OBS: Included in this article: Interview, done by me, with Henry Markram, Director of “The Blue Brain Project” !
“Humans are the stuff of the cosmos examining itself“
In high school I was advised never to begin an essay with “I…” – Neither should it begin with a statement.. , – so, being an unruly character, – I‘ll do both: I am an atheist! – and here I am already getting myself into trouble, the truth being that I am not really comfortable stating this so firmly.
As far as considering the belief in supernatural beings to be bordering on the idiotic, I am fine. Also, I totally and emphatically reject the notion that atheism in any way equals immorality.
In fact, if you will excuse my French, it makes my hemorrhoids itch to learn from The Skeptic’s Dictionary, that according to Article IX, Sec. 2, of the Tennessee constitution, “No Atheist shall hold a civil office”.
Ok, – I can’t imagine this article has any practical implications in this day and age..
Anyone out there to tell me otherwise… ?
I can go along also, with notions of a purposeless Universe, existing in and of itself, seemingly having come into existence out of“nothing”. I am not, however,an atheist as defined by English poet Francis Thompson, a man who believes himself an accident.
Well, actually.. , “I”, as defined by my individual self, may very well be an “accident”, and one lucky son of a gun, but here you should understand “himself” less as any one being, and more as awareness per se.
Over the years, and as a student of psychology, I developed an allergy towards New Age woo-woo, although, initially, I thought it was only a matter of time before evidence would emerge, to the effect that consciousness constitutes the ground of being, or at least plays an essential role in the Universal setup.
However, the more I probed this mystery, the more skeptical I became, and eventually I rejected philosophical idealism. As for philosophical materialism / physicalism, according to which consciousness is merely an epiphenomenon, having accidentally come into existence, this position has always appeared to me as the dumbest of all.. – I mean, what is the point of there being a Universe, not knowing it is a universe.. , and, – indeed, – unaware of existing at all ?
That’s just it, you tell me, there is no point, and you may well be right.. , despite this being utterly counter-intuitive to the innermost feelings of most of us ..
I am not a dualist either. –I will not go into philosophical detail about why that is, – let’s just say I simply dislike the idea of a playground for God(s) and Angels, the spiritual realm, and a less subtle, material world for lesser creatures.. – That may be an oversimplification of dualism, and there are other dualisms, e.g. Platonic, Taoist, – but that is another story ..
So, – not (philosophical) idealism, not physicalism, not dualism.. – My working hypothesis, instead, is to view consciousness as being somehow hardwired into the fabric of nature and as being the inevitable “end-result” of existence, – a part of the “genetic” setup of the “physical” world “out there”, from the “beginning”..
( Excessive use of citation marks meant to emphasize the necessity / unavoidability of speaking in space-time dependent vocabulary).
This “essential role of consciousness in the Universal setup” may then be understood not necessarily as an indispensable player in the Universal scheme from the beginning , but more as a top-down causation potential, a “hardwired” potential, meaning: Because of the very potential of there being awareness, it was guaranteed and destined to “happen” / evolve ..
Thus, – the emergence of consciousness in the physical world may be viewed, not as ”.. most surprising and incomprehensible, because we know no reason that nature would not have remained forever unconscious and motionless”, – (De Broglie, in “New Perspectives in Physics“), – but as inevitable and a Universal birthright.
To be sure, we have yet to explain “the easy problems of consciousness” (Chalmers), – or, if you like, the “how” problems. The “hard problem” / “why”- problem turns out to be the easiest ! There is self-awareness simply because the Universe is naturally inclined to become conscious.
Anyway, even after having consulted with the founding fathers of quantum physics, many of whom thought deeply about the ( fundamental ..) role of consciousness in the physical world, – I came to the conclusion, that no credible evidence was anywhere to be found. At the end of the day, I was left with one single argument , – the absurdity of a Universe unaware of itself: Without awareness, no joy, no appreciation, etc. ! – (Granted, – no misery either.. )
OK, – so this is of course pure speculation, and in no way a scientifically valid argument, but I cannot help thinking:
Would a Universe totally unaware of itself and devoid of any meaning not be such an incredible waste..
It was pleasing to my ears, and indeed my heart and soul, therefore, when I heard no other than Henry Markram, director of the Blue Brain Project, somewhat casually suggesting, that “The Universe may have evolved the brain to see itself, to become aware of itself”.
Now, it is perhaps a bit surprising,- (and then not..), – to hear a modern-day top scientist speculate along such metaphysical lines, which left me thinking: Wouldn’t it be great if he himself would elaborate on this fascinating thought, which, to me, makes perfect sense.. – It certainly poses a lot of questions too, but if true, it would allow me to be just the kind of atheist I wish to be: A non-believer of Deities, but humble observant of the Universe’s apparent natural inclination towards self-awareness, towards progress, and, possibly, perfection .. ?
So, – in the vain hope of a response, I actually emailed Henry Markram, asking if he would briefly answer a few questions, and whilst busy chasing carrots to fund his (Blue Brain) project, he very kindly responded as follows.
How is the idea of the Universe evolving consciousness to become aware of itself“ compatible with a purposeless, accidental Universe, as seems to be the most common belief among scientists ?
Purposeless things can accidentally result in something interesting as well and when they do, they take on a purpose that did not exist before.
How is the idea of the Universe evolving consciousness to become aware of itself“ compatible with the view of consciousness as simply needed in order to manage an increasing number of complex and competing neural sub-populations ?
I doubt consciousness is needed for guiding anything lower level. It is a consequence. It does however create a bubble around each of us that acts as a straight jacket for assigning causality and meaning to interactions and ignoring most of the universe.
Besides being useful, – e.g. better and less costly ways of treating brain diseases.. is it outlandish to see your project as an extension / expansion of the-Universe-becoming-aware-of itself ?
No, it is not outlandish, it is the most evolved thing humans can possibly do.
You are building a model of the brain within 10 years, and a complete virtual brain within.. ? how many? .. years?
I said 10 years some years ago, because I believe it is technically and scientifically possible. It however depends on getting enough funding. If we don’t, it will take much longer. We are moving fast, but no where as fast as we could be moving. It is all possible by around 2020 if we have enough funding.
Can you give us an update on your current progress?
We believe we understood many key principles of how the brain is designed and put together that now allow us to build larger and more detailed unifying models, faster and faster. We are just making it easier and easier to replicate the biological brain in software. I am wasting a lot of time chasing carrots to fund the project.
Now, – my interpretation of what Henry Markram is saying is something like: Never mind if the Universe is / was pointless and just sort of “happened”, ‘cause that is no longer the case. Purposeless things – (random quantum fluctuations..) – have a potential for meaningfullness, and anyway, we, as sentient human beings, are taking charge ! – and we will read purpose , meaningfulness and value into existence as we please..
Narcissism.. , megalomania.. , nutty.. ?
Let me answer with this tale about Julius Caesar: – (Actually it was Napoleon, but Julius is rather more theatrical, don’t you agree.. [ ; – )
Caesar is on mission impossible, and one of his minions daringly objects: “But what about the circumstances ” ??!
Circumstances ? – I MAKE circumstances !!