Wednesday, May 06, 2009

How Do We Know What We Know?

Yo dog, (welcome to the Transcendence Diaries by the way. I found the circumstance addressed below stimulating enough to warrant some further thought; and ink. Or bits as we would now say in these modern GEL times)

I'll tell ya, you and the fam have the most uncanny way of asking good questions. (Your father's "That's all great Ed, but how is your soul?" comes to mind...) In any case, post GEL i did notice a bit of stuck attention on how best to answer your question "But HOW did you know, these things? In what WAY did you know them?" in regards to the knowledge one gains from hallucinogens. It was a great question. And of course it is one that has been answered tens of thousands of times in books by aldous huxley, albert hoffman, tim leary ram dass, carlos castendea, pauo coelho, alan watts, thomas merton, etc... But in the moment i did find it a challenge in an elevator pitch to explain how do we know the knowledge that we gain is actually knowledge and not just "a thought/idea/vision/hallucination/wishful thinking etc" Yes of course we are stimulating other regions of the brain and therefore accessing knowledge stored there whenever we ingest or take anything that stimulates other areas of the brain that we do not normally have easy access to. But that really isnt an answer to "how do we know the knowledge." That may be the explanation as to "how do we gain this new knowledge" but it isn't an answer to "how do we know we actually are learning new knowledge.

It was a brilliant question. Due to the fact that it was such an honest, simple, and direct question. No bullshit academic posturing. Just a very simple and sincere and earnest question from curiosity. Which is we know (how do we know even this?) the place where much of our collective knowledge comes from. That healthy curiosity for truth, knowledge, and understanding that many possess. I realized that the question was bigger than the specific frame it was in and could be applied to knowledge itself. How DO we KNOW anything? I believe that in that brief moment you mentioned "empirical data" - something i struggled with for years in college as a philosophy major undergrad, and then later have had to deal with on an almost daily basis being in the health-sciences industry for so many years. In the arena of science it all comes down to empirical data...

Realizing this led me to spend some time on Sunday contemplating knowledge itself with your particular question as the backdrop. It brought up the age old quandary of 'how do we know that we know what we know?' Reflecting on the work of Loren Elsley, Descartes, Kant, and Aristotle to name a few and 20 years ago it would have been easy to answer the question from a more philosophical point of view that often ends up the final answer in philosophical debate after that last cup of coffee and the last cigarette has been put out (philosophical meaning "impossible to know for sure and therefore all sides can most likely be true. Or false. Depending on how you look at it...") in other words, we know simply because we know. This is what "i" believes and I am aware enough to recognize that some "you" may believe the opposite is true. But in the end, as with many things, "I" chooses to know this.

But we're not in college anymore. (Ok, well actually you are... once more) and we aren't sitting in a dark cafe after having to deliver this week's thesis on "free will versus determinism." So after all these years, and thought, and reading and studying, and consciousness exploration had we come any further in being able to answer the question, "But how did you know?" My mind kept escaping to the safe confines of the most obvious answer that minds do when confronted with such a question, that is: "because i just knew/know." But that won't fly half as convincingly as proving your knowledge of gravity simply by tossing someone off of a ten story building. "Now that's some empirical evidence for ya."

So how to make the leap from said ten story building to the ground without getting smashed to a thousand bloody pieces and still prove your knowledge of gravity is true and valid... Eventually i came upon the idea of sexual orientation. Don't ask me why. It is certainly better than the leap to "God" or "the soul" or "the after life" as these are still areas of knowledge up for grabs as to what we really know of them, if anything... but yes... sexual orientation was one that anyone would be hard pressed to argue with. Simply because most people are quite comfortable with their sexual orientation. Which is, when we break it down, nothing more than "knowledge that we possess or at least think we possess and believe is true" - and yet empirically speaking is entirely unprovable. You could ask a person till you are both blue in the face "but how do you KNOW that you are heterosexual?" and the answer is always going to inevitably be "because i just do. That's how." Which is, for the time being, until we are able to isolate the 'sexual orientation dna molecule' and have it imprinted on our own personal 'identity chip' along with thousands of other identifying datum and simply slip it into our hand-held computer and show the person, "there, you see? I am clearly heterosexual. Nuff said."

But such technology does not yet exist, at least not in the common world that we live in today. It indeed might already exist in a few labs around the planet. (Note to self: purchase one.) So what we are left with is what we have always been left with in terms of what we believe we "know," in the field of "knowledge." That is, "I simply know. Just as I know that I am sexually orientated toward being heterosexual.

In regards to the knowledge one gains from consciousness exploration using plants, herbs, seeds or even synthetic compounds such as MDMA or LSD, it comes to us much the same way that most of what we now "currently hold to be true" comes to rest in our individual reality spheres. We listen, we observe, we ingest the data, contemplate, ruminate, compare, contrast, combine with previously filed data... all in a matter of milliseconds of course.... and what we end up with are either questions or conclusions. In a healthy mind most likely a combination of both.

I believe that the first bit of knowledge that I shared with you that one might perceive from experimenting with hallucinogens is "my soul is immortal." (a conclusion, like much of what we claim to know, that in the world of philosophy we believe certainly begs the question, because it hasn't even answered the question as to whether a soul exists or not - one of the fundamental philosophical dilemmas.) But a foregone conclusion for many. For me it was a bit of data that somehow made the leap from 'intellectually curious idea to think about' to 'relatively certain.' Now mind you, I did not say "YOUR soul is immortal," nor "ALL souls are immortal." Because another bit of data/knowledge that one gains from exploring consciousness with hallucinogens is "What might be true for one person may not be true for another. Therefore I may indeed possess a soul that is immortal, and someone else may not. And the likelihood of that reality is directly correlated with what THAT PERSON believes." Which one could argue is actually TWO more bits of data, not one. Which then leads to another understanding, that is "Consciousness, hence the perception of reality, and therefore perhaps even reality itself, is NOT made up of absolutes; but rather a collection of many possibilities that very well might be absolutes, even contradicting ones, but that all seem to be able to coexist simultaneously." An alarming bit of knowledge when one first encounters it in their explorations. But actually comforting after one settles into it and begins to contemplate its implications.

Much of the bloodshed among humankind over the last ten-thousand years has been due to the assertion that one group's set of absolutes is more true or valid or right than another's. Whole civilizations have been wiped off the face of the earth because of this seemingly innate though primitive and evolutionarily declining need to "be right," or to believe that WHAT we believe so must others. Some people, many people actually still today, seem to believe that if they believe something then it is impossible for the opposite to also be true at the same time. But this is one of the first bits of knowledge one gains from intense or even playful consciousness exploration - whether through experimentation with hallucinogens or through other means such as meditation etc.

Indeed my own belief is that we live in a large and expansive enough universe that it has the capacity to hold many 'seemingly' conflicting or contradicting realities simultaneously. For example, I believe in a heaven – based on the idea that in the Super String Model of physics we may be looking at a universe with anywhere from ten to twelve dimensions, and therefore this idea of ‘heaven’ that we have created may indeed exist in one of these other dimensions. I also believe in reincarnation – depending on WHAT that particular person believes, so shall he/she experience at the time of the death of their body and the passing of their soul. I also believe that there are still others who still believe in “hell” though I myself do not believe in such a place, I do understand that there may be others who DO believe in such a place, and therefore may be creating it, that just like heaven it would exist in one of these other dimensions that we are still completely ignorant of, and yes, THEY might actually go to ‘hell’ simply because they are so convinced that such a place exists. This might be true for them. And therefore an absolute even in consciousness and in the universe. But it might not be true for me, or someone else.

I also hold it to be true that consciousness itself is capable of this as well. (whether one wants to reduce that down to mere 'human consciousness' or include 'all known and unknown consciousness in the known and unknown universe’ is up to them) But to me it is entirely plausible, and provable since I myself am able to do it, that a mind can believe in two apparently conflicting or contradicting absolutes simultaneously. (I believe that most people do not give consciousness enough credit. They believe it is smaller and more limited in power than it actually is, and most tend to believe that a person is only capable of believing one side of an idea at a time, i.e. one is either a theist or an atheist. Though it is entirely possible for a person to be both.) One can also believe in free will AND determinism at the same time, and many do and just don't realize it, even though the ideas blatantly contradict each other. Most people tend to believe in a subtle and convoluted combination of both theories, myself included, and would find it very difficult to explain empirically. Especially since ‘determinism’ itself implies and downright necessitates a ‘something’ doing the determining. Now whether this is an alive and aware “God,” or simply a Divine Force, or another force at play in the universe like gravity or electro-magnetism – such as ‘The Unified Field Theory’ that we have simply not yet discovered, or our “higher selves,” or something else entirely – such as angels, spirit guides, our own selves in a different dimension or a different place in space-time, “I” don't yet know. Which is to say that I currently hold many ideas/absolutes to be true simultaneously. Confusing for some. Outright blasphemy to others. Poppycock to still others. And the beauty of it is that WE ARE ALL RIGHT. AND WRONG.

That, there, in a nutshell, in regards to your question as to ‘what sort of knowledge does one get from doing hallucinogens, is perhaps one of the greatest bits of knowledge one acquires from the activity. The idea that there are many absolutes all possibly/probably occurring at once and that it is not only possible, but it’s also “o.k.,” or that there is no such thing as an absolute. The only one or two that I have been able to come up with so far in my own life is/are: “I am.” “I am here.” and “So are you and them.” And that's about it...

From there, the next that follow are “I do not know where I came from.” “I do not know who I am, except that “I” am “I.” “I do not know where I am,” or “where this is.” Of course we pretend that we do know the answers to these questions, because we have created words and labels and ideas behind them, in order to not all go mad. We call ourselves “human.” And we call “here” “the earth/the here-now/the milky way galaxy,” etc. But these are all man-made words, labels, theories, and ideas. The truth is that none of this is true. It is all man-made. We can call ourselves “human,” but we still have no idea who we are, what we are, where we came from, why we are here, where we are, or where we are going.

Though I can tell you that based on what I currently believe that I am “heterosexual.” Hope this answers your questions. Thank you for the food for thought. Enjoyed it. See ya later today. Fishy