Tuesday, March 9, 2010

“The Age of Consciousness" – A Post Information Age Era?

Over the centuries, millennia even, many have attempted to make a case for one of two models: hard science vs. divine intervention or, evolutionism vs. creationism. The contrast has been made using various approaches. It’s a very delicate conversation if there ever was one, to say the least. So much so that we are taught to avoid such discussions.

It is evident enough that few debates have remained as dependably consistent as well as relentlessly unresolved. Shouldn’t that be a clue in and of it self? This blogger believes so. And, the author of "Technology’s Promise" provides great material to fuel a third argument; one which could ultimately contribute to a shift towards true harmony between two long-time adversaries. Times are, indeed, changing!

If one camp can invalidate the other’s claims with science, we must also readily concede that it cannot account for everything either. Few things, if any, might illustrate this more succinctly than the quest for artificial intelligence (AI). Still, in the 21st century, Turing’s test demonstrates that he understood something about human consciousness that remains a mystery still, 60 years later, right in the middle of the Information Age.

It is rather astonishing that Alan Turing, a mathematician, of all things, could provide a simple definition that would provide scientists a guide to forge ahead in their pursuit to create AI, while substantiating our mystical distinction as a species. Would the ability to engineer AI demonstrate that divine creation is a hoax? Would our physical inability to reproduce human consciousness attest to an omnipotent being, or possibly many? As a powerful inspiration in the Age of Information, the master mind behind George Washington University’s TechCast Project undoubtedly exposes that, perhaps, there need not be a “right or wrong” answer to either question after all.

It can be quite enlightening to examine how ones life leads to a particular individual belief system. Until I was assigned Professor Halal’s book as part of my doctoral readings, I had not encountered material that outlined the necessity for a global shift of consciousness with such compelling illustration and, from either side of the argument. And this is in spite of numerous, deeply rooted spiritual models. The facts presented are plentiful and therefore merely brushed over. But, they undeniably power the drive to individual futuring imagination. Our current path as a species emerges as particularly flawed. It would, indeed, be irresponsible to envision long term survival of mankind without some king of global transition to sustain escalating demands for resources and energy, environmental concerns or, escalating political conflicts; to name only a few of many islands of commotion. Why does it seem impossible to bring order to this chaos, still? Why wait until forced to do so?

Nothing appears more necessary to me than the need for several unanimous paradigm shifts to support survival of the planet and subsequently, of the species. Countless world crises clearly point in that direction. Is this notion a simplistic view inspired by Sci-Fi novelties such a Star-Trek and the many Great Scientists of our epoch or, an idealistic and perhaps unrealistic prospect for humanity, biased by an incomplete image of world realities? It’s hard for me to say at this time. Certainly, capitalism stands in the way of reason with undeniable might. What remains hardly questionable anymore is that machine and human spirit cannot continue on such conflicting paths. William E. Halal and his team certainly merit thunderous applause for wishfully staging some sort of amicable future between technology and spirituality, with a measurable dose of rationality and criticality.

How, then, do we bring “multiple islands of consciousness” to agree and respect some sort of unified truth?

In his book, Prof. Halal ascertains quite well the soon-to-be unyielding hand of the future in face of current technological trends. This concept closely ties into questions posed on this blog site regarding our responsibility, as an advanced society, to measure the impact of technology on general morals. See this post in context: Holographic Technology, Cell phones and Holo-Sexting.

The George Washington University based Techcast Project, founded by Prof. Halal, pools knowledge from 100 experts from around the world. They use a closed method of consensus to reach agreement on future technological inclinations. One such prediction, made in 2008, was that Web 2.0 tools would dominate the internet within a few years (Halal, 2008). We can certainly attest to that forecast ourselves today, already in 2010. From all corners of the WWW, Web 2.0 technology affords every-day social-publishers the ability to connect, share, collaborate and discover. Such tools include blogs, wikis, and social networks such as Facebook and youtube, just to name a few of thousands. All help foster the wisdom of the crowd where ordinary people can create shared experiences and collaborative knowledge. In their efforts to do so, cyber wonderers are likely to encounter knowledge that might prompt fundamental changes in their elemental understanding of the world.

This is, potentially, an incredibly wonderful prospect. It may very well foster a much more mature level of consciousness for humanity as a whole. Of course, this is provided everyone also strives to apply critical thinking. With observable facts and scientific discoveries readily available via the internet, technology affords human curiosity the opportunity to increase world wide wisdom. Ignorance has become less than an excuse in the Information Age. And, we can witness the ability to acquire and publish such knowledge is rapidly becoming main stream and, available to people from all walks of life and ethnic origins. Without any kind of arbitration, self-proclaimed web-authors have in fact become quite garish and freely fuel the age-old quarrel with personal insight and individually acquired information. This is, unfortunately, not necessarily a productive endeavor on their part.

Understandably, materialistic science has nurtured a very unhealthy relationship with fundamentalist religions, and vice versa. Each approach threatens the other’s existence. This is precisely what makes Prof. Halal’s book so inspiring. There is no denying that today’s technological capabilities have triggered a global crisis of maturity on the entire planet. Consider the recent Google vs. China altercation, for example. The information highway provides incredibly swift dissemination of crucially important discoveries world wide, at speeds never witnessed before our times. Enough studies have demonstrated that a higher level of intelligence brings about more sophisticated disposition toward life and social beliefs, as well as a better and more honest analysis of facts. Modern life as we know it commands change and insists that we revisit the millennia old feud. To persist in questioning evolutionism in this day and age equates to unquestionable denial of truth, in my opinion. It is a blatant blind eye to all that is recognized as goodness in the human spirit. Why, then, do we insist on propagating creationism of any kind? I do not understand.

In chapter nine of his book, Halal argues why “consciousness poses such a perplexing scientific challenge” by contrasting both the computer and the spiritual models. His analysis brings us about a much bolder and more detailed approach, with current illustrations of the distinction proposed by Turing in 1950.

To me, there is no doubt that the human mind belongs to a higher order of some kind. Is it the highest form of consciousness found in the universe? Maybe so. But perhaps not. Whether the mystical properties of our brain ever translate to a purely scientific explanation should not really matter that I can see. It is our never-ending quest to discover our origins and make-up that is the hallmark of our species. Does this not make us unique enough?

I think it suffices to admit that we have yet to understand it all, and may never. Daniel Batson’s quote, found on page 131, illustrates free will, yet to be found in AI, particularly well.

“The brain is the hardware though which [consciousness] is experienced.
To say the brain produces consciousness is like saying, a piano produces music.”

It is interesting to note that given countless choices afforded the human mind to seek spiritual fulfillment, we find only one “flavor” of science. Stephen Hawking reminds us that scientists from a multitude of fields "have discovered the laws that govern the universe in all but the most extreme conditions, in the span of 300 years.”; a mere drop in the cosmic ocean of time.

If Professor Hawking is right, the basic solution needed to alter today’s consciousness might turn out to be a brand new set of laws explaining the universe. This could then lead to a deeper understanding of the human mind and perhaps, explain the mystical powers of the human spirit. Thomas Jefferson himself is said to have encouraged constituents of his day to boldly question even the existence of God. “For, if there was such a being” he said, “he would surely more approve of the homage of reason.”

If we don’t "blow ourselves up" before we discover the unified theory proposed by geniuses such as Stephen Hawking, the Techcast team predicts that the “Age of Consciousness” will manifest itself some time between 2020-2030. I wonder how realistic this is. I would be particularly interested in what lead to that prediction. There is undoubtedly a relentless underground force pushing in that direction. It feels as if a volcano is about to erupt. A quick search on the word “atheism” revealed a surprisingly large community seeking relief from traditional beliefs. Prof. Halal will have to forgive my skepticism regarding an affirmation made on page 134 of his book, claiming that atheism is a counter trend to the new era suggested. All the word atheism implies is the rejection of deities. I don’t quite understand how atheism can be defined as an opposing force to the foretold "Age of Consciousness." In fact, my findings, albeit superficial at this time, suggest that the general disposition of the atheist/agnostic population wholeheartedly endorses a new culture, favoring a development toward the new Great Frontier predicted by the Techcast Project.

Famous atheists who have greatly contributed to the Information Age and, who lead the word to many magnificent scientific discoveries include:
The list is quite extensive. I invite readers to watch a short presentation to find out more about Influential Minds of our Era. Barring the obvious targeting of the material, I found it particularly educational and made significant discoveries about history, modern statistical facts and inspirational people. My personal life journey also leads me to believe that our current course will be fatal to our planet as we know it, in a relatively near future. Professor Hawking believes we might blow ourselves up before we figure things out. I pray he’s wrong.

I’d like to close this discussion with a clip, starring Carl Sagan; world astronomer, astro-biologist, voted as one of the 100 greatest Americans by the Discovery Channel, 1978 Pulitzer Prize winner, who popularized science and, who was also, remarkably, an atheist. The person who put this composite video together certainly has a great sense of humor, bountiful creativity, as well as a vision for a future which most certainly aligns with a large portion of Professor Halal’s book. This may well indeed be A Glorious Dawn, led by our collective technological genius as a species.