Nostalgia and the Future of Humanity

Some years ago, I photographed Roy Rogers at a meet and greet in New Jersey. A friend of mine recently forwarded an email which reflected on some of the television characters from our childhood years, like Roy Rogers and Dale Evans, The Lone Ranger and Tonto, Sky King and Superman and Sgt. Friday, Captain Kangaroo, Mr. Rogers, and Captain Noah, and “all those people from children’s television in the 1950’s whose lives touched ours, and made them better.” Nostalgia for those years afflicts many of us “baby boomers,” who remember fondly those years when there were great television heroes during our childhood, who tried to teach us right from wrong, and “how to have and show respect for each other and the animals that share this earth.”

As a result of the invention of television, “we were able to grow up with these great people even if we never met them. In their own way they taught us patriotism and honor, we learned that lying and cheating were bad, and sex wasn’t as important as love. We learned how to suffer through disappointment and failure and work through it. Our lives were drug free.”

While these inferences strike a chord with just about everyone over fifty, there is a deeper issue which many of these nostalgic messages seem to miss. These reminders of life during what now seems like a time of innocence and uncomplicated choices, while they evoke a genuine charm and sense of delight, are actually a result of us remembering, not so much the charming particulars from our daily lives, but rather how the experience of those events and pleasures made us feel, and how they compare to our lives today.

The emphasis generally centers on our fondest memories, and neglects the accompanying difficulties and trials of those times. We lament the passing of simpler times and uncomplicated lifestyles, and yet those times contained many of the same charms and delights that exist in our lives today. We just have to look a little harder because our youthful perspectives have become obscured by maturity and balanced by adversity.

Sorbonne-neighborhood bookstore by treviño – Flickr – Photo Sharing!

A good illustration of how life has changed over the years can be found by reviewing a recent column by Marc Fisher of the Washington Post, which expressed sadness about the loss of the neighborhood bookstores to the much more economical and less complicated practice of ordering books online at places like In much the same frame of mind as many of us who cherish the experience of walking amongst the rows of freshly printed pages and browsing our favorite sections, inhaling the scent of new books and cappuccinos, and thumbing through our cherished, secret, and silent worlds, Mr. Fisher’s lament struck such a chord with me that I emailed him expressing my empathy and agreement.

Not even thirty years ago, I wrote to Darryl Sifford of the Philadelphia Inquirer about a column he wrote, which I typed on a manual typewriter and sent to him in an envelope with a stamp. A week later, he responded with a nice note which he also typed on a manual typewriter and mailed to me. I sent my email to Marc Fisher by clicking “send” on my “Hotmail homepage” with my “mouse” at 5:58 PM and received his response at 6:04 PM, just six minutes later!

I’m guessing that our children or grandchildren will be sending each other some kind of “Holographic Laser Visual Message,” remembering how quaint it used to be to type an email on a keyboard, and rather than calling older folks “older than dirt,” they may end up calling each other “older than silicon” or something.

Humanity has begun to evolve less through natural selection and more toward artificial selection as a result of the quantum leaps in new technologies, and as with most circumstances that result from radical changes, those who are able to adapt seem to fare better than those who either cannot or will not embrace the inevitable changes that adaptation demands.

However, what we cannot do is to lose sight of what lies at the core of our humanity. No matter what evolution may require of us as temporal beings in order to adapt and survive, within us and all around us, there is a unity of all living things which connects us to each other and the wider universe.

Jonas Salk, the great pioneer of the polio vaccine, once wrote that “Evolution is no longer a case of survival of the fittest, but rather one of survival of the wisest.” We are now entering one of the most important epochs for our species, and we must find a way to bring humanity together, without sacrificing the hard-won progress of our ancestors that brought us this far. There were many great aspects of our childhood that are no longer existent in the same way today, but the promise of the future, represented by our children and our grandchildren is even more important to consider as we evolve in the centuries to come.

Information versus knowledge.

I wrote the following in response to a WordPress blog entry noted at the bottom of this entry:

It’s always interesting to me when anyone tries to distinguish between terms which are interdependent, and which require each other in order to describe each other. What we describe as “information” and what we describe as “knowledge,” (as if one could exist without the other) are simply components of a much broader topic, i.e. experience.

Information consists of facts acquired THROUGH experience, and knowledge is gained through an acquaintance with the facts, which then informs our conclusions RESULTING from our experience.  It’s clear that simply being aware of facts does not imply comprehension of how those facts imply further facts, and knowledge gained through investigation in consideration of those facts obviously depends upon being aware of those facts. But more importantly, knowledge REQUIRES acquaintance with specific information, and that information can only be acquired THROUGH experience.

“Subject and object are dependent upon one another and neither exists without the other.” Genuine knowledge is often elusive for us humans, as we frequently arrive at conclusions from what information we possess CURRENTLY, which is occasionally incomplete or just plain wrong.  We often describe our current wisdom as principles which exist “to the best of our knowledge,” and if you asked someone who lived a hundred years ago what they knew for sure, what they would report might just seem comical to those of us in THIS century.

Conducting scientific research is the best remedy for discerning the facts of our temporal existence in the physical universe, and knowledge gained through experience can expand our comprehension of those facts in a way that simply being aware of them cannot do, but human history is replete with examples of both “knowledge” and “information” that ended up being wrong, and it would be wise to keep in mind what Carl Sagan once said in an interview about our current scientific knowledge of the universe:

“[Science] is not perfect. It can be misused. It is only a tool. But it is by far the best tool we have, self-correcting, ongoing, applicable to everything. It has two rules. First: there are no sacred truths; all assumptions must be critically examined; arguments from authority are worthless. Second: whatever is inconsistent with the facts must be discarded or revised. … The obvious is sometimes false; the unexpected is sometimes true.”

There are all sorts of things we may consider TODAY to be “information” which may end up being mistaken, and what we consider today to be “knowledge,” may end up being proven wrong by some future investigation, but knowing something and knowing the nature of something are distinguishable only when we consider BOTH as essential.

“Look at the bird…” – information versus knowledge..



Are We “Out of Our Heads?”

Back in June of last year, I began my first serious reading of “Out of Our Heads,” by Alva Noë, and immediately I started to feel a high degree of admiration for his courage in addressing the philosophical, scientific, and biological approach to understanding human consciousness. His premise that “We are not our brains,” strikes at the very heart of my own notions regarding the nature of conscious awareness in the cognitively rich textures of human experience. He includes thoughts, emotions, and the fact that “the world shows up for us,” as a more comprehensive list of vital contributions responsible for our capacity for conscious experience.

He acknowledges, as do I, that the integrated activity in numerous brain regions, as well as the cooperation of our central nervous system and senses, plays a vital role in the “experience of consciousness,” but also states emphatically, as do I, that there is a great deal more required for consciousness than just a brain. He reminds us that our current technologies (PET and fMRI), while very useful as diagnostic tools, are limited in what they can actually tell us about the cognitive process.

Scans detect blood flow and average activity in a very small part of the trillions of cells within the brain, and are, at best, markers along a very wide and winding road. Most research conducted using brain scans produce averages based on multiple examinations of a variety of individuals, and may not be, in every case, as comprehensive an overview as they are sometimes presented. Wherever the blood flow is most active in the brain, those locations can be detected by these scans, and by averaging those results, we get a fairly good idea of where individuals commonly produce a response in the brain to specific stimuli. This method has been particularly useful in the highly technical realm of medical diagnosis for detecting where our doctors need to focus their attention when it comes to neural pathologies like cancer and mental illness, as well as in isolating particular brain regions for specific activities which are being studied in a variety of disciplines.

Many of the sections in the final chapters of his book emphasize Noë’s unavoidable conclusion:

“The brain is not, on its own, a source of experience or cognition…The conscious mind is not inside us; it is, it would be better to say, a kind of active attunement to the world, an achieved integration. It is the world itself, all around, that fixes the nature of conscious experience.”

If Noë’s contention is correct that consciousness consists of “Mind-Body-World,” i.e. the interaction of all three of those elements being required to connect us to our richly textured experience of conscious awareness, then many of the other widely-held ideas about cognition and neuroscience may also need to be reconsidered. Many of Noë’s arguments are relentlessly compelling for me as they affirm what I have long posited myself—to quote Noë:

“Consciousness does not happen in our brains; it is not a product of the brain. Certainly, there is no sound empirical evidence to support the idea that the brain alone is enough for consciousness.”

In a review of Noë’s book by the magazine, “Booklist,” reviewer Carl Hays sums up some of the most important aspects of Noë’s take on the current state of consciousness research:

“The notion that consciousness is confined to the brain, like software in a computer, has dominated science and philosophy for close to two centuries. Yet, according to this incisive review of contemporary neuroscience from Berkeley philosopher Nöe, the analogy is deeply flawed. In eight illuminating, mercifully jargon-free chapters, he defines what scientists really know about consciousness and makes a strong case that mind and awareness are processes that arise during a dynamic dance with the observer’s surroundings. Nöe begins with a sharp critique of scientists, such as DNA co-discoverer Francis Crick, who insist that nothing but neurons determines our daily perceptions and sense of self. He then examines studies of human and animal behavior that demonstrate an inextricable link between identity and environment. –Carl Hays”

In my view, consciousness is not simply one thing and not another. Just as the delicate neural structures within the brain may elude even f MRI scans which must “average” the locational data on blood flow readings to produce the colorful images we see in scientific literature, (individual brains differ) so too might the intricate relationships between brain regions, sensory data, the central nervous system, and the world we inhabit, escape our most determined empirical scrutiny when we turn our attention to how it all comes together.

Booklist, the magazine the New York Times calls “an acquisitions bible for public and school librarians nationwide,” is the review journal of the American Library Association. It recommends works of fiction, nonfiction, children’s books, reference books, and media to its 30,000 institutional and personal subscribers.

Looking Closely at Our Life On Earth and the Importance of Perspective

As the ten year mark arrives of the awful tragedy of the loss of so many lives on September 11, 2001 in America, so much is being written about it and broadcast in the 21st century media about that terrible day, that it seems almost impossible that any sort of balanced perspective might result from all the fanfare surrounding this anniversary. No one who witnessed these events, nor anyone who was directly affected by the brutality of the attack could be diminished any more than they already have been by the suffering and sense of loss that took hold ten years ago. No report of previously “unrevealed” information or interviews with any of the key figures in the tragedy can change anything that happened, or lessen our collective and individual suffering in the slightest degree.

There are no truly useful comparisons to any of the other innumerable tragedies throughout human history that can make anyone who lost loved ones or friends in New York, Washington, or Pennsylvania on that day feel any less pain or somehow find solace no matter how many years have passed since those losses occurred. No matter what circumstances result in the loss of people we love, whether it is by a brutal attack by terrorists, or the relentless progress of a fatal disease, or the randomness of a freak accident, our losses throughout our lives cannot be measured in sound bytes or spectacular videos or eloquent prose.

At the very core of our humanity, complex molecules of DNA govern many of the outcomes for each human being, and are, in large part, responsible for how our lives unfold in innumerable ways, based on the endowment they provide or the deficiencies they impart as a result of the combined contributions of our parents and ancestors. There is nothing we can do as individuals to change our genetic or familial inheritance, or even the environment into which we are born. Countless successes and failures of individuals have resulted from not only our fortunate or unfortunate nature resulting from our genetic inheritance, but also from our abundant or deficient nurture from a loving and capable or sadly neglectful family circumstances. So many factors enter into the calculation of how we either flourish or fail to accomplish anything important in life, that we must acknowledge, at some point, our limitations as well as our abilities as central to our individual outcome.

Changing our perspective from the molecules of DNA, to casting our glance outward into the solar system in which our planet exists, provides an even greater view of our limitations as well as our potentials as living beings. If you follow this link by copying and pasting it into the address bar of your web browser, you will view a brief video of the passage of one year on earth from the perspective of outer space:

Looking at the earth as it passes through 365 days of existence in ten seconds, apart from being enormously fascinating as an experience, humbles us by its implications of how fragile and tenuous our existence is no matter what transpires here on the surface of the earth.

I can’t help it, though, when I look closely at the moments of pure awareness as I experience my own life, pondering the moments of my own existence, in the moments of serendipitous bliss and unexpected confusion or sadness, to view the replay of tragedy such as we will experience on Sunday, as well as those which surely will come in the days ahead, seems to me to be no more or less profound or tragic than any of the others in human history, but which are, more precisely, awful in their own way, unlike any other.

Walking along the sand and surf at Moore’s Beach on the Delaware Bay on my recent camping trip, I encountered this unfortunate turtle that apparently expired on its journey, and as I walked further along, encountered the remains of what used to be a home in what is now only a memory from years past.

No comparison can be drawn, nor is any intended, by these images to the sadness which fills every crevice of our memories of that awful day in September, and my own heart suffered terribly for years after that terrible day, as my only son served his country in military duty in response to that awful attack. My only hope is that we can find a way, somehow, to put each of the layers of our lives and our tenuous existence in the vast universe, in perspective as we look back on both the tragedy of September 11, 2001, as well as the moments of joy and sorrow that accompany us all on our journey.

Spirits in the Woods

Having just returned from three days and nights in the Belleplain State Forest, the return to civilization always seems to find me rejuvenated in spirit, but also oddly melancholy. The trip was a welcome break from the relentless daily routines that sustain me as I write, and the moments of blissful silence communing with only my thoughts in contemplation, my books, and the background murmur of the natural world, filled me with a sense of being exactly where I needed to be.

A long and leisurely evening by the campfire last night was a welcome development in the grand scheme of my life these days. Struggling as I am with my place in the world generally, and attempting to express the deeper truth within me particularly, conversing about the nature of humanity and of what I feel strongly is a spiritual (non-physical) foundation for consciousness was most encouraging.

The subject of the very foundation of consciousness and its first inklings in our ancient ancestors is so compelling for me that I can barely contain myself when it comes up in conversation. It is unfortunately rare in my experience to find anyone willing to entertain such a conversation, but a recent conversation in the woods gave me some cause to think that I might be making progress in delineating my arguments and defining my theory.

My heart is still troubled by a fair number of emotional challenges, which usually accompany my writing work on consciousness. Somehow I must arrive at my destination without totally sacrificing my sense of well-being, and yet collect the essence of whatever it is that draws me so powerfully to spirits who embody that same essence within me. I am coming to understand that these kindred souls are being held up to me like a mirror, and that what I am seeing is a reflection of what lies within me.

The awesome power of the spirit touches me so profoundly at times, that social conventions seem far less important at times than getting to the bottom of what it is that makes these other living souls so compelling to me. Even as I observe the various living creatures who inhabit the forest environment–even then–I find myself powerfully connected to the life that animates them. Reading in John Horgan’s “Rational Mysticism,” he paraphrases Ken Wilbur’s notions of the overall view of the awareness that results from our access to consciousness:

“We begin life as merely physical beings, no more aware than bacteria. Even as children, we are still self-absorbed creatures. As we develop emotionally, intellectually, and spiritually, we become aware of an even wider sphere of existence. Our awareness matures into an empathy for and identification with all of humanity, all of nature, and ultimately all of existence, including the eternal void from which all things come.”

At the final moments of sitting by the fire, I found myself staring deeply into the white hot bed of embers supporting the other timbers, ablaze in a nearly empty forest surrounding our campsite. Walking even a short distance away from the fire, I was struck by the total absence of light available to my all-too-human eyes. It made me reflect on how it must have been for our ancient ancestors, who not only struggled with fear of predatory animals, but also other equally frightened competing human beings who might also be lurking in the darkness. The loss of the light and warmth of the fire for me most certainly would pale in comparison to the consequences for those conscious creatures.

I sit in the deep forest by choice and build my fire for pleasure, tending to it with joy, and without even a small fraction of the fear my ancestors must have experienced. The evolution of modern consciousness, supported by the gradual rise of experience and accumulated knowledge has eliminated all but the most primal of fears for me, although I still hesitate to venture too far away from the security the fire provides. The uncertainty of what lies beyond the light of my small fire keeps me in my chair, close to the campsite, even though I have a lantern that could burn well into the night if necessary.

The moon finally rose in the early morning darkness, and I had occasion to step out of my tent during these wee hours. The moonlight filtered down through the trees, much like the sun in daylight hours, and as I walked to my destination, I was reminded of a quote from Emerson, which suggests that the light reflecting toward the earth from the moon is “mere tinsel”, except when it shines on a “necessary journey.”

As always, I am reluctant to relinquish my time in the woods, as I feel closer to my truest self when I am there.