Most people have heard about the fragile start that the universe had. Although the big bang sounds big, it occurred in a space smaller by millions of times than the period at the end of this sentence. The forces of nature had to be exquisitely balanced for the infant universe to work once it expanded to its present enormous size. This exquisite balance is known to physicists as fine tuning. If any one of about twenty constants responsible for the nature of the cosmos had been off by one part in a billion, the infant universe could have collapsed in on itself or flown apart so fast that atoms would never emerge from the primal quantum soup surrounding the beginning of the universe.
A constant is an unvarying number like C, the speed of light. Constants aren't allowed to be wobbly. The speed of light can't be unpredictable, changing in the Andromeda nebula (the next-door galaxy to our own Milky Way), from what it is here on Earth. Nor can it change from Monday to Tuesday. Whether you speak of the universe 13.8 billion years ago or today, C hasn't changed, nor have the other constants that regulate all the matter and energy in the cosmos.
Although advanced instruments like the Very Large Telescope in Chile grab spectacular images and space probes give first-person access to distant bodies like comets, asteroids and planets, the story of the universe is largely told by the numbers. The cosmos holds together, particularly at the farthest horizons, through mathematical calculations. It's incredibly tricky to calculate what actually occurred during the big bang, for example. At the other extreme, the potential (inevitable?) death of the universe is conjectured, not by envisioning it but by taking the known laws of nature and foreseeing how they play out over time.
There are so many variables in this numbers game that huge gaps are possible and possible errors that are more than sizable. Trouble was recently reported in the October 3 issue of New Scientist, a "glitch at the edge of the universe that could remake physics," as the headline declared. What's in question--perhaps--is one of the constants upon which most of our theoretical understanding of matter and energy rest. The general public is aware of constants like the speed of light and the force of gravity, but the "fine structure constant," also known as alpha, has deep implications for the biggest and smallest things in creation.
We're living in a golden age for brain research, which aims to revolutionize how we think, feel, and behave. Thanks to brain scans like the fMRI, brain activity can be localized and even the most precise activity pinpointed. For example, researchers can spot the minuscule area in the visual cortex that, when damaged, prevents a person from recognizing faces, including one’s own.
The ultimate challenge in neuroscience is to map the whole brain down to the tiniest detail. This is the brain equivalent of mapping the human genome, and a public-private collaboration began in 2013 called the White House BRAIN Initiative is underway.
But what will we use the completed brain map for? One obvious area is medicine. The more we know about what goes wrong in Parkinson's disease and Alzheimer's, the closer we get to a cure. Yet one could argue that a higher goal would be to reinvent how we use our brains. "Reinvent" isn't an exaggeration. Thirty thousand years ago Homo sapiens had evolved the same genetic array that modern people inherit. In those thirty thousand years arose reading, writing, advanced art and music, government, mathematics, and science. Their foundation was an ever-evolving relationship between mind and body.
One of the mysteries about our bodies is how they manage to change and yet remain the same. DNA is routinely called the blueprint of life, yet no other blueprint actually builds the house or skyscraper it models. Once DNA builds a body, the body grows and disintegrates at the same time. This is apparent from the skin and stomach lining, which rapidly form new cells as old ones die. But every cell has a given lifespan and willingly dies, so to speak, when it's time is up.
How did the body develop this ability to be born and die at the same time, to balance creation and destruction? If we dive to the molecular level, the mystery only deepens. Cells need food, air, and water, and the molecules of each are in constant transport, passing through the cell wall and out again. In addition, the messages that the brain sends to every cell in the body course through the bloodstream with precise messaging that doesn't get confused--in effect, the bloodstream is an information superhighway in which there are no traffic accidents even though the cars have no drivers.
To date, the best way to understand what's going on is through genetics, and now the whole field of genetics has entered the information age. As summarized in a recent TED talk by biologist Dean Gibson provocatively titled "How to Build Synthetic DNA and Send It Across the Internet " there are now machines that biologically print DNA once they are fed instructions in the form of data easily transmitted on the Web. This conversion of information into actual DNA builds upon previous technology that enables bits of stored genetic material (the basic four-letter alphabet of ACGT) to be combined in any conceivable way.
Gibson's lab has pioneered sending information and turning it into genetic material, which in 2013 allowed them to take the code for an alarming new strain of bird flu in China and in a matter of hours turn it into a viable vaccine to fight the disease, a process that normally takes up to six months. The promise of similar applications is set to revolutionize how new drugs are made.
Artificial Intelligence (AI) makes many claims, some quite futuristic, others just around the corner. Somewhere in the middle lies the prediction of human behavior, with the attendant claim that if people are predictable, this could be the future of well-being.
To predict when someone is going to get angry, sad, afraid, or tense is already well within reach. AI is developing readouts of muscle activity and related bodily responses that indicate what the brain is going to do. Going a step further, at the MIT Media Lab they’ve taken enormous steps into translating thoughts—i.e., words in our heads—into signature brain signals. These signals can be digitized, and suddenly, a thought in your head can be sent to Google’s search engine via Wi-Fi, allowing you to search the Internet simply by thinking.
If you put these breakthroughs together, a new model of human behavior emerges, one based on predictability and reading the signals originating in the brain that attend predictable behaviors. AI experimenters get very excited about the notion that the brain, and the behavior it triggers, can be mathematically reduced to equations that in essence turn people into a complex of algorithms. The excitement is justified, because anything that can be expressed logically is understandable in computer language.
Famously, the Book of Genesis opens with the presumptuous statement that, “In the beginning … God created the heavens and the earth” (Genesis 1:1). This very first line of the Bible has put the Christian faith – or any other faith for that matter – in direct contrast with the scientific worldview, which states that everything is created by chance and that matter is all that exists. Between both irreconcilable ideologies, there lies a world of endless possibilities to explore that may shed a more comprehensive light on the extraordinary nature of our existence.
The materialistic vs. spiritualistic worldview has been a source of much dispute between scientific hardliners and religious fundamentalists. To figure out which of the two is more credible, let’s take a closer look at both positions.
Although it takes place outside the headlines, even those that deal with science, a heated debate is occurring about mind and matter. On onside is a camp of so-called physicalists, formerly known as materialists, who hold fast to the assumption that any and all phenomena in nature can be reduced to physical processes and the interaction of objects (atoms, subatomic particles, etc.) --these for the building blocks of the universe. On the other side is no single camp but a mixed assortment of skeptics who hold that at least one natural phenomenon--the human mind--cannot be explained physically.
When one explanation (the physicalist) is supported by the weight of highly successful theories in physics, biology, biochemistry, and neuroscience, and the other side has no accepted theory on its side, the debate seems totally unequal. But in David versus Goliath battles, be careful of rooting for Goliath. The possibility of a science of consciousness, which would involve a thorough explanation of mind and how it relates to matter, can't begin until the obstacles in its path are removed and old accepted assumptions are overturned.
That has already begun, on all fronts. In physics, the essential problem of how something came out of nothing (i.e., the big bang coming out of the quantum vacuum state) stymies cosmologists, while at the microscopic level the same mystery, this time involving subatomic particles emerge from the virtual state, is equally baffling. In biology the prevailing Darwinism cannot explain the quantum leap made, with astonishing rapidity, by Homo sapiens in terms of reasoning, creativity, language, our use of concepts as opposed to instincts, tool-making, and racial characteristics.
We are the offspring of the newest part of the brain, the cerebral cortex, and yet there is no causal connection between its evolution and the primal Darwinian need to survive. This is evident by the survival of a hundred primate species lacking a higher brain, reasoning, tool-making, concepts, etc. Finally, in neuroscience and biochemistry, there is zero connection between nerve cells, and their chemical components, and mind. Unless someone can locate the point in time when molecules learned to think, the current assumption that the brain is doing the thinking has no solid footing.
Visiting ancient sites of the Aboriginal people here in Australia, I am struck by both their deep connection with nature and their fascination with the mysteries of the universe. The cave drawings and glyphs carved into stone cliffs that I have seen tell stories similar to those still told today by my indigenous friends, the Shuar and Achuar of the Amazon, the Kogi of Colombia, and the Maya of Central America.
Throughout the world, we see that ancient peoples had a deep fascination with Orion, Pleiades, and ideas around mysterious visitations from other planets. We also see that they enjoyed rich traditions centered on the spiritual and healing powers of animals and plants.
The subconscious mind is an astonishingly powerful information processor that can record perceptual experiences (programs) and forever play them back at the push of a button. Interestingly, many people only become aware of their subconscious mind’s push-button programs when their own “buttons are pushed” by the actions of others.
The secular world is built upon science, which overturned the world of faith. Exchanging spiritual beliefs for objective facts looks like a clear-cut choice, but it isn't. In all our lives there are values like compassion and loving kindness that are not scientific, and so everyday life straddles two worlds. In one world having a compassionate heart means something important. In the other compassion has no meaning unless it can be reduced to data on a brain scan.
A mature person can live in both worlds comfortably, because they don't need to clash. Dr. Francis Collins is a physician and geneticist who is the head of the National Institutes of Health, but he also happens to be a devout Christian who has written movingly about his religious awakening. Besides straddling two worlds, which we all do, Collins has explored them both, in keeping with his bent for inner and outer discovery.
Yet some religionists can only tolerate one view of life, and they insist on fundamentalist beliefs, such as the belief that God created human beings in their present form and reject all scientific claims to the contrary. In the other world, some science-minded people cannot tolerate faith and mystery, and they reject any thing that cannot be proven as experimental fact.
In both cases, there is a total suppression of curiosity and a rigid insistence on "right think," to adopt the Orwellian term for beliefs enforced by punishment from higher up.
Science tells us that the world around us is made of tiny bits of matter called particles. We can get a sense for the truth behind this by breaking up anything around us into smaller parts. The piece of furniture in front of me, for example, can be cut smaller and smaller into ever-finer pieces. No matter how small the piece, however, it will still be particulate - a piece of something.
Science took this process to its endpoint by cutting up matter to the smallest possible size so far, and arrived at what we call elementary particles. Take a look around you. All the objects you see are aggregations of elementary particles that are only about 0.00000000000001 meters wide!
Going beyond the particle
- In this article from Symmetry Magazine, theoretical physicist Greg Gbur says particles "...travel freely through space as a wave."
- According to string theory, particles are the vibrations of a string.
- Invoking mass-energy equivalence, we can say a particle is a dense form of energy.
Accordingly, these waves or vibrations that we localize as particles are also delocalized processes. Let's dig deeper.
Biologist and author Bruce Lipton has written about “spontaneous evolution.” He cites scientific studies that show that “genetic determinism” is an outdated belief, and we are not victims of heredity. Signals from our external (or internal) environment ultimately control gene activity. Translated, this means that genetic predispositions can be overridden by real-world experiences such as those that open our hearts or connect us with our soul. Spiritual awakenings or other transformative moments have a power that can break through habitual personality patterns. As our awareness grows, we can also consciously choose to align with our soul instead of our personality self or ego.
Artificial Intelligence (AI) has succeeded by being far-seeing; it’s a field where proponents began by envisioning a computer that can take over functions of the human brain, like computation and logic. Today the field has progressed to the point where algorithms can recognize photos, speech and emotions, fly a drone or drive a truck, spot early signs of diabetes or cancer, and play chess and poker at a championship level. Now, in a leap that could be futuristic, absurd, or life-changing (nobody can predict which), the vision is of a robotics religion that worships an AI godhead.
Various scientific fields over the course of history have hoped to master nature for the benefit of humankind. At the top of the heap right now is artificial intelligence (AI), which has allied itself with the technology of robotics. Between them AI and robotics are having a sizable impact on the work force as more and more jobs get automated. Advocates of AI are both supremely optimistic and nervous. Both relate to the possibility of a super-intelligent machine that would far surpass human intelligence.
If you are an optimist, this so-called Singularity, as the hypothetical machine is called, would become self-improving. Its software would become free of human constraints, and in a “runaway reaction,” it would keep improving its knowledge and the technology that knowledge creates. The result would be a revolution in human civilization—or its demise. The worriers are nervous that the Singularity could initiate global war on its own, or perhaps turn on us as its inferior and deal us some other kind of fatal blow, for the good of life on Earth.
Pretty exciting times....Evolution in process! First, a quote by American journalist H. L. Mencken:
"The larger the mob, the harder the test. In small areas, before small electorates, a first-rate man occasionally fights his way through, carrying even the mob with him by force of his personality. But when the field is nationwide, and the fight must be waged chiefly at second and third hand, and the force of personality cannot so readily make itself felt, then all the odds are on the man who is, intrinsically, the most devious and mediocre — the man who can most easily adeptly disperse the notion that his mind is a virtual vacuum.As democracy is perfected, the office of president represents, more and more closely, the inner soul of the people. On some great and glorious day the plain folks of the land will reach their heart’s desire at last and the White House will be adorned by a downright moron.” — H. L. Mencken, 1920
Food of thought...?
As news keeps pouring out about the latest advances in artificial intelligence (AI), people don’t know how much to welcome the technology or fear it. There are warnings from top-level scientists about a future in which super computers become so advanced that they leap into autonomy. Freed to make their own decisions, AI could lead to machines that create catastrophes like starting a war. On a more mundane level, robotics has steadily replaced humans in many jobs. Some experts declare that few jobs performed by a human being could not eventually be duplicated with a machine more cheaply and efficiently.
Yet in the midst of this worrisome situation, which also holds vast promise, the irony is that the direst perils of AI are already here, in the form of our own human intelligence. We feel intuitively that we have natural intelligence, not the artificial kind. After all, nobody built us from mechanical parts; we lead emotional lives; we are capable of insight and self-reflection. Despite these things, however, the human mind is deeply artificial in many ways, and the negative connotations of the word “artificial”—fake, lifeless, illusory, mechanical, arbitrary—apply to everyday life.
By Deepak Chopra, MD and Anoop Kumar, MD
Because science is the primary way we view reality, it has shaped the minds of students from grade school through graduate studies and beyond. But behind the scenes, experts are telling a new story--and in fact have been doing so for at least a century. In the July 2005 issue of Nature magazine, Richard Conn Henry, Professor of Physics and Astronomy at Johns Hopkins University, wrote:
“...The 1925 discovery of quantum mechanics solved the problem of the Universe’s nature. Bright physicists were again led to believe the unbelievable — this time, that the Universe is mental.” This startling realization has not yet impacted our education system, and yet decades before Prof. Henry’s comment, the eminent British physicist Sir James Jeans wrote that “the stream of knowledge is heading towards a non-mechanical reality; the Universe begins to look more like a great thought than like a great machine. Mind no longer appears to be an accidental intruder into the realm of matter... we ought rather to hail it as the creator and governor of the realm of matter...”
These radical insights ran counter to the default worldview of science, which founds reality on objectivity (facts, data, experiments, mathematical formulations) and holds a deep suspicion of subjectivity. The irony of such a position is that consciousness, the “stuff” of all mental activity, is also the stuff of the mental activity we label as science.
The resistance to a mental universe remains strong, and once again dates back decades, as when another eminent physicist, Sir Arthur Eddington, noted, “It is difficult for the matter-of-fact physicist to accept the view that the substratum of everything is of mental character...” What scientists cannot accept eventually trickles down into what teachers don’t teach. Since we were children, our teachers have taught us that the world is made of little things called particles or atoms. They were only partially right. In fact, particles and atoms are mental concepts and images, a way of objectifying experiences of the mind.
Human beings are the only living creatures who can manage their own evolution. We can decide to progress and grow or to devolve and ultimately destroy ourselves. This isn’t a Darwinian proposition. Darwin’s theory of evolution is based on the struggle for survival where two factors dominate: being able to mate and to find enough food. Homo sapiens escaped those factors (for the most part) in recent times. Our evolution moved from primitive survival needs into the realm of consciousness.
This turns out to be the most fascinating aspect of being human, and not just in the abstract. Current planetary crises, from climate change to famine, epidemic disease, and overpopulation, starkly inform us that we are not managing our evolution well. A rogue state like North Korea holds up a mirror to our propensity for irrational violence and self-destruction. In short, managing our evolution means that we must learn a new way to manage consciousness. How did we get here and what can the individual do about it?
Three decades ago, the brain lost its sovereignty as the seat of thinking, feeling, and the operation of intelligence. In fact, those processes began to escape the confines of the nervous system itself. All of this occurred when it was discovered that various “messenger molecules” associated with the brain are in fact circulating throughout the body via the bloodstream. Every cell is eavesdropping on the brain’s activity, sending and receiving messages identical to those that the brain processes.
Over the next three decades, the realization that what we dub “intelligence” is a holistic feature of the body, the main difference being that outside the brain, this intelligence is nonverbal. The immune system’s incredible ability to identify and combat invading bacteria and viruses, in fact, has earned it the nickname of the floating brain. Everywhere researchers looked, new avenues were opening in a virtual information superhighway that reaches everywhere, and now it is possible to redefine wellness in terms of a “whole system” approach that has no need to recognize the artificial boundaries between brain and body, neurons and other cells, or even the distinction between human DNA and the countless other microbial genes that reside inside us.