Monday, April 27, 2009

There Are Too Many Pictures On This Blog. Here's Some Words.

Because A) a couple of people have asked me about it, or things related to it, and because B) it’s horrifically dry and academic as it now stands, I thought tonight I would give a more concise and hopefully more interesting overview of my senior thesis

Ok, seriously, please keep reading.

While technically, my thesis was a criticism of a theory in cognitive biology made using Friedrich Nietzsche’s criticism of Immanuel Kant, there was a lot more going on under the surface that could not come out in an academic paper. I worked out a lot of my own personal issues writing that thesis, and I feel like I resolved a lot of questions I had at the time.

I went into my undergrad undecided, because I didn’t have any career in mind, and my father, who is a philosophy professor, told me that I should take some time to try out classes and see what interested me. In my sophomore year I took an entry-level biology course, loved it, and that same semester I became a biology major.

But within a year and a half, I wanted out. ASU didn’t have a separate pre-med program, so even if you wanted to be an ecologist or some other esoteric type of biologist, you were still lumped into classes with every tom, dick, and harry who wanted to make a lot of money at playing doctor. On top of that, I began to find that somewhere underneath all the encouragements to question everything, to look for the truth using scientific reasoning and the inductive logic that is the basis for science, there seemed to be a decided lack of…something. Suddenly, the same professors who had told me that science had boundaries were also trying to tell me that religion sprung from the fact that humans were social animals and needed to connect with others; suddenly, they were arguing that there were no universal truths, that the only way anything could be known was through science and experimentation, and that even that was limited and often completely wrong.

This sat badly with the part of me that likes to write music and go hiking, the part of me that reaches for that height of feeling that occurs sometimes when the moon is low and orange and the breeze is blowing the smell of rain in from the east. I wanted meaning, and they were telling me there was none to be had.

At first I decided, “I’ll just add a philosophy minor. That will help integrate the other side of me, and balance out all the science.” So I enrolled in an entry-level philosophy course, and, in a circumstance of either great misfortune or great blessing, it turned out my professor was a disciple of Rudolph Carnap, the original logical positivist. At the time I was in his class, he was bidding to buy Rudolph Carnap’s desk. If you don’t know what logical positivism is, basically it’s the idea that there are no truths except truths by definition (i.e. a bachelor is an unmarried man)—basically, that nothing is true, and things are only useful or not.

I ran for it. I dropped my bio major and enrolled in the college of interdisciplinary studies, which allowed me to take whatever courses I liked from each of two concentrations. I stuck with biology and philosophy, in the interest of saving time and money, but I took classes like Cancer and Heart Disease, where we stuck strictly to the medicine, and a seminar on Kant, who is decidedly not a logical positivist, but rather a main figure in the Enlightenment period.

I was still nervous as hell, and reacting badly to any suggestions that I should do what was the most useful, or that I should ever question the value of my artistic side, or of the literary universal truths like love and compassion and pity and pride and all that other stuff William Faulkner talked about. But slowly I recovered, and the thesis was my final retching, the breaking of the fever and the healing between my broken halves.

So bear with me; it requires a little bit of background information, but I think it will be worth it.

My thesis centered on the question of the existence of the self. (Yes, there are people who get paid to do research on/write about whether or not they actually exist. Higher education FTW!) A group of cognitive biologists had proposed in the 1970’s, based on some experiments they did, that the self is simply the higher level of functioning that occurs when a lot of parts work together. In other words, all the different functions of your brain, when put together, can do more than what they can do separately, and that “more” is what we think of as the self. There is no actual self, they argued, it only seems like it to our experience.

This is something that Friedrich Nietzsche said a long time ago, except without any modern-day scientific evidence to back it up. So I wanted to explore how it had come about that, 100 years apart, two very different schools of thought had come to the same conclusion.

It got really interesting when I learned that the cognitive biologists were influenced heavily by the philosophies of Immanuel Kant. Nietzsche thought Kant was an idiot—and yet he agreed with the conclusions of a group of scientists who had studied Kant in depth and formulated their theories in the same vein.

The cognitive biologists were disturbed by the fact that something all humans seem to experience—the experience of having a “self” that is whole and which exists separately from other things—was contradicted by their experimental evidence. And, like me, they were bothered by the lack of meaning this suggested—if your self isn’t real, do you have a soul? What is the freaking point? And why the hell does it seem like we have a self if we really don’t?

The cognitive biologists tried to integrate Kant’s theory by arguing that people should try to experience their “lack-of-self,” thus bringing experience and reality into sync. They suggest trying Buddhist methodologies for achieving this. Basically, what they are arguing is that you should try to get a grasp of the self “as it really is;” or, in other words, that you should be objective about the origins of our subjectivity.

This is where Nietzsche’s genius comes in (and a little bit of my humble ability, as well). Nietzsche argued against Kant’s ideas for the very same reason, and said:

“Against the scientific prejudice.—The biggest fable of all is the fable of knowledge. One would like to know what things-in-themselves are; but behold, there are no things-in-themselves! But even supposing there were an in-itself, an unconditioned thing, it would for that very reason be unknowable! Something unconditioned cannot be known; otherwise it would not be unconditioned! (The Will toPower 555)”

Nietzsche has arrived at the observer’s paradox: “If a tree falls in the forest, and no one is there to hear it, does it make a sound?” You can’t know! Maybe it will only make a sound if someone is there to hear it, but you will never know the sound in and of itself, minus the experience of the observer. And in the same way, you can never know the reality of your self; you can only ever know how you experience it.

If you managed not to get lost along the way, there, you will see that my paper arrived at the same conclusion with which I was so uncomfortable only a year before: that there are no objective truths, and all knowledge is imperfect, and dependent on your own ability to observe.

The difference between my own answer and the idea that my science professors had offered me was not only that I had arrived at the conclusion myself, on my own terms. Nietzsche also offers a purpose, a meaning, along with his conclusion: growth. He argues that if there is no inherent meaning, all you can do is try to create it for yourself, by striving constantly to become a little bit better than what you were before. You can live in a state of becoming, and use the false idea of yourself to try to shape what is into what could be.

The best example I can give of Nietzsche’s idea of “meaning,” is, ironically enough, the idea of evolution. Life on this planet constantly evolves, always adapting to take better advantage of the resources around it. It has no specific goal, or purpose, and it will never reach a pinnacle, or perfection, but always it is growing and changing in a constant attempt to be better than before.

So maybe my professors were right, and there are no universal truths, and there is no inherent meaning. Maybe love and honor and pity and pride and compassion and sacrifice are static ideals, shadows that really mean very little. Maybe I don’t even have a self. But what I do have can always be better than what I had yesterday, and always I can strive to improve; and I can try on ideas and take them off again if they do not help me become better. That’s enough meaning, even for me.

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