标记档案: 哲学

理查德·费曼 — 能有多大,我们知道?

我们打​​开我们的眼睛, 我们看到的世界, 我们辨别图案. 我们推论, 正式; 我们使用和合理性和数学的理解和描述的一切. 多少钱才能真正知道, 虽然?

为了说明我的意思, 让我用一个比喻. 我希望我的想象力,想出它, 但它是理查德·费曼谁做. 他, 顺便说说, 够古怪的比较 物理与性.

继续阅读

人是中国房

在本系列前面的帖子, 我们讨论了塞尔的中国房说法怎么是毁灭性的前提下,我们的大脑是数字计算机. 他认为, 非常令人信服, 这仅仅是象征手法不会导致富的理解,我们似乎很喜欢. 然而, 我拒绝被说服, ,发现所谓的系统响应更有说服力. 这是反驳说,这是整个中国间的理解的语言, 不只是在室内的操作员或符号推杆. 塞尔一笑置之, 但有一个严重的反应,以及. 他说,, “让我成为整个中国房. 让我记住所有的符号和符号操作规则,这样我可以为中国对问题的回复. 我还是不明白中国人“。

现在, 这就提出了一个有趣的问题 - 如果你知道够中国符号, 和中国的规则来处理它们, 你不知道,其实中国? 当然,你可以想像一个人能够正确地处理的语言不理解一个字, 但我认为这是拉伸想象力有点过头了. 我想起的 视线盲区 实验中,人们可以看到不知道它, 而不自觉地意识到那是什么,他们看到的. 在同一方向塞尔的反应点 - 能说中国话不理解它. 什么是中国房缺乏的是它是什么做的自觉意识.

钻研深一点进入这场辩论, 我们必须变得有点正式的关于语法和语义. 语言有两种语法和语义. 例如, 像“请读我的博客文章”声明的语法是从英语的语法始​​发, 这是文字符号 (占位符语法), 字母和标点符号. 在所有的语法的顶端, 它有一个内容 - 我的愿望,并要求您阅读我的文章, 和我的背景相信你知道什么符号和内容的意思. 即语义, 该语句的含义.

计算机, 据塞尔, 只能处理符号和, 基于符号运算, 拿出语法正确的回应. 它不理解语义内容,因为我们做. 这是无能的,因为它缺乏理解我的要求的遵守. 正是在这个意义上,中国房并不了解中国. 至少, 这是塞尔的说法. 由于计算机是喜欢中国房, 他们无法理解或者语义. 但是,我们的大脑可以, 因此,大脑不能仅仅计算机.

当把这种方式, 我想大多数人会一边与塞尔. 但是,如果计算机可能实际上符合构成语句的语义内容的请求和命令什么? 我想即使是这样,我们可能不会考虑一台电脑完全可以胜任的语义理解, 这就是为什么如果一台计算机实际上符合我的要求看我的帖子, 我可能不会发现它智力满意. 我们正在要求什么, 当然, 是意识. 还有什么我们可以问一个电脑来说服我们,这是有意识的?

我没有一个很好的答案. 但我认为你必须申请统一的标准意识归咎于外部给你的实体 - 如果你相信他心在人类的存在, 你要问自己,你在申请到达这个结论的标准是什么, 并确保你采用同样的标准,以计算机以及. 你不能建立周期性的条件进入你的标准 - 像别人一样有人体, 神经系统和像你这样做了,他们有思想,以及剖析, 这就是塞尔做.

在我看来, 最好是保持开放的头脑这样的问题, 而重要的是不要从逻辑不足的位置作答.

心中的机器智能

教授. 塞尔也许是最有名的,他证明了计算机 (或计算由阿兰·图灵定义) 永远不能智能. 他的证明采用的是所谓的中国房参数, 这表明,仅仅象征手法 (这就是计算车削的定义是, 据塞尔) 不能导致理解和情报. ERGO我们的大脑和思想不可能是单纯的电脑.

这个论点是这样的 - 假设塞尔被关在一个房间里,他得到相应的问题在中国的投入. 他有一组规则来处理所述输入符号并挑选出一个输出符号, 就像一台计算机做. 于是,他想出了这种欺骗外界法官相信,他们与一个真正的中国扬声器中国通信响应. 假定这是可以做到. 现在, 这里是妙语 - 塞尔不知道中国人的字. 他不知道是什么意思的符号. 所以仅仅基于规则的符号操纵是不足以保证情报, 意识, 理解等. 通过图灵测试是不够的,保证情报.

一个反arguements,我发现最有趣的是塞尔调用系统参数. 它不是塞尔在中国的房间,了解中国; 它是整个系统,包括一个执行规则集. 塞尔笑而过说, “什么, 该 了解中国?!“我认为,系统参数值得更多的是嘲笑解雇. 我有两个支持论据支持的系统响应.

第一个是我在本系列取得了以前的帖子点. 在 他心知问题, 我们看到,塞尔的回答这个问题别人是否有思想基本上是由行为和类比. 其他表现得好像他们的头脑 (在他们哭出来的时候,我们打他们的拇指用锤子) 和疼痛内部机制 (神经, 大脑, 神经元生火等) 类似于我们. 在中国的房间的情况下, 可以肯定的行为就像先了解中国, 但它不具有任何类似物中的部件的术语或机制像中国扬声器. 难道这种突破类似于被阻止塞尔从智能分配给它, 尽管它的智能行为?

第二个参数以另一种思想实验的形式 - 我认为它被称为中国民族参数. 比方说,我们可以在每个神经元的塞尔大脑的工作委托给非英语的人. 所以,当塞尔听到英文的问题, 它实际上是由非英语讲万亿计算单元处理, 它生成相同的响应,他的大脑会. 现在, 其中,在非英语的中国这个国家的英语理解母语的人作为神经元? 我认为一个人不得不说,这是整个“国家”是懂英语. 或将塞尔一笑置之说, “什么, 该 民族 懂英语?!“

好, 如果中国的民族能听懂英语, 我猜想中国机房可以了解中国以及. 计算与单纯的符号操纵 (这是什么人在全国正在做) 可以,而且确实导致智力和理解. 所以,我们的大脑可能真的是电脑, 和思想的软件操纵符号. ERGO塞尔是错误的.

看, 我用教授. 塞尔的论据和我在这个系列作为戏剧效果排序对话框反驳. 事情的事实是, 教授. 塞尔是一个世界知名的哲学家与令人印象深刻的凭据,而我是一个偶发性的博客 - 一个驱动器由哲学家充其量. 我想我在这里道歉,以教授. 塞尔和他的学生,如果他们发现我的帖子和评论进攻. 它的目的不是; 只是一个有趣的阅读之意.

他心知问题

你怎么知道其他人有思想,你做? 这听起来像一个愚蠢的问题, 但如果你让自己去想, 你会发现,你有没有合乎逻辑的理由去相信他心的存在, 这就是为什么它是哲学的尚未解决的问题 – 他心知问题. 为了说明 – 我工作的宜家项目日前, 并锤打在怪异的双头钉螺丝存根的thingie. 我彻底错过了,打我的拇指. 我感到难以忍受的疼痛, 意思是我心目中觉得它和我哭了. 我知道我有一个主意,因为我感觉到了痛. 现在, 比方说,我看到另外一个笨蛋击中他的拇指和哭出来. 我觉得不痛; 我心里觉得没什么 (除了上好的日子有点同情的). 有什么积极的逻辑基础我不得不思考的问题 (哭) 是造成疼痛的感觉由记?

你要知道, 我不是说其他​​人没有思想或意识 - 没有, 至少. 我只是指出,没有逻辑基础,相信他们做的. 逻辑肯定不是信仰的唯一依据. 信仰是另一. 直觉, 打个比方, 妄想, 灌输, 同侪压力, 本能等. 都是基础的信仰真假. 我相信其他人的头脑; 否则,我不会理会这些写博客文章. 但我很清楚,我对这个特殊的信念,没有逻辑的理由.

关于其他的头脑这个问题的事情是,它是深刻的不对称. 如果我相信你没有一个头脑, 这不是你的问题 - 你知道,我错了的时候,你听到它,因为你知道你的心思都有了 (假设, 当然, 你做). 但我有一个严重的问题 - 有没有办法让我攻击我的信念,在不存在你的脑海. 你能告诉我, 当然, 但后来我想, “是啊, 这正是一只没大脑的机器人将被编程的说!“

我是听一系列的讲座心中所教授的哲学. 约翰·塞尔. 他“解决”等思想类推的问题. 我们知道,我们有相同的解剖和neurophysical布线除了类似行为. 因此,我们可以“说服”自己,我们每个人都有心中. 这是一个很好的理由,只要它进入. 让我困扰的约是它的补充 - 它意味着什么有关布线不同的方式在头脑中的东西, 像蛇和蜥蜴,鱼类和蛞蝓和蚂蚁和细菌和病毒. 和, 当然, 机.

可能机器有思想? 这个问题的答案是相当微不足道的 - 当然,他们可以. 我们是生物机, 而我们的头脑 (假设, 再, 那你们做). 请问电脑有思想? 或, 更尖锐, 可能我们的大脑是计算机, 意念就可以了软件运行? 也就是说饲料的下一篇文章.

大脑和计算机

我们的大脑和电脑之间的完美平行. 我们可以很容易地认为,大脑作为硬件和心灵或意识的软件或操作系统. 我们将是错误, 据许多哲学家, 但我仍然认为这样的说法. 让我勾勒出引人注目的相似之处 (据我) 进入所涉及的哲学困境之前.

很多我们所知道的大脑的运作来自损伤研究. 我们知道,, 为实例, 该功能,如色觉, 面和物体识别, 运动检测, 语言的产生和理解都是由大脑的专门领域的控制. 我们知道这由谁遭受局部脑损伤研究的人. 脑的这些功能​​特征是非常相似的计算机的硬件单元专用于图形, 声音, 视频拍摄等.

当我们考虑,大脑可以通过什么样子的软件仿真的损害赔偿,以专门区域的相似性更是惊人. 例如, 谁失去了检测运动的能力,病人 (条件一般人都会有一个很难欣赏或与识别) 仍然可以推断物体在运动在她的脑海里比较它的连续快照. 有没有能力告诉病人面临着除了能, 有时, 推断,对他在一个预先安排点在正确的时间走的人很可能是他的妻子. 这种情况下给我们的大脑以下诱人的图片.
大脑 → 计算机硬件
意识 → 操作系统
心理功能 → 计划
它看起来像一个合乎逻辑的和引人注目的图片给我.

这诱人的画面, 然而,, 过于简单化充其量; 或完全错误的在最坏的情况. 基本, 哲学的问题,那就是大脑本身就是绘制意识的画布和心灵上的表示 (这是一次认知结构). 这深不可测的无穷回归是不可能爬出来的. 但是,即使我们忽略这个哲学障碍, 并问自己的大脑能否电脑, 我们有大的问题. 究竟是什么,我们问? 难道我们的大脑是计算机硬件和头脑是对他们的软件运行? 在问这样的问题, 我们要问的问题并行: 请问计算机有意识和情报? 难道他们的头脑? 如果他们的头脑, 我们怎么会知道?

更根本的, 你怎么知道其他人是否有心灵? 这就是所谓的他心的问题, 我们将继续考虑计算和意识面前,在接下来的文章中讨论.

看到并相信

当我们打开我们的眼睛,看一些东西, 我们看到,该死的东西. 还有什么能比这更明显, 右边? 比方说,你在看你的狗. 你看到的是真正的你的狗, 因为, 如果你想, 你可以伸手去触摸它. 它吠叫, 你可以听到纬. 如果太臭了一下, 你可以闻到它. 所有这些额外的知觉线索,证实你的信念,你看到的是你的狗. 直接. 不问任何问题.

当然, 我对这个博客的工作就是问问题, 并投疑惑. 首先, 看到感人似乎是从听觉和嗅觉有点不同. 你不严格听听你的狗叫, 你听到它的声音. 同样, 你不直接闻到它, 你闻到异味, 化学线索狗已经离开在空中. 听力和气味有三个地方的看法 — 狗发出声音/气味, 声音/气味传到你, 你感觉到声音/气味.

但看到 (或触摸) 是两个地方的事 — 狗有, 你在这里直接看出来. 这是为什么? 为什么我们觉得,当我们看到或触摸的东西, 我们直接感觉到它? 这种信念在我们所看到的感性真实性称为天真现实主义. 我们当然知道,眼看涉及光 (所以确实感人, 但在一个更复杂的方式), 我们所看到的是光反射的物体等. 这是, 事实上, 从没有听到不同的东西. 但看到的机制,这方面的知识并没有改变我们的自然, 常识认为,我们看到的是什么就在那里. 眼见为实.

从天真的版本外推是科学实在论, 它声称,我们的科学概念,也真实, 定义虽然我们可能无法直接感知它们. 所以原子是真实的. 电子是真实的. 夸克是真正的. 我们的大多数科学家更好地在那里一直对此持怀疑态度extraploation我们对什么是真正的概念. 爱因斯坦, 可能是他们最好的, 怀疑甚至空间和时间可能不是真实. 费曼和盖尔曼, 制定有关电子和夸克理论后, 表达了他们的观点,即电子和夸克可能是数学结构,而不是真正的实体.

What I am inviting you to do here is to go beyond the skepticism of Feynman and Gell-Mann, and delve into Einstein’s words — space and time are modes by which we think, not conditions in which we live. The sense of space is so real to us that we think of everything else as interactions taking place in the arena of space (and time). But space itself is the experience corresponding to the electrical signals generated by the light hitting your retina. It is a perceptual construct, much like the tonality of the sound you hear when air pressure waves hit your ear drums. Our adoption of naive realism results in our complete trust in the three dimensional space view. And since the world is created (in our brain as perceptual constructs) based on light, its speed becomes an all important constant in our world. And since speed mixes space and time, a better description is found in a four dimensional Minkowski geometry. But all these descriptions are based on perceptual experiences and therefore unreal in some sense.

I know the description above is highly circular — I talked about space being a mental construct created by light traveling through, get this, space. And when I speak of its speed, naturally, I’m talking about distance in space divided by time, and positing as the basis for the space-time mixing. This circularity makes my description less than clear and convincing. But the difficulty goes deeper than that. You see, all we have is this cognitive construct of space and time. We can describe objects and events only in terms of these constructs even when we know that they are only cognitive representations of sensory signals. Our language doesn’t go beyond that. Well, it does, but then we will be talking the language, for instance, of Advaita, calling the constructs Maya and the causes behind them Brahman, which stays unknowable. Or, we will be using some other parallel descriptions. These descriptions may be profound, wise and accurate. But ultimately, they are also useless.

But if philosophy is your thing, the discussions of cognitive constructs and unknown causations are not at all useless. Philosophy of physics happens to be my thing, and so I ask myself — what if I assume the unknown physical causes exist in a world similar to our perceptual construct? I could then propagate the causes through the process of perception and figure out what the construct should look like. I know, it sounds a bit complex, but it is something that we do all the time. We know, for instance, that the stars that we see in the night sky are not really there — we are seeing them the way they were a few (or a few million or billion) years ago because the light from them takes a long time to reach us. Physicists also know that the perceived motion of celestial objects also need to be corrected for these light-travel-time effects.

In fact, Einstein used the light travel time effects as the basis for deriving his special theory of relativity. He then stipulated that space and time behave the way we perceive them, derived using the said light-travel-time effects. This, of course, is based on his deep understanding that space and time are “the modes by which we think,” but also based on the assumption that the the causes behind the modes also are similar to the modes themselves. This depth of thinking is lost on the lesser scientists that came after him. The distinction between the modes of thinking and their causation is also lost, so that space and time have become entities that obey strange rules. Like bent spoons.

Photo by General Press1

Deferred Satisfaction

The mother was getting annoyed that her teenaged son was wasting time watching TV.
“Son, don’t waste your time watching TV. You should be studying,” she advised.
“Why?” quipped the son, as teenagers usually do.
“Well, if you study hard, you will get good grades.”
“Yeah, so?”
“Then, you can get into a good school.”
“Why should I?”
“That way, you can hope to get a good job.”
“Why? What do I want with a good job?”
“Well, you can make a lot of money that way.”
“Why do I want money?”
“If you have enough money, you can sit back and relax. Watch TV whenever you want to.”
“Well, I’m doing it right now!”

What the mother is advocating, of course, is the wise principle of deferred satisfaction. It doesn’t matter if you have to do something slightly unpleasant now, as long as you get rewarded for it later in life. This principle is so much a part of our moral fabric that we take it for granted, never questioning its wisdom. Because of our trust in it, we obediently take bitter medicines when we fall sick, knowing that we will feel better later on. We silently submit ourselves to jabs, root-canals, colonoscopies and other atrocities done to our persons because we have learned to tolerate unpleasantnesses in anticipation of future rewards. We even work like a dog at jobs so loathesome that they really have to pay us a pretty penny to stick it out.

Before I discredit myself, let me make it very clear that I do believe in the wisdom of deferred satisfaction. I just want to take a closer look because my belief, or the belief of seven billion people for that matter, is still no proof of the logical rightness of any principle.

The way we lead our lives these days is based on what they call hedonism. I know that the word has a negative connotation, but that is not the sense in which I am using it here. Hedonism is the principle that any decision we take in life is based on how much pain and pleasure it is going to create. If there is an excess of pleasure over pain, then it is the right decision. Although we are not considering it, the case where the recipients of the pain and pleasure are distinct individuals, nobility or selfishness is involved in the decision. So the aim of a good life is to maximize this excess of pleasure over pain. Viewed in this context, the principle of delayed satisfaction makes sense — it is one good strategy to maximize the excess.

But we have to be careful about how much to delay the satisfaction. Clearly, if we wait for too long, all the satisfaction credit we accumulate will go wasted because we may die before we have a chance to draw upon it. This realization may be behind the mantra “live in the present moment.”

Where hedonism falls short is in the fact that it fails to consider the quality of the pleasure. That is where it gets its bad connotation from. For instance, a ponzi scheme master like Madoff probably made the right decisions because they enjoyed long periods of luxurious opulence at the cost of a relatively short durations of pain in prison.

What is needed, perhaps, is another measure of the rightness of our choices. I think it is in the intrinsic quality of the choice itself. We do something because we know that it is good.

I am, of course, touching upon the vast branch of philosophy they call ethics. It is not possible to summarize it in a couple of blog posts. Nor am I qualified enough to do so. Michael Sandel, on the other hand, is eminently qualified, and you should check out his online course Justice: What is the Right Thing to Do? if interested. I just want to share my thought that there is something like the intrinsic quality of a way of life, or of choices and decisions. We all know it because it comes before our intellectual analysis. We do the right thing not so much because it gives us an excess of pleasure over pain, but we know what the right thing is and have an innate need to do it.

That, at least, is the theory. But, of late, I’m beginning to wonder whether the whole right-wrong, good-evil distinction is an elaborate ruse to keep some simple-minded folks in check, while the smarter ones keep enjoying totally hedonistic (using it with all the pejorative connotation now) pleasures of life. Why should I be good while the rest of them seem to be reveling in wall-to-wall fun? Is it my decaying internal quality talking, or am I just getting a bit smarter? I think what is confusing me, and probably you as well, is the small distance between pleasure and happiness. Doing the right thing results in happiness. Eating a good lunch results in pleasure. When Richard Feynman wrote about The Pleasure of Finding Things Out, he was probably talking about happiness. When I read that book, what I’m experiencing is probably closer to mere pleasure. Watching TV is probably pleasure. Writing this post, on the other hand, is probably closer to happiness. At least, I hope so.

To come back my little story above, what could the mother say to her TV-watching son to impress upon him the wisdom of deferred satisfaction? Well, just about the only thing I can think of is the argument from hedonism saying that if the son wastes his time now watching TV, there is a very real possibility that he may not be able to afford a TV later on in life. Perhaps intrinsically good parents won’t let their children grow up into a TV-less adulthood. I suspect I would, because I believe in the intrinsic goodness of taking responsibility for one’s actions and consequences. Does that make me a bad parent? Is it the right thing to do? Need we ask anyone to tell us these things?

My Life, My Way

After almost eight years in banking, I have finally called it quits. Over the last three of those years, I had been telling people that I was leaving. And I think people had stopped taking me seriously. My wife certainly did, and it came as a major shock to her. But despite her studied opposition, I managed to pull it off. In fact, it is not just banking that I left, I have actually retired. Most of my friends greeted the news of my retirement with a mixture of envy and disbelief. The power to surprise — it is nice to still have that power.

Why is it a surprise really? Why would anyone think that it is insane to walk away from a career like mine? Insanity is in doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. Millions of people do the same insanely crummy stuff over and over, everyone of them wanting nothing more than to stop doing it, even planning on it only to postpone their plans for one silly reason or another. I guess the force of habit in doing the crummy stuff is greater than the fear of change. There is a gulf between what people say their plans are and what they end up doing, which is the theme of that disturbing movie Revolutionary Road. This gulf is extremely narrow in my case. I set out with a bunch of small targets — to help a few people, to make a modest fortune, to provide reasonable comfort and security to those near. I have achieved them, and now it is time to stop. The trouble with all such targets is that once you get close to them, they look mundane, and nothing is ever enough for most people. Not for me though — I have always been reckless enough to stick to my plans.

One of the early instances of such a reckless action came during my undergraduate years at IIT Madras. I was pretty smart academically, especially in physics. But I wasn’t too good in remembering details like the names of theorems. Once, this eccentric professor of mine at IIT asked me the name of a particular theorem relating the line integral of the electric field around a point and the charge contained within. I think the answer was Green’s theorem, while its 3-D equivalent (surface integral) is called Gauss’s theorem or something. (Sorry, my Wikipedia and Google searches didn’t bring up anything definitive on that.) I answered Gauss’s theorem. The professor looked at me for a long moment with contempt in his eyes and said (in Tamil) something like I needed to get a beating with his slippers. I still remember standing there in my Khakki workshop attire and listening to him, with my face burning with shame and impotent anger. And, although physics was my favorite subject (my first love, in fact, as I keep saying, mostly to annoy my wife), I didn’t go back to any of his lectures after that. I guess even at that young age, I had this disturbing level of recklessness in me. I now know why. It’s is the ingrained conviction that nothing really matters. Nothing ever did, as Meursault the Stranger points out in his last bout of eloquence.

I left banking for a variety of reasons; remuneration wasn’t one of them, but recklessness perhaps was. I had some philosophical misgivings about the rightness of what I was doing at a bank. I suffered from a troubled conscience. Philosophical reasons are strange beasts — they lead to concrete actions, often disturbing ones. Albert Camus (in his collection The Myth of Sisyphus) warned of it while talking about the absurdity of life. Robert Pirsig in his epilog to Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance also talked about when such musings became psychiatrically dangerous. Michael Sandel is another wise man who, in his famous lectures on Justice: What is the Right Thing to Do? pointed out that philosophy could often color your perspective permanently — you cannot unlearn it to go back, you cannot unthink a thought to become normal again.

Philosophy and recklessness aside, the other primary reason for leaving the job was boredom. The job got so colossally boring. Looking out my window at the traffic 13 floors below was infinitely more rewarding than looking at the work on my three computer screens. And so I spent half my time staring out the window. Of course, my performance dwindled as a result. I guess scuttling the performance is the only way to realistically make oneself leave a high-paying job. There are times when you have have to burn the bridges behind you. Looking back at it now, I cannot really understand why I was so bored. I was a quantitative developer and the job involved developing reports and tools. Coding is what I do for fun at home. That and writing, of course. May be the boredom came from the fact that there was no serious intellectual content in it. There was none in the tasks, nor in the company of the throngs of ambitious colleagues. Walking into the workplace every morning, looking at all the highly paid people walking around with impressive demeanors of doing something important, I used to feel almost sad. How important could their bean-counting ever be?

Then again, how important could this blogging be? We get back to Meursault’s tirade – rien n’avait d’importance. Perhaps I was wrong to have thrown it away, as all of them keep telling me. Perhaps those important-looking colleagues were really important, and I was the one in the wrong to have retired. That also matters little; that also has little importance, as Meursault and my alter ego would see it.

What next is the question that keeps coming up. I am tempted to give the same tongue-in-cheek answer as Larry Darrell in The Razor’s Edge — Loaf! My kind of loafing would involve a lot of thinking, a lot of studying, and hard work. There is so much to know, and so little time left to learn.

Photo by kenteegardin

Everything and Nothing

I once attended a spiritual self-help kind of course. Toward the end of the course, there was this exercise where the teacher would ask the question, “What are you?” Whatever answer the participant came up with, the teacher would tear it apart. For instance, if I said, “I work for a bank as a quantitative finance professional,” she would say, “Yeah, that’s what you do, but what are you?” If I said, “I am Manoj,” she would say, “Yeah, that’s only your name, what are you?” You get the idea. To the extent that it is a hard question to answer, the teacher always gets the upper hand.

Not in my case though. Luckily for me, I was the last one to answer the question, and I had the benefit of seeing how this exercise evolved. Since I had time, I decided to cook up something substantial. So when my turn came, here was my response that pretty much floored the teacher. I said, “I am a little droplet of consciousness so tiny that I’m nothing, yet part of something so big that I’m everything.” As I surmised, she couldn’t very well say, “Yeah, sure, but what are you?” In fact, she could’ve said, “That’s just some serious bullshit, man, what the heck are you?” which is probably what I would’ve done. But my teacher, being the kind and gentle soul she is, decided to thank me gravely and move on.

Now I want to pick up on that theme and point out that there is more to that response than something impressive that I made up that day to sound really cool in front of a bunch of spiritualites. The tininess part is easy. Our station in this universe is so mindbogglingly tiny that a sense of proportion is the one thing we cannot afford to have, if we are to keep our sanity — as Douglas Adams puts it in one of his books. What goes for the physical near-nothingness of our existence in terms of space also applies to the temporal dimension. We exist for a mere fleeing instant when put in the context of any geological or cosmological timescale. So when I called myself a “little” droplet, I was being kind, if anything.

But being part of something so vast — ah, that is the interesting bit. Physically, there is not an atom in my body that wasn’t part of a star somewhere sometime ago. We are all made up of stardust, from the ashes of dead stars. (Interesting they say from dust to dust and from ashes to ashes, isn’t it?) So, those sappy scenes in sentimental flicks, where the dad points to the star and says, “Your mother is up there sweetheart, watching over you,” have a bit of scientific truth to them. All the particles in my body will end up in a star (a red giant, in our case); the only stretch is that it will take another four and half billion years. But it does mean that the dust will live forever and end up practically everywhere through some supernova explosion, if our current understanding of how it all works is correct (which it is not, in my opinion, but that is another story). This eternal existence of a the purely physical kind is what Schopenhauer tried to draw consolation from, I believe, but it really is no consolation, if you ask me. Nonetheless, we are all part of something much bigger, spatially and temporally – in a purely physical sense.

At a deeper level, my being part of everything comes from the fact that we are both the inside and the outside of things. I know it sounds like I smoked something I wouldn’t like my children to smoke. Let me explain; this will take a few words. You see, when we look at a star, we of course see a star. But what we mean by “see a star” is just that there are some neurons in our brain firing in a particular pattern. We assume that there is a star out there causing some photons to fall on our retina and create neuronal firing, which results in a cognitive model of what we call night sky and stars. We further assume that what we see (night sky and star) is a faithful representation of what is out there. But why should it be? Think of how we hear stuff. When we listen to music, we hear tonality, loudness etc, but these are only cognitive models for the frequency and amplitude of the pressure waves in the air, as we understand sound right now. Frequency and amplitude are very different beasts compared to tonality and loudness — the former are physical causes, the latter are perceptual experiences. Take away the brain, there is no experience, ergo there is no sound — which is the gist of the overused cocktail conundrum of the falling tree in a deserted forest. If you force yourself to think along these lines for a while, you will have to admit that whatever is “out there” as you perceive it is only in your brain as cognitive constructs. Hence my hazy statement about we are both the inside and the outside of things. So, from the perspective of cognitive neuroscience, we can argue that we are everything — the whole universe and our knowledge of it is all are patterns in our brain. There is nothing else.

Want to go even deeper? Well, the brain itself is part of the reality (which is a cognitive construct) created by the brain. So are the air pressure waves, photons, retina, cognitive neuroscience etc. All convenient models in our brains. That, of course, is an infinite regression, from which there is no escape. It is a logical abyss where we can find no rational foothold to anchor our thoughts and crawl out, which naturally leads to what we call the infinite, the unknowable, the absolute, the eternal — Brahman.

I was, of course, thinking of Brahman ( and the notion that we are all part of that major oneness) when I cooked up that everything-and-nothing response. But it is all the same, isn’t it, whichever way you look at it? Well, may be not; may be it is just that I see it that way. If the only tool you have is a hammer, all the problems in the world look like nails to you. May be I’m just hammering in the metaphysical nails whenever and wherever I get a chance. To me, all schools of thought seem to converge to similar notions. Reminds of that French girl I was trying impress long time ago. I said to her, rather optimistically, “You know, you and I think alike, that’s what I like about you.” She replied, “Well, there is only one way to think, if you think at all. So no big deal!” Needless to say I didn’t get anywhere with her.