Sunday, July 18, 2010

Forces of the Universe and Cats

A question I've often had is, "What is a thought?"  Where exactly does it exist?  Obviously it exists in the physical world, via physical interactions; a mind must make a thought, not a rock.  But upon what principles is it operating?  Maybe an example might help:
That cat is there.
Now we have something.  Light is shining off the cat and into my eyes.  I take that information and create a model that tells me a range of things: shape, color, movement, dimension, location, texture, etc.  I then fit it into a narrative of meaning: a small mammal with specific features, a pet.  I then recognize it among my memories: I have seen this cat before.  All of this and who knows how much more happen at the conscious and unconscious level - the latter making up the majority of the processing.

So all of this is thought and it is essentially a transference of electromagnetic energy from the cat into the photoreceptor cells of my retina.  These cells transfer specific positional data via the interaction of each photon/wave against the electron state of specific pigment atoms within the optical cells, triggering specific enzyme cascades that transfer that "data" into my neural network, or mind.  The photons' vast variabilities are then fed into my cerebral structures that process and re-process, at near-light speed, and eventually rise to the well-ordered simplicity of "thought".

Through fundamentally simple principles then, this process unfolds, involving the physical interaction of impossibly large numbers of particles.  The process by which we "think" is the realization of all of this activity:
That cat is there.
While the physics of it all is relatively straightforward, the trick is wrapping one's mind around how this all relates to consciousness.  If I take all of this information and a "thought" is created in my brain - how is it that I am conscious of it?  Douglass Hofstadter describes the brain as a fundamentally self-reflective instrument.  He points to Descartes' ultimate definition: "I think, therefore I am."  The first think one ever knows about one's self is that one is actually thinking.  One is able to have a thought, and then perceive it.  "Look - a thought!"
That cat is there.
 If one imagines capacity for reflection on a scale, Hofstadter says, at the furthest end - at one, say - you might have a simple device.  He uses the example of a toilet ballcock as having basically one point of reflection: when the water rises to a certain level, a valve is closed and the flow is shut off.  At the other end of the scale, you might have the all-seeing, all-knowing omnipotent god who's capacity for reflection is as limitless as the information available to him.  The human mind might be somewhere in the middle, some of us more than others possessing the cognitive and emotional skills to be able to process and reflect on information.  While the mammalian brain, or that of the corvid might rank relatively high, as we move down the scale, the brain gets progressively smaller until we reach animal systems that are largely autonomic, and then largely dependent on individual cell regulation.

In this way the human brain is simply an organ that is capable of taking in large amounts of data from itself and the environment and "fleshing" out meaningful metaphors that we are able to essentially live within.  These become useful narratives in that we are able to construct them out of past experiences, and then predict future events with great accuracy.  To the extent that we are social creatures, we are so in no small part because not only are we able to create this narrative for ourselves, but we are able to sort of geometrically place a similar narrative onto others.  And our cats.
That cat is there.

The Four Fundamental Forces of the Universe

Strong Force: Holds quarks and gluons together, and protons/neutrons residually.
  • 10−15 m range
  •  mediated by gluons, which carry charge
Weak Force: Causes certain kinds of radioactive decay.
  • 10−18 m range
  •  mediated by W and Z bosons, which carry no charge
Electromagnetic Force: Acts between electrically-charged particles.
  • infinite range 
  • mediated by photons, which carry no charge
Gravity: Causes objects with mass to attract one another.
  • infinite range 
  • mediated by gravitons (?)

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