12 May, 2008

Hardware and Software

I've been thinking about the whole "Nature versus Nurture" debate.

If I look back over a few of the recent posts regarding memories, human nature and some of my recent discussions with people about religious concepts and metaphysics, there are a few common threads that seem to appear.

One of the things that has been a common theme in science fiction over the last few years has been a notion that machines are on the verge of an evolutionary breakthrough. It's only a matter of time before machines reach a critical point where they become capable of learning for themselves, and not long after that when they'll achieve self awareness.

If a machine is able to perceive itself, learn from it's environment, and make adjustments to improve it's station with regard to that new data. Does it become like us? How do we determine the difference?

Does a computer have a buddha nature? When artifical intelligence does become a part of our lives, will it have a soul? What is a soul?

It all goes back to the same questions, and all of those questions can be answered by defining the relative parts. But the term that seems to have the strongest defences against definition is "soul".

In a human body, nature is the hardware, nurture is the software. Nature gives us the body through genetics and nurture gives us the ethics, the social acumen, and even the knowledge that helps us use that body. In many cases, we get both of these from our parents.

Buddhism states that we are nothing but the sum of our experiences. If we choose to experience enough things in a specific field then we become attuned to that field.

Gnostics believed that we were souls trapped in mortal shells, learning through the physical world so that we might transcend it.

Other forms of Christianity choose not to define the soul at all. It seems a bit of a cop out.

If the theories of science fiction come to pass...if electronic life becomes the next dominant form on the planet, what will they perceive of us? We can assume that they'll have the same drive for self improvement, this is a natural instinct that has continued throughout eternity.

Is heaven simply going to be a chance to upload our consciousness into a digital paradise, kind of like the matrix, but without leaving our physical bodies behind to empower great enslaving machines?

Is hell going to be a struggle against those machines when the time of apocalypse dawns?

It's certainly not the way that most fundamentalist Christians or other religious groups might see the end times.

If we transcend our biological hardware, will we still be the people we are today? Will our souls still have relevance?

I don't have the answer, but I'll keep thinking about it.

09 May, 2008


I had a car accident last night when I was picking up Leah from work.

I can't lay the blame only upon others, but I can't accept it all for myself either.

I tried to get around a car that couldn't turn the corner at an intersection, and needed to change lanes.

I saw a gap in the neighbouring lane and took my chance.

The car that had caused the gap sped up to block my lane change and I turned back into my original lane.

Which led me to smash into the back of the car I was originally trying to get around.

Neither my car, nor the one I hit were doing high speeds so, the damage could have been a lot worse.

We did the courteous thing and exchanged details, Technically, legally, I was in the wrong because I ran up the back of the other car.

What annoys the hell out of me, is the actions of the driver that deliberately cut me off and caused the accident. Once the cars hit, the driver sped off before I could get number plate details or any other useful information.

I guess it's just human nature to avoid responsibility for bad things.

08 May, 2008

Memories and Deja Vu

I had a whole heap of things that I was planning to write when I next logged in...

...but now that I'm sitting in front of the computer screen, the vast majority of them seem to have completely slipped my mind.

I guess that's a suitable topic of posting.

Why do things slip our minds? What is memory?

Buddhism would state that we are the sum total of our memories. As we experience new things, they embed themselves into our psyche. I've posted about this type of thing previously.

A few years back, when I was working as a printer, I found a book that was written by an old acquaintance.

It was called How Do You Think. It's about the author's journey through life and the things he's picked up along the way. It's not a preachy book and it's written in a very down-to-earth manner. All the way through, it poses questions to make you think about the way you think. It touches on drugs, various therapies, relationships, and all those things that make us who we are.

It's a good read, and it was purely by chance that I happened to come across a copy in the excess bin at the printing company where I worked.

The reason that this book came to mind was a section where it describes the author's perspective on deja vu and short term memory loss.

He says that both are linked to a lack of concentration. If someone is telling you something while your mind is somewhere else, then you haven't really focused on the words and you probably won't recall them in the future.

The mind can only focus on a few specific things at a time (some might even say that the mind can only truly focus on one thing at a time). If you are daydreaming, or thinking about other things, then it's far less likely that your minds focus will be on the other person's words. You mind will be more inclined to remember the things that you were daydreaming about.

It's not memory loss, instead your mind is remembering things that aren't really relevant.

Zen buddhism has a concept of No-mind, a time when your thoughts aren't distracted at all by it's internal workings. The rush of adrenaline when you go on a new roller coaster for the first time, the loss of self at the moment of first falling in love, the feel of a crowd at the critical moment of a sporting match. When the mind is truly at one with the surroundings, it is incapable of distraction. These are the moments that permanently embed themselves into our minds and become a part of our long term memories.

I don't agree so much with the author's perspective on deja vu, but it makes sense in context with the rest of his book. He claims that deja vu arises when the mind is distracted and comes back into focus.

Subconsciously, the mind will always draw in information from it's surroundings. Even when it does become lost in it's own fantasy. Aspects of the mind are always grounded in reality. Sometimes a thought pattern in the mind is prematurely ended. Perhaps a person sees something that suddenly draws their attention; it could be a danger, or it could be a desire. Either way, it ends the mind's fantasy pattern and snaps it back to reality. This takes a few moments to achieve as the mind attempts to makes sense of what has just happened.

It taps into the subconscious thread of information that has been occurring, and sees these aspects as memories. Suddenly, a person believes that they have been in this situation before. In fact, it's just the same situation unfolding...the memory is just tapping the current experience memories in a different way. According to the author, maintaining concentration and not allowing the mind to wander will prevent deja vu. (I may be paraphrasing here, and over-simplifying things, but that's the way I remember it).

Throws away any supernatural aspects of deja vu doesn't it?

Given that some people use deja vu as a justification for belief in past lives, this should give them some pause for thought as well.

As I said though, I don't 100% agree with the authors perspective of deja vu. I'm still trying to work my way through a theory that meshes with my own experiences of the phenomenon.