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Time, Space, Memory, Consciousness, Causality, Tools, Recursion


Time is the sea in which we float or swim.

Time is given measure by easily observable cyclical phenomena: the rise and set of the sun, the phases of the moon, and the annual solstices. From these natural phenomena humans derived the day, the month, and the year.

More recently, time has been given measure via subliminal cycles, as with the current definition of a second: an international unit of time equal to the duration of 9,192,631,770 periods of the radiation corresponding to the transition between the two hyperfine levels of the ground state of the cesium-133 atom. Hmm ... why that particular type of atom? I'm glad that somebody somewhere can measure such things ;-)

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We often use time to describe distance. Here in DC we don't ask people how far they live from their workplace, we ask them how long their commute takes. Some people are patient or desperate enough to endure an hour-long commute, or even more! When the transportation system becomes congested or fails, then 20-minute commutes become 2-hour commutes and the entire metropolitan area suffers.

Physicists also use time to describe distance. This is how the idea of the "time-space continuum" developed. When physicists observed that nothing can travel faster than the speed of light (which is exactly 299,792,458 meters per second), they realized that space and time are functions of each other. Space is defined by distance, which really means that space is defined by how long it takes light to traverse that space. And time is defined by how far light will travel during that time. So, time and space are dimensions of the same time-space continuum. Fun!

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Somehow we humans make sense of all this intuitively. We understand that space has three dimensions: length, width, and height. We understand that time has duration. We understand that it takes time to travel across a distance. But we also feel like we are traveling with time, even when we sit still.

Time is not merely a function of traveling. Time is also a function of sitting still.

And, so far, humans intuitively know that time is a function that (nearly always?) travels in only one direction. The typical person does not believe that he or she can go back in time. We have the now, we have the past, and we have the future. We come from the past, and we move into the future.

Stories about going back and forth in time are the stuff of mysticism and science fiction, for most of us.

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Consciousness would be strange indeed if we had no understanding of the space-time continuum. Even if we close our eyes we still arrange our perceptions in a three-dimensional space, with the help of our touch and our hearing.

We feel our hearts beating in time, and our lungs breathing in time. Even when we are sitting still our bodies are active. Eventually, as we sit, we feel urges. Urges like thirst or hunger, stiffness or fullness. We know that we have aged and that we will continue to grow older, with time. We know this because of our memory.

Memory gives us our sense of progression through time. If we could not remember what happened two seconds ago, then we would not know what came before our current perceptions. Without memory, all we would know is the now. We would not know that the now is different from before, and we would not expect the future to be different from the now. Having no memory would be a very strange place.

If you had no memory, any actions you take would be either instinctual reactions to present stimuli, or arbitrary actions without conscious purpose.

If you had no memory, could you learn anything? Maybe. That might depend on our definition of memory. Is memory a change in behavior due to past responses to stimuli? Motion A led to pain, whereas Motion B led to pleasure, therefore the organism stops performing Motion A and continues performing Motion B. This is a kind of memory. It requires that an action and a reaction be perceived, linked in a causal way, and stored for future reference.

So, memory is the ability of an organism to link past perceptions in a way that might allow it to predict future causality.

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Heh, this essay is going down an interesting philosophical path. In order to be conscious of our time-space continuum, we require memory, and memory appears to require causality. At the very least, memory is only truly useful if it interprets causality correctly more often than not. If there is no causality in the universe -- if successive events are not linked in any predictable way -- then memory is useful only for its entertainment value, or perhaps, only as a tool for producing consciousness.

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Consciousness depends on memory in order to understand itself? Perceptions don't make sense without a perceptual framework that has been validated by past experiences and built into memory. Well, that doesn't mean you need memory for consciousness, only that you need memory in order for consciousness to understand itself. Can you be aware without being self-aware? Sure!

Yet, humans appear to be "hard-wired" to perceive certain natural phenomena. Without eyes we could not see. Without ears we could not hear. Etc. Whether we were designed by a divine hand or by an arbitrary selection, we have a design that is attuned to particular sources of input.

Not merely attuned, but also limited. We can not see all the colors of the spectrum! We can't see infrared or ultraviolet. Using scientific instruments we have validated these colors to the same extent that we have validated the red and violet colors we can see. Using invented tools, we now understand that there are flavors of perception that humans were not built to perceive. We are all now Six Million Dollar Men, via our tools (Normally, the EPA uses $6.1 million as the value of life in all its calculations, regardless of age Under Fire, EPA Drops the 'Senior Death Discount')

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It seems that it was our understanding of causality, via memory, that led to our ability to create and use tools.

But what purpose does consciousness serve? That's always been the question that defies an easy answer. Where does consciousness lie? Why does there appear to be only one consciousness per human at a time? Where does that consciousness go when we sleep or when we die?

If you imagine humans to be wonderfully designed organic robots who have memory, and perceptual systems that were designed to intuitively understand the time-space continuum ... in a world where causality works more often than not ... and these organic robots learn to build tools that can, recursively, change their perceptions ... this sounds fantastic, but if humans could evolve via natural selection then so could these human-like organic robots ...

Where does consciousness fit in? Why is consciousness important? Is it necessary?

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I'm not the first person to tackle this problem. If consciousness is simply awareness, then perhaps every bit of matter and energy is aware, or at least potentially aware. That's usually where I end my inquiry. Either I'm the only thing in the universe that is aware, which would feel very lonely, or all the rest of you are aware, as are our pets, and it becomes extremely difficult to draw a line between organisms that are aware and those that aren't.

If every bit of matter and energy is aware, then of what is it aware? Is it aware of the passage of time? Is it aware of changes within and without? How does an organism become aware of these things? What are the prerequisites for awareness of these things?

Death would be the breakdown of the machine that keeps all that self-awareness humming. Awareness would definitely change ... perhaps consciousness of time would disappear, along with memory ... perhaps the entire organism's awareness simply disappears as the machine breaks down into its constituent parts (each of which might also have some level of awareness, maybe).

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Lots of people end this inquiry with a claim that all humans have souls. Souls are these immaterial things that are somehow connected to our material bodies, somehow directing things and feeling things via a sacred and scientifically inexplicable link between the worldly and the spiritual.

Those who believe in souls differ over whether these souls are reborn or kinda hang out until Judgment Day. They tend to believe that souls are indestructible. You don't often hear of a myth in which the soul hangs out until Judgment Day and then is destroyed. Souls get (a) rebirth, (b) eternal heaven, or (c) eternal hell. Strange that an omnipotent God couldn't simply destroy souls ...

From a natural selection point of view it would make sense for a successfully replicating organism to want to live for as long as possible, to fear death, and to imagine circumstances under which it would keep living eternally, and to do whatever it could to make those circumstances happen ... but the idea of the spiritual soul counteracts the desire of the material replicator to live forever by claiming that there is a life beyond that of the material replicator. The idea of the soul is at odds with the body, actually.

Plus, we humans obviously age no matter what we do ... so trying to live forever does become futile eventually.

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OK, we know we have awareness, we know the prerequisites, and we know that these prerequisites might have occurred via something called natural selection ... so consciousness evolved.

The interesting question is whether this means that the potential for consciousness is inherent in the stuff of the universe.

I come to this question after thinking about Artificial Life. I've done some programming in Artificial Life, and I had a great deal of fun creating dozens of differentiating characteristics for my organisms and watching them duke it out inside my computer's RAM. I even created some routines that allowed mutation (BTW, an appropriate mutation rate is pretty much required for a natural selection theory to get us from point A to point Now).

After the novelty wore off, I wondered how to create Artificial Life that could mutate beyond the boundaries of the program. How could it generate characteristics beyond those that the logic of the program would allow?

One time I responded to this by allowing the program to randomly alter bytes within the RAM. Usually this would cause the computer to hang ... heh, the Artificial Universe would freeze. Oops! Too much mutation. But even my Artificial Universe, my computer, had particular design characteristics. My little Artificial Life forms could not possibly randomly mutate their way out of the computer in a way that would change the limitations of the overall design.

Hmm.

So, either consciousness was built into the system, or the underlying system is also evolving according to rules that we might not ever hope to understand.

And, by this point I've reached the limits of what I can know, using my current perceptual system w/ tools.

It could be God in a white robe waiting to judge me for my sins. It could be almost anything. How would my Artificial Life forms describe the universe from inside their programming, inside my computer? They can only describe what they know, and if they have any real intelligence at all, they know that what they know is limited.


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