December 23, 2012
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In lieu of the recent winter Solstice celebration, I’d like to offer everyone who passes by this website a short film that holds a special message for us all. It was made by a couple of friends of a friend, and has been leading up to their first general release, entitled “Continuum“, which is a feature length film looking at the root of the environmental crisis we are now all facing here on planet Earth. Perhaps, what with the recent end of the Mayan Long Count calendar (which some said was meant to spell the end of the world), we would all be advised to usher in a new way of perceiving the world on which we live, listening to those fortunate and wise enough to have seen something different to daily life that resides on the planet’s surface. Why? Because, bearing in mind all the recent indisputable evidence for man’s part in climate change, we might do well to begin to cultivate and cherish this finite planetary perspective that Guy and Steve have re-considered here, so as to avoid more sentient being casualties further down the line.
Fear not… It will not even take 20 minutes of your time… And will hopefully leave you with a thought that will change the way you understand our world and our roll in it.
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If you’d like to learn more about Guy and Steve, the creators of this amazing film, please check out their website by clicking here.
Or if you’d like to see more of their work, please check out their Vimeo channel, entitled the Planetary Collective, by clicking here.
February 20, 2011
What can I say… I’ve been away for a while… A wee while… Four months to be exact… And it’s the first blog of the new year… So a big happy new year to anyone reading this.
Yes, I know… I’ve been slack on the blog front recently. No excuses for it really… Other than the endless days that I’ve been spending down at the farm… Ah… Yes… That’s the reason I haven’t been inside much recently. And that’s why I haven’t been in front of a computer screen as much as I usually like to… Not to mention it’s the reason why I find my comfort zone diminishing to an almost non existent pin prick of a bubble’s ‘pop’ reminder that change and uncertainty, no matter how big or small, is going on beyond all my deluded, insulated ideals of settled, homely stability… Yes… That’s right… I am presently engaged in setting up an organic farm somewhere in the South East of the UK. Not telling anyone quite yet where exactly… Not for the moment, at least… And I’m breaking those old chains of die hard habits i.e. soft living, staying in when it rains or snows, etc… By putting on my wellies and getting my hands, arms, face and clothes completely mud ridden and down right dirty… So, I’m now doing what I’ve been actually ‘preaching’ (although I don’t really like that word much, another doesn’t come to mind) about in this blog. And boy, let me tell you, it’s blooming hard work. Anyway… More on that to follow soon.
Basically, the reason why I find myself here in front of the computer once again… Is that I recently read this article, which was taken from a transcript of a speech by the late (or early, depending on which way you look at his input here on Earth) Douglas Adams, while he was talking at Digital Biota 2… And it resonated deeply in my being… Reminding me about why I was doing what I was doing… Not to mention how clunky my writing is in comparison to the sheer wall of towering genius that Adams was… I cower in shame! LOL!
Anyway… I’m tired. And so I’ll leave it here… For those of of you who have been following these blogs here at polynomial.me.uk, you will no doubt see the connection to all my previous musings…
So here’s the intro…
In honour of Douglas’ memory, Biota.org presents the transcript of his speech at Digital Biota 2, held at Magdelene College Cambridge, in September 1998. I would like to thank Steve Grand for providing this to us. Douglas presented this “off the cuff” which only magifies his true genius in our eyes.
by Bruce Damer
And here’s the transcript of Adams’ speech/debate…
Is There An Artificial God?
This was originally billed as a debate only because I was a bit anxious coming here. I didn’t think I was going to have time to prepare anything and also, in a room full of such luminaries, I thought ‘what could I, as an amateur, possibly have to say’? So I thought I would settle for a debate. But after having been here for a couple of days, I realised you’re just a bunch of guys! It’s been rife with ideas and I’ve had so many myself through talking with and listening to people that I’d thought what I’d do was stand up and have an argument and debate with myself. I’ll talk for a while and hope sufficiently to provoke and inflame opinion that there’ll be an outburst of chair- throwing at the end.
Before I embark on what I want to try and tackle, may I warn you that things may get a little bit lost from time to time, because there’s a lot of stuff that’s just come in from what we’ve been hearing today, so if I occasionally sort of go… I was telling somebody earlier today that I have a four-year-old daughter and was very, very interested watching her face when she was in her first 2 or 3 weeks of life and suddenly realising what nobody would have realised in previous ages—she was rebooting!
I just want to mention one thing, which is completely meaningless, but I am terribly proud of—I was born in Cambridge in 1952 and my initials are D N A!
The topic I want to introduce to you this evening, the subject of the debate that we are about to sort of not have, is a slightly facetious one (you’ll be surprised to hear, but we’ll see where we go with it)—“Is there an Artificial God?” I’m sure most of the people in this room will share the same view, but even as an out-and-out atheist one can’t help noticing that the rôle of a god has had an enormously profound impact on human history over many, many centuries. It’s very interesting to figure out where this came from and what, in the modern scientific world we sometimes hope against hope that we live in, it actually means.
I was thinking about this earlier today when Larry Yaeger was talking about ‘what is life?’ and mentioned at the end something I didn’t know, about a special field of handwriting recognition. The following strange thought went through my mind: that trying to figure out what is life and what isn’t and where the boundary is has an interesting relationship with how you recognise handwriting. We all know, when presented with any particular entity, whether it’s a bit of mould from the fridge or whatever; we instinctively know when something is an example of life and when it isn’t. But it turns out to be tremendously hard exactly to define it. I remember once, a long time ago, needing a definition of life for a speech I was giving. Assuming there was a simple one and looking around the Internet, I was astonished at how diverse the definitions were and how very, very detailed each one had to be in order to include ‘this’ but not include ‘that’. If you think about it, a collection that includes a fruit fly and Richard Dawkins and the Great Barrier Reef is an awkward set of objects to try and compare. When we try and figure out what the rules are that we are looking for, trying to find a rule that’s self-evidently true, that turns out to be very, very hard.
Compare this with the business of recognising whether something is an A or a B or a C. It’s a similar kind of process, but it’s also a very, very different process, because you may say of something that you’re ‘not quite certain whether it counts as life or not life, it’s kind of there on the edge isn’t it, it’s probably a very low example of what you might call life, it’s maybe just about alive or maybe it isn’t’. Or maybe you might say about something that’s an example of Digital life, ‘does that count as being alive?’ Is it something, to coin someone’s earlier phrase, that’ll go squish if you step on it? Think about the controversial Gaia hypothesis; people say ‘is the planet alive?’, ‘is the ecosphere alive or not?’ In the end it depends on how you define such things.
Compare that with handwriting recognition. In the end you are trying to say “is this an A or is it a B?” People write As and Bs in many different ways; floridly, sloppily or whatever. It’s no good saying ‘well, it’s sort of A-ish but there’s a bit of B in there’, because you can’t write the word ‘apple’ with such a thing. It is either an A or a B. How do you judge? If you’re doing handwriting recognition, what you are trying to do is not to assess the relative degrees of A-ness or B-ness of the letter, but trying to define the intention of the person who wrote it. It’s very clear in the end—is it an A or a B?—ah! it’s an A, because the person writing it was writing the word apple and that’s clearly what it means. So, in the end, in the absence of an intentional creator, you cannot say what life is, because it simply depends on what set of definitions you include in your overall definition. Without a god, life is only a matter of opinion.
I want to pick up on a few other things that came around today. I was fascinated by Larry (again), talking about tautology, because there’s an argument that I remember being stumped by once, to which I couldn’t come up with a reply, because I was so puzzled by the challenge and couldn’t quite figure it out. A guy said to me, ‘yes, but the whole theory of evolution is based on a tautology: that which survives, survives’ This is tautological, therefore it doesn’t mean anything. I thought about that for a while and it finally occurred to me that a tautology is something that if it means nothing, not only that no information has gone into it but that no consequence has come out of it. So, we may have accidentally stumbled upon the ultimate answer; it’s the only thing, the only force, arguably the most powerful of which we are aware, which requires no other input, no other support from any other place, is self evident, hence tautological, but nevertheless astonishingly powerful in its effects. It’s hard to find anything that corresponds to that and I therefore put it at the beginning of one of my books. I reduced it to what I thought were the bare essentials, which are very similar to the ones you came up with earlier, which were “anything that happens happens, anything that in happening causes something else to happen causes something else to happen and anything that in happening causes itself to happen again, happens again”. In fact you don’t even need the second two because they flow from the first one, which is self-evident and there’s nothing else you need to say; everything else flows from that. So, I think we have in our grasp here a fundamental, ultimate truth, against which there is no gain-saying. It was spotted by the guy who said this is a tautology. Yes, it is, but it’s a unique tautology in that it requires no information to go in but an infinite amount of information comes out of it. So I think that it is arguably therefore the prime cause of everything in the Universe. Big claim, but I feel I’m talking to a sympathetic audience.
Where does the idea of God come from? Well, I think we have a very skewed point of view on an awful lot of things, but let’s try and see where our point of view comes from. Imagine early man. Early man is, like everything else, an evolved creature and he finds himself in a world that he’s begun to take a little charge of; he’s begun to be a tool-maker, a changer of his environment with the tools that he’s made and he makes tools, when he does, in order to make changes in his environment. To give an example of the way man operates compared to other animals, consider speciation, which, as we know, tends to occur when a small group of animals gets separated from the rest of the herd by some geological upheaval, population pressure, food shortage or whatever and finds itself in a new environment with maybe something different going on. Take a very simple example; maybe a bunch of animals suddenly finds itself in a place where the weather is rather colder. We know that in a few generations those genes which favour a thicker coat will have come to the fore and we’ll come and we’ll find that the animals have now got thicker coats. Early man, who’s a tool maker, doesn’t have to do this: he can inhabit an extraordinarily wide range of habitats on earth, from tundra to the Gobi Desert—he even manages to live in New York for heaven’s sake—and the reason is that when he arrives in a new environment he doesn’t have to wait for several generations; if he arrives in a colder environment and sees an animal that has those genes which favour a thicker coat, he says “I’ll have it off him”. Tools have enabled us to think intentionally, to make things and to do things to create a world that fits us better. Now imagine an early man surveying his surroundings at the end of a happy day’s tool making. He looks around and he sees a world which pleases him mightily: behind him are mountains with caves in—mountains are great because you can go and hide in the caves and you are out of the rain and the bears can’t get you; in front of him there’s the forest—it’s got nuts and berries and delicious food; there’s a stream going by, which is full of water—water’s delicious to drink, you can float your boats in it and do all sorts of stuff with it; here’s cousin Ug and he’s caught a mammoth—mammoth’s are great, you can eat them, you can wear their coats, you can use their bones to create weapons to catch other mammoths. I mean this is a great world, it’s fantastic. But our early man has a moment to reflect and he thinks to himself, ‘well, this is an interesting world that I find myself in’ and then he asks himself a very treacherous question, a question which is totally meaningless and fallacious, but only comes about because of the nature of the sort of person he is, the sort of person he has evolved into and the sort of person who has thrived because he thinks this particular way. Man the maker looks at his world and says ‘So who made this then?’ Who made this? — you can see why it’s a treacherous question. Early man thinks, ‘Well, because there’s only one sort of being I know about who makes things, whoever made all this must therefore be a much bigger, much more powerful and necessarily invisible, one of me and because I tend to be the strong one who does all the stuff, he’s probably male’. And so we have the idea of a god. Then, because when we make things we do it with the intention of doing something with them, early man asks himself , ‘If he made it, what did he make it for?’ Now the real trap springs, because early man is thinking, ‘This world fits me very well. Here are all these things that support me and feed me and look after me; yes, this world fits me nicely’ and he reaches the inescapable conclusion that whoever made it, made it for him.
This is rather as if you imagine a puddle waking up one morning and thinking, ‘This is an interesting world I find myself in—an interesting hole I find myself in—fits me rather neatly, doesn’t it? In fact it fits me staggeringly well, must have been made to have me in it!’ This is such a powerful idea that as the sun rises in the sky and the air heats up and as, gradually, the puddle gets smaller and smaller, it’s still frantically hanging on to the notion that everything’s going to be alright, because this world was meant to have him in it, was built to have him in it; so the moment he disappears catches him rather by surprise. I think this may be something we need to be on the watch out for. We all know that at some point in the future the Universe will come to an end and at some other point, considerably in advance from that but still not immediately pressing, the sun will explode. We feel there’s plenty of time to worry about that, but on the other hand that’s a very dangerous thing to say. Look at what’s supposed to be going to happen on the 1st of January 2000—let’s not pretend that we didn’t have a warning that the century was going to end! I think that we need to take a larger perspective on who we are and what we are doing here if we are going to survive in the long term.
There are some oddities in the perspective with which we see the world. The fact that we live at the bottom of a deep gravity well, on the surface of a gas covered planet going around a nuclear fireball 90 million miles away and think this to be normal is obviously some indication of how skewed our perspective tends to be, but we have done various things over intellectual history to slowly correct some of our misapprehensions. Curiously enough, quite a lot of these have come from sand, so let’s talk about the four ages of sand.
From sand we make glass, from glass we make lenses and from lenses we make telescopes. When the great early astronomers, Copernicus, Gallileo and others turned their telescopes on the heavens and discovered that the Universe was an astonishingly different place than we expected and that, far from the world being most of the Universe, with just a few little bright lights going around it, it turned out—and this took a long, long, long time to sink in—that it is just one tiny little speck going round a little nuclear fireball, which is one of millions and millions and millions that make up this particular galaxy and our galaxy is one of millions or billions that make up the Universe and that then we are also faced with the possibility that there may be billions of universes, that applied a little bit of a corrective to the perspective that the Universe was ours.
I rather love that notion and, as I was discussing with someone earlier today, there’s a book I thoroughly enjoyed recently by David Deutsch, who is an advocate of the multiple universe view of the Universe, called ‘The Fabric of Reality’, in which he explores the notion of a quantum multiple universe view of the Universe. This came from the famous wave particle dichotomy about the behaviour of light—that you couldn’t measure it as a wave when it behaves as a wave, or as a particle when it behaves as a particle. How does this come to be? David Deutsch points out that if you imagine that our Universe is simply one layer and that there is an infinite multiplicity of universes spreading out on either side, not only does it solve the problem, but the problem simply goes away. This is exactly how you expect light to behave under those circumstances. Quantum mechanics has claims to be predicated on the notion that the Universe behaves as if there was a multiplicity of universes, but it rather strains our credulity to think that there actually would be.
This goes straight back to Gallileo and the Vatican. In fact, what the Vatican said to Gallileo was, “We don’t dispute your readings, we just dispute the explanation you put on them. It’s all very well for you to say that the planets sort of do that as they go round and it is as if we were a planet and those planets were all going round the sun; it’s alright to say it’s as if that were happening, but you’re not allowed to say that’s what is happening, because we have a total lockhold on universal truth and also it simply strains our personal credulity”. Just so, I think that the idea that there are multiple universes currently strains our credulity but it may well be that it’s simply one more strain that we have to learn to live with, just as we’ve had to learn to live with a whole bunch of them in the past.
The other thing that comes out of that vision of the Universe is that it turns out to be composed almost entirely and rather worryingly, of nothing. Wherever you look there is nothing, with occasional tiny, tiny little specks of rock or light. But nevertheless, by watching the way these tiny little specks behave in the vast nothingness, we begin to divine certain principles, certain laws, like gravity and so forth. So that was, if you like, the macroscopic view of the universe, which came from the first age of sand.
The next age of sand is the microscopic one. We put glass lenses into microscopes and started to look down at the microscopic view of the Universe. Then we began to understand that when we get down to the sub-atomic level, the solid world we live in also consists, again rather worryingly, of almost nothing and that wherever we do find something it turns out not to be actually something, but only the probability that there may be something there.
One way or another, this is a deeply misleading Universe. Wherever we look it’s beginning to be extremely alarming and extremely upsetting to our sense of who we are—great, strapping, physical people living in a Universe that exists almost entirely for us—that it just isn’t the case. At this point we are still divining from this all sorts of fundamental principles, recognising the way that gravity works, the way that strong and weak nuclear forces work, recognising the nature of matter, the nature of particles and so on, but having got those fundamentals, we’re still not very good at figuring out how it works, because the maths is really rather tricky. So, we tend to come up with almost a clockwork view of the way it all works, because that’s the best our maths can manage. I don’t mean in any way to disparage Newton, because I guess he was the first person who saw that there were principles at work that were different from anything we actually saw around us. His first law of motion—that something will remain in its position of either rest or motion until some other force works on it—is something that none of us, living in a gravity well, in a gas envelope, had ever seen, because everything we move comes to a halt. It was only through very, very careful watching and observing and measuring and divining the principles underlying what we could all see happening that he came up with the principles that we all know and recognise as being the laws of motion, but nevertheless it is by modern terms, still a somewhat clockwork view of the Universe. As I say, I don’t mean that to sound disparaging in any way at all, because his achievements, as we all know, were absolutely monumental, but it still kind of doesn’t make sense to us.
Now there are all sorts of entities we are also aware of, as well as particles, forces, tables, chairs, rocks and so on, that are almost invisible to science; almost invisible, because science has almost nothing to say about them whatsoever. I’m talking about dogs and cats and cows and each other. We living things are, so far, beyond the purview of anything science can actually say, almost beyond even recognising ourselves as things that science might be expected to have something to say about.
I can imagine Newton sitting down and working out his laws of motion and figuring out the way the Universe works and with him, a cat wandering around. The reason we had no idea how cats worked was because, since Newton, we had proceeded by the very simple principle that essentially, to see how things work, we took them apart. If you try and take a cat apart to see how it works, the first thing you have in your hands is a non-working cat. Life is a level of complexity that almost lies outside our vision; is so far beyond anything we have any means of understanding that we just think of it as a different class of object, a different class of matter; ‘life’, something that had a mysterious essence about it, was god given—and that’s the only explanation we had. The bombshell comes in 1859 when Darwin publishes ‘On the Origin of Species’. It takes a long time before we really get to grips with this and begin to understand it, because not only does it seem incredible and thoroughly demeaning to us, but it’s yet another shock to our system to discover that not only are we not the centre of the Universe and we’re not made of anything, but we started out as some kind of slime and got to where we are via being a monkey. It just doesn’t read well. But also, we have no opportunity to see this stuff at work. In a sense Darwin was like Newton, in that he was the first person to see underlying principles, that really were not at all obvious, from the everyday world in which he lived. We had to think very hard to understand the nature of what was happening around us and we had no clear, obvious everyday examples of evolution to point to. Even today that persists as a slightly tricky problem if you’re trying to persuade somebody who doesn’t believe in all this evolution stuff and wants you to show him an example—they are hard to find in terms of everyday observation.
So we come to the third age of sand. In the third age of sand we discover something else we can make out of sand—silicon. We make the silicon chip—and suddenly, what opens up to us is a Universe not of fundamental particles and fundamental forces, but of the things that were missing in that picture that told us how they work; what the silicon chip revealed to us was the process. The silicon chip enables us to do mathematics tremendously fast, to model the, as it turns out, very very simple processes that are analogous to life in terms of their simplicity; iteration, looping, branching, the feedback loop which lies at the heart of everything you do on a computer and at the heart of everything that happens in evolution—that is, the output stage of one generation becomes the input stage of the next. Suddenly we have a working model, not for a while because early machines are terribly slow and clunky, but gradually we accumulate a working model of this thing that previously we could only guess at or deduce—and you had to be a pretty sharp and a pretty clear thinker even to divine it happening when it was far from obvious and indeed counter-intuitive, particularly to as proud a species as we.
The computer forms a third age of perspective, because suddenly it enables us to see how life works. Now that is an extraordinarily important point because it becomes self-evident that life, that all forms of complexity, do not flow downwards, they flow upwards and there’s a whole grammar that anybody who is used to using computers is now familiar with, which means that evolution is no longer a particular thing, because anybody who’s ever looked at the way a computer program works, knows that very, very simple iterative pieces of code, each line of which is tremendously straightforward, give rise to enormously complex phenomena in a computer—and by enormously complex phenomena, I mean a word processing program just as much as I mean Tierra or Creatures.
I can remember the first time I ever read a programming manual, many many years ago. I’d first started to encounter computers about 1983 and I wanted to know a little bit more about them, so I decided to learn something about programming. I bought a C manual and I read through the first two or three chapters, which took me about a week. At the end it said ‘Congratulations, you have now written the letter A on the screen!’ I thought, ‘Well, I must have misunderstood something here, because it was a huge, huge amount of work to do that, so what if I now want to write a B?’ The process of programming, the speed and the means by which enormous simplicity gives rise to enormously complex results, was not part of my mental grammar at that point. It is now—and it is increasingly part of all our mental grammars, because we are used to the way computers work.
So, suddenly, evolution ceases to be such a real problem to get hold of. It’s rather like this: imagine, if you will, the following scenario. One Tuesday, a person is spotted in a street in London, doing something criminal. Two detectives are investigating, trying to work out what happened. One of them is a 20th Century detective and the other, by the marvels of science fiction, is a 19th Century detective. The problem is this: the person who was clearly seen and identified on the street in London on Tuesday was seen by someone else, an equally reliable witness, on the street in Santa Fe on the same Tuesday—how could that possibly be? The 19th Century detective could only think it was by some sort of magical intervention. Now the 20th Century detective may not be able to say, “He took BA flight this and then United flight that”—he may not be able to figure out exactly which way he did it, or by which route he travelled, but it’s not a problem. It doesn’t bother him; he just says, ‘He got there by plane. I don’t know which plane and it may be a little tricky to find out, but there’s no essential mystery.’ We’re used to the idea of jet travel. We don’t know whether the criminal flew BA 178, or UA270, or whatever, but we know roughly how it was done. I suspect that as we become more and more conversant with the role a computer plays and the way in which the computer models the process of enormously simple elements giving rise to enormously complex results, then the idea of life being an emergent phenomenon will become easier and easier to swallow. We may never know precisely what steps life took in the very early stages of this planet, but it’s not a mystery.
So what we have arrived at here—and although the first shock wave of this arrival was in 1859, it’s really the arrival of the computer that demonstrates it unarguably to us—is ‘Is there really a Universe that is not designed from the top downwards but from the bottom upwards? Can complexity emerge from lower levels of simplicity?’ It has always struck me as being bizarre that the idea of God as a creator was considered sufficient explanation for the complexity we see around us, because it simply doesn’t explain where he came from. If we imagine a designer, that implies a design and that therefore each thing he designs or causes to be designed is a level simpler than him or her, then you have to ask ‘What is the level above the designer?’ There is one peculiar model of the Universe that has turtles all the way down, but here we have gods all the way up. It really isn’t a very good answer, but a bottom-up solution, on the other hand, which rests on the incredibly powerful tautology of anything that happens, happens, clearly gives you a very simple and powerful answer that needs no other explanation whatsoever.
But here’s the interesting thing. I said I wanted to ask ‘Is there an artificial god?’ and this is where I want to address the question of why the idea of a god is so persuasive. I’ve already explained where I feel this kind of illusion comes from in the first place; it comes from a falseness in our perspective, because we are not taking into account that we are evolved beings, beings who have evolved into a particular landscape, into a particular environment with a particular set of skills and views of the world that have enabled us to survive and thrive rather successfully. But there seems to be an even more powerful idea than that, and this is the idea I want to propose, which is that the spot at the top of the pyramid that we previously said was whence everything flowed, may not actually be vacant just because we say the flow doesn’t go that way.
Let me explain what I mean by this. We have created in the world in which we live all kinds of things; we have changed our world in all kinds of ways. That’s very very clear. We have built the room we’re in and we’ve built all sorts of complex stuff, like computers and so on, but we’ve also constructed all kinds of fictitious entities that are enormously powerful. So do we say, ‘That’s a bad idea; it’s stupid—we should simply get rid of it?’ Well, here’s another fictitious entity—money. Money is a completely fictitious entity, but it’s very powerful in our world; we each have wallets, which have got notes in them, but what can those notes do? You can’t breed them, you can’t stir fry them, you can’t live in them, there’s absolutely nothing you can do with them that’s any use, other than exchange them with each other—and as soon as we exchange them with each other all sots of powerful things happen, because it’s a fiction that we’ve all subscribed to. We don’t think this is wrong or right, good or bad; but the thing is that if money vanished the entire co-operative structure that we have would implode, but if we were all to vanish, money would simply vanish too. Money has no meaning outside ourselves, it is something that we have created that has a powerful shaping effect on the world, because its something we all subscribe to.
I would like somebody to write an evolutionary history of religion, because the way in which it has developed seems to me to show all kinds of evolutionary strategies. Think of the arms races that go on between one or two animals living the same environment. For example the race between the Amazonian manatee and a particular type of reed that it eats. The more of the reed the manatee eats, the more the reed develops silica in its cells to attack the teeth of the manatee and the more silica in the reed, the more manatee’s teeth get bigger and stronger. One side does one thing and the other counters it. As we know, throughout evolution and history arms races are something that drive evolution in the most powerful ways and in the world of ideas you can see similar kinds of things happening.
Now, the invention of the scientific method and science is, I’m sure we’ll all agree, the most powerful intellectual idea, the most powerful framework for thinking and investigating and understanding and challenging the world around us that there is, and that it rests on the premise that any idea is there to be attacked and if it withstands the attack then it lives to fight another day and if it doesn’t withstand the attack then down it goes. Religion doesn’t seem to work like that; it has certain ideas at the heart of it which we call sacred or holy or whatever. That’s an idea we’re so familiar with, whether we subscribe to it or not, that it’s kind of odd to think what it actually means, because really what it means is ‘Here is an idea or a notion that you’re not allowed to say anything bad about; you’re just not. Why not? — because you’re not!’ If somebody votes for a party that you don’t agree with, you’re free to argue about it as much as you like; everybody will have an argument but nobody feels aggrieved by it. If somebody thinks taxes should go up or down you are free to have an argument about it, but on the other hand if somebody says ‘I mustn’t move a light switch on a Saturday’, you say, ‘Fine, I respect that’. The odd thing is, even as I am saying that I am thinking ‘Is there an Orthodox Jew here who is going to be offended by the fact that I just said that?’ but I wouldn’t have thought ‘Maybe there’s somebody from the left wing or somebody from the right wing or somebody who subscribes to this view or the other in economics’ when I was making the other points. I just think ‘Fine, we have different opinions’. But, the moment I say something that has something to do with somebody’s (I’m going to stick my neck out here and say irrational) beliefs, then we all become terribly protective and terribly defensive and say ‘No, we don’t attack that; that’s an irrational belief but no, we respect it’.
It’s rather like, if you think back in terms of animal evolution, an animal that’s grown an incredible carapace around it, such as a tortoise—that’s a great survival strategy because nothing can get through it; or maybe like a poisonous fish that nothing will come close to, which therefore thrives by keeping away any challenges to what it is it is. In the case of an idea, if we think ‘Here is an idea that is protected by holiness or sanctity’, what does it mean? Why should it be that it’s perfectly legitimate to support the Labour party or the Conservative party, Republicans or Democrats, this model of economics versus that, Macintosh instead of Windows, but to have an opinion about how the Universe began, about who created the Universe, no, that’s holy? What does that mean? Why do we ring-fence that for any other reason other than that we’ve just got used to doing so? There’s no other reason at all, it’s just one of those things that crept into being and once that loop gets going it’s very, very powerful. So, we are used to not challenging religious ideas but it’s very interesting how much of a furore Richard creates when he does it! Everybody gets absolutely frantic about it because you’re not allowed to say these things. Yet when you look at it rationally there is no reason why those ideas shouldn’t be as open to debate as any other, except that we have agreed somehow between us that they shouldn’t be.
There’s a very interesting book—I don’t know if anybody here’s read it—called ‘Man on Earth’ by an anthropologist who use to be at Cambridge, called John Reader, in which he describes the way that… I’m going to back up a little bit and tell you about the whole book. It’s a series of studies of different cultures in the world that have developed within somewhat isolated circumstances, either on islands or in a mountain valley or wherever, so it’s possible to treat them to a certain extent as a test-tube case. You see therefore exactly the degree to which their environment and their immediate circumstances has affected the way in which their culture has arisen. It’s a fascinating series of studies. The one I have in mind at the moment is one that describes the culture and economy of Bali, which is a small, very crowded island that subsists on rice. Now, rice is an incredibly efficient food and you can grow an awful lot in a relatively small space, but it’s hugely labour intensive and requires a lot of very, very precise co-operation amongst the people there, particularly when you have a large population on a small island needing to bring its harvest in. People now looking at the way in which rice agriculture works in Bali are rather puzzled by it because it is intensely religious. The society of Bali is such that religion permeates every single aspect of it and everybody in that culture is very, very carefully defined in terms of who they are, what their status is and what their role in life is. It’s all defined by the church; they have very peculiar calendars and a very peculiar set of customs and rituals, which are precisely defined and, oddly enough, they are fantastically good at being very, very productive with their rice harvest. In the 70s, people came in and noticed that the rice harvest was determined by the temple calendar. It seemed to be totally nonsensical, so they said, ‘Get rid of all this, we can help you make your rice harvest much, much more productive than even you’re, very successfully, doing at the moment. Use these pesticides, use this calendar, do this, that and the other’. So they started and for two or three years the rice production went up enormously, but the whole predator/prey/pest balance went completely out of kilter. Very shortly, the rice harvest plummeted again and the Balinese said, ‘Screw it, we’re going back to the temple calendar!’ and they reinstated what was there before and it all worked again absolutely perfectly. It’s all very well to say that basing the rice harvest on something as irrational and meaningless as a religion is stupid—they should be able to work it out more logically than that, but they might just as well say to us, ‘Your culture and society works on the basis of money and that’s a fiction, so why don’t you get rid of it and just co-operate with each other’—we know it’s not going to work!
So, there is a sense in which we build meta-systems above ourselves to fill in the space that we previously populated with an entity that was supposed to be the intentional designer, the creator (even though there isn’t one) and because we—I don’t necessarily mean we in this room, but we as a species—design and create one and then allow ourselves to behave as if there was one, all sorts of things begin to happen that otherwise wouldn’t happen.
Let me try and illustrate what I mean by something else. This is very speculative; I’m really going out on a limb here, because it’s something I know nothing about whatsoever, so think of this more as a thought experiment than a real explanation of something. I want to talk about Feng Shui, which is something I know very little about, but there’s been a lot of talk about it recently in terms of figuring out how a building should be designed, built, situated, decorated and so on. Apparently, we need to think about the building being inhabited by dragons and look at it in terms of how a dragon would move around it. So, if a dragon wouldn’t be happy in the house, you have to put a red fish bowl here or a window there. This sounds like complete and utter nonsense, because anything involving dragons must be nonsense—there aren’t any dragons, so any theory based on how dragons behave is nonsense. What are these silly people doing, imagining that dragons can tell you how to build your house? Nevertheless, it occurs to me if you disregard for a moment the explanation that’s actually offered for it, it may be there is something interesting going on that goes like this: we all know from buildings that we’ve lived in, worked in, been in or stayed in, that some are more comfortable, more pleasant and more agreeable to live in than others. We haven’t had a real way of quantifying this, but in this century we’ve had an awful lot of architects who think they know how to do it, so we’ve had the horrible idea of the house as a machine for living in, we’ve had Mies van der Roe and others putting up glass stumps and strangely shaped things that are supposed to form some theory or other. It’s all carefully engineered, but nonetheless, their buildings are not actually very nice to live in. An awful lot of theory has been poured into this, but if you sit and work with an architect (and I’ve been through that stressful time, as I’m sure a lot of people have) then when you are trying to figure out how a room should work you’re trying to integrate all kinds of things about lighting, about angles, about how people move and how people live—and an awful lot of other things you don’t know about that get left out. You don’t know what importance to attach to one thing or another; you’re trying to, very consciously, figure out something when you haven’t really got much of a clue, but there’s this theory and that theory, this bit of engineering practice and that bit of architectural practice; you don’t really know what to make of them. Compare that to somebody who tosses a cricket ball at you. You can sit and watch it and say, ‘It’s going at 17 degrees’; start to work it out on paper, do some calculus, etc. and about a week after the ball’s whizzed past you, you may have figured out where it’s going to be and how to catch it. On the other hand, you can simply put your hand out and let the ball drop into it, because we have all kinds of faculties built into us, just below the conscious level, able to do all kinds of complex integrations of all kinds of complex phenomena which therefore enables us to say, ‘Oh look, there’s a ball coming; catch it!’
What I’m suggesting is that Feng Shui and an awful lot of other things are precisely of that kind of problem. There are all sorts of things we know how to do, but don’t necessarily know what we do, we just do them. Go back to the issue of how you figure out how a room or a house should be designed and instead of going through all the business of trying to work out the angles and trying to digest which genuine architectural principles you may want to take out of what may be a passing architectural fad, just ask yourself, ‘how would a dragon live here?’ We are used to thinking in terms of organic creatures; an organic creature may consist of an enormous complexity of all sorts of different variables that are beyond our ability to resolve but we know how organic creatures live. We’ve never seen a dragon but we’ve all got an idea of what a dragon is like, so we can say, ‘Well if a dragon went through here, he’d get stuck just here and a little bit cross over there because he couldn’t see that and he’d wave his tail and knock that vase over’. You figure out how the dragon’s going to be happy here and lo and behold! you’ve suddenly got a place that makes sense for other organic creatures, such as ourselves, to live in.
So, my argument is that as we become more and more scientifically literate, it’s worth remembering that the fictions with which we previously populated our world may have some function that it’s worth trying to understand and preserve the essential components of, rather than throwing out the baby with the bath water; because even though we may not accept the reasons given for them being here in the first place, it may well be that there are good practical reasons for them, or something like them, to be there. I suspect that as we move further and further into the field of digital or artificial life we will find more and more unexpected properties begin to emerge out of what we see happening and that this is a precise parallel to the entities we create around ourselves to inform and shape our lives and enable us to work and live together. Therefore, I would argue that though there isn’t an actual god there is an artificial god and we should probably bear that in mind. That is my debating point and you are now free to start hurling the chairs around!
Q – What is the fourth age of sand?
Let me back up for a minute and talk about the way we communicate. Traditionally, we have a bunch of different ways in which we communicate with each other. One way is one-to-one; we talk to each other, have a conversation. Another is one-to-many, which I’m doing at the moment, or someone could stand up and sing a song, or announce we’ve got to go to war. Then we have many-to-one communication; we have a pretty patchy, clunky, not-really-working version we call democracy, but in a more primitive state I would stand up and say, ‘OK, we’re going to go to war’ and some may shout back ‘No we’re not!’—and then we have many-to-many communication in the argument that breaks out afterwards!
In this century (and the previous century) we modelled one-to-one communications in the telephone, which I assume we are all familiar with. We have one-to-many communication—boy do we have an awful lot of that; broadcasting, publishing, journalism, etc.—we get information poured at us from all over the place and it’s completely indiscriminate as to where it might land. It’s curious, but we don’t have to go very far back in our history until we find that all the information that reached us was relevant to us and therefore anything that happened, any news, whether it was about something that’s actually happened to us, in the next house, or in the next village, within the boundary or within our horizon, it happened in our world and if we reacted to it the world reacted back. It was all relevant to us, so for example, if somebody had a terrible accident we could crowd round and really help. Nowadays, because of the plethora of one-to-many communication we have, if a plane crashes in India we may get terribly anxious about it but our anxiety doesn’t have any impact. We’re not very well able to distinguish between a terrible emergency that’s happened to somebody a world away and something that’s happened to someone round the corner. We can’t really distinguish between them any more, which is why we get terribly upset by something that has happened to somebody in a soap opera that comes out of Hollywood and maybe less concerned when it’s happened to our sister. We’ve all become twisted and disconnected and it’s not surprising that we feel very stressed and alienated in the world because the world impacts on us but we don’t impact the world. Then there’s many-to-one; we have that, but not very well yet and there’s not much of it about. Essentially, our democratic systems are a model of that and though they’re not very good, they will improve dramatically.
But the fourth, the many-to-many, we didn’t have at all before the coming of the Internet, which, of course, runs on fibre-optics. It’s communication between us that forms the fourth age of sand. Take what I said earlier about the world not reacting to us when we react to it; I remember the first moment, a few years ago, at which I began to take the Internet seriously. It was a very, very silly thing. There was a guy, a computer research student at Carnegie Mellon, who liked to drink Dr Pepper Light. There was a drinks machine a couple of storeys away from him, where he used to regularly go and get his Dr Pepper, but the machine was often out of stock, so he had quite a few wasted journeys. Eventually he figured out, ‘Hang on, there’s a chip in there and I’m on a computer and there’s a network running around the building, so why don’t I just put the drinks machine on the network, then I can poll it from my terminal whenever I want and tell if I’m going to have a wasted journey or not?’ So he connected the machine to the local network, but the local net was part of the Internet—so suddenly anyone in the world could see what was happening with this drinks machine. Now that may not be vital information but it turned out to be curiously fascinating; everyone started to know what was happening with the drinks machine. It began to develop, because in the chip in the machine didn’t just say, ‘The slot which has Dr Pepper Light is empty’ but had all sorts of information; it said, ‘There are 7 Cokes and 3 Diet Cokes, the temperature they are stored at is this and the last time they were loaded was that’. There was a lot of information in there, and there was one really fabulous piece of information: it turned out that if someone had put their 50 cents in and not pressed the button, i.e. if the machine was pregnant, then you could, from your computer terminal wherever you were in the world, log on to the drinks machine and drop that can! Somebody could be walking down the corridor when suddenly, ‘bang!’ — there was a Coca-Cola can! What caused that? — well obviously somebody 5,000 miles away! Now that was a very, very silly, but fascinating, story and what it said to me was that this was the first time that we could reach back into the world. It may not be terribly important that from 5,000 miles away you can reach into a University corridor and drop a Coca-Cola can but it’s the first shot in the war of bringing to us a whole new way of communicating. So that, I think, is the fourth age of sand.
by Douglas Adams
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September 8, 2010
Last night I had a dream… A spiralling coil of color unfolded its serpentine and slithering body before my mind’s inner eye. Patterns danced in such an orchestrated synchronicity, so as to complect into a delicate and balanced interplay of form and function, all actions and reactions – though it was hard to tell which were which anymore, because of the temporal passage that had clouded all the previous causes to things – feeding back into the source, creating new snaking forms of colorful displays… Never ending, never repeating exactly, so interdependent on everything else around them, looking for nourishment and inspiration in themselves and those around them, every part of it guided by a wild and beating leviathan heart, a heart that was run by the only certainty I could ever find… That of uncertainty… That of chaos… An open ended function that was the only pure motivation for all universal being and which itself, alone, could only describe and create such a miraculous and highly dynamical order… “I” was a part of it… And in reflecting all of what “I” saw unraveling around me, this rhythm of chaotic movement began to shine through my very Being, allowing me to try to define myself in self-similar patterns… Patterns similar to those that “I” witnessed going on around me, allowing me a vain hope to understand what “I” is… While providing me with all I needed to partake in this dance of joyous wonderment before me; understandings were nothing more that rippling imaginations that carelessly skittered over and through the patterns of consciousness… Shape that had been fluxing within my brain’s complex and structured form… And still, I could only try to understand why, like almost everyone else, “I” tried to find similar reasons for Being in the ocean of delusion that swelled and sank around me… It was the only way “I” had known how to be throughout my entire life… And this was how the wonder twisted through my living, convoluting flow… A pattern that embraced every aspect of our Being, clutching “my” particle-like body into the blossom of its infinite totality….
Perhaps this was what many people before me had decided to call “God…” Mainly because they hadn’t properly understood its essence and nature… After, the wise mystics of the East followed the way of this unspeakable, indescribable beast. The Tao, they called it. “The Way.” And still it remains the only way to be, to dream and to live in harmony with all under heaven. Riddled with self-similarity, it writhed and pulsed to various rhythms running through its Being, all running inside and outside of each other, layering into and out of itself, fluxing with such precision that it might have been a silken fabric so finely woven, that the very threads we but atomic braids of molecular chains, of which any movement could upset the natural order and cause a mighty ripple to undulate throughout itself.
In all honesty I can’t remember how long this phantasm of interconnected geometry lasted… All I know is that I woke with a sudden jolt to find myself in bed with the covers strewn half on me and half on the floor. In someways I was relieved to find myself back home… But also I had a distinct sense of underlying melancholy that seemed to underpin my sleepy head… Sort of like when one departs the company of good friends. Slowly as my mind came back into focus, I found myself thinking of M. C. Escher‘s work. The seeming parallels that ran through my mind joined my dream up with Escher’s precise visions of nature’s “natural” symmetry. These in turn linked up with my own personal first hand experiences with mescaline, psilocybin, DMT and LSD… I haven’t tripped in a long, long time now. And I doubt I will need to ever again. What I had to learn from these powerful allies of the plant world, I did. They have kindly shown me all that I need to see. Within their own tapestries of mind, from the altered states of consciousness that they seem to so gracefully and naturally induce, I found myself faced with patterns as complex as those that I had seen on the Alhambra.
Yes… That’s it. That’s what all this reminds me of… The Moorish architecture of the Alhambra… There is so much of divine Moorish masonry to be found in Granada… And funnily enough it’s almost a year ago to the day that I arrived back from there… Perhaps, this is where my dream came from… Parallels in our orbit around our star, echoing through the structure of my brain. Perhaps I should provide a brief setting for this slight tangent… Between 710 and 713 A.D., Spain had been overrun by the Moors (populations of Berber, Black African and Arab peoples from Northern Africa), and these Islamic conquerors naturally introduced the ornate Moorish, or Moresque or Hispano-Moresque, style of design to the Iberian Peninsula, and is especially noted in the architecture of Southern Spain, which is centred and personified in the Alhambra, located in the city of Granada.
The Moors were not entirely driven out of the Southern provinces until 1610, but in the nine hundred years intervening, the Moresque style flourished sporadically throughout many portions of Spain. And one can see why… The splendour of this mode of design brought nearly everyone who saw it closer to a true sense of wonder regarding the creation of all things than anything else at the time. During the Romanesque period a large part of the country was still under Moorish rule… Here the balanced European form mingled with Islamic sensibilities, producing wondrous Romanesque structures laced with Moresque imagery and pattern. This marriage of form inspired the late M. C. Escher so much during his first visit in 1922, that he is reportedly to have said, “I have never before seen such concentrated inspiration in all the world!” After this his works of art began to take a very different turn. From the Italian country side sketches and etchings, he slowly incorporated this Moorish symmetry into his designs. While the Moors we forbidden to use any human or animal forms in their art – mainly because humans and animals were considered to be the divine and perfect work of Allah, and any human representation could only ever be an imperfect representation of the creator’s master work, and thus a blaspheme – Escher began to break this mould and used images of animals and plants in tessellations of wondrous cunning. These tessellations began to feature predominantly throughout most of the work of his later life. And rather than limiting them to just the snug, tightly fitting geometries of mathematical sensibilities… He opened them up with his imagination into metamorphosing consternations. It was almost as if Escher had seen the key to the universe, and had unlocked the door, through which it began to speak through him.
I know… I know… Sounds like a sort of far fetched fantasy derived from a dream I had… However, I’m going to present an idea in the form of an article that I found on the Twitter vine not too long ago. It is entitled “Uncoiling The Spiral: Math And Hallucinations” and was written by Marianne Freiberger.
Uncoiling The Spiral: Math And Hallucinations
Think drug-induced hallucinations, and the whirly, spirally, tunnel-vision-like patterns of psychedelic imagery immediately spring to mind. But it’s not just hallucinogenic drugs like LSD, cannabis or mescaline that conjure up these geometric structures. People have reported seeing them in near-death experiences, as a result of disorders like epilepsy and schizophrenia, following sensory deprivation, or even just after applying pressure to the eyeballs. So common are these geometric hallucinations, that in the last century scientists began asking themselves if they couldn’t tell us something fundamental about how our brains are wired up. And it seems that they can.
Geometric hallucinations were first studied systematically in the 1920s by the German-American psychologist Heinrich Klüver. Klüver’s interest in visual perception had led him to experiment with peyote, that cactus made famous by Carlos Castaneda, whose psychoactive ingredient mescaline played an important role in the shamanistic rituals of many central American tribes. Mescaline was well-known for inducing striking visual hallucinations. Popping peyote buttons with his assistant in the laboratory, Klüver noticed the repeating geometric shapes in mescaline-induced hallucinations and classified them into four types, which he called form constants: tunnels and funnels, spirals, lattices including honeycombs and triangles, and cobwebs.
In the 1970s the mathematicians Jack D. Cowan and G. Bard Ermentrout used Klüver’s classification to build a theory describing what is going on in our brain when it tricks us into believing that we are seeing geometric patterns. Their theory has since been elaborated by other scientists, including Paul Bressloff, Professor of Mathematical and Computational Neuroscience at the newly established Oxford Centre for Collaborative Applied Mathematics.
How The Cortex Got Its Stripes…
In humans and mammals the first area of the visual cortex to process visual information is known as V1. Experimental evidence, for example from fMRI scans, suggests that Klüver’s patterns, too, originate largely in V1, rather than later on in the visual system. Like the rest of the brain, V1 has a complex, crinkly, folded-up structure, but there’s a surprisingly straight-forward way of translating what we see in our visual field to neural activity in V1. “If you imagine unfolding [V1],” says Bressloff, “You can think of it as neural tissue a few millimetres thick with various layers of neurons. To a first approximation, the neurons through the depth of the cortex behave in a similar way, so if you compress those neurons together, you can think of V1 as a two-dimensional sheet.”
An object or scene in the visual world is projected as a two-dimensional image on the retina of each eye, so what we see can also be treated as flat sheet: the visual field. Every point on this sheet can be pin-pointed by two coordinates, just like a point on a map, or a point on the flat model of V1. The alternating regions of light and dark that make up a geometric hallucination are caused by alternating regions of high and low neural activity in V1 — regions where the neurons are firing very rapidly and regions where they are not firing rapidly. To translate visual patterns to neural activity, what is needed is a coordinate map, a rule which links each point in the visual field to a point on the flat model of V1. In the 1970s scientists including Cowan came up with just such a map, based on anatomical knowledge of how neurons in the retina communicate with neurons in V1 (see the box on the right for more detail). For each light or dark region in the visual field, the map identifies a region of high or low neural activity in V1.
So how does this retino-cortical map transform Klüver’s geometric patterns? It turns out that hallucinations comprising spirals, circles, and rays that emanate from the centre correspond to stripes of neural activity in V1 that are inclined at given angles. Lattices like honeycombs or chequer-boards correspond to hexagonal activity patterns in V1. This in itself might not have appeared particularly exciting, but there was a precedent: stripes and hexagons are exactly what scientists had seen when modelling other instances of pattern formation, for example convection in fluids, or, more strikingly, the emergence of spots and stripes in animal coats. The mathematics that drives this pattern formation was well known, and it now suggested a mechanism for modelling the workings of the visual cortex too.
…And How The Leopard Got Its Spots
The first model of pattern formation in animal coats goes back to Alan Turing, better known as the father of modern computer science and Bletchley Park code breaker. Turing was interested in how a spatially homogeneous system, such as a uniform ball of cells making up an animal embryo, can generate a spatially inhomogeneous but static pattern, such as the stripes of a zebra.
Turing hypothesised that these animal patterns are a result of a reaction-diffusion process. Imagine an animal embryo which has two chemicals living in its skin. One of the two chemicals is an inhibitor, which suppresses the production of both itself and the other chemical. The other, an activator, promotes the production of both.
Initially, at time zero in Turing’s model, the two chemicals exactly balance each other — they are in equilibrium, and their concentrations at the various points on the embryo do not change over time. But now imagine that, for some reason or other, the concentration of activator increases slightly at one point. This small perturbation sets the system into action. The higher local concentration of activator means that more activator and inhibitor are produced there — this is a reaction. But both chemicals also diffuse through the embryo skin, inhibiting or activating production elsewhere.
For example, if the inhibitor diffuses faster than the activator, then it quickly spreads around the point of perturbation and decreases the concentration of activator there. So you end up with a region of high activator concentration bordered by high inhibitor concentration — in other words, you have a spot of activator on a background of inhibitor. Depending on the rates at which the two chemicals diffuse, it is possible that such a spotty pattern arises all over the skin of the embryo, and eventually stabilises. If the activator also promotes the generation of a pigment in the skin of the animal, then this pattern can be made visible. (See the Plus article How the leopard got its spots for more detail.)
Turing wrote down a set of differential equations which describe the competition between the two chemicals (see the box on the right), and which you can let evolve over time, to see if any patterns emerge. The equations depend on parameters capturing the rate at which the two chemicals diffuse: if you choose them correctly, the system will eventually stabilise on a particular pattern, and you can vary the pattern by varying the parameters. Here is an applet (kindly provided by Chris Jennings) which allows you to play with different parameters and see the patterns form.
Patterns In The Brain
Neural activity in the brain isn’t a reaction-diffusion process, but there are analogies to Turing’s model. “Neurons send signals to each other via their output lines called axons,” says Bressloff. Neurons respond to each other’s signals, so we have a reaction. “[The signals] propagate so quickly relative to the process of pattern formation, that you can think of them as instantaneous interactions.” So rather than diffusion, which is a local process, we have instantaneous interaction at a distance in this case. The roles of activator and inhibitor are played by two different classes of neurons. “There are neurons which are excitatory — they make other neurons more likely to become active — and there are inhibitory neurons, which make other neurons less likely to become active,” says Bressloff. “The competition between the two classes of neurons is the analogue of the activator-inhibitor mechanism in Turing’s model.”
Inspired by the analogies to Turing’s process, Cowan and Ermentrout constructed a model of neural activity in V1, using a set of equations that had been formulated by Cowan and Hugh Wilson. Although the equations are more complicated than Turing’s, you can still play the same game, letting the system evolve over time and see if patterns in neural activity evolve. “You find that, under certain circumstances, if you turn up a parameter which represents, for example, the effect of a drug on the cortex, then this leads to a growth of periodic patterns,” says Bressloff.
Cowan and Ermentrout’s model suggests that geometric hallucinations are a result of an instability in V1: something, for example the presence of a drug, throws the neural network off its equilibrium, kicking into action a snowballing interaction between excitatory and inhibitory neurons, which then stabilises in a stripy or hexagonal pattern of neural activity in V1. In the visual field we then “see” this pattern in the shape of the geometric structures described by Klüver.
Symmetries In The Brain
In reality, things aren’t quite as simple as in Cowan and Ermentrout’s model, because neurons don’t only respond to light and dark images. Through the thickness of V1, neurons are arranged in collections of columns, known as hypercolumns, with each hypercolumn roughly responding to a small region of the visual field. But the neurons in a hypercolumn aren’t all the same: apart from detecting light and dark regions, each neuron specialises in detecting local edges — the separation lines between light and dark regions in a part of an image — of a particular orientation. Some detect horizontal edges, others detect vertical edges, others edges that are inclined at a 45° angle, and so on. Each hypercolumn contains columns of neurons of all orientation preferences, so that a hypercolumn can respond to edges of all orientations from a particular region of the visual field. It is the lay-out of hypercolumns and orientation preferences that enables us to detect contours, surfaces and textures in the visual world.
Over recent years, much anatomical evidence has accumulated showing just how neurons with various orientation preferences interact. Within their own hypercolumn, neurons tend to interact with most other neurons, regardless of their orientation preference. But when it comes to neurons in other hypercolumns they are more selective, only interacting with those of similar orientations and in a way which ensures that we can detect continuous contours in the visual world.
Bressloff, in collaboration with Cowan, the mathematician Martin Golubitsky and others, has generalised Cowan and Ermentrout’s original model to take account of this new anatomical evidence. They again used the plane as the basis for a model of V1: each hypercolumn is represented by a point (x, y) on the plane, while each point (x, y) in turn corresponds to a hypercolumn. Neurons with a given orientation preference Θ (where Θ is an angle between 0 and π) are represented by the location (x, y) of the hypercolumn they’re in, together with the angle Θ, that is, they are represented by three bits of information, (x, y, Θ). So in this model V1 is not just a plane, but a plane together with a full set of orientations for each point.
In keeping with anatomical evidence, Bressloff and his colleagues assumed that a neuron represented by (x0, y0, Θ0) interacts with all other neurons in the same hypercolumn (x0, y0). But it only interacts with neurons in other hypercolumns, if these hypercolumns lie in their preferred direction Θ0: on the plane, draw a line through (x0, y0) of inclination Θ0. Then the neurons represented by (x0, y0, Θ0) interact only with neurons in hypercolumns that lie on this line, and which have the same preferred orientation Θ0.
This interaction pattern is highly symmetric. For example, the pattern doesn’t appear any different if you shift the plane along in a given direction by a given distance: if two elements (x0, y0, Θ0) and (s0, t0, ϕ0) interact, then the elements you get to by shifting along, that is (x0 + a, y0 + b, Θ0) and (s0 + t, y0 + b, ϕ0) for some and , interact in the same way. In a similar way, the pattern is also invariant under rotations and reflections of the plane.
Bressloff and his colleagues used a generalised version of the equations from the original model to let the system evolve. The result was a model that is not only more accurate in terms of the anatomy of V1, but can also generate geometric patterns in the visual field that the original model was unable to produce. These include lattice tunnels, honeycombs and cobwebs that are better characterised in terms of the orientation of contours within them, than in terms of contrasting regions of light and dark.
What’s more, the model is sensitive to the symmetries in the interaction patterns between neurons: the mathematics shows that it is these symmetries that drive the formation of periodic patterns of neural activity. So the model suggests that it is the lay-out of hypercolumns and orientation preferences, in other words the mechanisms that enable us to detect edges, contours, surfaces and textures in the visual world, that generate the hallucinations. It is when these mechanism become unstable, for example due to the influence of a drug, that patterns of neural activity arise, which in turn translate to the visual hallucinations.
Bressloff’s model does not only provide insight into the mechanisms that drive visual hallucinations, but also gives clues about brain architecture in a wider sense. In collaboration with his wife, an experimental neuroscientist, Bressloff has looked at the connection circuits between hypercolumns in normal vision, to see how visual images are processed. “People used to think that neurons in V1 just detect local edges, and that you have to go to higher levels in the brain to put these edges together to detect more complicated features like contours and surfaces. But the work I have done with my wife shows that these structures in V1 actually allow the earlier visual cortex to detect contours and do more global processing. It used to be thought that you process more and more complex aspects of an image as you go higher up in the brain. But now it’s realised that there is a huge amount of feedback between higher and lower cortical areas. It’s not a simple hierarchical process, but an incredibly complicated and active system it will take many years to understand.”
Practical applications of this work include computer vision — computer scientists are already building the inter-connectivity structures that Bressloff and his colleagues played around with into their models, with the aim of teaching computers to detect contours and textures. On a more speculative note, Bressloff’s research may also one day help to restore vision to visually impaired people. “The question here is if you can somehow stimulate part of the visual cortex, [bypassing the eye], and use that to guide a blind person,” says Bressloff. “If one can understand how the cortex is wired up and responds to stimulation, perhaps one would then have a better way of stimulating it in the right way.”
There are even applications that have nothing at all to do with the brain. Bressloff applied the insights from this work to other situations in which objects are located in space and also have an orientation, for example fibroblast cells found in human and animal tissue. He showed that under certain circumstances these interacting cells and molecules can line up and form patterns analogous to those that arise in V1.
People have reported seeing visual hallucinations since the dawn of time and in almost all human cultures — hallucinatory images have even been found in petroglyphs and cave paintings. In shamanistic traditions around the world they have been regarded as messages from the spirit world. Few neuroscientists today would agree that spirits have anything to do with it, but as messengers from a hidden world — this time the hidden world of our brain — these hallucinations seem to have lost none of their potency.
by Marianne Freiberger
For me that article just magically linked up some seemingly random dots that had been lingering in my mind… Ones that were loosely drifting around on a plane of understanding that seemed to – only at the best of times – be based on flights of fancy and mathematical musings of divine symmetry… Could the reason why I, and others, are so drawn to these tapestries of geometrical wonder be because this pattern is naturally residing in the brain’s architecture? Could the key to our modes of perception regarding the surrounding universe be found – amazingly enough – in the roots of our minds? Is the mysticism lying behind the Alhambra’s amazing architecture linked to the patterns locked deep within the brains structure? Is that where our notions of God and the divine come from i.e. the imagery of divine knowing and interrelatedness that came to haunt my dream last night?
For me there is no doubt that there is a strong link between the spiritual ecstasy that I have experienced in altered states of consciousness and while viewing Escher’s works of art… Perhaps those followers of Allah, who invaded the Iberian Peninsula and left their indelible mark on the Spanish people’s cities and towns, saw a similar connection too. Certainly it is mentioned that the prophet Muhammad experienced visions while meditating within a cave for several weeks every year. It is here in this cave on Mount Hira, near Mecca, that he apparently experienced a direct countenance with the angel Gabriel who revealed many things to him. Certainly adherents and prophets of other religions also recount similar marvels and revelatory experiences (see Aldous Huxley‘s “The Perennial Philosophy”).
While I am not religious… I am aware of a pattern of mind that links these spiritual experiences into a similar and all encompassing perennial philosophy. Perhaps the key to this insight lies within ourselves through direct experience, rather than in notions and metaphors of an omniscient and omnipotent god/group of gods. Perhaps it’s time we forgot our differences and looked for the key to understanding our experiences through consciousness itself… Where we relate to one another through our patterns of mind and body… A view that would be free from delusion and ‘self’ impossed egocentric understandings… ? Perhaps psychedelics are a type of direct key to seeing this pattern of the divine… ? And perhaps our notions of an eternal creator is nothing more than the same patterns we see springing forth in the mind in altered states of consciousness… Perhaps this direct experience of the divine is so powerful that it leaves us reeling with a deep feeling of connect… Mainly because it is what we really are at base… And thus we dedicate such intricate, beautiful and inspiring architecture – a testament to the divine nature of our being – to those ideals of God that many of us hold so high. Perhaps this is why some many of us find the Mandelbrot set so mesmerising… Perhaps Escher knew this deep down… ?
If you would like to see where I sourced the article, entitled “Uncoiling The Spiral: Maths And Hallucinations,” from, please click here.
If you’d like to learn more about Marianne Freiberger, then please click here.
Or if you’d like to learn more about M. C. Escher and his life’s work, please click here.
July 21, 2010
Having recently been to Dr Bruce Lipton‘s talk, entitled “The Biology Of Belief,” which was held in the Logan Hall of the Institute Of Education in London this last Saturday, the 17th of July 2010, I had reinforced the idea that we are nothing more than a bunch of atomic mechanisms, built from atomic polymers i.e. DNA, proteins, fatty acids, etc… all arranged into intricate cellular clusters, which – given the right circumstances – can function with amazingly natural flows of Being, demonstrating what we can only call, from a self referencing point of view, natural organic movements… And over the years we have – funnily enough – coined these flows to be “Life-Like.”
I really believe that when we begin to see Life in these terms i.e. that Life as we presently know it usually results from the complex interactions of the atomic machinery within an enclosed cellular body, which, if presented with more differentiated versions of itself, can build larger bodies from highly specialised cellular clusters… And then, once in place, out of all this unfolds a nonlinear biology/biochemistry of perceptive functions, all of which came about through the process of what we now know as ‘chaos’ – rather than the result of some divine intervention – and thus becomes nothing more than a complex, naturally occurring chaotic system that ‘intelligently’ reacts and responds, through effective behavioural patterns, to external environmental pressures and stimuli, precipitating survival habits that have been natural selected for… The behavioural patterns allow Life to survive in an ever changing environment, and the chaos inherent in our being affords us the ability to utilise the best survival traits that we can, one of which was the development of self-biased tendencies centred around a distinct notion of “self” and “body” that many of us seem to take for granted on a daily basis.
While I will eventually get around to discussing the reality and validity of the “self” in a future blog (something that is taking me much longer than I had anticipated)… In this blog I’d like try to discuss why this idea of viewing ourselves as a machine is a lot more natural and effective a notion about our “selves” than any previous egocentric notion about what we really are i.e. we were created by one or several Gods, in their own images to be special, etc… Certainly Dr Bruce Lipton’s analogy about us being a group of living cells which function within the confines of this body as a “community” of beings, each performing their own specific roles within the body’s mechanism i.e. just as governments regulate countries and their home economies, while police men arrest criminals, so do certain parts of the central nervous system function as regulators of heart rhythm and bodily temperature, while white blood cells kill of infections from ‘maliciously behaved’ bacteria… This idea of self-similarity within the patterns of Life that we see unfolding here on Earth across all scales and modes of Being will provide us with a very deep and intuitive understanding about the subtle and – what we tend to call – divine aspects of our Being, as well as showing us all how we interconnect and relate to this universally unfolding discourse..
Bearing in mind this ‘rule’ of self-similarity that seems to present itself within and throughout the whole of this universal dynamic so pervasively… And by viewing Life as a type of mechanisation… I am curious as to where – or from which level of scale – the emotive force of Life actually originates from? Is it at the level of the body i.e. does it directly and uniquely come from the sum of all its parts, where each individual part would be able to do nothing whatsoever by itself? Or is this trait of the emotive Life force buried deep down with in the cellular – or even the atomic – matrix? Certainly when we try to address what this experience of Life actually is and how it comes about we can hopefully begin to see it does not only belong to the body as a whole unit, but also comes from the various levels of functionality within the body i.e. at the cellular and atomic levels.
Just as Jung is concerned as much with the individual within society, as the individual is him/her “self” the measure of society, so too we can apply this analogy to the cell and body. Without the individual, society cannot function, let alone exist… And without the cell, the body cannot function or even exist. Life and its dynamism directly stems from the units that comprise the whole. These units, just as much as the whole, are all subject to the same forces and methods of development as each other i.e. those of nonlinear evolution. This ‘Life,’ and its essence, relies upon the parameters of these nonlinear, fractal eddies with their dynamics. These cellular bodies that make up our own larger bodies are driven by and made from the same underlying principles of naturally occurring algorithmic phenomena… Even though at first glance it might not be obvious that they are… But they are. Thus, if these algorithmic patterns reside across all levels of scale, shape and form, why shouldn’t we expect similar ‘intelligences’ to reside across all scales of these naturally occurring systems, whether at the human body’s level or a cellular level? Ultimately it’s up to you what you believe… But to function better I personally would like to know a little bit more about the processes that give rise this “I”; the processes that drive all of Life here on Earth – and possibly beyond too – rather than giving into dogmatic nodes of parrot fashioned understanding.
As Jung once wrote in “The Undiscoverd Self“:
Human knowledge consists essentially in the constant adaptation of the primordial patterns of ideas that were given us a priori. These need certain modifications, because, in their original form, they are suited to an archaic mode of life but not to the demands of a specifically differentiated environment. If the flow of instinctive dynamism into our life is to be maintained, as is absolutely necessary for our existence, then it is imperative that we remould these archetypal forms into ideas which are adequate to the challenge of the present.
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Our denominational religions with their archaic rites and conceptions – justified enough in themselves – express a view of the world which caused no great difficulties in the Middle Ages but has become strange and unintelligible to the man of today. Despite this conflict with the modern scientific outlook, a deep instinct bids him hang on to ideas which, if taken literally, leave out of account all the mental developments of the last five hundred years. The obvious purpose of this is to prevent him from falling into the abyss of nihilistic despair. But even when, a rationalists, we feel impelled to criticise contemporary religion as literalistic, narrowminded and obsolescent, we should never forget that the creeds proclaim a doctrine whose symbols, although their interpretation may be disputed, nevertheless possess a life of their own on account of their archetypal character. Consequently, intellectual understanding is by no means indispensable in all cases, but is called for only when evaluation through feeling and intuition does not suffice, that is to say, with people for whom the intellect holds the prime power of conviction.
In order to emphasise this re-equation that we need i.e. to understand that we are part of a whole ecosystem of Earth, just as a cell is part of the body’s ecosystem, it is here that I’d like to present an article which I read not too long ago in the New Scientist magazine… One that tackles this issue of where emotive Life comes from. When we see that Life’s organic flow resides across all levels of being i.e. atomic, cellular, bodily, biospherically, or even within the planet and its solar system, we might begin to understand that some of our older religious notions of the divine state of existence that We – that is, all Life – experience no longer need to be fantasised over or marginalised in any inaccurate way whatsoever. Now, through the doors of science, we can directly see the mechanisms of Life at work, and thus ‘understand’ the essence behind their patterns and interdependent interactions, all through which we gain the essence of our Being. Natural ordering comes from the patterns of chance and chaos, which give rise to development and originality within all universal systems, whether biological or otherwise. These systems, if given favourable circumstances/environments in which to start, can then begin the arduous process of developing into complex systems of environmentally perceptive and adaptive systems. Human beings are even beginning to use these recursive patterns – which have been called the “Thumb Print Of God” – in their technological developments i.e. to develop semi intelligent robotic systems that can learn fast and develop effective solutions to presented problems in ways that surpass anything we’ve tried or known before.
Thus, with these many new observations, I believe it is time to re-write our archetypal programming. Just as when I first saw the Mandelbrot Set on a postcard from a friend while at school and immediately recognised its tortuous, writhing flow as something so familiar and deeply ingrained in my being… So too do all ‘Gods’ leave this same feeling of familiarity… Of spirituality… And of deep connection to the whole… Here lies an answer to a new understanding… That self-similarity resides within all units of the whole… If you find intelligence within the body… Then why not within cell too… Or even in the atom… After all, one essence is usually found within the other, and so permeates through the entire being. Certainly atoms are just as discerning as human beings are… We all choose what we will or won’t react/socialise/breed with. Does this intelligence then go deeper? Intelligence that can be found within the proton, neutron and/or electron… And, if so, then why not even in the quark… Or the God particle…. Etc, etc, etc… ?
The Secrets Of Intelligence Lie Within A Single Cell
Late at night on a sultry evening, I watch intently as the predator senses its prey, gathers itself, and strikes. It could be a polecat, or even a mantis – but in fact it’s a microbe. The microscopic world of the single, living cell mirrors our own in so many ways: cells are essentially autonomous, sentient and ingenious. In the lives of single cells we can perceive the roots of our own intelligence.
Molecular biology and genetics have driven the biosciences, but have not given us the miraculous new insights we were led to expect. From professional biologists to schoolchildren, people are concentrating on the minutiae of what goes on in the deepest recesses of the cell. For me, however, this misses out on life in the round: it is only when we look at the living cell as a whole organism that wonderful realities emerge that will alter our perception not only of how single cells enact their intricate lives but what we humans truly are.
The problem is that whole-cell biology is not popular. Microscopy is hell-bent on increased resolution and ever higher magnification, as though we could learn more about animal behaviour by putting a bacon sandwich under lenses of increasing power. We know much about what goes on within parts of a cell, but so much less about how whole cells conduct their lives.
Currently, cell biology deals largely with the components within cells, and systems biology with how the components interact. There is nothing to counterbalance this reductionism with a focus on how whole cells behave. Molecular biology and genetics are the wrong sciences to tackle the task.
Let’s take a look at some of the evidence for ingenuity and intelligence in cells that is missing from the curriculum. Take the red algae Rhodophyta, in which many species carry out remarkable repairs to damaged cells. Cut a filament of Antithamnion cells so the cell is cut across and the cytoplasm escapes into the surrounding aquatic medium. All that remains are two fragments of empty, disrupted cell wall lying adjacent to, but separate from, each other. Within 24 hours, however, the adjacent cells have made good the damage, the empty cell space has been restored to full activity, and the cell walls meticulously realigned and seamlessly repaired.
The only place where this can happen is in the lab. In nature, the broken ends of the severed cell would nearly always end up remote from each other, so selection in favour of an automatic repair mechanism through Darwinian evolution would be impossible. Yet something amazing is happening here: because the damage to the Antithamnion filament is unforeseeable, the organism faces a situation for which it has not been able to adapt, and is therefore unable to call upon inbuilt responses. It has to use some sort of problem-solving ingenuity instead.
We regard amoebas as simple and crude. Yet many types of amoeba construct glassy shells by picking up sand grains from the mud in which they live. The typical Difflugia shell, for example, is shaped like a vase, and has a remarkable symmetry.
Compare this with the better known behaviour of a caddis fly larva. This maggot hunts around the bottom of the pond for suitable scraps of detritus with which to construct a home. Waterlogged wood is cemented together with pondweed until the larva has formed a protective covering for its nakedness. You might think this comparable to the home built by the testate amoeba, yet the amoeba lacks the jaws, eyes, muscles, limbs, cement glands and brain the caddis fly larva relies on for its skills. We just don’t know how this single-celled organism builds its shell, and molecular biology can never tell us why. While the home of the caddis fly larva is crude and roughly assembled, that of the testate amoeba is meticulously crafted – and it’s all made by a single cell.
The products of the caddis fly larva and the amoeba, and the powers of red algae, are about more than ingenuity: they pose important questions about cell intelligence. After all, whole living cells are primarily autonomous, and carry out their daily tasks with little external mediation. They are not subservient nanobots, they create and regulate activity, respond to current conditions and, crucially, take decisions to deal with unforeseen difficulties.
“Whole living cells are not subservient nanobots, they respond and take decisions”
Just how far this conceptual revolution about cells could take us becomes clearer with more complex animals, such as humans. Here, conventional wisdom is that everything is ultimately controlled by the brain. But cells in the liver, for example, reproduce at just the right rate to replace cells lost through attrition; follicular cells create new hair; bone marrow cells produce new circulating blood cells at a rate of millions per minute. And so on and on. In fact, around 90 per cent of this kind of cell activity is invisible to the brain, and the cells are indifferent to its actions. The brain is an irrelevance to most somatic cells.
So where does that leave the neuron, the most highly evolved cell we know? It ought to be in an interesting and privileged place. After all, neurons are so specialised that they have virtually abandoned division and reproduction. Yet we model this cell as little more than an organic transistor, an on/off switch. But if a red alga can “work out” how to solve problems, or an amoeba construct a stone home with all the “ingenuity” of a master builder, how can the human neuron be so lowly?
Unravelling brain structure and function has come to mean understanding the interrelationship between neurons, rather than understanding the neurons themselves. My hunch is that the brain’s power will turn out to derive from data processing within the neuron rather than activity between neurons. And networks of neurons enhance the effect of those neurons “thinking” between themselves. I think the neuron’s action potentials are rather like a language neurons use to transmit processed data from one to the next.
Back in 2004, we set out to record these potentials, from neurons cultured in the lab. They emit electrical signals of around 40 hertz, which sound like a buzzing, irritating noise played back as audio files. I used some specialist software to distinguish the signal within the noise – and to produce sound from within each peak that is closer to the frequency of a human voice and therefore more revealing to the ear.
Listening to the results reprocessed at around 300 Hz, the audio files have the hypnotic quality of sea birds calling. There is a sense that each spike is modulated subtly within itself, and it sounds as if there are discrete signals in which one neuron in some sense “addresses” another. Could we be eavesdropping on the language of the brain?
For me, the brain is not a supercomputer in which the neurons are transistors; rather it is as if each individual neuron is itself a computer, and the brain a vast community of microscopic computers. But even this model is probably too simplistic since the neuron processes data flexibly and on disparate levels, and is therefore far superior to any digital system. If I am right, the human brain may be a trillion times more capable than we imagine, and “artificial intelligence” a grandiose misnomer.
I think it is time to acknowledge fully that living cells make us what we are, and to abandon reductionist thinking in favour of the study of whole cells. Reductionism has us peering ever closer at the fibres in the paper of a musical score, and analysing the printer’s ink. I want us to experience the symphony.
by Brian J. Ford
Despite the authors final sentiments, I still feel that this reductionism does provide us with certain, otherwise unobtainable, clarities for understanding the similarities between the processes within and without… After all, one needs to know how to make paper and ink, and understand something about the musical scoring technique before they can write a symphony down for the future enjoyment of others…
To find out where I sourced this article from, please click here.
And to learn more about Dr Bruce Lipton and some of the brilliant work he is doing, please click here.
July 5, 2010
What can I say… Too much XAOS and a funny five minutes gave rise to these two little oddities.
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If you’d like to learn more about the M-Set and why our world is a fractal world, then please click here.
OR if you’d like to learn more about nonlinear dynamical systems, please read James Gleick’s “Chaos: The Making Of A New Science.” The first three people to E-mail me by clicking here will receive a free copy of the book! Just remember to enter the address you’d like the book to be delivered to…
I have already written several blogs about Life… You know, the scientific aspects of Life… Trying to understand it all a bit better… Asking really ‘silly’ questions about things like “When Does Life Really Become Life?” Or “What Is Life?” All the way through to “Just How Did Life Seed Here On Earth?” Thrown in with clangers like “Might We Be Able To Create Life In The Laboratory To Recreate Those Initial Conditions That Gave Rise To Life As We Know It Here On Earth?” And, would you believe, I even thought I could attempt to discuss “What This Experience Of Being Alive Really Is And How It Came About!” Wow… What delusions of grandure, eh? Lock me up and throw away the key…
Anyway… Would you believe, after all that, I’m back at this door again??? Trying to understand whether it’s as obvious as it seems… As obvious as it feels, even… That Life naturally happens, whether you want to believe it or not, independently and regardless of any divine creator or omnipotent god that we care to imagine. This time someone else has opened the doorway to another side – and another aspect – of this reality that we think we understand so well… They’ve prised it open just that little bit further than before… Just ever-so-slightly more… And with that, what we can now see shinning back through that widening crack, would you believe… Is that it seems self-replicating chemicals can evolve into lifelike ecosystems!?!? Similar to those found here on Earth!?!?
So… Along with the fractal geometry that lies hidden within the heart of our cellular make up… And what with all the other properties of the universal star stuff of atoms… Which are like Lego building blocks… Isn’t that almost enough to allow us to begin to see past the delusions of the yester-year? Can’t we just accept that life is a natural aspect of universal unfolding? That we all come from natural cosmic phenomena? And one day we will all go back there…
Well… I certainly can’t tell you what to think. So I’ll just have to let you decide for yourselves on that one…
But first, before you make up your mind, just have a “butchers-hook” at this…
Self-Replicating Chemicals Evolve Into Lifelike Ecosystem
Life makes more of itself.
And now so can a set of custom-designed chemicals. Chemists have shown that a group of synthetic enzymes replicated, competed and evolved much like a natural ecosystem, but without life or cells.
“So long as you provide the building blocks and the starter seed, it goes forever,” said Gerald Joyce, a chemist at the Scripps Research Institute and co-author of the paper published Thursday in Science. “It is immortalized molecular information.”
Joyce’s chemicals are technically hacked RNA enzymes, much like the ones we have in our bodies, but they don’t behave anything like those in living creatures. But, these synthetic RNA replicators do provide a model for evolution — and shed light on one step in the development of early living systems from on a lifeless globe.
Scientists believe that early life on Earth was much more primitive than what we see around us today. It probably didn’t use DNA like our cells do. This theory of the origin of life is called the RNA World hypothesis, and it posits that life began using RNA both to store information, like DNA does now, and as a catalyst allowing the molecules to reproduce. To try to understand what this life might have looked like, researchers are trying to build models for early life forms and in the process, they are discovering entirely new lifelike behavior that nonetheless isn’t life, at least as we know it.
As Joyce put it, “This is more of a Life 2.0 thing.”
The researchers began with pairs of enzymes they’ve been tweaking and designing for the past eight years. Each member of the pairs can only reproduce with the help of the other member.
“We have two enzymes, a plus and a minus,” Joyce explains. “The plus assembles the pieces to make the minus enzyme, and the minus enzyme assembles the pieces to draw the plus. It’s kind of like biology, where there is a DNA strand with plus and minus strands.”
From there, Joyce and his graduate student Tracey Lincoln, added the enzymes into a soup of building blocks, strings of nucleic bases that can be assembled into RNA, DNA or larger strings, and tweaked them to find pairs of enzymes that would reproduce. One day, some of the enzymes “went critical” and produced more RNA enzymes than the researchers had put in.
It was an important day, but Joyce and Lincoln wanted more. They wanted to create an entire population of enzymes that could replicate, compete and evolve, which is exactly what they did.
“To put it in info speak, we have a channel of 30 bit capacity for transferring information,” Joyce said. “We can configure those bits in different ways and make a variety of different replicators. And then have them compete with each other.”
But it wasn’t just a bunch of scientist-designed enzymes competing, like a miniature molecular BattleBots sequence. As soon as the replicators got into the broth, they began to change.
“Most of the time they breed true, but sometimes there is a bit flip — a mutation — and it’s a different replicator,” explained Joyce.
Most of these mutations went away quickly, but — sound familiar? — some of the changes ended up being advantageous to the chemicals in replicating better. After 77 doublings of the chemicals, astounding changes had occurred in the molecular broth.
“All the original replicators went extinct and it was the new recombinants that took over,” said Joyce. “There wasn’t one winner. There was a whole cloud of winners, but there were three mutants that arose that pretty much dominated the population.”
It turned out that while the scientist-designed enzymes were great at reproducing without competition, when you put them in the big soup mix, a new set of mutants emerged that were better at replicating within the system. It almost worked like an ecosystem, but with just straight chemistry.
“This is indeed interesting work,” said Jeffrey Bada, a chemist at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, who was not involved with the work. It shows that RNA molecules “could have carried out their replication in the total absence” of the more sophisticated biological machinery that life now possesses.
“This is a nice example of the robustness of the RNA world hypothesis,” he said. However, “it still leaves the problem of how RNA first came about. Some type of self-replicating molecule likely proceeded RNA and what this was is the big unknown at this point.”
I mean… Seriously… Throw in a bit of self-similarity, along with many, many, many lashings – so many that it might well ‘seem’ to boarder with infinity – of complexity, and can we surely not begin to see obvious parallels between how human life arose on Earth from the “primordial soup” and those three “clouds of winners” that arose from the broth of enzymes? Aren’t these really just similar phenomena unfolding across vastly different scales of both size and time? A vast ocean of atomic interactions that occur upon the closed ecosystem that we call Earth vs. another closed ecosystem of much smaller proportions i.e. the very humble sterile laboratory flask? Are these not self-similar patterns… Patterns that elude toward a subtle and intrinsic ideal of temporal universal unfolding?
Dare I say it… Could we even begin to call this phenomenon “GOD“!? Well… If you want to equate the Mandelbrot set, via modes of analogy, to the thumb print of God, primarily because we observe these fractal like patterns almost everywhere within nature… And, thus, we begin to use them to describe God as Spinoza did i.e. “God, or Nature” as an ‘unknowable’ and ‘unfathomable’ reality of the whole of existence/creation, then I just might possibly begin to agree with you.
To find out where I sourced this article from, please click here.
And to read more about Professor Gerald Joyce, please click here.
OR to read more about the amazing research being done at the Scripps Research Institute, please click here.
April 7, 2010
In a very pertinent vein as to what is being discussed within this blog regarding religion and psychology… Matthew Taylor, Chief Executive of the RSA, discovers what the latest scientific research can tell us about the human need for religion.
Part 1: Evolution
We are programmed by our genes to believe in supernatural powers and to obey moral codes. Is this because it gave our ancestors an evolutionary advantage? Iranians, Scandinavians, Papuans, chimpanzees, twins and wedding rings offer some startling answers.
Part 2: Neurology
Almost half the population claim to have felt the presence of a power beyond themselves. But what happens in the brain during religious experiences? If magnetism can produce visions, then what price mysticism and meditation? What’s the difference between sainthood and schizophrenia? And why are many believers convinced that God speaks to them in their dreams?
To find out more about Matthew Taylor, please visit his blog by clicking here.
OR to find out more about this BBC radio 4 programme, please visit the BBC website by clicking here.
PLUS… You can follow Matthew here on Twitter.
December 19, 2009
Several citizens ran into a hot argument one afternoon about God and all the different religions. No one could agree on a common answer. So they came to the Lord Buddha to find out what exactly God looks like.
The Buddha asked his disciples to get a large and magnificent elephant, along with four blind men. He then brought the blind to the elephant and told them to find out what the elephant would “look” like.
The first blind man touched the elephant’s leg and reported that it “looked” like a pillar. The second blind man touched the elephant’s tummy and said that the elephant was a wall. The third blind man touched the elephant’s ear and said that it was a piece of cloth. The fourth blind man held on to the tail and described the elephant as a piece of rope. And then all of them ran into a hot argument about the “appearance” of an elephant.
So the Buddha asked the citizens: “Each blind man had touched the elephant, but every one of them gives a different description of the animal. Which answer is right?”
October 30, 2009
Earlier I drew on influences from Spinoza’s “Ethics” in “An Overview ~ Condensing Some Of The Ideas Discussed Thus Far…” as it raised some pertinent ideas surrounding our need to understand the world around us in order to develop a better ethical understanding about Life in general. Here, I would like to progress deeper into Spinoza’s ideas and set them against my own views so as to suggest why I agree (and disagree) with certain points that he raises.
Implicit in the medieval-Cartesian legacy is a philosophical theme that goes all the way back to Plato: psychological dualism. From Plato through Descartes man was conceived as a composite entity comprising both mental and physical substances. For Plato, most of the medievals, and Descartes, these two elements were radically distinct in nature and separable, especially after the decay of the body. And thus we have the doctrine of the immortality of the soul. From this pyschological dualism a moral dualism was developed: the soul has, by virtue of its superior and immortal nature, the function of governing the body, in particular of ruling over the latter’s passions. That reason hsas the power and duty to exercise this role was virtually an unquestionable assumption in philosophy from Plato through Descartes. Spinoza rejects this whol tradition.
To see why let us begin with Descartes, whom Spinoza chooses as his philosophical antagonist. Descartes bequeathed to philosophy a very strong form of psychological dualism that asserts the following:
1. Man consists of two radically different substances, mind and body.
2. Although distinct in nature these two substances are united into one individual.
3. Again, despite their dissimilarities, mind and body interact.
4. Reason has unlimited capacity to control direct passion.
Spinoza believes that all of these claims are false.
Consider Thesis I, which is the cornerstone of Cartasian theory of human nature. Even prior to Spinoza several of Descartes’ more acute readers realized that his psychological dualism was difficult sledding. The Princes Elizabeth of Bohemia quickly perceived that if two things are as unlike as Descartes claimed the soul and body are, how can they be said to be united and to interact? After all, if oil and water don’t mix, why should we expect th mind and the body to get together and get along with each other? It just doesn’t seem plausible. Descartes’ replies to the Princess were perfunctory of feeble, and many of Descartes’ contemporaries and immediate successors attempted to develop alternative accounts of human nature that would avoid the difficulties of Descartes’ version of psychological dualism.
I many ways I find this idea very important. Firstly, when something is so intergrated into a system, how can it be different? For example, if we have a computer and the body consists of a Hard Drive, a CPU, RAM, data busses, and the rest is made up of the basics i.e. a CD ROM, power transformer, chassé, etc… Are these components still not part of the whole that make up the “computer”? If we prescribe a notion that the Hard Drive, CPU and RAM are like the human mind, and the CD ROM, power transformer, chassé, etc is like the eyes, stomach and skin/bones, perhaps we can investigate this idea better. Let’s ask an important question… Without the bodily parts, will the machine function like normal? I would say no. If the chassé goes, then wires and internal components are exposed to the environment, thus meaning that the electricity flowing through the system can more easily earth against other objects in the surround environment… Or as dust builds up on the circuit boards, a shorting might also occur… Not to mention they might get knocked and broken as objects are dropped on them and liquid is spilt accidently. This, in many ways, is comparable to the human body. If we remove the skin, the internal organs will be left exposed to the world at large and thus they will suffer from more infections, get bashed and knocks more often, and even not function as well as they will not be kept as warm. The dermis is an integral part to both systems. Without all their parts these systems do not operate in the same way or manner. Thus… We can make a statement. If all parts are equally important to each system’s natural functioning, then all dualism really does is provide the observer with two distinct systems, which both have varying modes and aspects to them, contributing a healthy function to the whole. We shouldn’t prescribe more importance to one aspect of the whole, just because it seems to house the illusion of self… As this imbalances the equation. Without that balance, our thinking becomes unbalanced, and thus our “Ethics” also become biased and disconnected from reality. Our minds are the result of the system of a human body. The human body houses everything i.e. mind, tongue, eyes, ears, skin, nerves, brain, stomach, kidneys, liver, heart, muscles, cartilage, sinew, bones, etc… Take any aspect of this system away, and it becomes unbalanced. It becomes less than what it was it was described as… Human being. Thus, we should not give more importance to one aspect of ourselves just because it seemingly houses our illusion of the soul… Rather we are, in our totality, souls… Both body and mind – in unification – working together with patterns/processes that interlink the two man-made concepts (which seem to be separate, but are only separated in fact by psychological ideas that stem from man-made observations and through the process of thought). Only ideas and understanding separates and fractures the world around us. But these delusions need to be balanced with a healthy knowing that these discriminations are nothing more than ways to understand a deeply interconnected universe of energy – much like that described in the Buddhist theory of “Interdependent Origination.”
One alternative was to eliminate entirely the mind from philosophical discourse. This was the route chosen by Hobbes and the materialists, who reduced man to a set of physical particles in motion. Another alternative was to define man solely as a mind, or perceiver with all its perceptions. this was the route taken by Berkeley and the later Leibniz. Spinoza took neither road. Man is a finite mode of an infinitely various substance, two of whose attributes are thought and extension. This means that man too is both thinking and extended; but unlike Descartes’ man, Spinoza’s human mode is not a composite substance, whose elements – mind and body – are mysteriously united. Rather, each and every human being can be considered as a physical organism capable of performing a variety of physical functions and activities; it can also be viewed as a mental agent engaging in all sorts of intellectual and psychical operations. The former set of functions falls under the attribute of extension, the latter under the attribute of thought, both attributes being exemplified in man since he is a mode of God, who is constituted by at least these two attributes. These two basic kinds of activities are not expressions of two radically different constituents in human nature that are either causally related, as in Descartes, or totally independent, as in Malebranche. Rather, there is one series of events or processes that can be described either as extended or as mental modes. Indeed, since substance, God, or nature is infinite, there is an infinite number of ways in which one could in principle explain human nature. But Spinoza speaks only of two: the way of extension and the way of thought. To elucidate this notion let us refer to Spinoza himself.
In Letter 9 Spinoza tries to explain to his correspondent, by means of a biblical illustration, how the indivisible one substance God can have many distinct attributes. Of the three Patriarchs the last was called by the names ‘Jacob’ and ‘Israel.’ Now the first name signifies to a Hebrew speaker the connotation of clinging to the heel (Genesis 25:24-26), whereas the second connotes victory over the angel (Gen. 32:23-32). But it is both the same person who both seized the heel of his brother and who fought with an angel. Spinoza uses this example to make the general point that substance can have many attributes without itself being many. The example can also serve to explain how one mode can exhibit two very different kinds of activities without being divisible into two radically different kinds of elements. For just as the names ‘Jacob’ an ‘Israel’ have different connotations but denote the same person, so too the attributes of thought and extension have different connotations although they are manifested in one and the same individual. But they are exemplified not as two radically distinct constituent elements within the same person, as Descartes believed. Nor is it the case that when we describe someone as thinking we really are referring to movements in his nervous system, as Hobbes claimed; or that when we describe someone as eating an apple we are referring to his sensations of eating the apple, as Berkley believed. Reducing mind to matter or matter to mind is just as wrong as marrying mind to matter without explaining how this union can be consummated. For Spinoza, there is just the human being, who can be conceived either as mode of extension, a body, or as a mode of thought, a mind. In describing man under each of these attributes we commit ourselves to a distinct method of explanation and analysis that if consistently and correctly employed will yield adequate knowledge of man. Each explanatory model is autonomous and legitimate; both are needed to account for the richness of human nature. So long as we do not mix attributes and we refrain from asserting causal connections between modes under different attributes, we are in no danger (Propositions 6 and 7, Part II). Spinoza’s monistic metaphysics permits, therefore, multiple possibilities for the description and explanation of human nature.
Once we appreciate how Spinoza solved the Cartesian mind-body riddle, we need not be puzzled any longer by queries concerning the mechanism of mind-body interaction and union. Yet, one serious problem does remain: if human reason is not a semi-independent, superior substance whose job it is to govern bodily passions, as Descartes believed, how are our emotions to be controlled? Indeed, can they be controlled? Actually, it is now not clear how this classic question can be formulated within Spinoza’s psychology, since he doesn’t assert a mind body dualism at all. If mind and body are just two different ways of looking at the same thing, what sense does it make to ask whether one can control the other? Yet, Spinoza is quite aware of the underlying motivation of the question. He knows that man as a mode is a creature of passion and he firmly believes that man’s route to happiness is only by way of moderating and directing these passions. Accordingly, although Spinoza has produced a new psychology, he concerns himself with traditional ethical problems. It is this new psychology, however, that will provide, he believes, a genuine solution of these problems.
Spinoza’s fundamental assumption is that a new method is needed in order to achieve the goal of the classical philosophers, human happiness. The older method – whether in its Greek, medieval, or Cartesian version – proceeded from a moralistic condemnation of human emotion to a list of prescriptions on how to avoid, temper, suppress, or repress passion. Few if any of these thinkers provided a detailed, objective analysis of human emotion. Descartes attempted it in his Treatise on the Passions; but to Spinoza, Descartes’ efforts were not successful. Spinoza believed that his predecessors failed because their either did not study emotion scientifically, or if they did they used the wrong science or did not complete the project. Having laid down and developed in detail the requisite metaphysical and psychological foundations in Parts I and II Spinoza now proceeds to apply these insights to the question of human emotion and how man is to deal with it. These preliminary truths furnish Spinoza with the tools for an objective, neutral analysis of human passion. Psychology is, then, a natural science, subject to the same methods, norms, and goals as the other sciences. And it is from and upon this naturalistic psychology that Spinoza establishes his moral philosophy.
In other writings within this website, you may find pertinent ideas as to the psychological foundations on which the social dynamics of man are built. Please see, “Letting “Them” Into Our Heads,” “Chimamanda Adichie: The Danger Of A Single Story,” “Beau Lotto – Optical Illusions Show How We See,” “Priming Of The Masses – The Century Of Self,” “Jill Bolte Taylor’s Stroke Of Insight,” “Further Scientific Ideas Pertaining To How The Human Mind Works…,” “Evidence For Humans Being “Meme Machines”?,” “‘Infectious’ People Spread Memes Across The Web,” and “Another Take On Reality – Meme, Myself and I” for some pertinent new discoveries pertaining to the nature of our minds. Armed with these ideas, we may begin to see our nature neutrally as an objective analysis that hints towards society’s processes and ultimate drives.
Beginning with this methodological assumption Spinoza claims that man is capable of having both actions and passions, which Spinoza calls affects, or, in our language, emotions. Stated in this way this thesis seems banal. But by the terms ‘action’ and ‘passion’ Spinoza intends something not so trivial. First we must take the word ‘passion’ literally as connoting a process or event whereby the individual undergoes an experience that causes him to suffer. The individual is affected by some stimulus that produces in him an affect. The crucial notion here is that of passivity. Second, the basic difference between actions and passions is not, as some of Spinoza’s predecessors (e.g. Descartes) insisted, one between a mental state and a physical condition, but a difference between two levels of one and the same emotion. If an affect is understood clearly and distinctly, or in Spinoza’s terminology, if we have an “adequate idea” of this emotion, then it is an action, i.e. we are the cause of it. Thus, knowledge results in activity. An emotion not adequately understood is a passion, because in this situation we do not act but suffer, or in common parlance we are on the “receiving end.” Here we are not properly agents, but reagents, i.e. we react, not act. Thus, on Spinoza’s view, what makes a person an agent is self-knowledge; lacking such knowledge, an individual is merely a passive recipient of external and internal stimuli to which he responds either blindly or inadequately. Self-knowledge, however, means realizing that we are elements within a complicated and diverse system of modes. Again, psychology is part of natural science; and ethics must be grounded in these sciences. Earlier philosophers, Spinoza claims, tried to “supernaturalize” man, and by doing so they made it impossible for us to understand ourselves and to achieve human happiness.
For Spinoza, knowledge is freedom. In Part I Spinoza argues that only God is strictly speaking free; for God acts consistently according to His nature, which is Spinoza’s definition of freedom (Definition 7, Propositions 17, 26, Part I). However, even though as finite mode, and hence capable of only limited action according to his own nature, man by virtue of knowledge can become “relatively free.” To the extent that he acquires adequate ideas of himself and his place in nature, man acts, which is to say he responds creatively to his environment and acts upon it. To be free is then to be active, to cause things to happen according to our understanding of the way things are and ought to be. True, we shall never be free as God is; after all, we are but finite modes. Yet, we are capable of knowledge, and to that extent we can be free (Definitions 1, 2, Propositions 1, 3, Part III).
Spinoza’s conception of freedom is one version of a theory currently referred to by such terms a ‘compatibilism,’ ‘reconciliationism,’ or ‘soft-determinism.’ This kind of theory attempts to hold on both to a deterministic account of human behavior and to the notion of a free action. Spinoza himself clearly states in the opening list of definitions that ‘free’ is not opposed to ‘necessary’ but to ‘compelled’ (Definition 7, Part I). It is only when we are compelled to do something that we are not free. In such a situation we merely react to the external force; we don’t act upon it, since our hands are, so to speak, tied. Another way of looking at Spinoza’s concept of freedom is to consider it as a form of self-determinism. A thing is free if and only if it acts according to its own nature. But to act is to be a cause of things and not to be a mere recipient and reagent to stimuli. And we act to the extent that we have adequate ideas, especially of ourselves and our place in nature. Spinoza’s freedom is then a kind of Socratic self-knowledge that makes its possessors capable of acting, i.e. to behave with knowledge and control. And just as Socrates viewed knowledge as a kind of power, so Spinoza sees freedom as power, the capacity to act with understanding on and in this world. Indeed, Spinoza conceives of man as an organism constantly striving to maximize his power to act, to be free. All emotions that contribute to this conatus, or endeavor, increase his freedom; those that decrease it subject man to external and internal forces (Propositions 6, 7, 11, Part III). The freeman is, therefore, the man of power, a person who determines himself.
I have adequately discussed the notion of freedom that we are bestowed with here on Earth in “An Overview ~ Condensing Some Of The Ideas Discussed Thus Far….”
We are now prepared for the final phase in Spinoza’s search for salvation. Armed with the proper understanding of human emotion and human freedom we can confidently confront the most serious obstacle to human happiness, the bondage of the emotions. Spinoza fully appreciates the force of emotions; unlike many of his predecessors, he is neither blind to nor does he underestimate their power. Indeed, for Spinoza most people live in “servitude to passion.” They are slaves to emotion precisely because they are ignorant. It is not that they do not know what is right, as Socrates and the Stoics believed; it is because they do not know what the world and man are like. Virtue, the fundamental concept in Greek and Roman moral philosophy, is for Spinoza power, the capacity to act, which, as we have seen, implies knowledge. The bondage of passion can be loosened through virtue understood as the power to act with understanding. Spinozistic self-knowledge leads to an understanding of one’s nature as an organism necessarily subject to emotions; but by the same token it teaches us how this subjection can be weakened.
This aim of weakening the bonds of “Perception Without Awareness” is of primary importance in this blog. As we have seen, nearly all of us are influenced by the babble and advertising of the mass media at large today. In some way or another, we are provided with the parameters within which to think through the media and television. But once we understand this, we will be able to observe these “forced” habits and patterns of being, and so we will be afforded the chance to free ourselves further.
In Part V Spinoza sketches for us a kind of moral psychotherapy by virtues of which we can liberate ourselves from the bondage of passion. This therapy comprises two levels of cognition: first, knowledge of how our emotion are related to external factors; second, knowledge of how we can attain a certain kind of insight that is, to use religious terminology, redemptive. With respect to the initial level Spinoza prescribes for us a psychology regimen whose general purpose is to detach us from emotion. [The compatibility of these prescriptions with Spinoza’s determinism is not evident. After all, if I am suffering from a passion over whose origin in me I had no control, how am I free to eliminate it? Indeed , if I am convinced of Spinoza’s advice, this is too determined! So what is the point of Spinoza’s moral therapy? Spinoza attempts to answer these objections in Letters 56, 58, and 78.] This is achieved primarily by understanding the nature of the particular emotions, their etiology, and how and to what extent they dominate us. Having acquired this knowledge we are well on the way to becoming free of emotional bondage. For example, most people become fixated upon some one thing, person, or activity that holds them under its sway. The most obvious example of such a fixation is sexual passion. However, the power and pain of this emotional bond can be enervated and perhaps broken once we realize that this emotion is very likely to cause frustration and grief. With this knowledge we can redirect the energy we might be tempted to put into such a relationship. Moreover, we come to realize that the particular relationship is not the only one that can satisfy our emotional needs. Emotions are transferable. Indeed, we may attain the more important insight that these emotions can be transformed into other emotions that can be satisfied by objects, activities, or persons that are more stable or advantageous. Here Spinoza has anticipated the Freudian notions of obsession and sublimation. Like his twentieth century counterpart Spinoza did not advocate asceticism, but moderation. He as well as Freud realized that emotions had to be understood and effectively controlled or channeled into profitable directions; otherwise, we suffer.
At this point it’s important to bear in mind how Spinoza’s new notion of God comes into play and takes over from the old traditional virtues of religious doctrines.
The second level of knowledge requisite for our happiness has to do with our palce within the whole of nature, or, in religious terms, with our relationship to God. Indeed, Spinoza claims that adequate self-knowledge is the first step toward a manifestation of our love of God (Propositions 14, 15, Part V). Remember that to understand oneself is to see oneself as a particular mode within Nature, or God. Self-knowledge is then knowledge of God. But love for Spinoza is an affect, or emotion, that involves knowledge; for love is “joy accompanied by an idea of its cause” (Definitions of the Emotions, Definition 6, Part III). All knowledge, especially in so far as it is defined as adequate ideas, can be related to the whole system of nature, or God. Self knowledge is then knowledge of God. But love for Spinoza is an affect, or emotion, that involves knowledge; for love is “joy accompanied by an idea of its cause” (Definitions of the Emotions, Definition 6, Part III). All knowledge, especially in so far as it is defined as adequate ideas, can be related to the idea of the whole system of nature, or God. To know is then to love God, and the more we know the more we love God (Propositions 15, 24, Part V). It is this love of God that constitutes for Spinoza the summum bonum, that which makes for human happiness. Because of the essential role of this kind of knowledge in Spinoza’s philosophy a special term is used by Spinoza to characterize it: scientia intuitiva, or “intuitive knowledge.” From an epistimological vantage-point this kind of knowledge is superior to both sense-perception and inference. It is complete an systematic, unlike the fragmentary and partial character of sense-experience; it is synthetic categorical, unlike the discursive and hypothetical nature of inference. Intuitive cognition enables us to perceive the whole of reality in a comprehensive grasp, wherein everything is “clear and distinct.” From this insight we are then able to “descend” to the individual elements of nature and see their mutual relationships in a way that was only dimly, partially, or sequentially perceived heretofore. With intuitive knowledge everything becomes systematically intelligible (Proposition 40, Scholium 2, Part II; Propositions 25, Part V).
From the ethical perspective intuitive cognition results in an understanding of man and his place in the universe such that life becomes not only intelligible but livable. For the scientia intuitiva gives us the “highest possible peace of mind” (Proposition 27, Part V). Why is this so? Happiness or, if we prefer, salvation, is the attainment of such knowledge because intuitive knowledge shows us why things happen in the ways that they do happen, that they cannot be otherwise, that man is not some extraterrestrial visitor who temporally inhabits this planet and then returns to some foreign domain, and that as an integral element of this one and only world he must learn to live in it. This knowledge can be characterized, Spinoza claims, as an insight of and into eternity, whereby the whole universe and everything within it are perceived “under a form of eternity.”
This is where I feel that the much overlooked fractal aspect of the universe could allow us to understand much of the natural processes and general flow of all things… Bear in mind what I have written in “The ‘Idea’ Of Infinity…” and “Self Similarity ~ Fractals, Fractals Everywhere…” before reading this following part.
Now we have reached one of the more famous Spinozistic notions, but at the same time a difficult one. For what does Spinoza mean by ‘eternity’? He tells us explicitly that he does not mean thereby infinite duration, which is how Aristotle and some of his medieval disciples construed this idea (Proposition 29, Part V). For Spinoza, to say that God, or Nature, is eternal is not to imply merely that God exists for infinite time. Rather, there is a sense in which, according to Spinoza, God, or Nature, is timeless. This latter notion is also, admittedly, not without its problems. But Spinoza tells in his list of definitions in Part I that eternity implies the kind of existence that characterizes a being that is totally self-sufficient and necessary. Indeed, given his definition of freedom, it turns out that for Spinoza the being that is free is also eternal, and conversely; for both of these attributes are features of a being whose existence and activity follow necessarily and only from its own nature. The key term here is ‘necessity’: that which exists and acts necessarily in complete conformity to its own nature is both free and eternal. For Spinoza only God, or Nature, satisfies totally this condition. In this sense God is not subject to time; for a being that falls within time is one that is not self-sufficient and perfect. Such entities are truly changeable, whereas God is immutable.
The perception of the universe “under a form of eternity” is the true and most precise insight about God. For we recognize the inevitable and constant character of reality as it is, and with this knowledge we attain happiness. [At this juncture another problem in Spinoza emerges: human immortality. In Propositions 21-31, Part V, Spinoza elusively alludes to a kind of immortality of the mind, which the commentators have found quite difficult to make precise. For some recent discussion of topic see A. Donagan “Spinoza’s Proof of Immortality,” in Spinoza: A Collection of Critical Essays edited by Majorie Grene (N.Y. 1973), 241-258; C. L. Hardin, “Spinoza on Immortality and Time,” in Spinoza: New Perspectives, edited by R. Shahan and J. Biro (Norman, Oklahoma 1978), 129-138.]
Here I’d like to suggest that fractals are what makes the mind eternal. The mind is nothing more than a system which has various neural centers that govern certain aspects of character, as I have already suggested in “Self Similarity ~ Fractals, Fractals Everywhere…,” all of which are regulated by aspects centered around chaotic systems i.e. strange attractors, that are infinite in nature… Thus these patterns of mind are eternal in the sense that they never repeat themselves in any exact manor, but rather they flow with self-similarity to ensure subtle change that give rise to an aspect of evolution (as discussed in “An Overview ~ Condensing Some Of The Ideas Discussed Thus Far…“).
I would also suggest that the idea of memes presents one with another aspect of how the mind is eternal. As you may have already noticed, we are very open to suggestion in our daily lives, “taking-on-board” many ideas that are not our own. This beg the question… “Is anything that we do actually original?” I would say not. Rather we mimic and reflect the social and geographical needs that we find ourselves in. We do so in order that we may fulfill our basic hardwired motive – to survive and pass on our genes to ensure survival of the species. If one was to born into a this world, then immediately removed from their parents, their society and thrust into an alien geography like a jungle, much in the same way Tarzan was, and allowed to grow into adulthood unaware of their origins, parents and culturally. Then, if his “ape-man” were brought back to their parents, do you think they would find this “new” world familiar at all? I doubt so. Rather they would perhaps feel alienated in their new and unfamiliar surroundings. This demonstrates that we merely reflect the aspect of our surroundings in accord to the times and stresses imposed upon us. And it is these aspects of mankind and society that are eternal i.e. it is they that pass down from generation to generation as memes, changing subtly and suitably to suite the needs of this ever evolving world. No aspect of this collective will ever die… It merely get passed on in other ways, mutating much like our DNA does. This aspect of self-similarity gives credence to part of the whole pattern repeating itself across many varying scales and at many different levels.
In one sense this is not a new idea. The ancient Stoics too emphasized the importance of accepting and living according to nature and her inevitable laws. And the medieval philosophers spoke of a stage of intellectual perception that results in a kind of mystic union with its object, in this case, God. In fact, probably the first philosopher Spinoza read, Maimonides, ends his famous Guide of The Perplexed with a description of this kind of vision, which he characterizes as love of God through knowledge, a love that unites the lover with the beloved. [Maimonides, Guide of The Perplexed, Part III, chapters 51-54.] Another Jewish philosopher, Leone Ebreo, or Judah Abravanel, whose book was owned by Spinoza, referred to this type of intellectual mysticism as “the intellectual love of God,” the precise term used by Spinoza in the concluding pages of the Ethics. Nevertheless, although the general idea and perhaps even the term may not be new, Spinoza’s “intellectual love of God” (amor intellectuallis Dei) is different from both the Stoic and Maimonidean notions. Spinoza is not a Stoic because he does not believe, as Stoics did, that man is capable of complete self-mastery, that our emotions and behavior are totally under the sway of our will and reason. We have already seen that because man is but a mode of and within nature, his power, and hence his freedom, is limited. The Stoic and Cartesian vision of man exercising complete control over his emotional life is for Spinoza just false; it rests upon a totally inadequate psychology, which is turn is based upon faulty metaphysics. Moreover, Spinoza rejects the Stoic notions of passivity, withdrawal, and asceticism. For Spinoza, let us recall, freedom, to the extent that we have it, consists in activity, power, and joy. Spinoza’s free spirit, to use Nietzsche’s term, is a person who says ‘Yes’ to life, not ‘No.’ Happiness consists not in suppressing or repressing one’s emotions but in transforming them into adequate ideas so one can be free and joyful. In Spinoza’s own life we can see the difference between the Stoics and himself in his pursuit and cultivation of friendship; for the Stoics, however, friendship was a neutral, or indifferent, activity.
Nor is Spinoza’s intellectual love of God identical with the medieval doctrine of union with God through knowledge. To Spinoza this notion of literal union with God through knowledge is obscure (Definitions of the Emotions, Definition 6, Part III). It rests upon the dualistic metaphysics wherein God and man are conceived as radically distinct, such that the desired union with God has to come about through some supernatural mediation, either through prophecy or incarnation. Spinoza’s monistic metaphysics makes prophecy and incarnation both unnecessary and incoherent. True, the intuitive cognition that is required for and results in human happiness is “difficult and rare”; but it is attainable by man with the capacities that he possesses. The fact that most people have not achieved human happiness is, for Spinoza, not to be attributed to some irremediable taint that they have inherited from Adam, but to ignorance and superstition. It was to the defeat and removal of the latter enemies of mankind that Spinoza dedicated his life and his Ethics.
I believe Spinoza has a point here. Everything in this blog is not so much stating a purpose for Life. Rather it is observing the patterns that form the operating basis for Life. This has no doubt provided me with a clear and distinct joy at being able to understand the probability within which we have fortunately arrived here. For it is a mighty mountain of odds that we have scaled thus far. Once I began to see this, my life changed in many ways, doing so for the better. In these pages on this website, I hope to be able impart some of the Knowledge that allowed me to grasp the wonder to which we were born to others, with the hope that it may provide a similar catalyst to my own; a catalyst that will set in motion a chain of events giving rise to a path leading away from the old ways into new plains of being… When we begin to see that God is more of a process than a being, we also begin to understand what a powerful metaphor for the infinite aspects of nature God is, and that mankind – as part of this creation – intuitively knew about this infinite and eternal aspect, as he expressed through his own various religious decrees. For science does not erase the notion of God, or Nature! An interesting idea in line with Spinoza’s view of God and knowing, or love of God, can be found here.
When I saw the Mandelbrot Set for the first time, I knew there was something familiar about its twisting and eternal flow… I had seen it before I had come into this world, just as all living beings see their maker before their creation. I was, only in-part, of this design – this was the hallmark mark left by the geometry that constructed me – this is the “thumb-print” of “God, or Nature…” An aspect of the holy trinity of creation, chaos and math that allows all the infinite aspects of the whole to be known by the parts, individually… And by the sum of the parts together. This is what we are currently doing… We are coming together to see a view of the whole, sharing and excahnging our views so that we may see new perspectives that might not have been visible to us as individuals before. Hopefully, when you see this too, we might forge a better world for ourselves, in harmony with one another and every living thing, understanding what we are, how we are all interconnected in the Tao’s flow, and therefore what we must do to ensure that we fulfill all our abilities and obligations as keeper of this hallowed Earth while we live here, ensuring the same for the future generations of all Life to come… This is an Ethic that Spinoza shared. One of harmony, whereby one did not need more than they should have to survive comfortably. This minimalist ideal pervaded Spinoza’s way of life and ensure his joy and faithfulness to understanding the essence of being. If only he could have seen what science has thus far revealed… I believe he would have brought to our attention of pertinent ideas for new ways of being.
If you are curious about Spinoza’s treatise on his Ethics, please click here to view a highly recommended book about this subject.
Quotes in this essay are taken from: Ethics – Treatise on The Emendation Of The Intellect and Selected Letters, introduced by Seymour Feldman.