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Shake It Up, UC Berkeley Graduates!

David Presti, teaching professor of neurobiology | June 16, 2014

Recently I had the privilege of delivering the commencement address to the graduating class in UC Berkeley’s program of Undergraduate and Interdisciplinary Studies. It was May 21, 2014 in the Greek Theater, and nearly 400 students received bachelor’s degrees in the fields of American Studies, Cognitive Science, Interdisciplinary Studies, Media Studies, and Religious Studies.

Here’s what I said:

This particular graduation, with so many different areas of scholarship represented among you, exemplifies one of the great aspects of a university, in the best sense of the word: multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary study. It’s a testament to you and to this Campus that such a collective as this exists.

I am honored and delighted to share this wonderful day with you! And I am honored and delighted to teach here at Cal . . . and to teach popular classes that have brought me into contact with many of you over the years. I teach at Cal because I sincerely believe it is a way I can best contribute to improving the world, to reduce suffering some, to enhance flourishing. For these opportunities I am very grateful.

A commencement address is supposed to have a message. The one thing you might carry away with you and remember. When I teach classes, there is often a moment at some point during the semester when I say: if you only remember one thing from this entire class, let it be this . . .

If the class happens to be my one about Drugs and the Brain, the one thing to remember might be that medicines and poisons are one and the same. That is, all medicines – things we use to promote healing and wellness – also and always have poisonous qualities; and, many poisons can also be medicines. Pharmakon – the ancient Greek root of the English words pharmacy, pharmacist, pharmaceutical – actually means medicine AND poison, at the same time.

But this is not that class, so you don’t have to remember that.

My message here today is this: shake it up.

Shake – It – Up! What do I mean by that?

I’m trained as a scientist. As an undergraduate, I studied physics, mathematics, and chemistry. At the time I didn’t appreciate the importance of many of the subjects you have studied here at Cal. Now I do. You all have taught me about the value of interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary study.

Actually when I was in college, I didn’t even care for biology and psychology, the two subject areas in which I have since spent most of my life working. So one can never tell about these things.

In any case, I deeply appreciate the scientific worldview, that is, the picture of our world given us by contemporary physical and biological science – what has been called Western science, now become global science. It is an awesomely beautiful and stunningly successful worldview, and it is THE dominant worldview on the planet. Pretty much everyone embraces it, in one way or another.

What do I mean by that, when surveys consistently indicate that large numbers of Americans don’t think that biological evolution is a credible description of nature? And what about all the people who have never even heard of the periodic table of chemical elements, let alone of the elements Berkelium and Californium, discovered in a cyclotron located just up the hill above us.

Well, consider this: 90% of Americans have cell phones. Worldwide it is said there are 6 billion cell phone subscriptions. People everywhere watch television, use the internet, drink water out of synthetic plastic bottles made from distilled petroleum, ride in cars and buses, and fly around in airplanes.

All that stuff is a product of our understanding of the world given us by contemporary science, the same understanding that also includes biological evolution. So knowingly or not, the scientific worldview is dominant.

This picture of the world is built on a view of reality formulated nearly four hundred years ago by a fellow named René Descartes, one of the founding figures of contemporary science. In this view, a profound split, sometimes called the Cartesian split, is posited between who we are deeply and the rest of the world. This conceptual splitting of reality into the physical and the mental, with mental applying solely to human experience, and, at least at the time, being the domain of religion, and off limits to science, and the physical applying to everything else, allowed science to get on with the practical task of analysis of the physical side of things for the next several centuries, with spectacular results.

Now, consider this: might this Cartesian split, with all its benefits, also be limiting us? Are we stuck in a Cartesian rut? Is some shaking up needed?

In this Cartesian view of reality, we humans are understood as assemblages of atoms, arising by chance through the processes of chemical and biological evolution. We exist for a brief while (a few decades, maybe even a century) as cellular and molecular machines. And somehow, as a result of the complexity of our brains, we are able to think and feel and experience conscious awareness.

How the physical and the mental are related is very subtle stuff. I just finished teaching a semester-long class on the topic, and believe me there are no straightforward answers. Wise and clever people, from spiritual mystics to cognitive scientists, have been trying to “figure out” our consciousness and how it relates to everything else for millennia.

To get to the point here, even if we may not understand ourselves very well yet, this view of life has fostered a worldview where it is all too easy to feel like we understand the “machine” of nature way more than we actually do and by extension exploit and “control” it.

After all, we do seem to know so much. A recently announced discovery maintains we now have additional information about what took place the first fraction of a second after the origin of the universe, 13.8 billion years ago, based on observations of variations in the polarization of microwave radiation coming from deep space (1). Whoa! Pretty wild.

Seems like we know just about everything. However, I suggest that some shaking up would be beneficial. How much do we really know? And not know?

For example, I submit that it is far easier to speculate about the first fraction of a second after the origin of the universe than it is to describe the processes of life taking place right now in a piece of leaf from any of these trees around us here.

Now, it is certainly the case that we can describe in some detail things that go on inside living cells, but there are reasons to think we are only scratching the surface, and are likely nowhere close to knowing what all has to come together to give cells the essence of what we call living.

Life is unfathomably complex, and living organisms have been refining their project here on Earth for billions of years. What is going on inside cells is likely to surprise us again and again as we continue their study in the years, decades, and centuries to come.

And that’s just cells. Let alone what these highly organized collections of cells that make up beings like trees and people are up to.

I suspect that to reach the next level of deep understanding of the life process, very different ways of thinking about nature will be needed.

Some real shaking up!

Now here’s a very important point: although some parts of this shaking up may come from within academic science and research institutions, it really is too big for that. It will inevitably also be catalyzed and driven by the larger culture and society.

This will be a viewpoint that puts the deep interconnectivity and interdependence of life front and center, and a view that understands mind in nature in ways that transcend the current Cartesian split, the current dominant paradigm.

Such a view would force us to come to terms with a reality where what we THINK impacts the world in profound ways, ways that are not even possible to conceive of as long as we stay stuck doing things the way we do now.

What is needed here has been called by historians a “paradigm shift,” a notion made famous by Thomas Kuhn more than 50 years ago, during the time he was on the faculty here at UC Berkeley. Paradigm shift is academic-speak for big time shaking things up.

In this expanded view, there will be richer connection and dialogue between science and the humanities, between science and religion. This would be a worldview that honors human experience in all its aspects, and doesn’t simply throw things out that don’t conveniently fit within the conventional mechanistic framework.

There is deep interconnectivity and interdependence in nature. Our biophysical science descriptions, even as they currently exist, already appreciate this. And as we observe more, we discover more interdependence.

One of the hot items of the past several years is the human microbiome, the trillions of bacteria and other microorganisms living symbiotically within and upon us. There are more of these microbial cells in our body than there are human cells, and they no doubt play many yet-to-be-elucidated roles in our functioning and flourishing.

Our use of antibiotic pharmaceuticals has produced what some describe as the equivalent of nuclear devastation to this microbial landscape. The two-faced nature of medicine and poison.

These kinds of discoveries speak to the need for radical transformations of our approaches to health and disease.

There’s a new report on climate change this month: drier regions are becoming drier, wetter regions wetter, heat waves more frequent and more severe (2). Yet another report this month describes what may be unstoppable melting of the Antarctic ice sheet, a melting that will raise global sea level by several feet within the century, displacing tens of millions of people who live in coastal areas worldwide (3).

This is very serious business, certainly among the most serious business of the era. Not a time for constricted thinking.

I suggest that the dominant paradigm is limiting and constraining our thinking in ways that no longer serve us well, and that shaking up is needed. Inspiration may be drawn from influential figures that have come before: from Galileo and Einstein, to Gandhi, Rosa Parks, and Nelson Mandela.

I believe that the shaking up that needs to come will not be limited to one discipline or one arena of human discourse, and will involve the entire culture in all its multitudinous trans-disciplinary manifestations. That’s you!

Please, shake it up!

Our best science today gives us a picture of the world where things are built of molecules, that are built of atoms, that are built of electrons and protons and neutrons, that are built of quarks and gluons and so on, until at the bottom of it all there is left a kind of fuzzy vibration that physicists argue over how to describe.

So, what is really real?

Well, you are. And our interconnection with one another is.

So say yes to kindness, to friendship, to love, and connection. Say yes to making eye contact and smiling.

Say yes to good food. Savor every bite. Cook more. Visit farmer’s markets and small stores. Plant a garden.

Make art. Teach. Write essays, and poems, and books. Make music. Do science. Study religion. Be a healer. Study culture. Make movies. We need more good movies!

And may it be the case that you can shake it up and be appreciated for doing so.

Thank you, congratulations, and Go Bears!

Notes and References:

(1) There were many descriptions of this announcement in March 2014. For example: Scientific American: Gravitational Waves from Big Bang Detected (March 17, 2014). It received prominent coverage in all the major news outlets. Soon after giving this commencement talk, the announcement was already seriously questioned. For example: Big Bang Finding Challenged, Nature 510: 20 (5 June 2014).

(2) National Climate Assessment

(3) NASA: West Antarctic Glacier Loss Appears Unstoppable (May 12, 2014)