Question Marks and Hard Problems

Steve Ruis in a post at Class Warfare Blog has brought to my attention an article, Will Science Ever Solve the Mysteries of Consciousness, Free Will and God? by Michael Shermer in Scientific American.  The answer to the questions from Shermer in short is “no”. Ruis seems to think we will understand all three and that we already have good starts on them. Much depends on exactly what we mean when we say we understand or explain something.

Shermer begins with the so-called “hard problem” of consciousness, the problem of whether we can we ever really explain qualia of the internal experience we have as conscious beings. The free will paradox is that we think of ourselves as autonomous beings, able to make decisions and choices, yet we know from science that in the classical, non-quantum world, we live in a deterministic universe. Do we really have free will? God, as supernatural creator of the universe, can never be proven to exist since by definition [S]He lies outside the bounds of nature and outside the province of science.

Shermer aligns himself with the Mysterians, a term originally used by Owen Flanagan inspired by the sixties rock group Question Mark and the Mysterians. While mysterianism is most closely associated with the hard problem of consciousness, more generally applied, it asserts we can never really understand the working of nature. Colin McGinn of this school has suggested, “It may be that nothing in nature is fully intelligible to us.”

Ruis’ approach to the questions is more pragmatic and scientific. He asks what does it take to prove something or say we understand it. The answer is different for different audiences. “The problem is not the issues themselves completely (labeled as “final mysteries” by Shermer), but involves the attitudes of the audiences receiving the conclusions,” he writes.

What proof would compel an atheist to accept the existence of God? What proof would cause  a non-atheist to stop believing in God’s existence?

What would constitute an explanation for the hard-problem of consciousness? If we could trace the “red of a rose” from the color sensitive cones of the eye through the neural pathways to the visual and cerebral context, have we explained the red? I think perhaps the “hard-problemers” would still argue we haven’t explained the red. Perhaps we haven’t, but in the sense they want proof, we never have explained anything. Has physics really explained gravity? Physics can measure gravity and predict things about it but has it ever explained intrinsically what it is or why it exists?

Shermer’s three questions are really closely related. God is an answer the question of why is there something rather than nothing. Consciousness is what allows us to recognize there is something. Free will is either an illusion or fact produced by consciousness. The three may be less meaningful as philosophical questions than as pointers, like Zen koans,  to some underlying reality we might never explain or understand.

Posted in Consciousness, Intelligence, Mysteries | 1 Comment

I’m Still Here. Where Are the Aliens?

As the few of you who have followed my blog might know, I haven’t posted anything in over a year. I don’t have a special explanation for this beyond that I just didn’t feel like working on something. Writing is not particularly easy work for me. For a while, I told myself I was working on a longer work and true enough I have been writing on something longer or rather more precisely several longer pieces. I would start one, grow dissatisfied with it, start another – you get the idea. Some of this writing may eventually appear in some form but most of it will go by the wayside to be stored on some disk drive that eventually gets destroyed under one circumstance or another. To shorten the story somewhat – let me say I am back posting and will try to be more regular about it, at least once every month or two.

Back in June I was strongly tempted to post something on the big Anonymous claim that NASA was about to announce the discovery of extraterrestrial life. I didn’t believe the claim for a moment. I don’t think NASA would hide the discovery of extraterrestrial life. They might hold off an announcement until they could confirm it beyond reasonable doubt but not hide it. If anything, with our science fiction and movies, we are more than prepared to accept that life (even intelligent life) could exist elsewhere other than Earth. There would be no reason to hide the discovery because of its culture shock impact. They wouldn’t withhold it so NASA could gain some secret technological or military advantage either. Aliens aren’t going to come here to do “deals”, even “big deals”, with us. If they were smart and benevolent, they would probably withhold their technology from us – prime directive sort of thing – and maybe even hide themselves from us. If they were not benevolent, we would never know what hit us before we would be gone.

So, the aliens still haven’t arrived and probably won’t be arriving any time soon, otherwise we would have probably already spotted some evidence of their existence. Where are they? The Fermi Paradox again.

An emerging meme is that technological civilizations destroy themselves by destroying their environment. Some want to bundle climate change and the Fermi Paradox to explain why no other technological civilization (of which there must be or have been many) has spread itself far and wide in our galaxy. I am not buying it. If we want to go down that path, I still think the nuclear war scenario would be far more destructive and far more likely to result in our extinction. Don’t get me wrong. Climate change might eventually put Miami underwater but the people who are there will just go elsewhere. The runaway greenhouse effect (the Venus scenario) isn’t happening. We are too far from the Sun. Putting aside stronger hurricanes, sea level rise, and some species going extinct, things are improving. Alternative energy technologies are increasingly cost-effective and many of us may live to see the time when almost all vehicles are powered by batteries charged by the sun.

So where are the alien civilizations?

Part of the answer, I think, is to be found in Nick Lane’s book The Vital Question. Life established itself on Earth relatively quickly, possibly almost as soon as the Earth cooled enough to have liquid oceans, or at least within a billion years of it. The thermal vents look increasingly to have right physical structures and chemical characteristics to create life. Since these conditions are probably common elsewhere in the universe, life in some form likely is abundant elsewhere. On the other hand, complex life required almost another three billion years before it established itself. Complex life has been around on Earth for probably less than a billion years out of the four and a half billions of years since Earth formed. To get complex life, among other things, you basically needed to have one bacterium assimilate another bacterium and create a genetically stable organism with mitochondria. Without mitochondria organisms are unable to harness sufficient energy to create complexity. This must be difficult and very random or it would have happened sooner on Earth.

Even after we get complex life, we still need to go through a whole other series of advancements to arrive at civilization, our civilization. To get civilization on our planet, we had to oxygenate the atmosphere, move out of the ocean, and then we had to go down the big brained primate path to an ape that began to walk on two legs and use its hands to make tools. How likely was that? All the time we were evolving our planet had to have been relatively stable, not hit by a giant asteroid, not bombarded by gamma rays from a nearby super nova, or suffer some internal geological calamity.

Could aliens create a technological civilization without any appendages whatsoever capable of manipulating the environment? Technology begins with manipulating and shaping the environment. It is certainly true an advanced technological species could manipulate the environment with technology itself. We, in fact, do. The question, however, is how does the capability evolve in the first place. Many species on Earth can create tools or use the environment to their advantage – birds, other apes, insects to name a few. However, none so far have been capable of the degree of manipulation that our distant ancestors possessed. We like to think that we make things because we are smart but it might be we are smart because we started to make things.

Scientists often caution us about making no assumptions about how much like extraterrestrial intelligent life would be to us. We shouldn’t expect alien intelligent life to look like Romulans or Klingons. Yet when we also ask where are the alien civilizations, we are assuming that extraterrestrial intelligent life would be very much like us in the aspect that makes us most human – our long evolutionary history of manipulating the environment and making sophisticated things. How many billion years of good fortune on a habitable planet does it take to make a creature that does what we can do?

I think the odds are that the aliens aren’t here because there are not that many advanced civilizations who could ever get here. And that, I think, makes us very special.

Posted in Aliens, Fermi Paradox, Human Evolution, Origin of Life | 6 Comments

Followup to “Of Minds and Crows”

New research shows that birds have as many neurons as mid-size primates. Evolution apparently has figured out a way of packing neurons more densely. Researchers took brains from 28 different species and dissected them.

Although many in the field expected the bird brain could be densely packed, the extent came as a surprise to the study authors. “My expectation was simply that bird brains should be different from mammals in size and number of neurons,” says neuroscientist Suzana Herculano-Houzel, now at Vanderbilt University, one of the senior authors on the paper. “But we didn’t have any idea that the difference would be so extreme that in a parrot brain you would have as many neurons as in a mid-size primate.”

Particularly of interest here is that the advanced cognition capabilities of the small brains of birds might really be the result of the same mechanisms that is usually associated with larger brain size – the number of neurons. Over three years ago I speculated on changes from the early anatomically modern humans to present day humans. I wonder now  if this change can be accounted for by a similar mechanism. In other words we really are smarter than the early Homo sapiens because we have more neurons than they did. What’s more this increases the possibility that human intelligence could still be increasing despite the huge energy requirements that the large brain makes on our species.

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