Saturday, June 20, 2009

Part 6 (a work in progress, really)

The last one was all over the map, but it kind of had to be. You can’t get there from here, and the rap rep has, inevitably, lead to this hominem to my homie Emineminem: Mr. Marshall McLuhan. Going over all the Wiki articles and their links refreshed my memory of why this guy always looked more like a Nostradamus than a Norte Dame Emeritus (actually, McGill D., in Toronto, but I’m into hardcore phonography—what can I say?) and I barely scratched the surface.

So, the gems only: The Mechanical Bride: Folklore of Industrial Man (1951) used a work by Marcel Duchamp as its title (and with such a subtitle!), and was written as a short number of essays to be read in any order, and was as much a visual presentation (such as newspaper clippings and magazine adverts, like a Mad Ave campaign) as proper thesis paper…and looks more like a web page than anything else. The Gutenberg Galaxy: the Making of Typographic Man (1962) probably felt like science fiction-philosophy when it first came out (as I gather from materials referencing it). The term "global village" was coined here, but not in the "bringing-all-of-mankind-together" sense later popularized. MM's was much more dystopian. (And now to unregenerently Wiki once more…) Check it out:

"In the early 1960s, McLuhan wrote that the visual, individualistic print culture would soon be brought to an end by what he called ‘electronic interdependence’: when electronic media replace visual culture with aural/oral culture. In this new age, humankind will move from individualism and fragmentation to a collective identity, with a ‘tribal base’.

"Instead of tending towards a vast Alexandrian library the world has become a computer, an electronic brain, exactly as an infantile piece of science fiction. And as our senses have gone outside us, Big Brother goes inside. So, unless aware of this dynamic, we shall at once move into a phase of panic terrors, exactly befitting a small world of tribal drums, total interdependence, and superimposed co-existence. [ ... ] Terror is the normal state of any oral society, for in it everything affects everything all the time. [ ... ] In our long striving to recover for the Western world a unity of sensibility and of thought and feeling we have no more been prepared to accept the tribal consequences of such unity than we were ready for the fragmentation of the human psyche by print culture." (-MM)

Ok. If this sounds like I am simply parroting MM (and Wikipedia), there's no reason it shouldn't. It is just that he arrived at his conclusions close to fifty years before Prezboy declared a “War on Terror”, and the Internet—which turned everyone into a blogger and as well into a camp “follower” (even as I have none, or one)—was even a glimmer in daddy's big fat diode.

So as we are entering Moderngrammarstan, let's pose it in a more concrete, and contemporaneous, analogy: you can't have a computer without an operating system. In this view, the "hard problem" is a "hardware vs. software" problem; which isn't really a problem as you can't do anything with either without the other. And seeing as how (outside of Sportstalk USA) this the abiding, binding metaphor of our era, the Information Age, I feel confident to suggest that it might just pass muster as the likely paradigm of the time. Our concrete reality has become an electronic one.

Perhaps, if he were still around, MM might agree that the Gutenberg Galaxy has become the Digital Universe. Exactly what impact that may have on our existence, that’s up for grabs—literally. If, as he suggests in “an infantile piece of science fiction…our senses have gone outside us”, then, just looking at web traffic (and e-mail, Facebook alerts/Twitter, etc.) we can see the most instantaneous process of our “thoughts”, our brain’s messages, have become extended to the point of visibility. This process of externalization is a major thesis of McLuhan’s, that all Media are extensions of man’s physical self into the communications realm. That he later titled his 1967 book “The Medium is the Massage” (not misspelling, not a misprint) seems to create an inherent implication of a physical contact.

But how far could he go with this? And more: how far do we want to carry it?

Back to premise #2, at least. We CAN do things in the "real" world: build pyramids, cure diseases, land men on the moon, split the atom, etc. We know why these things work, and they work over and over again. That all comes from premise # 1. This is where we get to apply premise #3 to the barely-“previously-owned” premise #4. Premise #4 is the red-headed stepchild of "reality"; it doesn't belong in the "family" but it is there nonetheless. Assuming that our affect/effect on the "real" world is as evident as our senses report (right down to the recent development of actually causing climate change by our presence, and that of our constructions/extensions of our beings), the question becomes; Does anything we do affect Quanta? And/or vice versa?

It is not so far a stretch, considering how little we know of that little level. Consider: we know that a lot mental disease comes from imbalances in neurotransmitters. By advanced pharmacology, we have made tremendous strides to the point where we can make tiny, micro-adjustments to certain individuals' blood chemistry wherein they might lead semi-"normal" lives. However, when you think of how miniscule these changes are, on a biological level, we are much closer to the molecular (well, cellular, but close enough) than we are to the corporeal.

Chaos Theory gives us this statement: a butterfly flaps its wings in China and produces hurricanes in the Caribbean. If this domino effect can also be given grounding in Quantum Mechanics (which is, I suspect, some of its origin), that's when things get strange. In classical physics, actions have consequences that we understand. There is no reason to think the same won't apply in Quanta, right? It’s just the “that we understand” part which is tricky.

So, if we can’t “understand” Quanta, then at the very least we should consider the views of someone who is open to both the “hard science” and more “speculative” side. Roger Penrose is one of the king-hell, Alpha-dog mathematicians and physicists of our day. You may have heard of Penrose Tiles at some time or other, possibly as a reference to a toy sold in advanced-state New Age trinket shops. This is no mere paperweight for your yoga teacher’s desk, however. If you Wiki, you will find a rather extensive write-up, including an animation which shows some of its variants, which are, to these eyes, like nothing so much as CGI kaleidoscope pictures or Moorish scrollwork, and very hypnotic and beautiful.

Now, is this, in any way, significant? As a matter of issue, it is. In 1974, Penrose published a paper entitled “The Role of Aesthetics in pure and applied research.” You see, even though it is considered monumentally influential and great import, and even though the ostensible point of the essay, it was actually only one fifth of the whole. Penrose, like many another major thinker, is of the opinion that for anything to work well, at the level of fundamental principles, it should not just “add up, but should also be “elegant”. This is a word you wouldn’t normally associate with gnarly quadrilateral equations and such, but math profs use it all the time. If it were “all Greek to me” then I might actually know what all those ancient Hellenic symbols were doing in there. As it is, I have to accept that when a model is used by topologists and molecular chemists and other physicists to fabricate solutions to puzzles in describing spaces that could never be solved by traditional geometry, then there must be something huge behind it. And, as well, this underscores the philosopher’s dictum of never getting to far from human references, in something like, ‘if you can see symmetry and balance, there is something working’. A lot of people wonder how scientists can come up with a 10-dimensional universe with only a few thin shreds of evidence to back up their claim. The way you do that is you devise a formula that looks beautiful, except for a big gaping hole where some number should be. Then you start looking for that number.

But getting back to Penrose, in regards the Big Picture, he has made the observation that since "fundamental levels of reality are more informational than material (viz; quantum physics), then consciousness may be the interface between quantum and 'classical' physics of our existence." That is one of the ones I started chewing on at the very beginning of my researches, and it still stuns me. And he even goes one further. "How do we understand mathematics if understanding is not just following a rule (as a computer does) but requires understanding the meaning (my italics) of mathematical concepts?" The interaction between quantum mechanics and the general theory of relativity is poorly understood. Fundamental questions about time and causality seem to depend on how that interaction gets worked out.

This is heavy stuff, but Penrose even steals a march from the fantastic cosmology of Teilhard when he proposes this: the brain exploits some large-scale quantum coherence to achieve consciousness, an infinitesimal collapse of quantum information into classical information that takes place in the cytoskeletons of neurons. And this gets an add-on from his student/collaborator Stuart Hameroff with respect to a biological analog to quantum computation involving microtubules, which became the foundation for Penrose’s subsequent book, “Shadows of the Mind: A Search for the Missing Science of Consciousness”. The proposition? That the site of this collapse might be at microscopic level of the microtubule, a computer-like protein structure inside the dendrons of every neuron and cell.

We are now leaving the SciFi Zone for Comicbookland. This ventures into the area of superpowers, like X-Men or something. Or Nietzsche?

Of course, nothing’s proven yet, but still… Consider the discussion of “values” in the long slog through Part 3. Even with an equal or greater number of detractors of Penrose’s theory (especially in the AI community, who swing in another direction entirely on Godel’s Incompleteness Theorem and the Turing Test on how to tell whether you’re playing chess with a human or Big Blue), Consciousness is actually deemed worth its weight in worry by people who do equations.

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