A universe without us

What if we are not the center of it all…..

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Ancient Rome

Haunted by questions without common answers – It is a default mode of most deep thinkers, provokers of human systems, those who create questionnaires for us in an attempt to challenge our own supposed limits  and in most cases slow us down in our frivolous attempt to major on minor missions on this pale blue dot that we call home. It is a strange journey in the world of thoughts to imagine “a world without us” as consciousness has endowed us with the gift or curse (you judge) of subjectivity, merely deriving meaning in the world around us by considering us at the center of it all. But what if we are not the center of it all? Would everything still matter?

Or you want me to ask it directly – would it matter if we are omitted from the equation of existence? 

Physics gives us a glimpse of systems that exist with or without our approval, these are laws so to say – perhaps democracy given a chance would have voted gravity out of the constitution but sadly it is objective, our opinion does not matter much. This is probably a nightmare for a highly egotistical species that is bent on the motto “it all is because we are”. This was the source of outrage against Galileo by the Vatican in his teachings based on the fundamental scientific idea that we can interrogate nature by observation and experiment. Even when that discovery disproves what previously esteemed our place in the universe, it does not count it untrue. Until Galileo, the known ideology was that the earth is the center of the universe and everything revolved around it – what a comforting feeling for those who bear our nature.   When he turned the first astronomical telescope into the sky, he noticed that planets were revolving around the sun and further investigation which was later cemented quantitively by Isaac Newton  was that the earth moved. Vatican threatened the old aged astronomer and sentenced him to a kind of house arrest for the rest of his life for challenging what was a central known ideology of “the faith”. The scientist was right, physics was right, now we know our planet is not the center of it all.

Oh if the earth is not at the center of the universe, the sun is. This means that the sun is our sun. Ladies and gentlemen I hereby submit to you that observational astronomy made it clear that the sun is but one lonely star in an assemblage of suns called the milky way galaxy, far from the center of the galaxy – it is not our sun. Oh well, then our Milky way galaxy is the only galaxy. Mmmm not really, there are perhaps hundreds of billions of galaxies notable in the universe. Biology also does no favor to our misplaced arrogance proving again that our anatomy is different but no peculiar in any form from other species. The notion that we are the most intelligent in the universe is also on its way out with the assumption which science is only now starting to treat seriously that we might not be alone and the statistical data as championed by Nick Bostrom leans towards a positive to the hypothesis. The great demotions argument goes on and on in the Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space by Carl Sagan and science again and again proves that we are a part of, not the center of everything.

The current mainstream discussion in the scientific society is if we are able to create machines which can equal or outsmart our intelligence. Exponential growth of technologies as presented by the prophet of integrated circuits Gordon Moore has changed entirely our conversation and vision of the future. Long live Moore’s Law ! Not that my wishes of good luck will add anything to the objective law of electronics which has become an objective law of technology as a whole. Technology is on the rise. Artificial general intelligence will soon be a part of our world, billionaires like Elon Musk dread it and has proceeded to create Neuralink , a company whose mission is to integrate the human system with machines – call it science fiction turned science fact. The source of this fear is existential threat, the fear of a future without us and in his article in the Wired Magazine titled Why the future does not need us Bill Joy does a great job of painting this portrait of the coming doom from his conversation with the famous inventor and director of engineering at Google Ray Kurzweil . Technological fears are in two dimensions – one where the machines take all of our jobs and one extreme where we are overpowered by machines and eliminated from the universe. The first one based on how jobs are to many, a source of purpose and means income. The second one being how we matter so much that we need to exist forever. We can solve the means of income part by Universal Basic Income and the purpose part by reinvention of what it means to be human, simply create new powerful, convincing illusionary stories as we have successfully done in the past.

Existential risk baffles us , we cannot imagine a universe without us – nothing can continue if we are not here because we are the center of it all. What a highly misguided approach to our understanding of how the universe works and not even a rationally useful one to take. The chauvinistic obsession of our species has not served us well in relation to discrimination based on race, sex, nationality, religious preference and the list goes on. We are better than them, than anything really!! – what an absurd and extremely sad stage in the human condition. It will also not serve us well, I argue, in our obsession to our centrality in the universe to an extent of not imagining the future without us.  I present three cases of the future where 1) we exist but in a completely different form, integrated with technology 2) we hand over the reins to another species with superior intelligence, maybe a species of our own making or extra-terrestrial 3) we go extinct but the universe continues.

All these options are highly probable and if we conclude that either way the universe does not need us to be and is not made for us, then it beckons us to consider how we find a new way to search for meaning in our time. It would have been a foolish, unintelligible joke to mention that the Great Rome will one day fall and almost forgotten but it surely did. History is inundated with species, empires, individuals whose participation today is only in history. Now that there is an argument for our extinction, as surely as a proven argument for our immortality, what really matters suddenly takes a whole new meaning. What does a universe without us require?

I seek not to conclude anything on my attempt to explain a universe without us but would at this point give some guidance to retract from seeking value from our place in the universe because we have no special place, our role in the universe because we have no written role, our biological make up in the universe because it has no substantial difference, our intelligence in the universe as it will soon be surpassed but note this : why we matter does not arise from what is given to us but we give…with our ingenuity, our creativity, our hard work, our kindness, each day we add something small to civilization and I hope as we pass on, our civilization guided by the values of the enlightenment will live on in the universe without us. 

May you continue to live in interesting times!!

 

Lie to me, I like that

Yes, delusion thrills us and light the fire within us – reality scares us and make us feel responsible…..
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The Maji Maji Rebellion (1905)

My goal is to somehow arouse great anger, a detest for ignorance and a passion towards wisdom and correct thinking. Unlike the popular culture for typical intellectuals, especially in the scientific world to be quiet, it should be a resolve that silence is not neutrality; it is supporting the status quo. We are living in extraordinary times where truth matters, not simply as a moral duty but as a survival mechanism.

Yes, delusion thrills us and light the fire within us – reality scares us and make us feel responsible but these are war times and gone are the days for the romantic impulse “lie to me, I like that”. She grew up on the escapade reading “One day you will kiss a man you can’t breathe without and find that breath is of little consequence…..“. These are of course not realities, expressions manufactured to get the limbic cortex get to work which is acceptable as long as the frontal lobe also registers “warning, that is called a ventilator, they call it life support because breathing is essential for survival“. The romantic gesture is a hopeful one and should be considered but the statement should be registered universally as irrational. Our poetry and mythology is centered around irrationality, religions designed and constructed in the same street, entertainment is muddled with fictions and our politics is fuelled by fake news. Are we really living in the post truth era?

It is critical to note that fictions are not new, all throughout history, all cultures have been driven, united and sometimes destroyed by untrue ideas. Leaders in past times, mainly autocratic in nature tested loyalty by requesting subjects to believe in irrational fictions – those who drove subjects down the longest road in irrationality were the most powerful. Scholars always faced and up to today face the question : truth or power? We spend far more time and effort on trying to control the world than on trying to understand it – and even when we try to understand it, we usually do so in the hope that understanding the world will make it easier to control it. Because understanding loses in the priority struggle against power, we unite around the most amusing untested assumptions of how the world works. Fictions unite more than truth, conspiracies spread like wild fire but for a short while and most times the price to pay is extremely high.

1905 holds an unforgettable memory in East Africa in the struggle to drive out the German colonial rule. Kinjikitile Ngwale claimed to be possessed by the snake spirit Hongo and to make the message more appealing, Ngwale provided his followers with magic medicine that would allegedly turn German bullets into water (maji in Swahili). Thus began the Maji Maji rebellion. It failed. For on the battlefield, German bullets didn’t turn into water. Rather, they tore mercilessly into the bodies of the ill-armed rebels. I wonder if any of the warriors questioned this fictional strategy or at minimum tried to steal one of the German deadly artillery to run an experiment to prove the hypothesis. The emphasis for the scientific method in approaching our actions and understanding of the world should never be ignored.

The rate of propagation of information has increased immensely and this refers to information in all its makeup – fake news making the bulk of it due to our natural inclination for tales. The brain’s major energy initiative is to follow the minimum energy consumption strategy, ensure that actions that require the least information processes are completed – just follow the wisdom of the crowds. In my favorite psychology text of all time, Influence – The Psychology of PersuasionRobert Cialdini emphasizes how social proof is wired in our brains in a way that can be destructive except in the Savanna when a delay to act on impulse is a death sentence. But we are of course past those times. The curse of easy information transfer comes with the essential burden of speculation of error in information. How we achieve this on a personal level is ensuring that we consistently consider peer reviewed data by believable(experts on the subject matter) and consider every possible opposing view which is Charlie Munger’s motto or rather Darwin’s method of paying close attention to disconfirming evidence. On an institutional level, we must create a culture where it matters more to be correct than to be loud and ensure that we provide the loudest voice to those who prove to be consistently correct.

Conversation on all important matters respectfully with the goal to achieve objective reality is crucial in these times where misinformation can mean a whole nation rejecting a vaccine and rendering dead individuals that could have been saved. This is the plight of our time, an unverified, baseless, irrational, repugnant distrust to scientists, the saints of our time, when it has never been more important to consider their views.

As an example to my thesis, I will focus briefly on the current rejection of vaccines:

Definitions firstA vaccine is a substance used to stimulate the production of antibodies and provide immunity against a disease, prepared from the “causative agent” of a disease, its products, or a synthetic substitute, treated to act as an antigen “without inducing the disease”.

By definition, a vaccine does not induce the disease and WHO (World Heath Organisation) notes vaccination as one of the most effective ways to prevent diseases. The sentiment that pharmaceutical companies make a lot of money by distribution of medical products holds water but the solution is not shutting down all medical solutions but ensuring transparency and build independent institutions to check any drug against the accepted regulations in the scientific community. Objectivity should never be clouded by distrust in human nature and incentive caused behavior in human systems. The highest level of civilization is trust, not “blind trust” but in systems and institutions guided by the scientific method and correct assessment of incentive caused motivations.

Proudly and ignorantly hyped rejection of science and its discoveries may result in the some of the biggest tragedies in the story of the human race and this will be the unforgivable sin of all time. 

Please do not lie to me, I do not like that.

 

 

Science – the greatest triumph of human intellectual history

“Nothing in life is to be feared, it is only to be understood. Now is the time to understand so we may fear less” – Marie Curie 
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Marie Curie – the first woman to win a Nobel Prize (in Physics)

It is in the curiosity of Sir Isaac Newton as a child playing on the seashore “as the great sea of knowledge all lay undiscovered before me“, the audacity of Marie Curie  echoing “nothing is to be feared, it is only to be understood…” , the vision of Carl Sagan that “our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark……in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves” that science finds its meaning as the chief driver of human progress. Science has allowed us to move from mere speculation towards the journey of searching empirical evidence, enabled the human race to ask different and better questions about the meaning of our existence and in a great way continually aids us to survive the fate of entropy. Most importantly, science gives us a reason to keep on living and look forward to a future, a better future that is not in the hands of invisible forces but in our hands, a future we,  through the correct application of knowledge and wisdom, are able to create. Science is the greatest triumph of human intellectual history.  

The challenges to our existence are many; at times from other biological species resulting in pandemics, in other times the worse angels of our nature producing wars and senseless destruction, external physical forces like meteorites which hopefully will forever circumnavigate our home, internal forces that require energy from the environment and security from the elements,…. the list goes on. We are also gifted with so many curiosities and wonders about our surroundings, always restless until we understand not only who we are but our place in the vast universe. I wonder if this curiosity is the difference that allowed us to survive for so long in the history of species, enabling us to adapt and in many ways discover ways to direct energy in the direction that works in our favor. I also wonder what happens if we ever lose it; when we look around and never wonder, the time we stop asking questions and when we dare not understand. We should all dread that day with all our being and forever fight against the greatest crime against human nature – a pact to restrict extending insights, increasing knowledge and purging errors. As we all realize the ultimate importance of science from the hills of Africa to the rest of our pale blue dot – Here and today remains the call to the cosmopolitan virtues of science: 

“Science, the partisan of no country, but  the beneficent patroness of all, has liberally opened a temple where all may meet. Her influence on the mind, like the sun on the chilled earth, has long been preparing it for higher cultivation and further improvement. The philosopher in one country sees not an enemy in the philosopher of another; he takes his seat in the temple of science, and asks not who sits beside him…” –  THOMAS PAINE 

But wait, how does science really work? The historian David Wootton reminds us of the misguided absurd wisdom of a highly educated Englishmen on the eve of a revolution in 1600: 

He believes witches can summon up storms that sink ships at sea…He believes mice are spontaneously generated in piles of straw…He believes that the rainbow is a sign from the gods and that comets portend evil…He believes, of course, that the earth stands still and the sun and stars turn around the earth and stars once every 24 hours. 

Robert Scott relates how in the Middle Ages “the belief that an external force controlled daily life contributed to a kind of collective paranoia”: 

Rainstorms, thunder, lightning, wind gusts, solar eclipses, dry spells and earthquakes were considered signs and signals of the displeasure of the gods. As a result, the “hobgoblins of fear” inhabited every realm of life. The sea became a satanic realm, and forests were populated with witches, demons, cutthroats…..

It is absolutely clear how dangerous and mistaken conventional wisdom can be and how the methods of science – scepticism, open debate, empirical testing – the refining of reason to understand the world is critical to achieve reliable knowledge. In one of my favorite reads,  Physics – A very short introduction , Sidney Perkowitz details prescriptive principles that guide the quest of science : 

The rational understanding of the universe is possible – that causes must be prior to effects and the same cause always produce the same effect. Our planes, medicine, rockets, computers can be trusted to work because of this principle – this is the holy grail so to speak of scientific enquiry. 

Secondly and equally important guide to the workings of science is from the mind of William of Ockham who mandates that among competing hypothesis, the one with fewer assumptions should be chosen. This is to say that simplicity, besides aesthetic appeal has a deeper meaning in that a theory stripped to bare essentials and still making definite predictions can be rigorously tested. Einstein would say “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but no simpler.

The most interesting and fascinating of the principles is what the Nobel Laureate Eugene Wigner calls the “unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics”. It has become very clear that the apparent abstract disciple of mathematics somehow maps onto the real world to reliably describe and predict operations. Wigner even goes further in his utter astonishment of this realization that “the enormous usefulness of mathematics in the natural sciences is something bordering on the mysterious“. Though the enemy of popular culture, mathematics has brought immense value to science and incredible progress to human societies. 

With all the progress brought by science, would we have any contestants against this enlightenment project? Shockingly yes! The saints of the modern world – scientists face enormous push back from the tribalist and populist movements across our society. From denial of global warming (the idea that human actions affect the planet), denial of biological evolution (the change in characteristics of a species over a period of time through natural selection), anti-vaccination movements especially in the poorer parts of the world where this is greatly needed and hostility to genetically modified organisms which Norman Borlaug would frown upon. Not only is science rejected in certain camps but in some spaces it is given a territory of gadgets and handy drugs but not allowed to venture into the deep matters that affect our lives : who we are, where we are from and how we find meaning and purpose -a call to silence that voice of curiosity and wonder which should never keep quiet. This is not to say the history of science is not without its own blemishes. The applications of science have brought great disasters in human history and the enlightenment thinkers understood that science should be guided by institutions that resolve to advance the welfare of all man. Regulatory bodies, universities and to some extents international bodies continue to guide the “progress of science” in the world which is indeed the “progress of the world“. 

“The important thing is not to stop questioning. Curiosity has its own reason for existence. One cannot help but be in awe when he contemplates the mysteries of eternity, of life, of the marvelous structure of reality. It is enough if one tries merely to comprehend a little of this mystery each day.” – Albert Einstein 

May you continue to live in interesting times!!

 

 

Pain – The greatest informer of the human condition

Given a long life, which I hope we will have, our current troubles will, if handled correctly, do us good….

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Rudyard Kipling statue in Burwash High Street

In my initial ramblings on the hard problem of consciousness as it relates to subjective experiences, overcoming suffering was the highlight for a specific reason which I claim here as the greatest informer of the human condition. If we were to observe human history, decisions that shaped societies, rise of religions, formation of institutions…at the center of it all is the survival of the species and the main instinctive driver towards that goal is the escape from pain – the universal trigger of human progress.

Yuval Noah Harari , the Israeli celebrity history professor in his book Sapiens – A Brief History of Humankind makes a compelling case on how to sort real from fictional entities. The basic definition of reality is that which remains true regardless of personal opinions or feelings – of course you immediately thought of Einstein’s gravity and you are correct. Fictions change based on opinions and feelings, so do fictional entities – Chapter 2 of Companies Act no. 71 of 2018 of South Africa mentions “formation, administration and dissolution of companies”. Dissolution entails that companies can cease to exist based on specific opinions that legally oblige the law to judge in favor of extinction of that entity. The same applies to money, religions, nations and the list goes on – once we cease to believe in these objects or institutions, they cease to exist or at minimum to have any value. I should pause here to mention that money has however found a way to hold consensus of importance across all religions and nations. As it may, money is the apogee of human tolerance; more open-minded than language, state laws, cultural codes, religious beliefs, and social habits.The joke goes that after burning buildings and chanting “death to America”, when they found American dollars, the Islamic extremists smiled and filled their bags.

The second diagnosis of a fictional entity is “that which cannot suffer or experience pain” – individuals in a company suffer when the entity goes bankrupt, the institution does not suffer. When nations run into economic difficulties, the nation itself does not suffer but individual citizens experience pain. It is critical to acknowledge this difference, not as a way to lessen the importance of institutions but to correctly allocate importance and weight when given a choice between reality and fiction. Studying the rise and fall of the Roman Empire highlighted to me the fundamental truth that nations rise and fall but the human condition remains. Nationalists or the so called patriots who define themselves by nations or any other fictional entity should study more of history and realize how absurd this way of thinking can be if not taken with a pinch of salt. I am tempted here to rant against nationalism but I choose not to waste time and space. What is important to note? HUMANS SUFFER – this is what guides humanism,  the drive towards the welfare of all people. It is by this understanding that nations go on a standstill at the face of a viral attack, by this reasoning we abolished slavery, fought colonialism and all forms of discrimination and continue to make progress in this direction as a collective.

Those of you who have any philosophical background would be by now fuming over my careless handling of words, somehow providing an assumption that pain and suffering are identical. You are right to complain about my sluggishness in the use of language. It would be futile to define pain as this is subjective and only you know what this means to you, we know however that the root of pain is entropy in human systems and in other cases the mischievous acts of others in our species. In other words, there is no way to avoid pain if you live long enough – it is a gift and a curse to our species. A curse in that it does not provide the sensation we generally desire but a gift in that it is a signal that something has gone wrong. Those who have succeeded at studying the causes of pain; on a species level, have survived the course of evolution as they correct the faults ;on a institutional level, have mastered the errors of fallen greats and resolved not to follow that path and on a personal human level have followed closely their own stupidity/ignorance as well as those of others and lived a lifetime regulating their own behavior. Pain is the natural error detection system in our simulation and our responsibility is to ensure that the negative feedback system works.

Suffering however seems to be a self imposed condition that arises from the pursuit of ephemeral feelings which causes an individual to be in a constant state of tension and dissatisfaction. Even when experiencing pleasure, there is no contentment, because one fears this feeling might soon disappear, and craves that this feeling should stay and intensify. People are liberated from suffering not when they experience fleeting pleasure, but rather when they understand the impermanent nature of all their feelings, and stop craving them. This explains why suffering does not respect bank accounts, possessions or any lofty point in our society, it is by definition a state of mind.

There is no better advice on how to deal with it than the words from the famous poem “IF” by Rudyard Kipling:

If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
    And treat those two impostors just the same;…
Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,
    And stoop and build ’em up with worn-out tools:..
Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,   
    And—which is more—you’ll be a Man, my son!

How so right was Kipling to call them “imposters”!!

Of course you will meet some failure and troubles along the way, some self imposed and some a result of the entropy you missed to master – nobody bets a thousand all the time. Why not use these minor impediments to understand the world and make a person of yourself. Given a long life, which I hope you will have, the current troubles will, if handled correctly, do you good; add to your life’s meaning and perhaps some contribution to human consciousness.

Even if told as history to those who will come after us, how incredible for the future civilizations to glean from not just our success, but also our pain.

May you continue to live in interesting times!!

 

Here lies Epictetus – Part 2

Exploring the hard problem of consciousness
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Here is Galileo di Vincenzo Bonaulti de Galilei with a depiction looking out to the stars, reaching out to the universe, not the imaginary universe professed by meta-physicists but of real celestial bodies; how they relate to our home and if we can at all travel to them. He is called the Father of modern science, an astronomer, a physicist, an engineer, a polymath but my favorite is the Father of the scientific method.

He was a wanderer….. 

“But tell me, who are they, these wanderers …..?” – RAINER MARIA RILKE, “THE FIFTH ELEGY” (1923) 

I always read and meditated endless times the Talmudic story of the first century Rabbi Hillel who as a young man almost froze to death after he climbed into the roof of a school whose tuition he could not afford so that he could eavesdrop on lessons through the skylight. Curious, wanderer, forever searching, not afraid, the world is wide with wonder…. we are all wanderers, through knowledge forging our path ahead, redirecting the fate of entropy.

Of all curiosities, human consciousness bugles us, terrifies us – we formed religions at the face of it, waged wars, built institutions and started a march towards “human rights”, the expression of humanism which privileges the well-being of every  individual man, woman, child over the glory of a tribe, race, nation or religion. It is individuals, not groups who are conscious – they are the ones who feel pain, pleasure, fulfilment or disappointment….there goes again those subjective experiences.

In physics they would call this the “hard problem of the theory of everything“. At this juncture all fields of science gather to explore this idea, they can no longer do it independently , cannot be left anymore to philosophers, psychologists or religions, we have no luxury to ignore this search anymore – no, we are driven now more than ever to discover what it means to be human. Carl Linnaeus decided to call us  Homo Sapiens , the “knowing man”, fuelled by curiosity to embark on a journey of understanding what it all means. Like in all things, some are more driven than others, some were distracted by the stories of fairies told around fires and even now some are derailed on electronic devices created not by those who looked for fairies but who were rooted in the essential pillar of the enlightenment – the scientific method.  

In exploring consciousness, the adjective “hard” is not to mean that this is a difficult problem to solve, though it requires much effort, but to describe the deep misconception of this idea mainly because it is psychologists who started exploring it. They served their purpose in our times of ignorance but at the arrival of the legendary Alan TuringAlonzo Church, Emil Leon Post and others , everything changed, literally all things became new!! Computer Science gave us a new way to solve and understand complex problems. It was not about computers at all, but about ways to describe processes. As soon as those computers appeared, this became an urgent need. Soon after that we recognized that this was also what we’d need to describe the processes that might be involved in human thinking, reasoning, memory, and pattern recognition.

The 1940s – Turing and other mathematical “logicians” (doesn’t that word sound magical)  were thinking deep about these ideas around solving complex problems. Nicolas Rashevsky was also having sleepless nights around the applications and advances of mathematical biology and pioneered present day neuroscience. As you would expect; they said he was going too far, our understanding was not supposed to reach that far, now he is treading in forbidden paths – “Cybernetics” – a nightmare term to establishments of the time whose holy purpose was restriction of critical thinking, we still have some among us even today. The journey continued and now we have two forces driving the journey – computer science and neuroscience. These however are not established without a struggle posed by those who favor conclusions made without proof, which are the most dangerous and enemies of human progress. We do not want our planes made that way, or even appliances for our homes created by those who leave it in the hands of the universe to function – why should we expect any other part of our society function that way?

I labored with the adjective “hard” in my title and argued with myself again in the paragraphs above. Here is my take – there are two reasons why anything might seem hard to explain ; one is that it seems elementary and irreducible which baffles me why Einstein pondered on Gravity, such an elementary and common idea of falling things. The other reason is that it is so much complex than you think it is and you do not know even where to begin explaining it. Philosophers seem to think that consciousness is irreducible meaning cannot be broken down into its parts to understand its origin and paths because “love just is” and “you just feel pain”. All these “subjective experiences” are now regarded as some separate mythical world and Hollywood also does not even assist in leading the lost ship back on course – such a disappointment are the storytellers of our time. This conclusion around emotions is a shameful way to express that we do not at this moment have sufficient theories to explain how this works. But we can never learn much from those who give up, we gotta get back to work!!

Consciousness, I argue, is a challenging problem, not because it is irreducible or elementary but because as we understand from science, the brain is a complex system and the processes that build the mind are in such a way that they value efficiency of execution more that retaining the algorithm of operation – that is the memory does not include the source code, only the result. So essential is this make up of the system to prioritize the main goal “survival” over all things. This brings a whole new approach to understanding how our mind works and what the operations are behind the blanket cover “suitcase of words” as Minsky calls them. The journey to understanding the hard problem of consciousness is continuous, fortunately now led by a team of reputable explorers – computer scientists merged with all the other incredible faculties of hard sciences. This journey is open ended……..at least for now.

When as a child, I first heard of psychologists—those people who know how human minds work—I found this somewhat worrisome. They must be awfully powerful; they could make you do whatever they want. Of course, that turned out to be false. Instead, that fearful power resides in our politicians and prophets. If anything, understanding how emotions work makes it harder to exploit them.

“I hope that it will be a good thing when we understand how our minds are built, and how they support the modes of thought that we like to call emotions. Then we’ll be better able to decide what we like about them, and what we don’t—and bit by bit we’ll rebuild ourselves….I don’t think that most people will bother with this, because they like themselves just as they are.”  – MARVIN MINSKY (1998) 

One should never make a pact, either with others or self that would restrict extending insights, increasing knowledge and purging errors. This is the highest crime against human nature whose destiny lies precisely in such progress.

I implore you – DARE TO UNDERSTAND!!

Here lies Epictetus – Part 1

Exploring the hard problem of consciousness

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Charlie tells a story at USC of his friend who carried around with him a stack of cards such that every time he met an individual who made a comment that reflected self pity, he handed one to him and gently say, “Your story has touched my heart, never have I heard anyone who has terrible misfortunes as you”. Sounds like mockery and you can with ease throw away the card handed to you with, in addition to the self imposed curse of pity, a poison of hurt…….the list of misfortunes not just to self but in-self piles up.

“Here lies Epictetus, a slave maimed in body, the ultimate in poverty, and favored by the gods.”

His real name is barely known, his genealogy not discussed in written or oral history, without ownership of property or of self (born a slave), maimed in body, imprisoned yet an inspiration to millions across the world. His incredible story also reaches out into the far ends of Africa and inspires me : His name is Epictetus which means “acquired”; a philosopher and thinker of the Roman empire, later migrating to Greece. He somehow performed superbly against suffering – a product of human consciousness.

Can humans overcome suffering and live in true happiness? Given a pill to live completely without the experience of pain, only pleasure, would you swallow it? Is pain the relative distance from a point in space labelled happiness, in other words, can there be true happiness without an experience of suffering? It is fascinating to sit and think about such powerful ideas that baffled philosophers of the past centuries as they sat around fires sipping fermented hawthorn berries and now is the top gossip by software engineers at coffee shops in Silicon Valley. How do we understand subjective experiences?

It is Alan Turing  among other thought leaders who challenged the scientific society to think different; a man of numerous talents but his ability to see what was still to be discovered – the merging of cognitive science and computer science remains one of my greatest fascination about his life.We can only see a short distance ahead, but we can see plenty there that needs to be done“, he said. To summarize my understanding of his mind wanderings – for us to understand any system completely, we should be able to build it. This starts the journey of creating artificial intelligence and with it comes the challenge of creating the mind which brings with it the hard problem as it is called of consciousness.

Why am I so intrigued by the so called hard problem of consciousness?

Let me start with the basics and define what consciousness is as we currently understand it : Consciousness is everything you experience. It is the tune stuck in your head, the sweetness of chocolate mousse, the throbbing pain of a toothache, the fierce love for your partner and the bitter knowledge that eventually all feelings will end.

I understand the part of my brain that writes computer code, solve mathematical problems, type engineering reports – this part of my cortex is described perfectly in the first pages of neuroscience texts, it is logical and I can easily manipulate it or even recreate it. What keeps me awake at night and gets me drifting into deep thought in daylight is this part that feels a break up with a loved one, this somehow mysterious section that detests injustice, the part that cries when my brother is in trouble ……. To some, trying to understand this part of the brain(or of the mind – for technical correctness) is a wastage of time allocation on earth. I naturally drift towards these hard problems, to understand them and perhaps create systems that drive change using this knowledge. My basic attitude towards knowledge is that wisdom acquisition which includes mainly the understanding of reality in all its forms and human systems is a moral duty – not just a way to get ahead in life.  

Here is what the respectable Marvin Lee Minsky advised ;

“It is important to understand how our minds are built, and how they support the modes of thought that we like to call emotions. Then we’ll be better able to decide what we like about them, and what we don’t—and bit by bit we’ll rebuild ourselves.”

In the beginning I said here lies Epictetus……intrigued by the hero who overcame suffering – a function of consciousness. We moderns have an arsenal of tranquillisers and painkillers at our disposal, but our expectations of ease and pleasure, and our intolerance of inconvenience and discomfort, have increased to such an extent that we may well suffer from pain more than our ancestors ever did, even more than Epictetus.

It is still COVID-19 times and you might be experiencing suffering in some way. I feel so lucky to be connected to you and exploring the workings of our subjective experiences – one of them is suffering. Will our understanding of the hard problem of consciousness help us deal with suffering, understand and scale empathy or perhaps create machines that do?

Stay with me as we explore together in my next post!!

May you live in interesting times

If we are living in a simulation, Player 1 was supposed to press skip on 2020 but definitely slept on the job….

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Remember the supposedly Chinese phrase curated in the faux-Chinese ‘Confucius he say‘ style ; ” May you live in interesting times”. It of course counts both as a curse and a blessing. If the Chinese did not say it, they should have for our sake – we are definitely living in the most eventful times in the history of our species.

If we are by any chance living in a simulation, Player 1 was supposed to press skip on 2020 but definitely slept on the job. We have never been here before, at least in my lifetime and we never consciously anticipated that nature would act this way though in theory, it was inevitable that a pandemic would arise in this century. No one can ever predict when rare tragedies challenge our resistance to foreign forces.

In Elightenment Now , which is currently my favorite read of all time, Steven Pinker argues the idea he calls entro, evo, info and as always blows my mind with his precision of expression in Chapter 2;

The first keystone to understanding the human condition is the concept of entropy or disorder, which emerged from the 19th Century Physicist Ludwig Boltzmann …. Closed systems inexorably become less structured, less organized, less able to accomplish interesting and useful outcomes, until they slide into equilibrium of gray, homogenous monotony and stay there.

This is the famous Second Law of Thermodynamics  which is grounded in the principle and follows that any perturbation of a system, whether by the movement of its parts or a whack from external forces will, by laws of probability, nudge the system towards instability. Why this happens is not some mystery but simply because there are more ways for a system to be disorderly than there are to be orderly. I am convinced and hope to press this idea of enlightenment that the reason why systems move into unstable states, however you define unstable, is not something to spend ages debating or looking for some conspiracy theory either for comfort or reason to attack – entropy is your answer. The natural transition of any system is the movement towards instability – in everyday language, this simply means – things fall apart.

The second idea which is fundamental to understanding how the world works is that the laws of the universe, including other forms of nature do not care about you or me. Predators, parasites, pathogens are constantly trying to eat us, and pests and spoilage organisms try to eat our stuff. This makes us miserable but that is not their problem. In the same way we do not necessarily spend our days thinking about the animals we keep for food – some protest, not about the killing of chicken but how they are slaughtered : “slaughter them nicely”, they say. It is highly absurd to reason that accidents and diseases always have perpetrators which even poverty some make it their life’s mission to discover who to blame – as Adam Smith  pointed out, poverty needs no explanation, wealth requires a great deal of it. This is not to say that the world is without malevolence but to argue that pathogens are sent or are here to somehow to teach us some lesson is ignorance on rampage – they are on a survival path and sometimes the human body become the unfortunate host.

My highest goal is to be strive to be an accurate thinker by developing a feedback loop system that reduces biases as my life progresses. This has led me on the path of collecting ideas about how the world works, destroy some of my most loved ideas which I discover to be biases and ask some difficult questions which most people would rather leave alone. Human intelligence currently, until further notice remains the benchmark for any known form of intelligence – this is on a high level scary knowing how biased our systems can become and on a lower application level inspiring understanding that we can channel energy through knowledge  to stave off entropy and win against any form of enemy to advance human destiny. This is what encourages me in the face of any tragedy and even now facing the 120 nanometer biological mutant – COVID-19.

Unlike the Black Death in the 14th Century where death was the ultimate warning of danger , this time science took a lead to guide decision making in the political sphere. While medieval people never discovered what caused the Black Death, it took scientists just two weeks to identify the novel coronavirus, sequence its genome and develop a reliable test to identify infected people. It is incredible how the medical society, though caught off-guard like the rest of us was equipped intellectually to meet the challenge.

Information technology via several platforms (Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, YouTube etc.) became an incredible channel to raise awareness, inform the world about the necessary measures, some very drastic but necessary that we had to take to save ourselves and our families from the venomous predator. Compassion and empathy surfaced in incredible ways not only to look out for our immediate neighbor exposed to the virus but to be concerned about a fellow earth citizen in a foreign part of the world – surely there are better angels in our nature. Kindness rules our streets, not only in generosity but simply understanding that staying at home means limiting the spread of the virus through contact and one person indoors is several lives saved. Never in my life have I seen such weaponization of empathy on a global scale.

On an institutional level – politics, financial industry , medical institutions, small, medium & big businesses; “Unprepared” is the echo coherent across the board. But who could have been prepared of such a disaster? It is necessary that we are surprised; that is when true leadership is tested , values are remodeled and fundamentals can be revisited. The conflict between business and human life surfaced in 2020 – which in all rationality, it is essential to save human life rather than save an economy. Is it not so obvious that it is the ingenuity of the human mind that produces an economy and not the other way around? Should we at this point with our level of consciousness be debating such matters? It is paramount for the far reaching success of the human race for all institutions to treat science and its principles with respect. In this instance, we require guidance not from economists but scientists and medical practitioners – every war has its commander.

Those who are guided by reason desire nothing for themselves that they do not desire for all mankind. More than ever, reason, science & humanism remain the keys that will guide us into the future. In all tragedy are incredible opportunities to improve the human condition – necessity is surely the mother of invention. We are already discovering new ways of working , incredible ways of communication and collaboration, enlightenment towards need for global cooperation not division. Once again we are reminded – we are all connected.

Stay Alive – you and me have a future after COVID-19. May we all continue to live in interesting times.