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As all that is solid melts to air and everything holy is profaned...

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Nature, culture, reality

The Snake Charmer - Rousseau

Inspiration for this blog comes from this text

I am confused. Why am I confused? I am confused by conflicting versions of reality. In particular I am confused by trying to cross-reference the versions of reality described/ proposed by scientists and the versions of reality described/ proposed by philosophers. Lurking in the background is even more confusion since my ideas about reality have been influenced by a fair bit of counter-cultural strangeness -'Do not adjust your mind, the fault is with reality'.

So where/what is the problem? Is there a problem? Realistically, very few people waste much time worrying about reality. It is just what is, something to be lived within rather than questioned. Wander around wondering about reality is a distraction leading to falling off a cliff or being run over by a truck. On the other hand, if some of our ancestors hadn't done some wondering we would never have learnt how to make sharp tools out of flint, extracted metal from rocks or invented computers. Human beings are animals that play with given or physical reality. Playing around with physical reality had an evolutionary impact on our success as a species, creating a feedback loop which encouraged further play leading to further success.

This is where one of the problems kicks in. While we are part of physical reality, our ability to play with reality created knowledge of physical reality. But is this knowledge also part of physical reality? Or is it something different, is it a model of (an abstraction from) physical reality rather than physical reality itself? The tricky part of the problem is that the human brains which have the knowledge in them are themselves part of physical reality and at the atomic/ sub-atomic level cannot be distinguished from any other part of physical reality. At the molecular/ biological level we have the same problem – there is no break in the evolutionary continuum sufficient to distinguish us from any other life form.

What I find interesting is that a few years ago now I decided to be as rational as possible and avoid any lines of thought which could be classified as 'magico-religious' or 'mystical'. Yet when I follow through scientific or philosophical lines of thought (somewhat imperfectly when the language used gets very technical) – it is as if there is a curvature in rational reality. The rational lines of enquiry do not stay parallel, but big to meet at a 'magickal' point just beyond the horizon of reason. To give an example, 20 years ago I wrote a speculative article for Chaos International magazine - 'Culture as Heat'. One of the strands I fed into the article was on a link between information theory/ cybernetics and Claude Levi Strauss' theory of structural anthropology, which is based on sets of binary oppositions -nature: culture,, kinship:marriage, raw: cooked and which Strauss argued lay behind the complex mythologies of pre-modern cultures. Catching up with contemporary information theory, I found an argument that 'information' is the basic stuff of reality and the possibility that we really could be living in a Matrix style simulation of reality...

… so that the 'Rationality Debate' which perplexed social anthropologists in the 1970s (partly sparked by Strauss' work) could not be easily resolved by privileging the solidity of scientific descriptions of reality over the fluidity of mythological narrations of reality. Following the philosophers, I found some of them wrestling with the possibility that there is no rational, conscious self. The problem here comes from the intersection between computer science and neurology which circle around attempts to develop artificial intelligence. The difficulty of creating artificial intelligence stimulated (fact check!) research into how human brains process and organise information which led to the hypothesis that there is no 'central self', no actual 'I' existing like an intelligent homunculus inside our heads. Rather, the sense of self is an 'afterthought' which provides coherence for the pre-conscious actions of a whole range of autonomous sub-self systems. [The image which springs to mind is of the vehicles in the Captain Scarlet tv series which are steered by backward facing drivers looking at a video image of the road ahead.]

One of the philosophical conundrums which arises when the relationship between information and knowledge is explored kicks in when the distant past and far future are discussed. For information to become knowledge it has to be processed. So far, that is in the absence of artificial intelligence, the necessary processing only occurs in living systems, in biological life forms (assuming the absence of artificial life). Even the simplest forms of life process information and convert it into knowledge of the environment, which then influences the life forms' behaviour. Through evolutionary selection, the ability to process information into knowledge has increased, with the human brain as one outcome of this evolutionary strand.

Within very recent time (compared to the time human like creatures have been around on the planet), we have found how to store the information we have processed into knowledge via writing and subsequent developments. But is what we store knowledge or information? There is an argument that what is stored in a book, for example, is information not knowledge. The stored information only becomes knowledge when the book is read and is 'brought back to life', when it becomes part of a living system again. If this is so, then knowledge only ever exists in the present – as the moving/ standing wave of brain activity which is processing information into knowledge NOW... and as the moment of knowledge passes on to the next piece of information, what was knowledge becomes memory, once more becomes stored information.

Of course information stored within the brain is more easily and rapidly accessible than information stored in books or other forms of external memory, so such information can be accessed rapidly enough to create a sense of duration – similar to the way the rapid succession of still photographs can create a sense of movement on a cinema screen. Thus, I suspect, the sense of a duration of knowledge helps create the sense of consciousness, of the self existing through time.

But if knowledge is a biological process, did knowledge exist before there was life? The implication is that it did not. What existed before life began was information. Indeed, it may not even be possible to talk of 'existence' before life began, since there was nothing to create the knowledge of 'existence'. To pursue this speculation further, although the information that the universe is huge and ancient is contained within itself, our knowledge of this huge and ancient universe has only existed for a very short time. Could this mean that scientific knowledge is a new form of knowledge?

If we follow the biological/ evolutionary model, with life as an information- to -knowledge processing system, then human knowledge will be human centred. But scientific knowledge is not human centred. Even though scientific knowledge still only exists within the brain activity of human beings, it describes a universe which -in theory- would exist even if there were no human beings or even any life forms at all. Could science then be the universe's knowledge of itself? Are human beings/ life forms an unnecessary hypothesis in the process of information becoming knowledge?

Probably not – but it is pretty much an impossible question for us to answer, since we would have to imagine our own non-existence And if we did not exist, the problem posed would not exist. An alternative way of looking at the paradox would be that -logically- the information that is the universe contains the potential for life forms to emerge. If it did not, life would not exist and neither would we. Life is therefore part of the information which is the universe. If we accept that life processes information into knowledge, then that potential is also therefore part of the potential contained within the information which is the universe. Once life has begun processing information into knowledge the ultimate potential of scientific knowledge exists. This has begun to be achieved and is a seemingly open ended process, progressively converting more and more of the information which is the universe into knowledge of the universe.

If, as suggested above, the conversion of information into knowledge gives rise to the sensation/ experience of 'consciousness', when our brains are generating 'scientific' knowledge, then the 'consciousness' generated is universal rather than personal.

From the perspective of human centred knowledge, such knowledge is abstract and not immediately valuable. In some cases, scientific knowledge can be dangerous when translated into human knowledge and absorbed into human societies – for example via the construction of heat-engines (which has led to global climate change). Ironically, knowledge of the universe may be short lived, if it has the effect of de-stabilising the human societies within which it has emerged. Although scientific knowledge is rational, present day human societies are irrational. They could collapse and the recently acquired scientific knowledge of the universe could be lost – although the information would remain.

To backtrack for a moment – are human societies irrational? What does that mean? From my present perspective (which may change), it just means that the particular society of which I am a member is failing to respond to the challenge of climate change. The underlying assumption being that a rational society would have recognised and responded to this threat and begun adapting to a low/ no growth, minimal carbon use future. The perspective is ecological and involves the rational acceptance that there cannot be infinite expansion within a finite environment. A difficulty with this perspective is that it appears to run counter to the evidence of recent human history. This evidence points to the liberation which occurred with the Enlightenment, when human Culture was freed by Reason from the bondage of irrational superstition which had tied us (via religion) to a mystical Nature. Through the application of reason, we were able to overcome ignorance and so cure diseases, banish famines and raise millions out of poverty. Thus any attempt to limit or restrict the progress of civilisation through economic growth can be seen as a to regression to barbarism and savagery and 'ecology' as a form of nature mysticism rather than science.

This position, which unites both supporters of capitalism and many Marxists, is a philosophical position which is embedded in the notion that knowledge is a purely human construct. But if all forms of life are engaged in the processing of information into knowledge, then an ecological perspective is also a rational perspective. The ecological environments, the many landscapes of this planet are the cumulative product of such knowledge. They have been shaped and transformed by that knowledge which leaves a landscape of information in its collective wake. The image which spring s to mind is of a coral reef. The living coral is the knowledge, the accumulated reef the information. This information - knowledge - information cycle may also connect with George Dyson's notion of 'evolutionary intelligence' where the cycle increases the quality of the information embodied in landscapes/ environments. If these are dynamic systems, increasing in complexity through time, the knowledge embedded/embodied in them approaches a form of intelligence.


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