Science Hat Time!

Thanks to Tyson I now have the opportunity to share my thoughts in a more direct manner. Some of you might have noticed me from the comment sections of this blog (check out my “About Roger” page for more information). I hope to supply both new and old stuff about, but not limited to, religion.

For my first post please put on your amateur science hat, it is time for the “layman’s hypothesis quarter”. [Disclamer: The following is purely speculative and the author probably has no clue what he is talking about]

I came to think of the phenomenon of the human mind the other day. It is no doubt that the function of the brain is a complex process, but does consciousness itself really have to be that complex? Reading Daniel Dennett gave me a insight, which I would like to share and hear your opinions on.

Dennett’s term “free floating rationale” might describe what consciousness really is. The term describes behaviors or events that are caused without agents knowing the reasons behind its creation and perpetuation. For example, “How clever it was of sheep to acquire shepherds”; sheep have increased their survivability tremendously through the protection of stewards, but this was of course not a conscious decision on the part of the sheep.

In the spirit of this example, the thoughts and ideas of consciousness may be agents which are operating unknowingly of their causation. The usefulness of this approach is to cover the otherwise apparent gap between the underlying complex biology of the brain and the experience of the mind. Consciousness might be understood in the same way natural selection evolves species without their understanding of the process, or the way memes spread while being unaware of their own meaning.

The neurons of the brain communicates by activating complex synaptic pathways. Thoughts, feelings and memories correspond to different patterns of activation, but although neural activation is a necessary condition it doesn’t explain anything. But if we look at the pattern itself as isolated from the biologic event we might comprehend conciousness. Conciousness simply becomes the sum of it’s parts.

Dennett has also compared the mind to many small robots working together as a team. This works well for describing the operation of the brain on a functional level, but does not cover consciousness. My hypothesis views the brain as a unit, because the mind is experienced as a unit as well.

Interesting conclusions follows. A computer would have to be ascribed a conciousness (at least when a multi-process operating system is utilized). There are different programs, simple and complex, running in parallel which all affect each other. This often generates unpredicted results. We always say computers have a mind on their own, don’t we?

I would love to hear comments on this. Anyone is welcome to play expert.

23 Responses

  1. I am always leery of pushing the brain/computer analogy too far. As much as I am of calling the body and engine.

    I was thinking about this idea of computers/consciousness the other day as I was cleaning some of my contacts up. I had to re-arrange some first and last names, nicknames, etc so that I could have a bit more uniqueness to be able to do voice-dialing–I needed unique fields. I thought “This is something my mind doesn’t require”. Or if it does, it doesn’t even need to use the same “fields” or reference the same “tables” of information. I may recall Tyson by a mental image, a certain contextual trigger, what have you. And for a different person, recalling their face, the T shirt they were wearing, or looking at static info on a business card. I can process all sorts of information and easily navigate between people I know and never have an issue finding my object of reference using whatever “fields” or bits of info I have on hand. I’m sure there are computers infinitely more complex than my phone’s voice-dialing feature, but it seemed to me this is an advantage that minds would always have over computers.

  2. hmmm…. but isn’t this just saying that your mind is like a database that has many many more fields than the ones we use on our PCs? You even say:

    “I can process all sorts of information and easily navigate between people I know and never have an issue finding my object of reference using whatever “fields” or bits of info I have on hand.”

    In other words, it’s like a program that indexes the “tyson” object by fantastically more “fields” than a database typically does…

  3. “A computer would have to be ascribed a conciousness”
    Why would a rock not have to be ascribed consciousness? After all, it is composed of incomprehensible numbers of atoms each following a set of rules, a program, and they are connected in a complex network.

  4. Brain Skarpowsky: Of course I made the inclusion of computers in the discussion as an extreme example for us to think about.

    I think it’s important to note that we have a different discussion about degree of inteligence on top of the matter of conciousness. I don’t consider computers as inteligent as the human mind, and I have my own hypothesis of what defines inteligence, but first I’ll like to hear what all of yours definitions are.

    On the functional level, I think the human mind have a much more abstract framework and it is thanks to this we can do arbitrary searches. This is contrary to a computer program which only does as it is “told”.

    “me”: I think a necessary requirement for conciousness is that the entity in question can receive input and generate output which is related in some way to the input. Of course it’s quite possible to have conciousness without input in the same spirit as my free floating rationale mechanism but it would not be observable from outside. A rock can’t even form a feature to move on its own. Thus in this case the only thing we can say about it is that it is made of materia, and therefor follows the laws of physics.

  5. Howdy Roger,

    You’ve hit one of my favorite subjects in this post. You said:”For example, “How clever it was of sheep to acquire shepherds”; sheep have increased their survivability tremendously through the protection of stewards, but this was of course not a conscious decision on the part of the sheep.”

    Maybe not, but i have had some experience with animals in the wild that at least casts some doubt on that interpretation. For awhile i was living in the woods and got to be friends with animals in the neighborhood. One time a female cottontail came up to me and made motions like she wanted me to follow her. It was the same body language that a cat uses to get your attention and then lead you somewhere. She would run up to me, extending her nose, pointing it right at my face. Then she would turn and run a few steps and then look over her shoulder. I followed.

    A few yards into the trees, she led my to a clump of grass. In the grass was her nest with three or four new babies. They were still blind and hairless. She stood next to them like any proud mother. She sat up like a prairie dog and groomed her stomach. It was just like a mother cat showing off her kittens.

    Where does such behavior come from? Wasn’t this rabbit offering her family for domestication? That’s the message i got.

    cheers,
    jim

  6. Howdy Folks,

    First, let me say that i don’t share your “faith” in science, but then my life’s path shown me many places where science has “gotten it wrong”. Science takes place in a rather rigid context that has no real room for consciousness except as a brain function.

    Roger said: “Consciousness might be understood in the same way natural selection evolves species without their understanding of the process, or the way memes spread while being unaware of their own meaning.”

    I think it is just the opposite… i think consciousness is the way agents understand the system.

    When we try to build robots that can navigate 3d space, we find that they have to be able to track time, reference space and identify objects. They have to make decisions at every turn. All of it would be much easier with a form of consciousness that could manage all the information at once.

    I think that rabbit made a conscious decision to recruit my assistance. Her behavior certainly couldn’t have been practiced, she had probably never seen another human being. What kind of instinct would produce such behavior?

    What does science have to say about such a story? Deny it is possible and move on. A study of consciousness requires an open mind, huh? 8)

    cheers,
    jim

  7. Howdy Brain,

    You said: “I am always leery of pushing the brain/computer analogy too far. ”

    I agree. It is too easy to make a general analogy that doesn’t really work. The brain is like a computer in that it filters, organizes and limits information and options available to the conscious mind… like censorship. 8)

    However, the concept of a totally interconnected computer network, like a universal holographic information processing system, makes a good model for biological systems. That’s what i’m working on over at my place. Feel free to stop by.

    cheers,
    jim

  8. If the rabbit story is true, i think an evolutionary explanation is quite easily made. A random mutation in the bunny’s genetic code allowed it to be more “friendly” to humans… (i personally would not be able to judge the “intent” in a rabbit’s eyes, so i’m leaving that part out)… for those rabbits with the “friendly” mutation, if the it turns out to beneficial, more will survive, and the mutation will spread… if it is not beneficial, it won’t…

    That is how evolution works, and in the story of the rabbit, it may encompass many more than simply one mutation which brought its behavior to its current point. Not all behaviors had to be in one generation, it could be at the long line of several “friendliness” mutations that have taken place over time…

  9. insomniac: Concerning your rabbit Koska described how evolution by natural selection works quite well. This is besides the point however.

    The reason for these examples were only to illustrate the concept of a free floating rationale in order to use it for understanding conciousness.

    I have no faith in science, by any meaning you give the word faith. Science isn’t wrong nor right though, it is simply a process of progress. Scientists may be wrong and a scientific process helps us correct this. While it is true that the experience of conciousness may be impossible to study objectively there is no need to leave rational reasoning or belive anything in an uncritical way.

    “I think it is just the opposite… i think consciousness is the way agents understand the system. ”

    I am not aware that place x in my brain is responsible for sending signal pattern y which moves my fingers in order to write this sentence. Your analogy to a navigating robot only say that a decentralized system handles complex goals better than a centralized one, which I find quite plausable. This seem to me to be an argument about the functional level though, it say nothing about the experience of conciousness.

    I find the same remark to be suitable for your concept of a totally interconnected computer network. If I understand it correct it’s only a statement about the brain on a functional level. Would you care to explain it futher?

  10. Howdy Tyson,

    I’ve had similar relationships with rabbits in separate locations. I bet rabbits everywhere suffer from this mutation. 8)

    When you live in a wild neighborhood, the animals and birds get to know you and learn what to expect from you. After awhile they will accept you as a friend and neighbor. Being a vegetarian helps i’m sure, but you build trust based on how you interact. Just like Jane Goodall, you become part of the animal’s environment.

    One of the benefits of “belonging”, is that you are included in the warnings of approaching predators. Another is that animals, wild as can be, will play with you. I’ve had a dozen rabbits playing a run and chase game in the yard. Occasionally, one would run at me and make the same play gesture that puppies make. They strike a pose with their front feet splayed out and their butts up in the air. Then they run a few steps and kick up their heels and run some more. I would laugh and clap my hands and and they would run around even more, showing off their skills.

    My point is that animals are not unconscious about what they do. To assume so, limits one’s ability to get a clear view of what consciousness is.

    Howdy Roger,

    On the functional level, viewed as a system wide attribute, consciousness serves a purpose. It allows the independent agent to navigate a dynamic environment and accomplish goals therein. It allows the agent to test its current configuration in the real world… natural selection. Consciousness allows the agent to maximize its possibility for success, by making good choices. Consciousness allows intelligence to have an impact on evolution. I doubt that human beings are the only ones to make use of this evolutionary advantage.

    cheers,
    jim

  11. okay, i read most of this book recently (i unfortunately didn’t get to finish, had to return to the library late) called Building Mental Muscle, which outlined very nicely why battered women (or abused men) will stay in a destructive relationship. when a person’s mind is not fully matured and a trauma occures and reoccures that doesn’t kill the person, the brain filters this info in 3 parts. unfortunately i don’t have the parts of the brain off hand, but the signal for a dangerous situation will go through one brain agent, which shoots the info to another agent which tends to analyze the situation further and then will send back the message for what to do to the first agent. if this reoccurs many times, the outcome is expected to not be fatal and is ignored in the long run.

    hopefully i expressed that enough to be understandable, if not i do recommend that book.

    and i do have a pet bunny, since i feed him regularly and he has no apparent enemies in my apartment, he displayes funny behaviour that i can call intelligence. i theorize his brain is used for higher function since has to neither look for food or fear enemy, perhaps your bunny was secluded and comfortable, that’s why she displayed domesticated behaviour.

  12. Howdy Jesse,

    In the places i’ve hung out with rabbits, both cottontails and jackrabbits, they spend most of their time laying around in the sun. They are definitely comfortable and not living in fear. They hardly ever lay out in the sun by themselves, though. When they take a nap, they want to have someone watching for approaching danger.

    I’ve often come across a small herd of cows laying around chewing their cud and there would be cottontails asleep in amongst the cows. I’ve had cottontails curl up and go to sleep within a few feet of me when i was their warning system.

    Gees, i could go on and on, and often do, but once you get into animal(and plant) communication, scientific explanations for it just fall woefully short.

    cheers,
    jim

  13. How do scientific explanations fall “short”?

  14. For animal communication, science maintains that it is only response from animal instinct with no intelligence involved. Communication is the exchange of information between intelligent agents. When you receive a message and respond to it, that’s communication. The longer that exchange goes on, the harder it is to accept that it is some sort of illusion. Ask anyone who has spent time communicating with dolphin, for example.

    As to plant to human communication, science has no explanation at all. Check out Cleve Backster over in the paranormal section on wikipedia. Forty years of carefully documented experiments that “science” refuses to acknowledge. That’s woeful.

    Communication doesn’t happen without effort, especially across species. Those who don’t put out the effort, don’t get to participate. Science has rarely tried.

    cheers,
    jim

  15. jesse: I did not catch the connection between your book recommendation and the subject of this blog post, care to clarify?

    insomniac: “My point is that animals are not unconscious about what they do.”

    Of course not, many animals seem to have a higher intelligence than previously understood, such as dolphines and monkeys. But again, this is besides the point. I think this shows that you have not understood the idea of a free floating rationale mechanism.

    I have not read Daniel Dennetts book “Breaking the Spell” but he presents his idea in at least one of his presentations. The one I’ve watched can be found through bittorrent from mininova.org (if I recall correctly), search the book titel.

    I will try to explain this again, as it is central to understanding my suggestion. I will take a virus, for example a common cold, as example. The virus is the agent which spread in a population of susceptible hosts. The virus itself is unaware of the “destruction” it causes, but is none the less the actor in this senario.

    The principe is not necessarily dimished for agents which have some degree of conciousness. For example, humans know of the process of natural selection, yet it still apply to us.

    But lets remind us what the orginal question was. I am not interested in the usefulness of conciousness, although it would make an exellent discussion for another time, only the reason to why we experience conciousness as a personal phenomenon.

    As I’m not sure what you found incorrect with my hypothesis in the first place I’d encurage you to express this in a more detailed manner.

    As to communication, this is a message: “askemakelarbek”. But, would you classify it as communication? As I said above, dolphines probably have a higher intelligents and/or better communication prerequirement than we have assumed earlier, but this is not an universial trait between all animals.

    Futher, plant to human communication is realy an extraordinary claim, I would like to see the extraordinary proof for this. It would be an interesting reading if you would provide a link to the scientific research on this. Having said that, let’s leave this branch of the discussion and focus on the main question, ok?

  16. Howdy Roger,

    You said:”Dennett’s term “free floating rationale” might describe what consciousness really is. The term describes behaviors or events that are caused without agents knowing the reasons behind its creation and perpetuation. For example, “How clever it was of sheep to acquire shepherds”; sheep have increased their survivability tremendously through the protection of stewards, but this was of course not a conscious decision on the part of the sheep.”

    My point is that, in my experience, rabbits(and most likely sheep) consciously recruit symbiotic partners. I don’t find the concept of “free floating rationale” to be very useful. It just seems like another way to deny the intrinsic rationality biological systems.

    You said:”…dolphines probably have a higher intelligents and/or better communication prerequirement than we have assumed earlier, but this is not an universial trait between all animals.”

    You, of course, have some evidence to support that besides theories of human superiority, right? 8)

    You said: “…plant to human communication is realy an extraordinary claim, I would like to see the extraordinary proof for this. It would be an interesting reading if you would provide a link to the scientific research on this.”

    Like i said, “science” ignores it all, yet no scientist has made a serious effort to prove or disprove Cleve’s extensive research. Like you, their belief system(western scientific reductionist materialism), doesn’t allow for such a thing to be true.

    However, if you had experienced messages from plants, sent from miles away, that later turned out to be true, you might think differently. It has happened to me on more than one occasion.

    Read some of his stuff and the reviews of his book with an open mind.
    http://primaryperception.com

    cheers,
    jim

  17. sorry Roger, i do that a lot, get all excited about a subject and jump to what information i want to get across but not linking it any where but in my mind. a nice example of free floating rationale???

    i think the real debate underlying your highlighted theory would be intent. yes, our human brains are not just of one agent working towards one ultimate action after another, there is internal conflict that works towards many different possible actions, but only one can win out in the end. our brains supply us with the ability to predict the future based off of past information and with the advantage of both a conscious and sub-conscious.

    i know that Tyson and Brian would say that these are simply what evolution has thrown against the wall and what we have now is what stuck. Now, does that make the complex (yet simple) workings of our mind (or all living creatures’) any less amazing?

    if you agree this information is amazing, does that not prove the existance of underlying intent? i’m curious of your opinion.

  18. insomniac: Well, as I touched on in my previous response, conciousness about the effect of an action doesn’t diminish the principe. Let’s restate this definition slightly; we could talk about side effects. If you have a big house you’ll walk alot each day. Your intent is to relocate yourself between room, but this brings the side effect of increased exercise. The reason I’m keen on explaining this, for the third time, is that it’s central to my suggestion.

    Futher, I do not see how this explantion would “compete” with the need to understand the biological system of the brain itself. You say it would deny the intrinsic rationality (of?) biological systems. Well, what does it mean for a biological system to be rational in the first place? If we allow this category error the human brain (I assume it’s the one we’re discussing) would have to be irrational to some degree.

    I base this on the logic that would the brain be strictly structured, like most computer programs, it’s hard to see where conciousness is formed. On the other hand would all sufficently close neurons form a total decentralized network with each other it’s hard to see how input cause output in a resonable manner.

    I do not think all animals posses conciousness, at least not to the degree it’s commonly understood. I simply base this on the lack of reason to think otherwise. This is of course open to evidence. It’s of course not because I think humans are superior in any important sense. The true rulers of this planet is the bacteria.

    Btw, your link is missing the “www.” prefix…

    jesse: Na, not a free floating rationale, you just got a big ego! (just kiding).

    I could accept that intent, or more generaly, goals might be a part of this, but it must be more to it. It is possible to enter a state of mind where you’re aware of your enviroment, yet are detached from yourself as an entity, most commonly through meditation. You can still entertain thoughts but the state is easily broken if you are required to think in terms of “I” again, that is formulate intent or goals.

    Whether this, or something else, cause wonder isn’t an indicator of its truthfulness however, if that’s what you meant.

  19. Howdy Roger,

    You said: “…I do not see how this explantion would “compete” with the need to understand the biological system of the brain itself.”

    Rather than compete, i think the explanations just come from different points of view. If biological systems possess a fundamental kind of consciousness, then there is no reason for a kind of consciousness that doesn’t know what it is doing.

    Like Jesse, said, this is about intent. If there is a fundamental intent, or direction or purpose to biological systems, then we have to look at everything in a new light. If biological systems are really random, mindless and without direction, as western science has believed for hundreds of years, then how do we explain cells that read, write and execute a coded language? How do we explain cells that build expectations, monitor their success rate and adjust expectations accordingly? How about a subconscious that decides what choice to make several seconds before it informs the conscious what is going on?

    From a systems viewpoint, intelligence permeates the system. Information is what makes it go. Information processing is what every cell does, first, before it makes any polypeptide chains.

    It is the same with animals.

    You said: “I do not think all animals posses conciousness, at least not to the degree it’s commonly understood. I simply base this on the lack of reason to think otherwise…”

    Within the current scientific paradigm, animals and cells don’t possess any intelligence, so in that context you would be right. And that’s the one you have been brought up in… that’s the one you are going to believe… for lack of a reason to think otherwise. From my experience, i have lots of reasons to think otherwise. Just trying to share. 8)

    You said: “The true rulers of this planet is the bacteria.”

    Now you are talking! Of course you don’t mean it the way i do.

    cheers,
    jim

  20. I never said a conciousness doesn’t know what it’s doing. I get the feeling, possibly wrongly, that you have not made an effort to understand my simil to the concept of a free floating rationale. Futher, I don’t think there is a “fundamental kind of conciousness” in any system. If this would be true we would see much more prominent effects of this, not only in biological systems.

    I’m also skeptic to intent being the main cause for conciousness (but it may be a component of it), as I stated in my previous post. If you mean DNA as the coded language you can find much information from taking a cource in biology. However, cells which build expectation where a new fact to me, unless you mean how evolution apply. If so yet again a biology class might be helpful.

    The reason I think conciousness must be explained by a theory such as mine or similar to mine is that stating the biological system itself as the cause for its selfawareness doesn’t explain anything. Of course a system use some kind of information in order to act, but this on its own is not a sufficient reason for conciousness.

  21. Howdy Roger,

    Yeah, we are not even on the same page.

    You said: “…find much information from taking a cource in biology. However, cells which build expectation where a new fact to me, unless you mean how evolution apply. If so yet again a biology class might be helpful.”

    You are kidding, right? Next time you are in a biology class, check out the date their text was published. It will be about ten years old. Check the concepts they are teaching and they are older than that. They certainly won’t talk about prophetic cells. You’ll find that here:
    http://www.seedmagazine.com/news/2008/08/a_new_state_of_mind.php

    School’s fine if you want to learn some basics of the obsolete paradigm, but if you want to get into cutting edge biology, the ‘net is where you will find it. But you won’t get anywhere defending to old guard.

    Check out stuff like:
    http://www.ratical.org/co-globalize/MaeWanHo/index.html
    http://www.biophotonicsresearchinstitute.com/ShortArticles.htm
    http://www.sheldrake.org/

    And here is the correction to the bum link from before.
    http://www.primaryperception.com/

    From another angle, if you look at the history of man’s concept of the universe, it follows his understanding of technology, right? When the industrial revolution took hold, we decided that the universe was a giant machine. It took some time, but eventually the machine model of the universe became the standard, even among the faithful.

    This is the information age, buddy. Now we have a new model emerging… that of a machine controlled by information. It’s only natural for our world view to shift to accommodate our new understanding of information processing. For those of us steeped in a mechanical universe, adding information as a controlling factor is an easy step. For those who have been raised in the information age, dropping the mechanical/physical to a subordinate role to information is also an easy shift. But hanging on to the old idea that information is a non-factor hasn’t got much of a future.

    Besides, once you get into it, the new model is far superior to the old one.

    cheers,
    jim

  22. There is in fact a scientific, well lets not say theory because its not quite that solid but it has gotten quite far. Its called emergence and it is a likely explanation for conscioussness as well as even abiogenesis.
    Basically emergence also pictures conscioussness as a sum of all parts in sort of the same way that Dennett does.

    Its not a new concept but emergence puts it a bit more specific by suggesting that our concsioussness arises through the exact same process as a flock of birds.

    Essentially the theory says that from a system with a sufficient number of agents, all operating under the same framework of rules, will emerge a pattern or behaviour that is seemingly detatched from the agents themselves.
    That is, a behaviour that is not controlled by either of the agents, or which does not even require the awareness of the agents of being part of it.

    The idea originally developed to describe the flight of birds in formation.

    A flock of birds, all fly in very precise and elegant formations, despite the fact that there is no leader bird in the flock. In a sense, the flock flight emerges without any kind of control.

    In this case, the agents or birds all abide by a number of rules. For instance, don’t fly to close to one another, don’t fly too far from one another and fly in the same direction.

    If you apply these three rules to birds, the formation flight emerges on its own, as a consequence of the framework of rules.
    The formation is only connected to the birds in the sense that the birds are needed for it to function.

    The concept of emergence gives a very seductive and probable suggestion on the origins of human conscioussness. Considering the fact that our brains contain a hundred billion neurons, and each of those is connected to (on average) 7000 other neurons. You get a very complex system of simple agents.

    Emergence suggests that a complex seemingly detatched behaviour would possibly arise like a mental formation flight.
    It would not necessarily have anything to do with whatever else the brain does, or have any physical connection to the rest of the brain, and not actually originate in the brain cells themselves but in the rules which they abide by.

    This also gives some interesting speculation upon how simple life can arise from complex pools of organic molecules.

    All in all though, emergence would not apply to a computer as we know it. Since computers are far too specialized and lack the interconnection required for emergence.
    Like birds and neurons, every agent in the system ought to be capable of connecting with any other agent and many of them simultaneously while working under the exact same set of rules.

    That said, thats the computers we use. It is hypothetically possible to create a computer which indeed would have the ability to allow for a superior pattern to emerge. However to try that idea for human conscioussness that would require a level of multicommunication between agents in the computer that is not technically possible at this time.

    We would at the very least need a computer that can run millions of simultaneous processes, with each process interacting with thousands of other processes at the same time.

  23. Sorry for the delay.. much to do these days…

    Insomniac: No, we’re not on the same page. Rereading my blog post might help. I think transmentalism’s comment nailed it though.

    What I refered to were DNA and evolution, these topics are still accuratly described in a biology class. Dopamin as an information carrier is quite new though, and the link were quite interesting. It doesn’t address my point though.

    I do not think there is a new paradigm emerging though. A look at Sheldrake’s wikipedia entry took away his credibility for me. The first link had too much information to wade through, I categorize it as “proof from verbosity”. The second didn’t say anything useful. The primaryperseption one (which I off course guessed were lacking www.) didn’t seem to include orginal work. When there’s evidence we can start talking of a possible paradigm change.

    transmentalism: Yeah, this fits like the hand in a glove to my more general description. One interesting question is exactly how many agents are sufficient, and if variances in the rules also changes the threshold.

    Also, would you say the principe of a free floating rationale is fully, or just partly, compatible with the emergence theory?

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