Archive for the 'Philosophy' Category

Electromagnetic Consciousness

In the realm of brain studies there’s a fairly reductionist view that argues that our consciousness and subjective experience is firmly rooted in our physical brains. The idea goes that we have these incredibly complex interactions between tens of billions of neurons and out of that arises our experience of being alive. Most authors I’ve read on the topic freely concede the exact nature of how consciousness arises from this is a mystery but it seems pretty clear that our self corresponds to our neural tissue. Simply consider that someone can have a brain stroke and they become a different person — they can no longer speak or form memories or control their anger. The soul seems to exist in physical form (or more accurately, it doesn’t exist at all.)

I’m pretty sympathetic to this view. But the book “The Mind’s I” has a thought experiment that does challenge this view. First let’s consider a brain in its ideal form. It’s sitting there, neurons firing, creating thoughts. Now let’s imagine an incredible surgery where you go in and separate apart every single neuron and place each one in its own chemical bath to keep it alive. (This is, or course, impossible.) You then attach electronic signaling/receiving devices so each neuron can communicate with whatever neurons to which it was “attached” (e.g. shared a synapse with) before. So, basically, even though the neurons are now separate, their signaling is exactly the same as it was in the whole brain. Can we still envision a mind rising out of all this?

Well, I dunno… maybe…

But it gets worse. Instead of putting little signaling/receiving devices on each neuron, attach little zappers that that simply fire different amounts of electricity. Now separate these neurons by hundreds of miles. Then fire of each of the zappers so that the neurons fire the exact way the would if the brain’s owner was thinking of a cat. (There’s no signaling going on, just neurons firing in the same order as if they were receiving signals.) Would some entity somewhere suddenly think of a cat?

It seems unlikely doesn’t it? But the individual neurons in all these cases are behaving exactly the same. So this would seem to dispel the possibility of a purely reductionist (e.g. it’s all in the tissue) model of consciousness.

I just stumbled on some general theories that address this issue. They are “Electromagnetic theories of consciousness.” (Link goes to wiki page about it.) The idea is that when you have a bunch of neurons in a brain they are, because of their electrical activity, creating an electromagnetic field. And somehow this field is consciousness. The field is not only created by the brain’s neurons, it affects them as well, so the field and brain effectively pass signals back and forth. The wiki page has details.

The starting point for McFadden and Pockett’s theory is the fact that every time a neuron fires to generate an action potential, and a postsynaptic potential in the next neuron down the line, it also generates a disturbance in the surrounding electromagnetic field. McFadden has proposed that the brain’s electromagnetic field creates a representation of the information in the neurons. Studies undertaken towards the end of the 20th century are argued to have shown that conscious experience correlates not with the number of neurons firing, but with the synchrony of that firing.[9] McFadden views the brain’s electromagnetic field as arising from the induced EM field of neurons. The synchronous firing of neurons is, in this theory, argued to amplify the influence of the brain’s EM field fluctuations to a much greater extent than would be possible with the unsynchronized firing of neurons.
McFadden thinks that the EM field could influence the brain in a number of ways. Redistribution of ions could modulate neuronal activity, given that voltage-gated ion channels are a key element in the progress of axon spikes. Neuronal firing is argued to be sensitive to the variation of as little as one millivolt across the cell membrane, or the involvement of a single extra ion channel. Transcranial magnetic stimulation is similarly argued to have demonstrated that weak EM fields can influence brain activity.[citation needed]
McFadden proposes that the digital information from neurons is integrated to form a conscious electromagnetic information (cemi) field in the brain. Consciousness is suggested to be the component of this field that is transmitted back to neurons, and communicates its state externally. Thoughts are viewed as electromagnetic representations of neuronal information, and the experience of free will in our choice of actions is argued to be our subjective experience of the cemi field acting on our neurons.

I’m not agreeing with this (frankly, I still don’t really understand what electromagnetic fields are) but it does address the problems with the reductionist view.

Can metal remember?

I’ve mentioned in the past an idea that I freely concede may be crazy but it’s interesting enough to keep afloat: the possibility that consciousness is a basic property of all things and when matter interacts in complex and networked ways (like it does in a human brain or an advanced computer) higher, self-aware consciousness develops.

This L.A Times article offers more food for thought. It’s about a UCLA scientist who has developed a microchip that he claims can remember. How does it do it? Well, the science writing in this article is so vague that I’m pretty sure the reporter doesn’t understand and I sure don’t. It basically sounds like the scientist is creating neuron-like connections with metal strands and passing electricity through them.

In a lab, they placed a series of copper wire posts, mounted on a silicon wafer, into a solution of silver. As the copper dissolved, the silver formed intricate hair-like strands, as complex as the human cortex. It was the birth of the dust ball.

Building the chip is “extraordinarily simple,” Stieg says. Once the strands are created, they are exposed to sulfur, which provides electrical and ionic conductivity, and when electrical signals are sent through them, atoms migrate through each intersection of silver, each strand over strand.

Much as stimulus changes the brain by building over time synaptic patterns that can be associated to memory, the signals over time change the structure of the chip. Bridges form between the strands, further altering the chip.

What I find interesting here is the default behavior of the components of this chip seems to be to seek out “connections”, to create bridges. Much like neurons in the human brain branching and creating new synapses.

What causes neurons and silver strands to seek connections? I believe it is the fundamental need of all things to seek love!

No, seriously, I dunno. But if there’s a basic property of matter to, in some way, attract other matter, then it’s not that amazing that connections of the sort that could engender consciousness would arise.

Group produced art

In a recent acid logic article I claimed that authorship is dead. By this I meant that the notion of one person being responsible for a piece of art, writing, film etc. was faulty. I’m thinking this might point towards some interesting new ways of creating art.

Let’s consider rock music. The conventional approach is that there’s a band and usually within that band there’s one or two people who do the bulk of the writing. For example, on my two recent albums I am the sole credited writer. But, of course, I am not 100% responsible for every note you hear. There are many improvised solos and parts that I had little to do with (though I do tend to be a “guiding force” when people are laying down their tracks; I approve and reject ideas.)

Now, there’s a lot going for this auteur approach. One person can have a grand vision and make sure the final work matches that vision. But why not have all band members contribute ideas? Why not have dozens if not hundreds of people contribute ideas? (Thus really eliminating the idea of “a band.”)

But how would this work? Let’s say one person presented a template for a piece of music. Something like, “The song will start out slow and sad, then move into an uptempo happy section, then a driving but angry section, then back to an uptempo section then end with a variation of the slow and sad intro.” Perhaps people could contribute submissions for each of these “song parts” and then vote on how they go together. Or maybe they submit contributions to an authoritarian fascist leader (e.g. me) who decides how they go together.

The result may be that no one is completely happy with the work. But that’s kind of my point. The piece is satisfying a different kind of entity, a different kind of intelligence… a sort of “group intelligence.” The group would have to have a certain faith that the results are worthwhile and will bring to light interesting musical aspects that are not be available in more conventional “auteur style” writing.

Obviously this idea could be applied to other forms of art – film, visual arts, fiction etc.

Strangely, I’m reminded a bit of the Agetha Christie story where the killer turns out to be a group of people, each who stabbed (I think) the victim once. If one considers murder an art (and I see no reason why one shouldn’t) this may be the first conception of what I’m talking about.

I should also be clear that what I’m describing is probably what a lot of existing art collectives around the world are already doing. But I think I might be shading it a little differently and uniquely.

Finally, I should concede that why this is an interesting idea, it may not be something I would excel at. I am still rather ego driven and seem to be moving towards wanting more control over every aspect of what I create, not less. But maybe I’ll give this a shot.

Peeling the onion of consciousness

This post may reiterate some points I’ve made in other recent writings but it may also reveal the fundamental truth of all life and existence so I think some repetition can be forgiven.

I’ve been thinking again about this ethereal thing we call consciousness. I find myself musing on the question, “what can I be conscious of?” Obviously I can be conscious of things I see, hear, smell etc… all my sensory sensations (including subtle ones like vestibular/balance sensations and internal body states.) I can also be conscious of thoughts and ideas. This can be great thoughts such as the content of this blog, or more pedestrian musings like, “I need to buy toothpaste” or even thoughts that aren’t thoughts at all: just general sensations of being bored or wondering what Harrison Ford is up to. Even recognizing objects—seeing a car and being aware that it runs on gas and gets people around—is a thought-like mental activity. So too is simply being aware of the passage of time.

Let’s perform a thought experiment and remove some of these elements. Can I envision what it would like to not have my sensory data? Certainly; it’s easy enough to close one’s eyes, to blot out noise etc. I can’t absolutely turn off my sensory systems but I can envision the gist of what it would be like to do so. Can I also turn off my internal thoughts and my object recognition? This is much harder. It’s probably similar to what babies—new to the world and devoid of human knowledge— experience, though even they have intuitions and reflexes that require no learning. However, I think we’ve all had that feeling of just momentarily zoning out, of existing with not much going through your head. Maybe that’s similar to what stripping out this kind of thought awareness is like.

So, if I strip away all this “stuff” what am I left with? Consciousness with nothing to be conscious of. It’s possible there’s nothing at that point; you are essentially dead. But what if consciousness/self-awareness is, as some would argue, a kind of property of the universe, a bit like gravity*? It’s everywhere and when it interacts with a complex network like a brain, it results in a sense of self—an identity with an awareness of its past and its thoughts and whatnot. But the “self” is not really what’s aware; this consciousness field is. And this field is everywhere, in the same sense that forces like gravity, electromagnetism, the strong and weak forces are everywhere.

*Frankly, I’m describing something pretty close to the force from the Star Wars movies. Of course that concept was largely lifted from Asian philosophy.

I realize this is quite new-agey and almost impossible to prove, but it does nicely align itself with certain aspects of human spiritualism. Maybe what many spiritualists—shamans and monks of yore—experienced via drugs and meditation was a stripping away of the “content” of consciousness (sensations/thoughts etc.) and an arrival at the raw, empty experience. (This actually ties in with the experiences of Jill Bolte Taylor described here.)

At worst, I’ve got an interesting premise for a science fiction novel.

UPDATE: Feb 25 2014
I was never under the impression that I was originating this theory and I have to say it’s quite similar to Benjamin Libet’s “Conscious Mental Field Theory.” It’s described at this wiki page and includes the following quote from him about the idea.

The process by which the CMF arises from its contributing elements is not describable [sic]. It must simply be regarded as a new fundamental ‘‘given’’ phenomenon in nature, which is different from other fundamental ‘‘givens,’’ like gravity or electromagnetism.

Can plants think?

This is serendipitous. Recently, I wrote, “If we presume that consciousness arises “naturally” out of complex networks (like the human brain), then we have to concede that consciousness might arise out of non living things that are as complex.”

Today I come across an interesting New Yorker (December 23, 2013) article on the possibility of plant intelligence. At one point it states:

The hypothesis that intelligent behavior in plants may be an emergent property of cell exchanging signals in a network might sound far-fetched, yet the way that intelligence emerges from a network of neurons may not be very different. Most neuroscientists agree that, while brains considered as whole function as centralized command centers for most animals, within the brain there doesn’t seem to be any command post; rather, one finds a leaderless network. That sense we get when we think about a plant—that there is no there there, no wizard behind the curtain pulling levers—may apply equally well to our brains.

Now the article doesn’t allude to my essential point: that complex networks like brains (and according to this article, plants) may birth not only intelligence (whatever that is) but consciousness (whatever that is.) But the article does seem to imply that we are starting to break down these barriers between different forms of life. (You might recall a recent link I posted arguing that the very barrier between living and non living is false.)

To be clear about a possible confusion arising from my initial quote in the first paragraph; I was suggesting that non living things like storms might have some form of consciousness. I’m aware that plants are living things. ;)

Can storms be conscious?

There’s an observation about consciousness that I’ve seen made in various texts including “The Mind’s I” and it goes something like this: If we presume that consciousness arises “naturally” out of networks with a certain complexity (like the human brain), then we have to concede that consciousness might arise out of non living things that are as complex. Computers might be one example. So could ant colonies. (Ants themselves are alive but the colony as a unit is not.) But so could things such as ocean waves or electrical storms. Such phenomenon do “exchange information” via complex patterns of “signals” that I freely confess I don’t really understand.

This seems baffling. How could an electrical storm be conscious, even for an instant? Does it suddenly come to being in the sky and think to itself, “I am Bob Weinburger the electrical storm.”

That ridiculous of course. No self respecting electrical storm would name itself Bob. But it’s ridiculous in other ways. How could consciousness simply arise out of nothing?

I was thinking about this today and I realized I was making consciousness more complex than it has to be. I am conscious right now (at least I think I am; various philosophies might argue that perception is an illusion.) This means I’m aware of my world, I recall recent and distant events, I have plans for the future, I have my internal dialogue, etc. But there’s a big difference between me—a person conscious for over 4 decades—and an electrical storm possibly conscious for a moment. I am loaded down with memories, intuitions, knowledge and categorizations about the world etc. Much of my conscious experience is really about juggling data. But if I could strip all that away, what would I be left with? By this I mean, if I took away my ability to use language, my ability to really be aware of my thoughts, to define the world around me, to even be aware there’s a difference between me and the world around me, to even have an urge to break the world up into objects, what am I left with? I’m not exactly sure—it’s probably impossible for our minds to fathom—but it might be a simple enough state. And a state that I could believe an electrical storm could achieve, if only for a moment. It’s like being a really dumb baby I suppose.

Here’s some other recent thoughts prompted by “The Mind’s I.”

UPDATE: Jan 22, 2014
I have to state that a certain thought crosses my mind here. This form of consciousness I argue storms might achieve sounds not unlike the ego-less, formless mental state people seek via meditation and whatnot. And I think Buddhism does argue that in some sense, everything is conscious. One can conceive of consciousness as a kind of property of the universe, like gravity, that permeates everything. Our mental networks, (e.g. brains) have the additional component of memory and thus we are able to form selves and identities.

I’m not saying I sign off on any of these ideas but they are interesting to ruminate on.

The ultimate heretical question

Conservative-but-sane writer Ross Douthat has an interesting recent column which tackles a question that I’ve wrestled with often: why be good?

The column is actually a response to an article that scientist/atheist Jerry Coyne wrote in response to a previous column Douthat penned espousing a traditional Christian world view. I’ve read some of Coyne’s blog and he seems like an interesting guy from whom I’d like to read more, but I think he’s wrong in this battle with Douthat.

Coyne argues two points: One is that the universe is an empty place with no God or higher being or whatever you want to call it. (This point I basically agree with.) He then argues that we can still have meaning in our lives. He says:

Most of the universe is cold, bleak, airless, and uninhabitable. In fact, such a cosmology harmonizes far better with a secular moral picture than a religious one. Secularists see a universe without apparent purpose and realize that we must forge our own purposes and ethics, not derive them from a God for which there’s no evidence.

Yes, secularism does propose a physical and purposeless universe, and many (but not all) of us accept the notion that our sense of self is a neuronal illusion. But although the universe is purposeless, our lives aren’t. This conflation of a purposeless universe (i.e., one not created by a transcendent being for a specific reason) with purposeless human lives is a trick that the faithful use to make atheism seem dark and nihilistic. But we make our own purposes, and they’re real. Right now my purpose is to write this piece, and then I’ll work on a book I’m writing, and later I’ll have dinner with a friend. Soon I’ll go to Poland to visit more friends. Maybe later I’ll read a nice book and learn something. Soon I’ll be teaching biology to graduate students. Those are real purposes, not the illusory purposes to which Douthat wants us to devote our only life.

I’d argue that Coyne is conflating the terms “intent” with “purpose.” You might reasonably say, “I intend to eat this hamburger,” but it would sound funny to say, “My purpose is to eat this hamburger.” What’s the difference between the two words? Well, all language is at its core vague, but there’s a moral aspect to purpose. It’s not just something you intend to do, it’s something you should do. (According to… God, the universe, who knows…?) Coyne is applying the word purpose to activities that have no moral realm (dining, teaching, traveling.) According to that logic a serial killer could comfortably say, “My purpose is to rape and torture these teenage girls for several days in this bunker. Then I’ll have a donut.”

Later, Douthat quotes more of Coyne.

As for where altruism comes from, who knows? My own suspicions are that it’s partly genetic and partly cultural, but what’s important is that we feel it and can justify it. I can justify it on several grounds, including that altruism makes for a more harmonious society, helps those in need, and, as a selfish motive, that being altruistic gains you more respect. None of this justification has anything to do with God.

In effect, Coyne is answering the question “why be good?” But his response is so lame I suspect it would be laughed out of an entry level philosophy classroom. Why should we help each other? Because it creates a harmonious society. What’s a harmonious society? It’s a society where people help each other. Thanks, Brainiac.

The point that altruism should be motivated by the drive for respect is easily dismantled by Douthat.

…that only holds so long as the altruistic choice comes at a relatively low cost: If you’re a white Southerner debating whether to speak out against a lynching party or a Dutch family contemplating whether to hide your Jewish neighbors from the SS, the respect factor isn’t really in play — as, indeed, it rarely is in any moral dilemma worthy of the name. (And of course, depending on your ideas about harmony and stability, Coyne’s “harmonious society” argument might also seem like a case against opposing Jim Crow or anti-Semitism — because why rock the boat on behalf of a persecuted minority when stability and order are the greater goods?)

In essence I think both Coyne and Douthat are half right. I think Coyne is correct that there is no God and essentially no meaning to the universe. I think he’s wrong that we can magically manufacture meaning or purpose out of thin air. I think Douthat is wrong with his Christian worldview, but he’s right that secular naturalism (or whatever it’s called) has no means to demand moral actions; indeed, it dispenses with the notion of morality at all.

Maybe these issues will eventually be hashed out, but Coyne’s attempt is quite weak.

Thus I have spoken.

“The Last Dragon” and egoic thinking

Less than a year ago I read the Eckhart Tolle book “A New Earth” and talked about it here. Now I’m reading what is considered his main text, “The Power of Now.”

Tolle’s main point—one that hardly originates with him—is that “egoic” thinking is the source of a lot of unhappiness. Egoic thinking is “I” thinking. For example…

“I am a millionaire and so I am awesome.”

“I have a beautiful cat therefore I rule.”

“I wrote a great piano sonata therefore I am the best.”

But it’s not just affirming statements, it could be…

“I have an IQ of 45 therefore I am stupid.” (Frankly, 45 is such a low IQ I doubt the idiot would even be able to form that thought.)

“I lost my wife to a better looking man therefore I am a loser.”

You get the drift. Who thinks this way? Pretty much everyone. Tolle argues this way of thinking is so built into our culture that most people are unaware that there even are other ways to think. Certainly I am guilty of this kind of thinking, though I am trying to do less of it.

I struck me today that there’s something sort of anti-progressive about Tolle’s argument. (By progressive I mean politically progressive: vegans, Mother Jones, Move On etc.) The progressive movement, at least its academic component, is very tied up in identity politics. “I am a gay, African American/Latino from a third generation middle class family” …that sort of thing. Borrowing from Marxism, progressivism is, well, frankly obsessed with defining people via classifications. Even though Tolle is associated with fringy, peace loving, new age types, I see a certain conflict between the two belief systems.

Frankly, plenty on the right are obsessed with individual classification too. “I am a God fearing conservative from Alabama” and what not. But you don’t get the sense the right is focussed on gender, race, class etc. to the degree the left is.

Oddly, this reminds me of my recent article on the 80s kung fu flick, “The Last Dragon.” I argued that Leroy, the African American hero of the film, essentially redefined himself as asian–he took on a new racial identity.

This kind of cultural switcheroo might just sound like a gag played for cheap laughs but I think it really is the “soul” of the film, arguing—just as your college sociology professor would—that race is a social construct, one we are free to dismiss when we find an identity more to our liking. Granted, the embrace of blackness by the Chinese trio seems a little phony—a desperate grab at hipsterdom—but Leroy’s comes across as real; even though he’s from Harlem, he finds a path and identity in the East.

Tolle would probably argue that Leroy should dispense with any racial identification (and as I think about it, maybe that is what he really does.) But the movie does address the impermanence of these kinds of egoic constructs.

I am awesome.

Was life better in the past?

As everyone knows I’ve spent quite a bit of time over the past four years reading about neuroscience and psychology. Occasionally I’ll see some comment made about how some buddhist monk in 2300 B.C or a Christian philosopher in 1200 A.D. made an observation that is now supported by science. I would often think, “Wow, that’s pretty impressive. Even though these guys didn’t have the advantages of the modern era—M.R.I.s and peer reviewed research etc.—they were able to get to some core truths about the nature of existence.”

I now wonder if I have this backwards. I’m presuming modern humans have the advantage and people in the past were disadvantaged. But, frankly, if you lived in 2300 B.C. and your day consisted of catching some fish and then staring at clouds for 6 hours, how could you not make knowledgeable observations about existence? And, if you live in our era with the endless onslaught of meaningless bullshit, how can you really have the time to simply exist?

I’m aware that not everyone in the past sat around staring at clouds all day – there were wars, pestilence, starvation etc. But some folks did, for decades perhaps. And they probably led richer lives (if you’ll allow me a value judgement) than we do now.

Does life exist?

I’ve mentioned that I often find myself musing on an original thought only to find, after a month or so, that someone grabs attention by publishing the same idea, usually in some sort of “respected” journal or web site. A lesser man might be upset with the psychic theft of his ideas, but not me. I’m happy to provide my musings for the good of mankind.

Not long ago I was thinking about how we define the notion of life. For instance, we define a grasshopper as alive and a rock as not. But, the more you reduce living things to their tiny components, the more they appear similar to non-living things. All of us—living and dead—are made up of molecules which themselves are made up of atoms which can be broken down to quantum particles. If we are all made up of essentially the same stuff, why are some things alive and some dead?

You might say, “because living things move,” but of course so do remote controlled cars. And some non-living things don’t move for eons.

In a blog entitled “Why Life Does Not Really Exist” science writer Ferris Jabr takes this ball and runs with it, doing a much better job with the topic than I could. Ultimately here arrives here:

Why is defining life so frustratingly difficult? Why have scientists and philosophers failed for centuries to find a specific physical property or set of properties that clearly separates the living from the inanimate? Because such a property does not exist. Life is a concept that we invented. On the most fundamental level, all matter that exists is an arrangement of atoms and their constituent particles. These arrangements fall onto an immense spectrum of complexity, from a single hydrogen atom to something as intricate as a brain. In trying to define life, we have drawn a line at an arbitrary level of complexity and declared that everything above that border is alive and everything below it is not. In truth, this division does not exist outside the mind. There is no threshold at which a collection of atoms suddenly becomes alive, no categorical distinction between the living and inanimate, no Frankensteinian spark. We have failed to define life because there was never anything to define in the first place.

My sentiments exactly! But Jabr then fails to explore the dark questions this raises. Modern ethics and morality are all based on the assumption that life is something… a vital force, a soul, whatever. How do we then accommodate our moral concepts with the view that life is not real. Why is it wrong for me to roll a steamroller over a baby (e.g. a collection of molecules) but not a log (e.g. a collection of molecules)? These sorts of questions are, I think, going to be the difficult problems of the coming centuries.

You could accuse me of being willfully ignorant here. I don’t, of course, go through life equating people with rocks and logs. But I do ask why I don’t. Is the distinction an essentially meaningless (though, from an evolutionary perspective, useful) one built into the human mind? Or is there a real qualitative difference between the living and non-living?