Category Archives: Soapbox

Do you believe in an afterlife?

‘I believe that energy can’t be destroyed, it can only be changed from one form to another.  There’s more to life than we can conceive of.’ The quote is from the singer and songwriter, Corinne Bailey Rae’s answer to the question: do you believe in an afterlife? [see Inventory in the FT Magazine, October 26/27 2019].  However, the first part of her answer is the first law of thermodynamics while the second part resonates with Erwin Schrödinger’s view on life and consciousness [see ‘Digital hive mind‘ on November 30th, 2016]. The garden writer and broadcaster, Monty Don gave a similar answer to the same question: ‘Absolutely.  I believe that the energy lives on and is connected to place.  I do have this idea of re-joining all of my past dogs and family on a summer’s day, like a Stanley Spencer painting.’ [see Inventory in the FT Magazine, January 18/19 2020].  The boundary between energy and mass is blurry because matter is constructed from atoms and atoms from sub-atomic particles, such as electrons that can behave as particles or waves of energy [see ‘More uncertainty about matter and energy‘ on August 3rd 2016].  Hence, the concept that after death our body reverts to a cloud of energy as the complex molecules of our anatomy are broken down into elemental particles is completely consistent with modern physics.  However, I suspect Rae and Don were going further and suggesting that our consciousness lives on in some form. Perhaps through some kind of unified mind that Schrödinger thought might exist as a consequence of our individual minds networking together to create emergent behaviour.  Schrödinger found it utterly impossible to form an idea about how this might happen and it seems unlikely that an individual mind could ever do so; however, perhaps the more percipient amongst us occasionally gets a hint of the existence of something beyond our individual consciousness.

Reference: Erwin Schrodinger, What is life? with Mind and Matter and Autobiographical Sketches, Cambridge University Press, 1992.

Image: ‘Sunflower and dog worship’ by Stanley Spencer, 1937 @

The Stone Raft adrift in the Atlantic Ocean

I spent most of last week at the European Union’s Joint Research Centre in Ispra, Italy.  I have been collaborating with the scientists in  the European Union Reference Laboratory for alternatives to animal testing [EURL ECVAM].  We have been working together on tracking nanoparticles and, more recently, on the validity and credibility of models.  Last week I was there to participate in a workshop on Validation and Acceptance of Artificial Intelligence Models in Health.  I presented our work on the credibility matrix and on a set of factors that we have developed for establishing trust in a model and its predictions. I left the JRC on Friday evening and slipped back in the UK just before she left the Europe Union.  The departure of the UK from Europe reminds me of a novel by José Saramago called ‘The Stone Raft‘ in which the Iberian penisula breaks off from the Europe mainland and drifts around the Atlantic ocean.  The bureaucrats in Europe have to run around dealing with the ensuing disruption while five people in Spain and Portugal are drawn together by surreal events on the stone raft adrift in the ocean.

Ancient standards

I have been involved in the creation of a European pre-standard for the validation of computational models used to predict the structural performance of engineering systems [see ‘Setting Standards‘ on January 24th, 2014]; so, an example of a two thousand year old standard in the National Palace Museum in Taipei particularly attracted my interest during a recent visit to Taiwan.  A Jia-liang is a standard measure from the Xin Dynasty dated to between 9 and 24 CE.  It is an early form of standard weights and measure issued by the Chinese emperor.  The main cylinder contains a volume known as a ‘hu’; however, if you flip it over there is a small cylinder that contains a ‘dou’ which is one tenth of a ‘hu’.  The object that looks like a handle on the right in the photograph is third cylinder that holds a ‘sheng’ which is one tenth of a ‘dou’ or one hundredth of a ‘hu’; and the handle on the left contains a ‘ge’ when it is as shown in the photograph and a ‘yue’ when the other way up.  A ‘ge’ is tenth of ‘sheng’ and a ‘yeu’ is a twentieth.  The Jia-liang was made of bronze with all of the information engraved on it and was used to measure grain across the Xin empire.

Four requirements for consciousness

Max Tegmark, in his book Life 3.0 – being a human in the age of artificial intelligence, has taken a different approach to defining consciousness compared to those that I have discussed previously in this blog which were based on synchronous firing of assemblies of neurons [see, for example, ‘Digital hive mind‘ on November 30, 2016 or ‘Illusion of self‘ on February 1st, 2017] and on consciousness being an accumulation of sensory experiences [Is there a real ‘you’ or’I’? on March 6th, 2019].  In his book, Tegmark discusses systems based on artificial intelligence; however, the four principles or requirements for consciousness that he identifies could be applied to natural systems: (i) Storage – the system needs substantial information-storage capacity; (ii) Processing – the system must have substantial information-processing capacity; (iii) Independence – the system has substantial independence from the rest of the world; and (iv) Integration – the system cannot consist of nearly independent parts.  The last two requirements are relatively easy to apply; however, the definition of ‘substantial’ in the first two requirements is open to interpretation which leads to discussion of the size of neuronal assembly required for consciousness and whether the 500 million in an octopus might be sufficient [see ‘Intelligent aliens?‘ on January 16th, 2019].


Max Tegmark,  Life 3.0 – being a human in the age of artificial intelligence, Penguin Books, Random House, UK, 2018.

Image: Ollie the Octopus at the Ocean Lab, (Ceridwen CC BY-SA 2.0)