Gorilla Thinking

We don’t understand consciousness, but we want to keep it all to ourselves.  That’s the human way.  Or at least the biblically defined human way.  Animals, however, delight in defying our expectations because they too share in consciousness.  Take gorillas, for example.  Or maybe start with cats and work our way up to gorillas.  We all know that cats “meow.”  Many of us don’t realize that this sound is generally reserved for getting human attention.  Cats tend not to meow to get each others’ attention.  According to Science Alert, gorillas in captivity have come up with a unique vocalization to get zookeepers’ attention.  Not exactly a word, more like a sneeze-cough, this sound is used by gorillas at multiple zoos for getting human attention.  Even if the gorillas have never met in person.

Photo by Joshua J. Cotten on Unsplash

This is a pretty remarkable demonstration of consciousness.  What’s more, it’s an example of shared consciousness.  The same vocalization shared over hundreds of miles without a chance to tell each other about it.  We’re very protective of consciousness.  As a species we like to think that consciousness is uniquely human and that it’s limited to our brains.  Moments of shared consciousness we chalk up to coincidence or laugh off as “ESP.”  Funny things happen, however, when you start to keep track of how often such things occur.  It might make more sense to attribute this to moments of shared consciousness.  In our materialist paradigm, however, that’s not possible so we just shake our heads and claim it’s “one of those things.”

Animals share in consciousness.  We don’t always know what their experience of it is—indeed, we have no way to test it—but it’s clear they think.  I live in a town, so my experience of observing wild animals is limited to birds, squirrels, and rabbits, for the most part.  I often see deer while jogging, and the occasional fox or coyote, but not long enough to watch them interact much.  But interact they do.  Constantly.  These are not automatons going through the motions—they are thinking creatures who have sophisticated ways of communicating with each other.  Ours includes vocalization, so far uniquely so in the form of spoken language.  The great apes—chimpanzees and orangutans, according to Tessa Koumoundouros—also vocalize and do so with humans.  Now we know that gorillas do too.  And we all know that a barking dog is trying to tell us something.  If we took consciousness seriously, and were willing to share it a bit more, we might learn a thing or two.


A Little Fuzzy

Animals don’t obey the law.  As I observed just a few days ago on this blog, they don’t recognize indoors or outdoors.  And they certainly don’t respect private property.  Conflicts are sure to arise.  Mary Roach turns her impressive writing skills to address this, and related issues in Fuzz: When Nature Breaks the Law.  I’ve read an academic book on this subject as well, and I have to say that one wasn’t as much fun.  Roach has a way of bringing the humor out of even potentially trying subjects such as how do we scare carrion birds away from human corpses?  How do we eliminate pests that we’ve accidentally introduced?  (Think of rabbits in Oceania.)  How do we stop birds from getting sucked into jet engines?

Although the book handles these with a light touch, as with most of Roach’s work, it also raises some serious issues.  Solutions to introduced species can involve poisoning that also kills native species it’s designed to protect.  Genetic engineering may have (likely will have) unforeseen effects.  What is a dominating species to do?  We have laws about ownership, after all, and we expect them to be obeyed.  Squirrels, for example, won’t care that you just had to have a sink replaced at great expense.  They’ll gnaw their way in anyway, creating a new crisis right on top of the old one.  Deer cross highways, their brains not yet evolved enough to interpret what a car is—they’ve only been around for just over a century.  (The cars, not the deer.)  They sometimes cross runways too.  (The deer.)  We like animals well enough in the wild— in fact we long to see them.  When they get into our space, however, our rules don’t apply.

As long ago as the Bible, and perhaps before, the question arose of punishing animals.  If your ox gores someone what should you do with it?  I’m not sure Homo sapiens are the best species to be making such decisions.  We’ve shown colossal poor judgment (think of Trump and try to disagree).  We’re actively destroying our own environment, the terrestrial equivalent of defecating in our own fishbowl.  What gives us the right to punish other creatures who are more in tune with what nature tells them to do?  Perhaps the biggest takeaway from all of this is that we may try to make the rules, but the rest of the planet responds to what we might call a higher power.  I’m glad that writers like Mary Roach can show the fun side of it all.


Thinking about Thinking

I’ve been thinking about thinking quite a bit.  My lifelong fascination with religion is part of this, of course.  So when someone pointed out Bridget Alex’s article “The Human Brain Evolved to Believe in Gods” in Discover, I had to ponder it.  The idea, here supported by science, is that people evolved survival traits that lent themselves to religious belief.  That religious thinking was a byproduct that eventually took on a life of its own.  Evolution works by giving a reproductive advantage to one trait over another—which is how we get so many types of dogs (and maybe gods)—and those that disposed people to be religious did just that.  Elaborate religions evolved from these basic traits.  Alex suggest there are three: seeing patterns, inferring intention, and learning by imitation.

While there’s a lot of sense here, the reductionism doesn’t ring true.  The need to explain away religion also seems uniquely human.  Ironically, the idea that we are somehow special compared to other animals derives from a biblical worldview from which science has difficulty divorcing itself.  One of the greatest ironies of the science versus religion debate is that scientific thinking (in the west) developed within a worldview formed by Christianity.  Many of the implications of that development linger, such as the supposition that animals can’t have consciousness, or “souls.”  We watch a chimpanzee in an experiment and deduct points when they don’t do things the way a human would.  We thus confirm the biblical view in the name of science and go home happy.

Photo credit: Afrika Expeditionary Force, via Wikimedia Commons

I have no doubt that people evolved to be religious.  There are certainly survival benefits to it, not least group building and shared purpose.  I do wonder that science doesn’t address the elephant in the room—that we have limited receptors for perceiving specific stimuli, such as light and sound, but that there are other phenomena we don’t perceive.  We build instruments to measure things like x-rays and neutrinos and magnetism, but we don’t sense them directly.  How can we possibly know what we might be missing?  I suspect the real problem is we don’t want to admit willfulness into any other part of the universe.  Humans alone possess it.  Some scientists even argue that our own sense of will is an illusion.  It’s not difficult to believe that we evolved to be religious.  It’s also not difficult to believe that we pick up hints of forces that have yet to be named.  An open mind, it seems, might lead to great rewards.


Pennsylvania Dreaming

“I finally understand what I’ve come here to learn,” I said.  I was incredibly happy.  I recall the sun was shining, making its way up from my feet to my legs in a symbolic way, soon to reach my head.  I was on the cusp of an epiphany.  That’s when I woke up, needing to head to the bathroom.  Of course, after that it’s difficult to fall back asleep.  I knew that even if I did it would be to a different dream and I wouldn’t learn what it was that I’d come here for.  So it is with the great experiment of consciousness.  Either we’re continuously learning or we’ve already died.  Nobody has all of the answers.  Consciousness may be the true final frontier.  There is no scientific explanation for what it is that is universally accepted.  We all, however, know what it is though daily experience.

Dreams are considered part of our subconscious.  While we sleep we’re said to be not conscious, although we all know that at times we are.  Sleep can be somewhere between.  And we don’t even know what consciousness is.  The study of dreams is still valued in psychoanalysis—it is a form of thinking too—but in our materialist, capitalist society we tend to dismiss dreams.  They generally don’t bring in money.  In ignoring them we move further from understanding consciousness.  Enlightenment, while not a scientific category, still seems possible, even should it come in dreams.  If only we could stay asleep long enough to see it through.

I have a friend who also thinks too much.  He sometimes wonders if this constant focus on what the “they” want isn’t a plan to keep us too busy to think things through.  I often think that the monastics had it mostly right.  At least the part about taking time to contemplate.  When you encounter an idea that feels like a key and you know the door that it opens will be profound, it always seems that work comes to interrupt right at that point.  The job where you can wrestle with ultimate reality and not worry about not producing “product” for which you’re paid, is rare indeed.  That’s why waking from this particular dream was so difficult.  I had a semester break while teaching where I read three books that changed my outlook forever.  It was possible because I had a few weeks before I had to be back in the classroom.  Since then the dream, I guess, has been to return to where you’re paid to learn, for the betterment of all.


Squirrel Wisdom

In a dangerous world prey animals have evolved to over-multiply.  That’s clear from watching the gray squirrels from my office window.  There’s a stand of maybe a dozen pine trees across the street, and some days it’s like the bark itself is crawling, there are so many squirrels chasing each other.  Especially when mating season begins.  Of course, squirrels get into everything.  We have a problem with them in our improperly sealed garage.  They have a biological need to gnaw and really animals don’t share the human concept of indoors versus outdoors.  They don’t understand that we want them outside, not in.  This leads to my love-hate relationship with squirrels.  I’m usually on the side of the prey, but they can be a real nuisance.  Still, they’re cute and furry and they take their chances going, well, outside.

So the other day there was a kind of love fest, a Woodstock of squirrels, if you will, in those pine trees.  The sun was out and the hormones must’ve been raging like a high school Friday.  A few minutes later I glanced outside and couldn’t see a single one.  A blur of wings caught my eye as a red-tailed hawk landed on a branch.  All the squirrel play had ceased.  Where there had been dozens just moments ago, not a single individual could now be seen.  The hawk seemed in no hurry, lazily flapping from branch to branch, swiveling its head around, watching.  It might not’ve been in a squirrel mood that day, or the prey might’ve been too well hidden.  Or maybe they knew if you play the game right, predators will just go away.

The squirrels’ conflicting urges both had to do with survival.  In a way from which we could learn, they seem aware that the group outweighs the individual.  Something about their level of consciousness gives them a deep wisdom.  We tend to call flighty individuals among our own species squirrelly, or we can say that we’re feeling squirrelly about something.  Rodents, however, are smart.  In fact, they understand some things better than humans do.  After all, there are so many of them because our species has killed off most of their predators, just as we’ve done for deer.  There’s a reason there’s so much road kill.  Watching the abundance of squirrels it becomes clear that they’re in tune with the ways of nature.  They have to chew or their teeth will grow too long.  And they definitively don’t know the differences between outdoors and in.  Still, they deserve our respect, even if they’re occasional nuisances.


Phobia Therapy

I don’t like being scared.  That’s why I watch horror.  You see, many people deal with fear by running away from it.  Embracing artificial fears, however, prepares you for the horrors life will inevitably throw at you.  We humans have created an artificial environment for ourselves with many natural dangers removed.  For example (and there are always exceptions) we’ve been able to seal ourselves up in our homes and wear masks in public to avoid a killing virus.  For the most part we’ve destroyed our large predators.  As a society we tend to avoid the things that make us afraid which, in turn, makes us fragile when we have to face truly frightening situations.  I wouldn’t suggest becoming a fear junkie, but experiencing scary scenarios can diminish the overall  fear factor.

People often make assumptions about those of us who watch horror, even though it is the majority of Americans.  We’re seen as creepy people who lurk in dark places, unable to get along with our fellow human beings.  Perhaps it’s true, or perhaps it’s a reasonable coping technique.  I tend to think of it as a spiritual practice.  Spirituality is often about feeling, but it’s not completely divorced from rationality.  Often it has to do with that gut feeling that this is really real.  This is something that my years on this weary old globe have taught me is true.  Many times it’s this way in the face of evidence.  Others have trouble believing it, although some bearded guy alone on a mountain top says it’s true.  So life goes.

Spirituality is important.  I have many humanist friends and they are often uncomfortable thinking about spirituality.  It seems dangerous, a superstition that somehow survived enlightenment.  Enlightenment, however, is itself a spiritual idea.  There’s something inside of us that makes us who we are.  Whether it’s something physical or something else, it requires nourishing in order that we might thrive.  We expend a lot of energy arguing about the right (only right) way to do it.  The way to be a more spiritual person.  To me it seems that it’s about discovering what replenishes us.  What makes us into better people.  You find that and you feed it.  Spirituality comes in many forms and shapes.  Some of us have it fed by what others dismiss as mere horror.  There’s more to it than meets the eye, however.  I watch it to learn not to be afraid.


Thinking Big

Depending on who you are the Bigelow Institute for Consciousness Studies (BICS) may set your eyeballs to rolling.  You might know that extremely wealthy Robert T. Bigelow made his fortune as a hotelier and then began investing his money in aerospace technology.  He publicly admits to believing that aliens are already among us, and has contributed to advances in space travel components.  (It seems that many of the uber-wealthy are looking for a way off this planet at the moment.)  Not an academic, Bigelow is keen to admit his interest in what is often laughingly labeled the “paranormal.”  If you’ve got money you really don’t need to worry about what other people say.  I recently ran across an announcement regarding the winners of a BICS essay contest regarding the survival of consciousness after death.

As I’ve noted before on this blog, the paranormal and religion are close kin.  Nevertheless it does me good to see that so many people with doctorates (both medical and of philosophy) entered the contest.  I’m glad to see not everyone is buying the materialist narrative.  We’ve been so misguided by Occam’s razor that we can’t see reality is more complex than they teach us in school.  Churches may not be doing it for us any more, but it does seem that “there’s something out there.”  With a top prize of a half-a-million dollars, there was certainly a lot of interest in this enterprise.  If you go to the website you can download the winning papers.

Consciousness remains one of the great unexplaineds of science.  Answers such as “it’s a by-product of electro-chemical activity in the brain” don’t mesh with our actual experience of it.  Indeed, we deny consciousness to animals because our scientific establishment grew out of a biblically based worldview.  Even a century-and-a-half of knowing that we evolved hasn’t displaced the Bible’s idea that we are somehow special.  Looking out my window at birds it’s pretty clear that they’re thinking, solving problems.  Dogs clearly know when they’re pretending, as in a tug-of-war with its weak owner.  We don’t like to share, however.  Being in the midst of my own book project I really haven’t had time to read the essays yet.  I do hope they come out in book form, even though they’re now available for free.  I still seem to be able to carve out time for a book, which is something I consciously do.  I’m not convinced by the materialist creed, although I’ve been tempted by it now and again.  I like to think that if I had money I’d spend it trying to sort out the bigger issues of life, no matter what people call them.


Thinking Plants

Consider your sources.  As an erstwhile professor I grew accustomed to repeating that, and this was before the internet started up, making claims of all kinds.  Certain news sources—think New York Times, or the BBC—earn their reputations slowly, over many, many years.  That doesn’t mean they don’t make mistakes, but it does mean they’re often on the mark.  So an article on plant consciousness on the BBC is worth considering.  Consciousness is still something we don’t understand.  We have it, but we can’t always say what it is.  Many, if not most, people tend to limit it to humans, but it’s become very clear than animals share in it too.  Why not plants also?  A few years back I read a book by philosopher Thomas Nagel.  He made the argument that human consciousness must come from somewhere, and as we look down toward animals, and plants, what we see are smaller pieces of the same thing.

I’m not stating this as eloquently as Nagel did, but the idea has stayed with me.  The BBC article  notes how plants seem to react to human interaction.  And they seem to communicate back.  We lack the natural range to hear their responses, but some experiments indicate that plants at least communicate among themselves.  Being the BBC, the story reports but doesn’t necessarily advocate this point of view.  Still, it makes sense.  For too long we’ve supposed human beings to be the only intelligent creatures on this planet, taking the arrogant view that animals are automatons with no thinking ability.  To give them that would be to make them too human-like.

That particular viewpoint still exists, of course, but more and more scientists are starting to consider whether consciousness isn’t emergent from, as Nagel put it, smaller building blocks.  I tend to be on the more imaginative end of the spectrum—consider your source here—but it seems to me that plants could well have a consciousness too.  Trees move.  They do it too slowly for our species to notice it, fixated as we are on our own brief time in the world and our human affairs, but that doesn’t mean they don’t move.  It simply means that if we want to see it we need to shift our perspective.  Communication, it would seem, pervades nature.  If it does, isn’t consciousness somehow implicated?  Plants may respond when we pay attention to them.  To me that makes the world an even more wonderful place.


The Future of Consciousness

Consciousness is unexplained.  We’re born and we become aware.  Raised by parents or guardians, we learn where we belong.  The decisions of one generation affect the futures of the next, often without conscious consideration.  I’ve been thinking about how, with our limited resources, we’ve pressed on, reproducing beyond what our environment can sustain and each of us is born conscious.  Some of us—many, in fact—in difficult circumstances.  Instead of working together to figure this out, we keep on, not quite sure of what we’re doing or where we’re going.  Heath Ledger’s Joker may’ve been speaking for all of humanity when he asked, “Do I look like a guy with a plan?”  Do any of us?

During a discussion the other day the topic of the severe western drought came up.  There have been general drought conditions in the western half of the country (the northwestern coast has been spared) for well over half-a-century.  I wonder why the cities in such regions continue to expand and then I realize that each generation is a kind of reboot.  We tend to think we belong where we’re born.  My thoughts turn toward the ancestors of the first nations and how they knew that moving was necessary for life.  When the ice sheets start descending you really don’t have many options.  Perhaps our sense of place is an evolved trait, brought on by the changed circumstances of invaders’ senses of ownership.  Capitalism certainly doesn’t help.  Those born in drought-ravaged areas soon come to think of it as normal.  We can adjust to just about anything.

Settled existence is necessary for a life that defines meaning by ownership.  For me, I have a difficult time imagining my life without my books.  What we read tends to define us.  What would I do if the ice sheets began descending again?  Such change takes time, of course, but our complex society doesn’t seem to be very good at advanced planning.  My consciousness tells me where I belong geographically, psychologically, and even religiously.  I was taught such things as a child and even if I unlearn lessons that were wrong, I will always still feel that they were right.  If I flee the coming ice sheet I simply have to accept that my reality has changed.  Until that ice sheet’s at my back door, however, I can continue to deny it’s a problem.  Consciousness is a funny thing.


One, two, three

The danger of statistics is that they turn an individual into a number.  A few days ago an article in the New York Times addressed the rare blood clots that some women develop after receiving the Johnson and Johnson covid vaccine.  The response of the cited physicians was telling.  Many praised the decision to halt use of the J&J vaccine immediately.  Others, however, point to the numbers.  If a vaccine is halted many more could be exposed to and contract Covid-19.  It is better, they aver, to take the statically smaller risk and use the vaccine.  While I understand the logic here, I do wonder if the side effects occurring primarily in women has anything to do with the reasoning.  Why not save this vaccine for the men instead?

This raises once again the specter of consciousness.  Statistically the odds are small that a woman will develop a clot.  What if you are the woman who does?  This dilemma always bothered me while camping in the woods.  Statistically black bear attacks are rare.  How does that help you if your tent is one that looks like a candy wrapper to a bear of little brain?  You become a statistic instead of a living, breathing, feeling, blogging person.  Statistics.  There’s a reason some of us identify with the humanities, I guess.  I can imagine what it would be like to have your doctor say to you, “Sorry, this is rare, but look at the bright side—you now become a statistic!”

Photo credit: HB, via Wikimedia commons

The fact is we’re all statistics to strangers anyway, the government above all.  We are vote-bearing numbers to be gerrymandered and prevented from voting.  Beyond that we’re merely annoying.  This pandemic has introduced Stalin’s accounting with a vengeance.  542,000 is a big number.  Unless you know one or more of them personally.  Then the statistics seem to melt.  Life is full of risk, of course.  We’ve barricaded ourselves in our homes for over a year now, eating things that are likely more dangerous for us than a rare complication.  The virus, and perhaps some vaccines, are among various killers on the loose.  Nobody can declare with any certainty the correct course of action.  Actually doing something about the virus when it was first a known threat would’ve helped, of course.  We find ourselves on the brink, it seems, of getting Trump’s disease under control.  Would that we all could do so, without having to worry about lying down to be counted.


Growing in Intent

Balance has become a desideratum.  Ours is an age of extremism.  Black and white instead of shades of gray.  One of the unnecessary polarizations is that between science and religion.  Part of the problem, it seems to me, is the labels we insist on using.  Science is shorthand for evidence-based research—it is a way of understanding the physical world.  It doesn’t necessarily discount a spiritual world but its methods can’t engage that world, if it exists.  Religion is a poorly defined word, often one of those “you know it when you see it” kinds of phenomena.  Often it is characterized by blind adherence, but that isn’t necessarily what religion is either.  To me, balance between the two is an authentic way to engage the world and other human beings.

Take plants, for instance.  And take consciousness.  While consciousness isn’t always associated with religion, it is one of those things that falls out of the ability of science to measure or quantify.  We don’t really know what it is, but we know we have it.  We know some animals have it, but rather arrogantly assert it is only the “higher” animals, as if we comprehend the hierarchy of nature in its entirety.  We dismiss the idea of plant consciousness.  For many years I’ve been pondering intent.  Without it no life would be possible from sperm germinating egg to heliotropes following the sun.  There’s some kind of intent there.  Will.  Recently The Guardian ran an article about scientifically measured intent in bean plants.  Although many have been left scratching their heads, or pods,  over it, to me it makes perfect sense.

I planted an apple seed a few months back.  It finally sprouted in late December.  I carefully watered it, and put it by a south window to get sunlight.  It grew quickly for a few days and then began to wilt.  I watched helplessly as it gave up the will to live.  I’m no botanist, but I suspected it was the coldness of being set on a windowsill.  (Ours isn’t the best insulated house.)  December had been mild, and it sprouted.  January took a sudden shift to chill, and I realized that new plants outdoors wouldn’t sprout in winter.  The seed had germinated, but the plant had no will to survive in temperatures chillier than its genes told it that might be safe.  I’m not a scientist, but I observed this scenario carefully.  Is it possible that french bean plants show intent?  I think it would be more difficult to explain if they did not.


Watery

Having watched What the Bleep Do We Know? a few weeks ago, I became curious about Masaru Emoto’s The Hidden Messages in Water.  The book is highlighted in the film, and in a world where money decides truth, the fact that it was a New York Times bestseller must count for something, right?  I am of a skeptical bent, but I like to keep an open mind.  This itself is a delicate waltz at times since just about anybody can make truth claims and find a following.  Curiosity, as they say…  So instead of critiquing Emoto’s obviously slipshod methodology, I want to reflect on whether he really might have been onto something.  Many people around the world thought so, after all.

What it comes down to is water.  If you haven’t seen the movie or read the book, I owe you a brief explanation.  Emoto suggests that water crystals reflect the influences to which they’re subjected.  For example, water frozen as classical music plays forms beautiful crystals.  If heavy metal is played, it doesn’t.  Water frozen in beautiful surroundings forms beautiful crystals.  If that’s not controversial enough, Emoto suggested that emotionally freighted words typed on paper wrapped around the water bottle as it was frozen would reflect the emotions on the paper.  There are lots of problems here, but what I wonder is if water might not somehow be related to consciousness.  Emoto makes that claim, but since science can’t yet explain consciousness there’s no way to test it.  Could it be that water is a recording medium in some way?  Without raising the woo factor too far, some ghost hunters (it is October, after all) suggest moving water has something to do with “recording” spirits.

Like most critical readers, I left Emoto’s book not at all convinced.  I also left thinking that we shouldn’t throw the bath water out with the baby.  There are crazy ideas in the book, for sure.  But there may also be just a hint of insight as well.  That insight comes in the recognition of spirituality as an important aspect of human life.  The book was a bestseller.  Not all people are credulous.  We are, however, spiritual.  Many deny it.  Some violently rail against it but still have feelings along with their rationality.  Water can lift spirits.  The negative ions of breaking water tend to make people feel at ease.  We visit the coast where waves break against beach or rocks.  We visit waterfalls where cascades scatter water particles.  Even a fast-flowing stream will do.  Emoto clearly went too far with his ideas, but I think, deep down, he might’ve been onto something.


Kind Animals

How many people could it be?  That’s the question a pandemic naturally raises.  Last weekend my wife and I ventured to a Vegan Festival in Easton.  Since we vegans are a rare bunch anyway, and since we tend to be socially conscious, there wasn’t likely to be any dangerous behavior.  That, and how many people would actually show up for what is often considered a somewhat wobbly crowd who don’t like to “rise, kill, and eat.”  It felt like a safe place to be with socially distanced kindred spirits.  Everyone was wearing masks and there was no Trump bravado going on.  For a moment it reminded me of the kind of accepting country the United States used to be.

Veganism, you see, isn’t just about not eating and not exploiting animals.  It’s about honoring the wonder of life in all creatures.  I realize some of the issues—believe me, I try to think things through thoroughly.  It’s all about consciousness.  We’re still a considerable distance from being able to define it, and some people, like philosopher Thomas Nagel, believe it might go all the way down and through the plant kingdom as well.  Consciousness is one of the great mysteries of science.  We hardly know what it is, and how are we to know where it stops?  If we assume other people are conscious (with a few notable exceptions) based on their words and actions, might we not suppose at least some of the “higher” animals are as well?  Or are you just being a fool when you talk to your dog?

You see how this naturally suggests consciousness may lessen by matters of degree, but then we learn that even some insects know how to count and can understand a concept of zero (beyond most Republicans).  We like to put insects down at the bottom because we’re bigger and therefore more important.  Veganism suggests that we stop and think about these things.  We don’t necessarily take everything for granted.  It is clear that the largest polluter and environmental problem is industrial animal farming.  Rainforests are cleared for grazing land.  Profits from big agra are staggering.  Wandering through the stalls, keeping our distance from others who perhaps think too much, we partook of the counterculture in our own quiet way.  The street festival was small this year, but I do have hopes that it might grow, along with some serious thinking about the consequences of our actions.  


Virtually Religious

“Which god would that be? The one who created you? Or the one who created me?” So asks SID 6.7, the virtual villain of Virtuosity.  I missed this movie when it came out 24 years ago (as did many others, at least to judge by its online scores).  Although prescient for its time it was eclipsed four years later by The Matrix, still one of my favs after all these years.  I finally got around to seeing Virtuosity over the holidays—I tend to allow myself to stay up a little later (although I don’t sleep in any later) to watch some movies.  I found SID’s question intriguing.  In case you’re one of those who hasn’t seen the film, briefly it goes like this: in the future (where they still drive 1990’s model cars) virtual reality is advanced to the point of giving computer-generated avatars sentience.  A rogue hacker has figured out how to make virtual creatures physical and SID gets himself “outside the box.”  He’s a combination of serial killers programmed to train police in the virtual world.  Parker Barnes, one of said police, has to track him down.

The reason the opening quote is so interesting is that it’s an issue we wouldn’t expect a programmer to, well, program.  Computer-generated characters are aware that they’ve been created.  The one who creates is God.  Ancient peoples allowed for non-creator deities as well, but monotheism hangs considerable weight on that hook.  When evolution first came to be known, the threat religion felt was to God the creator.  Specifically to the recipe book called Genesis.  Theistic evolutionists allowed for divinely-driven evolution, but the creator still had to be behind it.  Can any conscious being avoid the question of its origins?  When we’re children we begin to ask our parents that awkward question of where we came from.  Who doesn’t want to know?

Virtuosity plays on a number of themes, including white supremacy and the dangers of AI.  We still have no clear idea of what consciousness is, but it’s pretty obvious that it doesn’t fit easily with a materialistic paradigm.  SID is aware that he’s been simulated.  Would AI therefore have to comprehend that it had been created?  Wouldn’t it wonder about its own origins?  If it’s anything like human intelligence it would soon design myths to explain its own evolution.  It would, if it’s anything like us, invent its own religions.  And that, no matter what programmers might intend, would be both somewhat embarrassing and utterly fascinating.


Making Memories

I’m a little suspicious of technology, as many of you no doubt know.  I don’t dislike it, and I certainly use it (case in point), but I am suspicious.  Upgrades provide more and more information to our unknown voyeurs and when the system shows off its new knowledge it can be scary.  For example, the other day a message flashed in my upper right corner that I had a new memory.  At first I was so startled by the presumption than I couldn’t click on it in time to learn what my new memory might be.  The notification had my Photos logo on it, so I went there to see.  Indeed, there was a new section—or at least one I hadn’t previously noticed—in my Photos app.  It contained a picture with today’s date from years past.

Now I don’t mind being reminded of pleasant things, but I don’t trust the algorithms of others to generate them for me.  This computer on my lap may be smart, but not that so very smart.  I know that social media, such as Facebook, have been “making memories” for years now.  I doubt, however, that the faux brains we tend to think computers are have any way of knowing what we actually feel or believe.  In conversations with colleagues over cognition and neurology it becomes clear that emotion is an essential element in our thinking.  Algorithms may indeed be logical, but can they ever be authentically emotional?  Can a machine be programmed to understand how it feels to see a sun rise, or to be embraced by a loved one, or to smell baking bread?  Those who would reduce human brains to mere logic are creating monsters, not minds.

So memories are now being made by machine.  In actuality they are simply generating reminders based on dates.  This may have happened four or five years ago, but do I want to remember it today?  Maybe yes, maybe no.  It depends on how I feel.  We really don’t have a firm grasp on what life is, although we recognize it when we see it.  We’re further even still from knowing what consciousness may be.  One thing we know for sure, however, is that it involves more than what we reason out.  We have hunches and intuition.  There’s that fudge factor we call “instinct,” which is, after all, another way of claiming that animals and newborns can’t think.  But think they can.  And if my computer wants to help with memories, maybe it can tell me where I left my car keys before I throw the pants containing them into the wash again, which is a memory I don’t particularly want to relive.

Memory from a decade ago, today.