There is a thought experiment suggested by Robert Pirsig in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.
Imagine a motorcycle. A car. A washing machine. A television. It doesn't matter what kind of machine you choose, but let's use Pirsig's paradigm and stick with a motorcycle.
Now imagine a warehouse of spare parts. Imagine you order enough parts to construct the device from scratch using the parts you've purchased. All of these parts sit in a pile beside your working motorcycle.
Now imagine you begin replacing parts on your working motorcycle with parts from your pile. You replace the parts one at a time. Each time you take a part out of the motorcycle and put a new one in, you start the motorcycle and ride it around. Piece by piece, you replace your bike's original parts with the replacement parts from the pile.
Tires. Piston rings. Valves. Clutch pads. Drive chain links. One by one. The seat. The headlight.
Each time you replace a part, you ride the bike around for a while. Then you come home and the next day you replace another part.
The question that Pirsig asks, and the issue that eventually separates him from the rest of society and puts him into an insane asylum is this:
At what point does the motorcycle stop "being" the original motorcycle and at what point does it become a "replacement"?
The reason the question drives Pirsig nuts may not seem obvious. The intensity of the question may escape us, and so Pirsig's insanity may seem entertaining. Let's get into it by trying to follow his logic.
There are lots of companion questions which may help convey the problems surfaced: If you disassemble the original motorcycle to constituent parts and put them in a pile next to the pile of replacement parts, which of those two piles represent the original motorcycle? While the answer seems obvious, what happens to the original motorcycle if the parts are mixed between the piles and the motorcycles assembled from mixed parts? Does the "essence" of "motorcycleness" somehow exist independent of the parts so that if we assemble a motorcycle from the pile of mixed parts we somehow know it's "our" original bike and not some other replacement bike? If so, where does this motorcycleness come from? Does that mean there exists somehow the "essence" of machinery we can hardly conceive that will some day be built? Would that imply that all things somehow exist a priori--that the whole universe is populated with the essence of things that may be? Could it be that everything in creation exists and existed since the big bang--and it's only the "illusion" of time that makes us think they are somehow brought into creation and then drop out of creation?
And what does that mean for us human beings? It's clear the cells in our body are renewed as we grow so that roughly every seven years nothing of us remains but replacement parts. If that's true, when do we stop being us? Is the transformation into someone else so gradual we simply don't realize we are not ourselves anymore? Is the essence of us something that exists independently from our bodies?
How can we find the answer to these questions when the questions come from ourselves?
These questions are not unique to modern western literature. We seem to learn and exist by inference, building new ideas upon existing knowledge. Aristotle wondered about the nature of the universe in this same way. Kant and Mach argued the a priori presense of a framework of "quality" that was somehow realized by the material world.
In one of his famous thought experiments, Mach places an observer in deepest space sufficiently far from everything as to be out of the influence of all matter and energy. This observer has two buckets. Say he sets himself spinning and grasps the buckets. Clearly, the observer would know he was spinning if the buckets tried to fly outward from his grasp, so there must be some framework that permeates space which provides the reference for his motion.
In the nineteenth century, this universal reference was called the cosmic ether (aether). The ether was everywhere, inside and outside of everything. It was the first thought, the prime motivating factor against which all knowledge and existence was bootstrapped.
In addition, the ether was the mediator of light. Everyone knew water could be conducted through pipes and stream beds and through the air as water vapor. Newly discovered electricity could be conducted through wires. Everything was conducted by and through something.
Light came in wiggling wave-lengths, and so the something that wiggled in waves must be the ether.
Einstein saw things differently. There was no place in the universe suffiently far from everything to make Mach's experiment valid. In addition, as far as Einstein was concerned, there was no ether. Einstein hypothesized the photoelectric effect. He said light came in quanta called photons that blasted through space on their own. Worse, light could be changed to matter in the form of electrons, and electrons could mediate light. And even worse, if you wanted to believe this grad student named DeBroglie, even electrons had a wavelength.
What the hell?
Later Michaelson and Morley performed their famous experiment which showed that to within the tolerance of their instruments, the effect of the static, all pervasive ether was immeasurable, and so the ether probably didn't exist. The existence-ness of things was probably illusion.
So with Einstein's relativity theories went the theory there was a framework to the universe. Things simply existed relative to other things. The idea of space made no sense outside the existence of matter. Gravity was just another way to look at accellerated motion. Matter was supercondensed light. Light, a form of energy convertable to matter.
Now all ideas existed relative to other ideas. The origination was irrelevant to the accumulation of knowledge.
Yet every parent would witness the existence of some a priori knowingness. For if we had to teach newborns to breathe or eat, the species would never survive. Somehow the framework for learning exists in every newborn entity. Every creature comes complete with the instinct for survival--a genetic imprint for what it takes to survive the those first moments outside the egg or womb. And then we learn. We bootstrap upon that initial imprint.
And we humans somehow bootstrap higher intelligence upon the initial will to live.
In his book, The Selfish Gene, biologist Richard Dawkins hypothesizes the emergence of human intelligence occurs simply as a result of genetics evolving ever more impressive means of reproduction. Naturalist Cahill took a trip through the Grand Canyon on a raft on the Colorado River and hypothesized higher intellgence arises in humans because we were carnivores who learned to hunt animals capable to tearing us to pieces by throwing things. The coordination necessary to propel an object with lethal force was the spark into which the fuel for the rest of intelligence developed.
And so some of us wonder, could it be that is that all we are? Eating machines. Are we simply promoters of the chemistry of genetics? Is the will to know an artifact of the will to live, which in turn, is simply an artifact of a chemical reaction that is more likely to occur when we behave this way? We seem to be so much more. It seems. That is--it seems to us thinking about us.
In the masterpiece of twentieth century thinking Godel Escher Bach, Douglas Hofstadter tied hierarchical mathematics to intellect. He suggested intelligence could obviously arise out of minute autonomous processes. Viewed individually, a worker ant's behavior is simple and predictable. The ant is guided purely by instinct.
Viewed from the height of a standing human's eye, an entire colony of swarming ants may appear to be a single protoplasmic individual with directed purpose.
And we all know humans can behave in terms of mob rule. Scores of individuals, imbued with higher intelligence, can behave in damaging illogical ways when grouped in packs of hundreds. Mobs have their own psychology that arises independent of the will and behavior of any one individual.
We can prove this mathematically. With our numbers we can show how individuals working inside a connected community give rise to greater intelligence. Meta intelligence. And it's impossible for any one individual to control or detect it.
Here we are the sum of our parts. Does any one of our brain neurons "know" what it means to love a child, or to start the car, or to pray? Do our bones know what it means to be right or wrong? Do the corpuscles of blood in our veins cry when they're spilled?
Every piece of our math and science and gut intuition tells us-- "no".
Yet here we are. I write these words never knowing who you are, only that you'll read them. I feel the floor against my feet and the cool air drawn into my lungs with each breath. I know by writing that, the clump of living matter that comprises you will draw upon common experience and you will "know" what I mean.
And that is the greatest value of knowledge--the transferrence of experience between individuals. One of us who "knows" something can transfer this knowing to another who can then either draw upon prior experience or perform experiments with the universe to achieve the same result.
Pirsig stares at his motorcycle and wonders if it's a collection of parts, or a pre-created entity simply instantiated by the parts--and it makes us "feel" and think even though we've never had that thought before.
A young patent clerk in Bern named Einstein lies on the grass in the park and wonders what it would look like traveling on a light wave, and a few years later, using those musings as a basis, a British astronomer named Eddington would prove beyond all reason that light was attracted by gravity.
Of what use to replicating DNA is it to know that not only is light affected by gravity, but that there are places in the universe where outward shining light beams cannot reach us so things cannot be proven to happen simultaneous to Earth, and so we cannot say when they happen, and so they simply do not exist for us--but do exist anyway?
In his book, The Conscious Universe, Dean Radin proves conclusively in experiment after experiment the effect of the phenomenon we know as extrasensory perception is measurable. Again: ESP is measurable and scientists at Stanford Research Institute as well as University of Arizona have measured it.
Dr. John Mack, previously head of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, convinced himself and many others the phenomenon known as alien abduction had foundation in reality. And not only was the effect real--but the phenomenon existed outside the human mind.
Of what use is this information to our replicating chemicals? What impact does it have on our lives that we can show each other how to create an effect which seems more like magic or prayer than physics? What does it mean that even though his math is sound--that even though the government of the United States of America pours millions each year into the budgets of Stanford University and its associates to research psychic phenomena--and that for most scientists this effect simply does not exist?
For scientists who call themselves "serious", Radin's work is radical and questionable, as is the work of Puthoff and Targ,long term, government-funded researchers from SRI. After publication of his book Abduction, John Mack was promptly ostracized from the medical community. While Mach and Kelvin and Lorentz and Newton were pioneers--no one today would argue their work comprised a fully-accurate version of the universe, just as we all expect modern science to be rendered irrelevant except for primary education by the science of the future.
And despite fact and the years intervening since the Scopes Monkey Trial plenty of normal, 21st century people believe evolution is not only an incomplete version of reality, but fundamentally and historically incorrect. In his book, Why People Believe Strange Things, Michael Shermer points out that people absolutely know (as opposed to believe) the fundamental, undeniable, objective truth of body thetans, the rapture, the weekly consumption human blood, the plagues, seven chakras, seven horsemen, seven heavens, seven virgins, the seventh day, the seventh wave, the family, the individual, the hero, god as man, man as god, the end of the world, electric kool-aid, progenitors from Zeti-Reticulum, the sons of light, gaia, woodsprites, misincarnation, reincarnation, the first coming, the second coming, evolution, creationism, holy war, helter skelter, and that things are always better then than they are now-- and believers in any one of those will take umbrage because their truth was lined up in a single sentence with obvious blasphemous dreck. Because what one knows is real, and most of the believers would suggest Shermer may be throwing stones from a very glass house.
Nobel Prize winning Physicist Richard P. Feynman told a story of his youth, of how his father demonstrated inertia by putting a baseball in a wagon and pulling the wagon quickly so the baseball would roll and stay in one place, apparently. He told the young Richard the baseball rolled because of inertia and rolling friction and static friction. He told the boy the math.
And young Feynman asked the question no scientist cares to ask after he's grown past the age of six.
His dad told him what everybody knows--that nobody knows "why" inertia is the way it is. In fact, finding out "why" is probably antithetical to the process of learning how the world works. The "why" of it, by definition, is one of Shermer's weird things.
But however weird, many people know there is a why. And some people know with equal validity that there is not.
Plenty of people believe in talking to the dead and the power of positive thinking and are viewed as on the fringe even though there is a body of evidence to prove these "theories" are a reflection of the real universe. Plenty of people believe in a God, believe they have knowledge of God, even though the experience of God is internal and difficult to transfer.
What is knowledge? What does it mean to know something? What does it mean to have the facts at your fingertips? What does it mean to learn if anything at all can be believed or disbelieved? What does it mean in light of the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle that we cannot take part in the world without disturbing it? What does it mean that we cannot even look at the fundamental framework of the world without imposing our will upon it, influencing its status, and thus rendering it invisible if it exists, or directing its form to our own image if it does?
If there is any validity to logic, against these questions one can then presume belief plays a major part in the individual's construction of the world. Perhaps, as John Mack and others posit, this is a consensus reality. Perhaps what exists is not some fundamental, Platonic version of truth, but rather, the instantiation of belief. Perhaps what we believe to be true, is what is true. Then, what most of us expect becomes the joint reality we teach our children to expect, but each of us has a local reality that is as unique as we are.
So then, does it matter that some choose not to participate in the seemingly concrete objective reality upon which most people cannot agree? For surely each of us is only a couple of cc's of DMT away from a reality which seems perfectly true but which most of us would agree is completely disjoint from the four dimensions within which we conduct our daily lives. And surely no one would believe with the ravings of a Yaqui medicine man, high on mescaline who accurately predicts beyond what is reasonable statistically, the outcome of obviously stochastic events.
Irrespective of what is outside us, what we know is what is allowed through our will. Our desire. Our intent. Free will.
Free will is how we know what we know. And so in this life of conflict and love, what is more important is not that the facts bear the weight of our decisions, but rather, that the love in our hearts draws others to our creations, and brings us all to revel in the diversity of our opinion. Because then what we gain when we learn is not the unattainable, non-existant supreme objectivity, but each other's souls.
Abduction by Dr. John Mack
The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins
Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Pirsig
Lila by Robert Pirsig
A River Through Time by John Cahill
Godel Escher Bach: an Eternal Golden Braid by Douglas Hofsteader
The Teachings of Don Juan: A Yaqui Way of Knowledge by Carlos Castaneda
Journeys Out Of The Body by Robert A. Monroe
The Evolution of Physics by Leopold Infeld
Why People Believe Strange Things by Michael Shermer