Wednesday, December 31, 2014

An Introduction to a Still Unwritten Book

In the beginning was the void. But it was not empty. Something,someone was there whether from past, future or beyond time and space. It (we?) learned, knew, decreed the rules of quantum plus physics and formed a point of matter and anti-matter. Because neutrinos always have left spin, that point twisted into an extra bit of matter while converting the rest into light. The Higgs field filled space and its pieces danced with light giving some of it mass according to the apparently predetermined values of the 19 elementary parameters of physical reality measured by our Standard Model.

Why that act of creation? From love, necessity, entertainment or simply the need to be? Follow St. Thomas' finger

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Consciousness: An Alternative View

Been suggesting in this space that consciousness may be a primary characteristic of the universe and that there is, in effect, a “ghost in the machine” that observes the universe by collapsing the wave function of quantum reality. The supposition has been that our individual consciousness is but part of a cosmic consciousness that in some sense caused the universe. But there may be another way to look at things.

Stephen Hawkin has suggested that the entire universe might be described as a wave function. That is, one single equation – if we could calculate it – might define the entire universe across time. The math is beyond me but the notion might be seen as raising the question of how the wave function is broken by the conscious observer. One possibility is that a conscious observer is necessary. But at least for some billions of years, there was no conscious observer as we might understand that without resorting to some role for an original cosmic observer. Yet the universe evolved. From the Big Bang through the the differentiation of the primordial energies and matter to the emergence of galaxies and stars. Now without any conscious observers, how could the wave function of the universe have collapsed? To put this into classic terms, if a tree fell in the forest without anyone there to hear it, would it make a sound? For millions of years on earth, life arose and also evolved without any of us to witness it. Yet obviously, things happened and did so according to the laws of science. We live on continents that moved into the place we find them long before we arrived on the scene. Dinosaurs left fossils in the ground that we could later observe. Did none of this exist before we were around to see the results?

Our common sense must tell us that the universe and the world we live in did not depend on our observation to exist. The straight forward answer might be that the individual particles and organizations of energy and matter continually collapsed the wave function through their lawful interactions. Hydrogen crashing into oxygen makes water. Perhaps, then, wave functions collapsed through a kind of “virtual observation.” As wave functions broke down engendering new wave functions, this virtual observer rode the crest as a flame may arise from combustion. In effect, collapse creates the observer. In our case, the brain, with its almost infinite complexity, creates such a convincing virtual observer that our “I” experiences it as real. Consciousness – and our individual sense of self – would then be a kind of illusion riding the continually collapsing wave function arising from the biological mechanism of our brain and its moment-to-moment apprehension of the quantum reality at the base of everything.

This would not seem to me to explain why there is anything and why the universe is lawful. Nor does it fully answer the question of what might be said to have exisited without anyone to see it.  Perhaps all systems of matter and even the earliest forms of life have a kind of striving which is a form of consciousness.  Or a “virtual observer” might simply be the way the universe knows itself and therefore as real as anything else.

Still ruminating....

Monday, August 11, 2014

The Observer in the Machine

To elaborate on the notion that consciousness is a quantum phenomenon, it would be necessary to suggest how the internal observer collapses the wave function presented by perception to produce mind and thought. Assuming that there is an internal observer – a ghost in the machine that operates within the context of the organic network of the brain (our wetware) – what is the quantum description of reality that might work?

One hallmark of human awareness and mind is our ability to anticipate the future as well as recall a past, an elaboration of a basic mammalian ability to track external dangers and opportunities. Our species evolved to dominate the earth as none other had ever done based on this ability to imagine what has not yet happened and ponder over it before deciding how to act to achieve a goal or avoid a problem. The basis for doing this successfully is an ability to call upon memories of our individual and collective past experiences which forms our available body of knowledge. We see patterns in the present, place them within a framework of patterns experienced in the past and project them into the future. We do this within the internal space of our mind.

But how do we know the next thing to think or say? We experience thought as a self-generating process. When we want to speak, it comes forth as a river emerging from a dark cave into the bright sunlight. Our thoughts stream in the same way. Obviously, something is going on behind the scenes of which we are generally unaware. Much of our mental processes remain unconscious. But how exactly does that work? What is going on in that cave, what are those unconscious processes?

The uncollapsed wave function of any quantum system exists without time or particularity. Particles are waves and remain entangled until measured, i.e., observed. Until they are, they exist in a probabilistic manner everywhere they might be. Recent experiments using weak measurement suggest that future observations – things that have not yet happened – can influence the present. Weak measurement somehow seems to tap into quantum reality without collapsing the wave function. It offers a way to get a sense of some values of the wave function without actually forcing the collapse. Making or not a subsequent measurement which does collapse the wave function shows up – statistically – in that previous measurement.

Our internal observer interacts with the quantum wave function continuously presented by the organic processes of our brain within the space of the unconscious mind. The mind apparently holds some 15-20 seconds of time within its active reach including a 2-3 second “moment” that is now. As long as the wave function of mind remains uncollapsed, the observer may weakly measure it, including what we have not yet experienced. Bringing together what has not yet occurred but may be anticipated, current information about internal and external states and information of the past, the observer collapses the wave function – from moment to moment – and that particular thought, expression, or action emerges into consciousness. Our consciousness doesn't actually lurk in the dark lining things up but exists within the collapsing wave function, like a flame above a quantum candle, as both observer and agent.

There may well be a locale within the brain where the link between the material basis of mind and the “ghost” is made. It would have to be a small area, or at least contain spaces tiny enough for quantum systems to exist uncollapsed. But the inputs must span the brain and the neural network itself may well work as a system – or system of systems – operating through a brain-wide quantum entanglement.

Monday, July 14, 2014

Quantum Consciousness

In 1929, Niels Bohr, in what he admitted was perhaps a rush of enthusiasm for the new science, speculated that perhaps the quantum understanding of physical reality might also apply to an understanding of the mind and consciousness. Maybe as analogy but perhaps, he suspected, as something more. In effect, Bohr suggested that any effort to apply thought to perception – of the subject apprehending the object – collapsed a continuous wave function. When we use language to describe something – whether it be internal or external – we were extracting some possibilities out of a number of ways to do so, indeed from a continuously variable flow. Recent investigations (as reported in Science News) into apparently illogical thought – decisions or judgements that flout the basic mathematical logic of if A=X and B=X, then A=B – suggest the possibility that quantum logic in which something can be both particle and wave at the same time may apply. The situations examined violated the “sure thing” rule.

One well-known example involved asking students whether they would buy a ticket for a Hawaii vacation in three different situations: They had passed a big test, they had failed the test, or they didn’t yet know whether they had passed or failed. More than half said they would buy the ticket if they had passed. Even more said they would buy the ticket if they failed. But 30 percent said they wouldn’t buy a ticket until they found out whether they had passed or failed.

It seems odd that people would decide to buy right away if they knew the outcome of the test, no matter what it was, but hesitated when the outcome was unknown. Such behavior violated a statistical maxim known as the “sure thing principle.” Basically, it says that if you prefer X if A is true, and you prefer X if A isn’t true, then you should prefer X whether A is true or not. So it shouldn’t matter whether you know if A is true. That seems logical, but it’s not always how people behave.

The researchers found that context is important and that quantum logic may better explain such behavior. We make decisions within a framework that allows possibilities that are logically the same to interfere with each other as quantum waves might. Uncertainty seems to leave us both particle and wave.

This is deep. But the essential bit seems to be that the conscious observer necessary to turn quantum reality into the classical reality we live in – by observing and thereby collapsing the wave function – also may operate in the same quantum/relativistic manner. If the brain is organically based and operates as a classical system, perhaps the mind – brain/nervous system plus consciousness – acts as a quantum system in which perceived reality is constructed through collapsing the wave functions apprehended from the perceptual flow. (Some of us “collapse” more readily than others: judgers vs perceivers?) Now, whether consciousness itself is a quantum-derived property of the physical brain – perhaps arising at the nano-level – or a “ghost in the machine” would remain a question. But the first possibility – that consciousness arises within and from a physical system that demands consciousness to operate – would seem to violate Gödel's incompleteness theorem.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Familiar Paths

I'm recently back from several months living in the Midwest. I liked it in Des Moines and developed some comfortable routines, including favorite bike rides. But now back home in DC, I've returned to the many paths and byways that I've used for the past 35 years. Being at home feels good for various reasons. It's nice to be back with family and friends. But I get a distinct pleasure from biking or walking along long familiar paths. In certain seasons, I'm drawn to particular greenways. Something about doing this plucks deep neural cords, satisfying an apparently primordial need to keep to the well-worn paths of home. Perhaps it harkens back to the time when we lived in small bands in a particular place where it was vital for survival to know the routes and places where we could find food and water through the changing seasons. Evolution might have favored development of behavior that anchored such knowledge through the release of endorphins when triggered by the right external markers. This might suggest the need for all of us to find ways to allow ourselves to be so anchored along familiar ways that bring us to be somehow in nature.

Just a thought.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

New Letters for the DNA Alphabet

Scientists recently created a life form – using a living bacteria as a starting point – with two extra letters in the DNA alphabet. The DNA of all living creatures on earth is made up of four such letters – the nucleotides A, C, G and T. They pair up – A with T and C with G – to form DNA “words” that direct protein construction and the development and maintenance of every living organism. These scientists added two synthetic nucleotides thus adding two new letters to the genetic code. They note that this opens up the possibility of creating new DNA-based “nanomaterials and proteins with exotic abilities.”

This discovery may be the hidden sleeper of recent scientific developments. When one considers that all of life as we know it – and which we have not even yet discovered all the forms – is built up of long strings of two-letter genetic words, adding a new letter – and why stop there – could open up vast vistas of new products and even new life forms. It may give brand new meaning to “genetically modified.” Cultures that grow rather than construct their technology is a common motif in science fiction. There may be careers out there for those who can write genetic code as we now write computer code.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Why Aren't We Hearing Anyone Else?

Read an article recently on the Great Filter, the notion that we may not come across any evidence of advanced civilizations beyond our own because something eventually rubs them out.  We have been sending out electro-magnetic signals for over a hundred years and have been listening for almost as long.  We have by now discovered almost 1800 exoplanets. An estimated 22% of sun-like stars in our galaxy may have earth-like planets orbiting in their habitable zones.  That would mean 20 billion candidates for life such as ours. Four of such earth-like exoplanets planets have been identified within 50 light years of us, another two within 500 LYs.

There is no reason to assume that life would have to be similar to our carbon-based form or would require conditions similar to ours.  Life on our planet sprung up quickly and the physics and chemistry of our universe seem to favor self-organizing processes.  Life forms could be quite varied and perhaps universal.

Enrico Fermi suggested in 1950 that if any advanced civilization developed the ability to travel beyond its solar system, even at less than light speed, in ten million years it should be able to colonize the whole Milky Way (100,000 LYs in diameter).  So why don't we see them?  Why haven't we even heard anyone else?  The Great Filter suggests various possibilities.

The first would be that advanced life is rare.  The conditions for it to develop are quite special. While life on earth arose quickly, in just 400 million years after earth formed a solid crust, it took another almost two billion years for complex single cells to evolve.  Add another billion years – about 550 million years ago – for multi-cellular creatures.  Most of the history of life on earth is this long prelude to the development of us.  Humans arose only in the last two million years of the earth's 4,500 million years.  Along the way, life went through several mass extinction events.  The last one, 65 million years ago, took out the dinosaurs leaving the ground clear for the development of mammals.  The combination of events and circumstances that led to us may be so rare as to make us one of the very few – or only – lucky ones.

But with some probable 20 billion earth-like exoplanets and some 100 billion likely planets in all, chances are that however rare, odds would favor the development of a considerable number of advanced life forms in our galaxy.  Some might have arose millions of years ago.  Any signals they sent would have had plenty of time to reach us.  Any earth-like planet with advanced life within 500 LYs would presumably have been heard by now.  So far, the SETI project has found none.

Perhaps our listening capabilities are still not sensitive enough to pick up any signals.  But clearly we are now able to tease out the existence of exoplanets themselves out some two thousand light years.

Maybe cosmic natural disasters – nearby super-novas, meteor strikes, etc – occur frequently enough to set back life and knock out civilizations before they can get very far?  But we've gone 65 million years without one and there is no reason to expect any such for at least the next few hundred years.

Maybe someone is out there, able to hide themselves and/or tracking down and destroying any potential competitors before they get too far?  This is a common science fiction trope.   But it assumes that advanced civilizations would either be very modest – and thus hide themselves, perhaps quietly visiting and making crop circles or waiting for us to rise to the level where we could join their Federation – or especially vicious and aggressive.  Based upon the only advanced civilization we know of – ourselves – one could not rule out the second possibility.

Finally, there is the possibility that there is something about advanced technologies that operates to cut short the civilization that develops them: industrial civilization leading to run-away climate change; biotechnology leading to – or failing to keep up with – disruptions in the present web of life; failure of critical management systems to handle increasingly complex and changing political, social, economic and ecological dynamics.

Bottom line, so far we have no evidence that we have company anywhere out there. We may be special. Question is, are we doomed to be filtered out and will we have ourselves to blame?

Monday, March 10, 2014

Life as Striving Towards Self-awareness

The remake of Cosmos began airing last night. Featured a presentation of the time since the Big Bang scaled as a year-long calendar starting January 1 at 13.8 billion years ago (bya) and ending in the last few seconds of December 31 corresponding to the entire time of human recorded history. Been thinking about this immensity of time focusing on recent news of the earliest piece found of the earth’s crust and of the earliest signs of life.

The earth was formed some 4.5 bya. The moon was formed in a colossal collision between earth and a Mars-sized planet some 4.45 bya. That oldest piece of crust – a zircon – has been dated to 4.4 bya. It took some 50 million years after the collision for the earth to cool down enough to have a solid surface. But the earth was still in for further impacts during the Late Heavy Bombardment that lasted until around 3.9 bya. The first signs of life – monocellular bacteria and archaea – appear around 3.5 bya. But it takes almost another two billion years for complex single cell life – the first eukaryotes, cells with nuclei and DNA – to appear. Sexual reproduction follows at about 1.2 bya and the first multicellular life at 1.0 bya. The first fossils of multicellular animals date to around 550 million years ago (mya), fish to 500 mya, land plants to 475 mya, insects to 400 mya, reptiles to 300 mya, mammals to 200 mya and primates to 60 million. Humans are some 2 million years old.

Life was quick to emerge once the earth had a solid surface. It took only 400 million years for inert chemicals interacting somewhere on that surface to become life. To us, that is a long time. But given the leap from non-living to living, maybe not so much. During those 400 million years, the laws of physics and chemistry plus the raw conditions of earth and water somehow gradually led to small clumps of matter coming and staying together and reproducing themselves. The first such clumps that successfully kept out the environment, organized themselves internally and made copies of themselves may have been something like viruses. At what point they crossed from non-living examples of complex chemistry to living things is unknown. But it took another two billion years for those clumps to become the most simple form of single cell life we know and then another billion years years or so to become the simplest form of multicellular life.

Four hundred million years for life to get started, two thousand million to reach the level of bacteria, another one thousand million to reach jellyfish and then fish in 50 million years, plants on land in 25 million, 75 million more for land animals (insects). Some 170 million after the first land animals takes us to dinosaurs and then — clearing the board — their extinction 65 mya. In a blink of an eye, at 60 mya, the first primates appear and then in the past 200,000 years homo sapiens.

Life started quickly but took a long time to build the tool box for evolution by sexual reproduction. It then took off leading to complex life within a comparatively short time and exploded in the last 500 million years. What about the universe might account for the easy start to life, the steady progress of evolution and the relatively fast emergence of higher forms of life and ultimately human awareness?

With the confirmation of the Higgs field, it now seems that the universe beginning with the Big Bang had its properties imprinted from the start. The laws and constants of physics and chemistry seem to conspire to produce the material universe of which we find ourselves part. Atoms emerge from a primordial soup of particles, combine in stellar processes to form elements and eventually become planets. Stars themselves combine the simplest elements in such a way as to provide copious amounts of free energy. The Kepler program has confirmed that planets are common and most stars have them. Put together a planet like the early earth – and there probably are millions of them in our galaxy alone – and wait 400 million years or so and life may emerge. Given a degree of long term stability, it may become self-aware.

I've speculated here that consciousness is itself a property of the universe and may well be prior to it. But how might it be connected to life? What is “life” and how did it emerge from chemistry and physics? Suppose that consciousness pervades matter and the universe and drives – through the laws of physics – increasing levels of complexity beginning with atoms toward sufficiently elaborated organizations of matter to enable mind and thereby self-awareness. Life becomes a form of striving, a movement of consciousness toward a clumping of matter sufficiently complex to provide it with the biological substrate for perception and thought. Life is the process of individual striving within and against its environment. At various levels, we call this process physics, chemistry or biology. Within biology, it manifests as evolution. But it might be seen as “God thinking.” Hegel anyone?

Monday, February 24, 2014

Light Music

Been reading Light Music, a 2002 sci-fi novel by Kathleen Goonan. Like most good science fiction, it takes some central bit of science or technology and extrapolates it. Light Music contemplates a juxtaposition between string theory and consciousness. Now string theory has taken some hits recently as analysis of the Higgs field seems to rule out the simpler, more elegant, versions of supersymetry. But Goonan paints a picture of consciousness, residing somewhere in the extra tiny dimensions postulated by supersymetry, as a kind of energy acting on the universe through matter as a kind of string vibration, a kind of music, as photons of light are vibrations of electro-magnetism. Thus Light Music. Very interesting speculations.

In this space, I've suggested that consciousness is primordial, that it does not rise from matter, or any particular organization of matter, but may indeed be prior. That consciousness – our individual experience of it – may be bound up with light, which is its “speed.” So picture consciousness as vibrations in (of?) spaces too small for us to observe – at or even smaller than the Planck length – intersecting the fields and particles of matter and energy we can measure and manifesting as observation. Yes, a “ghost” in the machine, taking the form of mind when the organic substrate is complex enough to give rise to such. Collapsing the wave function and exercising choice, self-generating music out of our individual being, a lifetime symphony.

Just another rumination.