By three methods we may learn wisdom: First, by reflection, which is noblest; Second, by imitation, which is easiest; and third by experience, which is the bitterest.
Thus spoke Confucius, albeit not in the English language! But, nonetheless, those words from so, so long ago (he lived to the age of 73 – from 551 until 479 BCE) resonate very strongly 2,500 years later.
That was the easy bit!
I’m not entirely clear as to why a variety of items that have crossed my ‘in-box’ in recent days seem to offer some sort of cohesive sense. But they do to me and I’m going to draw them together. I will leave you to be the judge as to how well it worked!
Thus over the next three days I am going to reflect on three topics. The challenge of how we humans make sense of the world, how we confuse what we do with what is best for us, surely the essence of wisdom, and the growing gap between the wisdom of millions of citizens and their leaders.
I should quickly add that much of my musings are due to this scribe standing on the shoulders of giants than seeing clearly from his own level.
Today, I shall start with the brain. Your brain, my brain, the brains of humans. The reason this trilogy starts with the brain is that, ultimately, everything we humans think, feel and do comes from this brain of ours. Our brain is who we are.
Let me offer you this video made by Bristol University in England. Just a little over 6 minutes long it sets out the functional story of our brain.
(An animated tour around the human brain commissioned for Brain Awareness Week in 2010)
But there is so much more to this ancient body organ.
The Big Think website has been publishing a series called The 21st Century Brain. The latest episode published on November 6th was called Consciousness: The Black Hole of Neuroscience. It starts thus:
What’s the Big Idea?
“By the word ‘thought’ (‘pensée’) I understand all that of which we are conscious as operating in us.” –Renee Descartes
The simplest description of a black hole is a region of space-time from which no light is reflected and nothing escapes. The simplest description of consciousness is a mind that absorbs many things and attends to a few of them. Neither of these concepts can be captured quantitatively. Together they suggest the appealing possibility that endlessness surrounds us and infinity is within.
But our inability to grasp the immaterial means we’re stuck making inferences, free-associating, if we want any insight into the unknown. Which is why we talk obscurely and metaphorically about “pinning down” perception and “hunting for dark matter” (possibly a sort of primordial black hole). The existence of black holes was first hypothesized a decade after Einstein laid the theoretical groundwork for them in the theory of relativity, and the phrase “black hole” was not coined until 1968.
Likewise, consciousness is still such an elusive concept that, in spite of the recent invention of functional imaging – which has allowed scientists to visualize the different areas of the brain – we may not understand it any better now than we ever have before. “We approach [consciousness] now perhaps differently than we have in the past with our new tools,” says neuroscientist Joy Hirsch.
Later on is this:
So there’s no reason to assume that consciousness is eternally inexplicable. However, it may never be explained through neurobiology, says David Chalmers, the philosopher who originally made the distinction. “In so many other fields physical explanation has been successful… but there seems to be this big gap in the case of consciousness,” he says. “It’s just very hard to see how [neurological] interactions are going to give you subjective experience.”
The fascinating essay concludes:
It’s no different than any other aspect of the brain that we cannot presently explain, she [Hirsch] says:
For example, we don’t understand how the brain creates colors. That’s a perception that is very private – I don’t know that your perception of blue is like my perception of blue, for example. Smells are another one. I don’t know that your perception of the smell of an orange is like mine. These are the hard problems of neuroscience and philosophy that we haven’t made a great deal of progress on.
What do you think? Is the distinction between “hard problems” and “soft problems” useful, or reductive? Does the brain create consciousness? Will we ever empirically understand where it comes from or how it works?
But it was one of the comments to the piece that jumped off the screen at me. From Beatriz Valdes and slightly edited by me, the comment offered:
Human consciousness happens in the human brain. The human brain’s functions are rooted in what the human senses relay to it. Self consciousness, consciousness of what is around us, is the result of thinking. There would be no thoughts if the brain were a tabula rasa (Latin for blank slate), had no input from the senses. Therefore, consciousness is quite local, quite mortal, quite dependent on the gray matter inside our skulls.
Local and mortal. Very profound (I think!).
So, if you like me suffer from time to time from understanding oneself, don’t worry. There are plenty of others – aren’t there? As Professor Dan Dennett makes it all clear below.
Philosopher Dan Dennett makes a compelling argument that not only don’t we understand our own consciousness, but that half the time our brains are actively fooling us.
Philosopher and scientist Dan Dennett argues that human consciousness and free will are the result of physical processes and are not what we traditionally think they are. His 2003 book Freedom Evolves explores the way our brains have evolved to give us — and only us — the kind of freedom that matters.
Good, glad that’s all clear. 😉
Stay with me for ‘page two’ of Essence of wisdom coming out tomorrow.