Consciousness Removed and Objective Reality

It’s often useful to identify the key properties of something by asking what we’d be left with if that thing were removed.  If consciousness were taken from the world, what would we be left with?  However a person answers this question tells a lot about their worldview.

To some, especially those with an extreme reductionist position, there would be no change at all.  Our bodies would mechanically go on, obeying the laws of physics, doing their thing.  Consciousness is extraneous and not really necessary.

Others seem to feel that consciousness somehow tweaks the direction our bodies and minds take, and that we do have some control over the world, but not completely.  Sure, there are laws of nature, chemistry, physics, and so on, but we are slightly in control of what’s happening as well.

There’s also a third camp which feels that consciousness is what creates the world.  Without it, nothing could even exist.

The reductionist ideas go back a long way, even to the Greeks.

“By convention there are sweet and bitter, hot and cold, by convention there is color; but in truth there are atoms and the void”

—Democritus, Fragment 9

Prominent Enlightenment thinkers saw the world in the same way.

“I think that tastes, odors, colors, and so on are no more than mere names so far as the object in which we locate them are concerned, and that they reside in consciousness. Hence if the living creature were removed, all these qualities would be wiped away and annihilated”

—Galileo Galilei, The Assayer (published 1623)

“For the rays, to speak properly, are not colored. In them there is nothing else than a certain power and disposition to stir up a sensation of this or that color.”

—Isaac Newton, Optics (3rd ed. 1721, original in 1704)

Enlightenment philosophers like John Locke divided the world into primary and secondary qualities.  Primary qualities were supposedly aspects of existence which were independent of any particular observer.  In the objective world there were things like solidity, extension, motion, number, and figure.  Secondary qualities were subjective, and they included things like color, taste, smell, and sound.

However, the founder of quantum mechanics, Albert Einstein, struggled to hold onto objective reality in light of the discoveries of modern physics.  This is an excerpt from a letter he wrote to Max Born, who was another physicist, known  for his statistical interpretation of the quantum wave function (among many other things).

I just want to explain what I mean when I say that we should try to hold on to physical reality.  We are … all aware of the situation regarding what will turn out to be the basic foundational concepts in physics: the point-mass or the particle is surely not among them; the field, in the Faraday-Maxwell sense, might be, but not with certainty. But that which we conceive as existing (“real”) should somehow be localized in time and space. That is, the real in one part of space, A, should (in theory) somehow “exist” independently of that which is thought of as real in another part of space, B. If a physical system stretches over A and B, then what is present in B should somehow have an existence independent of what is present in A. What is actually present in B should thus not depend the type of measurement carried out in the part of space A; it should also be independent of whether or not a measurement is made in A.

If one adheres to this program, then one can hardly view the quantum-theoretical description as a complete representation of the physically real. If one attempts, nevertheless, so to view it, then one must assume that the physically real in undergoes a sudden change because of a measurement in A. My physical instincts bristle at that suggestion.

However, if one renounces the assumption that what is present in different parts of space has an independent, real existence, then I don’t see at all what physics is supposed to be describing. For what is thought to be a “system” is after all, just conventional, and I do not see how one is supposed to divide up the world objectively so that one can make statements about parts.

– Albert Einstein, in a personal letter to Max Born

Considering that Einstein is my favorite of all philosophers, I’ll include two quotations from him.

Some physicists, among them myself, cannot believe that we must abandon, actually and forever, the idea of direct representation of physical reality in space and time; or that we must accept the view that events in nature are analogous to a game of chance . Probably never before has a theory been evolved which has given a key to the interpretation and calculation of such a heterogeneous group of phenomena of experience as has quantum theory. In spite of this, however, I believe that the theory is apt to beguile us into error in our search for a uniform basis for physics, because, in my belief, it is an incomplete representation of real things, although it is the only one which can be built out of the fundamental concepts of force and material points (quantum corrections to classical mechanics). The incompleteness of the representation leads necessarily to the statistical nature (incompleteness) of the laws.

– Albert Einstein, on Quantum Physics, 1954

It seems fitting to leave a quotation from Max Born.

If God has made the world a perfect mechanism, He has at least conceded so much to our imperfect intellects that in order to predict little parts of it, we need not solve innumerable differential equations, but can use dice with fair success.

– Max Born

Born argued that the world was not deterministic.

No concealed parameters can be introduced with the help of which the indeterministic description could be transformed into a deterministic one. Hence if a future theory should be deterministic, it cannot be a modification of the present one but must be essentially different.

– Max Born

Heisenberg had troubles with objective reality.

“If we want to describe what happens in an atomic event, we have to realize that the word ‘happens’ can only apply to the observation, not to the state of affairs between two observations.”

– Werner Heisenberg, Physics and Philosophy (1958)

The quantum wave function was first formulated by Schrodinger.  In the beginning, this was his take on the physical world.

“What we observe as material bodies and forces are nothing but shapes and variations in the structure of space. Particles are just schaumkommen (appearances). …The world is given to me only once, not one existing and one perceived. Subject and object are only one. The barrier between them cannot be said to have broken down as a result of recent experience in the physical sciences, for this barrier does not exist. … The scientist only imposes two things, namely truth and sincerity, imposes them upon himself and upon other scientists.”

– Erwin Schrodinger

Later, as he came to more deeply understand the consequences of what he was arguing, he recanted his position saying,”I don’t like it, and I’m sorry I ever had anything to do with it.”

“Let me say at the outset, that in this discourse, I am opposing not a few special statements of quantum physics held today (1950s), I am opposing as it were the whole of it, I am opposing its basic views that have been shaped 25 years ago, when Max Born put forward his probability interpretation, which was accepted by almost everybody.”

– Erwin Schrodinger

It all leads to some rather absurd consequences.  As the prominent physicist George Gamow once noted,

“In wave mechanics there are no impenetrable barriers, and as the British physicist R. H. Fowler put it after my lecture on that subject at the Royal Society of London . . . ‘Anyone at present in this room has a finite chance of leaving it without operating the door, or, of course, without being thrown out the window.'”

– George Gamow, My World Line (1970)

There’s a finite chance of literally anything happening at any time.  The whole world could morph into something else entirely yet leave you unaffected, and such a wild miracle would not violate the laws of physics — at least, not the Max Born interpretation of quantum theory.  It’s extremely improbable, but not impossible.

But all of this is rather old news.  1950s?  1970s?  What are the modern physicists of today thinking?

“… current physical theories suggest that our universe is probably not unique. Well beyond our ability to directly probe, there may be an infinity of universes, with differing laws of physics, and perhaps different characteristics of space and time. This is not necessarily a problem if we are interested in understanding the nature of our particular universe.

But it could be that the laws of physics are probabilistic, and there is no fundamental reason why they are what they are in our particular universe. But—just as an epidemiologist studying a single patient can say little about what may be the cause of some condition, because it may be impossible to know what is normal and what is not—if we can study only one universe (our own), then we may never be able to directly empirically determine if fundamental laws are indeed fundamental, or just an accident of our circumstances. It is possible that we might be smart enough to derive a theory that explains precisely how the laws of physics are distributed across universes, and what the probability that our laws are what they are. But it is equally plausible that without access to a larger sample set we may never know.”

– Lawrence Krauss, Physicist/Cosmologist, Arizona State University

You need to pause for a moment, re-read that first paragraph, and let it sink in.  But you don’t need to physically construct these infinite universes to experience them.

“It is possible to build a virtual-reality generator whose repertoire includes every possible environment.”

– David Deutsch

That follows from the ideas of information, in particularly his own field, quantum computation.  Deutsch holds the many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics, which says that Born’s statistical probabilities actually deals with transitions between parallel universes.

“The quantum theory of parallel universes is not the problem, it is the solution. It is not some troublesome, optional interpretation emerging from arcane theoretical considerations. It is the explanation, the only one that is tenable, of a remarkable and counter-intuitive reality.”

– David Deutsch

Now finally I’ll end this with a few of my own observations about consciousness and reality.  Currently, there’s a big craze about information, primarily driven by progress in computers.  As our computers advance, we’re finding that we’re able to manipulate reality at finer and finer scales, programming it to do our bidding.  Computers have countless tiny little parts, and we control the flow of energy within those circuits.  By doing so, we’ve found out that we can build virtual reality simulators, and will, in the very near future, be able to immerse ourselves within them.  They’ll feel as real as this reality.  There’s something very profound there.

I also was introduced to the idea of nanomachines by an author named Eric Drexler, in his book Engines of Creation.  I began to think about how we will eventually control matter at the atomic scale, guided by our computers and technology.  That will allow us to control reality at super-fine scales, and the digital world and “real” world will start to blur.  It already is.

Synthetic biologists are already referring to life-forms as “living software”.  Biology is a special type of nanomachine which can be reprogrammed by changing its instructional data-tape (DNA).  In his book Regenesis, the Harvard synthetic biologist George Church wrote,

““… imagine a future in which human beings have become immune to all viruses, in which bacteria can custom-produce everyday items, like a drinking cup, or generate enough electricity or biofuel to end oil dependency. Building a house would entail no more work than planting a seed in the ground…”

– George Church, Harvard professor of synthetic biology

Most of us think of bacteria as these annoying microscopic entities which cause sickness and disease.  They’re actually tiny construction machines, waiting for you to program them.  They can be reprogrammed to build furniture for you, churn out jet fuel, or be injected into your bloodstream to cure your diseases.

There will come a point, well within a few hundred years (maybe a lot sooner), where if a person wants a house, they think it in their head, see a “projection” of it in augmented reality, change it how they want it, and then digitally send that blueprint to nanomachines which construct the home as desired.  The better that technology becomes, the faster it will all take place, and the quicker the connection between a person’s desires and their actual manifestation.

This transition is scary because we’re learning to control the creation and destruction of reality.  That requires fine control of a lot of energy and matter, not to mention a lot of responsibility.  We can rebuild our world and ourselves, but we can also blow ourselves to dust with atomic weapons.  It’s up to us to decide.

Think about a species which has mastered these things and been in a period of self-development for millions, or even billions of years.  Think about them and what kind of existence they would have.  We’re currently disconnected from that kind of power, mainly because our technology and knowledge isn’t at that scale.   The reality we live in not only supports primitive monkeys like us, but also beings so powerful they’re likely indistinguishable from what we’d call God.  It’s no wonder the laws of physics are hard for us to grapple with.

Because we’re so weak and primitive, we sort of obsess over this concept of “truth”.  “Reality”.  We look for laws, rules, and something we can depend upon.  But why would the “truth” matter to a being which could change physical reality as it desired?  It’s almost like we have to care about the truth when we’re too weak to change things.  Either that, or we’re not ready to change things.  By “ready” I’m referring to the evolution of a species, not some sort of personal development within one’s lifetime.

Now for some very wild speculations.  I’ve been thinking that as a species learns these secrets of the universe, they have to start practicing reality building.  If they went immediately to constructing their desires from imagination, they’d annihilate themselves very quickly.  Therefore they need practice bringing varied forms into existence.  In our case, this is taking place in virtual reality and video games.  I suspect that virtual reality will get more and more powerful, ever more realistic, and the simulations ever more programmable from within.  It’s all a form of play, like small animals play fighting with their brothers and sisters before they’re sent out to hunt on their own.  We’re messing with a virtual world which can’t injure or destroy our bodies or environment in the “real” world.

It’s all beyond my ability to comprehend, but I think reality is stranger than we’re able to suppose.  I don’t know how long this process will take, but on evolutionary time-scales, it may well be very rapid.

I Don’t Like These Drones

NBC news recently got a hold of a U.S. Justice Department memo revealing that the U.S. government feels it’s allowed to kill American citizens, without trial, without due process, secretly and without oversight.  They use a drone and bomb you from above.  You’ll never even see it coming.

“A confidential Justice Department memo concludes that the U.S. government can order the killing of American citizens if they are believed to be “senior operational leaders” of al-Qaida or “an associated force” — even if there is no intelligence indicating they are engaged in an active plot to attack the U.S.”

NBC News

Incredible.  Just when you thought it couldn’t get any worse, it does.

The 16-page memo, a copy of which was obtained by NBC News, provides new details about the legal reasoning behind one of the Obama administration’s most secretive and controversial polices: its dramatically increased use of drone strikes against al-Qaida suspects abroad, including those aimed at American citizens, such as the  September 2011 strike in Yemen that killed alleged al-Qaida operatives Anwar al-Awlaki and Samir Khan. Both were U.S. citizens who had never been indicted by the U.S. government nor charged with any crimes.

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I’ve never liked President Obama.  He’s just like President Bush, but worse.  All I see are wars, bailouts, deficits, and the erosion of our civil liberties.  So he stood up for gay rights?  That’s nice, but that doesn’t excuse all of these other things.  Of course he’s supposed to stand up for the minority and protect their rights from the majority.  He doesn’t deserve praise for doing what he’s supposed to be doing anyway.

With things like the Patriot Act and the NDAA, it’s been obvious to anyone following the issues that eventually the government would start abusing their newfound powers and start killing people without trial.

For all of his liberal positions on the environment, taxes and health care, President Barack Obama is a hawk when it comes to the war on terror.

From deadly drones to secret interrogations to withholding evidence in terror lawsuits, Obama’s Democratic White House has followed the path of his predecessor, Republican President George W. Bush. The U.S. detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, remains open, despite Obama’s pledge to close it, and his administration has pursued leaks of classified information to reporters even more aggressively than Bush’s.

The Associated Press

And who is President Obama appointing as the head of the CIA?  John Brennan, a man who doesn’t seem to have much of a problem with waterboarding.   Fantastic.

Politics just makes me sick.  Everyone’s screaming about a little gun regulation, “Ain’t nobody takin’ my assault rifle, dammit!”, but there’s absolutely no outrage over drone murders, spying on our internet activity, listening into our phone calls, hacking our email accounts, torture, or indefinite detentions without trial of our own citizens.  None of that seems to be a problem.

The Fourth Amendment in our Bill of Rights states explicitly:

The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.”

The Six Amendment states that we have a right to a trial by jury, and our crimes must be openly be presented and examined,

In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury of the State and district wherein the crime shall have been committed, which district shall have been previously ascertained by law, and to be informed of the nature and cause of the accusation; to be confronted with the witnesses against him; to have compulsory process for obtaining witnesses in his favor, and to have the Assistance of Counsel for his defence.”

The Eighth Amendment protects us from any forms of torture, period.

Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.”

John Brennan says waterboarding is “reprehensible” but will use it if has to.  Sorry, but that’s unconstitutional!  Spying on us, whether it be listening into our phone calls, reading our emails, or monitoring our web activity without a warrant, is unconstitutional!  To murder any citizen with drones, or detain them in any prison, anywhere, without a proper trial is unconstitutional!

They say U.S. Constitution is the ultimate law of the land.  How come they pay it so little mind?

In this next video, I agree with Lawrence Krauss that the government should not have the ability to kill its own citizens based on vague guidelines.

The Neural Correlates Of Consciousness

In 2004, eight prominent neuroscientists wrote a paper on consciousness which began by stating,

“We have no idea how consciousness emerges from the physical activity of the brain and we do not know whether consciousness can emerge from non-biological systems, such as computers… At this point the reader will expect to find a careful and precise definition of consciousness. You will be disappointed. Consciousness has not yet become a scientific term that can be defined in this way. Currently we all use the term consciousness in many different and often ambiguous ways. Precise definitions of different aspects of consciousness will emerge … but to make precise definitions at this stage is premature.”

– Human Brain Function, by Richard Frackowiak and 7 other neuroscientists

This problem is known to as the neural correlates of consciousness.  What is the minimal amount of neural activity necessary to produce conscious experience?  Why do different types of brain activity give rise to a subjective sense of existence?

I found myself entertaining the idea that if computers were to have conscious experiences, because different systems have varied hardware implementations, if they’re to be considered conscious, then we must be dealing with an information processing concept.  Consciousness must be related to the flow of information through matter.

It’s interesting to speculate about it, but I never felt confident in the idea.  The philosopher John Searle argued that it’s all brain chemistry, so there are varied opinions.  I do feel that our brains are processing information like a computer, but when it comes to us human beings and why we’re conscious, after listening to Terence McKenna, I’m feeling now that there’s much more to it.

He did a lot of research into hallucinogenic drugs and personally tried them out on himself to observe their effects on his state of consciousness.  I find it baffling.  Take dimethyltryptamine (DMT), a naturally occurring neutrotransmitter/neuromodulater floating around in all of us.  Smoke some DMT and this chemical will find its way into your synaptic clefts  and BOOM.  Within 30 seconds your body dissolves and you end up in another dimension, surrounded by beings of great intelligence who try to establish communication.

Now I don’t recommend people go out and do this stuff.  I never would.  But here’s the greater question.  Why does that chemical cause this wild effect on our consciousness?  Why would you be transported to the “dome” and see beings which look like this?

dmt elf

You’ll say, “He’s hallucinating!  Of course he’d see wild things!”  But you’re missing the point.  Why do different chemicals and electrical signals within the brain give rise to the subjective experiences they do?  Our society has a stigma against drugs of all kinds, and a lot of it with good reason.  But we must remember, the brain is a chemical vessel.  It’s biology.  Why does this chemical do this?  The same goes for LSD, shrooms, or any other mind altering substance.

I suspect there are great mysteries we haven’t even begun to discover.  We have no clue what we are or what’s going on.

You know, I was thinking about it just yesterday.  If our subjective consciousness was solely an information process, and you muddled up the flow with this DMT, you should just get static and noise.  Your conscious experience, if anything, should be like the white noise on a television set without an input signal.  Then when the drug gets pumped out, the “picture” should fade back in.

What actually happens?  The “picture” does fade back in, but you didn’t experience noise.  Nothing of the sort.  You see gorgeous spiraling colors, you feel absolute bliss, and you find yourself in another world with celestial beings talking to you.  I sit back in amazement thinking, “What!? That makes no sense at all.”

People’s experiences with it do seem to describe a state where brain activity is firing all over the place, associating strange ideas and concepts together.  Take this first hand account,

“We were still cruising along at the speed of light, now descending backwards together through an amoeboid, octahedral gallery of iridescent vaults. It was at this moment that I became suddenly aware we were not alone. The vaults seemed to zoom explosively outward then and the gallery expanded ad infinitum into a gargantuan, labrynthine, almost interstellar space, and through every vault poured the miraculous and zany imps who make the tryptamine hyperdimension their home. The tentacles of lapis lazuli gathered these capricious, multi-colored enigmas in towards the center, and became the architectonic scaffolding of their new multi-dimensional reality, a world which I found myself dab smack in the middle of. It was like a liquid mind ecology of staggering and alien complexity, the mind as it crosses over into quantum warpdrive and migrates ever further out into the oceanic beyond. At this point the glorious geometries transcended what is even vaguely feasible in this three dimensional mundane, constantly concrescing into new and varigated permutations, exfoliating out of themselves what might be called hyperspherologies of the divine, and to look anywhere was to be shot clean through with scintillating amazement. Crowding and cramming themselves into my field of vision were thousands upon thousands of beings of every imaginable sort and many that were completely unimaginable. They were everywhere jabbering in indecipherable tongues, juggling incandescent neon microworlds of dancing beings, and morphing with a zen-like, diaphanous fluidity that remains a primal miracle no matter how often you lay your all too human eyes on it. The primordial intelligence being manifest before me was palpable, undeniable, transcendently amazing – it shook me to my core in a more-than-real gleeful profundity. All I could do was sit there in divine liquid awe, my soul gaping wide open, and stare at the incalculable proportions of bizarreness and the down right weird that lay before me. It was like being entertained by the 76,000 piece orchestra of an alien civilization in whose classical music each note is not merely a musical tone, but an entire world, each just as intricate and nuancical as our own.”

Even so, I can’t make heads or tails of it.  Those simple ion pumps and channels within our brain’s neurons are doing all of that?  It doesn’t seem real.  I don’t want to believe it.  Something so simple can’t give rise to all of that?!  But it does.  Somehow.

McKenna had an interesting take on what this human experience is.  He called it a “controlled hallucination”.  That just makes me smile.  Our bodies hold us in this experience we call life, and it’s not much different than a controlled hallucination which loses its hold when we go to sleep at night.

The Elf Machine Dome

There’s several ways to go about studying the link between consciousness and brain activity.  You can, for instance, study patients who have suffered various forms of brain damage, examine what cognitive functions they’ve lost, and go from there.  However, I’ve been speculating that as nanotechnology comes into play, and we build super tiny computers which can swim around in our brains, letting us completely monitor and control our brain activity, some really bizarre research will start to take place.

I like to think about virtual reality, especially once we have the medical nanomachines connected to our neurons, manipulating the signals.  I  find myself thinking about the sorts of experiences we could make a person have.  I also think about things like movies.  People could go into VR and watch a sort of vivid “movie”, literally living the life as the character, but at certain points in the “plot” they could “live” out weird psychedelic trips where they’re transported to a different dimension and have a total out of body experiences.  Say the character you’re living as dies, then they have some totally out there experience and reincarnate as something else entirely.  People start screaming, “What the hell am I experiencing!”  Virtual reality will open some neat possibilities to us, not just enabling us to enter worlds like our own, but also worlds we haven’t even been able to imagine prior to this.  Maybe I’ll paint a picture of what I’m thinking of.

Even now, we do have some crude means to send the brain off into some weird states of consciousness.  Take the drug DMT for instance.  It’s a neurotransmitter naturally produced by our bodies and brains, not to mention most of the plant and animal kingdom.  It’s everywhere.  If you crush up certain types of plants, extract this stuff, then smoke it, you’re totally disembodied, and strangely, taken to this “machine dome” where all these highly intelligent beings exist.  They bombard you with love and start offering you things.  Then they tell you to speak whatever you want into existence.  DMT users then feel this “bubble” swell up within them and words flow out of their mouths which aren’t accompanied by understanding.  They’re special words though.  They create what you’re thinking about and what you want.  As you learn to do this, the “elves” as Terence McKenna calls them, start to cheer.  “Horray!  Horray!  You’ve got it!”

DMT wears off within 5 to 15 minutes.  Within 15 to 30 seconds after inhaling, you see these flower patterns, then you fly through the flowers, and then you start going through a series of tunnels.  You hear this wind up noise, faster and faster as you pass through them, and then you end up bursting through a “membrane” and end up in the “elf machine dome”.  It’s filled with sentient creatures, cheering that you’ve arrived.  McKenna says it looks like a metal machine, the walls of which are “covered in hallucinations”, and you feel that you’re underground.

In this video below, McKenna talks about a DMT experience, and explains the drug.

When I first heard about this, I immediately thought about Christians speaking in tongues.  When they describe it, they’re speaking words which aren’t their own, and the words are not understood in the normal sense.  Christians will do this as a form of prayer and they say it’s the “holy spirit” speaking through them, and it gives them peace of mind.  Maybe these religious folks have brains which produce more DMT?

McKenna says that the ancients knew all about this stuff, and that’s why he traveled the world, listening to Shamans out in the middle of nowhere, and learned all about the different hallucinogenic drugs they were using.  They spent their time trying to find plants, and studied their effects on the mind because they felt they were finding answers to what lie beyond our reality.

Apparently during REM sleep, our brain releases a bunch of DMT as well.  That explains why our dreams can be so bizarre.

Anyways, what I’m saying is that our human brain is capable of creating experiences unlike anything we’re used to.  The scientist side of me wishes I had sophisticated brain monitoring equipment along with nanomachines which would allow my computer systems to control and monitor brain activity.  Technology like that of H+ (in the video above) would allow me to do this kind of research.  I could assemble a team, put myself (or others) in sensory deprivation tanks, totally mess with the brain activity and log what’s going on.  Me and the team would take turns researching the link between brain activity and consciousness, trying to induce different states, and so forth.  It’d be terrifying, but at the same time, really exhilarating.   I imagine that it’d be really out there, and a day in the lab would be very similar to one of McKenna’s DMT trips.

You could try to reproduce that DMT experience of being in the dome, and then see if it’s possible to consistently induce others into that same state.  Real or not real, it’d be neat to ask those “elves” questions, monitoring all brain activity the whole time, seeing exactly what’s going on.

Even if this is all “in our heads”, the fact that our brains are capable of producing this magical world which barely any of us even know about says a lot about our level of self-understanding.  The brain is a mysterious object.

I view Terence McKenna as an early pioneer in researching this area.  He used the tools available to him at the time, and came to some fascinating research.  He’s incredibly entertaining to listen to and was very intelligent.  You’ll learn a lot from him.