August 13, 2012
I’d like to briefly discuss some of the ideas which have been running through my head lately, though I’m not sure where I should start. To try to put this into words, I want to talk about how, and in what sense, we control and change the world. This gets into many different things, and we can’t possibly expect to tackle it quickly. Forgive me if I go all over the place.
Ideally I’d like to begin with a discussion about evolution and how knowledge is infused into matter by natural processes, but that would get me too far from where I’m wanting to go, so for the time being I’ll stay away from it and only mention it briefly in passing. I more so want to discuss the sense in which I think we’re “divine”, though I’m sure just mentioning that sort of word will run many people off. I want to focus on how we are beings in complete control over the direction of this universe, but at the same time, there is no entity, God or otherwise, who is forcing us to do anything. So what does that even mean? If no greater being or force is compelling us in a certain direction, and we’re truly free to direct this universe as we desire, we have to think about what that implies.
Our universe was born from random quantum fluctuations and the Big Bang. From there we had the evolution of the first stars, galaxies, solar systems, and life evolved here on planet Earth as we know it. The trees, insects, sea creatures, all of it. Forgive me for simplifying this far too much, but I want to discuss how sentient life arose, and I plan to do so in a short paragraph or so. We began as a replicating molecule, which then started joining forces with other replicating molecules, and they all went into competition one with another. There was both competition and cooperation. As these colonies of molecules competed and cooperated, sensory organs evolved. Those colonies of self-replicating molecules which could react to the environment could find food and other resources better than those who had to stumble upon it by blind chance. Hence they were able to replicate better and they survived. This eventually led to eyes, ears, nerves, brains, and all the rest of it. These organisms, complex colonies of replicating molecules, became more and more intelligent and self-aware, pruned by natural selection as predators chased prey. Prey had to learn to outwit predators if they were to survive, and predators had to catch prey or they starved. This means they had to develop instincts, intelligence and an awareness of their environment. A sense of self arose, as they had to have an awareness of their own body in distinction to that of an “outside” world. As their brains further developed, a sense of memory evolved within their brains. This helped them to remember experiences they’d had and not repeat mistakes, yielding the first organisms with a sense of existing within the flow of time. I suppose you could say we’re the pinnacle of this process, though that’s not to say we’re that much higher than the animals.
Nothing is guiding this process. No intelligent force or being is watching over it. It’s truly free. As a being who exists within this totally free environment, you’re quite literally free to do anything you’re able to imagine or think up, or at least try to do so. Thing is, if you didn’t have some body and awareness of the world to start with, you couldn’t even interact with the environment. So your divine subjective consciousness began working through the body you’re in now. Why you’re who you are, as opposed to somebody else, I don’t know. Why you’re living in this time, as opposed to some other time, I don’t know. Regardless, we’re all here and that’s the situation. I’ve talked many times on my blog about this subjective consciousness, which is the deepest aspect of what you are. It’s the capability to have experiences. What those experiences are, and how they flow, is probably infinitely variable. Right now it’s connected to your current physical body and changes in brain states are directly correlated with what you subjectively experience.
Your brain is a physical object and there’s nothing divine about it. It could be changed and does change throughout your lifetime. If you were sufficiently knowledgeable, I’m sure you could greatly enhance its powers. You could probably hook it up to vast computers and direct link yourself into vast databases of knowledge. It’s just a physical object which evolution created over a long period of time. It’s not sacred though. It’s not optimal. It’s just a starting point.
I think what we are could be changed if we were only technologically capable to do so. Say I meet you in the street and you tell me, “Have you ever wondered what it’s like to be a dog?” I then reply, “I don’t know, but would you like to give it a whirl?” I think that if I was intelligent enough, I could put you under and perform a complex surgery, rewiring your brain and placing you in a dog’s body, and you would become a dog. I could even make you into a dog-human hybrid, where you’d still have high level knowledge and language, but with the instincts of a dog. You’d smell the smells a dog smells, you’d have that enhanced hearing, and you’d enjoy drinking out of the toilet. You’d scamper across my laboratory, stare at me, slobber on the floor, and would feel comfortable with that state of existence, assuming I was a skilled enough surgeon. Intelligent dogs capable of language aren’t inconceivable, and you being born or living as one isn’t either. Your real self is capable of inhabiting any form. There are no set boundaries. You’re not ultimately a “human”, though you currently live as one.
To whatever degree we understand the universe around us, we have control over it. Nature has given us a brain which is somewhat aware of the environment around us, though its conceptions and models of the world are wrong and incomplete. Even so, our brain is capable of manipulating the physical objects around us with ease. We can walk around, pick up a book on the desk, flip a light switch, or take a shower. We do all these things effortlessly. Our brain is wired up to automatically process these sensory impressions and commit their patterns to memory. It automatically stores these memories to give us a sense of time. It can make predictions about how things behave based on past experiences. It can even understand how things move, such as stepping out of the way as a car drives by. Though we’ve only scratched these surface of these innate abilities, let us content ourselves with saying we humans have a native intelligence. You’re born with it and as long as you have normal experiences, your brain will develop and be more than capable of performing the functions of everyday life. It’s only when you go to build a robot and try to make it capable of doing these same things that you realize how intelligent and complicated we humans are.
Ok, now that we have that out of the way, let’s discuss what it means to have control over the universe and how this ties in with knowledge. I want you to walk out into an open field and yell out, “I command a mansion to come forth! I want a new home!” Air would come out of your mouth, you’d hear yourself, but nothing will happen. Why is that? Interesting question. Let’s instead ask ourselves what it would take for that situation to actually work.
Say you’re living in the distant future and you blurt out those words. All of the sudden a legion of nano-robots living within the dirt hear your command and get to work. Problem is, what should this mansion look like? What will it be made out of? Where will the materials come from? How exactly will the nanobots collaborate to make this happen? What will be their fuel to power their little microscopic parts? The pressure waves emitted by your vocal chords do not contain that information and reality doesn’t know how to respond, so it doesn’t. If this is going to happen, something is going to have to guide all the details of that process. If this did work, some intelligent AI system would have to exist with vast processing power, with knowledge of all Earth’s resources, and some way of reading in what the person is wanting. Maybe there’s tiny nanobots within the person’s brain, I don’t know. But without all of that infrastructure, desires are in a sense, empty.
You’re free, remember? Tell reality what to do! All you’ve told reality to do is make some sound come out of your mouth, so that’s all that happens. And the reason you’re able to make those sounds is because nature gave you that ability.
But where do desires come from? There also has to be a process of thinking up a home in the first place. Why do you desire a home in the first place? Why that sort of structure? Why aren’t you fine with just wandering around naked outdoors? Why don’t you desire a jetpack to fly around with instead? Or why not a flying airship? Why a mansion on the ground?
You might not have realized this, but pain has a lot to do with shaping what you want. You know why you desire a home? You’re too cold or too hot when you’re standing outside. That pain made you uncomfortable. You’ve experienced the dangers of this world and you want a safe environment to thrive in. You want an environment under your control. You want to place to safekeep all the things you’ve acquired. Hence you want a home. These aren’t the only factors, but they’re certainly central.
Without pain you can’t even know what you want and don’t want. You can’t distinguish the two. You can’t tell what’s ugly without first seeing something beautiful, or vice versa. You have to have all these experiences and then have a brain which processes them in a set way, able to compare them, and store the reactions in memory. It then desires one experience over another because of some way it processes the sensory information. That’s what a desire is. It requires memory, imagination, and brain power to think and store the information. Physical atoms have to be allocated to those desires and storing their representations. It’s a process of starting out with a sensory experience and how you will react to it. This is why people oftentimes don’t know what they want. If you haven’t experienced enough, you don’t know what you like or don’t like. If someone was to offer me Indian food, saying, “Do you want some?” I’d have to reply, “Do I?” I don’t know, I’ve never had it. Essentially you’re asking me, “Would you like to have a new experience of what this Indian food tastes like?”, and in that case, I can answer, “Yes”, or “No.” After I taste it, I can then say, “No, I don’t want anymore of this.”, or, “Yes, I’d like to experience this again. I enjoy this food.” It’s a gamble, as are most decisions in life.
Now say I’ve changed you into a dog, but your memories are left intact. Someone could then say, “Would you like some spaghetti?” And maybe you loved spaghetti as a human, but who knows how this will happen now that you’re a dog. Those memories are now worthless. They don’t reflect your desires in your current state. You may prefer dog food. I don’t know.
Desires are information. They are reactions to sensory information. They’re your brain’s predictions about how you think you will experience future events based on various circumstances. You tell me, “I don’t want to go the meeting.” I ask, “Why?” You say, “My ex-girlfriend will be there, and I don’t want to bump into her.” But that’s just your best guess based on past experiences. Maybe things will be different if you did happen to bump into her, but you’re gambling that chances are, things will be as they always have, and it’ll be an uncomfortable experience if you come with me.
People tend to think of desires as this spiritual wind which blows into their brain from some mystical consciousness. They think it’s some inner divine flow of inspiration, the deepest aspect of who they really are. It’s nothing of the sort. This is a case of not understanding what you really are.
This is why robbing a person of a good education is such a tragedy. Education is supposed to help you learn what’s valuable in this life and it curbs your desires toward truly fulfilling things. It’s supposed to bring you an awareness of the world and all that’s available. To give you a small taste of what’s out there and help you find what you want to do in life.
The first day I enrolled in college, I remember sitting in a room after taking my entrance examinations. A young woman came and sat next to me and we began talking. Shortly after this, many young male students, primarily interested in the girl sitting next to me, began asking her about campus life and where the best parties were thrown. She tried her best to answer their questions. As I listened, I thought to myself, “If these kids aren’t taught what’s truly valuable in this life by the time they leave this university, our entire education system has failed. Of all that’s possible in this world, with all the interesting things to do and work on, what a shame it is that the only thing they can think of is going to a dingy fraternity and get wasted.”
That’s why culture is so important. Young people don’t know what they want, and they think they want to be reality TV stars or rich CEOs. They don’t realize how exciting the world can be and all the other wonderful things they could do with their selves. Our society doesn’t lift up great scientists, artists, or philosophers anymore. All we see are celebrities like Paris Hilton, Kim Kardashian, or Miley Cyrus, and these people aren’t inspiring at all. It’s empty and vacuous, but you don’t know that until you’ve been introduced to someone truly great. You’re introduced to Albert Einstein and the expanding universe, or quantum physics, and then you realize how amazing this place really is. We’re robbing our young people of their future.
To get back on topic, let’s further investigate what knowledge is. What is it, and why can we control reality once we have it? We might want to distinguish conscious knowledge from unconscious knowledge. For example, you know how to pick up a book from a desk, but it’s not something you have to sit and think about. You didn’t have to deeply deliberate and plan the action. You just said, “Oh, there’s that book I was looking for”, and you grabbed it. Even so, a huge process happened to make that event possible. Inside your brain, information from your eyes and body was processed into a spatial environment. A coordinate system was formed and your brain solved several simultaneous differential equations and properly contracted individual muscles all throughout your arms, hands, and body to make the action happen. Thing is, nature built this system for you, and you’re connected to it. Remember the whole discussion of the predator and prey? Evolution by natural selection created a brain capable of that. Your brain is like a computer and that programming was wired into it over millions of years. You may think that “you” made that happen, but you’d be mistaken. If you get brain damage in any of the areas involved in this process, you won’t be able to do this any longer. The brain’s a type of computer connected to your robotic body. It’s all a sort of electric meat bag, but it’s not unlike a robot.
Conscious knowledge is a bit different. You’re aware of the information flow. I don’t think you can control this process either, but it’s debatable, I suppose. I think most of it is mechanical. Say when you’re having a conversation. You can hear the words in your head, and if you truly desire, you can “filter” words before you say them, carefully withholding speech at times, but you don’t really choose what you think to say. If that were true, we’d all be funny and witty and loved. It’s more like words are thrust to our attention and if we allow them to pass, they’ll come out of our mouths. If we’re not careful, we’ll oftentimes say things we wish we hadn’t.
Conscious knowledge seems to operate in symbols linked to abstract concepts in our mind. Our brain’s cortex, where thinking takes place, is arranged in a series of cortical columns. Sensory information feeds into them, and they find patterns, and then patterns within the patterns, and then patterns within the patterns within the patterns, becoming more and more abstract as you make your way through a column. Connections from these columns then run to your language center, which is linked to your vocal chords, and words and symbols can be linked to abstract patterns and concepts. This language center also has recursive capabilities, and we can link our experiences to symbols, making language, written words, and spoken words to be possible. Math and logic is also rooted in this system, as best I understand it.
This is complicated stuff, but let’s try to at least get a grasp on how this system becomes aware of the world and how it can control nature. The world seems to follow the laws of physics. It’s not just randomness. We live in an ordered universe, though it’s not mechanical. Since it’s ordered, that means that it creates consistent sensory impressions on our sense organs. In theory, our brains are capable of finding the patterns in ordered sensory experience, thus we can oftentimes predict what will happen in a given circumstance. Of course, that’s just in theory. Reality is much more complicated.
If you study chaos theory, even if a system follows deterministic laws that doesn’t mean you can know what will happen in a given circumstance. For example, if you change the initial conditions just slightly, something totally different may happen. This is called the butterfly effect. Even in a simple physical situation, like a double pendulum, if one of the arms is started with a position just a fraction of a millimeter different from where you thought it initially was, after a short while the system will behave differently than you’d calculated. It’s like trying to predict the weather far into the future. It’s pretty much impossible. Since we can never determine the initial conditions with complete accuracy, we can only confidently say what will happen for a certain amount of time. As time progresses, things become less certain. Remember, this is in a completely deterministic system, following Newton’s laws of motion.
However there is a sort of imprecise knowledge you’d have of the pendulum system which your brain would automatically form just by watching it. You’d know the arms would swing back and forth, though you might not be able to numerically specify exactly where they’ll be at a given time. This is oftentimes what a physicist would call “intuition”. This is why I spend a lot of time writing simulators on my computer, allowing me to watch different things and let this section of my brain store visual patterns.
So there’s a mathematical knowledge allowing you to manipulate equations (symbols) and predict, with a certain probability, what will happen, and there’s the brain’s native pattern system, which has a “feel” for what will happen, even though it’s not very precise. In both cases it’s a type of information stored in the brain, related to an experience, in this case, a double pendulum.
The main gist is this. We have sensory inputs which go into the brain, that information is processed, some of it being stored for future use, and then sometimes we get outputs which translate into bodily motions of various kinds. If that information in your brain correctly correlates with reality, you can control it. But of course, knowledge can always be faulty, and oftentimes is.
Now why do we observe the things we do? That’s the next question. Sure, your brain will form patterns and come to understand things you study and try to figure out, but why focus on those things as opposed to others? That’s a huge step most people don’t even consider. It’s ‘the’ step. As best I understand it, we have dreams and desires of this world, and we want to make them a reality. They exist in an imperfect state in our imagination, as a sort of fragmented and incomplete form of information. We try to fill in the details, so we begin making observations and making conjectures about the world. We ask, “Is this possible? Could I make this happen? What would I need to do?”
Our brain is a sort of scanning system. It works based on limited information. In fact, most of the information that falls on our sensory systems is discarded. It leaves out far more than it takes in. It mainly focuses on either confirming what it wants to be true, or working out details into how to make a desire reality. All the while, as new sensory inputs come in during the process, desires change. People find out they didn’t really want what they thought they did before, and become interested in different things instead. We’re constantly examining how different experiences make us feel, and we pursue those things which excite us. Knowledge and information is then directed in those areas, and those particular future realities are brought nearer to us.
Now these sorts of processes don’t have to take place in a brain. In the futuristic world we considered earlier, intelligent processes existed within the world around the person, allowing them to speak the word and the world created a mansion for him. Knowledge had been infused into the outside world. But what is the knowledge?
The knowledge itself can’t be defined because knowledge can be about anything. In general though, it’s a form of computation. There’s an input, an algorithm of some kind is run on the input data, and then outputs are produced in some controlled and consistent manner. That’s what a computer does on practically an atomic scale. So as computers are made smaller and smaller and are embedded in the world around you, the world will start to respond to your desires, as long as they’re programmed to respond to them.
Say you have implants in your brain and they communicate with your iPhone. It has an app installed which can turn on your car and direct it to your location. You’re in the grocery store pushing your cart and are checking out. You think the thought, “Car, meet me at the front door.” That thought runs through your brain, the implant reads it, creates an electromagnetic wave which is detected by your iPhone, which then transmits the command to your car, which then uses AI to drive to the front door. Computer scientists had to write code which told all of those atoms what to do, guided by information which was stored in the computers in the phone, implant, and in the car. Those things broke the vague thought into individual actions each atom had to do in order to make it a reality. Your desire was fully specified and so reality responded accordingly.
You’re completely free at all times. No outside forces are making you do anything. Then again, that doesn’t mean you have free will in the traditional sense most people think of. That concept doesn’t even make sense if you think about it.
The interesting ideas here are computation and information. Our brains, which we cherish so much, are just one form of computation and information storage. There are all kinds of ways to process information. Our brains are well suited for translating sensory impressions into certain types of models of the world, particularly the world we evolved in — things moving at slow to medium speeds, and of medium size. However, our brains’ mental model of the world breaks down for large systems, such as thinking about the entire cosmos, or the world of atoms, such as quantum physics. It’s tuned into a certain “range” of experience, similar to how our eyes are sensitive to only certain frequencies of light.
I had originally planned to talk about a lot of other things, which is what I was mostly thinking about, but I had to give this background information first. I’ll have to continue this conversation another time. I was spending a great deal of time thinking about video games, and how mankind is experimenting as the inventor of his own universes. We’re creating our own rules of physics, controlling how objects behave, and trying to create worlds with the most vivid and exciting experiences possible. Virtual reality is interesting to consider. I was thinking about how we program those things, and how it’s based on our current knowledge of the world. Objects are represented by polygon “shells”, ultimately hollow on the inside. I was wanting to discuss if VR worlds are true parallel universes, and if so, in what way? Anyways, we’ll get into it another time.