Monday, October 25, 2021

Awakening: Ramblings on Consciousness and Perspective

I am 67 years old, in the final stages of life, preparing to leave this world. I don't know when I will die, but I know I will die. And this gives me a special opportunity to look back on my life, and ponder...

My wife and I went for a drive yesterday, leaving our Covid cocoon in Hendersonville, taking a left onto Haywood Road, out into the farm countryside of Mills River. We like the back roads, where life is up close, and slow, avoiding the monotonous monoclonal bustle of the Interstate. We pass through Avery Creek, come down along the French Broad River, then left, past the Arboretum, and another left onto the two-lane ribbon of the Blue Ridge Parkway. We're in the woods now, along a narrow corridor of forest, that winds to and through Asheville. There is not a single advertisement, billboard, or distraction, other than the road itself, other travelers, and the occasional glimpses of civilization at overpasses. We are heading north, up into the mountains, riding the rolling hills towards Mt. Mitchell. Our ears pop from the steady climb. After 20 minutes and a few thousand feet, I feel like we are driving forward through time. The trees at higher elevations are a month further into fall. And with nothing but forests, I can imagine we have gone back in time, before Sears Roebuck, into a world where time is measured in the cycle of fall, winter, spring, summer.

Is it any wonder that my mind wanders to introspection?

Sourwoods, oaks, and maples, radiant reds, yellows, and oranges, trees preparing for winter... Do trees think about their existence? Do they contemplate their purpose? Question reality? I don’t know. I don’t think so. But in the span of my lifetime, I’ve been wrong more timesthan I’ve been right. So, if I were a betting man… And yet, it is here, in the woods, away from the bombardment of social media, that my mind settles, soothed by slower rhythms.

What is consciousness? Why is it important? What does it have to do with life? With human life? With my life?

The answer is perspective.

I don’t expect that to make any sense, but I’d be lying to you if I didn’t tell you, right away, that I know the answer, more accurately, an answer. For as I’ve mentioned, I’m wrong more than I’m right…

Perspective, point of view, seeing things from a particular position. Perspective is all I have. It’s the way I experience the world, through my eyes, in my mind. I have no other way of feeding my perceptions, other than with my senses. And even my senses are biased, shaped by memory, my past, which leads me to believe what I see, hear, touch, smell, taste, is the same or different from what I remember.

You see, that last paragraph isn’t true! I do have another way of experiencing the world, not limited by my senses, well, sort of… I can imagine.

Every night I have dreams. During the day I have daydreams. In fact, I can close my eyes right now and imagine my wife’s fresh-ground coffee, with a hot, crispy croissant, creamy goat cheese, and tart plum jam. My imagination has no bounds! I can imagine anything. Except what I can’t imagine…

You see, perception is how I experience the world. It is how I form a map of reality. Memory helps build this map. Observing a reality that repeats means it is more likely to be remembered, expected, anticipated. When I experience something, the weight or strength of the experience improves the likelihood that I will remember that experience, that it will get added to my map of reality. The stronger the memory, the more it shapes my reality and my expectations.

And here is where consciousness comes in.

In my head, there is my brain, where all these experiences, memories, maps of reality live. And in those folds of gray matter, an entire universe is built – from my experiences. It is also built from those experiences genetically passed on to me (I am born with my senses). My universe is even built through my imagination, not real experiences, but experiences none the less.

How do I know this? How do I know how the universe inside my head is built? Because in that very same space between my ears lives another (probably many) other brains, whose existence, whose reality, is based on their senses, their experiences. And their senses are limited to sensing what the other parts of the brain are experiencing. In a way, it’s like the story of the blind folks describing an elephant. In my brain, there are parts of my brain that only sense what is connected to them. These brains do not experience the outside world. The existence of these inside brains, their universe, is based on the inside-my-head world. These brains (I’m sure there are many) are the little voices I hear, telling me things like, “Don’t do that!” or “I wouldn’t believe that!” or “Wait, just wait a second!” My consciousness is very closely connected to my conscience, that inner watchtower.

So, here’s my thought, right or wrong, probably wrong, but in a direction worth pursuing: human brains have inherited the “reptile brain”, and the “mammalian brain”. And we talk about another, relatively unique part of a human brain, the executive brain. It’s like the third “fold” or “layer” of brain, all inside our head. What if part of the executive brain is so far removed from any sensory input that it experiences the world in the only way it can, not by observing the world outside the brain through the senses, but by observing what’s going on inside the brain.

The same way our senses pick up and send information to our brain, this “observer brain” gathers information from the other parts of the brain. The observer brain watches, “senses”, our other brain/s. And, this observer brain is able to communicate what it experiences to other brain/s. We experience the communications from this observer brain as self-awareness and self-consciousness, our very own Jiminy Cricket.

Consciousness comes from a trapped brain, one that has no other contact with the outside world other than the experiences of the inside of a person’s brain.

Now what I find so interesting about this is that once I can conceive of an observer brain, I can also conceive of my whole brain, trapped inside my head, getting only sensory data. Even worse, my brain gathers only sensory data that my senses have experienced. And I become aware of how my whole brain, my entire existence, my lifetime experience, is limited to what happens to me. And this is certainly a small, infinitesimally small, amount of all the experiences in all the world (and universe). Luckily, or inevitably, depending on your beliefs, species have developed a way to experience more than what a single organism can experience in its lifetime. Generations of experience are encoded in the genetic code. This is one way to explain why species have the senses they dothose particular senses were passed on because of their positive contribution to the survival of that species. Our senses, human senses, developed and were passed on because they increased our chances of survival. As an aside, our senses are finely tuned to the reality of survival on earth. We need to remember this as we explore other habitats off this planet. We need to remember that senses developed in other environments might be quite different. We might not be able to experience them, or even recognize them, without significant work to understand them.

So, genetics is one way we have overcome the limitations of individual perceptions and experiences. Humans, and many other species, have come up with another way of passing on experience: through teaching. Teaching, passing on valuable memories, passing on lessons learned, has become the primary source of overcoming the limitations of the individual. Teaching first started as an oral tradition, then became a written tradition. And writing tended to remain stable for long periods of time, we needed to develop ways of paring down what people were writing, especially where writings were contradictory. What emerged was a way of sharing perspectives that satisfied the challenges that inevitably arose with every new generation: the scientific method. Here was a process that many agreed upon as a way to eliminate biases of observation by individuals to come up with some fundamental “truths”. (Note, I put “truths” in parenthesis because these truths might more truthfully be described as “current human truths”. And even though we like to believe that we are discovering “universal” truths, it’s not clear we can do that with great accuracy while our perspective remains on this planet.) In any case, the scientific method allowed a way to prove and pass on knowledge that could never have been experienced or learned by a single individual in their lifetime.

So what does this have to do with being an old man, contemplating his death?

I encourage every human being to explore the limits of their perceptions, the limits of their experiences and knowledge. Come to some understanding and acceptance that you don’t and won’t ever know it all, that without others, your experience will be that of a person locked in a perspective that is narrow and limited, that the perspectives of those that don’t agree with yours are important and necessary to increase your own knowledge, that our chances, the human species’ chances of survival depend on our ability to imagine other perspectives, to find ways to combine and winnow these perspectives into something useful to our survival. A good place to start is understanding the brain, and how it works, why you think what you think. We aren’t born with these thoughts. They are learned. And as such, are subject to interpretation and correction. But that’s okay. The brain is a flexible sponge.1

1For me, a good place to start was my anger and frustration, and becoming defensive. These are feelings generated by my brain to alert me to past experiences. These days, I look forward to getting angry and frustrated. It's an opportunity for me to relearn from experiences I had when I was younger and less experienced. With anger and frustration, my brain is telling me that there is something happening that is similar to a past experience, that my brain wants to protect me from this experience. But looking back on my life, I see that there were very few, if any, situations where my anger served me. Much more likely my anger only made things worse. For over 20 years now, I have used my anger and frustration to trigger a process of self-exploration:
- “Why do I feel angry?”
- “What am I angry about?”
- “What situations in my past have led me to have this reaction?”
- “Did I really understand what was going on at that time in my life in those situations?”
- “Is my reaction justified, or more likely, based on the biased and limited knowledge of youth?”

Sunday, August 08, 2021

Diversity as a survival strategy...

If I improve my understanding of reality by exposing myself to other points of view, then is it my best survival strategy to be around people with different points of view? Is survival optimal when I surround myself with people who have divergent points of view?

Survival versus survivability: the state of surviving versus the process of survival

If survival is what defines evolution, then does evolution lead to the survival of the process of survivability? Is survivability, the ability to survive, the ultimate result of evolution? I often imagine that human beings have evolved the ultimate survival process through the transfer of knowledge from generation to generation using a process we call the scientific method. But perhaps bacteria are the ultimate survival mechanism? What are the limits of evolution through survival? For example, under what circumstances would the human species give up its own survival to promote the survival of another species/process? Is there such a thing as survival of survivability, survival of the process of survival?

What is the DNA of an atom? And did the process of atomic evolution go extinct?

Are molecules and atoms the result of the same survival mechanisms I associate with DNA? Is the structure of an atom its DNA? Is what makes up an atom the result of an evolutionary survival process? If so, what is their equivalent to DNA? Did the survival process produce a result that was so successful at surviving that further evolution ceased? Is the result of the evolutionary process for DNA heading for the same eventual extinction? If I could live forever, what forces might drive me to change?

Is survival in a virtual world important?

In what ways is survival in a virtual world different than survival in the real world? Is survival in a virtual world as valuable as survival in the real world? What's the difference? Under what circumstances might survival in a virtual world be more valuable than survival in the real world? What might be the evolutionary process in a virtual world?

Thursday, April 01, 2021

The fallacy of dichotomy

 True or false, yes or no, right or wrong. It is useful to simplify the world into dichotomies. I am only a human, and making the world simpler helps me to make choices and get by. 

But the world is actually very, very complex - more complex than I am able to understand, no matter how hard I try. So I rely on dichotomies, or other finite categorization schemes, to make my way. 

But I have to remember, the world is actually closer to continuous than discrete, closer to a process than a state. And, if I really think about it, even the most fundamental truths, that I believe are true, only have a probability of being true. There is a chance that anything I beieve to be true is actually false (or indeterminate). 

When I imagine that everything that I know is possibly wrong, it is easier for me to listen to other points of view. And I am more likely to understand my own limitations and misconceptions.

This is the fallacy of dichotomy. This is the value of humility, of being humble. And the cost of pride and righteousness.

Is truth a state or a process?

I look out my window and see a large oak tree. I’d guess it was between 50 and 70 years old. Does this oak tree really exist? How would I know?

Well, the tree seems to be there every day. I leave my window and come back. Yep, the tree is still in the same spot. There is, at least, a certain consistency to my observations over time.

And my wife sees the tree, too. In fact, every person that I’ve asked, sees the tree. So, there is, also, some shared perception (assuming I’m not imagining all the people who have told me they see the tree).

I can also do some experiments. I punch the tree. Yep, my hand hurts. Either the tree really exists, or I’m making it all up, in my mind —  that the tree exists, other people see the tree, my hand hurts. And then there are the birds sitting in the tree. And the squirrels running up and down the trunk. And the fungus growing on the trunk, the leaves shaking in the wind, falling to the ground in the fall, etc., etc., etc.

I could be making all this up, but it seems a bit complicated (and getting more complicated the more I think of all the observations that interact with the tree’s existence). I am reminded of the days when people thought the Earth was at the center of the universe, and am struck by how my belief that “the tree only exists in my mind” becomes a similar argument; my imagination is the creator of the entire universe  —  the universe revolves around me.

Did I just hear the sound of a tree falling in a forest, and there was nobody around to hear it?

Who cares?

Well, I called this article, “Is truth a state or a process?” And if that tree exists, beyond my existence, then that tree exists whether I acknowledge it or not. This would argue that truth is a state, a state of reality, independent of my existence. However, my experience of the tree, interacting with it, observing it over time, communicating with others about the tree, experimenting with the tree, is a process.

Perhaps that which I believe is “true”, is an approximation to THE Truth. The Truth, though a state of the universe, is, for me, always a process. Even if I believe the tree exists, this is only an approximation to the Truth. My understanding of the tree’s existence does not (cannot) include all the meaning and understanding of the universal Truth about the tree’s existence. Another way of thinking of this is that the information content of the tree is interconnected with the information content of the entire universe, which is beyond my comprehension and beyond my capacity to understand. I can, however, get within “epsilon” of the Truth, if I’m willing, and able, to find new ways to test and observe the tree.

For me, it’s good enough that my hand hurts. I’ll accept that the tree exists. And for most of the things I want to do in my life, being within epsilon of the Truth is close enough. More importantly, if I want to get closer to the Truth, I’m going to need to listen to others, do some experiments, and keep my ears, eyes, mind, open. And even more importantly, I will only get closer to the Truth if I am open to information that I did not know. [And so, a corollary: The process of approximating the Truth involves a journey littered with beliefs that were not true. Learning is the process of correcting/changing/overturning previously held beliefs.]

I look out my window, and the tree is still there. The difference is that my hand hurts, and I learned a bit more about the Truth.


Note: My fascination with the process of truth began back in college, where I studied statistics and read de Finetti’s Theory of probability[1]. For more resources on subjective probability, see Fishburn’s survey[2]. 

These days, I search for ways to use the power of computing to automate the search for Truth.

[1] Theory of probability, Volume I, Bruno de Finetti, John Wiley & Sons, New York, 1974.

[2] Fishburn, Peter C. “The Axioms of Subjective Probability.” Statistical Science, vol. 1, no. 3, 1986, pp. 335–345. JSTOR, Accessed 10 Apr. 2021.

Saturday, February 06, 2021

A 3-D Version of the Internet

I'm bored with Google search results. A "title", brief summary, link, date... All text, lists of text, like the billboards along the road... And the order, well, Google decides who gets to be at the front of the line...

There must be a more informative / useful / equitable way...

Let's start with a different way of looking at things, literally...

Why might a picture be worth 1,000 words? What is it about pictures that make them 1,000 times more powerful than words?

1. A picture allows me to set my own order. Where my eyes go depend on my attention to the details of the picture.

2. The information in the picture is diverse, subject to interpretation by the viewer. So two people looking at the same picture are much more likely to have different perspectives of what they "see". This is opposed to the more limited interpretation of what people "read" in words. The interpretation of a sentence is much less subject to interpretation. In fact, when I want to understand someone, I often ask them to "write it down". I learned this from lawyers, too. The clearest form of communication, in general, is the written word. Pictures are less clear.

Thoughts for another time: 

"Time" is how we observe the transition of the universe from one state to another.

What happens when all the matter in the universe is combined into a single point? Is our universe actually a gigantic black hole? Is our universe the result of a gigantic black hole? What happens to the universe as it shrinks into a black hole? As the particles accelerate towards the speed of light? What is the gravitational force of an object as it approaches the speed of light?

 As a statistician, I am always looking for ways to communicate multiple dimensions simultaneously, allowing for the observation of their interaction. If the world is complex, then observing two or more variables simultaneously might give greater insight into the world, as opposed to observing the world along a single dimension.

Thoughts for another time:

Is a simultaneously interactive complex system better approximated as the number of observed dimensions increases? How much better? As the number of dimensions approaches infinity... Is there an optimal number of dimensions? Is there an "epsilon approachability", such that as the number of dimensions increases, the error distribution becomes smaller, beyond some epsilon of acceptability? 

 What are the "dimensions" I would want in a visit to the internet?

1. Some "connectedness" measure based on "where I am" and "where I want to go".

    a. Based on my own interpretation

    b. Based on others interpretation

2. Some "connectedness" measure based on "where others are" and "where others want to go".

3. Some "connectedness" measure based on "who I am" and "who I want to be".

    a. Based on my own interpretation

    b. Based on others interpretation

4. Some "connectedness" measure based on "who others are" and "who others want to be".

Thoughts for another time:

If I can only learn by experiencing other perspectives, then how do I get these other perspectives? Is there a way I can use the internet to generate other people's perspectives? This is similar to looking for the answer to a question using Google search. However, I am talking about "taking what I know and using that to generate diverse (and divergent) perspectives for me to learn from".

So, if I state some belief, the internet would respond with "search results" that helped me see other perspectives. For example, I might type in that "I believe reality is subject to my perspective and experience of reality, and that I can learn what reality is by sharing my experience with someone else, who shares their experience with me." The answer provided by my internet search would be a collection of alternative perspectives on the same subject. (Note: Here I am using a definition of "reality" which is specifically related to that "reality" which I am ABLE to share and experience with another person. This is sometimes referred to as "objective reality". I would prefer a term more like "shared reality", since my definition of "objective reality" includes aspects of reality which human beings may not be able to observe or experience in any form.)

Here is an example of a different way to experience the internet as a virtual reality:

1. Pick a random set of images from the internet

2. Put these pictures into a randomly generated collage

3. Observe the eye movements of the person looking at this collage

4. "Travel" to the next set of images, based on the eye movements

a. Eye movements are assumed to indicate some level of interest by the observer

b. The pictures settled on by eye movements contain the "dimension" along which the observer wishes to travel

c. The next set of images contains higher values along the dimension the observer wishes to travel

5. Iterate steps 2-4, forming a "path" along which the observer visits the internet.

I would explore adding a few "personal" parameters to this search/visit, so that the visit becomes more unique to the visitor, based on their personal parameters. (Warning: personal parameters would give less diversity to the choice of images, and thereby limiting the learning one might gain from alternative perspectives.)

This is similar to a "mind reading / fortune telling" application that I thought of, where an image is shown, I track the eye movements, showing subsequent images, and as a result I learn about the person enough to make some statements that seem "magical" in their connection to the individual.

This is similar to a technique I developed in 1995, which I called "tunnel marketing", where, by giving people specific options and observing their choices, I can infer characteristics of that person. For example, asking the question, "Which of these folks do you know?", and showing era-specific names, I could begin to guess the age of the person visiting my web site. By tailoring the next question to further drill down on the age of the person (this is the "tunnel"), I was able to determine the person's age, sex, etc. and deliver that person to a "tunnel exit" that had information specific to that person's characteristics (such as advertisers willing to pay premiums for specific collections of visitors). This I referred to as "tunnel advertising".

Tuesday, January 12, 2021

Challenges I'd like to work on...

A. How to maintain and get some value from a relationship with the 100,000 people I know.

  1. How to move from 1,000 to 10,000 to 100,000 friends/acquaintances in a useful way without going crazy.
  2. How to add, subtract, interact with 100,000 people in a useful way without going crazy.
  3. How to enhance my trust of 100,000 people in a useful way without going crazy.

B. How to teach my own personal assistant to parse and filter the information I get.

  1. How to make the personal assistant learn "on the go" and "follow my changes" throughout my life.
  2. How to make my personal assistant learn from others I trust (see "A" above) in such a way that I can learn from other people's experience and knowledge.
  3. How to make my personal assistant recognize that I also want to learn something, which means that I don't know what it is that I want to know, but know that I don't know everything, and am open to learning new things.

C. How do I build a ranking system for databases like Google rankings, YouTube videos, Internet Archives files, Amazon products, etc. that reflects who I am and what I care about.

  1. How to build this ranking in such a way that I own the ranking, and can keep it private (or share it) as I see fit, because it belongs to me.
  2. How to build this ranking so that I build trust and give greater weight to subsets of all the folks out there publishing their own rankings.
  3. How to build this ranking, recognizing that I don't know everything, and I might want to learn something.

Monday, January 04, 2021

Why my reality is not my best reality...

I love the movie Matrix. There is something so challenging, exciting, frightening, about a world created in my head. What if the only world I ever knew was fed to me through my senses, so that I thought the world fed to me was the "real" world? What if there was someone, something, that was able to control me by controlling my experience of reality?

The idea of having a world all in my own head is not new. In fact, the belief that the world is nothing more than "the world in my head" has existed long before any thoughts that the world might be something "outside my head". Following the chain of evolution backwards, I quickly encounter life forms for which there is no understanding that there is anything "outside", whose actions and behaviors are based on their own sense of reality.

And here, too, even with very early forms of life, there are the beginnings of communication, the sharing of perception, allowing one life to benefit from the experience of another life.

This is an advantage to survival, using the experience communicated by another, to increase the chances of my own survival.

If the world were just in my head, then what am I to think of the world in your head? Accepting the premise that the world in my head is the only, true world, then how am I to respond to your similar claim, that the world in your head is the only, true world? Of course, I could believe that your statements of the world in your head are only a part of the world in my head. And I could believe that every other person's world in their head was, in fact, a part of my world. But this argument sounds strangely similar to the one that "the earth is the center of the universe". How complicated my world becomes, having all these other people in my world believing that the world is really in their heads. Like the complex equations needed to explain the paths of all planets circling the Earth, any world in my head that claims to be responsible for all those worlds in other people's would become rather complex and cumbersome. I'm not saying that it's not possible, but so unlikely (and costly) as to be a useless way to describe what "reality" is, and at best, much more cumbersome and difficult to pass on, and to increase my chances of survival.

If I accept that my perception of the world is not the only perception of the world, I am admitting that there is something, called "reality", that I may not perceive, but which another might perceive, and be able to communicate to me. This line of reasoning depends on three assumptions: that there is something that I cannot perceive, that the something that I cannot perceive is perceived by someone/something else, and that the someone/something else is able to communicate that perception to me in such a way that the information improves my own perceptions.

[Being a statistician, I would add that there is a probability that I can or cannot perceive something, and that there is a probability that another can perceive something, and there is a probability that the other might communicate their perception to me.]

So how am I to make sense of all this? There are lots of folks out there, each with their own perception of reality. Many of them are trying to communicate with me, convinced, as is expected, that their perception of reality is correct. Who am I to believe? What process might I adopt to help me improve my own perception of reality?

Here, I can use a couple assumptions, that though seemingly trivial, have enormous impact:

  1. What I believe should be invariant to time and space, at least locally. And by locally, I mean time over relatively short spans of time (and by short, I tend to mean hundreds of thousands of years), and space over relatively short distances (and by short, I tend to mean hundreds of thousands of light-years). Actually, this might be better understood from the point of view of "who cares". Who cares about understanding "reality" that is millions of years and millions of miles away? Actually, I do, but only because expanding my experience of "reality" to those extremes helps me understand, and helps me survive, here and now. But for purposes of this assumption, I don't need to go to such extremes to have enormous impact. More impactful might be to ask, "Who does NOT believe that reality remains pretty much the same whether I am here, or take a step and stand over there?"
  2. What I believe should be consistent, at least locally. In other words, things should fit together, add up, make "sense", and more importantly, not be contradictory. Like a detective gathering evidence to rebuild the circumstances of a crime, the evidence that I gather to help me understand "reality" must fit some logic, some overarching belief that it is far more likely that there is only one "reality", and my job is to figure out the one that fits the evidence. This is not to say that multiple "realities" might not exist. Again, the exercise of imagining extremes like multiple realities might give me insights that help me understand the particular reality I am experiencing. Here, again, I ask, "Who does NOT believe that they have to play by the same rules? That they can live in a reality that is not subject to the "laws" of this reality?

Both of these assumptions seem to derive from another, more fundamental belief: survival is important. Will I have a better chance of survival if I don't believe in a shared reality? If my reality is the reality I am going to operate in, then will I have better chance of survival? And beyond, my lifetime, how will my reality survive? How would the message of my "reality" be communicated? How would the message survive? So, I do not have an argument against your reality. It is as valid as mine. But I am committed to finding a way to communicate reality to the next generation, to finding a reality that the next generation is willing to pass on to their children. And if that means that I have to give up some of my perceptions, give up some of my "reality" to become acceptable to the next generation, then so be it. Wanting my "reality" to survive means I have to accept that my "reality" is not the only "reality". But what process, by what means, might I be willing to contribute my "reality" to the scrutiny of others? How will it be "fair"? Satisfying? Worthy of my effort? Communicating my "reality" to others, so that they might have some understanding, so that they might be willing to commit to pass on my "reality", takes significant effort. My commitment to the future, the survival of my perception beyond my own lifetime, must be great, if I am to commit so much effort to the effort.

Hypothesis: People who have a hard time imagining the future will have less incentive to contributing their efforts to build a "reality" worth passing on to the next generation.

Note: To the extent that I have genetic programming which automatically provides me with incentives towards the goal of "survival of my children", working towards the survival of my genetic family is easier than working towards the future of humanity. Historically applied strategy: decrease the survival chances of those not in my family (for example through wars or genocide), or convert all of humanity into my family (for example through religions or philosophies of compassion).

Further discussion:

- The role of the "scientific method" in defining a shared "reality"

- The role of "religion" in defining a shared "non-observable" (faith-based) reality

- The observation and value of "survival"

- How might a message have survived the big bang?

- How can any message survive the time horizons of the universe?