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.


  1. Hey - found u via atheist nexus, we share a lot in common including a fascination with sci-fi. I hope you saw Avatar already, it's a great film.

    By the way, the evolutionary event where one enters the next stage in evolution is called the 'singularity' and it's one of the concerns of sci fi writers. The transhuman movement is already proposing our future evolution.

    Anyway, on 'great apes seeing self in mirror', ELEPHANTS also do that. They have been observed mourning their relatives, they literally cry, and they visit the bones of dead ancestors periodically and exhibit behaviour which is very peculiar, almost funerary-like. There's also a video on youtube showing an elephant that paints himself giving somebody a flower. I know he has a trainer, but I would bet he understands what he's doing and its meaning. I think their brains are bigger than ours, if I'm not mistaken ... dolphins are also shockingly brilliant. They have a language as complex as ours. But they have much more fun than we do :)

    It's interesting from an atheist and Buddhist viewpoint to note these things because in Buddhism all is mind and if you read the last chapter of Dawkins' book 'The God Delusion' (where he talks about the queer universe) he goes into how, even though we all share the same planet, each species lives sort of in a different universe or dimension, using different senses and tools to interact with the world.

    But back to sentience: I think most people's definition of 'sentient being' is too narrow. Chimps are building tools and it is now accepted that they have what we would call a culture: skills and traditions that are passed on. They have very similar social, emotional, and psychological lives to ours, politics and even laughter.

    Some of their social display, like the 'victory dance', are shared by humans: this was noted by anthropologists in articles that I read after Mike Phelps won all those medals and raised his two fists in the air everytime he won during the last Olympics. This instinctive behavior is universal and every chimp and human culture on Earth understands it.

    Bonobo apes have rounder heads, are more humanlike than other chimps and walk on two legs half the time. They're, like us, evolving. At what point do they become hominids? When they speak? We've forgotten that only 25,000 years ago we shared Earth with neanderthals and only 10,000 with the Flores hobbits. Not too long ago, we lived in the set of Lord of the Rings, with other hominids! There's nothing keeping that from happening again.

    You speak of being sentient as if a switch is turned on, and then you question that assumption, which is wise and vigilant of you. Shamans argue that plants are sentient and have consciousness because their leaves seek the sun as if they had a will of their own: science calls this biointelligence. Is this instinctive behaviour a form of sentience? What about carnivorous plants, or the lemon tree which exchanges chemical signals with lemon ants? Is insect-plant communication a sign of superior sentience among some plants?

    The film 'the Happening' explored plants' chemical communication, I've thought of this with the lemon ants and other insects because in theory, if plants do 'understand' certain chemical signals and can respond, we should be able to use chemicals or pheromones at some point in the future to have rudimentary communication with them. Octavia Butler explores this in the novel Lilith's Brood: according to her, we will bioengineer higly sentient plants that respond to all our chemical signals. This is outlandish today, but if lemon ants are doing it, what's to keep us from learning how to do it, and at what point are these plants considered 'sentient'?

    I think the switch was turned on several times in our evolution but I also think we're in constant flux. Buddhism teaches that everything is transient: this includes species.

  2. "I think the switch was turned on several times in our evolution but I also think we're in constant flux. Buddhism teaches that everything is transient: this includes species."

    And there you hit the nail on the head. Everything is in transition; this is true from a Buddhist perspective as well as from an evolutionary perspective, and we would do well to remember that our sentience is not exempt from this truth.

    Hi Hiram! Nice to meet another Freethinker; welcome. I have seen Avatar, and it most definitely rocked. Particularly the way I can tell they really tried to imagine how another planet might have evolved, rather than just making up a bunch of cool looking aliens. And they way they made the movie spiritual, without invoking the supernatural. Those two elements really appeal to me; I wish there were more movies like that.

    I like your ruminations on plant and insect intelligences, though I would hesitate to use the word "sentient." I take sentient to mean "self-aware"... I don't know if that's the word's proper usage, but I think that's how it's mostly taken. In that case, I would not consider the ability to communicate "sentient."
    I like to compare plants and insects--and also microscopic life--to the current AI in videogames. They can actually have a pretty wide repetoire of responses to different stimuli, even what looks like problem-solving skills, but I think in the end it's really just formulae--input stress X, activate response Y. I'm not saying it's not incredible and I think we can learn a lot from observing such behavior, but I'm not convinced there's any real "thinking" going on in any way that we define the word.

    Good point about the LotR! I find it absolutely fascinating and mind-blowing that there were different species of equivalent-level sentient hominids living alongside our ancestors... it makes me really sad that they're all gone, though I do see how my ancestors treated Africans just because they looked different and I shudder to think what homo sapiens might have done to an entirely different species.

    Welcome again to my blog, and feel free to peruse the archives! I post less than once a month, so it shouldn't take too long ;). I'd love to hear your thoughts on some of my other posts.