11 July, 2014

To Gain A Clearer Perception of Humanity, Part I

"The intent here is to gain a clearer perception of humanity - where we've been, where we're going, the pitfalls and the possibilities, the perils and the promise. Perhaps even an answer to that universal question - Why?"

- Dr. Emmett Brown, played by Christopher Lloyd in the 1989 Robert Zemeckis film Back to the Future Part II

My brother and I continually watched the trilogy of films featuring Doc Brown's DeLorean time machine and Marty McFly's escapades as we grew up together. Why? Well, it was full of action, well written, had a very cool premise and when there was nothing else to watch on TV, the VHS tapes were at the ready. My brother's favorite film was Part II and for me, it was the concluding Part III. I didn't care for the way the future looked (which was 2015, in reality, next year) and the revisiting of the first film was a little confusing, and, I thought spoiled some of the original. I wanted a whole new adventure, and I got that in Part III.

However, after revisiting the series with a newly purchased Blu-ray set (courtesy of Mr. Matt Ross), the above line from the second film really stood out to me. I don't recall what I thought about it exactly, if anything, but reading it once more I see Doc Brown's aim and goal for his creation: and it is a philosophical, not a scientific endeavor alone. Lloyd always played him as severe, technically minded. But by the third film, Brown shows his romantic nature and by his actions expresses his true intent behind the brilliant invention. The time machine was built not to study space-time, but to try to understand the nature of our being.

How to study existence

Working backwards, from ourselves to the Universe at large, one could at very least attempt to approach such a huge topic as being or existence (the study of which is called ontology) via our local group, to this galaxy, solar system, planet - to a continent of the globe, in a certain nation, at a certain time; countless folk have sought to know as much about the history of a period as one could, devoting an entire scholarly life to say, "the aesthetics of the Victorian era." We do not have a DeLorean time machine at our disposal, so, how would one begin such a study? We must first be considerate about the method of study, so that its beginning leads us to question the practice of history: this practice would stem from a philosophy of history. But what is a philosophy, and what are its origins? We continue to trace backwards...

Essentially, a philosophy is a system of thought. Let's ask the seemingly self-evident - what are thoughts? Today, thoughts are regarded as having their origin in the brain. Neuroscience continually announces discoveries which show chemical reactions and cerebral activity while observing conscious and unconscious behavior. To surmount that all thought is brain-based brings all knowledge back to the material itself - all knowledge and all being.

Today, a philosophy of science is likely to disprove that valued and particular vehicle (materialism, not a DeLorean) which we ride toward Truth as a philosophy sufficient enough in and of itself. It is the charioteer at the reigns of modern day science. However, if thought is a product of the neurological processes alone, this is where the time machine of our Mind ends its journey. Better place some hope in matter then, and since we are only the product of genes and the planet is dying, get this material to another one. Will 'push off then!' be the rallying cry of the coming generations? It would lack all hope and spirit, however much our boundaries into space are pushed in the name of 'destiny'.

Materialism, the Ideology

Let's take a well-known outspoken voice about the above, the host of Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey and director of the Hayden Planetarium here in New York, Neil deGrasse-Tyson. Tyson views philosophy as a product-less pursuit, suggesting it is an impediment to progress and not a academic study worthy of the young. His friend Massimo Pigliucci, a man of balance between the humanities and the sciences, has held recent conversation with Tyson about these statements. Follow the link to his article from the Huffington Post - it is a telling example of the sort of difficult public debate about the use of academic studies.

For Tyson, it's a matter of wasted "brain power," and for Pigliucci it's about exploring "conceptual space," the invisible, the unaccountable, and yet, the present and experienced phenomenon, i.e. of consciousness. Some scientists are engaged in exploring these borderlines that polarize the public opinions of both science and philosophy (see Rupert Sheldrake's banned TED talk). Others have chosen their sides and are defenders of the flag of Reason, because that is their territory and it needs expanding to support their convictions (and garner public and private funding).

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Why such conflict? Science has been incredibly successful as its discoveries have been rapidly applied to our lives in the form of technology, medicine, and the manipulation of Nature. Unfortunately, science as an honest inquiry into the nature of reality, cannot teach us how to use the tools it helps to create while it investigates. This requires a vaster range of human abilities than reason alone, and studies as impartial as the original science behind the capitalizing of technologies.

It is part of the struggle of historians to account for all the factors of personality and culture that make an age what it is - how do we account for our present situation, let alone Victorian aesthetics? If we do not reflect or even criticize with a formal philosophy to gauge the value of a predominant worldview, we render the immaterial virtues null (temperance, prudence, courage, justice, etc.) which have been taught to exist eternally, whatever period. Corporeally, we transform Nature and then that transformation changes us in our own, fixed image. We forget where we were and only look toward where we are going from now. Where is our neutral territory, our contemplation? Perhaps only with a philosophy that aids our reason and tempers our awareness, which gains help from "other" sources unknown to us. Dare I even say, from the metaphysical.

Essential being

In the end, Doc Brown and Marty McFly are left each to their own fate: one recognizes his weakness toward personal offense and chooses against drag racing toward a wreck with a Rolls Royce. The other embraces his feelings of love and the need to strengthen this most transcendent human emotion in the face of death by saving his beloved Clara. Science is the vehicle for discovering components of humanity's essential being and philosophy is the fuel.

To free ourselves of the materialistic hold on the sciences would be a much greater accomplishment in the early part of this century than even our latest discoveries in physics. If Heraclitus was correct in his wise statement that "opposites cooperate: The beautifulest harmonies come from opposition. All things repel each other," than we have no object to quarrel over but belief in the impediments of our own beliefs. Destroy your time vehicle if it cannot do but divide you.

End of Part I


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Portland, OR, United States
For the Observatory's Grand Opening