Monday, November 19, 2007

Mind of a Rock, Jim Holt, (thoughts on human consciousness)

November 18, 2007
The Way We Live Now
New York Times
Paschal: Interesting thoughts on human consciousness, the mystery that no one yet can solve.

Mind of a Rock

Most of us have no doubt that our fellow humans are conscious. We are also pretty sure that many animals have consciousness. Some, like the great ape species, even seem to possess self-consciousness, like us. Others, like dogs and cats and pigs, may lack a sense of self, but they certainly appear to experience inner states of pain and pleasure. About smaller creatures, like mosquitoes, we are not so sure; certainly we have few compunctions about killing them. As for plants, they obviously do not have minds, except in fairy tales. Nor do nonliving things like tables and rocks.

All that is common sense. But common sense has not always proved to be such a good guide in understanding the world. And the part of our world that is most recalcitrant to our understanding at the moment is consciousness itself. How could the electrochemical processes in the lump of gray matter that is our brain give rise to — or, even more mysteriously, be — the dazzling technicolor play of consciousness, with its transports of joy, its stabs of anguish and its stretches of mild contentment alternating with boredom?

This has been called “the most important problem in the biological sciences” and even “the last frontier of science.” It engrosses the intellectual energies of a worldwide community of brain scientists, psychologists, philosophers, physicists, computer scientists and even, from time to time, the Dalai Lama.

So vexing has the problem of consciousness proved that some of these thinkers have been driven to a hypothesis that sounds desperate, if not downright crazy. Perhaps, they say, mind is not limited to the brains of some animals. Perhaps it is ubiquitous, present in every bit of matter, all the way up to galaxies, all the way down to electrons and neutrinos, not excluding medium-size things like a glass of water or a potted plant. Moreover, it did not suddenly arise when some physical particles on a certain planet chanced to come into the right configuration; rather, there has been consciousness in the cosmos from the very beginning of time.

The doctrine that the stuff of the world is fundamentally mind-stuff goes by the name of panpsychism. A few decades ago, the American philosopher Thomas Nagel showed that it is an inescapable consequence of some quite reasonable premises. First, our brains consist of material particles. Second, these particles, in certain arrangements, produce subjective thoughts and feelings. Third, physical properties alone cannot account for subjectivity. (How could the ineffable experience of tasting a strawberry ever arise from the equations of physics?) Now, Nagel reasoned, the properties of a complex system like the brain don’t just pop into existence from nowhere; they must derive from the properties of that system’s ultimate constituents. Those ultimate constituents must therefore have subjective features themselves — features that, in the right combinations, add up to our inner thoughts and feelings. But the electrons, protons and neutrons making up our brains are no different from those making up the rest of the world. So the entire universe must consist of little bits of consciousness.

Nagel himself stopped short of embracing panpsychism, but today it is enjoying something of a vogue. The Australian philosopher David Chalmers and the Oxford physicist Roger Penrose have spoken on its behalf. In the recent book “Consciousness and Its Place in Nature,” the British philosopher Galen Strawson defends panpsychism against numerous critics. How, the skeptics wonder, could bits of mind-dust, with their presumably simple mental states, combine to form the kinds of complicated experiences we humans have? After all, when you put a bunch of people in the same room, their individual minds do not form a single collective mind. (Or do they?) Then there is the inconvenient fact that you can’t scientifically test the claim that, say, the moon is having mental experiences. (But the same applies to people — how could you prove that your fellow office workers aren’t unconscious robots, like Commander Data on “Star Trek”?) Finally, there is the sheer loopiness of the idea that something like a photon could have proto-emotions, proto-beliefs and proto-desires. What could the content of a photon’s desire possibly be? “Perhaps it wishes it were a quark,” one anti-panpsychist cracked.

Panpsychism may be easier to parody than to refute. But even if it proves a cul-de-sac in the quest to understand consciousness, it might still help rouse us from a certain parochiality in our cosmic outlook. We are biological beings. We exist because of self-replicating chemicals. We detect and act on information from our environment so that the self-replication will continue. As a byproduct, we have developed brains that, we fondly believe, are the most intricate things in the universe. We look down our noses at brute matter.

Take that rock over there. It doesn’t seem to be doing much of anything, at least to our gross perception. But at the microlevel it consists of an unimaginable number of atoms connected by springy chemical bonds, all jiggling around at a rate that even our fastest supercomputer might envy. And they are not jiggling at random. The rock’s innards “see” the entire universe by means of the gravitational and electromagnetic signals it is continuously receiving. Such a system can be viewed as an all-purpose information processor, one whose inner dynamics mirror any sequence of mental states that our brains might run through. And where there is information, says panpsychism, there is consciousness. In David Chalmers’s slogan, “Experience is information from the inside; physics is information from the outside.”

But the rock doesn’t exert itself as a result of all this “thinking.” Why should it? Its existence, unlike ours, doesn’t depend on the struggle to survive and self-replicate. It is indifferent to the prospect of being pulverized. If you are poetically inclined, you might think of the rock as a purely contemplative being. And you might draw the moral that the universe is, and always has been, saturated with mind, even though we snobbish Darwinian-replicating latecomers are too blinkered to notice.

Jim Holt, a contributing writer, is working on a book about the puzzle of existence.

Copyright 2007 The New York Times Company

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Fundamentalism move mountains, opinion

Fundamentalism Moves Mountains

by Robert Shetterly

Sometimes it’s useful to think like a fundamentalist. Not only does such thought free the mind of rational encumbrance and moral complexity, but it just may open the door to possibilities made unconscionable by the niggling precepts of justice and equality and environmental concern. The sweet little girl, who dons a Halloween mask of a tusked wild boar and then charges about the room snorting and pawing, striking fear into adults and children alike, is an apt metaphor. The mask enables, you might say frees, the girl to be fearsomely one-dimensional. Others, unmasked, retreat, accepting that such transformation is possible, as though the mask unleashed a power far greater than the child was known to possess. Fundamentalism is like that.

But I’m not suggesting that a wild boar is a fundamentalist. No, I would never impugn the nuanced lives of boars by diminishing them so. Rather, I wanted to put on the fundamentalist mask to help myself understand my recent experience and then extend it while masked.

I wrote an essay recently about my tour of mountaintop removal sites in West Virginia. Even when you see it, it’s painfully hard to comprehend — not because one’s eyes cannot embrace the devastated landscape, nor even because three hundred million years of Nature’s work was so easily desecrated by King Coal, but, hard because one’s heart cannot accept the mentality that relished the destruction. I mean, why would a people want to bomb themselves back into the Stone Age? They wouldn’t, of course. And they didn’t.

Powerful outsiders in thrall of an alien god did. Their fundamentalist god ordained it. The fundamentalism at work here is not different in its mania from that of a serial killer. In fact, when the murderous tally has rendered, thus far, 450 of the world’s oldest and most beautiful mountains into two million acres of rubble, the comparison seems more than apt.

This monotheism’s fundamentalism is absurdly simple. Its name is Profit. All of its liturgies and canons, commandments and creeds, rituals and prayers are chanted repetitions of its own name. There shall be no other god before Profit. Neither respect for nature nor the lives of people shall inhibit the divine right of it to proclaim its name. Profit! Such proclamation shall echo from hill to hill…………….oh, but the hills are gone. No matter. Profit owns the airwaves.

So, I put on the mask of the god Profit. ( Part of the creed is that the word “god” is in lowercase, Profit in upper.) What do I see clairvoyantly through the thin slits of the eye holes? I see extreme waste, and I see a public relations bonanza. I see how billions of tons of mountains have been bulldozed into valleys, burying thousands of streams. What a missed opportunity! In the future I see a never ending convoy of coal trucks hauling all that blasted rubble to the East coast. I see the construction of a new, resurrected (!) mountain range, from Miami to Maine, the Appalachian Coastal Range! The top of the range will mimic mountainous undulations and also be a broad highway. Incredible water views. A toll road! Every twenty mile stretch named for a corporation that underwrote the trucking. Every fifty miles an Exxon and McDonald’s. We’ll call the whole thing the Appalachian Trail. (Not very original, but the former trail is gone.) No more tedious hiking! We’ll pave it with all that coal slurry we have needlessly damned up back in West Virginia. Through the mask I see that we will need to take down all the mountains, even the ones without coal buried in them, to finish the greatest public works project since the Great Wall in China. (Memo: Relocation of mountains not-containing coal will be paid for by the taxpayers. Memo: As a public works project, all the expenses should be paid for but public funds!) We will build hundreds of new coal burning plants, which will, no doubt, accelerate climate change. But, our new Appalachian Coastal Range will protect the East Coast. The swelling Atlantic, thrashing and churning with steroidal storms, will be laughed at by mountaintop trekkers in their SUVs. People will be so grateful! Folks on the West coast will demand that Colorado and Wyoming be similarly re-positioned.

The benefits go on and on. Disney will make what’s left of southern West Virginia into a high plains theme park for hunter gatherers. (Isn’t that a nicer term than “hillbilly”?) African antelope and wildebeest will be imported to replace the extinct native bear and deer.

Damn, what is not possible when you put on the fundamentalist mask?!!

Sooner or later, though, you have to take it off. It’s hard to breath in that confined space. Then you might listen to a new CD, The Fable True, by Maine’s great singer/songwriter Dave Mallett. He’s set quotations from Henry David Thoreau’s 1846 book The Maine Woods, a journal of Thoreau’s travel across northern Maine by foot and bateau and his climbing of Mt. Katahdin, to music. One of the quotations is this:

Strange that so few ever come to the woods to see how the pine lives and grows and spires, lifting its evergreen arms to the light, - to see its perfect success; but most are content to behold it in the shape of many broad boards brought to market, and deem that its true success! But the pine is no more lumber than man is, and to be made into boards and houses is no more its true and highest use than the truest use of a man is to be cut down and made into manure. There is a higher law affecting our relation to pines as well as to men. A pine cut down, a dead pine, is no more a pine than a dead human carcass is a man. Can he who has discovered only some of the values of whalebone and whale oil be said to have discovered the true use of the whale? Can he who slays the elephant for his ivory be said to have “seen the elephant”? These are petty and accidental uses; just as if a stronger race were to kill us in order to make buttons and flageolets of our bones; for everything may serve a lower as well as a higher use. Every creature is better alive than dead, men and moose and pine-trees, and he who understands it aright will rather preserve its life than destroy it.

Is it the lumberman, then, who is the friend and lover of the pine, stands nearest to it, and understands its nature best? Is it the tanner who has barked it, or he who has boxed it for turpentine, whom posterity will fable to have been changed into a pine at last? No! no! it is the poet; he it is who makes the truest use of the pine, - who does not fondle it with an axe, nor tickle it with a saw, nor stroke it with a plane, - who knows whether its heart is false without cutting into it, - who has not bought the stumpage of the township on which it stands. All the pines shudder and heave a sigh when that man steps on the forest floor. No, it is the poet, who loves them as his own shadow in the air, and lets them stand. I have been into the lumber-yard, and the carpenter’s shop, and the tannery, and the lampblack-factory, and the turpentine clearing; but when at length I saw the tops of the pines waving and reflecting the light at a distance high over all the rest of the forest, I realized that the former were not the highest use of the pine. It is not their bones or hide or tallow that I love most. It is the living spirit of the tree, not its spirit of turpentine, with which I sympathize, and which heals my cuts. It is as immortal as I am, and perchance will go to as high a heaven, there to tower above me still.

I listened to Thoreau’s wisdom, spoken by Dave Mallett over his gentle and respectful music, and I wondered about the “perfect success” of the mountains.

–Robert Shetterly