The Design of Intelligent Nature and the Nature of Intelligent Design.


In this presentation I will build on the previous one, Naturalizing the magic of the mind, where I tried to communicate an intuitive appreciation of how the massively-parallel processing  by about 100 billion neurons in our central nervous system creates a model in our mind, a representation of reality that uses sensory inputs and associative recall of selected aspects from past experience, which is available during waking hours for ready reference in guiding our steps and appreciatiing our place in the world.  And when we dream, it's there without the usual sensory inputs to tie it down to reality. 

Consciousness
is the repertoire of recollections we might reference as needed!  It includes the internal images of what we see and feel.  It's more than what's-on-our-mind at any moment because it includes the potential for what-might-come-to-mind.  We have the subjective experience of reaching for the things we recall, but in fact we're accessing the edifice we've built in our mind.  And our perception of external phenomena is itself an internal phenomenon!  The process goes both ways - sensual data coming in causes experience of something "out there."  We recognize the external reality using the internal realm of associative recall and creative imagination.  Our viewpoint is usually outward - so we must reflect upon our own experience to articulate its processes.  But both phenomena are real, and both natural.  And we can invent ideas to understand them both.  Now we will explore some consequences of this inside-out viewpoint on how we think and what we know.

First, we need to realize that there's so much going on in our mind that we can't possibly give all of it our conscious attention.  Our voluntary bodily functions of balance and locomotion run mostly on auto-pilot.  We put step after step and we don't fall down because those reflex functions are self-motivated and they respond automatically to our conscious intent to go somewhere.  We need to realize that those guidance and control  functions are doing their job, with the sophistication of feedback to minimize the difference between what is and what should be, often better automatically than when we think about them.  And of course the metabolic and maintenance functions of our body are automatic, self-motivated, and they call our attention only when needed.  The servants do their jobs perfectly well when the Master isn't home.  A lot of thought going on there that we're not aware of.

Second, our awareness of thought is cast in the mold of verbal communication.  In spite of its very slow data rate, a few syllables per second, and serial mode, single channel, one sound at a time, we have achieved a very powerful subtlety of thought in that medium.  The speaker does a parallel-to-serial conversion, choosing from a myriad of possibilities, the thoughts he wants to express and the words to express them, and the sound patterns to say the words in grammatical sequence.  That's layer upon layer of massively parallel processing by self-motivated, associative, pattern recognition machines, each a living nerve cell.  The listener does a serial-to-parallel conversion, guessing what the speaker is trying to say, keeping in mind multiple syllables and words because their meanings are ambiguous until the whole context is clear.  We are consciously aware only of the end result, because so many possibilities are considered and rejected that we'd be lost in the shuffle.  But the subtleties of associated ideas are saved and contribute to the significance of the speaker's expression and the listener's understanding.  Think of poetry.  The miracle of consciousness!

The sequential, cause-and-effect mode of conscious thought comes from the serial nature of our communication channel and we are aware of reasoning when we explain our ideas to someone else.  And we have developed a self-awareness, to see ourselves as others see us, because it guides what we say to be understood.  The process of communication, transferring awareness from one individual to another, is deeply embedded in our sophisticated thought processes.  Our language capability has such survival value that it evolved in under a million years and humans have taken over the world.  We need to play God, whether we want to or not.. 

The whole thing depends on parallel processing in our brain, in a universe of separate systems that are self-motivated, but we need a different conceptual system to do that justice.  Processes like biological evolution, which results from the accumulation of many separate events of genetic inheritance, are easily misunderstood when described as a cause-and-effect happening.  Cause and effect are ideas in our tool kit for understanding and explaining.  When we jump to a conclusion we call that intuition, because we're unaware of the inputs that went into that result.  And we don't trust our own thoughts until we rationalize them - put them into a format for explainuing to someone else!  And our rationale can be very creative, after-the-fact, to justify what we've chosen to do without thinking consciously.

We, and other life forms, have evolved the scientific method!  For its survival value! We theorize (imagine) what to expect, compare with empirical data, and correct the theory so that it better models reality. We automatically forget what was wrong in our perception of reality and replace it with the latest information.

So - We say we believe in Reason rather than Faith!  A very concise statement, but it's inadequate.  Reason is only part of the scientific method, and we too have faith in our independently confirmed facts.

If Reasoning means the orderly derivation of consequences from accepted ideas, it's part of applied science and rhetoric, that is, engineering and argument.  If Faith means believing the unbelievable it's an abdication of responsibility for what we believe.  In both contexts we need to keep an open mind, and use critical judgement to guide our thoughts, and of course we do.  But that is usually part of the uncouscious, parallel processing of our associative access to a wider horizon.  And the sequential, stream of consciousness, cause and effect of verbal argument is all we are aware of.

Isaac Newton thought he discovered the Word of God.

God said Newton's law, F=Ma  - -  Force = Mass times Acceleration - and that's how His Creation had to go!  Causality is a human experience.  The leader would command and the followers would obey.  Creation is a human experience.  We wish to make something and that's motivation to do the job.

Newton's creation was in fact more subtle.  He invented the methods of Calculus to deal mathematically with continuously changing variables.  He could solve the equations of motion of planets around the sun and explain their variable velocity and elliptical orbits that Kepler had deduced from astronomical observations.

Nowadays we think of Newton's equations as a model of reality - an idea that applies perfectly to ideal systems - point masses and instantaneous action at a distance - and real objects and mechanical phenomena are near enough to the ideal that the equations are useful. We can predict mathematically, to good accuracy, what to expect given input data about the system we are studying.

Is gravity a thing?  Yes, in a sense.  It's an idea we use to understand physical systems.  It's a force that acts at a distance, that causes acceleration of masses.  Or, it's a curvature of space due to nearby masses, so that free-falling objects following straight lines in their space will appear, from our point of view, to follow elliptical orbits.  The idea has a kind of reality that's different from physical objects - but we can think about it the same way we think about real objects!  Because we think about real objects by manipulating our internal, mental image, that is, ideas that represent things.  And we think about ideas that represent relationships, and processes, and categories of all the above.

As explained in Naturalizing the magic of the mind, our perception of real or imagined objects is the model that our associative pattern-recognition neurons create in our mind.  Likewise the relations represented by abstract ideas are modeled in our mind.  The modeling function serves a useful purpose - EXTRAPOLATION !  We can imagine what-to-expect from sensory inputs and past experience.  We know where to go to catch that fly ball when it comes down.

And today we have information theory to clarify our thoughts about communication and control.  And the experience of programming computers to do subtle tasks, using an algorithm - the idea of what to do - and an implementation - the steps that serve the purpose in a practical context.  We can develop a better understanding about the nature of intelligent design - and the design of intelligent nature.


For millennia philosophers have been mystified by what they call the mind-brain problem.

They recognized the power of ideas and thought they existed, like things, but in some supernatural world.  The idea "dog" was more universally applicable - more doggy - than any particular dog, so obviously it had some special kind of existence.  And our everyday experience of dogs was just a shadow of that ideal world.  If the essence of dogs existed forever, then the essence of a human being was an everlasting soul!  And our minds dealt with ideas so they must partake of that magical existence.  If we have sexual sensations in our dreams that must be some kind of reality because we could feel it.  There must be a devil doing magic on us!  They had words for them - Incubus or Succubus depending on gender.  And real-life sexual sensations must be magic because we don't understand them.

What an opportunity for charlatans!  The ancient oracles and the contemporary churches live off of gullible people by combining their mystery with enough real good, and hoped-for wish fulfillment, that they don't completely discredit themselves.  And they evolve by natural selection.  Those that find a prosperous niche in their contemporary society survive and become gospel for the future, and the ones that don't are gone so they're not our concern.

Christianity - the religion of slaves - was adopted by the failing Roman Emperors and formalized / rewritten to serve their purposes.  It survived the Feudal Aristocracy of local tyrants by proclaiming an ideal of poverty and an implementation in monastic societies that could be self-sufficient without any portable wealth worth plundering.  And after-the-fact they shared a common purpose of converting the local agricultural Pagan culture to accepting the tyrannical status quo.  Enough of that digression.

Medieval philosophers and theologians (They didn't differentiate.) worked out a web of subtleties about Aristotle's causes (Formal, material, efficient, final.) because in their mind an event couldn't be understood without a cause.  And they had their God in the shape of man to provide a first cause when they needed one.  Today we realize that events in a natural context have many causes, and we can consider them all together or separately.  Cause is an idea we use to understand the process.  Experimental scientists go to great lengths to create an apparatus where the cause they want to study will predominate.

There have always been a few intellectual leaders, whose thoughts were way ahead of other people of their time, and we appreciate them today as creators of our contemporary  modes of thought.  Plato, Archimedes, Copernicus, Galileo, Newton, Descartes, are credited with developing a scientific method  which used rational inference to explore the implications of an idea, and reliance on repeatable experimental evidence to judge its validity.  What's now called the Age of Enlightenment was a philosophical liberation from traditional beliefs based on revelation from on high, as conceived by priests and interpreted by ecclesiastic higher authority.  Also known as the Age of Reason as used in a title by Thomas Paine.  This led to a willingness to rethink the institutions of political power.  Today the idea of popular democracy has gone worldwide while the U.S. has become the world's worst menace, in the name of democracy!  So there's hope.  If we don't blow the world to hell our civilization will pass us by.

But wait - Reason is only part of the scientific method, what we are aware of when we communicate with others to convince them of the validity of our new ideas and experimental methods.  Scientific Materialism was the idea that we can avoid confusion by leaving mind and imagination out of the argument, out of the statement of results.  By expressing a theory in mathematical form we can use very precise measurements to test its validity.  And by comparing quantitative data we can avoid prejudice about the result.  Also this was compatible with Descarte's idea of a dual reality - real and spiritual.  Mind was excluded from the reliability of physical science. 

Since we don't have objective evidence about the spiritual world we can think whatever we're persuaded is the word of God!  But the Enlightenment philosophers and our own revolutionary founders used critical judgement and original ideas, in the name of Reason, and they created a new future for our civilization.  Self-rule by popular democracy is an ideal that we approach, bit by bit, as we become more and more able to practice what we preach, in spite of the prevalence of Religion and Politics and Advertising and Economics, all using behavioral science results about populations to bend public opinion.  They don't try to understand how our minds work, they just use statistical results to know how to influence behavior.

What's called Modern Physics (dating from around 1895-1925) - the discovery of ionizing radiation and sub-atomic particles and relativity - found that fundamental ideas about the immutability of matter and space, including Newton's laws of motion, were not universally applicable. Atomic particles act like waves, spread out in space, with intensity that can be interpreted as a probability of interaction, but they act like point masses when they interact.  But the gravitational energy of idealized point masses would be infinite, so that idea is unrealistic.  Gravity, and the relativity of space-time, have not been made compatible with Quantum Mechanics which accounts for atomic scale phenomena with fantastic precision.  We find that any idea is only good for what it's good for, and we can expect to need new ideas when we discover - or create - more reality. 

Did this put physical science and cosmology into the same indeterminate bag as philosophy and religion?  Yes BUT - it widened the horizon for both.  In retrospect, a few leading lights have shown clarity.  For example,  William James, about 1890, wrote "Consciousness is a process, not a thing."  And in the 1920s Alfred North Whitehead and others developed Process Philosophy with its emphasis on the interactions of actualities rather than their passive existence.  The term "actualities" is chosen to include things and their interrelations and ideas about them.

In that context Process Theology has developed the idea of a God that's not omnipotent and omniscient and supernatural, but rather is an idea that we can use to comprehend the values inherent in real world experience.  Our whole knowledge of reality is itself a process, and we're missing opportunities for a wider horizon if we don't keep an open mind.  Contemporary mainline churches are including various developments of Process Theology in their teachings.

So, if they must entertain the thought of God in their mind they realize that like any other idea it represents something - the universal facts of life, or of nature, or at least a process of becoming.  And in that critical context we can let it run wild, for whatever that's worth, and rein it in when necessary.  Our efforts at comprehending ancient religious doctrine needn't conflict with our appreciation of contemporary clarity in understanding that ideas are tools of thought, that represent something of reality, and are useful for practical purposes.

The sensation of wanting to do something is an epiphenomenon, as is the whole experience of consciousness - it's the aggregate result of the working together of many self-motivated neurological subsystems.  As an analogy gas pressure is an epiphenomenon, the aggregate result of free-flying gas molecules bumping against each other and the container walls with a kinetic energy distribution that depends on temperature.  Therefore we can think of a gas as a fluid that fills the available space but we need the kinetic theory to explain, quantitatively, the relation between temperature, pressure, and volume.  Our experience of wishes and intentions, and morals and values, is  a part of the process of imagining what-to-expect.  We are aware of the part of that massively-parallel, associative recall, pattern recognition process that we need to guide our steps in the world.  We, and other animals, have evolved the automatic systems to internalize our knowledge for ready reference, without distraction by the millions of sub-systems that make that possible.  So we can direct our attention as needed and imagine "What if?" and decide what objectives to pursue. 

Free will is our subjective experience of entertaining in our imagination, whatever thoughts come to mind, and  then following whatever course of action that we choose.  Determinism is our belief that natural processes can be understood, and will behave, according to ideal concepts that we can invent, and that we can use to predict what will happen. 

But today we have the humility, and conceit, learned from modern physics and information theory, to realize that ideas are useful tools in spite of their limited applicability.  And that critical judgement is a window to a wider horizon of possibilities.  Faith is good for what it is good for, for commitment to a course of action, but it shouldn't be a refuge for minds that are not comfortable with the open-ended nature of reality.

The philosophers couldn't deal with their "mind-brain problem" because they were looking the other way!  And they had a historical context of magical thinking, a "spiritual world" where ideas were real in a different way, that was too comfortable to abandon.  But now the quandary of mind-brain dualism is left behind in the trash bin of word games that philosophers play on each another.  Understanding human motivation is a work-in-progress.


Paradox:  With our modern communications technology the world has shrunk to milliseconds!  Access to anywhere!  And anything that anyone has put on the Internet!  Yes but  --  That wider horizon contains so much more world!  And we can have it both ways.  Our cognitive system has evolved - naturally - to do just that!  Associative pattern recognition, parallel processing, fan in, fan out.  A virtual reality like we do with computers. Awareness automatically of what we need to know at the moment.

The design of intelligent nature IS the nature of intelligent design!


Here are some references which have been important to me:

Chance and Necessity by Jacques Monod who in 1970 wrote a popular book about the nature of life and genetic evolution. The bulk of the book is detail about molecular biology, but a gem of an idea is expressed there.  Monod said that life is "epigenetic" and "teleonomic".  The process of evolution works out with fantastic subtlety the ways that life forms can grow out of the nature of their materials, analogous to the order with which atoms fit together in crystals. By "teleonomic" he means the purpose that we see in adaptive variations. He points out that our recognition of organization and purpose in natural systems is a creative act on our part. We should take credit for inventing the ideas that we use to understand nature instead of postulating a miraculous Creator. 

Unsnarling the World-Knot - Consciousness, Freedom, and the Mind-Body Problem.  David Ray Griffin, U. of California Press, 1998.  A detailed philosophical discussion of cognition as a natural process.

Patterns, Thinking, and Cognition - A Theory of Judgement.  Howard Margolis,U. of Chicago Press, 1987. An evolutionary approach that emphasizes the dynamic balance between reconsideration and commitment to action, that is observed in "lower" life forms as well as mankind.  Margolis shows that pattern recognition is an iterative process of successive approximation between an internal representation and external stimuli, and that imagination and invention are part of the process.  He applies these insights to societal behavior, in particular to the century-long interval for the general acceptance of the Copernican paradigm for our solar system, first by navigators and map-makers and last by professional astronomers 

An informative review, revised 8 Jan 08:
http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/process-philosophy/

Synopsis of mainly medieval discussions of causality:
http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/causation-medieval/