Ultimate Sensemaking

This is a member contribution by Robert Leaver. Submit your piece here.


Beginning with the Scientific Revolution, c. 1543, modern man has come to feel that he is on his way to figuring the whole thing out.

Proponents of this Scientific Revolution and the technological revolution that followed, argued that we should replace the Greek view of nature, i.e. the unknown source of a thing’s tendency to change or rest, with a more rigorous scientific method, one that viewed nature as a machine and emphasized rational and empirical thought. The implication was that if we kept breaking the machine down into smaller components, and made discoveries based on what we found, we humans would one day come to understand everything.

An honest concept, as they say in business about good ideas that fail. The century of the Scientific Revolution saw significant advancements in medicine, mathematics, and physics. Plus, over the past 200 years, science has led to an exponential growth in technology.

So? What happened? What’s happened is that we’ve been hoisted on our own petard. We came up with an abstraction called the scientific method, reified the abstraction, and started applying it willy-nilly, without considering the implications of our myopia. Consider:

  • The world monetary system, with some $258 trillion in debt to be repaid out of $142 trillion in GDP (which is predicted to fall 5% in 2020), is teetering on the verge of collapse.
  • There are at least 14,000 nuclear warheads scattered around the world, the security of which relies on human fallibility, and the detonation of any one of which would probably lead to a nuclear holocaust.
  • Global warming, which everyone agrees human consumption has at least contributed to, if not caused, may at any minute lead to a coalescence and synergy of effects which could cause our extinction.
  • With robotics, nanotechnology and artificial intelligence, we are finally beginning to acknowledge the mutual exclusivity of civilization’s rivalrous tribalism and the wise deployment of such technologies.    

What’s going on is obvious. Despite the merits of the scientific method, we humans have yet to learn how to manage its application. Basically, we’ve embraced the scientific method without applying the scientific method to evaluate the way we’re applying the scientific method!

Why did we presume that we could apply the scientific method fairly and judicially? We presumed we could because we assumed that we’re intelligent, possess self-understanding, and can exercise enough free will to review and correct our mistakes. Never mind that history has thrown all three assumptions into question.

Forget philosophy, just consider our biology. To give this meaning, I want to ask you to imagine a stack of a billion dollars’ worth of hundred-dollar bills. How high do you guess it would be? Ok, now see if you can get your mind around the following. We’re told there are 200 BILLION neurons in the human brain. We’re also told that between cartilage cells, bone cells, skin cells, nerve cells, blood cells, fat cells, sex cells and stem cells, each of us has some 30 TRILLION cells in our body. With me so far?


Psychologists tell us that the difference between a neurotic and a psychotic is that, while they both lie, the neurotic knows he’s lying, whereas the psychotic doesn’t. The way we reify and generalize based on our abstractions, and deny it, one could argue that we’re all psychotic.


Now, each neuron has up to tens of thousands of synapses, or connections with other neurons. Let’s assume an average of 10,000 synapses. That means there are 200 QUADRILLION, or 2 times 10 to the 15th power, connections! Still with me?

So, we have 200 billion brain cells managing 30 trillion cells through 200 quadrillion connections. But get this. Scientists also tell us that only 5%, or 10 billion, of our brain functions are conscious. Assuming they’re right, that means we have no idea what’s happening with 190 quadrillion connections.

If 95% of what we think and do is unavailable to our conscious mind, that means our mind is uncontrollable, and therefore unreliable. It suggests that there’s a hell of a lot of self-understanding that we’re not understanding or, worse, are misunderstanding. It suggests that free will, if there is such a thing, is only be available on 5% of our choices.

Psychologists tell us that the difference between a neurotic and a psychotic is that, while they both lie, the neurotic knows he’s lying, whereas the psychotic doesn’t. The way we reify and generalize based on our abstractions, and deny it, one could argue that we’re all psychotic. Plus, if consciousness is an illusion, aren’t the things we’re conscious of illusions, as well?!

A stack of a billion dollars’ worth of $100 bills, ten million bills, would be about 36 feet high.

Pretty scary, right? But, let’s end on a positive note. Let’s assume we have a tiny bit of intelligence, self-understanding, and free will. Based on that assumption, we can also assume that the extent to which we consciously acknowledge our limitations, accept responsibility for our choices, and proceed methodically, will improve the quality of our decisions. Since our existence is an unremitting succession of choices, perhaps this would be a good time to start proceeding in a more circumspect fashion.


4 Comments

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and?

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I believe it is closer to $300 trillion, but who is counting?
2008 started the engines.

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The Romans will tip over the apple carts, maybe this time we do something less of apples in carts, and more of apples on mountains.

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Yeah, right, who’s counting? NO ONE!!!

If we are to survive, we will do so undramatically. The existing insane context will gradually fade away, to be replaced by its sane alternative. The question is, will we have enough time?

I just submitted a two-page essay to NN which, having a sense of humor, you may appreciate. Cheers!

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