Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Thinking about thinking

So much for my resolve to post more frequently!

Things have been a little crazy for me of late, though... I'm back in the workforce, so that was a pretty complicated transition (what with figuring out what to do with the kids and all).
But, it should technically mean that I have some extra time to post... so I shouldn't have any excuses, now that I'm (mostly) settled in to my new job.

So let me post a little thought about natural Buddhism and sentience. This kinda goes back to some of the thoughts that first drew me into Buddhism, and when my wife spontaneously started talking about the same things last night, I thought maybe it was worthy of posting.

So let's think about thinking, for a bit. Sentience, that is, self-awareness, is one of the hallmarks of humanity. We see it as the greatest thing that seperates us from the animals. Some of the greater apes are able to recognize theirselves in a mirror; and quite a few animals can understand cause and effect. But we seem to be the only organism that can put the two together in a non-linear fashion. That is, we can think about ourselves in the past or in the future, and likewise we can think about how causes in our past are effect our present, and how causes we make now can effect our non-immediate future; this ability seems, so far, to be unique to us.

Because we are thinking creatures, and because we're the best at it on the planet, we tend to think of ourselves as having arrived at an apex. We are sentient; ba-da-bing, ba-da-boom, like a light switch turned on in our heads; as though self-awareness is an on-or-off thing. When we imagine other self-aware entities in (most) science fiction, whether aliens or robots, we imagine them like US.

But sentience is not a zero-sum game, it's not a "yes" or "no" answer. It's a quality, and like other qualities, while it's absence can be clearly seen, it's presence can come in degrees. For example, it's easy to say if a room is dark, but how does one gauge a room with a light better than "dim" and "bright"? Dimmer or brighter? There's no easy gauge. And I think it's the same with self-awareness. Between humanity and the other mammals, there seems to be a quite nuanced degree of awareness of oneself and one's actions, temporally. Chimpanzees seem able to comprehend themselves and their causes and effects about as well as a 3 or 4 year old child. And even among humans we recognize varying degrees of self-awareness in humans with neurological or psychological disorders, like autistic children or savants.

The conclusion, then, is that we normal human adults may be "brightER," but we cannot know--indeed, it would be arrogant to assume--if we're "brightEST."

My first musings on the subject were brought about by Frank Herbert's DUNE novels (allow me to indulge in some geeky side-tracking, here). In it, an organization called the Bene Gesserit often talked about how humans, despite their cognitive abilities, more often than not reacted like lower animals, driven by instinct and external forces (I may have mentioned this before as the start of my Buddhist leanings, though I didn't know it at the time). To be truly human, one had to analyze one's own emotions and motives, to rationally discern the path one must take.
In addition, the Bene Gesserit ran programs that often took generations to complete; and saw this as completely natural. This generational point of view--and the ultimate goal of the project, which was to produce a super-human who could divine causal lines to their ultimate end, i.e., know the future--helped broaden my mind beyond a shallow understanding of the all important "I". I don't know, maybe you think it's a little silly, but I'm sure you've probably had a similar experience, from a quote from a great philosopher, or perhaps observing the majesty of the ocean or the stars... At least, I hope you have.

But it helped me to realize that we homo sapiens are not at any apex. We may have a greater level of sentience than all the other animals on earth, but just as the simple burnt wood fires of Prometheus rose us above the natural world but still gave way to coal and oil and then to nuclear fire, we can still look forward to a time when our feeble ruminations give way to much greater understandings. And know that I'm not talking about mere knowledge here; what I'm talking about is a greater causal awareness, an expanding of the shallow concept of "I" as a disembodied voice in our heads, and a realization that "I" stretches out much further as a natural entity in the natural world.

Douglas Hofstadter, in "I Am a Strange Loop," described sentience as a feedback loop of a video camera pointing at a TV displaying the camera's feed. With most mammals, only a small corner of the TV is visible in the image; with the great apes, perhaps the camera is almost looking at itself. With us, the camera is fully pointing at the TV, and we see a cascade, like a tunnel, of TV's inside of TV's. That's a milestone, to be sure, but I think there's room to see farther down the tunnel. Like a dog that is unaware that it's wagging tail might knock over a vase, we are still blithely unaware of the consequences of most of our actions. Like a Grand Universal Pay-it-forward Theory, we have to understand that every insignificant action we take ripples out into the environment and into people's lives. We have to understand that there is an "I" that lives in other people's brains, too--note that I don't mean "Them," I mean "I"; as in, there is a me that echoes in my wife's brain. My actions and words create a feedback loop in her brain that she uses to interpret and predict my future actions; sometimes she'll know exactly my motives or my thoughts, but sometimes she'll be wrong. I have to recognize the echo of me that exists in her brain is just as real as the feedback in my own brain; just different. It's a real entity and I have to contend with it.

We're not there yet, I know. Our brains simply aren't able to WILL themselves to the next cognitive level, anymore than an ape or a dog could will themselves equal with us.
But if we're aware of our own deficiencies, and if we keep in mind where we're going, we can get a leg up. We can, at the least, rise to our own potential, rather than barely squeek by with what we can get away with. Because that's our gift, that's the Promethean spark; it's the burden and the blessing of self-awareness. That's what we, as humans, are capable of. We look at where we've been and what's brought us here, and then we can look at where we want to go and figure out how to get there.