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Friday, November 18, 2011

Consciousness - What is It?

One of the most interesting things about science and mathematics is that they are useless without a human (or perhaps in some cases animal) brain to make use of them.  Without a conscious mind there is no need for these things.

But what is "conscious?"

I recall reading "Engine Summer" in my youth.  It created interesting questions in my mind as to "what is consciousness."

This turns out to be a question for which science and mathematics do not have any real answers.

Many believe that your "consciousness" is somehow like a computer program in some way.  Basically "your brain" = "computer."

I personally believe this to be utter nonsense.

For one thing a computer is "deterministic" - which means that given the same inputs it always creates the same outputs.  But out minds "invent" things - arts, mathematics, science, literature, and so on.  If we are "deterministic" then all of human activity is some how already encoded in out DNA.

But even that is probably nonsense - identical twins don't do everything the same - they don't even have identical finger prints and they certainly don't all think in the same way.

Rodger Penrose, an English physicist, offers what I think is the most interesting thoughts in this regard.

His idea that things from the world of quantum mechanics (which is in and of itself very weird) comes into play in out brains and that somehow this allows us to escape determinism (quantum things not being determistic).

And studying our own consciousness has an interesting history (see this).

Though you have to ask yourself if its possible for a human mind to fully understand a human mind.  (A computer can simulate itself - but not as efficiently as the actual computer.)

The human brain (perhaps save for a whale brain which is significantly larger) is the most complex object we humans know of.  (The Russian's believe that a single brain has more interconnections than all the internet gear on earth today - link.)

There are billions of humans.

And all of this begs the question of whether or not one could "construct" a brain - a consciousness - artificially.  (And do humans acting together create something more complex than a brain?)

Personally I do not think that our brains are like computers.  I have spent most of my life working with computers and software and I see little resemblance.  Certainly there is "AI" but I do not see any evidence of anyone creating a real "AI."  There are programs that can reason about certain things - but only the things which humans create for them to reason about (as well as creating the way for them to reason).

Our brains work regardless of the environment.

There is also the issue of perception.

We do not perceive the physical world directly - all of our senses enter our bodies via various organs.  The results of these organs interpreting our senses is what our brains actually perceive.  (For example, the lenses in our eyes project an upside down image on our retina's - yet we see things right-side up.)

So our senses "edit" our perceptions and we cannot directly perceive what's there beyond them - unless we use our brains to develop a machine, say like an X-ray machine, to see what or where we cannot directly perceive.

I think this is one area, like music, that differentiates us from animals.  The ability to create means to augment our own senses and see what's beyond something that blocks them.  (Though animals have a significant amount of ability in the area of consciousness which perhaps we don't see...)

So how do we see into our own minds then?

How do we build a tool to do this?  Certainly there are some tools, like CAT scans that do this to some degree, but not at a level useful for detailed understanding.  (These tools can tell us, for example, which areas of the brain are active when we do such-and-such or see such-and-such, etc.)

Yet at the same time we can imagine what others might have done, or thought, and so on.

But its only a guess.

To me studying consciousness trumps all other fields of study.

For example, mathematics is a human creation.  No evidence of it exists in the animal world or in the physical world.  Our minds created it.  It is useful for simulating in our heads what our sense perceive.

How is this possible?

How can it work?

How can we know its right?

Unless we have a firm grip on consciousness...

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