Tag Archives: mathematics

Why Consciousness Is Still a Mystery—Sorting Out the Clues

eyes

By Deepak Chopra, MD

No one doubts that it’s hard to figure out where consciousness comes from, and when a problem persists for thousands of years—which is literally true in this case—it’s worthwhile sorting out the clues that might lead to an answer. Some are better than others, and a few may be completely false. At the very least, if we can agree on the hottest leads, a final answer may come nearer.

Clue #1: The brain lights up when we think.

Neuroscience depends exclusively upon this clue, which offers material traces (so-called neural correlates) to mental activity.

Advantage: Watching the brain in action provides the most reliable map to date of how the activity of consciousness is physically processed.

Disadvantage: There is no proof that neural correlates are anything except correlates. They could be symptoms or signs of consciousness rather than the cause. Any attempt to make consciousness physical, in fact, is suspect.

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Happy Pi Day! Why You Should Care About Math

Happy Pi Day! In case you didn’t know, March 14 (3/14) is the day that people around the world celebrate that ridiculously long number known as pi (π). It goes something like this:

3.1415926535897932384626433832795028841971693993751058209749445923

078164062862089986280348253421170679 …

And that’s just the first hundred digits!

What is pi? Well, if it’s been a while since you last had to calculate the area of a circle, you may have forgotten. Pi is a mathematical constant that represents the relationship between a circle’s diamete and its circumference. Why should you care? Well, according to a new study, being literate in math may actually make you a better decision maker!

via Psychological Science:

A new article published in Current Directions in Psychological Science examines how people who are numerate—that’s like literacy, but for numbers—understand numbers better and process information differently so that they ultimately make more informed decisions.

People who are numerate are more comfortable thinking about numbers and are less influenced by other information, says Ellen Peters of Ohio State University, the author of the new paper. For example, in one of Peters’s studies, students were asked to rate undergraduates who received what looked like different test scores. Numerate people were more likely to see a person who got 74% correct and a person who got 26% incorrect as equivalent, while people who were less numerate thought people were doing better if their score was given in terms of a percent correct.

Numbers are really just abstract symbols, and we have to bring meaning to them somehow,” Peters says. Think of all the very different ideas that can go with the number nine: 9°F, $9 billion, and a 9 percent chance of a tsunami. “In general, people who are numerate are better able to bring consistent meaning to numbers and to make better decisions,” Peters says. “It suggests that courses in math and statistics may be the educational gift that keeps on giving.”

Check out this neat infographic about pi.

A New Creation Story: Beyond Religion and Science

 Stephen Hawking  made worldwide news with his sound bite about how the universe was created. Specifically, he said that a Creator is not needed to explain how the universe began. Behind the sound bite was a deeper insight, which is that one law of nature — gravity — transcends space and time. Therefore, as long as gravity exists, multiple universes can unfold out of nothing. Among scientists this proposition has raised eyebrows and no doubt will be discussed for a long time. But let’s look at the larger picture. The discussion about creation has grown stale. On one side science sticks by its basic principles: The laws of nature govern the universe, randomness prevails over any possible pattern or design, and all phenomena, including the human mind, can be reduced to physical properties. On the other side religion sticks to its basic principles: God or the gods created the universe, the hand of the creator can be seen everywhere in nature, and human beings are connected to the divine, giving us a privileged position in the cosmos. 

To resolve this opposition, dozens of books have attempted to reconcile science and faith. Yet without a doubt science has the upper hand. The modern world is willing to throw out any number of beliefs about God if the facts don’t fit. Science isn’t willing to throw out a single piece of data, however, to satisfy an article of faith. The net result is that science has become bolder. The old position was that physics is separate from metaphysics. But Hawking’s statement that a Creator is unnecessary is nothing less than a metaphysical statement. In fact, it points the way to abolishing metaphysics altogether. Why bother with God when science is on the verge of delivering a Theory of Everything?

The problem is that just at the moment when science is poised to strike the last blow, it has gotten stuck. Metaphysics hasn’t been defeated; rather, physics has been forced to peer into the domain of God with no way forward. Hawking himself has been forced to concede that there is no Theory of Everything. There is only a patchwork of smaller theories, each competent to explain a specific aspect of nature, but with no unifying principle. This statement isn’t going down well among cosmologists. They want a unified model based on mathematical certainty, not a shrug of the shoulders. They already know that time and space emerged from the quantum void, but this nothingness has to be explained. Otherwise, it could contain absolutely anything. Hawking states quite firmly that it cannot be explained. He clings to gravity as a substitute for God, since without gravity, creation falls apart.

Some scientists refuse to be shocked; others refuse to give up. Cosmologists earn their paycheck by winning grants based on the latest mathematical model for how the universe came to be. But to an outside observer, Hawking’s basic insight, that the human mind will never be able to pierce the quantum vacuum, feels like a direct challenge to science’s story of creation. It doesn’t support religion’s creation myths, not by a long shot. But Hawking has deeply considered the big picture of cosmology and declared the game over, if the game is a perfect model that will unify all the laws of nature. An outside observer would also conclude that it might be too early to give up. Perhaps we can move forward if creation depends on basic principles that neither science nor religion has accepted so far.

Which is exactly what is happening in the forefront of speculative thinking.  Religionists are trying to rethink God in light of quantum mechanics; scientists are looking to spiritual traditions for glimpses into the realm that transcends the five senses. A new creation story is trying to be born, and although nobody knows the outcome yet, here are the new founding principles that currently vie for acceptance:

1. Just as matter and energy cannot be created or destroyed, neither can information. Beyond the display of physical processes, information fields may be the key to how the universe became organized from apparent chaos.

2. The universe may contain more than information. It could be imbued with proto-consciousness. That is, the raw ingredients of mind may be inherent in Nature at the quantum level.

3. God could be a constant presence in evolution. Instead of creating the universe and then standing back from his (or her) creation, the deity may exist in every atom and molecule as the tendency to evolve.

4. Human values may be imprinted in creation. Plato first declared that our sense of love, truth, and beauty derived from perfect love, truth, and beauty that exists beyond the physical world. Today, these so-called Platonic values may be provable in a new way, as universal consciousness that orders and patterns the forms of nature.

5. Mathematics may be the key to nature’s organizing power. If mathematical laws are the true building blocks of creation, then we don’t need a creator. We have symmetry, order, complexity, and harmony embedded in abstract form through a higher order of mathematics that transcends time and space.

6. The observer is also a participant in creation. The universe we look upon is a perfect home for human beings because our minds are entangled with the laws and processes that create mind. To explain how the universe came about, you first must explain what the mind is. The two cannot be separated. There is no reality "out there" independent of the observer.

7. Design dominates over randomness in Nature. Although we see apparent chaos at the quantum level as particles collide and interact, an invisible force urges these processes into more complex forms, eventually resulting in the most complex form of all, DNA. Candidates for such a shaping force are evolution, intelligence, creativity, and even a God who likes to experiment.

One way or another, a new creation story will emerge from one or more of these basic principles. To win the day, it must conform to the data being collected about the universe; it must also not contradict quantum physics, which to date is the most successful scientific theory every propounded. Yet it is evident that quantum physics has probably reached its theoretical limit, even though not every physicist — or most physicists — realize it.

The limit to any system occurs when its accepted foundation comes into question. In this case, advanced thinkers are asking questions that were unheard of in the past: What is mathematics? What is gravity? What is a natural law? Instead of being metaphysical questions, these have turned practical. Until they are answered, the nothingness that Hawking has peered into remains dark, inert, and empty. Yet we know it cannot be empty. Our brains are the product of DNA. DNA is the product of information arranged in a chemical code. Chemicals are the result of quantum interactions at the subatomic level. Quantum interactions wink in and out of the quantum vacuum. Moving backwards, that’s as far as the modern creation story goes. Whatever step it takes next will have to be a step into the void. Will we discover the mind of God there? Without using religious terminology, we must discover something that allows us to go back up the ladder from a void to the human brain. Otherwise, creation will have accidentally hit upon mind. Physics, including Stephen Hawking, continue to bet on the latter proposition, but more and more it faces impossible odds.

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 PHOTO (cc): Flickr / jurvetson

 

Perelman: a Case of Pattern Interruption

Pattern interruption is a good thing: when a pattern is broken, we wake up, go off the autopilot. So, here’s an intriguing case of pattern interruption to learn from.

2000: Boston philantropist announces a $1,000,000 dollar prize for a solution to 1904 Poincare’s conjecture about 3D space.

2002: Grigori Perelman, a Russian mathematician posts a paper with mathematical proof that addresses the obstacles to Poincore’s conjecture, thus, qualifying for the prize; this is followed by a brief teaching gig in U.S.; he then declines the Fields Medal (= Nobel in math, in effect), and drops out (or, so it seems).

How come?

Perelman’s explanation: “I have been utterly disappointed in mathematics and I want to try something else.”

Public reaction? Perelman is another “beautiful mind” (1), an “eccentric” mind that drops out…

I see this kind of reaction as a cliche case of externalization. Externalization is finger-pointing. In this case, the externalization is: there is, of course, nothing wrong with the science per se (in this case, math), and the problem is naturally with the scientist.

Visually, it’s an easy case to make, right? With the name like Grigori (think Rasputin) and a disheveled beard (think Joaquin Phoenix), and the Diogenes-like rejection of the societal values (walks away from a million bucks!), the temptation to externalize is, indeed, strong.

But, wait a second! Why not take the beautiful mind at his word, at face value. What’s not clear? Grigori is “utterly disappointed” with mathematics. Can Grigori be right and the mathematics be, indeed, disappointing? Why not?

And, while at it, let us quickly review what constitutes a mental disorder: symptoms + impaired functioning &/or distress. If you have symptoms (or you act/think/feel strange) that, in and of itself, does not qualify for a disorder. You have to be impaired and/or to experience distress.

But if your symptoms (behaviors, eccentricities, odditities, etc.) do not cause you distress and do not result in any functional impairment or distress, then there is no diagnosis. Is Gregori’s behavior different from what we would expect? Sure. He’s breaking a few patterns for us. But do we know that he is distressed? Not exactly. Just because he self-exhiled, it doesn’t mean that he isn’t blissful. Is he failing to function? We don’t know: but, surely, just because he walks away from fame and fortune, we aren’t going to say that he is failing to function. Or has failure to accept a million bucks become a mandatory litmus test of sanity?

So, all this arm-chair diagnosing of him misses the point: he seems mad because he isn’t like us. He doesn’t seem to value what we value. And oops: our ego is wounded. So, to defend ourselves, we blame the genius.

Patterns Broken
Ok, so what do we have in the way of pattern interruption?

Perelman walks away from fame and fortune. Why not? A million dollars in modern day St. Petersburg can mean a lot of unwanted attention. This could have been a rational self-preservation move. Could have Grigori walked away from fame and fortune to preserve, at a minimum, his quality of life status quo, and, at a maximum, to possibly protect his life? Of course. We don’t know. But we judge… Anything to save our societal face and to protect our own value system!

Another pattern break: Perelman, the math genius, walks away from math. Why not? Who’d know better about math than a math genius?

Speaking of pattern breaks. While at it, let me break one too. If, as progressively Daoist-sounding science tells us, everything is interrelated, then isn’t everything one? And if everything is one, what is there to count?

2 + 2 Just Doesn

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