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What Can We Really Know About The External World?

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This is the third in an occasional series on “deep science,” a rational way of reconciling scientific method with the human need to find meaning and purpose. See the entire series HERE.

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Science has been a very powerful tool for our collective co-creation of the external world. There is, however, obviously no complete consensus on the nature of the external world and our relationship to it as human beings, and we can rest assured that there never will be. That’s a good thing. Science isn’t about absolute truth, and nor is the “deep science” I’m fleshing out in this series of essays.

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Rather, science (deep or conventional) is an asymptotic process of discovery that hopefully gets ever closer to truth over time. That process is surely not linear, however, and we’ve seen with the history of science many mis-steps and culdesacs.

We’ll never actually know how close we are to truth because we’ll never know the extent of what we don’t know, the extent to which we are on a local peak when there is in fact a much larger peak off in the distance that we can’t even see from our local peak. This gives me comfort because I like the promise of eternal mystery, of eternal discovery and eternal creation of new solutions for old conundrums.

In addition to the tools of modern science, spiritual techniques can be helpful tools in plumbing the depths of our single domain of experience. Spiritual pursuits, under this formulation, constitute those activities that examine the parts of our single domain of experience that we spatialize as being “in here” (that is, in our heads) as opposed to “out there” in the external world. (See Part II for more on the “single domain of experience” that is all each of us knows about the world directly). As we saw in Part II, however, there is no firm line between “in here” and “out there” because all of our experience is given to us in the same field of experience and we add spatial coordinates after the fact.

Space Is Inferred From Our Experience

Continuing our examination of what we know and how we know it, let’s look deeper into how we turn the raw data of our senses into an entire world. This is part of my attempt to build a firm foundation for individual and collective knowledge in the spirit of Descartes, Kant, Buddha and many other philosophers.

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When we think about it, we realize that there is no space inherent in our domain of experience. Space is inferred. What I mean by this is that our mapping of the contents of our experience is itself a process of inferring space, based on the simple fact that all contents of our experience are innately not close or far, they simply arise in our experience without any built-in spatial coordinates. Experience itself is inherently dimensionless: it’s just there all at once.

tambookMy experience of what I generally think of as, let’s say, pain from a headache, which seems very much “in here,” is no closer spatially in my field of experience, than my sensory experience of my computer screen in front of me, or of my experience of the moon or stars on a starry night. All of these experiences seem to be presented to me, the center of experience, as a unified set of experiences in each moment. This set of experiences changes in each moment, and this constitutes the stream of consciousness. But there is no innate spatial difference between my experience of my headache and my experience of a starry night. Space is inferred through our ongoing process of creating a model of the world in our own heads in each moment.

Just as the external world is inferred from our sensory experience, so is the reality of our bodies inferred. I don’t disagree with common sense that we very likely do have bodies. But this likelihood is entirely inferred. Again, the only thing we know with certainty is the existence of our own experience in each moment to moment to moment. We could be brains in a vat, connected to sophisticated virtual reality displays. Are we really brains in a vat? This is unlikely, but we can’t rule it out as a possibility. And deep science is all about being careful and methodical in what we think we know about ourselves and the world.

I do not agree, however, with the Idealist (Western or Eastern) suggestion that “reality is all in our heads.” All we know of reality is, by definition, in our heads (or at least localized in our heads), but reality itself is very likely not all in our heads. Science is all about using the evidence of our senses, and the enhanced evidence made possible by various scientific instruments, to probe the details of the inferred world outside of each of us as individuals.

My reason for stressing this point is that we need, in crafting a robust deep science, to be extremely careful in our approach to knowledge. We need to follow Descartes’ lead on this key point but be even more careful than he was. Only through such careful construction of the foundations of our knowledge can we have confidence in our inferred conclusions. Figure 1 attempts to illustrate some of my points here visually.

Figure 1. The single domain of experience and various sub-aspects of experience.

Single domain of experience diagram

We may revise this diagram to show the more conventional view of reality as proceeding from our mental realm out beyond the confines of our body into the universe more broadly, with space inferred from our direct sensory experience.

Figure 2. Space is inferred as our experience is arranged into a three-dimensional world.

Space is inferred

Figure 1 attempts to show how different experiences arise in the single domain of experience: they just pop up here and there and we have no idea why or how. Figure 2 shows how our minds organize the various experiences that arise into a world divided, most fundamentally, into the world “out there” and the world “in here” (that is, in our heads). This division has a lot to commend it because it sure seems like there is an important boundary between our heads and various senses and the world that seems to exist inside those windows to the world. However, the careful first-person approach I’ve outlined here shows that there is no innate division between our individual experiences, in terms of outside and inside. It’s all “inside” in terms of the fundamental experience that makes up our consciousness. Our experiences, once they arise, are then automatically assigned the spatial coordinates of either “in here” or “out there” by the evolved ability of our mind to create a model of the world that has helped us to survive over the eons of our species’ evolution. This spatialization is largely a subconscious process.

“Substantially-overlapping Magisteria”

We’re now back full circle to the idea that a Deep Science can provide an integration of the traditional concerns of science and religion. So rather than ceding to science everything that was traditionally covered by religion and spirituality, and then denying the validity of those very topics essential to religion and spirituality – an approach that constitutes the materialist’s preferred “integration” of science and spirit – the Deep Scientist recognizes the validity of the traditional inquiries native to religion and the importance of spiritual inquiries into the nature of our own minds. The answers to the various spiritual and religious inquires will be different than traditional religions provide, to be sure, but the inquiries themselves remain valid under this new framing.

The Deep Scientist recognizes the need for, and the validity of, asking ultimate questions about meaning. The Deep Scientist also recognizes the need to be rigorous and she agrees with a preference for falsifiability, the traditional modern criterion of gold standard science. The Deep Scientist thus recognizes that religion, science and philosophy are “substantially overlapping magisteria” that can fairly be thought of as different framings of a single underlying line of questions: who are we, what is the nature of the external world, and how do we fit within it?  Gould’s NOMA (discussed in my last column) becomes SOMA: Substantially-Overlapping Magisteria.

What About Alexander’s Visions Of Heaven?

In closing, let’s look back at Eben Alexander’s relaxation of the truth with respect to his coma and his experiences of a heaven-like reality, raised in my last column. Deep Science and today’s science agree with the need to corroborate his claims with evidence such as, for example, the testimony of his doctor who kept him in a medically-induced coma. Where Deep Science differs is that it won’t automatically dismiss the kinds of claims that Alexander makes, as many scientific types would today. There could be a heaven and there could be souls – even if both claims seem to be highly unlikely given what we know about the physical world and our own minds. As with all claims, however, the Deep Scientist will take the appropriate evidence in hand in order to assess such claims, viewing the reported experiences as an unusual but interesting part of the single domain of experience for one person. Deep Science will consider this first-person evidence in the context of everything else that we know about the universe, including other first-person testimony and our current understanding of the laws of nature (better described as “habits of nature,” but that’s a topic for a future essay).

The Deep Scientist truly interested in the validity of near-death experiences will interview and catalog these experiences where they are claimed and will, using the hard-nose of empirical inquiry, attempt to come to conclusions about what is really going on. “What is really going on” could, conceivably, be actual near-death experiences. We can be open to these possibilities without being so open that our brains fall out of our heads.  The key is to remain open to new evidence and new interpretations while still being rigorous in our reasoning.

Summing up, we’ve made some headway in developing a first-person science by stressing the need for corroboration of extraordinary claims, but not automatically dismissing first-person evidence. By conceptualizing reality for each of us as a single domain of experience, the deep science approach I’ve fleshed out here allows us to plumb the nature of our own minds and the nature of the external world with the same set of tools. And by getting our toolbox in order we can get to some pretty interesting insights, which we’ll explore in future installments.

______________________

Tam Hunt is a philosopher and lawyer based in Santa Barbara, CA, and Hilo, HI, and a visiting scholar at UC Santa Barbara.

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Consciousness

The Study of Fundamental Consciousness Entering the Mainstream

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In Brief

  • The Facts:

    Consciousness is appearing to be a fundamental property, just like liquids, solids and gas, consciousness and its connection to the physical material world is now gaining big time credibility.

  • Reflect On:

    How much do we have yet to discover? Are we ready to abandon what we thought we knew in light of new discoveries and evidence?

The world-renowned neuroscientist Christof Koch, spent nearly two decades working alongside the co-discoverer of the DNA molecule, Francis Crick. Their mission was to find the neurobiological basis of consciousness. They discovered many insights into cognition and the functioning of perception, yet the central enigma, the nature of consciousness itself, remained mysteriously elusive.

In 2009, Koch shocked the scientific community by publishing his conviction that consciousness probably isn’t just in brains, but is a fundamental feature of reality. This is a view known to philosophers as ‘panpsychism.’ The theory Koch is now dedicating his research to is called ‘Integrated Information Theory’ or ‘IIT.’ It is the brainchild of neuroscientist Giulio Tononi of the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

In explaining his theory, Tononi asks us to consider a simple light sensitive photo diode like those found in a digital camera. A simple diode might respond to just two states: light or dark. We could present our diode with any number of images, yet regardless of the picture, the diode conforms to one of only two possible states. Is it light, or is it dark?

Now consider yourself looking at the same picture, lets say, of the Eiffel Tower on a beautiful spring day in Paris. For us, looking at this image results in a reduction from a near infinity of possible states. Not an image of the Andromeda galaxy, not a childhood picture of your mother, not cells dividing in a Petri dish and so on.  Because of the vast number of images we are capable of recognizing, each one is highly informative. For Tononi, the vast amount of information capable of being integrated in the brain means that we have a comparatively huge capacity for consciousness.

Tononi’s theory, that consciousness is born out of networks with high integrated information, has novel ways of being tested in the laboratory.

In studies with sleeping participants, Tononi and his colleagues used transcranial magnetic stimulation to send a ripple of activity through the cortex of sleeping participants. The researchers found that when dreaming, this ripple reverberated through the cortex longer than when participants were in stages of dreamless sleep. This demonstrated that during dreaming, when the brain is conscious, the cortex has a higher degree of integration.

In another experiment, the researchers built tiny robots known as ‘animats’ that were placed into mazes. The animats used simple integrated networks capable of evolving over sequential generations. To their surprise, the greater the degree of integration that the animats evolved, the quicker they were able to escape the mazes. For Tononi this finding suggested that consciousness may play a more central role in evolution than had previously been thought.

The mathematical value of integrated information in a network is known as phi. But Tononi’s theory, now the topic of serious mainstream discussion, has an extraordinary implication. Phi didn’t just occur in brains, -it is a property of any network with a total informational content greater than its individual parts. Every living cell, every electronic circuit, even a proton consisting of just three elementary particles have a value of phi greater than zero. According to Integrated Information Theory, all of these things possess something, albeit but a glimmer of ‘what it is like’ to be them. Tononi states:

“Consciousness is a fundamental property, like mass or charge. Wherever there is an entity with multiple states, there is some consciousness. You need a special structure to get a lot of it but consciousness is everywhere, it is a fundamental property.”

Integrated information theory is in its infancy and there are still many questions it must face. Did the information of brains operate at the level of the neuron, or the protein, or something deeper still? The electromagnetic field of the brain, as observed by psi researcher Dean Radin, is always re-establishing its quantum connection to the entire universe. Could a much richer informational interaction exist than has yet been imagined?

Physicists such as John Wheeler have laid the groundwork for a radical new understanding of reality, in which matter, the laws and constants of nature, and indeed the entire universe is best described, not in terms of physical objects, but through the play and display of a fundamental dynamic information.

Quantum mechanics suggests that at the deepest level of nature, the entire physical universe is interconnected. Might the total information of the universe be integrated in some deep sense? Is it in a mysterious way conscious of itself?

As spiritual traditions throughout the ages have long asserted, instead of isolated and separate experiencing beings, we may experience on behalf of the greater evolving system in which we find ourselves.

In Koch’s highly anticipated 2012 book, ‘Consciousness – Confessions of a Romantic Reductionist’, he states:

“I do believe that the laws of physics overwhelmingly favored the emergence of consciousness. The universe is a work in progress. Such a belief evokes jeremiads from many biologists and philosophers but the evidence from cosmology, biology and history is compelling.”

Regardless of the validity of Tononi’s theory, today increasing numbers of scientists and academics are convinced that the existence of consciousness simply cannot be sensibly denied. The study of fundamental consciousness is now entering the mainstream. This movement consists of thinkers in and outside of the mind sciences. Yet despite their different academic backgrounds, they are united by two common convictions: that consciousness is an intrinsic rather than incidental emergence in the universe, and that any complete account of reality must include an explanation of it.

 Sources:

 Koch, C. (2009, August 18). A complex theory of consciousness: Is complexity the secret to sentience, to a panpsychic view of consciousness? Scientific American.

 Tononi, G. (2008). Consciousness as integrated information: A provisional manifesto. Biological Bulletin, 215(3), 216-242.

 Edlund, J. A., Chaumont, N., Hintze, A., Koch C., Tononi G., & Adami, C. (2011). Integrated information increases with fitness in the evolution of animats. PLoS Computational Biology, 7(10).

 Radin, D. I. (2006). Entangled Minds: Extrasensory experiences in quantum reality. New York: Simon & Schuster.

 Koch, C. (2012). Consciousness: Confessions of a Romantic Reductionist. MIT Press Books.

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Alternative News

If You Could Power Your Entire Home With 60 Minutes Of Cycling, Would You Do It?

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In Brief

  • The Facts:

    Mechanical energy, converted into kinetic energy can provide the energy that we use on a regular basis to power our homes and electronic devices.

  • Reflect On:

    Rather than focusing on the current problems in our world it is great to change gears and have a look at all of the solutions that are popping up all over the world.

Imagine if your morning workout could power your home for the entire day, all the way until your next morning workout. Well, you may not have to imagine, as this technology exists now. Manoj Bhargava has invented a new exercise bike that can power some homes for 24 hours after use for only sixty minutes per day.

This invention was a part of a new initiative to bring electricity to places that undergo frequent power outages or may only have access to power for a few hours during the day. In our modern age, going without electricity can really separate a person from the rest of the world. Bhargava’s mission is to bridge the gap for those who suffer from poverty and make it easier for them to access the same information as the rest of the world, potentially giving them more opportunities in life.

The Free Electric

The above heading is also the name of this awesome and innovative bike serving as a solution to a pretty significant issue in the underdeveloped nations of the world.

According to Bhargava, the Free Electric is meant to lead to “better health, more leisure time, better access to education and opportunities for entrepreneurship.” He also feels that it could, “literally change the world.”

Power to change the world? Bold statement, but if this is able to be implemented worldwide, I would absolutely have to agree with him. This technology not only has the capacity to assist those in poverty, but can also be used by the rest of the world as well as more and more people around the world who are aiming to reduce their usee of fossil fuels. I have a feeling that Millennials (such as myself) and younger generations would be all over this if its made available! Not only is it a great way to get your cardio in, but it provides FREE electricity that produces no other pollution.

As mentioned in the video, it is also a great solution in the face of natural, or even man made disasters because this type of electricity would not rely on that generated and sold by power companies. Perhaps even one day a way to stock up and store this energy will be possible — then, the opportunities here will be much more plentiful and could be a huge factor in reducing the amount of pollution our current methods of energy production are creating.

The Future Is Friendly

As much as there is sometimes destruction all around us, there is also innovation and ingenuity. Human beings have tremendous potential. Even though there are many problems that we as a society are facing, solutions are popping up and fast, and in most cases they already exist. Finding solutions doesn’t seem to be the problem, so ask yourself, what is?  It’s so great to see ideas such as these being conceptualized and then created and put into use so efficiently, it shows how our species is capable of stopping and potentially reversing some of the destruction that we have caused over the years.

This is absolutely a double win! We are constantly bombarded with news stories and articles that are telling us to be more active, stop sitting so much, and now with the Free Electric, we will have to be active before we can relax and enjoy the use of our precious technology.

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Discover

Physicists ‘Grow’ A Man Made Diamond From Nuclear Waste That’s Able To Generate Electricity

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In Brief

  • The Facts:

    Scientists have developed a technology that can convert leftover radioactive materials into diamond batteries to power a wide range of electronics.

  • Reflect On:

    Could this be the solution to use op all the radioactive materials on the planet and shut down nuclear power plants worldwide?

Currently there is more than 2 billion tons of nuclear waste across the globe. This nuclear waste is a hazardous threat to the environment if not disposed of correctly. Scientists have recently begun attempting to transform nuclear waste into batteries that could last for thousands of years. If they are successful with this conversion project it would be a double win, less nuclear waste contaminating our environment, and a way to reuse energy that was generated to give power to whatever requires it.

Diamond batteries that use the energy from leftover radioactive materials have been developed and tested by researchers at the University of Bristol. They are now hoping to be able to recycle the waste leftover from decommissioned nuclear power plants in the UK. According to the University, “New technology has been developed that uses nuclear waste to generate electricity in a nuclear-powered battery….A team of physicists and chemists from the University of Bristol have grown a man-made diamond that, when placed in a radioactive field, is able to generate a small electrical current.” (source)

How Does This Work?

According to The Independent,

Carbon-14 isotopes extracted from graphite blocks produced by the plant are infused with wafer-thin diamonds to create the batteries, which researchers say are capable of providing power on a “near-infinite basis”.

Potential applications range from powering hearing aids and pacemakers, to extending the range of spacecraft to distances much further than are currently possible.

“Eventually, a highly powerful version of a diamond battery could power a mobile phone,” James Barker, from the University of Bristol’s Faculty of Engineering, told The Independent.

“Primarily though, they are best for devices requiring long lifetime, low power and where it is difficult to replace energy sources.”

In order to make these diamond batteries safe for medical and consumer use they are encased in a non-radioactive diamond layer, which will absorb any radiation given off by the C14 source.

According to the University,

Unlike the majority of electricity-generation technologies, which use energy to move a magnet through a coil of wire to generate a current, the man-made diamond is able to produce a charge simply by being placed in close proximity to a radioactive source.

Tom Scott, Professor in Materials in the University’s Interface Analysis Centre and a member of the Cabot Institute, said: “There are no moving parts involved, no emissions generated and no maintenance required, just direct electricity generation.  By encapsulating radioactive material inside diamonds, we turn a long-term problem of nuclear waste into a nuclear-powered battery and a long-term supply of clean energy.”

Could This Be The Solution We’ve Been Searching For?

“The ultimate aim is to have a factory based at one of the former power stations in the South West that takes Carbon-14 isotopes directly from the graphite blocks for use in diamond batteries. This would significantly reduce the radioactivity of the remaining material, making it easier and safer to manage,” said Professor Tom Scott, director of the South West Nuclear Hub.

“With the majority of the UK’s nuclear power plants set to go offline in the next 10-15 years this presents a huge opportunity to recycle a large amount of material to generate power for so many great uses.”

Time will tell how effective this method that scientists have come up with will be able to be implemented worldwide, but if it is, just imagine the implications of what this technology could represent.

Is It Time To Move Away From Nuclear Energy?

You’d think since the Fukushima disaster there would be a worldwide agreement for countries to stop generating power from nuclear reactors and to safely shut down these plants. Nuclear disasters have devastating effects on our planet and all of it’s inhabitants, recovery from such accidents can take tens of thousands of years to lose their hazardous radioactivity. Take the Chernobyl disaster that occurred in 1986 and is now contained under a metal shell, this site will likely remain radioactive for up to 20,000 years.

Instead of waiting for these disasters to occur, shouldn’t we be safely dismantling these sites before any more devastating disasters occur? Thankfully many countries are vowing to shut down their nuclear power plants and we can only hope that the rest of the world will follow suit.

The Future Is Here

There are so many amazing technologies that have the capacity to revolutionize the way we use energy on this planet. Of course many of those are hidden from us, especially if they cannot be in some way profited from, and unfortunately as it seems, if they don’t exploit the environment and our resources in some way.

As innovative ideas abound and technology continues to rapidly develop, we have to assume that safer and more innovative means of producing electricity will be uncovered. Hopefully these technologies will also have the capacity to undo some of the damage that we have done to our planet.

At the end of the day, using nuclear energy is not needed anymore, and in reality nuclear waste should not even exist at this point in our development as a collective.

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