Many of us are fortunate to live and experience modernity with all the conveniences it offers. We use objects daily and depend on some of them for our very survival. They are pregnant with knowledge. Knowledge is embodied everywhere — in our homes, in the clothes that we wear, and the amenities we want.
Take this coffee mug I am holding. Should civilization collapse tomorrow, what would it take to produce it? Would an entire lifetime suffice?
Nature of Knowledge
No single person possesses the requisite knowledge to produce the objects we use. To fashion this mug, it took many human hours to extract the ceramic clay, among other raw materials, out of the earth. To build kilns, transform, temper, and shape the clay. To make paint and finish it into what I am holding. Centuries of collective human knowledge was involved in perfecting the processes.
So I can enjoy sipping coffee from this beautiful mug in my otherwise mundane existence.
Humans, by themselves, are an embodiment of knowledge. The knowledge nature found expression in our ancient and distant precursor — a single cell over billions of years of an iterative, selective process. Or the arising of a membrane that separated it from its primordial environment. And the process of replication by cell division. One could argue, these processes neither warrant nor demand any teleological explanation. It is “knowledge” that is embodied in our cells by natural selection and over millions of generations of random trails. It took billions of years of evolution on this earth to bring forth and sustain a complex life form, Us!
Power of Ideas
Human knowledge is a system of ideas that expands wide and runs deep. Ideas are born when thoughts marry necessity. The necessity of scratching an itch, solving a problem, eliminating a discomfort, or making our existence more meaningful. Humans encapsulate ideas as noises we make and squiggles we etch called language. All this, so we call ourselves humans and understand ourselves as sentient and conscious beings. We have come much farther than just inventing language.
Cosmos and Evolution
Among all possible periods of human history to have existed, we live in a period where we know our universal address. We live in a garden variety solar system in the outer suburbs of the Milky Way galaxy. We uniquely understand our existence as a complex life form that arose due to carbon chemistry. Our bodies are composed mainly of the same five or so elements that are most abundant in our universe and on earth. Carbon atoms that are key constituents of organic life, owe their existence to many generations of stars. They were forged in their fiery bellies before going supernovae spilling their guts, thus implicating the entire universe for our existence.
We can now manipulate atoms of a silicon substrate into specific configurations and apply principles of universal computation to make a machine. We hook them up into a worldwide web and infuse them with human knowledge. We build them so that they are faster and far more intelligent than the gray matter between our ears. No other life form possesses this ability, as far as we know. Human ideas have the power of altering the course of Natural Evolution. Natural Evolution, in itself, is a thoughtless, selective process that kick-started humans into existence. That very idea should blow our minds.
Mystery of Thought
It requires our ingenuity to transform and refine the raw materials at our disposal into objects that make our lives easier, simpler by hiding the complexity. To develop technological gadgets that are substrate independent, intelligent, and so smart that they dissolve barriers of language and geography. But they all owe their existence to thought. Someone must have thought of it. Someone must have figured out how to build it.
Before objects exist in reality, they are just nebulous thoughts. Where do these thoughts originate? How are they conjured? Much of it still remains a mystery of human consciousness and its inner working.
Thoughts are the imagery of a mind. Within our minds, we tend to live as prisoners, captured by discursive thought. We identify falsely with them and call it the self. As though living in our heads, we are authoring these thoughts. They often cause immense suffering. The nagging pain caused by injury may bear this out. We often agonize each moment, anticipating the pain yet to arrive in the next moment.
Do thoughts think themselves? I don’t know. Contemplatives think so.
When I think of my late grandmother, it is just a thought of my late grandmother arising in my mind. That thought is not physically my grandmother. I often don’t have a clue why it popped at precisely that moment. I cannot know what I will think next, not until a thought arises that I self-identify. I rush to embrace it as my own. But its arising is a mystery nonetheless.
Humans are a byproduct of thoughtless, impersonal evolutionary processes that brought us into existence. All objects embody knowledge. Thoughts are objects of the mind. Our minds are capable of being imprisoned by discursive thought. Ideas are born from thoughts. And They have the power to transform the world for better or for worse.
Paying mindful attention to the arising and passing away of thoughts must be cultivated. Getting rid of “thought” is not an option. The best we can do is meditate. Meditation gives us the ability to get out of discursivity and automaticity of thoughts. Some ideas are worth turning into reality. Especially those that make the world a better place.
Lest we forget, we live at the whim
Of our thoughts, that imprison us.
We are set free by mindful attention.
- This post was inspired by many Making Sense podcasts by Sam Harris and his Waking Up app.
- I have also borrowed ideas from the Insight Hour podcast with Joseph Goldstein.
- I also would like to acknowledge the work by the following authors and their books that inspired me to pen this.