Archive for the ‘perceptual time’ Category

An ocean of consciousness

November 15, 2018

How do minds and brains relate to each other? I was talking with Ashley, my niece Zoe’s partner about this, and she said she believed in an ocean of consciousness. (I misheard her the first time, I thought she said a notion of consciousness.)

I was sure I’d heard the phrase before, and I just looked it up: it seems common parlance for universal consciousness.

I’ve tended to believe in consciousness being created by the brain (or perhaps by the body and the brain together, though the brain is itself part of the body, so one might just say by the body). But, like most neuroscientists (computational in my case, but I’ve not heard anything different from clinical or experimental neuroscientists), I’ve not had much clue how the brain might give rise to consciousness. But what has been clear is that consciousness can change if the brain is stimulated, whether electrically or using drugs (or in any other way). I’d tended to think of that as being conclusive evidence for the brain being the seat of consciousness: but that neither speaks for nor against an ocean of consciousness. For the evidence doesn’t distinguish between whether the brain is entirely responsible for consciousness, or whether the brain simply connects the body to the ocean of consciousness. Indeed, the phrase seat of consciousness can be interpreted either way.

I seem to hold two diametrically opposed views.

From my own work as a computational neuroscientist, I know that we create our world from our sensory perceptions, and that our internal world is but a model of the macrocosm out there. And as a scientist, I have spent a lot of time making computational models of parts of the brain (and I’m very aware of the sophisticated models like NEST, or those of the Human Brain Project). However, I am very aware of both (i) what these models can and cannot do, and (ii) just how limited these models are when compared to the extraordinarily complex systems that really do take place in neural tissue. (Here, I’m thinking of the different type of ions, of the zoo of ion channels, the range of neuromodulators, not to mention the different proteins involved in neural excitability: and I haven’t even started on either glial cells or the amazingly complex three dimensional interconnection  between neural calls).

On the one hand, I can believe that somewhere in that complexity there is room for  generation of consciousness, (even though I cannot imagine what it might look like: the scientists within me requires that it be explainable).

On the other hand, each morning, I do some yoga, and I briefly meditate, and that seems to connect me to the world, to ground me within the world. This makes me more inclined towards the ocean view.

Could I then join resolve these different viewpoints by looking in the brain not for generation of consciousness, but for connection to the ocean of consciousness? But what might this look like? Would it be any less of a mystery than seeking to generate consciousness from matter? 

As I read this through, I am struck by the difficulty of talking about this at all. Phrased like “we create our world from our sensory perceptions” require a “we” and an “our” that has perceptions, and  world. I’m also struck by the range of difficulties within the area: the question’s just too big. I once wrote a short paper about the neural construction of perceptual time, and that seemed hard enough on its own, without considering any other issues! Maybe this is all just too hard!


Zalamea and the Philosophy of Mathematics.

August 17, 2013

My holiday reading was F. Zalamea’s Synthetic philosophy of contemporary Mathematics, a recent (2012) translation of Zalamea’s 2009 “Filosofía sintética de las matemáticas contemporáneas”, translated by Zachary L. Fraser. I have to admire the translation first: my only other language is German, and I cannot imagine understanding the subtleties of this philosophical  book in anything except my native tongue. It’s readable, though it takes commitment, and some background in Mathematics (I have a degree in it, dating from 1973, but though I am an academic in Computing I really haven’t  studied Mathematics since then). I note that Tzuchien Tho describes the book as “dense bomb of a book” in his Almagestum Contemporarium.

I wish I had read this book earlier. Indeed, I wish it had been translated earlier. Why?

I’ve spent some time trying to understand Category Theory in the last few years, particularly as part of the INBIOSA project, which produced a book. The largest single element in that book  is the INBIOSA white paper, entitled  Stepping Beyond the Newtonian Paradigm in Biology: Towards an Integrable Model of Life: Accelerating Discovery in the Biological Foundations of Science. In this paper we (there’s 17 authors) discuss new ideas that attempt to move understanding of the foundations of biology towards something that might help to bring some mathematical  approach to the functioning of biological systems, towards something that might help explain living material in terms that aren’t just the biochemical equations, diffusion etc. As part of that we were looking for an approach that transcended the logical mathematics, used in what we were aware of the mathematical philosophy. One of our number, Ehresmann, was pointing us towards Category Theory, and certainly I , and presumably others too tried to understand what it was that Category Theory was really bringing to the area.

Now I’ve read Zalamea’s book I have a much better idea, not of the basics of category theory, but of why it was so important. It is a way of expressing how Mathematics works, of how Mathematics can be about Mathematics. Zalamea lights a way towards a new philosophy of Mathematics that brings together the constructive imagination of what he calls eidal Mathematics with the Physically based quiddital Mathematics, and the idea of Mathematics of mathematics in  archeal Mathematics (the italicised terms are Zaladea’s). He sees the recent mathematics of Grothendieck and (many) others as a revolution as important as Einstein’s in Physics, and sees this as requiring a related revolution in Mathematical Philosophy (or perhaps he sees this revolution as actually starting first, as he sees it based in the works of Lautmann who died in 1944, when Grothendieck was only 16).

Be that as it may, I think (and here I am but seeing through a glass darkly) that this different view of Mathematics can underlie a different view of biology. This richer philosophy seems to me to suggest that Mathematics can do more than describe the physical Universe: it can be the engine of that Universe, explaining how it operates. This is nothing new in Physics, but it is something new in biology. Can such a philosophy underlie a change in biology as critical as that of Einstein in Physics? Can it take the reductionist understanding supplied by systems biology, and show how this actually drives the biology? Can it go further, can we use the mathematics of Mathematics to understand how a Universe can become aware of itself? Can such a construction really help us to understand our construction of reality?

I’m back from holiday now. I’m writing this before all the other work that running a University’ Department (well, Division) takes over from trying to think about what really matters. In reality, I’d like to spend a month re-reading Zalamea, and following up more of the references. Then talking to the other authors of the the INBIOSA white paper, and trying to integrate these ideas into it (one month seems rather conservative here). But rather than simply writing it in my notebook, I’m putting it on my blog, so I can try to discuss it openly.

Time and perceptual time

July 21, 2012

I’ve spent a lot of time (!) thinking about time in the last few weeks. Not that I’m serving time At Her Majesty’s Pleasure, as they say or anything like that, but on the nature of time, or rather on the nature of the neural construction of perceptual time. I even went as far as submitting a paper to the Artificial General Intelligence forthcoming at the end of the year in Oxford UK, about it. It’s one aspect of perception, and one that’s largely ignored.

To put it simply, perceptual time is related to physical time, but is different from it. In a similar way, perceptual reality is related to physical reality, but again, is different from it. The nature of these differences leads one initially into perceptual Psychology, but eventually into the murky realms of 1st person science, otherwise the realm of philosophy or perhaps theology. And that’s where it becomes tricky. But it’s still important, particularly for any system that would like to call itself sentient, or even (artificially) intelligent – hence the submission to AGI2012.

Yet there’s a huge set of possibilities there. Why the particular nature of human time perception? Earlier work suggests at least two levels of human perpetual time, one at about 40 to 50 ms, which might be thought of as an instant, and one at about 3 seconds, which one might think of as the “present instant” (discussed further in the paper). Is it different for other animals?

Is it the same for all humans? Might there be other entities out there with different views of time? our perhaps we already interact with other living entities with different view of time, like insects, or Gaia?

And if we met alien life systems would we even recognise them as such if their view of time was very different fom ours? Indeed, one might consider whole cultures and their view of the cultural present, which takes one into quite different areas of philosophy, and perhaps provides a novel perspective on the effects of the movement from oral additions, to written cultures, to the spread of mass literacy, to digital cultures and the spread of the immediate availability of huge volumes of cultural context. Perhaps for another day, perhaps for discussion with AKL!

Another issue is whether we would even recognise living entities elsewhere in the universe if their perceptual was sufficiently ddifferent from ours. But that’s matter perhaps for a story. Yet, particularly after finishing Mieville’s Embassytown, I was left wondering if the way forward for this line of reasoning was perhaps to try to write it as a story, rather than as a scientific paper: the ideas are not really suitable for a presentation with results and graphs, nor yet for a mathematical equational approach!