Friday, November 24, 2006

Beam me up Scotty - or maybe not

Some speculations about consciousness from Paul Broks, published in the latest New Scientist:

Mind-body, spirit-substance are false dichotomies.
The ghost in the machine will eventually be exorcised.
Mind transposition - the uploading, downloading, and extension
of the human mind, via AI directly connected to the brain- will lead, in the future, to a transformed concept of what consciousness/selfhood is.
The brain will be 'reverse engineered' by future cognitive science.
Its subtle cognitive architecture will be precisely modelled through high res neuroimaging. Eventually hardware and software will be available for the implementation of human intelligence in a non-biological substrate.
"Consciousness" will go the way of phlogiston, the theoretical substance that scientists once used to explain fire.
The idea that there is a 'hard problem' of consciousness [explaining how
neurons can give rise to a subject] will be considered a red herring.
"but as our post-millenial neuroscientists marvelled at the sparkling, dare I say spectral, patterns cascading from their high-resolution brain scanners, they were nagged by a mischievous question: who is running the show? How does the the brain, with its diverse and distributed functions, come to arrive at a unified sense of identity? 'Soul' doesn't figure in the lexicon of neuroscience, but what about the soul's secular cousin, 'self'? Could we speak of a person's brain without speaking of the person? Was the self merely the sum of its cerebral parts? The Illusion of the ghost in the machine was compelling - the natural intuition that somewhere in the brain there lurks an observing 'I', an experiencer of experiences, thinking of thoughts and controller of actions."

"Belief in an inner essence, or central core, of personhood, was called 'ego theory'. The alternative, 'bundle theory', made more neurological sense but offended our deepest intuitions. Too bad, I thought. We should learn to face facts. The philosopher Derek Parfit put it starkly: we are not what we believe ourselves to be. Actions and experiences are interconnected but ownerless. A human life consists of enmeshed mental states rolling like tumbleweed down the days and years, but with no one (no thing) at the centre."

Parfit's famous thought experiment: Imagine your body is teleported by
a process that destroys it, converts it to information, sends the information, then reconstructs it perfectly at a destination. All the contents of your mind arrive intact. You go about your life as if nothing has happened.
If you are comfortable with this scenario then you should be comfortable with bundle theory - the observing "I" is no more than patterns of energy and information, which can be disrupted and reconstituted without destroying the self - because there is no self to destroy.
An ego theorist would believe that the reconstituted body is not 'you' but a replica. 'You' have been destroyed during teleportation. This is a problem
that could have been explored in more depth in by Iain M Banks, in his SF novel 'Ilium', in which people 'fax' themselves around. Good read though.

"Incidentally" writes Broks, "we see here an inversion of conventional thinking. Those who believe in an essence, or soul, suddenly become materialists, dreading the loss if the 'original' body. But those of us who don't hold such beliefs are prepared to countenance a life after bodily death."

"These words that you are now reading, whose are they? Yours or mine? The point of writing is to take charge of the voice in someone else's head. This is what I am doing. My words have taken possession of the language circuits of your brain. I have become, if only transiently, your inner voice. Doesn't that mean, in a certain sense, that I have become you (or you me)?"

With inevitable future AI brain-extension/mind-interconnectivity (netmind), knowledge and experience will be shared directly by increasingly collective minds. The sense of separate selves will eventually disappear. The sense of self will disperse... perhaps infinitely.

Monday, November 20, 2006

The Crazy Old Aunt

From the photo in the New Scientist article covering the recent symposium in California on science and religion, which debated whether or not the scientific community should try to abolish religion entirely, it appeared as if there was only one female in an audience entirely populated by greying and balding men. I wonder what this lone woman made of cosmologist Steven Weinberg's personification of religion as a "crazy old aunt" who tells lies and stirs up mischief, but who has been around for a long time and will probably be missed when she goes. Considering that religion (at least since the ancient priestess cults died out) has been run by men, it's an odd comparison.

Perhaps if women had been in charge of religion, we would not be having this religion-v-science debate; religion would probably have developed as a natural collective affirmation/celebration of human ideals and ethics that are probably innate, in the sense that they evolved naturally in human societies, but need to be identified, nurtured and maintained by men and women alike. We might have had religious organisations that, instead of instilling fear of the supernatural, promoted deep reverence for the natural world; a reverence not antithetical to science.

Sunday, November 19, 2006

Adaptation of Shri Shankaracharya's Six Stanzas on Nirvana

It is not mind,
thought or emotion,
attention, memory
sense impressions, the senses,
phenomena, the body, the physical world,
desires or aversions, pleasure or pain,
self-importance, conditioning,
virtue or vice, sacred or profane,
agent or acted upon, dead or living,
it is deathless and birthless,
it is has no properties or qualities
It is without an other,
it is without relatives, friends, teachers,
it is even without the state of being alone.
It is formless and unimaginable.
It is coextensive with all that is,
yet it is imperceptible.
It is not the experience of nirvana or liberation;
it cannot be experienced or known.
It does not exist,
yet it is even without the quality of being non-existent.
I am that.


Generally what we understand by 'reality' is the world of 'physical' objects, but also abstract-seeming notions such as space and time. Mind is not 'real' in the same sense. It is considered by many to be a secondary kind of reality, probably an emergent property of matter, similar to information. Consciousness may be epiphenomenal, that is, having no influence on the way that our bodies behave beyond what physical laws demand, having no additional 'reality' to the matter generating it. Some philosophers, argue to the contrary, that the mental world is primary, and the material world secondary and emergent. They claim primacy for the mental by virtue of the fact that we primarily inhabit the mental. To avoid an unpleasant solipsism they do not usually deny the reality of other selves. Roger Penrose (Prof of Maths at Oxford Uni) sees the notion of the primacy of mental reality, and the emergence of the physical from consciousness, as lopsided.
"Even if such a solipsistic basis is not adopted, so that the totality of all conscious experience is taken as the primary reality, I still have great difficulty. This would seem to demand that 'external reality' is merely something that emerges from some kind of majority-wins voting amongst all of us taken together. I cannot see that such an emergent picture could have anything like the robustness and precision that we seem to see outside ourselves, stretching away seemingly endlessly in all directions in space and time, and inwards to minutest levels that we do not directly perceive with our senses."
Penrose recognises that the emergence of consiousness (by which I guess he is talking about subjective, personal experience) from the "seemingly purely calculational, unfeeling and utterly impersonal laws of physics that appear to govern the behaviour of all material things" is problematic and mysterious. But he also points out that these laws are incredibly precise and intricate.
The 'physical' objects that we think of as most real (say a table) are composed of atoms, which are composed of more elementary particles which have an indeterminate reality. They seem to exist only as solutions to mathematical equations. One of the things that makes quantum mechanics really strange is the notion that all electrons, for example, are indistinguishable from one another: we cannot talk of 'this electron' and 'that electron', but only of the system they inhabit. At its most elemental level, perhaps, the physical may be mathematical information - similar in its reality to consciousness. Of course, it may turn out that there is something not quite right with present-day quantum theory, and a notion that is more in accordance with our experiences may emerge. There is no sign of this yet however.
Penrose writes that "many philosophers would argue that mathematics consists merely of idealised mental concepts, and if the world of mathematics is to be regarded as arising ultimately from our minds, then we have reached a circularity: our minds arise from the functioning of our physical brains, and the very precise physical laws that underlie that functioning are grounded in the mathematics that requires our brains for its existence." Penrose seeks to avoid this immediate paradox by allowing the Platonic mathematical world its own timeless and locationless existence. while allowing it to be accessible to us through mental activity.
Penrose allows for three different kinds of reality: the physical, the mental and the Platonic mathematical, with something, (as yet) profoundly mysterious in the relations between the three. Penrose concludes that we cannot properly address the question of the reality of the physical until we understand its connection with the other two realities.

Saturday, November 18, 2006

The Inestimable Self

The individual 'self' is an emergent property of the neurological activity of the brain, a make-sense-of-the-world neurotool similar to that used to construct a sense of future and past. Patricia Churchland, from the University of California, insists that this does not imply that "my self" is not real (it is as real as the brain that generates it, and the world that forms brains). Quite naturally she uses the word 'my' when referring to this self. Episteme correctly does not admit to possessive pronouns being more than convenient labels - 'I' and 'my' do not refer to anything other than the compass of a simulation. A simulation of the future is real, in the sense that it can be perceived, but there is no 'director' of the simulation other than the world itself. Likewise a simulated self can be perceived, and is real, in that sense, but not in the sense of being an entity distinct from the world. The mistake is to believe that there is more than one director (more than one world). If there is a self, it is the world. When it is said that the individual self is an 'illusion' it is not necessarily a denial of the fact that simulated selves exist but a denial of the existence of a 'director' of these simulations other than the world. Churchland argues that 'we' are not 'cheapened' by the fact that 'we' are neurological constructs, because the brain is a wonderful work of art. I would add that a sense of self coextensive with all space and time should be a pretty good source of self-esteem.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Wittgenstein and Buddhism

Uma Thurman's Dad writes:
"One major obstacle to appreciation of the richness of the Buddhist nonegocentrist tradition by modern philosophers, who would therein find so much of interest and use, is the unwarranted prejudice that Buddhist thought is "mysticism", that is, antiphilosophical or aphilosophical. This prejudice has only been intensified by those contemporary 'mystics' who have pointed to the young Wittgenstein's famous statement about silence in the Tractatus as evidence of his similarity to the imagined "silent sages of the East". In actuality, the vast majority of 'mystics', or nonrationalists, both Eastern and Western, have usually belonged to the egocentrist camp, at least tacitly if not formally. Recourse to mysticism is a typical aspect of being stuck in the egocentric predicament. The mature Wittgenstein clearly exposes the tremendous amount of mysticism involved in the uncritical use of ordinary language, especially by the egocentrist philosophers. He humorously points to our predilection to reify things by constructing realities out of concepts, substances out of substantives, revealing the common notion of "naming as, so to speak, an occult process and when the philosopher tries to bring out the relation between name and thing by staring at an object in front of him and repeating a name or even the word 'this'. And here we may fancy naming to be some remarkable act of mind, as it were a baptism of an object..." An egocentrist philosopher, when yet unwilling to surrender the notion as a mere mental construction, quite typically resorts to 'ineffability', 'inexpressibility', and so forth, making a virtue of his inability to find either a nonentity or its absence."

Can all Buddhist nonegocentrist philosophy be described as metaphysics?