The New Frontier of Being Human

What does it mean to be human? That was the theme of San Francisco’s aptly named “Being Human” conference, held at the Palace of Fine Arts the last weekend in March. Convened by the Baumann Foundation, whose mission is to foster greater clarity about the human condition through dialogue between contemplatives and scientists, the conference was also influenced by the California Institute of Integral Studies (the country’s foremost alternative academic university) and the Mind & Life institute (a research institute investigating the human mind through both science and contemplation). For those who are interested in the deeper dimensions of the human experiment and curious what the expansion of scientific knowledge tells us about how we might help move human culture forward, Being Human was definitely the place to be in late March.

Overall, the conference was an impressive success. Kudos to Baumann, Jeff Klein from Conscious Capitalism and the other organizers of Being Human for creating such a quality experience. There was a genuine buzz around the event, and almost a thousand people filled the seats, creating a nice atmosphere of excitement and engagement. It was a sort of a who’s who gathering of the Bay Area’s formidable selection of people who are working at the nexus of consciousness, meditation, science, and technology.

The basic structure of the day was simple. Peter Baumann opened the conference with a good introduction to the inquiry. Then, the morning sessions consisted of two panels of scientists giving TED-length presentations (18 minutes), each followed by a group discussion with Mind & Life scientist/meditator Richie Davidson.

In the first afternoon session, we moved into cultural exploration, with researchers and psychologists detailing new research into cultural influences on our character. Then in the final session of the day we moved into more spiritual reflections on self, though the term “spiritual” was replaced with the more science-friendly “conscious experience.”

There is certainly much to say about the specific merits of each presentation. There was fascinating research presented, especially in the field of neuroscience, which seems to be undergoing a sort of Golden Age of research right now. David Eagleman is one of the rock stars of this blossoming scientific field and his presentation lived up to the billing, informative and wonderfully engaging. Beau Lotto and V.S. Ramachandran also contributed a great deal to the day, documenting breakthrough after breakthrough in our understanding of perception, pain, phantom limbs, and mirror neurons.  But before I go to far into analyzing and documenting the many presentations of the day, let me pause and say that I don’t want to duplicate efforts of others, especially when all the video from the entire event can be seen online here. I certainly recommend readers to check it out. And for those wishing to read a bit more of a blow by blow analysis, I would suggest the excellent description and discussion of the event presented by a friend of mine, Jeff Bellsey, over on Beams and Struts.

I also agree with Bellsey’s observation that the third panel of the day, the panel covering culture, while full of interesting insights, lacked the overall power and impact that the scientific panels delivered. It was a shame, because the conference could’ve used more of the rich insights and perspectives that sophisticated cultural inquiry can provide particularly when approached through an evolutionary frame.  I would single out Anne Harrington as giving an excellent and provocative presentation on illness and the affects of culture on disease. I also concur with Bellsey that the last panel, with several Buddhist-oriented practitioners, including Gelek Rinpoche, Tami Simon (owner of Sounds True Publishing), and Jon Kabat-Zinn was something of a “missed opportunity” as he puts it. Nothing against the individuals on the panel, each of whom came across as serious contemplatives who have done extraordinary work in their own right. But in terms of the critical task at hand, which, as the final panel, should have been to give context, meaning, and powerful interpretation of the day’s events, it just didn’t happen. There was very little added, which was a shame, give that we would all like our contemplatives to be, well, profoundly contemplative, especially when presented with so much rich fodder for contemplation!

For my money, the most interesting aspect of the Being Human conference was the way it inspired me to reflect on the role of science in our the exploration of human being.  Presentations like those at this event demonstrate the explosive expansion of new knowledge, and much of this knowledge is not, as in the days of yore, about the world out there. It is about the world in here, about the proclivities and tendencies that make us tick. It is about the life of homo sapiens from the inside out (or, if you want to get technical with integral theory, from the inside of the outside, so to speak). What Baumann, to his credit, has recognized is that all of this new knowledge and raw data needs explaining and contextualizing. It needs thoughtful people to help us all understand what it means. It needs examination, exploration, contemplation, introspection, and rational speculation.

Sometimes the questions science confronts us with aren’t scientific. And the answer isn’t always more science. It’s about making sense of what we already know. It’s about putting context around data, meaning around knowledge, frames around pictures. Without those frames, knowledge is sort of like unstructured data.

So whose job is it to do that? Well, sometimes scientists do it themselves. But science by itself isn’t really built to do that. It’s an inherently conservative institution, dealing in the concrete realities of observable truths and dependable, repeatable analysis. That’s not a criticism; it’s science’s strength—not a bug but a feature, as they say in Silicon Valley.  Science doesn’t traffic in speculation, meta-layers of exploration and explanation. Indeed, when it comes to making meaning science has a very honest position—uncertainty. And what it doesn’t know, it doesn’t try to know (at least ideally). It waits until it can safely move something from that vast field of uncertainty into the much smaller field of relatively certain knowledge.

So there is an important role for gatherings like this, simply in helping us to stand back from the relentless pursuit of scientific knowledge and try to bring light to what it all means about the human endeavor. That’s critical, and I look forward to many more such gatherings over the next years as we all try to better understand what it means to exist on this pale blue third rock from the sun, given that we were all born, as Baumann put it in his opening remarks, without an owner’s manual.

But there is another issue that this conference raised for me. And it has to do with uncertainty itself and the role it plays in the unfolding of knowledge. There was a sort of fascination with uncertainty at the conference. In fact, neuroscientist Beau Lotto started off by telling the audience his goal was to help the audience achieve a state where we knew less than we did before he began (his presentation was on perception and he was, in a sense, arguing that many things we assume we know about perception simply are not true). In fact, neuroscientists these days are particularly keen to point out the human conceit that we are the masters of our own house, when in fact, they explain, there is a lot more going on below stairs in the servant’s quarters then we have ever understood. In fact, they tell us, we are wired for precisely the sort of self-deception that makes us believe we are independent agents in possession of free will (this is a subject I hope to pursue in later posts). They tell us that we have a lot less control over our minds and brains and even our choices than we might suppose (Eagleman pointed out, as a humorous example of our unconscious predilections, that people called Dennis or Denise are statistically much more likely to be dentists than the rest of the population. I kid you not).

Eagleman, who is particularly adept at powerful metaphors, suggests that our conscious mental agency is analogous to a CEO of a corporation—we have some control over the general direction of the organization, but plenty happens of which we are entirely ignorant. In some sense, neuroscience’s insistence that we these vast mechanisms of mostly unconscious processes reminds me of psychology’s similar realization almost a century ago. Of course, any spiritual practitioner who has meditated sincerely has also come upon many of these same truths. But it’s interesting to see neuroscience coming to the same conclusions, and certainly adding some critical new information to the table as well. Some of it is unsettling and does remind us that our knowledge of what the self is and how it works is still in its infancy. There are so many assumptions, and some of even our most accepted convictions about ourselves need to be seriously questioned. Things just aren’t so certain.

But just as there is danger in certainty, there is also danger in uncertainty.

Indeed, perhaps the uncertainty coup de grace came on the last panel of the day when Kabat-Zinn was asked the question “what do you think it means to be human”? And he answered, “I don’t know.” Now, I suppose that might be a good answer if and only if it was followed up by some interesting thoughts and analysis. But it wasn’t. We were just left with that. Not knowing. We were left with uncertainty, pure uncertainty. And while that may be a worthy position to take on the meditation cushion, where the whole point is to let go of the mind, it’s not so useful in just about every other dimension of human life, where we have to engage in the real world of human experiment and try as best we can to make sense of this world around us. There is no meaning in pure uncertainty, no capacity to interpret the world.

I would like to propose that while we all are familiar with the tyranny of hyper-certainty, the antidote to certainty is not really uncertainty; it is the right kind of thoughtfulness, interest, and curiosity. It is not less thinking; it is better thinking.  It exists in that middle space somewhere between “I know” and “I don’t know”.

I say this only because I think that the non-scientific people on the panels, the mystics, spiritual practitioners and philosophers, are not the ones who need to be falling back on uncertainty, especially in a context like that. They need to be reaching further, beyond the boundaries that science has set for itself, trying to help us understand the meaning of all of this research. They are the ones who need to be doing the extra work to put frames around data, precisely because they are not held back by the careful conservatism of science. Otherwise, we leave it to the scientists to not only gather all the data and new knowledge, but also tell us what it means. And while I love science and respect scientists, especially some of the ones who were on stage in San Francisco, that is an unwise proposition.  It’s just too important a task to leave up to science alone. Or religion. Or philosophy. Or any other discipline for that matter. This is inherently a cross-disciplinary project. And all of us who care about where our culture is headed in the next century need to be engaged. And for that reason, I hope more gatherings take it upon themselves to feature the kind of eclectic mix of perspectives that was on stage in San Francisco.

So let’s beware of the arrogance of certainty, and embrace the humility of uncertainty, but only as we also embrace curiosity, thoughtfulness, and a passionate interest that can help us reach higher and go deeper into this rich and beautiful mystery of being human that is lighting up the best minds of our generation.