Tuesday, 21 January 2014

What is the meaning of life?

The meaninglessness of life bestows us equally with personal freedom and the directionlessness that ultimately causes many to look for life's meaning. As if life might have a meaning above other concepts. What is the meaning of numbers? Animals? Our species' linguistic solitude? Beauty lies in this meaninglessness, for our personal freedom affords us the choice of our own purpose.

Wednesday, 26 September 2012

The Importance of Pursuing Novelty

"The most important thing is not to work on things that other people are working on, because otherwise all you'll do is get the same result as everybody else, and you won't make any discoveries, you'll just confirm what's already known."

- Professor David Jewitt, University of California, Los Angeles talking in "Horizon - Asteroids: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly"

Tuesday, 24 January 2012

Why is Pain Painful For All of Us?

It seems stupendously meaningful that pain is painful for all of us.

Drifting back to an old point, there is [currently] no known way to determine whether the colours that I see are the same as the colours you see. When you and I look at an object that I think is red, do you see the same red? While this is an interesting question to play around with, I see little significance in whether we really do see the same colours. Indeed, the answer appears to be that the consistency between our visual experience is high, though it is shaped by many factors.

But what of emotion? When tennis doubles partners win a game together, is the happiness they feel the same happiness? Perhaps the happiness I feel is the same as the pain you feel and we respond in different ways.

Yet it seems strange that we should all have the same set of emotions and could feel differently from each other for any particular emotion. Moreover, in nature we tend to find that no matter where you are, given the same building blocks and environmental factors, the same result pops out. Would not a difference in emotional feeling be a difference in nature's solution, despite a utilisation of the same building blocks?

Of course it's undeniable that no two people put in the same situation will be emotionally affected in precicely the same way. It is also the case that no two people's brains will be structured identically on at least the neuronal level. Nor will the uptake of this chemical or that neurotransmitter be the same. This diversity leads to the complexity we see in human and animal behaviour as well as some of our own experience. But this is not what I am talking about.

I believe that if two people are equally happy, they must feel exceedingly similar. In reality, our emotions are not compartmentalised; stating that "I am happy" does not mean that I am experiencing only happiness. The dominant feeling of happiness that I am experiencing and paying attention to will be fringed with other emotions. This is comparable with the way we see: while we regularly engross in a single point of visual focus, throughout this time which we maintain a mild awareness of our fuzzy surroundings. Our experience consists of a range of seemingly continuous and very much intermingled emotion.

There must be an important point hidden somewhere in all this mess of thought - an idea that may shed some light upon the nature of consciousness.

What I draw from this is that there is something in the nature of emotional events that must have fundamentally, universally associated feelings. Or that feelings emerge as the result of some other fundamental process. I believe that if, hypothetically, you instantly switched some neurons involved in one person's sadness with the neurons of another's happiness, the individuals would experience no difference. (Ignoring the numerous flaws here and considering this conceptually.) It seems to me that experience is not coded in neuronal spiking or some such higher level process, though it may be more basic. It seems to me that conscious experience has something to do with information.

This post has been rather unclear and messy-minded. I hope to improve on it! An afterthought: do you think that it is possible to have a different set of feelings from those of our own?

Thursday, 22 December 2011

The Other Problem with a Theory of Everything

Is semantics. In this context, what is meant by "everything"?

This theory of everything would be a theory that allowed the precise prediction of any result of any experiment (in principle or in practice) in known physics. Without proving that everything in known physics is all the physics there is, there is no justification for calling it a theory of everything. This would be a theory of everything we have discovered thus far. However, as physics has nothing to say about consciousness, we can clearly see that this isn't even a theory of everything discovered so far (despite how little we may know about consciousness).

Whether you think this distinction is important or not is another matter. Being a pedant, I think it is.

Tuesday, 20 December 2011

The Problem with a Theory of Everything

There is a quest in physics to produce a theory of everything, a theory that unifies quantum mechanics and general relativity. Put another way, this is a search for a theory that unifies quantum and classical physics. It is possible that there is a flaw in the current approach taken by those endeavouring to find this theory.

I've got it into my head that it would be beautiful and devilishly simple if the quantum world produced the classical world through a process of emergence. This may seem to be almost inconsequentially obvious, but let us take this thought a little further.

The state, at some given point in the future, of a system produced through emergent behaviour can be exceedingly hard to predict. With enough components some systems simply become impossible to predict. Often the only way to obtain the state at the required point in time is to compute each step of the system until the desired point in time is reached.

So let's assume that it is true that quantum behaviour produces classical behaviour through a process of emergence. Given that this system is exceedingly complex, it may be impossible to predict the state of a classical system when provided complete information about the quantum start state. It's worse than this though, we know from Heisenberg's uncertainty principle that we cannot have complete information about the state of a quantum system. Without complete knowledge of the start state, it must therefore surely be impossible to predict any future state with 100% accuracy. Let us assume that it is indeed impossible. This implies that it would also be impossible to take the stochastic principles of quantum mechanics to form a coherent theory that can provide us with the classical determinism that is emerges from the quantum level. In other words, it would be impossible to unify quantum physics with classical physics to produce a theory of everything.

It seems to me that if our two assumptions really do hold true, a theory of everything really is impossible. Indeed we find that despite the attempts of many great minds, such a theory has not yet emerged. The problem could be sheer difficulty, but perhaps the problem with a theory of everything is that there isn't one.

Friday, 24 December 2010

Understanding the Cortex

If you want to understand the mammalian neocortex, and hence, seemingly, the back-end to most conscious human experience, I believe there are three fundamental areas one must first get to grips with. These are prediction, attention, and the generation and propagation of thought. I won't go into much detail, as I am not entirely clear yet myself.

Prediction is already known to be a fundamental, if not the primary (see Hawkins), function of the neocortex. Having an expectancy of what is to come is essential for learning and for bringing one's attention to important features of the world. Our attention is caught by things new, unexpected, or significantly different from their spatial or temporal surroundings. I get the feeling that these are all essentially the same: simply things that are not accurately predicted in the brain.

I feel that attention, that is the limitation of one's self to focus only on one thing at a time, must be important and must, like prediction, have a physical basis in the structure of the cortex. I believe that attention must be a fundamental function of the cortex. Despite the brain's parallelism, it appears to be almost a necessity that we solve problems by actively thinking about them, which necessarily entails paying attention solely to a specific thought. However, we must not forget that some answers do just spring to mind, so attention is not necessarily required for a solution. But it certainly plays a large role. Consider the following as an example that leads me to believe that attention must have a structural basis. Somehow, despite sound and vision being processed in completely different areas of the cortex, I still cannot pay attention to both simultaneously. Indeed, my attention is automatically drawn away from what I am looking at if I hear an alarming sound.

Thirdly, while we know a lot about how input from our senses is processed, we do not seem to have much of an idea how thoughts originate (if they do) or how they propagate through the cortex. This is very relevant to attention, as we actively think about what we are attending to. I find the reflexivity of thought bares an interesting light on this. The structure of the cortex is similar all over and, as first noted by Vernon Mountcastle in the 1950s, the way in which it works appears to be almost exactly the same throughout. The fact that I can reflect upon any particular thought, that I am aware that I am aware of any particular thought, regardless of what it is (visual, linguistic, auditory etc.) appears to me to be reflected by this repeating cortical structure.

I and others will continue to ponder these issues long into the future. It will be interesting to see whether these three areas do indeed prove to be fundamental, as I expect.

Sunday, 12 December 2010

Smelly Memories

It is often said that a smell can bring back a vibrant memory. Indeed, it has been singled out as different from your other senses as different, perhaps more sensitive, in this regard. There appear to be good biological grounds for this statement too, for the brain's olfactory system has close anatomical links with long-term and emotional memory. Yet I dispute this difference. I think that your other senses are just the same in this respect, or at least far more similar than we realise.

Often, I have exactly the same experience with my sense of hearing. This occurs, for example, when I listen to music that I haven't heard for a long time, or that I spent a long time listening to while engaging in a particular activity. When listening again, I suddenly get a vibrant memory of whatever I happened to be doing the last time I listened to the track, album or artist several times over. It is not only smells and sounds that bring back such memories, but every sense.

Furthermore, the majority of smells I experience don't remind me of anything at all, let alone bring back vibrant memories. Of course, I usually forget these - they're just everyday experiences of no significance.

Baring these things in mind, it seems more likely that uncommon experiences with emotional significance or that occurred a lot in a relatively short period, rather than simply your sense of smell, invoke these strong memories. The fact that many smells are uncommon means that your sense of smell brings back more vibrant memories than your others senses. There may be an element of increased sensitivity due to a physical connection with memory in the brain, but I am sure it is not entirely responsible.