Our Place In The Universe

An image from the Cassini spacecraft shows Earth as a point of light between the icy rings of Saturn.
Credit – Space Science Institute/JPL-Caltech/NASA

Thanks to the leaps in satellite technology, undertaken by NASA and others, as well as scientific advances as a result of humanity’s efforts to conduct space travel, there now exist many unique images of the Earth, taken from a number of different perspectives, and as living, cognitive beings in the 21st century of recorded human history, we have been privileged to have the opportunity to view the earth in ways that were impossible only 60 years ago. Many creative and innovative methods of photographing the Earth from above, from aerial photographs taken by kites, balloons, and even carrier pigeons, to those from airplanes and early attempts at rocketry, all contributed to our perspective in interesting ways. It would take several years after the advent of human space flight to finally accomplish the task of taking a photograph of the entire earth. On November 17th, 1967, the NASA/ATS-3 synchronous satellite, orbiting the earth at a distance of 22,300 miles, directly above the Amazon River, took the image below utilizing an Electronic Image Systems Photorecorder, transmitting the image to the Weather Satellite Ground station in Rosman, North Carolina:

I received a print of this photograph from the original negative, described as the “first color photo ever made of the entire earth,” as a result of my father’s employment at the Missile and Space Division of the General Electric Company, engaged in the effort to put an American astronaut on the moon. The souvenir photo was presented to me at age 15 as a gift intended to inspire and encourage my interest in all things related to space travel and to astronomy. I have lovingly preserved the image these many years, and although it is beginning to show its age, it still holds a particular fascination for me, and continues to inspire and encourage my interest in the perspective only possible to achieve from stepping away from the earth-bound view of life.

Most people remember the iconic image of the Earth from the moon taken in 1968 by the Apollo astronauts on their way to orbiting that nearest extraterrestrial orb, and in some ways, the simple fact that it was a cognitive human person recording that image on his way to the moon that gave it much of its appeal, but it was on August 23, 1966 that we first got to see the Earth from the vicinity of the moon, in an image taken by NASA’s Lunar Orbiter I:

Many astonishing and beautiful images of the earth from spacecraft orbiting the Earth have been recorded over the years, from John Glenn’s initial orbits of the Earth in February of 1962, to the many views of our planet recorded from the space shuttle flights, all the way to those being made available regularly from the International Space Station. As our technology progressed, we found new and interesting ways to record our place in the universe, and the image below, recorded in 1977 by the Voyager I spacecraft, shows both the Earth and the Moon in the blackness of space:

The image at the top of this post, recently sent from the Cassini spacecraft, recorded at a distance of only 900 million miles, is reminiscent of the very last image from Voyager II in 1990, which was taken just before the batteries ran out, at a distance of approximately 3.7 billion miles away. Carl Sagan famously used the photograph as a launch point for his book, “Pale Blue Dot, A Vision of the Human Future in Space.”

The perspective available to us as a result of these accomplishments, aside from being humbling and awe-inspiring, is one that we have only recently begun to appreciate more fully. We still have all the squabbling and competition among peoples and nations all over the globe, but we have far less of an excuse for not recognizing just how small our home planet looms against the immensity of the galaxy and indeed the whole known universe. We will eventually have to recognize the need to bring all people and nations together into a cooperative organized union of nations in order to preserve the Earth for future generations. Our place in the universe is not yet fully developed, nor do we seem any closer to bringing the people of the world together when we look at the conflicts and trouble spots in the world.

We hold the future of our species in our hands now. We are the caretakers of the earth presently, and the path ahead has some real challenges if we are to leave a sustainable and reasonably livable Earth to our children and grandchildren. Our place in the universe is uncertain in some ways, but we can work toward a greater understanding of our fellow cognitive beings and what it is that gives us our unique perspective. This is my hope in contributing to this blog–to join with all the other voices that are pressing us forward to a more sustainable future, and to achieving a greater appreciation of our privilege as Earth’s caretakers. The subjective experience of consciousness is the door through which we bring to fruition, the future of our fragile place in the universe.

Mind Matters

A recent conversation with a psychologist friend of mine brought up the importance of our very human version of neurobiology, and how little we still understand about the complex neurobiological processes that are responsible for behavior and our ability to interact with our fellow cognitive creatures. While much has been discovered about the mechanisms of both cognition and genetics as they relate to brain development and how it all relates to human activities, not much material is actually available that definitively addresses the implications, sources, and treatments for specific pathologies as they relate in the fields of neuroscience and biology. A quick check into the sources of information on neurobiology in general will provide a wide range of options from which to choose, but so much is still not being studied and not wholly understood.

http://www.drdansiegel.com/home/

With all the research and scholarship taking place in the field of cognitive studies and neurobiology, there are a few hopeful signs that an expanded view of what might constitute a comprehensive theory of the subjective experience of consciousness might finally be emerging. UCLA psychiatry professor, Daniel Siegel, whose most recent book is “Mind: A Journey to the Heart of Being Human,” has a supportive view. On the website, “Big Think,” Siegel’s idea is reviewed and his idea is phrased in this way: “We’ve come to accept that the brain is the instrument that plays the mind, but Siegel takes it one step further by positing that your mind isn’t limited to the confines of your skull, or even the barrier of your skin anywhere in your body. Your mind is emergent – it’s beyond your physiology, and it exists in many different places at once.”

http://bigthink.com/videos/daniel-siegel-on-emergent-minds?utm_source=Big+Think+Weekly+Newsletter+Subscribers&utm_campaign=f4a5c82fe3-Weekly_Newsletter_030917&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_6d098f42ff-f4a5c82fe3-40211698

Supporting Seigel’s ideas is an impressive background in a wide range of studies in psychiatry and philosophy, and his serious attention to the science of the mind and brain give his ideas some genuine gravitas. According to his bio on his website, “…Daniel J. Siegel received his medical degree from Harvard University and completed his postgraduate medical education at UCLA with training in pediatrics and child, adolescent and adult psychiatry.  He served as a National Institute of Mental Health Research Fellow at UCLA, studying family interactions with an emphasis on how attachment experiences influence emotions, behavior, autobiographical memory and narrative. Dr. Siegel is a clinical professor of psychiatry at the UCLA School of Medicine and the founding co-director of the Mindful Awareness Research Center at UCLA. An award-winning educator, he is a Distinguished Fellow of the American Psychiatric Association.”

I recently reviewed Siegel’s 2011 presentation to the Garrison Institute on YouTube and recommend it as a good introduction to the idea that the mind is, in Siegel’s words, “…an embodied and relational emergent process that regulates the flow of energy and information,” and in the video he describes “the role of awareness and attention in monitoring and modifying the mind.”

These are complex ideas and challenging for many people to wrap their own minds around them, but Siegel presents them in an accessible way to a more general audience and goes to great lengths to explain in detail, how it is that the “mind” includes the physiology of the brain, but is not limited to the physical structures of the brain, or indeed to the body itself. The implications for subjective experience in particular, and our very human version of consciousness generally, are far reaching and intriguing for anyone interested in the subject.

In the coming weeks, I hope to write about some of the recent ideas and investigations going on in our current century, and also to reflect a bit on some of the more expansive ideas from some of the great thinkers of the past few centuries. It’s interesting to me how many of the ideas from the past are now receiving greater attention due to the efforts of scholars like Siegel, and look forward to sharing my thoughts and musings with my readers here.

What It Means To Feel

Since there is so much conversation going on these days about Artificial Intelligence and what we might expect in the coming years as scientists and researchers advance in constructing ever-more complex machines, I thought it might be a good time to consider not only what it means to be “intelligent,” but also what importance the term “artificial” carries with it when using the two terms together in a sentence. In recent years, cognitive scientists and AI researchers have made significant progress in producing machines which can perform specific tasks and demonstrate specialized capacities for accomplishing remarkable feats of machine intelligence, and in very specific ways, have outperformed humans in circumstances which previously were thought to be beyond such artificial constructs.

While all of the hoopla and publicity surrounding such events generally results in hyperbole and sensational headlines, there is a degree of fundamental achievement underneath it all that warrants our attention and could be described as commendable in the context of modern scientific research. Most media consumers and television viewers have encountered the commercials for IBM’s Watson, and have likely been exposed to reports of Watson’s abilities and accomplishments. There is much to admire in the work that resulted in the existence of such a system, and the benefits are fairly straightforward as presented by the advertisements, although it is also clear that they have been designed to feature what might be the most benign and easy-to-understand characteristics of a system which accomplishes its tasks using artificial intelligence. Much of the underlying science, potential risks, and limits of such research are rarely discussed in such ads.

In order to make some kind of sense of it all, and to think about what it is exactly that is being accomplished with artificial intelligence, what forces and processes are being employed, and how the results compare to other cognitive achievements, especially as it relates to human intelligence and human cognitive processes, we have to understand something about the most important differences between a system like Watson, and the cognitive processes and brain physiology of modern humans. While some stunning similarities exist between the basic architecture of neural networks in the brain and modern AI devices, not a single project currently being undertaken is anywhere near the goal of rising to an equivalent level of general capability or even just achieving a basic understanding what it takes to create a human mind. It’s not that it’s an impossible undertaking, nor is it impossible to imagine how human minds might eventually make great leaps in both constructing advanced systems and in making progress toward a greater level of understanding. After all, the human mind is pretty stunning all by itself!

What is most discouraging from my point of view is how much emphasis is being placed on the mechanics of intelligence–the structural underpinning of physical systems–instead of including a more holistic and comprehensive approach to increasing our understanding. A recent article in the Wall Street Journal by Yale University computer science professor, David Gelernter, (Review, March 19-20, 2017) posits that “…software can simulate feeling. A robot can tell you it’s depressed and act depressed, although it feels nothing.” Whether or not this approach might bring us closer to “machines that can think and feel,” successfully doing so seems like a long shot. If all we can do is “simulate” a human mind, is that really accomplishing anything?

Professor Gelernter goes to great lengths to describe the levels of a functional human mind, and gives us valuable insights into the way our own minds work, and he illuminates the way we shift between levels of awareness, as well as how we make such good use of our unique brand of intelligence. He then suggests that AI could create these same circumstances in a “computer mind,” and that it could “…in principle, build a simulated mind that reproduced all of the nuances of human thought, and (which) dealt with the world in a thoroughly human way, despite being unconscious.” He takes great pains to enumerate all the ways in which the “spectrum” of a human mind operates, and then concludes that “Once AI has decided to notice and accept this spectrum–this basic fact about the mind–we will be able to reproduce it in software.”

We cannot reduce what it means to feel to the astonishingly complex machinations of the human brain, any more than we can boil down the complexity of the human brain to the point where an artfully written piece of software can recreate anything even close to human feelings–what it actually feels like to be a living, breathing, cognitive human being. As Hamlet explains to Horatio, “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” Shakespeare’s intimation on the limitations of even human thought should give us pause to consider the limitations of producing it artificially.

—more to come—

American Watercolor Exhibit

An extraordinary opportunity to travel to Center City Philadelphia this weekend made it possible to fulfill a longtime wish from my younger days to view in person some of the actual original works of Winslow Homer. As a much younger man, full of optimism and the creative spirit, I had thought to become an artist myself, and had taken many steps to achieve that aim throughout my educational journey. Art classes in grammar school, high school, and college only served to heighten my interest in the great works of art created out in the world, and one of my earliest experiences with admiration for other artists involved Mr. Homer, as his paintings were often used as illustrations for poetry books that I never seemed to be able to avoid reading.

The painting at the top of this page, entitled, “Diamond Shoal,” was created around 1905, and captured my imagination not simply as a work of art, but as an inspiration to imagine sailing in such a circumstance myself, as well as prompting what would become a lifelong interest in watercolor painting. Once it became an interest for me, I began attempting to create my own works, a few of which have illustrated my writings here. I never felt like my own skill approached any sort of level that might warrant attention from the art world, but the inspiration of the many works I encountered along the way never left me.

The image above, also by Winslow Homer, is a prime example of how such paintings not only appealed to me as a work of art, but also gave me an appreciation for the content of artwork that the masters unfailingly produced, which I rarely felt that I could embody in my own work. The painting is called, The Trysting Place,” from around 1875, and it depicts a young woman waiting at an appointed meeting place for what the artist described as “…a tardy lover.” You can almost feel the butterflies in her stomach in anticipation of his arrival, and perhaps even some anxiety that he might not show up at all. She is a lovely young woman, dressed in a deliberate choice by the artist as emblematic of the times, and she seems both vulnerable as she wonders what might be keeping her lover, and yet still also courageous to make the arrangement in the first place. Standing in front of these works, knowing that they are the original work of an artist I have long admired and who is world famous with good cause, was both uplifting and inspiring, even as a much older man today. There were hundreds of works by other artists as well and a few of them were especially notable for me as an enthusiastic patron of the exhibit.

This image was painted by one of the many women artists featured at the exhibit. “Bow Sprit,” from around 1916-1918, is a much more impressionistic rendering than some of the others which caught my eye, and I love how the impressions of the water and the sails and the circumstance are more than sufficient to give the viewer a sense of what the artist saw. I love the sparkling array of colors and the fluid movement suggested by her skilled hands. There were many renderings in the exhibit which had similar effects, but this one stood out for me.

At about the half-way point in the journey through these amazing images, there was a section of Winslow Homer works, paired with similar subjects and renderings by another master of watercolor, John Singer Sargent. Both artists were members of the American Watercolor Society in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s, but had remarkably different approaches to their work, and the contrast was both illuminating and interesting to contemplate. Homer seemed most often to be more concerned with precision and including important details in his renderings, and Sargent was much more focused on the impressionistic aspects of his final works, but both achieved a very similar result which delights and inspires.

Included in this array of creativity were two images by Georgia O’Keefe, someone whose work I have always admired, but for which I had never had the opportunity to view in person. The image above was one of the two, both renderings described as “Evening Star,” and this one is “number two.” The description reported the works as “experimental in nature,” both created as an exploration of the medium and of the subject. There was a palpable feeling of connection to the artist for me at that moment, and as with many of the other works displayed, a sense of awe and satisfaction that is very difficult to articulate.

The exhibit is only available in Philadelphia, and only for a few short weeks from March 1st through May 14th. The quality and nature of these paintings are so exquisitely unique, that they are very rarely exhibited due to the harm that results from exposure to light, even the subtle indoor light of the museum. Several of the works had curtains in front of them so as to minimize the amount of exposure the paintings would receive, even during such a short period of time. Going to such lengths to preserve these works is an enormously important factor for future generations, and I walked away from the museum that afternoon enlivened and inspired in a way that is also unfortunately not as frequent as I would like.

Our connection to the artists and the works they produced in the past is a vital link to the very heart of our humanity, and while each of us may not be masters of our chosen creative arts, we each possess the same vital elements within us that connects us to each other and to those who came before us. We are the masters of our own creative spirits, and uniquely qualified to continue to connect to our spiritual and creative sensibilities as only we can.