Sunday, April 24, 2011

The dawn of a new intellect

I recently read a transcript of an interview with Jane Goodall. When asked about her most surprising discovery about chimps, she answered that it is their similarity to humans. They use tools and live in communities in much the same way as primitive human tribes.

Like humans, chimps also have a dark side that enables them to commit violent acts. They engage in brutal warfare over territory and are known to commit murder within their group. Like us, they also show compassion and evidence of morality. What distinguishes humans from our primate cousins, Goodall believes, is our intellect. I agree.

The ability to communicate abstract concepts places us on a higher cognitive plane.

The development of written language extended human memory from an individual's brain to a vast array of external media - first stone and paper, and now computer chips and magnetic media. Writing allows records from the past to be kept and transmitted to future generations. Even more importantly, written language provides the means to develop and disseminate ideas that can be argued and refined by future generations.

I believe that the development of science and mathematics is leading us to the next higher plane. Not only does this brand of inquiry lead to a deeper understanding of our universe, from the tiniest to the largest scales, but gives us the means to control our environment and predict the future. It unfolds before us a new world of abstract thought that provides the foundations for the next intellectual revolution.

The acquisition of higher cognitive abilities and the development of language are intertwined, each reinforcing the other. Mathematics is the language of science that takes us into realms that are not directly observable by our senses. We can begin to understand concepts such as curvature of space-time and quantum entanglement through a painstaking process that builds on the foundations of concrete concepts, perceived directly by our senses, to a world that is foreign to common sense. Such abstract tools allow us to navigate new realms that lead to ever deeper insights.

Knowledge gained through abstract reasoning can be commandeered to predict and control our physical and social environment. Alternatively, we can bask in the sheer pleasure of understanding the beauty and mystery on which rests all that surrounds us or found within. Even our thoughts, feelings, spirit, and convictions can be formulated and understood in the language of the abstract.

Knowledge empowers, especially when available to everyone. Literacy was in large part responsible for releasing the power of human creativity that solved problems, inspired us, and made improvements in the quality of life. We can each read about current events, debate issues in bars or on the internet, and use our accumulated knowledge to try to make our world a better place.

In the not so distant past, an elite group of priests disseminated information to the illiterate masses. This process allowed information to become inadvertently corrupted or deliberately manipulated to suit the purposes of the perpetrators. Similarly, today, a great wall separates scientists and the masses. The next revolutionary leap will sprout from universal scientific and mathematical literacy.

Over time, I can see religion fading into a relic of the past, with morality firmly rooted as the topic of scientific discourse. The new book, The Moral Landscape - by Sam Harris, is a foreshadowing of new ways of thinking about morality using the tools of science. Contrary to common belief, science can have a lot to say not only about how, but to define the "oughts."

While the pace of new discoveries has been growing exponentially, some areas of fundamental science seem to be hitting a dead end. For example, scientific puzzles such as the unification of forces and the distribution of particle masses continue to frustrate the brightest minds. Is string theory a step in the right direction, or are some of its more crazy implications a sign that our minds and our science are not equipped to understand such deep questions? Are physicists like dogs with their leashes wrapped around a tree, not having the cognitive ability to see the solution?

These questions hint at cognitive planes that lie beyond our reach. We would be no more able to appreciate higher cognitive planes than a dog can appreciate integral calculus or an amoeba the feeling of loyalty to a master.

A broader perspective on such issues comes from viewing the evolution of life as a series of distinct snapshots. The first frame would show the simple elements under the excitation of lightening and the second would show the amino acids that formed as a result. Then would follow a frame showing a collection of single cells, and next, colonies of cells that communicate with each other through chemical signals. Next, groupings of cells with specific functionality would be seen to have evolved into organs that make macroscopic creatures. Finally, groupings of creatures would be seen communicating with each other using primitive sounds and gestures, followed by the amazing evolutionary leap that leads to language, then abstract reasoning. What image is forming on the next frame?

Perhaps the human mind will someday evolve to the next level. Alternatively, perhaps the internet and other technologies that connect us to each other will continue to become more sophisticated, producing a larger human/electronic organism that is today on the verge of emergence. We may be as much aware of such a super brain, distributed over billions of people, as an individual neuron is aware of consciousness. Such a transformation may already be in progress without our notice.

I would prefer a future in which the human brain evolves to the point where it can reason on a higher cognitive plane; but, a super creature that reasons through the thoughts of billions may be the next evolutionary step needed to get there. Perhaps one day, in a display of grand irony, such a super creature will seek to understand its own super consciousness by studying the operation of single brains and the nature of their interconnections while being unaware of the emergence of yet higher levels of consciousness.