Tuesday, June 28, 2011

consciousness, a model

According to Charlie Stross, “Consciousness seems to be a mechanism for recursively modeling internal states within a body.”  Animals, such as humans, use their senses, their nervous system, to construct a model that allows them to optimize their living conditions.  Most of what the brain does is unconscious, so why isn't all of it?  Perhaps there is a survival advantage conferred by creating the artificial “recursive model” that allows a dualistic mind/body sensation of consciousness, whereby the model (the mind, conscious awareness) can have an active conversation with the machine of the body, second guessing its impulses and suggesting alternatives.  Any creature exhibiting complex behavior appears to be capable of emotions and a rich inner life, according to Jonathan Balcombe.  And the inference seems justified to me. 

By happy accident, I have had the pleasure of seeing three distinct species of salticid spiders here in Fairbanks (including Sitticus finschi and Phiddipus borealis).  These small creatures have two large eyes for binocular vision that they use to stalk their prey, a trait we share with them.  I wish I had a macro lens on my digital camera, but even without one, just a few days ago I captured the image of a spider staring back at me as I focused on him.  There is more evidence than not to suggest that he was aware of me, in some sense, just as I was aware of him.  For me, that is one of those experiences of “seeing the world in a grain of sand.” 

Philosophy is, in one sense, an attempt to “model the model”, and technology is providing us with a more direct route to do this via better sense data - by watching the degree of activity in regions of the brain with real-time brain scanning.  This brings the larger, unconscious activity that the brain engages in into the realm of conscious awareness.  And it is speculated that this could conceivably allow one to control all of one's impulses, specifically the less desirable ones.  Could this be the much sought after cure for procrastination?  Still a long way off. 

One last observation: “The Chinese room” thought experiment supposes that the man in the room exchanging symbols for symbols under the door need not have a recursive model (in Stross' sense) to do so.  But we know that such a model has evolved and, so far as we have means to detect it, we have not failed to observe it.  Call it salience, even the insects beneath our feet display it (recent studies of animals like bees and even jellyfish suggest our understanding of their behavior is far from complete).  Who is to say their model is any less vivid to them than ours is to us?  We do not know the basic unit of thought or emotion, but in a materialistic world, surely it must exist in some sense.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Albert Camus

I browsed through "100 ideas that changed the world" and at number 90 was “Existentialism Defines an Absurd Existence”.  Here's the paragraph I read on page 118: 
… But the most popular of the group [of French and German existentialists] was the saturnine Algerian-born writer Albert Camus (1913-60).  In his essay "The Myth of Sisyphus," a meditation on the predicament of humans attempting to make sense of a senseless universe, he memorably expressed a central existentialist tenet: the absurd. Reflecting on the Greek figure of Sisyphus, who is condemned eternally to roll a rock up a hill only to have it roll down again, Camus tells us that by recognizing the absurdity of his situation, Sisyphus gains at least the dignity of forthright clarity. "We must imagine Sisyphus happy," Camus famously concludes, for "being aware of one's life, and to the maximum, is living, and to the maximum." Camus died in the most absurd way of all - a car crash. 
We value our lives and think them important, but we also know that we will die and that time will erase all our work.  Though we long for it, we cannot create meaning or hope in a world that contains neither.  Our awareness of the paradox between our desire on the one hand and our disappointment on the other are the terms of an absurd life.  Camus states:  “Knowing whether or not one can live without appeal is all that interests me.”  And later concludes: “Happiness and the absurd are two sons of the same earth.  They are inseparable.”  The image of a happy man devoid of hope is the mark of absurdity.  (This reminds me of the story of the monk hanging on the end of a rope above a chasm.  Above him a black mouse and a white mouse gnaw at the rope, slowly reducing its width to that of a single strand.  The monk sees a strawberry near the cliff by which he hangs, so he picks it, and eats it.)  "The present and the succession of presents before a constantly conscious soul is the ideal of the absurd man." "The absurd man can only drain everything to the bitter end, and deplete himself."

Albert Camus was 46 when he died in 1960.  Three years before his death he was awarded the Nobel Prize in literature for his writings against capital punishment (Reflections on the Guillotine, 1957).  In 1942 he published The Myth of Sisyphus, and in 1951 The Rebel, which builds upon the ideas of the earlier work.