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Wednesday, 24 February 2010

The Window To The Soul

We are told that body language is the key to what we are really thinking, that we should watch what people do with their hands, or the way they're standing, if we are to cut through the layers of ambiguity inherent in what is coming out of their mouths. Politicians are master manipulators of this and are often well aware of the ways in which they can use stance, posture and gestures to reinforce their agenda.

The face in particular is a crucial focal point, especially given that we tend to be drawn to facial reactions when we converse. The eyes are apparently the windows to the soul; and a simple bite of one's lip can give the impression that you are totally blown away by what you are hearing, in a way that words alone never could.

This site, on Vedic face reading, gives lucid examples of how interpreting someone's face might be beneficial in a social situation…

"You are in line at Starbucks and you meet an attractive person, you flirt with
them briefly, wondering, “is this someone I should ask out on a date?"

And leads into explanation of how the face is also a key point in identifying with the ethereal self…

"The basic idea behind Vedic face reading is that your gross physical body is
lying on your subtle body which has been in development for many lifetimes."
Regardless of the fact that this suggests there might be more to us than cells, atoms and neurons, it also raises interesting questions about the continuity of the self; namely that our supposedly unambiguous body language gives licence to a dependable impression of the ‘you’ or ‘me’ underneath.

This works fine if there is indeed an immovable, indubitable self underneath. But what of the body via which this clear spring of language is transmitted? It is constantly changing. Your skin will be replaced something like seven times over in your life, your eyes change colour between birth and old age.

A materialist theory would have to suggest that the truth, or at least one’s perception of it, may not be so reliable given that the membrane through which it is diffused is in constant flux. As we can not submit to dualism, that the mind might be separate from the body or the flesh from the soul, we can relieve the self from its shell, if we are to believe in the self at all. Therefore a reliance on body language to give us a direct link to the truth of the self is a reliance on a set of parameters that are continually being modified and re-edited.

It might be more appropriate then to view the subject as a house. We drive past the house one day and we point it out. A few years later, we drive past again, but this time the outside walls have changed colour, the windows have been replaced and a new set of occupants have moved in!

It’s still the house though isn’t it? The number on the front door is still the same and spatially it occupies the same plot of land. But what if the former occupants were to return? Would they look around and say “Ah yes, this was our house. But this is not our home anymore.”?

This might apply similarly to people; you may look at an old photo of yourself and identify the subject as being you, albeit many years ago. You may have changed in appearance and you may have changed in outlook, but it’s still you right?

Maybe not. Maybe it’s time we stopped investing so much provenance in the idea of the immovable, indubitable, centred self. Maybe it would be more progressive to accept that dualism can not be the solution, that if the body changes over time, then so must the whole of what you are. Therefore the self has changed too; the ‘you’ of now can not be the same ‘you’ of before.

This doesn’t necessarily mean that we have to abandon all sense of self, or aim to dissolve the self in the way eastern philosophies such as Buddhism often promote. It might mean, however, that we can take comfort in the fact that we are not tied to the past in the way we often think, that we are far more mercurial in our relation to time and space.

Most importantly though, if we are to successfully abandon dualism and accept that there is no mind, soul, spirit, subtle body or ethereal self separate to the body, then we must accept that change is total and all-encompassing. Of course, this brings up a whole set of questions about whether we should be held responsible for our actions in the past; but that is best left for another time.

Sunday, 14 February 2010

The Seemingly Unexplainable

In this video, Daniel Dennett discusses the necessity of 'deflating' consciousness in order to make it eligible for scientific explanation. By deflating, he means removing the facets of our perception whereby consciousness is left untouchable to the rational enquirer, too amazing, too vast, too mystical to comprehend.

It is certainly true that many people would be thoroughly perturbed by the idea that their entire conscious existence is reductable. Such a realisation would no doubt push many to the brink of depression or dejection. They don't want to know that everything they understand to be true about existence could be seen as the subjective experience of the brain in its current phase within the evolutionary process, that everything they have ever understood or been able to understand, or loved or hated, or admired or feared is subject to hypothesis, experimentation and scientific explanation.

Many people would claim that so much of what they are or what they believe in is unexplainable, unreductable. This quickly leads to the claim that such things are sacred, and should not be given to examination. The role of language plays a key part in this defence... if it can not be expressed in language then it is beyond explanation, beyond enquiry, and therefore scared or holy. God, if you like, is beyond language so God must be immune to rational enquiry.

Gerald Edelman takes this a stage further and describes the emergence of language as the tipping point where the primate transcended 'primary consciousness' (i.e. the identification of a banana as food) and began to explore 'higher-order' consciousness (i.e. the identification of a banana as food coupled with the existential lament that one must climb the tree to get the banana if one is to survive, or indeed the belief that an intelligent designer must have created the tree on which the banana grows). He writes:
"The emergence of the self leads to a refinement of phenomenological experience, tying feelings to thoughts, to culture, and to beliefs. It liberates the imagination and opens thought to the vast domains of metaphor."
Therefore language as a means of contextualising the self leaves room for interpretation of conscious process as amazing, mystical, transcendent. "Surely there must be more! Surely we can just be physical, we are spiritual beings!"

Just remember the hackneyed cliche that, before Galileo, people wholeheartedly believed the Sun circled the Earth. It took scientific examination to reveal this widespread conviction to be false. Just because consciousness seems to be too vast to comprehend now, we may have to start readjusting our deeply ingrained faith in the fact that some things simply can't be explained.

Tuesday, 2 February 2010

The Eschaton As Data Loss

Given the fact that our lives are largely controlled by databases these days, whether they be administered by governments, banks or retailers; it stands to reason that the loss or degradation of this data could be quite catastrophic.

As Tom Simonite and Michael Le Page wrote recently:

"We are generating more information than ever before, and storing it in ever more transient media. Much of what it is being lost is hardly essential - future generations will probably manage fine without all the family photos and videos you lost when your hard drive died - but some is. In 2008, for instance, it emerged that the US had "forgotten" how to make a secret ingredient of some nuclear warheads."

The article this comment comes from illustrates such a cataclysmic event and examines the ways in which various physical media will decay over the next few centuries, or decades in some cases...

What's interesting is the contextualisation of this scenario as an apocalypse theory... a literal end of the world experience; all the more alarming given the fact that we've only existed on databases as long as databases have existed, which is not very long at all!

Exponential acceleration of digital information storage and sharing technologies has meant that pre-digital media now seems at the least antiquated, and in many cases redundant, in today's society. Case in point: when was the last time you shared a cooking recipe with someone that didn't involve the web or email?

This in itself leaves us with a peculiar dilemma... if knowledge is power, and so much of our knowledge is now stored on hard drives, will the total loss of data mean the end of the human race as we know it?

Sure it wouldn't kill us immediately; but it might lead to a startling tipping point where we realise that all the digital support systems in which we house our collective consciousness are suddenly unable to support us. Such a realisation would mean us having to re-learn lost methods of communication... quickly.

This may also amount to a kind of creeping generative amnesia... where our memories and experiences disappear soon after we've committed them to the ether, leaving us to repeat age old mistakes and share not-so-new learning in a series of looped 'Eureka' moments. A human race eternally doomed to intellectual Groundhog Day.

This then is the end of the world as forgotten knowledge, the Eschaton as data loss... perhaps not so scary for the average individual but potentially disastrous for the species as a whole.

There may of course be alternatives to hard data storage in the future. But, until then, we'd better get used to continually re-housing our data before entropy has its way.

Friday, 29 January 2010

The Problem Of Thought

One of the hardest tasks for researchers of consciousness, aside from providing a suitable definitive explanation for the term itself, is to try and explain how it might be constructed. Philosophers of mind have generally had a very difficult time in categorising the component parts of consciousness and have struggled for centuries to agree on even the kind of language that should be used. We might talk about emotions, feelings and thoughts but who could possibly say where one ends and the next begins? Thinkers from Plato onwards have grappled with the implications of qualia but have never managed to fully tie this expression down.

The problem is that consciousness is intangible and invisible and we are beings who rely our senses and memories to explain configurations of the matter around us whereby we can settle on a common, albeit subjective, understanding. You can not imagine a thought... although trying to do so depends entirely on thought itself; but you can think about other things. Not being able to imagine or visualise thoughts as distinct units of the mental process means that we can not visualise how they might link and merge to form part of the spectrum of consciousness; at least not in the same way that we can visualise how bricks can be combined in certain configurations to construct buildings.

Added to this is the problem that it quickly becomes redundant even trying to understand mental events as distinct linear phenomena given that we can all attest to having had several things on our minds at any given time, not to mention the constant onslaught of sensory and nervous information and even the subconscious processes that are continually contributing to the ever changing mesh of experience we call the self.

Do you look at a river and see individual droplets of water? Could you decipher how each one of these droplets is influencing the movement of those around it? No, but that doesn't mean that any section of that body of water couldn't be broken down to its component parts and measured.

Even if thoughts could be looked at as unique pieces or blocks, are they entirely individual? We might often think of the same thing at different times but does that mean that we are experiencing the same thought again?

Surely a truly deterministic theory would have to allow for the fact that a mental event that seems to have been repeated or experienced before is actually unique in that it comes at the end of a chain of events concerning bother matter and consciousness. You might think of an object one day, and that thought will be coloured by feeling, emotion, recall and sensory input but thinking of that same object two days later will very possibly result in an entirely different experience given that the conditions will have changed. Thus, the same thought can never be thought of twice.

It might take the kind of systematic process of analysis that only a supercomputer could apply before we are able to discuss this subject in a less ambiguous and speculative way. The kinds of causal chains, interlinked events and variable looping configurations we would like to quantify are beyond our current understanding of quantum and chaotic engineering. The problems of decoding consciousness seem to echo those that still frustrate scientists looking at finding a harmonic resolution in the macro and micro aspects of the physical universe. It seems as if we are not yet intelligent enough to understand our own intelligence.
However, as technological progress accelerates, so too do our chances of finally facilitating the framework of tools and conditions needed to turn theory into fact on one of the greatest enigmas of existence... the conscious self.

Sunday, 24 January 2010

Generative Aesthetics

I've recently become a little bit obsessed with Brian Eno and Peter Chilvers' iPhone app Trope. This beautiful little piece of generative software demonstrates a concept that Eno especially had admitted to have been fascinated by for a long time... the idea that complexity can arise from simplistic systems. In this case, potentially infinite harmonic patterns can be triggered by the most basic programming; as basic as a single touch on the screen.

Its appeal lies not only in its capacity to stroke the ego of the non-musician but also in the mesmerising, almost hypnotic formations, both sonic and visual, that come to life after activation. Many people have used generative software in the past to explore the possibilities of digital evolution in art but very few have every produced anything that is genuinely aesthetically pleasing.

And so, as a back nod to my previous post, I'd like to begin looking at aesthetic fulfilment as part Darwinian means to an end but also as an end in itself. An area of our lives that probably governs our decisions in more ways that we could be possibly ever be aware; and becomes centrally important as an enriching and life-affirming principle when we concede that free-will is at best illusory... and almost certainly totally redundant.

In the case of Trope, and other generative programmes, we are watching evolution take place before our eyes and ears in the digital realm and we feel instantly attuned to its progress, if unaware of the intricacies of the processes running in the background; and thus unable to predict what will happen next. In this way, we feel passive, even dumb; but we feel comfortable.

I would like to propose that such windows into the live arena of natural selection are beneficial for us as we begin to surrender our beliefs in the mystic and replace them with full conviction in the biological. We may be unable to see the wholeness of the picture but we can remain absolutely unconvinced in the involvement of an intelligent designer.

It is good for us to interact with chaotic generation and engage with it, even if we don't yet have the tools to decipher every branch of the real-time coding that underpins it. With new technology like Trope, and its sister application Air, and we are given the chance to develop a new aesthetic appreciation of the art of bits... as they swarm and cluster, as they mutate, as they replicate, as they form new configurations within deterministic and indifferent environments.

As Brian Eno said, speculating on the future of generative music:

"The works I have made with this system symbolise, to me, the beginning of a new era of music. Until a hundred years ago, every musical event was unique: music was ephemeral and unrepeatable, and even classical scoring couldn't guarantee precise duplication. Then came the gramophone record, which captured particular performances, and made it possible to hear them identically, over and over again.

But now, there are three alternatives: live music, recorded music, and generative music. Generative music enjoys some of the benefits of both its ancestors. Like live music, it is always different. Like recorded music, it is free of time-and-place limitations — you can hear it when and where you want.

I really think it is possible that our grandchildren will look at us in wonder and say: 'You mean you used to listen to exactly the same thing over and over again?' "

Thursday, 21 January 2010

Is Freedom So Important? Part 1

"Natural selecton is an explosion of evitability"

So said Daniel Dennett in trying to explain that free will may not necessarily be diametrically opposed to determinism. As a 'compatibilist' he asserts that the possibility of free will evolves, in itself, over time. His explanation being that natural selection may have favoured those who were able to make choices in favour of longevity; illustrated by the example of the person who can decide to duck, to avoid being hit by a flying spear.

The problem is that if you decide on a course of action whereby you remain alive and have avoided the option that could have left you for dead, then surely you're just following nature's programmed, deterministic inclination towards survival. Put simply, because of your programming, you never had the choice to ignore instinctive reflexes and allow yourself to be killed by the spear.

Evitability in this case, Dennett explains, is synonymous with avoidability. If something is 'inevitable' then it is 'unavoidable'. Thus further problems arise when you talk about the future as being inevitable... rather it should be individual events that should be assessed as avoidable or unavoidable.

An interesting rationale for support of Dennett's propsal is given in A Case for Free Will AND Determinism, where the author helps to qualify the concept, as follows:

"Causality provides constraints, not unfreedom. Gravity limits the conditions under which a person can fly, but it does not prevent flying."

Still though there are holes here... you can't pick and choose what ares of existence are governed by causality. Picking up from the above comment, the very idea that you might be able to fly in the first place is the result of any number of preceding phenomena. In essence, the Big Bang happened... and everything since has occurred as a direct result. The development of consciousness is as bound to this as anything else.

And so to the multitude of scenarios that have been envisaged for the technologically enhanced future. Singularitarians declare 'inevitability', transhumanists engage immanentisation... the willed bringing about of the apocalypse, the eschaton, the point where all predictive theory breaks down.

No matter how it all pans out though, no matter whether our meagre brains are able to imagine the futurist's future or not, nothing is guaranteed and nothing is out of the question. But just because certain aspects of our future can or can not be avoided, there is no reason to start looking at the results as anything other than the most recent events in a chain of cause and effect that has been extrapolating for the last 14 billion years.

To be continued...