Artificial Intelligence and Human Life

Fifty-two prominent researchers on intelligence, agreed to a broad definition of the term, “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”

–Gottfredson, L. S. Mainstream science on intelligence: excerpt from an editorial with 52 signatories, history, and bibliography. Intelligence 24, 13–23 (1997).

Intelligence of the artificial variety, if it is ever to be considered on a par with the human variety, should then include each of these abilities, as well as the capabilities for comprehension, “catching on,” etc. A recent film about this very subject has captured some very important aspects of concern, supposing that there is some sort of breakthrough eventually that creates what might be described as a “conscious machine.”

“Ex Machina,” the 2015 Universal Studio film, directed by Alex Garland, starring Domhnall Gleeson, Alicia Vikander, and Oscar Isaac, tells the story of a reclusive billionaire genius who owns the largest search engine company in the world, who has built a research facility in a remote mountain setting for the purpose of building an artificially intelligent robot, with the expressed goal of passing the well-known “Turing Test,” for determining if the “machine” is self-aware. As the film opens, Caleb, an employee of the high-tech firm, has won a lottery drawing within the company to visit the CEO, Nathan, at his research station and, as a result, has the opportunity to test the A.I. to see if it is truly “self-aware.” If Nathan has succeeded, he claims that it would be “the most important event in the history of man.” Domhnall Gleeson’s character corrects him by describing it as “the most important event in the history of gods.”

We are immediately thrown into the astonishing world of the newly “born” A.I., Ava, and by virtue of the design of a special high-tech suit, Alicia Vikander’s character appears to be constructed of wires and metal bones, illuminated by a variety of internal lights, and covered strategically by patches of flesh-like “skin,” allowing for the display of facial movements, and to give “Ava,” a basic human appearance. The internal workings are visible enough to suggest how the robot functions, while still providing the basic contours of the human form. It is an accomplished display of special effects which are both astonishingly realistic and profoundly disturbing at the same time. The contrast is designed to be unsettling to the moviegoer—to draw us in and to shock us into believing that it could be accomplished.

If you haven’t seen the film, it is a powerfully compelling story, and I recommend it wholeheartedly as a morality tale, which begs the question of how we would have to treat such entities should they actually qualify as being self-aware, as well as a serious warning about what might happen if we don’t get it right. The character of the robot’s creator, Nathan, clearly isn’t sufficiently cautious regarding the implications of bringing a self-aware robot “online,” and he seems callous and narcissistic as an eccentric billionaire genius.

Story elements aside, many of which were designed to create drama and provide tension, the underlying implications of the circumstances surrounding such an endeavor gave me pause to consider why any future human being capable of such a feat would even want to dabble in such an undertaking in the first place. Regardless of the level of extraordinary intelligence required, bringing such an entity into existence would also require just the right balance of human decency, compassion, and empathy, coupled with profound and penetrating neuroscientific acumen. While the technological and scientific principles supporting such an invention would be of great interest to artificial intelligence advocates generally, and those who would stand to benefit financially and otherwise would have an understandable motive to see it through, the actual created entity itself would present humanity with the most challenging and perplexing dilemma it could ever face—how to know if it would turn out to be a powerfully beneficial scientific breakthrough, or the eventual instrument of our own obsolescence!

At this point in human evolution, the possibility of constructing anything even close to the self-aware robot we meet in the film seems, on the face of it, to be a very unlikely development for a number of reasons. Throughout the film, we are presented with brief glimpses of the architecture and underlying technologies which provide the foundation for how such an entity might be constructed and assembled to achieve the desired result of the project, and none of those elements exist currently in any form even resembling in the slightest degree that which would be necessary for accomplishing this enormously complex task. Using even the most sophisticated and powerful computers known to humanity, we can barely reach a level of AI that even just approximates the sophistication of the most basic nervous system of the most minimally sentient creature.

Several projects being undertaken to “mimic” the human brain, using our most promising approaches for “deep learning,” and the giant “supercomputers” like IBM’s Watson, are simply nowhere near being able to reproduce anything resembling even a fraction of the innate capabilities that our own three pound squishy mental organ can manage, with its trillions of connections inside our exquisitely shaped and evolutionarily designed skulls. This inheritance of the long evolutionary path of modern primates provided Homo sapiens with a distinctly and uniquely capable cognitive system, which exists (so far as we know) only within human beings, and consists of the most complex arrangement of neural networks of any known species. It is presumptuous indeed to suppose that any artificial system might one day exist, which could recreate precisely, that which now exists within us, possessing the same character and quality of a living, breathing, sentient modern human.

Even the tiniest quantum “neurons,” represented by the atomic scale of the components proposed by the advent of quantum computers, require supporting technologies that would seriously prohibit squeezing them into a space as small as the human skull. The character of Ava, portrayed unflinchingly in the film by Alicia Vikander, has so many affectations of modern humans, and is intriguing beyond any expectation of her creator or her Turing tester, that we easily get caught up in suspending our knowledge that no such creature currently exists. The interplay between Caleb and Ava reaches a fever pitch eventually, and we are compelled to hang on to the edge of our seats as the drama unfolds.

It is well worth the investment of the resources available to produce sophisticated and intelligent machines, and I’m not suggesting that we abandon artificial intelligence research and development. Many of the films which attempt to portray what might take place in a world where such inventions exist, often only offer a superficial portrayal of the opposing characters, glossing over the significant differences between artificial machines and sentient living humans. In the film, “Ex Machina,” the contrast is absolutely startling, as both human and machine present a potent display of the limits of both the technology and our human understanding of what makes us truly self-aware.

What it usually boils down to is whether or not the film makers believe consciousness is a product of brain physiology—whether it “emerges” out of the firing of neurons and the electrochemical processes defined by neuroscience, or instead exists as a phenomenon of indeterminate origin which is made available to us by virtue of possessing “the right stuff,” –a sufficiently complex cognitive organ.

Any attempt to reduce the complexity and holistic phenomenal experience of consciousness to simply putting together enough neurons in the right arrangement and coordinating systems and functions in just the right manner, seriously underestimates not only the phenomenon itself, but fails to take into account the awesome and sometimes mysterious character of our humanity. Human nature and nurture won’t ever be truly obsolete, as long as we continue to appreciate the supreme value of human life, and acknowledge with gratitude, our awareness of our subjective experience of existing as complex sentient beings. We are imperfect creatures who often don’t understand or appreciate fully how miraculous it is to be a participant in the experience of life on Earth, and we cannot expect any artificial “life” to be anything other than a reflection of the moral character and scientific competence of its creator.

The Soul That Rises With Us

There is a movement within me, an awareness—a deeply personal transcendent awareness—which, from my perspective, clearly does not originate from some temporal source in the world. There are those who might say such concepts are an illusion. I have often thought that they said such things to make the world seem more comprehensible—to make them feel better about not truly knowing.

The same might be said about some of the things that have happened to me, which seemed objectively real to me. I know my consciousness exists IN the world, and that I have become manifest as a sentient being in the physical world, and yet, everything within me harkens back to the beginning, starting with my first memories, and when I reflect on those earliest recollections of existing as a “self,” it inevitably reminds me of how mysterious life seemed at that time. There were so many questions, and so much of what took place in the world that evoked within me, a deep sense of mystery. William Wordsworth wrote:

“There was a time when meadow, grove, and stream,
The earth, and every common sight,
To me did seem
Appareled in celestial light,
The glory and freshness of a dream.

Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting:
The Soul that rises with us, our life’s Star,
Had hath elsewhere its setting,
And cometh from afar:

–excerpt from Wordsworth’s poem, “Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood.”

We often think as we arrive into our advanced years that we have conquered some of these mysteries—that we have penetrated them somehow—at least to a degree. In some ways, of course, we actually have unraveled portions of what previously had been considered ineffable and mysterious.

The comprehension of brain physiology has been enormously illuminating for someone like me, and the advances in neuroscience have expanded our understanding of our mental life exponentially. It often makes me laugh when some prominent neuroscientist feels so confident to assert some “discovery” of why things work the way they do, or what makes us human.

Of all the aspects of our advances in understanding, of all the qualities of our human physiology that distinguish us as creatures who possess a uniquely “human perspective,” our grasp of how the human brain operates, and our ever-increasing knowledge of our particular neural architecture, explain with generally accepted agreement among neuroscientists, the basic fundamentals of how it is that we possess such an astonishing array of cognitive functions.

So much of our ability to make good use of our experience of the world is made possible by our higher cognitive functioning—by the firing of neurons, which send out electrical impulses, which propagate along the strings of dendrites, and by the transfer of ions across synapses—chemicals crossing cellular barriers between neurons—and by the eventual cooperation and coordination of whole brain regions. So much of sensation and comprehension and cognition require this exchange of energy and information, and even the small understanding that we currently possess is absolutely astonishing!

As miraculous as all of this seems, for me, it mostly shines a light on the SOURCE of consciousness, and the FOUNDATIONAL MECHANISM of our ability to be aware of our subjective experience. Everything I see and know and understand, and everything I feel, points toward an appreciation of our cognitive capacities, as a MEANS to access the phenomenon of human subjective experience, which is the link between our temporal existence and our true nature as manifestations of a non-physical reality. I recognize that there are cognitive illusions, and that there is bias, and limited apprehension by humanity of the physical universe currently.

As much as we see and understand, we see and understand so little, compared to what there IS to see and understand. It seems to me and to many others, that most of what we think we know only scratches the surface of what there is to know. Our fullest and most current understanding of our existence as physical beings in a physical universe only POINTS in the direction of the fullness of understanding that is achievable.

We constantly approach thresholds where all of our knowledge and complex scientific comprehension leave us empty-handed when they try to explain the true and full nature of our subjective experience of being alive as sentient cognitive beings. It’s not a failure of our scientific talents and it’s not an indictment of our human version of intelligence as being inadequate to the task.

Author and lifelong teacher, Joseph Campbell, who was the leading mythologist and former member of the literature faculty at Sarah Lawrence College in New York, expressed it best when he wrote that all of our efforts in life are not a search for meaning, but instead, he believed that “…we are seeking an experience of being alive that resonates with our innermost being and reality.” According to Campbell, the life experiences that we have are intended to help us “…feel the rapture of being alive.” In his view, myths are “clues to the spiritual potentialities of human life.”

With an expectation that you will find some causal link between brain physiology and the full explanation of the phenomenon of human subjective experience of consciousness, it seems to me, that you are setting yourself up for disappointment.

It is my most fervent hope in this life, that there is still sufficient time for me to share all that I have learned by being who I am, and that as many people as possible, hear the message—the song of the universe—the song of absolute balance in life—not giving everything away and not withholding anything, just being, surviving and helping anyone we can.

Unfortunately, not everyone sees the world as it could be—there are those who seek to control and manipulate rather than allow and cooperate. As a result, those of us who seek balance have to work hard to prevent as much suffering in the world as we can.

One day, all of us, regardless of what side of the fence we are on, will be confronted by circumstances which require our best life-affirming response. At that moment, we will know what to do. If we are able to do as much right as possible, the world will turn out better in the long run.

The World Outside of Our World

Scientist leaving the world. Engraving c.1520. Allegorical representation of changes in medieval conception or interpretation of the heavens when it was thought that the world was flat, discovering the point where heaven and earth meet, twentieth-century coloration of black-and-white engraving from The Atmosphere, by Camille Flammarion, 1888.

Anyone who ponders the possibility of an existence beyond that which we can know and experience as temporal beings, cannot determine with absolute certainty, while they inhabit their physical bodies, what the precise nature of the universe might fully entail; nor can we unambiguously describe the character and quality of the forces or energies which may exist outside of our temporal conscious awareness. As with many mysterious, ineffable, or extraordinary experiences, which may imply or potentially include the involvement of a transcendent component or aspect, we must approach our interpretation of them with the understanding that even though they may possibly be objectively real and seem subjectively potent for us personally, that the very nature of such an existence precludes any attempt to describe it well in temporal terms, and it may never yield its secrets while enduring any sort of empirical scrutiny.

Yet we do occasionally get glimpses of such possibilities–flashes of insight, moments when we sense a connection to something outside of ourselves, extraordinary inner events outside of our everyday experience–which suggest intimations of the existence of another world, which we can only describe as “other-worldly.” Getting to the heart of the matter can present us with a challenge to our intellect, and to our hearts and minds, to be sure, but such experiences can result occasionally in visceral, real, tangible, physical world responses, which are obviously inexplicable in any other way. We are forced to consider the possibility of an influence originating from a world whose nature crosses some kind of threshold between it and the world we know temporally.

Back in 2001, Columbia Pictures released a computer animated film entitled, “Final Fantasy: the Spirits Within,” which told the story of a future world in which scientists were pitted against mysterious forces invading and consuming all life forms they encountered, and a race to discover the true nature of the invaders featured two opposing worldviews: one which touted the power of science to construct a weapon which seemed to destroy the mysterious ghost-like creatures, and the other which proposed another more complex scientific approach involving an understanding of the nature of life on earth which included intimations of a spirit of the earth–Gaia. Ultimately, the powerful destructive weapon approach, directed by a materialistic and angry militant general, which nearly destroyed any hope for saving humanity, was defeated by a determined and life affirming scientific duo who solved the dilemma by piecing together the eight levels of the spirit of the earth.

I’ve included a link to the movie trailer if anyone is interested in further investigation:

The film was not a critical success in spite of extraordinary animation effects and a very compelling storyline, mostly because of the link the title suggested to the popular video game of the same name. Fortunately for me, I was unfamiliar with the game and enjoyed the movie on its own merit. What it suggested to me was the urgency to progress beyond our limited temporal existence and to discover a fuller and more holistic view of what the nature of life might actually be. It remains a potent message today, and regardless of what the ultimate explanation of the full nature of our existence might be, we must be willing to remain open to life in all its possibilities.

Is it possible that we exist not simply as a consequence of our cosmic and human evolution, but also by virtue of an underlying non-physical existence? While many aspects of our temporal reality remain outside of our comprehension currently, what would make any of us inclined to investigate, contemplate, and attempt to articulate the concept of a “transcendent reality,” when comprehension of the physical universe itself still remains beyond our current capabilities? The image above suggests a potential place to begin. Many mornings as a much younger man and occasionally over the years since then, I have had the opportunity to observe such spectacles as the one of the sunrise on the east coast at the Jersey Shore, and some others as the sun descended in the western sky in California, and the effect for me has always been palpably real of a deeper sense of connection to a kind of threshold between where life begins and where it ends temporally as the day begins at sunrise and ends at sunset.

“The relevance of conscious experience in generating (a) new understanding, (of an) intimate connection ( to intuition) with the core part of our inner selves, (is) becoming clearer. Intuition and the practices for intentionally enhancing it—meditation, prayer, deep contemplation, a developed sense of inner peace—can be seen as the key means for gaining access to this interior domain and then living it with an enlarged sense of purpose and direction. The human unconscious, which we experience only indirectly through subjective processes such as feelings, impressions, sensations, emotions, dreams and intuition, holds this invisible domain in place, always ready for awakening. Intuition is (humanity’s) communication link between (the) inner and outer minds and it bridges this all too familiar gap.” –© William H. Kautz/Center for Applied Intuition

The quote above came from a recent visit to the website for the Center for Applied Intuition in San Francisco, by Dr. Kautz, who earned an Sc.D. degree from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (M.I.T.), conducted scientific and technical research at Stanford Research Institute (SRI International) for 35 years in the then emerging field of computer science, with additional activity in geophysics, health, chemistry and the social sciences. In 1977, he founded the Center for Applied Intuition (CAI) and was its Director for 15 years.

We often can have an intuitive sense of some existence beyond the temporal, regardless of how it might be configured or what might serve as its foundation or source. Traveling along the highways in Virginia, fully conscious and open to the concept of simultaneously existing in both worlds, observing the abundance of life all around me, seems to re-enforce the idea. Throughout human history, we see many varieties of approaches to explain or rationalize our ideas regarding the ineffable, but its existence as an objectively real possibility has been asserted by numerous sages, mystics, spiritual leaders, and even scientists throughout the ages. Carl Jung, the eminent Swiss psychiatrist was one such empiricist who clearly advocated a position which supports the idea in a clear way.

The existence of archetypes as primordial images, which we inherit as beings who possess a penetrating awareness of what goes on beyond what our senses tell us, suggests the potential of a non-ordinary state from which we come and to which we return when our time as temporal beings comes to an end. Dr.Kautz continues:

“Intuition may be regarded as a mere phenomenon to be studied by scholars, but it may also be seen as a natural part of life, just as we view intelligence, creativity, imagination, kindness, empathy, even the capacity to speak a language…(it) can now be defined as the human mental capability for drawing on an apparently unlimited source of knowledge (the collective unconscious or whichever name you prefer) to obtain almost any desired information, including that not accessible by common means. This capability bypasses the rational faculty, the familiar five senses and ordinary memory, which are not required and can even hinder the reception process.”

Awareness of our fullest and truest nature is only possible when we remain open to what may potentially explain our keen sense of intuition, imagination, and empathy for all life. If we can allow ourselves to extend what is possible, we may find a way to reach the world outside of our world.

Welcome To The New And Improved John’s Consciousness

Greetings to all of my readers and visitors here at John’s Consciousness!

I recently decided to take it up a notch here and acquired my own new domain, “Johns-Consciousness.com,” and have marked the occasion with the addition of a new theme as well. There have been some changes in my personal life that have prompted me to re-evaluate my approach to both the conduct of my daily life and to the subject which has occupied me almost constantly since I began this blog in earnest in January of 2011. This month, I will have completed my 65th year of life on Earth, and it occurred to me that a great deal has changed even in the almost eight years I have been blogging here at WordPress.

The image above represents one particular aspect of my interest in our subjective experience of human consciousness–one that I have not spoken of much since I began writing this blog. Since October 15, 2006, I have maintained an avatar presence on the website, SecondLife.com, and have had a number of interesting experiences and conversations with other participants from all over the world. For a while, I even maintained a residence and worked an actual paying position as a tour guide for an 18th century palace simulation. Many of the characters I have met along the way have since moved away or stopped visiting the website, but there are still plenty of adventures and opportunities available for anyone with the time and inclination to pursue them.

Part of the reason I decided to participate in the world of Second Life was my fascination with the concept of creating a “second” version of myself through the power of virtual reality technology, which was quite new back in the early 2000’s. As I floundered in the beginning steps towards citizenship, I discovered that the concept of living a virtual life, as opposed to what we like to describe as our “real life,” held many opportunities for contemplating the nature of human life, without many of the distractions of physically interacting in other “real-time” social environments. Much to my surprise, I found the experiences strangely compelling at times, and I continue to enjoy observing and interacting as the opportunity presents itself.

Of course, participating in the “real world,” can often seem unreal at times, and anyone who has been following along here at John’s Consciousness knows that I have had more than my share of seemingly “unreal” experiences. The question that naturally presents itself when you look up at a spectacular and peculiar sky, or experience any sort of “other-worldly” encounter in our daily travels is “What the heck is going on?” If we are paying attention and fully living in the moment when something inexplicable occurs, or perhaps when we suddenly wake up in the middle of the night during a particularly vivid or startling dream, there is a moment or two where we are not at all certain about what is real and what is unreal. It can sometimes take us momentarily to a place where we may question our perceptions and our understanding of our very human nature.

Recently, I left the world of working a job outside the home every day, which had sustained me since I first started working way back in June of 1968. For fifty years, no matter what aspirations I held or what goals I was pursuing outside of work, raising my six children, and supporting my family in all things, I was never really able to give my writing and research and contemplation the full attention they deserved. There were times when I nearly gave up on the idea of fulfilling these aspirations altogether. When the day finally came to step away, it felt like a great stone had been lifted from my chest. I’m still in the early days of disbelief and astonishment at the thought of turning 65 this month, but slowly I’m beginning to feel the compelling sense of participating in a transition to another stage of my life, and I am at least hopeful that it will bear fruit at some point.

Albert Einstein’s quote reminds me that all of the feeling and longing that I have held on to these many years has indeed been a source of creativity in my endeavors, and a motivating force that has kept my blog humming along these past seven and a half years. I hope you will all ride along with me as I navigate through the next phase of my endeavors here, and that we can share in the process of discovery together in the time to come.

The Extraordinary in the Ordinary


Recently, I went for a walk–wandering around the neighborhood–and when I came back, I took a look around the house and was struck by a few particular moments of the extraordinary, waiting to be discovered in the ordinary. Every year around this time, all of nature usually comes alive simultaneously, and it is always a relief to once again observe the greenery coming back to life, but this year, nature seems to be bursting out all over the yard, and it almost seems to be trying to swallow the house whole. The image above was taken in a field near the house which I snapped while walking, and it felt relatively safe and ordinary as I paused to capture the scene.

Once I came along the sidewalk in front of the house, I was taken by surprise by what seemed like a jungle creeping up on the house, with our cat, Mittens apparently oblivious to the impending attack. On the right hand side, next to the yellow rose bush, what I had earlier dismissed as simply a small new tree, has suddenly taken root and shot up like a beanstalk. The ivy in the center of the image, which had always seemed like a nice decoration around the light pole at the end of the walkway, now appears to have engulphed the whole thing. Yes, there is a light post under all those leaves.


Honeysuckle has completely obscured the rhododendron bushes on the left side, and while that tangled mess has a lovely scent, you almost can’t even tell there is a bush alive under all that.

It won’t be long before the mailman will have to bring a machete with him to get to the mailbox!

The ivy is starting to take over the whole front of the house.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It’s even creeping up to grab anyone coming out the door.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It’s getting a bit ridiculous now.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

But lo and behold! Sitting out on the back porch I notice that a maple seedling from the backyard tree has taken root in the space between the boards. In the most unexpected places, and against tremendous odds, nature has found a way to flourish! Even though it’s clearly doomed in the long run, I couldn’t help but stare in amazement at how persistent and unflinchingly the plants and trees and everything alive is growing all around me.

The natural world, of which we are an integral part, shows us even in these humble discoveries on an ordinary day, how it is that we can approach life as something extraordinary, which needs to be appreciated and which should provoke us with wonder and inspire awe. Imperceptibly, but relentlessly, every plant and tree persists under the most daunting circumstances. We cut it out, and it grows back. We rip it out by the roots, and the seedlings drop and the process begins again. Every year, with lethal intent, I decimate the ivy and chop it to bits, and no matter what I do, life finds a way.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Apparently unfazed by it all, our cat, Princess, seems blissfully unaware of the tumultuous orchestration of Mother Nature all around her, and found a quiet spot on an old carpet remnant to curl up for an afternoon nap.  As the mammal with the big brain and a penetrating cognitive awareness, I find myself curiously undone by all of these ordinary wonders, and equally cognizant of the extraordinary aspects which serve as the foundation for all life and existence in our little corner of the world.  Time to dig a little deeper…..

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.