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Shedding light on terminology sometimes used in this web magazine …

Spirituality among atheists, Part 1

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About AtheistBible.net

Atheists have no true public voice, and yet some of the most brilliant people in history have been or came to be Atheists. We have no meaningful sense of community and seem to be characterized by our individuality rather than by the important traits we share. That is one of our biggest problems.

Suggested for Reading:

The True Believer, Eric Hoffer

The Science of Good & Evil, Michael Shermer

How We Believe, Michael Shermer

The End of Faith, Sam Harris

Tower of Babel, Robert T. Pennock

Freedom Evolves, Daniel C. Dennett


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Spirituality, Consciousness, God, Conscious Machines & the Atheist Mind.

(cont'd from the previous page)


Without a Religious Agenda:
Despite all the books and research in search of consciousness since Francis Crick kick-started this quest, as of now, it manages to hold on to many of its deeper mysteries, though we are closing in on it (we think), useful clue, by useful clue. We have a better idea how certain conditions, e.g., sleep, drugs, epilepsy, and physical trauma to the brain, affect consciousness within. We like to keep in mind too that early philosophers, lacking modern equipment, had to rely on pseudoscientific observations, and thought their deeply sincere ‘findings’ to be accurate and valid! Even with the best of intent they left us with a muddied understanding and an entire self-contained universe of obscure terminology and tortuous reasoning trying to deal with what consciousness might really be, a heritage that still warps and affects interpretation of new data. Although as an aside, we observe that while much of our behaviors now are shown to be rooted in genetically determined biology, our genes don’t have to be our destiny: Recent studies seem to show they may be turned on or off according to the environments in which we are raised or live thereafter, which is where the insights of Freud and Skinner (operational conditioning, etc.) and some of the other early researchers’ and psychologists’ observations may be revived and actually turn out to have some usefulness.

But carving through those turbid reams comes now Adam Zeman, a practicing neurologist and senior lecturer at Edinburgh University with a background in philosophy and psychology, who wrote an excellent book about consciousness (“Consciousness, A User’s Guide”). There was also a critique and review of his book by John R. Searle in The L.A. Times Book Review of Sunday, October 12, 2003, p.R12, itself quite brilliant. Searle is Mills professor of the philosophy of mind and language at UC Berkeley and has written his own books on consciousness, one of the more recent being “Mind, a Brief Introduction” (which isn’t that brief, the book is smallish but densely packed with close reasoning that takes serious interest to read and grasp). In his generally favorable review, Searle introduced his own refined notions of the three tentative “intuitions” Zeman had made about consciousness, they are distilled into the following deceptively simple facts:

“1. Consciousness is a real part of the real world. It is not an illusion.
“2. Consciousness is entirely caused by brain processes.
“3. Consciousness functions causally in our behavior.”

Thus we get to power through much tangled verbal underbrush and come full circle back to an amplification of what Francis Crick said in 1994: that the brain is a biological machine which causes consciousness. But if our brains are just biological machines, and consciousness is purely from neurological processes, how come we don’t have any hint of consciousness ever show up elsewhere in the body? Are brain cells programmed for consciousness, as, say, cells that form the pituitary gland are genetically programmed to produce growth and other hormones, the gall bladder to churn out bile, and so on? If so, should we not be able to identify specific genes that have markers for consciousness on them? Fortunately, Zeman and Searle take the hypothesis further than Crick. For Crick, emotions and free will were seemingly just the product of “nerve cells and their associated molecules, ” as if we literally did not have that entire world of imagination that we create out of “thin air” and let it go just the same way, all within our minds alone. Nerve cells and their associated molecules make no accounting for our imaginations, nor the fact that we choose, we make choices for ourselves, there IS a unique person with a wholly individual inner life in that brain case who can lead us to behave in ways completely at odds with the rigidity of performance in a mere machine, with humor and kindness and caring, to make beautiful original art or see it in chance encounters, reflect upon it, create new ideas and discover new understandings, or choose to be hard and deceitful and pitiless. The Zeman/Searle third assessment of consciousness above recognizes this by allowing that our consciousness can act upon the nerve cells and their associated molecules to come up with a unique choice to react to a situation with any of these qualities, perhaps finding other motives to act not just in the way a computer would logically deduce . The outcome is not inevitable, a cruel person may choose to do a kind deed, the generous person to be selfish. But wherein does the choice come from, if just as a machine it would be like a ball balanced on the point of a needle, just waiting for some tiny coquettish waft of air to cause it to fall this way or that, but that’s not how it works. Consciousness continues to play hide and seek, just as with the example of the energy in sunlight above, its effects are seen, itself is not.

So for the time being we will stick with the Zeman/Searle troika above. It’s something we atheists can deal with, it does not in any way diminish what humans have created through use of our conscious minds, or how we have utilized them to wrestle out an understanding of our world and universe. Au contraire, it reminds us of the wonderful power of our minds to question and invent and to learn and understand and to weave tales and reason with what we have learned and find transcendental meaning in our existence. Although neither of the Zeman or Searle books really looks at spirituality or contemplates what spirituality is or how it occurs, we think it is clear that spirituality is married to our conscious and self-aware minds, and taking into account all those studies above, it is probably seated in the brain’s prefrontal cortex which is where open-ended questions are cogitated upon and worked around, and perhaps where many new scientific discoveries are inspired.


A conscious (non-biological) machine?
A most fascinating observation in Searle’s review of Zeman’s book was that, while both believe it might be possible to build a conscious machine, Searle expressed the opinion that the existing protocol for utilizing computational conventions in binary code (zeros and ones, or “off” and “on”) will be wholly inadequate for the purpose. This is SUCH an intriguing area that we just have to follow this White Rabbit down the hole . After all, exploring consciousness and the possibility that spirituality might self-generate in conscious and self-aware machines might help us to understand our own possession of these gifts. Given the problems of various approaches currently being used to simulate human thought processes and behaviors and functions, it’s hardly going out on a limb to agree with these authors that modern attempts are mostly not headed in the right direction. But what else is there that might do the job?

Current approaches try to duplicate human brains by increasing computational power and stuffing more and more chips and capacity into smaller spaces and trying to preload the result with massive quantities of data input that are equivalents of the human experience. Although computer chips get ever more storage capacity, & computational methods get ever more sophisticated, there’s always something missing, the bits and bytes and the linear approach that is part of computing systems, however smart they get made, will always be lacking the spark that is consciousness, it is a programmed machine still and without any hint of being self-determined or aware; it can’t foresee possible outcomes that have never occurred before and which have therefore not been painstakingly programmed in. Bits and bytes start out completely blank slates; we concede that our genes carry imprinted “genetic memories” and evolutionary traits of our ancestors’ past that predispose us to certain outcomes. In the (natural) brain, this means that some of the parts come pre-adapted for their assigned role and preloaded with virtual templates of potentials, and alternative potentials which may or may not may be turned on due to environmental or familial circumstances.

Those genes and alleles, once they progress beyond a tiny cluster of cells, quickly become specifically tasked to their various purposes, substantia nigra, corpus callosum, Broca’s area, etc. But even so, once our brains are formed, even as those parts that control the autonomic nervous system go about their business unnoticed, other parts manage to think independently and make decisions and be self dependent and deal with the more esoteric parts of us, such as emotions, wants, desire for amusement, and even spirituality. New ideas are created, information, facts, feelings, recognitions, all travel in and out and across and up and down and are juggled around within other parts of our brains and all done with limited neurological hardware. Somehow nothing that’s been done with conventional computers, no matter how big or high powered, allows this. If you think otherwise, try asking even a highly sophisticated and recent commercial computer with huge computational powers and massive programmingthe kind of question that one human might ask another, in normal language, and see how it responds. We guarantee, even if it recognizes certain aspects of the question, the best it can do is to respond in a totally literal manner regardless of how much pre-programming has been loaded in. For the average human, even for a child, references, meanings, inferences, all without any specific pre-programming in either party, are easily understood, while this is simply not so for the computer.

There might be other alternatives, our own personal idea (being only fascinated and voracious readers of all science and studies in this area that come our way) is that if it is possible to do so, mingling qubits with the more common kind of bits to create the brain of our conscious non-biological machine might do the trick, to stand in for the human forebrain. Qubits are (very very small) bits that can theoretically be every possible number between one and zero, as well as being all of those numbers, all at the same time, at least until they are observed (they have some other interesting abilities too). When fashioned into quantum computers they might make a far more convincing substitute for the brain than our current computer systems. That ability to be any or all of those numbers at the same time, to us suggests exactly the capabilities and essence of consciousness in a human brain. We also think the form or shape of the non-biological machine’s “brain” is important: every biological process and form is comprised of curves ; curves, it should be noted, are generally described mathematically in terms of irrational and transcendental numbers and perhaps it’s a coincidence but perhaps it’s not.

So again our theory, that perhaps our brains are partly composed of bio-matter in the sub-atomic range which we have not yet looked for or found, but which enable us to easily juggle and cross-compare and throw out new permutations of so many varied matters and possibilities. And as with qubits this bio-matter could be used in multiple different ways and have that same inherent ability to be every possible number between one and zero and all of those numbers at the same time, without the need to be dedicated to specific tasks, leaving them constantly reusable and fluid and flexible and able to reconfigure themselves in an instant. We note here that although a few qubits have already been created this is a relatively new field of research so there’s a great deal left to discover and do, and until better ways of doing it are devised, it will remain fairly difficult research. We are hoping to learn more about that as new information becomes available, even if our own hypothesis turns out totally wrong.

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