Our View of the Universe

Map of Christian Constellations from Harmonia Macrocosmica by Andreas Cellarius (Photo by © Historical Picture Archive/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images)

In our modern 21st century world, we often seem to take for granted that we have a fairly complete understanding of the physical laws governing the Universe and that we have, with a few exceptions, explained the way things work in the Cosmos. We sometimes look back at the Ptolemaic view of our world with amusement, which placed the Earth at the center of it all. Many of the conceptual ideas about the nature and structure of the physical universe in the medieval world seem almost quaint now, and illustrations like the one above often included signs of the Zodiac and other mythological references which gave the Universe a much more mysterious and esoteric character.

A current exhibition at the Getty Center in Los Angeles takes a look at the medieval view of the universe in “The Wondrous Cosmos in Medieval Manuscripts.” A recent review in the Wall Street Journal by Peter Saenger (April 19) highlights a few of the items on display, one of which caught my eye as an interesting starting point for appreciating our own view of the Universe.

“The Sphere, Newly Translated into the Vernacular,”c. 1537 – Johannes de Sacrobosco (1195-1256), England, “Sphaera volgare novamente tradotta,” Image from manuscript courtesy of the James Ford Bell Library, University of Minnesota

“An Astronomer,” is an illustration from a medieval astronomy textbook written by Johannes de Sacrobosco, from an edition published in 1537 entitled, “Tractatus de Sphaera.” Photo: Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles

According to a description on “https://apps.carleton.edu/museum/”

“This volume is an important medieval astronomy textbook originally published ca. 1230, which demonstrates the Ptolemaic, or geocentric, theory of the universe in which heavenly bodies orbit around the earth. Sacrobosco’s text was in use for centuries; between 1472 and 1650, over 60 editions appeared in several languages. The frontispiece illustration presents the astronomer himself in monk’s robes. He is surrounded by the instruments of his discipline, including the quadrant and astrolabe, drafting tools, and – in the top border, an hourglass and pocket sundial for measuring time.”

Image credit: NASA / Hubble team, via http://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/hubble/science/farthest-galaxy.html.

We may view these medieval ideas with some amusement today, particularly since we know well from the advanced tools in Astronomy that we now have available to us, like the Hubble Space Telescope, which has allowed us to make a “quantum leap” in our understanding, but even some 800 years ago, when Sacrobosco articulated the Ptolemaic view, it was generally accepted that their view was accurate and explained what they observed quite well. As the currently dominant species on the planet, we may believe that we are now in possession of a comprehensive and accurate view. No other known species has appeared to even approach such capabilities as Homo sapiens thus far, and our capacity for a richly textured subjective experiential awareness today appears to have advanced far beyond our predecessors.

What is so clearly different about most every other known species on Earth is that no matter how gifted they are in their perceptual or cognitive talents, it does not appear that any of them possess our comprehensive, penetrating, and complex awareness of our limitations and gifts. There are a few with exceptional perceptual talents that far exceed our own, and several species with many similar capacities that seem to indicate at least some level of awareness, but as yet, nothing truly indicative of a human-like consciousness.

This is not to say that we are somehow better or more important than any other species, only that our experiential subjective awareness of our existence, and our ability to express it, and contemplate it, and influence it, and to deliberately and purposefully alter the world as a result of it, is not evident in a clearly discernible way in any other part of nature. There are a great many species on our planet with amazing perceptual differences from us, and which can perform at levels no human could hope to do, and you are right to appreciate these differences, and not to suppose that just because we have an apparently significant cognitive advantage, that we always get it right or do things better. One look at the totality of the human presence in the world and it is clear we often make mistakes, in spite of that advantage.

What is even more revealing, in my view, is not only our inclination to associate meaning and purpose to many of our experiences, but that we tend to dismiss many of the experiences we have as being chance and circumstance, when there truly is meaning and purpose to be gleaned from them. Deepak Chopra once wrote in detail about human life at the cellular level, and spoke eloquently about how our cells and systems within our bodies are often telling us things that we ignore or dismiss as indigestion or something, when in fact, our human cells, evolved over millions of years, have not as yet evolved enough to doubt their own thinking. Our human cognitive system sometimes seems to embrace doubt where there should be none, and, at other times, moves confidently into circumstances where doubt would be of genuine value. The benefit bestowed upon us by higher cognitive capacity, can also prevent us from perceiving the value of the natural world, and from embracing the perceptions of our fellow creatures, whose instincts are not mitigated by doubt.

It is my view that our richly-textured, experiential subjective awareness of our existence, and our development as a cognitive species, as significant as our advances have been, may appear equally “amusing” to our descendants 800 years from now. Our evolutionary endowment, achieved as cognitive temporal beings in a physical universe, in no way guarantees our continued dominance, and unless we expand the realm of what we consider possible, we may not achieve the level of understanding necessary to sustain our existence here on Earth.

As much as I have studied and contemplated the richness, diversity, and astonishing complexity of the human brain, and as clearly as one can conceivably comprehend it in context of life on Earth, our human consciousness has not only pointed out our perceptual limits physically, but provided humanity with access to an awareness that transcends the physical universe, opening up our hearts and minds and spirits to a richness beyond perception.

Inner Worlds; Outer Worlds

“Millennium Run,” showing the distribution of dark matter in the local universe created by the Max Planck Institute in Germany.

“The dilemma of modern society is that we seek to understand the world, not in terms of archaic inner consciousness, but by quantifying and qualifying what we perceive to be the external world by using scientific means and thought. Thinking has only led to more thinking and more questions. We seek to know the innermost forces which create the world and guide its course, but we conceive of this essence as outside of ourselves, not as a living thing intrinsic to our own nature.”

—excerpt from the film, “Inner Worlds; Outer Worlds,” by Daniel Schmidt

There are a great many resources from the ancient writings and various historical, spiritual, and scientific publications produced throughout the history of humanity to draw upon when we consider exploring or contemplating the nature of our current reality. Scholars in a wide variety of fields of thought have labored through the centuries to decipher these offerings to enhance our understanding and to combine what they reveal with our modern research, in order to reap the benefits of the many wisdom traditions and significant intellectual studies, while still incorporating our current level of advancement in these areas.

As an earnest seeker of knowledge and explorer of my own “inner evolution,” I have spent these last eight years here at John’s Consciousness attempting to share the results of my exploration with a broader audience, and often encounter what Daniel Schmidt called, “The dilemma of modern society.”

“In the Vedic teachings, akasha is space itself; the space that the other elements fill, which exists simultaneously with vibration. The two are inseparable.”

—excerpt from the film, “Inner Worlds; Outer Worlds,” by Daniel Schmidt

There have been a number of individuals throughout human history who have struggled with these same difficulties, and it seems to me that we may have begun to lose sight of what the ancients knew intuitively—that we are part of a dynamic synergy of life in both the physical and non-physical realms. While coming to terms with our true nature does require us to comprehend more fully our physiology and the physical laws which govern all that we observe and experience as temporal creatures, it has been my contention for a very long time that coming to terms with the true nature of our existence requires us to achieve a level of understanding of components and aspects of reality that are being undermined by modern technologists who insist that everything can be explained in terms of our temporal existence.

Closeup of dark matter distribution created by the Max Planck Institute in Germany.

As Daniel Schmidt puts it:

“Focusing on thoughts only, and seeing only the illusions of the outer world, has muted our natural connection to our inner awareness of our truest nature…It is the loss of the connection to our inner worlds that has created imbalance on our planet. The ancient tenant, “Know Thyself,” has been replaced with the desire to know and experience the outer world of form.”

Those of you who have been following along here recognize that while my own experiences have been out-of-the-ordinary in a number of situations throughout my life that I have always maintained an intense interest in neuroscience, cognitive studies, psychology, and the extraordinary viewpoints of scholars and scientists who have studied and written extensively on these related areas. At the same time, I have maintained an equally intense interest in the philosophical and spiritual underpinnings of a wide range of authors, philosophers, and spiritual writers throughout history, and have shared my interests in a variety of worldviews that point toward a more inclusive and expansive outlook toward this important idea of the existence of both an inner and an outer world.

At the top of this page, the image of what scientists at the Max Planck Institute in Germany describe as a theoretical display of the what the distribution of dark matter would look like if it could be illuminated, struck me as an enormously appealing and insightful way of demonstrating just how mysterious and fascinating our connection to everything in the universe truly seems. They explain it in this way:

Comparison of section of dark matter distribution with a human brain cell created by the Max Planck Institute in Germany.

“Dark matter is essentially what we previously thought of as empty space. It’s like an invisible nervous system that runs throughout the universe. The Universe is literally like a giant brain; it is constantly thinking using a type of “dark” or hidden energy that science is only starting to understand. Through this immense network unfathomable energy moves, providing the momentum for the expansion and growth of the Universe.”

These ideas are a startling and yet particularly compelling argument for a kind of cosmic symmetry that pervades the Universe, and this scientific understanding aligns in an especially nice way with many of the views expressed by the ancients, and reiterated by numerous scholars and authors that point toward an intimate connection of all life and all existence.

Connecting to the World Within

Giving deliberate and purposeful attention to developing some form of contemplative practice is essential for promoting a greater degree of self-awareness, and for encouraging us to conduct the deep inner searching necessary to reach and explore the world within us. In order to begin this process, we must be able to still the mind and quiet the relentless inner voice of conscious thoughts. Allowing the mind to settle down and become quiet, releases us from thoughts about daily activities and concerns, and prepares our mind to turn its attention to a more directed period of contemplation.

My own daily practice usually includes early morning meditation, typically lasting twenty to thirty minutes after breakfast and before consuming my morning coffee. I generally spend my coffee time catching up on correspondence, reading the paper if I have time, and then looking at whatever tasks I hope to achieve in the day ahead, with the purpose of deciding on whatever amount of time I can set aside throughout the day for deliberate thoughtful reflection, which often includes some deliberate choice of gentle musical accompaniment that assists me in achieving a relaxed state of mind. There is no set formula, and there are times when it isn’t possible at all to do so. The important part of any program isn’t a precise adherence to a rigid routine, but rather, a deliberate choice to incorporate time for contemplation on whatever schedule the day allows.

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With regular attention and consistent effort, it is possible to find a number of opportunities for even short periods of time each day to disengage from daily routines, long enough to give consideration to contemplative endeavors. I also find it useful at the end of the day to review whatever conclusions may have occurred during my time in contemplation, if any, and record those thoughts in either my writing journal or in my recent alternative “audio journaling” recording sessions. Seeing progress in a written journal, and reviewing audio recordings I’ve made over time, helps me to reinforce the ideas that have resulted from those efforts, recorded when they were freshly arrived in a deliberately chosen and purposeful state of consciousness.

Many illuminating moments can be encountered during directed contemplation, particularly when it is preceded by a clearly delineated mental and spiritual preparation to withdraw from the temporal world, as well as a reasonable degree of either silence or a calming environment, with at least no more than a background murmur to contend with that doesn’t distract me.

Whenever the opportunity presents itself, I spend as much time as I can in some variety of a natural setting in the wilderness or a recreational area in the temperate times of the year, which always seems to have an effortless transformational effect on me. Even during the winter, a walk in the early morning snow or a late night stroll around the block can elicit a profound inner connection to the world within. For me, though, communing with the natural world and escaping the daily routines in any significant way is my link to the phenomenon of consciousness, that richly-textured subjective experience of existence, which, for me, points so clearly to the non-material aspects of that existence.

Currently, we can only verify consciousness subjectively, but this does not mean that the door is closed exactly on searching for other ways to do so. I may not be able to verify YOUR consciousness with the same subjective certainty that I can verify my own, but we limit ourselves when we look at the physical plane and temporal existence as the “real world,” and everything else as unreal. Non-material aspects, while not having any demonstrable material existence, can still exist just as certainly as those which can be seen with a telescope or under a microscope, only in a manner inaccessible to our science.

Modern physicists have recently proposed string theory as a way of resolving the conflict between general relativity and quantum mechanics, and it posits the idea that our universe has many more dimensions than are discernible to us as physical beings, suggesting that the material world itself may also be composed of some variety of non-material aspects.

If we examine the currently available evidence of human evolution over millions of years, allowing for informed inferences based on as much of both science and metaphysics as can be tolerated; there is a path that leads toward a greater understanding of the evolution of consciousness, its role in the temporal, and its foundation in the non-material.

I sometimes like to frame the argument for differentiating consciousness from cognition by comparing them in terms of a radio broadcast. The radio transmitter, the radio antenna, the propagation of radio waves through the atmosphere, and the radio receiver are the mechanisms of radio transmission and reception. The radio equipment doesn’t CREATE the content of the radio broadcast. All the radio equipment in the world is useless without the person who INITIATES the transmission and composes a comprehensible message. A conscious entity of sufficient intelligence can design, build, and operate the equipment, but without the capacity for creating some message or transmission to communicate, the mere existence of the equipment is insufficient to make productive use of its abilities. That requires something more—a creator of the message!

In the same way, I do not believe that human consciousness is generated solely by our EQUIPMENT. Our neurons, synapses, coordinated brain regions and sufficiently developed frontal lobes—all of it evolved finally in hominids to the point where we became aware of a wider existence beyond simply experiencing life. As I experience it, the life within me is my real life. Neurons and synapses provide the means to access consciousness. That is a distinction which is, in my view, unavoidable.

It will become even clearer when the technology eventually catches up to the brain with a manufactured device that somehow utilizes trillions of switches, emulating our interconnected networks of neurons that mirror in some fashion the architecture of the brain. It is my view, that when they are finally able to construct even the most sophisticated version of a precisely constructed BRAIN INSTRUMENT, which is comparable to the architecture of a human brain, it may produce a very sophisticated device that mimics brain activity, but is unlikely to possess anything truly comparable to human consciousness. Simply recreating the structure of the brain will be insufficient to bring to life a fully developed living being, with all the capacities and richness of our experiential subjective aliveness, since it hasn’t been established at all that brain activity alone can account for our own subjective experience.

There is so much more to human subjective experience than brain activity alone, and even our own ancient human ancestors had a structurally similar physical brain for thousands of years before demonstrating significant self-awareness and the ability to begin to comprehend the world. The stark difference between what took nature millions of years of biological evolution to produce, and what a future technology might produce with whatever synthetic materials are developed along the way, will very likely show this contrast definitively.

Whatever capabilities such technologies will enable in a manufactured device, it will not be ALIVE, nor will it be able to comprehensively assume the identity or house the consciousness of a preexistent biological human. Science fiction stories of such developments gloss over the finer points of our humanity, and often neglect to acknowledge that our bodies and brains are receptacles—mechanisms which are animated by energies and aspects which have no corresponding physical existence in the same way that our bodies do.

Our current medical technologies can ensure that virtually every single human bodily function operates at a nominal level. With the exception of brain cells, we can reconstruct or repair virtually any damage to human tissue, and, in some cases, even stimulate artificially the process of regenerating cells, but no matter how sophisticated we get, we won’t be able to precisely produce a human egg or sperm synthetically. We cannot even produce a human zygote by synthetic means, without starting off with genuine human biological tissues.

We may end up manipulating the biological components produced by our human biological inheritance, and even though we risk a great deal by doing so, it may alter future generations in ways we could not now anticipate, but any process or procedure that utilizes materials that are not wholly biological cannot hope to produce some variation of a truly biological human.

The reason for this is because what underlies, supports, and is ESSENTIAL to those living components and materials—the very kernel of their nature—is NON-MATERIAL. When you begin to consider the nature of human existence by supposing that a non-material dimension or aspect to existence is a given, then it seems conceivable to me that we may one day achieve a comprehensive understanding of the nature of human consciousness, which will not be forthcoming unless we integrate these essential aspects.

In order for us to continue to evolve as a species and to survive in the eons which lay before us, we must seek a greater understanding of our true nature. It is not religion, but it is not purely science either, and it is DEFINITELY NOT dogma from either area of study that will ultimately illuminate our comprehension of human consciousness.

Perception and Introspection

Ever find yourself staring out into a natural landscape, almost intoxicated by the immediate sensory experience, and suddenly find yourself ruminating thoroughly within your inner world? This happens to me a lot, and when I came upon views like this one along the cascade trail in the Jefferson National Forest in Pembroke, Virginia, I couldn’t seem to avoid drifting off introspectively all along the winding path leading to the Cascade Falls. Whenever these experiences occur, I often find myself trying to figure out just what it is about our human nature that provides me with such a richness and depth of compelling experience WITHIN…simply by being able to perceive the natural world.

Reading an article on the state of artificial intelligence this morning in the Wall Street Journal, I started thinking about the differences between the nature of that intelligence and the human variety, and decided to probe for myself the extent to which the artificial variety has become a part of my daily experience. Since there are a number of devices and services involved in most of our daily lives these days, which contain components and sources that rely on basic artificial intelligence principles in order to serve our needs and to function in real time, I wondered to what degree that presence was truly evident and useful.

The article in the CIO Journal blog by Tom Loftus talked about the difference between AI smart and human smart:

“To me, I think the fundamental issue is what I call deep understanding versus shallow understanding,” said Charles Elkan, managing director and global head of machine learning at Goldman Sachs. Shallow understanding is the ability to answer a limited range of questions that are similar to each other, he said. Deep understanding, he said, implies broad context and broad knowledge. “The entire spectrum of current algorithms that we know for AI are not going to scale to human intelligence, let alone super-intelligence.”

Since I am typing these words on my laptop computer, it is immediately apparent that my thoughts are being immediately recorded, constantly edited, and eventually refined to my satisfaction (usually) through a reasonably and artificially intelligent machine, which is connected wirelessly to a network device that is connected to a router permitting access to a world-wide web of other computers and routing devices, all seamlessly communicating and providing feedback and information from an array of global resources, all while sitting on my sofa having my morning coffee, which was prepared automatically by my electronic coffee maker, in a room which has a voice activated Alexa, Bluetooth speakers, and a “smart” television, all capable of being connected to my “smartphone,” through which I can control, in significant ways, all of the other devices.

It hardly requires more than a passing familiarity with our 21st century technology to be able to conclude that, in a big way, some aspect of artificial intelligence has made virtually all of this activity possible. With a few keystrokes on my laptop, or the tapping of a few icons on my smartphone, I can connect and engage each of these devices to perform an astonishing array of functions, including a particularly interesting version of conversation with a lovely female sounding, voice-activated device with an apparent capability to understand, to an impressive degree, words and inquiries initiated by me.

In the spirit of intellectual curiosity, I decided to attempt to press the Alexa to push the boundaries of the device’s “intelligence,” to see if I might be able to get it to “make a connection,” between ideas that I bring up in a logical sequence. My first question asked about the definition of artificial intelligence:

Alexa, what is artificial intelligence?

“Artificial intelligence is usually defined as the branch of computer science that deal with writing computer programs that can solve problems creatively.”

(I noticed right away that Alexa made a grammatical error in saying “deal” instead of “deals.”)

Alexa, what is deep learning?

“Deep learning is part of a broader family of machine learning methods based on learning data representations as opposed to task-specific algorithms.”

Alexa, what is an algorithm?

“Algorithm is usually defined as a precise rule or set of rules, specifying how to solve some problem.”

Alexa, give me an example of an algorithm.

“Constraint is a random algorithm.”

Alexa, what is a constraint algorithm?

“In computational chemistry, a constraint algorithm is a method for satisfying the Newtonian motion of a rigid body which consists of mass points.”

While this exchange was interesting in view of interacting with a device using only my voice, and considering that Alexa’s responses to my questions generally were appropriate, the moment I went beyond the simple formulation of asking, “what is,” Alexa quickly resorted to the default response of “I’m not sure,” and “I don’t know the answer to that.” The impressive range of information at Alexa’s disposal, and the ability to respond to specific questions are both useful if you are doing a search, or want to know how to spell a word, but if you want to converse or ask further questions about the material provided, you will be disappointed. I told Alexa that I wanted to have a conversation, and was surprised to hear the device suggest that I engage “a social bot.”

Once I engaged this option, I was momentarily encouraged by the more conversational tone of the words that issued from the speaker. For a moment, the words seemed almost spontaneous, until, instead of saying, “yes,” to a suggestion, I responded with “sure.” Alexa’s chatty response was, “Oh, this is embarrassing, I’m not sure how to respond to what you said…would you like to talk about something else?” It quickly became apparent that there were a limited number of responses that I could give, and that my responses had to conform to a particular pattern or the device would revert to the default suggestion that we talk about something else. The responses became a little longer and there would occasionally be a humorous interjection when the exchange reached its limit, but I tired fairly quickly of having to conform to a formula in order to continue the exchange.

As interesting as even these limited options are in the context of “talking” to a machine, it is painfully obvious that there is really “no one home;” no “ghost in the machine.” There is a clear distinction between my interest in a conversation, and the machines ability to participate in any meaningful way. It is still a practical and interesting way to interact with an information source, and the advantages these devices provide are often surprising.

In the kitchen, there is another device called the “Echo Show,” which utilizes the same algorithms and methods as Alexa, but has the added advantage of being able to provide video results when the opportunity presents itself. When installing the device initially, the default “wake up” word was also Alexa, which immediately caused both devices to respond simultaneously, so I had to change the “wake up” word to “Echo,” in order not to engage the Alexa device at the same time. The advantages of having the option to display a variety of video responses is a clear enhancement of the original concept, but the option to conduct face-to-face video messaging and calls with others who have an Echo device requires giving access to contacts and phone numbers, and currently that seems a bit beyond my comfort zone regarding digital privacy and sharing.

The stark differences between the artificial intelligence supporting the machine and the natural intelligence I was using to interact with it, points to one of the key elements in discussing the potentials inherent in the future of AI development. No matter how sophisticated the sensors and algorithms or models of deep learning become, perception and processing alone are insufficient to produce the ability for introspection or the “inner sense” we experience as living biological and sentient beings. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy expresses it this way:

“Perception is achieved through dedicated organs such as eyes and ears, whereas there is no (literal) organ of introspection. “The ‘organ’ of introspection is attention, the orientation of which puts a subject in an appropriate relation to a targeted state” (Goldman 2006: 244). Perception ordinarily involves sensory experiences, whereas “No one thinks that one is aware of beliefs and thoughts by having sensations or quasi-sense-experiences of them” (Shoemaker 1994: 255). – Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

All conscious humans with a nominally functional cognitive apparatus (brain, central nervous system, with basic life supporting and sensory systems intact) combined with sufficient life experience, and at least a minimal ability with language, eventually will acquire a degree of “inner sense experience,” which permits and accounts for our ability for introspection, which differs from simple perception in significant ways.

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.

Shen Yun–Ancient Chinese Wisdom and Quantum Physics

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“Quantum mechanics is the best theory we have for describing the world at the nuts-and-bolts level of atoms and subatomic particles. Perhaps the most renowned of its mysteries is the fact that the outcome of a quantum experiment can change depending on whether or not we choose to measure some property of the particles involved.”

When this “observer effect” was first noticed by the early pioneers of quantum theory, they were deeply troubled. It seemed to undermine the basic assumption behind all science: that there is an objective world out there, irrespective of us. If the way the world behaves depends on how – or if – we look at it, what can “reality” really mean?”

“The physicist Pascual Jordan, who worked with quantum guru Niels Bohr in Copenhagen in the 1920s, put it like this: “observations not only disturb what has to be measured, they produce it… We compel [a quantum particle] to assume a definite position.” In other words, Jordan said, “we ourselves produce the results of measurements.”

“To this day, physicists do not agree on the best way to interpret these quantum experiments, and to some extent what you make of them is (at the moment) up to you. But one way or another, it is hard to avoid the implication that consciousness and quantum mechanics are somehow linked.”

• –Excerpt from article by Philip Ball on BBC.com

http://www.bbc.com/earth/story/20170215-the-strange-link-between-the-human-mind-and-quantum-physics

Philip Ball is a freelance science writer. His writings on science for the popular press have covered topical issues ranging from cosmology to the future of molecular biology. He has written widely on the interactions between art and science, and continues to write regularly for Nature. He has a BA in Chemistry from the University of Oxford and a PhD in Physics from the University of Bristol.

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The nature of reality is a key question in every philosophical tradition, and if we are curious enough as individuals existing within the temporal world, we may find ourselves compelled by our circumstances as human cognitive creatures to not only engage the reality we experience on a daily basis, but also to contemplate a variety of alternate realities, which exist only as potential variations of our current objective reality.

It is reasonable to conclude that in order to become aware of alternate realities, we must first allow ourselves to entertain the notion that it is possible to become aware of them, and then also to engage them through deliberate intention to expand our awareness. We have to be willing to explore beyond the limitations of our objective view of the world, and seek to open our hearts and minds to an expanded view of what an alternate reality might look like and how it would feel to be a part of it. Only when we place ourselves on the path of discovery, can we expect to encounter potential realities which might exist outside of our everyday view of our existence.

I know these ideas sound like they might be challenging to pursue, especially if you are unaccustomed to opening yourself to other possibilities, and if you are bogged down with ingrained habits from any number of limiting dogmatic institutions or strictly controlled belief systems like I was growing up, it can be very difficult to even suppose that anything else exists outside of our perceptual experiences as physical beings in a physical universe. The truth is that we often embrace the well-worn paths from our upbringing or limit ourselves to only those ideas which we can be demonstrated empirically to be true, without ever really questioning why or supposing that other ideas outside of those familiar to us could possibly have merit.

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The way we begin to open ourselves to new ideas is to expand our awareness generally by letting go of our restrictive or limited views for a short time and to contemplate what the world might look like if we did not have these restrictions. We don’t have to abandon sobriety or toss out everything that we hold dear in one fell swoop, but rather, simply allow our hearts and minds to release us from the habitual embrace of what we currently know just for a brief period of time, and ask ourselves what other possible ideas might explain or account for our subjective experience of this moment.

It’s a small beginning that doesn’t require us to put forth that much effort, and with some regular attention to the practice, we may start to see how our willingness to simply THINK about other possibilities brings them slowly to the surface for us to examine. The key is to allow these thoughts to enter our minds briefly and to embrace the opportunity in our hearts just to see how they feel to us at that moment. With persistence, and an open approach to new ideas, we can begin to formulate a basis for further inquiry. Once we establish a routine of contemplation and openness to new ideas, we will naturally produce starting points for further investigation. Wherever our thoughts lead us, and in whatever direction our hearts point us, we can look and read about and pursue those beginnings and discover for ourselves what a variety of wonder and curiosity can produce for us to consider.

Whether or not this approach leads to genuine discovery or the opening to new ideas is entirely up to us to determine, and at the very least, it provides an opportunity to expand our inner resources, and enrich our experience of our existence in new ways.

After what has felt like almost a lifetime of contemplation and pursuing my curiosity in a whole variety of ways, every new experience now becomes an opening to a broader view of existence for me, and the persistent application of embracing each one with an open heart and mind has allowed me to expand my own ideas beyond anything I could have imagined before I began in earnest to contemplate the nature of my own reality on my own terms.

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My most recent opening to new experience took the form of a public performance in Philadelphia at the Merriam Theater of an extraordinary production entitled, “Shen Yun.” Through a series of musical vignettes from a rich tradition of ancient dances and philosophical themes from over 5,000 years of Chinese civilization, a modern day interpretation created by “…an independent nonprofit organization based in New York City,” according to the program, brought together “leading Chinese artists from around the world,” in an effort to “revive authentic Chinese culture.”

You might think that a program which featured classical Chinese dance wouldn’t necessarily provide me with an opening to a broader view of my own personal reality, but quite the opposite turned out to be true. As an observer in the spectacle of “China’s rich cultural heritage,” it became quickly apparent to me that my participation in the event allowed me to enjoy “…one of humankind’s greatest treasures.” As the evening unfolded, I found myself profoundly engaged by the music, the movement, and the artistry of the performers.

Again, according to the program provided:

“The Shen Yun Orchestra delivered this musical experience by blending the singular beauty of Chinese melodies with the precision and power of the Western orchestra…Ancient instruments like the erhu and pipa lead the melody on top of a full Western orchestra—strings, woodwinds, and brass. It is the only orchestra in the world to combine these instruments as permanent members.”

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By combining the artistry of modern day performance with the spirituality of an ancient Chinese culture, “…Shen Yun’s performers draw their spiritual inspiration from…a practice called Falun Dafa…also known as Falun Gong…rooted in China’s ancient spiritual traditions…(whose) practitioners strive to live by the principles of truthfulness, compassion, and tolerance.”

Every episode of the performance contained some jeweled offering to the audience, from the plentiful variety of spectacular costumes, to the exquisite beauty of the coordinated precision choreography, and unique special effects. A host of selections from thousands of years of Chinese mythology and history over several hours often solicited gasps of astonishment and delight from an international audience of enthusiastic theater goers. I found myself periodically overwhelmed by both the emotional and spiritual content of the stories, and at particular moments, on the verge of tears as I opened myself to the unfolding spectacle.

Of particular note were the episodes “Bestowing the Tao,” about the story of Lao-Tzu and the Tao Te Ching, another entitled, “The Dream,” which warned that our choice between good or evil would decide our fate, and the last two of the evening, “The Divine Path is Near,” which suggests that we are called to follow the divine path, and “Boundless Compassion,” which points out that we are “…following in the footsteps of the ancient spiritual traditions,” which presents our modern culture with great challenges, but promises that if we pursue these traditions with appropriate fervor,“…a new era of hope begins.”

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This extraordinary evening of music, dance, and culture, when combined with a modern technological invention of an integrated digital background which “…allowed the performers to travel back and forth between the stage and the animated backdrop,” profoundly affected me in a number of ways. The ancient messages from the myths and stories came to life for me; the beauty of the dances enthralled me; the hypnotic effect of the animated background, and the mystical fog which appeared at the beginning of each half of the performance left me awestruck! The spiritual nature of our humanity was on such clear display, that I left the theater uplifted and moved beyond words.

With luck, and a continuing effort to remain open to new experiences and to gain additional insights from them as I progress in my efforts to more fully appreciate the human subjective experience of consciousness, I hope to provide a degree of inspiration to others who visit here in the days and weeks to come.

Warm regards….John H.

Body, Mind, Spirit

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“If we seek genuine psychological understanding of the human being of our own time, we must know his spiritual history absolutely. We cannot reduce him to mere biological data, since he is not by nature merely biological, but is a product also of spiritual presuppositions.” – -Carl Jung from a presentation at the C. G. Jung Institute Zurich, Küsnacht, 15 Nov 1953

“If we can reconcile ourselves to the mysterious truth that the spirit is the life of the body seen from within, and the body the outward manifestation of the life of the spirit–the two being really one–then we can understand why the striving to transcend the present level of consciousness through the acceptance of the unconscious must give the body its due, and why recognition of the body cannot tolerate a philosophy that denies it in the name of the spirit.” – C.G.Jung from “The Spiritual Problem of Modern Man, CW, vol.10

The persistent assertion by modern scientists regarding the development of consciousness and the human mind as “an accident of nature,” is an idea which not only opposes our natural inclinations as cognitive human creatures, but also one that is difficult to sustain in a definitive way given the equally persistent assertions to the contrary by researchers in a variety of disciplines. The tendency of modern science to view the development of our human mind as an accident seems to me to be more a result of the limitations of science to explain it, rather than being a conclusion that is justified by the evidence.

Considering that it took hundreds of millions of years and countless variations of living creatures for life on Earth to produce Homo-sapiens, one could be forgiving of the empiricists for being a bit skeptical, considering that it is only one variation–an anomaly so to speak–in the pantheon of life. Considering the nearly miraculous confluence of events which permitted life to evolve on Earth in the first place, any suggestion that it was not only BOUND to happen, but inescapably bound up in the fabric of life, does require a bit of a leap intellectually. Although there have been some exciting and compelling exceptions over the millennia, scientists are frequently reluctant to include their intuition, and tend to resist directing their imaginative inclinations outside the realm of science.

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No one disputes the essential nature of neurological functioning in achieving an awareness of experience. All one has to do is observe the devastating effect of trauma to the brain to establish how vital brain function is to awareness. It does not necessarily follow, however, that the subjective experience of consciousness is created SOLELY by the brain. Neurological functioning involves a multitude of interactions within the brain itself. It includes a process of fragmentation and re-integration of multiple components: neurons firing in specific sequences, synaptic transferal of electro-chemical impulses, sensory input, cross-referencing of iconic imagery and memories of previous experiences. It is a very complex process which still eludes our understanding, and any attempt to reduce it to biology alone must surely fall short of the mark. We may be DEPENDENT on our brains to enjoy our capacity as human beings to experience our existence, but it seems unlikely to me that our brains GENERATE that experience.

In an enormously compelling and technically superb rendering of how the brain supports and grants us access to the world of conscious experience, Nobel laureate Gerald Edelman, and his colleague, Giulio Tononi, explore at length the foundational elements and functional components of our complex thalamocortical system in “A Universe of Consciousness,” and their treatment of the subject is “highly plausible” according to the book review excerpt on the cover. The level of attention to detail in discussing the various aspects of conscious states is reasonably accessible for anyone with an intense interest in the subject, and they present the reader with an enormous body of information relevant to brain functioning. In a refreshing change from many treatments of the subject, the authors acknowledge the limitations of what we are so far able to discern about this complex organ:

“The ability of the nervous system to carry out perceptual categorization of different signals for sight, sound, and so forth, dividing them into coherent classes without a pre-arranged code is certainly special, and is still unmatched by computers. We do not presently understand fully how this categorization is done…but we believe it arises through the selection of certain distributed patterns of neural activity as the brain interacts with the body and the environment.”

When addressing this “distributed neural activity,” they cite the example of how we are able to read after “…a time in which we had consciously to learn about letters and words in a laborious way, but afterward these processes become effortless and automatic.” They then acknowledge “…How our brain performs these demanding tasks remains largely unknown to us.”

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“A Soul Brought to Heaven,” by William-Adolphe Bouguereau

As someone who feels certain that a comprehensive theory of consciousness will eventually require us to include some sort of essential non-physical interaction, the anecdotal reports of visions, apparitions, and other psychic phenomena which humans periodically report, while mostly amusing to scientists and philosophers in our day, all suggest at least the possibility of an interaction with the ineffable or the mysterious. All of my research and study into the nature of our cognitive functioning continues to intrigue me beyond measure, but nothing I have encountered thus far has eliminated this possibility for me. On the contrary, much of it seems to ENHANCE the possibility! Much of the literature and astonishing progress in neuroscience points toward activity that is INFUSED with the spirit. Far from being dissuasive regarding a potentially “spiritual component” to human consciousness, examining the astonishing complexity of neuroscientific progress seems to me a fair indication of its PRESENCE!

It may well be that LIFE itself has, as a natural component of its nature, the infusion of nor-corporeal aspects for which there may only be a subjective awareness. That we are unable as yet to establish with certainty, a universal experience of a transcendent consciousness for all humanity is not sufficient cause to suppose that it does not exist. The quality and nature of our lives generally compare in many ways to that of all other living entities, and it is not difficult to detect subjectively, a profound connection to the natural world all around us, and to recognize that we are an essential member of the terrestrial community of life on Earth. Our higher cognitive capacities distinguish us in important ways, adding a significant element to our human nature which allows us to perceive and appreciate our interconnection with ALL life.

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We owe the scientific community a great debt for the many benefits we enjoy today as a result of the advancement of empirical knowledge and the elimination of superstition and fanaticism which were the cornerstones of our ancient worldview. Science has brought us a long way from the “Earth as center of the universe,” mindset of ancient times, and in modern times it has created “miraculous” technologies that have enhanced life on this planet a hundredfold, and we need to continue to pursue its advancement vigorously.

But even as solid and predictable as the the laws of physics seem to us today, not one of them eliminates the existence of the human spirit, just as the many avenues of pursuing the human spirit cannot alter or eliminate the laws of physics. It doesn’t take an Einstein to conclude that both can co-exist and that each may be dependent on the other in important ways. Our subjective sense of “being” relies on being able to use our senses, but our senses do not BRING US into being, nor do they determine the significance of our existence. They are our window to the world of experience, and it is that world of experience that connects us to our sense of being and to the spirit.