Tag Archives: Science

Spiral galaxy NGC 6384, photographed by the Hubble Space Telescope

The Doors of Perception

I love this.

A couple weeks ago, Financial Times Magazine published a feature by Clive Cookson on Lord Martin Rees: Britain’s Astronomer Royal and an absolutely fascinating man. One quote of Rees toward the end caught my attention:

“There is no reason to think that our [human] comprehension is matched to an understanding of all key features of reality … There may be phenomena, crucial to our long-term destiny, which we are not aware of,” Lord Rees says. This is not exactly a widely declared opinion among scientists, who tend to celebrate how successful they have been at understanding the universe, rather than ruminate on how limited the scope of their study is. But Rees holds this opinion unabashedly, as he describes in a 2012 op-ed in The Telegraph.

And why not? There is no question that science has been amazingly, ridiculously successful at developing an empirical account of our physical reality, but it is still only our physical reality that it describes. Even our most advanced scientific instruments, such as the Large Hadron Collider, are based on a series of theoretical and physical steps out from our basic biological identity. All of science is founded on our experience as primates possessing five(ish) physical senses, inhabiting organic bodies on a wet, rocky planet in three-dimensional space and one-dimensional time. That experience forms what I would call a “bubble” of human scientific capacity.

We’ve been able to do a lot within that bubble, but we would be utter fools to think that we’ll be able to comprehend everything from that basis. There could be principles in our universe—as basic as gravity or matter-energy equivalence—that we have no clue exist, because our brains and perception are incapable of registering them. There could be other dimensions of reality, perhaps infinite in number, existing within and around our own, each inhabited by its own life-forms and intelligences. Our own universe could be nested within other universes, and others within ours, infinitely deep and vast. Continue reading The Doors of Perception

Photo of three dolphins jumping through waves in the Gulf of Mexico

The Overwhelming Abundance of Consciousness

Last week, I wrote about how animals becoming persons may lead to artificial intelligences and other unusual entities gaining personhood, and what the ramifications of that could be. There is another side to the question of animal personhood that I did not address, which profoundly impacts the way we perceive our world and all other life. That side is consciousness beyond humanity, and I feel it is well worth contemplating as our experience becomes increasingly technological.

When India declared that dolphins should have the status of non-human persons in May, it was fantastic news for dolphins and all humans (like me) who care deeply about animals. Much of the news coverage, like my previous post, focused on what exactly personhood meant for dolphins, how close it came to human rights, and where it might lead for animal rights. Only in passing was mention made of the extraordinary fact that, in saying “Whereas cetaceans in general are highly intelligent and sensitive… [it] is morally unacceptable to keep them captive for entertainment purpose”, the Indian government essentially acknowledged that our planet is home to conscious beings other than humans.

This acknowledgement is coming more and more frequently. On July 7, 2012, a bevy of prominent scientists (including  physicist Stephen Hawking) proclaimed and signed the Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness, which lays out the scientific case for consciousness in a variety of animals. It is a document that may figure prominently in the history of intelligent life on this planet (you can read it in full here [PDF]). In its conclusion, it declares:

The weight of evidence indicates that humans are not unique in possessing the neurological substrates that generate consciousness. Non-human animals, including all mammals and birds, and many other creatures, including octopuses, also possess these neurological substrates.

–Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness

Whether or not you agree that consciousness is wholly generated by physical, neurological processes, this is an eye-opening development in science and intellectual thought. For over two thousand years, it has been argued by philosophers, theologians, and scientists that humans are superior to the “dumb beasts” of field and forest, because we possess some combination of reason, self-awareness, and an immortal soul, and animals do not. This flies in the face of most human history and basic human experience. The traditional beliefs of Native Americans and most other indigenous tribes recognized animals as beings equal to mankind—in some cases, descended from the same ancestors. Respect and honor was always due to animals, especially when hunting them for food and clothing. (Interestingly, it appears that many modern hunters preserve some measure of this ancient tradition.) And who has not looked into the eyes of an animal and sensed there a will, intelligence, and presence at once familiar and incomprehensible? Continue reading The Overwhelming Abundance of Consciousness

Are we as smart as we think?

When Carl Linnaeus was completing his taxonomy of plants and animals and needed a Latin name for his own ilk, he settled on Homo sapiens, meaning “wise man”. More recent scientists, who were precise but not necessarily humble, have seen fit to single out modern humans among their extinct cousins by adding on another “sapiens”. Narcissism? Maybe. It is at least evidence that we humans think pretty highly of our species’ mental abilities.

My previous post offered a fanciful view of human evolution, in which our social and technological development started because an absent-minded bumbler didn’t pay attention to where he was going. That’s probably not accurate. But I do wonder how our species went from cavemen to CEOs. Were we choosing to advance, or just falling into pits the whole time? And what does either option say about our intelligence, and our right to the name “sapiens”?

It is fun to imagine that there was a single occurrence that determined human destiny—for example, the birth of some freakishly big-brained Australopithecus who survived to crush things with rocks and have lots of kids, and now here you are reading this on your iPad two-and-a-half million years later. Continue reading Are we as smart as we think?

In the Beginning: Aba’s Tale

Not long ago, in a wide valley between tumbled hills, there lived a tribe of a couple dozen creatures. They walked upright on two legs, swinging their arms back and forth at their sides with each pace. They appeared mostly defenseless and harmless, without large teeth or strong jaws or sharp claws, and their forward-facing eyes flicked nervously from side to side in an unceasing vigil for food and predators. In the valley’s thickets they searched for berries, nuts, and roots, and occasionally scavenged a few strips of meat from a lion’s kill, furtively stripping the cold flesh from the bones and gulping it down with delight. At night, they huddled together for warmth in a cave near the head of the valley. They slept lightly and muttered noises to one another that held some ill-defined scrap of meaning.

One day, a healthy male of the tribe, who responded when his fellows cried out “Aba”, wandered off down a well-worn trail. The day was fair and warm, and Aba was aware, with an emotion akin to happiness, of the blood pulsing in his veins and the movement of his muscles. He walked, his head upturned to gaze at an eagle circling above the valley, and he did not notice that a sinkhole had collapsed across the path on the previous night. Aba stumbled in, landing with a grunt on his elbows and knees. Continue reading In the Beginning: Aba’s Tale