Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Joe Omundson

structures of awareness

It is commonly perceived that each human being is one distinct, complete, intelligent creature. I believe we are much more, and much less, than that.

Have you seen ants at work? A colony of ants is like a singular entity, a swarm intelligence, more so than it is a collection of individuals. The ants perform a range of tasks in perfect harmony to achieve one unified goal. They communicate chemically to maintain their unity and act efficiently. An ant is not capable of very much on its own, yet the interaction of all of them creates a unified system of interacting with the world around them. It is hard for us to believe that an ant colony could literally have singular, centralized perception, an ego, because we see each ant moving separately, as though it were an individual -- making choices, moving on its own power.

Yet how different is an ant colony from each of our own bodies? We are all composed of many trillions of cells. These cells have specialized functions and they live and die individually. They operate on their own without our direct control, yet produce a unified action that constitutes "our action" in the world. Like with ants, the whole entity does not necessarily suffer when individual units die, yet we seek to preserve some core essence of the entity.

If alien life forms visited earth, is it not possible that they would perceive each human being as trillions of united cellular organisms, rather than singular individuals? Like ant colonies that produce a cohesive action through the cooperation of simple units?

So how does our central sense of intelligence arise? Why do we perceive ourselves as "one person" rather than trillions of individuals? How does this collection of connected, signaling, consuming, excreting, birthing, dying, individual cells create our experience of a singular consciousness?

In general, intelligence seems to be made up of complex interactions between smaller units of limited capacity. We might have "one brain", but that brain is simply a conglomeration of many billions of brain cells which are connected to each other with synapses, signalling chemically and electrically (this is my rough understanding, at least). It's the complexity of the connections between those simple substructures that leads to our ability to think, reason, perceive, and intuit.

An ant can only accomplish so much, but coordinated action between many ants changes the world. Bacteria and fungus are simple cellular organisms, yet they interact in huge numbers to find solutions to complex situations, to the point that their adaptive intelligence rivals our ability to keep up with them with our best science. A tree is slow-moving and seemingly inert, yet forests have adapted and survived for millions of years to all kinds of adverse conditions, and they have their own methods of communication. Flocks of birds, schools of fish, hives of bees, are all examples of individual organisms combining into decision-making entities that are greater than the sum of their parts.

I think we are limiting ourselves if we believe that thought can only happen via a network of neurons inside a brain. A neuron is a simple biological machine which receives inputs and gives outputs to other neurons around it. The "thought", the "awareness" that results, is an abstract, intangible concept. Ideas are invisible and mass-less, and they have no location. There's no reason that a collection of independent organisms, connected with sound, light, scent, electricity, or another means of physical communication, cannot also generate this abstract concept of awareness. They are a brain, in another form.

Intelligence and awareness are all around us, even though we do not perceive them as such. All life forms have evolved into what they are now for millions of years, adapting through all kinds of adverse conditions. Just because they do not think and interact using brain cells to process loads of information from moment to moment like we do, does not mean that they do not have their own kind of wisdom, awareness, and intelligence.

Furthermore, how do we know that we as humans are not merely components of a "human brain" that conceives of itself as one individual? Each human is like a very complicated neuron inside a bigger system. When we form communities and work together we are able to accomplish unimaginable feats. We are finding ways to harness that kind of inter-human brainpower, using the internet for example. Perhaps the internet is already self-aware and is the most powerful brain on the planet.

What if all life units on Earth are connected in a way that is incomprehensible to us, yet truly there is a global consciousness which has been growing itself for billions of years, adapting, changing, evolving, setting up new systems within itself, increasing in complexity? A pan-biological brain that first became aware billions of years ago, and has been refining itself in many different ways up to the present day.

And who is to say that intelligence is limited to living systems? These simple biological machines that create the building blocks of life, awareness, and intelligence, are limited to following the laws of physics. At the core of our brain's functionality is chemical potentials, electrical voltages, physical phenomena which are measurable and react in predictable ways. Yet somehow these laws of physics are causing structures to act in such a way that they do not dissipate into chaos as predicted by the famous 2nd law of thermodynamics; they tend toward increasing complexity. There are non-biological systems that do this too. A galaxy uses the laws of gravity to maintain a patterned structure. An atom uses the strong nuclear force and electrical force to maintain its integrity instead of dissipating into a cloud of quarks. Could these systems not also have some form of intelligence arising from the interactions of basic physical machines?

Indeed we are seeing rapid increases in non-biological awareness through our work with computers and artificial intelligence. A transistor is a simple physical machine, but take a few billion of them, arrange them to interact in flexible ways, and... you get the idea.

This is what I mean by the Self Observing Universe. Like everything that surrounds us, our bodies and minds are made of nothing more than protons, neutrons, and electrons. Everything follows the same laws of physics. We are made of universe. We are the universe. And by evolving into the form of our bodies, the universe has found a way to perceive, measure, test, and experience itself. The universe is self-aware, because we are aware, and it is becoming increasingly complex and intelligent.

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