Tag Archives: consciousness

We are no one without other people

Decorative imageIt is the Christmas holiday season when many of us will be exchanging seasonal greetings and expressions of goodwill with family and friends.  In the Ubuntu philosophy, a person is a person through other people.  Genuine value arises from our connections to other people.  Life is not about the individual but about friendship, community, respect and compassion.  These interactions are experienced by our consciousness and determine who we are – our identity [see ‘Reflecting on self’ on November 23rd 2022 or ‘Is there a real you or I?’ on March 6th, 2019].  It seems unlikely that a computer could experience them in the foreseeable future [see ‘Conversations about engineering over dinner and a haircut’ on February 16th 2022 or ‘When will you be replaced by a computer’ on November 20th, 2019] so switch off your laptops and mobile phones and enjoy life.   Happy holidays!

Image: people at Pier Head Liverpool enjoying the River of Light festival.

Forest-sized brains

A couple of years ago I wrote in the abstract about ‘Slow thoughts from a planet sized brain‘ [on March 25th, 2020].  I read on vacation in Suzanne Simard‘s book, ‘Finding the Mother Tree‘ that glutamate, which is the most abundant neurotransmitter in the human brain, is also transmitted through mycorrhizal networks connecting trees in forests. Mycorrhizal fungi live in the soil around the roots of plants in a symbiotic relationship with the plants transmitting water to, and receiving sugar from, the plant roots.  Fir trees have been shown to transmit information about threats, e.g., budworm infestations, to one another and to other species of tree.  The speed of this information transmission is fast enough that production of enzymes to protect the trees increases within a day of the appearance of the threat.  We have assumed that folklore tales about enchanted forests are products of our imagination; but perhaps they are based on a long-lost appreciation that forests possess a level of consciousness.  Consciousness seems to require different parts of a system to communicate with one another and form networks [see ‘Digital hive mind‘ on November 30th, 2016], which Simard and others have demonstrated occurs in forests with the mycorrhizal networks being equivalent to the neural network in our brains.  The scale of a forest’s network is such that communication will be slower than in our brain but that is not necessarily an inhibitor of consciousness.  So, perhaps forest-sized brains would be intermediate between human-sized and planet-sized.

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Time travel and rewriting history

decorative paintingI have written in the past about consciousness being an accumulation of sensory experiences [see ‘Is there are real ‘you’ or ‘I’? on March 6th, 2019].  Our memory consists of fragments of images, sounds, smells and feelings from the past that we can re-assemble into a complete experience often triggered by something in the present that resembles a fragment of a past experience.  We can time travel in our minds by thinking about the past.  It is so ubiquitous that we barely stop to think about it. Yet, we are fascinated by the possibility of time travel into the future.  However, our subconscious minds are constantly time traveling into the future [see ‘Predicting the future through holistic awareness’ on January 6th, 2021].  They are constantly making predictions about what will happen next, whether anticipating the path taken by a ball so that your hand can be positioned to catch it or picking up an umbrella as you leave the house so that you do not get soaked when it rains later in the day.  The further we attempt travel into the future the less dependable our predictions become and I suspect the same is true for travel backwards in time.  The reliability of our recollection of past experiences become less as time and entropy erode the connections between the fragments in our mind so that we struggle to reassemble all of the fragments in the correct order and our personal history is unintentional rewritten.

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Stefan Klein, We are all stardust, Melbourne: Scribe, 2015  (a conversation with Hannah Monyer on memory entitled ‘Do You Remember?’).

Somethings will always be unknown

Decorative image of a fruit fly nervous system Albert Cardona HHMI Janelia Research Campus Welcome Image Awards 2015The philosophy of science has oscillated between believing that everything is knowable and that somethings will always be unknowable. In 1872, the German physiologist, Emil du Bois-Reymond declared ‘we do not know and will not know’ implying that there would always be limits to our scientific knowledge. Thirty years later, David Hilbert, a German mathematician stated that nothing is unknowable in the natural sciences. He believed that by considering some things to be unknowable we limited our ability to know. However, Kurt Godel, a Viennese mathematician who moved to Princeton in 1940, demonstrated in his incompleteness theorems that for any finite mathematical system there will always be statements which are true but unprovable and that a finite mathematical system cannot demonstrate its own consistency. I think that this implies some things will remain unknowable or at least uncertain. Godel believed that his theorems implied that the power of the human mind is infinitely more powerful than any finite machine and Roger Penrose has deployed these incompleteness theorems to argue that consciousness transcends the formal logic of computers, which perhaps implies that artificial intelligence will never replace human intelligence [see ‘Four requirements for consciousness‘ on January 22nd, 2020].  At a more mundane level, Godel’s theorems imply that engineers will always have to deal with the unknowable when using mathematical models to predict the behaviour of complex systems and, of course, to avoid meta-ignorance, we have to assume that there are always unknown unknowns [see ‘Deep uncertainty and meta-ignorance‘ on July 21st, 2021].

Source: Book review by Nick Stephen, ‘Journey to the Edge of Reason by Stephen Budiansky – ruthless logic‘ FT Weekend, 1st June 2021.