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Saturday, March 10, 2012

Understanding Consciousness

There are three great order giving systems functioning in our world – by ‘our world’ I mean, quite simply, the place in the universe where life, and consciousness, are possible.  They are: the Physical System of Order (PSO) which is all of the processes, known and unknown, of an orderly universe.  The Living System of Order (LSO) which is made up of the specialized applications of principles and physical structures that, under very particular conditions of physical order stability, organize matter into the discrete, self replicating units of living things.  And the Consciousness System of Order (CSO) which is a way of organizing information, using a variety of supporting physical structures, such that it resides both within and beyond the confines of a living structure. Initially the consciousness order was mediated by the human nervous system, but increasingly is being both stored and implemented beyond it.

The Living Order organizes in ways that are impossible (extremely low positive probabilities) for the Physical Order, but, under the special concentrated conditions of the living state of matter, living organization can produce an immense variety of different forms all on the same basic pattern: a paramecium and an elephant are essentially the same thing when compared to a quartz crystal. 

The central process of the Living Order is evolution and the information nexus is DNA/protein.  By this I mean that life is primarily an information phenomenon that organizes molecular structures and processes through the designs of molecules that have been so situated in the process that information about the functional continuity (success) of certain structures is selected and stored in them and that their designs function to implement the information that they contain [1].

The Consciousness Order organizes in ways that are impossible for both the Physical Order and the Living Order – again, impossible means extremely low positive probability.  But, as with our understanding of the living state from a few hundreds of years ago, still largely a confused concept in our thinking: thinking about the tool that is doing the thinking, we are drawn immediately into a metaphysical realm since there seems to be no physical handles to hold.  The brain is clearly the underlying instrument, but its pink and grey white jelly doesn’t translate easily into the myriad activities that it has organized out of our biological actions in the material world.  And such language and ‘ideas’ have led to the most massive misunderstanding and misguided functioning associated with any organism – ever.

It is my argument that we need to step back a bit – actually quite a bit – from the ways that we have considered consciousness and awareness; we need to first understand consciousness as a system for handling and ordering information.  The first step forward again is to see the consciousness order in its relationship to the other “new” system of order in the universe, the Living Order.  The Living Order presents the model: information that was never collected, that was never consistent enough, dense enough or never relational is the general and vital information of life.  This information is manipulated in a system of order that selects what information will be stored, the form in which it will be stored and the form and manner in which the stored information will be implemented: the nature of the DNA/protein nexus establishes the forming and limiting conditions.  Processes and structures as distant from each other as the citric acid cycle, the actions of a hummingbird’s wing and an octopus eye all find their way to fruition through these same molecular narrows.

Since humans have created an immense variety of ‘things’ and behaviors that seem so unlikely in the Living Order, the immediate suspicion must be that a new system of order is functioning…and so it must have analogous properties, but made up on different patterns.  There must be processes of selection, organization, storage and implementation that are all related through some information nexus that holds the system together as a system.

Just as life has taken on a “life of its own” in relation to the physical world, then it can be expected that, at least, the possibility exists that a new system of order – if it is a fully functioning system of order – might take on a new place in the universe.  And a new place it is in the sense that a new order of probability relations exists that did not exist before.

What makes this view important is that these designs for the ordered handling of specific classes of information generate consistent systems within which orderly and understandable classes of outcomes can be expected.  As such it is a pragmatic and evocative “theory of consciousness”, not one intended to assign physical order processes, living order processes and consciousness order processes together into a common consensus or, at another extreme, seek for some ‘vital principle’ and ‘infusion of soul’ to explain the patterns of action that arise from ways of organizing information that did not exist previously.

The basis of the Consciousness System of Order requires only the PSO and the LSO, as we currently understand them, and the specialized consistencies that allow for a complex nervous system; questions of the subjective experiences of conscious awareness are not the central concerns of this idea.  However, leaving aside awareness in no way renders the consequences of this idea trivial.

Most of the academic considerations of consciousness have to do with issues of dualistic and monistic “theories”, the mechanical, chemical or structural correlates of “conscious” behavior and increasingly the attempt to find some deep physical basis, often in quantum phenomena, that “explains” the subjective experience.  The CSO in the model presented here is concerned with the consequences in evolution, the behavioral products and the ecological consequences, of this new way of selecting, organizing, storing and implementing information.  Most studies of consciousness are concerned with making awareness sensible (a tautology?); this model is concerned with making religion, politics, economics and human ecological relations sensible.

I will, in later essays, look at some of the academic arguments about the nature of consciousness: Pinker vs. Fodor, some of the implications that quantum mechanics may have, various field theories and some of the larger “universal” notions; but it is the properties of the CSO as it functions in the world that are ultimately the most compelling.  I will end this essay with an example.

The element Iron, Fe, functions in the PSO in a variety of ways.  It is the largest element formed commonly by stellar nuclear behavior, has quite stable isotopes and is therefore one of the most common of the heavier elements.  As a “heavy” element it tends to accumulate at gravitational centers and so seems to make up the core of “cool” astronomic bodies like planets.  The transitional nature of its electron structure allows it to combine with a number of other elements in several different “oxidation states.”

In the LSO iron atoms are captured in macromolecular cages and their capacity to exist in several oxidation states are exploited in a variety of ways, most significantly, to allow a liquid to be supersaturated with oxygen at levels orders of magnitude over normal saturation levels; and thus animals can be large and their blood is red.  Iron is not “used” in this way in the PSO outside of the LSO.

In the CSO iron is mixed with a variety of other materials, other metals and some non-metals in exact proportions in precisely controlled procedures to produce irons and steels with defined properties (as well as used in thousands of chemicals).  These materials are used to produce structures and objects in the millions and billions that could not exist in the universe without the intervention of a specialized information handling system capable of selecting, organizing, storing and implementing information of the properties of the iron atom.

Life, the LSO, has existed on this planet for nearly 4 billion years as a system of organizing and handling information in the ways unique to life.  The CSO has existed on the planet for, at most, a little over one hundred thousand years; and has been for that time expanding its information base as it develops and more fully inflates its structural designs.  It is this understanding that we must contend with; that we are made in part of a new way of organizing information, a way that is untried in the history of the universe and clearly – just look at how we deal with a single element – one of immense and unprecedented power.

Just as the organizing power of life seems to be irrepressible when in conditions of sufficient stability to allow it at all, the organizing power of the CSO is similarly irrepressible – and its most irrepressible qualities may be quite independent of the subjective qualities that we have been so eager to understand.  It is the properties of consciousness as a process that selects, organizes, stores and implements information in ways, new to the universe, with which we must come to grips.

Here are links to some more of my essays that deal with these ideas:

[1] It should be noted that one of the conditions that allows the PSO and LSO to function in sustaining relationship is compatibility of time frame.  Large scale PSO changes on the earth take place over durations to which LSO system can adapt and integrate.  The adaptive processes of the LSO are sensitive to levels of change in the PSO that allow the LSO to extend its adaptive range rather than constantly being overwhelmed by them.  It will be seen that this cannot be said for the adaptive designs of the CSO.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

A Meta-trip To Video Game Land

When beginning a metacognitive journey one should be at least as diligent as the mapping application on a mobile phone and ask whether to use one’s present location as a reference – or not.

The first and most important recognition (cool! re-cognition!) is the fluidity of meaning associated with words.  Every word is a potential point of bifurcation in a journey of understanding, but some words just jump out and slap you as you read (and think).  In those cases you are presented with two options: attempt to discover the active field of meaning intended, expected or that limits the producer of the words; or to, more or less rigidly, apply your own field of meaning and see how the conceptual structure develops within your limits of present understanding.

I have just read a rather astounding interview article that offers most forms of opportunity to practice these skills: it is called ‘Can Computer Games Save Us All? New Research Shows How Gaming Can Help Cure Our Social Ills.’

Terrance McNally interviews game designer Jane McGonigal.  Applying my mapping tool, I find that my present location is quite far from the destination that the article is describing; the road is both long and with unmapped regions.  Though I am willing to be shown the way, in fact, I lack confidence that such a place exists at all.

*  *  *
Let us begin with this simple assertion: that experience – and the form of experience – matters in the subsequent behavior of a person.  A person whose experience is primarily associated with hunting and gathering essential food and material with the assistance and company of intimate, life-long associates will be different in important ways from a person whose experience is more fragmented into a wide variety of ways to obtain essential needs and whose associations are also highly varied in form.

In other words, it is axiomatic that people who do not spent 20 to 40 hours a week playing video games will have a different experience of life than someone who does.  The question should be: “How are these experiences different?” and not only: “Are there bad consequences associated with, especially violent, video games?”

A second axiom can be called forth: as an evolved organism, humans have, albeit of considerable latitude, consistent traits that define expected patterns of species’ behavior.  In other, somewhat less academic sounding, words: “Does a bear shit in the woods?” Well yes, unless it is taught to ride a bicycle and use a toilet – we’ll not get into the hazards associated with claws and toilet paper.  The problem for humans is that most of us have been taught to ‘ride a bicycle!’  All of our many forms of bicycle riding cloud our perception and understanding of ourselves as a bear in the woods.

And so, just what sort of bicycle riding is video gaming?

Academic research is its own form of bicycle riding, but that is the importance of metacognitive practice – to remain aware of the bicycle we are on as we roll around in our cognitive space.  One of the first and most important of metacognitive recognitions is that we habituate very quickly to consistent and common practices; this is one of those ‘expected patterns of species’ behavior’ and a damned useful one until it isn’t; and it isn’t when habituation prevents us from realizing what is most important in a question.

Social scientists are wary of ‘big picture’ questions; they are extremely difficult to research well, often requiring expensive, large, longitudinal correlative studies.  Most real social questions have political and economic implications, and thus those same dangers.  It is easier, safer and more rewarding to pick narrowly defined questions that can be studied with reasonable budgets in reasonable amounts of time.  This doesn’t mean that ‘big picture’ questions don’t get attention, only that they must be sewn together from often ill-fitting pieces cut out for other purposes.

With these thoughts as background, let us begin.  First the title of the interview article, ‘Can Computer Games Save Us All? New Research Shows How Gaming Can Help Cure Our Social Ills.’  The words themselves DEMAND attention: “save us all”, “new research”, “cure our social ills.”

I’ve seen the TED Talk by Ms. McGonigal, and I have to say that it looks like a propaganda piece conflating the fact that spending many hours a week doing anything will have powerful consequences, the supposition that ‘socially positive’ experiences can (and should) be designed into video games and that if everyone played such games for something like a full-time job, the world would be a better place.

Before getting into the research, what is my present location on the cognitive map?  First and foremost I don’t assume that all experiences are essentially neutral accept for duration; I think there are great differences between hiking for 3 hours in the desert and 3 hours playing a video game based on desert warfare.  I think that 20 hours a week spent working with 2 or 3 other people on a farm producing much of one’s own food would have dramatically different consequences for a person’s general thought process and sense of self compared to 20 hours a week spent sitting at a computer ‘earning’ the money to buy that same food (this is not to ignore potential differences in food quality, but that is not the subject).  I do assume that how, and with whom, one spends one’s time is vital to what a person ‘is.’ I also predict that there can be little objection to these views since I am only assuming that the different conditions of life would produce differences in experience and self-expression.

I further have a few expectations for the people around me, expectations that may or may not relate to the above assumptions.  And that is key, what experiences do the people around you need to have so that they meet your expectations, and what experiences do you need to have so your expectations are reasonable in light of what humans are.

Now we can talk about video games and how they might fit into the human experience.

The research is largely uninforming regards the questions that I have, primarily are video games in general good for our lives or not?  (if you think such a question inappropriate, remember that we arrogantly ask and answer that kind of question for other species all the time.)  Research questions are more like: do specific types of violence (or helping behaviors) increase or decrease in relation to specific amounts and types of video game playing? 

And the results are in for that one: specific types of violence increase and helping behavior decreases with increasing amounts of exposure to violent video games (An update on the effects of playing violent video games, Craig A. Anderson, Journal of Adolescence 27 (2004) 113–122).  The effect is stronger than a number of health relationships for which, we as a society, have taken serious action.  But like so many of the forms of experience in which we engage today, there is vast infrastructure and wealth associated with their continued delivery.

But Ms. McGonigal’s message, a message I have largely rejected above, contains another much deeper aspect; it is made of two parts.  First the trivial, though powerful: the digital world is here to stay and will develop more and more powerful forms.  The second is the one: that digital experience, understanding and daily practice will both enhance our human understanding and change who and what we are – that games are just the weak secondhand smoke of the deep full-lunged drag on the digital universe.

I can see that I’m going to have hit the ‘locate’ feature on my metacognitive mapping application, though I am certain that I will not be in Ms. McGonigal’s town; I will be some place other than where I think I am right now.