Saturday, August 23, 2014

Observations on the Nature of Awareness

Hi all. Long time no blog.

Anyway, I haven't fallen out of the habit of thinking and doing stuff, I just fell out of the habit of posting about it here. Over the summer I wrote a couple essays; what follows below is one such. I wrote it while non-sober, and the state I was in at the time led me to contemplate the nature of consciousness itself. It's rather stream-of-consciousness, but rereading it sober I concluded there was a germ of an idea in there. See for yourself:


In the field of music, pitch is inherently associated with emotion, and different pitches with different emotions. Composers and musicians are taught how to exploit these associations, and thereby to trigger given feelings in people.

Pitches are essentially mathematical. In the plainest physical terms, they are the average wavelength of a series of sonic vibrations, and they repeat themselves mathematically. (I say "average" because they can be composed of several different pitches; strumming a guitar to play up to six strings is an example of this, as is picking the strings of a chord shape. Progressions are pitches through time, and therefore represent an elaboration of the emotionality of a pitch.) Take the pitch we call "E." An open guitar string that sounds the pitch of E when played, if doubled in length yet with the same tautness and diameter, will sound an E in the next octave up. Similarly, were it to be cut in half, it would sound an E in the next octave down.

As for octaves: the phrase "octave" is a misnomer. If you have a guitar handy, notice that there are twelve frets to the octave, not eight. However, of those pitches within an octave our modern Western society has socially constructed to divide up into twelve, there are eight chords that seem comparable to our ears. On a guitar fretboard, this is rendered as follows: EF-G-A-BC-D-, with the dashes representing the four pitches that we did not deign to give letters.

Though the repetition of a pitch at the doubling or halving is a rule of mathematics, the choosing of a twelvefold division into eight major pitches is a social construct. There are surely other ways to divide up and describe music than the one our society has chosen.

The question is, however the description of a pitch may have been socially constructed, do humans associate the same emotions with the same pitches? A pitch, after all, is just an average distance between crests of soundwaves; does that distance correlate with the same emotions in all cultures and societies? The answer to this question would suggest answers to questions about the makeup of human emotion: whether our emotions were an inherently mathematical thing, a law of nature; or whether they too were socially constructed.

Either answer would have profound implications for the nature of awareness, whether we possess free will or merely the illusion thereof. Physics and science thus far has not discovered any explanation for the appearance of free will. Are we true automatons, fleshy clockwork able to witness our existence but not to change it? Or if we can determine our existence, whence does that ability come?

Everything observed in our universe thus far has clearly been deterministic. If you throw a rock at a given angle and a given speed in an environment with a given gravity and air density, you will get a given trajectory, every single time. It may be complex mathematics, but it is mathematics, and therefore deterministic, all the same. It does not appear so with us, but in the absence of a scientific explanation for the phenomenon of free will, many have figured that free will is only an illusion; that deterministic forces control even that.

To summarize their argument, take a simple choice most of us make every morning: what to eat for breakfast. The determinist would say that though we can choose, those choices are determined ahead of time by a chain of causation. Maybe you want to eat out, because it is a weekend, you have money and you don't feel like cooking, or perhaps can't at the moment. Where you eat out will depend on how much money you have and what you're in the mood for. Or perhaps you don't have enough money to eat out, in which case you either make food at home, eat leftovers, or fast. All of these causes are themselves effects determined by earlier causes. There is an unbroken chain of causation. Even though it seems like we're choosing, we are simply links in the chain of causation.

Say you're moving, your hotel room doesn't have kitchen facilities and they don't offer a continental breakfast. Say you have enough money to eat fast food if you do the dollar menu, and you don't have the time to go to a store and, say, fix a peanut butter and jelly sandwich or even just buy a bag of fruit. Say the town you stopped in for the night only has one fast food restaurant. It seems like you'll be going through their drive-thru, yes?

"But wait!" a believer in free will might cry. "I could always choose to fast, just to prove that I do indeed have free will!" And indeed you could. The determinist, however, would rebut "But you very well may have a psychological predilection to contrary emotion, which would compel you to choose to fast!"

Who is correct? That is what humanity needs to find out. One way, I believe, is by conducting experiments to discover whether pitch is universally related to emotion or is just a social construct. If pitch is universally related to motion, that means the building blocks of our emotions are mathematical, not socially constructed. If they are mathematical, they (and us) are likelier to be deterministic, and if they are socially constructed, they (and us) are likelier to be a function of free will.

This is not a certain thing; it may indeed be possible that human emotions are expressed in a mathematical language, but derived from a cause that is separate from a deterministic chain of causation: a free will. Or it may also be possible that emotions are socially constructed, but social construct itself is part of a deterministic chain of causation. However, the answer will nonetheless help us narrow our query somewhat.

Should pitch be universally related to human emotion, we could then enquire to what degree. We could see if it extends to other animals; playing extremely happy or extremely melancholy pitches to various animals and observing whether it changes their behavior, and how. Perfect correlations might not be possible to observe for any but the simplest emotions, but could help us see if these universal understandings evolved over time, whether they changed or merely grew more complex. If, say, an A minor chord has always, for all time, meant "very melancholic," even to other creatures that branched away from us evolutionally, then it suggests something concrete about the nature of awareness itself.

These investigations could go on forever, and ought to, but it is useless to illustrate the many different branches it could take, because most speculation beyond the first couple possibilities is bound to be wrong. Nonetheless, the research should commence.

Right now, the closest thing society has to scientific investigation into the nature of awareness is the "ghost hunters" on the late-night cable TV cheese shows your grandmother watches. They're either patent frauds or self-deluded people operating off of pseudoscience, but with the germ of a reasonable (and falsifiable) concept: that awareness is either electromagnetic in nature, or leaves evidence of its activity that is electromagnetic in nature.

This in and of itself is not controversial; the nerves and brain deal in electromagnetism and chemical processes. The controversy arises when they assert without evidence that these processes continue after death, represent awareness, and that awareness after death in a physical location (being a "ghost") can be measured through spikes in electromagnetic activity. But as it stands, though they are unlikely to appreciate the fact themselves, they are the closest thing free will has to a scientific defender in modern society.

The only other current investigations into the nature of awareness are being done by neurosurgeons. They do not seek to discover the answer to the question of awareness, but merely an answer to the physical process of our brain's operation. So far, they have found an unspeakably intricate machine with gears made of lightning and chemicals. Determinists argue this proves their case; yet the machine is not fully understood. The first cause (or causes) pushing all the other causes around may yet be our wills, and not a function of the deterministic universe around us.

One final remark on the subject: it seems apparent from nature that whatever other principles may govern awareness, complexity is a big one.

We speak of amino acids, the building blocks of life, as chemicals. The first cells are organisms, technically life, but not in any way aware. Multicellular organisms seem to us equally unaware, but they can react to stimuli, the way plants imperceptibly turn and grow towards the light.

As these multicellular organisms become more complex, we start attributing more and more awareness to them. Insects understand danger and how best to avoid it. Fish can see us, swim towards the top if we sprinkle food in their tanks, and play with one another. Cats and dogs have distinct and obvious personalities. Some scientists want to label dolphins and certain apes "non-human persons," believing them to be as aware or nearly as aware as ourselves, but unable to communicate such awareness to us or to demonstrate the power their awareness brings over their environment as effectively as we.

And yet, there is one category of multicellular organism that is simultaneously smaller and larger than ourselves: ants, bees, wasps, any sort of hive insect. The question of their awareness is: do they think on the level of the individual insect, or on the level of a colony? In which level is their awareness, such as it be, vested? In broad strokes, each colony's individual insects communicate to each other via pheromones; that is to say chemicals smelled in the air. But are these communications on the level of, say, you telling a joke to your friend, or of a finger telling your brain what your hair feels like as you touch it?
Perhaps that's missing the point. If you dump artificial pheromones into an ant colony, knowing that that particular pheromone might be, say, an order to attack, you could in a sense be the controlling mind behind the colony. But some hypothetical alien intelligence could do the same to your body, should it possess the ability to inject or withhold certain electrical impulses to and from your nerves at will. We consider ourselves the individuals and the insects the cities, but by what measure? We may be physically contiguous the way two ants are not, but we grow and lose cells all the time, the way an ant colony gains new insects and insects die off continually.

There are suggestions in our history and our psychology that humans, the individuals, can join into greater organisms, and that this process has become more common and sustained over time. We clustered in bands of 100-200 or so people we considered in our in-group from the dawn of man until roughly 11,000 years ago, when the first cities were founded. Then, we created hierarchies among us to prevent unrelated strangers in a society from killing one another, expanding the in-group to anyone under the rule of a particular king, chief or emperor. Those hierarchies grew increasingly complex.

In this new settled humanity, the most violent individuals would be selected against as they would be more likely to die in wars or from crime. As a result, humans gradually adopted religions and ideologies that spread this in-group-ness to humans in other polities, so long as they had the same or similar ideas and/or beliefs. The dawn of liberalism saw the expansion of the in-group to include everyone, as ideas like free religion, free expression, democracy, and equality under the law societies where everyone was (at least in theory) part of the in-group within a nation or collective of nations under liberal rule. Globalization helped expand that even further, tentatively to the whole planet.

Merely being part of an in-group may not "count" as being an organism. So the depth of that in-group-ness must be explored, alongside the breadth thereof. There are situations when people seem to lose their individual identity and act as one. Moreover, these situations seem to be pleasurable to most people. Concerts and political rallies help people "lose" themselves in a common experience, be it music or a cause. Religious rallies and experiences can do much the same thing, and indeed, many religions speak of "dying to oneself and living in Christ" or some variant thereof.

I can even remember a time when, as a teenager, I went to a mall to go meet a professional wrestler named Goldberg. At the time, he was a new star in the WCW with an unblemished winning streak. I was part of a crowd that had come to see him, and been kept waiting. Finally, word got to the crowd that he was behind a security barrier, and someone shouted "Rush the barrier!" And like a single organism, we did, until security regained control of the situation. I recall, at that moment, not feeling like myself, but like I was a part of a greater organism. Our verbal speech was not the communication of individuals to each other, but more akin to pheromones or a nervous system.

Drugs provide the same experience. One of the great cause celebres of my generation is the legalization of marijuana. At the time of this writing medical marijuana is legal in a majority of states; marijuana is decriminalized in many more, including my very conservative state; it is fully legal in two states, Colorado and Washington, as well as the whole nation of Uruguay; and most political observers consider it a question of "when," not "if," it becomes legal nationwide.

Why is this, though? Marijuana, while it has not been determined to be completely without negative side effect, is certainly safer than alcohol or tobacco, other fully-legalized recreational drugs. Indeed, the very fact of their legalization tells us only that a drug cannot swiftly kill someone and be legal. Other drugs would pass this test (albeit not as easily as marijuana) but they remain banned, probably indefinitely. Why?

The proxy reason for this discrepancy is that marijuana is much more popular than all those other drugs. In areas where marijuana is still banned, it accounts for roughly half the illicit drug trade. If the government were to legalize only one drug, marijuana would be it, streamlining the war on drugs and reducing bureaucratic headaches all around. But this is simply a proxy reason. Why is marijuana popular, and therefore on its way to full legalization?

It is my suspicion that it is for the same reason that concerts and rallies and religions are beloved by humanity. One of marijuana's documented effects is the dissociation of self, the lack of individuation while intoxicated. The stereotype of the stoner feeling "one with the universe" or somesuch exists because this is an actual effect of the drug. Marijuana users are subsequently far more peaceful than, say, alcohol users.

Indeed, having been both an adherent of a religion, and a user of marijuana, I can attest to the similarity of both things insofar as their attractions go. They both offer a negation of self into a greater whole, or Whole if one prefers. They both are enhanced by music in which to convey the emotions conducive to creating this unindividuated state, and music itself is another unindividuator.

As a former evangelical Christian, I can attest to this. I went to church as a teenager while my parents slept in, mainly because the praise and worship (performed by what are essentially bands singing simplistic, easily-memorized soft rock songs) engendered this feeling within me. I attributed it to God initially. As I learned more about my given faith and the other branches of Christianity, I discovered The Dark Night of the Soul by St. John of the Cross, a Catholic theologian.

St. John of the Cross gave this feeling the term "the day of sense." We felt God with our emotional senses, and it was good. But it ended, inevitably ended, in what St. John termed the "night of the soul," where it seemed that God ceased speaking with us. St. John asserted that there was a yet more sublime manner in which to commune with God, but all my investigations as an amateur mystic never uncovered any.

St. John, writing in seventeenth-century Spain, would likely not have known enough to compare the "dark night of the soul" to the increasing tolerance for a drug; and indeed both have the same cause in the brain. But the comparison does suggest itself to modern observers, and as I started smoking weed, I felt a similar feeling to what I had attributed to "God" back then, even though I had long ago abandoned evangelicalism.

This is not to argue against evangelical Christianity, necessarily, but merely to observe that one of the primary enjoyments of humanity is to unindividuate into a greater Whole, to combine our wills into a single Will.

Similarly, we glory in complexity. One of my favorite games is the Civilization series started by Sid Meier. In it, you can rule a nation from 4000 BC (the dawn of recorded history) to the modern day. I create huge empires, not necessarily to "win" but because doing so is fun and rewarding in itself. I play on Earth maps because I want to see if I can match, and then surpass, the empires that actually came to exist in the real world.

Another favorite game of mine is Minecraft, which if played in Peaceful and Creative modes is essentially playing Legos on a computer. I build intricate, complex cities and even whole biomes and nations therein. I've even given thought to ways to simulate other planets in Minecraft, as well as spaceflight.

But why is this fun? As far as I can tell, complexity is fun for the same reason the loss of individuation is fun. Complexity is merely the process of using smaller things to create bigger things. I move blocks to create cities in Minecraft, I move units and found cities to create empires in Civ. I worship and toke to join my simple awareness to a more complex Whole. One day, our descendants will be as joined into a single organism as our eyes are to our feet.

They will be this way because they, and we, and everyone that came before us sought to be this way, because all of human history has been dedicated to this joining. Societies have grown ever richer throughout history by increasing their trade and communications with one another, and our price signals have put a premium on becoming closer to our fellow humans.

What does this say about awareness? If the determinists are right, then it must arise spontaneously out of sufficient complexity, and the day we build a computer as sophisticated as the human brain, we can be said to have created self-aware life. If those who espouse free will are right, then there must be some unknown substance, or at least some unknown combination, process or reaction of known substances, that creates awareness. Either possibility is thrilling.

Though it is the first resort of pseudoscientists, charlatans and anyone else with a theory and no way to prove it, quantum physics is all the same a refuge for believers in free will. Experimentation has proven that a photon of light can act as a particle or a wave, depending on something called the observer effect. It is simultaneously both until someone is watching, then it resolves from a probability into a discrete form. This suggests the existence of awareness in a form that can somehow influence reality.

Here we fall into another metaphysical detour, this time not strictly into religion but into the semi-magical domain of William Blake. He described what I term "awareness" as Will, and believed it shapes the universe around us. Or, if you believe in something hard enough, it sprouts into being. The observer effect suggests that, at least to a certain degree, it may very well be true. One cannot magically wish or pray away an electricity bill or a flat tire, or at least one cannot at our current primitive understanding of awareness, if indeed this line of theorizing is even correct.

If that theme seems to be repeated in this writing, it is only because it is prudent. I am merely synthesizing what little knowledge on the subject that I know, in order to emphasize just how much I do not, just how much everyone does not. Our society needs to remove the ghost hunters from the vanguard of inquiry on this subject, and replace them with actual scientists, made respectable by the social construction of an appropriate field of study. Call it "awareness studies" or "sapiology" or whatever you may wish, but it seems prudent to me that society undertake these investigations with all care and gravity. Even if we discover ourselves to be pure deterministic clockwork and thereby confirm the lazy suspicions of modern science, we will at least have cracked scientifically what until now has been the sole domain of metaphysics and superstition.

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