Saturday, December 5, 2020

How to Build a Conscious Computer (Step-by-Step Instructions)

This will be brief but perhaps may be expounded upon in future.

To build a machine - computer - that is *really* conscious even "a little bit" one needs the following ingrediants:

1) A set of real hardware neurons in the topology of a thermodynamic recurrent neural network such as Hopfield (1982). Specifically you need 5 neurons to have associated memory, maybe call it 6 to give some more flexibility to the network (4 neurons is sufficient to solve XOR problem, where it oututs "1" for an odd number of bits as input and outputs a "0" for an even number of bits as input). So for a proof of concept you should have 6 neurons I'd say. [By "neuron" in a hardware implementation I mean an electrical relay, which can serve as a threshold function to modulate current flow, either supporting or inhibiting, so there is nothing particularly challenging about the "neurons" in this context.]

2) This network connected ("wired") together via tubes of (say) salt water where the tubes are clear plastic (non-conducting and transparent for photons to go across) -  this is crucial - the charges need to be transmitted by ions (like salt in salt water) just as the brain transmits signals between its neurons via ions.

3) This network submerged into a liquid of some kind - could be more salt water, or even fresh water, but liquid to "trap" photons in and about the network and this "bath"  of a network enclosed in a Faraday cage (say a lead box) to isolate from environment (just as the human skull is an (imperfect) Faraday cage of sorts to protect the brain from environment signals).

4) One can connect this network via ordinary copper wiring to a power supply / input output device (like a computer) on the outside of the box it is in to give inputs and outputs and so long as there is a power running it will be in a certain sense animate albeit not always conscious - it is consious only when processing inputs and those inputs are "distributed" to the whole network, just as we are not always conscious but only when we are processing information that is globally distributed throughout our neocortex.

This link gives some more details on Hopfield network including some history:

Additional more technical / detailed links on setting up Hopfield network;

That is the whole thing. Consciousness is basically the electromagnetic field generated by a neural network but it is not just the EM field, it is the gravitational field also, because the "secret sauce" of consciousness is entropy (and, per Roger Penrose, entropy is in turn caused by the Weyl curvature of General Relativity). See this study showing link between entropy and consciousness  -

To make some philosophical remarks, the Ricci curvature in GR gives rise to matter, and if the Weyl curvature of GR gives rise to entropy, and hence consciousness, then that puts "matter" and "mind" on the same level if one wills, obviating the millenial-long debate about which is ontologically primal, matter or mind. Neither are primal, for they are both consequences of curvatures in GR. For Spinoza, he defined g-d as that outside of which nothing exists. (This is a similar tautology to Anselm I suppose if perhaps more all-encompassing, g-d being for Spinoza, not the "greatest thing" so to speak, but more "all things" - in fact Spinoza argued in a sense from Anselm, saying if g-d is the "greatest thing" and was separate from the universe or nature, then the sum (g-d + nature) would be "greater than" just g-d alone, so, to follow Anselm's tautology, one must say that g-d is in fact all of nature - actually I am not wholly certain if Spinoza specifically referenced Anselm, but this was his argument), so for Spinoza, g-d was the "universe" if you like, but very broadly in the sense of the totality of all that exists from past to present to future. This "all" or "substance" for Spinoza has infinite attributes. Well two of these attributes appear to be the Ricci and Weyl curvatures which give rise to matter, and mind, respectively. Gravitation plays two roles here. The Weyl curvature which gives you entropy which again is the secret sauce so to speak for consciousness, but also this same Weyl curvature solves the "continuity" issue. Recently Russian scientists revived worms frozen for 30,000 - 40,000 years in the Siberian tundra ( What was the "it" that "came back to life"? It was the Weyl curvature "pattern" associated with their nervous systems. Think of the Weyl curvature as the "scaffolding" which underpins the EM fields which are our conscious experience, and the Weyl curvature is also that which imbues these said fields with the entropy necessary to be, well, conscious. That is the whole thing, really. What is consciousness? It is EM fields underpinned by gravitational fields - specifically the so-called "gravitomagnetic" fields of the Weyl Curvature - existing in high states of entropy. (I having jokingly called this model in the past the "selfish microstate" picture of consciousness - microstates being a reference to entropy, and "selfish" beng a reference to selfish gene theory - just as in selfish gene theory animals are machines so to speak to copy and distribute genes, so in a sense concsiousness can be seen as a mechanism created by highly-entropic systems to create more entropy.)

This outline will build a *real* conscious entity say at the level of a sponge or a hydra. Not much, but a start, and then after that it can just be scaled up. Perhaps I will expound on all this at a future date with more details because here I have intentionally kept things brief, and there is more I could say specifically regarding the precise relationship of  the Weyl curvature to the EM fields of consciousness, but I wanted to just give an outline here. The question must immediately turn to how to approach this area in a ecologically responsible way - can we make the hardware components out of renewable materials at scale and ensure to be carbon neutral or even carbon negative while creating machines of this kind? These issues for now I will leave to others to decipher, but I think these are things that need to be considered from the outset.

The Wright Brothers' plane flew for 12 seconds, but it flew. The above outlined 6 neuron Hopfield net won't solve the P vs. NP math problem, but it will be, in that famous designation of Colin Clive as Henry Frankenstein, "ALIVE!" :)

Wednesday, September 23, 2020

Consciousness as the Thermodynamic Process of a (complex) Wave Function (refining my notion of consciousness as "The Selfish Microstate")

I've written about consciousness before, based on a model of what I lightly refer to as "the selfish microstate", a nod to Richard Dawkins' "selfish gene". Essentially, what I have argued (as others have) is that consciousness is a mechanism which increases entropy. Now, of course, many things increase entropy - an internal combustion engine does for instance, but that does not mean my automobile is conscious (that I am aware of). This said, a conscious system is at least to be found in a subset of systems that are also entropy-increasing, would be the point. There is perhaps a "missing ingredient", which makes one entropy-increasing system conscious and another not-conscious. This, perhaps, relates to the wave function.

Let's define this with some history. Circa 1900, it was imagined that electrons orbit the nucleus of an atom much as a planet orbits a star. However, this was soon found to be incorrect, as calculations showed that the electron would fall into the nucleus of the atoms in about 1 / 100 billionth of a second. Clearly this did not happen, so the "planet-like orbit" model of an electron's motion was incorrect.  Around this same time, however, it was found that light (traditionally modelled as a wave) displayed particle-like properties referred to as "quanta" or, in modern parlance, "photons". Curiously,  something seen as a wave, light, could also behave as a particle. So, scientists thought, what if we went the other way? What if we have something we view like a particle, namely, an electron, that perhaps can also behave like a wave? The electron was then modelled, not as a very tiny point of mass in orbit around a nucleus of an atom, but rather as a sort of standing wave all around the nucleus of the atom. It also turned out that the square root of the height of the wave in a given place gave one the probability of detecting the electron (in the form of a particle) at that particular place. Hence "quantum theory" was born, named from the term "quanta" which described things - like electrons or particles of light - that sometimes were best viewed as waves, and sometimes as particles.

Later refinements, however, led to something quite curious. What if I have 2 electrons around my atom, not just one? Do I now have two waves? (Or "wave functions" which is just a fancier way of saying "waves"). It turned out that, no, one still had only one wave function - the 2 electrons would basically add together and form a composite wave function. The cool thing about this, however, is that - in theory - one could keep going like this, and basically add the wave functions for every single particle of the universe together into one giant composite wave function, known as the wave function of the universe. Of course, this is beyond any computer's ability to do, so this is just a theoretical operation, but the moral of the story is that one can treat even large systems (made up of trillions of particles) as their own composite wave functions. In practicality, for large systems, this is not a convenient or necessary thing to do, but it remains something one can do in theory. Indeed, we could perhaps take the brain (or neocortex) and say there is a composite wave function (built up out of all the wave functions for all the atoms in the neocortex, for example).

The famous Schrodinger's Cat experiment can help take us where we are going here. Imagine a cat in a box, and in that box is a radiocative nucleus with a 50% chance of decaying. If it decays it will trigger a weapon that will kill the cat. If it does not decay, the cat will remain unharmed. So, until one opens the box to check on the cat, the cat is in a "superposition", a mixed state of being if you will 50% alive and 50% dead. We can say the "wave function" of the cat gives us a 50% probability of finding it dead, and 50% probability of finding it alive. This is a well known thought experiment, with apologies to PETA.

Now, what would it mean to say that the entropy of the cat increases? Well, we could perhaps imagine that some of the atoms of the cat get re-arranged in some way (perhaps the cat is scratching itself and disheveling its fur). But this re-arrangement does not in fact trigger the decay the radioactive nucleus - it is in fact irrelevent to the broader setup, that is to say, we can imagine this re-arrangement to not impact the probability of finding the cat either alive or dead. No matter how dishevelled the cat in the box's fur gets, the probability of finding it alive or dead remains the same. It wave function, if you will, from the point of view of somebody outside the box, remains unaffected.

To "increase the entropy" of a wave function of a single particle is a rather simple affair - the wave simply "spreads out" over time, which is to say, as time passes, the probability of finding the particle in one location or another gets smeared out over a larger area. However, the *location* of a particle is only one possible property that a "wave function" can have. A wave function is not a "wave" in "space" - it is basically a mathematical function over Hilbert space, that is to say, over a space of probabilities for some quantity (such as position or momentum). To say a wave function "spreads out" does not mean something in our familiar space - we simply mean this particle gets more chances of have a certain quantity - such as its position say - varied, and the more time that passes, the more varied it gets.

By way of analogy, let's say I am a stock picker trying to create a well balanced portfolio. So "Hilbert Space" in this analogy would be all the possible stocks I could buy. The "wave function" is that subset of stocks I am likely to buy at a particular time. The longer that time goes on, the greater that subset becomes, that is to say, the longer I am in the market, the more likely it is that I will expand the range of stocks I am thinking about buying. So, you could say, the "entropy" of my stock picking operation increases, that is to say, the range of different types of companies, sectors of the market, and so on, increase as time increases.

This same principle applies, albeit in a more complex way, to wave functions for systems built up out of many different parts. It is basically a "state space" - the longer our cat is in the box, the greater its "state space" becomes, though from the outside of the box, one would not know the difference.

A conscious system, then, seems to be a complex system - a nervous system, say - undergoing an increase of its state space, an increase of its internal entropy, and there is some sort of interaction with the environment such that its interaction does not obviously indicate "the state of the state space" if one might clumsily phrase it thus.

As an example, if I am order coffee at a restaurant, I do not give two hoots what the internal monologue of my waitress is, so long as she correctly takes down my order and brings me my coffee - in my case, coffee without cream, and, if they have no cream, then coffee without milk (as the joke from the film "Ninotchka" goes, which of course has now been done to death in nearly everything Slavoj Zizek has ever written, ha ha).

The difference between a conscious waitress and a non-conscious robot, is there exists a wave function of some sort which can describe the "internal state" of the nervous system of the waitress, and there is a well defined way in which this wave function is increasing its "entropy" (or, "state space") wholly unbeknownst to the casual outside observer.

I understand this is a very preliminary and "hand wavy" approach at the moment, and hopefully with increases in neuroscience, physics, and so on, more precision may one day be had, but this picture is I think at least not wholly inaccurate.

To circle back to the cat, at some point, something happens which does impact upon the outside observer - and when she opens the box, finds the cat either alive or dead. But this so-called "collapse of the wave function" is in a sense a separate issue from the issue of the "entropy" of the wave function (and in an Everett Multiverse view the wave function never collapses anyway, but that is another story). Going back to the stock picker analogy, the fact that I buy, say, IBM stock on a Wednesday, as opposed to say Facebook stock, is immaterial to the "range" of stocks I had been considering on that Wednesday. When I say the "entropy of the wave function increased" I mean my "range" of stocks I am considering has increased on that Wednesday as compared to the previous day on Tuesday, and so forth. Somebody observing me purchasing IBM only sees me buying IBM and does not know nor care what particular range of stocks I may have been considering, just prior to purchasing IBM, just as I do not particularly care what my coffee shop waitress' internal monologue might have been, just before I ordered coffee without cream.

A conscious system must, basically, be treated as a unified system described by a single wave function. Just as a single wave function can describe any number of electrons for instance, a single wave function can describe - I would argue - any conscious system. It is the "increasing of the state space" of that wave function of the conscious system (be it a coffee shop waitress, a sponge, or an AI system of some sort) that is the "internal awareness" of the system. 

Consciousness is always a wholly private matter, as many philosophers have pointed out. I can only experience "my own" consciousness, not that of someone else. This model would give the reason for that. If concsiousness is really a wave function then it "exists" so to speak only in Hilbert Space, and is thus then really forever inaccesible to the "outside" observer, as much as anything in Hilbert Space.

"...and so forth, and so on" to once again channel Zizek. :)

Greta Garbo as "Ninotchka"

Unrelated Postcript: Slavoj Zizek discusses the "coffee without cream" joke :) 

Friday, May 29, 2020

Interrogating the Failures of Phinehas, the Weimar Republic, and America after the Murder of George Floyd

Pictured: an incorrect assumption 
I am reflecting on the tragic murder of an unarmed suspect, George Floyd, by a rogue police officer recently, the latest unfortunately in a series of such episodes of police brutality against persons of colour. There is an irony too that the crime for which Mr. Floyd was being detained when he was murdered (by being strangled, on camera, in broad daylight, in front of witnesses, for eight long minutes), was for passing of counterfeit money, and the officer who murdered him's own wife had been once in trouble for passing a fraudulent cheque, another example of the inequities of justice in America.

I try to put things into context, as to what the underlying error here is in America writ large today. Racism, obviously, but the question I have is why is this persisting, over four centuries after the first slave ship made its way to the New World in 1619?

To answer this, I need to interrogate the story of Phinehas.We must understand precisely the manner in which he was in error, in which he was, actually, a failure, to understand our present moment. To review, the story (certainly mythological, but still instructive, no less than the story by Aesop of the Tortoise and the Hare is instructive in other ways), is that of Phinehas, who was the grandson of Aaron, the Hebrew High Priest, and thus grand-nephew (or something to that effect) to Moses, the leader of the Hebrew people in Torah. Rabbinical scholarship suggests that Phinehas was an heir-apparent to Moses, until, as one might recall from Hebrew or Sunday school, he was not, and actually Joshua became the leader of the people following the death of Moses. What happened? Well, Phinehas is famous (infamous) for basically one thing - there was an episode of idol worship, apparently, in which some young men in the tribes carried on with some women from foreign cultures, and adopted their foreign religions which was contrary to the admonition against idol worship handed down by Moses - Phinehas, without consulting anyone, certainly not Moses, took the law in his own hands, and murdered one of the young men who was carrying on with one of the foreign women, along with the woman herself. (I should note the "issue" here was not so much regarding sexual relations with these foreign women or something to that effect, the issue rather that Phinehas was concerned with was idolatry, which ran contrary to the laws and customs of the day.) In any case, it is an interesting question to pose, why or how was Phinehas in error in this action? So fully in error, in fact, that though it is not stated outright in the text of the Torah, Rabbis in the years since feel it was because of this if you like "hot-headed" act of vigilantism that cost him his place as the heir-apparent to Moses? Well, on the face of it, it was precisely because he Was in this action being "hot-headed" and not consulting with others, but rather taking the law into his own hands, whereas Joshua by contrast always was consulting others (consulting with his friend Caleb, for example, who some consider actually to have been a convert to the Hebrew people from Canaan and so was helpful as he knew the territory they were about to enter, which is another story). Phinehas, while perhaps being correct in the letter of the law in terms of his concern with stopping idol worship, was more deeply incorrect because he did not seek justice but rather acted out of his own self-righteous emotions. He was acting for his own interests, ultimately, not the interests of the people. A deeper failure, one might say, is that he never questioned his own assumptions - he just acted without thought and thus became a minor footnote in the text, rather than a major character like Joshua, as a result. So the error - failure - of Phinehas, ultimately, was a failure to think twice, and question what assumptions he was making. (Nerd joke alert: we can thank goodness Phinehas was no mathematician, for if he had been, he may well have made the same mistake Euclid was purported to have made regarding not questioning his own axioms, in particular his infamous Fifth Axionm, ha! :) )

Carrying foward into history this theme of not questioning one's own assumptions, I am reminded of the great historical novel by Leon Uris called Armageddon: A Novel of Berlin about the partitioning of the city of Berlin by Allied forces at the end of World War II. There is an interesting side plot early in this story, about an African-American U.S. Lieutenant assigned to "reconstruct" a small German town following the war's end, and though the details of the novel are hazy to my recollection now, there is a fascinating passage where this Lieutenant is questioning a leader of that town who is a member of old German nobility, and basically asking this old Baron, WTF. That is, how could the people of the town not have seen what was going on? How did they somehow miss or purposely ignore the Holocaust which happened in a sense under their noses? The old Baron naturally dodges and weaves, playing the "I didn't know anything" and the Neuremberg "I was following orders" cards, and essentially follows the familiar post-atrocity theme of nobody taking responsbility for anything. At one point the old Baron says to the young American officer, "This could have happened anywhere", to which the officer replies, "But it never has." It was certainly a powerful scene, and provided much food for thought. One answer the novel speculates on is that the old Nordic mythology of races of gods fighting against "lesser" races of gods, fed into the subconscious pysche of the people. When a people grow up with mythology that glorifies bloodshed and death in battle (as evidenced in such concepts as Valhalla, a sort of heaven for Nordic heroes killed in battle), and when this mythology not only glorifies violence, but also mixes it in with false notions of belonging to some sort of superior bloodline and so on, it primes people on a subconscious level to accept false and evil ideas about racial superiority and wars against "lesser races", such that when a demogogue arises, they don't have the normal critical thinking skills or psychological defenses against it. There will always I think be an eternal paradox of how a country that could produce a Beethovan, a Schopenhauer, a Noether, an Einstein, could also have allowed the Nazis to take root. I think at least part of the answer - surely not a complete answer - but part of the answer, may well lie with how the mythology primed the pump so to speak for horrendously false and nihilistic ideology to gain a foothold. The people in Uris' story of post-war Germany had not questioned their assumptions. That was ultimately the start of the problems. Just as Phinehas never stopped to think, maybe I should ask Moses about this idol worship problem, never questioned his assumptions, so too is history sadly littered with episodes of individuals - or in the case of Germany - an entire people - not questioning their subconscious assumptions they had grown up holding.

But America has this same problem. We look in rightful horror at the murder of George Floyd, and hope his killer will be brought to justice. But we don't question the assumptions given to us by our own mythology. The basic American myth is that of the rugged (white) individual single-handedly taming the wilderness filled with "savages" (be those "savages" Native Americans, or African-Americans, or pretty much anyone who is not Anglo-Saxon). We grow up on stories of Col. David Crockett who won fame for fighting against Native Americans in Florida under the command of General (future President) Andrew Jackson, and who of course died at the Alamo (a conlict parenthetically started by white Texas slave-owners unhappy with Mexico, a largely religiously-influenced culture, banning slavery on moral grounds). In American mythology, the pro-slavery Crockett is the hero, and the deeply religiously devout General Santa Anna, Crockett's opponent in the Alamo, who saw it as his moral duty to root out slavery, is portrayed as the villian who was against "freedom" (namely, the "freedom" of the ranchers to own slaves). To be fair Crockett himself was more nuanced than his portrayals in American lore at times is, and in fact as a Congressman worked to establish more peaceful relations with Native Americans (he still supported slavery, but was, I suppose, like most of us, a mixture of good and bad, neither hero nor total villian).

The point is, I think, Americans (speaking as one myself) make tragically the same mistake that the Germans made, that of not questioning our assumptions, or seeking council from others. We need to develop a new "story", a new cultural consciousness, a new meta-narrative. No, America has not always been on the wrong side of history. After all, it was America who helped defeat the Nazis and Imperial Japan, and also fought a bloody Civil War to end the evil of slavery. America has had highlights and lowlights, like any other culture, but the problem we now face, more than four centuries after the dawn of the slaving era, is a continued failure to examine our own axioms, and find where they are wanting. I would like, for example, to remember the Congressman Crockett, who tried to make peace with the Native Americans, not the opportunist former-Congressman Crockett, who joined the slavery-defenders at the Alamo in order to revive a sagging political career. It is not that American history is "bad", it is that we need to focus on those aspects of it that serve to ennoble the national soul, and de-emphasize those aspects that do not speak to the better angels of our nature. I would like, as another example, to remember abolitionist Harriet Tubman, who led scores of people to freedom on the underground railway. I would even like to remember former Confederate Lt. General James Longstreet, who, following the Civil War, became a police officer in New Orleans and fought to destroy the Ku Klux Klan, proving in his own life that uniquely-emphasized American quality, the perpetual ability to re-invent and reform onself - it is Longstreet who should be remembered, not his commanding (and consistently overrated in terms of strategic ability) officer, the unrepentant racist General Robert E. Lee. If, in short, America cannot learn from the mistake of the German people in the years leading up to and including the Weimar Republic, where assumptions about national (read: racial) identity were never questioned, but rather festered in the background like a cancer on the national psyche, leaving the nation vulnerable to the worst, cartoonishly evil but frighteningly real demogogues ever produced by history, then I am afraid there will be many more George Floyds in the future.

The lesson of the wise, then, is that it is not enough to take a set of assumptions or axioms and base your behaviour upon them, but rather one must also question those assumptions and axioms, and seek council where needed, to ensure those assumptions contribute to the bending of Dr. King's "arc of history" towards justice. Moses, by the way, knew this. Another lesser-known vignette in Torah is the case of inheritance rules, which, originally, dictated that inheritance go to sons, not daughters. But then a man who had only daughters died, and Moses was faced with a decision, to change the rules to allow the daughters to inherit the property, and thus keep intact that particular allotment of tribal property, or let those rules go unquestioned, and face the oblideration of the tribal property lines that were at stake. Moses let the daughters inherit the property. He changed the rules. Because he had the wisdom to question assumptions. Wisdom which Phinehas did not have. Wisdom which would still seem to elude the broader American psyche even to this day. I would say to America, learn to re-evaluate your subconscious assumptions about your national identity. Have the wisdom of a Moses, not the folly of a Phinehas. The murder of the innocent like George Floyd demands no less.

Saturday, August 24, 2019

The Heavens beyond the Heavens: How ancient wisdom presages the Quantum Multiverse and its significance for the human individual

My recent thinking along the lines of cosmology has led me to agree with what is called "quantum monism" (though perhaps the term itself would not have occured to me), but when I read an article on it (here: ), I found that this had basically been -  more or less - my viewpoint for quite some time.

What even more recently occured to me, is that we have a nice literary analogy to quantum monism in Dt. 10:14, "Behold, to the Lord, your God, belong the heavens and the heavens of [beyond] the heavens, the earth, and all that is on it." (Source: .) I stress the word "analogy" here - I do not (obviously) suggest the authors of the Torah were quantum physicists, but I would argue there is a certain spirit that is similar, that is to say, the authors of the Torah, were they alive today,  would probably like quantum monism.

Let me explain. Quantum monism essentially is a updated rephrasing of an idea that has been around since the 1950's, which is that the wave function of quantum particles is primal, or fundamental. What does this mean? This means that if (for example) I have an electron that can be in two states, say, "up", or "down", and I measure this electron to be - say - "up", there is a "parallel reality" somewhere (in a higher dimensional space) where observers will measure that same electron to be "down", that is to say, all possible paths of particles are realized somewhere, in what is often (mis) labelled a set of "parallel universes". Why do I say this is mislabelled? Because these are Not "separate" universes, but rather are different dimensions in a deeper underlying reality. (This underlying reality can be given by Hilbert space that has an infinit number of dimensions, each dimension corresponding to a particle "possible configuration" of matter, but of course Hilbert space is just a model, and perhaps a final model is still yet to be elided.)

This is an artistic rendering of the notion of a quantum multiverse where anything that can happen does happen somewhere (so, in this picture, one of these black balls might correspond to a world where a particular electron we measure is in the "up" state, and another one of these black balls might correspond to a world where that same particular electron we measure is in a "down" state.

How I relate this by analogy to the above mentioned verse in Torah is that was positing that there was an underlying reality - in the case of the context of that passage, this reality being g-d, that unified all of all existence, so while there might be "heavens of the heavens" (i.e. in the context of the time, parts of the world even beyond or past the stars visible to the naked eye which were the "heavens", so here the author(s) are prescient enough to know  that there could well be parts of the world not visible to the naked eye which was very forward-thinking for its time, given that this was written perhaps up to 3,000 years ago) - even those parts of the world that could not be seen were in a sense "tied together" with the more familiar parts of the world by belonging to g-d (for the writers of this passage), or,  in modern parlance we might say, all aspects of the "world" - the universe, has some underlying reality or set of laws that govern it.

So, this notion that while there are different aspects of the universe that there is notwithstanding this something unifying everything, is old, and predates quantum physics. The Hindus had the Brahmin, Spinoza had his "Substance", the 1800's physicists had the luminferous ether. In different ages and cultures, the smart people of the time hit upon this basic truth, that however diverse the universe might be, there is something "underneath" that binds it together. So - it is not perhaps precisely right to say that there is a quantum "multiverse" - there is just one universe, but one within which all quantum possibilities are realized.

To go into my own "spin" on things here, and here I draw from reading Stephen Hawking's work, this is - for what it is worth - my own sort of understanding of this notion of a "quantum monism". I also draw from if you will my personal "bias" of being a relativist (in the sense of drawing my own thinking from Einstein's Relativity, a totally different sense of the word "relativist" than the sense of the word that arises in discussions of ethics). But, here goes. 

In my view, all possible metrics - solutions - of General Relativity exist, and the reality we observe, and, as importantly, can predict, is basically the average of these solutions. Hawking's No Boundary Proposal restricts the "possible metrics" to compact  ones, but that is more a minor, technical point. For the purposes of this discussion, we can think of "all of reality" is the summation of some subset, perhaps all, of the solutions of General Relativity, which have some - as yet not fully understood - way of being "averaged together" to form the world we live in. This can be modelled mathematically as a type of mathematical object called "the wave function of the universe", from which predictions can be derived for the universe we live in. The fact that we live in the universe alters how we do this, that is to say, we weight the contributive metrics which allow for observers more heavily than those that do not in order to make reasonable predictions from this "wave function" for the world we actually experience.

In this diagram the wave function of the universe is a kind of probability function (vertical line) and the horizontal line is the "space" of all possible metrics allowable, so in a sense we observe a universe that is "probable" in the space of all possible types of worlds, and this "probability function" is weighted towards accounting for those types of worlds that allow for observers to be in them.

To use an - always imperfect - sort of analogy,  the universe can be treated like a quantum partitcle that goes from one state to another through time. This abstract "particle" starts in a state - or a metric - that is small and dense, and goes at length into another metric that is expanding and large. So the "trajectory" of how the universe evolves through time can be modelled by treating "the universe" as if it were some sort of abstract (not real, but by way of analogy) "particle" that "travels" from one metric (or solution) to another, and this "trajectory" is simply the "average" path that "it" can take by "summing over" all possible metrics given by General Relativity (or the subset of those metrics that we have decided to include in our average).

This is an abstract diagram of treating the universe as if it were a particle moving from one type of metric to another through time. What is not shown in this diagram is that each region that it moves through is actually an "averaging out" of all possible metrics in each region.

So, long story short, the totality of reality is - again - something in which anything that can happen does happen in different if you will parallel timelines, which - just to complicate matters - may interact in some way (not now fully understood) so observers in any given "possible timeline" will always see there own "timeline" as an "average" of timelines in a similar way to the fact that any observer in an expanding universe will always see all other galaxies receding away from them relative to their position, so it "seems" as though they are at the "center of the universe" but that is simply an illusion given by being in an expanding universe - similarly - any observers in a given "timeline" (or "solution" or "metric" depending on your preferred terminology) will see their "timeline" as being the "average of all possible timelines", because the "average" is going to be different for different observers in different "timelines". "Clear as mud", I know, but I am hamstrung here by the fact that beyond not being a professional physicist myself, even were I, the details of all this are yet to be worked out (because you need a theory of quantum gravity - a quantum description of General Relativity in order to be able to do so, and this theory is "pending" and has been for about a century).

There is a simple take-away I think worth pointing out, and that is to say, that over the years (going, as I have argued, even all the way back to the time of the Torah) there has been converging streams of thought taking different forms over the years that while reality may be diverse and be greater than what we can ever even in principle observe, that, nevertheless, it is governed by the same underlying rules, and displays at the end of the day a deep unity, however complex it may seem to be. Call this deep unity what you like - for the writers of Torah, "G-d", for the Hindu writers of the Vedas, "Brahmin", for Spinoza, "Substance", for 19th century scientists "Ether", for today's scientists, "the wave function of the universe" or a "quantum object" but your end result is the same idea, a profound and beautiful if never wholly understood deep reality that binds everything together.

I  don't want to make this too long, nor do I want to get into deeper philosphical waters, but I will make very brief mention of the word "pantheism" which originally came about as almost an insult for people who didn't like Spinoza, but has re-emerged as a philosophical notion in its own right, and that is, essentially, this idea that the concept of divinity is bound up in some deep way with nature, and that these two concepts may in fact be the same, but at some far deeper level than the simplistic notions of nature given by most of the natural philosophers, so, not so much saying that "g-d is nature" but more saying "g-d is nature in the sense of nature as the total collection of those phenomena that are experienced in both the forms of matter and in the forms of mind, and is something that is deeper than both matter and mind as normally understood, and is something that can never be wholly apprehended by any particular model given by science, but is something that we are all a part of because it has a very profound unity out of which all things spring" (my words or take on it anwyay). So though the concept of "pantheist" began as basically an insult and even now remains inchaote, I think it worth pursing, and I think constitutes a sort of "third way" between the "hard core materialism" of traditional "atheism" and the "hard core mentalism" of traditional "theism". So I like to more or less consider myself a Spinoza-style "pantheist" while ever mindful that the notion demands more elucidation that it has yet been given, and hence I am here trying in a small way to do so.

I think there is one very simple and very crucial component of what I here call pantheism, the idea of an underlying reality that is the unity of the perhaps infinite number of spacetimes available from Relativity all woven together into some sort of unified whole, some sort of single "quantum object", and this simple observation I think separates what I am calling pantheism from traditional (Lucretius-style, "it is all atoms flitting about in the void") atheism, and that is that we are inside this "quantum object." You can never get outside of "reality" to observe it "objectively." Because you are in it. The fact that you are in it changes what predictions you can make about it (for instance, in Hawking's No Boundary Proposal you make different predictions than you would make if you ignored the presence of observers). So, actually, it is not "atoms flitting about in the void", it is also "observers made up of atoms flitting about in the void influencing themselves, other atoms and the void itself," so to speak. This is actually a very awesome conclusion - we are not "along for the ride" in a cold, heartless universe. We are co-creators with the universe. That "quantum object" I spoke of would not be the same without you, without me, without that gnat that crawled across my computer screen a few minutes ago. Even the word, "object," here, misleads somewhat, because reality is never static - it evolves through time - a better analogy than "quantum object" might be that of a river, where each "alternative timeline" is a "ripple" or eddy, which together build up to a larger whole, but one which continually changes and generates new realities and modes of existence, moment by moment. Yes, perhaps, "quantum river" is a better term.

Pictured: living in a van down by the quantum river

We are all in this together. That is the real take-away here, what smart people from the writers of the Torah to the writers of the Vedas to Albert Einstein to Stephen Hawking all understood. The universe may have infinite regions and even "alternative timelines" that we can never even in principle observe, but it is all at the end of the day one unified whole, a whole to which we each individually contribute, a whole which just would not be the same without each one of us. Now I think that is pretty cool. :)

This Phil Lockwood painting that combines some of the famous works by Edwin Hopper perectly illustrates the theme I am driving at here. Each room here is is own "world" but it is part of the greater reality of the city, so all these "worlds" are inter-connected, but this emergent totality would be different without each of these contributive "worlds". In a quantum multiverse, I argue, there is a plethora of "worlds" connected by a deeper reality, but is a reality we both belong to and contribute to, so there is immeasurable significance to each single human individual without whom this reality would not be same, for good, or for ill.


Appendix I: Two good introductory videos on Hawking's No Boundary Proposal (which is one possible approach to defining a "wave function of the universe") by science educator Athena Brensberger ( ):

Appendix II: Brief Discussion of Pantheism by Wesleyan University Professor of Religion Mary Jane Rubenstein ( )  (or specifically discussing the need to develop the concept of pantheism more fully):

Friday, June 28, 2019

The NET System: Proposed Model of Consciousness as (caused by) "the Selfish Microstate"

Here I propose a brief sketch of a model of consciousness I have developed which I give the catchy title "NET System" or "NETs" which stands for "Non-local Entropy-increasing Turing-complete Systems" which I purport are conscious systems. This is not necessarily a "complete" theory of consciousness. To have a "complete" theory one would need quantum gravity which is not there yet, and, beyond that, nothing can really said to be formally "complete" anyway, due to Godel's theorums, and similar sorts of issues. It is however I think a "good enough" theory to have a basic roadmap to work with, which can for example inform AI research.

Let me start with a concept from Daniel Dennett, of "becoming famous". For Dennett, a state of "being conscious" means an information pattern (like say, the pattern of a red apple, or the image or word thereof) being "famous" throughout the brain, that is, the brain has access to this pattern all across the neocortex - it is not localized, but is globally available. This, crucially, for Dennett is what it means to be in a conscious state. There is no "something else besides" - to be conscious (of, say, a red apple) is precisely to have the information associated with that red apple - sensory or conceptual - globally available in the neocortex, full stop. I agree with this idea, namely, that the only "difference" between conscious verus not-conscious information patterns is the global "availability" of that information. Taking this as the jumping-off point, I want to generalize about what it is we are talking about in abstract terms. If to be consciouss is to have information spread about in a nervous system, then we need to understand broadly what is going on, from a physics point of view.

Video of Dennett explaining his model:

A conscious system - human, jelly fish, whatever, is a system that is non-local, that is to say, it has an electromagnetic field whose state is in a sense digital with respect to inputs from the environment. Say, to be fully abstract, we have a nervous system similar to that of a sponge (i.e., very primitive) and has possible "states" red, yellow, green, blue which the system assumes based upon one or another inputs from the environment, and its own internal states. Say, if it is in state red, and it gets a certain environment stimulus - say food - it turns to state yellow (if say red means it is hungry, and yellow means it is in the process of eating food). The point is, the system is digital or non-local in that it is never in say half-green state, or half-yellow state. It is always one or the other of its possible states.

To move to a closely related point, of Turing-completeness, basically, to keep it simple, this simply means that the system can act like a "while" loop in a computer - while (a certain condition is the case), then (do a certain action) - example, while I am hungry, then I eat - while I am not hungry and I have just eaten, then I sleep, etc. Basically the system has an internal state that is always being updated by external inputs, or, put another way, the system interacts not only with its environment, but with itself (by eating the system changes its internal state also, not just the state of its environment, for example).

The trickier point is the "E" in the "NET" acronym, standing for "entropy-increasing". To explain in a simple way what I mean by this, let us go back to Dennett's "becoming famous" metaphor. To be conscious of Lisa Edelstein in a halter top (because I got tired of the red apple example) the information associated with that image needs to be globally distrubuted throughout my brain. To have this "global distribution" I need a concept of entropy. Basically I need a large number of "internal states" that correspond to my "external state" - take the simple sponge system that had abstract external states of red, yellow, green, blue (say). Each external state would correspond to N number of internal states (or "micro" states). To increase the entropy of this system, what I mean by this is I increase the number of internal states that correspond to each external state. Having a large number of internal states corresponding to external ("macro") states enables me to back-up information, to "globally distribute" information throughout the brain (or whatever kind of nervous system). Which of course answers the problem of sleep - why do we sleep? Because our skulls are only so big, and you cannot forever increase the number of internal states by say, strengthening certain celluar connections or weakening others. You need to hit the "reset" button now and again. To be awake ("conscious") means you have a non-local system that is doing computations and is increasing entropy and you can only do this so long, so much, before you sort of hit a maximum and have to start over (which we experience as sleep).

To build a AI system that is fully concsious, here is the basic outline. You have a neural network (such as a recurrent deep learning architecture like a Restricted Boltzmann Machine, for instance) made of real, physical processors (one processor unit or logic gate unit to be precise per "neuron") connected together inside a Faraday Cage (isolated from its environment) and you don't shield the EM field of these processors so there is a shared "external state" of the total EM field created by these processors, and these processors are set up such that they are "wasteful" - they are purposely not very efficient - so they have a large "error rate". But that is good, because they will distribute information across the network with better efficiency even if they are "slower" in terms of solving a particular problem. These processors are connected together with ion channels (not, say copper wires, but with, say, potassium ion tubes - or even good old fashioned salt water - i.e. each "neuron" - processor - exchanges current via ions, not electrons). This will cause the global EM field created by these processors to have an "imprint" of the information being computed in the processors themselves, and to have an electromagnetic concept of "entropy". So here "entropy" is both informational entropy in the design of the hardware neural network itself and also physical entropy in the electromagnetic field created by the movement of the ions between the pysical processors.

I propose that any - any - system that is "NET" is conscious - any Non-local, Entropy-increasing, Turing-complete system. So for example a proton is Not conscious - it is electromagetically non-local and (arguably) Turing-complete but it is too small to have any non-local sense of "entropy" associated with it. Your automobile is also Not conscious because while it has "entropy" in the sense of the internal combustion engine it does not have well-defined computational states. As argued elsewhere, I think a black hole is (a little bit) concious because it does have some notion of computational states, and as Stephen Hawking showed, it does have entropy. Certainly nervous systems are concious. Bacteria is a borderline case - they have some computational properties perhaps but likely not a lot of entropy.

However, here we come to a question. Just how much "entropy producing ability" does something need to "count" as being a concious system? Though much research would have to be done, I do think that basically a concious system both "increases entropy" AND at the same time increases the rate at which entropy is being increased. This is similar to the function y = e^x. The rate of change (first derivative) of this function increases with the value of the function - the rate of change is in fact the same as the value of the function. So, I'd argue, for a system to "count" as conscious it needs non-local computional electromagnetic properties - yes, all that - but it also needs to increase entropy (information and physical) and do so that is at an ever-increasing rate of increasing of entropy. So we can say a "conscious system" is "something that increases its own internal entropy at an ever increasing rate."

You might call this model, "The Selfish Microstate" model of consciousness - just as in selfish gene theory animals are machines used by genes to make copies of genes, or in meme theory (Blackmore, Dawkins) the psychological concept of "the self" is a mental construct created to make memes (another conversation, that!), so I might argue consciousness itself (call it awareness, being "awake", etc.) is an entropy-producing machine to make more micro-states (since by definition, "increasing entropy" means simply to increase the number of micro-states (internal states) of a system as compared to the number of macro-states (external states) of a system).

Now, I am leaving off the "main thrust" of my argument to get into more speculative matters, but it is the more speculative matters that led me to the model in the first place. Roger Penrose's "Weyl Curvature Hypothesis" states that cosmic entropy is caused by the Weyl Curvature of General Relativity. This is the type of curvature that distorts the shapes of objects caused by rotations of objects in spacetime. For example, the earth's rotation causes (a very tiny) distortion of space at the poles which can impact the orbit of golf-ball sized spheres in free-fall inside a space shuttle laboratory that have been used to measure this phenomenon. It also cause gravitational waves (which are basically waves or ripples in space caused by say two neutron stars colliding and which can be detected with very sensitive laser detectors that stretch miles across). I bring this up only to say that if one goes with the Weyl Curvature Hypothesis seriously, this takes you to interesting places. It means perhaps that entropy is in general caused by variations in the very geometry of space itself, and, if as argued here, that conscious systems are in a sense "entropy-producing machines" then consciousness also involves the very geometry of space itself. The Weyl Curvature is also of interest because it is conformally invariant - that is, it does not matter what your reference frame is, you will always be able to measure the Weyl Curvature. It is rather like the speed of light - you always agree on the speed of light, whatever your frame of reference. The Weyl Curvature is perhaps the one constant in all of nature in the sense of something that always endures. After all galaxies run out of energy and collapse into black holes, and those black holes themselves radiate away via Hawking radiation, such that in 10^100 (a google) years from now all that is left is the empty void, hydrogen atoms, and random photons of radiation, there is still yet another thing that is left over - the Weyl curvature. It is the one thing that is always there, even in the infinitely far future. So framing consciousness as being the "phenomenal experience" of a very objective process, that of systems that increase their own internal entropy at an increasing-rate, we leave open the door to the big questions that humans have always wrestled with. If the Weyl Curvature in a sense is always there in the history of the cosmos, never wholly absent other than being close to zero near the Big Bang, but is rather over the course of time changing some aspects here and there depending on reference frame, then perhaps what we call consciousness also is always there, and only changes aspects depending on "reference frame" (type of nervous system, environment, etc.).

As the topic for another post, I think Type Theory (specifically, Homotopy Type Theory) can help model a more formalized and complete picture of concsiousness and its place in the cosmos but I will leave that for another day. For now I think it enough to see conscious systems as being entropy-increasing machines of which we humans happen to be a certain sort. This opens the door in the first place, as discussed, to perhaps shedding light upon building conscious systems of our own, and in a broader arena, opens the door to showing at long last the true place of consciousness in the context of the broader cosmos.

One is tempted perhaps here to ask, what is the big-picture model of entropy, that is to say, is entropy something present throughout a multiverse model (thereby rendering it a "necessary" rather than a "contigent" part of Nature) but, lacking more developments in the area of quantum gravity and / or - as mentioned - a lengthier bit of spadework in the realm of Homotopy Type Theory, although I could certainly speculate here regarding our friend Weyl's place in a multiverse model, for now I shall simply punt the ball with Wittgenstein and say, "Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent." :-)

Less Boring Example of an "Information Pattern That Becomes Famous in the Brain" than a Red Apple ;)

Saturday, May 11, 2019

Answering the Fermi Paradox with the Fecund Universe Hypothesis and Entropic Model of Consciousness

Fermi Paradox: Why haven't we seen this?
The Fermi Paradox raises a simple  question. If there are so many galaxies that we can observe (on the order of 100 billion or so), and if each of these galaxies have a similar number of stars in them, about half of which may have planets, then, well, "Where is everybody?" Why have we yet to encounter beings from other worlds? Here I want to propose a possible solution, and will argue that while life forms may be plentiful, most  of these life forms are of a more simple variety (closer to say jellyfish than to say primates) and therefore we would be hard pressed to find evidence of these life forms, short of actually sending probes to other planets.

I need to introduce the Fecund Universe Hypothesis (otherwise known as Cosmological Natural Selection) developed by physicist Lee Smolin. In brief, this states that black holes produce (or sometimes are able to produce) new universes. Therefore our "big bang" was perhaps the consequence of a black hole from a previous universe, and, in turn, the black holes in our own universe may produce worlds of their own, and so on, ad infinitum. At each "birth" of a new universe, the constants of nature (such as say  the speed of light, or the magnetic moment of the electron) get "mutated", and so there is a sense in which universes "evolve" and the ones that "succeed" are the ones that have the most black holes, in order to be able to produce the most offspring. Accordingly the world we live in is "selected" to be "good at" producing black holes. What does this have to do with the Fermi Paradox? Ah, but now the rabbit hole goes deeper.

Artistic rendering of universes branching off from one another. The Fecund Universe Hypthesis states that "daughter universes" are created from black holes in "mother universes", and therefore the universe we are in may well be adapted for black hole production, because the universes that produce the most offspring are the ones with the most black holes.

Stephen Hawking demonstrated that black holes produce radiation, that they are not truly "black" but give off radiation due to quantum mechanics, and (over enough time) may entirely radiate away and disappear (on something like the order of 10 to the power of 100 - a google - of years). What this means is that black holes are thermodynamic objects, that is to say, they have very high entropy. One difference between your coffee mug and a black hole is that black holes have far higher entropy than does your coffee cup - a black hole radiates away energy with far less efficiency than the efficiency with which your coffee cup cools off  (hence if you microwave it too long you must wait a long time before you drink it but not millions of years either - it is say medium-level efficient at cooling off, but the efficiency of a black hole emitting energy is even worse because it has much higher entropy than does your coffee cup). In fact, black holes have the highest amount of entropy (adjusted for things like surface area) than any other thing known in nature.

Animation of Hawking Radation - here negative energy (blue) falls into the black hole while positive energy (red) flys away from the black hole, causing the black hole to slowly lose energy over time, until it eventually will entirely vanish.
Well, now where are headed with all this? Well, if black holes have high amounts of entropy, and if furthermore the universe is adapated to be "good at" black hole production, that means the universe is also adapated to be "good at" entropy production.

Now, Jeremy England, a physicist at MIT, has developed a theory to say that living entities (from simple cells to multi-cellular organisms) are different from non-living entities precisely because living entities are good at producing entropy. A bacteria cell or a piece of grass will have higher entropy than say a rock will have. (For the purposes of this essay, we can simply define "entropy" as an inverse of the efficiency with which something gives off energy, so the lower the entropy, the better a thing is at giving off heat or energy, and the higher the entropy, the less efficient the thing is at giving off heat or energy.) The details of this are a little beyond our scope here, but let us suffice it to say that living entities are much "better" at entropy production than non-living entities. If as stated above, the universe is somehow "adapated" to being "good at" producing systems of high entropy, then it stands to reason that life, at least simple life, is also perhaps prevelant around the cosmos, inasmuch as black holes are prevelant around the cosmos.

Exentending this further, there are recent studies to suggest that conscious systems (like the human brain) have high levels of entropy, specifically higher than non-conscious systems. So, just as living organisms have higher entropy levels than non-living things, so do conscious living systems (like say jellyfish) have higher entropy levels than living entities that may not be conscious, or at least, not very much so (like say trees).

So, we can now say that the universe is adapted to producing lots of black holes, which means lots of entropy, which means - perhaps - lots of those entropy-producing machines known as living organisims, including those very-efficient entropy-producing machines we know as living organisms containing nervous systems (be they very primitive, such as sponges or sea anemones, or more complex such as dolphins or primates).

But now, you may ask, have not we now only made the Fermi Paradox worse? If we now take it that the universe is somehow adapted to be good at producing living entities, than, well, where are they? Here, however, is the big "but" to the statement that the universe is well-adapated for the production of biological life. Let's go back to black holes. They are actually not the simple systems portrayed in popular literature, with a boundary - "event horizon" - and in the interior of this boundary an undefinable area of gravitational maximal force known as a "singularity", they  are actually more complex than that. Outside the event horizon there is a sort of "outer horizon" - you can think of it as a city having a wider outer wall and a smaller inner wall. In between these two walls or boundaries of a black hole, there is much activity going on. You have quantum activity that gives rise to the radiation that Stephen Hawking discovered, and, you also have gravitational wave activity. To be brief, gravitational waves (disturbances in the metric of spacetime that distort the shapes of objects) basically "bounce back and forth" between these "inner and outer walls" of the black holes, sometimes emerging periodically through the "outer wall" such that these "pulses" of gravitational wave emissions from a black hole (every, say, second or so) can actually be detected via very sophisticated optical devices built for detecting gravitational waves. The point is not here to get into all the details of black hole mechanics, but  simply to say, these are rather complicated entities, not just the simple gravitational sinkholes portrayed in some popular literature. I would posit that black holes may well have some - very slight - form of consciousness due to their nature of being highly complex entropy-producing entities.  Back of the envelope, I'd say a typical black hole has the same "amount of consciousness" as say your typical sponge. Not a lot, but also non-zero.

Illustration showing the inner and outer "walls" of a black hole surrounding the point of maximal gravitational force known as the  "singularity". Gravitational waves, which cause volume distortions similar to ocean tides in objects in space, can "bounce" around between these inner and outer "walls" of the black hole, demonstrating how black holes are actually far more complex than often portrayed.

You may see now, where we  are going with this. Yes, the universe is good at producing black holes, and living forms, and even entities of one form or another with some non-zero amount of consciousness (defining that roughly as a being that can make simple "calculations", like a sponge can close  its valves in the presence of toxic water, and re-open them again in the presences of clean water). I won't get into the weeds on black hole mechanics, but due to the above-mentioned complexity of black holes, I think they may be complex enough to be seen as able to do simple "calculations" on the order  of those of a sponge, which would "qualify" black holes as having some primitive and inchoate form of consciousness. HOWEVER, here is the rub. You don't "need" say dolphins, or primates, or, for that matter, SkyNet, to produce high levels of entropy. All you "need" are say sea anemones, or sponges, or, well, black holes.

And now here we are. The universe has adapted to being good at black hole production which means it is consequently good at producing simple living forms including ones we may posit to have simple levels of consciousness, because all these things are direct or indirect consequences of the universe being able to reproduce via black holes. But it matters not a whit - it does not help in any real way - for the universe to be good at producing complex forms of conciousness, like, well, ourselves. Evolution will produce "just enough" complexity to solve a problem, and no more than that. Sea gulls have very lovely glider-like wings to enable them to soar or glide vast distances off shore in order to be able to find food. Maybe if their wings were twice as long they could glide further, but this would not help them much because if they went even further out into the ocean they would not find a consequent amount of more fish to compensate them for going much further out than they already do, so they are better off sticking relatively close (within a few miles) to the shore. They have "just good enough" wings to do the job and no more than that.

So the universe is good at producing things like sponges and jellyfish and bad at producing things like primates. Thus we - on Planet Earth - are something of a cosmic anamoly - certainly in any given universe in the ensemble there may be one or two solar systems with highly complex organisms just from the luck of the draw, but there is no reason to think that such types of organisms are plentiful, and in fact it is much more likely that they are rare indeed. Accordingly, looking out upon the vast ocean of stars and galaxies, we may well not be surprised to find that we cannot detect any "alien civilizations" out there, because complex life may well be the proverbial black swan - something that happens, but only very rarely. On the other hand, if we were to ice fish on Europa, the ice-covered moon, we ought not to be shocked to see some sponges down there. In fact - there are many more "ice worlds" - like Europa - than liquid-water-on-the-surface-containing planets such as our own, from over 20 years of observing exo-planets, further supporting the hypothesis that any life to be found in the observable universe is much more likely to be something like a sponge, rather than a primate, or even a vertebrate fish.

I would hope that this knowledge of the rarity of sentient life would make we as humans take all the more care of our planet, and work to for example do what we can to halt climate change, because it could well be the case that our planet contains the only complex life forms in the entire observable universe, and it may be not until the next generation of universes produced by the black holes in our own universe, before the ensemble (or a local part of the ensemble) of universes will see complex - or intelligent - life again.

Earth as seen from the Voyager spacecraft.

On a personal note, as a lifelong fan of shows like X Files and Twin Peaks, and as somebody who to this day has the SETI screen saver on their laptop (which parses signals from space looking for radio transmissions from other civilizations) I of all people would enjoy finding evidence of sentient beings on planets other than are own, however, taking all things into account, it may well be the case that while life may be plentiful, sentient life may not be.

Far from being chagrined at such a state of affairs, I think we should find this uplifting, because we on earth are unique in the vast cosmic trajectory of time - Earth, unlike so many other planets out there, hosts sentient beings vouchsafed with the ability to ask these kinds of questions. Knowledge of the solitary nature of sentient beings, esconced as they may well be, here, alone, on this our only planet, should empower us all to be partners, not conquerors, but partners with the ecosystem of Earth, for it is perhaps the only ecosystem which is the proscenium for sentient life, suspended in the illimitable void somwhere between that primal black hole of ages past, and that consummating black hole of ages hence.

Sunday, February 10, 2019

On the Isomorphism of Spinoza

Baruch Spinoza
In mathematics, an ismorphism is where you can map all the elements of Set A onto those of Set B, such that Set A and Set B can at least from a certain point of view be seen as actually being the same set. If (for example) Set A was {apple, orange} and Set B was {yabloko, oranzehevyy} I would be justified in sayingthat these sets were isomorphic to one another, since here Set B are simply the Russian words for the same items in Set A, "apple" and "orange."

Now, to go to Spinoza. Spinoza had a clever argument for why G-d and what we might call "The Universe" or Nature were in a sense isomorphic (although that is a more modern word than he would have used). Basically, Baruch Spinoza said that if G-d by definition is "the greatest thing" and if furthermore, G-d was seperate from Nature, then if we took the sum, G-d + Nature, we would have a totality that would be greater than G-d, contradicting the starting axiom of saying G-d is the greatest thing there is. Therefore (for Spinoza) G-d must in some way include Nature in Herself, perhaps in a sense establishing some sort of isomorphism between these two notions.

Now, this starts to get confusing, fast, and, indeed, has confused thinkers for going on four centuries. It would be easy (and, perhaps, arguably lazy) to accuse Spinoza of playing "word games" and simply using the "G-d" word as another word for Nature. However, I think what is going on here is a little more nuanced. Let us look at what Spinoza means by the word Nature or the Universe. He says there is one substance with infinite attributes. So, there is one "Reality" and what we have access to by experience and observation are these attributes of this one "Reality" or "Substance".

So, I think what Spinoza really means is that for him, "G-d" is this totality - the one substance that is, all that is, was, or will be, and Nature is if you will all the infinitude of attributes of this one substance. So this is not *quite* a perfect isomorphism. Rather, for Spinoza, "G-d" is "the whole thing", and "Nature" are those "attributes" which present themselves to empirical experience, which, in turn, are part of "the whole thing" or the "one substance" or what we might call "Reality".

Now, here I am going to get into more my own personal musing, which Spinoza may or may not have agreed with, but here we go. We have here, in a sense, a notion of "G-d" as if you will, the "Universal", and "Nature" as the particular attributes of this "Universal". But, by definition, I do not have access to experientially a "Universal", I can only "experience" particular things. So let us look more closely at the word "attribute". For example, say I am drinking chocolate milk. I "experience" the "attribute" of say the creamy texture of the milk, and the "attribute" of the chocolate taste of the milk. I may not directly "experience" say any additive vitamins that have been added by the manufacturer to the milk in terms of being able to taste them, but said additive vitamins are part of the totality of the chocolate milk that I am drinking. After the fact, I may look at the label and read about the vitamins, but I do not really "experience" them in the same way that I "experience" that chocolate flavor. So, without looking at the label, I would not list the additive vitamins as being among the "attributes" of the chocolate milk.

So, here I may say, that the "attributes" of the "One Substance" of Spinoza - Reality, say - are those aspects of this reality that I have some direct experience with and that furthermore I can label linguistically. But, I may not always be able to label all my experiences in terms of language. So, while I cannot (by definition) "experience" the "Universal", I can and do have experiences which sort of "call forth" this "Universal" by virtue of not being able to wholly pin down or capture these experiences in a linguistic manner.

Tersea of Avila
Now, the psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan referred to those experience of life which cannot fit easily or at all into language as what he called "The Real", and furthermore Lacan asseverated that this "Real" was the category of what are termed mystical or spiritual experiences. His canonical example was the mystic Teresa of Avila whose trances in which she claimed to encounter the Divine have long been cited as an example par excellance of the sublimity of the "other-wordly." Lacan's point was that the trances of Teresa of Avila could not be communicated by description, that they lay wholly outside the realm of language, but had a profound impact on her and her followers. Going back here to Spinoza's "one substance with infinite attributes," I would posit that Lacan's "Real" are those attributes which belong to raw experience and can never be wholly subsumed into a logical or mathematical framework, and, because of this, "point the way into" that Universal in which all resides, but is not (by definition) apprehendable in-and-of-Itself, anymore than a fish can "directly apprehend" the water in which it swims.

In a historical context, one thing that Spinoza was reacting to was the philosophy of Descartes, who was a thorough-going dualist, and so in a sense Spinoza's work can be seen as a rejoinder or counterpoint to Descartes, meaning Descartes held the notion that concepts such as "mind" or "consciousness" and "G-d" were wholly seperate from the world of empircal observation. Spinoza, working from the Jewish line of thought of the "one-ness" of the Divine, sought to work against this concept of dualism, as, full disclosure, do I. As a side-note, one of the many Jewish names for the Divine is "ha makom" ("the place") coming from the mystical tradition that the universe we experience and observe "resides" in some sense within the nature of the Divine, that is, the Divine is not "outside" the world we live in, but rather, the other way around, the world we live in is within the Divine. This I would  argue relates back to the ancient Jewish admonition regarding avoiding idol worship, an admonition that I think remains relevant to this day, where people make many things as central to their concern, such as, for instance, the economy, or a sports team, or some celebrity or other. What all "idols" or things in this world that retain people's central focus (or their "Ultimate Concern" to use the phrase of theologian Paul Tillich) have in common is these things all "live" in the world we experience, while Spinoza would have said that this approach has it completely backwards. The "Divine" is to be found in the Universal, not in a particular person or thing (like say the economy) within the Universal. "G-d" for Spinoza is not an object within the world, nor an object outside the world (as argued above) but is rather the Totality of the world, which always "over-flows" the ability of language to describe it. I would argue that Spinoza is the logical end point of the thousands of years of tradition regarding admonition against idols, namely, that the Divine is neither something within the world we experience, nor is it something apart from it (as say Descartes might have said) but rather is the totality of the world we experience, but this totality always is greater than the ability of humankind's most rarified systems of science or mathematics to wholly describe it.

On a personal note, I (independently) for reasons too long to get into in this essay had the notion some time back that entropy plays a role in human consciousness. Some time after I had this thought, Canadian scientists doing brain scans on epileptic patients found that indeed patients in states of "higher wakefulness" (as opposed to being in say a seizure state) do have brain states corresponding to higher levels of entropy. So beyond the validation that this was in line with my own thinking, I find this interesting because here we see in a sense a confirmation of Spinoza's intuition, because entropy is something that "ties together" subjectivity and the objective world. Entropy is found everywhere, including in the principles of physics that enable the internal combustion engine used in automobiles to run. If entropy is also involved in consciousness / subjectivity, as the evidence now seems to be suggesting, we have these two seemingly seperate realms being tied together. Entropy may form a "bridge" between the world of empirical experience and our innermost subjective feelings. This gives support I would argue to Spinoza's main thesis of monism, that there is but one Universal whose various as he called them "modes and attributes" form our experience, and what we call the Divine or "G-d" is in a sense this same "Universal" which (I would contend) is "encountered" in the experience of mystery, what Lacan in his analysis of the story of Teresa of Avila and elsewhere referred to as the "Real".

An artistic rendering of Lovecraft's "Azathoth" metaphor
To give a literary example here which may I think help explain what I am driving at, the writer H.P. Lovecraft had many fictional monsters or space-alien type creatures in his stories, the most famous perhaps of which was Cthulhu, an octopus-like entity living on the Pacific Ocean floor. One of his lesser known perhaps but more interesting creations was a being he called "Azathoth" that lies somehow outside of the known dimensions, which he dramatically writes "is that amorphous blight of nethermost confusion which blasphemes and bubbles at the center of all infinity." Scholars have often thought that Azathoth was different from Lovecraft's other characters, not meant to be taken as a literal space-alien type thing (like, say, Cthulhu) but was a metaphor for the cosmic Unknown. In some readings, the universe we live in is part of a dream which Azathoth projects. As a life-long Lovecraft afficianado, I take the view that Azathoth is indeed a metaphor for our limited understanding of the ultimate nature of Reality (and, indeed, in one story, "The Whisperer in Darkness," Lovecraft explicity states that Azathoth is indeed a metaphor for the "outside", or that which is unknown to the sciences but which may now and again enter human experience). Azathoth basically is a metaphor for the fact that the Totality of Reality is always greater than whatever models science can come up with, and the idea of our world being somehow "within" the dream of Azathoth further reinforces this notion of the limitations of human knowledge. So Azathoth perhaps can be seen as a metaphor for the Universal and specifically for the failure of language or mathematics to fully pin it down.

To summarize, I would posit that the isomorphism of Spinoza between the Divine and the Universe is more nuanced than it is often portrayed. When I think of the word, "universe", I often (instinctively) visualize in my mind's eye some sort of space-time diagram of (for example) anti-DeSitter spacetime, one of the solutions to General Relativity which is used often to describe the development and expansion of our observable cosmological horizon. How Spinoza would use terms like "Universe" or "Nature" is arguably different. By "Divine" he does not mean (say) anti-DeSitter spacetime, or any particular mathematical model of the world we live in, but rather, he means the totality of Reality itself, which always outstrips human ability (even in principle due to Godel's Incompleteness Theorums) to be able to comprehend it. Therefore the "Divine" for Spinoza is something like the totality of the mystery of being (one could phrase it thusly perhaps) and "Nature" is that part of being of which we can perhaps say something about, but we can never describe what we might call "Reality" completely. There is, I would argue, an ethical dimension to all of this. If indeed we as human beings are part of this one universal Substance we might call "Reality" then - by definition - we are each of us connected (literally in an ontological sense) to everything else, all other people, all rocks, plants, animals, stars, black holes, Higgs boson particles. Thus (as for example Buddhist or Quaker philosophies also say) to harm others is to harm ourselves, for we are all inextricably linked together in the cosmic nature of things. The lesson of Spinoza then is that at the end of the day, dualisms (of whatever sort) are deceptive for each particular thing is part of an infinite and indivisble Universal which is never static, but is always in a creative state of becoming, bringing new realities into being each and every moment, a Universal that can only be apprehended indirectly at the edges of language, and about which we can only say (with the prophets of old) that She will be what She will be.

Because it is my blog and I will picture Spinoza's Universal however I bloody well please :)