Sunday, March 21, 2010

Taking the Obvious not for Granted

If I should summarize intellectual pursuit in one phrase, I think I would do that with "taking the obvious not for granted". This is because

  1. what we think of as obviously true, need not be true at all.
  2. even if it is indeed true, there could be a deeper "cause" why it is so.
But the process of questioning the obvious will invite anybody to ridicule. This fear of ridicule is what makes most intellectual stalwarts of an age to not question the prevailing dogma. In fact, most people are even blissfully ignorant of the dogma : the fundamental assumptions on which their entire world view is based on. The only people who often end up doing this sort of questioning are philosophers. Scientists think of them as raking up the mud. As famously worded by Dr. Richard Feynmann "Philosophers are people who kick up the sand, and then complain they cannot see". But sometimes raking up the mud will open up unseen pathways in this maze of existence called our universe.

In the rare event that somebody musters up enough courage to ask these questions - neat and straight, in a language that is understandable by scientists and theoreticians, there are always easy and completely non-informative answers. They are on the lines of
  1. It is just so. There is no reason behind it.
  2. It is just a random choice. Nothing curious behind it except that you are interested in it. As far as the universe is concerned, it is just another random jump.
  3. It is so because God ordered it to be so. And we cannot understand the mind of God.
  4. There are some elements in the universe not comprehensible to human mind. We should just be humble enough to accept this and move on.
The basic outcome of all these answers is the same. "End of your question, let's get back to our daily life." It is funny that positions as philosophically apart as theism and atheism, absurdism and ignoramibusism adopt the same defensive mechanisms as far as inconvenient questions are concerned !

I would like to ask my share of annoying questions today. I don't claim to know the answers. I am just annoyed to the hilt with these questions and would like to spread my annoyance around. Please reply using all your defensive mechanisms. May be some of them will work for me. :)

Why is the universe evolving into forms of increasing self-awareness ?

What I said is obviously true. The stupid clouds of dust that the universe started out with are definitely stupider than the beauty of stars and galaxies. Then, we have the curious incident of life popping up out of nowhere on earth, which is a great leap beyond mere chemical existence. Then we have this life evolve into increasingly complex life-forms, proceeding to animals with brain mechanisms to model reality dynamically, and culminating with human beings who can do abstract and symbolic reasoning. The humans themselves didn't sit tight, their culture has evolved on an exponential curve. Over time, we humans have become more and more aware of what it means to be "human" and redefined our rights and responsibilities. We have this burning curiosity to understand more and more about the universe, producing artefacts of a scientific civilization that can only be described as "the universe looking at itself with a mirror, and understanding itself more and more clearly". This is a very very curious thing, why is it happening ?

What is the difference between a human brain and a car ?

Our human brains are supposed to be capable of self-consciousness. A complicated network of neurons somehow decide to breath into life and create an independent agent with goals and desires. We look at the human brain and claim that the frontal lobe is concerned with complicated reasoning, the left-half is concerned with language abilities, the limbic system is concerned with emotions etc.. But what is the guarantee that understanding these systems completely can reproduce human behaviour ? Imagine that we are looking at a car. We would find out that the combustion engine is concerned with converting chemical energy to mechanical energy, the stereo system is concerned with playing music, the steering wheel is concerned with choosing direction for the motion of the car etc.. But that does not mean the driver of the car does not exist. What if there is indeed such a driver for the human brain ? This is a very annoying question for neuroscientists because it conjures up the image of the Homunculus or the Cartesian theatre of duality which postulate a "soul" that sits in the brain and enjoys the show. But what is the guarantee that such a thing doesn't exist ? What can be done to "prove" that such a thing does not exist ?

And if such a thing exists, what is the guarantee that the same thing that is steering my brain is also not steering your brain ?

That will be my next question. What can be done to "prove" conclusively that the disturbance thing in both the brains is different ? If it is indeed the same thing, this gives rise to the conclusion that what I feel inside my head is the same as the entire universe. Then the obvious question to ask would be, "If this thing is so powerful as to operate millions of objects around the universe, why did it not put all these objects into coherence and make them all feel good ?" Why does there have to be diseases, earthquakes, bad food, failures in love and life, obese people, Bollywood films and all that crap ? Why is there not a single and happy universe that just knows what it wants and gets it ?

Why is there existence at all ?

It is the biggest killer question. That which Albert Camus once described as "the question which pounces from a street corner and punches you in the stomach". I don't think my stomach is any stronger than Camus', but I still do have a right to complain about the inconvenience caused by this question.


Patrick said...

So here's my theory.. take it as you will:
Answers to #1 & 4 are similar; as an essential aspect of existence is necessarily evolving toward greater self-awareness, if this is not existence itself.
Answers to #2 & 3 are very little and nothing.
What if the first premise is backward, in that self-awareness is rather a limited awareness, that its evolution is toward a greater separation from awareness of existence. Somewhat vague... Are organizations considered aware? Our bodies are just organizations of cells. Is awareness forethought? If so, a plant has more forethought than me for sure, since it has to factor in all the manners in which to distribute its seed, without moving.
Just my random thoughts.

Ray Lightning said...

Let's just talk about awareness instead of self-awareness, because defining self is a very tricky issue.

We can understand awareness by the amount of information that is processed to arrive at a decision. For the example of the plant you have given, the information concerns water and nutrients, and how to convert it into proteins. This information is accumulated by evolution and passed from generation to generation.

Now consider an animal that has to decide on how to stalk its prey. This is complex decision that requires processing information dynamically, nothing of which has been transmitted from parents. Thus, the necessity of a brain - to process information of a size exponentially larger than the previous step.

Now we humans, even though can be quite stupid in many ways, are capable of abstract thought that is beyond the sensory-motor loops of animal brains. The information we process is at a much higher level. This is what I mean by awareness, of about how much information gets into the system to take decisions. This awareness is undoubtedly increasing in time for the universe. I once heard somebody saying this is just a consequence of the 2nd law of thermodynamics, but I still can't figure out why that should be.

But I really liked the way you framed the relationship : "existence itself might have no meaning without necessarily evolving towards greater self-awareness", That's a thought to ponder on. Thanks for your comment :)