A Leap of Faith

What is the value of positing a theory of consciousness which is beyond our current capacity to demonstrate empirically?

Even supposing that the full explanation behind the extraordinarily vivid and deeply personal subjective experience we enjoy as living creatures, includes aspects or energies that cannot be verified objectively by any known scientific process, does not preclude the existence of such components, simply because we cannot currently determine their precise nature and origin.

There have been other speculative theories and unconventional ideas proposed in the past which were met with derision and thought to be completely wrong, which eventually gained traction and became widely accepted, such as the arrangement of planets in our solar system, the shape of the earth, and the origins of disease.

For a time, these ideas had no means available to be demonstrated empirically, and were thought to be ridiculous by the conventional wisdom of the times in which they appeared. If we have learned anything over the centuries of recorded human history, we have, at the very least, discovered that the limits of our understanding today are very likely to be replaced by an expanded view at some point in the future.

In my view, the only way to accomplish this is to entertain and explore ideas which may, at some point, require us to make a “leap of faith,” in order to begin the process of uncovering what is now hidden or simply misunderstood using the current paradigm.

Some of the current theories being explored in particle physics suggest that the nature of the physical world as we understand it in this epoch may be radically different than what has been proposed in the past, and while much of what is being suggested often pushes the limits of our understanding, there is a growing movement within the scientific community to pursue these ideas, in spite of resistance from other well-established schools of thought. If we are willing to speculate about the existence of a multiverse, of tiny vibrating strings at the heart of the subatomic world, and multiple dimensions beyond our human perceptive abilities, surely the idea that consciousness is a manifestation of a fundamental force pervading the universe could be explored and given a sustained effort to unravel that possibility.

Recently, as I have reviewed many of my own life experiences, many of which I have described here in this blog, I realized that my long and winding path has given me a degree of confidence to assert, now almost thirty years later, that human consciousness, the essential subjective experience of being alive–self-awareness–whatever term you wish to apply–has at its core, a deeply spiritual component. By expressing it in these terms, I do NOT infer a religious component, but rather, a “non-physical” component. While most of the world’s religions have referred to this “non-physical component” as “the soul” or “the divine”, giving it a “religious connotation,” I believe that it is spiritual in nature, meaning “non-physical,” but also with a deep and meaningful implication, alluding to an intelligence beyond human intelligence, (not alien or extraterrestrial) but simply existing outside of the physical universe.

We are only now, in this epoch of humanity, beginning to probe scientifically the nature of human consciousness, including an expansive study of our cognitive functions and brain physiology, developing a comprehensive neuroscience, and figuring out how it all works. There are huge gaps in our ability to explain how all of the neurological functions and synaptic activity, combined with a delicate electro-chemical balance within the brain and nervous system create the results we observe and experience in the richly diverse subjective experience of being alive. In spite of enormous strides in the science of the brain in the past few decades, none of the science so far has been able to explain our profoundly personal and finely textured understanding of what it means to exist as a sentient and keenly self-aware being.

It is my theory, based on almost thirty years of study in all the related fields, that what we sometimes refer to as the “human spirit,” or whatever term you prefer to use, is the manifestation of what may potentially be a non-physical source responsible for the creation of the physical universe, and by inference then, the existence of all life as we know it. It also seems entirely plausible to me that there may exist within us, capacities or aspects as yet unknown or undetermined by our science, which either tap into this “non-physical” source through human consciousness, or which may one day assist us in revealing and explaining the “what it’s like” experience of existing in the physical world.

With the possible exception of philosophers and poets, the inclusion of these concepts in a comprehensive understanding of consciousness continues to be problematical. The suggestion that non-physical energies or forces or components could have a vital role in explaining our subjective experience of the world, especially in consideration of the profoundly important developments in neuroscience, genetics, and cognitive studies, often seems less appealing since empirically establishing such connections is currently beyond our established cognitive capacities. Whether or not we may eventually discover empirical proofs, or perhaps expand those capacities in a way that could allow empirical confirmation of some sort, is still an open question. It is my contention, however, that the only way for such discoveries or capacities to be realized, is to vigorously engage the possibility.

Since beginning the process of documenting my journey of discovery and enrichment of my inner world, my personal and research journals have gradually become more concerned with the inclusion of many empirical sources, and serious consideration of my personal perspective from the standpoint of those who do not necessarily share my enthusiasm for inclusion of elements that are currently outside of empirical scrutiny. Several of these sources have had a profound effect on my evaluations and conclusions, and have served to temper my enthusiasm somewhat, but in a way that has enhanced my progress.

Everything I have studied and read and felt since my own profoundly disturbing and consciousness-altering mystical experience in 1973 at the age of twenty, which I have come to view as an encounter with what Jung describes as “unconscious contents,” has pointed in the direction of a blending of the empirical with the mystical. At the heart of the dilemma in bringing these two disparate ends together is not so much the inexplicable resistance to unconventional ideas that Jung referred to in his autobiography, as it is the essential quality of maintaining a degree of certainty from both sides that is only truly possible to experience subjectively.

The physiological processes in the brain which make it possible for us to confirm at least subjectively that we possess a keen and potent “awareness” and which allow us to interact in a meaningful way with other sentient beings are indeed fascinating, and modern humans have clearly evolved both culturally and cognitively in a way that the hominids of 160,000 years ago could not have even imagined. The overload of connections which currently plague many of us are undoubtedly in need of attention, and I find myself in complete agreement with those who suggest a regimen of contemplation, periodic disconnection from all the maddening chaos of modern life, in order to create an environment within which we can make a beginning toward recognizing that we truly have an obligation to direct the results of our conscious awareness in a considerate and thoughtful manner.

Our current social structure in the Western World has evolved significantly in the last hundred years or so, and we are beginning to understand and appreciate the value of our unique personal relationships as part of a broader and completely natural social adaptation, which has been part or parcel of our continued evolution as a species since upright humans first walked the earth.

There have been a significant number of individuals in my life with whom I have felt a clearly powerful and profoundly affective connection, and even though our individual temporal lives often eventually went in a completely different direction, continuing to pursue each opportunity to develop new unique relationships has remained a priority for me, not just on a personal level, but also as an affirmation of a much more expansive, natural, and spiritual aspect to human nature.

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.

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—

Knowledge and Emotion

Winter has finally begun to lose its grasp on the world around me, and as it wanes, I find myself in a fairly predictable state of mind for this time of year. It generally feels like a sort of aching melancholy or some leftover winter suppression or vagueness in my personal emotional experience of life, and while that sounds as though it might be unpleasant, it usually precedes a more buoyant and upbeat condition as the temperatures become more moderate and the Spring begins to really take hold. Since it is only temporary and is normally followed by a more balanced interval, I try to be philosophical about it and look forward to the inevitable lift as the flowers bloom and the world slowly becomes more verdant. Stepping out the front door this morning, I caught my first glimpse of that transitional moment and it inspired me to share some recent thoughts with my readers here.

The image of the blossoms right outside the front door was enough to stir the anticipated and more optimistic emotional response in spite of current conditions being a bit chilly and rainy outside. These blossoms seemed to appear overnight, and every year the various plants always appear on a different schedule, almost competing with each other for bragging rights as to which ones were first and second. While I generally would not definitively or empirically associate such emotions with the flowers that appear in front of my house each year, speaking of them in this way feels completely reasonable to me, and my appreciation for their arrival also appears unfailingly when they arrive. We may wish to call this “imposing” my own emotions on a bunch of plants, but it is more correct to say that my emotions are stirred by the appearance of these plants, and I recognize the part they play in my experience of these emotions.

The image at the top of the post was actually taken out behind the garage, but had no less effect on my emotional response to the plants out front. Having been inspired to walk around the yard by the availability of both time and opportunity, I found myself standing in a fairly moderate rainfall as I attempted to capitalize on the momentary emotional stirring within me. Quite the opposite response occurred as I examined the astonishing progress of the ivy crawling up the side of the garage, which had not been there only a week ago. Each Autumn, I attempt to reduce the presence of the vines in the back by savagely and unapologetically slashing the overgrowth on the back fence, and every Spring, the tenacity of nature and the persistent determination of the vines always seems to win out. I’ve tried every solution known to man to eradicate the chokers of the trees in my yard and the destroyers of my other plants, and every year the vines return, almost as though I hadn’t made any effort at all.

I recently reviewed a new book by Lisa Feldman Barrett called, “How Emotions Are Made,” and while there is much to admire about her work, it struck me as completely counterintuitive to suppose that our brains alone produce our emotions. The book claims to be about “our emotions—what they are, where they come from, why we have them.” She writes, “A mental event, such as fear, is not created by only one set of neurons. Instead, combinations of different neurons can create instances of fear…A single brain area or network contributes to many different mental states.” The implication here seems to be that our emotions are entirely explainable through brain science.

Dr. Barrett is a Distinguished Professor of Psychology at Northeastern University. According to her webpage: “Dr. Barrett’s research focuses on the nature of emotion from the perspectives of both psychology and neuroscience, and takes inspiration from anthropology, philosophy, and linguistics. Her lab takes an interdisciplinary approach, and incorporates methods from social, clinical, and personality psychology, psychophysiology, cognitive science, cognitive neuroscience, and visual cognition.”

In the coming weeks, I hope to expand on these ideas and explain how a great deal more goes into our emotional experience of life than can be explained by cognitive science, and to flush out more of my own ideas in the process.