretation except Allah, and those who are firmly rooted in knowledge say: ‘We believe in it, it is all from our Lord’; and only people of who are wise take heed.  (Al-i-Imran, 7)    

 

This wisdom is again pre-endowed; the same inner wisdom that begins to loose its voice pressured by the outward-imposed ‘lessons’. Attempts to scientifically analyze and study this wisdom will again fail; one cannot expect the ‘subject’ to turn back on itself and to study itself ‘objectively’. This wisdom is our side of the reality: our window of the world, whether blurred termporarily by the conditions of worth; or, open and receptive and accepting of all the mysticalities of the world, humbly accepting its own and the world’s true nature for what it is.  

This wise consciousness could well be the primary fact of life; that elusive insightfulness that imbues with belief on and certain and intimate knowledge of the only Source deservant of that belief. Interestingly, I stumbled upon but last night on an online ‘course on the consciousness‘ by a Professor Emeritus in physics, in the University of Virginia, Stanley Sobottka. It resonates nearly perfectly with the above conclusion:

Because most scientists of all types are mentally wedded to a belief in an external reality, they are unable to see an alternative picture. In particular, they are unable to see that Consciousness, rather than external reality, is the fundamental Reality. Thus, they persist in attempting (and in failing) to create an objective theory of Consciousness. When the contents of Awareness try to objectify Awareness, it is like a puppet trying to “puppetize” the puppet master, a picture on a movie screen trying to “pictureize” the actors, a shadow striving to “shadowize” the object that is casting it, or humans trying to “humanize” God.

The problem of trying to create an objective theory of subjective experience has been labeled the “hard problem” of consciousness by David Chalmers… In fact, there is no hard problem for those who are aware they are aware.↓7  

 

Notes

1. D. E. Harding was a mystical writer on the nature of self and reality.

2. The commenting editors have not articulated this angle. To read the chapter along with the commentary, click this link.

3. Read “the problem of substance” on the pertinent wikipedia page. I mentioned a relevant example formerly in Prophetic revelation and subjectivity.

4. A view called as philosophical realism.

5. The issue is examplified by this famous question that if there is no one in the jungle to hear a sound produced, can we say that the sound was really there? Yes is the answer given by subjective idealists who say, in essence, that the mind makes the world (or the subject makes the object).

6. This idea, of course, is not part of Rogers theory but links this psychological discourse with the more philosophical one we began with.

7. For flow reading I have removed internal hyperlinks in the quote pointing to sections in the course which have already elaborated in various points in here. I have also removed the cross-reference to David Chalmers. To see the original go to the section of the course here: http://faculty.virginia.edu/consciousness/new_page_13.htm#9.6

 

Related posts from this blog:

On scientific speculativeness vs certainty of Divine knowledge: Assumptions vs Certainty (Synopsis)

Note that all the related links noted down in the above-linked post page are relevant to this discussion as well.

Also, more on mysteries of consciousness ordinarily hidden from our perception: Outrageous Sensations: What can we learn from LSD?

 

QURAN IN RAMADAAN: Assumptions or Certainty? Part I

In Ramadaan, Science|Religion, Words of Gold: The Quran on August 23, 2011 at 9:59 pm

21st Ramadaan, 1432:

Today’s post takes inspiration from one word in a special context in Sura Yusuf. I will mention the source ayah in context:

Introduction

Sura Yusuf is one of the most beautiful suras of Quran, the only example where one tale is described fully and solely from the beginning to its end. It is unlike the general style of Quran in depicting portions of a tale in different contexts at numerous places.

The Surah tells us that after being thrown into a dry well by his bothers, being sold into the hands of an Egyptian official, and being lured by his wife and rejecting her temptations, the young Hazrat Yusuf (alaihi-salaam) ended up, wrongly,  in prison. Here, after many years, he interpreted the dreams of two imprisoned workers of the Egyptian kingdom who had been involved in a dispute. Prophet Yusuf predicted that their dispute had been decided with the result that one will go to the gallows and the other will be set free.

At this point, Hazrat Yusuf (alaihi-salaam) asks the prisoner he had assumed to be set free to mention him, prophet Yusuf, in the court of the king (in the hope of his wrongful imprisonment being reconsidered). Here is the ayah that describes this occurence:

وَقَالَ لِلَّذِي ظَنَّ أَنَّهُ نَاجٍ مِّنْهُمَا اذْكُرْنِي عِندَ رَبِّكَ فَأَنسَاهُ الشَّيْطَانُ ذِكْرَ رَبِّهِ فَلَبِثَ فِي السِّجْنِ بِضْعَ سِنِينَ

AND he said to one of them who he imagined would be saved: mention me in the presence of thy lord. Then the Satan caused him to forget to mention him to his lord, so that he tarried in the prison several years. (Sura Yusuf, 42)

 The word I have highlighted is ZUNN.

 

Linguistic background of the word

The Arabic word zunna constitutes three root letters za-nun-nun ( ز ن ن ). According to the Quranic dictionary: Mukhtasir-ut-Tasheel fi Lughat-it-Tanzeel* this root stem means: assumption, suspicion, thought, speculation, belief, arbitrary notion, educated guess, doubt, and predominant belief. The online Project Root List adds ‘to know’ and ‘to imagine’ to the list of meanings. It also informs us that when zanna is followed by the words an ( أن ) or anna (as in above ayah) it means ‘to be sure of’.

From the root of the word, we may deduce that the essence of zunn is an assumption which the person may or may not be sure of and which may have been derived arbitrarily or systematically. Many translators of the Qur’an have used the word ‘knew’ for it for the above ayah, whereas many others have preferred words such as imagined (Daryabadi), considered (M. Asad), deemed (Arberry), and sensed (Ahmed Raza Khan)**.  

 

Contextual background of the word

It is a well-known fact that Hazrat Yusuf (alaihi-salaam) had been give a special skill by God, i.e., the art of dream interpretation. Although, as Prophet Mohammed (salla-Allahu alaihi wasallam) has informed us that a true dream is the 46th part of prophecy (i.e. wahi), Hazrat Yusuf seems to have been given special proficiency in dream interpretation as a science, apart from it being a prophet’s wahi source. Infact, he had been distinguished by Allah Ta’la in the art of interpretation of events in general as attested by the term used to refer to this skill in the Sura:

تَأْوِيلِ الْأَحَادِيثِ

 interpretation / inner meaning of happenings/things/visions/narratives (in 6, 21, and 101)

 

We know that dream interpretation is an area in psychology and has been practiced as a science since ancient Greek and Egyptian cultures. Given that it is an acknowledged part of prophethood (and that Hazrat Yusuf alaihi-salaam was given special proficiency in it and in general interpretation of events) certainly elevates it to the status of a psychological/parapsychological science. In practice, for us, though, it still remains a weak science in the sense that we, deprived of divine illumination and providence, have no bedrock of observed or confirmable knowledge on which to base it.

Yet, to Hazrat Yusuf (alaihi-salaam) the sources of knowledge and the level of skill required for the realm must have been available. Indeed, he seems to have been ‘sure of’ his prediction ( ظن أنه ); and perhaps that is why he even made a personal request to the person he had predicted as the one to be acquitted in the dispute.

On the other hand, we have already seen the undoubted ‘tentativeness’ of knowledge captured in the word zunn. In contrast the word for ‘certain knowledge’ in Quran, whether referred to God or to humans, is ilm ( علم ).

 

Ilm versus Zunn

Combining the two sources of Arabic meanings already mentioned, ilm means to be aware of, to discern, to know, to recognize, to believe, science, learning, knowledge, information. The connotation is certainly of factual knowledge or perceived information, rather than derived conjectures or assumed notions. The most remarkable instances of uses of this word are where Allah Subhana Ta’ala refers to His own Knowledge, which is certain beyond doubt; and in mentioning the God-consciousness and its consequent certainties in the minds and tongues of the firm believers. For instance:

ۚ فَأَمَّا الَّذِينَ آمَنُوا فَيَعْلَمُونَ أَنَّهُ الْحَقُّ مِن رَّبِّهِمْ

AS FOR the believers, they know it is the truth from their Lord. (in Al-Baqara, 26

Since Qur’an is the direct revelation from God, every single iota of information in it is based on certain truths. Therefore, when we see our God carefully avoiding the more certain word ilm in favor of the more doubt-connoting word zunn in case of Hazrat Yusuf’s prediction, the following conclusion seems logical: All human predictions (unless lifted from direct divine information) carry a measure of doubt.

 

Doubt in human sciences…?

A majority of predictions in today’s world are made by scientists and professionals in one area or another. Masses, media and leaders all rely on them, trust, quote, promote, and defer to them. Yet the above conclusion seems to strike on the heart of the very business of science. And on examination, it will be revealed that doubt indeed riddles and pervades all areas of science and that the ‘extent’ of trust placed by society is often not well-based.

One may say that humanity has developed and advanced hugely a multitude of sciences which have led to such and such increase of our knowledge and such and such acceleration of our cultural progress. All of that seems to cast doubt in the public mind of ‘any doubt’ in the predictions, knowledges, propositions and counsel of scientists and professionals. The masses naively come to rely and believe on this human source of knowledge without ever suspecting that the whole range of human sciences carries the germ of doubt and uncertainty.

To prove my point, I will proceed in the next part of this post with a brief survey of certain well-known sciences in the descending order of the amount of doubt expected and acknowledged in them by specialists and academics in the pertinent fields themselves. Since, the seed for this idea has come from dream interpretation, I will include that and its fellow ‘para-sciences’ as well at the lowest level. I will also attemp to present, in laymen terms, the scientific issue of doubt in research.

________________

Continued in Part II.

 

 Notes

* Ed. Aziz-ur-Rahim Danish Imdadi, 1995, Hyderabad (Sindh): Haji Imdadullah Academy, p. 248

** Scroll down through the list of translators on the linked tanzil.net reference page.

 

Related posts from this blog:

THE METHOD: Pirsig, Scientific relativism, and rational knowledge

SCIENCE|RELIGION: Observations of a scientist upon science and reality

 

WONDERSoftheWORLD: …And we thought EYES were needed to SEE?

In God, perception, psychology, science, Wonders of the World on May 11, 2010 at 6:42 pm

What is so particular about this portrait?

Clinton? No. It’s the artist who painted it.

The Wonder…

I didn’t start out to be an artist.

I just wanted to learn about the world around me that I was living in.

I think I’m starting to know it, but I can’t be sure without feeling it.

Esref Armagan was born without eyes. As a child he grew a passion for drawing objects he was familiar with through touch. “Growing up, he felt socially isolated because of his blindness and would often spend hours alone drawing in the sand and exploring the relief patterns of his figures.”

He learned to associate colors with objects – by far the only thing he learned from his sighted others. Practically everything else in the art he uses, he has discovered on his own.

He would first etch “the image in his mind” on a cardboard. Then picking from systematically arranged oil paints (always placed in the same order for identification), he would apply a color with his fingers. Letting one color dry up in a few days, he will have to be patient before he could apply the next color.

Today he sketches using a stylus that makes raised outlines. He has also come to apply acrylics as they dry more quickly.

The Miracle…

The object must be made into a raised drawing.

I must work for days in order to perceive it in my mind.

I use a putty outline which enables my hands to easily distinguish the lines of the drawing. I do not use a brush. It’s impossible for me to understand whether there’s paint on the brush.

I have to paint with my hands.

The most amazing fact about Esref’s paintings is not that he imagines touched objects’ forms fairly well and represents them accurately on paper. His paintings are at par with any drawn by skilled sighted artists. As specialists studying him have said, his paintings show the right mixture of real world characteristics such as color variation, shadows, light and shade effects, light reflection, contrasts and perspective.

If we focus on a single of these characteristics, we might apprehend the miracle better. Perspective refers to the property of 2D pictures which accurately reflect 3D patterns in space. The modern use of perspective in drawings was considerably advanced by the observation made by Filippo Brunelleschi, who was standing one day before the famous octagonal structure Florence Baptistery in Italy. He noticed that the upper and lower horizontal lines of the walls of the Baptistery (if extended imaginally) converged at the horizon. Using his observation he drew an accurate mirror reflection of the Baptistery. A test of his accuracy was to place his painting beside a mirror facing the Baptistery. Viewers could see that both the representations (mirror and the painting) were indistinguishable.

Dr. John M. Kennedy, a perception psychologist at the University of Toronto, wished to test Armagan’s ability to drawn in perspective using this historical place as a venue. Armagan was not aware of his commission, except that he had to reach a certain place in Italy. Upon reaching, he was guided through a tactile exposure to the Baptistery’s design, seated at the same position as presumably Brunelleschi had adopted, and given the challenge to draw the Baptistery in perspective. Amazingly, Armagan was able to do so; on the other hand, even sighted people often have difficulty in using this artistic technique.

Moreover, his pictures show accurate representations of objects he could never have touched with his hands, such as sun and clouds…. His method of doing portraits highlight this aspect of the living miracle. He would ask a sighted person to draw around a photograph. Turning the page over, he would feel around the sketch with his left hand. And then transfer his feeling onto the paper. One might say that the raised outlines helped him out, but to get the whole face so aptly is certainly out of the ordinary.

The discovery…

Dr. Aamir Amedi is a an Instructor of Neurology at the Harvard Medical School. He and his colleges invited Esref as a single-subject in a brain-scanning study. Esref provides a unique opportunity to explore the brain of a person whose artistic prowess allows him to communicate his internal perceptional experiences in an external form. Scanning Esref’s brain while he was engaged in exploring forms of objects through touch and in drawing a novel object he had never come across before, the following amazing discovery was made:

Activation during drawing (compared to scribbling) occurred in brain areas normally associated with vision, including the striate cortex along with frontal and parietal cortical regions. Some of these areas showed overlap when EA was asked to mentally imagine the pictures he had to draw (albeit to a lesser anatomical extent and signal magnitude).

Interestingly, several areas, most notably in the medial posterior occipital cortex, showed much greater selectivity for drawing compared to all other tested conditions.

Within the occipital cortex, activation specific to the drawing condition was found in occipito-temporal areas …. corresponding to the primary and secondary visual cortical areas (areas corresponding to mid and peripheral visual field representations).

The same brain areas were active in Esref’s mind that are also active in the sighted people’s brain engaged in the same task! It means the brain process taking place inside Esref’s mind was the same on touching objects, as in people when they SEE those same objects.

The interpretation

This finding challenges the preconceived notion that vision (or precisely: the information from environment in form of light-rays) is needed for the ability to see. Here is a man who can imagine things as well as sighted people can, as both his art and the scientific investigation made upon him illustrate! The following explanation by Dr. Kennedy helps us further:

Any differences in definitions of shape and distance are matters more of convenience and habit than of geometrical principle. When the core common to shape and distance is evident, it is easier to understand how touch can achieve distal perception.

Jim Cranford points out that Esref’s extraordinary ability to reflect the world without ever seeing it reflects the working of the organism as an information processing feedback loop. In Jim’s words:

The senses input information from the environment, the perception apparatus, which includes the whole body in it’s scope, produces an internal model of the environment, that the hands use to paint. Remove eyes from the loop and it continues with what is available.

Another explanation (related to the one above) lies in the plasticity of our brains, an idea that has gained acceptance only in the recent decades. The brain can utilize all it’s untapped potential to construct reality so that maximum survival is possible.

Feeling my way around with my fingers has completely erased my blindness. It’s as if I see like anyone else.

The meaning

Most amazing of all, in the whole story, is the realization that somehow Esref visualizes (‘imagines’ is a more accurate word) the outer world as it is by focusing on the shapes, sizes, and distances, and on the patterns formed by these elements just like we do. The only difference is that we rely primarily on vision and he relies solely on touch and actual moving about. Fact is that we too have learned a lot of the information (that creates the perception of the world we are familiar with) through the sources Esref uses but we don’t realize that too often, we are so used to seeing.

One would like to get inside Esref’s mental world and SEE the pictures it shows. Esref himself  comments in the documentary made upon him: nobody can say I can not see.

Esref’s experience reminds us of the concepts of ‘tangled hierarchies’ and ‘strange loops’ Hofstadter developed. Whatever we see, hear or feel is the outcome (a percept) of the underlying system which combines information from diverse sources. Information is nothing but a pattern contained in a series of symbols. The phenomenon of perception is just like the reading off of the larger pattern made up of small and interconnected loops of information.  Our mental world (whether eyes closed or open) is just like reading the meaning contained in the loops, slashes and dots that we call ‘writing’ in combination. Or, it is like getting immersed in the Computer Screen’s display which is nothing but a pattern of pixels. We are not looking at the pattern of pixels though. Our minds are locked onto the patterns of meaning those pixel-patterns represent.

The lesson

#1

Art, on both a technical and conceptual level, externalizes the inner workings of the brain (Zeki, 2001).

Esref’s story once again makes us realize that this world is nothing but a product of our minds.  Surely our minds are subject to certain governing rules that have been programmed into it. Just that. Change the rules and the perception and the world changes. I will here point out my reader to the case of outrageous sensations resulting from a dose of LSD. LSD is not the only relevant example. Think about the profound changes in the percept, given mescalin, meditation, optical illusions, or neurotransmitter disturbances in schizophrenia.  Lesson: all our perceptions are limited by the defining features of the environment we are in. We cannot really go beyond the restrictions imposed on us by the environment and perceive more or differently than we currently can.

وَما هٰذِهِ الحَيوٰةُ الدُّنيا إِلّا لَهوٌ وَلَعِبٌ ۚ وَإِنَّ الدّارَ الءاخِرَةَ لَهِىَ الحَيَوانُ ۚ لَو كانوا يَعلَمونَ

for,  the life of this world is nothing but a passing delight and a play –whereas, behold, the life in the hereafter is indeed the only [true] life: if they but knew this! [Al-Ankabut, 64]

#2

We take a handful of sand from the endless landscape of awareness around us and call that handful of sand the world.

Esref’s story also reminds us of that essential limitation of science. It is a tool for testing the certitude of pieces of theory, but the theory and the tools are heavily limited by the limitations in our own perceptions that the lesson one points out to. Since it is not possible for the observer to move outside the FIELD in which the observation must take place, all observations are limited by the definition of the field. All the progress in knowledge made through science is therefore abrupt, jerky, and subject to nullification or heavy modification given a contradictory or unique discovery not made before. Esref’s story merely illustrates the heavy limitations on perception given biological constraints and allowances. But the modern-day scientist’s story illustrates the psychological (or let us say, the spiritual) constraints on perception…

فَإِنَّها لا تَعمَى الأَبصٰرُ وَلٰكِن تَعمَى القُلوبُ الَّتى فِى الصُّدورِ

For surely it is not the eyes that are blind, but blind are the hearts which are in the breasts. [Al-Hajj, 46]




The thing I fear most in life is being asked to  do something I’m incapable of doing.


NOTES

  1. Paintings by Esref Armagan can be viewed on the websites armagan.com and esrefarmagan.com
  2. Esref’s full statements highlighted in blue have been taken from the Volvo S60 Blind Preview documentary.
  3. Kennedy’s perspective challenge to Armagan has been video-recorded in a documentary on Armagan available on YouTube.
  4. Reference to Amedi et al.’s article from which the quotes have been taken:  Neural and behavioral correlates of drawing in an early blind painter: A case study. Brain Research, 1242, 252-62. (2008). Retrieve Online.
  5. Dr. Kennedy’s quote taken from: Kennedy, J. M. (1993). Drawing and the blind. Yale University Press, p. 9. Retrieved Online.
  6. To read my rendering of related concepts that Hofstadter developed in his classic Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid, click here.
  7. Zeki’s quote in Amedi et al (2008) cited above.
  8. Quote in lesson #2 by Robert Pirsig in his famous Zen and the art of motorcycle maintenance.

SCIENCE|RELIGION: Observations of a Scientist upon Science and Reality

In philosophy, science, universe on May 6, 2009 at 5:58 pm

John Templeton FoundationBernard d’Espagnat is a French theoretical physicist and a philosopher of science. He received the Templeton Prize in March this year upon work that shows how science cannot fully explain reality. The Templeton is the largest prize in the world in terms of monetary value and is annually awarded by the Templeton Foundation to acknowledge work that finds a common ground between science and religion and to individuals who reaffirm the spiritual dimension of life.

Bernard d’Espagnat’s major contribution in science is his work on several aspects of quantum mechanics. It was this work which lead him to explore the nature of reality and to question the disregarding attitude many scientists have towards the philosophical questions thrown up by quantum physics.

d’Espagnat’s ideas on the doomed division between science and ‘ultimate reality’

From The Guardian:

“What quantum mechanics tells us, I believe, is surprising to say the least. It tells us that the basic components of objects – the particles, electrons, quarks etc. – cannot be thought of as “self-existent”. The reality that they, and hence all objects, are components of is merely “empirical reality”.

This reality is something that, while not a purely mind-made construct as radical idealism would have it, can be but the picture our mind forces us to form of … Of what ? The only answer I am able to provide is that underlying this empirical reality is a mysterious, non-conceptualisable “ultimate reality”, not embedded in space and (presumably) not in time either.”

From Princeton University Press (In a review of his book On Physics and Philosophy):

d Espagnat's bookHis overall conclusion is that while the physical implications of quantum theory suggest that scientific knowledge will never truly describe mind-independent reality, the notion of such an ultimate reality–one we can never access directly or rationally and which he calls “veiled reality”–remains conceptually necessary nonetheless.

From his Templeton page:

“the things we observe may be tentatively interpreted as signs providing us with some perhaps not entirely misleading glimpses of a higher reality and, therefore, that higher forms of spirituality are fully compatible with what seems to emerge from contemporary physics.”

In a statement prepared for the news conference, d’Espagnat pointed out that since science cannot tell us anything certain about the nature of being, clearly it cannot tell us with certainty what it is not.

From the BBC report on the news:

His concept of an ultimate reality – as he terms it, “the ground of things” – is only glimpsed, not explicitly described, by science.

Science, he said, “is aimed not at describing ‘reality as it really is’ but at predicting what will be observed in such-and-such circumstances”.

From the statement delivered by d’Espagnat on the prize ceremony:

At this point I’d like to draw your attention on the fact that, if true, this conception of mine has two significant consequences.

One of them is that if indeed it is our mind that, due to its own structure, carves all objects out of the “ground of things,” obviously we cannot any more picture mind to ourselves as being itself an emanation of (some class of) objects. If the notion “emanation” is here to be kept, we may only claim that mind emanates “from the ground of things.” As we shall immediately see, the difference is far from being a negligible one.

For indeed – and this is nothing else than the second consequence I just mentioned – this “ground of things,” this Real, quite obviously is not a thing. Clearly it is not imbedded in space, and presumably not in time either. Let us call it “Being” if you like. Or “the One,” following
Plotinus.