Thursday, May 24, 2007

Consciousness and Humanity’s Place in the Universe

I believe that our consciousness evolved as a filter to limit the data we perceive from our senses. Were there no filter, interpreting the volumes of data produced by our senses would slow our reactions and limit our abilities to respond to opportunities or dangers. Analysis paralysis is one name for the result of too much data. One of the ways our consciousness filters data is by grouping things together in ways we have learned over our lifetimes, and over the lifetime of our species. Our minds identify patterns in relevant data. This process is the essence of consciousness. Certain patterns evoke certain responses almost instantaneously. Such patterns are often decoded by our unconscious mind, and then presented to our conscious mind as the sort of finished analytical product that we can act on. There is a more detailed exploration of this concept in Malcom Gladwell’s book Blink. (2005, Little, Brown and Company) There is a whole additional set of patterns that our developing consciousness is learning to decode. The evolution of the group consciousness of our species has led us to be able to see and interpret ever more complicated patterns.

What follows is a part of a dialog from J. M. Jauch that Douglas R. Hofstadter quoted in his book Godel, Escher, Bach: an Eternal Golden Braid (1999, Basic Books, Inc.)

“Sagredo This is a marvelous idea! It suggests that when we try to understand nature, we should look at the phenomena as if they were messages to be understood. Except that each message appears to be random until we establish a code to read it. The code takes the form of an abstraction, that is, we choose to ignore certain things as irrelevant and we thus partially select the content of the message by a free choice. Those irrelevant signals form the “background noise,” which will limit the accuracy of our message.
But since the code is not absolute there may be several messages in the same raw material of the data, so changing the code will result in a message of equally deep significance in something that was merely noise before, and conversely: In a new code the former message may be devoid of meaning.
Thus a code presupposes a choice among different aspects, each of which has equal claim to reality, if I may use this dubious term.
Some of these aspects may be completely unknown to us not but they may reveal themselves to an observer with a different system of abstractions.
But tell me, Sallviati, how can we then still claim that we discover something out there in the objective real world? Does this not mean that we are merely creating things according to our own images and that reality is only within ourselves?” (Are Quanta Real?: A Galilean Dialog, J. M. Jauch 1990)

The natural world, and the world of numbers, present us with endless quantities of information. Some patterns we see and some we do not. That is important to remember is that the patterns are there, even in the background noise. Dr, Hofstadter uses the weather as an example. There are patterns we see on our scale, hurricanes, high pressure cells and such. These could be just intermediate level patterns that fit together as part of larger, slower patterns that we do not see. The weather we see could be part of a larger, slower pattern occurring over a thousand, or ten thousand years. There also may be intermediate level patterns of other sorts that we have not learned to see. Someone lacking the benefits, or burdens as the case may be, of our intellectual heritage as human beings might immediately see different patterns, particularly in the data we do not consider relevant. The movement of the stars and planets represent another example. Ptolemy had one view, as did Copernicus, then Newton and Einstein. Each new code did a better job of predicting the movements of stars and planets. Each code is also stamped with the image of the humans who discovered it. Just as Einstein built on the advances of others his is likely not the last word on this subject. What would someone who was not constrained by our history conclude. Perhaps the same result, or perhaps not, we do not know, and, in fact cannot know as we are inexorably tied to our own history. Everything is about patterns, those we see and those we do not yet see.

What if we, as individuals, are quantum? Let me explain. My limited understand of Quantum Theory is that on a very small scale, particles movements and locations are somewhat random. They are wavefunctions which state the probabilities that a particular particle will be in a particular place when observed. The wavefunction states that while a particle has a larger percentage chance of being in one location but the particle could, in fact, be anywhere. When the observation occurs the wavefunction collapses and the particle has a specific location. These seeming random potential locations for a particle, the wavefunctions, average out, however, and when all grouped together produce the stable world we know. While one particle in the hood of my 1968 Triumph GT6 might be anywhere in the universe, when you look at all of the particles that comprise the car the equations work out so that the car itself will always be in my driveway. From the point of view of a particle the world is chaotic, and yet when viewed by me from my window my car will dependably remain in my driveway. Now, shift the pattern one step out. If we, as individual humans, are quantum then the data we perceive that does not appear to be part of a pattern could simply be the operation of our own wavefunctions. The seeming randomness of who lives and who dies all averages out. A tsunami can wash away the lives of 250,000 people, one of my university roommates can die in his sleep and a mouse in my front yard might be a snack for our cat and yet from the viewpoint of an observer outside the universe my car is still in the driveway. All the phenomena that we perceive are interpreted by us on our scale, from our viewpoint. As individuals anything might happen to us but as a group the participants in this world, including me and you and my cat, are moving toward whatever our purpose is as a universe. There is a pattern, there is a purpose, we just cannot see it today any more than the particle can see the car. What about tomorrow.

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