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Monday, June 16, 2008

Mapping Biological Sentience is More Important than Mapping Biological Sentience

Why should we seek a definition of the process that is mind? Knowledge exposes paths to action. By eliminating rhetoric and superstition, measurement-derived knowledge unleashes entire epochs of human productivity. In the same way that Copernicus, Galileo, Kepler, and Newton produced observation-backed theories that crushed centuries of ignorance-born superstitions, replacing them with the maths that allowed accurate predictions of seasons, daylight, tides, line of site, perspective, the motion of objects (momentum, weight, acceleration), we are poised to transcend the ignorant rhetoric that blinds us from a true understanding of the mind, to understand the mechanism of "understanding" itself.

When culture finally abandons ideas based on desire and fear and replaces them with measurement based truths, it trades in the outrageous for the merely complex. Through painstaking experimentation, chemistry's knowledge-based practicality rapidly outgrew alchemy's dreamy greed. Armed with a growing repertoire of elements and the over arching rules that gave them predictable behaviors and attributes, scientists, doctors, and industrialists, gifted society with unheard of wealth and welfare, doubling or tripling life expectancy in less than a century and a half. Though it came in an unexpected form, the riches that drove the alchemists became a reality through the practicality of knowledge. Along the way we learned about energy and forces and these understandings built a solid base for relativity and quantum mechanics which in their own way exposed real (if impractical) solutions to the alchemist's dreams. Yes, it turns out, you can turn lead into gold, but it will cost far more than digging the stuff (pre-made) out of mountains. Mostly though, we discovered once again how self limiting desire is when it comes without knowledge. No simple belief-based recipe would ever have allowed anyone in a pointy hat to accomplish the transmutation of matter that arises only from the immense energies within a collapsing star or at the business end of a particle accelerator drawing trillions of volts off the power grid. In our own day, we find our selves face to face with the wall that stands between our present ignorance of mind, and a knowledge-based understanding of how biology has built a symbolic abstraction machine... a brain... and how it works.

Measurement-based understandings of the brain will expose huge areas of understanding that we can scarcely imagine. We are fond of saying we live in the information age, but the truth is that we barely understand it. Yes, it is probably true that the brain is but one of a billion ways to build a thinking machine, but it is good place to start knowing, it works, and it's right hear on top each of our shoulders. Aside from our premature and rather alchemist-like attempts to build our own thinking machines, the human brain is the only sentience machine we've go to study, so lets get down to the task of measurement. If history is any indication, the useful understandings we gain will far exceed any present ability to predict... and the benefits we reap to will far exceed the limited and dreamy goals of self understanding and emotional transcendence that motivate the alchemists that crowd the study of the brain. What will we be able to do with a general understanding of the machinery of thought and mind? Only then will we begin to build evolutionary caldrons that evolve mind-stuff and do so purposefully.

Biology came upon sentience and mind late in the evolutionary day. Mind is a by-product of biology. Biology doesn't do mind but as a side effect of billions of years of accident. If we were instead, to design, from knowledge, a system especially suited to the evolution of mind, could we not unleash an evolutionary explosion that would do for the acceleration of mind what biology did for metabolism? We are simply not smart enough to think about thinking that is millions of times more effective or efficient than our own. Biology has built into our brains the ability to learn. But a life of learning represents a treasure trove of complexity that is simply not transferable to the next generation. Dare we imagine beyond biology, to a system that "genetically" adjusts at the pace of experience and learning... allowing continuous knowledge weighted evolution... a brain that evolves the ability to evolve in response to the complexity and pattern it perfects through time?

The out-fall of a system purposely designed to evolve towards complexity handling... designed towards the self optimization of complexity-maximizing machinery... born of an actual understanding why evolution is, and by extension, what complexity is... will certainly engender fold increases in evolutionary pace. Of blindness and stupidity and an almost inexhaustible reservoir of time and energy, biology evolved the sentience necessary to understand and quantify complexity and its use to reduce order... biology evolved the human brain. As the recipients of this gift of long time and deep energy, with this machinery to understand the largest process, the process that resulted in this brain of ours, we are obligated by the process that built us to hand the baton of evolution to the next paradigm of evolution, and that means building the next paradigm, (the way chemistry built biology, the way biology built sentience).

Understanding our own complexity, understanding the brain and sentience, is a potent way to maximize our potential to build towards the future of evolutionary process. Knowing the present edge of complexity allows a system to better build towards greater complexity. Understanding the brain and mind, understanding biology's valiant attempt to build a universal symbol processing machine is not the only path forward, but it is one of the most potent and fruitful paths towards understanding and generalizing abstraction, language, and evolution itself. The rewards of such an endeavor be immeasurable and unpredictable. That is the way of evolution. We must choose those areas of research that will have the greatest potential to influence the greatest influencers. Complexity handling, the ability of a system to build, contain and refine an internal representation of the most causal influences in the universe in which it resides, will have a greater influence on its ability to influence or shape the influencers of the future, than any other ability. To understand finally, our potential, our responsibility, our place in process, is a proud and unique moment in evolution.

Randall Reetz

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