Tuesday, September 9, 2014

The Evolution of Knowledge

The Evolution of Knowledge
Kenny A. Chaffin
All Rights Reserved © 2012 Kenny A. Chaffin

It's only words, and words are all
I have to take your heart away.
  - Bee Gees

There are no Individuals

            You may think of yourself as a separate and unique individual organism but you rely on many other organisms and certainly your environment to exist. You rely on the bacteria in your gut to digest your food; you rely on the mitochondria in your cells to produce the energy needed for life itself, and to fuel movement, growth and metabolism. At a more fundamental level you rely on your environment; the oxygen in the air, water from the Earth to exist. And much of the environment you rely on is produced by other organisms and their processes. At another level you rely on everything that has gone before you. Because you are here, because you are alive, you are a survivor. Your body, your abilities, your resistance to disease, your very existence itself is a result of your genetic heritage. You survived; your parents and their parents survived all the way back to the single celled organisms of the ancient Earth and even prior to that to the primitive DNA/RNA and their precursors of living organisms.
            Not only that, but the pieces and parts of your body are constantly changing and being replaced. Cells die and are replaced by new ones, hair falls out and other hair grows to replace it. With a few exceptions (neurons being one) most of the cells in your body are replaced every ten years or so. At any given moment your body is only a snapshot in time that is constantly changing.  The you that is here now is not the same you that was here 10 years ago or even 10 minutes ago. It’s not that life is in a constant state of flux but that life is a constant state of flux.

Yeah, so?

            Just as your body is composed of a collection of cells and precursors and loose confederations of living things, so is your mind, your consciousness. You may feel as though you are an individual, separate and unique to all others and in a sense you are, but just as your body is separate and different from other human individuals while still being composed of and reliant on other living organisms, so is your mind.  It too is comprised of and relies on both internal and external information, sensory input from the environment, memories, collaboration of ideas and thoughts. And not just in the same manner as your physical body, but truly in exactly the same manner. Your self, your mind, your consciousness is a collection of interrelated information, memories, sensory input, and knowledge of self and environment that is a single entity yet constantly changing within and as part of its environment.


So if our biology and our minds work in the same manner, even though with different piece-parts is that where the similarity ends or is there more?  Oh, there’s more, definitely more. Part of this may be evident. Our DNA which is the key to all living organisms is itself nothing more than a sequence of information used to store, manage and drive biological growth, evolution, and procreation. So certainly in this manner information in the form of DNA sequences is used for biological purposes. The information and knowledge stored in and used by our minds is of course is a bit different and is used in a different manner, but certainly with the same goal in mind -- survival of the individual and the species.

The Structure of Knowledge

Memes, bits, words, books, theories, history, information – all these things make up knowledge, that unseen, non-corporeal (in some cases) collection of information, data, memories, books and more that we think of as knowledge. Knowledge itself is a spectrum of information, information that is structured at various and multiple levels, something like this writing itself which is composed of many piece-parts at various levels – a title, headings, paragraphs, sentences, words, letters all combining in an attempt to convey knowledge to the reader. This concept of knowledge as a loose confederation of information, memories, senses, and even other knowledge makes defining it difficult -- a bit like catching a greased pig, but allows us to better examine it.


            Confusion, roadblocks, false leads and non-sequiturs come from a number of the areas listed in the previous section, but the two biggest that have thrown the proverbial monkey wrench in the search for knowledge are Richard Dawkins’ memes and Claude Shannon’s information science.
            Dawkins’ meme concept was brilliant at the time and while it still has usefulness what has happened is that its proponents have constrained the field by mimicking genetic concepts a bit too strictly. Genes and DNA are well defined physical objects that are reasonably well understood.  Memes on the other hand are non-physical, very loosely defined and difficult to specify precisely.  This makes the meme concept much more unwieldy and difficult to work with in the same manner as genetics and has put many on the wrong track in searching for a scientific means of understanding information and knowledge.
            Shannon’s information science is nothing of the sort. It is actually communication science. It focuses on reliably transferring coded messages from one point to another point. Now certainly this is important and much of significance has come from it. It even defined the ‘bit’ which is used extensively in computer science and digital communications systems.  The problem is that it has distracted and derailed the true search and research into information and knowledge. Over and over significant work has been waved aside with the claim that Shannon’s information science already explained all that when in fact the only thing it explained was how to reliably communicate that information from point A to point B.

The Evolution of Knowledge

The process whereby knowledge is created and maintained does not work similarly to biological evolution; it works EXACTLY THE SAME, but in a less tangible medium. Knowledge evolves, it changes, it adapts to its environment and it survives or dies just like a biological organism. If particular facets of knowledge become outdated and non-applicable, they are discarded, lost and/or replaced. In biological evolution if a better elbow joint appears due to random mutation that works better for climbing trees or gathering berries then it eventually supplants the previous joint because it increases the odds of survival and is passed on to the individual’s descendants. In knowledge evolution if a hunter-gatherer finds a better way to track or trap prey and passes that knowledge along it will survive because it has increased the hunter-gatherer’s odds of survival. If a theory of gravity appears that is better suited to its environment, then it replaces the previous theory of gravity. This is exactly what science and the scientific method provide and is one aspect of the evolution of knowledge. Galileo’s work with gravity was replaced by Newton’s work which was in turn replaced by Einstein’s general theory of relativity.  Each was a change, an enhancement, a replacement for what came before. In a manner of speaking Galileo and Newton’s theories are fossils in the evolutionary trail of knowledge known as the theory of gravity. It should also be clear that knowledge is not something exclusive to the human mind but something independent of it. This is evident in bodies of knowledge such as the body of scientific knowledge, the amassed history of civilization, or mathematics which exist independent of the human mind.
Not only does knowledge evolve in the same manner as biological organisms, but by the same mechanisms. Knowledge evolves by mutating and changing and then surviving or dying in its environment. At any given time there may be thousands or millions of potentially competing memes, thoughts, ideas or suggestions in the world, some may be random thoughts thrown out in newspaper op-ed articles, some may be bills introduced into congress, and some may be novels or stories or poems. At some point some of these may come into competition for survival such as in congressional debates, in the public media or in scientific journals. When they do, one may survive while another fails, or both could potentially continue to exist. A book of poetry may be published while another is rejected or possibly both are published. Two competing pieces of knowledge could certainly co-exist as in the biological world where different types of wings, feet, limbs or other characteristics co-exist at any given time.
Just as there are many types of organisms that have evolved to meet a variety of environmental conditions, there are many types of knowledge that have evolved in a variety of environments. Some knowledge passes through the crucible of the scientific method other knowledge is evaluated in the light of history, experience, or evidence. Still other knowledge may survive strictly by force of will and may or may not survive long term evolutionary pressures, in the same manner as certain biological mutations may survive and be passed on but appear to have no survival value themselves. Those biological mutations may eventually disappear or they may at some point prove to be an evolutionary advantage in a new or changed environment. These same evolutionary mechanisms apply to knowledge and if we begin to examine and study it within that framework we will be much better positioned to further our understanding of knowledge in a scientific sense.

References, links, additional information:

Evolution, Genes, Memes:




Your Body is Younger than you Think:
Evolutionary Psychology:

About the Author

Kenny A. Chaffin writes poetry, fiction and nonfiction and has published poems and fiction in Vision Magazine, The Bay Review, Caney River Reader, WritersHood, Star*Line, MiPo, Melange and Ad Astra and has published nonfiction in The Writer, The Electron, Writers Journal and Today’s Family. He grew up in southern Oklahoma and now lives in Denver, CO where he works hard to make enough of a living to support two cats, numerous wild birds and a bevy of squirrels. His poetry collections No Longer Dressed in Black, The Poet of Utah Park, The Joy of Science, A Fleeting Existence, a collection of science essays How do we Know, and a memoir of growing up on an Oklahoma farm - Growing Up Stories are all available at Amazon.com: http://www.amazon.com/-/e/B007S3SMY8. He may be contacted through his website at http://www.kacweb.com

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Dark Matters


Dark Matters


Kenny A. Chaffin

All Rights Reserved © 2013 Kenny A. Chaffin

Hello darkness my old friend
I’ve come to talk with you again
- Sounds of Silence
by Paul Simon
There is no dark side of the moon really.
Matter of fact it's all dark.
- Eclipse (Dark side of the Moon)
Roger Waters

Dark matter, dark energy, the dark side of the Moon…..hmmmm….I think we better talk.  A couple of decades ago everything was cool. We knew the universe was expanding and the thought was that it would either continue expanding or reverse course and begin collapsing due to gravity. In either case it was assumed that the rate of the expansion would slow due to gravity. We’d never seen any slowing so have been looking to verify this claim. Then along comes the damn Hubble Space Telescope screwing everything up! Its observations of distant galaxies in 1998 showed just the opposite. Not only was the expansion not slowing but the rate of expansion was increasing! It was as if some force were pushing the galaxies apart every faster. There was no explanation that fit. Enter confusion and a new hypothesis – Dark Energy -- thrown in to the cosmological mix to explain the accelerating rate of expansion. Now if you’re getting a feeling of déjà vu, blame it on Einstein and his cosmological constant. He claimed it was his biggest mistake – adding it into his general relativity equations and then removing it. It has again been resurrected as an explanation for the accelerating expansion of the universe we now see. Or perhaps this begins to sound more like Roger Water’s Dark Side of the Moon lunatic or maybe Roger Penrose’s quantum mind. It’s all dark, really.
Dark energy is the name cosmologists have assigned to this unexplainable observation, somewhat in relation to the ‘vacuum’ energy of space. This is not science, this is speculation. We don’t know what is going on really we only have observations awaiting an explanation. Dark energy is a hypothesis, not a theory as there is no way to verify it because on its definition.  It only interacts with normal matter in the form of gravity. There is no way to observer it, measure it, or test it beyond the indirect observations of galactic expansion. And how is that different than some unknown feature, force or characteristic of the universe that we simply do not understand at this point? The problem as I see it is that this ‘theory’ of dark energy has been feed to the public in sensational news headlines and popular science articles as if it were real science. This is misleading at best and deceptive at worst in my opinion since it makes it sound like there is a clearly identified cause – dark energy. That is what the public takes from these twitter-like headlines, particularly since most readers don’t get beyond those headlines. The truth is that we don’t know if any such thing as dark energy exists, we have an unexplained observation and that is all we know. Would it not be better to simply say, “Yes the rate of expansion of the universe appears to be increasing but we do not know why?” Unfortunately science is acting more like a religion and claiming that it has answers to the unknown when in fact it does not. In this age of the media and marketing as kingmaker science communicators can fall into the same trap of sensationalizing their stories. But enough of that just call me a lunatic if you like.
Something is responsible for the accelerating rate of expansion of the universe. Something we don’t understand, perhaps there is a cosmological constant that we’ve yet to identify and understand, perhaps there is a problem with Einstein’s General Relativity Equations, perhaps there really is some form of energy here-to-fore unidentified that is pushing the galaxies apart faster and faster. Or perhaps there is some error or issue with our deep-space, deep-time observations.


(Credit: NASA)

            As you can see in the above illustration, measurements show that the direction of the curve changes about 7.5 billion years ago. What might have happened at that point in the universe? Could it be that the ‘vacuum energy’ of space changed at that point due to physical expansion? This is unknown of course. As new space came into being did additional dark energy appear as well? The belief at this point is that 68% of the universe is actually dark energy with another 27% is dark matter. Now it is certainly something of a dark matter that leaves only 5% of the universe as normal matter. That 5% is everything we know, you, me, all the planets, stars, asteroids and hydrogen clouds, everything we previously assumed was the entire constitution of the universe. With the emergence of dark matter and dark energy everything we thought we knew has been turned upside down as though we were in an Alice in Wonderland story.
            Before we go too far, let’s look back at dark matter. It was first proposed by Jan Oort (of Oort cloud fame) in 1932 to account for the orbital velocities of stars in the Milky Way. Others have shown additional situations that require dark matter in order to explain gravitational anomalies. Dark matter doesn’t seem to be as unbelievable as dark energy as it is thought to be ordinary matter which is not easily detectable either optically or by other observational methods. The effect is primarily seen through gravity on orbits, velocities and movement of stars and galaxies. It seems very possible there are massive amounts of normal matter strewn throughout the universe collectively known as massive compact halo objects or MACHOs that could be enough to cause gravitational anomalies but we have not been able to detect enough possible candidates to conclude that this is the case. Another possibility is nonbaryonic dark matter (such as WIMPS – weakly interacting massive particles) which would not be detectible by electromagnetic means. This appears to be the leading candidate for the source of dark matter. While most cosmologists agree that dark matter exists and explains the anomalies there are alternative hypotheses/theories of gravity that attempt to explain the discrepancies without resorting to unobservable matter.

This three-dimensional map offers a first look at the web-like large-scale distribution of dark matter, an invisible form of matter that accounts for most of the Universe's mass. The map reveals a loose network of dark matter filaments, gradually collapsing under the relentless pull of gravity, and growing clumpier over time. The three axes of the box correspond to sky position (in right ascension and declination), and distance from the Earth increasing from left to right (as measured by cosmological redshift). Note how the clumping of the dark matter becomes more pronounced, moving right to left across the volume map, from the early Universe to the more recent Universe. (Credit: NASA/ESA/Richard Massey (California Institute of Technology))

            So the effect of dark energy we observe is somewhat the opposite of the effect of dark matter.  Dark matter has a gravitational pull and effect on stars, planets, galaxies and all normal matter in the same way they affect and attract one another. Dark energy on the other hand creates a constant ‘anti-gravity’ force that pushes everything apart and accelerates the on-going expansion of space. The following illustration from NASA shows the change in composition from the origin of the universe 13.7 billion years ago to what we see today. Note the increasing percentage of dark energy. This sort of makes sense as there was only a certain amount of matter in the original universe and as it expands what is added is space and along with it the vacuum energy which seems to include increasing amounts of dark energy.

            So we have a mystery. It’s a scientific mystery not unlike others that we encounter at the edges of science, in this case the science of cosmology. Dark energy is proposed as a hypothesis to explain the accelerating expansion of the universe though we have no means of measuring, detecting or verifying that that is the case. Dark energy is really just a placeholder for something we don’t understand. It seems to harken back even beyond Einstein’s cosmological constant to the ether theory that was proposed before Maxwell provided us with an understanding of electromagnetic waves. For the non-scientist reading about this research in the media it can be confusing and the casual reader will come away thinking dark energy is a real thing because science said so. Most readers don’t think too deeply about it and figure it’s something like atoms or quarks or photons when in fact it is nothing of the sort. It is nothing more than a hypothesis, and perhaps not even that because to be a true hypothesis it must be testable and from what has been proposed there is no way to test, verify, or validate dark energy. There is only the observation which it is hypothesized to explain – a circular definition in other words. This is the dark side and dark matters.


            It is incumbent upon all scientists and science communicators to be as up-front, open and honest as possible with the public. There is a distrust of science that has been building since the mid-20th century. We must take care to not exacerbate the situation in these times of global warming and genetic engineering, these times of political and religious attacks on science. We must work with the public to build bridges of trust and support by stepping out of the darkness and conveying scientific knowledge in the light of truth and full disclosure and thereby regain public trust and support.



The Sounds of Silence:

Dark Energy:

Expansion of Universe Illustration:

Dark Matter:

Distribution map of Dark Matter:

WMAP Content of the Universe graph:

About the Author

Kenny A. Chaffin writes poetry, fiction and nonfiction and has published poems and fiction in Vision Magazine, The Bay Review, Caney River Reader, WritersHood, Star*Line, MiPo, Melange and Ad Astra and has published nonfiction in The Writer, The Electron, Writers Journal and Today’s Family. He grew up in southern Oklahoma and now lives in Denver, CO where he works hard to make enough of a living to support two cats, numerous wild birds and a bevy of squirrels. His poetry collections No Longer Dressed in Black, The Poet of Utah Park, The Joy of Science, A Fleeting Existence, a collection of science essays How do we Know, and a memoir of growing up on an Oklahoma farm - Growing Up Stories are all available at Amazon.com: http://www.amazon.com/-/e/B007S3SMY8. He may be contacted through his website at http://www.kacweb.com

Thursday, May 22, 2014


Kenny A. Chaffin

You're a butterfly
And butterflies are free to fly
Fly away, high away, bye bye
                                 -   Bernie Taupin

            Flickering, floating, flying - a river of orange and black as far as the eye can see slips silently from horizon to horizon. The Monarchs are on the move. Their annual migration from Canada to Mexico takes them thousands of miles along well established routes inherent in their genes. Many who begin the journey will never finish it, yet their progeny will continue to follow these same routes year after year, generation after generation.
            Their multi-generational journey covers as much as 3000 miles. Those born in the winter mountains of Mexico traverse only a part of the journey north into the southern United States before mating, laying eggs and dying. Those eggs hatch into caterpillars that eat, grow and transform into butterflies to continue the journey north flying the next leg of the migratory path, followed by another generation who finally reach the northern extent of the Monarch’s range in Southern Canada and the Northeastern United States. Here at the end of their northward journey they once more mate, lay eggs and die. The grubs of this fourth generation grow and transform as before, but this generation is different, it will make the complete 3000 mile trip in a single generation. These southbound butterflies have never made this journey and are three generations removed from those that have, yet they follow the same routes to the same winter habitat in Mexico. It makes one wonder what each butterfly knows if anything of the journey as a whole. Clearly they are following their instincts but we simply do not understand how or why they make their incredible journey. The butterfly lifecycle alone is fascinating; the grubs eating, growing, shedding their skins and growing more and then the caterpillars spinning and building a chrysalis, transforming and emerging as an almost entirely different species.  Of course the caterpillars and butterflies are not different species, their genes have not changed and the vestigial wings, organs and body are all there in the caterpillar. Even so, it is one of the most amazing transformations in the animal kingdom.
            By our best estimates life on Earth began some 3.5 billion years ago, less than a billion years after the formation of the Earth and after ‘only’ an additional 2 billion years multi-cellular life appeared. Because there are no fossils of this early life the estimates and processes are very much unknown and are derived from secondary information such as the beginning of photosynthesis, oxygenation of the atmosphere, geological deposits, DNA, RNA, and other evidence. It is further hypothesized that even the original single-celled life of 3.5 billion years ago was preceded by various abiogenesis ‘experiments’ until one of those experiments resulted in RNA or something like it that was capable of replicating itself. We do know this early life transformed the planet in a complete make-over by creating an oxygen rich atmosphere from the early ammonia and methane atmosphere. And of course none of this happened smoothly. There was a major cooling event 650 million years ago referred to as Snowball Earth wherein the entire planet more or less froze over as seen in the fossil and geological records. Life survived, but the deep freeze definitely put a crimp in its forward momentum. Then about 100 million years later there was an EXPLOSION! The Cambrian Explosion of 530 million years ago resulted in a vast plethora of life forms, species, and all manner of new creatures. Then in the virtual blink of an eye, vertebrates appear at 350 million years ago, dinosaurs at 250 million years ago and of course their demise 65 million years ago due to the Chicxulub asteroid.
            Despite setbacks life continued to plod along; to shift and change and evolve as the Earth’s climate varied and as its continents drifted and shifted. Life was indeed good!  Then some 2 million years ago humans burst upon the scene to wreak havoc on the planet which we’ve been very successfully at ever since.
            It was many years after our first genetic ancestor that the modern human evolved – some 200,000 years ago. We like all species used the tools provided to us by the evolutionary process – primarily our brains, our ability to think symbolically, and our self-directed need to survive. We learned and passed down lessons to our children and our clan-mates. This ability gave us a major competitive advantage and of course we continue to use it despite on-going skirmishes between tribes.
            We learned to control fire, to fashion stone and then steel weapons. We learned how to grow food; How to trade and barter and to band together in groups of common interest. We have spread ourselves across the globe and we build our machines and fortresses that dominate the world. We travel swiftly and easily from one end of the Earth to the other with never a thought as to the miracle we have created. We reach out into space with our probes and our machines. We launch our eyes into the sky to monitor ourselves (and our enemies) and to peer into the depths of the universe.
            While time itself seems to be moving at increasingly faster rates from a technological perspective the universe is much, much older and seemingly never-ending. The vast distances are almost incomprehensible. Our human journey so far is nothing compared to the age and size of the universe. Our best measurements say the universe is 13.7 billion years old and some 93 billion light years across. If we could traverse it at the speed of light it would require 20 times as long as our entire history, including the formation of the Earth itself, the emergence of life and the evolution of humanity. It’s mindboggling to think that solar systems could have formed and produced intelligent life some 20 times during the course of a single crossing of our universe.
            A milestone was recently reached by two of our early space-probes. Voyager 1 and 2 are about to leave our solar system. They are currently some 11.1 and 9.1 billion miles from Earth respectively approaching the ‘leading edge’ of our solar heliosphere and about to enter interstellar space. Some think there will be turbulence at this boundary, their instruments will tell us, but due to the distance we will only know 17 hours later. The Voyagers have proven to be quite amazing machines. They were launched in August (Voyager2) and September (Voyager 1) 1977 and have been operating almost flawlessly for 35 years. The 17 hours their signals take to make the one-way trip means that it requires over a full day to issue a command and get a confirmation back. They are powered by radioisotope fuel cells which are expected to continue working for perhaps another decade before fading away. We’ve already reduced power consumption on the craft as much as possible in order to extend their operational life.
            Just as astounding as the Voyagers are our twin Mars rovers. While Spirit finally succumbed to the Martian winter in March 2010, Opportunity continues to extend its mission (now well into 2013). The Mars Science Laboratory – Curiosity landed using a quite complex landing procedure in August 2012.  It has provided much evidence supporting the belief that conditions may have been conducive to life in Mars’ ancient past and has begun its primary mission, a trek up Mount Sharp. Curiosity is our most advanced rover yet, five times ‘larger’ than Spirit or Opportunity with ten times the mass of scientific instruments. It is about the size and weight of a small terrestrial car. Its planned mission is for one Martian year (23 Earth months), but if our past probes are any indication, we may get much more. As is always the case with our space missions, each is built upon knowledge gained from those that have gone before and using the latest and greatest technology and instruments to provide additional data and ever enhanced experience for constructing our next probes. From each mission we learn, we adapt, and enhance subsequent missions. Always at the core of our probes and rovers are increasingly powerful computing systems, able to survive brutal conditions, capable of error correction and self-repair and with increasing speed, storage and communication abilities as well as ever more sophisticated software and operational capabilities. This autonomous operating capability is increasingly important as we reach further into space and into unknown situations where our rovers and probes must behave in a manner to protect themselves and to continue their missions even when out of touch with Earth.
            Back on Earth there has been an amazing rise of computing capability. Moore’s law says, ‘the number of transistors that can be placed inexpensively on an integrated circuit doubles approximately every two years’ and continues to hold. That in itself does not say much but based on this increasing capability of our computer chips we have increased our software capabilities even more so. Today we have computers in our pockets that have significantly more power than the mainframes of the mid-20th century when the space race began. IBM recently announced their latest supercomputer built for the Department of Defense which brings the title of world’s fastest supercomputer back to the United States. The Blue Gene/Q supercomputer called sequoia at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory has 1.57 million Power cores and operates at 16.32 petaflops per second, outdistancing Fujitsu’s K Computer and its 10.5 petaflops. A petaflop is a measure of a computer’ s processing speed and is a thousand trillion floating point operations (such as 13.654 x 11.5) per second. This, like the vastness of the universe is a number hard for mere mortals to comprehend. Also it is difficult if not impossible to compare computer processing and human brain processing because they work in such vastly different manners but, estimates are that the average human brain has about 100 million MIPS (million instructions per second) worth of processing power. Dharmendra Modha, director of cognitive computing at the IBM Almaden Research Center has said, “We have no computers today that can begin to approach the awesome power of the human mind.  A computer comparable to the human brain would need to be able to perform more than 38 thousand trillion operations per second (38 petaflops) and hold about 3,584 terabytes of memory.” This is more than twice the capability of the Sequoia supercomputer mentioned above.  Modha believes that we will be able to simulate some of the workings of the human brain by 2018 – only six years away.
            Keep in mind these supercomputers are still quite unwieldy and require significant support in cooling, electricity, etc. but as we continue to expand our computing horizons and advance the technology there may come a day when we can place this kind of capability in our space probes.
It’s not only computing power that has grown but connectivity and capability as well. Google along with a number of websites such as Wikipedia and You-Tube, have all but replaced the encyclopedia and reference library. And not only that, they are becoming increasingly easy to use. Google already does a reasonable job of interpreting queries but its engineers are working to enhance its natural language processing which will soon make it almost as easy as asking questions of a colleague. Natural language processing is rapidly growing and Apple recently added Siri, its natural language processor to the iPhone.
In an even more impressive feat IBM has demonstrated its Watson computer which was trained to play Jeopardy! and to compete in an actual Jeopardy! game against the two all-time human champions. The outcome was far from assured, but Watson succeeded in defeating his human competitors. It did this by using some very clever natural language processing and automated learning techniques. Standard Jeopardy! questions were asked and Watson had to read and interpret the question as well as determine the solution (in the form of a question). This was particularly tricky because Jeopardy! questions often include subtle, even twisted, word meanings and idioms that the natural language processing software had to understand in order to answer correctly.
            All these advances in computer technology bring us closer to being able to mimic the human brain and give our machines thinking and reasoning capabilities ever closer to our own. One might ask is that the reason we do this. Are we trying to replicate ourselves? Or is it just another aspect of our drive to explore, learn and evolve?
            We might ask the same of our space exploration, our technologies, our societies, are we driven to explore, to reach out, to grow, to learn? Or is there something more to this and all of our human activities, building governments, societies, recording history, exploring everything from quantum mechanics to cosmology? Carl Sagan once said, “We are a way for the cosmos to know itself.” And that certainly may be the driving force behind our human endeavors, but given our extremely brief existence – a few thousand years of recorded history compared to the 13.75 billion year old cosmos – what do we know of our journey. Are we humans like the Monarch butterfly, only one leg of a vast cosmic journey? Are we caterpillars in Earth’s cocoon building machines in our likeness, embodying them with our own intelligence, our knowledge, our capabilities, in essence becoming them in order to reach out, to explore and to take that next step in our journey, as butterflies to the stars.

About the Author

Kenny A. Chaffin writes poetry, fiction and nonfiction and has published poems and fiction in Vision Magazine, The Bay Review, Caney River Reader, WritersHood, Star*Line, MiPo, Melange and Ad Astra and has published nonfiction in The Writer, The Electron, Writers Journal and Today’s Family. He grew up in southern Oklahoma and now lives in Denver, CO where he works hard to make enough of a living to support two cats, numerous wild birds and a bevy of squirrels. His poetry collections No Longer Dressed in Black, The Poet of Utah Park, The Joy of Science, A Fleeting Existence, a collection of science essays How do we Know, and a memoir of growing up on an Oklahoma farm - Growing Up Stories are all available at Amazon.com: http://www.amazon.com/-/e/B007S3SMY8. He may be contacted through his website at http://www.kacweb.com

Friday, January 24, 2014

Watching the River Flow

Watching the River Flow

(from: How do we know? A few things we've learned from science. Available at Amazon.com: http://www.amazon.com/know-things-learned-science-ebook/dp/B00DTIEZYW )


Kenny A. Chaffin

All Rights Reserved © 2013 Kenny A. Chaffin

Oh, this ol' river keeps on rollin', though,
no matter what gets in the way and which
  way the wind does blow,
and as long as it does I'll just sit here
and watch the river flow.
                                               – Bob Dylan

            What is it to be conscious? As you read this are you aware that you are reading? Can you feel your toes? Are you aware of your heart beating, your breath? Do you notice these things singly, individually, sequentially or as part of a mosaic of awareness?
            Where do you think ‘you’ are? In your brain? In your chest? Or maybe just behind your eyes. Close them. Are you still there? Are you still in the same place or have ‘you’ shifted? When you touch something with your fingers, feel the texture where are ‘you?’ Is it ‘you’ feeling the texture or ‘you’ knowing that you are touching/feeling the texture under your fingers? Or is it both? Are you the water, the river or are you just sitting there contentedly watchin’ the river flow?
            As you might know already, philosophers have had a field day with this topic since at least the time of Descartes and his famous ‘I think therefore I am’ bifurcated the mind and brain; certainly not just with those words but just as certainly as the church bifurcated body and soul. We’ve struggled ever since to return to a rational view of the mind and consciousness. Why?
            Mostly it’s from our anthropomorphic centrism which continues to rear its head from Copernicus to Hubble, Freud to Jung, and Newton to Schrodinger. We all want to feel and be special. We want our place to be special, our thoughts to be special. Oh sure we are each unique, each with our own quirks, crooked smile and mannerisms, but this is a deeper sort of ‘special.’ We each feel as if we will go on forever as a unique individual -- even when sleeping and we perchance to dream we still are ‘ourselves.’ This comparison of the mind and the soul is not one of happenstance but one of erudite reasoning. Many want to equate the mind with the soul and often do so in passing and without thinking too deeply about it; they want their essence to live forever. It can in a manner of speaking, but certainly not in any corporeal or incorporeal manner. The only way at present for a mind to live forever is by recording in writing, in audio or video as much of that unique mind and perspective on reality as possible. There may be other ways in the future, but as it currently stands literature and recordings are the only way to live forever (and that is only for as long as those recordings endure). Compared to the age of the cosmos, human lives are nothing but a tiny flash of light, a dust mote flaring up in a flame, nothing to be concerned with, yet we each in our own minds want to think we are important, we are special, we are the center of the universe. This was the driver in those early days of self-examination of the human mind.
            Descartes though self-examination in 1637 (influenced certainly by his own devout Catholicism and the religious beliefs of the day) concluded that the self was something separate from the body, separate from the mind and summed it up with "Cogito ergo sum" – I think, therefore I am. This and the idea of the religious soul created the philosophy of dualism. Separation of mind and body, mind and brain. Essentially all his philosophical work focused on this conclusion which says the only thing that can be shown is that ‘thought exists’ – therefore self exists, therefore soul exists. What I find fascinating with this is the question of who it is this is being ‘shown’ to. All else other than thought (other people, all sensation, the world around us, the universe itself) could be deception. In other words he retreats into himself and declares pure thought and consciousness along with subjective, deductive reasoning to be the only true thing. This position while undoubtedly philosophical seems clearly a result of his religious beliefs and his anthropomorphic centrism. Certainly a similar path of thought led to belief in gods and religion centuries earlier with the result being the world’s religions based around this core of an everlasting self. Amazingly there are a plethora of philosophers even today who continue to pursue this path. David Chalmers is one. He seems to have picked up the baton and is leading the charge restating Descartes position as what he calls the ‘hard’ problem. Basically his claim is that subjective experience can never be examined or explained by science. He and others of the same mind-set follow this subjective internal reasoning belief in an attempt to separate mind and brain. To essentially take the same dualistic stance as Descartes to claim that consciousness and the mind are something separate from the brain. They believe and have stated that neurologists will never be able to measure or demonstrate consciousness as a function of the brain. This all seems a smokescreen and ruse to me to protect their academic turf or some such thing. I find it hard to believe that anyone could make such a claim and expect it to be seen as science.  
Daniel Dennett a philosopher himself finds it hard to believe as well and continues to fight against these non-scientific claims. There is no scientific evidence to support dualistic mind/brain in any manner yet they continue to make the claim that science will never explain consciousness. Let’s first look at a few facts.
Our brains are approximately 1200 cc in volume and contain over 80-100 billion neurons, each connected to thousands of other neurons forming a massively parallel multiprocessing organ. Now certainly we do not at the present time have the ability to measure all neuronal firings or neurotransmitter and inhibitor concentrations of the brain in real time. Nor could we even attempt to do so without destroying the brain itself. Yet if we were capable of that level of monitoring then almost certainly we’d be able to explain the workings of not only consciousness, but of memory, dreams and other cognitive processes as well.
            Dennett in his book “Consciousness Explained” and in numerous papers, articles and interviews since its publication, details this controversy from his position of evolutionary materialism. Consciousness exists; it exists throughout the animal kingdom at various levels and has developed as a natural survival mechanism. It is nothing special. We can’t yet specify exactly the neuronal or brain functions that describe it, but that is no reason to invoke mysticism (dualism). As with any science there are things we do not yet know and science is perfectly willing to accept that unknown while it continues to search and investigate in hopes of learning more. Unlike religion and philosophy, science does not make up unsupportable answers for question it cannot address.
            All living things have some form of awareness, they must in order to live and survive. They must be able to distinguish between self and surroundings. Now this rudimentary self-awareness may not be in the same conscious manner of awareness as it is in creatures with dedicated nervous systems but the result is the same. Even single celled animals are capable of identifying food sources/particles, surrounding that food with pseudopods and absorbing it to provide fuel to grow and reproduce. Plants turn their leaves to the sun and sink their roots into nutrient rich soil. The cells in any complex organism are constantly communicating with each other via protein and enzyme messages released and absorbed across their cell boundaries. In short they are aware of what is themselves and what is their environment and they make the most of it. As we move ‘up’ the tree of life the capabilities, awareness and abilities increase dramatically. Common to them all though is that they share this core awareness of self and environment up to and including human consciousness.
            If we look across the depth and breadth of living things we see that beyond simple awareness there are a plethora of refinements and enhancements that spring from environmental awareness due to evolution. These adaptations create a full spectrum of awareness and consciousness from virus awareness of environment to human self-consciousness.
            Consciousness on the surface seems quite simple. When you are awake and aware as opposed to asleep or sedated or in some other altered state you are conscious. And while that is a perfectly usable definition if we dig a bit deeper things start to get more complicated. Brain wave monitors (electroencephalographs EEGs) have identified a variety of common brain states based on the frequency, location and duration of neuronal firings in the human (and other animal) brains. These are very large-scale indicators of major brain activity. They tell us nothing about the details of thought, memory or sensation. They were however the first indicators of brain states such as consciousness, awareness, relaxation, active thinking and problem solving. Early studies identified brain characteristics like alpha waves, theta waves, delta waves which each fall into a defined bands of frequencies and were found to correspond to various brain states like alertness, sleeping, focused problem solving, fear and others. Ongoing work in monitoring, imaging using CT-Scans and fMRI among others and studying brain activity has continued to bring us more detail about the specifics of brain and neural processing. The biggest issue is the extreme complexity of the brain. The human brain consists of lobes and sections to which certain activities and abilities are associated. It is as though there are multiple brains built one upon the other. In comparing the brain anatomy from various creatures, including humans it is evident that there are ‘older’ and ‘younger’ sections of the brain. This makes sense from an evolutionary perspective. Our ‘reptilian brain,’ the cerebellum is the oldest and physically the lowest part of the brain just off the brain stem which itself is even older from an evolutionary perspective. The cerebellum in turn is covered by the cerebrum and the neo-cortex. The ‘older’ parts of the brain are responsible for the more basal functions of life such as breathing, heartbeat, maintaining body temperature and metabolism. These are mostly all handled with little to no awareness by our consciousness yet are far from isolated.

If your breathing is stopped it is the cerebellum that initiates the disaster signals that trigger action in all areas of the brain and you are suddenly and fully aware and conscious of your need for air. Slightly more subtle can be the flight-or-fight response to a perceived danger. You might see a saber-toothed tiger lurking in the bushes ahead, your cerebellum immediately and without your direction begins preparing your body for survival. Your heartbeat increases, you senses become ever more alert, your muscles prepare to run or defend yourself. As you become aware of the situation you may over-ride any immediate action by freezing and thinking, or you may not, you may just run in terror. All of these things have aspects of both consciousness and unconsciousness about them. Normally we are not aware of our breathing or heartbeat but we can focus our attention on them and control them to some extent.
            Clearly memory, a separate mental function, plays into consciousness as well, such as ‘what did that last saber-tooth tiger I escaped from do?’ Or while you are thinking about that last encounter the tiger may already be upon you. Survival has to do with many things, many decisions both by evolution and by intelligent awareness.
While it would seem that most researchers agree that consciousness is that alert, aware, focused state of mind that is monitoring and reacting to real-time (or sometimes memory) events, there are a number of medical and research studies that might put this into question. Two of the more well-known ones are split brain and blindsight studies.
            Sometimes in order to stop seizures it is necessary to separate the two halves of the brain surgically. The seizures are like electrical storms in the brain which can rage out of control sending multitudes of signals in random patterns throughout the brain. Sometimes by severing the connections between the brain halves the storm can be stopped in its tracks and allow for a reasonably normal life for the patient. This is done surgically by severing the corpus callosum which connects the two halves of the brain. Where this becomes interesting to consciousness is when tests are done in the laboratory which separate the left and right halves of the sensory input to the brain. Since each half of the brain is responsible for the opposite half of the body it becomes very interesting to test awareness of sensory inputs and what the patient is conscious of in their regard.
            For example, a divider might be placed between the patient’s eyes and images displayed on a computer screen to one eye or the other or both.  This classic study which won the Nobel Prize was done by Roger Sperry in the 1950s. Images show to the right eye/side could be named properly. Images shown to the left side could be drawn by the left hand, but not named. Similar results were found with touching/holding objects like a key or a block. The subject could name the object if placed in his/her right hand, but could not name the object if placed in their left hand. Yet when asked for find the object with their right hand among a group of objects they could unfailingly find it, even though unaware of it and unable to name it. So what does this say about consciousness?
Sperry concluded that there seemed to be two separate streams of consciousness – one in each hemisphere of the brain. It seems from these studies and others that followed that consciousness is linked to language processing at least as far as being able to communicate and be aware of that consciousness. By the same token there is clearly an awareness of sensory input that can be used non-verbally and apparently without awareness by the subject to answer questions (e.g. selecting the correct object with the opposite hand). From this it would seem that our normal consciousness, our self-awareness is only that awareness that is processed by the language-understanding part of our brains in the left hemisphere.
            Blindsight studies are similar and are typically done with subjects that have had one half of the visual context (i.e. one side of the brain) damaged or destroyed through, disease, stroke, etc. Results are similar in that subjects appear to be able to respond to visual stimuli from the blind eye or eyes without any consciousness awareness of sensory input or cognitive processing. In a study with a monkey as cited in the reference section, the monkey’s visual cortex was completely removed. And certainly she could no longer see but still displayed ‘sighted’ behaviors such as protecting her eyes from threats/injury and was at times able to respond to visual stimuli and even navigate through her environment avoiding obstacles. Studies with human subjects have shown similar results. Identifying objects (though not consciously) and navigating in such a way as to avoid obstacles. 
            So what happens to consciousness when you sleep? Clearly by experience and by brain-wave monitoring you are not conscious, yet there are dreams that you often remember upon awaking (clearly identified as dreams, as opposed to memories of real events or experiences). Normal sleep is a very different experience than being under general anesthesia wherein time seems to simply stop, leaving a blank nothingness whereas with sleep it seems one is still aware of passing time.
            What of other altered states of consciousness? Falling-down drunk or high as a kite? Seems they are somewhat similar to sleeping or possibly being anesthetized. When the awake/aware/consciousness is impaired we are not fully conscious. So is it then consciousness that is ‘us?’  Is myself only my consciousness or something more, or different? And what does neurology say?
            We do not yet have any significant results from the Human Brain Mapping project which was initiated this year (2013) by President Obama, there is a similar initiative taking place in Europe and there is much anticipation that the results will be on the same order of magnitude as those of the Human Genome project. Still there is and has been significant research into brains, human and animal alike and not by p-zombies either, by actual scientists such as Stanislas Dehaene and Lionel Naccache who in their paper “Towards a cognitive neuroscience of consciousness: basic evidence and a workspace framework” lay out the basis of understanding consciousness from a neuroscience perspective in a clear and straight-forward manner (see the reference section for a link to the paper). They say,

“…the problem of the cognitive neuroscience of consciousness does not seem to pose any greater conceptual difficulty than identifying the cognitive and cerebral architectures for, say, motor action (identifying what categories of neural and/or information-processing states are systematically associated with moving a limb).”

As to the obstacles:

One major hurdle in realizing this program, however, is that we are still in the grip of a residual dualism∫ (Searle, 1998, p. 1939). Many scientists and philosophers still adhere to an essentialist view of consciousness, according to which conscious states are ineffable experiences of a distinct nature that may never be amenable to a physical explanation. Such a view, which amounts to a Cartesian dualism of substance, has led some to search for the bases of consciousness in a different form of physics (Penrose, 1990.”

            While they lay out a framework for studying consciousness from a scientific perspective, much work has already taken palace and continues. Increasingly detailed scans of the brain (generally while doing specific tasks) with CAT scans, MRI and fMRI scans are filling in gaps in our understanding. FMRI scans in particular allow scientists to see which areas of the brain are most active based on blood flow. Unfortunately the resolution of fMRI scans is only 2-3 mm which is huge compared to individual neurons which are only 4 to 100 micrometers (.004 - .1 mm). Other scanning techniques such as PET scans can detect individual radioisotopes and thus specific neurotransmitters at synapses but require use of radioisotopes and looking at very specific areas. These techniques are further advancing our understanding of how the brain operates and will certainly contribute to the understanding of consciousness
            We are almost daily getting closer to the holy grail of being able to duplicate the brain’s functionality and capacity (e.g. the number of neurons, their functionality and interconnections). Many neuroscientists and computer scientists think we may be capable of this feat by mid-century 2050 or so. Does that mean we would be able to duplicate or transfer a human brain into a computer? Not very likely. There is still much we are learning about the brain, how neurons work and the vast complex interconnected multiprocessing biology of the brain.
            Much work is taking place in the computer and artificial intelligence area. These are not always and not often consciousness type work, but there is much work in implementing neural network type systems which are modeled after the way the brain is wired. They simulate neurons, synapses and massive connectivity.
            Other areas where computers are informing the investigation of consciousness are in natural language understand system (sometimes neural networks as well). One recent example is the Watson system from IBM which defeated the all-time Jeopardy! champions. It is a massive system capable of understanding the often ambiguous questions and formulating answers (in the form of a question) from its mass storage (which includes a large part of the internet – Wikipedia, dictionaries, and encyclopedias stored locally as part of the Watson system).
            Recent attempts at duplicating the brain or sections of it are making progress as well. The Blue Brain project at the Brain and Mind Institute in Lausanne, Switzerland is attempting to create a synthetic mammalian brain down to the molecular level. As of July 2011 they have created a cellular mesocircuit of 100 neocortical columns with a million cells in total. The plan is to duplicate a rat brain rat brain by next year 2014 with 100 mesocircuits totaling a hundred million cells. They expect to create the equivalent of a human brain by 2023 which would be 1000 times the size and capacity of the rat brain.
             Some interesting work is being done by Alice Parker, a USC electrical engineering professor with carbon nanotubes. She and her team have been able to create a transistor from these carbon nanotubes which behaves like the synapse where two neurons meet. This could have significant implications for future brain simulations. Duplicating the synapse between neurons which operate by electro-chemical interaction and enhancement and inhibition by neurotransmitters is a significant hurdle to be overcome in duplicating the functionality of a brain
            So what then of consciousness? What do we take from this examination? Perhaps it is that consciousness is a small part of what we, as well as all other animals are. An important part certainly, a part we would all dearly love to live on forever despite everything we know indicating otherwise. Still if nothing else we can live on in the memory of others, possibly in the things we leave behind, our writing, our images, and our thoughts in some manner or another. If we have children our genes will be passed on as they were passed to us from our parents. Life is a continuous sequence with each of us a single link in its chain. Our thoughts too, informed by family, friends and all we experience both internally and externally become part of our mind and are accessible to our consciousness. Parts of that we can pass on for some fleeting time through our work, through those who have known us and through the things we leave behind. We each are only a tiny eddy, a tiny ripple in the river of life which flows on with or without us, we each take our existence from that river and return to it and on it flows whichever way the wind does blow. As for me, I’ll just sit here contentedly and watch that river flow.



Brain Waves:

Split Brain Studies:


The Hard Problem of Consciousness:

AI, computer brain simulations, etc:

The Blue Brain Project:

Towards a cognitive neuroscience of consciousness: basic evidence and a workspace framework:



Brain Drawing Image:
About the Author

Kenny A. Chaffin writes poetry, fiction and nonfiction and has published poems and fiction in Vision Magazine, The Bay Review, Caney River Reader, WritersHood, Star*Line, MiPo, Melange and Ad Astra and has published nonfiction in The Writer, The Electron, Writers Journal and Today’s Family. He grew up in southern Oklahoma and now lives in Denver, CO where he works hard to make enough of a living to support two cats, numerous wild birds and a bevy of squirrels. His poetry collections No Longer Dressed in Black, The Poet of Utah Park, The Joy of Science, A Fleeting Existence, a collection of science essays How do we Know, and a memoir of growing up on an Oklahoma farm - Growing Up Stories are all available at Amazon.com: http://www.amazon.com/-/e/B007S3SMY8. He may be contacted through his website at http://www.kacweb.com

He may be contacted through his website at http://www.kacweb.com