"Enjoying all the loneliness at home"
Is it a question of being alone?
Employing silence to fill up a hole
the loud sound of thoughts all unknown
and buzzing memories to be owned.
The mind is I and the mind it is whole
or so it seems, so I feel I know,
but does cyclical confirmation hold?
Who holds me to be me, myself, my own?
Only one, the one that is all I hold.
Thursday, May 15, 2008
Did I dream this belief,
or did I believe this dream?
- Peter Gabriel
"In the further adventures of Achilles, he again crosses paths with the Tortoise just as he is pondering certain imponderables thrown up by an unfortunate accident involving excessive physical activity and mild concussion.
Achilles: Tortoise! I'll have a word with you, since you're going nowhere fast.
Tortoise: By all means. Nothing would give me more pleasure!
[at this point, authorial licence gives way to reality...]
Achilles: I have been thinking about when I went unconscious. When I was dreaming, do you think that was some function of the brain?
Tortoise: I do.
Achilles: What do you think is the evolutionary purpose of it?
Tortoise: My 'official' reaction would be to say that dreaming is probably an accidental by-product of analytical thinking
Achilles: hmmm, not very convincing
Tortoise: I'll elucidate then. Let us consider that we have this function to think analytically and not just instinctively like most other animals
Achilles: So animals don't dream?
Tortoise: Clearly they do! But their dream is a shadow of their particular form of thought process, as ours is a shadow of how we think. I wouldn't like to begin to address what I have not experienced, when explaining what I have experienced is such a challenge.
So we were considering the analytical thought process, a function that doesn't go away when we sleep. Working solely with memory data, as opposed to sense data, the analytical thought process is on shaky ground. It confabulates fantastical visions for the 'experiential self' by performing its normal function, which is to recognise, assign nominal or symbolic value and classify. That is, it reads memory, performs some processing (which was designed for waking operation), and writes back to memory.
That is my 'official' line.
I would stand by that (because it's not really very deep at all, so it's reasonably safe).
However, if I was going out on a limb, I might say that there is more scope for interaction with unusual sensory perception when asleep simply because our analytical minds are shut down.
I might go so far as to say that this extra-ordinary interaction causally precedes our evolution - i.e. we dream because the dream state is there to be had, in the same way that we see because sight is possible.
Now, I wouldn't defend that view since, by all standards of reason, a defence is impossible!
Achilles: What do you think of aboriginal concepts of Dream time?
Tortoise: I know of it, it's a mythology built around the common idea of the mythic oneness. I wouldn't gainsay it - we know time to be entirely subjective, so I have no problem with Dream time as a metaphor for reality, outside of a single frame of reference.
Achilles: Is it possible, do you think, that the evolutionary consciousness rises out of dream time, and is used to pick and choose its subjective linear experience
Tortoise: Evolutionary consciousness? Explain.
Achilles: Well, consciousness as an evolving construct - rising out of the primordial soup as it were.
Tortoise: Consciousness associated with what? A single human? The collective unconscious? Gaia?
Achilles: A single human - but at different levels it drops further into a larger "dreaming"
I just feel that what I experienced was something akin to a dream time experience, and that it was my evolutionary consciousness, that values my linear experiences, that pulled me out and kept my alive...although, the human experience also helped me, as I was woken up by another human being.
Tortoise: To my mind, it's a double question really
a) does consciousness come from before, and last after, the human body?
b) is there really a single great consciousness so that a single personality is just an illusion, one that we can 'awake' from (whether that be in dreams or in death)?
At first reaction, I honestly can't answer either question. These are truly imponderables.
Achilles: Well, if b) is true, is it possible that the dream isn't a shadow of the waking self, as you seemed to be suggesting?
Rather, that the dream is a fundamental state of being that we can all share and partake of, and where we all become incredibly similar...but in which the identity becomes increasingly malleable.
Tortoise: My own experience of dreams leads me to believe that most dream experiences are akin to normal conscious experience, and all the stuff about identity being malleable results from the faculty of imagination - modelling!
BUT...I cannot deny there is possibly something more happening.
Achilles: Surely though, what we bring back from dreams is influenced by our own waking self
Tortoise: I think I see what you mean - that we reinterpret the dream experience on waking.
Tortoise: We 'remember' the dream, based on a model that is built by our conscious mind?
Tortoise: Well, I agree that may affect remembrance...but it doesn't actually imply anything different is happening when we dream.
I am open to the idea that there is something extra happening, but I can't really approach that idea of a greater consciousness...because the more I think about it, the more clear it is that any rational answer will only approximate a model of a level of consciousness which I cannot understand or even discuss rationally!
For instance, imagine a Gaia consciousness that persists based on a substrate of electrical energy within the world [or solar system or galaxy, why not?]. We have a concept there, but what more can we say about it? the why, how, what...none of our experience can begin to help us form answers.
Achilles: I think our analytical brain does influence the dream a lot, even during sleep...yet what was strange for me was how little influence it had during unconsciousness, and then its sudden attempt to reassert itself. It felt like the evolutionary process speeded up in a second, pulling random impulses into a fully formed human.
Tortoise: Ok, so I have a concept of some rather unapproachable level of consciousness, and you have your unconsciousness/dream concept, which brings us back to your recent personal experience...and I feel I can say this much:
Consider the analytical, self-oriented left-brain part as 'You' for a moment. 'You've' basically got a will to live, or a will to die - stay in the human body, or exit it. You can think of dying as the end of things, or as reunion with the One, enlightenment. Yet if there is this greater consciousness, then it doesn't matter what you think, because you can't approximate the truth with thought...and you can't escape it.
If it true, then when you die you join it.
If not, when you die you rot.
Seems like I just made a good rational argument for not worrying about spirituality too much!
Achilles: I think its the "you" part that I am having difficulty coming to terms with!
Tortoise: Is there anything more that we can say regarding the transcendence of dreams? What is the 'I' if all we need to do to wash it away, is to fall asleep? Are we remembering a true state of experience when we sleep or when we wake?
A good question, Achilles, and I thank you!"
Posted by Ben Cowley at 2:41 pm
Wednesday, May 07, 2008
What I have been talking about in the Doubt-beings and Love-beings posts is probably best thought of as a metaphysics of cognition, a subject which needs a metaphysical treatment only because of our relative ignorance about how we produce thought. However more and more the field is advancing, and one of the most productive areas is the investigation of noise in neuronal processing, or what looks like noise because we don't quite understand its role yet.
Did a quick google on noise in neuronal processing, and discovered enough interesting studies to last a long time. [Possibly a career's worth. We'll see!]. See these       
Still, for now, a quick recap and see how this bears on my previous two posts.
In the late 80's Roger Penrose in his book The Emperors New Mind attacked the stance of strong AI (which claims that consciousness is algorithmic and so can be executed on a UTM), saying that cognition was essentially a non-algorithmic process characterised by [what I'll call for want of better phrasing] Godelian relationships. He also made the bold claim that perhaps resolution of quantum linear superpositions was occurring as neurons act, therefore making thought a practically non-deterministic process. This view was downplayed by the mainstream, as it was thought that neuronal activity was too large-scale to be affected by quantum phenomena. The claim has not been verified or disproven, but there is some evidence to suggest that quantum phenomena do play a role for the average neuron.
The implications were this hypothesis to be proven true are staggering in scope - and they really do bear heavily on any metaphysical look at consciousness. We'll come back to this toward the end, after a few more research perspectives.
One view of the brain is a rather rattletrap contraption, riddled with signal-delivery noise and therefore stacked with signal-processing redundancy.
There's a nice article here about how noise is inherent in wetware but is compensated. Essentially, from a reductionist perspective the picture is that neurons are signal carriers that can loose signal, distort the encoding or lose it entirely. Redundancy of processing for brain areas effectively combats noise - neuron groups and signal trains are used, like this example:
"When we hear a sound, hair-like structures on neurons in our ears wiggle. Their wiggling creates a pattern of voltage spikes, which the neuron then passes on to 10 to 30 other neurons. All of those neurons then carry the same signal toward the brain, where they can be compared. Each neuron degrades the signal in a uniquely random way, and by averaging all of their signals together, the brain can cancel out some of the noise."
This perspective comes from looking at the action of single neurons, and then extrapolating that behaviour up to the next level at which hard science is possible - single event response mapping. Using functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI), they can examine the brain as it acts (almost in real time, now). But the entire picture is far too big, busy and chaotic to treat scientifically, so they have to prime the brain to respond to a single event, like a sound, and map the response in the fMRI results.
The problem with this, valuable work though it is, is that it gives a picture of the brain that is too functionally modular. The brain is modular, sure, but it is also interconnected. The whole brain is switched on (though perhaps not acting) at the same time, and it is occlusive to think in terms of one part at a time. In complex emergent systems, it is the high level behaviour that embodies the most powerful and beautiful results. Ant algorithms are very simple on the individual ant scale, but the entire culture of an ant colony is a staggering construct for such tiny creatures.
So another perspective on noise in the brain keeps the higher order in mind - that noise encodes decision possibilities until resolution and so the brain represents information probabilistically, by coding and computing with probability density functions or approximations to probability density functions. This implies that the brain is actually a Bayesian probability calculator.
On the face of it, that's not so different to the ear example above - lots of signals are sent, the averaged sum of probabilities gives an approximately correct answer. The differences in the technical details may be larger, but one non-technical difference in particular strikes me - in this latter view, the noise is not really noise at all. It is a pre-cursor to the system - in a way, it is the principle around which the system is built. In other words, our brains evolved the way they did because the biological substrate they evolved within has to have noise. If a noise-free system were possible, we wouldn't think the way we do at all (well, we as us wouldn't exist, but for the sake of argument...).
So there we have a few different fresh perspectives on how the brain is processing and decision-making. Can we relate this in some way to the level of discussion of the earlier posts, Doubt and Love?
I'm loathe to start drawing definite inferences, since I'm working myself on the basis of intuition. Yet I think that with the most open of minds, we could imagine a brain that operates from the quantum level toward resolution of probabilistic predictor functions. This type of brain could operate as we know it does, and yet also operate within the undifferentiated, relative and probabilistic reality that we suspect* exists independent of our conscious experience of it. In other words, we exist in touch with the beautiful everythingness of reality, and yet filter it down to a point of focus that permits self-aware pro-active consciousness. I may be jumping crazily about waving my hands in the air, but I believe that I have just summarised my Doubt and Love posts with reference to hypothetical operative descriptions of the brain.
Furthermore, all this to my mind, presents a picture not so much of dichotomy but of layering of relational activity. There is not just one view of the world or the other (as I have presented in the previous two posts referenced above), but a system that requires both views to exist simultaneously and harmoniously, and therefore produce conscious thought.
Note: In all this I am kind of taking the stance that conscious thought is somehow a desirable end product of the setup of our brains - a final** and valuable cap stone of the system. Another stance might claim that consciousness is just an accidental by-product, that the 'zombie in the brain'*** is what's really in control, and the whole apparatus only operates in order to enable the 'selfish gene'. I just find the letter view a mite shortsighted and pessimistic, though I don't claim I know better.
* I am using an uncertain form in order to admit the solipsist outlook.
** Or possibly not final! But thats another days discussion.
*** Look up V.S. Ramachandran 'Phantoms in the Brain'
Posted by Ben Cowley at 9:39 pm