I’ve been thinking a lot lately. I observe myself staring into the void, or looking at people’s faces, movements, behaviors. I listen to their words, and I have a strange and distant feeling of “outerness". But what am I thinking about exactly?
I think about thought.
In particular, I ask myself the reason we do anything. Really, why do we do anything? Why do we wake up, grab a cup of coffee, have children, work, watch films, take hikes, why do we do anything at all, as opposed to nothing? I’ve been so caught up with the everyday TODOs that sometimes I get the feeling I'm moving in autopilot mode, but I don’t really question why I’m doing what I’m doing.
I believe this to be one of the fundamental questions of existence.
The first answer that came to mind is evolutionary, and it’s probably the most obvious one. Certain instincts, physical and behavioral traits were selected for by the process of evolution, and now we exhibit them, without necessarily having a reason, other than random chance, natural selection, and time.
But then I thought about it some more. I came to the conclusion that life is about patterns, and living beings value pattern recognition more than anything else.
Think about it. What makes a gazelle successful? It must spot lions and other threats effectively and efficiently, react in a split second without wasting energy. Based on the limited information it has available at any moment, it must act accordingly. Spotting the lion requires sophisticated vision, auditory, and potentially olfactory systems, all of which are intensely focused on recognizing patterns, and raising the alarm when a specific one is spotted. Activating the muscles and beginning the complex process of moving four coordinated limbs to propel the entire body forward while staying in balance is another case of pattern recognition and execution, coupled with a feedback loop of the body’s response, which leads to another state, which requires more pattern recognition and so forth. In algorithmic terms, it’s a recursive function (albeit simplified).
What makes a person successful?
It’s the same exact process, pattern recognition, and execution based on the understanding of such patterns. You can pick any field or endeavor, you can apply the same reasoning and arrive at the same conclusion.
Why do we cry at Pavattori’s performance of the aria Nessun Dorma, from the final act of Giacomo Puccini’s masterpiece Turandot? We see Luciano’s deep, intense eyes, staring into infinity, as his vigorous tenore voice vibrates powerfully, it resonates with our mental patterns that recognize the fluctuations of harmonic waves, intertwined in timeless mathematical proportions, which seem to peer into the birth of the universe and its remnant vibration thought the cosmos that we inhabit.
Ludwig van Beethoven wrote that, "Music is the one incorporeal entrance into the higher world of knowledge which comprehends mankind but which mankind cannot comprehend”. The relationship between music and numbers is well known, Pythagoras understood it over 2,500 years ago, stating that, "There is geometry in the humming of the strings, there is music in the spacing of the spheres."
Why does Bill Gates have a fortune of more than $80 billion? One can always point to luck – and there certainly was some of it in his early days – but without his ability to see patterns in the market, technology, and consumer behavior, he would not have consistently increased his wealth over time.
We value patterns more than everything else. Virtually every single job on the planet is based on the how good someone is at recognizing patterns and to act accordingly. In fact, we spent our formative years learning the most important of patterns. It’s the meta-pattern, that which helps us understand and form new patterns. Our ancestral DNA gives us instincts, which are a form of pre-programmed pattern recognition that helps us survive. But before we can do anything more meaningful, before we can use our mind and body to create something new and useful, we need the meta-pattern. We learn how to learn, and learning is fundamentally about pattern recognition. We are pattern-remix machines: we copy, we transform, and we combine to create new and interesting patterns, which others find valuable and insightful.
Let’s take a field of study and research, which is generally seen, with merit, as a much more noble endeavor than making money. Hard sciences: physics, math, chemistry, biology, etc. What makes Edward Witten’s research more valuable and interesting than the thousands of theoretical physicists struggling to achieve academic notoriety? Clearly it’s his ability to see complex patterns where others don’t. Physics is all about patterns, and math is the language we use to describe such patterns.
How can we ever hope to one-day defeat dementia, Alzheimer disease, and the hundreds of types of cancers, if not by understanding the mechanisms of how they emerge, spread, and die? And isn’t that yet another form of pattern recognition?
The internet is giving us unprecedented access to information and knowledge, which is sometimes overwhelming. Take this article you are reading right now. Why did you decide to click on it? Perhaps you found the title interesting, intriguing, and wanted to know more. In other words, you recognized a pattern, which sparked neuronal connections in your brain that lead to the creation of more complex and interesting patterns, which you found more compelling than the last cat video you saw, and decided to keep reading. You are now in the 14th paragraph. Was it worth it? Is it creating new pathways, and making you think differently? If you’re still here at this point, the answer is probably yes.
If the pattern is too simple, or too obvious, we find it boring, uninteresting, banal. If it’s too complex and chaotic, we say it's confusing gibberish. Valuable patterns are sophisticated enough to be interesting, but simple enough that they make sense.
It’s not just science, art is about patterns too. Vincent Van Gogh’s prodigious mind produced in 1889 what is now one of the most iconic and recognized works of art in history, The Starry Night. But his unparalleled genius became even more evident in 2006, when physicists discovered that Van Gogh’s painting accurately described one of the most mysterious and still unexplained concepts in physics: turbulence in fluid flows. The great German physicist Werner Heisenberg once said, “When I meet God, I'm going to ask him two questions: why relativity and why turbulence? I really believe he will have an answer for the first.” Scientists have struggled for centuries to describe turbulent flow — some are said to have considered the problem harder than quantum mechanics. It is still unsolved, but one of the foundations of the modern theory of turbulence was laid out 60 years later by the Soviet scientist Andrei Kolmogorov in the 1940s. “The Van Gogh's creations during his most turbulent period mirrored nature's turbulent flows, as if his mind somehow tapped into a universal archetype where luminous becomes numinous — and the painter's brush and nature's brush become one and the same.” (cit)
If art is about patterns, so are psychology, sociology, philosophy, making a movie, writing a book. A language is a form of codified and organized patterns, which helps us transfer a mind-pattern – an idea, a thought, an image, an emotion – to someone else. It’s a pattern-based technology, a vehicle whose purpose is to translate pure patterns – thoughts – to other pattern-seeking entities. Our drive as a species to understand and share patterns is so strong that we independently invented this “language” pattern thousands of times over the course of a few millennia.
We value patterns so much that we put the majority of our efforts and attention in making sure that they are not lost. We write books. We use math discover laws of the universe. We record and play songs, stories, and tales.
Patterns. It’s all about patterns, and recognizing them. The more elegant and intricate the pattern, the more beautiful our braid in spacetime is, the more satisfying our existence.
On Dec. 26, 2014 an opinion piece appeared in the Wall Street Journal titled “Science Increasingly makes the case for God.” As it happens with these things, it went viral. Since then, many rebuttals have been written, including a very detailed article by Ethan Siegel and a letter to the editor by Lawrence Krauss, disputing the WSJ specious science claims. Unfortunately the editors of the WSJ failed to print their response, so I posted them here for your convenience.
I shall refrain from commenting, aside from adapting a quote of the great Douglas Adam:
"I refuse to prove that I exist," says God, "for proof denies faith, and without faith I am nothing."
"But," says man, "[that article in the Wall Street Journal says that science] proves that you exist, and so therefore, by your own arguments, you don't. Q.E.D."
"Oh dear," says God, "I hadn't thought of that," and promptly vanishes in a puff of logic.
This is an attempt to respond to the 10 Millennium Questions posed by Piero Scaruffi on his last blog post. Be advised, I shall not succeed. But I shall have fun trying.
I took the liberty of creating a title for each question, to better organise them visually. I apologise in advance if by doing so I simplified the concepts to the point of inaccurately depicting them. Please refer to the full text of the question, and use the title merely as a reference.
1. What medium can we use to perceive other universes?
A particle that has no mass, the photon (i.e. light), is the medium that allows us (objects with mass) to perceive the other objects with mass that populate this universe. What kind of medium can help us perceive other universes that are based on different physical laws? A thing that obeys no physical law?
λν = c
E = hν
I suppose the reason we used light, as of now, is due to the fact that:
- our eyes have evolved to perceive objects through this medium, which in turn made us create mental frameworks to make sense of such perceptions
- thanks to Einstein's work on the photoelectric effect and subsequently Niels Bohr's research on quantum mechanics, Richard Feynman's efforts on quantum electrodynamics and many others, we have a set of theories that allowed to overlook other potential candidates for perceiving objects
We know so little about other forces that seem to interact with us in strange and mysterious ways that any attempt to explain further with our current understanding would be mere speculation.
And so I shall.
Dark Matter and Dark Energy are just placeholder names for seemingly unexplained forms of matter and energy that (apparently) poorly interact with ordinary matter, but they could really be a family of energies or media, which could follow laws that we don't know yet, or laws that don't fit with our universe. It could be that "dark energy" exists in another bubble universe next to our own, and that all we see is the shadow effect of dark energy from that universe being close to us. It could be that such energy transfers through a currently unknown medium from universe to universe, and by moving from one bubble to another it changes its properties.
Or, I could be completely wrong (most likely).
2. Consciousness and copies: who are you really?
If i build an exact copy of your body, molecule by molecule, atom by atom, is it “you”? Are there two “you“‘s at this point? If yes, what happens when i kill the original? Are “you” still alive? If yes, why does it have to be an exact copy? Your body changes more than 90% of its cells every year and, in particular, millions of neurons and billions of neural connections. How close does the copy need to be in order to still be “you”?
Our bodies change constantly, so if consciousness is located somewhere, it can't be in those parts. If consciousness is a process that emerges from the interactions of our neurons, then the question of building a replica of yourself would be more of replicating those connections. Given that our mind seems to be operating through quantum effects (like quantum tunneling) the idea itself of an exact copy would be impractical, if not impossible with the laws of the universe. If a copy of myself, close enough to 10 decimal points, was ever to be made, I suppose it would have its own existence and branch off as a separate entity from myself.
This brings up an interesting discussion about the meaning of teleportation and mind upload, and their consequences.
3. Happiness with drugs
Life is a search for happiness. We strive to find a way to feel good. Some do so with family and children, some find it in work, some find it in study, some volunteer to help others. Increasingly, we also depend on artificial pleasure: entertainment and drugs. Entertainment now accounts for 5% of GDP in both the USA and Japan. Opiate use worldwide from 1998-2008 increased 35%, cocaine 27%, cannabis 8.5%. More and more people need to get high more and more often. Would it be ok to just plug you into a device and inject substances in your body that make you feel good all the time without any need to actually live your life and with the guarantee that nothing will ever go wrong? You will never experience sorrow nor pain.
The recent outburst of drug use could be seen as a form of escapism, because of a loss of values and purpose in our modern consumerist, profit-based culture. The question "would it be ok" seems to be one of moral concern, for which I know very little, because of my limited capabilities of processing 7 billion people's moralities.
From a purely physical perspective, the mind seems to be receiving pleasure in the act of striving for something, rather than the instantaneous reward. As much as I enjoy reading novels such as Huxley's Brave New World, I think the answer lies in the study of the brain, not our apparent moral compass on this matter.
Can the mind perceive continuous pleasure, without going through the opposite process? If so, is it possible that it eventually gets accustomed to that level, and it needs more and more, until the excess of dopamine or other chemicals cause the death of the subject?
I am not aware of such research being conducted (maybe in Nazi Germany, but they had no access to fMRI machines at that time), and I don't think anybody has plans to pursue them now. We may be able to answer such question when we complete the reverse engineering of the human brain and can run such simulations without causing harm to people.
Or, will it? If we reverse engineer the human brain, and run a simulation, would that be "alive"? Does it have consciousness? Should we give (it/him/her) rights?
4. What is the strenght of cultural uniformity?
For millennia human cultures have been diverging and diversifying. Languages, customs, musical styles, arts and all sorts of behaviors multiplied all over the planet. Recently, the globalization process has dramatically reversed that process. In just two decades the process of increasing cultural diversity has been turned into a process of increasing cultural uniformity. Cultural differences from the Western standard are increasingly viewed as unwelcome (primitive, anachronistic, savage, detrimental to the individual and to society as a whole). Hence the trend is likely to continue and accelerate, eventually yielding just one pervasive uniform culture. Will this make the only surviving gobal culture very strong or very weak?
Cultural uniformity, an almost complimentary name for "globalisation", is the great plague of this century. Diversity is the strength that allows organisms to adapt and fight against that which might threaten their survival, and I would argue that it's the same for societies. However, there is a reason for which the reverse process is currently happening, and it has to do with what is evolutionary selected for in the short term to allow certain traits to develop, which might not be beneficial for the long term survival of the species as a whole.
5. What would we sacrifice for wisdom?
Odin sacrificed an eye to acquire wisdom. What are 21st century people willing to sacrifice in order to acquire wisdom?
To acquire wisdom is to realise that sacrifices are not needed, for true wisdom comes from the act of striving for it, and enjoying doing so.
6. Would it be better to measure time using non-regular oscillators in the age of multi-tasking?
We have three dimensions of space, but only one of time. Is that the way it is, or just the way we made it to be? Could humans perceive two or three dimensions of time some day if we changed the way time is used?
Our current concept of time comes from medieval times, when clocks became the rulers of human life. This created a gap between the time measured by the clocks and the time measured by our body and mind. Our body is a collection of dozens of highly imperfect clocks whose oscillations vary with health, age and even the weather. “The” clock (as experienced by our watches and phones and cars) that runs our life is universal (the same for everybody) and constant (absolutely the same every minute of every day of every year).
There is a fundamental difference in the way we measure space and time. To measure the distance between two points we simply use an object of a standard length and count how many times it fits in the distance. To measure the distance between two instants we use the synchronized repetition of some mechanism or material and count how many times its cycle repeats between those two instants. Any object is good for measuring a distance. Only regular (very regular) oscillators are good for measuring a duration. Would it be better to use non-regular oscillators in the age of multi-tasking?
I think it would be impractical for the current socio-economic paradigm, but not for another. We view time measured through regular oscillator as an act of utmost importance for our economic activities to work, but we continuously fail to adjust our bodies to it.
I could see a different system, where we indeed use non-regular oscillators for some activities, than don't require synchronicity on a global scale, such as leisure moments with your friends and family. If those were the most of our lives, such system could be used predominantly.
For those events that do require global synchronicity (e.g. scientific experiments), one could utilise regular oscillators, confined to the boundaries of the required task.
We would be, in effect, creating many "bubbles of time" around such many events.
7. Can our senses perceive a universe without the interference of us being in it?
We view space but we are in space. We view time but we are in time. The subject and the object of the “I” cannot be separated. However, we now entered a new universe, the dataverse, that we can view without being in it. We are in it most of the time but we can also decide not to be in it (although it is getting more and more difficult to do so). Can our senses perceive a universe without the interference of us being in it?
I suppose not. The existence of an agent (ourselves) inside a system inevitably disturbs it.
8. How do you know that the past really happened?
There is no way to prove that the past really happened. When we look at a photograph, watch a video or read an entry in our diary, all we are seeing is the present. These are objects that exist here and now. There are people who can corroborate those stories, but their brains too exist in the present: here and now. It could well be that the photograph was created by a chemical accident, and the video was assembled by the secret services for obscure purposes, and our diary was written in a delirious moment, and every brain including ours was altered by a cosmic radiation; and by accident all of these events hinted at a consistent story of what happened in the past, when in fact nothing of that sort happened. What we do know is that our memory, and everybody else’s memory, is sometimes (often?) wrong and even forgets. Is there any way to prove that the past really existed other than trusting today’s objects and an unreliable brain?
Julian Barbour argues that we have no evidence of the past other than our memory of it, and no evidence of the future other than our belief in it. "Change merely creates an illusion of time, with each individual moment existing in its own right, complete and whole." He calls these moments "Nows". It is all an illusion: there is no motion and no change. He argues that the illusion of time is what we interpret through what he calls "time capsules," which are "any fixed pattern that creates or encodes the appearance of motion, change or history."
Barbour's theory goes further in scepticism than the block universe theory, since it denies not only the passage of time, but the existence of an external dimension of time. Physics orders "Nows" by their inherent similarity to each other. That ordering is what we conventionally call a time ordering, but does not come about from "Nows" occurring at specific times, since they do not occur, nor does it come about from their existing unchangingly along the time-axis of a block universe, but it is rather derived from their actual content. (In fact, the emergent ordering is probably not the single line of conventional time, but a branching structure like that of many worlds theory).
The difference between Zeno and Barbour is that the British physicist has written some actual mathematics to back his hypothesis. However, Barbour's view is far from mainstream, or accepted by the scientific community for that matter.
Regardless of that, from a purely logical analysis, I don't think we can ever be sure that the past really happened, or how it happened. One must accept certain assumptions about what we think is reality, to a certain degree of probability. For practical purposes, we tend to neglect those events that seem highly improbable, but as rigorous scientists we cannot discard them altogether.
9. When do you acquire free will?
If free will exists, does a newborn already have it or does it develop later in life? If so, are you sure that you already have it?
So, you don't have it. Not not at conception, not in your puberty, not even now.
We do, however, develop a theory of mind from about 3-4 years of age, which I think is more meaningful and significant.
10. Is there just one possible consciousness?
We assume that each body has a different person inside. However, it is possible that we are all the same person, that all those bodies contain the same conscious being: you. Imagine that there has always been only one person: you. They are all you. We are different because our lives are different. We speak different languages. We remember different episodes. We are surrounded by different people. Therefore our memories and our attitudes are different. But “we” are just one person. The question “how does it feel to be me?” has a simple answer: it feels exactly like being you. You are the only person who ever existed. You have been born and died millions of times. You are being born and dying every day thousands of times. Is it possible that inside each and every body there is the same “I” and that “I” is you? that the only person who ever existed and who will ever exist is you, for the simple reason that no other person could possibly exist, for the simple reason that there is only one possible consciousness?
Is it possible? Yes. Do I think it is an accurate description of reality? I don't know. I think it all boils down to whether you think it's more likely that the universe has a "purpose", or if it's the inevitable result of laws of nature and evolutionary processes from which certain properties, agents and relationships emerge. Then again, maybe not. Maybe the very experience of the universe is the consequence of an all encompassing, interconnected mind, which has subjective multiple experiences. But this is an extraordinary claim, and as such, requires extraordinary evidence, not a hunch. Where is the evidence?
Studies on quantum mind such as Orchestrated Objective Reduction and Quantum brain dynamics are still very incomplete and I would be very cautious in taking any definitive postion on this matter.
Hover image for alt tag ;)
Help with translations and subtitles
http://www.universalsubtitles.org/en/videos/ywxINQQqJq2V (please fix timing before translating)
2 Ghost I - Nine Inch Nails
8 Ghost I - Nine Inch Nails
On the last video I began to explore the issue of the utilisation of the scientific method for social concern, comparing it to other forms of governance and decision making, such as democracy, technocracy and how the market forces influence those.
The video received an overwhelming positive response from many of you, and I was really surprised. As expected, there were also a few questions and critiques, and I thank you for those, we shall explore each of them individually.
One of the criticisms raised was that there is no universal definition of well being, therefore we cannot possibly address the issue in scientific terms.
OK, let's examine this statement with the help of a graphic. Imagine we have two persons. The one on the left is in the quintessential perfect well being. Now, we do not know what that looks like, but we can imagine a hypothetical scenario where such a person in such a state exists. On the opposite side, you have a unfortunate individual in the worst possible misery, both physical and mental. If you can imagine something going bad in your life, it's there. And if you can imagine something worse that, it's also there. Between these two conditions there are millions of degrees of variation, from left to right.
Somebody here, for example, may have the following scenario:
- she never gets sick
- she never broke a bone in her body
- she can run a marathon and finish up with ease
- she is generally very happy with her life and never displayed signs of depression or mental illnesses
- she has a stable and balanced diet, as well access to proper nutrition
- she follows her interests with passion and is intellectually stimulated
- her social relationships are strong and healthy
- her sentimental life is more than satisfying and she enjoys it thoroughly
Clearly, these are not all the best traits one person can have, and it's far from being the ideal situation of well being. It's just a point of reference.
Similarly, a person here is in the following condition:
- she was never fed properly, due to a lack of access to food. As a result, serious growing deficiencies affected her body and her mind
- she is crippled and underdeveloped, both physically and mentally
- she is constantly being abused sexually
- continuous tortures and harassment have worsen her conditions over time
- she is in a constant state of pain. Whenever her body adjusts to a level of suffering, new pain is added, and the torture continues
- due to the enormous amount of physical and psychological abuses, she was never able to create any social bond
- she developed psychoses and she is mentally unstable
I could go on, but I think you get the picture. Now, it is true that we don't have a univocal and universal definition of well being, but that doesn't stop us from recognising that there are certain positions on this line that are more desirable than others. And these can be evaluated objectively and scientifically.
But we still don't understand everything about the human condition, you might say. We don't understand everything about aerodynamics, either, but that hasn't stopped us from building airplanes and move across the skies of the world.
One could make a similar argument about life. Nobody really knows what life is. Yet we can safely say that a rock is not alive, but a squirrel is. What about corals, and viruses, and artificial intelligences? Yet again, there is degree of possibilities within the line, and it’s an open discussion. But when somebody stops breathing, grows cold and starts to decompose... well that might be a sign that the person is not alive anymore. Surely in the future we might discover that we got it all wrong, that rocks are alive and we are not, who knows. But at any given time, we have a context and a frame of reference, which we utilise to make an argument. This is not a philosophical discussion about the nature of Truth in the realm of platonic ideas. This is a very practical argument, where we pose a question: can we try and maximise well being, and can we use a scientific approach to achieve this goal? The answer is yes, in both cases. And given the disastrous results that politics and modern economics have given us, it would be utterly irresponsible not to do so.
It really saddens me the fact that, even though we have an abundance of food and medicines in the world, millions of people continue to die. This is completely unnecessary, and avoidable. We let economics and politics deal with this problem for far too many years, and they have failed. On 9-11-2001, 2,966 died in US soil. People still talk about how this could have been prevented. There is an intense debate about that. Today, 23,987 people, mostly children, died of hunger. There is not debate about that. We can prevent this holocaust that keeps repeating every fucking day of the year.
It’s time evolve.