Thursday, March 19, 2009

Knowledge as a Path to Enlightenment

There are as many paths to enlightenment as there are possible ideas. And there are as many descriptions of what enlightenment is as there are people in the world. But although I believe that every person, and every mind is a perfect and flawless construction of a hereditary past and a past of personal experience, I think it is too easy to say that everyone has achieved their own enlightenment. I think that each person has a potential for a unique enlightenment that cannot be exactly similar to another’s version of enlightenment, and I think it is fair to say that many people don’t achieve their own form of enlightenment; they live their lives without every sniffing out their own path toward feeling that they embody their own intrinsic beauty and perfection. This is all to say that my insights into enlightenment do not, necessarily have anything to do with anyone’s enlightenment but my own. Still, I think that finding one’s path has something to do with listening to everyone, but following no one. We don’t exist inside vacuums; we generate our version of reality by synthesizing all other versions of reality that we observe throughout our lives. The pessimistic way of putting this is the way that Audre Lorde put it when he said, “There are no new ideas. There are only new ways of making them felt.” I disagree with this. In fact, I think that the exact opposite is closer to reality: There are only new ideas. Each moment, from each individual vantage point, is a never-before experienced interpretation of a universe that is also changing faster than our interpretations of it. Every time we encounter an old idea or observation, we combine it with all of the other old ideas in our long-evolved reference frames, and we thus constantly synthesize uncountable old ideas into new ones. The uniqueness of one’s interpretation may be subtle, but it is, nevertheless, unique. So, consider my ideas on approaching my enlightenment as a cobblestone on your own path towards your own. Perhaps you may even think of my words as a stone that begins to diverge from your own. As Isaac Newton famously put it, “If I have seen farther than others, it is because I have stood on the shoulders of giants.”

This is the main reason why I think that knowledge is the key towards enlightenment. Knowledge, of course, can come in any form. I use the word in this essay in its most generic sense, simply as sensory input. The reason, as I outlined above, is that more exposure to the world, more reception of others’ views, means more elements to synthesize into your own global interpretation. Of course, as we develop our reference frames, we are more selective about the ideas and concepts that we allow to contribute to them. We have some idea about which tools we need to complete the construction kits that form our conception of reality. In this sense, the ideas that we dismiss as fallacious or harmful are equally as important as the ideas we accept as wholesome and true, because they help to clarify our path towards our own enlightenment by contrasting our path to other, less productive paths. As I said above, these words may all be recognized as a completely divergent path from your own, but they will still be helpful towards your self-discovery, because the more examples you accumulate of ideas that you don’t resonate with, the more you will be able to recognize ideas that you do resonate with.

So, our worldviews are massive culminations of data we accumulate from the world as we perceive it, and our brains are constantly translating our perceptions into highly detailed representations of the world’s constituent phenomena. Our minds are constantly updating, redefining and rearranging these codified mental representations to create extremely accurate maps. An example of this is that we are surprised when you pick up a can that we thought was full of paint, but turns out to be empty, causing you to almost topple yourself over with your own motion, expecting to meet more resistance to your pull. Our moment to moment, mundane interactions with our world are brimming with highly organized data that we’ve accumulated throughout our lives, such as the average weight of a gallon jug full of paint, and how much force must be exerted, in a certain direction with a specific muscle group, to live it to a specific height. The maps that we use to navigate the familiar areas of our lives, such as a midnight walk down your pitch-black hallway, down the stairs, through the kitchen door and to your fridge, have so much representational data about the physical world that one can close their eyes and almost see and feel every element of it. Our memories are little more abstract and disconnected from the real world than our senses are.

In this sense, we can accurately think of our consciousness as expanding to try and become the world around us by seeking out sensory information, combining them to make increasingly accurate models and maps, and performing profoundly intricate calculations upon this data in order to make specific predictions about how our interactions with the world will effect it. We literally manipulate the elements of our mental world to see what will happen before we manipulate the real world. So it is very important that the descriptions of physical things and the laws they obey are mapped very accurately in our mental copy of the world.

But we don’t only build our mental maps strictly from direct sensory observation. First of all, we reflect upon our observations and arrive at conclusions about our surroundings that are greater than the sum of their parts. We also communicate with others to find out what they have observed and reflected upon, and we add that data to our model. Often times, this data is very counterintuitive, and is extremely hard, if not impossible, to obtain from direct, personal observation and reflection. So we construct our mental worlds through a combination of direct observation, and information that others have gathered from others, which we take upon trust to be accurate. This process of counterintuitive observation and communication has become highly specialized, so that groups of people dedicate themselves towards observing and thinking about very specific phenomena within the universe as precisely and accurately as they can. And lucky for us, those people share that information with others, so that they can also make their mental models more accurate and rich.

This is what makes learning and exploring so enlightening and addicting. Learning information about the universe we live in literally expands the representational world that is coded in our minds. Specifically, learning about the very big and the very small expands our consciousness by expanding the proportions of the mental models that collectively form it. So, for instance, if you become very familiar with the process of photosynthesis, you incorporate that information into the same consciousness that you perceive from, so that you can in a sense see the microscopic processes that are occurring in a plant when you observe it. Or if you are aware of the nuclear reactions that take place in stars, you incorporate that knowledge into your observations when you look directly at the sun. So, we can gain great enlightenment from becoming increasingly familiar with phenomena in the extreme proportions of our universe, because our consciousness stretches to accurately represent this new information, and to understand our position within it.

This is why I have come to consider a life in the pursuit of knowledge as a life that is destined towards profound enlightenment. Another important thing to note is that in trying to understand the nature of the universe we live in on all scales, one is always approaching perfection. This is because whatever the universe is, it is the most perfect thing imaginable. I don’t mean the word “perfect” here in a practical or functional sense. We could imagine more “perfect” versions of many things, in the sense that they could perform the functions that they seemed to have evolved for in a more efficient way. Blood could deliver more oxygen, brains could contain more information, and a peacock’s feathers could be more colorful. The universe is perfect only when considered without motive in mind. Indeed, it has created and contains all existing motives. All of the rubrics for considering functionality and efficiency exist within it. The universe isn’t trying to approach perfection in its evolution. It is us who are trying to approach a full understanding of the perfection that is immortally within and without us, the omnipresent perfection of the universe that we both make and are made of. We are some of the many perfect tools that the universe uses to mold itself into new forms of perfection. Our intentions will never be any other than the universe’s intentions, because we are the universe.

A path towards knowledge will never be disappointing, because we can only approach an understanding the world’s intrinsic beauty, and this beauty itself is changing faster than we will ever be able to keep up with. As Dr. Robert Goddard wrote in a letter to H. G. Wells in 1932, “There can be no thought of finishing, for “aiming at the stars,” both literally and figuratively is a problem to occupy generations, so that no matter how much progress one makes, there is always the thrill of just beginning.”

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