A Universal Spiritual Perspective

faulkner

In his acceptance speech for the Nobel Prize, William Faulkner addressed important elements surrounding the “poet’s, the writer’s duty:”

“I feel that this award was not made to me as a man, but to my work – a life’s work in the agony and sweat of the human spirit, not for glory and least of all for profit, but to create out of the materials of the human spirit something which did not exist before. So this award is only mine in trust. It will not be difficult to find a dedication for the money part of it commensurate with the purpose and significance of its origin. But I would like to do the same with the acclaim too, by using this moment as a pinnacle from which I might be listened to by the young men and women already dedicated to the same anguish and travail, among whom is already that one who will someday stand here where I am standing.

I decline to accept the end of man. It is easy enough to say that man is immortal simply because he will endure: that when the last dingdong of doom has clanged and faded from the last worthless rock hanging tideless in the last red and dying evening, that even then there will still be one more sound: that of his puny inexhaustible voice, still talking.

I refuse to accept this. I believe that man will not merely endure: he will prevail. He is immortal, not because he alone among creatures has an inexhaustible voice, but because he has a soul, a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance. The poet’s, the writer’s, duty is to write about these things.

It is his privilege to help man endure by lifting his heart, by reminding him of the courage and honor and hope and pride and compassion and pity and sacrifice which have been the glory of his past. The poet’s voice need not merely be the record of man, it can be one of the props, the pillars to help him endure and prevail.”

–excerpts from William Faulkner’s Nobel Prize acceptance speech at Stockholm’s City Hall on December 10, 1950.

paris people

Reviewing the world events of the past few weeks, one might be forgiven, at least at first glance, for being gravely concerned about the future of humanity. The tragic inhumanity perpetrated by rage and radical ideology we’ve witnessed recently, strikes at the very core values of every variety of human society, and we genuinely seem to have only a limited number of choices, when it comes time to choose, of how to respond.

No rational or humanistic society wants to see an escalation of hostilities in any region of the world, but neither can we shrink from the awful duty required to prevent the successful imposition by the forces of rage and radical ideology from their goals of destruction and their murderous intent. It seems that nothing less than a commensurately violent response to the violence being inflicted can hope to deter or eliminate the dangers posed by these forces.

Faulkner’s words were uttered shortly after the conclusion of World War II, but they could easily apply to our current circumstances. If we are to overcome these obstacles and forge a viable alternative to these destructive forces ultimately, we must seek to raise the level of the conversation to include a more universal spiritual perspective.

Russell Kirk, in his book, “The Conservative Mind,” argued that conservatism as a philosophy is based on six canons, condensed here:

1. A divine intent as well as personal conscience rules society, “forging an eternal chain of right and duty which links great and obscure, living and dead.”
2. Traditional life, as distinguished from “the narrowing uniformity and equalitarianism … of most radical systems,” is filled with variety and mystery.
3. Civilized society requires orders and hierarchy—“if a people destroy natural distinctions among men, presently Bonaparte fills the vacuum.”
4. “Property and freedom are inseparably connected.”
5. “Man must put a control upon his will and his appetite,” knowing that he is governed more by emotion than reason.
6. “Society must alter … but Providence is the proper instrument for change.”

–condensed from Russell Kirk, The Conservative Mind: From Burke to Santayana (Chicago: Henry Regnery Company, 1953), p. 61.

While I personally do not agree completely with each of these points, number five struck me as prescient as an indication of how the consideration of our very human nature constitutes a necessary component to include when reflecting on today’s circumstances. Considering that Kirk was writing these words in 1953, at a time when many thinkers of the day possessed a much less secular worldview, if we translate them without imposing a specific religious connotation, we can see a spiritual component that can inform our “personal conscience,” when attempting to determine how to respond to the “eternal chain of right and duty.”

When we witness the tragic results of recent world events–when we see and share the subsequent emotional and spiritual turmoil–it points to an important confluence of our spiritual nature with our physiological and emotional responses. The American philosopher, William James, (1842-1910) wrote about how our consciousness can directly affect our physiology:

william-james

“Even Darwin did not exhaustively enumerate all the bodily affections characteristic of any one of the standard emotions. More and more, as physiology advances, we begin to discern how almost infinitely numerous and subtle they must be. Research…has shown that not only the heart, but the entire circulatory system, forms a sort of sounding-board, which every change of our consciousness, however slight, may make reverberate. Hardly a sensation comes to us without sending waves of alternate constriction and dilatation down the arteries of our arms. The blood-vessels of the abdomen act reciprocally with those of the more outward parts.”

–excerpt from “What is an Emotion?, by William James (1884) First published in Mind, 9, 188-205

While he was considered to be a pragmatist who was more concerned about the practical application of his theories than the abstract concepts which he addressed in his writing, here James hits upon the powerful link between our possession of the penetrating subjective awareness provided by our very human form of consciousness, and the visceral experience of our emotional states and their effect on even the most subtle human physiological responses. We cannot separate ourselves easily from our evolutionary inheritance as a member of the genus Homo, who eventually became a cognitive creature, since we are still very much a product of that evolution. Many of our psychological inclinations and biological imperatives conflict with our more rational and cognitive capacities, and in ways that can pose the kinds of challenges we face in the 21st century.

Our current state of affairs as an American society, and indeed the state of affairs in the many diverse societies and nations of the world who share these challenges, present us not only with an opportunity to demonstrate our values, but also to bring together the many nations of the world in a common goal to answer the challenges posed by those who would perpetrate violence in the pursuit of a radical fundamentalist ideology.

The spirit of our American way of life, characterized by the ideals upon which our nation was originally founded, is not always evident in our actions in the world at large, nor in the rhetoric of our political and religious leaders, but in his book, Russell Kirk detailed the ideals which we have continually strived to attain, and which, if realized, could make all the difference in facing the challenges of our day:

“Kirk argued that Americans possessed those things that made a conservative counterrevolution possible: “the best written constitution in the world, the safest division of powers, the widest diffusion of property, the strongest sense of common interest, the most prosperous economy, an elevated intellectual and moral tradition, and a spirit of self-reliance unequalled in modern times.”

–excerpts from his article on the Heritage Foundation website entitled, “The Conservative Mind of Russell Kirk,” by Lee Edwards, Ph.D.

We need to find a way to answer the difficult questions posed by our circumstances that embraces the spirit of these values, and recognizes that the goal of achieving world peace can only be accomplished if we look within ourselves and reconnect to the human spirit, which Faulkner described as being “…capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance.”

An Artificial Version of Human Intelligence?

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According to Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary, intelligence is defined as:

noun
1. capacity for learning, reasoning, understanding, and similar forms of mental activity; aptitude in grasping truths, relationships, facts, meanings, etc.
2. manifestation of a high mental capacity: “He writes with intelligence and wit.”

In a recent study conducted at the University of Western Ontario, researchers acknowledged the limitations of current scientific research, but offered a basis for suggesting factors to consider. They “looked into the brain areas that are activated by tasks that are typically used to test for intelligence,” and reported their results–

“…based on the set of brain areas that might contribute to those tasks. However don’t get too excited, the methods used have severe limitations and we are still only at the hypothesis level. We do not know how these areas contribute to performance in intelligence tests and we do not know why they are activated and how they interact together to create the behavior.”

http://blog.brainfacts.org/

According to a recently published neuroscientific paper, “a broader definition was agreed to by 52 prominent researchers on intelligence:”

“Intelligence is a very general capability that, among other things, involves the ability to reason, plan, solve problems, think abstractly, comprehend complex ideas, learn quickly and learn from experience. It is not merely book learning, a narrow academic skill, or test‑taking smarts. Rather, it reflects a broader and deeper capability for comprehending our surroundings—‘catching on’, ‘making sense’ of things, or ‘figuring out’ what to do. Intelligence, so defined, can be measured, and intelligence tests measure it well.”

Reviewing the many related brain structures involved in cognitive functioning, researchers concluded that:

“…variations in these structures and functions may be “endophenotypes” for intelligence — that is, they might be intermediate physiological markers that contribute directly to intelligence. Therefore, genes involved in intelligence might be more closely linked to these variations in brain structure and function than to intelligence itself. In fact, in all studies to date, the genetic influences on these structures and functions were highly correlated with those on general intelligence.”

–excerpts from “The Neuroscience of Human Intelligence Differences,” by Ian J.Deary, Lars Penke and Wendy Johnson

There are a number of individuals today who are beginning to make associations between the technological advances of modern science and some of the ancient esoteric traditions like yoga, in an attempt to explain our subjective experience of consciousness:

“If hypothetical machinery inside neurons fails to explain qualia, (the ‘what-it’s-like’ quality of experience) must we then consider the molecules that make up the neuronal machinery, or the atoms inside the molecules, or the subatomic particles inside the atoms? Where is the difference that causes the qualia of subjective experience? A less problematic explanation is possible. German scientist, Gottfried Leibniz, postulated irreducible quanta of consciousness he termed ‘monads.’ Matter does not create consciousness. Instead, matter is animated by monads. It seems hardly a coincidence that Leibniz’ monads would perfectly fit between the moments of time that lead to Kaivalya, (Yoga term for enlightenment or nirvana.)

Ultimately, Kaivalya is an ineffable experience. But the claim of yoga is that it provides means to experience what is outside of the individualized mind. The experience of going through the center of consciousness and emerging, as it were, on the other side is very much one of turning inside out. In our ordinary consciousness we are turned outwards towards the world-image which we externalized around us.

In going through our consciousness the entire process is reversed, we experience an inversion…that which was without becomes within. In fact, when we succeed in going through our center of consciousness and emerge on the other side, we do not so much realize a new world around us as a new world within us. We seem to be on the surface of a sphere having all within ourselves and yet to be at each point of it simultaneously…the outstanding reality of our experience…is the amazing fact that nothing is outside us.”

–excerpts from article by DONALD J. DEGRACIA, Associate Professor of Physiology at the Wayne State University School of Medicine, Detroit, in EDGESCIENCE MAGAZINE #16 • NOVEMBER 2013

artificial-intelligence-8-638

Recent research in artificial intelligence has begun to approach what might be described as a kind of tipping point, where the lines will likely begin to blur between what is clearly a type of machine intelligence, like the current offerings in robotics and self-driving cars, to something more akin to the kind of intelligence that talks back to you or responds in a more conversational manner like Apple’s “Siri,” and the Windows 10 offering of a personal assistant application called “Cortana.” Many of these innovations are built upon interest in the idea of eventually being able to develop the technologies surrounding A.I. to the point where they will function so much like the human brain, that communicating with them will be virtually indistinguishable from doing so with another live human person.

While this is an enormously appealing concept to our modern sensibilities, and currently fueling a huge amount of research in the industry, even supposing that it might be possible to produce a device or platform commensurate with the trillions of connections between neurons in the human brain, characterizing any resulting machine as either “intelligent” or “conscious,” requires us to re-examine what it means to be intelligent and conscious. Our current understanding of these terms, even as they apply to humans, is still not especially comprehensive or complete, and looking at the development of “human” or “biological” intelligence through the millennia, demonstrates a key component of the challenge in creating an artificial version that might qualify as equivalent.

artificial Human-Evolution1

Early humans and their fellow primates and mammals, along with all the various species endowed with sufficiently complex neural structures and central nervous systems, at some point, eventually possessed a brain or other neural configuration of adequate strength, size, and architecture, which allowed for the retention of memories, and for processing the sensory data gleaned through the available senses. These structures, from the most primitive to the most sophisticated, at some point provided the necessary support for adaptive learning or for acquiring a sufficient degree of species-specific abilities, in order for the organism to make efficient use of that information, and to produce a range of results, commensurate with their species-specific capacities and habitation, which enhanced their survival in their respective environments.

Once our ancient ancestors reached a certain level of development, through the integration of incremental evolutionary changes, they achieved a nominal degree of enhanced cognitive talents, attaining a sufficient capacity for what we describe as “human intelligence,” which eventually led to the ability to reason and plan well enough to override emotional distractions, needs and desires, and to awaken to a penetrating level of subjective self-awareness. As any parent of a healthy child can tell you, intelligence does not appear immediately even in modern human children. In spite of advantageous circumstances and environments in which these amazing cognitive human creatures develop, it still requires a minimal degree of relevant experience in the world to accumulate a useful and functional knowledge base, to hone learning skills, and to be able to draw on a collection of memories, which enhance whatever cognitive, genetic, and other physiological resources they might bring to the process.

As a consequence of the random combinations of chromosomes in the human reproductive process, there is a sufficient degree of diversity in the general distribution of combinations available to the human genome, so that each human child has a relatively unique set of circumstances genetically. This diversity is necessary for the health of our species, and as a result, we observe a full range of endowment, which can result in bestowing our descendents with a general baseline capacity for the development of cognitive efficiency, or at the other end of the spectrum, a potential for an enhanced intellectual development, right from the start. A vast array of cultural and environmental variables can either promote or inhibit whatever potential is present, and throughout human history, we have observed how a viable or disadvantageous environment, as well as individual initiative or apathy, can alter the equation in either direction.

It seems likely, in view of these mitigating factors, that it is through a combination of innate cognitive talent, genetic endowment, and environmental conditions that we see contributions to the general flow of intelligence either making a significant appearance, or faltering and struggling to gain ground, in much the same way as it has been since the earliest neural structures appeared in whatever creatures are still existent today. In every case, whatever degree of potential existed within a particular species, it was either successfully developed and exploited for survival, or ended up being thwarted by circumstances from developing successfully enough to sustain a niche for a particular species, resulting in their extinction.

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Our challenge in the 21st century is finding a way to determine which contributing factors for increasing intelligence can be safely selected by humans for the most productive incorporation into what we are currently describing as “artificial intelligence,” or “machine intelligence.” Unfortunately, no matter what we are ultimately able to do, in my view, we won’t be able to incorporate our humanity fully into machines, nor will we be able to artificially endow them with the experience of “being human.” In order for us to be aware of our experience of existing as a human being, while clearly requiring a variety of nominally functional, finely-tuned, and integrated biological systems, each of which are essential currently, because there is so much more to being a subjectively aware human person, there must be something that it is like to be human, which cannot be precisely replicated by any technological advancement or created through sheer engineering genius. The subjective experience of human consciousness utilizes our very human capacity for intelligence, as well as our access to a penetrating awareness provided by an astonishing array of electrochemical processes in our miraculous brains, but what we are accessing is not PRODUCED by the brain, but rather it is PERCEIVED by it.

It’s interesting to me how some scientists and thinkers in all the various fields of investigation into artificial intelligence believe that it is simply a matter of achieving a sufficient degree of complexity in the structures we devise for the processing of the voluminous data necessary to be equivalent to the human brain, constructing a sufficiently pliable, flexible, and interactive software, driven by the necessary algorithms, and we will eventually produce a sentient, intelligent, and conscious machine.

In his fascinating and expansive book entitled, “The Universe in a Nutshell,” Stephen Hawking posits that if “very complicated chemical molecules can operate in humans to make them intelligent,” it should follow that “equally complicated electronic circuits can also make computers act in an intelligent way.” He goes on to say that electronic circuits have the same problem as our chemical processes in the brain, which is to process data at a useful speed. He also rightly points out that computers currently have less computational power than “a humble earthworm,” and while they “have the advantage of speed…they show no sign of intelligence.” He also reminds us that even with our capacity for what we call intelligence, that “the human race does not have a very good record of intelligent behavior.”

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The possession of a capacity for intelligence of any sort, artificial or otherwise, is clearly not a “stand-alone” feature that is sufficient to sustain any species in and of itself. As we have observed throughout the evolutionary history of the natural world, constructing and sustaining a successful organism requires the development of a range of compensatory and complimentary abilities and potentials, commensurate with the designs and functions of a particular species, in order to achieve a requisite degree of balance.

In the case of Homo sapiens, our particular brand of human intelligence, as we currently understand it, appears to be primarily the result of human evolution and progress throughout our history as upright, bipedal, and increasingly cognitive beings. As a result, our species is apparently uniquely well-suited for our evolutionary niche, and dominates currently among the other living organisms, mostly for this very reason. While we share much in common with our primate and mammalian family of creatures, and bearing in mind that we are equally indebted to all living things and to the Earth itself for our continued ability to sustain ourselves, intelligence appears to exist in remarkably adaptive and unique ways in each of the various evolutionary paths for each family of species that coexist with us today.

It would be arrogant to suggest that our variety of intelligence is in any way superior to that enjoyed by other organisms on our planet, except in the context of its usefulness to our specific nature as humans. Our own highly-adaptive nature is fairly well-suited generally to the requirements of our species, and while one might reasonably argue that our inclinations and intelligence are lacking in one way or another, for the most part, even considering our limitations, foibles, and perceived deficits, human intelligence has managed to keep pace with the unfolding of our continued evolution thus far, and providing that we persist in developing and adapting to our ever-changing circumstances, there is cause for optimism in my view.

What we tend to miss in most of our estimations of what sort of artificial intelligence might emerge from our efforts to produce it, is that no matter what results are forthcoming, it will very likely be profoundly different than our own ultimately, in spite of how specifically we aim to recreate the mental processes and physiological structures of our own exquisitely adaptive brains.

Crossroads

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In my previous post, I wrote about author Richard Brautigan, whose success in the late 1960’s and throughout the 1970’s brought him great notoriety and financial rewards for a time. His tendency to engage in a variety of self-destructive behaviors, and a degree of recklessness in attending to his own well-being, over time, ultimately led to his gradual decline into near obscurity, and to tragically choosing to end his own life at age 49. While my life has been much different in a number of ways, the lessons contained in his all-too-brief life, as well as in the lives of others with similar outcomes, have challenged and complicated my own journey in ways that have forced me to re-examine my path–to stop here at the crossroads–and to take a long, deep, breath.

Naturally, I have all the usual concerns about the future and planning for retirement that most people do. All of my children are grown and have started having their own children, but the opportunities presented by an “empty nest,” have actually unsettled me a bit. For a handful of years now I have been attempting to formalize my research and writing into a more coherent stream in this blog, and it has been both illuminating and challenging to direct and sustain my energies in the process. It seems that I am quickly approaching a point where I must consider my choice of direction for the time I have left to act in this life. Looking ahead and looking back, as well as looking at the divergent roads that may lead in one direction or another can be daunting, especially when measured against the responsibilities and demands of sustaining oneself in the 21st century. The crossroads can represent an approach to the culmination of everything that came before reaching them, but it can also bring to bear the memories of all the uncertainty and mystery that one had to face in order to arrive there in the first place. As always, not all choices are equally viable, but now there is far less time to redirect them, should it become clear that alternative choices may have provided an opportunity for a better outcome.

Throughout most of my life, trying to discern in which direction I should turn when I’ve arrived at crossroads has always been a bit problematical, but these days it seems heavy-laden with considerations that reflect the uncertainty and mystery even more than before, as well as a heightened awareness of them, brought about by a number of harsh life lessons in recent years. A post by a fellow blogger and creative writer, David Cain, speaks to the central dilemma:

“I will never see the world quite like anyone else, which means I will never live in quite the same world as anyone else — and therefore I mustn’t let outside observers be the authority on who I am or what life is really like for me. Subjectivity is primary experience — it is real life, and objectivity is something each of us builds on top of it in our minds, privately, in order to explain it all. This truth has world-shattering implications for the roles of religion and science in the lives of those who grasp it.”

http://www.raptitude.com/2010/10/9-mind-bending-epiphanies-that-turned-my-world-upside-down/?awesm=fbshare.me_AV3k9

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Clearly, I have been in the torrent of the world this past month. October managed to escape me with my attention focused elsewhere, even though I have been struggling to hobble together an important blog post which I hope to be posting this week. The quote from Johann Wolfgang von Goethe is actually from a play he completed in 1790 after a trip through Italy entitled, “Torquato Tasso.” I was able to locate an English translation from the original German by Charles Des Voeux which is available online thanks to the Harvard College Library Dexter Fund. In that play, the character Leonora reassures Alphonso:

“A talent doth in stillness form itself–A character on life’s unquiet stream.”

I have been swimming in “life’s unquiet stream,” and in moments of stillness, perhaps I have been developing a degree of character in the process. One can only hope! I also revisited a musical recording from my youthful days in the military by Emerson, Lake, and Palmer:

The Sage
——–

I carry the dust of a journey
that cannot be shaken away
It lives deep within me
For I breathe it every day.

You and I are yesterday’s answers;
The earth of the past came to flesh,
Eroded by Time’s rivers
To the shapes we now possess.

Come share of my breath and my substance,
and mingle our stream and our times.
In bright, infinite moments,
Our reasons are lost in our eyes.

–Emerson, Lake & Palmer – Pictures At An Exhibition Lyrics

Signpost.

Reviewing the events of my life these days, I’ve begun to see the role that the expectations of others has played in many of my choices. Beginning with my experiences in the formal education portion, not only was I constantly concerned about not meeting the expectations of my parents and teachers, but I often suffered the consequences when some performance I gave fell short of those expectations. All of my efforts were inevitably scrutinized to the point where it seemed I was only just barely surviving that scrutiny, until eventually it all came to a breaking point–a crossroad–when I turned in one particularly awful performance in my sophomore year at college, which resulted in re-directing my life away from the university for a time, and propelled me toward the events which took place in each of the far-flung locations I have been describing this past year as a young soldier, winding his way through the labyrinth of spiritual awakening.

There are challenges for me these days, but I have been seeking guidance and support and remain hopeful that November will be a first step in a positive direction. Thanks to all my readers and friends for your patience and comments!