Tuesday, February 18, 2014

If humans can’t focus on survival, can they be conscious at all?

If humans can’t focus on survival, can they be conscious at all?

A British mystic named Bennett once wrote an entire book on the old question “Is there intelligent life on earth?”

My last blog posting focused on the  issue of how H2S formation in the oceans and its release into the atmosphere provide a very serious but unknown threat to the survival of all humans on earth, possibly sooner than most of us would imagine possible. It also focused on the issue of the reasons why humans have found it so hard to FOCUS on that question . If a biological organism cannot even focus on the issue of its own survival, is there any hope that it is capable of real focus or consciousness of anything at all?

The word “consciousness” has many meanings. One of its meanings is “awareness,” an ability to focus attention.  The ability to focus attention does not mean that people should spend their entire lives focused on just one thing; it is more like an ability to move the eyes, so that you see one thing at a time, and choose what to look at, but look and focus very effectively when you DO look at something.

I have spent less than 2% of my free time and energy on trying to understand the H2S threat – but it’s a nice test case, because rational, conscious humans would spend at least SOME of their time looking I into threats to their survival.

Does that mean that human society is putting less energy and time into thinking about climate change than about other things? No. It is putting lots of time debating and discussing. The question is how much real thought or consciousness exists as part of that time and effort, at what level of insight and effectiveness.

In truth – I have spent a much greater part of my life focused on two other Great Questions: (1) What is the “law of everything?” – the ultimate laws of physics?;
(2) How does the intelligence of the mind/brain really work, at a functional, mathematical, dynamic level? And in those areas – well, it would be surprising if a biological organism evolved on earth could achieve anywhere near as much focus or attention on those clear scientific  goals as it does to survival. There are lots and lots of people making money, achieving some tangible things, building careers or preening before the mirror in the fields of climate change, basic physics and psychology, but that’s not the same thinking as really focusing strategically on the question.

For (1) and (2), of course, it is discouraging that it might not be possible to achieve true fundamental understanding (let alone complete practical understanding) in one lifetime; however, there are very important milestones on the way which we CAN think about strategically and mathematically. For (1) --- what is the best we can do on a foundation on assuming 3 dimensions of space and one dimension of time, obeying partial differential equations? (That MIGHT actually be the whole truth, because a lot of things can happen in 3+1 dimensions, but  maybe not. It really is too early to tell.) For (2) – can we fully understand and replicate that level of higher intelligence or consciousness which we can see even in the brain of the smallest mammal, “the mouse?” The mouse brain, and the mouse universe – two really important Grand Challenges we should be focusing on, some of the time.

There are times when I wonder: am I the only real asker of these questions on the entire planet?  The only one to focus on these questions for more than a few minutes – enough to come up with a conscious, adaptive strategy for getting all the way to the goal, and to persistently implement it?

When I asked that of myself more consciously this morning… I thought of Penrose and Hawkings in the UK.  THEY have certainly put real energy into trying to get to the “law of everything.” I may not agree with everything they have come up with so far… but certainly they have been really trying and really asking the basic questions, Penrose especially.

And then I wondered: why just two folks in the UK? Why do THEIR names come to mind first? Part of it is because of the old world university system at Cambridge and Oxford, two universities which played a pivotal role in the West rising as high as it has in recent centuries.  It gives full PERMISSION to at least some people to focus on the basic questions, and the local social support which helps them maintain their sanity and connectedness as they do so.  And maybe it helps that folks in Trinity College of Cambridge eat their meals under a big portrait of Francis Bacon, reminding them of what the scientific method is.  In the end, however, two people is not enough, and there are major parts of the strategic field they have not even touched.

So why not the US? Immediately I thought of the Institute for Advanced Studies in Princeton, intended to play a similar role.  Certainly there are bright people there, who have done some good pieces of work, and who enjoy playing with superstrings. But I simply do not see them lately as focusing on the real question here,   in a way which fits the spirit of the scientific method.  Like the Supreme Court of the US, they have been affected a lot by people who believe it is a higher loyalty to pursue a kind of pure reason espoused by certain cognoscenti of Rome. But even more, there has been less emphasis on freedom in the US lately, and more on pseudo-rational management which tries to force all people to focus solely on narrow short-term goals assigned to them by others – by all kinds of powerful incentive systems, which conflict with  the inner self and conscience as demanders of mental resources. I HAVE run across just a few people and there in the US who put real focus into important PARTS of this larger question, and look forward to a meeting of them next month.  Howard Carmichael certainly counts – but he left for New Zealand, because of how the US environment is less and less tolerant of this kind of basic science. Putin says he intends to rebuild Russian science – but is he the kind of person to give full support to very hard asking of basic questions? TBD.

The recent round of brain and neuroscience initiatives in the US  provide an example which is even more extreme, though perhaps this blog is not the right place to get into the details, because they are complicated and because it would not be constructive to name names.  There have been a few very sincere well-focused people “in the game,” but only a basis far more part-time than mine, not really able to master the huge tide of vested interests who can barely conceive of anything beyond their vested interests and daily rituals. Not really asking the questions. Just as I named Penrose and Hawkings… there are folks I would like to say positive things about here, but must limit my words.

All of that flashed through my mind in about five minutes this morning.
And as it did, I remembered some of the things I know about consciousness, summarized at a humanistic level in my 2012 paper in Neural Networks. I have wonder how much input that article had, direct or indirect, into the new popular book on Focus, by Goleman. Those humanistic connections are important --  but it also helps to maintain links to the underlying science which gets a bit deeper. The phenomenon of focused awareness (the key to spatial intelligence) already exists at the level of the fish brain, in our chain of descent.  Am I saying humans haven’t yet caught up to fish? No, that’s not quite so precise. In the 2012 paper, I discuss the challenge of developing a kind of higher-level, reasoning-based, self-conscious control of the focus of the mind. That’s where humans are only half-evolved beings, and need to do a lot of work to really develop the faculty. Some folks call this faculty “the mastery of self,” and engage in all kinds of exercises to help people learn to shift focus and focus intensely and consciously as they choose – and ultimately to be able to pose questions and really focus on answering them.

OK – this is five minutes of thought I have recorded so far.

The next stage was the obvious observation: it’s not as if humans never focus on anything. Big questions about species survival and basic science are an important part of life, which we need to support more effectively, but it is not surprising that little creatures like us focus more of our attention on little things, especially when other little creatures threaten to eat them or starve them if they do not. There are many people who focus a whole lot of intense attention on goals like paying the bills, keeping the job and supporting personal relations. (And yes, I am one of them.) Luda reminds me – hey, not everyone even seems able to focus very effectively even on those bare minima.  True.   (I was tempted to add “keeping the company in business” to the list, but as I look at lobbyists in DC, I am skeptical that they have done much real strategic thinking about that kind of thing in most cases.  Again, I will refrain from bombarding you with excessive data on this matter.)

And then… a curious final thought. If people do focus on smaller personal things…
what about things like afterlife or like personal connection to the larger spiritual part of life?  If enough people focus enough on these things to be really sincere (unless most of the hypocritical poseurs we see so often in certain media, or folks lost in cold “pure reason”), maybe it could help them get out of the box and help with the many level of survival problems we all share.  I guess it’s important for some us to remember how this works.

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