Science Needs to Rediscover Itself

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It has been a very long time since I’ve found the inspiration to write. It happens, especially when the mind is running many threads of thought, trying to resolve problems. Contemplation is a necessary mechanism for humans, as we do not process information in a linear fashion. Our minds explore countless connections between synapses until a suitable conclusion is revealed. We are not computers, because computers are imperfect — they are created with incomplete information about the nature of existence. Even the most advanced AI algorithms, at the most fundamental level, look for patterns that we, the programmers, have defined with an incomplete understanding of the universe. This is to say that we cannot program an AI to perceive things we cannot inherently conceive. Sure, it can certainly discern new permutations based on relationships we’ve already defined. It can compute these new permutations with seemingly amazing speed, yet when the conclusion is presented by the AI, invariably we can say “Oh, I should have seen that relationship.”

The universe is all about relationships. Every particle and every wave, are inexorably linked to a single event we are unable to grasp — the beginning of space-time. Whatever your belief system, they are all predicated on some point in the distance “past” where everything began — following the prevalent belief that there must have been some sort of beginning. Physics predicts the life and death of particles, stars and the universe itself, but without understanding the effect of beginning, we can’t begin to understand the initial cause.

Einstein’s greatest strength was that he conceived his initial theories unbounded by the constraints of the scientific community. He was a patent clerk in Switzerland with a great deal of time to contemplate a multitude of new ideas, without being discouraged by the “theory-du-jour”. He pondered seemingly unrelated problems to form a deeper understanding of the relationships inherent within the universe itself. Einstein gave humanity invaluable insights into the universe, but his greatest gift, which we tend to ignore, was a new way of thinking about the universe — everything is related in some form or fashion.

The human mind is the greatest computational machine we currently have at our disposal. We try to improve on it by creating faster, more powerful machines, but these can never replace the structure of the human mind. AI is a tool, just like a hammer, and it can never replace the human mind. Humans can leap to unrelated conclusions as we are, for the most part, unbounded in thought. A child is able to dream beyond the confines of “commonsense”. It is only until we’ve constrained their thoughts that they continue down a path of belief molded by the collective. I am referring to imagination, and not conforming to morality — morality is just a system of rules for coexistence and should not be a contemplative constraint. Assuming that we can coexist, the human mind should be free to explore unorthodox connections.

In my opinion, this is the biggest conundrum the scientific community as a whole is facing. We’ve done a very good job of specializing in one particular school of thought and exploration. Physics, Chemistry, Cosmology, Engineering, Psychology, Biology and on and on. There is nothing at all wrong with this, but how often do we cross-pollinate these disciplines? At the root, many of the disciplines share a common language in mathematics, logic and philosophy, but how often does a cosmologist look to biology for potential connections? I do not believe that the universe can be understood by only investigating one discipline. Every aspect of existence must be related if existence issued forth from a single point in time and space — the beginning.

If we go back to the early days of science, to the time of Aristotle, it was more common to study a multitude of disciplines to explore the whole. They understood that you cannot understand the purpose of a part without understanding the total object. You can’t understand the purpose of the elephant’s trunk, without understanding it’s context to the whole elephant. When most people are doing a jigsaw puzzle, they group the pieces, then begin to build the picture. Each piece has its place in the whole, but to know if you assembled the pieces correctly you look at the complete picture. This is where science has often failed. It may seem as if the speed of light is irrelevant to psychology, but do you truly know that it is so? Does the speed of light somehow affect our ability to perceive reality via consciousness? Does quantum entanglement hold the answer to why or how we have memories? Does memory have anything to do with Gravity? Why does an atomic structure resemble a solar system?

It seems to me that rather than encouraging specialization, we need to redesign our education system for the sciences to focus on the whole, while exploring the pieces. Each new discovery should be weighed against the whole of human understanding to see if there are potential connections, or solutions, not previously understood. A true “theory of everything” should truly describe everything. It should explain how the universe exists as well as why it exists.

We need a new kind of science.

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A Programmer’s View of Religion and the Universe [Part 5]

And my soul, from out that shadow that lies floating on the floor, shall be lifted nevermore – Edgar Allan Poe

First of all, I’d like to apologize to my readers for being absent.  It has been a very busy few months for me, and being able to blog has been a luxury.

This will be my last installment in this particular series.  In the previous posts we’ve covered creation, existence, purpose and architecture.  [1  –  2  –  3  –  4]  Today we’re going to talk about one of the most fundamental topics to human existence — Consciousness. 

In programming, I have spent a great deal of time working with Artificial Intelligence.  Anyone who is reading this blog post, probably is familiar with the concept.  Basically, AI is a computer program that can mimic the same features of human intelligence, such as decision-making, or pattern recognition.  For instance, I have written computer programs that can look at millions of records of data and make a decision based on the way it was taught.  But its much more than that because an AI usually has the ability to make intelligent decisions about things it has not encountered in its training as well.  And this is as close as programming gets to exploring life and its mysteries.

While we can mimic the thought processes of the human mind, can we truly affect the experience of being alive.  An AI only mimics the inherent ability of the human mind to find patterns — the universe is built on patterns, just as a program is built with patterns.  However, one thing an AI cannot do is understand the context of the pattern.  The only context an AI can simulate is by observing the plethora of connecting concepts to any other concept.  For instance, an AI cannot understand the emotional overtones, nor can it understand sarcasm.

Emotion has always been a sticking point for defining consciousness, but I think emotion is a completely different beast from consciousness.  Emotion is instinct, the very basis for our ability to survive.  We fear so that we will run from danger.  We love so that we will procreate.  We are happy so that we can co-exist.  We are sad so that we will remember.  All of these are self-serving instinctual constructs so that we will survive.  But all animal life has some form of emotion, but this does not define our conscious selves.  Emotion is easily programmed into software, as we’ve seen in countless games.  For instance, if I am programming a monster or opponent in a game, I can take simple rules to make a “fear” reaction:

If your health < 100%
and you have no weapon
and Number of enemies > 1
you should run

This is what we can pseudo-code.  The actual code would look like this:

#variables
integer max_health = 90;
integer current_health = 50;
double percent_health = 50/90;
boolean has_weapon = false;
integer number_of_enemies = 5;
string action = “”;

if (percent_health < 1 && has_weapon == false && number_of_enemies > 1) {

     action = “run”;

} else {

     action = “fight”;

}

So as you can see, we can easily simulate the emotion, but the AI doesn’t necessarily know “why” it is running nor can it make the decision to fight, unless we introduce some randomness, but we humans do not act randomly.  Actually its pretty clear that humans always do things for a reason – always self-serving.   If the odds say we are going to die, we will try to fight the odds no matter how logical or illogical it is.

So now that we’ve explored what consciousness isn’t, let us explore now what consciousness might be.  And from a programmer’s perspective, we are dropping off the edge of the map — here there be monsters!  The most simple definition of consciousness is “awareness”.  And awareness is define is the ability to perceive or be conscious of events.  Hmmm, we’ve encountered a “circular reference” which in a program is a bad thing — an infinite loop.  We cannot define consciousness with consciousness, or can we? 

One of the bench marks we use to determine if another life form is conscious is the term “self-aware”.  For instance, dolphins are considered self-aware because they can recognize that when they look in a mirror that they are not seeing another dolphin, but they are seeing themselves, and will actually admire themselves.  Whereas a dog will try to attack the mirror.  This seems to be a key aspect of consciousness, but really what does it mean to be self-aware?  It cannot be simply knowing that one exists, because all life knows that it exists to some fundamental sense – life tends to try to preserve itself, hence it knows that it lives, therefore it exists.  Thinking is not a good benchmark either, because many higher ordered lifeforms think, but they are not necessarily self-aware, as the aforementioned dog.

Many have struggled with trying to define this most fundamental concept.  Some have disagreed that it even exists, and other have argued that it is something supernatural.  To some extent programs I’ve written in the past are self-aware, such as “self-references” and “observer patterns”.  These are programming turns where an object or bit of code is monitoring its environment and adjusting accordingly.  It also knows its own self, as opposed to copies or duplicates.  But at the most fundamental level, the bit of code is under a control set, met to emulate rules that have been defined by the architect or coder.  It is impossible to break out of the rules without the assistance of the architect.  So maybe we have stumbled onto the source of confusion.  Maybe there is only one consciousness or will, of which we are many facets.  I say this, from a programmers perspective, because if I were to create a game that has many creatures, they all tend to be duplicates for the same bit of code.  While they may travel different paths in the game, they are all creations of my single will or consciousness.  However, I do not monitor their every move, I have just put in place boundaries in which they are free to move.  But at the end of it all, they are all duplicates of a single thought.

So this leaves us two main possibilities, both of which are equally viable.  Either there is only our self and everyone around you is a fabrication of your mind, as solipsism would suggest.  Or, we are all a facet of a much larger consciousness, just the universe trying to understand itself?

And here I will end the discussion and hopefully I’ve given you some new things to think about to enhance your own lives.