Education and Spontaneous Learning

We give you examples of being receptive to the world around you and learning to see and hear as a form of education:

There is a show on PBS called Stories from the Stage. People come forward to a microphone on a stage and tell personal stories from their past, stories that they consider important, informative, educational (in the widest sense), and usable by the listener. One of the early “people at the mic” on stage is a teenage girl who says something, in a plaintive sorrowful voice, like: “I have been waiting far too long…to wait for someone…to see me.”

This perplexed girl is unwittingly raising the question of a deep human hunger: the hunger for “personhood.” At a young age, this primordial hunger expresses itself as somebody befriending me (i.e., the speaker needs a real friend) so that the befriended person comes into clearer focus to themselves, achieving personhood.

Very intelligent philosophers like Emmanuel Levinas of France have spent their entire lives trying to understand the connections between countenances (how a person “wears a face”), personhood, interactive life, etc.

In his book, The Face of the Other (the girl wants somebody to notice her and her face and like her and “smile upon her”) Levinas has a deep analysis of all these human yearnings and self-definitional journeys and quests:

“The Face of the Other” is an evocative phrase used by Emmanuel Levinas, an important twentieth-century philosopher.

  • “Other” (sometimes capitalized, sometimes not) usually translates the French word autrui, which means “the other person” or “someone else” (other than oneself). It is thus the personal other, the other person, whoever it is, that each of us encounters directly, or experiences the traces of, every day. Of course, we encounter a multiplicity of others, but Levinas more often uses the singular “other” to emphasize that we encounter others one at a time, face to face.
  • By “face,” Levinas means the human face (or in French, visage), but not thought of or experienced as a physical or aesthetic object. Rather, the first, usual, unreflective encounter with the face is the living presence of another person.

Thus, when we come “face to face” with another person, the experience is a social and ethical one (rather than intellectual, aesthetic, or merely physical). “Living presence,” for Levinas, would imply that the other person (as someone genuinely other than myself) is exposed to me—that is, is vulnerably present—and expresses him or herself simply by being there as an undeniable reality that I cannot reduce to images or ideas in my head.

This impossibility of capturing the other conceptually or otherwise reveals the other’s “infinity” (i.e., irreducibility to a finite [bounded] entity over which I can have power).

The other person is, of course, exposed and expressive in other ways than through the literal face (e.g., through speech, gesture, action, and bodily presence generally), but the face is the most exposed, most vulnerable, and most expressive aspect of the other’s presence.

Thus, a student could be channel surfing on TV, observe this young girl saying these things on Stories from the Stage, and expand one’s understanding of this entire set of hungers and self-identity efforts and go (say) from the moment of TV watching to reading Levinas.

This is a simple example from the current world of TV where a certain particular “cri de coeur” (French: “cry from the heart”) of a girl you don’t know at all could deepen and widen your understanding by following the thread to Levinas and other profound people. The girl’s plaint where she’s “waiting for someone to see me” becomes much deeper and can be understood on a larger canvas which is exactly what we want.

Many experiences from daily life, from walking around, from moments on TV, from tiny incidents, can be pathways to higher understanding and learning if you can see and hear “with the third eye and the third ear.” (Theodore Reik talks about “listening with the third ear.”)

Education is a kind of “applied awareness.”

Meaningfulness versus Informativeness

The Decoding Reality book is a classic contemporary analysis of the foundations of physics and the implications for the human world. The scientists don’t see that physics and science are the infrastructure on which the human “quest for meaning” takes place. Ortega (Ortega y Gasset, died in 1955) tells us that a person is “a point of view directed at the universe.” This level of meaning cannot be reduced to bits or qubits or electrons since man is a “linguistic creature” who invents fictional stories to explain “things” that are not things.

The following dialog between Paul Davies (the outstanding science writer) and Vlatko Vedral (the distinguished physicist) gropes along on these issues: the difference between science as one kind of story and the human interpretation of life and self expressed in “tales” and parables, fictions and beliefs:

Davies: “When humans communicate, a certain quantity of information passes between them. But that information differs from the bits (or qubits) physicists normally consider, inasmuch as it possesses meaning. We may be able to quantify the information exchanged, but meaning is a qualitative property—a value—and therefore hard, maybe impossible, to capture mathematically. Nevertheless the concept of meaning obviously has, well… meaning. Will we ever have a credible physical theory of ‘meaningful information,’ or is ‘meaning’ simply outside the scope of physical science?”

Vedral: “This is a really difficult one. The success of Shannon’s formulation of ‘information’ lies precisely in the fact that he stripped it of all “meaning” and reduced it only to the notion of probability. Once we are able to estimate the probability for something to occur, we can immediately talk about its information content. But this sole dependence on probability could also be thought of as the main limitation of Shannon’s information theory (as you imply in your question). One could, for instance, argue that the DNA has the same information content inside as well as outside of a biological cell. However, it is really only when it has access to the cell’s machinery that it starts to serve its main biological purpose (i.e., it starts to make sense). Expressing this in your own words, the DNA has a meaning only within the context of a biological cell. The meaning of meaning is therefore obviously important. Though there has been some work on the theory of meaning, I have not really seen anything convincing yet. Intuitively we need some kind of a ‘relative information’ concept, information that is not only dependent on the probability, but also on its context, but I am afraid that we still do not have this.”

For a physicist, all the world is information. The universe and its workings are the ebb and flow of information. We are all transient patterns of information, passing on the recipe for our basic forms to future generations using a four-letter digital code called DNA.

See Decoding Reality.

In this engaging and mind-stretching account, Vlatko Vedral considers some of the deepest questions about the universe and considers the implications of interpreting it in terms of information. He explains the nature of information, the idea of entropy, and the roots of this thinking in thermodynamics. He describes the bizarre effects of quantum behavior—effects such as “entanglement,” which Einstein called “spooky action at a distance” and explores cutting edge work on the harnessing quantum effects in hyper-fast quantum computers, and how recent evidence suggests that the weirdness of the quantum world, once thought limited to the tiniest scales, may reach into the macro world.

Vedral finishes by considering the answer to the ultimate question: Where did all of the information in the universe come from? The answers he considers are exhilarating, drawing upon the work of distinguished physicist John Wheeler. The ideas challenge our concept of the nature of particles, of time, of determinism, and of reality itself.

Science is an “ontic” quest. Human life is an “ontological” quest. They are a “twisted pair” where each strand must be seen clearly and not confused. The content of your telephone conversation with your friend, say. is not reducible to the workings of a phone or the subtle electrical engineering and physics involved. A musical symphony is not just “an acoustical blast.”

The “meaning of meaning” is evocative and not logically expressible. There’s a “spooky action at a distance” between these levels of meaning versus information but they are different “realms” or “domains.”

Essay 100: “The View From Nowhere” Problem

The phrase “view from nowhere” comes from the title of a 1986 classic philosophy book by Professor Thomas Nagel. It tries to wrestle with the paradox that the human ability to take a “detached view” (abstract theory, say) is potentially misleading since the person behind the detachment is a real person embodied and somewhere.

A theoretician like Richard Feynman (the great physicist) has a nervous system, a brain, a body and uses his hand to write equations on the blackboard. One is trained to focus on the equations since that’s the physics. The person, the physicist is a detail, a distraction, an irrelevance. However this can’t be true since the physicistRichard Feynman in this example—represents a human way of looking at things, at a time and place, no matter how heterodox or offbeat the view.

The human “style” of “being-in-the-world” comes into the equations and to the very idea of equating.

Human beings have the unique ability to view the world in a detached way: We can think about the world in terms that transcend our own experience or interest, and consider the world from a vantage point that is, in Nagel’s words, “nowhere in particular.” At the same time, each of us is a particular person in a particular place, each with his own “personal” view of the world, a view that we can recognize as just one aspect of the whole. How do we reconcile these two standpoints—intellectually, morally, and practically?

To what extent are they irreconcilable and to what extent can they be integrated? Thomas Nagel’s ambitious and lively book tackles this fundamental issue, arguing that our divided nature is the root of a whole range of philosophical problems, touching, as it does, every aspect of human life. He deals with its manifestations in such fields of philosophy as: the mind-body problem, personal identity, knowledge and skepticism, thought and reality, free will, ethics, the relation between moral and other values, the meaning of life, and death.

Excessive objectification has been a malady of recent analytic philosophy, claims Nagel, it has led to implausible forms of reductionism in the philosophy of mind and elsewhere.

The solution is not to inhibit the objectifying impulse, but to insist that it learn to live alongside the internal perspectives that cannot be either discarded or objectified. Reconciliation between the two standpoints, in the end, is not always possible.

Table of Contents for The View from Nowhere book:

I. Introduction
II. Mind
III. Mind and Body
IV. The Objective Self
V. Knowledge
VI. Thought and Reality
VII. Freedom
VIII. Value
IX. Ethics
X. Living Right and Living Well
XI. Birth, Death, and the Meaning of Life