Who are We?—and What is the Universe?

My question was casually flippant … always a risky undertaking in these parts.

To be certain, I agree whole-heartedly that approaches like you took with your client are essential for the individual’s own orientation. It’s where we start, and we need an absolutely firm foundation there. I was particularly pleased to hear that you were able to help her.

But memory, as the term is generally understood is oriented toward what we call the past; imagination (when everything is functioning properly) has a future-like orientation to it. But what does that have to say about where we might be right now. I seriously don’t know. Perhaps we are fifth-generation, biologically engineered slave race. Perhaps we are part of a biological testing zone. How would we know? I’m on-board with you 100% that the head-heart-gut-connection can be (and if it isn’t should be developed into) the best bullshit detector we have, but how do we know?

Wasn’t the premise of the original Matrix film that you have to somehow step outside of your reality to know that reality?

For the most part, it would seem that what we know is based on first-order (i.e., direct experience), whereby amnesia, to any degree, would be a suppression (be it voluntary or involuntary) of part of that. We also believe we know based on second-order (e.g., vicarious) experience, but it seems that we believe we know things based on further-order experience as well (artifacts, films or picture, accounts of others, etc.), and in many, if not most, of these cases we accept them not based solely (most likely initially, however) on our bullshit detector, but also on how we feel about/toward the source of those experiences (credible witnesses, third- and further-party corroboration, etc.)

My first-order experience is that the world is flat and that the sun and moon rise and set. We all know, however, that this is not how things really are. In this regard, my head-heart-gut-connection bullshit detector has been massively influenced by further-order experience factors to say the least. Those factors depend heavily upon the witness of others who stepped outside that first-order-experience reality (mentally, intellectually, mathematically, etc.) to compile evidence that makes a convincing case that eventually leads me to change my mind.

Of course, how we individually decide to draw the line between what is acceptable and what is rejectable remains a very individual issue.


I think you raise some very solid questions, Ed, and respect your usually very sober account. I would just add that third person accounts ( even mathematical ones) are special cases of first person perspectives.

A mathematician who makes the claim that a series of numbers are infinite has to imagine a mathematician who can add one to each number infinitely and so on…this is not empirical knowledge of course it is using a kind of logic and as Godel claimed a system cant be complete and consistent at the same time…

I am not advocating a free fall into first person accounts as the solution to our conundrums. The Copernican Revolution was an engineering problem that got mixed up with the Church. Galileo, God fearing man that he was, pleaded that in matters between Science and State Religion, that we adopt an attitude that these are non-overlapping magisteria.

That noble compromise no longer sounds workable we move toward the brave new world of AI and the transumanisms that are being hatched in the labs of Monsanto and the Pentagon.

With the advent of the internet and the increased tensions and turf wars between the humanities and the arts, we are trying our best to create a bridge between…we need to admit there are overlaps between these magisteria and that they cant be separated in any deep sense without creating havoc in our ecosystems and our psychology.

The arts work mostly with percepts and affects, the sciences work with concepts and measurement but we who are in the in between rely heavily on the trust factor as most of us are experts in only a few areas and need to sort through the reports for alternate ways of knowing.

That familiar theme we have perhaps only begun to develop as we have compared and shared our maps of our interiors in small groups and in a controlled way, trying to bridge the gaps…in our ‘we’ space.

I have been vigilant in trying to catch the micro-perceptual and the macro cognitive in flight. I am dedicating this creation research to a future people. We are just starting to emerge out of the slime…


That was also my point … such reports are similar, to be sure, but that is what I was thinking of when I used the term “different order of”.

Agreed. Since we can’t do it all ourselves, we have to rely on others, yet we need to be careful, as you point out, on how we go about doing that. This is where the head-heart-gut-connection can be helpful, but there are other areas in which it is no help at all. That’s the black-swan phenomenon. In such cases we have to simply – but firmly – place the “facts/information/knowledge” in abeyance until we can gather enough reasonable (i.e., head-heart-gut-connection filtered) evidence has been gathered that we can move in what might be a reasonable direction.

This may have always been an issue, but I would agree that it has been highlighted, if not exacerbated, by the advent of modern technologies and the “turf wars”, which, to my mind, are little more than ego-spats between alleged experts.

One point on which I’m sure we are very much in agreement is that while being open, slowness is a virtue. There are areas in which I’m personally more comfortable with quicker, but those are areas in which I have developed a relatively secure sense of assuredness (though that’s certainly not an infallible, nor recommendable, guideline … it’s just my own sense of things). When interacting with others in those domains, however, I would still opt for slower.


And this, I believe, is what Gebser and Sri Aurobindo recognized in thier own often obscure accounts. They are philosopher/poets who work with slow mind in a magnificent way. And I also appreciate that they were born before the atomic bomb. We who were born after that turning point in human history cannot turn back the clock to a slower time when we were better in synch with natural rhythms. We are their future. And they wrote for us. And some of those ideas are still workable. And I have my doubts.

I have started a WE ARE GOOD ENOUGH ALREADY campaign. We dont need to better than we already are, we just need to give our attention to our relational fieldwork( no matter how far out) to the shifts between the perspectives ( I, you, me, myself, we, us, them). We need the human scale now more than ever to sort it all out. From where are you observing from? As we move out of the subject/object grid we will need a new kind of cognitive, a new kind of discourse.

We will need the wisdom of tortoise and the speed of the hares.

" I was much too far out all my life
And not waving but drowning." -Stevie Smith


And who was that friend Ed? Someone like Drunvalo Melchiezadek? (sic), Ingo Swan, or JJ Hurtak who had similar sounding experiences and later wrote the Keys of Enoch? I used to seek these people out and try and gril them for verification. JJ still travels around doing interesting things with my friend Alan Steinfeld. I think I still have a CD of him opera style chanting in the great pyramid somewhere. Great for banishing earthbounds. :joy:

1 Like

I am loving these replies. It feels like oceanic bliss is bubbling up under the sand castle of my little opening story. It is all washing away, but in the meantime —

This is such a great point. For all the lack of subtlety, I think the virtue of big questions is that they open up to what we have in common, even as we wildly differ in our responses, and can acknowledge that many areas remain a pure wilderness. What I like about stories, and telling things slant, is that they provide a means of approach to the infinite. It is not safe to look at the sun without special glasses.

But the sun is there. And depending on your glasses (or other viewing apparatus or filters) you will see it (and everything it illuminates) differently—and it is interesting (and de-light-ful) to compare and contrast.

A random field note: I have trying to figure out how to repair my relationship with physics. I was actually a pretty decent science student in high school and aced my AP tests (for college-level credits). In university, I studied up to Calc III and aced that too. At one point I thought I might major in math. But when I discovered philosophy—specifically, existentialism—I completely abandoned my scientific studies, which I was never very serious about, if I’m honest. It also happened to work out that due to my test scores, I wasn’t required to take any science classes after freshman year. So I took all philosophy and literature classes instead, which I became obsessed with, learned Zen and a little Yoga along the way (to take the edge off), and the rest is history. These days, I’m lucky if I can do simple arithmetic in my head.

I know if I really wanted to I could go back and refresh my mathematical-physical intellect—it would just take time and effort, like building up a muscle. For 20 years, I haven’t known why I would do it, when there have seemed to be so many bigger fish to fry.

But lately I’ve been mediating on the nature of quantum reality—inspired especially by @Geoffreyjen_Edwards and his ‘Quantum Poetics’ initiative with @hfester—I mean literally meditating on it, and I think I found a way back in.

It all comes down to the attempt to directly perceive—rather than conceive—the quantum level. Here is my approach: If I sit quietly and realize: everything around me—my body—my sensations—everything I can feel, see, hear, or otherwise sense is made of quarks—if I look for quarks within my body, as a pervasive feeling state and the most direct reality I can identify (with)—THEN I can proceed to an intellectual image of what quarks are in the universal context; and then it makes sense (for me) to do science.

I am reporting this so you know better where I’m coming from with these questions, which I DON’T intend to be anti-scientific. Science PLUS 1st-person experience I feel is where it’s at. We might call it: Science+1.

How do we know something is true? A felt integration of heart, head, and gut—and Ed, you often add hands—would seem to me a great place to start. I want to know: What is true for us, in our heads, hearts, and bloody guts?

I want more stories! What’s most integrally true for people? Who haven’t we heard from yet?


I used to ask myself this daily until the age of about 20 when I found a booklet about advaita vedanta which told me that I’m the One without a second which is kidding itself by believing to be the many. It made and makes a lot of sense to me, it was a sort of ‘aha-experience’ and everything became crystal clear, almost self-evident. Interestingly however this never led me to lose my interest in science. Perhaps because I never did take it too seriously.


'Twould appear that we have a lot more in common than one might first suspect.


Ahhh… and you shall have them my son,



Just want to add this to my first response:…when I write about experiences, I seem to be leaving out all the intellectual work…and (accidentally) give the impression that I am not ALSO talking about what we call science… I’ve been studying/reading/writing deeply, contemplating and meditating with…physics, astronomy, biology, genetics, ethology, microbiology, philosophy and literature, all along, and even more these days in the sciences than philosophies/religions, and as I wrote above, all of this is being woven into the complete experiential knowing that has been given many many times in my life, but the weaving and learning and contemplating never ever stops, and does not preclude/exclude physics or anything else! It’s all learning, weaving, learning, isn’t it?


These two questions are the basis of metaphysics, and would lead to the perspectives of both modern day science and religion. There are loads of text trying to explain these two questions. Modern day concepts of existential thoughts are strongly tied to these ideas and so are the tenets of Buddhism.

It may be appealing to read Nietzsche and Heidegger to just guess the depth of these two queries. Heidegger’s inquiry, ‘why are their beings’ and Nietzsche’s ‘will to power’ and ‘eternal recurrence’ have tried to explain these questions but not without criticism and alternate opinions. Heidegger in his magnum opus, ‘Being and Time’ concludes that ‘Being IS Time’.

Buddhism considers us human beings as an eternal part of the universe, and therefore being selfless and letting the universe decide the course of our lives is central to its values. Chögyam Trungpa suggests that human beings can only ponder on the ‘here’ and ‘now’, and apparently rest of the questions are never within our grasp, nor meant for us to fully understand them.

Other religious texts as the holy Quran, Guru Grantha Saheb and Bhagavad Gita have explored such themes.

If you are adventurous, then you can try reading Kurt Vonnegut, Gene Wolfe and Philip K. Dick to find answers to these questions on the backdrop of a sci-fi story. In some of Philip K. Dick’s stories, a human being and human values is understood in comparison to artificial beings (AI and robots).

I will rather try to tell about my perspective and the struggles I have had in answering these questions. My vocation is in science and later engineering, and in part I agree with current existential thoughts that human beings do not have a well defined role in this universe, but we tend to find meaning from our local environment and local interactions and therefore in some sense at least I do agree with Viktor Frankl. I also agree with Buddhist thoughts, since all that we can ever do with our restricted and localized existence, limited senses and with the brunt of our corporeal needs, is indeed the ‘here’ and the ‘now’.

And, if one looks at it pragmatically, all we can ever do is limited and restricted more or less to our planet - which is not even a speck in the scales of the universe [1,2]. All that we can ever do - good or bad, mother nature can willingly undo it in about a million years - which is nothing compared to the time scales of the universe [3] . Even if we are utter morons and blow up this planet to bits, mother nature will once again build up everything in about one million years, and maybe another genesis to form another strand of human-like entity.

This may seem romantic, but the bigger perspective tends to scare me. If the universe is indeed a higher entity, and we are nothing more than ants on an ant hill and a higher intelligence is governing us, then everything is more or less deterministic and free will is just a good topic for discussion. Alternatively, various scientists and AI enthusiasts have suggested that the universe (and our existence) is merely a simulation (Yes! we can have a heated debate on this topic).

A pessimistic approach is that since we cannot do anything worthwhile then let us not attempt to do anything at all. That would lead to a boring life. Alternatively, tallying to our natural human values of survival and inquiry, it is always more rewarding to attempt to find some meaning in our localized existence, and walk this apparently deterministic pathways with a smile on our faces. Always acknowledging our humanly values, our existential truths and our ethos.

I will end with a line from Hamlet.

“What a piece of work is man!”
– William Shakespeare

[1] The Scale of the Universe 2 - YouTube
[2] Universe Size Comparison | 3D - YouTube
[3] Cosmological time scale 1 | Scale of the universe | Cosmology & Astronomy | Khan Academy - YouTube


Consciousness has not been mentioned in this thread just yet. I might like to add that who we are and what the universe is is related to consciousness…whatever that may be.

I keep mentioning in various places this hibernation project I am working on. I cannot really describe it in full, nor do I understand myself when I start to write about it, but I believe the two questions tie in with my exploration. Part of my hibernation is a mini-dark retreat (a dark retreat involves an extended amount of time in total darkness for meditative purposes). This is a sort of sensory deprivation, an attempt to go beyond the senses. I am not my body. I am not my mind. I am not my story. I am not this or that, none of the occurrences in my lifetime define what i really am. Nor are “We” our bodies, minds, collective stories, chance happenings. Yes, I know that we are these things, once I think about it… yet, we are much, much more.

Dark enough, for 30 minutes to an hour, to explore what arises. I am able to open my eyes and see the same as if my eyes are closed. I do this frequently enough to try out some personal experiments. In some sessions, I am attempting to see Consciousness as points, any point, as an attempt to get out of my body.

To quote Marco (replacing quarks with “conscious points”): “If I sit quietly and realize: everything around me—my body—my sensations—everything I can feel, see, hear, or otherwise sense is made of conscious points —if I look for conscious points within my body , as a pervasive feeling state and the most direct reality I can identify (with)—THEN I can proceed to an intellectual image of what conscious points are in the universal context.” The point of my point exercise is to become not my body, from without my body. During a fruitful session I will “leave” my point of typical conscious reference (head space) and observe my body (now not mine) from a point above, below, left or right. I will leave my body (an out of body experience? probably not as typically defined). When I am meditating at my best this conscious point can move about the space the size of the room, exploring as fast or as slow as it desires, then… even larger, reaching spaces from points in this world and beyond. Even better, or more interesting, is when this point multiplies. Am I all of these points? Are we?

God is an infinite circle whose center is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere. – Nicholas of Cusa

WHO ARE WE? Who am I? Not my body, when I stop to think about it. I am that point, pointing wherever it may be. I am nothing. Yet I am everything. We are all points, a bit more of nothing and everything. We are change, yes, neither here nor there. The stories for me are nothing…any story can be erased, proven false. And everything: any story can be proven true, brought to light. (I am really enjoying Octavia Butler’s quotes from the Book of the Living, btw!).

I am still working on the first question before attempting to understand the universe! Another quote from Cusa:

The universe has no circumference , for if it had a center and a circumference there would be some and some thing beyond the world, suppositions which are wholly lacking in truth. Since, therefore, it is impossible that the universe should be enclosed within a corporeal center and corporeal boundary, it is not within our power to understand the universe, whose center and circumference are God . And though the universe cannot be infinite, nevertheless it cannot be conceived as finite since there are no limits within which it could be confined.


On the Freud problem, I wonder whether you or anyone here read Frederick Crews’s Freud: The Making of an Illusion, which was published last year? Some of what’s in it has appeared in the NYRB over the years but there’s much more as well.

1 Like

I have yet to read this book but I have followed the history of the psychoanalytic movement and find it pretty hollow hence my pleasure in parodying Papa Freud. He was a very confused person and that he still is taken so seriously by academia continues to amaze me.


As the resident Darwinian Freudian, from Why Sex Matters (Low) question 1) “… a smart, upright-walking, highly social primate and nothing more.” (p.4) and “… seek to understand how relatively simple operating rules interact with historical accidents, and with temporal and spatial specifics, to yield a rich diversity of patters.” and “Vampire folklore provides a wonderful example of how our need to explain something can drive us to spin stories that seem to explain what we see, can be hard to refute, but nonetheless do not reflect what actually happens.” (p.5)

(back to top) interesting how this topic was generated from an event of “highly social primates” gathered around a fire spinning stories… something “we” have done since we invented the “deliberate use of fire.” (Snyder) going back millions (?) of years. If we become just minds, traveling through space - how will we ever spin stories? and would that then change who “we” are?


OK, let’s start there.

A conclusion drawn from a heap of assumptions, especially the “nothing more” part, which is actually a value judgment, not a conclusion.

The rules may in fact be simple but are we in agreement which these are? And I think “accidents” needs a bit of clarification, as as a Darwinian/Freudian, you’ve got to be a big fan of cause-and-effect, and I once learned that “accidents” are merely effects for which we have failed to identify the causes … i.e., something had to make it happen. Though I would heartily agree that we’re confronted with a “rich variety of patterns”.

Literally perhaps, but metaphorically (and perhaps more)? Stories live from the more not from their literalness, but the previous “nothing more” indicates things are “literally” that way.

There was a fire, to be sure, but 16% is not a story, it is a statement of estimated fact. What about the running water to be heard? Oh, who cares? 16% … only an engineer would come up with 16%.

(Going back to the top:) How can the Darwinian in you envision that we will become just “minds”. Can’t happen. We will remain embodied, I am sure, but the Freudian side of you must also be telling you that whatever stories are being spun, they will never be literal, will they?

I’m not saying, I’m just saying.


ok, @achronon (@madrush), I’m done flicking the mobile today & just having fun. (Thank you.)

Exactly! you closely matched (w/r/t birth) person. The Interpretation of Dreams, Civilization and its Discontents, Totem and Taboo, the Cocaine Papers . I don’t buy it (disembodied minds, evolved consciousness), except, maybe, for the insertion of AI, which may, if not restrained, take over - Life - and “we” become extinct … only to re-imerge on Earth? Who the F --k knows?
and so I write; but the world doesn’t stop turning (see Alice down the rabbit hole.) Just saying.

1 Like

Just saying, maybe the most referenced literature ever?


1 Like

It is probably a coincidence but Freud has been often mentioned in here and I recently read a story ‘Freuds’ by Toh Enjoe (probably his Japanese name is Enjoe Toh) in the book, 'Self-Reference ENGINE’. It is one of the best stories on magical-realism, the philosophy of reality and of course, the interpretation of dreams.

The first line of this story is, “When I went to demolish my grandmother’s house, a whole bunch of Freuds came up from under the floorboards.”


Very much, to be sure, but the most referenced – directly and indirectly – in Western literature overall is the Bible.

If you’ve never read them, Northrop Frye’s The Great Code: The Bible and Literature and it’s sequel, if you will, Words with Power (particularly relevant for our own little excursion into a related subject) are both very insightful reads.